Among the goodies waiting for me under the Christmas tree this year were two pairs of decidedly retro underpants. Based on the original Jockey Y-front design which ruled the pre-boxer short roost, they’ve been restyled with a slightly longer leg, catering to the demands of today’s discerning trunk-wearer. One pair is a rather flashy mandarin, the other a handsome turquoise, complete with the familiar strategically placed white piping and a faithfully recreated elasticated waistband. Takes my backside back, I must say.

What struck me most though, was the accompanying label, bearing the rather braggy strapline “The original Jockey® Y-Front® brief — a true American legend”. And a photo of what can only be described the kind of dubbered old pants your granddad might wear. Heritage is one thing, but here, I think we’re hitting something of a bum note.

I’m pretty sure this has never happened to me before, and it’s unlikely to happen again. I’d just treated myself to a copy of new book, entitled ‘Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters’, and was idly flicking through its handsome pages. It’s a charming, quirky compendium of applied letterforms, arranged in themed chapters — B for ‘Bestiary’, F for ‘Found’, H for ‘Hand’, J for ‘Journey’, and so on. It features games, posters, signage, packaging, furniture… in fact, virtually anything’s considered fair game so long as it references the alphabet.

And there, staring back at me on page 56, was something that looked decidedly familiar. A poster I’d worked on with the great Derek Birdsall back in 2004. You could have knocked me down with a feather (shaped like a letter f, perhaps). Our effort was based on the letter i, and featured in a exhibition at the British Library organised by 26. Originally, it was printed on a reflective surface, so that people would see their faces in the poster as they read the text, picking up of the idea of I as shorthand for identity.

Here’s what some of the text in ‘Alphabets’ says about the poster: “Birdsall is an influential book designer who, therefore, works closely with letters in his day-to-day work. Davies, a writer, has contributed works of fiction and non-fiction to a variety of publications, and his humorous interpretation of the letter’s history is characteristic of his work. The letter is given a pompous voice and lists its many uses in language and technology, drawing attention to its strong aesthetics, which make it suited to graphic art.”

After I’d recovered from the surprise, I felt pretty pleased with myself. But on reflection I thought, shouldn’t someone have at least asked first?

‘Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters’ is published by Black Dog. You can pick it up on Amazon for £16.96.

Last Thursday evening, Jim took to the stage at the Vibe Bar in London’s Brick Lane as part of a D&AD ‘Sharp’ner’ event titled ‘Pads, Pens and Yellow Pencils’. Along with fellow writers John Simmons, Nick Asbury, Ceri Talbot of Innocent, and Ogilvy creative director Will Awdry, he tried to unravel some of the finer points of copywriting, and shed some words of enlightenment to a 100-strong throng, who’d come along to listen (and drink beer).

It was an informal, good-natured event, which seemed to hit the right spot with the audience. No bottles or insults were thrown. Each speaker was asked to pick an award-winning piece of their own work, someone else's work they admired, and proffer a nugget of advice for aspiring copywriters. Jim — perhaps unsurprisingly — went for his self-promotional monkey posters; Nick Asbury’s Corpoetics; and Christopher Doyle’s brand guidelines for himself. His piece of advice was to go for broke when a potential award winner crops up, as they don’t come along very often. 

This was followed by a lively Q&A session during which the speakers were asked to reveal their favourite word. Jim toyed with 'garibaldi’, but finally plumped for ‘macaroon’.

we feel like jensen button.

Yes, we’ve won our first Grand Prix. 

Our self-promotional monkey posters were judged to be toppermost banana at the Cream of Yorkshire Awards, held at the Mint in Leeds last Thursday. Unfortunately we weren’t there in person (as you’ll see above) but we’d like to extend our thanks and congratulations to everyone who’s helped them climb to the top of this particular awards tree. 

The Cream Awards is the latest in a long list of accolades for our simian friends. Earlier in the year, they were warmly welcomed into the D&AD Annual, and they also picked up two Golds and a Silver at the Fresh Awards. We sincerely hope all this acclaim isn’t going to their heads — but to be honest, they seem as monkey-brained as ever.

By the way… we still have several hundred monkey posters cluttering up our studio. So if you want to get your hands on some multi-award winning chimps, please drop us an email. For a reminder of what all the fuss is about, have a look here.

I’ve had a week or so to digest this year’s 26 Speech The Art of Writing with Howard Jacobson at the British Library. It was a fantastic evening, buoyed by the news that Jacobson had won the Mann Booker Prize just a few days earlier. A lesser man might have shirked his earlier commitments, but despite having lost most of his voice through constant interviews and minimal sleep, the author turned in a sterling performance. So it wasn’t really a speech, more of a chat, but all the more intimate and revealing for it.

I’ve been a fan of Jacobson’s since the early 1980s, when his first book, the edgy campus romp ‘Coming From Behind’ was published. Since then, I’ve read most of his novels, most recently the fascinatingly disturbing ‘Act of Love’.

In person, he was disarmingly frank, tremendously funny and wonderfully insightful, coaxed and cajoled by the pitch-perfect interviewing of 26 Chairman Martin Clarkson. Jacobson jokingly suggested they might go on tour as a double act — which isn’t an entirely ridiculous idea.

So what did we learn? That even a successful, award-winning, crowd-pleasing writer is incredibly ‘thin skinned’ — sensitive to slights, criticism and perennially jealous of his peers. Jacobson’s tone wavered from self-mockery to bravura, so you were never quite sure where the joke stopped and the seriousness kicked in. He was certainly an entertaining speaker, his razor-sharp responses packed with memorable one liners on everything from God to sex, family to comedy.

On the subject of novel writing, one of the most interesting things he said was that he has no idea what’s going to happen before he starts writing, he just lets the characters evolve and develop until they find a natural path. “Bloody plot. Who did it? Who cares? Character is plot.” There’s nothing mystical about it, he claimed, but ushering them down a preordained plotline makes the writing mechanical and contrived like forcing words into a crossword grid. This makes sense, though writing free-form like this requires tremendous skill and experience.

Jacobson eschewed the description of comic novelist, though professed to writing comedy. But strictly black no sugar. “I like to find it where it shouldn’t be, where it’s either slit your wrists or laugh… My humour doesn’t tickle you, it hurts you. It’s like being forced to the ground and stabbed in the heart,” he said.

I liked what he said about character names too — that they should be curious and evocative, something Dickens always seemed to manage. “How can I possibly be interested in what happens to someone called Paul?”

Anything else? Well, plenty. But for obscurists… his younger brother was in a band that went on to become 10cc, though left before they made it. Jacobson once ran a restaurant down in Cornwall with his then wife. And he used to live on the same south London street as Ian McEwan and Angela Carter.

I was pleased that Clarkson used both the questions I’d supplied him verbatim:

Sex is always bubbling somewhere near the surface of your novels. Do you enjoying writing about sex as much as people enjoy reading about it?

You return to various themes time and time again – sex, jealousy, cuckoldry, Jewishness, embarrassment, snobbery, learning – how important is it for a novelist to have a particular set of preoccupations?

And even more pleased to win a copy of ‘The Finkler Question’ for knowing the title of Jacobson’s other Booker-shortlisted novel (‘Who’s Sorry Now’). I had it signed afterwards during a slightly embarrassed chat… the inscription reads: “To Jim… who’s sorry now? Not me.”

Another interesting job with Cubic, this time for lighting manufacturers Abacus. We were asked to provide copy for six product-specific ads and a brochure, showcasing the company’s new range of energy-efficient LED luminaires (as we quickly learned to call them). To be honest, the copy needed to be fairly straightforward and to do a job, succinctly explaining different designs, functions and uses. The real creativity was in the concept and the photography, which took the lighting out of its usual urban environment and placed it in striking natural settings in the Peak District. Creating an arresting, slightly surreal ambience, the imagery emphasised the natural forms and structures of the luminaires, while suggesting a raw, elemental power.

Many thanks to Elmwood Design for inviting Jim to the Fresh Awards in Manchester last week. In case you didn’t know, Fresh is a seven-year-old creative awards for design and advertising agencies outside the M25 corridor. Held at the towering Deansgate Hilton, it was a glitzy affair – undercut by refectory-style tables and an ironic menu featuring Lancashire hot-pot and steamed pudding.
totalcontent’s typewriting monkey posters had been nominated in three categories – Posters, Self-promotion and Copywriting. We kicked off with a Silver in the first, followed by a handsome pair of Golds in the other two. Not a bad night’s haul. Congratulations to Elmwood's Simon Morrow and Richard Scholey (now creative director at The Chase) for the design, and Rob Ball for the monkey illustrations.
The Copywriting trophy is now resting proudly on our groaning studio shelf. You can see all the results from the Fresh Awards here. And you can see our original post on the monkey posters here.

A quick word about last week’s wonderful Vintage at Goodwood, before it becomes a passing footnote. Set in spectacular grounds on the South Downs, Wayne Hemingway’s first stab at curating a multi-dimensional summer festival (incorporating music, fashion, film, design and art) was hugely ambitious, but all-in-all, it really worked. For me, the only problem was there was just too much going on… I wanted to be several places at once and occasionally rued my choices.

My musical highlights were: Noisettes (who really know how to put on a show); I’ve never been convinced about The Feeling, but they managed to win me over (their four Squeeze songs with Glen Tilbrook were note perfect); Craig Charles spinning tunes and Noel McKoy singing his heart out on the Soul Stage; and it was great to catch Heaven 17 doing a special remix of Temptation. Shame to have missed the Damned and the Pole Cats, but you can’t have everything.

Deborah insists on putting a word in for the Puppini Sisters – her pick of the festival.

But it was all the other stuff that really made the difference.

Like the choice of food and drink from the organic farmer’s market, to the 50s style American diner, to the Routemaster bus dispensing Pimms. There aren’t many festivals where you can get a cup of Earl Grey from a Fortnum & Mason pop-up shop.

Wayne promised that even the toilets would be an experience, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. They were certainly a step up from the usual stinky hellholes, but there was no uniformed lackey to pass you a towel or Molton Brown hand cream.

You could have just spent the day people watching… there were Hippies, Mods, Skins and plenty of Rockabilly types. But also folk dressed as Rear Admirals, tweedy country gents, Land Girls, usherettes – all eras and styles got a look in. And if you didn’t have the gear, you could always visit one of the 60-odd vintage stalls for inspiration.

Everyone made Vintage something special. There was a real sense of camaraderie and being part of something. You ended up chatting to to all sorts of people from different walks of life – the vibe was incredibly welcoming and friendly.

Thanks in particular to Paul the affable barber from Brighton who gave me the best haircut I’ve had in years, and my youngest his first quiff and DA. And to the very thin American man in the cowboy hat who showed us round Mick Jones’ curious collection of ephemera on a Peter Blake-decorated double-decker bus.

Can’t wait to see what’s in store for next year...

totalcontent thoroughly enjoyed its first experience working with London design agency Felt. The task was to launch Bee Me, a new frozen yogurt/smoothie franchise, which opened it’s first outlet in Portobello Road a couple of weeks ago. 

Creating the tone of voice for a start-up, particularly one that treads ever-so-slightly on the toes of one of the most celebrated brands of recent years was demanding, but we hope that our efforts measured up. It also quickly transpired that every name you could possibly think of for a berry or mango drink was already taken, so we had to rustle up fresh ways of approaching the menu naming. We were quite chuffed with ‘Bumble Berry’ and ‘Get Up and Glow’, as well as the overall strapline we came up with, ‘an appetite for living’.

Apart from that, we worked on a series of articulations, which put across the brand’s healthy credentials and the idea that it’s important to find a bit of time for yourself. The work was picked up by Design Week and featured alongside a piece on Design Studio, who we’re also currently collaborating with.

Picked up this CD by the Black Keys the other week, and the rather self-conscious cover art seemed curiously familiar. That’s probably because the much fêted record sleeve design company Hipgnosis had come up with the idea some 30 years earlier. It was said to have been rejected by regular clients Pink Floyd, but XTC (remember them?) were more than happy with the crumbs from the table for their second album ‘Go’ (released October 1978).

While the Black Keys’ effort has a certain laconic charm – I particularly like the deadpan line on the back cover “These are the names of the songs on this album/These are the guys in the band” – XTC’s takes the idea much further in the copy, the voice becoming increasingly involved, and almost getting into an argument with itself.

“This writing is trying to pull you in, much like an eye-catching picture. It is designed to get you to READ IT. This is called luring the VICTIM, and you are the VICTIM. But if you had a free mind you should STOP READING NOW! Because all we are attempting to do is trying to get you to read on. Yet this is a DOUBLE BIND because if you indeed stop you’ll be doing what we tell you, and if you read on you’ll be doing what we wanted all along.”

Anticipating post-modernism, it debunks the whole notion of the record sleeve as a sales tool, the music industry, and capitalism in a deliciously tongue-in-cheek way. When you consider that the Bee Gees’ ‘Saturday Night Fever’, Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and the eponymous ‘Dire Straits’ were the big sellers back then, you realise quite how far ahead of its time Hipgnosis’ design idea was. And actually, it happens to fit perfectly with XTC’s witty, English, self-deprecating style. They were a super-talented band who never quite fulfilled their potential, mainly because of front man Andy Partridge’s paralysing stage fright.

Which brings me neatly on to Hard Fi’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, designed by London graphics house Intro, whose output is generally far more original. Another self-referential piece, once again this pokes fun at the consumerist machine, though this time in a more brutally Modernist typographic style. Actually, it bears a striking resemblance to Intro’s own monograph ‘Display Copy Only’, with its pared-down, black on yellow colour scheme.

What does all this tell us? That there’s nothing new under the sun. That plagiarism abounds. That some ideas are worth revisiting (with a twist). That talent borrows, genius steals. Perhaps a bit of each. Certainly appropriation is routine in the design industry, as the amusing Dopplegänger Design blog so eloquently proves. Click through for several revealing hours of spot the difference.

Arjen Robben, who Van de Vaart in Heaven

Oranje be thy name.

Heitinga come, and Nigel De Jong,

On Dirk and Giovanni build the eleven.

Give us this Allefay our Boulahrouz,

And Sneijder’s stupendous passes,

As Stekelenburg halts those who try pass against us.

And lead van Bommel not into temper tantrums;

But deliver us from egos.

For thine is Elia, Van Persie and Huntelaar,

Total football forever.


(With apologies to Nick Asbury)

We had an email today from Tim O’Kennedy, the CEO of D&AD no less. He passed on his congratulations and told us that henceforth we were allowed to use these exclusive ‘pencil marks’ on our website and so forth.

So what do they mean exactly? Well, that totalcontent fared pretty well at this year’s D&AD awards (the ‘design and advertising Oscars’, in tabloid parlance). In fact, in the Writing for Design section, we were the only people to get two separate entries into the prestigious D&AD annual – including our self-promotional monkey posters, piles of which are still cluttering up the studio.

‘Feed Your Mind – A Great British Miscellany’
, the book Jim wrote on the 2009 Royal Mail stamp programme, went one better in snaffling a rare nomination (hence the silver pencil... you don't actually get one, but hey). Designed by the estimable hat-trick, this gargantuan project was a real labour of love, so the recognition was deeply appreciated. 

Jim duly donned his best bib and tucker and headed off for the glittering awards do at the Roundhouse earlier this month, with high hopes of adding to his D&AD pencil collection. Unfortunately this time he walked away empty handed – although he was positively relieved there were no cameras to film his ‘dignified’ reaction when the category winner was announced.

And what of the eventual winner? Well put it this way, if yet another client asks us for a tone of voice like Innocent’s, we’ll be less than amused.

In the slippery world of tone of voice – like so many other places – context is all. Set the word ‘hello’ in 72pt Helvetica Extra Bold followed by an exclamation mark, and you’ll create a completely different takeout from the very same greeting peeping out in 9pt Baskerville. Design frames the words, creates the mood around them, and defines the universe they inhabit.

Designer Mark Denton’s ‘C**t’ poster for calligrapher Alison Carmichael (right) is a case in point. The lettering is so daintily beautiful, the baby-pink background so feminine, that the most offensive word in the language instantly loses its shock value. In the simple payoff ‘Words look much nicer when they’re hand lettered’, the audience is let in on the joke, we laugh at our squeamishness.

Similarly, cover versions of songs can completely subvert the meaning of the originals. This is most apparent in ‘easy listening’ versions of edgy rock classics like Mike Flowers’ Pops’ tongue-in-cheek cover of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’, and Paul Anka’s take on Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. In a couple of crooned phrases, angst becomes kitsch, attitude becomes platitude.

Extending the pop music analogy sheds plenty of light on the role of tone of voice in commercial writing. Take soul, probably my favourite genre of music. When you actually analyse the lyrics of a Stevie Wonder song (or a Marvin Gaye, Four Tops or Aretha Franklin song, for that matter), they’re not much to get excited about. The words are almost inanely simple, the rhymes laboured, the sentiment clichéd. And yet, the songs still manage to be hugely powerful and moving. If they catch you at the right moment, they can make you cry, take you back to another time, make your spirits soar, or your body want to dance with joy. It’s all in the raw, visceral delivery… the grunts, groans, screams and moans are just as important as the words.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the lyrics don’t matter. It’s just that in soul music, the connection happens at a gut level, not an intellectual one. Clever, stylised words would come across as contrived and calculated. Simple words speak of the man on the street opening his heart. There’s a lesson here for design too – bold graphics paired with pithy, direct writing can be really powerful, particularly when tackling serious issues. Eschewing verbal spin and dispensing with visual frills gets you straight to the nub.

But being a writer, of course I’m also a sucker for a bit of wordplay and storytelling. While I certainly admire serious heavyweights like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who take on big issues with a poet’s eye, I generally prefer the wry detachment of Roxy Music or Franz Ferdinand. They take the position of observers commenting on what’s going on around them, steadfastly cool and detached. Oddly, this is totally the opposite of what I love about soul music, which is all intensity and involvement.

Then there are bands like Squeeze and their New Jersey heirs Fountains of Wayne, who cleverly capture small slices of everyday life in charming three-minute cameos, told from different character perspectives. And the likes of Elvis Costello and Jarvis Cocker, prone to verbal gymnastics perhaps, but still devastating with rhyme and metaphor, summoning injustice, absurdity, pathos, and everything in between.

But for me, the true master of the sung poem is undoubtedly Stephen Patrick Morrissey. His opening lines are lessons in observation, wit and originality – you’re hooked from the very start…

I was minding my business
Lifting some lead off
The roof of the Holy Name church
(‘Vicar in a Tutu’, from The Smiths’ ‘The Queen is Dead’)

Trudging slowly over wet sand
Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen
This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
(‘Every Day is Like Sunday’, from ‘Viva Hate’)

Of course there are many worthy pretenders. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy is another clever songwriter with a gift for setting a scene and skilfully unfolding a story. His latest single ‘At the Indie Disco’, is a winning comic tale of socially awkward, spiky haired adolescents looking for love on a Thursday evening. He even cites the aforementioned Moz.

We’ve got a table in the corner that is always ours
Under the poster of Morrissey with a bunch of flowers
We drink and talk about stupid stuff
Then hit the floor for Tainted Love
You know I just can’t get enough...

The way he weaves in song titles and band names into the lyrical structure is seriously impressive.

Give us some Pixies and some Roses and some Valentines
Give us some Blur, and some Cure, and some Wannadies

She makes my heart beat the same way
As at the start of Blue Monday

...and we can all relate to going home alone on the night bus, waiting for next week’s reprise. Check the graphic/typographic vibe of the vid below... and dig Neil’s dancing!

This is exactly the kind of gently observational, mildly amusing tone of voice I am trying to achieve in my commercial writing. But I’d like to think there’s some soul lurking in there as well. Huuuuuh! Get up offa that thing! Uhh!

I’ve got out of the habit of reading much poetry recently, but I’m having a bit of a Paul Auster phase, so this caught my eye. It was the cover typography as much as the thought that Auster no doubt has his own slant on the genre. Jenny Grigg’s lettering hints at the process of writing, yet avoids the more flowery excesses of some calligraphy. And the way she’s subtly woven the ‘A’ and ‘U’ of Paul and Auster suggest some of the structural gymnastics that the author is known for. The design, printed on nice quality craft paper, is deceptively simple, but still manages to convey an understated elegance and graphic wit. Right, better read some now... you know what they say about books and covers.

I’m featured in ‘The Middle Names Project’, an intriguing blog set up by fellow writer and 26 member James Hogwood. The simple premise is this… to delve into the whys and wherefores of people’s middle names, uncovering interesting stories along the way. When you think about it, they are curious, shadowy creatures, part of our identity, yet generally not on public display. People are usually given them for a reason – in memory of a friend or relative, or carrying on a family tradition. Find out about Elvis Aaron Presley, F Scott Fitzgerald, and me – James Karel Davies – by checking James’ blog here.

Back in 1991, I spent an afternoon with Malcolm McLaren. I was working for a design and advertising magazine, and he’d decided to try his hand at directing commercials. Naturally, we gave him the front page.

It was a curious encounter. I have to admit that I felt slightly uncomfortable, not only because of what he stood for, but because I half thought he might pull some kind of devilish prank on me. He didn’t. In fact, he was terribly charming and grown up. He wore a green tweed suit, checked country shirt and floral tie, a picture of respectability. We met at Hazlitt’s, his hotel in Soho, and took a black cab to the disused Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, where he was shooting his ad which, unlikely as it sounds, was for Cadbury’s Twirl. The last time he’d been there apparently was with Bow Wow Wow.

The spot featured a troupe of dancers taking a break for a Twirl (geddit?). The music, which was particularly important to MMc, was his own reworking of Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, and the man himself made a cameo appearance sitting at a piano at the end.

Even then, the whole notion of McLaren moving into advertising was a bit puzzling, and looking back on the article, I’m pleased to report that I quizzed him about it at length. His rationale was that he’d always been and arch-marketeer and ads were a natural extension, he also said he found the speed of turning around a commercial exhilarating compared to the slow burn of making music or nurturing a band’s image.

For someone who’d flunked out of countless art colleges, he was remarkably erudite – constantly dropping names and asking if I’d read any of this or that author or philosopher. He seemed restless, inquisitive, easily bored, his conversation jumping around like an itchy bird on a tree.

Occasionally he’d get a glint of amusement in his eye… he was particularly taken with the typographer’s name, Len Cheeseman. “Cheeeseman, Cheese Man… I wonder if his ancestors made cheese or just ate a lot of it,” he pondered. I also distinctly remember him describing the closing shot of a vat of swirling chocolate as resembling “the very bowels of hell”, in that unmistakable whiny voice of his.

Despite my misgivings, he was extremely good company – he gave me an afternoon I’ll never forget. Not to mention the Sex Pistols.

RIP Malcolm. Rest in Punk.

For those of us brought up in 1970s Beirut – and there were one or two – this should bring back some memories. Chiclets were the chewing gum of choice, always right there next to the till in the small cornershop, packed to the gunnels with plump fruit, fresh spices, cigarettes and cold drinks, in an order that made sense only to the wonderfully lugubrious shopkeeper.

This is a pack of Johnnie-come lately cinnamon gum, the original classic was exactly the reverse – yellow with red trimming. The rather gothic Roman type and the Arabic script has been streamlined and modernised. The small cellophane window, which gave you a glimpse of the actual gum inside replaced by a drawing in the same position. But it’s still unmistakeably Chiclets. And to me, anyway, it’s a design classic.

This CD cover design for ‘Dap Dippin’ with… Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ definitely falls into the category so bad it’s good. The type looks like its been done by someone who’s found some dodgy old Letraset and had to make do. They layout is all over the place, with a huge patch of black space taking up most of the front section. Sharon is slightly out of focus, and the only other member of the band in shot has been half cropped out. On the back, the black-and-white cut-out is truly awful and you can see the screen on the photograph. And, yet… the whole thing is utterly brilliant. A perfectly realized pastiche. Unfortunately, no-one owns up to it in the credits.

New Yorker Sharon Jones is a class purveyor of retro 1960s and 1970s soul – although that description doesn’t really do her justice. I caught some of her scintillating grooves on the excellent Craig Charles Funk & Soul Show on BBC 6Music, and immediately fell in love with her tonsils. But when I ordered the CD from Amazon, I had no idea I’d be in for such a fine graphic treat too.

My 50-word piece on Shahrnush Parsipur was featured on the 26:50 site today. Here’s the thinking behind it.

I came across an interview she gave to an Iranian journalist when she was in London a few years ago. Apparently she stopped off at M&S on the way and bought a red dress. She liked the idea that it was OK to wear something a bit bright and garish, that made her stand out a bit if she chose.

This seemed such a simple liberty, but nevertheless it was one that had been denied in her home country, where women are expected to stand in the shadows. So I used this idea to start my 50 words.

Finding out more about her writing, I discovered that her work is surreal, dreamlike and often myth based, verging on magic realism. I decided to contrast her colourful imagination with the black pen of the censor that tried to repress it.

Parsipur is not an overtly political writer, she doesn’t even consider herself to be a feminist. But by exploring female sexuality and class in her society, she was seen to have stepped over a line. The red dress seemed to sum up both her bravery and her creativity.

Here’s what I wrote:

In exile she can wear red,
If she chooses.

At home all is black.
Black veils;
Black lines that strike out her words;
The abysmal black terror of another cell.

But still she writes in colour;
Bright, burning colour that knows no bounds
Free to fly wherever fancy takes it.

In our time we’ve written dozens of mission statements, ‘about us’ sections, and promo materials for design companies. There’s no getting away from it, these are tricky beasts. Branding specialists spend so much time defining, positioning and articulating other folk, that more often than not they neglect themselves. While some have a very strong idea of who they are and what they stand for, others need to have something thrust in front of their noses before deciding perhaps that’s not really them. 

Either way, there tends to be a lot of self-analysis, head scratching and soul searching involved. And invariably plenty of drafts after every last person in the company has had their say. One particular consultancy who commissioned us took six months to agree a single (short) paragraph. There were ten rewrites. In the end they felt it lacked bite, but they were prepared to live with it. 

Clearly, it doesn’t have to be like that. Working with Nottingham-based Cubic went like a breeze. They wanted a series of three books – the first one a teaser, followed by two chunkier volumes. They encouraged Jim to develop his own tone and never took themselves too seriously. They created their own charming illustrations to support the writing. And for a short-but-sweet overview piece, the results are – we think – really lively and have plenty of bite. 

So thanks Cubic for asking us to help out… and being prepared to stick their necks out a bit. Oh, and you can download the whole book here if you're so inclined.

26 have had a longstanding relationship with International PEN, an admirable pressure group which supports suppressed writers all over the world. This year, we launched the 26:50 project to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of PEN’s Writers in Prison committee.

PEN had already linked 50 writers with 50 campaigning years. We took the next step by randomly pairing each of the PEN writers with a writer from 26. The brief? Write 50 words, no more, no less, inspired by the life and work of your writer.

My subject was the Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur (right), the year 1974. That’s when her first novel The Dog and the Long Winter came out, and when she first went to prison – for protesting about the torture and execution of two journalists (she was working as a TV producer at the time). She spent 59 days in jail and then fled to France, returning to Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1980. However, it was a case of ‘meet the new boss, just like the old boss’. Once back on home soil, she was immediately arrested and incarcerated for four and a half years without trial or charge.

She continued working on her third novel Women Without Men after her release, but its frank depiction of women’s sexuality didn’t go down too well... she was rearrested in 1989, and at that point decided it might be wise to quit the country for the US. She hasn’t been back since, and all her books have been banned in Iran.

My fifty words should be out any day now on If you check in now, you can read how other 26 members have responded to their writers. One effort a day is being published until 18 April.