Monday, December 24, 2007

Approach to Christmas 3 - a religious holiday

In these three “approaches” to Christmas I have tried to record different aspects of the Christmas holiday as reflected in my life (which I stress is not meant to be in any way representative - I’m just saying how things look to me).

So Christmas is a social holiday in which I make an effort to see friends and family (Approach to Christmas 1). It’s a commercial holiday in which the working year comes to a “jolly” end and I get a week to loaf around doing nothing (Approach to Christmas 2). And it’s also a religious holiday - Approach to Christmas 3.

This religious aspect has been particularly in the news this year with the publication of a survey (front page in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, half a page in this morning’s Independent) that recorded more Roman Catholics attending church services than Anglicans. The conclusion drawn is that England is no longer an Anglican country, and is mostly secular with a small but growing community of Roman Catholic religious extremists (as the Independent described them) on the margin. This might make good headline news, but from an historical and anthropological sense it is completely inaccurate.

The whole point of the Reformation that created the Church of England is that the English people do not need “a ministry of black coated men” to intervene between God and themselves. The ploughman in the fields and the cottager in his home were all equally endowed with the ability to read the Bible in English, say prayers in English (using Cranmer’s magnificent Prayer Book) and commune directly with the Almighty - with church attendance reserved for the sacraments. Therefore, when 25 million adults describe themselves as “nominally” Anglican, they have done all that is necessary to qualify as members of the (still) Established state religion.

From an anthropological point of view, this commitment to an abstract idea of Anglicanism is critical to the sense of identity “ordinary” people have. The religious dimension to a sense of identity goes far deeper than most people realise (or even suspect about themselves). It’s a fusion of (dazzling) literary heritage (especially the KJV), profound ancestor-worship (ie the current obsession with genealogy) and an innermost conviction that “we” are better than “them” (Cromwell’s proclamation of the “Elect” or chosen nation echoes still - even in the 1930s RF Delderfield was telling us God is an Englishman).

The reason there has not been any religious friction in this country since the seventeenth century is because Anglicanism has been so triumphant. Ordained, established (sorry, I mean Established) and literally crowned (the Coronation ceremony is a sacrament of the Church of England) nothing has been able (thus far) to shake the Anglican supremacy. And what would happen if the supremacy was ever shaken?

Psychologists advise that it is extremely dangerous to challenge someone’s self-identity. Miners riot when they are threatened with unemployment, “hard men” become violent when their sexual orientation is questioned, the divorce courts are notorious for the bitter recriminations that ensue when one partner in a relationship unilaterally decides to bring it to an end (thus changing the status and identity of their partner). You only have to look at Northern Ireland to see that British society is capable of throwing up its own religious ayatollahs.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to digress so much.

Returning to my own religious experiences in the run-up to Christmas, I have attended one (small) carol service last Friday, one (much bigger) service of Lessons and Carols yesterday, and will attend Midnight Mass (an Anglican mass) at 11.30 tonight.

Above: the carol service on Friday was at a small wayside chapel in a very remote part of the county. It was notable because it included a performance by a group of hand-bell ringers. I realise I am inviting ridicule by revealing I had attended such an event (the sort of thing that Billy Bragg would sneer at). Normally I would run a mile at any suggestion of amateur musical entertainment. But I have seen in the county’s churches many glass-fronted cases of hand-bells clearly unused. When I heard about this service I felt I ought to record it as an example of “living” history.

And as a musical event it was actually very good.

Above: the group started when two of their members found a box of hand-bells wrapped in old newspaper. There was a story that the bells had last been used at services during the Second World War (when ringing the bells in the church tower was only to be used in case of German invasion). The bells have been tuned, polished and completely restored and are now kept in this plush case.

Above: in many churches you will find cases of hand-bells no longer used. The tradition of hand-bell ringing has almost completely died out in the county. The film The Madness of King George opens with a group of hand-bell ringers performing before the king and queen (with members of the Court barely disguising their boredom).

Above: the Service of Lessons and Carols on Sunday was held at the minster down on the plain, the nave of the great church completely full. Very similar to the more famous service held at Kings College Cambridge on Christmas Eve, it began with a soloist singing Once in David’s royal city. About half-way through the service I found my mood of detached observation falling away, and I (increasingly cynical in my view of the world, no doubt corrupted by years of advertising marketing and PR, privately wicked in those small mean ways of wickedness that we keep hidden from public gaze), even I felt moved by the beauty of it all: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it” (as the Anglican priest intoned).

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Approach to Christmas 2 – office parties (“the horror, the horror”)

I have a Kurtz attitude to Christmas office parties ("the horror, the horror"), but sometimes there is no way of avoiding them. The agency has three types of office party: an evening dinner dance at an hotel for employees, an evening reception for the clients (actually held in our offices), and the final early afternoon informal buffet lunch held on the last day as everybody leaves. I managed to get out of the employees' event by citing a previous engagement, and the last-day-lunch on Friday was fairly harmless (Terry our MD gave out little presents under the Christmas tree), but there was no avoiding the “Client's Bash”.

This was held on Tuesday. All the day preparations were being made. Because the food and drink was going to be laid out upstairs, there wasn't a great deal to do on our floor although we had to tidy up and hide any sensitive information (while at the same time ensuring the agency remained operational).

The mood was not very good as the Christmas bonuses were given out in the morning and most people said they were disappointed. I hadn't expected anything (my contract says I have to be there a year) so I was very pleased to get a “token gesture” of £1,000 (“You'll have to pay tax and National Insurance on that” said Angela in a bad-temper, clearly of the opinion that my bonus had been at her expense). You could tell who had done well out of the bonuses, as they were the ones who kept very quiet and didn't say how much they had got.

Midday I went with out Angela to get some big red poinsettias that had been ordered at a nearby florist. It was good to get out and walk about, despite the cold. We took the plants upstairs where big heaps of holly and mistletoe had been delivered, and decorations were being put up.

A leather-clad bike courier arrived several times during the day, delivering last-minute “essentials” that had been forgotten at the planning stage. He seemed bemused at the extravagance of the preparations, and complained about the difficulty parking outside (“Getting a lot of grief from the police”). None of the “essentials” seemed particularly necessary.

At lunchtime Account Executives (or are they Account Managers? - I'm not sure) Rachel and Caroline took all the tackiest and most kitsch decorations and put them up round Alan's desk with a sign saying “Grotty Santa's Christmas Grotto”. When he came back from lunch Alan played up to his office-misery image with mock snarling, saying “bah humbug” to everyone. Later he took the decorations down, telling Pete his clients wouldn't like them.

A break from four until five, and then a pompous briefing meeting in Terry's office upstairs, with a warning to everyone not to get drunk.

The first clients began to arrive about six. As most of my clients are based outside London only a few turned up, so I helped Rachel look after hers (I do copywriting for some of them). I became trapped by a very boring Dutch manager from an international oil company – I kept trying to introduce him to someone else, but each time he drifted back again.

The food was very good, especially the smoked salmon sandwiches and the honey-glazed sausages. Most of the guests arrived at seven and stayed until nine. I became tired from all the standing around.

By ten o'clock almost all the guests had gone, and most of the staff had taken refuge in the Boardroom waiting for a signal from Terry that we could go. The clients had been given boxes of expensive chocolates wrapped in gold paper, and several of these were left over so we all got one each. It was almost eleven before I finally got away, getting a lift with one of the Account Execs to Harrow where I had left my car (I had been wary of missing the last train home, so had brought my car up).

More on Kurtz:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Where’s the sausage? by David Tayor

Above: David Taylor giving his presentation. It was moderately interesting, but did not have any “Ah-ha!” moments. He had been stuck in traffic for about half an hour, so possibly was not at his best.

Dark cold night. I entered a sprawling industrial estate on the edge of a featureless New Town (or rather, the main feature of the town was its featurelessness - I’m not being flippant, I would like to do a proper study on architecture, town planning and the anonymous modern life, using this town as an example). Parking on the side of the road (hardly any other cars about) I went into the Research Suite of a very big company (the Suite was situated just outside one of their main gates, security staff watching the arrivals warily).

Inside I went along a bland white corridor and into a large room absolutely crammed with people - professional people, mostly young, mostly wearing suits. About a third of the people were women. All were members of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (as myself).

In the centre of the room was a long table set out with a buffet meal, but because of the crowd you couldn’t move around easily and had to make the best of whatever food you could reach (sandwiches push crisps more pushing cakes that tasted of nothing retrace your steps hot drinks push…).

In the midst of this slow-motion scrum I suddenly found myself facing former work colleague Adrian Taylor. I hadn’t seen him for about three years. Momentary panic as I struggled to remember his name, then relief as it came to me.

We talked for about fifteen minutes. He described his year in Australia, his new job, how he had contacted the old company we used to work for (and not got a good reception, which doesn’t surprise me). He was at the meeting with a party of CIM students.

Then I talked to someone from a local publishing company. We were jammed in a corner of the room and so it only seemed polite to introduce myself. She was vaguely familiar and after a while I realised she had interviewed me for a job some years ago (I didn’t get it).

Finally I talked to a middle-aged marketing manager. When I told him I worked for a PR and marketing agency he launched into a tedious monologue about how superfluous PR was. I think he wanted to be provocative, but I just agreed with him absently.

From the door the CIM president shouted that we should “go through” to the small lecture theatre.

The speaker, David Taylor, was very very late. He was introduced by the CIM president as “one of the country’s top fifty marketing gurus”. He has his own agency (Brandgym), his own blog, and writes a monthly column for the CIM magazine.

David Taylor was very confident, taking us through a Powerpoint presentation about his new marketing book. This talk had been advertised as “a fabulous romp through the world of branding”. As an essential quality of effective brand development is not to over-promise, David Taylor should possibly rephrase this billing.

He began with a case-study:

“I have been privileged to get into Fruit Towers, the headquarters of Innocent… Dan writes all the Innocent packs himself, one a day, two hundred a year… marketing has the image of being a bit complex, but it doesn’t have to be…”

He moved backwards and forwards across the floor of the theatre. Thin, dark-suited, black-rimmed glasses. The things he was saying were individually interesting, but they didn’t seem to fit into any overall structure.

“Everyone’s saying: forget the product, concentrate on the emotion… everyone’s laddering up so that Cosmopolitan goes from being a magazine to becoming a lifestyle brand… but the best brands are doing the reverse…”

He showed us a montage of James Bond clips that seemed gratuitous and unrelated to what he was saying (or perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention).

“Advertising is a tax for having an unremarkable product… the way to solve most marketing problems is to follow the money… the long term is just a series of short terms…”

The formal part of the presentation came to an end. David Taylor took questions from the audience. This question and answer session was monopolised by a young marketing executive from a big company who asked question after question related to a particular problem he was having at work - in the end David Taylor just cut him off and moved on.

The talk came to an end. There was a vote of thanks. As we left two young women gave out copies of David Taylor’s new book Where’s the sausage?

Above: Where’s the sausage? by David Taylor. It’s basically a novelisation of marketing diagnostics. The text is in a sans serif typeface which makes it difficult to read.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Eighteen “attitudes” on immigration

Above: on Radio 4’s Start The Week Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks put forward his view that the multi-cultural “UK” was like an hotel (every community rents their own space and does their own thing with minimum interference). Others describe “England” as a cosy village pub (the sort that goes dead quiet whenever strangers walk into the bar). What do you think?

Business has been slack for the past few weeks. To drum up some activity (and to look busy) I have been suggesting to my clients that they commission panel research on their products and services. This suggestion has been taken up by one of the larger companies (reasonably well-known product) and the forums have been taking place at a central London hotel (the only payment the participants have received is free overnight accommodation - admittedly at a very good hotel).

Although the research was carried out by a third party, I made a point of talking to most of the interviewees (consumers, ex-consumers and potential consumers) myself so that I would “get close to the customer” (to quote Peter Drucker). After the end of each day’s forum the participants would go one by one into another room where I would ask them a series of questions about themselves, with the aim of building up customer profiles. The client’s marketing manager also sat in on some of these interviews.

Right at the end of the interviews (which lasted ten to fifteen minutes each) I asked them their views on immigration. I did this because talking about a mildly controversial subject can often open things up, cause them to drop their guard, and provide extra insights into target audience profiles (the last thing you want is a customer group just telling you things they think you want to hear). And also (I admit) because immigration has been in the news a lot recently, and I was curious to know what “ordinary” people were thinking.

Background - migration has been a recurring news topic over the last six or seven weeks, and shows no sign of dissipating as an issue of public concern. Newspapers, television current affairs programmes, and radio panel discussions have all led with immigration-related items. But this coverage is oddly uninformative, with lots of talking at cross-purposes, talking in code, and a complete lack of coherence about what the issues really are. In the post-war period there have been three distinct waves of immigration - West Indians in the 1950s and 1960s, Asians in the 1970s and Eastern Europeans in the last five years or so. But there has also been a myriad of other, smaller, waves (Africans, Aussies, French etc). This migration is one of the most profound issues of our time, and yet until recently it could not be discussed openly, even though it affects everyone in the country.

So at the end of the customer interviews, when we were at the rounding-off stage, I asked the participants their views on immigration. I made it clear to them that the formal interview was finished and it was entirely up to them whether they continued. About ten percent declined to discuss the subject, the rest agreed.

I have to stress that this survey was unscientific (supposing market research is a science) and the sample was certainly not representative of the wider population (for instance no pensioners, no unemployed, no students). Virtually the only thing the interviewees had in common was that they were consumers of a certain product. But from their answers I have distilled eighteen “attitudes” on immigration, which indicates what a complex and interesting subject it is.

Some caveats:

1 Several interviewees had more than one view, and a few actually held contradictory views.
2 Some of the attitudes overlap, and I am conscious that there is repetition, although I have preserved as many nuances as possible.
3 Many began with a very bland non-committal view, and only when I tried a different approach (“what were your parents’ views on immigration”) did they tend to open up.
4 I have expanded some of the attitudes and added extra information from desk research.
5 Some of the inarticulate views I have interpreted to make them intelligible, although I have tried to retain as many of the original comments as possible.
6 My main concern has been to record as many different views as possible, and no attempt has been made to test how representative a particular view is.
7 I have deliberately removed the emotions the interviewees expressed - I was interested to record coherent arguments, not knee-jerk reactions.
8 I have suppressed my own value judgements (so far as I am aware of them).
9 I have tested the arguments through the prism of two academics (an historian and a social scientist).

Effectively I have approached immigration as if it were a “product” being sold commercially to the population. I have recorded attitudes to this product. I publish the results here because I have nowhere else to publish them.

Above: the Daily Mail has a knack of setting the national agenda - not just on immigration but on a whole range of issues. Not quite sure how they do this, as the paper doesn't go into any depth and is definitely not "high brow". One of their columnists, Allison Pearson, was on last night's Question Time - she dominated the discussion and had more charisma than the rest of the panel put together.

Immigration is good - No 1
“Immigration counters the demographic time-bomb”

The population is aging - not just in this country but throughout the Western world. This has serious implications for future funding of the welfare state. The United Kingdom, almost uniquely, has through immigration been given an opportunity to escape this demographic time-bomb.
* We need to celebrate the fact that the UK has become a beacon for young people throughout the world, and not only will their enterprise and enthusiasm be economically very valuable (for instance, enterprising people tend to form new businesses), they will also pay taxes that will go directly towards supplying pensions for the aging British.
* It is an elegant solution - we offer migrants living space room and opportunities, migrants pay (when they can afford it) the pensions of our old folks (“it is home equity draw-down on a national scale”).
* From being an old and tired nation we will become a young and enterprising one.
A counter view: won’t the migrating young Poles, Somalis, Indians etc have aging parents of their own that they will want to bring here under the family reunion principle, therefore negating any initial advantage?

Immigration is good - No 2
“The economy needs migrants to grow”
We urgently need immigrants to fill our current labour and skills shortages. In a globalised world the nation state is first and foremost an economic unit (“United Kingdom plc”) with the government forming the Board of Directors. We should see immigration as nothing more than a personnel issue - recruiting more people as vacancies arise, as well as training (and disciplining?) our existing workforce.
* Through the operation of a points system and skills shortage audits we will attract the best people from around the world (brave enterprising risk takers who literally have “get up and go” qualities).
* This will deliver an exceptional competitive advantage to our economy as the new people will bring with them new ideas, new systems, new energy.
* New arrivals will expand our economic capacity and keep the economy strong.
A counter view: in a globalised world of virtually free movement, how do we stop economically active people from moving on when another country attracts them, or even becoming perpetual tourists never paying taxes anywhere (“do we really want this country to become an international transit camp?”).

Immigration is good - No 3
“We should stop pandering to the racists and nationalists”
The idea of the nation state is an outmoded concept and we should get beyond nationalist hang-ups and abandon the idea of fixed national frontiers. In the years since the Second World War the UK has given up the pretences of nineteenth-century nationalism and linked ourselves to supra-national organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the European Union. We are more than ever citizens of the world.
* Much of the world shares our values - English is a world language, and most countries subscribe to concepts of democracy, free market economy, free press, tolerance etc.
* In this context the idea of “fixed” national populations is absurd and harmful to our relations with the rest of the world.
* Our policy should be to work towards removal of ALL national barriers, and any temporary economic disruption will be more than compensated for by the arrival of the true brotherhood of mankind.
A counter view: far from the nation state becoming outmoded, the world is awash with revived nationalism, and in this potentially hazardous environment we should protect our borders.

Immigration is good - No 4
“The British won’t do the dirty jobs”
Immigration provides a sustained (and apparently unending) downward pressure upon wage inflation, and we need to be “honest” as a nation and accept most of us benefit from this. This is particularly noticeable in the so-called “dirty jobs” (unsocial hours shift work, work in care homes, agricultural labour etc) where British people are often too lazy to do the jobs, and staff turnover has been unacceptably high. Without immigration these essential but unattractive “dirty” jobs would require inflated wages to ensure the posts were filled, making prices of goods and services more expensive and pushing up the general rate of inflation for everyone.
* Dirty jobs are done cheaply and with enthusiasm by migrants - this is no different from in the past when migrants were invited here to work on the transport system or in the NHS.
* In the western world labour is the most expensive commodity, and so we should rejoice that the UK is able to benefit from a pool of cheap labour.
* Don’t forget that migrants become tax-payers, allowing the unemployed indigenous population (the so-called “lazy”) to remain on welfare benefits should they choose to do so.
A counter view: will the immigrants do the dirty jobs permanently, like some caste of untouchables, or will they move on to better things (and if they do move on who will take their place)?

Above: Tuesday is "Curry Day" at The Shakespeare pub.

Immigration is good - No 5
“It has created a vibrant cultural mix”

Immigration has been an overwhelmingly positive cultural experience, contributing greatly to the richness of British society. Our whole life is in any case a melange of overseas influences (chintz came from India, Yorkshire puddings came from Burgundy, the monarchy was originally German). The incredible diversity provided by immigration has taken London from the sterility of a 1950s mono-culture to the cultural capital of the world.
* The mix has been good for the genetic gene pool (“look at how attractive the children of mixed race partnerships usually are”).
* Diversity has created a vibrant creative environment in which diets are more varied, attitudes more relaxed, and the Notting Hill Carnival, chicken tikka marsala and the Polish plumber have all become intrinsic to British life.
* To unravel this cultural construct would be impossible and unthinkable.
A counter view: this thin cultural spread is ultimately shallow and unsatisfying (“wasn’t it Cavafy who said about the diversity of pre-war Alexandria, that when everything is mixed together there is no real depth to a culture?”).

Immigration is good - No 6
“It helps us move on from the embarrassing legacy of the past”
Immigration is a necessary part of our national re-branding and helps us get over the embarrassing legacy of our imperial past. Although we see our imperial record as positive, the majority of the world sees the British Empire in terms of plunder and enslavement. In a world where major players such as India and China were originally on the receiving end of British imperialism we have to take active steps to convince them we have changed.
* By inviting in migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East we demonstrate that the old attitudes have gone.
* The presence of ethnically diverse communities is a bridge between Britain and the emerging world economic powers.
* It is because our record has been so bad in the past that going forward we must actively demonstrate our openness to others.
A counter view: the United States was “on the receiving end of British imperialism” and doesn’t hold a grudge against us - why should India and China be any different?

Immigration is good - No 7
“We live in a global village now”
Immigration is a necessary part of globalisation and this is good for everyone, migrants and host countries alike. We need to attract and encourage movement, not dissuade it (“Those who can ride the globalization rollercoaster will come out as the winners”). If we want opportunities ourselves we have to offer opportunities to others - in the near future you could be born in London, work successively in Tokyo, New York, and Moscow, retire to Spain, and eventually attend a nursing home in South Asia.
* As people become more mobile we will see the end of heavily taxed regimes throughout the world.
* We need to address this fast-growing category of “perpetual tourists”, who don’t pay tax anywhere.
* Once it was the super rich who evaded taxes, now even modest professionals move between homes in the Thames Valley, to Dubai to Florida, “residing” three months or so in each location - we need as many as possible of these people to come here (“we’d have a great future as the world’s premier off-shore tax haven”).
A counter view: if everyone is a perpetual tourist who will pay for the poor and disadvantaged?

Immigration is good - No 8
“It’s karma man, you had this coming”
This argument looks at the record of British interaction with the world and uses the aggregate suffering to justify immigration as part of the remodelling of the United Kingdom (summed up by a letter to the Guardian earlier this year from a student leader saying: you colonised us for years, now it’s our turn). The list of British imperial excesses includes the potato famine in Ireland, the Atlantic slave trade, the genocide in Tasmania, the opium wars against China, the concentration camps in South Africa, the grabbing of land in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Malaya etc. Giving the people we formerly oppressed a right to settle in the United Kingdom is a form of reparations.
* British crimes are so numerous and so heinous that the United Kingdom has forfeited the right to continue in its old form.
* Like the obliteration of Prussia, Great Britain should be eliminated as a nation state, it’s people re-educated, and the former subject peoples compensated by unrestricted access to the wealth that was created from their plundered communities.
* Many people sickened by imperialism, believe this is the only honourable way to come to terms with the past.
A counter view: how can present generations be held responsible for the actions of people long dead?

Immigration is good - No 9
“We are ALL immigrants”
Everyone is a migrant, so it is nonsense for any one group in Britain to claim seniority merely on the basis of when their ancestors arrived here. The idea of cultural or ethnic purity is a myth. DNA evidence has proved that all ethnic groups are a mix and none can claim to be any more “pure” than the others.
* There have been black people in the British Isles (brought here by the Romans) longer than the Anglo-Saxons.
* The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were immigrants themselves in the fourth century.
* Since that time there have been waves of Norman-French, Danish, Huguenot and Jewish immigrants - the more recent post-war waves of immigration are just a continuation of that process.
A counter view: the previous waves of immigrants occurred in pre-democratic times - the arrival of universal suffrage after the First World War empowered the majority population to decide who they want to share their country with, and they must be allowed to do this without manipulation by political elites.

Immigration is not good - No 1
“There’s a democratic deficit surrounding immigration”
Immigration was originally a series of cock-ups by successive governments and civil servants who then covered up their ineptitude with race relations legislation the draconian nature of which is not designed to protect immigrants but to screen the politicians from any responsibility. This cover up has become one of the famous “dog whistles” that characterises the debate - an agreement among the political elite to silence opposition to immigration by tainting objectors as racists. The failure of politicians to admit their mistakes, and the incessant use of the “they are all racists” dog whistle is hampering any sensible debate.
* Any rational look at mass immigration would realise that the allocation of voting and residence rights to millions of non-indigenous people represents a profound constitutional change that cannot be valid without a major election mandate or a referendum.
* The arrival of non-indigenous immigrants and their continued presence together with their descendants lacks democratic legitimacy (the release of papers from the 1950s reveals there was never any intention of allowing mass immigration).
* The government has placed immigrant communities in a false position by continuing to assure them that they have a valid right to stay.
* The vast majority of people know that immigration has been pushed through without their consent and politicians need to apologise for creating this situation.
* Immigrant communities need to apologise for taking resources they have never been entitled to, and for the enormous impact mass immigration has had upon indigenous people in particular areas (“immigrant leaders have to apologise for what their communities have done, especially to the inner cities”).
* At the very least a referendum needs to be called to regularise the position.
A counter view: migrants were originally invited here to work in the NHS and transport industries, and their presence here has been regulated by successive Acts of Parliament.

Immigration is not good - No 2
“We are being colonised”
England is the last colony of the British Empire. As the imperial class has been in retreat it has consolidated its rapacious practices in the United Kingdom itself, using the old techniques of divide and rule, double-speak and sponsorship of favoured client communities (East African Asians are particularly guilty in this respect, being imperialist agents in Africa before becoming imperialist agents in England). The argument that everyone is a migrant and therefore no-one’s interests are paramount is the exact same argument that was used by racist white South Africa to justify in-coming settlers dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants and taking the country’s resources.
* Colonialism is wrong under all circumstances.
* England is being illegally “colonised”, and it is only a matter of time before working-class English self-determination adopts the resistance ideology of Ghandi (non-co-operation), Mandela (violence leading to negotiations) and Mugabe (violence leading to expulsion of the incoming “settlers”).
* There is evidence that a Mau Mau style insurgency has already begun (nail bombs in West End pubs, inter-racial gang violence, the huge quantity of “racially motivated” incidents recorded by the police).
A counter view: a violent insurgency is likely to have so many casualties that the country will be wrecked for everybody.

Immigration is not good - No 3
“We are sleep-walking to segregation”
There would be no problem if everyone integrated, but there has been no integration. The overwhelming experience of second generation immigrants is one of rejection, a rejection so profound that some of them commit suicidal acts of terror. Against this background it is cruel to encourage people to come here when the best they and their children can hope for is indifference, and the more likely experience will be hostility and rejection.
* The communities obviously do not socialise together and if they are so incompatible what is the point of forcing them together? (a recent report by the CRE says that race relations are no better now than they were thirty years ago).
* Ask anyone how many close friends they have from a different ethnic group and the answer is almost always “none”.
* Immigration has de facto created a segregated society where none existed before (in part this has been due to a misunderstanding of British society, confusing it with America where the culture is more open and absorbent).
A counter view: because integration is not currently occurring does not mean it will not occur in the future.

Immigration is not good - No 4
“We are being swamped”
Modest immigration is beneficial, but the speed and scale of mass immigration is unsettling and alarming, and in the absence of any mainstream political leadership extremists are gaining support from communities who feel they are “in the front line” (“the government has stabbed us in the back” is a common complaint). Even Labour MPs are warning of very extreme (ie violent) reactions in specific localities. The Conservatives are mostly silent on the issue of immigration due to their experience in the 2005 election, and they have not responded to the substantial change in public opinion (“like most generals they are fighting the last war”).
* The people who feel they are “being swamped” are those on the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and for whom housing, food, and security are big issues.
* It is unlikely that people who see themselves as competing in a day to day struggle for resources are going to respond to appeals to be rational.
* The current controversy over Eastern European mass migration is reopening the issue of West Indian and Asian migration - the most disadvantaged sections of the “white working class” do not see their poverty as a result of personal failure, they collectively blame migrants for taking “their” resources.
A counter view: however much one sympathises with the most disadvantaged in society, should they be allowed to hold back the development of the rest of the country?

Immigration is not good - No 5
“England is dying”
England has an homogenous culture that is under threat from post-war mass immigration. The present government does not “own” the country nor do the present generation - they have received it in trust and must hand it on intact to future generations. This distinct culture is religious (Anglican), linguistic, literary, historical, ethnic, temperamental, and legal. Social organisation includes an ancient parliament and a tribal monarchy that goes back in an unbroken line to Egbert first king of the English. “England” is not solely a geographic term but has an ethnic dimension - the land was named after the people (unlike America or Australia where the people are named after the land). This thousand-year culture remained intact until the 1950s, and largely survives today (beneath layers of consumerist and popular culture).
* “New migrants are welcome, but at a reasonable numerical level and should be completely absorbed into the country” (ie there is no trace today of Huguenot culture).
* “Priority for admission should be given to anglophiles, who form a surprisingly large number of the world’s population, and migrants should not come here expecting to keep their own culture.”
* Continued erosion of English culture will inevitably lead to a dangerous crisis of identity.
A counter view: the idea of a distinct English cultural identity is a fantasy that doesn’t match the reality of modern life which is diverse and multi-cultural.

Immigration is not good - No 6
“Orwellian competitive prestige”

This argument was put forward by a post-graduate student who is studying George Orwell, so I have no idea whether anyone else shares this view, but I have included it anyway.
George Orwell’s Notes On Nationalism essay explains the corrosive effects of having several nationalisms competing in the same country - one or other must prevail. In a multi-cultural society micro-nationalist groups are obsessed by the Orwellian concept of Competitive Prestige - it is not sufficient to see one’s own community succeed, other communities have to fail (ie a trivial example are those Scottish people who will support “any team but England”). Multi-culturalism has been a disaster because it is based on the (unworkable) idea of separate development (or apartheid in its literal and ideological sense as defined by Dr D F Malan).
* A universal and uniting force of Competitive Prestige among migrant communities in the United Kingdom is Anglophobia - they are unable to express any positive emotions towards the nation that took them in because the host community would thereby gain competitive prestige (to use Orwell’s phrase) over their own community (“first generation immigrants are usually grateful to be here, second generation immigrants are almost always hostile”).
* Competitive Prestige not only operates between migrant communities and the majority community - there are also tensions between Asians and West Indians, Muslims and non-Muslims, Somalis and Bangladeshis, Romanians and Asians, Celtic supporters and Rangers supporters etc.
* Many of the tenets of present-day Political Correctness can be found predicted in Orwell’s essay including obsessiveness, contradiction, indifference to reality.
A counter view: second generation migrants are Anglophobic because of the discrimination they have experienced.

Immigration is not good - No 7
“Let’s be pragmatic about this”
(I have written this up almost verbatim from my notes)
Immigration was a good idea in theory but has failed to work in practice. You only have to look at how the prisons are full of second generation migrants to realise immigration has failed (and no, I don’t accept that the police are institutionally racist - I think there would be an uproar if crime figures by ethnic origin were published). Unrestricted immigration is creating an unstable society and the instabilities could break into severe civil disturbances in moments of national crisis (such as dirty bombs going off in major cities).
* Independent social scientists need to fix a maximum total for integration for each incoming ethnic group (or ethnic group already here), and when the upper limit is reached no more visas issued for that particular nationality.
* Asylum seekers should be given a temporary right to stay, not permanent settlement, so that when their country of origin becomes safe they should return.
* We need compulsory identity cards to identify migrants who are here illegally, and illegal migrants should have their assets seized by the state before being deported.
A counter view: such an inflexible policies are likely to be cruel to individuals who, at the end of the day, are only trying to better their lives.

Immigration is not good - No 8
“Don’t need them, don’t like them, don’t want them here”
Among a significant section of the population (perhaps 20%) the fear of The Other is extreme and irrational. This physical revulsion is often linked with wild ideas (bordering on panic) that migrants are here “for a free ride” and are taking “our” jobs, houses, women etc. Examples of this visceral rejection include: people who wash their hands after shaking hands with someone of a different skin colour; individuals who claim to feel sick whenever they smell curry (satirised in the Little Britain caricature Maggie Blackamoor who vomits whenever she comes into contact with anything foreign); reports that Asian men are routinely targeting teenage white girls for sex (sexual hysteria is a recurring theme).
* These fears are irrational and so can’t be countered by rational argument.
* These attitudes are dangerous because they can easily spill over into violence and mob agitation.
* White Van Man is possibly the most vocal in this group, but evidence that it spreads to all levels of society (including ethnic communities which have their own extreme and irrational prejudices about The Other).
A counter view: the people you describe are obviously mentally ill in some way, and if they are mentally ill are their views valid?

Immigration is not good - No 9
“We must stop migration for the good of the environment”
Our current population is not sustainable, let alone an increase to 71 million as projected. The increase in built infrastructure this will require will be totally unacceptable (is already totally unacceptable). Look at the existing devastation of wildlife and the concreting over of the countryside - very few places in the United Kingdom are truly wild anymore.
* The whole of international migration is just an enormous game of musical chairs, and nothing is more inevitable than that the music will come to a sudden halt, and there will be a scramble to find a refuge - we need to start planning for this now.
* To be environmentally sustainable we need to set a population target of 20 or 30 million - the last thing we should be doing is replacing net migration from the UK by allowing inward migration.
* Employers who are benefiting from cheap migrants need to be taxed so that they pay the full social and environmental cost (ie if the population of Slough rises by thirty per cent then the taxes need to cover a 30% increase in transport infrastructure, housing, schools, sewage, pollution, household waste etc).
A counter view: technology will solve all our environmental problems.

The Last Word:
Immigration really needs a first rate historian (the late Joshua Prawer would have been ideal) to analyse the subject and write a definitive and impartial history. On the basis of the above attitudinal survey, it would also run to a multi-part television documentary. Given the strong feelings I have encountered the audiences would be huge.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Andrew Neil’s This Week show

Yesterday I watched Andrew Neil’s This Week show (comes on at 11.30 pm, after the end of Newsnight and the last quarter hour of Question Time - a time when I really should be going to bed). Permanent guests include Diane Abbot and Michael Portillo. Additional guests this week included singer Katie Melua, and Kevin Maguire (political editor of the Daily Mirror) and Jonathan Aitkin.

I used to find Andrew Neil very irritating. He seemed to make a joke of everything. This Week seemed to consist of Andrew Neil clowning about, with the guests occasionally allowed to make a serious point.

I now realise that Andrew Neil is an extremely shrewd and deadly operator. Beneath the jovial buffoon is a political analyst who will lull his guests into committing indiscretions, and then happy-slap them into further confessions. If Andrew Neil lived in the 1880s he would possibly have been a candidate for Jack the Ripper since he totally eviscerates politicians and abstracts their political entrails for examination.

Poor Kevin Maguire. I am sure he is a clever man, but he looked a dunderhead in that company. He is supposed to be “close” to Gordon Brown, which means the hapless things he was saying last night were probably officially sanctioned.

More on Kevin Maguire:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wishing and hoping and slick advertising

This afternoon I went with Angela to the local post office. I went there to post a small package. Angela went there to sort out a problem.

Angela is Ian’s PA (and Ian is our immediate boss). Aged about thirty-five, she has a slim wiry build and wavy orange-red hair (sometimes permed into loose curls). Although she doesn’t have a great deal of formal education (no degree) and is “only” a PA she is very clever and has a lot of experience of PR and advertising (more than most of the account managers). Generally she is a model of quiet competence, but occasionally she flares up into an incredible (and alarming) temper. These “run-ins” with people are famous throughout the agency, and when roused her sarcastic shouting is impossible to stop (not even Terry, our MD, can calm her down). I have been told it is “only a matter of time” before I have a run-in with Angela (so far we have been on very good terms).

We had to queue at the post office, Angela directly in front of me. Eventually we came to the front of the line. Only two positions were open, and when one became free Angela went up to it.

Regulations on sending post changed earlier this year. Instead of paying by weight you now pay by size. So an A4 letter now costs 40p second class instead of 24p, even though the weight is the same as previously.

Angela had with her twenty books of self-adhesive 24p stamps.

“Can I have a refund on these and buy twenty books of the forty pence stamps?” she asked.

“No, we can’t give refunds” the woman said.

“Why not, they havn’t been used. They are still in their books. They’re perfect.”

“We can’t give refunds” said the woman (no apology, the woman’s tone was hard and unyielding).

“Well can I have…” (Angela paused to do a quick mental calculation) “…two hundred and forty sixteen-pence stamps?”

“Yes, I can give you those” (the woman began taking sheets of stamps out of a folder.

“Will they be self-adhesive?” Angela asked.

“No, they’re not self-adhesive.”

“What use is that!” Angela cried. “I don’t want to wet two-hundred and forty stamps.” I detected a familiar note of angry impatience entering her voice.

In the queue behind me an old boy began loudly complaining of the hold up. “Well they should open more windows” shouted Angela. Her arm flailed wildly, indicating the row of closed positions.

“Do you want the stamps or not?” the woman said.

“Hang on a minute - if I put a sixteen-pence stamp next to one of these second-class adhesive ones on an envelope can you guarantee the Post Office isn’t going to find some technicality and chuck them back at me?”

“They should go through if they have the right postage” said the woman.

“What do you mean they should? Will they go or won’t they? This is important.”

“Is she STILL there” said the old boy.

“They should open more windows” cried Angela. Again her arm flailed wildly. Her voice had a note of desperation in it, as if she wanted to cry.

“You’re alright there” said a sympathetic middle-aged woman in the queue. “You’ve got a complaint and you need to sort it out. You’re alright.”

“I can’t handle this” the woman behind Angela’s counter said dismissively. She rolled down the (dirty) green Position Closed sign and walked away into the depths of the inner office. Angela was left stranded.

By this time I was at the only remaining open position. I sent off my package and then asked for two-hundred and forty sixteen-pence stamps. I passed the stamps to a fuming Angela.

“Roll on privatisation” Angela yelled to the waiting queue as we left the post office.

Above: Westlife, Joan Collins, Ant & Dec - where is the cash-strapped Post Office getting the money for all these expensive celebrities? Surely they are not spending public money on propaganda? And why is Joan Collins (who is a Star by any standards) getting involved in something so tacky?

I like the idea of the Post Office in theory. And small corner-shop post offices (where they sell boiled sweets, and newspapers, and those paper lids for home-made jam) are generally staffed by pleasant and helpful people. But the “main” post offices in towns and cities seem to be staffed by people who go out of their way to be rude and obstructive (this is a generalisation - occasionally you get very good service, sometimes from the very same people who are ordinarily unhelpful).

The Post Office is currently running a television campaign done by Shoreditch ad agency Mother using celebrities such as Joan Collins and the members of Westlife. Obviously I havn’t read the brief for this campaign, but I have already seen enough to know I don’t like it. Dishonesty permeates the whole concept.

The exterior shot is of a corner post office (positive feelings), but the interior morphs into one of the depressing “main” post offices (very very negative feelings). And why have they used so many different and disparate celebrities, or is this just a crude device to get attention? The scenarios are unbelievable (Bill Oddie might buy his own stamps, but Joan Collins and the members of Westlife would never queue up in a post office - it doesn’t even work as a fantasy dream sequence since the dialogue is so clunky and banal).

Most offensive of all is the characterisation of “Ken”, “Jill”, “Amir” and “Ted”. Friendly, well-meaning, funny - they are a million miles away from the horrible reality of actually meeting one of the Post Office counter staff. Wishing and hoping and slick advertising will not change a bad experience into a good one.

There is a great deal of bad advertising around, and normally I just look away (my hands are just as dirty as everyone else's). But this is dishonest and self-indulgent garbage. Whoever did this should be tarred and feathered at the next D&AD awards.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I get lots of these invitations

On Friday evening I went to a dinner party (being “unattached” I get lots of these invitations). Occasionally these dinners resembles the middle-class prattling sessions you see in Bremner Bird and Fortune. I had to drive about twenty miles through the clear night air - the temperature was almost freezing, so that I was concerned about the health of the rabbits on the side of the road (shouldn’t they be hibernating?).

Arriving at Marie-Astrid’s house, I handed over to Dave a birthday card and a bottle of 2005 Saint Emilion which I advised him to keep for a few years. Introduced to Anthea who does Communications for a local council (“there’s lots I could tell you but I won’t” she said mysteriously). Aged in her late twenties she has multiple sclerosis and walks with a stick.

Emily and Dan arrived and we sat in the lounge area talking cynically about our jobs. Glasses of grape juice we handed round. Then to the table where glasses of wine were poured.
The meal was vegetarian Mexican - enchiladas, bowls of nachos with various sauces, an elaborate salad. Afterwards we had home-made apple crumble with Haagan Daz praline and cream ice cream. Marie-Astrid’s six-year-old daughter got up and came downstairs wanting some ice cream.

We talked about money, and Dan and Emily described their recent buy-to-let purchases. We talked about the England v Croatia game and Dave became very agitated (“It’s not enough to have talented players, they need to work as a team. Like the sales teams and research teams we have at work. They can anticipate everybody’s objectives and reactions and challenges. Even when things are fast and complicated. An outstanding team takes on a life of its own. That’s when they become unstoppable…”). Emily told us about a very elaborate wedding that she and Dan are planning to go to (everyone is flying out to a Greek island where the wedding is being held, Emily is having a “long” dress made especially, lots of Greek elements are being introduced into the ceremony etc).

Coffee to follow, which we took back into the lounge. Marie-Astrid said several times that she was relieved the meal was over (“She’s been worrying all day about it” said Dan). Anthea complained of being suddenly tired and was taken home by Marie-Astrid - after she left everyone said how much she had deteriorated.

I left at 11.30 and drove home slowly because the roads were a bit slippery. When I got home the dog came downstairs to meet me. I took him out into the garden and we walked up and down the main lawn, a full moon high in the sky, the grass under my feet crisp from a light frost.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Common pipistrelles

I picked up these leaflets today as I want to learn more about the bats we have living around the house. They are almost certainly common pipistrelles. In summer (at dusk) I can stand on the main lawn and have them circling round above me. I havn't seen any for a couple of weeks so I guess they are hiberbating now. They live in the barns around the farmyard. Most people don't like bats, but they do a lot of good work (for instance each one will eat about 3,ooo insects per night).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Treasury is fast becoming a basket case

Above: Victorian advice (in cast iron) about the importance of being organised so that you know where things are. The government has “lost” a database containing personal details of ALL children in the country, together with their parents’ bank details. Over the years I have purchased hundreds of databases from data bureaus, and none of them have failed to arrive - the suppliers ALWAYS sent them by registered post.

A day of rain. And as I had to be in and out of the office all afternoon I became fairly damp. Coming back from BQW I saw that all of the floor (twelve people) were at the television in the Conference Room.

"Listen to this” Ian (our boss) said, sounding like a Catherine Tate character.

The television screen showed Chancellor Alistair Darling giving a statement to the House of Commons. It seemed incredible that people such as Judy (Alan’s PA) or Janette (Sheila’s assistant who does the accounts) should give a second glance to this scene, since they have often expressed their contempt for all things political. What made them rooted to the spot was the fact that details about their children (their children!) had gone “missing”.

Janette in particular was becoming panicky, calling her husband to tell him to take the money out of their main account and put it into another one they have. This agitation affected Paul (one son) and Tony W (two teenage children) who both became jittery. Angela was more sanguine (“It’s probably lying in someone’s drawer”).

Above: a display of hand-made baskets. Basket weaving used to be a staple industry in the county. There may be a revival as plastic carrier bags are likely to be phased out.

With the scandal over tax credits and the scandal over Northern Rock, and now the scandal over the missing children’s data the Treasury is fast becoming a basket case. From a PR point of view, it is difficult to think of anything worse than upsetting half the population in the country, especially by placing their children / grandchildren in “danger” through official negligence. This may well be the end for the government, the point at which they realise they have no hope of winning the next election.

But also looking at the situation from a PR point of view, it was a master stroke to have Treasury Secretary Andy Burnham sitting next to Alistair Darling during the Commons statement. Unlike the Presbyterian pursed lips of the Prime Minister and the elegant diffidence of the Chancellor, Mr Burnham looked filled with remorse and private anguish. Looking at him you knew (since he couldn’t have faked those expressions) that one person at least in the government was sorry for what had happened (I have never really understood the phrase “tortured brow” until today).

In less than an hour someone from the government will have to appear on Newsnight to explain what happened. And do it again on the Today programme tomorrow morning. Those two interviews may well decide the fate of the government.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It was absolutely dire

Another lecture in yet another remote church in the east of county. This one was not as erudite as others I have been to recently. In fact, there was something fraudulent about the whole set-up.

The village was set on level lands which had originally been long strips of flat land rising from the marshes. The Sunday afternoon was warm, with gentle sunshine. I drove there through well-kept farmland, the hedgerows subtly becoming more gentrified and displaying specimen trees as I neared the settlement, the whole landscape shape-shifting into micro Edwardian suburbia as I entered the village itself.

Although the village was big, it was not so big that it justified such an enormous medieval church - one of truly vast proportions. The medieval economy had been based on wool, transported by water since the land routes were (and still are) constricted by strategic natural bottlenecks. The wealth generated by the wool paid for the church and the draining of the marshes.

Entering the building, the construction was on such a scale that I felt like a citizen of Lilliput among the towering columns. Most of the windows were of clear glass, so light fell down on you from all angles. The acoustics were particularly good, which meant that the slightest noise (footsteps, whispered conversations, clinking of tea cups) was accentuated and magnified.

The chief treasure of the church is a medieval ladder (see above) that goes forty feet from the ground to the first level of the tower. The area under the tower was a sort of kitchen where ladies were preparing cups of tea (rows of teacups on a trestle table, very big white enamel teapots, immaculate tea towels). One of the ladies told me the ladder was made of primeval wood reclaimed by medieval monks from the ancient marsh (this marsh wood was greatly prized in the medieval period as it had lain in the mineral-rich water for several millenia and in the process had acquired an extremely tough, pliable, boiled quality that resembles modern plastic).

Above: another view of the ladder (note the sun streaming through the gothic arched window to the left). Apparently the ladder is still in use. Pevsner writes gleefully about this survival from the pre-industrial age.

Gradually other people arrived for the talk. They stood around in couples and small groups, drinking tea and whispering to each other. A large number of foreigners (unusual for such an out-of-the-way place) were attending the lecture - I heard them talking in French, Spanish and German (or was it Dutch?).

The lecture was on the career of a very minor sixteenth-century explorer who had been born in the village. This historical connection had been obscure and unremarked until “discovered” by a Rector in the 1950s who single-handedly built it up into a tourist attraction, bringing a buoyant level of income into the village. The result was a Festival-of-Britain-style mixture of earnestness and frivolity (like orange-flavoured cod liver oil - the nasty taste of the history disguised by dressing-up and silly re-enactments).

The lecture was delivered by a retired local headmaster. It was absolutely dire. Every suspicion I have ever harboured about the abysmal teaching of history in state schools was confirmed. Disjointed, laboriously politically correct, WRONG. I felt like heckling him. He walked up and down the low stages set up in the side-aisles (where an Oberammergau-like play is performed at weekends on the subject of the explorer) beaming at us as he showed off. It was all garbage from start to finish.

Eventually I just walked out.

I left the group clustered round the declaiming teacher. I walked past the ladies at their trestle tables loaded with tea cups. I walked through the great gothic entrance arch and down the long avenue of yew trees, back to my car.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

“No, no, no, we are not watching them!”

Above: the Eleanor cross at Charing Cross. I have never looked at it properly until today when I took this photograph. It seemed a brooding monument, as if resentful of the centuries of grief it commemorates (or it could have just been my mood, or indigestion from the Pret a Manger sandwiches).

Lunchtime and I was bored so I went to see Kim Blacha at her place of work (bridal wear designers in one of the side streets near Charing Cross). It was the first time I had seen her place of work, which comprised showroom/shop on the ground floor, designers above, and admin and PR on the top. I was surprised at how well appointed the place was - obviously there must be a lot of money in bespoke bridal wear.

I took in some sandwiches from Pret a Manger. Kim made some tea. We went into the boardroom where they have an HD television.

We had lunch and talked, while Kim flicked around the music channels, lingering on a series of Abba “classics”. A slight disinterested press of her thumb and Abba were zapped away to be replaced by a Take That revival song (revived band, not revivalist music). This video promo was styled in the form of a Busby Berkeley production from the golden age of Hollywood, with hundreds of Ziegfeldesque dancing girls, images of radio waves, the shorter Take That member dressed as Fred Astair in a tailcoat far too large for him (so that he resembled Mickey Mouse).

The band moved up and down a gigantic staircase in one of the silliest routines I have ever seen. Occasional close-ups showed you professional dimples undiminished in faces that were clearly no longer young. I’m not sure why I found the video disturbing (possibly it reminded me of the uncomfortable fact that I am aging myself), but I grabbed the remote control.

“No, no, no, we are not watching them!” I said.

Take That vanished to be replaced by Andrew Neil’s midday politics show. Keith Vaz, disgraced former Minister, was in a studio discussion with a bland Conservative MP (a man so insubstantial that he fully justified the description “shadow” spokesman) talking about detention periods. Keith Vaz dominated the screen, a beautiful plump serenity pervading his on-screen persona.

Keith Vaz is MP for Leicester. He has been turning up in the media a lot recently, in a worrying indication that he is trying to rehabilitate his career (“look at the hands” I said to Kim, “those are the fingers that were caught in the till”). The re-emergence of Keith Vaz mirrors that of the appalling Jonathan Aitkin, so that you wonder if retro-sleaze is the new political fashion.

“Okay, you win” I said to Kim, “let’s have the Abba classics back on”.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I nearly walked out

Above: Brunswick PR in Lincolns Inn Fields (middle building).

Increasingly I am “moonlighting” for the upstairs PR division. They seem to like my writing style, and every week I get several assignments. Ian (my boss) doesn’t like me doing this, but as work is fairly slack at the moment he can’t really complain.

This morning I went with Rachel (one of the PR account handlers) to a client meeting in the Strand, and on the way back we walked through Lincolns Inn Fields and she pointed out Brunswick where she used to work.

“I went there straight from uni” she said. “My interview was really weird. I answered a small ad in PR Week and got invited to an interview. When I got there the waiting room was packed with people - they had asked in everyone who had applied. Lots of people walked out when they saw how chaotic everything was. I nearly walked out myself. But I stuck with it, and eventually got five minutes with a funny little man - I won’t say who. And I was asked back for a second interview which was more professional. And the rest is history.”

Brunswick is one of London’s biggest PR companies, with offices in America and Germany. The firm was founded by Alan Parker who has given a lot of support to Gordon Brown over the years (“but he’s planning to jump ship - don’t tell anyone I told you”). Their client list includes a big chunk of the FTSE top one hundred.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Details “modelled on the Place de la Concorde”

Above: Camden Town Hall.

St Pancras station has been restored and reopened as the Eurostar terminus for trains to Brussels and Paris. I’m not sure what to make of the renovated structure - I prefer buildings in a melancholy state of decay, devoid of people, holding still and undisturbed atmospheres. About ten years ago I walked into the old Great Midland Hotel at St Pancreas (at the time comprising abandoned offices) and went up the staircase to the tatty grandeur of the second floor before being challenged and asked to leave.

I am looking forward to exploring properly the old Goods Yard at Kings Cross, now also in the course of redevelopment. I had an unofficial tour of the place before the development began. I have a hazy memory of going round the Milk Dock, the old soot-encrusted Railway Mission, the Rothschild mansions (seemingly tenanted by reformed squatters with a predilection for rainbow murals).

One of my favourite buildings in this part of London is Camden Town Hall. Such is the anathema felt towards Camden Council (a body that personifies the cry “political correctness gone mad”) that it is difficult to get people interested in what used to be the town hall of the old borough of St Pancras. The building was designed by A. J. Thomas (an assistant to Lutyens) and put up between 1934 and 1937.

The cramped site means that most people do not look at the building. It also suffers from the ebullient proximity of St Pancras station. But in its way it is a masterpiece (raised attics, giant Corinthian columns, details “modelled on the Place de la Concorde” etc).

Monday, November 12, 2007

War defines who we are

Yesterday was Armistice Day and also Remembrance Sunday. On the Andrew Marr show writer Will Self attacked the “state sanctioned cult” of remembrance, which made me think about the ways in which culture is influenced by the continued fall-out from the First World War. In more ways than we realise, that war defines who we are.

This year there seemed more made of the event than previously - Jeremy Paxman presented a documentary on the poetry of Wilfrid Owen; Radio 3 broadcast (live) a war requiem not performed since 1929; all the serious Sunday newspapers allocated articles to the significance of the day.

I watched most of the BBC coverage of the ceremonies at the Cenotaph. You would think that participation would begin to dwindle as veterans died off, but a commentator said that if anything the procession was growing year by year. There have been sixteen thousand casualties in the years since 1948, commemorated in the new totenburg opened in Staffordshire (with acres of empty wall space, indicating that war is to be an active instrument of foreign policy for years to come).

Above: there are thousands of war memorials across the country. Not just in churches (as this elegant example) but also in places of work, and at strategic points in the landscape (crossroads, hilltops, railway stations). After the First World War military commemoration became a national institution.

Above: I was in a forgotten military chapel and noticed this memorial. I say it was “forgotten” but actually the memorials had once been in a chapel attached to a barracks which had closed. They had then been moved to an aisle of this nearby church which had been re-designated the regimental chapel. The memorial interested me since it referred to Poona (a town near Bombay) during the 1920s - a time and place that had been comparatively peaceful. I thought possibly they might have died in some kind of epidemic but a churchwarden told me they had died on service on the North West Frontier with Afghanistan. “I think that period of our history was terrible” she said several times, undermining any “sacrifice” the memorial commemorated (in fact it might have been better for the men not to have had a memorial at all as then they would not have been the object of her obloquy).

Above: the war on the North West Frontier was the subject of Zoltan Korda’s 1938 feature film The Drum (later parodied in Carry On Up The Khyber). In a sub-plot that could have been scripted by Russell T Davies (author of the recent Dr Who series plus other dramas) the film portrays a (presumably subliminal) homo-erotic inter-racial relationship between the regimental drummer boy and the son of a tribal chieftain. Even I, who am usually the last to spot these things, noticed this.

Seventy years after the making of The Drum and the British Army is once again policing the North West Frontier, and making incursions with relative impunity throughout southern Afghanistan. The public has been criticised for not supporting the armed forces more, especially when they return to the United Kingdom, but actually there are hardly any areas of public life where the civilian and military worlds overlap. The only place you are likely to come across soldiers is on a train on a Friday evening.

In the picture above (please excuse the wonky angle, it was taken with my mobile phone) you can see a soldier just back from Afghanistan. I knew this as he was talking at the top of his voice into his mobile phone, one call after another to friends and family, all saying exactly the same thing (“…just got back two hours ago… it was a fucking shit-hole - six contacts a day… I’m in the infantry not the SAS…”). I had seen on a Newsnight special report a frightening picture of what the war in Afghanistan is like, but it was only by hearing that squaddie talking on the train that the reality of close combat came alive.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How comfortable things would have been had we won

Monday - I got to my desk feeling fairly relaxed since I knew I did not have a great deal to do. In many ways I felt I had deserved an easy day after the excessive work of recent weeks. I sat back in my chair, with a cup of tea, and congratulated myself on having a job where I could do nothing (within reason) if I wanted to.

We were due to hear this morning whether we had got the business following the Warwickshire presentation a couple of weeks back. There was a great deal of anticipation. Pete (my assistant) took a particular interest (“Will you be taking on extra people?”).

At eleven o’clock Ian (our boss) asked Kate and myself into the Conference Room and said that we had lost the presentation due to the creative element. Ian looked very shaken. Kate was aghast at the news (“I’d have put money on us getting it”).

Gradually the news seeped out to the rest of the staff. Failing to get the client leaves us all slightly vulnerable (and silently asking: what will the Directors in the senior division upstairs think of it?). The worst aspect is that we lost to arch-rivals Henry Webb Advertising (where Kate used to work, and from whom she stole a number of clients when she moved to us).

In the afternoon things began to get busy for me. In this job there is so much chasing to be done. You can never rely on people to do things on time.

Towards the end of the day freelance designer Joey came in to be briefed (by me) on a technical drawing. He was just back from holiday and was very tanned, although I am not sure how much of the pigment was genuine. While I was talking to him he blushed a deep red under his dark brown skin - it was an odd sight (a sort of purple). His eyes looked over my shoulder. As I turned round to follow his gaze I was just in time to see Kate smiling at him before walking off smartly. And I thought: what is going on there?

Tuesday - how different the situation has become, now we know we are not getting the Warwickshire work. How comfortable things would have been had we won, how smug and complacent we could have become. Instead we are forced to face the reality that not enough money is coming in (plenty of money is being made, but it simply isn’t “enough”).

Lunchtime, and another staff meeting in the Conference Room. We had to sit around the table for about ten minutes waiting for it to begin, a sotto voce grumbling going on among Sheila’s admin team. The “lads” (Paul, Pete, plus Iain and Ben from the photographic studio) came in early from their football practice out in the compound and stood all sweaty while boss Ian made another of his rambling speeches. Ben looked bored. Pete fidgeted. Instead of the usual pizza slices and tepid wine we had catered sandwiches, pastries and cream cakes - and it occurred to me that this lunch had been booked to celebrate winning the Warwickshire account (as we had lost presumably the champagne had been held back).

Wednesday - a paucity of work, almost as alarming as the vast amount of work I had struggled with last week. Most of the day I spent visiting a northern client (the meeting only look an hour, the rest of the time was driving). As I arrived and got out of Kate’s car (borrowed for the day) I dropped all my papers and in the wind they scattered around the car park. All this was watched from an upstairs window by the client and his sales team. For some reason they thought it was hilarious, and it put them in a tremendously good mood, so that in the meeting everything went through on the nod. This was very good news as the campaign proposals were quite ambitious and I had been afraid they would want to scale it back.

Thursday - another sluggish day. In the morning Kate, Ian, Alan and myself held a new business meeting to try to get things back on course. Terry, the Managing Director upstairs (and our ultimate boss) came in to give us his advice (“You need to double your failure rate” he told Kate, “instead of doing two presentations a month, do four”).

Later a small disaster for Sheila and her admin team. A company magazine we do for a client (everything from writing and designing it to stuffing the envelopes and posting it off) was returned by the post office for having insufficient postage. This puzzled Sheila as they had been weighed and franked correctly. Eventually she discovered that Iain (photographic studio) had left the franked mail in his van outside his house overnight before taking it to the post office. In the damp weather the magazines had absorbed moisture and this had taken them over the weight limit. Because of the postal strike the mailing had only just been returned to us (it was meant to have gone out a month ago - we had even billed the client).

Friday - student designer Stuart left today after a couple of weeks work-experience in our studio. He seemed very sad at leaving, although most people were completely indifferent to his going. At half-past four Tony and Paul in the studio gave him a card and some vouchers. He then came over to where Alan and I were talking (Ian was out) and shook hands. Then he shouted a general goodbye to the office, to which no-one responded. And then he left.

His going made Alan very philosophical.

“When you first arrive at a London ad agency you are led to believe the world is your oyster” Alan said.

“And then you discover oysters are actually cold, unpleasant and slimy” I said.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The insouciance with which James Purnell’s mouth pours out untruths

This morning at work I listened to The Long View on Radio 4. At least, I listened to the first twenty minutes before I was called into the Planning Meeting. The programme looked at fakery in the media, relating this to the production of fake religious relics in the Merovingian and Carolingian periods - it was an interesting illustrative technique and made me determine to visit Kentish Town again (no doubt passing Zwanziger the baker’s, and the terrace blackish brown).

On the subject of fakery in the media, the Sunday Telegraph two days ago printed more on the James Purnell fake photo incident.

James Purnell is the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. Some weeks ago he intervened in the television fakery scandals, lecturing broadcasters about the importance of not faking their material and maintaining their reputation for trust. Shortly afterwards he was accused of being a hypocrite for appearing in a “doctored” photograph (he had arrived too late for a group photoshoot, and so his image had been “dropped” into the group portrait so that it looked as if he had been present).

The Secretary of State denied agreeing to the doctoring and said it had been done without his knowledge.

The Sunday Telegraph has now obtained the images that made up the composite group photo. It is obvious (to me anyway) that James Purnell’s poses, and the framing of the photos, were intended to match those of the group photo. Furthermore, the newspaper has also obtained e-mails sent by the photographer to James Purnell confirming the photos would be faked.

None of this would matter except that James Purnell continues to deny any involvement. His office denies receiving the e-mails. Faced with such flat denials there is no way the minister can be reproached, even though the prima facie evidence is damning.

It is the insouciance with which James Purnell’s mouth pours out untruths that is so irritating. In my view, with my limited knowledge of “editing” photographs, it is obvious that the fakery was planned. And yet he can continue to issue denials until media interest dies down and everyone “moves on”.

The issue of over-mighty politicians is one that needs to be addressed. Since we are to have a Supreme Court foisted upon us in 2009, the new court should have powers to investigate politicians accused of lying, with the ability to fine or imprison offenders. For very serious offences involving loss of life (waging war under false pretences, waging covert wars, lying about food safety etc) the sentences should be severe (and retrospective).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Heshel’s Kingdom by Dan Jacobson

I have just finished reading Heshel’s Kingdom by Dan Jacobson. It is an exploration of the author’s family history over the last hundred years. Dan Jacobson is Professor Emeritus of English at University College London.

The book begins with Dan Jacobson examining a photograph of his grandfather, Heshel Melamed, a rabbi in Varniai, a town in Lithuania. Every aspect of the photograph (full beard, dark clothes, the sheen on the top hat) is recorded in forensic detail, so that no clue to the past is overlooked. The author recalls family anecdotes about their Lithuanian origins and decides to trace the story back to its source.

As social history the book is extremely interesting. It also illustrates the way in which chance events influence our lives. In 1912 Heshel Melamed travelled from Lithuania to New York with the intention of resettling his family in the new world. After a brief stay he decides that traditional life in Varniai was preferable to the uncertainty of America. This could have been a catastrophic decision, given the subsequent history of Lithuania, but once again chance intervenes, and Heshel Melamed dies suddenly of a heart attack in 1919. Unexpectedly destitute, the Melamed family takes the only option available to them at the time - emigration to South Africa (where they quickly re-establish themselves, later moving to the United Kingdom).

Having assembled all the information he can, Dan Jacobson “goes back” to Lithuania in an attempt to understand the social and historical influences that created him. It is a fascinating journey. In particular, he describes the landscapes extremely well - the listless towns, the secretive countryside, the endless ominous forest clearings where atrocities took place (described matter-of-factly by a guide called Shlomo - a character who would justify his own biography).

In contrast to Heshel’s Kingdom, the current television travel documentary Michael Palin’s New Europe is very disappointing. If you believe Michael Palin, eastern Europe consists entirely of oddballs and misfits and (here’s a surprise) Michael Palin fans. It seems no dirt track backwater is so obscure that he can’t dig out at least one star-struck devotee performing from memory a Monty Python sketch (sorry if this upsets any Michael Palin enthusiasts - I just find his ego too intrusive for a programme of this kind).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Just as you think the present lot have passed their sell-by date and it’s time to give “Dave” a chance

Above: last week’s Sunday Telegraph (not edited by Patience Wheatcroft - she had left some weeks previously). I tend to buy the Telegraph at weekends (together with the weekend Financial Times). The Telegraph (both Saturday and Sunday editions) has lots of small interesting articles, so you can dip in and out while half-watching television (you don’t so much read the Sunday Telegraph as absorb it dozing in an armchair and finishing the last of the lunchtime wine).

Over lunch we (my brother and I) listened to Any Questions on Radio 4. Today it featured government minister Barbara Follet (in the environment question she admitted to owning a gas-guzzling car), environmental advisor Jonathan Porritt (sounding slightly exasperated, whatever the topic), and Opposition spokesman David Willets (nerdy, but brave enough to attack the School Run).

The final panellist was Patience Wheatcroft, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. The inclusion of Patience Wheatcroft was interesting as her departure from the newspaper some weeks ago caused minor consternation in the agency (Terry, our Managing Director, looking particularly fed up). She came across as very sensible, seamlessly combining facts with opinions and criticisms, so that although you knew she must be a Tory it was a passive, wise, logical Conservative viewpoint.

Unlike say Francis Maude on Question Time (looking like an embalmed corpse and so hedging his replies that you didn’t think he believed in anything). Or Michael Portillo on Andrew Neil’s late night politics show where he gives a cosy open-neck-shirt arm-round-Diane-Abbott I’m-Mr-Nice-Guy performance that leaves you dazed by his chutzpah. Michael Portillo in the 1990s was the political equivalent of a carrion crow, a man so arrogant he had a leadership headquarters (with dozens of telephone lines) on permanent stand-by waiting for the long drawn out demise of John Major.

His continued survival in the media is inexplicable. More than anyone else (more than David Mellor, more than Michael Heseltine, more even than trusty-sword-of-truth Jonathan Aitken) Michael Portillo personified the 1990s Nasty Party - arrogant political careerists manipulating everyone and everything to benefit themselves. Just as you think the present lot have passed their sell-by date and it’s time to give “Dave” a chance, Michael Portillo pops up and you think: hang on a minute.

More on Patience Wheatcroft: