I am holding hands with two work colleagues, as part of a circle of ten. This is not something I am accustomed to doing. Over my wrist hangs a hula hoop (the children’s toy, that is, rather than the potato snack); on the opposite side of the circle another is similarly positioned. The object of the exercise is to pass the two hoops around the circle without any of us letting go of our colleagues’ hands. We are in competition with two other groups of ten and it’s as we stand there hand in hand waiting for the whistle that I wish I had played up my sore shoulder when the facilitator asked if anyone had a back complaint. But there’s no escaping the circle now, so I do my best for the team on each of three attempts. After we have finished second overall, the facilitator elicits from us the team-building attributes of this exercise. I expect you can imagine how facile the dialogue is. While it is unfolding, everyone is sitting around in a circle on the floor, some cross-legged, as if they were back in primary school. Everyone, that is, except me. I’m the one breaking with my team to sit on a nearby chair. The facilitator clocks me, has me marked. I am evidently not a team player. But if she’s thinking that, then she’s wrong. The nature of my work is that it is done for other people, rather than myself. I am in fact the perfect team player, experienced and can do; as in, I do shit for people that others wouldn’t. I am sitting on the chair because all the team-building psychology being spouted is either bleeding obvious or bleeding obviously bullshit. I’ve heard it all before and I’ve had it up to here with it.
It’s the departmental away day. A direction-setting and team-building exercise. Except that the direction’s already been set and the team builds itself, outside of these excruciating, naval-gazing days. The facilitator is a genial people person, a concentrated dose of consultant on the make. She loses me early on when she flashes up a slide on which she has spelled cliché incorrectly (‘clishe’), and I’m afraid I don’t revise my opinion when she later confesses that she is somewhat dyslexic.
The venue is grand. Chandeliers with a myriad of old-fashioned water droplet bulbs hang from the high ceiling. A portrait of Queen Victoria presides over us. On one side of the door, our eyes can feast on the Battle of the Nile, while on the other there is a scene from the bombardment of Algiers. In groups the facilitator asks us to represent ourselves with a picture. At my suggestion our group draws a Christmas tree, on which I hang myself inside the bubble of a bauble. One group draws an aeroplane, another a man holding a number of balloons. A final group with individualist leanings draws seven or eight different pictures including fog and darkness and sunshine and sea gulls. And a frog.
The self-styled communication consultant asks us to enter a mood of ‘relaxed fascination’, akin to how we might feel on Sunday morning reading the papers, or when we are losing ourselves in our favourite hobby; but this is work, not a Sunday morning in bed, and I’m not sure about you, but I don’t usually share mine with thirty-nine other folk. Lady, all your constructs are artifice, built out of hot air and diluted versions of theories which were already suspect to start with.
For example. She asks us to work on prioritising our circle of influence, thereby minimising our circle of concern. Coincidentally I often find at these events that I am trapped inside a circle of bullshit, and that the circle of sense seems very far away. And yet as the day drags on, and we endure its many and varied humiliations, there is plenty of laughter in the room – to the point of hysteria, it seems to me – despite a number of the people to whom I talk saying that like me, they enjoy these days about as much as a trip to the dentist. It seems that most of us are grinning and bearing it.
Another exercise involving coloured ribbons shows us how interconnected we all are. As if we none of us had worked that out for ourselves. The exercise is hosted by two colleagues I have a lot of time for, people who are at least somewhat inclined to send the whole thing up; I know they have been co-opted and are making the best of it. The resulting maypole tangle of ribbons is diverting, but the message could have been conveyed in a minute by drawing lines and circles on a piece of paper. I can’t be the only one in the room thinking that life is precious and hours of mine are being wasted today.
Some of my colleagues may not have a job come April and during the day, they have voiced that concern to the facilitator. She airs this grievance, scarcely bothering to feign sympathy or understand its full import. Essentially what she says boils down to this: deal with it, because lots of people in other industries than yours are having to. Embrace change as an opportunity, make your own luck. A political interpretation might be, embrace getting fucked over by the long-term effects of bankers’ greed and government complicity; choose to be a survivor or a victim. I’m no economist, but if there needn’t have been quite this seismic shift in the economy, it’s galling to hear a hard-hearted banking industry apologist from the private sector preaching their creed to the less than well-paid foot soldiers of the public, particularly ones whose director had earlier been talking about life chances, opportunities and inequalities.
The final kick to our dignity is an alleged poem she reads us about geese – some of which I have just seen fly past the window, which was poetry enough for me. The analogy being our similarity to geese flying in a V formation, able to extend their range so much further because they do so; and when one of them is shot or otherwise injured, another two will drop out of the formation to tend to it until it dies or is ready to fly again.
Days like this make me feel that it’s high time I shot myself, or at least broke formation for good in some less self-harming way. The pair of colleagues threatening to stand by me if I do; well, you needn’t.
Painting of The bombardment of Algiers 27 August 1816 by George Chambers, Senior via History of the sailing warship in the marine art.