Thursday, 16 August 2012

Brutal Simplicity Of Thought (or what Daniel Kitson may have learnt from the 1979 General Election)

I have just read “Brutal Simplicity Of Thought” by Charles Saatchi. It is essentially the training manual for new staff at his advertising agency. Read it. Here are the first few pages (almost) in full because they are so brilliant:

If you want your work to achieve the impossible, you will be need Brutal Simplicity Of Thought.

You will need a deep distaste for waffle, vagueness, platitudes and flim flam-a strong preference to get to the point.

Your mind will become a threshing machine, sorting the intellectual wheat from the chaff.

Winston Churchill was a great believer in simplicity. He liked to quote Blaise Pascal’s letter to a friend that started:

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

He knew that to achieve simplicity is very hard. He understood that it required what Bertrand Russell called:

“The painful necessity of thought”

Simplicity is more than a discipline: it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates a failure when a cause is weak, and it clarifies and strengthens a cause that is strong.

When President Roosevelt wanted to persuade a profoundly isolationist America to help Britain in her hour of need, he invented a simple phrase to help him to do it. He called his policy:


And he used simple language to express it:

“Suppose my neighbour’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose...if he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help put out the fire...I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbour, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it”...I don’t want $15-I want my garden hose back after the fire is over”.

That’s how it was done. A simple story of a fire and a hose. The rest is history.

The most powerful rallying cries are simple and to the point:

“Your country needs you!”
“No taxation without representation!”
“One man! One vote!”

There was nothing complicated about:

“Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”

Nobody had to explain what it meant when they heard John F Kennedy say:

“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”

Nobody needed further elucidation when they heard:

“Do unto others as you would be done by”

Or when Martin Luther King said:

“I have a dream”

In all aspects of life, simplicity rules. It means the only possible words in the only possible order.

Simplicity in poetry. John Keats was sitting in a coffee shop with his friend, Stephens.
He was writing. He said:
“A thing of beauty is a constant joy. What think you of that, Stephens?”
No response from Stephens. Keats carried on. Half an hour later, Keats said:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.
That, his friend said, will last forever. And it did.

Simplicity in art. Delacroix explained:
“If you are not skilled enough to sketch a man falling out of the window during the time it takes to get him from the fifth story to the ground, then you will never be able to produce monumental work.”

Simplicity in prose. Is it any wonder that Kafka lives forever, when you consider the opening words of the trial:
“Someone must have laid a false accusation against Joseph K because one morning he was arrested without having done anything wrong.”

Simplicity in drama. Hamlet has become the most performed play in history because Shakespeare captured the human dilemma in ten words:
“To be or not to be, that is the question”.

Simplicity in politics. During Britain’s darkest hour, Winston Churchill was presented with the proposal for a Local Defence Volunteers Force, to be Britain’s last stand in the event of a German invasion. The LDVF. He liked the plan. And approved it. But he didn’t like the name. He changed it to:
“The Home Guard”
And so it became.

The post war 1918 general election was won by Lloyd George, with five words:
“A land fit for heroes”
In the post war 1945 general election, Clement Atlee defeated the war hero Winston Churchill with nine words:
“We won the war. And now-win the peace.”
The Conservatives were helped to win the 1979 general election by three words:
“Labour isn’t working”

You hear it said that this search for simplicity is insulting the intelligence of the general public, or treating them like morons. On the contrary, it is a mark of respect for the listener. The world is always short of time, so précis is a form of good manners.

Furthermore: words spell money...

Simplicity in business. Every day, a blind man sat on the pavement in Central Park. He had his hat in front of him, begging for money. A sign read:
“I am blind”
Passers-by ignored him. One day, an advertising man saw his plight. He altered the wording on his sign and cash started pouring into the hat. What had he done? He had changed the sign to read:
“It is spring and I am blind”

When William Proctor and James Gamble started Proctor and Gamble, they only had one insignificant product-Ivory Bar Soap. Until they added the slogan:

“99 44/100% Pure”

That was the beginning of the Proctor and Gamble legend.

Simplicity rules. Consider the three iconic documents of Western civilisation. There really are only three of them. And they really did change the world. Their aim was revolution. Their effect was revelation. You need only look at them to be inspired. You will be deeply affected by all three. To read them afresh is to understand the power of simplicity. You don’t need a Harvard PHD to follow any of them:

Their opening and closing words say it all. They are of course:
The Sermon On The Mount, by Jesus Christ.
The Declaration of Independence, by the Founding Fathers of America.
The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels.

The first founded perhaps the greatest religion ever seen:
Open: And seeing the multitudes...he opened his mouth and taught them, saying...
Close: And it came to pass...people were astonished at his doctrine.

The second made one country into a superpower:
Open: We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident.
Close: ...we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.

And the third launched what Isaiah Berlin called the greatest organised social movement of all time:
Open: The history of all previously existing society is the history of class struggle
Close: Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Nobody can resist that kind of simplicity. Its reach is global. It strikes a chord in humans everywhere. Nobody is immune.
Their Brutal Simplicity Of Thought allowed them to change the world.
With Brutal Simplicity of Thought nothing is impossible.

Happy ending. There is an unexpected by-product of this process; it makes people happy. It enables the human mind to function at its best, and to be supremely effective.

It allows you to have a romantic belief in your ability to change the world by an act of breathtakingly brutal simplicity. It is a licence to reject the status  quo. It leads to a determined conviction that you, acting alone or almost single-handedly, can make what seems highly improbable, in fact happen.
So that even the meekest can meet life with the possibility of mastering its difficulties.

The people who do not have such beliefs are miserable. They are mere men of commerce: non-believers, empty suits.

By contrast, such men and women as you, find happiness in transforming one form of life into another. You know you can permanently and radically alter the outlook and values of a significant body of human beings.

You will have power through what John F Kennedy called:

“The mastery of the inside of men’s minds”

Particularly your own...

Maurice Saatchi, September 2011.

Good huh?

I’m at the Edinburgh festival doing a stand-up show. It’s good. But not on the same planet as Daniel Kitson’s stand-up show, which is the best show of any kind I’ve ever seen. Just phenomenal. Kitson understands the power of simplicity. He can provide whole worlds of insight in dense one-liners. He reminds me of Samuel Beckett in this respect (e.g. on habit “we are like dogs chained to our own vomit”). The phrases I remember from his show this year include:

“The result is an imposter in football” (quoting the Spanish player Xavi on how outcome doesn’t necessarily reflect objective quality or effort); “Life is the incremental death of hope”; “Life is a series of impossible things that slowly become inevitable”.

There are many more simple but evocative similes, metaphors and one-liners too. But these are the phrases I remember most clearly. I only remember them because I listened to them. And I listened to them because they were contained within compelling and hilarious stories. We must sugar the pill. But the pill must be easy to swallow on its own terms i.e. SIMPLE.

Creativity, originality, insightfulness: these are all difficult. Complexity is not. Do not mistake one for the other.

Kitson is the master of observation, or the minutiae of human life, or the “quiet dignity of unwitnessed lives”, of the divinity of the everyday. Observational material gets a bad name, people see it as simple, easy. But visionaries are necessarily masters of reality. We all wander through life almost in a coma, blinded by an anaesthetic of familiarity (this is a Richard Dawkins line). What we see most is the hardest to see.

So look for what everybody else is blind to, and open their eyes to it with poetic simplicity. They will think you a magician.

I think I’ll finish this post with another example from Saatchi’s book. It is a quote from Picasso: “It took me a whole life-time to learn how to draw like a child”.

Complete essentialism is beautiful. Kitson does it, Picasso did it, let us all aim for it. It will be rewarded by impact.

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