Thursday, March 24, 2005

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(Above) Country Life 1
Winter feed for the cows.

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(Above) Country Life 2
Harvesting a field of early daffodils. Most field work is now carried out by migrant workers from the new accession countries of the European Union. Their working conditions are not terribly good, and many of them are exploited by rough-and-ready gangmasters.

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(Above) Country Life 3
Even metropolitan publications project the English rural romantic dream (as Jane Austen pointed out: “Virtue resides in rural surroundings”).

Actually it is unfair to describe Country Life magazine as metropolitan, even though most of its readership is in London and the south east. It has, over the century or so of its existence, become a national institution. Despite the potentially corrupting influence of its advertisers (the magazine carries a huge amount of top-end real estate advertising, and there must be pressure from the agents of this plutocratic sector to grant favours or run “advertorials”) Country Life has maintained some of the highest standards of journalistic integrity in the United Kingdom. The photography is very high quality. When I worked at an advertising agency in EC1, one of the clients I used to look after advertised in Country Life regularly, so I would get a free voucher copy every week (if someone else hadn’t stolen it from the post room). I still buy it occasionally – the features on architecture are especially good.

Everyone who works in marketing is obliged to read The Guardian each Monday – it is one of the ways you get to know what is going on (and what options might be available). The newspaper runs a Country Diary column on Mondays – the writing is always well-observed and has an entrancing quality that is very attractive. As well as The Guardian (left wing) I also try to read in an average week: The Times (right wing), The Telegraph (very right wing), The Independent (left wing pretending to be neutral) and The Financial Times (I only buy the FT on Saturdays – the FT Saturday edition is a wonderful newspaper full of well-written and intelligent news analysis, arts reviews and general features).

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

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(Above) Two ducks were in the car park this morning waddling around the puddles formed by last nights rain.

Probably the best weather reports currently broadcast

As I drove to work this morning I listened to the Today Programme on Radio 4. The weather was presented by Alex Deakin from the BBC Weather Centre. He often appears on the BBC delivering the weather forecasts in a very smart suit and silk tie (choice of tie avoiding the garish broadcast-friendly colours of other TV presenters).

His are probably the best weather reports currently broadcast – informative, enthusiastic (but without seeming a nerd – this is very restrained delivery), hand movements precise and defined. He avoids the waffle and indistinct mumbling of other presenters. His accent is very good BBC English, but with a slight northern tinge (which came out this morning when he pronounced words such as “already” and “afternoon”). Not sure if he writes the broadcasts himself, the choice of language is very good.

Also on the Today Programme this morning was an item by Phil Mercer, one of the BBC’s reporters in Australia. I knew Phil Mercer slightly when he lived in the United Kingdom – he was a friend of a friend (not sure if we ever met one-to-one, we just knew the same people and he was always in the background of various gatherings). Not sure if I would recognise him now – his accent has completely changed. When I knew Phil Mercer he was very popular – it was probably his most distinguishing feature. He was someone who was popular with everyone. It’s strange to know people personally, then lose contact with them, then ten years later find they’ve written a book, or they’re appearing on television, or they come up on the news in an international diplomatic incident or something.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

“But it’s hideous” I told her

I live in old brick farmhouse dating from the 1880s – plain facades, square rooms, a big front entrance that is hardly ever used. The house faces south, into the main part of the garden, and all the south-facing rooms are very warm. The back (north facing) side of the house is much colder, and the layout more complex, reflecting building alterations that have been made over the years.

One downstairs room, looking out to the east, seems to have been done up as a extra sitting room in the 1930s (big plate glass picture windows, built-in display cupboards with glass doors, a tiled fireplace), and these innovations are out of keeping with the rest of the house. I imagine that the family who used to own the farm put in a “modern” sitting room before the Second World War (rather like Brenda Last did at Hetton Abbey in A Handful of Dust) then abandoned it when they realised how cold it was to sit in.

My parents wanted to reverse this pre-war décor and make it more consistent with the rest of the house. In particular, the fireplace had to go. Helen Blakeman took a different view, and on one of her rare visits was adamant that it should be preserved.

“But it’s hideous” I told her.

“No it’s not. It’s a good example of an art deco focal point – inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. This is probably modelled on the entrance to the inner golden shrine which caused a sensation when it was brought out of the tomb.”

“But these sort of fireplaces are in thousands of homes. We were going to rip it out.”

“Keep it another twenty years and it will be a valuable period feature” she told me. “You could restore the whole room to its art deco appearance. It will look wonderful”.

I thought nothing more about this until last week when was in Berkeley Square. On the corner was a shop selling antiquities, and in the window was an Egyptian stone carving. “That looks like our fireplace” I told myself.

(Above) The hideous fireplace. Please excuse the plastic flowers. My sister took over the room during our mothers last illness and put in the flowers because she thought the place needed cheering up. My mother would have been mortified if she had known we had plastic flowers in the house. The picture on the mantlepiece is of my nephew Lewis (aged three). He was named after his mother Louise (not the actor Lewis Collins - even though my brother endlessly watches old reruns of The Professionals on Granada Plus). Posted by Hello

(Above) Egyptian antiquity in a showroom on the corner of Berkeley Square. Gary Spencer called it an upmarket junk shop. There were no prices on any of the objects, so I guess they are all on the expensive side.  Posted by Hello

Monday, March 21, 2005

Morale has been very low recently

This afternoon Frank Jarvis, south western Area Sales Manger, paid a visit to Marketing to discuss a direct mail campaign we have planned for his area. Frank is one of the most approachable of the sales managers, very relaxed in manner, unpretentious, genuinely interested in marketing. We went over the twenty-week campaign mailshot by mailshot and the increase in awareness it is likely to achieve.

It is always good for morale to have a big campaign of this kind running – we will also be running the same sequence of mailshots in the Midlands sales area so it will be interesting to compare the results (I am confident that both campaigns will achieve nearly a fifty per cent increase in awareness, but I am keeping this to myself for the time being, just in case something should go wrong).

Morale has been very low recently, particularly over the transfer of various functions to the Glasgow office. A new warehouse is being set up in the Glasgow area without the knowledge or involvement of the Logistics Manager (it made him look very silly when the news leaked out). Almost all the sales desk responsibilities have been transferred to Glasgow, leaving the sales desk staff in London with little to do. Wild rumours have been circulating that the London office is going to close (these rumours created a panic in my assistant Antony Fraser, but I managed to calm him down – the last thing I want is for him to find another job and leave halfway through the mailshot campaigns).

Personally I think it is unlikely the London end of the operation will close. The company is growing at such a rate that probably an expansion in facilities in the north is justified. A serious worry, however, is that the rumours deflate morale to such an extent that the sales staff lose enthusiasm and find they can’t sell. I’ve seen this happen in other companies – previously booming enterprises suddenly collapse because the sales personnel become confused and distracted. Just as an upward spiral in morale is energising and self-perpetuating, so a downward spiral can be almost impossible to stop.

Efforts have been made to address the problem:

Recently Marion Conway, Human Resources Director, went around the office drumming up support for a boat race on the river (in early May), and this has lifted the mood in the general office. The company will enter one or more teams into a race against twenty or so other teams. The company will have a marquee on the riverbank, and will organise a barbeque. It is the sort of thing Marion Conway does well.

Adam Russell, the most junior person on the London sales desk, has been given a heap of leaflets, a couple of weeks’ sales training, and sent out on the road in a hired car with a brief to make cold calls and bring in new customers. He has responded very positively to this new responsibility, and reinvented himself from mouthy sales desk assistant (caring only about the fortunes of soccer team ManU) into a dependable sales professional, determined to succeed. We may be seeing the emergence of a new potential area sales manager.

And the two big marketing campaigns will help convince people that the company remains focussed on expansion.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Memories become locked away, suddenly to be released

Writing about Fiona yesterday has made me think more about the two months I spent at the British School in Jerusalem and on the crusader castle excavation. It is funny the way in which memories become locked away, suddenly to be released by a chance reminder. Although I was in one of the world’s most controversial trouble-spots, I was completely oblivious to the political situation. The British School comprised it’s own little world – twenty or so students, and about ten professional archaeologists, with several British academics passing through at any one time. The accommodation was very good, and the way of life unchanged since the days of Kathleen Kenyon.

We would get up at five o’clock each morning, and after a hurried cup of coffee set off in two battered old minibuses to the excavation site which was about ten miles outside the city on top of a small hill. The site was very complex – originally there had been a 6th century Byzantine structure on the hill, parts of which we uncovered (including a mosaic). Then the Knights of St John had built a castle there in the crusader period, mainly to guard the Marian shrine at nearby Aqua Bella. Finally an Arab village had been built among the castle ruins and this community lasted from the late medieval period until 1948. The mixture of Arab and crusader buildings was extremely picturesque, especially in the early morning when the sun was coming up and the vegetation was covered in thousands of small violet flowers (which shrivelled up each day at noon, only to come to life again the next morning).

We would work from 7 until 10, and then have breakfast (cups of tea, cornflakes, bread and cheese, yogurt mixed with jam). More work until 12.30 when, very grubby in appearance, we would return to the British School, have a shower, and sit down to a massive lunch. The temptation, after this lunch and several beers, to lie down and sleep away the afternoon was almost overwhelming. But as our time in the Middle East was limited, Fiona and I would leave the other archaeologists snoozing, and go out for a couple of hours to visit one of the historic sites (with a bias towards anything from the crusader period).

Visiting crusader ruins was a combination of romantic exploration and wild guesswork. Unlike historic sites in England where everything is tidied up and neatly labelled (and you can buy an illustrated guidebook and visit the tearooms on the way out), crusader sites in and around Jerusalem are mostly unregarded, and you have to identify and interpret them for yourself. This added to, rather than detracted from, the enjoyment of our expeditions – we felt we were making genuine discoveries (although in probability it was all surveyed years ago and filed away in the Library of the British School).

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(Above) This is my team, in my trench at the excavation. The nearby kibbutz gave us the services of sixty or so teenagers, about to go into the Israeli army to do their national service. Left to right: Ori, Alon and Jonathan (I’m guessing at the spelling of the names). They were incredibly hard working (Ori especially) and interested in everything to do with the site. Occasionally Bedouin were hired to help with the digging (very polite and helpful – nothing was too much trouble for them).

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(Above) We dug an enormous hole, about twenty feet square and forty feet deep, and uncovered this spectacular arch which formed one of the main gates to the castle (it was later filled in with boulders when the castle was abandoned, and later still became lost beneath the dust and dirt of the centuries). Unlike other areas of the site, we did not find anything valuable in our trench.

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(Above) This is me on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, surrounded by the monuments of world history. Fiona took the photograph. We never had any trouble getting up onto the Temple Mount and went there several times (Fiona used to wear an Arab headdress as a sort of scarf, and I was so dark-tanned the guards probably thought I was an Arab). The Arab name for the Temple Mount is Haram al-Sharif. Behind me is the Dome of the Rock (which in the crusader period became the church of the Augustinian Canons). Each time we went there we had the place almost to ourselves – you would think it would be crowded with tourists or pilgrims. I suppose in retrospect we were taking a risk going about so much on our own. We thought that because we were archaeologists no-one would harm us.

The Israeli teenagers working on the site at Belmont used to sing this:

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Months later at home, out of the blue through the post, arrived a jiffy bag containing several books Fiona recommended... Posted by Hello

She was an (amateur and self-taught) expert

It is St Patrick’s Day, and in the phony Irish pub O’Neills on the Euston Road the juke box will be belting out the usual songs: Come On Eileen, The Irish Rover, The Sweetest Thing (they never play anyone like Sinead Quinn). For all it’s Oirish fakery, it is a characterless pub, and one you would only go into for a quick drink immediately after work, before colleagues head off to Kings Cross, and St Pancras and the commuter trains home. I guess it will be packed tonight.

Whenever I think of Ireland and the Irish I think of Fiona (forgotten her second name) who I met in Jerusalem when we were both working on a British excavation at a crusader castle, during the last summer I was at university (we were both at London University – she was at the Institute of Archaeology in Mallet Street, whereas I was studying medieval history). She was a mature student in her late twenties (or possibly even older), with a heavy matronly build, pale skin covered in freckles, and masses of bright orange hair (which she just combed the way it grew, being very proud of what she called her “celtic fringe” across her forehead). Although temperatures regularly reached 100ºF that summer, Fiona’s skin remained white (unlike my own, which grew so dark I was routinely mistaken for an Arab).

We worked together on one of the trenches (helped by some teenagers from a local kibbutz) and she covered up for me when I accidentally vandalised a mosaic we were uncovering (I poured water over it to try and clean the dust away, and washed out a great many of the tesserae – Fiona helped me fit them back again, in approximate position). Since we only worked on the castle excavation in the mornings, we had the afternoons to explore the country, and Fiona joined a small group of us that went out on expeditions to the Wadi Kelt or the Mediterranean coast.

Fiona was very self-contained, and seemed to enjoy being on her own. She originally came from Mallow in southern Ireland, and talked about a sugar beet factory which was the main employer – local people go to work at this factory and effectively become trapped there, spending whole lives processing sugar beet, generation after generation. Fiona was the first in her family to move away from the area, and was determined never to go back there. She was a great reader and was enthusiastic about the work of Elizabeth Bowen (an Irish writer). She had read almost everything written by Joshua Prawer, not just his history of the crusader period, but also the work he had done on the modern settlement of Israel, and the creation of the Israeli national identity. Fiona had also studied Irish nationalism, and she was an (amateur and self-taught) expert on the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins.

Michael Collins was born in southern Ireland in 1890 and as a teenager came to London and worked for several years as a post office clerk in Kensington. It was here that he developed his ideas of Irish nationalism, returning to southern Ireland to help lead a rebellion against the Westminster government during the First World War. The rebels were defeated, but subsequent uprisings and unrest in the country led to self-government for southern Ireland in 1922. A subsequent civil war among various Irish nationalist factions led to the murder of Michael Collins and the emergence of Eamon de Valera as Irish nationalist leader and eventually President of the Irish Republic.

Eamon de Valera was a half-Spanish American of Irish descent who dedicated his life to the Irish nationalist cause. Fiona believed that because he was only half-Irish he constantly felt he had to prove he was more Irish than the Irish. This expressed itself in a negative policy to anything British, and an atmosphere of underlying paranoia where the United Kingdom was portrayed as an alien country (despite centuries of shared history and interaction) that threatened to overwhelm the new Irish Republic. His most infamous act was the sending of a telegram to Berlin in April 1945, regretting the death of the German Chancellor (I suppose he was thinking: my enemy’s enemy is my friend).

Had Michael Collins not been murdered he would almost certainly have led the Dublin government, and without Eamon de Valera’s insecurities, relations with the United Kingdom would have been normalised at a much earlier stage (he would have become a sort of Irish Jomo Kenyatta). As it was, British-Irish friendship only really emerged within the framework of the European Community (which later became the European Union).

Towards the end of the excavation at the crusader castle a group of us went on a trip to a kibbutz in the north of the country, travelling there in an Arab taxi. Fiona had a friend at this kibbutz, and so she disappeared soon after we arrived. Much later, in the early evening when an Arab taxi had arrived to take us back to the British School, we went to look for her and found her sitting alone, fast asleep. It was obvious she had been drinking heavily, and nothing we could do would wake her up (she was insensible). Eventually the others said they were going back in the taxi, and I had to leave with them or else be stranded on the kibbutz. I have always felt guilty about leaving Fiona there on her own.

She reappeared at the British School a couple of days later, and shortly afterwards I returned to the United Kingdom, so we never really re-established our friendship. Months later at home, out of the blue through the post arrived a jiffy bag containing several books Fiona recommended, including an old paperback about Michael Collins.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

To the left and right of us was an enfilade of empty tables, glasses and napkins... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A simple action

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They had a car park (a tiny car park) in what had been an old walled garden

I have established very good relations with my new assistant. He likes to talk quite a lot, unlike his predecessor who was inclined to be moody. This morning he told me he was half Greek Cypriot, although he has had no contact with that side of his family since his parents separated when he was aged 6. His mother’s family seems to consist entirely of lawyers and accountants (family gatherings must be very acrimonious). He is very shrewd, and although he has only been here a couple of weeks, has already summed up Sales Director Neil Hancock’s shortcomings. I have advised him to observe keenly, keep an open mind, and learn as much as he can (Neil Hancock is a flawed genius – hopeless at administration, manipulative, but in the field of proactive selling he is a master).

Lunchtime I drove into the city to a solicitors’ office in the shadow of an old cathedral (the premises were in a Victorian gothic house in the heart of the cathedral close – it must once have belonged to one of the priestly faculty). Incredibly for such a central location they had a car park (a tiny car park) in what had been an old walled garden, the former flowerbeds now covered with gravel, dark green ivy smothering the walls, ancient climbing roses surviving here and there. My car made a discreet crunching noise on the gravel as I drove up, and secretaries looked out of the office windows to see who had arrived.

Into a reception area (half a minute wait), then up the stairs and into another reception area (another half minute wait), then into Mrs Harrison’s large office (creaking floor, many silver framed pictures of her children, big mullioned window with a view of laurel bushes, ivy draped walls and, in the distance, the graceful towers and pinnacles of the Minster).

Mrs Harrison is very attractive – slim, aged about thirty-five, pale gold hair in a conventional style, large eyes. In temperament she is both practical and sympathetic. Over the past two years I feel we have almost become friends. When I entered her room she got up from her Partner’s desk and motioned for me to sit down at the elegant table in the centre of the room. She initially gave me a biro to write with, but immediately took it back and went to fetch her best pen from her desk, as more befitting to the occasion.

There have been three stressful aspects to my life recently, and the witnessing of my signature today finally settled one of them. Who would have thought that such a simple action would have resolved the conflict.

Monday, March 14, 2005

At the funeral

I forgot to mention that at the funeral they played Chopin’s Funeral March (Piano Sonata No 2). It was the first time I had heard it played at an actual funeral. It is a piece of music that has suffered from constant repetition on television comedy shows (television corrupts everything in the end) where it has become a sort of musical metaphor for doom and disaster.

Hearing it played in context, at a funeral, was very moving.

On Friday I went to my aunts funeral. The hearse was drawn by black horses wearing black ostrich plumes, attended by professional mourners wearing black top hats. Elaborate funerals are an East End tradition, and my aunt particularly wanted black horses as she had been impressed by horse drawn hearses processing down the Commercial Road when she was a child many years ago.

Our family originally came from the East End (the real East End - no relation to the fictional garbage you see on television, which many true East Enders find offensive) and moved out during and just after the Second World War. As a family we had lived there since at least 1750, in Limehouse and Bethnal Green. Despite endemic poverty, East End families maintained a high level of respectability, and East End people were renowned for their toughness, loyalty and capacity for hard work.

The photograph is very poor - the light was overcast, and because it was my aunts funeral I could not really wander about taking pictures (I had to take this shot from my car as the procession was getting ready to leave the hotel).  Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Increasingly he is treated with respect

Scott Ryan, one of the Area Sales Managers, came into the office for half an hour this morning. As his area is fairly close to Head Office (Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, north and west London), he doesn’t need to be out on the road as much as the other Area Managers.

Since his promotion from Telesales to Area Sales Manager, he has acquired a maturity that is transforming the way people relate to him in the office. Previously his loud, irreverent attitude and jokey way of carrying on were not to his best advantage. He was dismissed as a lightweight. In the last two years however, he has acquired a new stature, so that increasingly he is treated with respect. The approach of his thirtieth birthday adds to this sense of growth. It’s as if he has decided to become serious and make something of his life.

Another noticeable feature is that he has stopped referring to the “old school”. This old school represents a clique of people who have been with the company many years and use their network to back each other up and block the acceptance of newcomers. Mostly without formal qualifications, they are people who have risen through their own efforts and distrust the specialist expert staff that Managing Director Trevor Bush increasingly wants to introduce. Within the old school there is a considerable amount of backbiting, but to the outside world (and more importantly to Trevor Bush) they present a united façade. It is as if they are the self-appointed and unofficial regulators of the company.

Typical of the old school is IT manager Jeremy Gadd (aged in his thirties, thinning fair hair heavily gelled, recently gone through the Atkins Diet so that his previously stout build now has a wasted appearance). Jeremy Gadd joined the company about four years ago, but because his father had set up the company’s IT systems he easily became accepted into the old school circle. He pretends to be affable and loyal, but is actually very two-faced, and laughs at Trevor Bush behind his back (sometimes his jokes are very cruel). His partner used to work in the company’s Accounts department and developed a loathing and hatred for Marion Conway that Jeremy has adopted.

Increasingly however, the old school has faltered, and lost its grip on the way the company operates. One of the Slattery brothers has left, several individuals (including Scott Ryan) have apparently decided they no longer want to be so close to the quasi-masonic faction, others have lost their influence and become marginalised and unimportant.

Among the candidates for future senior management, Scott Ryan is starting to look impressive – he has managed to channel his huge reserves of enthusiasm, so that his energies are concentrated on his career. He is shaking off his old school contemporaries (who resent any of their number rising above the rest). And he is becoming increasingly adept at managing company politics.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

You can see how this is being done

Each week I read Marketing Magazine, and in last week’s issue (which I have only just got round to reading) there is an article by Mark Ritson, Associate Professor of Marketing at the London Business School (and author of Advertising literacy and the social signification of cultural meaning) looking at the pervasive growth of branding ideology.

According to Ritson, there have been three stages of brand penetration of western culture:

The first stage was when companies began to give their products fictional personalities to make them easier for consumers to relate to (Marlboro Man for instance, or the “face” of L’Oreal). The second stage came when people started identifying with brands, so that instead of brands having personalities the branded products became part of the consumer’s personality (this is the stage we are at now). The third and final stage (predicted by Karl Marx as “the commodification of the self”) will be when people start to think of themselves as “brands” (with all the associated quasi-sciences of selling points, distribution channels and, inevitably, pricing policies). As Ritson says: People have become so absorbed into consumer culture it now obscures all other aspects of their lives.

When you work in marketing you can see how this is being done.

At lunchtime I went to the local shopping mall and at the entrance was a branch of Burtons (leading clothes retailer) using the actor Paul Nicholls as the personality behind their current campaign.

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Paul Nicholls is an actor who emerged from bit parts and soap opera appearances to a more substantial screen presence, and there was a time in 2001 / 2002 when it seemed likely he would move to a more serious level. He appeared on stage in Long Day’s Journey into Night and in the Nick Love film Charlie Bright which I saw with Helen Blakeman at the cinema in Brunswick Square (very impressive film in terms of lighting, photography, acting - Helen thought it was a sort of updated Brideshead Revisited). Charlie Bright cast him as a south London romantic hero (in the Byronic sense), and for a time it seemed possible he would develop as an international actor in the way, for instance, that Jude Law has… if he was offered the right parts. Instead he seems to have become tainted by association with mediocre television roles (the last drama he appeared in was so clichéd and corny I couldn’t watch it) and one can already see the signs of faltering potential (I can see these signs so clearly because I recognise them in myself).
More upmarket than Burtons, the gentleman’s outfitters Hackett has chosen England Rugby captain Jonny Wilkinson to personify clothes that otherwise might seem elitist and old-fashioned.
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And while writing about current clothes advertising, I ought to mention the television commercial for Levi 501 jeans which combines a run-down American inner city neighbourhood with lines taken from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (used in a context where double-meanings become apparent). The beauty of the language is compelling, and commands attention for a product that normally would not get a second glance.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mother’s Day 2005

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Mother’s Day 2005, flowers in the yard waiting to go up to the grave. My sister sent the professionally made-up arrangement. The metal cover (bottom right-hand corner) is the entrance to a deep brick-lined cistern (the water is very pure, and the cistern is full even in the driest summers – I have often wondered whether we should pump the water out and see whether anything interesting has fallen into the cistern over the years, since there has been a house on the site for over six centuries).

We (my brother and I) have kept our parents room as it was on the day our mother died. It was a lot easier to do that than to attempt to clear it out (and what would we do with all the things if we did clear them out? Most of them would probably be thrown away). We don’t need the space, and could quite easily shut the door to the room and not go in there again, although my brother goes in there twice a day to open and close the curtains, and generally keep things tidy.

Are we being eccentric? My sister and oldest brother both think so. But in addition to the practical considerations (what do we do with the things that are cleared out? what do we do with the room once it has been emptied?) at the back of my mind is the idea, not properly thought through (or even consciously acknowledged until this moment) that if my parents were to return from the dead, they would need all their things.

Of course, the problem is that people don’t return from the dead. Except that Lazarus returned from the dead. The daughter of Jairus returned from the dead. The son of the widow at Nain returned from the dead.

The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised uncorrupted (as the King James Version assures us).

Friday, March 04, 2005

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Blond girl at Ricos at lunchtime. She sat there for at least forty minutes, one coffee in front of her, watching people go in and out of the Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture clinic (or was she watching the bodybuilders going into the weights shop next door?).

I ordered my lunch at the zinc-topped counter and went with my book (Akhenaten Dweller in Truth by Naguib Mahfouz) to sit at a table in the window. Beyond the glass the blond girl sat there wrapped in her coat against the cold (although there was plenty of room inside the café). I sat there looking at the blond girl (I couldn't help it, she was right in front of me) and she sat there looking at the passing shoppers, not touching the cappuccino in front of her.

A toasted ham and cheese ciabatta, an organic flapjack (made without sugar - I'm trying to avoid products with sugar in them), a cup of filter coffee. The café had on a rotating loop George Michael's album Patience, which added a subtle and relaxed mood to lunchtime (the only song I had heard before was Round Here, which has a very evocative black and white video).

The covered walkway in which Rico's is situated is a sort of modern reinterpretation of the Burlington Arcade, although the shops are very ordinary. The café is owned by Rico, a friend of Paolo Borghetti (a designer at Marcomm Solutions, which the company occasionally uses for large-run print jobs). The Italians all stick together.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

“It will be a new Da Vinci Code. It will make us a fortune”

Last night’s dinner went very well. Open fires and a warm atmosphere inside the restaurant, smell of woodsmoke from the chimney and absolute stillness and silence outside the building. Marie-Astrid’s suggestion that we take a walk round the village of Clipsham didn’t materialise – we took a few steps and then decided it was far too cold.

Before meeting Marie-Astrid I had stopped in Stamford to look around, going to St George’s Square, where the medieval church of St George is located. Not surprisingly it was locked (night-time in winter – the chances it would be open were very slim, but I had gone there on the off-chance). A very heavy frost edged the church tower in white, as if the importance of the building was being underlined.

I had gone there at the suggestion of Helen Blakeman (who, for all her flamboyant excesses, is a trained art historian with a very sharp mind). There is a mystery attached to the church of St George. The official archive at Windsor Castle has produced a book of essays entitled St George’s Chapel Windsor, edited by Colin Richmond, which contains an article The Lost Cycle of St George’s Church Stamford: An Examination of Iconography and Context written by the mediaevalist Samantha JE Riches. Helen has read this article and, in her usual impetuous way, become very excited.

The dry-as-dust prose of the scholarly thesis masks the intriguing fact that William de Bruges, first Garter King of Arms (early fifteenth century), set up at St George’s church in Stamford an imitation organisation that mirrored the Order of the Garter based at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. Helen is interested in finding out more about this secret chivalric society, set up in a chapel attached to a modest church in a quiet northern town – performing esoteric rituals that no-one today really understands, lavishing money on displays very few people would see, venerating the martial crusading St George (with everything this implies).

“I will do all the research and creative extrapolations” said Helen, “and we’ll turn it into an exciting novel which you can write. It will be a new Da Vinci Code. It will make us a fortune.” What will probably happen is that we will do loads of work and then Helen will suddenly lose interest and take up some other enthusiasm.

Note: Garter King of Arms is one of the Royal Heralds in charge of the Order of the Garter, which is (probably) the world’s most prestigious order of chivalry. The actual garter itself used to be a leather strap that secured a knight’s suit of armour (the legend that a lady of the court dropped her garter during a dance is a story that developed much later). There are three Kings of Arms attached to the Royal Court – they are real “kings” and wear golden crowns (not sure if they still have heraldic “coronations” whenever a new King of Arms is installed). The heralds are based at the College of Arms in Queen Victoria Street in the City – they are part of the Royal Household.

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Sir William Bruges, Garter King of Arms, wearing his crown and kneeling before St. George, patron of the Order of the Garter. Above are two “garters” or knight’s belts. The original image belongs to the British Library, but as this is a photograph of the British Library website I assume I am not breaking any copyright.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

There is an unspoken subtext

This evening I am meeting Marie-Astrid Wallis for a meal at The Olive Branch restaurant at Clipsham near Stamford (near where she lives). After years of no contact (when she had been almost literally cloistered behind a religious barrier that did not welcome outsiders) we have suddenly taken up where we left off ten years ago. The difference is that we no longer have other friends around us, and so our current meetings have an intimacy that our past friendship doesn’t justify. There is an unspoken subtext in all this, and the idea contained in this subtext seems to be acquiring its own momentum...

At the weekend I discussed with Helen Blakeman tonight’s dinner at The Olive Branch.

“Perhaps you should get married” Helen said (in the casual way she has that indicates she is being deadly serious). “It would make things a lot easier”.

“Perhaps you and I should marry each other” I said to her, “since we are so perfectly suited.”

She gave one of her tight, suppressed smiles, that indicate I am not taking things seriously.

Today in the office I have been training my new assistant in how the company approaches marketing, interspersed with sessions when he would go off to be trained on the product ranges. We had a clear-out of his desk as Adrian Taylor had left lots of junk behind when he went off to Australia (including a big pair of boots which we will have to send back to him somehow). There is a pressure in the company that wants to push Marketing into a purely reactive and sales support role, and Adrian often drifted into this mode of working (he always followed the line of least resistance). I would much prefer that the Marketing department concentrated on proactive campaigns. I am also trying to guide Antony Fraser into thinking for himself rather than just waiting for me to tell him what to do.

Lots of commentators have been talking about Rufus Wainwright lately, and on Front Row last night I finally got to hear this singer (singing in Latin Agnes Dei).

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

He may be too sensitive for the job

My new assistant started today. First impressions are very good, but you can never really know what a person is like to work with until they have been in place for a few weeks. He was my second choice for the job – my preferred candidate was vetoed by Sales Director Neil Hancock (for no real reason that I can understand – I think he was disagreeing with me for the sake of being “challenging”).

Anyway, the new Marketing Assistant, Antony Fraser, is aged twenty-five, shorter than average height, very well-spoken. I fear he may be too sensitive for the job, since he is going to have to deal with the rough and ready sales managers (not to mention aggression and duplicity from more senior managers – this can be a very stressful company to work for). As the morning developed Antony Fraser’s exact role in the company came under scrutiny, with Trevor Bush (Managing Director) demanding clarity and exactitude about what he would be doing from day to day.

I intend to avoid answering these enquiries until I know what Neil Hancock’s thoughts are, since I don’t want to be caught up in a difference of opinion between him and Trevor Bush. I would be happy if Antony Fraser continued the work of Adrian Taylor (previous Marketing Assistant – very sociable, keen on rugby, loved working the crusher down in the main warehouse). But the company policy is that whenever a new member of staff is recruited they have to be of a higher calibre than the person they are replacing.

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Previous Marketing Assistant Adrian Taylor (centre) at one of his riotous drinking parties