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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Jerry Across the Mersey

As readers of these texts will know, from time to time a shenanagins occurs which requires the attention of Hull’s leading scenic carpenter. “Hmmm!” a project manager might muse, “here is a right kettle of fish”. They might continue in a similar vein “Right here, I have an enigma inside a mystery inside a preponderance of carpentry related issues. This....” they probably add “....this, considered from a joinery perspective, is a Gordian knot, a plethora of interrelated hiccups, an effusion of plywood modalities, a veritable cornucopia of non-conventional angles and impossible doors, all mixed with an internecine array of woodworking-related fixes. And quite a lot of vacuuming to be done.” In these circumstances, the hue and cry begins. “Call for Mazzer!” is heard the length and breadth of Yorkshire’s East Riding, and the radio waves fairly buzz with texts until Mazzer ‘Funtime’ O’Reilly AKA ‘self’, AKA ‘me’, AKA ‘Nickson of Large Mansions’, responds. On this occasion, the alacrity with which the call was answered belied the physical status of the receiver AKA ’me’, as said response was made in the wake of a bottle of fine spiced Jamaican rum, a lake of Imperial Pale Ale and, unfortunately, several bottles of red wine.

The mission profile is simple. Attend a local, and hugely impressive, stately home and join a crack team of exhibit installers. I pop round to see the person responsible for my fragile physical condition Jerry ‘Jesse’ James, AKA ‘Hit it where it come’ to assess his availablility in respect of forming along with self, the carpenterial hub of the team. Jerry thinks for a minute:

“Well, there’s Mrs Kalowinski at Number 43, and her kitchen. And the twenty-twenty is on. Tell about the work.”

Note for Canadians: ‘twenty-twenty’ is a type of cricket, and Jerry, as a Jamaican, is, without putting too fine a point on it, keen on cricket. One might say obsessed or fanatical, but I do not want to be accused of underexagerration.

I tell Jerry what the work will be, describing a fun-filled week of larking around in a stately home, leisurely polishing our chisels, the careful carving of small pieces of wood with spokeshaves, the occasional adjustments of our artisan cravats. In some forms of business, this is known as ‘selling’, although less typewriter ink is used by the alternative, and more accurate description, which is ‘lying’. Jerry thinks it sounds like fun and agrees to the work. I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

The next day, as we are driving towards Leeds, I begin to elucidate further. Now that he’s commited, it’s time to come clean. “Erm, you know that stuff about sharpening the chisels all day?....” I say. Jerry nods, “....well there is a little bit more to it than that. And that stuff about six or seven hour days?....” Jerry nods again, “....not strictly true. Could be a bit longer than that. More like, erm, sixteen or seventeen.” Jerry nods, apparently unperturbed, so I plunge onward “ fact the reality is that absolutely anything could happen, and probably will.... sorry, I sort of forgot to mention that bit.....”.

Jerry just smiles. “I know. Its OK. Me and you, we’ll make it work. No problem.” I am relieved Jerry is so cool, so I go into a bit more detail, finishing with “....and when Tom, the Project Manager, says he’ll be onsite in half an hour, it usually means two....not that you should mind, because Tom’s a great guy”. Jerry looks happy. From what I’ve described, exhibitions run on a sort of Jamaican schedule where the phrase “soon come” means exactly what it does in Jamaica. This also means that towards the deadline, as you get more and more tired, the to-do list piles up. This can be another source of frustration, but working for Tom makes it easier because based on past experience, Tom works harder than anyone. This job is no exception.

We settle into a pattern, returning to Hull at about eight thirty or nine pm, and meeting again the next morning at six thirty. Jerry’s car pulls up outside at Large Mansions each morning, and we ask what the other has been up to since we last met less than twelve hours ago, as if expecting the answer to comprise a list of tasks that includes building a green house, launching a space mission and decorating a couple of rooms. Naturally, as co-owner of two Canadian Barn Cats, I get nowhere near “doing” anything in the evening – instead, its feed the cats, feed myself, tickle the cats, quick shower, take the cats for a walk and finally an episode of my favourite type of TV – garbage. Red Haired Boffin is Barcelona, so I am able to fully indulge my taste for this utter televisual crap – Masterchef, Celebrity Wifeswap and Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA. Its perfect, and what tv is made for, apart from football. Surprisingly though, Jerry does stuff each evening, including cooking a few meals and talking to his family. I am amazed at the man’s energy, and grateful as I am for the partner I have, am very happy not to have anyone to mumble tiredly at each evening.

On-site, as predicted, we plough through the task list which expands exponentially as the deadline approaches, but on project like this, whether it be theatres shows, exhibits, movies or museum builds, there’s an energy to the work, a camaraderie that builds in a very short time unlike most other work experiences I have ever experienced. The final result is what matters, and, on good projects like this, a vibe emerges – positive, can-do, make it happen. “In” jokes develop and by the end, everyone is talking the same language – in this case, thanks to Jerry having the world’s coolest accent, its mostly Jamacian. This may all sounds corny but its true, and when I retire from it, hopefully in two or three years time, I will miss it tremendously. Ultimately, on jobs like this, its not the money (although it is better than Mrs Jalowonki’s kitchen at No 43) that counts, its getting the thing done, and done well.

And the people you work are what is important. Despite slightly glossing over the truth at the start, (AKA completely lying because I want to work with the man) about just how much work is involved, Jerry, has taken to it like a fish to water. His patience, skills, attitude and energy are perfect. We slot together instantly, forming a team. What I cant do, Jerry can. I count meeting him as another in the series of continuing happy accidents that I recognise as life – something that other people call the “daily grind”. In a bout of nostalgia that is completely atypical for a Scouser, Jerry has joined Buncey, Little Bunny Foo Foo, Benno and Fordy in the pantheon of Gods that comprise my ideal gang.

The eight day stint ends perfectly. We get the thing done. Red Haired Boffin returns from Barcelona having had a great time, and brings me what will rapidly become my favourite top – a black Barcelona FC training top. The Canadian Barn Cats greet the return of their Goddess with rapture and Large Mansions returns to its normal state, with all four of us occupying the same three square feet of space as we settle down for some intelligent television about incurable medical conditions. The first day after the project co-incides with my next teaching session and this week the class has decided it just wants to talk, , so we discuss the Moscow bombings, the weather in Syria and Lithuania and the English propensity to say “thank-you” and awful lot. Apart from living in Canada, it’s hard to imagine things getting much better.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Summer at last

At Large Mansions, its all change. The Easter Break is here, so for four short weeks, Self is footloose and fancy free. Meanwhile the Red Haired Boffin, after weeks of marking exams (where the major concern seems to be not the student's discussion of psychology but rather a discussion of the students psychology which in tuern has at times threatened her own psychology), is off to Barcelona for a week's r&r. And the snow has finally gone ..........
Winter has been, by local standards, incredibly cold. Passable, indeed meaningful snow, was on the ground for a full six weeks, and near zero temperatures for much longer than that. As winter dragged on, a pattern emerged at Large Mansions: the cats gradually increased their daily sleep ration to well over 28 hours a day, the human population of the manse would return from work, eat a hearty repast, then dive under the nearest duvet. Often there was a resentful cat under the said coverings, so we distributed blankets, sleeping bags and other quilted materials throughout the house so that by the end of the winter, a handy insulator was never more than five feet away. This way, we could progress throughout the house by diving from duvet to duvet, blanket to sleeping bag, and throw to bedspread, guerrila style, and eventually could easily get from the television control by the couch to the upstairs bedroom without ever exposing more than 16% of carapace to the environment.

All things pass though, and winter is no exception, although it didnt go willingly. It retreated quite gracelessly, with a spate of late, late frosts, then several torrential days of cold, cold rain, and the sun, when it did show, was pallid and unenthusiastic. The change, when it did come, was sudden. Spring, totally fed up after waiting politely for too long just brushed winter aside. The effect this week has been spectacular - brilliantly ragged sunshine, warm on everyone's face, has wreaked havoc on our hibernation. The street has been suddenly full of kids, skateboarding, bicycling, running round shouting. Plants have sprouted and in our pond, Diego the Frog has been hopping round after a long sleep under the ice. The cats, too, have woken up.

One cat in particular has distinguised herself. Over winter, visitors would be eyed suspiciously, assessed for potential warmth enhancing attributes, then sniffily rejected, almost unanimously. With spring, visitors have become more interesting. It was under the springtime paradigm that Calli announced her emergence from hibernation with her welcome of a visitor.

Mark, our financial advisor, is a very nice man, and had driven the sixty miles from Leeds, at no charge, to help us with our finances. He arranged himself at our kitchen table, sipped a cut of tea, and sighed heavily.

"I think I can do something with your finances. By the way, you dont play the lottery do you?"

"No" I said, "why?"

Mark's reply was inaudible as he typed on his laptop, but sounded something like "straws at clutching but might be your best option". This was accompanied by the surprise appearance of a cat on the table.

"Hello beautiful" said Mark

"Purr" said Calli

"Are'nt you cute?" said Mark

"Meep" said Calli. She sat on his paperwork.

"Oh, she's adorable!" said Mark just as I reached for her to throw her off the table, "leave her there, she's fine. What a lovely little face."

Calli preened, licked her paw and yawned. She arched her back and stuck her bum into Mark's face. This is never the most appealing aspect from which to view a cat. Over the years, repeated close up views of Calli and Tosh's backside has quite dissuaded me from any further consumption of pomegranates. Mark, though, obviously a cat person, scratched her tail.

"I love it when they do that" he chuckled.

Calli looked delighted, so she turned round again to face him.

"I think she likes you" said RHB.

"Oh, I like cats" said MArk.

Calli, obvioulsy delighted said "HYUK". Then she said "HYUK. HYUK. HYUK" and threw up a load of semi-digested chicken and, crucially as proof that spring is truly here, a smattering of fresh, newly grown grass all over Mark's paperwork.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Watch your demographic, Charlie!

What's shocking is not the obvious things - not that a gentleman of three score years and ten has a veritable hareem of female associates. And not that we freely associate, as friends and attitudinal contemporaries, with someone who we woud have previously described as "old". And not that the party starts at three pm, a temporal windowthat in a previous life, was devoted more to arising than sashaying, glad rags accoutured, to any type of celebration. No, what is shocking is the child/adult ratio.

The ratio is about 1:4. And even taking into account absent teenagers would not really change this, as both teenagers that we know exist are missing, possibly skulking in a room somewhere listening to Lady Gaga. While the excruciable taste of teenagers might not change, demographics certainly do. Or are. Or have.

I should explain. We have, this weekend, attended a party for the seventieth birthday of a friend. That the event was located at Tatten Estates, recent venue for New Years celebrations, is retrospectively, no co-incidence, as the celebrated one - Keith, happens to be father to Georgeous Georgia, partner of my inestimable partner in crime JJ. But when RHB and I first met Keith we knew this not, rather, we got to meet Keith independently by virtue of RHB's attempts to befriend every small mammal in the neighbourhood. Keith, lives very nearby, only a few houses away, and is co-habitee with a number of friendly cats. Naturally the cats (curious as only cats can be) were welcomed to visit by RHB during our initial renovations (before we actually moved in) and I became involved as my obvious role was to rescue Dizzy, Tiddles and The Other One from under the floorboards after she had encouraged them in to Large Mansions "for a little visit". Thus we met Keith, as owner of the cats that I had to return, a littloe bit dusty with a few smears of paint, but otherwise unharmed. Later, after meeting JJ at Uni, the connections were revealed during a memorable conversation during which JJ admirably refrained from using the words "Oh, you're the lunatic cat people".

The party was fun. Our neighbourhood, known as the Avenues, is very community minded. Gossip about local councillors flowed. JJ made a brilliant spoof newspaper, "ragging" Keith mercilessly. Cats got under people's feet. Hence, we knew loads of people in attendance. And we know their families. But its only when people are put together as a group that the demographic changes of recent years really becomes apparent. There are, considering the number of adults present, an incredibly small number of children present, at the ratio described above. In fact, while, at its peak adults (forty plus) filled the house, the children present fitted neatly on one sofa.

I do recall, from years gone by, family parties of a similar ilk (except that the target age in my family was 6o, which was considered a rare achievement) where the age range would be full spectrum, from six months to sixty years. Not only would there be a fuller range of ages, but the preponderance of people would be below twenty. It may just be people of my acquaintance, but I dont think so. This isnt just a sign of people having less kids, its also a sign of dispersal. Within perhaps fifty years, families have spread out geographically, sometimes across the globe. RHB and I are part of these phenomena in a couple of ways - firstly, we dont have kids, but secondly, we are part of a non-specific diaspora that is unique to the 20th Century, but, I would guess common to most people that read these missives. Are any of you actually from where you live? I think interesting times are ahead for future anthropologists. They will struggle to capture these cultures, except in describing their non-homogenity. The times, and the ages, as that over-rated hippy said, they are a-changing.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

I blame the humanists ....and the post modernists

From a job advertisement:


Acts as central point of communication on multiple projects under the direction of an Account Director. Formats proposals, conference reports, project requests, and other documentation as needed. Files and organizes project documentation. Coordinates team planning meetings. Attends internal team meetings, project briefings, creative reviews, production meetings, etc. Assembles materials for presentations and meetings and coordinates courier services. Initiates preparation for project meetings/conference calls: agendas, rooms, meals, etc. Maintains client relationship as appropriate. Works with design directors, production directors, consultants and team to schedule and facilitate the flow of information in all project phases, ensuring that milestones such as client approvals and internal proofing requirements are met and recorded. Keeps Account Director informed of project status needs. Establishes budget/billing standards and opens job numbers. Conducts weekly financial project reviews, informs project team and senior managers of budget status. Is responsible for managing budgets based on proposals, preparation of add-on business project requests, and monitoring completion of deliverables per proposals and contracts. Initiates client billings and collections. Communicates with client as appropriate on financial project matters. Works with WO Financial Director to address specific client contract issues."

It should be confessed that even with an experience that includes being the UK's joint second best academic, Hull's leading scenic carpenter , the artistic driving force behind seminal prog-folk-Latino-punk duo Cheek to Cheek, friend to Canadians, rising (albeit novitiate) star of volunteer second language acquisition teaching and a veteran cat-wrangler to boot - despite all of this (and the years of too much time on my hands it implies) I have no idea what a person employed to do the above job would actually do that could be described more efficiently than by just saying

Job Description:

"Talking. Sometimes to more than one person at once. Some filing"

The advertisement comes from a company specializing in "branding" - not the anti-cattle rustling techniques of the Wild West, but the impenetrable alternative to actually making anything that has become a growth industru worldwide. Their website features, very trendily, a "blog" section where employees are encouraged to free-associate and write with-it, hip, urban hymns - 'thought pieces'. Here's an extract from one such piece entitled "5 marketing ideas for 2010:

4. Think 365 -- not 360: Shift from singular, consistent messages to multiple coherent ideas, from simplistic, one dimensional, reduced executions to complex, multidimensional, rich executions. Stop striving for perfection and go for progress by iteration. Join the movement shifting from campaign thinking to conversation thinking. At the same time, a brand must build long-term platforms to become an indispensable part of people's daily lives by providing continued entertainment and utility. Brands can't afford to go dark any more. Instead, stimulate brand conversations with more initiatives, more often. Just like people, brands are a sum of their experience.

Draw a crowd not a herd

There is no greater sign of a result on line than critical mass audience. But let the crowd rule itself, and herd-like, mindless behaviour can take over. Some people say the app market has already gotten too free-form and that beautiful ones are being tarnished by ‘crappy apps’. There’s now the phrase ‘loser generated content’.

It is perhaps important to note that this company doesnt even sell washing powder, it devises the "brand identity" of the people that own the advertising companies that contract to the people who actaully do sell that simple mixture of phosphates and perfumes that ensure we dont go to work smelling like arse.

But when encountering this sort of impenetrable language, there is always the feeling, triggered somewhere in the back of the old amygdala, that one is provinical, missing something. That somehow I am not sophisticated enough to understand the deep layers of meaning and import implied. The impression is conyeved of incredibly busy people who drink coffee meaningfully, read the "style" sections of newspapers AND actually buy some of the products displayed within the pages, and who actually know what flavour saffron is supposed to impart. These people dont cook , they do "cuisine". They dont go to work , they 'commute'. They dont go on holiday or vacation, they 'travel'.

Personally, I blame the humanists first. And the post modernists second.

My particular hatred for humanists, at this time, stems from having to write, for the third time of asking, an essay about their approach to education. An essay, I should hasten to add, where the use of the words "arse", "emporer's got no clothes on", "self-indulgent" or "poppycock" would quite probably get me downgraded. Having ground my own teeth down to bare nerve endings in the first essay, disembowelled myself with rusty tools to survive the second essay, I am now faced with the choice of either picking my own eyes out with chilli-pepper infused cocktails sticks or ramming red hot pokers up my otherwise untouched nether regions merely to survive the third essay. Consequently, I have an unhealthy hatred of Abraham Maslov and Carl Rogers. My emotions towards these pseudo-philosophical charlatans is that it would satisfy my self-actualizing tendencies considerably to immolate both of them on a Inquistors pyre.

The real problem I have is that the liberalistic Western mumbo jumbo they espouse does not get us nearer to understanding humans, it gets us farther away. The same applies for theorists post-modern. They are the intellectual embodiment of why complex civilizations collapse - inventing solutions for self-created problems. Fortunately for me, the essay I have to focus on after politely describing humanist psychology is the altogether more relevant study of whether the Neolithic Revolution was related to the birth of property rights. Now there's a real subject to get your teeth into.

How does this relate to job adverts, you might ask? Well, without a ridiculously inflated impression of the importnce of buying shit that pervades all of our cultures, branding and marketing would not exist. The actual hierarchy of human needs is food, warmth, shelter. Not the i-phone. Not some transferrable chic implied by association with an idiot rapper, street artist or free-climber.