Thursday, June 30, 2005

Average numbers of visitors

This site has a "Site meter" attached to it. The reports are not terribly informative, and the only interesting part tends to be the average numbers of visitors per week / month / year. However it does have a report that reveals the time zones visitors originate from, plus another one that displays the language the visitor uses (neither of these reports I look at very often).

I always knew, from the comments and e-mails that I receive, that this site has acquired a world-wide readership. But I was completely unprepared for the graph that came up when I recently accessed the report. As well as English, the site received visitors speaking a total of ten different languages, including Turkish, Korean and Arabic.

If you are one of these visitors from a far-off country please leave a message to introduce yourself - I would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Girl In The Cafe

Above: Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald in the Richard Curtis film The Girl In The Cafe

On Saturday I watched the Richard Curtis film The Girl In The Cafe (directed by David Yates). It was a tendentious drama that examined the mechanism of inter-governmental relations (developing policies for relief of third world debt), illustrated through episodes in a casual relationship between a senior civil servant and a much younger unemployed former student. Reception of the film has been mixed, with panellists on Newsnight Review being particularly critical.

The film was well crafted with many realistic touches - the civil servant and the girl discuss the virtues of Marks & Spencer, the government minister strides ahead down a corridor with the civil servants running to catch up, the greyness of the political summit was matched with the greyness of the Icelandic venue (the waitress switching off the lights in the hotel symbolising the extinguishing of the hopes that preceded the negotiations).

The dramatic climax of the film comes at the interruption of a Prime Ministerial speech at the summit dinner. Critics claim that this moment lacks realism and credibility. Although it is improbable, it is similar in sentiment to the conclusion of Night of the Girondists by Jacques Presser (if I do not act, who will?).

Unique intellectual properties

One year ago today I began this weblog. I stumbled on someone else's blog, became intrigued by the concept of "Blogger" (which I had never heard of until that moment) and as an experiment set up this site and began writing. On the Today Programme this morning it was reported that the average life of a website is 40 days.

At first I was concerned to be as anonymous as possible. Only one other person knows I am the author of this site (and I have regretted making even that disclosure). Occasionally readers e-mail me with warnings about what might happen if my identity as author were to be revealed (I have a strategy prepared for that scenario, which I still think is fairly remote).

At the moment I am reading The Gossip Wars by Milt Machlin. It is an American book, published in 1981, which I bought for £1 in a sort of second-hand shop in Staines High Street. Interestingly there isn't any imprint of the publisher, so possibly it was a vanity publication. The book consists of 330 yellowing pages crammed with text, occasionally (very occasionally) relieved by a poorly reproduced black and white photographs. Despite the poor condition of the book and substandard presentation of the text, the actual writing is very good, and the subject matter extremely interesting.

Milt Machlin writes a history of the "gossip" column in New York in the first half of the twentieth century (Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Dorothy Kilgallen etc). The writers who invented the gossip column found themselves in possession of unique intellectual properties that generated huge followings and that they could move from newspaper to newspaper depending on which publication paid them the most. Although the columnists began by reporting the exploits of "society" (the celebrity culture of its day) they became so influential that they ended up shaping it, and expressions / behaviour / attitudes etc mentioned in their columns spread throughout Manhattan to become the normal standard of everyday life.

It occurred to me that the modern weblog / blog phenomenon is mirroring the emergence of New York columnists such as Walter Winchell. A blog seems to be basically a newspaper column floating in the ether (representing the deregulation of the publishing industry). Will these "columns" coalesce into new forms of publication or will they be co-opted into existing traditional publications?

And what should I do with this column?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A record of lying, manipulating and destroying individuals it does not like

Above: identity cards were previously used in the Second World War during a state of emergency (a legislative enabling device which gave the government sweeping powers).

The House of Commons is voting today about introducing a national identity card scheme. The new cards, estimated to cost between ten and twenty billion pounds, will hold information such as fingerprints and iris scans. Civil liberties campaigners fear that the cards could be used to restrict personal rights and restrict freedom of movement.

The cards should be seen in the context of the government's other "reforms" which include the introduction of "citizenship" (a previously alien concept in the United Kingdom). Before being designated "citizens" the inhabitants of the United Kingdom were subjects of the Crown, owing allegiance to an elderly lady of pensionable age, whose main interest is horses and dogs, and who has never done any harm to anyone (and in return being protected by that elderly lady's officers of state, with a network of safeguards built up over centuries). Since the passing of the citizenship legislation we have all (if we qualify for "citizenship" and presumably if we become eligible for an identity card) become accountable to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office (a government department which, under the present executive, has a record of lying, manipulating and destroying individuals it does not like).

Since 1997 the inhabitants of the United Kingdom have had the category "citizen" imposed upon them (with "duties" as well as "rights"), have had their legal freedoms curbed, and are now to be numbered and identified. The cumulative effect will be to create a national "club" with the executive deciding who will be members of that club - and just as importantly, who won't. For instance, the executive may decide Romany "travellers" are not in the club, or certain religious minorities, or people who have committed certain types of crime (previous governments have taken away the passports of football hooligans and excluded Northern Ireland individuals from entering the rest of Great Britain, so the precedents for revoking "citizenship" already exist).

Above: a year ago the executive issued the document Preparing For Emergencies, matching the Second World War booklet Protecting Your Home Against Air Raids. The invasion of Iraq and subsequent terrorist outrages against Western targets has been very convenient to the executive, allowing it to push through "reforms" that would normally provoke a constitutional crisis. The indefinable "war against terror" allows the government to achieve perpetual mobilisation (a typical goal of totalitarian regimes) and an on-going (but as yet undeclared) state of emergency.

One gets the feeling that the Blair executive would love to declare a State of Emergency, under the pretext that we are under attack.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A slow day

The hot weather of the past few days came to an end this morning with a torrential downpour of rain. It continued raining through to about three o'clock, leaving the world outside the office dull, wet and cool. Marie-Astrid has invited me to a Midsummer Eve dinner party this evening (she is half-Danish - Midsummer is a significant celebration in Denmark), so I hope the weather improves by then.

It has been a slow day, and the afternoon began to drag a little (Friday afternoons are usually like this). At one point I was reduced to reading Keystone, which bills itself as Scotland's leading construction newspaper. It's a tabloid production, published by Flagship Media Group (based in Belfast).

It has sixty-four colour pages filled with text and pictures about construction topics (Chartered Institute of Building in Glasgow elects new officers, PMP fits internal pipe seals, Sonic Windows installs Victorian-style splendour etc). The advertising and editorial merged one into the other, so that it was difficult to tell which was which. This trend for unofficial "advertorials" represents the lazy side of publishing - an advertorial will always damage the credibility of a magazine or newspaper.

Towards the end of Keystone was a big picture of the Crystal Palace, which was originally built in Hyde Park to house the 1851 Great Exhibition (the building was rebuilt in south London, in the area that later became known as Crystal Palace. It burned down in 1936). Paul Waddingham, who has one crazy idea after another, thinks the Crystal Palace should be rebuilt as yuppie flats. He seems to think that because it will be recreating a famous landmark it will automatically get planning permission.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The power of images

Next week (Wednesday) will be the first anniversary of the commencement of this weblog. When I began it in late June 2004 I had only the haziest idea of what I was doing. The early entries were very experimental, and if I were to start again there are a number of things I would do differently (ie choice of name – “afroml” was just a working title).

One of the standards I set, right from the start, was for all images and text to be entirely original. There are two pictures that I have recycled from elsewhere on the internet, but otherwise everything on this site is new. From a “content” point of view, this weblog is unique.

Very quickly I learned to integrate images with the text, and I am now taking photographs on a daily basis. This process has made me think deeply about the power of images, and how they relate to the way we “see” things. I might try to re-read Image Music Text by Roland Barthes (I read it a few years ago and hardly understand a word, but the overall impression of expert erudition has stayed in my mind).

Above: tourist taking photographs at the British Museum. I noticed his progress around a range of halls, and it consisted entirely of taking photographs. He can't have seen any of the objects except through his camera lens.

The recall factor

It is so hot (94 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday) that we (my brother and I) are keeping the Kit Kats in the 'fridge. We also keep the lemonade in the 'fridge (I buy diet lemonade as part of a general drive to reduce sugar consumption, not because I need to go on a diet or anything). R Whites Lemonade was a home-made product first retailed in Camberwell, south London, in 1845 by Robert White. The company was so successful it was purchased by HD Rawlings in 1891 (Rawlings later merged into Britvic). R Whites Lemonade was the subject of a TV commercial (Secret Lemonade Drinker) that screened in 1970, and yet still has widespread recall today (it is taught in media courses as a classic of the advertising genre). The singer in the commercial was Ross MacManus (his son became the singer Elvis Costello).

The recall factor of Secret Lemonade Drinker, good though it is, cannot match that of the 1976 commercial for Shake'n'Vac which featured Jenny Logan as a singing housewife vacuuming a carpet. Almost everyone over the age of forty can sing the words to this advertisement. At the time considered intensely irritating, over the years it has acquired a cult following.

Kit Kats are alright in their way, but cannot match Montelimar nougat from Provence. It is made from sweet almonds, lavender honey, egg white, aromatic flavourings and spices. The rare soft variety of this confectionery is made by a complicated process, and is highly prized for its deliciousness.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

An average journey

On the tube I am always curious about the other passengers. Even though I might start off reading the Evening Standard, eventually I put it to one side and look at the people, wondering what their stories might be. The following photos are blurred and were taken in poor light, but they give an indication of an average journey.

Ambition and determination

Long hours of work followed by long hours of study.

Even the tube journey can be put to good use.

When she gets off she'll have a hurried dinner and rush to an evening class at Birkbeck College.

Making a point

The child sits obediently, feigning innocence.

The mother is determined to have her say, even though she knows ultimately she has no control.

The rest of the commuters listen passively, pretending not to notice.

Hanging on

Sometimes hanging on becomes an end in itself.

Sometimes hanging on is all we can manage to do when we are having a bad day.

Lost in pensive thought

The calm elegance of her outward appearance belies the turmoil within.

Why was she staring so distractedly into the distance?

Did someone shout at her in the office this afternoon? Is her lover about to leave her? Is she wondering what to have for dinner?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Work update – with his strong right arm he has created a world from nothing

Above: Greg Mitton at the wheel of his TVR

The corporate identity re-launch continues, with new artwork commissioned for all the different portfolios of products. This is taking place against an internal economy drive that that has made everyone careful about raising Purchase Orders. Marketing can be vulnerable in cost-saving drives of this kind, as it is easy to portray the work we do as a dead cost rather than an investment that will generate returns.

Throughout the company there is considerable emphasis upon controlling costs, especially manpower. Managers tend to do tasks themselves, rather than asking for extra resources. This is most evident in Marketing's next door department, where Greg Mitton runs the company's Specialist Chemicals division.

Greg Mitton is aged about thirty-five, shorter than average, his physique so over-developed he appears muscle-bound and tends to waddle when he walks. His accent is south Midlands, and he can seldom speak without swearing and cursing. Since his department became semi-autonomous he has introduced a casual dress code for his staff and usually wears jeans and polo shirts (except when he goes out to see clients, when he puts on a suit).

He lives in Northamptonshire with his partner and two small daughters he thinks the world of (often ringing them up and talking to them on speaker phone). Born in the Midlands, he will tell you his parents had a printing company - more questioning reveals this to be an exaggeration, and that they had a tiny business that never generated much in the way of money. He left school at sixteen and went to work as an apprentice at a specialist chemical company. Apart from the Managing Director and himself, the entire workforce (about seventy) of this company was female, the culture on the shopfloor being one of extremely loose morality ("I could take my pick" is how he describes this period of his life). From the nostalgic way he talks about his youth you get the impression that he has never really recovered from this ready access to a pool of available young women.

From technical trainee he moved into selling, and taught himself how to sell ("ducking and diving" he calls it). About five years ago he left the Midlands company and joined the management team of our company. His professional expertise depends upon a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of a range of chemical products, their qualities and properties, together with the relevant health and safety requirements. Initially after his arrival sales of chemicals grew exponentially, but as returns reached a plateau the other Sales Managers began to claim they could do without him. Greg Mitton was therefore given his own company-within-a-company to run, with the intention that he would stand or fall by his own efforts. He has thrown himself into this new enterprise, demonstrating great energy in keeping the production line running, the orders coming in, and the staff motivated and keen to work (With his strong right arm he has created a world from nothing, to quote Ford Maddox Brown).

The move sideways into his own small niche seems to typify Greg Mitton's career. He can never quite make the transition from middle manager to senior manager, and in many ways still sees himself as one of the lads. Above all, he cannot play office politics as subtly as some of his rivals (his loyalty to Trevor Bush is so childlike that it is easy to dismiss it as trite and insincere).

Greg Mitton is never happier than when he is working with machinery, and can strip down and put together again (within a few hours) one of the complex filling machines. His first car was (predictably) an XR2. He used to race motor cycles until a couple of years ago when a bad crash scraped away a big part of his left knee (at the hospital the wound was treated while he was still conscious, and he shouted and swore at the nurses - "One of them later apologised for causing me so much pain"). He has recently rebuilt a vintage TVR, and will talk with fervour about how he carried out the project. When he drove the TVR into the company car park a few weeks ago, his pride was almost tangible. A group of operatives from the warehouse came to stand round him, listening respectfully to his tales.

"The only person not on board with our new corporate identity is Greg Mitton" Rob Hanlon (Purchasing) said to me a few days ago.

"He's always been a maverick" I said.

"That's it!" said Rob Hanlon, "Greg Mitton is Maverick from Top Gun."

Above image is a photograph of a postcard - all text and images on this site are original

The character Maverick in the 1986 film Top Gun was played by the actor Tom Cruise. Alan Nixon (who did his degree in Modern History) has a theory that the film will be seen by future generations as typifying the zenith of American power, prestige and self-confidence. "It will be seen as the moment when the US tipped over from a rising power to a declining one" he said. "Not that America's going into a rapid decline. They will still be a superpower for probably another fifty years. But they will never again be so powerful or unchallenged - so powerful the Soviet Union just threw in their cards and gave up."

Monday, June 20, 2005

The air was absolutely still and baking hot

Sunday was very warm, the temperature rising to above ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the heat I slept very badly, and didn’t get up until eleven o’clock. I took my cup of tea out into the garden, thinking it might be cooler under the trees, but the still warm air was even more oppressive than in the house.

The garden looked quite showy – big flowers on the peonies, lots of roses coming out, clusters of white flowers on the banks of pyrethrum. It occurred to me that we ought to get the garden furniture out, and make more use of the garden (we pay enough for it!), but it always seems too much effort. I laid down on the grass, half-dozing half-listening to the birds, until my brother said the lunch was ready (one o’clock).

Peony Bowl of Beauty. Masses of flowers, but they only last four or five days. In really hot weather the bush seems to collapse and lie flat on the ground (much like I felt on Sunday morning).

Peony Sir Ernest Shackleton. Named after the famous Antarctic explorer, the flower is supposed to represent the snowy wastes Sir Ernest claimed for the United Kingdom. Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried on South Georgia Island.

After lunch we had two choices, stay in and watch cricket (England vs Australia) or go over to a local village and watch cricket (a local grudge match). The heat made my brother and I decide to go out and watch the live match. This was a mistake, as it would probably have been cooler in the house (and the England game proved to be much more exciting). Anyway, we drove across to North Walton and watched the cricket. My brother knows several people in the team, so he found it more interesting than I did. The heat grew so intense that I found it difficult to sit still and concentrate.

Village cricket has a considerable following locally. BBC Sport On-Line has a Play-Cricket management system to help amateur teams organise themselves (includes an avatar called "Chalky"). LP Hartley's The Go-Between includes a long sequence describing a village cricket match (the book was made into a film in 1970 with Julie Christie and Edward Fox).

Walking over to the village hall, the Women's Institute were holding a fund-raising event (£1 to get in) with various stalls selling cakes, plants, tea-towels etc. There were also several stalls displaying various "collections" (Regal pelargoniums, stone water bottles, tea strainers). A counter at the back provided tea, coffee and cold drinks (I had three glasses of tap water, which were given to me without charge).

"Stone" hot water bottles were used to warm beds before rubber bottles became widespread. They are actually made of ceramic. The couple who owned the collection said that many younger people had no idea what the bottles were used for.

Tea strainers. These don't look very practical. It's easier to use tea bags.

I got talking to the lady who collected the tea strainers, and asked her if there were any historic curiosities in the village worth seeing. She asked someone to mind her stall for half an hour and led the way next door to the church, where in the porch she showed me a medieval outline of a foot, marked in the stone, used as a measurement guide by the local cobbler. On the outside of the porch she showed me a sundial which was used in the pre-Reformation period to indicate the time of the next Mass. Then she launched into an explanation of how the clock in the tower worked, and showed me the weights (hanging down inside the church - they could kill someone if they ever fell). She was very chatty, aged about sixty, interested in everything and everyone. I mentioned that the Women's Institute had a formidable reputation locally (enforcing social control) but she told me they were nothing compared to the Mothers Union.

Medieval outline of a foot, carved into a stone bench.

Medieval mass dial.

Weights that operate the clock in the tower.

"If you think the WI's intimidating, wait 'til you run into the Mothers Union" said the lady who collected the tea strainers, "you have to live in the village ten years at least before they start to accept you. My husband wouldn't let me join - he said the house would be always filled up with women's meetings." The Mothers Union was founded by Mary Sumner in Old Alresford in 1876. It now has a million members worldwide. Locally they tend to be older than members of the Women's Institute, wealthier and more serious.

From the village hall I drove across to the north edge of the escarpment, hoping there would be a cool breeze (there wasn't). I very seldom drive this way - the narrow lane goes straight down onto the vale. The air was absolutely still and baking hot.

Friday, June 17, 2005

“In Goldmine there are always three or four different ways of doing the same thing…”

On the tube my assistant Antony Fraser gave me sections of his Guardian to read. There was a large article about Sarah Sands becoming Editor of the Sunday Telegraph (I think I saw Sarah Sands once on Newsnight Review, too reserved for that forum, politely waiting for her turn to speak while the other two guests disagreed with each other. They had Tony Parsons on Newsnight Review recently and he seems to be turning into a loud-mouthed parody of himself, complete with white socks. Society has changed to such an extent that his previously original cultural insights are now mainstream, and he has little new to contribute).

We arrived at Russell Square and walked along Southampton Row to the building where the training course was to be held. The course was the Advanced module of Goldmine, the sales management and prospecting software. The company I work for uses Goldmine as its main CRM programme.

We went to Reception and registered, and then an attractive young black woman led us to the seminar room.

“Are you feeling fit?” she asked us, leading us up several steep flights of stairs.

“Is your lift out of order?” I asked her, after the third flight.

“No, I just need to get some exercise.”

Into a narrow cube of a room, walls painted pale blue, window open onto Russell Square. PC stations were lined against the two side walls. At the end of the room was a white board with the course modules listed in black marker pen.

The course leader was very much a “geezer” (the English definition of the word, not the American). Aged about thirty-five, short curly hair heavily gelled (so that it reflected the light) and stuck down onto his scalp, very faint moustache and a goatee beard so short it hardly seemed more than stubble, average height, powerful athletic build showing the start of a beer belly. No tie, grey-blue shirt open at the neck to show a thick gold necklace (also wore thick gold wedding ring and another heavy gold ring). The dark colour of the shirt showed large wet patches of perspiration (it was a hot and humid room). He spoke loudly and very fast, delivering jokes in his nasal London accent like some kind of stand-up comedian, prowling up and down in the small end area as if he was a caged animal.

Apart from Anthony Fraser and myself, the course attendees were three young blonde women (Natalie, Belinda and Monika) and a middle-aged man from Wales. Two of the women were Londoners, well dressed and expertly made up, their long blonde hair so golden it was almost dazzling. The other young woman was Eastern European, very slim, wearing low cut jeans, a decorative belt and a narrow white top. Although she wore no make up, she was as beautiful as the other two women in the room, her curly hair naturally blonde. The only mar to her perfection was her voice – heavily accented, squeaky, and with a faint American twang (as if she had taught herself English by watching Hollywood movies).

The room was so narrow that once we had sat down the backs of our chairs almost met. The Eastern European girl was directly behind me, and often she turned to see what was on my PC screen (the course was obviously too advanced for her). She gave long melancholy sighs, and I was sure I could feel her breath on the back of my neck (or it could have been a zephyr of warm air from the open window).

The course was very demanding, and we went through the modules at great speed, the course leader striking through each entry on the whiteboard as it was completed, raising his eyebrows and nodding to me as if seeking my approval (I suppose with “Manager” after my name he thought I was the most senior person in the room).

“The newer version is wizard-driven…” he said, “…filters are dynamic, groups are static…remember yer A-level maths, you put the filter formula in brackets otherwise it won’t work…” He flirted with the two London women, and very tenderly tried to help Monika, the Eastern European. Making a great show of impatience, he answered Antony Fraser’s frequent technical questions (I suspected Antony was trying to catch him out). He ignored the middle-aged Welsh man who didn’t say a word all the morning, and failed to come back after lunch.

“In Goldmine there are always three or four different ways of doing the same thing…there is now a wizard-based SQL query maker…removing duplicates via SQL is easy…”

Lunch was included in the course, and was at a nearby brasserie. We had fish in a creamy sauce (quite nice, but not very substantial, with only a glass of orange juice to follow). High-up on the wall was a large flatscreen television tuned into the cricket between England and Bangladesh at the Oval – all eyes went to the screen whenever there was the sound of cheering.

As he ate his lunch the course tutor talked about himself. “I’m a techie” he told us. “I do some consultancy, but I’m too honest to work in sales…the sales in our company are well efficient, we have top end boys doing the sales and they get a well good package…”

Leaving the course leader to talk to Monika (who turned out to be Ukrainian) Antony Fraser and I walked down Southampton Row, past Central St Martins College (leading college for art, fashion, design). A fine rain began to fall so we went into a tiny café and had café lattes sat on stools at a narrow faux marble ledge near the window. On the ledge were little leaflets about cultural events and local courses (an MA in photography and urban cultures looked interesting, but it would mean giving up work for a year).

Returning to the training course, the rain hadn't made the atmosphere any less humid. The sound of birdsong came in through the open window. Even the course leader seemed enervated by the lethargy of the afternoon session.

"Goldmine is changing over the next year - everything is going to be web-based" he told us. "Goldmine Seven is coming out July - August time. It's taken six years, with a hundred developers working on it. It will be absolutely superb. Everything is going onto the web. That's the way IT is going anyway - there will be no reason to have software installed on individual machines..."

With a messianic flourish about the future of Goldmine, the course leader brought the training to an end and we went out into the wet streets around Russell Square.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Work update: “I’m only confident when I’m at work”

This week has been very busy keeping all the various projects moving forward. I had hoped that once the German exhibition was out of the way things would calm down a little, but the mailshot campaigns still need to go out, and the launch of the new corporate identity means a range of products need new artwork (very complicated process involving several stages of “sign off”). My assistant is very good at getting the routine things done, once I have started him off, but if there are any problems (and there are frequently problems) he tends to get a bit lost.

Rob Hanlon (works in Purchasing – bulky build, fair hair cropped short, pugnacious way of speaking) came over to marketing yesterday afternoon and told me he was just about to hand in his resignation (waving a folded sheet of white paper).

I asked him the question he obviously wanted me to ask: “Why are you leaving?”

He leaned back on a filing cabinet next to my desk (stood very close to me, invading my personal space) and talked in a loud emphatic tone, his eyes watching for when Marion Conway (Human Resources Director) would become free.

“It started about a year ago when I first thought: I’ve got to get out of this place. At the time we were nominally reporting to the Finance Director and there were changes in the department I needed to make and I went to the Finance Director and said to her this just isn’t working, I need to make changes and you’re not supporting me…”

He shook his head in disbelief at the shortcomings of the Finance Director.

“…plus Rachel Mills was being difficult and stopped talking to me, and Mike Slattery used this against us by going to Marion Conway saying we weren’t getting the work done because we weren’t talking to each other. I lost all respect for Mike Slattery for doing that – he’s a snake in the grass…” he stopped suddenly and waved his finger vigorously “No he’s not, he’s a slow-worm as he’s slow and a worm and his bite doesn’t have any venom” – he laughed at the metaphorical image he had conjured up.

“All I got back from the Finance Director was Things will get better, things will get better, but they didn’t. So I started looking around for other jobs. Then six months ago Simon Lloyd was appointed as Purchasing Manager, and I thought things were really starting to improve. I had just been offered a job with the NHS but I turned it down and stayed here because things seemed to be getting better and Simon knew what he was doing. I had several big projects which he let me do, and I was really beginning to enjoy my work. Then recently he’s started to run into obstacles, and his work’s being blocked, and he’s getting pulled up all the time, and that just brought everything back to me about how bad things were last year, and so I started looking round again for something else. Then this job popped up, and it’s more money, plus more holiday and a proper pension…”

His eyes darted over to Reception (other side of the big floor) where Marion Conway was still occupied.

“Doing my Purchasing exams has taken a lot out of me. Three evenings a week after a full day’s work. It ruined the relationship I was in, and I had to give up playing football, but the company’s seen the benefit from it. We’re doing well in Purchasing and in the last few months we’ve turned things around. I’m leaving on a high. I intend to walk out the door with dignity, everything up to date and my replacement fully trained.”

“How old are you?” I asked him.

“Twenty-seven” he said.

“You’re very confident for twenty-seven.”

“I’m not always confident, I think and worry and do stuff. I’m only confident when I’m at work.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Looking back: A portrait of a matriarch

My aunt died suddenly at the weekend. She died alone at her flat in Ealing. Her death was very unexpected, and she never really had time to enjoy her retirement (she used to work for the BBC).

This is a picture of my aunt as a baby, held by my great-grandmother. I thought very hard before putting up this photograph, and after a while I may take it down again. It seems a very personal image to put up for anyone to look at, and yet some form of memorial seems necessary.

I remember meeting my great-grandmother when I was a small child (aged about five). I am the youngest, by a big gap, of an extensive generation of cousins, and my great-grandmother was the oldest person in the family (born in the nineteenth-century, making her a Victorian). She originally came from Hampshire, and I remember we talked about a "lost" Roman city near to where she was born (in the New Forest), so I suppose I was interested in archaeology even at the age of five.

My great-grandmother is wearing the South Seas pearls that caused so much trouble after my mother died in 2003 (basically we couldn't find them, and my sister wouldn't accept they had gone - it's possible they are still hidden in the house somewhere, but realistically I think they were lost long ago). This picture is a portrait of a matriarch - my great-grandmother was head of the family for most of the twentieth-century, living into her eighties. She made a religion of respectability, and used to go to church three times every Sunday.

In many ways my great-grandmother created the world I live in now - claustrophobic, inward-looking, focussed on the house and the family. Now so many of the family have gone, and there is only my brother and myself staying on in the family home, I ask myself: does our way of life represent valid continuity with the past, or has it become just meaningless (and obsessive) ritual? Keeping things going has become an end in itself (and one that absorbs a great deal of money).

There is another aspect to my great-grandmother that I only learned about recently. I always knew that my family came from very humble origins, made some money just after the Second World War, and had coasted ever since on that modest margin of wealth (now almost all gone). What I didn't know was that when she was very young, before she got married, my great-grandmother worked as a maid at a big country house in Hampshire - her start in life was very hard and humble, especially compared to how comfortable things later became.

Monday, June 13, 2005

I could have been looking in the wrong place

Driving home on Friday (long tiring drive in the evening sun), once I got out into the countryside I left the road and went along ever narrower lanes, eventually following a cart track that was not intended for motorised traffic. I was looking for a large construction made of bales of straw – supposedly a local club was building a copy of St Paul’s cathedral out of straw bales. I knew generally where the project was expected to be located, and I thought that something the size of St Paul’s cathedral would be easy to see (especially as the vale is very flat at that point).

Anyway, I drove around for about twenty minutes, but all I could find was the above conglomeration of straw bales. They look as if they might be the early stages of the cathedral, but the field was so out of the way, and the track leading to it was so bumpy and primitive that hardly anyone is likely to get there to see it (the construction is part of a fund raising effort). Alternatively I could have been looking in the wrong place.

An illustration of St Paul's cathedral is featured on the cover of the Royal Mail magazine. It uses the famous wartime image of St Paul's rising above the ruins of the blitzed city. The image will be used as the design for a £2 coin to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The whole structure of society depends upon their work

Above: the sales people at the shopping mall.

At lunchtime I went to the local shopping mall - run-down, boarded up units, big (supermarket-size) Oxfam shop. Under a covered way two sales people were stopping shoppers and asking them questions (actually subjecting them to a sales pitch). Being interested in all aspects of the sales process, I tried to eavesdrop (without getting so close that I risked being stopped and sold-to myself).

They were very good at getting attention, and hardly anyone walked past them without stopping (this is what caught my interest - normally personal selling of this kind would have a high rejection rate). Once they had the prospect's attention, they worked through a script, but the delivery was personal, so that people became talkative and volunteered information. Finally they managed to obtain names and addresses, maybe even bank details (they were getting donations for one of the big national charities).

Professional sales people don't have a very good reputation, but the whole structure of society depends upon their work (either through maintaining cash flow into the private sector, or through generating taxes that fund the public sector). The selection, training and motivation of good salespeople is one of the key success factors of a company (along with good credit control and getting the marketing right). To be good at sales you have to be able to take lots of rejection, which is why most people cannot work in sales.

You can always spot people who are good at selling as they have very high levels of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, that enables them to take all the rejection. Historically our company has been able to grow field sales people internally, promoting the co-ordinators on the Sales Desk. Only when we recruit externally do we tend to have duds.

Scott Ryan, Area Sales Manager for the northern home counties (loud, aged early twenties, short fair hair), is a good example of someone with almost limitless enthusiasm and ability to take rejection. The downside of this is that nothing you can say to him will put him down - except that this afternoon he was uncharacteristically full of self-doubts, wondering whether he was appreciated. "I was going to be up in Glasgow today, but it was cancelled at the last minute" he said. "What's that all about? Sometimes I think I'm just not wanted in this company..." - this self-pity went on for some minutes until I managed to change the subject (by asking whether he had any product samples for photography). Later he returned to the issue: "What do I have to do to get on in this place? I work really hard, I've built up my area, I bring in the sales month after month, and yet I'm still treated like I'm eighteen."

Part of the problem is that he makes a joke of everything, so even when he has worked hard at something he laughs it off as unimportant (and so it never gets properly appreciated). But there was no way I could tell him this. It's something he'll have to work out for himself.

The past returned

Recently I was in Norfolk, at the village where we used to live (the house has been sold, but my eldest brother and his family still live in the area). We had a big old flint farmhouse (half falling down and bought for £3,000 after the Second World War). Mostly we just used it at weekends and in the Summer, but I did live there with my grandparents for about two years when I was small and my mother was ill for a long time.

It was there that I first started school, going to the local Church of England infants school (flint building with two classrooms, thirty children, two teachers). A couple of weeks ago I was in the village, and happened to see a side door to the school was open – this was late in the evening when everyone was gone except for the cleaners. I asked one of the cleaners if they minded me having a look around, as I hadn’t been back since I left.

It all seemed very different – brightly painted walls, new furniture, carpets on the floor. It was only when I went out the back, to the gloomy entrance corridor, that the past returned to me with a force I was unprepared for. The corridor was completely unchanged – tiled floor, row of coat pegs (ridiculously low to the ground), picture of Jesus with the children of the world.

When I saw these coat pegs I felt I was six years old again.

I can remember being crammed into this cupboard (with three others) during a long-ago game of hide and seek. The tension of that moment came back vividly to me.

An important historical lesson for the European Union

All text and images on this site are original unless otherwise indicated. Above: Chamberlain trying to tackle the Big Loaf (free trade) Little Loaf (protectionism) argument. This is a photograph of an illustration in Donald Read's book Edwardian England (and was first published in the Illustrated London News).

Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary in Balfour's Unionist government, resigned in 1903 to campaign for protective tariff borders to be constructed around the parts of the world controlled by the United Kingdom (a quarter of the earth's land surface). This policy (designed to achieve ever closer union of the British territories) was massively rejected in the 1906 general election in favour of the existing policy of free trade. Although protectionism and integration (there was already a common currency) would on the face of it have created a stronger power bloc, Chamberlain was unable to deny that the policy would inevitably lead to higher food prices and higher manufacturing costs (and thus economic decline, followed in turn by military decline).

It's an important historical lesson for the European Union.

One they seem determined to ignore.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

This is not a soundly researched Chamberlain-style “Little Loaf” argument, just my opinions

Alan Nixon (who did a Modern History degree before he did Law) telephoned me at lunchtime and was going on about the postponement of the referendum on the European constitution. He was incensed that he isn’t going to have an opportunity to vote “No”. His concern is that “Europe” is moving into an irreversible federal framework that will be impossible to escape from if things were to go wrong.

“There’s no real comparison between what we are being asked to give up and what they are prepared to give up” his argument ran. “In Germany democratic control over internal affairs only goes back to nineteen-forty-five, and then it had to be imposed on them. In Spain and Greece and Portugal democratic accountability only goes back to the early seventies. In eastern Europe the experience of democracy is even more superficial. What I’m saying is that most European countries have chopped and changed their democratic institutions every couple of decades. They are volatile societies where the tradition is for small political factions to control the state and hand the orders down from above. We would be mad to get involved in that sort of set-up. The European record on democracy does not inspire me with any degree of confidence. Co-operation by all means, but don’t make it irreversible.”

There is some validity in his argument. If you go to the national newspaper collection in Colindale you can look at what politicians were saying back in the early seventies when the United Kingdom was negotiating to join the then EEC. The arguments at that time were entirely focussed upon economic issues, with no mention being made of “ever closer union” (therefore presumably “ever closer union” does not have a legitimate mandate from the electorate, since the question has never been put to them).

The other surprising factor to emerge is how much the debate in the early 1970s related to food prices. At the time the United Kingdom had relatively low food prices (comparable to the USA), and the six EEC countries paid much more for their food (there was alarm among the British public that the price of butter would go up if we were to join). Today the price we pay for food is significantly higher than what the Americans pay, and closer to the European average.

The European trend for inflationary food prices could possibly explain why potatoes in southern Ireland are 50% more expensive than in the United Kingdom (according to a comparative survey I was reading in the June issue of Management Today – a reliable magazine that is well-written and full of useful information). Southern Ireland has a society that is broadly similar to the United Kingdom, and from an agricultural perspective they have economies of scale that should favour cheaper potato prices. The only explanation I can think of for the higher prices is that southern Ireland has joined the European Currency Zone, and is suffering from stealth inflation (to pay for German reunification?), whereas we have kept the pound sterling (this is not a soundly researched Chamberlain-style “Little Loaf” argument, just my opinions for what they are worth).

The June issue of Management Today carried a comparative survey of southern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

I try to buy Maris Pipers, but often Somerfield only has Caras or Ospreys. I have to go to Tescos for King Edwards. I eat potatoes at least once per day (roast on Wednesdays and Sundays, boiled or mashed the rest of the week - and I often stop for chips on the way home at night).

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The most expensive films ever made

Kim Blacha continues with her (probably un-publishable) scholarly analysis of the music video genre. She sees them as cultural artefacts, in the mode of Sam Taylor-Wood, rather than marketing packages designed to sell music. It is very impressive to watch her “deconstruct” a promotional video, always divorced from the sound, and put it back together according to interpretation (of society, never music), cinematic technique, zeitgeist etc.

Photograph of Jamelia in the video See It In A Boy's Eyes (photo of TV screen - all images on this site are original).

Latest to be taken apart has been Jamelia's See It In A Boys's Eyes (director unknown), which was filmed in Cuba using the Cuban Army as extras. She is also working on an analysis of Ben Adams' Sorry (Ben Adams is supposedly Britain's answer to Justin Timberlake) - the video is directed by Kevin Godley and filmed in Hackney (Kevin Godley's feature film The Cooler was shown at Cannes in 1982, and he directed the Channel 4 documentary The Day The Dream Died). In the pipeline for Kim's attention is Paradise's See The Light.

Whatever you might think of music videos, they represent a very lucrative industry, and minute for minute rate as the most expensive films ever made.

A cult following among aficionados

At the weekend a Tractor Fair was held locally. Tractors inspire a cult following among aficionados, with interest ranging from the practical and mechanical, through the historical, to the more esoteric cultural and economic impact (ie a farmer teaching his black workers to drive a tractor to the scorn of his pro-apartheid neighbours in the film Cry The Beloved Country). The Guardian yesterday carried a piece on the novel A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (tipped to win the Orange fiction prize).

A row of fine tractors is treated with the same reverence as totemic fetishes in pre-industrial agrarian communities - the quasi-religious awe has been translated.

A mainstay of English pub culture is the pub quiz, and no doubt there are those whose specialist subject is: Tractors Of The Sixties - The Golden Era. Posted by Hello


The Sun's Page 3 voice-bubble editorial today expressed support for London's application for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Page 3 endorsement seemed appropriate since the original contestants in the ancient Olympic Games competed naked. Paris remains the favourite for winning the games, and many in the French establishment assume they have already, effectively, won the contest.

Eight-thirty in the evening, the sun shining and a coldish wind blowing

Yesterday I went to the coast - the east coast, where there are tidal marshes and the line between land and sea is ill-defined. Up on the sea wall (a huge bank of earth constructed by prisoners) I walked out as far as the first breach (there is supposedly a "managed" withdrawal policy in response to rising sea levels, with the North Sea being allowed to reclaim some of the summer grazing pasture). I was completely alone, eight-thirty in the evening, the sun shining and a coldish wind blowing.

In The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (supposedly the first detective novel written in English) there is a good description of the tide coming in on coastal marshes.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Thick Of It (3)

The political satire The Thick Of It finished last night (only three episodes were made). Once again the television comedy-drama captured cogently an insider’s view of how power is exercised and controlled at the highest levels of the government machine. Laughter is supposed to be based on fear (laughter being a mild hysterical reaction to the things that we are secretly afraid of), and in showing us the incompetence, the bullying, and the interpersonal terror that characterises the office of an average government Minister, the authors have, with great skill, created images that are both funny and frightening.

Last night’s episode related to the controversial ownership of a flat by the Minister (echoing the controversies over Peter Mandelson’s purchase of a flat in Notting Hill Gate and Cherie Blair’s speculative purchase of flats in Bristol). The overweight Bunty-type female civil servant character (expertly played by Joanna Scanlan) came to the fore, undermining her boss in a variety of subtle ways - sweetly enquiring whether a journalist from the Daily Mail would like coffee and biscuits (while at the same time deliberately holding the door to the office open so that the journalist can hear the government “enforcer” shouting and swearing at the Minister); demoralising the Minister’s team by wittily suggesting the tabloid headline “flat-gate” should be renamed “Notting-Hill-Gate-gate”; making secret calls to her pals in the rest of Whitehall to spread the news of the Minister’s expected demise and chortling with glee as she told them how sad it was.

There was a correlation to the fictional in-fighting of The Thick Of It when on the Today Programme this morning John Humphreys interviewed the improbably named Lord Adonis. This unelected friend of Tony Blair’s has been elevated to the House of Lords (by Prime Ministerial directive) and from there eased into a government post as a junior Minister at the Department of Education (where he acts as Tony Blair’s “enforcer”, breathing down the neck of his boss Education Secretary Ruth Kelly). John Humphreys questioned him very carefully about his relations with Ruth Kelly, but was unable to make much headway.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Celebrity-media-government-public interaction

The Live 8 concert in Hyde Park on 2nd July has generated a lot of media coverage. Allied with it is the suggestion, by Bob Geldorf, that a million people should go to Edinburgh to lobby the G8 summit. It’s a complex example of celebrity-media-government-public interaction.

Bob Geldorf is manipulating and exploiting the prospective concert audience (most of whom are unlikely to think deeply about politics). He is also manipulating and exploiting the media (who are essential to the success of the Live 8 event before, during and after 2nd July). Possibly he may hope to be able to manipulate and exploit the G8 governments (some hope!).

The media is manipulating and exploiting Bob Geldorf – he is giving them copy to fill their pages, and controversial stories to help sell their publications (or television channels or radio stations or websites etc).

The prospective concert audience is manipulating and exploiting the event – attending an (enjoyable) rock concert will allow them to encounter (at a far remove) the poverty of Africa and still continue to function in their selfish, self-obsessed, consumer-orientated lives. By attending the concert they are not just buying a concert ticket, they are also (at a subconscious level) buying moral superiority and absolution.

The government has yet to respond significantly but will, undoubtedly, be looking for an opportunity to manipulate and exploit Bob Geldorf AND the media AND the prospective concert audience (plus any other gullible audiences they can manage to take in). Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in particular is positioning himself as a champion of African issues (a safe stance to take since it makes him look morally outstanding, without the necessity of actually doing anything for which he will be held accountable). Bob Geldorf should be wary of attempting to manipulate Tony Blair and his government – the rabbit always finds the anaconda fascinating (as Edith Wharton said).

The involvement of great artists in political issues is always problematic. The appearance of U2 lead singer Bono on the platform of the Labour Party Conference was unsettling and invited comparisons with Leni Riefenstahl (another great artist who lent glamour to a discredited regime). The Conservative Party also wanted to harness the emotions roused by artistic performers, but in their fuddy-duddy way the best they could come up with was Lynsey de Paul, plus the now-defunct boyband Busted (who probably thought the most shocking stunt they could pull would be to tell people they vote Conservative).

Above image is a digital photograph taken of a television screen.

Artists are most effective politically when they create enduring works of art based around themes that enter the popular consciousness. John Lennon's Imagine (whatever you might think of it artistically) is a good example of this. Another good example is the work of playwright David Hare (to adapt a line in his play Plenty, spoken by Sir John Gielgud in the film version with Meryl Streep: "When the Labour Party have become the cowboys I fear for the future of humanity").

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Magical inland sea

About four years ago I was researching some of the historical quirks of the local landscape. One Saturday, emerging from a cinema just as it began to rain, I drove home. However, instead of taking my usual route I turned off and took the way down across the vale. The road (actually not much more than a narrow straight lane, wide views to either side) goes through a tiny hamlet. I had driven through the small settlement several times, and each time I had stopped at a Victorian building (built in 1868 according to Pevsner) that was obviously once a church but seemed to have been turned into a social hall for the village. Each time I had tried the handle the door had been locked. Stopping on that Saturday four years ago, once again I found the handle was unyielding.

But as I turned to go a man (short, stocky, aged about forty-five) shouted from across the road: “Can I help you, mate?” I explained that I was interested in the history of the area and wanted to see inside the building. He seemed quite impressed with this, telling me that he was the caretaker and that he would run and get the key (he literally ran, going into the end house of a terrace of Victorian cottages built of red and yellow stock bricks turned grimy with the passage of time).

Shortly afterwards the gothic door of the former church was opened and he showed me into a large oblong room, lined with cheap white plastic panels, with a low white ceiling and white rubber floor (scuffed with black marks from ball games). The interior was completely modern in appearance with the exception of the gothic arched windows along each side. The caretaker was very proud of the facility and showed me the new kitchen that had just been put in at the back. I asked if anything remained from the former church. The caretaker led the way to the other end of the room, and after a little effort removed one of the wall panels. We stepped through the opening into the apsidal chancel of the old church, which had simply been sealed up with everything still in place (altar, choir stalls, brass memorial plaques, piles of rotting hymn books etc). Dust and dirt covered every surface, and a lot of the plaster had fallen from the roof. Nothing there was of any value, but the very survival of the place was in itself impressive.

Please excuse the poor photograph: in the sealed-up portion of the former church was a sort of deep windowless alcove, screened off by a thick heavy curtain. It was obviously once used as a vestry. Hanging on the wall was a line of photographs of former vicars (I sometimes think of these images of earnest Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen, hanging in the darkness and silence of the abandoned chancel alcove, keeping watch for the Day of Judgement when the words of their sermons will finally be justified).

Anyway, the caretaker and I stood outside the church/social hall talking about the local area, and I noticed on the row of cottages opposite was a datestone with the inscription Sea On Land Terrace 1884. Indicating the name, I said the reference to the sea was curious considering how inland we were, miles from the nearest coast. The caretaker, who had lived in the village all his life, said the "sea" was a huge shallow inland lake that used to form in winter in a wide basin across the southern half of the vale, turning the village into an island. Once the "sea" had formed it would last several months - sometimes as long as the first weeks of Summer. Drainage schemes since the Second World War had reduced this flooding, and the lake now appeared only after exceptional rainfall, lasting only a week or so.

In the weeks that followed I asked about this magical inland sea, and found many people who knew about the phenomenon, and some who had even seen it for themselves. One old boy who had been a child in the 1940s, could remember going to the lakeside with his parents and having a picnic on the "beach" in unusually warm Easter weather. It was seen as a cheap day out in the austerity period that followed the war.

There is a road that goes along the lowest level of the escarpment that gives a good view of where the lake used to form. Every time I went along this road I would look out to the right, hoping that the water had returned. But there was never any sign of the "sea"... until last week.

Driving along the lower road about seven o'clock in the evening (broad daylight, the sun still shining) I saw down in the basin the glint of water, and waves rippling in the breeze. Unlocking the NO ENTRY metal gate (as a resident on the escarpment I can ignore these signs) I drove along the private lane towards the "sea". Once off the incline I lost sight of the lake, but I knew that the winding road must eventually lead right into it.

What a disappointment! The inland "sea" was nothing more than fields covered with polythene sheeting, which the farmer was using to warm the soil in preparation for early planting. No water, no waves, no beach - it was a complete anticlimax.