Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chivalry, the cult of knighthood



A medieval town that has dwindled into a village. In the centre fragments of a hilltop Roman fort, the encircling walls later used to protect a Saxon church. Inside the church I was shown a whip – an elderly sacristan explained the whip would be cracked three times in the church porch between readings.

Recumbent effigies lined the south wall, including this 14th century figure of a knight. There seems to be a circlet of gold around the helmet, which indicates he had a noble rank. The armour is plain and workmanlike.

Sparse information about who he was, but reading Froissart or Chastellain or le Marche gives you an idea of what his life would have been like.

We think of modern times as being obsessed with youth, but the later middle ages was a time when most people were genuinely young. If you lived to 50 you would be considered ancient. It was a world where most adults were in their twenties, thirties and forties.

It was also a time when most people were fit and healthy. Generally if you fell ill or became disabled you would not survive long. Also diets were healthier, and people were more active.

However, the fourteenth century was a period of plague. Not just the Black Death (which killed a third of the population) but recurrent plagues and famines. This created a general mood of melancholy, but also a society that anticipated a golden age about to begin.

The pessimism created by a century of plague and famine caused a retreat into a fantasy world centred on chivalry, the cult of knighthood.

All classes participated in chivalric culture. Obviously the knights were the key players, but everyone else (all classes) would know how the cult functioned, would attend tournaments as spectators, and would have opinions on who lived up to the chivalric standard. Knowledge about this ideal society was disseminated through popular stories about heroic chivalric figures (legendary ones such as Parsifal, historic ones such as Roland, collaborative enterprises such as the first crusade etc).

Maurice Keen has done a lot of research about the chivalric lifestyle but much more still needs to be done. The cult of knighthood incorporated a veneration of physical strength and fitness, a manic attitude towards the collection of “honours”, an extreme sexual obsession that masqueraded as courtly love, a codified system of conduct and behaviour, a complex idea of “protection” and a legitimized indulgence of violence.

All the ingredients of modern society were created in this time.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

“Thank you for getting me out of that room” - the past week at work

Monday

Drowsy and wrapped up warm I went out to my car this morning. Foggy landscape. Cold train.

I briefed Neil (graphics designer) on the campaign for our construction client.

Work was slack in the agency, so I was able to take a long lunch. It was a change not to have to work incessantly. Visits to various shops, and then sandwiches and pastries sitting on my own in the window of Patisserie Valerie.

In the afternoon I talked to Yvette (agency head) about developing our agency selling points. It occurred to me that we had never really had a conversation before. She almost treated me as an equal.

Tuesday

Another quiet day. Yvette seemed curiously subdued, which was very uncharacteristic. Have the false promises made by Terry (our ultimate boss) finally broken her?

A vast bouquet of flowers arrived for Andrea (fellow account executive). By vast I mean it was really HUGE, almost as tall as I am, presented in a sort of sheaf of cellophane with a card that only mentioned the florist’s address and phone number. A waste-paper bucket had to be filled with water for the flowers to go into (every kind of long-stemmed flower you can think of). Andrea was very coy about who they had come from, smiling infuriatingly and refusing to say anything. When she went out to a client Eleanor (admin assistant) rang up the florist to see who had sent them. When she heard the news she bent over double in laughter, eventually gasping to us “Paul de Lion” (one of the PR consultants in the office upstairs, and a candidate for the title: creepiest person in the entire world).

Eleanor told Yvette, and Yvette mocked Andrea when she came back. During the course of the day it was revealed that Andrea is having an affair with Paul de Lion. I was shocked (not by the sexual congress, but by the selection of such an odious partner).

In the afternoon I opened a woman’s magazine (we get lots of voucher copies) and saw a double-page full-colour ad for one of our clients that we had not placed. Ringing our rep at IPC I found out that it had been placed thorough another agency. When I showed it to Yvette she almost crumpled.

Gradually rumours filtered out that there had been a major clash last night between Yvette and the cleaners, who are now threatening to leave (good riddance to them was my reaction).

Towards the end of the day I talked to Katherine, Terry’s PA. She is very committed to animal welfare and is a vegetarian. Quiet and reserved, she seems to live her life in a kind of limbo (as I suppose I do).

Wednesday

Sleepy and in a slight daze when I woke up, but the morning routine seems to have a momentum of its own that gets me washed and dressed and out of the door without my having to do any independent thinking.

I borrowed Yvette’s car and drove westward to see our construction client. People complain about driving in London but I find it no problem (the worst bit is getting the car in and out of the mews at the back, especially the mechanized security gate). I showed Peter B the new designs and the media discounts we have negotiated.

Returning to the agency, a meeting with Rhoda who is the new marketing manager at our toy client. She is related to the toy client’s MD, and obviously knows very little about advertising. I showed her round the agency, then used Terry’s office (while he was out) to talk her through the media schedule and creative proposals.

Terry came back and the three of us went to lunch at the Italian restaurant. Conversation was a bore. I realised I had been to the restaurant so many times I had tried everything on the menu.

In the afternoon I started to use Twitter for the first time. My main concern is that having started it, I shouldn’t let it drop (as I did with Facebook). Also, I need to decide what I want to use it for (I suppose I am trained to think in terms of campaign plans and creative rationale).

In the afternoon Andrea made received so many personal phone calls on her mobile that Yvette became very angry with her).

A great rush to prepare the Greenway presentation.

Thursday

I woke early, hearing the dog on the half-landing and my brother getting up to let her out. Then I slept again. Then I woke with the alarm and laid in bed thinking about how cold the room would be when I finally got up.

In the agency the Greenway presentation work continued. Also Greenway placed a number of ads with us, presumably as a test to see if we could handle them. No clear yet whether Andrea or myself will be handling them.

Andrea near the end of her tether with Yvette, and talking to me about leaving. She told me Yvette has a bad reputation among media reps, and was unable to keep staff on her team at the last agency she worked at. Unworthy thought, but I couldn’t help thinking that if Andrea did leave which of her clients I would be able to take over.

A lot of cost per thousand calculations in the afternoon.

Everyone working on the Greenway presentation, Yvette going through it stage by stage and complaining about almost everything. Often we were all called into her office to talk though various sections, Yvette firing hostile questions at each of us. During one particularly difficult onslaught Neil came to my rescue by suggesting we looked for some extra data (“Thank you for getting me out of that room” I said to him when we were out of earshot).

Eleanor made everyone a cup of coffee with whipped cream (Yvette’s favourite drink).

Friday

News that Duncan has gone (left last night after being called up to Terry’s office).

“I think he was advised to resign” said Eleanor.

“He had his chance and didn’t make the most of it” said Andrea.

“His going takes some pressure off the amount of income we have to generate” said Chris (part time Accounts).

All of the morning occupied by hectic work putting together the Greenway report. Andrea was editing this, and she grew more and more ratty as Yvette sent back pages with amendments scrawled over them. At one stage I thought Andrea was becoming hysterical.

John Wdwd arrived and we all gathered in the Boardroom upstairs for the presentation (leaving Eleanor to answer the phone). Despite Yvette’s opening speech about “personal chemistry” being a cornerstone of the agency’s client liaison, it soon became clear that she and John Wdwd were antagonistic towards each other. The presentation came to an end and Andrea saw John Wdwd out the door.

I felt I had to get out of the agency for a while, and went to the bank and bought the Times Literary Supplement.

The usual last-minute Friday afternoon rush of ads began, and I was grateful for Eleanor’s help – she is quick-witted and her work is accurate.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Day the Immigrants Left



Last night I watched a documentary on BBC1 entitled The Day the Immigrants Left, examining some of the issues around migration. It was presented by Evan Davis, someone I generally mistrust (he is a member of the British-American Project for a Successor Generation). When I listen to Evan Davis I always get the feeling he is following an agenda of his own not immediately discernable.

The documentary examined the impact uncontrolled immigration has had on the small town of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire (a place that is known locally as Wisbekistan because of the recent population changes). The documentary replaced a number of immigrants with long-term local unemployed people in what was presented as being a scientific study of whether local people could do the jobs performed by immigrants. It quickly became apparent that the programme was dishonest, biased and unfair.

Experienced and fully trained immigrants in a succession of employment venues (an asparagus farm, a packing factory, an Indian restaurant etc) are replaced by untrained individuals straight off the dole queue. We then see them mostly fail to keep up / work to the same standard / show the same level of motivation. A smug fruity-voiced fat farmer chuckles at the pathetic productivity of the locals. A gobby young woman in a fluorescent safety waistcoat bullies the local team packing potatos (she didn’t actually use a cattle-prod, but she might as well have). A cliquey team of Indian cooks snap at the rookie waiter when he fails to understand their dialect. At the end a pontificating Evan Davis concluded (on our behalf) that local unemployed people were not capable of doing the jobs carried out by immigrants.

This is obviously not true – you only have to compare the productivity of pre-1989 Eastern Europe with the productivity of the United Kingdom at the same time and you can see there are no grounds for saying Eastern European people are “harder working” than British people.

What is obvious is that if you terrorize, brutalize and starve a population for sixty years (as the Polish population was) when they are finally released they will suffer any privation and exploitation rather than go back to their former state.

All that has happened is that the post-terrorized, post-brutalized and post-starved condition has become the accepted norm against which the C2, D and E population of Wisbech is being judged.

Great play was made of the sickness rate of the local unemployed people. Ignoring the fact that “sickies” are a HUGE problem throughout industry, and the public sector in particular. I would like to use this blog post to call for an inquiry into the sickness rate in Surrey Police.

Very sloppy standards of journalism were exhibited in the programme. Evan Davis went to a local infant school and blithely accepted the assurances from the head that everything in the school was fine. Despite being an economist, Evan Davis seemed unable to question the wage structures to any real depth (why are the wages of farm labourers increasing at a vastly slower rate than those of farm owners for instance).

No attempt was made to calculate the true cost of the extra population in terms of congested roads, competition for rental accommodation, social disintegration of local communities etc.

What came over very strongly was the powerlessness of the local unemployed and their inability to defend themselves.

Most telling of all, it was obvious from interviews in the programme that the importation of migrants had no mandate from the population of Wisbech. It really boils down to the question: who does the town of Wisbech belong to? The local people on the electoral roll, or the local land-owners and companies?

The dispossession of the lowest sectors of society and their replacement with foreign migrants is comparable with the clearances of the Highlands in the 19th century and the replacement of the Highland population with “more productive” sheep. It represents a crime against humanity (I hope I am not exaggerating here – I am doing my best to be dispassionate). Historians need to make a list of politicians and local officials who have exceeded their authority in creating this situation, with the objective of eventually making them account for their actions.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seeds of Change



Continuing my chocolate research, I came across this Seeds of Change bar in Sainsburys. Looking at the wrapping, it had a Lincolnshire address on it, which made me think it had been produced in the United Kingdom. My first reaction was: good old Sainsbury, supporting small local manfacturers.



Eating this chocolate was a very positive experience. Normally I don't like dark chocolate, but this bar had a luxurious melting texture which, combined with the seeds, made it (for me) unique. Sweet and delicate cocoa perfume; intense chocolate taste that did not have even the slightest sickly kickback.

Using the inside of the wrapper, the company had worked hard to counter post-purchase dissonance by offering an attractive narrative that talked about organic Turkish apricots, Black Sea hazlenuts, and Persian walnuts grown on one specific farm in France.

This chocolate bar seemed too good to be true.

And it was.

Searching for Seeds of Change on Google, the company is AMERICAN, and it appears the products are shipped half-way across the world to get to the British market. Worse, their website carries (in tiny text) the trademark of Mars Incorporated, a mega monster. I felt tricked.

So ten out of ten for a product experience, but ZERO out of ten for pretending to be something it isn't. Seeds of Change made me feel a fool for thinking they were small and local. I am going to punish them for this by NEVER BUYING THEIR PRODUCTS AGAIN.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Different ways of experiencing travel



Recently I read three books in succession about cruises. I started with An Inquisitive Eye edited by Robert White, then read The Cruise of the Vanadis by Edith Wharton, and finally read Beyond the Mexique Bay by Aldous Huxley. I planned this sequence because I am interested in different ways of experiencing travel, especially in replacing air travel (less journeys per lifetime, but experiencing more in the course of a journey).

Air travel is an homogenised experience. There are variations in airlines, but you basically get the same sort of hurtling disorientation, de-humanised processing, and plastic environment. This sense of going somewhere and finding yourself where you began is not a TS Eliott metaphor but a reflection of how “samey” the world is becoming – enhanced if after your plastic journey you stay at a plastic hotel no different from a Premier Inn or a Travelodge.

So at the moment I am interested in people who travel on the surface and see new things…

Inquisitive Eye is the journal of Sybil Hall, an elderly rich American woman who travels with her husband around the world in 1935 (Pacific islands, New Zealand, Australia, Africa and Europe). She is not a literary writer, but is able to construct sentences that convey her interest in the things she was seeing. Although obviously able to afford first class wherever she went, it was surprising how much of the time first class wasn’t available, and they had to make the best of things.

The book amazed me with the accounts of how a very complex system of international travel and trade operated without much of the mechanization and computerization we take for granted. Huge numbers of people were employed making the world work. Things appeared to be much more sustainable and in balance.

Also it was interesting to see a world described where America was not yet a global superpower. Australia in the 1930s was very rough and ready, Africa mysterious, Europe ridiculously over-civilised. A fascinating book.

There is a picture in the book of the author and her husband and daughter standing outside the Burlinghame Country Club in California in 1956. There is a lot of information in this picture if you look hard enough. These people (as wealth-holders, as consumers, as voters, as opinion-formers, as nay-sayers, as self-obsessives) are representative of the class that by 1956 had changed the world, and subsequently stood close to the apex of human society (where, generally, they still stand).

Cruise of the Vanadis is a journal of Edith Wharton’s travels through the Mediterranean in a private yacht in 1888. The journey is supposed to have provided material for her novel The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton’s style is superlative, even in an unpublished and apparently private work such as this, and it is easy to see why she is the best writer America has ever produced.

Edith Wharton displays great classical learning in this journal, but she is not a specialist – just someone who was very well educated. She knew how the Mediterranean countries fit together and how their cultures relate one to another. Her journey through the Greek islands reminded me of Cavafy’s Ithaca.

Last and best was Aldous Huxley’s Beyond the Mexique Bay, a journey he made in 1933. Tatty old paperback – I forget where I picked it up. But so full of insights and ideas it had me scribbling in the margins and turning down corners.

Interesting that they had a problem with celebrity culture in the 1930s – Huxley calls these “front-page people” and mocks their infantile behaviour. In his study of the Copan ruins he mentions a sculptured head and torso of the a maize god which is held by the British Museum, so that I immediately resolved to go and see it. He also writes so favourably about Guatemalan coffee that I have been trying to find it (without success) in the supermarkets.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Intensity

Yesterday's expedition into the past has made me think about what relevance the medieval world has to marketing today.
 
As DAL Morgan (one of the greatest medievalists) has advised us:  all the origins of modern culture can be found in the medieival period. 
 
One of the noticeable features of the middle ages was the intensity with which life was lived.  Every stage of life was ritualised and formalised.  The result was that even ordinary everyday occurances became significant.
 
Huizinga points out that a soft bed, a good meal, a warm fire - all were appreciated through ritual benedictions, formulas, and ceremonies.
 
This is the reverse of the throwaway culture we have today.
 
It suggests that the more we can build ritual into branding, the more impact the brand will have.
 
It also suggests that the more people are enabled (through ritual) to appreciate what they have, the less will be the gnawing desire they have for "more".

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Private war



Above: at first sight the church was disappointing, apparently eighteenth-century. However a medieval building stood on the site until about 1750 when the present structure replaced it. The village is tiny, just a few large farmhouses and a massive Victorian hall of such hideous construction that I swerved my car looking back for a second glance.



Above: although the sun was going down there was enough light to enable me to look around. The interior was small. I left the west door open a tiny crack... just in case.



Above: I was very pleased to see this monument, which had the familiar heraldic device of gold and black checks. It is very satisfying to read about a community and then, in the course of field research, to find traces they have left behind. I like the restraint of the design - cool marble shades, with just the shield coloured in (emblazoned).



Above: and looking over the altar rails I found the 13th century effigy I had come to see. Worn and chipped, holding his shield. His brow furrowed as if still pondering the long-gone events of le moyen age.

The area experienced a tumultuous time in the late middle ages, due to a fued between two knightly families. It is not clear what sparked the conflict, although it was probably some form of honour dispute. Local lords were petty monarchs and recruited retinues of liveried followers (one party in this dispute wore checkered hoods, which makes me think they must have looked like modern hoodies wearing Burberry).

This private war simmered on for two decades, with various attempts by outsiders to mediate a truce.

Eventually an itinerant preacher (probably a Friar, but the printed source is unclear) delivered a Lenton sermon at the village cross from 5am in the morning until 9pm in the evening, calling on the two sides to abandon their fight. One of the lords attended in person, the other sent a page riding on a horse covered with blue velvet. The village spent the night in the church praying.

The next day a peace agreement was reached, possibly involving reparations (the transcription is very ambiguous). A relic was taken from the church (or possibly it had been brought by the preacher) and the villagers followed it barefoot in a procession (from where to where? - the vagueness is infuriating). The church bells were rung continuously from morning until nightfall.

As a tokan of good faith both sides in the dispute shaved their heads - this symbolic hair cropping included the two lords and their retinues which probably consisted of a few professional knights supplemented by tenant farmers and yeomen.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mock exclamations of joy - the past week at work

Monday

When everyone had arrived this morning Yvette (Head of the agency) stood in the middle of the general office and said she didn’t want anyone going home until all their work was finished for the day.

Most of the morning was spent in what I have come to think of as the intricate web of the mundane - chasing proofs for various deadlines. Intricate because there are so many stages to everything. Mundane because the process is so boring.

There was an odd occasion when the ad for our financial client appeared in a newspaper with the wrong phone number (John Wdwd, our contact, had written the copy, and the phone number he had put in was that of a rival finance company where he used to work). John Wdwd was mortified when he rang me up to stop the ad appearing in other publications. When I told Yvette she did a little dance of delight (she doesn’t like John Wdwd).

No Andrea today, and somehow a rumour circulated that she had left the agency (I couldn’t find out how this rumour started). Yvette was very grim over Andrea’s non-appearance, and began to line up someone to take her place (she wants to poach this person from her former agency). Not for the first time I thought how ruthless advertising could be.

We all worked late, but just before 6pm Terry, our ultimate MD, attempted some amateur electrical work and fused the lights in half the agency. Deadlines had to be met however, and we were working in the Operations Room in the half-light from the street (“Working in the dark is very symbolic of the way we do things” said admin assistant Eleanor). The elaborate and ornate Tiffany lamp from Terry’s office was brought down to cast light on our work.

The telephones also failed, just when a caller I had been avoiding finally managed to get through to me (she will never believe I did not simply cut her off).

I left at 7pm, having more or less cleared my desk, saying goodbye to everyone else working late.

Tuesday

Andrea appeared this morning and sat down at her desk as if nothing had happened.

Yvette treated her shamefully, stirring up a ferocious rush over processes that were not really important. At one point Andrea threw an armful of papers onto the floor in a rage. The two of them then went off to a client meeting.

Free of Yvette for the rest of the day, I could work at my own pace.

Income today was low, unlike the large amounts of money the agency has been making for the past couple of weeks.

I was pleased at the way media negotiations for our toy client have been going. It was a risk to do this ourselves rather than use a media buyer, but it will mean more profits. Duncan has been very helpful with this media buying, and at last there seems to be something he is good at.

Eleanor brought round chocolate crepes at lunchtime, but they were not the same as pancakes.

I was able to leave on time, carefully hiding any work-in-progress in case Yvette nosed around my desk when she came back.

Wednesday

A day off. Ash Wednesday. A solemn day.

Thursday

Mock exclamations of joy from Andrea when she closed some job bags and was able to see the surface of her desk for the first time this week. But income has slumped, and news circulated that we had lost the Dewey presentation (would have brought in substantial amounts of money). I sat in the studio chatting to Neil (graphic designer) while Yvette and Andrea were out.

In the afternoon I borrowed Yvette’s car, a top of the range sports coupe, to visit our construction client. The vehicle is very low on the ground and the seat set so far back I felt I was almost lying down. Yvette had left her shoes (the ones she drives in) lying on the floor, which interrupted my use of the pedals.

It took ages to get out of London. I had never driven to the construction client on my own before, so I was pleased that I managed to get there without becoming lost. I was with the client barely thirty minutes – he rejected the designs Neil had done and asked for something new.

Back to the agency where preparations raged (not an exaggerated term) for the breakfast cereal presentation. Yvette had a mental block writing copy and asked for some suggestions. Although I was not part of the team working on this presentation I wrote a complete draft for the ads, and the copy was much better than Yvette’s efforts.

Duncan, who is nominally the agency’s copywriter, had made such a hash of things developing the presentation report that Yvette had thrown him off the team. He slouched about the offices, not having anything to do but not wanting to go home while everyone else was still working manically. Yvette complained in a nasty sarcastic tone about his work and I might have felt sorry for him were he not such a cocksure braggart.

Having “saved” the presentation I felt I could go home at 7pm, leaving everyone else still slaving away.

The educational charity I do voluntary work for was holding a reception for Sri Lankan students this evening, but at the last minute I felt too tired to go.

Friday

An extremely quiet day, with no ads coming in. Duncan was not in, and we wondered where he was (he was certainly not at the breakfast cereal account as he had been thrown off the presentation team). Most of the morning I spent in the studio with Neil, talking and swapping jokes.

Yvette and Andrea came back from the breakfast cereal presentation. Yvette was in an ecstatic mood, having been drawn to one side by the Finance Director and told she had got the account. To reward everyone she distributed red boxes of Lindor chocolates throughout the agency (news of this got out and staff came down from the PR division upstairs to help themselves).

So a happy end to the week.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Green & Black's - an alternative to Cadbury's



Above: having made a decision not to put money into the pockets of Kraft shareholders (who launched a piratical raid on the British chocolate industry) I have begun to realise how ubiquitous Cadbury's products are in the United Kingdom. If you go into any sweet shop or newsagents you see row after row of Cadbury's products. Flakes, Crunchies, Creme Eggs etc



Above: it is, however, possible to find independent chocolate makers. Green & Black's was started in London's Portobello Road in 1991 and have since grown into an international company. Their products are organic, which is an additional reason to buy them.



Above: tactile blue outer wrapper, inner foil of pale gold lined with white paper. Little squares slightly indented with a leaf logo. Slight scent of vanilla, even texture, smooth buttery-chocolate taste.

Sweet but not over-sweet. Very satisfying. Satisfaction lasted just over half an hour.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Apocalypto



Above: the scene at the start of the chase where the prisoners are released into an arena for archery practice by the city-dwellers (apparently the blue paint is authentic and not a repeat of the Braveheart woad howler).

On Sunday I watched the 2006 film Apocalypto. It was on BBC2 from 11pm. I had been looking forward to the film, which I missed when it was in the cinema, but it was a disappointment.

The film is directed by Mel Gibson and written by Mel Gibson "working with" Farhad Safinia.

The movie shows the primeval forest-dwelling existence of a Mayan tribe in the year 1500. This tribe is savagely overwhelmed by city-dwelling Maya who live in a hierarchical and exploitative society and practice a blood-thirsty religion based on human sacrifice. One of the forest-dwelling Maya escapes from the city and after an extended chase sequence escapes his pursuers because they are stunned into inaction by the arrival of Europeans.

Subliminally the themes can be represented as: forest dwelling is good and city-dwelling is bad; life is a race which only the strongest and swiftest will survive; the ancient Maya were an evil society that needed to be curbed by the Europeans.

Mel Gibson's ubermensch ideology in this film is grossly offensive on a number of levels. Although his earlier film Braveheart can be dismissed as comical trash, Apocalypto represents a more sinister agenda. It is a celebration of the idea of natural selection applied to humanity.

The noble savages of the forest are shown as animals - eating offal raw, procreating children, asserting their ancestral rights to hunt the forest.

The evil savages of the city are shown as monsters - no attempt is made to understand the complex Mayan religion. In an obviously invented scene the chief monster-priest makes a Mussolini-style speech from the top of a pyramid (there is no evidence speeches were ever made in this way). In a farcical scene that could have been lifted from an Enid Blyton novel the city savages are cowed by a sudden eclipse (ignoring the fact that Mayan astronomers would have been able to predict eclipses well in advance).



On the evidence of the lingering sequences in this film, Mel Gibson enjoys scenes of sado-masochism, and has an obsession with male gluteal muscles.

The photography is poor (actually blurred in many places) and the music is bad.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday



Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is a time for "giving up" things - mainly as a way of creating space for the serious study and prayers that lead up to Easter. Very effective Thought For The Day on Radio 4 this morning.

Fasting has been secularised, commodified and made into a retail "experience" in the post-war period, and is now marketed under the generic branding of "detox" (I know "generic branding" is a contradiction in terms, but I am writing this in a hurry). It is another example of the way consumerism has corrupted and supplanted the religious impulse. You pay more (vastly more) and you get far less.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shrove Tuesday



Yes, I know this is cheating, but my efforts at cooking pancakes are not universally appreciated.

John Taylor writes about pancakes on Shrove Tuesday in Jack a Lent (1625), the Jack a Lent being a traditional custom of the day.

More: http://www.jstor.org/pss/4174383

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ian Jack in Saturday's Guardian

Ian Jack wrote yesterday about demographic changes in the United Kingdom as a result of inward migration since 1997.

I have to admit to a feeling of panic when I read the line "in 2008 nearly a quarter of all births in England and Wales were to foreign-born mothers..."

For me this is completely unacceptable. The social problems and communal violence this is going to cause will be immense. And whatever the economic arguments, I am not prepared to live as a minority in my own country.

Who is Andrew Neather anyway?

Note: I originally thought this article had appeared in Sunday's Observer, but actually it had been in Saturday's Guardian (which is why I couldn't find Analysis on Radio 4 - I was a day late). The mistake occured because I threw the newspapers out as normal, but Ian Jack's article bothered me so much that I went to the wheelie bin on Monday morning and sorted round in the mess until I found it and ripped it out. I should have looked to check what newspaper it was from.

Analysis: http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/analysis/transcripts/08_02_10.txt

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day



I have been collecting traditional recipes, particularly ones that relate to the chief festivals of the ritual year. This was all I have found so far that relates to Valentine's Day. Why are cinnamon, ginger and mace associated with a celebration of love?

Other than a curiosity about the anthropological and ethnographical impact of the Feast of St Valentine, the day has had no significance for myself. This has not always been the case. Occasionally I wonder whether I should do something about the detached nature of my life, but then I think: why start all that up again.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"They gave us some nice coffee" - the past week at work

Monday

There were times in the agency today that I felt I was making progress, and that things were going to be fine. At other times I was fed up with it all and felt I should move on. And inbetween come the moments of indecision.

A characteristic of the new regime is being called into Yvette's office and harangued about how little money the agency is making. Both Andrea (fellow account handler) and myself were subjected to another of these sessions this morning. We both made encouraging comments about our client lists, but there is no avoiding the fact that the meetings are humiliating.

When we came out into the general office Eleanor (admin assistant) was complaining about her back trouble.

"A nagging pain can be terrible" Eleanor said.

"Don't talk about Yvette like that" said Andrea.

Later when we were alone in our shared office Andrea told me she was thinking of leaving. She looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to protest. I said nothing.

It was a cold day, and I stayed in the office at lunchtime and worked.

Most of the afternoon was spent on ads for the new Belgian client. This became rather a debacle, due to problems and delays in the studio. Yvette began to intervene, and this made things much worse, especially as deadlines began to near.

When the adds had gone off to the publications Neil (graphic designer and studio head) and I were called into Yvette's office and told lots of elementary things we already knew.

Tuesday

During an impromptu meeting in Yvette's office this morning the big woman suddenly took off her shoe and pounded to death a large spider running across her desk.

"You're obviously not an environmentalist" I said.

Lunchtime became a two-hour "creative" meeting in Yvette's office where she went over in minute detail the ads designed over the last few months. Often Neil was sent scurrying out to the studio to look for rejected designs. Lasagna was sent in from the Italian restaurant.

Because this meeting went on so long, by the time we emerged lots of other work had fallen behind schedule. I had to ring various publications to extend the deadlines. The rest of the afternoon was spent chasing Neil for artwork.

Katharine, the new PA upstairs, came round with a card for Patricia (Terry's old PA, who is leaving). I wrote on the card Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. I don't know why I did this and regretted it later, it is none of my business that Patricia is unmarried in her late thirties, far too shy and awkward with people, and has a beauty that is already beginning to fade.

I asked Duncan to do some media research for our toy client, then changed my mind and decided to do the work myself. This is such a profitable client that it might be wiser to maintain a monopoly over the contacts. I gave Duncan some copywriting to do (which I know he will make a mess of).

Wednesday

Yvette rang up saying she would be late because she had laddered her tights. Eleanor revealed she was actually having breakfast with her boyfriend. We are all keen to see what this person must be like.

Most of the day Yvette was out with Andrea visiting clients. When they came back Yvette told me (in the general office) that she was transfering one of Andrea's clients to me. She then went into her office and the usual stream of sarky remarks and impetuous demands began.

Thursday

The Thames was a muddy grey when I got off at Embankment and walked over the footbridge (I was early for a meeting).

Today Yvette turned her attention to my client list and accompanied me on visits to the major ones. The construction client went well (they are very steady). Yvette asked Peter B what the company did and he told her "We are ripping out the things we put in ten years ago, and putting in new things".

We took him to lunch, and went to a nearby restaurant. The food was excellent. When Peter B's plate was cleared away there was a dreadful mess on the tablecloth.

The afternoon was spent going to see a client on the Bath Road (Yvette drove). Although we had arranged to go on the spur of the moment the client was glad to see us and gave us a quite prestigious campaign in Italian media. In the car returning to the agency Yvette was exultant at the way the meeting had gone.

When we got back to the office Eleanor asked how the meeting had gone.

"They gave us some nice coffee" I told her.

I met friends after work.

Friday

Because the copywriting done by Duncan was unusable I had to quickly rewrite it myself this morning. Yvette then insisted on hacking it about, putting in lots of cliches and sending it off under my name. Later the client rejected the copy saying it was banal, and Yvette then posed as if she was correcting my copy, taking out all the garbage she had originally put in.

Patricia's last day. We all went upstairs to see her given presents - flowers, some scent, and Terry gave her a broach. I didn't have time to go to her leaving drinks.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gather_Ye_Rosebuds_While_Ye_May_(Waterhouse_painting_1909)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The absurdity of the House of Lords



Above: Joseph Chamberlain stands in isolation above the desk in the Upper Waiting Hall.



Above: The worthies on the staircase wait expectantly, but no-one comes.



Above: The Committee Room corridors are utterly deserted and silent.

Parliament has voted itself ten days holiday, on top of all the other time off they get.

I’m very interested in the research that indicates the people who put themselves forward for elected office seem to share the same personality profile as serial killers.

You can read more: http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-2684-Law-Enforcement-Examiner~y2009m6d12-Serial-killers-and-politicians-share-traits

And as I walked through the empty (almost) Palace of Westminster, taking photographs (which is strictly forbidden but which I got away with possibly because I am so completely unimportant), I began thinking about the absurdity of the House of Lords. It scarcely seems possible that in the twenty-first century one of the world’s major democracies still has hereditary peers sitting in the legislature. As a way of choosing our representatives it appears to be a crazy anachronism.

Except that everybody says it works.

Which made me ask: why does it work?

And that made me think about the research by Jim Kouri. If the majority of people who put themselves forward for elected office have the personalities of psychopaths, surely it is an advantage to have a balancing chamber chosen by the accident of heredity. Over the years this would produce a complete cross-section of personality types – introverted-types, neurotic-types, genius-types, compassionate-types, idiot-fool-types, cautious-types, emotional-types, curious-types, irritable-types etc.

The House of Lords is often accused of lack of diversity, but in terms of personality-types the accident of heredity delivers far more diversity than the party political system.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cafe Fred, Argyle Street

How much of my life have I spent waiting in cafes for something to happen?  Someone to arrive, something to start, something (usually a conversation) to end.  And all I want to do is go home.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cadburys



Can you imagine the outcry if a foreign company were to buy up Hershey’s and start to close down plants in America. Or Mars was snapped up using leveraged money, and “efficiency savings” were then made to pay off the purchase loans. And yet that is what has happened with Cadbury’s.

Difficult to know what to do. Business Secretary Lord Mandelson is not bothered (probably he is intensely relaxed again). A boycott of Cadburys products would only hurt the workers.

But certainly we can celebrate small independent chocolate manufacturers. It is surprising how many of these there are in the United Kingdom. Who knows, with enough interest and support these little companies can grow to challenge Cadburys.

So I intend to commence a research campaign of little-known chocolate products and publish the findings here. I will also try to include a company profile. It’s a project I am looking forward to.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The cheapest of cheap market stalls



Elderly pensioner finding it difficult to afford food at even the cheapest of cheap market stalls. This is the state we are in. No sign here of "quantitative easing" - the huge inflationary boosts to the money supply are being siphoned off as asset prices are inflated (I am thinking particularly of the current behaviour of corporate bonds).

All that has happened is that a MASSIVE (capitals means I am shouting) increase in the money supply has led to inflation. We are seeing it first in assets and soon it must spread to prices. This has been entirely predictable.

When the inevitable inflation resulting from quantitative easing starts to affect retail prices the main burden will fall upon the poor and the pensioners.

This is a shameful state of affairs. It makes me feel very angry. And all the while at Westminster the politicians talk about how to shift attention from their expenses, and how to gerrymander the voting system, and how that rough Andrew Marr made Alistair Campbell cry.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Censorious old bag



The bullying of former England captain John Terry continued over the weekend.

One of the features of this episode has been the re-emergence in English life of the censorious old bag, a type that had become almost extinct. Carole Malone in the News of the World, Melanie Phillips on Question Time (a particularly self-indulgent performance), and yesterday Kathryn Flett in The Observer. Frustrated old crones have formed a perennial commentariat throughout most of English history, particularly voicing opinions on the sexual behaviour of younger generations, but were thought to have largely died out in the 1970s.

Kathryn Flett’s piece yesterday accused John Terry of sleaziness, venality, duplicitousness, narcissism, stupidity and callousness.

One could turn this list against Kathryn Flett herself. Is it not sleazy of her to plagiarize a tabloid story that has not been substantiated in any concrete way? Do we not detect venality (in the sense of prostituting her talents) in the way she seeks to make money out of this unhappy story? Did it not occur to her that her article, with its extended auto-biographical paragraphs, was itself narcissistic (a word that could also be applied to her unnatural air-brushed face, although her rougher hands give a clue to her real age). Is it not stupid of her to trash her reputation (and that of The Observer) by writing a page of celebrity tittle-tattle? Did she not stop to think how callous she was being in publicly ridiculing someone else’s marriage?

Is the world not already full of cruelty without Kathryn Flett adding to it?

Also in her article she compared John Terry unfavourably with Roger Federer. But she omitted to mention that while Federer had a comfortable middle-class upbringing in wealthy Switzerland John Terry came from a working-class family in the East End. And this I suspect is the real reason he is being vilified and judged by hypocritical standards.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A centre of martial culture

To the south-western hills of the county and a tiny village that has become a commuter suburb to the big town seven miles to the south. Hardly anything remains of the old village - no pub or shop, and the Victorian gothic Hall was pulled down in the 1950s. Large modern houses line the three lanes that meet at a junction in the centre of the settlement.

The area however is of considerable interest, and has been a centre of martial culture since the Iron Age fort (a square enclosure with three ditches and banks) was constructed three thousand years ago.



Above: the church, which has a Saxon dedication, is on top of a south facing hill. The day was cold and bleak but the aspect must attract the sun as a few daffs had struggled into flower. I had to wait for the building to be unlocked.



Above: inside it was smaller than it looked from the exterior. Covers and sheets were over all the furnishings because of bats that live in the building. The archaeology of the building is hard to interpret - arches filled in, windows reformed, walls punctuated with new openings.



Above: my main interest in visiting the church was to see the small chapel in the north-east corner. It is the mausoleum of a knightly family (now expired locally) of considerable warlike ferocity. The family papers are in the Bodleian Library. I had read about the family's exploits, and had been mildly interested in seeing the tombs, but actually visiting this chamber made their chivalric legacy almost tangible. For two centuries knights had been created in this chamber (notice the niches in the corners - I wonder what saints they contained). It was a process that had several unique features.

The knights were created by the local lord (the family was not important enough to attract the attention of the king). The candidate, typically late teens or early twenties, would undergo a ritual bath attended by two squires, who were themselves training for knighthood. Dressed in white, he would then spend ten hours in prayer kneeling in this chapel (not sure if he was alone or not during this period). In the morning the investiture ceremony would be held. This was in the form of a religious mass during which the knight would make vows, and be dubbed by the lord (the local magnate). A sword, shield and spurs would be given to him (or affixed to him, the manuscript is not clear). There was then a fanfare, and a procession back to the Hall. A feast was held attended local landowners and most of the village. Later there was a tournament, which was probably held in the Iron Age fort (I am surmising this, but the banks of earth make it a good theatrical space).



Above: unexpectedly (they are not mentioned in any guidebooks) medieval spurs are displayed on the north wall. Formerly many more were on show, but have been stolen over the years. Notice the badge of the White Hart, an emblem of Richard II (Tottenham Hostspur Football Club, known as The Spurs, plays at White Hart Lane).



Above: heraldic stained glass showing spears.



Above: more stained glass extended the knightly theme of the building.



Above: chief treasure of the church is this late medieval silver chalice. No longer kept in the village, its image was displayed prominently like a holy icon. The vessel had been presented to the church in the eighteenth century by a lady of the manor, but there are grounds for thinking it had been in the possession of the family for an extensive time previously, and could well have been used during the religious part of the knight-making ceremony (but I am bound to say there is no actual evidence to support this).



Above: and there were intriguing indications that the martial spirit of the place lived on into modern times. This picture for instance, dating from the First World War, kept on a ledge in the knights' chapel. Did the continuity of the local history still exert an influence, or is this fanciful supposition?



Above: the war memorial was well maintained, and given the nature of intermarriage over the centuries the list of family names almost certainly includes descendants from the original knights.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The past week at work

Monday

Bitterly cold winds when I went out to my car this morning, but I felt the cold was cleansing.

At the agency building work over the weekend has resulted in our suite of offices being joined to the empty one next door by an arch. Yvette (our MD) now has a new office. But this has increased the lines of communication and nothing is to hand.

A proper “studio” has been created, headed by graphics designer Neil (the most amiable person in the agency). Duncan has also been put in the studio as copywriter, although he can’t write. His ego is so large he doesn’t realize he can’t do the work and that Yvette is setting him up for dismissal.

An overwhelming amount of work to do today. This made me feel depressed as it was clear that no matter how hard I worked I wouldn’t be able to finish anything. Andrea (former agency head, now demoted) has grown very lethargic and has taken to disappearing during the day, so that I often have to take calls from her clients.

Tuesday


One of the most demanding aspects of the new regime is the incessant meetings that Yvette calls. Andrea and myself were summoned to her office for a lunchtime meeting that went on for two hours. At least food was provided – prawn cocktail baps and cans of fizzy drinks (instead of drinking from the can I poured the liquid into a mug, provoking a derisive jeer from Yvette “You’re such a gentleman”). Once again we were belaboured for not generating enough income. I pointed out that although we were handling double the number of clients, double work was not leading to double profits, which suggested inefficiency. Obliquely I was suggesting that the higher overheads from Yvette’s arrival were soaking up too much money.

Yvette told jokes about a client meeting she had yesterday: “He kept talking about his mission – I said do you mean the one in the Old Kent Road…” (we laughed politely).

Wednesday

I made a terrible mistake that resulted in an advertisement appearing in the wrong publication. This could have been very expensive for the agency, but I rang the client up and persuaded her that the alternative publication was worth giving a try. With luck the ad will work and no-one will be any the wiser.

A lost client that had started placing ads themselves (always a perennial problem) called me asking to sort out a mess they had got into. I was able to do this easily, and they were suitably grateful. Whether that gratitude will result in their coming back to us is anyone’s guess.

Yvette has brought in (from her previous agency) a big Belgian/American industrial client opening a market in the United Kingdom. She wanted Andrea and myself to meet the Belgian marketing manager, the meeting taking place after five o’clock. The initial part of the meeting took place in Yvette’s office. The client was short, aged about fifty, with short black hair. He asked us to call him “Wim”. His accent made it difficult to understand what he was saying, and it was embarrassing when he began chortling over the many spelling mistakes in a media report he had been given (and which Andrea had typed up herself).

After the meeting we all went to the Italian restaurant for dinner. There was a lot of shop-talk between Yvette and Wim about the senior hierarchy at the Belgian-American conglomerate, and she began inanely boasting about how well she knew various individuals (“At Henley I ended up with the MD’s wife’s raincoat round my shoulders…”). Wim seemed a bit awestruck by these silly witterings.

As an hors d'œuvre Yvette ordered asparagus, and when this dish arrived I advised her it was impossible to eat asparagus without tongs. I don’t really know why I said this, as I do not care about table etiquette, and still less do I care how Yvette eats her meals (she could bend her head over the plate and scoop the food up with her hands for all I care). But my remark seemed to touch on Yvette’s feelings of social inadequacy (which I have noticed before) and she left the buttery dish untouched despite everyone saying “those things don’t matter anymore”.

The food was good, and there was lots of it, but there was no avoiding the fact that we were working. The meal ended at 10.30. It was gone midnight by the time I got home.

Thursday

Because of the late night yesterday Yvette told us to take the morning off and come in at midday.

I placed an ad in a Swiss publication, which was a new experience, but so good was their English I might have been ‘phoning Eastbourne.

Upstairs there are more resignations and Patricia (PA to Terry, our ultimate boss) is going soon. Her assistant Katherine has been offered the job. Later I heard that Patricia had been very angry at this news and had made Katherine cry.

Duncan had written some copy (long copy) for a magazine ad and wanted to know what had become of it.

“Yvette’s going to sleep on it” said Eleanor (office assistant).

“That means you’ll get it back extremely crumpled” said Neil (Yvette is a big woman).

Friday

The sharp cold of the morning was very refreshing.

After arriving at the agency I had some coffee and looked through the sports pages of all the newspapers for updates on the John Terry situation.

Most of the day taken up with a client meeting - with Terry in his Jag we drove out of London to Buckinghamshire and a meeting with our toy client. The showroom (trade only) was in a post-modern neo-classical pavilion. In the Boadroom, surrounded by toys, we discussed the schedule for 2010.

We were also given their German campaign, which seemed like easy money for a morning's work.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Relics of a vanished civilization



Above: Suit by Paul Smith, 1988. The suit made of wool, the shirt is cotton and designed to be worn without a tie, the shoes are canvas. The jacket is double-breasted with wide shoulders.



Above: Evening dress with jacket by Catherine Walker, 1989. Silk with oyster pearls and sequins. Worn by the Princess of Wales in 1989 on a visit to Hong Kong (then a British imperial possession).



Above: Wedding dress with bridesmaids’ dresses by John Galliano, 1987. Ivory silk with satin and chiffon flowers. Designed for a summer wedding and fully representing the romantic style of the 1980s.



Above: Photograph from the actual wedding.

These artifacts were in a darkened hushed gallery in the Victoria & Albert Museum. They seemed to be the relics of a vanished civilization. Students sat about reverentially sketching the items.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Product placement

Update: it seems that there is only a partial ban against product placement, so the news is not as good as I thought it was.

Really good news that Health Secretary Andy Burnham has succeeded in stopping product placement on British television, against the advice of Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw. This is the second time Andy Burnham has blocked product placement proposals – he formerly did so when he was Culture Secretary himself. Product placement has been proposed as a way of bringing in extra income for the supposedly ailing commercial television sector (the TV companies are ailing because they are not making programmes audiences want to see).

Product placement is when branded products appear in productions as if by accident. In reality the product shots are paid for. Product placement is more powerful than conventional advertising because the products featured appear to be endorsed by the credibility of the programme and the glamour of the people appearing in it.

An example is Lady Gaga'a video (directed by Francis Lawrence) for Bad Romance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrO4YZeyl0I A few seconds into the film you can see bottles of Lex Nemiroff vodka. Impressionable people who want to be like Lady Gaga will think she drinks that brand of vodka, and will be motivated to do the same (if they can find it in the United Kingdom).

It goes with out saying that product placement corrupts. If it is done clumsily it distorts the programme. If it is done well it is advertising to people when they are off-guard.

Labour apres le deluge

Obviously Labour is going to lose the next election, and I hope (for their sake as much as anything) that they lose by a big margin and have a clear-out of their top team. In this context, Andy Burnham would be a good choice of leader. He may not be a firebrand orator, a “two-brains” ideas guy, or even a ruthless party in-fighter, but he has the priceless quality of looking and sounding ordinary.

The only other two contenders who come close are David Miliband and James Purnell, but both these individuals have question marks over them.

But I must emphasize that I am not a Labour Party member, and I am looking at this entirely from a presentational point of view.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Luxuriant



Above: the temperatures have been sub-zero for so long now that I had almost forgotten what it is like to not feel cold. So imagine the sense of relief when I stepped into a hothouse and felt myself enveloped in hot moist air. Luxuriant vegetation was spangled with flowers.



Above: vivacious tropical butterflies fluttered about (restricted from getting out by nets).



Above: multi-coloured tropical birds looked down inqusitively.

As an hedonistic experience it was wonderful.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

It's just thyme



There has been a lot in the news recently about herbal medicine and whether it should be taken seriously or not.

The experts say there is no established evidence (by which they mean large-scale animal destruction and all that) supporting its effectiveness.

Occasionally I find it slightly difficult to breath. Not asthma exactly, just a heavy pressure on my chest. I talked to a medical herbalist I know, and she advised me to drink tea made from thyme. Just ordinary thyme that you buy in Sainsburys. So when I next felt I couldn't breath easily I made this tea and the heaviness went away immediately. It doesn't taste very nice so I have started mixing it with a Heath & Heather tea (which you can buy in Holland & Barrett).

I have a cup about once a day (and I really am not the "herbal tea" type).

It's just thyme. In terms of medicinal drug prices it costs next to nothing. No pharmaceutical company is going to make any money from it.

But for me it works.

My cholesterol level is 5.2 which the internet says is normal, but my GP says is too high according to new government guidelines. My doctor wants me to take statins, which have a scary reputation. The medical herbalist advised me to take red rice yeast and gave me a bottle free to try, to see if they work.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Calthorpe Arms



The Calthorpe Arms in Greys Inn Road (early morning, when I decided to walk to the office). Very traditional old-fashioned pub. If it had been open I would have had a quick drink to set me up for the day.

The upstairs room is now a dining room (hardly used) but in 1833 it was used to hold the inquest into the death of PC Robert Culley, the first policeman to be killed in London. PC Culley was stabbed while breaking up the Cold Bath Fields riot which had been organized by the National Union of Working Classes. The police use of force was very controversial, and a later jury refused to convict the knife-wielder.

Clerkenwell was formerly a centre of radical politics (Lenin is supposed to have met Stalin at a nearby pub) but today it is mostly inhabited by professional types. Over the last hundred and fifty years the British government has encouraged radical and dissident groups to set up base in London, even those revolutionaries who pursue an anti-British agenda. Contrary to popular opinion, this has got nothing to do with liberal asylum policies but is intended to subvert and manipulate political groups that may later be useful in foreign policy.