Martin Jackson

Compositions in Black and Red

People, a few, not as often as you might think, they ask me where the poems come from, and when it’s someone worth telling some kind of truth to and they’ve asked about those three Calloph & Calloph poems in the second book, I tell them about the blackcurrants and the skin falling off from my hands and feet. 

This was January 2006, second week back in the agency after a two-day Christmas up in Bleckley. 15 minutes after I’d sat down and booted up the desktop a meeting went in with Samuel and I thought alright then, here we go, they’ve worked you out, you’re for it. But in the two-minute meeting he put me on the pitch for the well-known blackcurrant-based soft drink. Slapping me on the back, Samuel told me that it was a huge opportunity, everyone wants to win a pitch, hard work but invaluable experience for you, the others will be jealous as communists. The others being the four other account managers employed on C&C’s grad scheme in October.

I’d drunk the blackcurrant-based soft drink as a kid, everyone did. There was always a bottle of the syrupy, Halloween-blood coloured cordial in the kitchen cupboard. Gold foil around its neck. The slightly tart sweetness of it mixed with tap water, ice cubes clinking against your teeth in the summer. Pre-mixed cartons from the ice cream van outside school we spiked with straws. Until we got too old, too knowing for the squawky-voiced dancing blackcurrants on the TV ads. 

I’d no idea the drink was made by a well-known multinational pharmaceutical company, or that a drink for children would be a thing C&C would want to win, but the brief was about making the drink more appealing to adults, with new 500ml ready-to-drink bottles and a new Visual Identity being rolled out in advance of new legislation that was going to limit marketing to children. 

The client’s 15-page brief, with its summary of the primary and secondary tasks, scope of work, production budget, media budget, KPIs, target demographics (with personas), mandatory inclusions, mandatory exclusions and timelines came with 270 pages of Supplementary Background & Additional Research Material. A week later, our planners presented the one-page brief to three creative teams who would have read little, in the meeting, beyond the one-line encapsulation – The Proposition – from which all creative work had to emerge, and against which all work would be judged: ‘Made from the best of British’. (That British, rather than Britain, was a little odd. Planners liked to add some creative flair, wouldn’t admit it but loved nothing more than seeing their words become the campaign tagline.) 

Three weeks later, eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning, was the first tissue meeting with the client. The panic that bustled out of the boardroom just after 10 seemed to affect the whole agency, worrying some who weren’t even on the pitch, making others smug. That afternoon, Jerry & Jack were added to the pitch. The next morning, their PA asked me to bring them some blackcurrants.

I still marvelled about the creative teams. What they did. How they were treated. What they got away with. I’d got my place on the grad scheme through sheer luck, more or less, knowing next to nothing about the industry. I’d finished my lit degree a bit later than everyone else – that was the year my mum died – and saw an ad I can’t remember where now. C&C were looking for someone to fill a place that had ‘become available’. (I found out later one of their picks had taken more money at another agency.) All the other grads had gone through days of interviews and tests, PowerPoint creating, leading sham meetings, a lunch at which they could drink as much as they wanted, to see who couldn’t handle that. 

About three hours after being asked, I presented Jerry & Jack with a bag of decent looking frozen blackcurrants from the Waitrose near Covent Garden, having tried every local Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and the big Marks & Spencer food hall in Mayfair. It was Jerry, I think, who Exacto-knifed the bag open, both of them then throwing single currants, those I dodged pinging off the glass wall behind me because fuck off frozen, why the fuck would we want frozen, you can’t squish frozen, you can’t sniff frozen, frozen doesn’t say nature. One of them died, a heart attack, not many years later. Jerry, I think. Jack left behind like a thumb with no fingers. 

I called the biggest supermarkets in and around London, Waitrose HQ, national fruit distributers. I called Harrods, who were a client, and was told, after I mentioned where I worked, that someone would return my call as soon as possible, which someone did, within an hour, the Food Hall manager. I called blackcurrant farmers, including those who supplied blackcurrants for the blackcurrant-based soft drink every summer. 

Nothing is impossible, we were told during our first week. The agency mantra, coined by the brothers themselves when they founded their agency in 1970, and repeated twice by Harold, Lord Calloph himself, our first day. The only time we’d ever speak to him (his brother hadn’t been seen in the agency for years, was focused on his venture capital work). 

‘Nothing is impossible,’ said Samuel, after I’d told him about the blackcurrants. Samuel Robinson looked immaculate in his Oswald & Boateng suits, professional, sharp, assured, if you didn’t know to look for the yellowing on his cuffs and collar, the red veins splintering through the whites of his eyes, if you hadn’t seen him at 4am that very morning, bent over the walnut and glass coffee table in his Notting Hill house, surrounded by nearly all his team, most of us at least 10 years younger than him.

‘It is impossible,’ I said. ‘It’s winter. They grow in summer’

‘Nonsense,’ he said.

‘It’s winter, blackcurrants grow in summer. The blackcurrants they use are –’ 

‘95.3% of them being British blackcurrants,’ he said, which I aware of, because I’d told him and everyone else that fact. I was expected to be ever-ready to provide every conceivable fact about the blackcurrant-based soft drink. The farming process. The production process. The average fruit content in all variants (each 500ml ready-to-drink bottle contained 4.9 blackcurrants). The brand’s score on the Brand Awareness Register for all relevant demographics. The history and expansion plans of the multinational pharmaceutical company. Their share price on a daily basis. The date and agenda of the next AGM. The hobbies and reading habits of its C-suite and anyone else who’d be in the room. And I’m sorry, I really am, for all this well-known blackcurrant-based drink and multinational pharmaceutical company and Calloph & Calloph. This is one of the things with getting older: without even wanting or trying to, you realise that you know lawyers, and find yourself asking things you really wish you hadn’t. 

‘100% of which are harvested in the summer,’ I said, ‘because that’s when British and Polish and Lithuanian blackcurrants grow. I’ve tried everywhere. I spoke to farmers.’ 

‘Even Harrods?’

‘I called Harrods.’

‘And you –’ 

‘I told them who I work for. She said there are no fresh blackcurrants anywhere in the northern hemisphere, asked me to send my regards to Lord Calloph, which I passed on to Muriel.’ 

‘Well there we are then,’ he said.

I replayed what I’d said. ‘Where are we?’

‘New Zealand, I imagine, would have the ideal climate,’ he said. ‘If they’re ripening and bursting with natural juiciness right now in New Zealand, that could be it. Because nothing is –’

He wanted me to finish it. 

He really did. 

He was right about New Zealand, which produced 4,500 tonnes of blackcurrants a year, across more than 1,000 hectares of often stupidly good-looking farms that I stared at on Google Images as I tried to convince producers and distributors I was serious. A few days later, in a 2am discussion with Jarrold, a young-sounding farmer in South Canterbury, I found out that the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, was conducting research on various small fruits, something to do with new methods to reduce vitamin loss during freezing. They’ve built a hemisphere-agnostic indoor farm, Jarrold told me as I noticed my left eyelid twitching again, but they’re struggling to grow blackcurrants from seed, so we’re going to send them a few shrubs in just over a week. 

I called the University of Strathclyde, was put through to a Dr Killdere, which I asked her to spell. She told me she could spare a couple of bunches of fruit, if it was as important as I’d made it sound, and if C&C were willing to donate to the lab’s important work. She barely hesitated after I asked how much: to circumnavigate impossible would cost £40,000, plus half the costs of the shrub transportation, which she considered fair. I concurred. She gave me the contact of the courier company that would be helicoptering the shrubs up to the university from Gatwick with all the care and haste afforded to life-saving organs, as she put it. The Labour government, who C&C had created attack ads against in the last two elections, were being pummelled for its misuse of the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act. The CIA had just admitted there had been no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction before the invasion. A year earlier I’d been one of the million or so protesting within earshot of C&C. I pressed my thumb against my eyelid, moved my eyeball against it. I needed to reply to my sister’s email from two weeks ago telling me we really did need to do something with mum’s ashes. I called the couriers. 

My ear hurt from pressing the phone against it. The palms of my hands itched. I stopped Samuel as he strode past my desk in that vaguely Monty Python way. 

‘Nothing was impossible,’ I said. ‘Just over 45 grand and they’ll be here Tuesday, if you approve the money.’

‘The blackcurrants?’ he asked. 

‘The blackcurrants,’ I said. 

‘Outstanding work, Jonathan, really, I knew you could – but didn’t you hear? We’re all good. The boys upstairs have absolutely smashed it out of Hyde Park.’ 

Jerry & Jack had, with unanimous agreement from the pitch team, solved it. The tagline: ‘Only the best of British make it’. The three 60-second CGI spots (with 30’ and 15’ cutdowns) would tell the stories of sophisticatedly animated blackcurrants with the personalities of young, easy-going adults. No arms, no faces, no dancing, no speaking. Each film would be rustic without being dirty: a country fair, an air show, a barn-conversion family home. All locations would neighbour a farm, which a group of blackcurrants would leave in their attempts to reach a glass or bottle of the well-known soft drink, all but one of them meeting their end in a series of amusing but never cruel scenarios. 

That ‘only’ in the tagline was an issue. I argued, then pleaded with my contact at the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, who had to approve every script for every ad before production began, as well as the finished spot. Samuel and the team’s three planners took Richard, head of the BACC, to Kensington’s Firehouse Club. During the four-hour lunch, they explained that billions of blackcurrants grown in Britain were bought by the well-known pharmaceutical company, creating an entire industry, worth millions of pounds; that don’t the scripts show several blackcurrants not making it, suggesting a rigorous selection process and perfectly explaining that ‘only’ in the tagline; that while the scripts feature blackcurrants, the fruit is only a part of the story, as the ads will also show farms and air shows, farmers and families, that ne’er-say-die spirit and good humour and neighbourliness that define what this country is all about, meaning that the blackcurrants are really nothing but metaphors, for Britain itself, and for the company that makes the soft drink, a British through-and-through institution that’s been part of the backbone of this land for over a hundred years, each and every bottle carrying Our Majesty’s royal endorsement; that Samuel may well have – though one never confirms such contact – spoken with Her Majesty’s Private Secretary a few days before, and couldn’t possibly reveal but suggested it was wonderful to receive news back, just that morning, relaying not inconsiderable favour, from certain personages in the Palace, about a campaign such as this; and that yes, okay, we can include a footnote about the EU-sourced 4.7%. The lunch would be talked about for years to come. It cost £1,744, which I added to the Excel chart of the pitch costs. 

We needed a voiceover for both the animatic, that would bring the lead TV spot to life, and the manifesto that Jerry & Jack had written. I spent hours trying to convince David Attenborough’s assistant that the multinational pharmaceutical company would be launching a whole raft of environmental commitments in the near future, including a campaign to restore Britain’s hedgerows, but David remained unavailable. Richard could be hired for 30 minutes at a Soho studio of his choice, with internal usage only, plus a signed promise he’d get first refusal on the campaign itself, for £12,000. 

The pitch was 10am on a Monday. At 8.15pm on Sunday I ran with a USB stick to our preferred printer on Beak Street, who’d told me that if I didn’t get the final file to him before 8pm he wouldn’t be able to get the glossy-paged, hard-bound copies of our presentation, plus accompanying CDs, ready by 7am the next day. At 8.45am the next day, I sent an all-staff email telling anyone wearing too-casual clothes to stay away from the atrium between 9.30am and noon, and that everyone else should appear busy but happy. I placed 16 new C&C-branded notepads two inches from the edge of the boardroom table. I lay 16 new C&C-branded pencils diagonally across the notepads, sharpened tips pointing to the bottom-left corner. I raised the height of 16 Herman Miller chairs to maximum, so that the sense of symmetry and order in the room was infallible. (And, as I suspected, so that agency staff could step in to help those clients who struggled to find which of the numerous knobs and levers was needed to lower the seat to a normal height.) At 9.50am, I told Dennis, the head designer, and Clive, the lead strategist, that they had to stop tinkering with the presentation, ran with the USB stick up to the boardroom, loaded the Keynote, checked the wireless keyboard and trackpad (into which I’d put new batteries), checked the sound, checked it again, placed the keyboard and trackpad out of sight on what would be Samuel’s chair, and exited the room just as the first clients were being led out of the lift. Required to remain within sight of the boardroom, I was permitted to use Muriel’s computer to answer as many emails from my other clients as I could. Between 11am on Sunday, when I’d arrived in the office, and 9.58am on Monday, I’d returned to my flat for only 30 minutes, at 4am, via a taxi I asked to wait, in order to shower, change my clothes and take a Modafinil. My teeth felt like they were vibrating. My heart an old steak crammed into a cut-open tennis ball. My feet were hot. 

At 11.50am, 20 minutes late, the doors opened and there emerged, along with the usual smell of croissants and human breath, a buoyant gaggle of agency and pharmaceutical staff, a blur of vigorous handshakes, hands on shoulders and sincere promises for follow-up emails on points well made. The lead car was ushered off with a rooftop tap by Samuel (Lord Calloph never descended to see off the cars), and the myth-making began in the Crown at noon. (I’d booked the upstairs room, £550 including a basic spread; everyone drank downstairs, around the bar.) 

The weekend after the pitch, sitting on the sofa of my shared flat just off Hackney Downs, drinking milky instant coffee, staring at the TV – I don’t remember if it was on – my hand was still itching. I put down the coffee, dug my nails in to really scratch at it, and the skin at the base of the palm lifted up. I tugged, thinking it was a clump of dead skin, and the skin of my palm peeled up and off, along with four of the five digits (the skin of the little finger stayed put). I was snake. I was zombie. I was skinning myself alive. 

There was no blood, only the first few layers of skin had peeled off. I rested the skin on my thigh, thought of candle wax as I reached for the coffee mug – which I nearly dropped, the heat of it scolding to the newly exposed nerves. Five minutes later, the skin of my left palm and three fingers lay on my other thigh.  

My feet had been itching? I removed my socks, tentatively picked, pulled, and peeled the skin from the soles of both feet, along with a few toes. I put all the flaps of myself on the mantelpiece, resting them like Polaroids along the base of the big mirror we’d leaned against the wall there. Kenny shuffled into the room in his boxer shorts, looked where I was looking. As he turned to ask, I raised my red palms and red soles at him. He looked back at the skin, nodded, went to make tea. 

By the time Reish was up, the skin had withered significantly – unplugged, as Kenny and I worked out, from the sluice and flow of all the liquids that makes us what we are. The skin was an organ, he reminded me, though neither of us could work out what that might mean.

Reish must have made me throw them out, as I had none of the jerky-like scraps with me when I went to the doctors first thing Monday morning. Doctor Merrill was finishing the first triangle of an M&S salmon sandwich on wholemeal as I entered. He brushed one hand against the other as he asked what the matter was. Didn’t wash them while I told him what had happened, some background, or as I showed him the red skin. Or before he poked me with a single-use wooden stick, unwrapped like a prank ice lolly.

‘Would you mind if I called someone?’ he asked. 

I shook my head. If there was a dermatologist in the building, get them running. 

He called reception, asked to be put through to Edie, and two minutes later a tall and reassuringly grey-haired woman came in. Merrill restated the facts about the stress and drugs and drinking with no hint of judgement. She poked me with a new wooden stick. Fascinating, she said, smiling. ‘The whole handprint came off in one?’ 

‘And most of the fingers,’ I said. 

She muttered a few things I couldn’t catch to Merrill, then said goodbye and left. 

‘So,’ I said. ‘What does she think?’ 

‘Same as me,’ he said. ‘Absolutely no idea.’ 

‘But she’s a specialist? A dermatologist?’  

‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘I just wanted to show her.’ 

I knew that making a fist would be painful. Contact dermatitis was the best he could offer. He told me to buy some moisturiser, come back if anything else fell off, wished me luck, went back to his sandwich. I was at my desk before noon. 

Five or so years later, living alone and rent-free on Westgate Street, collecting litres of rainwater in various buckets, sponging mould off the walls with bleach, freelancing in agencies all around town a month or two at a time, then writing through to the bottom of my overdraft, repeat, I found myself staring at the stack of A4 Black n’ Red notebooks propping up the Ikea wardrobe I’d found abandoned on Mare Street like a three-legged dog. 

I flipped through hundreds of pages of hastily scribbled notes and bullet points and flow charts from status meetings, production meetings, finance meetings, creative briefings, competitive reviews, media company updates on new media opportunities. C&C had a cupboard full of them, all the same make, all A4. It was part of their brand, I guess, to have us running around clutching them under our arms. Enough time had passed that the phrasing and imagery within them was remarkable. Voice and argot I could never have invented alone. So, as I’d come to do, without ever meaning to do, I collaged, collated, corralled. And there, a few months later, were three poems with daft titles that sometimes still make me smile. 

‘C&C: Compositions in Black & Red – #1, on Dialectical Reasoning’, which was mostly about the training period. All the truisms and didacticism we were knocked over the head with. ‘Don’t borrow someone else’s watch/to tell them the time./For handovers: just stop/and seamlessly hand over.’

‘C&C: Compositions in Black & Red – #2, on Social Democracy’, which came from the many meetings with and about HMRC. There were appearances from Gordon Brown and Spencer Livermore. Tactics for how we might address the slow uptake of Tax Credits in minority communities: ‘All liked the suggestion to use analogy./A leaky pipe. A hole in a boat./Trousers falling down, gradually.’

And then ‘C&C: Compositions in Black & Red – #3, on Ecopoesis’:

We called the creative platform
Grown-up Innocence
and proved it using
a two-minute mood film
(Home Alone, Trigger Happy,
Shrek’s donkey snorting cocaine)

followed by storyboards.
We explained that the fridge
would have only eggs, veg, milk,
and that it would be more ‘fridge’
than the fridge in the drawings.
(Smeg, without being Smeg).

There were rushes and rough cuts
and we elevated the dramatic tone.
Early CGI was circulated
against our strict wishes.
There was a meeting to explain
why we had to be trusted.

Weekly WiP meet-ups
became daily FTP downloads.
The sigh at the start
was made to suggest:
‘I want nothing more
than to go there.

The one towards the end:
‘I’m thankful for having
avoided so many deaths.’
We were too far down
the line to zoom into
the personality of the fruit.

A timeframe was constructed
around Richard Attenborough.
Concerns his delivery lacked
clarity ebbed away
as less words became
more powerful, more filmic.

The packshot was pearlised.
The splat icon took weeks
to be satisfactorily rendered.
There were sunbursts, lens flare.
Fingers of god were made punchier.
They were brand properties. 

And do you think it was all worth it, I could but never do ask those few who’ve come to ask me where the poems come from. After I’ve watched them try not to recoil as they make their notes, or just sit there staring as their phone records, wondering if I’m taking the piss. And can you tell me where it is now, all that skin of me. Or whoever it is you thought you were, when you were 20 years younger than the self I never would have guessed you’d become. 

And I think again of all the physics I’ll never understand. Entanglement across makes-no-sense distances. All those rotten atoms of me twitching like galvanised frog limbs in some Essex landfill as I write this, write that, reply to another email saying yes, I’m still freelancing, what’s the brief, what’s the budget, what’s the deadline. Because what else can I do on this snake-infested planet, after such rigorous training, having accrued such invaluable experience. Like a wick dipped and dipped in wax, a wooden stick befuddled by candy floss, a mudslide-prone hill swelling in nutrient-rich mud, the villagers below going about their daily lives, drinking liquids they’ve come to believe will make things better, that will in some important way protect them from the storms that never stop coming. 


Martin Jackson is a UK-born, Berlin-based writer of poetry and fiction. His poetry received an Eric Gregory Award. A pamphlet, ‘I find I felt’, was published in 2022 by If a Leaf Falls Press. Poems can be found in 3:AM, Hotel, gorse, and Magma; projects have been featured in Frieze and Dazed. Short stories can be found in Hotel, Litro, and Unreal Estates. He collaborates with artists around the world on exhibition and catalogue texts.

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