Fawlty Towers or Grace Bros?

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

When staff change jobs or reach retirement, there is usually a leaving "do" of some kind. At their best, these can be enjoyable occasions when past achievements are acknowledged and good wishes for the future offered. At their worst, they can take an embarrassing turn, with ill-judged remarks or a temptation to settle old scores.

I recall one occasion, when a gentleman of modest stature and authoritarian manner was told at his retirement that he was an embodiment of Hobbesian principles. He seemed unaware that Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher, had described human life as "nasty, brutish and short".

As someone who has moved around a fair amount in the course of my career, I have been involved in a number of leaving events. I have, in the main, been very fortunate in my colleagues, and so farewells have given me a welcome opportunity to express gratitude for the support I received. I have usually tried to lighten the occasion with a touch of humour directed against myself.

Some readers may recognise the particular circumstances I wish to describe.

I had been head of department in a university involved in a difficult merger. My relations with my immediate colleagues had been generally good, though less so with senior management (that, I'm afraid, has been a recurring theme of my career).

The department operated on two campuses, a situation that was far from satisfactory, and I spent my time shuttling between them. I began to think of the two sites in terms of television situation comedies. At my leaving "do" I revealed this to my colleagues for the first time. One site I referred to as Fawlty Towers. I explained that I was never quite sure which part I played - often Basil Fawlty, the hopelessly inept hotel owner; sometimes Manuel, the harassed Spanish waiter; and occasionally Sybil, Basil's long-suffering (but acerbic) wife.

The other place I referred to as Grace Brothers, the department store in the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? I did think of trying to cast my soon-to-be ex-colleagues in some of the leading roles - the camp Mr Humphries, Captain Peacock and Mrs Slocombe.

However, I decided - wisely, I think - that this might cause offence and confined myself to appropriating a part for myself. I said I was "young" Mr Grace, the aged owner of the store who was constantly on the point of medical collapse, only to be revived by the attentions of attractive young ladies. Regrettably, this last scenario bore no relation to the truth, as the laughter with which it was greeted amply testified.

Despite my frivolity, there is a serious side to leave-taking. We are familiar with the importance of praise and celebrating achievement in motivating young people. Such recognition is also appreciated by adults.

We are also aware of the significance of rites of passage in the transition from primary to secondary school and at the end of compulsory schooling. In American high schools, the "graduation" event has been long-established.

For adults, too, marking the end of one phase of professional life before embarking on the next is valuable both for the individual and the institution. It provides an opportunity for reflection and stock-taking, and a stimulus to tackling the challenges that lie ahead.

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