Saturday 3 April 2021

Going gifts

My Da was retired from the British Navy at the age of 50. Married late, he still had teenage children and their expensive education to support; so he hawked his CV around for a new job.  He accepted a position as sales-manager with an electrical engineering firm called Plessey Marine. As someone who was reasonably honest, he was shocked at the casual venality, laziness and incompetence of his managerial co-workers. When he finally finally retired, one of these jobsworths organized the whip-round and decided what they would get the old man as a going-away gift. The kitty was heavy and and Jobsworth knew that the hook was to be painting - water-colours being one of many things [history, travel, gardening, Ireland, politics] that my father cared about. At 4.30 on the last Friday after the speeches and encomiums, he was presented with a rosewood box, plaqued with his name in brass, filled with dozens of piffling-sized tubes of oil paint, fabulously expensive brushes and a most peculiar palette with a thumb-hole that was too small for an adult. He wasn't yet into oils but he knew that real painters preferred big tubes and fewer of them because, like, paints are miscible. In a way if was a great gift because it allowed him to dust off his hands from that part of his life and move on without regrets.

I R retire now after a life-time in science, and my experience is that the person who steps forward to handle the departure of colleagues is too often the tone-deaf departmental busy-body. I remember one senior person who had been so thoroughly disrespected by his institution that he was moving to the rival place across town. His HoD, who was incapable of irony, presented him with a large, expensively framed print of the front end of his, now old, college: "So you'll fondly remember your time with us". The HoD had made that college his entire man-and boy life and was utterly unable to appreciate that the rest of us were less invested in its patriarchal charms. That gift can also be read, psycho-analytically, as as a statements "We own you, son, you'd be nothing without our support; this picture will be watching your ignominious descent into mediocrity".

I know I'm not the easiest person to read, but the two times when I have been the presentee, the gift has been superficially right but actually so wrong. Because, whatever about my interests in pedagogy, long-distance walking and 19thC European railways, I really don't want more stuff, either then or now.  Coronarama has futzed up my retirement process, but I told my HoD that, in no way did I want a [the standard easy-thinking gift locally] cut glass vase with my name and The Institute's name engraved on the side: please donate whatever it costs to the student welfare fund"

The one time I've stepped up to the plate and been that departmental busy-body was when I read a departing colleague, a man of manifold skills interests and talents, as a cheapskate naturally thrifty. Quite possibly I was over-empathizing with that one aspect of his character, but I saved us all €10 of whip-round tax. Greg discovered long-distance walking during the 3 years he was living in Ireland. He came to us one Easter in the 00s having walked the Wicklow Way [127km] from Dublin in 30 hrs. He arrived in Clonegal at 0530hrs, decided it was too early to call me to come [20km] to pick him up. Accordingly he retraced his steps to a convenient ditch and flung himself down to doze until it was decent to disturb people by telephone on Sunday.

What I did when Greg left was locate a scanned, digital copy [not this one] of Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River, correct all the s/m/rn/ OCR errors and substitute all the Nicks for Greg. One of our digitally savvy, graphics sensitive, workmates photoshopped Greg's face into a set of surreal illustrations of lonely pine-forests, trout, bridges, tents and crickets. We printed it as an A5 booklet with space for everyone to sign "hey all the best, mate" the frontispiece. If he didn't like it, at least it would do as a fire-lighter.

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