The Uselessness of History? Historian, Engineer, Brand Man

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Reprinted from The Oxford Historian, Hilary Term, 2018
I arrived in Oxford by train from Walsall on 10 October 1974. It was Election Day, the second within the year, and the talk in the JCR was of another hung Parliament. In that event, the Tory champagne chilling on ice would be mixed with Socialist stout to make Black Velvet, a name that promises more than the product delivers. The pundits were wrong, of course, and Wilson narrowly beat Heath, winning a wafer- thin majority of three seats. But this all passed me by, because that night was my first ever Hall at Brasenose College where I had arrived from Queen Mary’s Grammar School to read Modern History.

As pleased as my father was to see me win a place at Oxford, he made it clear that he would have preferred me to become an engineer in Cambridge. “What’s the point of a history degree? Isn’t it useless these days?” he’d said – a provocation that over the years I have been happy to confront. But for now, apart from the immediate anxiety that came from forced immersion in Anglo-Saxon Latin for Prelims held at the end of my first term, the daily regime of the Oxford historian seemed to comprise more carrot than stick.

Paul Walton at Farchynys, the Welsh Centre of Queen Mary’s School, Walsall
The red thread of the Oxford course was the history of our islands from the departure of the Romans to the beginning of the Great War: ‘a king-a-week’, we joked whilst time travelling at a brisk pace through feudalism, bastard feudalism, rising gentry and a declining aristocracy. Producing plays was my first love, but I much enjoyed forays into the Radcliffe Camera and beyond.

I was lucky enough to study the Thirty Years War with Robert Evans, to read the command-and-control papers of Pierre Séguier, Richelieu’s enforcer, under the patient gaze of Robin Briggs, and to spend many an hour trying to fathom out the causes of sundry Tudor rebellions with Penry Williams. On my way to Schools in June 1977, it seemed there was little of significance I didn’t know about the reign of Edward VI, the consumptive boy Tudor with the stunted reign. Three months later, I had forgotten it all because on the same day that Elvis died, I had become an advertising man.

A student career that combined producing plays with writing weekly history essays, sometimes under the cosh, was the perfect training programme for a job in advertising. Life at the agency normally consisted of a hectic scramble for a new angle on an old problem and then pitching it to clients. I’d also learned from the best that some historians are expert in the art of magnifying minimal differences. This, I soon discovered was also a very important skill for successful admen.

I enjoyed my work and seemed to do well at it, working on campaigns for Swedish cars, German beer and British Intelligence. I developed a particular knack for creating new brands, and in 1986, with a friend – another historian, we launched our own shop. This was one of the first agencies to specialise in innovation and new brand development. With more than a nod to my father, we called the new agency The Value Engineers. Thirty years later, it is still going strong, with offices in London and New York and some of the world’s biggest brands, including BP, BA and Unilever among its clients.

So many of the historian’s skills have proven useful to us over the years. For example, analysing the reasons for success and failure of a new product, building timelines for fast developing new markets or assessing the likely impact of trends, especially those involving social and technological change. We have reviewed the rise and fall of empires: Kodak, Blockbuster and Nokia. We have tracked our changing eating habits and seen brands like Quorn grow from a niche into the mainstream and even onto the menus of Oxford college lunches!

In 2005, The Value Engineers became part of the Cello Group plc. Since then both the Group and The Value Engineers have prospered, and in 2011 I was able to begin a strategic withdrawal from the world of marketing and to return to university to study for an MA in Creative Writing. One of the projects I started researching brought me back once more into the service of Clio. This involved writing the history of an English school’s relationship with a Welsh estuary. Again, I knew my time in the Honour School of Modern History had not to been completely wasted.

This story began one eventful weekend in November 1963. On a weekend when the President of the United States was assassinated, The Beatles released their second LP, and Dr Who exited a Police Box to confront the Daleks for the first time, a small convoy of cars carrying boys from Queen Mary’s Grammar School in Walsall, arrived on the Mawddach Estuary in Mid Wales. They were to spend the weekend in a converted old coach house. This was Farchynys, the school’s newly acquired adventure centre in southern Snowdonia, situated in the shadow of Cadair Idris, four miles from Barmouth and its iconic railway viaduct.

Every week for the following fifty years, successive generations of Marians, as Queen Mary’s folk are known, have made the hundred-mile journey to the coast and for the most part, have

Marians on The Mawddach (Strategol Publishing, 2017)
fallen in love with this special place. Their adventures have shown that estuaries are wonderfully productive ecosystems for growing both things and people. My new book, Marians on the Mawddach tells the stories of pupils and teachers, and the people they have met in a landscape that is dramatically different from that of their hometown in the heart of the Black Country.

As an Old Marian who loved the Mawddach, I jumped at the chance to help with the school’s campaign to raise funds to modernise the facilities at Farchynys. Writing a book seemed a good way to generate support and I wanted it to be as much of a celebration of people and place as it was a social history of a West Midlands grammar school at the end of the twentieth century.

So forty years after first arriving in Oxford, I found myself back in the Radcliffe Camera chasing down sources and finalising text. I came across a book by T.P. Ellis, another historian who wrote a history of Dolgellau and Llanelltyd in the 1920s. He seemed a little pessimistic:

“Traditions and stories, the salt of life, are passing away, because there is no one to tell them in a way that busy pre-occupied people have time or inclination to listen to.”

I thought about my father’s provocation to my eighteen-year-old self and smiled. I was very happy to be an historian. History, the salt of life, is important work. I was also happy to be an engineer and a brand storyteller; the symbiotic twist of these career threads I know now to have been powerful, stimulating and not unlucrative.

Paul Christopher Walton

Born in Staffordshire, Paul took his BA in 1977, co- wrote Bluff Your Way in Marketing and helped unleash Quorn upon an unsuspecting world. It was inevitable that some of this biomass would return to fuel his first novel, Historyland, a dark comedy set in a future England that has become a giant theme park owned by bigtech.

Marians on The Mawddach

By Paul Christopher Walton

 

Strategol Publishing, 2017

ISBN: 978 0 99579 190 9

http://www.mariansonthemawddach.com

 

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Another Job for Cyril (1925 -2018)

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Who’ll scan my job and scout

The strategic challenges that lie ahead of me?

Who’ll be my hanging wing-man

And place the pencil cross with laser touch?

Who’ll choose the tools and chide

My lax preservation of lithium cells?

Who’ll patiently banish rust from contacts

And soon revive the power-tool’s insistent torque?

Who’ll select the bit to bite the wall’s recalcitrance?

And guide my angle of attack and steady, steady it

Against the white emulsioned concrete?

Who’ll be the matchstick man

To plug the mortar of my unreliable first attempt

And safely hang the artwork from its helix thread?

Another picture sorted in the gallery of life!

But one job you left undone before you went,

Was how to fill the hole you’ve left us with?

 

Poems of Place: The Halt, 1967

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Revising on railway line, post Beeching Chris Sheffield c 1967 c Chris Davies (2)

 

Dr. Beeching arrives at Dr. Williams’ School in Dolgellau

Somewhere on the Mawddach, excavating

The sedimentary layers of my youth

I found your smile.

In sepia, framed transgressive

And lounging between

The empty parallels of stark infinity,

You spoke:

Confident, optimistic and open

Even at a point of closure.

Full of possibilities,

You signaled encouragement and hope

Amidst the dissolution,

And with that look, advertised

The essence of youth’s big adventure

Which fifty years later I savoured once more.

 

October 3, 2017

I am grateful to Jennie and colleagues at Dr Williams on the web for permission to feature the photograph from the website which inspired this poem.

Please discover more at http://www.dwsoga.org.uk

 

 

David Bernstein: The Philosopher of SPIV

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Lines written in 1982 to celebrate the award of the Mackintosh Medal to David Bernstein – being also a brief exposition on the theories of Advertisement Effect in one canto

Nil posse creari de nilo. (Lucretius)

Lucretius wasn’t always right!

 

Sing, O muse of modern epic themes,

Of selling soapsuds, and of selling dreams:

Behold that world of commerce set apart,

An inexact science in a bastard art!

And in this nexus, let us list with care

Those philosophies which are practised there.

With surgeon’s skill and knife we will dissect

All admen’s Theories of Effect.

That sacred word, enough to make the client pay

His artwork and production bills with less delay.

First, in this field, the keystone of the arch

We sing, with pride, of Doctor Daniel Starch.

“All ads to be successful”, he nearly said,

“Must of course be seen and read

But more than that, before your chance has gone

It must be remembered to be acted on”

Great sage, O Starch, your greatness sits

In teaching us, good puff persuades in bits.

Another chap (Anon) reworked Dan’s law

And summed it up with letters four.

“Let our darling AIDA take her bow,

To gain attention and our interest now;

But after, when desire is raised in lieu

Her call to action entices you”.

Of all the men whom darling Aida met,

There stands a group especially in her debt.

The men of Procter, so the bards do tell

Liked her rubric and loved her well

Too much, in fact; consumed by lust

All Aida’s wisdom has been ground to dust.

For all the best becomes the worst at last

When madmen play the rules too hard and fast!

Day-after-recall’s not the best of tools

Except for client knaves or research fools!

Too much!

Let us sing of greatness once again:

Of Joyce and Channon, of Segeula’s men!

Of Rosser Reeve’s USP

Of charming, wily David Ogilvy

“At sixty miles an hour, all you’ll hear

Is the sound of chasing taxmen coming near.”

And last of all, we sing of D.E.B

(Who, it must be said, as yet employs me)

In his book, (so the one who’s read it said)

“All art, with science, is nice ‘n’ neatly wed”

And so, all admen who seek out effect,

With page one five five your eyes connect:

“All ads to convince must visible be,

And pregnant stand with identity

But without simple promise, they’ve far to go

Along that line to positive cash flow”

With words like these, he won old Tosh’s crown

So was it then for this,  that David wore that gown?

 

September 1982

 

Post Scriptum:

David died in August 2017 aged 88.

He had a profound effect upon so many people, especially me.

PCW

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poems of Place: At Shotover

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Inspired by the Fantasia On A Theme by Thomas Tallis: Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Sunlight scouts the forest’s weak points

And glints through dark birch parapets

Across the late morning,

This late Easter morning.

We came looking for hope,

To pause our dissertation on sadness and despair

For those we have lost;

To smell the Spring, all sweet and fecund;

To see the evidence of resurrection.

In the clearing, a process and a place today,

We hear that chord: strident, promising

Flattened and incomplete,

Then, from somewhere deep within the earth

The baseline heartbeat canon,

Which pulses strong again as if from nothing,

And shows we can indeed rise up from beds of death.

Then I see the bluebells, boisterous, on the march,

In rampant progress across the forest floor.

Thus re-connected to my optimistic self, I smile,

Past, present, future are in communion once more.

 

Easter Sunday, 2017

The search for lost Roman roads

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It began one night in Autumn Term at John Anderson’s flat in Lichfield Street looking at old maps. The quest soon took us to the desolate old fort at Tomen y Mur near Llyn Trawsfynydd and finally to the frozen hills of the Nannau estate at Brithdir.

We were looking for the road that connected a networyk of forts that was used by the Romans to secure their supply lines and the Empire’s western frontier. Throughout the 70s, there had been significant local resistance to Roman rule and the Ordovices had massacred an entire regiment of cavalry. In AD 78, the celebrated general Agricola was appointed Governor of Britannia and one of his first priorities was to finish the conquest of Wales. Tacitus tells us he quickly exterminated the Ordovices, and then struck north to the island of Môn where the druids were rounded up and the inhabitants forced to sue for peace.

Sadly, through the mists of time, the Editor cannot say with any certainty if his search was ultimately successful, but he can attest to the quality of John Alwyn Dickson’s roast chicken dinner that was the highlight of a second visit to find the lost legions of Rome.

Click for more at the Marians on the Mawddach webpage

 

Marians on the Mawddach

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An English School’s Love Affair With an Estuary in Wales

Conceived and compiled by Paul Christopher Walton

“Traditions and stories, the salt of life, are passing away, because there is no one to tell them in a way that busy pre-occupied people have time or inclination to listen to.”

T.P. Ellis Dolgelley and Llanelltyd, 1928

Marians on the Mawddach

In one eventful weekend in November 1963, the President of the United States was assassinated, The Beatles launched their second album, Dr Who exited his Police Box to confront the Daleks for the first time and a convoy of Walsall grammar school boys arrived on the Mawddach to spend their first weekend at Farchynys. This was Queen Mary’s newly acquired adventure centre, an old coach house on the Mawddach estuary lying in the shadow of Cadair Idris, just 4 miles from Barmouth and its iconic railway bridge.

Every week for the following fifty years, successive generations of QM folk have made the hundred mile journey to the coast and have promptly fallen in love with this special place, discovering that estuaries can be wonderfully productive eco-systems for personal growth. Marians on the Mawddach tells the stories of pupils and their teachers and also of the people they meet as they explore this highly contrasting landscape to their home in Walsall.

Marians on the Mawddach

A Social History of Farchynys, The Welsh Centre of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall

Published, May 2017

For more click on the Marians on the Mawddach page

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Poems of Place: Lunch with Tory

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We said it would be the Luberon,

Perhaps mid-September

When the crowds had left? Or mostly.

We’d find a table with a view:

Oppède Le Vieux, perhaps? Or better at Sénanque

In the hollow, amongst the purple

We’d drink Domaine Ott – barely pink, well chilled

But elegant like you

We’d banter with black olives

Or the tapenades with fig you liked

Then the smell of roast chicken would

Demand the group’s attention

And with it, we’d bring out salad leaves,

And beef tomatoes, the primed burrata.

After, some would contemplate the madelaines

And lavender honey ice creams lying in wait.

But then comforted and comfortable,

We’d pause and think of you –

And feel once more the warmth you brought.

Poems of Place: Promenade des Anglais

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(Elégie en bleu)

 

You always wore a smile

And welcomed us with warmth,

You were always best outdoors

So genial alfresco.

You loved the noise and buzz

You lived for food and friends

You were my Empire of Blue,

This elegy’s for you.

 

It took one summer’s night

To wipe away your warmth

Bring silence to your mood

And shadows to your shine

When Death crashed into you

Devastating

My Empire of Blue.

This elegy’s for you

 

For now those chaises are empty

The vélo racks are full,

The promenade is silent

Yet the sky is azure blue;

 And the sun breaks through our darkness,

As waves kiss the shore

Galettes forever treasured

As music sounds once more.

 

You’ll always be our zest,

Our carnival of joy,

The Nissa of pizzazz,

The goodness that adds life.

You’ll always be our star,

The magnet of our dreams,

The Côte within our hearts

Our Empire of Blue,

This elegy’s for you.

 

2016

 

 

60@60 Finale: Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

Babs and Paul at the rocks, Boulevard de la Croisette, Cannes

Babs and Paul at the rocks, Boulevard de la Croisette, Cannes, November 2016