Monday, January 19, 2009

The Cutbacks At The Hootsmon Canteen Are A Sad Symbol Of The Decline Of Our Notional Newspaper

I was saddened to hear that the staff canteen at my old employer, Scotland's Notional Newspaper, The Hootsmon, is - as the jargon has it - facing cutbacks. Employees at the paper will be forced to fend for themselves on Sundays, and will go hungry on weekdays after 2.30pm.
On one level, of course, this is good news. Journalists, as a species, tend towards obesity, on account of all the free lunches they are forced to endure, and going hungry for a few minutes will do them no serious harm. Perhaps some will revert to bringing piece-boxes and Thermos flasks, instead of eating subsidised dinners on the hour, every hour. Some do this already, of course. One venerable sub-editor of my acquaintance used to endure his shifts on the obituaries desk by eating bananas non-stop. He did this, I suspect, to give him the energy to deal with death on a daily basis. Still, it was always a surprise when he burst into an impromptu chorus of "I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP", using his bicycle clips for percussion.
I recall also, a terrible moment during one of the paper's Vichy regimes, when a harrassed features editor arrived at his station with a 56lb sack of tortilla chips to fuel him and his colleagues through another day of earnest discussions of hemlines, botox, and leading articles on whether black was the new white. The poor chap was last seen on the higher slopes of Salisbury Crags, his kipper tie beating his face like a flag of surrender.
To be honest, the canteen has been in decline ever since The Hootsmon moved to it's mall-like offices in Dumbiedykes. The new canteen has discouraged custom in many ways: money was replaced by a system of identity cards stocked with credit, which, coincidentally, supplied details of journalists' movements. (Still, it would be paranoid to suggest that this information was relayed to a Dr Strangelove-style bunker in which the paper's proprietors stroked white cats while pumping their profits into a penny falls machine).
The canteen in The Hootsmon's old building was a better place entirely. There was no blond wood, hardly any light, and prison bars on the windows. One of the dinner ladies was a kind-hearted daftie, who was in the habit of mistaking me for Mr Clark Gable, and rewarding me with an extra helping of beans on account of my fine performance in Run Silent, Run Deep.
There was a subterranean feel in that dining room. Occasionally, the ominous silence would be punctured by a suicidal pigeon crashing into the glass, or the sound of an autistic teenager practicing the drums in the Cockburn Street arcade. The food was hearty, calorific and untainted by cosmopolitan pretension. It was mince, mostly, fish on Fridays, and chips with everything, including the jam roly poly.
One Halloween, soon after the erection of a sign encouraging Hootsmon employees to "put a smile in your voice", the chef took a funny turn and decorated the servery with a morbid tableau based on the Mexican Day of the Dead, with a severed pig's head at the centre.
It seemed ominous then, and it seems ominous now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ask Not For Whom The Burglar Alarm Tolls. It Tolls For Me. And It Keeps On A-Tolling

This morning, as yesterday, I awoke to the sound of a burglar alarm. The house opposite the Old Manse, a council property, has been unoccupied for some time, and empty, as far as I know, of valuables. The burglar alarm, as well as being unnecessary, is sensitive enough to be triggered by the flap of a starling's wing, the wisping of the breeze, or the cracking of thin frost, and can usefully be relied upon to ring from November to March. In spring, when the gales arrive, it starts again.
At first, I tried telephoning the police, to no avail. The Peebles Constabulary are a law unto themselves, and prefer tackling crime to answering the phone. (It is worth noting that most of the crime they are intent on tackling seems to take place within the womb-like vestibule of Big Eb's chip shop). I telephoned the council, too, and was rewarded with an electronic answering service which required something called a touch-tone keypad - an accoutrement which is beyond the means of my Trimphone.
And so the ringing continues. Sometimes, as the noise of the day builds up, it recedes, and it is possible to believe that the bell no longer tolls. Then, as the traffic dwindles, and the jets fly by, it begins again, an alarm with no cause or purpose, other than to irritate, endlessly.
It is like tinnitus, but less fun.