Wednesday 22 June 2016

On the back of a napkin

Brazilian poet Pedro Gabriel began writing poems on napkins when he ran out of paper. Two books later he has millions of online followers and, we are told, is 'set for international recognition'. Click on that link and, predictably, you'll see that these aren't poems at all, simply Hallmark Card feelgood one-liners, more Paolo Coelho than Keats.

But this non-story made me stop and ponder the napkin thing. In a world of spreadsheets, of micro-management, of outcomes and risk assessment it remains a popular and durable myth, that some of history's greatest achievements have their origins on the back of a napkin.

I've always assumed such accounts to be metaphorical, suggesting as they do an informal and convivial gathering over lunch (always lunch, never dinner) after which the conversation moves from the abstract to the practical via serendipitous improvisation - what will the bridge look like? How will this 'large hadron collider' work? Where shall we put the aerodromes?

There's an implied combination of the expert (Lutyens sketching the noble war memorial at Thiepval) and the casual (grabbing whatever comes to hand and improvising - like those moments in films when some old buffer re-creates a Don Bradman innings at Lords using table-top cruet). More, the off-hand sketch or list or description is always enough upon which to base some colossally ambitiousl project, the realisation of which, by lesser talents, is merely a painstaking afterthought, simply finesse.

But whoa, nelly. Have you ever tried writing on a napkin? Pencils are no good, fountain pens leave a blobby residue. Ballpoints aren't especially stylish.  

'Back of an envelope' makes more sense, although the implied restaurant setting is absent (and surely a restaurant with napkins would also be able to come up with paper. You'd just ask the waiter.)

On the same day I read of the Brazilian napkin poet my eye was caught by a headline on the Daily Mail website in which the unlikeable journalist Piers Morgan praised the even-more-unlikeable telly producer Simon Cowell thus:

'He took me out for lunch once and he told me that he'd had an idea for a talent show. He mapped it out on a napkin.'

This was a show called America's Got Talent, a franchise started in America in 2006 that would later become a global hit in over 60 other countries. 

Why on earth did Cowell do such a thing, if he did such a thing? Was he temporarily deprived of the power of speech? Or so inarticulate that he had to communicate the simplest ideas with words and images scrawled (with some difficulty) on fabric? Or was it a paper napkin? In which case perhaps it wasn't the classiest of restaurants. Or perhaps - and this seems likely - Morgan wants to suggest the kind of chumminess he enjoys with this cultural giant and that, given Cowell's genius a mere whim, something simple enough to inscribe on whatever comes to hand, can become, in time, and thanks to his tremendous talent and energy and will, an international phenomenon.

What, come to that, did Cowell actually write, if he wrote (or 'mapped out') anything on this alleged napkin? Perhaps nothing more than "Re-make Opportunity Knocks", the talent show fronted by the very horrible Hughie Green back in the 1970s. Because that's what Cowell did, and it's all that he did. I could, the next time I'm dining out in the kind of restaurant that has napkins and find myself in the company of a gullible hack, grab whatever comes to hand and write on it "Complete great novel" or "Make lots of money" or "Discover new thing" and sit back and wait for it to happen, after which at some point in the future said hack can knock out an article about being privy to that watershed moment.

'Privy' makes me ponder further. Why are such things never roughed out out on lavatory paper? That would better suit the Cowells of this world, surely?

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