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Sardines and the English language: what a fish bar can teach us about writing

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

When asked to identify one common trait found in creative people, Rory Sutherland a creative director at Ogilvy stated one word- curiosity. Without curiosity, inspiration becomes limited.

It is hard not to be curious in a city like Madrid. Unlike London and New York, Madrid has not yet caught onto the trend of displaying street maps at every roadside, making it notoriously easy to get slightly lost. Staring at the buildings with their pastel colours and tiny balconies, inhaling the smells of freshly baked croissants it’s all too easy to feel a sense of timelessness and wander endlessly from barrio to barrio. Part of the joy of wandering is discovering local hotspots you’d never find online, and contemplating how, in an era of TripAdvisor, Yelp and the internet, a place can survive on word of mouth alone.

If you wander down a few narrow streets in Madrid’s barrio of Lavapiés you might be lucky enough to stumble upon a tiny place called Bar Santurce. From the outside it’s very easy to overlook, it’s the kind of place you’d walk right by on your way to somewhere else. The sign is small, nothing about it tries to seek attention. It’s a minimalist white background with black text. All it announces is “sardinas asadas” ‘grilled sardines’. Not exactly a call to action is it?

The fascinating thing about this bar is that, were you to stumble upon it on a Sunday (market day in el Rastro) you would be hard-pressed to find a seat, let alone jostle your way to the bar. The bar sells very few items, a glance at the menu reveals sardines, peppers and beer, no-frills or exciting USP. So how has such an unassuming, basic place, succeeded in gaining such popularity that getting to the bar has become a contact sport?

The key it seems is simplicity. In presenting a no-frills approach, Bar Santurce has addressed one of the biggest issues irking consumers today- the paradox of choice. Being inundated with options and advertising has made consumers increasingly wary of gimmicks and shiny posters promising novelty. A return to simplicity allows people to rise above the noise of garish advertising and offers a charming authenticity. At Bar Santurce you can’t get artisan beer or speciality ceviche, what you can and do get is grilled fish, sautéed peppers, and good old beer to wash it all down.

Bar Santurce reminds us of the power of getting the fundamentals right. There is a Basque culinary warning which goes if a restaurant serves you a headless fish smothered in sauce, run away. The only reason to need a strong sauce and the removal of the head is to hide bad produce. If the foundations were good, the sauce becomes unnecessary. Good writing can learn something from this too. Before we go about adding linguistic flare or visual accompaniments, we need to go back to basics. Does the writing actually convey our message? Is the visual directly linked to our purpose?

In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell outlined 6 rules for good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.[1]

Orwell’s guide to writing well hinges upon brevity and coherence, using ordinary language devoid of pretence. Sometimes the best approach is not embellishment or hyperbole, but rather honesty and letting your work do the talking in the clearest and most concise way possible.

[1] Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, p.8


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