On Thursday we were invited to roll into the office in fancy dress, under the theme of “The Best of British”. This has an added complexity when “work” is 150 miles away and you are travelling by train. It’s a brave man or woman who jumps onto the 7.50 out of Derby dressed as Dennis the Menace or who squeezes into the quiet coach resplendent as Queen Victoria. And there are few costumes of any worth which will compress into my handy travel suitcase, along with the week’s regular supply of socks and shirts.
I flirted briefly with the option of taking the day off (as one of my team did) or simply dressing down rather than dressing up (like the contract staff did). But as a senior manager one has little option but to man-up and to dress the part. Not doing so would label you forever as some awful hybrid wimp/spoilsport/dull person. No, the whole point of these events is to conspire together in the ritualistic semi-humiliation of “the management” with a smile and without a complete loss of dignity and respect. (Part of which was for us all to endure 15 minutes “in the stocks” having cold, wet sponges chucked at us; but more of that in another essay).
I received some advice about the options from a keen member of my team who was worried I might just bottle it. Hiring a ready-made costume was not practical for the aforementioned logistical reasons. And I had already left it too late. So it would have to be a DIY character or caricature.
Could I cobble something together from the contents of the various domestic wardrobes? My sons travel commendably light through life. Neither had left behind anything to help me turn into a sportsman, a school boy or a super hero. Besides most super-heroes are unsurprisingly American. Which fortunately meant that my superman cape and pants could stay in the drawer. My wife’s and daughter’s wardrobes apart from being unfathomable recesses I would never dare explore, only surfaced the appalling prospect of cross-dressing. So knickers – as it were – also to that.
Two other ideas were quickly dismissed. I am often teased playfully in the office for my northern socialist roots. I googled images of traditional Lancashire attire. But I had neither the clogs nor the flat cap and the rest of the outfit would be tediously drab. The oppressed proletariat – commendable as they were and are – are rarely noted for their colour or fashion sense. The only thing going for it was the copy of the (erstwhile Manchester) Guardian on the kitchen table. At the other end of the social scale, dressing as a Cambridge graduate, whilst eminently achievable with my gown and college tie would label me as even more pretentious and elitist than I probably already am perceived to be.
So I am afraid I went for the rather easy and obvious idea of turning up in the guise of an England football supporter. The very Best of British. I travelled with just an England t-shirt and my scruffiest pair of jeans and the hope that the 24 hour Tesco near to my flat would retail sufficient bits and pieces to make me look almost convincing.
Hence it was that I found myself, late at night, scouring the aisles of that Best of British supermarketsalongside the lonely shoppers buying company and solitary tins of soup. I was in luck. The combination of the jubilee, the euros and the Olympics has persuaded the buyers to stock the shelves with a multitude of red, white and blue bling and over-priced trivia. Probably made in China. Patriotism is an unashamed opportunity for profit without principles.
I dropped two England flags into my basket as easily as I would drop in a couple of ready meals. These were quickly supplemented with a cap and some rather attractive union-jack socks. I was buzzing. I tossed in some red white and blue wrist bands, careless of the expense. But what I really wanted was one of those red and white frizzy wigs so adored by the England football intelligentsia as they represent all that is good about our country abroad.
Its hard enough to find fresh milk in Tesco and almost impossible to find mint sauce. Finding a football wig defies all categorisation. The other patriotic products had been on gondola-ends. But I had seen no wigs. I looked in the women’s section – plenty of dresses, jewellery and other mysterious items, but no wigs. I discovered a hair-products aisle strangely positioned opposite barbecue products. There was a hair-dryers, hair curlers, hair straighteners and a staggering range of hair products. Maybe this is where Rooney and Carroll and the WAGS purchase their bits and pieces, but clearly not the fans themselves. Needless to say I wasn’t going to ask a shop assistant. Despite the contents of my basket, I still have some self-respect.
And so I arrived at the checkout with £20 worth of dodgy merchandise, including a set of union jack nail transfers and some red & white face paint – to make up (as it were) for the absentee wig. I decided to self-scan discretely.
I got up early the next day. Folk lore has it that a woman needs an hour to get ready – to do her face and nails and whatnot. This, gentlemen, I can reveal is a myth I was ready in ten. It could have been less except for a schoolboy error in applying the face paint. A tip; when drawing St George’s crosses on your face, do not draw the horizontal line over the vertical. It will smudge. Draw the vertical and then apply the horizontals on either side of it like arms.
Sticking on the 10 union flag nail transfers was easy for a boy practised in the delicate operation of positioning transfers onto airfix models. The golden rule is not to let the thing stick to itself. I did however learn the self-evident truth that doing anything to your right hand can only be done with your left hand. A rather obvious point for more experienced nail-varnishers. Now I understand why people need manicurists.
And so I was ready to walk to the car and arrive semi-triumphantly into the office. It would be the day that the neighbourhood was swarming with burly builders painting the flats. Never explain, never justify. I will hopefully never see them again. And don’t flinch when the lady in the car in front double-takes on the football hooligan in her rear view mirror.
It was inevitably with some trepidation I arrived at the office, unsure whether I was over or under dressed. Not an uncommon experience in life for many of us. Maybe the whole thing was a hoax. But I got away with it. In between the Dalek, Britannia, Nelson and the disproportionate number of soldiers and sailors I was just about “in the mood” but not too conspicuous. I sat down at my desk, flashed my nails to my team and caught up with Dick Whittington and Jimmy Saville about last night’s software deployments.
It is interesting to see how people reveal their ego or their alter-ego in fancy dress. What would you wear? It is your big chance to be the person you always wanted to be. To express your inner-Robin Hood, Maid Marian or Stan Laurel. The three directors turned out as eggs, bacon and sausage. One involved, one committed and one with a bit of sizzle. No doubt expressing their latent fear that, one mistake, and the MD would have them for breakfast. Actually, the bacon was off sick, so his place was taken by a leaner stand-in.
The soldiers with guns were just as likely to be the silent withdrawn programmers as aggressive alpha-male managers. The mass murderer is always the quiet one you didn’t notice. One guy turned up dressed as a funeral director. Make of that what you like, but I’m going to keep my distance. It takes all sorts. And, when all is said and done, we are a community of weirdo IT nerds.
Only my nails attracted any real attention or comment. And not of a particularly favourable kind. The lady in HR said she was quite disturbed. I must have been asked a dozen times whether I had painted them on myself. Of course I had, I protested. But it was all uncomfortably close to the proximity of the suggestion of being rather too comfortable with my feminine side. I started to wonder what deep psychological scar had possessed me to buy them and stick them on. I scratched them off before I drove home and scrubbed off the face paint, just in case the builders were working late. Next year, I will order my cyber-man outfit in good time.