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Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Iron Man

I think King Canute got it wrong. He should not have attempted to stop the tide coming in, as legend tells us, he should have tried to stop ironing appearing, a much, much harder task.

I'm getting to grips with this household management thing though. When I mentioned in passing a few weeks ago about doing the cleaning yet again (on the one and half days a week I don't have paid employment) Mrs EoTP looked at me (the Look) and said 'I've done it for the last 16 years so a few months won't hurt you.' and strode off to boss the Parachute Regiment around. She terrifies them. She has changed so much since starting work again. Somethings I just can't do - cooking for example - I still struggle with all meals except those that involve 'remove outer sleeve and pierce film, place in microwave' or food that can be put in the toaster. Sometimes I confuse the two with hilarious results. Try toasting frozen lamb mince and you'll see what I mean. Toasting and microwaving are just about within my competencies.

DIY is something I try to avoid - I can't do that either, and it has to be more of a PSE or 'pay someone else'. Mrs EoTP still reminds of the day I was replacing a light bulb, fell off the chair and broke an occasional table...with my head. Or the time I wired the electric cooker to the mains. That blew the fuse box right off the wall when I switched it on. The fact is that my hands will not completely obey my brain in certain conditions, usually those involving practical issues.

I've more or less cracked this dusting and vacuuming thing though. I can now clean the house, for the week, by 1230 on a Monday and I only need to start cleaning at 1145. Mrs EoTP will never discover the little 'short cuts' to cleaning - not until the holidays that is but by then it will be too late.

But there is one thing I can do and that's iron. I have discovered that I can put creases in trousers or shirt sleeves that you could spread butter with, they are that sharp. I can happily while away several hours ironing, listening to my my iPod and getting the cable of the iron tangled up with the earphones of the iPod (with hilarious results). Oh what pleasure there is seeing an empty laundry basket putting away the iron and ironing board and then turning around and finding there is still washing on the line, in the washing machine or hanging on a drier somewhere in the house. But no matter how much I do it still keeps on coming. It seems to make no difference how much I iron or when I do it (throughout the night at this rate) the amount of laundry requiring ironing never stops - in fact we seem to be have about 30% more ironing than than we have clothes. I am becoming suspicious that somehow I am doing the ironing for the street. The neighbours must be creeping in and depositing their ironing in our laundry basket, it's the only answer. How families that have more than three children keep up I don't know. Perhaps they are ironing in perpetual motion or in shifts. The other annoying thing is that, and I hate to admit this, Mrs EoTP is a lot faster than me - she seems to polish off shirts in no time but then can cut you cut a steak with the creases in her shirt sleeves like you can with mine? I think not.

I believe it is a Good Thing that I can iron, a way of demonstrating my solidarity with the necessity to keep the family clothed and fed. Mind you it is not a skill I put on my CV admittedly and neither is it a topic that gets raised down at the pub with the lads. Not for me the 'Oh forget about Chelsea's performance against Man United last night let's talk about whether non-iron shirts really don't need ironing and don't you think that linen is awful when it's become bone dry on the washing line. Those new man made fibres iron well on low heat don't they?' I think that might lead to me losing my hard man status. And any further invitations to go to the pub.

On reflection maybe Canute chose the right thing to try and stop. How would the history of the British Isles have been different if the Royal lineage has chosen laundry as the battle standard? The Doomswash Day book anyone? Magna Overnight Soaking?

Friday, 13 June 2008

Chips with everything

I manoeuvred my car slowly down into the quarry following the muddy track the trucks used to enter and leave the site. By the time I reached the site office car park my company car was covered in a grey sticky film of mud. I got out of the car and, walking on tiptoe in a vain effort to keep the mud off my shoes and suit, headed for the Portacabin where the person I was due to meet worked. Two mangy Alsatians, held back only by their long leashes barked loudly at me eyeing me up as if I had been scheduled to be their meal today. As they jumped and strained to reach me they showered me in more mud. I entered the Portacabin, shook hands with the site manager - he offered me a cup of tea before we started the meeting. I thanked him and said 'yes please'. And then I saw the mugs.

The mugs were weapons of mass destruction. They were stained in ways I couldn't believe it was possible to stain a mug without using ancient banned magic. The deep brown stains of a millennia of never once seeing warm water and washing up liquid. Not a millimetre of white left on them. Striated like some monstrous geological fault with deep cracks running around the outside and inside. The rim of the mug was deeply chipped around the whole circumference. There were the stains of dribbles of tea from the last user running down the side. The site manager plonked the mug down in front of me, and drank deeply from his own mug - it had what remained of a cartoon on the outside 'The world's greatest...'. Indecipherable - poisoner, mass murderer? 'I'm going to die so young' I thought 'Of some horrible virus that has mutated for years on this mug and for which there is no cure. That's why the Alsatians were eyeing me up - they knew this was my last walk.'

Well I did die - oh no, I couldn't of of course. Staff facilities - they are mostly gross, rarely clean and generally have torn and crooked notices hanging from one drawing pin exhorting staff to leave the facilities as they would find in their own homes. On the basis of many years observation I would have to say that with most people's homes therefore you would be wiping your shoes as you leave they must be so disgusting.

As a student in self catering halls of residence our particular kitchen was singled out for praise by the long suffering cleaners on the basis that:
  1. We actually appeared to wash the tea towels more than once a term
  2. When we washed them we used warm(ish) water and soap powder
  3. We wiped down surfaces in the kitchen and actually used disinfectant to clean surfaces
  4. The contents of the freezer did not pre-date the last ice age.
Staff facilities have that rare ability to deteriorate within seconds of cleaning, if they are ever cleaned at all. Tea towels that are so stiff with dirt and stains that you could attach four wheels to them and use them as skateboards. Dish cloths that have a smell so peculiar that they could be used instead of tear gas during a riot. Washing up bowls that look like they have had an oil change performed in them, the sinks themselves that are scratched and scored like an ancient glacial valley. Mugs and cups that are never actually washed, just rinsed and put upside down to dry before the next, random user. Tea spoons that are left to dry so that a brown rim forms in the bowl of the spoon which can never be cleaned.

My current favourite that I use, favourite in that I have to don a full nuclear/bacteriological hazard suit before I enter actually has, get this, a dish washer that is never used. Dirty mugs, plates that are deeply encrusted with late night curry detritus and tea spoons. We'll quickly pass over the state if the tea towels again, last washed in 1968. And just what happens to tea spoons? No matter how many are provided they all disappear within a few days. Must be a thriving international trade in contraband tea spoons. And,yes, there is the inevitable notice pinned to the wall that says 'Please leave these facilities clean or they will be withdrawn.' The notice has been there as long as the tea towel to my knowledge.

In one place where I worked I couldn't stand the state of the coffee making facilities any more so I bought my own bottle of washing up liquid to work and started, daily, washing the team's mugs before we used them and at the end of the day. At first I was regarded as a two headed monster and then, one day accidentally leaving the washing liquid behind, returned to find a queue of people waiting to wash up their mugs with my lovely soapy suds. At least we had a sink - don't you just hate people who wash their mugs in the staff toilets? The sinks I mean not the loos.

However I knew I reached my nadir in one country in Africa. I was there on businessI'd been offered refreshments at the office I was visiting. They kindly offered me sweet coffee, which I accepted (mustn't offend the host) and, of course, the drink came in the inevitable chipped cups. 'Would I like some food to go with the coffee' they asked. Now on full hygiene alert I havered, what to do? I finally said yes and so they proudly brought out some disreputable looking plates and emptied some white spherical objects from the fridge onto the plate - there were as many flies in the fridge as in the room as the temperature difference was only about 2C between the inside of the fridge and the room. 'Eat up' they said indicating the plate. It was only then I recognised what they were on the plate. Sheeps eyes. 'I'm going to die so young I thought (again) of some horrible virus.' For the Queen and Country I drank the coffee and swallowed the Sheeps eyes.

So that is why, when offered a coffee from anywhere other than a machine, I look very, very carefully at the staff facilities before I make a decision - it's going to get me one day.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Claims procedure

I'm owed £400 this month.
From expenses.
There's a word that brings both delight and terror to the claimant.

As you regular readers know I have worked for many organisations - therefore, by dint of my work, I have had to claim expenses throughout my working life and the experience has varied from one end of the spectrum 'Here is the rule for everything and you will obey, exterminate, exterminate' to 'Dunno really just claim what you think is reasonable'. Both ends are as difficult as each other.

Let's go for a stroll to the 'We have rules' end. This company, a substantial multi-national had an expenses form that an accountant must have devised with codes for everything and a strict requirement to account for VAT. Receipts WERE required or you were shot. No, thinking about it, your expenses were just not signed off and you starved. The rules were made and kept by two elderly house elves who maintained the company archives and who were locked away night and day on the fifth floor where the company library was located. Here giant dusty tomes were opened with the spine of the book creaking as the heavy pages were turned. 'You may claim for a car wash each week with no receipt as long as it does not cost more than £2.50'.
'Right then' we'd ask, 'can we just claim £2.50 a week and put it on the expense form?'
'Yes' the house elves would reply.
So we'd claim the £2.50 a week and the cars would get dirtier and dirtier (as, of course we didn't wash them) until we could convince a car dealer to clean them for us - for free.
'Field staff can claim £2.50 a day for lunch without a receipt.'
'Can we claim that every day whether at home or in the office or on an interplanatery trip?'
Well of course we could and did, and most days the dealers bought us lunch anyway. Fuel was a good one as well. You claimed on a pence per mile basis according to a fuel rate. Basically, unless you were driving in excess of 100 mph in second gear all the time, you made a substantial profit on fuel.
And this was all condoned by the management - no wonder few members of the field staff wanted to return to head office for promotion - you couldn't afford the drop in salary. It all started getting difficult when my then manager started asking me to get blank receipts from restaurants, get an amount filled in, claim that amount and when reimbursed, pay him the money in cash so he could go horse racing. We were talking serious amounts of money here - then some of my colleagues who lived in my territory, thought it would be a jolly good jape to take their friends/wives/mistresses out for a meal and get me to claim the bill as 'entertaining' and then pay them back, 'No problem the boss will sign it off'. Bit of a problem really as are you really going to shop an influential and senior manager and then continue to have a career in the same company? The only answer was to join the CIA, become a hit man and take him out. Actually I had a quiet word with another manager and it all stopped, as did my career, but at least I didn't do anything dishonest as I said to the manager of the Job Centre as I signed on. The daft thing was that you make a substantial profit on your expenses by just claiming them as allowed - you didn't need to make dishonest claims

Wandering across to the other end of the spectrum we have the company that has no rules and has an expense form that is basically a blank piece of A4 where you write your name at the top. For this company, Consolidated Who-Hahs, I travelled the world selling who-hahs to anyone that would buy them.
"Can I travel business class?'
'Suppose so'
'Can I stay in 5 star hotels and claim laundry as I am away for several weeks?'
'Seems fair'
'Can I arrange my flights so that at weekends I can stay in fabulously exotic resorts at the companies expense?'
"S'all right.'
'Can I eat like a King and buy the most expensive wines in the world, smoke the most prestigious cigars and be waited on by fair hand maidens selected from the world's most beautiful women who I will fly in especially?'
'Spect so'
You see, no rules and the net effect was that I would actually travel like a penurious student to save the company money that I hadn't been expected to save anyway it would seem. Of course they had no idea what I was claiming as all the receipts were in Thai/Vietnamese/Saudi/Brazilian thingies and so on and the Caribbean island I was actually buying on the basis of expenses was never spotted.

And so we have variations on that theme across the expenses spectrum - right now I work for a reasonable company that takes a reasonable view and therefore expenses claimed are always reasonable. Still got a big form to fill in though and the phrase 'I need a receipt please' is still in daily use. And will be for years. Spect.