Thursday, 29 October 2009

The minimum wages of sin

Having now been officially 'retired' for over a year, and looking to fill my waking hours with something other than decorating, I have recently turned my attention to the thought of work. This isn't just a whim, dear reader. Having been fully employed for the last thirty plus years, and now getting to the stage where I have started looking over Mrs. H's shoulder at Dulux colour charts and thinking, 'hmm...Dusted Damson looks nice...', I find that, contrary to my pre-retirement expectations, being 'work-free' is not all it's cracked up to be. I have decided that I need to get some kind of job.

I always fancied a career to do with books and, as if by magic, a number of local library jobs appeared, both full and part time. Undaunted, I applied for one of them, and, wonder of wonders, I was called in for interview. At a local library, three very nice ladies quizzed me for around twenty minutes as to what skills I possessed, whether I was IT literate, whether I was confident handling money, and how I would deal with difficult customers. Now, the police service, although it doesn't take money over the counter in the same way as ASDA, likes to think of itself as having 'customers' (by which it means arrested people, victims of crime, casual callers to the station, etc.), so I had no problem in explaining how I dealt with 'difficult' customers, since I had encountered more of these than the average librarian could shake a stick at. Imagine my surprise when, a week or so later, I was notified that the job had gone to someone else. I was advised that I was 'a very good interviewee', but that I had not demonstrated my skills with sufficient vehemence to justify entrusting the job to me. I felt rather peeved at this. Had I not spent the last thirty years honing my inter-personal skills, organisational abilities and leadership qualities? Had I not dealt with incidents that the average library assistant might only have read about between the covers of a racy detective novel? Was I really not good enough to stamp library books and collect fines? You see, this is what being 'management' for nigh on twenty five years does to you; it gives you an exaggerated sense of your own importance. How could there possibly be a better candidate than me?

A few weeks later, another library job hove into view, and off went my application. Back came the invite to the interview, and this week saw me, hair combed and beard trimmed, in front of the same three ladies. Now, I had learnt from the first interview (you see - another skill!) and spent far more time talking about my all-round qualities that would make me an ideal assistant in the busy world of the public library. The ladies were very kind. They nodded. They smiled. And one of them even said, 'very interesting' after I had regaled them with a police-related example of my ability to multi-task. But, a few hours later, I received the familiar phone call. This time, apparently, I had been pipped by someone with 'a background in retail' - someone who had worked in a pub, it appeared. Perhaps working in a library has more in common with pulling pints and retailing bags of pork scratchings than I had thought.

So, dear reader, what am I to do? Would I be correct in thinking that spending thirty years in a responsible job is not what the modern employer is looking for? Would I have been better to flit, butterfly-like, from job to job? Does my three-decade career simply demonstrate that I am unable to embrace change? Should I get a job as a part-time barman to make myself more attractive? In an employment kind of way, I mean.

This afternoon I was flicking idly though lists of jobs on the internet. A few things struck me about the way these job ads are written. A job isn't just a job, it's 'an exciting opportunity,' or even 'an exceptional opportunity'. And a company isn't just a company, it's an 'exciting and innovative company', or a 'cutting edge organisation'. And what about the ideal candidate? He or she should, it appears, be 'dynamic', 'possess excellent communication skills and the drive, determination and resilience to succeed', or, in one notable instance, have the ability to 'make a good time great.' Now, I may have been unlucky in my choice of shopping venues over the years, but just where are all these dynamic communicators whose sole purpose in life would seem to be to enhance my Retail Experience? I haven't met them yet. Or perhaps I have. The liveliest, most dynamic people on the High Street are the charity muggers who are constantly attempting to separate me from my bank sort code. But maybe they've been sacked from their retail jobs for being just too dynamic; for 'high-five'-ing each other after every sale of family-sized washing powder, or imprisoning elderly customers in clothing stores for hours until they give in and buy a comfy cardigan in taupe. The ones that are left to man the tills look at me with heavy-lidded eyes as the pass my groceries over the scanner, barely acknowledging my presence...except in Morrisons. They're OK in Morrisons. Oh, I almost forgot. The other interesting point about these jobs that are looking for a candidate who is a cross between Lord Sugar and the Messiah? Almost all of them are offering the minimum wage.

It's Friday tomorrow. On Fridays I go morris dancing. They don't expect me to be dynamic. Just good with a stick...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Are you Smellie?

I’ve been rather preoccupied with the house just lately. I won’t bore you with the details, dear reader. Suffice it to say that there has been an orgy of stripping (oooer missus!), wallpapering and painting, which is likely to continue for some time to come. Yesterday we finished removing the old paper from the living room walls a day earlier than anticipated. So, I have some downtime, and a chance to exercise my mind with something other than decorating.

I’m not the world’s best handyman or decorator. I like to think my skills lie elsewhere. But Mrs. H is convinced that I’ll get better if I do more, and in relation to some jobs she’s being proved right. In those areas where my skills are lacking, I find swearing helps to get the job done. So, if I’m struggling with a roll of wet wallpaper, the wiring up of some lights, or some other technical task, I find it helps to call the job every name under the sun…

And speaking of names, we all have one. In fact, most of us have two or more. Having just one name seems rather pretentious, or even downright egotistical; look at Jordan, Prince, Squiggle (Prince’s now not-so-new name), Superman…see what I mean? The Queen shies away from being called just Queen, for fear she should be confused with the eponymous rock band. And even Dr. No had the decency to prefix his name with his medical qualification; otherwise, could you imagine the confusion? ‘What’s your name?’ ‘No.’ ‘Sorry, I just need your name.’ ‘No.’ ‘Why do you have a problem with telling me your name?’ And so on…you’d be there all day.

How did names evolve? Those who study such things suggest that names fell into five categories; whom you served, whose son you were, your occupation, where you lived…but these are all pretty dull stuff. The most interesting category is the nickname. Now, there’s a great tradition in this country of giving nicknames which probably confuses the heck out of The Rest Of The World. A short man is called ‘Lofty’; a chap who’s not terribly bright is deemed ‘Einstein’; another who wears glasses is landed with the name ‘four-eyes’. As you can see, some of these are rather insulting, and, within the last few years, there have been attempts within the police service and other public bodies to ban nicknames altogether. One former colleague who hailed from Wales was taken to task by ‘the management’ because he called himself, and was happy for others to call him, ‘Taff’. Many people rejoice in their nicknames; within an organisation like the army or the police, it gives an individual a sense of having ‘arrived’. If your colleagues like you, they’ll come up with a nickname for you, and you’ll be happy to answer to it, albeit some would say you were being ‘complicit in your own oppression’. Hmm…

However, be they pleasant or offensive, our nicknames are just that - nicknames. They are not our surnames, and we don’t have to declare them in our passports, admit to them in job applications, or have them engraved forever on our driving licences. But things were a bit different in the middle ages, where a nickname effectively became an individual’s surname. Although the peasantry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have long since closed their eyes upon this world, and left no mark upon it to speak of, their names live on - in manor court rolls, deeds, military muster lists and taxation records - and all of those I am about to impart are genuine. There were some innocuous, and even pleasant names, of course. Agnes Singalday might well have delighted everyone with her ballads; Gilbert Wysdom seemed like the sort of chap you would go to if you had a problem; and the man or woman who rejoiced in the name of Smalbyhind would no doubt have been as happy about the fact as s/he would be in our present century. But the medieval English were possessed of a wonderful sense of humour; so it is equally possible that Agnes’ caterwauling was sufficient to wake the dead, Gilbert was in reality renowned for his utter stupidity, and he or she of the small behind might have had a rump that would put an elephant to shame.

Ironic or not, the above pale into insignificance as we uncover a somewhat less pleasant group of names, and I start with poor Alicia Shitte. How on earth did she come by such a name? Does the surname denote that her character? Or her smell, perhaps? Or did she suffer from (as our ancestors would have it) The Flux? Sadly, we will probably never know. Whereas we have a fair idea what William Aydrunken (always drunk) must have been like. Perhaps, after a particularly heavy session with Messrs. Drinkalup and Potfulofale, he would have picked a fight with William Milksop? Or woken from a boozy night in a pigsty belonging to Reyner Piggesflesshe? He might even have propositioned Letice Uggele. And, with any luck, she would have declined his no doubt tender blandishments and booted him into the aforementioned pigsty…

Sex was not a taboo subject in the middle ages. So it is, perhaps, no surprise that a few…how shall we say…’racy’ names make an appearance. Those of you who have a delicate constitution might want to look away now. To the rest of you who clearly have a stronger constitution, I have to say that I would blush to comment upon the attributes of the owners of the following names; I merely present to you John Fillecunt, whose name appears in written records in 1246, Bele Wydecunthe, who puts in an appearance in 1327, her contemporary, Matilda Strokelady, and the relatively fortunate Alice Strumpet. Hmm.

We live in enlightened times. We no longer think a person’s name is likely to denote his or her character. We don’t expect Mr. Wagstaff or Mr. Shakespeare to be belligerent (incidentally, ‘Shakespeare‘ was also a name given to a gentlemen who enjoyed the act of, how should I say it delicately, ‘self-ravishment'), any more than we expect Mr. Bastard (yep, there is such a surname!) to be the product of an unmarried couple. Oh, I dunno, though…but wouldn’t it be fun if we still received our surnames in the old-fashioned way? What would we have now? An inveterate social networker might be called Gilbert Facebook or Alice Twitter. What about those who use ‘recreational substances’ when clubbing? John Offhisface or Laura Snortpowder, maybe. And how about some names for the financial fraternity? William Bonus or Anna Reckless. And we can’t forget politicians, can we? Gordon Pinchpension, David Emptywords, Nick Notahope…you’ll notice that, like the BBC, I’ve been balanced and fair in this last category, and this is probably the closest you’ll ever see me get to a political comment!

Not quite sure what I’d be called in this new medieval age. Chris Beard? Chris Workfree? Chris Notsotall? Whatever it might be, judging by my current standard of DIY, it certainly wouldn’t be Chris Handyman