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Essays

CHANGING ROUTINES…

I am a creature of routines. Or at least I used to be. Alarm at five, cup of tea, check the news, rise, get ready, don the dark suit and crisp pastel shirt, choose a tie, make the wife a cup of tea, five minutes’ chat then drive into town, catch the train, get my usual seat facing the direction of travel halfway down the train. Upon arrival, cross the road to Pret, a strong cappuccino and a cheese and tomato croissant. First into the office, settle down to breakfast with only Jennifer, the gasping cleaner, for company as she vacuums around the desks. Discuss her dog, and her difficult husband who has been eased out of his job on reception after years of naps and general rudeness. Check the email, and send at least one as soon as possible to let somebody know how early I arrived in the office. Then the day begins…

Now all that is gone. “I bet you don’t miss the commute,” people both in and out of work remark. I reply, automatically, “No, I don’t,” but really want to say “Yes, I bloody well do”. Not necessarily for the early rising, or the endless train journeys, or the frisson of frustration when the driver says there’s signal trouble, or the rumbling herd hysteria when we are all chucked off a defective train and crowd around the assumed position of the doors of the crowded train which has yet to arrive. I could do without all that. But the rest of it – the delicious solitude of an empty office, the first charge of caffeine, the quiet satisfaction of a routine well-observed – all of that, I absolutely miss.

What is it about routine? Of itself, in all its elements, it probably (well definitely) sounds banal, and even more banal for the endless repetition. For starters, it’s safety. For the period of routine, it overlays some predictability and pattern onto the restless anarchy of life. I seem in control. If what I can control goes smoothly, then there is more chance that the rest of the day will be manageable. And when anarchy erupts, the return to routine reasserts a kind of grip. More than that there is a kind of mystique about it, like the words of a liturgy: everything said in its place, in the right way, at the right time, to ensure the magic happens. My routines are a kind of lucky charm, an incantation which works for me. So no surprise that sportsmen and gamblers and soldiers and people involved in risk and struggle have their favourite routines, invariably adhered to. I heard recently of a legendary motorcyclist who won the Isle of Man TT more than anybody else before or since. A friend of his recalled how strangely meticulous this man could be. If he was served ham sandwiches in which the ham protruded from the bread, he cast them aside: the ham had to be cut just so. No doubt that mania for precision, and routine, was part of the reason he was such a successful rider. Controlling the small things helped him control the big things.

Now, I rise whenever, wear what I want to, have different things for breakfast, live diverse days devoid of pattern or routine. As a result, I sometimes feel disorientated, like a man in the desert who has somehow lost the pathway over the dunes and wanders irresolutely trying to find the way. Yes, it is a kind of freedom, but who wants the freedom to be lost? And where am I to re-locate that delicious snatched solitude, and the first strong cappuccino of the day?

Essays

Embarrassment: THE TIME I MET A FAMOUS PERSON

A famous critic once wrote a book called “Keats and Embarrassment”. I have never read it but remember thinking that’s something really important you’ve stumbled on, the importance of embarrassment. For those of us who suffer from it, it is something we spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking to avoid interspersed with periods of insane self-confidence when we feel we have risen above it, like reformed alcoholics, and can run greater risks – until we next experience it and feel once again that awful sensation of public shame. It’s a sensation I hate so much that I can’t even bear to watch episodes of embarrassment on TV: what others find funny, I simply find excruciating.

What is it about embarrassment which is so difficult – for some people? Other people can have the same experience and not feel even a flicker of embarrassment. It’s simply not in their emotional repertoire. You can feel embarrassed for them, but you needn’t. I had an unembarrassable boss once. He would be late for meetings with very important people, make preposterous remarks, exhibit untidy personal habits, and never wavered from an unrufflable nonchalance. Other people might think him a buffoon, but that didn’t matter, because he never did. He scudded through life, like a yacht with billowing sails, inflated by his unshakeable self-belief. Lucky so and so.

But for us mortals who are prone to embarrassment, it is public deflation which we dread.

In my last job I had, occasionally, to meet famous people. As director of a grant-making trust, I received an endless stream of invitations to fundraising events. The bigger charities often had a celebrity guest of honour, as a pull for potential donors. When I attended these events, I spent most of my time studiously avoiding the queue forming to talk to such characters. I had a special phobia about powerful politicians, and once spent a very anxious evening trying to work out where Gordon Brown might head next, so as not to be cornered.

Just once, I failed. I was at a reception for a charity, located in an old Baptist chapel in Islington, which rehabilitated offenders after release from prison by training them in the art and discipline of acting whilst giving them other support to re-settle. One of the founders and directors was a former speechwriter for David Cameron, and so it was no surprise that he had secured the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to make a speech. I joined a crowd of people sipping cheap wine and eating sausages on sticks while things warmed up before the formalities. I had just finished speaking to somebody and was wondering whether there were any alternatives to sausages when I looked up to see Ken Clarke making an apparent bee-line to me. I stood my ground presuming there must be somebody behind me who he wanted to speak to when, to my horror, he greeted me cheerily. I replied in kind and waited for him either to move on or ask me something. A posse of people followed him and looked at me with curiosity. “You’re not Jim Phillips, are you?” he asked with an irritable edge. “No, I’m not,” I said and revealed my identity. “You look just like him,” he said, accusingly, and moved off. Several people had been looking at me, assuming I was an old friend of Ken’s. I saw their interest evaporate as he walked off, and felt the prickle of red corpuscles swarming around my face.