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Thursday, 21 July 2005

Brandishing Pens

Once upon a time, before glittering wings smashed into ivory towers, I went to New York on a plane. I went in the company of a work colleague, a young man who designed things. I was the young woman who wrote things. We worked in London for A Very Large Company, which had offices worldwide and Headquarters nestled next to the shiny Big Apple. We were off on an annual trip to the Holy Temple of Spin for a Marketing Workshop. Otherwise known as 7 days' worth of being bored to death and drinking insipid beer on the company tab.

We arrived at JFK having stolen many bags of free toiletries from business class suitably refreshed and proceeded to battle our way through several different lines of bureaucracy. The last hurdle before collecting our luggage and heading for the discounted beauty product shops workshop was Security. The Machine-Like Grumpy Security Guard asked me what I was doing in the States - if I was there on business or pleasure. Thinking to myself that I could not possibly call being holed up in a bland hotel for a week with a bunch of really stupid and trying Americans* pleasure, I stated that I had come on business. And therein was the start of some nightmare half-hour quiz show, complete with scary presenter, bright hot lights, and a buzzer continuously going 'neh-eh!' in the background. For Grumpy Security Guard's interest was now piqued.

"What kind of business?"
"Oh, I work in Marketing."
"Doing what?"
"Uh, you know, marketing stuff."
"What, like Sales?"
For Pete's sake don't make me try and explain the difference between Marketing and Sales. I have no idea. I write things. It makes stuff sell. The end.
"Well, kind of."

'Kind of' didn't cut it. There was clearly an answer he was looking for, and I was racking my brains to find it. Eventually in the midst of his interrogation I enlightened him to the fact that I was a copywriter in our firm's marketing department.

"Aha!" he yelled, banging his fist on the desk.

It seems I might as well have said I was a terrorist. And thus ensued another tortuous half-hour where he threatened to send me back to the UK because I didn't have a journalist's visa, and I got exasperated trying to explain that I was not, in fact, a journalist, but a mere copywriter, employed to sell American products. I eventually managed to convince GSG that I was not about to wreak havoc on New York, or America at Large, by whacking people to death with my sheets of copy, and he let me through. Meanwhile, my colleague had sailed through Security with a wave and a smile, despite the fact that he was carrying several scalpels and a large can of aerosol glue in his hand luggage… Such, it would seem, is the power of words and the almighty fear it drives into some people.

In those days it was a case of using my words to sell overpriced tat to people who didn't need it and probably couldn't afford it. I'd like to think that now my words go some way towards making a real difference to people. I posted earlier about a particular village here being in desperate need of a well. We have a great donor in Wales who likes to fundraise for us, so I spent ages writing up some publicity material for her about this village, for use at her next fundraising event. Before she could even organise anything, a neighbour of hers dropped by her house, read through my words, and promptly wrote out a personal cheque for close to £1,000 to build the well. While this is obviously fantastic, and yes, the villagers do need clean water, I am very conscious that publicity material such as this only ever gives one tiny piece of the story.

It is difficult to write all the time of people drinking filthy water on a daily basis, water which should bring life but often brings death. Of the thousands of small babies killed by malaria. Of the swathe of AIDS deaths which leaves widows caring for up to 20 kids in one household. For while these people undoubtedly have tough lives, they are not limpid beggars with their hands outstretched. They have pride, dignity, laughter. Their children go to school, even if it is under a tree. They work their farms, hard, every day. The women sit and twist each other's hair into elaborate styles and gossip about their neighbours. The men sit and gossip about the women. The rhythm of life is the same here as it is the world over. And yet it is not the laughter or the gossip which sells, but the hardship and the illness. And that is the way of the word.

*Disclaimer – I am not saying that all Americans are stupid. Far from it. (Hello American friends!) But I would rather chew off my own toenails than ever work with that bunch again.