Triptychs, ruts and skim-writing


[This is from the latest Realtime Roundup newsletter, reviewing what I've been up to on Realtime Notes throughout the month of April.]

Then I felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific – and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

John Keats wrote that about the first time he read Chapman's Homer. I include it here because it's how I felt when I realised you can paste images directly into Notes.

I've used images before in Realtime Notes, as accompanying material when they add context to the poem, but this is the first time I've made them directly part of the 'thing' itself. It led directly to a couple of 'triptych' poems – firstly, the anagram one above. 


And secondly this commentary on Amber Rudd's resignation, following Damien Green's departure a few months back – my bid for a Private Eye front cover.

Are they poems though? Well, in a way, no – they're more like witty cartoons. But I still think of them as poems, and they're part of a poetry project – that's the context in which they were produced.

It's fun to open up a new dimension in the project, especially now I'm over 8 months in. But I'm also slightly wary of heading too much in a visual direction.

There's a great tradition of merging images and poems into one artistic thing – the original versions of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience come to mind. The mega-Instapoets like Rupi Kaur continue this tradition by presenting poems as visual artworks with decorative illustrations. But I still find myself suspicious of it – like it indicates a lack of faith in the words themselves, or seeks to shape the way you respond by creating an air of preciousness around them. For better or worse, I think of Realtime Notes (and poetry generally) as words grappling directly with the world. The visual is part of that (and words themselves are visual objects), but I like the textiness of the Notes app and the way it presents the words raw. It probably gets me fewer Instagram followers, but they're all the nice, intelligent, good-looking ones. 


This month started pretty rockily – I struggled for a few days to write anything. So far, I've posted at least one poem every day since I started last 17 August and I feel I have to keep that up for at least a year. On 2 April I had nothing with midnight looming, but at least I managed to retrieve the little observation above – a poem about not having written a poem.


The rut continued for a while, but fortunately the news keeps providing little moments of inspiration. 


This month saw a couple of milestones. Firstly, I passed the 500 mark on Realtime Notes – about 240 days in, so that's a decent rate of at least two poems a day. All about quantity not quality.


And secondly we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary with a trip to Grasmere and the church where we were married. This is a tactical point at which to insert a formal apology to my better half for always staring at my phone too much.


To be fair, she stares at her own canvas quite a lot – follow her @sueasbury.


OK, deaths time. Ray Wilkins, Eric Bristow and Barbara Bush all left us this month, as did Dale Winton. If I ever wind down Realtime Notes, maybe I'll keep the obituaries going.


But I'm not planning to wind down yet. I'm still enjoying the little daily alchemy that takes place when you turn the news, and your feelings about it, into some bundle of words that has form and meaning. The one above was written when I woke up too early one morning and had that vague out-of-time feeling that you sometimes get early in the morning. I like the alliteration running through it – the m's and s's and t's. Not that it's a highly crafted work in terms of time spent, but some poems come out with more craft than others, and it feels like it captured whatever mood I was in. 


I've been thinking more than usual this month about the worth of this project, and it was nice to hear I'm on roughly the same page as Kanye West.

I've said before in this newsletter that I consider 'time' as one of the last formal constraints in poetry – you're expected to spend time crafting a poem, and spend time reading it. I still think that's a definitively valuable quality in poetry and I'll go back to it one day, but I think there's fertile territory in pushing against it.

Here's an idea I'll run past you. You know how a lot of people skim-read these days? It's often the way I read the news – lightly scanning my eyes down the page, picking up the gist, moving onto the next thing. Skim-reading is often seen as the enemy of the writer, like it's our job to get people to slow down. But I've decided to think of Realtime Notes as a turning of the tables. My new word for it is skim-writing.

If you're going to skim-read, then I'm going to skim-write. I think that's a good deal.


I'll finish this particularly long round-up by saying I went to a particularly long place this month. The hardest place in the UK to write about in real time.

Thanks for reading – makes the whole project worthwhile. See you back in realtime.



Not much has been happening on this blog lately, mainly because I've been busy writing poems for Realtime Notes over on Instagram. (The poem above is my manifesto for the project.)

I started it last August and did a Quarterly Review on this blog once I was three months in.

More recently, I've been doing monthly round-ups in the form of a (strictly opt-in) newsletter. So far, I've not been publishing the newsletter anywhere else as it felt like it defeated the object of signing up. But I've recently realised that's probably the wrong way to think about it. Some people might be interested to read this stuff without crossing the extremely high bar of actually signing up for a newsletter. And it's more about putting stuff out there and letting people choose if/how they want to read it.

So I'm going to start posting stuff on this blog as well. If you subscribe to the newsletter and feel like you're going to catch it here anyway, then please unsubscribe and de-complicate your life. But given how few of us keep well-tended RSS feeds these days, the newsletter is hopefully still a useful way to keep the lines of contact open, and maybe I'll stick some stuff in there that doesn't feel bloggable.

Sign up for the newsletter here

January newsletter

February newsletter

March newsletter

And I'm going to stick the April one up as a blog post later.

Review of the Year 2017

It’s been a year of words. I started off reading them, collecting snippets on a Tumblr called Reads. But since August I’ve mainly been writing them. Realtime Notes is an Instagram collection of poems about current events — I’m on poem 247 and hoping to carry on for a while.

Given that I’m effectively reviewing the year hour-by-hour on Realtime Notes, I’m not sure this Review of the Year is strictly necessary. But then again it’s important for the world to know what packaging copy I found funny this year, and there is a satisfying catharsis in writing these things — and hopefully reading them too. 

(NB: I've tried to link to all the original tweets where I've found stuff. In most cases, the links take you to the original tweet where the image was found, rather than taking you to new/extra stuff. So don't feel you have to click on everything. Yes? Does that make sense?) 


In the year of the mainly female silence breakers (a well-handled move by Time), it’s interesting to see how brands are handling masculinity. 

Branding for men still generally takes the approach of turning oats and coconut into grenade chaos.

Easily the most insecure branding of the year goes to They Hate Pimples for turning a spot cream into military camouflage. (And definitely not make-up.)

Meanwhile, Tesco has read the mood and dropped the Mansize from its tissues. (I still prefer Kleenex Brand Tissues, handy for any embarrassing brand situation.)

But Three Lads are still just Three Lads.

Speaking of insecure masculinity, Trump has continued to troll the world, and there have been some nice instances of the world trolling him back. 

Some good crowd size trolling here.

An excellent New Yorker cartoon.

Keeping it simple.

But the award goes to the New Sunday Herald, for this excellent TV listing.


On a related note, probably the most useful thing I wrote this year was an emergency guide to writing protest signs. With so much to protest about, there have been too many signs to mention. But I enjoyed the ‘Welcome to Kenya’ signs on Trump’s visit to Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii.


While there has been lots of brilliantly creative popular protesting against Trump, official responses have been mixed. I wrote about the New York Times campaign and how I felt it missed the mark. The Washington Post also went arguably a bit too gothic with ‘Democracy dies in darkness’. More recently, it felt like CNN got closer to nailing it by using humour, which helps make a serious point more powerfully.


The worst ad really should be Pepsi, although at least it kept us entertained.

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I really wanted the cellist at the beginning to join the march Woody Allen-style.

Among the duller takes were that it shows the perils of using in-house agencies (like ad agencies never do bad ads), or the ‘we’re talking about it, so it was all a cunning plan’ take (you cannot plan things this bad, and being talked about doesn’t always help your brand.)

In any case, the cultural feedback loop moment of the year came when protestors started throwing Pepsi cans at police.


The single worst ad of the year, for its outstandingly bleak and misanthropic use of media, is the audio ad in the Virgin Trains disabled toilet. You have no choice but to listen to it – it comes on automatically when you walk in. 


This was also the year that Virgin Trains replaced this iconic piece of in-toilet copy...


...with this rhyming version.

I feel like this is an improvement but, as with the French Revolution, it is probably too soon to say. 


To confuse things further, the YHA nicked the Virgin Trains copy, so who knows what to think any more.


I’ve a feeling a lot of people will pick Jigsaw for their unambiguous celebration of immigation. I get uncomfortable with brands preaching politics, even if you agree with the politics – and I think the message loses impact by being too overt and preachy. However, a lot of people loved it. And I’m aware that the experience of encountering an ad in person is very different to seeing it online – I suspect it was quite moving to walk around the tube at Oxford Circus and feel the affirmative power of those ads.

On a related note, I wrote at length about brand purpose this year. While I’m sceptical about it as a core way of thinking about brands, I do think brands participate in culture and can do little things to shift norms. Casting a gay couple in an ad may seem like box-ticking, but these small acts add up to gradual normalisation – I just think they work better done quietly and modestly, rather than ‘look at us leading the revolution’.


As a response to these times, I prefer the humour of Timberland – a rare case of a brand trying to empathise with ‘millennials’ and getting it right.


Some quickfire ones now. Smart use of punctuation as data visualisation.


Contrast with this conspiracy infographic displayed on Fox News – like a map of its inner mind. (Both of these last ones via @michaelbierut)



An argument for using bots instead of humans to write tweets.


Also an argument for using bots instead of humans to write tweets. 


As with everything on the Internet these days, it’s hard to know if Photoshop was involved.* But I was impressed by this ‘found’ version of Wonderwall by @thepunningman.

* I can now confirm no Photoshop was involved. Hooray, some things are real.



OK, packaging copy. As usual, there was some heroic padding going on.


And the saboteurs at McVitie’s casually dropped a line that translates as ‘It’s English but it’s good’.


But this was mainly the year of funny tweets about packaging. Firstly, someone cracked the butter code.

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 13.39.25.png

And Alex Andreou realised what’s really going on with cereals.

But this Apple Juice observation was my favourite — go here to retweet it.



This was the year that Beanz Meanz Heinz turned 50 and was celebrated in an exhibition at Selfridge’s. I believe the correct hashtag is #copywritergoals

We also witnessed a slogan occurring to Donald Trump in real time.


Cards Against Humanity refocused their energies on Prongles – a real, unauthorised and widely distributed pastiche of Pringles. It was a convoluted joke and the target wasn’t especially clear. But the best thing about it was the slogan.

And in a new twist on slogans, probably my favourite of the year was Yes good by Emerald Nuts, taken from a real customer review on Amazon.


Two winners here: Chuck Schumer for this letter about Senate oversight of Presidential nominations, in which he took a letter from Mitch McConnell (written in different political times) and sent it back to him. 

The other winner is this person’s dad for a brilliantly pedantic birthday card strategy in which he crosses out the bits that don’t apply. 


Here’s an example of a ‘design for good’ project without a fanfare, hashtag, case study video with Sigur Ros soundtrack, or story six months later about how it was all a scam.



This was the year that Twitter moved to 280 characters, which turned out not to matter very much. Probably the best moment was when Trump ceased to exist...

... which had parallels with the silent News at Ten, probably the most eloquent commentary on 2017 that there has been.


My personal highlight was the release of Sideways Dictionary, an online dictionary of analogies for technological terms, created in partnership with Jigsaw and the Washington Post – one of the most enjoyable and mind-bending things I’ve written.

Also, this year saw an updated version of Perpetual Disappointments Diary come out with Pan Macmillan, and a new version in the US with Chronicle Books. (Pic by @lettemoore)

And I briefly went viral with a piece for McSweeney’s and Louis Theroux said he loved it.


My wish for 2018 is for hotels to introduce tone-of-voice-free rooms. Over the summer, I stayed in a Citizen M hotel, which was great except for the cacophony of copywriting (all of which looks nice as individual executions on a screen, but less so when it’s combined into one room where you have to live and sleep).

I’ve collected a few other examples (scroll through above).


To be fair, Malmaison is quite funny. But it takes a very funny joke to be funny the eighth time you read it.


Lots of people have sadly gone, some of them memorialised in Realtime Notes above.

And not forgetting Brenda Webb, who fell to Cher.


Not sure who came up with ‘The rest is science’, but it was a moment of genius. A reworking of the most beautiful dying words in literature (Hamlet’s ‘The rest is silence’) to mark the passing of a great scientific expedition. 


Trump before the Last Judgment. Although maybe it’s the image of next year. (Photo by @oss_romano)

That was quite a long review, wasn’t it?