Tuesday, November 30, 2010

St Andrew's Day

Today is St Andrew's Day. In the pedestrianised precinct, in front of a shuttered retail unit, this person in tartan clothes is playing bagpipes. Hardly anyone gave him any money.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

An M.R. James moment

Bitterly cold day, the temperature about three degrees below freezing. After lunch a drive to the middle of the county, the roads slippery with ice (especially the side roads). Because the landscape had a covering of white snow the light was reflected and refracted so that the afternoon stayed bright until nearly 4pm.

I arrived at the church half expecting the open day to have been cancelled, but when I pushed on the huge fourteenth-century door, black with age, it opened. And inside was a man aged about sixty wearing a brown tweed suit. In the south aisle his wife had set up a little table with urns of hot water and pots of tea - I was immediately offered a cup of tea.

The interior of the building was incredibly cold, so that it hurt my lungs when I breathed in. The man and his wife however were cheerfully impervious to the cold, and commenced an in-depth tour of the church. I suspected that I was the only visitor they had had all afternoon.

Above: my main interest in visiting the building was to see a carved head of a crusader knight that was supposedly brought from the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Above: the stone head itself was so unremarkable that it could be anyone. Verbal tradition links it to the crusades. We had a discussion about the topography of the area (famous for its natural springs) and demography.

Above: during the tour the elderly man took me under the tower, used as a lumber room for all sorts of unused items. Set in the wall was a Saxon stone (note the torque-like patterns - golden torques being a symbol of royalty). When the stone had been removed in 1890 a crouching body had been found behind it.

It was an M.R. James moment (and more disturbing for having seen Night Of The Demon on BBC2 last night).


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Office politics (which we all seem mired in) - the past week at work


Most of the morning I spent talking to the Information Services team. These five researchers have nothing to research since their projects were ended. Their manager had got a job elsewhere and rather than appoint a new manager they had simply been reassigned to the marketing department a couple of weeks before my arrival.

The expectation (among other managers) is that they will probably be made redundant, but I am determined to have nothing to do with this - I am on a temporary contract, and I don't need to get involved in this kind of unpleasant work.

Then a meeting with Ryan M, manager of the Operations Team. We discussed his marketing requirements for 2011, interspersed with many anecdotes connected with his love of football - both as a player for a local club and as a Chelsea supporter. He told me he had a fiery temper on the football pitch and often gets sent off (evidence of this sporting aggression is a small scar under his right eye).

Early afternoon a meeting with Meryl P who did my job before I was appointed, and had been demoted for incompetence. I am supposed to be supervising her work and training her to take back her old job when I leave. However she does not seem to be interested in getting her old job back, and whenever I try to delegate work to her she claims to be too busy. Presumably she is still feeling hurt and humiliated. There are two ways I can tackle this - I can either micro-manage every hour of her day until she co-operates, or I can leave her to do as much or as little as she likes. For the time being I am leaving her alone, but the downside of this is that I'm not getting any help with my ever-growing workload.

Late afternoon a meeting with my boss Tom D and Felix S who manages the other half of the department (statistics). It was a budget planning meeting. Although everyone else in the NGO is talking about budgets being cut, Tom D was confident our 2011 marketing budget would see a twenty per cent increase (his big head nodded, his wide mouth shaped into an even wider smile, his lips glistening with saliva).

I stayed in the office until six o'clock, then up to the Boardroom for a meeting about Information Services. I had not realised that Information Services had been an NGO within an NGO with a separate board. This board was now being dissolved and the team formally absorbed into the main NGO.

Present at this meeting was Tom D and two other board members whom I had never seen before. There was a lot of comments about how "difficult" the Information Services team had been to manage. I was asked to leave the room while a final remuneration payment for the two board members was negotiated with Tom D (although I saw later how much they had been paid).

Afterwards the meeting adjourned to a local hotel for a board dinner paid for out of the Information Services budget (this dinner had been an annual event, although as the NGO had been dissolved you would think they would have dispensed with it).

The hotel was a large Victorian villa, the dining room of which had been turned into a restaurant with five tables. The room was panelled and the over-furnished. Two other tables were occupied. The four of us had drinks at the bar (Campari, which tasted like cough mixture, with caviar on strips of toast) then took our places at one of the tables. The food was excellent, served with very good wines. Haddock and prawns wrapped in pastry, an enormous steak, a huge slice of chocolate gateau.

Tom D entertained the other two with a lot of management machismo talk.


No need to go to the office today, so I got up quite late.

At eleven I left the house and drove about seventy miles to the village where Tom D lives. He had asked Felix S and myself to a meeting at his home so that we could plan things "away from office distractions". His house was a modern building, detached but not large, 21st century bourgeois interiors.

Almost as soon as we arrived we had lunch of lasagna with a fizzy Italian wine, followed by cheeses and biscuits, followed by a glass of port. Tom's wife hovered in the kitchen, although she could have joined us at the meal. When the table had been cleared a large cafetiere of coffee was brought through.

We discussed management issues connected to our department. The budgets for 2011 have been agreed by Alec Pressberg (CEO of the NGO) and Tom's allocation has been increased by about twenty per cent (exactly as he had predicted). Tom then divided this money up - some to Felix, some to a general fund, and the remainder to Marketing controlled by myself.

The Marketing budget is huge, the largest I have ever controlled.

"The money is yours to spend as you see fit" Tom said to me, "I don't want you to feel that you have to okay things with me first" (this directly contradicts what he has said to me previously, that I have to clear ALL expenditure with him first).

The meeting finished at 4.30 and I was home by 6.


On the journey to work each day I have mapped out in my mind exactly what I want to do. But when I get to my desk it all seems so complex and chaotic. I am also getting a headache each day, usually in the afternoon.

A visit from Baptist Minister Caleb who is a sort of unofficial adviser to the NGO (or perhaps he does have an official role that I don't know about?). He stood by my desk chatting. Most of his anecdotes consist of massive rows that he has with people and that he always wins triumphantly.

In the afternoon a meeting with Preston who manages the Innovative department. I had been warned that he could be difficult so it was a relief the meeting went well. We talked over various marketing campaigns he wanted to do next year.

Two people came to see me from the all-women advertising agency that is producing the NGO's magazine. We went into one of the glass-walled meeting rooms. They had a selection of digital photographs for me to choose an image for the front cover ("you can't have that one, it hasn't got a woman in it").


A day when things seemed more under control.

During the morning a meeting with the Information Services team, giving them research projects on behalf of the other departments. They responded to the new work with enthusiasm. They are very nice people and I like talking to them.

Lunchtime I went to a pub with Felix S and Personnel Manager Yasmin. It was a rowdy pub with a group of lads at the bar singing along to the chorus of Cee Lo Green's Forget You (but instead of "forget" they sang a different f-word). We sat in a bay window and talked about office politics (which we all seem mired in).



Another long meeting with Preston in his Innovative department (half of the ground floor in the right-hand side of the building). He has a sort of maverick reputation, but I suspect he just enjoys being provocative. He told me it was a relief to talk to me, and that finally he thought someone in the NGO was on his wavelength.

Then into a database meeting, chaired by Felix S (the master database is under his control). Felix so vague and waffling that I felt myself becoming irritable. At one stage everyone in the meeting was criticising Felix.

The afternoon spent Special Projects manager Carmel, visiting possible venues for her launch - none of them were suitable.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Disturbing news

Very disturbing news this morning that the Food Standards Agency is telling people that milk and meat from cloned cows is safe to eat.
We have been in this situation before.  In 1990, at the height of the BSE (mad cow disease) scandal, the then Agriculture Minister John Gummer told the nation with absolute certainty (ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY - I am using capitals to convey the hectoring tone that was used) that milk and meat from BSE cows was safe to eat.  As far as I know John Gummer has never apologised for deceiving people in this way, and he now loafs around in the House of Lords unconcerned by the subsequent deaths from BSE (a proportion must have been influenced by his assurances of complete safety).
Myra Butterworth writes about today's news in the Daily Telegraph:
Why is the Big Society mechanism not working to prevent supermarkets stocking these products?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mandelson, the real PM on BBC4

I have just watched Mandelson, the real PM on BBC4.

The most surprising aspect was how dull it was.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christmas in November

The Big Society is supposed to mean ordinary people having more control over their environment.

So can we please put Christmas back into December. I don't know anyone who is in favour of all this consumer frenzy weeks before the event. And yet the advertisers and retailers keep chucking the stuff at us.

I'm not against Christmas.

I'm just against Christmas in November.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Unclear who is to pay for all this - the past week at work


I have to get up early to get to work on time, opening the curtains on what is still darkness. The journey takes me one and three-quarter hours, mostly through grey light, listening to the Today programme. I tell myself it is only for six months.

First a meeting with a team of five researchers who report to me. They are managed by Meredith (tall, thin, late fifties, iron-grey hair, refined Geordie accent, very correct). Tom D, my boss, also attended the meeting, his big head nodding sagely at all the wrong points. Most of the talking was done by researcher Katie (blonde hair in a bob, middle-class, pushy) who complained that the team had nothing to do since the projects they were working on had been abandoned. Tom D told them reassuringly (and I suspect falsely) that new projects were being allocated to them. It was decided to rename the team Information Services, with a general remit to work for all departments in the NGO.

By the time the meeting finished it was lunchtime. I walked out of the building to get some exercise and fresh air, and kept walking until the hour was up. New commercial estate, a few suburban roads, then a messy transition into edge-of-town countryside.

In the afternoon a review meeting with Tom D. He told me "By the end of the month I want you to have a marketing plan that includes individual marketing strategies that have been signed off by each of the department heads". As the department heads have a reputation for being awkward and unco-operative I knew this was not going to be easy.

The rest of the day was spent answering e-mails - every time I leave my desk they seem to flood in.


Every six weeks or so the NGO holds an "awayday" for senior staff. So instead of going to the office this morning I drove about sixty miles to a conference centre in a country mansion (undistinguished Victorian architecture, interior that had a sixteenth-century staircase, damp melancholy gardens). I was wearing fairly casual clothes, but when I got there I found most of the managers were very casual indeed, Operations Manager Ryan M in dark Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.

Felix S, co-manager in my department, told me to watch how Carmel (manager of Special Projects) behaved. She seemed to latch onto Chief Executive Alec Pressberg, holding his arm and screaming with laughter at his weak jokes. It was odd to see such a grey and characterless individual become the object of her cocquettry (as you might guess, I have taken a dislike to Mr Pressberg).

For most of the sessions we were crammed into a room that was virtually filled with an oval board table. There was a break for coffee (very good coffee) which was served in the main hall, nameless eighteenth-century portraits looking down at us, some of the canvasses having holes and tears in them. Personnel Manager Yasmin took me to one side and told me that Carl, the most junior person who reports to me, was "mad" to get into marketing and that she would arrange for him to have day-release to a marketing course (paid for by the NGO) if I would authorise it - Carl is the son of one of the other managers and it seems as if his employment and education is being off-loaded onto my department.

A lot of the sessions were very boring as we each described what was going on in our departments. Felix S was especially long-winded, droning on about the three major reports his team is producing. Because I have only worked for the NGO just over a week I had hardly anything to say.

Very good lunch of roast lamb. I was sat next to Ryan M whose bad-language and loud comments to everyone else in the room made ordinary conversation impossible. We helped ourselves to puddings on a side table - I had a bowl of sherry trifle followed by the chocolate pear dessert.

By the time the "awayday" ended I had another list of of marketing initiatives I am supposed to launch.

Although it was only four o'clock when we finished no-one was going back to the office.


Slight feeling of panic this morning at the amount of work I have on my desk. I have a team of nine so I ought to be delegating some of the work, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Meryl P, who is supposed to be assisting me, is very obstructive and unwilling to take on new assignments.

Most of the day spent accompanying Tom D to a local government office. They provided a lunch of dry sandwiches. I was not really sure what they wanted from us.

On the way back Tom talked about his background - a choral scholar at a cathedral school, then the civil service, then secondment to the NGO ("I love my job" he said).

In the afternoon a meeting with Carmel about the big launch she is planning. It is unclear who is to pay for all this. She wants a nice venue, a good celebrity to host it, and an audience of about a hundred (out of a list of five hundred targets she produced).


This morning Tom D, after several requests from myself, produced a sheet of paper with the department's budget. It was much larger than I anticipated. "All expenditure must be approved by myself" he told me.

Then another trip with Tom to visit a local government headquarters. I don't see the point of these visits since they are never very welcoming to us. Tom told me it was important to build up our networks.

An informal meeting with Leo, who reports to me but is Carmel's son. Aged eighteen he has a big powerful build, fair hair in shaggy ringlets, pale blue eyes that seldom look at you directly. He monitors mentions of the NGO in the media and produces a weekly report - which I suspect no-one really looks at.

After the working day had ended I had to hang around at my desk until 7pm then drive to a local "innovation park" to represent the NGO at a meeting of about fifty local public sector heads. Sour white wine to drink. Interminable discussion about the likely course of government policy.

There were many references to the NGO and eventually someone said "Is there no-one from the NGO here?"

With a sense of foreboding I stood up and explained who I was and said "As I only have two week's experience in the job I'm reluctant to give an opinion."

Someone at the side of the room shouted "Two week's experience is the BEST moment to give your opinion."

Everybody laughed.


A meeting with Carmel to discuss her launch. I was surprised at how well it seemed to be fitting together. I told her that Tom D had approved payment for the launch from the NGO’s marketing budget.

Lunchtime I walked to the artificial lake at the centre of the commercial estate – lush water plants, abstract statues, a jet-fountain gushing up about six feet in the air. By the lake is a sandwich bar called The Patisserie, selling delicious bagels and cakes. Despite the cold foggy air I sat at one of the outside tables, on the decking, and had a quiet lunch.

In the afternoon I took steps to block a “viral” film being produced by an ad agency for the Innovations department. They told me it would “go viral” on Youtube. I told them it would probably disappear without trace, and I refused to sign-off the expenditure (but a lot of the work has already been done, and I know that the Innovations department will get Alec Pressberg to force through the payment).

Although the office is open until 5pm I noticed that most people left about 3.30, and at 4.30 it seemed pointless to remain in an empty building and I went home myself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How much money can we make

In The Guardian today Mark Lawson said that television coverage of this week's royal engagement was greater than coverage of the 1981 royal engagement. There was a disappointed air to the piece, as if Mark Lawson had been hoping that the coverage would prove to have been less (and thus indicate a decline of interest in the British monarchy). No doubt a percentage of the coverage has been sychophantic, with no doubt much more sychophancy to follow, but there are some interesting comparisons between now and the 1981 event.

In 1981 both Russia and China were closed societies, totalitarian states subscribing to communist ideologies. The 1981 Royal Wedding barely registered in the vast territories that comprise those countries. But today the position is different.

The ceremony next year is likely to be one of the world's biggest broadcast media events (perhaps the biggest yet seen) with various commentators equating it to the Olympics or the World Cup in terms of media attention and advertising opportunities.

How far will it penetrate into the national consciousness of both Russia and China, with their huge populations? Will they remain true to their communist heritage and be completely uninterested? Or is the event sufficiently exotic and strange to attract their attention?

Tristram Hunt (historian and now a Labour MP) on Newsnight condemned the 1981 event as "imperial". There are arguments in favour of a cheaper, more austere ceremony. But in terms of newly-consumerised world poulations, is there an appetite for imperial performances? (the Beijing Olympics can be put in this category).

Above: China Daily, an official publication of the Chinese government, covered the royal engagement on their website. Admittedly this is the English-language version, but the Chinese never do anything without a reason. The Chinese do not kow-tow to anyone, so why are they doing this?

It's not as if they need United Kingdom support for anything.

Above: Pravda On-line (Pravda!) is covering the royal engagement in a series of extremely sympathetic articles. Of course, Pravda On-line is not the same as the old communist Pravda, but it still has a big following. One article even described the British monarch as "the pinnacle of excellence".

The question is: how much of this media attention is going to translate into positive responses towards British manufactured goods and services (and how much money can we make from it).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Abnormal and sickening

The proposed "super dairy" at Nocton was discussed on the Today programme this morning. To me it is a crucial test of the "Big Society" whether local people are going to be able to control their immediate environment and stop this industrial complex being imposed on their village. And looking at the marketing of these cruel products, how can anyone even think of drinking milk produced in such abnormal and sickening circumstances?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Robin Lane Fox on BBC4

Enjoyed the new Greek Myths documentary series on BBC 4 last night.  Presented by Robin Lane Fox, there were no dramatised re-enactions, intrusive special effects or oafs in stripey jumpers using archaeology to back-up political aspects of the New Labour programme.  This was genuine scholarship.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The concept of the maze

Recently I have been thinking about the idea of the maze or labyrinth in western culture.

Above: visiting a village in the south-west of the county I went into the church and saw this Norman font that was carved with unusual symbols.

Above: looking more closely at the symbols there seemed to be something familiar about the arrangement of swirls and triangles (also note the symbolic stars on the left).

Above: they reminded me strongly of the symbols I saw on the great stones at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley (in West Britain).

Above: reading more about Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange, the sites are enigmatic and the symbols obscure. The dating seems to be inconsistent (it varies in whichever book you read). I can't really remember much about my own trip to Newgrange except that it was a morning coach tour and the person sitting next to me fell asleep and virtually laid on me - I was only about seventeen, and not very assertive.

Above: this Nuba woman has had her hair cut in a maze design. When I saw the reports of the maze discovered by the National Trust at Lyveden New Bield I thought of this woman's hair. What is going on here?


Above: in his wonderful book Vergil, Epic and Anthropology W F Jackson Knight analyses the cultural significance of the maze, tracing it back to ancient Illium (Troy).

The film Troy (2004) shows the fight between Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Hector (Eric Bana) but gets wrong the way Achilles drags Hector around the city (according to WF Jackson Knight this is a symbolic ritual connected to the labyrith at Illium).


Above: I recently read Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand. Brand's argument is that humanity should plan for the next ten thousand years. And this made me think that I have been too self-limited in tracing the origins of modern behaviour back to the medieval period - it should be possible to look back ten thousand years (and perhaps the concept of the maze is a good place to start).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"We ARE the inner circle" - the past week at work


First day at my new job. The offices are located in a small town just north of London, on an estate of new buildings located around a shallow lake. Post-modern architecture, with bright red accents and chunky door handles.

When I arrived I was asked, by a very off-hand receptionist, to sit down and wait. A stream of people came through the front door, and I guessed these to be my new work colleagues. Then silence for about half an hour.

Then upstairs for a meeting with the Chief Executive Alec Pressberg. Tall thin individual in a dark grey pin-striped suit, aged mid-sixties. Heavily creased face, the skin leathery, big glasses that gave his eyes an owlish aspect.

We sat at his desk. No welcome to the organisation, but a succession of questions related to my understanding of public relations. A few probing questions about why I had left my last job (I told him openly that I hadn't got on with Yvette).

The rest of the day was taken up with meeting people and getting to know the place. I am working in a small department reporting to Director of Communications Tom Daw. I am part of the management team of this department, which includes Felix S (Research) and Meryl P (Marketing).

Tom Daw is a tall, big-boned, fleshy individual, aged about 50. Overlarge head, smooth pink face, slightly stooping shoulders. His suits look bespoke.

Both Felix and Meryl were civil servants seconded to the NGO when it was set up about three years ago. Felix had been experienced in research before taking up the secondment, but Meryl knew nothing about marketing and had struggled in her new role. A PR disaster a few months ago had led to Meryl's demotion and my recruitment on a six-month contract.

Tom Daw told me my job was to do Meryl's marketing tasks while at the same time training her to take over from me when my six months are up ("Be very firm with her" he said to me, indicating that she was not happy with the arrangement).

I talked for an hour to Felix S (aged about 45, lean, slightly pedantic). Felix told me the main reason I had got the job was my reputation for calmness, hinting at the open rows there had been between Tom and Meryl. As Meryl was a civil servant it had not been possible to sack her.

An hour spent talking to Meryl. She was a very likeable woman of about 35. Her eyes were so bright they seemed to shine. Vivacious and articulate. Divorced with a teenage son. It was obvious that she had no respect for Tom Daw (and I learned that he was also a seconded civil servant and didn't know anything about "communications").

Long, difficult and tiring journey home.


I have a desk at last. In the final days of the previous government the NGO had expanded, recruiting several new staff so that space was now at a premium. The accommodation of the NGO comprises four open-plan offices, each holding about ten people, plus the Chief Executive's suite, and two sets of meeting rooms on the top floor.

Most of the morning spent with affable Gerry, one of my subordinates, who runs the NGO's various websites. He took me out on a field visit to a local government office to talk to them about their requirements. Back at the office we had a visit from Caleb, a Baptist Minister who is one of the NGO's advisers.

I met Leo and Chris, two of Meryl's assistants (and therefore presumably my assistants). Both aged about 18, both sons of other mangers in the NGO (I was beginning to realise what an incestuous organisation it was). Inarticulate, rugby-obsessed, sullen.

In the afternoon a long meeting with Bonar B, the NGO's Director of Finance (Scottish, heavy moustache, wary). He told me he had opposed my appointment since the NGO was having its funding cut. He made no secret of his disapproval of Tom Daw and his spendthrift ways.

After work I had to go to an official function held in a hotel in north London. The dinner was attended by about thirty heads of various institutions. Tom Daw made one of the speeches, which went on far too long.

2am by the time I got home.


A cup off coffee at my desk, then into an unexpected meeting with an advertising agency. It was a novel sensation to be the client giving the orders instead of the account exec taking them. Adam, the account exec, explained to me what the campaign was all about (Meryl had told me nothing, which wasn't very supportive of her).

Then into a meeting with Carmel, manager of one of the other teams in the NGO. Aged about 50, slim-thin, bright red lipstick, loud, flirtatious, divorced (and Leo's mother). She talked about an initiative she wanted to launch in a few month's time.

In the afternoon I discovered (not an exaggeration!) a team of five researchers who report to me. I felt annoyed that neither Meryl nor Gerry had told me about their existence. They sit at a row of desks in a corridor area. They wanted to know what they needed to work on next. I took them into one of the meeting rooms and they explained what they did. I made some decisions for them with only the haziest of notions about what I was deciding.

Later I accompanied Tom Daw to a hotel just off the A1. In the lobby we met a freelance woman who is to do some promotional work at exhibitions. And then I was free to go home.


So tired this morning that when the alarm-clock went off I knew I had to get up immediately otherwise I would fall back to sleep. Cold as I sat on the edge of the bed, in the dark, contemplating the day ahead. Outside the house I could hear the arrival of vans bringing gangs to work in the fields.

At the office I was directed to the big meeting room on the top floor. All the NGO mangers were gathered to listen to an auditor. Bonar B was there, and told us how serious the financial position was.

Then into central London with Tom Daw to meet another (another!) advertising agency the NGO uses. The agency was comprised entirely of women. We were given lunch of sandwiches and Perrier, and discussed publication of the NGO's magazine.

Afterwards Tom and I went to a government department for a briefing meeting. Tom passing more and more projects over to me ("I'm so glad to have you with us, so I can pass on some of this paperwork"). After the meeting, although it was only 3pm, Tom told me to go home.


The end of the working week. As I travelled to work I became apprehensive about all the urgent things that I have to do. I consoled myself with the thought that the job was only for six months.

During the morning a meeting with Ryan M, Director of the Operational Team. Aged about thirty, good-looking, continuously making jokes. The Operational Team is supposedly the most important part of the NGO, although their work sounded very boring.

At lunchtime I accompanied Tom Daw to a sensitive and confidential "strategy meeting" held at a country hotel. We met various senior people connected to the NGO. In a private board room they discussed future funding in the difficult economic situation (I just listened).

At one point someone said: "Does anyone know the names?"

"You're not supposed to know the names unless you are in the inner circle" said a rotund gentleman with glasses.

"We ARE the inner circle" said Alec Pressberg.

In the afternoon I had my second meeting with the Operational Team, meeting Ryan M's cynical subordinates - their cynicism seemingly a direct mirror of Ryan M's enthusiasm.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ancient Worlds on BBC 2

On Wednesday I began watching Ancient Worlds on BBC 2. It is a review of regional "civilisations", focussing upon their urban achievements (literally civitates). Presented by Dr Richard Miles.

On the whole I liked it, although I think Dr Miles laid on the "globalisation" propaganda a bit too thick. Ancient cultures may have been inter-connected, but they thought of their own part of oikoumene as unique and their own particular polis as the centre of the world. And although Dr Miles showed us lots of evidence of ancient travel, the vast majority of the world's population never left their own village.

Above: the Sumerian exhibits in the British Museum.

The part of the programme I most enjoyed was the section on the Sumerians. Often I go to the British Museum to look at the Sumerian room. I'm not sure what it is about this early culture that attracts me so much.

Above: a ram caught in a thicket - Genesis 22, verse 13.

Above: steps of the British Museum (picture taken in the summer).

A recent post by Grant McCracken (http://cultureby.com/2010/11/a-marketing-miracle.html) made me think about the purpose of the great London museums and galleries. Grant had been disappointed by the glass cases of the Victoria & Albert Museum ("everything ranged coldly on shelves" as Dr Aziz would say). Is this a cultural difference between the New World and the United Kingdom?

Why do British people feel satisfied with a purely visual experience? Is there something about the objects being captured and contained in a glass case that adds to the sense of satisfaction? On a sub-conscious level are we seeing a cultural reflex at work?

The big London museums present themselves as international centres of scientific learning, and to a certain extent that is true. But they are also undoubtedly filled with the plundered treasures of imperium. Walking in these galleries must have seemed, to our great-grandparents, as if they had entered the allegorical world of The East offering its riches to Britannia (http://www.flickr.com/photos/22955235@N00/638426578/ ).

In that respect the British Museum is the curiosity cabinet of the nation (like the millions of glass display cabinets in British sitting rooms, filled with knick-knacks, holiday souvenirs and Coronation mugs).

There is also the sense that the Victorians were attempting to dominate and subdue The Past itself, as if all the unknown jumble of history and archaeology could be captured, analysed and explained in a continuous progression of improvement (with the unspoken implication that the United Kingdom was the final and logical expression of that process - "and here we are today...").

What is to be done?

Should we sweep the old museums away and replace them with institutions that more fully represent who we are now? Or do we leave them, accepting that who we are now is more or less who we were then, both good and bad (including a genetic disposition to dominate others). Freudian psychology suggests that if you try to repress aspects of yourself those repressions tend to burst out in unexpected ways - the supposedly socialist government of the last twelve years carried out no less than five neo-imperialist wars.


Monday, November 08, 2010


First wedding I have been to on a Sunday. Also first entirely secular wedding I have been to. It was held at a country hotel that had formerly been the Officers' Mess of an RAF base.

Above: confetti scattered on the red carpet leading up to the hotel entrance.

I was a bit late getting to the hotel, which was a two-hour drive from my home. I arrived just as the bride was stepping out of an antique white Rolls Royce, and I had to dash across her path to get into the building. Far from ignoring this bad time-keeping the bride (who is a friend of a friend) called out to me, which presented me with a quandary - do I stop and chat to her and effectively go in with the procession, or do I scuttle in ahead?

I gave a weak wave of acknowledgement and rushed on in.

Not being part of the main reception party I was directed into the wedding salon which was a big room filled with chairs arranged theatre-style. The blinds were closed at the windows and the room was lit by candles. White flowers everywhere, love-songs by Patrizio Buane playing over the sound system.

About eighty guests were sat down, with another twenty or so standing up (with official duties). Hardly any of the women wore hats, but instead wore fascinators, which resembled 1980s deeley-boppers. Because I was so late I had to sit at the back.

The actual ceremony took about half an hour, and after the formal registration we were asked to wait in our seats while various photographs were taken.

I was sat between two women who knew each other, and they talked over me.

"First wedding I've been at where I havn't had to sing anything" said woman one.

"They don't know the words" said woman two (who apparently was a teacher). "They don't teach hymns at school anymore. The kids don't even know the words of the national anthem."

When we were allowed to get up everyone filed into the entrance hall where drinks were served (also cups of coffee). Then about an hour of waiting around while the photographs were taken. A big group photograph was taken outside, all the men having to get down on one knee as if we were a football team, the gravel wet.

Interminable long line of welcome.

Above: my place setting.

The wedding breakfast was held in the hotel dining room (the whole building was closed for the event). Because everyone I knew was on the top table I sat at a table of strangers, although I soon got to know them. The food was very good, and because the staff kept bringing out "extras" I had everything that was going.

Champagne for the toasts. The speeches went on for about an hour. By this time it was 6pm.

As people drifted away from the dining room I wandered into the ballroom. Gaming tables had been set up at the bar, and I played Black Jack for about an hour until I had lost all my chips. Then I talked to friends for about another hour, not going anywhere near the dance floor.

Above: photograph I took as I walked away from the hotel.

Because I was due to start a new job the next day I didn't want to stay too late. I looked around for the bride, but she must have been resting in her room so I said goodbye to the bridegroom (the first time I had properly spoken to him). The music grew fainter as I walked through the damp shrubbery to the car park.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Start on Monday

I left my job a couple of weeks ago, and I am about to start a new job.

I got this new position following a telephone call from Terry (MD at the job before last). He told me a friend of his was looking for someone to do "communications". Anyway I went to see this friend at her offices (not in London) and she explained that she was adviser to an NGO that needed someone to supplement their existing communications function.

Two interviews followed, both on the same day (an hour apart) and then I was told I had got the job.

So I am to start on Monday on a fixed-term contract (to get round the fact that the NGO has a recruitment freeze). Initally for six months, with the possibility of extending the period to an additional six months (but no longer). The money is quite good.

I am not sure if I will write about my new job, but on balance I think I probably will.

I think blogging about jobs is good all round. Too many employers think they are omnipotent. In any case, I try to disguise identifying features.

And if I am found out and never work in this town again?

For me that would not be the end of the world.


No Dateline London today as the BBC journalists are still on strike. Tomasz Schafernaker, looking unusually serious, appeared at 12.30 and told us the weather. Then the screen bounced back to News 24.

Yesterday I watched News at Ten on ITN and it made a refreshing change.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Felipe Messias, Belo Horizonte

Theatrical production in the city of Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil (the photograph manages to capture the drama of dramatic productions, the theatrical exaggeration of the theatre). The state of Minas Gerais is full of superlatives - longest rivers, highest mountains, deepest caverns. The poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade was born in Minas Gerais:

I wish I had the courage
To speak of this secret
To tell the world
About this love
Isn't lack of wanting
Isn't lack of desire
You are my wanting
My greatest desire
I wish I could speak loud about
This healthy madness


Thursday, November 04, 2010


Above: despite the gloomy skies of early November the fields are bright with gladioli (or sword flowers). These ones are pink and are hybrid ornamental versions of the genus. Unlike the showy artificial appearance of hybrid gladioli, the original wild flowers were of considerable charm, and found throughout Africa, Asia and southern Europe.

Above: a field of blue gladioli. These flower crops will be harvested by gangs of eastern Europeans. The arrival of huge numbers of these migrants has completed undermined agricultural wages in the county, particularly affecting women who depended on casual fieldwork to supplement household incomes.

Above: gladioli are associated with the singer Morrissey who supposedly used a bunch of gladioli instead of a microphone as a protest against being asked to mime on Top of the Pops. Morrissey has been described by music magazine NME as "one of the most influential artists ever". His cultural influence, which is undeniably significant, has yet to be properly assessed by a leading arts commentator.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Stalking, and how it is portrayed in western culture

The video for Shayne Ward's new single Gotta Be Somebody has just been released. Directed by Billy Woodruff, the film was shot in Los Angeles. The narrative of the film shows a stalker pursuing the singer.

Above: the film shows the stalker taking photographs from a street corner across from the singer's (presumably fictional) apartment block. The entire narrative of the film is set in an urbanscape at night. Note that the stalker is very attractive and not the crazed obsessive type normally associated with stalkers.

Above: in what can only be described as an exhibitionist display the singer appears half-naked at a window and the image is captured by the stalker. The girl then follows him through the city with an undercover ingenuity that you would normally associate with a John Le Carre character. Eventually the singer corners her and snatches the camera away (when he looks at the images he sees the extent of her obsession).

Above: having chased the stalker away the singer returns to his apartment, apparently regretting what he has done. The stalker then appears, having gained access to the apartment, and approaches him. The ending is left unresolved.

Above: we think of stalking as a modern phenomenon but it is a theme that can be traced back to the middle ages. Roger Boase has analysed the idea of courtly love from a Freudian perspective. Is modern stalking the same as medieval unrequited love (and if so, how far back does this monomyth go)?

Above: the video for Justin Timberlake's 2002 song Cry me a river was directed by Francis Lawrence and shot in Malibu. The film won MPVA awards in 2003. The narrative opens with a sinister hoodie (played by Justin Timberlake) breaking into the home of a former lover.

Above: after rummaging through her possessions and ritually violating her bedroom the hoodie waits until his former lover returns.

Above: the narrative ends with the hoodie peering through the opaque glass of a shower unit while the naked (and unsuspecting) former lover is bathing - this image would be terrifying if it ever happened for real.

Above: this has set me thinking how far back we can trace the practice of stalking, and how it is portrayed in western culture. Elaine stalks Lancelot in Tennyson's Idylls of the King (and the Lady of Shallot). Keats writes of a knight stalking La Belle Dame sans Merci. Echo stalks Narcissus. The whole Trojan War cycle can be seen as an exercise in stalking (with Agamemnon in the Justin Timberlake role). So that takes us back fourteen thousand years at least.



Monday, November 01, 2010

Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori

Now I have changed my job there is no need for me to keep researching Romanian markets.

But I carried on with some of the reading, including Gregor von Rezzori's Snows of Yesteryear (has nothing to do with market research, but I included it because it looked interesting).

The author's style has a Proustian quality (not a pastiche).

At the end of the Second World War the author is in the West. The town of Czernowitz becomes occupied by Ukraine. Eventually, after the fall of communism, the author returns to his childhood home as an old man.

And he writes:

"All in all, this certainly was not a world of ease and plenty, and it was entirely free of the mad waste and squandering that is the hallmark of late Occidental consumer paradises. There was no sales talk, no urging to buy this or that, nor did anything irritate by junky superabundance. The moderation was pleasing, whether or not it was voluntary. I felt no obligation to purchase or become the user of anything, and this circumstance may have given me the deceptive impression that the people here were possessed of the dignity of those who voluntarily do without and content themselves with little."


Gingers For Justice

Harriat Harman's gingerphobic outburst over the weekend made me think of the Gingers For Justice movement.