Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve. Seven o'clock. Still undecided about what I should do this evening.

New Year's Eve was never much of a celebration time in England until recently. For my parents and grandparents it meant finishing the Christmas drinks and watching the White Heather Club in black and white on television (unless they went to bed early). Even today, if you go to a pub or a club it all seems a bit forced.



Above: in the north of the county there is the White Heather Club. If I went there this evening would I find Andy Stewart and Moira Anderson and all the black and white characters of the 1960s? At midnight would everyone go out onto the terrace in the freezing air (it has been freezing all day) to watch the (black and white) fireworks?



Above: at The Napoleon there is a fancy dress party (wear something "crazy") with free shots. Like most transplanted celebrations Hogmanay has never really got off the ground. Portugese landworkers sometimes go to The Napoleon so they will probably think it is all typically English.



Above: for real end-of-year sadness you have to turn to Tennyson. 2008 started fairly hopeful and then... crash. And the crash is still going on for many people - who knows when the fall will stop?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Today



In the dead calm of the week between Christmas and New Year I have been listening to the Today programme again. I say "again" as I went off the programme mainly because I didn't like some of the presenter changes. In particular I couldn't listen to Evan Davis (would actually switch him off rather than be patronised and talked-down-to).

Anyway I listened to Evan Davis talking to Zadie Smith. He was unbelivably patronising to her. Like the infamous 70s interview between Russell Harty and Grace Jones, Zadie Smith would have been justified in taking one of her shoes off and beating Evan Davis with it.

Doing a Google search on Evan Davis, I read that he is a member of the "British-American Project for the Successor Generation". Apparently this organisation is "grooming" (whatever that word means) future leaders. I thought in a democracy leaders are elected, not generated by some creepy trans-atlantic cabal.

More: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British-American_Project_for_a_Successor_Generation

Monday, December 29, 2008

Virgin Megastores went bust about a week ago



Above: ad from Christmas 1985 showing albums you could buy for £5. The copy refers t0 CDs, although there is an acknowledgement of how expensive the new technology was. Virgin Megastores went bust about a week ago.



Above: Dingwalls in Camden Lock. The bands featured in the Virgin ad would all have performed here or came here to see other bands (Scritti Politti lived in Camden). Three nights a week there was also a nightclub.

More: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vng8C5Bj9kA

Sunday, December 28, 2008

They know enough to run



Above: the week between Christmas and New Year is characterised by gunshots going off in the fields around the house. About twenty or so Barbour-clad men in flat caps walk around with shotguns (including walking up the lane shooting from the verge, which I thought was illegal). Pheasants crouch in the undergrowth of the North Field hoping to remain unnoticed (or come into the garden where they are safe).



Above: I think these are ptarmigan running for cover. One of the shooting party said they have such small brains they don't know what is happening to them. They know enough to run when they see the townie solicitors, opticians and accountants dressed up in tweeds for a day out in the country.



Above: those who don't run fast enough end up in the cooking pot. You need to "hang" them until they are ready - in winter this can be as long as three weeks. At least these birds have experienced life in the wild (unlike factory farmed food).



Above: although pheasants are not native to England (they were brought here by the Romans) they have entered the national culture in terms of cuisine, folklore, art etc. I saw these two bronze pheasants in a junk shop that specialised in house clearances. Pheasants also feature in the paintings of Thorburn - one of our greatest wildlife artists.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Enjoying the holiday



Above: inimitable sur d’oeuvre (the glass resting on The Independent's review of something or other).

Living in a picturesque lane means that everyone within five miles with a dog is going to come walking past your house in a continuous clamour of barking and shouting during the daylight hours.

The sound of revving tractor engines over the farmyard early on Boxing Day means that the farmer has already become bored of staying at home and intends to do some ditch-clearing or hedge clipping.

The newspapers are full of “quizzes” and “reviews” and (most meaningless of all) “picture reviews”. This recycling of redundant items is set to continue until the first week of January. Most infuriating is the way the book review pages are replaced with extended “my book of the year” sections in which minor celebrities tell us their “book of the year” in tiny paragraphs of meaningless drivel.

But apart from that I am enjoying the holiday.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Anger



I hadn't expected to write anything on this site until after Christmas.

It has been a busy Christmas Eve with all the last-minute preparations.

At seven o'clock this evening I went to the Service of Lessons and Carols at the minster down on the plain. Hundreds of people were there. We were each given lighted candles to hold (not sure how they got that through Health & Safety) and listened to world-class singing from the choir.

Later I will go to Midnight Mass (an Anglican Mass) at the village church - a quarter of a mile walk in the dark to get there. A less exalted choir (but no less sincere). Last year the interminable sermon was about the line of Jesse, with almost every begat pondered upon.

Anyway, the reason I have opened this site up again is to register my protest at the way "someone" decided that Christmas Eve was a good time to announce that the arrest of Shadow minister Damian Green in November had been illicitly taped by the Metropolitan Police (who concealed the information until this afternoon).

What sort of country are we living in?

Are the police routinely "taping" people in the hope that they can use unguarded comments as "incriminating" evidence? Or was this a special one-off because the Metropolitan Police is following some kind of a political agenda? Has the Metropolitan Police become (in the words of their critics) "just another criminal gang"?

Whatever you think of Damian Green (and apparently even his own party thinks he is a wishy-washy liberal, well to the left of his Labour opposite Phil Woolas) if they can do this to a senior MP they can (and will) do it to anyone (and eventually they will do it to everyone).

What makes me so angry (provoked to anger on Christmas Eve) is the cynical way "someone" thought today was "a good day to bury bad news". There is no Newsnight tonight, no Today Programme tomorrow, no newspapers until Boxing Day by which time it will be old news. Which is why I have cranked up this ageing laptop and clicked open my pathetic little blog to add my tiny voice of protest that THESE THINGS SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING.

I hope Paul Dacre (Editor Daily Mail) and Will Lewis (Editor Daily Telegraph) and Alan Rusbridger (Editor The Guardian) find out who took the decision to "bury" the item today, and publish the name on the front pages of their newspapers.

AMENDED 27TH DECEMBER.

More on the "taping": http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7799092.stm
More on the line of Jesse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_Jesse

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stephen Fry



Above: signed photograph of Stephen Fry in the window of a Cambridge cakeshop. The note praises the shop’s Chelsea buns. Stephen Fry attended Queens’ College Cambridge.

It was a criticism of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth-century that it was a society controlled by four hundred families (aristocracy, land-owning gentry, industry-owning plutocracy).

Arguably you could say of today’s society that it is controlled by four hundred individuals working in the media (owning the media, writing for the media, presenting media broadcasts, “regulating” the media, distributing the media, “creating content” for the media). They appear to compete with each other, but as a class they act together to create a consensus and so reinforce social stability. On the downside they decide which voices get heard and which do not (and thus this broad media oligopoly controls “democracy”).

One of the most influential of the media “aristocracy” (or “aristos” if you prefer) is the actor, writer, presenter Stephen Fry. For the last twenty years his presence has been ubiquitous. Through extraordinary levels of energy and prodigious talent he has become tremendously popular.

His popularity can be distilled to the single attribute that he is (or certainly appears to be) very good company. Amusing, sympathetic, empathetic, he is someone you feel is always on your side. Even in the midst of histrionics, he is always very likeable.

However, his autobiography Moab Is My Washpot shows that he has not always been a likeable person. Has he become a different person? Or is his current persona a superb and sustained piece of acting?

The reason I ask these questions is that his popularity has made him very powerful. If he were to speak in favour (or against) any issue it would command attention (far more so than the opinion of any backbench MP or even junior government minister). This sort of power makes me uneasy since it is unaccountable.



Above: Stephen Fry is enthusiastic about “gadgets”. In marketing terms he is thus innovative-prone, an early-adopter and an opinion-former. The latest entry on his blog (11th December) runs to 9,470 words on the subject of mobile communications.

Stephen Fry’s blog: http://www.stephenfry.com/blog/

Monday, December 22, 2008

The last present



Last day in the office. Actually not even a day as I finished at 12 noon. It all sort of fizzled out as I wished Andrea season's greetings then left.

On the landing I thought briefly about going upstairs and saying goodbye to everyone until after the holiday, then decided against it (it would take ages to get out of there again).

I went to Millbank to drop off one last sheaf of papers, and then I was free.

Suddenly without anything to do I walked for a while into Pimlico, and by chance found a jewellery shop where I bought the last present I needed to get.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Varied in culture, topography and history

Down on the plain there is an area of land seemingly unremarkable, but actually very varied in culture, topography and history.

The region consists of a wide flat area of marshy land close to the coast. This area is bisected by a ridge of high ground running parallel with the coast and on which the farms and hamlets are located. On one side of the ridge is salt marsh merging into the sea itself (and covered by the sea at exceptional high tides). On the other side of the ridge is freshwater marsh, created by watersheds that have come down from the central hills. The farming families that live along the ridge are superficially very similar (sandy haired, grey eyed, faces and hands red-brown from exposure to the wind). However they are very different in temperament, habits and customs, depending upon whether they go down onto the seaward or landward marshes to earn their living. Salt-marsh people are outgoing and inquisitive whereas land-marsh people are secretive and shy (these are of course generalizations).

Smuggling was an illicit industry on this coast in the 18th century. Several buildings on the ridge are made with wood from various wrecks washed up on the shore. Water stands on the low-lying ground, and skating takes place in winter.

As today (21st December) is the Shortest Day it is worth recording that on this day “old women” in the region were allowed to go “mumping” or begging for money (the day was known locally as Mumping Day).



Above: because of the building of sea banks and the draining of the land the original pools are hard to locate. Sometimes you can see them emerge as mud depressions on the remaining marsh. In rainy weather they will fill with water.



Above: this map records some of the pools in 1571 and lists their names (Kealecote, Mose Water, Steven Water, Cherry Hurne, Silver Pitt, Faire Fishes, Goodin Draughts, Leake Mere, North Lade etc).



Above: this picture appeared in The Guardian, and although it shows flooding in the West Country (many miles away) it gives a good idea of how the medieval “islands” would emerge on the ridge at times of combined flood and high tide. The landscape was thus continually changing – islands emerging at times of excess water, pools emerging at times of drought. It is this variation with the seasons that I find so fascinating.



Above: some of the pools are maintained continuously to provide fishing.



Above: I think this is a plaice that was caught from the ridge (plaice are normally a deep water fish). Turbot and brill are also caught locally. Depending on which side of the ridge you go you can either do freshwater or sea fishing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Many national publications still trying to keep their rates up - the past week at work

Monday

I knew today was going to be difficult and I woke with feelings of apprehension (had I been dreaming of work?). Julie (who does the admin) was away for two days and so there would be no-one to do the bookings. Also Andrea was away so effectively I would be on my own.

I got into work an hour earlier as I wanted to familiarize myself with the things that needed doing (we were expecting a lot of bookings to come in from one client). Almost immediately the ads started to arrive (all standard artwork, so there was nothing “creative” that needed doing – they just had to be placed). Temp Heidi was there to answer the telephone, but she couldn’t really do much more than take messages.

By lunchtime I began to think things would be OK. A simple stroll to the bank was therapeutic in getting me out of the offices. Mildish sort of day – damp and grey.

Early afternoon a mass of bookings came in, most of them with a four o’clock deadlines. The situation began to look impossible. Terry (our MD) came down to “help” and made a major mistake with one of the regionals (I had to sort it out).

At least he saw the sort of pressure we were under.

I worked into the early evening. There was only one client I was unable to get into the publication she wanted. Nearly fell asleep on the train home (it would have taken me to the end of the line!).

Tuesday

Less apprehension about today although the state of flux in the office is unsettling (this atmosphere is mainly caused by Andrea’s temper vis-à-vis junior staff). Although most of the workload today was made up of quite simple tasks, the responsibility is daunting as I am working with someone else’s systems and it is easy to make mistakes. Terry told me that when the new staff arrive things should get less hectic.

Once again I sat at Carol’s old desk (some of her junk still remaining in the drawers) while Terry sat at Julie’s desk where he churned out sub-standard second-rate work (sorry to sound so harsh, but it really wasn’t up to much). Once again we were up against deadlines. But it was also exhilarating to see the bookings come in and realize that the sub-agency, started only a few weeks ago, was making money.

Patricia (Terry’s PA) brought Terry cups of lemon tea.

Terry doesn’t like us using media-buyers and so most of the afternoon I spent buying space (the main agency upstairs is IPA recognized). Instant matiness from the display advertising departments of various publications. Many national publications still trying to keep their rates up (unless you buy late space).

I had to stay until 6 o’clock and then I went to Millbank to drop something off for a client. I went for a long walk along the Thames. The black water looked glossy in the lights from the embankment.

Wednesday

It was a struggle to get up this morning.

Andrea was back. Julie was also back, her slim figure clomping round the office, her slightly nasal voice answering the ‘phone. Chris (comes in one day a week to do the Accounts) was also in, so the offices seemed quite full.

We all overheard Andrea on the phone to a supplier, scathing about the cheapness of the wine the wine he had given us (later she gave us all four bottles each).

Lunchtime watching television in the Boardroom with Terry.

In the afternoon there wasn’t much for me to do. I felt at a loose end after the manic start to the week. I got some more TGI material from Sarah A in Birmingham.

Thursday

Temp Heidi’s last day, and she seemed sorry to be leaving.

It was Terry’s wife’s birthday, so Patricia (Terry’s PA) brought round cream cakes.

Lunchtime we went to an Italian restaurant for a team lunch. We were all round a long table in the middle of the crowded room. I was sat between Terry’s wife and temp Heidi. Smoked salmon, steak with paté (a combination which made me feel slightly nauseous), zabaglione, coffee. I felt it was impossible to relax for some reason. As we left the restaurant gave us all a panetone cake each.

In the afternoon we sat in the main office eating doughnuts (brought in by Chris) and discussing whether we would get a Christmas bonus (Andrea must have known whether we would, although she didn’t say anything).

Julie went up to an interview with Terry and came back smiling having been promoted to Carol’s old job (admin supervisor) and given a pay-rise.

Friday

Julie rowed with her boyfriend over the phone, which was embarrassing to listen to.

A new temp arrived to replace Heidi – her name was Sheila, middle-aged, quite experienced.

Apart from tentative plans for three new business pitches there was no work to do. Dreamily I looked out of the window. It grew dark just after 3.30pm.

Julie talked more about her interview with Terry yesterday, telling me: “He thinks you’re brilliant. He was saying Andrew’s brilliant, brilliant, the way he went into the deep end and coped. I made a good decision in appointing him.”

In the evening was the agency Christmas party (for clients), held in the upstairs offices. Among the many clients who turned up only one of them was “ours” and so after about an hour I slipped away. As I went down the stairs I looked through the windows across the stair well and saw Rachel sneaking away down the back stairs (presumably she had a more interesting party to go to).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Heron



In the murky early morning light I saw a heron. It was paddling in the shallow water of one of the dykes that surround the house (in an erratic moat). This is a good sign as it means the water must be very pure.

One of the moments that make life worth living.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Prime Minister's Questions, 17th December 2008



Above (top picture): Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman appeared at the Dispatch Box to take Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon. She was probably, for that half-hour, the most powerful woman in the country (executive power). Looking at her image, as it appeared on television (Daily Politics on BBC2) I saw a classic porphyrogenital icon that could have come straight from the pages of the Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Later I compared the image to a picture of the late Queen Mother - the last European woman “entitled” to wear imperial purple (in her role as Empress of India). The match seemed almost uncanny (although Harriet Harman had only one string of pearls to Her Majesty’s three). I showed this to Terry and he pointed out that Margaret Thatcher’s regal costume at a banquet in 1990 contributed to the general mood that “she had to go”.

In the Board Room at lunchtime I watched Prime Minister’s Questions – the last of the year. Because the Prime Minister is in Iraq the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, stood in for him. On the Opposition benches William Hague stood in for David Cameron.

The Leader of the House appeared power-dressed in purple. She exuded power. She praised the courage of the armed forces, currently involved in imperialist adventures overseas.

Labour’s Brian Donohoe asked why energy prices aren’t coming down now that oil prices have fallen.

The Leader of the House adopted a threatening tone, and said that not only would the regulators move against the energy companies but that the law would be changed if they didn’t act soon.

William Hague referred to the announcement that all British troops are to leave Iraq, and asked when a full enquiry would be held into the origins and conduct of the war.

Harriet Harman said there would be no inquiry while there were still British troops in Iraq.

William Hague said lessons needed to be learned from the Iraq experience, and then clumsily tagged on a question linking rising unemployment to the poor functioning of the banks.

Harriet Harman just as clumsily said again there would be no inquiry while there were still troops in Iraq, and then drew William Hague’s attention to the National Lending Panel (whatever that is).

William Hague rubbished the government’s efforts to stimulate bank lending and said the only answer was a national loan guarantee scheme (Conservative policy).

Harriet Harman said the Conservative scheme was “not worth the paper it is pressed released on” (this was obviously a prepared line, and she stumbled over its delivery).

William Hague responded by saying government efforts so far were “a reannouncement of a reannouncement” (again this line was obviously prepared earlier, and delivered faultlessly).

Harriet Harman said £1.3 billion was being channeled into JobCentres to help the unemployed.

William Hague accused the government of being “say anything, spin anything, achieve nothing.” He referred to the latest retail data, less than an hour old (gasps of “Ooo” around the chamber). He said the data proved the recent VAT cut had got a massive thumbs-down from the consumer.

Harriet Harman pointed to the Conservative front bench and said “All they do is carp and criticise”.

William Hague said he didn’t want any lectures.

Harriet Harman said she would rather have Superman than The Joker (a reference to Gordon Brown’s slip last week that he had saved the world).

Labour’s Judy Mallaber asked a meandering question about an exhibition just off the Central Lobby on the subject of votes for women.

Harriet Harman listed the women-friendly policies of the current government.

Liberal-Democrat Vince Cable, wringing his hands (which looked awful), told Harriet Harman that housing associations were in danger of collapse.

Harriet Harman told him she was very concerned.

Vince Cable told her she was being complacent. He said more bluntly that housing associations were going bust. He wanted to know what the government was going to do.

Harriet Harmon said the government had stabilised the position.

Labour’s Andrew Dismore said a disabled karaoke team had experienced discrimination at a pub in his constituency,

Harriet Harman told him “Discrimination against anyone is unacceptable in our modern society” (this said with such assurance that it is obviously one of her core beliefs).

Conservative Nigel Waterson said pensioners were suffering because of outmoded interest calculations.

Harriet Harman said, effectively, that pensioners had never had it so good.

Labour’s Laura Moffatt said the Conservative council in Crawley had abolished free swimming.

Harriet Harman said the Tories are bad people.

Plaid Cymru’s Elfyn Llwyd asked when the “hearts and minds” campaign would begin in Afghanistan.

Harriet Harman waffled incoherently.

Labour’s Brian Jenkins asked about the armed forces compensation scheme.

Harriet Harman told him it would be backdated.

Conservative Mark Pritchard referred to the abandoned enquiry into snatch landrovers and said the armed forces were not being protected.

Harriet Harman denied this.

Labour’s Julie Morgan asked when flexible working rights would be extended.

Harriet Harman told her the rights would be extended from April.

Conservative Richard Bacon asked about the future of the National Audit Office.

Harriet Harman told him “we will continue discussions”.

Labour’s Dr Nick Palmer raised concerns about possible open-cast mining in his constituency.

Harriet Harman said “we remain opposed to open-cast mining”.

Killer question of the session was delivered by a Conservative whose name I didn’t catch (he was dressed in a dark suit and wore glasses) who asked about Gordon Brown’s statement in 1996 “we will not build a new Jerusalem on a mountain of debt.”

Harriet Harman floundered at this point. She said (unconvincingly) debt had to rise now to avoid far worse debt in the future. As the Opposition jeered her authority seemed to fall away from her (briefly).

Labour’s David Crausby said water charges on churches were unfair.

Harriet Harman said lots of people had already raised this point.

Labour’s Adrian Bailey wanted to accelerate the Building Schools for the Future scheme as a way of generating construction jobs.

Harriet Harman said this was a good idea.

PMQs came to an end and the cameras went back to the studio where Andrew Neil looked disgusted at the performance.

PS sorry to have gone on so much about the appearance of Harriet Harmon. I don’t suppose anyone cares how she dresses. But it reminded me of the closing scene in Orwell’s Animal Farm where the poor old carthorse notices the “liberators” have become indistinguishable from the “oppressors”.

More on porphyrogenita:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyrogenita

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another fine mess



Yet another government IT project has turned into a fiasco. The Department for Transport has been accused of "stupendous incompetence" over the introduction of a "streamlined" master computer system. No-one has been dismissed over the fiasco.



The government persists in introducing "master" IT projects which all too predictably turn into white elephants. The DfT master computer is just another fine mess to go alongside the Child Support Agency's failed computer upgrade; the Department for Work and Pensions' abandonment of three major schemes; and the faltering NHS computer system (cost £13 billion). There have also been numerous scandals with security of personal data held by the state.

Not sure why there is this megalomania for grandioise IT projects. It would be more sensible for smaller units of administration to have devolved powers of expenditure rather than everything being "top down" from Westminster/Whitehall (or Cardiff or Holyrood). Counties are the ideal size for accountable administration - any larger things become unmanageable, any smaller things become too parochial (and unlike "Regions" the counties would attract local loyalty).

Project management by the government is just one fine mess after another: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxQiotyPDsw&feature=related

Monday, December 15, 2008

Grazia



Grazia is a weekly fashion magazine (competing with monthlies such as Elle or Marie-Claire). It is owned (in the UK) by Bauer Media (along with Angling Times and Motor Cycle News). Grazia was voted PPA Magazine of the Year in 2008.

The magazine claims to present “the world through a fashion lens” (ie they would carry out a stylistic analysis of the shoes thrown at George Bush rather than focus on the security threat to the President).

Grazia has a rising circulation and is currently about 227,000 (these are very influential women in terms of culture, opinion and visual sense – through their purchasing decisions these women decide how contemporary British culture looks).

Readership profile: Grazia readers are middle-class women in their 30’s. Most are married or living with a partner. The majority work full time and have affluent disposable incomes which they spend liberally on fashion and beauty.



Above: 189 Shaftesbury Avenue, editorial offices of Grazia magazine.


Editor of Grazia is Jane Bruton who was born in Wigan (her grandfather was a railwayman). She read English at Nottingham University. She previously worked on Chat, Prima and Eve.

If I were forced to pick holes in the magazine: the washed-out look to the photography gives it a superficial 1950s charm but not sure how this will weather; the emphasis on A-list celebrities may possibly be investing in a crashing bank; the process yellow branding is a bit…

But generally the magazine is, at the moment, culturally very influential. If David Cameron is serious about attracting women voters (a demographic that is up for grabs) he should get himself into Grazia. But do please bear in mind this is not British Vogue.

More on Grazia: http://www.graziadaily.co.uk/

More on Jane Bruton: http://en-gb.facebook.com/people/Jane-Bruton/544411919

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Anticipation

Christmas is less than two weeks away, so here is a round-up of Nativity scenes at churches in "the group".



Above: very traditional, unchanging, some of the plaster figures showing little chips which indicates they have been put out year after year.



Above: I liked this painted version - possibly a backdrop for a play?



Above: lots of hard work has gone into this version. Obviously a team effort. You can see more "work in progress" on the little table at the back (this is the Sunday School corner).



Above: this knitted version had a Clangeresque style that is very attractive.



Above: if you are prepared to brave the freezing cold you can join us for special Evensong next Sunday which will involve a trudge through the country lanes. Possibly the ground will be frozen underfoot - the recent hoare frost brought an unusual quality to night-time walking, reflecting the light so that you could see the hedges and fields clearly. And you will experience a rare presentiment sense of anticipation as you turn off the muddy lane and walk up the long rough drive to Red House Farm...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

We are surprisingly busy - the past week at work

Monday

Arriving at the office to the news that Carol (admin) left on Friday (when I had a day off). Minutes after Julie told me this news Terry and Andrea appeared with temp Heidi who will be with us for two weeks. The sub-agency has only been going a few weeks and already two staff have walked out saying they can’t work with Andrea (she is difficult).

Because Julie is so frightened of talking to clients I moved into the big office and sat at Carol’s old desk to give her some support. We are surprisingly busy, despite the onset of recession and the approach of Christmas. Andrea is good at getting new clients but not so good at looking after them (also we have had two solicitors’ letters from her old agency, complaining that she is poaching clients).

Because we are so busy I had to work through lunch – so often have I had to do this that I am late with my Christmas shopping.

In the afternoon Terry was interviewing for a replacement for Carol. Normally he would never get involved in such an ordinary task, which indicates he doesn’t trust Andrea to recruit the right people. When showing prospective staff around the offices Terry has a very fatuous routine (“This is the photocopier…this is the fax machine…this is where the Accounts lady sits…”).

In the evening was the office Christmas party held at Rachel’s flat in Maida Vale (this is the party for staff – we also give one for clients, which is held in the upstairs offices). Andrea wasn’t there, which made me wonder whether she had been invited (she doesn’t get on with Rachel – they are both too dominant and competitive). At ten o’clock we all went out in the freezing air to the communal garden at the back where fireworks were set off (as the coloured explosions spread across the sky Aine said: “It’s like an orgasm”).

Tuesday

When I got in (a little late) only Heidi the temp was there, so that I became concerned that Julie had left the company without saying anything (this gives you an idea of how paranoid people are becoming). Anyway she turned up ten minutes later, complaining that the tube was late. We had some coffee and talked.

The bitter cold weather outside has led to the heating being turned up – too far so that I felt dehydrated.

A nice moment was when Terry’s big new client rang me up asking about putting some full-page ads in the national press. This was such good news it cheered everybody up. Although I hadn’t done anything to generate the work, I acquired a heroic status among the upstairs junior account execs.

In the afternoon some of the smaller clients became busy, and the contacts at these clients progressively more awkward and demanding. There is no easy way of telling a client they can’t have what they want. I spent so much time helping Julie with her admin work that I didn’t get much copywriting done.

Wednesday

The first hour spent placing ads. Some of the clients have a very ignorant approach to deadlines. I felt myself becoming annoyed and actually told one client “not every job can be a rush job.”

At lunchtime I went up to the Board Room, joined by Terry. We were drinking Perrier (in Thomas the Tank Engine paper cups) left over from the party on Monday. Terry talked about how he had met Ronald Reagan at the Guildhall about twenty years ago.

In the evening I went to a cocktail party (friends, but I don’t know them all that well). Very sparsely attended. On the train home I thought how nice it was to be on my own again.

Thursday

So cold I really didn’t want to get out of bed this morning.

Thursday is usually a quiet day in the agency, but today there always seemed some copywriting that needed doing. I have also been asked to help with the writing for the upstairs teams. Andrea is in awe of professional copywriting and described the agony she experienced when she tried to do some.

Julie said she is going for an interview for a job with a local newspaper.

One of Terry’s American friends (who we think owns part of the agency, although no-one is sure) came to our offices and said we all deserved Purple Hearts for working so well. I told him Mars Bars would be more practical. In the afternoon Patricia (Terry’s PA) came down and presented each of us with a Mars Bar.

Friday

Julie came in late, having been to a job interview. Two former students (graduated this year) arrived for interviews with Terry and Andrea (they are recruiting a trainee to replace Julie, who is to be offered Carol’s old job). They sat in the lobby looking worried.

When I went out at lunchtime the bitter cold seemed to have passed and it was a little milder.

In the afternoon I felt so tired I couldn’t work (so I didn’t).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Society needs a class of idlers and dreamers



Above: will there ever be enough “stimulating” and “fulfilling” jobs for everyone?

Work and Pensions Secretary (and former Culture Secretary) James Purnell has announced new measures to compel the long-term unemployed to take work when it is offered to them (and to be “preparing for work” when there are no jobs available).

These measures make me uneasy for three reasons.

First, they negate the contract of National Insurance. The “long-term unemployed” didn’t appear from nowhere. They come from families where people have paid considerable amounts of money in National Insurance over decades and never previously made a “claim” (and the long-term unemployed themselves may have paid National Insurance in the past under the impression that money would be available to them when it was needed).

Therefore if unemployment benefit (or whatever the goons are calling it these days) is no longer an automatic right, what has happened to all the National Insurance money that has been collected in the past and is still being collected? It is either an insurance policy or it is not. And if an unemployed person paid National Insurance when he/she was in employment, do they now have a claim against the state under the principle of proprietary estoppel in that they were relying on payment of unemployment benefit under the terms of the original NI contract? (I am just asking this question, I’m not a lawyer).

Second, I don’t like the idea of the government pushing people around.

Third, the idea of full employment is not only unattainable, it is also undesirable. British society has always had a margin (usually about 5%) of idle people whose existence was paid for by a levy upon those who worked. In return they have produced astounding creative work that has contributed very significantly to the national culture.

In the nineteenth-century this margin of idlers was called the gentry, living upon sinecures, pensions from “Dublin castle” (a semi-mythical pot of gold), glebe rents etc. Doing no paid work was a defining lifestyle for them. In return they produced a vast amount of unpaid intellectual capital – natural history, anthropology, archaeology etc.

In the early 1900s (to take another era at random) an eclectic mix of writers, artists, theosophists, Hyde Park Corner orators, failed revolutionaries, creative drunken wastrels etc subsisted on hand-outs, unpaid debts and an extremely low cost of living. Thinking and talking was their preferred mode of life. The class is described by Arthur Ransome in his study Bohemia in London.

In the 1950s and 1960s the margin of idlers subsisted on unemployment benefits, full student maintenance grants, academic bursaries etc. Characterised on television by Cherie Blair’s father Tony Booth who appeared week after week in a black and white sit-com, voicing his many opinions from a prone position on someone else’s sofa. This class produced novelists, poets, pop groups, amateur inventors, “naked civil servants” and full-time organizers for the (old) Labour Party.

Anyway, my point is that society needs a class of idlers and dreamers to produce the creative ideas that only really come from leisurely unemployment – a decent rate of unemployment benefit should be seen as a relatively cheap way of subsidizing this creative impulse.

As for the depravity of inner city estates, this is much more complex than merely generations of unemployed households. Family breakdown is much more likely to be the cause of despair, low self-esteem, and substitute gang families. Pushing these people around will risk the sort of outburst we have seen in Athens (and how many times do politicians need to be told: the culture of the United Kingdom is not the culture of the United States and what works in Wisconsin will not automatically work in Willesden).

More on Bohemia in London: http://www.tartaruspress.com/bohemia.html

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Prime Minister's Questions, 10th December 2008



The start of Prime Minister’s Questions was delayed this lunchtime. The cameras went from the Daily Politics studio to a rowdy House of Commons where someone was shouting towards the Labour benches about the Scottish football team. The cameras went back to the studio where Andrew Neil looked discomforted.

A few minutes later we again saw the House of Common, the Prime Minister between the Leader of the House (Harriet Harmon) and someone I had never seen before.

Labour’s Alison Seabeck began the questioning by asking about the poor service small businesses are getting from the banks.

The Prime Minister responded in a glad-you-asked-me-that tone of voice, telling her “we led the way with more help…”

Leader of the Opposition David Cameron pursued the theme of banks lending to small businesses, telling Gordon Brown “recapitalization has failed”.

In reply Gordon Brown made possibly the worst verbal slip of his premiership, telling David Cameron “We saved the world…” when he meant to say “We saved the banks…” This may look innocuous enough when written down, but the spoken words, in that chamber, had a devastating effect. There was extended laughter from the Conservative benches. This was not just the theatrical laughter that routinely breaks out, but a helpless genuine laughter while the Labour benches sat glum and silent. Gordon Brown looked unable to cope with the situation. It was the first time I truly understood the saying laughed to scorn.

David Cameron returned to the issue of recapitalization, saying the banks were required to borrow at 12% and expected to lend at 6%.

Gordon Brown listed a confusing set of schemes that meant the banks had all the support they needed (this over-complexity seems to be a hallmark of his style and possibly explains why he fails to communicate effectively).

At this point someone came into the Boardroom to ask me a question.

When I could next concentrate on Prime Minister’s Questions David Cameron was saying that the VAT cut was pointless, and that the government should have used the money to underwrite lending to businesses.

Gordon Brown said, accusingly “he’s refusing to spend any taxpayers’ money”.

David Cameron referred to an article in today’s Guardian (cries of “Ho” from the Labour benches) and said it revealed that the government was about to steal Conservative policies on lending to businesses (cries of “Ah” from the Conservative benches).

Gordon Brown gestured to the Conservatives and said “They are on the wrong side of history.”

David Cameron indicated the Prime Minister and said “He is on the wrong side of mathematics.”

Having come to the end of ordeal-by-Cameron, Gordon Brown rose magisterially (a little too magisterially, as it indicated it was rehearsed) and launched into a comprehensive damnation of the Conservatives.

Labour’s Alan Simpson then asked about a “tobin tax” (on currency movements) and Gordon Brown said it was one of many possible proposals.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg began his two questions by saying “a single mother came to see me”. Before he could say another word there was raucous lewd laughter from the Labour benches (Nick Clegg has previously boasted about his sexual prowess). When he was eventually allowed to speak he said the system of tax credits was too complex.

The Prime Minister told Nick Clegg the system of tax credits had taken many children out of poverty.

Nick Clegg called him deluded, bureaucratic and cruel.

The Prime Minister said the system was not complex but flexible.

Labour’s Martin Linton asked him about extended opening hours for GP surgeries.

The Prime Minister said “It was all our idea”.

Conservative David Amess asked about fuel poverty.

The Prime Minister referred him to the government’s draught-proofing strategy.

A little later on Liberal Democrat Phil Willis asked about the broadcast of an assisted suicide on Sky TV this evening, saying it was distasteful voyeurism (“sex and horror are the new gods” basically sums up Sky TV’s editorial policy).

The Prime Minister said that assisted deaths were unacceptable, and that Sky TV would have to account to the regulator for its actions.

Labour’s Emily Thornberry condemned the opening in her constituency of the country’s biggest 24-hour lap-dancing club, blaming the Liberal Democrat council (and entirely ignoring the fact that her own government effectively brought about the current plethora of lap-dancing clubs by changing the law).

The Prime Minister told her “we will legislate”.

Questions followed on loans for small businesses (twice); the credit union movement; and the number of deaths of abused children (this one heard in absolute silence).

The penultimate question was by Labour’s Chris Ruane who stumbled over his words as he asked about heart disease. The Prime Minister was so glib in reading out heart disease statistics that it seemed probable the question was a plant. And so Prime Minister’s Questions ended as it began, with an easy lob.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Free samples



Lindor promotion outside Victoria Station. If done well this sort of interaction with potential customers is the best kind of marketing. You can write about chocolate, you can illustrate it with superb photography, you can send out witty viral productions of great apes performing the repertoire of Phil Collins.

None of them comes close to the impact achieved by actually handing out free samples of the product.

Unfortunately this kind of marketing is very expensive (compared with other ways of reaching the target audience) and so it is comparatively rare.

In the background you can see the 1908 Grosvenor Hotel, built over Victoria station. Convex mansard roofs, white Suffolk stonework, heavy Florentine cornice. Victoria station is the London terminus of the Orient Express (now only goes as far as Venice).

Monday, December 08, 2008

Channel 4 is very lacklustre even at its best



When I was writing up yesterday’s entry I was a bit concerned that describing an expensive meal at a luxury hotel might seem insensitive when thousands of people are losing their jobs, having their homes repossessed, experiencing sleepless nights worrying about their credit cards. Then I read in the Sunday Telegraph that Culture Secretary Andy Burnham hosted an ultra-lavish £50k party for just twenty media oligarchs. So that makes everything okay (doesn’t it?).



Above: I took this photo earlier in the year – the Channel 4 headquarters in Horseferry Road.

Among the guests of the Culture Secretary was Andy Duncan, Chief Executive of Channel 4. His company has been much in the news recently over whether it should “share” the BBC licence fee. Presumably it would first have to share BBC standards of quality (Channel 4 is very lacklustre even at its best).

Channel 4 News is “fronted” by Jon Snow, one of the dreariest presenters currently working in television. Dry, pedantic, ponderous. The “profound” silences while he thinks about what to say next are excrutiating.

Chairman of Channel 4 is businessman Luke Johnson. An admirer of Rupert Murdoch. Probably most famous for expanding Pizza Express from a modest chain of restaurants to a ubiquitous identikit “presence”.

Deputy Chairman is well-known film producer David Puttnam (Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire, The Mission). Started his career working for CDP. Now involved with digital agency Profero (they took the Lufthansa work off Jon Stadden).

Director of television is Kevin Lygo. Boasted to the Evening Standard that Channel 4 brought reality television to the United Kingdom. Defended the Big Brother “race row” as being good for ratings.

Head of Programming is Julian Bellamy. He has a good reputation for finding new talent. On the downside he has brought a lot of garbage to Channel 4 during his time with the company (ie F*** off, I'm a Hairy Woman).

More on Profero: http://www.profero.com/uk/

Friday, December 05, 2008

Crisis mode

I am at home today as I needed a rest. For days I have been in "crisis mode" dealing with a campaign that risked falling apart (and has now, hopefully, been recovered). The mailing was late going out; the micro site was late going live (after the mailing, referring people to the website, had begun to drop); there was an intractable problem with a supplier; the client's call centre is not really "on board"; the mailing was scaled back so that I worry there are not enough to achieve critical mass; at any moment we expect a solicitor's letter from the client's competitor...

But if it works it really will work.

Note added Saturday: I am embarrased by that last sentence. It is not like me to get enthusiastic over a marketing campaign. What I meant to say is that it will really work despite everything that has gone wrong, all the obstructive people who have got in the way, and all the mistakes I have made because I am so tired I can't think straight.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Underhand and misleading



I received this marketing drop in today's post. It is an invitation to take out insurance on my fridge/freezer. As you can see it has been designed to look like a final demand for payment (the sort sent out by utility companies to people who can't afford to pay their electricity bill).

I am baffled why any company should practice dishonest tactics such as this. Do they have so little faith in their product that they have to resort to underhand and misleading communications? Imagine the numbers of people involved - someone thought the idea up, gained approval from someone else, asked someone else to write it, asked someone else to design it, asked someone else to print it, asked someone else to get it stuffed into envelopes, asked someone else to produce the address data, asked someone else to brief the call centre etc etc

Did none of those people actually stop and think about what they were doing? And perhaps give some feedback "up the line" that marketing like this is counter-productive and is likely to alienate far more people than they can ever hope to con into paying this "final notice". Or am I missing something, and this is just a bit of fun by your average post-modern marketing team?