Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sympathy for the Devil


Our organisation had another all-staff get-together last week – in Sheffield. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself at the Hilton – not the Sheffield equivalent of the Liverpool Adelphi. My room had a sofa, an ‘executive’ swivel chair and so many high quality toiletries and speciality teas that I had trouble closing the zip on my holdall when I left. I even got to swim in the basement pool as part of the deal.

The event followed the usual format – eminent keynote speaker, coffee, another eminent speaker. It was only when the second speaker got going that I realised how polished the first one was. The second speaker droned on about the importance of creativity – but did so in such a monotone that I began to nod off. I was jolted back to consciousness by feedback. The speaker was playing a recording of her own 8 year old singing. It was on her mobile phone which she held next to the microphone to share her ‘evidence’ of how creative some young people could be. I recently recorded Aurora blowing raspberries, but I don’t have any plans to share the noise with a room of 200 people.

When the speeches petered out, the master of ceremonies reappeared. The MC used to work fulltime for the organisation until the National Director ‘deleted’ his role by email. He returns, nonetheless, on a freelance basis from time to time. He is well-dressed and moderately handsome – so he is often drafted in as a host. His hosting is always punctuated by ‘witty’ remarks which are indulged on account of him a) being handsome and b) having had his job ‘deleted’.

‘Hello again everybody! Are you sitting comfortably? Well, let’s put a stop to that and get you all moving around. The next segment of the day is the ‘table discussion experience’ and you can’t just sit on a table with your friends for that – we need to shake things up a bit. I want you all to move around the hall and sit at a completely different table! It might be a bit chaotic, but, hey, we’re creative people!’

I walked a full 3 feet to the neighbouring table. My notepad clattered on the table surface. I scanned the room to see which nightmare colleagues were gravitating towards my space. The hall was indeed chaotic – it was one big fuss of unconditioned hair and handmade jewellery. I then focussed on the National Director – he was pulling back a free chair directly opposite me.

‘Hello!’, he said. I could feel myself instantly hiding my scowl and turning on my arty/liberal/caring smile. I was momentarily sickened by my own insincerity, but didn’t stop.

‘Oh hello, what a great opportunity to share some ideas with you.’

Most of the other people at the table were similarly horrified at being thrown into close proximity with the man who deletes posts by email. It felt like a job interview masquerading as an inclusive forum. A creative programmer from the North West was sat next to me. He had a tiny dress beard on the tip of his chin. This surprised me – as he only looked about 14. He was mustard keen to impress the Director – so I took every opportunity I could to talk over him.

I think the boss was quite impressed with my contributions. He even took notes when I spoke (although he might have filed them in the bin shortly afterwards). When MC Handsome announced lunch I had an attention headache. I had to forsake my usual place at the head of the buffet queue to get some Nurofen from my bag in the cloakroom.

That evening was taken up by dinner, followed by a quiz hosted once more by MC Handsome. I usually enjoy quizzes, but was disappointed to learn that there was a theme to this one: the organisation. Questions covered: ‘hilarious’ quotes by members of staff, the square mileage of our Cumbrian team’s territory and the amount of money raised in the London Marathon by a member of the management team (I guessed at 35p).

I was then surprised by the revelation of the National Director’s involvement in radical culture.

‘Which Jean-Luc Godard film featured our National Director?’

The room fell quiet. It was multiple choice. The answer was ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. A clip was shown when all the quiz answers were revealed. Our Director (aged about 10) was shown slapping other boys’ faces in a bookshop, before giving a Nazi salute and leaving.

Someone at my table (at grave risk of ‘deletion’) whispered:

‘Not much change there then’.

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