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.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Who are we?

The second day of our corporate family gathering was punctuated by 'interludes'. Some of the interludes featured incomprehensible presentations by creative professionals from other parts of the world. A less than captivating host for that section summed up with the hilarious remark ‘Well I think we’re all speaking the same language.’ I can only imagine that she was referring to the universal language of PowerPoint yawning.

The other interludes were severally called ‘Who are we?’ I had glanced at the email about these sessions: ‘do something creative and FUN to capture your team’s USP for the rest of the family’. I am usually in the habit of emphasising my USP to my actual family by way of a carefully crafted limerick.

I presumed that the rest of my team – Susan; Morag and Oonagh from The National Clay Pipe Centre – had received the same email.

They hadn’t.

The ‘Who are we?’ segments were a minute long and this time limit was brutally enforced by someone with a klaxon. This device added to the rip-roaring fun had by all. I was reminded of Archie and his gig as a best man’s assistant.

Some teams had gone to a great deal of trouble. A southern team performed a dumb show with the help of a long piece of paper emblazoned with elements of the team ethos. The paper was unrolled as a group effort and featured all the requisite words. The team members gambolled about like excitable Andrex puppies with a big loo roll of creativity. The giddy haste of a one-minute task brought about a few rips in the paper. I was quite near the front of the room and could see that the roll was A4 sheets held together with sellotape. Words such as ‘imagination’ and ‘partnership’ were unfortunately torn through.

One of the northern teams had made the trip to Bristol early – arriving the night before. They had carefully considered how best to prepare for the gathering and their ‘Who are we?’ slot. The consensus spoke and said something like: ‘It’s only a minute, let’s go to the pub.’ To their credit, they prepared their USP-promoting spiel five minutes before they were handed the microphone. They spaced themselves around the room and passed the microphone from shaking hungover hand to shaking hungover hand – each saying a single word before the relay continued. The movement around the room used up plenty of their minute, so that the resulting presentation was a simple phrase:


Morag had glared at me intermittently for most of the first day of the conference – the ‘Who are we?’ slot being news to her.

‘Did you know about this?’

I was evasive and suggested that the email must have been blocked by the weird email filter at The National Clay Pipe Centre – the filter which seems to bounce any email lacking the key word ‘pipe’.

Another batch of ‘Who are we?’ interludes was scheduled for the second morning and I was happily labouring under a heavy hangover. I hadn’t quite coincided with Morag at breakfast, so she had prepared our ‘USP’ alone – a brief speech before handing the microphone to Susan and I. It was agreed that we would simply say who we were.

Other teams swept around the room. Each in turn assaulted us with its USP. Flashcards were used, faux dashes to the lectern were used, even puppets made an appearance.

The turn of the National Clay Pipe Centre came around while I was still reeling from the impact of so many USP’s in close succession. Morag took the microphone and launched into her vision for the new team. I was more interested in the time she was taking than the detail. I could see Susan’s hand reaching out for the microphone as we passed the half-minute mark. Morag was just getting into her stride. Susan raised her hand a little higher and feigned a grab to attract Morag’s attention. Morag remembered the one-minute rule just in time to allow Susan to say her name and pass the microphone to me. I drew breath and was about to remind the ‘family’ that its old retainer was still around and was fired up for the excitement and challenge of another year at the coalface of creativity.

The klaxon sounded.

I could hear another team rustling behind me to cheerily snatch the microphone. I was forever to be ‘that tall guy who didn’t get time to say who he was’. Before I handed on the baton, I found myself thinking aloud while still 'on air':

‘Story of my life....’

My new touch-screen mobile phone seemed reluctant to recognise my touch as I texted details of my embarrassment to Maude during the comfort break. As I swore at it on the stairwell, the National Director passed by and bestowed a few words on me.

‘Well done you’, he smiled.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A ‘Hoo!’ and a ‘Hah!’ and the land is ours

I was at the first day of another all staff event today – this time in Bristol. I suspect that I have now notched up more of these events than any other member of staff in the organisation. As I ducked out of the afternoon workshops (to do some real work) and headed over a footbridge towards my hotel, I was accosted.

‘You are the Chocolate Sandwich guy aren’t you?’

This question came from a regional director to whom I have never really spoken. We were in the middle of a footbridge in a strange town. It felt like espionage. I paused and strongly fought the urge to reply furtively in ‘spy’ code – something like ‘The Eagle Flies on Friday’.

I had been getting funny looks all morning from colleagues who had obviously wasted time reading something I’d written about the last all-staff event - or ‘family gathering’ as it is now known. It seemed a little futile to launch any kind of denial.

‘Yes I am. How are you?’

He didn’t really tell me how he was, but said some kind words about my writing. He then raised his eyebrows, looked around conspiratorially, and intimated:

‘You really did cause quite a hoo-hah you know.’

He darted away over the bridge and disappeared into the crowd. I was left wondering quite what an English middle class person means when they use the term ‘Hoo-hah’. Does a ‘hoo-hah’ in our ‘family’ include any of the following components:

  • The National Director shouting. I witnessed this once when our former ‘manager’ riled him in our office. He is hard to ruffle, but she was sat very close to him and talked loudly straight into his ear. His shout could actually have been a cry of aural pain.
  • A close perusal of the section covering ‘Gross Misconduct’ in the Human Resources handbook.
  • An agreement that my meteoric rise through the ranks of the organisation had to stop.
  • A member of the Senior Management Team saying ‘Do you want me to whack him boss?’

Friday, February 06, 2009

Archie lives!

It’s a sign of the times. Poor, desperate men loiter on city street corners. They stand and smoke roll-up cigarettes. They look furtively up and down the street – as though on the lookout for creditors. I was on the fringes of Newcastle’s Chinatown – walking past a cluster of ‘bohemian’ pubs. At the end of the block I could see one of the desperate, slumped beside a pub door and puffing on what was possibly a found cigarette end. I rarely give money to people on the street, but I was moved to pity by this sad figure although the man was not obviously demanding money from passers-by.

As I drew closer, I realised that the figure was portly and bearded. The sandal and shoe ensemble in the middle of winter was a giveaway and I was shaken to my very core to see little Archie in such straitened circumstances.


It would have been impossible to ignore his greeting and heartless to walk on. I hurriedly put away my loose change and shook the little chap’s hand. He extinguished his cigarette on the door jamb of the pub supporting him and put the miniscule remainder into his pocket. I worried about the combustible nature of his crumpled jacket.

‘Is that wise Arch? You could set yourself alight…..’

Archie smiled and beckoned me to look into his sagging pocket. It was filled with sand.

‘I got the idea from one of those old-fashioned fire buckets I saw in the village hall. Leap put some extra stitching in.’

I smiled at Archie’s ‘ingenuity’. He was taking the smoking ban in his tiny stride. I accidentally continued to stare into Archie’s built-in ashtray and created an awkward pause.

'This is, er….awkward.’ Archie’s smile was a little strained and I could see a few strands of tobacco protruding from his teeth.

‘I’m sorry’, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and have a drink for old time’s sake?’

‘Brilliant. I’m already in a round, mind. I’ve been out since work with Other Archie.’

Archie and Other Archie first met when they were gay bachelors sharing a static caravan on the allotments in Newcastle’s West End. They have maintained a friendship ever since – although Other Archie’s wife, Mona, prefers not to let Archie into her house. The old friends make do with after work drinks.

I asked Archie for his news and he told me that he had acted as a ‘best man’s assistant.’ I told him that I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently Sandy had jetted back into town to perform as best man at Lucien’s wedding. Not one to do things according to convention, Sandy spotted the chance to create a piece of performance art. The format of his speech was based, surprisingly, on the Radio 4 show ‘Just a Minute’. Archie was equipped with a miniature bicycle horn and had to sound it whenever Sandy was guilty of hesitation, deviation or repetition. I was a little surprised that Lucien agreed to this – his life is governed by a slavish adherence to an austere aesthetic which allows only for purely abstract visual art and avant-garde German electronic music.

‘It was really funny...’, said Archie, but his enthusiasm for the story trailed off a little,’ first’.

I could only imagine that Lucien had trusted Sandy to come up with something appropriate and did not get the time to check beforehand.

Archie continued.

‘Then people seemed to lose interest and I could hear some of them sighing. Oh, and Lucien started to cry.’