Bunhill: Solved: the mystery of Maximus Costus

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Congratulations to Rosie Aitchison on whom I am pleased to confer, with all due ceremony, the much-coveted title of Chief Knowledge Reader.

Those who perused this diary three weeks ago may recall mention of a certain Roger Swanson, from Sequent Computer Systems, who has been gifted the inspirational job description of Chief Knowledge Officer. At the time, Mr Swanson was due to give a speech on how companies could handle information overload (and who better to talk about this than someone who knows everything?), but I'd been hoping His Omniscience would instead address such unsolved mysteries as why the Watford Gap is called the Watford Gap, and how people manage to scrawl slogans the right way up on bridges over motorways.

Sadly, some of these mysteries are still mysteries (Mr Swanson does move in mysterious ways), so I'm eternally grateful to Ms Aitchison, of Penton, Cumbria, for unravelling another puzzle: how long did it take to build Rome if it wasn't a day?

As her research reveals, construction began when architects awarded the very first Italian job to the eminent building firm of Maximus Costus. Initially the project went well, "with pillars and plinths sprouting up in all directions", but then the firm heard of a nice little earner overseas and sailed off to help a bloke called Hadrian build a wall. While he was here, Maximus sub-contracted the building of Rome to a crew led by the craftsman Gutter Snipus, who undertook that his workmen would arrive with the rising of the sun. This they duly did, though three weeks late, only to decide that as the entire city couldn't be constructed with breeze blocks, they might as well get back to the wall - "boring work but, as they put it, 'denarii for old hemp'."

And there it is: Rome wasn't built in a day, it wasn't built at all - as the still half-finished Colosseum shows. But never mind, history tells us that the Millennium exhibition will be ready on time and we can look forward to the mother of all parties

Perhaps Ms Aitchison should forgo the title of Chief Knowledge Reader and settle for Chief Imagination Reader. In my book, that's a much bigger accolade. She might also like to know that in London's East End, the environs of Bunhill Towers, she is known as "Rosie Ison"; round here we drop our Aitches.

We're mad for it

Anyone made you angry recently? Then don't get mad, get a psychologist. Everyone seems to be doing it, including the boxer Mike Tyson, who has said he will seek medical help to overcome his rages, and the Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright, who called in a counsellor last season to help him control his short fuse.

How Tyson might put his therapy into practice is anyone's guess. Perhaps instead of lashing out when an opponent tries a head-butt, he will remember the collected works of Freud and Jung, tell his fellow pugilist that such rash actions stem from a disturbed childhood when he was force-fed grilled liver and onions, and advise him to see someone who can interpret his dreams. Thus deconstructed, the opponent will sit down in the ring with his shorts over his head and begin speaking in tongues. Tyson, meanwhile, released from both his personal demons and his challenger, wins on a technical knock-out.

Well, perhaps psychology isn't that potent, but it is becoming more popular, particularly in the workplace. The Occupational Psychology Centre, for example, reports growing demand for its services as companies grapple with competitive pressures, and employees try to come to terms with the fact that these pressures have already accounted for the jobs of colleagues ... and they could be next. As Amanda Callen of the OPC explains, the mental strains imposed show themselves in several ways; not just anger, depression and absenteeism, but "presenteeism" - spending too long at work. If you're reading this in the office now, you'll know what she means.

The OPC's philosophy could have been devised by our stress-aware Prime Minister, as its methods include forming different work groups among people who haven't always got on and seeking to improve the lines of communication across the whole company. Tough on stress, tough on the causes of stress. In other words, says Ms Callen, it tackles what it sees as the source of tension - that those who don't talk to each other shout at each other.

One of the OPC's biggest assignments was at Railtrack, which has been trying to cope with the constant change and greater job insecurity wrought by rail privatisation. That the psychologists had plenty to do was underlined recently when the commercial director, Michael Howell, left just one year into a job in which he had clashed with several colleagues because of his "energetic style". If he had any grievances of his own, you might suspect that his pounds 520,000 pay-off would have provided much better therapy than anything the psychologists could have come up with.

It's not always the case that counsellors are asked to resolve difficulties. Dr Binna Kandola of the occupational psychology partnership Pearn Kandola, which mainly deals with managers, reports that companies often call on psychologists for "positive reasons": by analysing staff, they hope to identify potential and help them to fulfil that potential. At other times, though, organisations like Pearn Kandola and the OPC are asked to address shortcomings in performance which are perceived as the result of some staff being at the end of their tethers.

So what could be more aggravating than being told you've got to see a "shrink"? Well it isn't quite like that, says Dr Kandola, because the psychologists don't try to unravel personalities but to make people more self-aware. So those executives who thrive on drive, but drive colleagues to distraction with their turbo-powered temper tantrums, are not asked to lie down and listen to soothing wave music. Instead, they might simply be told that if they communicated their objectives properly in the first place, and listened to the responses, there'd be less need to bawl people out.

There are other ways of approaching anger, of course - from the deep- seated appraisals of "what made me what I am" (to be reserved only for those managers who, like Mike Tyson, are less prone to bending colleagues' ears than biting them off) to, as Dr Kandola explains, recognising the situations that make you lose your rag and saying "take a break". In other words, stop for a cuppa when you're coming to the boil.

Dr Kandola refused to be drawn on what advice he might have given Ian Wright, but wouldn't it be nice if some of his workplace therapy could be applied on the football field? Imagine the scene. As the red mist descends on Wright and he squares up to a defender, the Arsenal manager signals to the referee to stop the game and the trainer walks on with a silver tea set and a packet of biscuits. The two players retreat to their own halves for a refreshing cuppa, and all of a sudden the world seems a much nicer place. They resolve their differences amicably and eventually the game ends in pitch darkness with all the spectators fast asleep in their seats.

What's in a title?

As a footnote, some eagle-eyed readers may wonder why newspapers such as this one confer the honorific titles of Mr, Ms Dr etc on entertainers, business people, politicians and members of the public while referring to sports personalities purely by their surnames. This approach might seem inconsistent - insulting, even, given that the only other people deprived of their titles are convicted criminals - but it does represent an attempt to reflect real life. To illustrate, I'll let John Motson take up the commentary: "And it's Mr 'Gazza' Gascoigne tearing up the wing ... he slips it to Mr Wright ... on to Mr Beckham ... beautiful pass ... and, oh I say, he's missed ... well, the boy Mr Shearer will be disappointed with that."

Comments