D:Day. A full seventy years ago. It has understandably become a defining moment for Britain, signalling the beginning of the end of the rapacious freak show of Nazi occupation across Europe. It prompts us to think of our values as a nation, and of what it takes to defend them. It’s interesting to return to this, after two weeks traversing a very global corner of the post-modern world.
Good work with one of the very oldest of our chums took me to the Gulf. Aircon kept me able to function there. It’s a muggy-hot surreal world of artificial environments and opportunities to do business far away from your birthplace, that can feel a little like you’ve been beamed down from the Enterprise to. It is a bubble of the 1960s and it is the 21st century writ large in many languages at once.
I’m very happy to say that the work I was out there to do as a creative director was to essentially promote some very human stuff – people engaging with each other. I’m also happy to say that I can be as high-minded with brand communications as I can be with music – for it stands in all things creative that when you hit the sweet spot, people feel it. I think and hope such has been the case with this particular project for a little well-respected petrochem company in Kuwait. I have photographed a lot of unguarded smiles in the last fortnight. And our work seemed to wake up a couple of corporaty audiences along the way too.
So much so, in fact that we appear to have won a Transform award for Best Internal Brand Engagement or something. I can tell you’re impressed at this sudden unengaging business jargon. Never knew I had it in me, eh. Well, it was a nice bash in a hotel in Dubai and a chance to celebrate the skills and efforts of all the partners involved in trying to make a little fun leverage in some people’s experiences at work.
There on the well-served table that little awards night, I found myself sitting next to a nice German woman, Andrea, and the British ambassador’s right-hand man, Colin. Living and working between the UK and the Emirates, Andrea turned to me at one point and said: “So are you guys going to do a lot of D:Day commemoration this year?”
I stopped and thought. “Undoubtedly” I replied.
“Why do you do so much of that, do you think?” she asked.
“Is it still too soon for you?” I smiled.
“I don’t know. We have it drummed into us at school, the history. And we know it wasn’t us today that did all that. But it’s still awkward” she said. “But no nation defines itself by a war from 70 years ago like the British.”
She’s right, and maybe it’s beginning to get awkward for us too. Or should be. A bit. “It’s wrapped up in our post-colonial head-trip I think, ” I replied. “The war was Britain’s last great hour of success – and success by its own terms in retrospect; it was ordinary people who defined victory in huge part, overcoming the barking Nazi war monster like a pack of scrappy underdogs. Kids flew Spits, mums made munitions, old men stood on cliff-tops, everyone planted potatoes. Young men filled landing craft and crossed the channel. And boffins built some of the cleverest and coolest things to defeat Hitler. And all with everyone dressed really snappily in tweed suits and pencil skirts. When were the British more impressive in their own minds?”
The vets of World War II are old now. They’ve been defined by their service and survival, but they are leaving us one by one. And I think lots of us wonder: What will we hold firmly in their absence?
Thousands of people walked away from the comfort of home to give everything in the defense of freedom in Europe. They engaged with the issues in the ultimate way for those of us who’d come afterwards. I don’t think we can in any way take from this awe-inspiring effort that we as a nation should pull up some notional drawbridge and disengage with our family across the rest of Europe.
To be away while the Euro elections rolled in was odd. From hotel rooms in a part of the world that is sort of practically side-stepping the issues of democracy and simply doing business instead, the protest voting for anti-Euro right-wing parties all over my home continent was depressing. But perhaps, a thing to wake up a despondent, disenfranchised generation. I’ve had more political conversations with chums in the last few weeks than I have in years – and people caring about politics because of social pressures was a defining aspect of life in early 20th century Europe.
In the middle east, much is in flux on numerous levels at once. Geo-politics and super-local problems all feed a very mixed-up place politically. An uncomfortable defining factor is that it’s a region not well practiced at discussing its own challenges openly. Problems don’t get quickly faced. They can fester and sometimes boil over in the heat. And for many, this ticks an ominous clock in the background. How do oil states ween their people off government subsidies and begin to diversify their economies, for example? Not easy one bit.
But at the same time, the Gulf to some demonstrates how to not run aground with political principle but sort of park it while getting on with practically engaging things. As cynically as you may consider it from Surrey, the truth is that business draws people in and gets on with things. Dubai is in many ways the world we really live in today – people from all corners of the world and most strata of life mixing and helping each other make a little dough, without asking many embarrassing questions about their different views of life. As Colin said thoughtfully to me over dinner, Dubai does draw people in looking for all kinds of different levels of deal to make for themselves, and comparing those different levels is awkward, but mostly people at least get out of the Emirate what they came to it for. On its own terms it sort of works.
Am I comfortable with this? No, not really. The inequality. But is it progress of sorts? Of sorts, for sure. There are jobs being made in the desert dust. The Islamic world is open for business and my friends around the region get to engage with silly liberal tits like me as a result. And why should some flabby European have all the answers?
As much as I’d not wanted to visit Dubai, imagining it to be an empty Vegas, that space-age skyline is certainly impressive when its towering around you in the shimmering heat. It’s far from an easy achievement to dismiss when you’re actually there. I sold out within seconds of sauntering into my sharply generous hotel room and ran a deep bath, emptying all the essential oils into it and plunging in before my phone had found the expensive wifi. Obviously.
Engagement is a key word, I think. Whether its Iran at global level, or individuals of different beliefs at mall level – it may be awkward, but it’s better to do it. And this has to mean engagement with the issues too – burying injustices or unspoken inequalities just isn’t sustainable. Every unvoted-for leader of every country in the world has a truth to face if they don’t at some point fancy their marble summer retreats being ransacked.
But engagement is about listening. Only listening leads to translation. Beginning to understand different contexts – get a real feel for them – is the only way to find real ways to make a positive difference somewhere.
In a time of utterly unprecedented and evolving human social change across the world, for those of us in the democratic-seeming European world, now is very precisely not the time to lose our nerve about what we believe in. Brits in particular shouldn’t pretend that the UK hasn’t always been a robustly mixed-up place with a weirdly ingrained sense of fairness and freedom of expression that spans centuries. We’re so live-and-let-live we’ll even keep our monarchy.
In many ways, the odd, intense islands of Britain have a multicoloured outlook that equips its inhabitants better than anyone to cope with a world that is relentlessly re-shaping. I want to see lion-hearted Brits in the thick of the action in Europe today and far into the future. How could we possibly do less?
We should stop freaking out and get stuck into the challenges, wielding the values our grandfathers gave everything for, day to day, wherever we are in the world. For when we engage with real humans rather than empty ideals, we may find ourselves surprisingly ready to defend them.