Friday, July 30, 2004

I will show you fear in a handful of dust

One of the staff on the Sales Desk (looking after National Accounts) is Keith Williams.  Aged in his early twenties, he looks preternaturally middle-aged, and despite being a keen sportsman he is already putting on weight and his hair is thinning.  He began working for the company in the warehouse as an operative, but was promoted to the Sales Desk following a sudden vacancy (he is quite bright, and has A-levels in mathematics and science).  He likes to sing loudly when his mood is buoyant.  During the morning he was singing an O-Zone song (O-Zone are a band from eastern Europe – I think they are Croatian).  The song was very catchy in a repetitive sort of way.  Obviously Keith Williams didn’t know all the Croatian words and filled in gaps with jibberish of his own composition.  This went on almost all of the morning and I could tell it was beginning to annoy people.

At the end of the morning, in an unusual step, the Sales Director (Neil Hancock, who is my line manager and a person I have very little respect for) went round the office asking people to take their lunch-break between 1 and 2pm.  Gradually a rumour went round that an announcement of some kind was expected…

The announcement, when it came, was so understated as to be an anticlimax.  Part of the Sales Desk is to be moved to the Glasgow office, and “displaced” personnel here are to be reallocated to other departments (where I suspect they will be given such tedious and pedestrian jobs that they get bored and leave).  Probably one person at least will be moved into Marketing.  The mood this afternoon on the Sales Desk was completely deflated, and those affected gathered in little groups, their defiance alternating with a sort of depressed hopelessness.  A bland official announcement, and the resulting reorganisation, has profoundly affected their lives.

TS Eliot writes in The Waste Land:  I will show you fear in a handful of dust.  I was reminded of that line as I saw Keith Williams after the announcement, quiet and subdued and no longer singing.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

One of the greatest of all luxuries

A day’s holiday yesterday, but the previous night had been humid and I had slept badly. And there had been no prospect of sleeping late, as the electricity engineer was due to arrive any time between 8 and 1. Consequently I was very tired in the (rather chilly) morning, and all the tasks I had allocated to the day went undone as I sat in an armchair in the long sitting room, drinking cups of tea and reading Paul Scott.

Eventually the engineer arrived and the meters were inspected. More mystification. More obfuscation. More incoherent telephone conversations with the electricity company. Apparently the meter sometimes “sticks”. Because we have two meters (and thus two circuits, each relating to different restorations of the house) we were unaware that the low bills we had been paying were inaccurate. The result was a huge demand for payment for electricity from the “stuck” meter (now unstuck by the engineer). Eventually the arguing wore me down, and I just paid the bill (£909!), although I am convinced it is wrong.

2 o’clock. The sun was high and the temperature had risen to 21º centigrade. The summer silence and stillness were intense, and even the birds had stopped singing. Alone in the house, I locked the doors and went upstairs to my bedroom (the dog followed me upstairs and went into his room) where I indulged in one of the greatest of all luxuries – being able to sleep in the afternoon.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Consideration of the colour blue

For dinner roast chicken followed by strawberries with cream and sugar.  I bought the strawberries from Powder Blue Farm.  The farm has strawberry fields where you can pick your own fruit and pay at a shed near the farmhouse.  However, I have found that if you go straight to the shed they always have several punnets of strawberries (and raspberries and gooseberries) available anyway, without the need to go into the fields.

I asked the farmhand why the farm was called Powder Blue, since the old farmhouse was built of mellow red bricks, and all the paintwork was white or black.  It was a casual question, and I was just making conversation while he took the money.  He was very serious in considering the question, and stood for a moment thinking, and then disappeared, coming back into the shed a short while later with a woman dressed, like himself, in earthy farming clothes.  This woman had an air of authority and I guessed she was the farmer’s wife.  She told me the name came from the eighteenth-century when the farm grew woad, which was dried and ground up into powder and then exported to France in boxes marked “Poudre Bleu” (the French for blue powder).  In France the powder was used to make a blue dye used in the textile industry.  The trade continued until the advent of chemical-based blue dyes.  It was a practical explanation, and the woman was obviously proud of her farm’s history.  But I was a little disappointed that the romantic name had such a utilitarian origin.

More consideration of the colour blue:  at night, just before going to bed, I went out into the garden with the dog.  The main part of the garden, along the front of the house, is meant to be a “white” garden (lots of coloured flowers have crept in over the years, but the main planting scheme remains white).  There was a half-moon, creamy yellow in colour, which made the white flowers glow in the darkness.  Looking up, low clouds covered two-thirds of the sky in a dull dark blue-black.  The rest of the sky was clear, and the moon and stars were set against a sensational dark blue that seemed to have the glossy shine of satin.  And in a moment of recognition I said to myself:  That’s Midnight Blue! (although actually it wasn’t midnight – it was closer to eleven). 

Monday, July 26, 2004

The colossal shadow

The front of the house faces south.

This morning I got up at 6.15 and drew back the curtains in my bedroom. I have a corner room facing south, but with one window looking out to the west. Through this westward window I could see over the tops of the trees to the ploughed fields beyond. The sun was rising and cast a huge exaggerated shadow of the house out over the ploughed earth.

The colossal shadow filled me with foreboding. With apprehension. And I thought… how can I be responsible for this house?

Friday, July 23, 2004

Like summer tempests

Yesterday.  It was the end of the working day.  I had cleared my desk ready to go home.  We have a “clear desk” policy which means nothing can be left out overnight – I just swept everything into a drawer and left it to be sorted out in the morning.  Most of the Sales Desk had already left.  Kevin Maglio (very overweight, very good at his job, always moaning about something, always defiantly wearing a small earring despite a company ban on male jewellery) was inevitably the first out, rushing to the door the moment 5.30 arrived.  He went out by the quicker route through the warehouse, down a long straight metal staircase so that you could hear him crashing down the steps and a boom as he pushed the outside door open.  More crashing followed as the rest of the staff went home.  As always, someone tooted a car horn twice before driving off. 

When most people have gone one immediately notices the silence, a calm that results from the absence of ringing telephones, shouting voices and clattering office machinery.  Yesterday, after the general departure, I was sitting quietly, doing nothing, when a sudden loud roaring sound began.  Walking across to the windows, I joined Hu Yang looking out at a torrent of rain falling from the skies.  I had never seen rain like it.  Thunder followed.  Lightning followed the thunder. 

There was a small commotion as Keith Williams (Sales Desk) came back into the office, panting for breath, huge wet blotches all over his clothes.  There was a louder commotion as Greg Mitton (one of the Product Managers) and Jeremy Gadd (IT Manager) came back in, cursing extravagantly, their clothes completely soaked.  They had been standing outside smoking when the rain had begun to fall. 

“As you’re already wet” I said to Greg, “you could go and get my car.  It’s on the other side of the car park.”  His response was a stream of bad language as he squelched off to his cubicle.

Getting to my car was, however, a problem.  I went downstairs and stood at the door, looking at the curtain of rain.  And in one of those sudden moments of recall I remembered a line from The Wind In The Willows: “…like summer tempests came the rain…” (I had learned to read when I was five, trying out the thousands of books kept at our house in Norfolk.  I can remember a teacher at school saying “No-one reads those dreadful old books anymore”.  But in my isolated childhood The Wind In The Willows had been a favourite).

Abruptly the rain stopped, and I walked to my car, some considerable distance away at the back of the car park where there are lines of sycamore trees and hedges of St Johns Wort (a few yellow flowers still showing).  As soon as I was in my car and the door shut the rain began again, thudding onto the car roof as I drove home.

When I got close to home I stopped to fill the car with petrol, the rain still pelting down, and the thunder rolling.  Normally the chubby young girl who takes the money is lethargic and uncommunicative.  On this occasion however, the storm had made her animated and excited.  She giggled and chatted and moved about deftly, so that the cumulative effect was that she appeared very pretty and charming, despite her bland Total uniform and tousled hair (this proves the point that beauty comes from within). 

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Like some wild-west gunslinger

The company football team has won a trophy.  The team was founded about a year ago by Adam Russell who works on the Sales Desk.  Originally it included players from all over the company, including the warehouse, but gradually people have dropped out, or left the company, and now it is mainly made up of people from the Sales Desk plus one person from Accounts.  They take the whole thing immensely seriously, and have titles for each other like “Director of Football” and “Training Manager”.  Adam Russell is the captain. 

One of the tasks allotted to the Marketing department (and actually a chore I hate since it is so time-consuming and involves chasing people for contributions) is to send out every Friday an e-mail newsletter to all employees, detailing what has happened in each department that week.  It’s mostly trivial stuff, and various in-jokes, plus official company announcements.  A photograph has been sent to me of the winning football team, to go in this week’s newsletter.  Because the big silver trophy they won is being engraved, all they have available to show off are their little personal trophies.  These look rather silly in the photograph, especially as the team has projected such a big-shot reputation for itself.  But the team is so proud of its achievement I don’t have the heart to advise them to wait until the big trophy is available. 

Adam Russell in particular has been crowing about the winning match, and how the team will soon be taking on and beating other, more senior, teams in the league.  Because he is so small, and also the youngest person in the office, he is routinely put-down by almost everyone (my assistant, Adrian Taylor, is so dismissive towards him that he appears rude).  So who can blame Adam if he spends the next few days boasting and bragging and walking around the office like some wild-west gunslinger. 


The little cups (detail) Posted by Hello

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A comment that arrived completely out of the blue

Yesterday I received the following e-mail from Gary Spencer:
 
“On a serious note, I believe that I have experienced a religious experience, You know I am totally sceptical, therefore you are the only person I have told.  I was laying in bed this morning, I was probably  dreaming as I was half conscious,  I feel I engaged in conversation with God, I have an inexplicable desire to visit Church this Sunday, why I do not know ??”
 
It was a comment that arrived completely out of the blue, in the middle of an exchange of e-mails we were having about plans for my birthday (which is next month).  I felt very uneasy about this e-mail as I didn’t really know how to respond.  Gary Spencer is not a person likely to have hallucinations.  He has always scoffed at the supernatural, and has complete contempt for organised religion.  The idea that he would visit a church this Sunday is totally out of character.  His wife Carol is as much an atheist as Gary, which is presumably why he hasn’t discussed this with her yet.
 
In the end I sent him a message saying he should let me know if anything else happened.  It seemed a bit lame, but the best I could manage. 
 
Later the unworthy thought crossed my mind:  why would God want to talk to him!  
 
Biographical note:  Gary Spencer is one of my oldest friends.  He has always been lucky in life and after a couple of years with Barclays Bank (financial sales) he set up on his own as a financial adviser, against all advice (including mine) and made a lot of money very quickly.  His company goes on making money despite all the voices (including mine) that warn he will fall flat on his face one day.  He married Carol, his childhood sweetheart, and they have two small children – in many ways they represent the perfect family.  He bought a very big old 1930s house in Hertfordshire a few years ago, on a massive mortgage, when everyone was warning the property market was about to collapse – in reality the housing market has boomed and the house must now be worth a fortune.  Good points are his enthusiasm for life, his energy, his ability to make things happen.  Not so good aspects are his selfishness, his casual dishonesty, his tendency to take unnecessary risks (overtaking at high-speed on busy roads, provoking people bigger than he is, gambling – although his wife has banned him from gambling he still does lots of “day trading” which seems to be gambling under a different name).

Postscript to the above:

Later I asked him what they talked about.  I was a bit wary about asking this as he might have thought I was making fun of him.  Anyway, his reply was:

"It was a very relaxed, I was very calm, It was not a talk as such, it was as if I was being told what I should do, how I should go to Church and how  I could help, It is difficult to explain what I was asked to do, how I am supposed to help, yet I seem to know what I have to do."
 
This morning I made a comment about it and got the frosty response:
 
"It was just a delirious dream, we will say no more about it"
 
So that's the end of that!

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A thin barrier separates us from chaos and anarchy

I saw the film Empire of the Sun on BBC2 at the weekend. 
 
I’ve seen the film before, five years ago, but all I remembered from that showing was how incredibly long it was.  This time I only intended to see a little of the film while I sat down briefly to drink a cup of tea.  In the event, I ended up watching all three hours. 
 
The film is very thought-provoking.  It made me think about the nature of different cultures. How brutal the Japanese were (and yet by their own standards they were acting honourably).  How important China is, and how little we understand about that mysterious country.  How fragile civilisation is, and what a thin barrier separates us from chaos and anarchy.
 
There is a sequence in the film where British people from the International Settlement (basically a European colony in the heart of Shanghai) are clothed in fancy-dress costumes, and travelling in expensive motor cars through the lines between the Chinese inside Shanghai and the invading Japanese laying siege to the city.  They’re on their way to a party in the countryside.  It’s very surreal.  The British in Shanghai were confident, untouchable, assured of their own invincibility.  And yet how totally inconsequential their fate proved to be once the war began.

There is a very beautiful song repeated at various points in the film.  Actually it’s a Welsh folk-song.  It seems to symbolise lost innocence. 

Monday, July 19, 2004

He wanted to know EXACTLY where we were

Friday – I attended a marketing exhibition accompanied by my assistant Adrian Taylor and Zhu Guang (from the IT department, but he would really rather work in Marketing). We met at the station rather than going into the office, mainly so we could have an easy start to the day. Adrian Taylor had had his dark hair dyed with flecks of yellow – I told him he looked ridiculous. We had to stand on the train and tube. During the journey Adrian Taylor read The Sun newspaper, Zhu Guang read a Chinese paperback, I read the memoirs of Bud Schulberg (a Hollywood screenwriter – his father had been a studio boss and had “discovered” Clara Bow. I had bought this book for only 50p in a “sale” at my local library. It had seemed almost sacrilegious for a library to be selling off its books).

Because the day was a “jolly” on company expenses, I was not too worried that it was mid-morning by the time we got to the exhibition, supposedly a showcase for all the latest ideas in marketing, advertising and public relations. We made a cursory circuit of the halls and I told Adrian Taylor and Zhu Guang to pick up an assortment of literature so that we could prove, if necessary, that we had actually been to the place. It was while we were so occupied that Zhu Guang’s mobile phone went off.

Zhu Guang has a habit, when he is surprised, of making a high-pitched shriek (almost a scream) that immediately gives away the fact that he is doing something he shouldn’t. He gave one of these shrieks and babbled nervously. The call was from Trevor Bush, our Managing Director (and owner of the company). He wanted to know EXACTLY where we were. As it happened, we were at the Goldmine stand (an entirely appropriate place to be). Zhu Guang told him the stand number. Shortly afterwards Trevor Bush appeared, his eyes darting backwards and forwards suspiciously, as if perplexed at our being legitimately occupied. He had just arrived at the exhibition (we must have got through the door only minutes before him!) and this was obviously a surprise visit to make sure we were working and not taking the day off as a “jolly”. It was entirely fortuitous that we happened to be working at the very moment he appeared. He must have driven across especially to do this spot check as, after barking out a few instructions on what stands we should visit, he disappeared again.

Not entirely sure he had gone, we went round a number of aisles, and were trapped (there is no other word for it) on the stand of a tediously boring gentleman with a grey beard who sat us down in chairs (armchairs, but they were not comfortable) and went through an entire presentation on what his marketing software could do. This was delivered very slowly, in a monotone voice, which had an almost hypnotic effect – Zhu Guang actually closed his eyes. I was conscious of people passing and looking at us curiously, as if we were part of the stand’s exhibits, so frozen were our attitudes.

Because we still could not be completely sure Trevor Bush had left, we decided to remain in the exhibition centre for our lunch and went into Pizza Express. This restaurant must be the grandest pizza emporium I have ever dined in. It was Corinthian in style with heavy panelling, moulded cornices, and a coffered ceiling. White wine to drink (the house wine). A sort of doughy hors d’ouvres, then a traditional pizza, followed by a chocolate rum pudding. It was all very relaxed and civilised until Zhu Guang’s phone rang and once again we heard him shriek, indicating that it was Trevor Bush on the line. There was no need to worry, however, as Trevor Bush was already back at the office.

One more circuit of the exhibition, and we sat at one of the exhibition cafés and had some coffee. Then we left the exhibition and walked round to the station once again. Zhu Guang and Adrian Taylor went off to the West End. I got on a train to Ealing Broadway.

Ealing appeared to be extremely cosmopolitan. Discovering I had no money, I queued up in a congested bank to get some cash and then took a shabby cab to Ealing General Hospital. High on a hill in utilitarian 1970s architecture, the place had a depressing aspect, even with the grandeur of it’s setting and sweeping views of the western environs of London. On the 9th floor I saw my aunt, lying in a bed near the door. She was very surprised to see me. She told me about her accident, and subsequent operation – she has been in hospital for several weeks. I stayed about an hour, until her meal arrived. She seemed in fairly good spirits, but I was a little concerned that she does not have any friends in the flats where she lives, following the death of her neighbour (“It was a bad year last year” she said, “too many people died”). I asked her down to stay with my brother and myself, to convalesce, but I know she will not come. The house would awaken too many sad memories.

Friday, July 16, 2004

It was meant to be a practical joke

There was an incident yesterday.  Greg Mitton, one of the Product Managers, glued together the fingers of Anne Marie Beatty in the Purchasing department.  It was meant to be a practical joke, but developed into a small drama. 
 
The incident occurred in the Purchasing department itself, one of the mini-offices on the general sales floor.  These rooms are separated off by glass partitions and people who work in them complain the experience is like being in a goldfish bowl.  The Purchasing department has a very sober atmosphere and is a most unlikely setting for any jokes to be played. 
 
Greg Mitton had crept into the office while Anne-Marie was on the telephone and had smeared the fingers of her right hand with Superglue, pressing them together.  Great hilarity followed, everyone in the little office joining in the laughter.  Anne-Marie’s laughter was almost certainly not genuine, and probably she was just laughing to be polite.  Laughter turned to consternation when Greg Mitton realised he did not have any Superglue de-bonder.  Consternation turned to recrimination when it was learned that there was no de-bonder anywhere in the building.
 
What made the debacle more acute was the difference in age between the two.  Greg Mitton is in his late ‘thirties and married with two small daughters, and yet still behaves as if he is a teenager (racing powerful motor-bikes, arranging “dirty-burger” eating competitions on the Sales Desk, shouting and clowning about the office all day).  He is a little on the short side, but with enormous muscles from years of weight-lifting, so that he has a hulking appearance that looks ever-so-slightly ridiculous.  He is very two-faced, and despite his senior position often joins in the moaning sessions periodically indulged in among the junior staff.  I suspect that several of the directors would like to get rid of him, but he is an expert at his job and would be very difficult to replace.  However outrageous his behaviour, somehow Greg Mitton always manages to survive.
 
Anne-Marie on the other hand has only just turned twenty, and only recently joined the company.  She is very beautiful, with a graceful elegant figure.  Her long hair is a shade of light-brown that is almost blonde.  She is softly-spoken, and very modest and feminine.  Because the air-conditioning in the Purchasing department is perpetually turned to cold, she always wears a cardigan which adds to her soft appearance.
 
Was it just a silly prank that had got out of control? 
 
Eventually one of Greg’s friends drove to a nearby hardware shop and bought some de-bonder.  Anne-Marie was freed.  None of the directors seemed aware that anything had happened.  Greg Mitton was unusually subdued the rest of the afternoon.

 “He’s just a big kid really” said Dean Bowden who had witnessed the whole thing.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

A desultory morning

Rain falling – a very fine rain so that one hardly notices it, and yet it is the kind of rain that soaks easily through clothes so that one soon becomes drenched. Hoping for a warm day the same as yesterday, I had rushed from the house without a coat, and by the time I got round to the decrepit old wooden shed where I park my car (one of the old barns and sheds of the former farmyard) I was very wet. However, as I was already late leaving for work there wasn’t time to go back and get anything more protective.

A desultory morning in the office, and with so many people on holiday the place seemed almost deserted. I think of going on holiday myself. To Normandy perhaps, or Antibes, or New York. Or my extravagant dream of taking the Queen Mary II to New York, and trains across North America to Stockton in northern California where I have friends who own a ranch (actually the former Director of the Los Angeles institute where I once worked as an intern - she married and moved to the north of the state). On their ranch they have their very own (exhausted) gold mine.

But I know I will not go on holiday. The Probate dispute drags on, taking day after day of my holiday entitlement. The house costs so much to keep up that there never seems to be much of my salary left each month. And one has to consider, however reluctantly, the implications of taking more than a few days off work – the rapacious nature of office politics means that anyone taking a long holiday would inevitably come under attack.

Like so many aspects of my life, there is no option but to go on as before.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The persistent (and unwanted) images

One of the books I have been reading again is The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman. It’s very good, and makes me think deeply about the way the world has developed.

According to Barbara Tuchman the “Proud Tower” was Europe in the twenty years leading up to the First World War. France, Britain and Germany stood at the summit of world power and western civilisation, their people supremely confident of the shared values they held. America was still a rising power, hardly noticed, treated in the same dismissive way we regard China today. The Germans were our “cousins”, closer to us than the French. A serious people who cared about art and literature and philosophy. A sensitive people who produced the finest classical music.

And yet within fifty years Germany had descended into barbarism and depravity. Even now the Germans are regarded with horror mixed with the troubling thought: how could they have been so evil? Even the modern generations are regarded with residual suspicions, however polite we might be to their face (“if you are not a murderer yourself” we think, “you are at least the child or grandchild of murderers”).

We tell ourselves such things could never happen here. The Germans were uniquely bad. We are too decent to ever do such things.

And yet the persistent (and unwanted) images that come into my mind are the photographs from the Abu Ghraib gaol, and the naked screaming man being threatened by dogs. I am not by any means a pacifist. Perhaps that man was himself a criminal, responsible for atrocities (but surely he looks too fat to have been a soldier or policeman?). Perhaps it is necessary he should be treated in that way to stop even greater injustices. Perhaps this is just the way the world is, and no amount of scrutiny and evaluation will change things.

But I would rather he had not been treated in that way. And if it really was necessary to treat him in that way I would rather it had not been photographed. And (since we must be honest, even if just to ourselves) if it really was necessary for the photographs to have been taken, I would rather they had not been brought to my attention.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

It’s like watching a pack of animals (wild dogs perhaps)

There is a group of people on the sales desk who have developed a habit of walking into the office in the morning with their shirt collars open and their ties loose round their necks, not yet done up. They then stand at their desks for several minutes doing up their ties and chatting to each other. It’s like watching a pack of animals (wild dogs perhaps) socialising and reinforcing group solidarity.

This morning there was a commotion on the sales desk when Scott Ryan was in the office, liaising with his assistant Adam Russell (at nineteen Adam Russell is one of the youngest people in the company. He is very impressionable and influenced by the people around him. He especially asked for a transfer so that he could be Scott’s assistant).

Scott Ryan is the Area Sales Manager for the Northern Home Counties. He has only been in the job for about a year, and in that time has been tremendously successful (previously he was in the telesales section for about six years, having joined the company from school). The senior sales managers talk approvingly about his achievements, and the money he has brought in, and try to analyse his sales success so that it can be replicated in other areas.

He is probably the most popular of all staff. His appearance is striking, with golden hair cropped very short, blue eyes, expressive eyebrows. A football player (but not for the company team, despite frequent calls for him to join them), he has a way of swaggering around the offices with a very loud cheerful voice, and a style of continuously laughing and smiling, so that you would think he was friends with everyone.

He has a dark side and comes from a family of half-brothers some people say are very violent. I once witnessed him losing his temper with one the directors, shouting abuse at him so all the office could hear (the director just stuttered and attempted to apologise and explain). Several times a year he goes off for the weekend (usually with Manish Qayyum, sometimes with some of the other sales reps) to Amsterdam to visit the city’s cafés where they can legally take soft drugs. His best friend in the company used to be Clive Ripley, another of the sales reps, but when Clive Ripley went off suddenly to live in Thailand (describing a destination similar to the film The Beach) Scott confessed to me that he felt Clive Ripley had really been his rival, and that he was always struggling to keep him from poaching his clients.

This morning he came to the marketing department (where I was on my own) and talked to me for ages about his recent holiday, with his fiancée, in Cyprus. We discussed all aspects of the island - the myth of Aphrodite, the trouble between the Cypriot Greeks and the Cypriot Turks, the military bases Britain still keeps on the island (sovereign bases, where we can do what we like). His time in Cyprus had included a day trip to Egypt to see the pyramids. So we talked about Egyptian civilisation, the Cairo Museum, the treasures of Tutankhamen. I was surprised he hadn’t heard of Akhnaten, and we talked about the eighteenth dynasty, the appearance of monotheism, the theory of Sigmund Freud. He kept returning to the subject of religion, not a subject I wanted to talk about. For over an hour he stood by my desk, propped against a filing cabinet, asking me questions.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Some people rise, some people fall

Neil Hart on the sales desk was suspended yesterday, ostensibly for looking at the internet when he should have been working (he was following the cricket match between England and the West Indies and had a small window open continuously, giving him the latest scores – a harmless offence really, no worse than anyone else has been doing). Probably illicit internet use was just an excuse used by the company, and their real intention was to find a way of getting rid of him (his sales figures have not been good recently) without incurring a claim for unfair dismissal. Because most of the workforce is relatively young, the age of the majority being eighteen to twenty-five (there is a definite cult of youth in our recruitment policies) they are not really aware of their employment rights. And as the company is doing tremendously well (making lots of money, paying generous bonuses, giving frequent salary increases) it is unlikely that there will be widespread protests if non-performers are treated badly. There is no tolerance of weakness or failure. Anyone who fails is pushed out.

Because the workforce is growing, new departments are being formed and offices opened. The new organisation chart has been e-mailed to everyone. In this byzantine network of reporting relationships senior managers have been identified by two stars against their names. I was very surprised (absolutely staggered in fact!) to see that my name had two stars against it. I had always thought my standing in the company was uncertain, to say the least. I attempted to discuss the meaning of this ranking with my assistant, Adrian Taylor, but he was very flippant and said that McDonalds had the same sort of star rating for employees.

Some people rise, some people fall. It is all very arbitrary.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

That's so harsh...

Derrick Gibbs, one of the warehouse operatives, is to leave tomorrow. The first anyone in the general office knew about this was when a leaving card was brought round. Gradually the news seeped out that it had been strongly suggested to him that he should leave, as he was no longer able to lift heavy loads in the warehouse (probably the company just wanted to avoid paying any redundancy).

Derrick has been with the company five years. Thin build, rather woebegone face (heavy lines either side of the mouth), black rimmed glasses. He is not exactly popular, but there is a lot of sympathy for him because he is obviously so vulnerable – aged 55, unmarried, talks with a stutter, poor education, rather gullible and credulous. He once asked out one of the young girls on the sales desk (an attractive blonde graduate) and she didn’t know how to respond – eventually she just told him she wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. He later asked out one of the older women in Telesales – who bluntly turned him down.

Half-way through the morning he came up to the general office looking worried. He stopped at Marketing and told us he was leaving, and that he now had to find another job.

When he had gone my assistants, Caron Maryatt and Adrian Taylor, were aghast at the way he had been pushed out of his job. “That’s so harsh” Adrian kept saying. “That’s so harsh!”

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

A round ghost shadow on the heavens

It was a cold morning but one knew, from the stillness of the air, the strength of the sun and the absence of clouds in the sky, that it was going to be an extremely hot day.

As I drew back the curtains I could see, from the upstairs windows, the whole landscape spread out to the south – the gardens, the line of trees, the fields beyond, and the church at the end of the lane. The church has a battlemented tower, rising above the surrounding chestnut trees, and in each corner of the battlements are small pinnacles like little metal flags, covered in gold. This decorative ironwork is so small as to usually go unnoticed, but when caught by the sun at a particular angle (as they were this morning) they gleam gold. I always regard this as a lucky sign.

I left the house at 7.15am – the early morning sun was casting slanting shadows in the long grass, there was a cornflower blue sky and, most lovely of all, an almost-full moon as a round ghost shadow on the heavens.

It was a boring day at work. Lunchtime I went to Ricos in the city centre, a café serving hybrid English-Italian food (I had a toasted ham and cheese ciabatta, a Cappuccino coffee and some Bakewell tart). It was good to get away from the people in the office for a while and be on my own. I sat in the window and watched the waves of lunchtime shoppers go back and forth and thought how much I would prefer to be at home.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


A picture from the past - not so very distant, but sufficiently removed (and sufficiently shadowed) for it to give an impression of identity without the risk of recognition. Posted by Hello

Not that there is anything to hide. But there is, perhaps, a lot that can be destroyed.

Who is this person anyway? It is a college student, in the last days of his last year. And looking at myself at that time, I seem to be apprehensive, horribly self-conscious, almost crushed by the weight of the Victorian surroundings and over-shadowed by the university's gothic gloom.

At that time the primary thought going through my head was: how can I get a good job? Ironically that proved to be one of the least of my problems.

Monday, July 05, 2004

The beating of its heart against my hand somehow made me complicit

Posted on 5th June

On Friday evening I saw the cat outside by one of the side lawns, tossing something in the air and then leaping on it when it fell to the ground. Going out to investigate, I found it was a baby duck – a little round ball three inches across. Obviously taken from a nest on the side of a nearby drainage dyke. Putting the cat into the house (it was purring contentedly, as if it was sure I would be pleased with such a present) I took some tissue paper from the kitchen and went out again to lift the duckling from the path where it lay.

It was obviously dying, the eyes without motion, its tiny duck’s bill silently gulping air and panting it out again. Through the tissue paper I could feel its heart beating hard against my hand. There was nothing I could do except put it down in a quiet spot to die (with the faint hope that, as is sometimes the case with injured birds, it might make a recovery and simply shake itself and fly off).

A couple of hours later I went out to check and found it had died. I told myself that one can’t be sentimental about such things, that all of nature is “red in tooth and claw”. But the beating of its heart against my hand somehow made me complicit in its fate.

Friday, July 02, 2004

It is, in a way, a kind of solution

Posted 2nd July, 2004.

Yesterday I had a day’s holiday and got up at 9. My brother was rushing about and eventually went off to an appointment in the town. Alone in the house, I sat at the dining table drinking a cup of tea and looking out of the window, and thinking how pleasant it was to just sit there doing nothing. The dining room looks out into main part of the garden, and I thought how perfect the scene looked, the lawn clipped and green, the flower beds filled with subtle colours, the chestnut trees casting shadows that moved with the wind and deepened with the sun as it grew higher in the sky.

One year ago I had thought that nothing could save the gardens and that they would be too much for us - that everything needed to be simplified and made more manageable. In the event, we have kept things exactly as they were, despite the cost of maintenance (it costs about thirty pounds per week) and the (let’s face it) very old-fashioned planting programme of flowers and shrubs, arranged in lawns, pathways and banks of vegetation. The only mar is the hedges, as we still can’t find someone to cut them. It would be impossible (well, not impossible, but certainly difficult) to cut them ourselves.

My brother usually walks the dog, but he was in such a hurry this morning that I said I would do it. I took the dog along the lane (“our” lane as I think of it, although anyone can drive up it). Once we were away from the shelter of the chestnut trees we were gently buffeted by the mild wind that was blowing and warmed by the high sun. There are hardly any trees in the landscape, apart from the ones around the house, and one can see for miles in all directions, hardly any houses interfering with the views.

The dog and I ambled along for about twenty minutes until we reached the end of the lane, where it joins the road. There was hardly any traffic on the road, just an occasional passing car, but I decided we wouldn’t walk any further. It was a sort of primeval feeling I had, that one shouldn’t go beyond the safe boundaries.

So the dog and I turned back (not without some reluctance on the dog’s part), and as we retraced our steps I saw the house, and the chestnut trees, and the tower of the old parish church at the opposite end of the lane (again, surrounded by chestnut trees), and I thought… one year since my brother and I went into mourning.

A year is excessive (so everybody says) for mourning these days. And yet, at the conclusion of that year, it seems easier to just go on with another year of mourning. It is, in a way, a kind of solution. It helps us avoid the question: what do we do now?