Archived entries for People

Knight of the Order of the Thistle

I’ve been thinking about establishment. Partly it’s because, in my new job as a journalist on EU affairs, I’ve been in contact with several MEPs and commissioners and this morning I was taking pictures of the president of the European parliament for a feature on, yep, you’ve guessed it, electric bikes.

What also prompted these thoughts is the fact that the “in-house” style at the magazine follows the same style as the Guardian newspaper, i.e. to use lowercase words wherever possible. Writing in this way got me thinking about titles and honours and the establishment in general.

It’ll be interesting to see how my opinions change as I come into more frequent contact with politicans and heads of different organisations. At the moment, I still read a title like “Professor Sir Gilbert Knockbottle OBE PhD FRS LLM FRCP KCB PRA MSTA” with a certain amount of awe, even though I know that for a lot of these titles, it’s a case of approaching the right people with the right words and the right wine.

The other day I was trying to get in touch with somebody who is a professor and a knight, and again as I was dialling the numbers I thought about what I was going to say to somebody who was considered of great importance both in society and also in academic circles, i.e. on paper, both brilliant and charming. I’m not a particularly tied to social convention as such – I’ve worked for Greenpeace, for example – but there’s something about knowing that this person was an established authority that makes me want to make a good impression.

My guess is that the more time you are able to spend on the “inside” – in government departments, royal colleges, academic circles, international institutions and so on – the more you become aware of the tricks used to build up a favourable reputation. Perhaps I’ll come across these tricks the more contact I have with EU officials. Of course, there are exceptions where genuine hard work merits proper recognition. However, I have my suspicions that most post-nominal letters might turn out to be less about long-term committment and more about long-life Chateau Latour.

In This House…

It’s a time for change once again. Last week I was informed that I had successfully obtained a position as a journalist with The Parliament magazine, which was fantastic news for me because it’s a continuation of similar sort of work to that which I’d been enjoying for the last 5 months at the European Parliament in Brussels. So now that I’ll be getting an income, I was finally able to move flats and have ended up in a place that is very near to where I used to live but is a single appartment rather than a shared house.  Which will be a new experience, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’m imagining myself, three months down the line, with all these little routines that will establish themselves, unhindered by the need to accommodate other people. I might end up, for example, doing the ironing at exactly 6pm in the evening, then when people ring up and ask me out for a quiet Sunday drink it’ll be: “Hate to disappoint you but I’m afraid it’s Ironing Hour.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a fridge stocked in alphabetical order and when asked about the large plant that’s in my room, reply with: “Oh, that’s Horace. He’s quite moody so don’t get him talking about politics.”

Also I have been given about one hundred rules from the landlady. Not just the usual regulations you would expect, for example about keeping the front door locked. No, these are, it seems, rules which are so obscure that it is almost as if they were specifically put in place to be forgotten, and consequently broken. Rules about windowsills, carpets, when to open the curtains. The flat is above a doctor’s practice, and I hope the landlady never finds out that one particular memory that stands out from my previous work in hospitals is the occasion when I set the bank alarm off. For the second time. I just hope that here I don’t unwittingly lock the patients in the waiting room or mistakenly direct an ill person to the downstairs toilet instead of the doctor’s surgery.

Right now I’m being extra careful, making sure that, yes, the windows are shut when I leave and that this time I didn’t wrench the door of the wardrobe off its hinges within my first half-hour; at least with housemates I have the chance to explain that, no, I don’t know how on earth I managed to do it either but would they please just hold this while I look for the missing wall bracket/fuse box/fire extinguisher. This time, I will be shouting at Horace the Plant in exasperated tones, urging him to not just stand there but help me to try and put this back in one piece again….

Pillow talk

Personally, I don’t worry too much about pillows. However, I may be in a minority here,
judging by last weekend’s trip to IKEA to help a friend move into her new flat.

As we wandered around the vast warehouse, I wasn’t allowed to go and look at the kitchen knives until I had answered concerns regarding whether or not I thought a bright blue towel or a bright yellow one would go better in the bathroom; a 15-minute lecture on towels and their spiritual role in domestic life (or something) and I discovered that my opinions had to adopt a rather more substantial form than “It doesn’t matter.”

The matter of the towels was eventually settled after several hundred years deliberating the respective merits of the colours blue and yellow, and then choosing pink, and we moved to the pillow section. Now, I’m all in favour of a good selection to choose from, but this was the sort of confusing array of options that ensures that you might possibly leave with a pillow, but certainly with a headache and, if you really pay attention, perhaps the beginnings of a mild obsessive disorder.
What are you looking for in terms of “pillow height”?
What is your preferred shape and durability?
Do you want your pillow to retain its fluffiness after many washes?

I wish they’d explain the price difference, perhaps with one of the features written in bold being something like “The Gosa Krama: get to sleep a whole 30 minutes quicker.” This would help prevent those tedious discussions:
“Why is this one six euro more?”
“I don’t know. It’s a bit bigger?”
“No, no, look. Look here, the dimensions are the same.”
“Well…maybe it’s better material”
“They’re both filled with polyester. What’s going on?”
“I don’t have a clue. Pillow marketing isn’t actually on my Top Ten list of-”
“You don’t care, do you? You would if it was YOUR choice.”
“If it was my choice I’d live in a tent in the mountains.”
“You go and do that, Hippy Child. I’m going to find an assistant.”

You might think I’m exaggerating here, but IKEA even have an online version in which you are presented with a range of similar options in order to find your perfect quilt or pillow.

Ironically, though, you don’t actually need any of these pillows to get the good night’s sleep that they claim to provide. A quick trip round IKEA will soon see to that, pillow or no pillow.

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)

Downpour

I’ve just been caught in really heavy rain, on my way home. I tend to get the giggles in the first few minutes of a really big downpour, and I think it’s nervous laughter. An incredible volume of water is falling down from a great height, thrashing around in whichever direction the wind happens to be going; you’re temporarily blinded by the water in your eyes and deafened by the unique white noise that rain makes. Rain, like all weather, makes no distinction between people, and in that sense is quite a useful reminder of who we really are. As you’re standing under a tree, waiting for an appropriate moment to try and run a bit further, you might exchange a quick glance with someone you meet; a silent acknowledgment of shared vulnerability. Regardless of your social status, age, race, language, sexuality, political beliefs, habits, and so on, in the struggle for protection from natural forces you are simply a human being. What hits us is not only rain but also reality.

…and what do you do?

Union Pacific Railroad Big Boy #4012

I hope there’s not some universal rule that dictates that the people you tend to attract are a reflection of the sort of person you are yourself. Maybe, of course, somewhere deep inside me there’s an enthusiasm for those interests that are, to put it kindly, located at some distance away from typically popular culture. Why has this sudden suspicion arisen, you might ask? It’s because last night I was at a champagne reception and got caught in at least fifteen minutes of conversation (or, rather, my own one-to-one lecture) with a Dutch train guard who works on a voluntary railway, on the subject of narrow-gauge railways…in Romania.  

Fringe benefits

It was time, on Friday, to get a haircut. My hair had grown to the point where it could have housed a small family of birds for the winter; something had to be done. So off I went to the nearest hairdressers, and thus the ordeal began…

“Bonjour, Monsieur. How would you like it cut?”

 (Remember this is in French and my vocab on hair terminology is somewhat limited…) “Well, it’s too thick, you see, so I’d like it thinner.”  

“Right. Do you want it layered?”

“Layered? Er…can I just have it cut?”

“Well what sort of style did you have in mind?”

 “I was hoping to go for the “Now I Have Less Hair Than When I Came In” look that seems to be-”

(Of course now she’s giving me a look that I do not want to see on someone grasping a pair of sharp scissors, so I stop talking. Sharpish.)

“You already have layers, Monsieur”

 “Of course I do! Silly me! You see, sometimes you forget, don’t you? Forget to take the rubbish out, forget to feed the cat, forget your hair is layered….”

“How much length do you want me to take off?”

“Well, actually, can I…sorry, please could you keep it quite long, if that’s alright?”

“I’ve got a better idea”

(Oh, Christ. Here it comes. Skinhead. Mohican. Just A Fringe.)

“Just let me cut it.”

 Well, it was a fantastic haircut, in the end. I wish all hairdressers could be like that from the beginning, instead of making me feel like I’m taking part in some sort of Hairdressers’ Mastermind.

Speakers

bruges.jpg 

 Lovely day out to Bruges on the weekend. The pictures, as usual, can be seen here.

I’m helping to cover this month’s plenary session in Strasbourg, and it’s got me thinking about speakers, speeches and the incredible range of ability when it comes to speaking to a group. I was at a meeting last week and listened to a fantastic talk for journalists by Michael Shackleton on the complicated process that is the co-decision procedure. By leaving out much of the jargon, and by keeping up a really enthusiastic attitude throughout, Mr Shackleton was able to get across just why the procedure was so important for the division of power here amongst the European institutions. 

On the other hand, I remember being in another meeting about three weeks ago, and listening in astonishment to someone who managed to speak for about 10 minutes and at the same time managed to say absolutely nothing. I was supposed to be taking notes, and I kept asking myself, after every few sentences, “What has he actually said?”

Sometimes it reminds me of this “management-speak” that you get on a lot of recruitment posters for big companies. You know the sort of thing I mean:

“Kick-start YOUR career by helping us to find strategic solutions tailored towards a client-orientated global financial leader.” 

“This (grinning idiot, pictured jumping in a field, in his suit, with his work mates) could be you. You too can a key player in developing an innovative, people-centric management system for today’s commitment-driven, asset-focused businesses. Reach further, faster.”

The only thing I’ll be reaching for is the dictionary.

Young and, er, wild…

A quick trip to Cardiff for an interview for a place on the postgraduate diploma course in journalism – and, in response to the forthcoming question, I think it went OK and I’ll probably find out next week – and, at the Youth Hostel, I got my suit out of the suit bag…only to find it had crumpled inside. I had got up especially early that day in order to first wash then iron a shirt for this interview, so I was pissed off. “What’s the point of you being a suit bag” I fumed (at the suit bag) “if all you’re going to do is abandon your duties?! Well? No, don’t just shrug your shoulders like that. That’s not going to get the creases out of my shirt now, is it?”
I’m glad no-one entered the dormitory right then and caught me arguing with my suit bag.

So I had the interview in a shirt that had more creases than Keith Richards, but I hope they were paying more attention to articles rather than attire. I had a really nice evening following the interview, actually. At the YH when I got back there were a load of teenagers and my first thought was “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? A tiring and testing day and now a noisy rabble to contend with. Fantastic.”

Actually, though, they were all surprisingly well behaved, and as I was cooking my dinner and hadn’t yet been stabbed by one of the sharp meat knives, I struck up a conversation with a few of them and it turns out they were all Danish, on a school trip to find out about the UK. We ended up chatting for a good while, me telling them about my work in the Parliament and about the great times you have at university, and they told me all about Denmark and their school. It was a fascinating couple of hours. Eventually their teacher came in and reminded them that they were supposed to be in bed 15 minutes ago. They all lept to their feet, apologised to him profusely and scattered upstairs. It could have been such a different set of circumstances, with them coming back at 3 in the morning having been out all night finding out whether beer or wine bottles have the best impact when thrown against a shop window. They had, in fact, been sitting around a table, politely making conversation, and had forgot about the time. I was impressed.

Today I have been mostly…learning about the co-decision procedure and sampling Greek food and wine at a reception.

Still Life

Sardinia

Just back from Sardinia, where I joined my family who were staying near Stintino, in the North West of the island. As we went out of season, both Stintino and the surrounding area were deserted, giving the place a very “League-of-Gentlemen” feel: “Lei è locale?”

It reminded me in a way of where I come from, North West Wales. Beautiful scenery, absolutely packed with people in the summer months, and a bleak emptiness in the winter months. I began to wonder what would pass for news in Stintino, what would get the locals chatting excitedly in the shops, cafes and by the post box:

“Man Drops Keys Down Drain”

“Last Night’s Full Moon: Exclusive pictures inside!”

Speculating on what might constitute headline material in this remote part of Sardinia reminds me that North West Wales has itself produced some memorable “news” items recently:

Man rang 999 to report cold meal

Man gets breakfast tattoo on head

There comes a time when Scrabble clearly loses its appeal…



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