Friday, October 29, 2004

“It’s in the trees, it’s coming…”

I have been following the news reports that remains of a new human-like species have been found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Local tribes report that they still occasionally see these tiny “hominins” (only three feet tall, they are similar to, but not the same as modern man). If these tiny pygmy hominins managed to exist side by side with ourselves, then possibly Neanderthals also did so, since there seems to be so much evidence (especially in Buckinghamshire) that “something” was hiding out in the wastelands at least until the later medieval period.

Perhaps Neanderthals still exist, hiding in the dense forests? The Nixons own a two-hundred acre wood immediately above their house in Wales which is definitely creepy. No-one ever goes there – it is almost sheer mountainside, and there is only one easy path into it. The Nixon brothers mainly just use the wood for motor-bike scrambling. I walked into it once, on my own, and experienced a cold clammy feeling of… what exactly? It was as if a silent voice was saying: Get out of here quickly.

It was like that moment in the film Night of the Demon / Curse of the Demon (based on the story by MR James) with Dana Andrews saying the famous line (immortalised by Kate Bush): “It’s in the trees, it’s coming…”

Thursday, October 28, 2004

A phoney ersatz existence

I thought that once a week I would introduce a sort of “photo essay” to act as a discipline so that I think more about images and how they can be linked to words. I need to work harder at the technical aspects of photography – above all I need to read the handbook of my new digital camera (I never have much patience with handbooks, and usually just fumble my way through things). Another memo to myself is to be more assertive about asking people if I can photograph them, since this weblog is about people, if it is about anything.

This assortment of pictures is on the theme of development (a new development, near where I work). The city is reaching out ever further into the countryside, and blighting everything it touches. The real world is disappearing, and being replaced by a phoney ersatz existence that has no relationship with the surrounding environment, or its history and traditional way of life… Aldous Huxley in Brave New World described a nightmare future – all the more alarming because it had been packaged in bright and attractive forms that appealed to mass consumers.

Posted by Hello

The first thing to be built was a shopping mall with a giant Tescos. In the past villages and towns would be built around churches and cathedrals. Now shopping has become the new religion.
Posted by Hello

The shopping mall is surrounded by huge car parks – nicely landscaped, with everything neatly ordered in lines and spaces. This well-ordered transportation process completely broke down last Easter when so many cars tried to get into the site that everything came to a halt for about an hour. Motorists became bad-tempered and lots of them got out of their cars and began shouting at the yellow-coated car park attendants (who just moved around sheepishly and said there was nothing they could do).
Posted by Hello

The team collecting the shopping trolleys enjoying a joke – the team leader was the one in the yellow coat, and he was quite rough with the younger two (“Get it straight you wally… don’t kick the wheel you vandal…”).
Posted by Hello

Radiating out from the shopping centre, empty roads are driven into the landscape, and are soon bordered by housing estates.
Posted by Hello

Ignoring the natural features of the land and the ancient lanes and field boundaries, new “focal points” are introduced, such as this impressive lake. As I took this photograph I was reminded of an old Kate Bush / Peter Gabriel song: on the lakeside as daylight broke, I saw the earth, the trees had burned down to the ground.
Posted by Hello

The new houses look so genteel, the setting looks so appealing – and yet it’s all fake!
Posted by Hello

The Prince of Wales criticised modern architecture for being brutal and dehumanising. The newspapers laughed at him and said he was out-of-touch, didn’t know what he was talking about, was living in the past etc etc. Seeing this monstrosity, I think the POW had a point.
Posted by Hello

One of the housing estates even had a make-believe village green at its centre, with this obelisk looking like a fake war memorial (talk about the Great War entering the national consciousness!).

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

They came back full of stories

New Marketing Assistant Alison Davis (who is taking over from Adrian Taylor in two week’s time) has so far made a good impression in the company.

Of average height and slim build, she has wavy blonde hair and grey eyes. She doesn’t give much thought to what she wears, and turns up each day in drab ill-fitting clothes. She has a very lively personality, but is not flirtatious at all, and often pointedly talks about her boyfriend, who is a policeman (with about seventy-five per cent of the company’s personnel being male, Alison’s arrival has created a great deal of interest, and has led to several people hanging around the department who have never previously expressed an interest in marketing).

On the downside, she has a tendency to “hover”, and regularly gets up and darts round the desk to stand at my elbow (far too close for comfort) when I am trying to explain something to her – I have to resist an inclination to tell her to go away. Unlike Adrian Taylor, who is quite defiant at times, she has so far always carried out my requests to the letter, and I get the impression that she is going to be extremely loyal.

During the morning I let Adrian and Alison go to Marcomm Solutions, the designers and printers we use (run by printer Riccardo Vacca and designer Paolo Borghetti). Ostensibly they were going there to obtain quotes for a set of new brochures we are producing, but in reality there was little need for the visit (it was really a break out of the office for them).

They came back full of stories about Riccardo and Paolo (who are both larger-than-life characters).

“Paolo had a run-in with some gypsies” said Adrian. “He was working late after everyone else had gone, and he noticed on the security cameras that a group of men were downstairs trying to break in. Because Paolo was still working, the alarms hadn’t been set. He went to the security controls and automatically closed the metal gates to the compound, trapping the raiders, and then ’phoned the police. The intruders started to go mad when they saw the big gates had been shut and they bashed down the outside door and rushed up the stairs to the offices. Paolo stood at the top of the stairs and fought them off but there were too many of them and he got a beating. Then the police arrived and dragged them out the building. The police said they were gypsies from the camp down the road and that it wasn’t worth prosecuting them as it would only start a feud. It would be easier to let them go. So they let them go.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Everything seemed grey and watery

Bleak grey dreary morning. The air felt very cold as the ferry approached France. Posted by Hello

Closer to the Brittany coast lots of little islands start to appear. During the Second World War the Germans fortified these islands to try to repel the Allied invasion. Posted by Hello

The only picture I took inside the granite citadel at St Malo - I was rushing about trying to find a taxi at the time. This picture gives you a feeling for the narrow streets and oppressive atmosphere. Posted by Hello

I woke to the swaying motion that had lulled me to sleep the night before. As we approached St Malo I had breakfast and packed, and then went out onto the main deck to look at the approaching coast of Brittany. It was very cold in the morning air, and everything seemed grey and watery. There was a great deal of waiting around as the sea was too rough for the ferry to get into the harbour. I was dismayed at this, and began to fear that I would miss my appointment for 10 am.

Eventually at nine o'clock (two hours late) the passengers were allowed off the ferry. I descended down through the ship to ground level, walked into the ferry terminal, and out into the cold dreary morning, looking across the docks to the citadel of St Malo. The sight of the grim granite grandeur of the citadel struck me like a blow, so forcefully did the view remind me of the last time that I had been in St Malo and the desolation I had felt on that occasion.

My original plan had been to hire a car and find my own way to the appointment (it would have been my first experience of driving on the right!). Instead, because I was so late, I got into a taxi and told the driver (in French) to take me to St Brieauc, a journey of fifty kilometres. The taxi driver went extremely fast, and I was only twenty minutes late in getting to the offices of the immobilier (in a tiny street behind the cathedral in St Brieauc). The taxi driver charged me sixty Euros.

The immobilier receptionist regarded me doubtfully, and made no answer as I announced my arrival (in French). Then, at the back of the office, at the top of five marble steps, a young woman appeared. She was aged in her mid twenties, tall in height and dressed in a white roll-neck sweater, black trousers and long black boots. Her brown-blonde hair was pulled back in a pony tail, and her eyes were a striking blue colour. She introduced herself to me as Simone du Bois. We went up to her office on the first floor.

Mlle du Bois was very practical and unlike any estate agent I had met before. We conversed in English, and she asked me all sorts of questions about what brought me to Brittany and what I was looking for. I explained that I wanted to see a house near Rostrennon, and that it was the only property I wanted to see (I told her my mind was made up on this, and that I definitely did not want to see any other properties – if the Rostrennon property was suitable I would make an offer immediately). However, she produced an album of photographs, and flicking through them, produced a picture, not very well taken, of a property that had just come onto the market. She said I would probably like it better than the Rostrennon house. I was not all that keen to see this new property, but she was very persuasive, and eventually I agreed.

We set off in her car, through the grey weather and out into the countryside. It was astounding how rural it was, more rural than even the most remote parts of England. The weather was cold and occasionally showers of rain fell. We spent about an hour driving along lonely narrow lanes, through many Breton villages, past strange medieval churches and isolated farmhouses. All the time Simone du Bois kept up a constant commentary on the area, the local customs, her career, her one trip to England. Eventually we arrived at La Harillais, a tiny hamlet of six or seven houses in the Menez de Landes area of central Brittany (gently rolling hills, ruined medieval castles, forests associated with ancient legends).

We arrived at a crossroads, drove forward a little way, then turned up a rough road (not quite a track) that went up the side of a hill. Through what looked like a farmyard and then along what had become very definitely a primitive muddy track. Finally through some trees and onto a grassy ledge on the side of the hill, stopping by a stone building. I was most reluctant to get out of the car. However Simone was so enthusiastic I felt it would be good manners to go along with her.

Side of the house at La Harillais - the sun ruined my photo of the front of the building. Posted by Hello

Apart from the wide ledge on which the building was placed, the site consisted of a steep hillside, sprinkled with broadleaf trees (mostly leafless, stark in the October afternoon). There was a pleasant view out over the valley. The property for sale consisted of three fields around a stone house (one field had a long track, now overgrown, leading down to the road by another way). To one side of the front field was a big wooden barn in a state of picturesque decrepitude. I asked what a shallow concrete structure was, and Simone struggled to express herself, eventually conveying in a mixture of sign language and franglais that it was a trough for feeding cows.

After a brief survey of the site, curtailed because of the mud, we turned our attention to the house. This was a typical stone-built Breton farmhouse, not lived in for many years (I suspected cows had been kept in it recently). Inside there was little to see, the windows having been filled in with bales of straw (these windows were very impressive, having immense stone lintels worthy of Stonehenge).

Simone pointed out the stone floor saying it was a considerable asset, as many rural houses in France just had tiles laid over compacted earth. We couldn't get to the upper story (more bales of straw in the way) but from the outside I could see that the walls were solid and that the roof was in a good state. The cost of the property was 20,000 Euros, which I worked out at £11,000 – not bad for a stone building and about five acres.

As Simone talked of the practicalities (how easy restoration would be, the electricity that was already connected, the water that was only a short distance away) I became charmed by the romance of the place. The hillside was very sylvan and pretty, the stone house authentic and unspoilt, the view into the valley, even in October, very attractive. I climbed the hillside a little way behind the house, ignoring the effects of the wet grass and mud on my shoes. It was at that moment that I fell in love with the place. Ownership of the property would completely fulfil every romantic notion I had of living in France. The cost of restoration would be considerable, but I reasoned I had the rest of my life to spend on the project.

In all I spent about forty minutes on the site before we set off once again.

An hour's drive to the town of Rostrennon, then out into the countryside. This area was more artfully prettier than the area round La Harillais, and more densely populated. The French manage their countryside with pollarded trees, wayside shrines, ornamental touches to public buildings – very unlike the English countryside.

We arrived in a little lane that seemed to be a river of mud. Getting out of the car, one had to take extreme care to avoid sinking into the muddy verges. The house was undeniably attractive, built of huge blocks of stone. We went inside the building. The vast kitchen had an enormous stone fireplace which I could step into and look upwards at the sky. However, the whole property was teetering on the brink of dereliction, with dangerous wooden stairs (in a wide spiral going up three storeys) and rotten floors that would require complete replacement. Risking our lives, we climbed more rotten stairs in pitch darkness to emerge into a spacious attic, running the whole length of the house, with a beamed roof that was breathtaking.

Outside there was mud, cows and the smell of manure. There seemed no end to the property, and several fields came with the house (“You can have that field” said Simone, her long boots striding through the mud, “you can have that one... you can have that one as well”... I trailed after her, making an effort to keep up).

She showed me a long cowshed (made of asbestos), a wooden barn that was literally falling to pieces, two stone barns with arched doorways (highly prized features of Breton architecture). Stepping into one of these stone barns, as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I found myself face-to-face with a cow, reclining on a bed of straw - I felt like apologising for intruding into her bedroom.

“That's the orchard” said Simone, pointing to a small field enclosed by stone walls where the brambles had massed themselves almost six feet high, and the fruit trees looked so gnarled and ancient that the whole area would probably have to be burned down and replanted. In the area at the front of the house, where a flight of stone steps led up to the main door, there was a big stone well that looked extremely dangerous.

In England I had been so set upon buying the house (when I had looked at photographs of the property) that I had almost put in an offer sight-unseen. Now that I was confronted by the building, in all its terrible derelict beauty, I was appalled at how unmanageable it would be. I suspected that an attempt to restore the property would consume enormous amounts of time and energy - possibly the effort might even kill me! But the place did look wonderful…

The house at Rostrennon. Posted by Hello

House on the left, tumbledown wooden barn, stone barn on the right (with arched doorway) and the overgrown orchard behind. You can just see the corner of Simone's car. Posted by Hello
A long drive back to St Brieauc where Simone and I parted with many protestations of friendship and promises to speak next week. It was late afternoon in St Brieauc, and I wandered idly around the narrow streets filled with strange shops, and went into the cathedral (cavernous, ancient and catholic - I bought a guidebook written in French and was surprised at how much I could understand).

Emerging again into the fading winter sunshine, I went into a patisserie and asked for coffee and cakes (a great many cakes), giving the order in French and feeling quite proud that it was completely comprehended. Feeling more confident about my ability to speak French, when I had paid the bill I asked for directions to the train station. The café owner rattled off a string of instructions, none of which I understood. Nodding sagely, I said “Merci” and strode off in the direction she was pointing. Needless to say, I got completely lost and had to ask and re-ask directions until eventually I arrived at le gare.

In the rush to get to St Brieauc in time, I had given little thought to how I would get away again. At the railway station I found out that there were no more direct trains to St Malo that day. After some discussion with the ticket clerk (her English as rudimentary as my French) I found out that in an hour or so there was a train going to Dinan, a town approximately fifteen miles from St Malo.

It was dark and very cold when the train stopped at Dinan. Emerging from the station I asked directions to the centre of the town, and eventually found a taxi to take me to St Malo. “Le soir est froid” I said to the driver, wanting to practice my French (he just nodded, as if placating someone eccentric). Several miles later I told him: “J'voudrais un bon restaurant dans St Malo” - this remark, which I was a little unsure about, must have been understood as the driver took me to Place Chateaubriand, a square by the Citadel where a great many restaurants were in evidence.

The restaurant of the Hotel Univers was a faded remnant of the belle époque (mirrored walls, huge palms, chandeliers in Venetian glass, many art nouveau details). The waiter spoke perfect English, and I ordered salmon, lamb, and a blackcurrant sorbet (all very good), with a glass of white Burgundy to drink. Coffee, and then out onto the front steps to wait for a taxi to take me to the ferry terminal.

Once on the ferry I found my cabin and, feeling exhausted, almost immediately went to bed. As I fell asleep I experienced once again the gentle swaying motion of the ferry.

Monday, October 25, 2004

I felt as if the weekend was going to be a wild goose chase

I made my way across London and at Waterloo caught a train to Portsmouth. This train was very crowded with commuters going home for the evening (by this time night had fallen, and rain was splattering against the window). Every seat in my carriage was occupied, and commuters were standing in the aisle. Sitting opposite me in this crush, so that we were virtually knee-to-knee, was a young woman in a long black coat. Her features, and the way she had done her hair, had a strong resemblance to the actress Helena Bonham-Carter.

The train stopped approximately twenty times on the way to Portsmouth, and at each station some of the commuters got off, so that as we were nearing the end of the journey only myself and the girl opposite were left. It seemed absurd that we should be cramped together when there was the whole coach available, but neither of us made any attempt to move. I read my book, and the girl stared out of the window into the dark night. The situation seemed to call for some kind of introduction, but just as I made up my mind to speak the train stopped once more (at Frant I think) and the girl got out, disappearing almost immediately into the darkness.

Portsmouth ferry terminal was very crowded but only a few passengers went onto the St Malo ferry. This ship was extremely smart for a cross-channel ferry, and had lots of stylish French touches. The female staff in particular were chicly dressed in short navy blue skirts, and moved elegantly even when the sea was rough. I found my cabin, which was on a high deck. My main motive in booking a cabin was so that I would have privacy in case I was seasick (as it happened, after one initial queasy moment, I felt completely well throughout the crossing). Also, the voyage to St Malo takes twelve hours, so with a cabin it was possible to sleep most of the way. I unpacked my few things and stood looking out of the porthole for a while at the fading lights of the English coast.

To the main restaurant for dinner. The tables were fairly close together, and next to me was a middle-aged couple who affably introduced themselves. She said she was a teacher – a rather large woman, garrulous in nature, dressed in several layers of clothes and with glasses hanging on a chain. He was an engineer, with a scruffy beard and wearing check shirt and cord trousers. They lived on the south coast and often spent their weekends travelling to France on little sight-seeing/gastronomic trips. They had reached that comfortable stage of life when their chief recreation came from going on spectacular foreign holidays (Tanzania was "a life changing experience" they said to me with fervour), interspersed with frequent eating-weekends in Brittany and Normandy (eating seemed to be one of their main hobbies in life, and during the meal they fed each other with forkfuls of food from their plates).

The teacher and engineer were very prying about the reason for my journey to France. I avoided replying, mainly because I felt a bit foolish about telling them I was going there to look at property. Despite the explosion in UK house prices it is still possible to buy properties requiring renovation in France for a few thousand Euros. Gary Spencer and his wife are about to do this, and have virtually insisted that I do the same as soon as possible, since the situation is not likely to last and the French housing market is already moving upwards. “Go and buy something now” Gary said, “even if it’s a ruin. You can then borrow some money to do it up, and let it out as a holiday cottage. The holiday lettings will pay off the original down payment plus the cost of the improvement loan, and after about twenty years it will all be paid off. You’ll have your own house in France at no real cost to you.”

I was very doubtful about this, even though it sounded fine in theory. I felt as if the weekend was going to be a wild goose chase, and I was unwilling to tell my dinner acquaintances in case they poured cold water on the idea and told me all the things that could go wrong (I had already gone over in my mind all the things that could go wrong, and didn’t need reminding of them).

Nevertheless, the idea of having a small place in France was very appealing – it would be somewhere I could escape to, if everything fell to pieces (I always feel as if things are about to fall to pieces, even though they never do).

I returned to the privacy of my cabin. The crossing was very rough, but once I had laid down I was not troubled by any seasickness, despite the richness of my dinner. A swaying motion rocked me gently to sleep.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Thus will begin my journey to France

At work today there was little time to think about my imminent journey to the continent. My main priority was to get another mailshot out so that there should be no fall in the number of sales leads coming in over the next few weeks. Thus in the morning I drafted a sales letter, decided on the accompanying literature, and liaised with IT on the database to be used.

Helping me from the IT department was Wang Huai Yi, known ubiquitously as “Wang”, one of our Chinese staff (we have several Chinese staff due to “exchanges” with our manufacturing partners. From mainland China, they describe themselves as “pure” Chinese. “We are very proud of our black hair” Wang once said to me with grave seriousness).

Wang is aged twenty-two, and is energetic, lively and exuberant. Nothing is too much trouble for him, a virtue that I exploit to the full, loading him with tasks that have little to do with IT. His sister in China “owns” a factory and has become extremely wealthy. In the Wang-senior house in Shanghai they have employees to do the domestic work, but when I once referred to these as “servants” Wang became seriously alarmed, exclaiming "Don't say that... don't say that!" – as if I had denounced him as a class enemy.

Wang is very pro-Western, except when it comes to the subject of America. Even the most innocent remark about America fills him with self-righteous anger and leads to him damning America and the Americans in a way that is almost comical. I point out that there are over two million Chinese-Americans, but he dismisses these as not being “pure” Chinese. I once suggested he ought to go to America before making any judgments but he hysterically proclaimed that he would never go there. He is convinced that North Korea is going to launch nuclear weapons against the western hemisphere (and Japan, another country he loathes), leaving China as the only superpower.

Once the database problems had been sorted out I proceeded to the actual fulfilment of the mailshot. None of my usual assistants were available, so I had to commandeer one of the warehouse operatives. There was some difficulty in doing this, as they were short-staffed in Despatch, but eventually I was allocated Tony Rudd.

Tony Rudd is a young warehouse operative, very hard-working but also mischievous (reviled throughout the company for his so-called practical jokes that most people don’t find very funny). Aged about twenty, he was in the Army before joining the company. Small, with a wiry build, he is quite strong and often staggers around the warehouse carrying loads clearly in violation of the Health and Safety guidelines. He is someone who tries hard to be popular, without much success. He talks non-stop, so when he came upstairs to help me I took care to locate him at a desk some distance from my own.

I equipped Tony with thousands of sales letters, leaflets and envelopes, told him how I wanted the job done, and left him to it. At that point I felt I could begin to relax, occupying myself with answering e-mails and talking to my neighbour, occasionally wandering over to him and asking “How are you getting on?”

In the afternoon there was a call from Alan Nixon and he talked at length about the problems he was having with his court case (“It's absolutely horrendous” he said several times, “…it's a disaster, it’s a complete disaster...”). I agreed with him that it was a very difficult situation, eventually managing to bring the call to an end.

At 5 o'clock, leaving a little early, I will go down the iron staircase to Goods In, and out to the car park. Thus will begin my journey to France.

An illusion of strength and substance

Posted by Hello

In a small northern town I took a photograph of this Victorian worthy (a publisher I think). He was up high on a pedestal, the gothic tracery of the window behind acting as a sort of halo, the buttresses on either side of the image adding an illusion of strength and substance. Three symmetrically arranged pigeons (two white, one dark) in the background look unimpressed.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

What I should have done

At three o’clock in the morning I was wakened by the sound of a loud alarm somewhere outside the house. I was only half-awake, and I considered just ignoring the noise, and going back to sleep, but the alarm sounded so loud and insistent I felt it needed to be investigated. In the darkness I walked over to one of the bedroom windows and looked out.

My bedroom is at the “front” of the house, facing south (although it’s called the front, this side of the building actually faces the gardens, the rarely-used main entrance to the house going straight out onto the central lawn). From the window I could make out the gardens, the row of trees, and the various outbuildings beyond that make up the old farmyard. Nothing unusual could be seen.

I opened one of the window casements and in the cold dark air the noise of the alarm sounded almost deafening.

At first I thought it might be my car alarm (I park the car in the old derelict farmyard, in an open wooden shed). Finding the car’s electronic key, I pointed it in the general direction of the shed and pressed “open” – and was astonished to see a flash of lights, indicating the car lock had opened (this was several hundred yards away). Quickly I pressed the “lock” button and the lights flashed again, re-setting the car’s alarm.

The shrieking and hooting continued and I began to suspect that the neighbouring farmer, who occasionally uses the farmyard, had fitted an alarm to one of the barns without telling us (there is an informal arrangement that he can use the outbuildings whenever he likes, since they are of no real use to us, and in any case are gradually falling down). I went out onto the landing, and then to the upper landing at the back of the house (where my brother has his bedroom). All was silence and darkness, and the noise of the alarm was barely perceptible. Retracing my steps, I went downstairs and out through to the back of the house, switching the lights on as I went.

I telephoned the farmer and he answered almost immediately (does he have the ’phone by his bedside?). He was very abrupt at first, but admitted he had fitted an alarm to one of the big sheds, and then started apologising for it going off, saying he would drive over immediately (his house is about a mile away). I went back to bed, and about half an hour later I heard the noise of a car, various far-off noises, and then the alarm ceased.

What I should have done was switched on all the lights in the house (which creates quite a blaze), woken the dog up, and gone out with a heavy stick to confront any intruder(s) on the property.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A discount store in a run-down shopping centre

Posted by Hello

Entrance to a discount store in a run-down shopping centre near where I work. Everything in this shop is amazingly low-price. The staff are very kind and try to be helpful (although they are poorly trained and, one is bound to say, just a little bit incompetent).

He has got his act together

A day’s holiday yesterday, the last of my annual holiday allocation until Christmas.

I got back to the office this morning to find many decisions deferred until my return (flattering, but I was a little appalled that my team should rely on me so much – as if I knew the answer to their problems!).

Tony Boxall has returned to the office. Previously he had worked on the Sales Desk, then had been promoted, then demoted (attitude problem), then promoted again and sent to our warehouse in Greenford where he was given a technical role looking at the returns from customers (the new Greeford facility is meant to be a subsidiary site, but is actually twice the size of the Headquarters warehouse). Now he has been promoted yet again, and has returned to the general sales office in a supervisory / technical capacity.

Aged in his mid-twenties, Tony Boxall has a slim build, with short brown curly hair and grey-blue eyes. His height is just under six foot, and he has a loose-limbed athletic appearance (a supple way of moving that somehow seems to imply that he has got his act together). He is mostly good natured, except that once or twice a day he gets into an irritable mood and makes sarcastic and hurtful remarks about people.

He is friends with Carl Gedney and Mark Miller, and recently went on holiday with them to the West Indies. Membership of this self-appointed office elite has not been without cost, and as a friend of Carl Gedney he has received the enmity of Sales Director Neil Hancock, finding his work routinely blocked and obstructed. He also embarked on a very public affair with an older woman in Accounts (she was about ten years older, a single mother, not unattractive) and this folded in a messy way, damaging his credibility.

This morning he gave me a submission under the company Suggestions Scheme (another of the many internal staff initiatives that have been allocated to me because no-one else can be bothered with them).

In his car, driving to one of the satellite sites, a CD repeated again and again of the song I Believe My Heart.

This song has reached number two in the charts, and was written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber for his new musical The Woman In White. I didn’t much care for the song when I first heard it – it seemed composed of cheap clichés and featured a light-weight singer from a boyband (Duncan James) and an unknown classical soloist (Keedie Babb, from Torquay).

But the song is actually much more subtle than it first appears, and has a powerful undercurrent of emotion. The accompanying video is misty and byronic (like the dazzling 1988 film Rowing With The The Wind) and features the two singers strolling through a grotto, wandering through a maze, clasping hands under a cedar tree on a wide lawn as petals fall from the sky. Duncan James has a rolling and distinctive walk, as if he is walking in slow motion in wading boots (looks better than it sounds). As for Keedie Babb, I have come to love her charming RADA-enunciation.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The vanished farm

Beyond the hills the county falls down to a wide plain. You can stand on the edge of the escarpment and look down on this flatland, and see the rational division of large square fields, long straight roads, and neat little blocks of woodland. Unlike the hill villages, which have a medieval feel to them, the plain was drained and divided up in the eighteenth century, and fully reflects the spatial theories of the age of reason.

Talking to a local couple about the history of the plain (she did more talking than he did) they showed me large black and white photographs dating from the 1940s. Among the views of overweight prize pigs, lovingly-groomed shire horses, and well-maintained traction engines, was an aerial view of a large farm. The photograph had been taken just after the war (probably by a reconnaissance team, since the photograph displayed a military precision in the way in which everything was lined up and focussed).

I was intrigued by this photograph, as it illustrated a big farm complex and a labour-intensive way of life that has entirely disappeared from rural life. I took my own photograph of the photograph (see below). Asking about the farm the woman told me: “It’s all gone now. It used to be in that field opposite the Red Lion. There’s nothing there now.”

A neighbour, a stout elderly lady, painfully supported by a walking stick (possibly she had trouble with her hip) said: “Gwen used to live there, until she got married. Then no-one would live there, and gradually the buildings fell down. And then it was demolished.”

On the way out of the village I stopped at the Red Lion and looked over to the wide empty field. There was an air of Ozymandias in the way in which the vanished farm had completely ceased to exist.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away (except that the ground was alluvial silt, not sand)

I have an irrational fear that this will happen to my house.

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Aerial view of the vanished farm c1946
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Nothing now remains in the field opposite the Red Lion pub

Friday, October 15, 2004

I realised how influential this project would be

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A Spartan sports car. A group of caravans just appeared in a small field near the main road, a banner sign saying “Spartan Owners’ Club”. The next day, just as suddenly, they had gone.

This afternoon I wrote the copy for the new corporate brochure. Or I attempted to write it, since I was continually distracted. As I worked, I realised how influential this project would be, since the brochure would define how everyone would “see” the company for several years into the future. And I could virtually write what I liked, since Trevor Bush (Managing Director) seldom checks copy in any detail (“Yeah, looks alright, go-ahead” he typically says, after a brief glance). It will be my vision that will prevail, however much other managers may wish to control the final outcome.

Both Marketing Assistants, Alison Davis and Adrian Taylor, were in the Marketing department working on various projects. Alison is very keen to make a good impression, and takes very seriously everything I say to her. Adrian on the other hand is becoming even more laid-back (if that were possible) and is no doubt counting the days until he leaves. He was on the telephone for quite a while talking to someone about Pro-Evo (Pro-Evolution Soccer 4, which is out today), then he made another call arranging to go to the pub with someone later tonight, and then he made yet another call arranging inoculations for when he goes to Australia. I just let him get on with it.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

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The office soccer team has fallen apart amid accusations, counter accusations and recriminations. The main reason seems to be the start of college courses on Monday evenings, which has removed several players, plus the decision by Adam Russell to play for a local semi-professional team (“He’s not semi-professional” Adrian Taylor told me scornfully, “…he’s only in the Reserves”).

Adam Russell and Keith Williams (both on the Sales Desk) founded the team about two years ago amid considerable scepticism from older members of staff who doubted their organising ability. They had persuaded Managing Director Trevor Bush to fund the team, and had played two matches per week since then, slowly climbing up the local league. The culmination of their efforts came earlier this summer when they had won the league and brought back an impressive trophy.

The defection of Adam Russell (short stature, short fair hair heavily gelled, a habit of standing up whenever talking on the telephone) has caused a great deal of bad feeling, and frequent loud arguments have been breaking out on the Sales Desk (quickly quelled by Manager Daniel Slattery). When Adam joined the company he was barely eighteen, and so quiet that few people thought he would survive in the Darwinian dog-eat-dog atmosphere of the Sales Desk. Now he has become one of the most loud-mouthed people in the company, so cheeky that the more senior sales staff feel it is their duty to put him down at every opportunity.

Every Friday Marketing sends out an e-mailed “newsletter” with each department submitting their news for the week. Keith Williams has just come over with an entry he would like to go in this week’s e-mailed publication.

“Hello buddy, you alright?” he said, handing me the handwritten Sports News which included the paragraph:

A special thank you to Adam 'Self-Centred' Russell, who has decided to leave the team. Not only did he let us down this week by not turning up, he had the goalie gloves so Keith Williams had no gloves in goal, he then shows a complete lack of commitment by pulling out half way through the league. Despite us all agreeing to commit to it at the beginning so this leaves us struggling to find a team and when someone does this, it makes you wonder if all the money the other players have invested in the club is worth it.

He then wandered off singing the chorus from a Black Eyed Peas song: Where is the love, where is the love, where is the love, where is the love, the love, the love…

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

In a shop window

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This statue was in a shop window in Berkeley Street. The shop was selling antique Persian carpets. The statue is probably of Eve (with serpent and apple).

A compromise

The new Marketing Assistant, Alison Davis, has joined us, and over the next four weeks will be shadowing the existing Marketing Assistant Adrian Taylor until he leaves on 10th November.

Alison wasn’t my first choice as an Assistant, but was a compromise between Neil Hancock and myself. I actually wanted to appoint someone who had a philosophy degree, but he absolutely vetoed anyone so intellectual (I could tell she was irritating him at the interview when she talked about abstract ideas). In return, I refused to consider any of the gung-ho, extrovert, assertive types that he favoured (“You want someone who’s going to push you” he said. “No I don’t” I told him, “I don’t like being pushed. If anyone pushes me, I’m going to push them back…”).

Aged twenty-one, Alison Davis is a Marketing graduate from one of the “new” universities. She is very practical, and keen to make a good impression. She has certainly made an impression on Adrian Taylor – several times he has blushed deeply when talking to her (and on the most banal subjects such as the direct marketing programme, or how the big colour printer works).

With my lunch today I had three apples – a Spartan from Poland (small, with a fresh slightly bitter taste), a Russet from England (heavy apple scent, soft thick skin, hard white flesh), and a Golden Delicious from France. The nicest was the Golden Delicious. No-one in the office believes this can be possible (they are supposedly bland and tasteless).

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Reminders of past glory

A little old village on the way out of the valley (actually it is up on the height, where the road winds round in a big curve and then gently graduates down to the town).

Traffic has ruined the village – it is cut in half by the busy road, but if you take the trouble to stop and walk a little way down one of the lanes, you are soon back into a pastoral idyll where birds sing, cool breezes blow, brown leaves drift down from the oak and sycamore trees.

The road curves round for a reason – a great house used to stand in a park just behind the high estate wall, the village being scattered around the demesne’s periphery. The mansion itself was pulled down in the 1950s, and the estate split up into smaller units, but throughout the immediate area you can still find reminders of its past grandeur. At the weekend, on the way into the town, I stopped and took some photographs with my new Olympus digital camera.

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The “Wild Man” again, used as a crest on the gate piers of the main entrance. This Wild Man is wearing a crown (or more accurately, a coronet) indicating he served a noble family. What led the family to adopt a Wild Man as a mascot? Perhaps in ancient times one of the noble forbears captured a Neanderthal woodwose deep in the forest, and brought it back to the village as a trophy (or perhaps they didn’t and there’s another, more simple, explanation).
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I love these wrought iron gates. In particular, I love the fact that they go nowhere! This used to be a side entrance to the gardens, a path leading onwards to where the house used to stand. Now you go through the gates and find yourself on a sports ground used by the village soccer team (laid out for cricket in the summer).
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In a big stone room attached to the church were the family monuments. The room had once been a chapel, laid out to venerate the family’s glory. Now it is used as a lumber room and is so crammed with old junk (broken pews, rows of filthy old flower pots, stacks and stacks of folding chairs) that I had to climb and clamber about in the semi-darkness. The monuments celebrated a family of warriors – starting with this knight, wearing armour and chain mail, his head resting on his helmet (dates from the 11th century - the face has become worn over the years).
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One of the sixteenth-century knights, in very smart armour (probably his show armour, made at Augsburg and kept for use in tournaments). The photogrpah doesn't really show the delicate features of the young face, or his narrow waist. He is kneeling on a marble cushion, his gauntlet hands held in prayer (“He’s a cool dude” said Scott Ryan when I showed him this picture).