Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas 2005

Christmas 2005 (1) - this year the fashion for decorating the exterior of houses really caught on. Originally coming from America, the practice usually upsets the neighbours. I quite like to see the houses lit up, although I'm not sure what the inhabitants are saying about themselves ("look at me"?).

Christmas 2005 (2) - kitsch figures (price tags attached) in Victorian dress wave from a window display, while snow perpetually whirls around an old church sealed in a glass ball.

Christmas 2005 (3) - baubles, gold stars and Madonna lillies.

What is to be done?

As a counter-point to the excessive materialistic consumption of last week, this photograph of a homeless person, sleeping on the steps of New St Pancras Church (oblivious to the passing commuters, framed by the building's architectural grandeur) is a reminder that many people are sleeping rough and going hungry at a time of unprecedented national wealth and personal prosperity. The government claims that the homeless figures are falling, and that there are enough hostel places for everyone. The charity Crisis says that that homeless are being hustled in and out of hostels to manipulate the overall figures, that many homeless are not counted, that in any case most hostels are too dangerous for the most vulnerable homeless people.

It is a theme that is repeated across Europe. The United Kingdom has not (yet) abandoned allegiance to the idea of the welfare state, and there is free education, free medical attention, free social security payments, free advice and training for the unemployed, free/subsidised housing for the needy (decided on a controversial points system). Despite all this support many people struggle to survive, and cannot cope with the pressures and demands that modern society places upon them.

A revolutionary solution:

"What is to be done?" asked Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in his 1902 book on Bolshevist revolutionary tactics.

If the poor are to be trampled in the gutter then at least the rich should be dragged down to join them, Lenin argued. The communists briefly achieved an equality of misery before human nature reasserted itself in a new stratification of society as injust as the old version. A nation is judged by the way it treats its most helpless citizens, and the Russian elites were cast in the balance and found wanting (it is a warning that should be remembered by the newly rich classes in India and China).

A liberal-intellectual-artistic solution:

"What is to be done?" obsessively asked Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) in the beautifully photographed Peter Weir film The Year Of Living Dangerously (Mel Gibson as an Australian journalist-slob, pursuing diplomatic clerk Sigourney Weaver, both of them oblivious to the poverty and social deprivation of Indonesia on the brink of revolution).

Poor though the London homeless might be, they are not as desperate as the destitute of the Third World. 2005 was been a year when attention focussed on the plight of the continent of Africa. The main initiative was the (to my mind) self-indulgent one of putting on a music concert. All the big names of the pop and rock establishment were involved. Am I alone in finding this condescending project deeply unsettling? The idea of putting on a party to help the poor parallels the ball given by Lady Clarendon at Dublin Castle for the relief of the indigent starving itinerants of the Irish Potato Famine.

A religious solution:

"What is to be done?" the people asked John the Baptist in Luke Chapter 3, verse 10 (the answer being: "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise").

"The Bible gives us two options" said the fluty-voiced High Anglican priest in the reassuring gloom of Evensong at St Mary's. "The Old Testament tells us we must give ten per cent. The New Testament tells us we must give everything." Incense lingered on the air, residue of the day's services (brought up in the Mill Hill tradition of John Keble, our family has always been the highest of High Anglicans). That particular church (St Mary's, not John Keble's) had a reputation for combining quasi-catholic ritual with near-Marxist sermons. The "give everything" option was definitely stressed as being a preferred mode of conduct to ensure an easy conscience.

"We already give more than ten per cent through our taxes" argues Gary Spencer. "The basic rate of income tax is twenty-two per cent. Most of that money goes to the less-well-off." This argument ignores the fact that most tax income is siphoned off by politicians and vested interests into projects and schemes designed directly or indirectly to help get them re-elected. Only by fortuitous accident does any of the money go to the needy. Government largess always comes with strings attached and favours to be owed.

Only once, on a personal level, have I tried giving "everything". I was changing trains at Doncaster, and had over an hour until my connection. It was early evening, early in the Summer. I walked from the station into the town, which was effectively deserted (even though it was only just gone six o'clock). Eventually, after twenty minutes, the street I was following emerged into a featureless ring road, busy traffic blocking any further advance. Deciding to go back to the station, I turned to retrace my steps.

As I did so I saw a homeless person - male, indeterminate age (perhaps I avoided looking at him too closely), grey clothing. He was sat on the pavement, slumped against the wall, his hand held out as he muttered "Any spare change". I walked past him a few paces then decided to give him some money.

Retracing my steps, I held out a £20 note, all the cash I had on me at that moment (I kept my train ticket and credit cards, so it was not such a big sacrifice). The homeless person was hesitant about taking the money, asking "Are you sure" then calmly putting the note away. In the margin of familiarity that the exchange had created I advised him to go to the Salvation Army for help, but he said he was waiting to go into a flat, and was okay being outside in the summer.

I walked back down the street, increasing my pace as I didn't want to be late. From nowhere (literally) a short man in rough clothes (grubby jeans, green and red pullover, very dirty boots) appeared and started walking alongside me. "Did you just give him twenty pound?" he asked. I shook my head in reply, not wanting to encourage his company. "I know for a fact someone else gave him twenty pound this morning" he told me (presumably expecting me to go back and ask for a refund). We walked on, and although I was going quite quickly he kept up with me, walking side by side like old friends. All along the street he loudly greeted other homeless people, who were getting ready to spend the night in shop doorways. Homeless people seemed everywhere. The person walking at my side was known to all of them, and may have been a sort of leader (or chief bully - the line between the two is always blurred).

The street led into the ring road (this time the other side of the town centre) and I went towards the underpass that led to the station, on the other side of the flow of traffic. "I turn off here" I said to the leader of the homeless. Wordlessly he stood and watched me go.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Into the foyer, furniture in Louis XVI style, upholstered in deep blue (you had to sit up straight on the sofas, which were a little uncomfortable). We waited for a while until the arrival of Robert Leiper, who had flown over from America the day before (staying with his sister who currently has an academic appointment in Paris). In that setting Robert Leiper reminded me of a portrait by Tamara de Lempicka (S.A.I. Le Grand-Duc Gabriel - the haughty features match Robert’s).

Past a big display of fresh roses, we went into the marble-lined restaurant. Lunch at the Hotel Crillon is more an institution than an event. The restaurant has cultivated a style of sumptuous dining that has become almost a cult. Every aspect (the table, the ambience, the menu) is arranged with the same attention to detail as if Charles Swann himself was expected. The waiters were fast-moving, darting around us in a blur of efficiency and flapping tail-coats. Pate foie gras (even though I am not happy about how it is made - in yet another compromise I went along with everyone else), terrine, lamb with vichyssoise, caramelised fruit. To drink we had a bottle of Sancerre, which was wonderful (worth the trip to France in itself). We went round the table proposing toasts - I suggested “La Reine”, primarily to the present Queen of England, but also doubling for that long-gone Queen of France who had her head sliced from her body to satisfy a howling mob barely a hundred metres from where we sat. Did her spirit still hang in the ether, I wondered, nostalgic for her singing lessons? Did she join us, craving mortal company, sitting in the empty place left for Alan Nixon? As usual the effect of the alcohol was to make me feel melancholic, and I knew that if left unchecked the melancholy would turn to morbidity. This downward drift in my thoughts was arrested by Gary Spencer nudging my elbow and pointing across the restaurant to one of the windows.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Two films, seen on television

The first was The Trench starring Paul Nicholls and directed by William Boyd. It was a depiction of trench life on the western front during the First World War. The acting was good, and the sets were authentic, but the film was basically a variation of Peter Weir's 1981 film Gallipoli (except that Peter Weir is a better director than William Boyd and Paul Nicholls is a better actor than Mel Gibson).

On Monday I watched Downfall, a German film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Alexandra Maria Lara as a secretary in the Berlin bunker (that bunker) during the last days of the Second World War (the script was based on the memoirs of Traudl Jung). The film captured the mood of claustrophobia, fanaticism and paranoia, seen through the (supposedly innocent) eyes of Traudl Jung. It was a fascinating film, and also explained why the German regime was convinced, right to the last minute, that they would win. Previously I had thought that the German leaders were self-deluded or even mad, refusing to acknowledge that their forces were overwhelmed and their cities in ruins. However the film gave a different view, conveying the total belief the Germans had in the cold-blooded theory of Darwinian selection. Darwinian theory underpinned all their actions, and convinced them that ultimately the stronger and more ruthless forces would triumph over the weaker nations (as we know, Darwin's theory was faulty in this case).

I only manage to see films on television since there never seems to be enough time to go to the cinema (although I do hope to see Mrs Henderson Presents). Cinema is one of the most powerful visual mediums - you are sat in the dark, looking at colour images many times larger than life, listening to sophisticated sound systems. Films on television are a poor substitute.

Downfall was broadcast on new satellite channel More4. I am very impressed with this new channel. Right from the start they seem to be placing an emphasis upon quality of content rather than a populist drive to gain ratings (that is also the policy of this weblog!).

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Traditional Christmas carols

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I am not a naturally out-going person. Consequently I find the four or five weeks before Christmas, made up of a relentless series of social gatherings, parties and office dinners, rather heavy going. Plus my sister is extremely ill with throat cancer (any Christians reading this entry please pray for her recovery).

The past two weeks in particular have consisted of too many late nights, when I have battled against a perpetual cold (which shows no signs of leaving), and an average of five hours sleep per night. So when Marie-Astrid e-mailed me to ask me along to a birthday celebration I was not enthusiastic. Especially when she told me she wanted to mark her birthday by going along to a candle-light Christmas musical evening in a local “castle” (an event that sounded so high-kitsch and embarrassing that normally I would not go near the place).

But Marie-Astrid is half-Danish and is enthusiastic about Old English customs (including entirely fabricated ones such as this). Also, as a recently-divorced person she is struggling to build up a social network - most of her previous friends were members of her husband’s family, and have abandoned her. And Marie-Astrid is always good company.

So I said I would go along, and on Wednesday drove to the northern town where she lives (“northern” is a relative term - some people would consider it to be in the east Midlands). Because I went there straight from work I was still in a suit, and wondered if I would be over-dressed. When I got to Marie-Astrid’s house I found she was dressed smartly, plus we were joined by two of her friends (Emily and Julie, both of whom work for a big charity) who were in long dresses (long formal dresses, like you would see at a ball).

Anyway, we drove for miles along narrow muddy lanes, until my car became almost entirely plastered in mud. We were obviously going deep into the countryside as there were no houses, no other cars, no lights whichever way one looked. Eventually, following Emily’s directions for about half an hour, we saw in the distance the “castle” lit up on the top of a looming black hill.

The “castle” is not a castle at all, but is in fact a ducal palace built in 1816 in a form of Regency Gothic (turrets, battlements and gothic arches overlaying a symmetrical and rational style of architecture that is essentially Georgian). The place is huge, and built for entertaining on the grandest scale. The ducal family must have considerable reserves of money, as everywhere was well kept - none of the usual signs of decay you see in big houses.

We couldn’t drive right up to the “castle” but had to park on the lower slopes, stewards directing us into a field. There were many other cars parked in rows, and I began to fear that the event would be crowded. Leaving the car we walked across the field (Marie-Astrid, Emily and Julie picking their way in high-heeled shoes, complaining about the mud) and past a sort of lodge, joining a procession of other guests making their way up the extremely steep hill, the direction indicated by electric lights strung out along the side of the path.

After about twenty minutes of stiff walking we arrived on top of the hill where a very cold strong wind was blowing. The “castle” towered over us, floodlit and looking as insubstantial as a film set. We followed everyone else through a gothic doorway into what seemed to be a sort of armoury (the walls decorated with displays of antique guns and swords, suits of armour standing in niches). This chamber although vast, was absolutely crammed with people, so that we could hardly move. Upstairs, on a sort of gallery, a big choir was belting out traditional Christmas carols, and at a bar glasses of mulled wine were being handed out. My worst fears, that the evening would be crowded, clichéd and uncomfortable, seemed to be realised.

But I was wrong.

Although there were hundreds of people at the event (almost all of them in full evening dress), as soon as we moved away from the armoury the “castle” absorbed everyone, so that there were never more than twenty or so people in each cavernous room. The interiors of the “castle” are so ornate and decorative that the swathes of Christmas baubles and tinsel seemed positively restrained by comparison. And the effect of such big chambers lit almost entirely by dozens and dozens of candles gave even the most over-familiar Christmas songs and carols new and (I hesitate to use this word, but nothing else seems apposite) magical settings.

We could wander all over the “castle”, each room we entered having a different musical performance, the thickness of the stone walls preventing the sounds from clashing. From the choir in the ballroom to a jazz band in a picture gallery, to a piano soloist in the State Dining Room (blond hair, serious expression on her young face, she played a succession of piano pieces on the theme of moonlight - Clare de lune, Blue Moon, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). Open fires were in every room, and so many candles were on display that the fire risk must have been considerable.

At one stage we entered a sort of long gallery, a room of ridiculously expansive proportions (over a hundred and thirty feet in length), the furnishings sumptuous and extravagant. As we approached the end of this gallery the wall was made up of a huge floor-to-ceiling mirror. Marie-Astrid, Emily and Julie stood in front of this giant looking-glass and in a co-ordinated act of vanity dropped their coats to the floor and admired their long dresses (at a risk of catching cold, since the chamber was not warm).

We finished the evening in the small chapel (the altarpiece being a painting of The Holy Family by Murillo). A choir of women called Voices From A Small Place (eleven of them, various ages), were singing medieval carols. The women were dressed in red evening clothes, all different. They were led by an extrovert women aged about forty-five, and seemed just as interested in singing for each other as performing for an audience. Normally I am ambivalent about middle-class interpretations of English folk culture (satirised by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim), but this choir didn’t take themselves too seriously and stayed the right side of sentimentality. Their voices were very fine, and a rendition of the Coventry Carol was genuinely moving.

At the end of the evening we returned to the car. Most other people had already left, churning large parts of the field to mud. Consequently my car got stuck in a boggy patch and refused to move forward. Marie-Astrid, Emily and Julie immediately got out of the car and attempted to push it (in the dark, slipping in mud, not thinking of their shoes or long dresses) but still no movement. The field was on a fairly steep slope, and eventually I just let the car roll backwards onto some un-churned grass where the wheels could get some grip and I could get some momentum and go forward again. When I looked at the car the next day there were three pairs of handprints in the thick mud on the back.

The castle staterooms were laid out as a succession of musical soirees.

Although the ducal palace was meant to be a "castle" the interiors were 18th century in style.

Candles lighting the grand staircase.

In every part of the castle were hundreds of candles - originally the whole building must have been lit by candles.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Photo essay: The splendour falls on castle walls

(Above) Baconsthorpe Castle in north Norfolk, which I visited as a child. I can remember being completely over-awed by the antiquity of the place. Baconsthorpe features prominently in the medieval Paston Letters, which describe feuding between the Heydon and Paston families over the Fastolf inheritance (Sir John Fastolf amassed a huge fortune from plunder during various invasions of France - Shakespeare satirised him as Sir John Falstaff in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor).

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story
(as Tennyson said).

(Above) It's funny the way the castle has entered popular culture.

(Above) an old legend connects these towers with a local castle.

After a hurried lunch (roast lamb) a long drive along muddy roads, eventually arriving at a melancholy town. Four grand former banks facing each other at the intersection of a crossroads, assorted shops trailing off along the four roads, petering out into the countryside. Apart from a good second-hand bookshop everywhere was shut.

Helen B and I had made the journey to look at the porch of the church. A local legend recounts that it originally came from a nearby castle (long since torn down), and reassembled as a grand entrance to the north door of the church. Certainly the two round towers were not ecclesiastical architecture, and were not bonded with the rest of the porch.

Already the light was beginning to fade, and the damp silence of the afternoon created a mood of expectation - would the legendary porch be a portal to another time? In a way it was, as when we entered the church we found a stillness and a darkness that seemed palpably from another age. We also found something else…

In the north west corner of the building was the fourteenth century tomb of a knight, his life-size stone effigy lying on a decorated stone chest. In full armour (with a belt of medallions), feet resting on a lion, his left arm held a shield emblazoned with two leopards. The head rested on a huge helmet, the face looking out at us from a petrified balaclava of chain mail.

“It was his castle the two towers came from” said Helen B (making up history as she went along). “After his death they were brought here as a memorial.” In a reversal of the Sleeping Beauty story she leaned over the knight and kissed his stone lips, and then relapsed into giggles.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A corporate visit forced on me

(Above) picture I took in the Place Vendome, setting sun, very cold air.

A short while back I applied for two days holiday, and as I filled in the form Sales Director Mitch Holmes looked over my shoulder and asked what I was up to. I explained that a group of my college friends would meet up every year just before Christmas. This year we were going to Paris for the day - by leaving early in the morning we could get to Paris by about midday, have a few hours in the city and be back in London by about ten or eleven (loaded with duty-free alcohol).

This information made Mitch Holmes very animated. He explained that he had a fairly big client in Paris and had been wondering what Christmas gift to give him (the company entertains all its major customers this time of year). I had given him the idea of going to over to Paris for lunch with the client, paid for by the company. Normally he would go to client lunches with Sarah Linton, but given the sensitive nature of their relationship (they are not-so-secret lovers) he obviously decided a freebie tryst in the city of love would be asking for trouble. Therefore I got roped into going (and thus have the prospect of two day-trips to Paris within a couple of weeks).

So on Thursday…

It was 5am when I got up, the morning/night dark and cold. After a cup of tea I left the house and set off for the local station, the roads empty and clear. Parking my car in the station car-park, I bought a train ticket from a machine (the ticket office wasn’t open) and went over to the middle platform. I was surprised to see lots of people waiting to catch the same train, talking to each other as if they were all friends (twenty people or so). Listening to their conversation, most of them were railway workers going up to London to start their various shifts (I was the only person on the platform wearing a suit).

The train made good time, despite stopping at all stations. Arriving in London, I met Mitch Holmes by the WH Smith shop and we went across to Waterloo by taxi. Despite the early hour London seemed as busy as ever.

At Waterloo we went into the Eurostar compound and then into the Business Premier Lounge (gaining access by showing company AmEx Platinum cards). The Lounge, created by Parisian designer Philippe Starck at a cost of £2 million, was a very long hall (the shape following the line of the platform) imaginatively furnished in a sort of reinterpretation of 1960s revival décor (not so much how the 1960s were, but how they ought to have been). Big “Dr Strangelove” swivel armchairs, plate glass windows, high stools at the central marble topped bar - a typical note of idiosyncratic luxury was the large ornate chandelier made especially for the salon (“lounge” doesn’t do the room justice).

At one end of the Lounge, in a wide futuristic niche, there were refreshments – tea, coffee, even alcoholic drinks. On the central bar were large plates piled high with various breakfast items such as croissants, chocolat au pain, waffles. In a wall of elegant minimalist boxes were crisp new copies of serious publications – The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, Le Monde, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times. Suspended overhead, slightly obscured by the glittering chandelier, was a huge television monitor tuned into the Bloomburg channel (financial news and share prices moving continuously across the foot of the screen like electronic tickertape). Everything was free, and you could help yourself to whatever you wanted. Mitch Holmes took advantage of this largess and piled his tray with more than he could possibly eat or drink or read (like some kind of corporate scavenger).

We waited for about half an hour until our train was announced, then we went out to join a brisk-moving queue and after a short walk along the platform found our seats in one of the first class carriages. The rest of the coach was almost empty. As soon as we sat down staff came along to offer us a drink and ask us whether we wanted the English or Continental breakfast.

“It’s like the Orient Express” said Mitch Holmes appreciatively (actually it was nothing like the Orient Express, and to my mind resembled a Club Class aircraft cabin).

All the staff on the train appeared to be French, but spoke very good English. Breakfast was served, two young attendants trundling along with a metal contraption that issued trays of pre-packed food. By the time they reached our table the cooked English breakfasts had run out. I said I would be happy with the Continental breakfast (bread rolls, apricot jam, chicory coffee) but Mitch Holmes made a fuss.

“I ordered the cooked breakfast” he said, taking the Continental alternative with an air of very bad grace. “This is NOT good enough.” Then, as the attendants walked away, he said in a Yorkshire whisper (which is not a whisper at all, but loud and meant to be heard): “Bloody French”.

This national insult must have stung them as shortly afterwards a smartly dressed senior attendant arrived and presented Mitch Holmes with a tray of foil-wrapped hot food. Mitch removed the coverings and began eating the various items, but soon stopped, and complained to a passing attendant that the food was tasteless and there was no meat in the meal. The attendant said it was the vegetarian option and that he would look into the matter. Shortly afterwards a different smartly dressed senior attendant arrived and delivered a bona fide full English breakfast. Mitch Holmes thus commenced his third breakfast on the train, but soon pushed it to one side saying he didn’t want it. Attendants came by and removed all the detritus of the meal, giving us hot wet cloths to wipe our fingers with (Mitch Holmes rubbed his face with the cloth).

Close to half-twelve we arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris (delay of twenty minutes while the train stood at the environs of the city). The day was sunny, but very cold and Mitch Holmes put on a fedora – I had never seen him wear a hat before. The station seemed unchanged since my last visit, but there was little time to linger as Mitch Holmes marched us out the front of the building and across the busy wide road to the Terminus Nord Hotel.

We entered the brasserie of the hotel past a kiosk selling every kind of seafood imaginable (the restaurant has a tradition of Bouillabaisse). Into the vast eating hall which was very crowded and noisy. There was a pronounced art nouveau appearance to the place, with walls a discreet golden-nicotine colour, pendulous globes of light suspended from sinuous organic-looking ironwork, engraved mirrors reflecting panels of engraved glass. Black leather banquettes, white starched linen, transparent upturned goblets - everything was very smart. We were led to a table at the back where the client (English, working for a French company) was already seated. Our waiter was very tall, aged about fifty and had a military moustache - he was very good at his job.

Pate en croute de lievre et salade to start, then steak and chips, and for a pudding Sablé de pistache et framboise, crème citronnée et jus de lavande. The client didn’t have much to say - I wondered whether the trip was for his benefit or just Mitch Holmes living it up at the company’s expense. Mitch had his back to the main part of the restaurant and often looked round to comment on the large number of waiters moving about.

“Look at all these staff. Look at them all. How can they afford to employ so many people!”

“Waiting is a high-status profession in France” said the client.

“There were loads of staff on the train over” said Mitch. “French companies seem grossly over-staffed. No wonder their economy is on the rocks.”

The meal lasted about two hours. Nothing interesting was said. Afterwards the client said goodbye to us in the street outside and walked swiftly away.

We had a couple of hours before our train went back to London, so Mitch Holmes hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the centre of the city. The driver was perplexed as to where to take us. Mitch Holmes just told him “Anywhere in the centre” so he drove us to the Place Vendome.

Getting out the taxi we walked around looking at the shops - mostly women’s fashions.

“You can tell we’re in France” said Mitch Holmes, “even the manikins have their legs apart.”

We walked aimlessly along looking in the windows of various stores - Prada, Hermes, Chanel. The air was very cold, even though the sun was shining. Police seemed everywhere, particularly heavy at road junctions.

Eventually Mitch stopped another taxi and we returned to the Gare du Nord for the Eurostar back to England. Once again we gained access to the Business Premier Lounge by showing company AmEx cards. The Paris lounge seemed an exact replica of the London one except that there was no chandelier.

Mitch Holmes picked up several newspapers (including Le Soir - a fatuous choice since he can’t speak French) and we sat down in swivel armchairs. There were many people waiting in the lounge, nearly all of them formally dressed in dark suits. The only people casually dressed were the middle-aged man and women sat next to us.

“Look at me in cords and stripy jumper!” the woman said excitedly. “Everyone must think we are tramps who have sneaked in here illegally.” She hooted with embarrassed laughter, her partner (in jeans and sweatshirt) sinking deeper into his armchair.

The woman’s voice was so loud that it was impossible not to listen. She used a mobile phone to ring her daughter in England explaining that they had missed an earlier train through some mix-up by Eurostar and had been upgraded to First Class as compensation. She thought this was hilarious.

“We’re sat here in First Class with everybody looking at us” she said into the ’phone (as far as I could see no-one was looking at them). “I’m just a probation worker from Kent. I daren’t go to the loo in case someone asks what I’m doing in here.”

Eventually the train was announced and we went out to find our seats. The journey back to London was uneventful. Parting from Mitch Holmes at Waterloo, I felt a little let-down by the expedition - I had been looking forward to going to Paris with friends, and having a corporate visit forced on me in this way marred my sense of expectation.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The New Girl

Last week Managing Director Marc Bottoni decided to “jump-start” the company by putting all non-operative personnel through a week of sales training to try to get the sales figures up. He told me on Monday morning that I didn’t need to attend all the training days, but that I should just sit in occasionally and make notes on how effective the courses were, and whether people were participating (in other words, be his spy). The impact on the company was quite disruptive, since at any one time a third of the office-based staff were in the Training Centre.

Because all the branch personnel came in for the training, the week consisted of lots of little meetings crammed into lunch and coffee breaks or taking place in the evening after the training had finished. I particularly disliked evening meetings with Sales Manager Frank Hunter (when the air conditioning was switched off at six o’clock the sudden silence was very noticeable, and for a long time I tried to recall why that moment was familiar to me - until I realised it corresponded to a profound moment in a feature film about a sinking liner, Titanic or similar, when the ship’s engines suddenly stop and you know the vessel is doomed). Frank and I worked on the new sales literature - as usual there was a great deal of dithering and going off at tangents. Many times I silently expressed thanks that I do not report to him, since the way he treats his team is so awful. At one meeting we clashed over the wording of a paragraph, and I feared he would cause trouble but when we talked next day there was a complete volte-face (which made me suspect he had complained to Marc Bottoni and had been rebuffed). As well as the new sales literature we discussed new designs for the Yellow Pages advertisements - it was incredible how much time and energy was taken up considering these simple designs.

Wednesday afternoon I took off to play golf with IT Supervisor Eric Morgan. I didn’t really want to do this, as the weather was so cold (plus I don’t enjoy golf), but since Eric had asked me I felt it would be bad manners to refuse. We played nine holes. The peace of the countryside was wonderful, the course bounded by stark oak trees smothered with ivy. And I was pleased at the reasonably competent way I managed to get through the game. Afterwards we had a simple dinner at the Club House, joined by Eric’s wife Jean.

Thursday was the only training day I sat through completely. Entitled Professional Selling Skills it was for all sales reps, sales estimators and call centre staff, plus a few extras like myself. About fifty people in all were in the main training room, sat round a big horseshoe of tables (there were not enough chairs for everyone, so several people were sat on tables along the side walls). I sat next to IT Manager Gavin Bargate - he was trying to be friendly but came across as patronising:

“Have you settled in alright?” he asked me, despite the fact that I had been at the company over four months (his tone was one of a senior director talking to a junior whereas in fact he is no older and no more important than myself - I resisted the temptation to ask whether HE had settled in alright).

The training began with the usual round where we had to introduce ourselves. I mentioned my interest in local history, how I liked to photograph historical sites, the large amount of historical reading I do. Other people talked about playing football or buying antique postcards on E-bay.

The Trainer had a droning voice and sweated a great deal (the armpits of his blue shirt became dark with perspiration). I had given him a copy of my Marketing Plan at the beginning of the week, and it was interesting the way in which he publicly endorsed my ideas (some of which had been expressly rejected by Frank Hunter). He gave a general introduction to selling (most of which was very basic) and showed us a video.

Lunchtime we all went across to a back room of the cafeteria where a buffet meal had been laid out. As usual I found the food rather stodgy and the conversation uninspiring (ranging from Office Politics: “There were so many names dropping at the last plc board meeting I had to wear steel toe-caps to protect my feet…” to Sport: “Some rugby players hit themselves before going out onto the pitch…” to Call Centre Gossips Giving Advice To New Entrants: “And watch out for Frank Hunter, he’s stupid sly and dangerous, and still trying to trade on his good-looks which have long gone to seed…”). As soon as I could (without appearing to be anti-social) I left the cafeteria to take refuge back at my desk.

In the afternoon the course attendees were augmented by a contingent from the Stevenage branch, so that the room became quite crowded. Sat on the end of one of the side tables, leaning casually back against the cream-coloured canvas-weave wallpaper, was Louis Maxwell, sales rep and office lothario, based at Stevenage. Aged in his mid-twenties, he was very sure of himself. Well-cut black suit with a narrow pin-stripe, black silk tie (subtle curvilinear pattern in dark red), shirt made of a thick white cotton fabric so that the cuffs were substantial, secured with big silver cuff-links (in my quest for details I wanted to ask him where he had bought his suit, but decided not to do so in case my interest was misinterpreted). Tiny mysterious gold badge in his jacket lapel. Crafty when dealing with the complaining call centre staff (lots of pat answers to the criticisms they made about how he ignored them and didn’t keep them up to date about his customer list).

Despite the lounging way he sat, he could move very quickly, expertly diving forward for papers on the main table as the handouts were circulated. His face was lightly tanned, the features even, the dark hair longish at the back. Wide sensuous mouth with the lips open (did he breathe through his mouth?). There was a look of concentration on his face (dark eyebrows above his dark eyes ever so slightly furrowed), as oblivious to the trainer he stared at one of the call centre staff.

The object of his attention was a New Girl who had just joined the call centre team. It was her first day and she had obviously made an effort over her appearance (slim-cut woollen trousers in dark brown checks, burgundy shirt with tiny white polka dots, v-neck black top splashed with a design of red cabbage roses). Aged nineteen or twenty, her face was beautiful, the jaw-line strong. Her light-brown hair, with a central parting, was long and wavy. Her eyes were almond shaped and the colour of pale green chartreuse. She seemed not to notice Louis Bargate, although he was staring right at her.

The turnover in the call centre is very high, and just looking at the New Girl, one could tell that she wasn’t likely to last very long, especially as her desk is opposite that of Lou Thompson, Call Centre Supervisor. Lou Thompson is an atrocious bully - aged in her fifties she is very tall and has a loud penetrating voice and intimidating manner so that she reminds me of the evil trolls of Scandinavian mythology (in particular, she has a way of standing up when she is arguing with someone, so that she literally towers over them resembling a TH White short story set in Sweden about an ordinary woman who would grow into a monstrous troll every time you looked away from her). If the New Girl escapes the predatory attentions of the sales reps she is not likely to survive very long the irrational angry outbursts of Lou Thompson.

During the late afternoon I found I was falling asleep and it was a horrible sensation to try to stay awake.

Andrew Porter on Straight Talk, BBC News 24

Last night I watched Straight Talk on BBC News 24 - I was told about this programme by Gary Spencer (it is acquiring a cult following among his circle of young and ambitious financial advisors, despite the killing time it is broadcast). Last night Andrew Porter from the Sunday Times was very perceptive about Angela Merkel's visit to Paris on Wednesday. I havn't been familiar with the astute political interpretations of Andrew Porter since I hardly ever buy The Sunday Times (apart from the obvious objection about giving money to Rupert Murdoch, it would mean missing the Roger Bootle column in The Sunday Telegraph).

Pharrell Williams

While I was waiting for Straight Talk I watched music videos, including Drop It Like It's Hot by Snoop Dog, featuring Pharrell Williams. Pharrell Williams currently has a single out entitled Can I Have It Like That (featuring Gwen Stefani). Pharrell Williams is one of those artists whose musical influence extends far beyond the intrinsic value of his own productions.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

An anthropological manifesto

Recently I have been wondering why I write this weblog. It represents quite a considerable investment in time and effort. Today it occurred to me, looking back at past entries, that what I have really been doing is practising my skills as an (amateur) historian and (very amateur) anthropologist.

And because I am not able to travel to the Amazon rain forests or the islands of the Pacific I have chosen to study the nearest societies to hand - the corporate world where I work, the middle class village communities where I live, and the various aspects of my personal progress through life.

So this weblog is an anthropological study (and this entry an anthropological manifesto). Whether the effort is worthwhile or not I can’t say. All I know is that it keeps me from being bored.

Often readers ask me what would happen if the weblog were to be “discovered”. As an experiment I recently told someone who is featured regularly (and not always favourably) and they were delighted by the way they had been described - they couldn’t stop talking about it. So I suppose reactions are going to be unpredictable (and I am resigned to the fact that sooner or later everything is going to come out).

What my readers think of this web log I can’t really say. Sitemeter tells me I get roughly a hundred visitors a day. Only a tiny fraction of that number ever leave a comment. If more people would comment it would make the process of writing much easier. And I would really appreciate people introducing themselves - even if just a first name, where you live and maybe what you do for a living. It will help me visualise who my audience is.

In this entry I am going to look at the interaction among the different departments, groups and cliques in the company (and which has taken me some time to work out). A conversation with Operations Manager Ian Murray (about forty, tall, gaunt) threw some light on the byzantine complexity of the organisation. As an old company hand, he enjoyed telling me about the corporate past (and as an historian, I enjoyed recording this utterly useless information).

“It all stems from the acquisition of the family business by Group plc” said Ian. “Unlike most of the Group’s acquisitions, where they bought a small company to gain a particular contract, this company was a mature organisation, with a fully developed structure and hierarchy equal to that of Group plc. It thus doesn’t fit easily into Group plc’s format, and has to be handled carefully – it’s an empire within the Group plc empire. That’s one of the reasons they chose Marc Bottoni as the Managing Director rather than putting in their own man. Formerly he had been manager of the branches, and overnight he was promoted to senior director following the departure of the old boss-family.”

IT Supervisor Eric Morgan (plump, grey haired, liable to histrionics) had been listening to what Ian was saying, and came over to where we were sitting.

“Whatever people say about Mr Bottoni’s shortcomings” Ian went on, “he has proved to be very good at managing the ambiguous relationship between the Group and the sbu” (sbu means Strategic Business Unit – after the takeover the company was re-designated an sbu). “You’ll notice there is a very definite difference in this organisation between a person who has senior rank and a person who is in charge and can give orders. There is a constant struggle between the two. Officially the Group recognises sbu autonomy. In reality there are lots of new people coming into the company looking to build careers for themselves with the backing of mentors at Group plc – it’s the usual way the Group operates and imposes its control. But in our company these new people have to be tamed in case they upset too many of the old regime and it starts to impact on business.”

“The whole thing could collapse like a soufflé when the oven door is opened” said Eric Morgan importantly.

“Why do questions of power and status matter?” I asked. “At the end of the day we all work for the same company. That should be enough.”

Eric Morgan burst out with a comment that obviously came from the heart (he had been a manager in the old set up and was now just a supervisor): “They matter because they decide who gets a good car, who gets a good salary level, and who gets a departmental budget allocation with teams of people to work for them. These are all vitally important considerations. That’s why you will often see two people fighting over the same job – the old manager who has senior rank, and the new manager who is taking all the decisions.”

“It’s the old managers that give the new managers their legitimacy” said Ian. “When Group plc bought the company from the Cain family they were only interested in one big contract. But now they are running the show they are starting to realise that this company has lots of fingers in very lucrative pies, and the potential to make money is enormous. But they have to tread carefully since there is always a risk of people leaving and taking their contacts to a competitor. This is not office politics in the usual style. This is a cold war between two clearly defined opposing sides.”

“And it’s far from certain who is going to win” said Eric Morgan excitedly, “since there are many people here who want the sbu to become an independent company again.”

We had gone too far. A noise behind us made all three of us look round simultaneously to see Managing Director of Marc Bottoni glaring at us from behind his thick spectacles. He had come in quietly through the side door from the Board Room - there was no knowing how long he had been standing there.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Last Friday - the eleventh day of the eleventh month

As a (part time) historian I am interested in the way in which items of contemporary life become memorialised and make the transition into "history". One of the most significant examples of this is the way in which the two world wars of the last century are passing from living memory into a mythological context, to be interpreted by historians working from second hand sources. This display of poppies, arranged by Maud Blanchard (old enough to have lived through the Second World War) has significance because it has been constructed by a participant in the conflict.

Although my main interest is in the medieval period, I try to collect examples of twentieth-century "history" that might be vulnerable. It was Marie-Astrid (who has little sympathy with the past and is always telling me to look to the future) who told me about the little northern village where there was a small shrine to the remarkable Dame Sarah Swift who came out of retirement to become Matron-in-Chief of 1,500 hospitals during the First World War. As well as a portrait photograph of Dame Sarah (looking very formidable, as if she could quell the German hordes with one disapproving look) there was a framed illuminated citation from the British Red Cross and a typed biography of her life - all these items could vanish tomorrow.

Sometimes in stained glass windows you get an actual portrait of someone who served in the Great War, usually dressed in mediaeval armour (as in this example) to emphasise the special nature of the conflict against Germany. The implication is that he has become translated into one of the knights of King Arthur, ready to return in the hour of England's need. In the village of Swaffham in Cambridgeshire there is a sequence of stained glass windows showing First World War tanks storming the German trenches to usher in an English paradise-on-earth (portrayed in Edwardian rural symbolism).

Machine Gunners' memorial at Hyde Park Corner - the inscription reads: Saul hath killed his thousands but David hath killed his tens of thousands.

Shop window decorated to commemorate Armistice Day (last Friday - the eleventh day of the eleventh month).

More real and coherent than the modern world

At the beginning of the week I was filled with doubts about whether my new job was working out or not. Things have not been very easy for me (although I get the impression that they have not been easy for most people). Publicly all due respect is shown to me to me by the senior managers and directors. In private however, I am treated with indifference (the best I have come to hope for), or suspicion and hostility. Mainly this is because I am not part of a big department and as a newcomer I don’t belong to any of the corporate cliques that exist at all levels of the organisation. There are times when I think I am doing well and creating a role for myself, but then an incident occurs that underlines just how marginal my position is.

For instance, just before I left on Monday evening, the Managing Director Marc Bottoni asked me to write-up the various stages by which the company would achieve the Strategic Plan, and have it ready for the sbu board meeting the next morning. I was quite angry at the impossible demands the task imposed, but by working most of the evening I had a draft ready that was presentable. When I gave it to him the next day he barely looked at it, and put it onto a heap of other documents that were on his desk.

This lack of consideration, combined with an oppressive corporate culture (the department heads take themselves very seriously) make me want to leave and find somewhere else to work. The problem is the salary is very good, and the working conditions are excellent. And the plus side to corporate indifference is that most of the time I am left alone.

The sbu (Strategic Business Unit) board meeting was apparently acrimonious, and throughout Tuesday morning it caused waves of fluster and excitement throughout the company as various people were called in and re-emerged with stories of argument and dissension. I was asked in mid morning to talk about the company magazine - immediately I stepped through the door I was aware of the very tense atmosphere. Marc Bottoni told me in a ridiculously formal way that the magazine would continue for the foreseeable future (later I learned there had been a determined move by some of the directors to cancel it as a savings exercise).

The meeting had allocated quite a substantial budget for the magazine, and this was very good news as it meant I would be able to afford professional photography, a proper designer (rather than doing it myself using InDesign) and a respectable print run. I was informed that the next issue of the magazine should include a major article on the recent retirement of a Group plc director. With that my “spot” in the board meeting came to an end, and I withdrew (no mention made of my Strat-Plan document - yet another piece of my work that just sinks without trace).

The rest of Tuesday I devoted to the magazine, and obviously I worked out that Marc Bottoni wanted to feature the director’s retirement as part of his own internal PR with Group plc (our ultimate masters). I rang the director, who lives in Suffolk, and arranged to go over and interview him at his home. Later in the afternoon I met with a design agency which had worked on the magazine in the past (I was not impressed with them - they seemed rather incompetent: “The company logo started off as a silhouette of St Paul’s Cathedral, but over the years bits dropped off the master artwork so that it became an abstract design…”).

Also in the magazine I decided to do a page on the European desk, going down to the next floor to talk to Clare Vyse (Supervisor of the European desk, she moved her chair so close our knees were touching) and loud work-placement student Scott Jura (while we were talking he answered the telephone with such a flourish that he accidentally smacked the receiver into his face. “You’ll have a black eye” Clare told him. “I’ve had black eyes before” he said nonchalantly, “it comes from having a big mouth”). I didn’t really need their help, I just thought it would be wise to be seen consulting people.

Missing from the floor was temp Maria, one of the few people in the company I actually counted as a friend (we shared an interest in mediaeval history). Maria had finally been offered a permanent job at the new depot opening in Thetford, and had moved to Suffolk. I decided that as well as visiting the retiring director I would also do a feature on the new Thetford branch and pay Maria a visit.

Wednesday I set off mid morning for the drive to Suffolk, listening to Radio 4 (The World At One was about the government’s attempts to impose a ninety day detention period on terror suspects). I took frequent detours by back roads, and at one point passed the writhing torsos of a bicycle competition, strung out along the lanes. About five miles beyond Newmarket I arrived at the retired director’s house.

His rural home was very elegant, and he and his wife were welcoming. We had some tea and I asked him how he planned to spend his retirement. He said he was an amateur artist, and he intended to devote himself fulltime to this hobby. The next hour consisted of him showing me an endless succession of landscapes and seascapes. They were very well done, and no doubt would sell, but there was a sameness about them that was rather boring. I felt my reserves of flattery and praise were wearing thin as he kept coming up with new paintings to show me.

Finally escaping from the retired director’s house, I continued on to Thetford - the drive across Suffolk took much longer than I anticipated. The building was on a business park, the architecture being late-1980s industrial functionalism. The offices were upstairs, and were shabby and untidy. The branch manager was out, but sales rep Steve Ellis was there, and insisted on telling me about his Quick Response service, which he wanted to go in the product development section of the magazine (I listened politely, but privately thought it a crackpot idea that will never sell). As well as Steve Ellis, there were two Customer Liaison staff at the branch, one of them being Maria. She seemed very pleased I had arrived, and had delayed her lunch break so we could go for a drink.

We drove in my car to a nearby village. She told me her move to Thetford had been a mistake - the office was claustrophobic and the work uninteresting. She also revealed that her new contract specified that she had joined the company under a “graduate entry” scheme, but mysteriously this was not the Group plc scheme, but something Marc Bottoni seems to have invented all by himself.

Walking around the village centre, through the drifts of orange autumnal leaves, we stopped talking “shop” and she described the dissertation she had finished last year on the monuments in Westminster Abbey and its role as a pantheon and Valhalla. This discussion of medieval art occurred as we passed the village church, and it seemed natural to go inside and have a look around.

Under an ogee arched doorway a heavy door led into a porch that was dark and windowless, the mid-afternoon light just illuminating a board listing the Ten Commandments (in clear hand-lettering of the early nineteenth century). The outer door swung shut behind us, and we had to carefully negotiate five steps down in complete darkness before going through another heavy door into the small nave of the church. Inside we found an impressive brass chandelier that reputedly came from Hampton Court Palace.

Not for the first time the ancient past seemed more real and coherent than the modern world.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

An interview with George Michael...on BBC4

An interview with George Michael was featured on BBC4 Friday night. I saw it at Gary Spencer's house. It is a measure of George Michael's importance as a cultural phenomenon that the interview was also featured in a sizeable chunk of Monday's Newsnight, where it shared billing with the political angst of President Bush and the comic antics of David Blunkett (David Blunkett had to resign later in the week in confused circumstances that strained credulity and resembled an episode of the political satire The Thick Of It - a parody of a parody).

I arrived at the Spencer's house at nine. Gary hadn't got back yet, but his wife Carol was there and gave me a glass of beer. She was listening to the Abba song Gimmee Gimmee Gimmee, played continuously on a loop (she apologised for this, saying she couldn't yet buy the new Madonna song Hung Up, which features the same melody, playing on the continuous loop inside her mind).

She appeared to be suffering from a cold, and inflated this into 'flu.

"Not bird 'flu?" I asked.

"Well I am a bird, and I have got 'flu" she said cheerfully.

Gary came in with his brother, Adrian. They were both in an excitable mood. Gary explained how he had been delayed helping Adrian clear out his house following a relationship breakdown.

"When Jo and Adrian split up there were lots of things left over that she didn't want" Gary said. "Her soft toys and some clothes and a lot of coursework from her nursing degree. She didn't want any of it so we decided to make a bonfire of it all. So we piled it up in the garden and he poured petrol over it all - a whole jerry can, with a trail leading back to where we were standing. He then rolled up a bit of newspaper and lit it. The fireball that came out of it was unbelievable. We literally jumped into the air and flew backwards."

While Carol got the dinner ready Gary joined me in the lounge and we switched the television on. George Michael appeared on the screen, dressed in black, in a room that was completely white (white walls, white furniture, sprays of what looked like white orchids - anything that wasn't white appeared to be transparent, including some odd-looking plastic cubes). The interview included questions on his status as a second generation immigrant (a subject the singer didn't seem keen to talk about), his increasingly political stance (he admitted to being duped by Tony Blair), his growing maturity as an artist.

Film came on of the early days of Wham, and this provoked Gary to talk about seeing himself in a home movie made in his early teens (a period coexistent with the Wham video).

"It was really painful to watch" he said. "I really didn't like myself. In those days I was really cocky and arrogant."

"You havn't changed that much" I told him.

Gary's reaction to the brief Wham clip helps to explain why George Michael should have such significance. His music acts as a Proustian device transferring the later members of Generation X in an almost involuntary basis back to their teenage years (I am using the definition of Generation X as those born between 1961 and 1981). It is a mechanism referred to by Tony Parsons in his 1991 enigmatic biography of George Michael.

Adrian came into the room and sat down, talking on his mobile, oblivious to the television: "It wasn't as simple as that. I wasn't unfaithful. It was eating me up inside. I wanted her to have no-one..."

The interviewer of George Michael was Kirsty Wark. Unlike the masterly Jeremy Paxman (who will crush the answers out of obdurate politicos) her style as a Newsnight presenter is very chatty and informal, and she often uses that affable interaction to inveigle politicians into betraying themselves. She recently presented a documentary tour of the new states of eastern Europe, travelling through Slovenia, Slovakia and Latvia in a style similar to Patrick Leigh Fermor in A Time Of Gifts.

Will bird 'flu become the most devastating event of our generation?

(Above) I saw this image of an exotic bird in the window of a house. Will bird 'flu become the most devastating event of our generation? Or will be another false alarm like the Year 2000 computer panic?

Bird 'flu, an avian disease sweeping through south east Asia, has already been detected in the United Kingdom. It was discovered in a consignment of exotic birds imported from South America (but probably contaminated during quarantine by birds imported from Asia). All the exotic birds were destroyed, and the government claims that because the birds were still in quarantine the disease hasn't actually entered the country (typical manipulation of words to evade responsibility).

(Above) geese in the field during the summer - most domestic birds are being brought indoors.

The threat of bird 'flu mutating into a disease that will affect humans is exercising a great deal of media attention. It is being compared to the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed over fifty million people. Among the people I have talked to there is hardly any awareness of the issues, and often media treatment of the subject is dismissed as scare-mongering (although you could hardly accuse Panorama, a television programme of immense stature, of scare-mongering). Whatever the effect upon humans, there is no doubt that the disease will prove to be devastating for the birds of the air. Countless millions are being culled in an attempt to prevent any crossover between species. This represents science (or Science with a capital "S") attempting to interfere in the dismal Mendelian cull which nature (or Nature with a capital "N"?) has planned for the human race.

(Above) image of a swan on top of a Victorian former factory (now converted to flats) in a small northern town. I think the factory used to produce mattresses stuffed with swan's down. It is a measure of Victorian confidence that they invested in such a magnificent corporate logo (they probably thought their factory would last forever).

Bird 'flu was first detected in Europe among the swans of the Danube delta in Romania.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

“She’s like this with everyone who comes to the house”

(Above) Mitch Holmes thinks our brand image should incorporate teddy bears, which he says will always get attention (even though they have nothing to with any of the SBU’s products or services). He wants the new sales brochure to incorporate teddy bears dressed in the company uniform. Sarah Linton is supposed to refer to Mitch Holmes as “my teddy bear” (he’s a strapping Yorkshireman with grey hair and beard).

Thursday. All the speculation in the office today was about a secret meeting Mitch Holmes (Sales Director) held at The Kings Head pub in the heart of the forest last night (the “forest” is actually a connection of woods which The Woodland Trust is trying to expand and consolidate). Only Paul Hignet (Sales Executive), Clare Vyse (European Desk) and Sarah Linton (Sales Manager and Mitch Holmes’s lover) attended this covert gathering, which was meant to be very hush hush (and yet everybody knew about it).

Like everyone else I was curious about what was discussed. As for most of the day I was alone in the office with Paul Hignet I was able to push him to tell me information. At first he was absolutely taciturn, but gradually, under my tactful but persistent questioning, he described the scene.

He had arrived to find the pub deserted apart from Mitch Holmes and Sarah Linton sitting either side of an open fire. When Clare Vyse arrived the meeting began, and took the form of mysterious hints and arguments that led nowhere before the real explanation was arrived at: the sales figures for October were disastrous and there was a possible risk of redundancies. The clandestine woodland meeting, in a pub chosen because no one from the office was likely to drink there, was intended to identify candidates for redundancy (scapegoats to be offered up in place of Mitch Holmes, who should really carry responsibility for the poor sales figures).

In the afternoon Julia Fitzgerald, one of the Sales Executives (slim, energetic, attractive but a little inept - the Call Centre staff said the only reason she was appointed was because Mitch Holmes liked the look of her), came back to the office in a mood was exhilarated and jumpy. She rummaged in her bag and produced a Mars Bar which she presented to me with the words: “This is for my fellow partner in crime” (what did she mean by that?). She has worked for the company for only nine months, and when Paul Hignet briefly left the room she whispered to me that she was about to hand in her resignation in protest at Mitch Holmes’s blatant favouritism towards Sarah Linton. She breezed off with her resignation letter, typed up on buff-coloured paper. I found an excuse to go down to the general sales floor, and saw her in the glass side office talking animatedly with Mitch Holmes. Throughout the afternoon the news of her deed gradually filtered out and a hush fell over the offices.

I stayed at work until 6 pm, as I had been asked to dinner by Nathalie Vachon - a French woman aged about thirty, working on the European desk as a temp, complaining frequently that no-one liked her. I didn’t really want to go, but I felt that if I refused Nathalie Vachon would count me as part of the “conspiracy” she felt was trying to drive her out the company (the Call Centre is mostly made up of women, and they can be very astringent to anyone who doesn’t fit in). When she invited me Nathalie said with a significant emphasis: “You’ll meet Den, my partner.”

Nathalie lived about five miles away. The village was difficult to find, and in the dark I was driving along muddy roads looking for a farm on sloping ground with a narrow lane off to the left. Eventually, I arrived at Wood Farm Cottage, a small detached house with all the lights blazing. There was a tall hedge in front of the building, then an area of gravel. Behind the house I could see the silhouettes of apple trees. As I parked on the gravel Nathalie Vachon bounded out of the front door saying: “You’ve come!” (as if she doubted I would actually turn up).

Vanessa Vachon has a heavy big-boned build (not fat, but certainly well-rounded) with black curly hair and a pronounced nose. She dresses very well, and has a vivacious coquettish manner, so that she is impossible to ignore. In the office she flirts outrageously with the uniform staff (probably the reason she is not popular with the Call Centre women, especially as her language has a Gallic explicitness about sexual matters). She was hired by Marc Bottoni to work on marketing the European operations, so she frequently comes up to my desk to ask my opinion. I give her a lot of encouragement, but privately I think that her proposals have no chance of getting adopted without the support of Mitch Holmes. As Mitch Holmes is secretly frightened of the Call Centre women, there is no chance of this happening.

As soon as I entered the house I met Vanessa’s partner Den - another woman (Den was short for Denise). Within minutes of my arrival it was clear that they were partners in the fullest sense of the word. Den was aged about forty, tall and angular, with hair dyed an improbable shade of orange. She was wearing black leather trousers. She greeted me in a belligerent sort of way, as if expecting me to say something or be surprised in some way. She swore copiously and throughout the evening there was always a drink in her hand.

In the half hour that followed Den treated me with open hostility, and was so rude that I considered leaving (this may have been what she intended). Everything I said she disagreed with. Den was a mature student doing an English Literature degree incorporating a great deal of radical sexual politics and the triumph of women over men (this is a subject she went on and on about all evening). She portrayed herself as a left-wing champion of the working-class but she had once been married to a Scottish expatriot estate agent in central France. Nathalie had also been married and had two children which she left behind when she ran off with Den. They described this elopement as being “driven out” by the local villagers (all Nathalie had taken with her was contained in two plastic bags).

The interior décor of the house was interesting. Nathalie and Den, after their flight from France, had run a pub for three years. This business had failed with the loss of almost all their money (which had come from Den’s divorce settlement). As a result, Wood Farm Cottage was furnished with items salvaged from the pub. So we had the dinner seated on tall settle benches drawn up to a cast iron table. Around the walls were framed posters of French impressionist works (from the pub restaurant). All around the house were collections of ceramic figures (the sort of bric-a-brac you would find in a pub).

After such a poor reception I had not expected much from the meal, but actually quite an effort had been made. We began with smoked salmon, then had a main course of an enormous steak served almost raw (I like food to be well-cooked and I thought this slab of bloody meat was disgusting). No pudding, but an impressive platter of cheeses was produced, twenty or so varieties. Our talk was very broad and covered a huge number of subjects. Every view I expressed was twisted by Den and used against me. At midnight I felt I could leave without Den thinking she had driven me off (I didn’t want to give her that satisfaction).

Nathalie came out to the car and apologised for the treatment I had received.

“Don’t worry” she said, “she’s like this with everyone who comes to the house.”

I said it didn’t matter, but as I drove off I determined never go to Wood Farm Cottage again.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Work at home… free of distractions

One of the nicest things about my new job is that occasionally I am allowed to work at home. So on Tuesday I stayed in bed until ten o’clock and then went down to the long sitting room (which runs the whole of the west side of the house) with a cup of tea and some books. My brother had gone out, and I was able to read without interruptions. I continued with the second volume of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Interspersed with my reading, I also gave attention to the details of the company’s Acquisition Plan, the main reason Marc Bottoni had told me to work at home, where I would be free of distractions (in reality there are hundreds of distractions at home, and I would get far more done at my desk in the office). The paperwork was immense, and I often found myself floundering among the clauses and sub-clauses and references to case histories.

Early afternoon, and I decided I had had enough of the intricacies of acquisition procedure. Putting aside the dry-as-dust papers I decided to go out for a drive, calculating that I would have three hours before the light faded. I decided to look around a village on the other side of the escarpment, and because my house is one of the lower plateaus, the easiest way to get to my destination was to go down onto the plain, round to the east and up into the hills again.

The temperature in the open air was incredibly mild. Once down on the plain I made good progress across the flat landscape, driving through a succession of villages that included several I have already written up. As you come to the edge of the plain, which is absolutely level, the escarpment rises up before you like a huge green wave of limestone, petrified at the last Ice Age. The road starts to climb upwards, the only point on this side where it can do so. On the cusp of the edge, among some trees, was the village I was heading to. On my left as I gained the summit was the Old Hall, tall and austere in dull red brick. This mansion was former home to the Clare family, Lords of the Manor for several centuries. Round the lanes I drove, doubling back in a circle until I reached the church. The door was locked, and when I asked at a nearby house for the key the key-holder (Mr Hughes, an elderly mathematics teacher) came out to show me round.

Unusually the church was dedicated to St Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine (who made Christianity the official religion of Europe) and discoverer of the True Cross in Jerusalem, where she built basilica churches over many of the holy places. There is a legend (worked up by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Helena) that both Helen and Constantine came from the Roman province of Britannia although no-one knows precisely where. As the village was once the focus of a cult of St Helen it seems as good a candidate as any other place.

The approach to the church was through low double gates and along a wide gravel path towards the massive bulk of the west tower, solid and immense (Pevsner calls it domineering) with a square top instead of battlements. We entered by a door in the tower and once we were inside Mr Hughes silently pointed upwards - surprisingly you could see up through several stories, like the inside of a big square ornamental chimney, highly decorated in a way that was very striking (curtain arches on slender shafts and lots of dog-tooth carving).

The church had been restored by the Clares in the 1850s, but the money ran out so that the south half was smart and solid in ashlar stone by the architect Stephen Lewin, whereas the north aisle remained original sandstone, picturesque and crumbling. In the north aisle there was a seventeenth-century bust, the head surmounted with an incredible marble wig. There was also an Elizabethan sculpture, in the south aisle, to a young woman, her left elbow resting on a skull and her right hand trailing an extinguished torch (Pevsner regarded this relief as rustic and quaint, but I thought the morbid symbolism was depressing).

Mr Hughes knew a great deal about the history of the village, and I made lots of notes as he talked (I sometime feel a fraud doing this - if my work is ever published the acknowledgements section is going to be enormous). He showed me a side of the fourteenth-century font where there was a carved face of the Green Man, and then went into a description of the novel The Green Man by Kingsley Amis. I asked him about the Clare family and he described how the twentieth century had been too much for them and they had sold up and moved away.

“I have often wondered what becomes of families who lose their ancestral homes” he said philosophically. “Do they put it all out of their minds and build life anew, or do they wallow forever in nostalgia and regret?”

“Do any of them ever come back?” I asked.

“Oh yes” he said, “a Clare descendant came over from Kent about two years ago to have a look around. He knew every detail of the village, so obviously in his case the lost demesne had been preserved in family lore.”

We went outside where thick dark yew trees were grouped about the church, atmospheric in the gathering twilight. The churchyard was right on the edge of the escarpment. The view from this point is famous, and on a fine day you can see all of the plain and across the inland sea and beyond (into the haunted county). Below the church, so that the roof was level with our feet, was the eighteenth-century façade (which Pevsner says overlays a more primitive construction) of The Old Rectory, looking like a dolls house, surrounded by a garden of hedged “rooms”.

It was still reasonably light as I drove down from the escarpment. Water seemed everywhere - water lying on the fields and in the full ditches, water hanging in the ominous clouds overhead, and water falling as a light rain. The presence of all this moisture gave me the impression, as the car reached the level, that I was being immersed in the prehistoric sea that once covered the plain.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ultra-competitive day

Still the reorganisation goes on. Halfway through Monday morning Malcolm Jeffery (overweight Sales Team Manager) came out of a meeting with Marc Bottoni (Managing Director) and paused by my desk, saying to me meaningfully: “You are a central cost, you lucky bastard.” This was a great relief as effectively I now report directly to Marc Bottoni, and have been removed from any necessity to earn my keep by achieving monetary targets (which would have been the case were I to have remained part of the sales team, who are only as good as their last sales figures).

This news made me a little complacent, and I went down to the middle sales floor intent on spending the rest of the morning chatting to Maria, one of the temps (early twenties, wavy black hair, freckled face - although a “temp” she has been temping at the company for well over a year, no-one thinking to offer her a permanent job). Maria is a history graduate (Queen Mary College) and because we are both interested in antiquarianism we have spent a lot of time together recently (Operations Supervisor Dave Sawyer half-jokingly telling people we are having an affair). Maria had been to a wedding in Bedford the previous weekend and told me about the staircase at the Swan Hotel which was taken out of Houghton House (now a ruin, but reputedly the model for the poet John Bunyan’s “House Beautiful” in Pilgrim’s Progress).

It was while I was talking to Maria, drinking tea, and idling away my time that I got a message that Marc Bottoni wanted to see me. Feeling guilty (what had I done now?) I went up one floor, through the PA’s section and across to the MD’s office, the door wide open. Marc Bottoni didn’t ask me to sit down (although he remained seated himself) but said in his sour northern accent that he wanted me to go on the divisional senior manager’s training course this Thursday and Friday. I was aghast at this sudden news, since it would completely disrupt my plans for the week, but I didn’t see how I could refuse (going on the course must mean I am, in some way, considered a divisional senior manager - or at least divisional senior manager material). Marc Bottoni said Personnel would supply me with all the details and then turned his attention to the papers on his desk, ignoring me. All I could do was say “Thank you” to the top of his head (he is a very short man) and go back to my desk, pleased to be included in the course, but also annoyed at the rude way my agreement had been taken for granted.

Back at my desk I discussed the matter with IT Supervisor Eric Morgan and Sales Team Manager Malcolm Jeffery. It was a mistake to have done this as they were both jealous that I had been asked on the course and they had not. “You’re obviously included because someone has dropped out at the last minute” Malcolm Jeffery said nastily (and yet he was probably right, especially since Mitch Holmes was sick all week).

Thursday - I had to get up at five a.m., driving to work and parking in my usual space, the rest of the car park completely empty. The offices were all shut up except for the Driver’s Rest Room (open twenty-four hours) where I met the two managers who were giving me a lift to the training venue. These managers were from a different business unit, and I didn’t know them at all. I sat in the back of the car (a company Volvo) on the drive to the training centre, and we made polite corporate conversation for half an hour before I relapsed into silence.

Arriving at Hill House at eight o’clock, my first impression was of an old Cotswold manor house until we drew close and I realised it was all completely new. Inside it was comfortably furnished as a private house, the owner using his home as a conference centre for “elite” (ie very expensive) corporate training courses. On the walls lots of modern art, in every room shelves of books (lots of them I had read - Founder by Amos Elon, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, To The Land Of Reeds by Aharon Appelfeld etc).

At the back of the “manor” were outbuildings that resembled stables and outhouses, but were in fact accommodation for the delegates (there were about twenty of us in all) arranged in “cottages” of four or five bedrooms. My room was in Breeze Cottage, a very appropriate name since it was freezing cold during the night. I left my bag in my room then joined the others to drive across to a nearby hotel where the first of the training sessions was to be held.

The only other people on the course from my own business unit were Operations Manager Ian Murray (very tall, aged about forty five, cynical and slow of speech) and Sales Manger Frank Hunter. Apparently each business unit in the division was required to send three delegates to the course, which was called “Leadership School”. Ian Murray talked to me over coffee - two quiet people a bit out of place in a roomful of gung-ho extroverts.

“There’s lots of loud people here” I said.

“They’re mostly sales people” Ian said. “This is a sort of finishing school designed to turn high-achieving sales dickheads into corporate gentlemen - the next generation of the company’s leaders. You’ll see at the dinner tonight all the divisional panjandrums will arrive and look us over, trying to pick out those with the leader instinct.”

“That counts me out” I said.

“Me too” he said. “I’m getting too old for all this.”

The training sessions lasted from nine in the morning until six in the evening, and were mostly delivered by a limping MBA lecturer from Warwick University, who had a very populist manner, swearing profusely, telling jokes frequently, and often referring to “the Big Swinging Dicks” (people who make things happen). There was lots of role playing sessions, which I hated, and only a thirty-minute buffet lunch. On the plus side, the day was very well organised, and although one moved through the half-hour sessions at a bewildering pace, there was always the sense that one was absorbing information.

It was a very demanding course, and combined with the early start left me feeling exhausted (perhaps stamina was also being tested?). At six we returned to the manor house. I chose to go in Ian Murray’s car, and I felt I had got to know him well enough to ask a question that had been puzzling me.

“Everyone says Frank Hunter is on the way out, and yet he has been selected to go on this Leadership Course” I said.

“Mitch Holmes might want Frank Hunter out of the company, but Marc Bottoni has got other ideas” he said. “Mr Bottoni is a great one for divide and rule.”

At Hill House I sat in the lounge for about twenty minutes, making conversation, and then slipped away to my room where I lay down on the bed and rested until it was time to get ready for the dinner. I had been informed that this was to be a formal occasion so I put on a dark suit and silk tie (maroon with white spots).

Walking across the deserted courtyard towards the main house I felt very apprehensive.
This apprehension turned to alarm when I entered the big dining room and found that everyone else had taken their seats, the only place still free being the seat opposite Roy Whiting, Divisional Managing Director (on his right hand was the owner of the training centre, on his left was Marc Bottoni). I really didn’t want to take that place, but there was no option. I decided that the only way I would get through the evening would be by keeping a low profile and not drinking too much.

Roy Whiting (portly build, balding, raffish moustache) greeted me affably and seemed to remember who I was (we had met very briefly at the company event last week). He had a reassuring Stanley Baldwin quality of substance and unflappability. He paid very great attention to everything said by the owner of the training centre, who seemed to know everyone in the room and their backgrounds (including me, although I had never set eyes on him before). Marc Bottoni’s manner towards Roy Whiting was ingratiating in the extreme, and every sentence he spoke was delivered with a sniggering laugh that was very out of character. I talked to the owner of the training centre about books (an easy subject since our reading interests overlapped) and to Roy Whiting about horses (he told me his wife had just spent £29,000 on a horse). But mostly I remained silent.

After the dinner the senior managers, the training instructors and the owner of the training centre retired to an inner sanctum (presumably to discuss who had done well at the day’s training) while everyone else went to a local pub (The Fox). I really wanted to go to my room and go to sleep, but I could see that this pub visit was unavoidable. Outside the night air felt cold.

The pub was some miles away, and I travelled there with a trio of managers from a business unit in Newcastle. The driver of the car (an 05 reg BMW) was a surly-looking Geordie, very young looking (slim build, broken nose, short gelled hair standing up on end) who is apparently one of the top sales people in the whole division. He drove like a maniac (well over 80 mph) along the narrow country lanes so that I feared for my life, the music so loud it was impossible to speak (Mike Skinner, Natalie Imbruglia, Katie Melua).

We were (of course) the first to arrive at the pub, but only by a few minutes. The establishment was completely unremarkable, and was virtually deserted until the arrival of the twenty or so Leadership delegates. Conscious of the requirement to appear a good “mixer” I avoided talking to Frank Hunter and Ian Murray. Instead I forced myself to talk to complete strangers, finding some people off-hand, others quite friendly. The most responsive person was the surly-looking Geordie who was very easy to talk to - you just asked him a question and he talked about himself (his work, his two toddler daughters, his luxury timeshare). Geordies seem to have no concept of personal space, so that I felt the trio from Newcastle were always too close (I suppose they thought I was too distant, subtly edging away all the time).

In the basement of the pub was a games room, with a ping pong table. Competitive to the last, the surly-looking Geordie suggested I partnered him in a game of doubles against his two Newcastle colleagues. His deft skill at table tennis more than compensated for my mediocre efforts, and we won every game, against all comers (everyone had migrated to the games room and was watching the ping pong games).

It was two in the morning when I finally got back to my room and could shut the door on the whole ultra-competitive day.