The only person to ever have guest blogged here is Graham Watt, a friend for almost 20 years. I met Graham as I was beginning my freelance career in 2003. With no commute or regular hours I could cycle during the day and drop by the local café for a chat. Graham was semi-retired when I met him and we had many conversations on various topics over the years. Here are some of his words that he shared with me.
Graham died last night (2019-12-23). I will miss him.
Graham’s memorial service will be held at the Mount Allison University Chapel, in Sackville, NB on 26 January 2020, at 1:00 PM
The Communication of Bias — 2006
My argument against the centralizing use of planners for developing creative thought can be placed within the Harold Innis idea of the periphery being the source of ideas which can offer original perspectives. Whether we talk of rebel groups forming in the mountains, religious sects taking over mainstream religious thought or even the fact that Toronto seldom develops its own talent, instead attracting it from the perimeters then blending it into its normality, we can picture original thinking starting to build, moving to the centre becoming a monopoly and finally consuming itself. Innis showed how civilizations moved into being before ideas from the perimeter began competing, overcoming a balance and these ideas then becoming a monopolistic force. We can see this in the sixties in advertising when the Bernbachian approach moved from the outsider Jewish milieu into mainstream New York advertising and dislodged the incumbent Presbyterians, the chosen ones themselves then eventually dislodged by the advertising technocrats and their acolytes, the planners.
Perhaps we can see something of Innis’ later observation on the power of the periphery to generate perspective if we consider the operas of Wolfgang Mozart and his lyricist Da Ponte. Jane Glover, in Mozart’s Women, explains how the extraordinary creative team of Mozart and Da Ponte worked together so productively. Both Mozart and Da Ponte were essentially outsiders, never fully accepted by the establishment; yet their peripatetic lives, together with their current situation on the fringes of society, had furnished them with superb powers to observe, accumulate and interpret the infinite varieties of human behaviour. Each could therefore portray immense subtlety in theatrical characterization, whether for instance in the modes of expression and colloquialism between the different classes or in overt manifestations of real human emotion “what is said is not necessarily being what is felt, which nonetheless is acutely revealed”. How similar this sounds to the feral advertising team; observers distanced from the power structures of their agency milieu but able to observe, being away from the every day systems, but firmly within the environment of their audiences and fully capable of reaching them persuasively.
My argument is that it is the feral, free range thinkers, the creatives, and misfits, perennial dwellers of the perimeters of power, whose talents are lost here. Their move to the centre ultimately deprives them of their power which is the individuality of the perimeter, in terms of creative thought. When the best of these creatives set up their own agencies they prosper for a time but inevitably become so centralized that they themselves are forced to adopt the technological additives which eventually assure their downfall.
Therefore, agencies like Taxi, Grip, Palmer Jarvis DDB and others of great creative force, are in constant danger from their own success, because success attracts big money, and with it comes technology which breeds systems which are enclosures and enclosures breed complacency.
Proximity — 2006
We’re just too damn close to the U.S. Not politically. Physically. It’s turned us into American junkies. We’ve faced south so long now our asses are frozen solid. We don’t even bother inventing anything any more because they’ll do it sooner or later down there and we can just copy or borrow. Business learned this ages ago.
But it’s not just business. It’s us too. Look at television shows and movies. We’ll take their mediocre lives over our mediocre lives even if they don’t ring exactly true. We can compensate for that. Let them make them down there. We’ll just watch them.
All these problems with our low productivity relative to the U.S. can’t be solved only in economic terms. They have to be solved by addressing our proximity problems.
We have to get a handle on where we are, not who we are.
That’s snow out there, not rose petals. And that tingling feeling in your fingers isn’t stroke onset, it’s frostbite. I once saw a piece in the Montreal Gazette during a cold spell which showed us how to put plastic bags in our shoes to keep warm on cold days (an article taken from a Fort Lauderdale newspaper). I read that and I swear I could hear a whirring sound as all those fur traders buried on Mount Royal started spinning in their tombs. We haven’t got a clue where we are. It’s like we’re ducktaped to the side of a manic rhino lumbering through a swamp (Boy, I hope he knows where he’s going!).
Yes, proximity is a problem, isn’t it?
Who needs research when you can just let those other folks do it. Yet, there was a time when we actually did some neat innovative stuff. That was back in the days when pawsta was pronounced pasta. and Viet Nom was Viet Nam.
We were a big physical country then with very few people and airports, so deHavilland Canada designed Short Take-Off and Landing aircraft (STOL). The Beaver, the Otter, the Caribou, the Buffalo, (Gee, they even had Canadian type names too).They could land on little airstrips and lakes throughout the country. We sold tonnes of them. Most of them are still flying around, because they’re simple and you can fix them easily.
Remember the DeHavilland Dash-7? With the world’s most advanced STOL technology; a 55-passenger pressurized aircraft as quiet as a school bus, that could land in 1000 feet. When they tried to let it fly into Toronto Island airport there was an incredible outburst of indignation. All about noise and danger. You would have thought it was the Hindenburg with a load of plastique in it. The real problem was the Dash 7 was designed and built right in Toronto. Had it been designed and built in, say, California, the Toronto city fathers and those environmentally sensitve mothers in the Beaches would have been clambering over themselves to buy this thoughtful, sensitive and passive technology. Would have reflected well on the city. But hey, all the good stuff is down south isn’t it?
So it isn’t just business, it’s us. We don’t screw up because we try. We screw up because we don’t have to try. And it’s all of us.
That’s the proximity curse.
So forget about productivity. Our problem is proximity. We have great copyability because of it. We’re actually quite nice people, given that we look at the U.S. as if it was the J Crew catalogue.
But does anyone else actually believe proximity’s the problem? Not on your life. A new study from the Conference Board of Canada recommends that we hunker down even closer to the U.S. to get our productivity up. What’s that mean, exactly?
Copy more stuff?
Assemble more of their cars here?
Watch more of their TV programs?
Speak more like they do?
There was a time when we had clearer heads. Must have been a zillion years ago. We liked the squeak of snow on leather. An old fur trade doctor named John Rae once snowshoed from Hamilton to Toronto just for a cocktail party. No big deal. And I’m certain he wasn’t wearing a “hoodie”. In those days, another guy invented a motorized contraption that could go like crazy on all kinds of snow. sold a slew of them. Ended up making planes, trains and boats, and got so big and successful we started hating the whole idea. It wasn’t normal doing that stuff in Canada.
A long time ago another bunch of guys used to get in canoes and go from Montreal all the way to Alberta and back again. All without Vibram soles on their boots or Gore-Tex jackets, GPS’s or Tony Robbins CD’s. And they did it while singing songs. They had nature-tech canoes made of bark and if one sprung a leak they stopped, got some spruce gum from a nearby tree and some bark, patched it up, and got going again.
What was their secret? Well, they did stuff relative to where they were, not some place 500 miles south. And they weren’t doing this because they heard other guys were doing it in the U.S.. They did it for money and adventure. Ahh, you say, but that was then and this is now. Well, I have news for you. It’s only now in the U.S.
Work Advice — 2007
Don’t be afraid of advertising research. You can be just as wrong as any $500,000 research study, and for a lot less.
Don’t think of words and pictures as ideas. They are just the little wagons that carry the ideas.
If you want to run a camera, take a course. It you want to shoot beautiful film, go and see and feel life. You can always get someone to push a camera button for you.
Participate in the creation of the strategy and you’ll have an easier time executing it.
Stop thinking we’re living in a time of incredible change. My mother saw more profound change than I. She started before electric light and lived to see people on the moon, pop tarts, boogie, the sinking of the Titanic, Hydramatic Drive, AM, FM, television, the refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, the world’s biggest depression, Mac Powerbooks, Hitler, thousands of young Canadians killed in WW1, thousands of young Canadians killed in WW2, the Holocaust, fluorescent lights, nylon, Aids, polyester, fibreglass, pollution, the atomic bomb, terrorists, DC-8’s, SST’s.
Sailing through School — 2007
We hear a lot these days of student debt, young people working for years in humdrum jobs to clear the heavy personal debt that a university education necessitates. I’ve heard of former students who’ve almost had to forgo buying iPod Nanos, plasma tvs and magnesium rims for their Civics just to make ends meet, some even forced to continue eating Kraft dinners. This is unacceptable, and for those young people leaving high school and considering university I offer an option I myself took several years ago. Your parents will have the proverbial bird when they hear it, but they did when you came home with the celtic tattoo and the lip ring too.
So here goes:
For the same amount of time and money you’ll spend in university, you can build yourself an incredibly beautiful sailing boat. And I guarantee you’ll learn more about life, yourself, and the nature of stuff. The bigger the boat, the easier it is to build . Little boats need precision. Big boats just need energy. Building a large sailing boat by yourself as your major learning experience, has several advantages over going to university. It’ll take you some serious construction time, about as much as you’d spend deconstructing things and being terminally bored in an undergraduate program. And there’s a very positive side to the boatbuilding option; you’re putting something beautiful together, rather than taking something ugly apart.
As well, you can live on the sailing boat after you finish it, and sail away in it, then after several adventures involving beautiful women or men or both, sell it for much more than you put in to it. Try doing that with a diploma, unless of course it’s in psychiatry or advanced plumbing.
So forget about the skill set. What you really need is a Skil saw. As far as actual learning about life, and becoming a serious thinker, I think the boat building experience is better here too. Everything you do physically in building a boat, must also be done mentally. One quickly learns to plan, reflect, and especially not to drill a 10mm hole in the hull unless you’re damn sure it’s in the right place.
Let’s look at some comparisons.
Importantly, the examinations are much tougher for the sailing boat than for the university work. The sea is a hard marker. A 10-metre wave tearing off your deckhouse is more devastating than a note from your prof saying you should rework the essay on Heretical Tendencies of Disparate Families Living Near Organized Places of Worship.
There’s an artistic side to boatbuilding. Some yacht designers are pure artists, with an ability to match functionality with grace under pressure. Remember, a Stradivarius, looking so fragile and vulnerable can be put through the rigours of Beethoven’storms with little damage. Boats are like songs, so build one you can stand to have in your mind a long, long time.
There are several free bonus courses you’ll receive when you opt for the boat building. You won’t find free courses at the university, I assure you. With the boatbuilding bonus courses you’ll hardly feel you’re learning, but I assure you that you will . With the sailing boat you get a relatively painless course in geography, and some nifty words like metacenter, and phrases like ballast/displacement ratio.
You’ll also receive, absolutely free, a slightly more painful course in how to use a screw driver while inverted in an area resembling a horizontal concert toilet. You’ll learn about exotherms and how the potential explosive effect of too much catalysed resin in the acetone bucket can quickly get you off the All-Bran and possibly off the boat. When you build a big boat, you actually get into it, you’re not just faking that you’re into it as you might when writing an essay on Cardinal Newman’s Apologia. And of course, after you’ve finished the boat the learning goes on and on. You’ll enjoy a free course in natural conflict resolution as a sailing boat lives on the interface of atmosphere and hydrosphere, boisterous personalities frequently at odds with each other and quite willing to tear you apart to prove a point.
So why go into debt for $50,000 learning things at university you’ll never use, like finding out why Hegel was such a dork or that Fidel Castro isn’t a hedge fund, when you can go into debt borrowing $50,000 to buy stuff in order to build a boat?
It’s a no-brainer, literally.
You’ll sail the boat for years, hopefully with a wonderful partner you’ll meet who thinks you’re absolutely terrific, partially for having such a fine boat, and maybe because you have callouses and perhaps a missing finger or two. Then you’ll sell the boat for at least $150,000.
Trust me, I did this myself, except for the missing fingers. 35 years ago I opted to build a sailing boat rather than going to university. I still think it was a good move. A university degree that’s 35 years old has very little power to impress. But the boat, which today is sitting pretty in tiny Luperon Harbour in the Dominican Republic with Dutch registry still turns heads. And while I don’t own it anymore, I’m still learning something from it. I’ve found that something you build yourself remains yours no matter where it goes.
The day we understand that the problem is proximity, and we turn around and let our asses thaw, is the day our productivity will begin to grow.
Discovering Guilt — 2008
It’s never been easy for me to understand orders, perhaps because of an inherent disdain for procedure or of being unable to accept someone else’s truth. When I was a child, I’d go to confession at St. Augustine’s in Notre Dame de Grace in Montreal, each week dutifully entering the little cabin and awaiting the priest’s sliding door to open, there my sins to confess. My problem was I had no sins I could think of to confess. These were simpler times, and maybe guilt, the grist for organized religion, just hadn’t set in yet. What could I say to the priest? Everything was fine. I had no idea what a sin looked like or felt like. I solved the problem by simply lying. I’d say I committed 3 sins on Wednesday, four sins on Friday, a big sin on Monday and so on, always adding the confession day lie as one of them. Had the patient but silent priest heard of my troubles in later years he might have been more entertained. But alas, I had left the church and the confessionals for more attractive pastures.
When I was twenty-one I had a disastrous breakup with Sheila, my girlfriend, who had expected an engagement ring for Christmas and instead received a beagle puppy, a curious choice even for someone making but $75. a week smashing defective toilets for Crane. A Christmas Eve with everyone crying; Sheila, her mother, two of her brothers, myself, and the little beagle while peeing on the rug, was my introduction to massive guilt.
I saw Sheila no more. Then one lunchtime ten months later, I did see her approaching me on Mansfield Street, beautiful as ever. As she came close she abruptly crossed the street to avoid me. I was crushed beyond repair. I stumbled into a steamship office and asked when the next ship left for England. There was one in two days and I booked passage. My dear brother, as usual, was sent to deter me from another family disaster, but I assuaged his interdiction with a heavy series of double scotches applied in the Berkeley Hotel bar and he was soon shouting encouragement.
I was desperately in need of another country.
Then, for some reason on sailing day, as the ship’s band played, she slipped her lines, and a barman popped open a Tuborg ale for me, its creamy foam descending slowly, I was suddenly free of guilt. I have no explanation for the instant lifting of that great depression. It was way past beer, a miracle surely, but the goddam gangplank had been removed and so was I from Canada.
In England I looked for work. I had not entirely lost my dressing up fetish acquired in my ranching days, and I went about wearing a burberry overcoat and a trilby hat and carrying the obligatory furled umbrella. One day in spite of the clothes which I thought made me look properly English, a frail looking elderly woman emerged from the shadows near Oxford Street tube station and smashed me over the head with her umbrella, shouting: “fucking American”, and effectively ending the dress up part of my life.
A woman I met in London, who had married a Canadian fighter pilot during the war and who had a soft spot for Canadian lads, offered me a job in her essence company. She had extensive holdings in Grasse in the south of France and wanted me to become an expert in essences, a vast aesthetic change from my smashing toilets job in Montreal. But I declined and instead took a job with Research Services in Frith Street, a division of the London Press Exchange. The job was easy. They’d send me to Canterbury in Kent and its environs, to do market research for women’s magazines and it was doing this that I developed my life long suspicion of market research.
Inevitably, my guilt factor kicked in ferociously here too. The job began easily enough. I would visit certain subscribers in the Canterbury area and ask the prescribed questions, which could be answered with a yes or no. The whole procedure was boring although the people I met were fascinating. In one household, a couple were entertaining a German pilot who had been shot down in 1944, landing in their apple tree, and prodded with pitchforks. After the war the German pilot and his family and the British couple became friends and for 20 years holidayed together, hopefully sans pitchfork.
But the trudging from house to house soon palled and I retired to a local pub and began to fill in the little cards myself. I would try to be creative in my little tick offs, favouring one magazine over another, sometimes appearing very negative in the hopes the unfortunate people whose opinions I was impersonating would receive a free subscription. I had no sense that my numbers and the numbers I would have received from actual interviews were in any way different. I believe that I may have aberrated half of Kent this way. In a sense I was forming my own bias on the magazines and in doing so began a lifelong suspicion of quantitative research and methodologies, especially when put in the hands of the congenitally disinterested.
Much like the earlier hoarding of the Crane order requisitions, my guilt rose up tinged with fear and I fled to Kitzbuhel in the Austrian Tirol, where I lived for the winter supporting myself by teaching skiing or more precisely skiing around the Hahnenkamm Circus with people who had lots of money and were perhaps as lonely as I.
On my return I met Sheila at a party. I told her I’d spent a year in Europe because she snubbed me on the street. She replied; “You poor idiot, you know I’m shortsighted, I never saw you on the street”. Of the entire catastrophic trip, the lasting lesson learned was in the market research phase where the poor idiot discovered the variability of factors which can determine what we will accept as truth. And how all research is sabotaged by human frailty.
Getting over a Haggis — 2009
Apropos of nothing other than a getting over a haggis munch yesterday at the Robbie Burn’s Evening, let me run this by your keen eyes.
The Inuit people have been teaching and learning for at least a thousand years. And their learning is important because frequently the lack of it can be fatal. Not fatal to the learning, fatal to the learner. They have done all this learning through the oral tradition. They are acknowledged technological experts and tremendous innovators: The geodesic dome, the kayak, the bone-spring-in-frozen-meat Polar Bear killer with built-in blood trail feature, and so much more. Much of today’s technological detritus is in a way oral, even text messaging. But much of it is frittered (sorry) rather than substantial.
How would we equate the essential oral aspects of Inuit learning efficacy with your industry’s seemingly ever-changing technological learning approaches (I might add, often delivered with scorn for the already existing)? Why do we not go back to survey and explore the aboriginal learning perspectives rather than pushing forward with this or next week’s latest technological thematic? Or would Inuit learning just become next week’s technology thematic? Perhaps you do go back, I’m sure you do, and I acknowledge there are oral aspects to technology, but the oral tradition among aboriginals means the learner and teacher both learn, and it is the synergy which keeps the learning momentum going. There is humility to it, rather than a wisp or two of contempt
Two interesting books you may have read but which I am presently reading:
The former has incredible detail on clothing, skin preparation, fashion, astronomy, medicine, external relations, food sharing, navigation, kayak building, trading, hunting, fishing, social activity, house building, leadership and many other orally learned techniques. Is it any wonder they valued their elders? Why do we tend to denigrate ours? Saul’s book is, in my view, a wonderful continuation to the work of Harold Adams Innis on the oral tradition, and draws upon the aboriginal example as a main component of many aspects of Canada’s rather well-known use of negotiation rather than violence and threat. Ironically, caucus is an Algonquian oral word which meant meeting, talking and listening. Now we use it to plot to defeat others. It was used by aboriginals to find ways to reach agreements that sustain each other’s cultures and prevent war.
O Canada — 2009
Springfield, a small community in New Brunswick, has been in high dudgeon in past weeks, after the principal of BelleIsle Elementary School there, cut out the playing of O Canada at the start of each school day. The reason given was the objections of some parents to their children having to stand and sing the anthem.
I have a 10-year old daughter attending public school here in New Brunswick, and she has always had to sing O Canada each morning. In fact, down here, it’s quite common to still hear God Save the Queen at some school and civic events. Evidently while colonialism is slowly ebbing, it is being replaced with good ol’ American patriotism. The many recent letters to local newspapers extolling the virtues of patriotism and hooking it onto the O Canada anthem is perhaps another indication of how this part of the country has become a pale imitation of the U.S., where everything and everyone must have a reputation as a stalwart defender of freedom, and hopefully, a missing arm or a visible wound, preferably still bleeding. Not quite the Deep South, more like the Deep East.
O Canada is a wonderful anthem, a bringer of tears during emotional moments, be they Olympic victories or the sight of our poor soldiers returning home in boxes, having given their lives not only for their country but also for misguided foreign policy. Must we play it every day in schools, like a song for some brand we’re trying to sell? Why not keep it for occasions that merit our tears of joy or sorrow? Why not keep it for those who have earned its playing? They are the brave lost ones who have no recourse, nor do their families, but to be proud that they kept their word, and did their duty.
The playing of O Canada every day in schools, is supposed to celebrate the country and make us all proud. Exactly what are we proud of? That we’ve become employees and managers but not owners in our own land. That we rank 17th out of 23 industrialized countries in rates of child poverty? That we’ve killed all the fish, cut down all the trees, dug up all the coal, sucked out the world’s dirtiest and most expensive oil? That we keep saying we want to keep our beloved public health system while our business elites keep wanting us to get rid of it so they can pay less tax and make more money with a private system?
Are we proud of watching U.S. television programs so much that we have next to no original work of our own? Proud that we use another country’s television programs to describe ourselves? So that when a possibility of a coalition government forming occurs in our parliament (a perfectly normal event in a parliamentary system) we cry unfair, coup d’état, because “Hey man, they don’t do that in the U.S., so we can’t do it here”? Is this a reason to sing O Canada? Are we proud that we don’t offer our children civics courses in school? Or that any immigrant to this country knows more about our political system than we do ourselves? Are we proud of being in Afghanistan to help build schools for children while tacitly ignoring the plight of our aboriginals here? The same aboriginals whose life spans are the same as in the poorest third world countries? The same aboriginals who saved our sorry asses each excruciatingly cold winter of our ancestors’ arrivals here? Canada is in the top 5 in the UN’s human development index. Our aboriginal population is in 78th place. Do we think of this when we sing we’ll stand on guard for thee?
And exactly why are we trotting out the tired old word “patriotism”? A state that Samuel Johnson said was the last refuge of the scoundrel? Why? This is one of the few countries in the world that grew out of peace and not revolution or violence. That’s its charm and its promise too. That might be something to proud of if we’re not of the current machismo bent.
So why are we outraged about a school principal who stopped the recorded anthem every morning, when we trash the same anthem incessantly, trivializing it at every baseball game, every hockey game? Exactly what are we so proud of every school day? That we’ve cut back on education so much that our children are among the lowest scorers in literacy in the country? That we have fewer doctors per thousand people than every other OECD country but three? Have we done some reflecting about our country? Do we have enough confidence to look at its failings as well as its successes? Have we thought about how during World War 2, when Jews needed safe refuge they were turned back by our government, the classic explanatory phrase which summed up the attitude being: “None is too many!”?
We should think of that next time we stand to hear the familiar strains of O Canada. Think of how this country is more than a hockey game or a pale imitation of another country. Somewhere good and sometimes not so good. We should reflect on how we might cut back on the puffing up of our chests, and get our hearts and souls into remedying some of the enormous social problems we face by actually realizing we’re not a smaller version of some other fantasy country. That would be a good start. And perhaps think that past all the faults and the timid advances into a vast and wild land, we finally built something unique in North America, not by grabbing and stabbing, but by sharing and caring.
Technology & Complexity — 2011
In Roland Huntford’s book, SCOTT AND AMUNDSEN, a full account is given of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott’s epic competition to reach the South Pole first. Both parties relied on technologies. However, with the arrogance of so-called civilized societies of the time, Scott believed the Inuit to be savages with nothing to teach, and relied on current technologies as well as the British sentimentality towards animals. They wore Burberry cloth clothing, used gasoline tractors as well as ponies, and forsook dog teams for manly man-hauling of sleds. Amundsen, on the other hand, was a lifelong student of Inuit technologies. His sleds were lighter, he and his team dressed in various phases of Inuit clothing. Amundsen used dogs, a proven source of power in the Arctic, able to curl up and snooze at 50 below, and readily edible. A harsh use of them, but no worse than ponies freezing to death in their own sweat.
In the end, the Inuit-based technologies won, and the Amundsen team returned so comfortably they actually gained weight, and at one point, re-climbed a 1000 foot descent from the glacier in order to have another ski run. Meanwhile, Scott and his party, with admittedly bad weather, perished, Scott’s remaining moments spent penning poignant notes to his and his team’s loved ones. Scott emerged as the perceived romantic hero of the whole affair, instead of signaling the death of imperial arrogance. Ironically, Amundsen, the unbiased user of available technologies suited to the task, was dismissed in British circles as perhaps lacking in feeling.
Thus did glory and icy death trump Aquavit and a thousand years of winter experience.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.