Sunday, October 30, 2005

“She’s like this with everyone who comes to the house”

(Above) Mitch Holmes thinks our brand image should incorporate teddy bears, which he says will always get attention (even though they have nothing to with any of the SBU’s products or services). He wants the new sales brochure to incorporate teddy bears dressed in the company uniform. Sarah Linton is supposed to refer to Mitch Holmes as “my teddy bear” (he’s a strapping Yorkshireman with grey hair and beard).

Thursday. All the speculation in the office today was about a secret meeting Mitch Holmes (Sales Director) held at The Kings Head pub in the heart of the forest last night (the “forest” is actually a connection of woods which The Woodland Trust is trying to expand and consolidate). Only Paul Hignet (Sales Executive), Clare Vyse (European Desk) and Sarah Linton (Sales Manager and Mitch Holmes’s lover) attended this covert gathering, which was meant to be very hush hush (and yet everybody knew about it).

Like everyone else I was curious about what was discussed. As for most of the day I was alone in the office with Paul Hignet I was able to push him to tell me information. At first he was absolutely taciturn, but gradually, under my tactful but persistent questioning, he described the scene.

He had arrived to find the pub deserted apart from Mitch Holmes and Sarah Linton sitting either side of an open fire. When Clare Vyse arrived the meeting began, and took the form of mysterious hints and arguments that led nowhere before the real explanation was arrived at: the sales figures for October were disastrous and there was a possible risk of redundancies. The clandestine woodland meeting, in a pub chosen because no one from the office was likely to drink there, was intended to identify candidates for redundancy (scapegoats to be offered up in place of Mitch Holmes, who should really carry responsibility for the poor sales figures).

In the afternoon Julia Fitzgerald, one of the Sales Executives (slim, energetic, attractive but a little inept - the Call Centre staff said the only reason she was appointed was because Mitch Holmes liked the look of her), came back to the office in a mood was exhilarated and jumpy. She rummaged in her bag and produced a Mars Bar which she presented to me with the words: “This is for my fellow partner in crime” (what did she mean by that?). She has worked for the company for only nine months, and when Paul Hignet briefly left the room she whispered to me that she was about to hand in her resignation in protest at Mitch Holmes’s blatant favouritism towards Sarah Linton. She breezed off with her resignation letter, typed up on buff-coloured paper. I found an excuse to go down to the general sales floor, and saw her in the glass side office talking animatedly with Mitch Holmes. Throughout the afternoon the news of her deed gradually filtered out and a hush fell over the offices.

I stayed at work until 6 pm, as I had been asked to dinner by Nathalie Vachon - a French woman aged about thirty, working on the European desk as a temp, complaining frequently that no-one liked her. I didn’t really want to go, but I felt that if I refused Nathalie Vachon would count me as part of the “conspiracy” she felt was trying to drive her out the company (the Call Centre is mostly made up of women, and they can be very astringent to anyone who doesn’t fit in). When she invited me Nathalie said with a significant emphasis: “You’ll meet Den, my partner.”

Nathalie lived about five miles away. The village was difficult to find, and in the dark I was driving along muddy roads looking for a farm on sloping ground with a narrow lane off to the left. Eventually, I arrived at Wood Farm Cottage, a small detached house with all the lights blazing. There was a tall hedge in front of the building, then an area of gravel. Behind the house I could see the silhouettes of apple trees. As I parked on the gravel Nathalie Vachon bounded out of the front door saying: “You’ve come!” (as if she doubted I would actually turn up).

Vanessa Vachon has a heavy big-boned build (not fat, but certainly well-rounded) with black curly hair and a pronounced nose. She dresses very well, and has a vivacious coquettish manner, so that she is impossible to ignore. In the office she flirts outrageously with the uniform staff (probably the reason she is not popular with the Call Centre women, especially as her language has a Gallic explicitness about sexual matters). She was hired by Marc Bottoni to work on marketing the European operations, so she frequently comes up to my desk to ask my opinion. I give her a lot of encouragement, but privately I think that her proposals have no chance of getting adopted without the support of Mitch Holmes. As Mitch Holmes is secretly frightened of the Call Centre women, there is no chance of this happening.

As soon as I entered the house I met Vanessa’s partner Den - another woman (Den was short for Denise). Within minutes of my arrival it was clear that they were partners in the fullest sense of the word. Den was aged about forty, tall and angular, with hair dyed an improbable shade of orange. She was wearing black leather trousers. She greeted me in a belligerent sort of way, as if expecting me to say something or be surprised in some way. She swore copiously and throughout the evening there was always a drink in her hand.

In the half hour that followed Den treated me with open hostility, and was so rude that I considered leaving (this may have been what she intended). Everything I said she disagreed with. Den was a mature student doing an English Literature degree incorporating a great deal of radical sexual politics and the triumph of women over men (this is a subject she went on and on about all evening). She portrayed herself as a left-wing champion of the working-class but she had once been married to a Scottish expatriot estate agent in central France. Nathalie had also been married and had two children which she left behind when she ran off with Den. They described this elopement as being “driven out” by the local villagers (all Nathalie had taken with her was contained in two plastic bags).

The interior décor of the house was interesting. Nathalie and Den, after their flight from France, had run a pub for three years. This business had failed with the loss of almost all their money (which had come from Den’s divorce settlement). As a result, Wood Farm Cottage was furnished with items salvaged from the pub. So we had the dinner seated on tall settle benches drawn up to a cast iron table. Around the walls were framed posters of French impressionist works (from the pub restaurant). All around the house were collections of ceramic figures (the sort of bric-a-brac you would find in a pub).

After such a poor reception I had not expected much from the meal, but actually quite an effort had been made. We began with smoked salmon, then had a main course of an enormous steak served almost raw (I like food to be well-cooked and I thought this slab of bloody meat was disgusting). No pudding, but an impressive platter of cheeses was produced, twenty or so varieties. Our talk was very broad and covered a huge number of subjects. Every view I expressed was twisted by Den and used against me. At midnight I felt I could leave without Den thinking she had driven me off (I didn’t want to give her that satisfaction).

Nathalie came out to the car and apologised for the treatment I had received.

“Don’t worry” she said, “she’s like this with everyone who comes to the house.”

I said it didn’t matter, but as I drove off I determined never go to Wood Farm Cottage again.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Work at home… free of distractions

One of the nicest things about my new job is that occasionally I am allowed to work at home. So on Tuesday I stayed in bed until ten o’clock and then went down to the long sitting room (which runs the whole of the west side of the house) with a cup of tea and some books. My brother had gone out, and I was able to read without interruptions. I continued with the second volume of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Interspersed with my reading, I also gave attention to the details of the company’s Acquisition Plan, the main reason Marc Bottoni had told me to work at home, where I would be free of distractions (in reality there are hundreds of distractions at home, and I would get far more done at my desk in the office). The paperwork was immense, and I often found myself floundering among the clauses and sub-clauses and references to case histories.

Early afternoon, and I decided I had had enough of the intricacies of acquisition procedure. Putting aside the dry-as-dust papers I decided to go out for a drive, calculating that I would have three hours before the light faded. I decided to look around a village on the other side of the escarpment, and because my house is one of the lower plateaus, the easiest way to get to my destination was to go down onto the plain, round to the east and up into the hills again.

The temperature in the open air was incredibly mild. Once down on the plain I made good progress across the flat landscape, driving through a succession of villages that included several I have already written up. As you come to the edge of the plain, which is absolutely level, the escarpment rises up before you like a huge green wave of limestone, petrified at the last Ice Age. The road starts to climb upwards, the only point on this side where it can do so. On the cusp of the edge, among some trees, was the village I was heading to. On my left as I gained the summit was the Old Hall, tall and austere in dull red brick. This mansion was former home to the Clare family, Lords of the Manor for several centuries. Round the lanes I drove, doubling back in a circle until I reached the church. The door was locked, and when I asked at a nearby house for the key the key-holder (Mr Hughes, an elderly mathematics teacher) came out to show me round.

Unusually the church was dedicated to St Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine (who made Christianity the official religion of Europe) and discoverer of the True Cross in Jerusalem, where she built basilica churches over many of the holy places. There is a legend (worked up by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Helena) that both Helen and Constantine came from the Roman province of Britannia although no-one knows precisely where. As the village was once the focus of a cult of St Helen it seems as good a candidate as any other place.

The approach to the church was through low double gates and along a wide gravel path towards the massive bulk of the west tower, solid and immense (Pevsner calls it domineering) with a square top instead of battlements. We entered by a door in the tower and once we were inside Mr Hughes silently pointed upwards - surprisingly you could see up through several stories, like the inside of a big square ornamental chimney, highly decorated in a way that was very striking (curtain arches on slender shafts and lots of dog-tooth carving).

The church had been restored by the Clares in the 1850s, but the money ran out so that the south half was smart and solid in ashlar stone by the architect Stephen Lewin, whereas the north aisle remained original sandstone, picturesque and crumbling. In the north aisle there was a seventeenth-century bust, the head surmounted with an incredible marble wig. There was also an Elizabethan sculpture, in the south aisle, to a young woman, her left elbow resting on a skull and her right hand trailing an extinguished torch (Pevsner regarded this relief as rustic and quaint, but I thought the morbid symbolism was depressing).

Mr Hughes knew a great deal about the history of the village, and I made lots of notes as he talked (I sometime feel a fraud doing this - if my work is ever published the acknowledgements section is going to be enormous). He showed me a side of the fourteenth-century font where there was a carved face of the Green Man, and then went into a description of the novel The Green Man by Kingsley Amis. I asked him about the Clare family and he described how the twentieth century had been too much for them and they had sold up and moved away.

“I have often wondered what becomes of families who lose their ancestral homes” he said philosophically. “Do they put it all out of their minds and build life anew, or do they wallow forever in nostalgia and regret?”

“Do any of them ever come back?” I asked.

“Oh yes” he said, “a Clare descendant came over from Kent about two years ago to have a look around. He knew every detail of the village, so obviously in his case the lost demesne had been preserved in family lore.”

We went outside where thick dark yew trees were grouped about the church, atmospheric in the gathering twilight. The churchyard was right on the edge of the escarpment. The view from this point is famous, and on a fine day you can see all of the plain and across the inland sea and beyond (into the haunted county). Below the church, so that the roof was level with our feet, was the eighteenth-century façade (which Pevsner says overlays a more primitive construction) of The Old Rectory, looking like a dolls house, surrounded by a garden of hedged “rooms”.

It was still reasonably light as I drove down from the escarpment. Water seemed everywhere - water lying on the fields and in the full ditches, water hanging in the ominous clouds overhead, and water falling as a light rain. The presence of all this moisture gave me the impression, as the car reached the level, that I was being immersed in the prehistoric sea that once covered the plain.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ultra-competitive day

Still the reorganisation goes on. Halfway through Monday morning Malcolm Jeffery (overweight Sales Team Manager) came out of a meeting with Marc Bottoni (Managing Director) and paused by my desk, saying to me meaningfully: “You are a central cost, you lucky bastard.” This was a great relief as effectively I now report directly to Marc Bottoni, and have been removed from any necessity to earn my keep by achieving monetary targets (which would have been the case were I to have remained part of the sales team, who are only as good as their last sales figures).

This news made me a little complacent, and I went down to the middle sales floor intent on spending the rest of the morning chatting to Maria, one of the temps (early twenties, wavy black hair, freckled face - although a “temp” she has been temping at the company for well over a year, no-one thinking to offer her a permanent job). Maria is a history graduate (Queen Mary College) and because we are both interested in antiquarianism we have spent a lot of time together recently (Operations Supervisor Dave Sawyer half-jokingly telling people we are having an affair). Maria had been to a wedding in Bedford the previous weekend and told me about the staircase at the Swan Hotel which was taken out of Houghton House (now a ruin, but reputedly the model for the poet John Bunyan’s “House Beautiful” in Pilgrim’s Progress).

It was while I was talking to Maria, drinking tea, and idling away my time that I got a message that Marc Bottoni wanted to see me. Feeling guilty (what had I done now?) I went up one floor, through the PA’s section and across to the MD’s office, the door wide open. Marc Bottoni didn’t ask me to sit down (although he remained seated himself) but said in his sour northern accent that he wanted me to go on the divisional senior manager’s training course this Thursday and Friday. I was aghast at this sudden news, since it would completely disrupt my plans for the week, but I didn’t see how I could refuse (going on the course must mean I am, in some way, considered a divisional senior manager - or at least divisional senior manager material). Marc Bottoni said Personnel would supply me with all the details and then turned his attention to the papers on his desk, ignoring me. All I could do was say “Thank you” to the top of his head (he is a very short man) and go back to my desk, pleased to be included in the course, but also annoyed at the rude way my agreement had been taken for granted.

Back at my desk I discussed the matter with IT Supervisor Eric Morgan and Sales Team Manager Malcolm Jeffery. It was a mistake to have done this as they were both jealous that I had been asked on the course and they had not. “You’re obviously included because someone has dropped out at the last minute” Malcolm Jeffery said nastily (and yet he was probably right, especially since Mitch Holmes was sick all week).

Thursday - I had to get up at five a.m., driving to work and parking in my usual space, the rest of the car park completely empty. The offices were all shut up except for the Driver’s Rest Room (open twenty-four hours) where I met the two managers who were giving me a lift to the training venue. These managers were from a different business unit, and I didn’t know them at all. I sat in the back of the car (a company Volvo) on the drive to the training centre, and we made polite corporate conversation for half an hour before I relapsed into silence.

Arriving at Hill House at eight o’clock, my first impression was of an old Cotswold manor house until we drew close and I realised it was all completely new. Inside it was comfortably furnished as a private house, the owner using his home as a conference centre for “elite” (ie very expensive) corporate training courses. On the walls lots of modern art, in every room shelves of books (lots of them I had read - Founder by Amos Elon, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, To The Land Of Reeds by Aharon Appelfeld etc).

At the back of the “manor” were outbuildings that resembled stables and outhouses, but were in fact accommodation for the delegates (there were about twenty of us in all) arranged in “cottages” of four or five bedrooms. My room was in Breeze Cottage, a very appropriate name since it was freezing cold during the night. I left my bag in my room then joined the others to drive across to a nearby hotel where the first of the training sessions was to be held.

The only other people on the course from my own business unit were Operations Manager Ian Murray (very tall, aged about forty five, cynical and slow of speech) and Sales Manger Frank Hunter. Apparently each business unit in the division was required to send three delegates to the course, which was called “Leadership School”. Ian Murray talked to me over coffee - two quiet people a bit out of place in a roomful of gung-ho extroverts.

“There’s lots of loud people here” I said.

“They’re mostly sales people” Ian said. “This is a sort of finishing school designed to turn high-achieving sales dickheads into corporate gentlemen - the next generation of the company’s leaders. You’ll see at the dinner tonight all the divisional panjandrums will arrive and look us over, trying to pick out those with the leader instinct.”

“That counts me out” I said.

“Me too” he said. “I’m getting too old for all this.”

The training sessions lasted from nine in the morning until six in the evening, and were mostly delivered by a limping MBA lecturer from Warwick University, who had a very populist manner, swearing profusely, telling jokes frequently, and often referring to “the Big Swinging Dicks” (people who make things happen). There was lots of role playing sessions, which I hated, and only a thirty-minute buffet lunch. On the plus side, the day was very well organised, and although one moved through the half-hour sessions at a bewildering pace, there was always the sense that one was absorbing information.

It was a very demanding course, and combined with the early start left me feeling exhausted (perhaps stamina was also being tested?). At six we returned to the manor house. I chose to go in Ian Murray’s car, and I felt I had got to know him well enough to ask a question that had been puzzling me.

“Everyone says Frank Hunter is on the way out, and yet he has been selected to go on this Leadership Course” I said.

“Mitch Holmes might want Frank Hunter out of the company, but Marc Bottoni has got other ideas” he said. “Mr Bottoni is a great one for divide and rule.”

At Hill House I sat in the lounge for about twenty minutes, making conversation, and then slipped away to my room where I lay down on the bed and rested until it was time to get ready for the dinner. I had been informed that this was to be a formal occasion so I put on a dark suit and silk tie (maroon with white spots).

Walking across the deserted courtyard towards the main house I felt very apprehensive.
This apprehension turned to alarm when I entered the big dining room and found that everyone else had taken their seats, the only place still free being the seat opposite Roy Whiting, Divisional Managing Director (on his right hand was the owner of the training centre, on his left was Marc Bottoni). I really didn’t want to take that place, but there was no option. I decided that the only way I would get through the evening would be by keeping a low profile and not drinking too much.

Roy Whiting (portly build, balding, raffish moustache) greeted me affably and seemed to remember who I was (we had met very briefly at the company event last week). He had a reassuring Stanley Baldwin quality of substance and unflappability. He paid very great attention to everything said by the owner of the training centre, who seemed to know everyone in the room and their backgrounds (including me, although I had never set eyes on him before). Marc Bottoni’s manner towards Roy Whiting was ingratiating in the extreme, and every sentence he spoke was delivered with a sniggering laugh that was very out of character. I talked to the owner of the training centre about books (an easy subject since our reading interests overlapped) and to Roy Whiting about horses (he told me his wife had just spent £29,000 on a horse). But mostly I remained silent.

After the dinner the senior managers, the training instructors and the owner of the training centre retired to an inner sanctum (presumably to discuss who had done well at the day’s training) while everyone else went to a local pub (The Fox). I really wanted to go to my room and go to sleep, but I could see that this pub visit was unavoidable. Outside the night air felt cold.

The pub was some miles away, and I travelled there with a trio of managers from a business unit in Newcastle. The driver of the car (an 05 reg BMW) was a surly-looking Geordie, very young looking (slim build, broken nose, short gelled hair standing up on end) who is apparently one of the top sales people in the whole division. He drove like a maniac (well over 80 mph) along the narrow country lanes so that I feared for my life, the music so loud it was impossible to speak (Mike Skinner, Natalie Imbruglia, Katie Melua).

We were (of course) the first to arrive at the pub, but only by a few minutes. The establishment was completely unremarkable, and was virtually deserted until the arrival of the twenty or so Leadership delegates. Conscious of the requirement to appear a good “mixer” I avoided talking to Frank Hunter and Ian Murray. Instead I forced myself to talk to complete strangers, finding some people off-hand, others quite friendly. The most responsive person was the surly-looking Geordie who was very easy to talk to - you just asked him a question and he talked about himself (his work, his two toddler daughters, his luxury timeshare). Geordies seem to have no concept of personal space, so that I felt the trio from Newcastle were always too close (I suppose they thought I was too distant, subtly edging away all the time).

In the basement of the pub was a games room, with a ping pong table. Competitive to the last, the surly-looking Geordie suggested I partnered him in a game of doubles against his two Newcastle colleagues. His deft skill at table tennis more than compensated for my mediocre efforts, and we won every game, against all comers (everyone had migrated to the games room and was watching the ping pong games).

It was two in the morning when I finally got back to my room and could shut the door on the whole ultra-competitive day.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Richard II at The Old Vic… with Kevin Spacey in the lead role

Early in the week I went to see Shakespeare’s Richard II at The Old Vic. The production (with Kevin Spacey in the lead role) has received good notices from every review I have read, but in any case it is a play I try to see whenever it is on. I did my degree in medieval history with Richard II as the main focus of the third year E Paper - I feel I know the man on a personal basis.

Because I was early I got off the tube at Embankment to walk across the new Hungerford Bridge. It was the first time I had gone that route since the old bridge was replaced (there is hardly any reason for me to go to Waterloo since THAT relationship came to an end). The new Hungerford Bridge was designed by Lifschutz Davidson and combines strength and grace in a spiky post-modern neo-gothic lattice across the brooding bulk of the railway bridge immediately behind. Unlike the old Hungerford Bridge, which was strung off the side of the railway bridge, the new structure is a proper bridge in its own right, standing on piers (or are they pylons?) sunk into the river bed. The sinking of the piers caused a great deal of controversy since there are a number of powerful unexploded German bombs on the river bed at this point. It was feared that the construction work would detonate the bombs and fracture the Underground lines that run under the Thames, flooding the Northern Line.

Half way across Hungerford Bridge I stopped to look at the panorama. The view across to London Bridge was very beautiful, and in the blue-grey dusk took on the quality of Whistler's Nocturne in Blue and Gold. I stood for some time watching the wide Thames flow beneath me.

The Old Vic is probably London's most distinguished theatre. The artistic director is Kevin Spacey (who appeared in the film American Beauty fantasising about Mena Suvari in a bath of rose petals). The theatre's location is difficult to get to, in The Cut off Waterloo Road, south of Waterloo station (not really in "London" since it is south of the river).

My seat, which I paid £40 for (!), was in the Stalls, four seats into the row. All these seats were already occupied when I arrived, so I had to squeeze past to get to my place. The occupants of these intervening seats comprised (from the aisle inwards) a very elderly man in a wheelchair plus two female companions (both grey haired and aged about sixty - probably his daughters). This trio was very garrulous and solicitous of each other's welfare, a constant series of questions going backwards and forwards between them. The woman immediately on my left (the seat on my right was vacant) included me in all this kindness, asking if I was comfortable, whether I had a programme (the other female was just going to get some), whether I had seen the play before. She was a tall lean woman, and seemed to be dressed in a man's black suit, her grey curls topping off the ensemble in a hairstyle that resembled Harpo Marx. The theatre was surprisingly intimate, and as the audience gathered I looked up at the faded sub-baroque tiers and the big chandelier overhead (I would have liked to have taken photos, but a severe loud-speaker voice told me this was expressly prohibited). "Personally I don't think an American should be playing Shakespeare" said the kind, black-suited woman, eating peanuts from a plastic beaker. The lights faded and the play began.

Despite being a 16th century play set in the later middle ages, this was a modern production, with the cast dressed in Georgio Armani, and the sets based on contemporary, mostly political, backdrops. This could have been anachronistic but instead was very effective in demonstrating the relevance of Shakespeare's analysis of power politics (Will Hutton could have been a co-director). Visually the play was very very impressive.

Kevin Spacey as Richard II gave an incredible performance. Normally Shakespeare's Richard II is played as a rather weak, maudlin figure, with a tendency to self-pity, butKevin Spacey played him closer to the historical king, the royal will to power emanating from within the man and expressing itself as raging disbelief that anyone should doubt the authority of the oily sacerdotal royal Chrism. Despite all the centuries of intervening democracy, the thought came to my mind: here is a king one could follow.

The play explored the nature of monarchy and demonstrated the way in which the royal family fits into a particular philosophy of society (families coalesced into clans, clans coalesced into tribes, tribes coalesced into the nation with the royal family at the apex so that we are all theoretically related - in the words of the genealogist Horace Round: "we are all the sons of Edward III"). Kevin Spacey portrayed the king as a tribal chief, with royal totems and royal fetishes and royal rituals, linked into a bewildering network of cousinship. This society of cousins held firm only so long as the fundamental principle of primogeniture (that a son should inherit his father) was upheld (this was basically Shakespeare's central message).

The play also looked at manipulation of images - the ancient ceremonies of regal crown-wearings, processions and obeisances updated by video images (on big screens either side of the stage), photo-shoots, and embedded reporters in the battle scenes.

In the interval I stayed in my seat, as did the three people to my left. The woman with the black suit and curly grey hair presented me with a plastic beaker of white wine (very good despite being unchilled) and I was drawn into their discussion of the play (the elderly man in the wheelchair speaking approvingly of John of Gaunt's appearance in a wheelchair during his death-scene). The middle woman (straight grey hair) made the point that Kevin Spacey played the king with such passion that occasionally the diction was lost and some of the words were unintelligible (normally this would not matter, but Shakespeare being Shakespeare, every word is sacred!).

Although the play was very long, I hardly noticed the passing time, so compelling were the performances (Kevin Spacey as Richard II, Susan Tracey as the Duchess of York, Oliver Kieran-Jones as the Duke of Aumerle, Genevieve O'Reilly as Queen Isabel, Julian Glover as John of Gaunt, David Leon as Harry Percy). The speeches towards the end of the play can go on a bit, but even here Kevin Spacey seemed to give new insights ("I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief" - matching the sincerity of boxer Andy Minsker's tearful rendition in the sequence filmed by Bruce Weber). After seeing such a production who could say Shakespeare was boring!

Who is the world's greatest living authority on Richard II - Professor Nigel Saul or Professor Caroline Barron?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

An important function - part two

As the week advanced the tension surrounding the function began to mount. There seemed to be no end to the things that needed attending to - every couple of hours Marc Bottoni’s PA came up to me with another item that had to be included. On the plus side, and against all my expectations, there was a respectable amount of interest from the media, and I became confident that from a PR point of view the event would be a moderate success.

Friday morning arrived, and as soon I got to the office several people rushed up to tell me that there was a television crew waiting in the front reception. I walked across to the Front Offices and found a very scruffy cameraman, on his own, who explained he wanted to take some preliminary film for the local television news programme. He said another TV film crew would arrive later to cover the actual event. I showed the cameraman around the site, unsure what he wanted to film. It was interesting to see how pleased various managers became when they had a camera pointed at them. This feeling of self-importance was infectious, and I began to enjoy the kudos that accrued to me as a generator of publicity (even Eric Morgan treated me with respect).

Not everything went smoothly however. Late morning (eleven o’clock) the fire alarms went off and all the buildings had to be evacuated. Personnel Assistant Carol Forrest (tall, slim, always looks ironically amused) rushed around, radiant with excitement. We all stood in the car park while a fire engine drove slowly round the warehouses. It was soon established that it was a false alarm and everyone filed back into the offices. If it had occurred two hours later it would have ruined the event.

I went back to the Training Centre through the Drivers’ Rest Room - warehouse operative Scottie (Scott Randall - early twenties, slim build, curly fair hair cut very short) was lounging on one of the benches, one foot up on the table, obviously having made no effort to follow the fire evacuation drill. I didn’t care whether he followed the drill or not, but as I passed he gave me a defiant sort of look, as if challenging me to report him. There always seems to be an “us and them” division between the office staff and the uniform personnel.

Upstairs the main room in the Training Centre looked perfect. The newly painted boards, displaying the company logos, had been fixed to the walls, and the buffet lunch had been laid out on tables all along one side. Flower arrangements had appeared, as if from nowhere, giving the room a festive look (I still don’t know who did these).

There was then a period, lasting about half an hour, when everything was in place, and all I could do was wait for the event to start (this half hour seemed endless).

At twelve-thirty company managers gathered upstairs in the Training Room, Marc Bottoni walking around nervously. As guests (mostly corporate customers) arrived they were brought upstairs, introduced to Marc Bottoni, and then passed on to whoever had been delegated to look after them. From the windows we could see the directors from Group plc milling about the yard in a long moment of gorgeous autumnal sunshine (“The sun shines on the righteous” said Eric Morgan, his voice heavy with sarcasm).

There was a last minute fluster when the wine glasses, borrowed from the shop that supplied the wine, were found to be extremely dirty. Two PAs rushed down to the tiny kitchen and washed them up, their voices shrieking with excitement. Marc Bottoni gave me black look, as if it was all my fault (Carol Forrest had in fact ordered the wine and arranged the loan of glasses).

A local television crew arrived (different channel from the one in the morning) and I took them into the case-making department to film the young packers. As well as television there were four local newspapers, two trade magazines, and a “stringer” at the event, so the PR feel to the afternoon was quite respectable. Talking to the reporters, I got the impression they were more interested in the former minister’s opinion on an aspect of national party politics rather than the actual event, but I kept this to myself.

I was downstairs in the general melee of arriving guests when the former minister appeared (completely alone). Ex-ministerial eyes looked warily around the people gathered in Reception as if not wanting to waste effusive greetings on comparative nobodies. Eventually Mitch Holmes moved forward to give the official welcome and provide an escort upstairs to the waiting reception committee.

The arrival of the former minister signalled the start to the afternoon’s proceedings. Wine was handed round (Vouvray, which was horrible). Speeches were made. The plaque was unveiled.
There was then a tour of the site by the former minister, senior managers and the directors from Group plc. I followed behind with my own tour party of the media. The two groups merged in the packing department where the former minister watched as the TV crew picked out the most photogenic case-makers and filmed them as they “worked” (looking very self-conscious).

Returning to the Training Centre, the former minister went off with Marc Bottoni into one of the small rooms to give interviews to the reporters. The buffet lunch, which had included huge amounts of sandwiches, had been almost entirely consumed by the other guests while the tours were taking place, leaving virtually nothing for the VIPs. I moved form one boring conversation to another, beginning to feel tired after so much standing around.

Eventually the former minister left in a flurry of (probably false) felicitations. The ten or so black-suited directors from Group plc then took centre stage, receiving the homage of the senior management team (“Who are all these people?” Sarah Linton asked, her voice rather loud and sounding tipsy from the Vouvray). At four o’clock the Group plc directors left and the mood in the room seemed to experience a collective moment of relief.

Long after the former minister had departed a local BBC radio reporter turned up and seemed miffed that there was no-one important that he could interview.

As the function came to a close and people drifted back to their desks lots of compliments came my way about how well everything had gone. The divisional managing director came up and shook my hand and told me how well things had been organised (I was surprised he even knew who I was). Marc Bottoni, looking pleased as punch, came up and shook my hand, his eyes crinkled up with pleasure behind his thick-lens glasses (presumably he had had a good afternoon toadying to his Group plc masters).

Much later, as I sat at my desk feeling exhausted and wondering whether I really wanted to go on doing this job, Ann Norman rang me to say that my new business cards would be delayed - Marc Bottoni wanted them to say Marketing Manager, not Marketing Executive.

The new Kate Bush video King Of The Mountain

The new Kate Bush video King Of The Mountain was premiered on Channel 4 last night. Her first work for twelve years, the song and video (from the album Ariel due to be released on 7th November) will be reviewed on Newsnight next Friday. The video is very atmospheric and enigmatic, and includes sequences in colour and black and white. Among the closing images is the snow-sprinkled word "Rosebud" taken from the film Citizen Kane (my photo from the television). Citizen Kane is a cinematic work beyond superlatives, directed by Orson Welles and satirising (but also commemorating) the life of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a newspaper tycoon and megalomaniac (bad though he was, he had more morality than Rupert Murdoch).

Another artist who satirised William Randolph Hearst was Aldous Huxley in his novel After Many A Summer. Everything Huxley writes is worth reading (it is the "fusion of poetry and science" that I find so appealing). Some of his work, such as his essays, is out of print and only available second hand, which seems a national disgrace (Ivy Compton-Burnett is also largely out of print, which is equally a disgrace).

I don't really buy a great deal of music (except recently I've been buying songs for my new iPod) but I try to collect anything Kate Bush has done. One of the songs on this cassette means a great deal to me (too personal to explain). Cassette technology now seems as dead as the dodo.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

An important function - part one

Cropped photograph of Carl Stockton (his practical help saved the day). He's an interesting person because he is someone in a state of transition (from uniformed operative to white collar Supervisor). He is obviously a natural leader. "Do you mind if I take your picture?" I asked him. "No, no, snap away." I will use the photograph in the company magazine (editing the magazine allows me to subtly endorse people I like and exclude people I dislike).

Working on the Marketing Plan over the last couple of weeks was such an exhausting and all-encompassing assignment that I rather neglected the other aspects of my job. In particular I ignored the fact that I had a big function to organise for Friday (yesterday). I suppose I just blocked it out of my mind while I concentrated on getting the Plan accepted by the Board (a logical strategy as if the Plan had been rejected I would probably not have got through my probation period, and thus nothing else would have mattered).

So on the drive to work on Monday morning my mind was filled with resolutions to get everything back on schedule. The invitations had gone out some weeks ago and I knew about seventy people had confirmed they were attending. In addition, the guest of honour (an incredibly boring local MP and former government minister) had agreed to attend, so the main elements of the day were in place and it was only really details that need to be addressed.

Almost immediately I arrived at my desk Managing Director Marc Bottoni wanted to tour the front offices (where the function was to be held) to see what preparations had been made. He was in a ratty mood and found fault with so many things that I barely had time to write each one down before he found something new to complain about. His Lancs accent as he spoke had a jeering sort of quality, as if he were pleased to find so little had been done (he is a notorious pessimist).

Despite my advice to Marc Bottoni on how to do PR properly (do only one thing at a time and do it well), he wanted to include a number of different elements to the day - opening the new Training Centre, awarding the Investors in People standard, announcing the Employee of the Year. The result was a confused set of objectives, with no overall theme. In addition, I began to feel that the pressure was being put on me to deliver a result.

“This company has never tended to employ experts” said Eric Morgan (IT Supervisor and company sneak). “Now we can see what a real PR professional can deliver.”

This riled me a little, since I have never claimed to be a PR expert, and have no real background in PR. Marketing is my expertise. But many people think marketing and PR are one and the same.

When I finally managed to escape from Marc Bottoni I went back to my desk where I found the brass plaque for the new Training Centre had arrived. This was a great relief since without a plaque there couldn’t really be a formal opening. Now all I had to do was get it screwed to the wall and a little set of curtains put up for the former government minister to open.

Marc Bottoni had told me that the Operations Supervisors would help me with any heavy work that needed doing. The Supervisors control the operative staff, and in theory have a large number of people they can allocate. In practice however, whenever I have asked for help in the past they have always been too busy.

Unenthusiastically I went down to Middle Floor East where three of the Supervisors are based (it’s a big general sales floor with Operations along one side). Here I experienced a stroke of luck. One of the Supervisors had broken his leg over the weekend, and Senior Driver Carl Stockton had been temporarily promoted to cover the post. Carl Stockton is someone who veers between outgoing friendliness and sullen non-cooperation (“He’s very proud” Rod Heydon once told me, “if you talk to him in the wrong way he’ll just walk away from you”). On Monday morning he was obviously so pleased to be promoted that he was over-brimming with goodwill. He was sat in one of the Supervisors’ big leather armchairs, leaning back with his hands behind head, still in his driver’s uniform (an impression of sinewy athleticism beneath the unflattering clothes).

I explained the situation and he couldn’t have been more helpful. I got the impression that the other Supervisors were covering for their injured colleague and Carl was just sitting around with not much to do. Anyway, we went back across the car park to the Front Offices where the function was to be held.

The Front Offices date from the 1970s and used to be the Head Office until the new office block was built. Now they house on the ground floor a very small business unit of the company plus the main Reception (because the Front Offices are along the road most visitors naturally go there first). The upstairs of the Front Offices comprises a very big long room plus three smaller rooms, and has recently been refurbished as the company’s new Training Centre. The long room is the main training room and is quite functional and modern. The three other rooms have been lavishly furnished with reproduction items bought from a retailer who had gone bankrupt, and resemble rooms in a private house - including a long case clock, glass-fronted yew veneer cabinets and even, incredibly, a baby grand piano (doesn’t work!). It was this upper floor that the former minister was to open as the new Training Centre.

I outlined to Carl Stockton everything that needed doing (putting up the plaque and curtains, painting big boards with the company’s logo and putting them up on the walls, rearranging the furniture, cleaning the whole block, cleaning the diesel stains from the front drive, putting a fitted carpet into the toilets (in case the former minister should need to relieve himself while in the Centre) etc etc etc. Carl went down to the Driver’s Rest Room (a smoky chamber at the end of the Front Offices) and came back with five operatives whom he set to work preparing for the event. Then he went out into the yard and set other men cleaning, sweeping and repairing (he really seemed to be enjoying his temporary role as Supervisor, and the power it gave him to issue orders).

With Carl Stockton taking charge of all the practical work, I only had to arrange the catering (easy, since the staff in the cafeteria could put on a buffet lunch) and arrange the media invitations. I went back to my desk and, breaking all the rules of good PR, wrote a catch-all press release and sent it out to about a hundred publications I got from BRAD (you should never do blanket press releases like this - every invitation should be tailored to a particular publication, but I simply didn’t have the time). I also sent the release to local television and radio stations.

Later in the day Marc Bottoni issue a group e-mail reminding everyone about the regulations designed to preserve the symmetry of the main office block - no windows on the front of the building should be opened, all the window blinds (composed of vertical strips) must be half-opened and angled left to right, no cars can be parked in the bays immediately adjacent to the entrance. The e-mail further instructed: no staff can leave their desks during the former Secretary of State’s tour. Later still he issued another e-mail (managers only) listing the names of MDs from other companies in the Group who would be attending the function (requiring me to increase the catering numbers).

“Blimey” said Malcolm Jeffery (one of the sales managers). “This is a real junket we’re putting on. The whole of Mount Olympus is coming here!”

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Very Social Secretary

On Monday evening I watched A Very Social Secretary about the antics of former Home Secretary David Blunkett (who embarked upon an extra-marital affair with Kimberly Quinn, publisher of the Spectator magazine, then fell out with her in a public and acrimonious exchange so ferocious that it compelled his resignation and “disgrace” – except that no government minister is ever really disgraced since they have no concept of shame).

The drama was very well acted, and moved at a breathtaking pace, cramming so much into ninety minutes that you felt compelled to say Stop, this is incredible, you are straining credulity to its limits…

However, the sense of pantomime, the idea that this was all farce and comedy (helped along by a jolly musical score) was tempered by regular and sickening moments when you realised that yes, all these things did happen, this is the way in which government ministers behave.

It was a very lavish production, with a fine cast and multiple locations, the performance being more a series of linked tableau rather than a continuous narrative. Thus you had the government minister indulging his hanky-panky in a cottage borrowed from the grandest duchess in the land (with whom he is apparently on first name terms); you had the Prime Minister lolling around a luxurious villa borrowed from Italian royalty (what was the basis of this grace-and-favour transaction one wondered?); you had the foul-mouthed and bullying special advisor (little more than a vicious canine himself) compelled to take the minister’s guide-dog for a walk.

Some of the sketches were very lightly drawn (Carole Caplan, the Rasputin of the Blair administration, was seen in the gentlest of cameos, helping the Prime Minister’s wife on with a white cardigan). Some of the more intriguing aspects of the affair were hardly touched upon (the Bristol flats hypocrisy, the fast-track citizenship for personal nannies scandal etc). The drama seemed to entirely ignore the issue of motivation…

...until you realised, right at the end of the comedy, that the issue of motivation was beyond the remit of the play. How clever the author/producer/director have been! They were able to get away with such an outrageous portrayal of an eminent politician simply by paring down the succession of incidents to only those words and actions already verified by being in the public domain. The comedy and the tragedy was underlined by the horrible realisation that it was all true.

The show ended at 10.30 and I switched over to watch Newsnight, which marks the end of my day just as the Today Programme marks the beginning, these two news programmes acting as the alpha and omega of my weekday world.