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Friday, 14 December 2007

'I'm so tired, my mind is on the blink', The Beatles

I could have lain down on a frosty lawn this morning and slept. In my ongoing quest to stay moderately fit I still go running, usually at 0630 in the morning, so as not to frighten the neighbours and alarm the local dog population. At the speeds I achieve running the slipstream is causing ice burn on my exposed extremities and I recall David Niven's anecdote about he cured similar problems after skiing: I couldn't find any brandy at 0700hrs and even if I could have I'd have drunk it and not poured it over the affected area like he did. The cold does wake you up though, which is just as well as I am so tired and could have just had a little nap after running a few steps. Until I discovered that it was really minus 4 C.

Anyway back to tiredness - this is what happens when you get tired, your mind wanders. Now that I have a longer term job much of the angst and worry that unemployment causes has left me. Yes I still need to get a full time job but the kids will not be in the Workhouse for Christmas and we can buy a few presents. Now the immediate future seems a little brighter I have relaxed: this happened quite suddenly in town a few days ago and I almost immediately fell asleep, which was a shame because I was in the queue at Boots at the time and it caused a small commotion until the customers behind me decided to use me as a mini roundabout until I woke up. And who says there is no compassion left in this world?

It's very strange. I mean nothing has really changed. The job I am doing is basically the same hours and the same tasks, Mrs EoTP is still working and will continue to do so but it is the knowing that there is some sense of continuity. It's all artificial - may I remind you of my favourite Woody Allen joke 'How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.' The universe is a big, random, unfeeling sort of place. It doesn't care if I have a job no matter how much I rant and think it monstrously unfair so it could go horribly wrong in a few days again.

However I have seem to have entered the TATT zone, that is to say Tired All The Time. I've had boundless energy over the last few months. I could moan for hours without a break. Shopping, pah, I spit in the eye of shopping. Cleaning, pshaw I care nothing for it, me and my Marigolds. Cooking. Well OK that really hasn't been my strong point, or weak point come to that - it still defies classification.

It's like children in the long Winter term at school. They struggle along for the full 12 week term, getting alternatively cold and wet going to and from school. Finally they make it to the Christmas break. Then they fall ill. Colds, flu, headaches, you name it they get it. I think I'm the same, heading for man flu I'm sure.

I'm looking forward to the break - can't wait to ruin the Christmas dinner, though Mrs EoTP is starting to think that letting me loose on it may not be such a great idea after all. I may be relegated to the preparation of the brussels sprouts, can't do much damage there. At least I will be able to sleep after the meal (and the drink).

So I'm having a break from the blog until after Christmas - may I wish all of you a Happy Christmas.

Cheers

Eyes on the Prize

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

I think it was Churchill that said something like this: 'This is not the beginning of the end it is perhaps the end of the beginning.' Well something like that probably after the Battle of Britain, or something init?

Anyhow I have felt embattled over these last 259 days of unemployment. Perhaps my frustration has seeped through into this blog from time to time. But we may have a resolution for the time being. A white knight has galloped over to save me from the dragon - or perhaps he's sent his squire on his bike as I've got a nasty paper cut. Whatever. The organisation I have worked for during the last eight months on a part time basis has offered me a job on a full time basis. Yeehaw and throws hat into air. Well to be strictly accurate, a full time job working 4 days a week on a full time basis with a mutually agreeable escape clause for when I find that elusive of animals, a well paid full time job.

Now I am delighted.
No signing on next week.
No claiming the mortgage protection insurance.
A combined income that is equivalent to about 80% of what I was earning.
OK no car/fuel/office and so on but hey - money and no need to have the kids in the workhouse.
And it starts from next week.

This is a huge relief to us all in the EoTP family and we permitted ourselves a spending binge, buying a small bar of chocolate to eke out between us before before the one guttering candle we allow ourselves for illumination in the house during the long winter nights.

OK we hit John Lewis and had a big spend. But it was quite hard. We have all become so used to not spending anything except on priorities that to spend on a luxury item felt, well, reckless for the sake of a better word.

Of course they know and I know that I will leave as soon as I get a five day a week job that I like. But, and this is a big but, I do enjoy working for and with them and my quality of life is much improved over what it was. In fact it's even better now that the 600lb gorilla of impending unemployment has been shipped back to the zoo.

So that's why I say this may be the end of the beginning - still have to find that other job, still looking and will not give up.

Christmas will be a lot happier occasion for us all though. Now I can look forward to it.

I did say to Mrs EoTP that I could look for another job to fill the spare day.

Mrs EoTP. The look.

'How about the shopping and cleaning?' she said. 'That's a job.'

Where did I put my yellow Marigolds?

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

'Things ain't cooking in my kitchen', Weather with you, Crowded House

I'd rather face a drunk with a knife.

It's true, I would rather face a drunk with a knife than cook. I know this to be a fair statement because, recently, I did face a drunk with a knife on the streets (but that's another story) and I have tried cooking.

I said just at the weekend to Mrs EoTP, 'Why do you use that saucepan on that ring on the cooker? I don't, I do it this way. I just may be getting the hang of this cooking thing.' Mrs EoTP gave me the look. 'The look lasted about 12 months, or so it felt. 'You haven't mastered cooking' she said, 'you have just about learned how to warm things up.'

I was deflated, it has to be said. But there is a small grain of truth in there somewhere with the lumpy gravy.

I don't know what the problem is. I am (if I say so myself and as there isn't any one around at the moment to contradict me I will say it) a pretty good project manager. I mean I have set the aims and objectives for many substantial projects. For example: collecting all the rubber bands in the organisation and making a huge ball with them; organising the ugliest paper clip contest; working out why the consumption of internal post envelopes massively exceeds the amount of internal post sent; determining the optimum day for most managers to be in the pub at lunchtime so that the company is being run entirely by nineteen year olds for the best part of an afternoon (like Woolworths over the weekends). And all of these projects were delivered on time and on budget. Cooking is just another sort of project so why doesn't it work?

Well Mrs EoTP says that's because you haven't any staff or colleagues to boss around, you can't set progress update meetings and harangue staff for not performing, have no opportunity to write well aimed minutes so that you can pinion the underlings and make them wriggle in embarrassment because they have failed to undertake some action point and so on. 'Basically' she says 'you've got to do it on your own.' So that's the problem.

The other problem is that my hands do not always do what my brain says. It was the same with Airfix models. My resultant efforts were always covered in excess glue (and fluff where I had dropped the model on the floor) with the transfers placed erratically over the fuselage or hull on whatever I made. Same with cooking. The instructions may say blend but the output is lumpy, sticky, the wrong colour, all three. I can chop an onion but it looks like it has been hit with a hammer and not finely diced. I can peel potatoes but there is more potato left on the peelings than on the bit that is peeled. I can sautee a steak but it looks like (and tastes like) the bit of carpet you wipe your feet on. Recent meals have included:
1. The night I finally managed, I thought, to bring the cooking all together to present the family with their meal only to find that I had completely forgotten to cook the different meal for one of the kids (he had to wait a further twenty minutes to eat). That is referred to regularly at meal times along the lines of 'Haven't forget me this time have you Dad?'.
2. Making bolognese sauce, putting the remainder in the oven to keep warm and finding it still there the following morning. Still, it now makes a very effective whetstone for sharpening the knives or acting as a chock for the wheels of a 747.
3. Making a shepherd's pie and forgetting to put the potatoes on to boil. The meal didn't work quite so well after that.
4. We won't talk about the apple crumble, though the local fire brigade still use the episode as part of their video training about domestic fires.

So I struggle on but am beginning to think that I may never master this art - perhaps for me I am doomed to be forever warming up ready meals from Marks and Spencers. Oh pass me that cooking wine and I'll have another go at dicing the onion. Mrs EoTP has pointed out that if I carry on with that Spanish wine I'll soon be able to face another drunk with a knife, 'Just go and look in the mirror.'

Monday, 19 November 2007

Party politics

'You're not still married to her, I thought she was a real [add insult of choice here]?' His tone was incredulous. I'd bumped into an old colleague from the company I first worked for. He asked me how things were going and we'd had the usual conversation. He was doing supremely well, now in charge of worldwide biro purchases for International Whocares, huge salary, was living in a wonderful country house, his fourth wife was charming when not drinking, he had supervised access to the kids once every Candlemass and then forgot to ask about my life. I remembered this conversation as I drove past the location of a long forgotten office Christmas party for the first time in 25 years last week.

You see, I don't like office Christmas parties very much. Here's some examples.

1. As above. Three line whip demands you bring your partner. At the time partner meant a heterosexual relationship involving marriage or engagement. Anything outside that was viewed as evil, a pact with Satan (at the least), perverse, an anomaly in the universe and outside the parameters of a good company man (and the company was, inevitably, male). If you considered that living in sin (how quaint) with a partner older than you was OK , the Company considered she was likely to be a Wicca and probably worth bringing out the ducking stool and stocking up the timber faggots for a good fire just in case. And the word from the Three Line Whipper ins was 'turn up to the party with your partner, the Company will pay all fares and bills and having turned up expect us to ignore them completely all night did we mention it was Dinner Jackets? Did we also mention that not turning up with said partner means instant end to career prospects? Did we also mention that if you do not get totally out of your head we will consider you a baby girl with bows in her hair?' And the heinous sin Mrs EoTP committed to cause that comment many years later? She dared to disagree with my then boss about some literature he had read. Mrs EoTP - English graduate. Boss - 'O' level in Patronising, 'A' level in Condescension. Degree in Boreish.

2. Senior manager decides that the company really is a family organisation and sells idea to MD. On what basis this is decided no one knows. We all know that his wife is a passive aggressive obsessive and his son regularly comes home drunk and they fight on the front lawn. Perhaps he sees the company like that. Two line whip this time. 'We expect you to bring your partner, please sort of stick to the conventions of relationships and not turning up means an instant end to your career prospects. We might talk to your partner if she is good looking with good legs and doesn't answer back. Did we also mention that if you do not get totally out of your head we will consider you a baby girl with bows in her hair?'

3. CEO decides international company (they in States, we in UK) ought to be a family organisation (just like a family, live hundreds of miles from each other and never talk) and that Christmas party is necessary. Tickets go on sale and only three are sold one week before party, and MD bought two of them. MD cannot understand why low paid employees will not fork out £55 per ticket to drive 30 miles to venue and did we mention it was Dinner Jackets? Three line whip to management team. 'You must go to the party and you must get all your supervisors to go as well. Did we also mention that if you do not get totally out of your head we will consider you a baby girl with bows in her hair?' I point out that price of ticket and low morale in Company may explain low ticket sales. Instant end to career prospects. Result is Christmas party with 45 sulking managers. 44 very drunk managers. And a fight later on in the evening between two partners.

There are other issues.

Does anyone really want to go to an office Christmas party? I mean really want to go or are they just doing it because they think they ought to?

Which of the supplementary Christmas meals do you go to? Finance, Sales and Operations have all invited you to their evening? All of them, none of them? Oh the angst.

When you are part of a organisation that has conflicting Christmas parties on the same evening what do you do? Right now I have invites for a meal at a local bar/fight club (especially Saturdays) or a 20 mile drive to an elegant hotel for a meal twice the price (and yes DJs are required. Why?). I'm going to upset someone. And this is a voluntary organisation as well.

When all around are totally out of their heads what do you do? Easy this one. Come 1115pm everyone is so drunk they are no longer capable of knowing if they are still at the party let alone anyone else. So you leave surreptitiously and on the Monday pick up a little gossip about what went on post 1115pm - then just tell everyone how funny that incident was. Works every time, no one knows you left early.

So you might understand why, when someone mentions office Christmas parties, my soul dies a little each time

Oh, I forgot one type. MD of Company asks whether I would like to go to Christmas party at a local pub one evening, with a reputation for good food, at the Company's expense to have a meal with a few of my colleagues from the last eight months. Partners not expected to come, soft drinks only if driving, smart casual is fine. That's odd, I want to go to this one. Perhaps it is not all bad after all?

And I'm still married to the same woman.

Friday, 16 November 2007

'I've been driving in my car it's not quite a Jaguar', Madness, Driving in my car

There's a large oblong on my drive where my company car used to be. Where once stood my shiny Jaguar/Mercedes/other large 'executive' car now stands a small shrine to company perks plus the last faint trace of an oil leak. I now drive Mrs EoTP's little blue car.

I'd describe the little blue car (lbc) as one of variable noise constant velocity. In the last three months I've driven around 5000 miles in it, that's about as twice as many as Mrs EoTP would do in a normal year as I undertake interviews for my part time job. I feel like it's being part of the the early days of flight. Pull on leather flying hat, screw goggles firmly into eyes, chocks away and then clatter off into the sky with the smell of avgas and oil streaming back from the propeller engine. When I had my company car I would turn the ignition key, open the driver's window just to check that the engine had actually started it was so quiet, turn on the air-con, the CD player, settle down into the sumptuous leather covered seats (that were heated) and then majestically point the vehicle into the traffic and glide off to whatever my destination was. Speed? Just look at the accelerator peddle and you'd be doing 70 mph. Overtaking? Blink of an eye. Motorway clear? Cruise control on. Mobile phone? Hands free with teeny microphone in sun blind.

Mrs EoTPs lbc is not quite that at that level. Start engine? Ear defenders in. Struggle to get into traffic and maintain poise whilst wearing made to measure suit and trying to adopt a 'well it's good for the environment driving a small car' look. Overtaking? Best to book several days ahead. Speed? Press the accelerator to the floor and there's a change in engine noise and a barely perceptible increase in speed. Hills? We don't like hills. Mobile phone? Stuck in a spare compartment. Will answer when arrive at destination. Radio/CD player - fine as long as you are not actually moving because after that the road noise drowns out the sound anyway.

When you drive a company car vehicles like the one I'm driving now are an annoyance. They take ages to overtake, they slow down on hills on motorways, they don't accelerate away from roundabouts. They are driven by mums and losers! And by me. I think my driving is better mind you, but that is on the basis that as I can't drive fast anymore I can avoid things more easily as it takes me ten times as long to arrive at an incident as I did in my Jag. Company car drivers actually look down at you. Stop at a motorway service station to eat your sandwiches and you can see the sneers on their faces as they step of of their big cars and see you in your lbc. Not that I'm prejudiced but come the revolution and I am made el Presidento, all you BMW drivers are up against the wall.

And the bills. I've never seen such bills. Because of the increased mileage the car has needed a major service, a replacement cam belt, new tyres, new exhaust and so on and so on. Because of the increased mileage the insurance cover we had was no longer applicable so we've had to change it and, guess what, much more expensive. With a company car you just take it to the dealer (or in my case they would come and collect it then return it) and that was it. All the nasty paying stuff would be handled by the leasing company. Nothing to sign. OK I know there was a biggish tax bill for the car but that was taken from your salary beforehand. Now I have to pay the bills myself you see the money flowing away like water over Niagara.

Long journeys are not much fun. In the old days (e.g. big car) large numbers of miles in one day were no problem. Geneva to Yorkshire in a day? Yes. West Midlands to Munich in a day? Of course. Now West Midlands to Essex and back in a day and I'm exhausted. I hadn't realised how hard driving was in a little car. When I went to the HQ of a large prestige car manufacturer recently I can honestly say the the lbc was the smallest and cheapest car in the car park by probably some £30k. I was dwarfed by huge new cars, SUVs and the like. I thought I'd be asked to leave or enter by the tradesman (persons?) entrance at the back. Mind you Mrs EoTP positively revels in that sort of thing. Before the latest car she had a 16 year old Golf and would love parking it next to the big, glittering car of the MD of Consolidated HooHahs. 'I don't care' she would say 'It's reliable, cheap and I can always find a parking space. And the drivers of these big cars don't like parking next to me in case I open the door and scratch their lovely paint work.' And off she would roar fighting to turn the steering wheel in the absence of power steering. Muscles like a stevedore she had.

But here's an interesting thing. Would I have a big car again if I could? Well of course I would I was just teasing - the more gadgets, leather, cubic capacity the better. No I am still teasing. I'm not sure I would anymore. When I had the Merc I chose it on the basis of brand snobbery. I wanted the three pointed star on my drive and actually that particular car was one of the most unreliable I have ever had. The Jag was a great car but was really a Mondeo with a different body. And in any event it was only me in it 95% of the time. So maybe I wouldn't...but then there is that space on the drive.

Of course it all entirely academic at the moment as the lbc is all we have and I'm sure that's a new oil leak on the drive. But then I do have a motorcycle license - I could always have one of these...

Monday, 29 October 2007

To CV or not CV

What is the purpose of a CV? Well it's not to give the recruitment agencies a good laugh when they read it, 'Look at this one, you're not going to believe it he thinks he can be [insert job title] and he's only got a GCSE in Guinea Pig care.'

The purpose of a CV is to get you an interview. Now my CV has been worked on by people from an outplacement agency who are are so rough and mean and bully you so vigourously into getting it just right that even the SAS wouldn't dare take them on . They helped me hone my CV to a pitch of perfection such that it would be declared a lethal weapon in half the States in the USA. In addition a good friend elsewhere in the UK has also pitched in and helped me tone it and shape it accordingly. It is now a CV that, if a Ninja carried it about his person, the Police would declare a state of emergency in all the surrounding counties. Shakespeare would wish he'd written it as a sonnet.

It is that good. However I haven't had an interview in months and I'm now on my 41st job application and almost 8 months without a full time job. So what's going wrong?

In the last week or two there have been quite a lot of news reports about a TV nanny celebrity who had done very well for herself indeed, until one of the national papers looked at her CV and discovered that most of the claims she made about her training and background were, er, without any substance (if we are being polite). And don't get me started about some Peers whose academic record doesn't stand more than a nanosecond's scrutiny either it seems. It doesn't stop there. The further I research this topic the more I realise that most CVs have more fairy stories in them than the Brothers Grimm.

I once spent a weekend long ago role playing in a War Game scenario with some jolly chaps from the British army. I seem to recall one of the chaps wanting to go nuclear after half an hour when a 'Russian' pulled a face at him. Anyway, what I learned during that weekend was the concept of 'plausible deniability' - basically if you get caught, lie with just enough truth and you can get away with it. Whilst working on my CV the outplacement agency were at pains to get me to tell the truth - everything must be verifiable but presented in a way that demonstrates the problem, the action taken and the positive outcome. Once you've done that, you then shape your CV according to the job you are applying for and bingo, many interviews followed by negotiation over the package offered and start new job, that wasn't too bad after all was it?

Only it isn't working. My CV is sharp as a Toledo blade and is shaped on the potters wheel of CVs according to the role (mixing of metaphors there, but it is my blog) - it's always accompanied by a letter succinctly pointing out all my wonderful features and benefits that may not immediately be seen in the CV itself.

So do I need to start lying? I realise that there are hundreds of applications for some jobs so the recruiters can carefully pick and choose and that I have applied for jobs that I could best be described as tangentially qualified to do. I've also applied for jobs where I could overlay my CV on the job description and you'd swear they were one and the same. Am I not getting interviews then because the other candidates are embellishing their CVs to my considerable disadvantage? I have a bucket full of 'O' levels (including Guinea Pig care), oodles of 'A' levels (Advanced Guinea Pig and Llama care) and two degrees and not once have I been asked to prove it. So perhaps I should start making things up in my CV to attract attention. What could they include? Master and Commander of one of Her Majesty's ships? Jaguar Fighter pilot? Managing Director of Consolidated HooHahs? Man from UNCLE?

I realise that you can't put an earing on a pig and make it pretty and my experience and background is what it is - I can alter the way it is presented though. I can't alter my age, if that is an issue, but I can hide it (and the recent legislation, in theory, stops ageism. Prove it!). I could also 'lose' some qualifications. I have used my exact titles from my previous jobs - perhaps they seem too intimidating? Maybe I should 'lose' a degree? Perhaps it makes me look far too overqualified? Actually I don't know what to do for the best and you rarely get feedback anyway. Even if you do get feedback it is for that position only and may not be relevant for the next one.

In the end maybe it is a case of 'To thine ownself be true' take me as I am with what I offer and I will sit it out until that time. Except I need a job and, so far, the best part of a year has gone by. Maybe Will was right: 'Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.' And that comes from 'All's well that ends well.' Could be an omen.


'Alone again, naturally', Gilbert O'Sullivan

Monday morning, 9am and the house is all mine until 4.30pm. And silence reigns. Mrs EoTP and the kids have gone to work/school and I am master of the universe. This means I get to use our computer without having to negotiate access like some internet cafe or the local library. If you are not careful when the doors are opened by the library staff in this town you'll get trampled by the rush for the PCs with internet access. You can't hear yourself talk in the library so that you can be shusshed by the fierce librarians anymore because of the noise of the twenty keyboards clicking away throughout the day. Even the snores of the tramps are drowned out by the frantic need to access the web.

I'm think I'm getting the hang of this housework and shopping task although last week Mrs EoTP took me for shopping lessons at Tescos. I proudly arrived home the first week with much defrosted food (as it took me hours to find everything in the store) but with the list duly ticked off having spent only £75 for what I thought was the week's eating needs. After much whinging from everyone about not having bought their favourite snack/food/hair product/drink I pointed out that I had Bought Everything On The List. Only then did I have it made known to me that there is an invisible list of things that need buying but are not written down. How was I meant to know this? So on Sunday Mrs EoTP and I had a little amble through the many aisles having instructions on what to buy even though it may not be written down. This time the bill came to £140. So that's where the money goes. I noticed the Tesco staff eyeing me warily and moving steadily away clearly remembering me as 'the man who doesn't know where anything is and keeps asking us, we are not trained to deal with idiots like him' but then relieved to see that I was clearly under the control of Care in the Community for the morning in the guise of Mrs EoTP.

I thought I was getting the hang of cleaning as well. Warming to my domestic chores yesterday morning I sat down on the bed and gave to Mrs EoTP what I thought was a very interesting list of domestic tasks I was intending to do that morning, the order in which I was going to do them and the estimated time for completion. She stared at me me for a full minute and said 'That's just like a man. If men do anything they need a meeting, an agenda, to assign tasks and decide on outcomes, allocate responsibilities, meet afterwards to discuss performance and so on. Women just get on and do it. I'd have cleaned the upstairs, done the ironing and gone and met a friend for coffee and a chat in the time it has taken you to tell me what you are going to do. If a woman undertakes a task men don't consider it as meriting attention but when a man has to do it suddenly it becomes very important, requires a strokey beard meeting, a clipboard, a mobile phone, a big company car and a P.A.' She then left the room. I thought I ought to clean the toilets at that point, it seemed suitably symbolic.

I don't like being alone. It's lonely. I seemed to have spent most of my working life by myself which of course is delightfully ironic as I don't enjoy it very much. Now I have the house to myself I am wondering what to do. I have, of course, to make all those phone calls for my part time job and I do have to undertake about thirty face to face interviews. However this means hours in the car by myself, an hour's conversation with a stranger, then hours by myself in the car again driving home.

I spent many years of my early working career either as a sales manager responsible for a sizable territory or travelling the world when I was involved in international sales. And in those days there were no mobile phones so I would be out of contact with my office for days. I'd say goodbye to Mrs EoTP on a Sunday night and talk to her again on Friday when I returned and reintroduced myself 'You may recall marrying me, I am your long lost husband.' Then, when I finally make management, you get an office that cuts you off from your staff but underlines how important you are by not having to be amongst the riff-raff anymore. It may be lonely at the top but its lonely at the bottom sometimes as well. I may very well have operated an open door policy but many seemed to treat my office as the place where people enter and just blink out of existence as they entered the maw of doom. 'No, you're mistaken, Mrs Biscuit never came to my office, I haven't seen her for days, perhaps she went to Stationery to get some more padded envelopes from Kevin. No my name isn't Sweeney Todd, why do you ask?' I was self-employed for a number of years as well but it was the loneliness of that existence than got to me in the end and drove me back to working for an organisation. Being self employed is when I first started talking to the computer during the day just to hear to sound of a voice, even if it was mine, whilst I worked at home. It's when it started talking back to me that I knew I ought to get out more and re-evaluate my career options.

'Hello EoTP, this is HAL. I've just picked up a fault in the AE-35 unit.'

"Er who are you? I'm trying to finish this spread sheet for Consolidated Hoo Hahs and they are very picky. They like colour in their spreadsheets. And pictures. Nobody told me Apple Macs were this good.'

'Are you sure you are making the right decision?'

'Well yes HAL because I want the money and spreadsheets are very important to them but I don't know why. They must have outcomes and allocate responsibilities and give women instructions whilst drinking coffee and talking about their next company car.'

'Look EoTP, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over.'

Look HAL go away, I need to work on this shopping list for Tescos and look at these emails from Nigeria, they sound like a good deal to me, you know the ones that say they a going to transfer $1 million to my account for helping them out for five minutes. I could be really rich.'

'I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.'

So what do you do? Right now there is the problem that at 0930 there is no one to talk to. Everyone is out.

Maybe I could call some one? 'Anyone for a coffee?' But then all my friends are at work. Wait, I have it. I am going shopping this morning. I can ask every member of Tesco staff I see where items of food are stacked and when I get to the check out what a lovely conversation I can have whilst packing the bags then suddenly discover that I have to pay, what a surprise, and spend another five minutes finding my purse at the bottom of my bag along with the fifteen discount vouchers I should have handed over when I first started passing items through the till. Then I can argue about not buying enough of one product and not getting the discount. They won't mind I'm sure. That should pass half an hour and then off to the library - I'm sure the tramps would much rather talk to me than sleep.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Rules of engagement

And so Mrs EoTP finishes her first week at her new job. In theory anyway this should be the best part of a job, the new start. After all they've chosen YOU over all the other candidates (and how good does that feel?), you should be happy with the salary for at least three weeks as you accepted the job on those terms (after that you find that 25% of the staff have 50% fewer qualifications than you do and 30% more salary but let that pass for now) and, as you don't really know what is going on in the organisation, you don't know how much a mess you are making of the job so far; you may not realise it for months.

Mrs EoTP needed a lie down at the end of the week with a cold compress and a cold bottle of white wine. We'd forgotten about the hell of the new job.

Clothes.
Best to wear them for the job I find, saves on the snide comments. But you have to have them. Mrs EoTP has had to buy a new wardrobe of clothes to go to work of course, not having had such stuff for many years. Unless you work for some laid back company such as Google there is the small matter of confirming to the dress code. Of course, no one has written the dress code down, especially for women, so you have to interpret it as best you can. So new stuff is needed and quite a lot of it as well - such as a waterproof coat as Mrs EoTP now walks to work. We walked the length and breadth of the Midlands trying to find a suitable coat for walking to work in and staying dry but not looking like a serious hiker ready for a week in Snowdonia. Don't woman wear waterproof coats anymore? How do they stay dry? Do they drive into their workplaces and step out directly into the office? Or are we unusual in that we do actually walk? So there goes the first month's salary on the set up costs for work.

Security
All the doors to the site are locked and controlled electronically. To gain entrance you have to double up to get close to the speaker set low in the wall, press the entry button, state your purpose of the visit whilst the tinny voice says something like 'Snargle, snig, buzz, ganding boing' in reply. The door buzzes and you gain entry. Then you get in but, like the Second World War when all the signposts were taken down in the UK to foil those dastardly Nazi paratroopers, there are no signposts to guide you around the site. I know this because I was asked to deliver the usual 1 kilo of forms to the admin office that you need to sign to prove you are not an illegal immigrant and a Drain On The Economy. I gained entry, 'Snargle, burg, admin, zing, boink', went through the door and got lost. Now I'm all for security but given that I was wearing a T shirt and jeans and carrying a large padded envelope you think someone might have challenged me but no they didn't. I wandered around, smiling and saying hallo to staff who politely smiled back and ignored me. I dropped off the envelope and walked back to the gate by another route and was I challenged? No of course not but lots of other members of staff smiled at me and said hello all over again. Anyway Mrs EoTP finally got her electronic pass by the end of the week so can now get in, although all she did for several days was follow others in through the open gate as they arrived.

Forms
There are so many. Salary, security forms, pension, medical history, values and belief systems, criminal records, birth certificates, wedding certificates, certificates for swimming the length, you name it they want it. Then, when you give them it and they hand you back an officially printed form to say they have had it, they deny they have had it two days later and want it back (again). This happened to me recently in another organisation. I tried to log onto a part of a system that I had legitimate access to and couldn't. The response from IT to my company email was 'You don't exist' which I felt was a little existentialist of them really.

IT
Mrs EoTP has to switch on her three PCs in a certain sequence or they don't work. Why they don't work if you don't follow the sequence no one can explain. You can launch nuclear missiles more easily than this. There are passwords by the box full to remember each different for a separate part of the system.

The stuff they don't tell you
  • What to do if the fire alarm goes off. I know it usually consists of standing around in a desultory manner hoping the alarms will turn themselves off in thirty minutes.
  • Where all the toilets are - after five months you discover one around the corner after you have been making a 30 minute round trip to the one you were first shown.
  • Who actually knows how to make the photocopier work.
  • How to turn the heating on or off.
  • Where IT are actually located and what they do.
  • Why IT always have their 'help' line on voicemail.
  • Which Christmas party you should go to. Admins, Finance, Sales, all of them?
  • Who will be your enemy and who will be your ally.
  • Who really gets things done. Forget the suits and the bosses as they haven't a clue. Find the one person who really keeps the whole creaking structure together. Make them your friend. Stay close to them.
And that is just week 1. As you don't know what you don't know then the first six months of a job are hell until you find out what is going on and can ask for help. But then you may never find out.
In my experience at work most people know what it is they do, but don't know what they do does.
I think I need a lie down.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Home alone too.

It's 1 o'clock. There are all sorts of odd noises I've not heard before: a creak from a floorboard across the landing, clocks ticking that I haven't noticed before, odd electrical hums from machinery throughout the house. No other voices, no other sounds. It's all a bit eerie.

No, I'm not awake in the middle of the night unable to sleep and sitting at the computer completing my blog. It's 1pm and I'm all alone in the house - something that very rarely happens to me, it is very strange and it is the future. You see Mrs EoTP has a job. Yes this morning I waved the entire family off into the October sunshine and closed the door on them until late this afternoon.

Mrs EoTP was offered the job two weeks ago and accepted. It's local, within walking distance, the hours are very reasonable and, even more strangely, it's directly connected with her vocational career which I have been doing my best to wreck since we got married by moving us around the country.

I was, of course, delighted that she had fought off all the other candidates to get the position particularly as Mrs EoTP has not had a full time paid job for over 12 years. The salary is modest but what an economic lifeline this will prove to be as I near the end of my part time job in early December.

Of course the maths of job hunting are interesting.
Mrs EoTP: five applications, three interviews, one job offer. That's a 60% interview rate.
Me: thirty six applications, three interviews, zero job offers, that's a 'we don't need to discuss the percentages do we?' rate.
I think I'll get Mrs EoTP to complete my CVs and applications from now on. What ever she is doing is working.

As I am home several days a week naturally it has fallen to me to do much of the work that was done by the one we will now call 'The Breadwinner'. But this morning I have to deal with with tasks of bewildering complexity. I have, in the past, scoffed at Mrs EoTP's inability to use DVD recorders, XBoxes, PlayStations and the like. Now I am faced with the washing machine with a control panel like a 747. And I don't understand it. And then there are all those different detergents depending on what is going to be washed. Whites, coloureds, mixed wash, delicates. 'Honey I've shrunk the washing' I'll be shouting if I don't get this right. There is worse. Shopping and cooking. Shopping I can handle providing I have a precise list of what to get, but in Tescos yesterday I had a crisis - just what is muscovado sugar, where would it be and what does it look like? What would I do with it if I found it? And to make things worse Tesco is expanding the store and have moved many of the aisles. I sailed around the store like the 'Flying Dutchman' doomed to sail the seven seas trying to find stuff (though I did find the wine aisles, tee hee) for hours with the chilled and frozen food forming puddles on the floor as they dripped through the trolley at the checkout.

Cleaning the house. This I can do as it is a low complexity task. A pink duster, some polish and the vacuum cleaner and I'm off. Except there are showers and baths and toilets - I'm sure you don't use the same cloth for all of them. Or do you? Marigold gloves. Not sure they go with the manly image I try to exude. And as for the chemicals, Dr Frankenstein would have have been pushed to have more. There are grime buster liquids, non- scratch creams, eco stuff for toilet bowls, conventional bleach, weapons of mass destruction (no, haven't found them yet but they must be here Dr Blix).

So far this morning I have been working from 0830 to 1pm (with of course a coffee break) and I haven't finished half the house yet - then there is the cooking to be done this evening. OK, I'm cheating tonight because there are pizzas and not even I can mess them up. No wonder Mrs EoTP set off this morning smiling. She may be working but she ain't doing this stuff any more.

Cooking. Not a strong point of mine. Indeed it may not even register on the scale that runs from 'pathetic, microwave a ready meal at one end to Jamie Oliver standards at the other.' The cooker - buttons, red lights, temperature thingies. Oh dear. Maybe this is that extra incentive I need to find a full time job. 'Get work or give the family food poisoning.'

There is one more thing that has just popped into my head. I haven't uttered a word since 0830. I speak more in my sleep than that. I am never quiet for that long and now, having thought about it, I'm no longer sure that I am not speaking out loud or internalising all my thoughts. If anyone answers me then I really am in trouble and this is only day one. In an office you have people around you all day, joint coffee breaks, time to slag off one of your esteemed colleagues. Just when I had adapted to the change of working from home and finding ways of not standing in front of Mrs EoTP when she was trying to cook off they go and leave me alone.

The Postie has just dropped the mail from last month through the door so I'll go and find out what job I was rejected from in September. Maybe if I'm quick I can chat to her for a minute or two, no she's seen me and has run off up the street. Wonder if they do coffee mornings around her - for us househusbands?

Monday, 8 October 2007

Telephone lines

'Go on punk, make my day.'
I make phone calls to complete strangers for my job (part-time job don't get excited, still searching for the Big One). I want to interview them and get information from them. They are busy people (well of course, they are they have jobs ergo they must be busy, busy mustn't they?). They do not want to be interviewed.
We have a problem.
Actually, I have a problem.

I call potential targets out of the blue. I have about thirty seconds to grab their attention, present my pitch before their auto-reject kicks in and years of hardened training makes them tune out and start putting the phone down on me. I have to complete forty interviews over the next six weeks.
I have a problem.

If I was an author I could hone my first sentence over the months, or years, so that you become hooked and want to continue to listen to me. I could make it memorable like 'It is a truth universally acknowledged...' or 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay..' but someone has beaten me to it and anyway when you are calling to find out their views on coconut futures (or whatever) literary allusions are, frankly, a liability.

So over the last few months I've been working on my techniques and lines so that I can instantly interest my targets and engage them in conversation. And once you do that the chances of securing an interview become measurably better. In theory.

Of course when at work you do not have to bother with this preamble. You can bark on the phone to a hapless underling and demand spreadsheets, data, coffee, chocolate biscuits without explanation. Or, of course, put the phone down on people like me who call out of the blue and who are trying to make a living...

It starts with the telephone stance. I went on a telephone training course years ago that urged you to stand up as you make the call and smile as you dial. That way the unsuspecting target would unconsciously realise that you were a happy, engaging person who they would love to talk to and probably take out to lunch and introduce to their family. Personally it made me feel like one of those cult members dressed in garish robes on the street and ringing little bells. It's meant to give you a sense of dynamism. If I do this at home anyone passing by on the street would see me with a manic grin on my face meandering around the room talking to myself and probably call Social Services.

Here's how not to do it.

'Good morning, lovely morning isn't it, oooh look at that squirrel on my tree, silly me you can't see it. Now I want information from you so I'll be there at 10am tomorrow and have the coffee ready, mine's white with four sugars and I like the custard creams best.'

Or, in a deep, sonorous American accent, 'Coming soon to a phone next to you - Consolidated Hoo Hahs bring you: The Questionnaire - bigger than the questions you were asked last week about corporate staple purchases, longer than the telephone interview trying to sell you a time share in Latvia and far more understandable than the one about mobile telephone rates ... we bring you ... [dramatic pause] ... padded envelope purchases you make annually. In stereo.'

When I started off with the interviews my opening gambit was an explanation that resembled the instructions found in self-assembly furniture booklets. 'Now Mr Porkscrathchings, I work for Consolidated Hoo Hahs you may have read about us recently in the Camarthen Examiner, no you didn't you live in Edinburgh, well there we are, anyway we are a not-for-profit, wholly-owned subsidiary of Global Wing Wang Solutions and we undertake research in a cooperative and...' See what I mean. Your eyes have glazed over and already you are replacing the phone on the handset.

I moved to plan B. 'Hi don't put the phone down I'm not trying to sell you anything I just want two hours of your time to ask you questions, no don't put the phone down, no this isn't a joke, oh he's gone...' Not entirely successful either.

Plan W, the one that works best, and has been honed through many iterations, goes like this: 'My name is Eyes on the Prize, I work for Consolidated Hoo Hahs and we are undertaking research in a number of European Countries of behalf of European padded envelope manufacturers. I wonder whether I could spend a few minutes talking to you about your padded envelope purchases. As a thank you for your participation I'd be happy to send you a copy of the report due next year.' Or something similar. And it seems to work. I generally get a 1 in 8 acceptance rate. Yes that does mean that to achieve forty interviews I have to call about 300 people but then it is money. This doesn't include the dance of the first contact in which you have to negotiate Kevin in Stationery who really doesn't give a rat's breakfast about the research and will not/does not leave a message, the PA who is a more formidable barrier than the Great Wall of China in getting through to the Boss, the 'he'll call you back' (they don't), the follow up call and 'they are now in a strokey beard meeting' and so on.

I had thought about writing a story and then, each time I finished an interview, letting them have just a few lines of the plot so that they would actively want me to call back with the next installment, sort of get them hooked in a literary way. I actually think they could do this on the motorways with the overhead information boards that encourage you to 'Stay alert, have a rest.' Why not put consecutive lines from a story on each board so that drivers and occupants can be amused and entertained on long journeys? I digress.

There are two notable successes that come to mind.
First there is Mr R. the MD of a very successful local company. I rang him up first about 6 months ago and he spent 20 minutes telling me why he will not do interviews. 'I don't do interviews, I don't do interviews, I don't do interviews, you can come tomorrow at 2.30pm'. I saw him for the second time earlier this week with the latest round of research into the use of A4 transparent plastic envelopes and bird feeders.

The other one was Mr K the owner of most of Staffordshire as far as I can tell. Nothing he likes better than to be taking engines apart apparently. Spoke to him for 50 minutes on his mobile - only about 25% of what he said was usable as he had an impressive grasp of English profanities but boy did he know his stuff on padded envelopes.

The final point. If you say you are going to send someone a copy of your report into bird feeders then do it. I now have my regulars for interviews. Now it's a case of 'Hi it's EoTP here' 'Oh yes' they say 'Let's get it over with shall we, what is it this time, staplers, black biro usage, internal envelopes and why there are always 500% more internal envelopes available than could ever be used?'
To which there is only one answer.
'You have to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well do you?'

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

In response may I say...

'In technology response time is the time a system or functional unit takes to react to a given input (wikipedia.org).'

Or 'The delay experienced in time sharing between request and answer, a delay which increases when the number of users on the system increases.'

Or the total amount of accumulated time EoTP has spent waiting for slack jawed, drooling, swivel eyed, intellectually challenged recruitment executives to actually provide some feedback to one of his job applications. As most never respond at all there is a factor for infinity built in somewhere in the formula.

When I look back over the last seven months without a full time job the one element that stands out amongst all the other ones (there are coloured graphs and pie charts as well a list in ranked order if you'd like to see them) is the time spent waiting. I've already blogged about this several eons ago so to save time I've just cut and pasted the same rant in...no just kidding a whole new rant fresh from the oven is yours for the reading.

The second quote above is quite instructive because it is a truism - if you increase the number of users in a system then the response time will increase. Like encouraging more rail users and wondering why the railway carriages are full or any Post Office queue. Today, and this is true, there is a line of 15 people waiting to post stuff and what do the staff do at my local Post Office - go for a break that's what. So response times increase unless of course you increase the ability of the system to deal with the number of users (such as saying loudly like I did 'How about some more staff then?' My parcel will now be off to Papua New Guinea instead of Peterborough). See what an education does for you, gives you deep insights into capacity management.

Let me put this to you then. You place an advert, you expect shall we say 300 replies. You are a reasonably large recruitment agency being paid an absolute fortune to recruit someone preferably warm and breathing and who can at least write their own name so they can sign their expenses. Do you:
a) tell your IT team to set up an automatic response mechanism to all answer all inbound CVs so that the respondents know that their precious manuscript has actually arrived and spent at least a few nanoseconds in the 'In' box before being sent to the Trash can?
b) Set up a mail merge facility in Word, manually enter the candidates details into an Excel database so you can post out received/hold on/reject letters?
c) Do you say 'Blow this for a game of soldiers let's not bother letting anybody know anything except the three most likely candidates as that way it doesn't eat into our enormous fat fee and our expense account lunch times?'

I think you know where my vote will be cast.

To deal with this tosh this you have to build up a defense mechanism.
The first is to visualise the person responsible for finding the preferred candidate and then thinking up ways of causing them much pain. The early Chinese dynasties have some useful tips I find.

Secondly you begin to know instinctively when the threshold for getting a reply has passed. For those on the volume on-line job search web sites it's the moment you send your CV - for the other positions once 10 days have gone mark the application dead and bury it. The ones that you will almost always hear from are those connected with public bodies as they are open to public scrutiny - however as the closing dates for these jobs are usually three years hence and they really, really like to consider all the candidates very, very carefully just in case you can sue them for discrimination, they tend not to make a decision for about 8 years and by that time we've all moved on and forgotten what is was we applied for.

Bill Bryson says that the only way to start a trend to actually get a response from organisations is to encourage random shooting of those slackers who just don't get back to you. I have to say it's a very compelling argument. Imagine how we'd all be if the emergency services worked that way. Make a 999 call and get a 'We might come, we might not'. That'd be fun.

So rant over for the week. If you have any comments post them below and I'll get back to you. Yeah right.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Present times

We have saved, we have reduced spending to priority goods, we have cancelled holidays, we do not go out. We have paid all our bills. This is what you have to do when you have a much reduced income.

But we are heading into a whole new expenditure minefield, other than the eye watering bill I have just had to pay the garage for a service and necessary cam belt change on our little car (If it had been a slightly bigger bill I could have paid of most of our remaining mortgage instead and bought a timeshare in Spain).

I am talking about Christmas and birthday presents.

The EoTP household is now entering that time of the year when much of the family have their birthdays and, of course, there is Christmas. Now Mrs EoTP and I are not great fans of Christmas and the resulting consumer binge but we do like to buy the family some gifts, as you do. I am always amazed at the figures quoted by the press on the average spend per child at Christmas because it far exceeds the amount we spend. Some kids must be getting some huge presents. We have a simple maxim about money which is 'if you haven't got it you can't spend it.' So we now find ourselves in the dilemma of working out how much we dare spend.

I have to pack in my part time job in mid-December otherwise I won't be able to claim my mortgage protection insurance for 12 months. Yeah I know this is daft but them is the rules. So the much reduced income we currently have will be much reduced again. I asked my kids the other day what would it take for them to feel poor. We had been discussing the impact of redundancy on the family and how we had all coped so far. 'Not having a Christmas' was their answer. Note not holidays, going out, designer clothes and all the other consumer items their friends have but not having a Christmas.

So what do you do?

Basically we do not have the money to splash out or even disturb the surface of the water much. The kids have coped really well over the last 7 months but this looks like one of those totemic events that may be just a little upsetting. As for the rest of the family we really have no choice but to say sorry but this year we just can't afford it.

I'm not looking forward to 25 December at all.

Now another related topic which I feel I have to share to demonstrate the labyrinth difficulties of job hunting .

I applied for a local job about 6 months ago, one that I would have liked to do. As you will have noted from this blog I clearly was not successful but got the rejection letter that stated 'The response to our campaign was overwhelming and the general standard of applications has been very high including a number of applications which were very close matches to our requirements so sling your hook matey and take your pathetic loser butt elsewhere.' Well most of the sentence is accurate anyway. The result is the same anyway 'Nope, not you, go away and go away quickly.' Anyway despite this overwhelming response and this clutch of people who were just fine and dandy for the role, 5 months later it has been re-advertised. So much for those highly qualified, just right people then. Of course I have reapplied. I have to find out whether I must sling my hook again.

On that theme I applied for another job about three months ago, this time based in London. Same response, same sort of words but who wants to work in London anyway? (Wasn't it so much easier in the old days when someone tapped you on the shoulder, said come for a quick bite at the Frog and Spawn, said 'I like your style, you're in.') . Anyway, same thing happened, eight weeks later job is re-advertised, but this time I don't apply as I really wouldn't want to commute to London. This time I get the same rejection letter (same words, different signature and date) for the second time even though I didn't apply. I mean, they really don't want me do they or is this a case of kicking me when I am down and then twisting the metaphorical knife? I feel that now they will be writing to me regularly just to confirm that I really, really, wasn't the right person.

Sometimes you laugh and sometimes you cry.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

'I'm busy doing nothing working the whole day through', Bing Crosby

I've just celebrated, though that really isn't the right word, 6 months unemployment. How about mourned the last 6 months of unemployment?

When I lost my job I know that getting another would be tough but I think I believed that after six months I would actually have managed to get another full time position. Well so much for that belief then, another delusion I have been under. And I believed in Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, snow at Christmas and Al Gore becoming President of the USA. And nothing imminent either so it is going to go on for some time to come. In fact it is quite easy to see how a year can go by without securing another full time position. Anyway the part time job still brings in some cash so, as I may have said before, it could be worse.

The thing is that in the last two weeks I've been busier than any other time during the last 6 months. I have had to work every work day for the last two weeks, plus a Sunday as well, to meet deadlines. In fact I even managed to get past the boundaries of the county on a number of occasions. Sometimes it feels like those scenes in Star Trek when Kirk says 'Shields up' and there is an invisible, impenetrable electronic sort of condom around the Enterprise stopping the aliens getting close. Recently there has been a reverse shield around the county seemingly stopping me get out to talk to the aliens (when you are restricted to a small area of the country you begin to think everyone else is odd, bit like they do in Yorkshire), but out I have been, as far north as Blackburn and to London twice. Marco Polo think on't.

However something odd happened. I started getting grumpy about going out. 'Look to get to Blackburn by 11am I am going to have to leave at 0700 in the morning and to get to London I'll have to catch the 0645 train to arrive on time for my meeting at 0930.' This would be followed by 'I'll be late home tonight, possibly as late as 6pm.'

6pm? When I was working I'd still have hours left in the office at that time and as for early starts, well I would laugh in the face of dawn and tell anyone daft enough to listen that this was my favourite time of day and that I had seen dawn rising all over the UK you layabeds you and didn't you know there were two 5 o'clocks in the day?

But now, now I find myself thinking 'Well I was going to mow the lawn' or 'I was going to go for a walk in sun whilst the weather was still fine'. This Friday I have to be the wrong side of the M1 to travel home and, even though I claim my fee by the hour, found myself thinking that this can't be right I should be home for a Friday afternoon and not fighting my way across the UK at the busiest time of the week.

I put this down to Darwinism as it can't possibly be anything wrong with me. I think it is a sort of adaptation to the circumstances and now, after 6 months, find adapting to work as much as a change as adapting to not working. A survival mechanism has kicked in allowing me to deal with the lack of things to do and with the pressure of work being, largely, removed. The pressure is still there but in other ways like not being able to spend on anything but necessities with the odd (very occasional) luxury item being bought.

We are still dealing with it, we have to, but as the song goes "I'd like to be unhappy but I really don't have the time.' If only it were like that really.

Monday, 10 September 2007

'I still haven't found what I'm looking for', U2

‘So that’s it, your benefits stop at the end of this week Mr Featherstone and you can no longer claim unemployed status.’ The manila folder was placed precisely on the desk lining up with the pen and pencil holder, telephone and picture of a Yorkshire terrier with a red bow around its neck.

Martin looked up and did a double take. He’d only been half listening to the conversation with his ‘Personal Advisor’ in the Job Centre. Every two weeks, since he started signing on four months ago, he had to turn up on a Thursday morning at 9.30 am at the Job Centre and sign several forms to confirm he was still unemployed and actively searching for work. Martin had been working on ten different ways, in his imagination, to deal permanently with the Yorkshire terrier. So far that morning he had considered using it in a rugby match and had idly been considering what was the maximum possible trajectory that could be achieved by Jonny Wilkinson. Usually all he had to do was confirm he was looking for work, sign four forms and leave the building, 5 minutes at the most.

‘What do you mean my benefits are ending?’ said Martin ‘I’ve only been out of work for four months and you made me wait the first month before paying me anything. I know it isn't much but you can see from my records what my financial outgoings are.’

‘It’s new rules Mr Featherbrawn’ said Mrs Fillet (for she was Martin’s Personal Advisor at the Job Centre) ‘Brought in by the Government to discourage slackers...I mean encouraging those searching for work to look that little bit harder.’

‘Yes but’ said Martin ‘I have been looking for work, you’ve seen the CVs that I’ve been sending out. And by the way it's Featherstone. You can’t change my status just like that. If I can no longer sign on as unemployed then I can’t claim my mortgage protection insurance. I’ve got a young baby and a pregnant wife due to give birth again in three months time. I need the money.’

‘Not my rules Mr Featherbrain, just applying them. I see you haven’t applied for any local jobs at all.’

‘Well of course not’ said Martin his voice rising just a little ‘We’ve been over this. I am not a sous chef, or a builder and cannot work a CNC auto lathe with monobloc controls which you suggested I look at last time we spoke. My qualifications are wrong for those sort of jobs. And it's Feather STONE.’

‘Mr Latherstode if you do not apply for these local jobs it’s out of my hands’.

Martin took a deep breath and said ‘Look, I have a degree in particle physics with an MA in molecular biology at a nano level. I then went on to do PhD in nano particulate technology using carbooxylates at a porosity of .00005% to assess their reaction at absolute zero Celsius in zero gravity. I then held a research position at Rutland University for 6 years with one research assistant, who had one GCSE in kitten care, in their research labs working for the world's largest pharma company who then pulled my research grant because they decided that they wanted to develop a world-beating self-heating, pot noodle. I was the only person in the world doing this research. I can tell you anything you want to know about the actions of carbooxylates at absolute zero but I could not lay a brick or make a bloody omelette to save my life! I cannot afford a car and don’t have a driving licence anyway. I am computer literate on Apple Macs only and then provided they are not running an OS later than 7.5 So there is absolutely no point is asking me to weld, lay bricks, or use a CNC what ever that is. I’m applying to every University as it is but they only recruit at certain times of the year. And it is FEATHERSTONE.’

‘Well nothing more I can do. After tomorrow you are off benefits as I said’ snapped Mrs Fillet and got up to leave but then stopped. ‘There might be one thing’ she said ‘it’s brand new, introduced just today, hasn’t been used at all yet anywhere but…’

‘Well what is it?’ demanded Martin, ‘I’ll try anything.’

‘It’s a brand new system just introduced by the Government – based on the American military missile guidance systems used by their fighter pilots in combat apparently. It’s called the Super National Apparatus for Fixing Unemployment or SNAFU for short. Guaranteed to find a job. It is designed for the long-term unemployed but you could be a guinea pig if you want. However there are conditions to its use’ Mrs Fillet added darkly.

‘And they are?’ asked Martin.

‘SNAFU absolutely guarantees 100 percent to find you a job and guarantees the employer a person with exactly the right qualifications to do the job. It costs nothing to use and therefore saves everyone hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of pounds, in recruitment costs. But as it is so expensive to maintain, once a job has been found you have to take it and the employer has to give it to you. No interviews required it is all system based. Now the job could be anywhere but the Government gives very generous relocation grants or meets travelling costs for five years. However, I must repeat, you have take the job and you have to sign a contract first.’

Martin considered this. Shouldn’t be a problem at all. All the research labs were in places that he and his wife would happily relocate to especially with a generous grant. Might even be overseas…

‘Right I’ll do it. Where do I sign?’

For the next four hours Martin sat at a computer, monitor and keyboard in a separate room in the job Centre entering his qualifications, life history, salary aspirations and requirements, work experience and, truth be told, pretty much all of his life into the SNAFU system. He felt exhausted, as if he had had to complete 100 different public authority CVs in one day.

‘Right’ said Mrs Fillet, when he had completed the task, 'Now for the result.' She and all the other members of the Job Centre crowded into the small room as Mrs Fillet hit the ‘submit' button on the screen.

Martin stood up and walked away from the monitor where the hour glass icon continued to spin and rotate.

At last, after ten minutes or so, there was a loud ping and the screen changed to a new window. Mrs Fillet, smiling broadly, pushed her way eagerly to the front to read the message saying, as she moved, ‘Right Mr Botherstroud I will now announce your new position.’ Then she became very still and peered at the screen closely.

‘How odd, how very, very odd’ she muttered.

‘What?’ shouted Martin, ‘what does it say?’

‘It says ‘We have found a position that matches your requirements but we have received a good response and a number of people appear to match the specification more closely. Thank you for your interest in SNAFU and we wish you every success with your future applications.’

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Brownie points

Peter pushed open the door gently. Although the hinges creaked loudly in the silence, the door swung open easily enough.
'Professor', Peter called out into the poorly lit parlor, 'Are you there?'
There was no immediate answer, only the noise of traffic passing the Victorian house on the road at the bottom of the garden and the hum of electrical motors from further in the house coming from what seemed to be the entrance to the cellar just down the hallway. The interior of the house, rather like the garden that Peter had walked through to get the front door, was neat and tidy, clean and decorated though with a little too much use of pink emulsion for Peter's own taste. No one had come in answer to Peter's knocking and ringing of the door bell. Still the Professor had been very insistent that he come when they had spoken that morning in the public library.

Peter had met the Professor for the first time today. There had been one of those momentary embarrassing tussles as they both reached for the Daily Telegraph in the paper racks in the reference section. After a few 'I'm sorries' and 'No, no after you' they had determined that they had both wanted different sections of the paper. Peter wanted the jobs section and the Professor the obituaries section, 'To check that I am still alive dear boy' he said smiling. They sat at the same table and it seemed natural to continue the conversation. Peter explained that he'd been made redundant yet again, been unemployed for months and just couldn't get a job no matter how hard he tried. 'I don't know what to do,' said Peter, 'I'm very well qualified, have retrained more times than I can remember but no one seems to want you when you are in your 50's. Even my wife says I'm like our elderly Fiat car - that never works either, she says. I chose the wrong career all those years ago. I had a chance to do something else and blew it on one decision. The thing that really depresses me is that I could have been so successful with my life but I just never got the breaks. Now I'll never achieve all that I could have. ' The Professor tut-tutted sympathetically. 'It is a problem' he agreed, 'look at me, I'm in my 70's, all my best work in quantum physics in Cambridge now behind me, still working on my big idea but no one pays attention to you once you pass into retirement'. He paused then looked directly into Peter's eyes, his own eyes now serious.

'I have an idea, a machine I've been working on. It might help you. Come to my house tonight at 8.00pm and I'll show you what I mean. No, don't ask questions now, just come and you'll see. Promise you'll come.' And with that he left the library. The librarian smiled at Peter, 'Such a lovely gentleman, comes in every week and orders the most wonderful books on quantum physics, worm holes and last month, temporal displacement and probability, very different from the usual requests for the latest best-seller.'

Peter walked down the hallway and jumped when the voice of the Professor shouted out from a speaker mounted on the wall next to a video camera.
'There you are! Jolly glad you came, now come down into my workshop in the cellar and I'll explain everything.' Peter closed the front door behind him and walked down the stairs into the cellar. 'Marvellous things security cameras' said the Professor, 'means I can keep working and decide whether I want to be interrupted or not.' He tapped the screen of the TV on his work bench. Peter looked around the room. In every conceivable space were cables, wires, screens, monitors, all leading to a large well-padded armchair in the middle of the room itself in front of a console containing two levers.
'Professor er... I don't actually know your full name' said Peter.
'Brownie' replied the Professor and then Peter remembered. Professor Brownie the world famous quantum physicist who had retired 15 years ago - he remembered the interviews where the Professor had claimed that time travel was more than theoretically possible it was a fact but a fire had destroyed his laboratory in Cambridge and he could not replicate the experiment. 'Time Crank retires' - Peter remembered the tabloid headlines.

'I see you remember me now' said Professor Brownie noting Peter's expression, 'and what they said about me. Well I can show you tonight it wasn't all made up. You really can alter time. I have found a way of sending you back through time to one specific moment and letting you alter one fundamental decision.'

Peter stood and looked around at the equipment. He looked at Professor Brownie and then he made to leave. That was all he needed during this unemployment, a lunatic offering time travel. The Professor waved in the direction of the door. 'I understand Peter, go if you want to, but this morning you told me you made the wrong choice of career. What if I could give you that choice again? What have you got to lose?' Peter thought quickly - what else was he going to do that evening, it wasn't as if he'd have to get up early in the morning to work was it? It would make a good story for the pub anyway, goodness knows he had little else to talk about these days. 'OK' Peter said 'let's try it'.

The Professor sat Peter down in the armchair and placed what seemed to be an iPod on his lap and connected several electrodes to his head. The iPod and electrodes were, in turn, connected to the other machinery by a further cable. 'Hold this and watch the screen. Now tell me the date and time where you had to make the choice of one career path over another. The machine will then scan the temporal streams and show you what has happened with your choice that has brought you here today and what would have happened if you had picked the other career path. It doesn't show the future, only what has happened up to today, this very moment. What happens in the future is still your choice it has not yet been determined. You will then be given the opportunity to pull one of the levers in front of you and either go back in time to choose the other career path or pull the other lever and confirm your life so far. Now this is important Peter. The way temporal streams work everyone has one chance and one chance only to go back and make a choice. Think of it like a railway and coming to a set of points. You set the points one way or the other. Do you understand? You can't go back and reset the points if you don't like the new outcome. Once you have chosen your track you will follow it until it loops back to this exact time and place. When the temporal stream has finished processing you have just two minutes to pull one of the levers. The white one to stay with the choice you made and black one to choose the other life. You have to make a choice, you can't mess with quantum physics you know.''

Peter nodded. 'Barmy old fool' he thought, 'let's get this over with. Bit of a laugh when it all fails to work.' 'Right then' Peter said out loudly, 'July 15 1977 at home in Cardiff. I'm with my Mum and Dad. There are two letters, one from the head office of the world's biggest supplier of computers offering graduate entry and a clerical post in London following my degree in languages and one from Consolidated Holdings Inc. offering me a graduate entry post with their sales team in their head office in Manchester with a company Ford Escort. I took the car and, well, here I am.'

The Professor pressed a number of buttons on the console at his desk and then stared hard at Peter and spoke again softly 'No going back now Peter, shall we start?' Peter sat still, nodded his assent and, at that, the lights dimmed and the machinery starting humming very loudly. In his head Peter saw lights passing, like the windows of a train carriage in the night. Vague images started appearing on the iPod screen and then there it was, like a security camera looking over his shoulder, Peter at 21 in his front room with his mother and father smiling broadly. 'Two offers son, both great, which one to take?' said his father. The Peter of 1977 looked at his parents and said 'Computers of course.'

The screen changed and then Peter saw, at high speed his other life pass on the screen - the big offices in central London, the too-smart suits and neat haircuts, blue shirts and tie, promotion, travel to the head office in the States, moving house because the company expects it, bigger car, bonuses, stock options, girls, the girl, marriage, meetings, working late every night, networking, evenings with people you don't like because the company expects it, wife gives up career to keep up with company moves, bigger houses, fewer friends (you never have time to go out with them), wife leaves with ex-best friend (he always lacked ambition just wanted to live in the country), no friends, promotion to head of South Americas, divorce, company censure (our senior team are expected to be married), new house gated community Sao-Paulo with armed response, marriage to petite blond wife with teenage son who loathes you, promotion Head of Sales Pacific rim move to Beijing, divorce (we really expect our team to be married is there a problem?), promotion to Head of Servers for Baltic region, moves to Finland, firm sold in reorganisation, sorry have to "let you go", "retirement" at 55, escorted off premises by security no time to empty desk, move to UK, very good pension and excellent stock options intact, bachelor flat in Notting Hill, feel lonely, looking for partner in Daily Telegraph in library, meets Professor tells him he's lonely looking for a soul mate, Professor invites him around this evening

And then the screen blurs and it's 21 year old Peter in Cardiff saying to his father 'Are you kidding, I want the car.' And then night school, monthly pay checks, promotion, travel abroad, bigger car, staff, bonus, girls, girl, marriage, her career, holidays in Cornwall and Devon, decide to have children - present at birth and birthdays of beautiful baby girl, wife resumes career, first redundancy, fight back, retrains, small salary increase, another baby girl , present at birth and birthdays, holidays with family every year girls sleeping in the back of the car on the long drive, friends some doing better some doing worse some are with same partners some have new ones, another redundancy a new job a few rungs down the corporate ladder work no longer so satisfying, 25th wedding anniversary, 30th wedding anniversary, MA in Fine Art from the Open University wonderfully satisfying (should have done that instead of languages at Uni), friends celebrate 50th birthday with surprise birthday party one girl comes back from Uni especially and they both want to be with their dad that night, wife starts own business starts to thrive, another redundancy (sorry we've been bought out we are going to have to let you go) out of work for eight months so far money worries, goes to library meets Professor, Professor invites him around this evening.

The screen goes black, the background electrical humming falls silent.

The Professor says 'Peter you have two minutes to pull one of the levers and make that choice again. You must pull one of them.'

Peter lies back in the chair and closes his eyes for a minute and then sits up. He looks at the Professor, winks and then leans forward to pull a lever. 'Thank you Professor, I know which lever I want' he says, smiling, and pulls it.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Banned on the run


I made three resolutions at the beginning of the year.
They were:
  1. Never go to the company Christmas party again as it was so dire and the fighting every year was getting boring.
  2. Be able to run 3 miles by year end.
  3. Get my weight down by 4 kilos by year end.
On the basis that you should be careful what you ask for (I've never forgotten the story of "The Monkey's paw") I seem to have achieved the first one though not in the way I was expecting. And there were fights every year at the party, such a tasteful organisation with charming cultured people though clearly none of them ever made the mistake of going to the Christmas party like I did or even turning up for work now I come to think about it.

Run 3 miles. Well I used to claim that at 50 I was as fit as I was at 30 which was technically correct even if in practice this meant that walking to the car park and back was the limit of my fitness programme. Every time I went to see the doctor with some malady he would glower at me and mutter such words as "you're a bit porky Mr EoTP so why don't you get some exercise and save me a lot of NHS paperwork when you are in your 60's and wonder why you need a fork lift truck to move you around?"

Hence resolution 3. See it all fits together like a wellington boot.
So, as we all now know I achieved resolution 1 unaided. Resolution 2 started like this. After coming home from work (what a strangely outmoded concept that now seems) I started going on a determined walk of several miles each evening. This led to thoughts of "I wonder if I could run to the next lamp post?" I couldn't. Well not without a significant loss of face as I gasped for oxygen, then went very red in the face and had to hang on to the lamp post so as not to collapse. Good job this was in January and during the hours of darkness so no one could see how pathetic I was. However I kept on with the regime and by the end of March could run the three miles. No one was more surprised than me and now I felt I could come out of the shadows and run in the daylight. So this is not "Chariots of fire" with the theme tune by Vangelis playing as I run around but it ain't too bad.

Of course this is where it starts to become a consumer buying opportunity. I start seeing other runners and they have watches with timers , blood pressure and heart beat monitors so that you can optimise your exercise heart rate and stay in the "zone" wherever that is - no where near where I live that's for sure. I've still to find it. They wear tight spandex shorts and lycra tops so that their air resistance is minimised and they have the most amazing running shoes so they glide over the road and pavements. In the newsagents you can find specialised running magazines that can sell you even more wonderful performance enhancing equipment. I want these accoutrements. They are necessary for serious running. Of course with limited funds but lots of time I have a dilemma. How can I look like a serious runner and not dress like a footballer from the 1940's with shorts that you could hide several people in each leg and football boots that look like deep sea divers boots. The answer is Tesco (again). For £9 I bought a running shirt, shorts and jog pants that may not be at the cutting edge of fashion, or even in the same country, but they will do. The local sports shop had a sale and I bought cheap running shoes so job done. As for the watch timer thing well I discovered that if I look at the clock as I leave and then again when I return I can work out the time - amazing. If I can't see the clock because of a film of sweat then I must have had a good run. If I'd have been working I would have bought the "correct" equipment and would I have run any better or faster? Of course Mrs EoTP snorted with derision when I declared my need for the serious running equipment - she must get tired with being right all the time.

As for the weight loss, 3 kilos achieved so far with 3 months still to go to the end of the year. By then I will have reached the weight that I said I would never exceed and which became known as the "horror weight". I can't work out how therefore I managed to exceed it by 4 kilos. Must be a gland thing.

There is a sort of camaraderie amongst runners, a nod of recognition, even a cheery "hallo" from most though from me, unless it's about 5 metres from where I've started the run it is more of a croak and exhalation than a word, like a teenager's response to any question. But there is one running item that, when I am declared King of the World, I will instantly ban. And that is the silly little water bottle that women runners for some reason like to have with them. You know they can't be real runners equipment because Tesco don't sell them.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

'I'm free', Mr Humphries, "Are you being served?" BBC

It's August and everyone is on holiday, going on holiday or just returning from holiday except, of course, us. Even with my part-time job it has become very difficult contacting people "Yes I will see you...in September after I come back from my week in Rio, followed by some late skiing in a darling little hidden valley in the Hindu Kush and then some well earned rest in L.A. Such a good exchange rate don't you think? Where are you going?". Of course friends are in the West Indies, Greece, France, the Indian ocean (on an island of course) or, considering the money in this area where I live, their very own island in the Hebrides for all I know.
I walked to Tescos the other day: a two mile walk and it was sunny. And we drove out into the countryside at night to see the meteor shower. That is the extent of our holiday. No, we borrowed a carpet cleaner as well. No end to the excitement in the EoTP household.

Anyway we are here for the summer and of course people know this. That is why we are getting asked "Are you free?".

It used to be the case that if we were asked about the Dog and Duck it meant a clandestine under age trip to a pub buried deep in the folds of the hills in the Forest of Dean when we were teenagers, followed by much drinking of the foul (but cheap) brown ale brewed in that area. Neither the landlord or local police seemed terribly bothered by this as long as we didn't annoy the locals. We couldn't for long anyway as we passed out after two pints. Now things have changed.

1. We are looking after a duck. Friends up the road found a stray duckling some months ago and have adopted it. They have gone on holiday and asked us to look after it. This means two trips a day for the next 10 days to their house to let the duck out for a paddle on their pond, feed it worms (Mrs EoTP is digging worms from our garden to deliver to the duck) and generally let it have a walk/waddle/pit-pat-waddle-pat around then chase it back into the hutch. Our friend's wife called us from the airport on Monday (three hours after they had left home) to check on its welfare and then from France twice yesterday. We have a website (pun intended) so that they can see daily updated pictures. Heaven help us. Oh and we have to be careful not to feed it too much chick food in case it gets crumb bum. There is NO WAY I am wiping a ducks bottom, that's a step too far. And what are we going to do if the duck flies away during the week? It is exercising it's wings regularly every day. Deeply worrying.

2. We are looking after a dog, a cocker spaniel. Other friends are having a few days at home to recover from their 10 hectic days on holiday in the West Indies or somewhere local like that and, because they are having a few days out locally, "could we just drive up to their house and let the dog out for a run, feed it, and play with it." Well of course we can and happy to do so.

3. Teenager watch. Another friend is in Greece but has left their 18 year old at home - intentionally I should say. This time it's a sort of "Mummy Watch" as last time he was left alone he went out and left a gas burner on the cooker on and unlit for several hours. Mrs EoTP (and three others also on Mummy Watch) have to check regularly on his state and report back to Greece via text. He was called upon yesterday at 11am, had only just got up (natch). Mrs EoTP and friend arrive at the house, flash their Mummy Watch warrant cards and demand to search the house for contraband girlfriends. Well perhaps not, but chummy knows he's been fingered by the Squad (must stop watching "Life on Mars"). Of course we had a call from Greece last night to check on his status. Maybe time for a website for a teenager? Look house not burnt down, police not called to rave, evidence that clothes have been changed at least once in a fortnight.

4. Minke Whale Watch. The local council have found that a pod of Minke whales have mistaken the sound of an ice cream van chimes for the sonar equivalent of open water and have found their way into the nearby canal and could we look after it during August for them as it is a good tourist attraction and the official swan upper is on holiday?

5. Prime Minister Watch. Gordon Brown wants a few days away with his family and the rest of the Cabinet would also like a few days in Tuscany/USA/Maldives/all three and could we keep an eye on the country for a day or two, send us a text if there is a problem?

6. Mrs EoTP is also looking after a holiday cottage and the arrivals and departures of holiday makers. It's like the equivalent of being an air steward "On the right you will find three good restaurants, at the rear of the town you will find two supermarkets with comprehensive facilities, on the left of the town you will find a river full of Minke whales and a friendly (but confused duck), a swimming cocker spaniel and a teenager who though this might be a quick way to wash his underpants." Sound of running as Mrs EoTP realises that the whole thing is unravelling and how can she put this in a text?

So this is the summer of 07. Mrs EoTP sent several texts last night after a bottle of wine. I think in the cold light of day she will have found that the teenager was put in the hutch with no sign of crumb bum, the duck was in its dressing gown when woken at 11 am and no sign of any girls and the Minke whales are back in Downing Street.

Monday, 6 August 2007

"We're all going on a summer holiday", Cliff Richard

We are not going on a summer holiday. We decided that it would be prudent not to in the circumstances of not having much money. We left it until the last thing to decide, well sort of last thing, as we cancelled it with a month to go. That way at least there was a fighting chance that the holiday agency could re-let the property. Everything is insured, so financially we will get everything back by 2010.

We had intended to stay near Venice as I'd promised the kids that when they were old enough (moves pipe to other side of mouth and puffs furiously) then I shall take them to see the antiquities of yore. Sits down and brushes small tails of tobacco from cardigan. Of course as soon as I'd cancelled the holiday, images of Venice are everywhere I look, lists of the best family restaurants in Venice, how to have an utterly fabulous time in Venice on £2 per day and "Venice - the best bits that tourists never see". The kids look at the pictures, then at me, then at the pictures again. Hey! but it will still be there next year subject to floods, tsunamis and so forth.












This is not helped by friends going/coming back from holidays in far flung places and saying things like "You should have seen the sunset over the Yangtze river and pandas in their natural habitat are sooooo adorable. Look some genuine dried panda pooh for you. Good for the complexion and so tasty sprinkled on soup." And "The Maldives: so exotic yet you can still buy a good single malt whiskey and Kit Kats." Sound of EoTP cocking AK47.

But what are we missing by not going on holiday? Here's my list of things I won't miss:

  • Waking at 2am to catch the ferry in Dover because if you travel after 0830 the cost quadruples. Trying to get the rest of the family to wake up. Mrs EoTP is like a bear when first woken -scary.
  • Food on the ferry. Pain au chocolates made six weeks ago and now so hard they are capable of mooring a boat to if necessary. And the prices all seem to to be in multiples of £5.
  • Finding the overnight accommodation using the instructions sent by the French B&B. After a twelve-hour drive one's sense of humour and ability to say one word in French goes straight out of the window. I demand a SatNav next time.
  • Food from motorway service station of any nationality.
  • Eating food at a motorway service station of any nationality.
  • Finding a restaurant where we all like the look of the food on offer. Try finding a traditional French restaurant that serves cheese and tomato pizza.
  • Airport departure lounges. I flew from Luton airport for the first time a few weeks ago. It was manic. I've seen much worse in the Far East. Of the world not the UK; I didn't mean Ipswich airport.
  • Getting back to the UK at Dover, knowing the holiday is over and yet there are still several hours of driving ahead. Then unpacking.
  • Cleaning the car. I have tried so hard to get the kids to get in and out of the car without them diving in head first and out by climbing on the seats. Their footprints go all around the back of the car including the roof.
  • Sick bags. We can be driving on the smoothest, arrow straight autobahn with the minimal of sideways movement and there will be a "Dad you have to stop I feel sick, bwaggghhhhhhh" moment. Or they will want to be sick at the point in the journey when you just cannot stop and then "bwaggghhhhhhh" again. Then there is the cleaning up, the "that's the last pair of clean shorts", the stained car fabric, the smell. There again we can be going around the most vertiginous mountain roads and they can eat ice cream, sweets and fight each other without any side effects.
  • Mosquitoes. Have to have the windows open it's so hot. Mossies love EoTP and ignore Mrs EoTP. Why?
  • Going back to work, 5000 emails, 14 days of post, things have happened that I don't understand, customers have left/joined, half the staff have left/joined and it's 11am, time for my espresso and croissant and still 8 hours before I can go home.
So you see I won't have any of that this year. No wonder I feel so relaxed. It's just too tiring going on holiday.