Friday, February 29, 2008

You go in wanting to get one

Foyles in Charing Cross Road. Famously untidy (although they have got better recently). My sister had her first job here.

You go in wanting to get one book and come out with six: Microtrends by Mark Penn and E Kinney Zalesne, Left Field by Graeme Le Saux, Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee, Guilty by Anna Kavan, The Dig by John Preston, Why Beauty is Truth by Ian Stewart.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

There is more going on than meets the eye

Jungian synchronicity is a concept I keep returning to. Not that I understand it completely. I understand just enough to worry about the fact that I don’t understand it.

Because there are enough things happening in the world that suggest there is more going on than meets the eye.

An example:

Tennyson’s Locksley Hall is one of my favourite poems. I learned it by heart for my English Literature A-level (even then Tennyson was derided and unfashionable). I was attracted to the idea of being able to go back to the places of your past and find them still as they were (even now I dream of my grandparents’ home in Norfolk that I last saw when I was fourteen).

Therefore it was not unusual for lines from Locksley Hall to come “unbidden” into my mind when I am driving along a lane I have never been along before, on a moor, in a remote coastal district.

But what WAS unusual (and alarming) is for a house (a “Hall” in fact) to appear in front of me. And to be called Locksley Hall. And for me to feel I have seen it before.

Was the house named after the poem? Or did Tennyson base his poem on this actual house (he always said it was invented)? Was it just co-incidence that I should pass a real Locksley Hall at the time I am thinking of a fictional Locksley Hall?

Or did the house draw me to it? Or did my mind create the house out of nothing (and if so, was it real - and if it was not real how do I explain the photograph)? Or did the whole thing happen in one of the “parallel universes” we are asked to believe in? (and “believe” is the right word since it is apparent to me that science is more a religion than anything else).

The poem in full:
More on the poem:
More on synchronicity:
More on multiple parallel universes:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

He warrants better reporting

On the Daily Politics programme yesterday Andrew Neil said that David Cameron was about to make a major speech. I looked for reports of the speech on news bulletins later in the day, but nothing (eventually I saw a small report on page 9 of today’s Guardian). If David Cameron is the British Obama (and there are serious grounds, in terms of image and expectation, for thinking he is) then surely he warrants better reporting than this?

At lunchtime I watched Prime Minister’s Questions (it’s part of the Andrew Neil show which starts at 11.30 on Wednesdays).

I was impressed this week by David Cameron, who raised the issue of MP’s expenses and allowances. This has been such a verboten subject in the House of Commons (in public) that I was amazed that he should get up and ask the Prime Minister face to face about it (effectively putting Gordon Brown on the spot - the Prime Minster’s response was lacklustre: “We voted to refer it to a committee”). The Labour backbenches jeered much more than they usually jeer, although I am not sure why (possibly they wanted the conspiracy of silence to continue).

Considering that Derek Conway was (at the time) a Tory MP and that the old Tory Sleaze accusations could have blown up again, David Cameron has handled the issue in an expert and competent way. Not only has he cut Derek Conway off completely, he has made the Conservatives synonymous with “best practice” on the issue of transparency and disclosure. And today he turned the issue onto the Labour government so that it looked as if they were the ones who were dragging their feet / refusing to show leadership.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Russell Brand

I am very pushed for time at the moment, so in lieu of a proper post here is a photograph (taken with my mobile from a television broadcast of his stand-up routine) of the odious Russell Brand.

Russell Brand is a media personality, television presenter and newspaper columnist. On a cultural level he is very influential, particularly with teenagers who are trying to delineate their difference by approving of things / ideas / people that would shock their families, teachers etc (a tough job since no-one is shocked by anything these days). In doing this he is following in the tradition of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s (first to use the f-word on television) or long-forgotten Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the 1980s or Marilyn Manson more recently.

Russell Brand never says anything interesting, but he has hundreds of opinions, all of them studiedly “outrageous”. Being “outrageous” is the main thing he does. He will carry on being “outrageous” until someone even more outrageous comes along at which point he will look tame.

In visual style he resembles a caricature by Aubrey Beardsley (one of the obscene ones). His act combines camp mannerisms with an aggressive and intimidating delivery (I think I dislike him because he comes across as shouting bully). He is most admired by the sort of characterless characters you find in the novels of Brett Easton Ellis.

Or perhaps I am just getting old and can’t judge these things anymore?

Monday, February 25, 2008

“The poor’s money”

On Andrew Marr’s Start The Week this morning (BBC Radio 4) Joseph Stiglitz talked about his new book The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (I ought to explain - I am allowed to listen to the radio at work). Three Trillion dollars is an unimaginable sum of money. Joseph Stiglitz said that the United Kingdom would have spent a similar sum of money in proportion to our size (via a vis the United States).

Just how much money has Tony Blair’s vanity-war cost us? (as I see it, Britain’s participation in the Iraq conflict was all about Tony Blair’s vanity and his attempt to portray himself as a global statesman).

Unless you are a Keynesian and believe in Keynesian big government expenditure (as Michael Portillo seemed to be endorsing on the Andrew Marr show, saying the Iraq expenditure would “just go through to society”) then the war will have to be paid for either through cuts in social expenditure, or higher taxation (in its widest sense), or greater inflation (and both America and Great Britain seems to have gone for a stealthy inflation option).

At the same time as rising inflation we have a credit “crunch” which in the United Kingdom has led to the nationalisation of a High Street bank (in itself not a disaster - the state used to run the TSB quite competently and denationalised it at a comfortable profit to the Exchequer).

The nationalisation of the Northern Rock Bank has been very controversial and damaged the government’s reputation for economic competence (on Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics show today they reported a poll which said 50% thought the Northern Rock crisis hadn’t been handled well).

You might need to clique on the image to read it properly.

The above plaque (dated 1868) demonstrates the principle of sound economics. Money was collected and invested (in this case in India Stock) and the interest was paid out in a village “dole” to the needy (and when they talk about money they meant solid gold coins not printed banknotes!). Everyone knew “the poor’s money” was ring-fenced because it said so on this plaque carved in marble and alabaster and put up in public (so no thieving State could raid it and spend it on illegal wars, grandiose follies and excessive expenses for themselves).

To her credit Hilary Clinton proposes a similar scheme (on a larger scale) to provide a health service for America’s least well-off.

This may be an ignoble suggestion, but one way Gordon Brown could restore popularity for his government would be if he arrested Tony Blair and put him on trial. There would be huge popular enthusiasm for this, similar to the Hang the Kaiser campaign after the First World War. I accept that it may not be possible to actually hang Tony Blair, but they could rough him up a little.

I saw the above packet of Gloxinia Kaiser Wilhelm and I couldn’t resist buying it. It represents a piece of marketing history. Although the plant is very beautiful, and fairly easy to grow, the name “Kaiser Wilhelm” damned it in the eyes of gardeners throughout the world for several generations, and only now is it coming back into the shops (has the New Labour brand been equally damned through association with another war mongerer?).

More on Start The Week:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

“angels in the architecture”

A drive to the south of the county to look at an angel roof.

Please excuse the murky image - there wasn’t much light in the church. The tremendous hammerbeam roof (fifteenth century) carries a host of medieval angels - each one is life-size. You will need to click on the photo to get the full impact.

Looking up at the roof I thought of Paul Simon’s “angels in the architecture” and all the rest of the day You Can Call Me Al was going through my mind.

On the walls were guides to the angels of the roof, which were analysed by a Fellow of the Society of Antiquities in the 1940s. The Golden Legend, which circulated throughout the medieval period, gave a definitive classification of the Celestial Hierarchy. Basically there were (are?) nine orders of angels in the medieval vision of heaven, and these were organised into three sets of three.

The highest rank is made up of Cherubim, Seraphim and Thrones. They surround the throne of God and so are carved with their hands held high (in ecstatic adoration). Seraphim are shown with six wings, Cherubim with four wings, and Thrones hold crowns.

Next come Dominations, Virtues and Powers. Their job is to govern mankind as a whole. Dominations hold books (symbolising the knowledge of God), Virtues hold bottles (symbolising the vial of God’s Wrath which will be poured out on the world at the End of Days), and Powers hold harps.

Finally there are Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are directly concerned with particular places, communities and even individuals. These angels wear plate armour (ie St Michael) and Principalities are shown crowned and holding sceptres (except for Gabriel who holds a herald’s wand). Ordinary Angels wear scarves (a medieval sign of dignity), and as their duties include performing the everlasting song of praise they are shown carrying scrolls with the words of the Te Deum, as well as harps, pipes and handbells.

Also in the church was this 18th century gravestone to Arthur King (note the stars and stripes in the coat of arms). Dan Brown would probably make up a story about this being the real resting place of King Arthur. What Dan Brown doesn’t realise is that the truth is often far stranger than he can imagine.

More about Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al:

Saturday, February 23, 2008

You sometimes have to take a guess - the past week at work


The alarm-clock went off at 5.50 and another working week began. It is very depressing if you are tired when you get up in the morning as you know things are not going to get any better the rest of the day. No heating on the train.

At the agency lots of internal briefings, especially from Kate as she was on holiday the rest of the week. She left her car (a company car) in the mews at the back with instruction that only I am allowed to use it while she is away. Midday she left by taxi to go to Heathrow, and for some reason I felt a profound sense of sadness, as if I wanted to go after her and say “Don’t leave me here” (which is absurd, since she will be back next Monday).

I briefed Ben on photography that needed doing. I briefed Tony B in the studio on some ads that needed designing. No time to go out at lunchtime although Ann (helps Sheila) went and got some hot pastries for me from a local café (“What do you want?”she asked. “You choose” I said. She brought back hot Cornish pasties - two for me and two for herself).

In the afternoon Pete asked me if I would show him how to do Account Handling. I told him he couldn’t visit clients until he learned to drive (this was the brush-off I had got from Ian when I asked if Pete could be given more responsibility). Really he has no future at the agency and needs to go back to college.

“If I did learn to drive they’d only use me as a dogsbody” he said with resignation.


Freezing fog when I first looked out the window, so I “worked at home”. As I wasn’t prepared for working at home I didn’t have a great deal to do. So I went back to bed and got some rest.


Pete’s birthday, and his desk was decorated with big balloons, exactly as Sarah’s had been last Friday (they were probably from the same packet).

Mid-morning, and an incredibly vulgar Rolypolygram arrived and came over to where Pete was sitting (in the desk directly opposite mine). The short woman was almost spherical, aged in her late-fifties, and with a lumpen face like a potato. She put on some music and began taking her clothes off.

Everyone in the office came over to watch, and because our desks are by the wall I was effectively trapped and had to witness it all (otherwise I would have left). Ben took photographs throughout the performance. The woman removed all her clothes, including a pair of wispy panties (lifting her elephantine legs up one by one to do so), and when she was completely naked you could smell her body (this is not my imagination).

The Rolypolygram asked Pete for a kiss, and everybody (including myself) clapped. Then she put on her clothes and left. I found out later that the office “girls” (Sarah, Judy, Janette, Ann and office manager Sheila) had clubbed together to pay for the Rolypolygram.

Pete had laughed all the way through the Rolypolygram, but told me later he was very angry about it.

At lunchtime everyone went to the pub and Ian paid for all the drinks.


Quite an intimidating amount of work to deal with at the moment, and a number of urgent jobs - you sometimes have to take a guess at which one is more important.

In the morning I went by tube up to Old Street to Websters. This client is very easy to handle as they do regular print ads (every month across nine magazines) that don’t tend to change much. The company has a very cramped existence with a large number of people packed into a few small offices above a shop.

In the afternoon I looked at quotes and on impulse rang freelance Joey and told him he could have an illustration job if he could do it for £300 (£50 cheaper than the quote) and if he could come over and take the brief immediately. He arrived barely an hour later, showing off to Sarah the Murphy & Nye grey and white jersey-shirt he was wearing (sleeves pushed up to his elbows).


A drive up the A1 to a company that makes gas fires. I always have to take lots of stuff with me when I visit this client (campaign files, examples, papers) as I never know what they are going to raise. A lot of the time we talked about photography for their next campaign. Ben’s photography was not good, so it will have to be done again (you couldn’t see the gas flames). A female sales manager came into the meeting to give her opinion - her power dressing included so much metal (chains, belts, broaches) that it was if she was wearing armour. I was in the meeting from 11am until nearly 3pm.

When I got back to the agency Angela (Ian's PA) was in a foul mood. The office had a strange atmosphere as if there had been a massive row. It was as if the residues of conflict hung around the place like cordite over a battlefield.

Friday, February 22, 2008

An image of “trust”

On Thursday evenings there is too much of a choice - Newsnight clashes with Question Time and This Week clashes with Chris Eakin and Question Time Extra.

Chris Eakin is an interesting presenter on Question Time Extra, but his real power comes across when he is reading the news. His face is very “honest”, so that you believe everything he says. It has a lot to do with the way he looks into the camera, and also has very slight pauses in his delivery (these pauses are important as they communicate sincerity). He is a wasted asset reading the news on BBC News 24. Given the credibility-deficit and “fakery” issues the BBC has experienced over the last year, they should move Chris Eakin to the 10 o’clock news on BBC1. He would project an image of “trust” into every home.

The other strong newsreader at the moment is Emily Maitlis (also an interviewer on Newsnight). She has a way of glaring into the camera that seems to say “pay attention”. And somehow you do find yourself paying attention (I keep watching her delivery to see how she does this, but I can’t quite pin it down).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The last day

Today is the last day of National Nest Box Week. Everyone is encouraged to put up a nest box in their garden (assuming you have a garden) to provide somewhere for birds such as starlings and sparrows to nest. I have bought two (although I won’t put them up until the weekend).

A neighbouring farmer has put this enormous nesting box up for larger birds - I think he wants to attract owls which start nesting around this time.

Ravens will also start nesting in February (but they don’t use nesting boxes - their nests are unmistakeable messy piles of twigs reused year after year). Ravens have many cultural associations in the United Kingdom (the Tower of London, the legend of Cuchulainn etc). The Raven is the title of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous poem - I was given a copy of the poem in this tiny book, bound in black silk and embossed in gold.

The poem is about… loss, grief, fear. In the poem the raven represents inevitability. “Nevermore.”

Above: photograph of a postcard from the (old? real? unreal?) Courtauld Gallery.

Gauguin used the poem as the theme of his painting Nevermore in the Courtauld Gallery. In the Gauguin interpretation the grieving narrator is a Tahitian woman laying naked on a bed and thinking of the past. Note the two dream lovers in the background, and the raven on the window sill, and the legend “Nevermore” in the top left corner.

I hardly ever go to the Courtauld Gallery now, but for one year at the end of the 1980s I would meet Helen B there almost every day. The gallery was located in Woburn Square (this was before the move to Somerset House), the entrance was free, and we would often have the place to ourselves. The Woburn Square gallery has gone now, and in any case nothing can bring those days back (excuse me harking back to my own personal Nevermore).


More on the Woburn Gallery (click on “Full Screen” for page 237 to open properly:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"No, I’m not handing them round"

Passing Rachel’s desk this afternoon I noticed an unopened packet of Parma Violets (“Why are you taking a photograph of my desk… if you want one you can take one… no, I’m not handing them round…”).

It made me wonder why she had chosen that particular packet of sweets out of all the variety on offer at the newsagents. As consumers in a Western post-industrial post-privation post-idealistic ultra-materialistic society we are what we “consume” (a much wider concept that simply eating). What was it about that “offering” (brand name, packaging, product attributes etc) that made her say “yes”?

The sweets have a unique synthetic taste, hard to describe (I can’t say it is the taste of violets, since I have never eaten a violet, but it is how I would expect a violet to taste were I actually to eat one).

More on the makers of Parma Violets:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Images of the Cuban revolution... in British culture

Fidel Castro resigned today as President of Cuba. It is the end of a political era. It made me think about the way in which images of the Cuban revolution have entered British culture (as a great historian once said: history repeats itself three times, once as tragedy, once as farce and once as a fashion statement).

Amongst socialists (Old Labour, CPGB, Socialist Workers, Respect) Fidel Castro represents “the revolution” in its purest and most heroic form (this Castro speech, given away free in The Guardian, had an introduction by Tariq Ali). Ignoring atrocities, bungled failures and corruption (Castro is handing over to his brother!) they still regard Cuba as a socialist paradise (the Cuban health service is promoted as a model for the West, ignoring the fact that poverty and shortages keep the Cuban population healthy by preventing obesity). Little Cuba defying its bully-neighbour also appeals to the latent anti-Americanism that is prevalent in British socialism.

This “right-on” power-to-the-people revolutionary image was adopted in the 1960s and 1970s by students keen to disguise their middle-class origins. The 1970s comedy Citizen Smith (note the Che Guevara T-shirt) affectionately satirised this cultural phenomenon. The Labour Party in Tooting (in south London) unofficially called itself the Tooting Popular Front (this was told to me by a former member).


A real-life Wolfie Smith was public school educated John Mellor the middle-class son of a diplomat (the father was born into the British Raj in India). John Mellor was a student at the prestigious St Martins School of Art in London. After dropping out of college he reinvented himself as Joe Strummer, lead singer with The Clash (becoming a seditionary role model almost as influential, for young people in the United Kingdom, as Che Guevara or Fidel Castro).

There are numerous echoes of Strummer’s revolution-as-a-fashion-statement - for instance, the Will Young video All Time Love includes Cuban-style young revolutionaries reading poetry to each other, rioting in the streets and enduring oppressive show trials.


The commodification of the Cuban revolution has now reached the stage where The Guardian is advertising holidays in the revolutionary island. This advertisement interested me on several levels. It is a Guardian Reader Offer which confers an official editorial endorsement. The price is £1,199 per person - a reasonable rate for a foreign holiday but not exactly within the price range of “the people”. Some of the hotels are Four Star. The copy implies that wallowing in “crumbling colonial splendour” will be a pleasurable experience (possibly it may be, but surely not for right-on socialists?).

If you are a present-day student seeking to hide your middle class origins you can buy original Clash posters (but “Approval of what is approved of is as false as a well-kept vow” as Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said).

More on London’s burning:
See also London Calling:

Most intriguing of all, I saw this Che Guevara ashtray for sale in a West End cigar shop. The price is £199 (that’s about $400 - for an ashtray!). Is this aimed at wealthy socialists or people who want to stub their cigars out on Che Guevara?

Monday, February 18, 2008

It’s the punters who make the decisions

Above: "Socks by Ravena" - exhibit in a museum display. I meant to go on and say (but time ran out last night) that the fashion industry IS changing. Promotions such as Ravena socks are hardly likely to be seen these days. But the issue of whether fashion should represent society as it is constituted (rather than reflect an idealised view) opens up all sorts of complications. Over-50s are never seen as "faces" on magazine covers. Obese women (a growing section of the population) are never seen. And the idealised view of beauty is problematical in itself, being composed of half-understood elements (how a woman sees herself, how a woman thinks others see her, how a woman thinks she ought to be seen etc). Marketing in western post-industrial societies is (in my opinion) about self-actualisation more than anything else. Get the self-actualisation right and the the audience (and sales) will follow.

Accusations in the press over the weekend about racism in the fashion industry. I know several fashion PRs and asked them (in a casual way) what they thought. They were all dismissive about the reports.

PR 1: “Models have to reflect the audience they are targeting. If more Afro-Caribbean people bought haute couture the industry would reflect this. Ultimately it’s the punters who make the decisions - and they can sack us at any time simply by not buying.”

PR 2: “Magazine editors experiment and test all the time to get the covers that perform the best. Believe me, if they could make more money by putting Naomi Campbell on the cover she would be on every issue. With the market as it is, no-one can afford to get things wrong.”

More on self-actualisation:

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Blacksmiths Row

Damp February Sunday afternoon. The house faces out onto a river. You might have to click on the image to get the full scale of the mess in the back yard.

As the name implies, Blacksmith’s Row used to be the home of a village blacksmith. It used to be a thriving business, but the blacksmith has died, and now the house is boarded up. The blacksmith is remembered as a stern man, unfriendly to strangers, loyal to locals.

He was very choosy about who he would deal with - non-regulars had to wait, and bad payers were often turned away. If he didn’t like someone he would refuse to deal with them or ask them to pay upfront. If he thought you were a good sort, you could wait until the end of the year and settle up when he sent you his bill (a handwritten document many pages long, listing every nut and bolt, with a grand total at the end).

He began his career in the 1940s when hundreds of horses needed shoeing at least once per year (more often if they worked on roads). Carts also needed iron tyres fitted to their wooden wheels if they were to work on the roads. The rest of the time he would beat out ploughshares, re-point harrow tines, re-shaft hand tools.

As farming became mechanised he developed a sideline in repairing machinery, as well as buying and selling second-hand machinery. Farmers asked his advice before buying at auctions. He was proud of his work, guarded his reputation and took things back if they didn’t work.

As his business expanded he took over neighbouring cottages (six tiny houses and pub) and created his yard. This expansion brought him into contact with professionals (solicitors, council officials, taxmen) whom he regarded as obstructive parasites and against whom he waged a low-level campaign of non-cooperation. In one of the cottages used to live one of the village’s formidable “grandmas” (there were several) - she used to ride a three-wheeled tricycle, and acted as an agent of social control (reporting bad behaviour, watching people come and go, telling off children for the slightest indecorum).

At a village fair last summer I saw this blacksmith at work. He is beating out a horseshoe on a small anvil. Probably this sort of demonstration will eventually be banned under “health and safety”.

Display of different sorts of horseshoes - Rockerby Bar, Hunter Hind, Egg Bar etc.
Also at the fair: “Weathervanes hand-made and hand-painted”. There is a surprising demand for decorative ironwork. We have a weathervane (of a bull) on one of the barns.

Going around a village “history day” I came across this tumbledown cottage. I thought at first it was an old shed, but actually it used to be the home of the village blacksmith. A note on the door (which you can see) explained that the blacksmith and his wife had ten children and worked until he was 68.

Close up of part of the note. I was interested in the reference to one of the children being employed in the fields scaring birds. Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure opens with the young Jude working as a bird scarer.

Collection of blacksmith’s tools. People who keep these collections together deserve a medal. Often when the blacksmith dies the tools are dispersed and lost.

Why is this bucket full of holes? I should have asked. Looking at the picture now, the holes bother me (I’m assuming it is not a surrealist work of art).

Picture of the Blacksmiths Arms (taken last summer). This is one of the nicest pubs I know, at a quiet road junction over in the west of the county. The beer is the very best.

Seeing the blacksmith’s shop all boarded up made me feel very melancholy - so much of our county’s way of life is disappearing. There was an interesting programme on the Business Channel today about Second Life. Perhaps I should recreate the county (in every detail) on Second Life, and see if people will pay to “move” there.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

She had obviously been saving this up - the past week at work

Above: I am still keeping up with my objective of running three miles every day. Because I have developed a sore knee from road running I have decided to join a gym and run on a treadmill (also means I can run during the day and not have to do it when I get home and feel tired). Douglas (in Val’s account team upstairs) recommended Gymbox as it is so close to the office and you can basically get in and out within an hour (I can take my lunch hour at 11, which means there is not too much of a rush). It’s very clean inside. Music is a bit loud. Havn’t tried any of the classes (yet).


Arriving at my desk this morning, there was the same pile of work that I had left on Friday - but somehow it seemed more manageable. Almost as soon as I got in Kate briefed me on another client she had brought on board. I encouraged Pete (my so-called “assistant”) to push Ian for an account list of his own (mainly as it has reached the point where I can’t trust Pete to do anything properly - at least if he had his own client list he would be out of my way, and sink or swim by his own efforts).

In the afternoon Joey (freelance graphics designer) came in to be briefed on a map that needs to be created (my biggest client, BQW, is moving to Watford). He talked about when he used to work for a German engineering company in the UK, doing their technical drawings (“I used to drive a red BMW, which was my personal company car… I used to do seventy hours overtime a week…”).


The morning was quiet, almost boring - until ten o’clock. Then a row erupted between Kate and Tony W (who does the print-buying). Both of them became highly agitated.

“Do you know what he’s done” Kate shouted across to Ian (our boss). “While I was on the ’phone he put a post-it under my nose saying the pdf proofs for the Bonnear job won’t be ready until this afternoon. I’m due to show them to the client in half an hour - it’s TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE.”

She stood there in her black boots and black knee-length dress, her wavy blonde hair (possibly crimped over the weekend as there seemed to be more curls than usual) framing her pale face with its expression of (rather exaggerated) incredulity. Tony W, with his beer belly spilling over his waistband, was red-faced and looked suitably guilty (although it probably wasn’t his fault - printers are often unreliable). Ian, as usual, did nothing.


I woke an hour early, and felt momentarily confused. It was impossible to get back to sleep, and I spent the next hour waiting for the alarm to go off. Bitterly cold outside.

In the morning I went to Watford and in a hardhat went around the new BQW site with Ben (Ian’s son, works in our photographic studio) who took photographs for the special BQW staff newsletter we are doing (called On The Move - not my choice of title). I got my shoes covered in mud as we walked around the building site. Mike M from the BQW Move Committee joined us for about ten minutes before clearing off (he is known throughout BQW for being very lazy).

Then back to the agency to sign letters and return telephone calls. At the end of the afternoon Kate came to sit opposite and we had a long talk about our careers. “It’s alright for you” she said, “you’re qualified.”


A meeting in the morning with Colchester Seals in Surrey. The MD is very volatile and unpredictable (but in a nice way), and as usual when I go into a meeting with him I never know when I am going to get out again. This time we talked about photography for his new brochure and trade press advertising - the shots had revealed all sorts of errors with the production process, and will have to be done again.

“I’m sorry if we havn’t done them right” I said.

“No, no, it’s not your fault. You’ve done us a favour actually. We are not following our own Quality procedures.”

I got back to the agency at two o’clock. Both Ian and Alan (our directors) were out. Tony W was making lots of noise and being obnoxious. Twice Kate cut him down to size, and the second time he seemed to lose all control and stormed about in a rage (“If she talks to me like that again I’m going to Terry about her” - Terry being our MD with ultimate power to fire people). Pete was exhilarated at the public way Tony W had been crushed. Judy (Alan’s PA) came over and asked me whether she should ring Alan and ask him to come back to the office (I said no).

More was to follow.

Ian returned to the office and Kate went to him (straight away) with a file-copy of a brochure that had just been printed. She had obviously been saving this up all day, as Tony W (who had managed the printing side) hadn’t yet seen it. The brochure was very sub-standard, and Kate told Ian and Tony W that she was rejecting the job. To my surprise Ian told Tony W off for not watching the job more carefully (possibly Angela had rung Ian and told him about the scenes earlier, so he had come in determined to be strong). Tony W was completely deflated. Alan took him into the Conference Room where they stayed for the rest of the afternoon.

Later, big balloons for Sarah’s birthday (she is twenty-one tomorrow) were being inflated. Ann (aged mid twenties, obese, heavy oval-shaped black glasses, very very accident-prone) just went near one of these balloons and it exploded. In the taut atmosphere it was like a gun going off.


Sarah the receptionist was twenty-one today. Big balloons had been put up around her desk to surprise her when she came in. We all sang “Happy Birthday” and stood in a semi-circle while she unwrapped her presents. She went round the semi-circle hugging each of us. We then had slices of a birthday cake Angela had made (how had she transported it on the tube?). Later Sheila gave out iced cup cakes she had made (the icing in Sarah’s preferred shade of baby pink).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Leaving in three years and without firing one shot

This afternoon I listened to Eddie Mair’s PM programme on Radio 4 (hardly anyone in the office this afternoon, so I had the radio on most of the time).

The Armed Forces Minister was interviewed over the death of a soldier in Afghanistan who was sent into battle without the proper equipment (the Coroner was scathing about this).

The mission in Afghanistan has turned into a nasty and seemingly intractable full-scale war. The Foreign Secretary David Miliband justifies this war as being part of our new world-mission to take democracy to the third world. But this is not what was said when John Reid ordered British troops into Helmand in 2006 (he said: "We are in the south to help and protect the Afghan people construct their own democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction").

Was John Reid telling us a pack of lies back in 2006? (in which case he should be impeached). Or was the decision to go into Helmand a monumental blunder and miscalculation that has caused the deaths of dozens of British soldiers? (in which case the government should resign). Or is it a case of “mission creep”? (in which case David Miliband needs a bucket of cold water thrown over him).

Another political post on a blog I meant to be non-political. Is it better to just look away and pretend it is nothing to do with me? It's the lack of any clear (and achievable) foreign policy objective that is so worrying.

More on leaving in three years and without firing one shot:

Thursday, February 14, 2008

St Valentine’s Day

Today is St Valentine’s Day. Although there is not much detail about the historic St Valentine, the day has been celebrated for centuries as a festival of love. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare mention St Valentine’s Day.

Locally in the middle ages the unmarried women of a village would embroider the names of all the unmarried men on small cloth hearts. On St Valentine’s Day they would put the hearts in a bowl and take turns in drawing the hearts out one by one. Whatever name each of the spinsters got would be worn pinned to her sleeve for a year (the origin of the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve”).

Traditionally St Valentine’s Day was a time when divination would reveal to a woman the name of her future husband if she followed particular rituals. You can see an example of this in Millais’s painting (above - in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge - it’s in the room at the end) where a young girl is passing a piece of wedding cake nine times through her ring to gain a vision of who she will marry. The orange on her plate is a symbol that the girl is a virgin. Note this is a photograph of a postcard - all images on this site are original.

Over one billion St Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged throughout the world today. Traditionally the cards should be sent anonymously. In Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd the heroine sends a Valentine card to a local farmer with tragic repercussions.

The cake shop in a nearby town had this window display.

In the village hall tonight there is a free dance open to everyone - I might look in if I am not too tired. All the usual people will be there. Up until fifty years ago St Valentine’s dances would end in a “Love Chase” but this has now been abandoned (at least, I don’t know of any Love Chases that are still held).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

At the end of a platform at Kings Cross

Train-spotters at the end of a platform at Kings Cross station in north London. Notice the characteristic SLR camera. And yes, one of them IS wearing an anorak!

One of the great hobbies that Britain gave to the world is train-spotting. Also known as ferroequinology. The classic train-spotter (called disparagingly “anoraks”) will aim to “spot” all the components of a particular locomotive class and mark them off in special handbooks published by Ian Allen (the pages are just columns of numbers).

As I have taken a photo of train-spotters does that make me a train-spotter-spotter?

More on train spotting:

More on Ian Allen:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A magnificent badger

Early morning, I saw this bundle of fur on the side of the road and stopped to take a closer look. It was a magnificent badger, killed by a car. Someone going too fast (a real hazard in country areas).

This sort of thing makes me really angry. It’s not as if we have many large wild mammals that we can afford to lose them at the current road-kill rate. The unseasonal warm weather has woken lots of badgers across the county, and half-asleep they blunder around and cross roads without suspecting any danger (they have no natural predators in the United Kingdom).

When I see an animal on the side of the road I always try to stop, even if I am catching a train. You have to ask yourself: what is more important? If the animal is injured you might be it’s only chance (that’s why I keep an old blanket and a cardboard box in the car boot, and I keep meaning to get some gloves as well).

Naturewatch is one of the charities I support. They have long campaigned against cruelty to badgers (as well as many other animals). They also produce a cruelty-free guide to products which can help you boycott un-compassionate manufacturers.

The BBC has a programme on badgers this Friday - it’s at 8pm on BBC2.

More on badgers:

More on Naturewatch:

More on the Natural World:

Monday, February 11, 2008

Not the usual image

On Saturday I did the shopping as usual in a supermarket in a local town.

I went round the store then approached the checkouts where I saw a large number (about fifty) of young people in camouflage uniforms, wearing army berets. They were the local Army Cadet Force, helping shoppers pack their groceries. Buckets at the end of each checkout collected donations (there was no obligation to give them anything).

I heaped up the groceries on the belt and the checkout operator began to put things through. I was hoping the bill would be under £80. At the end of the belt “Mick” (amiable, aged about sixteen, deep voice) introduced himself and proceeded to bag up the groceries.

Maris Piper potatos… Savoy cabbages… tins of Farrows processed peas…

With the army cadet bagging everything up there wasn’t much for me to do. I looked out the plate glass window at the gloomy sky. The checkout operator occasionally said things about the shopping (this happens so routinely now that I suspect it is a marketing ploy rather than genuine conversation).

Organic topside beef joint… organic chicken breasts… New Zealand lamb chops…

Half-way through the bagging Mick called over his shoulder to a group of army cadets standing by the window.

“Hey Lewis” (no answer).

“Hey Lewis” (no answer).

“Hey LEWIS” he bellowed the name out and caught the attention of a very young-looking cadet.

“What?” shouted back Lewis.

“That’s the third break you’ve had.”

“What of it?”

“Some people haven’t even had one break.”

Pears… apples… bread…

Stung by this accusation Lewis came over to the checkout.

“Okay, you can go” he said petulantly to Mick.

“That’s not what I meant” said Mick.

Surreptitiously Lewis tried to push Mick out of the way. Mick stayed where he was. As Mick was almost twice the size of Lewis he could not be moved.

Kilkof cough mixture (tastes like creosote)… box of Lily O’Brien’s chocolates (Valentines Day is on Thursday)… Nestle Toffee Crisp (five bar pack)…

Lewis picked up a carrier and began competing with Mick on packing the groceries. The checkout operator pretended not to notice. I pretended not to notice (even when the competitive packing became a bit frenzied and Lewis was grabbing groceries out of Mick’s hands).

I paid the bill (£127!). I put £5 (in coins) into the ACF collecting bucket. Mick wanted to wheel the trolley to my car, but I told him I could manage.

The thing that really impressed me about this episode was how polite and respectful Lewis and Mick were to me, even when they were squabbling. Not the usual image of young people (by “young” I mean under 18). Not the bored, slightly menacing, “whatever” attitude you usually get.

More on the Army Cadet Force:

More on Kilkof cough mixture:

More on Lily O’Brien:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

To a nature lover it probably is paradise

Above: Pub sign I saw in a market town in the Danelaw area - Sweyn Forkbeard was a Danish king of England, and is prominently mentioned in the Peterborough Chronicle (among other sources). He took the throne off the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready (or “ditherer” in modern political parlance). Sweyn Forkbeard was married to Sigrid the Haughty and his son was King Canute (who commanded the waves to go back).

Streaming sunshine, warm air, a balmy and intoxicating quality to the atmosphere (treacherously implying that winter was over and spring had arrived). It was so nice I thought I would go over to the coast. Thirty minutes drive took me to a village I had long wanted to explore.

This village probably has more traces of Danish settlement than almost anywhere else in England. The field names, the customs, the local dialect (lots of farm names ending in “-by”) all point to a Danish connection. This connection, however, is often tenuous and difficult to prove.

Although the Vikings occupied half of England in the 9th century, this was far from being a foreign conquest. The Angles in particular had a culture that was very similar to the Danes (and obviously the Angles originally came from Angeln which is the “angle” where the Jutland peninsula joins the north European coast). The ethnic and cultural difference between the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons has been likened to British migrants going to Australia in 1808 and later British migrants going in 2008 - the cultural differences are not all that profound.

The local church was dedicated to St Edith, an Anglo-Saxon queen. Originally there was a simple preaching cross, with the church being constructed later. Earthworks to the south of the crossroads are all that remain of the original settlement (ridge and furrow markings in the fields - undulations that looked like frozen waves).

Until the 1920s the village held an annual Hiring Fair on 16th May when labourers and servants could change their situation (and also have a short holiday when they could visit their family homes).

Among other denominations, The Primitive and Free Methodists have kept their original (unmerged) identity.

The church featured this gargoyle of a black hound said to haunt the area. Legends of a phantom hound can be found throughout England - particularly in Norfolk where the apparition is known as Old Shuck. Possibly the custom can be traced back to the veneration of champion hunting dogs (Sir James Frazer mentions the ancient practice of “crowning” powerful hunting dogs).

Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle used the legend as the basis of his Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles (I never tire of watching the 1959 film).

This view of the church really sums up the village - everything neatly clipped and kept tidy. The Lych gate was constructed as a memorial to the village fallen of the First World War. I have noticed the prevalence of Great War memorials taking the form of Lych Gates - probably a study needs to be made of this (obviously the architectural form satisfied some deep psychological need among the mourners).

On the road out of the village I stopped for a whisky (only one) at the Prussian Queen (commemorates the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter to the future German emperor). The marsh adjoining the pub is known irreverently as the Prussian Queen’s Bog. As well as being a public house, there is also a shop attached to the premises.

Finally I came to the first of the sea walls (actually quite low banks). This intriguing sign announces the way to Paradise (but not for caravan owners). The sun was setting and it was getting cold (I hadn’t brought a coat) but the prospect of penetrating the heavenly veil and gaining entry to the Elysian fields was too inviting to pass up.

Over the last low sea bank and finally I saw “Paradise” - a vast expanse of tidal marsh. A site of special scientific interest (I read later) it is the home of wild orchids, natterjack toads and fourteen species of dragonflies and damselflies. To a nature lover it probably is paradise.

More on Sweyn Forkbeard:

More on Old Shuck:

More on The Hound of the Baskervilles:

More on the Prussian Queen:,_Princess_Royal

The Queen of Prussia’s standard:^q2.gif

More on lych gates: