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In Memoriam

A few things have come together lately.  Thinking about public and private, speed and memory has got me thinking about death.  I tend to read the obituaries of the Daily Telegraph when I’m cutting my hair – I’m practically bald and use clippers and the paper catches the bits, catches my own deadness.   I love reading obituaries and particularly those in the Telegraph, which immortalises those people who have lived quite extraordinary lives as opposed to many newspapers which tend to just ‘do’ people in the news.   The Telegraph has its fair range of military characters from WWII but also now those from the Korean War and after, people who achieved some amazing feats and then more-often-than-not sunk to relative obscurity as FD’s of lawnmower manufaturers.  I find this disjunture – this mixing of the extraordinary and the mundane quite facinating.  Patt Gyddes, of whom I read the other day is a good case-in-point.  Born in Bergen, Norway she was involved in the resistance movement, distributing BBC pamphlets for which she was hunted down by the Gestapo:

She then went underground, hiding for weeks in various
cellars while her escape could be organised. Waiting in the
snow-covered woods outside Oslo, she heard her first escape posse being
captured and shot.

On the second attempt Pytt
was concealed beneath a pile of logs on a timber lorry heading for
Sweden; she was accompanied by a lame old judge and a dangerously noisy
baby. The final stage of the journey was a long night’s ski across the
border. All those in the next group to use the route were captured and
killed.

She then went on to be a widely respected dancer and the first Westerner to be taught Tai Chi by a master and bring the art to the UK.  Remarkable, fascinating stuff made all the more wonderful because it is real and because these people, you feel were relatively forgotten, ‘ordinary’ and only ‘extraordinary’ in death.   It makes me extremely humble in these consumerist and often immoral times to read about great lives; the power of the story just makes you feel less of a person but determind to be more.   Radio 4 has cottoned on to this endless source of allegory and memory with Last Word it’s excellent obituaries programme and I’m sure there’s even more that can be made of the genre.  As an aside, it’s slightly ironic and quite sad that we seem to value old age and the physicality of death less than ever, with cemeteries short of space and becoming temporary spaces and more and more ‘retirement’  accomodation being built to remove the aged from  our sight and therefore out of our collective minds. 

Death is also a subject of Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow, whose subtitle is "stop trying to be perfect and start being remarkable".  And while the analogy is a crass one given what i’ve said, above, I think that we can learn a lot from death in the way that we do business, in the way we conduct our lives.  Certainly Seth has realised the analogy is relevant to brands.  In a chapter on "the remarkability of memories" an author writes that "sometimes being remarkable is about knowing when to move on", like Seinfeld did, in order to preserve a memory.  It’s a task I’ve started to initiate in some workshops now; write you own obituary.  It works to bring a degree of critical reflexivity to a business but also to the people in the room and their own lives.  The general reaction is a desire to be more honest, open and remarkable.  And often to bury something and move on.