The crash of the anvil at the workplace school

Bertrand loved School. Since the move up to Reception, he had started to find opportunities for free expression and independent thought. Of course, he wasn’t aware of that and didn’t start blogging about it, it just started to happen. There were rich, youghurty paints, paper like a fresh snowdrift, brushes chiselled from a spring meadow. His teacher, Mr McDuff, was in his twilight years but his voice sounded crisp and sharp. He made sense, made it all seem achievable. He was happy.

Then one day, Mr McDuff announced in his light, clipped tone “today class we are going to design a workplace. It’s something people have been trying to do for years, getting into all sorts of trouble. But I think you’re ready.”

A soft mutter spread throughout the class, until finally Chantal raised her hand. “What’s a workplace, Mr McDuff?”

“Good question Chantal. Now – where is your Daddy today?”

“He’s at home emptying the dishwasher, I think.”

“Ah. And Mummy?”

“She left before I got up and went into London. She won’t be back until after my bedtime. She gets very grumpy when she comes in. She says she goes to an office, where everyone is horrid.”

“Excellent, perfect. That’s a workplace. Let’s get to work.”

With that Mr McDuff spread a large sheet of paper across four tables pushed together. On another table he produced a series of materials from a large box that arrived two weeks late and slightly damaged at the corners.

“OK class, I want you to take anything from the large table, and arrange it in a random form on the large sheet of paper. Then we have designed our workplace. We call this eclectic and its very fashionable. Eck. Leck. Tick.”

“But what is it all, Mr McDuff?” asked Petra “It looks like the stuff that’s at the back of our garage that Daddy always falls over and says bad words.”

“That’s right Petra” reassured Mr McDuff “it’s just randomly collected things that look like they have been thrown away but actually cost a lot of money.”

Mr McDuff proceeded to explain each item to the class. “Here we have some exposed brickwork, please take care because I have banged my head on this for decades. Then we have some concrete flooring which means we can’t run any power or data cables underneath it so we have to use this” he said waving an exposed conduit above his head. “This is a distressed Chesterfield sofa” he said wheezing under the strain of dragging it from the box “which is like a new one only more expensive. Feel free to add a few rips.”

Mr McDuff flopped onto the sofa and instinctively whipped out his Macbook and assumed an air of whimsical concentration, before realising where he was.

The class began turning over the items in their hands, until they clanked together a series of delicate glass bulbs.

“Are these flowers Mr McDuff?” asked George.

“No dear boy, they are filament lightbulbs. They’re designed to blind you when you look at them, and be hung from a ceiling rose that’s been deliberately put in the wrong place so you have to loop the cable across the ceiling. They’re absolutely everywhere, and what’s even more impressive is they don’t need any imagination whatsoever to use them.”

“Why do you use them if they blind you?” asked George.

“Exactly. I have no idea. Actually, no-one does but because they’ve appeared in a lot of magazines everyone keeps using them. So, we have to string them up today or people will think we don’t know how to design a workplace and we can’t have that, can we?”

“Do we climb through this?” asked Sara, brandishing a big metal tube, that on reflection she could have climbed through.

“No no Sara, we put these up in the ceiling. They carry cold air and warm air, and we used to hide them because they’re ugly and dirty but now we think they’re beautiful. It reminds us of the Victorian Workhouse. Or we can make a slide…”

“Slide! Slide” Slide!” the class chanted in unison until they realise it had been done before.

“But aren’t we designing a workplace Mr McDuff?” Bertrand asked, slightly confused.

“Yes, yes, sorry, not much difference really, given the unfettered perpetuation of the capitalist relations of production. We’ll cover Marx next week. Anyway class, here are the last few bits and pieces” bounced Mr McDuff, producing a wooden chair “just like I used to sit on at school, and I hated it then too” and several benches without any back support and some twisted neon signage saying “Work isn’t somewhere you go – but as you’re here…” and several odd shaped pieces of perspex in bright tones. “These are called accent colours, children, just dot them around your work in a random way, as blessed relief from the monotone, soulless industrial gloom.”

Mr McDuff thought for a moment. “It’s a shame, children, because if it weren’t for the arbitrary value engineering we could have had a telephone box, original VW camper van, beach hut and park swing to play with too. Oh well.”

The children set to work as Mr McDuff slipped away for a skinny soya caramel latte. When he shuffled back into the class, the result was an unbridled mess but the children seemed to be loving it. The sound of high-fives filled the dusty air. Teachers passing by loved it too – several popped in and photographed it for Pinterest and one found the time to enter it for a workplace design award.

“You see, what you’re doing here today is accumulation but some people have got terribly over-excited and started calling it curation without having the slightest idea what that means. It just makes it sound more obscure. R-T-far-tee. What you’re doing is entirely random. But don’t worry, we’ll think of an underlying concept and a snappy brief when we’re at the end of the lesson, in case we publish it as a case study.”

With that Mr McDuff looked awfully pleased with himself. As the clanking of haphazard workshoppery continued he settled into his lounger at the end of the classroom, bathed in ochre sunlight, and picked up his dog-eared copy of The Myth of Sisyphus.

The children were happy. He was happy. The client was happy.

“Who is the client, Mr McDuff? asked Chantal sharply, breaking the solidifying spell.



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