Sunday, March 30, 2008

Twenty-three oak trees

This morning I drove to the south of the county, on the level plain that stretches out to the sea. I left home at eight and was there by nine. Large numbers of sheep in the fields eating cabbage stalks, big swathes of crop daffodils, hedgerows misted with the early green that defies the acuity of actual observation (an impression of green that disappears as soon as you try to look at it in any real detail).

Above: field of daffs in the morning sunshine.

The day was very mild and sunny. I turned off the main road and entered the village. Past a paddock where two fair-haired children were riding horses.

Above: looking towards the village green and the tower - the crocketed spire gives village youths an opportunity to climb right to the top in acts of teenage bravado.

I parked on one side of the village green and in two minutes completed my errand. Then, as I had come so far, I began to look around the village. Although the architecture of the domestic houses was very fine and unspoiled, the beauty of the place was completely eclipsed by the perfection of the fourteenth century church.

Going into the church I met a very friendly lady, aged about sixty, with largish glasses and grey hair permed in big curls. She was getting the church ready for the ten o’clock service (there had already been a BCP communion at eight). In between her bustling about (“the church is open during the week, so we have to put away all the brass”) she pointed out items of interest.

Above: a mystery of the church is this gravestone to Prudence Corby who died on the 36th of July 1793.

Above: there were three fonts in the church, one of which is supported by Adam and Eve, naked except for fig leaves, with the Tree of Knowledge between them (this font implies, with some justification, that the village is an “other Eden, demi-paradise”).

Above: some other ladies came in, and one of them showed me this memorial to two Regency lawyers, a father and son - the father married three times and the son married five times.

Above: trees seemed to be a theme of the day.

The bells began to ring, banging and clashing throughout the building. I decided to stay for the ten o’clock service and sat on the south side of the nave, five rows from the front, near this banner of the Tree of Life. However, I had inadvertently strayed into a “reserved” seat as three stalwarts of the church (I recognised the type - my grandmother used to be one) came and sat right next to me - very smartly dressed elderly ladies supported by a variety of sticks, inclined to be kind so long as you behaved yourself.

About a hundred people attended the service, but the church was so large it hardly seemed full (because the building was so high there was an immense space above us, which gave you the feeling you were in the open air). The heating was on, but didn’t reach where I was sitting and gradually my feet, then my hands, and then my face became very cold.

The processional hymn was the 1878 Breath on me breath of God. The long procession came in with a big brass cross at the front and choristers carrying heavy Victorian brass candlesticks, the flames wavering as they passed along the nave. When the choir had settled into the chancel the woman Vicar turned and addressed us - she was very well-spoken, with a brisk manner that reminded me of the actress Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Above: the east window with St Michael and Christ in Majesty and “all the glorious company of heaven”.

During the service there was a continuous sound of birdsong from outside the building. In the sermon the vicar talked about doubt, and to illustrate the theme the children’s group (about ten in number, aged from five to sevenish) performed a “trust walk” where they came along the nave in a long line, hand in hand and with their eyes closed except for the leader. When I went up to take communion, I was conscious of the stained glass Archangel Michael and Christ In Majesty looking down at me.

Above: the badge of the school was an oak tree.

After the service teas and coffees and plates of biscuits were on tables at the west end. The lady I had first met showed me various memorials to the village grammer school (now closed). The badge of the school was an oak tree, and she showed me the school war memorial that listed twenty-three “old boys” who had died in the First World War and were commemorated by twenty-three oak trees planted around the school playing field (now the village sports field).

Above: the school memorials in the north aisle included a stained glass illustration of the original school house.

Above: the old school house still stands on the other side of the village green (it’s now a private house) with other school buildings behind it (now housing the village hall, a playgroup etc).

Above: the school playing field was also in the window.

Above: the field is still used for village sports.

Leaving the church I went out into the sunshine and walked down a side road to the old school playing field. Twenty-three oak trees still ringed the pitch, although one of the lime trees had been cut down. As I took this photograph a middle-aged man came out of the pavilion and asked me what I was doing.

“Only there’s been lots of trouble over this tree coming down” he said, pointing to the felled trunk. “There’s been letters to the press and everything. It was split and had to come down - people don’t realise that trees won’t live forever.”

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The expression originated in America

And still the "project" is not finished!

Terry, the agency MD, rang me at home this morning with some “extras” he wants to go into the report (it’s too late to put them into the presentation, which has already been rehearsed). Luckily I was able to do them by remote connection to my agency PC, without going into the office. And I suppose it is reassuring that the MD is so dependent upon me that he doesn’t trust anyone else to do the work.

“I want you to apply the SFW test at every stage” Terry told me superfluously (I had already been doing this, as he well knew).

“Apply the SFW test” is a favourite mantra of Terry’s. He regards the phrase as an essential part of the agency’s philosophy. The expression originated in America, and basically means that every time you make a claim for a product you look at it from the customer’s point of view and ask “so what?”

SFW was recently shouted across the floor of the House of Commons by government minister Ed Balls, in an attempt to destabilise David Cameron. To be fair to Ed Balls, he left off the “F” bit. Later, in a brazen denial, he said he had actually shouted “So weak”.

More on SFW:

More on the Ed Balls incident:

Friday, March 28, 2008

For some reason I couldn’t sleep

At last I have finished the “project”. I knew when I entered the office yesterday that it had to be done that day. I worked fifteen hours without a break (occasionally I went for a walk round the floor) and it was finished at 12.30 in the morning.

The “project” contains over 5,400 pieces of information, all of which had to be researched, checked, and presented in an engaging style. If it is accepted (and it is bound to be accepted) it will “lock” a client into the agency for many years to come. Certainly I feel I now know the client’s business better than they know it themselves.

I left the agency, locking the back door after me. The security light in the back “mews” (actually a scruffy yard) failed to come on, so I had to feel my way in the pitch dark until I reached my car, afraid of dropping my laptop. Long drive along almost empty roads - I got home at 4am feeling exhausted, and immediately went to bed (although not quite immediately as the dog got up to welcome me, wagging his tail, and I had to take him downstairs and let him out into the garden for a few minutes).

I had promised myself that I would sleep all of today, as I have averaged only five hours a night for about the past three weeks. But for some reason I couldn’t sleep, and I got up at nine. Blustery wet day outside, as I had a cup of tea and read through the morning’s post.

Mid-morning I drove deep into the countryside, eventually arriving at The Three Tuns. A happy pub in summertime, today it was empty at 11 o’clock (“we’ll have people coming in at lunchtime” the barmaid told me). I sat on a worn Windsor chair at a window table (rain spattering on the glass), had a beer and a whisky chaser, and thought about an early lunch of homemade steak and kidney pie with fat chips.

But before I could order lunch my mobile ’phone rang and I was called into the office to make some final adjustments to the “project” before it was presented. Horrible drive to the station and horrible train journey up to London reading The Independent (very good review section which was in the form of a booklet - I kept it when I left the rest of the newspaper on the train). Into the office to make the adjustments, staying about an hour, before making the long weary journey back home again.

No great sense of achievement, just a tired emptiness.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

“This is not just Easter food, this is M&S Easter food”

The project should have been finished today, but so many last minute additions have been arriving that I gained a postponement of 24 hours (two of which have been wasted as I feel asleep from exhaustion).

Anyway, as a postscript to Easter, here are some attributes that I thought I would record as they may not be around much longer (or their cultural significance will become so diluted they will lose all meaning):

Above: Hot Cross Buns. Formerly only available on Good Friday. Now every supermarket sells them every day of the year.

Above: Chocolate Easter eggs. As I have eleven nephews and nieces I tend to bulk-buy these, and there is always one left over that keep for myself. But Cadbury’s mini-eggs have been on sale year-round for some time now, and no longer feel “special” or associated with Easter.

Above: Simnel cake. Almost gone now, although there were recipes in both the Guardian and the Daily (Sunday?) Telegraph. In the past my sister (who died of cancer in 2006) would make the family Simnel cake, now I bought this one in Asda and it was a bit dry (I could have bought one in Shepherd’s the bakers, but they only make so many and when they are gone they are gone).

Above: Easter biscuits. Havn’t been able to find these for some years. To remind myself they actually once existed I looked them up in one of our old cookery books although I would not attempt to make them (were they last made by my mother or grandmother?).

Above: Then I happened to be in Marks & Spencer and saw these Easter biscuits (and purchased them). They are exactly the same as the ones in the old cookery book, which makes me wonder if, like the Coelacanth fish, they have always been available and I have been too blind to notice them. “This is not just Easter food, this is M&S Easter food” as the television commercial goes.

More on the Coelacanth fish:

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

One of the few “shared media experiences” that have survived

25th March - my “project” has to be ready tomorrow. Apart from a Leicester facility letting me down over 17 jpgs, it should all be ready on time. In any case, I have done all I can and am having an evening off.

I also caught a later train this morning, which meant that I could listen to the Today programme in the car on the drive to the station. In the 8.10 interview Justice Minister Jack Straw was asked questions by John Humphrys. This 8.10 interview slot is one of the few “shared media experiences” that have survived the media fragmentation of the last ten years.

It was a tetchy and bad-tempered interview - by which I mean Jack Straw was tetchy and bad-tempered while John Humphrys made him answer (or point-blank refuse to answer) questions on the Iraq war. This was all the more impressive as Jack Straw is a slippery interviewee. At one stage Jack Straw was reduced to childish rudeness (“I’ve said that more times than you have”).

On a purely practical level the government should give in to demands for an enquiry into the Iraq war, as otherwise it must be forced upon them. Too many people (too many ordinary non-political people) supported the 2003 call to war and have subsequently been made to feel foolish and betrayed. If left unassuaged, these people will take their revenge at the general election (a government must never make bozos of its own electorate).

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies… How much does continued democracy in this country owe to Andrew Neil, Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys? One of them should get the Order of Merit for services to the nation.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On the estuary beneath the sea wall

Snow had fallen in the night and covered the fields around the house. The heavy winds and bitter cold of recent days had gone. Although there was no sun the snow reflected the available light so that everywhere was bright and without shadows.

I had a choice this morning - choral excellence or visual display. I decided on visual display and drove down onto the plain to a church right on the estuary beneath the sea wall. The church is very ancient (a former Templar presbytery) but so over-restored it looks Victorian.

Possibly the “highest” church in the county, although physically below sea-level. The congregation is a mix of locals, Anglo-Catholics who drive miles to get there, and retired clergy who are connoisseurs of this particular form of worship. The atmosphere was of an Essene-like community, with an emphasis upon purity.

I parked my car and walked through the snow and into the churchyard. Two elderly ladies were walking arm-in-arm to keep from slipping. Three bells were ringing (by one person operating a pulley system under the tower).

Inside there was a good crowd (not surprisingly, as it was Easter Sunday). The interior was very decorative, with colourful shrines along the side aisles, candles, flowers. Big Victorian Rood gleaming dull gold, stained glass representation of Melchizedek in the east window.

I sat in the nave, half-way down on the south side. Around me were couples, family groups, various isolated ladies (“safe with the love I was born to know”). A continuous juddering noise as the heating system filled the building with warm air.

Loud organ music, crashing a bit in places, as the processional hymn was sung and the choir and clergy (in lavish embroidered copes) entered. They passed along the nave in an aromatic cloud (an Anglican aromatic cloud). The big silver processional cross seemed to float over the heads of the congregation as the procession reached the wide chancel (by Temple Moore 1935 - one of his finest).

Hymns from the English Hymnal. Sermon delivered from the bowl-like Jacobean pulpit by the bearded middle-aged Rector, who talked about hope. Various notices.

Sung Eucharist. At the Peace we did not offer each other the sign of peace. A Hail Mary was inserted into the service (literally pasted into the service book). As we went up to take Communion the youth group sang alleluias to a piano accompaniment. In front of me a young mother, in a coat with a striking pattern of large black and white houndstooth, struggled to carry one toddler while leading another by the hand. Afterwards we sang the Regina Caeli.

Going out, a weak sun was shining. The snow was already turning to slush. An elderly lady walking beside me said: “It’s too cold to wait around for my husband… I’ve been coming here for fifty years… are you coming into the hall for a cup of tea?”

Saturday, March 22, 2008

If not now...

I listened to Any Questions on Radio 4 earlier today. Polly Toynbee was talking about the uprising in Tibet, saying that with the 2008 Olympics being held in China there may never be a better opportunity to pressurise the Chinese. Her argument echoed Primo Levi’s dilemma - If not now, when?

More on Primo Levi:

Friday, March 21, 2008

Slightly amateurish and confused

Early afternoon I drove down onto the plain to the small market town that has a hollow centre - in the form of a big marketplace overlooked by a semi-cathedral (a great gothic church the size of a cathedral and supporting a complex hierarchy of clergy, but not actually the seat of a bishop).

The medieval guildhall on the south side of the marketplace reopened today after an extensive restoration. Lots of events associated with this reopening were to have been held, but because of the weather (terrific winds, short periods of sleet, bitter cold) they were either cancelled or driven indoors. Hastily reorganised, the guildhall reopening acquired a slightly amateurish and confused air.

Above: The horses were out in the cold, with nothing to do. “This is Harvey - he’s a half-Shire. He had mites in his leg and was going to be sent to the abattoir, but we said we’d have him, and so he’s retired now.”

Above: The medieval re-enactment (Wars of the Roses) didn’t have much to do except sit around showing off their armour.

At two o’clock I went into the semi-cathedral for the Liturgy of the Passion which lasted an hour. I have attended several services in this church, and each time I am surprised (re-surprised?) at how big the interior is. It has the feel of the grote kerks of the Netherlands (and Jonathan Meedes documentaries).

The rushing wind could be heard inside the church, loud and intrusive. Occasionally the sun would come out and flood the interior with yellow light for a few seconds before the grey resumed. A large number attended the service, but because we all sat apart and the building was so vast, it appeared as if only a sprinkling of people were there (only if you did a 360 degree sweep of the head could you get a sense of the size of the congregation).

The images in the church (including the holy painting given by the former Reader) had been covered with purple cloths. The choir came in, all male and in red. The three senior priests came in and prostrated themselves before the altar (literally laid down flat on the floor).

Readings, psalms, the hymn There is a green hill far away. The Passion of St John was read out, various clergy taking different parts. After Holy Communion a large wooden cross was brought in and people lined up to kiss it.

After the service I went home.

Yesterday in the Guardian Mark Lawson referred to Christianity in this country as “residual”. Is that how it looks from a metropolitan perspective? For me it couldn’t be more mainstream.

And if official Christianity were to fail, what would take its place? We know that humans are “worshipping animals” and so only a few would become “rational atheists” (and there are grounds for thinking atheism is just another religion). The majority would drift into superstition, other religions such as Islam or Mormonism, and a populist sort of paganism (images supplied by Buffy the vampire slayer etc).

In the crisis of faith that followed the First World War countries such as Germany and Russia succumbed to political religions such as national socialism and international socialism. “Modern science” is a growing religion, with its own doctrines of infallibility (heaven help you if you question the pharmaceutical orthodoxy). And from personal experience I can vouch for the eagerness with which Material Consumerism is waiting for its Constantine-moment of national adoption and consecration.

In his article yesterday Mark Lawson used the word “Christmassy” twice. He used it in a slighting way, which was curious as Mark Lawson does not usually sneer. He is someone who usually uses very precise language, so it was strange for him to use a word such as “Christmassy”.

More on Mark Lawson:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I took my camera with me

Today is Maundy Thursday.

Andrew Neil announced the fact on his Daily Politics show.

Her Majesty the Queen gave out the Royal Maundy Money at Armagh cathedral.

The BBC news bulletins reported that sundry bishops and senior clergymen were going through shopping centres cleaning the shoes of passers-by, as an alternative to the more formal and ritualised washing-of-feet at the Maundy evening services.

Although I have nothing against the bishops and their mission to go out to the people, the thought occurred to me that this is the way customs and traditions disappear (“the world moves on” “we can't become fossilised” “you can’t have the Church of England set in aspic” etc etc).

Therefore when I went to the Maundy Eucharist this evening I took my camera with me and (with prior agreement) photographed the ritual washing-of-the-feet.

Above: the Maundy ritual washing-of-the-feet - only two people get their feet washed.

The church I went to was down on the plain, right by a river, one of the “Pretty Rural Villages” of Mosaic classification.

The evening was cold and wet. Inside the church I spoke briefly to one of the churchwardens, and then to the Vicar. I sat right at the front (the walls of this 12th century priory church splay outwards, so that you feel any moment the roof is going to come down).

The choir was surprisingly large, about thirty in all, half of them young women. The young Vicar had a rich voice, like Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood. In his sermon he talked about loving our neighbours, and told us: “It is more fun to love people you don’t like.”

After the sung Eucharist came the ceremony of stripping the altars (the choir singing psalms and anthems). The remains of consecrated bread and wine were removed to an altar in the Corpus Christi chapel (a sort of mysterious gothic cupboard in the south-east corner where the watch-until-daybreak is being held). The lights were turned out, except for tiny sidelights, leaving us sitting in the dark (until eventually, one by one, we got up and left).

Very bright moon on the drive back across the plain.

More on the Royal Maundy Money:

More on Mosaic classification:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Yawning at one o’clock in the afternoon

At lunchtime I went into the Conference Room and watched Prime Minister’s Questions. It was very boring - especially the sycophantic planted questions (which are mostly along the lines of “Does the Prime Minister agree that all his policies are wonderful”). And I thought MPs were not supposed to read out long prepared questions?

After Prime Minister’s Questions there was about twenty minutes of Andrew Neil in the studio, and then just as I was getting up to go back to my desk the cameras returned to Westminster.

In the House of Commons Gordon Brown was at the despatch box announcing the new national security provisions. On the bench behind him, sharing the camera frame, was Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Just as the Prime Minister was getting into his stride she gave a theatrical yawn.

Why was the Home Secretary yawning at one o’clock in the afternoon?

Was she exhausted? Was Gordon Brown deathly boring? Or was she trying to make the Prime Minister look silly?

Monday, March 17, 2008

There is absolutely no doubt...

I am still working flat out.

As every evening for the last two weeks I have taken a stack of work home with me and expect to finish about 1am tonight (with several breaks planned in - this being one of them).

A measure of my desperation is that I actually sent my incompetent assistant Pete to see a client on his own this afternoon - so far there doesn’t seem to have been any damage done.

At lunchtime I took a half-hour break to watch Andrew Neil on BBC2.

His guest today was senior television presenter Joan Bakewell. One of the items they talked about was the religious objections some doctors have to performing abortions. During this discussion Joan Bakewell airily said “as a secular country we expect…”

I have noticed in the last couple of years, particularly in regard to the Muslim “issue”, many commentators, politicians, journalists etc have been making similar remarks (“as a secular country” “as a secular nation” “we are a secular society” etc).

These statements trouble me because they are wrong. England is one of the few countries / nations / kingdoms in the world that has defined itself officially as a Christian country. There is absolutely no doubt about the official status of the Anglican church - the Church of England is the English state religion.

You might argue (and many people do) that this should be otherwise, but it is a simple and undeniable fact that the Church of England is the Established Church (and to change this you would have to comprehensively change the way society is structured - not an easy task).

Just a cursory look at the interdependence of Church and State tells you how complex the situation is. The Head of State is simultaneously the Head of the Church; the smallest unit of local government is the Anglican parish; the House of Commons cannot proceed each day until Anglican prayers have been said; Anglican bishops sit in the legislature; Anglican rituals are integrated into all national ceremonies, state schools are supposed to begin each day with an act of Christian observance etc. Leaving aside the issue of confessional belief, there is no doubt that the majority of the population in England would, if asked, opt for the category “cultural Anglican”.

So why are the “we are all secularists now” statements getting through unchallenged?

Has the media become lazy about checking facts? Have non-English people so permeated the political and media elites that there is now widespread ignorance about the religious status of the English nation? Is there a “hidden agenda” at work to talk down the Anglican church?

PS I liked the way Andrew Neil revealed Joan Bakewell’s hypocrisy over private education. When asked where she had educated her own children she told a half-truth by saying she had sent her daughters to a state school. When pressed by Andrew Neil she then admitted she had sent her son to a private school (you could see her hesitate, as if wondering whether she would get away with a lie, before deciding to tell the whole truth - I thought about Andrew Neil's mastery the rest of the afternoon).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The all-nighter

Above: in the long still moments of the night I stood in the office kitchen and looked at the jars of instant coffee. Like Winston Smith in 1984 I was able to match two pieces of information. Is Waitrose guilty of “passing off” its own-brand instant coffee as Mellow Birds coffee? (same shape jar, same colours, same use of the word mellow, more or less same image of a cup - all the money and effort Birds has put into brand development is being pilfered by Waitrose).

The big project we have all been working on reached one of its peaks on Tuesday when the “all-nighter” was held. This entailed staying on after work, and working through the night, as information came in, until the job was done and the conclusions could be presented to the client at 11 o’clock on Wednesday morning. Only the upstairs (PR) division was involved - with myself included in Val’s team as copywriter.

These all-nighters are held about once every six months. Participants in the all-nighter are carefully chosen, and are viewed by the rest of the agency in the same light as the Spartans who guarded Thermopylae (a mystique they are careful to cultivate). The “sacrifice” of a night of our lives is seen as an offering to placate our most powerful and lucrative client (or, “don’t forget who ultimately pays ALL our wages” as Terry likes to point out - frequently).

Having just been through my first all-nighter I can report that the night mostly consisted of boredom, with IT personnel occasionally rushing through the floor (do they need to rush so urgently, or is that all part of the show?). At about nine o’clock the first information started to arrive (in stat form) and I began to write it up in a coherent narrative (actually I had planned most of the conclusions in advance and used my creative skill to make the facts fit the story).

Between 11pm and 3am the trickle of information became a rush and everyone was busy (Rachel complaining she couldn’t see the big picture, Douglas trying to calm Rachel down, Val using her senior management skills in making everyone coffee).

At 3.30 the rush had become a trickle again, and I went down to the tiny first aid room (where there is an armchair) and sat in the dark with my eyes closed for half an hour.

By 5am it was all over.

At 9 o’clock everyone else came in to start a new day.

Terry (our MD) took us all to a “slap up” breakfast at a hotel. The stormy morning seemed unreasonably bright. After the breakfast Val and her team went back to the agency to present the night’s findings, while I went home to sleep.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lords over life and death

Above: “Ming” Campbell was regularly lampooned by Bremner, Bird & Fortune - above is Rory Bremner portraying “Ming” as (simultaneously) Ginger Spice, Baby Spice and Scary Spice (I think the Spice Girls had just attempted a revival, attempted revivals being an on-going theme in Liberal-Democrat politics). After endless goading by members of his own party “Ming” walked out as Liberal-Democrat Leader in one of the most famous strops of modern times. The episode was so beyond parody that Bremner Bird & Fortune simply reproduced it, almost word for word - it was one of the funniest things they have ever done.

Sir Menzies “Ming” Campbell, erstwhile leader of the Liberal Democrat party, appeared on Andrew Marr’s Start The Week show this morning, promoting his memoirs (published this week). The discussion turned to “assisted dying” and with the typical arrogance of the political elite “Ming” dismissed lobbying of Members of Parliament as an unhelpful interference. Presumably in his view MPs should be lords over life and death untrammelled and unbothered by public opinion.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Still snowed under

I am still snowed under with work - I have done about eight hours today (can’t remember when I last had to work on a Sunday).

One of Terry’s cronies was in the office talking about the Lisbon Treaty (the government have reneged on their manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on whether “we” agree with it).

Possibly it might get chucked out in the House of Lords (provoking a constitutional crisis, although arguably ratifying the Treaty without a referendum is in itself a constitutional crisis).

Anyway, to let Terry’s pal talk for himself:

“People get worked up about how this Treaty is irrevocable, and once it’s done there’s no going back. But the truth is that the Queen in Parliament is supreme. Doesn’t matter how many Treaties are signed, we can reverse any part of them we don’t like with a simple Order in Council”.

“Well, wouldn’t that incite a European backlash and get us thrown out?”

“Not at all. What are they going to do - refuse to trade with us? Send the Gestapo to arrest us?”

“Well, wouldn’t it be dishonourable to break a treaty once it has been ratified?”

“Dishonourable for whom? Dishonourable for Gordon Brown I grant you. But not dishonourable for the rest of us, since we havn’t said yes or no yet.”

“Well, wouldn’t we just get thrown out of Europe?”

“Not at all I tell you. Look at the record - Europe always backs down when challenged by a big national government. If he gets in, Cameron could wade into Europe, get the concessions he wants, win a referendum and go on to win a subsequent election on the back of it.”

At that point they went off to have lunch (“We’ll meet Marcus in the Silver Cross and then go on to Albannach”) leaving me to “carry on”.


Friday, March 07, 2008

You can tell I am busy

I am horribly busy at the moment. By “horribly” I mean I have taken on a project that MUST be finished by the 26th March, and yet even if I work all day and all night I can’t see that it will be ready. Plus I am having to ignore all the important “usual” stuff I need to do.

You can tell I am busy when I go to see one of my clients and walk back along The Strand without going into Stanley Gibbons for twenty minutes to look at the stamps (I only look - I have far too many interests at the moment without starting stamp-collecting).

More on Stanley Gibbons:

Thursday, March 06, 2008

There is no-one else like him

Over the last two Thursdays I have been watching the Jonathan Meades documentaries Magnetic North. But after only two episodes the series has come to a stop - leaving me feeling a bit lost this evening. Instead of finishing in Finland the series should have continued to look at the Scandinavian countries (Jonathan Meades in Stockholm would be worth seeing).

Jonathan Meades is an interesting character. He combines an high intellectual style with originality of content and amusing visual presentation. There is no-one else like him on British television.

As “there is nothing on” tonight I will probably work until about 10pm (I am overwhelmed with work at the moment and have to take projects home with me). Then I will watch Newsnight. Then I will watch This Week.

On the subject of This Week, for two weeks running Diane Abbott MP has praised (with a little laugh) Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro. Why is she speaking so favourably of political serial killers? Are we going to see David Irving appearing on This Week with his Top Five Political Mass Murderers?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

If romanticism returns...

Another Wednesday and another lunchtime in the Conference Room watching Prime Minister’s Questions. “I don’t know why you bother” said Rachel, slurping her “lunch” of a vegetable smoothie (she claims solid food during the day makes her stomach bulge). I bother because I want to analyse style and image in modern politics, cross-referenced with wider cultural trends, and present to Terry (our MD) a novel strategic “idea” that will establish my reputation as a rising star in the agency (“some hope” I can hear several people saying).

Anyway, an outline of my jumbled thoughts:

When Gordon Brown leaves PMQs and is driven the short distance from Westminster back to Downing Street does he notice the statue of George Canning, on the corner of Whitehall? Canning was our shortest-serving Prime Minister, in office for only a few months. Canning’s statue should be a reminder to all Prime Ministers that they only have so much time to make their mark before, in one way or another, power is taken away from their hands.

Gordon Brown is a sincere, and so far as I can tell, good man (he supposedly shouts at colleagues, but perhaps they need shouting at). He is a serious thinker and writer. Above all, he is not Tony Blair (this asset cannot be over-estimated).

And yet, despite holding so many advantages, Gordon Brown is floundering. Nothing he does seems to capture the public imagination. Certainly nothing he does captures the public mood.

Which makes one ask: what is the public mood and how is it changing?

For the past two weeks The Jam Generation on Radio 4 has looked at the “new generation” of politicians - Nick Clegg, David Cameron and David Miliband. The programmes were interesting, but in linking the “80s generation” to The Jam (with their strand of sub-Clash agit-prop) I thought they were missing the point. The 1980s were, above all, the decade of suburban romance - not just “New Romantic” in the music sense (although that provided musical expression) but romantic in the serious (one could almost say German) sense of cultural romanticism.

In a romantic culture “feelings” become more important than “thoughts”.

Culturally are we in for another decade of romanticism (can we even see a presage of this in the contest of the “feeling” Obama against the “thinking” Hilary Clinton)?

Like Bhodi and Special Agent Utah standing on a wind-swept beach in the film Point Break (which was distributed in 1991, but is quintessentially an 80s film) one can sense the rising swell of “romance” that is going to rush towards the shore and drench everyone (possibly even wash people away). For if romanticism returns, everything (fashion, music, politics, architecture, advertising, “the way we live now” etc) will change. The rationality of today’s cultural leaders will have to give way to the emotion of new contenders (or alternatively the old leaders will have to learn more emotive ways of styling and expressing themselves).

And how should the PR trade in general, and the agency in particular, respond to this new cultural trend… (this is where I will have to work up some ideas).

Kim Blacha, who is an 80s enthusiast, lent me this book. I find it fascinating - in dozens of seemingly trivial anecdotes wider truths are revealed. Orwell wrote about the suburbs “sleeping the deep deep sleep of England” and how it is important to understand when suburban “culture” is going to assert itself.

Michael Bracewell’s The Conclave is the best novel about the 1980s I have read (I didn’t really understand the 80s until I read The Conclave, just as I never really understood the middle ages until I read Robert Fossier). The Conclave defines a certain kind of English life in the 1980s just as Bright Lights Big City defines the American 80s experience (and reflects the decade in the same way that The Great Gatsby delineated the 1920s). It is also wonderfully written (from a stylistic point of view) and deserves to be better known.

More on romanticism:

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

What will happen next?

I don’t often talk about other blogs, mainly because it would be too easy - I want the content of this site to be as original as possible.

But to break my self-imposed rule, I am now going to mention a Chinese photoblog I have “discovered”.

I like photoblogs as they allow you to see directly into other societies. At one time I was trying to collect a photoblog from every country in the world, but I had to give this up because so many blogs stop after a few months. No doubt as soon as I mention that Ou Ning’s site is worth looking at it will disappear into the ether.

Anyway, the address is:

Recent photos include:

Three people sit at a table on a concrete balcony. In the background, across a wide river, is a city of pastel-grey towers. Their plates are empty, and they seem to be sitting very still in the cold air.

An audience (actually a sprinkling of people) pay attention to a trio of experts. How many times have I sat in just such an audience. The opalescent light seems about to break through the windows and flood the room.

A standing figure looks over the shoulder of someone in an architectural practice. A very dark grey colour (clothes, computers, shelving etc) alternates with the off-white of the walls, rolled drawings, papers. The faces shine with reflected light from the on-screen designs.

But my favourite (so far) is:

Who are these people sitting on orange chairs, in what appears to be a college of some kind? And why is the central figure so confident and happy? And what will happen next?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Become more than just a “consumer”

Yesterday (Sunday) I watched the Politics Show on BBC1. Nothing unusual in this, as I usually watch the programme in the hour before Sunday lunch (which is, in rotation, either roast chicken, roast beef, roast pork or roast lamb). What was unusual is that I can remember most of what was said - normally the Sunday bottle of wine (invariably either Sancerre or Gigondas, with an additional Sauternes on bank holidays) reduces everything to a comfortable haze that drifts into a post-pudding sleep.

Anyway, as I have given up alcohol for a few weeks I paid attention to the Politics Show.

One of the features was about the way High Streets are becoming “cloned”, with chain stores pushing out family-owned stores and supermarkets sucking up every available customer. Someone suggested the excellent idea of taxing supermarkets to repair the damage they have done to High Streets (why is the government so afraid of tackling Tesco and Asda?). A journalist from The Times (Satnam Sanghera) put forward a pathetic counter-argument that small shops rip people off and provide a poor service (this has not been my experience - it makes you wonder where Satnam Sanghera has been doing his shopping).

You might think you are trapped into using the big four supermarkets and that it’s not practical to use smaller shops. But if you just do a little of your weekly shop in a family-owned store you will soon see why these shops can become addictive. You will meet new people, see new things, and become more than just a “consumer”.

Here are some of my favourite family-owned shops:

This is, without any question of doubt, the best fish and chip shop in the world (and I have done very extensive research into this subject). It’s on a corner of the cobbled market square. There is always a long queue at night stretching out the door and back along the side lane.

Ron Short, Gents Hairdresser. He has put in his window the things that interest him as a person (the Royal Air Force and Tottenham Hotspur FC, along with a few hairdressing products he thinks you should know about). The display makes no sense from a marketing point of view - except that it is sincere and genuine and so represents the best possible marketing you can do.

Mellors are both farmers and butchers, so no faceless retail chain insisting on industrial economies of scale (took these photos on a Sunday, so everywhere was shut - which was also nice as 24-hour retailing is slowing destroying “the weekend”).

Perkins stationers. As well as fountain pens and inks, they have Ordnance Survey maps, newspapers, and a huge selection of confectionary. You can even buy a signed print of David Essex riding a motorbike.

I can never resist a bookshop, especially one where the stock reflects some of the owner’s interests (when I choose books I always think: what do I want to put in my mind next...).

You can tell this shop is run by an enthusiast. If he doesn’t have what you want you can be sure he will get it for you. And lots of expert advice thrown in free of charge.

This is where Satnam Sanghera may have a point. This cycle shop is possibly on the way out. But even though I don’t need anything I might go into shops like this just to see (there is always something interesting if you look hard enough and even the most humble people have a story to tell).

And in case you are thinking family-owned shops are only found in small country towns, here is an example from the heart of London, just round the corner from my office (and it has a variation on the usual “& Son”).

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A quaint old ceremony

About a year ago I posted an item on the old county custom of marking the death of a virgin by hanging a paper crown up in the village church ( I thought at the time that none of these crowns had survived (there are some in Dorset, where the custom is apparently still carried out). Now I can report (report? reveal? bore everybody?) that I have found a local example.

The village is in the north of the county, away from the main road (you go through quite a maze of lanes to get to it). I was an hour early for an appointment at a nearby town, and so I was drifting around filling in town. I came round a bend and saw this church and something about the building made me want to see inside (the tower is a very rare Anglo-Saxon survival).

As usual the church was locked and there was no notice about where the key might be. I walked around the village but no-one was about (it was a sunny day but very cold). Eventually I saw an elderly woman parking her car and asked if she knew who might have the key. She directed me to a farmhouse on the edge of the village. At the farmhouse I was redirected to another house (“But I don’t know if you’ll find them in, they were going out today”). At this second house a very cheerful woman, just about to go out, came to the door and obligingly let me have the key, which was about a foot long (“But there’s not much of interest in the church”).

Not much of interest! As well as the Saxon tower there was a Norman zigzag arch over the west door, and when I stepped down into the building (the cold sunlight following me into the dark interior) I immediately saw this glass case containing one of the mythical (for I had begun to doubt their existence) Virgin’s Crowns.

You will probably need to click on the image to see all the details. It was much larger than I anticipated - about thirty inches in diameter. The crown was decorated with paper flowers.

A notice, hand-written in 1893, recorded that the crown belonged to Mary Hill, a fourteen-year-old girl, who was helping to ring the church bells in 1814 when her arm became entangled in the bell rope and she was carried up to the roof (a distance of about sixty feet), fell down and was killed when she hit the stone floor. At her funeral three maidens dressed in white carried three paper crowns in her honour, and these were later hung up in the church (only this one remains). The notice also records a local song composed in honour of a young woman who died on the day she got married (and presumably before the marriage was consummated).

As well as the original crown in the glass case a replica had been made and hung up in the chancel. Gilbert White records a similar custom taking place at Selbourne. These customs were designed to help people in the village to come to terms with grief and loss (which must be especially acute in the loss of a young child).

The entrance to the tower was half-open and so I could see into the space where the poor girl died. I could see the stone floor and the bell-ropes hanging down (although I don’t suppose that these ones date back to 1814). This was the moment when anthropological enquiry turned, with an unexpected sharp pang of empathy, to a real sense of sadness. We know nothing about Mary Hill except that she died a tragic death and was mourned by her family and neighbours in a quaint old ceremony. And yet out of all the hundreds of thousands of village girls who have lived and died in the county, her name has come down to us through the survival of her paper crown. When Larkin wrote “all that remains of us is love” possibly he had this sort of thing in mind.

There was something about the shape and design of Mary Hill’s paper crown that seemed familiar. And later I thought of this stone crown that marks the entrance to Crown Farm in the south of the county. Just coincidence?

And also thinking laterally, my mind went back to an open day last autumn at a small village in the central hills of the county. The entrance to the little church was decorated with sunflowers (which symbolise loyalty as they follow the path of the sun across the sky). A handful of elderly ladies (old maids?) made me very welcome.

Inside the church was this enigmatic recreation of a maiden’s crown of flowers (worn on the day she would get married). Notice also the veil which is formed out of lace showing butterflies caught in a web (a symbol used by Paul Scott in Jewel In The Crown). Mary Hill's white paper virgin’s crown was meant to symbolise the floral crown she would have worn on her wedding day.

In the video that accompanied the 1980s version of Spirit In The Sky were these two weird figures wearing floral crowns. Dressed in white and with long hair down to their knees they flounce around in a psychodelic 1980s interpretation of the 1960s. Who created this image and where did they get the idea from?

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (beautifully recreated in Roman Polanski’s Tess) Tess Derbyfield goes to see her “cousin” Alec Stokes who puts a crown of flowers round her head. This is one of the most effective scenes in Polanski’s film. Unfortunately it has been ruined for me by Tim Brooke-Taylor’s recreation of it on I’m Sorry I Havn’t A Clue.

Etonians wear floral garlands during their Fourth Of June celebrations. The boys are wearing 19th century naval uniform. This picture appeared on the front page of The Guardian.

Folk song that might be associated with all this:

Spirit In The Sky (1980s version) on MySpace:

PS this is the 1000th post on this site.