Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Turning And Turning In The Widening Gyre...

I have no idea why that title popped into my head. Something to do with circles perhaps. Or perhaps the drugs are causing excessive flashbacks to third year English. In any event, there’s a big prize on offer (and by ‘big’ I mean cheap) if you can tell me where it comes from.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth…

Last week at work, I happened to overhear a troubling conversation between two women, the gist of which surrounded the relative merits of a particular member of the opposite sex. Let me just stress at this point that I was hanging around the entrance to the ladies toilet not to eavesdrop but because there’s a notice board nearby and I desperately needed to brush up my knowledge of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 after a nasty altercation with a stapler. (If you think I look bad you should see the stapler!)

Anyway, the conversation included a lot of words that I couldn’t repeat in a family newspaper - let’s just group them together as ‘blank’ - and were being used to augment a story about an unfortunate man and his so-called inappropriate behaviour.

“The blanking blank just blanked off with her without blinking a blanking eyelid,” said woman no.1, clearly a tad upset. “And he took the blanking sports car that he said was our special blanking indulgence after we both turned 40 this year.”

“Sounds like a blanking mid life crisis if you ask me,” added woman no.2. “Blanking men have only got one blanking thing on their minds at that age.”

Damn right, I thought to myself. Top. Quality. Pizza.

The use of the words ‘mid’ and ‘life’ left me somewhat bewildered though since, as a healthy 42 year-old who plans to live until the age of 180, I could not see how it applied to my age group. Even the flippant use of the noun ‘crisis’ seemed dramatic in the extreme since I know this should only ever be used for situations involving incalculable distress or mortal peril. Like losing the remote control for the TV. Or getting a staple stuck in your ear. (Don’t ask.)

So I decided some in depth scientific research was required to discover whether this phenomenon was real or not. Then I decided that this would probably take a while so I asked a friend instead. As he tied the balding strands of his hair back into a ponytail he confirmed that yes, the condition is genuine but it’s absolutely nothing to be concerned about. At least I think this was what he said because it was a little hard to hear over the noise of all his gold neck chains clanging together.

Apparently what happens is this. A man wakes up one day and realises that he has devoted his life to doing something he hates. Let’s say he’s a banker. He worked hard to become a banker learning the difference between deposits and withdrawals and spending many a happy decade spouting inappropriate jokes – “I’d like to balance HER cash” - to his fellow banker chums. After turning down yet another loan application because the customer refused to give up a child as security, he decides enough is enough. He wants a completely different job. Something fun and exciting that involves drinking heavily and sitting around in his boxer shorts all day. In short, he wants to be a writer.

However, despite the obvious alcohol and fashion perks, there is a middle aged writer out there somewhere who has just discovered that HE wants to do something different. It’s all so easy for the readers, he thinks. They can put his writing aside and go play “piercing for dummies” with a stapler whenever they want. But I have to sit here and finish this blanking chapter so I can meet my blanking deadline. Why can’t I just write up something easy and repetitive? Like loan applications?

Experts have termed this syndrome the “vicious circle of life” but thankfully it’s something I won’t have to deal with for another fifty years or so. Plenty time then to get another tattoo. And grow my hair.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Don't Stand So Close To me

I’ve probably mentioned/bored you with this before, but as well as sending a 600+ word article to the newspaper every week, I also have to send them two small 100 word snippets commenting on something topical. This is so the paper can add a graphic or a photograph to attract the reader’s attention and suck them in to having a go at actually reading the words. For obvious reasons I usually try and mention Gillian Anderson whenever I can.

More often than not though, I find myself scrambling about 15 minutes before the deadline trying to find something suitable. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I happened to stumble across a story which mentioned that Sting had been given an honorary degree recently by Newcastle University.

This gave me the licence to have my usual moan about him not reforming The Police and I sent the paper this photo from a few years ago featuring Sting and I at a book signing. His, not mine.

As a throwaway line to use up the 100 words, I invited readers to write in and tell me what they thought his response had been when I’d asked about the whole Police reformation thing. (I also lied and said there would be a stunning prize for the best entry.) When I’ve tried this crafty ploy in the past, I’ve never had much – okay, any - response (presumably because the readers are too busy looking at the photos of Gillian Anderson) but in the past few weeks I’ve received four, count ‘em, FOUR replies of varying degrees of surrealness-ness and I reproduce them now below for your reading pleasure. I swear I’m not making these up.

1. This first one arrived last week in the form of a letter – yes, a REAL letter written with pen and paper and everything – from a girl in the Western Isles of Scotland. I liked it a lot because she’d obviously put some thought into it and I know from personal experience that living on these islands can often feel like being the caretaker of that hotel in The Shining. It said…

Dear Neil. I could imagine Sting’s answer to your “yes must be the answer” question being quite long-winded and going something like this:- “As you know Neil, every Police story has a sting in the tale – uh – if you want to spread a little happiness, don’t stand so close to me as I can feel every breath you take; just don’t think for a minute you’ve got me wrapped around your finger – I will, within the next year, send you a message in a bottle to answer your question and until then de do do do, de da da da.” All work and no play makes Morag a dull girl… All work and no play makes Morag a dull girl…

Okay, I made up that last bit (her name was actually Margo) but I thought it was cute when she underlined the song titles to make sure I got the gist.

2. The other three entries arrived via that new-fangled email thingy and were forwarded to me by the paper this week. The first of them took a similar tack to the one above and read…

Neil, I reckon that Sting gave you a chorus of his old hit, “Don't stand so close to me.” Regards, Steve from Luton.

Things are obviously less dull in Luton.

3. The tone of the correspondence got a bit stranger as I read the third one…

Hi Neil, by the look of the photo in today's paper, I think he whispered “sorry my name's Liam Neeson, Sting’s in tomorrow”........ oh and by the way you look the smug one from Westlife lol. Regards, Tom

I wrote back immediately of course to point out that I am, in fact, the fat one from Westlife.

4. And finally the coup de grace (from the French “coup de” meaning “written by” and “grace” meaning “drug addict”) which stated simply…

C*NT... oh well i do stay in glenrothes… it does look that YOU would say it… oh well maybe not win, but you never know… p.s. oh f*ck it, yeah c*nt… keep up the good work… Peter

Touché mon amie. I have no answer to that.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

De Do Do Do, De Blah Blah Blah

When he broke up the greatest band in the world, I believed him when he said that good music would continue to flow.

When he started hugging trees and appearing on talk shows alongside a half-naked man with a plate in his (the half-naked man’s) bottom lip, I defended him to nay-sayers by pointing out it was just a phase he was going through.

But my patience is starting to wear dangerously thin after receiving the following email from his website the other day.

In an exclusive interview with Sting.com, Sting has revealed his latest project - an album of sixteenth century music performed on the lute. The album will be released in the autumn on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon.

Here's what Sting had to say about this unusual and exciting project...

“About two years ago Dominic [Miller] gave me a gift that he'd had made for me, a lute, a sixteenth century instrument with lots and lots of strings and I sort of became fascinated with it and immersed myself in the lute and lute music. It reminded of an interest I've had for a long time - for almost twenty five years - in the works of John Dowland. John Dowland was a sixteenth century English composer who wrote songs for the lute. He was really the first singer/songwriter that we know of and so a lot of us owe our living to this man. Then we met this guy Edin Karamazov who is a Bosnian lute player and we started discussing Dowland and the idea came up of recording some songs of his for an album.”

"That kind of frivolous idea became a reality and it's coming out in October on Deutsche Grammophon and I'm thrilled. It's a strange record, a delightful record and I think people will be intrigued by it. The album is voice and lute, there are a few four part harmonies that I sing and it's all music from the sixteenth century."

We will of course keep you up to date with more information on this release in the run up to its release this autumn.

I can hardly wait; although I have to admit that “intrigued by it” wasn’t the first emotion that came to mind.

Sweet Jesus man, track down your cahonees pronto and get the f#cking Police back together before I personally cut down what’s left of your precious rainforest. Seriously, I’ll do it. I’ve got a Swiss army knife and I’m not afraid to use it.

Oh, and if you’re reading this thinking, “Sweet Jesus, TWO - no, hang on a minute - THREE posts in the same week on this blog? Whit’s that aw aboot?” then prepare to have your jaw drop further still when I tell you that another post will appear here tomorrow. Bet you can hardly wait.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Stop Press...

Try not to get too excited but tomorrow I'm going to attempt a second post on this blog in the SAME WEEK. Which, if I manage it, will actually now be the third one. After this one. (You can see why I don't try this too often.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Another Day Closer To Gettin' Dooced*

When you’re a contract worker with fickle loyalties and questionable morals, it would be the easiest thing in the world to take a swipe at your employers by pooh-poohing every management decision and improvement initiative that affects you. However, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean you should necessarily swing for a home run whenever a lame pitch comes your way… but where’s the fun in that.

(*For those of you who don’t know, the verb “dooced” is commonly used in geeky internet circles to describe someone who gets fired for blogging about his or her job / employer / co-workers. And not in a good way. Back when the internet wore a long mullet hairstyle and Miami Vice suit with rolled up sleeves, a woman called Heather Armstrong was so fired for this heinous crime. Her blog, www.dooce.com, has gone on to become the most famous thing since the wheel and makes her a small fortune from ad revenues and such. And that, my friends, is the dream. Oh, and it’s a pretty good read to boot.)

Here at the Bureau Of Longer Lasting Office & Corporate Knowledge Solutions, (“Talking the talk so you can walk the walk”) we are proud to bring you another of our ever-popular features to help you achieve harmony in the workplace and get the best from your staff. Our subject this week is Team Away Days, a rare but invaluable opportunity to escape the pressures of day to day office life and spend time bonding with colleagues, absorbing inspirational messages from leaders and consuming free drinks at the company’s expense.

Whilst the content of this feature has been compiled from genuine case studies over decades of collaboration with international blue chip companies, the results are presented in a generalised manner to aid problem-free implementation within your own organisation. Any resemblance to people or creatures, living, dead or just fast asleep at the back of the room, is purely coincidental and has no connection whatsoever with such an event attended by this writer last week.

The key to running a successful Team Away Day begins, of course, with setting expectations at the correct level. Calling it an “Away” day may lead some imaginative people to believe they’ll be boarding a bus or a plane to travel somewhere different for the thrilling adventure of a lifetime. Our research shows that a weekend at Gleneagles with unlimited golf and room service pizzas (pony trekking for the ladies) produces the happiest, most productive team possible. However if your intended venue is a city centre hotel five minutes from your office, it’s probably best to be open and honest and mention this at the outset.

To make your people feel as comfortable as possible, it’s a good idea to adopt a relaxed dress code for the day but please be more specific than “dress casual, not scruffy”. This imprecise directive is likely to induce all manner of wardrobe anxiety and will pose more questions than it answers.

Are jeans acceptable?
If so, should I iron them with a seam down the front like my Mum used to do?
Will my “Stick It To De Man” t-shirt offend anyone?
White or dark socks with my Jesus sandals?
Is swimwear EVER appropriate?

You’ll want to kick off the day with a session designed to make people feel relaxed and enthused about what lies ahead but whatever you come up with, DO NOT advertise this on the agenda as “an icebreaker”. Calling something “an icebreaker” serves only to ensure that the temperature in the room drops 40 degrees in an instant and the body language of your audience will tighten to the point where blood stops flowing to all vital organs.

Alternative phrases which are proven to boost morale at this point in proceedings include, “we’ll all meet up again at lunchtime after the golf”, “anyone fancy a power nap?” and “the bar is now open”.

Finally, makes sure there is enough variety in your programme to provide your people with an alternative to any long and dry presentations which outline corporate policies and department restructuring. A series of mini team challenges scattered throughout the day will keep everyone energised and focussed on the key deliverables. In addition, introducing a competitive element to these sessions can be especially useful if you have any difficult messages to relay.

“Okay people, one additional week of annual leave to the winning team, woo hoo! Oh, and an extended period of garden leave for the rest of you. Now LET'S. KICK. ASS.”

It only remains for us at the Bureau to wish you every success with your own Team Away Day. And if that doesn't work, sometimes the solution to morale problems is just to fire all the unhappy people.

More newspaper stuff here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

I’m getting so lazy these days that I can’t even think of a sentence or two to preface the things I send to the newspaper. So I was kind of hoping to be let go by my company when my contract expires at the end of the month to see if that would help expand my mind and allow me to write more. Alas, my boss is so helpful and supportive that on Friday she persuaded the ten layers of hierarchy above her to extend my contract until the end of June. Which now means I need to find other ways to expand my mind. Any suggestions?

This week I bring you sensational news of an international conspiracy so shocking that it’s likely to undermine every belief you’ve ever held and leave you curled up in a corner gibbering and drooling. It’s a secret of such magnitude that for over two thousand years it’s been protected by clandestine societies and has only now been uncovered through painstaking work deciphering historical riddles and infiltrating the inner sanctum of the shady secret-keepers.

It’s at great personal risk to my own continuing good health that I type these words from a highly classified location somewhere in the Highlands. If this column does not appear next week you’ll know I was right and have been compelled by the conspirators to “sleep with the fishes” in nearby Loch Lochy, just off the A82, five miles south of Invergarry.

But the truth must be told. So gentlemen, pour yourself a stiff drink, find a comfortable chair and take a deep breath as I now reveal the frightening reality that is…


No, don’t laugh and shake your head in a condescending manner. That’s just what they want you to do. Since the time of Eve, women have cleverly created the illusion that men have been in charge of the world. But it’s all a lie and the evidence to the contrary is now overwhelming and inescapable.

Two incidents in the past week alone have rocked my faith in all that is right and just in the world. The first was a seemingly innocent conversation with a work colleague which began pleasantly enough with a review of things I’d missed when I was off ill after my holidays. Five minutes later came the question that hinted at a larger conspiracy.

“So Neil,” she began with raised eyebrows. “Have you recovered from the man-flu you had last week?” It wasn’t so much the words she used but the fact that a small, wicked smirk appeared at the corner of her mouth. Instantly I knew there was no answer I could provide that would convince her I’d really been ill and the smirk was so powerful that I started to believe I’d just imagined all the recent sweats and cramps and retching.

Brainwashing on this scale doesn’t happen overnight and is the result of hundreds of years of intricate planning. Women will try to laugh off this accusation and pretend their lives are too busy for such fanciful scheming. If that’s true, why do they always have to go to the bathroom in groups?

If you’re still not convinced about the global female conspiracy ask yourself this. Why do women’s bikes not have a bar that goes from just under the seat to the handlebars? They’ll claim this is because they wear dresses and the bar would get in the way. But after an emergency braking incident on my bike the other night I now know that no man would ever have advocated placing a solid metal shaft in such a vulnerable area. I’ll spare you the gory details but let’s just say my singing voice is now more soprano than tenor.

And while we’re on the subject, whose clever idea was it to position a man’s testicles external to his body? Years of sporting mishaps and holidaying near the North Sea have convinced me this is not the result of intelligent design. Somewhere internal, deep in the butt cheeks perhaps, would make far more sense. Better still, make them detachable and discover a whole new world of accessorising. With colourful protective covers like the iPods have. Or special lunch boxes with room for your sandwiches. You’d need to be careful though if you enjoy the occasional Scotch egg. But I digress.

Surely God and evolution both want the species to survive, so the only logical explanation for the external testicle exposure syndrome would appear to be a fiendish programme of genetic manipulation undertaken by women thousands of years ago.

So gents, you have been warned. Keep your eyes peeled, your ears to the ground and your hands in your pockets. DEEP in your pockets. The truth is out there.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Office

Things I learned this week…

1. It’s official. Men are not allowed to be ill. If one more person asks me about the “man-flu” I had last week, my fake smile is gonna disappear and I’m gonna get angry. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. I tend to turn green and all my clothes fall off involuntarily. A bit like last week.

2. If you’re gonna be ill, check your stocks of toilet roll. Enough said?

3. Mission Impossible 3 is not a good movie unless you want to view an example of a film that was constructed using post-it notes. Big bang here. Implausible escape there. Nah, swap them around. Oh shit, we forgot the dialogue. And the plot.

4. If you go to the hairdressers and say “just cut it real short”, don’t be surprised if they do just that. They’ll also have a good laugh at your fake Texan accent.

5. When all newspaper column ideas have been exhausted, bitch about your work.

6. Don’t tell anyone at work that you’re gonna be bitching about your work in your newspaper column.

It’s been ten months now since I went back to work (to what my mother likes to call “a proper job”) after my indulgent two-year career break gallivanting round the world. Since I’ve been back I’ve noticed that the day to day nuances of office life have changed little from those I encountered in a previous life. Fixing a colour printer, for example, still seems to involve a large dose of “percussive maintenance” (i.e. the fine art of whacking the crap out of an electronic device to get it to work again) followed by a minimum of three visits from a so-called engineer.

Then there’s a little something I like to call “the ringing phone two-step”. This occurs when a phone starts to ring at an unmanned desk and colleagues in the surrounding area perform a strange choreography to avoid answering it. The precise moves may differ slightly at your workplace but essentially it looks like this.

Phone starts to ring. All heads in the vicinity lower as if trying to disappear into shoulders. Much shuffling of paper and opening of desk drawers takes place. Pens mysteriously drop to the floor. Two colleagues feeling guilty stand up simultaneously. Both stop dead in their tracks with a blank are-you-going-to-answer-it look on their faces. Both pretend there is something uncomfortable in their shoe as they begin a slow, shuffling limp towards the ringing. Both reach out for the phone at exactly the same time. The phone stops ringing before either touches it. Both exchange weak smiles and resigned shrugs as if to say “well at least we did our Goddamndest to solution this problem”. Both then retire to the office toilets for a well deserved lie down.

One major change to life in the office has occurred however since the last time I had a proper job. The preponderance of management-speak is now at an alarmingly high level and its relationship to the English language gets more distant with each passing day. Fortunately, a great deal of my time is spent staring at a computer screen and surfing inappropriate websites so I don’t need to go out of my way to actually talk to people. Nevertheless, I’ve had the misfortune to be involved in a number of incomprehensible meetings and although I now know it’s best to stay quiet and just nod, the learning process has been painful at times. To help you avoid similar embarrassments, here are a few tips I’ve picked up in the last ten months.

1. Never underestimate the importance of humour and playfulness in the workplace. The next time you have to fire somebody, bring a smile to their face by putting on a red nose just before you break the news.

2. Beware of something called “enhanced performance goals”. This simply means that you’re going to have to work twice as hard for the same money.

3. To get into the habit of “thinking outside the box”, make sure your box is very, very small.

4. If someone describes a project issue as “mission critical”, do not whip out your lightsaber and volunteer to “kick the Dark Side’s ass”. Whipping out your lightsaber in the middle of a meeting seems to make people a little uneasy and they tend to look at you funny. The freaks.

5. A “bench mark” is a basis of comparison for an improvement initiative. This should not be confused with a “skid mark” which is the result of being told you have to improve in the first place.

With the end of my current contract looming, my boss has invited me to a meeting next week to discuss “an enhanced relocation opportunity”. While I’m hoping this means a big promotion to our New York office, the appearance of a red nose on her desk tells another story altogether.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fever Pitch

This week, I am mostly ill… which I believe I allude to further in the following…

This week I had great plans to bring you a detailed review of my trip to the wild, wild west of America - Arizona to be exact - where I, and fifteen other sedate fellows, enjoyed seven days of golf interspersed with a spot of antiquing and one or two museum visits. Those plans swiftly disappeared out the window however when I was struck down with a mysterious illness towards the end of the trip and have remained bedridden and delirious ever since.

Now I realise that some of you (ladies?) may be shaking your heads in disbelief and pooh-poohing the whole notion that a human male could contract anything remotely resembling a genuine illness. Let me assure you though that my pain is very real, so much so that I’m confident the so-called “agony of childbirth” would seem like a weekend at Disney World on happy pills in comparison. My condition, although as yet undiagnosed, is undoubtedly serious, a fact underlined by two major symptoms which have confounded the best medical brains on both sides of the Atlantic.

1. I weigh less now than I did a week ago.
This is completely unheard of for any human male who has ever undertaken a golf/antiquing/museum excursion to the United States.

2. I cannot stomach the thought of eating any more pizza.
“Nurse, get me a frickin’ psych consult, STAT!” was the hysterical reaction when I dropped this bombshell in the emergency room last Friday evening.

Now that I’ve made the case for the authenticity of my ailment I will spare you any further detailed description of the cramps, the sweats, the retching, the aches or the myriad of strange substances oozing from every bodily pore. Instead, I will try and battle through the hallucinations brought on by fever and bring you my best recollection of what I’m sure was a wonderful holiday.

The Outgoing Flight
The quickest ten hours of the week where nothing controversial happened at all and the British Airways cabin crew had absolutely no cause to shut the bar due to any inappropriate behaviour or raucous singing. A joy from beginning to end.

The Golf
New standards of excellence in the game were achieved as my squad of eight birdied every hole they played and definitely did not lose their big shiny trophy to a better and more deserving team.

The Accommodation
The Bareback Mountain Country Club & Spa where the fellows would round off each punishing day in the desert sun by enjoying a herbal tea together in the hot tub. In my more lucid moments, I can still hear the gentle sound of contented snoring rolling across the plains like graceful tumbleweed.

The Locals
A strange and menacing bunch of people, especially those in the service industries, who think it’s perfectly acceptable behaviour to engage in polite conversation, smile a lot and pass on their sincere wish that you have a nice day. A disgrace to their nation.

The Antiquing
The fever has left my memories of this aspect of the tour a bit hazy but I do recall some mention of someone having picked up a bargain at one of the night markets. “Got his hands on some ancient jugs” is the phrase that comes to mind which I assume was some reference to age-old Navajo water-carrying vessels. Should look a treat on the old mantelpiece back home.

The doctors tell me it’s just a matter of time now before the fever breaks and I’m able to look at a carry-out menu again. Until then, I have my big shiny trophy to get me through the darkest hours. If only I could remember where I put it.