In the fourth of our series ‘The Story Works’ with D&AD, John Fountain remembers poignantly how his tough builder father reacted 35 years ago when Fountain told him he wanted to be a copywriter.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf appeared late one afternoon on the London Road, Isleworth. It stood motionless a few yards from my bus stop and as I looked upon the creature, my eyes wide with excitement, nobody else seemed to notice except me.
A newspaper-littered layby a mile or so outside Hounslow was clearly not its usual habitat, but nor was it hunting its usual prey. I crossed the road to take a better look and when finally my bus arrived and I found a seat, I remember peering back – fixated.
It was bold. It was glorious. No product shot. No hard sell. It didn’t tell me what to think; it wanted me to work it out for myself.
It said it without saying it.
I loved the arrogance.
I doubt that there were many people as excited as I was on that day in Isleworth back in 1977. I suspect most people passing that poster wouldn’t have given two hoots about it. Some would have ignored it, others wouldn’t have realised it was there.
My father would have been one of those. The greatness of it would not have registered with him at all. If I’d been daft enough to ask his opinion he would have probably said it was “a pile of crap”. You see, he didn’t care much about advertising. He didn’t talk about advertising. He didn’t talk about stuff like this – ever. It was all totally trivial and meaningless. Any kind of conversation regarding the creative output of CDP, Saatchi or BMP – well, he’d have thought I was an idiot for wasting what few brain cells I had thinking about it.
That’s why, when the time came to tell him that I wanted to work in advertising, I knew it would be difficult.
A builder. A roofer. An electrician. A mechanic. A gardener. My father was expert at them all. He spent his entire life outdoors, perched up on a ladder, sliding under a car, or hanging by a rope from a chimney. Back then, his hands were the tools of his trade and each one had the look and feel of a breeze-block.
He was a top-notch brawler. When still a teenager, he’d walk into any local carnival that had a boxer in a sideshow. These shows usually involved a professional meeting all comers from the audience. A few pounds were offered to the challenger who was able to either stay the full time limit or, better still, put the pro boxer down.
My father would always step forward and, a minute or two later, he’d leave with some crisp notes in his pocket. He told me that he used to bring the side of his right fist down directly on top of the pro boxers head, like a hammer hitting a nail. “They went sparko with that,” he would ponder.
There are many, many stories I could tell you about him. The brand new suit that lasted just 20 minutes. (“That’ll teach you”, his father said. Unfortunately, it didn’t.) The abuse he faced as an Englishman in a Scottish army regiment. His time in the firing squads at Nuremberg.
He once described himself as being ‘uncouth’ – a term that he was rather fond of. He liked others to think of him as a bit of a wild man. A little dangerous. Someone who would shock you at how hard he could be. It usually worked well.
At Christmas, when the family came to visit, I remember how they’d keep a distance from him. How they’d laugh at his jokes while always wary that, after a couple of drinks, he might just let one fly.
I am nothing like my father at all. I can’t stand violence. I do have big hands, but they’ve never been used to break ribs or crack jaws. I’m a right soft touch compared to my dad and I know he was disappointed that the art of decking someone held no interest for me. Surprised even. I doubt he imagined a son as wet as I would come along.
So, when the time came to tell him that I’d got a job as a copywriter, the occasion went differently from the way I expected. I assumed he’d fly off the handle. Laugh at me. Tell me I was being a girl.
Instead, it was one of those moments where nothing much was said – but everything communicated. It’s a moment that, thirty-five years on, I still remember like it was yesterday.
“Dad, I’ve got a job.”
“A job is it – doing what?”
“In advertising, coming up with ideas for adverts.”
And that was it. I showed him the letter, he read the first line and handed it back to me. He then left the house, went out into the garage and started bleeding the clutch on his car. Nothing more was said. In fact no other words about my career were ever exchanged between the two of us.
And you know, the funny thing is, while we never spoke to each other about it, somewhere a connection was made. Somewhere I knew he was with me, supporting me.
That although he knew it was all bollocks, he reckoned the boy should give it a go.