Phil and I go back a fair bit to our days at The Leith Agency where we overlapped as Account Directors, although we are both now Planners. (Him for many years, me for just one.)
I have to say I look up to Phil in professional terms as a planner of considerable heft and great thinking.
You can follow him on both LinkedIn and Medium where he often posts inspiring and beautifully crafted, simple explanations of a subject that we love. Sadly, it’s often shrouded in black art (usually to hide the indifference of the proponent’s abilities) but is, at its core, simply the distillation of evidence and research into insight in simple terms. Good planning should inspire creative teams to do great work, even if the commissioner is looking for something less than that, which sadly they often are.
What has, I believe, further connected us is our love of all things cultural and our tastes overlap considerably as his culture fix demonstrates. John Irving, and Cormac McCarthy. Tarantino and Wes Anderson. What I love (which I devoured in about three days after reading this when he sent me it last month). And Salvador Dali whose museum we have both visited.
Oh, and the wicked, but sublime, Ulster American.
Phil is also a quiet, gentle soul imbued with genuine kindness – I bet he gets great kudos from his girls (three I think).
He’s one of the ad industry’s good guys and, like me, is also an ex Chair of the IPA in Scotland, an honour that I know he enjoyed as much as I did.
My favourite author or book
Bookshelves don’t lie. It’s clear that the authors I return to are modern, North American and male. I’ve read all of Chuck Palahniuk, all of Douglas Coupland, all of John Irving, most of Cormac McCarthy, most of Bret Easton Ellis, a lot of Elmore Leonard, and several James Ellroy. I read a lot of female authors too, but evidently with less dedication.
It’s crazy to pick one book, but I’m going with A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. It’s epic. It’s a tragedy. It’s satire. A couple of reviews described it as Dickensian in terms of ambition and social insight. There are brilliant characters that stay just on the right side of larger than life.
I read that Wolfe’s main insight from researching and writing The Right Stuff was that the primary motivation influencing male behaviour is a quest for status. And he used that observation as the basis of his subsequent fiction writing. You can see it in The Bonfire of The Vanities and it’s there in spades in A Man in Full.
The book I’m reading
The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan, who is modern, Scottish and female.
I’ve read so much non-fiction of late that it’s a joy to be reading any novel again. But so far (I’m about a quarter of the way through), The Sunlight Pilgrims is not just any novel. There are interesting characters being tested by challenging circumstances, namely an impending second ice age in Scotland caused by climate breakdown.
The book I wish I had written
This is the one question I’m allowing myself not to answer. I haven’t ever felt like this about a book.
The book I couldn’t finish
I know it’s in vogue at the moment, but I haven’t learned how to not finish a book. That said, and despite him being modern, American and male, Don DeLillo’s Underworld was an arduous slog. Like climbing at high altitude – lots of effort to make little progress, with frequent rests required.
The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read
There are hundreds, thousands of books I should have read. But I don’t feel any shame in that.
My favourite film
Probably Pulp Fiction if I base my answer on how often I’ve watched it. Most films, I find, do not reward repeat viewing. But Pulp Fiction keeps on giving in many ways – characterisation, dialogue, monologues, messing around with structure, brilliant set pieces, and the Christopher Walken/Captain Koons cameo.
Based on the frequency metric, other candidates would be Man On Fire, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Shawshank Redemption, Grand Budapest Hotel and (another guilty pleasure) A Knight’s Tale.
My favourite play
I like subversive theatre. And, in a non-pandemic August, Edinburgh is soaked to the skin by a monsoon of subversive and experimental theatre that plays with form and space and genre. I’ve often wondered whether it’s true that you can smell the oxygen in the Amazon rain forest. I do know that in Edinburgh in August you can smell the creativity. Its heady scent is everywhere.
It’s impossible to pick a favourite from these unrestrained, intimate shows crammed into those tiny, incongruous Edinburgh Fringe spaces.
Two plays that were performed in a more conventional space (The Traverse) have stayed with me. Namely, Grounded starring Lucy Ellinson in 2013, and Ulster American in 2018.
My favourite podcast
What I Love. It’s beautiful. Theatre director Ian Rickson has conversations with artists on stage in theatres that are empty because of Covid-19. They talk about three things that each guest loves – a song, a film, a piece of writing – and in so doing they reveal themselves. I wrote about the many ways in which it is near perfect for the Formats Unpacked newsletter.
Also, the Jonny Wilkinson episode of The High Performance Podcast. It’s not what you’d expect. It’s about self-awareness more than sport. He talks about the profound difference between a mindset of control and a mindset of exploration. And his definition of confidence – being excited by the unknown – has stayed with me.
The box set I’m hooked on
Most recently, the gloriously funny French show, Call My Agent. Set in a Paris performing artist agency, each episode includes a cameo appearance by a famous film star. The dialogue is great, there are occasional moments of slapstick genius, and the character development over the four seasons so far is gripping.
My desert island box set would be Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, or both if I were allowed.
My favourite TV series
I don’t watch telly. Not watching telly is how I free up time for doing extracurricular things. I don’t consider it a sacrifice.
I used to enjoy The X Factor when my daughters were the right age and all living at home. It is brilliant television, brilliant storytelling disguised as a reality TV show. It employs all the elements of the hero/heroine’s journey, multiplied by the number of contestants.
My favourite piece of music
Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin. The whole album please. Such apparently effortless eclecticism. They were so much more than a rock band.
My favourite dance performance
Dance was never really my thing. By which I mean that I decided it wasn’t my thing without ever giving it a chance to be my thing. It was the worst kind of pig-headed ignorance.
Luckily for me, joining the board of Puppet Animation Scotland in 2015 introduced me to the world of visual theatre. Since then, I’ve seen many shows involving dance and physical theatre, mainly at our annual manipulate festivals. The artistry and technical excellence of the performers, seen live and close-up, is a marvel. I’m not going to pick one.
The Last film/music/book that made me cry
I think it might have been the scene in I, Daniel Blake when single mum Katie is so desperately hungry that she eats the tin of beans in the foodbank. The very idea that something like that can happen in a supposedly advanced society. Injustice meted out to a character you care about is a good formula for a tearjerker.
The lyric I wish I’d written
She no longer needs you.
She wakes up, she makes up
She takes her time
And doesn’t feel she has to hurry
She no longer needs you
For No One is my favourite Beatles song, which is obviously saying something. The stark, cruel beauty; the brutal economy; the non-negotiable finality of those lyrics. Written when McCartney was 24. Genius.
The song that saved me
I haven’t been saved by a song. But I do have a song that I listened to a lot at the time that I needed saving. First Day of My Life by Bright Eyes. The video is based on a powerfully simple idea. We see people’s reactions as they listen to the song through headphones. The song may not have saved me, but if you read the YouTube comments it looks like it has saved plenty of others.
The instrument I play
Sadly, I don’t. File under regrets.
The instrument I wish I’d learned
If I could own one painting it would be
The Palace of the Air by Salvador Dali. This is a huge and hugely ambitious piece of surrealism that covers the entire ceiling of the Wind Palace section of the Dali museum in Figueres. It really does have to be seen to be believed. It’s immense and jam-packed with details that reward prolonged viewing until your neck starts to ache. It shows Dali and his muse ascending to a version of heaven, and the way he plays with perspective draws the viewer in so that you feel levitated, ascending with them. As well as the painting, I wouldn’t mind owning a space that would do it justice.
The music that cheers me up
The answer to this is a genre. Two Tone. A dancefloor filler by The Specials or Madness, maybe Night Boat to Cairo if I had to choose one. It’s not just about the infectious beat or the playful delivery, it’s a form of time travel back to my mid-teens when we were all gloriously irresponsible.
The place I feel happiest
Aside from being with certain people, it’s participation in creative acts that makes me happiest. It’s why I worked in advertising, it’s why I make documentary films, it’s why I write for pleasure, it’s why I’m on the boards of two arts organisations, it’s why I enjoy gardening.
The happiness of creating comes from the process more than the end product. The journey rather than the destination. So, I don’t really associate happiness with a particular place. A place for comfort? Yes. A place for stillness, spirituality and inner peace? Yes. Happiness, not so much.
That’s maybe ducking the question. So, in a cultural context, I’d say one of the smaller festivals. The Do Lectures on a farm outside Cardigan. Festival No 6 in Portmeirion. Or The Byline Festival in Sussex. Intense stimulation surrounded by my kind of people.
My guiltiest cultural pleasure
I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors
Keith Richards, Sarah Silverman, Michael Palin, Molly Crabapple.
And I’ll put on this music
One of my eldest daughter’s Spotify playlists. She has excellent taste, and we have a symbiotic musical relationship whereby she uses my premium account and I get a superb curation service, better than any algorithm.
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