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?