Monday, 31 October 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Councillor Waynflete's Volunteering (1)

Kenneth Spotlessnob: Hamish, can I have a moment?

Hamish Carpenter: Certainly.

Kenneth Spotlessnob: It's about the Odanglesex Volunteering Strategy. Councillor Waynflete wants to support it by volunteering for a half-day. Dale thought you'd be the person to suggest some possible opportunities. It must be local, of course, and not too controversial. External Comms will handle the publicity. Can I leave that with you? It needs to happen in the next two weeks.

Hamish Carpenter: OK, I'll see what Julie or Mike have to suggest.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Directror of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: Julie and Mike have come up with some suggestions and Reema added a couple. The timescale is a bit tight for the voluntary sector, of course, but how about:

Odanglesex Wildlife Trust: digging out a pond in Nuteley Wood
Great Age Odanglesex: storytelling to residents of Oakleve Close
Friends of the Soke of Odanglesex Railway: painting and decorating Odways Station
Kiddiz Kingdom: Tidying garden and play area at Kiddiz Palace
Sticklehampton Youth Club and Sticklehampton with Claymoor Parish Council: litter pick on High Street.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

Hamish: Thanks. OWT are out because of the argument over the development on McGonagall's Swamp. Great Age likewise because Bill is a bit sensitive about his age and doesn't want to be photographed with a lot of old people. I tried the railway one on him and he pointed out that it could seem to be taking sides on transportation options in a way unhelpful to the bus operators or the new road campaigners who represent, of course, some important business interests. He'd love to do the youth club one if it weren't joint with the parish council. Of course you know the chair of that one is Councillor Bruce-Roberts, who he feels might make political capital out of it. So it had better be Kiddiz Kingdom. Can you forward a choice of dates? Melissa will sort out the photos.



Saturday, 29 October 2011

Favourite Season

Autumn is definitely here. The leaves are turned to incredible variety of colour, many one unique to that plant, so you could just show me dogwood or spindle, say, just the colour, and I'd have a good chance of guessing it. Anywhere near woods there's an indefinable scent of rotting, but not at all unpleasant. Summer birds have nearly all left and the first winter ones are coming in.

Autumn's my favourite season. I think ultimately it's not the colours of the leaves or the snese of completion, of fruiting, but the sense of change, the urgency of arriving winter thrushes and geese, the hint of winter. For two and a half years I was outside this, more completely than you can be if you never leave a city, because I was just about on the equator, in Kenya. There were rainly seasons and dry, but I missed the temperate seasons. It helped me to realise how deeply embedded they are in the culture of people from temperate or actic zones.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


It sounds new, exciting, modern, sexy, doesn't it? If hot-desking sounds like something in "The Secretary", it's not by chance. The word "hot" carries the meaning of sexy and also of exciting, active, new. So it must be good. What is it, actually?

It's the practice in offices of not reserving a space for an individual, but providing a number of identical work-stations and leaving their occupation to first come, first served. So not wildly modern, exciting or sexy - but it's one of those things that ambitious managers pretty much have to believe in and spout enthusiastically about if they want to get on. But is it a good idea?

It can be. There's nothing at all new about the idea that if staff spend most of their time away from the office, it's inefficient to provide them all with desk space and they had best make do with what they can get on their infrequent visits to the office. That makes huge sense, and because of flexible working, the amount of time office-based staff spend away from the office is probably increasing - though as some technology like that for telephone conferencing reduces the need to travel to meetings, some trends are going the other way.

But what about staff who actually spend most of their time in the office? I had recent experience of a switch from open-plan with individual work-places to hot-desking, and it was clear there are disadvantages the senior managers ignore (because they don't hot-desk).

It seems to me the main advantages are as follows. It saves space (but many organisations are shedding staff but can't reduce their premises size, so the pressure on space is often reducing). How much space it saves depends on how many long periods people spend away from the office. It encourages people to get rid of unnecessary hard copy stuff and do more things electronically (though of course that's risky if the systems go down, as ours seemed to about once every two months, sometimes for two days or more). It helps people to get to know a wider range of colleagues well, because you're sitting next to different people day after day: this I think is important and it can generate a sort of freshness. Finally, it means that you cannot be stuck permanently next to someone whose constant chat, eating habits or whatever drive you up the wall.

And the disadvantages? There is generally extreme pressure on storage space, so that useful stuff you kept by your desk and could access immediately gets thrown away or put where it takes some time to recover. You tend to lose some of the strong team spirit of a small team when you're not actually next to those colleagues: this applies only to small teams. Setting up to be ready to work takes longer as you have to fetch the things you need (or hump them around with you all the time): in my case, in order to set up my phone to receive my calls, I had to key in fourteen digits, and it was easy to forget to do it at all!. There is a risk that some people will arrive for work and find no places: this is quite likely when there's a team meeting that day. In a fixed-place office, if a phone rings at an empty place, you know who the caller is wanting, you tend to know a fair bit about that neighbour's work, and you answer it, leaving a message for your colleague. With hot-desking, you often have no idea who was at that place, it may be someone whose work is a mystery to you, and from what I saw, people generally let that phone ring. You lose the sense of responsibility for your own space, so that people are less likely to clean it and much less likely to report faults like a broken keyboard part or chair since you don't have to go to that place next day. Again, I base this comment on experience. It can be quite dificult perpetually adjusting things like chair height and angle to fit what's healthy and comfortable for you - not a problem for short stints, but potentially a serious issue for long stints. It makes life more difficult for people with particular requirements because of an impairment or indeed unusual height. I it reduces the extent to which people can personalise their work-space. I'm sure some managers see this as a plus: I see it as a minus because I think people at work are individual human beings who will produce the best work when that individuality and humanity is respected. Finally, "good employers" are theoretically on the ball helping people with mental health problems in work, but what is the impact of losing your safe space?

Personally, I found the shifting around had its fun side and I like a change of scene (though desk space A to desk space D is a pretty small change of scene), but I hated losing the pictures I had by my desk and I found the constant adjusting, searching, unloading a nuisance. I'm told some of these issues are much less of a problem when there are people responsible for the good condition of the work-places, but how many managers cutting expenditure and keen to promote hot-desking will provide for that?

This is not a diatribe against the idea, but a suggestion that the real benefits and disbenefits should be weighed up rationally.

Back to satire and humour soon...

Monday, 24 October 2011

French culture

The most famous French novel is called "Looking for a Lost Aunt" and the most famous French painting is "Eating Grass".

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Great Bastard Reintroduction Programme

Once, the English Great Bastard in all his magnificence roamed the land, twirling his moustaches, adjusting his top hat, making his characteristic and evocative cackling call after tying some beautiful maiden to a railway line or robbing the nest of some honest yeoman. There was, in fact, nothing more redolent of traditional England than this magnificent beast in all his glory.

No more. Hunted to extinction by tax inspectors and angry fathers, the Great Bastard breathed his last just as he was being immortalised in film by the Ealing Wildlife Studios. Some allege that his demise was brought about not only by shooting and trapping, but also by competition with the non-indigenous Little Bastard (Otis Archerensis) which has proved better able to adapt to new ecological niches such as merchant banking, tabloid journalism, football and romantic novel-writing.

Be that as it may, a small group of dedicated naturists is making a sustained attempt to reintroduce the Great Bastard to his former haunts in the so-called Clublands. The importation of juvenile Bastards from Russia has not been without difficulties (it was recently necessary to shoot a Fox) but the programme directors are determined that the Great Bastard will breed, stalk and cackle once more in England's green and pleasant land. Donations to the Great Bastard Reintroduction Programme, c/o Gran Cayman Tears, Bahamas.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Blogging in the dark

Blogging is not quite like leaving little notes around town and then taking a bus out - or singing out of a toilet cubicle knowing other patrons might hear you. Blog hosts provide some statistics. These are interesting and sometimes rather odd.

My other blog ( for poetry) got a record 23 hits yesterday, distributed around different posts (in other words, the 23 didn't all look at the same things) and only three so far today. Wordpress doesn't show you where these people are, but blogspot gives you a neat little map. That quite a lot of hits on this site are from the UK is no surprise: I'm from there myself and some of the posts will make most sense to Brits. That a number are from the U.S. is no surprise either as I advertised the blogs on a LinkedIn group with very many Americans. Some hits from India and Pakistan make sense because of conversations I've had including around poetry blogs. But what about the Russians and Latvians? I'm curious about you. Advance and identify! I'd love to find out more.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Oysters and Cats

Just enjoyed a superb bottled real ale, the local Mersea Island Brewery's Island Oysters, dark, tasty and creamy. Then snoozed on the sofa with the cat on top of me. Hard work, this...

PS - re my post on Liam Fox: we now learn he WAS warned about friend Werrity, repeatedly. Did the warnings not then go up to the Prime Minister?

The Odanglesex Chronicles: the packages of work (2)

FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Ken: Can you update me on progress with the Odanglesex Craft Olympiad? Cllr Waynflete was asking. Today, please.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
To: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager


You'll see from the above we need to update Ed on the Odanglesex Craft Olympiad. Please draft to me by 2:30.


FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


It's with you since last Thursday for approval of thedraft package - unless you've sent it to Vanessa?


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager


Forget about the packaging. Please rework this package by 2:45 and I'll present it to Ed. You can resolve any rough ends with Vanessa later.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: the packages of work (1)

From: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
To: All Transformational Excellence

I thought our away-half-day where I explained our new mode of working in Transformational Excellence was a really encouraging, lively occasion. It's good to see so many people with a positive outlook. I was especially impressed that when I asked for any questions about our new made of working with packages of work, no-one had a question. Well done!

Of course all the process requirements and standards are on the Infranet in the Transformational Excellence (Process) folder, passworded according to Directorate procedures, but I thought I'd just run through the main points.

In order to ensure that we're focused on the needs of our customers, which in our case are other parts of the Council, we no longer do work without a request being filed. This must be approved at Director level in the requesting unit and transmitted through Kelly Pattrick in my office to me for approval and allocation to a human resource. On receiving the request, the human resource must measure, milepost and categorise the package of work, identifying which of our corporate priorities it meets. The request must then be packaged according to the standard procedures and must be conveyed back through Kelly to me for transmission to the requestor. The requestor should then sign to confirm acceptance of the package, which is conveyed by the same route back to the human resource. At this point the work can begin. It is really important that none of these stages are evaded or short-circuited.

I have had a couple of queries about this process. One concerns situations where the requestor and the human resource do not agree the package. In order to ensure a robust paper trail, the above procedures must be followed: so the requestor will resubmit an amended request through the correct channels, the human resource (which may or may not be the one originally identified) will develop a package and so on. Meeting face to face to sort the matter out may seem attractive, but believe me, it only complicates things.

The other concerns situations where someone in Transformational Excellence actually originates the idea for the package. It is still necessary to find a requestor and proceed as above.

Of course, as I explained at the away-half-day, it will no longer be possible to have ongoing commitments and permanent specialisms, as these stand in the way of a flexible, responsive, fit-for-the-21st-century service.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence
TO: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager

Neil: Councillor Pannona Willis is concerned that our packaging procedures may increase our carbon footprint. Will they? Please draft a reply for my approval.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Liam Fox

Apologies to the non-Brits following this blog, unless they're interested in UK politics. This is a posting about the hot news in the UK political scene, the resignation of the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox. He was a big figure in the government not only because Defence is a big job, but also because he was effectively the leader of the right-wing Conservatives.

An old and close friend of his, Adam Werrity, had accompanied him on a whole lot of official visits and also unofficial visits where he met important people abroad. This guy had no position in the government or the Conservative Party and had not been security-checked, but he descibed himself on headed notepaper as an adviser to Fox. He'd collected a lot of money for Fox's political campaigns and favourite pressure-groups and a reasonable guess was that he was looking for favours back. Not surprising that Liam Fox resigned. He's being replaced by a less controversial figure, Phil Hammond, who despite being a Conservative and a businessman, took great care when new in office as Transport minister to be even-handed about a high-profile, big-impact strike at British Airways, saying in effect that both sides needed to get down at a table and talk and give ground.

Now here's my particular comment. What about the Ministry of Defence civil servants and the secret intelligence people? Did none of them say, "Who is this guy? He's picking up sensitive information, even if he's not in on the closed session meetings, and he might be a security risk. Secretary of State, this can't go on!"? Are they so complacent or so cowed that they didn't sound a warning in a year and a half? If so, something is badly wrong. Or did they sound a warning and it was ignored, which would be much more serious not only for Fox but for Cameron?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Meanwhile, my other hat

For those who like poetry or are willing to try it, my other blog ( has recent posts including "Be quiet, or I will hit you with a poem" asking what puts people off poetry, an ironic poem about anthropologists (The Anthropologist), a poem or song celebrating British Real Ale (Joe Keenan) and a short, very Gothic poem (Crossing). There is also a poem puzzling over the sign THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. What is the door alarmed about?

Those who know me may be interested that I'm getting on with writing a fantasy novel, "The Case of the Broken Spectacles": the first draft is more than half finished. I'm also writing up an account of walking the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way in the Scottish Highlands this summer, finishing one long-distance trail and straight on to the other, with a view to using it as raw material for a couple of magazine articles.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Not good form

My former boss e-mailed me, much amused. When I was leaving the county council, there were long and slightly peculiar e-forms to be filled in, one of which was recording that all sorts of permissions and accesses had been closed, that I'd returned keys, pass and uniform (they never gave me a uniform, but nice thought) and so on. I thought it looked like a table in Microsoft Word, something I'd often constructed by way of work, so I idly checked to see if it could be amended. It could! So I added another row for ticking off, "Cancellation of licence to kill". He hadn't noticed it until re-reading...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Hamford Water

Doing more birdwatching, mainly in Essex where I live, since I suddenly had more time. Today from Beaumont Quay (an old smuggling quay) along the sea-wall alongside the mudflats of Hamford Water and The Wade to Thorpe-Le-Soken and a pint in a pub before returning mainly the way I came.

On the outward journey the tide was very high and waders clung to almost swamped small islands. On the way back the tide was receding and muddy areas expanding. I'd seen nothing spectacular, though a late Wheatear and Sandwich Tern, summer visitors hanging on, were welcome. Then a Short-eared Owl exploded from rank grass a couple of feet from me. It didn't seem much worried as it circled inland and back close past me to settle on low saltmarsh vegetation, staring at me with its yellow-fringed eyes. This is always an exciting bird. A good view like this allows you to see the beautiful chequering of the back and wings - buff, darker reddish-brown, amber almost orange, white. Large brown bird is a very, very rough description.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Disturbing Birds

Notice by a bird hide on a small County Durham (North-east England) nature reserve:

Now some might take this as sound advice to young men at a party, but I think it's a warning to visitors to the nature reserve that if they encounter a bird which is behaving in an odd manner, for example dancing about or advancing in a threatening manner while making a strange and unpleasant sound, especially if the bird is very big - retreat.

I love double meaning signs: from collections I remember "BEWARE OF TRAINS GOING BOTH WAYS AT ONCE" (at a level crossing, also in County Durham) and a sign at a church, "PREACHERS FOR JULY WILL BE NAILED TO THE CHURCH DOOR." I think there's a close connection between picking up this kind of hilarious ambiguity (as opposed to boringly registering only the sensible interpretation) and poetry, and also to being politically subversive and radical (UK meaning not US). Who could take seriously being one of two "Outward-facing Partnership Officers" (Essex County Council)? Lots of people.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Favourite places: Cape Clear Island, County Cork

I love small islands. They often have spectacular scenery, and the ones in the right places get plenty of seabirds and vagrants (mostly birds, but a few dragonflies and humans), but the appeal is deeper than that. The sea is all around. It's easy to walk from one side to the other. You can walk all round the coast and come back to where you started. People are generally friendly and as a stranger, you soon start recognising people. Human-made things often merge into natural things, whether it's a wooden boat slowly sinking into mud or a stone watch-tower becoming yet another weird rock formation.

I still don't feel I've expressed it. Maybe the combination of the very specific and individual (on the island) with the universality, the hint of God and death and rebirth, of the sea?

Cape Clear has all that and more. Most non-Irish people don't know where it is. I ask if they've heard of the Fastnet Rock. They have, even if they didn't realise it was in Ireland. So OK, you're in South-west Ireland. Start at Skibbereen, whose local paper, the Skibbereen Eagle, once sternly warned the Tsar that it had its eye on him over his persecution of minorities. From Skibbereen a narrowing peninsula extends to Baltimore (not that one, the original) a small town or large village with a lot of yachting. From there the line of the sandstone peninsula points straight out to Sherkin Island, then to Cape Clear Island and finally to the Fastnet Rock and its lighthouse. Next stop the Americas.

The boat trip isn't long, but the local people traditionally spoke of going to the mainland as "going to Ireland". Gaelic is spoken, though perhaps not quite as much in reality as for government inspectors. Once in the full main pub I got into a vigorous debate with a fellow-birder from Dublin who objected to his taxes going on supporting the Gaelic language. I argued that the death of a language was a terrible thing. At a pause in the debate we suddenly realised that all other conversation had stopped and everyone was listening to us.

When I first stayed on the island, the population was about 300, but later it increased with prosperous Irish dropouts seeking tranquility and even returners from further: one morning I was heading out to a seabird-watching point by a small track and passed a woman in a long,loose skirt and shawl with a scarf around her head. She was picking blackberries. I wished her good day. She responded in an American accent.

On a small island, the weather becomes immensely important. You check it first thing. Storms on the island are beautiful, and safe enough if you're not at sea since there are no trees to speak of.

The place is changing: Private notices and barbed wire sprang up where there were only drystone walls before: the natives blamed the incomers and others blamed Irish law on landowners' liability for trespassers' injuries. The famous shopkeeper Paddy Burke is dead. Maybe even you can no longer buy cornflakes, petrol and a Guinness in the same place. But the cliffs are the same and O'Driscoll's Tower, perched on a now inaccessible rock, will still be beaten by salt spray.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Transformational Milepost

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: All Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

I'm delighted to be able to tell you that we've completed the sixth step change on our transformational journey to an excellent, fit-for-the-21st century, lean, responsive, proactive, place-changing, pace-setting, customer-centric perpetually transformational organisation.Many thanks to Kevin, who rehung the paintings.I'm sure you'll all be excited that we're now ready for our next challenge.

You'll remember that the fifth step change involved the paperless office (except mine, of course, because Councillor Broadthwaite and other members prefer to engage with hard copy). The seventh step change on which I want you to join me is our exciting journey to the paperless toilet! Our milepost is that from 16th December all paper supply will cease and paper supply mechanisms will be withdrawn. Instead there is a wide range of virtual tools to choose from and HR are providing training courses on these which I hope you'll all go on.

Dale Brashcon is leading on this exciting journey and questions on points of detail should be addressed to him.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion

Dale: Councillor Broadthwaite has pointed out that there is no paper in the male toilets in the members' area. Please sort this out and report back to him.


Monday, 3 October 2011

Mood Music

And so to Chelmsford. Until two weeks ago I worked there, but now my visits will be infrequent as there are other large towns nearer to me. Today, though, my car was in for MOT and service in Hatfield Peverel not far from Chelmsford and it made sense to carry on for shopping and other stuff.

I'm not a great lover of piped music (except bagpipes, of course). I don't have any choice over what's played and often it's far too loud to ignore and, moreover, rubbish. I remember Christmas shopping and being driven from three stores in succession by good impressions of scraping a saucepan at ear-splitting volume. Today, though, it was quite discreet, not too loud. In Wilkinson's a bad singer was offering me something beautifeeyul. Only in the American South would natural pronunciation be anything like this, and this wasn't a Dixie accent. A good singer can extend a sound without turning one syllable into three.

On for a pub lunch (The Ship - recommended). Here the singer had quite a good voice and I became a bit puzzled trying to follow the words of the song. I think she was either telling me to "get a haircut" (she would not be alone in this advice, but I resent it: it suggests the army, and from what sounded like a young woman, a bottle blonde dressing up as a Sergeant-major and yelling orders at me (no thanks); or she was requesting, "get a handcuff". Puzzling if it was the latter, as I'd think one handcuff would be useless - a bit like advertising "Breast enlargement - two for the price of one!" At any rate, a less discouraging message than "get a haircut".