Sunday, November 27, 2005

The New Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Porter on Straight Talk, BBC News 24

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

Pharrell Williams

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

Sunday, November 20, 2005

An anthropological manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Last Friday - the eleventh day of the eleventh month

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

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

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

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

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

More real and coherent than the modern world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 06, 2005

An interview with George Michael...on BBC4

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

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

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

"Not bird 'flu?" I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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