Cobbled again…

Here in the call centre we spend some of our time working on phone calls and some of our time holding webchat discussions with our customers. I occasionally wonder what it would be like if we kept a transcript of our spoken conversations:

“Hello this is the amalgamated coordination advisory sector, how may we help you?”

Instead of a polite and orderly response I am greeted by what sounds like two people having an angry conversation while their children scream with laughter. A cheap electronic musical toy (which I imagine to be made of brightly-coloured plastic) emits a raucous version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” making it almost impossible for me to hear what the father is trying to tell me. Even without all these distractions, it would be impossible for me to grasp what he was saying since their cordless phone has got a nasty fifty-three hertz buzz that drones and drones like a space-age hornet.

“Hello, I’m-I’m-I’m calling about my nephew – you see, the thing is, it’s like he was going out with this girl see and she walked out on him but they had only been together about – well, you know, you know, like, her uncle was-he-was-like the local grocer and he knew about some of his customers who had been fiddling the dole because their son had moved out but they said he was still living with them.

And-if-and-if you can just tell-me-tell-me-tell-me like what it is like that I should be getting next week-I-=mean-I-know-the-money-should go up a bit cos five of me kids are now getting severe disability allowance-it’s-great-I-mean-we-couldn’t-manage-without-=that-money-it’s-gonna-cause-real-hardship-if-you-don’t-pay-us-on-time-oh-and-have-you-got-down-that-me-daughter-is-staying-on-at-school-for-an-extra-year-she’s-ever-so-bright-is-our- Fifi Dawn Laroche Cadenza.

“What d’you mean? How dare you talk to me like that! Of course she qualifies properly for the disability element at higher rate, I mean she can’t walk or even see properly, she needs a carer to come in three times a day and make sure she gets all her medication properly you know…and so what if she did win a disco dancing competition on holiday in Faliraki? She’s entitled to go on holiday like everybody else, isn’t she? Tell me, do you take your kids on holiday? Go on, tell me? Anyway, they said that it was a miracle recovery, we actually got a face flannel that had actually been used by Wayne Rooney himself, and when she was able to hold this against her legs she suddenly found that the extreme pain began to subside and she could actually walk again I-mean-that-guy-is-such-a-saint-he-does-so-much-good-for-people. One of our friends, he actually used to work in a hotel where the players used to go after matches, and some of the parties and things they used to get up to, well, they just keep a special laundry bin for the players, and everything that goes in there is sent off to the boiler room to be incinerated, no questions asked. Can’t be too careful nowadays.

Anyway, I don’t care what it says on your silly little computer, there’s obviously been some kind of mistake, we never earned that kind of money during the last three years. Don’t be silly, just let me talk to a manager and see if they can sort it out.  Look, I want to speak to a manager. Yes there is. Every office has a manager. If you don’t put me on to a manager now I shall make a formal complaint about your behaviour, you obviously don’t know who you’re dealing with here.

And why haven’t you got my correct work details – I’m doing eight and a quarter hours every three weeks, then I’m doing nine and a half hours every fourth week except during the school holidays when I do five hours every two weeks and six and a quarter hours for the other two weeks but I’m due to go full time in a couple of months. No, of course I didn’t notify you cos I thought you lot had all the information anyway from my employer. Fat lot of good you are, if you can’t even keep tabs on the workers.

And the customer becomes even more annoyed when I refuse to accept her fiendishly baroque explanation of why the huge lump sum she received from cashing in the shares she had bought with tax-free savings should not be regarded as income. I wanted so much to call her a miserable greedy cow, but contented myself with a murmured comment of ‘I’m sorry but we are unable to disregard the income which you were lucky enough to get last year…’

Half a Dozen Corners Make a Room

I brought you here to
Admire the still-life: cup, ashtray, crumpled plastic film
The hinge designed to make the door swing shut.
I don’t believe in anything; that’s what makes me good
And on the phone I hear them moan about
An unfair world that wicked rulers hold
So today, a girl complained
That she was on the books of an agency
They didn’t give her any work; does that mean
That she is an employee or not? I am reminded of
A world where half a dozen senior designers
And marketing consultants
Assemble round an expensive table and spend
Two hours discussing the exact shade of plastic gold
That should be used for the tear-off band
On cellophane wrappers from Bolton to Colchester.

Several shades were offered for review, including
A bold bright blue. The chairman said
Our clients don’t want nothing new
They’ve grown accustomed to the gold
And don’t like being told what to do. Next

On the agenda, the width of the plastic strip; the
Two choices each received an equal vote, so
In a fine display of leadership the chairman
Came down on the side of the wider band. The difference
Was minute, but the arguments were long and fierce
About the impact of such a change
On sales of cigarettes and sweets and things
That people tear the perfect packet open for themselves.

Meanwhile, hardened missiles make their way to Syria,
Destroying schools and shops and peoples’ lives; and
Children trapped in burning high-rise blocks
Scream for help to a watching TV crew. A man
Is shot. Is this the world we dreamed of? I don’t know.




Diana Park

Off to the Whitworth Gallery, where they had an exhibition of works by Raqib Shaw – some bizarre statues made up of linked human figures or centaurs with the heads of wolves. Behind them, on a deafening patterned wallpaper, were three huge paintings of imaginary marble courtyards, peopled with hideous skeletal creatures. The pictures gleam like enamelled tapestries. In another room we have British landscapes by Cozens and Cozens, charming wash-and-ink pictures.

It was a warm, fairly bright day, and I had hoped to find Whitworth Park full of lazy students reclining on the grass, wearing tight shorts and Ray-Ban shades and not much else. However, there were no handsome bodies on display; so I examined the sculptures, one of which reminded me of the far-off days when I prepared the Qualcast Green paint used on lawnmower hoods.

Twenty years ago I woke one morning to discover that Britain had abruptly changed.

Journal Entry, Sun 31 Aug 97:

Yesterday went to Tyre Sales. They don’t remove wheels but managed to find a nearby garage-man to help me. Had new tyre fitted, went through to office, huge glass case full of trophies. Had a go at changing oil and sheared the edges off the bolt.

Got up this morn, put on R3. Mozart wind quintet. Announcer said ‘We have cancelled the following programme as a mark of respect –‘ (and I immediately thought that they were going to announce that HM the Queen Mother had passed away) ‘ – due to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.’
They’ve cancelled footie matches but not the rugby. Hmmm…
Apparently she was in a car smash in Paris, chased by a mob of press photographers. Get the X-Files out.

Yesterday was reading Clive James’ review of ‘The Big Time’ where he mentions Sheena Easton and then, about two mins later on R2 they played ‘For Your Eyes Only’.
[Note: during this period I had no TV set, so I didn’t see any of the news footage of weeping crowds, or the broadcast tribute to Diana by HM the Q, or the vast fields of flowers left around Buckingham Palace. I eventually found them when I went to see ‘The Queen’, Stephen Frears’ movie about how HM copes with the social upheaval triggered by Diana’s demise.



Synthetic Heritage

Off to the Gallery today; I’ve never seen it so busy, there were swarms of Japanese schoolgirls, middle-aged couples, and a few hardcore music fans (also the wrong side of fifty) who had called in to look at the glass case containing a handwritten song by Ian Curtis. Instead of a visitors’ book, the gallery offers people a section of wall on which to post sticky notes; the contributions often run to one or two words with a battalion of exclamation marks – ‘Fascinating!!!!’ One of the small square notes had an ornamental border surrounding a four-line poem:

“There’s something wrong with the canal today; the
Water has forgotten how to breathe
And waves arrive at random intervals, created
By a barge that wandered past two years ago.”

Another exhibition at the gallery consists of photographs of Salford taken in the seventies. We see cobbled streets, women in headscarves, scruffy children sitting on walls and playing with gas-masks. There are ruined houses with exposed wallpaper; very few cars apart from a wreck that children used for playing. How many of these urchins are now working as hedge fund managers, or in prison for murder, or carefully inspecting aviation test panels for SCD (sickness, corrosion and despair)?


Britain, 2017

As usual: I work long hours to pay the childminder
Who looks after my kids so I can go out to work
To earn the money
To pay the childminder who….
I work lots of overtime to pay off my Credit Cards;
My kitchen is filled with gleaming electrical toys
A bread maker which is sometimes very good
I have food processors, a device for vacuum-sealing leftovers
And left to my own devices I probably would. I have

A juicer to get the juice from fruits which I then discard
Of course it’s always late when I get home from work

Too tired to start cooking, so I
Pass the time by flicking through my volumes of Nigella and Jamie
And Gino and Delia and Mary and Keith
While I wait for the guy from Deliveroo to bring
My supper. I’ll sit beneath the rack of pots and pans and skillets
Picking at my lonely meal of seahorse and hummingbird fillets
And wondering what colour tie to wear to work.

I love watching tennis on TV; my room is filled
With saturated green from the epic bouts on centre court
And I have a garage filled with expensive fitness gear;
Carbon-fibre racquets, designer shorts
And the latest exfoliating shower gel for men. But

When I stagger home from work
The feeble shot of short-term energy from
My isotonic protein drink allows me to grab the remote
And watch recorded highlights from each game.
If I’m lucky, my kids will ring me
Twice a month; is that too much to ask?


Fallen Before Pride


Journal Entry, 20 Nov 97: Today at work we were issued with payslips together with an ‘Employee Satisfaction Questionnaire’ on which to register how blissfully happy we were at work.
Also a memo (rumoured) saying that the factory was to open on Fri 2 Jan, and that people were required to turn up in scruffy clothes and carry out cleaning duties.
Questionnaire survey: our attitude to company, products, rates of pay, management and quality improvement.

In the news: Gary Glitter (evergreen seventies pop star) has been arrested and shedfuls of child porn recovered from his house. Allegedly.
23 Nov 97: Quiz Nite and ‘70s Disco. And what music did they play? ‘Silver Machine’ and ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me There?’

3 Jan 98: Another lifetime over and a new one just begun. Got down to Cornwall on Xmas Eve. Went to Penzance, bought Xmas pressies for Manda, visited General Clothing store, went to Truro. Weather – appalling, floods, gales.
Saw ‘Perfect Day’ video for the first time; went to flicks to see new Bond movie, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’.

For a week or so, papers have been full of story about a Cabinet Minister’s son caught selling dope. Yesterday it was revealed that the Dad in question was Home Secretary Jack Straw.

9 Feb 98: Dave rang – he’s into karate, badminton, snooker and cinema. Am just about to post my advert to AWOL, arranged to go to Duncan on Thurs night. Last night went to see ‘Crash’ at Metro, then to Curzon’s.
[Note: ‘Duncan’ is the Admiral Duncan pub in Nott’m. ‘Crash’ is a David Cronenberg film based on the J G Ballard novel. Several local authorities had refused to allow the film to be screened due to the sex and violence]

27 Jun 98: Pride march and festival postponed cos only 30 percent of tickets have been sold.

8 Jul 17: London Pride march attracted support from Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the Lord Mayor of Westminster. About 26000 marchers took part. Corporate floats from major retailers, Armed forces, Met Police etc. Peter Tatchell says – with some justification – that the entire event has become sanitised and commercial, with no real ethos of protest against inequality.

8 Sep 98: Baxenden interview yesterday: I was completely hungover and staggered round drinking orange and lemonade and paracetamol. Pair of rams’ horns over me in restaurant. Questions: what can I contribute, personality clashes, supervisory experience.

27 Oct 98: Last night went with Heather, Paul and Liz to see ‘Velvet Goldmine’, the new Glam Rock film at the Broadway cinema in Nott’m –   or should that be ‘Glam Cock’ since Ewan McGregor whips out his knob during proceedings.
At work prepared conversion chart for B4 and Din 4 viscosity cups.
In the news – Welsh Secretary Ron Davies had his car stolen last night by a stranger on Clapham Common and has now resigned.

Pain Without Words

Tonight the trees are angry; the wind
Has blown away the stars, and
The sky a violet darker than any black.
Not fulfilled, not consumed, my life still hangs
In a dark window. Beyond, a landscape
Shows complex desolation.


Odeon Ruins


The 2001 Pevsner Guide to Manchester, edited by Claire Hartwell, includes the following brief reference to the Odeon Cinema on Oxford Street:
“Opposite the inter-war Odeon by F T Verity and S Beverly, with flattened pilasters and stylised capitals above garish tiles.”

How many people have arranged to meet outside that picture-house on rainy Saturday nights? How many viewers went into the building to see Jaws or Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz or The Amazing Mister Blunden? Of course, back in those days it was perfectly acceptable to smoke cigarettes in the auditorium, so the on-screen action would be heralded by flickering cones of light. The choice of flattened pilasters might have been a nod to the Art Deco movement which had overtaken much of European architecture between the wars; in the Edwardian splendour of the town centre, this must have been a daring choice.
The centre of Manchester has been transformed in recent years; the ‘ponderous Portland stone Peter House’ with a gently curved front is still present on Oxford Street; but ‘the unattractive Elisabeth House of 1971’ (a masterpiece of post-ironic neo-brutalism) is no more, having been replaced by a soaring featureless office block called One St Peter’s Square.

This epic arrival has tall, narrow windows deeply recessed in a grid of white concrete (tall and narrow are relative terms; each immense pane of glass cost a fortune to manufacture and test and transport and install) which is also gently curved to match the building opposite. I tried to capture this intriguing topology in a photograph. The picture shows the curve of the building; however, I included – by chance – a piece of the most intensely blue blue sky (probably imported from Italy along with the windows) and a small corner of the Odeon cinema, which just a few weeks later would undergo demolition, ready for the building of another grand corporate edifice.

Journal Entry, 3 Aug ’98: Last night went to Freddie’s, saw my hunky straight guy. We chatted about horror fiction, Monster Club, careers etc. The Alan S turned up, we chatted away, I got drunk and came home.
Today at work we had a meeting – 8 of us from different departments, about process engineering and toll manufacture. We each have to create a skeleton account of the function of our dept.

To E M Forster

You suffered, and built a garden
Of strange delights that do confuse but
Not offend; I am not charmed
By your vanishing livestock, or dark
Blooms. Why not publish? Your
Loss of nerve cost a generation dear.

Some other country, perhaps; another name
Is all it takes to change
This temporal fabric that we call
The world, and like a smile
Your memory will endure beyond
The distant growl of an uncaring sea.

Journal Entry, 7 Dec ’97: Yesterday morning took the ‘L’ plates off my bike and shot away to Nott’m for the Lord Mayor’s Toy Run. Weather good. Got there early; about a dozen bikes there, then more turned up including a big bearded guy called Tim who parked his trike next to me, despite there being space elsewhere.

Over next hour or so, hundreds of bikes appeared; riders in fancy dress with stuffed toys on saddles, fairy lights, and a Harley done up as a sleigh. Ian arrived on his Drag Star – ‘What an ego chariot!’ I said.
Did the run in convoy; police escort, roads closed, pavements lined with cheering crowds, then off to County Hall for an address by the Mayor (who’s a biker himself).
After speeches and raffle, Tim came up & asked me if I was going to the Redliners Party at Bramcote Manor. WE chatted briefly; then he asked if I knew about the Bears group.

Me (much taken aback): ‘In what context?’
So we ended up going round Nott’m, buying AWOL, lunch at the Art Café, drinks at Newmarket Inn. It was a perfect day; I’m glad I spent it with you…