I have just spent a week working on a farm owned by gypsies, in a remote part of the Weald that seems to have its own subarctic microclimate. On the first day I wore a t-shirt, corduroy shirt, Fair Isle sweater and fleece, thinking that this would be perfectly adequate.
By yesterday, I had so many layers of clothing on that I moved like an Apollo astronaut. This made it difficult to sort through the boxes of books that were housed in a barn, but at least my teeth were no longer chattering.
Perhaps the most useful things I bought with me were a Russian hat - particularly important if you're thinning on top - and some antibacterial handwash (some of the boxes have rat droppings in them). Next week I'll also have some skiwear, so I should be okay.
The other morning I was alone in the barn when a ruddy-faced man appeared at the door and started talking to me about the state of the floor. I politely said that it was nothing to do with me and continued sorting through the books, but he didn't take the hint.
After telling me the same thing for the third time, he introduced himself as Bob and I caught a very strong whiff of alcohol. My heart sank. This wasn't going to be easy.
For the next hour I tried to get rid of Bob, but the drink had reduced his short-term memory to four seconds and he seemed to be operating on a loop, reintroducing himself to me every few minutes. In the end, I gave up and said I was going home.
The next day the owner of the farm came up to me. "I see you've met Bob then." I nodded. He shrugged his shoulders, adding "Well, he is what he is."
I liked the owner's philosophical attitude. As far as he was concerned, as long as Bob got the job done, that was all that mattered. It was such a contrast to the modern workplace, where HR departments rigorously do everything they can to observe employment law and equal opportunities legislation, but often end up with an environment that doesn't accommodate people's eccentricities.
I think that this is due to a blurring of the line between the public and private parts of our lives.
In the 1950s and 60s, my parents worked at the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank in Kew. It was a huge building that employed hundreds of civil servants in vast offices, lined with rows of desks.
According to my parents, the bank was run in an uncompromisingly strict way. Lateness and absenteeism were not tolerated and people's personal circumstances were regarded as irrelevant. When I was born, at 3.30pm on a cold March afternoon, there was no question of my father being allowed to leave work an hour early, or even make a phone call outside the allocated break times.
What a contrast to today's workplace.
But there was an upside to this. If your personal life was irrelevant, it also followed that there was no attempt to own your soul. As long as you were punctual, diligent, hard working and honest, your political views and personal opinions were of no interest to an employer. It didn't matter whether you were a team player and believed in 'brand values' or not.
As a result, the Savings Bank employed a selection of people that was, in many ways, more 'inclusive' and 'diverse' than many modern workplaces. That's putting it politely. All human life was there, from battle-scarred war veterans to people who would now be diagnosed as autistic. The one thing they all had in common was an aptitude for numbers.
My mother said that her colleagues were usually quite circumspect about their personal lives, but when you worked with the same people year after year, little snippets of information gradually built up into a whole picture.
My mother knew that Mr Fortescue occasionally had blackouts and thought he was back in the Burmese jungle. She also knew that Mrs Clutterbuck was afraid of being contaminated by germs and that Miss Snellham and Miss Havering had a 'funny friendship' (my mother's expression). But it was no-one's business. Privacy was respected.
There was one notable exception - my mother didn't know that Mr Christie in room 17B was a serial killer (a man that my father described as "a very quiet chap who kept himself to himself"). That was one example of a private life being a little too private.
I wouldn't want to turn the clock back. I'm grateful that there is legislation that protects people from discrimination and recognises that their personal circumstances should be accommodated, wherever possible. I'm glad that Miss Snellham can now expect compassionate leave if Hiss Havering's mother dies.
But I do mourn the loss of a private life and a growing culture of conformity that would have branded some my mother's colleagues as unemployable.
When the last company I worked for created a human resources department, the new HR manager decided that she needed to foster a 'team' culture. Weekly meetings were set up, with the most excrutiatingly embarrassing team-building activities: "Okay, today I want you to write what each person's strengths and weaknesses are on a post-it note and stick it up on the wall..." (apparently I was 'friendly' and 'polite').
We were also asked to talk about our personal lives. On the one hand, I was moved to discover that a young man in the warehouse lived in a family of drug addicts and loved his job because he wanted to make something of himself, but I could also see how uncomfortable he felt.
I liked the HR manager and respected her motives, but felt terribly exposed by her attempts to make us bond.
Do we always need to have a team spirit in the workplace? What does it actually mean? A culture that once valued experience, honesty, diligence, reliability and maturity has been replaced, in some workplaces at least, with one that rewards conformity, youth, extroversion, enthusiasm and energy. We need a balance between the two and a recognition that a bad team player might nevertheless be a valued employee.
We've legislated against racial and sexual discrimination. Now it's time to protect those who are shy or just odd. Don't make them go tenpin bowling unless they really want to!
We also need to redraw that line between the personal and the private.
Perhaps I'm just saying this because I'm now in my 40s, well on the way to becoming an old git. How can I compete with a 22-year-old who is "hungry for success" (a friend of mine recently heard a young colleague say this without a hint of irony) and untainted by the experience of working for tossers?
Luckily, I'm self-employed, but the tiniest possibility that one day I could find myself in a room full of people again, talking earnestly about 'brand values' (or even worse, a 'brand wheel') still brings me out in a cold sweat.