Wednesday, December 01, 2010

‘Daddy. Am I a Geordie?’

Our house is at the foot of a hill. Last week we were snowed in for 6 days. I say ‘we’. I was snowed in with 2 small children for 4 of them. Maude soldiered up the hill and went to teach the few damp stragglers who turned up to learn from her.

Each time the snow began afresh Aurora stood at the window and exclaimed ‘It’s Christmas Daddy!’

I found it hard to share her enthusiasm.

On the morning of Day 3 I heard on the news that the police had issued a warning to revellers in Newcastle. The warning went something like: ‘no matter how tough you are, how much money you’ve spent on your new weekend outfit and how much warming alcohol you plan to drink, wear some clothes or you may well die in the sub-zero temperatures.’

‘Those Geordies’ I sighed. As I encouraged Aurora to eat her croissant, I could see that she was preoccupied.

‘Daddy. Am I a Geordie?’

‘No, no, no dear. The Geordies aren’t as tall as we are.’

‘OK. They say  ‘I done’ and ‘I seen’ too. Don’t they?’

‘That’s right poppet.’

Aurora went about her business of drawing more brightly coloured images of pigs with chicken pox with her ‘smooth pens’ (felt tips). Jocasta giggled and did lengths of the kitchen on her walker.

As the snow began to fall again I took to the window seat and wondered how long we would be stuck in this situation. Just how long would I be kept away from the glamour of Sunderland?

I made the mistake of picking up my Blackberry and opening another ‘URGENT – ACTION REQUIRED’ email from Morag.

I pressed ‘delete’.

I then noticed a figure on Desmond’s drive next door. Maude had mentioned that Desmond’s son Bobby had acquired a girlfriend, but this was the first time I had seen her. Against explicit police advice, Bobby’s friend was dressed in a light dressing gown over pyjamas and fluffy slippers. Celia clearly had quite a strict rule about smoking in the house, but the young woman was not to be deterred. She dragged on her cigarette with relish and used her hand to shield the flame. Her hair and shoulders carried a significant dusting of snow – I suspected that she was smoking her second or third cigarette.

I felt a small presence at my elbow.

‘That’s a Geordie isn’t it Daddy?’

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On Holiday By Mistake

At the weekend just gone we were ‘on holiday by mistake.’

Various friends with young children were going to experience the ‘Winter Wonderland’ at Centerparcs in Cumbria. The children involved were all Aurora’s playmates, so we thought we would join in, primarily for her sake. The Centerparcs formula is impressively simple:

  • Charge a king’s ransom for tired and basic self-catering accommodation in a picturesque woodland setting.

  • Make setting remote from any ordinary shops and entertainment.

  • Provide shops and ‘entertainment’ with eye-wateringly high prices and hope that holiday spending money delusion works against the generation of too many complaints from customers.

The experience was a bit like joining a cult exclusively for vulnerable and tired people with small children: people stripped of the energy and/or the imagination to organise anything more original for themselves.

The swimming pool was enjoyable – especially for the children. Aurora played with her playmates and Jocasta squeeled with joy as Maude carried her and strode into the artificially generated eddies and ripples. Jungle drums signalled the onset of waves on the hour. A digital display flashed WAVE ON to increase the anticipation and Aurora clung to Daddy and yelped as each wave hit.

For me, the best part of the Centerparcs swimming pool experience was the opportunity to survey the woeful physical condition of the other dads. They were, in the main, podgy. It has to be said that their podginess helped them stay steadfast against the waves, but it also created unfortunate ripples and wobbles of flesh as they moved around the space age dome which covered the pool. The dome gave the whole scene a look of ‘Logan’s Run’ in reverse. Only the over 30 and out of shape were allowed to stay. The attractive and under 30 were terminated - unless they managed to crack the formidable boundary defences and reached the bright lights of Keswick.

Friday, October 15, 2010

New Shocks

My mechanic, Paul, is economical with words. He is, after all, a busy man with skills.

Paul calls and doesn’t introduce himself, he just details the problem you currently have.  

‘You need new shocks and bushes.’

This is what he told me a couple of months ago.

‘I know that Paul, but what about the car.’ Paul had sighed his usual sigh and continued ‘£135 plus VAT, do you want us to go ahead?’

I think I actually made Paul laugh, or at least smile, once, in 2006. He’s impervious to my wit, but a comical slip by a tall man on his oily forecourt seemed to hit the spot.  

‘Daddy’s funny little car’ - as Aurora calls it - has been ailing again. The warning lights have been taking turns at coming on over the last few weeks. My morning turn of the ignition key had begun to feel a bit like pulling the handle on a one-armed bandit – with the daily prospect of a jackpot. The jackpot: all warning lights glaring and beeping, car kaput, no way to get to Sunderland, back in the house to help Aurora assemble Mr Potato Head in the most grotesque attitude possible.

I knew as soon as ‘Paul’ flashed on my phone screen again that I was in for a pithy assessment.

‘You’re not firing on all cylinders.’ 

I was unsurprised, almost relieved. I suppose I just needed someone to say it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

All Our Pasts

Paroxysms of funding cut panic are currently sweeping through the well-designed offices of our cultural organisations. Our organisation has been changing its ways gradually: Hilton to Travelodge, annual 3 day family get together to all staff ebulletin and, in some desperate instances, freshly ground to instant coffee.

A meeting was convened at the plush head office to talk about the probable impact on the members of ‘the family’. I bumped into an old friend after parking the car and showed her some phone pictures of the children. This made me a full 5 minutes late for the meeting. They rang me as I was entering the building to ask where I was.

I shared the lift with a performance artist I know. We had worked together briefly before a misunderstanding created an insuperable schism. She had understood my work to be ‘voluntary’, I had understood it to be ‘paid.’ Mercifully we were only going up to the 2nd floor – there was not enough time to revisit the misunderstanding or, more importantly, for her to devise some kind of site-specific ‘performance’.

The meeting was led by the Operations Director – Dave. He’s a no nonsense sort and invited me into the room with blokey cordiality. I was the only other male at the meeting, so this was understandable. He stood to talk us through the likely features of the wave of cuts (or the ‘tsunami’ as the National Director named it). Using a dry-wipe board, Dave created a ‘timeline’ for the tsunami, marking when and where it would touch land and who would could expect to be washed away. He then made use of a flipchart on which he attempted to do the maths. I think all in the room knew that the sums Dave was attempting were mathematical impossibilities and a minus figure would recur at the end of all of them. But we all indulged his optimism and listened carefully.

The National Office has always been immaculately furnished and equipped. I took this opportunity to look, for probably the last time, at some of the no expense spared touches: the designer cafetieres, the fetching baskets of speciality teas, the desktop fridge for the miniature bottles of Evian. I was looking forward to visiting the bathroom, with its basket of grooming toiletries and droll signage about the perils of switching off the lights before checking the cubicles for dozing colleagues.

I was drawn back to Dave’s presentation, but not quite as he would have wished. My eyes, and the eyes of many others in the room, were drawn to the gape in Dave’s shirt. Dave’s message was being undermined by the exposure of his particularly hirsute belly button. As he reached between wipe-board and flipchart, the belly button flexed and seemed to be mouthing his words. I scanned the room to see if any of my colleagues had also seen the belly button speak. They all maintained professional faces and focussed on the content. I too was focussed on the content, but began to suspect that the belly button really was doing the talking. It was plain, however, that neither mouth nor midriff could make the numbers add up.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Bunk Up

I love camping accessories. I have a garage full of lightweight and well-designed outdoor versions of everything else in the house: a miniature table that folds away into a tiny pouch, a dinky kettle, even special matches that light in Scottish weather.

I don’t like camping.

Maude mentioned the possibility of a camping trip to The Lakes with the girls.

‘Imagine Aurora banging in a tent-peg with a miniature mallet. Her own little billycan of cassoulet. Jocasta giggling in the light of the campfire. It would be enough to melt the cold heart of any cynical, grumpy old anti-camper.’

Our trip to Spain was in the early summer. My wife was quite insistent that she couldn’t possibly endure the rest of the holiday without some excursions.

Maude’s face flashed on my Blackberry screen during a ‘catch up’ meeting with Morag yesterday. I excused myself from Morag’s monologue and answered in the corridor.

‘The silly woman won’t accept my card, so you’ll have to pay.’

Unbeknown to me our bridesmaid, Janice, had recommended a campsite near Ullswater.

‘Oh, perhaps I forgot to mention it. I’ve provisionally booked a campsite in The Lakes for you, me, the girls, Harriet and Morton, their kids, Seth and Bella and their two. The woman who answers the phone is obviously the farmer’s wife and can’t work the card machine. Could you call her and sort it out. The place is called something like Sunny Dell. You’ll have to Google it. You’re paying everyone’s deposit. Bye.’

After calling three campsites with names like, but not, ‘Sunny Dell’ I located the correct farmer’s wife and completed the booking.

Last night I took to my room (the garage) for the enjoyable part of the plan: the equipment check. I replaced batteries, put up the miniature table, counted the tent pegs, located the mallet, inserted a gas canister into our new camping stove and lit it with my special matches, made a cup of tea, sat on camping chair and drank tea, inflated an inflatable bed, lay on it for a few minutes, heard Maude calling, put down miniature table, deflated bed, turned off garage light, re-entered kitchen.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Girl with the Courgette Tattoo

Maude has decided that having children need not signal the death of our social life.

After reading one of her lifestyle magazines, my wife exclaimed:

‘Cocktails! In the house. No babysitter to pay, no taxi fares. Cocktails!’

A mint patch has been cultivated in the garden and the new drinks cabinet has been stocked.

‘There’s plenty of mint for mojitos and Morten’s bringing the ingredients for a few other recipes. Harriet tells me he’s a wizard with a blender.’

Harriet and Morten are newly coupled. Harriet and Maude met at a mothering group when Harriet was still married to Fred. From very early on Harriet talked about leaving Fred. I took this with a pinch of salt – Maude talks about leaving me on a daily basis.

Then Harriet left Fred and took her daughter, Bronwen, back to The Lakes.

Arrangements were made with Fred and then Morten arrived on the scene – on a very large motorbike. With the speed of a superhero in a phone booth, Harriet donned leathers and straddled Morten’s impressive engine as often as childcare allowed.

Kenny and Simone were also invited for cocktails. Kenny too has a motorbike, but it didn’t seem worthwhile to get Simone into leather for the trip – they only live 2 doors away.

Morten took control of the cocktail preparation and maintained a steady flow of mojitos and strawberry daquiries. Maude and I were happy to delegate and distribute the drinks to our guests on the terrace. The terrace overlooks our kitchen garden. As I arrived with a tray of drinks I noticed Kenny and Simone peering over the fence into the raised vegetable beds.

‘I see your courgettes have failed,’ observed Simone with a faux pained expression.

‘Not in the least,’ I replied. ‘I chose a miniature variety this year, so that Aurora could pick them easily.’

Simone smiled an indulgent smile and reached for her phone.

‘We went for a giant variety’, she said as she flashed an image of Kenny posing with a courgette the size of a toddler.

Kenny is a former soldier. He and Simone share a penchant for tattoos.

‘Simone’s getting a new one on Tuesday – right across her back. A dragon.’

Kenny and I were in the kitchen with Harriet. Harriet was thrilled at all the tattoo talk – she and Morten were contemplating some body art expressing their newfound love in østnorsk.

‘Only problem is‘, continued Kenny, ’she can’t decide what to put in the dragon’s hands. I was thinking Samurai sword in one and a red rose in the other – to symbolise the opposing sides of her personality.’

Thankfully Simone was out of earshot. I could see that she and Maude were stood looking into my vegetable plot with the sombre expressions of funeral-goers looking into a grave. I tried to help Kenny with his quandary.

‘Not sure she would go for that, Ken. The dragon, I believe, already symbolises strength. I’d suggest a design that shows that strength coupled with horticultural skill: dragon proudly holding courgettes of garden fete-winning dimensions.’

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Greatest Love of All

Due to wholesale absence and double-booking within the team, I was asked by Morag to attend a moderately important meeting in London. The meeting was to involve an overview of the organisation’s direction of travel in the face of swingeing government cuts. Our National Director made a state visit to our office recently. As he arranged his pashmina to take his leave, he smiled and quipped that we should all brace ourselves for the imminent ‘tsunami’ of public sector cuts.

I was prepared, therefore, for a sober message to take back and cascade to the rest of the team.

The meeting was held at the very agreeable ‘Lovelyspace’ in London – a converted sweetie factory across the road from W B Yeats’ old house. The building has a policy of eat as much as you please in the sunny basement refectory. The breakfasts are especially good – so a post breakfast meeting at Lovelyspace is probably the only way to stop me rocking in halfway through the introductions.

There was quite a buzz around the long, rustic tables. Members of the corporate ‘family’ speculated about the nature of the day’s message to the troops. It was last year’s appointment of Kit as day to day head of the ‘family’ that had allowed the National Director to move into the presidential territory that he prefers/feels he deserves. (There has been talk of an honour – even hushed mentions of a damehood). It was then to be Kit who would really stamp his personal style on the family’s future.

‘Apparently he’s going to ‘really express himself’ today.’

Rita was sat beside me and she was usually in the know – as she worked at The Hub. The Hub is comprised of three of the organisation’s four directorates and is situated in a plush office in Newcastle. Occasionally they buzz me in for a coffee – if it’s raining. The National Director shrewdly joined the ‘Flight of the Quangos’ out to the provinces, in the hope that the more visible bodies in the metropolis would be axed first. A single directorate remains in London – ‘The Rump’, as it is unkindly known.

‘He’s been spending a lot of time in The Cube – not mingling and chatting as much as he usually does. Not like him.’

The Cube is a large glass box in the centre of The Hub – in which Kit works wirelessly at a plain pine table. Kit eschews the word ‘office’.

‘It’s just a space in which to think and share.’

Twin arcs of desks surround The Cube – enabling Kit to cast smiles and winks at his co-creatives as he paces around or chills out on his beanbag.

I was intrigued by this suggestion that Kit would ‘really express himself’. Perhaps my opinion of him had been unfortunately coloured by his twee Facebook status updates or a profile picture which looks like a particularly grating Boden catalogue image. 
‘Between you and me,’ Rita continued with an enticing wink, ’I think he’s feeling the pressure.’

The breakfast chatter subsided, as people began to ascend the stairs to the lovely meeting space. There was a renewed buzz as we filed in. The blinds were down in the usually sun-filled room and there was a suspicion of dry ice. On the small stage at the end of the room stood a low level backdrop depicting a graffiti-covered  tower block fronted by burnt out cars and menacing figures in silhouette. The giggles of young people could be heard filtering through the door of the speaker’s entrance, stage right. I squinted to see if the table held any clues to what this ‘meeting’ would actually involve. All I could see was the usual array of ‘Lovelyspace’ paper, creative crayons and sweeties.

When the last attendee was seated, the door in the corner opened. Young people dressed in simple white robes began to process into the room – around a dozen in all. They were carrying candles and several were struggling to suppress giggles. They moved into a rehearsed formation in front of the tower block scene and assumed something like a class portrait pose – a kneeling row and others standing.

A slow, deliberate drum beat came over the p.a. and dry ice seeped from the foot of the stage. Colleagues peered through the gloom to gauge each other’s reactions, as momentous piano chords began. For a few moments I was struck by the familiarity of the chord sequence and began to scan my memory to name the tune. It was then that I heard gasps and my eye was attracted the top of the ‘tower block’. Kit was rising out of it on a wire, he too in a white gown and clearly wearing a radio microphone. With a trademark smile and a seductive wink he began:

‘I believe that children are our future.
Teach them well and let them lead the way……’

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

'Warm Retards'

You really shouldn't be blasé with spellcheckers on email. Sure, they’ll pick up on misspelt words when the misspelling spells an incomprehensible word, but they don’t notice legitimate words creeping in where they really shouldn’t. Sadie got an email from a colleague who signed off with ‘warm retards’. I suggested that it might be a call to action – in which case how could we refuse? Warmth is the least they can expect.

Morag is seemingly unaware of the existence of spellchecking for emails. She writes her emails at speed and the end result could often pass as the work of Stanley Unwin. I could offer to help and make her look less hasty and less foolish, but I never seem to find the time.

Teachers are usually more careful - and quite formal - with their email correspondence. They only let themselves down with their undying attachment to the Comic Sans font. Recently I received an email from a primary school head teacher in Sunderland. Negotiations between her, a filmmaker and our nominated Creative Challenger had been lengthy and a project plan had been hammered out to everyone’s satisfaction over a period of several weeks. She was finding it hard to contain her excitement and made my day by writing that she was ‘moist excited’ at the prospect of working with me.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Win win

Sadie, our volunteer, was in the office again today. She originally started working for us on the understanding that we would pay her. We forgot to do so a couple of times and now the issue is never raised. She is very polite and continues to bring tea and biscuits. We chat, it’s pleasant.

Today we discussed a variety of ideas for an internet business start-up. I suggested that artists are usually on the lookout for a bit of extra cash and that an escort agency staffed by artists could have legs. Sadie thought that this might demean, even depress, the artists.

I agreed, but pointed out that feeling demeaned and depressed can be the foundation of great art. Since great art eludes most of the artists we work with at the moment, ‘win, win’ springs to mind.

Also, most of the people we work with as ‘cultural practitioners’ are unable, by definition, to make enough money from their ‘art’ alone. If their ‘art’ was good enough for them to make a living from it they would do so. Many of them trumpet the fact that they want to ‘give something back’ and ‘engage’ young people, but they do get well paid for doing so. They might as well get paid for ‘giving something back’ and ‘engaging’ people who aren’t easily finding sex.

Sadie made some superb suggestions – way beyond her remit as a volunteer. The artists, she ventured, could be encouraged to advertise a combined ‘offer’ to potential punters: e.g. feltmaking with a ‘happy finish’ or willow sculpture followed by a bit of spanking with any leftover withies.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Back in my Box

‘In you go then,’ said Norman, ‘I haven’t got all day.’

‘Are you sure, Norman?’

‘Well, you’re on the inventory, so you’ll have to go in one of the boxes. This one’s big enough and there’s plenty of bubble wrap in it. I’ve drilled a couple of air holes – you’ll be fine’

Sometimes I write things down that really I shouldn’t.

When I entered myself on the inventory for our office move, it was more out of bored mischief than anything else:

Month purchased: 11.02
Item description: Communications Manager

Norman is a stickler for procedure. I respect that. I was cc’d into his 3 page email to the university porters detailing access and egress points and I was reassured that nothing at all was being left to chance. Perhaps it was in an attempt to emulate Norman’s efficiency that I completed the inventory. Perhaps it was an unconscious sense of horror at this need to emulate Norman that compelled me to add myself to said inventory. Perhaps it was Norman’s recognition of this motivation that compelled him to insist that I got in the box.

There’s nothing like being in a tea crate for several hours to encourage reflection. My year at The National Clay Pipe Centre began badly – I was palpably less welcome than the dowry I brought with me of office furniture and modern stationery. I recall how the Pipe Centre staff marvelled and gasped as Norman demonstrated the many benefits of the newly arrived post-it notes.

In time, though, the Pipe people warmed to me. I began to be included when tea was brewed – sometimes they even washed my cup. After only a few weeks, my name was added to the signing in sheet. I was even offered staff discount in the Pipe Centre shop (pipes make marvellous Christmas stocking fillers).

A few of my new colleagues even offered kind words when Jocasta was born in January. A poor substitute for a gift and/or a card, but small steps in the right direction. It’s almost a shame that I won’t be sharing their cramped, malodorous, windowless office space any longer.