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Sunday, 26 June 2011

Thought leaders revisited revisiting sustainability

"Jerry" I say as we drive back from Harrogate, "You realize that we have two managers each for this project. We should make the mots of this and ensure we get the most information that we can"

Jerry doesnt answer, which I consider slightly rude, until I risk a glance sideways - he's fast asleep, probably because its nearing midnight and we've been up since 5 am trying to fix the latest mess we've gotten involved in. Its the third time, on an annual basis, that I have been to Harrogate with nearly (and that word is absolutely crucial) the same show, in the same place at the same time, for the same company. Over the years, the company has shrunk - understandable given current economic circumstances nationally - but claims to have maintained its service capability and improved its practices, while developing a commitment to sustainable practices. The morning meeting I tell (the still sleeping) Jerry I will arrange with the Project Manager, Designer, Client Account Manager and Project Finance Manager in order to sort out the mess they have left us will give us a good idea of how efficient they have become. I had a preliminary meeting with the company in Leeds to discuss this years event prior to accepting the job, and was assured that this year, my only task would be, as it should be, installing a fully prepared, properly cleaned and maintained, pristine, conference stand. I really should have known better.

WHat actually happens is that the company apparently abandon the stand completely. I arrive at their warehouse to find a moldy, dusty old stand, mice nests in its darkest corners, numerous dings and bangs from collisions with forklift trucks in the warehouse. It look terrible, even blessed by the darkness of a dingy Leeds warehouse. And this set is incredibly heavy. All there is to move the set in the warehouse is one very small trolly with three working wheels. From there, things have gotten worse and by the end of the first day onsite, I have no idea how this show is going to happen. Therefore, as I tell Jerry, I call a meeting of the four managers responsible for arranging this project.

We meet on-site as agreed. The first order of business is to establish exactly what needs doing to this conference stand. Essentially, the stand (or show as I interchangeably call it) consists of a raised floor on top of which a four metre high, twelve metre long double sided, internally lit wall sits. Attached to this is a working bar. There is also two seperate elements that demarcate the corner of the stand. While that describes the basics, every year there are subtle changes. It takes three full days to install the set, because behind this simple description, there is lighting, plumbing, electrical installations to arrange and some av work to hook up. Today is day two.

I note this to the designer "I think before we do anything, we [when I use the word 'we' I mean me and Jerry] need to know what changes are there to the set?"

The designer thinks for a minute "Well not that much actually. We [when these people use the word 'we' they also mean me and Jerry]only need to remove the graphics on the bar and figure a way of installing this sign (he holds up a sign, mounted on plastic about A3 size) without visible mountings and apply all the graphics to the overhead truss (this is a big lighting bar hung above the stand)and move the position of the wall mounted plasma tv's."

"And that's all?" I ask increduously.

"Well", says the Client Account Manager, who being a a 'people person' has probably spotted the look on my face "I know that's a lot, but I think we can do it if we work really hard. And there's a few other things to do - the client though the stand looked scruffy last year: we need to replace the chips in the laminate as well. The thing is, we need to know how much time we need. What do you think, Red Mazzer??"

I'm not sure whether Jerry has gone outside to catch a bus back to Hull, or just to try and find some drugs, so I have, temporarily, no partner to provide verification, but I give the best estimate I can:

"Installing the graphics will take about a day, fixing the laminate will take about a day, setting up the show and hooking up the Av will take about a day, and removing the graphics from the bar will take about two days. Effectively, we will probably be finished two days after the show ends. And there's no point sending me anyone to help, unless they are very skilled, because these are all skilled jobs. So do you have anyone?"

"Er, No."

The rest of the conversation goes along similar lines, like:

Can you do with out the changes?

Er. NO.

Have you given any thought what-so-ever to how this show might actually get installed ?

Er. NO.

SO why do you expect me to give a Flying F*** when you so obviously dont?

Er. We do care. I did a 36 hour stint in the office last week.

Well done, although that doesnt show commitment, just murderous intent on the part of your employer allowing that to happen, and total gullibility on your part in doing it. But that aside, what do you want me to do, given the situation you lot have have put us in ?

Er, We were hoping you would tell us.

The worst thing is, when the inevitable happens, and the client comes on site and has an absolute meltdown because their show is, of course, not ready, the Client Account Manager, rather than accepting responsibility for this eventuality on behalf of the company, blames an utterly blameless third party, accusing them of not doing their job properly. Needless to say, the client is so angry that she seeks out this third party to remonstrate with them, and inevitably, the truth emerges. The necessary services of the third party were not engaged by the Project Manager until so late that the third party was only able to provide part of what was requested. The overall effect of this is that half of the stand is unlit. It looks like a Goth has designed it. The stupidity of lying to the client becomes apparent as the third party explains their entirely blameless role in the proceedings and the finger points back to the company. Not deterred by looking like a complete idiot, the Client Account Manager then proceeds to attempt similar lies to explain away other deficiencies in the stand. One of those lies points the finger firmly in my direction, as it attributes the bangs and scrapes in the once pristine laminate surface to lack of care during transport of the show, an area which is part of my remit.

The whole week is a comedy of errors. In actual fact, the company get their show with only a minor delay to the presentation of some video material. And the various company managers breathe a huge sigh of relief. I personally doubt that they have any idea at all how dangerous (in terms of real health and safety) and dangerous (in terms of not getting their product to the client at all) the approach to this show has been. Mostly however, I wonder at the culture of their company that allows this to happen. It is a company that flouts its commitments to sustainability, and its one whose self titled 'thought leaders' emphasize the humanistic and human in their written and verbal statements, its the type of 'new' approach to business typical of media, advertising and the vents industry, all first names and 'banter'. THe need to do long hours is recognised, but its presented by the company as an occasional necessary evil. The occasional stresses when things go wrong are noted by the thought leaders as inevitable in this business (and indeed they are) but the reality is actually total chaos, on a permanent basis as standard operating procedure.

Whether this company continues to function or not, does not make a great deal of difference to me. But I do notice the en0rmous stress that all the workers are under. A common presumption goes like this "If the workers are under that much stress, just imagine how much more stress the managers and thought leaders are under?" The picture of the busy executive getting hit by a mid-forties heart attack because of the stress caused by their restless efforts to keep a company afloat and make sure every one still has jobs is a common one. It is also inaccurate, as the Whitehall Study quite clearly shows. The Whitehall study shows - after investigating 18,000 people over forty years, that it is the ones lower down the totem pole that suffer from stress. Thought leaders should think about this very carefully. They can claim sustainability, walk round the shop floor jovially calling everyone by affectionate nicknames, be trendy, cry when they have to sack people, and appear human. They might claim with some legitimacy that they are supporting local jobs. But what is actually happening in many cases is that they are killing their workers through stress. Its not sustainable, its not human and its not efficient, its just desperate.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Another Wanderer

A shortish entry this time - you may recall I fell over the cat and hit my head? : the xray to determine the permanent damage done is today - but A Grand Tour this summer by someone I know can not go unnoticed. The identity of the participants cannot be revealed at this stage, all I can say is that it is not me, but is someone I know who is relatively tall with hi spartner and young child.

The map shows only part of it as the return to the Uk is via Switzerland, Germany and Holland, because I have been strugling with Google Maps, so a further entry this day is likely if I succeed in mapping the entire thing. A description of the reasons behind it are also warrsanted, but for noew, I just note that self and RHB are hatching plans to join the party for a short period in Budapest.

Friday, 10 June 2011

So I arrive at Athens airport, some 18km east of the city, with my final destinations of Delphi and Nidri in mind. Despite fifteen minutes on Google, I actually have no idea how I am going to cross the 350kms to Nidri from Athens, having resolved not to drive but to backpack (and having left my driving licence at home by mistake anyway). The internet has not been much use in providing advance information, neither has the Lonely Planet Guide because - not its fault - Greece's economy has collapsed, and when I ask at the Information Point at the airport, no one seems certain whether the trains, ferries and buses that are referred to are actually running anymore (or that day - I could not understand). The very grumpy person Information shrugs, tells me that there are riots in Athens and recommends I rent a car. She does not know where the central bus station in Athens is, but says it is in a bad area and I should avoid it.

I should mention at this point that the journey across Greece, while it cannot be described as adventure travelling was a new experience for me. True, I travelled to Canada and RHB and I landed in Canada knowing no-one and everything worked out fine, and I travel extensively for work, but this type of leisure travelling - backpacking - was not something I was familiar with. I have read lots of travel books, for example Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia', but I have decided to model this sojourn on two different influences - firstly I decided that this adventure would be my Gap Year, wherein I 'find myself" and secondly, I adopted a persona for this sojourn that was a cross between Aragorn (one of the central characters of that other great travel book Lord of the Rings), Heinrich Schleimann (the discover of Troy) and Bronislaw Malinowsky (the anthropologist who described the Kula rings of the Pacific). As a persona, this was a complicated act to pull off, full of internal tensions, with the idealistic noble hero bits (Aragorn), Functionalist intellectual elements (Malinowski), and self-publicising adventurer of questionable integrity parts(Schleimann) making decision making a difficult process even before I left the airport. In fact this was the first lesson learnt : next time I travel solo, I will go just as myself, because for all my faults, I am at least quite familiar with the processes involved in being a hapless, accident prone Scouser.

Faced with being absolutely none the wiser after consulting the Information people, the fearless Aragorn character came to the fore, so I jump on a Metro and head for central Athens, leaving the tourists to their shuttle buses. The Metro is wonderful, clean, beautiful stations and announcements in Greek and English, so using the map I have I alight in central Athens at the station that (I have randomly decided because its quite near the Acropolis) will be circled with numerous tourist information bureaus from where further info can be obtained. However on exiting the Metro station, there are three surprises. Firstly, everyone is speaking Greek. Secondly, all the writing on all the signs I can see is also in Greek, which does not look like an alphabet, it looks like a series of mathematical equations. Thirdly, there are not hundreds of information bureaus surrounding me, just a load of mangy old dogs, and some 'exotic' looking women. I start wandering, a little bit perturbed by the rough appearance of the area. I am soon utterly lost.

The Aragron character soon decides this aimless wandering is hopeless and a plan is needed, but as there are no Orcs to attack, he is a bit puzzled as to what to do. Fortunately, the Schliemann character comes to the fore, seizing the moment, and decides, as a plan, to consult the (English language) map I have. The next part of my plan is a bit vaguer (eerily echoing his 'discovery of Troy), but suddenly the woodcraft I learnt in Canada comes to the rescue, and I have a brilliant idea. As I cannot read the street signs, I have no reference point, but if I can establish which way is North, relative to my position, I will then be able to approach various locals, map in hand. I can then shout loudly at them "Bus station. Peloponese. Nidri" until someone shows me on the map where the station is. I can then triangulate my position and hike across the city - a city that I later found out is currently the most dangerous city in Europe- to the bus station. Once there, I only have to hope its the right one, because one piece of information I do have is that there are two, each serving different regions of Greece.

I am consulting the map, when I hear an English voice. "How can I help you, my friend?". I look up, and a rather dapper older gentleman is offering me a cigarette and smiling kindly. Until this point, I was contemplating a return to tobacco (after mostly being free of it for some months), not really because I feel the need, but because observations made by the anthropologist character has revealed that smoking is apparently compulsory in Greece, and I had been unsure if I was breaking any rules by not indulging. I take his offered cigarette, and tell him I am utterly lost.

"Where are you from?" he asks kindly, and I almost tell him "Middle Earth" but decide on "Liverpool" instead. "Ah, the Beatles" he says "and what a great football team!" I agree, whole heartedly, and we chat about football for a few seconds. Then he says "Here, let me help you. Where do you want to go?". I tell him about the wedding, and Delphi and my desire to travel solo. I also tell him that I cannot call Lydia because my cell phone is out of charge. "Are you meeting people in Athens?" he asks. "No" I tell him "I am completely alone - my wife could not come". "Do you have tickets for the bus?" he asks and I reply that I dont but that I have is a few hundred Euros and my credit cards, so it should be no problem.

He draws on the map, and I think 'Brilliant! This is the adventure I wanted - meeting real Greek people, not waiters or pool attendants'. Having drawn on the map, Georgios, my new friend rubs his forehead, looking concerned "I have relatives in that part of the country, and I can tell you that the afternoon bus is gone", he says. "There may not be a later bus, so you might have to stay in Athens for the evening. You must be careful. Athens is a dangerous place" he says. "I have a little local bar right nearby - I can show you, its on your way anyway. Come in, have a little drink and we can ask. Then you can go the bus station, but if you have missed the last bus, you can come back and have a drink there tonight also - good company".

Georgios says he just has to make a short phone call, and while he is talking (in Greek), I think how brilliantly this is all going - in fact the Malowinski character hopes that I have missed the last bus because this - meeting and talking not as a tourist but in a friendly local bar, is surely the stuff of real anthropology.

We head off through old Athens, me holding Georgios' arm as we cross the lethal sidestreets, with scooters, buses, taxis pouring past, often on the sidewalk. We chat amiably, and I like the old charm of the place, the sheer authenticity of it. Georgios tells me about the war, about the economic problems of Greece and asks me about my family and what I do. We wind further away from the central squares, but Georgios points vaguely North East, saying that is where I will be going later. After about ten minutes, we turn a corner and he points down the street to a large wooden door, paint peeling, set into the endless jumble of stone facades and says "My bar". "Wow" I say admiringly "It really is a local, Georgios - no sign. In england, we have to have signs!" "No problem" says Georgios, then somewhat mysteriously "No Police".

We approach and he unlocks the front door with a key attached to the type of massive sets of keys that only older men seem to have, and seeing it is a bit stiff, I help him push it open. I walk in following his welcoming gesture and first impressions say 'local bar' - it is about twenty foot long, wooden floor boards, a bar along the lefthand wall and some tables with leatherette couches on the right. But there are also a number of anomalies. The first of these are the two open doors at the far end of the room that appear to be entrances to someones bedroom. The second two anomalies are two incredibly beautiful, sculpturally made-up and mini-skirted Asian women present - one sitting at a table, elegantly cross-legged, the other behind the bar, smiling broadly at us.

"Have a drink" says Georgios, slamming the door behind us. There is a moment of silence. "Er, no" I finally say. "What?" says Georgios, grabbing my hand "Its a good place. Clean." "Er, no" I say " Maybe another time" and gently withdraw my hand. Georgios' grip gets firmer "Just stay for ten minutes. Clean place" he says, as if my primary thoughts are about the cleanliness of his staff in any activity that might be implied by the setting either immediately or a bit later. In truth, my thoughts are following a different tangent and are primarily self directed. The first of these thoughts is "Stupid", but is not alone, as it is rapidly followed by "Stupid", "Stupid", "Stupid" and "Stupid". In my only moment of inspiration that day, I realise I have described that I am totally alone, have all my money on me, am lost, that no-one knows where I am, that my phone isnt working and that I dont constantly call my wife, and I am standing in what looks like an unlicensed brothel on what has rapidly gone from a 'quaint' to a 'seedy' area of Athens. I have, in other words, demonstrated to Georgios that I have that unique combination of gullibility and self-assured arrogance (believing bad things only happen to other people) that makes a perfect 'mark'.

A strange wresting match follows, with Georgios now clinging on to my hand and forearm with both his hands, while I am smiling and attempting to walk backwards while gently prizing his hands off me, and apologising for leaving (a bizarre feature of English behaviour is to hate causing offence to anyone and to apologise for everything, even when its "I apologise that I feel in danger for my life and you are, at the very least, a dirty old man, and possibly plotting my murder") and simultaneously noticing that the jaw of one of Georgios' staff is rather squarer than that of the average female.

Eventually, I break free of Georgios' grip, mumble something about "Maybe see you later. Sorry! " (I know, still trying not to offend - I have been in England too long)fumble frantically with the door and flee into the street. At a half jog, I reach a main square and see an official taxi rank. Establishing that English is spoken, and that the driver knows exactly where I want to go, I get into his taxi and am spectacularly fleeced (20 Euros for a five minute taxi ride) but happy to get to the bus station. The guy in the ticket office lets me charge my phone and I have dinner amid the aroma of diesel fumes, cigarette smoke and mangy dog. "Not very clean" I think to myself as I text Great Margaret to tell her that I have decided to come straight to Nidri that night.

There are two footnotes:
1. The only photos I have of the first day in Greece are the ones presented here of the bus station, where I spent two hours watching this dog chase buses. It was a nice dog though.
2. Thanks to the Legal Eagle and Great Margaret who stayed up till about 2.00am and picked me up when I finally arrived in Nidri , and Lil 'Than and Suzie Woozie who also stayed up and let me sleep in their place. Respect is due.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Introduction: Innocents abroad..........

It ill behoves me, having mentioned in the previous liturgy a bike ride, to not be illustrative of how I got to the place where the bike ride happened. The reason I was on the bike ride in the first place was that I was attending, along with substantial elements of the Greater Large Clan, a joining in matrimony of Lydia (RHB's niece) and Theo (another male who will soon discover what the phrase 'matriarchal' means).

Firstly I should explain the the use of 'Greater Large Clan' to describe the attendees, who included Jane, Sadie (and partner Davide), Niome (and baby Holly and partner Matt), Great Meg, The Legal Eagle Bill, Suzie Woozie, Lil 'Than, myself, John Henry and Phillipa, Malcolm, Ruby and myself . It is true that not all relatives from Blighty are, strictly speaking, derivatives of the 'Large' lineage - for example Suzie Woozie and my man, Lil 'Than, are Steele by origin, while the Legal Eagle, Davide and Matty have not yet been formally assimililated, but if you ever find yourself associated with the GLC, you will come to realise truism behind the Borg's catchphrase "Resistance is useless". Particularly, as Theo will find out (and I suspect he already has), the strong matriarchal nature of the GLC. This extends not only to females who are, by blood, members of the clan, but also to females who male members marry. Thus while Greater Large Clan is geneaologically inaccurate, it is descriptively, in my experience, accurate. This observation is not critical of either gender - it does not imply that the males are emasculated in any way, or that the women are in any way unfeminine, on the contrary. But based on my experience females of the GLC tend to act themselves rather than adopt a role of shrinking violets entirely dependant on their mate: for example, if a pride of lions were encountered by a mixed gender group of GLC members, while the men were discussing options for a valiant defence, the women would have stared the lions down, told them off, and made them apologise for their behaviour before slinking back into the jungle, before the men had sharpened their spears. And the women would have a list of the lions names and addresses in case of future infractions. If Celine was present, there'd also be some really nicely lit photographs as well, while Lorna would have given them all personal organisers so they could plan their huntng more effectively.

In truth, the independence of female GLCers can be very liberating. In my case, it meant that at the end of my degree, the inability of RHB to attend a wedding in Greece of a neice, did not mean that I was unable to attend in case a fuse needed changing at home. RHB, while not happy not to go, was supportive of the idea that I should go to Greece at the end of my degree. As the degree progressed, the idea burgeoned, until I had decided that the wedding event itself, in Nidri, Greece, would be the destination, after some solo travelling, of an exploration of Greece. I finished the final essay, handed it in and jumped on a train to London. Five days later I was on a mountan bike, terrified of snakes.

Tales will follow, including discussions on whether 'toadpoles' is a real word or not, what the inside of Athenian brothels look like, why people shout their business on trains via mobile phones and why the Parthenon sets the tone for Greek architecture, but for today, I will conclude as I noew have to make some bird boxes. When all this will happen, I am unsure, because after completing my degree, I have found myself plunged back into real life, and to my immense suprise, it is rather busy. And there is a backlog of news - my younger nrother is currently on a three month trip through Europe, I am back teaching and plans for the PHD have seen developments, but for today, I have to sign off.