Friday, 22 June 2007

Old Dogs Are Go!

'The importance of a good idea often becomes outweighed by the importance of a good displacement activity.'

There comes a time in one’s writing career when the importance of a good idea becomes unintentionally outweighed by the importance of a good displacement activity in order to avoid writing altogether. This usually occurs when one has been going through a period of writer's block, of which mine has now entered its ninth month.

Displacement activities come in many different forms. For most writers, daytime television is the usual cliché which they claim to be their last resort. The theory is that daytime television is so mind-numbingly bad, it is impossible to comprehend that anything you devise yourself as a writer could ever be worse. Thus, the script which you had previously thought was the complete pits, now, comparatively, seems like a work of genius and spurs you onwards and upwards to final draft.

Then there are writers like me, who seek out free and utterly irrelevant training courses on subjects they have no interest in whatsoever for the sole reason of ‘getting out of the house’. I find that such training courses while away the hours to an extent that, by the time you get home, you find there is no point in sitting down to do any writing as your evening’s television is about to start. And if boredom sets in during the training course itself, you can always jot down notes about your next script idea or, in my case, draw multiple linking circular shapes which gradually extend across the entire page of the notebook.

It strikes me that, during my time working for the BBC, I generally did everything in my power to avoid attending such training courses, of which you could guarantee you would be expected to attend at least three per annum. It strikes me even harder that, since leaving the BBC, I actually find myself now actively seeking out the kind of training courses I tried so hard to avoid.

Most training courses leave a lot to be desired. In my experience, many course trainers are either frustrated stand-up comedians, or don’t have the first clue about what they are supposed to be training people to do, thus resorting to segments of their ‘comedy’ routine instead, which only highlights the reasons why they are now attempting to forge a career in training courses.

One particular training course I was required to attend happened to involve a major new computerised costing system that everyone found themselves under corporate orders to learn, whether costing things was part of their job or not. I arrived for work one morning to find a set of joining instructions for a three-hour course on how to be a ‘Routine Purchaser’. When I rang the contact number to ask the ‘Training Advisor’ what I was actually being trained to do, he paused, laughed nervously and said he thought I would know, finally admitting that he didn’t actually know what I was being trained to do either. But he was sure everything would become clear ‘in the fullness of time’ because this was just ‘Stage One’. It was at this point that my mouth ran dry as I asked him how many ‘stages’ I could expect from all this. He laughed nervously again and said that there were seven stages in all, of which the second was three days long – but please would I not kill the messenger because he was new.

The following Monday, I arrived at the windowless conference room to find it half empty. At the front of the room stood two course trainers who looked like Jeff Tracey and Brains from Thunderbirds (and they even moved in the same way). Brains was sitting behind a desk in charge of the technology: a laptop and overhead projector which displayed the laptop screen on the wall behind him. Jeff Tracey stood next to him in front of a flip chart with their names written on it in red felt-tip pen. I questioned myself about the reason for using such primitive methods to identify themselves, considering the cutting-edge technology they had at their disposal. We then went through that excruciating period of pre-course small talk as Jeff Tracey kept walking backwards and forwards across the room for no apparent reason, smiling at everyone individually and continuously saying that we’ll be giving ‘the others’ a few more minutes.

When all the other aspiring Routine Purchasers had arrived, Jeff Tracey clapped his hands together and welcomed us to the course, whilst Brains pressed buttons on his laptop to give us written confirmation of everything Jeff Tracey said. The training course got off to a rolling start. Jeff Tracey explained that the purpose of the day’s session was to teach us how to buy things for the BBC and book cameramen and other ‘resources’ under the new costing system, and did any of us do that sort of thing. I noticed that his left leg started to shake erratically and he began to perspire when everyone shook their heads in silence. Nervously, Jeff Tracey said we needed to know how to do it anyway and not to blame him for us being told to come on the course because he had nothing to do with it, and we should contact our Training Advisors instead. He nodded to Brains who pressed a button which made a funny diagram appear on the wall to which Jeff Tracey told us not to be afraid of. It was a sort of flow chart with bizarre cartoons of unintelligible objects dotted around it, all linked by coloured lines to a strange Shrek-like being at the bottom with the word ‘You’ underneath it.

I think I fell asleep at some point, because when I woke up Jeff Tracey’s leg had stopped shaking and there was a cartoon of a woman with a shopping trolley on the wall. He was in the middle of talking about ‘purchase orders’ and how to do them. He asked in a very sincere voice if someone could suggest to him the kind of information that we would expect to include on a purchase order. Thinking it was a trick question, everyone stayed silent. So did Jeff Tracey. Meanwhile, Brains kept his finger poised over a button on his laptop, ready to launch one of the Thunderbirds. Taking a rather sarcastic tone, a middle-aged woman at the back of the room asked to be forgiven for stating the obvious but she would normally include the name of the item which was to be purchased. Jeff Tracey shot his finger at her and yelled: ‘Correct! We call that “the item”.’ Brains smiled and pressed his button with a satisfied nod and the word ‘Item’ appeared on the wall. ‘Anything else?’ asked Jeff Tracey, and someone else, with an equally sarcastic voice, suggested that we would probably need to include the price of the object. ‘Excellent!’, yelled Jeff Tracey, getting more excited by the second. ‘We call that “the price”.’ Brains eagerly pressed his button again and the word ‘Price’ appeared under ‘Item’.

I remember thinking at this point that I’d be having a much better time, and probably learning a lot more, if I was watching a genuine episode of Thunderbirds rather than participating first-hand in three hours’ worth of An Audience with Jeff Tracey and Brains. So I settled back in my chair, having resigned myself to my fate, and began drawing multiple interlinking circular shapes in my notebook.

I must have nodded off again because when I came round, the training course was just finishing. Jeff Tracey was making a joke out of the fact that if we thought today was bad, just wait until we were all together again on the mammoth three-day course in a few weeks time where we’d hopefully have better luck with the coffee. Nobody seemed to find this amusing except for Brains who made a happy face appear on the wall, and I noticed Jeff Tracey’s leg had begun to vibrate again. In order to dilute the tension, Brains suddenly stood up and asked us if we’d heard the one about the elephant who bumped into a naked man and said ‘How do you smell through that, then?’; but no-one laughed so he sat down again. Jeff Tracey finished off by handing out a feedback form on which I ticked ‘Unable to comment’ in response to each question.

I left the conference room none the wiser about how to use this new miracle costing system, and headed straight for my favourite tea bar - which, to my horror, I discovered had been converted into another windowless conference room. But I was even more horrified to discover a sign on the door telling me that it’s where I could look forward to having a fun-filled three days with Jeff Tracey and Brains several weeks later. I wonder if the personnel of International Rescue ever had to put up with such problems. Let’s face it - all they had to do was fly around rescuing people; a comparatively much simpler challenge than retaining one’s sanity for the duration of a BBC training course.

1 comment:

insanity-suits-me said...

May i suggest coffee and lots of it! ;)