A couple of days ago, at an appropriate point – mid-morning, I think it was – I left my desk and my to do list and wandered over to the other side of the office. There, by the bank of desks I used to sit at, our auditing team sat in their habitual huddle of three, tapping away at their keyboards without speaking. There’s always been something reminiscent of the library about them; before we moved across a new area next to the window there was a chalk and cheese feeling about their team being adjacent to ours. My colleague Iain swearing at his computer would generate the occasional raised eyebrow, or our smutty banter would cause them to look up from their screens, look over at us and then look away, always in silence.
They seem a companionable bunch but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them talk to one another when I’m not around. Philip is a debonair, soft-spoken, posh-sounding bespectacled man who wears a suit and tie at all times, even on Fridays, and I always get the impression he might have been even more comfortable in a dinner jacket. Lucy, by contrast, wears denim shorts even on a Monday and favours plunging necklines that reveal more perma-tanned mahogany flesh than is appropriate. Both have grey hair – Philip’s is becoming silver, Lucy has streaks in her long dark hair and I get the impression she hasn’t decided yet whether to do something about it. On the other side of the bank, Barry is balding and friendly-faced, with a rather natty looking pair of glasses, which I’ve noticed are a recent purchase.
All three of them acknowledged me loping towards them, with a sort of collective wry glance at one another. Here he comes, it seemed to say. I walked over to the chest of drawers in the corner and sat down on it as I do every day without fail.
“Good morning young man.” said Barry, rubbing his hands on his trousers as if in anticipation.
“Are you ready?”
“Right then, here goes: Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald?”
Barry’s brows knotted in concentration. Sometimes, if he takes a particularly long time, Lucy will chip in first and this was one of those days. I have a theory that she likes to answer first.
“Can you sing a quick burst of each of them? I don’t think I know anything by Ella Fitzgerald.”
“I’m afraid not Lucy, I don’t think the world is ready for that.”
“I think it’s got to be Ella Fitzgerald for me.” said Barry.
“Ella Fitzgerald.” said Philip emphatically. This was clearly not a difficult decision for him – I could imagine him pottering around his house of a Sunday afternoon, one of her records playing in the background.
“Oh I don’t know. I’m going to have to pick Frank. I do like a bit of Sinatra, and I can’t really remember anything by Ella.”
“All right then.” I said. “Interesting, so we have a split today. Same time tomorrow?”
“Looking forward to it already.” said Barry.
Returning to my desk, I took my seat. Iain knew where I’d been and what I’d been doing.
“Go on then, what was it today?”
“Oh, it’s a fiendish one today: Frank or Ella?”
“No, that’s an easy one – it’s got to be Frank.”
“Me too, every time,” said Tim, at the desk next to him. Carla, a couple of desks along, chipped in at this stage.
“I’m more a fan of Ella Fitzgerald. She had a beautiful voice.”
I’ve been asking the Barry Question Of The Day for about a month now; I think it may have got a bit out of control.
It started straightforwardly enough – we found out that Barry was taking voluntary redundancy. He had planned to retire in a year’s time, and the incentive of a pay-off if he went early was just too difficult for him to resist. I went over when I heard the news, and that’s when the idea occurred to me.
“Barry,” I said.
“Yes, young man?” came the reply. Back then, he was a bit wary of me. I think he probably found me a little strange; can’t imagine why.
“I’m worried that you’re leaving in a few months, and there’s so much I don’t know about you.”
“Okay.” said Barry, looking like he was trying to decide whether to laugh or take umbrage.
“So I’ve decided to ask you a question, if you don’t mind, a simple either-or question. I think we’ve only got a little while for me to find out more – discover the man behind the Barry, so to speak.”
“Right.” If anything, he seemed to be leaning towards taking umbrage.
“So, Barry, here’s a question for you: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?”
I can’t remember how Barry replied to that one, but I do know that it became a bit of a ritual after that. At first I thought I’d just do it for the rest of the week, but that week turned into the next week and the week after that. Barry started out bemused, then he moved on to pretending I was harassing him, rolling his eyes as I got closer to that chest of drawers in the corner. Then he dropped the pretence and started properly taking part. “Oh, that’s a difficult question.” he would say one day (Chinese or Indian?if I remember rightly) or “I don’t think that’s a very good one.” (BBC2 or Channel 4?which was yesterday’s). “Have you got a new question for me yet?” he would say if we bumped into each other in the kitchen.
But it wasn’t just Barry. Soon, if Barry was on leave Lucy would insist that I ask her and Philip the question instead, and ask him all the ones he’d missed on his first day back. The next step was that the rest of my team started showing an interest. “Have I missed the Barry Question Of The Day?” Iain would ask me, if he hadn’t heard anything by lunchtime.
They have even started joking that I should have recorded all of the answers on a database. “You could sell it to Google” one of them said to me. At one point I was thinking that I could ask my other friends in different offices and profile everyone – even help people make connections, find partners (“You prefer Paris to New York? Me too!) But sometimes you can find out too much about people. We once had an internal phone list – when our company was trying to be different and edgy – where you were asked to list your favourite books, records and hobbies. You lose respect for people when you realise they all love reading James Patterson and listening to Coldplay. Not only that, but you could search the phone list by the names of particular bands, which is how we found out that one of the senior executives loved Simply Red. All respect was gone after that; a little knowledge is truly a dangerous thing.
So far, it’s been a voyage of discovery. Some of the questions are differences between fundamental schools of thought: Starter and main course, or main course and dessert?for instance (Barry and Philip like a starter, Lucy prefers a dessert). Some are minor differences of emphasis:Porridge or The Good Life?(a clean sweep for Porridge, which surprised me because I’ve always had a soft spot for The Good Life – and Barry struck me as the kind of man who would be swung by Felicity Kendal, so to speak).
Some of the questions are so hard that they prompt much scratching of heads: Pizza or pasta? Blondes or brunettes? In both those cases Barry eventually came off the fence, with some trepidation as Lucy is a brunette. Philip tends to answer those questions as if they’re slightly beneath him, but comes alive if you ask him to choose between two cultural icons (I recall him being very animated when presented with the great Lennon/McCartney debate). When I asked Iain to choose between pizza and pasta and between blondes and brunettes his eyes glazed over and he gave me a look as if to say Can’t I have both at once?
Of course, you can’t have both, you can’t have neither, you can’t say “it depends” and you can’t pick a third option – those are the rules of Barry Question Of The Day. The only time I ever made an exception was when I asked another of the great eternal questions: red wine or white wine?(an even more crucial question than red sauce or brown sauce? if you ask me).
“White, no doubt about it.” said Barry. “I like red wine, but it doesn’t like me. Brings out my gout, you see.”
Didn’t I tell you it was a voyage of discovery? You find out all sorts of things about people: Barry suffers from gout.
“I like white too – white for me.” said Lucy. I could see that; pinot grigio would suit her perfectly.
Philip thought for a bit longer.
“Well, I don’t really drink, but I am rather partial to champagne. Can I have champagne instead?”
“All right Philip, just this once.” I could hardly say no – Philip was a man almost designed to sip louchely from a champagne flute. I bet he owns a pair of silk pyjamas, too.
Some of the choices have sparked off heated debate throughout the office, like Tweed or corduroy? The office divided into teams in favour of each, and the discussions carried on for several days. (Our manager said “Can’t you have corduroy on the bottom and tweed on top”, which struck us all as a very managerial approach to the problem.) Even visitors to the office were asked to step in and express an opinion. It carried on to the extent where my friend David and I ended up having a tweed-off, both wearing our Harris tweed jackets on the same day and asking people to say which one they preferred, another either/or question for everybody to vote on. People, I’ve discovered throughout this process, don’t half like being invited to express an opinion.
“I think mine’s a nicer colour.” I said.
“Well maybe.” said Iain. “But his has got lovely leather buttons.”
Some of my colleagues looked on in bemusement.
“What are they doing?”
“They’re having a tweed-off.” said Carla. “It’s because of Barry Question Of The Day.”
At that point I felt quite proud to be part of an environment where those two sentences made sense and flowed logically from one another, because I knew that rationally – to outsiders – they must have sounded like complete gibberish.
The whole experience has made me think in another way altogether, because knowing little things about the people you work with makes such a difference. It turns them into humans and stops them being abstracts. So I feel warmer about Barry knowing that he suffers from gout, or Philip knowing that he only drinks champagne. And it’s not just the daily question that makes me realise that – everyone is made up of small details that flesh them out into characters you can care about. I argue with Paul, who I work with, all the time but I also know that his son is in a wheelchair and that he likes to go clay pigeon shooting (a pursuit which is as unlikely for him as snowboarding would be for me). Alison, the dry, self-deprecating Scot I end up on conference calls with a lot, collects visits to Michelin-starred restaurants. I’d rather know a collection of those facts than how quickly they can sort a spreadsheet, because these little things aren’t really little things at all; they’re the biggest things, the best things. I’ll miss Barry when he goes but I think I’ll keep asking Philip and Lucy a question of the day, and maybe I’ll ask other people more questions too.
Oh, and my favourite question of the day so far is this one: Either or either? It doesn’t make any sense on paper though, you have to say it out loud. Not that way round. The other way.