You might’ve noticed in my last post that I mentioned ‘a new baby due any day now.’ Well, dear reader, she arrived three days later. And that – I hope you’ll forgive me – explains the radio silence on this blog over the last six months.

So, while I’ve had no time whatsoever to write, I have managed to steal a few minutes to read. And I’m currently enjoying The Story So Far, a collection of ‘memories and other fictions’ by one of my favourite novelists, Eric Ambler.

Ambler is best known for the remarkable run of thrillers he published in the late 1930s. Most assessments of Ambler’s novels point to his protagonists: ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. But I’m more interested in his antagonists. His novels are not propelled by the schemes and plots of evil masterminds, but by the demands of unseen bankers and businessmen amid the chaos of financial capitalism.

In The Story So Far, Ambler recalls his early career as a copywriter in an advertising agency. This was the early 1930s, when advertising ‘was considered by serious persons to be a fairly disreputable occupation.’

Still, Ambler considers a question he has been asked about those days, ‘whether it was true that in the Thirties the copy departments of the big London advertising agencies were hotbeds of communism.’ He’s quick to note that he and his colleagues had more pressing concerns, not least the fear of losing one’s job during ‘those awful recession years.’

Ambler then ruminates on what it means to pursue a creative impulse within a profit-driven context, or within any context whose goals are seemingly at odds with artistic creativity. I’m sure the following will ring some bells for others engaged in what we might call corporate creativity:

In advertising at the time, of course, we did not speak of such things [i.e. economic depression]. Our economic safety lay in optimism, bigger press advertising budgets, growth. We just looked at the ads in the morning papers, but we read the Evening Standard. There, David Low made fun of the politicians, Arnold Bennett reviewed books and W.R. Inge, the Dean of St Paul’s, admonished practically everyone. True, most of us led double lives; that is to say, we tried to make second careers for ourselves outside advertising; but I can think of none of us who dabbled in party politics.

Of course, these notional second careers were hedges against possible unemployment but they were something more as well. We did not entirely despise our work. Indeed, in the invention and development of a successful campaign to increase the market share of, say, a brand name baby food there could be a certain satisfaction. If it was the kind of satisfaction a trial lawyer is said to experience when he secures the acquittal of a well-heeled crook, what of it? Our reply to the objecting moralists would have been the same as his. We were hired hands lawfully employed. We were technicians of an artsy-crafty sort, like lawyers or character actors.

Eric Ambler, The Story So Far (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London 1993)