Sunday, November 22, 2009


What is it with Bureaucracies? Do you think they have weekly committee meetings to see how they can make their average customer’s life more difficult? I’m convinced they do. It’s the only explanation.

I had the misfortune last week to be on the receiving end of a bureaucratic system. This meant I had to go from Point A to Point D, brandishing a little form which needed to be stamped and signed and ratified and approved at each of the various stations. Have you ever noticed how the trip between any two points of such a system always has to be done on one of the hottest days of the year? Funny how that happens.

Anyway, I thought I could get it all done in an hour. All that was required, after all, were a few signatures and a little financial negotiation and I would be home free. Silly me. How easily one forgets.

Point A went along swimmingly, filling me with false hope for a speedy conclusion. Point B was a little sticky. Person required to sign the form was not available so I had to come back. And then come back later again. And once again come back later. But all concerned were doing their best to be courteous. When the person in question was finally back, the signature was done with the best will in the world. And it only took a couple of days. I was lulled into the false security that everyone was out to help me.

So I sailed on blithely to point C. And there she was. The original bureaucrat. The one who designed the system. The one who worked out how it takes five pairs of hands to fill in a single form. The one who says “How can I make this process more difficult for this person?” The one who lies awake at night thinking of different ways to say “NO!”

I almost escaped her clutches. Her young colleague was listening with empathy to my need for a little bending of the iron-clad rules. I could see the girl consider the possibilities of how we could make efficient but alternative arrangements.

And then the experienced signer of forms, the veteran deflater of hopes, the gainsayer extraordinaire moved into position. A quick interrogation of her colleague’s intentions made her act swiftly. Behind their glass enclosure, she covered her hands with her multi be-ringed fingers and whispered urgent instructions to her innocent and wayward co-worker. Of course I couldn’t hear a word of the vicious calumnies she was obviously pouring out on my head and so couldn’t pre-empt any objections. But it took a mere matter of seconds before the young girl’s helpfulness changed to stern “There is absolutely no way on God’s green earth that we can possibly contemplate this”-ness. If you know what I mean.

I sighed deeply. I did not break down and cry as I’ve done before. Three years ago, when ill with TB, I’d been broken by the system while waiting in a queue at the local clinic for a packet of pre-packed medicine for over two hours. I could see the packets neatly arranged on a table within my grasp. All the other patients were waiting for the same medicine. But we had to follow the primordial procedure to go from step A to step Z even though it was the n’th time all of us had been there. And then, then - just when it was finally my turn - the nurses shut up their little offices and went to tea. Both of them. For half an hour.

I do not profess to have great time/management skills but I’m sure I could improve the efficiency of most of these processes. I once heard a man describe his attempt to obtain his preordained funds from the government for his state school as being impossible “because it takes ten hands to wipe one arse.

It’s those weekly obfuscation meetings I tell you. They must spend hours devising new ways to make life more difficult for the average applicant. But I’m willing to bet that they never come to a unified resolution on anything.

In fact, I believe hell is not “other people” as Jean Paul Sartre stated in his play Huis-clos (No Exit). It’s being given a form and asked to get it processed by an endless string of bureaucrats!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

So You Want Me To Take Off My Underwear??

“You want me to take off my underwear?” I look at the young man in surprise, as I stand next to the bed. He is waiting for me to lie down. He nods politely as he prepares to take my gown. “But…” I splutter. Does he really mean I must strip down to bare flesh without even the lubricant of dinner and a movie? Can’t I even have a glass of wine first? His smile continues patiently. “We do have disposable underwear for you to put on during the treatment,” he says reassuringly as he reaches into a drawer. He removes a frippery of light paper which has a thong attached to a central landing strip the size of an Elastoplast. I am not ready for this, I think nervously. But there is no escape. I am left to remove my reassuringly black and prevent-all-comers underwear to arrange the minimalist scrap of disposable lingerie in the most discreet way possible. It’s not easy, I sigh to myself as I lie down on the bed and try to cover myself with the towels provided.

My young man returns, still patient, still smiling. Efficiently, calmly he begins to scrub my whole body with a mixture of coarse salt and something else which smells delicious. I talk rapidly, trying to ignore the unusual situation for me. I mean, I do not usually share my cellulite with just anyone. Matthew – that’s his name - continues, professional and efficient, answering my slightly hysterical stream of questions. I should get out more often I think as he begins to wash the salt off with many nozzles of the Vichy shower placed above the bed. I now regret the bikini wax I tried to do in five minutes this morning before I rushed out to do an interview before I was due to arrive at this spa. I had a premonition that I might be required to wear a swimming costume. I never envisaged this post modern thong thing. In my extreme haste to wax and go, I had burnt myself rather badly. The bikini area was now mostly fuzz free, but had the alarmed and reddened look of a freshly plucked chicken. Oh, how I wished those nozzles would wash more quickly over certain areas.

My young therapist does not seem fazed. He continues with round two. He makes a solution of milk and honey and begins to wash it into my skin. How decadent, I think for a moment. But how smooth! No wonder this treatment is called Cleopatra’s Secret. A great lover of creams and softening agents – I have never been able to bear dry skin – I am amazed by the glorious richness of the mixture. I am then wrapped in the plastic on which I had been lying all the time but hadn’t noticed due to my crippling self-consciousness. I babble on blithely until Matthew moves to a seat above my head. While my skin is absorbing the mixture, he begins to massage my forehead. One waft of his fingers over my brow and I am rendered speechless. Bliss. So this is what it’s all about. Not another word squeaks out of my mouth as I finally get the point of all this therapy. I stumble out of the spa a few hours later – refelexologied, massaged (Melanie gives the best massages in the world) and facial-ed out of all thought. I am so relaxed I can barely find the door. And this is just the first day of treatments. There are more tomorrow. I really should get out more often, I think again as I stumble home.

I was at the blissful and extremely delicious Fordoun Spa in Nottingham Road. Coming back to the real world is quite a shock after being royally pampered. Sigh. I will just have to keep dreaming of being Cleopatra whenever I get the chance. I wonder if anyone will notice if the milk disappears more quickly out of the fridge than usual.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Living Like Jane Austen

I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen a lot lately. No, I’m not waiting for a dashing Mr Darcy to storm over the horizon to carry me off to Pemberley. Actually, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea after all… But, no, the reason I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen is that recently my working life has been very much like hers.

Jane Austen is remarkable to me for many reasons, not least the quality of her work. She is one of the few women to be mentioned consistently in writings on the development of the novel. But one of the most impressive things about dear old Jane is that she wrote her novels in a communal sitting room in the midst of her family’s busy and noisy lives. Jane would pretend she was writing letters at her desk and cover up her work as soon as anyone came too close. It’s a sign of her immense writing ability that she managed to complete novel after novel while being constantly interrupted by visitors, having family consultations about whether to have lamb or pork for supper, and listening to inquiries about the sick people in the community.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit like Jane. Although working from home has many advantages it’s not always easy. Not having to dress for work at 6 am is a big advantage, though, and the joy of sloping around in my pyjamas until I absolutely have to get dressed is not to be sneezed at. Especially in winter. Having the flexibility to choose to work when it suits you, instead of when a boss tells you to, is another big plus.

Unfortunately, this flexibility is a double-edged sword. In many people’s eyes, working at home means that you are available. Available to help at school sports days. Available to have meetings with people who want to ‘pick your brain’. Available to visitors who come to stay during the week during what is a normal working week for you. You see, people seem to think that the phrase ‘working from home’ is an oxymoron.

What happens to me because of my flexible working hours is that I find myself doing all the extra things: the school meetings, the entertaining of visiting friends, the meetings with brain pickers, and sorting out of people in crises. And then in a frazzled rush I try to catch up with the never-ending load of work late at night, most weekends, and in the early hours of the morning.

Having your home as your work space also means that you have no place to hide. After a recent stint with builders wrecking my roof with some vague explanation that it was for my own good, I found the scales tipped far too heavily against me. Dealing with men breaking through my ceilings while supposedly fixing my roof, under which I was trying to write something vaguely intelligent, was just too much for me.

This intrusion into my home and work space was followed by an onslaught of visitors. It’s always lovely to see friends and spend time together, but my work suffered badly. The resultant strain as I tried to find any piece of a candle left to burn on either side has made me dream of an office with a heavy-handed boss. How blissful it would be to say that the boss won’t give me time off to have my brain picked, solve emotional problems or attend meetings of any sort. How nice it would be to say that I can’t be available as entertainment co-ordinator for visitors either as my boss won’t let me leave the office.

But I don’t have a boss, and I’m not really sure I’d like one. So I have to focus on Jane Austen. If she managed it, I should be able to as well. And so I think of how her novels sparkled with vibrant and quirky characters. Perhaps she would never have written such unforgettable classics if she’d been isolated in an attic with hours a day to think about her next line. I like to think her work would not have been as good if she hadn’t fed off the interaction of people around her. At least that’s what I’m telling myself just before the next batch of visitors arrives.