Why you would be a mug to be a poet in the 21st Century

I have met people who are very, very rich.

I have met people who are famous.

I have met great sportsmen.

I have met academics.

I have met aristocrats.

I have met celebrities.

I have met film stars.

I have met singers.

I have met bands.

Even royalty.

But the people I admire most are writers.

Thus, at Ogilvy & Mather, at the start of my advertising career, it was the words, the time and the company of the poet Edwin Brock that provided some of my most treasured moments. Several times, we shared train journeys to our client in the Midlands. I didn’t say much. I just listened. He gave me a signed book of his poems. Unforgivably, I’ve lost it. 

Brock’s poem Five Ways to Kill a Man has been described as ‘one of the best-known poems of the last century’. What must he have felt while he was crafting copy for an ad – only for it to be manhandled and defaced by ignorant, pig-headed managers like me?

Now, in 2014, we are celebrating the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas and, although his birthday was 27 October, I have caught three Dylan Thomas television programmes already:

On 18 May, there was the ‘intoxicating’ BBC drama A Poet In New York.

On 31 May, we had The Poetry of Dylan Thomas, a special centenary celebration reading of the work of the great Welsh poet’ at the Hay Festival.

And on 1 June, in a programme called Dylan Thomas – A Poet’s Guide Owen Sheers made ‘the case for Dylan Thomas being one of the major poets of the 20th Century: a visionary and a craftsman.”

To me, the most remarkable revelation in this last programme was, after he had left a prodigious youth behind, quite how few poems Dylan Thomas wrote. And how broke he was. And how miserable.

And how much of his work do we remember today?  Richard Burton’s reading of Under Milk Wood must be one of the most skilful artistic creations of our time. There is Fern Hill and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and And Death Shall Have No Dominion.

But how many people know how many more of the man’s great works?

And how was the life of Dylan Thomas?

You don’t have to be a cricket fan like me to be moved by these words of the great John Arlott:

‘I worshipped Dylan. I thought he was a great poet and a great reader. I thought he was a lovely man. And when he died, I wept…. I did get a letter from him not long before the end saying ‘Dear John, I need a lot of money. I don’t want it all from you. I was going to say £20 but send me £10. I’m not going to promise to pay it back because I never shall. But if you don’t want to send it you needn’t.’ Thank God I sent it. It was the last time I ever heard from him. If ever I thought a man had a touch of divinity, it was Dylan.’

How sad is that? How tragic.

And this, remember, is one of the greatest poets of all time. A man whose work, even if only a handful of poems, will live forever. A man with immortality. ‘A touch of divinity’ no less.

Earlier this month, and rather controversially, the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman said this:

‘I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen… It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.’

I think Paxman is right.

I spent a short time of my career in the music business. Like I said, I said I have met singers and bands.

And do you know what drives the lives of these people?

It is a thing called royalties.

Every time their work, their creative expression, is played, these people take a cut. Most often, they fall out with each other because one of them takes more of a cut than the others. Litigation, jealousy and greed ensue.

And so does lots and lots of money.

The royalties business is highly sophisticated. There are royalties on the writing of the music and the lyrics. There are royalties on airplay and performance. There are royalties on the production. There are even royalties on the material on which the material is produced (tape, vinyl, MP3 file etc).

As with musicians and singers, some actors get royalties – including, as I know to the cost of my clients, if they appear in advertisements.

You only have to write one great song and you will receive an income for life. In the 1960s, a guy called Reg Presley wrote a song called Love is All Around. Apparently it took him all of 10 minutes. In 1994, the song was chosen as the feature song for the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Reg earnt ‘massive royalties’. And then, in 2003, the song was featured in the movie Love Actually and – oh what joy! – even more royalties!

Let me tell you, the writer Reg Presley led a far, far richer life than the writer Dylan Thomas.

I have always felt it strange that sportsmen do not get royalties. At one time, I knew George Best a bit. Did he get royalties every time his brilliant goals were shown on TV? Did he heck. He was nearly as broke as Dylan Thomas.

And do royalty get royalties? Does Her Majesty get a cut whenever her coronation us shown? Do her offspring get a farthing from any of the photographs of them that are beamed and published around the world? No, they do not.

So, if Edwin Brock had been thirty years younger than me rather than thirty years older than me, would I have advised him to earn his crust by writing advertising copy at the behest of people like me?

The heck I would.

Alongside his poetry writing, I would advise him, implore him, to write lyrics and, just like the ‘highest paid poet in the world’ Bernie Taupin (estimated wealth £180m), send them to Elton John (estimated wealth £220m).

And if Edwin did not have the contacts to do this, and time had spun on a different axis, he could have given his lyrics to Elton John’s civil partner David Furnish.

He worked at Ogilvy & Mather too.


About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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