Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
‘It was like trying to go about my business with an axe embedded in my skull.’
I read those words (in David Nicholls’s new novel, Us) and laughed. I’ve laughed a lot while reading it, it’s a funny (and sad) book, but this was the sorry laugh of recognition. Mr Nicholls is describing a marriage in crisis, but his description is apt, too, for anyone caught in the pre-redundancy trap.
MegaCorporations restructure themselves, endlessly. There are libraries of management consultancy guides on the topic of “Change”, and Why it is Good for You. Sometimes, external forces bring change, manifest as a “new” (or “renewed”) “strategic focus”; meaningless words which spell out: redundancies, probably.
MegaCorps are good to their people, so they let you know in advance if such a change is likely to be required. (You’ll understand if I’m no more specific than that.) There is a pre-announcement, and Town Hall meetings; and I (genuinely) appreciate this. But the actual crisis has yet to occur: there are rumours of the meteor, but it is not yet visible in the night sky. Pre-redundancy brings its own pressures, subtly different from actually having to find another job.
Specifically, the unspoken but audible, ubiquitous murmur: Will my site/my function be deemed surplus to the renewed strategic requirements? Understandably, the word from on high is “Keep focused on your work. That work still matters.”
Some colleagues manage this. Others adopt humour (Sally, going for a coffee: “Can I get you anything? A new job?”) But pretending that nothing is about to happen feels like a definition of “delusional” to me. There is a risk that my work will disappear, but right up until that instant, right up until the meteor breaks cloud cover and makes its short journey to the earth, I should act as though it can’t happen?
There are instants when the contingency of working life hits me, and…well, see the Nicholls quote for details. I find myself silent in a meeting when asked to sum up a discussion. It’s not that I can’t sum up the point; it’s that I’m struck, suddenly, that there may soon be no point to sum. (An existential crisis for a statistician, that.)
Work, on which I’m trying to remain focused, took me to the United States last week. I travel less well than a wet lettuce in a paper bag, but the trip goes great. We’re teaching, running workshops about the way we think our business should be run. I’m on my way back to the airport. I’m sweating.
Security at this airport is always nerve-wracking. I’m a male, traveling alone, with a laptop whose battery falls out when it’s pulled from my rucksack. I’ve grown a beard – a big bushy beard to set off my shaved, bald head. By the time I reach the full-body scanner, I’m physically twitching with the effort of looking natural. Here we go again.
But for once, they don’t pull me aside. All the officers are dealing with the too-thin woman in front of me, a still-point of a woman, in the middle of the noise and the shuffling and the undressing/redressing of the queue. She’s wearing a tight woollen jumper over her bony frame. Her arms clutch to her chest what at first glance I take for a kitten, before I realise this would be absurd. Look again.
It’s a kitten.
The woman talks calmly to the security officer while he scans the feline threat. The chaos swarms round them, as though they’re inside a bubble. I’m terrified that the cat will come to harm. How can a kitten fail to come to harm, in this sharp-edged angry place? His infantile body is shaking. His eyes look only to the woman.
Later that night, somewhere above the sea, the cat comes to me in my dream, to look at me. And I wonder, or he asks me: what if God isn’t this all-powerful thing that they said He was at Sunday school? What if He is the most fragile thing in the Universe?
I wake with two thoughts in my mind. One is another question: what if that tiny, breakable creature, clinging in terror to a too-thin and equally defenceless human: what if that was God?
The other is a comfort: I no longer care about pre-redundancy, except as a useful filter (how to manage the economy is startlingly more important than the fact that unpleasant parties can win by-elections, and the guff surrounding the latter seems less important than ever.)
I don’t know, will never know, about God. But the cat from the queue recognised my terror and entered my dream to remind me: hold tight to the one that you love. This is all that matters.
Yesterday at the station. Nearly sunny, cold. A young girl – maybe 20? – approaches me to ask: Is this the bus stop for MegaCorp? I’ve got, like, an interview? She is so young (I’m so middle-aged) that I become protective, fatherly, get her on the right bus, and ask her about Canterbury and medicine and her outer London childhood suburb.
She’s bright, in every sense, and excited about the year she hopes to spend in industry. There are no meteors in the sky this morning. Together we are focused on our work.