Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Age-discrimination in reverse

Called into a meeting with Managing Director Trevor Bush to discuss a new corporate folder (which will be used to send out letters, quotations, product specification sheets etc). Normally a project of this kind is a long, drawn-out exercise, with many different opinions about what is required and what it should look like. I went into the meeting feeling it was the first step in what would be a long journey (and one that ultimately might come to nothing, as the project became stalled and then failed from lack of agreement).

This was not the case however. The proceedings were very brisk, with decisions being made swiftly, one after another. As well as Trevor Bush, the two Regional Sales Managers (Mark Miller in the north and Craig Wymer in the south) were at the meeting, sitting side by side at the oblong table. On an adjoining desk (we were in Neil Hancock’s office) sat my assistant Antony Fraser (I had taken him into the meeting in case I later needed a second opinion on what had been agreed).

They had a visual on the table, a mock-up of what the folder might look like (produced by one of the two design agencies we use). In almost no time at all we had agreed the layout, the alterations, the contact details. There was none of the usual haggling over minutiae, or drifting off into diversions, and no-one said the scuppering words “do we really need this folder anyway?”. There was one point when Craig Wymer said he wanted the block colour on the front to be silver (“Silver!” exclaimed Antony Fraser in disgust, when we were back in the privacy of the Marketing department). I stopped this idea by pointing out that printing in silver would mean using an expensive fifth colour. The meeting finished with Trevor Bush pointing to Mark Miller and Craig Wymer, and telling me that they were the decision makers, and that only their opinion mattered.

Mark Miller and Craig Wymer were sat side by side, and I noticed that they were wearing the same shirt and tie – white with a faint cross-hatch check (Mark’s in pale pink, Craig’s in pale brown), the silk ties in pastel stripes (pink-white and brown-white). Mark Miller had heavy (expensive-looking) silver cuff-links, and had left the top button of his shirt undone. Craig Wymer was wearing a heavy (expensive-looking) Omega watch, and had turned up his shirtsleeves to half-way up his forearms. No matter how much stress they are under (and you have to concede that their jobs are stressful) they always manage to appear flawless. Looking at them, it occurred to me that within the company they probably suffered from age-discrimination in reverse – they are too young and fashion conscious to be taken seriously by some of the older managers.

And yet the amount of money they bring into the company is phenomenal.

A sort of grandfather clock to the nation

My brother was intrigued by the news that Big Ben (the bell inside the clocktower at the Houses of Parliament) was silenced for an hour on Friday, supposedly due to the hot weather (temperatures in London reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit). He said that in the Bond film Thunderball manipulation of the chimes of Big Ben represented communication between the British government and a worldwide criminal organisation threatening to explode nuclear devices in western cities. Tom Jones sang the theme song to the famous opening sequence of Thunderball, and apparently passed out in the recording studio while doing so.

Big Ben is such a familiar landmark that people don't really see it properly. It is actually quite an odd tower (in terms of bulk and silhouette) seemingly tacked onto the Palace of Westminster. Over the years it has assumed an iconic place in the popular imagination as a sort of grandfather clock to the nation.

I took this photograph years ago. It was one of the first photographs I ever took, using an SLR camera and 35mm Agfa film. Typical grey-blue London sky.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Distinctive pre-eminence

One magazine IKEA is unlikely to feature in is World of Interiors. I first came across this magazine when I was an Account Handler in a small advertising agency in the Thames Valley, working for a client who wanted to reach an AB audience ("AB" refers to socio-economic class). World Of Interiors readers tend to be female, aged in their early forties, with an average household income of £75,000 pa.

The editorial of the magazine is focussed upon internal architecture, design, furnishings. The Features List reveals a specialist programme of daunting erudition. The media pack, business-like and filled with terse statistics, implies the publication is a specialist production of very limited interest.

It is only when you handle a copy of the magazine that you realise how wonderful World of Interiors actually is. The writing is very elegant, and manages to be both high-brow and accessible, elitist and outreaching, subtle and enthusiastic. The photography is amazing, and just leafing through the magazine I find myself marvelling over the technical accomplishment of the visual images (there must be a medical name for this condition - it's almost as if I become intoxicated and experience a Stendhal's Syndrome of the printed page). But it is the layouts that give the magazine its distinctive pre-eminence. Each double page is a masterpiece. Many times when briefing a creative team on a new brochure I've opened a copy of World of Interiors and said: "I want it to look like that".

IKEA's marketing tactics have been controversial

IKEA in north London. IKEA sell a range of low-cost furniture that is popular out of all proportion to its intrinsic worth. In my opinion the furniture has almost zero worth - it is cheaply made, wobbly, and has acquired such a ubiquitous presence that many homes furnished with IKEA have an identikit appearance that is depressing to look at.

It was in the north London IKEA store, on its opening launch night, that a man was stabbed in a fight over a bargain sofa (thousands of people turned up to the midnight launch, which had been trailed by emotive anticipatory advertising that stressed the bargains that would be briefly available). It was not the first time that IKEA's marketing tactics have been controversial. In the early 1990s IKEA ran a television campaign suggesting that small companies find the budget for new office furniture by making staff redundant (it was an offensive advertisement at a time of rising unemployment).

IKEA is a horrible company selling horrible products. Why do people fall for this marketing hype? One MultiYork sofa would be worth more than a roomful of IKEA trash.

The Thick Of It

I saw The Thick Of It (political satire) again last night. It was just as funny as last week’s episode. It was a convoluted story of how a crisis develops out of imagined paranoia, and takes on a momentum of its own, so that denials and counter-denials cross each other so many times that the spin doctors become dizzy from the speed of their u-turns.

Surely senior Ministers of the Crown do not need to be specially briefed on what soap opera characters are doing from week to week? Surely that bit at least has been made up! Surely no government could be that trivial… could they?

There was a moment in all the panic when a junior member of the Minister’s team suggested killing an awkward focus group member whom they feared would spill the beans to the media. I interpreted that as a reference to Dr David Kelly, a civil servant who died in mysterious circumstances after leaking government secrets about the Iraq war (just before his death the government had thrown him to the media wolves as a diversion from incessant questions about the decision to go to war). There are multiple levels of meaning in the show that make it very hard hitting.

With shows such as The Thick Of It BBC4 is acquiring a maturity and stature that is extremely impressive considering the short time it has been broadcasting.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

All the dozens of little details (each one with its own deadline)

Things are very hectic at the moment preparing for an exhibition in Germany. Exhibitions are notorious for the large number of deadlines, all of which need to be met at the same time. Added to the stress of deadlines is the added complication of all the instructions being in German (poorly translated into English, so that you have to puzzle out what exactly they mean).

The company does exhibitions extremely well. The products are good (one in particular is a market leader), the stand format is well developed, and the sales pitch is competent without being overpowering. Several of the team going out to Germany are new to the department, so they will add to the sense of enthusiasm (good selling is basically a transfer of enthusiasm from the salesman to the customer).

Co-ordinating a successful stand at an exhibition is very like putting on a theatrical production. The set (stand) has to look good, the cast (sales team) has to be rehearsed, the audience (potential customers) has to be drawn in (I found out this morning that the PR has been left very late - at least that's one thing I'm not responsible for!). And after the show no-one (not even me) remembers all the dozens of little details (each one with its own deadline) that went into arranging it.

I especially did not care for the unhelpful woman in the Show Organiser's office who told me impatiently that all the information I wanted to know was on the show website. I told her I was looking at the website at that very moment, and the information definitely wasn't there. She made a "tsk" noise, implying she was dealing with someone particularly stupid, and clicked away at her keyboard before saying, in a loud harsh German voice:

"I was just on the website now. Unter the form one point twenny is the form one point four five."

"Well I'm looking at the website now, and under form one point twenty is form one point sixty."

German voice louder and ruder than before: "This cannot be right. I assure you the form is there."

This went on for some minutes until, feeling I was at fault, I rang off. Later I received an e-mail from Frau Schubotz telling me she had been looking at the German site, which had been updated, whereas the English-language site had not. The English-language site had now been correctly updated (no attempt at an apology).

"Bloody German bitch" I thought to myself.
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Books are synonymous with the character of Bloomsbury

Bookshop in Bloomsbury, late in the evening. I like this bookshop because it is open late in the evening and I can go in there after work. I also like the shop because it isn't too ordered, and you can browse serendipitously (like Foyles in Charing Cross Road - the chaos adds to the sense of discovery).

There are far too many books in my life. I buy books compulsively. I cannot stop buying books. Even at the rate of one book per week, it would take me twelve years to get through the cartons of books I have purchased over the last five years. As my acquisition of books becomes more uncontrollable, so the time I have available for reading seems to grow less and less. Some people manage to get by without books - my previous assistant (Adrian Taylor) never read anything over the last two years (apart from The Sun every day, and a biography of England Rugby Coach Clive Woodward he was given as a present).

There are two inflexible rules that govern my reading: I have to finish a book once I have started it, and I have to own a copy of every book I have read. I can think of only two occasions when I have broken those rules and stopped reading after about eighty pages (not just stopped reading, but felt I had to physically destroy the book in question). On both occasions the author was Brett Easton Ellis.

I like to read all sorts of books, both fiction and non-fiction. The majority of books I have chosen have been as a result of reviews in the weekend newspapers. Others I have selected spontaneously, as a result of visiting bookshops (both new and second hand). There is one person whose recommendations I trust, but otherwise I always find books praised by friends disappointing. There is a range of books I read because I feel they ought to be read (Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for instance). Because of my job the latest marketing books have to be read.

Non-fiction categories tend to be history (history writing is the highest branch of literature), biography ("reading biographies is a form of ancestor worship"), economics, travel. I have to force myself to read science books. Fiction is selected entirely on the sophistication of the writing style (I would read the Yellow Pages if it was written in the style of Kate Chopin).

On my visit to the bookshop last night I bought four books by George Orwell (Coming Up For Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Burmese Days). Previously I had read Animal Farm (at school), 1984 (I had a girlfriend called Julia at the time, and she was given a CD of the Eurythmics song "Julia" from the film soundtrack, which led to us watching the film, which led to my reading the book long after Julia and I had parted company), and Homage To Catalonia (an incomprehensible book - what is the author trying to say?).

Books are synonymous with the character of Bloomsbury (both as an abstract concept and as a place in London). In the late-night bookshop one half-expected to see Virginia Woolf perusing the biographies, Angus Wilson idling among the poets, and James Papp rifling through the remainder bins. It was a relief to leave these half-formed ghosts and go for coffee at the Tavistock Hotel. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Very interesting from an anthropomorphic point of view

At the weekend a village on the southern edge of the escarpment held a Scarecrow Festival. I was a bit dubious about going to it, thinking it might be twee, but actually it was very interesting from an anthropomorphic point of view. I felt like a scientific explorer researching a primitive tribe.

Scarecrows resembling about twenty of the villagers had been constructed and put on show in the church. Display boards of photographs and text expanded on the history of the custom. The tradition of making scarecrows goes back many centuries (Shakespeare mentions scarecrows in his play Henry VI).

Originally the main task of scaring crows was given to the young children of the village (in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure the book opens with Jude as a youngster, employed in the fields as a crow scarer, using a wooden rattle). With the onset of the industrial revolution labour became scarce, and elaborate scarecrows became popular, constructed by itinerant “crow men” who travelled from farm to farm. These crow men were supposed to have quasi-magical powers, and be able to imbue their particular scarecrows with the ability to ward off the birds of the air.

In the porch, standing on a floor of encaustic tiles, was a scarecrow representing the village Rector, with a carrot for a nose. Not sure the effigy was intended for public consumption, as just after I took this photograph (watched by a severe grey-haired woman) the scarecrow was taken away. The 1964 Walt Disney film Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow was based on a Kent legend of an 18th century local priest who by night became leader of a ruthless group of smugglers.

This scarecrow apparently reads The Times - there was a copy on the floor near "her" feet (all the scarecrows had elements related to their assumed character and personality). Basically the scarecrows were made of sacks stuffed with straw, then given human features and dressed in old clothes. A note said the flowers had been arranged by Mrs Huskisson.

You can still see traditional scarecrows in the fields, but increasingly they are being replaced by other forms of bird scarer. I have always thought of scarecrows as ephemeral items, changing every season, but some of them are relatively old, and are taken down each summer and refurbished for the following spring.

Crows are very intelligent and sociable birds, and live in large noisy clans, colonising the tops of trees. A new by-pass has opened up views of this famous old rookery (about eight miles away). Farmers try to move crows on before they can organise and set up these colonies, as the instinct of crows is to return to their established homes each evening. The old country saying on how to tell rooks from crows: "If you see a rook on its own, that's a crow. If you see a lot of crows together, them's rooks." Ravens are also part of the crow family. In the Anglo-Saxon period it was believed that the goddesses of war, the Waelcyrge (or Valkyrie in German) flew shrieking over the battlefield in the form of ravens or carrion crows. The ravens at the Tower of London are supposed to ward off foreign invasion.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Designed by William Crossland

Late on Saturday I watched Shanghai Surprise which is a bad 1980s film starring Madonna and Sean Penn. The story is about a missionary (Madonna) in pre-war China. Director is Tim Robbins. The main problem with the film was the dialogue. I knew it was bad (it only got one star in the reviews in the Radio Times). The main reason I watched it was to see the location where it was made, a sister institution to the college where I did my degree. I sat through an hour and a half of the film and they didn’t show the building once!

(Above) Shanghai Surprise was made at the above location in the southern Home Counties. The Bonnie Tyler video Total Eclipse Of The Heart (Directed by Russell Mulcahy) was also made there. The institution was founded by Thomas Holloway in the 1880s, and the building was designed by William Crossland. After the institution closed the building was empty for several years and was hired out as a film location. It has now been turned into flats. About two miles away is the college where I did my degree - also founded by Thomas Holloway and designed by William Crossland. The two buildings are the only major examples of the work of William Crossland.

(Above) my old college, also by William Crossland.

Sunday afternoon I drove across to Amersham-on-the-Hill. No sign of "Reg" - all his stuff was gone, and it looked as if he was gone for good. I tried to ask Helen Blakeman about it, but she was completely non-committal.

The television was on, and while we were waiting we watched Coronation Street (not my usual choice of entertainment - just the sound of the intro music makes me want to switch off). Recently the show has included appearances by Sir Ian McKellen, which raises the question: at what point does a soap opera become a drama? As well as established actors, Coronation Street has often imported comedians to supplement the existing cast. Norman Wisdom and (unfunny comedian) Peter Kay have appeared in the show recently. Bradley Walsh and Rupert Hill have both worked as stand-up comedians and are probably wasted in a soap opera such as Coronation Street (they would be better as Regan and Carter in a remake of The Sweeney).
Posted by Hello

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Thick Of It

Last night I watched The Thick Of It on BBC4. It is a political comedy, satirical in tone, documentary in feel, based around a government minister and his civil servants. Written by Jesse Armstrong (who used to work for a Labour MP) and directed by Armando Iannucci. Chris Langham plays the Minister, Peter Capaldi plays the advisor-bully appointed to watch the Minister and his department and enforce the party line.

I thought it was a very clever portrayal of the Westminster / Whitehall struggle for control, played out against an all-encompassing fear of the media (the media having become the country’s Official Opposition during the abdication of that role by the Tory Party). Although it was a comedy, it relied for comedic impact upon the distillation of truth, and thus had an edge of horror underlining the frantic farce. The first episode was based around the interesting concept: nothing really exists unless it has been reported in the media.

I particularly liked the hierarchy in which people had doors shut in their face.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

One of the most seditious business publications ever produced

I have begun to receive each week a free copy of Campaign magazine (recommended retail price £3).

Campaign is a magazine aimed at advertising professionals (copywriters, designers, art directors, media buyers, media planners, media researchers, account executives etc etc). It has a circulation of 15,000.

It is probably one of the most seditious business publications ever produced. It masquerades as a trade magazine, and at first sight seems to follow the usual dry trade mag format. In reality, it is funny, knowledgeable, confiding. As you might expect from a magazine produced for the advertising profession (industry? trade? cabal?) the production values are superb, the photography is amazing, and the writing has an ironic wit that probably only insiders can fully appreciate.

It is the subtlety I enjoy. I regard the magazine as seditious because, under the surface formality and serious typeface, the magazine laughs at everything. It laughs at the clients, it laughs at the ad professionals, it laughs at itself.

The world of advertising portrayed in Campaign magazine is extremely attractive. In reality, the experience of working in an advertising agency can be so searingly competitive that few escape unharmed. I worked for three years in an advertising agency in central London when I first left college, and witnessed a world of fear and loathing that would quail the heart of Hunter S Thompson.

It wasn't all bad however. The salaries were good and staff treats were lavish (advertising people are not the sort who deny themselves anything). Morale was high, working conditions were excellent, and the amount of money sloshing around sometimes made you feel giddy. But in the end I was quite glad to move over into marketing and become a "client".

(Above) Vic Naylor's in EC2. The motorbikes belong to couriers.

At the last advertising agency I worked at there was a tradition of Big Company Drinks every week – on either Thursday or Friday. At the end of the working day (five o’clock) we would all go over to Vic Naylor’s wine bar in Clerkenwell where you could drink as much as you wanted for as long as you wanted, and it would all be free. You could leave the bar at six, go see a film, and drop in again at nine and there would still be a crowd from the agency drinking, telling jokes, stabbing people in the back…

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

London Pride 1 – saxifrage umbrosa

Hardy perennial plant, the leaves are arranged in even rosettes, the small white flowers are on delicate stems. London Pride spreads very freely, and grows even in the most difficult conditions - during the Second World War it was often seen growing on bombsites (inspiring Noel Coward to write a famous wartime song). Varieties of London Pride include Melvillei, Ogilvieana, and Elliott's Variety.

London Pride 2 – award-winning beer brewed in Chiswick

Fullers have a major advertising campaign planned for the autumn, on the theme of taking pride in sport. It will included voice-over text from Elizabeth Barret-Browning's Sonnet from the Portuguese (not sure how it all fits together). Every weekend my brother walks to the local town (about four miles away), drinks a huge amount of beer, and comes back by taxi about one or two o'clock in the morning, stumbling around the house in a drunken stupor.

Black tea made from the tips of the plant

There was a report on the Today Programme this morning that tea drinking in the United Kingdom is declining. They also said that "other" teas are rising in popularity (camomile, rosehip etc). I think probably the reason tea drinking is in decline is that it doesn't really fit into a fast lifestyle. Tea from vending machines tastes horrible, so most people would prefer to select coffee (still tastes horrible, but not as nasty as machine-made tea). I guess very few workplaces these days would allow employees to make tea in the traditional way.

When I was in America there seemed to be a lot of confusion about what exactly "tea" is, and I was continuously being offered Russian teas, mentholated teas, Earl-bloody-Grey teas. Luke-warm, too much milk, tea leaves floating on the top. Because I was accepting hospitality, I didn't dare complain.

In London when people refer to "tea" they mean tea from India (or Sri Lanka or Kenya). Black tea made from the tips of the plant. And it has to be made properly.
Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On the whole things seemed to go well

I slept well and got up at 7. Down to the hotel dining room where I had a huge fried breakfast - fried eggs, fried bread, sausages, bacon, black pudding (made from congealed pigs blood, mixed with herbs and small lumps of fat). All the morning's newspapers were avaialable - I read in the Financial Times about supermarket Asda not hitting its targets for the first quarter (I wondered whether this might be a reaction to Wal-Mart buying the company as Wal-Mart has a reputation for being an unethical and predatory operator). Back in my bedroom, I packed up the few things I had brought, and spent a few minutes looking out of the window (across to the right I could see one of the towers of Glasgow University, an institution that produced Adam Smith, author of The Wealth Of Nations).

Checking out of the hotel, I walked the short distance to the company's Glasgow office. This was on the fourth floor of a block of office suites converted out of a former whisky warehouse. Through the front entrance, I went into a bright foyer, past a small cafe and shop, and into a lift up to the fourth floor. The layout of each floor had not been properly designed, the result being a maze of glass walls, Venetian blinds, and confusing corridors that led nowhere.

Eventually I found the company's Glasgow base - a big general office with an associated meeting room (where the training was to be held). Unlike the London office, which tends to be all over the place, the Glasgow office seemed disciplined, well-ordered, everyone working quietly. There were no partitions between the desks, which contributed to the sense of harmony.

The training was divided into two sessions so that while half the sales staff were in training the other half were covering the phones. The first session was from nine o'clock until eleven, with a break for coffee at ten. I had caught a cold on the journey up to Glasgow, so it was difficult for me to talk. We went over the general principles of branding and brand development, and then I began to relate it to some of the things they do in their day-to-day lives. There was a bad moment when I thought I was beginning to flounder, but on the whole things seemed to go well.

Lunchtime I went with Rosalyn Eakins to a cafe at a nearby hotel (a big international hotel, a line of Emirates air hostesses coming out of the entrance just as we went in). Rosalyn Eakins apologised for smoking, but I told her I didn't mind. In the cafe we met Managing Director Trevor Bush, who had just come back from looking over a new site for expansion. We had lunch of sandwiches and mineral water, talking about Japan, America, law and politics. Often he broke off to talk about the expansion plans, and how the new site would be the most efficient and professional incarnation of the company's corporate mission (sales, sales and ever greater sales).

It is very interesting to talk to entrepreneurs. Trevor Bush is very like Philip Pertoldi, Peter Phillips, even a little like Gary Spencer. People who make things happen, who know how to make connections, who change things just through the force of their personalities. I like to try and find out how they first got started, what first inspired them, how they kept things going when times were difficult. I suppose a lot of it relates to risk-taking - entrepreneurs are not afraid to take risks.

There's a scene in the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service when Diana Rigg praises the Master of the World (Telly Savalas). It's a sort of hymn to powerful, energetic people:

For thee the ships are drawn down to the waves,
For thee the markets throng with myriad slaves,
For thee the hammer on the anvil rings,
For thee the poet of beguilement sings.

I caught the 4 o'clock train from Glasgow back to London. From Argyll Street you can see where Glasgow Central station goes over the road (the station was designed in the 1870s by Donald A Matheson, chief architect of the Caledonian Railway). The train was half-empty, and I got into the designated "quiet" coach so that I could read, but I spent a lot of the journey sleeping. Posted by Hello

Monday, May 16, 2005

Boarded up and looked neglected

(Above) the eclectic tower. Posted by Hello

St Vincent’s church in St Vincent’s Street in Glasgow. The time was about 11 o’clock in the evening. The church was boarded up and looked neglected (although part of the tower was lighted). The church was designed by Alexander “Greek” Thompson, one of the greatest Scottish architects. He acquired the nickname “Greek” Thompson because of his fusion of ancient styles into a unique and eclectic combination. St Vincent’s church, built in 1859, combines Greek and Egyptian motifs with an overall form that is meant to evoke the Biblical Temple of Solomon. It was built for the United Presbyterian Church and is undoubtedly one of the most important buildings in Europe. Looking up in the darkness I could make out the massive bulk of the portico and the convoluted shape of the tower.

He started talking about the city and how he had lived there all his life

The journey up to Glasgow on Thursday was fairly straightforward. It took about five hours, including changing trains at York (York station is built on a curve, so that the Victorian roof fans out in a sweeping perspective of intersecting girders – it’s an impressive sight). During the journey I read newspapers and went over the presentation I am due to give tomorrow.

The station roof at York.

Crossing the border into Scotland, yellow gorse began to dominate the landscape.

Arriving (twenty minutes late!) at Glasgow Central station, even at 9.30 it was still very light. Because I was only staying one night I didn't have a great deal of luggage, and so I walked to the hotel (ten minutes away) rather than get a taxi. Walking through the streets, I was impressed at the number of new buildings that had gone up since my last visit several years ago. However, modern buildings only account for a small part of the city centre - most of the architecture is grand, heavy and Victorian, recalling the city's past as a great commercial and manufacturing centre.

My room had been booked at a large four-star hotel, seven stories high, built in a white debased neo-classical style, with a leisure club attached. The rooms had apparently been laid out according to feng shui principles. It took me about five minutes to unpack and about twenty minutes to work out how to switch on the television.

When I had told Helen Blakeman I was going to Glasgow for a few days she had suggested going to look at some of the locations of the film Trainspotting (based on the novel by Irvine Walsh and starring Ewan McGregor, the film portrays the drugs scene in Edinburgh, although most of it was filmed in Glasgow. Despite its bleak subject matter, the film is visually very impressive, and includes a number of innovative film techniques). As it was still quite light I went down to the hotel lobby and asked the concierge to get me a taxi.

A black cab arrived, and I asked the driver to take me to Jaconelli's café in Maryhill Road. The driver (aged in his late fifties, head shaved to disguise pattern-baldness, wearing a very worn denim jacket) seemed intrigued about why I wanted to go to Maryhill Road, which is well out of the city centre. I explained that the café had been a location in the film Trainspotting, and he was very interested in this. He started talking about the city and how he had lived there all his life, and what he had done before becoming a taxi driver.

"I worked as a manager of a fish-mongers for thirty-three years, right there in the city centre. But then the old man retired and his two sons wanted to do things their way, so I decided to get out. It was just a few days short of ma fiftieth birthday. I've bin driving a taxi for the last eight years." He was very mournful when telling me this, as if he was nostalgic for his days at the fish shop. In many ways he resembled a character from one of James Kelman's novels (James Kelman is a Glasgow author and won the Booker Prize with his novel How Late It Was, How Late. He writes about working-class characters down on their luck and regretting their wasted lives).

We arrived at Jaconelli's Café, and he turned the cab round so that we were parked outside. I was uncertain how I would get back to the city centre but he told me "You go ahead and take yer photos and I'll wait just here".
Posted by Hello

The café had a smart, well-kept, 1950s appearance, and seemed to glow with a sort of subdued glamour in contrast to its grimy surroundings. As well as the café (with a menu of fried food and ice cream) there was an adjoining fish and chip shop. I had to stand in the busy road to be able to get the whole of the café front into a picture. As I was taking pictures a young woman dressed in white coat and white chef's hat burst out of the door saying "No photos. Stop taking photos. You're not allowed to take photos." I explained I was standing in a public place and could take whatever photos I liked, but she just continued telling me I was not allowed to take photos, stomping back into the café and pulling the door shut behind her (it occurred to me later that the café owners were probably regretting their involvement in the film Trainspotting, and that the film's sleazy subject matter offended their Italian-Scottish sense of respectability).

"Pay no attention tae her" the taxi driver said when I got back into the cab. "Jack'o'nelly's not such a good fry-up anyway. There's an Italian fry-up on the Dumbarton Road which is much better. That's where I go when I want a fry-up."

We returned into the city centre and drove along Sauchiehall Street. Long lines of young people were queued up outside a night-club. "That's The Garage" the taxi driver said. "It's the busiest place in Glasgow".

I got out the taxi in St Vincent's Street, and gave the driver a reasonable tip. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 12, 2005

I'm looking forward to seeing Glasgow again.

(Above) Kings Cross station at night-time.

I have been asked to go up to the Glasgow office to give the staff there an update on our marketing campaigns. It means catching a train up there this afternoon, staying overnight, and getting the train back tomorrow evening. The journey takes about six hours (I'll be going on the east coast line out of Kings Cross, not the west coast line from Euston).

I am a little apprehensive about giving the presentation (actually two presentations - one in the morning and one in the afternoon). I have met nearly all the Glasgow staff individually, and they are nice people as individuals, but they might be very different when in a group. My biggest fear is that the presentation won't be interesting enough, and they'll be bored (my second biggest fear is that there will be someone there who "knows a bit about marketing" and who proceeds to argue with everything I say, tells me point blank that PR is the same as advertising etc etc).

I'm looking forward to seeing Glasgow again. It's been some years since I was last there. Glasgow is a much more interesting city than Edinburgh - more genuine, more quirky, full of real characters.

A letter arrived yesterday from Robert Leiper in New York. It was pages and pages long, and predictably was all about "CW". She has returned to the United Kingdom (it is highly possible that Robert Leiper is going to suddenly turn up in London in pursuit, expecting me to put him up). I'm glad Robert has written as it gives me an opportunity to reply and talk to him in writing about his drug problem, which I didn't have the nerve to do face-to-face (I don't really care if he takes drugs, but I do object to becoming involved in... er... all that). Whatever I say he's going to be offended ("cocaine's not a problem... everyone's doing it... you need to wake up and get real..." etc etc).
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Visual images

I spent Saturday evening at Helen Blakeman’s house (in Amersham on the Hill – a 1930s three bedroom detached, the building looks larger than it is). Her current partner, whom I shall call “Reg”, was also there (not sure how long “Reg” is going to last – Helen already seemed to be tired of the relationship and off-hand when talking to him). I arrived late afternoon and stayed to dinner, and then we all watched the Woody Allen film Annie Hall on the TCM channel.

We were joined at dinner by Kim Blacha who is Helen’s research assistant and is doing a PhD (also has to work as a nursery nurse to make ends meet). Kim Blacha is in her mid-twenties, very good figure, very good posture (always stands and sits bolt upright), makes all her own clothes (which are very restrained in colour and appearance – she may as well buy them straight from a chain store). Her face has a ruddy complexion, as if she is permanently blushing. Her hair is shoulder length and tightly curled – might be permed. She is shy in temperament, and has a very soft voice. She knows her subject (art history, film history, commercial use of visual images) extremely well, but otherwise doesn’t have a great deal to say.

In between talking, we spent the time before dinner watching music videos, mostly with the sound off so Kim could concentrate on the films, which included:

Akala’s Roll Wid Us was interesting because it had all the glossy brightness of video, but also the depth and subtlety of film – not sure how they achieved this. It is very well edited, so that the sequences have an integrity despite the fast moving storyline. The choreography is very energetic, and the images dazzling. I would like to know who the writer and director are. UPDATE: http://www.akalamusic.com/Video/rol...making_256k.wmv

Kelly Osbourne’s One Word – a film noir production in the style of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. The singer plays a seditious interloper (a double agent) in a totalitarian society. It is filmed in a black and white and comprises a series of surrealist set-pieces linked by the singer moving (marching almost) along narrow corridors and up spiral staircases. Some of the dialogue is in French. The surrealism of the piece is very effective. The director is Chris Applebaum. We watched it several times until the Woody Allen film came on, and I kept thinking the song was somehow familiar. I mentioned this to the others and Kim Blacha said: “Devenions gris – sent la pluie comme un été Anglais, entends les notes d'une chanson lointaine…”

Kelly Osbourne in One Word (photo of the video on television). Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The image captured the moment quite well

Driving home on Sunday evening I passed through showers, then sunlight, then showers again. Rainbows occasionally appeared in the distance, in various stages of apparition (the right half, then the left half, but never the complete whole). I drove along the byroads, which took longer but meant I was not caught up in traffic.

Nearing home, there is a point where the wide vale starts to rise up onto the escarpment. This is where the woods begin (although the trees thin out once you are up on the top). It was getting late in the evening, and the sun was going down, and the moment of twilight (when the sun goes over the horizon) was close.

Anyway, the last rays of the sun lit the landscape in a weird ethereal way, and I felt I was seeing the place for the first time. It made me realise how committed I was to living here, despite the cost (keeping the house going is proving to be incredibly expensive). I stopped the car and took a photograph, and the image captured the moment quite well (it has a sort of Samuel Palmer quality). Posted by Hello

Monday, May 09, 2005

VE Day

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.

The newspaper I bought yesterday (I tend to vary it each week) was the Sunday Telegraph. It carried a front page article reporting comments by the German Ambassador in London, expressing disquiet that the Second World War was still regarded as a major issue in British society. Presumably he would prefer the conflict to be relegated to the status of an historical incident – interesting, but of no relevance to modern Europe.

Are the Germans justified in seeking to reinvent themselves as “Europeans”? It is essentially a re-branding issue – they wish to jettison the unpleasant associations of the past and merge their identity into a trans-national federation that is modern, forward-looking and, at every stage, politically correct. It must be very galling to them that the events of 1933 – 1945 keep muddying the water.

(Above) Amateur theatricals.

In the United Kingdom national events marking VE Day were quite muted. In Buckinghamshire (in a market town near where I live) there were amateur theatricals, with a production at the Assembly Rooms of an episode from Dad's Army. Dad's Army was a (very) long-running television comedy series that portrayed the exploits of a Home Guard platoon at a small coastal town (my favourite episode from the TV series is when a bomb falls on the bank - the junior clerk rushes into the manager's office through a massive hole in the wall, but the manager orders him out again, telling him to knock at the door first...). Posted by Hello

(Above) These fortifications seem to be disappearing fast.

The Home Guard was made up of individuals too old or too young to be conscripted into the regular army. You can still see their concrete fortifications throughout the country, guarding bridges, crossroads, entrances to towns (these fortifications seem to be disappearing fast - not sure if there is a policy on whether they should be listed or not). Unlike Dad's Army, the real Home Guard was a professional organisation with a ruthless agenda (taking hostages, sabotaging communications, shooting collaborators). In the event of a German invasion the Home Guard would have carried on the national resistance, behind enemy lines, while British armed forces regrouped in Canada.
Posted by Hello

(Above) One of the "Canadians" was in fact an American.

As part of a local history project I have begun collecting anecdotes about the Second World War (very soon all the individuals involved will have passed away, so it's important to record as much as possible). In one local village there is a small plot containing the graves of Canadians (the Canadian forces had control of a nearby military base). One of the "Canadians" was in fact an American (Sergeant Eves) who volunteered for the Canadian Air Force in 1939 when America was still officially neutral. He died on 21st January 1942, and every two years after the war had ended his fiancée travelled over from America to visit the grave (until 1996, when the visits stopped - presumably the lady died or became too infirm).
Posted by Hello

Friday, May 06, 2005

A fit of callous anger and despair

(Above) the May Fair at night. Posted by Hello

All this week the May Fair has been held in the small town near my home. It is now just a fun fair, but originally it was one of the county’s major social and trading events. In the past fairs were held throughout England at the beginning of May, and many still survive.

In central London the area known as Mayfair, which today comprises the most expensive real estate in the country, was for centuries the site of one of the biggest May Fairs, held for fifteen days from the 1st of May. The origins of the fair have become lost in the ancient past. It was suppressed in 1764 because the authorities became concerned at the huge crowds and rowdy drunkenness in the heart of what had become the West End.

An example of anti-social behaviour at such fairs is preserved in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, set in Dorset in the early nineteenth-century. A hay trusser called Michael Henchard (aged twenty-one, down on his luck, feeling depressed) becomes drunk on furmity (an alcoholic drink made from rum and raisins) at a May Fair, and in a fit of callous anger and despair he sells his wife and child in an auction (they are bought by a passing sea captain). Hardy is supposed to have based the scene on a real incident.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

"If you’re not here for the money then you’re in the wrong company”

Sales meeting held in the Board Room. Both myself and my assistant Antony Fraser were required to attend. The meeting began at 9am and we had minimum notice – Neil Hancock just handed us copies of the agenda half an hour before the meeting was due to start.

The Board Room is a long room, newly refurbished, in an upstairs suite looking out over the car park. It is dominated by a long, wide table made of bleached wood (with a surface sheen that is pleasant to touch – it’s some sort of tactile varnish). Matching chairs with cobalt blue upholstery. Walls painted pastel blue. The windows are screened with black Venetian blinds which totally obscure any light (necessary as the room is south-facing and the glare and heat can sometimes be incredible). On the long side of the room is a large air-conditioning unit. The far end of the room (farthest from the door) is a jumble of monitor screens, white boards, flipcharts, audio-visual equipment, a table piled with training videos (“Power Networking” and “Get That Sale!” etc).

When Antony Fraser and myself entered the room half the seats were already taken, and it was clear that it was going to be a big meeting. We took our seats half-way along the table (a mistake as we were directly below the air conditioning, which was pumping out cold air). Gradually the room filled up, and extra chairs had to be brought in. At one end of the table was Trevor Bush, Managing Director and owner of the company. At the other end (but to one side) was Neil Hancock, Sales Director.

The Regional and Area Sales Managers were mostly seated along the window side of the room. Aged in their twenties and early thirties, they included Adam Russell, his first sales management meeting since joining the Sales Team (he kept quiet the whole time except for when Trevor Bush directly addressed him). The entire Sales Team (Neil Hancock included) had turned up in casual clothes – not their usual power-label gear, but expensive-looking nonetheless. I wondered what they were up to, and whether they were going to pull one of their usual stunts.

The rest of us (Technical Managers, Marketing, Commercial Managers, Sales Desk Managers etc), in white shirts and silk ties, sat on the opposite side of the table in what was unintentionally a confrontational set-up (or perhaps it wasn’t unintentional – the Sales Team routinely hunt as a pack). The only woman at the meeting was Rosalyn Eakins who manages the Glasgow office (blonde, Glaswegian accent, always well dressed).

Trevor Bush chaired the meeting and began by referring to the sales figures for April. These had been very poor (respectable by industry standards, and overall they were up on last year, but by the company’s standards they were quite feeble). Trevor Bush has a habit, when he is talking to a meeting, of getting up and walking about. He did so on this occasion, his voice becoming ever more emphatic as he talked, the Sales Team visibly shrinking down as he passed behind them.

“We’ve always grown our business by between fifteen and twenty per cent” Trevor Bush told the meeting. “In good times and bad. Even in recessions we’ve kept growing. Unlike other companies, we’ve never cut back when times are hard – we just go out and get the business. If the market’s not growing then we TAKE our sales from other companies” (heavy emphasis upon the word “take”). “That’s the way we’ve always done things and we’re not going to change now. A tough market means tough decisions, but we are NOT going to cut overheads just because the sales aren’t coming in. Above all, each of us has got to increase margins. Let no-one be under any illusions, what matters is not turnover but how much money an account brings in. As well as the carrot we’ll start using the stick. If you’re not here for the money then you’re in the wrong company.” Trevor Bush finished his speech and walked back to his seat. The Sales Team nodded obediently, as if savouring his words.

There then followed a session where Trevor Bush went round the room asking each person in turn what ideas they had to improve sales. This produced some surprisingly good ideas (for instance, specific short catalogues for groups of products). It also provoked a discussion on the role of media advertising, initiated by Frank Jarvis (Area Sales Manager for South Wales, nice temperament, but who annoyingly claims to “know a bit about marketing”). I knew that an increase in our advertising spend was a non-starter, and I eventually killed the proposal off by telling the meeting how expensive it would be. Scott Ryan (Area Sales Manager for the northern home counties) then confused everybody by intervening (several times!) into a discussion about the PR programme and telling us that PR was in fact advertising (advertising is paid-for publicity, PR is “free” publicity – although it obviously costs money to do PR properly).

The rest of the day comprised a sequence of agenda items, including several new projects for Marketing to carry out. During one of the necessary breaks I was standing in a washroom drying my hands when Craig Wymer (Southern Regional Sales Manager, aged late twenties, wearing a cream-coloured polo shirt that looked like cashmere) stood at the sink next to me and said:

“How are you Andrew? How’s things going? You’re getting much more done now that Neil isn’t able to veto things”.

This statement immediately made me suspicious – firstly because Craig Wymer has been very critical of Marketing in the past (even though his sales area almost died last year and only a massive direct mail campaign got him on his feet again). Secondly, because the words he used were exactly the same as Mike Slattery had said to me last week (Mike Slattery is Commercial Manager, very opinionated, he has been rather floundering since his brother left the company four months ago).

Feeling a little paranoid, I began to wonder if there was a whispering campaign targeted against Neil Hancock, and that Mike and Craig were trying to make it look as if I was behind it. But perhaps I’m just imagining things. Even so, I was careful not to agree with Craig.

The meeting finally finished at 5.45.

(Above) This is where I sat - a place at the top table is always a coveted asset (there is a proposal that the British and French permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council should be merged into one "European" seat - I find myself wondering what The Sun's Page Three Girl would have to say about that in her pithy down-to-earth voice-bubble).
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Praise for a Chelsea player is unusual

(Above) These cakes are known as Chelsea buns. They are made from a long strip of sticky, sweet, spicy dough, tightly coiled (with currents trapped between the layers) and topped with coarse white sugar. They were supposedly invented at a shop in Grosvenor Row in Chelsea about two hundred years ago.

Chelsea football team, have already won the FA Premier League, but lost to Liverpool in last night's Champions League semi-final. Gary Spencer watched the match on television and was full of praise for the Chelsea captain John Terry.

"It's not like he does any work or anything. He does it all by instinct. It's not like Frank Lampard or Joe Cole, where you can see them working, and you can see what they're trying to achieve and how they're getting things done. They're working all the time, whereas he just seems to go by instinct. He appears from nowhere and just creates winning situations out of nothing. It's like he instinctively knows what to do without thinking about it."

Gary Spencer is a Spurs supporter, so praise for a Chelsea player is unusual.
Posted by Hello

Election update - “It’s all snouts in the trough…”

(Above) "They're all lying bastards... It's all to do with keeping their snouts in the trough. That's what it boils down to in the end. Snouts in the trough."

The penultimate day before the general election. All the national polls predict a Labour win. In the marginal constituencies (where the election will be won or lost), the position is more complicated - Labour will probably still win, but with a much reduced majority.

The prospect of a reduced majority seems to be causing the Labour leadership serious concern. Economists predict a rocky future in the months ahead whoever gets into Number 10 Downing Street. The combination of economic stress (rising taxes, enforced reductions in public expenditure, rising interest rates) added to a reduced majority in the House of Commons (ambushes by the Opposition parties, rebellions by their own disaffected backbenchers, the inevitable haemorrhaging of support due to MPs dying, or resigning due to sex scandals) means that a third Labour term is likely to be a messy period of attrition, with the possibility of the New Labour Project beginning to unravel.

The Labour weak spot seems to be the character of the Prime Minister - the mud thrown by the Opposition parties appears to be sticking. He gave an interview on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning, sounding hurt that anyone should call him a liar (long pauses before he spoke, little trembles in his voice, breaking sentences at mid-point and starting again so that the impression of sudden candour was created - it was a very polished performance). To bolster the Prime Minister's credibility, various "Old Labour" heavyweights such as Chancellor Gordon Brown, and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (both "heavies" in more ways than one) have been appearing at Tony Blair's side, saying what an honest man of integrity he is, and how he should be trusted with a third term in government.

"They're all lying bastards" said Gary Spencer (who intends to vote Conservative). "Blair and Brown hate each other. They both hate Prescott. This buddy-buddy act is all a big lie - they loathe each other in real life. It's all snouts in the trough with that crowd. They're suddenly worried they're going to lose their flashy cars and official residences and their high-profile look-at-me lifestyles. It's all to do with keeping their snouts in the trough. That's what it boils down to in the end. Snouts in the trough."

This post so far has been very anti-Labour. In the interests of party political balance, I want to point out that Conservative Party also has its share of liars and gombeen men (an Irish phrase which means social or political parasites who contribute nothing of intrinsic value). Examples: Michael Portillo (easily the creepiest man in British politics), Chris Patten (an archetypal placeman of very limited accomplishments), Steve Norris (tabloid headline: "Minister's three-in-a-bed sex romp").

Can't think of any worthless Liberal Democrats, but I'm sure they have them - they're just not important enough to get noticed.

My own view is that if you believe the Prime Minister lied over Iraq (and there is a difference between lies of commission and lies of omission) then you must vote his party out of office. And if the next government starts telling lies? Vote them out as well.
Posted by Hello