Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Employment, work and human contact

Going to work can be such a drag. So, you can imagine how "exotic" and liberating it seemed when "working from home" started to be talked about. Where once I had to drag myself every morning through the North Bristol traffic to a huge grey flight shed, in which my great-grandfather had worked in WW2, now I could sit in my own armchair to take phone calls and write emails from the comfort of my dining room table. I wouldn't have that Monday-morning-feeling of the requirement to be somewhere I didnt really like.

I recall the impressions of work that set the scene for my regard to my future working life: the oppressive hours sat at a desk, watching the dragging hands of the clock till I could leave this dispiriting place, The Boss, the rigid heirarchy, the expectation to keep nose to grindstone without looking up to gaze upon a more hopeful professional existence. I realised that this depressing spectre would always be to some extent present in my attitude to work: the requirement to be in a place of work for employment purposes would lay heavily upon my spirit.

How I detested the presence of The Boss, in his glass fronted office, his beady eyes fixed on us for any sign of deviation from our allotted tasks. The bell would ring at 8:45 and I was to be at my desk in the windowless room; a small open-plan container in the larger expanse of the flight-shed. I would sit at my drawing board or workbench, longing for that moment at 12:55 when the bell would ring for dinner and I would have a brief hour's respite from the grim industrial tedium. Then the afternon would follow a similar pattern until at 5 p.m or 5:15 depending on which day it was, the bell would ring and out we would all pour, elated to escape the place for another day. How miserable those days were. Only getting tothe shops on a Saturday, never having the chance to buy a stamp and post a letter but tethered by the disapproving gaze of The Boss to that disheartening space.

Later, when I escaped to work on the production line at my current place of employment, the strictures were similar, though much more relaxed, the enlightened realisation of my employer being that happier employees work better. And we did. But still there were the core hours and the beady eyed-boss. The feeling of compulsion to be present where you would rather not be wasstill palpable.

Gradually as my job became more flexible, things eased up. When you may be required to jump on a plane at short notice and fly to Europe or even the other side of the world to meet a customer, a certain flexibility is necessary. Gradually, I no longer came to feel imprisoned. Work meant something quite different and as long as we meet our numbers, nobody needs you to be a certain regular place all that often. A hotel room in germany or China can be my workplace. Deosn't that sound exotic?

Then came "working from home". I had heard during the wackier predicitons of the 70s and 80s, that this would come to pass. But like aluminium foil suits, flying cars and a complete meal in a pill, all confidently expected by 2001, I didnt expect it to materialise. But suddenly, I could get email at home and I had a mobile phone to replace the one on my desk. I could, in theory, be anywhere and still do the majority of my job. How liberating!

So, now mobile, with laptop, permanent internet access, phone, and my trusty old notebook (yes, pen and paper even in this day and age), I discovered the freedom of the "Home Office".

Ok, it is still a little disconcerting: I may get a call from some customer in a distant office in a far flung land when I am sitting at home writing an email on my bed. And I feel that to some extent, it is a little invasive to mix this external world of work with my home life. But in general, I can do most things at least as well at home as I can in the office and the tea is better.
Surely, this is an ideal situation to banish forever the misery of the imprisonment of the office or the factory?

But little by little, I notice a change in my behaviour. I miss people; My fellow inmates! After an hour or so, I will start talking to inanimate objects. I ask questions of the cacti in the bay window and request opinions from the chairs. The appearance of the hamster, sleepy-eyed from his recent waking, delights me disproportionately and my own reflection in the mirror seems a welcome visit from a character with features and expressions.

This cannot be healthy, I think to myself and I head off, at an appropriate time roughly corresponding to the ancient markers of "tea-break" or "lunchtime", to the High Street, to buy a paper, have a cup of tea in the deli and populate my field of vision with active, moving humans.
Interestingly, though my town is not big, perhaps a dozen thousand inhabitants when you include the conurbations that have proliferated over recent decades, most faces I see are unfamiliar. You would think that after twenty years or so of wandering down the same High Street and going in the same shops, I would have seen most of the faces of the people who live in the area. Not so: Only a small proportion are people I recognise and the majority are faces I have never seen and probably will never see again. I wonder briefly, every time, where they have been hiding themselves all this time, or whether they are visitors to the area.

Of course, I do see some I know: The barber who cuts my hair once a month, which his roguish Ming-the-Merciless aspect, the pretty blonde girls in the bank behind their glass screen, the greengrocer who is visited as much for the mock-grumpy insults he offers his customers as for his vegetables.
I exchange a cheery "Hello" with each and I am reassured that I exist by the confirmations of their greetings. It can be hard to be sure of this alone in a house with only streams of text arriving by way of communication with other human beings. But, catching peoples' eyes in the street and smiling, exchanging a few unimportant words, all reaffirms our presence in the world.

I pop in for my tea and cake in the cafe. It seems the manager has the knack of hiring very personable and attractive ladies as waitresses, not necessarily young, but all with a ready wit and a twinkling smile. Also I note there appears to be a theme to their physiques that personally I find rather alluring. I wonder briefly if this is intentional and if their employment is contingent upon a small waist and a shapely bottom.
But the banter exchanged is one of the reasons I continue to go there, despite the proliferation of such establishments in our town.
They seem genuinely pleased to see me and one asks why I am so "bouncy" today. I reply that I have had a good week from an activity perspective, five hours of playing in the surf with my kayak and several hours of dancing on Tuesday. I do a little dance to reinforce the latter point, much to their amusement. One of them comes out from behind the counter and requests a dance with me, holding out her arms in type of ballroom hold. I lead her a couple of steps of tango, looking as faux-arrogant as I can muster whilst smiling so broadly. She is no dancer but I finish with a small lean and release her to her tasks, noticing as I do the trace of a blush on her cheeks, which I find immensely gratifying.
I note the manager, a personable if slightly Uriah Heap kind of chap, looking on, attempting to manage the interplay of pleasant smiling appearance with mild disapproval. I smile and nod at him if to say "These ladies make this place. Know this!"

The conversation reaches a natural point at which i feel I should disengage and let them get on with their jobs and my tray is carried up the stairs for me to the quietest tables where I will eat my baked cheesecake, drink my tea and read this weeks "New Scientist". I am positioned en route to the store cupboard so occasionally one of the staff will pass me with a comment, a smile and an expression of intelligent curiosity that I find somehow endearing. A few small minor conversations ensue, but aware that it is approaching lunchtime, their busiest time, I do not keep them from their tasks for long.

I do find the information exchanged to be most fascinating. On the simple conversational level, there are sentences, comments, inflections all which give a particular set of messages. Added to that are the other messages of expression, gesture, posture. Sometimes these latter say far more than the words ever could and in general I think we don't consciously register what they might be except for the emotional signal that we feel as the output of the complex interpretative and computational processes that go on in our unconscious.

The sum total of the exchanges are a good feeling. I leave full of cheesecake and tea with a sense that people, especially a group of attractive ladies, are well disposed towards me and that, therefore, I must be generlly a Good Egg, worthy of the time spent talking to me.

I leave my table I stow my NS in my freebie IBM shoulder bag (I feel it hangs sufficiently nonchalantly and unselfconsciously from my shoulder that it lends the merest touch of intellectual to my bearing. I may be wrong: I might just look like a knob with a man-bag).

as predicted, the lunchtime rush is beginning and they are all occupied. I shelve my disappointment with this rational understand and leave, pausing only briefly in the doorway to allow through a couple of Ladies-who-lunch who are seemingly oblivious to my chivalry at holding the door for them. I remark to myself, bolstered by my recent confidence-building encounters, that they are the poorer for not acknowledging me and hence being failing to be rewarded by one of my appreciative smiles.

I walk home, back to my taciturn furniture and mute succulents.

So, sitting here now in the silence of the house, I reflect, as so often, on events.
Interpersonal contact seems like a kind of vitamin to existence that we ignore at our peril. We can be fed, housed, clothed and otherwise healthy but without the validation of small encounters with others, we start to feel very unhappy indeed. Perhaps this is why the most severe penalty that a civilised society inflicts on its miscreants is solitary confinement.

And I try to work out exactly what it is about being with other people that feels so uplifting. And I can't. It seems irreducible: It just is Good. It makes you happier and secure about being an acceptable member of the human race.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Formidable Formicidae

I am writing this in some considerable discomfort due to the intrusion of nature into my comfortable world.

Red ants bite. Or do they sting? I am not sure which it is. Or perhaps it is both.
I have poked them, in far-off distant days of childhood summers, with those stalks of grass which if pulled, can be extracted, white and soft from the cylindrical outer leaves.The definitely bite. I have seen their fearsome laterally-hinged mandibles opening menacingly and closing tenaciously on the grass stalks. I can imagine just how formidable these must be if you are about ant sized. Indeed, the etymology of the word ant appears to point to an origin in ancient Germanic "amaitjo" meaning "biter".
That they sting is alluded to by the fact that as kids running about in the forests of Gloucestershire, we would sometimes find rock ants nests, usually holes in the limestone in some bank, and poke in late flowering bluebells to annoy them. The colour of the flower would take on a pinkish hue as the ants, nasty creatures about a centimetre long, would set about it roundly, attacking with abdominal contortions. This was obviously an early experiment with chemical indicators for us, though the mechanism was not explained to me until some years later when learning the explanation of pH in A level chemistry.

Anyway, ants are formidable as I have discovered to my cost.
Finally resolving to rid the allotment of ten years of lazily applied carpet mulch, I disturbed a red ants' nest at the lower end under the hawthorn tree. Their outraged presence was made immediately apparent to me by the sudden fiery stinging on my left ankle. I looked down to see it encircled by a garland of quite cross red ants, all intent on sinking their jaws into my skin. There were dozens, possibly hundreds of them swarming around the unfeasible knobblyness that characterises my ankle bones, and in answer to my uncertainty about their means of attack, I could see them stabbing their abdomens into my epidermis whilst gripping tightly with their mandibles. I brushed them off roughly and fully expected the stinging to subside in a few moments. It did not. Indeed, a day later and it still hurts, with the additional bruised sensation underlying it as if I had been struck repeatedly on the ankle bone with a small metal hammer some days earlier.

This must have been some potent chemical weapon! That a relatively small number of tiny insects should inject what is basically the simplest organic acid possible in microgramme quantities and render a huge beast such as myself in some considerable discomfort smacks of some impressive efficacy.

So I sit here contemplating my elephantine ankle, smeared with antihistamine and elevated on several cushions on a coffee table. Being immobile forces me into sedentary lassitude and I suppose I am to some extent grateful for the prod towards this, my first attempt to string words together for several months.

I am struck with a thought: In the allotment, in the area of the accursed red ants' nest, are several other ants nests. Ants seem to come in various colours, or rather, a variety of two distinct variants (leaving aside those scary monster ants i used to see in the forest as a kid which are much bigger but not often seen outside of very rural areas).
There are black ants, which are generally about six or seven millimetres long and usually all about the same colour. There is also a myriad of "red" ants, none of which, to my knowledge, are actually red, varying as they do from a yellowy-orange to a dark brown.
This latter group however, has one feature their darker cousins lack, their aforementioned aggressive mode of attack. Ok, I do know that the black ones bite. I have felt the nip of the occasionally miffed black ant and it seems altogether more of an admonishment than an assault. But the red ones, they mean business. They really set about you with spite and malice.
And it is this malice I rue right now.

But my thought: Oh yes. I remember now. If the red ants are so pugnacious and offensively equipped, why are there still black ants? Surely coldly indifferent nature must have favoured the more hostile species. I cannot imagine for one moment that any conflict between adjacent colonies of red and black ants would hold any hope for a black-ant victory.
And yet, both exist. Why?
Could it be that they have different dietary requirements?
No. It seems not, in fact. They seem to eat pretty much the same things. I have seen both lots carrying off dismembered insects and whole caterpillars. So somehow, they must coexist by colonising only the space that they require and not infringing on the areas inhabited by other ants.
None of this, of course, helps with my poorly ankles.

But it does give me introspection on these creatures of which, my research informs me, there are an estimated 22000 species worldwide, ranging from 0.75mm long to an terrifying 52mm. The most painful bite is from the Bullet Ant whose bite, eponymously, is said to resemble the pain felt when shot by a bullet. It is, on the international scale of pain, right up there at the top, presumable with a smite from a fluffy feather duster at the opposing end.

For those of a new-age naturalistic bent, I may point out that many ant species attack and invade other colonies in order to steal eggs and larvae to raise as slaves in their own nest. I am sure this is not malevolence on their part, but it hardly propagates the ideal of the harmonious balance of nature, as if a ten minute viewing of any David Attenborough programme would not make this abundantly clear.

Indeed, looking at the little creatures, I wonder if they are in fact mere automata. They have a cluster of a few million neurons and all look remarkably identical. Perhaps they are just tiny machines, programmed with all the information and behavioural patterns that they need, responding to stimuli with a limited set of reactions.

But no, some ants have been observed in the act of interactive teaching: A mentor ant will take a novice ant out foraging and will lead it to food, taking great pains to ensure the novice isnt left behind and keeps up.

So, all in all, I wonder why ants do not rule the world. They are immune to the ravages of radioactivity, they can eat pretty much anything, learn and defend themselves viciously, as my lower legs attest. In fact, perhaps they do and we just havent realised.

Perhaps I will give them a little more respect next time I lift a slab to discover their little city bustling underneath. And I will resolve to wear long socks and trousers in the allotment in future.