Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tax return

Because I have a small amount of freelance income I have to complete a self-assessment income tax return.

Normally I complete a short form and any tax due is collected via PAYE.

This time I thought I would do it on-line.

What a nightmare!

Gobbledegook language, unclear options, a "how to pay" instruction that is three thousand six hundred words long (THREE THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED WORDS!).

It has taken me two hours and I am still going to have to ring them up to clarify some points.

"Tax doesn't have to be taxing" shouts Adam Hart Davis in government propaganda advertising campaigns.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of 2009 - (1) Michael Jackson

I thought I would use the next few days to review some of the events of 2009 as I saw them (which is not, of course, necessarily the same as everyone else saw them).

The death of Michael Jackson became a media circus, so that I was overwhelmed and disheartened by the coverage. Also, the double-standards exhibited. The accusations against Michael Jackson are no different to the accusations against WH Auden (particularly his behaviour in Ischia), and yet Jackson's reputation has been trashed and Auden's reputation is sacrosanct.

Anyway, I was interested in the wayside shrine (there is no other description for it) that appeared in Leicester Square immediately after Michael Jackson's death. Particularly how religious it appeared to be (the flowers; the messages on post-it notes like prayers left in the Wailing Wall; the visiting pilgrims etc). It was like something out of the middle ages, on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Kim Blacha's opinion: "He only made one great album, Thriller. Everything before was smaltz. Everything afterwards was recidivist." *

* I think she said recidivist.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas present

It was inevitable that someone would give me Andrew Marr's latest book as a Christmas present. He is an interesting historian, although his cameos do not always project adequately to illustrate the national picture. And you always get the sense that he is holding back, as if he could say more if he wanted to.

The Lawrence James is much more interesting. It's the sort of book I will read slowly, underlining paragraphs on every page. I know just by looking at it, that I will be changed after reading this book.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hamlet on BBC2

Yesterday I watched the televised Tennant version of Hamlet on BBC2.

It was an excellent production - the sets were well designed, the costumes modern, the camera angles clever (avoiding the stilted look some televised plays assume).

I had been a little wary of David Tennant as Hamlet, especially possible over-use of his ironic eyebrow, but actually he was also excellent. For me the crucial part of Hamlet is the Hecuba discussion, and David Tennant did this superbly well. Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius was very enjoyable.

David Tennant appeared barefoot in the production, and Jude Law also appeared barefoot when he played Hamlet at the Wyndham Theatre earlier this year, which made me check Shakespeare's text to see if bare feet were mandatory.

Above: picture I took at the end of the Jude Law Hamlet (which I saw back in July) - our seats were up in the Grand Circle, so the view was not good. The audience was seventy-five per cent teenage girls. Jude Law is probably the best Hamlet I have seen, even with the cramped view, and gave the Hecuba discussion its full meaning.

Above: the Wyndham Theatre in Charing Cross Road, photographed on 1st July 2009. The building was designed by WGR Sprague and opened in 1899. The interiors are some of the nicest in London.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Carol concerts on Christmas Eve

Above: Nativity window at a parish church in the county. The children from the Sunday School have made paper angels to go on the ledge. Carol concerts on Christmas Eve are so ubiquitous that it seems pointless to record them from an anthropological and ethnographical point of view. Except that their very ubiquitousness is worth recording as evidence of the continuum of our thousand-year culture. Every year media commentators (Joan Bakewell springs to mind) tell us society is now completely secular. And every year society shuts down completely to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.

The front page of the Guardian today said that the Church of England was struggling to attract under-eighteen members. Ignoring the fact that the Church of England has more under-eighteen members than the Guardian has under-eighteen readers. Also the Church of England has more members than any political party (probably all political parties put together).

Above: very blurred photo I took of the choir singing at the Service of Lessons and Carols I attended earlier this evening at the great minster on the plain (at midnight I will go to Holy Communion at the church at the end of the lane).

Above: as everyone was leaving the Service of Lessons and Carols the ice and snow was melting, and there was a continuous sound of dripping and running water as we walked back to the market place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nativity play

Nativity plays are a characteristic part of the immediate pre-Christmas period. Many (perhaps most) infant schools in the county have a production. The plays have been performed for hundreds of years, often in an unchanged format.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Fourth Sunday of Advent, and the silver has been brought out ready for the Christmas services. Mostly 18th century, although there is a patten which is medieval. Normally the silver is kept at the diocesan strongrooms.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Things are still chaotic - the past week at work


A day off using up more of my holiday (it can't be carried forward). Several anguished calls from Andrea about what was happening in the agency. There had been a call from a client who only wished to talk to me, and this had riled our boss Yvette (she is not used to being snubbed).


Half-day, so I was able to get up quite late. Hardly any passengers on the train up to London. The cold was a distraction, so that I could not concentrate.

In the office only Andrea was there. Her greeting was sullen, so that I wondered if there had been another row. I was aghast at the mess and disorder that remained after the office reorganisation.

Yvette came in, and I realised for the first time that beneath her intimidating exterior she is an essentially silly woman. She described driving along the Westway talking to her lover by mobile 'phone in a car immediately ahead. She seemed to think this was a huge joke.

More clients are being added to my list so that I wonder how I will get the work done.


Yvette looked out the window of the new Operations room and saw Duncan running along the pavement because he was late. Opening a window she bellowed out threats at him. It seems certain that his days with us are numbered, although the manner of his departure is not yet clear.

A coup when I gained an enormous discount from a national publication - Yvette was delighted at this.


Things are still chaotic. I have lost the room I used to share with Chris (Accounts) and have been moved into a general office with Andrea and some vacant desks (presumably for new staff). Yvette's office is just round a corner and I overheard her telling Terry (our ultimate MD) about my negotiating with the newspaper yesterday.

Andrea complained that she was overburdoned. She has been very snappy over the last couple of weeks. At one point in the afternoon she was uppity with Yvette, so that the big woman had to reiterate her instructions, saying sarcastically "Do I detect a whinge in your voice?"

Midpoint in the afternoon Yvette telephoned a local Italian restaurant and ordered zabaglioni for everyone. The manager himself brought over bowls of the creamy confection. Later one of the waiters came to collect the dirty dishes.


A horrible disrupted journey to work. I arrived at eleven, just in time to hear Yvette announce that she was closing the office and sending everyone home because of the extreme weather. The PR section upstairs stayed open and apparently was very dismissive of our going home (Douglas later e-mailed me: "namby-pamby la-di-da health-and-safety shysters").

Friday, December 18, 2009

Steve McQueen's Hunger

Earlier this week (Tuesday) I watched the feature film Hunger on Channel 4. Directed by Steve McQueen, it had good reviews when it came out in 2008. The film is a study of the 1981 IRA hunger strike.

Although it had some exceptional moments, ultimately I found the film disappointing. I was hoping it would help to explain (even in a small way) what happened in Northern Ireland during the period 1968 to 1997. Unfortunately Steve McQueen seems to have settled for a work of propaganda.

I suppose I have worked in advertising too long, so that I know instantly when I am being sold to.

For instance, in a film that was effectively about bodies, we saw a shower scene which displayed the naked flabby bodies of the prison warders (a Union Jack keyring establishing that they were Unionists). A little later we saw the naked superbly-toned bodies of the IRA prisoners. This is, I'm afraid, dishonest characterisation.

In the film's powerful focal scene Bobby Sands and a Roman Catholic priest take it in turns to soliloquise (they are hardly talking to each other) the sunlight from the window behind them creating a beautiful golden nimbus around each of their heads. This is rubbishy cheap symbolism. Effective rubbish, but rubbish nevertheless.

More interesting (because more subtle) was the end scene. At the culmination of his hunger strike we saw Bobby Sands on the point of death - the bathos of sunlight on the prison bed, the crows calling, Bobby Sands seeing his 12-year-old self waiting for him to expire. The mysticism and references to the Death of Cu Chulainn were well done, although possibly owing a debt to Rosemary Sutcliff.

The film hinted at the probable narcissism of the hunger strikers, but left this unexplored. The scenes of violence were unconvincing (if you turned the sound down you could see how stylised they were). The film's emphasis on bodily excretions (tears, blood, ordure) reminded me of the medieval obsession with relics.

In the commercial breaks the bleak hunger strike was alternated with Jamie Oliver cheerfully advertising Sainsbury's range of Christmas food.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Greedy liars

Above: the home of Labour grandee Quentin Davies.

I watched the Politics Show at lunchtime today, hoping they would cover the belltower expenses scandal (Labour grandee Quentin Davies has been charging restoration of his belltower to the public purse on the grounds that a belltower is necessary for him to carry out his duties as an MP). The Politics Show made no mention of the Labour grandee's greed, and barely covered the expenses scandal except as a discussion topic in the last few minutes. Parliament will shortly go off on another long holiday (they seem to be unaware that most people only get 21 days plus bank holidays).

I was interested in the belltower expenses scandal as a couple of years ago I made a visit to the village where Quentin Davies lives to look at his Queen Anne mansion (Pevsner writes approvingly of the architecture, although he makes no mention of a belltower). The park is screened from the road by a thick hedge but there was a gap where I managed to take the above photograph. Had I realised how much public money had gone into the upkeep of the property I might have been sufficiently enboldened to go closer.

However I now realise that taking a picture of a government minister's home was a foolish thing to do. Under new "anti-terror" legislation (which must have been passed in secret as I have never heard of it before) the police can now arrest people for taking photographs, even from a public road. By taking this picture I risked being seized by the "anti-terror" police, taken to Paddington Green police station, and from there "disappeared" into the gulag of rendition ghost camps in eastern Europe.

Above: satirist Rory Bremner as Tony Blair in a restaurant in Edgware Road. The area is a centre of London's arab community. Rory Bremner was satirising Tony Blair's appointment as "Middle Eastern envoy" for George Bush (note the hookahs).

One of the Politics Show's lead items this lunchtime was Tony Blair's shameless admission that he had made up the jusification for the Iraq war, and that if the WMD argument hadn't worked he would have just made up something else instead.

Can nothing be done about politicians who tell lies and make fools of the electorate? Certainly Tony Blair should get none of the usual honours that go to past Prime Ministers (no peerage and certainly no Garter). Perhaps the courts can confiscate the vast sums of money he has made from speaking tours on the grounds that they are the proceeds of a crime?

So in the past week British politicians have once again been exposed as greedy and as liars, with government ministers leading the way ("whiter than white my arse").

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The White Ribbon

On Thursday I went to see The White Ribbon (Die Weisse Band) at the Arts Picturehouse cinema in Cambridge. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. All the reviews I have read about this film have praised it excessively.

Directed by Michael Haneke, the story is set in a north German village on the eve of the First World War. Everything about the film is superbly done. Although it is two and a half hours long, as soon as the film finished I wanted to see it again.

Visually very beautiful, the black and white scenes of Biedermeier interiors and bucolic landscapes are worth careful study in themselves (when it comes out on DVD I will probably watch it through without the sound).

The violent incidents in the story are more effective for never being explicitly shown.

The narrative attempts to locate the origins of totalitarianism in the stifling rigidity of pre-First World War society. There are various symbolic references to later events (the wearing of armbands, the contempt for established institutions, the persecution of those who do not fit in etc). The issue of whether the children are rebelling against society, or enforcing conformity to it, is deliberately left unanswered.

If we accept that the twenty years before the outbreak of the Great War represent the apogee of rational "civilisation" with its reverence to the higher culture of the mind (as opposed to the later cultivation of emotional and physical sensations) Haneke is possibly asking questions about the value of inhibitions. The people in the village are completely inhibited - actually inhibited by layers of clothes, object-filled rooms, lack of transport; mentally inhibited by self-discipline, codes of behaviour, implied obligations to each other; socially inhibited by the complex and brutally-enforced hierarchy they find themselves in.

Is the violence necessary to maintain these inhibitions (the actual beatings, the mental cruelties, the threat of destitution) justified to sustain a stable secure community? Or is the violence necessary to rebel against these inhibitions (the persecutions, the burnings, the destruction) justified to bring this social construct down? You can see it both ways.

The film's depiction of Wilhelmine Germany reminded me of the semi-autobiogrpahical novels of Sybille Bedford.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Have I Got News For You

Sent by e-mail.

After watching The Thick Of It on Saturday I left the television on and Have I Got News For You appeared, presented by Jo Brand ("I saw that – she looked like Marj Proops with the glasses and hairdo"). 


This show had a live audience (the camera showed them at the end) but the laughter sounded canned.  The show format includes four satirists / comedians who are asked questions about current news stories.  They are supposed to respond with witty comments and the audience laughs.


The panel comprised Ian Hislop, Paul Merton, a stand-up comedian called Jon Richardson, and Daily Mail journalist Quentin Letts.  Most of the show seemed to consist of Quentin Letts sparring with the other panelists (including Jo Brand), possibly because they disapprove of the Daily Mail newspaper.  Generally Quentin Letts got the better of them.


I have stopped watching these shows mainly because the humour has become so dated (tired and predictable targets).  It is as if they are stuck in 1995 and still need to attack John Major's pathetically inadequate Tory government.  There was also an odd, unfunny episode when the panel stopped being entertainers and started discussing the future of the BBC, as if the show had suddenly become Question Time.


One of the reasons Tony Blair was able to get away with so much was because the satirists gave him such an easy time.  It was only when Armando Iannucci began to challenge the new establishment that others began to do the same.  Possibly the satirists should be in the dock of the Chilcot Enquiry along with the lying politicos, cowed diplomats and put-upon civil servants.


"Political bias within the BBC" is a perennial topic, and normally I don't pay any attention to the claims and counter-claims.  But comedy shows seem to be a legitimate area of concern.  Jo Brand makes no secret of her affiliations, nor does Dermot O'Leary (a gormless twit who recently fronted Never Mind The Buzzcocks), nor does Stephen Fry.


My fear is that this lobby are attacking the Conservative Party in an effort to steal the election.  Not that I am under any illusions about the Conservatives.  When they start making mistakes and behaving arrogantly the satirists will need to attack them. 


But at this stage in my life, and speaking entirely personally, I REALLY WANT TO SEE THE BACK OF THIS GOVERNMENT.


And not only see them defeated, but also punished for what they have done (two Middle Eastern wars, one recession, and so many examples of incompetence it would be difficult to list them all).  Punished means not one single member of this current government should "pop up" in any new administration.  It is time for a completely new start.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Memorial brasses

The county is notable for the range and number of medieval memorial brasses contained in its parish churches. These monuments, dating from the thirteenth century onwards, commemorate all classes of society, and contain an enormous amount of detail. Here are a few (very poor I’m afraid) images I have collected.

Above: a coat of arms, all that remains of a much larger memorial that has been “lost” (stolen, vandalized, thrown out by the Vicar) – notice the stars and stripes.

Above: if a brass has been lost you can sometimes find a “rubbing” of it taken in Victorian times. The British Library has a fine collection of these rubbings. This shows the famous Hastings brass at Elsing in Norfolk (actually this is a photograph of a postcard of a rubbing of a memorial brass).

Above: some churches still allow brass rubbing, but most have stopped the practice because of risk of damage to the monuments.

Above: brass of a medieval knight. Note the chain mail and flexible gauntlets. The indentation you can see would have held his coat of arms, probably stolen and sold into the antiques trade.

Above: this brass of a young knight gives a lot of information, and we can read that he was regarded as generous, faithful and loyal. The simple lozenge design on the coat of arms indicates his family was recently armigerous (otherwise we would expect to see quarterings). His helmet has a crest of ostrich plumes (rare in the 1630s).

Above: this is (to me) a mystery brass. It shows an ostensibly puritan family of 1620 – mother, father, seven sons and three daughters (the ones holding skulls would have died before the memorial was made). They are kneeling at a prayer desk with Bibles open before them. However, hovering over the prayer desk, and dominating the scene, are the arms of the Drapers Company, containing Marianist and Catholic imagery (the triple crowns are a symbol of the Pope). Presumably the father was a member of the Drapers Company, but the prominence given to the arms make me wonder whether a secret recusant message is being conveyed. It is as if the family is venerating the triple crowns.

Above: this couple seems to have had only one child which died in infancy. You can see that the christening robe has been used as the baby’s shroud. Such images as known as Chrysom children.

Above: indentation in a dark corner of a church, half hidden by mats and a curtain. Hundreds of these indentations indicate the wealth that has been lost. Occasionally (very occasionally) brasses are tracked down and returned to the churches they were taken from.

Above: Fr Jereme Bertram has written a very erudite analysis of “lost” medieval brasses, and how even the indentations can supply a lot of information. He used to be chaplain at one of the colleges of London University. Very civilised and knowledgeable.

Sometimes I ask myself why I allocate so much of my life to studying local history. It is as if I am driven to record, analyse and report on the way past societies organised themselves. It is as if I want to understand everything.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The friends one makes tend to be shallow, and the enemies implacably sincere - the past week at work


The weather this morning was rather gloomy but not unpleasant. In the big field the calves were sat down placidly, not far from the kitchen window, including the calf with the white face. In the half-light of the middle kitchen puppy Peanuts (who is lodging with us for a week) looked happy and innocent, working his way through a dog chew.

Andrea was away “ill” today (everyone assumed she had gone to an interview).

I managed to clear up a small mystery today. The Sheila S who has called the agency repeatedly was another Sheila S, from Roofing, Cladding and Insulation magazine, and not the NEMESIS FROM THE PAST that Andrea had feared was stalking her. In advertising the friends one makes tend to be shallow, and the enemies implacably sincere.

Dramatic news that “consultant” Nigel Celeste (in the PR section upstairs) had resigned and he left the company at midday. When he came round to say goodbye he was scathing about Head of the agency Yvette (“I would chuck her out the window if I could pick her up”). Yvette had been out when he visited us, and Eleanor (Associate Account Executive) told him he wouldn’t have been so brave if Yvette had actually been in the office.

In the afternoon new client Exwell came through with another ad which I processed on Andrea’s behalf with a lot of interference from Yvette. I talked at length by ’phone to Andrea as I worked on the copy. She didn’t sound at all ill.

I worked until six o’clock and was asked along to an impromptu visit to a local pizza restaurant by a group of staff from upstairs. They included Aine 2, Douglas, Patricia (who is still intent on leaving), and a former temp (who told me I had nice eyes). Inevitably most of the talk was about the company and Managing Director Terry’s drive for new business (“He’s very good at small-talk because he doesn’t need a response – he just talks to himself”).


I had to get to the office ridiculously early to e-mail a document to the Exwell client before he went into a meeting at the Gatwick Hilton. Later in the morning he came back with subsidiary requests for information, which led to frenetic activity to get everything back to him in time. A “well done” from Yvette left everyone feeling slightly stunned.

Because of the recession our clients are not so busy, with the consequence that we are not so busy. To counter this Yvette is constantly giving out projects to do “for when the upturn comes”. Most of these activities appear to be pointless.

I went to see a new charity client Yvette has passed on to me. Their headquarters was in a big house in Fulham. It was nice to be out of the office for a while.


Yvette has decided she wants to change her business cards and that the new ones must be ready by Friday. Somehow Patricia (Terry’s PA) heard of this and put a stop on it, saying the corporate style applied to everyone in the Group. This enraged Yvette and it was frightening to see the big woman storm upstairs to sort the matter out (predictably she won the argument).

In the evening I went to a committee meeting of the educational charity I do voluntary work for. The meeting was held in the Library of the charity’s headquarters. We discussed sales of tickets for the Christmas Ball – one of the main fundraisers for the year.


Chaos as the agency gets ready for an office reorganization, and hardly any work done. BT engineers were drilling holes and putting in wires, Neil and Duncan (our uncreative Creative Team) moving furniture for them. At one point everyone was in my office making Yvette jokes (Yvette was out).


A day off, using up my holiday allocation before the end of the year (it can’t be carried forward).

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Nepotism in the British media

There seems to be no end of nepotism in the British media – people who are only where they are because of their relations.

It’s not as if they are any good at what they are doing.

James Murdoch has none of the immoral Machiavellian guile of Rupert Murdoch (for which I suppose we should be thankful).

Sam Leith never seems to have written an interesting sentence in all the many publications he has been employed at.

But the one who most provokes me is “historian” Dan Snow, a slapdash clod with the dreariest voice in broadcast media. With a seemingly endless supply of cagoules and anoraks he strides around a variety of wet landscapes making contrarian historical statements that have no supporting evidence. How much longer is this fraud “historian” to be tolerated?

Monday, November 30, 2009

St Andrew's Day

Above: there is a section of Scottish society that sees the country as continually pushed behind England (although were Scotland to ever achieve "independence" it would still remain a small country immediately alongside a much bigger one).

Today is St Andrew's Day, and in Edinburgh the First Minister of the Scottish Executive (Alex Salmond) called for a referendum on Scottish independence. I watched Daily Politics at lunchtime and the First Minister was interviewed on the programme wearing an ethno-nationalist badge and silly ethno-nationalist tie. In appearance Alex Salmond gives the impression of being a jovial buffoon, but if you listen to what he is saying you realise he is promugating the evil doctrine of communal competitive prestige.

During the interview Alex Salmond became rattled at one point, and repeated the libel that "Scottish oil has been stolen by the English" (he said this very obliquely, but that was undoubtedly the slur he was making).

There has been no net benefit to ANYONE in the United Kingdom through possession of North Sea Oil. Having the oil has pushed up the value of the currency, and a strong currency has in turn destroyed British manufacturing industry - the one cancels out the other. Lord Kaldor demonstrated this in a speech to the House of Lords in the early 1980s (you can read the speech in the two images below, if you click on them they will enlarge).

Above: on the whole the SNP is given an easy ride by interviewers. Possibly it is because it is hard to take seriously a political movement dressed up like a tin of tartan shortbread. But these politicians represent the politics of envy, divisiveness and implicit communal violence (always strenuously denied).

SNP policies, like most "ourselves alone" political movements, are also economically crazy.

For instance, if they were to win a majority in a referendum on independence (highly unlikely) and took Scotland out of the United Kingdom they would also be taking Scotland out of the European Union. Are they proposing to have immigration borders and import tariffs at Berwick? Or do they imagine they will fast-track membership of the EU ahead of Turkey?

These people are mad and evil.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

English medieval alabaster plaques

Above: unexpectedly the ancient door in the Norman doorway was unlocked.

Above: inside it was dark, but the setting sun sent what appeared to be a golden ball of light into the building, allowing me a few minutes to look around.

Above: looking to the east. You can see the unusual arrangement of standard candlesticks which are lit at Easter, Christmas and the Feast of All Souls. Notice the high altar. In the nineteenth-century an alabaster plaque featuring the patronal saint was found under a flagstone in the chancel. Presumably it had been hidden there during the Reformation. The plaque would have been displayed above the high altar.

Above: English alabaster religious plaques were carved from sulphate of lime only found in a particular corner of south Derbyshire. Thus there is a fine display of the plaques in Nottingham Castle museum (from where I purchased this very thorough monograph). Mostly dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they were exported all over Europe, but have now become extremely rare in England itself.

Above: if you don't want to travel to Nottingham you can see English medieval alabaster plaques in the Victoria & Albert Museum. On the right is St Catherine and the Burning of the Philosophers (the Roman Emperor Maxentius sent a group of philosophers to convert St Catherine to paganism, but instead she converted them to Christianity at which point Maxentius burned them). The plaque on the left is the head of St John the Baptist (interestingly, alabaster plaques of these heads were produced for private houses rather than churches, the cult of the head of St John the Baptist originating with the Knights Templar and signifying...).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

I have to think about the possible repercussions - the past week at work

I have decided to return to my Work Diary. Over recent months I stopped it, afraid that I might be discovered. Now I no longer care.


I was determined to get to work on time today, after a number of sarky comments from Yvette (the agency "Head"). Arriving at five to nine, I found Yvette and Andrea were there before me, which was gratifying as I could make a lot of noise coming in so that Yvette would know I was in the building. Without even getting a cup of coffee I sat at my desk and began typing up Status Reports.

Almost all of the morning was taken up with the agency weekly meeting. We all sit in Yvette's office while she promulgated her unique commercial philosophy. Always in these meetings there is a point when, without warning (although we have learned to expect it) she sharply picks on someone and asks them what they have been doing over the last few days (today it was the turn of junior Account Executive Duncan, and Yvette was very rude to him, telling him his new business efforts have been inadequate).

The meeting finished by Yvette telling us: "I think you're all quite underpaid by advertising standards" which was encouraging (although not strictly true - the salaries are more or less the going rate except for Duncan who is paid a pittance).

After the meeting I was asked to remain and explain what had happened with our American toy client. I tried very hard not to squirm, although it was difficult. At the end she told me to go with that soft feminine voice she sometimes uses, as if she was Brigitte Bardot sighing Je t'aime and not a sixteen-stone woman of steel.

Andrea was summoned in to see Yvette, and so long was she in there that Chris (lady who does the accounts) and myself became concerned at her possible fate (Andrea used to be "Head" of the agency and has had a number of run-ins with Yvette).

When Andrea finally emerged she insisted that she and I went to lunch. We went to a nearby Italian cafe mostly frequented by tourists. I had a slice of cold pizza, a savoury croissant, a cup of coffee and a sickly chocolate truffle confection.

Andrea was in an excited mood, and revealed that she and I are to be formed into a new Account Team handling the clients Yvette is bringing in. We will have a new admin assistant (Associate Account Exec) who is to start this week. Because Terry (ultimate MD of the agency) wants the headcount to remain static either Duncan or graphic designer Neil will be laid off.

This information left me with the hope (experienced so many times over the last months and then dashed) that there might be a future at the agency after all. A major concern is that many of the clients on my list have gone very quiet. I resolved to make more calls to them.

I stayed late, wanting to get my Contact Reports up to date. Yvette went upstairs to see Terry (he runs the PR side on the top floor). When she came down at half six I was the only one left in the office and she off-loaded her complaints onto me, expressing disgust at the state the agency had been in before her arrival, and saying that Terry had misled her.


Sat at my desk this morning, with a pile of work in front of me, I grew nostalgic for the pre-Yvette days when I had been free to do as I pleased. Now everything has to be "accountable" and before doing anything I have to think about the possible repercussions. We are also often put on the spot and asked to explain decisions taken months before Yvette arrived.

Eleanor started today as the new Associate Account Executive. Aged about forty-five, she has short blonde hair, average figure, and a smile that seems a little hostile. Within an hour of arriving she was talking about her abrasive divorce from a Greek person ("Greece is where men are men" said Duncan. "No they're not" said Eleanor, "they're pigs").

Eleanor's arrival gave Yvette an excuse to indulge in her favourite hobby of moving people and furniture around.

In the evening I went from work to a committee meeting of the educational charity I do voluntary work for. We sat in the splendour of the Willingdon Room shivering our way through the agenda because the heating was off. The meeting was very optimistic, discussing access to new funds (just as the charity is about to fail someone leaves it a bequest and it is able to stagger on for a few more years).

We looked furtively at each other when the issue of co-options was discussed. I suspect most of the Council members share my desire to resign and hand our responsibilities to someone new. There are however limits - I heard of a very obnoxious person I knew at university putting out feelers as to whether he could join the Council and clattering about the headquarters in very loud shoes (the building has marble floors).


More introspection as I sat at my desk - I wish I could just get on with things and not have to bother about other people. Since Yvette's arrival the agency has become more stressful but also more exciting. There is a sense of movement after all the stagnation.

During the morning Yvette called us into her room to introduce a new digital media designer (freelance) she had appointed.

In the afternoon Yvette called Andrea and myself into a "review" meeting with our printer. Ange (short for Angela) listened to Yvette's immense list of complaints. Predictably the meeting became confrontational and Ange resigned as our supplier. She stormed out of the office after calling Yvette "Hiawatha" (Andrea giggled).

In the last hour of the working day Yvette called another general meeting and told us how the agency was being restructured. As expected Andrea and I are to form a new Account Team (and privately told we would get pay rises within three months). Neil and Duncan are to be formed into a Creative Team.


All the afternoon was taken up with a general "Group" planning meeting chaired by Terry. I suppose it was a privilege to be invited, although it went on for a tedious length of time and finished by discussing the new contract for the cleaners. Director John W's made unfunny quips the entire time.

By the time we got out of the meeting the rest of the staff were putting on their coats to go home.

After work I went to Kensington to see Adrian. His teenage cousin Antonia opened the door and asked me to wait in the untidy television room as Adrian had gone out for a while. From the television room I could look into the kitchen where I saw Antonia fussing a delicate blue-eyed cat and talking to two lanky youths (no doubt the double-boyfriend Adrian had told me of).

Adrian came back, and Matthew also arrived. We went upstairs to the sitting room and over a bottle of white wine we had one of our long hectoring conversations about politics. Adrian defended the Greens and Liberals, Matthew sneered at all politicians, I was the only one who thought the Conservatives would positively win the next election (as opposed to Labour losing it).

Halfway through Antonia brought up a plate of roast beef sandwiches, telling us "the tomatoes are home grown" (surely not true in November?).


Duncan was very late this morning, adding to the sense that his days are numbered.

I methodically worked through the papers on my desk, and this organised approach (which I don't always manage) paid dividends and I got a lot of things done.

Yvette told Andrea she was not wearing acceptable clothes, and refused to take her with her when she went to see the new printers we have appointed.

This put Andrea in a bad mood, and in turn she gave Duncan a hard time. Duncan is increasingly the butt of jokes in the agency. I try not to join in this baiting.

And the week ended with my finally completing all the Client Status Reports and talking through each of them with Yvette - it doesn't sound much but for me this was a considerable achievement.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Above: Wards Butchers - I can recommend the sausages.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham has proposed reducing meat consumption in the United Kingdom by about a third, both as a way of helping the environment and as a health measure (countering the trend towards obesity). Almost immediately his office retracted the statement and denied he had said any such thing and that the media had misunderstood what he had really said (one imagines hysterical Thick Of It scenes in the Department of Health). Later Andy Burnham's office issued a denial that he was (or had ever been?) a vegetarian.

Above: prize winning cattle at a local show.

The proposal actually makes a lot of sense. Too many people are getting fat, and meat products are too cheap in this country (meaning poor animal welfare standards - most people would not eat meat if they could see the industrial ways in which the animals are kept and slaughtered). We need to pay more for meat, eat less of it, and give the animals a decent life.

Above: the Shoulder of Mutton pub - has a good range of ales.

Eating meat has been culturally important in the British Isles since prehistoric times. Sir James Frazer has collected many references to the way in which meat has been produced and consumed over teh centuries. Folklore records heroes who eat their meat roasted as opposed to marauding pirates who eat their meat raw; taboos and prohibitions about when raw meat can be touched; restrictions on how meat must be served (Saxon princesses require specific herbs with their roast lamb, and on no account must any bones appear on the plate).

The Thick Of It hysteria:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Michael White's piece in The Guardian

I read Michael White's piece in The Guardian today about Philip Blond. It seemed to be a complete rip-off of an item from last night's Newsnight, even down to rehashing Danny Finkelstein's comment that David Cameron needs a range of think tanks so he can have a sort of pick'n'mix choice of intellectual ideas. When The Guardian practices lazy journalism I fear for the future of the free press.

Editor of The Guardian is Alan Rusbridger.

PS when I discussed Newsnight with Terry (our MD) he told me Danny Finkelstein used to be a "Liberal-Salad" in the 1980s.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Midland style

Above: the Midland Hotel in Morcambe in the early morning sunshine.

Recently I was at a conference in Lancashire, a county I had never visted before (unless you count Liverpool). One morning I got up early and had a big fried breakfast and drove across to Morcambe on the coast to see the Midland Hotel. The hotel is a fine example of art deco architecture, but the rest of the town was very run-down (and Heysham even worse).

Above: sculpted sealions above the main entrance.

The Midland Hotel has been restored fairly recently. Like many art deco structures, it has a nautical theme, inspired by great liners such as the Normandie. I only had about twenty minutes to look around before I had to leave to get back to the conference.

Above: on the seaward side the windows looked out over a terrace, the beach and the wide expanse of Morcambe Bay.

Above: Morcambe Bay from the hotel terrace.

Above: I went into the hotel to look around. Here you can see the main reception area. I am not sure if the furnishings are original - they don't quite look right (actually they look a bit cheap, whereas one of the characteristics of art deco was the use of expensive materials).

Above: looking up the main stairwell to a ceiling mural that seems to feature Neptune.

Above: the hotel sign in characteristic font.

The Midland Hotel in Morcambe is important not just as an example of art deco architecture, but as a final flowering of the Midland Railway style (in its final manifestation as the LMS). In this sense it is doubly interesting as both art deco and the Midland style were totalitarian design codes in which everything (exteriors, interiors, fittings and furnishings, signage, uniforms, letterheads etc) all conformed to an overall look. In the Midland Hotel we see this the result of this obsessive need to control everything.

Above: one of my favourite books - I never tire of reading it.

We think of "corporate style" as being a modern concept, but it goes back to Victorian times and was brilliantly executed by the Midland Railway which created a design empire which stretched throughout the United Kingdom (and terminated in London at the wonderful St Pancras station). People look at the Midland style today and think it is fussy and old-fashioned, but they miss the essential point. The Midland designers realised that when people make rail journeys they are under stress (the stress of getting to the station on time, the stress of standing in a ticket queue, the stress of the journey itself with the inevitable delays and hold-ups etc). Thus the entire time you were travelling by Midland railway the environment was designed to calm you down so that you almost suffocated in comfortable familiarity. This idea has been lost by modern architects and designers. Airports for instance are designed to increase the stress and alienation that travellers feel (what do Richard Rogers and Norman Foster care about ordinary passengers - they are more interested in building monuments to their egos).

Generally I feel that architects and designers are responsible for a fair amount of the stress people experience in modern life. This is because designers do not tend to study psychology and think that everything has to be "striking" (whereas most people do not like being struck most of the time). The coinage for instance - just at the time when we want people to have confidence in the currency we have that garbage design where the national symbols are chopped up.

Above: the contents page of Midland Style. Just leafing through this book I am transported to another world. I can't see the Network Rail corporate guide evoking the same sensation.

Above: even the colour swatches are calming to look at. Perhaps that's why I like this book so much. The designs are still working and reassuring people.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My own feelings of boredom

Teacups teetering on the edge.

I came out of the seminar early, bored by the social media junk I had heard before. And I saw these teacups, waiting with pregnant expectation, far too many of them (at least double) for the seminar attendees, and lined-up ridiculously close to the edge. The sense of presentiment was palpable.

Had I caught them just about to throw themselves over, in an effort to relieve themselves of the boredom of being teacups?

Or was I projecting my own feelings of boredom and urge to self-destruction (to yell at the speakers, to throw my papers around, to DO something) onto inaminate objects that can neither feel nor think?

And if I have an urge to self-destruct does this mean I am going mad?

Or was Yvette right when she said I was too boring to be mad?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Capture the unconscious influencers

Emerson is an amazing writer. The intellectual ideas he formulated are very relevant today. It is impossible to read Emerson without scribbling in the margins.

One of the most intriguing ideas he expressed:

"Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge".

Since I have read these three lines I have been thinking about the way in which influences move, like waves, through society. Only a few hundred people actually decide, either consciously or unconsciously, what the world is going to be like in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. The conscious influencers are easy (media, fashion, politics etc) but it is the unconscious influencers that have the most impact.

If you can capture the unconscious influencers imagine how ahead of the curve you would be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Staffordshire Hoard on temporary display

Above: I went to see some of the items from the Staffordshire Hoard on temporary display at the British Museum. Although I picked a time (just before closing) when the museum is usually fairly empty it was still difficult to get near them. In particular there was a party of elderly French people who leaned over the cabinets with no sign of moving, as if they were mesmerised by the gold.

Above: I think these are bits of a helmet (I couldn't see the caption as a French person was obstructing it). As you can see, earth is still attached to the items. According to The Times archaeologists wept when they first saw the finds.

Above: birds of prey fighting over a fish. Possibly part of a shield decoration. The military nature of the finds underlines the warrior aspect of Mercian society (and indirectly verifies Bede's "History" - one of the few Saxon texts that relates to the period).

Above: the golden inscription Rise up O Lord and may Thy enemies be dispersed and those that hate Thee be driven from Thy face. If Jung were alive today he would no doubt posit the workings of synchronicity in the appearance of this holy text (emerging from the Midlands earth after thirteen centuries) and the time of national emergency (bankrupt banks, terrorists both within the country and threatening from outside, a political class mired in the corruption of "expenses" etc). Will this Saxon hierograph have some kind of rejuvenating effect upon society?

There is much discussion about where the Staffordshire Hoard will finally be housed. It would be a disaster if the finds should end up in a corner of some existing museum in Birmingham (the Saxons were never city dwellers). In my opinion a new museum should be built especially for the treasure, preferably close to where they were found.