oh, well, whatever . . .

slaughterhouse bob and the mysterious mr ferret

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Yesterday I went to another meeting in Morpeth. Well, actually, it was the same meeting that I’d gone to the day before, but on that day I had the wrong day in my diary. One of the people at yesterday’s meeting was my old boss Gilmour. He and I have had some serious disagreements in the past, but generally we get on well with one another. Gilmour’s a very affable man, if on occasions a little fastidious or tetchy and at all times immensely vain. But handsome men are often cursed with such narcissisism. Maybe they think that if they aren’t loved for how they look they won’t be loved at all. Such men are never going to see themselves as ugly.

Gilmour sits well with senior management and looks every inch the part. He comes from a very different background to me. His father, Robert Gilmour, is a wealthy landowner and farmer in the south of England. He breeds Lincoln Red cattle. Gilmour is very sensitive to any perceived attack on his father, almost unnaturally so. For this reason if for no other whenever he’d been down to see his family I’d have to ask him about Slaughterhouse Bob, a moniker which instantaneously turned Gilmour Junior into a teeth grinding, fist clenching madman. This behaviour became a good deal more frequent when his father became involved in a TV programme, providing me with the pretext to unleash my childish abuse on a more or less daily basis. I regret such behaviour now, of course, but the habit of winding up Gilmour is a hard one to give up.

‘God, you’re lovely today!’ I said as I walked into the meeting.  His companions – Head of Department Harry Gillan, two men from personnel and Petra from legal – raised an eyebrow or two. Gilmour glowered at me and laughed.

‘You too,’ he said, adding ‘you lanky bastard’ under his breath as I took the seat next to him.

The meeting, rather ironically, concerned a disciplinary investigation I am undertaking into a worker suspended from work for allegedly gratuitously insulting colleagues and clients alike. The worker is Hermann Evans, who works in the north of the county. He’s been around for years and has a reputation as a maverick, a man who doesn’t give a hoot for the shallow niceties of organisational etiquette. He is suspended from work pending the outcome of my investigation, but has complicated matters by getting himself diagnosed with a work-induced stress-related psychological illness, and by taking out a grievance on the grounds of racial discrimination. Hermann is three parts Bavarian, one part Welsh, and is claiming that any offence he caused was accidental and arose from his failure to recognise the nuances of the English language. He claims this is because he still thinks in German.

Hermann has a long history of using apparently gratuitously insulting expressions and I discovered that he has been spoken to about this by managers many times over the years. One of the earliest examples occurred some years ago and involved Hermann habitually calling an unruly, unkempt group of siblings “the ferret children”. He did this, it seemed, not only because of their appearance and manners, but as a pun on their surname, which was Merritt. When talking to their mother Hermann would repeatedly refer to her children as “the lesser-spotted ferrets”. In his assessment report he twice referred to the boys’ absent father in writing as “the mysterious Mr Ferret”. Mrs Merritt complained about this behaviour and he was spoken to. He was unapologetic, and responded by saying that it is characteristic of the ferret to live in a state of denial. He was taken off the case.

More recently Hermann has persistently referred to a certain formidable broad-hipped female headteacher as Brunhilda, doing this both with parents and their children and in formal meetings involving school staff and other professionals. One person said to me that he had never heard Hermann refer to this headteacher by any other name and that he seemed unable to bring himself to use her real name. When referring to her as Brunhilda he spoke in a plain matter of fact tone, as if in fact this was her real name.

Other recent examples involve Hermann calling a child he was working with who suffers from enuresis the peapod, a local doctor whose eyebrows meet in the middle Freddie Faust, and two of his fellow team members Lardarse and Lulabelle.  It’s remarkable how tolerant the organisation has been with Hermann. My theory is that there are two main factors here: first, no-one wants to become the butt of his abuse, and second, everyone secretly enjoys his outrageousness and thus covertly encourages it. It livens up the day to see what he might come up with next.

Hermann finally came a cropper when he came up with a new label for the Director: The Gay Goldilocks. Hermann being Hermann, and riding on the back of his I don’t really know what I’m saying, I still think in German, you know excuse, he soon ceased to use the Director’s real name at all and simultaneously appeared to begin to go out of his way to find a reason to bring him into the conversation, something that would be a rarity in usual circumstances, given that the Director is little more than a mythical being to most people in the organisation. It was only a matter of time before he was suspended, and it happened in dramatic style at an Adoption Panel. The Gay Goldilocks was in the chair. Hermann grandstanded with a bravura performance of vintage Bavarian deadpan slapstick – porridge, the three bears, crumpled bedsheets, the lot. That was Hermann’s last morning at work.

From the interviews I’ve carried out I’ve come to believe that his colleagues also became increasingly inclined to mention the Director to Hermann, throwing up balls for him to whack over the fence. There were also a significant number of interviewees who smirked as they recounted Hermann’s exploits, and a number who said they sometimes couldn’t help laughing at his comments because he seemed to have a knack of spotting something true about his victims. No-one of course expressed the view that there was an ounce of truth in his characterisation of the Director.

Gilmour asked me what I made of Hermann’s excuse that he didn’t mean to offend and that the inappropriateness of his remarks arose from his poor English.

‘It’s a preposterous excuse,’ I said. ‘If he didn’t know what he was saying there’d be no truth in his characterisations. Sometimes his observations are frighteningly exact. No-one would hit the bull’s eye so often if he wasn’t a darts player’

Gilmour, Harry and the men from personnel looked at me quizzically.

‘Except in the case of the Director, of course,’ I added.  ‘Even Hermann sometimes throws a bad arrow.’ The personnel guys nodded sagely. I’m pretty sure Petra sniggered.

When the meeting ended I asked Gilmour how his wife and seven children were. He said they were all doing great. His eldest daughter has a dappled grey horse and his son drives the quad bike now.

‘And how’s your dad?’ I asked. ‘Still growing cows?’

‘Yep,’ Gilmour replied, now with the unflappable poise of a man with ambition. ‘How’s yours?’

‘Oh, he’s just the same, you know. Still working at the pit.’

When I got home I discovered Margaret on the phone talking to Brenda. Brenda and Tristan were back from Florence and had obviously had a wonderful time. I decided to go out on my bike before I had tea. It was a dull evening but dry. I rode out to Blagdon Hall and back through Annitsford and Shankhouse. When I got back Hugo was on his castle drive with a hammer in his hand. I cruised past his spiked railings and up the path.  I heard him beginning to beat the Alligator as I closed the front door.

Margaret had gone to see the snaps of Brenda and the Troskyist at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and to hear of the marvels of the Uffizi. The house smelled of onions. I fed De Kooning some fresh prawns and made myself a Quorn and cheese sandwich.  I put on the Decemberists again and looked at Haldane’s book on the drove roads of Scotland. 

Tomorrow I’m off to Galloway for a week. I go there every year at the beginning of June. The days are long and the world is green and I will walk from morning till night.


Written by yammering

May 30, 2008 at 9:25 pm

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