Tuesday, 2 April 2019

The Good Old Days

I left home when I was 22 and took a flight to London. It was February 1988 and I joined 80,000 others who deserted the sinking ship that was the Irish economy. Unlike most of them, I had a job in Ireland, but left it for the bright lights of Soho and the smell of a pound.

The job I left was a 35 hour a week role in an Accountancy practice. When I got to London, I expected this to change. To my country bumpkin eyes, London was the centre of the financial universe, with young hustlers in striped shirts and braces working 16 hours a day to cover markets in New York and Tokyo.

The reality was a little different. Thatcher had been in power for nine years by the time I arrived, but she hadn’t quite snuffed out the flame of collectivisation and worker’s rights. I got a job with a large insurance company, as an Accountant in their head office finance team. I thought I had finally arrived in the Promised Land. That at last I was dining at the altar of high finance. But in many ways, it was like stepping back into the 1950s.

There were twenty other Accountants in the team, all white and all male.  I was there when the first female Accountant was hired and management patted themselves on the back for their sense of diversity. On my first day I was invited to the pub for lunch by my boss. I had never drank at lunchtime before and starting the habit on a Monday didn’t seem a good idea. I found out later that he was an alcoholic. He would have happily drank every lunchtime but settled for three times a week to keep up appearances. He had Wednesday and Friday already sorted out but needed to be creative to find an excuse to go on Monday. I was his excuse on my first day but blew it by turning down the invitation. I had been offered three jobs and took the one with the Insurance Company because they had an excellent canteen. At that age, I couldn’t boil an egg and finding a job that would feed me every day was key.

The other thing that happened on my first day was a meeting with the staff association representative. He told me about the company sports club, the social club, the collective bargaining process and the company working hours. We were expected to work a 35 hour week and had to be in the office between 10am and 4pm each day, with an hour for lunch. The remaining two hours a day could be done before 10am, after 4pm or for most people an hour each side.

If you did an additional seven hours in a month (which wasn’t hard as it amounted to twenty minutes a day) you were entitled to a day off.

This wasn’t unusual at the time. Companies competed on how many benefits they could offer employees and employee care and well-being was high on their priority list.

I mention all this because the company I work for now has introduced a four day week. We still get paid the same as when we worked five days and in theory you don’t have to increase your hours on the four days you are in the office. This has been met with huge interest from the likes of CNN, BBC and every morning show from here to Hawaii. The owner reckons it has been clicked on two hundred million times and he has received more free publicity than Banksy did when he shredded that picture.
I get met with incredulity when I tell people about this. The most surprising thing to them is that a company would introduce a policy that is beneficial to their staff when the trajectory of the last thirty years has been in the opposite direction.

I left that comfy job in London for a three year posting to Luxembourg. When I rocked up back in Dublin in 1996 the world had changed. Globalisation was stalking the world and Capitalism was king. If you weren’t working hard enough, your job would get shipped off to some third world country overseas. Thatcher and Reagan’s legacy was that collectivisation and employee welfare were consigned to the rubbish bin of history and that individuality was king. We moved to single contracts, performance based pay and a bonus culture.

If your job is office based, it’s difficult to objectively measure performance because the metrics aren’t as straightforward as it is in say, the widget manufacturing business. People are positively assessed for the amount of hours they work because this is the laziest form of measurement. Like the guy who sends emails at 1am or the girl who is always first in and last to leave. It’s an easy optic and one that is easily abused by the cunning masters of presenteeism. I’m not immune to this myself and am in fact writing this at work while pretending to be busy.

I am indulging in this trip down memory lane to make the point that the policy my company here in New Zealand has implemented is not revolutionary. It is more generous than the one I worked under in 1988 (I now have to work 30 hours a week rather than 34 then) but the principle is the same. They both aim to reward staff by giving them time back rather than money. At the centre of both policies is a concern for employees above profit. Although both companies believe that if you have a contented and rested workforce, then more productivity will result.

It should not be shocking that my company has introduced a policy like this. What is shocking is that everybody used to think like this and then moved in the opposite direction. We lost our way over the past twenty five years. We are taking the first steps to re-embrace that glorious past.    

Monday, 18 March 2019

Kia Kaha Christchurch

I started my last blog by saying that nothing ever happens in New Zealand until something serious happens. I didn't realise how true this would be until the events of last Friday played out on the streets of Christchurch. Something serious was happening and it might change the way Kiwis look at themselves and the way the World looks at this country.

I've lived here for just over three years now. That has been filled with the 'nothing ever happens' stuff. You think that's boring but its actually the reason most immigrants choose to live here. You can enjoy the beautiful countryside, the virgin beaches, the pleasant weather and the friendly locals. You also don't have to worry about crazy tweets from your populist leader or live in an existential crisis about which trading group your country should belong to. The news is something that happens overseas, tucked into the middle of the paper here, between the agricultural prices and the rugby results. 

They interview the Prime Minister on the radio here every Monday and then they give the leader of the opposition the right of reply on Tuesday. That's because it takes him that long to think of something interesting to say, a task he fails miserably with most weeks. If you distil both of their conversations, you could create one of those Apps that help people get to sleep at night. Politics is dull and boring here. The most radical party in Parliament is one whose main policy is to increase old age pensions.

This serenity was shattered on Friday afternoon by the madness in Christchurch. I have no great insight into the mind of someone who could carry out such an act. I'm not sure I want to understand a mind like his because it must be like staring into hell. I'm normally as liberal as they come when it comes to prison reform, but in this case, I'd be happy if the perpetrator was locked up for 23 hours a day with a gap-toothed burly Maori with a sexual preference for pasty-faced Australian men.

Christchurch was the first place I visited in New Zealand. I arrived in December 1995 and spent three wonderful months there. I've been back many times since, so it holds a special place in my heart. A heart that has already been dented by the deadly earthquake in 2011.

I grew up in Ireland of course, in the years of the erroneously named "Troubles". Last Friday's events reminded me of the Omagh bombing in 1998. I was on a mountain hike that August afternoon, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Cooley Mountains and Carlingford Lough. The tranquillity was shattered when news crackled across the radio that 29 people lay dead. Ireland had slipped into a sleepy innocence before then, seduced by the Good Friday Agreement and the promise of future peace.

New Zealand felt like that on Friday. I had just come back from a boozy Pre Paddie's Day lunch when the sad news from Christchurch started to trickle in. We gathered in the office kitchen to watch the unfolding coverage on TV. It felt as though the countries innocence was seeping away through an open wound. While most people said, "this is not New Zealand", you could tell that many of them felt that the country would never be the same again.

The big bad world that normally lives on TV screens, the world of suicide bombers, of hatred and despair, had landed on our shores. This sleepy little corner of the world, that thought it was immune to the madness that seems to engulf the rest of the planet was wrong. Unfortunately, evil knows no borders. 

Some solace can be found in the fact that the shooter was an Australian who learned his hate overseas. Apparently, he chose Christchurch because he happened to be living in New Zealand at the time his mind flicked into monster mode and because mosques make soft targets here. There is little Islamophobia in New Zealand so nobody thought their places of worship needed security.

Despite the sadness, however, I am still filled with hope. After the Omagh bomb Ireland rallied against the few malcontents who refused to get on the peace train. They were no longer tolerated and it drove people in the South to have a greater understanding of the plight of our neighbours in Northern Ireland.

I think the same will happen in New Zealand. I have Muslim neighbours and I called in to see them on Saturday. It was the first time I'd been in their house and I would say that's an experience that was mirrored throughout the country. Kiwis like to accentuate the difference between here and Australia. Islamophobia is rampant there and they even have a couple of out and out fascists in Parliament. In contrast, New Zealand likes to promote tolerance and humanity.

We are also blessed to have a wonderful Prime Minister in this regard. She fronted up on Friday and said that Muslims were part of 'Us' and the killer wasn't. I have lived under many leaders and Jacinda Adhern is the most compassionate and well-intentioned of them all. The contrast between her and say, Margaret Thatcher, could not be greater. 

The outpouring of sympathy and support the Muslim community has been heartening. Kia Kaha is the Maori for 'stay strong'. You see it everywhere this week. After a forest fire, a new and healthy life emerges. I really hope that happens in Christchurch, a city I love and want to see rise from the ashes. 

This is a great country and one bad bastard won't change that. Kia Kaha. 

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Irish Traveller or Traveller from England?

One of the great things about living in New Zealand is that hardly anything ever happens until something major does. Like an earthquake or volcano. That happens every five years or so. In the meantime, I can sit back and enjoy the temperate climate and stunning views and not have to worry that I’m living in a Brexit nightmare or under the yolk of the great overlord Trump.

This is not to say that New Zealand doesn’t have its problems. Poverty is endemic within the Maori community and the country suffers from the sort of income inequality that would make Margaret Thatcher blush. But you rarely read stories about this in the paper. The public want to read about things that are unusual and unfortunately these issues don’t pass that test.

Summer is a particularly quiet time in the media here, when the serious journalists are all at the beach and the interns they’ve left behind struggle to fill the paper. Luckily for them a family of tourists stepped into the breach this year and their antics as the travelled through the country made regular front page news.

The story started around new year when a popular beach in the northern suburbs of Auckland was left covered in litter by a large family of outsiders. This would not be uncommon on a beach in Dublin on the August bank holiday or along the white sands of Ibiza. But New Zealand has different expectations of its tourists. They believe that people come here for the scenery, the clean air and the chance to see a hobbit. Chip packets on a beach don’t fit this narrative and a few of the middle-class locals thought it prudent to voice their objections to the tourists while cleverly recording their interaction on a mobile phone.

The tourists responded with some industrial language and sent their youngest (an eight-year-old) forward to threaten to beat the brains out of the local. That was enough to make the headlines on the six a clock news. Who doesn’t like a young fella in an oversized hat shouting abuse after all?

By the following day the papers were full of follow up stories. Unpaid meals, sunglasses pilfered from petrol stations and motel rooms trashed. In these early reports, the family were described as “Irish Travellers”. That is the polite modern term in Ireland and the UK for gypsies. But not many Kiwis are familiar with this linguistic compromise. So, they reached the logical conclusion that “Irish Traveller” was the same as “Tourist from Ireland”.

After a couple of days, the Police started harassing them in much the same way as the Irish and British police do. They were arrested for walking through a Burger king drive-in and condemned for leaving used towels on the bathroom floor of a motel they rented.

This led to some curious questions at work. Kiwis are used to seeing Irish people drunk on St Patrick’s Day but they don’t particularly associate us with litter and being badly dressed. I tried to explain the socio-economic conditions in which Travellers in Ireland live and their fractious relationship with the settled community. That if you spent ten minutes in the shoes of a Traveller, you would very quickly lose any respect for the social conventions of normal society.

My explanation fell on deaf ears. New Zealand has its own underclass, stoned on meth and living in tumble down houses with angry dogs and cars up on bricks. But these people don’t leave rubbish on the beach and generally keep themselves to themselves. Or should I say the nice middle class people of New Zealand know how to avoid them.

Then the Irish Honoury Consul General in Auckland stepped into the fray. She clearly had access to inside information and sent out a pompous press release saying that the family weren’t Irish at all. They lived in Britain and were travelling on British passports. With this single sentence, the Irish community in New Zealand breathed a sigh of relief and washed their hands of the issue. The New Zealand media got the message and started calling them “Unruly British Tourists” because there is nothing the Kiwis like better than bashing the Poms.

But another line in the Consul General’s press release caught my eye. She pointed out that “Irish Travellers” is an ethnic group and not a nationality and this had nothing to do with Ireland. This is consistent with how mainstream Ireland treats Travellers. There are outsiders, not like us and generally a nuisance.

This is hypocritical of course. It’s not so long since a Traveller carried the Irish flag at the Olympics and won us boxing golds. We all jumped on that bandwagon. And we are picky about which people of Irish decent that we allow into the national tent. If you are good at Football, it doesn’t matter how Irish you feel, we’ll give you a green jersey. Likewise, if you live in Ireland and do something noble like win a Nobel Prize, then we’ll happily put you on our Great Irish Writers posters and name pubs after you. But if you were a nasty 19th Century landlord, then you are a dirty Brit. Oscar Wilde is an Irish hero, Captain Boycott is a British rogue, even though they both come from the same Anglo background.

This is not unusual. Every country clings to those that bring it pride while disassociating themselves from the dullards. The Dutch love their artists and footballers, but they disassociate themselves from Afrikaners in South Africa, even though they speak Dutch and have Dutch names. 

Ireland talks fondly about its diaspora, how the President keeps a light in his window to welcome emigrants’ home. That doesn’t work if you are a Traveller. Once they have driven their caravan onto the Holyhead ferry, Ireland can wash its hands of them. Most Irish people disown Travellers when they live in Ireland; they are not going to claim them as Irish when they live abroad.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Artificial Ignorance

I started work in September 1982 for the princely sum of 20 punts a week. That wasn’t a lot of money even then but the job was in an Accountancy office and it held out the tantalizing promise of riches to come. When I turned up for the interview for that job the partner tried to temper my expectation by letting me know that they planned to cut back on recruitment due to their imminent acquisition of two IBM computers. 

I got the job anyway and started on the same day as the shiny new computers as well as the two extra staff that had been hired to input data into them. They also had a dedicated room to themselves with air-conditioning, which was as rare in rural Ireland then as divorce, gay marriage or abortion services.
This was my first encounter with automation and the false promise that it was going to eliminate 90% of jobs. When you read about automation and robotics, you’ll notice that Accounting jobs are usually the first mentioned. There is an assumption that everything we bean counters do can be programmed and run instantaneously. I’ve been hearing this argument for 36 years now and every company I’ve worked for has thought they were the first to realise that automation could cut job numbers. The truth is that any organisation worth its salt would try to be more efficient and hiring accountants is actually the smartest way of achieving this.
My current boss is the latest to think that he discovered automation. I work in an IT team these days, surrounded by the sort of nerds who make us Accountants look like rock stars. He sent me an email he’d received from KPMG advertising robotic software that could cut accounting teams by 90%. Given that KPMG is an accounting firm, this is like turkeys sending out an email with roasting recipes.

What my boss doesn’t appreciate is that the work Accountants do is not an automated process. My first five years in accountancy were spent trying to minimise the profits that client’s reported, so that they paid the least amount of tax possible. It wasn’t the most ethical thing I’ve ever done and I’d like to say it was mostly legal, but it was creative. This often involved helping farmers to explain how they had bought lots of cows but hadn’t sold any and didn’t have any left at the end of the year. That was my introduction to bovine diseases and the number of fictitious cow skeletons there are in top fields in Ireland.

I once had a Tax Inspector call me to say that I hadn’t reported income from the pub that a farmer client owned. I replied that while he might have an old shack on his farm, he only opened it once a year for his family in order to keep the licence. The Tax Inspector laughed and said the one day he opened this year must have been the occasion that U2 were playing and that there were 200 cars in the car park that night. I’d like to see a robot handle that conversation.

I moved to London after that and got a job with an Insurance company that had launched several small companies in the wake of the Financial Services explosion in the UK in the 1980s. I was tasked with the monthly reporting of these companies, most of which were technically insolvent and were leaking cash like a drunk sailor on shore leave.

My job was to present a rosy picture and to go against my previous training by inflating profits. This meant hiding expenses and reporting income that wasn’t exactly earned. I won’t go into the detail for legal reasons. But when I moved on from this job, I just hope that my successor could make sense of my creative ramblings.

I spent the next twenty years valuing investment funds. My role there was to find a way of covering up the mistakes that others, including the automated systems we used, made. This involved a lot of creativity, from hiding documents to trying to confuse auditors with bullshit.

All in all, I think Accountants are safe for a while yet. At least until they can write a program that can lie and cheat. Which comes to think of it, maybe they have. Google tells you they don’t read your emails anymore, but can still provide three helpful suggested replies at the bottom of each Gmail. And if you’ve ever used google maps, it tends to take you through industrial estates rather than in a straight line, as though it has shares in petrol companies and wants to maximise your fuel consumption.

Automation is tied to artificial intelligence, an oxymoron that is up there with British Intelligence and Civil War. I hear a lot of guff about artificial intelligence and how the big tech companies are at the forefront of its implementation. Despite this, Facebook effectively got Donald Trump elected while Mark Zuckerberg is clearly a Democrat and Google will make sure you get an advertisement for a product immediately after you’ve bought it. People tell me that this is because Google knows that you’ve searched for flights but doesn’t know that you’ve booked and paid for one, despite the fact that the airline has sent you a confirmation Gmail, which as I mentioned above, they clearly read.

Every generation puts a hero up the pop charts. And every generation thinks it has cracked the secret of work. Yet there are more people working today than when the spinning jenny was invented. Then again, nobody worked in marketing or web development back then and this is the point. As one job gets automated, humanity finds a way to create another. We might all end up as hairdressers, pet psychics and YouTube contributors but all of these people will need Accountants to creatively boost or hide profits. I’ve got 12 years to retirement. I think I’m safe.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Brexit. The view from the South

I recently received an email from my Accountancy body expressing their concern about the Brexit process. That’s understandable. Anybody with an IQ above minus infinity knows that Brexit is the biggest political mistake since the Confederacy tried to leave the Union in 1860. That is a little unfair perhaps. I’m sure there are many people in the wastelands of Northern England who wanted nothing better than to give the establishment the middle finger. The sad truth is that they are cutting their nose off in the process.

My Accountancy body wanted to warn me that I may not be able to obtain an Auditing Certificate in the United Kingdom after 2020. I was devastated to hear this news. I qualified in Ireland in 1987 and have never found the need to obtain a British Auditing Certificate. But it was comforting to keep it in the locker if I ever wanted to semi retire to Sunderland and spend two days a week preparing accounts for people on zero-hour contracts within the gig economy.

The other thing this email made me realise is that Brexit’s tentacles can still find me, even down here in New Zealand. I also have a bank account in the UK and I’m watching the value of this drift away like snow in spring.

That being said, I have to admit that I’m a Brexit obsessive. I’ve always been interested in the mechanics and theatre of politics. I’ve attended election counts, poured over results in obscure constituencies and to take a recent example, spent far too much time reading about the congressional campaign in the 9th district of Texas. Brexit ticks all the boxes for political nerds. Brain numbing complexity, outright lies being bellowed with gay abandon and the slow car crash of a country destroying itself on live TV.

I read everything I can on the subject in the Guardian and the Irish Times (while safe within my liberal echo chamber) and listen to Brexitcast and the regular reports on New Zealand radio where the presenters take turns to laugh at their former Mother country. Part of my fascination is that this is a process that will barely impact me but will affect all my friends and family in Ireland and the UK. So, I thought it was time that I wrote down my thoughts on the subject.

Brexit at its heart is about immigration and that gnawing feeling that somebody on the outside is responsible for all your ills. At a simple level, the free market fundamentalists in British politics (both Labour and Tory) introduced the free movement of eastern European labour to drive down wages and working standards. When the locals got angsty, the British political system conscripted their old private school buddies in the media to blame some shadowy cartel in Brussels for everything that was going wrong. It’s a lie on the level of Hitler convincing the German people that Jewish peasants in Poland were responsible for the humiliation of Treaty of Versailles.

The British establishment thought they were getting away with it. An endless supply of cheap labour producing goods and service that they could then sell into the European market at massive profits while simultaneously blaming the Europeans for the social ills this caused. The mistake they made was to pretend that they were democrats who cared about the feelings of the general public. They called a referendum they never thought they would lose and which was designed to be a safety valve to allow the lumpen proletariat to blow off some steam. They miscalculated and the rest is history. History that unfortunately the Irish and British people now have to live through.

Every country has concerns about immigration. Ireland, for example went from zero immigration to 10% of the country being foreign born within twenty years. Not everyone welcomed this. A former justice minister took away the right to citizenship of kids born in Ireland to foreign parents. A decision that made zero difference to immigration but will lead to many elite athletes and footballers declaring their allegiance to Nigeria rather than the country they were born in.

In the early days of immigration to Ireland My Mother used to say “I don’t mind the blacks but I don’t like those Bulgarians.” There wasn’t many Bulgarians in Ireland at the time but they were lots of Romanian gypsies. Which just goes to prove, that is you are going to be racist, you should at least be specific. Britain had the same issue. The Brexit campaign brought up immigration and the protection of borders constantly. For those who didn’t like immigrants, this brought to mind Islamic terrorists and Pakistani taxi firms involved in child abuse. The irony is that this immigration came from former British colonies and not from the EU. But the seed was sown.

I fear now that no deal is the most likely outcome and that Britain will crash out of the European Union on March 29th next year. The reason I say this is that all other possibilities, including Teresa May’s deal and an extension of Article 50 require a majority vote or consensus among the other 27 countries in the EU. “No Deal” just has to plod along and hope everyone else keeps arguing with each other. This is becoming more likely every day.

There is an assumption that nobody wants a “No Deal” scenario but this isn’t true. The nutcases within the European Research group and their backers within the Russian troll industry would like nothing better than the chaos that will come with crashing out. Jacob Rees Moss and his cronies would love to build a new Jerusalem from the embers of modern Britain and the Russians would be happy too.

I hope I’m wrong. I have too many British and Irish friends to take any pleasure from the misery that a no deal will result in. But nobody wanted World War One to happen either. It just did but because nobody shouted stop.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

What is the working week?

It’s 10.54am in Auckland on a Thursday morning. I’m sitting at home with a nice cup of coffee and the BBC playing on internet radio. I have a morbid fascination with Brexit. Part of me finds it hilarious to see perfidious Albion shoot itself in the foot and take a hacksaw to its own leg. But being Irish, I know that collateral damage is likely from this process too.

I’m at home on a Thursday morning because my company recently moved to a four-day week. You might have read about it, apparently it has achieved about 180 million hits on the Internet. The owner of our company has been on CNN, Chinese TV and the BBC to press the message that the five-day week is an arbitrary number.   

We still get paid the same as when we worked five days and work the same eight hours or so. The idea is simple. Like most people, I don’t get paid for simple attendance at work. I get paid for completing tasks. Nobody ever looked at these tasks to see if they fitted neatly into a forty-hour week. Throughout my 36 years of working in the Financial Services industry I’ve been given tasks and deadlines and told to get on with it. Quite often you can meet these deadlines comfortably and spend the rest of your time in the office talking to workmates about football, reading the paper on the toilet or in my case, writing the bones of a novel while pretending to work in a large American bank.

On occasion the pressure would mount when a project deadline was imminent and I’d work late at night or weekends. But the truth is that when this happened, it mattered not a jot that my contracted hours where 37.5 hours a week. When I was busy, I’d work 80 hours and when I wasn’t busy, well I’ll be honest and say that there were days when I did nothing productive.

Our four-day week recognises the reality of this. We will adapt to the time we’re in the office. Meet our deadlines by reducing water cooler chat and surfing the internet while pretending to work and still put in the extra hours when appropriate. The reality is that for most of us working in the Financial Services industry, we are not head down automatons. We’re effectively firemen. We react to issues like client complaints and looming deadlines like firemen react to a fire. We jump into our trucks and we get it sorted, regardless of how long it takes. And the rest of the time, we play cards and polish the equipment.

Our owner has realised this. When we sat at our desks for five days, we would work at about 50% productivity in weeks when we weren’t busy and at about 140% on the weeks when we were busy. Like the fire service, he knew that staff can only have the energy and enthusiasm to attack the 140% weeks if they were rested and not burned out. As most weeks are 50% weeks, he has figured that we might as well spend a day a week at home. It’s just a reflection of the real world. He knows we’ll be there for him when the 140% weeks kick in. In fact, we’re more likely to do that because we are rested and more bought into the company objectives.

I spent most of my career working for American banks. The expectation (although not the actuality) is that you worked at 110% productivity in normal weeks and lifted this to 140% in the busy ones. The Americans are still fixated on being present. They wanted you at your desk early in the morning and the later you stayed there at night the better. Most people gamed it of course. Leaving a jacket on the back of your chair was a common trick as was disappearing the minute your boss went home.

Of course, many people need to be busy. Their self-worth and ego are tied up in being fully committed to work. These are the people who don’t talk about football or last night’s TV at work, who eat lunch at their desk and make sure that their boss receives an email from them at 9pm. Most of them are well meaning but the truth is that they invent work to make them selves busy. Work expands to fill the time available. If they work 60-hour weeks then their work will expand to fill this.

I lived in Melbourne for seven years and one of my favourite sights was the monument to the 888 movement. This commemorates the introduction of the 8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest in Melbourne in 1856. Workers fought hard for this right but even after they achieved this, they were still working six days a week. It took another fifty years before the forty-hour week became standard. Ironically, the Financial Service Industry generally sets out a lower expectation of hours in its contracts. In Melbourne, my contract called for me to work thirty-five hours, when in reality I was expected to be present for much longer than this.

The monument demonstrates that what we consider to be the standard working week has been changing over time. Stone Age man worked every waking hour. Christianity brought in the day of rest and for most of the next two thousand years that meant working six days a week. The Victorian working class nudged this down to half days on Saturdays so they could go and watch football in the afternoon.

Somewhere in the twentieth century, five-day weeks became the norm throughout the world. The expectation of output didn’t change from when we worked six days. It won’t change when the rest of the world follows our lead and moves to four-day weeks.

If nothing else, it gives me a chance to get back into blogging, and at least this time, I’m not doing it at my desk while pretending to work.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Notes from the Doctor's Room

“Do I get a sedative?” I asked sheepishly.

“A sedative? For what?” the doctor replied.

I looked at the large plastic gun he was holding. It was still enclosed in its wrapping with ‘Single use only’ stamped on the side.

“Well, you said you were going to stick that up my back passage and that seems a slightly uncomfortable option. So, I was hoping I might be knocked out.”

The doctor seemed confused; as though I was the first patient he’d ever met who thought a large object being rammed up his rectum was a cause for concern.

“Oh, Good Lord, sorry. I wasn’t clear. I won’t be shoving the gun up there. I’ll be using a telescope with a torch and an air tube to expand the colon. The gun is attached to this on the outside.”

His description made me think of a miner about to embark on a solo mission down a long and dangerous mind shaft.

It was another rainy day in Auckland and I was sitting in the office of the city’s top ‘General, Breast and Endocrine’ surgeon. Before you delve into google, I should point out that ‘endocrine’ has something to do with glands. I don’t have issues in that area and despite appearances; I am not in the possession of breasts. So, I can only assume that I was referred to this good doctor because of his expertise in ‘General’. I have had a few problems with haemorrhoids this year, including a lot of bleeding. So, my doctor suggested that I get them banded.

Mister Moss (I notice that you go from Mister to Doctor and then to Mister again in the medical profession) was doing his best to explain the procedure to me. Like most doctors, he wasn’t very good at communication and mumbled through the description. He managed to do all this without ever mentioning pain or even discomfort but noticeably did all this without ever making eye contact.
He picked up the plastic gun and pointed out the three green bands at the end of it.

“Right, we shoot these little fellows at the affected area and hope one of them sticks. Then it will seal the haemorrhoid and fall away after two weeks.”

“Why are there three?” I asked.

“In case I miss with the first two,” he replied. “It’s not an exact science.”

“Is this a game of darts? Or is it like that game where you throw horseshoes at a stake in the ground.”

Mister Moss let out an embarrassed laugh. “Don’t worry. I haven’t missed yet.”

“But what if you do?” I asked.

“Then you come back in a couple of weeks and we try again.”

I looked at the gun on the desk and decided I’d rather put up with the bleeding than come back again.

He then made his excuses and said he had to get some more equipment. He came back with a large machine on wheels with tubes and valves attached. He whistled a dainty tune as he checked that everything was working. He showed no indication that he was going to explain what the machine was for. So, I jumped in the deep end and asked.

“Oh, this has two purposes. It blows air into the colon to expand it and then when we see the little fella that’s causing the trouble, I attach the gun and it air blasts the bands onto the haemorrhoid.”

I looked at the machine and figured that it had the capacity to launch a hot air balloon. I wondered why he needed something that big for my little colon. But then I realised that it allowed him to do the job on his own. A hand pump would have needed a willing accomplice.

This realisation unsettled me. My doctor (who is a middle aged Sri Lankan woman) has had cause to examine my nether regions given my current condition. When she does this she brings in a chaperone, because it is health board policy to have an observer when you’re sticking your fingers up a patients bum. This is apparently for the patients benefit, although personally when I’m lying on a table with somebody searching around my back passage like a drunk pensioner trying to find her keys in the bottom of her handbag, the last thing I need is another person watching.

This policy doesn’t seem to apply to consultants. And so I found myself in a room with a man I’d never met before, who was standing over a large machine with a plastic gun in his hand and who was asking me to strip and face the wall with my knees tucked under my chin.

The less said about the actual procedure the better. I wouldn’t describe it as particularly painful but it was probably the most uncomfortable thing I’ve done since I presented myself to a doctor with a lump on my left testicle and she said she had to check that it wasn’t a sexually  transmitted disease first. It turned out to be testicular cancer in case you’re wondering. All I will say is that I was very relieved when I heard the third blast of air.

I was given a couple of minutes to reclaim my dignity behind the curtain while he scribbled notes on the other side. When I retook my seat beside his desk he asked me how I was feeling and explained that he didn’t want to tell me the full details of the procedure beforehand because if he did it would make most people walk out.

I said I was feeling ok, all things considered. He said I had good colour in my cheeks and then pointed at the wall, which was painted a sickly yellow colour and said that most people looked like that after the procedure.

He then offered me his hand. Before I shook it, I wondered where it had been. But in a list of indignities that day, a hand shake was well down the list.