Tuesday, July 12, 2022

'pray and be patience'

For the last few weeks I have been viewing the Irish passport service website on a daily basis. I have my passport, but the rest of the family have been waiting for theirs since the beginning of March.

The webchat panel is nearly always greyed out - they're too busy to help me. If you hang on there and refresh the page upwards of a hundred times it goes green for a second. You have to be quick and paste your details in before it greys out again and they are, once again, too busy to help me. This has turned into a challenge, a daily game and a way for me to break up the monotony of working from home. 

When you do get through to have an actual webchat, the responses can be pretty brusque. I tell myself that they are, after all, very busy disappointing as many people as possible every day and I can't reasonably expect politeness. They are probably working to targets which ensure that they disappoint as many people as they possibly can before they log off. I was, given this context, very surprised with the advice I received from the webchat agent 'helping' me yesterday. As you can see from the transcript below, he thought it appropriate when I asked if he thought the passports would be processed in time for our travel date, to suggest that I pray for them. 

Can I suggest to anybody associated with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs that some virtual rosary beads be incorporated into the passport website for this purpose. Perhaps an icon or two could be added also - there are some expanses of blank screen you could play with. A solemn decade or two would pass the time nicely while a passport applicant waits for the short window of opportunity when the webchat panel turns green. 

2022-07-11 12:45:59 | John Patrick McGagh: Thank you. Does that mean they will be processed in time?

2022-07-11 12:47:45 | Agent:      hopefully this time of the year you can pray and be patience. once the checks are done it will speed up.

2022-07-11 12:48:01 | Agent:      As you   may appreciate, we have unprecedented high volumes of first\-time applications

2022-07-11 12:48:17 | John Patrick McGagh: OK, thanks for your help

2022-07-11 12:48:33 | Agent:      we are trying our best to process them quickly

2022-07-11 12:48:40 | Agent:      Thank you for contacting the Passport Service, have a lovely day

2022-07-11 12:48:58 | System:     The agent has ended this chat.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

‘And the strange dust lands on your hands and on your face‘

My daughters have developed an interest in funeral customs.

‘Is the open coffin thing an Irish tradition Dad. Do you want one?’

‘I think they do it in lots of cultures’, I guessed, ‘but I’ve seen a few in my time.’

‘Didn’t your mum once take you to someone’s house when they were dead?’

‘Indeed she did, yes. She said we were going to Tess’s house to pay our respects. She didn’t warn me that Tess was lying in her coffin in the front room and no, I don’t want one’.

‘Were you frightened Dad?’

‘No, but it was one of the more memorable house calls I made with my mother.’

‘What about the circus cannon? Do you still want to have your ashes fired from a circus cannon Dad?’

‘I’ve been considering that wish and I think I am going to give you girls 3 options to mark my passing:

  1. Indeed, the circus cannon. I think the firing of my ashes mixed with glitter from a very loud circus cannon at a moment of peak excitement in the circus programme would be just splendid. I’d like to think that ‘I’ would shower down on to happy smiling faces and if there was enough glitter involved they would never suspect that the strange dust was six parts old guy cremains. My atomised self would then be carried on clothing and shoes into the living rooms of elated Blaydon families returning home full of tales of the circus. I would happily mingle with their house dust and dog hairs and end up (still glittering a little) in their Dysons.

  2. I would also not be the least bit averse to having my ashes flung with absolutely no ceremony or a second thought from the bridge at the foot of the hill in Cloonaghgarve, County Galway. As previously mentioned this bridge was blown up twice by my great grandfather in his campaign of sabotage against the British colonialists. My great-grandfather died an old man of natural causes, by the way.

  3. Egg timer. This is a new one, but would repurpose my ashes and put them to good household use. Put my ashes in a plain, but tasteful, egg-timer to sit on a kitchen shelf. The new 'me' would be wipe clean, very useful and wouldn’t look out of place on Instagram.’

‘Wouldn’t it need to be really big, Dad, to take all of your ashes?’

‘Not necessarily. You could just use the finer ashes for the egg-timer and design it so that it timed a pizza in the crazy hot bottom oven. About 8 minutes I reckon. The coarser cremains could be added to some brightly coloured maracas and these could be shaken while you/your friends/your children/their children (eventually) have a sing-song while they wait for the pizzas.’

Monday, December 30, 2019

Hard paper round

‘How old do you think I am?’
This struck me as an interesting departure from the usual: 
‘Going anywhere nice on your holidays?’
To which I inevitably answer:
‘No…...I’m going to Northern Ireland (sad face)’
I looked at my new barber in the mirror.
The salon owner is my usual barber. The salon has a big TV permanently tuned to MTV. There is also an alcove in which a very large bird cage houses half a dozen canaries. The canaries seem to sing along to the music on the TV. When there is a gap between music videos the birds seize the chance to entertain the customers on their own.
The owner is Omar and he is not much over five feet tall. He calls me over to a chair and avoids standing anywhere near me. Omar is in the habit of giving me manly tips: a very convincing hair transplant in Poland for only £200 or a happy finish at the massage parlour over the road (fee negotiable).
‘I’m single – always horny innit,’ he said in his defence.
Omar was chuckling as I pondered how old his apprentice was. I suspected that this was a routine designed to break up the barbers’ day and that it was very probably a trick question.
‘I’m not a good guesser of ages,’ I said, ‘I tend to cause offence.’
He was smiling and told me to go ahead – he wouldn’t be offended. He was stocky, hirsute and what can only be described as very ‘Turkish’ in appearance. 
He looked at least 30, so I thought it best to shave a few years off (excuse the pun). 
‘I’d say about 26…’
Omar laughed wholeheartedly. This joke clearly never got tired. The junior barber laughed also.
‘I’m sixteen,’ he said. ‘I know I look much older. I’m a boxer you see. I box when I finish in here.’
He paused and assumed a south-paw stance.
‘To get anything in life, you have to fight and work (left jab) hard! (right upper-cut).’
I could see that he was looking me in the eye (in the mirror) – waiting for some kind of reaction. I felt slightly uncomfortable being given life advice by a 16 year old - even if he did look much older. I could see that he was sincere, though, and he certainly had a point.
I just smiled my best smile of admiration for his youthful bravado. He then guessed at my age and prudently went for 44. 
‘I’ll take that’, I said and then told him I was 53. 
‘I’ll make you look 48,’ he exclaimed and the very brief glow I had been feeling quickly subsided.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Charity Case

As a teenager I would get the bus into Manchester city centre on a Saturday and return with some ill-advised 'fashionable' clothes and some records.

I would buy at least two vinyl LP's a week – based on recommendations in the NME - which arrived through my letterbox every Thursday morning.
On moving to the north east I would buy records and cd's in Newcastle in much the same way – but a little less frequently to allow for social expenses. I even remember pre-ordering the first Daft Punk single for collection on release date. Who did I think I was? Maude hated it and would say ‘please don’t play Daft Cunt again.’ 
Now I buy second-hand cd’s from the charity shop across the road from work - as my Honda 'people carrier' has a cd player. They cost £1 per cd and occasionally I find a gem: the first Arctic Monkeys album for instance. Last week I bought a Bob Dylan box set for £3 (3 discs and I was honest about that when the elderly volunteer asked). I then found it new online for £80. It’s been knocking about the car now though – so it’ll not go on ebay.
The cd’s in the charity shop seem to arrive in clearly discernible batches.
Harry Secombe albums and collections of marching band music say ‘house clearance’ and ‘dead senior’.
A dozen or so indie albums from the 90’s will often appear in one go – usually on a Monday, after a weekend donation. A batch like that makes me think that a spurned woman has found petty revenge on the boyfriend or husband of 20 years who has suddenly told her that he needs some space. Things have come to a head over the course of a weekend. His return to their flat to pick up the ‘last of his stuff’ would be fruitless. The lock would be changed and the voice from the letterbox would offer the following advice:
‘Try the fucking charity shop!’  
Or perhaps a widow can’t bear the sight of her prematurely dead husband’s cd’s anymore and has plucked up the courage to donate them to the hospice charity which did, after all, look after him as he ‘lost his brave battle’.
There is also the possibility that a forty something guy or woman has decided to Marie Kondo or ‘Queereye’ themselves and clear away all physical media they own. ‘Haven’t you heard of streaming!’ one of the Queer Eye guys exclaimed recently as they boxed up all of the dvd’s and cd’s which had dominated a slovenly middle-aged man’s trailer home.
I realised I was becoming a shop regular when I didn’t have the £1 required to pay for my single cd selection last Monday. I couldn’t pay on a card, as it was below the shop limit for cards. The nice volunteer lady just said:
‘Don’t worry, just pay next time you’re in.’

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

'Hatful of Gladwin'

'Is that a cravat?' asked Archie.

'No, it's a scarf.'

I was showing Archie pictures of our family trip to the bleak tundra that is Edinburgh Zoo in late March.

'I am, of course, wearing a cravat under the scarf.'

Archie smiled and admirably feigned interest in the rest of the pictures.

We were catching up with Archie and Leap after a long estrangement. We were in a bar in town. It was one of the bars with fruity beers and an Italian name designed to justify its high prices and to distinguish it from the unashamedly Geordie bars: The Market Lane, The Beehive and (surprisingly still trading under the name) The Blackie Boy.

Archie and I have always enjoyed talking about music - ever since we lived in neighbouring bedsits. We were on the ground floor and one of Archie's sash windows didn't lock. If I was locked out I would climb through the window and probably borrow a cassette on my way through.

I could see that maintaining an enthusiasm for pictures of my children pointing at two bedraggled zebras who couldn't believe their bad luck at ending up on a Scottish hillside was becoming a strain for my old friend, so I moved the chat on.

‘I'd love to know what you think of my ideas for niche compilation albums. Original takes on songs we all know....'

‘I'm all ears...’

‘Do you remember Joe Gladwin?’

‘Of course.'

‘Well, though I say it myself, I do a really good impression of Joe Gladwin – nearly as good as my Max Wall. I also know enough chords now on the ukulele to put my uncanny Gladwin to music. It’s a concept album of ‘Joe’ singing Smiths songs: ‘Hatful of Gladwin’. The backing obviously wouldn’t be as elaborate as the originals – more strummy uke than jangly guitar.’

'I'm liking it.'

The twinkle had returned to Archie's eye. As he considered the Gladwin concept, he stroked his beard. I watched as fragments of crisp left the beard and danced in the mood lighting before they dived into his beer.

''I'm thinking of tracks that showcase Joe's trademark rolling of the 'R':

'Reel Around the Fountain'
'Girl Afraid'
'Miserable Lie'
'William, it was really nothing'

Arch struggled to hear my Gladwin rendition of 'Reel Around the Fountain' above the noise of the bar, but nodded and looked positive.

'Amazing! I love it. What are the other albums? You said 'concept albums'.'

‘Well, the other compilation album I was toying with is called ‘Now That’s What I call Fetish...........1'.
That one's not as well thought through, but I do have an opening track'

Archie's interest was now well and truly piqued. He leaned in to hear the title and his face glowed with approval as I whispered:

‘The First Time ever I soiled your face.’

Friday, December 04, 2015

'John from down the road'


'It’s John, Dad - I’m going now.’
‘Is it John from down the road?’
My father suffered from Lewy Bodies Dementia - which meant that, in his case, he hallucinated. His visions often involved animals and some of the things he said suggested he thought he was working with sheep. This was fitting for someone who grew up on a farm. He reacted well, apparently, to the ‘therapy donkey’ they took into the nursing home.
The beastly hallucinations moved Dad on from his imaginary pub - in which he described the nurses around him as ‘barmaids’.
When I visited him for the last time he moved his hands at one point as though he were daintily tying a knot around a tiny neck - possibly of a small animal which had found its way over the high side-guards to share the comfort of his bed.
When he had finished doing whatever it was he thought he was doing, my mother and I took turns at holding his hand to soothe him. He was agitated and called out for each member of his family - repeating each name over and over again until something told him that person wasn't coming and he shouted then for the next one. 

He didn't shout much for his immediate family towards the end - not for his wife or children. Rather he shouted for his mother and his siblings. This made me think that only his long-term memory was still firing. 

At work I am a temp with no memorable identity. It felt a little like that with Dad at the end. Who knows who ‘John from down the road’ was, but it probably wasn’t me.
The final gentle nurse in a long series of gentle nurses adjusted the bedding. She asked us about the family while Dad slept one of his last sleeps. She had just come on shift and hadn’t known him awake. He roused just before we left and became animated. He was talking about something or someone being ‘behind a wall’. My sister answered and played along with the events in his mind. After he spoke the nurse was surprised and remarked:
‘Oh! He’s very Irish isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ we said, ‘he is’.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

'Our Temp of the Month'

I haven't worn a lanyard for a long time. I wore one once when I worked for Waterstone's. That was just a big 'W' - it didn't open doors or access sandwiches - unlike today's 'smart' lanyards.
As I have mentioned, there is no picture or name on my current badge. A dry-wipe marker works on the blank surface of the badge part. I could hand-write a name and title of my own choosing - but that might qualify as tragic.

Some temping agencies reward particularly diligent workers with web fame as a 'Temp of the Month'. I read of one chap who was 'living life to the max' as a temp. I don't think his assignment was in the Newton Aycliffe area. 

Nonetheless, I do leave the lanyard on for a while in the evenings – so that people see it when I'm filling the car up or so that the neighbours catch a glimpse of it when I'm putting the bins out. It signifies that I am working – albeit anonymously.

I wouldn't want anyone to place me in the same pitiable bracket as Eric across the road.
Eric made a faint attempt at working for a couple of years when we first moved in. He delivered catalogues that he stored in his small shed/garage. Eric had a badly planned extension which left him with an integral ‘shed’ with a half garage door. It’s the shed equivalent of one of those slimline dishwashers that people squeeze into a galley kitchen. Eric now spends most of his time in his demi-shed. 

I do wonder if Eric has served time at some point in his life. Like Dr Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities' who was sprung from The Bastille only to crave a garret, my neighbour too seems to need the reassurance offered by an enclosed and cell-like space. 

Eric and I fell out in 2006 over what he perceived to be inconsiderate parking on my part. He didn’t speak to me for years after that – until I helped raise the alarm and get the paramedics in when he collapsed in his garden last year. He spent a night in hospital and sincerely thanked me on his return.
He hasn’t spoken to me since.
Likewise there are several people in the office who have decided that they too can’t be bothered engaging me in anything approaching a long conversation – on account of my temporary status. Don’t know how long they think the conversation they are avoiding could possibly last. Having said that, I have witnessed conversations take place in the open plan office that lasted long enough to merit a temporary contract all of their own.  

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Tiddles 2

When I print anything at my new place of work, I have to key into the printer my email address and password. Other members of staff simply tap their lanyard card on the printer and the machine warms to their identity.
‘Here’s your badge. It’s blank, because you are a temp.’
As I came into the building the other day, a young stray cat was hovering around outside. I stroked it and thought nothing more of it. When I got in to the office I soon realised that the cat was the subject of a major fuss:
"Was it tagged?"
"It must be lost!"
"Who will take it home if the owner can’t be traced?"
"What will the person who takes it home call it?"
"How will it integrate with the existing pets of the staff member who takes it home if it is not claimed?"
My manager drove the cat together with the office junior to the nearest vet. The junior had to go: ‘to hold the cat and keep it calm’.
The cat returned to the office. It wasn’t chipped and all were relieved that it had been saved from wandering in and out of local houses and tarting for food – which is what cats enjoy doing and do very well.
The HR person found some capacity to oversee a fast-track recruitment process – for the cat.
I was in the quaintly labelled 'Reprographics Room', enjoying the hum of the machines. The hum provided some respite from the incessant chat that was all around me outside the haven of the Reprographics Room.
The door opened.  I turned – expecting to exchange shallow pleasantries (nothing too deep, I’m not staying). I could see a human hand hold the door open for just long enough to allow the cat, no longer stray, to enter the room.
The cat swaggered in – a dinky little lanyard around its neck with a photo and a name I couldn’t quite read from a distance. It gave me one of those looks – one of those looks of disdain that cats do so well – and then sprang atop the neighbouring printer.
‘Tiddles2’ was the legend on the card – I could see it now. The card dangled over the control pad for the printer. My printer timed out waiting for my password. The printer for 'Tiddles2' started printing something – no doubt from the cat’s own desktop. Images emerged in full colour:

  • Tiddles2 sends an email
  • Tiddles2 ‘answers’ the phone
  • Tiddles2 on Skype

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Puppy IS just for Christmas

‘So, have you caved in yet about the puppy?’
In an attempt to integrate with my colleagues I had previously conversed about my daughters' desire to have a pet dog.
‘No. they now have a toy one, though. It gets up onto his hind legs and woofs. Their mother got it and asked them to keep quiet about the price. They told me when she had annoyed them with a particularly vigorous teeth-brushing session.’
My colleagues are obsessed with cats and dogs - they watch Paul O’Grady’s animal show and over lunch they exchange thoughts on the cuteness of the animals featured. Lunch occurs on a balcony. I join them and try really hard not to throw myself off the balcony when the conversation gets too pet-centred. The only thing that stops me some days is that I know I would land on the young teacher training students below. I know I would be doing them a favour in the long-term - arresting their progress into a career of stress and frustration. But I think of their loved ones - and mine - and stay on the balcony.
Today I contributed with the story of how my father brought home a puppy when I was a child. He walked in with great nonchalance and hovered until we noticed the puppy peeking out of his jacket. I think he'd won it in a game of cards - he wasn’t the type to nip into a pet shop.
They loved the story. To use the parlance of pet cats - they lapped it up.
‘The puppy didn’t last long, though...’ I added (sad face, big pause).
There was an intense pet-loving hush all around the balcony lunch table (laden with microwavable containers and weight-watchers crisps).
‘You see we lived on a dual-carriageway….’
‘It was only about a month old when it went to puppy heaven.’
‘Oh, that’s awful. You must have been traumatised you poor thing.’
‘Not as traumatised as that poor little puppy. ‘Rebel’ we called him: he was a cheeky little thing.’
One of the women had frozen mid-lunch. Her plastic fork hovering between her microwavable noodles and her awestruck mouth. I added a detail that probably sounded like overkill - but it was a  detail of truth.
‘And how unlucky was Rebel? To be mown down on such a quiet day of the year.’
The plastic fork was still hovering.
‘But I suppose people still need to drive about on Christmas Day.’