Friday, 11 February 2011

Help From Harry Potter And Shrek

At the end of 2009 I commented on how when I was brought in to an advise a boy of 8 on how to live his life, I found myself turning to a combination of popular cultural references, a little bit of William Shakespeare and some Percy Sledge:  This month I found myself referencing 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' (2005 - the movie; I have not read the novels; the boy is still too young to have read them) to assist me.  There is such a sharp division between adult and child culture, to some extent these days set by which technologies we use and how, but, also, as always, simply because we keep our culture to define where we are in our lives and keep the other groups out.  Yet, fortunately, there are some things that straddle the ages and act as a decent shorthand or reinforcement for the point you are trying to make.

I do have issues with the Harry Potter series.  I feel it lauds the elite public school system of the UK which already provides such a large percentage of leading people in all sectors of business and public life, and due to the policies of the current government is taking an even tighter grip on the reins of power.  The Potter books teach ordinary children who go to comprehensive schools or even grammar schools and academies, to look up to those who are 'special' enough, magic in fact, and so entitled to attend the elite boarding schools.  Hogwarts has all the trappings of Eton and beyond it Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities.  Pupils wear gowns, they eat in wood-panelled refectories along long wooden tables, they have houses and common rooms and indulge in life-risking sports.  The one saving grace is that ultimately Harry Potter fights a form of Fascism based on biological racism, but then again, have we really moved on from the writing of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and their 1950s attitudes?  I can enjoy the Narnia, Middle Earth and Hogwarts stories for their drama and adventure.  I am able as an adult with a critical eye to sift out the hidden messages that I disagree with and not let them indoctrinate me in the way I fear the authors intended; though I think Rowling, unlike the other two, was writing what she thought publishers would expect rather than views she held. 

Given my qualms about the Potter stories, why have I cited them as being useful for assisting a nine-year old boy.  Well, it comes down to the less fantastical elements, that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, despite their old fashioned names and magical abilities, are often pretty much like children of today.  The fact that schools all seem to be embracing public school behaviour, filtered through an American high school lens makes the gap even narrower.  The scenario was that at the nine year old's school they were having a Valentine's disco.  In contrast to in my era when you simply pitched up and hung around with your friends until you got enough courage to ask one girl for a slow 'side-to-side' dance (as Lenny Henry has so well characterised it), he was expected to ask a female partner to attend with him, as if it was the 1950s and it was some real-life version of 'Grease' (1978).  Possibly this would work if he was 13, but at 9 it is really unknown territory.  However, a realm which I fear is going to be very common.  Returning to my sixth form college at the end of the 1990s I found in place of the very informal discos we had had fifteen years before, now there were formal 'proms' very much on the US style.  This trend seems to be extending not just to secondary schools now but also primary schools.  The boy informed me that apparently at his school 'ballroom dancing' with girls was not permitted until you reach Year 6 (aged 10-11).  Perhaps all the ballroom dancing programmes on the television are encouraging this.  Yet, it seems terribly unnatural in the 2010s as if fearing that our 9 year olds will behave like 13 year olds we try to make them into 63-year olds instead!

Anyway, the formality of the process which no longer simply involves him going to the school office to buy a ticket at lunchtime or after school, has thrown open a whole new set of questions for his acting father (me) to answer.  Why when the law says that teenagers do not have the maturity to have sex, do we think they have the maturity to operate in a bewildering social melee.  The poor boy was torn between wanting to do what the teachers encouraged and ask a girl (there is one in a particular he liked anyway) and yet he knew how boys' attitudes can turn so quickly and was fearful that asking a girl would then lead to ridicule from his male peers.  Of course, there is the potential for ridicule from the girl he asks or her friends.  All the stuff about when you ask and what to do if she says no, or something the school in its dated gender role model, seems to have not considered: what happens if a girl asked him, especially if he did not like her?   All of this is tough when you are 13,  four years younger seemed too young.  Boys tend to think even their pseudo-fathers are the ideal men whereas in fact a lot of us, especially those who have taken over where another man has left, were never very good at this stuff in the first place.  So humiliated and bullied in my youth I lacked the courage to ask women out until I was 29 and even then did not have sex until I was 34, so how could I ever be the kind of expert the boy was looking for?

In this circumstance, Harry Potter was my saviour.  'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' features a ball to which the, by now, 14-15-year old male protagonists are expected to ask a female to accompany them to.  Of course, Harry and Ron prevaricate so long that the two girls they would have asked are asked by other people and they upset the twins they invite as their 'substitute' guests too.  With the boy having seen the movie multiple times, I could simply reference at length the interaction between Harry, Ron, Hermione (the one Ron really wants to ask), Cho Chang (the girl Harry asks to the ball too late) and the Patil twins (the two 'substitutes') and very quickly have communicated the pitfalls of such circumstances.  Other movies in the series have been useful in addressing what it feels like to see someone you fancy going out with someone else, as occurs for Hermione in 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' (2009).  I think the school were wrong for staging the event in this old fashioned formal way, especially for children so young.  However, it seems they are prey to our societal trends which want us to go back in time in so much of how our society is run.  Perhaps there are good elements in that, but do not suddenly thrust our 21st century children into the social and gender divisions of the 1950s or 1910s without equipping them first.  Without Harry Potter to help I would have battled to find a way, so quickly to enculturate a young boy into social behaviour which was alien to my youth and was never expected to reappear.

As an afterthought, I was also reminded of how useful the Shrek series of movies has been.  It might seem odd that young people have anything to learn from the story of an ogre.  However, the four movies (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) are very useful in outlining decent behaviour for young men.  They show how to interact with women, what it feels like to be in love, feeling constrained by a relationship and the daily grind, dealing with in-laws and the challenges for young men of becoming fathers.  There is stuff about getting irritated with your partner, your friends, your children, feeling down about your place in the world.  Shrek is in fact very much an everyman for modern western society.  Amongst all the adventures, jokes and songs, there is actually a lot of decent advice which is hopefully being drip-fed into young male minds to counteract the more insidious distortions of console games, music videos and online pornography.  Much output from Hollywood features 'family values' but too often it is in a perfect vision in which everyone always has more than enough, does not have to work hard, is not exhausted from a day at work, is never sick or just fed up and the children are easily won over.  A lot of such output shows you the vision of family and relationships, but rarely engages with the much harder reality.  It is ironic that a movie about someone in a fantasy world (though often painfully like our own (especially in 'Shrek 2' with its spoofs of California and US real-life police series) actually provides better lessons for children about the challenges of the future in the kinds of life they are going to live.  To some degree they all come down to saying that in this life we cannot really hope for much more than to have love and some good times.

P.P. 14/02/2011: It subsequently transpired that the 'rule' that each boy could only attend the disco if partnered by a girl had been made up by a set of influential Year 4 girls who were keen that one particularly popular boy ask one of them to the dance.  I do not know what concerns me more about this: that given the strange things the school has come out with over the past 5 years that I was quite happy to accept this latest development or that 9-year old girls seem to have learnt how to pull off social plotting like devious teenagers, I imagine from watching some US high school drama.  The boy from my house went to the disco and apparently enjoyed himself right until the end when other boys bullied him.

Setting this incident aside, I still believe that due to the fact that there are not a great deal of cultural aspects that me and the boy share in common ('My Goldfish Is Evil' or 'Trapped: Ever After' anyone?) and certainly ones that have life lessons that are useful and not poured on too thickly, I will be returning to Harry Potter and Shrek to help him resolve social dilemmas in the future.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Living With/As A Lodger

The year before last I was living in a guesthouse so that I could be near work.  In that context I noted that, with the economy moving in the directions it seemed to be; with it so difficult to move house in the UK due to the disparities in prices between different regions and the instability of the short contract work which is now so common across so much employment,  we would be see the return of forms of residence characteristic of the 19th and much of the 20th century. I felt I was living a kind of existence that Arnold Bennett may have featured in one of his stories.  See:

With a government bent on turning British society back in time we are likely to see the reappearance very quickly of such dated forms of residence. Examples include people having to sleep on floors, cramped into houses with their extended families, sleeping rough, and possibly in time as it becomes so hard to get any workers who can live anywhere near where they are needed, more and more companies housing their workers whether in caravans in the car park or above a department store like in ‘The History of Mr. Polly’ by H.G. Wells (1910). Accommodation will become a perk of a job and allow employers to pay that little bit less and also to hold another threat over their workers to ensure compliance: if you are not subservient to me and do all that I say, then, well not only do you lose your job but your home too. I can see Cameron and his controllers relishing being able to crack this additional ‘whip’ over the workforce they feel had it too much their own way during the Blair years, perhaps even, given how extreme their views seem to be, during the Thatcher and Major years too.

One of these traditional forms of residence is as a lodger. For those unfamiliar with this term, it means someone who rents a room in a house, not as a tenant but as a kind of a member of the family. They share the bathroom and usually the kitchen; in some houses they have their meals cooked by the owner of the house and perhaps their laundry done too, in others they have to deal with these things themselves. I have both lived as a lodger and until recently had a lodger in my house. From the outset I must say it is a miserable existence for all concerned. People only let out rooms because they need the money; there are tax breaks in the UK for doing so.

There are some advantages for the lodger in that though there is a contract you usually can get out of it easier than renting a whole flat. In addition, generally you just pay the rent and do not have to get mixed up in things like utility charges and council tax. In theory being a lodger should be cheaper than being a tenant. However, in my experience, the rent part is often very little different you just save on the household bills and in this age of fixed-term tenancy contracts which mean you can be compelled to pay rent on a property months after you have left it, it is (generally, not always) easier to walk away from when work moves somewhere else than if you were the tenant.

Lodgers are generally seen as sad, lonely middle-aged men, but these days they come in both genders and all ages and I imagine that the diversity in lodgers will increase as the employment and housing situations in the UK continue to deteriorate. I will look first at what it is like being a lodger and then turn around and look at the perspective from the people renting out the rooms.

The first thing I learned about being a lodger is that anything that goes wrong in the house is your fault. Any breakage, any smell, any malfunction is the fault of the lodger even if they have had no contact with the item or location in question. There will always be an immediate assumption that anything missing has been stolen by you. In the UK, people are unlikely to make direct accusations, until what they see as your wrong behaviour builds up to a certain level and then they accuse you of everything that has gone wrong over the previous weeks or months. Partly I think this is simply to put you in your place and emphasise that you are not accepted into the house. I suffered this even though the son of the owner of the house was a drug addict and was arrested while I was living in the house for breaking into a shop. I could have complained about having my room searched at 3 a.m. by the police seeking where he had hidden stolen goods. I was fortunate that I was simply able to leave.

The second thing you learn is that British households are filled with a whole series of ridiculous rituals which you must adhere to precisely or be accused that you are odd or being rude or were raised in a bad way. You have to learn quickly where your shoes must be left, when you must rise and go to bed, who has priority in the bathroom or the kitchen, what you can or cannot eat in your bedroom or cook in the kitchen (I was accused of having cooked with garlic, when in fact that was not the case), usually you must stick to bland very high fat English food or packaged food, nothing more imaginative. You must never drink alcohol even outside the house. Effectively, by paying the owner some money every week they feel they can set down more regulations on your life than your parents would have done. In extreme cases I have had friends compelled to open and close the curtains in their rooms at specific times and to even carry a light bulb from room to room and screw it in place if they wanted lighting in that room. Another friend, when a lodger, though permitted to use the washing machine, found that the owner was turning it through the programmes because she was impatient for the washing to finish. This left his clothes improperly washed and in fact the woman was damaging her own washing machine as she had become obsessed with her own rules.

The problem is, that people who let out rooms really do not want to have lodgers and they resent you because you represent how much they need the money. However, most British people cannot accept anyone else’s view of how a house should be run and set rules on others that they could not adhere to themselves. Very often you see such hardened attitudes on the ‘right’ way to do things cause arguments between couples and among family members. It is no wonder that the lodger will always be in the wrong just by their very presence.

It is incredible how having lodgers makes people so mean spirited. I knew a recently married couple who not yet having children took in a lodger, a young woman, so as to help pay with the mortgage. I met her once and she seemed nice and clean, but my friends could never say a good word about her. They kept their lights dimmed and complained that she was always turning them up when she was doing her college work (she worked as a nanny and did a college course part-time). I pointed out that it was actually difficult to read anything in their house when the lights were dimmed. However, they could see no legitimate reason for her wanting more lighting even to read and saw some sinister motive, claiming she must want to waste their money. This shows how far my friends, who until then I had considered rational people, had stepped into being so mean spirited when they got a lodger. It is not pleasant to be a lodger, you have minimal privacy and are highly dependent on other people, no-one does it from choice and no-one has any desire to waste the house owner’s money.

My friends’ attitude continued saying that they often found the young woman on the telephone and they disbelieved her when she said it was people calling her. They had no problem with her using the phone for calls, it was that again they believed she was going out of her way to spend their money. I asked them if their phone bill had risen since she had arrived and whether there were lots of new numbers or an often repeated new number on the bill. Of course, the bill had not changed, the woman was telling the truth, she had no reason to lie when the owners would get evidence of any lie from the telephone company. Again my friends were letting their prejudice blind them to rational evidence. This is not surprising. People hate having strangers in their house, they quite often hate having their own family members there but feel obliged by family ties not to complain. The lodger as a stranger is not spared the irrational anger that stems from the owners feeling somehow violated at having this person in their house. It is unsurprising that in these situations lodgers do not stay long. Even when renting a room, you want the place to be a refuge and instead you find you have to creep around and adhere to more regulations than you do in the workplace, it makes your times of supposed rest very stressful.

Last year we had two lodgers in our house. This was compelled on us as I remained unemployed and we needed all the money we could get into the house to slow down the steps to repossession. The 16-year old Spanish girl I have mentioned before: She was clean and was out partying most of the time so impinged little on the house. Once we got her a mirror in her room she spent far less time in the bathroom so it was alright. In addition, her English was good so she understood the regulations and her mother told her to behave respectfully to us. Her successor was very different and much more like the classic style of lodger. He was 20 and came from Saudi Arabia. His level of English was very poor which made explaining anything very difficult.

One challenge with having lodgers from abroad, even from within the EU is that they find it very difficult to comprehend how expensive food and utilities are compared to their home country. Thus, even the Spanish lodger will be more wasteful than British people are/are becoming. Our house is in almost constant gloom due to the low wattage of the bulbs we have installed. We have sequential baths in the same bath water and no-one wastes food. The Spanish girl probably treated us as respectfully as she would some distant relative.

The Saudi man saw us simply as his servants. Clearly at home he is spoilt with family members or servants cooking for him at any hour he chooses to come in; cleaning up after him all the time, even switching off lights after him. He believed, despite being repeatedly told, that any item of food not locked away was free for him to eat. He would open new packets if he fancied them. He was cooked meals which would be left for him to reheat as never once did he come home at the time he said. This food he would either leave out to attract ants and flies or throw away when it could have been eaten by someone else in the house. The fact that no can of fizzy drink or packet of crisps could be brought into the house without him consuming meant it very difficult to shop. He insisted on four to five cans of coca cola per day and when he could not get these would begin drinking all the drinks bought for the nine year old boy who lives in our house. In the end all cans and snacks had to be locked away and he was given ‘sacrificial’ cans to keep him from seeking out others, though he would do this, stamping up and down the house trying to find our latest hiding place. This was despite him having sufficient cash to buy a brand new smartphone, expensive clothes, chocolates and other luxuries himself.

Of course, he could argue that he had paid for it so that he could do what he liked with it, but we hate to see waste. He never switched a light off. You could track his progress through the house by the lights left on. He would visit the toilet in the middle of the night and leave the light blazing (or dimly glowing given our bulbs, but for hours still) and he constantly had the light on in his room throughout the day and night. He insisted that the boy in my house switch the computer from the games he was playing to unsuitable rap videos on YouTube or video sequences of Saudi military manoeuvres. I recognise a cultural difference, back home presumably younger people have to comply with his wishes without complaint, but it is not how our house runs especially when the boy has access to games on the computer as a treat.

Having been a lodger myself, I was sensitive to the challenges of being in that position. However, I was never a lodger like he was. The pile of sweaty socks smelt out the first floor. We had to get into his room and seize them (we offered to wash all his clothes for free but he did not offer them up unless pressed) to wash them. The hawking and spitting down the toilet every morning was a cultural thing which we accepted despite the volume of this activity. From considering all food in the house to be his rightful possession, he turned to my clothing, taking my scarf when he felt cold and then tossing it aside. It then disappeared so I was compelled to buy a new one until I tracked it down bundled up in his room.

Of course, we complained, but his initial ignorance of English followed by his complete incomprehension about why the servants were making such fuss over things that were ‘nothing’ (as he referred to the cost of the cans of coca cola), meant we got nowhere. The woman in my house grew angrier and angrier until she began shouting at him and then felt phobic that he would take revenge on her so secured herself and her son in her room against the fear of his attack.

This deterioration in relations was probably extreme, exacerbated by utter lack of common language and a common basis for rules on living. We had thought it would be useful to have someone from a different culture in our house. I have often worked with Saudis and know this spoilt brat of a man is not representative, but it made us feel wretched that we had to accept someone so using into our house because we were desperate for the money.

What are my suggestions coming out of my bitter experiences of being a lodger and having lodgers in my house? Well, you have to accept that it is going to be a pretty wretched experience for all concerned. Few people are experienced or trained in having or being lodgers. We live very much in a ‘me first’ society and in contrast to say those used to being put up by others in the past, having to share bathrooms and eat what we were given, all of us these days from childhood onwards and tutored to demand what we want precisely the way we want it. As Britain is being driven back to the Victorian era, we will pass through phases that look like the 1950s and so many of us are going to have to get used to sharing and putting up with stuff that will ‘do’ rather than precisely matches our desires.

If you are going to be a lodger, expect to face totally irrational regulations and expect to move on after a few months at the most. Despite what you pay you will be perceived, whether sub-consciously or consciously, as an unwanted intruder in the house. If you are having lodgers, remember that they are only human and that their behaviour and assumptions are likely to be hugely different to yours. Do not let things build up, talk with your lodger regularly and try to see things from their perspective as much as possible as, naturally, you will default back to your own view of things very easily and this view will harden as time passes. Remember that if you had your grandmother/uncle/cousin, whoever, staying for a number of weeks, even if you had a close and shared experience before, you would soon find it very challenging living with them. As with a marriage, having a lodger can only even just scrape by with a lot of communication and effort.

Monday, 7 February 2011

'I Don't Want To Hear That': Censoring In The Workplace

Before Christmas I attended a Christmas Fayre held at a local primary school.  It had the usual games, stalls and refreshments that you find at such events held by churches, schools and other organisations.  Being a small school some of the stalls were in classrooms.  As I made my way into one classroom and joined the queue to buy some Christmas items, I looked at the work on the walls.  It is always interesting to see what is being produced by children, especially as the curriculum is far wider than in my day and a lot of the work has been printed off the computer rather than hand-drawn and coloured.  I was in the classroom used by Year 5 children, i.e., aged 9-10.  On the wall was a series of notices admonishing the children to behave in certain ways, seeming rather old fashioned in style, but that may reflect the tone of that school or of the particular teacher of that class.  Anyway, the one that concerned me most encouraged children not to speak.  It told them not to say anything unless it complied with the following criteria: it had to be True, Helpful, Inspiring, Needed, Kind', as you can see this gave the acronym THINK.  I suppose telling people to think before they speak is not really a bad principle.  However, it seemed to reinforce more unsettling trends I have been encountering in society and in the workplace, in particular, so I was unnerved to see them coming into primary school teaching.

Let us look at the criteria.  I suppose none of us would be against encouraging children to tell the truth.  However, in western society, especially in education, the truth is always being contested.  If it was not then knowledge would not advance, and to some degree this even applies in primary schools where the children are testing out ideas.  If one child said 'Father Christmas exists' and another child said 'Father Christmas does not exist' who, among 9-year olds, would be telling the truth? Does the school rule out any of the mysteries that children often receive from their parents.  What if a child said 'God created the World in 7 days' and another 'the universe started with the Big Bang' and so on?  It certainly rules out any child telling a fictional story; perhaps that school only deals with non-fiction. As to the other criteria, they are all incredibly subjective.  How does a 9-year old understand 'inspiring' and presumably if they did not think what they were saying 'needed' to be said then they would not bother; similarly with 'helpful'.  Perhaps 'kind' is easier to judge, but if the child is not being particularly insulting to another child or shouting at them, then how do you apply this to other statements.  Generally it seemed like an new way of saying 'children should be seen and not heard', a very Victorian precept.

This attitude that seems to be penetrating, even if in just some isolated cases, into schools is already widespread in the workplace.  If I had a pound for every time in the past decade that I had heard the phrase, 'I don't want to hear that' in a work situation then I would be wealthy enough not to need to be applying for a job at the moment.  I imagine it stems from the revived fashion for 1980s style management, encouraged by methods seen on programmes such as 'The Apprentice' in which managers are stern and distant and bellow at their employees as if they are all idiots.  Lord Sugar has been very successful in bringing the methods used my sergeant-majors, including the insults and humiliation, into the office.  The key difficulty is an assumption that the manager determines the parameters of what is a permitted topic and even what language can be used to describe it.  This assumption is one I have often encountered and seems to be increasingly common with each passing year. 

I accept that such an approach is a stamp of authority.  However, it puts a far greater distance between the manager and the workforce, often artificially.  In any given office there are always at least one or two people who could easily step into the manager's shoes and, in fact, in many situations do the job better.  However, in the UK workplace we seem to now have very stratfied approaches and no sense any longer that employees, through hard work and training can progress up the company hierarchy.  These days managers have to be managers brought from somewhere else (though often from elsewhere within the same company), rather than promoted internally.  I accept it is difficult to set one employee above their previous colleagues, but that should not mean that there is an automatic sense that people on a certain grade will never become managers whether in their own office or elsewhere.

Defining the language which people are permitted to use when speaking is discriminatory.  We are not talking about abusive or even crude language, but terminology and ways of expression which I have witnessed being shot down by 'I don't want to hear that'.  I have generally worked in Southern England and the Midlands, but with staff from regions right across the UK, from many parts of the EU, from Canada, the USA, Australia and China and numerous other countries, especially in South Asia.  In addition, I have worked with men and women, people aged 16 to 78 in my work and from all social classes, even interacting with nobility from time to time. 

With this variety there is often wide diversity in the use of words and phrases in the work context.  I have encountered challenges with which floor a meeting is on with Americans (for whom the first floor is the British ground floor) and with a Liverpudlian who pronounced the word 'staff' the way I pronounce 'stuff'.  I even had to work out what a delivery driver meant when he said 'I need to fucking fuck that fuck', which to many would have been abusive, but was expressed in a neutral tone and meant he was going to back up his lorry; I had to interpret it from the context (I was reminded of this reading a China Mieville story in which the language of an alien race alters so there is only a single sound used for all words and sentences are understood purely by the context, partly as a defence against manipulation of the society by people alien to the planet).  Ruling out words and phrases on some criteria which is, again, not articulated, only assumed to be 'common sense', is prejudicial as it descriminates against the speech of particular workers be that on a social, gender, regional, ethnic or age basis.  Of course, it is simply another tool for the manager to constrain other employees left to try to guess at unwritten words and having their comments demoted in relation to the already privileged statements of the manager.

Setting the parameters of what is a permitted topic and what is permitted language helps to separate out managers from the level below them (which in many companies can often be another layer of managers who in turn are separating themselves from the level below).  Usually the parameters are not defined; they are simply things the manager is ignorant of or for some reason does not feel relevant, but rather than saying that, simply the manager holds up their hand and says 'I don't want to hear this' and that is literally the end of the conversation.  There is no explanation; no attempt to help the colleague develop so they say different things in the future.  People saying 'I don't want to hear this' tend to assume that their opposition to some approach is common sense. Typically, however, ruling out certain approaches so peremptorily is not done on any criteria than either the manager does not want to hear 'bad' news or the person addressing them has started referring to things that the manager does not feel confident about and is unwilling to reveal the gap in their knowledge.  No-one in any company or organisation knows everything, but when we have to comply with 20-50 essential specifications to get a job then none of us dare admit that there is something we are weak on.  The only solutions that are allowed to be presented in so many companies now are the ones which the manager understands already and naturally this is detrimental to any innovation and even different ways of addressing a particular problem in order to work out solutions.

Too many managers not only do not want to hear about things they are unfamiliar with, but they do not want to hear anything they deem to be 'bad'.  This marks an interesting change.  Back in the early 2000s I remember a counter-trend which was that I would be asked for 'war stories', taken to mean examples of situations or projects similar to the ones we were dealing with but which had gone badly wrong.  Back then people did not want to hear success stories, rather ones outlining all the potential problems they could avoid.  It was easy to tell this from not only comments and requests I received but also from looking at the number of hits on the reports that myself and numerous colleagues had loaded up to the internal information database.  The hits on the 'war stories' exceeded those on the success story reports fivefold.  Of course, this did not mean that people wanted to hear about the unsuccessful parts of their own projects, but I believe they were far more willing to speak about them, otherwise myself and the people I worked alongside would have had no material from which to write our 'war stories', a situation far more common now, a decade on.

'Bad' is a loose word anyway.  In my experience it encompasses anything that brings doubt about the success of even a single small aspect of the proposal made by the manager themselves.  If they are fixated on even the most hare-brained scheme, you risk your job to highlight even one of the erroneous assumptions or ill-informed decisions in the project.  This is insulting.  What is the point of recruiting capable people, questioning them at length about their knowledge and capabilities; sending them on training courses and to conferences, only then to dismiss any observations that run counter to the leader's vision for the company/department/office.  What is the point of me having these skills and knowledge if you are not going to even let me draw on them?  I remember challenging one boss on two schemes of his.  I pointed out that in one cases there were already 146 examples of what he proposed to develop, already on the market.  In the second I highlighted to him that sending British staff for 3 years without a chance to return to the UK in that period might cause a rapid turnover of staff and questioned how he was going to pay them in China given that the reminbi (also known as the yuan) was not convertible; even seven years on from then and with China having taken steps in this direction, full convertibility has not been achieved.  You would think my points were valid, but they were dismissed 'I only hear bad news from you' I was told and 'you seek to stop anything I plan'.  The sense that anything that tempers or modifies the plan as envisaged by the originator is seeking to stop it entirely, rather than improve it, makes it difficult to develop pragmatic responses and adjustments which would actually make the plan work better or, in some cases, actually feasible.  As with what can be raised, the 'all or nothing' approach hampers what should be the productive evolution of business activities, drawing on the skills of the full range of staff the company has taken so much effort to recruit.

The exclusion of anything defined as 'bad' (and this is defined by the beholder rather than any objective perspective) excludes a lot of the input that is needed when planning and executing plans in business.  One basis for this attitude is the sense that we must all be hyper-positive about everything that happens in the company (the more I write the more the managerial style I am characterising seems to be similar to that of the Five Year Plans of the USSR and China, ignoring the flaws and continuing with unflinching optimism).  In fact, excessive positivity can be dangerous. A study in 2009 by Canadian academics Joanne Wood and John Lee, University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic, University of New Brunswick. They felt that making self-esteem affirmations actually reinforced established behaviour rather than bringing about change. This is easy to comprehend, because if you feel good about yourself then they begin to feel that the way you are doing things must be the correct way, even if this means disregarding signals to the contrary. In an extract last January in 'The Guardian', supporting the release of her book, 'Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World' (2010), Barbara Ehrenreich outlined how the insistance on positivity when dealing with cancer actually can be a hindrance to effective treatment. Her article went on to discuss something which I am on the verge of experiencing, the sessions telling the unemployed to be positive and to see their period of unemployment not as something negative and limiting, rather as something opening up new opportunities. I can say from my own experience that unemployment shuts down so many opportunities, to go anywhere, to socialise, to get things repaired and, in fact, to get another job, because employers prefer applicants currently in work over the jobless.

Now, I am not saying we should all be gloomy about the future and recognise that that can be debilitating.  However, we seem to have got to a situation in which we feel that good news should be the only news we hear, everything else should be dismissed.  This leads to an imbalanced and in turn inaccurate appreciation of the real situation.  This position is exacerbated by another trend in the workplace which I have highlighted before, the insistence on brevity.  See:  I suppose in our sound bite age this is to be expected.  No-one of today can stomach the kind of political speeches people would stand listening to for hours in the Victorian era and even 30-minute long programmes seem tiresome to some viewers; we have 60-second news broadcasts even on BBC3.  However, this intolerance for anything longer than a single email page or some texted or tweeted lines, has turned into an assumption that anything which is longer than the personally defined tolerance level is wrong.  It does not matter what the content actually says, the length makes whatever is contained in the message wrong in the view of far too many managers.  Complex situations, analysis of different elements of a process, of different markets or customers, often need to be thoroughly analysed.  Of course, you can fragment the reports, looking at a single customer or market at a time, but then all comparison goes out of the window.

Managers should make judgements.  Often for jobs I have applied for 'evidence of decision making ability' is listed as an essential specification for a manager.  However, excluding and bad or neutral news and insisting on only the briefest of reports or contributions, actually takes the decision making away from the manager.  Instead they are given a number of brief, positive options and they simply plump for one or other.  Without a rounded picture and full information about the options, and vitally, the context in which they will operate, the manager cannot make an actual judgement, they can simply 'pick' an option or go with the one which is best sold to them rather than one which might be most beneficial for the business.  The insistence on 'positive & brief' also rules out a combination of elements from different options.  You cannot see the downsides of any option or where its weaknesses might be countered by bringing across something from another option.  I would argue that this kind of culture not only led the 'Columbia' space shuttle disaster of 2003, but also to a whole host of problems in the UK, for example, the defective software used for air traffic control and most recently by HM Revenue & Customs.  Business and public service is complex.  It deals with complex situation which require answers which generally are not simple, but typically multi-faceted and with positive, neutral and negative points about each option available.  However, simply because of a fashion to make managers feel more in control, business and public service culture's insistence on 'positive & brief' will continue to lead us into difficulties because better answers will never even be allowed to appear.

P.P. 09/02/2011: I was reminded of an incident I experienced a couple of years ago, which combined with my knowledge of Chinese business suggests that this trend is even more prevalent in Chinese companies than it is with British ones.  We were having an end of year meal in a restaurant for a number of staff and freelancers who had worked with a new unit, focusing on China, inside the company I was then working for.  Most of the staff of the unit were British but it was headed by a Chinese man who had lived in the UK for some time and his personal assistant was a more recently arrived Chinese woman.  Both of them read and speak English fluently.  The head of the unit offered anyone who wished a lift in his car to the restaurant.  I was the only one who accepted, the others made their own way there.  The head drove with his assistant beside him, I was in the back.  Whilst I was junior to the head I was certainly far more senior in the company than his assistant.

As we approach the restaurant the head pulls into a car park which is clearly labelled as being reserved parking only for members of the company who owned the building the parking sat beside.  I saw this and tried to alert the driver to the fact.  His assistant turned and very vigorously told me not to question the head's driving and when I repeated trying to alert him to the fact that he could not park there his assistant shushed me as if I was a child and then told me I should not say anything.  I found this laughable but was also offended.  The head proceeded to park and get out of the car. His assistant followed in his footsteps saying nothing.  The head then walked away and continued until he saw the sign.  Of course, he had to turn round and come back and move his car farther down the street or risk being clamped and fined.  However, time had been wasted that could have been avoided if I had been permitted to speak.

I know this is a single incident but it seemed painfully characteristic of the problems that the centralised economies of China and the USSR faced in the past which led them in the 1980s and 1990s to move towards capitalism.  However, the attitudes of not questioning authority figures or their immediate agents seem to have persisted from the Communist context into the capitalist environment.  Given the success of China in the global marketplace, perhaps it is no surprise that British companies are apeing this behaviour.  Yet, as I have outlined above, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to warnings of things that may go wrong might work for a short time but ultimately will lead to you running into problems that could have been avoided with just a little care and some attention.

P.P. 21/05/2011
I was interested to catch an episode of Evan Davis's BBC2 programme, 'Business Nightmares' broadcast on 19th May 2011.  He featured serious blunders by companies such as HBOS and Marks & Spencer particularly in taking over foreign companies.  He concluded the programme saying that these examples and others stemmed from when the man in charge of the company had a grand idea but did not permit anyone to present an alternative or to caution him about what he planned to do, not simply about the plan in general but also specifics within it.  Consequently, these cases turned into 'business nightmares' that damaged the company.  As I have noted in this posting, this tendency to see anything which does not fit entirely with the boss's vision as a unwanted criticism that the boss is unwilling even to hear, is increasingly prevalent throughout UK companies, causing not only problems for the company at the top level, but hampering its efficiency and successful progress at all levels, so still damaging the company in the long term.  Davis is a far more respected commentator on business than myself, but his argument that, for a company to prosper, a vision needs to be tempered with practical considerations and that bosses should not 'turn a deaf ear' to these reinforces what I have witnessed working for a number of companies.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Zen And Portrayals Of Italy

Back in July 2009, I noted how our perceptions of times, towns and countries are often shaped by detective stories set in them.  At the time, the English-language series of the Swedish 'Wallander' detective stories, strarring Kenneth Branagh, had just been released and I discussed how British views of Sweden were now seen through that lens:  Since then, I have gone on to watch both the Swedish adaptations of the Wallander novels starring Krister Henrikson (released 2005-6 and 2009-10) and then a couple of the Swedish TV-movie adaptations starring Rolf LassgÃ¥rd (released 1995-2007).  As a consequence, I have a very clear view of now how I view southern Sweden both physically and in terms of society: bleaker than that portrayed in the British adaptation.  Along the way, I have picked up quite a few Swedish phrases and can swear pretty effectively in the language.

I have only ever read one Kurt Wallander story, 'Sidetracked' (published in English 2002), the fifth novel of the series and the most successful in the UK.  However, when we turn to the Aurelio Zen novels by the late Michael Dibdin, I have read far more.  The first three Zen novels have recently been adapted by the BBC for British television, starring Rufus Sewell as the Italian police detective.  Dibdin wrote eleven Zen novels (1988-2007).  He died in 2007, days after his 60th birthday.  He wrote seven other novels, including 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' (1978), his first novel, which established him as a serious author.  Dibdin's novels can be bleak.  The novel 'Dirty Tricks' (1991), set among language school staff in Oxford, shows up how powerless the average decent person in the UK is, compared to the nasty, more powerful ones out there.  'The Dying of the Light' (1993) is also gloomy, being set in a nursing home for the elderly. 'Thanksgiving' (2000), which I own but have not yet read, is a kind of post-mortem between a widower and his late wife's first husband. 

In some ways, Dibdin, in his non-Zen novels, has a kind of contemporary Gothic feel, most notably in 'The Tryst' (1989) which has fantastical elements.  These remind me of Christopher Priest's novels of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.  Dibdin also makes effective use of the unreliable narrator, most spectacularly in 'A Rich Full Death'  (1986) set in 19th century Italy.  Perhaps the link between these works and the Zen stories is the futility of the efforts of an individual when facing much stronger forces in society, especially when such forces are not particularly visible.  In the Zen novels there is sometimes also a black humour tone.  I think this is unnecessary and, for me spoils, the novel as a detective story.  Possibly the worst case is 'Cosi Fan Tutti' (1996), modelled on the plot of the opera, so, consequently very distorted, weak and with illogical occurrences.  I have been told such occurrences are common in opera stories, but really jar in a crime novel.  I have been told 'Back to Bologna' (2005) also has black humour, but I have yet to read it.

I came to Dibdin's work in the early 1990s after reading the works of Leonardo Sciascia.  Sciascia was a Sicillian writer who produced a number of detective stories set in Italy.  Unlike traditional detective stories, there was often no restoration of the status quo ante. Typically, even if the perpetrator was detected, they escaped punishment due to their connections within Italian society with the government or the Catholic Church.  In one story the detective ends up coming off the worse than the criminal.  Around that time, I also read the detective stories of Josef Skvorecky, which, being mainly set in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, could have a similar outcome.  This uncertainty around whether the detective would solve the crime, or be allowed to arrest the criminal, appealed to me after having read too many detective novels in which this was never in doubt.

Dibdin's Zen novels were set in contemporary Italy and, as with Sciascia's work, readers are very aware that 'justice' has to function in a society in which influence is usually more powerful than the process of law or even any sense of natural justice. Throughout the novels, though Zen is able to uncover the truth, he battles to actually have the correct arrest carried out and for the details of the case not simply to be brushed under the carpet.  To someone unfamiliar with Italy, it appears that, in fact, a lot of crime results from friction between various power blocs within Italian society, including the government, political parties, the civil service, various police forces (Italy has the highest per capita police strength in the EU), wealthy families, criminal families and the Catholic Church.  As a detective, Zen is not simply fighting to uncover the truth of an incident but, also, to then reveal that in a context in which at least one powerful group is interested in it not being revealed.  This contrasts to most detective novels and, instead, puts the Zen novels alongside the kind of 'conspiracy theory' novels and movies of the USA.

The novels take the reader around Italy: 'Ratking' (1988) is set in Umbria; 'Vendetta' (1990) on Sardinia; 'Cabal' (1992) in Rome; 'Dead Lagoon' (1994) in Zen's home city of Venice; 'Cosi Fan Tutti' in Naples; 'A Long Finish' (1998) in Piedmont; 'Blood Rain' (1999) in Sicily; 'And Then You Die' (2002) in Tuscany; 'Medusa' (2003) in Alto Adige; 'Back To Bologna' is self-explanatory for location and 'End Games' (2007) is set in Calabria.  This tour is aided by the fact that, at the end of 'Ratking', Zen is promoted, as a result of a throwaway comment to a civil servant.  He is made a Vice-Questor in the Polizia di Stato based in Rome, and effectively works like the equivalent of an FBI agent in the USA, being sent to any region where he is needed.  Each region is well portrayed, so the image we receive of Italy is of a beautiful country, but one in which you cannot act without coming up against conflicting vested interests.

This portrayal has been carried forward by the recent television series.  Rather than gallivanting around Italy, in the series, the stories play out in short driving distance of Rome.  They were produced in the order: 'Vendetta', 'Cabal', 'Ratking' and featured ongoing story elements not appearing in the novels.  Rather than living in Venice, Zen's mother, who he lives with, is located in Rome.  Zen has a relationship with a secretary in the novels, but this does not start at the beginning of the sequence, as it does in the television series with Tania Moretti.  In the novels, Zen starts off being in his mid-40s; we know his father served with the Italian forces that fought with the Germans in the USSR and supposedly never returned.  There are implications he is related to a man he meets, as a result of his father surviving the war and bigamously marrying a Polish woman.  These facts suggest that Zen, in the novels, would have been conceived between 1941-3 (when Italians were fighting with the German Army in the USSR or slightly before this date), making him around 45 when 'Ratking' is set and 64 by the time of 'End Games'.  Not unusually, Dibdin probably envisaged his detective as much the same age as himself.

In the television series Zen is far younger, not yet 40 in 2010, and, so, it is his grandfather who fought in the war.  It is interesting, though, to note, that despite the passage of time since the late 1980s, many of the issues the television Zen faces are identical to those that the novel Zen faced earlier.  The technology may be more convenient and some more Mafia be imprisoned, but nothing much else about Italian society seems to have changed, probably a sentiment Dibdin would have recognised.

The style of the television series, however, references far further back than 1988.  It seems to be right out of 'La Dolce Vita' (1960) and '8½' (1963) with Zen and his colleagues in classic-cut tight suits and his love interest Tania Moretti in almost a uniform of silk blouses and a tight, knee-length pencil skirt.  (I was also reminded, ironically, of the BBC French language course 'Suivez La Piste' which though first released in 1968 has the early 1960s styling in the photos.  It is a detective story to help Britons learn French and the audio is now accessible online.)  Zen wears designer sunglasses and drives an Alfa Romeo, but these have a timeless quality and are black and sleek rather than showy. Anyone who has encountered pretty prosperous Italians in the 2000s knows that all of these clothes are far too under-ostentatious for a country where it seems compulsory to exhibit wealth whatever context you are working in, especially in Rome.  The series, despite being alert to current technology and issues such as immigration from Eastern Europe, intentionally seems to hark back to an older Italy of the mid-20th century in which things were far less gaudy.  Zen is gallant but also an vigorous lover; he is independent and intelligent but still lives with his mother; he is serious about his work but still turns out dressed as if he was on a catwalk.

Marcello Mastroianni
as Marcello Rubini in
'La Dolce Vita' (1960)

Rufus Sewel as Aurelio Zen in 'Zen' (2011)
demonstrating many of the characteristics
of Mastroianni's character

Zen of the novels is certainly shabbier than the television Zen and he is less in control of events too.  He is more reluctant than the television Zen to take advantage of the favours that are offered by politicians.  In the novels, Zen's promotion is almost inadvertent when he makes a flippant remark that is taken seriously.  The Zen of the novels certainly would not have asked politicians for a colleague to be removed to Sicily or for a free luxury flat in central Rome for his girlfriend, the way the television Zen has used.  Perhaps, it was felt that to leave him uncorrupted by the corruption at the heart of the Italian state would not have been seen as feasible to the television audience.  I do not think, however, that Dibdin would have been disappointed by how, in the series, interest groups, particularly a minister of an undisclosed department, probably meant to be the Department of Public Security, and his factotum, manipulate the cases Zen is assigned.

Overall, the style of the television series is as if someone has distilled what they see as the essence of Italian sophistication and made it the baseline for the hero of the series.  The reference to the past is indicated very much by the style of the opening credits which seem to be very intentionally early 1960s style.  The panelled, single coloured images and a theme tune which very much reminded me of the 'Maigret' television series (1992-3) that was set in the mid-1950s.  British audiences (and German ones as the series was made in collaboration with ZDF) are likely to have their views of Italy reconfirmed by 'Zen', after all, the antics of Silvio Berlusconi make any corruption there seem feasible.  However, they will also wallow in a nostalgia for a kind of sleeker, less bloated Italy of style and sophistication which is not really apparent today.  So, I guess, that is the respect in which the status quo ante is restored in the series.