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January 26, 2020

Oh Alan Hamilton, I miss you


January 26, 2020

I didn’t ever think that I would be writing an obituary for Alan Hamilton, my friend for 30 years. He died at the age of 90 in Kent, England, in September, 2019; but I could get the news only on January 23, 2020, from his wife of 62 years Joanna Hamilton.

Ever since we met for the first time in 1990 in Karachi at the IAL/ Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide office, invariably every year he sent me a new year’s card; and when email came about, we communicated electronically, though infrequently. He was such a gem of a person, friendly, kind, and always lively and helpful to his younger colleagues. And I was perhaps his youngest colleague at age 25, when Alan was slightly over 60, and had come to Pakistan to launch Procter & Gamble (P&G), that had just entered the Pakistani market.

His life story was amazing, as he narrated to me off and on when he was in Pakistan, and later when I was in England. He was a teenager when the Second World War started. As the UK became one of the primary targets of the Nazi air strikes, he had to quit school and start working, as most teenagers of his time had to do. After the war, he could never get back to school and started working in an advertising agency as an office boy. But he was an avid reader; in fact, he was one of the most well-read persons I have ever met.

His curiosity to know and keen desire to learn new things led him into the field of advertising where his seniors encouraged him to do copywriting and media planning, which he did with aplomb for the next 40 years of his life from 1950 to 1990. He became one of the senior directors at Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, travelled to dozens of countries, launched hundreds of products, and raised four daughters and a son with his wife, in London. One of his daughters, Suzanna Hamilton, became an acclaimed actor, staring in films such as ‘Tess’ by Roman Polanski, ‘1984’ by Michael Redgrave, and ‘Out of Africa’ by Sydney Pollack.

Alan lived a fulfilling life, starting from scratch to an abundance of resources both intellectual and material. In 1990, when I met Alan, I was a budding copywriter at IAL/ Saatchi in Karachi. That was my very first job given to me by Sarmad Ali, now MD of Jang Group, who at that time was client service manager at IAL/ Saatchi in Karachi. In fact, it was Sarmad Ali who introduced me to Alan who had been sent to Karachi to facilitate the launch of P&G products such as Oil of Olay, Head & Shoulders, and others. It was one of the last assignments Alan did in advertising.

He established a pretty good rapport with the teams both at IAL/ Saatchi and at the P&G. And what a team it was! Our team was led by one of the pioneers of great advertising in Pakistan, Syed Naseer Haider who was executive director, with Sarmad Ali as his second-in-command and our immediate leader. Then we had Imran Irshad, who now heads M&C Saatchi. Cyma Zulfiqar and Farrukh Moriani were our lead copywriters; and Ashraf, Khawar, and Nazar sahib were our art directors. Qaisar Shareef led the P&G team with the likes of Abdul Bari, Maleeha, Numair, and others. Alan was the overall connecting link.

During his stay in Pakistan, Alan made friends and taught us the intricacies of the P&G brand needs. As a young copywriter, I looked up to him for guidance and he always encouraged me to read more. As an Urdu-medium student myself, my English was hardly impressive, but he never snubbed me. “You can’t write good English unless you read good English”, he told me once and it stuck in my mind. He suggested that I read ‘The Economist’ and ‘National Geographic’ to improve my English. And that advice has stayed with me all along, helping me greatly.

“When you read English sentences, try to analyze them; if you come across a good expression, make an effort to remember it”, these were the golden words that he spoke to a novice writer, and I couldn’t thank him enough. Our office was in Clifton, and I lived in Malir. Allan was staying at the Marriott, and I was sceptical while inviting him to my 80sq-yards quarter. When I did express my desire to invite him for lunch to my home on a weekend, he didn’t blink before nodding in the affirmative.

I remember him appreciating my few books that I had at home. I was unmarried but engaged; he enquired about my fiancée and I took him to my would-be in-laws. He met my future wife, and they struck a common chord. When the products were launched and the time came for him to leave, we were sad. On the last day before he left in 1991, I spend almost an entire day with him going to the Clifton beach and chatting to our heart’s content. I was proud that in the entire team perhaps I was the closest to him.

When he told me that it was his last advertising assignment and after retirement he would no more be launching products, I wondered why. And what he told me is still etched in my mind, and it changed my entire career path. Alan said, “After spending 40 years of my life in advertising, I think it is not a profession for intellectually grown-up people”. He advised me earnestly that I do more worthwhile things. I was out of advertising within a couple of years, though how worthwhile that decision was remains debatable.

Alan went back to England, I went into journalism and teaching, but we kept contact. Alan wanted to complete his formal education that he had left during the Second World War. “I am back in college”, he wrote to me enthusiastically. He did Bachelors and then his Master’s degrees at King’s College London. He was a history buff and wanted to do his PhD at Imperial College. He joined Latin language classes to do some primary research in medieval history. Then, over ten years passed till 2002, when I found myself in Holland on a training.

Alan and I had not met for ten years, but we had written to each other dozens of letters. I was in Harlem near Amsterdam, when I called him at his home in London. It was late at night and he picked up the phone; we were both excited and wanted to meet. He invited me to London, but I didn’t have a visa. “If you can’t come to London, London will come to you”, he retorted in his characteristic style. “Listen, over the weekend I will come to Brussels, and you join me there”, Alan suggested. Thanks to a Schengen visa, I could do that.

That was the wedding day of Dutch Prince Willem-Alexander who was marrying a 20-year-old Argentine girl Maxima Zorreguieta, who is now Queen Maxima of the Netherlands. Anyhow, I reached Brussels by train and saw Alan waiting for me at the platform. That weekend was one of the best in my lifetime. He narrated to me how he had completed his college and university education, and then was on his way to do his doctorate in history. He was already over 70. I shared with him my adventures and we both laughed and he took me to some of the best restaurants in Brussels where wine was aplenty.

Then we kept in touch, and luckily I won a British Council scholarship to do a Master’s in education at the University of Leeds. I informed Alan, and he was there at Heathrow Airport well past midnight to receive us. He was already in his mid-70s, and waited for us for six hours at the airport as our flight got delayed and then immigration took longer than expected. We stayed with him for a few days before moving to Leeds. And I moved on to do my PhD at Birmingham, and we met off and on.

You are an important part of my life, Alan. Rest in peace – the likes of you are rare.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]