Sunday, 11 December 2011

My Best Cinema Experiences

Maybe it is because I am not experiencing many new things at the moment, with my life very constrained by a severe shortage of money and working away from home 5 days out of 7 that my thoughts turn nostalgically to better times.  This is a nostalgia posting looking back 20 years to when I lived in Norwich which I did for a year.  In my view Norwich is a very much overlooked city, perhaps because it is stuck on the eastern end of Britain and the road and rail services to it have long been poor.  Maybe that is a good thing as it spares the city the influx of literally millions of tourists that Oxford experiences.  I know tourists are important for the local economy, but I guess selfishly none of us wants to struggle to get along the pavement or have to queue for an hour to get into a restaurant.  For me, Norwich was just the right size, big enough to have the facilities I wanted but not so large that it took a 45-minute ride on a bus or train to visit friends who lived in the same city, for me a bicycle was more than sufficient to get me around to see people.

Norwich was a place where I had some of the best socialising of my life.  Maybe that was in part down to my age, I was there between the ages of 23-24 and was fortunate to meet up again with a woman, a teacher, I had known while living in West Germany.  Ironically another woman from the group of Britons I had been with in Köln was just leaving Norwich when I arrived and I was able to borrow her room as a base for looking for accommodation.  Anyway, the teacher connected me into another group of socially active friends and to parties hosted in her house, which simply added to the social activity I am going to outline here.  In addition, we had a kind of close relationship in which we rather behaved like a couple, but only for the domestic things like going to buy crockery and having tea in cafes and watching foreign language movies, that never manifested into a romance partly because I was over-awed by her self-confidence and the fact that she was on the pill.  Looking back it seems ridiculous to feel that way at 23.  Given the knock-backs that I had from other women and I do remember a beautiful Dutch woman called Saskia that everyone was attracted to and another hippie whose name I forget but with whom I would have had a relationship if money and the chance of work had not taken me away from Norwich.

This is turning into a wide-ranging nostalgia festival.  I need to focus back a bit more tightly as I have not even mentioned cinemas yet.  I will fill in the rest of the context.  I am talking about Norwich in the early 1990s and unfortunately I have not been back since.  However, from what I can find online, I do not think that my observations about the city would be terribly out of step with the place as it is now, so as well as reflecting on a bygone era, it may spark interest in the city now; interest I feel it deserves.  Alongside the people I met in the city, the other key contributing factor for my good social life there were simply the number of reasonably-priced places you could go to. 

I see that these days there are more big-name chain coffee shops, which did not exist there in the 1990s, but there seem to be a range of others remaining.  Many of the names are unfamiliar and unfortunately I have forgotten many of them from the past.  The Denmark Cafe selling Danish food, which I remember going to with a German Society, survives.  However, I cannot find Linzer's Viennese Cafe (renowned for its 'traffic light' cheese cake with a strawberry, orange and kiwi fruit on) or the Elm Hill Cafe which had opened at the end of the 14th century, though I imagine it had not served tea or coffee back then.  There was also a restaurant I think on the wonderfully named Tombland near the 'Edith Cavell' pub, with black and white tiles flooring the entrance way. 

Norwich was and still is full of a wonderful range of pubs.  I remember 'The Reindeer' attached to a micro-brewery, 'The Vine' the smallest pub in Norwich and probably much of the country, 'Adam & Eve' near the cathedral, 'The Lawyer' and 'Ribs of Beef' both still open in Wensum Street and nearby the 'Red Lion' where I drank once with a juggler and a Kurdish refugee from Iraq. I also remember the wonderfully named 'The Wildman' and further out from the city centre, the very Victorian style 'Belle Vue' unrelated to the cinema I am going to talk about in a minute.  Nearby was 'The Alexandra' and 'The Mitre' though I see now it has become a Chinese restaurant though keeping the same name.  Possibly favourite of the eateries was the 'The Waffle House' which did the most delicious milk shakes I have ever tasted though my brother, in a heavy metal band at the time, complained the food and drink in there was too healthy!

An important element of my life up until I got into long-term relationships in the mid-2000s was going to the cinema.  I cannot really say it was part of my social life as literally nine times out of ten I would go to the cinema on my own.   I was quite a regular visitor typically going to the cinema about 3-6 times per month.  In Norwich was where I probably had my best cinema experiences.  I am heartened to see that the two cinemas there I enjoyed the most are still functioning. Norwich had and still has a mainstream cinema, one which I would visit occasionally, but it was to Cinema City and to a lesser extent, Belle Vue that I would go. I would not call them 'art house' cinemas, though they did show an eclectic set of movies, but they showed mainstream stuff too.  I remember seeing 'Cry Baby', 'Metropolitan' and 'Das Schreckliche Mädchen' at Cinema City. Both were small, with a single screen and certainly when I went in the 1990s the furnishings were respectively characteristic of the 1970s and 1950s.  The Belle Vue was actually an arts complex with a cinema among a range of facilities offered by the venue.  What was great about these cinemas was that they were on a human level.  You could get to know the staff and they you.  Only at the two independent cinemas in Oxford in 1992-3 did I develop such a relationship with cinema staff. 

The human scale extended to other people in the audience.  I remember on one occasion finding myself sitting behind the author Malcolm Bradbury (1932-2000) in Cinema City and chatting to him about upcoming movies.  At the time he lectured (1970-95) at University of East Anglia on the outskirts of Norwich on the MA creative writing degree programme, the first in the UK and still running very successfully.  You can find a list of the renowned graduates of the programme on Wikipedia.

Not only was it the human scale of these cinemas that made you feel rather that you were going to a club rather than a normal cinema, it was the events they put on.  One I particularly remember was an evening with the historian, cultural commentator and crime author Mike Phillips to discuss the television movie of his novel, 'Blood Rights' (1989) which was shown at Cinema City.  The star of the drama, Brian Bovell was also there to talk about the production.  After the talk and the movie, we all retired to the cafe for a friendly discussion.  Mike had studied at the University of Warwick about a decade before I did, but he never took up my suggestion to write a novel set in Coventry, which the university sits on the outskirts of, and, at the time was infamous for its violence.  Rather he set his novels in London and US cities.  Given that I remember that evening 20 years later suggests it was a good experience.

The Belle Vue cinema being in an art centre was also liable to run events and the one I particularly remember was two evenings in a single week when 'Jour de Fête' (1949) and 'The Lady Vanishes' (1938) were shown at the cost they would have been when the cinema opened, fifty years earlier, 3 shillings, i.e. 15p, though in 1951, 3 shillings was worth a lot more than 15p was in 1991.  It was not the cheap cost of the evening but the fact that you were seeing classics in a cinema that suited what you were seeing, attracting an audience happy to discuss spotting Alfred Hitchcock in the movie and delighting in the simple comedy of Jacques Tati.

I do feel that I am suggesting that I only enjoy movies when among a like-minded audience.  However, I think it is more than that.  It was the context in which the experience occurred.  It was in a city in which I could safely cycle to the cinema of an evening and watch movies that were not in the current top 10 list and that the cinema went to an effort to engage the audience with movies in a different way and the fact that I could stop on the way home for a waffle or a beer in an equally conducive establishment.  Of course, the independent nature of the cinemas could cause issues.  I remember cycling on one cold evening to go to see 'Metropolitan' only to find that the movie reel had not arrived in time and as a consequence, I ended up becoming doorman at a gig, the first time I had done that, but that is another story.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A Rigorous Approach To Counter-Factuals

Getting a little more up-to-date with the books I have bought and am now reading, I came to 'Unmaking the West' by Philip Tetlock, Richard Lebow and Geoffrey Parker, published in 2004.  It is a collection of essays about various 'what if?'s that would have seen another region of the world rather than the West, i.e. western Europe and North America become the dominant economic and political force in the world and some other region hold that role.  It is interesting in the seven years since the book was published that the West's dominance no longer seems to supreme and it is pretty easy to envisage the kind of Sinocentric world that they feature as an example at the start of the book.

In this posting, however, I am not going to look at the specific counter-factuals discussed in the book, but at the extended essay which outlines the principles on which the editors asked contributors to use when producing their various chapters.  The editors are social scientists rather than novelists and so the book whilst owing a lot to other what if? collections I discuss, has an approach which is far more academically based even than the counter-factual collections by renowned academics such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.  Back in 1982, Nelson Polsby edited, 'What If? Explorations in Social-Science Fiction'.  Whilst this attempted to approach counter-factual from a more rigorously social science approach, Polsby was insufficiently strict with his contributors with a consequence that some of them fell into writing the kind of counter-factual which was explicitly self-serving, outlining sometimes very precise turns in history which they felt were vital for the USA's healthy development in the 1980s.  Some of the chapters were better than that, but others were too explicitly distorted by contemporary concerns to allow them to be engaging. 

Given there have been few attempts at rigour in counter-factual writing, what has surprised me is that the Tetlock-Lebow-Parker method has not been adopted more widely, perhaps because it seems rather too dry for commercially-focused books though it does not seem vastly different, for example, to the political counter-factual collections that have included Duncan Brack as editor, which I will review in January 2012.  Perhaps the rigour the editors demand means that the playful or self-serving elements of writing counter-factual analysis which draws many authors and historians is eliminated, so is discarded.

Since the demise of the BBC counter-factual discussion board I have not been a contributor to any other groups on a regular basis, so I confess I may have been missing out on the
discussion of this methodology, but I cannot say it jumps out at you as I dip into counter-factual groups so I thought a quick summary might not go amiss for those thinking of producing counter-factuals.  As I have discussed with one commentator to this blog recently, this is not an academic site, but even I think there may be some things I will do differently in looking at counter-factual scenarios by being aware of the Tetlock-Lebow-Parker method.

The editors do a good summary of the broad trends of counter-factual writing as it stood in the mid-2000s a time of a high level of publication of this kind of book.  They characterise the triumphalist right-wing writers and the 'bad loser' left-wing writers.  I do wonder if more counter-factuals come from the right because of their stronger faith in the 'great men' of history and possibly for the left a sympathy for Marxist determinism and even for the Whiggish history attitudes which informed the labour movement, with their sense that 'things can only get better', but also that somehow the Western industrialised model was at least in need of tempering if not completely flawed.  There is an interesting chapter at the start of the book about the critics of counter-factual approaches, notably E.H. Carr and Richard Evans.  Both are strong historians, the latter more so than the former and both disparage counter-factual approaches.  However, as the editors show, Carr in particular, kept on falling into counter-factual statements on many occasions in his writing, often provoked by the fact that in his life his preferences were to appease first Hitler and then Stalin, with all the consequences that such policies led to.

The editors also outline how commonplace counter-factual thinking is in our everyday life and why we are all what if? historians.  They give both a philosophical (through the principles of the Polya urn game) and a psychological grounding to the use of counter-factual analysis, showing that after initial unpredictability there is a steady increase in inflexibility of options and the potential for inefficiency, i.e. that the alternate path may lead to a world which is 'worse' on the basis of how our culture addresses a 'good' society.  The editors are not keen on cultural relativity but need to see that how we judge whether an envisaged outcome is 'good' or 'bad' is from a cultural perspective.  Many historians see the development of technology in the 20th century as a 'good' thing as it has made the lives of millions longer and more comfortable, but those seeing such development from a Green perspective could argue that such technology has irrevocably damaged the planet and has led to the starvation of millions, so a 'bad' outcome.  Imagine that we were ardent Maoists, then even the starvation of millions of people in famines and loyalty to a dictator in a Communist state could be perceived as a 'good' outcome if it was spread across the world, just in the way that most Western commentators would see the sacrifice of those who died fighting Nazi Germany in the Second World War and the fact that the US public had the freedom to elect George W. Bush as a 'good' outcome.  Anyway, the editors are correct, that counter-factuals do allow us to see worlds that are, in our view and many of those we live amongst, as more benign or malign than our own.  Of course, not to become too post-modern, but whether we see our world as malign or benign depends greatly on whether you are a Wall Street banker discussing such issues from your penthouse apartment or someone waiting for food aid in an Ethiopian village.

In terms of 'rules' for counter-factual analysis the editors begin with two principles.  The first is the 'framing postulate'.  They have the factual framing: 'when did the actual outcome become irreversable?' and the counter-factual: 'at what point did x outcomes become impossible?'  In terms of logic there is minimal difference, but as they show, psychologically that these two 'framings' of the counter-factual analysis can trigger different approaches to the analysis.  Though they do not take this step, I would argue that there is a further level, between asking 'why did the world not turn out as x' can differ from the comparative, 'why did the world become x rather than y'.  , with the former pandering both to the triumphalist and the bad loser tendencies, i.e. that each has a gripe about the established system,  Of course, the first approach is the one most used by counter-factual novelists.

Unlike me, the editors move on to the hindsight bias postulate, i.e. that there was no alternative but for events to turn out the way that they did.  Of course, this is a common perspective of those who do not read history and can lead them to even question the point of studying history.  Those with an interest in history know that rarely is anything 'inevitable' and in fact our views of 'what really happened' are constantly changing around any given incident in history, reflecting both our own context and more data coming to light through research and archaeology.  They give good examples of people needing to be alert to hindsight bias drawing on an example of the Northern Ireland Troubles and taking a warning from analysis of the 11th September 2001 attacks in the USA that the 'brightness' of an event can throw into shadow (or in fact completely conceal) any alternate paths that could have been taken.

The editors also note how easy it is to reach a situation in which to even question whether there could have been alternate paths (or in fact there were but the history of these has been lost/hidden) becomes something that is too offensive to too many people to allow even discussion of it.  I have even encountered this in terms of historical accounts of the Great Unrest of 1910-11, which have been denied as being fictional because our view of the 'golden age' of the pre-1914 era is so bright it encourages people to see any alternative perspectives on that time as false and worthy of vigorous challenge.  If this applies to events that were real and documented, then you can see how much easier it is to censure counter-factual analysis.

The editors counter the attacks that Carr and others had laid at the door of counter-factual analysis, dismissing it as nothing but a 'game'.  They see it as arbitrary because writers light on some particular event to analyse often with a desired outcome in mind and then ignoring that subsequent events could have 'corrected' the alteration.  In fact, personally, as do some of the writers in this book, I enjoy realising that the change would not have been that great and finding myself getting back on track with the history we knew in this world.  This happens in the 'Resilient West' chapter by Barry Strauss in that a defeat for the Greek allied force at Salamis in 480 BCE does not ultimately lead to any radical change in the modern world due to later 'corrector' events.

The next charge is that counter-factual is uselessly speculative as none of the propositions can be tested except in the imagination.  Saying this it is typical for people writing counter-factual to look at comparative examples to give weight to the line they are proposing.  Of course, much counter-factual fiction deliberately follows that path for the simple pleasure of the intellectual challenge.  However, there is nothing wrong with historians as diverse as Niall Ferguson and Winston Churchill engaging in such activities, especially if they categorise different writings whether factual or counter-factual for what they are, i.e. a historical account/an intellectual exercise/fiction and academic/popular.  Much the same can be said for a great deal of military history.

The third charge against counter-factual writing is that it is self-serving.  I have noted before how US counter-factual writers of the past decade have often used the genre to make political points about the current context.  However, this charge can be laid on factual historical, economic and political analysis, such as books on the British empire or indeed Niall Ferguson's factual programme, 'Civilisation' explaining the dominance of the West, pointing a select range of 'killer apps' some of which I have critiqued here before as being, in my mind, not suitable.

The Tetlock-Lebow-Parker Rules for Rigorous Counter-Factual Exercises
Having covered all the issues in far greater depth and with excellent examples, the editors finally come to some rules which they insisted all contributors adhere to when writing for the book.

Procedural Request 1: Address the 'Arbitrariness' Critique
The contributors were asked to outline why they had selected a particular point in history.  In additional they are to adhere to the 'minimal rewrite' approach rather than 'miracle' changes.  This was the approach I heard Eric Hobsbawn advocate at a lecture back in the 1990s.  People are wrong to say Hobsbawn with his Marxist background does not use counter-factual tools, he is simply as rigorous with them as the editors, eschewing different weather on the day of a battle and only accepting different decisions made by people on the basis of the information they had available at the time, so countering the hindsight bias as well.  In this book, the contributors actually focus on circumstances that were 'odd' for the norms of the time, and so on a likelihood basis, the alternative at the time would have seen much more the feasible path for history to take.

Procedural Request 2: Address the Objection that Counter-Factual History is Hopelessly Speculative
As the editors note, it is impossible to eliminate all speculation (this goes for factual history too), so what they ask is that the contributors are explicit about the connecting principles used to reach the conclusions that they make in their chapters.  The contributors have also tended to stick to widely accepted historical details and 'regularities'; to well-established statistical generalisations and to accepted laws of cause and effect from biology, physics and social sciences (and one could add historical study, if they do not see that as a branch of the social sciences, which is something still up for debate).  Overall, the probability of the outcome 'almost always less than, the probability of the weakest link in the chain of events'.

Procedural Request 3: Address the Objection that Counter-factual Thought Experiments are Hopelessly Self-Serving
Contributors were advised to be explicit about the benefits of using counter-factual analysis on the element of history they were looking at and note those schools of thought who might be irritated/annoyed/angered/infuriated by the presentation of the counter-factual scenario.  The editors see this as valuable in exposing the gaps in currently accepted analysis of particular events and developments and shining light on history.

The work of Tetlock, Lebow and Parker really brings home the value of counter-factual analysis which I have highlighted here before:  I applaud them for presenting rules that should allow counter-factual analysis to enter the mainstream of history providing tools which can be used in an academic way alongside other more established ones.  However, given how much time has past, I do wonder if the opposition to counter-factual from historians who pretend not to use it, but often do, has killed the project.  I hope by summarising the Tetlock-Lebow-Parker method that others may see it as valuable and put it to use.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Password Pressure

How many passwords do you have to remember? I have lost track of the ones I need not only to get into work systems but simply to shop online. Often I need one to access my account on the company website and then a subsequent one to actually pay for the system and then that is often backed up by a third verification from the company providing the card I am buying with. It is probably alright to remember the ones you use regularly, though I am no longer in the situation to buy CDs and DVDs with the frequency I might once have used. The greater difficulty is with those that I might visit only once per year, for example, to order vacuum cleaner bags or to apply for a job with a particular company. You need a password for almost every job application and yet there is little chance even if it is a company you really want to work for, that a suitable vacancy will only come up once every three months, perhaps only once in a year.

 Of course, many systems now have ‘do you want to be reminded of your password?’ and for me that has almost become the default setting, hoping that I have remembered which email account I locked this particular company’s website too. Given that I applied for 80 jobs last year with about 70 companies, trying to remember so many different accounts was a real labour. What can be particularly frustrating is that ‘to increase security’ you can find that the reminder or more often these days the option to choose to reset the password only turns up an hour or two later. Thus, your window of opportunity for buying the item or filling in a lengthy job application has passed by the time you can get in.

One thing that irritates me is being told to alter my password just because a certain period of time has passed. The worst situation for this was in a job in the early 2000s where you had to change your password every month and were not allowed to repeat a password until you had used nine others. Trying to come up with things that you could remember was a really trick. Ultimately you end up writing them down or putting them in a file on your computer, so all of this fuss about security is compromised. My current job insists on a change every 3 months. I had the same password for my Hotmail email account from 1999-2010 and it was never hacked, yet this was felt by MSN to be too long a time without change and I was told to change it to one with greater ‘strength’. Having done this, a few weeks later, my account proceeded to be hacked for the first time. My password for my ‘World of Warcraft’ account now has 13 characters in it as the one 9 characters long proved too easy to break for hackers. YouTube insisted that I change the password I use to access that just recently. However, it kept rejecting my suggestions as too ‘weak’ and it was a battle to come up with a password and numbers that satisfied it and I can say that a month on I have forgotten what it was.

Passwords are supposed to be about security but generally they seem more effective at locking out the actual user than those attacking the account. Software can try millions of words even those in Japanese that I tend to use, in seconds and yet I can end up spending hours trying to get into my account and often abandon the attempt. It has never been so hard to buy something than in the 21st century. Most of what I have access to is of no interest to any criminal. I certainly have no belief that a hacker would alter my job application in order to reduce my ‘O’ levels. I suppose they could put their address in place of mine, and, assuming that I got an interview, go in my place, but even then, to get the job they would have to manufacture fake qualification certificates. If they are that skilled then they would not be going for the kind of jobs I am going for, currently not even at the level of middle management. I guess they could divert a DVD I have bought or buy lots of things on my cards, but I do not have the wealth that would make it really worth the effort. I guess this is the same for most people and yet we are subjected to a password regime which would suggest we all have access to state secrets. The last company laptop I was issued needed thumbprint verification to switch it on. No-one seemed to spot the irony when I asked whether we had ones equipped with the same facilities as those red boxes issued to ministers which measure skin temperature to check that the thumb has not been simply cut off the legitimate user.

It is not only ever changing passwords of sufficient strength that cause problem but the username or login name that goes with it that adds an extra dimension. Every company has a different protocol and I battle to remember whether they wanted my surname and initials, one initial, two initials, together or spaced with full stops; perhaps this one wanted my entire name or was it the email account or was it some other form of designation that they assigned me? Of course, often you can ask, if you know which email account you used, have the username reminder sent, naturally with the ‘security’ delay. Sometimes this is not possible and you reach the bind into which I have found myself slipping. Apparently not being known by the company I try to set up a new account and then are told that there is already an account in that name but they cannot tell me the password to it. This is one reason for having more than one email account as I am then compelled to start up a new account in a different email name all for one application to a job which at best I have a 3 in 8 chance of getting.

Sometimes systems are even more frustrating especially when combined with rapid ‘timing out’. I have commented before that job application sites are the worse for this. The extreme case was the one which timed me out between me deciding on a username and entering a password. Trying to re-access the system I was told there was already an account in this name and yet, of course, they could not send me the password to access it as one had not been designated. I abandoned online applying and rang them to be told that many people suffered this problem with their system. I felt it was futile to suggest they have it amended. In another case a company was charging me for virus protection I had not ordered. The bill sent me directions how to unsubscribe from the service, but going to the site it told me, as I already knew, that I had no account with the company, thus it was impossible to unsubscribe for the service which I was paying for! Trying to contact the company was almost impossible if you had no account as you had to log-in in order to send them a customer email and I was very fortunate to find a technical service email address on a discussion board that I used to get in through the ‘back door’ to reach customer services.

Doing business online loses much of its appeal when it is such a labour to access what you need to get into. The obsession with security especially for services you only use once a year or even less, is a real irritation. Every site seems to assume that they are the only people you deal with. I wish we had the ‘single sign-in’ approach adopted by universities which allows students, once they have signed into the university system to access a whole raft of e-books and online journals without having to sign in again to each one individually as used to be the case in the early 2000s. Bank accounts are the systems which do need greatest security, but interestingly they have moved away from passwords towards the devices which generate one-off code numbers. I know ‘World of Warcraft’ have introduced these too, but maybe it is time for Amazon and eBay to follow likewise. Of course, then we will have a desk full of these devices and we will leave the vital one we need at home.

The whole issue of passwords stems from the fact that no-one ever envisaged the internet to be such a crime-ridden place as it has proven to be or that so many people would put effort into peddling so much junk across systems. The internet is the distillation of the worst in human behaviour and despite constant efforts to portray it as something worthwhile it is like opening a library in the most run-down part of a city that had a vast proportion of criminals waiting to leap on anyone going to that library. Despite all the efforts over passwords and their strength, it appears that this is more of benefit to the ‘job’s worth’ attitudes of those people (very numerous these days) who like to make a fuss about regulations simply to give themselves an iota of importance, rather than providing any genuine security. For the average user like myself, trying to recall a string of passwords (even if you try to keep to a familiar few) and precisely what username you selected or were given many months ago, these concerns are increasingly making doing anything on the internet slower than telephoning in an order and, on occasion, actually physically going to the shop or office.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why Are British Managers So Bad?

You would think that in a period of high unemployment that the person in a job would be the best that you could get. The government is keen to remove the ability for workers to bring a tribunal against unfair dismissal, but it already seems it is pretty easy to remove people from a job. With all these lists of competencies we each have to match, let alone set targets for each month and year, it is easy to find something that an inefficient worker is unable to meet and so remove them on those grounds. However, in terms of incompetent managers that seems to happen very rarely and rather these are tools for them to intimidate the workers below them with.

Time after time recently, meeting with people from within my own company and from others in the sector, I hear about bad managers. I am talking about the people at the level of managing a team or and office or two, something between, say 5 and 50 staff. I have no idea how many there are of them in the country, but certainly the places I have worked, they are numerous and for the large part very poor at their jobs. British business has always suffered from cultural problems. It has had a senior management content to take high pay for little work, with no interest in innovation and happy to add more than one job at a time to their activities. This is one reason why so many successful British companies have been run by people from ‘outside’, even if from Britain, they have not been part of the Conservative-Anglican mainstream, rather immigrants or the grand/children of immigrants or from different religious groups including Nonconformist Christians. It has had a middle and lower management which is terribly self-centred and at best paternalistic, but too often bullying. It has had a workforce with little interest in personal training and development and with a tendency simply to blame outsiders for their problems whilst also be unwilling, certainly since mass unemployment returned in the 1980s to risk challenging bad practices in the workplace.

In this structure, the average manager can behave how they like and this is what makes so many workplaces stressful and so inefficient. What has exacerbated the problem is the return of 1980s managerial style. I have seen managers walking around telling workers that they should be grateful for the jobs that they have. It is not sufficient simply not to complain about things, workers need to be seen to be lauding their managers at every given opportunity, a tendency which eerily is reminiscent of officials in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. To be passive is now to be disloyal. Loyalty has become a key trait that managers want demonstrated again and again by their staff. A key reason for this is that managers know that they do blunder and in the blame culture which permeates so much of British business, they know the only way they can escape from having to face up to the consequences of their actions is to conceal them and this can only be done if they have sufficiently terrified the workforce into keeping quiet, or, even better, taking the blame themselves.

Loyalty is vaunted as a necessary trait for keeping your job and is often associated with ‘professionalism’ no matter what the nature of the job. The sense that someone who is ‘disloyal’ to their boss, typically because they are ‘loyal’ to the wider company or the customers, is unprofessional is an attitude which managers perpetuate, to add additional pressure on workers not to reveal their manager’s shortcomings. Usually quickly added on top are descriptions like ‘unusual’ and ‘not fitting in’, to make it easier to remove any work who dares complain, or in fact, increasingly is seen as insufficiently vigorously supportive of the manager’s approach no matter how flawed it might be. The worst managers even begin chiding workers in other areas. In my company a colleague was shocked when my manager gate-crashed a meeting she was in because she believed it was discussing an area of work which she had an interest in. In fact she was mistaken, but that did not stop her redirecting the meeting to cover that topic. My colleague who had arranged the meeting, sat stunned at the gall of the manager and simply agreed with everything she said to bring the meeting to an end as quickly as possible. However, even that was insufficient for the manager, who, after the meeting was over, lectured the woman for whom she has no line managerial responsibilities for twenty minutes about how her attitude was wrong. It was not that she had not agreed with the manager it was she had done it in a sufficiently deferential style.

Deference and gratitude are two terms which come up increasingly when employers talk about what they want from their staff. You could have conducted a survey in 1811 and had much the same answer. These traits seem more valued than ability to use IT or organise meetings or any other skill necessary for an office of the twenty-first century. Deference and gratitude simply promote the status quo, they do not lead to innovation. Deference and gratitude are what meant that the Indian princes, the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor found themselves overwhelmed by the imperial powers who had allowed a little room for challenging and innovation and so had advanced technologically.

As I have noted before, there are major problems when no-one has the courage to challenge the statements a manager makes. It creates a vicious circle as the manager feels that without complaints they must be doing everything perfectly alright and they are encouraged to develop more and more outrageous projects. If anyone makes an alternative suggestion they are told that they are in a minority so their view cannot be legitimate and this discourages them and anyone else from ever raising a question again. This attitude is not a new one: it appears in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837 in the third volume of ‘Fairy Tales Told for Children’.

The self-centred attitude of so many managers lead to ‘one-way traffic’ in terms of communication. Not only do the managers not listen to their workers, they feel obliged instead to lecture their workers at length. Again this seems characteristic of the Soviet system in which the ‘leader’ was lauded at length, from the head of the state right down to the leader of the unit. Under such regimes, it appears to have been necessary to keep telling the workers at length that they had such a great boss and that his/her boss was great too and so on. My current manager is the worst in this respect that I have worked for. Colleagues joke about ‘Songs of Praise’ (named after a BBC television religious programme involving lots of hymn singing) sessions held by my manager. In one two-hour meeting for which no agenda had been circulated, the manager spent 100 minutes going on about how everything she had done was so wonderful and successful. She made no reference to the success of the team or the efforts that had allowed her to receive praise from her bosses. This is incredibly demotivating, let alone simply a waste of time to have such a long meeting at which nothing was advanced.

The self-centredness and the belief that there is only one truth explanation for any situation, however temporary or ill-founded it may be, can be seen as stemming from the attitude that I regularly highlight as being endemic in British society, the 'me first' attitude. This was promoted during the Thatcherite era and causes harm to the UK everyday not least how people drive and use any public service. I guess I should not be surprised given people behave this way when simply moving around a town or going shopping or using a hospital or a school that they apply such behaviour to their workplace where they feel so much more vulnerable and in need of being in total control in order to ensure that everything turns out precisely how they want it, down to the smallest degree.

Aside from ensuring that every worker within their area is cowed, the main job for managers seems to be to kow-tow to their superiors. My current manager spends much of the day making friends with those above her. This causes many problems, because even though she is useless at management, the people you would complain to her about simply think she ‘is wonderful’. She massages their egos by constantly praising their initiatives and ideas. Networking is fine, but when it simply becomes about sucking up to people it uses up work time for something which provides minimal benefit to the company and in fact can be harmful. Of course, experienced senior managers can often see through this and make an effort to call on the views of a wider range of staff. However, in these circumstances, the worker who speaks up is liable to suffer later from their manager. The anger the manager unleashes comes from a number of bases. As they see any suggestions that differ from a plan as best irrelevant at worst insulting, they feel upset if you make a suggestion to a senior manager because in their view you are simply being blatantly rude. Second if the idea is a good one, they are irritated that they had not thought of it and so have, in their mind, lost ‘points’ to you, even if you are unable or unwilling to play in the ‘game’. In this second situation, they are liable to take on board the idea as their own or, at very least, say that the idea came about because of how supportive they have been.

With all of these concerns with keeping down their workers and buddying up to their seniors, it is no surprise that so many managers cannot see beyond their own personal concerns. This is not aided by the fact that they think that their view of the office and the wider world is the only true one. My manager told me recently that there was ‘my perception’ of how things were going and then there was the ‘truth’, which of course was her perception. She could not accept that there was my perception and her perception, let alone that mine had some legitimacy. This is the third manager I have had who has believe that their viewpoint is the only true one and this has led to ridiculous demands such as re-writing a report to remove the views tens of people had expressed in a survey because, in my manager’s eyes, these people were not speaking the ‘truth’ even though they had simply outlined their opinions and the information had been captured.

The sense of the ‘truth’ extends down to individual words used in print, orally or in emails. Poor managers waste ages complaining about individual words and phrases. Me saying that I was ‘trying to fit in’ with my manager led her to go on for 10 minutes about how that was an inappropriate phrase. There was apparently no need to ‘fit in’ with what she wanted because all that she wants is common sense and that is what should be driving everything that I do and I am ‘unusual’ in not understanding that. Certainly on the basis of a majority view of what was ‘common sense’ we would not be doing many things the way she compels us to do them.

Training is seen as the cure-all for any discrepancy between the manager’s view of the world and that of their workers. Alarmingly the perception seems to use the sense of training as ‘re-education’ is used in Communist China, i.e. a form of indoctrination. Bizarrely managers think that by sending their staff on some training course they will come back with the ‘right attitude’ rather than new skills or wider perspectives. Interestingly, the managers themselves seem to feel no obligation to attend any training. You soon find they have been on no managerial training courses and simply ‘learned on the job’ perhaps even at ‘the University of Life’ which apparently is fine for them, but utterly useless for developing effective workers. Funnily there is no recognition that sending someone on a decent training course is actually going to make them more confident, more perceptive, more skilled and so more liable to challenge the narrow-minded behaviour of their manager.

As managers see their perception of things as the ‘truth’ and often ‘common sense’ they see no need to actually tell anyone how they view things. To them it would seem a waste of time outlining anything that should be so blatantly obvious to everyone. This causes major difficulties and a lot of wasted effort as workers try to guess actually what their manager wants, fearful of making a mistake in their guesses for fear of being chided as discussed above. The manager is dismissive of the efforts, finding it difficult to comprehend that proposals do not match perfectly the vision held in their minds. This leads to repeated iterations, painfully slowly edging towards the model the manager desires as the feedback in the blame culture is only about what has been done wrong, not what needs to be done to make it right.

Another problem with this assumption that the manager’s view is common sense is that the manager feels t no obligation to remember what they have previously said. Thus their workers can get caught out by their capriciousness. My manager initially asked for one copy of a particular form to be submitted, then weeks later decided this had to be three copies. Some weeks after that she decided it had to be two copies. Her changing her mind would not have been a major issue, nothing more than rather irritating. What made it so much worst on each occasion she gave a new number she became indignant that we could have thought that the previous number she had demanded was acceptable. Not being able to remember her command she assumed we had taken the initiative and come up with that figure ourselves. Thus, we were harangued for daring to make a decision without reference to her, though this was precisely what we had done. The same applied for moving meeting days back and forth in the week. Again, it should not be a huge issue but she shouted that ‘I could never have wanted it on a Thursday, I do not think that way’ despite Thursday being the precise day she had ordered the meeting moved to. This capriciousness again seems reminiscent of the Soviet system with workers fearful of not complying with some industrial plan that was liable to change weekly without warning. I have been advised to save every email and even keep a notebook to log every instruction I am given. In addition to being time consuming, I am sure she would still challenge what I had recorded as being imagined or misunderstood by me, especially as she could not longer envisage herself ‘thinking that way’.

This short-sightedness of managers can have some incredible outcomes. I have worked with managers who have been oblivious to bullying occurring even though workers even a number of offices away have been aware of what was going on. My manager entered the league table for being so wrapped up in her own vision of the world to not even comprehend what was being said. I am not a rich man so lunch consists of a sandwich I have made eaten at my desk. Early on in this post my manager stormed into my office demanding I look at something and saying dismissively that she did not accept people sitting at their desks as having a legitimate lunch break and so she had the right to interrupt them. When I complained about the issue of my lunch break being ‘violated’, offering to have it at a set time if that was what was required, my manager made repeated righteous statements that she would strongly defend me from having my lunch break ignored. She did not understand at all what I meant when I pointed out that the only person doing that was herself. Of course, she has a different view of how she behaves and that view is the ‘truth’, so she appears unable to comprehend a different perspective on what has happened.

 I have worked for numerous companies over the past two decades, in part due to short-term contracts and three turns of redundancy. However, what has struck me is how prevalent such bad practice is across business. I accept that I have not worked outside London, southern England and the south Midlands, but the managers I have had have come from across the UK, so I do not imagine they would be any much different if I worked under them in Scotland or Wales. I know I am not alone in experiencing such outdated, self-centred approaches to management that seem oblivious of modern methods. What we appear to have is a kind of 19th century attitude reinvigorated by trends of the 1980s and revived once more by the current Depression. Ironically at a time when British companies need to be working more efficiently, this corrosive managerial behaviour appears to be increasingly common. Too many people I talk to have the same anecdotes to recount as me. No-one appears to be challenging these approaches and so British business will continue to suffer in the face of strong competition all because too many managers cannot see that satisfying their egos is not what a company should be focused on.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Movie 'Gorky Park' (1983)

It is interesting where you can pick up unexpected movies.  I guess this is nothing new, I remember petrol stations selling video cassettes in the 1980s and these days you can get DVDs not only there but from newsagents and supermarkets too.  Sometimes it seems incredibly random what is available and especially for movies that a more than a couple of years old you do sometimes wonder how they were selected to be put on the shelf.  It was through a supermarket that I recently picked up a copy of 'Gorky Park' (1983) for £3.  Due to my love of crime authors like Leonardo Sciascia, Josef Škvorecký and to a lesser degree Philip Kerr, I have always been drawn to detective stories set in regimes which prevent the normal processes of 'standard' crime fiction, i.e. that the detective finds the criminal and s/he is brought to justice.  In dictatorships with their vested interests and often competing factions, the resolution of the crime is often the detective's least concern especially when set beside staying alive in the internecine wars between different factions of the regime.

Thus, it is of no surprise that I was drawn to 'Gorky Park'.  Around 3 million copies of the book, written by American Martin Cruz Smith and first published in 1981, were sold. It remained in the US book charts for 144 weeks in the 1980s in hardback and paperback editions.  I do not know the sales figures for the UK but they must have been similarly high.  Cruz Smith went on to write another six books featuring the same detective Arkady Renko down to 2010, however, the original novel remains the most successful book he has produced, though he has been publishing since 1970.  It is difficult to place precisely why the novel was such a success.  I think, in part, it was due to the setting of the USSR at the time of the so-called Second Cold War.  For English-speaking readers it was an alien setting.  In addition, the hero of the novel is a high-ranking Soviet police officer, Captain Arkady Renko, Chief Investigator in the Moscow Militsiya, which despite its designation (i.e. 'militia') and military ranks, was the police force.  In this first novel the prime suspect is an American businessman, Jack Osborne, a dealer in sable furs, which at the time the USSR had a monopoly over.  Thus, for the reader, the usual sympathies are over-turned even though Renko roots out corruption in the Soviet system rather than viewing it as an idyll.  Ironically, in many ways he is purifying the crumbling USSR of its corruption.  Unlike many Soviets, however, he views the West (he visits the USA briefly in 'Gorky Park') as similarly corrupt.

Aside from these perspectives which differ from most English-language detective stories, there is an interesting crime.  Three bodies, two men and a woman are found in Moscow's Gorky Park with their faces and fingertips sliced off to prevent identification.  Investigating the crime drags Renko not only into the business of Osborne but also KGB officers and high-ranking Militsiya officers, thus creating the kind of vested interest tension that you look for in such novels.  Renko is at risk of his life for much of the novel and one of his men, Senior Lieutenant Pasha is shot dead by a KGB agent.

Anyway, when I saw the DVD I decided to buy it, to pass some time in my lodgings watching it on my laptop.  I had seen it before, but cannot remember how long ago and in some ways it impressed me less than the first time.  However, this does not mean it is not worthwhile watching.  The movie was directed by British director Michael Apted (born 1941) who has directed numerous movies but is probably best known for 'The World Is Not Enough' (1999) and 'Enigma' (2002).  The screenplay was written by British scriptwriter and playwright, Dennis Potter (1935-94), probably best known for his television dramas, notably 'Pennies from Heaven' (1978), 'The Singing Detective' (1986) and 'Brimstone and Treacle' (1987 adapted by himself from his 1982 play). 

The movie has loads of British actors in it.  Ian Bannen (1928-99) plays Chief Prosecutor (Lieutenant-Colonel?) Iamskoy, Renko's boss; Michael Elphick (1946-2002) plays Senior Lieutenant Pasha; Richard Griffiths (born 1947) plays Anton, a lawyer friend of Renko's; Ian McDiarmid (born 1944) plays Professor Andree,v an archaeologist who reconstructs faces from skulls something commonly seen in programmes nowadays but a novelty in 1983; Rikki Fulton (1924-2004) plays the leading KGB antagonist, Major Pribluda; and Alexei Sayle (born 1952) plays petty criminal Golodkin, interesting given his Russian heritage.  I guess this fits in with the casting of British actors in Hollywood movies to play all kind of European roles.  The stars: William Hurt (born 1950) as Renko, Lee Marvin (1924-87) as Osbourne and Brian Dennehy (born 1938) who plays New York detective William Kirwill who comes to Moscow seeking his dead brother were all American; the sole female character, Irina Asanova, was played by Polish actress Joanna Pacula (born 1957).

Given that the movie was filmed not long after it is set, it was unsurprising that the company could not get access to the USSR and instead it was shot in Finland (a number of Finnish actors appear in smaller roles) and in Stockholm, where the action of the movie transfers to in the closing phase, rather than to the USA as in the novel.  In many ways this is actually a more feasible plot as Osbourne has been smuggling sables out of the USSR and it would be comparatively easier to get them overland to Sweden than overseas to the USA without arousing the attention of both the Soviets and US authorities.

The movie makes good use of the setting, showing both the dreary life of the USSR in the 1980s plus locations such as Iamskoy's dacha and the police headquarters.  The different kinds of crime of the USSR such as smuggling out icons and dealing in Western electrical goods feature as do run down buildings and ugly apartment blocks.  Of course, since the 1980s the market for furs has largely evaporated and it is interesting that this factor dates it a great deal more than if it had been icons or people that were the items being smuggled out. The motive of wanting to escape to the West is one that does not appear in most crime stories and is an interesting driver for the behaviour of Irina.  Osbourne is driven in turns by greed and lust.  Many of the Soviet characters are motivated by financial greed or fear of running into the KGB.  Renko as all good detectives should do, stands for something more moral, even though though morals are seen through a Soviet lens.  There is violence.  The defacing of the three victims and the gutting of Kirwill are noticeable.  However, they tend to generate a rather muted reaction from the audience, perhaps because we are aware that in such a totalitarian system life is pretty cheap and any murder can be excused if it fits political expediency.  This is notable with the fate of Iamskoy and arguably Pribluda.

All of these elements could have made for an excellent thriller with particular piquancy at the time it was released when we were all aware of the issues of the Cold War and at least could have an idea of how the Soviet people suffered under their regime.  The key problem is the acting.  Many of the actors make a great effort.  Bannen, Griffiths and Pacula are good, even Fulton in a limited role; Marvin does not do badly even though in large part he is acting himself; Dennehy is similarly capable given he is playing a role pretty familiar to him.  Sayle is simply Sayle no different in manner really to his performances on numerous comedy shows and even advertisements.  However, to some degree that is tolerable especially if you do not know his comedy work as he is playing a cocky 'wide boy' or spiv.  However, it jars if you recognise the act as well as I do. 

The thing that really brings down the movie is how wooden so much of the dialogue is.  Hurt is very badly served in this respect.  He comes over as cold and emotionless when in fact he should be twisted by the different drivers and fear.  His affection for Irina seems particularly cold.  Given that he is a man motivated by what he feels is right, so much of this weakened by him appearing like some kind of android.  Elphick did not have a wide range as an actor, but he is served even worse in this movie than say in his television series 'Boon' (1992-5).  I believe Apted was rather limited by how Soviets were expected to be portrayed in movies of the time.  We can see a similar situation in 'Red Heat' (1988) in which Arnold Schwarznegger plays Captain Ivan Denko of the Moscow Militsiya.  Whilst this is a much more light-hearted thriller, like Hurt, Schwarznegger in a similar role has simply to come across as almost a robot, with a fixed life and monotone delivery.  Schwarznegger resembles his android assassin character in 'The Terminator' movies (1984-2003); Hurt should be nothing like that.  In many ways the Soviet characters in 'Gorky Park' are shown as having a range of motives and many pressures on them, but they bear them with a lifeless stoicism which undermines their credibility as people we engage with.  I guess at a time when it still seemed possible that the USA and USSR would engage in war, it would have seemed unpatriotic to actually show Soviets as human even in fiction.

Whilst I enjoyed revisiting 'Gorky Park', I am always going to be conscious that if Apted had been able to break away from the stereotypical portrayal of Soviets, it could have been an excellent detective thriller.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

How Redundancy Became A Dirty Word Once More

I remember during the last depression in the British economy in the 1980s when redundancy became commonplace, even for people in what had previously seemed ‘jobs for life’ that there remained an attitude ingrained from the 1950s and 1960s that people were made redundant as a result of something they had done wrong. I guess in middle class professions the attitude was perhaps even older because in the 1930s when mass unemployment first really hit national consciousness it was often very regionally and sectorally focused on heavy industries in northern England, Scotland and South Wales, whereas much of the Midlands and the South and new more technological and service sector industries did not suffer nearly so much. My father was only made redundant once in a career which lasted about 43 years and that was at an age when he was entitled to early retirement. My mother was never laid off, but that was because she was a nurse and it has only been in recent years that nurses have been unable to find work very easily.

Going back to the 1980s, my father had a friend he had known since childhood, who worked in the construction industry. I still remember the sticker he had in the back of his car which said ‘Don’t Nationalise Building’ and had a picture of a pair of hands one holding a brick and one a mortar trowel, locked together with handcuffs. The whole campaign these days somehow seems as alien as something that might have been run in East Germany at the time. Anyway, he was made redundant as happened to millions of middle aged family men in the 1980s alongside all sorts of people. I remember being told that his mother was so ashamed that he had been made redundant that she would not talk about it. She could no disassociate being laid off because the company had closed down or was ‘downsizing’ from being sacked for improper behaviour or laziness. Though it was her son, she could not shake the sense that he had done something wrong to be without work. I never found out if she changed her attitudes. My father advised his friend to train in computers which were just coming in on a large scale at the time. The friend took the advice and in his next job avoided further redundancy because of the skills he had and was able to continue working to a profitable retirement.

In my career which has spanned 20 years this year, I have been made redundant three times. In addition, for much of the time I have been on fixed term contracts, which whilst being set up that way have pretty much the same effect when they come to an end, especially if you are uncertain if the contract is going to be renewed or not, something you are usually only told late on. The similarity of the end of such contracts to redundancy is why in the UK since 2002 companies have had to pay redundancy pay if they do not renew the contract of a worker on a contract of 2 years or more. In addition, if the person has been on contracts for 4 years they have to be moved to a permanent contract. This was because previously there were cases of workers on contracts for 12 years with no security. While it might seem the same in terms of pay and condition, that threat of your job coming to an end through no fault of your own does prey on your mind and reduces your productivity.

Anyway, redundancy has been a fact of working life for at least thirty years and in certain industries it has been incredibly common. Now, always on the lookout for a new job, especially as I always seem to end up with the most appalling managers and working far from home, I subscribe to online services such as Monster and LinkedIn. As well as the job searching, CV listing and networking facilities these sites often send you articles about work. Many of these seem to be influenced by US tendencies, which Americans appear to believe are universal, at least for their English-speaking cousins. However, some of them appear to be quite comic to British readers especially when it comes to the precision about matters of clothing for the workplace. For a start we do not have Labor Day and no self-respecting businesswoman would ever wear white shoes to work anyway; for men black suits without a stripe have no such negative connotations that they seem to have in the USA. Setting such cultural differences aside, reading US workplace attitudes can be useful as British employers have a common tendency to follow their American counterparts sooner or later.

The interesting trend I have picked up on at a time when we are facing high unemployment and redundancies, is how ‘redundancy’ is once again a dirty word as if we were back in the early 1980s. I received an article from LinkedIn about networking which advised you when speaking to people you should never mention you have been made redundant and should find some euphemism for the period that you were without work as if it was some kind of dirty secret rather than a fact of working life for people at all levels.

My view of why this attitude has reappeared is that it stems from other recent trends in business. I have heard from employers in my sector and others that two of the key things they value from employees are not their ICT skills or their ability to manage projects or speak a foreign language but ‘deference’ and ‘gratitude’. Employers, or rather managers at all levels, are leveraging the fact that jobs are scarce in order to compel a forelock-tugging attitude towards them from among their staff. They expect workers not only to be grateful for their jobs but to actually say this repeatedly. Of course, because there are recruitment processes in place, often the job is not a gift of your manager but once in post you have to behave as if it is and as a result, regularly thank your manager and support their view no matter how hare-brained or unethical it might be. To even propose a different approach is to be ‘disloyal’, not with a view to the company as a whole but to the individual who wields power over you. I have noted before that even commentators on business have observed that this attitude is unhealthy for a company that wants to survive let alone prosper in the current economic climate:

It is interesting that the Coalition government is seeking to reduce the opportunity for industrial tribunals and even remove the chance to protest unfair dismissal. Clearly their view is that all dismissal is ‘fair’. The government is aiming to reinforce this attitude that all workers, whether professionally qualified or not should simply keep their mouths shut and accept whatever they are told by their bosses and similarly to accept the prejudiced treatment which is once again increasingly common.

How does this connect to mentioning redundancy in your career history? Well, managers never like you hear you criticising your previous employers even if they are competitors. They assume that if you are critical of the previous companies you have worked for you can easily be critical of them, something we know they now have no tolerance for. Mentioning redundancy in a single word seems to be critical of the planning of that company and of their treatment of their workers. In addition, you are exhibiting ingratitude for not expressing how grateful you were that the company actually employed you in the first place and kept you there for as many years and months as they did. I soon noticed this three jobs back when I, along with 200 others (the first phase in a lay-off of 500 staff), were told we were being made redundant. I was criticised for any mention of the fact and my email account was shut down because my ‘Out-of-Office’ statement mentioned it. Despite that 10% of the staff were in line to be made redundant gave us no right to discuss it. Consequently it became impossible to even hand over work to the staff who were remaining and projects very close to completion were simply dropped, unfinished with the funds that had gone into them wasted as I was not allowed to talk with people who could have picked them up and finished them off as it would have meant me saying why I would not be around to do it myself.

In such circumstances reality begins to become distorted. Simply because of the criticism-phobia which is now permitted among managers, money is allowed to be wasted and no proper follow on from a period of large-scale redundancy can be implemented, further damaging the company. We have to face up to what is being balanced up here. On one side it is that some managers for a few weeks will be irritated that staff being made redundant talk about it, on the other side thousands of pounds is wasted and projects left unfinished damaging the funds and reputation of the company. Yet, in our distorted world it is the managers’ unease which wins out.

There is an additional way in which the person being made redundant suffers if they cannot mention that they have been made redundant and this is when you apply for other jobs. You have to come up with a range of more or less feasible excuses for why you left your previous employment. With fragmented careers it becomes increasingly difficult to produce good ones and interviewers become suspicious, assuming that you must be hiding something. Of course, it would be easy if you could simply state the reason as ‘redundancy’ but to do so would clearly damage your chances for the new job, yet often the alternatives are little better. Saying you left because you no longer fitted in, for family reasons, for better pay or conditions, to work nearer to home and so on all seem to provide reasons not to employ you in another post. It would be better if you could say I was made redundant, it had nothing to do with my abilities it was simply the company could not afford to employ me and 499 other people any longer.

The default assumption by interviewers that you are seeking to hide something just accentuates this problem. Too often interviews are coming to resemble police interrogations. Rather than trying to gauge what skills you have and whether you could apply them in a new post they cross-examine you to find any flaws in your story. Having read advice about writing a CV I had begun only listing jobs going back over the past 10-12 years. This was a big mistake at one interview. They spent the whole time asking me about my work in the 1990s and in the post-interview feedback said it was because they believed I had been serving a prison term at that time, not realising that at their company the form declaring that I had no criminal record was sent to their human resources department. It seems that other excuses used to conceal redundancy could open you up to a similar risk.

By making redundancy once again a taboo subject the myth that we have total control over our careers is promoted and the view that we are to blame if they are at all disrupted. In turn the view is perpetuated that companies are blameless for the hardships they impose on the ordinary worker even if, as if often the case in the UK, it is the result of bad planning, inertia or not being alert to changing conditions. It is particularly galling when your redundancy comes as the result of some development you tried to alert the company to but were choked off by the ‘I don’t want to hear that’ mentality which is so prevalent.

In the 21st century redundancy is going to be a factor for every worker no matter how illustrious a career path they take. Even members of the boards of multi-nationals lose their jobs. What we need is not to somehow brush it under the carpet but acknowledge it is a fact of working life and not make the person made redundant feel guilty for something that is imposed on them simply because it makes some managers feel a little uncomfortable for a short time. Compared to the worry and financial pressures the person losing their job faces, such unease is nothing and should not become the prime driver for workplace expectations of behaviour.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Howling For Vengeance

I know that this is going to be a controversial posting, but it is something that is one of those issues that nags at me so that I need to get it out of my system.  That was the prime purpose of my blog, which is why I need to write this posting even though I guess that, in turn it will irritate others.  It is a factor which has come up many times certainly in my memory over the past 20 years, but the particular occasion recently that it has come to my attention is following the sentencing of Vincent Tabak for the murder of architect Jo Yeates in December 2010.  Tabak received a life sentence with a tariff of a minimum of 20 years.  However, for Yeates's parents this was not enough.  I accept that they grieve for their daughter, but the statements they made after the sentencing suggest that the pair of them are very nasty people in themselves with an outlook which is barely different from Tabak.  The couple are David Yeates aged 64 and Teresa Yeates aged 58.  They seem symptomatic of the 'indignitary' approach which is so common in British society and is reinforced by the hysterical tabloid newspapers, notably 'The Sun' part of the Murdoch media empire of News International. 

I have no sympathy for Tabak and certainly believe he deserves a life sentence in prison.  What alarms me is the desire for the destruction of our legal processes, the move to arbitrary sentencing including execution and the fact that the language used in condemning the killer in fact help create an atmosphere which promotes such violence rather than seeks to reduce it.

The Yeateses, who have no legal training, complained that there was no death penalty in Britain and regretted it was not an option.  However, in fact it seems as if even that would have been insufficient for them.  Instead it appears they would have preferred to have Tabak tortured to death.  In an official statement they said: 'The best we can hope for him is that he spends the rest of his life incarcerated where his life is a living hell, being the recipient of all evils, deprivations and degradations that his situation can provide.'  They should be at least cautioned for trying to provoke fellow prisoners of Tabak from doing him harm.  What they have no understanding of, is that the behaviour they are lauding is just the kind that excited their daughter's killer.  To urge prisoners to visit such behaviour on the convicted man is simply to legitimise the kind of violence he carried out himself.  In turn this will add to an 'atmosphere of permissiveness' in that others will things such 'deprivations and degradations' are acceptable for them to turn on any man or woman they feel is 'guilty'.  Rather than doing anything to reduce future perpetrators, the Yeateses' language simply lionises such behaviour.

These days it seems entirely legitimate to wish for a 'lynch mob' approach to sentencing.  You only have to sit in a pub when the news of such cases comes on television to know how many volunteer executioners there would be.  In many ways all the legal reforms of the past three centuries seem to be forgotten and the average person in the street feels they are qualified to act as judge, jury and executioner for the person they believe to be guilty.  The selection of the 'guilty' seems more based on the appearance of the person than any legal arguments.  I am convinced that Amanda Knox is guilty of the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007.  The murder was a particularly perverse one and yet because Knox happens to be a beautiful American, she has to be innocent in the public eye and no-one is going around saying she should suffer the kind of  'deprivations and degradations' that were visited on Kercher.  In fact, with her release on appeal earlier this year, she has mutated into a victim herself.  This highlights how patronising the Americans are to other people's justice systems.  Knox is portrayed as suffering at the hands of a foolish Italian court that somehow missed seeing her 'innocence' shining through.

A patronising attitude towards courts was seen in the Yeates case.  It is clear that her parents had no faith in the legal system.  Her father said: 'I always knew he was guilty but feel relief because I don't know how I would have reacted if the jury had come back with a verdict of manslaughter.'  Again the father feels he should have been the judge, deciding on the sentence, not through the approach of law, but simply on his gut feeling.  It is interesting, he probably felt the same about Christopher Jefferies, Jo Yeates's landlord who was an early suspect on to whom Tabak tried to shift guilt.  I am sure if Jefferies had been charged, even though we now know he was innocent of the crime, David Yeates would be telling us how he should have been executed and how he knew that man was guilty.

The simplicity of this ability to sniff out guilt without any legal training, simply by looking at a person, leads the indignitaries to become exasperated with the legal processes.  Teresa Yeates was disappointed that it took three days for the jury to decide on a majority guilty verdict (10:2) for Tabak.  She said: 'It was the right verdict but it took so very long.'  Of course, she sees the jurors as stupid for not being equipped as she clearly feels she is, to simply detect a guilty man and to sufficient level to satisfy the courts.  Of course, the courts, juries and the whole legal system are disparaged by people like the Yeateses and organs like 'The Sun'.  They self-righteously know the guilty and see any chance for the so-clearly guilty to have defence or to go through any legal process.  Their favoured approach would take us back in Britain literally to the Middle Ages, to the kind of situation England had before Magna Carta of 1215.  Such arbitrary execution characterises dictatorships of the kind the UK has helped to overthrow in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but apparently for our own criminals, it is perfectly the kind of system we need to introduce.

Of course, for 'The Sun' even the Yeates's ostentatious statement about the punishments they want inflicted on Tabak are insufficient.  The newspaper went further not missing the opportunity to slag off misguided foreigners, in this case, the prison system of the Netherlands, Tabak's home country on 29th October, appended to their article on the Yeateses saying: 'Dutch prisons are known for their luxurious hotel-style facilities, with each cell having its own heater, fridge and microwave'.  The British are stunningly nationalistic, no other country, bar perhaps the USA, can be good enough in punishing criminals.  Clearly they relish the overcrowded, insanitary conditions of British prisons which lead to murders and widespread reoffending.  Much of the British public and the majority of the UK press have no faith in what our Victorian predecessors did, that there is a chance of rehabilitation.  In their view as in the USA, guilty is guilty for eternity so the best thing to do is to kill the perpetrator, who will always be easily to detect, quite often because he is always going to be something like a 33-year old European man rather than a 24-year old American woman.

Infected by American culture the UK is now a society in which no emotion is sufficient unless it is taken to the fullest extent.  You some how appear neglectful if you are not howling in sorrow or in anger or in calling for vengeance.  Few seem alert to the actual words, most extreme so far in the Yeateses' statements, foster the kind of violent society which created the murder in the first place, a society with utter distrust in legal procedures so a society in which lawlessness in all its forms seems to be the only 'solution'.  By being indignant, by howling in the media, you only foster more of the same kind of behaviour as that which distressed you in the first place.  This is not civilisation it is a return to a barbaric age in all aspects.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Strange Delight Of Lost Corners

This is another of those postings of me thinking back over quirky things that have caught my attention down the years and probably mean very little to anyone else.  However, perhaps I am wrong and my fascination with areas that I term 'lost corners' may intrigue others too.  When I was a boy at secondary school I was once on a school trip to London.  I was sitting in a coach somewhere like Wandsworth probably heading to the Imperial War Museum, maybe somewhere else.  Anyway I was on board a coach which was stuck in a traffic jam.  I was sat next to the window, uncommon for me as I generally sit in the aisle given the length of my legs and my concern about escaping from crashes.  Anyway, I looked down at a metal railing fence that enclosed the garden of a large house.  I was looking at the bit that came up to a post which marked the end of the wooden fence that surrounded the garden next door.  The garden with the railing fence was terribly overgrown, I remember.  Consequently I assumed that no-one ever went up to that corner of the fence, no-one picked up the litter there or did anything with the railings from that side let alone the concrete pole.  However, there had to have been some day when all of this had been important to someone.  Somebody had worked to erect the fence, to dig the hole and insert the concrete pole and yet now it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever set foot in that corner, perhaps for decades perhaps for even longer.  Of course, someone may have cut back the rhododendron and demolished the railings and removed the fence post later that day.  Even if they had, here was a space in which no human and probably few birds or other animals had been.

That was the day I realised that I had a fascination for spaces which were not invisible, but certainly lost to humanity for the foreseeable future.  It made me think that even in cities where we believe that every corner is jammed full of people, there are many areas which are untouched by people.  It reminded me of the UK as a whole.  We have some of the densest populations in Europe but there are large swathes of the country, vast areas of Scotland, Wales, the national parks, much of the South-West and the northern English counties, that are in fact almost empty of humans.  We are all jammed into quite restricted areas and there are these other spaces in which we do not go into.  I think it would be fascinating to map areas, particularly in London, where no-one goes.  I think this was one of the reasons why the Open House scheme has proven so popular.  Every year buildings to which the public and in fact very few people in general have access, are open for free.  I have been inside Marble Arch and down into Aldwych underground station plus various water pumping stations.  Typically those places for which you see a door but one that presents a blank face, a door as a wall in effect.

I have often thought this too about television and movie dramas when people come to London or some other great city trying to find someone.  Generally they do not experience how it is in reality.  Even if you manage to find the person among the teeming millions, you might reach their building and simply be faced with a door that will not open, through which no-one will let you.  So much of our cities are like this.  Wherever you walk you go passed location after location after location into which you could never gain access no matter how hard you tried.  I do wonder if one of the appeals of Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry's 'Neverwhere' (series & novelisation, 1996) was that there was an entire 'London Below' (in fact, often above as well) that could be accessed by forming doors in those very blanks walls.  I have a feeling that Gaiman and Henry saw such spaces, especially in London much as I have done, though saw a way through rather than for me, just feeling repeatedly rejected by them.

That silent rejection, I feel is different to the lost corners.  Of course, someone may have had the intention to close them off; fenced them around.  Yet, for me the best of them have become a lost corner because they have become overgrown or simply because they are no longer important.  In the house I currently rent a room in, from the kitchen I look at the back of another house, set at right-angles as it opens on another road.  I have never seen the residents, but the entirety of the back of the house, is overgrown and blocked from the side of my house by an old iron fence.  Once that space was important, part of a building site for the house, perhaps a location where children sneaked around the house as I used to go between my parents' house and my neighbours' down the narrow gap.  Certainly for many days people tramped around that space and at some time, maybe then, maybe later put and iron fence in, presumably along precisely defined lines.  The space is still there and plants inhabit it, and yet whilst I can see it, without great effort I could never be in that space.  It reminds me too, of the wonderful views you see while driving down the motorway knowing that however beautiful it is, there is no way you can capture that precise view certainly not without a severe risk of death and being arrested, perhaps in the reverse order.

I think it is that fact, 'so near, yet so far', like the eyots you see from the trains as you go over or alongside the Thames.  You would love to go on to them.  There would be very little on most of them and one or two are protected, but it would be that excitement of stepping somewhere no-one has been for so long.  Maybe I am wrong and they would be full of leftovers of drunken student parties.  I wonder if it is a little like what motivates people to climb mountains or explore jungles, to go into spaces which you feel are rather outside the flow of time.  Reflecting on this interest of mine, I know that it is not restrained to overgrown gardens or disused yards.  It also stems to those rooms you see on the top of old buildings, equipped with windows and yet with no-one to look out of them.  You see them all over old cities, London, Oxford, Bath particularly among them.  Does anyone go into those spaces and what do they contain, bar dust?

My feelings about lost corners is one of wistfulness, feeling perhaps because they are not entered and walked across, that they retain a small scoop of the past of some days when they were something that warranted the attention of people, even if just the workers sent to put in a fence.  A teacher of mine explained how when he had gone to Arizona and saw so much of it as it would have looked many centuries earlier, he felt unnerved.  Returning to Britain he realised it was the starkness of the American South West that alarmed him in the very fact that it was wild, it had not been softened, worked on by humans.  Britain, in contrast, is very different.  You can go almost everywhere in this country and see the trace of humans.  Many rural fields have tumuli dating back millenia; others have Roman roads or forts or banjo enclosures or filled in quarries or torn up railtracks.  As 'Time Team' has shown seemingly ever corner of Britain has been impacted upon directly by humans, not simply in terms of pollution but messing around with it.  Archaeology programmes show us that not only has our back garden been part of centuries of structures but even on remote Scottish islands the trace of humans is there; the rolling valleys of the Yorkshire Dales were deforested before there was a written language.  I have never been anywhere as untouched as my teacher, but I imagine I would feel as unnerved as him.  This is why, I guess I am fascinated by these corners that show human intervention, but unlike the average stretch of pavement or even garden, that intervention has ceased and it is as if we are walking past a snapshot from some particular time, not out of time, but somehow on a parallel rather than bisecting path to the spaces we habitually go into.  I have wondered whether to take photos of some of these places and put them up on this blog.  However, I guess that is taking being a nerd just that little too far and instead will confine myself to the wistful enjoyment of such forgotten corners whenever I see them.