12 May 2010

A new group of people I suddenly have to start doing things with, at work. Nothing but eight names on a page, so far: one confusing set of shared initials, two confusingly shared first names that make me wonder which namesakes could have been that famous in the years they were all born. The ones with the initials hardly even overlap with the ones with the first names. Out of the eight of them – if there are eight, that is, and I haven’t revoked somebody’s individuality already – there’s nobody I can’t mistake for someone else.

It happens in other settings too, of course. The students in next year’s tutor group. The members of a jury. A platoon. You can anticipate getting to know their goals and quirks and foibles. Each name will mean a set of stories and habits, some day soon. Each name will mean a nickname (that’s exactly what they’re for). You may depend on them, you may wish to be rid of them, but you’ll know who they all are.

But for now (‘Will one be tall? Big Dave. Is one of them my age? Young Tina. Not that Tina, Tina in the corner office, Tina Tina.”) they mean nothing in the present, just a future getting to know them, and everybody seems to have the same damn name.


9 April 2010

A client phones, fifteen minutes before I would have gone home from work and missed setting up an important meeting for next week.

‘So, Monday or Thursday?’ I say. On Monday there’s a non-essential but exciting do at work. Thursday is… just Thursday.

‘Monday,’ she says. Naturally.

As it happens, she’s only dealt with a colleague of mine before. She says, ‘How should I recognise you?’

I say, ‘Err.’

Not as in ‘just go up and ask people until you stop getting it wrong’ but as in ‘nothing I can say is remotely going to help you achieve your goal.’

I happen to be this tall, with these coloured eyes and that coloured hair. So is the rest of the universe, in western Europe. (It’s not, of course. The unmarked ethnicity just has the privilege of assuming it’s that way.) The closest any of our other clients have ever come to a personal remark is to say: ‘I thought you were going to be older,’ and leave an awkward pause.

‘I’m in my mid-twenties,’ I say. Beyond that, anything I can think of as a distinguishing feature probably isn’t. The chances are it would be more realistic to say something like: ‘My handbag is so large I sometimes limp.’

When the police visited my primary school for safety lessons, they used to say: think of someone famous who the suspect looked like, so we can put it in the e-fit. (I know I should say ‘whom’. I never met a policeman who said ‘whom’.) Those happened to be the summer holidays I saw a man who looked like the resident bad boy in Home and Away robbing a parking meter. He must have been the attendant, I suppose. But he shouldn’t have been doing his job with his shirt off.

I’d really be a shocking witness. When Jill Dando died, the murderer apparently took flight down a street where one of my friends’ parents lived. I paid a bit more attention to the news than usual and realised how glad I was it hadn’t happened in my street instead. At the identity parade, I wouldn’t have had a frigging clue. ‘Somebody was even in the street? I didn’t know.’ At university, one of my lecturers thought I was blanking her because I simply didn’t recognise her face when she walked past.

‘It’s probably going to rain,’ I tell the client. ‘I’ll probably be carrying a blue umbrella.’

Obscure dull red

24 February 2010

I’ve forgotten I’d booked myself on to a training course. Oh, whoops. Three hours away from getting my department slapped with a charge for non-attendance, and a sudden mental shift from ‘preparation for spending the entire day on close analysis and not going home until it’s done’ to ‘no point starting anything more exacting than tidying up the snag list on a team report and possibly slipping off early if the course gets out in time’.

I’m learning how to set up some training software, which makes the afternoon some kind of meta-training. I don’t want to think about what sort of training the training trainers would have had, in case my brain short-circuits.

It’s the sort of software where you can make the menu colours anything you want but users can only ‘enroll’, not ‘enrol’. One of the colours in the palette of several dozen is called ‘obscure dull red’. I immediately feel sorry for it and resolve to use it throughout the assignment from then on. (Perhaps it’s a minor Trot lagging three ideological splits behind, eking out the last year or two before retirement in a history department under threat, writing the odd article for New Left Review and struggling to teach students about surplus value theory when they really want to know about Afghanistan.)

I get out just in time not to have to go back to the office, and just in time to hit the local rush hour. My double-decker’s full to bursting, largely because a boy’s climbed on with the biggest inflatable parrot I’ve ever seen.

That is probably a sign I ought to go straight home.

Kto kogo

12 January 2010

If you want to enjoy travelling, don’t become an anthropologist, unless what you enjoy is being made to feel like a cursed fantasy character with second sight.

If it was going to survive in the postcolonial academy, anthropology had to reorient itself towards exposing networks of inequality, exploitation and essentialisation. It’s the discipline that apologises for itself – which is one reason I find it such a challenging and exciting profession to work in, although after I say that I have to be aware that I’m constructing myself as the modern heroic subject with a privileged claim to knowledge, and that in fact I probably ought to be interrogating my choice of the word reorient.

I got so self-conscious about taking a camera on holiday, because of what we choose to frame in an image and what we don’t, that I eventually stopped doing it;  fine, except for ending up with nothing to put on the cover of a book we did at work.

Kto kogo, Lenin asked – who’s getting exploited by who?

You know one local hood or other will be benefiting from the pretty beach café; you think you have a pretty good idea what the cosy little cove and fishing boats are really used for, out of season. If there’s a military base round about, or anything that employs a large number of men away from their partners,you know a red light district won’t be far away. When you get home, you wonder what that shop on the corner is really up to, with the pretty fashion photos in the window but hardly any stock inside.

A few days after New Year, I was nurturing a plotbunny that sprang out of vaguely comically mishearing a traffic report, and that might just have made a story to submit to a magazine I’d always liked the look of which liked its stories light.

The child in me, who sat around one holiday with her parents all reading out of one of the early Discworlds, thinks she can do that. The anthropologist in me wants me to hang on. Where are the women? Whose unpaid labour is this system built on? That tunnel’s just going to get used for smuggling and human trafficking, isn’t it? And isn’t that ferry terminal going to be on the Soviet A-list as soon as there are threats of nuclear war?