29 June, 2006

Seaside rendezvous

I can think of few worse things than enforced conviviality, but when coupled with wilful self-aggrandisement you've got a recipe for more or less unending discontent.

Mix the two ingredients into a fever pitch of hysteria and bring to the boil somewhere on the south coast of England, then you're looking at something approaching the kind of atmosphere within which my workplace "away day" took place.

Things weren't helped by my having to get up at 6am in order to be at the relevant London mainline station to take my seat on the designated company train which would ensure arrival at my final destination in good time for the event to begin at 10am. Given this destination was Brighton I was mindful of the film they used to show whenever they needed to plug an awkward gap on BBC1, comprising speeded up footage shot from the front of a train making the same journey in precisely three minutes. If only.

Needless to say the effort involved in reaching the ultimate location - the Grand Hotel, no less - knackered me out so much that I was ready to go to sleep roughly two minutes after the first presentation at the morning conference had begun.

This was fortunate, given the first presentation, and all that followed, comprised of pronouncements that went right over my head (and, from what I could gather, those of most of my immediate colleagues) interspersed with breathtaking assaults on the English language - precisely the kind of material, in other words, to pass harmlessly in one side of your head and out the other.

This was the first event of its kind I had ever attended, and there's no point denying my irritation at having to participate was equalled if not exceeded by my apprehension as to what would transpire. So much of the day, the ensuing evening, and the following morning had been kept a mystery. A deliberate surprise, in fact, because of course everybody in the whole world loves surprises.

So it was with particular fear that I received the news of what was to comprise the afternoon's activities: a trip up to Brighton racecourse where an array of "treats" had been laid on for us to encounter and where, in teams, we had battle with each other in order to earn "pretend money" and, presumably, the honour of being the best out of the whole company.

It was the sort of thing that proved virtually beyond parody. As the sun beat down, for four solid hours we were pushed and prodded between, amongst others, inflatable volleyball, geese-herding, quadbike racing, crazy golf, ferret racing, human table football and dog whistling.

Meanwhile a man stalked the course dressed in a titanic Hawaiian shirt sporting sunglasses and half a palm tree compering this veritable hell on earth and encouraging everyone to join him in singing 'Is This The Way To Amarillo?' To get us through, we had been issued with but one bottle of water each. Oh, and some fruit pastilles.

By the time this wrapped up I had been awake for 12 solid hours and was close to collapse. I was also fairly humbled and humiliated, wondering just what all of this was supposed to do to your self-esteem.

Back at the hotel we were finally let into our rooms, which of course we were sharing thanks to the company's legendary penny-pinching, and we finally had some time to ourselves. But only an hour or so, because we had to then get all dressed up for dinner and the obligatory party which boasted a palm-reader who looked about 115, a disco fronted by a man who liked doing high-kicks to Vanilla Ice, some ancient arcade machines patrolled by someone sporting a bone-chilling resemblance to James Hewitt, and an apparently unending supply of alcohol. The one thing that was not in evidence was much in the way of dignity. But then after all that had gone before, what did you expect?

I have to put on record the Grand Hotel's appalling standard in vegetarian food. For lunch all I had to choose between was a pile of stodgy paella and some rubbery macaroni cheese. Worse was the main evening meal, where I was presented with a "vegetarian option" of...cod! What the fuck?! Had the staff never served vegetarian people before? Were they still using the same menu as 1976? I thought the Grand Hotel was supposed to be one of the best residences in the land!

I had to kick up a bit of a fuss and finally got a tiny portion of vegetable tart for my troubles. Never have I been to a hotel and finished the night more hungry. I woke up starving, to be greeted by a breakfast offering a choice between scrambled egg and...fried egg.

Anyway, I should also say I was fortunate throughout the entire event in being able to hang around with a small group of acquaintances who seemed, if not quite so dismayed by all these shenanigans, then refreshingly bemused and breezily cynical, and who at least were willing to tolerate my companionship and conversation.

We all begrudged the point of having to travel so many miles away from home in order to hear a load of platitudes and run around a field while back in the office double the amount of work would be waiting for us on our return. Because naturally that was where we had to go, once the whole event ended at lunchtime: straight back to our desks, replete with bags of dirty washing, to summon up the energy and enthusiasm for something we'd just spent the last 36 hours being told was, and this is a fact, "making the world a better place".

Brighton: don't remember it this way.


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