Archive for December, 2012

Bringing Marc Home

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 23, 2012 by martinbarden

In the winter of 2011/12 my friends Sarah, Emma and Elaine encouraged me to audition for the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics. As fellow-members of the ENO Community Choir, they’d recently put themselves forward and made the trek out to deepest Bromley-by-Bow to be surveyed amongst hundreds of other hopefuls – not, apparently, to sing, but to dance. Emma was successful, selected to be part of one of the dancing ensembles. There continued to be a paucity of blokes coming through for the event, so I made a late application and was invited to audition soon thereafter.

Everything out East was exceptionally well organised, which indeed was a portent for the Games as a whole. I was particularly struck by the friendliness of the ushering staff and the use of safety pins for attaching my candidate number to my shirt. I was measured – height, head, waist, hands – for the costume I knew I would never wear.

The audition involved rushing around in groups, pairs, solo, arm waving, being required to find particular positions on a huge grid, and generally doing stuff in loose formation. Looking around, I noticed suspiciously large numbers of middle aged men with middle age spread and thinning hair. If this is what they’re after, I thought, I’m a sure winner.
The audition lasted about an hour. There was a fabulous spirit, communality, that thing you rarely get with strangers connecting freely. I caught the tube home, back to London, and was glad to have played an infinitesimally tiny part in the forthcoming monster that was London 2012.

Much to my astonishment and mirth, later that very night I received an email recalling me for a second audition. OK, I thought, they really do want hopeless men with chins and bellies. Bring it on.

Second time around was much tougher. There were far fewer candidates – which made sense – and we had to learn a routine involving extracts of Our House, Parklife, Common People and a short salsa number. This seemed depressingly clichéd and not the sort of innovative approach I’d expected of Danny Boyle. Maybe this was just to put the hounds off the scent – we’d been briefed over and over that we must not leak information about even this element of preparations for the Ceremony – but I felt my spirits sag as I prepared to mime (in ensemble) waking up, tooth brushing, getting dressed and scanning my imaginary Oyster Card. It was all over quickly and we were informed that we’d hear something within about three weeks.

Perhaps two months passed. I received one holding email, but no call for the actual Opening Ceremony which was fast approaching, so I put it out of my mind. Then late, late on I did receive a message to say I had been selected for the Opening and Closing… of the Paralympics.

In the meantime my circumstances had changed radically: no longer employed by Tate, but self-employed as a consultant with my own business. My time was my own – but I also had to pay all the bills whether I was working or not, and I needed to be working to get the business going. The other factor which led me to decline the invitation was that it was not the actual Olympics, but the second event. That is not to pass any judgement, but it just didn’t have the same appeal. So, no.

Like so many others, once it finally arrived I was completely absorbed by the Games, despite having being hugely disillusioned with many aspects in the years and months leading up to 27 July 2012. In the final run-up, it had become apparent that the Ceremony, liberally sprinkled with British pop and rock music classics, had no room for T.Rex. I took considerable umbrage, as is my wont. I launched an on-line petition to appeal to Danny’s finer judgement, but despite many hundred signatures, it seemed to be in vain.

The Ceremony was spectacular and I loved almost all of it. I could have done without Mr Bean, and the NHS segment went on far too long, and of course Macca should have pressed the auto-tune button, but these are minor gripes. It was astonishing in its ambition and delivery. But, despite being Hackney’s most famous son, there was no Marc Bolan – or so I thought.

Only in the days afterwards did I learn that there had been 10 Marc Bolan figures, alongside 10 of David Bowie and 10 of Freddie Mercury, in the Tim Berners Lee/1970s sequence. The Sunday Times magazine published a photograph snapped at the rehearsals – and there they all were. It was little surprise that in the maelstrom that was the Opening Ceremony, the cameras had missed this. Emma confirmed that she’d seen the heads, all piled up in amongst thousands of other props.

The only thing to do now was to try to procure one. I put out various feelers but made no progress. Then, more recently, my diligent partner found that three had become available for sale on the 2012 auction site – one of which I bought for about a hundred quid.

Today, just in time for seasonal festivities, Marc came home to Pimlico. You can follow his journey here. It was an unusual exercise, taking him on the Victoria Line, but now he’s happily settling in alongside Oscar Wilde, Mandeville and me. His black lips are velvet and glitter, he has snakes in his hair, and his hat sparkles with sequins and stars. He’s going to watch over me, just as I have tried to watch over him.

Happy New Year to you all.

Proper food by proper people

Posted in Uncategorized on December 10, 2012 by martinbarden

One of the joys of my present engagement at the lovely National Portrait Gallery is having the West End at my disposal. At lunch time the whole world is out there, waiting to be eaten.
Today I walked up to a little hidden gem, the imaginatively named Café Number One, on the corner of Earlham Street and Tower Street, just across the road from Fopp.
It’s a corner store, so is shaped like a slice of cake. It probably serves slices of cake, if you ask nicely, although I had a baked potato with coleslaw and cheese. I know, this is getting rather dull already but stick with me. The potato was properly baked: crispy and crunchy on the outside, fluffy and hot inside. It was just the right size and temperature for a hungry consultant on a cold day. The coleslaw was tasty, not gloopy or over-saucy. The cheese was flaked rather than grated, and not melted, so it was firm and cheesy rather than runny and greasy. I also had a cup of tea – tea bag in. All this came to £3.70, eating in at the little perchy table thing alongside the counter.
As I read the sports pages of the Guardian I earwigged the orders of the other customers. Leaving aside the number of people who said “can I get” when placing their orders (sure, come round this side of the counter and serve yourself) what struck me, other than the speed, friendliness and efficiency of the staff, was that all the customers clearly worked nearby. No Covent Garden-bound tourists, no Soho sightseers, no-one other than people who already knew this place was there.
This has to be one of the side effects of the Starbucks/McDonald’s/Subway/Pret hegemony. One stands accused of not paying taxes, one of causing obesity, several of their stores omit odours that make me want to vomit, but surely, all of them are causing people to do the boring thing, just go for the familiar, not take any chances – and, in so doing – not support small business and charming, independent, proper cafes serving delicious, bargaintastic food.
Please pop in to Café Number One. It’s great. I want it still to be there next week, next month and next year. You can spend the fiver you save at Fopp, on an upgraded copy of a CD you already have, thus keeping the ailing record industry afloat for another 34 seconds. Everyone wins.

The Apple Trabant

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 6, 2012 by martinbarden

In March this year, as I was preparing to exit stage left from Tate, my kindly colleagues past and present clubbed together in time-honoured tradition to purchase some leaving gifts. As ever, I was stumped for a reply to “what would you like?” I know, a simple enough question, but I had no answer. In the end, I recognised that it was about time to upgrade my ancient Sony Ericsson phone to something a little more contemporary, so I requested some vouchers for the Apple Store.
Come the evening of my leaving do, I was amazed and greatly touched to receive a beautiful laptop bag and a £500 Apple Store voucher. Yes, £500. That’s a lot of fivers, pounds and pennies into a brown envelope. I’m still amazed.
My technology consultant advised me to await the release of the iPhone 5 before making a purchase, so this I did. Come the magic day, the Apple website stated that it was necessary to apply on-line for a phone. The system worked as follows: select the product/colour you want, enter email address, wait for a reply to say you’ve been successful. That’s easy enough, I thought. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
If you’re not successful, nothing happens. No email. So you have to do it again, and wait. Again. And again. And again. It also stipulated that if you were fortunate enough to be allocated one of the blessed phones, you had to visit your nominated Store the following day, otherwise it would be returned to stock for re-allocation.
After three or four weeks of dancing to this tune, I paid a visit to the Apple church on Regent Street. It’s one of those places which makes me feel ancient, utterly out of my comfort zone, useless. Lots of happy looking people were playing around with lots of smart, small devices. The staff all looked too young to have left school, but that made them relatively easy to spot. I found a young man with a piercing through his lip, and explained my situation. He said yes, that’s how it works. I said that the problem for me was that it didn’t work. Apple had my (well, other people’s) money but weren’t apparently able to sell me a phone.
Ah, he said, this is a much better system than the last time around as then, people could just queue up outside and come in and buy the phones, and that wasn’t fair. Oh, it wasn’t? It sounds like capitalism working pretty well to me, I said, whereas this feels like the USSR in the 1970s. He didn’t laugh. I repeated my frustration but lip boy just said I’d need to keep on applying. Some people get one the next day, you know. Well, lucky them…
Around this time, Apple’s Head of Retail, John Browett, left the company after just six months. I decided that this was karma for my lack of progress with securing an iPhone.
Back to one-sided ping pong on the Apple website. On it went, for some more weeks. No reply. No phone. I was stuck – I couldn’t buy an iPhone anywhere other than Apple, as they had my money. But they seemed unable or unwilling to sell me one. I ventured back to Regent Street on a Sunday afternoon.
I explained the situation, again, and got the same replies. I asked to see the manager. Over she came. The manager, it has to be said, was polite, consistent, and firm. It seemed that she had had a lot of training in how to deal with customers who are displeased. Not once did she drop eye contact, lose patience, or back down one inch. The system is fair. It works. You have to keep trying. Some people get a phone the next day.
I tried some new moves on her to break the impasse. OK, I said. The apply-on-line system will mean that it is inevitable that at the end of each day, there will be some allocated phones which have not been claimed. Therefore, just go to the stock room and let me have one of them.
You don’t know that, I was told. Yes, I do, it is the law of averages. Well, that’s your opinion. No, it’s not just my opinion, it is obvious that if you allocate, say, 100 phones a day, not all 100 people will show up.
You don’t know that, I was told, and we can’t do that, it wouldn’t be fair as it would be queue jumping. I reasoned that I had queued for quite long enough and as the manager, she could use her discretion to get me a phone. Not possible, she said, as it would not be fair and, anyway, the system wouldn’t let her over-ride it.
But you’re a technology company, I said – you must be able over-ride the system. No, can’t. Can. Can’t.
Right then, another idea. This happened to be the weekend when the new mini-iPad was released for sale, and the store was chocker with people queuing up to buy one – and being sold one. Like in good old private enterprise. Why can’t I queue up for an iPhone? Well, there is a different system for the iPhone, I was reminded. Yes, I said, one which clearly doesn’t work.
I was getting exasperated although I kept fairly calm. OK, I said. If you won’t sell me a phone, despite having had my £500 for about seven months, I want to leave here with a refund. Ah, we can’t do that, we don’t refund vouchers. This got a bit heated. After a while, as a very special favour, it was agreed that a refund could be given.
But, inevitably, not to me, as I didn’t pay for the vouchers. The Store has to protect itself from fraud. I am sure it does, I said, but there is no chance of fraud here. Apple have had the money for seven months, the credit card payment is not suddenly going to be reversed or somehow fraudulent after all this time… but no, it wasn’t possible.
Right. Refund the money now then and we can call it a day. Ah, no, we can’t do that, we need the actual card in order to make the refund. No, I said. I have already had to make two wasted journeys to Regent Street, why on earth should my ex-colleague be inconvenienced to the degree of having to visit too? Because. No. Yes. No.
OK, another idea. I will call her now, using my Sony Ericsson, and she can give you her card number and all will be done. No, can’t do that. Yes, no, yes. Why not? Because our systems are not set up to take card-holder-not-present refunds. But you’re a technology company, and you’re the manager, so use your discretion. Can’t. You’ll have to bring the card in, or she will. Really? I could bring in someone else’s card and you’d accept that? This aspect surprised me and was left to one side as I wasn’t about to ask for and then present a card which wasn’t mine.
There was nowhere for me to go. I had to contact my ex-colleague and let her know that she would have to do this for me. Before I left I made two statements: firstly, that all this makes me feel that Apple is the most arrogant company on God’s earth, one which has completely lost touch with its customers, and seems to have designed structures which are impossible to navigate, and secondly that I will never, ever purchase anything from Apple. That, I was told, is up to you.
Does it end there? No. A few weeks passed before ex-colleague had time to visit the Regent Street church. She was told that the special offer of a refund stood for only 24 hours, and it was too late to claim one. She held her ground and, in the end – after more kerfuffle with identifying the exact card that was used – which necessitated her making yet another visit – a refund was given.
So, there you go. I wanted an iPhone, and I had in effect paid for it. Despite having had my money for seven months, and despite my attempts to navigate their ordering systems, Apple were happier to refund me £500 than make any allowance for what I would call customer service. They’re a technology company that was unable or hadn’t thought of the possibility to set up an on-line queuing system. If you don’t like it, tough. If you want to go and buy a Samsung, so be it. My lovely leaving gift money will now be spent at John Lewis. I feel confident that their approach will be somewhat more flexible and enlightened… Goodbye Apple. I will die without ever having owned one of your machines. Let it be.