Monthly Archives: November 2020

Sunday Stroll

Bandstand on Bray promenade, about 5 miles from my house (image Wikimedia commons)

On Sunday afternoons before the advent of TV, people would stroll along the promenade of seaside towns, and act posh. They would dress in their best clothes – the men in shiny shoes and shinier suits, the women in skirts too long to walk comfortably in, as if they were trying to perform Riverdance in a sleeping bag. They would stop at tea-rooms for scones and clotted cream, the pathway to clotted arteries.  They would buy candy-floss, an unruly dandelion clock of flying sugar, for grumbling children to whom the Sunday walk was simply the boredom of church moving into extra-time.

And they would stop at the bandstand. There local musicians would dilute the beauty of classical music and popular tunes of the day by adapting them to the barking honk of brass instruments, seasoned by the occasional ting of a triangle. People would circle the bandstand to watch the performance while stiff onshore breezes meant that other people two hundred yards west got to do the actual listening.

The performers were protected from the elements while the crowd found it literally rained on their parade. In the bands’ defence they were doing their attendance a favour here, since a tuba filled with water produces a sound like whale-fart.

The band would finish with their most popular number, bid the crowd farewell by the name of their town, and leave.

The bandstand is the original festival venue.

Watering Can

A number of articles have been published in recent months about a perceived major drawback to our mass move to working from home. Most have been written by property management experts, gazing in horror at billions of square metres of empty glass-walled cages, occupied now only by the ghost of air-conditioned drudgery. But some too come from HR and management gurus, the kind of people who said we couldn’t be trusted to work from home because we’d spend all day watching YouTube videos and shopping online.

The articles claim that creativity is being stifled because we no longer have ‘serendipitous corridor chats’, ‘water cooler moments’ and what LinkedIn intriguingly refer to as “random interactions – you know, the kind that happen spontaneously in the bathroom or coffee break area”.

I have no idea what goes on in LinkedIn’s bathrooms. What goes on in ours is embarrassed silence while we, to borrow the Victorians’ phrase, ‘make our toilet’, followed by the random interaction of circling each another like sumo wrestlers because the wash-basins and hand-dryers are too close together.

And I’m not sure what a serendipitous corridor chat is, unless it involves spotting a fiver on the floor. Such chats normally revolve around sport or TV, and I can confidently assert that the question “have you been watching The Crown?” has not once, ever, prompted the reply “yes, and gosh, that’s just given me a great idea for a better spreadsheet.”

Which leaves us with water cooler moments.

Once upon a time offices had water fountains, and water fountain moments involved the whole room falling silent as a potential victim timidly advanced toward the machine, like a supplicant toward a vengeful goddess. On a good day he would receive merely a short spurt of water between the eyes, but if the goddess was angry she would trickle water onto the front of his flies.

The whole office would snicker. This was called Team Bonding.

In time, though, the fountain gave way to the water cooler, an adapted wheelie-bin with an inverted barrel of water inside. Water coolers are found dotted around open-plan offices, for the benefit of staff too lazy to walk to the kitchen (worse than that, my company actually has one in the kitchen, presumably for people undaunted by the extra walk but unlearnèd in the art of turning on a tap). A ‘water cooler moment’ will occur only should you decide not to wait until the cooler is free, which would seem the sensible thing to do, but to approach it while someone else is using it.

The typical water cooler user ignores the tower of tiny plastic cups rammed into one another at the side, despite the fun – serendipity, even – of seeing how many come off when you tug at the bottom one. Instead he has his own large bottle, usually with the name of his gym on it. The advantage of the bottle is that it cuts down on trips – these are busy people, remember, too busy to walk to the kitchen – but the disadvantage is that it is too large to fit into the little grotto that houses the on/off tab and the drip-tray.

So he will lean forward, bum towards you, while some of the water dribbles into his bottle and most onto the floor. It as a process as efficient as trying to fill a petrol tank from twenty feet with a garden hose. Eventually he will give up, not because of you but because his back is starting to hurt. He will stop with his bottle about a quarter full – the volume, interestingly, of one of the plastic cups. He will then turn and acknowledge your presence for the first time with the phrase “any plans for the weekend?”

It might be Wednesday morning. It might even be Monday afternoon. It makes no difference, because he doesn’t actually want to know. You will reply “not much”, he’ll say “same here” and he will walk off. He will make no attempt to mop up the puddle on the floor.

The only creativity this may spark in you is in coming up with inventive ways in which you could make his death look like an accident.

But according to the articles we are doomed to stagnation without these incidents. There will never be flying cars. There will never be robot butlers. Siri will never understand an Irish accent.

To which I can only reply that Edison did not have a water cooler.

Careful Out There

How had it come to this, sighed Dave.

For many years he had been The Traffic Tracker, his helicopter swooping and weaving over Dublin each morning and evening, his voice swooping and weaving with breathless tales of gridlocks, pile-ups and broken-down buses. His was the most eagerly awaited section on drive-time news, with people listening impatiently through the man giving the snooker scores and the woman relaying share price movements to hear Dave tell them whether or not they would be home in time for EastEnders.

Then not just to tell them, but to help make it so. Over time he had become a champion of the beleaguered commuter, urging rubber-neckers over the airwaves to hurry on past minor accidents, and often hovering above badly-parked delivery vans and yelling at them through a bull-horn. He developed a following, once turned on Dublin’s Christmas lights, and was asked to be a contestant on Dancing With The Stars.

He earned income for the station, ending each report with, “you’re listening to The Traffic Tracker, sponsored by Facebook – Because We Know Where You’re Going”.

All the while his secret dream, shared by all traffic reporters all over the world, had been to get the Paris job, reporting excitedly each day from above the traffic of the Arc de Triomphe roundabout.

Then came drones.

They didn’t cost him his job, they just dulled it. Banking around Liberty Hall was replaced by banks of screens, each projecting images from a different drone. At first he was deflated by the change, and his reports became mundane and matter-of-fact.

But Dave was a showman and quickly realized the possibilities of his flying eyes. He marshalled them like an army, covering not just the major routes but highlighting the use of quiet streets as rat-runs, complaining about illogical traffic-light settings, and outing motorists in bus-lanes, hovering a drone in front of their windscreen and then posting their photo on his Instagram page. His popularity grew again.

Then came Covid.

At first it was funny, reporting each day that there was nothing to report. He felt like the “Scorchio” girl from The Fast Show. But then he started losing listeners, since people whose morning commute was from the bedroom to the spare bedroom couldn’t care less about tail-backs on the M50, of which there were none anyway. His drones were diverted to tracking flour-delivery lorries coming off the ferries. Facebook did not renew their contract.

Eventually the radio station let him go.

He had thought that he would easily find alternative work, but his fate was being shared by traffic reporters in every city. Still, he was the best known, so when an opening did occur it was Dave who was offered it first.

It was in a start-up called Killincarrig Village Radio, a small station with big ideas. They had a sports reporter, who interviewed members of the local hurling team and had phone-ins about the state of the golf club’s fairways. They had an Entertainment Editor, who talked about the Kardashians and recommended box-sets. They had an International Correspondent, who read out stuff off Time Magazine’s website.

And they had a Traffic Reporter, in a village that had only one street.

Today was Dave’s first day. He had no helicopter. He had no drones. What he had was, from the tiny studio above the pub, a view up and down the street.

A report on a very bad phone line came to an end. The Anchor leaned forward to his microphone and said “Sinead Long there with that report about the strange smell coming from the field behind the car-park. Now it’s time to welcome The Traffic Tracker, and remember, if you, the public, see any traffic problems please text us at 50811. Well, Dave,” he continued, sneering slightly, “is the village in grid-lock?”

Dave flashed him a mirthless smile. “No, Joe, there’s nothing major to report today,” he said. “Traffic is pretty light heading northbound, and on the southbound side it’s well, pretty light.” He glanced out of the window again. “We do have some breaking news, though,” he said, and was pleased to see Joe sit up in surprise, “a wheelie-bin has toppled out into the street outside Number Twenty-Nine and is causing delays of up to forty seconds for traffic heading south, if there’s something coming the other way. Well, that’s the summary -”

A text alert sounded from the mobile phone. Joe’s mouth dropped open.

Build it and they will come, thought Dave joyously. Get a Traffic Reporter and you will get traffic. “We do have some more breaking news,” he said, opening the message. “a listener has texted 50811 to tell us -”

He looked down at the message. It read “why don’t you go out and pick up the bin instead of telling us about it?”

Dave turned disconsolately back to his microphone. “Er, in fact, we don’t have any more news, apologies.” He sighed inwardly, because he knew his humiliation was not yet done. He went on.

“You’re listening to The Traffic Tracker,” – he hesitated, but only for a instant, because he was still a professional – “sponsored by Killincarrig Prunes, Because We Care About Easing Your Movement.”