Friday, February 27, 2004

It’s quite exciting to be sleeping 

I have two kids, aged 2 and nearly 4. One of the side effects of this is that I have had an uninterrupted night’s sleep on only a few occasions since the turn of the century. Some people claim to be able to survive on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. Not me. Left in peace, I will be unconscious for a good 9 or 10 hours. These days, though, the nights that provide a good rest are few and far between, which is why I, and most parents of young children, often look a bit ropey. There is a twilight period between the birth of your first child, and around the 4th birthday of your last, when you are never completely refreshed. Instead of having the stamina that you fondly remember from your relative youth, you are tiptoeing along the edge of exhaustion. One good party and you’re finished.

This may go some way to explaining my fascination with sleep. Apart from the debilitating effects of long term deprivation, I also spend a fair bit of reading time trying to work out how to deal with the latest permutation of night terrors, nightmares, insomnia, or “Daddy, I’m thirsty”. It makes it all worthwhile, though, when they do finally nod off. To see someone sleeping is to truly see their face. There are no expressions, no reactions – just their features pure and clear. And the occasional dribble.

What made me think of all this was being awoken last night by a noise outside the window. I was completely zonked (which is a technical sleep term), and dragged my eyelids open to gaze blurrily at the curtains, trying to work out what was behind them. When I pictured the window and what was behind it, the first images that crawled into my mind were of the house I grew up in. This was very disorienting, and mildly disconcerting – why does my night-time brain assume that I am still living in my folks’ house? I’ve spent a only few dozen nights there in the last 10 years or so, and even then the room I pictured wasn’t even my bedroom. Strange where sleep can take you.

The noise, by the way, was nothing sinister, just somebody heading off early to the airport or a meeting. In some clapped out old banger.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

You can have a steam train 

I read too many Brit blogs, and then get homesick. When people ask me what I miss about the UK, I have a few pat answers: friends, good beer, decent newspapers, pub conversations, the Royal Mail (RIP), British TV, people getting my jokes … the list goes on. Having lived in London for 6 years or so, blogs like the Big Smoker and Going Underground help to keep me in touch, like knowing that the Post Office has been repaced by something called Consignia, or something. Having been professionally involved with the privatisation of British Railways, I can imagine what this was like.

The following conversation (more or less) took place in about 1995 between a certain wet behind the ears consultant and the chief accountant of what was about to become one of the Train Operating Companies (Great Western, Network Southeast, etc.):

Consultant: “So you can set up this penalty structure [something to do with making other companies’ trains late] to limit your loss to 10% of the contract value.”
Accountant: “So is that realistic?”
C: “What do you mean?”
A: “In business, if you do really badly, is a loss of 10% about right?”
C: “Er, no. In the real world if you do really badly, you go under.”
A: “Oh.”
C: “But you don’t need to worry about that.”

What really happened is that one or two lucky buggers who happened to be in the right place at the right time, and be smarter than your average BR, made a shit load of money at the taxpayers’ expense. The rest of them toddled on pretty much as usual. Then Labour got in, and discovered that one of the main aims of the privatisation had been to make it as difficult as possible to untie the tangled mess, which brings us bang up to date. Anybody got Mussolini’s number?

Listening to: Del Amitri, Waking Hours

Some blame the management and some the employees 

On the beach, between projects, doing admin, let's face it - I'm bored. There are only so many blogs that you can read in a day, so I am working on one of my theories, one that is particularly relevant at the moment. As a consultant, especially one that is currently under-employed, one of the main problems is selling projects to clients. There is a natural antagonism towards consultants, since we as a group are perceived to be arrogant and over-paid. Everybody knows the "consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and keeps the watch" gag. Of course, every client who tells you (and believe me, every client tells you) thinks you've never heard it before. But I digress, the theory goes like this:

The Peter Principle and consulting sales.
The people to whom to sell consulting services are those who have just been promoted beyond their competence. They are desperately looking simultaneously for two things: help; and the opportunity to prove that they can now make Big Decisions. Like hiring consultants.

It's all in the timing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Let us not talk falsely 

There are some people with whom I have two parallel conversations. One is in the real world, where the talking takes place over the phone or a drink, and the other is via email. This is one of the features of email: rather than usurping an existing mode of communication, it has added a new one, in a parallel universe. It is almost as if the person I am having an old fashioned conversation with is a different one from the one who types the emails.

Email exchanges - leaving aside business ones, which tend to be scrutinised for potential misinterpretation - fall into one of two categories. There are the long letter substitutes, and the short snappy banter. The letter substitutes are a bit like those annual reports that people print out and put into their Christmas cards: "Fluffy has graduated with a first from Oxford, and is now working on a project in the Amazon basin, while Chip is out into his third week of community service at the St Pampers Retirement Home for incontinent octogenarians." They are usually pretty verbose, and if when you read them, you can often hear the writer's voice coming through in the email.

The second type is close to an IRC conversation, where the exchanges, usually limited to two or three people, unlike the broadcast letter, tend to be short and sharp. The nature of email is that you get as much time as you need to come up with something witty to type, so the correspondence has a witty, unreal quality, rather like dialogue from 'Friends'.

Underlying it all is an awareness that everything is in writing, so you need to constantly ask yourself "could this come back to haunt me?"

Finally, in this brief musing on electronic chat, there are blogs: a peculiar phenomenon, peculiar to the web, often peculiar in content. They are monologues, although I suppose everybody imagines their devoted audience listening to their ramblings. My devoted audience numbers about three at the moment. Just wait until I'm rich & famous. Or just famous. You read it here first: the monoblogue.

Listening to: Dire Straits, Making Movies: reminds me of a sunny college day-trip to Whitley Bay - the Spanish City. Great day.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Let me tell you how it will be 

I was planning on spending this morning preparing for a meeting with a big client. Unfortunately, he cancelled yesterday, citing a previous appointment, and re-scheduled for two weeks hence, blaming a full diary. One of the things I wanted to talk to him about, which now has a certain irony, was the fact that he and his senior colleagues are unable to do their jobs properly due to the demands placed on their time by piddling issues. They are continually having to get involved in the kind of things that somebody else should be doing, because there aren't enough people with the right skills to cover all the things they want to do. As I see it (and I'm the consultant, remember) the solution is a permanent access to the type of skills that we can provide. The result of this would be that the senior people would be called upon only to make the kind of decision that ought to be their job, and the rest of the time that they currently spend fixing problems not of their making could be spent running the company. There is a dearth of vision at a level above what can loosely be described as "project manager". This is perhaps a result of a shallow talent pool, in that anyone who is any good gets promoted quickly, but tends to leave a void of competence beneath themselves as they move upstairs. That's where we come in. The attraction to us is that it would give us, as a small firm, some certainty of income for a reasonable period. It's called win-win, I believe.

Anyway, Wednesday was budget day, which has traditionally been done rather stylishly by our current finance minister. He dishes out meaningful presents to the assembled MPs - saplings this year to represent the growth potential of the country. It all sounded vaguely familiar: increased taxes on booze, fags and fuel to cover spending on worthy projects. The numbers are not bad though: there was an average of 1% growth per annum in the 10 years to 1994, and 2.8% a year in the 10 years since. Not bad for a bunch of socialists that came to power in league with the communists.

Listening to: Deacon Blue, Raintown

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

And his hair was perfect 

It is a well known fact that groups of women living in close proximity find that their menstrual cycles become synchronised. It happens in nunneries, or girls' boarding schools. One theory goes that it was pre-programmed a way for the women of the caveman tribe to get the blokes to do a bit of hunting. I don't know if it would have been the PMT or the lack of nookie that sent them after a mammoth dinner, but either one could have worked.

Anyway, I have discovered a similar phenomenon. Blokes working together tend to get their hair cut at about the same time. Honest. It happened today, and it’s happened before. I came in having had a haircut (and a particularly fine one too, if I say so myself), and so does my colleague, A. Freaky. You heard it here first.

Listening to: Springsteen, Born in the USA. This was my first Bruce album. I used to be able to put it on shuffle, then sit down across the room, and call the next song, before it started, from the track number that came up on the CD player. These days I can’t even read the track number from across the room. I’m still word perfect though, even on the interjections – Big Man, play that saxophone!

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad 

Are all poets drunks and lovers? Larkin was a good example – sherry for breakfast and women all over the place. Take Dylan Thomas, or his namesake Bob – celebrated shaggers both – so much for inhibiting the performance. Engineers are a different matter. No-one has ever made a film about an engineer. Probably. Architects maybe, usually hopeless romantic types, but engineers just aren’t sexy. Maybe they’re too busy doing useful things to get caught with the best friend’s wife.

Take Thomas Bain, for example: he was a busy bloke. I regularly drive along the coast road south from Cape Town. It's beautiful - cut into the side of the slope where Table Mountain slides down into the Atlantic. The other day I actually stopped to read the roadside plaque that I have passed a thousand times. It commemorates the achievements of one Thomas Bain, civil engineer. This road - Victoria Drive - was his last major project, bringing to an end years of building in the Cape. While he was building it, he was also working on the seven passes road between George and Knysna, about 700km away. He commuted between the two projects on horseback. He died on his sixty third birthday in 1893, having completed 23 major mountain passes, plus a sprinkling of bridges and railways. The roads were mostly built by convict labour, and are famously scenic. If you travel the Western Cape, it pays to get off the main roads and to explore via Bain’s roads. His father built some too, but Bain junior’s output puts his in the shade. He couldn’t have done it if he’d been pissed all the time. He’d have kept falling off his horse for a start.

Listening to: still Bob. Tambourine Man. Genius.

A little me to fill up with my thoughts 

Having kids is a wonderful and a scary thing. You try and teach them the right things, and at the same time hope that you don't pass on to your kids all the things you dislike in yourself. Problem is, they live with you, and they see everything. Then you look at your parents, and see the things in them that used to irritate you being repeated in yourself. Fear and self-loathing. My favourite commentary on this topic is from Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up your mum & dad,
They may not mean to but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
Then add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern,
And half at one anothers’ throats.

Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

And bugger me - I typed this yesterday, uploaded it this morning, and then I see the latest from the Bottle Shop, who is going through a poetry phase. Guess what? A Larkin poem in today's post. Now everyone is going to think I copied him. Swine.

Listening to: Bob Dylan, Highway 61

Monday, February 16, 2004

I know I've seen that face before 

When you get into your thirties (I was going to write ‘when you get to my age’, but (a) that sounds like my father, and (b) you probably don’t know how old I am anyway. I’m in my thirties. Take my word for it.), you have met quite a few people. When, like me, you remember faces but not names, a lot of people tend to look quite familiar. There are only so many basic combinations of facial characteristics, and after a while – or a few drinks – everyone starts to look familiar. The effect of this hitherto unremarked phenomenon is that you spend a while re-introducing yourself to people you have never actually met before. Until you get the hang of it that is, then you assume you know no-one, and introduce yourself anew to people that your wife claims you've met a dozen times.
Oh, bugger.

Listening to: Van Morrison: Astral Weeks

Friday, February 13, 2004

There’s no place I’d rather be 

The thing for me about consulting here is the potential that is inherent in this country. During the dark years of apartheid, millions of people of the wrong colour were denied opportunity. Whole generations missed out, and there is now a vast potential waiting to be tapped. As a business consultant trying to unlock value in different businesses and markets, I find this tremendously exciting.

As an illustration of what I am talking about, take the story of Bongani Mvumvu. Bongani left home and was found living rough on a pig farm by the family who owned the place. They subsequently adopted him, and helped him to get an education. He ended up playing rugby for Western Province schools. The mother of the family was also a riding instructor, so Bongani was put on a horse to see how he got on. Now I come from what, certainly by South African standards, is a privileged background, so the odds of me finding out if I have a knack for riding are pretty good. I don’t. Bongani, on the other hand, could easily have lived his whole life without even seeing a horse. To cut a long story short, it transpires that Bongani was born to ride, and in August 2003, aged 14, he won the World Junior Dressage Championships in Germany.

What boggles my mind is the sheer numbers that were denied an opportunity under apartheid to become doctors, sportsmen, writers or businessmen. For me, being given the chance to work with this new generation, and with some of the old, is incredible. South Africa is a once in a lifetime place to be: ten years of democracy and counting. This is history in the making, and I can’t think of anywhere else that can offer what this country can. And I haven’t even mentioned the weather.

Listening to: Robert Plant: Route 66 to somewhere or other, and not really getting into it.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

So good to be back home again 

Standing on top of Table Mountain, you can see a lot of South Africa’s past, and its future too. To the north is the city of Cape Town, with Table Bay in the distance. In the bay sits a low, roughly circular, island, which looks pretty uninteresting until you realise that this is Robben Island – South Africa’s Alcatraz, where Nelson Mandela spent a large chunk of his 27 years in prison. To the south the rocky Cape Peninsular stretches down to Cape Point, and forms the western side of False Bay. False Bay is so called because to a ship approaching the bay, and looking across the Cape Flats, it looks as though you can sail straight through to Table Bay, and that Table Mountain sits on an island. To the north of False Bay are the aforementioned flats, designated as black and coloured areas under apartheid’s Group Areas Act, of which more later. This is where the townships are: Khayelitsha, Guguletu & Crossroads – names that will be familiar to those who remember the news from South Africa in the eighties and early nineties.

Back on top of the mountain, looking down on the city, there is an area that catches the eye. Just below Devil’s Peak there is a lot of open space, dotted with five or six churches. This is District Six. In the early sixties it was a colourful area, not without its problems, but a vibrant community where the same families had lived in close proximity for several generations. On 11th February 1967, the South African government declared District Six to be a white area under the Group Areas Act. It was too close to town, and too valuable a piece of real estate to be left to the coloured and black communities who had made it what it was. The entire population of District Six was forcibly relocated to the ‘coloured’ areas on the Cape Flats. Instead of being moved en masse, the families and friends were broken up, and found themselves spread out all over this sprawling collection of settlements. To match the destruction of the community, the government bulldozers moved in and razed every building in District Six. Everything except the churches was destroyed – even the apartheid thugs could not bring themselves to knock them down, and they were left to stand, empty and unvisited, as lonely reminders of what had been there.

Almost immediately, and probably even before the evacuation had been completed, the people of Cape Town realised the injustice of what was being done. It’s my guess that, even as the bulldozers rolled, the government realised the folly of what they were doing, but like a schoolyard bully had talked themselves to a point where they could not afford to back down. The collective disapproval, though, meant that nobody ever moved into District Six. No new houses were ever built to connect the churches, and the area became a wasteland where the wind stretches plastic bags against the wire fences.

When the democratic government was elected, in 1994, they set about putting right the wrongs of apartheid. Among these restitutions were the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, affirmative action to tilt the economic playing field, and doing something about things like District Six. It took them a while, and the fact that there is an election in nine weeks has nothing to do with it, of course, but yesterday the first two residents of the old, and the new, District Six were presented with the keys to their new homes by Mandela himself.

It’s great to see these things, and it’s all part of the healing process, but there is a difficulty in fixing the old South Africa whilst simultaneously trying to create the new one. At the moment, and probably for the next ten or twenty years, the government is dividing its money and energy between acts of restitution like this, and acts of creation – feeding the next generation into the system with the opportunities their parents were denied. When the creation is dominant, then South Africa will really move on. It is impossible to right the wrongs of apartheid. The thousands killed in the violence of those dark years, and the lives destroyed by decisions like those that flattened District Six are not going to come back. The trick this young democracy needs to pull is to walk the fine line between reinstatement and replenishment. Honour the past but look to the future, as somebody has probably said before.

Monday, February 09, 2004

It's a professional career 

The trouble with consulting is that you are, basically, for sale. A prostitute. It’s better than acting because you don’t have to wait on tables between jobs, but projects are often out of your control. Current problem: it looks like I am about to find myself on a 6 month project in Johannesburg. It looks like being a good project, for all the reasons that I enjoy this type of work – it’s a challenge, it’s helping the client to do something new and exciting, it’s going to make a difference to people’s lives, and it promises to be fun. But it’s in Jo’burg. Jo’burg is a lively, happening city – with a bit of a crime problem – but it is 2 hours by plane from Cape Town.

When you first start as a young – single – consultant, the life of travel, hotels and expenses is exciting. It remains that way for three or four weeks. At that point, you realise that you haven’t seen your friends for a while, you know the hotel’s room service menu better than the waiters, and you are on first name terms with the night porter. A friend of mine used to complain that his dog wouldn’t let him in the front door when he got home.

The net result of this job will be that I won’t see my kids from Sunday evening to Friday morning. That’s assuming that I can swing only four (long) days a week up in Gotham, then one back here. If the project doesn’t live up to expectations in terms of entertainment value, then I am going to be really depressed.

Sole upside: lots of reading time on the plane.

Listening to: an old mix tape, Costello to Creedence to Chuck Berry.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

If not for you 

My wife saved Nancy's life. Nancy is our maid. Domestic worker. Anyway, I was right about her going home to die. She had gone on the Friday, and spent the weekend telling her family what to do with her house and belongings. On Sunday night she called us to say that she wasn't coming on Monday. My wife managed to talk her into coming anyway to see our doctor, who diagnosed diabetes - her blood glucose was off the scale - and sent her straight to hospital. By the time they got there, Nancy could barely speak, let alone walk, and had to be practically carried into the ward. She was slipping into a coma and probably would have gone within a day or two. Without my wife.

If you knew my wife, you might not be that surprised – she is an incredible person, and although life-saving is outside of her normal day to day activities, she is certainly capable of great things. What particularly interests me is that she says she felt guided in what she was doing. At every stage, from persuading Nancy to come to us, through to getting her to the hospital and by-passing the casualty queue, she had a clear and singular purpose in her mind the whole time. There was never any doubt as to what she should do next, and she had no trouble in the execution.

The other thing that strikes me about this is the way that Nancy accepted what was happening to her. She was dying, and as far as she was concerned, that was that. Nancy is black, a Xhosa, and blacks in South Africa, in case you missed the news, were treated with casual cruelty and legislated malice during apartheid South Africa, for about 40 years until 1990. Nancy, in particular, has had a tough life – her husband (who is now dead) beat her, and she is still working to support her grandchildren. In the years that she has worked for us, she has never taken a day off sick, and even in the last few weeks and months, when she was heading to what was about to become a fatal coma on Monday night, she did not admit to any problem, despite our frequently voiced concern. She had been looking tired and old, but had worked through her failing eyesight, aching limbs, and other problems as just more things that life was throwing at her. Stoic isn’t in it.

I’m not sure what the moral is here. Get a second opinion. Surround yourself with people who care. Listen to your body and look after your health. Look out for those around you.

Listening to: The Bare Necessities. It’s the weekend, and the kids are in charge.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Don't believe what I saw 

More road rage. This time a police car stopped half way across a junction, blocking traffic trying to cross. Classic. Being a Brit, and brought up on the good old unarmed, impeccable, unbribeable British Bobby, the police anywhere else are usually a bit of a disappointment. My experience of South Africa's police is, I'm happy to say, based mostly on observation, plus the occasional love letter from a speed camera.

Things I have spotted on the roads so far:
- a policeman talking on the cellphone whilst driving (which is illegal here)
- a policeman smoking whilst driving a police car
- a police car with one of those furry pink panthers stuck to the back window.

I swear that the last one is true. At least it wasn't Garfield.

Listening to: Solomon Burke: Don't Give Up On Me - soothing enough even for police related road rage.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Gotta change the rules 

One thing about South Africa is that the rules are looser than in the UK. This applies to almost every facet of life, but means that I have noticed the self imposed rules that I as an Englishman born, bred & conditioned, had imposed on myself. For one thing, SA is far more entrepreneurial – there is no clear-cut career path: you graduate, you get a starter job, you get promoted, and so on. Part of the reason is that the talent pool is a lot shallower than it is in London, so smart and ambitious people can get farther more quickly than they would in a place where there is always someone as smart as them with experience as well. The perceived way of doing things is nothing like as strong here, probably because the conventional way of doing things often doesn’t work. The result of this is that you learn to be resourceful to get anything done, be it getting a phone put in, or getting into someone’s diary.

Whatever. It’s refreshing, and the edge it gives you is probably one reason that South Africans often do well when they do move to London, which they do in large numbers.

Listening to: Kings of Leon: Youth & Young Manhood

Monday, February 02, 2004

Got to do my best to please her 

Today is my daughter’s second birthday. Everybody say “aaahh!”. Every present she received seems to be pink. My favourite is Barbie on a horse. Very impressive – she seems to have extra flexible hips for straddling the horse, so can be manoeuvred into all sorts of tricky positions with Ken. Neither Barbie nor her playmate, unfortunately, is equipped for this kind of action. Do they do anatomically correct Barbie for the ‘birds & the bees’ talk, illustration of? Or Ken: squeeze his bottom, and up pops … never mind. I wonder when can I expect to have to do that – I need lots of time to prepare.

Listening to: Counting Crows: Hard Candy

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