Simply because I was thinking about her this morning, and chortling gently as I shaved (chortling whilst shaving is OK – a full guffaw is not recommended), here is another time-wasting tale about someone I worked with in a previous life. It is certainly true that we are affected and informed by the characters we meet in the workplace, and I often wonder if there was some strange plan behind the crew that my former employers wheeled in – these were not everyday people. At least I hope not.
Gwendoline, or “G”, as she liked to be known, was a treasure, yet also an enigma. She did have a degree in something or other, but no-one knew what it was, and one of her more famous unpublished accomplishments was an all-time company record for the lowest score in the IBM programmers’ aptitude test. So not a programmer then.
She was born in India, daughter of a senior officer in the British army, and was sent to a Very Famous Ladies’ Boarding School in Buckinghamshire, where she was taught Elocution, Deportment, Cricket, Advanced Etiquette and How to Be Kind to One’s Inferiors without Appearing Patronising. She may not have passed in this last subject, but she would certainly have tried.
|Jolly hockey sticks|
G was a natural for any sort of committee role, and was such wonderful value in the coffee lounge after lunch that she was always surrounded by an enthusiastic, often hysterical coterie. If anyone wanted a totally unenlightened view from the 19th Century on any subject, G was your girl. Of course, we used to wind her up mercilessly. For my part, I used to affect a heavy, Ringo Starr-type Scouse accent, and get things badly wrong, and Good Old G – straight out of the Schoolgirl’s Own Annual of 1927 – would kindly and supportively put me straight, rising above my obvious disadvantages with admirable courage. I confess that some of my efforts were scripted by my friends. Example:
Me (staring out of window, coffee cup stopped in mid air): “God – eh – look at dat rain. It’s like dem Nigeria Falls…”
G (only slightly dismayed): “Oh no, Tony – I think you probably mean the NIAGARA Falls. Niagara is in America – Nigeria, as I am sure you are aware, is in Africa.”
Me (ignoring kicks under table and colleagues suffering from coughing fits – because I had just won a couple of 10 pence side-bets): “Oh – righto, G – tanks, G. But what’s dem big waterfalls that Queen Victoria discovered?”
G: “That must be the Victoria Falls, Tony. I don’t think she discovered them herself. I think she sent David Livingstone to discover them on her behalf.”
You can see how this stuff would brighten the average lunch hour.
I always saw her as Florence Nightingale. Actually, that’s not exactly true – whenever I read or hear any reference to The Lady with the Lamp, I still see G before me. There was a long period during which we all sought to find something she could actually do. For a while she did general administration things, such as meeting job interviewees at the front door (they were always impressed) and, ironically, invigilating the programmers’ aptitude tests in which she herself had set such a benchmark.
Later they made her PA to the head of Operations, but that had to stop because the computer shift leaders used to tell her things which patently were not true, and (whisper it) her attitude to her boss was coloured by a fair measure of unrequited and totally unilateral lust, and she took to ringing him on work matters during the evenings.
The undoubted high spot of her career came when our company built a prestigious new office block, and arranged for it to be officially opened by HM the Queen. There were extensive rehearsals for this, and someone – by a stroke of pure genius – cast G in the role of the Queen for the rehearsals. She was wonderful – literally majestic. Imperious. It was the moment for which she had been born. In fact, there were those who said that Her Actual Majesty on the real day was a bit of a disappointment by comparison.
Eventually she was appointed to the chair of the Staff Association. This is certainly a measure of how little interest the company had in the staff. We had no trades union representation (thank goodness, probably), and having a complete airhead chairing the thing would ensure that no staff matters ever got beyond endless, pointless discussion. G threw herself into the role with great enthusiasm and, of course, no talent. And, it has to be said, with a British Empire view of the rights of workers which made her a most willing pawn on the side of the management. A sad fate for one who had once almost been a queen.
At one time there was some concern over levels of absenteeism. One winter there was a flu epidemic, and the Staff Association were handed the challenge of coming up with a way of cutting down on sickness-related absences. Clearly, if the SA themselves came up with a scheme, the staff could not complain about it. G came up with a terrific idea. For each division of the company, she said, we should work out the average number of days sickness per year per staff member. Anyone who exceeded that number in a particular year would be required to take the excess as holidays. That would drive down the sickness levels.
A couple of us who remembered her fondly and wished to avoid her being assassinated tried to coach her on why this was a disastrous scheme. Quite apart from ethical and human rights and legal considerations, the shortfall in G’s mathematical skills stuck out like a sore thumb. If the scheme went ahead as devised, we told her, no-one would have more than the average number of days sickness from last year. Thus this year’s average would be smaller, and so on. We did not know how long it would take, but eventually the average number of days sickness would be tending to zero. G was so pleased with her idea that she ignored all guidance, and the plan was submitted in her original form. Happily it was not adopted, but her remaining credibility took a severe knock.
She is retired now. I’m sure she is still opening garden parties and batting heroically for a ladies’ cricket team, and living entirely in the past. The Lady with the Lamp – hmmm.