Thursday, November 30, 2006

Russian dissident murdered in London

Above: Russian doll in the window of a champagne shop in the West End.

It’s interesting to follow the story of the Russian dissident murdered in London through Polonium poisoning. It’s like a short story by Somerset Maugham (one of his 1928 Ashendon series or Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent). My brother collects videos of spy stories – as well as being inordinately interested in James Bond (we plan to go and see Casino Royale as soon as the cinemas become less crowded) he has an old video of John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People which he watches regularly, as well as (my favourite) The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Richard Burton in a very seedy black and white view of 1950s inner London where tinned peaches represented the height of sybaritic luxury).

Matryoshka dolls date from the 1890s and have become a cliché of the Russian image as seen from the West (one enigma contained within another).

The Russian agents must be feeling very confident for them to murder someone so openly in the centre of London (unless they had the collusion of the British Government, which would not surprise me given how morally bankrupt the current administration has become).

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Post Office Tower... from Old Compton Street

View of the Post Office Tower (I think it has a different name now, like BT Tower) from Old Compton Street. Architects of the tower were Bedford and Yeats working for the Ministry of Works. It was opened in 1966 by the then Postmaster General Anthony Wedgwood Benn (now Tony Benn).

It used to have a rotating restaurant on the 34th Floor called (unsurprisingly) Top of the Tower. In the 1967 film Smashing Time (a satire on 1960s swinging London) the rotation mechanism spins out of control (it looks funnier than it sounds) and blacks out the whole of London. In 1971 the IRA tried to blow up the tower and it was closed to the public.

The lack of access adds a sense of mystery to the building.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Working dogs

Display of working dogs at a village on the heath. The dogs are Jack Russell terriers, for a long time not recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club. Fearless and fast, the dogs are ideal for rural areas (especially good at hunting rats). They are also good guard dogs as they will bark at any unfamiliar noise. We used to have a Jack Russell dog called Patch. When he died we got another Jack Russell called Charlie – except that Charlie has grown tall, and has such a mild temperament that he is obviously not a pure bred terrier but a gentle old-fashioned mongrel.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The vast majority of social problems can be traced back to family breakdown

There was an interesting discussion about poverty on the Today Programme this morning. Talking it over with friends at lunchtime (including a solicitor who defends a lot of petty criminals) the vast majority of social problems can be traced back to family breakdown. Noting down some of the suggestions:

1 Divorce is too easy and encourages people to walk away from their responsibilities – amend the law so that if you have children under 18 you cannot have a divorce.

2 Where a marriage doesn’t exist the law should automatically create a basic civil partnership the moment a child is born, even if both biological parents cannot immediately be identified.

3 Abandoning children before they are 18 (by mothers or fathers) should be socially unacceptable, regarded as a form of child abuse, and carry financial penalties (on top of maintenance payments).

4 Grandparents should have access rights – this would increase the amount of scrutiny and family control over a child’s upbringing.

5 Soap operas have acquired an unreasonable influence over social groups D and E, and they need to be more responsible about the messages they are giving out (lazy writers create attractive characters and then have them drift from one improbable relationship to another – critics need to be a lot harder on these writers).

6 Make the existing laws work.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

On a subliminal level

The television advertisement for PC World currently running has to be one of the most wooden and clunky commercials ever aired. It comprises sequences of “customers” talking to “sales assistants” (all played by actors) with pedestrian dialogue that resembles a government information film. The ad ends with a gigantic masonic handshake filling the screen (are they unaware of the cultural implications of this image? Is no-one advising them?).

Previously PC World ran TV commercials that featured a lead “face” (an alpha male sales manager) stamping on the showroom floor, the force of his stamping supposedly forcing the floor lower. The message of the ad is that PC World is stamping down prices. Every time I saw the ad I was reminded of George Orwell writing in 1984: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

This image has entered western culture, and not just the obvious German goose-stepping example (transmogrified into marching hammers in the Pink Floyd animation accompanying Another Brick In The Wall). You can see the motif in rock music, vacuous Jessica Simpson videos, even a logo for Dover Council’s unit for suppressing anti-social behaviour (on a subliminal level I find the use of this logo by Dover Council disturbing and seemingly a vindication of Orwell’s vision. Anti-social elements could be non-conformists and dissidents just as much as delinquents and vandals. And in any case I would prefer a “hug a hoodie” policy to Orwellian-style stamping on people – but then I live in a rural area where crime is extremely low, and I might have a different view if I lived on a south London sink estate).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bookshop in Great Russell Street

Antiquarian bookshop in Great Russell Street – there has been a bookshop in this builidng for over a hundred years. Formerly the home of book illustrator Randolph Caldecott. Good for rare editions of Dickens.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The film Marie-Antoinette

I went to see the film Marie-Antoinette at the weekend. Directed by Sofia Coppola, it starred Kirsten Dunst as the ill-fated young queen. Rather than being a sequential biography (which could have been a bit boring given the Thomas Paine “rights of man” moralising which usually accompanies any examination of this period), the film was comprised of a series of set-pieces that cleverly resembled the theatrical tableaus of the 18th century.

The symbolism of the film had several ironic layers of meaning so that you could read the story in different ways. For instance the Queen of France seemed to be constantly eating elaborate cakes. Versailles in the early morning light had a haunted quality that paralleled the later (20th century) sightings of a ghostly Marie-Antoinette returning to the scenes of her former excesses. The anachronistic soundtrack suggested that the entire movie was inspired by the career of the Princess of Wales in the late 1980s. It was a complex film that covered many issues and could be read through several interpretations. Not obviously commercial, but the sort of film that will acquire a considerable following through a “long tail”.

I went to see the film with Helen B and Kim Blacha. When we emerged from the cinema they seemed to be in a state of shock. “The clothes” they gasped to each other, “did you see the clothes!”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Feelings of nausea, horror and fascination

In the local newspaper was a report about the retirement of one of the paper’s senior reporters. In the article she thanked various people for their help over the years and recounted the various “top” stories she had been involved in over the years (as this is a very quiet part of the world none of them were particularly eye-catching – the local by-pass campaign, the occasional visit from minor royalty, late night fights among youths in the Market Square etc). However, one story did interest me.

Her first story as a trainee reporter was to follow up a report of a partially decomposed body uncovered on a local farm. She had gone out to the farm and arrived at the same time as the police, meeting the farmer who had uncovered the body when ploughing a field. The farmer was in a terrible state, distraught that such a tragic discovery should have been made on his land.

With feelings of nausea, horror and fascination, the trainee reporter accompanied the police as they walked though the muddy furrows to where the body was lying. The police prodded the body, and muttered to each other. The “body” turned out to be a gigantic mandrake root, rotten and stinking.

Mandrake roots are unusual in that they roughly approximate to the human form. Locally they can grow to a good size, although very seldom are they over five feet long. More on mandrakes at,%20Mandrake.jpg

Thursday, November 09, 2006

It was a local holocaust

Saturday (tomorrow) is Armistice Day and Sunday is Remembrance Day. In the Village Hall a scale model of the Cenotaph has been set up, with an exhibition of medals, photographs and letters. The plan on Sunday is for the service to begin at the War Memorial, then process to the church for the usual Morning Service, and then finish with coffee in the Village Hall.

There are three War Memorials in the village – a gothic pillar on the edge of the green, a marble monument to the fallen in the north aisle of the church, and a framed list (elaborate calligraphy including gold initial letters) of all who served. Looking at the list of casualties, there are about fifty names from the First World War (including many family groups), and five from the Second.

The many names from the 1914-18 conflict reflects the large numbers of manual labourers who for generations had worked on the surrounding farms (the young men finished the harvest before volunteering in early October 1914, many of them never returning). The First World War had a devastating effect on the village. It was a local holocaust.

Recently an American-style “Veterans Day” has been introduced on June 27th. This is supposed to be an additional opportunity to honour the armed forces. Cynics say that the government has introduced Veterans Day with the intention of dropping Remembrance Day at some point in the future (Remembrance Day has long been criticised as “anti-European” and not politically correct).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It was as if I had just seen the Pied Piper of Hamelin

My car was out of action and a work colleague had to drive me to the local train station so that I could get home by public transport. We left the office just as it was starting to get dark. We made good progress into the town centre and I was confident of catching the train.

However, within a quarter mile of the station we were stopped by police standing in the road. They made no attempt to search the car or ask us to get out or anything, they just walked up and down in the road, as if killing time. Traffic began to build up behind us.

The streets around us were completely deserted (it’s the sort of town were everywhere is closed by about five o’clock). It had been raining and the dying sun created a sheen on the wet road. Minutes passed and I began to wonder whether I would catch the train. Very faintly we heard the sound of flutes and drums. Gradually the noise became louder, then louder still. The police in front of us stood to attention – very slovenly.

From the pedestrianised street to our right came a pipe and drum band, comprised of youths in a sort of bottle green uniform and wearing berets. They were marching two abreast, and were followed by platoons of navy cadets, army cadets and then RAF cadets, all in uniform and carrying pennants. Immediately following were a group of elderly men in dark suits, and women in smart clothes. Then there was a small coterie of people in what looked like fancy dress – fur-trimmed robes, tricorn hats with ostrich feathers, golden chains of office. Because the cadet troops at the front were marching at quite a pace these dignitaries had to walk very fast to keep up – it looked as if they were power-walking. Following behind was a troop of Brownies, then Girl Guides, then Boy Scouts. At the end of the formal procession came a ragtag assortment of people in anoraks, laughing children, people wheeling bikes. I scrabbled in my folder and found my camera, just managing to take pictures of the dignitaries as they passed in front of the car. Apologies for the quality of these photos – they were walking very fast, and the light was fading.

“It’s the Mayor and Corporation” said my colleague. “I wonder where they’re off to. There’ll be a good dinner in it for them no doubt.”

After the procession had passed the police stood aside and waved us through. The scene had been very surreal. It was as if I had just seen the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Marks & Spencer announced a 35% increase in profits

Above: Directed by Paul Nelson, the M&S television commercials were beautifully shot in a variety of London locations. 1960s model Twiggy starred in the advertisements (obviously it's not Twiggy in the picture above - it's one of the other models in the ad). The soundtrack was by Bryan Ferry (who is also a “face” of M&S menswear).

Marks & Spencer announced a 35% increase in profits today, industry insiders crediting the rise to its autumn advertising campaign. M&S was notorious for decades as a major company that spurned all idea of media advertising. They thought that because they had developed a unique way of retailing they would always command customer loyalty.

This hubris nearly destroyed the company as imitators copied their sales formula and then added the power of media advertising to make their offering irresistible. On a personal level I suffered from the M&S blinkered approach as I used to work as a marketing manager for a company that supplied Marks & Spencer. Whenever I suggested an advertising campaign I was rebuffed (as if I was some poor simple fool) and told that Marks & Spencer was a sterling example that media advertising was just an expensive waste of money.