Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Alex Katz at the Timothy Taylor Gallery



Above: I went to the Alex Katz exhibition yesterday at the Timothy Taylor Gallery just south of Grosvenor Square. The gallery is not near any tube stations, so I got wet (despite the forecast for the rain to clear up by the early evening). Two rooms with the latest portraits by Alex Katz - and also one study of maple trees.



Above: If you click on the image you can probably read the gallery handout. The books on sale were too expensive, and in any case I have a self-imposed embargo on buying more books. No-one else was in the gallery while I was there, which is surprising considering how good an artist Alex Katz is.

Very large portraits of American professionals stare out impassively from the paintings. Alex Katz is the foremost exponent of representing the American jaw. I am looking forward to seeing his portrait of Ann Wintour, which will be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery later this year.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I have abandoned Twitter for a second time




Above: use of the term on the cover of The Observer magazine. Coolness is combined with the word chic (defines appearance) and untouchable (defines accessibility).


Twitter has defeated me again. After a relaunch I was using it as an informal notebook as I researched the cultural meaning of the word "cool". I was beginning to make progress, collecting examples, jotting down ideas, organising thoughts.


As an uncool person myself, bemused for years as to what exactly (exactly) "cool" means, I felt I was close to the philosopher's stone of defining (and thus controlling) the acclamation cool.

But I began to notice my “tweets” (that word still makes me feel uncomfortable – yet another reason why I will never be thought cool) were disappearing. One tranche of tweets vanished and I managed to restore them from notes and partial memory. Then another, much larger sequence dropped off my site.


It seems that Twitter is unstable, and this is happening to hundreds of people. Thoroughly disillusioned, I have abandoned Twitter for a second time, and will continue my pursuit of “cool” via occasional posts on this site.





Above: journalist Hadley Freeman also uses the word cool in association with the idea of certain people being untouchable or unapproachable.





Above: Sky magazine. Hang 10 is a surfer expression that means "When a man whose penis is over 10 inches walks around naked" (I havn't made this up). Unlikely I will actually watch the series.


I can't help thinking Cavafy summed all this up years ago:


In his tomb - ornately designed,
The whole of syenite stone,
Covered by so many violets, so many lilies
Lies handsome Evrion,
An Alexandrian, twenty-five years old.
On his father's side, he was of old Macedonian stock,
On his mother's side, descended from a line of magistrates.
He studied philosophy with Aristokleitos,
Rhetoric with Paros, and at Thebes
The sacred scriptures. He wrote a history
Of the province of Arsinoites. That at least will survive.
But we've lost what was really precious: his form
Like a vision of Apollo.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Recumbent effigy



Another recumbent effigy of a medieval knight. I managed to get into the church while it was being cleaned (hovering off-camera was a lady with a feather duster, waiting to go over Sir John). The effigy dates to 1340, although the armour is slightly out-of-date. Cross-legs are meant to indicate the knight was a crusader, although this theory has been questioned. The feet resting on a lion is supposed to indicate the knight died in battle, although again this has been disputed. A very fine recumbent effigy - my poor photograph does not really show you the detail in the carving.

Although the middle ages was a totalitarian society in the sense that the Church permeated every facet of life, within that overall framework there were a number of secular "cults". Huizinga has done a lot of work on the cult of ancient heroes and the way they were used to foster a national sense of military glory (unfortunately I do not read French all that well, so a lot of his articles are closed to me, but I am very slowly working my way through the Essays). Effigies such as this may have been used as the focus of local hero worship, Sir John being portrayed in a line that led back to historical knights such as William Marshall, mythical knights such as Gawain, and supernatural knights such as the Archangel Michael.

But as always a lot more work needs to be done.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Money came in by itself - the past week at work

Monday

A heap of work on my desk when I got to the agency this morning. It was a busy start to the week, with one deadline following another. As always in these circumstances I felt tense.

Pleasant mild day, and when I was down near Millbank (client visit) I went for a two mile walk along the Thames, the sunlight glinting on the water.

Eleanor (new account executive) was moody and irrational. Yvette (head of the agency) latched onto this and began needling her, as if trying to provoke her to say what was wrong. I was caught in the middle of this, having to listen to each of them moaning about the other ("females!" sympathised Neil, graphic designer).

Tuesday

When the post was brought to my desk this morning it included a Christmas card from Adrian (an old friend) posted on 18th March, and with a note scribbled on the back explaining how he forgot to post it earlier.

Eleanor was in a better mood today. She gave me a bar of chocolate (she knows I am "researching" this area) that incorporated plain, white and milk chocolate. She was still surly to Yvette however, and complained about the amount of work being piled on her.

Close to the end of the month, and Yvette totaled up the billings, becoming quite excited at the prospect of hitting the target for March. She promised us all champagne if we did so, and urged us to look for work we can bring forward and invoice early. I can never see the point of doing this, as it only makes next month's target harder to reach.

Andrea (Account Manager) made an error with an ad for our car client (we only have a small part of the account) and was in deep disgrace.

"I shall begin to deduct the cost of failures from your salary" Yvette told her severely.

"And if we have unexpected successes will the money be added to our salary?" I asked (this was not a wise thing to have said, and I got one of her looks).

Very late when I got home. As I was getting changed I briefly laid down on the bed and felt so comfortable it was difficult to get up again. I set myself a deadline to find another job.

Wednesday

New trainee copywriter Jonathan arrived today. I hadn't realised we were recruiting, so his presence in the offices was a complete surprise ("Can I help you?" I asked when I saw him wandering about). Tall, a bit plump, old-fashioned glasses, aged mid-twenties, foppish hair, public-school background.

Quite a lot of the day I worked on the Spanish campaign for our Belgian oil client. By rearranging the media schedule I managed to increase the profit by ten per cent. This put me in such a good mood that I effectively stopped work for the rest of the day (I always have a lazy tendency to coast whenever I feel I am ahead).

I called an old university friend to wish him happy birthday. He is one of my marginal friends, not someone I know well but we have always somehow kept in touch. We talked about the old days and he asked after various people and I happened to mention I was meeting some other university friends (my real friends) for dinner tonight, and then was appalled when he told me: "Right, I'll come" (as it was his birthday I didn't feel I could put him off).

Early evening I went by train to a small town in Surrey. I met my three friends in the picturesque White Hart pub and we had a round of drinks (which I paid for). I revealed my marginal friend would be joining us and there were expressions of mild disgust (he had not been popular - I have always tended to collect outcasts).

No sign of my interloping friend - I left a message on his mobile telling him where we were going, although the others just wanted to leave him to it ("if he can't get here on time we shouldn't bother about him").

We went to a restaurant in an old red brick hotel (Georgian facade facing onto the High Street). Two of our party were on very tight budgets and ordered the cheapest items on the menu. Our other friend, who has done very well in life, ordered the most expensive things.

Sancerre to drink.

"This is the poshest meal I've had ever" said Richard.

Half-way through the main course my marginal friend arrived, no apology for being late. Immediately there was tension between him and the others (I had forgotten why he had been unpopular - he has a tendency of disagreeing with whoever is speaking). Because it was his birthday champagne was ordered which we paid for - this was a bit unfair on the two who were keeping to a budget.

Everyone at the meal said they intended to vote Conservative.

After the dinner my three real friends dispersed. I also wanted to get away, but my marginal friend suggested walking off the meal, so we meandered round the cobbled streets as it grew later and later. Sinking realisation that although he was probably my least valued friend I was his most valued friend.

Thursday

Despite very little sleep I was only five minutes late getting to my desk this morning. "Make some soot" I said to Andrea (soot is our code for extremely strong percolated coffee). Yvette heard this from her office and protested strongly, but Andrea made the soot anyway.

A slow day - mainly because my reactions were literally slow and I had difficulty functioning. Lots of calls to European publications, all of which began with my saying "Do you speak English?" Money came in by itself, which was just as well as I couldn't have made any effort to go out and get it.

Neil brought in his portfolio to show me. The work was completely unexpected, including lots of crayon drawings of young women entwined with foliage. Half-way through Yvette broke this up, telling Neil to train the new copywriter.

Eleanor behaving oddly again. I have come to the conclusion that she doesn't really want to be an account executive and would like to go back to her admin job. She certainly spends a lot of time sitting at her old desk.

In the afternoon a potential client came in and we (Yvette, account executive Julie and myself) gave them a small presentation in Yvette's office. However Yvette managed to get into an argument with them about how advertising works, and they began to look miffed. Unlikely we will see them again.

I left work at 5 and had to be careful on the train that I did not fall asleep and end up at the end of the line.

Friday

A quiet day. I spent most of the morning drinking coffee and reading voucher copies of out-of-date local newspapers (Redhill, south Wales, Coventry). Showers of rain, but the day was wonderfully mild.

A meeting with Yvette, and I voiced concerns about Eleanor's sullen behaviour. Yvette told me that our breakfast cereal client had refused to have Eleanor handling their work. Mystery solved.

On the train I read the Times Literary Supplement and then The Waves by Virginia Woolf (beautiful prose, but you have to read it slowly). When I got home I had dinner and fell asleep in an armchair. I woke in time for Newsnight and then Newsnight Review (irritating new format where their chairs are too far apart, so that even though we have a wide-screen television you can't see the discussion all at one glance, only disjointed bits).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hotel Chocolate



Above: my enquiry into the British chocolate industry continues. Hotel Chocolate house milk chocolate has a succulent and seductive taste with several different levels (sweet, aromatic, slightly cloying but in a nice way). The Union Jack pralines were wonderful and I consumed them all at once, one after the other.

Kraft is still unrepentant about the way they have used borrowed money to buy a British institution and rape and pillage its assets to make money for themselves. I would like to see the government ban foreigners using leveraged money to buy British companies (and also put a windfall tax on Kraft's profits in the United Kingdom). Using borrowed money to buy assets is too easy - it just becomes a financial transaction okayed by the bankers (and we know how irresponsible they can be).

Sir Digby Jones appeared on a Radio 4 programme (and also Andrew Neil's Daily Politics) airily saying there was nothing wrong with acquisitions and mergers of this kind. "What people don't understand..." he said, perhaps forgetting that some of us understand only too well how the acquisition scam works and who it benefits. Is it really necessary for a patronising git like Digby Jones to be given airtime to insult our intelligence?

Corrections and clarifications



Above: who are they trying to kid?

In a previous blog post I gave the impression that Green & Black was an indpendent chocolate manufacturer. It now transpires that they were bought up by Cadbury in 2005 and are therefore owned by evil bastards Kraft. I did check the Green & Black website, but obviously not carefully enough (so all the nice things I said about Green & Black in my previous post have now turned to ashes in my mouth).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket Theatre



Waiting for Godot is currently playing at the Haymarket Theatre. It's on for another week, but it's unlikely I will get round to seeing it. Samuel Beckett plays are difficult, but they make you think.

Many years ago I saw Beckett's Happy Days and the memory of it has stayed with me ever since.

Waiting for Godot is supposed to be about the meaning of life, and how our existence often reduces down to meaningless waiting about - when you have stripped away all the distractions (including careers, including children) we invent to prevent ourselves from asking the terrible question: what is my life really for?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Caught red-handed



Above: cartoon in The Guardian - Prime Minister Gordon Brown threatens his former Cabinet colleague Stephen Byers (who has been caught red-handed offering to influence government Ministers in return for cash).

Last night I watched Dispatches on Channel 4. Three former government ministers were set-up by the Sunday Times newspaper and made to incriminate themselves. Each of them said they would influence government policy in return for cash.

On one level this wasn't really surprising. Corruption is now so routine at Westminster that you assume most of the government are taking bribes of one kind or another most of the time. It is all on a par with ministerial behaviour in Abuja or Kabul.

But I WAS interested in the connection with Tescos. It has long mystified me how such an abusive and anti-social organisation can get away with outrageous behaviour that damages the national interest (bullying farmers, trashing High Streets, deceiving customers etc). Stephen Byers revealed that they do this by bribing government ministers, and gave the specific example of Lord Mandelson intervening to protect Tescos over recent labelling legislation.

And yet Tescos does not seem to have come under any pressure to explain Stephen Byers's statements. Lord Mandelson waves the accusation away as if it is a silly exaggeration. We are supposed to accept that this is all just election fun got up by the press.

It is illegal to conspire to commit a crime in this country. I would like to see the conspiracy laws used to arrest Stephen Byers and make him explain on oath, in a court, what lay behind his statement about Tescos. And I would like to see the Sunday Times digging around among Tescos head office staff (particularly in their corporate affairs department) to see if any of them will break ranks.

I am especially interested to know whether Tescos has ever paid any money to Stephen Byers, and if so what for, and when.

Also - am I being cynical in thinking that the government expelled an Israeli diplomat today in an effort to knock Stephen Byers off the news headlines? Will the British media fall for this? Are British journalists really so malleable?

More about these evil people: http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=254

Monday, March 22, 2010

Great Central



In the debate over the proposed route of the high-speed rail link London to Manchester, I quite like the idea of it going to Heathrow, but if it has to go through Buckinghamshire it should follow the route of the Great Central railway. Edward Watkin engineered this line to superbly high standards. It should be possible to run the high-speed line adjacent to it.

The original proposal was to continue the line from Manchester through London to Paris.

Everything about the Great Central was done well.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Remains

Sunday lunch at one o'clock (roast chicken) then just enough of the afternoon to go out somewhere.



Above: village in the south west of the county where there are the remains of a medieval castle. Motte and bailey in construction, you can see the earthwork fortifications. An excavation in the 1890s revealed a stone tower on the summit (where you can see the English flag flying). On the opposite side of the river you can see the village with the Norman church on top of the hill. Very mild day. There were various "keep out" notices but I ignored them and went up onto the mound to have a look.



Above: the Castle pub in the village. Seventeenth-century building on medieval foundations. Folk music played on Sunday evenings.



Above: the church was also worth looking around. Norman foundation, but most of what you can see is 14th century. Interesting endowment of a chantry chapel, which should be investigated further.



Above: inside the church were these stones, presumably excavated from the castle. Some of them have inscriptions. The light was beginning to fade.



Above: eighteenth-century tithe map which gave a good overview of the topography of the village and the distribution of land.

A leaflet in the church gave a very sketchy history of the castle but many of the assumptions were outdated. For instance, the idea that the castle was built by feudal overlords to exploit the surrounding area is a quasi-marxist historical view that is no longer really valid. The medieval obsession with nobility was a practical ideology that aimed to reinforce the cohesive nature of society. True nobility was based on virtue, and the idea that all men were equal. Medieval society was divided into twelve social orders, all of which aimed at nobility through virtue. The over-riding idea was that the good of mankind came directly from the virtue of the population.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The offices suddenly seem over-heated - the past week at work

Monday

I got to the agency by 8.45. New Account Assistant Julie was already there (she used to work with Head of the agency Yvette, and told me Yvette likes people to arrive earlier even though she doesn't usually get in herself until mid-morning). Julie seemed pleasant enough and not the great threat Andrea (fellow account executive) fears she will be.

News that Ian Miller had suddenly resigned from the PR Bureau (a specialist subsidiary of the PR division upstairs). Terry K started with the upstairs division today, and was brought round to be introduced. The phone hardly rang for the first two hours, then ads gradually began to come in.

Yvette arrived and immediately called a meeting of the account executives (which Julie also attended, which was interesting). We were told that the agency must make £140k profit for the second quarter. This seems an impossible objective unless we get more (and more profitable) clients.

Yvette went out late afternoon after a bad-tempered stomp through the office. At Julie's suggestion Eleanor (account executive) went out to get some flowers (roses, lilies and freesias) and arranged them in a vase on Yvette's desk with a note that said "From us all". The flowers had a magical effect on Yvette when she returned, and she beamed smiles at everyone, telling us how much she liked freesias.

Her mood improved even more when a series of ads came in with a total profit of £7k.

Tuesday

A day's holiday.

Wednesday

Another busy day, although looking back it is hard to think what exactly I did. Mostly it was a succession of little tasks, continuing to plan the toy client schedule, and dealing with the ads that came in yesterday. The mild weather has meant that the offices suddenly seem over-heated.

Andrea and myself are supposed to transfer some of our clients to Eleanor and Julie. The temptation is to give them the worst clients. But should this be worst in difficult to handle, or worst in terms of low profits?

Observing Julie this morning, she is very hard-working - the kind of person who must be continually occupied. Does this indicate low self-esteem? Or lack of an internal life?

Gordon P, one of the PR consultants upstairs, wants me to place an ad on behalf of one of his clients. But he has been infuriatingly vague about where it should go and what it should say. At one point I had to follow him out into the street to ask for further information.

Thursday

First thing in the morning we were all gathered together to get a long lecture from Yvette about proof-reading. As we dispersed Neil (graphic designer) said cheerfully "What a good day it is". Andrea said "He always says that when we've been told off".

A bunch of flowers delivered to Andrea. Smaller than the mammoth displays she has previously received, but obviously from her lover Paul de Lion. Yvette said that as Andrea's charms wear off so the bouquets will get smaller and smaller (this was very nasty, but the way she said it made everyone laugh).

News that Paul de Lion and Nigel Celeste (another of the former consultants upstairs) had formed their own company. Speculation that Andrea may go to join them. This may well be a good move for her.

The end of the day became very busy.

Friday

I spent most of the morning working on an ad for one of our charity clients (we don't make much money, but they look good on our client portfolio). There was a marked lack of new bookings coming in. Julie spent her time reorganising the job bags, which was an entirely pointless occupation.

A rep from one of the national newspapers came in and talked about special offers. Yvette bullied him, saying she could always get a full page in the Daily Mail for £10k (not strictly true - she can only do this if she buys late space). The rep went away without offering to buy anyone lunch, which is another indicator of the recession.

I went to the bank at lunchtime, and then managed to get hold of a copy of the New Yorker.

In the afternoon I handed over clients to Eleanor, giving her the ones I dislike the most. To my surprise Yvette thought my choices were excellent. And who knows, perhaps Eleanor will have more success with them than I have.

Although work piled up on my desk there was nothing that couldn't wait until Monday, and so I went home at 5pm.
Seth Godin writes interestingly about freelances: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/03/when-a-freelancer-changes-the-game.html

I prefer using freelances rather than in-house creatives. Mainly because they are more motivated, they always deliver on time, there are never any internal politics interfering. But perhaps I just like to be in control too much.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dogs



Dogs outside a pub at lunchtime. There were five of them in all, and they looked fabulous. It's funny the way just seeing these dogs made me feel happy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Important campaign

The European Commission has just approved growing genetically modified crops in the European Union for the first time in 12 years!

Caving to the GM lobby, the commission has ignored 60% of Europeans who feel we have to get the facts first before growing foods that could pose a threat to our health and environment.

A new initiative allows 1 million EU citizens to make official legal requests of the European Commission. Let's build a million voices for a ban on GM foods until the research is done; they will be delivered to the President Barroso of the European Commission. Sign the petition and forward this email to friends and family:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/eu_health_and_biodiversity/98.php?CLICK_TF_TRACK

Consumers, public health, environmental and farmers groups have long rallied against a few international GM companies having such significant influence over European agriculture. Concerns about growing GM crops include: contamination of organic crops and the environment; their impact on climate due to the excessive need for pesticides; the destruction of biodiversity and local agriculture; and the effects of GM food on public health.

EU member states have voiced strong opposition to last week's decision to authorise BASF's potato and Monsanto's maize -- Italy and Austria are opposed, and France said it would ask for further scientific research.

There is still no consensus on the long-term effects of GM crops. And it is the GM industry, pursuing profits not public well being, that is funding the science and driving the regulatory environment. That is why European citizens are calling for more independent research, testing and precaution before crops are unleashed onto our land.

Now, the "European Citizens' Initiative" gives 1 million EU citizens the opportunity to submit policy proposals to the European Commission and offers us a unique chance to drown out lobbyists' influence.

Let's raise 1 million voices to put a moratorium on the introduction of GM crops into Europe and set up an independent, ethical and scientific body to research and determine the strong regulation of GM crops. Sign the petition now and then forward it widely:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/eu_health_and_biodiversity/98.php?CLICK_TF_TRACK

With determination,

Alice, Benjamin, Ricken, Luis, Graziela and the entire Avaaz team.

More information:

Last Eurobameter Survey 2008 'Attitudes of European citizens towards the environment', page 66:
http://bit.ly/aMkeVJ

The Independent, Fury as Brussels authorises GM potatoes:
http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/fury-as-eu-approves-gm-potato-1915833.html

Reuters, France blasts GM crop approvals by EU agency:
http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE6241ZQ20100305

New Report: GMOs Causing Massive Pesticide Pollution:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-kimbrell/new-report-gmos-causing-m_b_362888.html

Summary of the International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, including critics of GMOs use in agriculture:
http://globalpolicy.org/social-and-economic-policy/international-trade-and-development-1-57/genetically-modified-organisms.html#key

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Independant



Interesting article in today's The Independent about swifts. The article was written by McCarthy and is very clear and informative. I had forgotten how good The Independent can (sometimes) be.

The Independent newspaper was a quintessential product of the 1980s. When it launched in 1986 it was widely acclaimed as the most beautiful British newspaper ever produced, with elegant layouts, and innovative typeography. From the beginning, the writers set a very high standard of journalism, genuinely independant of political affiliation.

Inevitably compromises were made as the newspaper came under financial pressure and made a series of editorial changes. The current production standards are very poor (as you can see from the photograph, a pinkish tinge mars the page). The standards of journalism have fallen, with writers such as Johann Hari and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown adopting a camp quasi-outrageous style that masquerades as "provocative".

Monday, March 15, 2010

Jacob Epstein



Above: remnants of statuary on the former BMA building in the Strand. The building was designed by Charles Holden and the statues were carved by Jacob Epstein. When the hoardings came down in 1908 there was an outcry in the press on the grounds that the sculptures were so anatomically detailed they would corrupt the minds of people passing in the street.

Eventually the statues were partially destroyed on the spurious grounds that they were unsafe.

Added 19th March:

I meant to go on to discuss the way in which society has changed, and public nudity is now so commonplace we hardly notice it (there was a recent report on Newsnight about the way we are bombarded with hundreds of sexual images just walking down the street).

I then meant to go on to discuss Dolce & Gabbana advertising and their use of photography that combines nudity with implicit violence.

But as usual there is never enough time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A suet pudding made with damsons

Interesting village in the flood plain in the south west corner of the county. Bleak morning, although it brightened up later on. Considerable work has been done on the anthropological structure of this little area, so it was rewarding to pay the place a visit.



Above: as you can see, the land is exceptionally stoney. There were local ancestral prescriptions on how crops should be planted – typically at a ritual “time of goodwill”. This goodwill period was associated with the appearance of specific birds (kestrels).



Above: the area is divided into small farms, the farm buildings built of stone. Traditional decorations are supposed to be used on the walls of barns, but I saw no evidence of this. The stone barns are significant and the possession of a barn filled with food was one of the signifiers of masculinity and status among the freeholders.



Above: ancestral influence was particularly strong, and analysis of folktales indicates that "the ancestors" never really left the village. The path between birth and death and eternal life was seen as a continuum marked by a series of transition rites. These village communities also expended considerable energy on bonding ceremonies, recognising that if they stuck together they would be safe from enemies.

Exchanges of social food, initiation of sons into guilds and confraternities, marriage alliances etc. The quasi-secret nature of these observances has meant little detail has survived. As well as the parish church there were many other holy places throughout the parish, and most local houses would have a religious focal point.



Above: inside the church looking west. The arrangement of arches indicates the building was once much larger and had aisles. There was just enough light to look around.



Above: the unusual Norman font. Production of children was a matter of pride for local women - both sons and daughters were valued. There was also a complex arrangement of insignia which indicates that the influence of heraldry permeated further down the social scale than most historians realise.



Above: antique print to St Margaret of Antioch kept in the church. The dedication is interesting as it is usually connected to crusaders (the cult of St Margaret was favoured among communities that supported crusader activity). The feast day of the saint was marked locally by "Heg Peg pudding" - a suet pudding made with damsons.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The past week at work

Monday

Depressed expressions from Andrea and Eleanor when I entered the agency, so that I knew Yvette (our boss) was on the warpath.

Half-way through the morning Yvette called the usual agency meeting and harangued us for the rate at which we were losing clients (although only one client has actually left and one other has complained about the level of service and threatened to leave). There have been few acceptances for the client hospitality event Yvette has invited them to. Neil (graphics designer) has been told to get some of our best ads framed and put up in the reception area.

I tried to remain optimistic today, but it was a struggle.

Tuesday

I didn't rush this morning, knowing that Yvette would be in at midday. But no sooner had I got to my desk Yvette came on the phone wanting to know why I was late. Thank goodness she doesn't know my mobile or I would never have any peace.

Eleanor (newly appointed a Account Exec) was near the end of her tether, having to cope with influenza combined with the excessive work being piled on her (there are penalties associated with being Yvette's favourite).

Chris B, an old friend, paid a visit and I showed him round the offices. Yvette came in, and I introduced them. I could see him staring at her, as if he couldn't believe his eyes.

Julie, new admin assistant, started today. Short in height, brown bubble-perm hair, a little plump. Andrea took her to lunch, presumably to make friends with her (although she said previously that Julie would be Yvette's spy - they had worked together at a previous agency).

Wednesday

The weather much more mild, the geese parading happily in the north field.

As soon as I arrived at the office I was told the news that Paul de Lion (consultant with the PR division upstairs) had resigned.

I was so busy today I had to lay all the job bags on the floor so I could keep track of things. All of the day Yvette continually asked what I was doing, which was irritating. I suspect she actually wanted to keep an eye on Andrea, who was very subdued (she had had an affair with Paul de Lion and the news he was leaving had been a shock to her).

Katherine (PA to Terry who is our MD) came down when I was in the office on my own. We talked about Andrea's affair with Paul de Lion. His wife has apparently thrown him out.

Thursday

I was half an hour late getting to the office, and when I got there I found no-one else was in either. I borrowed the spare keys from Katherine and opened up and hurriedly switched on all the lights. As I did this I could hear someone walking up the stairs, and I was convinced from the heavy steps that it was Yvette, but it was only Chris (part time accounts).

Andrea rang in sick, so I had to sort all her work out.

Because it will be Julie's birthday at the weekend she handed out slices of chocolate cake.

Strange glinting lights on the surface of the Thames, caused by odd rays of sunlight getting through the dull massed clouds. Client meeting near Blackfriars Bridge. Nothing significant was said.

Friday

Absolutely nothing to do today. No work came in, and everyone was at a loose end. At one point we all sat in the general office talking - Yvette said that when she was a child on holiday in Egypt her father had been offered two mangy goats for her ("her Dad would have got the best out of the deal" Neil said later).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chocolate



Intriguing bar of chocolate on sale at Sainsburys. The Chocolate Society is based in Elizabeth Street in London, but some of their products may be made in France. The chocolate had a dry, brittle composition, and it was like eating chocolate chalk (this doesn't sound appetising, but actually it was very good).



Since the Kraft takeover of Cadbury the largest British chocolate company is now Thorntons. Their chocolate is expensive but delectable and very sweet. The Viennese truffles are also good.



What is to be done about globalised companies that move jobs around the world regardless of the devastating impact this might have on individuals and communities? People like Todd Stitzer and that woman who heads up Kraft are indifferent to the suffering they cause. If the workers being made redundant were to physically attack Stitzer and the Kraft woman they would probably be justified (and were I in a jury that was trying the case, I do not think I would convict the assailants).

Martin Sorrell, displaying all of Orwell's "vulgar fat opulence of wealth", lolled around on Andrew Neil's sofa on This Week last night, saying Europe had to become as "competitive" as China. By competitive he means workers should be crammed into migrant hostels, have no welfare support, and get beaten up by the paramilitary police if they strike or demonstrate. If ever someone needs a good kicking it is Martin Sorrell.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Twitter and the anatomy of “Cool”

Two weeks back I thought I would give Twitter a go. As a media channel it has passed the “early adopter” phase and is now mainstream (even middle-aged teachers are writing about it in Education Guardian). Other people I knew had started using the site, so it seemed a good time to try it out.

Anyway I set up my Twitter account and started posting. But for various reasons I couldn’t get the hang of it. The 140 words was too constricting for me, and changed the meaning of most things I wanted to say. I never got round to updating by text from my mobile phone (which would have added an extempore quality). I was unsure about the frequency. The overall example of Stephen Fry seemed too intimidating.

After about a week my Twitter site was a burden to me. It was like a mouth that needed constant feeding. So I just deleted it.

But it has been on my mind ever since. Perhaps I had blotted out my site too hastily? Perhaps I should have another go?

It also occurred to me that rather than just write whatever rubbish came into my head I should give my new Twitter facility a theme.

And in one of those “ping” moments, the idea came into my head to use Twitter as a notebook for a project I am working on.

The Ice Cold Project

Several weeks ago Yvette (my boss, a tremendous woman in every sense of the word) gave out assignments to each of us, designed to build new selling points for the agency. She wanted us to offer things no other agency could offer. Most of these “added value” attributes were intangibles.

The intangible quality I was asked to work on was “Cool”.

Initially this caused me to panic. I am one of the last people to know “what’s hip, what’s happening, what’s now”. Still less would I know how to take the quality of “coolness” and build it into a customer’s brand.

But one cannot say “no” to Yvette.

So I approached it as I would any other research project. I set parameters. I defined criteria. I identified methodologies. I recorded perceptions, and graded those perceptions according to demographics (age, gender, geographical location etc). I asked the same question two or three times, with slightly different wording, to ensure consistency. I began to look for patterns (but without jumping to conclusions).

It has turned out to be one of the most fascinating exercises I have ever attempted.

It has also been a lot easier to research than I thought.

All I do is ask the question: Who is the coolest person you know? (with the secondary question: and why?).

I also needed a system of classification, and have decided to use the names of Greek city states of the classical period – mainly because it is a short-hand I can easily remember, and is more coherent (for me) than numerics.

I have set up my Twitter account (called Anatomy of Cool in homage to Robert Burton) and I am hoping complete strangers will contribute to the list. Please remember that the coolness of any individual rests entirely in the perception of others and the reasons they give. No endorsement (or otherwise) is intended.

As well as cool people, I am also going to list “facilitators” since society is not a vacuum – cultural facilitators, economic facilitators, political facilitators.

Anyway, I have listed some thoughts below. They are not finished ideas by any means, and I anticipate this project taking me another year at least. But somewhere in there I think will be “the answer” (which I am also hoping might be worth some money, so I am holding a few things back).

Caveat – I am aware that many people have written on this subject before, and although I have looked at some of this, I have decided to start completely fresh. I am not really looking at what style gurus call cool. I am interested in what ordinary people consider cool and why.

Aspects that seem to define a cool person:

1 A cool person is someone who changes their immediate environment (and in certain circumstances wider environments, including occasionally global environments).

2 Generally cool people are not influenced by what other people think.

3 A cool person has a strong internal commentary and generally believes other people think the same way as he/she does.

4 Cool people do not depend on acquired knowledge, they need to think things through for themselves (even though their thinking may not be very deep).

5 Cool people do not trust the judgment of others, they MUST reach their own conclusions, whether on choice of music, choice of political party, fashion, moral behaviour, attitudes towards others, issues of expression etc.

6 All cool people are brave – this is a fundamental quality.

7 Cool people are not ambitious, generally they accept the surroundings they find themselves in, the people they meet, the things that happen to them.

8 You cannot be self-consciously cool – this is a fundamental quality.

9 Cool people are progressive in the sense that they have to make order out of the chaotic circumstances they find themselves in.

10 On the whole cool people have rational minds and can justify the choices they make.

11 Facial expressions of cool people convey a “look” that either subdues or impresses others (need to do more analysis on this).

12 Coolness has different qualities according to age. The coolness of children is different from that of teenagers, which in turn is different from fully adult people. Elderly people generally are not cool (but there are exceptions). Cool people make their age group “enviable” and endow their generation with an effortless attractiveness. Currently unclear whether cool people can pass from being cool in youth to being cool in a later age group. A lot more work needs to be done on age groups.

13 Cool people are irresistible – even if you have misgivings about their character you find it difficult to resist them.

14 Cool people are agreeably stimulating and agreeably provocative – this is a fundamental quality.

15 Cool people have the power of pleasing or entertaining people (“charm” although this is a very imprecise description).

16 Cool people break rules – this is a fundamental quality.

17 If cool people conform with a particular aspect of society they do this because they have internally decided that they want to conform.

18 It is hard work being cool as they have to think out everything for themselves, and then integrate it into their world view.

19 Cool people do not care about the opinions of others, all that they are bothered about is their integrated view (it is this integrated view that drives them to behave in a particular way).

20 Cool people are unpredictable – this is a fundamental quality.

21 Cool people have huge powers of resistance to the way the world enforces conformity.

22 A cool person has a character that is absolutely integrated, and they never contradict themselves (possibly this is why younger people are cooler, because they have not made so many compromises with the world).

23 Cool people seem to be symmetrical – I need to do more work on this idea.

24 Cool people have a top down immediacy in which you can see them for what they are, rather than people you build up their image and reputation action by action.

25 In a sense cool people are pointillist – individual actions in themselves are not so cool, but the total picture when seen at a little distance is overwhelmingly cool. Therefore can we say coolness has a tipping point at which it is achieved?

26 Cool people are interested only in the future.

27 Cool people are formative people in any sub-section of society, and are the people who appeal to the collective imagination of that sub-section.

28 Great people do not become cool, cool people become recognized as great (unproven – I’m not sure how valid this is and need more data).

29 Cool individuals create an impact through being copied.

30 A creative society is made up of cool people being cool.

31 Cool people are spontaneous.

32 Cool people rely on instinct.

33 Cool people have a perfection that never lapses - this has great power over others.

34 Coolness has a perpetuating quality – those who become cool gain ever greater strength to remain cool.

35 You cannot be indifferent to coolness – if you are not cool yourself you are affected by the presence of cool people.

36 The presence of cool people enhances non-cool people, and thus they become very popular and celebrated (but coolness is not popularity nor is it celebrity).

37 Can coolness be generated (or self-generated)? This is a key question. I am beginning to see how it might be faked.

38 There are no more cool people in the world now than there ever were. Coolness has always existed as a given percentage of a society’s population. As cool people emerge in new sectors, so other people become uncool in others.

39 Coolness is not without its cost. Cool people suffer, they have blocks put on them, they are despised.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Skater



Walking through Bloomsbury, suddenly this pack of rollerbladers came past (if you click on the picture it enlarges so you can see more detail).

I knew more and more people were taking this up as a sport, but this was the first time I had seen it happening in public.

Probably Jamie Stenner is the most influential "skater" in the United Kingdom (apparently you are not supposed to call them rollerbladers). Influential in terms of personal style. Guy Crawford is long gone.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Rediscovering Traces of Memory, Jewish Book Week



Above: left to right, Kate Craddy (Director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow), Janusz Makuch (founder of the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow) and Professor Jonathan Webber (author of Memory and Revival).

Yesterday I went to the talk Rediscovering Traces of Memory. The talk was held in the ballroom of the Royal National Hotel in Bedford Way. It was one of the events surrounding Jewish Book Week.

It was a really interesting talk, not just if you are interested in Jewish history, but also if you are interested in wider historical themes.

The general view is that little remains of the thousand-year Jewish culture in Poland. Janusz Makuch, who is not Jewish but may qualify as one of Ruth Gruber’s “virtual Jews” began to take an interest in the fragments of the former Jewish presence that survived. The more he looked, the more he saw:

“I used to spend weeks of the summer vacations traveling from village to village, from market town to market town, and everywhere I would meet people who would show me things…”

Professor Webber described Janusz Makuch as a “culture broker”. Poland as a centre of Jewish culture was compared to Babylon during the Captivity and early medieval Spain. The Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow now comprises two hundred events over nine days.

Most importantly, there was for me a “eureka moment” when a throwaway remark by Janusz Makuch illuminated an intellectual issue I have been struggling with for some time (entirely unrelated to the Jewish history of Krakow).

Very enjoyable afternoon – hearing about books, looking at books, being among other people who like books.

Afterwards I browsed the several hundred new Jewish books on display, and despite my previous resolution (no more books, absolutely no more books) purchased two. Then kosher sandwiches and a cup of tea in the café. And then out into the cold Sunday afternoon street.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Repercussions - the past week at work

Monday

I felt tired when I got up, which is always a bad sign. The bedroom was extremely cold. The bathroom was also cold, so that getting washed and dressed became an exercise in bravery.

At the agency Andrea (fellow account executive) arrived gasping with shock after the cold of the street.

Yvette (agency head) arrived with hair-raising stories of how a manic driver had tried to ram her off the motorway ("she is such an aggressive driver she probably deserved it" Andrea told me later).

It was a busy morning - so busy I felt swamped with work. This sudden rush of income put Yvette in a good mood for the mammoth agency meeting she held (for two and a half hours!). Chocolate-cream biscuits and coffees made by Eleanor (admin assistant) but always when I am in one of Yvette's meetings I get indigestion, probably as a result of stress.

When we came out of the meeting it was a rush to catch up on everything. Despite pending deadlines I went out at lunchtime and collected some books I had ordered. It seemed old-fashioned to do this rather than have them posted by Amazon.

Andrea often talked about the educational charity we both do voluntary work for. She complained about the bickering and politics of the committee. Also how she was continually being snubbed.

"You should have been on the committee when Gerson and Valerie were joint-Chairmen" I told her.

"Why, were they nice?"

"No, they were far worse."

Just as I was about to leave in the evening Yvette talked to me about how the new accounts are to be allocated (we were the last people left in the office). I listened politely but I don't really care who gets the new work. All I wanted to do was go home.

Freezing fog surrounded the house.

Tuesday

As soon as I stepped outside the house the cold hit me like a blow.

Most of the morning in the agency I was on my own. Andrea was supposed to be at the dentist, but I knew she was attending a second interview for another job. The fact that she didn't come in at all today made me think she might have got it (but I found out later that she had gone to meet Paul de Lion her lover, in Slough of all places).

When Yvette came in she announced that Eleanor is to be promoted to account executive from the end of this week, and is to "understudy" all the clients held by Andrea and myself. This seemed a shrewd move by Yvette, considering the open rumours that Andrea is leaving. We had to send out letters to each of our clients introducing Eleanor.

In the evening it felt as if the weather was becoming milder.

Wednesday

Andrea arrived this morning and told me she had already written her resignation letter and was planning to hand it in just as soon as she had heard that her references had been accepted. Separately Yvette called me into her office and told me she suspected Andrea was about to leave (I had to feign surprise). Yvette told me that Andrea's work was substandard and that she had been thinking of sacking her anyway.

In the afternoon I accompanied Yvette to see a prospective client in west London (another company she had handled at her last agency). Suddenly she asked if I wanted to see her horse. We drove to Chiswick and a small livery stables (modern construction on the edge of a big park, mud everywhere). The horse was called Iver, and was seventeen and a half hands. We gave him some carrots and took him for a walk around the yard in the cold winter sunshine. Yvette appeared vulnerable and almost girlish, resting her head on the horse's neck as if communing with him.

In the evening Yvette, Andrea, Terry (our MD) and myself drove in Terry's Jag to Docklands for a reception by a publication (we place a lot of ads with them). Despite the recession the luxury of this event was astonishing (a continual supply of champagne, expensive food, a high ratio of waiting staff to guests). We were in a hospitality suite high up in one of the towers, and I looked out of the windows and thought about my family's humble origins in the East End.

Thursday

As it was almost 3am by the time I got to bed I was extremely tired when the alarm went off at 6. I wondered how I would get thorough the day. Half an hour late getting to the office.

Most of the morning I spent working on the campaign for our toy client. I was glad that all the problems seemed to resolve themselves without my having to do anything. More European countries added to the schedule, which was very good news.

An agonised call from Andrea at 10. Her references for the new job had not been acceptable (one of the referees had rang up the new employer and told them how untrustworthy she was). She was fighting to hold onto the job offer and get new references, and begged me to cover for her and handle any work that came in from her clients.

Lunchtime I went to the bank.

In the afternoon Yvette brought everyone cream cakes. Things became quiet. At 3pm Yvette called me into her office and told me I would receive a payrise of about ten per cent from April (presumably she wants to make sure that if Andrea goes no-one follows her).

At the end of the working day Rachel, one of the PR execs upstairs, used one of our offices to get changed as she was going out straight from work (upstairs is just open-plan, with no privacy).

"What shall I do with my face?" Rachel said rhetorically, rushing into the woman's loo.

"If I were you I'd take it back and ask for a refund" said Neil (graphic designer).

Friday

Frost heavy on the landscape as I drove to the station.

At the agency I was the first in, and no-one else appeared until mid-morning.

Yvette and Eleanor came back from visiting a food client, bringing some samples with them (breakfast cereals I had never heard of before - they were not very nice).

Andrea came in at 11, very subdued. She asked me to help her with some copywriting, and we went into the quiet room (a cubby hole well away from Yvette's office). She told me the job offer had been withdrawn and consequently she was staying on at the agency.

Repercussions from her almost-resignation continued however. Julie, Yvette's assistant at her last agency, came for an interview and was immediately appointed to Eleanor's old job of admin assistant. Eleanor is now poised to compete with Andrea (or indeed myself) for control of the clients.

Friday, March 05, 2010

First Time Voters Question Time on BBC3

On Wednesday I watched First Time Voters Question Time on BBC3

The programme was chaired by Dermot O’Leary, and included a panel of three celebrities and three politicians, with an audience of about one hundred – all presumably first time voters.

First time voters are given prominence because of the cultural idea (most famously belted out by George Benson and later Whitney Houston) that “the children are our future”. This is a flawed premise because “the children” will never actually inherit the future - as soon as they stop being children they will be immediately forced to acknowledge that a new tranche of children are the future. These in turn will be told they are “the future” until the moment they are forced to realise they are not.

Thus politicians are able to justify all kinds of shaky policies on the grounds that they are doing it “for our children”.

Anyway, the programme followed the usual Question Time format. Various questions were asked and answered. Nothing controversial was raised.

The most interesting aspect of the programme was the chairing by Dermot O’Leary. Slightly overlarge head, heavy jaw, smart suit but with the cuffs riding up. He is able to project a likeable personality, mainly through the use of his voice and facial expressions (although if you look into his biography, he is not an obviously likeable person, and some elements I would consider unlikeable).

At one point a panel member (I think it was David Lammy MP but it might have been one of the others) referred to Dermot O’Leary reverentially as “a celebrity” – but what exactly is he celebrated for, and who is celebrating him?

David Lammy also spoke disparagingly about “old white men in suits” then immediately made the exception “not you Dermot” (despite Dermot O’Leary’s qualification for the term).

Dermot O’Leary often referred to himself during the show (“I watch Question Time every week”) which is something David Dimbleby would never do. He scowled when he wanted to appear serious and sucked his lower lip quasi-adolescently whenever looking towards the singer Jamelia. He complemented David Lammy on use of the expression “mash-up” (although teenage argot is a minefield for anyone over the age of twenty).

I don’t mean to be negative but on the whole I felt the programme was a bit like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on hind legs – when you’ve seen it once you don’t particularly want to see it again.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Peacocks

Recently I've been thinking about the cultural impact of peacocks.



Above: The appearance of the peacock is impressive, particularly the train which opens like a fan behind its head. The feathers contain tones of green, gold, purple and blue. The birds can fly short distances, and like to be high up.

The cry is melancholy and unforgettable.



Above: I saw these peacock feathers in a church. The bird is a religious symbol of rebirth and regeneration. The Old Testament mentions King Solomon obtaining peacocks from the coast of India: “once every three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks”.



Above: peacocks were probably brought to England by the Romans and have remained here ever since. In the 14th centiury Chaucer used the peacock as a metaphor for pride. I saw this peacock in a garden centre, just walking around nonchalantly.



Above: I was walking along the Regents Canal where it goes through London Zoo and I saw this magnificent sight. Everyone on the tow path stopped to look. It was amazing.



Above: stuffed peacock in a window display. Aubrey Beardsley used peacock motifs in the 1894 illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play Salomé. The department store Liberty is famous for its peacock printed fabrics.



Above: another window display. As a visual image the peacock achieves instant recognition. Peacock images were used by the designer William Morris (his work is currently undergoing a revival of interest).



Above: the peacock pub (has some very attractive engraved glass windows). The pub was named after a 19th century publican called peacock. The family name Peacock indicates an ancestor who was a showy dresser.



Above: German tapestry design. Peacocks also have a decadant and slightly sinister aspect. The feathers are, in some cultures, seen as representing the "evil eye" (jealousy).



Above: The Summer of the White Peacock is a classic 1980s novel (describing a few weeks in the life of an intensely narcissistic clothes-obsessed minor actor). The White Peacock is also the title of a novel by DH Lawrence (one of his best). Literary references to peacocks have been made by Aristophanes, Keats and George Eliot.

Monday, March 01, 2010

St David's Day



Today is St David’s Day, the Welsh national day.

I used to go to north Wales almost every summer, staying just outside the town of Dollgelau. Wales has a déjà vu quality for me. I can go to places that I know I have never been before, and yet they feel absolutely familiar.

Strange and familiar at the same time.