Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mr Pooter comes to Scotland

“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.” Not since these Charles Pooter’s opening words in Diary of A Nobody, has the journal of an ordinary bloke gone on to cause such a sensation. Yesterday, scarcely 18 months after Sir Peter Housden moved from London to take up his post as permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, his collected business bulletins were published. And, to the astonishment of critics, a sheaf of on-line documents revealed – unintentionally or otherwise – a comic masterpiece.

Written every week for the benefit of thousands of civil staff, Sir Peter’s letters to his subordinates might be expected to show the cares of state weighing heavily on such a powerful mandarin. Not a bit of it. From the adventures of his cat, to his domestic struggles with a damp proof course, this author gives his domestic life equal billing with government business.

Many of his most painful agonies are felt, not in the concrete corridors of Holyrood, but out on the golf course, thumping balls around in the rough. "I won’t tell you about my quite disastrous 106 in the Spring Competition,” he writes. “Suffice it to say that I lost four balls in the first four holes, and a fifth later on. I wish I could blame the wind.”

But whatever the trials of his own life, Sir Peter — who earns £175,000 — appears to know how to fire up his colleagues with enthusiasm. Every letter is signed off: “Have a great week.”

This first collection of the permanent secretary’s writings appeared in response to a freedom of Information request, but earlier this year, some teasing extracts were released. Those seemed to show that Sir Peter had “gone native” and actively supported Alex Salmond’s drive for independence. He criticised the Coalition Government’s plans to devolve more powers to Holyrood as “lost in the mists of time” and, responding to the SNP’s election victory in May, urged his staff to recognise the “new political trajectory”.

The unexpurgated text however reveals the man in full, in all his humdrum glory: his love of vinyl records, the shopping trips down Rose Street, the afternoon teas in the modern art gallery (“don’t they do a good soup?”). 

On an Away Day with the Culture Division he falls - “inevitably” into a discussion about music. “When pressed,” writes Sir Peter, “I did ask Culture colleagues to reflect on the absolute perfection of ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha & the Muffins. Lots of people nodded. Well, a few anyway.”

Throw away paragraphs are deliberately comical. When Sir Peter turns up on “Wear Your Trainers to Work Day” he is devastated to find he is the only one who has joined in the fun, and scours the building looking for any besuited civil servant shod in Nike.

“Finally, I saw a woman zipping across the forecourt in trainers and stopped to congratulate her,” he writes. “She shouted back over her shoulder that she didn’ae work here, and was just dropping off her husband.”

Over one weekend he’s delighted to visit the public rubbish tip three times and by his purchase of “one of the those pressure washers”, a reflection that immediately puts him in mind of his wife. He adds: “Thursday was the 38th anniversary of the first time that Maureen and I went out with each other. I am the one who remembers these things in our house.”

The letters bear witness to the rapid tartanising of Sir Peter’s cultural reference points. In the early bulletins, from June last year, he remains solidly metropolitan, musing of the failings of the English football team, watching cricket at Lords and walking from St John’s Wood to Holland Park “to see a beautifully sung Fidelio.”

By the turn of the year, Scotland has entered his veins. His cultural highlights of 2010, he writes, are And the Land Lay Still, a pro-nationalist novel by James Robertson, Caledonia, a play about the Darien adventure – a key moment in the history of political union – and a performance of the Marriage of Figaro, by Scottish Opera.

Then, suddenly, after months of writing, Sir Peter’s tone changes. Her patience eroded by the weekly maunderings of her boss, one of the cabinet secretary’s minions has finally snapped, and fired in a letter of complaint.

It is a chastened Sir Peter who returns to his keyboard on September 12 this year. “Last week,” he says, “I was very nicely taken to task by a correspondent for not giving enough information in this column on the work I am doing.” Finally, he is ready to tackle the question, “What do I actually do?”

For the next 800 words he picks over his duties, including a hospital visit, the approving of a paper on Corporation Tax, a forthcoming cabinet meeting, and a date with some Hong Kong dignitaries - but the poor man cannot help himself, at the end looking forward “hopefully, (to) a trip to the range over the weekend to do something about my short game.”

Sir Peter’s diary ends last month, with a comment on David Croft, whose death is a cause for reflection on the scriptwriter’s TV comedy creation, Are You Being Served?

“I was struck,” writes Sir Peter, “by the character of Captain Peacock. Lower-middle class England of my youth was somehow full of lost souls like him, using their military titles and not quite finding their place in Civvy Street... I wondered whether it is just in fictional representations that such characters are so prevalent, and this has fed back into memory. Appearance and reality, eh?”

Too right. Who would have thought that in real life, a comic book Pepys from the English shires could rise so effortlessly up the greasy pole in Scotland?

Have a great week.

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