Thursday, 26 February 2009

Return to Victorian Policing for the UK?

I was intrigued to read that the so-called 'think-tank' group, Reform is advising that the UK move back towards the police structure that Britain had in the Victorian era, well, really up to 1942 Defence (Amalgamation of Police Forces) Regulations for southern England and the 1946 Police Act for most of the rest of the UK, though not really completed until the 1964 Police Act. If we go back to the date for which I have best figures, coming from my work on the Great Unrest we find that in 1908 there were 197 police forces in England and Wales (plus 48 in Scotland where mergers began in 1930), primarily because many towns had separate forces to those of the counties around them. For example as well as the Kent County Constabulary there were separate forces, until 1942 in Dover, Folkstone, Maidstone, Margate, Ramsgate and Tunbridge Wells. Thus, a criminal could skip across seven jurisdictions without leaving the county. Back in 2006 the government attempted to take the 1942/6 and 1964 developments a stage further and combine the current 43 constabularies in England and Wales (Scotland now has 8 constabularies; Northern Ireland has always had only one) into 17 so-called 'super-forces' though this initiative failed primarily as people felt they would be too far from the central organisation of their police units.

Forming large regional groupings was trying to go into the opposite direction to what most trends in Britain have been doing certainly since the 1995-8 with the establishment of local government unitary authorities which fragmented a county like Berkshire into four pieces and the recreation of the tiny county of Rutland in 1997 which has only two small towns Oakham and Uppingham. I have often noted how the British cling to outdated, often impractical, elements because they have no pride in anything contemporary. This is why it is taking so long for imperial measurement to die out, despite the fact that nothing else has been taught in British state schools for over 35 years. The British like the quaint and the old fashioned in favour of anything larger or more efficient. Interestingly Reform argues that smaller forces are more efficient and wants to introduce an additional 52 constabularies, raising the number to 95, a figure not seen since the 1940s. They argue that senior police officers effectively form an oligarchy, so I think they imagine that having an additional 52 chief constables would widen the intake a bit.

Another interesting thing is their reference to the Metropolitan Constabulary as being de facto the national police force and rather than the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) formed in 2006, that the Metropolitan force should take on formal responsibility for tackling such things. Again this is no different really to the pattern of the early 20th century in which detection of serious crimes such as murder was often handled by someone sent down from Scotland Yard and for dealing with riots Metropolitan police were often sent in as the only other alternative was the Army.

I suggest Reform look back to the experiences of having numerous constabularies. One key problem was the small size of these forces. In 1911, some towns such as Tonypandy in Wales would only have eight policemen all told and Hull despite being a port and a large city only had 5 mounted police. Given that we are seeing cutbacks in constabularies in an effort to cut costs. The rural county of Dorset is shedding 50 police; next door Hampshire which contains the port cities of Portsmouth and Southampton is dropping 100, more suburban Surrey is reducing by 144, 80 from Gwent in Wales and 120 from County Durham. This follows on from the fact that 19 constabularies cut police numbers in 2008. Now, if you increase the number of forces by 120% then each force will have 45% of the police they had before. I know they will have smaller areas to police and I hope that Reform has divided up the country on a rational rather than nostalgic basis, but it would mean a lot of fragmentation. In addition, each new force will need a Chief Constable and deputies and all the staff associated with those roles, so the smaller forces will actually lead to fewer frontline police officers.

So, as in 1911 we will see a plethora of small forces and a return to the dependence on London to supply detectives and probably riot police too (which given police predictions of civil unrest this Summer in the wake of the recession, this is an issue to consider). In 1911 local forces were overwhelmed. Some were able to draw on deals they had made with other constabularies, such as Liverpool bringing in police from Leeds and Birmingham, but this leads to a very complex pattern of command. I have noted the reluctance of the British population to see their local forces merged with those of neighbouring areas, back in 1911, for example in Cardiff, middle class people turned out to assault Metropolitan police brought in to help control the rioting as though they were not involved in the strikes occurring at the time, they had a violent hostility to 'foreign' police being used in their city. It became typical for 'imported' police to remove their insignia that showed which constabulary they belonged to. I did wonder during the 1984-5 Miners' Strike if officers not wishing to be the focus of complaint was only part of the reason for them concealing their insignia or whether deep in police forces there was still this guidance about revealing the origin of imported police, as, during that strike, police were bussed in from all over the UK to strike areas.

I would be intrigued to see on what basis Reform feels smaller forces are more efficient. I would suggest that they pay at least some attention to the history of the forces in the UK before making these sweeping statements, which whilst in line with recent tendencies in this country towards parochialisation could cause real problems especially as we might be heading towards a period of unrest not unlike that of the 1910s and certainly resembling that of 1981-5.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

'Alien to British Culture': A Myopic View of Britain's History and Society

I have just started reading 'The Strange Death of Socialist Britain' (1992) by Patrick Cosgrave (1941-2001). I read the book that inspired the title of 'The Strange Death of Liberal Britain' (1935) by George Dangerfield which I read about eight years ago. Both books look at how and why what seemed to be the political and even social consensus of an era faded away. Dangerfield was looking back to the period of 1906-14 in which the Liberal Party was in power and brought about social welfare reforms. In addition, there seemed to be a consensus about a liberal society and democracy which following the First World War and the dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s, people were nostalgic for. However, as Dangerfield shows that despite the popular image, in fact Britain of the early 1910s was facing immense social upheaval with pressure from organised labour, female suffrage supporters and those seeking an independent Ireland, that some feared the country was verging on civil war or a revolution.

Cosgrave looks at a different period, stretching from 1945 victory the Labour Party and the mixed economy and welfare state that was created and seemed to be accepted right across the political spectrum up to the end of the period of Thatcher in power and the unexpected defeat of the Labour Party in the 1992 election. That period is seen as the last gasp of Socialism in Britain and Labour was only able to come back to power in 1997 by turning into a post-Thatcherist party focused on an individual. I have long argued that the Labour Party, not even New Labour, came to power in 1997, rather, the Blairite Party came into office along the lines of a Gaullist or Peronist party seen in other countries. Of course the current economic crisis with the governments of the UK and other countries taking over banks and companies suggests that maybe Socialism in practice is not entirely dead.

Given that Cosgrave is a biographer of Margaret Thatcher, Lord Carrington, Enoch Powell, R.A. Butler and Sir Winston Churchill, I was not expecting a liberal or left-wing appreciation of the period under scrutiny. However, even given that it was written at the time when Thatcherism seemed to be scattering all rivals to the winds it seems an astoundingly narrow, almost deluded approach. Cosgrave goes beyond anything the Thatcher regime voiced. It soon becomes apparent that he feels that the loss of the British Empire 1947-80 or there abouts as being a huge error and that in some way Britain should have clung to its colonies, not least, because independence only led to dictatorship and wars, of course neglecting the reasonably peaceful development of India, the most populous of Britain's former colonies after the 1940s. Cosgrave wants all or nothing. He did not want the colonies to go and yet he sees the Commonwealth, the looser connection between elements of the former British Empire as a huge error too, but more on that in a minute.

Now anyone who believes that Britain (or any European state) could have clung to its empire in Africa and Asia has absolutely no idea of history. If the American War of Independence 1776-83 and Spain's loss of its American colonies in the 19th century show nothing about trying to keep hold of colonies as they mature, then Cosgrave and others should simply look to the experiences of those countries who did try to retain their colonies beyond the due time. Not only does it ignore the ongoing conflicts in many colonies in the 1880s-1910s but also what happened after 1945. France fought in Indochina effectively 1945-54 and in Algeria 1954-62. These conflicts led to over 178,000 locals and French dying and another 225,000 being wounded; torture was used and there were massacres in Paris in 1961 and in Oran in 1962. It also came close to plunging France into a civil war 1958-60. Is this the kind of experience Cosgrave wanted for Britain? Another example is the Portuguese Colonial War 1961-74 between the colonial power of Portugal which had held colonies in Africa for over 400 years, far longer than Britain, and the states of Mozambique and Angola fighting for independence. This killed untold thousands of locals, over 8000 Portuguese troops and led to the displacement of over a million people. Even closer to home, it can be argued that Britain's continued occupation of Northern Ireland (and I know this is a controversial argument as many argue that that state is entirely a part of the UK) but that conflict from the start of the 'Troubles' in 1969 to 1998 led to the death of over 3000 people and brought the conflict to mainland Britain in bombing campaigns. Does not Cosgrave understand that if Britain had tried to cling to every colony it would have suffered such an experience many times over. Perhaps he wants a police state under martial law, because that is the kind of UK you would have ended up with if Britain had not let its colonies go, not some kind of paternalist dream he seems to subscribe to.

Then Cosgrave has a problem with the Commonwealth, well as he puts it, not the entire Commonwealth but the ''new' or coloured Commonwealth'. He feels it was wrongly constructed because it permitted free immigration of people from those countries to the UK and so leading to 'large pockets of immigrants alien to British culture'. Now that is poor analysis and basic bigotry on so many levels. For a start he seems to think that immigration to the UK started with the arrival of the ship the 'Empire Windrush' in 1948, whereas of course people have been moving into the UK for many centuries. People came from Africa and the Middle East with the Romans and right throughout Britain's involvement with the slave trade. Refugees from France came in the 16th century and refugees from China and Russia were coming through the 19th century. Too many people look in askance when a television series does not show an all white population in Victorian Britain especially in the cities, but of course an all-white population is simply a myth it was never like that as you can see easily from paintings of the time. The Commonwealth did not create immigration, in fact it made it harder to immigrate into the UK. Under the British Empire at its height, an era when passports were restricted to those autocracies like Russia and the Ottoman Empire, people moved freely around the empire. They might face prejudice but at that stage there were not legal restrictions.

Like many people Cosgrave makes the mistake that the British Nationality Act of 1948 somehow opened doors that had been closed. In fact it simply regulated relations between countries that were now not part of an empire but had a different, increasingly independent relationship with Britain. Decades after the Republic of Ireland was formed, Irish people still have rights to stand as candidates in the UK and vote, and a whole raft of rights as if we were still connected and not two sovereign states. What would have been Cosgrave's alternative to the evolving Commonwealth, to say 'well, yes, I know we conquered you, exploited you, messed up your economy and got you to fight in our wars for us, but I am sorry, we owe you nothing, you have no right to come to the UK'. To have closed access in that way would have seemed incredibly mean-spirited and Cosgrave forgets that even Conservatives of that era did not see the world in the harsh terms that he does. Those countries such as France and Portugal who fought bitter wars of decolonisation, even they formed communities with their former colonies, so Britain would have appeared peculiar not to have done the same. Of course Cosgrave's 'me first' attitude to the states of the Commonwealth is the same as his attitude to workers too.

Cosgrave forgets that economic migration works like a lot of economics through supply and demand. Immigrants would not have been brought to the UK (Enoch Powell himself despite his racism, brought West Indian nurses to work in the health service) if there were not jobs for them. Cosgrave forgets that until the economic crises of the 1970s, Britain like most of western Europe had 'full' employment (usually reckoned to be 92-97% of the working population in employment, there is deemed to be a need for 'transitional' unemployment as people move between jobs) and that was with the immigrants he loathes. Britain without immigration would (as it had done in the late 1940s when it experienced labour shortages in many key industries) have faced difficulties in its transport, health and retail sectors in the 1950s and 1960s. There were insufficient white UK people to do the jobs needed by the booming economy, especially at the wage rates employers were willing to pay. Cosgrave forgets this too, that despite of his love of the Thatcherite principle of a flexible labour force willing (or compelled) to work at the lowest cost to an employer possible, that low wages promote immigration. Cosgrave is clearly wrapped up in the attitude that the white British population shop accept its 'station' and do poor jobs at low wages and certainly not complain (he loathes trade unions as much as he does immigrants). It is noticeable how many Polish workers have returned to Poland now the British economy is suffering. Of course writers like Cosgrave believe there is something inherently attractive about Britain that we need to repel those unlucky not to have been born here from languishing in the wonders of Britain. This is, of course, why immigration into Britain in recent years has almost been matched by emigration of Britons especially to France, Spain, the USA and Australia.

Cosgrave also makes an error when he portrays the culture of immigrants to Britain as 'alien' to British culture. For a start, what is British culture? I have debated this before, but it is certain that it is not something static. Even if people have a nostalgia for a Britain of the past, it is an edited past (for example with the black faces and malnourished removed from the picture). British culture is diverse and constantly evolves. Immigrants have always been part of that and have been assimilated in the UK faster than in some other countries, Germany being a notable example. Of course immigrants by definition are people with 'get-up-and-go' as they have travelled hundreds or thousands of kilometres to get here. The passive people who accept their place in the world are those still back in India or Jamaica. By definition immigrants want to get on and want their children to become doctors and not work the long hours they worked. Of course this eagerness to shake up society and to pull your family up social levels upsets Cosgrave no matter what ethnicity the individual trying to achieve it. Here he again marks himself out from a strong strand of Conservative tradition which encourages the individual and their family (even Margaret Thatcher lauded families) to prosper and get on and sees the Conservative way as a better way to promote such advancement rather than the 'Nanny state' controls they associate with Labour. Cosgrave is a pre-Disraelian Tory and seems to favour a feudal hierarchy with no chance of advancement. Of course with his bigoted, racialist (as opposed to racist) approach he could not accept 'coloured' immigrants gettting off the bottom rung. In addition, many immigrant families whether they felt they should or because they genuinely believed in it, were stronger advocates of elements seen as being at the heart of British culture such as church attendance and sports like cricket than most white British families. Of course this stemmed from how such things were transmitted across the Empire and remain even now in the Commonwealth. In particular to speak of Commonwealth immigrants as being 'alien' to British culture is most misguided as their arrival here often speaks of their faith and adherence to that culture in a way that people arriving from other countries would find impossible.

I suppose I am not surprised that I picked up this copy of Cosgrave's book for £1 (reduced from £16.95). I was hoping for something that came close to Dangerfield's account and analysis and instead found a book which is even out-of-step with the contemporary Conservative view of society and recent history and tends towards being an attempt at a respectable history from the BNP (British National Party) perspective. Of course you can argue that the whole basis of his book is on a faulty foundation and that there never was a Socialist Britain. The welfare state built on the Liberal social welfare policies of the 1910s; Keynes was a Liberal and certainly not a Socialist and what we saw by the end of the 1940s was not Socialist economics with a directed economy, it was kind of Keynesian approach though prosperity meant many elements of Keynesianism were not needed until the mid-1970s. Nationalisation is seen as being Socialist economics, but again the approach adopted to nationalised industries was one of being at arm's length which was part of the problem and so the form was little different to the rationalisation of the railways carried out by the Conservatives in the 1920s or the muncipal gas boards of the 19th century. British foreign policy was not Socialist. Decolonisation was pressed most strongly by Franklin D. Roosevelt, US President and the Conservative governments oversaw far more decolonisation than Labour ever did. Labour was anti-Soviet and brought Britain into NATO and kept it out of the ECSC which formed the basis of the EEC and thus the EU. It was the Conservatives who moved Britain to participating in Europe. So, one can look hard for a Socialist Britain and not find one.

It would be more accurate to have titled Cosgrave's book, 'The Strange Death of Tory Democracy Britain' as what we saw from 1975/9 onwards was actually the overthrowing of the Disraelian tradition of the Conservative Party (which spent 48 years of the 20th century in power and another 20 years in coalition governments, usually in a dominant position) by the New Right and how far that marks a jump from the kind of society the party that tends to be in power most often in the UK wants to try to foster. Given that I would argue that we need another Attleean revolution now (i.e. a Liberal one) to deal with the financial crisis and its human consequences, it is important to blow away the false divide that authors like Cosgrave have put up and see in fact that we have experienced first the Conservatives then Labour be shorn of their social conscience so dumping us into a situation where greed dominated. As to rising bigotry, well that fills the headlines today and needs to be challenged by us all. Given that Cosgrave has irritated me so quickly I can imagine I am going to be stimulated to write more about this doyen of Thatcherism.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

We Expect You to Be Able to Walk on Water - Excessive Demands in Job Specifications

With the end of my current job less than five months away I am back into the pattern of applying for work. Of course I am doing this at probably the worse time possible. There are going to be so many more people out there seeking jobs. I have already accepted that given that all the jobs in my field seem to be in northern England or Scotland and I am living currently in southern England, that I am going to have to move yet again which will mean that by the end of 2009 I will be in the fifth house I have lived in since 2005 and the eighth since 2001. You can hardly say that I am not part of the flexible labour force, though of course half of those moves have been compelled by the landlord rather than me seeking work.

Anyway, having swallowed the fact that there will be yet more packing and unpacking, before that stage I actually have to get a new job. Of course, I have accepted that it means that I am likely to face a pay cut too, but again, I reckon I could probably tolerate a fall of £5000 (€5600; US$7100) per year, perhaps more, especially if I move to northern England and Scotland, where, bar from in expensive city centres, the cost of property to rent is cheaper than the South-East of England and some consumables are cheaper too. Against this willingness to be flexible is the fact that I am now over 40 and despite anti-ageist legislation, I know that in all fields employers prefer a cheap, young employee over an old, more expensive one. So I quite expect to be unemployed with only my £1400 redundancy payment to help me out, this would pay less than two months' worth of my mortgage, so house repossession is also likely.

Despite the fact that much of what I have currently could be gone by the Summer, I am persisting in looking for any job that I seem suited for. I am registered with online agencies and have weekly emails of vacancies. I also have friends and relations keeping their ears and eyes open for possible jobs too, just as you are recommended to do. At present I am being very positive and applying for posts that would actually be a promotion for me, though I may be deluding myself in that regard. The big challenge is the job specifications. I discussed some of this back in August 2007 when looking at the silly way so many companies behave when recruiting people. Now I am back to actually applying for jobs once more, I am finding many new examples and I am sure thousands of you out there have your own war stories.

I do wonder who writes job specifications. In most companies of any size the Personnel Department or Human Resources or whatever, is often involved and from my experience on that side of the process, have a great deal of input which usually slows down and complicates the recruitment process. These days there is often a standard pattern, with an outline of who you would be reporting to if you got this job and what functions the job entails, well that is fine, it is generally what you need to know. Sometimes there is a detailed description of the company and its history which if you were interested you would already know anyway, but some people insist on including as if they are going to set you a comprehension test on it. Then you get to the so-called Person Specification. This reminds me of people who go to dating websites and somehow expect that they can order a perfect partner who matches every item they tick or cross. In fact humans are more varied than that and do not fit patterns.

The idea behind person specifications is a sound one, that they break down the requirements of a job into bite-sized chunks against which the applicant outlines their abilities and experience. When applying for my second job in the civil service, the interviewer literally read out these and asked for a response which was then written down by the secretary, sometimes she would ask for another example too. It was incredibly mechanical and would have been better handled by completing a computer-based questionnaire. It is clear that these specifications are an aggregate of the wishes of a team of people, often coming from very different parts of the company. Many people involved in recruitment have set requests that they always ask for (particularly in terms of qualifications) which in fact bear no relevance to the job in question. I remember working with one colleague on recruitment who always insisted that the applicants must make use of time management software in their work. I suppose it is a good principle, but she simply kept asking about the use of this stuff and ironically none of the applicants used it. Asking for certain qualifications is more about the perceived status of the job than actually what the job entails. I am incredulous that I received application forms for managerial positions which ask me to list every exam I took in secondary school and which grade I got. I last took such an exam in 1984, what effect does whether I got a 'C' or a 'B' in 'O' Level Mathematics (an exam which has not existed since 1992), 25 years ago, have on how good I can manage a department now? It is just like saying that the overseas sales of the company in 2009 are influenced by the balance of payments or the exchange rates of 1984. For all the emphasis on skills, abilities and experience in person specifications, so many of the elements included are simply ritualistic.

Companies are conscious that their staff costs are often the largest single component of their outlay so they seek to reduce them, often below a level which permits the company to function most effectively. This seems to be particularly the case in the UK, which ironically has a low-salary economy, but certainly has the longest working hours of the EU. This is because so many UK employees are actually doing the job of 2 or even 3 people. I remember some jobs of the past that I have looked at that definitely seemed to include this. In particular in the late 1990s I remember a company in Norwich that wanted someone who could translate documents from German to English, establish a database, maintain an online presence and work on the helpdesk until 10pm when requested. In many companies these functions would be carried out by four staff, perhaps with some overlap, but to expect all of these skills to be wrapped up in a single individual for £16,000 per year (which even in 1998 was not a stupendous salary) either seemed that they had a precise person they simply wanted to give the job to, at a miserly rate if they indeed had all those skills or that the coming together of different departments had meant the stitching together of a Frankenstein's monster of a post. This was just one of the most extreme examples, but you see if constantly. Whenever recruiting staff I always battle to keep down the number of requirements on the person specification and ensure they are actually relevant to the job the person will do, not what people think the person doing that job does or wishes they would do.

Often the demands are contradictory. Even if you can read the coded language of person specifications it often conceals a turmoil behind the thinking of the recruiter. The most classic case of this I saw was when I worked with two colleagues on a panel to appoint a deputy to the fourth member of the panel. She was one of these people who bunged in loads of additional requirements, like so many managers, seeming to feel that a single employee could somehow radically alter the department and this in a 0.5 post not even a full-time one. Her specification wanted someone who could organise huge events, deal on a one-to-one basis with clients, maintain and further develop the website in new directions and carry out both secretarial and administrative roles on 2.5 days per week and the actual days altered week-to-week as the manager required, though she often gave less than 14 days' notice. We asked the manager if she wanted an assistant or a lieutenant. Now there is a difference, the former simply does what the manager asks and takes little iniative; the latter can stand in for the manager if she is not there and will develop new projects under her own steam. Anyway, the manager said she wanted a lieutenant. She had the chance to change her mind when we interviewed the applicants, one was like an assistant in personality and one like a lieutenant. The manager went for the latter who turned out to be incredibly hard working (often staying late and coming in at weekends despite being part-time) and advanced the department's provision and profile. Was the manager pleased? Of course not, she whined and complained that this woman was taking far too much initiative and being too brusque. She kept the woman on probation for 12 months longer than normal by which time the woman sensibly resigned. Of course the manager had in fact wanted an assistant, well, in fact a lackey, but had felt embarrassed to admit that despite it being offered to her. In addition, her own self-esteem seemed to matter far more than any benefits which accrued to her department.

So, even behind the over-stacked, contradictory person specifications there is often a whole extra layer of incompetence just lurking there. Now it is my turn for the first time in almost four years to start applying for jobs again. Fashions in recruitment seem to change pretty quickly, in my experience the acceptable style for a CV lasts two years, but person specifications are still around and seem to be much in the same style. Of course the companies I am applying to, may be simply lagging in terms of fashion. Person specifications usually have Essential (usually shown with an 'E') and Desirable ('D') criteria which are usually used to separate two very close interviewees. The former, in theory, are what you must have in order to do the job, though as noted above, in fact they are usually the requirements three people need to do three different jobs and it is unlikely anyone straddling so many skill sets actually exists. This is why you so often see re-advertisements with the company complaining that there were insufficient good candidates. It also helps explain why industry feels young people are under-skilled. This may be true in some cases, but no-one has analysed if in fact, the mismatch stems from companies increasinly wanting applicants who are made up of more than one individual's abilities and have years of experience in a newcomer to that labour market.

I was told that if you match 4 out of 5 of the E requirements then you should apply for a job. Of course many recruiters do not work that way, it has to be that you match 6 out of 5 (the sixth being the one they would have wanted to include but it was felt there were too many and you should know what the extra ones were) or otherwise you are hopeless. Recruiters are merciless in telling applicants when they feel they have wasted their time. (As an aside, you know how, especially in times of high unemployment you are advised to speculatively apply to companies that you think you could work for. When I did this one rung twice to tell me at length that 'this is not how things are done' and that I should know better. They thought I was lying when I said other very similar companies took my applications in good faith and in at least two cases in the past it had got me work). No-one ever applies for a job for 'fun'. There are far better things to do in a day than spend a couple of hours filling in yet another form and trying to draft what you are saying to the hundreds of requirements expected by the company. As applicants we take it seriously, it is a shame companies often do not do so too.

My last application was in response to a person specification. It had 18 E requirements and 3 D requirements, actually not a bad number. However, when you look at what they entail, they need a strategist, a process manager, a product quality controller, a staff performance/personnel manager, a market researcher and forecaster, a marketing manager and a researcher, and, of course, your bog-standard line manager and committee chair. Now, many of these skills do not actually sit well alongside others. In addition, if I was as good a marketing manager as they are seeking, I would be going for marketing manager jobs, not this vacancy and in fact that goes for most of the other types of post they are wrapping up in this one. I applied partly for the challenge of stretching myself across these different roles, but I anticipate they are going to be disappointed because this is not one job it is at least four if not more.

Setting unrealistic expectations is going to lead to disappointment and though the successful applicant will have done their best and try to fit with what is required, that disappointment that they are not the super-human that was desired is going to hang over them, as it did over my 2.5-day lieutenant colleague, and that is an appalling basis on which to start a working relationship. It also reduces effectiveness as managers squabble over the employee to make them come and do the role that they wanted and thinks they have appointed someone for, whereas 1-3 other managers also try to snatch the new worker thinking that the person was appointed to the role they felt they needed. The newcomer is left dizzy and their efforts are dispersed; they are at the whim of management changes and work that they have focused on might simply be declared unnecessary or irrelevant when a different manager comes to the fore. Thus, unrealistic, aggregate person specifications disconnected from the job in hand, not only make life difficult for applicants but also harm the company.

P.P. 17/06/2009 - I just encountered a new record for the number of requirements on a job specification. This one, which is actually a lower-ranked job than the previous record holder (36 Essential and 10 Desirable requirements). This one has a total of 38 Essential and 10 Desirable requirements. It is clear that whoever wrote the specification clearly cannot tell the difference between every task you might be assigned in the job and what the necessary skills are to undertake it. Whatever they might assume, there is a difference. To me all of this signals that more staff across companies need to be trained in how to recruit (and interview) effectively to save wasting their, the company's and the applicants' time.

Another phenomenon is that even with jobs which being advertised to the general public and are not internal posts, you are asked to show evidence that you have experienc of their particular, named committees, which not having ever worked there is impossible. This may be suggesting that really they only want internal candidates and yet have felt or been compelled to advertise more broadly, or, I believe more likely, that no-one has proof-read the specifications before they are sent out. For one the other day, which only had 20 Essential requirements, a number of skills were repeated down the page so responding to each in turn I found that I was repeating myself. It is a waste of time for the recruiters as well as for the applicants. Employers, please take far more care over your job specifications. In my experience, you can reduce your requirements by a fifth simply by removing duplication.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Dead In Seconds 3: Second World War Games

This is part of my irregular series of complaints about computer games for PCs. Playing computer games especially historically set ones is a major hobby for me. However, I get frustrated when many of them seem, particularly on the 'Easy' level to be impossible to progress without relying on cheats. Usually this seems to stem from the fact that there has been insufficent play testing so the user is eliminated in an arbitrary way or gets stuck in a situation in which you can only switch off the machine and either abandon the game or start again. Sometimes these flaws come from bugs. I was a big fan of 'Hidden and Dangerous' (1999) a game in which you had a squad of four commandos who had to carry out various missions in the Second World War. The storylines were interesting and the background authentic, but unfortunately filled with bugs so your brave men would die if they got on a boat as they fell into an engine or they got stuck in a look-out tower as there was insufficient room for them to stand up and they were also unable to crouch. I also liked 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' (2004) which had an excellent back story of vampire clans in California, but needed 23 downloaded patches for it to work and then put you up against so powerful enemies with minimal weaponry and armour that you very quickly became stuck.

Now, as I have noted on this blog, since having my computer rebuilt following that fake anti-virus virus which hit me and presumably thousands of people across the world last month, I have been re-installing different games to what I had before, working my way through the pile of games that I have bought over the years and never played. I found that another couple of games like 'Hidden and Dangerous', 'Commandos 2: Beyond the Call of Duty' (2001) and 'Commandos 3: Destination Berlin' simply would not install on my computer. As noted before I did manage to get 'Faces of War' (2006) and 'Codename Panzers: Phase One' (2004) installed and have been playing them. In both games you control a small unit of soldiers in the Second World War and in both you can plan campaigns as the Germans, the Allies or the Soviets/Russians. It is interesting how these companies separate what were called the Allies into the Americans and British (and sometimes the French Resistance) and the Soviets, though from the moment the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941, on Churchill's principle that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' if nothing stronger, they were all in it together. Officially China was also part of the Allies.

Anyway, I outlined how in 'Faces of War' I found it tough as your small unit was generally faced by whole regiments often far more heavily armed, but that as the Germans I completed the first mission to blow the Nijmegen Bridge, so preventing the war ending in January 1945. I then moved on to Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge and found my covert team, especially the snipers, not content to work cautiously, they simply ran up to the American front line and stood there while they were shot even if I kept calling them back. Meanwhile Rambo-like US soldiers in their shirtsleeves (despite the bitter 1944 winter) simply charged up escaping harm. I gave up on this scenarion but had plans to come back, thinking I could restrain my sniper and then if I eliminated the bulk of the troops on the US frontline, might stand a chance. Only, this time after Nijmegen I was sent back for tank training which I had already done. I did it again only to be sent back to Nijmegen, I was stuck in a loop not even with the chance of the suicidal Bastogne mission. I tried playing as the Soviets but had to go through all the basic training once again even though by now I knew all the controls perfectly and the Soviet troops were little different to how the German ones had been except they had worse American accents. This could have been a good game, but macho American stylings, plus flaws in the progression system rendered it pointless.

Now 'Codename Panzers: Phase One', though criticised for looking pretty old fashioned for a game produced in 2004 seemed to play much better. It reminded me of Talonsoft's 'West Front' (1998) with the same bird's eye view, though with greater detail. I quite like being able to role a clutch of tanks down some high street. You follow one character who has wistful diary entries before each scenario. I managed to get through as German Oberleutnant Hans von Groebel up to rank of Oberst and heavily decorated before being invalided out in late 1942 presumably so you did not have be on the defensive for the rest of the game.

I am now playing as Leutenant Aleksander Vladimiriov and got an appendicitis after the Germans were turned back from Kursk in 1943 and then only brought back to service in February 1945 for the assault on Budapest. I suppose this was to reduce the number of maps they need to create, but it seems a shame to have missed out such a chunk. Now, it comes to the problems of the gameplay. In Budapest I keep being blown apart by German forces I cannot see. Even if I run infantry in the building overlooking where the artillery piece or the concealed tank is, it remains invisible and I cannot fire at it. In contrast my soldiers and tanks who may be many streets away are hit precisely on the first shot by artillery, mortar and tank fire eliminating me immediately. You can go round clearing out every soldier from every building and yet you are still precisely targeted. Perhaps that all the staff at Stormregion who developed this are Hungarian and their quality checkers are German we have got this situation you get with US-produced games, in that you cannot really beat the Americans.

Perhaps the Hungarians cannot tolerate seeing Budapest fall to the Soviets (as it did in reality) though it does seem simply some flaw. I can accept 'fog of war' but nothing infuriates me more than people who are invisible to me, but can see right through building after building to hit me dead on. I do not mind games being tough, I just want them to be fair. It seems pointless in having the game with all the wonderfully drawn buildings and well-researched vehicles, if no matter what my skill, my strategy, my tactics, my planning, I am still going to be eliminated. Game makers do not seem to understand how disheartening it is and how unlikely we are to buy anything more from them. Though in this case as I got 'Codename Panzers: Phase Two' (2005) with it (primarily so I could play as a Yugoslav partisan), I cannot hold that particular sanction until I see something else of theirs.

To some degree I am pleased that the release of 'Empires Total War' has been delayed because if it lets them eliminate some of the flaws of earlier games (laser-guided medieval rockets, galleons equipped with radar and bullet-proof Mongol warriors) then I will be far happier especially, as atypically for me, I am going to buy it new.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Time Travellers and the Middle Ages

Beside Philip K. Dick (1928-82), Michael Crichton (1942-2008) is probably the science fiction author who has had more of novels turned into movies than any other. Well, he has had more full length novels adapted whereas Dick had more short stories used.

Dick had: 'Blade Runner' (1982) from 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968); 'Total Recall' (1990) from short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale' (1966); 'Confessions d'un Barlo' (1992) from 'Confessions of a Crap Artist' (1959); 'Screamers' (1995) from short story 'Second Variety' (1953); 'Imposter' (2001; short story 1953); 'Minority Report' (2002) from 'The Minority Report' (1991); 'Paycheck' (2003; short story 1952); 'A Scanner Darkly' (2006; novel 1977) and 'Next' (2007) from short story 'The Golden Man' (1954).

Crichton had: 'The Andromeda Strain' (1971; novel 1969); 'Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues' (1972; novel written with his brother in 1970); 'The Carey Treatment (A Case of Need)' (1972) from 'A Case of Need' (1968) - neither of these two are science fiction, but I include them here for completeness; 'Westworld' (1973, Crichton wrote the screenplay and directed it rather than it coming from a novel); 'The Terminal Man' (1974; novel 1972); 'The First Great Train Robbery' (1979 - Crichton directed) based on his novel 'The Great Train Robbery' (1975); 'Looker' (1981 - Crichton wrote screenplay and directed); 'Runaway' (1984 - Crichton wrote screenplay and directed); 'Jurassic Park' (1993; novel 1990); 'Rising Sun' (1993; novel 1992); 'Disclosure' (1994; novel 1994 too); 'Congo' (1995; novel 1980); 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park' (1997) based on 'The Lost World' (1995); Sphere (1999; novel 1987); 'The Thirteenth Warrior' (1999) based on the novel 'Eaters of the Dead' (1976) - set in Viking times; and 'Timeline' (2003; novel 1999).

Even in contemporary-set movies such as 'Rising Sun' and 'Disclosure' Crichton included elements which were technologically cutting-edge at the time, if less extraordinary than those of 'Jurassic Park' or 'Timeline'. I am sure we will see many more of Crichton's novels made into movies in the coming years. Anyway, this forms a rather distracted introduction to this posting. The reason is that having seen the movie 'Timeline' twice I started reading the novel. Friends have said how good it is, but actually I find it incredibly frustrating for a number of reasons, and I enjoy the plot of the movie much more.

The movie cost US$80 million to make and only took US$19 million in the USA because of condemnation by critics. It is an enjoyable film about archaeologists who using quantum physics technology created by a company called ITC, pass through a wormhole back to the castle and monastery in medieval southern France that they have been excavating. It turns out that an employee of the corporation that has invented the technology has made a career there for himself and causes problems for the time travellers combined with the fact that they arrive in the middle of a battle between French and English forces forming part of the Hundred Years War.

The direction of the movie was criticised. Perhaps director Richard Donner (born 1930) was simply getting too old and should have retired. Despite a strong record, his direction in this movie is poor in allowing the dialogue to overlap and become confusing and some of the actors to seem to lack conviction in what they do. There are criticisms of the extras, I read them described as 'bored union workers', in fact most were amateurs, people who do re-enactment for a hobby and are probably not used to being extras. Maybe this was an error.

The movie suffers from miscasting. Anna Friel is inappropriate as a French noblewoman and Billy Connolly just about pulls it off as the archaeology professor, but someone with more gravitas would have done better. With better direction we could have seen the quality of acting that he delivers in 'The Last Samurai' (2003) but instead he is on default setting, not bad but not good enough. Interestingly, two of the female characters in the novel, Kramer and Gomez are replaced by male characters in the movie. It would have been a better movie if rather than playing Robert Doniger, the US head of ITC, British actor, David Thewlis had been cast in the Professor Johnston role. In addition, as some critics suggested, if Marek rather than Chris was the hero of the movie, though this ambivalence between the two leading male characters is present in the novel too.

Paul Walker who plays Chris who in the movie is the son of Professor Johnston (in the novel is just another archaeologist), is particularly criticised. He is not a good actor, but even in the novel he is supposed to be a weak character concerned with trying to get off with women, which usually fails. In the movies we (well especially US audiences) cannot tolerate such a weak person in the lead. Walker is a poor actor put into the part of a man in a position to talk the blows. In the novel he is weak, but knowledgeable. In the movie he does not even like history and it seems foolish to send him back. Frances O'Connor is another poor actor and seems suited only for playing rather brainless American women and so is miscast as the archaeologist, Kate Ericson, who is also supposed to be a very competent rock climber, she looks like she would curse if she broke a nail let alone scale a mountain.

Many of the things that the movie was criticised for actually come from the peculiarities of the novel. People felt that for time travel there should be more effects. In some way the lack of effects reflects the methodology for the time travel as described in the novel, so you cannot really blame the director Richard Donner for that, though he did drive for low CGI content in the movie. Many critics were surprised that the time travellers gave no thought for the future consequences of their actions. However, from the novel, you know that Crichton believed there can be no future consequences of time travller's actions, certainly not in this universe. Unlike the travellers in the movie who simply move through our time, those in the novel go into a different universe, so whatever they do there will have an effect, but only in that universe, not our own. I dislike the fact that, because ITC have no way of reconstituting the bodies teleported through the wormhole (effectively 'faxed') we have to accept that the people that arrive are their exact replicas sent from a different universe where they have the capability to do the reconstitution at the end of the journey.

Aside from this different interpretation of time travel, which it is clear would be incredibly difficult to get across in a movie, there are other reasons why I prefer the story as it plays out in the movie rather than the novel. In the movie seven people are sent back rather than five. The two security staff are eliminated at the beginning so causing the damage back at base. In there are only three rather than four archaeologists, but it almost feels like it is an episode of the 'Keystone Kops' on paper. They simply run from place to place to place incessantly in the story and it gets bewildering. In the movie they are pursued regularly, but there are also moments of tranquility for the audience to catch up. In the novel almost every person who is met in the past is utterly cruel. In the movie some of this is retained as illustrated by the arbitrary killing of French archaeology student, Francois Dontelle (who does not appear in the novel) by Lord Oliver de Vannes (played by good actor Michael Sheen) brings this home. However, we do not need the constant cruelty that Crichton lays on so thickly and repeatedly in the novel. Ironically, he points out the sophisticated elements of medieval life and yet undermines this by suggesting that you could not walk a couple of metres without someone beheading you.

Crichton's novel also annoys me as he seems to subscribe to that horrible American attitude that hard times bring out the best in people. Chris in the novel goes from being a whimpering worrier to some macho-man, not as strong as his re-enactor friend Marek, but still, very different from what he was in the 20th century. This is a dangerous attitude to adopt. It smacks of the culture fostered by 'Iron John: A Book About Men' (1990) by Robert Bly that modern men are weak and useless and only by going back to primitive behaviour can they be 'real' men. This myth fosters that terrible American post-apocalyptic dream that after some disaster a simpler, better world would arrive which would be like frontier society and allow men to run around with guns being 'real' men. These sentiments in fact conflict with Crichton's portayal (presumably to instil drama) of an utterly cruel, brutal, arbitrary medieval society in which thinkers are slaughered and even the strongest (like Marek who can ride, joust, fight with a sword and kill) suffer.

As I have noted reviewers expect characters in movies to have complete awareness of all movie culture. A number ask had the characters not seen 'Back to the Future'? To some degree we could ask the reviewers if they think that physics actually works the way it does in movies? They seem to say that it must and anyone ignorant of movie physics is foolish. I suggest they check out the 'Hollywood Science' programme which puts numerous portrayals of scientific occurrences to the test. How do we know that the Bob Gale/Robert Zemeckis writing of time travel is any more or less accurate than the Michael Crichton one? Of course the reviewers had no knowledge of the novel and so could only criticise the movie. It does raise an alarming thought though, that audiences will no longer accept characters who do not have the same level of media awareness as themselves. Interestingly a French character might have had their view of time travel far more influenced by 'Les Visiteurs' than by 'Back to the Future'.

Saying all this, I like the fact that in the movie the actions in the past influence the future. There is a flaw in Crichton's novel, because for all he says about the different universes, Professor Johnston's spectacles which he dropped at the other end of the wormhole turn up back in our world. So I am glad to see in the movie that the severing of a character's ear and his subsequent marriage and the smashing through of a secret passageway are reflected in the archaeological finds of today. I suppose this is because I am a romantic.

Another criticism of the movie is the lack of issue over the languages people speak. Again the movie was hampered by what is written in the novel. In the book the travellers have earpieces that translate for them. Half of them have studied Occitan, the language of southern France and they know Latin. For a movie this would probably all seem too scholarly and anyway mainstream US and UK audiences loathe sub-titles or characters speaking in languages they do not understand. They would always prefer strangely accented English.

Crichton put immense effort into researching for the novel. The idea for it was triggered from real accounts of a medieval 'magister', an intellectual/inventor/scholar working in the Dordogne region and travelling with a group of assistants during the Hundred Years War and from this basis Crichton wove the story. However, even he makes some mistakes. We know now, that in contrast to the example illustrated in his novel, trebuchet siege machines work far better is put on wheels when firing rather than being flat on the ground. The movie is criticised for showing Johnston using Greek Fire, the formula for which has still not been rediscovered. Yet, again, this stems from the fact that in the novel, that Johnston creates better gunpowder and a far more flammable oil which is difficult to put out. They are not Greek Fire but they satisfy the lords seeking assistance; for the movie the explanation of these chemicals is simply termed Greek Fire.

It is a shame that flaws in the movie made it a flop. However, being based on the novel made it impossible to make a movie that contemporary English-speaking audiences would have willingly accepted. If Crichton had directed it the acting may have been better but viewers would have found it much harder to comprehend and it would have been purged of the romance and the genuine excitement (as opposed to repeated terrors) that are a part of its appeal.

Having read this novel and reflected on it, I began thinking about other stories revolving around time travellers to and from the Middle Ages. I suppose the era is a popular destination as it allows writers to get in more drama that is wrapped up in a style familiar to the audience. Of course the first entry in this genre is 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' (1889) by Mark Twain (there have been movie versions in 1921, 1931 and a musical version which I have seen, with Bing Crosby in the lead, in 1949; a stage musical version was first produced in 1927, an animated movie in 1970 and another live action one in 1989). It was published six years before H.G. Wells's 'The Time Machine' and has a non-mechanical method of time travel, like that found in novels such as 'A Traveller in Time' (1939) by Alison Uttley. In Twain's story, Hank Morgan is beaten up by one of his employees and wakes up in 528 CE, the time of King Arthur. He manages to survive and strengthens his position by using modern technology to the extent that by the end of the novel with 12 Gatling guns and a belt of dynamite to face down thousands of soldiers. Merlin is electrocuted when he touches a wire that operates part of Morgan's system. Twain was trying to dampen the late 19th century enthusiasm for their view of the medieval past, which was often inaccurate anyway, and which he felt had led to misguided men of the Confederacy to go to war under some illusion that they were a kind of modern knight (perhaps we still see echoes of this delusion in the post-apocalyptic dream noted above).

Morgan wins by using modern technology and advancing the abilities of the locals, a theme taken up in 'Lest Darkness Fall' (1941) by Le Sprague De Camp set at the end of the Roman Empire; 'The Cross Time Engineer' (1988), 'The High Tech Knight' (1989), 'The Radiant Warrior' (1989), 'The Flying Warlord' (1989) and 'Lord Conrad's Lady' (1990), 'Conrad's Quest For Rubber' (1998), 'Conrad's Time Machine' (2004) and 'Lord Conrad's Crusade' (2005) by Leo Frankowski featuring a Polish engineer of 1986 travelling back to help the Poles of 1231 against the coming Mongol invasion of 1241 by developing their technology. Whereas Twain's hero came into friction with the Catholic Church, Frankowski's, Conrad Stargard, assists it. In contrast to these novels in Poul Anderson's short story, 'The Man Who Came Early' (1956) - 10th century Iceland and especially Ford Maddox Ford's 'Ladies Whose Bright Eyes' (1911; revised 1935) - 14th century Europe, which was provoked by Twain's story, both see their heroes have an inability to alter technological development at the time.

Other movie jaunts into the Middle Ages have included the Disney movie, 'A Spaceman and King Arthur' (1979) in which a spaceman from the 20th century, Tom Trimble, and his replica, an android, Hermes, travel faster than the speed of light and end up at Camelot, though the high medieval rather than early medieval version usually shown. As in many of these stories, it is influenced by Twain's novel, and he uses his technology (which appears advanced even for the time the movie was made) to impress Arthur and he helps to defend him from a plot by Merlin to dethrone him. The movie is filled with British actors - Kenneth More is King Arthur, Ron Moody is Merlin and other British acting stalwarts like John LeMesurier, Jim Dale, Rodney Bewes and Pat Roach appear. Disney also produced 'A Kid in King Arthur's Court' (1995) about a boy thrown back in time to the 6th century by an earthquake. He assists the elderly King Arthur by using modern technology he has brought with him. The US movie features leading UK actors: Kate Winslet (born 1975) as a princess, Ron Moody (yet again) as Merlin though on Arthur's side this time, Joss Acland as King Arthur and Art Malik as a lord. Another Disney movie on this theme is 'A Knight in Camelot' (1998) with Whoopi Goldberg as a physicist going back to King Arthur's court and using her knowledge to predict an eclipse as in the Twain novel and subsequently as Sir Boss of the Round Table uses modern technology to defend the king. Paloma Baeza who appeard in 'A Kid in King Arthur's Court' is also in this movie; British actors are represented by Michael York as King Arthur and Ian Richardson as Merlin. Then there is 'Black Knight' (2001) which features Martin Lawrence (all of these three movies have had black US actors as the lead) as a worker at a medieval theme park who being knocked into a fake moat ends up in medieval England we assume, but there is a King Leo on the throne who has overthrown the previous queen, so this is clearly some alternate universe. He learns useful lessons about hard work and honour and getting on through education for when he is thrown back to 21st century USA. His burgeoning romance with Nicole (seemingly the descendant of the Victoria he met in the Middle Ages) comes to an abrupt halt when he is again thrown back in time to find himself in a Roman gladiatorial arena facing lions.

To some extent time travel stories to the Middle Ages are about reflecting on our own time. Crichton does this with even Doniger the entrepreneur noting how much of modern society rests on medieval roots. It also puts forward thoughts about whether our world is better than the past for being healthier and less brutal or in some ways worse, for becoming over-complex and in some people's views very 'weak'. Perhaps the only people we can ask to judge this effectively are those women who claimed to have memories of being Cathar heretics who were violently purged in the 13th century (featured most recently on 'Tony Robinson and The Medieval Reincarnation, shown 31st December 2008 on Channel 4).

The other side of the time travelling coin is the travelling of medieval people to modern times. Generally these scenarios are played for humour. The stories that I know in this regard are 'Catweazle' (1969 and 1971) about a down-at-heel sorceror, Catweazle (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Bayldon (born 1924) from 1066 travelling to contemporary Britain. There were two series (all now available to buy on DVD) in the first he arrives at a farm in Surrey and in the second at a stately home in Bedfordshire. Getting to grips with modern technology and the reaction of modern people provides much humour. The second series was aimed more at the US audience and unfortunately substituted slapstick humour and extended chases for the more involved stories and fish-out-of-water focused humour of the first series. The series does lead us to reflect on the elements of modern technology and how much we take them for granted.

These themes are also taken up in the movies, 'Les Visiteurs' (1993), Les Visiteurs II: Les Couloirs du temps' (1998) and the US remake of the first movie, 'Just Visiting' (2001). All of these movies star internationally known French actor Jean Reno and Christian Clavier (who along with the director Jean-Marie Poire was co-screenwriter). 'Les Visiteurs' was one of the most successful French movies ever. Its sequel was poorly received because of changes in the cast (though given how horribly squeaky Valerie Lemercier's voice is, it was quite a blessing to have her replaced by Muriel Robin and product placement in the movie, no doubt a consequence of the previous movie's success, notably for Nestle chocolate and Nesquik, Bosch car parts, Pizza Hut, KFC and Grand Marnier. The French movies feature the Count of Montmirail (Reno) who is cursed by a witch and consequently kills his fiancee's father, the Duke of Pouille. In an effort to correct his error Montmirail gets a wizard to send him and his servant Jacquouille (Clavier) back in time instead he is sent forward to the same area but in 1993. Montmirail finds his descendant, Beatrice (played by Valerie Lemercier), is still living there though his castle has been transformed into a hotel, which ironically is owned by a descendant of the Jacquouille (again Clavier). Beatrice thinks Montmirail is her long-lost cousin, Hubert and takes him in while he tries to find the way back to his own time. Anyway, humour results as the medieval men deal with modern technology. The second movie despite the flaws, is still very funny with comedy both in the 12th and 20th centuries of the same ilk as in the first movie. I felt it could have been wrapped up a little more neatly, the relationship between the Count and Jacqueline (Arielle Semenoff), daughter of the cousin Hubert and the hints of an admiration from Hubert's estranged wife, Cora, seem unresolved. Also we do not know if the corridors of time which have been causing plagues in the 12th century are ever closed. It feels as if a third movie was expected which as it never appeared, is a shame. Anyway, it is still a laugh.

In 'Just Visiting' the story is similar but set in 12th century England where the Count Thibault of Malfete (Reno) is coming with his servant Andre (Clavier) to marry the King of England's daughter, Lady Rosalind (Christine Applegate) but the Earl of Warwick tries to use a witch's potion to make the princess see Thibault as a demon, instead Thibault drinks the potion and kills his fiancee. Arrested for murder, Thibault employs a wizard who sends him and his servant to 21st century Chicago (where a chunk of the castle is on show in a museum). Here he finds his descendant, Julia Malfete (Applegate) works at the museum and is being exploited by her unfaithful boyfriend who wants her to liquidate the lands she has inherited in Britain and France. Again there is humour around the count and his servant misusing modern technology. US reviewers felt the humour in 'Just Visiting' was more family-friendly than the more crass humour of 'Les Visiteurs', but that is simply snobbery, aside from the joke around the servant's name being 'jackass', the jokes in the movies are almost identical.

Though these are comedy movies, there are underlying currents which are interesting and to some extent show up the differences between how the societies of France and the USA see themselves. Of course, they have often seen paralllels between the two in the past, but nowadays, I would argue there are more differences than similarities, something, that I imagine, Reno who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic is very conscious of. In 'Les Visiteurs', Montmirial is proud to see he has a descendant over eight centuries into the future. There is a lot of emphasis on the continuity of life in a French town, that local people have connections. He is disheartened his descendant is not as powerful as he was and has lost the castle, but seems reconciled to the differences. Importantly, learning of the French Revolution (referenced in 'Les Visiteurs II') Jacquouille sees that he does not have to be beholden to feudal rules and sets out to establish his own life in late 20th century France. The appreciation is for the continuities and differences in French society and of the potential that can come from a family going on.

Ther US perspective is different. To some degree it reflects the attitude to the Middle Ages that I noted in Crichton's work above, i.e. that these were times when men were 'real' men. Malfete's chivalry is contrasted with Julia's boyfriend Hunter. She is encouraged by her ancestor to be 'lion-hearted' and is taught to wield a sword. The correct path for her is seen as connecting back with her noble heritage and keeping the lands, and meeting a handsome Frenchman. To some extent rather antithetical to the 'land of opportunity' of the USA. However, that perspective by Andre who learns that in the USA anyone with wealth can have everything and lift themselves up to a life of luxury. This contrasts with the more meritocratic situation in the French movie, though there, Jacquouille's descendant is rather looked down upon by the Montmirials as noveau-riche, but he is the one who owns the hotel. Thus, the French version has a different view of the past, that it is important but there is no way we should really be apeing it, whereas the American version has a kind of idea that we need more medieval values in our current society and to some degree that does not mean opportunity through effort or merit, but, just as in the Middle Ages, through arbitrary things such as titles, a family name or wealth.

Have we exhausted our interest in time travelling to the Middle Ages? I do not think so. Though there are some examples that suggest that travel to other time periods may be becoming popular, e.g. the early 19th century in 'Lost in Austen' (2008) and I know there are thousands of people out there begging the BBC to release on DVD its excellent 1978 series of 'A Traveller in Time' featuring a 20th century girl travelling back to Elizabethan England. Please BBC, you can do it! However, for now, I think the ease of slipping into medieval settings and similarly the humour of medieval people coming here will mean we will see regular revivals of this kind of story. The challenge is always going to be balancing authenticity against what the audience feels it can comprehend, without then facing criticisms for anachronistic elements in the movie.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Blogging the Blog 8: Characters Come To Life

I advise anyone who is running a blog to do a search for your blog's name once in a while. Often I find references to this blog on other sites that I was oblivious to. Recently I was using someone else's computer and not wanting to connect my Rooksmoor identity to my real identity, rather than simply type in the URL which would then be left in their 'History', knowing that they use a different search engine to me so were unlikely to stumble over my searches, I simply searched it and then linked through. It was interesting to see who had referred to me. There were the references to my posting on 'It Happened Here' which I have mentioned. I was particularly pleased to see a reference from a Liverpool community discussion board to the section of my article on the Great Unrest of 1910-11 and I joined in providing a book reference and filling out some facts for one commentator who seemed to have mixed up some pre- and post-First World War events.

Of course it is not simply humans who reference your blog. There seem to be a whole slew of engines that go around listing links to topics that they think might be of interest. references this blog for my comments on Catherine of Aragon back in October 2007 and on counter-factuals in June 2008. Another such engine, Technocrati, has picked out a more recent posting, from last month, on restraining Wilhelm I whereas the Yahoo! Glue system seems interested in my posting this January about the assassination of King Edward VII. What is interesting is that my counter-factual speculations are listed alongside true historical content.

There is another set of engines, it seems, particular to Germany, though I imagine they have appeared elsewhere too, that goes in search of specific named individuals. The first one I came across was produced by about Ingrid Langen. It describes itself as 'a people directory made by users'. Though I have not had any particular interest in the topic, I have been made aware now that I am looking for a job, that it is important to be able to be found on the internet. This can work for you in two ways, graduates are warned about having nude or drunken pictures of themselves spread across their FaceBook and MySpace pages which will embarrass them when potential employers search from them online. Conversely applicants complain that companies that have none of their current employees on a site such as Linkedin, have no credibility and are clearly not worthwhile attempting to work for (though given the economic climate they may have to be less choosy). You are supposed to produce a blog. However, my given the atmosphere of closed minds and bullying I have revealed about my company it could be really detrimental to my career hence me speaking my mind but keeping my identity out of it.

Anyway, clearly PeopleMe (it is actually peopleme but that is difficult to make out in text like this) has Ingrid Langen as a member or perhaps wants her as a member and so asks any passing surfers if she has a blog, MySpace/Bebo/FaceBook/Xing, etc. spaces and if you have any photos of this woman. So how does that link to my blog? Well, it lists all references to Ingrid Langen and importantly references to parts of her name. This means it picks up a ragtag of stuff: the blog of Ingrid Glomp; a man called Gregor from London who writes in German on MySpace and has 'langen', the word for 'long' in one sentence and talks about an Ingrid in the next sentence; the Facebook site of Sigurd Langen, and then the (presumably) relevant LinkedIn spaces of an Ingrid Langen and a Dutch woman called Ingrid Langen de Kanter. You may ask why my blog appears in this very odd list and this is simply because I referred back June 2007 to Eugen Langen the man who constructed the Wuppertal monorail system, the Schwebebahn at the end of the 19th century. I do wonder if more internet systems are actually reading my blog than human beings are!

Looking through the search results for this blog, however, it became even more fascinating and suggested that the desire by society and in particular business to have everyone present on the internet and their details made available (presumably to sell to marketing companies) is leading them down uncertain paths. I found three names that were associated with my blog picked up by the People123 website, another German one. Again it is seeking details, telephone numbers, email addresses and photos of these people across social websites and other locations on the internet. The three people it picked up from this blog are: Werner Meinders, Patrizia Emmerich and Claude Goethals (to be accurate that should be Andre-Leon-Claude Goethals). Now, aside from many other real men in France, this Claude Goethals was a character, a French journalist, in my Beckmann story, 'The Ruthene'; Werner Meinders was another character, this time a 44-year old civil servant for the Bavarian Landesfinanzamt, in my story 'Reliable Witnesses' and finally, Patrizia Emmerich, a young woman living with her mother and grandmother in a block of flats in 'The Dead Landlord'. I try to avoid affectations in my writing because they can really hamstring a decent story. I did allow myself a small one with 'The Dead Landlord' and all the surnames of the characters are of movie directors or actors, many from Hollywood of the past 50 years.

The reason why these characters have been picked out from all the ones that appear in my story is because there are real individuals who have a place on the internet with these names or similar ones. However, what fascinates me, is that my fiction is adding elements to the accretion of data around identities on the internet. Does this mean that I might mislead people, if they do a quick search and find me having written a fictional character who is a civil servant or lives with her mother and they lazily associate it with the real person they are encountering. I trust that would not be the case. It does rather put a great deal of burden on online authors. I always try to get names for my characters appropriate not just to the country but also the time period. Names go through fashions very quickly and it is very jarring to read a novel in which historical characters have modern sounding names. Before the age of internet search engines, I used to read through the indexes of history books about the country I was writing the story about at the time and simply copied down the names of the people listed there. Thus, hopefully the names in the Beckmann series are appropriate for Germany of 1923 rather than Germany of 1973 or 2009. You have to be subtle as when you feature characters who are middle aged or elderly, you need to be looking for natural names of people when they were born 40-80 years, earlier, so for the Beckmann stories, names not only of the 1920s but also the 1840s-80s were needed.

In future I probably need to be more careful when I select names for stories that I am going to post online. Given how much fiction is made available this way whether on blogs, websites or as e-books, I imagine I am not the only one who has encountered this issue. Next time I write someone as a murderer, especially if they are a German character, I will make sure that I check the internet first so as to avoid tarring someone with such an accusation, at least in the eyes of these numerous searching engines. In reality there are some people who end up with names that become famous. In my career I have worked with an Alan Parker, a Diana Ross and a Michael Foot and many of us have probably known a Michael Jackson, none of whom are the celebrities who share their names which must make it a nightmare when trying to find that ordinary person's MySpace page. I suppose I worry a little that I will become like Emma Thompson's character in the movie, 'Stranger than Fiction' (2006) which did not get much attention but is well worth watching for the central idea. In it Thompson's character, Karen Eifel, finds out that the novel she is writing is shaping the life of a real man, Harold Crick and as the man is to die in the novel this puts her in a moral dilemma. So I hope that the reputation of no-one sharing a name of one of my characters ends up being tarred with what their fictional counterpart does. In our world where everything has to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered by internet tools if not by humans, then I can only hope that authors will not be held responsible for happening to select a particular name for a particular character who behaves in a particular way. Folks, it's fiction, no matter what your search tool might think.

P.P. - 11/02/2009: I was interested to find that my views on the dangers faced cycling on British roads was picked up, ironically by 'The Guardian' news blog last July:
My research on the Great Unrest has formed the basis of the best response to an question on this period, with a decent quote from my writing. I find some of the responses to these questions, even the ones picked as the best by the asker, often to be weird or inaccurate, but I can hardly complain in this case!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

UK Universities: Snobbery and Decay?

I am coming to think that with all the lazy analysis in articles in 'The Guardian' newspaper that I should top reading it. Then again, it is proving to be an excellent prompt for my postings here and without that I would lose out on the contentment I get from blogging. What does strike me, though, is that I post only in the evenings and in my other spare time. The resources at my disposal are only what I can locate on the internet and the occasional newspaper. I assume (possibly wrongly, but I do not think so) that anyone writing for a national newspaper even just as a columnist has access to more research resources than me and they are paid to do it, rather than as a hobby. This is why I call the analysis 'lazy' because they simply do not bother to bring together the information necessary to produce a well-informed article or column piece.

The focus of my irritation today is an article entitled 'Students have been sold a lie' (31st January 2009) written by Decca Aitkenhead. You would assume it was an article about the fact that graduates are gaining less of an advantage from receiving a degree that university and government publicity promised. However, instead you have a very snobby article denigrating the so-called 'new' universities. Before going further, it is worthwhile exploring the different designations of UK universities, the changes in which are part of Decca's complaint.

'Ancient' universities, i.e. pre-late 19th century: the medieval ones - Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the 'latecomers' (i.e. in the 1820s-30s), St. David's, University College London, Kings College London and Durham.

'Redbrick' universities established in the 19th century: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle (famously featured in the Channel 4 documentary series 'Redbrick') and Sheffield. The term 'redbrick' in common usage expanded in the 1960s to cover any university in a large UK city. An oddity in this category is Keele built in 1949 between the Victorian and 1960s expansions but generally now grouped with these earlier ones. Wikipedia wrongly puts it in the 'plate glass' category.

On Wikipedia I came across a term, I had never heard before: 'plate glass' universities, though apparently it was coined by Michael Beloff in 1968. These were built in the expansion of the 1960s. In my youth they were called the 'new' universities and then were lumped in with 'redbrick'. I suppose this new term is to distinguish them now from the newer 'new' universities, the post-1992 ones. Anyway this grouping includes: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick and York. They were on the edge of medium-sized towns/cities but on greenfield sites, for example East Anglia is on the fringes of Norwich, Sussex close to Brighton and Warwick next to Coventry. Beloff actually neglected many other universities that came in the 1960s expansion but that which we would include in this category: Aston, Bath, Bradford, Brunel, City, Herriot-Watt, Loughborough, Reading, Salford, Southampton, Stirling, Strathclyde, Surrey, Ulster. Again they fit the pattern of the ones above, e.g., Brunel on the western edge of London, Surrey in Guildord, Aston on the edge of Birmingham and Bath, Bradford, Salford, etc. in medium-sized cities. Some universities seem to be left out of these lists, notably those making up the University of Wales.

'New' or 'Post-1992' universities. For the history of these we have to go back to the 1960s with the expansion of higher education. Alongside the universities being built at the time were polytechnics. These were also higher education institutions but with a focus on technical and vocational subjects. They were often run by local authorities, which meant that they could be seen as simply extensions to local secondary and further education. This was despite the fact that many had origins dating back to the 19th century, such as London Polytechnic, established in 1838. They tended to offer 'ordinary' (as opposed to 'honours') degrees. The application process to them was separate to that of universities and people were able to apply to 5 polytechnics and 4 universities simultaneously. Polytechnics offered degrees at all levels including to doctorate. Unlike the universities which monitored their own standards of degree awards all polytechnics were monitored by the independent Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) which ran from 1965-92. Despite this the polytechnics (in contrast to institutions named this in France) were looked down upon as un-academic and inferior. In 1992 all the polytechnics became 'new' universities, though this term was applied more broadly. Those that had been polytechnics are: Anglia Ruskin, Birmingham City, Brighton, Bournemouth, Central Lancashire, Coventry, De Montfort, East London, Glamorgan, Glasgow Caledonian, Greenwich, Hertfordshire, Huddersfield, Kingston, Leeds Metropolitan, Lincoln, Liverpool John Moores, London Metropolitan, London South Bank, Manchester Metropolitan, Middlesex, Napier, Northumbria, Nottingham Trent, Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Sheffield Hallam, Staffordshire, Sunderland, Teeside, Thames Valley, West of England, Westminster and Wolverhampton. Others were formed from colleges (particularly art or religious colleges) and institutes: Abertay Dundee, University of the Arts, Bath Spa, Bedfordshire, Bolton, Buckinghamshire New, Canterbury Christ, Chester, Chichester, Cumbria, Derby, Edge Hill, Gloucestershire, Glyndwr, Liverpool Hope, University of Wales - Newport, Northampton, Queen Margaret, Robert Gordon, Roehampton, Southampton Solent, Swansea Metropolitan, University of Wales Institute, West of Scotland, Winchester, Worcester and York St. John. From 1992 they could all award their own degrees whereas previously they had often awarded degrees monitored by neighbouring universities.

Post-1992 the new universities have had very varied experiences, some proving very successful, others, notably Thames Valley University and London Metropolitan University (previously North London Polytechnic) facing grave problems (it did as polytechnic anyway). People tend to forget that Kingston and Westminster universities were ever new universities whereas Queen Mary, University of London gets lumped in this category despite being around since the 1880s.

Aside from these designations, the universities have grouped themselves into organisations which have become more important than which category they have put themselves into. The two most prominent groupings are the Russell Group of 'research intensive universities' including parts of the University of London (marked here [L]): Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial [L], Kings College London [L], Leeds, Liverpool, London School of Economics [L], Manchester, Newcastle, University College London [L], Nottingham, Queen's University Belfast, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, University College London [L] and Warwick. There is also the 1994 Group which seems pretty similar in purpose ('to promote excellence in research and teaching') it also has ancients and parts of the University of London: Bath, Birkbeck, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter, Goldsmiths [L], Royal Holloway [L], Lancaster, Leicester, Loughborough, Queen Mary University of London [L], Reading, St. Andrews, School of Oriental and African Studies [L], Surrey, Sussex and York.

Now Aitkenhead whines that potential students are being mislead by the suggestion that all universities are the same. Thus, she feels that the 'very people who are being targeted by university access expansion are those with the least chance of knowing what they are getting'. This is incredibly patronising, especially as even Oxford and Cambridge have made efforts to expand their intake. The average 13-year old regularly access Wikipedia as do their parents and if I can find information about the different standings of universities, does she think that someone considering going to a university (let alone parents who will spend thousands sending their child to university) will not take just a few minutes to Google the institutions they are considering? Even if they do not do that, she seems oblivious to the discussion that goes on at the school gate or in the Years 12 and 13 common room. We are all savvy consumers and will spend even more effort looking at universities than we would buying a car, a house, an ipod or a holiday. Aitkenhead misses the fact that whilst we have moved from the elitist system last seen in the early 1990s when only 6% of 18-year olds went to university to a mass-delivery system in which over 40% go, the expansion has been minimal into the lower social classes, it has simply been among the middle classes who whereas in 1985 might have sent one of their three offspring to university now see all three going. To think that anyone from any social class goes to university without care is a false assumption. In the 1980s you wrote away for printed prospectuses nowadays you simply access the pdf copy, but the choosing has not got any less careful.

Aitkenhead feels that universities are presented as all the same, but that shows how poor a shopper she is. Of course every university presents it best side. No university is going to say that 'we are in run-down 1980s buildings'; 'you will be living out in run-down Victorian terrace that is badly maintained' though that is an experience across the university sector. Portraying the University of Oxford accurately you would have to say, 'many of the rooms are medieval, the floors slant and there is no disabled access'; 'the central library' is poorly lit and cramped; there are few computer points and every time you step out you have to tackle crowds of tourists'; try using the London School of Economics Library and finding even a desk to work and the ground floor is noisier than a railway station.

At all universities there is bad teaching and poor courses as well as good ones. Aitkenhead bemoans of the 22% drop-out rate and this shows her poor research. Has she made any effort to look back to the 1980s or 1960s? Even then some courses were losing 30-40% of their students. Some universities such as Bristol were renowned in the 1980s for setting first term exams so hard that 10% of the students were removed before Christmas. She entirely neglects the fact that with 40% of 18-year olds going to university many more with mental health and other challenges are now arriving at university and finding it difficult to continue.

The thing that Aitkenhead seems to feel are only the problems of post-1992 universities are more widespred than she thinks. First she acknowledges that some of these universities are doing well, such as Manchester Metropolitan, are doing very well, and she could easily add Middlesex, Oxford Brookes and Leeds Metropolitan. However, she neglects that many Russell Group and 1994 Group universities have problems too. Her reference to violence (and 'town-gown' violence dates back decades, even centuries) neglects the fact that many old and new universities share the same town, Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan; Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam; Oxford and Oxford Brookes have campuses within sight of each other; Winchester and Southampton Solent have sites within a few minutes' walk parts of Southampton. These are just ones I have driven passed personally. The students of the different institutions live in the same streets, shop at the same shops and socialise in the same pubs and clubs, so face the same risks from crime and violence. This is more about the issues facing our cities as a whole than particular universities.

Aitkenhead says '[i]f middle class sons were dealing with fights outside their halls, their parents would be up in arms', they do and they are. This complaint makes a number of errors. First, all universities have middle class students. There is are some which have more and some which have more working class students, but there is no strict segregation. Students go where the course they want is run and where they can afford to travel to/live. Increasingly students from all classes are not travelling so far from home to attend university. Second why does she imagine working class parents are more passive on behalf of their children than middle class parents? Her whole article has this fantasy of cow-like, forelock-tugging working class people, blinded by the wonder of getting a child to university to the extent that they make no complaint. Perhaps she just thinks they are not articulate enough to complain. Has she been to any school recently or even read any education articles? All schools and universities face challenges and demands from parents, often very vigorous ones, and again there is no distinction in class for this intervention. Surely Aitkenhead must have read the articles about how much more involved parents are in their children's education; universities now put on special events and produce publications for them, something they never did in the 1980s. People are up in arms about these issues. Aitkenhead: ave you never even bothered to access any parently discussion boards? Have you heard of researching an article? It consists of more than sitting in a pub listening to friends whine.

Aitkenhead's snobbery continues. She speaks of a student from a photography course facing £25,000 of debt. There are students from all sorts of courses and all sorts of university with such debt. I have been discussing the problems that that brings on this blog on and off for the past two years and Aitkenhead could have found references to it from her own newspaper amongst many others let alone from online and broadcast sources. In fact if you go to a more upper market university you could find yourself spending more. Students graduating from Oxford do not escape such debt. Of course for Aitkenhead that kind of debt is worth it '[i]f university was giving [students] ... the kind of social and cultural incubation I enjoyed'. Again she neglects the fact that this happens, but students are no longer part of an elite system so they mix with a wider range of people like themselves rather than gaining access to elite groupings. In the UK, getting access to so many of our professions is still about who you know rather than what you know. Even if you go to Oxford and Cambridge if you associate with the type of people you would have met at the school you came from then you are not going to get the leg-up that you would do if you came from Eton or Harrow schools or are now able to associate with such people. Added to this is British xenophobia which means they stay mixing with Britons being hostile to mixing with the increasing number of students from Beijing or Berlin, so actually cutting themselves off from the 'social and cultural incubation' that would help them not just get a job in the UK but across the world, but of course to Aitkenhead, that would be no benefit (and it seems many British students, no matter what their social class, share that view).

There is a huge difference between universities (and between different courses within each university) and no-one believes otherwise. These terribly naive people who Aitkenhead feels have been falsely sold a course that gives them no social or economic benefits are very small in number. Her suggestion that their children should work their way up through the ranks of some profession is incredibly dated. You do not even get to begin working your way up these days until you have the entrance ticket of a degree.

In adopting this snobbery, wanting her low-quality institutions relabelled, Aitkenhead misses the whole point about the restrictions on social mobility and progression in British society, the true impact of adopting a policy of mass higher education and the costs of such education to individuals (which seems to be being realised though not explicitly, surely 'non-repayable' funds are beginning to look like the grants of old). No university is going to say it is a poor place to study, it would be suicidal to do so. However, universities cannot isolate themselves from the problems facing the cities that they are located in. Consumers of all things, including education, are both knowledgeable and demanding. Information both official and unofficial about all universities, is easily available, there are a plethora of league tables which undermine any misselling that Aitkenhead believes is so prevalent.

The first part of her article goes on about students not paying attention to lectures and the fact that you can buy essays. Neither of these things has changed in 20-40 years, they are probably just more visible. The inattention of young people is a problem right across the years and society, it is not an aspect of attending any particular university. It stems from children knowing that adults are so hemmed in by regulation that they lack sanctions to demand attention. Conversely, any student wasting their time in a lecture or class is throwing away their (or more likely their parent's money). We hear a great deal about students demanding things for their fees, but effectively then fritter it away. However, we could be back at 1930s Oxford and seeing youth that was inattentive and frittering away their money and their gifts. For Aitkenhead it seems more offensive because these are ordinary people rather than an elite. Buying essays is nothing new either, it is just in the age of the internet it is more visible and easier,though conversely, using software that is available in all UK universities, far easier to detect. She neglects to point out how many students are thrown off courses (and in the case of subjects like Law, banned from working in the profession) for cheating or copying.

Aitkenhead says that the photography student will never get the job he wants. Of course many people never end up with the job that they want, no matter which university they attended. In fact the UK has always had this, in the 1980s, more managing directors of UK companies had History degrees than any other subject. Whilst there is an emphasis on 'employability skills' and courses for work, university is still about developing thinking, adaptable people who can turn their hand to many things. In one office job I had where there were a lot of musicians and writers working a colleague complained that it was 'the hall of lost dreams', I contested that saying the people were in good jobs which thus allowed them to pursue their musical and writing interests more fully than if they were trying to scrape by on them alone. You do not have to be on the road or in a garret all the time to perform in public or get a novel published. A good degree prepares people for work. Some people will get their dream job, some will not, but there are many other factors than simply the course you took. For example a student graduating from a course in 2009 will find it far harder to get any work, let alone their dream job than a student coming from the same course with the same grades would have done in 2008 or 2007.

What Aitkenhead effectively wants is a return to the elitist university system in which intellectual middle class students simply mix with intellectual middle class students on leafy campuses cut off from the world, without having to pay for anything and then get a job easily at the end of it. This was never the true pattern: anyone who has visited buildings of the University of Oxford one of the most elite and privileged of the UK universities will know that even they do not escape reality however hard they might fight it. This journalist missed an opportunity and instead simply banged out her ill-informed prejudices about universities and offers no suggestions for solutions. She bemoans (working class) people's ignorance, when those people do not exist. There might not be a working class consciousness, but people from all strata of British society are skilled, critical even aggressive consumers who pride themselves in not having the wool pulled over their eyes. She pities her imagined passive working class families' pride in small gains without noting that in the UK, a small gain in a generation is all that society permits us to get. I attended a good university and got a good degree but have never had a job that lasted more than four years and am certainly not my dream job. I am the first and last person in my family to go to university. The issue of the lack of social mobility that holds back so many graduates would have been far more worthy of Aitkenhead's attention. Saying that, any poorly-researched article like this one was, is probably a waste of time.

P.P. - 05/04/2009: I was stunned to read that Decca Aitkenhead has received an award for interview with Alastair Darling. I can only think it stemmed from her 'scoop' about the severity of the recession as in my mind she has never shown any particular journalistic ability and is very lazy in her research. I suppose one should not be surprised at a newspaper who actually employs Tristam Hunt to interview people, a man whose ego fills two-thirds of any article he is connected with.