Thursday, May 29, 2008


Last week of May. The period when Spring imperceptibly moves into Summer. Everywhere you can see signs of maturity among the flora of the county.

Above: Chestnut trees (aesculus hippocastanum) have produced their characteristic white (or red) spikes. The blossom flurries down like snow, collecting in thick drifts made sticky by the recent rain. The superb condition of the chestnut trees in the county is a relief after the anxiety of last year’s leaf miner moth.

Above: Cow parsley (anthriscus sylvestris) borders the lanes. In recent years left un-mown, as a environmental measure (previously the county council would mow the verges to resemble the texture of a bowling lawn). Sometimes called Queen Anne’s Lace and sold in upmarket London flower shops to credulous townies.

Above: Most lovely of all, the brief flowering of the common elder (sambucus nigra). The creamy-white flowers are very attractive, and unappreciated due to the ubiquitous nature of the tree. To the horror of two of my aunts, I have let elder trees grow at focal points in the garden (as I type this in an upstairs room I can look out the window at elderflowers).

The smell of elder flowers is supposed to be mildly narcotic, and folklore warns against sleeping under the tree. Sir James Frazer records taboos against burning the tree, possibly the superstition is related to the spitting sound made by the sap as the wood burns. The branches have a soft pithy core which makes them amenable for the making of whistles (but again there are taboos connected with these whistles - see the MR James short story Whistle and I’ll come to you).

Above: Elderflowers are used in farmhouse cuisine - and sometimes available commercially. Above you can see Gooseberry & Elderflower curd, Elderflower cordial (from Belvoir in Rutland), and a fizzy elderflower drink I bought in Asda. There are many other recipes.

Above: Elderflowers are used in herbal medicine for a variety of treatments, most notably influenza. The use of herbal medicine is controversial in the United Kingdom, and often the subject of “bad science” reviews. About half of all modern medicines are based upon plant extracts, and herbal medicine claims that these plant extracts are more efficacious and have less side effects if used in a relatively unrefined state (there is no proof that this is true, there is no proof that this is not true, there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence which the medical establishment and industrial-pharmaceutical nexus pretends to ignore).

Above: Just as the appearance of elderflowers marks the beginning of Summer, the ripening of elderberries marks the end. The Elderberry Boarding Kennels is located in an isolated spot on the upland heath, surrounded by elder trees. If you drive up the lane you have to stop at the main road before pulling out - and you can hear the agonised barking of the dogs.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Snouts in the trough

Above: Asda sell these pig-shaped pink cakes - they are slightly amusing, very rich and leave a sickly aftertaste.

The issue of MPs expenses and employment of family members (characterised as snouts in the trough) continues to appear in the news bulletins. The latest, outrageous, suggestion is that MPs pay should rise by £23,000 in return for abolishing all expenses claims. MPs say they could earn far more in other professions that they can in Westminster (those who make this statement should be told to go and work in other professions, as no-one would miss them and there would be no shortage of candidates for their Westminster seats).

Margaret Beckett, MP for Derby South, tried to claim £1,900 to put up a pergola in her garden. She justified the claim by saying it was within the rules, ignoring any moral restraint she should have shown (Gavin Esler was far too polite when asking her about this pergola on Newsnight). What possible public interest is to be served by putting up a pergola in Margaret Beckett’s garden - is she going to sit under it and wait for policy inspirations to manifest themselves?

The government lost the Crewe & Nantwich by-election last week. Among the many reasons put forward for the defeat no-one seems to have mentioned public distaste with nepotism (using the word in its widest sense) and yet the Labour candidate’s chief selling point was the fact that she was the daughter of the previous MP. Despite the public eulogy shown for Gwyneth Dunwoody, privately many voters must have been unhappy with that political silver spoon.

Above: political snouts in the trough is a familiar theme of the Daily Express. This article appeared yesterday, revealing that husband and wife “team” Ann Keen MP and Alan Keen MP claimed a staggering amount of mortgage interest. More than extravagant “expenses” it is the employment of family “teams” that the public finds so distasteful - politicians don’t seem to get this.

The Daily Express is one of the middle-ranking newspapers - “middle” in more ways than one (middle-class, middle-brow, middling standards of journalism). In its heyday the Daily Express brand was exhibited through popular icons such as the art deco Fleet Street headquarters, the Rupert Bear cartoon, larger-than-life writers such as Jean Rook and John Junor (Sunday Express editor, with his own tagline: “pass the sick bag Alice”). Old timers say the Daily Express was never the same after Jean Rook stopped writing.

Express newspapers is owned by the controversial Richard Desmond. He is renowned for acrimonious relationships with others within the media elite. Hostile to Gordon Brown.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An almost complete Orwellian society

Bank Holiday Monday. Lunch of cold lamb (left over from Sunday’s roast), boiled potatos, spring onions. One glass of Sancerre, very chilled.

On the radio I half-listened to The World At One, which included a report about the situation in Burma. Mention was made of “Orwellian double-speak” characterising the Burmese regime. I thought of Burmese Days, the novel Orwell wrote based on his experiences in the colonial administration of Burma.

We are used to thinking Orwell’s 1984 was formed by the author’s experiences in the Second World War. However, the existence of an almost complete Orwellian society in modern Burma makes me wonder whether colonial south-east Asia was more of an influence than has been credited (all the themes and aspects of 1984 exist in 2008 Burma - complete with betrayed revolution, inner party, informers, dehumanised architecture, double-speak, arch-enemy etc etc). Jonathan Meedes should be sent there to make a documentary.

This book should be worth reading:

Monday, May 26, 2008


Usher’s new album went on sale today (I will buy a copy tomorrow).

It is his first for a couple of years.

Usher is a versatile and energetic singer, composer and producer. He is one of the most influential artists working today. His videos are culturally significant in that they portray a positive image of black American society - wealthy, successful, attractive (but also a world in which non-black people do not feature).

He has performed a couple of times in the UK recently - Kim Blacha tried to get tickets for the one last week but failed (it was done by ballot).

And more:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

“A wafer dipped in a wine drop is the Presence the angels hail”.

Thursday. The Festival of Corpus Christi (Corpus Christi is Latin for “Body of Christ”). Since medieval times processions have taken place in towns and cities, with the Consecrated Host carried through the streets in elaborate monstrances.

As the county is predominantly rural, there were no Corpus Christi processions taking place actually on Corpus Christi Day (although there is one in a town in the north of the county this coming Sunday).

However, there were several processions taking place in London.

The Corpus Christi observance was developed by the Dominican Friars in the thirteenth century following visions by an Augustinian holy woman. At the same time the appearance of a bleeding host gained widespread cult following and was proclaimed as a miracle, leading to official sanction by the Papacy (Thomas Aquinas wrote an official liturgy for the day). Both Friars and Augustinians were based in towns and cities (unlike monks and nuns who were based in secluded monasteries and convents) which is probably why the Corpus Christi celebrations acquired an urban characteristic.

Above: taking a late lunch, I went down to Cannon Street and into Dowgate Hill (which runs up the side of the station) where the Skinners livery company has been located on the same site since the fourteenth century. The Skinners guild was originally dedicated to Corpus Christi, and on this day each year they elect their new master. The road outside Skinners Hall was cordoned-off by security and two police on horses waited to escort the Skinners Company’s Corpus Christi procession (watched by construction workers).

Above: being a semi-religious fraternity, the Skinners first met in City churches, but soon became wealthy enough to build a permanent Hall on Dowgate Hill. As well as rooms for feasting and ceremonial, the design of the Hall included a courtyard for the marshalling of the annual procession (an example of function shaping architecture which then continues to shape function). Here you can see, slightly late, the procession starting to emerge.

Above: there is very little publicity about this annual ceremony, which has quietly taken place year after year. The first recorded procession took place in 1327. In the later middle ages, when intercessory religion was in vogue and the guilds were at the height of their importance, the procession included hundreds of clergy and civic dignitaries (many carrying ornate wax torches).

Above: the master and wardens, wearing fur-trimmed robes and carrying posies (anyone who has read Huizinga will realise how quietly exciting this sight is). The guild elects its new master each year by a ritual trying-on of a cap (the origin of the saying “if the cap fits, wear it”). The health of the new master is then drunk from special silver Cockayne cups, made in 1599 in the shape of cockerels.

Above: during Corpus Christi processions the Host is carried in elaborate monstrances. The Victoria & Albert Museum has dozens of medieval and renaissance monstrances on display - they used to be in line after line of dreary glass cases, but now they have been rearranged more artistically (but less amenable to scholastic study). I’m really pleased with the way in which this photograph turned out, as I took the picture through glass using a flash (the shadow effect was unexpected).

Above: after work I decided to attend one of the Anglican Corpus Christi services. I really wanted to go to the service in Kentish Town, but it didn’t start until 7.30 and would have meant not getting home until eleven o’clock (I am a long-distance commuter). So I went to All Saints in Margaret Street, just round the corner from the BBC.

I got to the church only a couple of minutes before the 6.30 service began. I had not been to the church before, which is one of Butterfield’s finest, praised by Ruskin. Inside it was packed, the congregation of several hundred encased in a big town church of porphyry columns, pictures formed from encaustic tiles, and polychromatic bricks.

It was unmistakably “high”. Not just “high” in the tracterian sense, but the sumptuous chancel was physically high, like a stage (three tiers of candles on the high altar). The mixture of High Church furnishings, fading evening light and office workers interspersed with elderly ladies made me feel I had entered the world of Barbara Pym.

Because of the importance of this service clergy had been brought in from neighbouring parishes. The clerical entrance procession was one of the largest I have seen, the senior clergy wearing vestments. From my seat on the right edge of the nave I could see additional clergy in a sort of back area by the organ (metal ladder leaning incongruously against the wall), sitting in a line like the substitutes’ bench at a football match.

Clerical intonations, choking amounts of incense, Tallis anthems sung in Latin. The vicar, with Tyneside accent, gave a sermon on the three bodies of Christ - physical, Eucharistic and The Church. We sang the Creed.

As so many people were in the church the Communion took nearly half an hour. The church is famous for its choir, and throughout the Communion they half turned towards the nave and sang the Agnes Dei. As I walked up the chancel steps towards the altar I felt I was passing through a wall of sound created by this choir.

Above: after Communion the clergy, choir and congregation lined up in Margaret Street for the Corpus Christi procession. Several banners were carried, including this one which shows the Host and Chalice (“a wafer dipped in a wine drop is the Presence the angels hail”). Behind the banner you can see a brass band from one of the local Church of England schools.

Above: among the choristers were young girls wearing flower garlands. In the medieval period houses along the Corpus Christi route would be hung with tapestries. The road would be strewn with rushes, and temporary wayside shrines would be set up, decorated with roses and sweet woodruff.

Above: preceded by censors (you can see the clouds of incense) the Host was carried in a monstrance under a canopy. You can see the monstrance just above the shoulder of the nearest attendant (if you click on the photo you can enlarge it). Although it was past eight, the sky was still light.

Above: the congregation followed on behind, singing processional hymns, the entire procession about three hundred yards in total (274 metres). The procession turned right into Wells Street then right again to go along Oxford Street. In the medieval period the population would kneel as the Host passed, but now the people stared with uncomprehending eyes and took photos with their mobile phones.

More about the Skinners:
More on All Saints Margaret Street:
Corpus Christi carol:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

“Helpful” advice to Gordon Brown

Wednesday lunchtime and Prime Minister’s Questions. Angela came into the Boardroom to watch. Alan came in half-way through.

In the Daily Politics studio presenter Jenny Scott revealed that PMQs this week would be analysed by a behavioural scientist (with the unlikely name of Steve Martin).

The cameras moved to the House of Commons. We saw the Prime Minister surrounded by an attractive mixture of elderly men with gravitas and keen-looking women (several of them sitting in the row behind, looking a if they were ordinary members of the public given special seats for half an hour). Just as the Prime Minister began speaking we saw a note being passed along the women in the row behind, coming to a stop right behind Gordon Brown.

In the Boardroom we all wanted to know what was in that note.

Was it telling the recipient that a cup of tea had just been poured and was getting cold? Was it saying that a constituent was on the ’phone and urgently wanted to discuss the 10p tax band with her? Or was it telling her to warn the Prime Minister that the Daily Politics was going to analyse his body language and delivery?

If it was the latter it didn’t have much effect.

The Prime Minister delivered most of his replies with his head down and looking sideways towards the Speaker’s feet. This created a sullen, begrudging, dog-in-the-manger impression. Why doesn’t someone tell him to hold his head up and make eye-contact?

He must also stop answering questions with questions. Not only does that create an impression of evasiveness, it is clearly against the spirit of PMQs. The Speaker should intervene if this continues.

Above: use of a "toff" logo.

The Daily Politics show also discussed the Crewe and Nantwich by-election to be held tomorrow. There was a consensus that the Labour “anti-toff” campaign had backfired (Labour activists dressed in top hats and tails had followed around the Conservative candidate in an attempt to embarrass him). Not only have ordinary voters disapproved of this tactic, but yesterday’s Newsnight demonstrated that in terms of hereditary privilege the Labour candidate was grander than the Conservative).

Above: "John Major" at Lords.

Loss of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election will be a disaster for the government. It is difficult to know how they can retrieve the situation. On Sunday’s Bremner Bird & Fortune Rory Bremner was dressed up as loser PM John Major, taking tea in the Long Room at Lords cricket ground and offering “helpful” advice to Gordon Brown.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A slippery slope I would rather not go down

Parliament votes today on whether to modify the upper time limit for abortions (the proposal is to reduce it from twenty-four weeks to twenty weeks).

I have no problem with the “pro-life” view that all life is sacred and must be maintained wherever possible. It’s an integrated view that stands up to scrutiny. Everyone in society benefits because everyone’s life is protected under this law.

I have very great problems with the view that only “viable” life is worth protecting, or that “quality of life” issues justify terminations, or that there is a lifestyle-related “right to choose”.

On the Daily Politics show this lunchtime Jenny Scott interviewed a woman who claimed that her life was better because she had had an abortion. When pressed to give examples of how her life was better, she said that she now had time for her trade union interests. As a lifestyle justification for abortion this seemed pathetically inadequate.

The whole issue of “right to choose” and “quality of life” is based on the assumption that there is some abstract mainstream life “worth living” and anything that falls short of this becomes questionable (and therefore a possible candidate for abortion).

What is the mainstream “quality of life” that is the standard all other human lives are to be judged against? Mostly it consists of the ability to participate in materialist consumption (buying cars, buying houses, buying holidays, buying thousands of things you do not need, buying more food than you can possibly eat, buying entire lifestyles and then changing them every six months etc etc). I have spent most of my professional life studying this materialist culture of consumption and I can tell you none of it is particularly worth having.

Materialist consumer culture is based upon the satisfaction of the human impulse (or instinct) for self-actualisation. Once physiological needs (food, shelter, security) have been met, humans start to crave self-actualisation. Materialist consumer culture promises that your self-actualisation will be “satisfied” by buying just one more product (Big Mac burgers or Manolo shoes or Blackberrys etc).

This “promise” is not just limited to tangible products - watching football, or listening to music, or even participating in trade union interests are all predicated on the satisfaction of the same self-actualisation impulse.

The catch is that the impulse cannot be satisfied.

The buying of Manolo shoes (or Sky Sports subscriptions, or Grand Theft Auto etc) will only bring very temporary relief to the self-actualisation craving before the itch starts up again.

Therefore I am happy with the idea that all life is sacred (and we’re all in this together and have a duty to help each other). I am not happy with the idea that some human life is “not viable at twenty weeks” or if born disabled “will not enjoy a good quality of life”. I am not happy because I know that the concept of “a good quality of life” as defined by modern materialist culture is basically a fraud.

“All life is sacred” represents an unequivocal standard. As soon as you move away from that standard you are making compromises. If you can make a case for termination at twenty-four weeks you can make a case for invading another country and killing hundreds of thousands of its people and stealing their oil. If you can make a case for termination at twenty-four weeks you can make a case for live experiments on sets of twins on the grounds that their lives are no longer viable in a national-socialist state. The only difference becomes one of political expediency (ie “how far will society let us go”). To use a cliché, it’s a slippery slope I would rather not go down.

Now I must go back to work.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Sunday afternoon I went to a rabbit show at a village on the flatland. I like rabbits and would keep one as a pet if we didn’t have a dog. My sister kept rabbits when she was alive - very gentle creatures.

Above: General view of the marquee with the judges in the centre. Notice the rosettes on the cages. A very serious atmosphere prevailed.

Above: Rex rabbits - this one was very gentle. Short dense velvety coats. Bright vivid colours because the colour pigment is concentrated in a shorter hair shaft.

Above: Looking a little bored among the sawdust. Silver Fox rabbits have lovely coats in black, blue, chocolate and lilac. They all have white underbellies.

Above: Lilac breed. Famous for the quality of their coats. This photograph doesn’t really do the animal justice - the coat was a very delicate shade.

Above: Belgian Hare - very old breed of rabbit. Despite the name (and the long ears!) this is not a hare but actually a specialised breed of rabbit. This one was a bit restless and had upset the drinking bowl.

Above: The distinctive Harlequin breed - one of my favourites. They are apparently difficult to breed to the standard. There is also a version known as Magpie where the gold is changed to white.

Above: The famous Black & Tan breed (presumably not popular in southern Ireland). The tan comes from the rufus colour gene. Also bred in Blue & Tan, Chocolate & Tan and Lilac & Tan.

Above: The Dutch breed has to be bred to a very strict pattern requirement. Seven different colours can be alternated with white to give the distinctive markings. A very noble rabbit.

Above: Almost entirely filling the cage, the British Giant is one of the heavyweights of the rabbit world. Highly prized for the quality and texture of its coat. Colours permitted are white, black, dark steel grey, blue.

Rabbits have been present in popular culture for centuries, and the many thousands of influences include place names (Coney Hill), commercial logos (the Playboy Club), and surreal humour (the killer white rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Above: Gwen Stefani’s video for What You Waiting For? was based on Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, and shows Gwen Stefani dressed as a white rabbit - the film is a small masterpiece (as are all her videos).

The Gwen Stefani video:

The British Rabbit Council:

Very impressed with the silver

Above: the west tower was clearly Saxon.

I was up early today, and when I went outside felt the cold morning air combined with the warm morning sun.

Trinity Sunday so I went to Holy Trinity church in a village in the north of the county, situated between two adjacent coastal towns so that the overspill of each has merged into a thin suburbia, almost negating any character the village once had.

There was an ulterior motive for my going to this particular church as I had heard that every Trinity Sunday (the patronal festival) “rush bearing” took place, and I was hoping to get some photographs (rush bearing is an elaborate medieval custom where the floor of the church is ritually strewn with rushes and hay - a 14th century benefactor actually left a field to the church so that a supply of rushes could be guaranteed, although subsequently the field was sold).

I arrived at the church, which had two towers, one of them being clearly Saxon. I only managed to get there a few minutes before the service started, so there wasn’t time to look around. Entering the building I asked the lady giving out the hymn books whether the rush bearing ceremony would take place.

“Is it that Sunday again?” she said. “We used to, but we’ve got a new vicar. He says it’s not his thing.”

I took the service book and hymn book and service sheet (with the collects) and sat on the right side of the nave, four rows from the front. The church was cruciform in shape, the crossing with transepts either side making it look bigger than it was. The arches were Norman, and looked heavily restored.

About sixty people were present. There was a crèche in the south aisle (children’s cries throughout the service). The congregation itself was quite noisy, talking and walking about.

The procession came in from the right led by the Verger in a black gown and carrying a ceremonial stick (known as a virge - in the past this rod would be used offensively against anyone showing disrespect to the Anglican Church). Then the processional cross, a small choir of four women, and the Priest in white surplice with green silk stole. They went into the chancel which was lit up with candles and decorated with big displays of flowers (these were from a wedding held yesterday, according to the two women sitting in the row behind).

A lady from the congregation went up to the lectern and gave out the notices, and then said all visitors were very welcome (she said this twice, looking straight at me). Banns were read for three couples. Then the hymn Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty.

The first Reading was given by a lady aged about sixty who rose from her seat at the front and with the aid of crutches slowly (and possibly painfully) made her way to the lectern. Another lady helped her surmount the crossing step. Once at the lectern she said the Reading in a high thin voice: He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…

There was no pulpit - the vicar gave his sermon from the reading desk. He used Rublev’s icon to demonstrate the Trinity. He talked about the doctrine of the Trinity (I was reminded of seminars and tutorials with Professor Riley-Smith discussing the filioque clause and the schism of 1054).

Very impressed with the silver used in the Holy Communion - an elegant flagon, paten and two chalices (also a big silver platter, about eighteen inches in diameter, used for the collection). I couldn’t stop looking at this silver, it was so beautiful. We took Communion at the altar under the crossing and did this standing up instead of kneeling (just as well, as the crossing step looked hard).

After the service teas and coffees were served at a makeshift table at the back. I talked for a few minutes to the Vicar’s wife. Driving home I felt a little disappointed to have missed the rush bearing (this happens so often - traditions carry on for centuries and then just disappear).

More on the filioque clause:

This was the sort of thing I was hoping to see: and

Saturday, May 17, 2008

I was completely astonished by this news - the past week at work

Above: we walked there (down to Piccadilly, and down Waterloo Place, and past the pink granite Duke of York’s column, and down the Duke of York’s steps, and onto the Mall, and left into the square).


I sat at my desk and idly wondered what I should do with the day. The weather outside was warm, but because the central heating has been turned off the offices felt cold. Pete (my so-called assistant) asked me to look over his CV, so I assume he is thinking of leaving.

In the afternoon we had the weekly sales meeting. While I was seconded upstairs I had forgotten how dreary these meetings were. Advertising is supposed to be the barometer of the economy, so our continued expansion shows… what exactly? The message from Terry (our MD, who wasn’t present at the meeting) was that we needed to become a “360° agency”. Ian said we were too dependent on traditional display advertising and were missing out on digital opportunities. We are to recruit another designer to work full time on websites, since Paul is overloaded and Tony B hasn’t got the knack.

In the last two hours of the working day I quickly put together a presentation for a new client (entertainment complexes). I recycled a previous presentation, and to please Ian put in lots of digital options (micro-sites and the like). I had been putting off writing this presentation for days, and had to cobble it together in a rush.


Paul came back to work, looking sheepish. No trace of any limp. No-one mentioned his accident.

In the morning a new client came to look around the agency. Kate brought her in, Ian showed her around, and the three of us then took her to lunch at a nearby pub. In the same pub Alan (director, mid-50s, shambling, sarcastic and not very clean) was talking animatedly and in a very tactile way to a pretty young woman none of us had seen before (surely not a girlfriend?).

In the afternoon I gave the presentation to the entertainment complexes company. I was conscious that at several points I was bluffing my way through. For such sceptical people I was surprised at the way they fell in with my ideas (“Don’t let the symbolism obscure the narrative” one of them told me).


Horrible day. I persuaded one of my clients to advertise in an expensive (in terms of media space) magazine and I learned this morning that the magazine has closed. No-one is sure how many of the magazines were distributed last month, which would explain why the client hasn’t had many calls. To make things worse, I bought the space myself, so I can’t even blame the media buyers for not asking the right questions. The advertising sales reps at the magazine were probably aware the of the rocky situation when they sold me the space. I had to ring the client up and say: “I’m afraid some problems have arisen…”


Very quiet day.

Freelance Joey came in to take a brief from Alan, and afterwards stood by my desk chatting. Kate was sitting at Pete’s desk opposite (this was lunchtime when Pete was out the back with the five-a-side team). We all complained of feeling cold.

Out of the blue Joey said: “Is Pete having an affair with Sarah?” (office receptionist, aged about twenty, very slim build, orange hair, natural complexion, girlfriend of Ben - photographer and Ian’s son).

“Isn’t it obvious” Kate said, “and right in front of Ian as well.”

I was completely astonished by this news.


In the morning I visited BQW, showing them the aerial photographs just taken of their new site near Watford.

In the afternoon I had to go back to BQW to collect some artwork they want us to store. I took Anne with me to help carry it all (Anne is one of Sheila’s admin staff, aged early twenties, considerably overweight, black-rimmed glasses, black curly hair, pleasant personality but inclined to argue over things that don’t matter). We walked there (down to Piccadilly, and down Waterloo Place, and past the pink granite Duke of York’s column, and down the Duke of York’s steps, and onto the Mall, and left into the square) and got a taxi back with all the redundant artwork - which I am sure no-one will ever ask for again.

Friday, May 16, 2008

They have moved into occupations where they can still bully people

A visit to BQW in the morning. One of the last meetings at their London headquarters. They have lots of ancient artwork they want the agency to store as there isn’t room for it in the new offices (I tried a number of times to tell them to throw it all in the skip, but they wouldn’t listen).

Rather than go straight back to the office I stopped for a cup of coffee at one of the major chains. I took my Café Americano to a table by the window. All the window tables were on a raised platform, about two inches above the normal floor level.

Incredibly the table had a note stuck onto it saying: Please TAKE CARE when stepping off this RAISED AREA of floor. There is a raised edge.

Note the use of capital letters, which in this internet age means you are being shouted at.

How much longer is this Health & Safety nonsense going to go on? As bullying has become socially unacceptable, the bullies have not given up and gone away. They have moved into occupations where they can still bully people but under the cover of legitimate Health & Safety.

Today is Friday. If you watch the opening credits of Newsnight you will see presenter Kirsty Wark standing dangerously close to the edge of a RAISED AREA of floor (sometimes one foot is even half over the edge). How long before the Health & Safety busybodies make her stand well back, behind a yellow line, with continuous announcements telling her to “mind the gap”?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Prime Minister was interviewed on the Today programme

Above: this village has preserved its medieval stocks, moved from the green and kept in the church behind the font (note the intrusive fire extinguisher - health and safety gone mad).

The Prime Minister was interviewed on the Today programme this morning. Interviewer Jon Humphries talked about the way Gordon Brown has been assailed by critics over the last seven months. He (memorably) told Gordon Brown that he was like a medieval miscreant held in the village stocks and pelted with rubbish.

The Blairs have used the unpopularity of Gordon Brown to try to bolster their own “legacy” (Terry: “The last thing anyone wants is those two shits back again - Gordon might be unpopular but the Blairs were hated”).

Gordon Brown suffers because he is an intellectual in a society that (broadly speaking) no longer values intellectuals. What he tried to do with the tax restructuring was the right thing from an economic point of view, but could not be defended because it was so complex that even his own team of middle-brow front benchers didn’t seem to understand it. And if some of them did understand it, they didn’t have the skills to explain it in simple language illustrated by “stories” (it’s a cliché, but human-interest case-studies are everything).

David Cameron, on the other hand, has learned to hide his intellectual elitism beneath a veneer of “ordinariness” and inclusive down-to-earth imagery (as “Boris” has demonstrated, the height of cleverness is to avoid appearing clever).

Above: Rory Bremner satirising Gordon Brown last Sunday on Bremner Bird & Fortune - the Prime Minister was ridiculed, but the satire hasn’t (yet) reached the cruelty that was meted out to Tony Blair.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Blurb would never influence me now

All the news reports about the Cannes Film Festival has reminded me of Irwin Shaw’s Evening in Byzantium, which I read years ago. When I finished it I thought it was one of the best books I had ever read (and I get through a lot of books). But I am not sure if I read it again now I would still enjoy it, my values have changed so much as I have got older.

Also, I remember I bought the book because of the blurb on the back (blurb would never influence me now - I rely on book reviews by critics I trust).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Overheard in Asda

Getting the groceries on Saturday I overheard in Asda: “I want some of that coffee where he goes Mr Makusa, Mr Makusa”. It was in the aisle where the coffee, tea and biscuits are grouped together. Two women (undoubtedly C2 housewives) were debating which coffee to buy, and one of them referred to the Kenco ad featuring Oxbridge-accented plantation-owning Mr Makusa and the gawky red-haired gap-year student.

After a little searching one of them picked up a jar of Kenco and they both moved away. I looked at the shelves of instant coffee, many competing brands with little actual product difference. After a moment’s hesitation I also picked up a jar of Kenco, influenced by the choice of the C2 housewives.

As American marketing people say: the horse that wins by a nose only has to win by a nose.

In other words, when everything about competing products is identical, it is usually small elements of the brand personality that ensures one product out-sells another.

See for yourself:

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Silence and slight melancholy (not unpleasant)

Today is Whitsun (supposedly from White Sunday, owing to the large number of confirmations that traditionally take place on this day). Also known as Pentecost. One of the great feast days of the medieval church (and continuing into the present day).

Sir James Frazer writes extensively about Whitsun, which he interpreted (not without some challenge) as a religious overlay of fertility cults associated with the coming of Spring and the flowering of the May tree (or common hawthorn - Crataegus monogyna).

Above: another village fete. This one was in a large commuter village near the county town. It seemed more commercialised (with sponsors) and organised. The village square had been cordoned off and laid out with craft stalls, charity stalls, tombola stalls etc. In the centre, in front of the pub, was an arena. In a prefabricated box the fete organisers gave announcements and introduced various “acts”.

Above: the village majorettes performed to Mika songs. Their routines were very expert. Inevitably I was reminded of Catherine Tate’s Bunty (but not in a bad way).

Above: there was a display of vintage tractors.

Above: Sir James Frazer allocates a section of The Golden Bough to the Whitsuntide Mummers. Instead of mummers, this fete had performances by the Spirit of ’68 - grey-haired grandads in jeans and waistcoats, singing material from The Rolling Stones, the Small Faces, The Who. Grey-haired grandmas danced arthritically with each other, ignoring the embarrassment and mortification of the younger generations.

Above: this photograph, poor though it is, is important as it shows cultural cross-fertilisation at the very moment of transition. The programme was over-running by about ten minutes, and so the morris dancers came out while the Spirit of ’68 was still playing. Instead of waiting on the sideline, the morris dancers began jiving away to the rock music. If you click on the photograph to enlarge it and look closely you can see them doing this. What exactly is happening here? What would John Harris, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and all the other recherché 60s purists make of this?

Above: the village pub, behind the main stage, decorated with bunting. It was the heart of the fete. In the past special Whitsun ales would be brewed for the feast day.

Above: Whitsun starts today (Sunday) and goes on for a full week, known as Whitsuntide. There are many traditions throughout the British Isles associated with Whitsuntide, including the famous Whit walks in Manchester. In this county horse races used to be held, the young unmarried men of the villages competing for a “whit bride” who would be their “wife” for a day (obviously this free-love custom was stamped out by the Victorians, who also refined the village “revels” into more sedate “fetes” - an echo of this can be found in Trollope’s Barchester Towers).

Above: one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems is The Whitsun Weddings (reprinted above in The Guardian). It describes a train journey through a county during which the narrator witnesses “Whitsun Weddings” in the passing towns. They are usually interpreted as conventional wedding parties, but I wonder if Larkin was referring to a folk-memory of the old custom?

Above: the service sheet.

In the evening I drove down onto the plain where the Minster stands in the little market town. The week long May Fair had gone, and the market square seemed oddly empty. The day was still extremely hot, and the air had acquired a still and satiated quality.

The sun created slanting shadows on the greensward daisies as I went into the Minister for Choral Evensong. Faint smell of incense (the Bishop had been present at the morning confirmations). Most people were bunched in the choir stalls, seated under spiky gothic canopies so that they matched the stone saints in the niches of the great reredos (by W. S. Weatherly, completed in 1914), but I joined the sprinkling of worshippers in the nave.

The honey-coloured stone interacted with the evening sunshine so that a honey-hued light was created. There was a sheen on the golden icon given by the former Reader. Silence and slight melancholy (not unpleasant) as the organ played what sounded like Debussy.

The procession entered from a door on the left, went down the side aisle, round the west end and up the nave. Four clergy and a choir of about ten - the Minster has several choirs, and is affiliated to the Royal School of Church Music. At this service only the adult choir was present.

We sang the Pentecostal hymns (From the overshadowing, Of Thy gold and silver wing, Shed on us who to Thee sing, Holy heavenly Love). The choir sang the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis (the Nunc Dimittis was especially fine). In his sermon the vicar talked about the tongues of fire and the rushing wind.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The most dramatic office incident I have ever witnessed - the past week at work

Above: the new franking machine (doubts were expressed about whether the new machine would be sturdy enough).


My last day (for the time being) working in the division “upstairs”. The big project has come to an end, and will not restart until September. I cleared up my desk and handed my files over to Rachel.

Going back “downstairs” was like entering a different world. Hard to imagine we were all part of the same company. I sat at my desk and drank some coffee.

While I have been upstairs my accounts were handled by Ian and Kate, with assistance from Pete. You would think Pete would use this as an opportunity to make a name for himself. The feedback I have been getting however is that he spent much of the time skiving.

One think he has done is to volunteer to “take on” a work experience student (we are inundated with requests for placements). Pete spent the morning training the student who had never been in a “proper” agency before, and was a bit over-awed by the experience. Pete seemed very pleased to have someone junior to himself.

In the afternoon I went with Kate to see a potential new client. They are a small chain of entertainment complexes. Quite an interesting assignment.


Catching the same train every day, you get to know (by sight at least) the other commuters. One of them sits in the same seat and just looks straight ahead. No newspaper or book or mobile phone - he just looks straight ahead, expressionless, or very occasionally looks out of the corner of an eye.

Re-acquainting myself with my client list, there is a lot of print work going through. So I spent the morning making appointments to go through the various proofs. Some of the lazier account managers just send the client the print-ready pdfs but I prefer to print them out in colour, and physically take them to the client and go through each page with them (it is better than having the job printed and then finding a major error, with all the inevitable recriminations).

Alan (one of the Directors) called in freelance Joey to work on an urgent job - Joey had been in central London and appeared fifteen minutes later wearing a white sweatshirt, faded cut-off jeans, and with a heavy bag slung over one shoulder.


It was Ian’s birthday today. A card was passed around for us to sign (being senior Director on our floor, the comments were very restrained). Angela had made him a cake and slices were passed around.

Angela had ordered a new franking machine for the office to replace a previous model. Doubts were expressed about whether the new machine would be sturdy enough (we get through a lot of mail). There were problems getting it to work, which led to bad-tempered exchanges as no-one could frank any mail until a rep from the franking machine company arrived and set it up.

At 3 o’clock Angela just announced she was going home early and walked out - as soon as she was gone the other women began bad-mouthing her.


I worked half-day today, taking the afternoon as holiday.

Just before lunch there was a drama when Paul (designer in the Studio) stabbed himself with a scalpel quite badly in the leg. I saw him do this. He was sitting on a stool at a drawing board constructing some mock-ups. At the same time he was larking about with Pete, and while emphasising a comment about Chelsea accidentally stuck the scalpel right into his thigh (a quarter inch deep). After saying “Oh shit” he fainted and fell off the stool. On the floor he almost immediately came-to.

Everyone in the office rushed over to help. Sheila (office manager) took charge, and told Pete and Judy to take Paul’s jeans off, revealing a deep gash with blood oozing out. In just his t-shirt and Sloggi underpants Paul wet himself, a dark stain spreading on the carpet, Sheila and Angela saying simultaneously: “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.”

Shortly afterwards an ambulance arrived. Paul was taken away, looking very unwell. It was the most dramatic office incident I have ever witnessed.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A pub I know well

I left work early today and so got to hear Eddie Mair’s PM show on Radio 4. The programme had an item on Europe Day (which is today) and went to the Albert pub to ask drinkers what they thought (“don’t care” was the typical reaction). The Albert is a pub I know well - it has many original Victorian features, including etched glass windows.

Above: the staircase leading up to the restaurant is lined with portraits of Prime Ministers (the one of Margaret Thatcher was personally unveiled).