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Holland Park Press

Meeting on your own

23 January 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

This week I nearly attended a meeting. Luckily I spotted in time that I should have registered in advance. So I didn’t have to go! After reading the attachment, it transpired it wasn’t even a proper meeting. In fact it turned out to be an ‘inspirational get together’ to reflect upon ‘providing a cultural offering to people in care’.

The less well defined the subject, the longer it takes. ‘Providing a cultural offering to people in care’ is fairly wide-ranging. You can’t argue with the good intentions but an accompanying sentence muddled the waters even more: ‘To provide a better fit between arts and culture and the target audience’. I much rather like to hear, ‘You have two hours in which to teach a group of psychiatric patients how to write a poem.’

Oh, yes I have once done this and it was the only assignment, although, of course, participants were called clients rather than psychiatric patients. I have rarely seen more delightful results.

I told them that they should focus on the most awful thing that had happened to them. Yes, they nodded in response, this they understood. Each week, it was already a continuing topic of discussion with their therapists. Therefore I selected this as a subject for a poem. I gave them the basics but they were not allowed to mention the ‘most awful thing’ explicitly. Astonishingly, it worked.

I remember an older lady writing something entitled Blue. I have not often read something more touching. It considered blue from all angles. Afterwards it transpired that blue was the favourite colour of her deceased girlfriend.

Meetings are abundant throughout the Western world. I sometimes get the impression that meetings price us out of the market. In the Netherlands, even primary school pupils start the day with a discussion in the round. It is sort of a meeting.

When I was still in the army, I had to attend a lot of meetings. One of my commanding officers was an excellent chairman. At the start of each meeting he declared, ‘This shouldn’t take more than one hour.’ Yet this included munching cakes because it was always someone’s birthday. Eating cakes with one’s colleagues just wins the prize for awfulness from attending meetings.

To our astonishment, each meeting ended after exactly one hour with the announcement that, next time, we should come to it better prepared. Another elegant expression from my time in the army is: ‘Is this question meant for clarification or advancement?’ I recommend this question to every chairman. People keen on standing out eat up time.

Another type is the moaner. His body language clearly expresses how he feels. The doodler simply continues filling sheets. He is just not interested. The cougher suggests a ‘smoking break’.

Ever present is the critic: he is determined to disagree with everything. Certainly he doesn’t accept the chairman’s authority. The AOB guy only revives at any other business.

Since becoming a full time writer I have managed to limit the number of meetings to the absolute minimum. On the rare occasions I get stuck in a meeting, I occasionally regale a short anecdote, when the chairman announces that it may well be a long meeting because there is a lot to discuss.

So I say, ‘Once, commanding 212 men, I secured an abandoned airbase in Bosnia. This airbase was regularly shelled and heavily mined. Besides everyone had to have an evening meal, sleep and be safeguarded. We hardly had any meetings. After a short instruction, everyone knew what he had to do.’

I have to admit the truth, things got easier the longer I was there and hence meetings multiplied. I clearly recall this agenda point: ‘kidney beans’. A British officer argued that, ‘Kidney beans three days in a row, is too much of a good thing.’  

And now I am just going to have a meeting on my own. The advantage is that I can lit a cigar. ‘Chairman,’ I say, ‘it is time for a drink.’ And everyone agrees.

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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