Quite by accident, I encountered a beloved competitor this weekend. If you think that sounds like a contradiction in terms, let me bring you in on a secret.
Us spin doctors, us perverters of truth and transparency, us gilders of every available lilly, tend to apply a mental graphic like the nutrition pyramid to others working in our profession.
It has three sections, that graph. Two large, one extremely small.
Bottom of the pyramid, appropriately, is a big section devoted to what we’ll call Lowest of the Low.
We normally call them pondscum and worse, but this is a newspaper with standards, so let’s just go with Lowest of the Low.
This broad stripe occupying the lower regions of the pyramid and coloured brown for reasons we don’t need to go into, is made up of people who are ethics free, illiterate, and given to publicity stunts as doomed to failure as was the Hindenburg. Others in the industry watch those publicity stunts with hands over their mouths, going “Oh, the humanity…” and thanking God they never thought of doing the like.
Second section of the pyramid is made up of Respected Professionals. Meaning the jury is neither in nor out on them.
They’re big, they’re long established, they collaborate well with other agencies on complicated projects and we wouldn’t say a word against them.
To be nothing but perfectly honest here, we’d love to say a word against them, but we flatter ourselves on having standards, so we won’t.
Up at the pointy tippy top of the pyramid is a wee tiny section that might be called “Communications consultants we’d love to hire if it wasn’t that they were doing so well on their own”.
They are highly professional workaholics who don’t tire you out with their workaholism. Insightful courteous craftspeople who never resort to tactics like bait and switch.
In PR terms, bait and switch is when the investigative reporter pops up on your phone to tell you one of your clients has just been caught doing something so crooked/perverted/career-killing that your legs buckle as you listen.
If you are without morals, you then say to the investigative reporter “Never mind that. You aware of X and what he’s been up to?”
This leads to the sacrifice of another bod and the preservation, in the short term, of your crooked/perverted retainer client.
It has happened and we won’t name names, although if you guess correctly, we might do a nuanced nod to let you know you’re on the right track.
The professionals at the top end of the pyramid manage to stay there, making good money, without doing any mucky stuff. They are few.
When one of them can’t take a job because of conflict of interest or simple pressure, they’ll refer the potential client to one of the others, knowing the client will be dealt with expertly.
Which is a roundabout way of explaining how delighted I was to see this communications consultant in the warmth of Saturday’s sunshine. He immediately said something clever.
“Busy as ever, I suppose?” he asked.
Kindly note that he did not ask the fatal question “Are you still working?” Nobody should ever ask a human over 60 years of age that.
It first of all begs the question as to why the hell they shouldn’t be working.
But it’s typecasting: You’ve got grey hair so you are old, Father William, and no doubt past your best, so be off or I’ll kick you downstairs.
It’s stereotyping: Look at the wrinkles on you. Sure you’ve definitely developed age-related incompetence and must by now be out to pasture.
This man didn’t ask the “still working” question and I truthfully told him I was busy as ever, restraining myself from making prayerful gestures or touching wood, because, as the not-so-easily-forgotten recession proves, you never know the day nor the hour.
Then I put the same question to him. He told me he was semi-retired. I told him he was lying. He had to be.
Why would anybody semi-retire when they love what they’re doing, are demonstrably superb at it, and have untapped reservoirs of work egging to be done by them?
“I no longer work on Mondays and Tuesdays,” he told me. I raised one eyebrow. Even one is an effort, what with the Botox, but if I concentrate, I can do it.
“Why Mondays and Tuesdays?” I asked, feeling like the straight guy in a comedy duo.
“Because those are the days I am booked to look after my grandchildren,” he said. “And nothing I have ever done in my life is as rewarding.”
This wasn’t Hallmark card sentimentality; the kind of statement which carries with it the implication that all those who hear it will say “Aaaah”.
It was a truth astonishing to the man who was stating it. He was the third man I’d seen undergo a process you could only call transfiguration through caring for his grandchildren.
The others were a former government minister and the former head of a State body.
One of them, when his daughter and son-in-law found themselves with twins and another baby under two, complicated by health problems, took on the night shift, feeding, changing and rocking three babies from dusk to dawn.
It turned a family nightmare into a manageable, even happy, phase.
Anna Quindlen, the American novelist who recently published a book about her experiences in what she calls “Nanaville”, maintains that according to the US census, more grandparents are alive in the United States than ever before in history, up by nearly 25% in the last two decades.
It’s fair to assume, given our demographics, that Ireland, too, has an unprecedented number of grandparents, many of whom, because of the increase in life expectancy, will be part of their grandchildren’s lives for much longer than was the case up to now.
This will give many men and women who — as Pat Conroy put it — made “egregious and irretrievable mistakes with their own children”, the chance to redeem themselves by becoming perfect grandparents.
That amazing transfiguration applies impartially to the good guys and the less than good guys.
All, inevitably, make mistakes. Like the perhaps apocryphal one committed by the grandmother who played and read to the toddler grandchildren staying overnight with her, then bedded them down, covered in goodnight kisses.
After a long, luxurious shower, she emerged to the noise of children having a great time keeping themselves awake.
She pulled on a towelling dressing gown and wrapped a towel around her head, turban-style, before opening the door to their bedroom and instructing them, in a marked manner, to be good, quiet and go to sleep.
It was just as she pulled the door closed behind her that she heard one of them whisper to the other in a shaky voice; “Who was that?”