During the years that I lived in the Netherlands, a few hours free from work in Amsterdam meant an opportunity for lunch at Solly Meier’s sandwich shop on the Nieuwemarkt — split-pea soup and pekelvlees (homemade corned beef) on a roll — followed by a canal-side stroll across town to browse in the bookstores clustered near the Spui and Nieuwezijdsvoorburgwaal, inner-city streets that were once the center of the Holland’s newspaper publishing industry. Afterwards, I’d retreat to the IJsbreker Cafe, with its magnificent view of the Amstel river, to skim through my purchases over a glass of beer.
My method for bookstore browsing involved turning off all preconceptions of what I might want to read or felt I should read and opening myself to the associative logic and randomly arranged contents of shelves and bins. The resulting finds ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, some introduced me to authors and insights I would not have discovered otherwise and a few changed the course of my life.
At the sublime end of the spectrum was a paperback copy of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” an historical study of the artificiality of present-day national identities and the roles of printing, publishing, and the standardization of languages in their creation. Anderson’s book helped to begin to understand the origins and pathology of the hysterical rage towards the remaining signs of Turkish and Muslim life in the Balkans that I had encountered during my involvement in documenting the remaining infrastructure of Ottoman and Islamic society in the region. “Imagined Communities” — together with other works that followed in its wake, most notably Patrick Geary’s excellent “The Myth of Nations: the Medieval Origins of Europe” — are the underpinnings of my present research and writing on the dynamics of national identities and their reflection in the ways minorities are accepted or marginalized and their architectural monuments remembered or wiped away.
At the ridiculous end was a remaindered hardback copy of “The Aggravations of Minnie Ashe” by Cyril Kersh, a British journalist’s stylized humorous reminiscences of his childhood in the East End of London during the 1930s. The book opens with a description of the run-down East End streets and and dusty lots that served as his playgrounds: “… for me a splendid place for games and make-believes, for my mother yet further proof (not that any was needed) that life was a vast and cunning plot aimed at the humiliation and ultimate destruction of herself and her family.” It proceeds to relate Kersh’s widowed mother’s desperate struggles to raise her children and realize her lifelong dream of one day returning to the place where she had spent her honeymoon, the working-class beach resort of Westcliff-on-Sea.
Soft Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients
Spanning both the sublime and the ridiculous was a single-volume hardback reprint of a 1923 Belgian novel “Lijmen” (“Soft-Soap”) and its 1938 sequel “Het Been” (“The Wooden Leg”) both by Flemish-language writer Willem Elsschot. I had first read “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in English-language translation over thirty years ago. Had I read a better translation or been a more careful reader at the time, the books might have spared me the agony of decades of work in the communications field or at least sharpened my sense of humor while doing so. Last month, I reread “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in the original Dutch/Flemish and realized to my shock how delightfully and accurately they captured the absurdity of much of the content of my work life and portrayed the pomposity and dubious worth of business communications and the cynicism of client-supplier “relations.” The two books remain as much to the point in the age of the internet as they were in the age of print.
The plot of “Lijmen” is simple enough. Indeed, many who have worked in the murky worlds where advertising and journalism mix will recognize it immediately. Laarmans, a fiery young activist in the struggle for Flemish independence, disillusioned and depressed at the realization that both he and the movement are headed nowhere, goes out for a night of serious drinking. In a bar, he meets Boorman, a portly, elegantly dressed man, obviously wealthy, who makes him a tempting offer. If Laarmans will shave his beard, trade his bohemian clothes for a conservative suit and agree to go by the patrician-sounding Portuguese Marrano name of Teixera de Mattos, Boorman will make him his secretary and groom him as his successor at his two prestigious-sounding enterprises: The International Illustrated Journal of Finance, Trade, Industry, Art, and Science and The Museum of Domestic and Foreign Production and Trade.
The Journal, Boorman boasts, has print runs in the millions despite its paid circulation of zero and a full-time staff of nobody. In fact, the publication is an archetypal promotional magazine. Customers can place glowing written and visual portraits of their companies and products in the journal merely by committing themselves to purchasing tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies of off-prints which they pay for in cash or in kind. Boorman’s technique for closing deals is lijmen, literally “to glue” but figurative “soft-soap,” the knack of playing on potential victims’ dreams or vanities or, if their enterprises are fraudulent or products substandard, their guilt or desire to stay clear of the law.
Boorman’s glowing superlative-filled articles are written to order for each client by cutting-and-pasting sentences and paragraphs from a half-dozen articles he plagiarized and filed away years before, one describing a shipyard, the second a cement factory, the third a piano maker’s atelier, and so on. Editing consists of double-checking that all instances of the words “piano” or “cement” or “shipyard” are excised from articles treating, say, a clothing factory or a printing plant. The articles are lavishly illustrated with photographs taken with the glass-plate view-camera of Boorman’s budget-rate freelance photographer, Piepers. Boorman’s museum, visitable by appointment only, is little more than a warehouse of goods he has received as payment-in-kind from hard-pressed customers who no longer have the cash to pay their contractual obligations. Exhibitions at the museum range from canned fruit to mass-produced busts of the King of Belgium. The museum’s most frequent visitor is Mme. Boorman who occasionally restocks her kitchen from the museum’s shelves.
Boorman’s favorite clients are those who, in his flamboyant speech, “… behoort tot een zeldzaam geslacht, dat slechts te lijmen is met eenvoud en oprechtheid,” i.e. “… who belong to that rare species that can be ‘taken-to-the-cleaners’ simply and justly.” But not all clients merit a fleecing. Boorman’s sale of 100,000 off-prints to the gullible Mme. Lauwereyssen of the Lauwereyssen Artistic Iron Foundry, down-at-the-heels manufacturers of wrought-iron dumbwaiters, leads to a crisis of conscience that is resolved in the sequel novel “Het Been.”
Early in the course of “Lijmen”, Boorman lectures Laarmans on the nature of clients and the ethics and tactics of dealing with them. His observations cut to a sad truth that underlies most commercial relationships and the ever-enduring propensity to manipulate and hedge rather than add value or be willing to pay for it. Boorman’s soliloquy ends with these words (my translation):
“Above all, be courageous, even if things are going against you for weeks at a time. Never trust in God, de Mattos. And, be polite to your clients. They are your enemies, never forget this. They’ll give you only what you wrench from them and will hold back all that you do not fight for with your life.”
Some of us sincerely wish there were other ways … and stubbornly live our lives behaving as if there were.
Apropos of the subject matter of “Lijmen” and “Het Been,” tomorrow I will be joining my friend and colleague Doc Searls for a conference on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller “Cluetrain Manifesto,” a prognosis of the changes Doc and his co-authors expected the internet to effect. It was in “Cluetrain” that Doc coined the chestnut “Markets are Conversations” and called for a Copernican revolution in which individuals would cease to be mere “consumers” controlled by corporate marketing and would realize their power to influence and control markets themselves instead. Whether Doc still thinks markets were, have become, or ever will be conversations, and whether the present substance of such conversations is worthy or deceptive, are subjects I look forward to hearing him address. Has the internet effected a change in the nature of our personal and commercial interactions — or has it just brought us more of the same old “soft-soap” but hyperlinked and faster? Whatever the answer… happy “10th” and continued success to the “Cluetrain” authors!