Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Impact of 'Vision On'

Over the Christmas period I read about the death of Pat(ricia) Keysell, a mime artist, presenter and campaigner for deaf people.  She had only retired this May at the age of 82.  When people look back nostalgically at the children's television programmes of the 1960s and 1970s they often reference things like animated stories such as 'The Clangers', 'Mr. Benn' and 'Camblewick Green' even the psychdelic 'Crystal Tipps and Alastair' or look at incidents on the magazine programme, 'Blue Peter', still running today.  However, one programme which had a greater impact, I think, than most people give it credit for was Pat Keysell's project, 'Vision On'.  The series ran from 1964-76.  It started as a fortnightly then monthly programme, but really came into its own in 1966 when artist Tony Hart (1925-2009) joined the programme.  'Vision On' did a difficult thing being a programme that both children who could hear and the deaf could enjoy.  Keysell's ability to sign as she spoke in many ways was radical but of course it became a natural part of the programme and we gave no thought to it.  To a great degree having the presenter sign was less of a distraction than having signers on the edge of the screen as is often the case these days.  Quite naturally your eye is drawn to the presenter in the centre and it was good that both forms of communication came from her.

Being aimed at deaf children a lot of the programme was visual with Hart's art making a great contribution to this.  'The Gallery' section in which children's pictures were shown was such an element of popular culture that the music used for that section and the camera moving between the pictures was reused in the 2000s in a commercial, I think for cars, some thirty years on from when it was last used on 'Vision On'.  One element of 'Vision On' that seems to get forgotten is the role of Pepe/Epep played by Sylvester McCoy (born 1943).  Pepe lived in a mirror and we thought this was great as he went into a reverse world.  The humour was all visual, it was a modern version of the silent movie physical comic characters like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  McCoy had done 'Dangerous Brothers' style comedy on stage with Ken Campbell in the 1960s but he is best known for being the seventh Doctor Who (1987-9; 1993; 1996).

Why then do I think 'Vision On' had an impact?  Well, partly it is because if anyone played 'The Gallery' music even now anyone my age or older would know what it was referencing.  Even if they could not remember the programme's name they would know it referred to sent in children's art work.  The larger impact came with Tony Hart's career with programmes that followed 'Vision On' just focused on him producing art, 'Take Hart' (1978-85); 'Hartbeat' (1986-94) and 'Smart Hart' (1995-2001).  In addition, the numerous children's art programmes that are now on, such as 'Mr. Maker', 'Art Attack', et al, owe a great deal to Hart's style.  Even the sets with the spacious studio style setting let alone the assisting animated characters, 'Take Hart' introduced the renowned plasticine animated character, Morph, owe a great deal to 'Vision On' and what Hart did subsequently.

In terms of the Sylvester McCoy style silent comedy, the main character to follow this has been Mr. Bean (series 1990-5; movies 1997 and 2005; animated series 2002) played by Rowan Atkinson with very minimal dialogue and a lot of the sight jokes and physical humour that Atkinson had honed while appearing on 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' (1979-82).  Similar is 'Uncle Max' (2006) played by David Schneider who had appeared in an episode of 'Mr. Bean'.  This was another almost silent physical comedy series, the physical pratfalls no doubt aided by Schneider having a black belt in judo.

What about the aspect of communicating to deaf children which is really what launched 'Vision On'.  To some degree in the age of teletext from the 1980s onwards and captioning available on numerous programmes there might seem to be less need.  There is now signed accompaniment to many programmes though often shown late at night.  These programmes seem to be the serious stuff like the news rather than children orientated programmes.  The one programme which I do see as the heir of 'Vision On' despite a hiatus of many years, is 'Something Special' (started 2005).  It is aimed at a younger age group than 'Vision On' was,  but like that it involves the presenter both speaking and using sign language, in this case not sign language for the deaf, but makaton which is a sign language to aid communication with children with mental disabilities, notably Down's Syndrome.  In the way that 'Vision On' was developed and sustained by Pat Keysell, 'Something Special' comes from producer Allan Johnson formerly a teacher for children with special needs and he has found a great presenter in Justin Fletcher who like Keysell is able to speak, sign and do other activities all at once.

Both 'Vision On' and 'Something Special' have been commended in their day and won awards.  It seems a pity that it has to take one very energetic person once a generation to get these programmes made.  One key aspect is that they draw the attention of the majority of children who have no disability to those children who do and how they may see the world and be communicated with.  Perhaps in the very selfish 1980s and 1990s this was why such programmes were missing from our screens.  These programmes are not simply about communicating to the people with the disability but more widely to society.  This may seem rather worthy, but I certainly feel it is a role of public sector broadcasting from the BBC.  No-one would question these days (bar idiots like the BNP), for example, that children's programmes show children of all ethnicities and events linked to different religions as they do.  In addition, as 'Vision On' and 'Something Special' have shown they need not compromise on interest or pace no matter who is watching. 

I think the BBC missed a trick when 'Vision On' ended.  Having established that communicating to the audience in different languages they should have taken this further and had people speaking different languages presenting or someone signing in a drama series.  I know towards the end of its run, 'Grange Hill' (1978-2008) did feature disabled characters, but before 'Something Special' we have not seen presenters communicating to their audience in anything but spoken English.  The only examples I can find are the puppet series 'Tots TV' (1993-98) which, as the title suggests, was aimed at pre-school children and featured a French-speaking character Tilly (this puppet spoke Spanish when the programme was shown in the USA) and 'Dora the Explorer' (from 1999) a cartoon series from the USA which features English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and bilingual characters.  I certainly know from the boy who lives in my house that that enabled him to grasp a lot of basic Spanish in his first couple of years at school.  There is room in the scheduling especially now, in contrast to 1976 when there were only three channels, there are now 6 BBC television channels alone, two just aimed at children, for more programmes that speak to the audience in different languages.  Pat Keysell left a strong legacy, I just hope that more of it can be picked up by television companies and used.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Sledge & Shakespeare: Polonius's Precepts and Other Advice for Children

Having advised that a lot of advice about how people will behave in terms of relationships can be gleaned from soul songs, I was reminded of an activity that the woman who lives in my house has been carrying out for the benefit of her son.  He is currently 8 years old meaning he is only 5 years from being a teenager.  Given that the advice from schools and the media is that discussions about sex begin with children from the age of 8 onwards (he has already found the delight of rubbing himself up against furniture and has crushes on characters he sees on the television) it seems apt that over the past year she has been assembling guidance on how to live as a teenager and an independent adult.  I noted a recent radio report about a hostel for homeless people aged 16-18 and one of the staff said that to help the young people to find and keep a home they trained them in how to cook and to run a household budget.  I would hope that in most houses this kind of training was going on from 13 if not from 11 onwards.  At 8 the boy in my house can already make toast, cook omlettes and prepare hot chocolate as well as simple emptying food preparations such as making cordials and dishing out cereals.  I suppose when so many adults have huge debts and the extent of their cooking skills are limited to microwaving a ready meal, they have little to pass on of much use.  I also remember overhearing a 19 year old woman saying she was looking forward to leaving home so that she could escape the fresh vegetables and fruit that her mother kept forcing on her and instead eat 'proper', i.e. processed food.  So I acknowledge that whilst you might teach a child good things whether they pay any attention to them is another issue. 

I have been draughted in to provide the sexual aspects from a male perspective.  Given that I did not have sex until I was 34, I imagine I am not best equipped for this.  However, knowing I was a latecomer, I did read a great deal and took advantage in the mid 1990s on all the programmes late at night especially on Channel 4 about how to do 'good' sex.  I certainly know women are all different and each is sensitive in different parts of her body (sometimes changing at different times of the month) and that the sex they generally want is not the kind you see in pornographic movies, which is often very focused purely on male pleasure, especially the fellatio followed by ejaculation into the woman's face.  While some women are happy to carry out oral sex usually this is on the assumption they will get the same in return and certainly they do not want to be showered in ejaculate, yet this is the image that is all too common in what young men watch. 

Though I sometimes squirm when I read advice from the USA because of the very confused moral stance there which is often about appearances than actual practical existence (I read one book which was supposed to be about coping with break ups but kept suggesting that if marriage was not on the cards then the woman should break a relationship anyway; it would not accept that an unmarried relationship can be a very good one and so drew attention from when you should break up, for example, when abuse is involved), but one piece of advice that I will pass on to the 8 year old in time is 'if you don't feel comfortable telling me [i.e. female partner] about it, then it is cheating'.  Saying that, men should be more confident about talking about non-sexual interaction with women.  Of my 14 employees, 13 are women.  There is nothing there I should be ashamed about, but I need to talk to them on the telephone and via email, and want to be able to do that without my girlfriend getting suspicious.  The same concern came up when I had genito-urinary problems, she would not listen to the causes and just assumed it must be a venereal disease, even though, aside from her, I have only had one sexual partner and that ended in 2003.  Building trust takes a long time and men have to realise they are not judged on their own terms they are judged by the last few men the woman had a relationship with (which clearly all came to an end) and what happened in her friends' relationships.

Anyway, the woman in my house (I am beginning to worry that is becoming a phrase like 'her indoors' was in the 'Minder' television series (1979-94; 2009)) was laying down various lessons and principles that she has learnt in her life, having an alcoholic boyfriend, moving continents, running a pub, being a child minder and a single mother as well as day-to-day domestic stuff like cleaning and cooking which to so many young people, especially boys, seems a complete mystery.  While at university I was stunned at how incapable many other students were.  I knew I was not as adept as friends of mine who had been in the Scouts or trekked to remote areas with their families and, in particular, seemed poorly equipped to deal with the emotional aspects, but at least I could cook healthy food and clean and iron my clothes unlike many others.

Back to the thread.  As soul song lyrics are often overlooked as a source of guidance in terms of relationships I was reminded that other lines can help you out that people tend to forget and this brings us to Polonius, a character in William Shakespeare's play, 'Hamlet' (1603).  He is a rather silly, aged (well probably middle aged given the age of his son Laertes, just starting university) aide to the Danish royal family.  In Act 1, Scene 3 (lines 55-81) he gives advice to Laertes, laid out below.  Now, I have read commentaries which see this as satirical writing from Shakespeare regarding 'homespun wisdom', see Jem Bloomfield's article:  I would contest the satirical aspect.  Shakespeare was a skilful reader of human character and behaviour which is why his plays are still so highly regarded four centuries later.  'Hamlet' is very much about the relationship between grown-up children and their parents and step-parents.  Whilst most adult children are not walking round considering whether to kill their step-father in revenge, a lot of the play is actually about mundane difficulties between parents and adult children.  Ask any divorced/widowed mother who has remarried when her children are adults about the challenges that she faces from those children and you will see parallels to Gertrude in 'Hamlet'.  The fact that their parents are having sex with whoever, let alone someone who is a stranger to them, is something that many adults find difficult to ever accept.

Thus, even if Polonius is silly at times, and he is generally well meaning and protective of his employer, Gertrude, what he says to Laertes, I believe is a good checklist for people going off to university today.  Given that 42% of UK 18 year olds are now going into higher education, these are lines that need to be wheeled out a bit more often.  This is the text:

There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character.
Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade.
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be; 
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. 
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Now, I do not agree with all of this.  I would certainly say that young people should speak up and express their opinions.  I also think that we should censure bad behaviour of others because otherwise they simply get away with it.  However, complaining in the UK has become a pastime as well as a daily activity and maybe it needs some tempering.  Not rising to the bait from men wanting to provoke a fight, is very tough, but we need more of it.  Spilling someone's drink in a crowded bar or simply your gaze looking over someone is no excuse for people to end up in casualty and with criminal records.  I would say these days, walk away the moment any trouble seems to be appearing.  In debate and intellectual discussion, which these days seems very rare given the demands from parents for students simply to be taught to complete the exam, certainly be adept and be well informed.  We have too much physical contesting in our society and too little intellectual.

The warning about clothing is interesting given our fashion conscious age (in many ways no different from the Elizabethan period, though with far fewer options for men).  I read of how so many students now look like clones because even before they arrive on campus they have been instructed on social networking sites what clothes they should wear.  I guess this is the Goth in me creeping in, bemoaning that every student is now in jeans, all the men in hooded tops and all the women in Ugg boots.  Students have to realise that their standard of living will be lower than that most have enjoyed at home.  They will wear fewer changes of clothes, live in poorer quality housing and have more mundane food.  Of course, many now live with their parents, and I think that is bad, they must make a break from the family home if they are to become true adults (this problem applies to people not becoming students too, the ridiculously high cost of even rented accommodation in the UK means many cannot move out until their mid-30s and I feel this is a big contributor to the juvenilisation of adult behaviour in the UK leading to so much debt, violence and other crime).

Other elements I support very strongly.  If you talk to anyone who has been to university you find that they still have friends from there decades later.  This may decrease as people tend increasingly to go to their local university and live at home, so are likely not to lose touch with local friends.  However, there is the bond of shared experience that can be as strong for friendships as say, serving in the armed forces together.  However, the percentage of people who will become life long friends compared to those you will meet and may become acquaintances is very small.  A lot of people have agendas and you can be forced into lots of corners by people who want something even if it is just not to be lonely.  Often the concerns out-strip the real hazard. People are very suspicious these days of anyone who seems remotely religious because they suspect they have an ulterior motive of seeking converts.  However, as advised here, tread carefully and check out people before they designating them life long friends (they might not want this anyway).  Saying this, I know two couples who met in their first week at university, still married 22 years after that.

The thing about borrowing is crucial.  Debt is seen as a fact of life now, especially for students who are compelled to incur thousands of pounds of debt to even begin a course.  However, there is different types of debt and the charges on a student loan are very different from a bank loan let alone credit card and especially store card borrowing (bringing us back to the gaudy clothes).  Certainly loans between individuals is an area that you have to be careful about.  Doing part-time work before going to university I had already learnt never to lend anyone any money that I could not afford to lose; I wrote it off the moment I handed it over and treated it as a bonus if it was ever paid back.  This means you have to refuse people and when I did that, their true character often appeared, one colleague simply then restrained me and stole the money from my pocket, which fortunately meant him being kicked off the job (one of the advantages of working in a petrol station with full CCTV coverage). 

As Polonius (i.e. Shakespeare) notes, borrowing money yourself disrupts friendships and also can lead you not to face up to the reality of your situation.  Being at university simply in terms of food and accommodation (including the innumerable utility bills) is very expensive, especially given what landlords and utility companies are allowed to get away with.  Then these days there is computer equipment (and do not forget the specialist software which you will be compared to buy, usually at reduced rate, but not typically free) before you even get on to the gigs and the beer and the odd play or movie and possibly a trip away somewhere.  Keep a real check on outgoings, but do not do like me and note down every time you buy a beer in a notebook, it makes you unpopular.  Assume money taken from a cash machine is lost to you.  Keep receipts from grocery shopping.  Pay as much as you can in cash as you are far more conscious of what you are spending than if you do it buy card, especially when around the shops.   I know companies try to compel you to put in standing orders, but instead try and do individual payments, (I do this with my council tax still) as you will be reminded, each time you pay, of how much is going out.

About being true to yourself, this is a life long mission and something very few of us achieve.  In this society you get very little credit it for it, we get much more for presenting ourselves as something/someone else.  However, if you want a genuine intimate relationship this is the area in which you certainly need to know yourself and be able to communicate it clearly to your partner.  A key worry is that your flaws will put them off, if that is the case then they were not worth having.  Going away from home, especially into higher education is when you can learn about yourself, what your sexuality truly is, what times of the day you work best, what food you actually like and what food is actually good for you, what kind of people you like to be with (not simply the ones you are dumped into the same space with) and you are likely to meet people from countries you have not even thought about and people with very different views (and with very similar views) to you on a whole range of things and not just religion, politics and football, but everything you can think of.  Sorry, I have spun off into very Polonius like mode myself now, I guess it is an affliction of the middle aged not to want people make the mistakes they have seen made so many times before.

Overall, then, I think that there is a lot of good advice out there and when the 8 year old in my house reaches 13 he is liable to be bombarded with a strange mix of Sledge and Shakespeare in the hope that some of it will penetrate his ipod-filled ears and he will be at least a little better equipped for the adult world than the bulk of young people living in the UK seem to be.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Brothers At Arms

One person I will not be meeting with over this Christmas period is my brother.  My visit to my parents' house has been carefully scheduled to avoid his visit.  My girlfriend thinks this is an unpleasant situation especially as I have never met my baby nephew.  She only has sisters and I told her that in my experience compared to sisters, adult brothers generally do not communicate.  For some reason in the late 1960s/early 1970s it seemed very common to have two brothers born 2-3 years apart.  So many of my friends, like me, have this pattern.  Of all of them, only one pair now communicate and that was after years of not speaking at all.  In that case it was pretty extreme circumstances that brought about the reconciliation, the younger brother had married a very unpleasant woman who proceeded to move her Mexican lover into the house and then decamped to Switzerland to be with another lover, taking all the marriage documentation with her making it hard for her husband to get a divorce.  I use her as the archetypal example of woman brought up to insist that she has everything she wants, becoming petulant if she does not get it and having no moral considerations at all about what she is doing: her desires are supreme in her world.  Anyway, the elder brother has not gone around saying 'told you so', but his concerns have been proven to be correct and with the brother contrite and proving to be a useful tenant for a property the elder brother could not fill, they are back on good terms.

All other brothers I know, are not talking.  Usually the last time they see each other is when they get married and even then one friend of mine who I have known over twenty years did not invite his brother to his wedding because they were effectively strangers to each other after more than two decades of non-communication.  I did wonder why adult brothers do not communicate and, in fact, are often very hostile to each other.  A lot of it seems to stem from men thinking that their view of things is the 'right' one and the only possible view.  I know two brothers who are real posers, pretty pretentious and in fact very much like each other, successful in their careers and with women, but clearly on the details of what is the 'in' thing to do or own, they cannot agree.  In many ways they are too similar.  It does not have to be big things like religion or politics that keep brothers apart, in fact if these things are the basis of the difference they often have a grudging respect for the other.  What separates brothers is what separates families, the small day-to-day habits.  There is more friction in a house around taking off shoes when you enter, washing hands before a meal, putting the toilet seat up or down, saying grace before a meal, even how you make the tea, than there ever is around the big issues of the day.  This is something that you learn quickly from the age when you are permitted to go and play at friends' houses; you often end up with a whole different set of behaviours for when visiting.

Owing to this sense of men knowing what is 'right' (and this often extends to telling their parents what to do especially when they become elderly) one or both brothers can end up patronising the other.  Unlike the brothers I have detailed above, I had a good relationship with mine until last year.  We would visit each other's houses despite them being in different countries, a few times per year and would regularly email and exchange gifts.  We did have one large row back in 2002 and this stemmed from events 15 years earlier when we had been teenagers.  I have a bad temper and get violent with it, so we would often fight, something that went against my brother's pacifist tendencies.  He also felt (wrongly) that I did not respect him because whereas I had gone to university he had decided not to.  It was clear he still viewed me as if we were still 18 if not 15, and in fact in terms of the university thing, he would have been wrong back then.  To some degree it showed that whilst we got on well, we had not talked enough and in particular I should have communicated more clearly how proud I was of what he had achieved in web design and carving out a new life in a foreign country. 

Some of the patronising attitude has come out in the recent split (well, 11 months ago now).  He has travelled extensively in Africa including to very remote parts so he can adopt an attitude of me not knowing the 'real' world.  I accept, not least because of my various ailments that need constant medication, that I would not survive in remote parts of Morocco or Senegal for long.  However, that does not mean I am useless living in Milton Keynes or Oxford or even London, places I have thrived in, even in the poorest areas of Tower Hamlets.  Brothers seem to believe they must 'save' their brother, whether he is younger or older than them, from himself and the mistakes he is making.  Of course, generally he is not making any mistakes, just living a different kind of life.  I own a house and have work, I am not on drugs and I drink rarely, there is nothing I need saving from.  I want a better life for myself but I am a million kilometres from the kind of lifestyle that needs intervention.

A lot of tension between brothers stems from the other people in their lives, particularly the girlfriends and wives.  I have to confess that I found my brother's wife difficult to handle.  She was very forthright and especially when in continental Europe was very patronising assuming that the average British person would get utterly lost if they walked out of a house unaccompanied when in Belgium, whereas I had been cycling and driving across North-West Europe for many years.  However, I could see they were in love.  They have been together for over a decade now and have a child.  As time passed the woman relaxed and I actually have ended up with a better relationship with her, who has none of this emotional baggage my brother has, than with him.  She has changed and is not the woman she was when first with my brother.  Even then when I found her irritating I had the manners to accept that this was the woman my brother had chosen and not to try to convince him to chuck her out for someone else. 

I know it sounds mad, but I do believe in the precept put forward in the movie 'The Commitments' (1991) that you can learn a lot about life from the lyrics of songs, especially soul music.  Hence, I refer back to 'When A Man Loves A Woman' (1966) written (though others are credited) and sung by Percy Sledge and the lyrics: '[He'd] Turn his back on his best friend/If he put her down'.  That song has all you need to know about how you will witness men behaving when in lover. The one thing guaranteed to break any relationship between men is for one to criticise the significant woman in the other man's life and I knew any criticisms I made of my sister-in-law would fall on deaf ears.  Anyway, the criticisms were minor, there was nothing that she was doing that harmed my brother, I simply found her rather irritating, but even expressing that irritation as I did in 2002 when exhausted, cold and drunk, raised a strong reaction from my brother. 

This is why I was surprised when my brother started criticising my girlfriend last Christmas saying that I should get rid of her, despite all the happiness she had brought me.  He made assumptions that she was somehow draining money from me, whereas in fact she was contributing far more to our funds that would have been proportionate as she was earning three times less than me.  As is common, he portrayed me as naive about her and that I was not seeing what she was doing.  He was very critical of her going to the USA a place she had always wanted to visit and to see friends there, using money she had inherited.  I tried to temper his view, both face-to-face and via email, outlining all that she was doing for me, how hard she works and what a good mother she was to her son.  My brother would not listen to these words and so started sending hostile messages to my girlfriend directly (they had previously collaborated on a website) telling her she was draining money from me and should leave me.  You would not be surprised that in the face of being unable to get him to stop this barrage of criticisms (we blocked his email address coming into our inboxes) I had to break off relations with him.  Ironically, my girlfriend who has a big heart, wants me to try to rebuild contact with him, but I have received no apology and have no belief that his attitude towards her has changed.

My girlfriend finds it surprising that me and my brother have ended contact and have no view of ever restoring it.  This, I imagine is because she has only sisters and while they can argue and gripe they seem not to be so critical of each other to cause rifts that are very hard to heal.  This may be one of the largest differences between men and women.  I keep telling her, that in my experience no brothers I know are in contact with each other and that in fact up to 2008 my brother and I were an anomaly.  At this present moment out of all the brothers I know, only one pair is communicating and that is due to the exceptional circumstances.  So, I do not currently foresee me ever speaking to my brother again.  I guess we will grunt at each other at one of our parent's funerals and his son will look at this strange uncle who will, no doubt, be painted far blacker subsequently.  I have done nothing to harm my brother, I have not stolen from him or assaulted him, I just happened to go out with a woman he disapproved of, on the basis of false assumptions about her behaviour.  Even if she was taking me for every penny I have, then that would be a matter for me, not him.  To repeatedly try to break up the relationship and go after her when I had blocked his emails seems very unpleasant.  Consequently I am now beginning to walk alongside my friends who have not seen or heard from their brothers in decades, which, certainly in the UK seems to be the norm.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Surviving Christmas

I know that everyone's experience of Christmas is very different so it is impossible to give universal advice.  I have known people who set off for a Spanish or Tunisian hotel each December so are far away from the, poor weather, crowds and traffic chaos of the UK and I know people who go 'on tour' from relative to relative around the UK having a series of traditional Christmas meals to the extent that they must be sick of the sight of even the images of this food.  I know Pagans who get it all out of the way on the Solstice four days before Christmas Day so feel none of the pressures that the media seems to jack up.  I know one many who celebrates Saturnalia on the 25th complaining that the Christians stole his holiday.  He has no servants that he can serve on that day but child minds for Christians going to church.

I come from a small family so never had a huge number of relatives to visit.  However, I did live through the 1970s which these days seem to be perceived as the 'golden age' of Christmas.  There is regular reference to the fact that half the entire population of the UK watched 'The Morecambe and Wise Show' helped by the fact at the time there were only three channels.  In addition, Christmas tunes by Slade and Wizzard, hits in the 1970s are more common on our radios than many carols.  These days with television recording devices, the chance to 'see again' on multiple channels and your computer, plus computer and console games has taken away a lot of the tedious intensity of Christmas especially for the young.  It always seemed particularly cruel to given children toys they had waited for all year and then deny them the chance to play them and instead sit in Granny's overheated house listening to relatives arguing about which year in the 1920s someone joined a tennis club or when the zip had not simply been invented but introduced into common usage and sit through dull movies only to spend the time when all the good stuff was home being driven home in the dark.  Living in southern England as I do now, there was not even the consolation of snow, which generally fell more often at Easter than Christmas.  Coming from a Pagan family, once school broke up, I did not have to attend any more religious events and have no experience of standing in cold churches listening to people droning out the 'classics'.

This posting, then, is a random collection of thoughts on how to survive Christmas without feeling that you never want to see it again.  Please feel free to send me any other things you want to include that I may never have encountered or thought of. The umbrella warning I would give is:  Avoid Excess. Christmas is about excess in so many ways.  People have the heating on far too much which makes everyone dehydrated, feel fractious and thirsty; turn the heating down a notch for every person who enters your house.  Do not try and jam too many people into your house, it is a recipe for arguments.  Think about it, many UK families replicate the circumstances of the television series 'Lost', i.e. a strange assortment of people, many of whom do not want to be there, with people they might not particularly like and certainly have little in common with, in an overheated, cramped space not even as attractive as a desert island.  Excess continues with food.  At Christmas generally there is food from the moment you wake to when you are back in bed again.  There are sweets and nuts, cakes and biscuits then most people put on a meal many times larger than what they would eat on a normal day, except that, of course, you are not burning up a fraction of the energy you would be doing on a normal day and you have been eating lots of high energy food already.  The people who need the food at Christmas and the energy it provides are those that are outside like the homeless or working hard like emergency services, often actually get less rather more than usual.

Do not try and enforce jolity.  At Christmas people are often reflective, it is grey and they may feel down.  However, thrusting brash, noisy activity in their face is not going to make them feel magically happy, it simply throws what they are feeling into sharper relief.  Combined with over heated houses and excessive food and alcohol it can be far harder to cope with than something more low key.  Have decorations, yes, but not some huge installation that makes the place glitter in every corner.  True happiness comes from seeing what is important and being thankful for it.  You have a house when many people do not; you have food when many people do not; you have gifts when many people do not.  Do not put everyone on a guilt trip, but do see that actually you can be happy from having people you love around you and having a good (but not madly large meal).  If everything is too big and too brash then any real feeling is gone from it.  Never enforce jolity on people; do not compel participation.  Think about, after a large meal, lions lie around and doze they do not charge across the savannah, think the same with people.  If someone is not a gamesplayer all year round then do not guilt trip them into being one at Christmas, it will simply be twice as unpleasant for them.  Also avoid activities that provoke embarrassment; on this basis do not treat teenagers as if they were still eight years old, let them find their own level of interaction.  Keep it simple.  As a child I used to watch my parents and grandparents play serious card games at Christmas.  My Granny (my father's mother) seemed transformed into a different woman.  However, the card games were nothing flashy and nothing new, but it was clear that the players were enjoying the game because it was something they rarely had a chance for.  The same went for my Grandpa's (my mother's father) eclectic mix of piano tunes, generally more informed by Socialism than Christianity, but it was the only time he was tolerable.  These things work better than new elaborate games, especially if no-one is compelled to participate.

These days a lot of the problems of competiton to see various programmes has been eliminated and it has reduced a lot of tension in houses.  It does not really matter if you miss a programme or a movie, you can have preset your recording device before leaving home and the programme will no doubt be available on some channel or online or on DVD in the near future.  This contrasts with the past when large chunks of the assembled group would have to sit through something they found tedious knowing what they wanted to see was ticking away on another channel.

I do recommend a degree of exercise, if simply to counteract the stuffy-headedness of being inside for much of the day.  It also allows a reduction in the tension of having people piled up on top of each other, especially in the UK where houses are really too small for the number of people we jam into them.  The Royal Family has the right idea, though naturally their houses are huge.  They all go off to church and obviously for Christians this is one way to get some fresh air and exercise.  Of course, really Catholics time it badly.  Midnight Mass may have a magic to it, but if you want the family to survive Christmas, Midday Mass would be far more suitable.  For the more secular among us, walk the dog, go to some park, even look around the shops.  I favour going to some open space as even in these days of far longer opening hours, there is nothing more dreary than walking passed closed shops.  I can guarantee that a lot of the pressure of being around people at Christmas is reduced if a large portion of them get out.  We cannot entirely counteract the fact that we can only stomach our family for comparative short periods of time; often husbands and wives find it far more challenging to be together for an extended period than when each has the escape of work.  This is why there are so many divorces initiated in late December and early January.

The one thing that people neglect to give at Christmas is space.  Too many families organise every moment of everyone's day.  You rise early and you stay up late, prolonging the day, but rarely do you get time to take a break and sit back.  Let the teenager listen to their ipod, let adults not participate in games, let people watch something different up in the bedroom, let the elderly or the younger people sleep if they want to.  There is ample opportunity for coming together and you are going to get a lot more of it compared to usual over the period, so let people opt out for some of the time; do not try to have everyone involved all of the time, it wears down the reserves of patience and goodwill very quickly.  My one recommendation is to have a good non-fiction book on standby.  Do not have fiction because it can be frustrating leaving the story to go and eat or participate in an activity.  I always used to have the non-fiction samurai books by Stephen Turnbull for such use.  I think it explains why celebrity biographies are ideal at this time of year.  You want something that is interesting enough but that you can dip into and out of as need requires.  Let children have free rein on computer/console games, remember, for them Christmas, after the initial couple of minutes of delight, can be hours of protracted tedium, particularly for teenagers who would would rather be around their friends' houses than pressed together with little known relatives.

Overall, I know that people feel that Christmas is not Christmas unless everything is done to the maximum. My suggestion is that if you want to retain your sanity and good relations with your family, especially your spouse, is to step everything down a notch or two.  Do not provide excessive food; keep the house temperature down a bit; let people opt out of activities and you should be able to get through Christmas without dreading the same time next year.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sledgehammer Management

My last post was around my concern that by trying to be a liberal manager who appreciated a lot of the trouble that his employees were going through (I am not allowed to call them 'my team' because apparently they 'belong' to my own boss not me) that I would end up being too much like the manager, David Brent, in the television series 'The Office' making embarrassing fauxs pas.  I do think some of my employees do look on me as if I am rather odd, but I guess that comes from being a Goth in the workplace and from the clothes I wear resembling some hybrid of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes (1984-94) and the Herr Flick character from ''Allo, 'Allo' (1982-92; played by Richard Gibson with David Janson taking over for the 9th and final series in 1992), especially in the very provincial town I am now working in.  However, generally I seem to get on pretty well with those who have been assigned to me.

The same cannot be said for those above me, especially my immediate manager and, fortunately to a lesser extent, her successor.  Like many companies, ours is currently under pressure, making a loss and looking for ways to do the same or more work with fewer staff.  There are no redundancies (something the management wants us to keep reminding our staff, the 'whip of unemployment' being cracked on a regular basis) but when people leave (the best always go first from a company that is struggling) they are not replaced.  The new requirements of the Border Agency have been put on one of my units meaning extra work for the staff remaining.  At this time of year with illness and with one person on maternity leave not covered, it is tough to ensure all the work is being done.  It is, but most of the staff are working flat out and all of them doing jobs outside their job description to cover missing staff.  New systems are being brought in, but letting someone go off for the necessary training can really dent the capacity of my units.

So, what does a new manager do in such circumstances?  Well, I was repeatedly told by my boss that my staff were 'inefficient'.  This is taken by the workforce, unsurprisingly, as seen to mean 'lazy'.  So I started by surveying all their activity and in fact I feel many of them are working too hard.  They are very flexible in adapting to extra jobs to cover missing colleagues and to some degree this is where any inefficiency is creeping in, that hardly anyone is now doing the work they were employed for or trained in, they are doing fragments of 2-3 other people's jobs and are adapting very well.  Such steps are fine in the short-term but they are hardening as the weeks and months go by and there is a fear that when the 'music stops' with the reorganisation in the Summer that people will be left fixed with this collection of functions that is not rational, simply dished out ad hoc.  I am told that staff should 'rise to the challenges' and seek regrading if they feel their work is now of a higher level, though, of course, that takes time and is very uncertain especially with a freeze on posts and promotions. 

Repeatedly I am told that the units would not be in this position if they had more of a 'can do' culture.  The sense that they are working below full effort is not based on any objective measurement it is simply because someone who resigned from one of the units a year ago had complained that they were 'bored' in their post without exploring why that might have been the case; it was simply assumed she had too little work to do and that assumption, from one person's passing opinion, has become the basis for all approaches to the units even while the numbers have continued to fall and new work assigned to them.

For challenging, what in my mind is an inaccurate perception, I have been summoned to three very unpleasant meetings in which I have been accused of being 'disloyal' to the management, and then ironically accused of trying to create an adversarial environment in the company, wherease in fact I have been battling to reduce the feeling of 'them' and 'us' that has been built up and that I was dropped into.  My management style was well known to my boss before I was taken on.  I had an hour of interviewing and activities and am always explicit about how I manage.  Ironically I was told I was taken on because of my sensitivity to the workforce which is certainly what seems necessary at this time not just because of new work and the economic situation but also company reorganisation.  With six months to go we have little idea what the company will look like or how various units will be grouped.  We keep being told there will be no job losses, but that is little help as we cannot plan our work for the year ahead with so little information.

Of course, a lot of this stems from the attitude of my boss who even back in 1983 would have jarred with how businesses are actually run let alone with current management practice within the company and best practice as outlined in all the training I have attended over the past six years.  She accused my staff of lying to me constantly and accused me of not only being disloyal but also naive.  In that case, the last laugh is on her for employing me for my expertise and experience.  It turned out this week that once I was appointed I was used to threaten others in the company with her saying that I would have some kind of enforcer role for her policies.  The level of fear this has engendered is unpleasant.  One colleague at another site stopped me mentioning something only indirectly related to the manager, about a policy not even the woman herself.  The level of concern reminded me of the Eastern bloc or contemporary China.  The woman might have been over-cautious but her manner was as if she expected the room to be bugged or one of her staff to betray any views she expressed.  You cannot have discussions about working effectively in such an environment.

My challenging of my boss's views led to me subsequently being told that what I was writing in the term of mundane minutes and emails was in fact would form the basis of disciplinary action and might even be the basis of litigation against me.  I was accused of trying to create 'a resistance movement' in the company! I had expressed to colleagues the need for more staff in our unit to carry out the tasks we have been assigned and to end any secondments until we have less pressure, but apparently that is improper to face up to reality and I should have kept on with the lie that they were not working hard enough.  My first contact with the union at this company was to ask for advice for facing disciplinary action despite having only worked for four weeks so far at the place.

The challenge is, of course, that for the second time in my career I have a boss who believes that her view of things is the only truth.  She does not accept that there are differences of opinion or that she might not have the total facts.  Consequently someone who even diverges mildly from her opinions is 'lying' (she lays this accusation against people very freely) and as a result must have some perverse and sinister motive that leads them to say anything contrary to the 'truth'.  In her world there is no room for compromise.  Her talk of loyalty is not about loyalty to the management, let alone to the company as a whole, but to her. We will all fail in this regard, because we cannot be inside her head and see things the way she does, so even those who are very loyal to her in person, often slip up, especially as she has been loath to give us any detail of the future she wants.  I have now stood up to her three times in person and fortunately she now feels that rather than being her enforcer I am beyond the pale and she will not work with me any more.  Of course, steadily I have found that she has irritated many others on my level in the same way.  She seems entirely oblivious to the damage she is doing to morale at middle management to shop floor level among the staff, persisting with her view that all of us are wrong and are lying.  She is not the first boss I have had like this, the previous one I had to make an official complaint against because she would not accept that a member of staff had been bullying colleagues over a sustained period of time and so felt that any complaints against him were 'lies' as they were out of step with her view of the man.

I have had enough of bosses like this.  You wonder how they get to where they are as they must irritate the people above them as well, but I suppose when someone does not have authority over you, then the impact is far less.  The arrogance of this kind of bosses is incredible and whilst I wish no-one harm, you want them to have a kind of 'A Christmas Carol' experience to waken them up to the reality which is not their 'truth'.  I can see why Charles Dickens wrote that story about the employer Scrooge.  Whilst it is set more than a century ago, such characters seem unfortunately persistent in real life.  More practically if I had not been so badly off financially I would have resigned from my post last week, less than a month through.  Of course, my boss would write me off as a liar who was misguided about reality and so it would make no impact on how she saw what is actually going on in the company beneath her; it could not penetrate the cast iron assumptions that she clings to.  Naturally, I see no future with this company and in January will again start applying for jobs hoping that there are more companies where David Brent rather than Margaret Thatcher is the dominant norm for running the place.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Trying Not To Be David Brent

Having come back to work after four months of unemployment into a more senior position overseeing two offices, three managers and two supervisors, I have quickly become painfully aware of how easy it is to fall into stereotypical office behaviour.  I have noticed that in my attempt to get to know the staff I have been appointed over, I am in real danger of behaving like the David Brent character, played by Ricky Gervais (who also co-wrote the series) in the BBC series, 'The Office' (14 episodes; 2001-3).  Like him, I am middle aged, probably a bit overweight and try to come over as confident when in fact being a little uncertain of my position (I was surprised to be given the job over the 3 other candidates and as it is do not know if I will even have any staff following the restructuring in July 2010).  He tried to be 'in' with the employees and also to be an effective manager but ended up acting in highly embarrassing and ineffectual ways and ultimately being made redundant.  I have noticed that my attempts to engage my staff in conversations have sometimes similarly backfired leaving me feeling similarly humiliated, though perhaps I am better than Brent in that I realise when I have made a faux pas rather than ploughing on regardless.  I found 'The Office' pretty unfunny.  For anyone who has worked in such an enivronment (it was set in a stationery company - Wernham Hogg [their slogan 'Life is Stationery' with its apparent unconscious pun on 'stationary' reminds me always of the slogan for Shanks refuse comapny: 'Shanks. Waste Solutions']), in its Slough office but is applicable to many industries in many UK towns.

I am conscious of using 'management speak'.  Sometimes it is difficult to avoid it when people promise to 'keep me in the loop'.  I have avoided 'touching base' with anyone or thinking about 'blue sky solutions' and certainly have not 'run it up the flagpole and see who salutes', but today I was charged with ensuring there was a 'can-do culture' in my offices after I protested that the constant banging on about 'efficiency' was translated by staff as simply accusing them of being lazy.  The most comic instance of this was when in a meeting at a previous company a member of staff complained that they and their employees were being 'sucked off into other activities' and then there was discussion about whether other people had been 'sucked off', a wealth of Frankie Howerdesque innuendo followed.

There are many potential pitfalls in the week ahead, notably at the office Christmas party next week.  I have insisted I will not be dancing so avoiding a very Brent-like appearance.  Striking the balance between frosty and being chatty with people who live very different lives (all but one of them is a woman) and who as yet I do not know at all well, is a challenge.  You do not want to walk past them silently or simply grunting a greeting or farewell so you flail around for some common topic to talk about and you can only say so much about the weather, especially as my office has no exterior windows.  This is treacherous ground and you end up saying something about how alert a person looks and that is risky.  One of my staff was sitting at her desk with her eyes closed and I bowled up commenting on how she must have been tired by her lunchtime shopping whereas in fact a colleague I could not hear was talking to her and she was listening attentively.  This made me look inconsiderate by talking over this colleague and simply babbling out foolish comments.  I now feel uneasy when around those colleagues.  I have had to adopt a more aloof demeanour but am always concerned that puts distance between you and staff and so you do not get alerted to developing problems until it is too late.  It is particularly critical in the current post where the staff have had their morale constantly battered by my predecessor still with the company who felt the workers never work hard enough and explicitly said they lie to her about the burdens of her work.

To some degree her manner is a little like some of Brent's superiors in 'The Office' but she is also like more senior managers I have encountered in real life.  As yet I have not reached those lofty heights and so can only speculate whether being up there blinds you to the fact that there is more than one way to do something.  She is the second boss I have had who thinks their is her perception of how things are which is 'true' and any other perception is not only wrong but if articulated then it is a 'lie' despite evidence to support it.  Different opinions are not lies.  I do wonder if this is one reason why British business is always in such a state because of this dogmatic attitude that seems all too prevalent.  The problem for me is that now my boss feels that I am helping to promote the 'lies' and so am disloyal to the management tier when in fact anyone in my position would have come to much the same conclusion that the staff are overworked and under-resourced and uncertain about the future (there is no idea in the company how it will be structured by the summer time) further sapping morale.  Whining on about seizing opportunities, being adaptable and working more efficiently is going to do nothing to improve the situation simply to undermine the staff even further.  If I follow her line, work will not get done, but if I follow the line I feel is appropriate I know I will only get a bad reference.  I find myself in lose/lose situations quite often, but here I reall feel as if I have stepped right in and am now up to my neck in one.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

When is a State-Run Bank Not State-Run?

I have commented before at how stunning the greed of some many of the leading staff of businesses in Britain are, especially those in a monopoly or cartel position such as utility companies and banks.  The risk of the collapse of banks in 2008 led the British government to take over chunks of a number in the largest round of nationalisation seen since the 1970s.  Not wishing to be tarred with the New Right allegations against public sector business, the government has generally adopted an 'arm's length' model to running them.  The largest bank it now effectively owns is RBS (formerly Royal Bank of Scotland) in which it has a 70% share, so not under total control but quite clearly a dominant majority. In addition, last month it was revealed that towards the end of 2008 the Bank of England made secret loans of £61.6 billion to RBS and HBOS (formerly Halifax Building Society and Bank of Scotland; subsequently merged with Lloyds-TSB).  In total the UK banks benefited to a greater or lesser extent from a £500 billion rescue package.  This was classic Keynesian economics with government deficit financing economic stimulus measures.  It is clear that government action prevented RBS and HBOS collapsing leading to thousands of job losses and severe financial problems in the UK.

Are the current directors of RBS grateful for the fact that the government saved the bank for which they work?  No.  Do they feel even the slightest obligation to temper the greed which got British banks into the dire situation they encountered in 2008? No.  Despite the difficult two years they have been through the directors of RBS have decided to pay themselves £1.5 billion (€1.65 billion/milliard; US$2.49 billion) in bonuses (so on top of their current high pay).  Despite the ongoing difficulties with the recession these bonuses actually exceed those paid last year.  Where is the vast improvement to warrant such payments?  When the government suggested that they do not do this all the directors threatened to resign from their posts.  Lord Mynors the government minister responsible for the banking sector has called their bluff pointing out how many unemployed bankers there are ready to step into the directors' shoes.

It is probably not surprising that others such as Barclays bank and the National Association of Insurers are backing RBS directors in paying large bonuses.  However, as Lord Mynors has pointed out, it is not simply RBS which has benefited from government intervention. Not only did the government take over Northern Rock and the mortgage arm of Bradford and Bingley, it now holds a 40% share in HBOS-Lloyds TSB.  In addition, all banks benefited from 'easing' of the credit availability by the government pumping money into the system.  The government has only been able to fund such intervention which prevented large chunks of the banking sector collapsing, through borrowing.  This borrowing is criticised by the very type of people who benefited from the intervention and risks the UK's credit rating.  If RBS is in a position to pay £1.5 billion in bonuses then it is in a position to pay back many millions of pounds to reduce government debt.

The RBS argument, repeated by their allies in the sector, is that they have to pay such high bonuses in order to attract and retain capable staff.  You can argue that even the bonuses they have paid have failed to do that as clearly as 2008 showed they only had incompetent staff able to wreck the bank they worked for.  Apparently there are at least 5000 bankers in the UK currently earning over £1 million, so what incentive is there to work well if you offer them an additional £100,000 or even £250,000?  As yet, I have to see evidence that we have any skilled or clever bankers in the UK, certainly ones worth the levels that have been allowed to become 'normal'.  These directors can threaten to resign because they can live without pay for many years.  It is particularly bitter when people whine about postal workers who are striking to try to keep their jobs and say that the unemployed are only out of work because they demand too high pay.  There is no 'whip' to bring in line the bankers in the way that they and their kind have been so eager to use on people earning less per year than the cost of one of the bankers' cars; remember 80% of the UK population earns less than £25,000 per year.

I support Lord Mynors.  The directors of RBS can resign if they like.  It will actually do the banking sector a deal of good.  I think then that the government should either dismember RBS or totally nationalise it.  However, importantly, they must run it properly as a state-run bank.  At the moment all the state is doing is pumping cash in and yielding complete control to people who simply want to make themselves even wealthier by funnelling that cash into their own pockets.  That is the morality, the business model of a mafia-run casino, perhaps even an extortion racket, given the level of house reposessions, and bankers who behave this way should not be lauded they should be condemned as we would gangsters.  The government should not be embarrassed at true nationalisation and they should do it on the French model rather than the half-hearted models the UK has had in the past that too often have simply given power to the privileged rather than making the industry benefit the nation as a whole.  They should stop nationalising things on the verge of collapse and take over some businesses in a healthy state again so the UK economy and society can benefit. 

Though the bulk of the population seems to make its assumptions from a Thatcherite economic perspective, with unemployment still high and pay frozen and hours cut back, there is both shock at the arrogance of the RBS bankers (as there was at the MPs fiddling their expenses) and sustained support for action to prevent such flagrant greed continuing unchecked.  In such an atmosphere, the government has the backing to take the necessary action.  It needs to be done before David Cameron and his upper class cronies have any chance to begin again to praise this kind of behaviour in order to benefits their friends in the financial sector.  Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling, Lords Mandelson and Mynors, do not let the RBS directors resign, sack them and block the obscene greed which has done so much damage to the UK!

P.P. 7/12/2009: I was very pleased to hear that Alastair Darling intends to tax the bankers receiving bonuses.  They have been given repeated (too many) chances to moderate their behaviour and yet have not only not done that but have whined on about the government daring even to criticise them.  There was a stage during the MPs' expenses scandal when some MPs realised how genuinely upset the public were about it; the change in expression and response from Margaret Beckett when answering a question about the scandal on 'Question Time' was a physical expression of that shift.  Of course, some MPs still have not really caught on and a couple have been deselected.  However, it was clear that many at the start thought they were doing nothing wrong and even more arrogantly that the public would not take them to task.  Now it is happening, if slowly and incrementally with bankers.  Most of us have no control over what bankers do, it seems even large shareholders (including in some cases the government) have no influence either.  Any, pretty mild criticism of their behaviour has a strong response attacking the critics and telling them to mind their own business.  In many cases now, of course what the banks do is our own business.  I really hope the bankers get hammered for their greed which is sickening when so many people are facing unemployment.  If it compels them to resign, all the better for the UK.  I fear, however, as with the windfall tax on the greedy utility companies promised a couple of years back the bankers will find some way to wriggle out of all of this and thumb their noses at all of us.  Personally I have come now, in the face of sickening greed to favour ending any private banking in the UK and having either mutuals (I bank with the Nationwide, a very successful mutual) or state-owned banks.  Let us get control of the economy back into the hands of the people who it actually effects.  The millionaires are really exempt from economic troughs (though they benefit from the peaks) whereas it is us who lose our job and our house.

Living in a Guesthouse

As regular readers may have detected I am no longer unemployed.  After being put under investigation the moment I signed on as unemployed, spending £5500 in savings (very fortunate that I had predicted unemployment for over a year and had saved hard) and getting only three days' work in four months, I have now got a full-time job.  It is promotion, a little more pay and has greater responsibilities, which is useful for when I have to apply for work again next year.  It is only a 1-year contract which means I will have to start applying for jobs, probably by Easter at the latest and even then none of my bosses can tell me whether my job will be there let alone in the current form beyond July because of restructuring.  However, I must be grateful for small mercies as it does mean some money before Christmas and at least a short break from hour upon hour of filling in application forms running to 5000 words.

The job is 130Km from where I live and for one year there seemed no point in selling my house and moving.  I thought to rent a small flat and stay in it during the week and return home on the weekends.  The trouble was that it soon became apparent that whilst rents were much the same as in my home town, though the new town is smaller and has fewer places available, I could not get over the hump of affording the deposit on a flat, usually £1,100-£1,500 (€1208-€1648; US$1826-US$2490) for a one-bedroomed flat or a studio flat.  I would have needed to get the job three months ago to have been able to afford that.  It turns out my new employer should have recruited me (or someone) at least three months back as the running down of staff in the offices I manage means we have now gone the point of no-return for many activities, we just have too few staff, let alone experienced ones.  I have pressed for more recruitment but even if we got someone straight away we are going to run into problems before they are in post and working effectively.  That, however, is another symptom of British business, you pare so far back to the bone to the extent that in the next steps you take the leg will drop off and you find you cannot walk any more.

Anyway, the aspects of the business aside, I had a choice of commuting 260Km to and from work each day through rural southern England, beautiful yes, but very hazardous given I come and go in darkness and the heavy winds and rain we have been having or I move into a hotel or guesthouse.  That is what I did.  It might seem that paying £40 (€44; US$66) per night would be more expensive than renting a flat.  Of course, I can rent by the night so I do not have to find the deposit I do not have and also I do not have to pay for gas, electricity and water; nor do I have to pay for a separate television licence for the flat and I also get out of having a second council tax bill.  Every local council wants you to pay in full even if you only live in their town for part of the week so it is very likely I would not be able to get out of paying in my home town and in my work town.  Food bills of course would be cheaper, as the guesthouse only provides breakfast.  However, I can eat subsidised at work and I found anyway that if I eat two cooked meals a day (on the first night I ate in a local pub) I simply feel bloated.  Sandwiches bought from a shop are proving more than enough for my evening meal.  Of course over the Christmas period, unlike with a flat, if I am not in my work town I have to pay nothing.  It may not be ideal but it is less ridiculous than it might first appear.  In the name of reducing carbon dioxide emissions my employer is happy for me to work from home one day per week saving even more cash.

One thing I would warn you if you intend to visit a provincial British town in the next few weeks, is arrange your accommodation early.  I ended up at the eighth hotel I tried, all the others were full.  Having got on alright with the current hotel I tried to book again for next week to find almost all the rooms had already been booked and I could only have more expensive ones.  Why so many people are rushing to very ordinary British towns, mid-week, I have no idea.  Potential guests keep turning up at the guesthouse where I am now and being turned away, implying that demand still remains high and possibly unsatisfied.  Perhaps it suggests that the kind of working-living pattern I have adopted is far more common than you might think.  Being a British location none of the guests actually talk to each other.  We all already have our selected places at breakfast and only those in groups actually speak, the rest eat in silence.  Today a woman with her partner appeared, but otherwise all of the residents of this place seem to be male and working either in offices or building sites.

In some ways it feels very traditional as if I were in a Charles Dickens or an Arnold Bennett novel or perhaps in a movie like 'The Lavender Hill Mob' (1951) or 'The Ladykillers' (primarily the 1955 version, but the principle pretty much stands for the 2004 one as well).

The difference is that in this age in which space is maximised and we are all so very much more private than we ever were fifty years ago, we do not all sit down to dinner with the landlady at the head asking about our day.  Instead we all hide away in our rooms, equipped with private bathrooms (though this institution does have 'standard' rooms from which residents must go down the corridor to use the bathroom or toilet and that is very traditional) and our slimline televisions fitted into the wall.  In addition, very handy for bloggers the place has wi-fi.  It has quite a weak signal, some from properties nearby are stronger and I tried piggybacking on a neighbouring hotel's stronger network to no avail.  Now I have stopped my laptop whining that I am not connected to the company system, which seems a mad difficulty given that laptops are designed to be taken off site, I can sit in my room listening to the odd bumps and the groans of the plumbing, coming from neighbouring rooms fitted together as if we were a three-dimensional tetris game.  Though it is a small space and I will be gone from here tomorrow to spend the weekend at home and I have been allocated a different room for next week and a third for the week after, it does feel like a refuge.  Perhaps something I really need at present away from my usual setting and engaging with work once again and work in which the bosses are pretty challenging.  I was appointed over other candidates due to my ability to manage staff and get the best of them, but the first task I am assigned is to get more work out of fewer people when the existing batch are already working flat out and only completing work through (unpaid) overtime.

Anyway, this was not how I envisaged the next phase of my working life.  This stage may be ephemeral but it is interesting to end up with quite a different lifestyle one which owes a lot to historic patterns of work and residence and yet has many elements of the challenges of modern British society from people being non-communicative to ICT problems laid on top.