Friday, 17 September 2021

Ragtag, motley and wayward


 My (slightly bedraggled) career has lurched more and more in the direction of writing in the last fifteen years or so. Yes, I’m still a strategist at heart, yet words never cease to fascinate and enthrall me.  

Every is a writer collective, which bundles together the best business writing from different perspectives. In one of those open letter thingies on their website, the question is posed: Why is great business writing rare? The authors suggest three answers:

1. Great business writing requires multiple skills

2. Writers are pressurised to publish too often

3. Most writing is chasing clout, not insight

I couldn’t agree more with this, and it’s the last of these that touched my writer heart. So many guides to writing business articles talk about SEO, hashtags and key words. And so many articles I read have those clickbait headlines, but turn out to be rehashes of other articles, or yet another take on whatever “narratives” (beginning to loathe that word) are trendy or trending. Everyone seems to be writing what everyone else is writing about, from purpose to diversity.

Dan and Nathan from Every call this “cotton candy” writing, in that it leaves readers unsatisfied, and doesn’t age well. They’re right. All those “likes" are something ephemeral. You only have to think about your own behaviour, liking an article because you agree with the headline, or because it’s a friend, or because everyone else seems to think it’s good. It takes a millisecond, then you move on.

Whether it’s business articles, news and opinion pieces, advertising, business books or fiction, it all starts to feel like homogenised, soulless, unoriginal pap. The output of today’s Smoothie Society  is easy to digest, with nothing to get stuck in your throat, your mind - or your heart. There’s a place for the wayward, the ragtag and motley - but it’s beyond the algorithmic boundaries, hiding somewhere on the fiftieth page of your search, out of the reach of the spotlikes. 

It’s ten years ago since I was preparing for the publication of my first novel, and I still thank my lucky stars that it was published by a small press, less motivated by clout than by insight and originality. It hasn’t sold or made me millions, but it’s still in print, which it certainly wouldn’t be if I’d been taken on by a major publisher. They would have found the sales figures somewhat pitiful and that would have been that. A couple of years after launch, I reflected on my status as a writer and concluded that I was a “happy amateur”. 

This is wot I wrote - and I think it still passes the test of time:

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HAPPY AMATEUR

 

A year ago, the launch of my first book was imminent so I thought it was high time to have a chat with my tax advisor about my status. Now, in Germany, if you’re freelance, you have to register your freelancery from a finite list of German tax-office-approved jobs or professions. It’s rather like the terribly German system of only being allowed to give your child a name from the authority-approved list.

 

My tax advisor smiled benignly as I explained all to him and told me that I needn’t do anything. The tax authorities here would classify my writing as a hobby – rather as if I’d decided to take up collecting classic cars.

 

I must admit to a certain sense of relief. I rather like thinking of my authorial efforts in this way. Financially I’m going to lose a lot more than I gain, but it’s an indulgence I can allow myself. After over twenty-five years teetering around on one career ladder, I’m quite glad I don’t have to start climbing another. 

 

But every now and then, I read an article or hear a piece of advice goading me on to take a more professional approach. This pisses me off, big time.

 

Why? Well, the best answer is in an article I read a few years back in Intelligent Life (now defunct), by Ed Smith, cricketer-turned-journalist entitled ‘Are we too professional?’.

 

The gist of the article is that the concept of professionalism has taken over in every imaginable sphere, from sports to nursing to teaching to journalism. And in the relentless pursuit of professionalism, the word amateur has come to mean second-rate, shabby and slapdash.

 

Strange for a word that has its origins in amare, to love. Why, after all, am I writing? Why are any of us writing?

 

The idea of professionalism has snuck into the world of publishing, too. And, of course, agents and publishers have to be professional. That’s how they earn their living.

 

But authors?

 

If professionalism means a certain standard of presentation and a degree of common politeness and respect to people with whom you might be entering into a business agreement, then that’s right and proper.

 

But if it means writing what the market demands, what the industry expects or what the research says – and can a market demand? Can research speak? – then, no.

 

Or if it means getting bogged down in process and management mumbo-jumbo from commercial hooks, to USPs, to author as brand, to positioning, to embracing social media, to engaging with the market…?

 

Or filing down all the rough edges, eccentricities, the bits that don’t fit to become some sort of management clone?


Or being obsessed with metrics and measures from sales to followers to Facebook ‘likes’?

 

Or being conned by the growing army of pseudo-coaches, mentors and consultants who are no more qualified to sell their advice than I am?

 

If being ‘more professional’ is any of this, then I’m happy to stay an amateur.

 

(Written in 2013)

 

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

RETROWURST: Seasonal Products September 2003


 The first visit to a supermarket on our recent return from holiday brought the inevitable groans of ‘No! Lebkuchen already?’ This makes this Retrowurst particularly topical in that it marvels over the German September delicacies of Federweißer, Zwiebelkuchen, Süßer and Pfifferlinge. It goes on as a culinary calendar and guide to German food and drink throughout the year.

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September may well have been the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ for Keats, but it is definitely the season of Federweißer und Zwiebelkuchen here in middle-Hessen. The subject of Extrawurst this month is seasonality, especially in relation to food and drink and how brands can use this notion to connect closer with people.

 

Since I have lived in Germany, it has always been apparent to me that nature’s cycle of months and seasons is somehow closer to Germans’ hearts and especially stomachs than for us Brits. At certain times of year, there are special products that one just can’t avoid; in fact, the whole year is punctuated with delicacies and if one were to throw away all calendars, you would have a pretty good idea of what month you were in by a glance at the restaurants’ blackboards and the supermarket shelves (given that the weather doesn’t seem to be such a reliable guide any more!)

 

As I said in the opening, in September we are in the midst of the Federweißer und Zwiebelkuchen season. Federweißer is a mildly alcoholic, cloudy grape juice from the first fermentation in winemaking. It is usually available direct from the vineyards and in wine bars but also from the supermarket where it is sold in (potentially messy for the unwary) bottles without a cork! It is usually served with Zwiebelkuchen, a very oniony flan which provides a nice contrast in taste to the rather sweet Federweißer. For those who prefer something non-alcoholic, another speciality of Hessen in September is Süßer, a strong, cloudy, sweet-tasting apple juice which is the first pressing that will eventually be made into Apfelwein. The beginning of Autumn is also mushroom time, especially Pfifferlinge or Chanterelles. Many families go mushroom picking in the forests and Apothekes provide a free ‘mushroom identification service’ to make sure that you’re not about to serve up a poisonous Ragout!

 

As the Autumn moves on through October and November, the Wild or game season gets underway, with fresh venison and wild boar available in the butcher’s (and deep frozen in Aldi!). Many restaurants have a special game menu. Goose is also widely available from November onwards, as this is traditionally eaten not just at Christmas but also around St Martin’s Day which is in mid-November.

 

By December, the Christmas goodies will have been in the supermarkets since September but now the Christmas baking season really intensifies with displays of the spices needed in Supermarkets and Apothekes. Competition for home-baking comes inevitably from the various Weihnachtsmärkte or Christmas markets that start around late November.

 

With February comes Karneval, with its own specialities, mainly Kreppeln or doughnuts and then, around the end of March, the first fresh Grüne Soß is available in restaurants or to make yourself from the pre-bundled fresh herb mixtures available from market stalls. This is a cold sauce made from seven different herbs and sour cream, which is eaten with potatoes, meat or hard-boiled eggs.

 

April sees the beginning of Spargelzeit where you just can’t escape from asparagus (the German asparagus is white as it grows underground). There are little roadside stalls selling the stuff in various sizes and qualities and a lot of restaurants serve only asparagus at this time. In May, a special woodland herb is available to make a delicious punch called Maibowle with schnapps, white wine and Sekt. In May, the first strawberries are available and many of the roadside asparagus stalls sell these too, along with the many ‘pick your own’ fields. Needless to say, you can make a very nice Bowle from strawberries, too.

 

There are numerous examples of food brands in Germany who introduce seasonal variants and flavours. Mövenpick Ice Cream, for example have featured ‘Our Ice of the year’ for many years- a flavour that is available for one year only. More recently, Mövenpick have started introducing two such flavours, one for the summer (usually lighter and fruity) and one for the winter (usually more nutty/chocolatey). This idea has been picked up on by many other brands, including Schwartau jams who have a ‘jam of the year’. Other examples of seasonal flavours and variants can be seen in the chocolate confectionery market, where Ritter Sport and Milka are both very active with this kind of thing- summer flavours are usually yoghurt and fruit-orientated while in the winter, flavours based on some of the traditional German Christmas goodies, such as Lebkuchen and Stollen can be seen.

 

Hochland cheese is another brand who has introduced seasonal varieties into its Almette cream cheese range- this Spring they introduced Almette with asparagus and we will not be surprised to see Almette with mushrooms this Autumn!

 

There are various important advantages that seasonal variants and flavours can imbue on a brand: firstly, in these days of so many new product flops, there is a certain amount of honesty admitting that a new flavour will only be available for a limited time and, of course, it makes an excellent testing platform. It can make a brand seem less ‘processed’, impersonal and distant especially if the variants are in tune with local tastes or recent trends. It provides a good antidote to the fear of globalisation and faceless, distant corporations. People are given a reason to look at the brand again and it gives the impression of a brand that is ‘fresh’ and always on the pulse. Finally, at a deeper level, in these days of short time cycles and cheating time with technology, ideas that are based on the yearly cycle of nature give people a feeling of being ‘rooted’ again and in touch with nature.

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Well, all I can say is that in the eighteen years since I wrote that, there has been a proliferation from food and drink brands in terms of both seasonal and regional - the human need to be in tune with nature has been emphasised through greater awareness of sustainability. And of course brands are keen to present themselves as human, in touch with local needs and desires rather than faceless global corporates. It’s push and pull, as new technology enables speedier development and distribution of variants with a mayfly lifespan.

In other news, I’m pleased to say I’ve addressed the proliferation of exclamation marks in my writing.