The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Technology Makes Death Harder To Compute …
March 13, 2015, 5:19 pm
Filed under: Death, Mum, Mum & Dad

The difference between my dad dying and my mum dying is that now, I am constantly reminded of how involved she was in my life by all the signals of her presence from technology.

+ Emails.

+ Her name appearing in my Skype contacts.

+ Her Wechat name appearing in my friends list.

She’s everywhere and while that can be some cause of comfort, right now it’s a provider of pain.

No longer can I spontaneously Skype her when I see she’s online because, of course, she never will be online again. And yet I look at her contact details over and over again praying that will change.

I can no longer send her emails with pictures of Otis because she can no longer see them or read them … even though I have a huge compulsion to still send them.

And worse of all, I can no longer call her to give her some innocuous piece of news or just say hello.

When Jill flew to be with me after Mum died, she rang to say she had arrived safe and sound. She told me Otis, our son and my mums only grandchild, had been a dream on his first ever flight and hadn’t cried once.

I immediately wanted to tell mum. I knew she’d be interested and would be incredibly happy they were in England only for me to remember I couldn’t. She has passed away. And that brought back the pain tenfold.

Of course I could delete my Mum’s contacts. I could be free of this tyranny of constant reminders but I can’t. Doing that would feel like I am denying her existence or worse, trying to erase her wonderfulness from my life.

Without doubt technology made me feel closer to my mum while I was living so far away. Right now it just makes me feel more alone, apart and distraught.

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To My Beloved Mum
March 10, 2015, 12:10 pm
Filed under: Death, Mum

It’s 2:36am and I’m on the couch of my best friends house.

Mum died about 7 hours ago.

I’ve just woken up from a sleep forced on me by emotional exhaustion and I’ve just seen a multitude of beautiful, kind and caring messages on email, WeChat and Facebook.

I find myself reading them in bewilderment until the truth slowly dawns on me. My Mum has died.

This was not how it was supposed to be.

She was a strong woman.

Her heart operation had a 90% success rate.

She was to hold her grandson in her arms for the first time in little over 2 weeks.

But this is not what has happened.

The operation to change her valve was a successful one but then, as they were closing her up, her heart sprang a leak in a place they had not touched.

She required 4 bags of blood before the surgeons steady hand finally got her under control.

I was oblivious to all this as it was going on and yet I sensed something was happening. The person before her had only been in theatre 2 hours and yet my Mum was still in there after 5 and a half.

I got to see her.

They had heavily sedated her so that her body could heal and it was while I was with her that her heart leaked a second time. I was ushered off, but I knew.

I rang my wife in Shanghai. My beautiful, caring wife. She was due to come and bring Otis, my Mum’s first grandchild, in 2 weeks. Seeing him was going to be another incentive for my Mum’s speedy recovery but it wasn’t going according to plan.

My best friend Paul and his wonderful wife Shelly arrived and – like I did when my Dad died – I cried into his arms. He gave me his trademark bear hug and I told them I feared this was it.

It seemed impossible to utter those words. I had been with her earlier that day. I got to the hospital at 6:45am as her operation had originally been scheduled for 8am only for it to be delayed to allow some anti-biotics to take effect.

I’m so grateful for that.

We talked. It was nice. We were both anxious but we were calm and so happy to be together. We video chatted with my wife and we looked at little Otis as he stared into the camera. She got ready for her operation by showering and washing her hair. She wanted to be presentable and at 11am they came to get her.

I walked along side her all the way to the operating room. I told her I loved her and as we reached the doors where I would have to say goodbye, my tears came and I just managed to tell her that I’d see her when she was done.

We both wanted to say more to each other but it felt wrong to do that – as if inviting bad luck. And yet, in some ways, we had been putting the finishing touches to things over the last few weeks.

I had seen my Mum a lot recently and since December, had visited her every month. And just 10 days ago I had been by her side as she had been admitted to hospital with heart problems.

Amazingly she not only recovered from that but in some ways, she had thrived. Gone were the breathing problems that had hampered her life for the past few months. Now she could speak without being out of breath and could take deep breaths where previously it was only shallow. It was a revelation to her and she was optimistic about the standard of life she would enjoy post operation. We even talked about her maybe coming out to China again.

But there was something going on in the background. Not bad things, things that now signify the preparation of closure.

We had started talking about where she wanted to live. Did she want to stay in her house or maybe move back to Italy. Part of this was inspired by the news Mum’s neighbour of 40+ years was moving to be closer to her kids and part of it was just the fact she felt a bit isolated now many of her friends had moved on or passed on. In some ways, it felt like a different street. A different place. A different chapter.

In addition, she had recently had my old bedroom decorated and was dismayed to be admitted to hospital before all my things could be returned to their previous place. I cannot tell you how happy she was when – while I was still in England – we managed to put everything back. For her, this was huge. She wanted everything to be just right for me and for when her beloved grandson visited.

Then there’s the fact she had just had cataract operations to let her see clearly with both eyes. For the first time in a long time, she could see the colours of her favourite flowers in all their vibrant glory.

She also had been open to me organizing help for her. She was always fiercely independent and yet now she appreciated having someone pop in and see her morning and night.

And on the day she was admitted to hospital, she gave me things to look after. Part of this was because I had organized the house central heating to be completely changed and part of it was the shadow of concern being close.

She gave me her watch and jewelry – telling me to sell it if anything happened. She also gave me a little box of Dad’s ashes that I had not known she had. It was like I was being given access to her secrets and yet at the time, I convinced myself she was just nervous about having workmen in the house when she was out.

She also gave me a blank cheque. It was for me to fill in when the lawyers wrote as the week before she had changed her will. A lot has happened since she last had done it and she wanted it to represent her modern situation.

We were at peace with each other. Over the years a little bickering had entered our relationship. Nothing much and far less than most people have, but it was there. And yet now, all was as I’d always known it. We were in synchronicity. She accepted I wanted to do everything for her and I accepted she wanted to talk about things that I felt didn’t need discussing.

It was nice and lovely and loving.

And yet here I am. Sitting on Paul’s couch in the early hours of the morning, numb from the reality my Mum has died.


I still can’t quite fathom how we got here.

When I flew back on Saturday night, I was so happy to see how well my Mum was looking.

Just 15 days earlier she had been in hospital desperately ill and even though, when I returned to China, she was home and on the mend, nothing prepared me for how well she was looking.

I remember telling her how much I loved coming home when she was in the house. On the previous trip I had to go in when she was in hospital and it felt cold and sad and lonely but this time it was different … it was bright, warm and happy and it welcomed me in.

But those days are now over.

In some ways I’m frightened to go back.

So little has changed in there and yet everything has now changed.

Jill and Otis are flying over.

Tonight, Shelly – Paul’s wife – will go get them.

I can’t. Not because I’m not safe to drive, but because I have so much to organize.

I have to go to the hospital later. There they will tell me if Mum needs a postmortem. If she does, the funeral will be delayed, if not, I can go about registering her death at the hospital where I was born.

How ironic is that. A building that represents the bookends of my Mum’s life.

My Mum was a wonderful woman. She had had a tough life and faced many challenges and yet she always took things on while remaining kind and generous. She deserved so much more and as I got older, I tried to give her that.

Of course she never wanted it. She kept saying I had to focus on my life and all she wanted was to know I was happy. But I still got to do some nice things for her … from taking her to see the Northern lights when she turned 80 to just fixing things in the house but the thing she treasured most was the fact I loved her and would talk to her most days.

I have always gone through guilt about living so far away from her. I always thought I’d be back when she turned 70 but it didn’t happen. She understood. She wanted me to live my life and even though she wished I lived closer to her – as I did – she was happy and proud about how my life was going.

That’s all I have ever really wanted to do. Make her proud. And nothing made her prouder than becoming a grandmother.

She had never put any pressure on me to have a child but the joy she had when I had one was enormous.

Quite frankly she was besotted with Otis.

She loved him so much and wanted videos and photos. I sent them to her every day but nothing was going to be as wonderful as the day she had him sit on her lap.

But alas it will never happen.


It breaks my heart and I told her as she was lying on her bed just minutes after her death that I would ensure my son knew how wonderful she was. That I would ensure I honored her name.

I can’t believe this is happening. I go from feelings of numbness to doubt to overwhelming pain.

And now I enter the worst phase of grief.

I have to organize things.

The funeral.
Notifying people.
Notifying companies.
Executing her will.

Things that will busy my mind so I cannot focus on her death. In some ways that is good. It will preoccupy me but I know it will also destroy me.

I will go through the motions and then, when I least expect it, the force of her loss will hit me like a ton of bricks.

Yet I have time.

I am in England for almost 5 weeks.

In China, if you live there for 5 years, you have to leave the country for 30 days or the government can claim 50% of your worldwide assets. Her operation fell perfectly within this timeframe which meant I could go help her recuperate without causing any additional hassle to work. In some ways, it symbolizes my Mum that she would die on the first day I am here to not inconvenience me with trying to cram things into an even more reduced timeframe.

So many things are going through my head.

What do I do with the house?
What do I do with the belongings?
What will I want to keep forever?

But I know that is only because I don’t want to face the truth. My mum has gone and the conversation I had with her yesterday is the last one I’ll ever have.

I’m grateful for all I had with her. I’m honored she was my Mum. And I’m happy she will be with my Dad … but most of all I am so glad I was there with her when she passed.

She once told me she was frightened of being alone when she died. Those words affected me more than I can ever adequetly describe which is why I am so happy she was not. And she was in peace.

But I still wish she was here with me.

I love you Mum.

I am in despair.


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The Beauty Of Sorrow …
March 6, 2015, 6:30 am
Filed under: Comment, Death, Empathy, Love

This is a post about Clive James.

I’ve never met him, but he has been a constant presence throughout my life.

You see Clive is an Australian author, broadcaster and journalist who appeared in countless shows as I was growing up.

The reason he made such an impression was because of his wit and warmth of personality.

Regardless who he interviewed or what subject he was covering, he was always able to communicate his razor sharp insight in a way that made it easy to understand and interesting to hear.

Part of that was down to the fact he always delivered his opinion with a twinkle in his eye so you felt he was talking to you not at you … and in 1970’s television land, that was a revelation.

In some ways, Clive James was the original – but less pretty – version of George Clooney.

Funny. Sharp. Insightful. Generous. Self-depreciating. Confident.

But sadly Clive is dying.

He has been suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia for a number of years and the prognosis is not good.

As much as I have written about how important it is to talk of death, I cannot comprehend how it must feel if you are the person likely to pass.

I know one day I will know, but right now it is almost impossible to comprehend.

Maybe it is easy.

Maybe if you have been given the time to settle your affairs, it allows you to move on with a sense of peace and dignity.

I don’t know, but maybe that is the nicest way to pass, even though it may also be the most drawn out.

I imagine it’s as much down to your attitude as it is your health.

Whatever the reality, it appears Clive has come to peace with the prospect of him dying as he has released a series of poems that seem to talk about his final chapters of life.

Reading them revealed a different side to the Clive James I thought I knew … a more emotional, introspective side.

I don’t mind telling you I cried when I read one of them.

Maybe it’s because I drew parallel’s with my Father’s final days.

Maybe it’s because I am worried about my Mothers impending operation.

Maybe it’s because it reminded me of a poem I found my Mum had written about my Dad dying.

A poem that was so hauntingly beautiful that it took me several readings before I realised it was written by my Mum.

It was – like with Clive James’ poems – a side of her I had never seen before.

And yet there it was – in black and white – her emotions laid raw in front of me.

At first I was moved because it spoke with such gentleness, love and sorrow.

But then I registered who had written it and who it was about and my emotions overflowed.

This was a story I had lived through.

A terribly sad story.

And yet I was seeing it from another perspective.

A perspective of someone who I love with all my heart.

To be honest, as I read each line … it was like that day on Jan 16th 1999 was happening all over again.

But in some ways with double the pain.

You see not only was I feeling the hurt of losing my Dad, I was feeling the pain my Mum was going through.

Of course I knew at the time she was terribly, terribly sad, but this was the first time I really understood what she had gone through.

When she saw her husband of 35 years leave her.

How she woke up each morning thinking he was there only to discover he had gone.

And how that would prod her pain once again.

Until one day she woke up and knew he would not be by her side.

Which made the sadness become even stronger and deeper.

The way she described her pain was gut wrenching, made worse by the fact it was something I couldn’t remove or make better.

And yet it was also a testament to love.

A celebration of how marriage can make people stronger together.

I wish my Dad could have read it because then he’d know how much he meant to his family.

I’m know he knew, but reading those beautifully painful words shone a light on things that tend to be hidden in the shadows.

I wish I could let you all see it. But I can’t.

It’s not just that it’s too private, it’s still too raw.

Even 16 years later.

And while Clive James has done something different to my Mum by writing about his departing rather than someone else’s, I hope in time, it helps his family find peace once he has gone.

That they feel some comfort that he was ready to go and that he loved his family and will always be around even when he’s not around.

All thanks to a poem about a little maple tree.

For what may well be one of his last poems, I found it beautiful and sad and uplifting all at the same time … which as final messages go, seems a pretty nice way to be remembered.

So thank you Mr James for everything. Godspeed.

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.


Originally – when I wrote this post – it would have ended there.

However stuff has happened that means I need to add a bit of a postscript.

You see I am now off to the UK to be with my Mum.

She has a huge operation on Monday – a huge operation – so even though many of you don’t know her, please spare her a thought.

She is an amazing woman and makes the World better for being in it.

I will be there for almost 5 weeks helping her recover so this blog will be even more inconsistent than it usually is, but with all going well, there will be a bunch of stuff posted between now and when I return in early April.

And with that I leave you with one request.

Call up the people you care about and tell them that you love them.

Better yet, go see them and give them a hug.

That’s all.

Thank you and see you soon.

The Only Thing We Can Control Are Our Standards …
March 5, 2015, 6:25 am
Filed under: Agency Culture, AMV

I am very lucky that I have worked at some amazing agencies over the years.

But despite that, there’s still a few I wish I had had an opportunity to experience.

There were a bunch of reasons it didn’t always happen.

With BBH for example, it was always down to timing. On four separate bloody occasions.

With Cliff Freeman, it was down to them basically thinking I was shit.

And while there are a bunch of other agencies that intrigue and excite me – including a bunch, like CDP and Simons Palmer that have sadly disappeared from our industry landscape – there’s one that I have always held in the highest regard.

Abbott Mead Vickers.

My god they are good.

Hell, they’ve been good since they started in 1979.

The quality of the people and the work is, in all probability, unparalleled in UK advertising.

Not only that, but if you look at the people this industry holds up today as beacons of awesome, many of them got their break at AMV.

They taught you how to do things properly.

They taught you how the value of great thinking, ideas and craft.

They basically taught UK adland what is possible when approached with excellence.

Of course other agencies also had an incredible impact on the industry – both in the UK and the World – the aforementioned CDP, my beloved HHCL and the original Saatchi&Saatchi to name but a few … but AMV had the distinction of being both brilliant and utterly gentlemanly which gave them an air of ‘properness’ that other places never quite managed to pull off.

But ‘properness’ should not be mistaken for passiveness which leads to the point of this post.

Recently I was sent a letter that David Abbott – the A in AMV – sent to his agency about ‘doing the right thing’.

In some ways it was a reminder – or a reset – about process.

I don’t mean process in the way WPP would mean it, I mean it in terms of principles, standards and expectations.

Or said another way, the stubbornness needed to maintain your principles, standards and expectations.

What I love about what he wrote is that he acknowledged that everyone plays a part in the journey to great work. It’s not just about the creative department, it’s about the actions and decisions of every person and discipline connected to the process and so unless everyone shares the same principles, standards and ambitions … it will all fall apart.

Collective praise. Collective blame.

Despite the fact he wrote it 21 years ago, I think his memo is as meaningful and as important as it has ever been.

So if you work in adland or know someone who does, send them this post and point them to pages below.

Tell them to hold it close. Treasure it. Think about what’s being said and then act upon it.

It’s that good.

Which is why AMV are that good.

When Culture Meets Culture …
March 4, 2015, 6:25 am
Filed under: Comment, Culture, Education

Hey, I am not being a judgemental bastard, I was probably like them as a kid [and I would most certainly be like them as an adult] … the key difference is that way back when I was a kid, apart from that technology not being around, I wasn’t allowed to not be interested.

Yes, that’s right, I was made to appreciate what I was seeing/hearing/experiencing.

And how was I ‘made’ to do that?

Because my parents and teachers made it interesting for me.

It wasn’t a case of being dragged around a museum and told to “look at things”, my parents and teachers told me what I was seeing in a way I could relate to. The history of the work. The reason it should be seen and celebrated. Why I was lucky to experience it.

In other words, they found ways to make me care.

Now I don’t know what it’s like today at public schools – I guess I’ll find out in a few years – but what is seemingly apparent is that the whole purpose of education has got lost along the way.

Not just with students … but with teachers, parents and governments.

In the past, the role of public education was to help build a better society in the future.

It was not just about personal progress, it was about national progress.

As Malcolm Forbes said:

“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one”.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case any more.

Now it seems public education is evaluated on what it costs rather than what it delivers.

Built on minimum standards rather than maximum potential.

In short, it seems we have gone from valuing a society filled with educated people to one that celebrates average.

I would happily pay more taxes to help public education be improved.

To give students better facilities to let them experience more of it.

To give schools better infrastructure to let more people benefit from it.

To give teachers a better salary to ensure talent stays within it.

I would happily pay more taxes to stop parents thinking private education is the only way forward.

To stop universities acting like a business rather than a place of advanced learning.

To stop governments lowering standards so they can use the figures to pretend they care.

To stop councils selling schools because they care more about the value of the land than the value of education.

To stop kids going into a lifetime of debt for a degree that makes a mockery of what a degree used to be.

To stop business alienating against those who don’t go to university.

Quality public education should not be a gift … it should be a right.

Everyone benefits when everyone benefits and so we need to get away from box ticking and averages and get back to finding ways to make people care so they can be better than they thought they could be.

Not just because it will give them advantages in life further down the road, but because it will give advantages to everyone further down the road.

Public education is the last defence against a World of FOX News readers.

If anything should give you a reason to lobby government to treat public education with the respect it deserves, it’s that.

When Design Is Magical …
March 3, 2015, 6:25 am
Filed under: Comment, Design

Despite my wife being one, I’ve given designers get a lot of stick over the years.

To be honest, they have brought it on themselves with shit like this or this.

Of course not all designers are pretentious tossers who make planners look down-to-earth, there are those who are brilliant problem solvers … like the guys [whoever they are] behind the new SONOS corporate identity.

On first glance, it’s nothing special … but the moment you scroll the logo up or down, it suddenly looks like sound is pulsating out of it.

Go on, try it.

How brilliant is that eh?

I’ll tell you how brilliant it is … it’s sheer, utter, simple brilliance.

Of course there are many audio companies who have incorporated music/sound cues within their corporate identity – lets face it, it’s a pretty obvious thing to do – but as far as I know, none have done it in such a clever way.

Whoever was behind this really thought about the challenge.

You can tell they really sweated over the solution as opposed to just heading towards the obvious or the easy.

Maybe their starting point was reframing the challenge.

Maybe it was something like this: how do we make a static logo produce sound?

The reason I say that is because when you phrase objectives that way, it forces you to be creative in your response.

And when I say that, what I really mean is it forces you to be creative in your thinking.

I’ve always been a big believer that obstacles make you more creative.

Maybe that’s why I love working in China, because apart from the cultural barriers, there’s the fact the government are very strict on what can/can’t be said so you always have to try and think one step ahead.

Barriers liberate creativity. Too few people understand that … but they do.

The bigger the barrier, the bigger the potential for glory.

The fact is problems make you smarter … they improve your skills and hone your talent and if you don’t believe me, take another look at that SONOS identity because the people behind it managed to overcome the rather major obstacle of turning a static, silent medium into one that produces sound.

A Double Reminder Why Life Can Be Unfair …
March 2, 2015, 6:25 am
Filed under: Comment

I’m back. Again.

I know … I know …

If it’s any consolation, it wasn’t much of a holiday. My wonderful Mum got rushed into hospital so I flew over to be by her side.

Thankfully the wonderful people at Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham managed to stabalise her and she even managed to come home in the time I was there.

I cannot tell you how traumatic it all was – or how grateful I am to the NHS as it genuinely was touch and go – but what this means is a week from today, she will be going back into hospital for major heart surgery as she has a weak valve and that is the cause of all her recent ailments.

I’ll be there and staying for a month so this blog will be intermittent over this time so as I know all this coming and going is probably playing with your mind [cough, cough], I thought I’d ease you back into my rubbish with this simple fact.

The founder of Spotify is worth approximately 3 billion dollars, which is about 2.4 billion dollars more than Paul McCartney – one of histories richest and most successful composers and performers – despite having never written a single song.

Which all goes to show that while creativity may have the power to inspire, it’s the people who know how to monetise its power and control it’s distribution that makes the real money.

Might be a lesson adland could do with remembering.