Monday, 11 October 2010

Cameron's Blunder with the Electorate

It seems very few people voting in the May 2010 election were aware that the Conservative Party, if it came to power, even as part of a coalition, was going to pursue a hard monetarist policy that makes the policies of the Thatcher years look bland.  I complained on this blog that there was very little in the party leader, David Cameron's statements on policy before and during the election and now it is apparent why that was the case as his intentions were clearly to smash the public sector, stimulate the unemployment of millions, crush demand and find many more opportunities for his friends and potential future friends to make money providing previously state-provided services.  The borrowing taken out by the Brown government 2008-10, following Keynesian principles, though ironically to buoy up only the banking sector (who without a gram of gratitude to us tax payers who saved them have continued to take huge salaries and bonuses), rather than stimulate the whole economy, has supposedly given Cameron as prime minister the right to smash up the British economy on the basis of ideology rather than any real practical economic approach.

Of course, we have seen this before.  Margaret Thatcher was a convert to New Right monetarist views in the mid-1970s and they caught hold in different degrees of virulence in both the Conservative and Labour parties in the late 1970s, assisted by interest groups, notably in the UK's case, the International Monetary Fund.  Consequently we saw in the economic policies of the Callaghan government 1976-9 the foundations of what Thatcher would pursue more vigorously 1979-90.  The approach was echoed especially in the USA but also large parts of Europe and was seen as the path all the states coming out of Communist control towards the end of this period should follow.  Thatcher's approach was to reduce direct taxation whilst increasing indirect taxation (i.e. VAT on goods) and severely reduce the public sector through privatisation in order to reduce the supply of money in the economy and keep down inflation.  It was not applied that clinically and Thatcher also took revenge on certain sectors of the economy, notably coal mining and also embraced ideological, not only economic elements of the New Right, such as crushing trade union power, which, it was argued was an inflationary pressure too.  Many supporters of Thatcher benefited, having their companies take over everything from collecting refuse and cleaning hospitals to running the major utilities, though railway privatisation was not to come until John Major succeeded Thatcher.

Thatcher's policies led to mass unemployment.  People do not seem to realise/remember the way that unemployment was measured during the Thatcher years; the figures excluded numerous people who these days are counted as unemployed.  Thus, when official figure in 1982 was 3.072 million there were actually hundreds of thousands more people out of work.  In 1997 the new Labour government moved towards ILO figures which are more accurate, yet continued to massage their figures to an extent.  You can see the gap when looking even at Labour figures in 2001 which claimed unemployment was below 1 million when, in fact, on ILO measurements it was 1.535 million.  With such errors we can estimate that in 1982 unemployment was probably at least 3.5 million if not 4.5 million, anyway between one eighth and one fifth of the working age population was unemployed, depending on the region you were in, even under official Conservative government figures.  The UK which had moved to have service-sector industry as the largest contributor to the economy over manufacturing as early as 1974, now rushed headlong into shedding much more of its manufacturing and primary industry, i.e. coal mining, agriculture.  Of course, this was part of the European trend at the time but it was done sharply and far faster due to government policies.

Despite hitting record levels of unemployment, Margaret Thatcher kept on being voted back into power, being the longest serving prime minister since 1827.  Her government had a 44-seat majority in 1979; 144-seat majority in 1983 and 102-seat majority in 1987.  She was removed from power by her own party in 1990 so never actually lost a general election as leader of the Conservative Party.  Her successor, John Major, who continued her policies, but tried a more 'human face' to them won a majority of 21 seats, though ironically receiving the highest number of votes any party had won up until that date, scoring over 14 million (of course rising population levels made this easier, but Major got 1 million more votes than the Labour Party scored in 1951 when it actually lost the election despite getting more votes than the Conservatives: this is a consequence of the distortion of the popular vote in the British system).  Now, Cameron has no majority, he can only remain in power either with the acquiesence of the Liberal Democrats, or what he was fortunate to be able to do, having them in a coalition with the Conservatives.  I doubt even if he manages to limp to the end of his (hoped-for fixed) term of office, he will not win the next election.

Why do I think this?  Cameron has learnt from George W. Bush('s adviors) that if you use something so apparently scary, then you effectively get a blank cheque to carry out whatever extreme policies you want to.  I have already outlined what cutting 25% from the Department for Education will mean to your local school in terms of teacher numbers, let alone what it will mean for prisons, social workers, health care professionals, job centre staff, etc.  To reach that figure you could easily wipe out whole departments of government and their employees, e.g. laying off all teachers and all prison staff only scratches the surface of the cuts.  Thus, all of us, even if we use private education, private health care and drive our car everywhere are going to see the impact.  Have you tried telephoning a tax office recently?  Will you dispose of all your own refuse when the dustbin collectors come once per month?  Will you feel safe when every prison has lost a quarter of its staff and the police have lost a quarter of theirs and there are literally no social workers in some towns?  Yes, Bush's policies work to a certain extent, but they do not buy you or your ideas longevity, you can see that the US electorate preferred a (half-)black President over more of Bush.

While Cameron may have learnt from Bush, he does not seem to have learnt at all from Margaret Thatcher.  What enabled her to come back to office time after time, despite her running down so much of the British economy and so throwing people right across the social spectrum out of work, was that she worked on building a core constituency across the country.  There has always been the 'working class Tory' in the UK, i.e. someone from an ordinary background who may not have had many opportunities in life but adheres to the aspirational aspects of Conservatism, driven by patriotism and a belief that personal problems are not shaped by impersonal factors like the economy or society but by personal effort.  Thatcher knew that beside the big business people who went round gathering the fruits of lower taxes, deregulation of working environments and privatisation, there was another constituency to attract.  These were the people enabled to buy their own council houses and who bought a few shares in British Gas.  These were the people who were told it was the trade union at their workplace causing the unemployment not the employer making cuts to reduce costs and re-employ the same people at lower wages.  These are the people that won John Major the 1992 election and bolstered Thatcher's majorities.  These are the people who went over to Blair who seemed to speak their language, had a bit of the tawdry glamour they like, was not going to reverse the Thatcher policies and Thatcher bigotry against 'laziness' that they love.

Cameron is not addressing this constituency.  Instead, he has gone for his 'big society' which sounds painfully like a Liberal Party policy from the mid-1970s.  It may be based in Christianity, but these days it seems rooted in a kind of wishy-washy hippy approach to things.  Of course, Cameron sees charities and volunteers as stepping into the void left by sweeping aside huge swathes of national and local authority provision.  However, he does not realise, since Thatcher declared there was 'no society' people feel absolutely no obligation to help their neighbours, and their sense of 'community' is very narrow, excluding a large range of people in their district on basis of class, ethnicity, age, even which town they were born in.  They have no interest in helping these people and feel uncomfortable in being pressed to do so.  They never despised 'the state' in the way Thatcher did, because in fact through the 1980s it was the state which gave them the fruits.  In addition, the state, takes away from them all the things they would otherwise have to worry about, like where the young people of their district will live.  In fact, they want a stronger state with more police and stricter rules about who lives where.  Cameron's big society depends on shared vision and a willingness to help the less fortunate, this is not what the Thatcher supporters want, they favour segregation and their 'fair share' of state provision.  Just look at the schools they have flocked to, faith schools with selection.  Cameron, and especially Michael Gove, in contrast, tell them to set up their own schools, something they do not have the time from watching sport or going to the tanning salon, to do.

Cameron's problem is that he has been far too distant, all his life, from mainstream society.  Thatcher came from a grocer's family and went to grammar school.  John Major worked in a garden ornament business, for the electricity board and in a bank.  Cameron and Blair were clearly part of the elite and for much of their lives never mixed with ordinary people.  Even though Thatcher and Major were certainly above working class, they met and saw people who were far worse off than themselves.  They may have then seen it as the way to get on was through your own efforts, but they saw people who were less lucky or did not have the inclination to 'pull themselves up'.  Thatcher knew that out of the batches of the ordinary she had to engage and get political support at least from the people like herself who ended up somewhere better than they had started.  Cameron has no idea how to do this; I doubt he has any real understanding of such people, and unlike Blair, the prime minister he most resembles, he lacks the simple charm and good advisors to enable him to approach the interests of such people.  Blair also had 'Old' Labour members still around to keep dragging him back to contact with ordinary people; Cameron seems to lack even the small business person connections, let alone any route into the views of the Disraelian-style working class Tory, whose watchword is not monetarism, but 'decency'.  Cameron is too much like Bush when he told the ultra-wealthy that they were his core constituency.  With the electoral college system and some jiggery-pokery that was sufficient for Bush to win twice.  However, the British political system, even without proportional representation will not be that forgiving to Cameron.

Cameron is offering nothing to those people who will tip the balance between him winning or losing the next election or in fact, if the coalition chooses, to go for an election before then to boost the Conservative majority.  The only thing we keep hearing is about cuts and even for those voters who like to pride themselves on being self-made, they will begin very soon to see the impact of those all over in terms of the condition of the roads, how long they have to wait in government offices, the level of crime and so on.  Cameron could win them over by stealing more ideas from the UKIP, because one thing that this constituency likes is to bash Europe and foreigners in general.  However, Cameron has backed away from even the kind of bigotry and high profile complaints over immigration we heard around election time.  They have shut off immigration of the kind big business likes, i.e. low-paid, but I imagine they expect to fill those jobs with the growing domestic unemployed.  The failure of the BNP at the last election and banning of English Defence League marches is taking some pressure off Cameron from the right, but the 'soft' bigotry of UKIP supporters and sympathisers is still a force out there.  I am glad he is not tapping into it, but I think as a consequence he has lost the one tool for connecting with that constituency that Thatcher won and held for so long.

I imagine part of the problem is that Cameron's thinking is so distant from the middle classes let alone the working classes of Britain.  Edward Heath raced yachts but had come from middle class background, not too different from Thatcher.  You have to go back to Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who only managed one year as prime minister to find someone so far away from even the well-off in Britain let alone the ordinary people.  Cameron, like Bush, moves in such high wealth and privileged circles that he finds it difficult to engage with people who in fact got him into power.  Fortunately for the moment in Britain, money does not entirely match votes and Cameron needs to find a way, as Thatcher unfortunately did, of engaging the 'ordinary Tory' if he wants to stay in power for any length of time.  I do not think he has the capability of doing it.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Who Really 'Won' the Cold War?

I remember back in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was broken through.  I had just returned to the UK from living West Germany; ironically, whilst there, I had focused far more on the rise of the far right Republikaner party which no-one seems to remember now, rather than being interested in the collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.  Anyway, this was seem as the symbolic step in what had been a process that had really been going on for almost five years then, triggered by Mikhail Gorbachev becoming head of the USSR in 1985.  Things moved quickly and with Hungary opening its borders to the West in 1989 the Iron Curtain was breached and though the Communist regime in East Germany clung on its days were numbered.  Incredibly by 1991 East Germany and West Germany had been reunited ending the situation in Central Europe which had prevailed really from 1945.  The changes had been so momentous that in 1991 historian Francis Fukuyama declared that we had reached 'the end of history' because with the collapse of the Soviet bloc it appeared that liberal democracy (wedded to capitalism) had 'won' the Cold War.  Of course, Fukuyama was rather too wrapped up in the jubilation of the end of the European Communist regimes that he neglected the fact that millions of, in fact more than a billion, people remained under the control of right-wing or left-wing dictatorships that had no truck with liberal democracy.  I believe Fukuyama aimed to be ostentatious in his language in order to startle people and get them to reflect on actually what was happening in the world at the time.  Certainly I can remember no other article in 'The National Interest' journal (it became the backbone of the book, 'The End of History and the Last Man' (1992)) being discussed 18 years later.  If you search for Fukuyama, most search engines have 'the end of history' appended automatically to his name.

In some ways Fukuyama is almost turning traditional Marxism on its head.  Karl Marx argued that human society would naturally progress through a series of socio-economic phases such as feudalism, mercantilism and capitalism before inevitably reaching socialism.  For Marx, technology especially in industry drove this process on which is why he anticipated the first socialist revolutions occurring not in relatively industrially backward Russia, let alone China, Korea and Cuba, but in Germany and Britain, the leading industrial states of his time.  Fukuyama also sees a role for technology for moving world society on, but it worries him as he sees humans as in fact unable to control the technology they create properly.  Perhaps this was encouraged by the environmental impact of air and water pollution and the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster of 1986.  However, basically Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as the most robust and appropriate system for human society and felt it inevitable that eventually the whole world would end up using it; thus the end of the Soviet bloc was a key step of this in moving millions of people away from rule by totalitarian dictatorship.

Of course, Fukuyama proved to be only partially right.  Democracy in parts of Eastern Europe was as weak as it had been in the 1920s and 1930s, you only have to look at the Yugoslav War 1991-5 and the decline of democracy in the Russian Federation in the era of Vladimir Putin.  Even the USA, seen in 1989 as the 'victor' of the Cold War, has shown how feeble the 'liberal' element of liberal democracy can be with its use since 2001 of illegal detention and widespread implementation of torture; something the UK has also participated despite supposedly having the 'mother of parliaments' (half of which, of course, is unelected).  Fukuyama's largest oversight is in connection with China.  Critiques of Fukuyama's line, notably from Israeli academic Azar Gat, points to regimes of authoritarian capitalism and this certainly seems to be how we can characterise contemporary China.

Part of the problem is that too many people in the West, especially at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall still seemed to cling to the views of Friedrich Hayek, who in 'The Road to Serfdom' (1944) basically argued that unless you had a free market economy you could not have democracy.  This was aimed not really at the Nazi and the Communist states being formed but at those in Western capitalist countries, not only as a consequence of the Second World War, but also in seeking a way to avoid a return to the Depression of the 1930s saw a greater role for the state in organising the economy.  I believe Hayek feared that in the post-war world Roosevelt's New Deal economic approach would persist and go even further.  He was to be alarmed by the economic direction and planning adopted briefly in Britain and more extensively in France in the late 1940s onwards, as he felt such an approach would inevitably condemn democracy in these countries.  As France has proven he was wrong.  China has also now proven the opposite, that a free market economy need make no impact on a country's steps to democracy.  It is interesting to read books written in the 1990s which seem to see the destruction of the Chinese democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989 as a futile step against an unstoppable force.  Read a copy of 'China A New History' by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, published in the 1990s.  The late Fairbank had anticipated no change in China's political structure and Goldman who took up the work was almost patronising in seeing this as an out-of-date, Cold War attitude, and instead believed that change towards democracy simply had to come as China became more capitalist.  The book has been revised in 2006 and I wonder if Goldman has changed her tune yet.  It is ironic that even Taiwan which has been a capitalist state since gaining independence from Japan in 1945, only became a democratic state in 1996.

The Cold War is usually seen as having started around 1948 stemming from tensions predominantly between the USA and USSR over their respective spheres of influence across the world.  It was given an added dimension by the two states having different economic and political systems: the USSR Communism and a centrally planned economy and the USA democracy and an economy that was generally unplanned.  However, the phase 1948-89 can be seen as an episode in a longer running and more complex conflict, curiously, probably most accurately perceived by the planners of Imperial Germany in the lead up to the First World War.  This perception of the Cold War is that as technology advances, conflict between continental empires is inevitable as each battles for control of the resources it needs.  The arena in which Russia and the USA were expected to conflict was the Pacific, especially over dominance in China.  At the turn of the 20th century the Kaiser and his advisors felt that unless Germany could secure dominance of the bulk of Europe then it would always be beholden to one of the world powers, which at the time were seen as the British Empire, the USA, and potentially Russia if it could modernise quickly enough.  Japan's colonial activities from 1895-1945 can be seen as being motivated by a similar uneasy perception of the world of the late 20th century.

To a great degree the German view of the 1900s came true with the post-1945 era.  They had overlooked that colonial empires could not continue to be sustained, something they should have realised from the crumbling of the Ottoman empire and weakness of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the late 19th century.  However, at the time, overseas colonialism and subjugating different nationalities was seen as the norm.  Even if it had not been exhausted by two world wars, the British empire would have dissolved as did the French and the Dutch empires and, I imagine, would have the Japanese empire, if somehow it had persisted beyond 1945.  For the 20th century and beyond it was to be contigous empires with a clearly dominant nationality of a single ethnicity with its language the one used right across its lands.  This meant Russia, the USA and, of course, China.  In the 1920s and 1930s it looked like China would remain fragmented, but there was too much common culture and too much desire for a unified state to allow this situation to persist.   Napoleon I, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sir Winston Churchill all foresaw the strength of China if it could be a united country and 'awoke', i.e. engaged with the modern world rather than tried to ignore it as it had tended to do so at its peril during the the mid to late 19th century.

As I have noted before, until the 1970s, in the West, China was the overlooked element of the Cold War, which certainly from 1950 onwards was about three superpowers not just two.  Especially in the 1960s when the USA worried about a nuclear Third World War between it and the USSR we could easily have suffered one between the USSR and China.  One can argue if the perceived ideological divisions were really as strict as they were seen at the time.  Yes, of course, you could live a freer life in the USA than in the USSR or even now in China.  However, Maoism diverged as far from Marxism as Stalinism did and Hitlerism did from Fascism.  All of these political creeds were dressing for the assertion of power.  Democracies tend to diffuse that assertion of power and so far, even though not always entirely effective, have watered down the control of the population by the privileged and wealthy.  This was why the George W. Bush regime was so alarming as it seemed to side-step such safeguards as effectively as many Chinese Communist Party officials were able to side-step centralised economic control to make lots of money in China.  The conflict may have seemed ideological, but I believe stripping away the rhetoric, it owes more to the competition between the rulers of the different continental powers.

Since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 we have seen no steps in China towards democracy.  It is nominally a Communist state, but it appears to be that only in name.  Supposed equality of opportunity for all, lack of discrimination of women or for people of particular social or ethnic backgrounds, may have been weak in the Communist states, but they have entirely gone from China of 2010 and people have as little chance to progress as they do in any capitalist state.  Centralised economic planning does not work effectively.  It works temporarily to fight a war, but will never sustain a country in prosperity even on the diminished terms supposedly sought by Communist regimes.  This was what the period 1985-9 proved beyond doubt and this is why the European Communist bloc regimes fell.  Abutting or near to states where democracy was comparatively strong, these countries went towards that political system assuming, as Hayek had noted, that it was necessary for prosperity.  In their case many of the states got political freedom, but the prosperity has yet to come even when buoyed up by EU aid and jobs in Western Europe.  China also shed quite a bit of its centralised economic system and this brought it prosperity with it having no need to change its political system which is really no different today than when Mao Zedong died in 1976. 

The danger for the world is that China has become so rich and powerful that it is now behaving just as all the superpowers did in the 1970s.  China, the USA and USSR all tried to export their ideology and economic control into the Third World.  China has gone back to Africa, but to Asia and South America too, and has even began economically penetrating Western nations, to secure the resources it feels it needs.  It whines on about how it has always been the victim of imperialism and how it needs aid to combat environmental damage and yet, its output now exceeds Japan and it has more financial reserves than the entire US economy.  It is a neo-imperial power just the same as the USA is.  It favours regimes which follow its political system, so while the USA struggles to establish some kind of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, China supports harsh dictatorships in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In 1989 one round of the Cold War came to an end.  Just as Britain had been downed in 1918 and knocked out in 1945, the USSR was sent from the arena in 1989.  This leaves the two remaining superpowers still facing each other and China is clearly in the lead.  Despite all the joy at the 'end' of the Cold War that the values embraced by the USA and its allies had triumphed, this was a premature celebration.  One competitor in the challenge not only for the dominant ideology of the world, but economic dominance, especially of raw materials, had been knocked out, but the bout has continued.  The interim score in 1989 was not a clear US victory as far too many people believed, it was: China 1st, USA 2nd, USSR 3rd.  Now were are in the throes of the run-off to see the ultimate winner.

I have often worked with Chinese people from both the People's Republic and from Taiwan and see nothing inherent in the Chinese nature which is anti-democratic.  However, the same could have been said, I imagine for many people from the USSR or Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but that did not stop those states being unacceptable, and, of course, like all dictatorships, oppressing their own people before turning on others.  Whilst I am no fan of the USA, I am certainly on the side of freedoms and democracy.  However, I believe that whereas once the focus was on opposing the threats to these, attention has gone away from the key threat to these values and greed has encouraged too many states to trade with China, without recognising the risk it still presents to our way of life.  Of course, as during the Cold War there are other threats, but too many policy makers have preferred to focus on Islamic fundamentalism because there is little that they can sell to or buy from such groups, especially as this approach has not taken hold in oil-rich states (it never did in Iraq, despite what Bush may have believed).  We need to wake up to the fact that we are still in a Cold War, and I fear that the side backing democracy is currently losing.  We need to reinforce democracy in the former Communist states, notably Russia and support it in India and boost it in Indonesia, if we are to have any hope of winning the final round of the Cold War.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Cameras Off? Excuse to Drive Like an Idiot?

Back in August it was announced that the Road Safety Grant, like so much other central government funding was going to be ceased.  The grant was around £80-£100 million per year and was given to local authorities to install and maintain their speed cameras.  Ironically, it was a self-funded grant as the number of people breaking the speed limit in the UK remains so high that fines which were handed over from local authorities to central government were the same as the grant.  Interestingly, national government is still happy to take the fines, but will no longer fund the speed cameras.  Of course, local authorities, being charged with making cuts somewhere from 25%-40%, saw no sense in continuing with the speed cameras, which cost £40,000 each, because they get no money from them.

Speed cameras have always been controversial and online you can read how they were apparently part of Gordon Brown's 'Stasi state' (the Stasi being the secret police of East Germany), though ironically the first mobile speed cameras were introduced in 1982 under the Thatcher government.  The technology had existed since 1905.  Cameras are not only used to catch speeders but also people driving private cars down bus lanes or jumping red lights or approaching level crossings, and, around the City of London for security.  They attracted greatest attention, however, from 1999 when Safety Camera Partnerships were introduced to promote the use of the cameras with 15% of the revenue from fines being used to improve road safety.  Whilst the scheme ended in 2007, this use of the fine revenue to boost road safety in general and not simply to install or maintain cameras continued.  The fines from speed cameras averaged around £1.3 million (€1.59 million; US$202 million) per year which suggests a lot of people violating traffic laws.  They were increasingly portrayed as simply revenue raisers for local authorities and this led in the early 2000s to attacks on the cameras.  Right-wing councils in the late 2000s began to be swayed by the populist arguments against them and in 2009 Swindon, which has an appalling road network (I tried to navigate it back in August), was the first to switch off its cameras, followed by Oxfordshire county council in July 2010 and many more since.

I have never seen speed cameras as having anything to do with revenue.  I am glad that they were self-funding, but I am also disappointed that that was the case, because it suggests that so many people are driving dangerously.  Very selfish people, and you can still find them very actively promoting their arguments across the internet, said speed cameras were actually a hazard, forcing people to slow down suddenly (despite the fact that most road maps and sat navs indicate very clearly, certainly since 2006 where the cameras are and there are always warning signs and markings on the road to show them) and to keep checking their speedometers (they must be bad drivers, I can tell how fast I am doing within 2-3 mph without looking at the speedometer, from experience I know).  They often blame injury to pedestrians on the pedestrians rather than their speed.  I have been struck by just how fast people do speed at especially in residential areas.  Just within a few streets of my house (where cars should not exceed 30mph) I have seen a car which has crashed through a brick wall and into the front of a house; cars which have almost levelled lamp-posts and others which have literally gone into houses.  Even with speed cameras in action people are driving too fast especially on rural roads and in residential areas.  Portsmouth felt the problem was so serious as to introduce 20mph limit throughout most of the city.

What happened when the media covered the government's announcement of cut-backs and the statements from some local authorities that they were switching off their speed cameras?  Well, I guess you could have been driving in any part of the UK to know the answer.  Instantly drivers seemed to assume that no camera was working, even though in many areas, of course, there had not even been an announcement that they would be switched off.  Of course, even if a camera is not there to catch you, you are still breaking the law.  If you exceed 33mph in a 30mph area you can be stopped, arrested, prosecuted and fined, it just takes longer than if the camera was there.  This is what the speeders disliked, that they would be caught by the camera, whereas they think they have far greater chances if it is left up to the police to catch them.  Now, these reckless drivers feel they are free.  It was reported in August that immediately some areas where there were police patrols, speeding offences had risen 90% once people believed the cameras were off.  Worse than this, it is almost as if, freed from the worry about being caught on camera anywhere, many more drivers feel it is fine to speed and, in fact, that they need to demonstrate that freedom. 

I often drive across a large housing estate filled with pets, young children and mothers with push chairs.  A mother and child in a pushchair were killed when a car decided to overtake one that was slowing and just went straight into them.  The whole estate has a 30 mph limit with a 40 mph limit on the roads around the diameter.  The day after the announcements about the speed cameras (which are numerous along the route I take), I was driving across the estate OBEYING THE LAW, driving at 30mph and what do I get?  I have cars and vans behind me, revving their engines, hooting me, gesticulating and then accelerating past me at 50 mph and faster, just because they feel they can.  I am made to feel I am in the wrong, just for obeying the law and, in fact, fulfilling the duty of every driver, which is to drive in a way I feel is safe given the prevailing conditions, which may in many circumstances, for example, foggy or icy weather or during heaving rain or when schools are turning out the children, actually be slower than the stated speed limit.  I am ridiculed and insulted for trying to keep myself and other people in the vicinity alive.

The Coalition government is going to pay a high price for its policy.  The price ultimately will be financial for all the street furniture damaged and, above all, for the medical costs of all the additional children and adults who are going to be maimed and killed by reckless driving.  In this ridiculous situation, in which the rights to be able to behave dangerously and to drive as fast as you like are somehow taken to be greater rights than the right to safety, I encourage anyone on a housing estate or in a village or anywhere else which particularly needs cars to drive safely, to take steps.  It is ironic that you can be fined for making a fake hand-held and mounted speed cameras (even though there are companies specialising in fake cameras) and even making mannequins to look like police officers.  I suggest we need to find ways, such as ensuring that those cars you find abandoned, are abandoned where they act as traffic bollards or they happens to be a lot of building materials delivered in piles which happen to narrow the road and slow up traffic or mannequins of small children appear along the roadsides or 'men at work' signs, one of which I found abandoned near my house as well as some police traffic cones, find their away to places where they may make a speeding motorist think twice.  If this government is going to pander to the killers, and that is what these speeders are, then those of us in favour of life and the right to live it in safety, should act. 

May I suggest, if there enough of you and you have enough time, you follow the example of the people of Chideock in Dorset.  This is a lovely village in a very steep-sided narrow valley (appalling for radio and mobile phone reception) through which the A35, the main road connecting Bournemouth, Poole, Dorchester, Bridgport, Axminster and Exeter, runs.  There is a pedestrian crossing which in May this year, Tony Fuller kept pressing and crossing the road.  He did this with neighbours, totally legally, to bring the whole road to a standstill in protest at the noisy lorries which charge through this village every day, seemingly all hours of the day. 

We need to assert that it is safety and not the right to be a killer that should win the day, despite the government's foolish step to pander to the ignorant of the UK by taking away the one tool which had actually helped make our roads that bit safer at a time when knowledge of road laws, let alone road custom and practice are at all time low.

P.P.  08/04/2011
In a situation like this I hate to be able to say 'I told you so'.  However, it was with interest that I noted that Oxfordshire county council has decided to switch its speed cameras back on after a sharp rise in casualties since they were turned off in August 2010.  There are 72 fixed cameras and 89 mobile ones in the county.  In the period August 2010 to January 2011, 18 people were killed compared to 12 in the same period the previous year, i.e. August 2009 - January 2010.  To my mind, 12 was still too high, but there has been a 50% increase since the ending of speed cameras.  The rise in non-fatal injuries has been even greater, from 19 in the six month period of 2009/10 to 179 in 2010/11 period, more than an 800% increase.  Interestingly, what drivers who overtake me seem unaware of, there was no general switching off of speed cameras, they are still on in many areas.  The number of fines imposed for speeding has fallen from a peak of 2 million in 2005 to about 1 million today (that is 1 million individual fines, the sum of money raised is far higher), not due to better driving but because first time offenders can opt to go on a training course instead.  Portsmouth has only turned off its speed cameras this month.  This is a real shame as it is a city with a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas which I felt was a model for other towns.  Bristol is another large urban centre which has only just switched off its speed cameras.  An AA spokesman quoted in 'The Guardian' noted, the public announcement of the turning off of speed cameras had a grave effect on their deterrent impact.  However, as I have noted here, I think that deterrent effect evaporated the moment the ending of the funding was announced and many drivers charge through towns assuming that no camera is on and I am glad to hear that many of them are being caught, however, it seems far too few.  The real tragedy is those who have been injured or killed as a result of the turning off of cameras.  If the level has risen that much just in the single county of Oxfordshire with a population of only 635,000 people (compared to 200,000 people living in Portsmouth and 420,000 people in Bristol; not their surrounding counties), then the national rise in casualties must be alarming.  I imagine, however, that until one of these drivers is injured themselves or has a close family member injured they will not even think once about their speed and ironically perceive themselves as the oppressed freed by this wonderful coalition government [sarcasm].

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Hotmail: Let Me Be

Back in 2007: and 2008:  I commented on how patronised and infuriated I was by the computer systems I use.  Rather than allowing me to get on with what I want to do, I was always being prompted to do it the way the computer felt was right.  In many cases it got it wrong for the UK context, for example, breaking up the word 'fora' into 'for a' and trying to put 'Yours truly' at the end of a letter.  The other thing that infuriated me was the number of downloads the system and the software wanted to do for no apparent gain, so slowing up my work and my use of the computer for games.  The sense that the company knows better than the user has not gone away.  They keep chiding you whether within your computer, e.g. 'clean up icons you are not using' - why? or that you should be using the latest software even if you are quite happy with the current stuff.  It is often stated that people only use about 10% of a software package anyway, so what is the point of introducing additional features that no-one will use, and not only that but constantly insisting that you engage with them.  I know they want to appear dynamic and to keep you interested.  However, this even begins to bore teenagers always seeking the latest thing, let alone the rest of us, certainly people like me still driving a car which is 15 years old.

The latest software to infuriate me is Hotmail.  I have had the same Hotmail account since 1999 and have used the same password throughout.  In those 11 years no-one has hacked into my email and abused it.  There is nothing particular of value or interest in there anyway.  However, apparently, my one word password has proven insufficient and last week Hotmail insisted that I change it to something involving more capital letters and numbers.  It would not let me progress to my email account until I had.  The trouble is, having typed in the same password for over a decade I now find it difficult not to do so and so I keep on being told that the wrong password has been entered too many times.  I am then compelled to try and guess what letters and punctuation are shown in a squiggly picture and enter that too in order to access my own email.  Many capital and lower case letters look pretty similar especially when distorted and as for full stops (periods in the USA) and commas, they look very much like each other when twisted around.  Consequently I now battle to access the account that I had been using successfully for 11 years.  Has it increased security?  Only in the sense that it is now harder for the legitimate user to gain access to it.  Is that a gain for me?  No.  However, as always, the provider believe they know so much better than the user and insist that I play to their rules rather than what I want, which, in fact was safe enough.

An additional gripe once I am in my Hotmail account is how they now handle attachments.  This is vital for me at the moment as I apply for jobs.  I long gave up on trying to attach images to any of my emails because you had to set up some complex piece of software which I tried more than once without success.  However, up to now, receiving documents was no problem.  That is until a few months back when suddenly they all had to go through the new WordWebApp.  This allows me to see my document without being able to save it to my own computer so I am unable to do anything with it.  I can go further and install another piece of software that I do not want, Silverlight.  I tried this with no success, I cannot understand why.  However, I am dubious of the added benefits of documents downloading faster and text looking clearer with it.  I have had no problem with either of these issues with the old system.  There is an alternative which is I can 'Edit in Browser' which then tries to open the document in the so-called SkyDrive.  It then says that is not possible so suggests that I open it in Word, which is what I have been trying to do all along.  However, given that I, like thousands of people, am running Word 2003 on Windows 2003, it stops and says I need to buy the 2010 package, not even the 2007 one.  The company before last I worked for had not even moved to Windows 2007 by the time I was made redundant in mid 2009.  Being unemployed I certainly cannot go out and buy new software packages, I just want to continue with what I have got.  However, now any documents sent to me by email are useless.  Unsurprisingly, after 11 years with Hotmail I am looking for an email system that actually works for me.

This attitude that we must constantly be upgrading was very well satirised in the children's movie 'Robots' (2005).  It is set in a robot populated world with a late 1950s styling.  In it the evil Ratchet has ruledthat those robots who could not afford upgrades, termed 'rusties' were to consigned to being incinerated.  Fortunately there is a robot uprising and the former leading robot inventor, BigWeld is brought out of retirement to ensure that those struggling along with older equipment are not excluded.  Of course, in this world there is no such uprising.  Instead people like me struggling to find work are yet further excluded from even simply using our email systems to apply for it.  The digital divide always finds new ways to manifest itself, driven very sharply by the insatiable desire of software companies and other providers to constantly get us to upgrade.

The Point of the Movie 'Dune' (1984)

A few weeks back for the first time in ages I watched the movie 'Dune' (1984) and as is my habit on this blog it triggered off memories of an irritation associated with the movie that I felt a desire to air.  That irritation came not from the movie itself, but from the critiques of it.  I remember a friend of mine back in the late 1980s and early 1990s who could not hear reference to the movie without complaining that it was 'a torso', too heavily edited to allow it to be rational.  I have read and heard similar criticisms that it diverges away from the novel.  That latter comment seems to be levelled at any television or movie telling of a well-known book whether it be the Sharpe or Hornblower series on television or the Harry Potter movies.  Whilst modern technology allows the creation of very elaborate settings, what can be conjured up in words on a page will always exceed even what can be produced using the latest CGI technology, though the gap is far narrower than it was even a decade ago let alone back in the 1980s. 

People mistakenly think that movies are vast and can encompass a novel.  This is generally not the case.  You can make a movie of a short story or a slim novel.  A classic Agatha Christie novel of 60-70,000 words provides more than enough for a full-length movie, of 90 minutes to 2 hours' duration.  The first novel in the 'Dune' series, i.e. 'Dune' (1965) written by Frank Herbert (1920-86) is 412 pages long, at my estimate probably 100,000 words, which could easily supply a 3 hour long movie even if the content was not as complex as it is in 'Dune'.  A detective story such as Christie's often use stereotypes and tropes, and in the movies even casting particular actors in certain roles, in order to speed up the audience's engagement with what we are being introduced to.  Look at 'The Lord of the Rings' cycle.  The books are not as long as the Dune books and certainly not the Harry Potter books (usually 700-800 pages long) but because of the setting and parallel stories this provided enough material for 9 hours' worth of movie (2001-3).  Making the eight Harry Potter movies (2001-12) based on seven such lengthy novels has needed the suppression of sub-plots and removal of certain characters and even then you are left with lengthy movies.  Since the mid-1960s the length of novels has grown and now whereas 200 pages would be the norm now 400-800 pages is typical; naturally this will impinge on any visual media production based on them.

The average novel these days needs a mini-series to give it a worthwhile airing and this is ultimately what has happened to 'Dune' with 'Frank Herbert's Dune' in 2000 running at 4-5 hours in total depending on the version you watch.  The second and third novels in the series ('Dune Messiah' (1969) and 'Children of Dune' (1976)) formed the basis of a 2003 mini-series 'Frank Herbert's Children of Dune' which was another 4 hours in duration.  So, you might say, 'alright contemporary novels are too large to make the basis of a movie so David Lynch should not have bothered with his 1984 effort'.  This is where today's posting comes in.  My view and I certainly am not alone in this, is that the 1984 movie was worthwhile simply because it was tight.

The key problem with the Dune series is that certain elements are greater than the sum of its parts.  Herbert is best as an author in his short work not in the bloated novels that came from the success of the first Dune book.  After 'Children of Dune' there was 'God Emperor of Dune' (1981), 'Heretics of Dune' (1984) and 'Chapterhouse: Dune' (1985).  I read all these books in a single year in the 1990s and soon lost the will to continue; I only completed them because I had bought them and in the hope that they would recapture the original excitement, the failed to do so.  They are overloaded with stodgy text and the ideas run out.  By the end even though people say the final book is a 'cliffhanger' you basically do not care what happens next, all the life has been sucked out of the concepts.  Of course, financially it was in Herbert's interests to keep writing because these books were bestsellers, but I believe that they would be more appreciated if there had only ever been the first book.  There are some sparky passages but everything quickly becomes laboured which is not surprising when you have covered thousands of pages even if they straddle centuries.  Thus, a movie of just over 2 hours to almost 3 hours, depending on which cut you watch, keeps the flabbiness down and concentrates on the elements which drew readers to Herbert's work in the first place.  Interestingly Herbert seems to have known this himself.  Wikipedia gives an interesting quote from Herbert when interviewed by Kevin J. Anderson, saying 'They've got it. It begins as Dune does. And I hear my dialogue all the way through. There are some interpretations and liberties, but you're gonna come out knowing you've seen Dune.'  Herbert was more supportive of the movie than many of his fans.

The trouble is that the Dune series like The Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter stories, has almost become the property of the fanatical fans who love nothing than to pore over the minutiae so as to eke out the buzz they first got from engaging with the stories.   It is unsurprising that there was 'The Dune Encyclopedia' (1984) which was like an encyclopedia of a real universe and in some ways with its short (and not so short entries) is more readable than the novels.  In addition, Herbert's son, Brian and Kevin J. Anderson have produced prequels 'Dune: House Atreides' (1999), 'Dune: House Harkonnen' (2000) and 'Dune: House Corrino' (2001) set a short time before 'Dune'; 'Dune: The Butlerian Jihad' (2002), 'Dune: The Machine Crusade' (2003), and 'Dune: The Battle of Corrin' (2004) set 10,000 years before 'Dune' and then two books which drawing on Frank Herbert's notes apparently complete the first cycle: 'Hunters of Dune' (2006) and 'Sandworms of Dune' (2007).  Then there are the so-called 'interquels', books set between events shown in the original five books: 'Paul of Dune' (2008), 'The Winds of Dune' (2009) with two others promised.  The pair have also written four short stories set in the Dune universe.  A phrase involving a dead horse and flogging comes to mind.  However, it is clear that there is such a loyal fanbase that these things can continue to be produced.  Saying that I cannot comment on the quality not having read any of the Herbert & Anderson books and I accept they may be good in their own right.  However, this focus on all the tiny details and exploring these as far as is humanly possible is why the 1984 movie is then seen as being dismembered or not being sufficiently authentic.

In this context I want to stick up for the movie.  I think Lynch with his eye for the visually striking was ideal as director for this movie.  He kept it pacy and though it is rather front loaded in terms of setting the context of the struggles between House Harkonnen (backed by the galactic emperor) and House Atreides which has spawned a messiah, this pays off and to have adhered to the book too closely would have meant rather repetitive battle scenes at the end.  Herbert conjures up a wealth of characters with a range of motivations.  While some of them are typical they do catch our attention and Lynch communicates this with who he selects to play them and thus I believe derives the true essence of 'Dune' rather than the blow-by-blow reproduction that many fans seemed to expect but would have been tedious.

Herbert engaged readers by conjuring up a universe which differed from what they expected from a science fiction story and remember he did this in 1965 before the appearance of the more experimental science fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s in my mind focused in particular on Michael Moorcock.  Herbert was an antidote to the hard science Asimovian science fiction.  He showed a universe with many parallels to our own.  The houses remind us of Renaissance Italy city-states with a different family ruling a planet, though with a Russian-Polish-German styling (well captured by Lynch) even their council is called the Landsraad (very similar to the German Landsrat). 

The bulk of Herbert's influences, however, come from the Middle East.  Remember this was a time in which the word 'jihad' was unknown to most of Europe and the USA and no-one had heard of units like Fedaykin (from Feda'yin) certainly far fewer among the US population than post-colonial Britain which had until recently ruled over Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.  Arrakis is a desert planet and the obsession over the narcotic melange, 'spice', can easily be seen as an analogy to oil in the Middle East; the spice even helps space travel in the way oil processed allowed road, rail, sea and air travel on Earth in the post-war period.  The emperor of the galaxy is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.  Padishah is the Farsi (i.e. Iranian) word for 'great king' ; it was also applied to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Now Saddam Hussein is well-remembered we can see a name not too far from his in this emperor of Herbert's books.  Iran was the focus of tensions between the Russians and the British and then in the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans; control of oil was the issue.  It is easy for an American author writing at the height of the Cold War to have the Harkonnens as some stand-ins for the USSR and the Atreides as more Anglo-American in approach. 

Of course, being a decent author, Herbert does not make a simple analogy and everyone can see other parallels from the region, notably between the rise of Paul Atreides to be leader of the Fremen people of Arakkis and the career of the British officer T.E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia') who led the Arabs in the overthrow of their Ottoman rulers during the First World War.  David Lean's movie 'Lawrence of Arabia' was released in 1962, just three years before 'Dune' was published.  Yet again, though, Herbert mixes in other elements and though the Fremen might be considered to be parallel to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formed in 1964; one can also see parallels to the Jewish terrorist groups trying to expel the British from Palestine in order to establish the state of Israel in 1948; especially in terms of the female fighters, notably Chani (it is an Jewish contraction of the name Channah [who in the Old Testament is the mother of Samuel and wife of Elkanahr] which was a traditional one among Jewish women; the women called Chani these days, especially in the USA seem predominantly to have been named that due to the Dune series) who ultimately becomes Paul Atreides's wife.  There is a feminist critique of the Dune series in that the women appear mainly as 'witches' shown predominantly as members of the Bene Gesserit clairvoyant order and other female roles such as the emperor's daughter and other noblewomen are characteristic of medieval/early modern roles, e.g. either as abbesses or as consorts to produce heirs.  Even Chani ends up in such a role though she is an active freedom fighter too.  Saying that Herbert was writing in the mid-1960s before the feminist movement had taken off and his women are certainly a step on from the more brainless beauties of some of the science fiction around at the time.

By weaving together unfamiliar references to the 20th century Middle East with elements from 19th century and Renaissance Europe, Herbert was able to create a real flavour for his science fiction, which is clear engaged people in the way that J.R.R. Tolkien did through using Nordic legends to create his Middle Earth.  Herbert intentionally stepped away from the 'hard' science fiction and whilst there are laser guns and spaceships there are elements that emphasise the non-technical.  Following the Butlerian Jihad ten centuries before what is shown in 'Dune' technology is held in suspicion (after a machine ordered the termination of a foetus, topic which clearly chimes with many in the USA) and so other methods are used.  Notable are the mentats, i.e. human computers whose minds are accelerated by an addictive narcotic.  Of course, before the 1940s the word 'computer' in our world did not refer to a machine but to a person who did calculations.  The Atreides develop sonic rather than laser weapons, powered by trigger words.  Herbert refers to Zen Buddhism (and even creates a philosophy Zensunni combining Zen with Sunni strain of Islam) and the shout (kihai) a person doing Karate makes when they strike can easily be seen as being a parallel of this.  In individual combat people have personal force shields that bounce off laser fire or fast moving bullets, only a slowly moving blade or boring bullet can penetrate, so allowing individual combat back into a science fiction setting (and one can see parallels in the light sabre combat of the Star Wars series).  This is a useful device because it allows old fashioned heroics back into science fiction stories.  For space travel, space is 'folded' by the mutant pilots of the Guild.  The use of wormholes and folding of space is now part of mainstream astronomical physics discussions with people such as Stephen Hawking talking about them.  Herbert as any good science fiction writer has extrapolated ideas that began coming out with Albert Einstein and interestingly developed them in a direction which science has subsequently explored.

Thus we have a rich setting that even now differs from a lot of science fiction we see.  I feel David Lynch captures that context and certainly makes it visually stunning. The scene of Shaddam IV in audience with a Guild pilot who arrives in a very steampunk holding tank surrounded by engineered attendants sums this up.  A lot of the sets have a steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them suggesting that high technology can become baroque as time passes a trend that is alive now even stronger than in the 1980s. 

The Harkonnen are shown as exploitative and evil.  They are also polluters and this puts them out of step with the Fremen and to some lesser extent the Atreides who are more in step with their environment.  The bloated, infected Baron Harkonnen whilst being in the model of bad guys of the past takes it to a new clinical level in the movie.  His subjects are fitted with plugs in their hearts which can be removed at a whim instantly killing the victim; which the baron does to one servant early on for the fun of it.  Harkonnen manipulates Dr. Wellington Yueh into betraying the Atreides by torturing his wife.  Capturing the Atreides mentat, Thufir Hawat, Harkonnen enslaves him by introducing a slow-acting poison into his body.  Lynch does wonderfully in showing us quickly the setting of these people and their behaviour.  The same applies throughout with the Atreides and the Fremen, we can quickly engage with groups rivalling for the control of resources.  This is not dismembered, this is trying to communicate something new to us efficiently.  Even those who had read the novels need to be able to engage with how the movie presents such things.

Lynch is served by some good actors, notably Freddie Jones as Hawat and Dean Stockwell as Yueh, both, along with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides were long-term collaborators with Lynch.  Other notable players are Kenneth Macmillan as Baron Harkonnen. Sting as his nephew Feyd Rautha, Patrick Stewart as Atreides officer Gurney Halleck and not bad is Max von Sydow as environmental scientist Dr. Kynes.  Sean Young is good as Chani but gets too little screen time.  The romance between Chani and Paul is the one element people regret being edited out, but I suppose that it would have been seen to slow the action element of the movie which takes off once Paul is rescued by the Fremen.  The weakest acting comes from Jose Ferrer as the emperor, perhaps because he is underwritten and from both MacLachlan and J├╝rgen Prochnow as Paul's father Duke Leto Atreides.  Francesca Annis as his concubine and Paul's mother, Jessica about passes.  I think part of the problem is that the as the 'good guys' the Atreides appear weak in the shadow of the horrific Harkonnen, but that is a flaw of the original material as much as of the screenplay.

Given the technological limitations of 1984 Lynch is able to give us bloated mutants folding space and 'worms' as large as office blocks and as long as a street rising up from the sands of Arakkis.  There are hundreds of troops battling and in the climax of the movie we feel the epic conflict of the style of 'Lawrence of Arabia'.  This contrasts with the claustrophobia of the earlier phases of the movie in the corridors of various palaces and even underground among the Fremen.  In a movie the length of  'Dune'; in one hours longer no-one could encompass everything from the novel, but Lynch succeeds in both giving us the main elements of the novel and showing us a large dose of its intriguing style.  I am sure a lot of people have been encouraged to read the novel off the back of seeing the movie.  The trouble for Herbert's legacy was that he was too successful too soon.  Winning the Hugo and Nebula awards right off meant no-one was going to restrain him and we ended up with a bloated series that means the gems of ideas and portrayals of people, places and actions are lost in all the bulk.  Tighter, more edited novels would have continued the impact of the first much more effectively.  Hence I feel that Lynch's 'Dune', rather than being a dismembered 'torso' of a movie is in fact a distilled essence that brings out the talent of Herbert's imagination effectively.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The 'X Factor' Approach to Job Interviewing

The 'X Factor' is one of those programmes that even if you have never watched an episode you are aware of it through the cultural ripples it makes.  It is the most enduring of the talent shows (having started in 2004) that have been on British television over the past decade amongst others being 'Pop Idol' (2001-4) and 'Britain's Got Talent' (2007-).  Such programmes are revivals of the 1970s shows 'Opportunity Knocks' (1956; 1964-8; revived 1987-90) which had the public vote for acts and 'New Faces' (1973-8; revived 1986-8) with a panel of judges, which 'discovered' a number of comedy and music acts that have persisted.  Basically all of these recent programmes, whilst combining judges and popular votes, unlike the older shows, have open auditions that allow members of the public to come in and perform in front of a variety of 'celebrity' judges who then decide whether they proceed to the episodes of the show in which the public vote and whittle down the contestants to a final winner.  A lot of people enjoy the early stages of the programme in which members of the public, often with minimal entertaining talent but general a lot of self-confidence perform.  In many ways they particularly enjoy the ridicule element and especially cutting remarks from judges like Simon Cowell who has made a fortune through his involvement with the programme both in the UK and USA; versions have been produced across the World.

The trouble with the popularity of such programmes is that their methods seep into our everyday behaviour.  Often this is through catchphrases, such as 'you are the weakest link, goodbye' from the quiz game show 'The Weakest Link' (2000-) in which contestants vote off their opponents, or 'is that your final answer?' or 'do you want to phone a friend/go fifty-fifty' from the quiz game show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' (1998-).  Those these programmes stem from an American approach to game shows and have prospered in the UK, their versions across the world, for example 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' is seen in one version or another in 100 countries, also propogates the attitudes that the programmes require.  Certainly in 'The Weakest Link' players have to think tactically to go with the trend of other contestants' voting but also eliminate their toughest rivals.  Such devious thinking has been taken further in programmes like 'Golden Balls' (2007-) and the briefly running 'Shafted' (2001; axed after 4 shows) bizarrely hosted by former MP Robert Kilroy-Silk in which players had to cheat and lie to beat other contestants to the money prizes.  I have noted the impact also of 'The Apprentice' (in UK, 2005-) which masquerades as a business show but is in fact just another game show in which contestants try to outdo each other in business-related tasks and someone is eliminated each week. 

These are entertainment shows and you may argue that they are harmless.  However, it is important to note that not only their catchphrases but their attitudes which penetrate our society.  The sense that you can only succeed by pushing down others can be seen as an element of a capitalist society, but that is not necessarily the case.  Certainly that kind of behaviour in the workplace is not going to benefit the company in the long run.  Ambition is a good characteristic in the workforce but is very wasteful of time and resources if it is unbridled and sees success only be embarrassing or restricting workers around you, who, are, in fact trying to do their best for the company.

Where I have seen the greatest penetration of 'X Factor' behaviour is in terms of job interviews.  I guess this is not surprising given that the programme seems to have an effective way of filtering out large numbers of applicants down to a number of half-decent ones.  With unemployment rising and companies often having little idea how to sift among numerous applicants whilst not falling foul of anti-discrimination legislation, they are unsurprisingly falling back on patterns of behaviour they have seen on television.  Regular readers of this blog will know that recently I applied for a job which had 51 essential requirements in its specification.  It took me 8 hours and 10,000 words to respond to each of these.  Of course, many of the requirements were duplicated, but despite me raising the huge number, 3-4 times more than for other comparable jobs, the company sniffily said it had elicited a strong field.  Looking around the six candidates that did not seem to be particularly the case.  Two of the candidates were internal, and one said that she felt she had only been brought in to make up the numbers.  The others seemed fine but not overly strong candidates for what was a senior position.  I suggested to the company that people unlike me, unemployed, and currently working in similar roles would not find time in the short period between the job being advertised and the deadline falling (many companies in my sector allow only 5 days now) to complete such an application.

Anyway, how did they decide to cut down even the six that they had called (I was going to say 'for interview', but as you will see it did not turn out to be as I and others expected)?  Well, they asked us to do a presentation.  This is a very normal part of the recruitment process and, as I have noted before, even with the use of Powerpoint declining candidates are usually invited to present on some big issue for the company.  Taking the often very lengthy title and shaping it into something you can cover in ten minutes is a challenge, and not really one that matches the kind of skills you will need in the job if you get it.  However, it is a ritual and you have to do it.  Often it is a lottery.  In my experience one employer wants minimal detail and the next wants much more.  I have been told that I should not refer to my past experience but point to developments in the future.  I thought I had done that and was then told not in sufficient detail.  If I could predict the future that accurately I would still be doing the lottery.  Another classic one recently was that in my presentation and interview I did not refer to examples from that company's current work.  Given that I have not worked there since 2001 when it was under a different name, if I had known that much about it, it would be verging on industrial espionage; of course, it was just an excuse to recruit the internal candidates, increasingly the common way to cut down the numbers.

Back to the presentation.  Usually this is the precursor to the interview whether immediately or later in the day.  However, in this most recent example it has become very much like an 'X Factor' audition piece.  In contrast to (most) interviews (still, fortunately) after 15 minutes you were judged and an hour later told if you got through to the next round, i.e. the interview.  Not being clairvoyant I failed and was sent home, not having been interviewed.  I made a round trip of 440Km and stayed overnight, on top of the huge application form I had spent a day completing, all for 15 minutes and some sandwiches, not even a cup of coffee. 

I had been invited to a process like this last year, even more abrupt: after 10 minutes of presentation to a panel not of specialists, you would be told to stay or go home.  That would have involved a round trip of 512Km and another overnight stay.  I had planned to go by train but to get a decent price on train tickets you have to book a precise time slot on the train so I would have been gambling if I got through the first phase in the morning or whether I would need to stay in the city until 15.30 or even 17.30.  It was not a gamble I was going to take and I withdrew my application.  Given the amount you have to write on the applications and the fact that many employers take up references before the interview you would think they had more to judge you on than how you can come across in a presentation.  Misinterpret the title (which on more than one occasion has been sent to me with words misspelt) or not have local examples and you are out, just as if you sang off-key because you were nervous at an 'X Factor' audition.  Signing on at present I cannot refuse to attend any interview I am called for, but I certainly would not have put in the effort to get to the 'interview' if I knew in fact I was there to perform for just 15 minutes; I would have 'broken down' on the way or got stuck in some of the numerous road works on the UK's motorways at present.  However, no indication was given that this 'X Factor' approach was to be used, and so, like a fool, I thought I would actually be properly examined not ruled out on the basis of not taking the same interpretation of the title as the panel.

I am an experienced manager who has a range of skills and knowledge which would benefit many companies.  I never pretend to be something I am not, I certainly make my approach to management very clear and I do not lie about my experience.  However, I can see no way to get a job in such a context, despite all the interview training I have received and the fact that, in the past, I have both trained people in how to give presentations and have been highly praised for presentations I have given.  With the 'X Factor' methodology being apparently accepted as a legitimate way to select candidates, it seems that these things count for nothing and I should instead be having radical plastic surgery and learn how to juggle so that I can win through what is now little more than an entertainment/game show format for recruitment.

P.P. 15/04/2011
I have now done 25 interviews in 10 months.  Whilst unemployment has risen during that time, some companies seem to be coming to their senses about job applications.  Given that the jobs I go for typically have 70-100 applicants for every post (I am often told the precise number who applied) companies are realising that if they list 30-50 requirements then it is going to take someone in their company hours to read the application forms and so specifications have dropped back to 15-25 per job.  Of course, I know some industries come down to selecting application forms at random, but as yet, it does not appear that they are doing that for the level of job I am applying for.

The other thing that dawned on me, when for the fourth time I saw a vacancy advertised that I had been interviewed just a few months earlier, that too many companies see a successful interview as a skill in itself.  I guess I was picking up on this when I first wrote this posting.  However, it is only as it has become apparent that whoever they employed in at least four of the jobs I went for, moved on in less than 12 months, I realise that they clearly did not get what they wanted from the recruitment process.  In addition, feedback from a number of interviews has made it clear that I did not get the job because I lacked the skills and expertise required to do the actual job, but just because I pitched myself wrongly in the interview, coming across as too practical in one, too theoretical in another; too confident in one, lacking in confidence in another.  However, the judgement has been on the interview itself, not what the interview revealed about my ability to do the job.  I think this is a key problem, too many companies assume that being able to perform well in interview is somehow a guarantee that you are suited to the job.  They have forgotten that, in fact, an interview should be the process in which you find out more about the applicant.  It seems ironic to judge people on their success in interview when the job will often not involve doing anything like that ever again.  For too many companies, an interview is no longer a process for gaining information it has simply become a competition with someone 'winning' the job for completing the contest.  Consequently, a few months down the line, the company actually finds out that the person best at interviews is not necessarily best in the post, hence the rapid re-advertisement.  You do wonder if the company has changed its attitude sufficiently not to keep making the same mistakes.  Interviews are a tool not an end in themselves!

Friday, 1 October 2010

I Don't Love the 1980s

Back in July 2007, I did a posting which sought to counteract the popular television series 'I Love the '70s' (2000) and its follow-ups, 'I Love the '80s' (2001) and 'I Love the '90s' which I believe was broadcast in 2002 so with its final programme about 1999 was talking about events of only three years earlier.  These programmes looked back in particular at popular culture in one year of each of the decades.  Whilst they did cover some of the political issues of these years it was much more about the upbeat or quirky aspects of pop music and culture of the times and talking to the people involved, though even then selection was careful, for example, the paedophile Gary Glitter (real name Paul Gadd) who had been incredibly successful pop star in the mid-1970s, with twelve consecutive top ten hits in the charts 1972-5, was not featured at all due to his later convictions for abusing children.  Consequently these programmes tended to give a rose-tinted picture especially of the 1970s and 1980s.  As someone who lived through those years, I wanted to counter-balance that perspective.  My view of the 1970s can be seen at:

My intention then had been to follow it up with a 'I Don't Love the 1980s' focusing on the decade which in many ways was even worse than the 1970s and yet almost had instant nostalgia about it, and an 'air brushed' history which focused on the extreme fashions and lively if rather artificial music culture.  Back in 2007, however, I had no inkling that we would be thrust abruptly back into a replica of the 1980s, in fact, with many of its worst aspects compressed into months rather than years.  At the moment we have the cut-backs and privatisation, the unemployment and the racism which took some years to unfold in the 1980s.  Interestingly, I do not seem to have been the only person alert to this, anyone who lived through the 1980s recognises the similarities and knowing what we are going to face in the months and years ahead makes it worse than when we did not know quite what to expect and the full horror was only revealed as the months passed.  Just surfing the television channels in recent weeks I have seen the movie 'This is England' (2006) set in 1983, the follow-up series 'This is England '86' (2010) and the 3-part documentary series 'Alan Davies' Teenage Revolution' (2010).  All of these focus on the nastier side of the 1980s which tends to be forgotten in the nostalgia, especially when it emerges from the USA.

Alan Davies's programme is really an autobiography (which to some degree 'This is England' is for director Shane Meadows, though with more fictional elements included) as he looks back at his teenaged years and how he interacted with the cultural and political trends of the time.  Though Alan Davies is less than two years older than me he was two years ahead of me in terms of schooling so went to university in 1985 whereas I only got there in 1987.  Being older in the early to mid 1980s he was active politically at the time when nuclear weapons were a real issue and the Miners' Strike 1984-5 was a key aspect of British life.  Davies came from a far more privileged background than I did.  I grew up in the Surrey suburbs but our house could have fitted into his at least twice.  I went to a comprehensive school that had been a secondary modern school until  four years before I had attended it whereas Davies went to a public school (i.e. an elite fee-paying school).  However, to the people who faced the blunt end of Thatcherite Britain, for example miners and their families, I lived a privileged life.  My father was never made redundant and my mother found work throughout the period; we never had our house repossessed.  We did know people who suffered these things but were spared them.  I felt hard done by in the 1980s because I was marginalised with my parents treating me as if I was mentally disabled (though ironically not detecting the Asperger's Syndrome symptoms which now seem so apparent) and by friends who looked down upon my family because we lived in the 'wrong' part of town (still leafy suburban roads that most British people would love to live in) and we did not have the consumer items that they felt were necessary for happiness.  My family were also distinct in being Socialists at a time when that belief seemed to be dead or perversely a complete threat to personal liberty.  I was patronised terribly by people who told me that I 'had to accept the need' for Thatcherite policies as if one day I would 'see the light' of how good they were.  I saw them as simply selfish and greedy as I still do today.

It was later than I realised how privileged I had been, when I spoke to man none of whose family had worked since ten years in 1987 and the only people in his village in Scotland who had a job were the man who engraved the gravestones and a gangster.  He moved to Botswana because he could earn a better wage (he earned £7000 per year there, which was ten times the national average salary of Botswana and better than claiming the dole back in Scotland).  Another woman, a white Englishwoman whose family had moved to Scotland where she faced constant prejudice as her father tramped from town to town trying to find work as a teacher.  Even these people did not have their lives wrecked by heroin or had to live in bed and breakfast accommodation.  We all have 'referents', people we compare ourselves too.  Everyone in Britain knows we are better off than most people in Afghanistan or Ethiopia, but when we lose our job or our house, we do not think 'well, it could be worse, I could be starving to death', we look at our referents and see how much worse than them we are.  Thus, I accept that my life in the 1980s was far better than millions of people in the UK, but I felt that I was unfortunate and, anyway, I felt angry for all those without jobs and being hassled by the police.  I suppose that is what being a Socialist is about, having an affinity for other people and striving to make the lives of all people not luxurious but at least decent and importantly, secure.

The one thing I feel that most programmes about the 1980s neglect is how much fear there was.  I do not remember a time when I was not fearful that my father would lose his job, that we would lose our house and anyway that we would be destroyed by a nuclear explosion.  In terms of politics I lived in a very Conservative area, well, that is how most of Surrey is, so rarely found people around me who had even a marginally similar perspective on the world compared to me.  Friends who constantly anticipated a Soviet invasion (the conviction of the reality of this was incredible, even a teacher of ours seeing a group of helicopters flying over the school which was near a NATO base, for a few moments really believed the invasion had come), bragged about how they would fight a guerilla war as they had seen on trashy US movies.  I never expected it to come to that, I anticipated nuclear armageddon.  We knew we had our own Soviet missile as we were near the base and any loud bang at night made me wake thinking the first warheads had hit London some tens of miles away.  That terror was always with us, fuelled by teachers who seem to love showing you movies like 'Threads' (1983) about the outcome of a nuclear war and all the books you would see on the shelves of W.H. Smith outlining similar things.

Another fear towards the end of the 1980s was around AIDS.  It was presented to us not really as a Biblical plague but more as one of those manufactured viruses gone mad that had featured in books, series and movies in the 1970s.  It seemed unstoppable and it also seemed dangerous in the way that it allowed people to be prejudiced, against gays, against people from Africa, though US cities seemed to be the main breeding ground of the disease at the time.  Growing up in suburban England it did seem very much to be 'someone else's' problem and adults around us blamed others.  Schools were rather torn, not wanting to be seen to promote teenagers having sex and because of things such as Clause 28 of the Local Government Act (1986-2002/3) which banned the positive portrayal of homosexual relations in lessons talk around any sexual issues now seemed prescribed.  We were warned about the risks of drug addiction though, and I remember pretty graphic stories clearly aimed at pupils from the sort of context I lived in, about 'nice girls' getting hooked on drugs and ending up as prostitutes and HIV-infected.  The bulk of us not being drug users of any kind (and even under-age binge drinking had yet to be invented) it made AIDS seem still like something that Americans would suffer or homeless people in London.  In addition, the popular cultural coverage, movies like 'Long Term Companion' (1989) and later 'Philadelphia' (1993) seemed to suggest it was something that rich Americans suffered from.  AIDS was not featured in the grim British soap opera, 'Eastenders' until 1992 and in the similar children's series 'Grange Hill' until 1995.

Reaching university welfare officers of the Student's Union seemed to be fired up by the fact that they could not give demonstrations about the use of condoms.  I think it was a good step that condoms were now much more readily available.  However, the UK still has a long way to go before a teenager can by them from a dispensing machine on the street as I saw in West Germany in 1989 (ironically sold from a cigarette machine) or was to see in Belgium subsequently. 

I suppose there were students in the UK who were going in for promiscuous, dangerous sex, it was just that I never seemed to encounter any and AIDS remained simply a subject for people to cover in 'alternative' fiction anthologies that were popular in universities of the time, though the stories I remember were as lurid as those in the tabloid press the authors supposedly loathed.  I found out subsequently that 40% of students leave university without having sex and you have to bear in mind that many arrive already having had it (and when I was at university there was an increasing number of mature students in the mix who had children and even grandchildren).  I was lumped in with a very puritan crowd which might reflect where I went to university or just fate.  One man I knew, even once in bed with a woman turned to her and said he could not go threw with it because he did not believe in pre-marital sex.  Apparently she took it very calmly.  A woman living on my corridor would sleep on the floor of her room from Wednesday when the sheets were changed so that when her boyfriend arrived on Saturday he could sleep alone on clean sheets.  To me there seemed to be something going wrong with feminism let alone sex.  In such a context it appeared that even those in relationships were not having sex.  No wonder AIDS seemed to be very far away.

For me, I was very conscious that I had come to university as not only a virgin but a man who had not had a girlfriend since he was 10.  My parents had done a wonderful jump in utterly crushing my self-confidence by repeatedly portraying me as looking as if I was mentally disabled and I was self-conscious about getting naked from the bodged operation which had left me with a 12cm scar.  I did ask women out, nine in three years, but was always rebuffed, and in some cases, as when taking my 'A' levels I seemed to be always pursuing a disinterested woman when one who had some interest in me was growing impatient at my lack of response.  My understanding nature soon made me one of those men that women pour their hearts out to about how badly their boyfriend is treating them, when in fact, I wanted to be their boyfriend.  My parents, despite having stripped me of the confidence necessary to strike up an intimate relationship, now seemed bemused, at times even angry, that I was not having sexual encounters.  Having been young in the 1960s and in industries which saw quite a lot of promiscuity, but not actually having been to university, they did not understand the puritan environment I was living in and that no woman was in fact particularly interested in me as a sexual partner.  It was not to be until the following century, more than fifteen years later, that I actually had sex. Thus, seeing myself as a liberal Democratic Socialist, I supported safe sex campaigns and events to educate people about sexual health.  However, in terms of myself and how I lived my life it had as much impact as lesbian rights did.  As with the nuclear war issue, I did worry I would be one of the survivors of the post-apocalyptic environment when so many people had died of AIDS that society would break down.  Thus, while not worrying about how it would impact on my health, AIDS was another terrible aspect of the 1980s that added to my overall level of terror for the future.

Unlike Alan Davies, I had never been a great 'joiner' of clubs and societies.  I had been in a judo club for some months as a child and that was it.  Partly that was because of my condition, I see now.  I much preferred to stay in my room and design 'dungeons' for the game 'Dungeons & Dragons' or write fiction, the classic geek.  For me the inner world was the greatest escape.  I had friends, but would have to face up to lectures from their mothers and fathers about how deluded my politics were.  Perhaps if my parents had remained living in London, I would have met more people who thought like me.  I used to fantasise about meeting a radical girlfriend, but it never happened.  Partly because I was useless in social circles and because the only radicals in my district were those who felt that Margaret Thatcher was not going far enough in her policies and were not afraid to say it.  For some reason these were usually girls rather than boys who tended to stick to their post-armageddon fantasies.  Of course, when you are a teenager girls want older men anyway and given that I was patronised, looked as ugly as I do now, except with added acne and adhered to geeky hobbies, I was hardly an attractive proposition.

I did join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), but almost immediately regretted it.  For some reason I had gone to a CND meeting, probably in 1984, in a neighbouring town and for the first time after numerous invitations the local (Conservative) MP decided to turn up and debate, in a pretty civilised way, with the local group.  Heady from that achievement and seeing some attractive girls from my school in the audience I agreed to join the local party and as a consequence received a newsletter on a green piece of A4 pushed through my letterbox every month or so.  Being fearful, however, I instantly anticipated that I had now wrecked my chances of ever getting a job.  I think this stemmed a great deal from my parents.  My mother had marched with the original CND in the 1960s and whilst pleased the movement had been reinvigorated in the 1980s instilled a real fear in me of the consequences of being involved in radical movements.  My father had been an active trade unionist in the 1970s and growing up I was used to hearing the tapping of our telephone, a fear my mother continued even into the 1990s when I imagine MI5 had long lost interest in my father and the equipment was far more sophisticated.  My mother, when not reminding me how much I looked like someone who was suffering from Down's Syndrome, told me the danger of being lured to join the Communist Party.  As a result, every time the CND letter arrived I was worried that the police would be close behind it.

It took me two attempts to get to university which I managed to do in 1987 after having retaken my 'A' levels and inexplicably the grades jumping far higher despite me writing much the same as I had the year before.  By that stage the Thatcher regime was so ensconced, that, being interested in history, I feared that to get into my chosen career (working for the civil service), I would have not only to disengage from any radical groups but also actually become a member of the Conservative Party.  I believed that democracy would soon be at an end and that as under the Nazi and Soviet regimes only party members would be permitted to have a career in public service.  I had never paid any fees to the CND group since that first evening and yet they had not stopped sending me the newsletter.  I was sure that meant I was on their list and so would be on MI5's.  I saw the only way was to break very clearly from the group and I wrote to then pretending that I had been foolish, having mistakenly believed they supported multilateral disarmament (which was supposedly the Thatcher government's line that they would get rid of nuclear weapons if everyone else did; I doubt their sincerity, I do not believe they ever intend(ed) to get rid of them) but to my horror had found out that they were unilateralists (the Labour Party's approach in the early 1980s, that the UK should get rid of nuclear weapons no matter what anyone else did) and felt I had been deluded by them and that they should not only stop sending me their newsletter but remove me from any list or I would take legal action against them.  I met the member who had signed me up originally at a party and he scowled at me, but that was it, fortunately, and I never saw him again.

By the time I reached university when I did begin to encounter people with similar views to me (in very small numbers and certainly very rare in my student hall which seemed to be full of Oxbridge failures who wanted to live 'Brideshead Revisited' at a modern university), I was afraid we would be doomed to a life of unemployment if we expressed political views not in accordance with the government.  I had intended to join the Conservative Party as I felt it would be the only way to secure a job, but ulitmately could not bring myself to do that.  Unlike Alan Davies, and many people I met myself, by 1987, I had no belief that any action by ordinary people could effect the course of the government's policies.  Having seen the miners broken in 1985, I felt we were on course for a full-blown dictatorship by the 1990s.  I did become a bit radical towards the end of my time at university, ironically, when Thatcher was running out of steam.  I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and helped arrange some events; I even occupied a university library.  I think my late found radicalism only came about after I found I had developed diabetes and, in a self-destructive spiral, was drinking far too much alcohol and eating tons of chocolate, assuming I would be dead by 1991 and so would not suffer the consequences of any youthful rebellion.  However, I missed out on the excitement of being radical, the heady rush of for some moments believing you could actually change things.  Maybe I am a natural cynic, but I had the worst of both worlds hating the system but having no faith that I could do anything about it.  Looking back, of course, the protest movements achieved nothing (maybe that is harsh: fortunately no nuclear war yet but still nuclear weapons in the UK; but no more apartheid; better rights for gay people, marginally better for women and disabled people; still policies damaging the environment; still Thatcherism), but I wish at least I had had sufficient hope to have tried, to have been among that number.  Instead, I have seen my expectations mainly realised and yet am burdened by the guilt of not helping those who fought for what I believe I believe in.

Looking back at the programmes of the 1980s, I still get a feeling of awe when I see Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Billy Bragg speaking/singing back then, but I feel I betrayed them.  I was untrue to my beliefs and in the fear or what damage it would do to me personally bottled out of demonstrating or becoming truly involved.  Part of the problem, I think was that my parents had been radical in the 1960s and seeing how little they had achieved and the cost it had imposed on their lives, I was very cynical that anything could be changed with a far harsher government, eager to use the police to suppress protest than had been the case in the 1960s.  My parents did not fill me with radical fervour just additional fear about how my life turned out.  Looking back I realise I feared the wrong things.  I should have been more active which would have relieved me of my current burden of guilt, but ironically should have studied to be a lawyer or an accountant, so would not be now facing losing my house because I am unemployable now that Thatcherism is back.

That was my 1980s: fear.  Fear of nuclear armageddon, fear of never working, fear of being arrested for my views.  Of course, though, in fact I was in a privileged position (in those days only 6% of 18-year olds went to university it is now 42%), those fears and realities affected millions of people.  Unemployment was around 3.4 million in 1986 and was, in reality, far higher.  Thousands of people lost their houses, thousands did not work for years.  Nuclear war was a constant shadow over everything.  No-one I knew, and probably only one person I ever me, ever lived the 1980s 'dream' of champagne, fast cars and jobs in The City and even he may not have got there.  The 1980s had some decent television dramas; it had the Goth movement the greatest gift to culture of the decade; it had the music of Billy Bragg and The Jam which remain timeless, it also had terrible television programmes and trashy pop music. 

More importantly, very deliberately in the 1980s, the last sense of community was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher's declarations that there was no such thing as society and that we were always under threat from those supposedly trying to undermine our way of life, whereas, in fact, it was her who was wrecking it from the foundations up.  Selfishness and greed became engrained into British society and we are still paying the price for that with massive imbalance in incomes, in insecure jobs and even reckless driving.  Thatcher made these things not only seem acceptable, in contrast to the striving for a more equitable society in previous decades, but almost something we should all be striving for if we did not wish to be tarred with the brush of being Socialists.  That is the reality of the 1980s.  I lived in well-off southern England, it bit far harder elsewhere in the UK wrecking millions of lives with poverty, crime and addiction.

I am glad some people are reminding they youth and older people how bad the 1980s were and how bad the 2010s are going to be.  Constant fears and being told you did not even deserve what you had worked for, were the reality of the 1980s and this is why I can only loathe that decade.  If you were too young to experience the 1980s, know it is coming to your street this very day.  Be afraid, be very afraid.