Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Woman's Touch

Maude and I called to see Benny this afternoon. Benny was keen to show Maude the progress he has made in his DIY efforts. His living room has improved tenfold – with shelving, a rug – even a new pouffe with internal storage.

Maude flattered Benny on his achievements, but I could tell that she was unsure about some of Benny’s general approach to d├ęcor.

‘You’ve done remarkably well Benny….in the circumstances. I do think the place could do with a few small touches though. For instance, what about the fire?’

Benny has a new fireplace. A local carpenter made the surround and a new hearth was fitted at great expense. Benny, however, has shied away from setting a fire since his elderly neighbour, Florence, expressed her fears for the safety of his property and of hers. In fact, when she spied Benny with a box of matches at hand she called the Fire Service.

Maude suggested that Benny made a pot of tea. As he left the room Maude caught his heel as she closed the door behind him and held it shut with the pouffe.

I could hear Benny’s voice in the hall – it had the quality of a cry from someone trapped down a well.

‘What are you doing Maude? It is my house you know.’

‘Don’t worry Benny – you’ll thank me.’

Maude likes to hang pictures and keeps a small stock of tacks in her purse. Benny had received a couple of small landscape prints from a well-meaning sister at Christmas. He had been using them as tea trays, so Maude took the opportunity to make them focal points on either side of the dormant fireplace. Using a heel as an improvised hammer, she made light work of the job.

I then helped Maude as she repositioned most of the furniture. Benny could hear the movement from the hall.

‘Tea’s ready. Can I come back in now?’

‘Not just yet dear.’ Maude pressed on and found a new spot for more or less everything in the room. The movement of the furniture revealed lost socks and mislaid Y-fronts. Maude looked away. I felt obliged to protect Benny’s dignity and swiftly found a temporary home for the smalls in the new pouffe.

I was then sent out into the hall to prepare Benny for the ‘reveal’. My friend was sat on the bottom step of his own staircase like a banished naughty child. I reassured him that there was nothing to worry about and he agreed to wear my cravat as a blindfold as I led him back into his living room.

‘Ta-da!’ cried Maude as I uncovered Benny’s eyes.

Benny was a little disoriented and remained silent for a minute as he surveyed the changed environment. His expression was inscrutable, until his face gradually warmed into a smile.

‘It’s wonderful Maude. I needed a woman’s touch.’

‘Quite,’ said Maude.’I also thought that it was time for you to ‘put away childish things’ – so I got your fire going with that balsa wood Messerschmitt from the shelf. It really didn’t go with those books anyway.’

Benny looked a little stunned. We heard the model crackle in the grate and I could see the flames reflected in Benny’s glasses.

‘You just need to keep it tidy dear – we found lots of newspapers and ‘bits and bobs’. If the place gets untidy, you don’t necessarily need a woman’s touch, you could just dump your mess in the pouffe.’

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’.