Cabbage Face

My physiognomy and my fortune by Clive Sinclair

When I was a baby passers-by would peek into my pram with a "coochie- coo" upon their lips, which was as far as it ever got. Instead, having caught sight of my prematurely prophetic little face, they said with one voice: "Don't look so miserable, it might never happen." In fact, as my friends will testify, I turned out to be a cheerful, happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, though you'd never know it to look at me. I am, in effect, a lousy advertisement for myself.

Needless to say, this poor presentation caused numerous problems as I progressed through the education system. Neither the teachers nor the pupils of Orange Hill Grammar School for Boys, an unwelcoming pile of red-brick and prefab situated in Burnt Oak (not a meeting place for witches, but a seedy suburb of north-west London), were much concerned with the inner man. Mr Hunter, our Latin master, pained beyond endurance by my very presence, released this sibylline utterance: "Sinclair, one day they will hang you." This was not so far-fetched; the most famous alumnus of the secondary modern across the road was James Hanratty, who may or may not have been guilty of the A6 murder, but was strung up anyway.

Some of my peers, taking cognisance of my baggy eyes, called me Cabbage Face. This nickname was picked-up by our kindly chemistry master, Mr Harradine, whose sensitivity was equally apparent when he chucked a lump of sodium into a glass bowl full of water and sent three of my classmates to hospital. When he called me Cabbage Face in front of the whole class it was the psychological equivalent of that careless act; something fizzed and exploded within. At that moment I separated into two people; a caped crusader, a fighter of wrongs, disguised as a milksop who meekly swallowed his teacher's insult.

As Jules Feiffer put it in one of his cartoons: "I know I would be different if people only called me by my inside name 'Spike'." OK, I know I'm not really Spike, just as I'm aware that my particular kampf is hardly unique; on the contrary, it's more of an archetype.

The idea of the split-personality is as old as Genesis. For a start, Eve was manufactured from Adam's rib. Then there's Cain and Abel, twins at war. They were followed by Esau and Jacob, likewise divisible into hairy and smooth types. Moses and Aaron are a more sophisticated variation. Moses the stutterer, the wrestler with language, the disciple of an abstract and absent god, whose clumsiness and self-doubt made him my ideal role model. Set against this was Aaron's silver tongue. Indeed, Aaron may well be the world's first entrepreneur.

In place of his brother's unimaginable ideal he offered a concept, a god that could be seen and touched, a god that looked good; the Golden Calf. What's more he sold stock in it, utilizing an idea he'd picked up in ancient Egypt; pyramid selling. One way or another he persuaded the sun-struck Israelites to part with their jewellery and their precious bangles.

My natural inclination was to side with Moses but, for a few years, I followed in Aaron's footsteps and became an advertising man at Young & Rubicam. Of course copywriting was not my first choice; the previous June (the year is 1973) I had published my first novel, Bibliosexuality, for which I received an advance of pounds l50. There were hardly any reviews, and no royalties. When I began dating the woman who was to become my wife, it quickly became apparent that pounds 150 was not sufficient foundation for a love life.

In order to get the job at Y & R I first had to take an aptitude test. I can recall some of the questions. How many uses can you find for a handkerchief? I wrote my answer on one. Invent an aftershave. I called it Herotique; combining Frenchness, eroticism, and heroism, with just a dash of the heretical. I was apt.

Y & R was located on several floors of Greater London House, a nondescript shell constructed over the ruins of the Carerras cigarette factory, a neo-Egyptian temple which once dominated Mornington Crescent. I can still picture the building as it was, and can remember driving past the place with my father one Saturday while a crane smashed a ball into the bellies of the two enormous black cats that flanked the entrance. Nothing but ghosts now.

It turned out that my new colleagues were just as smart as any university faculty; they read the TLS and played chess during lunch breaks. Many dreamed of writing the Great English Novel. For example, one of the brightest writers there, the author of a famous campaign for Volvo, took a year off in which to fashion his masterpiece. Unfortunately he had finished it by the end of the first morning, and was back writing copy within the month.

This demonstrates the damage long-term abuse of language can inflict upon the soul. Copywriting cuts the communication cord between word and feeling. By offering instant gratification it atrophies more subtle emotions. It is all plot and no psychology. It depends for success upon buzz words, upon fashion, upon sentimentality, upon kitsch. Try making a novel out of those ingredients.

We worked in teams - each copywriter had an art director - and we discussed our products with the same sagacity academics reserve for Shakespeare's late comedies, only we were brooding over cans of soup or bars of chocolate. Being a novice I was given small-budget accounts such as the United States Travel Service and Valderma - "a spot's worst friend". This was fine by me; the former allowed me to indulge my passion for Americans, for the arcane, for sentences without verbs, while the latter gave me scope to experiment with a series of unlikely narrators. I felt sorry for the spots, I identified with them, I wrote the commercials from their point of view.

"You've no idea how miserable it is being a spot," said a lugubrious voice between records on Radio Luxembourg. "I feel completely unloved, absolutely unwanted, no friends, no one to talk to, and when I do make one of my rare public appearances what happens? Is anyone pleased to see me? Oh no, not likely. I'll tell you what happens. I get hit with that awful Valderma stuff, and that's me done for. Don't people realize, I've got feelings too..."

Later Philip Madoc appeared as Count Spotski, driven to an early grave by garlic and Valderma, and Polly James read the tragic "Diary of a Spot". Even sadder was the plea of the mad professor to save his beloved spots from extinction. Like all proper mad scientists he spoke with a pronounced German accent.

"I have been studying the love life of spots for thirty years now, and what I don't know about the little beggars ain't worth knowing. Now to begin with I must tell you that of course there are two kinds of spots: male spots and female spots. So when a male spot wants to attract a lady spot for a bit of canoodling, he glows a nice red colour, and the lady sidles over to him and says, 'Hey big boy, what's cooking?' And, before you know it, there's a whole lot of little spots coming up. And, believe me, this life cycle repeats itself again and again. But, I have to tell you that there are crazy peoples around who are trying to prevent my research. They keep putting that dreadful Valderma cream on to my lovely spots, which puts them right off mating altogether, and means that there are no more little spots..."

Gradually I was entrusted with larger accounts and more daunting clients, such as Proctor & Gamble. I have never been to Salt Lake City, but I imagine its air is sanctified, much like the atmosphere at P & G's headquarters on the outskirts of Newcastle. I certainly regarded it as no coincidence that the product I was working on - Crest - sounded not unlike the god of the Mormons.

We were ushered into the office of the product manager. He had close- cropped hair and wore a white short-sleeved shirt with a dark tie. He looked like Robert Duvall in mad-mode. He turned to me and said: "Do you believe in Crest?"

I was tongue-tied. My face, as usual, registered misery. I remembered all the Jewish martyrs. I couldn't bring myself to say yes. Besides, I didn't think he would believe me. I lack credibility, even on those rare occasions when I am being sincere. I was rescued by my art director. "I know I can speak for Clive," he said, "when I state that we would never work on a product we didn't believe in." I regarded him as he spoke and observed no hint of mockery, no sign that he was pulling the guy's leg. This was the wonder of advertising; the complete absence of cynicism. It may have many mansions, but it has no room for Doubting Thomases.

My lack of faith became even more obvious when we were shown around the Hotpoint factory at Peterborough. Try as I might I couldn't counterfeit interest in the various washing machines we were shown, nor could I think of a single question to ask at the end of the tour. This failure did not go unnoticed, as I was to discover.

The summer of 1976 was so hot that bars of chocolate melted on the shelves before confectioners could sell them. Naturally this upset Cadbury's, one of Y & R's more important clients. They commissioned a commercial code-named "Ice Cold". I was asked to write it. This is what I produced: various types are shown eating bars of Dairy Milk straight from the fridge or the ice bucket while a demented chorus chants: "In the sweltering melting hot hot seventies isn't it nice to know there's still a dairy milk chocolate with the original Cadbury taste. In the keep it cool swimming-pool eighties... nineties isn't it nice to know there's a great summertime treat... ice cold Cadbury's..." I don't think I'll include it in the Collected Works, nor do I imagine that the director - Tony Scott - regards it as essential to his filmography.

Unfortunately I missed the shoot, being on holiday at the time. I returned resolved to quit advertising in favour of academia. Accordingly, on 18 August I approached the hatchet man's secretary to request an appointment. "That's a coincidence," she said indifferently. "He wants to see you." Just my luck, I thought, the day I come in to resign I am offered a pay rise. I had good reason to suppose that this was why he had summoned me. On 5 July I had received a letter from the chief executive and managing director of Y & R. "As a rather belated recognition of all the hard work and extra hours you have put in over the weekends on Heinz Soup," he had written, "I have arranged that you have to your credit pounds 100... Yet again, very many thanks for your very considerable contribution on this difficult project." The letter concluded with a typical post-script. "I am sure you will understand that this should not be discussed with any of your colleagues. A very limited number of people are entitled to this."

My "considerable contribution" consisted of dreaming up the idea that saved the account; an experiment in tele-telepathy. The screen is blank. A voice invites the viewers to concentrate on the thing they love the most. A can of tomato soup slowly appears...

So I went to see X feeling like ingratitude personified. "There is no easy way to tell you this," he began. That's a funny way to preface a pay rise, I thought. I attributed it to the fact that X was an acerbic Scot. I was still thinking of how to reject his offer without hurting his feeling when the sodium hit the water and I realised that I was being made redundant. I was too flabbergasted to ask why, not that I needed to.

"It's your face," said X. "Every morning I arrive at the office feeling chipper.Then I glimpse your gloomy mug at the end of the corridor. Bang goes my good mood. Believe me, my friend, it's a very depressing sight. It makes people feel miserable. Others have said the same. They also complain that you never show any enthusiasm." He paused. "I heard what happened when you went to Hotpoint," he continued. "You didn't say a single word, so I'm told. What impression do you think that made? No wonder we lost the account."

I remembered when the account executive had come to my office to pass on the bad news. He looked like his mother had just died. I couldn't have cared less, but I tried to look suitably heartbroken out of politeness, an expression which - according to X - came naturally anyway.

Instead of calling X a bloody faceist, I turned around lamb-like and left his room.

Then something happened. I discovered that my office mate had also been sacked. He was a friend. Ignoring office protocol I told him the size of my redundancy pay and learned that, notwithstanding the fact that we had joined the company at the same time, he was getting three times as much. I was infuriated, I was no longer Clive, I was Spike!

I stormed into X's sanctum and demanded an explanation for this injustice. I was aggressive, I was a bastard, and suddenly they loved me. I was offered my old job back. "No thanks," I said. Instead I was employed for a month at freelance rates to produce a new campaign for the United States Travel Service. One advertisement showed a smiling man beneath the headline: "Free. With every holiday in California. A new you." I even believed it myself, for a few days

Clive Sinclair's collected stories, 'For Good or Evil', are published by Penguin, as is his latest novel, 'Augustus Rex'. His new collection of short stories will be published next spring

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