The Stranger in the mirror

The Australia Square building. Image from

During the 20th century, for about twenty years there was a strange fashion for circular buildings. There weren’t that many of them built, but in quite a few cities you will come across a skyscraper that is circular and white and made of concrete. And the look of the thing will suggest the era it was built in. Think of the Capitol Records building in LA (1956), the Australia Square building in Sydney (1961), Marina City in Chicago (1968), One Kemble Street in London (also 1968), or Ponte City in Johannesburg (1975). Architects get ideas from other architects and I suspect that the Capitol Records building and Australia Square inspired the others.

Fashions change, and one reason why more skyscrapers aren’t built in a circle shape is simply that the rectangle is far more convenient. Much of modern life, and especially furniture, fits more neatly around perpendicular angles. Circular buildings always end up with awkward angles and possible wasted spaces.

Circular buildings are still constructed occasionally, especially when building owners are striving for an iconic design. The building at 30 St Mary Axe in London, formerly the Swiss Re tower, has long been nicknamed “The Gherkin”. It is one of the most famous buildings in London simply because of its shape.

All of this gets me to a recent experience. I went on a road trip, and booked into a motel that turned out to be a circular building. This made it easy to spot and I’ll say from the outset that I had no issues with my room. It had large, panoramic windows and I found the odd angles to be no inconvenience at all.

Indeed, it would not be worth mentioning except that I shave, brush my teeth and comb my hair while standing at a wash basin. In this case there were mirrors mounted on the walls above the basin.

Because the building was circular these walls did not form a normal 90° angle. Instead the angle was about 80°. And thanks to that, I had the unusual experience of seeing myself how other people see me.

Look in a normal mirror and the image you see is the perfect reversal of what you might call reality. Position two mirrors at an exactly perpendicular angle and your reflection is more or less swapped; but the reflective parts of the mirrors never seem to quite line up so there’s always a gap.

But in this motel room, in this circular building, there was no gap to worry about. The mirrors on the adjacent walls were at 80° and so in each mirror I could see the reflection of my face in the other mirror. The reversal was reversed and I could actually see myself how other people see me.

Of course the title of this post is an exaggeration. My face was not so different that the face in the mirror was that of a stranger. But like most people my features are not perfectly symmetrical and so it was different from what I was used to. I found it to be a novel experience.

The Melancholy Roman

Legend vs Fact

Image taken from

One of the greatest of all westerns is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and the most famous line in the film comes towards the end. Carleton Young’s newspaper editor Mr Scott tells Jimmy Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Timothy Bell, who died on 25 August at the age of 77, was an advertising and PR man who worked for Saatchi & Saatchi and was famous for his association with Margaret Thatcher’s successful election campaigns. Obituaries made it clear that he was a wealthy and colourful man, the word “colourful” being pretty accurate. He was fined for indecency in the 1970s and later in life admitted to a cocaine habit. In 2017 he was linked to a rather unsavoury scandal in South Africa. To give a measure of how many enemies he must have made, his obituary in the Times of London didn’t bother to gloss over the scandals.

Still, it’s unclear whether Bell himself would have minded. He’d made a lot of money for himself, remained wealthy, and was elevated to the House of Lords in 1998.

The most famous thing he ever did was mastermind the Conservative Party’s “Labour isn’t working” advertising campaign. The campaign, before Thatcher gained power, was widely credited with helping her achieve victory. That same campaign ensured his own reputation and helped him to amass the wealth and influence he enjoyed.

Which is interesting because Wikipedia hints that the actual slogan “Labour isn’t working” was thought up not by Bell but by a colleague named Jeremy Sinclair. Bell’s role was merely in identifying it as a brilliant idea, and having the Conservatives run with it.

However, a letter to the editor in yesterday’s Times casts doubt that he even did that.

It’s from Andrew Rutherford, a former copywriter and director of Saatchi & Saatchi, and he says that not only did Bell not dream up the poster, he was actually lukewarm when shown the idea.

Says Rutherford: “He excluded it from a selection of posters that he was to present to the Conservatives the next day, and had I not surreptitiously slipped the poster into the pile in the morning the now-famous slogan would not have seen the light of day.”

Could Rutherford have made this up? Possibly. But he’s not claiming credit for the slogan himself and it’s so very often the case that the person who gets credited for work is not the person who actually did it. I believe it’s an adage in the medical profession that a disease is never named after the person who discovered it. Successful negotiations are usually credited to the politicians who ordered them and not the men and women who were in the room. Jocelyn Bell was notoriously overlooked for a Nobel Prize. There are myriad examples.

Which gets me to that quote fromThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Whatever the facts, the legend is that Bell masterminded the campaign. I suspect that that’s the version that’s going to stick.

The Melancholy Roman