Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sent From Home At 8 Years Old: How Boarding Schools Screw Up Britain

It has always struck me as odd that local authorities and children's homes battle so hard to find adoptive parents or at least foster parents for the children in their care, 'in care' as the phrase goes and yet wealthy parents are permitted to send their children away from home to boarding schools which pretty much resemble children's homes of the past.  It is argued that children need solid families to permit them to grow up as balanced individuals and less likely to fall into crime, mental health and a whole range of problems that impinge on UK society.  However, the rules for the privileged seem to be very different and they are allowed to put their children into a context which severely damages them and in fact makes them socially disfunctional.  The huge difference is that a child from a children's home will never become an MP whereas a child sent to a boarding school quite possibly will end up in the government or a leading civil servant or military commander or lawyer or clergy person.  Why do we think it is fine to cut one set of people off from their families, and in some cases actually see it as a better method and yet for another set of people it is seen as something we should be trying to end and to find families that will take these children and give them a 'proper' family? Of course, one argument is that it is about money.  By definition, a child sent to a boarding school comes from a wealthy family so even if they have no talent or are lazy they will succeed and will get a house and a good job whereas a child from a children's home or local authority care has no-one to provide these advantages so are more likely to end up homeless or facing mental health issues.

The thing that triggered off this posting was the Channel 4 programme 'Cutting Edge' which today had an episode 'Leaving Home at 8' about 8 year old girls sent from their parents to a boarding school.  For those unfamiliar with the UK system, boarding schools are those at which a child stays all year except during school vacations.  They sleep, eat and live at the school.  Some of these boarding schools are the elite 'public' schools, but there are other less prestigious institutions.  They all do, however, charge high fees which mean a small slice of the population can attend.  However, as adults this small slice is over represented among the elites in British public life and business.  In total 67,000 children in the UK attend boarding schools; 59,000 children are in local authority care.  Of children in care 53% leave school with no qualifications; 45% end up with a mental health disorder (compared to 10% of the general population) and of those people in custody 30% have been in care, though children in care make up only 0.5% of all children.  In contrast 70% of judges, 68% of barristers, 55% of partners in law firms, 54% of journalists and 54% of doctors went to fee paying independent schools, of which boarding schools make up 13% of the total private school pupil population.

The programme was harrowing even though it featured very privileged people, the girls themselves were distraught at being separated from their parents and many of the parents were too.  This is unsurprising.  At 8 a child can do many things on their own but they are far from being an independent person.  Whilst boarding schools probably lack the bullying and in fact torture of pupils by others whether their peers or older, that happened in the past, certainly it is an unhealthy environment into which children should be put, and this is recognised by the fact that, as noted above, local authorities and charities always seek to house children in their care with adoptive parents as much as they can.

The damage that boarding schools do to children was highlighted in a 2008 investigation by MPs:  Of course, not only are there the initial problems created by taking a child from their home and putting them in an instituion, anyone who has worked in the UK especially in London and towns like Oxford where adults who went to boarding school are more numerous, sees the problems that such an education lays for life.  The people who have been through the boarding school system have been doing something like military service for their childhood and of course this makes them tough but it also makes them very callous and uncaring about others.  I have seen no evidence in adults who attended boarding school, of the team spirit that such schools argue they promote.  When you have had no privacy, no space of your own, no space to be yourself and no security for the things you hold dear, of course you will always snatch whatever you can from others and give no thought to anyone's needs bar your own.

I will take a real life case: a woman I met some years ago in Oxford.  Her name was Tiffany 'Tiffy' Foster who though from Suffolk had attended a boarding school in Oxfordshire.  Her family numbered senior military officers and clergymen in its ranks.  I worked with her for nine months and found immediately that she viewed anyone she met who had not been to such a school with disdain which was ironic as she wanted to become a school teacher in a comprehensive school presumably to lord it over the pupils and fellow staff.  She argued that we who had not attended a boarding school were all too weak to deal with life. I was particularly angered when she complained that neither a single (by determined choice) mother who had an incredibly intelligent  daughter able to produce poetry that scanned at the age of eight stood no chance in life before she was not faced with the toughness of a boarding school.  She made no apology for the advantages of wealth and connections she had gained that made her life so easy.  However, this did not stop her taking other people's things in the office without apology.  I guess that the privileged do not feel rules apply to them or really that anyone else's concerns matter.  Another offensive remark she made was to ask what all the fuss was about the First World War (she intended to teach history).  I asked her what was the lowest rank of any of her family who had fought in that war and she said colonel; none of her relatives died in the war.  The highest rank any of my ancestors attained was sergeant-major and that was because he had served in the Anglo-Boer War in which he was decorated.  He was demoted twice for striking officers who were younger and less experienced than him but casualties always meant re-promotion.  He survived the war but died soon after from the affects of gas poisoning.  I have come a long way in social standing from that ancestor of mine (he drove a tram in peacetime) but I realised that it brought minimally closer to where Tiffany saw herself as standing.  To make such a remark about the war that took the lives of millions and mutilated many others was sickening.  Other boarding school families were not spared in the way the Fosters were, yet her own narrow horizons and self-obsession, promoted by her schooling barred her from seeing that.

This is one example, I have encountered many others in my career, but fortunately now I am out in the provinces, far fewer than I once did.  The trouble is that the higher echelons of our society are filled with these people and unfortunately no-one seems to really ask whether people who have been through such a harsh, uncaring school system (despite the efforts of the teachers to make it welcoming, the whole set up of divorce from their parents cannot be counter-balanced effectively) are really mentally fit to have so much power.  Of course, the generation above them lift them up without even thinking about it and they have an effective propaganda machine working for them.  When training as a teacher in a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire I was stunned to find that the headmaster of that school which took a wide range of ordinary pupils had a peculiar deference for neighbouring boarding schools.  Did he have no faith in the system he was part of?  Did he simply do it because it was a job?  Did he look on his own pupils with disdain and only see his role as fulfilling some compelled duty?  He might have been an isolated case, but the way that he privileged teachers who had had a boarding school background, was rather unsettling.  Even though he had not been part of that system he was incredibly deferential towards it much to the dismay to those who had come up through the same type of school that he was overseeing.  I do not have to say anything about the Harry Potter stories and how they show that boarding school pupils are 'magic' and special, to indicate that boarding schools get lots of free propaganda, most importantly to educate us, the bulk of the population, how reverential we should be to their pupils and alumni.

The sense that boarding schools are 'special' producing exceptional people, rather, than in fact, screwed up ones with out-of-date knowledge, is terribly prevalent in UK society.  Even the review in 'The Guardian' of this 'Cutting Edge' programme ended saying '... the kindness of the teachers shows that the boarding school model, somewhat [!] anachronistic in the 21st century, can still work.'  Work at what?  Producing another whole generation of people who will get power as a gift, almost a right, and yet have been screwed up by a system that makes it impossible for them to engage properly with the large majority of people they will encounter in everyday life.  However much they dislike it, they will have to mix with the rest of us.

Anachronistic is the word.  The boarding school system harks back to a period long before even the Victorian era.  I would argue that it owes much to ancient Sparta and the sense that children need to be becoming warriors from birth and that the weak should be exposed, marginalised from 'proper' society.  If we witnessed families, say in China, sending their young children, to be taught in 'education camps' there would be dismay and anger and yet that is what we see in the UK.  There would certainly concern about the future of China and its place in the world if these children were being groomed to run the country.  Yet, that is precisely what happens in the UK.  Boarding schools are bad for the UK because they screw up the people who are going to be our leaders and make them unsuited for the posititons of power they are going into.  Of course, I would ban them immediately.  In the meantime, however, I hope we can shift opinions of those people, you and me, who suffer at the hands of the selfish, arrogant, greedy former boarding school pupils and rather see them as 'special' in a way that we should pay deference to, but see them as people with 'special needs', people effectively mistreated by uncaring parents and in need of particular help in living in modern UK society.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Blogging the Blog 10: The Demand For Brevity

Given what I have written recently about running out of steam in terms of blogging, I was interested to read on the BBC website: that interest in blogging among teenagers, aged 12-17, has halved from 2006 with only 14% involved in keeping blogs, though among people aged 30+ it rose from 7% in 2007 to 11% now.  To some degree this is no surprise, young people like to 'own' the technology they use and are resentful when others such as their schools, colleges or other public bodies let alone people like politicians beginning trying to use the facilities to try to get their message across.  Once adults are involved it stops being 'cool'.  This may be why young people have not engaged with Twitter which with its brief often text message style communication would appear to be suited to them.  However, who is the most renowned Twitter user in the UK?  Though many pop stars and DJs use it, the figurehead here is Stephen Fry, a gay actor, presenter, writer and raconteur aged 52.  In fact if you search for Stephen Fry on Google, the most popular suffix to his name is 'Twitter'.

There is another reason which, I feel discourages young people from both blogging and Twitter and that is because it needs commitment.  It is far easier, for example, to post an odd mood statement once in a while or upload some photos or link to a YouTube clip from a Facebook page once in a while.  Online friends may be concerned if you do not add anything for a while, but the core of the page with your picture, interests, etc. remains whatever you do.  Conversely, campaigns, for example about the 'A' level biology exams, are now based on Facebook or MySpace groups rather than someone blogging their grievance.  These things come and go rather than continuing for months.  So what is enduring at present are things you do not have to keep doing but can engage and disengage from at will.

For a blog, if you do not see a posting in the past month, you tend to assume the site is dead and you look somewhere else.  Of course, even aged blogs can be useful and I often find postings about things from a few years back there, but in terms of speaking about the individual behind the blog and what interests them, then a stagnant blog is not useful.  Blogging is like keeping an old fashioned diary and while some people do that many people who start one have given up by March, so lasting about as long as the average blog.  Perhaps one reason why I am still blogging is because I have kept a diary every day for the past 32 years anyway, some of it has formed the basis of postings here.  Blog implies chronology.  The word comes from 'web log' and a log is something like captains of ships keep noting day by day activity.  If nothing is reported it is at least moribund if not dead.

One explanation in the BBC article about the reason for the decline of blogging among the young is the ability to give 'status updates' much more easily, and this is what they term 'micro blogging', though, really that is a misnomer, because no log is kept, it is replaced by a difference status indicator.  Another explanation is that blogging is seen as too involved as you have to string some paragraphs together and that is seen as too burdensome.  This, I feel ties into a development which I have began to experience, especially at work.

In my company, some senior staff see even a single panel of an email screen of text as 'too much' and I get complaints about 'lengthy' emails.  The trouble is often issues are more complex than a couple of paragraphs.  Especially as I have experienced using individual words from emails back against me, taking them out of context, I now take a great deal of care with what I write.  I was told I needed more modal verbs, like 'could', 'would', 'should' and to make phrasing more ambivalent rather than certain.  Yet the demand for short email messages cuts against this.  Email is a terse form of communication and now we are being pressed to make it epigrammatic.  Haiku is a difficult skill that most of us cannot pull off.  The hazard of summarising things for Powerpoint slides, which only really comfortably hold four points, has long been identified for contributing to the explosion of the space shuttle 'Columbia' in 2003 as it meant that in presentations minor, but vital technical issues could not be commuicated to the necessary audiences.

The assumption that all ideas can be contained within a particular length of communication is a dangerous one, as is the assumption that 'long' automatically means 'bad' or 'inefficient', especially as no other information about what was wrong or superfluous in the email is given; the length itself is now an offence no matter what content it touches on.  I have pointed out that mine only have multiple paragraphs when dealing with complex issues; many conversely are only a single sentence or even just a clause.  People seem, also to forget, that emails are a record and ironically those people who whine about long emails seem the ones most likely to send you reminder emails about what they sent you last week even when you have it.  I know as a society we have a shorter attention span than people of the past (fancy attending a 2-hour speech by a politician as in Gladstone's day anyone?) but there need to be limits as to how far we try to force communication into being as brief as possible.  While none of us want turgid lengthy text, we also need to see that a thorough exposition of an issue, especially ones seeking a decision in business, is vital and not to discourage them simply because it is not the fashion.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Movies Giving A Realistic Portrayal Of Sex

Before proceeding, I have to point out that this is not a posting about explicit sex movies.  In fact of the two movies I am going to mention, though one, has been rated an 18 in the UK it is rated 12-16 in other EU states and U for universal in France, the other has been rated 15 but as low as 11-12 in other EU states.  Sex features in both movies, but it is not the focus and a lot of it is implied rather than observed.  This posting builds on previous ones about advice to young people and also media coverage of the very distorted view teenagers, especially boys, are getting about sex and how this impinging badly on their relationships.  Compared to even twenty years ago it is extremely easy for young people to view explicit sex on the internet, no matter what controls are put in place. 

As was noted on the television programme shown in two series in 2008 and 2009 on Channel 4 in the UK, 'Sexperience - The Sex Education Show Vs. Pornography' the distorted picture that young people get from pornography gives them unrealistic expectations about sexual encounters they may.  It was noted that teenage boys expect women their age to have artificially enhanced breasts of the size shown in such movies and that if their penis is not the size of the men shown then they are inadequate.  In addition, the favoured approaches shown in much pornography especially ejaculation into women's faces is now often perceived by young men as the 'normal' way to have sex and so they bully women their age into doing such things that they (like the majority of women) are uncomfortable with.  As the 'norm' is defined by such distorted portrayals, it gives force to peer pressure to behave in this way rather than actually what is more ordinary, typical sexual behaviour in the UK.  Other impacts are poor knowledge about STIs and a feeling among young people that aggressive behaviour in a relationship is acceptable.  Ironically, heavy sexualisation of our media is meaning that young people are ending up with misogynistic, unhealthy approaches of, say, the 1950s.

Reflecting on this and my recent posting citing Percy Sledge and William Shakespeare as two sources of what I feel is useful information for young people (partly with a thought about how I am going to be called on to advise the 8 year old boy who lives in my house in the future) I began thinking, what would I point to in terms of movies that I felt gave a better impression of what real sex is about.  By this I mean all the aspects like cramp and farting and the fact that people's bodies are pretty ordinary and quirky and yet all of these things do not prevent you from having a great deal of pleasure, a lot of fun and vitally wonderful companionship and shared experiences with someone through having sex with them.  I have come up with two examples I would start with.  Being heterosexual I have gone for two heterosexually-orientated movies and realised just now that I have never thought of a good movie to point a gay young person at.  At a stretch I would recommend 'Go Fish' (1994) and 'Rosebud' (1991) for lesbians, though people might say they are more romance than about sex, but for gay men I would be stumped.  I leave such recommendations to those with more knowledge of gay-focused than me.

So, what are the two movies that I would direct a young man towards to get at least a half-decent realistic view of sex.  Wanting to end on a happy note, I will mention 'The Year's Love' (1999) first.  At the time this was categorised as a comedy in much of the publicity and in that way was as wrongly mislabelled as 'Muriel's Wedding' (1994) had been some years earlier.  'This Year's Love' is an episodic UK movie following the relationships of three men and three women living around Camden in North London.  It is almost a downbeat version of romantic comedies of the time, notably 'Four Weddings and A Funeral' (1994) stretching between the break up of a couple at their wedding to their final reconciliation.  Reviews of the movie often state that the characters 'swap' partners, but in fact it is nowhere as organised as this and the characters intersect with each other, drifting in and out of relationships.  The tone becomes increasingly bitter with only a little bittersweet to lift it at the end.  Some of the characters come off badly, notably, that played by Ian Hart, Liam, suffering a mental breakdown brought on by the difficulties of finding and retaining a partner.  Marey, played by Kathy Burke, ultimately finds greater happiness in singing in a pub band than in any relationship.

This might seem the total antithesis of a movie about sex.  However, sex does feature a great deal as it is a movie about relationships of sexually active people.  A lot of the sex is imperfect and that is actually what sex is about, not the stylised, air brushed view off too much pornography.  There is a warning for young men in the scene in which Liam is trying to conduct oral sex on Sophie, played by Jennifer Ehle (turning her 'Pride and Prejudice' role on its head).  He is equipped with a torch fitted to his head, but despite repeated attempts only elicits criticism from the frustrated Sophie who anticipates perfect tongue action from her partner.  Some women seem to think that this their right.  Anyone engaging in sex needs to recognise that every partner, every time there is sexual contact even in the same evening will function differently.  This is why the movie is so educational.  It shows that unlike what pornography may tell you, even one-night stands do not happen in a vacuum.  Sex happens in a context, almost a framework of not only interaction between the participants, but also fears, expectations and assumptions.  If you do not engage with that framework and work at it properly then no good sex can ever come out of it.  Trying to be anonymous lovers, passing strangers in the night having sex, actually needs far more work and care than simply ending up having a 'quickie' with your long-term partner once the cuddling on the sofa has developed further than usual.  'The Year's Love' might make young people feel that in fact sex is so over-rated that it is not worth the bother, though I imagine even with that dousing, hormones will have something to say about maintaining abstinence.

The other movie I would point to, is more accurately portrated as being a romantic comedy, but even this is leavened by certain aspects.  This movie is 'The Tall Guy' (1989).  In many ways this can be seen as a the mirror-image of 'Four Weddings And A Funeral'.  It is about a romance between an American man (as opposed to an American woman in Four Weddings) played by a moderately successful actor at the time, Jeff Goldblum (actress, Andie MacDowell) and an English woman, Emma Thompson (man, Hugh Grant) whose parts had been predominantly historical (though Thompson had done some comedy she was best known for wartime set serial 'Fortunes of War') up until then.  Infamously 'Four Weddings And A Funeral' is about a set of rich friends very few of whom seem to do any paid work.  In 'The Tall Guy', Goldblum's character, Dexter King is a stage actor and Thompson's, Kate Lemon, a nurse.  The movie charts King's troubles in dealing with his arrogant, bullying boss, trying to escape ex-girlfriends and build a relationship with Lemon while giving into temptation to infidelity with an actress. 

There are comic turns and Geraldine James as a nymphomaniac turns assumptions about her characters, notably from 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1984) on their head.  However, there are touching parts such as when Lemon gives King a toy pig when he has been inundated with toy elephants on his first night of appearing in 'The Elephant Man: The Musical'.  The practical way they get down to sex and that it is a ramshackle affair sending them sprawling all over a flat is wonderful.  It is not unrealistic sex (though it might be a challenge to reconstruct) but it is loving, nitty gritty sex of the kind that everyone has the chance to experience.  This movie shows that sex, especially in a sustained relationship (and King learns the value of fidelity), is what can lift up the kind of ordinary lives we lead.  It is not perfect and it may be messy but it is probably the most wonderful thing we can get up to.

I suppose movies are about escapism for a lot of people, but they cannot but help inform us, especially when we are young about life that we might aspire to.  Even before pornography became so easily accessible and distorted young people's view of real sex, I remember my mother saying that these days, unlike in her youth in the 1950s and 1960s (she was 20 in 1958), a young man could not learn how to kiss a woman by watching a movie.  All he learned these days was to slap her around and leap into bed with her for sex.  Even if you are going to end up having sex there are numerous steps on the way there which there is minimal guidance on.  Even if a young woman is going to ultimately do oral sex on you, generally there is a lot of kissing to tackle first.  I am not saying that movies have to be instructional videos, I am just noting that given how much the media shapes our expectations and behaviours let us have a few more movies that show us something a little more accurate about sexual encounters.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Proportional Representation: Why Has It Taken So Long To Even Get This Close?

I was interested to hear on the news as part of the pre-election campaign that the government is now scheduling a vote on whether the UK moves to a referendum on introducing proportional representation for elections to the Westminster parliament.  These days, which parliament you are referring to is an important distinction because, despite the UK's apparent adherence to the first-past-the-post electoral system, in fact now for a number of elections in the UK, proportional representation is already in use. 

There is proportional representation for all elections to the European Parliament from UK consituencies, for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly since their creation in 1998, for the Northern Ireland Assembly since 2003 and in Scottish local elections since 2007.  So the concern that the British public would find it difficult to understand proportional representation seem to be disproved.  I know it does not apply to England where 83% of the UK population live, except for European elections which have a poor turnout, but anyone who has been a student and this is now more than 40% of 18-year olds will have the chance to engage with proportional representation in student union elections too.

Of course, when New Labour was uncertain of winning a clear majority in 1997 it laid out a series of constitutional reforms to attract what was seen as centre ground middle class people, especially those who back the Liberal Democrats in local or national elections.  This ground is very muddied now with the Liberal Democrats having seemingly been to the left of Labour in the early 2000s and now to their right, leaving a void on the left (and too much on the right with the UKIP and BNP attracting extremists).  Of course, given that Labour had been out of office for 18 years mainly in opposition to a government that had one a minority of the actual total votes, you could understand why they were sympathetic to an electoral system which more truly reflected their level of suppport and would have prevented what was termed the 'elected dictatorship' of the Thatcher years.  Naturally smaller parties, notably the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors, have always been supportive of proportional representation.  As I observed back in March 2008:  if the UK had had proportional representation it would have been a three-party state for much of the 20th century.

When Tony Blair's New Labour won the largest majority seen in the 20th century in British elections, the need to woo Liberal Democrat MPs into working with Labour disappeared immediately.  Not only the 'big tent' approach which had even envisaged Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet went instantly, a lot of the Liberal Democrat attracting ideas went too.  In the almost 13 years since Labour came to power we have seen minimal reform of the House of Lords, and as the MPs' expenses scandals showed, parliament as a whole has been neglected in terms of reform.  We are no nearer to an elected upper house than we were back in 1997 and in fact faith in the parliamentary system has been damaged.  Of course, the large majority's Labour won and the lack of need to actually address the parliamentary system suited Blair's personal, presidential, arrogant style of rule.  The extent of this was revealed to us further today in Clare Short's testament to the Chilcot Inquiry.  Behind the facade of chummy government, in fact the Cabinet system was as suppressed under Blair's smiling approach as it had been under Thatcher's scowling one; both were smug and unapologetic over the lack of democracy, accountability and discussion at the core of government as well as in each branch.

So, in 2010, Gordon Brown finds himself in a position which resembles in part the one Tony Blair was in back in 1997.  He is concerned that there will be a hung parliament and he is stacking up the policies that will woo the Liberal Democrat MPs if they are willing to fall for the trick again.  He is also building up a policy which may prevent Labour being out of office for the next one to two decades.  This is a real danger as it is estimated that the Conservatives' plans for redrawing of constituencies would make it far harder.  As Scotland and Wales places where Labour has always been strong, go more their own way, this may mean them losing any chance of a majority in England, and certainly for now, thus in the UK.  Of course, it is too late.  It was a mistake to wait 13 years to move towards proportional representation.  It would have been better in, say, 2000 once the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were up and running and people could see proportional representation working and could talk to British people who were not confused by it.  The Conservatives have never had an interest in proportional representation.  Unsurprising given that they were in power for a majority of the time in the 20th century.  Keeping the first-past-the-post system will also slow the haemorraging of Conservative supporters or potential Conservative supporters among the formerly politically inactive towards UKIP and the BNP, which after the European elections seems a reality with all the violence and harship even small gains by these parties bring in their wake.

The UK has been prevaricating over proportional representation for over ninety years now and it is time to move towards it.  Yes, it will mean extreme parties appearing in parliament, but it will also mean that sectional interests get a look in, drawing more people to democracy.  I can see the benefits of Green Party, a grey party, an Islamic party, a Socialist party let alone regional interest parties, having representation at Westminster.  Of course, the right wing is in fact already better equipped, with UKIP and the BNP able to get representation quickly as well as probably people like the Countryside Alliance.  Having such parties will mean that the existing parties will be compelled to shake off their complacency and be compelled to argue their case much more vigorously.  Blair could never have coped with a parliament chosen by proportional representation, he believed he was always right and had no need to explain himself.  In a parliament where more sections of society is represented and new groups can rise up if people are dissatisfied, politicians have to work harder.  In such a context we more likely would have been spared a fudged decision to invade Iraq and had had a strict policing of MPs' expenses.

Contrary to the assumptions by some last year that Cameron would simply walk into being prime minister, I have always thought that the battle would be tougher.  I think Labour and even Brown can offer good solutions for the UK and I am sure a less divided society than the one Cameron would foster.  It is a pity that proportional representation has been wheeled out once again in these circumstances rather than put into place properly mid-way through Labour's 13 years in office, or even earlier.  Democracy in the UK is weak.  It is archaic, too much (notably the House of Lords and the royal prerogative) is in fact undemocratic and it is too easily manipulated when the electorate is disinterested and elections are sewn up between two parties.  Too little attention is being paid in the run-up to the election to policies that will promote true democracy in the UK.  Instead the focus is purely on how hard we are going to beaten in cut-backs.  If you come face-to-face with a candidate surprise them and ask them what steps they are going to take to make the UK a real democracy for the first time.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Blogging The Blog 9: Running Out Of Steam?

This is my 600th blog posting which may seem an odd number to commemorate but when I look down the list of postings for editing they are listed in groups of 300 so I am now at the top of my second page.  This blog has now been running for two years and nine months compared to the three months which is supposed to be the average.  However, as the few postings last month show, perhaps I am running out of things to say.  I think in part it is now that I am in a job and so do not have the time between writing applications to comment on the world, nor the time to read the newspaper or websites to pick up stories to explore.  I think a large part of the problem is that when I started the blog I had a lot of ideas, complaints and observations, fiction too, that I had been carrying around for many years looking for an outlet.  Over the past couple of years I have probably covered the bulk of those things and with me not going on holiday or travelling anywhere new and now having a very shrunken social circle compared to ten years ago, I am just not getting new input to stimulate comments. 

I identified three types of blog: the journal blog, the scrapbook blog and the anger management blog.  In terms of the journal blog, I have too few new experiences to warrant postings of that kind. I do get some, but they tend to be a reflection on what I read in the newspapers and what I see on the road.  Having to travel for my work and being holed up in a hotel room for much of the week, these are narrow horizons so reduce the stimulus that would provoke blog postings.  In terms of travel I have not left the UK for almost two years now and that time it was only for two days.  I have not been on holiday even in the UK for almost two years and on that occasion I was so ill I could not appreciate it.  I have no holidays planned and not even any work travel outside my daily and wekely commutes. Consequently, experiences outside my home and work towns are limited and even in them I move in very small circles from home to the shops and back and from the hotel to work and back.  There is some artificial input from recounting my journeys of decades passed, but by definition they are finite and I am going to soon run out.  Also it simply emphasises how little I am doing with my life these days.

The lack of source material also applies to me doing a scrapbook blog, I have scoured the internet for items of interest to me to include and until I begin a new interest have exhausted the supply. With my addicition to online gaming and when tired of that, basic computer gaming, I am not even writing fiction to potentially fill these pages.  Detective novels set in Weimar Germany seem to be an established sub-genre these days so the wind has been taken from my sails in that regard as I see these books selling on Amazon and know my stories will never get to that situation.  I no longer have the time to write things and knowing how many amateurs are out there writing (between 42-49,000 novels are entered at a time for amateur writing competitions that are run in the UK) it seems pointless to add my stuff to the pile anyway.

I have come to realise that there is another type of blog: the review blog and there seems to be hundreds of these reviewing things  especially like fashion and interior design. The trouble with me is that I consume things far too late to have a review blog.  I read books I buy from charity shops; I only watch movies on DVDs; I have not bought new clothes for years; my household items are  second hand or remaindered.  My reviews of movies or pop music or computer games tend to come long after the things I am looking at have gone out of fashion.

I anticipate, that all I will have left is the fourth type of blog: the anger management blog.  I noticed that not blogging much last month did leave me far more tense and crotchety than usual.  However, whilst the blog is clearly an outlet for my anger it also seems to foster it and it seems that I am even running out of things to be angry about.  I guess there will be the election and especially if the Conservatives win, I will be complaining about the even more divided and poor country that will be being constructed, but that will be about it.  Being angry in my blog is good for me, and may offer consolation for people feeling angry about the same things, but perhaps is insufficient a resource to sustain my blog for long.

Once I had envisaged this blog going on for many years, but now it seems to be starved of source material just as my life is empty of experiences and will be as long as I am clinging to short-term contracts and cannot afford to do anything except save for the next period of unemployment.  I envisage that existing going on indefinitely from now on, especially given that my sector of industry looks on the verge of a severe collapse.  While I may have reached the 600 posting mark, I have little expectation that I will reach 700.  Maybe that is right.  Perhaps this blog is dwindling because I have said everything that I need to get out of me and from now on would simply end up repeating myself as I encounter the same irritations again and again.

Employers Demanding Unquestioning Loyalty

I have noted that with the recession and the rise in unemployment, employers are returning to the oppressive behaviour of the 1980s.  Though most companies were not involved in using the financial approach that brought about the credit crunch and recession, they have certainly been happy to exploit it and drive back what they felt were the excessive gains made by employees during the past decade.  I was advised as a manager to crack the 'whip' of unemployment and remind employees that they should not complain about anything, including shortcomings in planning and operations that they see, because they should be grateful that they had a job. 

This morning I heard that 7 out of 10 employers look up their prospective employees on social networking sites and will not employ those using 'bad' language or portraying themselves as drunken in pictures on the website.  Apparently 28% of sackings are now based, not on the employee's behaviour at work but their moans about their work on websites.   I accept that such people are probably foolish to show themselves in that light on easily accessible websites, but when has it been the employer's role to police the morality let alone the spare time behaviour of its employees?  This seems particularly rich when we hear about the often sordid behaviour of leading business people.  Now we seem to have one moral code for the rich and another one for the ordinary people.  Have we really gone back to the 19th century that quickly.  What next?  Children working up chimneys?  Homes for 'fallen' women?  This is the 21st century and I would rather employ someone who had a life outside work and was a well-rounded individual with a social life than someone who obsesses over only work and has no friends.  That sad loner character might be fine for some jobs, but in an age when so much of business is about networking and in particular business with China involves a lot of socialising and drinking, you need someone who can cope.

If you are employing people in their late teens, twenties and thirties and these days it applies to people in their forties and fifties too, why should you expect them to behave any differently to anyone else in that age group?  In the UK, (young) people go out and get drunk, then take photos of it, that is a fact of British life; no employer will ever change that.  Naturally the employers would baulk at anyone telling them or their children how they should behave in their spare time.  Of course, again the rule seems to be that the privileged can behave how they like and the rest of us should lead dull lives in which we thank God every day that our employer has been so generous in giving us work and allowing us to remain in it.  Whatever happened to free will?  Well, as in the past, it again seems to be becoming the reserve of the already privileged.

You might say that even if the employer cannot police behaviour outside the workplace they can expect their employees to be loyal and not to bad mouth the company.  I would argue that that is an unhealthy approach to running any business whether in the public or private sector.  I suppose it is simply an extension of the attitude to customers that puts up facilities for them to complain but when they do the company simply lectures them about what a good service they are actually receiving and why they should be grateful for that, as far too many UK companies do (try complaining to an airline).  To say to employees that they have to pretend that everything is perfect in a company is coming at the issue from entirely the wrong end.  If you run a good business then your employees will willingly, voluntarily in many cases, bear testament to that.  If you are running your business poorly then you need to hear that.  Too many employers forget that it is often the people at the frontline of a business who see where improvements are needed.  Of course, there is an arrogance that such people know nothing and too many British businesses ignore the voice of the 'footsoldiers'.  I would point them to the John Lewis Partnership which continues to prosper despite hard times because of its full involvement of the workforce.

No company will ever suppress bad news about it.  Even if you stamp down on every Facebook page, every Tweet, every blog entry about your company, then it will still spread by traditional means such as word of mouth.  You have to remember that you have no control (even the intelligence services have found this) over former employees who will often go out of their way to draw attention to what you are doing wrong.  The only way to combat such bad publicity by current and former employees is to listen to them while they are working for them and rather than jump on discussion, if you feel something needs to be different to how they feel it should be done, then you should be in a position to defend how you are doing it.  Suppressing comment about your business is lazy and means that you will miss the vital warning signs that could save you from serious problems in the near or more distant future.

The other thing these employers forget in these days is that 'no news' is actually 'bad news'.  In many ways, despite wanting to attract the best staff, they patronise us and assume we do not investigate them before we even start applying for jobs with them.  In the same way they forget these days that in an interview, they have to impress us as much as we have to impress them; again higher unemployment is making them entirely lazy in this respect and they assume applicants will take any job offered. So, we investigarte.  If I find a dearth of information about the company on the internet, social sites, blogs, etc., then naturally I am going to be suspicious of them from the start.  In addition, I can learn nothing about the company's strengths and weaknesses.  Of course, there will be official sites, but only a fool takes those at face value.  I am far more likely to take my expertise to a company that is open about how it works and its challenges than one in which all of this is hidden and any critical comments are suppressed.  Companies without discussion inside stagnate and walk into pitfalls they could have avoided.

Another serious mistake that employers make is to assume that loyalty to a company is the same as loyalty to particular members of staff.  Weak or bullying managers make this mistake repeatedly.  They emphasise the employees must be loyal for the good of the company, whereas in fact they make it clear that they mean loyal just to them.  This can damage an employee's standing in the company as when the weak and the bullies fall as they will sooner or later, those who seemed to back them can suffer too.  A good manager, like a good company does not suppress comment whether positive or not, in fact they solicit it as a valuable check on their own activities and because of the benefits, noted above, for the broader company.  A manager choking off comment because they fear what they will be told, is damaging their company because it is not getting those measures from frontline staff and the warnings about current or upcoming problems that you need to keep a business thriving.  You only had to watch a single episode of the series 'Back to the Floor' ( shown on BBC 1997-2002) to see that.

Policing expression of your employees' views let alone censuring their spare time activities is the sign of a vulnerable, insecure employer who forgets that workers are people and are better for having a full life.  Critically, it is far better for the longevity of your business that you do not use the 'stick' of loyalty to suppress the comments you need to hear.  If you work to earn that loyalty not only will have have a more effective workforce but you will attract solid business now and good employees in the future.  Blocking expression is just the sign of a poor employer and one heading for bankruptcy.