Don’t Ask Me

We get talking about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book. C. knows stuff. He has opinions. He travels to America. I ask him what he thinks the big problem with Hillary is. “What did happen?” “She didn’t take a stance. No strong opinions.” he tells me. I’ve no idea if it’s true or not, it doesn’t sound quite right, but it gets me thinking. Politicians and leaders have to be wedded to a doctrine, hold a position, be firm in their beliefs – of course they do, but it must be such hard work! Not making decisions, not having to express an opinion, not have to explain or justify is such a relief sometimes. And isn’t it good not to be too tied to your own ideas, so that you can change your mind and see the other side of a story?

I’m good in a restaurant, no matter how long the menu, I can order quickly. I’m terrible at home decorating; put me in front of paint, wallpaper or tiles and I want to yell “don’t ask me, please let someone else decide!” Those examples are not at all comparable, though. A plate of food is a very fleeting commitment, and if it goes wrong you can pilfer your companion’s dinner, but we have to live with our walls, day in day out. Our own decisions, difficult or easy as they might be to make, are at least down to us. It is the opinions and decisions of others that can drive us distracted.

There was a time when I worked in an open-plan office. Approaching deadlines could render the atmosphere stressful, tempers would fray. One colleague was, in the main, perfectly lovely but his temperament would flip as the deadlines loomed. I called them his ‘warp spasms’ – a term from Irish Mythology, when Cú Chulainn would shape-shift into a monstrous, hideous thing to go into battle. There might be a place for a well-executed warp spasm (and I can’t think of it just now) but it’s not in an office, not least an open-plan one. Whilst in his warp spasm, A. would rant and rave and swear and shout and bully and name-call and brandish papers. I pointed out the behaviour and asked him to desist. Each time he said he would, and each time he failed. On about the fifth occasion – and I had told him I would do this – I took it to the boss. The boss, P., suggested I needed to fight fire with fire, a loud and clear ‘f-off’ back at A. might be “just what he needs.” In other words: “go away and don’t ask me”. It annoyed me at the time, but now I look back on P., sitting in his big office, and I realise he was fed up with making decisions, drained by dealing with people, tired of adjudicating on squabbles; so much for P.

I took offensive A. into the boardroom to give him the update as to how his appalling behaviour was to be dealt with. “Anytime you swear at me I’ve been told that I need to rebuke you and tell you to f-off.” We looked at each other and burst out laughing. I presented my alternative strategy. “I’m not going to do that, though. It won’t work, you’re a better swearer than me. So when you feel the blood boiling I need you to imagine you are big placid, docile cow in a field chewing the cud, and just chew on those nasty words and swallow them back down.” To be fair to A., he laughed at that too. As long as I worked there, A. never quite got control of his warp spasms, but he calmed a little, and the image of him as a cow always lightened my mood.

The rest of us might not be better off with what happened to Hillary, but I hope she is enjoying her down time; may she luxuriate in deciding on a grape variety when she’s ordering a bottle of wine as opposed to deciding how to run a country.

‘Please Mrs Butler’, by Allan Ahlberg

“Please Mrs Butler

This boy Derek Drew

Keeps copying my work, Miss.

What shall I do?


Go and sit in the hall, dear.

Go and sit in the sink.

Take your books on the roof, my lamb.

Do whatever you think.


Please Mrs Butler

This boy Derek Drew

Keeps taking my rubber, Miss.

What shall I do?


Keep it in your hand, dear.

Hide it up your vest.

Swallow it if you like, love.

Do what you think best.


Please Mrs Butler

This boy Derek Drew

Keeps calling me rude names, Miss.

What shall I do?


Lock yourself in the cupboard, dear.

Run away to sea.

Do whatever you can, my flower.

But don’t ask me!”

One thought on “Don’t Ask Me

  1. Oh my what memories your piece on open plan offices evokes in my mind’s eye. Brilliantly and if I might say diplomatically recalled. Warp spasms indeed!!


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