Sunday, August 28, 2005

The day was quite a reunion

Sunday, the Christening of Annabel, daughter of Sandee and Steve Harper. I had known Sandee and Steve at university (they were one of those couples who were inseparable) but hadn’t really kept in touch, so I was surprised when they asked me to be one of the god-parents. Helen B was also a god-parent, as were two others I knew - all in all the day was quite a reunion.

The service was in the afternoon. I was late getting there due to a hold-up at Watford, so I went straight to the church (gothic, over-restored by the Victorians, some nice stained glass). Three children were being Christened at the service - the Harper party filled the entire left side of the church so that the other two families were crammed into the right.

I arrived with about ten minutes to spare, everyone having taken their seats (immediate Harper family in the front pew, four god-parents in the next pew, friends and distant relations ranged in rows behind). The other two families, on the right hand side of the church were each very distinct. One family was obviously quite low on the social scale (I mean that as an observation - I’m not being judgemental) and comprised mostly people in their twenties, the men wearing more jewellery than the women (big gold rings, ear-rings, gold chains round their necks). The other family was older, and seemed over-dressed, the men wearing bow-ties and the women wearing hats. Sandee Harper was directly in front of me, holding her daughter Annabel (first time I had actually seen her!). The child was very well-behaved, looking out of her Christening robe with big bewildered eyes.

The vicar was quite young, and had a beard and glasses. The Curate was female. The ceremony was brief, and no hymns were sung (which was a relief - Church of England Christenings seem to favour banal 1960s hippy-style choruses). The font was at the back of the church so the immediate families and the godparents had to walk the length of the central aisle to get there, everyone else standing and turning round to watch. Prayers were said (we read these off A4 cards), a big pearl-encrusted spoon was used to perform the actual baptism, candles were handed out. The over-dressed family took photographs throughout, including Annabel’s baptism. Sandee Harper handed Annabel to Helen B to hold, and Helen carried the child back to the front seats, smiling and inclining her head several times in acknowledgment of various people she knew in the congregation (this way of slowly processing and slightly bowing put me in mind of an ancient news-film of the German-born Tsarina of Russia condescending to the Boyer classes). The Curate then stood on the altar step and talked about the ceremony in an informal and conversational way. Shortly afterwards the ceremony finished.

Everyone stood around in a rather pointless crush outside the West door for about twenty minutes, and then we went back to the Harper house (Steve’s parent’s house - white, detached, suburban). Steve’s sister, who hadn’t gone to the ceremony (possibly she was organising the catering, possibly she was an extreme atheist) welcomed everyone at the front door, her finger marking a place in a paperback copy of White Teeth she was carrying (she never seemed to read this book, but carried it everywhere, as if it was some kind of accessory). After the cool of the church the late-afternoon heat was oppressive, and everyone took their jackets off. To drink we were given chilled carbonated French white wine mixed with cassis. Lots of children were present and circled round the lawn in a noisy rush. In the Sitting Room I met an old friend I hadn’t seen since 1997, and basically continued the conversation we left off eight years ago. His two young children came up to ask if they could go in the swimming pool. In a corner of the Sitting Room a television noiselessly showed the Test match against Australia. A Coldplay CD was playing on a music system, the sound bleak but melodic.

Later I talked to Helen B. We were both drinking pink gins. “You are god-mother to my god-daughter” I told her, “so we are related at last.”

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Using me as some kind of alibi

Advertising agency The Bleeding Heart Partnership got its name because it was founded in offices at Bleeding Heart Yard (before moving to its present location). Bleeding Heart Yard was mentioned by Charles Dickens in his novel Little Dorrit. A small, claustrophobic, cobbled court.

Wednesday. I got to work as usual, and opened my post (dealing with the pile very effectively by tipping most of it into the rubbish bin). I have been trying to organise my desk recently by only having one project open in front of me at a time - in practice this system is impossible to follow owing to the number of times I am telephoned or visited by one of the department heads wanting to check progress on their own particular assignment (the vanity of the heads of department, HODs for short, is incredible).

As an alternative to the one-thing-on-the-desk-at-a-time discipline, I decided to commandeer an unused table, put it adjacent to my desk, and lay everything out in sequential order. This at least had the advantage of enabling me to find a project file immediately, without having to ask one of the HODs to wait while I sorted through stacks and stacks of paper. While I was doing this Dave Sawyer, one of the Operations Supervisors (former driver promoted to supervisor, aged about thirty, short stature, fair hair, very pale blue eyes, way of wrinkling up his forehead whenever he is asked a question and has to think about the answer) came up to me and began talking. He is exaggeratedly polite to managerial staff, and has cultivated a soft-accented respectful voice for this purpose (in contrast to the aggressive language, punctuated with obscenities, that he uses when commanding the operations crews). Although he is a father of two, and often drives the company’s road-train (a lorry of huge proportions) on the route up to Scotland, his short height, and his cheeky demeanour around the offices, give him the appearance of a young boy. This morning he went on and on about his hobby, which is presenting a show on hospital radio (something he takes immensely seriously) before finally coming to the point and asking whether I would add the hospital radio station to the company’s sponsorship programme (I told him I couldn’t just spend money as I liked, and he’d have to get the Managing Director’s approval before I could add the hospital to the company’s list of nominated charities).

After Dave Sawyer had gone I realised it was nearly eleven and I hadn’t yet done anything useful. I began to look at the list of deadlines and think about what was most urgent. As I was doing this I heard the door at the far side of the general office crash open and Mitch Holmes walking across the floor (his heavy step unmistakeable, his Yorkshire voice booming out greetings to people as he passed). He appeared round the partition to my corner and said: “Fancy a trip out?” I bundled up all the papers on my desk and threw them any-old-how into a drawer. Ten minutes later I was in Mitch Holmes’s car on the way into central London.

As we drove we talked about Norfolk (a county we both know well - he has a tiny cottage near Kings Lynn which he uses at weekends). He recommended the Hare Arms at Stow Bardolph as being one of the best restaurants in the east of England. We parked near the Barbican and walked down to Charterhouse Street and into the company’s advertising agency, the Bleeding Heart Partnership (so called because the agency started life in Bleeding Heart Yard).

Sitting in Reception while we waited for Jon Theobald (agency Partner and Creative Director), we could see onto the general floor - I was surprised at the large numbers of people flitting backwards and forwards, every face seeming to have a look of intense concentration. A man who appeared to know who we were came up and introduced himself saying: “I’m Chris Raphael - if there’s anything you need just ask” (Chris Raphael was about twenty-five, rugby-player’s build, firm handshake that almost crushed my knuckle bones - Mitch Holmes also experienced this crushing handshake and quietly said “You can fuck off” as Chris Raphael walked away). After we had waited for about ten minutes a very beautiful young women appeared (slim build, almond eyes, long light-brown hair) and told us in an Australian accent that Jon Theobald had been delayed and would be with us shortly.

Eventually Jon Theobald arrived, genial and avuncular, looking genuinely pleased to see us. He gave us a quick tour of the agency - the upper floor (where we had been waiting) dealt solely with PR accounts, the atmosphere one of frenzied disorder, the staff moving around with a kind of manic despair. Downstairs was the advertising agency, quieter and more ordered. We talked for quite a while with the head of a section that worked solely on producing annual reports for City institutions.

After the tour we went outside, and Jon Theobald led the way to Davy’s Bar - downstairs to a subterranean bar area, sawdust on the floor, and into a private dining room (no bigger than a large cupboard, almost entirely filled by the dining table, framed prints on the walls). Our lunch lasted about three hours and was very carnivorous - sausages and lamb chops to start, followed by large steaks. Jon Theobald ordered a variety of red wines, which were excellent, and refilled our glasses continuously so that talk became very unguarded and Mitch Holmes began to agree to all sorts of advertising proposals (Mitch Holmes becoming red-faced with the effects of the drink, laughing in an explosive sort of way, often for no real reason). In between the talk about advertising we also discussed the Tory leadership contest, Jon Theobald praising Ken Clark (“The guy’s got his own radio show talking about jazz every week - how media savvy can you get!”). Mitch Holmes also expressed support for Ken Clark. I said nothing.

When the coffee arrived Mitch Holmes got up abruptly and said he had to go, asking if I could get back alright by train (not a problem, although it could have been). He disappeared behind the frosted glass of the dining room door, leaving me to have coffee with Jon Theobald and discuss the situation in Iraq. Not for the first time I felt Mitch Holmes was using me as some kind of alibi.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mrs Blanchard and her daughter

Sunday afternoon. After lunch (roast lamb, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots) I went across to Mrs Blanchard’s house for tea (she asked me over when we met at Mrs Swarichevski’s dinner party a couple of weeks back). I was expecting a proper tea (cakes, scones, sandwiches) but Mrs Blanchard only offered me a cup of tea, poured out with great ceremony in her sitting room, French windows open to the garden.

Mrs Blanchard was a friend of my grandmother, and after her death befriended my mother (who never really valued the friendship, despite a mutual interest in pelagoniums - I think she felt visiting Mrs Blanchard was an ordeal). Mrs Blanchard is someone who always seems to have been old. She must be in her late eighties since she was an adult during the Second World War. This afternoon she had on a dark purple-blue dress with a pattern of big silver-grey roses, flat shoes, and despite the warm sunshine had a blanket round her shoulders like a shawl. She has a daughter, Maud, who is an old lady herself - grey hair combed with a parting, skirt in Black Watch tartan (wide pleats), white blouse fastened at the neck with a dull gold broach. Maud has been ill all her life (epilepsy I think) and has always lived with her mother - out of the two she seems to be the dependent one, and hardly spoke during the time I was there.

No-one can remember Mr Blanchard, who apparently worked in the City and died in the 1960s. As Mrs Blanchard and her daughter have gradually lost mobility they have come to rely on their neighbours, Maurice and Doreen, who live in a small 1930s bungalow beyond a screen of trees. Despite being retired themselves, Maurice and Doreen are fairly active and have a car - they do Mrs Blanchard’s shopping and cope with any crises (such as when a rat appeared on the lawn eating the bread Maud had put out for the birds).

Mrs Blanchard and her daughter live in a big square house on the edge of the escarpment. The house is secluded from the road by a high brick wall, and further protected by a high hedge trimmed with grotesque topiary. The house is nineteenth-century, the architectural style ugly and uncompromising - as if all the architect wanted to do was to emphasise how much money had gone into the construction.

Inside you go into a big hall with a very fine staircase - shallow steps and inlaid banisters. There is a sense of hauteur about the interiors, despite most of the rooms being dark and slightly smelling of damp. Mrs Blanchard has a huge collection of china (Meissen, Rockingham, Sevres) mostly figures and odd bits of dinner services. In her sitting room and dining room she has two stunning chandeliers originally made for the local assembly rooms - they are made of opaque eighteenth-century glass and hang from the ceilings on chains wrapped in blue silk. The only pictures on display were family portraits - oil paintings on the walls, black and white photographs in silver frames among all the china. All the furniture was covered with chintz.

We had our tea and then went out into the garden, Mrs Blanchard rising from her chair with a great act of will, defying her arthritis (there was a walking stick by her chair, but presumably pride prevented her from using it). Unlike most gardens, which tend to be in decline when August arrives, Mrs Blanchard’s garden looks its best in late summer. Lots of roses still out, cream coloured gladioli, pink and white dahlias; hibiscus, oleander, and myrtle (in big pots); nasturtiums, rows and rows of nicotianas, drifts of night scented stock inbetween the pale yellow African marigolds and swaying clumps of agapanthus.

As we walked around the lawn (Mrs Blanchard regretting the clover) we talked about a whole range of subjects, Mrs Blanchard’s anecdotes usually ending with a reference to one of her contemporaries who had since died. “Old people carry on quite well until they fall” she said philosophically. “Once they fall they tend to go down hill very quickly” (this she said without irony, swaying on her elderly arthritic legs, her daughter looking on silent and concerned) .

Saturday, August 20, 2005

He remarked in his loud Yorkshire voice: “Business bimbos! They always hold things up and get in the way”

Last Wednesday. A presentation on advertising at the Grand Station Hotel (Victorian edifice, looming sepulchre in silhouette, white stone with the upper floors in grimy yellow stock brick). Mitch Holmes (Sales Director) was going to it, and suggested at the last moment (the evening before) that I went along as well.

It was a much larger event than I expected - about two hundred and fifty marketing people were milling around the ground floor of the hotel and filling up the hotel’s ballroom where the presentation was to take place. As soon as I arrived I was engulfed by the crowd of people and only after some minutes managed to extricate myself and get to the far side of the room where cups of coffee were being served. Shortly afterwards Mitch Holmes came up and we went through to take up our seats in the ballroom (a large room, but even so it was packed, with many people standing at the sides and back).

The presentation was very lively and a succession of speakers from advertising agencies, magazines and radio stations talked about award-winning advertising campaigns (using projected images and sound clips) and told us mainstream above-the-line advertising was still the best way to build brand awareness. Mitch Holmes (sitting on my right) was very impressed with this message and told me “A, B, C1 consumers - that’s where we should be positioning ourselves.” The man on my left (freelance designer, aged in his twenties, Byronesque in appearance), whom I had introduced myself to as we sat down, also seemed very affected with the show, telling me: “I won’t be able to sleep tonight from thinking about all this!”

Half-way through there was a break for coffee. The queues were very long, and as we eventually drew near to where the beverages were being served, progress was halted for some time by about eight or ten young business women, all immaculately dressed in black (one wearing a red jacket), all seeming to know one another. Their sociability, and their dithering around the cups and saucers, exasperated Mitch Holmes, and he remarked in his loud Yorkshire voice: “Business bimbos! They always hold things up and get in the way.”

The group of business women were impervious to this rudeness (although they must have heard) and took their time handing each other teaspoons and pouring milk into each other’s cups before eventually moving to one side. Standing in the line I was able to look at them closely without appearing to stare - they were so well-dressed, and their make-up was applied so perfectly that they appeared oddly inhuman. I was reminded of that horror sci-fi film where the mad scientist is obsessed with plastic flesh and invents an army of gorgeous androids to take over the world…

The seminar went on all the morning and finished just after one. Afterwards Mitch Holmes told me to take the afternoon off and I would still get paid for the whole day - presumably he was taking the afternoon off himself and didn’t want me to go back to the office. Wandering about, I went into a nearby museum where there was a display of objects made by prisoners of war - the intricate carvings implying long weary years of wasted time.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The most machiavellian person I have ever come across

Temporary work. Recently I have been doing a lot of media buying. It involves researching target publications in BRAD (lists all newspapers and magazines published in the United Kingdom) and ringing them all up to request a media pack (then ringing them back a few days later to ask where the packs are). I then work out the cost per thou (cost per thousand circulation - never go by the readership figures, which are always inflated). Then rank the publications in order of effectiveness according to the target audience you want to reach. Then Mitch Holmes (or whoever) totally ignores all this hard work and chooses the publications according to his “gut instinct”.

Jon Theobald, at the advertising agency we use, warned me that Mitch Homes could be erratic over his choice of publications. “Spread them all in front of him” he advised me, “newspapers as well as magazines. He always goes for the glossiest most colourful magazines, so make sure that anything glitzy is already listed on the schedule. That way you won’t get things hacked about too much. Anything you really want to advertise in keep back until the end and tell him it’s too expensive and he probably can’t afford it. He always swallows the bait and insists it goes on the schedule.”

Jon also advised me how to negotiate with the media sales reps: “They’re all sharks so you have to be careful. It’s no use me handling it straight off as they always go behind my back and ring the client up direct. So you ring them up first, act naïve, tell them what you are prepared to pay and don’t haggle. If they try to insists on rate card just laugh at them and put the phone down. Then when you’ve got the initial prices we’ll wade in at this end and play one mag off against another. We’ll get at least thirty per cent off plus our agency commission - which as you know we refund five per cent back to your company.”

Jon is easily the most machiavellian person I have ever come across.

Petrified with fear

Yesterday in Marks & Spencer I saw two girls stopped for shop-lifting. I had actually noticed them earlier in a corner of the store - I noticed them because they were acting so suspiciously (huddled in a corner, giggling, obviously concealing something). I went to the back of the store (the food section) and when I came back through the clothes section about ten minutes later the girls were being detained at the entrance by a security guard and several members of staff.

They appeared to be aged about fifteen (although they could have been younger), dressed in lots of pink, their faces looking petrified with fear.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Images of frogs

Frog 1 - jokey cartoon ceramic.

Frog 2 - more artistic representation (with appropriate price tag).

Frog 3 - sculpture of a frog in the British Museum. The caption reads: andesite porphyry (a sort of purple marble) late Predynastic - early First Dynasty (about 3,100 BC). In ancient Egypt the frog was worshipped as a sacred creature (in modern Britain the frog is worshipped as a popular ringtone, the Crazy Frog tune penetrating the national consciousness, achieving chart success and generating hostile letters to The Times and The Daily Telegraph).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A complex web of trip wires

Temporary work. Most of today I worked on the launch of a new business-to-business service. It includes booking a stand at a facilities exhibition, buying promotional gifts to attract some attention, carrying out a mailshot of potential customers. The planning is quite complicated - it relies on everything coming together at once. Plus the budget (£20k) is not all that big when you consider we are launching a new service. I am tempted to go back to Mitch Holmes (Sales Director) and say it can’t be done on this budget (much better than getting half-way through and finding the money has run out).

In the afternoon I had a meeting with a sales rep from Yellow Pages (the company advertises in over twenty different directories, over several classifications, so we are an important client to Yellow Pages). Because I don’t have an office of my own (I’m only a temp) I took him up to the Board Room on the top floor (tinted glass walls one side looking out onto the PAs, a small window the other side that gives a sweeping view inside the main warehouse). The Yellow Pages rep was very amiable but incompetent (he arrived late, had the bookings wrong on his schedule, failed to total the costs accurately despite several attempts using a calculator).

Back to my desk, and because I am a temp the other people on the floor (Accounts, Customer Complaints, half of IT) gossip away as if I am not there. Some of the things they say are quite nasty (about Sarah Linton for instance). I get the impression that currents and cross-currents run through the company like a complex web of trip wires.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Having a temp query his work must have been very galling

Temporary work. It is very difficult to get up in the morning when you know that you don’t really have to. This morning I half-wanted to take the day off and go back to sleep, but I forced myself to get up and go to work.

Most of the morning taken up visiting the photographer the company uses. Because of the nature of the products (very lifestyle-related) the company needs a steady supply of new and interesting consumer-orientated photographs. These are taken by a photographic company called Glencoe based in a small shop in a little parade of shops about half a mile from the company.

I had met the photographer last week - he was aged in his fifties, ex-forces, quite fat, grey hair (with a bald patch), grey beard, very condescending attitude. He had brought up some photographs and I had refused them, saying they were not good enough (they really were very poor). He had then gone over my head and complained to Mitch Holmes (Sales Director) that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I suppose having a temp query his work must have been very galling. To my surprise Mitch Holmes backed me up, and told Glencoe to do the photography again. So this morning I went to the Glenco shop to look at the redone photography.

The shop had a very depressing atmosphere. In the windows were displays of wedding photographs (mainstay of the Glencoe business) with an occasional portrait (stiff and unrealistic). A bell rang as I opened the door. I waited in the empty shop looking at stationary designs (a Glencoe sideline - business cards, headed notepaper, coloured envelopes), conscious of shuffling in the backroom beyond the counter. Eventually the photographer appeared, greeted me fairly politely, disappeared into the back office again, then reappeared with the photographs. These were much better than last week’s effort. I asked if they were available digitally, but he still does everything on film. Leaving the shop, I got the impression that it was a business that was failing. No-one had come into the place all the time I had been there.

I went back to the company and at my desk in the corner looked at the photographs, planning how they could be used (some of them will be needed in literature, so they will have to be converted to a digital format).

Sarah Linton came over and flopped down into the chair on the other side of my desk. She had just come out of a sales team briefing meeting.

“How did it go?” I asked her.

“There were lots of put-downs aimed at me” she said, not appearing to be bothered by this hostility from her colleagues (as she is rumoured to be having an affair with Mitch Holmes I guess she is untouchable).

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

I’m only a temp you know, I could be gone by the end of the week

Temporary work. Temp work should be stress-free - I should be able to come in to the office, take the work handed to me, carry it out to the best of my abilities, and then hand it back at the end of the day. I shouldn’t have to worry about the rate at which projects are being started, and the deadlines that are beginning to space out weeks into the future. Whenever I’m given a new task to get underway I feel like saying: I’m only a temp you know, I could be gone by the end of the week. I’m also starting to sign off invoices, and put print work out to tender. I’ve even initiated a project-by-project job-bag system, using a three-drawer filing cabinet given to me by Tony Plumber (Management Accountant - sometimes he’s in a good mood and helps me out, other times he just ignores me).

Most of the work comes to me from Mitch Holmes, the company’s Sales Director (sorry, Sales and Marketing Director). Mitch Holmes is a giant of a man (well over six foot tall), aged in his fifties, grey hair and beard. He has a very heavy step and I can hear him walking across the office in my direction long before he actually comes into view (the only time he comes over to my side of the building is when he is coming to see me with yet another marketing task).

This afternoon I could hear his step coming towards me - boom, boom, boom. So forceful was the impact of his stride that the floor shook noticeably, and one of the succulent pot plants (with which the offices are decorated) fell over onto its side and rolled off a filing cabinet onto the floor, spilling earth all over the carpet. The women in Accounts started laughing, and one of them said, in a suggestive voice, “Oooh, you can make the earth move!” Mitch Holmes responded in his gruff Yorkshire voice: “I can make the earth move, but only for plants.” The women in Accounts tittered. Mitch Holmes continued his walk over to my desk where he gave me a heap of sponsorship proposals and asked me to recommend which ones we should agree to.

Sarah Linton is used to being the centre of attention


elizabeth bowen

(Above): St John's Lane leading into Charterhouse Street with the central arch of Smithfield Market.

Temporary work. I went to the company at 9 o’clock as usual, but Mitch Holmes called me in to his office and asked me to go up to London to take his place at a meeting with the advertising agency the company uses. So then it was a rush to drive to the nearest station, wait for a train and travel up to Liverpool Street.

From Liverpool Street I got a taxi to Farringdon and eventually found the advertising agency, which was near Smithfield Market (a market for meat wholesalers - huge 1867 Victorian edifice in red brick and Portland stone, smell of blood in the air, stain of blood on the cobbles). After the bustle and noise of the streets the agency was very quiet. Actually it was two agencies (one owner) - upstairs was advertising, downstairs was a PR consultancy.

I was shown into the big featureless Board Room and given some coffee. Shortly afterwards Sarah Linton arrived - slim, in her late twenties, curly dark hair, very animated in the way she talks (uses her whole face to express herself). She is one of the company’s sales team, and despite her lack of experience has already been made Mitch Holmes’ assistant (making her unpopular with the rest of the sales staff).

As we drank the coffee Sarah Linton said that she had asked for me to be included in the meeting as she knew so little about advertising. Then we were joined by Jon Theobald, Creative Director of the agency (aged in his fifties, short, balding, rotund build, very intelligent eyes, mischievous way of talking). Into another taxi and across the Thames to Kings Reach Tower in Stamford Street (a tall office block where many magazines have their headquarters - the taxi driver looked at Sarah Linton and said: “As soon as you mentioned Stamford Street I knew you wanted IPC luv. You have the IPC look”).

The exterior of Kings Reach Tower is utilitarian 1960s brutalism, the interior twenty-first century office luxury. We went up in the lift to somewhere near the top of the tower and into the offices of a lifestyle magazine. We met the magazine's sales reps and in a small room (spectacular views across London) had a presentation on the advertising campaign to date and ways in which it can be developed (inserts, “special features”, sponsorship of various sections of the magazine). After the presentation the magazine reps took us to lunch in the nearby OXO Tower (red sofas in the shape of Mae West’s lips). We were shown to a table in the centre of the restaurant where I ordered salmon followed by chicken cooked in olive oil, followed by a sort of cherry pie. Jon Theobald ordered the wine. The meal was excessively long, and went on all afternoon.

As we left the restaurant Sarah Linton started complaining “I did not like our waiter. I did not like his attitude” (I hadn’t noticed anything wrong - but Sarah Linton is used to being the centre of attention and possibly he had inadvertently ignored her in some way).

Sunday, August 07, 2005

As an organisation they seem to get things right

Sunday morning - I drove into the town to get the Sunday newspaper.

I like the Salvation Army building - simple white façade, symmetrical design, clearly marked logos. In marketing terms the Salvation Army has to be admired. Their personnel wear distinctive uniforms, their brass bands playing in town centres are immediately recognisable, their association with helping the homeless (practical help, unlike the government's useless initiatives) is widely acknowledged.

As an organisation they seem to get things right (even their direct mail has a down-to-earth honesty that is lacking in the glossy blackmail of other charities).

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Streams of black smoke and grey steam

With everything else that needs doing on a Saturday I really didn’t have time to go out in the afternoon. But my brother wanted to go to a steam raising, so after lunch (bread rolls, ham, cheese, current buns, cups of tea) we drove about ten miles to a remote field (several acres in extent, enclosed by hawthorn hedges that had been left to become high and unkempt). About a hundred cars were parked on the rough meadow. We walked over to where thirty or so traction engines were arranged, owners, enthusiasts and admirers milling round them. There was a strong smell of soot, with streams of black smoke and grey steam propelled upwards into the sky and carried off in the brisk cool wind. The noise of trundling wheels and hissing steam was so loud we could hardly talk to each other.

The elemental nature of the fire and steam made the machines seem almost alive. Each of the engines was soundly constructed, appearing unmarked by the passage of time. If oil ever does run out, I thought, here is a technology waiting to reassert itself.

(Above): Traction engines are steam engines that move. They were originally designed to pull loads along ordinary roads (and should properly be called road locomotives). They were also widely used in agriculture.

(Above): Traction engines were all built by hand, and represent engineering at its best. When a traction engine moves along a metalled road it makes a loud clattering noise that can be heard long before the machine actually appears. Lots of them have names (similar to battleships: Dreadnought, Prince of Wales, Carlisle).

Friday, August 05, 2005

The city comprises two parts

One of the advantages of temp work (there aren’t many) is that you can have a day off whenever you want. Gary Spencer suggested I met him today at a city where he was meeting a client. It meant a long drive along mostly B-roads, arriving about five o’clock. The city is very picturesque, and ought to be better known (in reality hardly any tourists make the effort to go there - transport is difficult, and the weather uncertain). The city comprises two parts: the upper city built on the summit of a long-dormant volcano and topped by an incredible cathedral, and the lower city spread out in rings of interlocking Victorian terrace streets. I drove up the side of the volcano and managed to find a parking space right on the top.

Communicating by mobile phone, I located Gary Spencer, and we had a brief look at the exterior of the cathedral before walking down a very steep cobbled street lined with interesting-looking shops. The antiquity of the place was amazing - some of the buildings dated from Norman times.

Because it was still early (six o’clock) we managed to get into a restaurant for dinner - we were the first to arrive and had the place to ourselves for an hour. Duck pate, steak with foi gras, a dessert called Coupe Fabien (“What is that?” I asked the waitress. “It’s the chef’s speciality” she said. “He never tells anyone what’s in it, but it’s very alcoholic”). We finished the meal about eight, and afterwards Gary had to shoot off (he goes to Hungary tomorrow) while I spent some time looking round the city.

(Above): Detail from the west front of the cathedral (1).

Detail from the west front of the cathedral (2).

(Above): Detail from the west front of the cathedral (3). Note the tongues curling round the edge of the doorway.

(Above): There is no escaping this book. The story is based on a hoax that was carried out in the 1970s. Like most conspiracy theories, it goes on and on and on…

(Above): Restaurant where we had dinner. It was very smart, and the food was excellent. Prices extremely reasonable - about £30 per head.

(Above): Along the steep cobbled hill (if you lost your footing you would tumble down) were intriguing little shops.

(Above): Tea shop - aimed at tourists I would guess.

(Above): Doorway overhung with ivy.

(Above): Norman architecture, this building is nearly a thousand years old and is still being used.

To my surprise he simply nodded

(Above) colossal statue of Achilles in Hyde Park.

Interview in west London in the afternoon. Because the interview wasn’t until 3pm, I went to Knightsbridge first to meet Helen B and we had a cup of coffee in a café near Harrods. Then I walked down past the Victoria and Albert Museum, turning right into Exhibition Road. Past the 1960s extensions to Imperial College (not yet worthy of listed status but it can only be a matter of time), past the Goethe Institute (ferocious signs prohibiting the chaining of bicycles to any of its railings), past the golden sculptures of the restored Albert Memorial, and into Hyde Park. So lush was the vegetation, so numerous the trees, so quiet the atmosphere that I could almost imagine myself in the country again. After a few minutes walk I reached the equestrian statue Physical Energy (a copy of the one at Cape Town). Turning off towards the right, a path took me towards Lancaster Gate where I caught a Circle Line tube to Perivale.

The company where I was to have the interview was in a small industrial estate. The approach was up some brick steps and into a Reception. I was actually ten minutes late, and Richard Drayman (one of the two owners of the company) kept me waiting ten minutes, presumably in retaliation.

The formal part of the interview, for the new post of Marketing Manger, lasted an incredible four hours, two hours with Richard Drayman and two with his partner Peter Lee. Richard Drayman was tall, thin, aged late fifties, very quiet, seemed to be the real decision maker in the company. We talked about marketing, and he became quite enthusiastic about some of the ideas I put forward. At the end of two hours he took me on a tour of the offices and warehouse. The offices were entirely open-plan, but because they were in a linear design they were more like a series of interconnecting rooms. Everything appeared to be new and of the best quality. Despite the large number of staff, there was hardly any noise (a sort of industrious hush pervaded the building). At intervals there were bowls of fresh fruit alternating with bowls of sweets - Richard Drayman said these were regularly topped up and staff could help themselves to as much as they wanted. Downstairs into the warehouse which was light, airy and immaculately clean (also very quiet - because it was late in the afternoon all the operative staff had gone) . Into the canteen (again, very clean) and then into the fully-equipped gym (neat and tidy, all the machines ranged in sequence, all the weights racked in order. Richard Drayman gave a small grimace of annoyance at a faint humming noise we could hear, and said that someone had left the air-conditioning on).

“We look after our staff” Richard Drayman said. “Working conditions here are good, morale is high, and we have the best staff retention in the industry.”

The second interview, with Peter Lee, was difficult. Peter Lee was aged in his late forties, medium height and build, dark curly hair, prominent nose. He was conversationally dominant, and talked mostly about himself (how difficult he was to work for, how hard he worked, how he had spoken to over a hundred people that afternoon etc). Out-of-the-blue he asked me what sort of salary I was looking for. As I had already made up my mind I didn’t want to work for the company, I suggested a figure that was double my last salary. To my surprise he simply nodded and said it wasn’t too far from the figure they had in mind.

The interview with Peter Lee came to an end about seven o’clock. He left me alone in his office for a while, reappearing about ten minutes later to say that Richard Drayman and himself would like to invite me to dinner. We drove in Richard Drayman’s car to a nearby Italian restaurant where they were greeted personally by the owner. The meal was in many ways more demanding than the formal interviews as I had them both talking to me at once as I tried to cope with the meal (smoked salmon followed by chicken in a cream sauce). I also had to be careful not to drink too much of the wine (my glass continually being replenished). The meal went on for three hours. Towards the end I was becoming tired of their questions and the self-important way Peter Lee talked about himself (again he told me how difficult he was to work for, Richard Drayman nodding in agreement).

Eventually we finished our coffee and they drove me to the underground station. They said they were interviewing two other people for the position. As I travelled home I felt exhausted.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

“First time I’ve heard him called that”

Temporary work - five hours today.

Nominally I report to the Sales Manager Mitch Holmes. He is a very tall and broad shouldered Yorkshireman, aged about fifty, big stomach (not really noticeable as he is so tall), lots of white hair (shaggy sort of style), white beard, bluff way of talking to people that possibly hides the fact that he is really a shy and private person (not good qualities when you work in sales). He is very easy to get on with.

Today Mitch Holmes had to attend a Board Meeting, so I prepared a list of marketing projects that I have got underway. It was a very impressive list (even if I say so myself!) and Mitch Holmes beamed with pleasure as he read it. I know he will present the list to the board as all his own initiatives but who cares (this is only temp work after all).

One other point about Mitch Holmes: after the Board meeting I overheard him introducing himself to a client as the Sales and Marketing Manager (“first time I’ve heard him called that” said one of the call centre staff dryly).

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

No wonder sales are down

(Above) Death of a Salesman is currently playing in the West End.

Temporary work - four hours in the afternoon. I went to the company at 2 o’clock to help out with a visit by a party of sixth formers from a local school. But no-one showed up. Personnel later told me they had got the dates mixed up. I went across to the Training Room (other side of the yard, in the old office block) to dismantle the projector (the visit was going to include a slideshow on how the company markets it services). While I was up in the Training Room Frank Marshall, one of the sales estimators (whom I had only met briefly when I was shown round the company on my first day), came in and sat down at the table. While he worked on his laptop he told me one of the other sales estimators had just been sacked.

“Everyone’s being given tough new targets and no extra leads” he told me. “I’m waiting to go into a sales meeting to discuss all this. Things are getting nasty - one of the PAs showed me a list of e-mails about me that I knew nothing about. The market’s very tight at the moment.” He told me that ideally he would like to leave the company and set up his own business. I just listened to all this - as I’m not staying at the company this imbroglio of office politics has no interest for me.

In the afternoon I wrote the copy for the Commercial Services department, and negotiated a feature with a trade magazine. I also took a call from a local television company wanting to do a piece on the company. The company has missed hundreds of these PR opportunities in the past - no wonder sales are down.

Monday, August 01, 2005

We go as far as the tumbledown gate

Temporary work. From nine until one today. I managed to complete all the outstanding tasks and meet all the deadlines.

One of the designers used by the company e-mailed across designs, but I rejected them as not good enough - I think he wasn’t used to his work being questioned. I have decided to do a weekly status report to draw attention to all the various things the company needs to do to improve sales. They really do need someone working full-time on their marketing.

One of the nicest things about working part-time is getting home in time to give the dog a walk along the lane. We go as far as the tumbledown gate leading into an overgrown field. Over to the left a big field recently ploughed, with a hare running across it.