Bureaucracy is often irritating, and petty bureaucracy can drive you crazy. Even the calmest of temperaments bridles in face of someone 'Dress'd in a little brief authority/Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd'. And the trouble is, brief authority often concerns itself pompously with the most trivial of causes.
Our neighbour's mother is 94. For the past five or so of her widowed years she has lived happily in a retirement home not far from her daughters and some of the grandchildren. She is a keen walker, does yoga, meditates, reads voluminously, gardens, and is a spirited, witty and intelligent conversationalist.
Recently, along with all the other residents, she moved into a smart, brand new 'facility' — as the administrators called it. Her new premises were bright and colourful, the garden area a bit spare and bland and the general atmosphere less free and easy than the 'old place'. This was because, along with the new paint and characterless exteriors had come a new manager and some additional senior staff.
One day, our neighbour's mother — we'll call her Pam — returned from a pre-lunch walk and, entering her still unfamiliar, paint-smelling hallway, felt that something was different. She looked across to the flowers in her vase and then to the books and papers on the table. All were as she had left them as far as she could tell.
She sat down in her armchair and then, from that different angle, she realised what had happened. Three photographs that had been on the living room wall — her five grandchildren, her daughters, and a picture of a family gathering at Christmas — were missing. Where they had been, the wall was blank and white.
Galvanised with the beginnings of indignation, Pam rang her eldest daughter, Alice our neighbour, and told her the story. A feisty youngster of 70, Alice rang the retirement village and asked to speak to the manager. 'I decided I'd start at the top,' she explained when she recounted the story.
Easier said than done, however. Alice could not get past the manager's secretary who was not sure when or even if her boss would be back that day and couldn't guarantee he would be available again during the week. As this was all happening on a Wednesday Alice suspected she was being massively fobbed off in the hope that everything would be forgotten by the following week or that she would just give up.
Alice was not the giving up type. She drove the couple of kilometres to the village, stormed into the front office and, when told the manager was away, sat down at the secretary's desk and told her about the photographs in detail and with some force.
The problem, it turned out, was that Pam had stuck the photos to the wall with Blu-Tack. This was forbidden.
'But people have to see their family photos,' Alice argued. 'They need their mementoes and somewhere and some means to display them.' The secretary said she would pass on Alice's and Pam's objections to the manager.
On the following Monday, the manager left a message on Alice's home phone — she was out on the bay in her kayak for most of the morning — explaining that Blu-Tack was absolutely forbidden because it lifted the paint on the walls and promoted a general sense of untidiness. But he would see what alternatives were available. Pam and Alice conferred later that day and decided to wait a while to see what he would come up with.
A few days later the manager 'came up with' something. Pam rang Alice to say that a notice board in a cream painted frame had been added to the living room wall in each unit. Personal photographs and other favourite items could be 'affixed using the pins provided'.
Alice was unable to inspect this remarkable innovation that day, but Pam reported that she had retrieved her photos and would be affixing them along with several other bits and pieces and a calendar. Only hours later, however, she told Alice the board was so hard she couldn't get the pins into it and hammering was forbidden.
Next morning, Alice rang Pam and was relieved to hear a lightness in her voice as she described her photograph-covered notice board and the Leunig 2012 calendar which she'd put away in a drawer at the old place but had rediscovered and displayed on the new board even though there was only a month left in the year.
'That's wonderful, Mum,' Alice said, with genuine pleasure. 'So you got the pins in after all?'
'No,' Pam said. 'It was much too hard.'
'So what's keeping the photos up on the board?'
'Blu-Tack. But you'd never know.'
Brian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
07 December 2012
My name is Pam/I live in the retirement home/I live quite near to you/If you hear some kind of trouble/Some kind of fight/Please don't ask me what it was/Please don't ask me what it was/I like my photos/I like to look at them/They won't give them back until you cry/They won't give them back until you cry/Then you don't argue any more/Then you don't argue any more/Thank God for Blu-Tack.
(With apologies to Kasey Chambers' 'Luka').
07 December 2012
Delightfully put! A triumph against stupidity and power-hungry wallahs, achieved by women energised with persistency and fuelled with a just anger and advocacy. God protect us from the fascists of daily life! May we find the capacity to laugh at them and occasionally unhorse them as they deserve.
walter p komarnicki
07 December 2012
most people it seems are easily buffaloed by petty bureaucracy, the solution is to be nice to the person but challenge their assumptions, and if all else fails ask their name, and then ask for their manager.complain in a nice way, but do not be frustrated into apathy and cynicism, there are ways out. This is not about 'conflict resolution', it's about negotiating your way through the maze, let Kafka be your guide, humour always helps.
07 December 2012
As full of heart as ever. Keep your lovely stories coming,Brian.
11 December 2012
A wry and amusing story, Brian. I'm not sure whether it's fact or fiction but it "rings true". A little like Jesus' parables or a Zen koan.
A former Professor of Politics at Melbourne used to say "Australians have a natural talent for administration". It was said tongue-in-cheek about administrators such as this manager. We seem to have had them since the First Fleet arrived. People seem to have been subverting their petty tyrannies since then.
12 December 2012
Whether or not the story is true, the substance is. Stupidity personified and happening all the time specially to our aged and frail. Marie
father john george
29 December 2012
In my nursing home, I have a large pic of the Sacred Heart etc, plus 2 nails ready for more. Viva Little Sisters of the Poor
01 January 2013
My aunt is in a low-care home. A series of thefts from her purse took place, partly her carelessness, but also some not under her control. Trying to phone the home about it I was passed on and waited so many times, I exceeded my mobile's monthly dollar limit. Wrote them a letter, No answer. Not good enough, she is paying for this non-assistance.