I spent a truly wonderful weekend in the village of Trefin on the west coast of Wales. Thirteen hours there and thirteen hours back. A world away, actually. Beautiful landscape and country lanes, seashore of rocks and coves, farm pastures with cows and walking paths with nettles.
I found myself among a small, cosy company of friends old and new – relaxed, affectionate and charming all. We shared thoughts and stories and meals, music and singing; we foraged for wild plants and seaweed; we burned wishes in a bonfire and took sips of the most incredible green walnut wine.
Entirely worth the journey there and back.
If the weekend was a little more like heaven, then today offered me a visit to someplace a little more like hell.
I was attending an event for work which took place in the city council chambers, a large, imposing room decorated with heraldry and oil paintings of nobles in ornate gold-leaf frames. The hundred or so delegates filled cabaret-style tables, people from public and third sector agencies, all convening to hear about the city’s employability strategy. I was gatecrashing, in a way – scoping out this particular network.
The moment I set foot in the room, I felt like a fish out of water, gasping for air and flapping about in turmoil. Lots of men in suits and ties. Of the fifty or so women attending, there were twenty two wearing black polyester trousers. TWENTY TWO! I counted! There was a top table and a screen, and over the course of the morning we watched four PowerPoint presentations full of minute text and copious bullet points and blurry, illegible graphs. There was one slide with an image – of men in construction gear, looking employable. Well, I suppose there may have been more that I missed while I closed my eyes and tried not to whimper.
Did you know that Edinburgh has an EMPLOYABILITY PIPELINE? It does. The council follows, and I quote, “the Pipeline Approach.”
I sat beside a young woman who works in “an anti-poverty charity” and when I asked about it she explained that she “helps them with their benefits and that kind of thing.” Them. Their benefits. Bad poverty, bad!! Go away!!
A woman across the table told me she works for an agency that “provides employment solutions for people on benefits.”
Are you feeling tense yet?
We heard about “labour supply and demand.”
The “integrated service model.”
“Giving confidence to youngsters to be a part of the job market.”
You do realise I’m typing from my notes verbatim?
“We need a serious flow of good quality candidates.”
“It is critical to have intelligence on the programme of activity.”
“So like it says there on the slide, I work for a leading global contracting and development company that builds, engineers and maintains property and infrastructure around the world. And at the bottom there, that’s [our company]’s strapline: Built to Outperform.”
“We look at attitude and approach. By attitude I mean, the enthusiasm you need to display in the workplace and to fit into the culture of the workplace.”
“We’re looking at categories of actions to improve our sector.”
PEOPLE SAID THESE THINGS. Real people, made of flesh and bone and blood, people with brains and lungs and hearts and families and friends. People who are paid to say these things, about other people of flesh and bone and blood, with brains and lungs and hearts and families and friends – but no job. Put them through the pipeline!
Doesn’t that.. isn’t that just… what the fuck?!
I had to escape at the midmorning coffee break. I couldn’t bear it – I was starting to feel chest pains. I fled to the ladies room and dry heaved over the sink. Other women glanced over in concern, and one kind lady – wearing black polyester trousers – came to stand by me and ask if I was alright. Heaven and hell, we make them ourselves.
I haven’t had a panic attack in over two years. Until today. Perhaps it was shock caused by the contrast between the loving earthiness of my weekend in Trefin and the synthetic absurdity of this conference agenda.
I take a deep breath. And another.