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Clutter

When big things go wrong, and one feels powerless to do much about them, small things in one's life can become surrogates for one's anger. And there are quite a few big things around at the moment; COVID-19, No-Deal Brexit; A US Presidential Election where the incumbent leads with racist statements.

As the end of the current session rushes towards us, many of my colleagues are concluding that they will not be putting themselves forward at the forthcoming election. A couple of our younger colleagues are placing their families first. But most are looking at being in their eighth decade, as I already am, at the end of the next session.


When the two leading candidates for the US President are both older than I am - seventy-four in five week's time - it may seem surprising that retirement may be beckoning for me and others a lustrum younger than I am. But it illustrates the profound differences between being a back-bencher in our Parliament and the political life of a US Senator or Representative. Even more so a President.


One of my many American interns from the last twenty years described their time as an intern in Washington. Their boss had about seventy or so staff. We have the funds for three. Indeed so large was the team of which they were part, that they never met the head of it in the six months they spent in it.


In the present climate, many colleagues are reporting three-figure increases in constituency case-work. An error or omission in handling a single one can lead to a front-page story in the local press. We all carry the distress of many of the people we represent on our shoulders every day.


A US Federal politician is substantially more distant from such personal issues with only a few high profile cases in their in-tray.


The big difference is "thinking time". We have surprisingly little of it. In part because of the routine of Committee meetings and debates. The questions to Ministers we have to formulate and deliver.


I have had a lifelong habit of counting what goes on around me.


For example, I had a conversation with a Conservative colleague newly returned to Parliament after a year off with a very serious illness. Welcome back! I was able to tell them that they held a particular record. They had the shortest interval between taking the oath after their election and their first speech. Colleague Maureen Watt comes second on that list. And I am third.


By the end of October, I expect to have attended one thousand Committee meetings. This week's Environment, Rural and COVID-19 Committees will be the 989th, 990th and 991st respectively.


I have held 1,181 public surgeries for constituents and issued 2,781 press releases. My web site has 4,696 pages of information.


These numbers are the guardians of my efforts as a Parliamentarian. I can all but instantly see if I am keeping up the work rate.


That is especially important as I look to handing over to a new MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast. Having announced in March that I would be retiring in about fourteen month's time, that's May 2021, there is a substantial risk arising from the ennui of a decision made but an implementation deferred. Like the runner in a top-flight competition, I should be speeding up as I approach the finish tape, not relaxing in anticipation of another retirement.


So my proposition is that the workload for our Parliamentarians is substantial if measured by hours - my weeks are rarely less than fifty hours - but more importantly, so much of it is critical to our constituents' personal lives.


Retirement ought to be contemplated by us from our mid-sixties. 


But a US President, who never appears for questioning before a Committee to account for their actions, who does not determine legislative programs, has no material budget responsibilities, and is surrounded by lots of paid staff, has a simpler, easier job. It does carry a heavy responsibility. However, not all Presidents seem to recognise that.


The US is a rather primitive country, to some extent marooned in the early 1820s. Addicted to the bizarre idea of allowing an untrained and irresponsible segment of its population to carry loaded automatic weapons in public places. I suspect this will continue whoever is President next. They may grow up at some point.


As I engage in the tasks which must predate my retirement, some of the small things are sources of irritation for me. 


I have had the same house to stay in when I am in Parliament for seventeen years. Inevitably I have accumulated a certain amount of what can only be described as junk. But as I examine it, I find a surprising amount that can be put in a black bag for delivery to my local recycling centre without my feeling much sense of loss.


But one piece of glass broke, pierced the bag and then my right-hand forefinger. A small, clean, cut but one that would not immediately stop emitting a trickle of blood. A small bandage from the bathroom cupboard fixed that.


Rather inconveniently that finger is the one I proffer to my laptop computer as a means of unlocking it. The ever so small bandage inhibits that from working. It has been so long since I used the alternative password, that it takes a considerable time to bring it from the dim recesses of my memory.


In the mean-time, this little problem consumes my attention and prevents useful progress on other matters. It's not as if I don't have a second computer to hand. But I had written a wee bit of something on the locked one. Objectively this small issue can be the start of a significant problem.


The kind of trivial mistake that can develop into a major crisis if you let it.


The Captain of a Korean Airlines jumbo-jet leant forward in his seat, and his left shoulder pressed a big red button on the control column. That disconnected the autopilot. He didn't notice and, to cut a long story short, they nearly lost the plane and all on board. That aircraft was so damaged that it never flew again.


As some of us approach the finishing gate of our time in elected politics, there is a tension between rushing to complete things on one's personal agenda for which sees little time to finish and the weariness of distance run. The former invites error. The latter surrenders to indolence.


So we must find a middle way,


Restaurant Antoine in New Orleans opened in 1840 and carried "Avis au Public" at the top of its menu. The advice is:


"Faire de la bonne cuisine demande un certain temps. Si on vous fait attendre c'est pour mieux vouse servir, et vous plaire"


In its translated form, "Good cooking takes time. If you are made to wait, it is to serve you better, and to please you.", Fred P Brookes uses this to preface the second chapter in his 1975 book, "The Mythical Man-Month".


Simply put, it's a book about how to manage time.


Thank goodness, I discovered my long-mislaid copy as I started my house clear-out.


Time too to make sure the brain and mind are not adversely affected by clutter.


Much to re-find. So little time left to use it.

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