Friday, February 13, 2009

‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’

It is the age of the takeover - weak banks are being swallowed up by bigger banks or simply bought by the government. A similar situation has come about in the arts. Our ‘manager’ went off to the Olympics and original Susan returned to civilisation (Cheshire). Once our numbers were so depleted we too became vulnerable to a predatory takeover. As ever, a ‘process’ was invoked by the Arts Council to bring this to pass. ‘Expressions of interest’ were encouraged from organisations with an ethos which dovetailed nicely with our own – something like ‘the redemption through culture of young people presently lost to pursuits which we do not understand.’

I was unsurprised that Barry from 'The Furnace' got his bid in by return of post. We used to share a County Durham office with Barry, who remains one of the most inoffensive Londoners I have ever met. He was always happy to chat on about football and men’s stuff whenever we met in the corridor. I tried to respond appropriately, even calling ‘Up the hammers!’ when Barry was on the other side of the carpark. Our dialogue didn’t get chance to progress beyond this limited rapport before our team left for the glamour of Sunderland.

I was surprised that the successful bid for our team came from the National Clay Pipe Centre. I know staff at the centre and have never been one of the many to readily use the phrase ‘white elephant’ in any discussion of this valid celebration of all things clay pipe (or ‘CP’ as they are apt to say).

I heard tell that the NCPC presentation took the panel of Arts Council judges by storm. It seems that the clay pipe was central to the work of St Bede. A fast-paced Powerpoint featured animation of the scholar at work on his ‘Ecclesiastical History of England’. Any intellectual blockage felt by the venerable one was quickly relieved by a puff on his clay pipe.

This success by Morag, the dynamic Chief Executive of NCPC, should have buried the memory of a recent faux pas. Sunderland is twinned with St Nazaire on the east coast of France – a sensible twinning of two industrial ports in decline. Exchanges of councillors occur and a recent delegation from France was treated to a performance of ‘Wear Shanty’ on the flat roof of the National Clay Pipe Centre. ‘Wear Shanty’ is a site specific, cross-generational performance piece – in which a metre long pipe is passed in dance from the sou'estered fishermen to the children - a symbol of the regeneration of Sunderland which simultaneously recalls the city’s proud past.

Morag’s hectic diary had only allowed a skim read of her Berlitz guide to French conversation, so her mingling at the post-show reception relied on much smiling and gesticulation. The all male French delegation was flattered by this attention and the mayor particularly so. He made a personal invitation to Morag to join him at his weekend retreat at La Rochelle any time she was available. Morag politely declined, but felt compelled to reciprocate in some way. She tried to achieve this in French.

‘Je vous donne une pipe tres speciale!’ She told the mayor and beckoned him into her office.

Morag gestured towards her executive leather swivel chair so that the mayor might make himself comfortable as she struggled to locate the correct key on her fob to unlock the cabinet of corporate gifts. The mayor took some time to get comfortable in the chair – Morag was conscious of his shuffling and she got the impression that he was kicking off his shoes. The mayor even seemed to be releasing a few buttons – understandable after a rich buffet. Morag was delighted that her guest felt so at ease.

‘Une moment, Monsieur Mayor!’ Morag rifled through the cabinet and made a mental note to remonstrate with the Marketing Manager about the unruly state of the contents. The mayor’s breathing was audibly quickening behind her – he was obviously very excited at the prospect of a 'pipe' to remember.

Morag eventually laid hands on a souvenir limited edition boxed clay pipe (including the dvd history of clay pipe production on the banks of the Wear: ‘Canny Auld Clay’), She turned with a beaming smile, and not a little ceremony, to perform an intimate presentation of the gift to her new European friend.

Communication breakdowns are not unknown in the history of exchanges between the twinned towns of Europe and Morag has been upbeat about what happened in her office that evening. In her capacity as a cultural leadership mentor, she has even managed to incorporate the misunderstanding into a presentation on ‘dealing with the unexpected’. She did feel, however, that perhaps it was time to move out of her office and back into the team space.

‘You’ll be wanting your special chair, mind,’ suggested Norman, the Building Manager. ‘I’ll wheel it through…..’

‘No!’ Morag’s voice was uncharacteristically shrill. Her panic turned heads around the team, before she gathered herself and smiled. ‘It has a terrible squeak, I’ve tried everything, it would drive everyone crazy in here.’

A creative mind is a wonderful thing.

‘I want you to have the chair, Norman. It could be part of a makeover for your portakabin and it would surely ease your sciatica….’

Norman beamed: touched by this demonstration of concern for his welfare and, perhaps, this recognition of his status. It was in an email later that day that Morag suggested that Norman sponge the chair down before he thought of sitting in it.

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