Susie Rushton's Notebook: Sarko's
transatlantic troubles, and poor Francis Wheen's trauma in a nation of shed-keepers

If you think video conferences are a sign of 'progress',

watch President Obama in this clip


Strange that Nicolas Sarkozy, keen to show himself to the French electorate in grand presidential mode, should invite a camera crew to film him at such an awkward moment.

Last week, ahead of the first round of voting in the election this Sunday, he gave the public a rare glimpse of what happens during his regular transatlantic videoconferences with Barack Obama. In the clip, broadcast widely on French television and beyond, we see the US President on one of two screens as he beams at a round table at the Elysée Palace, where Sarkozy sits alongside translators and aides.

"Hello!" the two men boom at each other, the pause of the long-distance connection made worse by the delay of French/English translation. Obama makes a joke about Sarkozy's election campaign; the French leader smirks, "We will win – you and me, togezer!"

We don't all have to have meetings with oleaginous politicians, but anybody who has to take part in a videoconference knows they have a way of making difficult discussions worse, even cringeworthy.

In part that's because the need for technical support makes hitches and awkward pauses a certainty – a regular user tells me that one may often be patched into the wrong camera and find oneself looking at an empty conference table – and, unfairly, it's often down to the most junior person in the room to make sure things run smoothly.

(The videoconference was sharply satirised in a recent episode of TwentyTwelve, with a junior civil servant roundly bollocked as Seb Coe and "a Moroccan diplomat" flickered on and off the Olympic organisers' screens).

I know it's a cheap way of communicating, but I think video calls are one of the less civilised examples of "progress". Skype has just launched a poster ad campaign to promote video calling, in which it asks, "When did LOL replace the sound of laughter?". Uh, since the sight of jokes falling flat made using email and the phone seem far less embarrassing?

A secret little world that is a metaphor for life itself

Whether it's because they fit neatly into our small gardens, or simply because we're by nature private and slightly eccentric, there's no keeping the British from their sheds.

Can you imagine the average American homeowner plonking a 6ft by 8ft, felt-roofed, wooden construction at the end of his perfect lawn? No: Americans enjoy the spaciousness of a garage or cellar or "den". Do many Italians spend Sundays "pottering" in toolsheds? Do Scandinavians build cabins for anything less glamorous than sauna-ing in the nude? I suspect not.

But Britain is a nation of shed-keepers. I, as the dweller of a first-floor flat, do not yet know the pleasure of a shed first-hand, but I can see plenty from the back of my house – pristine little wooden boxes, each uniform softwood exterior hiding secret weekend hobbyisms of my neighbours.

And what they get up to! The author and journalist Francis Wheen, pictured, was devastated when the shed at his home in Chelmsford burnt down at the weekend – and with it went 5,000 books, plus his novel-in-progress. Wheen's shed activities – and the manner in which they were destroyed – encapsulates the paradoxical British attitude to sheds. In his new book A Shed Of One's Own, Marcus Berkmann claims middle-aged men need sheds because they are places for "directed idleness", where a chap who is panicked by the passing of time and fertility might enjoy quietness, a glass of wine and the peace to enjoy his own pursuits, however mundane (that's not a men-only wish list, btw).

Don't be deceived. From what I've glimpsed, they are also places of great industry. My father, the owner of several sheds, has laid down rugs in his favourite, equipped "with its own hoover, too". Sheds might be havens of the idiosyncratic, but of idleness?

At the same time, they are temporary structures, often with amateurishly-installed electrical wiring, prone to damp, infestations and lingering smells that may or may not be the scent of decomposing pigeon. Improvised, ephemeral, flimsy and somewhat flammable, sheds are a metaphor for life itself – as wondrous or banal as you choose to make them, potentially sites of great achievement, but ultimately more fragile than we realise.

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