Monday, January 30, 2006

You either feel comfortable in one of these stores or you don't

Yesterday I went into a local Carphone Warehouse. All these mobile phone retail outlets have the same sort of sales personnel - hyperactive, over-enthusiastic, slightly manic. They talk with a sort of musical tone to their voice, as if they have memorised their sales pitch and are singing the words to you to give the proposition depth and variety.

The stores are minimalist in style, focussed on the tiny high-tech products. Everything is spotless, neat and tidy. The lighting is bright and unyeilding.

The seriousness with which these products are sold is intense. As with cars, it is the "added features" that are the crucial talking point. You either feel comfortable in one of these stores or you don't - they are not places for indifference.

“No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

The Today Programme this morning had an item on the Spanish Inquisition, usually regarded as reign of terror in late-medieval / early Renaissance Spain.

Umberto Eco, in his novel The Name Of The Rose, has a character called Bernard Gui who is portrayed as an evil bullying fanatic (a sort of medieval George Galloway). This is historical distortion – Bernard Gui was a real inquisitor (and bishop and judge) who sentenced 930 “heretics”, 42 of whom were later burned (horrible result but not really a massacre by the standard of the times - not really a massacre by the standard of our times either). The inquisition in Languedoc (as well as Spain) was as much about the state extending political control as the church ensuring theocratic conformity.

The Spanish Inquisition has entered popular consciousness. In the office recently Sarah Linton, emerging from a meeting with Marc Bottoni said bitterly: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition”. The IT team, who are on the same floor, cried in unison: “No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” (a reference to the comedy show Monty Python – Sarah Linton just gave them a scornful look, as if disgusted that grown men should be so puerile).

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Big tureen on the table - you just helped yourself

Saturday. Dinner at Marie-Astrid’s house, Julie also there. It was a vegetarian meal, consisting of a huge vegetable stew (in a big tureen on the table - you just helped yourself) with home-made bread. Afterwards a fresh fruit salad that contained nuts and ginger. Playing from Marie-Astrid’s PC was music she had downloaded earlier (Beautiful Soul by Jesse McCartney, Honesty by Alex Parks, Crown Imperial by Sir William Walton etc). Marie-Astrid announced that her divorce had come through that day, and then talked about the break-up of her marriage (“He went on a course for men about to leave their wives - how self-indulgent is that!”). I asked Julie (who is Scottish and has a very pronounced Scottish accent) about what she thought of devolution but she was totally uninterested in Edinburgh politics (“I am not a die-hard Scot” she said scornfully, “all that haggis and bagpipes nationalism gives me the creeps”).

Afterwards we disagreed about what to watch on television, and reached a compromise - I would put up with Celebrity Big Brother if I could see an hour of Shoah afterwards.

Celebrity Big Brother has all the attributes of pornography - voyeuristic, abusive, humiliating. It is compelling to watch, but left me feeling depressed. Applying the principles of transactional analysis (that we relate to other people in one of three ways: child, parent, adult) everyone in the arena seemed to be either a parent or a child, with brief adult exchanges occurring on the sidelines. A parade of bullies strutted around the various rooms, intimidating, shouting, making people cry. A supposedly right-on “ordinary” singer whined at having liquid soap poured over his cashmere jumper. A supposedly right-on politician (George Galloway) seemed to float around the room sets whispering, manipulating, egging people on (degrading himself to the level of the Neil and Christine Hamilton political freak show).

Shoah (shown on the More4 channel) is a very great film. I have seen parts of it before, but not all of it (it’s nine and a half hours long). Despite its great length it is never boring. It is an historical documentary of the very finest quality. Directed by Claude Lanzmann, it combines scholarship with the absorption of a detective murder mystery. Although a new channel, More4 is continually setting high standards in broadcasting.

Mrs Henderson Presents… Judi Dench, Will Young and Kelly Reilly

(Above): the last light fading behind the pine plantations

Sunday. Late afternoon was merging into early evening as I drove down the wide straight streets of an isolated and forgotten Edwardian spa town, the last light fading behind the pine plantations that encompass the little resort. I was early, and so I drove around for about twenty minutes - all the time it took to survey the four main avenues that make up the place. The settlement has a great deal of architectural unity (Pevsner calls the style “large, affluent and soporific”) , being constructed between about 1880 and 1920. Lots of very small shops (none of them chain stores), tea houses, care homes and rest homes. A vast, rambling, half-timbered hotel adjacent to a golf course. Other hotels, just as substantial but not so gargantuan. Gothic Roman Catholic church, sizeable red-brick arts and crafts Anglican church. Set back from the road and protected by shrubberies were private villas, detached and discreet, enveloped by the pine woods beyond.

(Above): the half-timbered façade of the building lit up by golden light

I drove to one of the largest of the town’s hotels, in a plantation of its own, surrounded by spacious gardens (towering rhododendrons). Parking my car at the front, the gravel crunched underfoot as I approached the main entrance, the half-timbered façade of the building lit up by golden light. The hotel was a preferred retreat of the three daughters of Edward VII (in the days when it was a private house) and later had a significant association with the RAF during the Second World War.

Meeting Marie-Astrid and Julie, we went into the main lounge for a drink (non-alcoholic as Marie-Astrid doesn’t drink and Julie, who is Scottish, was recovering from a massive day-and-night bender). Comfortable sofas and chairs, wood fire burning in the grate, murmured voices from the other guests grouped around the big room (“Family parties are so awful” said one middle-aged woman as the group she was with got up to meet another group approaching across the wide expanse of Axminster). When it was time for us to leave (we were going to the cinema) Marie-Astrid suggested walking through the woods, but changed her mind when we got outside and found a light drizzle was falling.

A few minutes later we were in another part of the town, in yet another wood, where the cinema was located. This building was a low 1920s pavilion, seemingly so insubstantial in construction that it is a surprise it has lasted so long. I offered to pay for the tickets, but the ticket office wouldn’t accept credit cards so Marie-Astrid and Julie ended up subsidising me.

We saw the film Mrs Henderson Presents. I was very impressed by the film, especially the performances by Judi Dench, Will Young and Kelly Reilly. Being a show about putting on a show, it could have become a thin framework for a succession of musical acts, but actually it held together as a coherent and integrated drama. The attention to detail was particularly fine. It was a very beautifully designed production - a lot a thought had gone into how things looked. Unfortunately the ending was weak and a little slushy.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Being an old-fashioned cinema, there was an intermission half-way through. Most people went through to the foyer to buy drinks and confectionery. We remained in our seats, and watched as a red lacquer organ rose from beneath the stage, the organist playing a succession of old tunes (We’ll Gather Lilacs is the one that sticks in my mind). I thought at first this was a clichéd attempt to recapture the 1940s, but later realised it wasn’t a revival but a continuation of the way things have always been. As the recital ended and the organ began to sink down again the lights dimmed and a spotlight lit up a revolving mirror-ball suspended from the ceiling, causing specks of light to whirl around the auditorium. Everyone applauded.

(Above): a revolving mirror-ball suspended from the ceiling, causing specks of light to whirl around the auditorium

(Above): advertisement for the Windmill Theatre from a 1950s guide to London. "We never closed" is a reference to the way the shows continued all through the London Blitz.

(Above): the Windmill Theatre is still going. I took this photo last summer. Not sure what sort of shows they put on now.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

He told me that the Iranian situation is going to become very serious

(Above): We had our coffee in the vestibule-lounge, where we sat on a sofa looking into the bar

Thursday. After work I sat around until 6, then drove across to Buckden near Huntingdon. I had never been to the tiny town (big village?) before. I parked my car opposite a lively pub called The Vine and walked back down to The George hotel. The night was dry, but very cold. The long street was deserted (Buckden seems to consist entirely of this street, which must have been the old Great North Road before it was diverted into the A1 motorway).

The George Hotel is an old coaching inn that has been adapted into a comfortable hotel. It consists of a very long red brick Georgian block that rises three storeys and stretches for some length along the high street, the façade austere, punctuated half-way along by the old arch where coaches and horses would go through to the former yard. This arch has now been filled by the hotel reception area. The former yard is now occupied by an extension containing the restaurant and bar. I walked round to the side of the hotel where I could see a paved area (ornamental topiary in containers) with a simple white colonnade framing an modest entrance. Through the door, I entered a cream coloured vestibule that doubled as a lounge, furnished in reproduction Biedermeier (the whole establishment looked as if it had been recently refurbished). To my right was a small reading room with comfy chairs and a set of 19th century bound volumes of the Illustrated London News. To my left was the bar area. Directly ahead was a short passage leading to the hotel reception, and walking towards me was Gary Spencer.

Gary had suggested meeting at the hotel on his way back to Hertfordshire from meeting a client in Leicester. We went immediately into the restaurant which was bright, white and very smart. We were the only people in the restaurant for about twenty minutes and then it suddenly filled up, every table being taken. Wild boar in a rocket salad, venison with carrots and Dauphinoise potatos (I also had a side order of fat chips), sultana pudding with custard. One glass of Merlot wine. We had our coffee in the vestibule-lounge, where we sat on a sofa looking into the bar.

We talked about plans for the year ahead, and Gary suggested going to America in November and driving from Boston to Chicago. I suggested flying to Florida and driving westwards as far as Texas (a warmer alternative - the only thing I know about Chicago is that it is cold in November). We decided to ask Robert Leiper to join us.

Gary Spencer then became very grave (an unusual mood for him) and began to talk despondently about Iran and the likelihood of an international crisis in the Middle East. Being a financial advisor, he has a very narrow expertise which counter-balances his other interests of football, Florida holidays and family life. When he talks about politics it is not ordinary speculations based on items in the news media, but specific issues with financial implications. He told me that the Iranian situation is going to become very serious and that if I want to make some money I should be buying gold. I sat and listened to him without comment. And I thought: if things are really that bad, why aren’t we reading about it in the newspapers?

(Above): Driving to work across the plain on Thursday, I saw this winter sunrise

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Charles Kennedy (recently-resigned Leader of the Liberal Party)

I wish Charles Kennedy (recently-resigned Leader of the Liberal Party) had put up more of a fight. Although I havn’t (yet) voted Liberal, I felt he was a good bloke. He made me laugh when he appeared on TV shows. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He didn’t lecture people and go on and on at them about what they should be thinking / doing / not doing / not thinking. When he didn’t agree with something (like the Iraq war) he just voted against it without any of the lying and backstairs manoeuvring most of the other politicians got up to.

The fact that he is fighting a drink problem makes him more human. More interesting as a person. Perhaps David Cameron (new leader of the Conservative Party) will offer him a job?

Somehow my responsibility

(Above): …in showers of golden beams (like an Egyptian carved relief in homage to the sun-disc Aten).

First week back at work, and it was difficult to adjust to the routine - until suddenly the recent holiday faded into memory and the reality of the corporate world took over. There was one little diversion - the Managing Director, Marc Bottoni, has been encouraging me to spend more time over at the company’s eastern counties branch (more to assure the staff there that they are not completely cut off, rather than for any practical reason). So at the end of the week I arranged a trip over there.

At the eastern counties office there was the same flat atmosphere as at Head Office - half the staff still on holiday, no real activity by customers, empty look to the offices once the cards and decorations had been taken down.

I established myself at a vacant desk and began organising on a Word document my Things To Do list - a schedule of mammoth proportions since Marketing gets lumbered with hundreds of jobs no-one else can be bothered with. Among these thankless tasks is to respond to the many requests for charitable sponsorship the company gets (at least three or four per week). The company has a small sponsorship budget which is usually already allocated before it is handed over to me to administer (mostly sponsoring junior football teams which include players who are the sons of company staff). My job is to arrange some PR for the sponsorship we are committed to, and to sift through all the other requests and bring to the board’s notice anything I think the company should be doing. In practice this is an impossible undertaking since how do you decide to help one good cause over another? Also, the amounts of money available are so small that the impact of our sponsorship would be negligible (and thus impossible to justify since the Finance Director is bound to ask for hard reasons why we have given money away and what we have got back in terms of PR exposure).

But occasionally I come across a local charity small enough that our money will have an effect, and yet worthy enough to survive the cross-questioning in a board meeting (unlike the usual supplications to support hospital radio, assist playing field associations, fund student children of directors while they “volunteer” during their gap year).

So towards midday I left the eastern counties office and drove through the countryside about ten miles. The sky was mostly composed of a grey blanket of cloud through which the sun occasionally penetrated, in showers of golden beams (like an Egyptian carved relief in homage to the sun-disc Aten). The roads became increasingly rural, the views to either side displaying the drab dull detritus of winter.

Eventually arrived at a tiny village. In the grounds of a Carmelite convent I stopped at a red brick residence which had been made over to a children’s hospice. I was there about two hours talking to the fund-raising officer about ways in which the company could help (a long-term relationship rather than just a one-off grant of money). We went on a tour of the building and garden and came across one of the staff with a small toddler called Anthony in a push chair.

“He’s got water on the brain…” the carer said, “…he wasn’t expected to live this long.”

The fund-raising officer explained that a lot of what the hospice did was to take in children so that their parents could rest. It was a very thought-provoking visit. I felt that the children were somehow my responsibility.

On the way back it began to rain - quite heavily for a while. I stopped at a shop to buy a newspaper. Two soldiers in camouflage were in the shop doorway debating the rain, and eventually they decided to run (they ran in step, heavy boots thudding on the road).

(Above): the drab dull detritus of winter

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A letter from Robert Leiper

(Above): Pheasant that took refuge on one of the outhouse roofs.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday - for three days I was at home alone (only the dog for company). I had been looking forward to this period of peace between Christmas and New Year, intending to catch up with so many things before I began work again. I imagined I would finish a big project, do some freelance writing, get to the end of a book (a biography) I have been reading since November.

In reality I hardly got anything done. I would get up at 9, sit around until lunchtime, fall asleep (despite having huge amounts of sleep over the past week I always seem to be tired). Then on Wedneday snow began falling, so that effectively the house was snowed-in (not entirely cut off - just unwise to take the car out as I would have to go through a mile of uncleared snow until reaching a main road). Instead of enhancing my solitude it had the reverse effect, and I began to remember all the things I urgently needed to do in the town. Also, I had given no real thought as to meals, and had to subsist on remnants of party food (half bottles of flat champagne, almost-stale pastries, milk that was five days old). There was plenty of Christmas cake, mince pies, packets of crisps, but I wanted steak, fresh bread, even some chips.

Friday the snow finally began to clear as rain fell, eventually creating a watery slush. The postman got through, bringing a long letter from Robert Leiper, which I put on one side to read later. I managed to take the dog to the end of the lane, getting my feet soaked in the process. At midday a group of local farmers appeared in the fields around the house and began shooting pheasants. They were dressed in waxed jackets and flat caps, accompanied by an assortment of dogs. They positioned themselves round the edge of each field, then three or four of them methodically walked through, shooting as they moved. Pheasants are not supposed to be intelligent birds, but some of them knew enough about what was happening to take refuge in our garden. One of them even perched up on an outhouse, parading defiantly in full view of the guns. When my parents were alive the farmers would ask permission to walk through the lower half of the garden while shooting, but they never ask now (perhaps they realise I would say no).

Having wasted most of the day in idleness (loafing around, watching bad television, day-dreaming about leaving my job) late in the afternoon I finally got round to reading Robert Leiper's letter. It was written on yellow exercise paper and carried the address of a farm in northern California. He talked about the cabin he was staying in, overlooking valley slopes covered in vineyards. He described the simplicity of his life compared to the complexity of living in New York. He gave an update on the progress he is making on his book (ostensibly the main reason he moved to California). On the surface the letter described someone getting his life together after the disastrous experience with "CW", focussing on the important goals he wants to achieve, simplifying his surroundings so that distractions were at a minimum.

And yet...

The whole letter, to my mind, conveyed a sense of longing and emptiness, as if the flight to California hadn't achieved the desired effect of "getting over" CW. CW was the overt subject of two paragraphs, and the subvert topic of the entire letter. He even mentioned coming over to England in the Summer (obviously with the intention of going to Sussex and provoking a meeting with CW - which can only have one consequence!).

Robert Leiper is one of those individuals who are too sensitive for their own good. How many put-downs will he need to endure before he finally realises the relationship can't be revived? Also, CW on her own ground, and surrounded by her intimidating family, is going to be much more formidable than the innocent art critic adrift in New York.

Like the pheasant parading on the rooftop, Robert Leiper in England is going to be an exotic creature asking to be shot down (metaphorically speaking).