Sunday, September 25, 2005

Cecil B De Mille’s 1949 film Samson and Delilah

(Above) Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr.

(Above) Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders.

(Above) Eyeless in Gaza - Victor Mature as the blinded Samson, used as a beast of burden milling grain for the Philistines. The line “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves” comes from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. It was used by Aldous Huxley as the title of one of his greatest books (I think so anyway - I know lots of people don’t like Huxley). I have a fear, thirty years from now, of turning into Anthony Beavis from Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza (fat, boring, endlessly ruminating over a wasted life) - it is a fear that has recently made me take up exercising on my brother’s rowing machine, and consciously looking to extend my circle of friends.

(Above) Out of the strong came forth sweetness. The quote from the Bible (King James Version - Judges Chapter 14) refers to the riddle Samson set the Philistines, and has been used as a marketing tagline by sugar producers Tate & Lyle since the nineteenth century. The printed tin for Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup has become a classic of packaging design and incorporates an image of the lion killed by Samson. During the winter I often have “treacle pudding” - made with ginger and Golden Syrup.

Sunday afternoon I spent at Helen B’s house. Kim Blacha was also there, analysing more promotional music videos - this time Friday Hill’s Baby Goodbye, the song not released until 10th October (so how did she get the video? Do they send out review copies?). Although she was watching the video frame by frame she was actually listening to a CD of the Back Street Boys. I suggested to Kim Blacha that she put her video reviews on a blog. She looked at me steadily and said: “Do you keep a blog?” This question made my blood run cold, since were this site to be discovered all would be lost (Kim’s question proved to be entirely innocent).

While I waited (two hours!) for Helen I went into the sitting room where the main TV is located, and watched Cecil B De Mille’s 1949 film Samson and Delilah. Back Street Boys was still playing loudly, and the lavish De Mille epic took on the quality of a surreal boyband promo video. In Gaza today the descendants of the Philistines are still warring with their Jewish neighbours.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Intruding on a personal tragedy

In The Times (and also in The Sun) yesterday were accounts of the will of the late Marquess of Bristol. John Hervey, 7th Marquess of Bristol, inherited a fortune of £35 million, but by means of dissipation lost it all and died almost penniless at the age of 44. The Sun majored on the fact that his two half-sisters, so-called celebrities Lady Isabella and Lady Victoria Harvey (“it” girls), were left nothing in his will (presumably because he had nothing to leave).

It was not the sort of article I would normally spend time reading, except that I have a small personal recollection of the last days of the Marquess in Ickworth House, his ancestral home. I had been staying in Norfolk (where my brother lives) and met an assistant to the Marquess’s Secretary. We got on fairly well, and she talked about her work at Ickworth House (in the private wing, not the main house which is administered by the National Trust). It sounded so interesting that I said I would quite like to have a look if she could arrange it. I heard nothing more until June 1996 when the assistant rang me up and said that the private wing was being sold, the Marquess was moving out, and if I wanted a look around I should go over there immediately. I arranged to stay with my brother for a couple of days, and drove up to his house in Norfolk.

The next day, 3rd June 1996, I drove from mid-Norfolk down through Thetford Forest and across the county border into Suffolk, eventually arriving at the tiny village of Horringer. Turning in through wrought iron gates I drove through wooded parkland until the house came into view - huge, classical, and impractical, dominated by a massive rotunda. Driving across the main façade, I arrived at the private wing which appeared very restrained architecturally after the exuberance of the main block.

The assistant met me at the door and led the way inside. She said the Marquess was supposed to have moved out the day before, but had stayed in bed, refusing to get up (despite the fact that the house was already sold, the auction of contents only a couple of days away, and the removal men were waiting outside ready to move his personal effects). The assistant told me that as the Marquess (or Marquis as he insisted on being styled) was still there it was unlikely I would be able to look round, but she would ask anyway.

Inside the building was a long wide corridor, very high, running the length of the private wing and ending in a sort of conservatory where a bougainvillea bloomed in brilliant purple-red. Off this corridor were a series of elaborate staterooms, filled with antique furniture and paintings, the walls covered in yellow satin. Up and down the ground floor moved a multitude of people - valuers from Sotheby’s, managers from the removals company, staff from the estate.

Half-way down the corridor was a grand staircase leading to the upper floors. At the foot of these stairs stood the Marquess’s Secretary, a dazed-looking women in her mid-forties. Her day had consisted of a sort of shuttle diplomacy between the Marquess in pyjamas on the top landing and the tradesmen on the ground floor who were becoming increasingly frustrated at their inability to get on with their work. I particularly remember an obnoxious representative from Sotheby’s, a man in his twenties, referred to as Lord Henry. This individual paraded up and down the corridor with a great deal of arrogance, speaking to the other tradesmen in a very rude and insulting way. I suppose he was taking out on them his anger at being kept waiting by the Marquess.

The assistant introduced me to the Secretary, and the Secretary told me to follow her upstairs, and she would talk to the Marquess. Half-way up she asked to wait on a landing, and then continued up alone. As I waited I looked at an enormous Coronation portrait of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (wife of George III, last queen of America, first queen of Australia - the acquisition of one continent balancing out the loss of the other) and breaking all the rules I took a photograph of this painting.

The Secretary returned and said that it wasn’t possible for me to look around that day, but if I came back the next day she would show me around. “Don’t worry” she said, indicating the staterooms, “nothing will be moved until Lord Bristol has left, and that won’t be until midday tomorrow.” I went back to my car and returned to my brother’s house.

Next day I was back at the private wing at Ickworth just after one o’clock in the afternoon. In contrast to the day before, the ground floor was deserted of people. I walked along the corridor a little way and turned into a sort of office-cum-sitting-room where I found the Secretary. The Marquess had finally left less than half an hour previously (to go to the Bahamas), and she was just recovering from the trauma of that moment (she had considerable affection and respect for Lord Bristol, and I see now that she was very upset over his leaving). We sat and talked for a while, and she described better days when the house was filled with guests. Then she showed me over the place.

In the dining room she described dinner parties when the room would be lit with black candles and the table laid with black china; in one of the sitting rooms she showed me an elaborate mirror the Marquess had had made and was too big to be moved to his new house; we went through a succession of upstairs rooms (on a number of different levels) and into the Royal Suite. Finally we ended up in the Marquess’s bedroom where he had spent his last night. The room was very untidy, the bed unmade, personal effects strewn everywhere. The Secretary showed me the shower, where the tiles were decorated with imperial bees (the Marquess was an admirer of Napoleon). In one of the window embrasures was a silk-upholstered ottoman, and lying on this piece of furniture was a paperback self-help manual entitled The Lazy Man’s Way To Riches. The Secretary pointed at this book and said: “That says it all really.”

This was nine years ago and I was a lot younger then. Not just younger in years, but also less sensitive to the feelings of others. I see now that by going to the private wing at Ickworth I was intruding on a personal tragedy, and had no right to insinuate myself as a witness in someone else’s downfall.

As I left I remember noticing in the downstairs corridor a very expert copy of Poussin’s painting The Shepherds of Arcady where four or five classical shepherds are examining a tomb upon which is inscribed the words Et In Arcadia Ego (implying that death is ever-present, even in paradise).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A ferocious row

(Above) window of a political bookshop close to St Martins Lane.

There has been a ferocious row, staged as a public debate in New York, between George Galloway MP and journalist Christopher Hitchens. The shouting match was reported gleefully on the Today Programme, reviewed in the national press, and broadcast on Radio 4 over the weekend. George Galloway seems to be the only politician to effectively challenge the Government over its policy in Iraq.

Public opposition to the war has become increasingly muted since the general election. People seem bored by the whole issue. Even maverick Ken Livingstone would rather talk about cricket and the Olympics.

The Falklands war in 1981, the first Gulf war in 1991, the second Gulf war in 2003 - every ten years or so the United Kingdom has been involved in a reasonably large military conflict. Alan Nixon believes that the political elite (both major parties) has, covertly and without public debate, adopted a Nietzschean policy which regards war as the option of choice in international affairs (the power of war as an impetus to economic activity, the power of war as a counter to social decadence, the role of war in the definition of political supermen and superwomen etc etc).

I should have gone straight home

Friday, and overnight I had become ill with what seemed to be influenza, including an excruciatingly painful cough. Hardly any sleep. I have not been this ill for several years.

I thought about taking the day off work, but Friday was the day of the monthly Management Meeting. As it was my first one at the company I didn’t think I could miss it (if only I had known how boring it would prove to be!). It was due to start at 9.30, but was put back until 10.

The first thing I did when I arrived at my desk was to check my e-mails. There was a message from Mark Bottoni sent to all department heads (my department, Marketing, only has me in it!), with the comment which he repeated as the meeting began: “This will be an opportunity for you to report on how your department is doing against targets.” As I havn’t been given any targets yet this meant that I could relax. Looking round the table, I saw that others had done handouts with graphs and tables, and Chris Eakins (New Product Development) had even done a presentation on Powerpoint. When my turn came I just talked generally about some of the marketing initiatives currently under way. No-one asked me any questions.

Leaving the office at one o’clock, I should have gone straight home. However, I had made an appointment to look around the medieval church at a village about fifteen miles to the east of the company (I figured that now I was working in a new area I ought to make an effort to get to know the local history). As churches are often difficult to get into I decided to keep the appointment, and then go home (I had been so obviously ill at the meeting that no-one would question a half-day’s sick leave).

It took me about half an hour to get to the village. The area is very impressive in a bleak sort of way. You follow a winding road that is on the top of an enormous bank thirty feet or so above the fields on either side. Trees and hedges follow the road as it winds for miles but otherwise the landscape is bereft of trees. The road follows distinctly the edge of the former coastline before the marshes were drained. You come upon the village unexpectedly - a corner is turned and an enormous square battlemented tower, ashlar-faced, appears, dwarfing the rest of the church behind it. This tower has a fascinating quality, so tremendous is its bulk, like a castle keep. Close to the top of the tower is an arched niche within which is a white statue of the Virgin and Child, looking out serenely over the wide, empty, drained inland sea. The church is situated on a high bank, and is connected with a consecration in 1487 by a medieval bishop (a vigorous opponent of Wycliffe and the Lollards).

Parking the car, I looked out at the drained marshes - an expanse that stretches as far as the eye can see and is used as grazing land in summer and sometimes floods in winter. In times of severe frost it is thronged with skaters in scenes reminiscent of the Brueghel paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Through sturdy wrought iron gates and down several steps to meet the churchwarden, a chatty middle-aged lady who opened the building and showed me around. It was probably unwise, feeling so ill, to have gone into such a cold building, but the appointment had been made and I felt obliged to go on with it. The churchwarden was originally from London but had married into one of the local farming families (she was impressed when I told her my plan of writing a history of the local area).

There were many items of interest in the building, and the churchwarden told me several interesting stories, but I was really too ill to take it all in. Various bits I remember, but they float in my memory, disjointed and distorted by the effects of a subsequent fever (which lasted the remainder of the day and all through Saturday). I remember a huge Royal Arms of Queen Anne, garlanded in ermine and dated 1715. I recall being shown excerpts from the parish records including an entry dated 1748: “Mr Lawson cut a quantity of sparrow grass out of his garden which I had for supper” (mystified, I asked what sparrow grass was - it turns out to be the local delicacy asparagus). I remember discussing the parish charity called (unimaginatively) The Dole, which still has substantial reserves of capital: “The Dole’s still going” she said, “…but as there’s no really poor people in the village we give it out as grants to students.”

After about an hour I felt so unwell that I had to go home. My last question to the churchwarden was to ask why the floor of the building was so low compared to the ground outside. She told me matter-of-factly: “Oh, the church is sinking - has been for years”. We stood there, two Londoners adrift in the wilds, encased by the ancient brick and stone of the church, and slowly, imperceptibly, sinking into the marsh.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

As soon as I saw him I immediately knew who he was

A small crisis this week as petrol reached £1 per litre, and reports of blockades by protest groups (protesting at the huge taxes levied on petrol and diesel) led to panic buying at petrol stations on Monday and Tuesday. As my car was almost empty of petrol I had no choice but to join the queues on Tuesday morning, waiting about twenty minutes to get to the pumps. In the queue to pay, the person in front of me said “I nearly got stranded at Birmingham yesterday. I was out of fuel, and the garage I stopped at turned me away, saying they were only serving their regular customers.” On the Today Programme an environmentalist spokesperson tried to portray the destruction of New Orleans as a kind of divine retribution for American over-consumption of fossil fuels. The interviewer (I think it was James Naughty) laughed scornfully at the environmentalist’s crude anti-Americanism.

This week I finally met Frank Hunter, Manager of the Stevenage branch and formerly in charge of all the company’s sales personnel (until the appointment of Mitch Holmes effectively demoted him). I was a little apprehensive about meeting Frank Hunter as he is someone I am going to have to work closely with over implementation of the Marketing Plan. I resolved to try and get him on my side.

In preparation for the meeting I asked IT manager Eric Morgan (aged about fifty-five, plump, grey-haired) for print-outs of statistics that I wanted. He was deliberately obstructive about giving me this information, and I had to make the request several times before, late on Wednesday, I finally got the figures. There was a sort of compliment from Eric Morgan as he handed the print-outs over, telling me: “You are the only person who has ever asked these questions.”

As well as internal data, I also managed to get some TGI research so at least my Marketing Plan will have some credible research to back it up. TGI stands for the Target Group Index, a survey carried out by the British Market Research Bureau every year, asking 24,000 people about their purchase of over 700 types of products, cross referenced with social classifications, lifestyles, and the types of media they consume. The research is then published in a series of volumes, each one of which is incredibly expensive (between £3,000 and £6,000) but if you ask enough people you can usually find someone who will surreptitiously photocopy the pages you want (my copies came from Jon Theobald at the Bleeding Heart Partnership who got them from a contact in the Display Advertising department of the Daily Telegraph).

Early in the week I talked to Frank Hunter by telephone, arranged to meet him on Thursday, and e-mailed across an outline synopsis of the Marketing Plan (I later found out that the arrival of this synopsis caused him a great deal of consternation since he didn’t understand a word of it).

When Thursday arrived I spent the morning on the Operations floor, talking to the staff on the European desk. Clare Vyse is the supervisor of the European desk (at first sight a slim mousey women in her mid-twenties, when I sat in front of her discussing the sales process I became conscious of how big her eyes were, and how dilated the pupils, so that I had the impression of falling into them - it was a disturbing sensation). Her assistant is Scott Jura, a very loud Business Studies student from Keele University, doing a one-year work placement as part of his degree (short curly hair, black suit, mostly darting about the office laughing and joking, but occasionally displaying a slouching moodiness whenever someone has upset him).

Frank Hunter arrived while I was talking to Clare Vyse, and as soon as I saw him I immediately knew who he was (so well had other people described him). Tall, muscular build, aged late-thirties, shortish brown hair with a central parting, dark suit with a faint pin-stripe, bright mauve tie, white shirt (button undone at the collar as if the strong neck had burst it open), designer stubble on his face, tawny coloured eyes looking around the room. He strutted rather than walked, moving between the rows of desks talking to the staff with a mixture of arrogance and disrespect that obviously irritated people (as if he were revelling in his reputation for being unpopular and disliked).

Eventually Frank Hunter arrived at the European desk, and I stood up as Clare Vyse introduced us. As we shook hands and exchanged conventional greetings Scott Jura larked about behind Frank Hunter’s back, making mock applause motions in the style of Wayne Rooney (professional football player sent off the pitch earlier in the week for making mock applause motions at the referee). Frank Hunter and I went into one of the glass offices around the edge of the floor, he took his jacket off (big ostentatious cuff-links) and as we faced each other over a table I thought how he seemed to be the personification of the Brother in Tennysons’s poem “Maud”: That jewell’d mass of millinery; That oiled and curled Assyrian Bull; Smelling of musk and insolence…

We talked for about an hour, and although I tried to establish a rapport I could tell he didn’t trust me. He was very animated when talking about sales, and obviously very intelligent, but when we discussed aspects of marketing he seemed to flounder. Until my arrival he had been in charge of marketing for the company (as well as his sales role - I think he was given the marketing as compensation for being demoted by Mitch Holmes). Even a casual review of past marketing activity indicates that he has wasted huge amounts of money on pointless projects. He showed me a £9,000 design quote for a new brochure, and was shocked when I said I could get it done for less than a thousand. He said he was talking to an agency about poster advertising, and became quite aggressive when I told him that posters were essentially reminder advertising, inappropriate for product launches.

The arrival of the tea trolley (an arcane ritual that seems to have survived the recent cuts and redundancies) allowed us to relax a little. He asked me where I had gone to school (a question I refused to answer since I knew it would label me) and told me that he had gone to Bretton Woods comprehensive in Peterborough. When we talked about sports he told me he was a good squash player.

After our meeting I went back upstairs to my desk. Almost immediately Marco Bottoni, Managing Director, came through the side door and asked me questions about Frank Hunter (what I thought about him, what Frank Hunter was saying about the sales team, whether his marketing projects were any good). I was non-committal in my answers, not wanting to become Marco Bottoni’s spy.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

It’s a small world

On Friday I gave a presentation to a party from a local school. Normally Mitch Holmes does the presentations, but he delegated this one to me. I got the impression that he thought the tours were a waste of time.

The company likes to keep close links with the local school (a comprehensive) as it provides a steady supply of recruits - school leavers go into warehouse or transport jobs, and then work their way up into Operations and Sales. Because they join straight from school they are supposed to be more receptive to the company’s way of doing things. Recruiting from one source also reinforces the sense of community in the company (the downside is that the workforce has become intensely cliquey, and sometimes it becomes impossible for outsiders to penetrate the barriers).

The presentation was held in the Training Room. I was assisted by Personnel Manager Rod Heydon. The presentation itself comprised a slideshow on a very old-fashioned carousel projector (really should be updated to Powerpoint). The seating in the training room was set out theatre-style. The school kids (aged fifteen) arrived by coach accompanied by two teachers. The company Receptionist showed them upstairs and they took their seats. There were about twenty of them - they mostly slumped down in their chairs, arms folded, not saying a word (they had obviously been warned to behave). I went through a very general outline on how marketing works, where customers come from, how important it is that we select the right sort of employees with good attitudes that customers will respond to. The talk lasted about half an hour. Then Rod Heydon went over various job opportunities that were available (the company always takes on at least five school leavers a year). Afterwards Rod Heydon took them on a tour of the site - I went as well as there were still parts of the operation I hadn’t seen. In the warehouse David Moyle (aged about nineteen, short, glasses) showed off as we watched him use one of the fork-lift trucks to unload one of the bays - Rod Heydon told me that he had gone to the local school and had joined the company a couple of years ago.

Returning to the front offices, Dennis Keith, one of the Planners, was talking to the coach driver. Rod Heydon told me that Dennis Keith had also been recruited from the local school, whereas the coach driver had formerly been a company driver. It’s a small world.

Paternoster Square

I’m impressed by the new Paternoster Square just north of St Paul’s cathedral - the old Temple Bar (supposedly designed by Wren) has been brought back from Hertfordshire and rebuilt in a corner of the piazza. The square’s mathematical shapes and perspectives are like a scene from a painting by Piero della Francesca. You half-expect to see angels playing guitars, and renaissance noblemen contemplating the Nativity.

The view of the cathedral above is like the approach to Petra.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The company has the appearance of being modern, dynamic and successful

I am glad that the process of getting a job is over, but I can’t help wondering if I should have held out for something better. I am slightly better paid than previously (an extra four thousand per annum); the working conditions are slightly better; my new work colleagues are, possibly, slightly worse. It is not at all the big step upwards that I had been hoping for.

My physical location changed this week. Instead of being on the first floor, with Personnel and Customer Complaints, I am now on the top floor, with Sales, IT and a small business unit that works closely with Marks & Spencer (part of the endless Chinese boxes of companies within companies that makes up my new working environment). My new desk is not new and not really mine - it belongs to one of the sales supervisors who has fallen out with Sales Director Mitch Holmes and refuses to come into the office (Mitch Holmes just told me to chuck all the stuff in the desk away, as if the Sales Supervisor was already “history”).

The top floor is a big open space, across the stairwell from the Directors’ suites. The sense of space is enhanced by the fact that there are no partitions or cubicles - just groups of desks widely separated. My desk is on its own, against the back wall, opposite a long range of ten desks for the sales estimators (deserted until late afternoon when they all come in at once and the noise level shoots up), my nearest neighbour being way over to the left, in a corner - a Marketing Manager for one of the other business units. Then there is a wide expanse of carpet and more desks over by the windows where the rest of the floor’s staff have chosen to sit. I introduced myself to the other Marketing Manager, and for a couple of days we got in well, until I came in on Wednesday morning and found he had been made redundant (his secretary-assistant, in a state of near-bereavement, going through his desk trying to work out what needed to be done urgently). This redundancy made the rest of the staff on the floor nervous, and they talked about it for a couple of days in a jittery sort of way as if they were trying to frighten each other.

The sociability of the floor is quite low. The people are superficially friendly, but this hides a wariness and sense of suspicion that is obvious in the questions they ask me (as if I had to justify myself in some way). This barely concealed hostility perplexed me until Sales Supervisor Sarah Linton explained things.

“Don’t expect people here to like you” she said. “This was a family-run company for about twenty years until the plc bought them out and began to bring in new managers. You and me are outsiders - I’ve been here over a year and I’m still not accepted” (this was true only up to a point - Sarah Linton had been a secretary in the company about six years ago, had left and made a career in sales, had come back in a senior sales role over the heads of many of her former colleagues, and had then, if rumours are to be believed, embarked upon an affair with Mitch Holmes which further consolidated her position).

Most of the week (my first official week with the company, the temp work not really counting) was spent in an extended induction that included meetings with all the senior managers: Ralph Schofield (manager of the Essex branch) very guarded and non-committal about what he said, restricting himself to answering my questions in as few words as possible; Sue Napier (Quality Manager) defensive and negative, long pauses before she spoke, all the time looking at me shrewdly, as if I was trying to catch her out; Malcom Jeffery (Senior Sales Manager) effusive, conspiratorial, telling me all sorts of company gossip, finishing our session with the loud proclamation “It’s nice to meet someone who agrees with me” (except that I hadn’t agreed with him); Ian Murray (Operations Manager) very polite, very focussed on practical issues, taking me into the Drivers’ Room to introduce me to some of the operatives and telling me “our staff are genuinely friendly and have old-fashioned ideas about service”; and finally Antonio Colaco (Planning Manager), an incomer like myself, with a gurgling sort of laugh that implied he found the whole company slightly ridiculous. It was Malcolm Jeffery who told me the recent history of the company - it had been run by Nicholas Cain, a patriarchal figure and successful entrepreneur whom staff looked up to and respected, but he had retired and his son Terry had taken over and almost bankrupted the firm by building the luxurious office block in which we were sitting, precipitating the sell-out to the plc: “This block has been known as Terry’s Folly ever since”). I held these meetings in the Board Room which I can get to easily by a little-used door adjacent to my desk (this easy access is a two-edged sword - Managing Director Marco Botoni often uses it when he wants to cross from his office to see me about something, almost always at moments when I am obviously not doing anything).

At the end of all these meetings I looked at all the paper I am accumulating on my desk and was struck by self-doubts. Do I really have the enthusiasm to put together a Marketing Plan for an organisation where morale is so low and most people, in the words of Sue Napier, are “just waiting for the axe to fall”? The company has the appearance of being modern, dynamic and successful (an image created by the office block, which is as impressive as anything being put up in the City) but in reality is very narrow-minded and inward-looking.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

It was all very elegant and youssoupoffian

(Above): entrance to the Cafe Royal in Regent Street. The Cafe Royal became famous in the 1890s as a centre of literary London. Now it is mainly used as a conference centre.

Friday, and I went to the Café Royal for a committee meeting on an international exhibition the company is participating in. For obvious reasons I cannot identify too closely what the company does, but in one aspect it has international partners, and the exhibition (a first in this industry sector) is intended to draw attention to this international alliance. Having come into the planning of this exhibition quite late, it is not my place to be too opinionated on how it should be organised, but just sitting and listening to the plans I began to be alarmed at how ambitious the show was, how close the date was, and how little practical work had been done.

Mitch Holmes (Sales and Marketing Director) and I got to the Café Royal more or less on time. The meeting was held upstairs in a private suite (pale green, lots of gilding, walls covered in mirrors). About fifteen other people were at the meeting, and we had to wait about until the Chairman arrived (a senior civil servant, quite elderly: “My taxi driver foolishly got tangled up in the Changing of the Guard” he apologised).

There was an interminable session when the minutes of the last meeting were discussed, and then ritually signed off. The meeting itself comprised an endless number of agenda items with clauses and sub-clauses. Considering we were in the heart of the West End, no noise from outside penetrated the room.

Mostly I kept quiet and just listened during the meeting, only once making a contribution (there is to be a conference attached to the exhibition, and I suggested inviting a well-known columnist from the Financial Times to chair this conference). The Indian organiser of the exhibition (Mahesh Mann) gave a report on progress to date with choosing the venue. No-one seemed keen to volunteer for any of the tasks that the Chairman was giving out (he chaired the meeting in a very formal way - all remarks had to be addressed through the Chair, you couldn’t just talk to the meeting directly).

We went into an adjoining room for the private lunch. The waiter and waitress were both incompetent, but the food was very good. It was all very elegant and youssoupoffian (a word invented by Alan Nixon to describe situations where out-of-touch elites imagine they are in control of events but in fact are teetering on the brink of disaster - see Felix Youssoupoff, author of Lost Splendour).

Saturday, September 03, 2005

I knew immediately what was going to happen

Once again I made the journey to the company where I am “temping”. In fact, so on-going has the work proved to be, that I have been occupied there almost full-time, and have been so busy I stopped looking for other jobs (I reasoned that there were enough projects to keep me going until the end of the year). I seemed to have slipped into a comfortable limbo where there was no reason to stay, but there was no very great reason to leave either.

The company is very different from my previous place of work. Instead of being in a suburb of a big city, it is in a small country town, being the biggest employer in that town. The journey from my home is almost exactly the same distance as before, except that it is in the opposite direction. The company is part of a big plc (ie listed on the London Stock Exchange) but has all the aspects of an independent enterprise (it had been a family-owned company until about five years ago). About a hundred people work for the company, and as well as the Head Office there are two smaller branches - one in St Neots in Cambridgeshire, the other in Southend in Essex. Most of the employees have worked for the company for many years, and there is a marked culture of resenting outsiders (I suppose that comes from being located in such a small town).

From the main road the appearance of the Head Office is deceptively low-key. A two-story range of buildings (very 1970s in appearance), with a big warehouse behind. This was the old Head Office. As the company expanded it outgrew this accommodation, and in the late-1990s a dazzling new office block was built on a field behind. Because the ground slopes away from the road you can only see this new facility once you have driven round the old buildings. I say it is dazzling, because that’s the effect it had on me. It is a post-modernist glass and brick structure, rising three storeys, big landscaped car-park in front of it, big “state-of-the-art” (as all the Operations people will point out to you) warehouse behind.

My (temporary) desk is located on the first floor (in America it would be called the “second” floor) to the left of the grand staircase that rises the whole height of the building. On Tuesday I went in as usual, a little after nine (I have become careless about my time-keeping - as a temp I can theoretically pick my own hours). I sat at my desk which is in a back corner, glass windows on two sides, tinted glass partition on another, monstrous green plants screening the side that is open. I worked through the heaps of paper I had left the evening before, made some phone calls, sent a great many e-mails. At lunchtime I drove off site and found a quiet place where I could sit and read, trying to ignore the heat (very noticeable after the air-conditioned offices - as I went out of the door a wave of heat seemed to roll over me). In the afternoon I more or less repeated the activities of the morning, in a slightly different order, and by the time four o’clock arrived I was beginning to feel bored.

It was at that point that the telephone rang. It was one of the PAs on the floor above, asking me to go up and see the Managing Director. I knew immediately what was going to happen.

The floor above (over my own floor) is reserved for the Directors. It comprises a lavishly appointed Board Room, a tiny kitchen (out of bounds to staff - it is intended to be used only for preparing Board Room lunches), a large office shared by two PAs, and beyond this two enormous (ridiculously large) offices for the two Directors of the company. I went through the PAs office (neither of them looked up from their work) and into the office of Marco Botoni, Managing Director.

Everyone says that Marco Botoni is a “funny little man”. Despite his Italian-sounding name his accent is broad Lancashire (he was born and brought up in Bolton). Aged in his mid fifties, his hair (worn a little on the long side) is still completely black with no trace of any grey. Short in stature, his face has heavy lines either side of the mouth, and when he isn’t smiling he looks very severe. I entered the office and began to cross towards his desk, but he looked up and told me to sit down at one of the four armchairs. As well as Marco Botoni’s huge desk and the four armchairs there was also a table and eight chairs, and two big glass-fronted display cabinets. All the furniture was very good quality Regency-reproduction, the luxurious style more suited to a house than an office (one of the warehousemen told me that the previous owner of the company had accepted it as part-payment from a creditor who was going bankrupt). Marco Botoni smartly shuffled some papers and left his desk and took one of the armchairs opposite me. They were grey leather armchairs, impossible to sit up in, so that we were both slouching (a very uncomfortable position in which to face a Managing Director).

He smiled at me benignly, and asked how I was getting on, and told me that he had been keeping an eye on me and had received good reports about my work. He leaped up from his chair and called out to the PAs, asking for two cups of coffee to be brought in (the door was open throughout our interview). We then began talking about marketing, and I was surprised at how agitated he started to become. At one point he told me honestly: “No-one here really understands marketing. It’s all smoke and mirrors to me. But I know we’ve got to do it.” The meeting went on for three hours, and at the end of that time he offered me a job with the company, saying that he was creating the role of Marketing Manager especially for me (there was a little haggling over the title - at first he wanted to slot me into a Business Development vacancy so he wouldn’t have to report to the plc an expansion in the headcount, but I held out for a properly-designated role).

The site was almost deserted as I left the offices and went out to my car. There was a sense of anti-climax as I drove home - since my first week with the company I had half-expected to be offered a permanent role. And I couldn’t help wondering: where will this latest episode take me?