The wit and wis­dom of George Smith — Seri­ous­ly, let’s be silly

Shock­ing swim­ming pools is one thing, but shock­ing the world depends on a dif­fer­ent set of vocal skills, claims an artic­u­late’ George Smith. We hope you enjoy this lat­est edi­tion to George’s archive on SOFII, a piece he wrote in 1993.

Written by
George Smith
December 09, 2021

I have a friend who recently invested in a swimming pool. He is not a man who is at one with the mechanical world and he nodded politely through the two-hour briefing to which he was subjected by the bloke who came to tell him about pool maintenance. But he was delighted with the news that he had to ‘shock’ the pool every two weeks, the verb being one of the few words he had understood.

So, the two of us spent a silly afternoon jumping out from behind hedges and shouting ‘Waaagh’ at fourteen thousand gallons of passive water. Then we leaned nearer and shouted, ‘Come on out, mustard algae, the game's up’.

The news that ‘shocking the pool’ is a matter of chlorine concentrate and not of verbal abuse will be old hat to all you pool owners, but we enjoyed the difference. Being silly in a serious world gets ever more difficult. You have to leap at every opportunity. 

All this came to mind when a genial cove with a beard approached me in Birmingham, said how much he enjoyed these feuilletons of mine and how he looked forward to a predictive monthly chortle via this free parade through my subconscious. I stuttered my thanks and tried to make the point that I thought I was being serious every month. He went away with tears in his eyes, giggling still at this further display of wit. You can’t win.

Then again, there was the incident a couple of months ago when I mentioned the immortal name of R Dean Taylor (Editor’s note: For our younger readers, Taylor was a singer who gave the world the wonderful 

‘Indiana Wants Me’. Check it out next time you’re bored and on YouTube) in these pages. I received a fax from a very senior fundraising person whose normal reach on matters cultural is positively intimidating. She (oh heaven, what a giveaway) accused me of inventing R Dean Taylor and insisted that the name of the illustrious warbler must be a deeply meaningful anagram.

So, that’s one fundraiser who sees me as a Woody Allen and another who thinks I’m making like Jean-Paul Sartre. And, before we go any further, I’d like to point out that old Jean-Paul is a dead French thinker; he was neither an anagram nor did he play keyboards with Jethro Tull. Clear?

Actually, you know, making yourself clear is getting to be a muddied practice. The power of words, a subject about which I regularly opine, is vesting too much authority on that waning minority with the gift of the gab. We live in a curiously deferential society where articulacy is taken not as a means of transferring thought and opinion but as a positive and enhancing grace that confers immediate heavyweight status to the thought and opinion thus transferred. This is dangerous for both parties. Everyone occasionally talks crap; crap is not alchemised by superior presentational skills, meaningful pauses or bursts of memorable rhetoric.

Hitler talked crap with terrifying power and with argument that seemed entirely rational to his audience. His spiritual heirs and assigns continue to do so in Bosnia. We yearn to relax into the comfortable simplicities of being told what to think, what's going on in the world, how everything is explicable if only you can accord blame and failure to forces beyond our control. Power ends with guns; it starts with words.

Is this a touch overwrought for a British fundraiser? I wonder. I watch Ian Paisley (Editor’s note: For our non-British or Irish readers, Paisley was a pretty repugnant Northern Irish politician and pastor) and I know that his verbal power has helped imprison the future of part of our country. I watch the pro-life and pro-abortion lobbies snarl at each other in the States and I know that we will suffer similar snarling here. I watch the politics of this country degraded by sound bites and trashy adversarial debates. All these examples are rooted in our increasing habit of using language as a ritual and not as a reasoned means of exchanging opinion.

Politically, we turn off. Professionally, we make notes. Such is our supine nature that we have come to regard any challenge to conventional wisdom as irreverent. And conventional wisdom is invented every single week. We run the risk of immersing ourselves in a cosy world where the responsibility for thinking can be shrugged off via some report-writing here, a strategy document there, a new computer network somewhere else. At that point we live in a second-hand world. We have denied ourselves our greatest gift, that of original thought.

Any professional world finally divides into people who want to preserve things as they are and people who want to change things around for the hell of it. In reality you need both, but in fundraising you need a big, fat mischief-making faction for change at any time. We are far too important to get conservative. I still think we need to change the world, you see. 

Irreverence is a proper thing. Heretics are usually innovative and always provocative. A sense of humour is finally a sense of proportion. That is why I reserve the right to be pompous in the morning and shout at swimming pools at weekends. I have long been accused of being a cynic; in reality I am a zealot with a bit of experience, a buffoon who remembers old songs.

But, with my luck, someone’s going to write in and say that Jethro Tull was an agricultural inventor. I know, I know…

Editor’s note: Adding articles to the George Smith archive is possible thanks to the kindness and generosity of SOFII supporter Steve Thomas. Thank you Steve, SOFII and our readers are so grateful to learn from George’s wit and wisdom! 

You can find out more about Steve’s agency, Stephen Thomas Limited, here.

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

The late George Smith (he/him) wrote his first fundraising ad for Oxfam in 1962. In his twenties he was appointed European coordinator for a major-league American advertising agency and, in contrast, was elected as a local councillor in an inner-London borough. He formed the Smith Bundy direct marketing agency in 1973 and served as chief executive for 20 years. During those two decades his copywriting skills were applied to many diverse commercial direct marketing clients, yet fundraising was always a specialism. In 1990 he was awarded the UK’s DMA Gold Award for work on Greenpeace.

Between 1987 and 1993 George was chief executive of the International Fund Raising Group, responsible for the celebrated Noordwijkerhout conference and a growing number of events around the world. He was also a director of Burnett Associates Limited. His monthly articles in Britain’s Direct Response magazine were published in 1987 as a collection called By George. He became chairman of the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) in 1997 and is an honorary fellow both of the IDM and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

George Smith also wrote Asking ProperlyTiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising and Up Smith Creek.

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