Monday, February 28, 2005

None of us can know

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My aunt Sylvia died at the weekend, on one of the coldest days of this winter, although the snowdrops are in flower. When I was born I had eleven aunts and nine uncles (this is not counting the great aunts and great uncles). Now there are six aunts and five uncles left.

Because of the disjointed way in which the generations fall in our family, I am the youngest (by a big margin) of all the cousins.

Aunt Sylvia was always pleasant, always helpful, always slightly anxious. My mother once told me that when Aunt Sylvia had first married my uncle, she had found it difficult to be accepted by the family. It was as if they had closed ranks against her. It was only after decades of being nice that she had made herself welcome. My mother also claimed to have experienced this coldness when she married my father, especially from the many women in the family.

None of us can know how much time we have left.

Friday, February 25, 2005

A period of instability and change

A meeting with Sales Director Neil Hancock this afternoon. He looked exhausted, and although it was past three o’clock he hadn’t yet had any lunch (he opened up a bowl of corned beef salad and ate it in front of me as we talked – despite the strict company prohibition about eating in the offices).

We talked about the arrival of my new assistant next week, and the responsibilities he would be given. I told Neil Hancock I wanted Marketing to be allocated big definable projects where the results can be measured (our direct mail campaigns have delivered considerable percentage increases in awareness in the past and I am keen to get some credit for this work). Too much of Marketing’s time at the moment is dissipated by small unimportant requests – an experience akin to death by a thousand cuts!

I intended to be very forceful in telling him the contribution Marketing should be making, but I’m not sure I was entirely successful. I am too polite, too diffident, too intellectual.

The company’s management team is, on paper, extremely strong. What is lacking is the integration that connects everything together. We are in a period of instability and change, and many of the managers seem concerned with protecting their positions (as well as undermining others, since for some people it is not enough merely to succeed – others must be seen to fail).

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The much-favoured “soggy” consistency

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More snow, and a very hard frost overnight. A result of this cold weather has been that early mornings, previously a bit gloomy, are now flooded with a strong bluish-white light (the dawn reflected off the snow).

Weekdays I get up at 6 and have breakfast at 6.45 – usually Weetabix and a cup of tea. If there is time (there often isn’t) I also have toast with marmalade and jam. The dining room faces south, and from this week I have been able to have breakfast by natural morning light, watching the birds in the garden and listening to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.

Weetabix is a breakfast cereal made in Northamptonshire. You put one or two Weetabix in a bowl, add sugar and cold milk, and wait half a minute while the cereal acquires the much-favoured “soggy” consistency. Recently I have cut down on the sugar.

Weetabix was founded in 1932 and was originally called The British and African Cereal Company.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Bread and circuses

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As you can see from the picture, a real circus has come to town, and has opened up despite the snow.

Everyone expects a General Election to be held in May, and political campaigns have already been (unofficially) launched. The climate of electioneering is unmistakable – a sense of anticipation and expectation perpetually checked by cynicism and disillusion. Many commentators talk as if the election is a foregone issue, and that New Labour will sweep into power again, with their unique mixture of populism and watered-down socialism.

New Labour has been very adept at identifying groups of potential supporters (not always people who traditionally supported “old” Labour) and then bribing them with state patronage of various kinds (tax concessions, subsidies, housing developments etc). This is the way all political parties operate, but New Labour has been particularly skilful at isolating target audiences and winning them over with selling propositions. This makes me wonder what calibre of marketing professionals they have advising them, since their presentation is extremely slick (they certainly have PR professionals at every level of their operation).

Their achievement is all the more impressive when you consider the social fragmentation that has taken place in urban centres. While old allegiances to family, class and locality have broken down, New Labour has succeeded in building a new unity based on how people see themselves (“caring”, “modern”, “informal”). Supporting a political party has become a lifestyle choice, and New Labour is the first political party to have recognised this.

New Labour rule has been characterised by economic success and an emphasis upon euphoric prestige projects (the Millennium Dome, art centres such as Bankside and Baltic Mills, stadiums such as Wembley and Cardiff Millennium, the bid for the 2012 Olympic Games) which brings to mind the formula the patricians of ancient Rome used to keep the population quiet and compliant (Duas tantum rex anxius optat, panem et circensus – the people long eagerly for two things, bread and circuses. I had thought the quote came from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall but actually it was by the Roman poet Juvenal).

Booming neo-socialist economy, grand building projects, a culture in which everyone is encouraged to think of themselves as celebrities of some kind (no matter how marginal), a political use of language that is so pliant and manipulative that words and phrases mean whatever “they” want them to mean, a constitution that is routinely and arbitrarily chopped about to suit the requirement of the moment, a legal system that is abandoning trial by jury and introducing house arrest (and house arrest by political fiat!), an approach to international relations that has reintroduced war as a primary instrument of foreign policy…

The New Labour experience is for many (vulnerable) people, intoxicating, deliberately stressful, mildly fascist.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Enough to fill the furrows in the fields

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There was snow over the weekend – not enough to settle, but enough to fill the furrows in the fields. Yesterday was bitterly, unreasonably, cold. Today is not quite so cold, and at the moment the sun is shining.

The farmer (who uses our sheds) likes freezing weather. He thinks it is healthy weather – it kills off vermin and bacteria.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Spire

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Spire being repaired by English Heritage.

I looked at this and immediately thought of William Golding’s novel The Spire. It’s about the triumph of hope over expediency as the Dean of a cathedral attempts to put an immense spire onto a tower that has no foundations. Even the stones sing (in his head) in honour of his endeavour.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Fish and chips

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Fish and chips were originally sold separately from small specialist shops. In the nineteenth-century shops selling both fish and chips started to appear (Charles Dickens mentions a fish and chip shop in Oliver Twist). It has now become a national dish and is even served in the restaurants of Sir Terence Conran.

I drive past several fish and chip shops on the way home. Sometimes, if I’m really hungry, I stop at the half-way point on the journey and buy some chips (and then have dinner when I get home). There are eight times more fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom than there are branches of McDonalds.

People’s eyes glaze over and they lose interest

There is currently an internal debate on which brand names the company should be using and which should be dropped. You can work out the value of a brand name by assessing the value of a company if it is sold (usually five times the annual profit) then deducting the value of any fixed assets (stock, buildings etc). The amount left over is the company’s “goodwill”, most of which represents the brand equity of the company.

The problem with this argument is that it is abstract, and I know from experience whenever I try to talk about abstract issues people’s eyes glaze over and they lose interest.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The evenings are beginning to draw out

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The weather is bitterly cold at the moment, but at least the evenings are beginning to draw out a little. The sky is not completely dark when I leave work at 5.30 (actually closer to six o’clock most days as I like to work out what I am going to do the following morning and get things ready).

At the weekend, walking through a quiet street near a cathedral close, I took this photograph. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon – not dark, but most houses had electric lights on (usually without the curtains drawn, so that passers-by could see in). The colour of the sky can best be described as Prussian Blue.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A strategy that stems from her divorce

Marie-Astrid’s dinner party. She plans to hold six per year (I have the feeling that I’m going to be asked to all of them). It’s a strategy that stems from her divorce when I guess she lost most of her existing circle of friends and now has to build up new relationships (or, in my case, revive a friendship from her college years).

A long drive to the northern town where she lives. For once I was only a few minutes late, and also remembered where her house was (last time I had driven around for nearly an hour, trying to remember the name of the road). I got there at ten past eight, and parked in the drive – my car was the newest (and, in my opinion, smartest) one there.

The house, located in a quiet tree-lined road, was large and semi-detached. It was built in the 1970s, so was not very attractive (quite ugly really). Marie-Astrid got a generous settlement from her husband and decided to buy a modest house outright rather than go for something nicer that involved a mortgage. There was a large front garden, mostly lawn, with narrow borders of lavender around the edges. The front door was protected by a functional glass porch, doorbell not working so that I just opened the door and walked in.

All the other guests had arrived and Marie-Astrid introduced me – most of them I knew by sight from her birthday party. There were eight of us in all. I always feel a little uneasy meeting Marie-Astrid’s friends since they often seem to be better than me in some way (not richer or cleverer or even nicer, just better). My fellow guests at the dinner party were either regular church-goers (and not even Church of England, but a narrow American Baptist sect that seems very judgmental), or worked in the public sector (with that public sector aura of being morally superior to everyone else). All of them were vegetarians and non-drinkers.

The one person, I felt, who didn’t fit into this mould of moral rectitude was Marie-Astrid herself (I remember her at college when she had been very lively and daring and always the centre of attention).

Monday, February 14, 2005

A coat of arms for St Valentine's Day


In a cold church off a busy street, where I was photographing some 18th century monuments, I found a coat of arms for St Valentines Day. Gold chevron against a black ground, three crowned golden hearts, with a crowned golden heart as the crest. Why are the hearts crowned - are they saying Your love is king? Posted by Hello

In the window of WH Smith, a poster announcing popular love poems (How do I love thee, let me count the ways etc). Trashy magazines in the background. Posted by Hello

In the window of the British Heart Foundation charity shop people can leave their own personal love messages. Only older people seemed to want to stop and read what people had written (perhaps they are less cynical than the young). My former assistant, Adrian Taylor, had to do his community service in this very shop (he was convicted of affray after fighting in a nearby nightclub). Posted by Hello

St Valentines Day has become more commercialised in recent years. I blame the marketing profession for this - they twist everything into a sales proposition.  Posted by Hello

Not sure what these are. Even as pendants they seem impractical. One of the most idealised cinematic representations of St Valentines Day was in the Peter Weir 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock. Set in Australia in 1901 it is about a party of schoolgirls from a posh academy who go for a day trip to a renowned geological outcrop (some of them never come back). It must rank as one of the best films ever made in Australia. Posted by Hello

Friday, February 11, 2005

A single-minded obsession

There was a product meeting this morning. Neil Hancock (Sales Director) chaired the meeting, which was attended by Mike Slattery (Commercial Manager), Simon Lloyd (Purchasing Manager), Rob Hanlon (Purchasing Assistant), Craig Wymer (Northern Regional Sales Manager), Tony Boxall (who has moved into a technical role), and myself.

The room was cold, and the meeting went on for nearly three hours. Horrible coffee (from a machine in the warehouse) was brought in at 10.30 and 12. It was a practical meeting, and Neil Hancock was very effective in working through the agenda and cutting off any extraneous diversions. He works well with Craig Wymer, and the two of them (seated at either end of the board table) made all the decisions, the rest of us making occasional contributions (Simon Lloyd, who is new to the company, was painfully eager to make an impression, but there was no real opportunity for him to do this).

Neil Hancock is a cautious person who never takes a step unless he is sure of his footing. He has a comprehensive knowledge of the company’s products and this matches well with Craig Wymer’s comprehensive knowledge of the company’s customers, so that together they make a formidable team. They both have a single-minded obsession with achieving sales targets that borders on the fanatical.

I know it’s not very imaginative

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Silver bullion coin showing Britannia (please ignore the tartan backdrop). I have three nieces and two nephews, and it is always a problem buying them presents (they have outgrown teddy bears). For the last three years I have been giving them gold and silver bullion coins – gold at Christmas, silver on their birthdays. I know it’s not very imaginative, but the date changes every year, and sometimes the designs change.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

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Britannia, her spear tipped in gold, standing in the cool light of a February afternoon.

The Romans first created the idea of Britannia, thinking that the map of Britain looked like an armed woman sitting on a rock, with a lion at her feet. The Royal Mint uses an image of Britannia on silver bullion (St George appears on the gold bullion).

It looks as if Britannia, leaning against a ledge, is taking a break from guarding the nation and pointing to something going on in the street outside.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A storm in a teacup

There was an enquiry into yesterday’s mailshot incident, but it was the usual cover-up. Mike Slattery was mainly to blame for the fiasco, but he is always very clever at evading any direct responsibility – he does this by speaking extremely fast and repeating things endlessly. At the end of a conversation with him you have heard him say the same thing ten or fifteen times over, and you are so exhausted by this that you haven’t the energy to point out he has just spoken a load of garbage.

Marion Conway (Human Resources) also got involved, and it was obvious she just wanted to blame everybody for everything. The cheeky staff on the Sales Desk seem to have escaped without a rebuke of any kind.

In retrospect the whole thing seems like a storm in a teacup. At the end of the day, it’s not really a problem if the mailshot goes out a day late. It’s the lies and the cover-up that make it all stressful.

Anyway it is the start of Lent and for the next six weeks I have given up drinking alcohol, buying books (which is probably my biggest addiction) and staying up after 11 o’clock on a weekday (except for Tuesday 14th February, which I know will have to be a late night).

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

What am I supposed to do?

There is an important mailshot to be done. Two of the directors went to an exhibition in the middle east and came back with a heap of sales leads that need to be followed up. All the mailshot materials were assembled, and the mailshot had to go out as soon as possible (ie immediately).

Tracey, a part-time member of staff (fairly tall, slim, bubble perm, never wears make-up), is supposed to help with the mailshots. She is supposed to help on the Sales Desk in the first part of the morning, then come to Marketing to do any mailshots we might have. Except that recently she hasn’t been doing this (not a problem so far this year, as we havn’t been doing much in the way of mailshots).

Anyway, I double-checked with her boss Mike Slattery (who is supposed to manage the staff on the Sales Desk except that most of the time he just sits in his office) and made sure that it was OK for Tracey to do the mailshot. Yesterday I formally asked her to come over to Marketing as there was an important mailshot to go out (I shouldn’t have to do this, it is part of her job to do the mailshots).

I could tell when I asked her that she wasn’t keen on helping. I showed her how the packages should go out and she worked on it for an hour or so, until her day ended (she works until 2pm), then she just left everything.

This morning she was at her place on the Sales Desk, and when I asked her to come over and finish the mailshot she told me, in an off-hand way, that she was doing the filing. I told her that Mike Slattery had agreed that the mailshot should take priority. She made no answer (except for a knowing exchange of looks with the person sitting opposite her, which warned me that a trap had been planned).

I returned to the Marketing department, not sure what I should do next. Shortly afterwards, Kevin Maglio, supervisor on the Sales Desk (overweight, belligerent, always ready to pick a fight with anyone) bustled over to Marketing and told me that Tracey was not going to do the mailshot. I said it had been agreed with Mike Slattery. Kevin told me he had just spoken with Mike Slattery and he had said Tracey didn’t have to do it (obviously Mike Slattery doesn’t want to get involved and is just agreeing with whoever shouts loudest).

What am I supposed to do when staff refuse point blank to do their job? It’s Tracey’s job to help out with the mailshots in Marketing, and if she gets away with not doing this one, it is going to be impossible to get her to do anything in the future. I am faced with the choice of making a fuss and compelling Tracey to do the job she's paid to do, or doing the work myself (my preferred option), or (what everyone else seems to do) just let everything slide and don't bother whether the mailshot goes out or not.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Close to midnight

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Marylebone, close to midnight. The air very cold. So much for my determination to be in bed by 11 o’clock each night.

Devonshire Place (leading to Wimpole Street). Notice the security camera attached to the lamp post. All of central London is watched by the police, in a real-life game of Big Brother.

Nothing much of interest in Devonshire Place apart from a very good (but very expensive) gym.

Wimpole Street is chiefly known because of The Barretts Of Wimpole Street, a 1934 film starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Sullivan (and the 1957 remake starring John Gielgud and Virginia McKenna). The film is a portrayal of the love affair between the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Hardly anyone has read The Ring And The Book these days.

Number thirty-six Wimpole Street was the home of Sir Evelyn Baring, unofficial ruler of Egypt from 1883 to 1907. A blue plaque announces this fact. It was his son (also called Sir Evelyn Baring) who was Governor of Kenya in the 1950s, during the Mau Mau uprising. Autocratic, secretive and financially astute (he knew that modern warfare is fought financially as well as militarily) he crushed the rebellion with a ferocity that seems astonishing considering the liberal attitudes of the post-war era. He was able to get away with this because of his shrewd use of propaganda, and tight control of military expenditure (spending on counter-insurgency operations never grew to a level where it alarmed the Westminster government). He fought terror with terror.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Normally this is the sort of project I would enjoy

I have been working on the company newsletter over the last couple of days. It is intended to be a monthly publication, and is a full colour production. I have been surprised at how much enthusiasm there has been in the company for this new publication (previously we had an e-mail newsletter that was very rough and ready, and no-one took seriously).

Normally this is the sort of project I would enjoy, but Marion Conway (Human Resources Director) has become involved, and the project is becoming a nightmare. She has no idea of design or production, cannot edit copy, and all her suggestions and “improvements” are delivered in a screeching manic voice that at times seems only a short step away from hysteria.

It is very depressing to work with such a person. I know at least one person in the office who is keeping a diary of every time Marion Conway is rude to her, or behaves unreasonably (I suppose the diary is intended to be used as evidence at an Employment Tribunal – a sort of court which hears cases to do with violations of United Kingdom employment law).