Friday, March 31, 2006

A Dickensian survival

Street vendor in Oxford Street selling roast chestnuts. The chestnuts are roasted on a coal brazier. A Dickensian survival that survives mostly on tourist trade these days.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Marketing sports clothing is very controversial

Celebrity endorsement of a product can often be a short cut to achieving all the brand attributes that usually take years (and cost a fortune) to build up by brand awareness advertising and word-of-mouth recommendation. Adidas had a tired brand, associated with the 1970s. A series of campaigns over the years never really got them out of the doldrums and into a position where they could compete with Nike.

Recently however they seem to be making progress, thanks to the endorsement of footballers such as David Beckham. The Predator Pulse shoes actually carries David Beckham’s thumbprint moulded into it (not sure what this is meant to imply). Marketing sports clothing is very controversial, particularly when it is aimed at younger people.

Teenagers are at a stage where they are emerging from the collective identity of their family and seeking to “invent” the person they want to become (Maslow’s stage of self-actualisation). It is very common for them to choose a figure from popular culture (Madonna or David Beckham) and copy them, sometimes going to obsessive lengths. Sports marketing companies exploit this – for instance by changing a football strip every season so that new purchases have to be made to acquire the latest “look”. They know that teenagers especially will experience anxiety if they cannot keep up-to-date with the person they are seeking to emulate. Not sure whether the marketing profession should be condemned for exploiting vulnerable people or praised for offering a way of satisfying the basic human need of self-actualisation. Or perhaps the families are responsible for not giving their children adequate role models?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Immediately boosts sales of a product

(Above) Prince of Wales Warrant on a shop in the West End. The media (and some members of the government) portray the POW as an irrelevant eccentric but there are many examples where he provides original solutions to apparently intractable problems. Concern for the environment and genetically modified crops (dating back to when the subject was deeply unfashionable), bridge-building visits to the Middle East at a time when relations with the Islamic world have become polarised, The Prince’s Trust providing business opportunities for unemployed young people – his initiatives show real leadership as opposed to the sham leadership provided by buffoons such as Charles Clarke (Home Secretary).

Endorsements and badges of quality represent branding in one of its purest forms – marking a product or service with an identifiable image. In the United Kingdom the most valued quality mark is a Royal Warrant. Adding a Royal Warrant immediately boosts sales of a product, despite the government’s attempts to talk up popular republicanism (presumably to remove the last checks on their desire for total power).

I used to work for a company which held a Royal Warrant. To get a Royal Warrant a company has to supply the Royal Household with a product or service for about five years. Usually smaller, family run companies are favoured (although small companies can obviously grow into big multi-nationals over time). The Warrant has to be renewed on a regular basis and has to be awarded to an individual in a company, not to the company as a whole. The Queen and the Prince of Wales each award their own warrants. This causes a problem for existing Royal Warrant holders.

Usually each monarch carries on with the existing suppliers of the previous reign, new Warrants being issued as the need arises (it is very unusual for a Royal Warrant to be taken away – as happened to Mohammed Fayed, owner of Harrods). But the Prince of Wales has decided that only companies that achieve the ISO environmental standard will qualify for the POW Warrant. This makes companies holding the Queen’s Royal Warrant very nervous, as when she dies a big chunk of their sales is likely to die with her.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

They all call me Bin Laden

Cheeky beggar in a seedy London street. I gave him £1 then asked if I could take his photo (the one wasn’t conditional on the other). He was really pleased that I wanted his image, and chatted away about his life.

“I’ve been banned from all the shops round here.”

“Why have you been banned?”

“I dunno, for some reason they don’t like me. They all call me Bin Laden. The police have just stopped me and searched my bags.”

A tall man strides past.

“What do they all call me?” the beggar asks the tall man.

“Bin Laden” said the tall man, not looking round or pausing his stride.

From nowhere three police appeared, two men and a woman. All three were stocky in build, good-natured and smiling, filling the pavement. Their arrival made the vagrant edgy (literally – he was trying to edge away).

“What’s all this?”

“I collect images of marginal groups in society” I said (I could tell they didn’t take this explanation seriously).

“There are people round here who would take a nice camera like that” said one of the policemen. From the way he said “people” I knew he was referring to the vagrant. “They can run faster than I can” (this seemed unlikely as the policeman looked very athletic).

The police stood and watched as I took the photo. Right at the last moment the vagrant put up his right hand in a Churchillian V-for-victory sign, blurring the image. There wasn’t an opportunity to take a second picture as the vagrant immediately hurried away.

Monday, March 27, 2006

(Threatened) migrating birds

One of the earliest (threatened) migrating birds seen in the county is the tree pipit, usually arriving in the first week of April. The birds nest on the ground in open woodland and live off a diet of small insects and berries. They are chiefly noted for their song-flight – an accelerating “tseep” sound which they make as they rise above a tree and then “parachute” down on stiff wings.

This preserved albino tree pipit was on display at a provincial museum. The exhibit was almost as rare as the bird itself as most museums have removed their collections of stuffed birds because they are no longer regarded as politically correct. Museums are increasingly falling under the control of self-righteous professionals who seek to control the interpretation of the past according to their own prejudices.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Les Amants Reguliers at the Cine Lumiere

Recently I went to the Cine Lumiere in Knightsbridge to see Les Amants Reguliers. Because no-one I know is interested in French cinema I ended up going on my own. The Cine Lumiere is in the French Institute, just off Cromwell Road.

Les Amants Reguliers stars Louis Garrel (son of the director of the film Phillipe Garrel) and Clotilde Hesme. It is set in 1968 and follows a group of Parisian students as they riot, take drugs, indulge in free love. The sense of time and place is conveyed very effectively, particularly as the film has been made in black and white (lots of stark images, clever compositions, modulated textures). Although it was a serious (even ponderous) study, there was quite a lot of humour. It examined many aspects of the French character (the student-poet who evades the police by taking refuge in the apartment of his father's mistress; the dour magistrate who believes all poets should be put in gaol as a matter of course; the students who never seem to do any work and exist in a world where everything they need is handed to them). At three hours, I thought the film was too long (or was that meant to convey the sense of ennui the students were obviously suffering from?).

In an example of Jungian synchronicity, I was in the cinema watching a film about rioting French students, while at the same time in Paris real students had begun rioting.

Above: photo of a news broadcast on the second day of the Paris riots. Apologies for showing the Fox News logo - this is not meant as any endorsement of Rupert Murdoch. As a current affairs channel Fox News displays very poor journalistic standards and I sometimes watch the station to see just how many facts they can get wrong.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Gordon Brown on the Today Programme this morning

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was on the Today Programme this morning in the prestige ten-past-eight interview slot. The interview was interesting as revealing the media style of the (possible) next Prime Minister. I was so interested in the way he was speaking that I only heard half of what he said.

Gordon Brown was very skilful at answering the questions within his competency as Chancellor. On broader issues his style changed and became a strange mixture of hesitancy and agitation (repeating words twice in quick succession, inserting "er" frequently, struggling to get words out of his mouth). When asked about the Iraq war his reply was clumsily evasive and he just referred the interviewer to speeches he had given on the subject.

He was obviously uncomfortable about misleading people (which we all knew he was doing). On a human level this was a very likeable quality. As a professional politician he is going to have to learn to lie with confidence.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

An unsettling quality to the atmosphere

Torrential rain fell from a brown-grey sky. Impromptu streams formed themselves inthe middle of the roads, making driving difficult. It was very cold.

I have often had the experience, in my researches, of penetrating into ever more remote areas of the county, only to find even more obscure communities that lie beyond. Just as you think you know a region, it surprises you with yet another aspect that appears, as if from nowhere.

Such a district is the south-easternmost part of the escarpment (the hills peter out, but unexpectedly appear again, at a lower level, hidden by trees). This group of wooded hills is crossed by a confusing cats cradle of lanes between two market towns. There is an unsettling quality to the atmosphere in this locality, almost a creepiness - not entirely unpleasant, but there are places you would not want to stay after night has fallen. An example being the village I went to last Sunday.

It comprised a tiny estate around an Edwardian hall, the village all of a piece architecturally. The village was at the base of a small valley, with a sluggish and meandering river going through it. Steep slopes to the sides of the valley, very green fields, hedgerows bordering the lanes with oak trees dotted along them (the trees so swathed in ivy they appear to be choking). There were a few large farmhouses, and a short street of cottages, all built in a picturesque style (knapped flints, redbrick quoins, high gables). The cottages were physically small, but had a grandiose appearance, as if they were miniature mansions - the rooms inside these cottages must be miniscule(the picturesque life was always uncomfortable). Out in the fields, placed strategically for theatrical effect, were isolated cottages, now ruined and tumbledown, sheep looking inquisitively out of the gaping holes where the front doors would have been.

Crossing the river over a small humped-back bridge, I entered a world that was cold, damp and beautiful. There was an extremely sharp bend to the road, and then the little village street with the main entrance to the hall at the end (the hall was a jewel of Edwardian architecture - an expansive, self-satisfied sort of building, built for a banker in 1905 and allowed to run-down in recent years following the death of a young heir in a car crash). To one side of the hall gates was the church, high on a bank, with a round tower and heavy buttresses supporting thewalls.

I got the key to the church from a nearby bungalow, standing in the rain while the elderly lady searched for it, then continuing to stand in the rain while she chatted about the village (I was right about thehouses being damp - the closeness of the river and the canopy of trees create a densely moist environment). The grass was very spongy in the rain, and the path up to the church porch was slippery. The lock was stiff, and I struggled for a while with the ancient key.

Eventually the key turned and I pushed open the heavy door. Immediately inside the door it was dark, and the darkness became intense after the door swung shut behind me. Moving forward, I entered the main body of the church where a brownish light came through the windows from the wet afternoon sky. The rain thundered down on the roof.

The interior was basically one large room divided into a nave and a chancel. The furnishings were sumptuous Victorian, with brass chandeliers suspended over the chancel like golden crowns (looking up at them through the murky light I saw that they held candles, so yet another building in the twenty-first century lit by candlelight). Some indifferent medieval wall paintings, preserved more for their great antiquity rather than any artistic merit.

I had walked about halfway down the length of the church, when my intuition told me, insistently: something is behind you . Looking round I saw the upper half of the west end was filled by a gallery, and on this gallery I could see dazzlingPre-Raphaelite figures (highly coloured with golden halos). In the gloom I thought for a moment (an unpleasant moment) the figures were alive, until rationality gained control andI could see that they were painted on a huge elaborate cabinet, of immense proportions, containing the church organ.

Returning the key to the bungalow I again stood in the rain (not so heavy) while the old lady talked about the village. The parish had been dominated for over a century by a dynasty of Rectors who passed the Living down, father to son, in a sort of ecclesiastical monarchy. The organ was one of the treasures of the area, and had been brought to the church during the Second World War when the village it was previously located in had been taken over by the military. There had been a long feud between the Rectors of the church and the lords of the manor, and one of the more irascible occupants of the Hall had been buried just inside the church door so that everyone entering the building stepped on his grave. I jotted down all her stories into my notebook, the falling spots of rain making the ink run. Just as I was leaving I asked her about a reference I had read in an obscure local history that the parish had once had two medieval churches, and that the ruins of the other church could still be seen.

"Ah, but it's no longer in ruins" she said mysteriously. "It's been restored in the last few years. The restoration has been a labour of love by one man. It's up on the ridge by the old bridlepath. It's not easy to find. You can't drive there, you'll have to park up at the field gate and walk."

I wrote down her directions and a rough map so that I could find the way if I ever returned to the village.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


My PC at home has become infected with a virus. Not sure how long it will take me to fix it (I'm not very technically minded). Can't post photos, and text posts are likely to be limited for the time being.

Friday, March 17, 2006

So many details that can (and do) go wrong

Another horrible afternoon - the campaigns are going well, but there are so many details that can (and do) go wrong that it is very stressful. Added to this is the fact that I have to do everything myself, with no-one to help (check things, check things again, check things a third time because the artwork still hasn't been done right). One of the other marketing staff in the office (aged 28, approximately resembles X-Factor Shayne Ward, whistles and sings all day) was helpful with strategic phone numbers and suggestions but I felt so angry with the general situation that I must have seemed off-hand and rude (recently I have started to get angry when things go wrong, which is not my usual response).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Horrible day

Horrible day at work - actually horrible afternoon as I was off in the morning.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Historical connections previously unsuspected

Very often as I visit variously remote villages I come across historical connections previously unsuspected. For instance this sign propped up against a pillar in a remote country church. Hand written, possibly recording a tradition handed down through the generations, vulnerable to being thrown out or stolen (and so the historical anecdote would be lost).

Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Let them eat cake" I thought to myself

With Helen B and Kim Blacha to the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. This is one of London's least known museums, despite being in the heart of the West End. We went there to see an exhibition on the furniture of Marie-Antoinette, then in its final days (actually they went to see the exhibition, I just tagged along).

The museum building, Hertford House (above), houses an art collection put together by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (his daughter in law gave it to the nation in 1897). You go in the front entrance (admission is free) and enter an interior that is almost overpowering in terms of richness and colour. Mostly on display is French decorative art of the 18th century, with a surprising number of famous paintings (Poussin, Fragonard, Watteau etc).

During the day the place is filled with history of art students - serious and attractive young women, carefully dressed, moving slowly, gathering in groups around objects while a lecturer gushes. It's as if the Wallace Collection is a factory churning out these Art History graduates, so that you wonder how many of them will be able to use their qualification in later life. The graduates are like the objects in the Wallace Collection itself - delicate, beautiful and impractical.
The Marie-Antoinette exhibition was in such a small room that you could easily miss it. I felt like saying "Is this it?" A few items of furniture, a handful of decorative objects, interpretive panels of photographs and text. We went round each of the items looking at them closely. Secretaires, appliques de meuble, pendules de chiminee. The impression I gained of the Louis XVI style was of an overwhelming sickliness, as if I had eaten an entire box of dark chocolates while listening to the songs of Paul McCartney.

When Helen and Kim had finished looking round the exhibition we went downstairs to the Cafe Bagatelle which was in the old museum courtyard, now roofed over with glass. This must be the most rarefied cafe in London. In a design by Rick Mather, Victorian and contemporary sculptures have been scattered around the wide court, mixed with balustrades, fountains and potted palms. The muted colour scheme contrasts with the excessively decorative and gilded gallery exhibits that can be glimpsed through the windows overlooking the court. We sat on wicker armchairs at tables covered in white cloths. The hush and reverence of the cafe contrasted with the livelier atmosphere in the museum itself (surely it should have been the other way round?).

The service was very very slow.

We ordered tea, and Helen and Kim had slices of gateau ("Let them eat cake" I thought to myself). The cult of Marie-Antoinette has never particularly interested me, although I will try to see the film Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola (released this autumn). I was left out of the specialised discussion Helen and Kim had about the exhibition, and idled my time away.

Later, on the way to the cinema, we talked about Versailles and the escapist Hameau built in the grounds where the ghost of Marie Antoinette was supposedly seen about a century ago by two women (who wrote a best selling book on the subject). Kim Blacha described the music video Nothing Compares To You by Sinead O'Connor which was filmed at Versailles and has a haunting quality (although in the video, wearing black, Sinead O'Connor resembles Nosferatu rather than Marie Antoinette).

Above: The Marie-Antoinette style comes back into fashion every twenty years or so. The 2006 film Marie-Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola, was based on the biography by Lady Antonia Fraser. The 1938 film Marie-Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power, was based on the biography by Stefan Zweig (one of Robert Leiper’s favourite authors).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Today has poured with rain

After weeks of dry cold drought today has poured with rain. In New Oxford Street is this umbrella shop which is interesting because it has remained unchanged (inside and out) for a hundred and forty years. They claim to have sold umbrellas to Gladstone, Bonar Law (only Prime Minister born outside the United Kingdom) and Lord Curzon.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Recumbent effigies in the south aisle

Through modern wrought iron gates, across the wide shallow moat and along the gravel drive which curved slightly. The island enclosed by the moat is quite large, comprising some four or five acres, mostly wooded gardens. The moat was first constructed in prehistoric times by our brythonic ancestors (in an archaeological excavation about sixty years ago the skeletons of two men, buried in sawdust, with mosaic rings on their arms, were found). DNA tests in isolated communities show that the genetic descendants of the brythons are still among us. The Roman's built a villa within the moat, and in the subsequent two thousand years the residence has been rebuilt and rebuilt until its present manifestation - plain Regency of 1812, faced in stucco and painted cream. A venerable cedar tree obscured with a verdant veil my first view of the house.

In front of the house the moat widens into a lake, and because the building is so close to the water's edge you had to walk right across the front and down a slope before you could look back and get a complete view of the main facade. Rising three floors, the top storey had an open loggia with a rooftop terrace behind (Pevsner says this arrangement was put in after a fire destroyed the attic rooms in the 1950s - a familiar fate of country houses lit by candles). There is a legend that inside the house is a secret hiding place next to one of the fireplaces, and that a recusant priest taking refuge in this hole suffocated with the heat and smoke, his skeleton being found years afterwards.

At some point a landscape gardener had widened the moat in front of the house so that it became an ornamental lake. In the subdued light of a late February afternoon the water looked as mysterious as Dozmary Pool. A discarded oar, looking forlorn, acted as a reminder of summer boating sessions.

To the side of the house were the stables, in substantial Victorian brick. The main house had a small coat of arms on the front facade (just below the loggia) but the stables had a massive crest on the front, denoting the pride felt in the horseflesh within. In an echo of Rupert Brooke the stable clock said ten to three.

A crest is not the same as a coat of arms. Arms (which are regulated by the College of Arms in London) are worn on a shield, whereas a crest is a device worn on the top of a knight's helmet. This crest features a regardant lion (ie looking backwards) holding a crowned head (a decapitated foe whose head was thrown to wild beasts?).

Looking into the Tackroom you could see saddle pads, saddles, bridles, whips (stood up in a traffic cone), feed supplements, cleaning materials.

Horseshoes on a stable window sill, all carefully pointing the right way (lest the luck should run out). Horseshoes are regarded as lucky because they are made of iron, which is supposed to repel evil. They also have seven nail holes, which is a lucky number.

Across the lane was the church, built of ironstone, a Saxon foundation but rebuilt over the ages.

The Poor Box was carved from a single slab of wood, with the date 1639, and the inscription: This is God's Treasury cast one mite into it (was this a reference to the widow who cast one mite, her entire wealth, into the Temple treasury?).

Recumbent effigies in the south aisle. Two stone knights (and another one in the chancel). Obviously knights are mounted on horseback, so horses must have been kept at the hall since at least the middle ages.

Effigies of knights usually show the feet resting on a dog or a lion, but one of these effigies showed puppies either side of the head. It's a poor photograph, but you can make out the worn shape of a puppy. He was a man who liked dogs!

Outside the church the countryside fell away in gentle slopes.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Brand awareness 3

Sometimes marketing can lose its way and become too clever and sophisticated. This farm shop has got the marketing exactly right. Situated on a busy road they have put out homemade signs that simply tell the truth (the most effective kind of marketing!). The hens are happy, the potatos are local and the shop is open. Everything about the place tells you it is authentic (the sight, the sound, the smell). As a shopping experience this is hard to beat.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Brand awareness 2

Lacoste is a very sophisticated brand, with lots of messages packed into what are essentially very simple products. The company was founded in 1933 by Rene Lacoste, a famous French tennis player. His wife and daughter were famous golf players. The family promoted the chemise Lacoste, a polo shirt, and this item of clothing was purchased by huge numbers of people who wanted to be associated with the Lacoste style (elegance of movement, effortless success, wholesome attractiveness). It is a marketing technique that relies upon very deep-seated human beliefs. Sir James Frazer, writing in The Golden Bough, said that ancient priests and warriors would wear the skins of animals (lions, bears, tigers) in the belief that they would acquire the attributes of the creatures they were impersonating (in some societies such as the Aztecs, captured warriors would be flayed and their skins worn so that their courage would be transferred to the wearer).

The chemise Lacoste was one of the defining products of the 1980s, and in recent years this cult image has experienced a revival. Recently they announced a celebrity endorsement deal with Andy Roddick, rising British tennis star. This indicates they are re-positioning the brand as an up and coming contender (rather than the established old-timer it actually is).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Brand awareness 1

Deans Shortbread fingers. On a shelf in Tescos the packaging looked distinctive from the other biscuits on offer. The price was more expensive than Tescos shortbread (in jaunty Stewart tartan packets). I like to try anything that's new, so I bought some of the Deans shortbread. Now I am addicted, and have these biscuits with my morning cup of tea. Even at the risk of being late for work.