Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The power of images

Whatever you think about the political issues, John Prescott’s foray into croquet playing is a disaster in terms of his image as a politician. Formerly he was seen as “northern”, “working class” proletarian, uneducated (but not unintelligent). When attacked by an egg-thrower he responded with his fists rather than witty repartee.

Now the name John Prescott is associated with “grace and favour”, “country house” and, most incredibly, “croquet” (a game of elitist, effete social climbers). Newsnight yesterday lampooned this episode by linking it to the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland, implying John Prescott inhabits a topsy-turvey world where nothing makes sense anymore. This level of ridicule is destroying John Prescott’s credibility as we watch – it is unlikely that anything can save him now (unless the government has already accepted, as John Major did in the late 90s, that the next election is already lost and therefore it doesn’t matter what the people think).

It proves once again the power of images.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A possible cure for arthritis

In the countryside the dogroses have finally started flowering in the hedgerows. After the flowers will come the rose hips. Rose hips have recently been identified as a possible cure for arthritis.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The plane trees brooded motionless...

Tottenham Court Road, early evening, towards the end of May (just before the Bank Holiday). London Plane trees can be seen all over the city. In Keep The Aspidistra Flying George Orwell wrote: “The plane trees brooded motionless, dimmed by faint wreaths of mist…”

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A village down on the plain

There is an escalating sort of process between hearing about a place, reading about it, then thinking about it and constructing it in my imagination, then going there and seeing it all as it exists. It is like a dramatisation, a dream that takes on tangible form and comes to life. Occasionally I am disappointed, but often the reality is more real, more vivid, sometimes more startling than the vision I had formed in my mind.

Last week I went to a village down on the plain. Although the landscape was absolutely flat, the presence of woodland softened the usual austerity. The village was a place you could drive through and think unremarkable – it’s only when you stop and look carefully that you begin to comprehend the layers of significance.

The descriptive word “countryside” is derived from the belief that the tiny fiefdoms held by knightly family clans in the later middle ages were literally “countries” self-sufficient and independent of the outside world. For instance, medieval MPs summoned from each shire would “return to their countries” at the end of the parliamentary session. The village I visited last week was associated with a family of great antiquity, not famous in any way, settled on the same piece of land for centuries, struggling to keep intact their traditions, family honours, patrimony.

At the road junction a war memorial in the form of a white obelisk marked the edge of the village. Driving beyond this marker and into the settlement you got the feeling (a very palpable feeling) that time had stopped – a sensation enhanced by the complete absence of any human life. It was obvious I was in a landscape controlled by a large estate – mature trees, maintained hedges, architectural integrity to the cottages (brick built, small and fancy).

The Hall, built in 1725 in the Queen Anne style, is one of the grandest houses in the district (Pevsner uncharacteristically raves about the “gorgeous” rainwater heads on the downpipes). I could only see the house from across a vast lawn – the building is notoriously private and difficult to get inside, so I knew there was no point in trying to go closer. There is also another family residence on the estate, called the Old House and notable for its plain but sophisticated façade and a garden wall with huge false battlements.

The grey stone medieval church of St Mary the Virgin was big and solid with a massive tower supporting a broach spire (so-called because of tiny hooded windows giving the spire a distinct appearance). The church was in the centre of the village, surrounded by grass meadows and lots of trees. Entering, I walked into an airy and spacious aisle. The atmosphere was welcoming, and I got the impression the church had been waiting for me (difficult to express this – it was as if the building had been waiting for me through all the long centuries of its existence). Sound penetrated the stone walls easily, and even after I had shut the door behind me I could hear piercingly loud birdsong and the baaing of sheep in the pastures outside. The roof of the nave was very high, supported on two rows of slender columns.

The windows of the church were small but the interior was not gloomy in any way – so bright was the sun outside that shafts of light lit up the nave and chancel with an intense white brilliance, like a complicated light-show of unusual subtlety. Very high Rood Screen in plain wood, with old varnish that made it look almost black. Recumbent effigy, much worn, of a 14th century lady in a long gown. Stained glass window of 1903 showing an angel holding a white lily. A gigantic battered wooden chest from the Tudor period. Norman font with typical interlocking arches round the outside of the bowl. The church had been conceived on an even larger scale than that executed. Of those planned extensions only the south transept had been built – now housing the Lady Chapel, with a large south-facing window through which the sunlight streamed onto a uneven floor of medieval red bricks. Under the tower were ostentatious wooden plaques recording the achievements of the bell-ringers (A peal of Treble Bob Minor 5,040 changes, 2 hours 59 minutes, rung for the marriage of Lieutenant T. N. Eaglen RNVR on 21st May 1945; or Saturday April 23rd 1938, 3 hours 3 minutes, peal of London Surprise Minor 5,040 changes etc).

I turned my attention to the Eaglen memorials. There were lots of them throughout the building, mostly simple and straightforward, without much in the way of grandeur. There was probably no information on the monuments that I couldn’t have got from the documents or printed sources, but seeing them in situ was very poignant (I felt I was meeting people I knew). Crude inscriptions cut deep on window lintels along the north aisle. Engraved brasses. Two slate memorials from the 18th century, one listing the Eaglens buried in the church since 1561 (with an additional date of 1220 which I am a bit dubious about), the other listing those Eaglens buried “away from their ancestors”.

One unexpected find was a big late-Victorian window of five lights, each light containing three stained glass coats-of-arms making fifteen in all. This was an attempt to prove seize quartiers, which is a degree of family status whereby all sixteen great-great-grandparents of an individual are armigerous (that is, they come from knightly families entitled to bear coats-of-arms, the sixteenth escutcheon being that of the Eaglens themselves). Basically it was a stud book in stained glass.

The window was opulent and decorative but beneath the colourful heraldry were deeper, more disturbing meanings – an obsession with blood purity, a veneration of martial violence, a reverence for the possession of property. The debate that has gone on since the 18th century right up to modern times is whether such tribalism is best allowed codified and formalised cultural expression or should be suppressed in the interests of a wider community (with the risk of sudden explosive reactions, as demonstrated on a regional level in the Balkans or Somalia).

Although the Eaglen memorials were generally modest there was one exception. The centre of the church was dominated by a massive brass chandelier comprising three tiers of twenty-six candlesticks. It was hung so low that you could reach up and touch the brass sphere that forms its base and on which is the inscription: the gift of Coney Eaglen Gent for an example to all pretenders of love to the church which by their actions don’t show it Anno Dom 1722 (the papers describe little family rituals at Christmas and Harvest Festival when the candles on this chandelier would be lit).

As well as the big medieval parish church the Eaglens also built in the 19th century a much smaller private chapel (part of the way in which families became more in-ward looking and devotional). Fowler was the architect. Although on the estate, it also bordered a lane, so access was quite easy.

I had no expectations of finding the chapel open, but as I drove up I saw someone in the little churchyard cutting the grass. He turned out to be the organist and unlocked the door for me and showed me round. Soft grey stone outside, but inside it was all polychromatic brick, coloured encaustic tiles, narrow lancet windows displaying stained glass in cheerful colours. Porphyry marble (a sort of brownish-purple) columns either side of the little apsidal chancel. Delicate silver candlesticks and a silver cross on the altar. Candles everywhere (no electric light).

Everything was immaculately kept up. The organist, who was very elderly, talked about the estate, and described a tiny resort that used to be on the side of the great sea-water lake (now almost entirely gone, the beach turned into marsh, the two hotels closed – one now a ruin, the other turned into holiday lets). He sat down at the organ and did an extemporary performance of Lord Let Me Know Mine End, a sombre anthem written by Sir Hubert Parry at the outbreak of the First World War.

Later I looked at my documents, notes and books and wondered what I was doing all this for. Is it all just a colossal waste of time? I already have enough material for twenty books (but all in the form of rambling and non-sequential notes).

Monday, May 22, 2006

Prize bull

The prize bull was led out, wearing his winning ribbon, a cordon bleu resembling the sash of the Order of the Garter.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

“I’m trying to find the image of a satisfied woman”

Sex sells (one of the primary rules of marketing). Therefore I was not surprised when I heard a marketing executive in the next room say “I’m trying to find the image of a satisfied woman”. Trawling through the various electronic libraries of photographs we hold, the art director couldn’t come up with anything suitable.

Later in the day the image appeared in my mind of Darryl Hannah in the video for the Robbie Williams song Feel. A blonde woman in her early forties, smiling slightly, leaning on a fence in the American Mid West. Kim Blacha was able to e-mail me a still, and it represented the post-coital state exactly.

The Feel video is one of the best short films ever made. Directed by Vaughan Arnell, the film stars Darryl Hannah as a ranch owner, with Robbie Williams as a drifter-slob (a role he plays very convincingly) employed as a ranch hand. After establishing shots of employer / employee (Hannah literally looking down on Williams from the upper floor of a barn), the two embark upon a brief affair culminating in a backseat tryst in a car on a roadside lay-by (an incredibly beautiful shot of the rain falling and trucks speeding past). The coupling of Williams and Hannah is mirrored by shots of rodeo riders being thrown from superb-looking wild horses (picking themselves up looking bruised and aggrieved). Eventually the affair fizzles out, Hannah distances herself and treats Williams with indifference. Williams is left looking confused.

Everything about the film is perfect. I have seen it many times and always notice new details. Sometimes I watch it without sound – the effect is totally different.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

It’s all swings and roundabouts in terms of the world economy

Above: swings and roundabouts at a village show last summer

Vauxhall Motors at Ellesmere Port announced nine hundred job losses today. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Gordon Brown) and the Trade & Industry Secretary (Alistair Darling) scuttled down there on what was obviously a PR damage limitation exercise, to make it seem that the government is taking action. In reality they will do nothing since it is all swings and roundabouts in terms of the world economy (what manufacturing jobs we will lose because we have a lightly-regulated economy will be more than compensated for by the high-skill professional jobs we will gain).

The problem is that the people on Ellesmere Port who are losing their jobs will not be candidates for the financial services or marketing or property-related jobs that are being created elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I used to believe that globalisation would be to everyone’s benefit but increasingly I am not so sure. It looks as if a comfortable class of professionals will be spread across the globalised world, with a desperate underclass beneath them. The middle classes in India and China will rise to Western levels of wealth and prosperity, but social groups C2, D and E in the West will regress (not to third world destitution, but a lot lower than their current standards of living).

In the long run the world economy should expand so that everyone is better off, but in the long run (as Keynes pointed out) we are all going to be dead.

Because I knew people who worked at the Vauxhall works in Luton I always bought a Vauxhall car. Brand new (bought at Shaw & Kilburn), always Vauxhall, always painted blue. But when the Luton works closed I stopped buying Vauxhall cars and bought an Alfa Romeo (it was only loyalty that kept me buying from Vauxhall so long).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I would like to see heavy prison sentences for politicians and civil servants found lying

The white "candles" have come out on the chestnut trees, filling the garden with waves of delicate scent.

May blossom is on the hawthorn trees.

In the fields there are squares of bright yellow oil seed rape. The crop has only been grown commercially on a large scale since the Second World War, changing the look of the landscape (not unpleasantly – sometimes the effect can be very striking, like a Van Gogh landscape). Oil seed rape, as the name implies, is used to produce oil (used in processed food and for commercial applications).

Use of genetically modified oil seed rape is EXTREMELY controversial, and although it is being introduced covertly into the United Kingdom there is likely to be a widespread backlash against the politicians who are allowing this to happen.

The experience of BSE (which could have infected virtually the entire population) has made the British population very cynical towards government pronouncements about food safety. “Experts” from the cross-national corporate-governmental nexus cannot understand why the bland assurances of safety that have worked in America and Canada do not work here. It is because same experts issued the same bland assurances on the impossibility of BSE infecting the human food chain that they have zero credibility on the subject of genetic modification (I would like to see heavy prison sentences for politicians and civil servants found lying on this issue).

The Prince of Wales has put forward the suggestion that the whole of British agriculture should go over to organic methods of production. In marketing terms this makes sense as in globalised markets it would give British farm produce a unique identity throughout the world and justify higher profit margins (unlike the present situation where we are producing generic products that can’t compete with the economies of scale in the factory farms overseas). It’s unlikely anyone in the government will take up this idea and make it policy.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

A subliminal representation

Equestrian statue of Prince Albert (in a military uniform) at Holborn Circus. The sculptor was Charles Bacon, and the statue was unveiled in 1874. I took the photograph as I was coming out of Hatton Garden.

The granite base of the statue includes allegorical figures of History (exposing her breasts) and Peace (holding palms leaves and a cornucopia).

There is a relief (on the south side of the granite base) of Britannia sitting on the throne of the world, a lion at her feet. She is bestowing laurel crowns on the peoples of the world, who are kneeling before her dressed in national costumes. This relief is a subliminal representation of national self-confidence and patronising condescension at the moment it escalated into imperial arrogance.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A luminous sheen

A training course off-site. We went to the back room of a comfortable suburban hotel (the one we usually use for training courses). The training was interesting, very informal and relaxed.

We were sat around a polished board table (rather too large for the room) laid out with notepads, pens, bottles of still water, bottles of sparkling water, bottles of blackcurrent cordial, bottles of lime cordial. Missing was the big salver of artistically-arranged fresh fruit that normally formed the table centrepiece. A colleague complained to the hotel manager that the fruit was missing, treacherously blaming me for the grievance (the fruit was immediately brought in).

Also on the table was a bowl of mints. They were directly in front of me, and I noticed how the light from the window gave the tops of the mints a luminous sheen. The sight had an hypnotic quality – it was only a bowl of mints, but seemed to acquire more significance the longer I looked at it.

At regular intervals the marketing executive sitting opposite would lean over and take one of the mints. His movements were so frequent that I began to time them (an average of six-minute intervals). I began to fear that the mints would all be gone before I would have a chance to photograph them (my camera was in the car).

In a lull in the training the group discussed snoring.

“Do you snore?” I asked the marketing executive opposite.

“Only when I’m drunk” he said.

In another lull we discussed hair-loss (the marketing executive opposite was very sensitive on this subject, even though his receding hairline is barely noticeable, and would go un-remarked if he didn’t keep drawing attention to it).

Every eight minutes another mint disappeared until I could stand the suspense no longer, and went out to my car to get my camera.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bank Holiday (more or less a second Sunday in the week)

Throughout the world May Day is marked by expressions of fraternal socialist brotherhood. In communist countries it used to be celebrated by military processions, gushing expressions of homage to beloved political leaders, displays of inter-continental missiles. In England it is a Bank Holiday (more or less a second Sunday in the week).

I drove into the local market town where the May Fair was being set up (it lasts all week). Permission to hold a May Fair was granted centuries ago by a Royal Charter. In the past it was an occasion for the exchange of goods and services, and a massive boost to the regional economy (these days it is just a fun fair – locals complain about the noise and the mess and the fact that they can’t park on the marketplace).
Out in the villages various pre-Reformation customs survive, mostly associated with the rite of spring. After lunch on Monday I went with Marie-Astrid to see a display of May Pole dancing, carried out by children (her four-year-old daughter was too shy to join in). The first thing we saw after parking the car was this troop of Morris dancers doing a sort of jingling manoeuvre (they have bells sewn on the legs of their costumes), whacking their ornamental sticks together, prancing about to jaunty folk tunes.

Several attempts have been made to suppress Morris dancing. It was banned by the Puritans in the 17th century, then revived under Charles II, then nearly died out as the industrial revolution transformed society, and finally revived again by folklore enthusiasts at the end of the 19th century. Recently it has been ridiculed by “alternative” stand-up comedians and attacks on Morris dancing, which is basically a harmless pursuit, have become a clichéd part of “alternative” repertory.

After the Morris dancing there was the May Pole dancing. Marie-Astrid kept urging her daughter to have a go but she was too shy (there was a big platoon of Brownies commandeering most of the ribbons). Then the dancers, holding bouquets of flowers, formed a procession (women helpers walking alongside) and walked around the green, followed by the crowning of the May Queen (not sure how they selected her – traditionally it’s supposed to be the prettiest girl in the village but obviously that’s not going to be politically correct these days, and in any case could be traumatic for those who don’t make the grade).

All around the green were various May Day customs for the children to try out. Washing your face in May Day dew is supposed to give young girls perfect complexions. Breaking a sprig of hawthorn blossom (the May tree) in a certain way is supposed to predict what sort of marriage partner you will get.

There was a complicated ritual, which I didn’t really get, that involved throwing a cowslip flower up in the air and seeing how it falls. For all their ostensible innocence these traditions are basically fertility rites. In The Golden Bough Sir James Fraser described customs almost identical to the ones we were looking at.

This birch tree, planted at the gate to one house, has been decorated with May ribbons (according to Sir James Fraser this was to honour the spirit of the tree). Birch trees were regarded (by the superstitious rural population) as having special powers, and were planted at entrances to ward off witches. Note the horseshoe nailed over the door.

We were fairly close to the coast, so after the May Day celebrations we spent the rest of the afternoon walking along the sea front. From the pier (hardly worthy of the name) we looked out over the wide, almost-empty beaches. In the middle distance a line of donkeys returned with their diminutive riders (provoking demands from Mari-Astrid’s daughter that she wanted a donkey ride, but when we got down there her shyness took over and she changed her mind).

I don’t want to give the impression that life in England is all quaint customs and May Day revels. Life in the cities is completely different (as someone who works in a city and lives in the countryside I have come to realise that they are completely different societies – two nations almost). For a huge number of people a Bank Holiday evening means going to the pub and watching football.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The people's verdict on Tony Blair

Local elections are being held today. Although they are local they are being regarded as a verdict on the national government. In recent weeks government ministers have appeared on television and radio promulgating lie after lie after lie.

The people's verdict on Tony Blair is expected to be the writing on the wall: Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin – you have been cast in the balance and found wanting, your days are numbered, your kingdom will be divided and given to your enemies.

Picture: today the government will be cast in the balance (apologies for using this frou-frou image, which is the only scales I could find - it was in the window of a pub).

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Arrest of rapper Snoop Dogg at Heathrow last Thursday

Sometimes an item from the news stays in my mind for days afterwards. I wish I had witnessed the arrest of rapper Snoop Dogg at Heathrow last Thursday. He had been refused entry to the VIP Lounge at the airport (not all his party held valid passes) and tried to force his way through the door.

A huge number of police were involved in dealing with the incident. One onlooker said the police were being thrown around like pillows (they only managed to gain control by using pepper sprays on the group). The news channels reported the confrontation as a mini-riot.

It was a clash of cultures. The laid-back anyone-is-as-good-as-anyone-else attitude of South Central LA meeting the First Class policies of the British Airport Authority. As a brand-building exercise both sides benefit - Snoop Dogg enhanced his reputation for rebelliousness (defiant to authority, loyal to his buddies, refusing to be judged by others); the BAA reinforced their image of exclusivity (even celebrities will be ranked according to behaviour and class).

As a dramatic incident it ought to be recorded on film, possibly as Snoop Dogg’s next video (and directed by Peter Lindbergh).