Thursday 23 October 2003

Walk Like a Cairene

After the success of last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe trip to Paris, Cairo was selected as the destination for the second annual Linhope Memorial Weekend. The whole of Linhope - that's disorganised Hoxtonite Davis, vociferous paddler Barry and myself - headed to Egypt for three days to meet up with one time Linhope resident Gus, currently working through a three month secondment in Alexandria.

Ginger Tours Bus

Gus acted as tour guide, his time in Egypt giving him knowledge of Cairo and a useful command of Arabic vocabulary. Alas, Gus is rather more fluent in brazen self-confidence than any particular foreign tongue and his frequent emphatic corrections of amused locals became the comedic highpoints of the trip. We didn't mind that his entertaining version of Cairo's history:
"The pyramids were built 150 years ago using Victorian steam shovels."
didn't quite tally with the guidebook's stories when we could watch him tell the amused waiter with strident fury
"I said four quails, not four salmons. You can't speak Arabic properly, you are embarrassing me in front of my friends".

We hired a driver, Mohammed, whom Gus had located through circuitous family connections from the receptionist in his Alexandrian office to the proud owner of the oldest car in Cairo. Cairene traffic is an anarchic morass of cars treating lane markings and traffic signals as decorative rather than instructive displays, but Mohammed was skilled in the use of the car horn as an advanced land-based sonar system, sending and interpreting toots on the horn to construct a mental picture of the seething maelstrom of vehicles surrounding his own aged Peugeot. The routes he threaded through moving cars on wide highways would have amazed even the most tartrazine-wired 12 year old PlayStation junkie.

Gus having advised that Egyptian Customs generally didn't like CDs or CD players, we had to provide our own soundtrack to the trip and with a display of bankrupt imaginations the most popular option was The Bangles' finest moment, Walk Like an Egyptian. The riff was whistled everywhere and such was the natural hilarity inherent in the juxtaposition of music and location we never once bored of its delightful melody. Being more deliberately eclectic I employed 808 State's Nephatiti to similar effect, no-one noticed.

Despite an attractive location in the middle of the Nile, our accommodation was architecturally uninspiring; from a distance the Cairo Marriot appears to be just two bland and faded 20-storey boxes of rooms. Up close it becomes clear the central section has been converted from a plush palace. Lights drip from the wood-panelled and lushly decorated ceiling, symmetrical fountains guard the arched entrance, and an extensive terrace around the pool is the ideal place to be served drinks late into the warm evenings. I felt like a turn of the century imperialist striding around a colonial home, at least until I saw the Oktoberfest stage and rubbish oompah band in the corner of the gardens.

One of the mosques in the Cairo Citadel

Friday is a religious day in the Egyptian Moslem weekly calendar and a day to be home with the family, the equivalent of an old-fashioned British Sunday. Traffic is accordingly light, although not so light that near-misses with jaywalking pedestrians might become uncommon, and we took the chance to be driven around some of the more central Cairo sights.

At this point, I could wax joyous about the glorious architecture, the dusty cupolas and russet ziggurats that climbed into a clear blue sky, the vast quietness of mosques where thousands of people pray several times daily, the beautiful interior of the Gayer Anderson museum. But other elements of the day stand out more than the architecture and museums: Davis' refusal to be cowed by a different set of social norms (or it may have been his sloth) saw him lying full stretch on the floor of mosque, bare feet on prominent display; Gus' ferocious arguments with the taxi driver on the best routes between The Citadel and the City of the Dead; the black market economy of baksheesh buying us entry into places like the roof of Mohammed Ali's tomb.

Most memorable was the extreme affability of everyone around us. Gus' ability to speak Arabic was a constant source of hilarity for the locals, and combined with friendly kids' insistence on practising their rudimentary English on the foreigners meant our walks around Cairo resembled an election campaign - Gus for President - and Gus never missed a chance to shake hands and chat with someone; spice salesman, cafe owner or papyrus hawker.

The Bent Pyramid

Before our excellent evening meal we headed off to the souk and sat in a cafe, smoking sweet apple flavoured shisha through hookahs and, in a retail system I'd like to see in operation in Dixons, being entertained by an unceasing supply of hawkers offering tat ranging from Groucho Marx moustaches to heiroglyphic bookmarks to novelty cigarette lighters. The souk is full of tourist oriented rubbish; camel saddle stools, plastic pyramids and cheap looking hookahs, but the mass of people and goods crammed into its narrow lanes make it an engaging shopping experience.

Saturday was Pyramids day. Alas, here words fail me. I guessed the Pyramids might be big and impressive and worth a photo and a comment, but dammit, they're BIG and IMPRESSIVE. The ancient Egyptians may have failed in their attempts to help the pharoahs progress smoothly into the afterlife but my word, they built mountains to last four thousand years. I've seen bigger buildings, taller buildings, wider buildings, but I've never seen constructions as obviously heavy as these enormous wedges of stone.

The Great Pyramid

We had the discipline not to spend all of Friday night in the hotel casino and were up early enough to arrive at Dahshur before anybody else, so we got to descend the cramped and steep passageway into the heart of the Red Pyramid alone. The interior is simultaneously underwhelming and impressive. No glittering gold death masks or fearsome traps, just three empty, tall, dark rooms, but there is a sense of enormous volumes of worked stone sitting impassively above.

Other pyramids are equally imposing, the Bent Pyramid's smooth facing is still largely intact and presents razor sharp edges to the sky, Saqqara's massive stone steps look down on temples full of heiroglyphics and carvings and Giza, wow... At Giza the pyramids are simply enormous. With a margin of error smaller than one inch, the Egyptians marshalled over two million blocks of stone weighing six million tons into a building that for four thousand years, until the construction of the Eiffel tower, was the tallest on the planet.

Seeing the Pyramids makes everything else in the world seem temporary and inconsequential.

Next year, Linhope goes to Vegas.

Wednesday 8 October 2003

Docking with the mothership

After eighteen months working on a selection of assignments; creating user interfaces in Ipswich, debugging Java code in Glasgow, running requirements workshops in Hereford, I'm back in the corporate head office in London. It's a bit of a culture shock.

Every client I've ever worked for has been a corporate idiot, unable to make the correct decision or build a new system without my colleagues and me shouting instructions in their ear and guiding their trembling hands. Working full-time on site with a client has always been frustrating and infuriating.

But the best bit about being a consultant is that all the times I've smiled at these fools and ignored their dreadful theories, I've known full well that they aren't my direct employer*. I can sneer (under my breath of course, the professional veneer on my face never cracks) at their lack of direction, technical incompetence or poor canteen facilities, smug in the knowledge that in six months time I won't be working for them. I get all the fun of switching jobs every year with few of the hassles.

Sitting at an ergonomically designed Scandinavian pine desk surrounded by Docker wearing colleagues at my employer's head office I don't have that luxury.

When I entered the corporate rat race seven years ago I believed I was about to be consumed by a gleaming machine. I imagined life as a brand new graduate joining a management consultancy, I would enter a fast-paced and slick world where effortlessly competent people rushed around in designer suits to important meetings.

I would become a small but useful cog in a super-efficient enterprise. An enterprise that wielded scientific rigour and unassailable logic to inform all its principles. A company dedicated to the use of clear thinking and precise writing to generate industy-defining insights. Petty idiocies would have no place in this enterprise, poor arguments and weak ideas would be mercilessly crushed beneath the mighty wheels of corporate intelligence.

It's taken me seven years to realise that it's not really like that. I'm surrounded by plenty of funny, clever, interesting people, and I enjoy my job. But we're just like every client I've ever met. My colleagues wear badly fitting designer suits to attend dull strategy meetings where people gossip and flirt over coffee. We like to think we wield logic and truth like unstoppable weapons, but actually we are easily swayed by entrenched beliefs and internal politics. We write long, dull documents no-one will ever read that labour to make more than one interesting or relevant point per page. We overuse words like enable, ensure and empower. We douse our language with qualifiers like 'better', 'significant' and 'rapid' without any justification or figures to back them up. I have to work alongside people that talk about 'enhancing the spiritual nature of web user interfaces' without recourse to irony.

I'd still like to believe Accenture or McKinsey's are the relentless and awe-inspiring powerhouses of my undergraduate imaginings, but chances are they're full of normal people too.

* Just to try and undo the damage to my reputation this arrogant statement might make, I do like a lot of the client staff I work for, it's just their companies and companies' policies I take umbrage at.