Saturday, February 26, 2011

"That was a classic" - the past week at work

Monday

The new PR officer, Josie, started today. She reports directly to me. It had been a few weeks since I interviewed her, and when she came in I didn't immediately recognise her (she had her hair done differently).

The new PR Officer is very attractive, and as I took her around the offices to introduce her to everyone I was conscious of a stir among the male employees. In particular, in the Operational Team the director Ryan M leered at her, and made an incoherent attempt at banter. This tour of the offices took nearly an hour, so slow was our progress.

At lunchtime the marketing team (minus director Tom D, who was away) went to the George IV pub to celebrate Josie's arrival.

The rest of the day was spent on Josie's induction. Talking to her she seems to be sensible and intelligent. Slight coolness between her and Meryl P, my deputy.

Tuesday

Meryl suddenly revealed this morning that she was going on a course for the rest of the week. Neither Tom D nor myself had known about this. Tom D hinted darkly that her days were numbered.

Therefore I had to incorporate Meryl's workload into my own schedule. This included organising a small seminar for civil servants (we need to keep the department on our side). Rather than book a hotel for this seminar I decided to try to save money by holding it in the NGO's offices. Therefore I sent out an e-mail to all staff announcing the closure of one of the two staff tea-rooms on the top the floor. This was a big mistake as the closure caused an uproar, with e-mails and 'phone calls complaining that the tea-room was a staff facility and couldn't be used for meetings (even though they have a perfectly adequate second tea-room). Eventually I judged it best to issue another e-mail withdrawing the first one and reassuring everyone they could use both tea-rooms ("that was a classic" said Felix S manager of Research, laughing at me over the incident).

Later into a meeting with Tom D and the Finance Director Bonar B. We discussed the finances of the marketing department, and none of the figures seemed to add up. However when I assumed that my six-month contract would not be renewed they both told me that it probably would.

In the afternoon the Design team that is producing the NGO annual report arrived with photographers to capture the "essence" of the NGO's work. A key part of the report is to sell the NGO to our civil service paymasters. I asked Josie to look after the design team, and the head designer later told me: "she makes me go weak at the knees".

Wednesday

A lot of arguing with an insurance company over the repair of my car (it was hit in an accident a few weeks ago).

Fall-out from the tea-room incident continued ("it was the only time I had seen people in this place motivated" said Preston, manager of the Innovation department).

Most of the day in a meeting with HR manager Yasmin S, discussing personnel issues. It is such a bore to supervise others. Very likely that there will have to be more redundancies.

Then I sat in on a radio interview - Innovation manager Preston was interviewed about the NGO's work.

Thursday

Arriving at the office I took the piles of paper from my desk drawers (we have a clear desk policy). But before I had time to go through my e-mails I was answering telephone calls and dealing with people coming up to me. There were also a couple of pathetic little meetings.

It is astonishing that one can work so hard and achieve so little. Often the NGO appears a farcical organisation. However, the established routines and operations seem to convince people that the work they are doing is worthwhile.

Overshadowing the whole day was a meeting of the senior management team (the directors and the CEO) discussing the cut in the NGO's funding. Tom D emerged from this meeting at lunchtime looking very flustered. Rumours began to circulate.

Late afternoon a very long meeting with Felix S. We intended to discuss our joint presentation to the Management Awayday next week. But most of the time we discussed what a mess the NGO was in.

Friday

The directory project is finally under way, and I was pleased at how busy and hard-working the marketing department looked.

Liaison with various departments including an education project (incorporating an "app" that seems entirely gratuitous).

Also a meeting with Tony and Jamie from the Operation department. The request for this meeting came from them, which surprised me as their boss Ryan M had always blocked any liaison with the marketing department. Now they couldn't be more co-operative, which puzzled me (and also irritated, since it means more work).

Friday, February 25, 2011

Walpurga's Day

Today is Walpurga's Day (not to be confused with Walpurga's Night which is a German celebration).

Walpurga is of interest because she was probably the first English female author, writing an account of her brother's visit to the Holy Land in the 6th century.

Although Walpurga is mostly connected with Germany, there was also a cult of the saint connected with Wimborne in Dorset.

A 1610 painting by Rubens illustrates one of St Walpurga's miracles.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

They knew the sort of unstable country they were going to

I don't wish to sound uncaring, but I am not impressed with the endless complaints of ex-pats in Libya, complaining that the rest of us (through our tax-sustained armed forces and civil service) have not rushed to "save" them.

They knew the sort of unstable country they were going to. Are they not willing to take responsibility for the situation they have got themselves into? Do they intend to pay for the cost of their rescue? (this is a rhetorical question, of course they are not going to pay anything).

These ex-pats are the same people who loudly proclaim when they leave the United Kingdom that the country is "finished" and they would never live here again.

A substantial part of yesterday's Today programme was taken up with a whining Scottish voice complaining that the locals had AK47 rifles and seemed out of control. Did that idiot not realise that the locals always had AK47 rifles and were just waiting for an opportunity to raid and pillage? Or did he think Libya was as safe as Aberdeenshire?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The New Toyota Auris Hybrid



Above: you might want to click on the image to see it in more detail.

I've been looking at the new ad for the Toyota Auris Hybrid.

Obviously I am not cogniscent with the brief for this campaign, so all my conclusions are subjective.

The ad is double page, full colour, minimal copy. The image captures the moment when a new car has just arrived home. The image is seen from the viewpoint of a neighbour looking out of the house next door (with the subliminal message that your neighbours will look out of their windows in admiration if you buy this car).

The youngish man has just got out of the driving seat and his wife and daughter have come out of the house to greet him (possibly they have rushed out; possibly the daughter has been waiting up past her bedtime since it looks as if she might be in a night-dress).

I like the brave way in which the double page has been used, with only twenty-five per cent of the area showing the product. The rest of the space sets the product in an emotional, cultural and demographic context. Note the arrows formed by the two areas of gravel in the foreground, subtly pointing towards the car and subliminally telling us "look!".

Too perfect to be a photograph, the image looks entirely airbrushed and super realist in style.

The setting is suburbia, a quiet road of absolutely new detached houses, featuring pseudo-Tudor neo-Elizabethan gables and half-timbering (these are people rich enough to afford pastiche).

The family are B or C1 social class, standard British middle-managerials or professionals. I would guess they were C1s more than Bs as the subliminal instruction in the copy is "like nothing else". As and Bs resent being told what to do, but generally C1s and C2s are happy to follow orders (as long as you don't insult them by being too overt).

Look more closely at the figures. The mother and child are so perfect that they are obviously idealised. The woman is at the centre of the image, but I cannot think that the ad is aimed at her. Rather it seems to be aimed at men who buy new second cars for their wives. The man is slightly more indistinct, as if he is allowed to be imperfect (baggy clothes that might be hiding a paunch, perhaps the hint of round shoulders). Subliminally this ad is saying to the man: perfect house, perfect family, perfect car - but you do not need to be perfect yourself to own this lifestyle.

There are two light sources in the image. One comes from the setting sun of a summer evening, creating a roseate glow in the sky and gentle shadows on the houses. The other light comes from the car itself, a preternatural dazzling white light symbolising newness, purity, even holiness (using the word in its correct sense to mean something set apart).

From an art-historical point of view the ad is Claudian in ambition. The figures are in the foreground as if on a stage; the composition leads the eye off into the distance; the colours and mood are romantic etc. It's the print ad equivalent of Claude Lorrain's Landscape with Narcissus and Echo or his Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Saatchi & Saatchi? http://www.saatchi.co.uk/

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pamela Nash MP

MP for Airdrie and Shotts is Pamela Nash.

Interested in sustainable housing.

Member of the Executive of the Fabian Society.
http://www.nextleft.org/

Youngest member of the House of Commons. When speaking in debates often refers to "Scotland" rather than her constituency, which gives the impression she is a nationalist sympathiser. Likely to become influential in the Labour party due to her youth and solid majority - all she has to do is stay out of controversy and Shadow jobs will (eventually) come her way.

Has a Twitter account: http://twitter.com/pamela_nash

Also a sort of blog: http://local.stv.tv/airdrie/news/967-blog-pamela-nash-mp/

About Libya

Brief to the point of terseness, Hillary Clinton's statement about Libya seems to convey a sense of power.

Hillary Clinton is an exception to most American politicians, who generally appear to be inarticulate (or perhaps they just seem inarticulate to us, and are completely intelligible to their own population).

http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156836.htm

"Dave" is also talking good sense on the subject.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12533520

Monday, February 21, 2011

Arcadia



Above: magazine advertisement for Arcadia's So Red The Rose.

As a non-sequential post-script to yesterday’s item on “arcadia”, the word was adopted as the name of a 1980s pop group formed by Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor (all from Duran Duran). The name of the band was supposedly inspired by the Poussin painting The Arcadian Shepherds (in the Louvre). The band only produced one album So Red The Rose, described as “the most pretentious album ever made”.

The Arcadia initiative seems to have been entirely stylistic. No touring ever took place, and only a few television appearances. The success of this “concept band” shows the power of visual image and emotional involvement in cultural concepts.

Image, fashion and film were at least as important as the music (which seems to have been constructed from disparate elements chosen for their glamour status rather than any intrinsic musical value).

Promotional videos were directed by Roger Christian, Marcelo Anciano, and Dean Chamberlain.



Above: screenprint from a website selling Duran Duran ephemera.

Drummer Roger Taylor withdrew from most of the stylistic publicity created around the Arcadia project. This is consistent with other reports that he is wary of publicity. In most Duran Duran videos he looks away whenever a camera is pointed at him.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Communities still think of themselves in Arcadian terms.



Above: one of the interests I have is in the conceptual idea of "arcadia" and whether it can still be found in the county. Arcadia is typically represented as a "lost" golden age of pastoral simplicity, where shepherd communities live untrammeled (one could almost say uncontaminated) by the modern world. This is a winter view of "arcady" - the light was fading so the sheep are slightly indistinct.

Bare trees, cold wind, hewn logs ready to go onto the farmhouse fire.



Above: Springtime arcady. The rolling green hills, the May blossom on the trees, the young lambs. We are only a few weeks from seeing the county transform itself into a passable representation of an earthly paradise.



Above: arcady in Summer. The aromatic nettles edge the fields, the birds sing, the sheep safely graze. This photograph does not do justice to the view, which was a hundred times more beautiful than this image indicates.

Arcadia in music - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYjqnlc7MRw



Above: although arcadia may physically exist in the county, did the local folk recognise it as such? There is evidence that they did. In one village I looked at last year a Victorian patriarch and his wife still watched over the family pew in the parish church.



Above: on an adjoining wall was this picture of three rams, pride of their flock and winners at the Royal Show. The livestock were given equal iconic status with the ancestral portraits. Does this indicate a conception of Heaven in which sheep accompany their arcadian masters?



Above: a humbler montage of photographs at a village hall, demonstrating a nostalgic view of "how things used to be" (encompassing the unspoken subtext: "and how things ought to be now"). At the centre is the flat-capped figure of the arcadian grandfather and shepherd. Although technology may have changed modern farming, the communities still think of themselves in arcadian terms.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Complexity and irrelevance - the past week at work

Monday

I was quite lazy this morning, lingering over breakfast and not rushing to get to work on time.

As soon as I arrived at the NGO large piles of work appeared on my desk. I was soon into meetings with the members of the Information Team, discussing the renewal of their contracts. The offices are awash with rumours of cuts to the NGO's budget, and the Information Team seems to be a target.

Complaints about observance of Health & Safety procedures, but I resisted all attempts to involve me.

More work arrived after lunch. "It's a horrible day" I told anyone who would listen. One of the worst aspects is that none of the work seems particularly important (in my opinion) so it is difficult to prioritise.

Near the end of the day my immediate boss, Tom D, casually remarked that he wanted to give an internal presentation early tomorrow. Typical of the inconsiderate way he expects others to fall in with his ill-planned schedule. So much of our time is spent reacting to emergencies that there is never enough time to clear the back-log.

I went home and spent the evening drafting a Powerpoint presentation for Tom D to use tomorrow. It took several hours, but I was pleased with the result. Image music text (as Barthes would say).

Tuesday

Woken this morning not by the alarm clocks but by a loud scuffling noise just outside my window. Pulling aside one of the curtains I saw two very smart magpies sitting on the ledge. They flew down to the lawn and hopped about.

Breakfast of tinned grapefruit and oranges, listening to Beethoven's Ninth (normally I have the Today programme on).

I arrived at the office psyched-up ready for the presentation, which is about the NGO's future. We went up to the Board Room where all the NGO staff were gathered. Tom D's delivery of the Powerpoint presentation was reasonably good.

Ryan M, Director of the Operational team, walked out half-way through, his petulant departure resembling a Premier player sent off the field.

A working lunch in Tom's office, Felix S (research manager) also attending. Lots of food - bread rolls, samosas, cake. We discussed a training event for the marketing team, although it is difficult to see how this would be approved in the current climate of cuts.

Marketing junior Leo announced that he would be leaving at the end of the summer to go to university. His friend Carl (junior in the HR department) has expressed an interest in taking the job. I am indifferent to the prospect, he could hardly be as difficult to manage as Leo.

I have to fill in an evaluation form for my job along with all the other employees of the NGO, despite being on a fixed term assured contract.

A meeting with Bonar B, the Finance Director. During the course of the conversation he expressed open contempt for Tom D. Although I agreed with his views I was careful not to say anything disloyal.

Wednesday

Heaps and heaps of paperwork on my desk, paralysing in its complexity and irrelevance. Also more of the staff contracts to oversee. Muttering among the Information team about their future (they are hearing rumours that they are all to be made redundant, but I have not heard this).

A small seminar run by the marketing department, part of the "schmoozing" campaign to prove to the Department that we are worth funding. I gave the opening address then handed over to my deputy Meryl. Leo was so helpful with this seminar (booking in the attendees, getting them cups of tea, setting out the lunches) that I gave him the afternoon off.

As the afternoon advanced I began to get feedback that the seminar had been a great success.

Later Caleb, a Baptist minister and "friend" of the NGO, told me: "You've been able to handle the prima donnas here in a way that has surprised people."

Thursday

Attended a funeral.

Friday

Yesterday affected me more than I expected. Although I forced myself to go to work I felt withdrawn and depressed. Drab misty cold weather.

In the morning Meryl and myself went to a meeting at a college in a university about forty miles away. The meeting was held in the Fellows Room - antique furniture in a room constructed of raw concrete. When the biscuits were passed around Caleb took a heap and munched them continuously as we talked through the agenda.

After the meeting the college gave us lunch - steak chasseur, a good Burgundy, fresh fruit salad. The President of the college joined us, wearing very shabby clothes (great deference was shown towards her). We talked about the twentieth-century paintings by women that the college is collecting.

Early afternoon when we got back to the office. Almost everyone else had gone home early. Meryl and I worked until 4 then went home ourselves.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Episodes, broadcast on BBC2 on Monday evenings at 10pm



Above: screenprint of BBC iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00ysm34/Episodes_Episode_6/

I missed the latest installment of the comedy drama Episodes, broadcast on BBC2 on Monday evenings at 10pm. I intend to watch it on the BBC iPlayer. But this is not the same as seeing the actual broadcast.

10pm on BBC2 on Mondays is developing into a slot for high-qaulity comedy drama - Rev, Grandma's House, Miranda and now Episodes.

All these comedies seem to have as their theme "suburbia" and its bourgeoise values - a suburban vicar transplanted to the inner city, the deeply suburban sub-culture of Jewish north London, suburbanites experiencing Hollywood etc.

Perhaps this accounts for their popularity, since suburbia is where most of the British population live, and suburban people mostly want to see drama that reflects themselves.

On Youtube you can see examples of this genre from the ancient past - Father Dear Father, The Good Life, Bless This House. These kinds of productions went out of fashion with the rise of "alternative" comedy. Television comedy almost died as a result.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Every effort should be made



Above: article by Marcus Leroux in today's Times about the way in which High Street shops have been affected in the economic downturn. Marcus Leroux is retail correspondent at The Times http://journalisted.com/marcus-leroux . He has a twitter account http://twitter.com/marcusleroux .



Above: every effort should be made to preserve small family-owned retail units. Not only do they employ more people, they keep money within local communities and they have longer staying power - often over several generations. They also contribute significantly to community cohesion and regeneration.

I would like to see the government give incentives to family owned start-ups - perhaps even zero taxes and rates for the first five years or so.



Above: whenever I see the tagline "family owned" I am inclined to give a company my support, even if the prices are slightly higher. One of the reasons Germany has done fairly well economically is that a large proportion of their manufacturing sector is made up of family-owned companies and so are less susceptible to the arguments of accountants. Also less likely to be asset stripped (in the disgraceful way Kraft has despoiled Cadbury).

Monday, February 14, 2011

St Valentine's Day



Today is St Valentine's Day.

Over the last twenty years or so the day has developed from a fairly low-key event related to personal and private commemoration by lovers to a major commercial celebration.

Looking through the newspapers on Friday, Saturday and Sunday it seemed as if every other page was selling Valentine's Day merchandise. Window displays have used the theme to sell toiletries and clothes. The Dog's Trust suggest's sending a Valentine donation to one of the many unloved dogs in its care.

The day seems to be widening in significance from a "holiday" marked by couples to a more community-wide celebration of the abstract idea of love.

What is going on here? Is this the commercialisation of yet another event in the ritual year, in the same way that Christmas, Easter or New Year have been commercialised? Or is it a reassertion of the ancient and eternal "rite of spring", intruding itself into the modern commercial programme?
Above: the only Valentine card I received this year was from the Dog's Trust (which is okay - the last thing I would want is an anonymous spangley card arriving in the office mail and have to wonder who sent it).


Above: Heston Blumenthal recipes for St Valentine's Day.

Interesting to see this year that there is more emphasis upon specific food for St Valentine's Day. This is significant (to me at least) as in the pre-industrial period ritual days were always associated with the consumption of ritual food. The fact that new food is being invented rather than simply revived suggests that the event has captured the creative imagination.



Above (screenshot): the 1975 Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock opens with scenes of barely repressed "sapphic love" among girls at a private school in Edwardian Australia on St Valentine's Day 1900.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WcJpdg5Euk


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Woodlands



Above: on the way back I stopped to walk in a Forestry Commission Wood. Wet and damp and cold, but also very beautiful (in a bleak sort of way). I often think that some of the best days are winter days.



Above: obviously a wood is not easy to photograph. This picture shows the place to be drab and uninteresting. You can't hear the birdsong or breath the fresh air or see the light vary the hundreds of different shades of grey and dull green.



Above: woodlands have been in the news a great deal recently due to government consultation on the future of the Forestry Commission. Hundreds of articles have appeared in the media on the subject. This article by Ben Webster (http://journalisted.com/ben-webster) appeared in The Times on 8th January, with the interesting idea that charities are considering whether they will be able to take over the woods.

Personally I am not enthusiastic about the Forestry Commission. They do some good work, but most of their history since the 1920s is a record of environmental spoilation - creating monocultural plantations of conifers that do not support native wildlife. The ideal solution would be for the Forestry Commission woodlands to be transferred without payment to either the Woodland Trust or the National Trust.



Above: Year 5 are learning about woodlands. Woodlands are an emotive subject even among townies who never go near a wood from one decade to the next. The hold which "the wild wood" has on our cultural imagination probably stems from our paleolithic past when most of northern Europe was covered by deciduous forest.



Above: in a corner of the south aisle the Sunday School set up this bare tree-structure and decorated it with painted flowers. This seems to be an almost Jungian attempt to help the winter pass more quickly. Seeing the bare trees in the county's landscape it is difficult to visualise that they will soon be covered in blossom and making the air smell sweet.



Above: forestry was an honourable occupation in the county up until the First World War. In the medieval period they would have their own guilds with services in the local parish church and "friendly society" activities (annual feast, training programmes for apprentices, support for elderly ex-members and their families). If they were not wealthy to have their own guild hall they would meet in specific pubs or even private houses.

http://www.forestersfriendlysociety.co.uk/our-history.aspx



Above: I have supported the Woodland Trust since 1999. I totally support their aim of doubling (at least) the amount of native woodland in the United Kingdom. I would especially like to see more woods planted in the eastern counties.

The Woodland Trust should be carefully noting the names of all the celebrities, journalists and politicians who are currently jumping on the "save our woodlands" bandwaggon - given the huge salaries these people enjoy they should be good for a grand each, collectively enough to plant a new wood.

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/Pages/default.aspx

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"I know you weren't to blame..." - the past week at work

Monday

Still off work, but feeling better so that I will be able to return to the office tomorrow. I slept until 10 in the morning. Most of the day spent reading Yourcenar, although I should have worked on a marketing plan for the Information Team.

Tuesday

Getting up was no problem (I always fear I will oversleep, which is why I have three alarm clocks set). Feeling a little delicate still, and I realise I am getting old and can no longer treat illness with indifference. Damp cold day.

As soon as I arrived at my desk I was called into a meeting with my boss, Communications Director Tom D. While I had been off sick a major incident had occurred which entailed some media handling. My deputy Meryl P had been unable to cope with this, and the NGO had looked duplicitous.

"I want you to recruit a PR Officer immediately" Tom D told me. "We can't afford another incident. I know you weren't to blame..." (he said this in a way that implied I was very much to blame) "...but I want someone experienced to cover you in case you are ever off again."

I returned to my desk. Meryl P sat opposite, smiling happily. The thought crossed my mind that she had deliberately made a mess of the PR as revenge for being demoted by Tom D.

Tom D passed through the department on his way to a junket in Greece. He paused by my desk, loaded down with bags and suitcases, to say in a low voice that he wanted the new PR Officer in place by the end of next week. I rang Human Resources manager Yasmin S to ask her advice.

Shortly afterwards I went up to HR to talk to Yasmin in person. I sat opposite her in the desk normally occupied by her assistant Melissa (the work station decorated with cut out pictures of Lloyd Daniels, a failed X-Factor contestant). Because of the short timescale Yasmin said that she would go to agencies for candidates - we would have a short list by Wednesday and start interviewing on Friday.

The rest of the day spent writing the job description and key performance objectives.

Because I felt so tired I went home early - something I have never done before. No-one challenged me or asked where I was going. I just left.

Wednesday

Puzzled that I didn't feel right this morning since I have been taking all the right medication. I wasn't really up to going to work, but I forced myself. I felt that if I took any more time off work I would lose control of events.

Meetings to do with the Directory we are producing. Meredith, one of the Information Team, had been interfering with the project and I had to reverse her decisions. For the moment she has submitted, but I am not fooled into thinking she has given up.

Meeting with Yasmin to go through the CVs that have come in (CVs are resumes). There were lots, far more than I had anticipated. As we went through them we often broke off to talk about other subjects.

Her view of Leo, a teenager who works in my department: "He is an arrogant lout."

Her view of my deputy, Meryl P: "She likes working with you - she says you have a good sense of humour."

Yasmin is aged about thirty, long straight blonde hair, attractive but with a hard demeanor (for instance she has beautiful translucent blue eyes but the pupils are always small and black). She knows everything that is happening in the NGO, and is ruthless in advancing her own interests. For some reason she has selected me as a confident (perhaps because I am on a fixed contract and cannot be a threat).

Thursday

Tom D back from his expenses-paid jaunt to Greece, bringing Ouzo and Greek Delight (Turkish Delight) as a gift for the marketing department. At the departmental meeting we drank the Ouzo (only a little in paper cups) and listened to him talk about the pollution of Athens. Discussion about the Directory dominated the meeting.

Tom invited Felix S (heads Research) and myself to lunch at the Red Lion pub. Shepherd's pie and a half of Irish stout. We talked informally about the department.

An afternoon of answering e-mails and chasing paper. There doesn't seem to be any slack in the work that needs to be done. It just stretches ahead into the distance, one complicated project after another.

Friday

In the morning I spoke to a model agency about getting a celebrity to launch an event for Special Projects (run by Carmel, who I am aware is not friendly towards me, mainly because she is Leo's mother and doesn't like the way her son is treated by the marketing department).

Leo reports to Meryl, and I told her not to put up with any nonsense from him - she spent the rest of the day "clamping down" on Leo and stopping him taking cigarette breaks.

In the afternoon there were interviews for the new post of PR Officer. Yasmin and I did the interviewing, using Tom's office (he had disappeared for the afternoon). We saw five people, one after another, the process taking from noon until 6pm.

They were all very strong candidates.

The first person was a Cambridge graduate who had published a book on the Mabinogoin which she talked about very persuasively (PR is often about making dull subjects sound interesting).

Second candidate was amazingly good-looking, aged twenty-two, had worked as an assistant in a PR agency.

Third candidate puzzled us as he had no PR experience other than editing football programmes (he runs the Fan Club for a Championship team). In the brief discussion after his interview we couldn't remember why we had included him on the shortlist. Yasmin crossed him off.

Fourth candidate was very weird.

The last candidate was a strong, confident woman of about forty (no age on her CV). She had a great deal of relevant experience and talked about her achievements and her contacts. As I listened to her I thought that if appointed she would be a match for Tom D and several others in the NGO.

When the interviews had finished Yasmin and I talked through the candidates. I suggested candidate 5 but Yasmin immediately vetoed her ("She will be nothing but trouble"). Candidate 1 wasn't experienced enough. Candidate 4 was too weird. By process of elimination the amazingly beautiful Candidate 2 was appointed. We are supposed to hold second interviews, but Yasmin said this wouldn't be necessary.

When we emerged from the interview room we found that everyone else had gone, and only the cleaners were in the building.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Jonathan Reynolds MP

Jonathan Reynolds is the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde. Alumnus of Manchester University. Born in Sunderland.

Trained as a solicitor (not a good sign). Protege of Peter Mandelson (not a good sign). Did not oppose the Hattersley Tesco development (not a good sign).

Has asked questions on: Overcrowding on trains; Assistance to creative industries; Tax relief for the computer games industry.

In July last year signed an Early Day Motion on the Bus Services Operator Grant.

Quote about Baroness Warsi: "has the sort of confidence you only get if you refuse to listen to any views that challenge your own."

Writes an on-line column called Commons People http://www.progressonline.org.uk/columns/category.asp?cc=23

Is a member of the Runnymede Trust's parliamentary group (along with Richard Fuller MP).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Buy this sofa...



You can find gems among even the most worthless dross.

By worthless dross I mean the inserts for furniture sales that are in almost every colour supplement at the moment. It is wrong of me to castigate this sales tactic, since I have done many many inserts for clients in the past. But I think I always regarded them as the low point in any campaign (possibly even the client thought so as well).

Anyway, as soon as I saw this photograph in a Furniture Village insert I knew it was special. No idea who the photographer is, but it is a masterpiece. The colours, the composition, the subliminal messages...

I especially like the sense of narrative between the two figures.

They are looking deep into each others' eyes, which is not always easy to capture photographically. She is dressed-up, as if she has just come in. She is holding the remote control, but is not looking at a television so presumably she has just taken it off the man (and is pointing it at him, subliminally implying buy this sofa and you too can control your partner).

He is in a relaxed but defensive position. He is touching his chin (body language that implies telling untruths). I love the little red lamps in the background - they look like thoughts emanating from his head.

The room is pristine white, with everything neat and tidy, subliminally implying buy this sofa and you too can have a perfect home.

The header is ridiculously exaggerated ("the world's most comfortable sofa") but fits the romantic mood created by the photo, subliminally implying buy this sofa and you can make love all afternoon.

I am sure that if I looked longer and harder at the image more encoded messages would emerge.

This particular insert was more interesting than the magazine it came it.

Buy this sofa and your life can also be perfect.

Note: the agency that did the insert is Golly Slater.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Egypt



Above: interesting double page feature in today's Guardian by Jack Shenker and Brian Whitaker about the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the factions that is manouvring to take over Egypt.

The current disturbances in Egypt are interesting from a foreign affairs point of view; and personally I am keen to know that the unique Coptic culture (10% of the population) is not threatened; but it seems to me that the crisis also illustrates on a major scale a principle that seems to affect every social organisation.

Power is related to the ability to distribute patronage. As long as a majority of the Egyptian population expected to do well out of the Mubarak regime his position was secure, even without granting democratic rights. As soon as the Mubarak beneficiaries started to become a closed club it was only a matter of time when those with nothing to lose challenged the status quo.

This is not my own idea, I have borrowed it from classical history - the organising power of circles of amici (friends of friends of friends of the people in power). Marguerite Youcenar said this kind of influence behaves like a cancer, and by relentlessly expanding it eventually kills the social organism that gave it life. The point always comes when there are not enough resources to recruit new amici.



Above: a previous Egyptian example of the amici principle was King Farouk. Interesting biography by William Stadiem. Now out of print.

What will happen after Mubarak? Once a government has been decapitated the circles of amici become powerless to stop their dispossession. They must either curry favour with the new regime (not always easy) or face the loss of jobs, privileges, access to power etc.

Egypt is an extreme example, but you can see the same principle at work in the United Kingdom since the general election last May. There is a widely acknowledged legitimate need to reduce the deficit, but the Coalition government also seems to be taking the opportunity to reduce the number of public sector jobs where incumbants have a vested interest to vote for a Labour party they see as a patron and protector. Once these people have lost their jobs they will also lose their incentive to vote Labour (a few will become activists for the opposition, most will drift away).

It will be interesting to see if the Coalition manages to dispense sufficient patronage to satisfy their own amici networks*.

* I am using the word amici in its Roman sense - a group of "friends" with the same philosophical outlook and common purpose, with an emphasis on similarities rather than differences.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

St Elfleda's Day



Above: Click on the image to enlarge it and read more about St Elfleda (it says no reproduction without permission, but this is a screenprint of a webpage, so it is not as if I am passing the photographs off as my own work - the webpage is on http://www.wilfrid.com/saints/search_of_hilda06.htm).

Today is St Elfleda's Day. I am interested in St Elfleda because she is at the centre of an early medieval literary culture that is of great importance. Not only did she know the poet Caedmon (a cowherd who became England's first poet) but she is also associated with the production of the earliest Life of Pope Gregory the Great (which was written in Whitby, not Rome as you might expect http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/gregory_whitby_life.htm).



Above: Elfleda is associated with a monastery in the centre of the county. Only the church remains (this is a picture of the chancel, note the images of saints on the walls). The building was a mausolum for several of her relatives (from the Northumbrian royal house), so it is reasonable to assume she was often here.

A good graphic



On page 7 of today's Times there is a graph that illustrates the government's Big Society policy. At last some has put down on in an A4 landscape space what the policy is all about. Newsnight yesterday had a gabbling interview on the subject, with no-one really knowing what they were talking about.

A good graphic can transform an information campaign. This one was designed by Matthew Swift. His LinkedIn page is at http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/matthew-swift/18/223/7b8 .

Monday, February 07, 2011

Peter Kosminsky drama The Promise on Channel 4



Above: the character "Erin" was played with miserabilist intensity by Claire Foy.

Very disappointed with the Peter Kosminsky drama The Promise on Channel 4 last night.

Two-dimensional characters, clod dialogue, one trite sentimental cliche after another.

It was so bad I was unable to watch the whole episode, and will not be watching any further installments.

NOTE ADDED 14TH FEBRUARY: I gave it another go last night and it is better than I thought. Christian Cooke in particular is a good actor and creates a convincing character (except for one or two quasi-political rhetorical speeches he has to deliver). Also modern Israel is too neat and tidy and not the chaotic place it actually is.

NOTE ADDED 21ST FEBRUARY: I watched it again last night, and tried to work out why overall it is a compelling drama and yet if you start to deconstruct any part of it you soon realise it is rubbish. Historically dodgy, narrative confused and over-complicated, characterisations crude. By every measure this series is awful. It is redeemed by the acting ability of Christian Cooke and Claire Foy. These two are so expert at creating a believable environment around themselves that they carry every scene. Never heard of either of them before this series.

NOTE ADDED 1ST MARCH: and I saw the final episode on Sunday. It had too many scenes crammed into two hours, so that nothing was properly developed. Each scene was perfectly acted by Christian Cooke and Claire Foy, but they were asked to work with some dire material, and the total aggregate of the drama was absurd.

A teacher from Essex has criticised these tentative reviews of The Promise, telling me by e-mail that my opinions are "unintelligent". I know that teachers become hidebound by their profession, and they cannot help themselves marking the work of others. But so that this person should not aim further sarcastic remarks at me here are a few examples of why I think The Promise is bad:

1) The Len Matthews character (Christian Cooke) witnesses a bloody massacre of Palestinians by Jewish settlers. In the middle of this frenzy Len Cooke goes up to one of the Jewish participants (who would have been half-crazed with bloodlust) and calmly tells him "you do realise this is against the Geneva Convention" as if the two of them were debating points at the Oxford Union. Not credible I'm afraid.

2) The Len Matthews character is on a crowded quayside looking for an Arab friend, and in the middle of a crowd of Arabs shouts the name "Mohammed". Presumably the writer doesn't know how popular the name "Mohammed" is in the Arab world. This was so laughably stupid that I had to look away from the screen momentarily.

3) The Erin Matthews character (Claire Foy) stands defiantly in front of an Israeli bulldozer about to destroy a Palestinian house. This scene made me feel very uneasy. A real peaceworker, Rachel Corrie, was killed in the same circumstances in 2003, and her tragedy should not be used as a dramatic aside.

4) The haircuts seem wrong for 1948. It's a small point but noticable. Surely Len Matthews would have used Brylcream?

5) Modern Israelis in The Promise are portrayed as westernized and English-speaking, whereas over half of the Jewish population of modern Israel originates from Middle Eastern countries and are certainly not Hampstead intellectuals.

6) Having seen all four episodes I think that the Kosminsky thesis (I could almost say agenda) is dishonest.

You can still see the episodes: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-promise/episode-guide




Above: Rachel Cooke said in The Observer that The Promise "promises to be one of the highlights of the decade" (possibly she had not actually watched the drama before she wrote this piece).

The headline writer (who is possibly a different person to Rachel Cooke) is right to emphasise the way Britain simply abandoned the area in 1947. This is an area that needs more investigation by historians. Both the 1947 ending of the United Nations Mandate over Palestine, and the 1947 withdrawl from India, were precipitously brought forward (irrespective of the danger to local populations) because Clement Attlee wanted to save money to set up the NHS - in its way this policy decision was as irresponsible as the Belgian withdrawl from Congo in the 1960s).



Above: EC Hodgkin was Deputy Editor of The Times.

Other sources give a more nuanced view of the Mandate period. The contradictions of the administration were present from the beginning, although accelerated by later events. Possession of the territory has always been disputed and has always depended on force.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Subservience bordering on oppression

Village at the north of the county - a feeling that I had come to the end of the earth. Scent of fresh pines and woodsmoke. Endless racket from hounds in kennels.

The place name of the village is one of the Anglo-Saxon habitation names, derived from the original clan to settle in the area - roughly "the land of the badger people".

I have had a quick look on Wikipedia to see what characteristics of the animal may have led to it being adopted by the ancient clan: White mark borne like a badge on its forehead… Shelter underground, living in burrows… Badgers can be fierce animals and will protect themselves and their young at all costs… Badgers are capable of fighting off much larger animals such as wolves and bears… Badgers have been known to become intoxicated with alcohol after eating rotting fruit… Badgers are popular in English fiction (ie significant in story telling traditions).

The church was on a high bank, towering above the road - I was glad to get inside out of the cold damp air.



Above: the guardian angel of the community is Azariah, the angel of Love. Despite the attribute of "love" the angel is shown here as a martial knight, armed with a spear. Note the fine Augsburg armour (prominent decorative codpiece), jewelled collar and gold bracelet on his left wrist.



Above: throughout the interior were images of fecundity, martial bravery, genealogical connections (listed in brass plaques and encoded in heraldry). This memorial to a young mother shows a representation of women that emphasises purity (the white marble, downcast expression, "modest" clothes), and maternal solicitude. The position of women in village societies, even as recently as the Second World War, was one of subservience bordering on oppression.



Above: an older table tomb showing a mass of children gathered around their parents (girls to the left, boys to the right). Production of children was a main focus of all levels of society. Notice the kings head at the feet of the women - here used as an armorial crest but perhaps commemorating the killing of a chieftain by some far off family ancestor.



Above: an afternoon concert of organ music was being held while I walked around, so I had to be quiet. Even so, there were some frowns when I dropped my camera accidentally. The audience sat at little tables and drank cups of tea - the tea was free, but you paid extra for homemade cakes and biscuits.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The medication I am taking makes me sleepy - the past week

Monday

Usual long list of e-mails when I got to my desk and opened up my PC. The first hour of the day disappears dealing with these e-mails. I was called into a meeting being held in CEO Alan Pressberg's office on whether we should produce a digital annual report this year (I advised sticking to a hard copy, as people are more likely to read something they can hold in their hands).

Late morning my deputy, Meryl P, asked to see me privately. She showed me her appraisal from our boss Tom D. It was a terrible assessment of her ("He's damning me with faint praise").

Although Meryl has often be difficult I resisted the temptation to stir things up, and said I would talk to Tom about the appraisal.

We sat talking for a while, and she showed me a graph of how much floor space is required by each grade of the staff in the NGO.

"Why do senior executive officers get so much?" I asked.

"Because they're fatter" she said.

In the afternoon I began to feel ill (aching all over), and eventually went home.

Tuesday

Guilty about not going to work today. I suppose I am influenced by the Protestant Work Ethic. I called Meryl to cancel my appointments for the day.

In the afternoon I went to see the doctor and got a lecture about taking my health more seriously.

Wednesday

Again not well enough to go to work. The medication I am taking makes me sleepy. In the afternoon I went upstairs to sleep (laying down on top of the bed) but this was a mistake as when I woke I felt extremely cold.

In the evening a strong wind began blowing around the house and this continued all night.

Thursday

Another day off work, although I am feeling better.

I spent the day reading Freya Stark.

No let up in the wind.

Friday

And still not well. I am fine in the house, but as soon as I go outside I start to feel giddy and tired. Driving is impossible.

All the day the wind blew so that it is starting to depress me.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Leprosy



Above: latest magazine from the Leprosy Mission.

Leprosy is a horrible disease, insidious in the way it spreads and devastating in the ruin it causes.

Untreated, it can lead to disability and blindness. In many parts of the world the disease is regarded with abhorrence, leading sufferers to experience isolation, prejudice and discrimination. Even in the United Kingdom the law treats leprosy sufferers unfairly.

Although there is no preventative vaccine available, leprosy can be cured with a multi-drug therapy.

Roughly a quarter of a million new patients are diagnosed each year, but many more do not seek treatment early enough because of the terrible social stigma they will experience.

Since it is possible to eradicate this disease entirely, it is unacceptable that more effort is not being made to do so. The British government should be supplying free multi-drug therapy wherever it is needed around the world, and also using diplomatic staff to engage with those countries that are not doing enough to end social exclusion of leprosy sufferers. The United Kingdom is a rich and relatively powerful nation, with considerable powers of organization and an extensive state health service that could be focussed outwards - would it be so expensive if we were to automatically enrol all leprosy sufferers, wherever they are in the world, into the NHS and give them a basic level of British diplomatic protection?

Generally you have to ask yourself - if we do not take up this cause, who will?

Campaign to end discrimination against leprosy sufferers in the United Kingdom:
http://www.leprosymission.org.uk/news_events/advocacy.aspx

Just on the subject of what should be Britain's role in the world, there was an interesting article in The Times today by Philip Collins. In my view one of the ways we can demonstrate leadership is by asserting as a fundamental human right access to health care free at the point of delivery. The NHS model may be represented throughout the world as "unaffordable" but somehow we manage to pay for it without too much trouble.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Nick Love film The Business



Above: screenprint of a scene from the film.

One of the experiences of going to stay with friends is that you end up sitting on their sofa, in their living room, watching their DVDs. The Nick Love film The Business was not something I especially wanted to see, but I was really surprised at how good it was. In particular what a good actor Danny Dyer can be (usually I have only seen him briefly when flicking channels and wondering what “Real Football Factories” was about).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWx6L8Lpe9Q&feature=related



Above: screenprint of the music in the film.

The soundtrack of The Business is made up of 1980s classics. Is this the definitive list of 1980s music? If so, who chose it and what criteria did they use? (these are not just rhetorical questions – I am genuinely interested).

I was just there as an observer



Above: by the time the soufflé course arrived I was too drunk to say anything.

Dinner with a group of economists and economic historians. Monkfish, squirrel (!), pomegranate sorbet, venison, Valrohna chocolate tart, Grand Marnier soufflé. Taittinger to drink.

A gold bar was passed around the table (was this genuine? – it felt heavy enough).

As usual I was just there as an observer, and by the time the soufflé course arrived I was too drunk to say anything - but I jotted down a few comments:

The Geddes Axe (1922) was the last time government spending was reduced.

Local councils may be fighting the government by deliberately making cuts in high-profile areas such as public libraries.

Public will forget the cuts within eighteen months to two years.

The Conservatives are letting the Liberal Democrats take responsibility for the cuts and at the end of the Coalition they will cut them adrift.

There is a pessimistic strain in public opinion that generally assumes the worst case scenario is the correct one, which is why there is not more opposition to government policy.

The NHS reforms are a risk, but the innovation that will result from hundreds of practitioner groups tackling the same problems in different ways may well produce breakthrough advances that will pay off with the electorate.



Above: I stayed overnight at the hotel (special January rate, so it wasn’t too expensive). Big chintzy bedroom, a little cold. Hardly slept at all, my mind racing around on all sorts of subjects.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Candlemas



Above: earlier this evening I went to a Candlemas service at one of the central villages. The singing was exceptional and included Candlemas carols and a sung Nunc Dimittis. For a small village to produce such an event was both impressive and moving.



Above: scene at the end, when everyone was milling around chatting. The mood during the service had been serious. The whole church was lit with candles - formal candles on the altar, big candles that were being blessed and taken off to other churches, dozens of tiny candles on window ledges and every flat surface. The parish seemed to have made an effort over attendance as the little church was packed, every seat taken and people standing at the back. During Holy Communion the woman priest, in pale gold vestments, stood with her back to the congregation and held up an enormous Host which she broke with a snap that could be heard throughout the building. There was an attempt at a candle procession, but so many people were at the service that this wasn't really possible.

Candlemas is forty days after the Nativity, and marks the official end of Christmas. The period between All Souls Day (1st November) and Candlemas (2nd February) represents the darkest and dreariest weeks of the year. Throughout this bleak time the medieval church organised feasts and holy days, including the twelve days of Christmas, designed to raise people's spirits, organise communities into collective celebrations, and focus attention upon hope for the future.

Candlemas processions are mentioned by Bede, and so have been celebrated in England for at least one thousand three hundred years.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The solution lies in creating meaningful identities



Above: when the Coalition government came to power last year there were hopes that they would start to tackle the entrenched behaviour of binge drinking, especially among young people. Although heavy drinking had been an area of concern for decades, the previous Labour government unintentionally fuelled binge drinking through repeal of almost all drinking laws, expecting to create a "European cafe-style culture" where low-cost alcohol was freely available whenever and wherever someone wanted it. It soon became clear that the policy reforms had backfired and led to unrestricted uncontrolled drinking at levels dangerous to health.

At the same time the "night-time" economy quickly assumed prominence, especially in urban areas, and therefore the Labour administration hesitated to reverse its policy (plus an understandable reluctance to admit they were wrong, and a practical inability to take away a freedom once it has been granted).



Above: article in The Times in August 2010 where Sam Lister and Marcus Leroux present a very troubling statistical picture of the impact heavy drinking is having on society. I have reread this article several times over the last five months. 860,000 hospital admissions per year caused by drinking (up 69% on 2003), a 500% increase in mortality from alcohol-related liver disease, an annual total cost to the nation (through drink-related crimes; absent days from work; costs to the NHS etc) of £50 billion.



Above: article in today's Guardian by Denis Campbell, reporting on a survey published today that reveals the terrible effects excessive alcohol consumption is having, particularly on young people.



Above: the solution to binge drinking is usually seen as higher retail prices, and this policy is being tested in Scotland. However, I am not entirely convinced. Recently I read Violent Night, Urban Leisure and Contemporary Culture by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall.

Some quotes:

There are serious problems besetting young people - anxiety, drugs, violence, suicide, loss of traditional forms of identity, consumer pressure.

In the past society was comprehensible by the majority of individuals, especially in terms of functional roles, identities, and transitions into adulthood.

Today "society" has been replaced by "consumerism" - a megalithic system whose principle political-economic strategy is to infiltrate the dreams and desires of the individual and promise their easy fulfilment in the shape of exotic and seductive lifestyles.

The imagery of the night-time economy has become the exclusive signifier of a pleasureable and hedonistic experience, attracting millions of young people into a mutually understood realm of excess, freedom and debauchery predicated upon the physical delights of sex, drugs and dance, and spiced even further with the risk of violence or some sort of encounter with the law.

In idealized "nights out" entire friendship groups appear to be in the mood for good times, jokes are funnier, alcohol and atmosphere more intoxicating, the music is better, the opposite sex more attractive etc.

There are serious forms of anxiety in youth cultures regarding the construction of identity in a cultural world where the ability to see oneself as part of a broad historical process has been virtually eliminated.

Therefore it doesn't look as if higher prices is going to solve the problem of binge drinking.

The solution lies in creating meaningful identities for young people as "part of a broad historical process" (in other words creating a mythological narrative to replace the one created by consumerism).