Friday, August 31, 2007

The walking set up

Newsnight last night talked about doing away with various techniques used by television journalists to establish the context of an interview. This includes the “walking set up” where you see the subject of an interview purposefully walking (anywhere, it doesn’t really matter) to allow time for the introduction voice-over. Channel 5 claims that this would be more “honest”.

The issue affects more than just news reports. Advertising, marketing communications, PR - all “interpret” the context of a message, leading to accusations of dishonesty. The problem is that if you present the “truth” in its raw un-interpreted state it is often unintelligible (for instance, if you were to transcribe exactly what someone says in the course of a conversation most of it will come out as gobbledegook - very rarely do people speak grammatically).

This doesn’t mean that the truth can be manipulated. The phone-in scandals and the Crowngate scandal were disturbing (and yes, Peter Fincham should have resigned to demonstrate that the BBC does not tolerate manipulation of the facts). You don’t expect the BBC to behave as if it were part of the Murdoch empire.

On the subject of “the walking set up” I bemoan the fact that we no longer seem to see politicians walking up and down College Green in Westminster (almost always backbenchers looking determined / outraged / defiant etc) prior to being interviewed about the latest iniquities of the government. This item of televisual political theatre was as much part of our constitutional process as Prime Minister’s Questions or the State Opening of Parliament. Eleanor Goodman was a master impresario of this type of interview and seemed to “discover”
many interesting backbench voices you never normally hear from.

Whatever else goes, the College Green walking set up should stay.

More on College Green:
More on Eleanor Goodman:

Kim Blacha’s Song of the Day is Young Folks by Peter Bjorn & John.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Slowly dissolving in the wind and rain

Leaving my car at the service centre (this was my second visit due to the unavailability of spare parts), I was loaned a courtesy car and told to come back at three o’clock. I drove north from the county town, eventually arriving at a small market town about twelve miles to the northeast. It was a very hot day, and the streets were dusty and almost deserted (the architecture of the town was unremarkable apart from a massive Wesleyan Chapel which filled the end of a road of terrace houses).

Above: a massive Wesleyan Chapel filled the end of a street of terrace houses.

From the little town I drove along an undulating side road that took me out into the countryside and through some dense plantation woods (conifers - it was like driving through Thetford Forest). As I drove down into a valley I saw, rising on the opposite side, Canon Pettifor’s “holy hill”. This was a conical prominence, the shape making it look far loftier than it actually was. The summit was topped by a big honey-coloured church glowing in the afternoon sun.

As I reached the valley level I lost sight of the hill but continued to drive in its general direction. I arrived at the “centre” of a village. The valley at this point was very narrow, the sides covered with trees. The road forked and two parallel lanes proceeded northwards along the valley for about a mile, with a low ridge in between. The two parallel lanes comprised the village, with large villas lining one route, and cottages along the other. On the gentle ridge in the centre, clear of all trees, was the “new” church.

Above: the “new” church was built in 1913 when attendance at the “old” church (on top of the hill) had dwindled. I parked my car beside a grassy bank. Opposite the bank was a line of cottages looking like a painting by Helen Allingham (the Helen Allingham effect was heightened by a number of grey-haired elderly women, wearing floral dresses and old-fashioned aprons who were standing in their gardens chatting to each other). Pevsner raves about this church (obviously being Pevsner his raving is of the understated variety, but you can tell under his prissy Germanic prose he was getting seriously worked up). Note the paired oblong bell openings (he writes). Note the plain mullioned windows of Elizabethan and Jacobean type (he writes). Inside the church Pevsner becomes ecstatic (you can tell), indulging in a chilly sort of academic gushing over the architectural subtleties and references. The interior is a sort of super-intellectual game whereby you have to trace the influence of other buildings on every facet of this one (a game that possibly only Pevsner was qualified to play). This was not a pastiche of a medieval building, this was a genuine medieval building that happened to be put up at the start of the twentieth century.

Above: walking to the end of the lane, off to one side led this path, with a wooden sign that said “the old church”. The first section went up through some trees, the ground soggy and wet underfoot despite the hot day (a stream obviously followed the route of the path). The ground began to rise steeply.

Above: I am very disappointed with this photograph as it gives you no idea of how steeply the ground was rising (the gradient so acute you had to be careful not to lose your footing). The path went up in a zigzag way, following the contours of the hill. After about twenty minutes I began to feel out of breath.

Above: most of the way up the path was enclosed by hedges, but at various points you could look out at fields filled with sheep and exhilarating views of the countryside (you could easily be distracted by the view and slip and roll down into those nettles!).

Above: occasionally stiles led the way to intriguing side paths, except that I was already far too weary to go off exploring.

Above: I passed sheltered dells where the thistledown piled up, undisturbed by the wind.

Above: I passed blackberries already ripe, presaging the coming of autumn.

Above: eventually the summit came into view. By this time I was feeling the effects of the climb (it was more a climb than a walk). The heat made me feel giddy, I was almost gasping for breath, my heart was pounding.

Pevsner seems uninterested in the church, noting that it was built of local sandstone (quarried from the hill itself), in a style mostly Early English and Transitional. Arthur Mee (unreliable romantic that he is) says it was abandoned in the 1880s because the villagers refused to walk up the hill. Declared redundant in 1931.

The atmosphere was very still in the afternoon sun, not a trace of a breeze even though the hill had a roof-of-the-world feel to it. The stones of the church seemed very eroded, as if it was slowly dissolving in the wind and rain that must surely blast the hill in winter. Despite its redundant status it did not appear neglected, just insubstantial, as if might suddenly crumble to dust.

Above: opening the door and stepping inside, the atmosphere was intense, as if the ether had a weightier density than the air outside. Although redundant, the church looked neat and tidy, as if still cared for (no sign of any vandalism). Much of the woodwork, including the chancel screen, had been painted white in the 1930s (as if Elsie de Woolfe had been one of the churchwardens). A photocopied sheet informed me that the seating had originally been box pews (you can see some of them have survived if you click on the photo to enlarge it and look to the left). When the church was abandoned in the 1880s a local farmer had taken most of the box pews and used the wood to panel the rooms in his farmhouse. Look closely at the pillar in the centre of the photo - around the top was carved a row of tiny primitive heads.

It was nearly six by the time I got back to the service centre. The counter clerk looked reproachful as he handed me the keys to my car (possibly my lateness had delayed his going home). The bill was huge.

More on Helen Allingham:

Friday, August 24, 2007

An environment where everything was new

My first week in the new job. I had forgotten just how tiring long-distance commuting can be. I’m up at six, and don’t get home until nearly eight.

Since I had my interview the company had moved offices, so I entered an environment where everything was new (furniture, paintwork, reporting relationships) and everyone was slightly unsure about where things are kept and how the office machinery works. The agency is split over two floors - upstairs is where the Directors and Account Executives are based, and downstairs is the studio and “Ancillaries” (Ancillaries basically covers all the projects that are not strictly “PR” such as brochures, exhibition stands, advertising etc).

I have been placed “downstairs” (actually the second floor of the building). On my first day I didn’t have a desk and had to sit around most of the morning chatting to Angela, one of the PAs. Then Terry, the Managing Director, arrived accompanied by two Facilities staff carrying my (brand new) desk. He made them carry the desk around the whole floor, trying how it looked in different locations. I could tell that the Facilities blokes were getting fed up with moving the heavy desk. Eventually Terry decided I would sit behind the partition at the back of the floor, alongside the Studio, and with my back to the window.

“You’re a bit out of things here” Terry told me, “but at least you’ve got some natural light, which counts for a lot.”

Terry went back to his office upstairs. I introduced myself to the Studio which is comprised of Tony H (in his fifties, grey-haired, one of the few “creatives” I have ever seen wearing a tie) and Paul (mid-twenties, jeans and white short-sleeved shirt through which you could see tattoo designs go up his left arm and across his shoulders). They worked mostly at AppleMacs but also had drawing boards set up (Tony is a stickler for the old way of doing things).

Also on my floor are two Directors Ian and Alan, who head up Ancillaries (Angela is their PA) and Peter who is a trainee. Kate, who is a sort of Ancillaries Account Executive (she’s not allowed to do any PR apparently) was away because of a family bereavement. Also on our floor, but shared with upstairs, is a print buyer - Tony W (stout, a bit abrasive, wide humourless smile).

Because Kate was away Ian (who is in ultimate charge of our floor) asked me to pick up most of her “job bags” (projects), which meant being thrown in the deep end. I was immediately reminded of all the reasons why I hate agency Account Exec work - all you do is hassle people and chase them for things (artwork, photographs, concepts) while pretending to the clients everything is under control. It’s very stressful.

Towards the end of the week I was able to focus on some my own projects which are going to revolve around brochure production (the agency does lots of financial reports), copywriting and most of the proof-reading (from now on all work has to be cleared with me before going to production - that’s a two-edged sword, I thought, since it makes me responsible for accuracy). I’m also due to help Ian and Alan with new business presentations. Finally, trainee Peter is to report to me, and I have to draw up his on-going training programme (after this was announced he was constantly bringing me cups of coffee, so that I began to worry about developing caffeine poisoning).

Midweek I thought seriously about whether I would write about my job on this site - and then decided I would. It’s anonymous (or rather, semi-anonymous since Charles Frappe’s intervention) and I have taken all reasonable steps to preserve anonymity - ie never use work PCs to post on Blogger. Also, this is part of my life, as I see it, and I want to keep a record of it.

One of the nicest features of our floor is that we have our own kitchen where we can make real cups of tea rather than use the drinks machines out on the landing. This afternoon two female Account Executives came down from upstairs to use our kitchen. They were both very confident young women, talking to office at large without bothering whether anyone was listening.

Account Executive Caroline, very smartly dressed: “Today has been amazing - one of the best meetings I have ever had with that client. I’m so excited we have got everything agreed. And we had an amazing lunch. We’re going to do a grand opening of the new shop. It’s going to be fantastic. If you want to go, let me know!”

Account Executive Rachel, in dress-down Friday attire: “Did you see Amy Winehouse fighting with her husband! You’ve got to see it! Let me tell you, with her hair she shouldn’t get into fights. No dear, I’m having coffee and a Red Bull, I’m still recovering from lunchtime. Did you see My Chemical Romance playing live on Myspace - it was free! Amy should go into rehab, she’s one crazy girl.”

Both women came over to my desk and introduced themselves before taking their drinks back upstairs.

“You need to be careful of Rachel, she can be a bitch” said Peter quietly (the first negative remark I had heard him make about someone).

“And Caroline’s not much better” said Angela from across the room (she must have exceptional hearing to have picked up what Peter said).

And so my first week came to an end.

Kim Blacha's Song for the Day is Suburban Knights by Hard Fi, which she says has a Clash feel about it.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Notice the parapet

The architectural trust sometimes arranges visits to places in the county that are normally hard to get into. As these visits are often on a weekday I don’t usually go to them. But recently one house study came up that was to a place so impenetrable I felt I had to drop everything and go along, as the chance might not come again.

On the day not many people turned up, which was good, as you virtually had the place to yourself. As with other “strictly private, no admittance” estates, the countryside was incredibly beautiful (but in a ravished sort of way - drenched by the July rain, reanimated by the August heat, the final result was dark green foliage, intense blue skies, large impossibly deep-hued flowers). We went round in a little group listening to the architectural lecture, then wandered about on our own.

Above: Ionic columns at the door, and a grand staircase that goes up over the “area” (the basement well that runs along the front). Venetian windows. Obelisk chimneys. Notice the parapet. In 1733 a pet monkey grabbed a baby boy from its cradle in the house and ran up onto the roof, pursued by the rest of the family. Frightened, the monkey dropped the baby over the parapet. The baby was killed, and being the last male heir, the family died out and the house was sold.

Above: the gardens were laid out in 1912, and were comprised of herbaceous borders laid out very formally, like a gigantic parterre.

Above: at the end of a gravel walk, by ornate gates that just seem to lead into a field, someone had placed these very comfortable chairs - just sitting there in the drowsy warm afternoon, I felt completely at peace.

Above: in the kitchen garden “fragilis rubra of the bramble flower” - blackberries are aggregate fruits (the berry is made up of many smaller cells). The leaves are trifoliate. The very long stems of the bramble arch upwards and have recurved thorns that dig into you (brambles are popularly known as lawyer-bushes as once you fall into their clutches it is extremely difficult to get out again).

Kim Blacha's Song of the Day: On the verge by Darren Hayes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

“What can we dooo?”

Above: the Prince of Wales pub - friendly, smoky (last time I was in there was before the smoking ban), a good starting point for any pub crawl around the north side of town.

Sorry to keep talking about last night’s television, but I use this blog as a place where I can jot down thoughts before I forget them. It’s more organised than lots of scraps of paper. Also, I am more disciplined about writing properly if I am going to put something up in a public place.

Anyway, last night’s Newsnight looked at environmental politics with the suggestion that British politicians are becoming indifferent about policies to protect the environment because: 1) it is too difficult to convince voters to change their behaviour, and 2) whatever we do in the United Kingdom is meaningless unless followed by similar action in India and China.

This attitude reminded me of my first job, which was in a large national organisation with many thousands of staff. The office where I worked had a manager who had completely lost control of the fifty or so people who reported to him. Thus there were incidences of staff turning up drunk (very regular), staff going off “sick” (so routine it was planned into the rosters), and even cleaners becoming abusive and hurling rubbish bins around just because someone pointed out their section hadn’t been dusted for a month.

It meant that the fifty per cent of the staff who were responsible had to do their own work plus the work of the fifty per cent of staff who were just coasting along. Whenever anyone complained to the office manager he would hold out his hands and (in a whining voice) say “What can we dooo?” In many ways he could do nothing, since the root problem was unionised job security, and he had superiors who would not support him in any clash with the union.

But I digress. It is not acceptable for the government, in the style of that long-retired (I hope) office manager, to just hold out their collective hands and whine “What can we dooo?” It is fashionable for government members to deride the Prince of Wales, but I suggest that one of the POW’s initiatives might give a lead to resolving the conundrum of co-ordinating international environmental action.

In a later (much happier) job I worked in the marketing department of a company which held a Royal Warrant. It fell to the marketing department to make sure the company never lost the Royal Warrant, and also we were tasked with looking at ways of achieving the Prince of Wales Warrant. To achieve the POW Warrant the company had to have a track record of at least five years as an organisation meeting the international environmental standard ISO 14001 (which meant that all our suppliers also had to be working towards the ISO 14001 standard, creating a virtuous impetus out along the supply chain).

India and China are (certainly in the short to medium term) dependent upon exporting manufactured goods to the West. If the European Union and United States were to require all imported manufactured goods to have come from ISO 14001 registered companies (with say a five year adjustment time) the issue of environmental sustainability would become self-regulating. Western manufacturers would also, obviously, have to achieve the standard.

And so, in my usual very simplistic way, I have solved the problem of international climate change.

More on ISO 14001:

Kim Blacha’s Song of the Day is No Time by Just Jack (I asked her for something with an end-of-the-world feel).

Monday, August 20, 2007

Take a walk along one of the lines

One of the advantages of having an anonymous site like this is that you can confess to things you would never admit to in everyday life. As someone once said, if you revealed everything about anyone, it would shock everyone. So at the risk of shocking you, I am now going to talk about my fascination with ley lines (which in “real life” would make me a pariah among serious historians, classified among the credulous conspirators and UFO watchers).

I read The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins at the age of ten. I saw it mentioned in a footnote, and something made me want to see it. It was long out of print, so I went to a public library and requested a copy (this was before the internet - now you can find any book within minutes). Weeks and weeks passed, and eventually I received a postcard saying it had come through. I remember the library assistant looking very doubtful about handing it over to me. Inside it was stamped “British Library” so they had had to get a copy from the national collection (at the time there must have been very few copies circulating - reinforcing its status as a work of scholastic heresy).

The theory that prehistoric sites are laid out in absolutely straight lines sounds completely bonkers. Except that when you look at an Ordnance Survey map and try it for yourself, you find that prehistoric sites DO have a tendency to line up precisely (and no, it doesn’t work with other categories such as schools or petrol stations). But what really makes it intriguing, is when you take a walk along one of the lines in the field - and find dozens of clues that support the theory.

Above: this church was built on an ancient site high up on one side of a valley. As you may know, St Augustine in his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons, specifically instructed churches to be built on the old pagan sanctuaries as a sign that the new faith had supplanted the old (and the Anglo-Saxons had often adopted “high places” that had been religious sites since prehistoric times). The blocked doorway had previously been for the sole use of the lords of the manor, who would come up in a procession from their manor house down in the valley. When the last of the family died out (seventeenth century) the door was blocked up and never used again. Anyway, from the blocked door you can walk across the churchyard (a round churchyard, which is a sign of an ancient burial ground) to the edge of the valley. A straight path leads the way, and at the boundary of the churchyard is a low wall with a convenient gate in it.

Above: the view from the churchyard gate looking down into the shallow valley. The manor house was directly ahead. If you enlarge the photo (click on it) you can see the stone spire of another church on the horizon, in a dead straight line from the blocked up doorway (you might be thinking “so what” but to me uncanny discoveries like this are genuinely thrilling).

Above: further on, this particular old straight track is marked by a gap in the boundary of the cornfield, then hedges going up the side of the valley (hedgerows are often of great antiquity) with another gap at the top of the hill - exactly as Alfred Watkins predicted.

Above: if you root around in second hand bookshops you can sometimes find copies of this magazine which gives details of many tracks that have been walked and documented. Unfortunately the magazine is defunct. Modern literature that deals with ley lines is usually complete rubbish and goes off into mysticism instead on concentrating on the physical remains on the ground that can be examined.

The Old Straight Track is one of the books that changed my life - it first got me interested in archaeology, and a huge part of my life has developed from that interest.

Kim Blacha's Song of the Day is Carrickfergus by Charlotte Church.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"No more boom and bust"?

Turmoil in the world's financial markets. Obviously it is an international problem. But what is highlighted in this weekend's Financial Times is that there is a complete lack of leadership.

So what happened to Gordon Brown's promise of "No more boom and bust"? We've hardly heard a peep out of him since the crisis began. Either he can produce stability, in which case why doesn't he?

Or, his claim of "No more boom and bust" was a fraud and he coasted through the last ten years helped by very fabourable world economic conditions. What isn't helping is the clamour of old Labour socialists saying it's all the fault of City greed. Pathetic effort Mr Brown.

PATHETIC (said loudly and slowly and with considerable contempt).

Kim Blacha's Song of the Day is 1973 by James Blunt (any mention of the 70s has her virtually swooning - obviously she is too young to remember what the decade was actually like).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Andy Burnham, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Newsnight last night featured the launch of potential new policies by the Conservative Party, including abolition of inheritance tax. The usual discussion developed, with a spokesman for the Conservatives (who was so unmemorable I cannot remember anything about him) and by video link Andy Burnham, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, putting the government’s view. Andy Burnham dominated the discussion, but not in a positive way. He was so badly briefed and inarticulate that he was alternately floundering and waffling, talking in a continuous spout, but not saying anything (that made sense). You got the impression that even Jeremy Paxman, who is normally merciless in pointing out weak arguments, became embarrassed and just wanted him to shut up. It was like seeing a not-very-good stand-up comedian dying on stage.

This appalling performance was in contrast to Andy Burnham’s last appearance on Newsnight, when Gordon Brown was announcing his new government. Mr Burnham on that occasion had sparkled (almost literally sparkled since his eyes were shining with idealistic passion). The next day Andy Burnham’s name was unexpectedly included in the last tranche of government ministers, so that it appeared he had got the post on the basis of a Newsnight appearance (surely Gordon Brown isn’t that trivial and surely Newsnight isn't that powerful?).

A Google search of Andy Burnham reveals he is a member of the Primrose Hill Gang. What is the Primrose Hill Gang, and what part does it play in the political life of the country? It sounds like a shadowy group of political fantasists who want to take pot-shots at archdukes.

Abolition of inheritance tax would be a much-needed fiscal reform. The tax began as a way of breaking up the estates of Edwardian plutocrats. It has now become a postcode-lottery tax, hitting ordinary families in property hotspots (and in particular harming those “little” families who have struggled to pay off their mortgages to provide a modest amount of capital for their children - usually so that they can afford a deposit for a home of their own).

Kim Blacha’s Song of the Day is Stranger by Hilary Duff.

Friday, August 17, 2007

There can be no doubt that Wayne Rooney sells newspapers

Above: the Sunday Telegraph.

Above: the Daily Star.

Above: The Guardian.

Even in a culture where celebrity involvement is reaching saturation level, a number of individuals are achieving a special rank in the national pantheon. Popular interest creates media interest which in turn fuels the money-making industries that surround individuals who acquire cultural significance. For instance, on a practical basis there can be no doubt that Wayne Rooney sells newspapers.

Psychologists have suggested that celebrities such as Wayne Rooney are increasingly taking the place of neighbours, friends and relatives in the lives of many people experiencing the disorientation and rootlessness of modern (particularly urban) life. Fan bases have been compared with the structure and behaviour of religious cults. Some forms of celebrity worship syndrome border on the pathological.

Wayne Rooney appears on the books of Manchester United Football Club as an asset worth £46 million (92 million US$). His personal marketing value (through contracts with Nike, Nokia, Coca Cola etc) is worth £32 million (64 million US$). He also has a 12-year autobiographical book contract worth £5 million (10 million US$) plus royalties.

More on the academic study of celebrity culture:

Kim Blacha’s Song of the Day is Walk You Home by Passenger.

Kim Blacha is scathing about the Kate Nash song Foundations (which has a sort of Nell Dunn Poor Cow narrative style). Kim Blacha says it follows the Jilted John school of lyric writing. Jilted John by Jilted John was a kitsch 1970s hit that contains the line: “I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop”).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

One of the richest regions in the world

Above: Kanthapura is one of the best novels focussing on the Congress movement for Indian independence, written from the Indian point of view. The author very convincingly portrays the mentalité of a village in rural India. It helps explain how the enthusiasm for independence gained popular support among the ordinary people.

Today is the 60th anniversary of independence for India and Pakistan.

For the past few weeks the serious television channels have been featuring programmes relating to the sub-continent (some very high quality, some appalling). Newspapers and magazines have taken up the theme. This reflects the fact that nearly three per cent of the British population is of Indian or Pakistani origin.

Two (opposing) historical views are emerging:

View 1) India was historically one of the richest regions in the world, and produced a glittering civilisation that reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries. The British arrived in the Indian sub-continent as traders and by a policy of divide and rule, gradually made inroads into the region, eventually taking it over. Two centuries of plunder and misrule followed during which almost all of India’s fabulous wealth was transferred to the United Kingdom, reducing the country to poverty. The British in India behaved appallingly, with an arrogance that could not be tolerated. Famine relief was inadequate, social inequalities were ignored, feudal systems were propped up so long as the princely rulers collaborated with the British. The Indian Army was used by the British to help fight two world wars and numerous minor wars. Led by an inspired leader, the Indians freed themselves through an innovative campaign of passive disobedience. Freed from colonialism, India is once more achieving wealth and international respect. India is resuming its rightful place as a world power.

View 2) India was a network of warring divided states before British rule and became a network of warring divided states after the British left. In the fifty years after 1947 the country went through a period of near tyranny, far worse than imperial rule (commentators point out Mrs Ghandi killed roughly the same number of people at Amritsar as General Dyer did). During the two hundred years of British rule the area acquired stability, democratic institutions, free press, independent courts, an administration that was free of corruption, a modern infrastructure of railways, ports and modern cities, and was integrated into a global state with an international outlook. By the 1930s India was already on the road to self-government and would probably have acquired dominion status in the mid-1970s, the whole sub-continent united and far richer than it is now (the example of colonial Hong Kong is usually cited at this point). India’s present wealth is merely a re-adoption of the western capitalism that Nehru abandoned in 1947 - the same western capitalism that projected Japan from Year Zero bombsite to world’s second largest economy in the same sixty years we are talking about.

Probably the truth lies between the two viewpoints.

Professor Stockwell has demonstrated that economic exploitation of the British Empire was inept, and that net capital was transferred from Britain to the colonies rather than in the other direction. AJP Taylor also calculated that no net profit was made from the aggregate territories of the British Empire in the last hundred years of colonialism. In 1995 I read a draft thesis (by a former student of Stockwell's) that matched expenditure on the National Health System with stages of colonial withdrawal, arguing that imperial expenditure was cut to pay for the set up and running costs of the new NHS (Indian independence was brought forward by a year specifically to save money, which leads to his tendentious conclusion that the NHS was paid for in Hindu and Muslim blood - “across the disintegrating Empire in the 1950s, 60s and 70s the ideology of Fenner Brockway killed more than the ideologies of Hitler, Stalin and Mao put together”).

And what does the imperial episode mean in the United Kingdom today?

Mostly it has been forgotten. Britain is now a small island off the coast of Europe. The days when the British Empire covered a quarter of the world are long gone.

And yet there are some curious statistics:

Queen Victoria was head of state over 10,800 million acres of the world’s land area (United Kingdom, colonial empire plus self-governing dominions such as Canada and Australia).

Queen Elizabeth II is head of state over 8,800 million acres of the world (United Kingdom, independent countries such as Jamaica and Canada, and the colonial residue of mostly tiny islands, but also including a huge slice of Antarctica which was “acquired” formally in the 1930s).

Possession of Antarctica means that the (never mentioned) current British Empire is only marginally less than the Victorian one. And with global warming apparently unstoppable, Antarctica might turn out to be valuable. Defending it, however, might be another matter - is that why we held onto the Falkland Islands and are renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system (since there is no other conceivable use for such massive destructive capacity)?

Even the colonial residue of tiny islands comprises ten of the world’s off-shore banking centres, processing incredible amounts of money (according to the Bank for International Settlements about one fifth of the world’s money is held in the offshore system - some of the largest cash flows and capital accumulations on Earth, effectively making Britain the world’s banker).

And yet none of this is ever mentioned. British imperialism is officially a spent force. The OBE is just a harmless award given out to sports people, district nurses and minor celebrities.

I used to enjoy going to Professor Stockwell’s lectures, even though my period was Medieval not Modern. He always made you think (and not always pleasant thoughts). He came into one lecture, looked at the rows of seats unusually packed with students (other lecturers would only get a handful turning up), and said with very heavy sarcasm: “We’re all imperialists now!”

Kim Blacha's Song of the Day: Mamacita by Collie Buddz.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pictures at an exhibition

Above: Loading Manglewurzels onto a cart - one of the pictures at the exhibition.

I don’t know why I am drawn to Victorian art ("stuck" as in "you are a stuckist"). Perhaps I am not clever enough to decipher modern art (or perhaps the encoding is so supercilious and insulting as not to be worth the effort). Anyway, I like realist paintings, preferably containing a narrative.

While my car was being serviced I borrowed a courtesy car and drove aimlessly out into the country. Eventually I passed over onto the large “island” to the far west of the county. Although it is described as an island it is completely inland - its island status comes from it being a vast chunk of flat land cut off by two wide rivers and almost unreachable (except by ferry) until the building of strategic bridges in the twentieth-century.

A few villages are located on the island, with a modest-sized market town (one of the chief industries is the manufacture of seaside rock). The area is interesting because of its extreme poverty, which has kept the developers at bay so that the settlements have the look of black and white pre-war films (in the market town the grey dreariness of real life accentuates the monochrome Hobson’s Choice townscape). I had read a great deal about the island, but this was my first visit.

The market town had an art gallery, and this was showing an exhibition of paintings by a nineteenth-century artist who had been born in the locality and risen to very modest reputation before fading again into total obscurity. I like to see pictures at an exhibition, and so I paid five pounds at the counter and went upstairs to the three small rooms. No-one else was up there.

I was familiar with the work of the artist - he specialised in views of Victorian farming scenes, the grinding labour of the poor transmuted into idyllic pastoral visions. These illustrated the Weber philosophy that hard work is good for you, allied to the artist’s hypothesis that simple country folk have an innate spirituality and rapture untainted by the corruption of the towns. But there was also a room containing figurative work, including two paintings I had seen before (but not together).

The first of these paintings was entitled Will he come? and showed an almost life-size full-length figure of a young woman dressed in expensively drab clothes (black and brown satin silk). She has a plain face with full lips (not sensuous), a strong nose, and slightly protruding (almost bug-like) eyes. Standing on a riverbank holding a small book in her right hand, a black Labrador at her feet, she looks apprehensively into the waters as if mentally preparing herself for a disappointment.

The second painting has the title Woman with a soldier, but the notes in the catalogue said this was just a curatorial assignment, and the original name of the painting is unknown. Clearly the title should be He has come! as it shows the same plain woman, her expression changed to one of quiet fulfilment, in the company of a much older army officer in a uniform of black trousers, scarlet tunic with brass buttons, and black pill box hat. The officer’s greying moustache seems to be bristling with a sense of self-satisfied conquest.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that there was a third painting in the sequence, which I now saw for the first time. Entitled Waiting for the carriage, it shows the same couple but obviously married, the man dressed in civilian clothes, at the entrance to a large country estate with a carriage and horses drawing up. The composition was a bit clumsy, but the artist had captured the sense of bored co-existence you sometimes see in married couples.

The photocopied notes informed me that the three paintings together illustrate the artist’s theme - that life is mostly composed of waiting and compromise, interspersed with brief moments of happiness.

Above: For its size the town had a great many churches and chapels. Including this “institution” which had been turned into some sort of workshop or builder’s yard. This in turn had gone out of business and the building is up for sale again.

Above: Although the town was many miles inland, shipping was able to get to it via deep rivers and canals. This anchor was found in one of the rivers and set up as a memorial to a vanished way of life (obviously container ships are far too big to get through the old waterways, and so the port has closed). I suppose that was when the town started to decline.

More on Stuckism:

Kim Blacha's Song of the Day: When will I see your face again by Jamie Scott And The Town.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Unreal City by Tony Hanania

Above: Unreal City by Tony Hanania is a poetic account of a cosmopolitan middle eastern city in a time of war. Unreal City by Robert Liddell is a poetic account of a cosmopolitan middle eastern city in a time of war. Both book are worth reading.

I have just finished reading Unreal City by Tony Hanania. The central character grows up in Lebanon in the 1970s and witnesses the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. This is a subject I knew almost nothing about, so I felt that I was learning something new.

There are two reasons I thought the book was outstanding:

Firstly it is very well written, with a style that is poetic and full of feeling.

Secondly, it describes (in detail) how someone who is non-religious and non-political can be drawn into a sectarian conflict and eventually choose to become a terrorist / freedom fighter. This has nothing to do with idealism or a sense of injustice. It has everything to do with how individuals are influenced by the people around them (I knew this anyway, but this book reminded me of how easily it can happen).

And it also reminded me of research that was done during the First World War on why soldiers in impossible situations (ie the trenches of the Western Front) continue fighting. In the middle of combat all thoughts of patriotism or idealism, and even thoughts of family and home, go completely out of your mind. All that keeps combatants going is the thought that they mustn’t let down the people around them.

For the same reason, kidnap victims can sometimes be turned by their captors into supporting the group that is holding them hostage.


Not sure how this will work out, but Kim Blacha has suggested I feature a “Song of the day” which she will supply.

So today’s Song of the Day is Ten Miles by Infernal.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Taken seriously

Apologies for being “off-line” recently. The whole future of this blog was suddenly compromised, and I had to give some very careful thought about whether I carry on with it. As you can see, I have decided to continue.

Nearly two weeks ago I received a short e-mail from Robert Leiper saying he was in London, and suggesting we met up at an Italian restaurant near Kings Cross station (it used to be called Monte Grappa - not sure what it is called now, I didn‘t notice). I went there completely unsuspecting anything was wrong. It was about six o’clock in the evening.

I went into the restaurant which was empty apart from one table in the corner. This was occupied by Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe, neither of them smiling. I sat down at the table, which was small and cramped, the chair making a horrible scraping sound on the stone floor. A waiter came up and I just ordered a coffee, (Robert and Charles were not eating anything). The waiter brought me my coffee and refilled the two glasses on the table (Soave, the chilled bottle covered in condensation from the warm evening). Silence until the waiter had gone back into the kitchen, and then the storm broke.

“What the hell do you think you are doing writing about me on the internet!” Charles Frappe said.

This took me completely by surprise.

“What makes you think I am?” I countered, not knowing how much they knew.

“Come off it, I’ve been reading your blog for the last two years” said Robert Leiper. “You left the url all over my laptop when you were staying with me in New York. There’s nothing I don’t know.”

“So you’ve been spying on me!” I said, trying to sound the injured party, all the time hurridly thinking through the possible implications. I was puzzled at how Robert Leiper had discovered this site, since I had carefully deleted the history folder and temporary files folder whenever I had finished using his laptop.

Charles Frappe spoke to me across the table with a very elaborate punctiliousness that I first mistook for sarcasm:

“I was greatly honored by your visit to my home in Paris. I was grateful to offer you hospitality. If I did not express this sufficiently at the time, I apologize. My friends and family in America can attest that I thought your visit a great success. They were most envious. Now, reading your weblog, I see that my company wore on you…”

By the pained expression on his face it appeared he was serious. I had thought he hated me whereas in fact he had been a fan. This was a very difficult moment for me, and I began to wonder how easily I would be able to get out of the meeting.

“At the time” Charles Frappe went on, “I was aware of a certain amount of teasing directed towards me, and I took it in good part. Much of your life seems to be devoted to teasing your friends. I stand second to none in admiration of your literary skills, as I have frequently mentioned to Robert, and I know that teasing is part of that skill.”

His voice was becoming shrill, a vocal variation I had not heard from him before.

“It is not just that you should devote yourself to mocking me. And with such witty severity. But what I really do not think funny, is having an inaccurate account ridiculing myself and what you thought of my business acumen to other people.”

“What other people?” I said. “The site is completely anonymous. And…” (feeling I should perhaps go on the attack a little) “…what exactly did I write that was inaccurate?”

Two women came into the restaurant and sat down at a table on the other side of the room. They were aged in their early thirties, obviously having just left the office for the day. They made no attempt to talk to each other, but watched the scene at our table as if it were a drama laid on for their entertainment.

This audience spurred Charles Frappe into a fresh bout of accusation:

“Your account consists of the nastiest jibes you could think of. Well perhaps not the nastiest, but pretty nasty at that. I have tried to respond with silence, but I now find I am a laughing stock from one coast of America to the other.”

“How are you a laughing stock?” I said. “No-one knows Charles Frappe is you. If you are so bothered about it I can delete all references to you.”

“Oh, but it’s far too late for that” Charles Frappe said with a bitterness that contorted his mouth into a weird sort of pout, his eyes almost closed, his head shaking vigorously.

Robert Leiper then explained just how many people the two of them had told about this blog. This included a large number of friends, relations and former work colleagues, including two of Charles Frappe’s most important art-buying clients (perhaps they are reading at this very moment? - if you are please identify yourselves). When Robert and Charles had heard I was going to the summer school in Paris they had invited me to the boat specifically so that Charles Frappe could make an appearance in these posts.

“Little did I suspect” said Charles Frappe pompously, “that you would portray me as an evil Svengali and yourself as St George sans reproche. You have destroyed me. Consider me destroyed.”

At this point I was becoming annoyed myself, and I pointed out that they had revealed my identity without my permission.

“Don’t try to defend yourself” Charles Frappe said almost hysterically (I hope this isn’t coming over as too melodramatic - this is how he was speaking). “I quite readily admit that I am a terrible bore, a disgraceful host, a conceited and self-deluded fool as a businessman, ignorant of a vast range of subjects from art to literature to French and English pronunciation that you have command of. I agree I am exactly as you have described me. I agree with you. And you may repeat this agreement to anyone you like. But the fact remains you have DESTROYED me” (the word destroyed drawn out in a strangled accent, said with his eyes closed and his fists clenched, a juddering sort of spasm shaking his body).

There was no point in trying to reason with him so I tried appealing to his vanity (which I knew to be highly developed) as a way of calming him down.

“I havn’t destroyed you” I told him, “I have made you immortal.”

This approach seemed to work, and after a great deal of apologising on my part (not that I felt like apologising, it was just the easiest course to take) he stopped going on about this blog. We ordered some food. By the end of the meal we had agreed that I would delete all references to Charles Frappe.

Days afterwards I received an e-mail from Charles Frappe saying: “delete nothing, it was all a misunderstanding, leave the blog as it is.”

A misunderstanding?

Presumably he has canvassed his contacts in America and found that this site hasn’t damaged his reputation after all (some elements of his character may have been slightly exaggerated, but I have tried hard to give an accurate portrayal).

So we go on as before.

But this episode has brought home to me that what I consider to be anonymous jottings, thoughts and off-the-cuff remarks are being read and taken seriously.