Wednesday, December 22, 2004

“It scared the life out of me”

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Preston Hall - there are many stories about the place

Last day at work before the Christmas holiday. This will probably be the last post on this weblog until Tuesday 4th January (unless I manage to find somewhere with internet access). Merry Christmas to all my readers (if there are any!).

It is traditional to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Usually on Christmas Eve adaptations of M.R James stories (Stalls of Barchester or A Warning To The Curious etc) are screened on BBC2. I thought I would adapt this tradition to the internet, even though it’s not Christmas Eve until Friday, and I don’t really know any ghost stories except…

I once heard a ghost story about Preston Hall – just outside a village roughly six miles away. It is on top of a little hill. A new family (new to the area that is) lives there. About four years ago, before I started working in London, I had a local job (still in marketing) and my assistant was a woman aged about fifty, very short in stature, a bit condescending in her manner (she implied that she didn’t really have to work, and was only doing it as a sort of hobby, and that we were all idiots etc). I could never get her to do anything, as I shared her with two managers and their work was always more important than mine. In the end I just did everything myself, which I suppose was her strategy.

Anyway, this assistant who didn’t do any work once told me that years ago, when she was newly married and hard up, she took a job working in the kitchen at Preston Hall. This was when the old family, who had lived there for centuries, was still in residence. One day she was in the house completely on her own, working in the kitchen (a huge room, always cold, even in summer). Because she was on her own she had made sure all the doors were locked. Mid-way through the morning she was working at the sink, peeling potatos, and when she next looked round she saw marks of wet footsteps across the flagstone floor.

“It scared the life out of me” she said.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Winter scenes (4)

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Winter solstice, the shortest day. The farmer has left a plough in one of the fields, and the last rays of the winter sun have caught the blades, giving the implement an eerie, other-worldly appearance. Actually this photo was taken about a week ago, but it captures the mood of fading light in the middle of the afternoon.

Winter scenes (3)

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Last few days before Christmas. This doorway to a smart block of flats in the west end is slightly mysterious - I can't remember seeing anyone ever coming out or going in. Perhaps a lot of elderly people live in the flats, and they never go out after nightfall.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Winter scenes (1)

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No time to write, so I shall post photographs. This one is of a leafless row of trees. I once went to a Simon Palmer exhibition where tree trunks like this featured heavily. Simon Palmer is very good at painting Yorkshire landscapes (unfortunately I couldn’t afford to buy any of his works, even though they would probably be a good investment).

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

I have to do everything myself

I am overwhelmed with work at the moment - my new assistant has decided that the job wasn't for her and has left without any warning. My other assistant is on holiday until 21st December. The part-time person who helped with the mailshots has had to take extended leave because her son was involved in a car crash. I have to do everything myself at the moment.

I am also feeling depressed as a result of the dark cold winter weather. So here are some photographs from the summer. Most of my photographs seem to be taken late on a summer evening - I suppose it's part of my photographic style (insofar as I have one).

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Mellow red bricks - sixteenth-century brick barn in Buckinghamshire (near Edlesborough I think).
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Mellow red bricks - Tudor manor house in Buckinghamshire. The chimney bricks have been carved into twisting spiral shapes. My mother loved coming to the garden here (another white garden). My brother disliked (intensely) one of the women associated with this house and used to call her "Mrs Snooty" (she wasn't really snooty, she just had a loud, rather commanding voice).

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Eighteenth-century thatched cottage in Buckinghamshire.

Monday, December 13, 2004

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One of the most attractive features of London is the way in which various communities have recreated their particular homeland in a few streets. South Kensington is home to some of London’s large French population. As well as many French restaurants (including Bibendum) there is also Cine Luminare (opened by Catherine Deneuve) which shows only French-language films, plus numerous boulangeries, charcuteries and patisseries. This is the shop window of rising Moroccan-French clothes designer Joseph. The window is filled with such glittery clutter that the stark lines of the dark clothes are an arresting contrast.

This network of streets was also famous for being the haunt of the late Princess of Wales and, for all her English pedigree, there were (if you can believe the press) apparently many French aspects to her character (hysterical tantrums, romantic infidelities, bitter self-defeating feuds).
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Joseph window dressers are expected to work late into the night.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

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Blurred night-time view of Trafalgar Square, taken through the grimy window of a taxi. You can at least make out the Christmas tree, which is given each year by the people of Norway (I think it's to do with the help we gave them in the Second World War).

Friday, December 03, 2004

Photo essay: the white hart

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The white hart was the chivalric badge of Richard II. I did my university third year dissertation on chivalry in the late middle ages (definition: medieval chivalry was the cult of knighthood – it had nothing to do with holding doors open for people). The white hart refers to a pure white male deer (very rare) and followers of Richard II incorporated white harts into their coats of arms.
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I like the way the escutcheon has been done in coloured enamel and the rest of the heraldic achievement is in shades of grey.
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Supporters of Richard II met in taverns called (not surprisingly) The White Hart, and these pubs still survive all across the country.
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The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has a famous painting (called the Wilton Panel) of Richard II kneeling in front of the Virgin and Child (obviously this image belongs to the National Gallery and if they object I’ll have to take it down). All the angels are wearing white hart badges. One of them is holding the flag of St George as the Virgin Mary used to be England’s special protector (this was before the Reformation – not sure what she thinks of us now).

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The king who slew the slayer and shall himself be slain

The fall-out from November’s sales figures continued today. Trevor Bush’s irritation has been so intense that there are rumours that one of the sales reps will be made an example of. Prime candidate is Regional Sales Manager Craig Wymer, since he is the most senior person to be off-target.

Craig Wymer has worked for the company since he left school. He started in telesales and made such an impact that he was quickly promoted to field sales rep and then Area Manager, and finally (last year) Regional Sales Manager controlling the south of the country. This year he will personally bring in over one and a half million pounds in sales (if he keeps to target!) and his team will be responsible for over ten million.

Aged in his mid-twenties, he personifies the description “lean and mean”. He is very much a loner, even among his own team, and has no patience with anyone who cannot perform to his own very high standards. Often, when in the office and making calls to his top customers, he talks to himself, saying “Come on Wymer” while waiting for his calls to be answered.

This morning however, he was slumped in a chair by the Sales Desk. He was supposed to be motivating his staff on the Sales Desk but by eleven o’clock they had clearly exhausted themselves and were entering that stage of lethargic acceptance where they tell people “the market’s down – we can’t do anything” (not an excuse Trevor Bush will accept).

Seeing Craig Wymer so dejected and defeated, when previously he had been such a star performer, reminded me of the section in The Golden Bough by Sir James Fraser (one of the books that changed my life) where Sir James describes an ancient cult that was based around a sacred grove on the shores of Lake Nemi in central Italy. The Italian tribe that lived in this area (this was in pre-Roman times) had a custom that ensured their leader was always young, strong and a good fighter. This custom required the king to go each year, on a nominated day, to the sacred grove and fight anyone who challenged him. If he killed the challenger he remained king. If he was killed himself (as must eventually happen), the challenger became king.

Craig Wymer is only as good as his last sales figures. Sooner or later one of his team is going to challenge him. He is the modern equivalent of “The king who slew the slayer and shall himself be slain” (Thomas Macaulay).

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The best deserve the best, the worst deserve the worst

The monthly sales figures have come out for November. Overall a six per cent increase on last year, but far short of the fifteen per cent increase that had been targeted. All the sales reps were in the offices this morning, long faces, bemoaning the fact that they had missed target for the month (they have their own room where they sit when they are in the office – it’s like a private club just for them, no-one ever goes in there except by invitation).

Everyone expects Trevor Bush, our Managing Director, to come storming into the offices later this afternoon, demanding to know why the sales were off target and what plans the sales reps have to put things right. He will keep them late into the evening, haranguing them about their failure and threatening to take away their privileges (they are very well looked after in terms of salary and benefits). One of Trevor Best’s favourite sayings is: The best deserve the best, the worst deserve the worst.

Throughout the afternoon the tension has been mounting.

I would not normally get involved in this monthly berating (just as I do not get any of the bonuses when targets are met). However, recently Marketing has been given one of the least-performing areas to run some campaigns in, to see whether they will have any effect (none of the sales reps believed anything would come of this – they regard Marketing as a wasteful irrelevance). Looking at the sales figures just released, Area 7 (the area we had been given) has experienced a thirty-five per cent increase.

I have e-mailed Trevor Bush pointing this out to him. I know he will use it as ammunition to attack the sales reps. I can almost hear him saying: Even Marketing, yes even those useless people in Marketing have done better than you lot…

Friday, November 26, 2004

Photo-essay: guarding the entrance

Some photographs of gate posts guarding the entrance to private roads on secluded suburban estates.

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Usually, the higher the gate pier the more private the road.
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Seventeenth-century gate pier, mature holly bush in the background, late afternoon sun.

In the middle of some London suburbs you often come across gate pillars which are obviously far older than the surrounding 1930s houses. This was probably originally the entrance to a private estate with a big house and parkland - as London expanded these estates were bought up and developed as suburbs. The gates remain as a clue to the the past.
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In a 1920s estate the developer has constructed gate pillars which incorporate carvings of roses - appropriately this gate leads into Rose Walk.
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Sometimes wrought iron was used.
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And beyond the gates? Mile after mile of leafy suburbs, with detached and semi-detached houses (usually mock-Tudor, very occasionally stark white 1930s modernist). I like these blocks of flats.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Something was wrong

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Corner of the wet carpark at lunchtime

Cold, steady, persistent rain that started about ten o’clock this morning. Thank goodness it was dry earlier when I took the dog for a walk (7 am). Normally we go for a short walk along the lane, and then return to the house where I have a cup of tea and some biscuits and then go to work. The dog always has one of his biscuits (mixed ovals in a dish on the floor in the kitchen – he could have a saucer of tea if he wanted it) and then goes to bed where he stays until my brother gets back from work at 4.30.

This morning however, the dog must have sensed something was wrong. Because the cat is at the vet for the next few days, having a small operation, the dog was left in the house alone. He watched me put on my coat, and followed me through the two kitchens (the Inner Kitchen and the Outer Kitchen) where he stood at a little distance as I went out the door. As I walked round the corner and along the front of the house (which actually faces away from the road – the road came after the house) I heard the dog howling mournfully, something he has never previously done. I briefly considered going back to quieten him, but there was too little time. And later I realised he has never been completely on his own before.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Recognisably “London”

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I rashly incorporated the word London into this weblog title, but looking back through past posts, there is more about life in the Home Counties than in the city. I suppose when you are very familiar with a place you tend not to pay much regard to the obvious features around you. Anyway, I’m going to make more of an effort to include scenes that are recognisably “London”.

Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road. This is one of my favourite buildings, designed by the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse. I took the picture when I was on my way to the Victoria & Albert Museum on the opposite side of the road.

I say it is one of my favourite buildings, but only in regard to the architecture. I never go round the galleries inside (except the entrance hall where the gothic theme of the architecture is enhanced by monstrous skeletons of dinosaurs, ferocious jaws grinning at the incoming tourists). To tell the truth, I struggle to raise much enthusiasm for anything scientific (I suppose I’m just not very practical).

Biographical note: although I live outside London and the place where I work is located in an industrial suburb, I feel I am a Londoner through and through. I was born in north London, and my father’s family came from the East End where they had lived for hundreds of years. The only reason they moved out of the East End was because of the blitz in 1940 (and three days later the house was hit and completely destroyed). They moved to Mill Hill and never looked back. It was the best thing that could have happened to them. After years of poverty, the war gave them a new start.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

It's embarrasing when it breaks down

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There's a lot of kudos in having a cool-looking car, but it's embarrasing when it breaks down in the High Street

Monday, November 15, 2004

Finding myself drawn into someone else’s life

Saturday. As arranged, I drove north to meet Marie-Astrid Wallis. She had given me a different address to go to, an ordinary semi-detached house. Inside she was completely alone.

We had a cup of tea and she told me that she had split up with her husband and was living on her own. She intended to divorce her husband. They had agreed that their two-year daughter should spend half her time with each of them.

This news left me confused and a little shocked. At all our previous meetings Marie-Astrid and her family had placed such emphasis upon their religious way of life that the idea of getting divorced seemed incredible. The last time we had met there had been no hint that the marriage was in trouble.

And I also felt I was experiencing déjà vu – of not seeing someone for several years, and then meeting them again almost by chance and then finding myself drawn into someone else’s life in a way that I was not entirely comfortable with. Sat there in the cold empty house I didn’t know what I was expected to do. As it was bright sunshine outside I suggested we went for a walk.

In my car we drove out into the countryside, and parked in a little track. Getting out we walked through a village. Although the sun was out, the air was very cold, and I didn’t have an overcoat, so the walk was not entirely pleasant. Past an old church where a grimacing medieval gargoyle looked down at us menacingly. On some exposed stonework I found a lichen-covered coat-of-arms featuring three goats and the “bloody hand” badge of a baronet. We rounded a corner of the church and discovered a lovely old manor house, with a sixteenth-century doorway. Marie-Astrid was very keen to explore, and led the way round the back of this building where there was a range of stables.

It was so cold that I was glad to get back to the car. We drove to a nearby country club that Marie-Astrid was considering joining (£50 per month). It was a modern building set in woodland and comprised several bars and restaurants, a swimming pool, extensive health facilities. “As I’ve got older I’ve grown to appreciate nice surroundings” Marie-Astrid told me. We had a cup of coffee in one of the lounges then went for a walk round the building – squash courts, gym, an upstairs restaurant where Marie-Astrid was considering holding her forthcoming birthday party. The sun had gone and darkness fell quite quickly.

Returning to Marie-Astrid’s house, she sat beside me on the sofa and told me all the difficulties she had faced recently, and how she planned to start her life over again.

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Malevolent medieval gargoyle (with gaping mouth)
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Three goats and a “bloody hand” badge