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Ping pong, peons and the paper

THERE was, for a time, a small group of BT interns that called ourselves the Ping Pong Peons. Alliteration was unquestionably the top priority in our christening, but we also fancied the double entendre the name offered. Firstly, we were certainly enslaved to our daily fix of ping pong, so it aptly captured our table tennis obsession.

But read as "peons who happen to play ping pong", the moniker became a reference to the suffering-intern stereotype that was actually ironic. Rather than suffer through our internships, we found a workplace both welcoming and fun - an atmosphere created very much by the ping pong table housed in the BT recreation room.

The table arrived in BT a few weeks after the first peons did, an impulse buy by a pair of bored BT journalists (the rumour has it that it was the news editor and the office's chief entertainment officer) after a few ping pong sessions at the common SPH table located some floors beneath BT.

Though it was a humble second-hand purchase lacking the quality and high-gloss finish of the SPH table, BT's ping pong table shaped our relationship with the newsroom immensely. Before being introduced to BT's table, none of the peons played ping pong with anything resembling regularity. But it quickly became something to look forward to at lunch during slower days, and as a break on the longer ones.

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It's easy to see why.

Though the confines of BT's rec room denied true mobility - one side is honour-bound not to smash the ball, while the other cannot serve to a particular corner where the wall juts out if paddlers want to be considered sporting - the table provided short bursts of fun exercise during otherwise sedentary days of phone calls, reading and typing. And the lousier a player you were, the more stray balls you would have to exert yourself picking up.

The steady rhythm of a casual ping pong rally also made a great soundtrack for conversation, and the peons collaborated to coin some of our best (or worst, depending on how you see it) headline puns with paddles in hand.

But casual ping pong dialogue invariably turns to trash-talking your opponents. I think this was truly beneficial to a handful of interns adapting to a new environment, as the back-and-forth bred an accelerated sense of familiarity. When a full-timer is comfortable asking two male peons why they didn't register in the women's doubles for BT's internal tournament, and the interns can retort that they feared she wouldn't be able to take losing to interns again, having already done so on the basketball court, it feels like they have known each other for far longer than they actually have.

We also got to know our colleagues and fellow interns beyond their work capacities, and whatever rigidity there is to interactions with these capable people outside the rec room tends to break down after you have seen them inside it.

One plays ping pong in a T-shirt, shorts and black dress socks and shoes; one makes inappropriate, involuntary moaning noises when hit by the ball; another dances to distract the opposition between strokes; yet another uses "chicken backside" as a profanity; and the chief entertainment officer commends her own strokes with praise so superlative that, if received from anyone else, it would have to be consumed with sarcasm.

The tabletop antics have also produced tangible, work-related benefits. There is usually little reason to roam around the newsroom, so ping pong brought together people who would otherwise never meet.

For example, working with one particular sub-editor for the first time was especially comfortable - he may have been a stranger in a working context, but I already knew him as the hero with the divine gift of trapping errant, whizzing ping pong balls between his chin and neck.

It was ultimately these characters that brought the table to life, even if the peons - who mostly ended our internships last week - made jokes about ping pong withdrawal symptoms that testified to how fun the game itself is.

Much of that fun was derived from knowing that your next doubles partner could come from any department or age group, that you could join a game with journalists, photographers and editors alike, and that these professionals were fully prepared to let their hair down and have a good time - attitudes that weren't confined to the rec room, but reflected a larger culture.

So, it never really mattered that ours was a used table that bore not one, but four suspect brands on its sides and routinely, inexplicably and noisily jettisoned one particular screw - a ping pong table is only as good as the people playing on it.