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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patience_Wheatcroft

Sunday, October 21, 2007

An academic from Cambridge University, dressed in tweed

Today is the centenary of the death of a distinguished Victorian architect who designed some of our greatest ecclesiastical buildings (and a notable body of secular work). He specialised in the Decorated style of English gothic, which he helped to revive. His work is often sneered at by contemporary architects as the “gilt gingerbread school of architecture”.

The architect worked at several places locally, and was responsible for a great deal of fine work. This afternoon a lecture was held at a church on the other side of the county (right by the county border). The lecture started at three o’clock and so I nearly didn’t go (Sunday lunch finished late and I knew I would have to rush to get there on time). In the end I decided to forgo my usual post-lunch cup of tea, and got in the car to drive the thirty-seven miles to the lecture.

The drive took me nearly an hour, and I arrived slightly late. The church (above) looked sensational in the lush autumnal sunshine. Note the Decorated south porch, which has a corresponding double on the north side. Most of the church is 14th century, but the architect thoroughly restored it and rebuilt the chancel (on the right). He also heightened the crocketed spire (Pevsner draws attention to the six tiers of extremely subtle lucarnes). I parked my car and walked up to the door - I could hear the lecture had already started, and so had to nerve myself to walk in (knowing the great latch would make a noise, the door would probably creak open, and everyone would look in my direction).

There were about eighty people at the lecture, inevitably most of them elderly (young architectural students would disdain to attend such an event). The lecturer was an academic from Cambridge University, dressed in tweed and giving his address from the pulpit. I saw a vacant seat just inside the door and quietly sat down. I need to say something about the light in the church. All the windows were filled with stained glass (in itself this is quite unusual) but the building was not dark. It was flooded by a glistening white light that was like a luminous mist - unfortunately this light has made many of my photographs slightly impressionistic.

The lecturer was in full flow: “…he belonged to a tradition of old fashioned pre-evangelical Anglicanism known as High And Dry… he spent his career restoring chancels which had fallen into disrepair owing to changes in the liturgy… he was a very shy man and had a stammer and didn’t like public events… as a student at Cambridge he went around the local churches sketching and drawing… he was part of a network that included Scott, Kempe and GE Street… he designed cathedrals in Australia, India and California…”

The High Altar in the sanctuary (please excuse my slightly lopsided photograph). The architect rebuilt the chancel and sanctuary on the original medieval foundations. Chancels had fallen into disrepair following the Reformation when Holy Communion was only celebrated a few times a year. The Oxford Movement in the early 19th century reversed this puritanical practice, and so chancels came back into vogue. Notice the elaborate reredos around the 15th century German painting of the Ascension. On the altar the madonna lilies seemed to glow in the afternoon sunlight. I wish the east window had come out clearer - it was a wonder. The lecturer paid particular attention to the stained glass: “Kempe helped him with the glass… you can tell they are Kempe windows, just look at the wings of the angels which are peacock feathers, the peacock being an emblem of immortality… Victorian stained glass is at huge risk at the moment…”

Painted vaulting in the chancel (gilded angels in the nave). The organ was also in the chancel, and the lecturer told us about a monograph on organ cases published by a friend of the architect (organ case designs can be very elaborate - they would warrant a spread in World of Interiors). There was a small dispute when one of the audience claimed that the organ case in the church was based on the one at Old Radnor - the lecturer utterly demolished this argument.

The font cover was a hyper-elaborate Victorian gothic wooden spire that opened up to reveal this carved and painted interior (figures of St Agnes, St Michael and St Nicholas). As well as a network of like-minded designers, the architect depended upon influential patrons. The lecturer told us Lord Halifax was a great patron of Decorated gothic revival.

The architect’s work was in every corner of the church, even these cupboards in the vestry were designed by him.

At the end of the lecture you could go around the church looking at all the details (because of the 15th century painting the building is normally kept locked). Here you can see the lecturer standing on the chancel step with people coming up to him to ask questions. They are very brave as Cambridge academics can bite (metaphorically speaking) and put their claws into you.

More on the Decorated period in English architecture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flamboyant_Gothic

Saturday, October 20, 2007

You have to just hope for the best - the past week at work

Above: Admiralty Arch at the south side of Trafalgar Square. When I walk to BQW I like to walk down the Duke of York steps onto the Mall and then through Admiralty Arch. I took this photo a couple of weeks back.

Monday was an awkward morning with a number of little things going wrong. Directors Ian and Alan were out all day. Kate was also out, and the women in the office (all of them) spent the day moaning about her.

One of the worries I had this week was the amount of copywriting that needs to be done. Perhaps I ought to go on one of those assertiveness courses to learn how to say “no” to new assignments. On the other hand, the fact that so many people (including Account Handlers in the PR division upstairs) are asking me to do their copywriting indicates my profile in the agency is rising.

I handle the biggest client on the marketing side of the agency (BQW - their Head Office is near Trafalgar Square). You would think that one of the Directors (Ian or Alan) would look after this client personally, given the amount of billings we get from them. The reason they don’t is that the client is a nightmare to handle. They have a rambling chaotic organisation, with many contacts across several different sites (including people I have never heard from before ringing me up to ask me to do things). Anyway, Monday morning I was called out once again at very short notice and had to get a taxi down to their offices (normally I would walk). They are preparing to consolidate all their different sites into a purpose-built location outside London, and this has generated lots of print work (informing their customers, informing their shareholders, keeping their staff motivated etc).

When I got back to the agency freelance designer Joey was waiting, wanting to apologise in person for a bodged job he had done. It was nice of him to do this, but actually he was taking up time I really didn’t have. We had a cup of coffee at my desk while he talked about his family in Eltham.

In the afternoon I briefed designer Paul (in-house designer, not a freelance) about a magazine we are doing for a client (company magazines are very lucrative). It was such a detailed (and boring) job that I was not sure he had really grasped what he had to do. There are many times when you have to just hope for the best.

A telephone call from my boss Ian about the new business presentation we are to do on Friday for a prospective client in Warwickshire. He wanted me to help out more, since the project was getting behind. I said I would work an extra hour each day to help get things back on course.

Tuesday, and I paused at the front door to the agency, having to steel myself to go in. This feeling has become increasingly common as I know as soon as I get to my paper-heaped desk the phone will be ringing, and e-mails will be arriving. It is a horrible experience not to be in control of things.

During the morning a general meeting about the Warwickshire presentation. Angela (PA and sort of Account Executive) admitted she hadn’t done the Media Plan, so I said I would do it - media plans are quite easy, especially once you have a breakdown of the target audience. Ian admitted he hadn’t done anything about the creative proposals but claimed to have an idea of how the campaigns should look.

After the meeting Kate was furious. “All the ideas came from you and me” she hissed, sitting on a corner of my desk and darting angry looks towards Ian and Alan’s corner. “If we get this account we should definitely ask for more money.”

More work for BQW came in - interminable web-based projects.

Wednesday, and in the morning one of my smaller clients came into the office. Although they are a very small company (they produce scientific instruments at a factory in Cambridgeshire) they take themselves extremely seriously, and need a lot of looking after. They arrived at eleven in the morning and we went round to the photographic studio, but the photoshoot had to be cancelled because they had forgotten one of the products (the client was almost distraught at how foolish he had been).

At least the cancelled photoshoot allowed me some extra time to work on the Warwickshire presentation and I managed to get the main report done. A student designer was brought round and introduced to everyone, before setting himself up at an Apple computer in our “studio” (the bit at the back of the floor where Paul and Tony sit). Pete, my assistant, was contemptuous about this unpaid student, even though he had been in the same role himself only a few months ago.

Late afternoon I went down to BQW to meet Anthony Tamper, one of their senior directors, an elderly gentleman (very kind in manner, we had coffee and biscuits in their boardroom). We discussed some projects he wanted the agency to carry out. I was appalled at how much he was expecting to do at the last minute.

I went back to the agency to worry about how to get everything done.

Thursday, and as soon as I got to the office I saw freelance Joey sitting by my desk (I had asked him to come in as I want a complicated map drawn). He was interested in the student placement, saying he had been interviewed at another agency Joey does work for. Joey spent so long talking about himself, his life, his football, that after a while I was trying to find ways to get rid of him.

Early afternoon, and to my surprise the visuals for Anthony Tamper were ready. I sent them off by courier to BQW and waited. I thought: either they will be accepted or they won’t (they were accepted).

We all stayed late, until eight o’clock, rehearsing the Warwickshire presentation. The creative work was unveiled - surrealist in style, which is a gamble as the client will either love it or hate it. Just as we were packing up I noticed the wrong headline on one of the print ads, which meant Paul having to do it again (redesigning it, printing it out on the lumbering colour printer, mounting it up on board - all the time cursing).

Friday, and instead of going into London I drove across to Warwickshire, arriving at the company just as Ian, Kate and Paul were driving into the car park. We carried all our apparatus and paraphernalia into the building, setting it up in their Training Room. Paul was wearing a blue suit, which looked strange (I have only ever seen him in jeans and t-shirts).

The presentation, to their entire Board, lasted about three hours. No refreshments apart from glasses of water. Kate talked about the agency. I went through the marketing analysis and the media plan. Ian and Paul went through the creative proposals. Afterwards there was a long discussion, which seemed to go well.

Leaving the company, we went to a teashop in the town to discuss the presentation. I think we all felt exhausted. There was general agreement that we couldn’t have done any more than we did.

“It’s the best presentation we’ve ever done” said Ian.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The sort of shop where Ronnie Barker would buy fork handles

This is my favourite hardware shop (and I am a connoisseur of hardware shops). I love the mops hanging in the window - B&Q would never have such a window display. You can tell from the green paint that the family owns the whole building and lives over the shop (their front door is on the left, and deliveries go through the central passage with the double doors). There is an untidy stockroom immediately over the shop itself. The "& Son" suffix indicates more than one generation is involved in this enterprise. This is the sort of shop where Ronnie Barker would buy fork handles.

Michael Grade, Executive Chairman of ITV

Another media post. While the news yesterday was dominated by the BBC cuts imbroglio and the Prime Minister’s slight of hand in Lisbon, ITV decided it was a good day to publish the report on its own “fakery” scandal involving the embezzlement of millions of pounds from its viewers (hope embezzlement is not too strong a word). Michael Grade, Executive Chairman of ITV, appeared on national television to… not apologise (or rather to apologise in such a way that it was clear it was nothing to do with him).

Michael Grade was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on last night’s Newsnight and by John Humphrys on this morning’s Today programme. The medium is the message, so possibly Michael Grade felt that by submitting himself to interrogation by the country’s two most formidable interviewers he has done enough to assuage the public demand for justice and can now “move on”. It is the usual deceit practiced by people in public life of stooping to conquer.

In both interviews Michael Grade assumed a style of great weariness as if he was a decent man trying to make sense of a morass of well-meaning incompetence. To make matters worse, there were skilled interlocutors deliberately trying to trip him up, set traps for him, and generally make it look as if ITV had been caught doing something dishonest. But by offering himself up to such demeaning cross-examinations Michael Grade has earned redemption for his organisation and everyone can “move on”.

Except that this will not do.

We cannot tolerate corruption in public life. If Michael Grade cannot discover and dismiss the individuals responsible for this fraud then he must go himself. The “cheeky duo” Ant and Dec must not be allowed to stall public scrutiny by “statements” issued through third parties, and if they are not prepared to be open and transparent they cannot expect to appear on ITV again.

Oh, and on the subject of the new European Treaty / Constitution, as there has been no referendum the Treaty is not legitimate. On a personal level I repudiate the Treaty and I also repudiate Gordon Brown and David Miliband who claim they have the authority to sign the Treaty on my behalf. I realise they will ignore my repudiation, but nevertheless I repudiate them.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

It is a “social good” and they do not want it changed

Above: autumn has arrived - raindrops on a cobweb on a dried stalk of cow parsley in the corner of a commercial car park.

Apologies for writing so much about the “meeja” recently, but when you work in a PR agency (albeit on the marketing side) you are obliged to take an interest in media issues otherwise you are not taken seriously. For instance, you need to know what is going on at the BBC with the projected £2 billion cuts, since there are so many implications for the communications industry (not least in releasing hundreds of personnel who are likely to be absorbed by the PR industry). So although no-one at work is going to see these entries, the effort of composing and posting them on a semi-public site serves to fix the information in my mind.

The BBC cuts were discussed on Newsnight last night. The Corporation intends to achieve £2 billion cuts by making two thousand staff redundant (which averages out at a one million pound saving per redundancy!). The £2 billion shortfall was caused by the government restricting the income from the licence fee (the licence is the main source of income and no official advertising is allowed on the BBC). The government is still seeking to evaluate the BBC along “rational” lines and they havn’t grasped the fact that the Corporation is in many ways like the NHS - however much people might grumble, it is a “social good” and they do not want it changed.

On Newsnight Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. Sir Michael had a blustering “crisis what crisis” style, saying that the changes would be for the better. His hand movements were unusual - he held his hands as if he was about to throttle someone (reminding me of the Emperor Nero who wished the Roman populace had only one neck so he could strangle it).

Later a twerp from BBC3 was in a discussion about the cuts, whining “who are you to judge?” whenever a journalist from the Daily Telegraph criticised the low standards of BBC3 programmes.

On the World at One this lunchtime Martha Kearny interviewed BBC Director General Mark Thompson about the cuts. Despite her cajoling he couldn’t be made to depart from what was obviously a (very wooden) prepared message that everything would be fine and the cuts would result in better quality. Andy Duncan, the Chief Executive of Channel 4, came on the programme and said nothing very much.

More on social goods: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_good

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nick Robinson is the BBC’s Political Editor

The Liberal Democrat Party has disposed of another leader, in circumstances that suggest he stormed off in a huff. The media (and his own colleagues) were taken by surprise by the sudden resignation of Sir “Ming” Campbell, who rushed back home to his wife in Edinburgh after leaving a note apparently saying “I quit”. It is the farcical end of a politician who, it seemed to me, came across as testy and irritable (a sort of Victor Meldrew figure).

“Ming” did not appear last night on Newsnight (even though Kirsty Wark suggested to his colleagues that the Liberals were becoming the new “Nasty Party”). “Ming” said nothing on the Today Programme this morning. By five o’clock however, the sulking had come to an end, and Sir Ming unburdened himself to Nick Robinson in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.

Nick Robinson is the BBC’s Political Editor, employed to appear on news bulletins and interpret the political events of the day. It is a role of great importance given the amount of “spinning” (news manipulation) that characterises activity at Westminster. The BBC news bulletins tell you what happened, then Nick Robinson comes on and tells you what really happened.

In many ways a political fact cannot be said to exist until validated by Nick Robinson (or at least, on television, that’s how it appears).

His style is slightly sardonic (perhaps reflecting a weariness with the volume of misinformation he has to wade through), impartial, fearless (no mean feat considering the retaliatory weapons government ministers can deploy), intuitive, informative, friendly. His tone contains a slight frisson of moralising, and you suspect he believes politicians are usually the architects of their own misfortune. His appearance does not seem to be influenced in any way by vanity - an old-fashioned bald head (rather than a Bruce Willis crop), heavy black glasses instead of contact lenses, often a practical rainmac rather than the designer clothes favoured on Channel 4 News.

He must be a considerable asset to the BBC at a time when it is seeking to rebuild public trust (incredibly the Corporation has run aground in the last six months after an exemplary eighty-five year record).

Above: an impersonation of Nick Robinson by political satirist Rory Bremner (to be satirised by Rory Bremner is confirmation of high status in public life). We are often told that only a few degrees of separation exists between ourselves and any other person on the planet. In Nick Robinson’s case this is almost true as Kim Blacha’s father met him when they were both students and competed (on opposing sides) in the Observer Mace debating competition (“we were all in suits and he turned up in just a jumper… everyone was calling him Red Robbo…”).

More on Nick Robinson: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/nickrobinson/

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A monument to the golden age of agriculture

This entry goes back to the start of September and the heritage open days when many private buildings are open to the public. On one of the days I visited a village in the rolling hills to the east of the county. I went there on a Thursday, so the roads were completely deserted.

I went to the village to see the church, which being “redundant” is normally shut up and hard to get into. A local historian has done a lot of work on the village and had put her work on exhibition in the church (the village is so tiny that she has been able to trace the history of every family over several centuries). The day was very hot, the sun almost scorching (it’s nice to think back to that day now we are in the damp autumn).

It took me about forty-five minutes to drive from my home to the village - the roads are very meandering in the hills, so the way was not easy to find. At one point I drove along the side of a shallow valley and looked across at the above farmhouse. My thoughts went back to when I was seven and I went to Shirley and Caroline Smith’s joint birthday party (it was held round a table in the open air, Shirley Smith had a hole in her heart and so couldn’t join in the games, I seem to remember mud pies being thrown at someone…).

I came to the village, except that it wasn’t really a village just two farms, a row of cottages and a few isolated houses. From the road you could see the church, but it wasn’t obvious how you got to it. Eventually I parked my car and asked directions from someone mowing the verge outside his house.

You got to the church by walking a quarter of a mile along a green lane through the fields. In the hot sun the fresh smell of the grass and field flowers was combined with the smell of woodsmoke from a bonfire a long way down in the valley (the thin trailing smoke drifting in the still warm air). As I approached the church I saw the tall tower hemmed around by dark evergreen trees, and despite the blinding glare of the sun overhead, the light among the trees had a violet hue to it - an intense violet light, very beautiful (possibly it was a refraction of some kind caused by the strong white sunlight passing through the dark green trees).

As I got closer to the church I noticed the calls of the birds among the trees. These calls seemed to be on three distinct levels - those which had a sort of churring sound, those that had a clicking sound, and those that were clear calls like whistles. The calls came in waves with a few minutes of churring followed by a few minutes of clicking followed by a longer period of whistles.

The church is redundant, and so the historian has been able to do a great deal of research (poking around basically) unhindered by parochial busybodies (and just as important, no trendy vicar has trashed evidence of continuity by removing gravestones, ripping out pews, carrying out “disability compliance” alterations etc). The historian has recorded all of the graves in the churchyard and, in an impressive achievement, has discovered their family links to each other (they are all related, from the gentry to the cottagers and stockmen). Seeing these box tombs huddled under a cedar tree reminded me of the graves on the Mount of Olives above the Kidron Valley.

Although the building appears to be large, inside it is quite small and intimate, a single aisle leading into a small chancel. The historian had filled the church with displays on the history, flora and fauna of the village. Not sure what the nuts are in the picture above - I should have asked, but I didn’t want to appear ignorant. Cups of tea (from flasks) and slices of home-made cake were on offer, given out by some ladies from the village. In the two hours I was there a brisk traffic of people arrived and departed, mostly people connected to the church in some way (married there, baptized there, parents buried in the churchyard etc). The church was full of friendly chat, and it seemed to me that the chatty live voices were joined by chatty dead ones, invisibly and silently participating. Or perhaps I had been walking too long in the hot sun.

The historian had arranged displays of agricultural implements, including this formidable-looking scythe. She described the lives of the nineteenth-century villagers in great detail. Ploughing followed by hedging and ditching, followed by sawing, followed by seed time, followed by haying, followed by brewing, followed by harvest, followed by threshing - and then the cycle would begin again.

The church contained a mystery in the form of this monument to Henry Anton, described as a Governor of The Gambia. The historian has not been able to find any record of Henry Anton as Governor of The Gambia. Are the official records wrong, or did the family exaggerate the title, boasting of bogus imperial achievements? West Africa had a high mortality rate for Europeans, so possibly Anton fell ill very soon after his appointment and disappeared from the official record. The Gambia was originally acquired as base to accumulate slaves (along the Gambia river), but after British abolition became a “free” territory where slaves fleeing French and American slave traders could settle and farm. The colony was very unhealthy and difficult to administer, and in 1870 the British withdrew, intending to cede it to the French, but local petitions reversed this decision.

The little chancel had windows of orange glass that gave an incredible tangerine glow to the east end of the building. On the walls were 18th century marble tablets commemorating the Pearsons, a gentry family from Surrey who despatched their dead for burial in the remote village of their ancestors, to lie in this lonely orange-hued Valhalla waiting for the Doom.

Leaving the church I walked back to the metalled road. The village originally had two farmhouses, one of which is still standing. Prosperous, well-kept, a monument to the golden age of agriculture.

The other farmhouse has been demolished although some of the barns are still standing. The historian recorded the life of a stockman on this farm (“as a judge of stock he was known throughout the county”). The stockman is buried with his wife in the churchyard, a local newspaper of 1930 recording in an obituary: “And so we laid all that was mortal of him amongst the ivy and the aconites. And the rooks cawing in the trees will keep watch over him, and the partridges will call to him from beyond the hedge.”

Pettifer identifies (corresponds?) this place with Kiriath-jearim: 1 Samuel 6.21 - And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the LORD; come ye down, fetch it up to you. 7.1 - And the men of Kirjathjearim came, and fetched up the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. 7.2 - And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

“It’s just a numbers game” - the past week at work

Monday began with Ian and Alan (the two Directors in charge of our floor) calling a staff meeting in the Conference Room. The room isn’t particularly large so everyone was crammed in, standing round the long table (no-one sat down apart from Sheila the Office Manager). Slices of pizza were available, together with white wine and orange juice served in plastic cups.

Ian made a rambling speech saying that our floor (the marketing side of the agency) was not making enough money and there was not likely to be a profit-share this year. He did not make eye-contact with anyone while he was speaking. No-one asked him any questions.

Later, when Ian and Alan were out and Sheila was upstairs, the floor erupted with condemnations of the meeting. Everyone was furious about the lack of profit-sharing (everyone except me, as being new to the company I do not qualify for profit-sharing in my first year). Kate (New Business Executive) was fuming, her long blonde tresses shaking with indignation, her mouth (bright red lipstick) almost howling.

“It’s those two bastards who are not pulling their weight” she said, nodding towards Ian and Alan’s empty desks. “I know how much new business I’m bringing into the company. You know how much money your clients are making…” (nodding in my direction) “…you know how much money your clients are making…” (nodding to Angela, who as well as being Ian’s PA handles three very lucrative clients) “…we’re all way ahead of our targets!”

Later Kate off-loaded onto me a huge number of records and half-finished job-bags (I have taken over her client list to allow her to focus on new business presentations). As if I don’t have enough to do. I wondered where I would store all the paper.

The problem of storage was solved on Tuesday when there was a general reorganisation of our floor and my desk was moved to a more central position over against the side windows, with Pete (the office junior) opposite. From my new position I can look out the window into some back yards, one of which is almost entirely filled by a large copper beech tree. The new set up is supposed to help me delegate work to Pete, but there is a limit to the things he can do - despite having A-levels he can’t write and certainly can’t spell.

Above: Our new business drive is handled by Kate. She is very effective (I helped her work out the strategy but I could never sell the way she does). We bought lists of companies with a turnover of more than £10 million (the lists came from Electric Marketing - excellent quality) and sent them the agency brochure (very poor) and a letter. She then rings them up, and on average gets an appointment for every twenty calls she makes (“It’s just a numbers game”). She concentrates on companies more than fifty miles from London as there is less competition (“Most of them are flattered a London agency is taking an interest in them”). At the appointments we take the prospect through the agency presentation and then ask for the business (Kate is very upfront). We tell them we are not cheap (we stumbled on this tactic by accident, but it sort of goads the prospective client into giving us work, whereas we originally genuinely wanted to warn them that the prices would be high). Every five presentations we do results in two new clients. Kate then hands the new client over to either Ian or myself (she never gives work to Alan).

On Wednesday I had a trip out to Yorkshire to see another new client Kate has brought in. I went there with Ben (Ian’s son) from the photographic studio with his assistant Iain. Pete came along for the ride. We are producing a twenty-page colour brochure for the new client as well as redoing their website and running some ads. My objective for the day was to take the copywriting brief (I will write the copy myself). Ben and Iain had to get fifteen images. We left the agency at eight o’clock (no-one on our floor was in). We went there in Ben’s Escort Estate, which he drove up the A1 at maniac speeds. We were there by late morning.

We arrived at the factory which was a sprawling complex of mostly utilitarian structures. The Head Office was in the middle of the site, a Victorian building that had a grim sort of beauty in the late morning mist, moisture dripping from a few late roses in the flowerbeds at the front. We met the Managing Director and he took us on a tour which took nearly an hour.

The factory was ultra-modern in some parts, archaic and dirty in others. We went along cinder paths that had potholes filled with muddy water. Some of the buildings were packed with staff (standing at benches) who stared at us as we walked past.

The MD was very proud of his company and made comments as we walked around:

“That lad’s a bloody hard grafter… lots of the lads live in Paper Mill Lane and go to the Working Men’s Club… we believe in looking after our people…”

At the canteen we stopped for an early lunch of fried food. The MD waved us through the till. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” I said to myself as I loaded my plate with bacon, sausages, fried egg, fried bread(!), black pudding and grilled tomato.

After the lunch Ben, Iain and Pete went off to take the photographs. I went with the MD into the Board Room, a cold room that had a melancholy and unused air. I made notes while he told me what he wanted in the brochure. We spent over two hours talking. He was very affable and often we digressed onto other topics (the war in Iraq, the botched election announcement, the progress of England in the Rugby World Cup). I got the impression he was lonely.

Late afternoon we left the factory and drove back down the A1, Ben going so fast that the car was juddering (“This car’s thrashed” Iain said excitedly). We got back to the agency just as the last person (Angela) was leaving. Pete told me quietly that he had been frightened by Ben’s driving.

On Thursday Ben took my photograph for a new agency brochure (the existing one is really awful, which is not good news for a marketing company!). Normally I hate being photographed, but I was pleased with this image. It showed me surrounded by moody shadows, reading a copy of BRAD (lists every publication with advertising rates and deadlines).

Friday I had another meeting with freelance designer Joey. We have to use freelances because we have so much work on at the moment that Tony and Paul (our in-house designers) can’t cope. When I first met Joey I had been quite off-hand and dismissive (actually rude, I am ashamed to say). This was because I had been told to use him when I wanted to put the work with a slightly more expensive freelance (I hate being leaned-on to use particular suppliers). My hostility turned to genuine admiration when I saw the work he had done. I knew immediately that the client would love it.

“To be honest, there was a lot of burning the midnight oil” Joey said (I had given him a needlessly short deadline).

Kate came over to look at the designs. She had handled the client in the past and knew how difficult they could be. She was enthusiastic about Joey’s work (“BQW have never done anything this creative before!”).

Joey smiled back at us. He was a typical south Londoner, aged about twenty-five, wearing very good quality casual clothes. There seemed no guile about him. You could almost see his mind working (he would stop in the middle of his professional patter, and you knew a thought had just occurred to him). He is very talented, but doesn’t really know the value of his work (he could double his prices and they would still be good value). He was obviously very impressed with Kate.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Melvyn Bragg’s Start the Week

Above: Shrine to the 1953 Annointing.

This morning I listened to Melvyn Bragg’s Start the Week programme, which came on after the Today Programme. Melvyn Bragg had a heavy cold so that his nasal voice sounded like a parody of nasal ness (as if it was Rory Bremner impersonating Melvyn Bragg). Half-way through the programme I had to go into a fifteen minute meeting, so I really only got the start and finish.

The programme examined the concept of the Divine Right of Kings as expressed by the sixteenth and seventeenth century English monarchy. The discussion was performed with a strong sense of immediacy, and Erasmus, Milton and Cromwell were all brought into the debate as if they were witnesses on the Moral Maze waiting to be interviewed. The Papacy was cited as the source of the Divine Right which had been usurped by Protestant monarchs during the Reformation.

It was an interesting argument, but as a medievalist I wasn’t really satisfied, and had I been on the programme I would have made the following points:

  • Every European monarchy has culturally distinct origins and sources of authority.
  • The Saxon (English) monarch performed three roles: warlord, judge and high priest.
  • The Saxon (English) monarchy had from its origin a “divine” component in that the earliest Saxon kings claimed descent from Woden (later in the Saxon period this was Christianised as descent from Solomon and David).
  • “Divine” authority was conferred upon Saxon kings by the Annointing during the Coronation ceremony, and this sacrament was retained by all subsequent monarchs.
  • The idea of divinity in the royal person did not cease in 1688. In 1953 just after the Coronation of the present monarch, a survey found that large percentage of the population believed the Queen was divinely appointed by God. The Annointing in particular had a huge impact upon people. During the 1953 Coronation ceremony the BBC turned its cameras off at the sacred moment of Annointing. You can still find little shrines set up in churches to mark the 1953 Annointing.

Above: The Old Palace in Kneesworth Street in Royston, Hertfordshire. James I stayed in this house when hunting in the area. The central crossroads in Royston is marked by a large boulder known as Roys Stone or Roi’s Stone - literally the King’s Stone (probably a coronation stone on which tribal chiefs in the Saxon period were invested). The Roys Stone is supposed to shriek if the rightful ruler touches it (I have touched it many times without any discernable result). There are several of these coronation stones around, the most famous being at Kingston in Surrey. Now the Stone of Scone has gone to Edinburgh perhaps the Kingston stone should be moved into Westminster Abbey.

More on the origins of germanic kingship: http://www.amazon.com/Long-haired-Kings-Studies-Frankish-History/dp/0802065007

Sunday, October 07, 2007

"What has encouraged the leverage has been cheap finance compared to growth in the economy..."

Friday I took a day off work to accompany Gary Spencer to financial seminars. He wants me to use the information in some campaigns he wants to run (as well as being a friend he is also a client - not always the best combination). So at half-nine I was in Chiswell Street (walking along the north side of the road, which is in Islington).

Crossing the road into the City, I went into The Brewery - formerly Whitbreads Brewery, now a conference centre and banqueting suite. Samuel Whitbread moved the brewery here in 1749 and lived on the site in the Partners House. This is one of the few industrial buildings to survive in the Square Mile.

Following signs, I arrived at the reception area and was given a name badge. I met Gary Spencer straight away. We got some coffee and almond croissants (they were very good - I had four).

A bell rang and everyone went upstairs to the main conference hall. It was dark inside the hall, spotlights illuminating the stage where the Fund Managers were due to speak. Over five hundred financial advisors were in the hall, over-whelmingly male and dark-suited.

As we went in we were given heavy packs of information about the Fund. We were also each given an electronic voting pad (like a TV remote control). Gary Spencer went right to the front where we sat in the second row.

A grey haired old buffer in the row in front turned round, nodded to Gary, and said: “I didn’t see you at the Awards last night.”

The lights dimmed and the show began. The master of ceremonies (if I can call him that) was a man in his late fifties, trim build, greying (and thinning) hair. He was slightly round shouldered, and was wearing a double-breasted suit with the jacket tightly done up. This produced an odd effect so that it looked as if the tightly buttoned jacket was pulling his shoulders down. His manner towards the audience was very friendly. He walked up and down the stage as he talked.

“Volatility has returned to the market!” he said (nervous laughter throughout the hall). “We are all wondering whether this is the end of the five year Bull Market. As you know, we don’t have a House view” (implying that he very definitely had a private view).

He introduced the first of the Fund Managers, a very conservative-looking character.

“The Asian franchise is excelling… we are trending in the right direction… we have over two hundred and sixty research executives… we have new funds launching, including the EMEA Fund… we have got away from being decision tree product led… innovation continues and we have big ambitions in the retirement market…”

We used our voting pads to respond to questions about the new Financial Services Agency consultation paper (which was not popular).

A new Fund Manager appeared on the stage, accompanied by rock music (Queen). He was an Australian (saying “git” instead of “get”), very pugnacious in style. All his statements began with “I” implying he was the Fund personified.

“Are we climbing the wall of worry or is this the start of a Bear Market?” he said. “Earnings are the things that drive stock markets… in Europe the performance record on inflation is good, even though globalisation is not such a factor in the labour market… unemployment has peaked, which is feeding through to domestic demand in Germany…” He looked out at the audience as if surprised at how well things were doing.

The next Fund Manager appeared on the stage.

“Runs on banks! Credit crunches! Suddenly Fixed Incomes have become exciting!” Laughter in the hall. The Fund Manager beamed at us. “Triple Bs have flatlined… Banks are having to support huge volumes of off-balance sheet vehicles…the rating agencies havn’t done a good job… excessive leverage by investors and consumers… what has encouraged the leverage has been cheap finance compared to growth in the economy… there has been poor underwriting standards in the sub-prime sector…”

He ended with a moment of sudden candour: “The fact is we need volatility to make money!” (general noises of approval around the hall).

Yet another Fund Manager took the stage, harsh foreign accent, very aggressive movements up and down the platform.

“It’s been a special year. It’s been four distinct quarters. I’ve looked for unrecognised value wherever in the world it might be. You would have almost tripled your money since two thousand and four by investing in US railroads. Cider is a growing sector. Energy has lots of bottlenecks which mean opportunities to make money.”

A warning on inflation: “Inflation is dependant on oil and the price of oil is eighty dollars per barrel. We need the oil price to come down otherwise the inflation rate will become a problem. It makes sense to stay invested in equities.”

A softly spoken Fund Manager took the stage to talk about the Retirement Fund. “Life expectancy is increasing, and making sure your investments last through retirement is a challenge.” He paused, then said with mock solemnity: “There is nothing safer than cash in the bank” (bellows of laughter around the hall, possibly with an hysterical edge to it).

The last speaker was a gentleman in his sixties, one of the most distinguished fund managers in the country (“The English Warren Buffet” Gary told me).

“The City has become much more professional. Much more of a meritocracy. When I started I was doing my own dealing as well as picking the shares. In the old days we could go out and visit companies and collect information that other people didn’t know. Now all the facts are known, and the emphasis is upon the interpretation of data. There has been a growth in independent research that no-one else has. Be wary when investors’ appetite for risk is high - that sort of thing worries me. When investments are based on models the models are only as good as the assumptions. When investors lose lots of money that is a behaviour-changing event…” (lots of laughter at this last remark).

We left the hall before the presentations ended. Getting in a taxi, Gary Spencer told the driver to take us to the Savoy Hotel. The roads were very congested.

We arrived at the hotel and went down into the basement levels, past the Ballroom, eventually arriving at a suite where yet another financial seminar was being held. Into a large room where a buffet lunch was just ending. About eighty financial advisors were moving from this room into an adjacent hall. Gary and I loaded our plates with food (smoked salmon, heated pastries, ornate cakes). There was also just time to get a glass of white wine. I was eating and drinking so quickly that I gave myself indigestion.

Putting down our plates but keeping hold of our glasses of wine, we went into the hall where the presentation was to held. This was a more intimate event than the one at The Brewery in Chiswell Street. Three people sat in the platform.

“This is a very distinguished audience, if I may say that without sounding sycophantic” said the first speaker.

The second speaker got up:

“You can’t buy past performance except for past poor performance - funds that have been poor continue to be poor… we look into portfolios to see exactly where performance comes from… we don’t think expenses matter - the FSA thinks expenses matter, but they don’t always get things right” (lots of laughter around the hall).

The third speaker got up:

“Is the US economy going to have a hard or soft landing?… In the US the third year of a presidential cycle is always good for equities… Brazil is one of my favourite markets… the oil price will remain high, and if anything will go higher… we are sowing the seeds of much higher inflation… just normal foodstuffs are going up by enormous margins…”

The seminar came to an end. I felt exhausted. Gary Spencer and I went up to the hotel lobby where we had arranged to meet Charles Frappe (this was the first time he and Gary had met).

At a table towards one side of the court we sat down and ordered some tea. The tea arrived in huge white tea pots, one per person. Above is my cup, just before I put a little milk into it. Tiger Hill tea from the Nilgiri Hills in India. I had five cups, and every one was delicious. I let Gary Spencer and Charles Frappe talk to each other while I sat back and enjoyed the tea, transported by the brew to a state of near nirvana (or at least that's how it felt).

More on Tiger Hill tea: http://www.stashtea.com/w-111069.htm

Friday, October 05, 2007

Moral defeats destroy confidence… and lead to actual defeats

There has been considerab;e speculation about the prospect of a possible general election to be held in November. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has allowed the suggestion to gain momentum following the Labour Party Conference and a run of favourable polls. A number of PR projects (including a provocative but also astute photo opportunity in Iraq) fuelled the assumption that November 8th was the date.

Today, after publication of three less favourable polls, it appears that the brakes are being put on. The Financial Times said today that election speculation was being “damped down” by the government. The Morning Star said today that Gordon Brown was too “cowardly” to hold an election. The Guardian today published a poll showing Labour and the Tories both on 38%. If there is no need to take a risk, the media advises, then Gordon Brown would be wise to wait. Except that the activists (who would actually fight the general election in the constituencies) may not be so easily "damped down".

AJP Taylor, Barbara Tuchman, and others have pointed out that the mobilisation of troops in 1914 made war inevitable since there was no practical way of bringing them back without chaos and loss of face - which would have been a defeat by proxy for whichever power did it first. For weeks Gordon Brown has taunted the Tories by suggesting he might call a snap general election, hoping to frighten and disorganise them. Over the past week David Cameron has confronted Labour with his uber-macho “bring it on” calls. Both sides have allowed mobilisation to take place. A general election must now follow or one of the sides must start to demobilise. Whichever side demobilises first (and it looks to be Labour) will suffer a moral defeat (and as we know, moral defeats destroy confidence among activists and lead to actual defeats).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On the Today programme this morning Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee

On the Today programme this morning Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee featured in a discussion with presenter James Naughtie and journalists from The Times and The Daily Telegraph. They were discussing the prospects of the Conservative Party as the Conservative Party Conference comes to an end. They also discussed the likelihood of a possible general election.

Polly Toynbee was uniquely qualified to be in this discussion, her ethics being the only Guardian strand of thought to be co-opted into the Conservative Party “brand” values by Tory leader David Cameron (the image of society as a "caravan"). The Toynbee affiliation should be seen as part of an attempt by both major parties to lure away key supporters from other parties, a procedure that seems to resemble the entrapment practiced by the goblins of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (Polly Toynbee at least managed to keep her lips tightly shut whereas red-faced old buffer Quentin Davies greedily gobbled the forbidden fruits dangled by Gordon Brown and has become a neither-fish-nor-fowl outcast so lukewarm he is bound to be spat out). Polly Toynbee’s response to David Cameron was rather ungracious compared to Quentin Davies’s lickspittle praise of Gordon Brown at last week’s Labour Party Conference.

The Toynbee “brand” is itself distinctive, stemming from the formidable intellectual achievements of Arnold Toynbee (her grandfather). I received Mankind and Mother Earth as a birthday present when I was sixteen and read it cover to cover. Polly Toynbee’s most valuable work has been related to low-wage sector workers and the hardships they have to endure.

On the subject of the low-wage sector, we are constantly told that London would “collapse” if the entry of low-wage migrants into the economy were to be stopped. This is nonsense - if the labour market closed, the market mechanism would raise wages in the lowest sector until some of the million or so “unemployed” were attracted into work (they may be more difficult to manage, and require training, but that is what personnel managers should be doing, not relying on migrants so desperate they are unable to answer back whatever the pay and conditions - globalisation should mean the export of United Kingdom employment practices and standards of pay, not the import of Third World standards)

Goblin Market: http://plexipages.com/reflections/goblin.html
Mankind and Mother Earth: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mankind-Mother-Earth-Arnold-Toynbee/dp/0192152572/ref=sr_1_1/026-8660421-6346800?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1191444287&sr=1-1
Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (2003): http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hard-Work-Life-Low-pay-Britain/dp/0747564159
The fate of the lukewarm: http://bible.cc/revelation/3-16.htm