Friday, 26 August 2005

The Scent of Summer

As I wandered happily through the Meadows, I found myself temporarily filled with Joi d’ Vive. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees and the air was filled with the scent of summer. True, on the odd patch of pavement, this consisted mainly of the smell of petrified dog turd, but in the main, my nostrils were filled with the odour of cut grass, sizzling barbeques and ice cream. As always in the city of Rottingham on Trent, this mood is often the prelude to the appearance of something abysmal.

As I wandered along I recalled in my head the eloquent verses of William Blake’s ode to summer

‘O thou, who passest thro’ our vallies in
Thy strength, curb thy fierce steeds, allay the heat
That flames from their large nostrils! thou, O Summer,
Oft pitched’st here thy golden tent, and oft
Beneath our oaks hast slept, while we beheld
With joy, thy ruddy limbs and flourishing hair…….FUCKING PERVERT!!!!!!!!’

My train of thought had once again been cast asunder by a barrage of expletives. Usually these come from hooded teenagers outside the Bridgeway centre, but I sensed these came from something altogether more terrible. I turned in the direction from which the shouting had come and beheld the ugliest creature I had ever seen. Its head was completely bald except for a few straggly threads of hair and it was wearing what appeared to be a tea cosy. It’s ears were red in texture and pitched forward so that its face was oddly reminiscent of a dormouse. It wore a stained T shirt and ripped jeans, its head was held rigid in what appeared to be a neck brace. In it’s right hand it clutched a bottle of carbon white, the low budget alchie’s tipple of choice.


The woman -at least I thought it was a woman, the thing appeared to be genderless- staggered ever closer, as she approached I detected that delightful cocktail of aromas that occur when you relive yourself in your underwear but can’t be bothered changing. I found it hard to determine whether she was addressing me, it seemed not to matter. Hurriedly I sped up my stride and wandered home as quick as I could. Later Katie saw the creature flashing her breasts at the bus stop, putting beyond doubt the question of her sex, and later investigations revealed her name to be Rita. Apparently she is a local resident of some note.

In the Office kitchenette, the laws of the frontier apply. Pathetic attempts to establish the rule of law through reproachful messages, such as ‘Please stop stealing our milk’, are completely ignored. Some of the more deluded members of staff attempt to protect their milk using the flawed policy of writing their name on the carton. In my view, this displays a tactical naivety not seen since the Mexican general Santa Anna decided it would be a great idea to make his entire army take a siesta in the middle of a war zone. The reality is that in the shared kitchen, any system of ownership is frowned upon and I have enthusiastically adopted the methods of plunder demonstrated by my colleagues.

And yet, the kitchenette has a certain set of regulations. When sharing this space with another person the unspoken rule appears to be that you must stare blankly in front of you and make no attempt to communicate whatsoever, all the while shuffling uncomfortably like a priest who has inadvertently wandered into a sex shop and found himself face to face with the Archbishop. I have noticed that this is also the correct procedure to follow when you are standing in the lift.

The main rule of the workplace is that you must be as incompetent as possible throughout your employment. A brief glance at the upper echelons of management in any office clearly demonstrates that being bad at your job is no barrier to promotion. Since it is against the law to write a bad reference, you need not also fear that your mistakes will linger like a black mark against your name. If you show even the tiniest shred of ability then you will inevitably fall foul of the process of ‘delegation’, whereby people higher in the office food chain than you, will heap all of their work on your desk and expect you to merrily plough through it. I find myself wishing I had worked out the peculiarities of this system before falling foul of it. I have decided that in the future I shall emulate the emperor Claudius by pretending to be a hopeless halfwit; who knows, In the topsy turby world of the council this might even earn me a promotion and an upgrade to a scale 2 salary.

The phone next to me rang ominously and, upon lifting the receiver, I found myself on the receiving end of a bollocking from a certain Mr Gentle – not the most appropriate of surnames, Mr Arsehole would have been far more suitable. The main focus of his complaint was that I had spelt his name as ‘Mr Grentle’ during one of my epic mail-merges. ‘It doesn’t say much about your organisation if you can’t even get my bloody name right’, he ranted down the line at me. Although I still have a certain amount of fear of answering the phone I have learned to deal with these situation by simply imagining that the person on the other end of the line is a truculent genie who has become inadvertently trapped in the receiver. ‘Oh Dear’ I replied, trying my hardest not to show even a shred of remorse. The letter I had sent him had asked him to write a reference for one of our clients and it was this, I detected, which was the real reason behind his anger. ‘Well what do you expect me to do, I’m far too busy to write a reference!’ he droned on incessantly. I felt this last statement was hugely ironic in view of the fact he had enough time on his hands to phone me up and complain about my badly spelt mail merge letter. After some negotiations he clamed down and the conversation ended with some attempt at a meeting of minds, namely that we both detested each other. The next series of phone calls I took came from outraged companies who were complaining that we had not only misspelled their name on their ‘Celebration Event’ invitation, but changed it beyond all recognition, and, as they rightly pointed out, we not did have the right to arbitrarily rename their company. Since these are the same companies we are trying to impress so that they take on our clients, this is somewhat unfortunate. Its amazing how much outrage a incompetent mail merge can create.

Sunday, 21 August 2005

Invoices for Biros, and other exciting stuff

As I unenthusiastically turned the pages of budget number 14560039, I found myself wondering whether I was meant for greater things than inspecting invoices for biros. This is the nature of modern life. Unsatisfied with our dull and uninteresting existence, we construct more exciting destinies for ourselves. 16th century French peasants had few ambitions beyond owning a small plot of dirt and a rusty pitchfork; we in these enlightened times refuse to accept the fact we are condemned to mediocrity and accordingly, plunge ourselves into vast amounts of debt in order to achieve that impossible dream.

A Biro

‘50 biros –large, engraved with project logo’ read the almost comically unexciting piece of paper, and yet in the bureaucratic nightmare that is working for the council such documents are often clamoured for by over zealous auditors, eager to expose the slightest modicum of corruption.

Of course, all they have to do is look at the story behind the invoices to expose the wastage that goes on in this department. For example, most of these logoed biros are now completely useless as publicity material because some bright spark decided to change the name of the entire project to ‘Ideal Opportunities’ after the branded stationary had been ordered. The council is surprisingly frugal in some areas, refusing to buy us plastic cups for the water cooler, but squandering vast sums of money on a glossy council magazine that most people simply chuck in the bin as soon as it arrives through their letterbox. Rightly so, because these magazines are carefully honed instruments of propaganda and about as truthful as an ‘end of year update’ letter from the Goebbels family.

Then there is the ironically titled ‘celebration event’ at the end of this week where we are wasting a grand of tax payers money on a party for those students who have successfully completed our courses. Our project has a noble aim, to give people the skills they need to get back into the job market, and yet simply offering to pay all the course fees, childcare and travel expenses isn’t enough to get people to enrol and better their lot. In addition, we have to offer £100 vouchers to our student when they successfully complete 80% of the course; these are to be handed over at the ‘Celebrating Achievement’ event. The result is that many people simply turn up for most of the course and then drop out when they are entitled to their voucher. This, of course, is hardly the Socialist dream; in fact my political views are rapidly becoming more Victorian as the weeks go on. I used to believe in a generous welfare system, now I find myself subscribing to Malthusian notions of letting the excess population of the United Kingdom simply starve itself out of existence.

My colleagues in the office have a demeanour that, I imagine, is strongly reminiscent of the inhabitants of old Muscovy, when informed that a large horde of bloodthirsty Mongols were approaching from the eastern horizon. Apparently the - rather too idealistic- ‘ideal opportunities’ program is being shut down come March because it is a complete waste of money. Hence my comrades are displaying very little of the protestant work ethic and mostly seem to sit around playing solitaire and browsing the Internet looking for other jobs. Our management have reacted to this crisis by bravely going on holiday; with such inspiring leadership its hard not to reach new heights of cynicism.

In reaction to this climate of poor motivation, I have set about making myself useful by designing motivational posters that will inspire me and my admin team-mate Amanda into Herculean feats of office administration. The first poster I made bore the inspiring logo ‘TEAM ADMIN’, resplendent in front of a flaming background. After struggling to think of a suitable motto, I decided to write ‘No problem too big, no task too futile’. Then, deciding the poster was looking a little drab, I included a picture of Lord Kitchener, who declares through a speech bubble that we are ‘mail merging for a better tomorrow’. This was received fairly well in the office, and, emboldened, I decided to work on something a little more controversial. An email had earlier been circulated that displayed a photograph of the fattest cat I had ever seen. This, I thought, was the ideal mascot for the City Council. After a swift, and rather amateurish, foray in photo-shop, I scattered bundles of money at the cats feet and gave him some bling to wear. Having added the Rottingham-on-Trent city council logo, my inspirational poster was complete. ‘Wasting public money for a better future’ I added at the bottom. Having shown this to my colleagues they expressed their approval, but told me in no uncertain terms that it would be prudent to banish this creation to the darkest reaches of my desk drawer. The Admin logo has been a success however, and I have taken to adding it to the phone messages I have to write down for people; now the header reads ‘Team Admin – Because we can’t afford an answering machine’.

There are many things that I have an opinion on, but a cucumber isn’t one of them. If you asked me to discuss the tactical flaws in ‘Operation Barbarossa’, then perhaps I would be able to hold my own in a discussion, however, vegetables inspire no strong emotions in me whatsoever. I find that this makes shopping with Katie a tad problematic because I am often asked to venture an opinion on supermarket produce; my failure to do so is usually met by a tidal wave of resentment. One thing I do have a very strong opinion is this new fad whereby some person –usually a big brother contestant declares something along the following lines

‘I don’t bitch behind people’s backs, If I don’t like someone then I tell it to their face’

This is often said with a certain degree of pride, as though it is somehow an admirable quality. Well, if you subscribe to this dogma then let me enlighten you, telling people straight out that you don’t like them is just being extremely rude. It’s as simple as that. In contrast, bitching behind peoples back is both a noble and a necessary part of belonging to the human race because it allows us to harmlessly expunge the negative views that pop into our heads on a regular basis. If this process did not occur then we would live our lives as seething cauldrons of hatred, ready to explode at the slightest pretext. As an illustration, if you applied this moronic ‘telling it like it is’ principle into the world of diplomacy then we would be bathed in nuclear Armageddon within seconds, and deservedly so.

Wednesday, 3 August 2005

Feedback frolics

I winced as the shrill sound of the office phone disturbed my peaceful daydreaming. As I lifted the receiver I cursed the long decayed corpse of Alexander Graham Bell. My most famous ancestor, Robert Whitehead, was largely responsible for inventing the torpedo, a weapon the Germans later copied, dubbed the blackhead, and used to sink millions of tons of British shipping. His creation was unfairly given the moniker ‘the devils device’ yet I feel this adjective has more resonance when it is applied to the telephone, that most loathsome of instruments that connects me with the outside world.

‘Good morning, Ideal Oppotunities…How may I help you’ I recited robotically into the headset. I had uttered the words with about as much passion and enthusiasm as man who has been sentenced to life imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag. ‘Hi there, I was just enquiring about the retail academy’ came the voice on the other end. I hurriedly pressed the recall button and redirected the call through to one of my superiors, the whiney voice on the other end stuttered briefly and then stopped abruptly as the call was patched through. I sat back with a sigh of contentment: my phone had been temporarily exorcised of annoying members of the public asking questions I haven’t the foggiest how to answer. With the click of a mouse I went back to reading the BBC news website and counting down the seconds until 5.00, so it goes in the modern workplace.

In the beginning there was the working class, strong, noble and defiant, the very engine of the British Empire, toiling and sweating to produce goods that would be sold around in every city of the world. Then the manufacturing sector collapsed, jobs moved elsewhere and the long established professions of the lower classes became worthless amidst the new service economy. And so, the powers that be looked down and said ‘look at all these new office jobs being created, and look at all these unemployed people, if only those people had the skills for those jobs, then all would be well in this country!’. A great idea had been conceived, the problem being that most wonderful ideas - communism, universal health care and freeing Iraq from tyranny- are somewhat flawed when it comes to the actual execution.

Working in an office requires some basic fundamental ‘skills’ such as the ability to work in a team without causing vast amounts of friction, a basic understanding of Microsoft Office, and to be able to communicate ones views without offending everyone in the building. Quite a few of the people that get selected for our courses shouldn’t even be remotely contemplating working in an office because they can’t do any of these things, and yet that is what the job market dictates. Hence I now find myself drafting patronising ‘feedback reports’ for these poor buggers to tell them exactly why they failed the assessment: it’s a somewhat tragic task but, with my cynical outlook, its also one I thoroughly enjoy.

I find writing these things very similar to those awful school reports I was subjected to throughout my pre-university education. My father insisted on reading these out to me on the sofa, purposefully adopting a woeful tone of voice, that made every achievement sound like a disaster and every bad comment sound like he was announcing the death of a close family member. ‘Humphrey….has been improving in maths’ he would read, dragging out the ‘has’ in order to extract every ounce of cynicism from the sentence possible. ‘BUT THERE IS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT IN HIS GRASP OF ALGEBRA’ he would continue, dramatically, as if this phrase alone were enough to put an everlasting stain on my character. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and I find myself writing these ‘feedback reports’ for grown adults: whoever said it was childhood that held the most pleasures.

On the assessment day one woman in the ‘teamwork exercise’ had been thoroughly rude, shouting her ideas out over the rest of the group and staring with a look of outrage and disgust at any other team member who dared say anything. You would have thought the word ‘teamwork’ would have given her some clue as to what was required. We had had a meeting after the assessment to determine which of our candidates would be selected for recruitment; the notes I had taken for this particular client read ‘domineering, rude, arrogant and overbearing’. I struggled to think of subtler wording to convey this to her. Having pondered the matter at length, I decided upon ‘In her enthusiasm to communicate her views, the candidate dominated the discussion at the expense of other team-members’. Then I added –laughing my head off as I did so- ‘Effective collaboration within a team requires listening to the points of view of other members of the group and encouraging them to contribute’. I was beginning to spout Human Resources like a born bull-shitter.

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The next failed candidate I turned to proved more problematic. My notes read ‘clearly mad, started talking about “crystallisation”, rude in the team exercise’. I struggled for something nice to say and decided upon ‘Throughout the assessment, the candidate was pleasant and approachable’, this, I find, is an incredibly useful generic term; heck, even Idi Amin was pleasant and approachable if you were on the right side of him. I then advised the blighter to ‘develop his communication skills’; not going on insane, psychedelic rants during the interview stage might be good place to start. Hopefully work will throw up yet more opportunities to be a patronising bastard.

Disclaimer: All characters and events in this story are fictitious, and any similarity to a real person or city council, living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintended by the author.