Friday, 26 August 2016

Blast from the past

Performers wearing masks in the town square
Krakow street theatre, July 2016
I recently mentioned that Lola II brought me a pile of letters that I'd written in the early 1990's, and I was finding it difficult to read. Most of the content was fairly mundane and I was a bit disappointed to find very little that would be of interest today. In fact, one of the most interesting lines was from a letter of Lola II's that had found its way into the pile. In June 1991 she wrote (about me):
"She's really the official Lola since she was 'my assistant Lola' when we were cleaning the carpet."
So that's definitive evidence of the birth of the Lola, more than 25 years ago.

Another extract from the same period, again from Lola II rather than me, concerns a time when she volunteered for Hospital Radio in Manchester.
"Since I was there last (Hospital Radio) they've perfected a new system. Instead of asking for people to call in and then saying that no-one has called, they now ask people to call in and announce that we've had zillions of calls but no-one has got all 3 questions quite right. Occasionally I would shout out "Oh! the phone, Jenny" to give the impression we were inundated with calls."
The letters I wrote were tinged with anger and depression because of the job I was doing, although I seemed to have a pretty good social life at the same time. One extract that interests me reminds me that I've been an avid reader for a very long time.
"I've been reading a biography of Theodor Herzl, and boy! was he wacky. All those memorials to him in Israel and the general consensus that he was a visionary founding father of the modern state, and in truth he was a completely assimilated Hungarian-born "German" Jew living in Vienna and Paris, whose idea of a Jewish State was formulated as the answer to the problem of Jews not fitting in properly wherever they lived: all fair and good so far. Until you read that the first solution that he came up with was to have them all compulsorily baptized, because then there would be no Jewish religion and therefore no Jewish problem. The Jews would accept it gratefully because they would no longer be persecuted in the places where they were living. And then his negotiations with the Sultan of Turkey, offering to provide him with a nation of accountants in exchange for a tenancy agreement on a bit of land that he owned. Brings one down to earth a bit."
Of great interest to me is a throwaway comment about the terrible trouble I was having with eczema on my hands. This started at school and I had red, raw, itchy patches on my hands for many years. I went to the doctor about it in 1992:
"...he looked things up in his book and found that the steroid cream I'd been using before was based on 'parabens' which is in a special list of Things Which Are Likely To Irritate Sensitive Skin."
I now know that varieties of parabens are one of the two chemical types which definitely cause my problem, but I don't think I picked up on it at this point, or perhaps products didn't have their ingredients listed like they do now. I suffered several more years of painful itchy hands before the penny finally dropped.

This last extract is from a crazy time when PCs were in their infancy and I worked for the NHS in an old and dilapidated building that was regularly burgled. It was demolished not long after my time there. I've written about it before but this is from the letter I wrote home at the time.
"K started work about three weeks ago and is used to a word processor, but the equipment provided for her consisted of one typewriter which didn't work. There were all sorts of high-level and low-level negotiations: F talking to the "Care Group Manager" (whatever that is), D the other secretary talking to the admin manager and so on, all pestering them to supply us with something, if not a permanent machine then at least something on loan. K was going bonkers, and brought in her own personal typerwriter every day (obviously not leaving it on the premises overnight). Eventually I asked if I could join in and I was lucky enough to be the one to whom a computer was entrusted! So I had to go and pick it up (from the main psychiatry site) as a matter of honour, and made all sorts of promises about how of course it was only on loan, and yes we would eventually have to give it back, and yes we could lock it up at night, and other sorts of grovelling. And sure enough, when I passed on how very temporary this was to all the dudes back at Gaskell they smiled knowingly, and winked, and said of course we would give it back; just as soon as we have something to replace it.

"Work is looking decidedly good now that things are moving on my project, and there's nothing proper left to steal that will affect my project (except the computer in my room, which may conceivably disappear one day). The actual conditions of work have been utterly chaotic for as long as I can remember, though. At last we've had the BT men in to remove the system of plastic cups and string that called itself a switchboard and put in something less antique. I wrote about when the video camera was taken and nothing else, and that they cut some wires at the same time: well, one whole corridor had no electricity for over a week. They were conducting their patient appointments by candlelight.

"On another day, there were BT men swarming over the place as usual, including one little red-faced man called A who's worked for BT for 30 years. S the receptionist lost her voice through stress or laryngitis, so we had a temp in to answer the phones. The first thing was when the temp told S about a funny phone call she'd just taken, from the main psychiatry department over the road asking us if we were on fire. Then two fire engines arrived, complete with oxygen gear and the works, and swarms of interested busybodies from psychiatry who'd heard we were on fire and had come over to watch us burn, and security men, and workmen, and all sorts. We told them that as far as we knew we weren't on fire at all, though they were very welcome to check. Meanwhile, little BT A was getting redder and redder, and had to admit that he had a suspicion that he'd caused a short and triggered the alarm. Amid all the confusion and excitement, poor A was on the phone to his boss, saying "Norman? Norman, I'm having a bit of a day..."

"Then last Monday we actually had a working phone system, so there were all the usual BT men (including poor A, who's become almost one of the family now), and two extra sales support ladies here to train us how to use the new system, and of course the glaziers and the maintenance men and the security men and some new unfamiliar faces - some cleaners. This time, the burglars had worked out that unless they broke into the corridor the alarms don't go off, since most of the downstairs rooms don't have movement sensors in them, only the corridors. So they broke three windows, and had a good time in Dr S's room rifling through papers and notes and throwing pot plants about, and a special bonus: loads of blood everywhere because they'd cut themselves getting in. The alarm wasn't triggered at all, so it was discovered late on Sunday when the cleaning supervisor came over to look at the state of the cleaning because of a separate long-running feud with the cleaning department over the way we aren't cleaned. We had a fingerprint man in later too: such interesting visitors."
This is certainly wilder than the situation in the NHS today, but in other letters from the bundle I described meetings that were no different from the one I had this week - no agenda, no minutes, nobody leading, many talking and few listening, and virtually no progress in two hours of directionless discussion full of pointless digression. The main difference is that now I sit quietly and care a lot less about the frustration and futility of it all. In between piping up with "and Dietitians!" every time we aren't mentioned in the context of service delivery, I try and work out how I can write about it here without breaching confidentiality or getting myself into trouble.

Krakow Botanic Gardens, July 2016

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