Friday, January 28, 2005

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A flight of steps down to the water’s edge. You can walk along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal from Kings Cross to Camden. Dreary in winter, but in summer the wild purple buddlias are in flower, and giant hogweeds (poisonous) guard the neglected corners.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

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A forgotten aviary, the sky dark at four o’clock in the afternoon, the air damp and cold. Through layers of bars, exotic avian eyes look out, curiosity overcoming fear. A reminder that we are all, in various ways, trapped.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

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The art deco gates to the park were locked. The early morning sun shone opaquely through the clouds. The weak sunlight gave a sheen to the tarmac so that it resembled deep blue water.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Another permutation, in a different medium

Celebrity Big Brother, for all its trite, shallow, worthless vacuity, has caused me to stop and think.

Is it possible that the weblog phenomenon is itself an extension of “reality” broadcasting? Admittedly a weblog is able to control its content, and moderate any comments. But the end result is possibly another permutation, in a different medium, of the desire by ordinary people to observe the lives, skills, opinions etc of other ordinary people.

It’s not a pleasant thought. Correction: it is an unsettling thought.

My motive in setting up this site (conscious motive, since there might be unconscious motives that, tautologically, I am not aware of) has been to record the world as I see it – the sights I see, the things that happen to me, my thoughts on why things happen. I tell myself that for all my bluff as a marketing professional, I am really an historian, and that my duty is to create an historical record for posterity, irrespective of whether anyone currently reads it or not (I hope there are current readers, but I'm not going to depend upon them).

I see myself as writing for the future – fifty, a hundred, even two hundred years from now graduate history students will illustrate their researches by references to weblogs of the early twenty-first century. I see this as a noble enterprise, making immortal the ordinary things / people / places that are around me. I see the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane carefully collecting the weblogs of the ordinary people and storing them away to be discovered years hence (possibly subject to a 50-year publication rule).

But perhaps I’m just fooling myself. Perhaps I’m just another performer in the “reality” arena. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity (as they say).

Monday, January 24, 2005

These people knew what they were getting involved in

Over the past week I have been watching Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 4 (only the highlights between 9pm and 10pm – I’m not guilty of watching the live show). Previously I couldn’t understand the popularity of the Big Brother format of reality television. Having watched it each evening since last Sunday I was fascinated (and at the same time appalled) at how compulsive it could become.

The selection of celebrities originally included Germaine Greer (proto-1960s feminist, formidable intellectual, Cambridge academic) but she walked out complaining the claustrophobic Big Brother House was in effect a fascist prison. In the build-up to the show all the newspapers and commentators complained that the “celebrities” were nothing more that B-list nobodies. Having watched the show for its last week, I realised that the effectiveness of the programme came from the fact that these people were already desperate, even before they entered the crucible.

A professional buffoon and racing tipster, who tried to be as offensive as possible to as many people as possible. A presenter from an obscure radio station. A likeable but light-weight minor actor who had only appeared in soap operas. A teenager vocalist from a boyband so numerous (there’s about ten of them) that they seem to have little in the way of individual character or identity. The model Caprice Bourret (a genuine celebrity, but looking vulnerable and just a little faded). A grey-haired member of a Manchester grunge band from the 1990s. Brigitte Nielsen. Brigitte Nielsen’s former mother-in-law.

Looking back over that paragraph, it appears harsh and judgemental. But I was trying to describe the contestants as accurately as possible. They all appeared to be, in various ways, drowning.

During the eighteen days that the celebrities are confined in the Big Brother House, they are given a series of tasks to carry out (usually silly tasks dressed up as historical clichés, nursery-rhyme characters, or shopping mall “chavs”), involving some form of collective co-operation. Inevitably, given the disparate personalities involved, and the competitive stress they are all under, most of the tasks degenerate into failure and recrimination, sometimes very bitter and personal recrimination. The show deliberately humiliates the contestants, but it also humiliates the audience (you know you should look away, or turn the programme off, but somehow you keep watching, and so become guilty by association).

From time to time there are “evictions” which resemble mock executions. These cathartic events are supposedly orchestrated in response to popular votes from the viewing public (although the tabloid newspapers have disputed their validity). The evictions follow a predictable pattern – older, crankier and marginalised people are pushed out, younger and more attractive people are rewarded (in this respect Germaine Greer was right – there was a process of selection at work that can be described as fascist in the way it emphasised youth and appearance).

These people were all volunteers (I told myself). These people are mostly professional entertainers (I told myself). These people knew what they were getting involved in (I told myself). And yet, over the course of a week’s viewing, I felt I had got to know these people, and (this is the most bizarre part) care about what happened to them.

Right to the end it was surprising. “I was convinced the spotty little chav was going to win” said Rachel Mills this morning, referring to the boyband member (not sure if boyband is the correct description – they have a sort of garage gangsta rap sound). In the event, it was the grey-haired Manchester grunge rebel that got the most votes.

Postscipt: explaining the word “chav”.

There are increasing references in the United Kingdom media to chavs, and the word has broken through from a regional, specialist meaning to describing an urban sub-culture. Chavs are teenagers or in their early twenties, who dress in tracksuits, wear Burberry baseball caps and (imitation) gold jewellery, and hang around shopping malls in menacing groups. Increasingly the word is being used in a pejorative sense, and gradually seems to be losing its original descriptive meaning. It probably originated in Chatham (south east London and Kent border) as the local pronunciation Chavham, but some sources claim it is a Romany word, or that it refers to the abbreviation Social Services teams put on the files of their most difficult clients (Council House And Violent).

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I went to the local shopping mall to try and photograph a “chav” – this was the closest I got. Not a full tracksuit, but gold necklaces, and the baseball cap had a (probably fake) Burberry design.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Three films (seen through an alcoholic haze)

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On television, over the Christmas holiday, I watched three films (seen through an alcoholic haze):

The Mother
The subject of this film was the sexual reawakening of a retired person – not at first sight very promising, but it had such good reviews that I thought I would give it a go. An older woman, marginalised after the death of her husband, goes to stay with her son and his family, who are too preoccupied to give her any attention. She begins an affair with the 30ish builder working in her son’s house (whom she knows is her unhappy daughter’s boyfriend), and the affair becomes public (to the scandal of everyone). The screenplay was written by Hanif Kureishi (who also wrote The Buddha of Suburbia) and it was directed by Roger Michell. Anne Reid was the older mother, Daniel Craig was the builder. The film was a very powerful drama, all the more effective for being understated. The characterisation was particularly impressive – all the characters were recognisable, and the general tone of London life was convincingly conveyed.

The theme of an older mother who takes away her daughter’s boyfriend was also illustrated in Maroon 5s video She will be Loved, played endlessly on the music channels over the holiday period. The video was directed by Sophie Muller, a London-based director who has done a lot of work for advertising production house Oilfactory (in Little Portland Street in the West End). There is, obviously, a strong link between music videos and television commercials. The video is supposed to be an interpretation of the film The Graduate, and features Kelly Preston (John Travolta’s wife) as the older woman, and Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine. Not sure who the younger (blonde) actress is. The video has a mesmerising effect: in the lighting (bright south-of-France colours muted to match the dark theme), the superbly professional acting (every gesture, every movement, is integral to the whole) and above all the editing. It is a masterpiece – I could watch it for hours and still find new things to notice.
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Helen B nagged me to buy the book but I still havn’t got round to reading it

I Capture The Castle
Directed by Tim Fywell and starring Romola Garai, Bill Nighy, Sinéad Cusack and Tara Fitzgerald. The book on which it was based was written by Dodie Smith (who also wrote the children’s classic One Hundred And One Dalmations). Helen B nagged me to buy the book but I still havn’t got round to reading it. The film was very well photographed but a little too sentimental, a bit confusing in parts, and could have been shorter.

The Wicker Man
Cult movie directed by Robin Hardy, screenplay by Anthony Schaffer. A 1970s film with an underlying mood of menace (there is no actual “horror” portrayed, everything is implied until the last scene…). Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland. A police officer visits a remote Scottish island to investigate a disappearance – and finds a society still in the pre-Christian era. Despite the lack of special effects and the slightly kitsch look of the 1970s, the film is genuinely creepy. It also has a personal meaning for me…

When I was aged sixteen I travelled alone to the Hebridean island of Barra, a train journey that took two days and a ferry crossing of seven hours. It was the first time I had been away from home (I had lived a sheltered life!). At that time I was very interested in castles, and wanted to see the medieval castle built on a rock in the middle of a bay (the island’s only village is on the shore of this bay, the village being called, not surprisingly Castlebay). I found a completely isolated community that spoke gaelic as a first language, was still Catholic in religion (most of Scotland is extreme Protestant) and seemed to have no concept of time. There were no trees on the island, and all the time I was there a fierce wind blew (which contrasted strangely with the hot August sun – despite being continually cold while on the island, I returned home badly sunburned). The ferry only called at Barra once every three or four days, and after a boat trip over to look at the castle, there was nothing for me to do (no shops, no restaurants, no places of interest) apart from walk about the island with its beautiful rugged landscapes and empty golden beaches. Every time I see The Wicker Man I am reminded of the island’s crashing waves, bad food, oppressive isolation – and the sense that your every move was being watched.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

“Don’t fall for the marketing hype”

The New Year sales are still going on! “Don’t fall for the marketing hype” I tell people. And as my mother used to say: The cheap things are never cheap as you have to keep replacing them.

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Mark: “Nike or Man U or West Ham?”
Myself: “You make it sound like it’s a life or death choice.”
Mark: “Not life or death, but it is important.”
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Mark: “Why are you taking all these pictures? We’re being watched y'know. We’ll probably be arrested on the way out...”
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Modern woman, placed on a pedestal, half-naked and for sale, poses as a symbol of our times.
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Mark: “What are you looking at those for? No-one buys Pepe stuff.”

Monday, January 17, 2005

Dome of St Paul's cathedral, seen from Paternoster Square. Grey London sky. Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The resulting conflagration was incredible

My brother’s always liked playing with matches!

One of the problems of the New Year is what to do with the old Christmas Tree. Usually (and this year was no different) we take the decorations down the day after New Year’s Day, not waiting until Twelfth Night. The Christmas tree is taken, still in its bucket, down behind the greenhouse where it usually gets forgotten – sometimes we have had up to three trees down there, from successive years, waiting to be disposed of.

Previous attempts to plant the tree have never been successful. Planted into the ground, the tree lives a sickly kind of half-life, shedding its needles and turning brown, until about August when it finally dies. In any case, there is a limit to the number of Christmas trees you can have growing in your garden, unless you are going to start your own plantation.

This year the tree (a Norwegian spruce) was obviously dead by the time we took it out of the house. Rather than just having it hanging around the rest of the year I decided I would burn it.

At my brother’s suggestion, we had purchased some months ago a garden incinerator (my brother’s always liked playing with matches) which is basically a metal dustbin with holes in the side and a lid with a sort of funnel in it. I put some crumpled up newspaper in the bottom of the bin then stood the tree on top. Obviously it was too big for the lid to go back on.

I lit the newspaper through one of the holes lower down in the bin and waited. The resulting conflagration was incredible. The tree exploded into flames, and the inferno leaped upwards, about seven or eight feet into the air. We had unwisely located the incinerator under one of the chestnut trees, and there was a brief moment of panic when I thought the fire might spread.

Just as suddenly as it had erupted, the blaze died down and left a thick residue of soft grey and black ash at the bottom of the bin. A nearby small conifer had been scorched completely brown. I decided this would be the first and last time we would use the incinerator.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

To add to my growing confusion

Marie-Astrid’s party. Actually a combined birthday party and New Year’s party. I was unsure what to wear as I knew lots of her family would be going, and there would be a dinner, and I didn’t want to be the only person there not wearing a tie. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be all dressed up when everyone else was casual. In the end I decided to wear a white Henri Lloyd dress shirt but no tie. As I was getting ready I felt a strong urge not to go.

Another long drive northwards to a remote village and the Old Barn Hotel. It was a very cold and dark night. The Old Barn Hotel was a complex of buildings linked by corridors. In the centre was an old tithe barn (huge dimensions, stone walls about five feet thick, medieval roof timbers). Radiating off this central hall were function rooms, banqueting rooms, bars, and corridors leading to the hotel bedrooms. I drove around the site until I found somewhere to park.

Walking towards the main entrance I realised that apart from Marie-Astrid I wouldn’t know anyone else at the party (I had met her mother a long time ago, but wouldn’t recognise her). On the threshold I heard in my mind the familiar silent voice I have heard so many times: Don’t go in there. But in I went, and almost immediately saw Marie-Astrid at the end of a long corridor, leading a small group of people into a room. I followed after her, and became merged into the general melee of greetings and introductions that were taking place. It was at that point that I realised I hadn’t brought her a birthday card still less a gift (she was unwrapping presents people had given her as they arrived, and putting them onto a table that was soon covered in costly items).

Drinks were brought round (non-alcoholic cocktails as Marie-Astrid’s family don’t drink – the option of having a real drink was given, but no-one took this up). I chatted to her brother for a while. He was a self-employed builder specialising in renovations of listed buildings, so he was quite an interesting person to talk to. The room we were in was about forty feet square, in the style of a converted barn (except that it was all modern). Lots of coloured balloons were fastened to the rafters. The centre of the room was laid out with tables, in a square formation, so that the guests were all bunched into the small amount of free space near the entrance.

About seventy guests were at the party, and divided neatly into two groups – young couples Marie-Astrid knew from work, and older family and friends (mostly people from her church, which is a sort of American Baptist-style sect). Because her family is half-Danish, there were a large number of striking blondes in the room. After about twenty minutes people began to sit down (one of Marie-Astrid’s best qualities is that she gets on with things and doesn’t hang around talking for the sake of talking). I found myself seated next to a plump middle-aged man who worked in local government and was incredibly boring (even his wife, who was sat to the other side of him, didn’t have much to say to him throughout the evening). On my left was a woman aged about fifty, quite bossy, with a strong Newcastle accent (her husband, a much older man, was on her other side). Directly opposite me, on a sort of top table, was Marie-Astrid and her two-year-old daughter.

It was only when everyone was sat down that I realised everyone at the party had a partner apart from Marie-Astrid and myself – we seemed to be the only “single” people there (Marie-Astrid is married, but separated from her husband and they are getting divorced after only a few years of married life – she told me that he had gone off with someone else). I also discovered that the Geordie woman to my left was Marie-Astrid’s mother-in-law and seemed to know all about me. She kept up a steady conversation throughout the meal, and I felt as if I was being subtly cross-examined. To add to my growing confusion, her son’s name (Marie-Astrid’s husband) was also called Andy. She had that relentless familiarity that most northern people have, as if we were all friends together, but in reality I felt she was a monstrous woman, and I couldn’t wait to get away from her.

The food was very rich, and the desserts very sugary. We had a starter then two main courses and any number of puddings (not sure if this over-catering is a Danish custom). Because Marie-Astrid’s family is vegetarian (most of the friends from church as well, from what I could see) the food was also vegetarian – with options for anyone who insisted on eating meat (no-one did).

After the meal everyone drifted into the hotel disco (huge, dark, packed with flailing bodies), but it was quite late and I felt it was a good moment to say goodbye to Marie-Astrid and slip away. I walked out to my car, still able to hear the hotel disco playing The Outkast’s Hey Ya. As I drove home I felt it had been a difficult evening – nice to see Marie-Astrid again, but the circumstances had made me feel uncomfortable.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Monday, January 10, 2005

Buried under Platform 8

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Kings Cross station at night. From Platform 5 looking across to Platform 8. The whole of the Kings Cross area used to be known as Battles Bridge and is reputedly the site where the Iceni warrior queen Boudicca was finally defeated by the Romans in AD 61. The Iceni were a celtic tribe that lived in south-west Norfolk and rebelled against Roman rule, almost driving the invaders from Britain (until the counter-attack by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus). Eighty thousand celtic Britons fell in this battle, and the site became an enormous graveyard. In Victorian times the railway station was built by Thomas Cubitt as the London terminus of the Great Northern Railway. Boudicca is supposed to be buried under Platform 8.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Followed by a storm

There has been no snow this winter, just a succession of grey, very muddy, days. On Saturday afternoon I had been into the local town, and returned home at one o’clock. All the way from the town (a distance of about four miles) my car had been followed by a storm, so that the winter sunshine had been overshadowed by a tremendous dark cloud, then had reappeared, then had been blotted out again. Just as I parked my car (in a tumbledown shed in the old farmyard) the storm caught up with me, so that for a moment the sun lit up trees in the foreground and they glistened and waved against the fast-approaching menacing dark cloud.

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Sunlight on the hawthorn tree, dark cloud behind.
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Sunlight on the elder tree, dark cloud behind.
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After the storm (which lasted only a few minutes) the sun cast long shadows in the north field.
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The combination of sunlight and rain produced a weak rainbow.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The central problem the company faces

The company’s annual stock-taking takes place today, tomorrow and over the weekend. All staff have to take part. The work is fairly dirty (the warehouses are not kept very clean), tiring (you stand up all day), and repetitive (all you do is count stocks of one product after another – for all twelve thousand products!).

However, the most depressing aspect is the complete lack of organisation. No-one really knows what they are supposed to be doing. The two managers in charge (IT Manager Jeremy Gadd and Commercial Manager Mike Slattery) are so woefully inadequate as project managers and such poor motivators that the whole stock-taking operation has become a shambles. Their attitude is one of: Trust us, we know what we are doing (except that no-one trusts them, and their credibility is close to zero).

Things came to a head when warehouse operative Frank Benn (in his fifties, very scruffy in appearance, has a history of alcohol abuse, but is usually very mild-mannered and inoffensive) went to lunch at 12 o’clock (his usual time) and was called back by Mike Slattery and told he had to go at 1 o’clock. Frank Benn almost exploded with anger, so that Mike Slattery (who is a very bombastic and loud person) was momentarily humbled.

Events such as stock-taking highlight the central problem the company faces – none of the senior managers have enough confidence to take decisions without the input of Trevor Bush, the Managing Director and Owner. And as Trevor Bush can only be at one location at a time, things just seize up whenever he is not around. For a multi-million pound enterprise, with numerous operations and locations, this is a very serious problem.

There is one other factor that influences the paralysis at the heart of the company. Trevor Bush has, in recent months, become distracted. It is a distraction so secret and sensitive that I hardly dare write about it, even in the obscurity and anonymity of this weblog…

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

He was bloody lucky

At 12 o’clock today the company joined in the Europe-wide silence for the victims of the tsumani disaster.

Yesterday the company initiated a collection (already several hundred pounds raised) and Marion Conway has said that the company will match the amount raised by the staff. After the noon silence Scott Ryan came over to the Marketing corner and told me that Clive Ripley (former sales rep who left in very acrimonious circumstances last year) had gone to Phuket for Christmas but had been on the other side of the island when the wave had struck.

“He was bloody lucky. He’s back in England now. I managed to get a text through to him, and he said he was alright.”

“I thought he lived in Thailand permanently? I thought he was giving up sales and going out to Thailand where he was going to live some kind of The Beach lifestyle?”

“In his dreams, mate. In his dreams. He’s got to work for a living like the rest of us.”

PS I don’t often make political statements on this weblog, but I was really irritated by Tony Blair talking on the radio this morning and saying the government would match the amount of money raised by the people. It’s surely not a matter of matching – the government needs to give whatever is necessary to alleviate the suffering, however much it costs. Later in the same interview he said the government would give many times more than whatever the people manage to raise. As if it was some kind of bidding war.