Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Early evening, the light beginning to fade

Bank holiday weekend, the end of summer. Early evening, the light beginning to fade. I was driving home from the other side of the county. An unbelievably heavy shower of rain fell from the sky, then just as abruptly stopped. The road I was driving along became more and more narrow. I was lost (I knew generally where I was, but specifically I was lost).

A sudden moment of recognition. The lane dipped down sharply to a crossroads, and opposite, to one side, were a pair of gate posts, the entrance to a great house usually kept strictly private (reputedly where a Russian prince and his family live). There was a hand-made sign saying “Open Today in support of St John’s Ambulance”. The prospect of getting into the park seemed so intriguing that I went through the gates and proceeded along a winding tree-lined drive.

It was nearly six, and although the place may have been open earlier, it was clearly closed now. But feigning innocence, I went on (I reasoned that the worst that could happen to me was that I’d be asked to leave). In a little valley I saw a few cars parked to one side, so I stopped my car next to them, got out, and looked around. To one side was a lake, with swans on it. I crossed a shallow river over a cattle grid. Walking upwards, a bend in the drive revealed a big mansion, built of honey coloured stone. Two Rolls Royce cars were parked ostentatiously outside the main entrance. Various stout people, dressed in the uniform of St John’s Ambulance Brigade, were moving about, carrying chairs and tables, obviously clearing up after the open day. No-one took any notice of me.

All the windows of the house were shuttered, making it appear mysterious. In an upstairs window towards the back, obviously a child’s room, teddy bears had been placed in the gap between the wooden shutter and the outer glazing. These toys looked as if they had been trapped and were signalling for help.

Posted by Hello

I walked round the side of the house onto a terrace bordered by flower beds. The edge of the terrace fell away in lawns, leading down to the broad lake, with woods rising up the valley on the opposite shore. At the water’s edge was a small spiky gothic building, possibly a folly. As I stood on the edge of the terrace the sun came out, quite low in the sky, casting long shadows. The rain had made everything wet, and the sun caught the raindrops so that the whole landscape glistened. It was very beautiful.

Two elderly ladies, obviously volunteer helpers, were sat together on a bench. Snippets of their conversation floated across to me:

“It’s turned very cold now.”
“Yes, it is cold. The rain’s made it cold.”
“I wish I’d put on something warmer.”
“Yes, I wish I’d put on something warmer.”
Mumble, mumble, then (I think they were discussing tapestry):
“It was in a frame. It was ever so old. I wish now I hadn’t let it go. But I took it out of the frame and then I didn’t know what to do with it. I wish now I hadn’t let it go.”
Mumble, mumble, then (said with reverence, so possibly they were discussing the Russian princess):
“She’s very nice.”
“Yes, she is nice.”
“She came and sat at our table when we were having tea. She asked how we all were.”
“She sings in the choir. She’s got a very good singing voice.”
“Yes, she’s very nice.”

Thursday, August 26, 2004

“It will happen because I want it to happen”

The meeting today was so important that I interrupted my holiday and came into the office especially, even though the notice had been unreasonably short and I would have been justified staying away.

The meeting was held in the Training Centre as the Boardroom was being refurbished. All the senior managers were there, plus some other, more junior, people who were included because their contribution would be “valuable” (in other words they would support the right side, since it was clear that this meeting, like all other meetings, had been carefully set-up beforehand). The meeting had been called in response to a mini-rebellion among the sales teams about the transfer of half the sales desk to the Glasgow office.

Most people had taken their seats by the time I entered the room. I sat next to Scott Ryan (top salesman) and regretted it the rest of the morning since his loud contributions and juvenile jokes were rather overpowering. Trevor Bush, Managing Director and owner, chaired the meeting. Trevor Bush is short, rotund, with curly grey hair and a rough East End voice. He is very intolerant of anyone who procrastinates or makes excuses. At one point in the meeting he slammed his hand down on the tabletop and said: “It will happen because I want it to happen.”

Sitting directly opposite me were my three worst enemies: External Sales Manager Kevin Slattery (in his fifties, fat stomach, short grey hair, round puffy red face, bad flaky skin, small round glasses, irritable apoplectic manner, arms folded throughout the meeting). Next to him was Southern Regional Sales Manager Craig Wymer (in his mid-twenties, slim build, short black curly hair, deep green eyes, very expensive suit, heavy black watch with a luminous dial. His shirt was white, with a faint narrow stripe to it, matching the stripes in his silk tie. He took his jacket off and rolled up his shirtsleeves – the cuffs were lined with mauve. He is very good at telling jokes and making people laugh, but he is deadly serious about his work and will take any criticism intensely personally). Next to Craig was Marion Conway, Human Resources Director (aged sixty, tall and slim in build, grey shoulder-length hair that occasionally is dyed blonde, always dressed in black, always wearing trousers. She has a very loud voice and will literally shout down anyone who disagrees with her. Her laugh is harsh and unpleasant, and used to great effect whenever she wants to indicate disapproval).

The meeting got underway with a presentation, delivered by Neil Hancock (Sales Director). The company has recently purchased a Sanyo state-of-the-art projector system, and there was some confusion about how to switch it on. When it was eventually working Trevor Bush did what he always does when there is a presentation – he got up and stood in front of the projection light, making shadows with his hands (birds, a motor car, the head of an old man with a pipe).

We had coffee at eleven. At lunchtime sandwiches and crisps arrived. It soon became clear why I had been included in the meeting. Kevin Slattery, Craig Wymer and Marion Conway were the ringleaders of the revolt, and were being publicly isolated and outmanoeuvred. My role, along with the others especially brought in to pack the meeting, was to support Trevor Bush and vote in favour of the Glasgow option.
We finished about three o’clock. I shall now resume my vacation, and return to the office after the bank holiday.

Monday, August 23, 2004

A poor, run-down sort of place

There is a shopping centre near where I work. I often go there at lunchtime. It is a poor, run-down sort of place. When it was built (in the late 1970s I would guess) it would have been a showpiece of modern architecture, with shops surrounding a central square, inventive 1970s sculpture formations, flats above the shops, each with a balcony supporting a miniature garden. One can imagine the architects saying they had been inspired to build a concrete Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

In the three years I have been going to the centre it has declined dramatically. About half the shops have closed and are boarded up. The sculptures have been removed recently in case children climbed on them, fell and hurt themselves. The local council has reportedly moved “problem” families into the flats where they can be anti-social to each other instead of bothering decent people.

My colleagues at work are surprised that I go to the local centre instead of driving five miles to Tescos. They warn me especially never to go into the pub. I like the place because the people there seem “real” (difficult to explain, but they have a lack of pretence, as if all aspiration has been crushed out of them, and only the vulnerable kernel of humanity remains). On a practical level I also find the centre convenient, with a post office, bank, building society and chemist.

Only once did I feel threatened. I had been walking across the square, and coming towards me was a couple in their ‘twenties, very poorly dressed, the man unshaven. They were arguing loudly, and making bitter recriminations to each other. As we drew level and passed, the man swore at the woman so crudely and violently that I couldn’t help looking in his direction. The man took objection to this, turned towards me and shouted “You alright mate?” I walked on, and in a few seconds the incident had passed. But it made me think how on edge some people are.

Another time I went there and in the middle of the car park was a huge lorry which looked as if it had been ransacked. Standing around were about twenty police. The local newspaper said later that the lorry had been stolen in the middle of the night, driven to the car park, and the contents looted and taken into the flats.

This lunchtime I went to the small greengrocers. This is very much a “no frills” operation, with fruit in various stages of ripeness and decay just heaped up in bins. You take the fruit you want, put it into brown paper bags, and pay on the way out. I had selected some apples, and was waiting at the checkout desk. In front of me was a young mother with a toddler in a pushchair. Another young woman with a pushchair came into the little shop, took some fruit, came over to the checkout queue and greeted the woman in front of me, pushing into the line and manoeuvring her pushchair so that I was obliged to step backwards. She was aged in her early twenties, long hair (slightly greasy looking), short tight skirt, a white halter-top that showed a slight roll of fat round her midriff. She talked non-stop to her friend, but as she did so she frequently looked out of the corner of her eye at me, looks so frank and obvious that I felt self-conscious.

The first woman paid for her purchases and moved on. The middle-aged woman at the checkout (who had a homely face, with a very pronounced nose) ignored the second woman with the pushchair and moved down the counter to where I was waiting, took the apples from my hands, weighed them and asked me for the money. The woman in the white halter-top stood open-mouthed, a look of disgust on her face. I left the shop feeling uneasy. I felt as if I had insulted her in some way.

Friday, August 20, 2004

This “snap appraisal” was a bluff

I arrived in the office and looked at the tasks for the day (not particularly onerous ones). Keith Williams on the Sales Desk was singing a song that consisted of the words Dry Your Eyes Mate endlessly repeated until Greg Mitton loomed over his desk and told him to shut up.

My assistant, Adrian Taylor, was still spending an excessive amount of time talking to his friends on the Sales Desk, despite my previous warnings (I get blamed by the other managers because he doesn’t appear to be occupied. The Sales Director is hinting that the Marketing Assistant post could be cut out in the next budget round). I determined to put a stop to this.

I called Adrian Taylor into the Board Room and told him I was holding a formal appraisal of his work. We went through his job description, and I highlighted his various short-comings, complained about his poor attitude, and told him to buck his ideas up. He sat slumped in a chair on the opposite side of the table, his arms folded and a petulant expression on his face. At one point he muttered to himself “I can’t win” shaking his head in silent disbelief at the tyrannical way in which he was being treated (actually he has one of the best junior jobs in the company, for which he is paid £14k per annum – not bad for someone who has no marketing qualifications. We are usually very leisurely in the Marketing Department, and very seldom is he expected to work hard. Possibly he is bored, but he doesn’t take an interest in any of the website responsibilities I’ve offered him).

Actually this “snap appraisal” was a bluff (although Adrian didn’t know that). I couldn’t hold a real appraisal without involving Personnel, and the poisonous old harpy who is our Human Resources Director encourages junior staff to inform against their managers, so the whole thing could have backfired.

I find managing other staff difficult and I get no support from the directors. Originally there wasn’t a marketing department at the company. Then the Managing Director decided he wanted one, and advertised for a Marketing Executive. When I had been in the job a couple of months I started calling myself Marketing Manager, and unilaterally changed the title on my business card. Everyone seemed to accept this, including the MD. A year later I was allocated an Assistant, and Adrian Taylor was recruited. A few months later Caron Maryatt was placed under my responsibility (previously she had reported to the Internal Sales Manager). In no time at all a fully operational Marketing department had appeared, and began running campaigns (much to the disgust of some of the sales managers – “You’ve got the cushiest job in the company” Mark Miller once said to me).

Another unique aspect of my job is that I seem to have an unlimited budget to spend. Every time I raise a purchase order or sign off an invoice, no matter how extravagant I’ve been, nothing is ever said. Even when I think “This time there’s definitely going to be trouble” the thing goes through. All this is in contrast to others who get shouted at for ordering too much stationery or putting client drinks onto their expense accounts.

The company is doing extremely well. Money is pouring in. The in-fighting between rival managers is getting nastier. Marketing is aloof from all this. We seem to exist in a bubble that sooner or later (I just know) is going to burst.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The sight in the mirror mesmerised me

As I drove to work this morning, on the duel carriageway, a car exactly the same as mine (one year older) came up behind and stayed there for about ten minutes, driving rather too close to the back of my vehicle. Looking in the rear-view mirror I could see a young woman of about eighteen or nineteen, wearing dark glasses. She had long strawberry-blonde hair. She was driving her car with just her left hand on the steering wheel (we were going about 60mph). In her right hand she had a hair brush, and was rhythmically brushing her hair, pulling the brush downwards and outwards, and giving a sensuous little flick to her head as each brush stroke finished. The sight in the mirror mesmerised me, so that I didn’t pay proper attention to the road ahead.

Into the office. Trevor Bush, Managing Director, had sent an e-mail to all the sales teams (copied to all department heads, including myself) complaining about the way in which one of the main product ranges is being sold. During the morning replies came in from the various sales managers, and the debate became quite convoluted. Some wild things were said about our branding policies and marketing campaigns (we’re an easy target). I felt drawn into the discussion, and using very moderate and reasonable language, I wrote a reply telling two of the sales managers that they didn’t know what they were talking about. I know they will retaliate in some way.

I have been mystified recently by hints from Neil Hancock, the Sales Director, to “punch ups” involving my assistant Adrian Taylor. Today the mystery was made clear – a few weeks ago Adrian Taylor was involved (along with fourteen other members of his old college’s rugby club) of fighting in a nightclub. After being ejected from the club, the rugby players continued fighting in the street, confronting the nightclub’s security staff. The police were called, and large numbers of people were arrested, including Adrian Taylor. He has been charged with “affray” and goes to court on 22nd November – as no leave is allowed during our busy season, he had to explain the circumstances requiring him to be absent, and thus I found out about his violent and disreputable adventure. He is very chastened about the experience, and confesses to being nervous about going to court.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The scene of devastation

I share my birthday with Madonna. We were both born on the sixteenth of August. Over the years I have come to think of Madonna as a sort of secular guardian angel, her songs marking the high point of summer. It was the same this year. As Sunday became Monday, there was the culmination of “Madonna Weekend” on the Magic music channel, with Madonna cavorting in an endless series of vivid music videos – posing against Venetian backdrops, rolling around in shallow waves, standing in a high wind. Madonna in jeans, Madonna in a pink ballgown, Madonna in nothing very much at all. Madonna songs as social commentary, Madonna songs as fervent religious expression, Madonna songs as dense, multi-layered works of art. Madonna now lives in Wiltshire, in a house that once belonged to the photographer Cecil Beaton.

A huge birthday cake. An old recipe. Made with ten eggs, crushed brown sugar on the top, soggy in the middle (it wasn’t meant to be soggy, but I don’t think it was cooked long enough). I had one slice.

I drove across to Ashwell to meet Gary Spencer at his house. We then drove in his Jaguar up to London to meet Alan Nixon. Our objective was the Atlantic Bar & Grill in Glasshouse Street. This had not been our first choice of restaurant, but as we had left the booking so very late all the familiar places were full. We had been on the point of giving up, but Gary Spencer announced he had just got an AmEx Black Card: “I can get you into any restaurant in London” he told me. We left the choice of restaurant to the Black Card, and the Black Card people got us a table at the Atlantic Bar & Grill.

All the way up to London Gary Spencer played a Dido CD, enthusing about the singer.

Arriving at the restaurant, there was a rope cordoning the entrance off from the street, and a small crowd of people waiting expectantly. We pushed through these people and were stopped by the door staff who carefully checked that our names were on a list they were holding. The Atlantic Bar & Grill has a ruthless door policy that makes the place difficult to get into unless you “look right” (so how did we get in? - presumably the AmEx Black Card made us beautiful in the eyes of the establishment).

We descended a very elegant curving staircase, to a cavernous lobby area dominated by a huge chandelier. Many people were milling about in this area. As we reached the midway point on the staircase I became conscious that the people below were looking up at us, presumably to check whether we were glamorous celebrities (then looking quickly away when they realised we were not). The Atlantic Bar & Grill is a haven for the famous, the “in crowd”, and the “hanging on crowd” – plus nonentities such as ourselves who enter the place by accident.

The interiors were remarkable, displaying an opulence that verged on the decadent. I was reminded of the Alma-Tadema painting The Baths of Caracalla, but actually the style was early Art Deco Egyptian Revival. The great rooms were almost entirely lined in coloured marble, the half-columns around the walls finished by palm-tree capitols. Usually I like the art deco style, but this version was overpowering in a heavy, expensive and almost sinister way. Overlaying all this marble the designer David Connor (a friend of Janet Street-Porter and Vivienne Westwood) has installed post-modern furnishings, including enormous mirrors and 1930s revival lighting. We passed a room called Dick’s Bar (more “door staff” protecting this inner sanctum – looking through the entrance one could see a dusky-pink interior, with sofas in red leather – “Baby Spice” Emma Bunton recently held a birthday party there).

Then into a vast area that was the Atlantic Bar itself. There must have been several hundred people in this spacious area, drinking, talking, or standing seven or eight deep at the bar. The appearance of the people seemed to be vaguely unsettling until I realised that all of them were young and attractive, as if we had wandered onto a film set populated entirely by models. On the walls were examples of modern art (pieces by Douglas Gordon, Tatsuo Miyajima and Mariko Mori - the “installation” artist Mat Collishaw once put up a large reproduction of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus punctuated by bullet holes). The music was deafeningly loud, and some of the people were making attempts at dancing.

The Atlantic Bar had originally been the ballroom of the old Regent Palace Hotel – this former ballroom, of huge dimensions, has been split in two, one half forming the “bar”, the other half (protected by yet another checkpoint of “style police”) being the restaurant. The two halves were divided by the long bar counter. I followed Gary Spencer into the restaurant, where we met Alan Nixon and sat down at our table. From where we were seated we had a good view, and Gary Spencer pointed out David Blaine (a “performance artist”, celebrated for being suspended in a glass box above the Thames for about a month).

The music was so loud that ordinary conversation was impossible. The food was disappointing (a sort of fusion of popular American and European dishes – snails ravioli an example of the quirky menu). The service was very slow and our five courses took a total of three hours to arrive. However, it was clear that one doesn’t go to the Atlantic Bar & Grill to eat or to talk, one goes there to be seen.

I started with smoked salmon, then had monkfish for a main course. Bollinger to drink, which was a nice touch paid for by Gary Spencer. When we were able to talk we discussed Alan’s difficult situation and the options that might be available to him. I strenuously opposed any suggestion of bankruptcy, feeling that this would be an irrevocable step. Gary Spencer suggested he should go to eastern Europe for a number of years (Anastasia is Romanian) until all the fuss has subsided. Gary Spencer also launched into a belligerent analysis of the world economy, attacking American levels of debt and saying that the American economy was close to collapse. “I’ve put all my investments into gold” he said smugly. American national debt will erode the attractiveness of the American dollar as a world currency. This in turn will erode American military power (there is an almost exact correlation, which I didn’t understand, between the profit made from the strength of the dollar, and the American military budget – which means that American military power is basically funded by foreign nations who hold dollars as a currency reserve).

At about 11.30 pm we left the restaurant. Gary Spencer drove me back to Ashwell where I got into my own car and continued across to Buckinghamshire. By this time it was very late – about 2 am. The road from Ashwell is very long, rather narrow, hemmed in by woods, and frequently undulates up and down in a series of deep dips and hollows. Because the road is relatively straight, and there are few turnings off, I was inclined to drive a little faster than usual, especially as there seemed to be no other traffic so late at night.

About half-way along the road I saw flashing lights, with a van and a big lorry stopped in the road. I slowly began to pass the lorry, and someone came out of the darkness to stand in front of my car, motioning to me to stop. We were at the crest of one of the little valleys, and I could look down into the dip to see, by the light of our combined headlights, a terrible accident. A saloon car was sprawled across the road, with debris scattered around it. It had been consumed by fire, so that there was no glass in the windows, and even the colour of the vehicle was unrecognisable, so ferocious had been the fire. The accident had clearly only just happened, as smoke was still rising from the wreckage.

The man who stopped me opened the passenger door of my car and almost collapsed onto the seat. He seemed very shaken, and was talking into a mobile ‘phone to the emergency services, at one point turning to me to ask where we were. From his appearance I guessed that he was the lorry driver. Perhaps he had just witnessed the accident – or perhaps he had even caused it. “I can’t see any sign of the driver” he said into the 'phone, and then got out of the car and with a dazed sort of stagger went a little closer to the scene of devastation.

I leaned across and closed the passenger door, and reversed my car back past the lorry and past the van and stopped with the engine still running. I am not normally a nervous person, but the loneliness of the night, the dark overhanging trees of the wood, and the dreadful crash only a few yards away made me feel very troubled. I felt that Death was very close (the image of Death in the painting by Thomas Cooper Gotch – a beautiful smiling woman, waving a greeting to those she has come to claim).

I considered the situation – there were at least two other people at the scene, and the emergency services were on their way. I had not witnessed the accident. There seemed to be nothing useful that I could do. Therefore I turned my car around and drove back along the road I had just come down. After a little way the peace of the night reasserted itself – rabbits scampered on the grass verges, the trees hemmed in close and secretive, the stars shone down with their ancient immutable light.

Shortly afterwards I saw an ambulance coming towards me, lights flashing, eerily silent on the empty road. Slowly and carefully I drove home.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

I am hoping there will be a gap in the clouds

I went out into the garden late last night to see the annual Perseid meteor shower, which the BBC had promised would be spectacular. All I could see was a blanket of low cloud. The show is due to climax tonight, so I am hoping there will be a gap in the clouds and I will see the shooting stars.

Shakespeare says in Richard II (one of my favourite plays):

The bay-trees in our country are all wither'd
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look'd prophets whisper fearful change

Most of today has consisted of idle tidying up as I prepare to take a few days off work to celebrate my birthday. I have to make sure that my assistant, Adrian Taylor, has enough to keep him occupied otherwise he will slouch around the office looking bored and stopping other people from working.

I have decided to buy myself a new car. I will go to a dealer tomorrow and get it ordered. I am hoping it can be delivered before the end of August so that it has “04” on the registration (in the United Kingdom new cars carry the year of registration in the number plate – so this year it’s “04” before 1st September, “54” afterwards).

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Today I posted a significant letter

Opening the curtains on the top floor of the house this morning, I saw that the magnolia was in flower. This is magnolia grandiflora, which is evergreen and rarely flowers (and then always in the late summer). Because the tree is so tall, and has thick glossy green leaves, you cannot see the flowers from ground level.

The flowers are white, and each one is about twenty inches across, with a heavy lemon scent. Despite the risk of being late, I went out into the garden to take a closer look at them. There are five of the big blooms. They will fall after three days, and then the tree will remain dormant for another three or four years.

At lunchtime today I posted a significant letter. The sort that might change my life. But then again, nothing might come of it, and I’ll remain where I am.

Five days until my birthday.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

A man who is literally two-faced

The marketing department is producing another catalogue. Catalogues are such protracted projects that the experience is quite stressful – there are so many things that can go wrong. This one is at a fairly advanced stage, and we are all sick of it.

Most sales literature we write and design ourselves, using InDesign (I would have preferred Quark Express but was over-ruled by the IT department, a decision that still rankles). However, with this catalogue we are using outside designers and printers. This means frequent trips out of the office to Marcomm Solutions, run by Riccardo Vacca and his partner Paolo Borghetti (Riccardo runs the printing side, Paolo does the design work). I have known them for some time, and when I moved to my present job I replaced the existing printers with Marcomm Solutions.

Paolo is a man who is literally two-faced. His right profile is very handsome and aquiline, like a hero from the Elgin marbles. The other side of his face is like an ugly, grimacing little ape. He is a short man, aged about thirty, with a tremendous physique so that when he is sitting down he resembles a broad-shouldered giant. Only when he gets up does his small stature become apparent (he wears boots with high heels, but these just make him look silly, and accentuate his bandy legs so that he waddles when he walks). He is very dark-skinned, and hates to be confused with someone from the middle east. His hair is black and short, but one eyebrow is grey so that I wonder whether the rest of his hair is dyed.

Both Paolo and Riccardo are the children of prisoners-of-war who decided to stay on after 1945 and bring their families over from Naples. They are very proud of their Italian heritage, and both play in a football team made up from the Italian community in London. Paolo is always being injured in football matches, no doubt because of his short stature and his aggressive and abusive shouting.

This morning they were describing a stag-night over the weekend for one of their team members. It took place in a big room over an Italian restaurant in the Newark Road. The main feature of this dinner was a live performance by naked dancers, culminating in an act of copulation between one of the women dancers and the sole male performer. Paolo covered his eyes with his hand when he described this incident, and said he had been disgusted by it all (but he winked and grinned at Fabio, one of the print machine operatives who was in the studio at the time, lounging against a drawing board).

Paolo is also very sensitive, and his eyes fill with tears whenever he talks about his parents or his many brothers. Both Paolo and Riccardo are family-orientated, and seem to have hundreds of relations. Whenever any family members are in the office they are always brought in to be introduced to me. I once ran into Paolo at the entrance to Tescos – I was in a hurry but he insisted on introducing his partner, a fair-haired English girl who looked very practical and down-to-earth. We stood there for ages, chatting about nothing, until I could get away.

Occasionally while I am in the Marcomm studio Paolo takes calls from other clients, talks respectfully and quietly to them, and then when the call is over swears and shouts violently. I suspect I am similarly insulted behind my back whenever I make last-minute alterations and amendments.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Up the tower...

We were up on the narrow balcony Posted by Hello

Sunday morning. My brother had the radio on in the dining room, an inane local radio station. He likes noise rather than silence (admittedly the silence in the house can be profound at times, almost oppressive). Inbetween the music was a great deal of chatter about local events. I was drinking a cup of tea (the first cup of tea of the day, having got up at 9), and trying to read, and listening in an involuntary way to the intrusive jabber of the radio. Among the events announced was a “festival” in a local village. A feature of the “festival” was to be guided tours of the church tower.

I like going up towers, and decided to go.

After lunch (roast beef, Yorkshire pudding burned to an uneatable crisp, roast potatos, cabbage, followed by strawberries, sugar, cream) I drove twelve miles to the village. Although it was fairly close, I had never been there before. There was no problem finding the church, which was a huge building, with an enormous tower and spire. Being a graduate in medieval history (I still think of myself as “really” an historian and my job in marketing as just the way I earn a living) I took an interest in the building, which was mostly 14th century. At the back I paid £1 and a guide (one of the locals) took me up the tower.

The stone steps were worn, and narrow, and unreasonably high, so that the climb upwards quickly became exhausting. Most of the staircase was in darkness (apart from the occasional tiny window), there was nothing to hold onto, and moving upwards in a tight spiral made me feel giddy. Not for the first time I thought: Why do I get myself into these situations!

With relief we stopped at the clock chamber. The clock mechanism was a massive piece of machinery, dating from the 1860s, still worked by a pendulum. “The arrival of the clock changed the village forever” said the guide. “Before the clock the villagers got up when it got light, ate when they felt hungry, and went to bed when it got dark. After the clock their lives began to be much more regulated.” All around the walls was graffiti – the names of local villagers through the ages, carved into the ashlar stone.

More of the spiral staircase, the steps even more worn and dangerous. More relief when we stopped at the bell chamber. This room was entirely filled by a cast-iron frame holding the bells – five bells, each one about seven feet high, bulky and brooding in the semi-darkness of the bell chamber. The guide showed me a date on the oldest bell – 1600. Some of the other bells had religious inscriptions set into them. Above the bell frame rose the interior of the spire, about fifty feet in height, lit by shafts of sunlight from the openings cut into it. Although it was a still day, inside the spire there was the constant sound of rushing wind, eerie in the way it whistled and moaned.

More of the spiral staircase, not so many steps this time, and a feeling of exhilaration as I stepped out onto the balcony that goes around the top of the tower. Several other people were already up on the balcony, plus a little Jack Russell dog. A mother and her small son came up the steps behind us, and out into the hot sunlight (31º centigrade). The mother looked terrified, and held onto her son’s hand so tightly that I could see she was hurting him. The view was easily twenty-five miles in all directions, and the guide pointed out the tower of a cathedral on the horizon.

Looking downwards, one could see the entire village and into the little worlds of the houses and gardens:

Just off to the side of the graveyard was a large garden where two young families were enjoying the sun – the children in an inflatable paddling pool splashing water about, the two young mothers sunbathing in bikinis, the two fathers in just shorts, exercising with dumb-bells.

“You see that house there” said the guide, pointing in a different direction. “During the war the Germans dropped bombs on the village, and Mrs Pell who lived in that cottage was holding her baby when a bomb fell in her garden. The blast wrapped both of them in the carpet they were standing on, and forced them up the chimney. Both of them survived.”

On the other side of the tower were two elderly villagers, obviously once romantically involved, and still regarding each other with affection. “Oh look” said the woman, a note of disappointment in her voice. “The Sibsters have taken up their tennis court. We spent so many afternoons there, playing tennis. They were such happy times when we were young.”

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Preparing for emergencies

The new safety booklet from the government arrived yesterday. Entitled “Preparing for emergencies – what you need to know” it was a flimsy pamphlet containing very basic advice. My brother read through it, but I couldn’t be bothered.

Later I thought of the booklet as I lay in bed, and thought of the house around me, and the chestnut trees around the house, and the village boundaries beyond, and Buckinghamshire beyond that, and England around Buckinghamshire, and the seas around everything. It was a series of concentric protective circles. And for a moment I felt completely safe.

In darker moments I think how insubstantial our lives are. I think of the churchyard at the end of the lane, just up on that little crest, and the row of family graves. And the space I calculate where my grave will be. And it seems to me, in the silence and stillness and darkness, that however much we work to restore the house, it is never likely to come alive again. In many ways my brother and I also died in June 2003.

But those are dark thoughts. Thank goodness they don’t often trouble me.