I’ve been musing on Parkinson’s Law. Not the famous one (“work expands to fill the time available”) but another from the same book: Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. “The time spent on any item on the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” (If you’re wondering what this has to do with high heels, fear not: we’ll get there in a moment.)
Here it is in action, in a chapter called “High Finance”. A group of men – this was 1957, remember – meet to approve spending plans. The items on the agenda are:
- An atomic reactor. Cost: £10,000,000. Most of the committee don’t know enough about atomic reactors to have an opinion, and some don’t even know what one is, so they keep quiet. Of the two people who do know about atomic reactors, one suggests they should change the expensive consultants already employed and go back to the drawing-board. The other is so daunted by the prospect of having to explain everything to everybody that he decides not to comment. Agreed spending: £10,000,000. Time taken – two and a half minutes.
2. A bicycle shed. Cost: £350. Several members who kept silent because they knew nothing about atomic reactors now feel that they should start pulling their weight. “A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50.”
3. Refreshments at meetings. Cost: £21 a year. “Now begins an even more acrimonious debate… every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter…”
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality was a great comfort to me when I had a job recording the minutes of committee meetings, but only recently did I see its application in a wider sphere. And this is where the high heels come in.
I have to admit to being something of a Facebook addict, and as anyone else on Facebook will know, the political storms over recent months have resulted in furious postings from all sides. Sensible questions, valid warnings and the sharing of genuine news have often been drowned out by the sound of name-calling, and discussions have frequently descended into bitter squabbles involving CAPITAL LETTERS and ‘unfriending’. Sometimes I feel there are crowds of people shouting at each other in my living room.
Have I backed away? Of course not. It’s gripping stuff, and it affects all of us. Many of the fundamental assumptions of Western society have been called into question. People are passionate because this matters. I have enormous respect for my articulate, clear-sighted, committed friends and am grateful to them for keeping me up to date. But have I contributed much to the debate? Er… no. Even though Downie Towers has rung to the sound of my ranting in the kitchen, and the number of comments I have started to type and then deleted would fill a small book.
I feel as though I should contribute. One should do one’s bit. So I click ‘like’ on things that I, er, like, and occasionally manage to get the end of a comment and press ‘post’. In the real world, I vote. Sometimes I sign petitions. I write to my MP. I have even been known to march through the streets in support of a good cause. But I tend not to engage in debate with strangers on the Internet. Like the atomic reactor, I feel the cut and thrust of “live” political debate is beyond me. Some people may feel I should speak up. More people may feel there are plenty of opinions on the Internet already.
And yet I feel I should do… something. Say something about something. So when this came up on the BBC website, I found myself latching onto it like a drowning sailor with a lifebelt. At last, a subject I fully understood. I am, after all, the woman who once broke a bone in her foot by falling off her own shoes. I am the woman who tottered around in agony at her son’s wedding because she had found the perfect pair of shoes but didn’t have the perfect pair of feet. Don’t get into an argument with me about the merits of forcing women to wear high heels, because you will lose. Yes! At last, something I could post on Facebook!
Until I did. And then I looked at it, and thought, dear lord. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and you’re posting about shoes. I deleted it, and wondered what was the matter with me. Then I realised. It was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in action.
Friends, please feel free to comment. But anything political will be deleted. Apparently I can’t cope.