Thursday, September 30, 2004

I have been trying this technique in reverse

I am attempting to learn French again (preparing for my trip to Brittany). I read somewhere that the reason people in other European countries pick up English so well is because they listen to so much English-language music. I have been trying this technique in reverse by listening to French CDs on the long drive to work each day. Yesterday it was Sandrine Francois (she has a very beautiful voice – I am surprised she is not more widely known). This morning I tried an Alizeé CD. One of Alizeé’s songs (Moi Lolita) was in the UK charts last year, but otherwise she hasn’t had much success over here.

More interviews today for the post of Marketing Assistant – all of them fairly good candidates. One young chap appeared to be very confident, smiling, meeting our gaze and speaking with a determined voice – and yet his hands were shaking. He hid this very well, but when Neil Hancock and I discussed the candidates later he remarked upon it, and put a big black “NO” on his CV (he writes everything in thick black marker pens which is very intimidating – especially when someone on the Sales Desk is late back from lunch and finds a note saying WHERE ARE YOU? on their desk).

While we were conducting one interview Neil Hancock stopped and went over to his desk (we were seated at the long table) and made a short ’phone call saying: “Can you spare a couple of hours this afternoon? We need to do a knee-capping and I need you to drive his car back” (which implied someone – probably one of the field sales staff who has missed his targets for this month – was going to be fired and his company car taken away).

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A folk memory

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At the weekend I was in a village on the edge of the escarpment, and in the church I found this carving of a “green man” (or “wild man”). It was high up near the top of a pillar, and in almost complete darkness.

I would never have known the carving was there unless I had been told (an old lady, sitting at the back of the church waiting for her friend, was full of information about the village, although her stories sometimes became a little confused – “You know they’ve found the site of the old abbey” she said to me confidentially, “…you do know that, don’t you” the words emphasised, as if she was telling me vitally important information, “…and when they did the measurements they found it was in an exact straight alignment with this church raising her voice triumphantly, as if a point had been proved. Later she told me the same story again, exactly word for word).

This is a very bad photograph, taken with a cheap throwaway camera, the flash almost obscuring the detail. Once again I had to clamber about to try to get up near the top of the pillar. I was standing on a piece of furniture and leaning across to get the right view, wobbling about unsteadily.

In this crude carving you can see the head of the “wild man” in the centre, with foliage streaming out his mouth meant to symbolise the wild chaotic spread of nature, the leaves continuing round the top of the pillar. The other name for these creatures was “woodwose”. They were supposedly gigantic ape-like animals who lived in the depths of the woods and forests. The Woodhouse family in Norfolk have a coat-of-arms which includes two “green men” as supporters, which made me wonder whether the name Woodhouse was a corruption of the word “woodwose”.

My theory (a wild theory, with no substantiation) is that the “green men” or “woodwoses” were possibly Neanderthals, who lived side-by-side with the Cro-Magnon tribes until they became marginalised by the more successful species and were driven into the wastelands and the forests, eventually becoming a folk memory.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

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Karl Gedney's tie

Without sales everyone is dead

The monthly sales meeting yesterday.

This was run by Sales Director Neil Hancock – Managing Director Trevor Bush rarely bothers to attend. Nobody except the sales staff gets to attend all of the meeting – instead department heads (IT, Credit Control, Marketing etc) are called in as their slot comes up on the agenda. This is incredibly frustrating, as I can’t really concentrate on anything else while I’m waiting, and don’t even like to leave the building at lunchtime in case the call comes through to go to the Board Room.

Just past eleven the ’phone rang and Neil Hancock’s voice said: “You’re on.” I put my jacket on before going down there – last time I had left it off, and when I went in they were all wearing jackets which immediately made me feel at a disadvantage. This time none of them were wearing jackets and they were all sitting in their shirtsleeves (white and blue shirts, a couple with stripes).

I sat down in a space between Scott Ryan and Robert Sutton.

“What’s that smell?” I asked.

Escape For Men” (said nonchalantly).

Opposite were the two Regional Sales Managers Craig Wymer and Mark Miller (both joined the company straight from school about ten years ago, when they were aged sixteen. Now they are on about £30k each plus bonus and car and benefits). At one end of the table was Karl Gedney and his little clique (don’t really know what else to call them – mafia possibly. They are very difficult to oppose when they act together, since they always back each other up). At the other end were the Slattery brothers (middle aged, technically very competent, very good at office politics).

All of them (except the Slatterys) are very conscious of how they look – they go to gyms and spend a fortune on their attire. It was Karl Gedney and his followers who started the office fashion of wearing thongs (bought from Asda and looking very noticeable beneath their clothes – David Beckham’s got a lot to answer for). They all play in local league soccer teams (not the company team, which they affect to despise) and know each other outside work.

We are a quarter of a million pounds off target this month, but everyone seemed to be pretty relaxed about this. “We’re doing twenty per cent more turnover than this time last year” said Neil Hancock (Sales Director) in a casual drawl that sounded rehearsed (obviously the ratio compared to last year is irrelevant, the fact is that they are not making their target this month. And gross turnover is not the same as net profit. But I don’t dare voice these thoughts for fear of being beaten to death – metaphorically speaking).

It’s a feature of these meetings that there is a lot of waiting about while Neil Hancock organises his thoughts, disappears to take important ’phone calls, disappears to make important ’phone calls, disappears to see if the lunch has arrived... He is very protective towards the sales staff and treats them like his children (another reason why I don’t dare be too critical). He is very rude to non-sales staff such as myself.

In one of the prolonged periods of waiting (Neil Hancock had been called out to the Sales Desk to talk to our most important customer), I did a survey round the table of what ties were being worn: Etro, Aquascutum, Next, Paul Smith (twice), Moschino, Salvatore Ferragamo, Marks & Spencer (an unusual choice for Craig Wymer), Christian Lacroix.

Later, under the pretext of trying out the macro facility on the office digital camera, I took photographs of some of the brand names.

My marketing presentation was accepted without much comment. They seemed bored with the latest market research and uninterested with the advertising proposals. I know (actually, I don’t know, but I strongly suspect) that my marketing campaigns are responsible for a good deal of their success, but obviously no credit is ever given.

Perhaps it is better not to rock the boat too much.

As Neil Hancock is so fond of saying: without sales everyone is dead.

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"This is seriously expensive stuff" said Scott Ryan when I photographed his Moschino tie
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Craig Wymer's tie
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Dean Barrett's tie (he's not paid as much as the others)

Friday, September 24, 2004

More heraldry - fabulous translucent quality

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This is an armorial device I photographed two weeks ago. It was in a tiny hamlet (population only twelve!) where the small church was kept shut up and disused. The building is unremarkable – just a long stone structure dating from the Norman period, with buttresses along one side. The only distinguishing feature was a series of 16th century marble and alabaster memorials set high up on the south wall of the chancel.

This is a poor photograph and doesn’t do justice to the subject. The coat of arms was so high up on the wall that I had to stand on a chair to take a picture, carefully shielded from the woman who let me into the building (she sat down at the entrance and waited with an impatient air, as if the whole thing was an immense disturbance to her day. If she had seen me standing on the furniture I’m sure she would have asked me to leave). Anyway, the sun was coming in from a side window, and lit up the alabaster so that it sparkled, giving it a fabulous translucent quality, as if it was made of ice.

I find heraldry a fascinating subject, and one where there has been very little research done, especially on a local level. I see myself studying the subject for fifty years or so, collecting images and tracing affinities, and then producing my life’s work – a volume entitled Heraldic and Armorial Devices in the County of Buckinghamshire. I like the idea of making some contribution, however small, to the sum of the world’s knowledge, even though such a book will no doubt disappear into the vaults of The British Library (where they claim to collect every book that is ever published), and rarely be seen again.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Two interviews

Two interviews today, both seemingly (on the strength of the CVs they had sent in) with fairly good candidates. The interviews were conducted by Neil Hancock (Sales Director) and myself, and were held in Neil’s office. This is on the coveted south side of the building and has a range of windows that look out over the landscaped car park. All the directors are in this part of the building and they have their own (semi-private) staircase down to their own discreet external door, and a tiny waiting area with cushion seats, today’s Financial Times, and a heap of old copies of The Economist.

Neil Hancock and I sat at one side of the long table in his office (a rather messy office – as a Director, Neil Hancock doesn’t feel he has to observe the company’s clean desk / tidy site policies). The telephone rang, announcing that the first candidate was waiting below. Neil went through a code-protected security door and I heard his footsteps as he crashed down the wooden stairs.

Seconds later he reappeared, accompanied by a man aged twenty-six (I knew this from his CV), shorter than average height, stocky build, short black curly hair, white shirt, pin-stripe suit, pastel-pink tie. The knot of this tie was loose, and the top shirt button was undone. He took off his jacket and put it over the back of a chair, sat down without being asked, and slouched back in his seat looking up at us.

We sat down opposite him and the interview commenced. Despite his very confident entrance, the candidate proved to be extremely nervous. Neil Hancock was merciless in probing the reasons why he had left previous companies (he told us he had left his last employment because the marketing job was going nowhere and his girlfriend had told him to leave). Several times over the course of an hour his story contradicted itself, revealing the fact that he was telling us small, unimportant, lies. There was no conclusion to the interview, it just sort of fizzled out. The candidate finished one of his unintelligible disconnected replies, and there was silence as Neil Hancock and I sat there for a moment, looking at him.

At lunchtime I bought a copy of The Guardian (very good journalistic standards, and full of interesting articles, but the editorials do tend to sneer a little, which is why I don’t read it regularly. An article today on weblogs was extremely interesting).

The second interview began late in the afternoon. The female candidate was aged twenty-five, dressed in a grey pin-stripe trouser suit which suited her slim figure. Blonde hair in a deliberately messy bobbed style. Subtle make-up. No jewellery. She was polite and self-effacing to begin with, but later became confident and chatty. Her CV contained a succession of marketing jobs that changed at six monthly intervals (the longest she had been in a job since leaving university was ten months). Neil Hancock pressed her hard on this job-hopping, and was unnecessarily intrusive (I thought) about the “boyfriend” troubles that had made her suddenly leave Bristol.

The interview went on for over two hours, long after everyone else had left for the evening. The formal questions stopped and we talked over cups of coffee, finishing with a long and quite lively political discussion on the National Health Service. Neil Hancock’s abrasive style had changed, and he was laughing and smiling at the young woman. The thought occurred to me: he’s fallen for her a little.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

He’s quite a clever bloke, he just doesn’t think

Keith Williams “disappeared” on Friday afternoon and rumours circulated that he had been sacked. This morning he reappeared at his place on the Sales Desk, a little quieter than usual (no singing) but otherwise showing no sign of having experienced anything unpleasant.

Keith joined the company about two years ago as a warehouse operative. The operatives receive the orders sent down from the Sales Desk in the form of picking notes – they then take a trolley and walk round the warehouse taking the products off the shelves. When they are done they return to Despatch where the goods are packed and then loaded onto lorries. It’s quite hard work (they walk miles round the largest warehouse, and some of the products are really heavy), and by the end of the shift most of the operatives look exhausted. Keith was rescued from this hard existence by Marion Conway (Human Resources Director) who thought he had more to offer, and got him a place working on the Sales Desk (much to Neil Hancock’s disgust) where he has been ever since.

He’s one of those people who are very street smart on the surface, with lots of jokes and wise cracks (a continuous stream throughout the day), but he is also very serious at times, and obviously thinks deeply about issues such as the situation in Iraq. He often shaves his head to conceal the fact that his hair is already thinning. He plays lots of sports (football, golf, squash) but a bad diet combined with excessive beer consumption has made him a little overweight (not fat exactly, but you can see which way things are going).

Adrian Taylor, assistant in the Marketing Department, told me what had happened to Keith:

“He was caught gambling over the internet. He was sent home on Friday and had a disciplinary yesterday.” (Gambling is banned in the company following a big fight in the warehouse over someone not paying their gambling debts).

“How was he caught?”

“Marion and Len were listening-in to ‘phone calls and they heard him telling someone he was gambling” (Leonard Green is Acting Manager of the Sales Desk while there is a vacancy. They use a Veritape system to monitor calls to the Sales staff).

“What happened then?”

“They told him he could either be docked a week’s wages or be sacked. He agreed they could dock his wages. He’s not very happy about it, but there’s nothing he can do.”

“Will that stop him doing it again?”

“For a few weeks. He admits he’s got a problem. He can’t stop. Horses, football, dogs – he bets on anything. That’s why he’s never got any money. He’s quite a clever bloke, he just doesn’t think at times.”

Monday, September 20, 2004

There are many legends connected to the harvest

The harvest has been late this year due to the bad weather, but finally the field of barley along the lane has been cut. I would go past the barley every time I walked the dog, and would think: surely it must be brought in soon, or the rain will spoil it.

There are many legends connected to the harvest in this part of the world. The wind waving through a field of corn is supposed to be the “spirit” of the corn moving through the crop (this “spirit” transmogrifies in shape, occasionally being a wolf, occasionally an old woman, occasionally an elemental force of nature waiting to “catch” unwary passers-by). In the old days, when the harvest was cut by hand, the reapers, binders and threshers would move in a clockwise direction around the field, working from the outside inwards, so that eventually there would just be left a small patch of corn in the centre. The corn spirit is supposed to retreat before the workers, taking refuge in the last sheaf of corn left standing. There are many customs associated with the way in which this last sheaf should be cut.

Traditionally a corn dollie would be made out of the last sheaf of corn to be cut in a particular field. These dollies would then be hung up in one of the barns, to bring good luck until the next harvest. It is a creepy experience to go into a barn and see rows of corn dollies hanging there. Some of them have faces, others are just abstract shapes. On absolutely no account must a corn dollie be burned (unless the perpetrator is determined to bring down disaster on the village).

In some villages they would dress a child up in straw from the last sheaf of corn, and parade this “straw man” along the High Street to the local church, but this hasn’t been done for many years (since before the Second World War).

These were harmless local customs. They were also credulous superstitions founded on a profound ignorance of scientific principles. They were attempts by our ancestors to placate the forces of nature – the gathering clouds, the dying year, the onset of winter. They obviously have no bearing on the way modern farming is carried on.

But it is surprising how many people still keep up the old ways just in case (about sixteen years ago, when the garden was being extended and a new lawn put in, lots of horseshoes were dug up. I keep looking for these horseshoes as I know they have been put away somewhere safe. I feel that if I can find them and nail them up on one of the chestnut trees, then finally our luck will change).

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This hill is much steeper than it looks in the photograph. The corn has been cut and only stubble remains.
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Lots of customs surround the idea of the “last sheaf” of corn. This one has been put on display – not sure what the old boots are meant to signify (perhaps old boots mean “good luck”?).
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A local baker made this bread loaf in the shape of a sheaf of wheat, and put it on display.
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When I went to a village show a few weeks back I found a little stall selling corn dollies – small figures made out of ears of corn. They are not toys - the meaning behind them is quite sinister.

Friday, September 17, 2004

We were supposed to go through the CVs together

Yesterday afternoon I took the CVs for the new Marketing Assistant into Neil Hancock's office to discuss which ones will get onto the short list for interview. Neil Hancock is the Sales Director, and my line manager. He does not bother to hide his contempt for marketing, and would prefer to do away with the marketing department completely (if he could!) and use the money to recruit more sales people.

Neil Hancock is aged about forty, and has a thin wiry build, with very short black hair (heavily gelled and combed upwards into spikes). He wears expensive clothes (dark Boss suits, dark Armani suits) that always manage to have a slightly crumpled look to them (I know Armani suits are supposed to look crumpled, but Neil's clothes are creased and lined, as if they need dry cleaning). His partner is very nice, and recently gave birth to a daughter. Neil Hancock is extremely rude to almost all staff in the company, and likes to humiliate people. Occasionally he is humiliated himself (he was in a local pub once with some of the lads from the Sales Desk. Scott Ryan's half-brother, who doesn't work for the company, came in, recognised him, and punched him in the face, knocking him from his barstool).

Anyway, we were supposed to go through the CVs together, but he just took the pile from me and went through them saying "This one... this one... this one..." and then told me to set the interviews up for the middle of next week. When I looked at his selection back at my desk, they were all male, and aged in their early twenties. "You don't get anywhere in this company unless you are a good football player” said Karl Gedney when I showed him what Neil Hancock had done. Karl Gedney is one of the product managers, aged about thirty and a good football player himself – moderate build, always careful over his appearance, probably the best-dressed person in the company. He is very sensitive about his slightly receding hair and combs it forward, so that you can’t tell at first glance. He has about four or five loyal friends in the company and tends to ignore everybody else (including me). He can’t ignore Neil Hancock however, and there has been a feud between the two for as long as anyone can remember. “I’ve lost count of the times he has tried to set me up” he told me once.

Anyway, as a small act of defiance I have included two selections of my own for the shortlist. And I thought: do I really want to go on being a manager? When I did the copywriting course at Watford College (a six-month intensive post-grad course, since I felt my degree in Medieval History was too impractical to get me a job straight away) my ambition was to be a successful writer. Although I worked for a year as a copywriter in an advertising agency it was very competitive, and I moved over into marketing. Now I feel I have become a Nick Carraway character (from The Great Gatsby) – reserved, diffident, always an onlooker, never taking centre stage.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

You either knew about it or you didn’t

At the weekend I went to a village show held locally. No attempt had been made to publicise the event – you either knew about it or you didn’t. Increasingly I am aware, especially compared to my artificial life working in the city, that a parallel world exists where the timeless traditional ways of life continue. At first (as I began my meandering post-degree studies as an amateur local historian) I was amazed that anything of the “real England” should have survived. Now I am surprised at how much carries on, oblivious to our fake, materialist city lives.

This is especially true of the area of the county where I live – three little valleys, twenty or so villages, about a hundred farms. The past lingers here more profoundly than anywhere else (or so it seems). Sometimes I feel like an explorer or anthropologist, recording things before they disappear (for I have no doubt that they will, in time, disappear). This world also has a dark side – primitive, emotional, occasionally savage.

Anyway, the show was wonderful, despite the gloomy weather. There was so much to see. A cool wind blew, there was gaudy music from a steam organ, there was a pervading smell of crushed grass, old sacks, steam mingled with soot…

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Teas were served in the big marquee, also a flower show, and local crafts (corn dollies, embroidery, pottery).
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Horses are all-important in this part of the world.
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The horse has been venerated here for centuries. I read in the newspaper yesterday that a new “white horse” hill carving has been discovered in Hertfordshire. It was discovered by accident by someone taking aerial photographs. Afterwards loads of people said they always knew it was there, hidden beneath the surface soil.
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This steam organ belted out old tunes while the figures on the front moved backwards and forwards. It was obviously built to commemorate victory in the Boer War.
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On either side of the organ were famous generals from the South African War. This is Lord Kitchener. Ferocious expression, glaring eyes, one hand grasps his sword, the other clutches his battle-plans.
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Lord Roberts. Another so-called tin-pot general (literally tin-pot, since I think the whole organ was made out of tin). Someone has placed a vase of flowers in front of him, presumably to placate any martial spirit that may linger in this imperialist idol.
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There was a demonstration of steam threshing and baleing. It reminded me of the steam threshing scene in Tess (wonderful film – I wish I could see it in a cinema instead of just on video) where Natasha Kinski is on top of a haystack and refuses to come down.
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A battered old tractor.
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An old car (there was a woman sitting in the passenger seat wearing a headscarf – she was such a character that I wanted to get her in the picture, but just at the last moment she ducked down).
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A row of pitchforks.
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Shears on an old sack.
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A box of rusty old spanners.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

He was refused entry

Simon Jordan, who works on telesales, came into the office this morning complaining of being beaten up last night. He had gone out drinking with a group of friends, visiting various pubs in the small commuter town where he lives. About the middle of the evening, when he had consumed seven pints of beer (seven pints on a weekday!) the group came to a pub where the entrance was protected by a large doorman. His friends were admitted, but because Simon was wearing an England football shirt he was refused entry (there had been a lot trouble in the town caused by men wearing England shirts and the pub had responded with a blanket ban on the garments).

After some negotiating Simon managed to get into the pub wearing a friend’s coat, which completely covered the offending shirt. “That was good thinking” said Adam Russell, who was listening to the story. “That’s because I’ve got it up here” Simon Jordan said, tapping the side of his head.

After a while Simon and his mates managed to get a table in the very crowded pub, and they sat down and continued drinking. Because it was hot, Simon took off his borrowed coat. The doorman came over to him and began to remonstrate, complaining that Simon was not keeping to his side of the bargain. Simon responded with various drunken smart-alec remarks. The doorman insisted that he couldn’t remain in the pub wearing an England shirt. Simon’s response was take off his England shirt and sit at the table half-naked.

The doorman pulled him to his feet, bundled him through the crowd, and threw him out into the street. During this process Simon Jordan was considerably manhandled and bruised (“people were punching me as I went past” he said). After he had been ejected from the pub, his friends did not follow him, but remained inside drinking.

This morning, telling us about his experiences, Simon was very matter-of-fact. “The professional bouncers are okay, the ones who have been trained” he said. “But you get the odd one who is just looking for a fight.” He said this philosophically, completely ignoring the fact that he had provoked the incident.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The house looks quite sinister and mechanical

Janet Street-Porter's house Posted by Hello

Sometimes I have to go to the office in the City. I hate going there, as the experience is always unpleasant (they are not nice people). Anyway, I got off the tube at Barbican and walked up a back way (mainly to delay the time of my arrival). And on the way I went past Janet Street-Porter’s house.

Janet Street-Porter is Editor of The Independent newspaper, and one of those media personalities who seem to have a strong opinion on everything. She is very tall, her hair is bright red, and she talks with an exaggerated East End accent. I have never met her, but I was once standing in the doorway to the City office talking to Marcus Horner (a very weak and vapid “rep” who used to look after some of the City clients) and he suddenly gasped “Janet Street-Porter’s just walked past!” He cried this out, as if it was a seminal moment in his life. By the time I turned round to look, there was only the usual passing stream of people, and the celebrity (if it was her) had gone.

The house looks quite sinister and mechanical. The windows are screened by ornamental bars, which make it look a bit like a fortress. The metal roof tiles look like the scales of some kind of reptile. On the impractical-looking balconies are colossal brooding stone heads, like artefacts brought from Easter Island.

The house is on a steep hill and just below it is a little public garden, always with one or two homeless people sitting on the park benches (except at lunchtimes when office workers go there to eat sandwiches).

I am always (always!) in a despondent mood when I go to the City office, anticipating yet another no-win situation. But passing Janet Street-Porter’s house usually manages to cheer me up. I don’t know why.

Friday, September 10, 2004

A fussy little man

There is a history in my family of sight problems, and I have a slight genetic risk of becoming partially-sighted. This doesn’t bother me at all, since the condition only becomes serious if it is neglected. The odds of this happening are very small (I don’t even wear glasses), but it means I need to have regular eye tests by a specialist.

I have just had one of the tests.

The optometrist occupies a three story Georgian house at one end of the market place in the local town. You go up three high steps and push open the front door (which is on a spring, so you have to push hard to get it open). Inside is a large communal room, very well-appointed, with heavy swag curtains, and deep pile carpets. All around the walls are elegant hardwood stands with displays of glasses. On plinths in the centre are glass heads, wearing glasses.

There are always several assistants flitting around the place – women in their late-twenties or early thirties, attractive in a refined sort of way, dressed in dark grey and navy blue (they are not in uniform, but certainly uniform colours have been specified). They always move quickly. There is always a quiet hush to the place. At a big Reception-type desk is the optometrist’s wife, a hard-faced and unsmiling woman, thin and angular, with grey hair in a severe style. An exception to her austere appearance are the diamond rings she wears – her fingers are adorned with stones of such size and magnificence that it is a wonder she can lift her hands. Behind her, on the wall, are two simple drawings in gold frames, each sporting the signature “Miro” (surely they can’t be genuine!).

The usual procedure was followed. I was asked to wait, and then (after about five minutes) asked to go to the Reception desk. The optometrist’s wife made a quick call, then asked me (or was I told?) to “Go through please”. Going-through meant going through a door opposite, crossing a corridor, and going through another door (I always feel I have to knock, even though I am the client and paying for the eye test).

Inside is the optometrist’s consulting room, a spacious room got up like a gentleman’s study – more of the deep pile carpets, a leather Chesterfield sofa, Victorian-style “partners” desk with matching chairs (his with arms), more of the deep-blue swag curtains (always kept closed in this room, the electric light on). On the walls are three professional diplomas from Durham University, and four or five very attractive hand-coloured 19th century prints. Adding a sinister note to this domestic graciousness is a series of large medical contraptions all in shiny chrome and gun-metal grey.

The optometrist is a fussy little man, very plump, in his early sixties. His head is almost bald, with some grey hair at the sides and back. He wears spectacles, a pin-stripe suit (grey), white shirt, gold cuff-links. Unlike his wife he is amiable and avuncular, with a very soothing northern voice. The eye test takes about forty minutes and consists of a rapid sequence of examinations at all the different machines.

The two of us move about the room at a bewildering pace – first at the desk where he asked a series of questions, then I sat in a huge contraption and my sight was tested, then to a machine where I had to look into a light and click a button every time I saw anything move, then to a machine where I looked into a green light and the optometrist sitting opposite was able to look right inside each of my eyes, then out into the corridor and up a back staircase to a tiny dark room where I sat at a machine and jets of air were blown onto my eyes… All the time the electric light was going on and off (most of the exercises had to be carried out in darkness), and the optometrist was talking, talking, talking (talking, but not really saying anything, since I had no idea what was going on). Each time the electric light was switched off the darkness was complete except for a subtle light that illuminated a big 19th century water-colour of a market scene (a sheep fair, gentleman-farmers in top hats).

We finished up sitting on the Chesterfield sofa, and he suggested things I should be eating to help my eyes stay strong (fresh vegetables, less fat, all the usual advice) and recommended some vitamins I could buy (only available from optometrists!). Then back across the corridor where one of the assistants took my credit card and charged me £70 for the session.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

I find the poetry of T. S Eliot a bit difficult

I’ve often been to Little Gidding, a village made famous by the poet T. S. Eliot. I took these photographs on a drive over there this week. Although it’s in Huntingdonshire it’s not very far away, so it makes a nice trip out if anyone comes to stay (although no-one comes to stay these days). There is hardly anything to the village. You need to know where you are going otherwise you can easily become lost. You turn off a lane, drive a mile or so, turn off into another lane, drive another mile or so, then turn off into a long narrow rough track (grass growing up the middle) and finally come to Ferrar House and the little church.

Despite the T. S. Eliot connection it hasn’t become a great tourist destination. You rarely see any other visitors, particularly during the week. There’s no guide book or souvenir shop.

The village was abandoned during the Black Death, and was deserted until Nicholas Ferrar founded a religious community there in 1625, seeking seclusion from the world. King Charles I visited in 1642. T. S. Eliot visited in 1936 and had a sort of mystical experience where he saw the importance of time and the relationship of “timeless moments” and later wrote the poem Little Gidding as part of his great sequence The Four Quartets (published in 1942, the last work he published).

I have to be honest and say that I have not found the village of Little Gidding a particularly mystical or moving place. The name Gidding is connected in my mind with a former work colleague who used to live in Great Gidding (he was completely unmystical and ran the local rock-climbing club). Also, I find the poetry of T. S Eliot a bit difficult. But I keep visiting the place, so it must have something going for it.

Little Gidding - looking towards Ferrar House Posted by Hello

Little Gidding - the tiny church (the inscription above the entrance reads: This is the door to heaven) Posted by Hello