Friday, June 22, 2007

In case of picnics

I was in the bank the other day in Seaburn. An elderly man was at the counter in front of me. He was busy rifling through the pockets of his raincoat. I gathered that he was looking for the origin of his errand: a chequebook perhaps, or some cash bound in an elastic band. He then began to produce all manner of items unrelated in any way to banking. It felt as though I was witnessing a performance by the oldest and worst magician in the world.

Firstly, there came a long piece of string. It struck me that old men do indeed revert to being little boys. What possible use could there be for a piece of string in an old man’s coat pocket on a trip to the shops? Unless he was working as the best disguised assassin since The Jackal and the string was actually a garrotte. A running commentary was inevitable.

‘Oh, sorry Pet. It’s in here somewhere….the doings.’

The next item to appear in the slow motion sleight of hand was a handful of paper. I could see crumpled shopping lists, written in an elderly hand. They were in exasperated capitals and I guessed that this man wasn’t the most efficient messenger in the neighbourhood. He turned and was slightly startled by the steadily growing queue behind him.

‘ Oh, I do apologise. Must find this thing to pay in. I know you’re all busy people...... I do beg your pardon.’

I felt uncharacteristically charitable from this point on. The lone counter person smiled an unconcerned smile. She looked well used to working to the clock of the elderly in the area – all of whom seemed to have retired from everything, including Greenwich Mean Time. I was in no hurry to get back to the office – I never am. The ‘show and tell’ continued and the old man began investigating the deep raincoat pocket on his left side. I heard the rustle of cellophane and then, ‘before my very eyes’, the man was showing the room a small, wrapped set of plastic cutlery.

‘They are a good idea, you know. I carry them in case of picnics.’

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Vision vs Hindsight

I was in Nottingham on Monday – for a network meeting of all the people from around the country who have ‘ended up’ doing the same job as me. The location was Sherwood Forest and we met in a quaint hut in the woods. The national director appeared to bless us with his vision for the future of the organisation. He tends to carry his glasses on the top of his head – like a little tiara.

So, the boss thought aloud for our benefit – occasionally closing his eyes for moments of intense thought. He took us on an imaginary tour of the country, sharing his ideas and cascading knowledge as he went. My colleagues smiled - some even raised their hands excitedly and asked exquisitely pertinent questions which he enjoyed answering in the most candid, sharing detail.

His swooping, visionary tour came to an end with a flourish, as he closed his eyes tightly and uttered some inspired generalisations on the impact we all have on the lives and ‘journeys’ of so many young people and how proud we should all be of ourselves. He opened his eyes and smiled at the assembled arc of his foot-soldiers. He gasped theatrically and drank in the happy reassured smiles of most of those gathered. It was as though he had been ‘channelling’ the spirit of the organisation and he was now delivered back to ordinary consciousness. His smile faded with a question from the floor.

‘What about the north?’

The national director’s ‘tour’ had stopped somewhere around Stoke.

‘Oh,’ he stuttered. ‘The North, indeed.’ He then closed his eyes once more – as though trying to summon up a rarely consulted spirit guide to the mysteries of the northern outposts of the organisation.

‘Rest assured that everything in the north is being looked at. There are various possible models on the table and you will all be consulted as the consideration process is progressed.’

The northerners didn’t bother pressing the issue. It being Monday, they were all wondering where the nearest newsagent might be – it was jobs day in The Guardian.

A taxi whisked the national director away and we all changed our clothes for the afternoon’s outdoor activities. I had signed up for ‘Go Ape’, after a cursory look at the options. I signed a disclaimer and then found myself stepping into a harness. A sinewed outdoor type tightened a few straps and we were given a pep-talk which stressed the importance of staying attached to the trees at all times. We then began an assault course in the treetops – including zip wires and tarzan jumps. I run through the woods every other day and think of myself as reasonably fit. I soon realised that apes use their upper body quite a lot more than I do. Aching though I was, my judgement was impaired by the actions of the people ahead of me. They were students (2 girls and one boy) who were taking a break between exams. I gathered this from their shrill discussion of dissertations while they danced effortlessly across precarious high wires.

We reached the highest point of the course. All the challenges on the course were graded from ‘easy’ to ‘extreme’. From the high point there was an ‘easy’ route – with a simple rope bridge. There was also an ‘extreme’ option, which involved climbing up a wooden tower to make a ‘tarzan jump’ into a rope wall. The rope wall was visible to all the other participants and passing nature trailers – it could be described as the finale of the course. The students skipped through the ‘extreme’ challenge and I found myself climbing the wooden tower to compete. A ranger was on hand and he had just talked the last student through her descent. I was fine - I’d absorbed the instructions. I strapped myself on and silenced the ranger’s urge to instruct me with a confident ‘thumbs up’. He smiled and let me carry on. I jumped.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that someone of my height would have been instructed to lean a little from the tower before jumping. I jumped on the spot and the steel ‘vine’ stayed more or less vertical. I landed heavily on my backside on a wooden platform amid gasps from my watching colleagues. The spring-loaded winch then kicked in and viciously dragged me away. I was spun around to face the tower and realised that I was going to lead with my bruised rear when I touched down somewhere in the rope wall. This position also gave me the splendid opportunity to watch my audience – some were peeping through their hands, several had stopped on their high wires to take in the sight (one had managed to maintain her balance while using a camera), most were turning to take the ‘easy’ route.