Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bedroom TV... how much further can dumbing down go?

Above: photo of television screen taken with mobile phone (so please excuse the quality).

Kim Blacha is very passionate about low entry mediums of communication. Her latest enthusiasm is Bedroom TV, a channel where ordinary teenagers (mostly) carry out miming-karaoke performances filmed in various domestic locations - bedrooms, living rooms, even beside a wheelie bin. This is supposedly the latest in the democratisation of the broadcast media.

It put me in mind of the section in EM Forster’s A Passage To India where a well-meaning Anglican clergyman is assailed with questions by Hindus. Looking for common ground the clergyman assented that all men have immortal souls. “And animals too?” ask the Hindus. Yes, the clergyman could stretch a point and accept animals might have souls. “And insects and worms?” This was on shakier ground, but the clergyman goes along with the immortal souls of the arachnids and the creepy crawlies to avoid giving any offence. “And stones and mud?” Here the clergyman is forced to draw a line. Stones and mud could not be admitted to the eternal company of Heaven.

I feel we have reached just such a point with Bedroom TV. How much further can dumbing down go? Or is there still a long way yet to travel?

PS on the theme of broadcast excellence, this morning’s In Our Time was incredibly well done (even though I had to switch it off whenever someone came near my desk so my understanding was a bit disjointed).

More on bedroom tv: and also

More on Passage To India:

More on In Our Time:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Corner of Kensington Place and Victoria Street

There is no way you could describe Victoria Street as one of the world’s best urban spaces. Soulless, dismal, the location of utilitarian government departments. However, walking from Victoria Station into Victoria Street I noticed the above iconic building (corner of Kensington Place and Victoria Street).

It put me in mind of a predatory raptor - a corporate vulture looking to prey upon some hapless passer-by. Kafka in The Castle imagined such a relationship between form and function. Possibly these are the London offices of the Wal-Mart Corporation?

More on Wal-Mart (they own Asda in the United Kingdom):

More on Kafka’s The Castle:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The whole thing stinks

Above: in the midday heat the old sow snorted appreciatively and slept off a good lunch (the finest swill) in what little shade she could find. Pigs are very intelligent, clubbable, endearing animals. Increasingly Members of Parliament are likened to pigs in… er… clover.

Derek Conway, Member of Parliament for Old Bexley and Sidcup, has had the Conservative whip removed following revelations that he employed members of his family in non-existent jobs in his parliamentary office (the salaries for the non-existent jobs paid for by the taxpayer).

He is now disgraced, pilloried by his political enemies, designated by his parliamentary colleagues as so unclean he cannot remain a member of the Conservative party in the House of Commons.

All this is, no doubt, as it should be.

But in my naive way I have been astonished at all the bland assurances by politicians (all parties) that there is “nothing wrong” per se with MPs employing members of their families in (publicly funded) positions in their Westminster offices.

Surely there is EVERYTHING wrong with doing this? No matter how “hard-working” they are, there cannot be proper scrutiny if their employer is also their husband / wife / partner? The whole thing stinks.

How many MPs are employing family members in this way, and what is the total cost to the taxpayer? (I ask rhetorically - since there is no chance of me actually getting an answer, whoever I write to).

And have you noticed how many MPs manage to get their relatives into public positions? No sooner does Neil Kinnock stand down as an MP, his wife Glenys “pops up” as an MEP. No sooner does Tony Benn stand down as an MP, his son Hillary “pops up” as an MP (and gets into the Cabinet). Just as we think we’ve seen the back of John Prescott, his son “pops up” trying to get his dad’s old seat.

And why are we asked to celebrate the fact that husband and wife Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls are the first married couple to be members of the British Cabinet? The news was reported in a gushing style as if we should all be happy for them. Are we seriously asked to believe that both of them reached Cabinet status entirely on their own merits and not through a mish-mash of old Spanish practices that would shame the 18th century Court of Dublin?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

My view of “the cavalry”

BQW, the largest client I handle, is consolidating all their various offices into a new purpose-built site near Watford. As the move date approaches they are becoming increasingly frantic. Hence the need for me to come into the office on Saturday mornings.

There are always staff on the PR floor (upstairs) but on my floor it was deserted. I also didn’t have much to do, since the only reason I was there was to attend a client meeting with the Move Committee of BQW (which meets Saturday mornings) at their offices near Trafalgar Square. So I arrived about 10, fired off a few e-mails (to prove I was actually in the offices) and waited around until it was time to go to the meeting.

To use up time I walked across to Trafalgar Square (about a mile). The route takes me along Lower Regent Street and down the Duke of York Steps. As I was going down the Steps I saw the Life Guards going along The Mall.

The Life Guards are part of the Household Cavalry, and have ceremonial duties in London guarding Buckingham Palace and other places (including, I think, the Bank of England). They also have a mechanised division which goes to war. It’s good to see horses in the middle of London.

Also part of the Household Cavalry are the Blues and Royals. I took this photograph last year when I was idling time away in Whitehall (I had gone to a seminar about e-marketing at the Institute of Civil Engineers which is on the corner of Parliament Square). I think they are mostly based at Windsor.

My view of “the cavalry” I guess was formed by this illustration from a book about the Boer War. I don’t suppose war was really this chivalrous. Huge numbers of horses were used in the First World War, and are commemorated by the Animals In War Memorial at Brook Gate on the edge of Hyde Park.

The book on the Boer War has been in our family for ages (well, obviously not more than a hundred years). It used to belong to my brother. It’s mine now.

More on the Life Guards:
More on the Blues and Royals:
More on the Animals In War Memorial:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Egyptian temple of Dandour

Masonic temple in a small market town. The building was designed by the architect G. Hackford, and was put up in 1863. The building is a copy of the Egyptian temple of Dandour in Nubia (the actual temple itself is no longer in Nubia - it was taken apart and transported to America where it can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).

On the train just before Christmas we were all bunched in together, and I overheard two portly men (black suits) talking about the Freemasons:

“I went for an interview at a lodge near Hertford.”

“What was it like?”

“Quite ordinary, just like a normal big old house but with extensions at the back.”

“What was it like inside?”

“Nothing special, except that they had a really garish painting of the Duke of Kent in full Masonic regalia - all bright oranges and bright blues.”

“Why didn’t you join?”

“Didn’t really take to them. I’m not a snob, but they all seemed to be gas-fitters and the like. I was told later that no-one’s ever turned them down before.”

Pevsner says Hackford pinched the design for the Masonic temple from a lithograph produced by David Roberts (Victorian artist and explorer). One of my favourite books is The Holy Land Yesterday and Today which reproduces Roberts’ views and contrasts them with photographs of the same scenes today. In many ways David Roberts created the romantic way we “imagine” the “holy land” - just look in any illustrated Children’s Bible.

Lithograph by David Roberts:

The exhibit:

Friday, January 25, 2008

“Let him think he owes us big-time” - the past week at work


Apparently at the beginning of each year all the staff (Marketing and PR) are gathered into the Board Room and given a presentation on the agency’s objectives and targets for the next twelve months. The actual presentation is given by one of the Senior Directors (on our floor we were praying that it wouldn’t be Ian - otherwise several cases of rigor mortis might set in). In the event it was Val, the newest of the directors (just promoted at the end of last year).

Val is in her late thirties, but looks much younger. She has a very slim (veering to skinny) figure and golden blonde hair which she has in a longish bob. Her clothes are mostly pastel and pale in colour, and she never wears trousers (she makes a big thing of this). Her voice is high and a bit squeaky. Despite her little-girl-lost image she heads up the most successful of the PR account teams - including Rachel, Caroline, Douglas and Aine. She must be very tough to control Rachel and Caroline, both of whom can be headstrong and temperamental.

Anyway, we all crammed in the Board Room at 11 o’clock (most of us standing as the few seats were already taken). Val delivered her presentation competently. Terry (our MD) interrupted at various points to expand on particular issues.

Afterwards, in the hubbub as people were leaving the room, Val came over to Rachel who was sitting with me on the corner of a side table.

“How was my presentation?” Val asked Rachel hopefully.

“You were disappointing” Rachel told her in a flat voice (what could be described as a spiteful monotone).

“I know, I know” Val said, in an agony of self-doubt.


Terry gives us an entertaining budget to spend on our clients, and keeps reminding us to use it up. This is not as easy as it sounds, as not all clients want (or are allowed) to be “entertained”. Anyway, I still had some of 2007’s budget to use up, and went through my client list looking for someone suitable to spend it on.

Eventually I asked Beryl from BQW (Special Projects Division). In the short time I have been handling the client list she has so far remained distant (she always seems to have a slightly supercilious attitude towards me). She works at a BQW site in Northamptonshire, and so on Tuesday I borrowed Ian’s car (he drives into the office every day, despite the Congestion Charge) and drove down the M1.

We met at a big modern hotel on a roundabout just off the motorway junction. Put up in the mid-90s, the building was interesting in that all its external facades were masked by ornamental hedges (this was a deliberate part of the design, so that the hotel looked as if it had living green walls). The electric doors flew open and I walked into an atrium Reception where Beryl was waiting on a leather-upholstered bench.

Beryl is aged about 45, short with black hair (no grey), pear-shaped in black trousers, black silk top, black jacket.

We went into the comfortable bar and had drinks (put on the bill). We talked about our careers. She described her plan to travel round the world - this is a real plan, and she is taking six months off work to do this.

Into the Rotunda restaurant. Only one other table was occupied, which was perhaps a reflection of current doubts about the economy (normally every table would be filled with business people). Ragout of langoustines with tomato concasse and ginger; assiette of lamb with gratin potatoes, Provencal vegetables and rosemary jus; soufflé of Valhrona’s Manjari chocolate with chocolate sauce and toasted coconut ice cream (I chose the most expensive dishes as I wanted to use up the budget).

We were there almost two hours. I kept up a steady flow of questions, otherwise conversation would have lapsed (thankfully it never did, although Beryl wasn’t at all responsive). We talked about BQW special projects, and Beryl prefaced nearly every remark with “It’s a great story, but we can never tell anyone.”

As we were leaving the Head Waiter presented Beryl with a red and white orchid. It was a chunky flower with a beautiful lustrous bloom. In the car Beryl gave the orchid to me, saying she couldn’t possibly take it into her office.

I drove back to London, and parked Ian’s car in the cramped space he has in the mews at the back (I am always afraid of scraping the side when I do this). I didn’t know what to do with the orchid. It seemed too good to throw away, so I left it on the dashboard in Ian’s car.

Ian went down to the car to get his sandwiches, and when he came back he put the orchid on my desk. Again I didn’t know what to do with it. Eventually I put it in a tumbler of water and left it on Angela’s desk (she was out).

“You crawler” Ian shouted at me.


Angela flew into a rage with Sheila, Janette and Pete. It was more funny than alarming (this time). Possibly she was feeling humiliated at her exclusion from the Rocket presentation (Rocket is a client she used to handle (on Ian's behalf), but which we have “lost” as the contact there has been sacked - we are having to re-pitch for the business and Kate is adamant that Angela should not be involved).


Peter Hain resigns. Terry (our MD) can’t stop talking about this. He has a background in parliamentary lobbying and knows several of the key players, giving us the benefit of his experience:

“The main problem is the power of the journalists. The old hands are all Oxbridge English graduates and have been taught to deconstruct arguments, so whatever line is put out, it gets pulled to pieces. The newer ones have come through the Media Studies route, so they know fuck-all.”


Our floor had the usual monthly meeting. Ian rambled on, mostly repeating what Val had said on Monday. Ben and Pete giggled and sniggered, everyone else sat looking blank.

After half-an-hour Kate and I left to go to the Rocket presentation, both of us glad to get out of the room.

By taxi to Holland Park Avenue. We were far too early and so had coffee and biscuits (in Tootsie’s) and looked into shop windows. Neither of us was looking forward to the meeting.

Into Rocket and a long wait in Reception. Then we were led into a small white meeting room. Sat at the round table in this room was Rosina, our previous contact who had been sacked and had now been reinstated - her presence at the meeting was a complete surprise to us (“I’m not very happy” she told us when we were briefly left alone together).

The General Manager (“Geoffrey”) was an arrogant lean man of about fifty-five, in a broad-striped navy blue suit. He had short grey hair and a handsome face set with deep cruel lines that indicated his expression in repose was a sneer. He was uninterested in what we had to say, and kept leaving the room to take telephone calls (Kate used the c-word the third time he interrupted our presentation - Rosina smiled and nodded).

Anyway, the upshot of the meeting was that the account is back with us. Rosina is our contact again. Everything in the garden is (ostensibly, and if you don’t look too closely) rosy.

“Don’t tell Ian how easy it was” said Kate on the way back. “Let him think we really had to fight. Let him think he owes us big-time.”

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Dyson Airblade

I was in a hotel recently attending the Council meeting of one of my clients (a not-for-profit organisation, very politically correct).

Charities fall into two categories. There are those which are well-run, do good work and are extremely professional (and also pay realistic rates to outside agencies). And there are those which are more shambolic, are filled with empire-building careerists, and are always pleading poverty and asking for free work while denying themselves nothing in terms of personal comfort and job security.

This client leaned towards the latter category.

Hence the Council meeting was held in a private meeting room at a very lavish central London hotel (I knew it was expensive as I had to hire a projector for my Powerpoint presentation - at £280 per day!).

Anyway I was in the meeting most of the morning. I had to sit through the previous Minutes being read, then give my presentation on PR work-in-progress, and then answer questions. The Minutes were interminable so that I felt I was experiencing the stretching of time described in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

I was tired and bored and dearly wanted to close my eyes, although I knew it was the one thing I must not do (would probably lose me the account since charity people are easily offended). Making an excuse, I left the room and went down the hushed and deserted corridor looking for a washroom where I could splash my face with cold water. The nearest one had a sign saying “Toilet Out Of Order”.

Ignoring this (it was an emergency) I went through the door and stood at the washbasins bathing my eyes and attempting to recover from the extreme tedium I had been subjected to. When I came to dry my hands I found the Dyson Airblade pictured above. It seemed a wonderful invention - a hand dryer that actually dries your hands!

The over-ripe decadent feel of Western civilisation is characterised by the invention of ever-more silly and marginal “products” and “services” that fulfil no useful purpose other than disguise the fact that our lives are effectively meaningless. The ancient Romans walked this path before us. “When you have everything to live with, you need something to live for” as a fictional character once said.

More on the Dyson Airblade (three years research and development went into this product):

Note that I have created a new label for this post - Science and Technology (mainly because I don’t know enough about either, and I ought to be better informed).

PS rereading this post, it seems unduly pessimistic - I do enjoy life really!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

They spoke with gravitas

On the Today programme this morning both George Soros and Martin Sorrell were airing their views (in the same interview!) on the current economic situation. They spoke with gravitas, as if they commanded the lofty heights of the business establishment. To hear them speak you wouldn’t suspect they were two of the biggest chancers you are ever likely to come across.

Both of them in their time justified Ted Heath’s anathema: “The unpleasant, unacceptable face of capitalism”.

George Soros is an international speculator whose global machinations damaged Sterling in the early 1990s and almost destabilised the British economy - he would later claim that he did nothing illegal, and while this may be true, it was certainly immoral for his actions to put at risk the economic well-being of millions (if they could have got their hands on him the government of the day would have been justified in shooting him).

Martin Sorrell is a more complex character. His career has been very intriguing. Beneath his respectable veneer he seems to be a buccaneering risk taker in the vein of Jim Slater and James Goldsmith.

In the early 1980s Martin Sorrell acquired Wire & Plastic Products, a company that made wire shopping baskets. Renaming it as WPP he used it to buy a number of communications companies (including PR company Hill & Knowlton) in a series of hostile take-overs. His acquisition of advertising agency J Walter Thompson in 1987 was particularly outrageous, being mostly funded by the sale of JWT’s office building in central Tokyo (ie they used JWT’s own money in a take-over against the wishes of the JWT Board).

WPP now employs 100,000 people in a global communications enterprise across over a hundred countries.

Above: J Walter Thompson’s London office has now moved to Knightsbridge, but for me the agency is irretrievably associated with this corner of Berkeley Square in Mayfair. For a long time I aspired (without success, receiving more rejections than I did from Cambridge colleges) to join the denizens in what I imagined to be the lyrical corporate equivalent of Monty Python’s Whicker Island. Now I realise that the image an advertising agency projects of itself (the medium is the message!) is often in inverse ratio to the actual experience of working there.

More on the fantasy image projected by JWT:

More on Whicker Island (one of my father’s favourite sketches):

PS rereading this post it seems a little harsh. I didn’t mean to be so damning. It’s just the way it came out.

Monday, January 21, 2008

These mysterious “bog people”

Often I hear of an event and think: that might be worth seeing. And then the day arrives, and I almost never want to make the effort to go. Especially if the weather is cold and the journey long, and the time of day inconvenient.

However, I have missed so many opportunities that I now force myself to put the newspaper aside, get up from my armchair, and go (“just do it” as the marketing people at Nike would say).

So a couple of weeks back I drove to the north-east of the county to a village where an ancient sporting event takes place at the beginning of each year. The event is a mixture of pub crawl, primitive rugby scrum, and half-forgotten superstitious ritual. The origins are nominally medieval (associated with a local legend), but are probably prehistoric.

Arriving in the village I parked my car well away from where the event was to be held (the proceedings involve a general melee in which cars have been damaged in the past). Streams of people were walking purposefully along the road in the direction of the centre of the village. It reminded me of the streets around White Hart Lane when Spurs are playing.

As I walked further along the High Street the atmosphere changed. Instead of moving people, more and more groups were stationary, spilling out of the village pubs and standing drinking in the street. A shop advertised hot venison casserole (with chips) as a special dish of the day.

As I got closer to the village church (the event began just outside) the crowds became very dense - about a thousand people with more arriving all the time. I got up onto a low wall where I could see back down the High Street (above) which was becoming packed with people. The air was becoming noticeably colder, and the sun was getting lower in the sky.

After waiting about forty minutes (in the cold) I saw a small, colourfully dressed group threading its way through the crowd, disappearing for long intervals into one or other of the pubs where they were given free drinks and everyone sang traditional folk songs - John Barleycorn, Drink England Dry and The Farmer's Boy. The group consisted of fourteen people: twelve “Boggins”, a “Lord” and a “Fool”.

When the group approached the church wall (on which I was standing - I was in a very good position) the Fool made a ritual attempt to escape and was captured by the Boggins (in red) who carried him back (apologies for the slightly blurred photo - they were moving quite fast).

The Fool was placed on a big block of stone (locally regarded as a mounting block for getting on horses, but Pevsner identifies it as the stump of an ancient cross). He made a speech (which I couldn’t hear) and waved around a tightly rolled leather hood. A small heap of damp straw was set alight and the smoke encompassed the Fool (in the past the straw bonfire was much bigger and the Fool would actually be thrown onto the fire and have to scramble off - obviously this would today violate Health & Safety guidelines).

After giving his speech the Fool led the crowd along the High Street to the edge of the village (not very far) and onto a big area of rough ground (supposedly uncultivated since the Middle Ages). During this walk he is allowed to kiss any girl he likes. Many people came up to shake hands with him (for luck).

Above: The ribbons on the Fool’s costume are similar to other traditional characters in English folklore (this is a photo of the cover of a book - not sure which character this is).

The contest begins with the Fool throwing a number of rolled up sack hoods, which children try to catch and run with off the field. The rough ground is extremely difficult to run on, and most of the youngsters would fall over before they had gone very far (“you can easily break a leg”). When the hoods are taken off the field they are returned for a small cash prize.

The main game consists of a gigantic rugby scrum (called “the sway”) in which about two hundred (mostly) men try to manoeuvre the leather hood from the centre of the field and into one of four nominated pubs. The game goes on for hours, sometimes all night. When the hood is finally pushed into one of the pubs it remains there for one year (beer is poured over it, it’s hung up behind the bar, free drinks are given out).

The Lord and the Chief Boggin. They are wearing traditional costumes of hunting “pink” and top hats decorated with flowers, feathers and badges. They act as referees during the “sway” (which can sometimes get out of control).

I am extremely disappointed with this photograph which was taken during the children’s meleé (when they are competing for the hessian hoods) - at the time it seemed a maelstrom of running and shouting figures, but in this picture it looks relatively calm. The sun was going down rapidly, so I wasn’t able to get any photographs of the “sway” itself. It was also becoming bitterly cold, so that my hands could hardly work the camera.

Co-incidentally, on Saturday there was a documentary on BBC2 about William Marshal and his mastery of the “meleé”.

The traditional interpretation

The game is supposed to date from medieval times. A great lady was riding through the village when a gust of wind blew off her silk hood. Farm workers in a field chased after it and eventually one caught it, but was too shy to return it to the lady. He gave the hood to another of the farm hands who brought it back to its owner. The lady called the worker who brought it to her a “Lord” for his courtesy, and the one who had actually caught it a “Fool” for his bashfulness. On a whim she ordered that the field be kept in perpetuity as a venue for re-enacting the event on an annual basis.

The anthropological interpretation

The field lies adjacent to bogs where the prehistoric mummified bodies of hooded people have been found. These mysterious “bog people” have been found all over northern Europe. They are thought to be human sacrifices, carried out by the Celtic peoples at mid-winter to ensure the return of the Sun (vital to growing the crops).

More on the bog people:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tom Paulin

Above: Tom Paulin on Newsnight Review some weeks back (apologies for the quality of the picture which was taken with my mobile phone from the television screen). Tom Paulin used to be an habitué of Newsnight Review, appearing with Germaine Greer and Tony Parsons. Although all three have separately appeared on Newsnight Review over the last months, they have not done so together.

Tom Paulin appeared on the Today Programme earlier this week, talking about poetry. Although he is a controversial commentator, his views always make you think. He is a lecturer at Oxford and author of (among many other works) Thomas Hardy, the Poetry of Perception.

I am currently working my way through Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook, part of a multi-volume epic history poem on the Second World War. Comparisons have been made with TS Eliot (and there are Eliot references in the poem/s). I have to read poetry very slowly, so this book could take me a couple of months to get through.

The Second World War did not produce as much poetry as the Great War (I’m afraid I despise WH Auden, especially his bloody clocks). Probably this was because the First World War marked the end of romantic culture (in it's thousand-year continuum) whereas the Twenties marked the beginning of a new "modern" culture. And someone needs to analyse the industrialisation of poetry (through mass media, politicisation and the influence of propaganda).

Romanticism continued, but it was no longer mainstream. In second hand bookshops you sometimes come across sections of old poetry books, by forgotten authors, selling for 20p or 30p each. I usually end up buying a couple as they are often well produced and the writing is fine.

I don’t know much about Theodore Nicholl. A Google search only reveals that he was born in 1902, died in 1973 and wrote six volumes of poetry - five before the war and The Immortal Ease in 1948. I wonder why he stopped writing poetry?

Although I don’t know anything about his life I am sure Theodore Nicholl was an RAF pilot during the war. The writing is too accurate to be entirely fiction. He is obviously writing from the heart.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Not sure…

I’m not sure which I prefer.

Bakewell tarts (which have a delectable almond frangipani filling).

Or Eccles cakes (buttery pastry dissolving as you bite into them, so that you are almost overwhelmed by the succulent current filling).

And clotted cream always makes things nicer (as my old manager use to say at board meetings: “You are the cream of the company’s management, which is why the clots rise to the top…”).

More on Bakewell tarts:
More on Eccles cakes:
More on the vernacular use of the word clot:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Try a bit harder

I was not impressed at Gordon Brown’s announcement that the law is to be changed to presume everyone has consented to be an organ donor unless they specifically decide otherwise.

Just because the official campaign (to persuade people to become organ donors voluntarily) has failed doesn’t mean that the law should be used to compel people by force. It means they should dismiss the people doing the existing information campaign, appoint new people, AND TRY A BIT HARDER. Can you imagine any commercial company complaining that their advertising wasn’t working and therefore they should have the force of law to compel people to buy their service?

Either people want to become organ donors or they don’t.

If they do want to become organ donors then it MUST be possible to persuade them voluntarily through an information campaign (especially if they use experts who know what they are doing rather than the usual cabal of civil servants, hack politicians and quango-filling placemen/women).

If people don’t want to become organ donors then using the law to “presume” consent and seize the body parts is unethical and disgusting.

And what about the isolated elderly and vulnerable hovering at death’s door - is some arrogant medical consultant going to “presume” their quality of life is not worth preserving and their parts would be better off in someone else?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jeremy Clarkson

The shelves of WH Smith at Kings Cross supporting a row of books by Jeremy Clarkson.

Jeremy Clarkson is a larger than life media personality, incredibly popular, enormously influential. You cannot understand twenty-first century British popular culture without reference to Jeremy Clarkson. He bestrides television and newspapers like a cultural colossus (the analogy is deliberate - in many ways he is a modern equivalent to Cecil Rhodes in bombastic certainty and will to dominate).

The laws of physics tell us that every action has a reaction. Only an insipid, politically-correct, furtively hypocritical society could produce Jeremy Clarkson. Not that I would call him a reactionary (I wouldn’t dare).

Monday, January 14, 2008


On a crowded Northern Line train, pausing in Bank station, I overheard two senior City types discussing the shortcomings of a junior.

"Typical of young people now - he confuses movement with progress."

They tutted and shook their heads, and these little signs indicated the offender was to be cast into outer darkness.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Everything suddenly became ordinary - the week at work

Monday, my first day back at work after the holiday. I sat at my desk and made a half-hearted start to all the things that needed to be done. I looked through the papers I had left (neatly for once) on the alcohol-infused Friday afternoon when everything had been “winding down” (that phrase put in parenthesis, as the process of winding down involved a complex mixture of holiday expectation, end-of-work relief, wine-soaked fatigue… and just the faintest hope that something would turn up in the vacation interim as to make all these requirements superfluous).

I worked my way through the papers and e-mails, buoyed up by cups of tea, until 11 o’clock when everything suddenly became ordinary, and it was as if the Christmas holiday had never been. Disturbingly, this sense of the ordinary continued to intensify, so that by the time noon arrived I had reached a sense of hyper-ordinariness, and by the afternoon had entered a state of bland nothingness. When I left at 5.30 I stepped out onto the cold grey street feeling oddly betrayed, depressed, abandoned (but only slightly - even in my neuroses I am denied the real deal).

Tuesday. Endless press releases to be written, and rewritten, and rewritten a third time (so that I was dangerously close to the “if you’re so smart you can do the bloody things yourself” stage). Late afternoon and the first of the year’s new business meetings. This was a lacklustre event, with Kate outlining her plans to bring in more clients (basically an extension of the 2007 strategy) and directors Ian and Alan saying how well she was doing. It always surprises me the way in which I am automatically included in these meetings. Perhaps I am just making up the numbers?

The new business meeting went on until 6, after everyone else had left. Ian suggested a drink, so we all went to the Heroes wine bar (the walls covered with black and white photographs of boxers). We were still there at 7.30, although I kept saying “I really must go”.

Ian had a bit much to drink and started gossiping about the staff (not something an MD should do). It was as if he were afraid of some of them. In particular he told us he thought Stuart (who heads up the photographic studio) was trying to steal some of his clients.

“He thinks because he hasn’t got anything to do he’s going to lose his job” said Alan about Ian (and in front of him). “He forgets he’s a director of the company. He’ll be last to go.”

We all laughed. Kate rolled her eyes and gave one of her dazzling smiles, as if we were all good friends. Privately I knew she would be fuming, as she has often said that Ian and Alan don’t do very much.

Wednesday and a flurry of excitement when it was revealed that the contact at Rocket, one of our medium sized clients, had been made redundant. Decisions about marketing were now being taken at the Rocket head office in Kensington. It is awful when this sort of thing happens, as it always makes the Account Manager look out-of-the-loop, with the likelihood that the new decision maker is going to want to change agencies. Happily Rocket was not one of my clients. They were handled by Angela (Ian’s PA) which meant they were actually one of Ian’s old clients. A small crisis meeting was held, and Kate and myself were delegated to go to see the new decision maker - an appointment made for Friday.

In the afternoon I went to check on a photo shoot at the photographic studio. The image being taken was of a flautist, to be used on the front cover of a software brochure (headline: Exceptional performance). A beautiful model, her skin completely flawless, was standing in front of the infinity curve wearing a high-waisted evening dress. No-one knew exactly how she should hold the flute. They had wasted almost an hour trying various angles. Eventually I looked at flautists on Google Images to get the position right.

Thursday a new client (Sealion) walked through the door. Just like that, with no effort made at all. He was a bit of an egomaniac and didn’t stop talking (the sort who is going to want his portrait in the brochure) but you mustn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

A crisis in the afternoon over some original artwork that couldn’t be found on the system (which is supposedly fool-proof). Angela (senior PA) and Paul (graphics designer) were working themselves into a bit of a frenzy, blaming each other for the loss. It was nothing to do with me, but in the end I intervened and told Paul to recreate the design (a two-hour job). He meekly complied, which made me very thoughtful. Up until that moment I had not been sure whether I had the authority to give orders (and have them carried out). I began to wonder what other commands I could give (“Do this”, “Don’t do that”, “Go down to Costa Coffee and bring me back…”).

Friday, and at 8.30 I met Kate at the entrance to Holland Park Tube. We were early so we went into a café called Tootsies and sat in the window drinking coffee until 9. Then to the Rocket head office, only to find that Samantha, the new marketing decision maker, had not arrived yet. We went back to Tootsies and waited around until 10, drinking more coffee at the table in the window. Once again to the Rocket offices where we waited in Reception until Samantha came out to meet us. Rather than taking us into a meeting room, Samantha said she hadn’t had breakfast yet, and suggested going to a local café she knew - leading us right back to Tootsies.

Samantha was tall, slim, and had black hair artfully piled up. She said “Yah” a lot. She told us there were no immediate plans to change anything, but said it in such a way (off-hand, absently, with no interest in the current work-in-progress) that immediately made us suspect the worst.

After this meeting Kate led me along Holland Park Avenue to an Irish pub behind Notting Hill tube station where we had whiskies and soda and she talked about her boyfriend troubles.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Plough Jag

Plough Monday is held on the first Monday after Epiphany (which this year was Sunday 6th January). In the past ploughs were taken into the parish churches to be blessed in a special “God speed the plough” ceremony. This is still kept up in a few villages in the county (see order of service above) but mostly it has lapsed, mainly due to the replacement of horse-drawn ploughs with mechanised equipment (occasionally you come across ploughs kept inside churches - there used to be one at Scarning in Norfolk).

Above: At 11 o’clock the mummers appeared.

Also associated with Plough Monday are the Plough Jags - mummers plays formerly performed by the plough boys. Very few of these plays are still performed, but I managed to track one down last Saturday, in a town to the north-west of the county. I got there early as the play is only performed once and lasts about twenty minutes, so if you miss it you have to wait another twelve months until it comes round again (or try and follow the mummers on the subsequent pub crawl).

The day was cold and damp, but with some sunshine. The play was held in the Market Square, a small and rather claustrophobic space, surrounded by three-story buildings (some were 19th century, others were post-war but built in a traditional style). The market consisted of a few stalls selling cheap clothes, cheap DVDs, fresh fruit and vegetables. The square was very busy with shoppers passing through (hardly anyone stopping at the stalls). Remnants of Christmas decorations were still applied to various buildings, looking a bit forlorn. There was a very light sprinkling of litter underfoot, and the cold air had a lardy smell to it (possibly coming from various cafés and chip shops).

At 11 o’clock the mummers appeared in front of the central Christmas tree. There were twelve of them, all men apart from one woman (obviously they are no longer plough boys - I would guess these were the members of a local folk group). Mummers plays follow a fairly standard format with traditional costumes (blacked faces) and characters. They arrived in a procession, and each gave a speech in rhyme. A fiddle-player and an accordianist provided music and some of the characters danced about (when a song about sowing barley was sung several of the audience joined in). The woman did not act in the play but brought round a pail to collect money from the on-lookers.

Mummers plays always include a duel, followed by the death of the central character and his revival by the “Doctor” (the man in the black hat and frock coat, carrying a leather bag). Sir James Fraser, writing in The Golden Bough, traces the origin of these plays to the fertility of the soil and security of the food supply. As well as the Plough Jags, mummers plays were performed at all the festivals of the year, including Christmas (there is a fictionalised account of a mummers play in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native - in the film version Catherine Zeta-Jones disguises herself as one of the mummers).

There were several modern touches in this Plough Jag. For instance, one of the soldiers has gone off to “Afghanistany”. And when Beelzebub appeared to one of the female characters (played by a man) she launched into a Catherine Tate “Am I bovvered?” speech.

After the performing the Plough Jag the plough boys would take the money they had collected and go to a pub. When they had drunk the takings they would perform the play again to obtain funds for the next session, and then move on to a new pub. With each round of drinks the Plough Jag would become more boisterous and irreverent.

This pub sign shows a plough boy dressed in a sheepskin, leading the horses.

A plow-wright was a maker of ploughs. This marriage of a ploughman dates from the 1920s - the fact that the surname matched the man's occupation suggests a strong family connection going back generations. Because of the importance of ploughing in the agricultural cycle, ploughmen had a fairly high status in village life. In the medieval period they would be members of the Plow Guild, one of the great trade guilds of the middle ages. These quasi-religious societies would have their own section of the parish church and meet once a year for a religious service and feast. As well as overseeing the rituals and ceremonies associated with ploughing, they would also register apprentices, and act as a self-help friendly society.

I took this photo at the end of autumn last year (the soil is so rich in the county that you can get at least two crops a year). Farmers are famously taciturn, and are impossible to “interview” in any formal way. You have to get to know them really well and then ask your questions in a very conversational and understated way. Often however, I have managed to get them into an almost mystical mood when talking about the land, especially the uncovering of the earth during ploughing. The consistency and texture of the soil would be noticed, and the appearance of earth worms etc. The medieval poem The Vision of Piers Plowman is an indication of the sacred link that formerly existed between “earth” and heaven.

More on the Vision of Piers Plowman:

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Joey Barton’s arrest and incarceration

Above: photograph of Joey Barton illustrating an article about the player by Daily Telegraph journalist Sue Mott. For some reason this picture has a quasi-religious caption (“Awaiting a visitation..”). Like most of Sue Mott’s writing, the article was very perceptive.

All through the Christmas and New Year holiday period the news bulletins and newspapers have reported footballer (soccer player) Joey Barton’s arrest and incarceration following his involvement in a brawl in a fast-food outlet on 27th December. He was held in a cell until today (surely a ridiculous over-precaution) when he was granted bail. Joey Barton plays for Newcastle, and has also played for the England team.

The circumstances in which he was arrested are familiar to anyone who has walked through a British town or city centre on any Friday or Saturday (and increasingly Sunday) night. But you would be foolish to actually go into a town centre at night at the weekend - they are becoming no-go zones for ordinary people. You can get an idea of what they are like from the “reality” series Booze Britain (a salacious look at excessively inebriated young men and women fighting, vomiting and urinating in public - reported in a self-righteous tone that would not be out of place in The Guardian).

Anyway, I had been following the career of Joey Barton as a possible candidate for endorsing one of the upstairs PR clients (I am helping Rachel with the campaign plan). Their product has a brand personality that includes “edgy abrasive newcomer” with a prospective target audience of early-adopters, risk-takers, males aged 25 to 45. Plus there is a chance we might have negotiated a competitive rate all factors considered (the budget for this campaign is not huge).

His arrest meant we had to take him off the short-list, but there is a lingering sense that he is being treated unfairly.

In interviews he comes across as someone very intelligent, but who has been failed by the education system, so that he has lots of sophisticated things to say, but no real means of expressing them (which I suppose explains the frustrated violence). In one television interview he said he didn’t care about media opinion but referred his conscience to a higher power - this was a surprisingly independent line to take (even though it is never wise to dismiss the media, whatever you might privately think). Despite all the (many) set-backs he has experienced his character exhibits incredible levels of self-confidence, indicating he is either very stupid, or has an exceptional degree of personal integrity.

Above: one thing I have noticed is that Joey Barton has an unusual tattoo (a bleeding gash) on the right side of his chest. It looks like he has the stigmata (“a sword shall pierce your heart also” etc). Does he have tattoos on his hands and feet as well?
Apologies to the photographer - this is not my image but one I found on the web and didn’t note the url (if you send me your name I’ll put in a credit, or alternatively I’ll take it down if you object).

Above: Christo muerto sostenido por un angel in the Museo del Prado. Despite the sombre subject, this is one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen (one of the Paintings That Changed My Life) - this photo of a postcard doesn’t really convey the impact the original will have on you. Notice the stigmata wound on the right side of the chest.