Monday, 31 December 2012

The Books I Read In December

‘If The Dead Rise Not’ by Philip Kerr
It has been a while since I read a book by Philip Kerr. I was a fan of his original ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy featuring the Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther, ‘March Violets’ (1989), ‘The Pale Criminal’ (1990) and ‘A German Requiem’ (1991) which despite being in this series, is actually set in post-war Vienna and has an embarrassing conceit in the Drittemann (i.e. Third Man) movie company featured. Since then Kerr has written a whole series of other novels for adults and for children before returning to Gunther with ‘The One From The Other’ (2006).

Before turning to the story itself, there are some problems that stem from the publishers, Quercus. For a start the cover of the book shows Gunther standing in front of the stadium in Berlin used for the 1936 Olympics. The tagline is ‘Berlin 1936. Sport, corruption, and violent death’. Whilst the book is set in Berlin and features all of those elements, it is actually set in 1934, rather than 1936. I had been surprised by the cover because ‘March Violets’ had been set at the time of the 1936 Olympics. It appears that the publishers have not actually read ‘If The Dead Rise Not’. It features corruption connected to Berlin winning the bid to host the Olympics and early construction of the stadium and other infrastructure but ends long before the event takes place; the first part of the novel finishes in 1934.

There are also editorial issues inside the book. I have noted before on this blog how editing even leading novelists has fallen away dramatically as publishing has faced such challenges. In this book there is a switch from ‘Labour’, the UK spelling, to ‘Labor’, the US spelling, when talking about the German Labour Front. I do not mind which is used, I just like consistency. The phrase ‘all right’ is used repeatedly when ‘alright’ is in fact meant. A common error in every book I have read mentioning the German police is that Kripo, i.e. the contraction of the word for the detective division, is written as ‘KRIPO’ and Schupo, i.e. the Prussian uniformed police as ‘SCHUPO’ as if these were acronyms, rather than portmanteau words. Portmanteau words are very popular in German and are created from putting some syllables together from a longer word or series of words. For example, Kripo actually comes from Kriminalpolizei; just as Nazi comes from National Sozialismus; the acronym is NS. However, I have never seen this aspect correct in English-language novels, bar my own, even though it is incredibly easy to find out online or in a history book.

The novel is in two parts, the first, as noted above, set in 1934, with Gunther serving as a hotel detective having left the Berlin Kripo on the Nazis purging the police force in 1933. The second part is set in Cuba in 1952; three of the characters appear in both elements. In the latter, we learn more about Gunther’s war record. The settings are very different and at first I resented the departure from Germany. However, ultimately it works. The book does appear rather fragmented at times and the thread does not feel as if it develops smoothly. The Raymond Chandleresque narration and dialogue is more apparent than in the original trilogy and is applied much more to the section in Germany than that in Cuba. Again this may reflect a lack of editing. Overall, as Kerr has always done with his historical detective stories, he paints a rich picture of the time and its places, especially contrasting rich and poor. He puts his hero into jeopardy and has him survive in a convincing way. There are interesting characters and he avoids making them into caricatures, subverting at times what we might expect for people from the times and places he shows.

Obviously I am biased in favour of stories set in Germany of the past, but this one is good enough to have rearoused my interest in Kerr’s work and to hunt it out. It is a better than fair novel, which if it had been published 10-15 years ago would have received the polish that would have made it a very good novel. I imagine Kerr despaired when he saw the covers and I hope it has been altered for subsequent editions.

‘Alternate Generals III’ ed. by Harry Turtledove & Roland J. Green
This is the best one of this series of alternate history collections. There are some duff stories notably, ‘First Catch Your Elephant’ by Esther Friesner which is a terribly laboured attempt to make comedy regarding Hannibal’s invasion of the Italian peninsula and is incredibly weak and frustrating. I was rather irritated by ‘Murdering Uncle Ho’ by Chris Bunch but that is simply because Bunch accurately writes his story in the style of US Vietnam War memoirs and fiction with emphasis on the military hardware and hard men. Consequently there is a lot of detail regarding the equipment and preparation of the attempt to assassinate Ho Chi Minh. However, behind this aspect there are interesting counter-factuals. President Kennedy was shot at but not killed in 1963 and won the 1964 election. This led to a far quicker escalation of US involvement in Vietnam leading to an invasion of the North in 1965 and occupation of its cities; civil rights legislation in the USA was neglected as a result. At the 1968 election, Republican Nelson Rockefeller was elected President rather than Richard Nixon, who in the story sees himself as a prospective candidate for 1972. In this respect it is a good US counter-factual which fits with my own views of Kennedy.

There are two stories around General MacArthur, ‘Not Fade Away’ is a low key story by William Sanders which sees MacArthur captured by the Japanese when they invade the Philippines. ‘I Shall Return’ by John Mina conversely sees a successful defence of the Philippines largely through sacrificing US air units to sink the Japanese invasion fleet. In this case, MacArthur’s success leads to him being transferred to Europe and Eisenhower remaining in the Philippines. ‘It Isn’t Every Day of the Week’ by Roland J. Green features a number of changes in the War of 1812 which lead to greater British success in the war, aided in part by Napoleon being restricted but not imprisoned at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Though the British are expelled from Louisiana they have greater success in the North and across the Great Lakes. The story is told in a series of letters from two brothers and also sums up attitudes of the time. ‘East of Appomattox’ by Lee Allred has some good ideas but could have been worked on to be more effective. It features General Robert E. Lee as a plenipotentiary of the Confederate States of America, in London seeking official British recognition for his country. This could have been handled better if Allred avoided the conceits, those little attempts at being too witty that undermine good stories. There is a whole rigmarole around Lee and a young civil servant and then Mycroft Holmes appears, though given the date, he would be a very young man at this time and certainly not the leading government official shown here. Lee is taken on a tour of London to see British opposition to slavery, the factor which is making the British unwilling to recognise the CSA. He is introduced to Abraham Lincoln, in refuge in Britain following his defeat in the American Civil War and then informed that Louisiana is seeking abolish slavery so it can trade with Britain, so putting the CSA to the test regarding the rights of individual states that itself challenged the USA with. This had good ideas but could have been done much better.

There are a couple of unusual stories. One is ‘Measureless to Man’ which envisages Genghis Khan having converted to Judaism and having to fight against Jews from the Diaspora seeking to assert their authority over what has now become the de facto centre of Judaism in Chengdu in China. Conversely, ‘A Good Bag’ is on a much smaller scale, though touching on alternatives that would have a global impact. It revolves around a séance hosted by Francis Younghusband, who in our world effectively enabled Britain to take control of Tibet. In this alternative he was the successful commander in the Tibetan-Chinese War of 1904. His influence and involvement with European racial supremacists is leading to an Anglo-German alliance in 1910 which threatens to unleash a racial war against Jews and other peoples. Moving into the fantasy genre, this was foreseen by the people of Atlantis who seek to warn Younghusband and get history back on to the path our history followed, still experiencing horrendous world wars, but avoiding the greater tragedies of this alternate path. The story has the feel of a Michael Moorcock story rather than standard ‘what if?’ stories. I could see it extended as a graphic novel.

‘The Burning Spear at Twilight’ by Mike Resnick is welcome as one of the rare counter-factual stories in English which features a different outcome for Africa. In this case Jomo Kenyatta is able to pursue a different policy in expelling the British from Kenya in the 1950s. Through manipulation of public relations he is able to get the British to leave sooner and though without bloodshed, with less than was the case in our world. Given that most people will not be familiar with this history and yet it is an issue in British courts at the moment, this is an interesting story. ‘Shock and Awe’ by Harry Turtledove, as the title suggests is another story with contemporary issues despite being set in the past. It envisages Jesus as the proclaimed King of the Jews, using Biblical quotations and leading a guerrilla war against the Roman occupiers who behave like contemporary US forces in Afghanistan. It is an interesting twist on the historical Jesus.

I have left my favourite stories to last. ‘A Key to the Illuminated Heretic’ by A.M. Dellamonica opens the collection. It sees Joan of Arc, rather than having been burnt at the stake, instead coming out of prison after 13 years to lead a heretical Christian army to expel Papal influence from France. Each section is initiated by description of a painting of Joan’s exploits by a young female follower. In this short story we get an interesting slice of factional disputes, Joan’s uncertainty about her mission, her ambivalent view towards the French monarchy and her role as a feminist icon even at the time. This story really impressed me. The remaining two are not as outstanding but are still strong. ‘The Road to Endless Sleep’ by Jim Fiscus, sees Mark Antony having been victorious with Cleopatra at Actium, ruling Rome with her as his empress. The story is told from the perspective of one of his bodyguards as civil unrest bubbles up against the emperor. ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ turns history on its head and sees Flora MacDonald help the Duke of Cumberland escape from Scotland following his defeat. In this world Charles Stuart took the guidance of his advisors and fought at a better location than Culloden, so was able to restore the Stuart dynasty to Scotland with his father becoming King James VIII. Not only is this grounded in an interesting counter-factual, but also is strong in giving a feel for western Scotland and the people there at the time.

Overall this book has a good selection of stories. I hope for future collections, authors can learn from the best and the worst of what is included in this volume and avoid some of the pitfalls that so undermine too many counter-factual stories.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Challenges Of Suicide

It is probably unsurprising for anyone who has followed this blog in the past year, that this weekend I again tried to kill myself.  Having been bullied at the work to the extent that my eyesight was damaged, having lost my house, ending up living with my parents at the age of 45 and in a job that is so low paid I am battling even to find a room to rent that I can afford anywhere near the job, you can imagine why I feel down.  Living with my parents is hard.  I am grateful that I am not homeless, but the things that randomly make them angry is a great difficulty.  When I was being savaged for having parked in the dark a few centimetres over from where I was apparently supposed to be and told that keeping the neighbours happy was more important than me getting to work and that anyway I was nothing more than a 'child' and incapable of finding my way through London suburbs, it seemed like I had reached the end.  I have been considering suicide since my teenage years and have failed twice before. 

As a teenager, there was solace in identifying the right tree to use and where I would source the rope.  Unfortunately following the 1987 hurricane, those woods are now blocked and marshy.  I was able to find a substitute tree, with two nails already in it to which to lash the rope, which I carry around in my car.  I managed to create a reasonable noose and get it over a branch.  I imagine that anyone watching would have found it comic.  Unfortunately the tree was on a steep river bank and I could not get the bucket I was going to kick away to stay upright.  I tried to do it from the ground, but either I got the rope too long so there was no drop or too short so that I could not get my head up to it.  I tried swinging away down the bank and while the rope cut into my neck, the drop was not sharp enough and I simply swung back.  A passerby simply walked on rather embarrassed.  Men attempting suicide is clearly such a common sight these days in the UK that it did not rouse his interest.  My mother ridiculed me with 'oh, you've done that before'.  This made me angry and I wanted to rush out and try again, simply to prove to her, that I can at least get something right.

It is incredible just how much criticism people feel is necessary to give you on a daily basis.  My parents have become so emotionally withered that they simply see me as a failure and a burden and keep finding new ways of telling me how useless I am.  They even blame me for their faults.  It was they who actively encouraged me to buy a house when I was about to pull out, yet now they tell me that it was the gravest error that I made.  They forget that without them I never would have taken that step.  I know parents freeze you in time at age 15, and I guess many of us have to cope with that.  They edit history to put themselves in the best light, they forget any of their mistakes but harp on about others years later.  Five years ago my father gave my girlfriend a lift.  She does not travel often in cars and was terrified by how fast he drove.  She asked him to slow down and this is still brought up against her again and again.  I am reminded about how much effort went in to organising the lift and that she should be grateful that she was driven around so dangerously.  Her mistake in expressing her dismay is still held against her and probably will be forever more.

Suicide needs sustained courage.  This is why people often get drunk or take drugs before trying to kill themselves.  Having spent twenty minutes, trying to get a rope to the correct height, I was exhausted and that courage faded from me.  I fell to the ground and simply sobbed for some time.  The one thought that worried me was that my father would simply destroy my will which is among my belongings rather than lodged with a solicitor.  This would have eliminated one consolation, that at least my things would go to my girlfriend and her son.  I had always believed that suicide is easy.  However, there are technical issues that I have overlooked.  Last time I tried to hang myself, the hook from which I strung the rope snapped, dropping me to the floor.  I tried a drugs overdose, but was persuaded out of that by the woman I was living with.  It is clear I need to search for the right sort of tree.  I guess this is why 'gallows' trees were so important, there are in fact very few that you can find that work perfectly, especially if you are doing it yourself.  As I still have a car, it seems the best approach to try next is asphyxiation.  The trouble with that is that it is slow and I worry that I will lack the courage to see it through.  Whilst I despise guns, it would be far easier if there was access to them in the UK as at least then I could be certain that I would not end up in the ridiculous situation of struggling to kill myself.

As I have noted before, the problem of failing to kill yourself is that the problems still have to be dealt with when you get back.  I have been advised that I am a waste of space.  People want me out of their way and out of their lives.  The trouble is, social constraints stop them helping that to become a reality.  I am left humiliated and hopeless.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Importance Of Sock Puppetry

Regular readers will have noticed how I have not been blogging a great deal over the past few months and that various ‘what if?’ postings and stories have disappeared from here to appear in e-books on Amazon. I did this for the simple basis that I was bullied into selling my house at a knock-down price and after months of unemployment I am in a job which pays £8000 per year less than my previous job and £16,000 less than what I was earning in 2010, whilst costs have risen for all of us. I am compelled to live with my parents until I can find a room to rent within a reasonable distance of my work, so that I simply do not spend what I save on rent in travel costs. The only consolation is that I am not being bullied in my current job. However, I am having to put up with the fact that no-one has decided to train me and I have to pick up scraps of how to do things from my colleagues who ration out such knowledge jealously. One told me I had no hope of escaping from this job, which as you can imagine hardly inspired me.

One thing I thought I knew I could do well was write. I certainly write fast and when not depressed or jobless I can turn out 2-3000 words per evening. In a job where despite my colleagues being very busy, I have not been trained in a range of activities and am begging to be given a password to access certain software, I am left trying to appear busy when, in fact, I have very little to do. Thus, me typing away busily at my computer looks reasonable. In addition, as I have commented before: with the KDP system run by Amazon, I found a way to get a number of my novels and collections of essays on sale as e-books. I have sold a variety of these over the past months, the best has had around 400 sales, the worst less than 5. However, they all bring in money, even in small amounts. The system in getting payments from the USA, my main market, is hard. The US government takes 30% at source. Then you get sent a cheque in US$ which costs £6 and takes six weeks to process. However, I have been making around £200 per month, on which I will also have to pay UK tax come April. Obviously my hope was that my sales would increase as I got better known and this monthly amount.

The key challenge for me has proven to be buyer reviews. Back in 2008, I noted how hard it was becoming for sellers when buyers had so much power:  EBay did not collapse but the message boards for sellers show how hard it is for sellers to continue trading, as their account can be suspended after two negative reviews from buyers. Buyers are very aggressive in their comments and get upset about minor issues. Yes, of course, it is right to complain if an item takes weeks to arrive or is damaged. However, some buyers seem to expect things to be teleported across continents to arrive days after they have bought them, with no recognition of the reliability of their postal service. Some US shoppers seem to still believe the UK is part of the USA and are surprised we use a different currency and are on a different continent. One UK seller I know had a customer who bought some greetings cards. Thirty-eight days after they had been sent to her she wrote and complained she had not received them. The seller sent replacements and noted this on the buyer’s feedback. The reason for this is that some buyers are serial ‘non-receivers’ and are simply lying. Just making this statement that a replacement set of cards had been sent, led the buyer not only to leave negative feedback on the seller but also to bombard her with abusive emails.

In the world of online retail the buyer is not just simply ‘always right’ but is also immensely powerful. A single individual can drive a seller out of business on the basis of a petulant attitude. I guess it is of no surprise that I have encountered a similar experience selling e-books on Amazon.

I have to come to the conclusion that I am a very poor writer. Having sold over 500 copies of various books, I have had only three pieces of feedback and all of them are negative. One issue with Kindle sales, as I have been made aware of by those people I know who own them, exclusively middle-aged women, that people will buy stacks of books and never get around to reading many of them. One woman I worked with had 200 books on her Kindle within 3 months of purchasing it. I know that some people buy a set of my books at one time and I can imagine that many are sitting on their Kindles unread. Of course, given my experiences, if they did read them maybe they would be as critical as those people who have provided feedback.

Of the feedback I have received, one reader complained that I had portrayed wartime Finland’s political system wrongly so marked the book down. Another reviewing a different book said that I gave too much detail regarding the alternate outcomes that the ‘what if?’ element was lost. I do not really understand what they meant by that. The worst was on a third book which went into immense detail about how the style of writing was wrong. Being made up of essays from this blog, I had adopted a relaxed, chatty style, which I thought was refreshing and would make the books accessible. However, clearly the opposite was the case and I was condemned for the book being apparently incomprehensible and also with factual errors ‘on every page’.

As I have noted before, on Amazon, a 3-star review will reduce my sales (and I imagine those of other authors too), but two-thirds. The 2-star review I received for the last one mentioned above, not only made the book unsellable but also froze the sales of my other books, just before Christmas when I had hoped sales would be increasing. The number of books sold but then returned, has also jumped up. As a result I have had to withdraw the book for fear of destroying sales of the others. I cannot remove the review. I was told by Amazon I could respond to it, but this turned out not to be true, it kept saying I had to buy my own book in order to respond to a comment on it. Weeks of work has been destroyed by some review someone wrote in their lunch break.

Online reviews are a way of giving value to the facilities websites provide. Every time we buy something we are prompted to comment on the service we have received. In addition, commonly now, for example, with Amazon we are similarly asked to review the quality of the product. It is seen as a necessary part of the online experience. However, we live in a society in which indignation is a cultural norm. We expect anyone supplying us anything whether it is a bed & breakfast guest house, a baker, a bread making machine or a book, to address our own precise personal needs exactly, even without us saying what they are. If anyone falls short of writing a book in the very way we want it at this moment, then we feel it is our right, in fact our duty to get angry and express that anger. This is what makes online reviewing so very hazardous for providers. No-one seems eager to express pleasure at the service or item they have received, such pleasure is taken for granted. No-one bothers with neutral comments. It is simply the feeling of disdain that encourages a purchaser to make the effort to comment.

Yes, it is in the consumers’ interest to show up poorly written books. However, they can be destroyed by someone taking offence to a particular aspect. In one case I saw a book receive a 1-star rating because a new edition had come out with a new cover and the reader had bought this without realising he already owned the book. Rather than accept that he had been careless he put the blame on the author. It is always a challenge when writing counter-factual books as people will often rate them not by the quality of the writing or the analysis but simply whether they agree with the outcomes the book portrays. In theory such feedback should be beneficial in improving quality. Kindle books can easily be taken down, edited and put back up again within 12 hours (if in English). However, there is no point in doing that as the revised book will always carry the black mark of the review of the original version no matter how much you change it. You can ‘unpublish’ and even ‘block’ books on KDP but you can never remove the book from the site. Re-writing the synopsis to say the book is no longer available due to criticism is not accepted either; I have tried.

How does all of this connect to sock puppetry? It comes from comics/satirists who use a sock to make a simple puppet that they then have a kind of ventriloquist’s dialogue with. The most famous one is probably Lamb Chop, a puppet operated by Shari Lewis (1933-98) from 1957 onwards. It is a term which has come to refer to when authors use pseudonyms to write positive reviews of their books online. They can alternatively use friends to do this as well. In September crime author R.J. Ellroy was criticised for using the pseudonyms Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones not only to praise his own work but also criticise that of rivals. In 2010 Orlando Figes was charged in the same way and you can find cases going back to John Lott who 2000-3 used the name Mary Rosh to post positive reviews. Thus, it has been a tendency really since the birth of online reviewing; apparently the term goes back to 1993.

Unfortunately for my career as a writer, Amazon seems to have methods to prevent sock puppetry and despite my efforts I cannot create any kind of identity which can even respond to the negative comments that are being put on my books. Even if I could I am not certain that I could counter-balance comments which are so dismissive. Consequently, one-by-one my books are going to be snuffed out from Amazon as someone decided to turn their disdain on each one and end any sales of it. I suppose I have learnt a lesson, that I am not capable of writing for the global English-reading audience; I just do not have the language that people are happy to read. I have tried an easy-going style, that has not worked; I have tried a more serious style, that has not worked. In addition, writing counter-factual books makes me very vulnerable. It only takes me writing that a particular outcome was more or less likely or characterising a particular regime in a specific way to receive a bad review for the entire book. With that the book will no longer be bought, I guess because people judge by the star rating rather than the actual text of the review. I have no intention to go around damaging other authors, as I know how easily even a successful one might be eliminated by bad reviews. The customer has ultimate power because my books are now trapped on Amazon. It is not down to me if I am an author or not, rather this lies in the hands of some bored individual who decides to take against me.

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Book I Read In November

‘Germany 1866-1945’ by Gordon A. Craig
Though published in 1978 this book comes over as a work of an earlier era.  There is an assumption that the reader has a good grasp of German.  Though there is a list of translations of the longer passages at the back of the book, I imagine on the insistence of the publisher rather the author, Craig keeps on slipping in short terms and phrases untranslated.  I studied at a German university for a period, but often I could not make out the correct meaning of these phrases and this often made it difficult to comprehend the precise point the author was making.

Another factor that I doubt one would see in a modern history of Germany is on the cultural wellbeing of Germany during this period.  These days I do not think many readers would be overly concerned if classical composers or literary authors were supportive of authoritarian government or not, in fact we would often assume that they were.  Certainly we would expect a greater focus on the popular media which influenced the viewpoints of many more Germans.

I find Craig’s conclusions on the Nazi regime and the resistance to it, unpalatable.  Craig emphasises that a redeeming feature of Hitler’s regime was that it so destroyed everything that had been inherent in Germany since the 1860s.  He sees the reduction of the influence of the Army into the shadows of the SS and especially the purge of the nobles following the failed 20th July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler as necessary for Germany ever to change.  He is very disparaging of the plotters of 20th July, seeing them as simply want to install a different form of dictatorship, little better than the Nazi system.  I have often been struck by how people of Craig’s generation (he lived 1913-2005), A.J.P. Taylor (1906-90) is another example, so dismiss the resistance to Hitler either as foolishly idealistic or sinister.  I guess, in a quiet way, our views on this topic have shifted over the past three decades.  Similarly the view that Germany had its ‘Stunde Null’ as Craig puts it, i.e. its Zero Hour, in 1945 marking a whole new beginning has also been discredited.  These days historians note the vast continuities that persisted from the Nazi regime and before right into the post-war Germanies, in fact, in different ways in both West and East Germany.  Many on the left and in the centre would argue that Germany did not have the clean break in 1945 it actually needed; even in East Germany, the regime was in many ways little different from the preceding one.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Dangerous New 'Games' On The Road

Back in a job, I am driving daily once more, not the hundreds of kilometres I used to do in a week, just 140 Km these days.  However, this does take me around the M25 and into West London, so does expose me to quite a lot of traffic.  In the past:  and   I have noted trends in bad driving that seem to suddenly appear.  Some such as driving with headlights on full beam or using fog lights at all times of day and night except when there is actually any fog, seem to be continuing with us for now.  Tailgating is as popular as ever as is undertaking and slaloming between the lanes of vehicles.  However, ahead of this Christmas season two new bad driving trends have appeared that you might like to keep an eye open for.

One of them was actually suggested in the media a couple of years back when petrol prices rose sharply.  This is the impression that if you drive with your wheels on the white lines you can reduce your fuel consumption because of the reduced friction between your tyre and the road.  Back then I saw a few people try it, and now it is back in fashion, certainly through the areas I drive.  The only problem is the white lines people seem to be favouring are those running down the middle of the road.  I have had to move over hard towards the pavement as cars charge towards me not really straddling the line but certainly with their right-hand set of wheels (given that we drive on the left-hand side of the road in the UK) riding on the white line.  On many roads in London and the Home Counties, with the size of many ‘family’ cars these days, squeezing down the narrow streets, passed rows of parked cars is a challenge, but this is increased if certain drivers intend to dominate the central line.  Of course the ‘law’ of British roads is that larger, more powerful and newer cars always have right of way, anyone in a smaller or older car must give way, no matter what the actual laws, or face a stream of abuse or even being followed until you reach a convenient location where the other driver can get out and either assault your car or you.  I imagine that the amount of fuel saved by driving this way is compensated for by how much such drivers rev up and accelerate away from junctions anyway.

The other habit which certainly seems to be a ‘game’ of some kind or about asserting the size of a driver’s ego over that of people around him/her (and such habits are not confined to men) happens at traffic lights.  What happens is when the lights turn to green, the driver at the front starts off but only moves so far that half of their car is over the stop line.  They then wait until the lights go to amber (in the UK a single amber light precedes the lights turning red) and then accelerate away, meaning that all the cars behind them are compelled to wait at the red for the cycle to go through once more.  I do not really see the purpose of this, I guess the driver pulling away can drive around any lane they choose, as this often occurs, in my experience at traffic lights on roundabouts.  Given how people like to cut across or block people moving to the correct lane, I can imagine this is something desirable.  However, blocking a whole batch of vehicles from proceeding, further congests what in and around London, is already very dense traffic.  The first few times I saw this happen I had assumed that the driver had stalled, though the cars that this happens with are new models and generally powerful or that the driver was on their mobile phone (drivers holding mobile phones in their hands while driving is still incredibly common in the areas I drive through) and was not ready to drive on.  However, it has now happened to me so often in the same way that I can only assume it is deliberate.

One habit which I had forgotten, but seems to be back in a new form, is having a car come hard up behind you, overtake you just to sit one vehicle space in front of you, continuing at the same speed as you.  I know I have an old car, but I do find it incredible that viewing it is so offensive to drivers they have to go around me.  To this, on motorways has been added a new twist.  A slip road appears on the left for you to leave the motorway.  The driver behind me wants to go down that road.  However, rather than indicating to go into that lane, first he overtakes me going into the middle or the fast lane, depending on the layout of the junction, then he cuts diagonally across three lanes just in front of me to go off down the slip road.  This causes me naturally to brake and the cars further back to do so as well.  I do not understand the motives for this behaviour and can only guess that the driver is upset that I have paid insufficient attention to his greatness and it alerting me to what I will be missing now that he is leaving the motorway.

All of these behaviours stem from the fact that UK drivers clearly see driving as an activity in which their dignity is constantly being defended.  They have to assert their right to be first and noticed at every chance.  It is like preening to scare off rival creatures.  It stems from a clear sense of insecurity, that even to have a single car, especially a slower or older one is offensive.  A sense of lanes is ignored and the driver feels he or she can simply ride across them in any sequence that makes his or her journey apparently easiest or more exciting.  The indignation at anyone who does anything which whether intentional or not, disrupts such desires is instant, withering, bullying and sometimes violent.  In such circumstances, with most speed cameras switched off and traffic police numbers continuing to fall in the current austerity measures, it is no wonder that accidents are climbing in number and that daily driving is becoming still more of an unsettling activity.

Monday, 12 November 2012

'Never As Bad As We Had It'

Living with two elderly people, as I am doing at the moment, you quickly learn never to say anything negative about what has happened to you. It does not matter how ill you feel or how bad or mad the traffic you have driven through; it does not matter if you have lost your job or your house or are separated from those you love. None of these things can even come on the scale of what the elderly have experienced. I guess if this was the 1950s and I was living with old people who had experienced the late Victorian period, then the First and Second World Wars, I could accept that they had a point. However, the two I am living with are 74, i.e. they were born in 1938. Yes, they remember the war as children and better remember the rationing which persisted until 1956. However, most of their lives have been lived in times of what seemed to be for at least two decades, increasing prosperity and improvement in society. Any elderly person, who is younger than them, say 65, has even less to complain about as they were born into the welfare state and a period of full employment. The 1980s were a horrible time but the experience varies considerably depending where in the country you were living. For many in coal-mining and other heavy industrial areas it was the end of their working lives. However, in London and other prosperous cities, it was a time of making profit from property; foreign travel and consumer goods. Even the slump of 1990-3 now seems to have been a blip compared to the decade of economic depression we are now assured.

Of course, in every period, even the greatest boom, there are people who miss out. I lived in East London for over six years and on £9500 per year in the 1990s was a wealthy man in the districts I inhabited. Even then in what now seems to be a boom time, I knew people living in bed and breakfast hotels with their babies and young children, eating in fried chicken shops as they had no kitchen facilities and never travelling more than a couple of miles from their homes, just as if they were a medieval serf. Yet, even they were better off than their Victorian equivalents and were not starving to death on the street or separated and exploited in a workhouse. They were, of course, worse off than their 1960s equivalents who could look forward one day to getting a council flat and a job. Even in the 1990s, things seemed far better than now. As yet, I have not read anything written about the impact of the introduction of the minimum wage on areas like East London. Certainly I noticed a great change, even when employers tried to claw back some of the pay they were now supposed to (and generally did) give, through various tricks. The doubling of someone's hourly rate due to the minimum wage, I saw had a significant impact, if only on the profitability of convenience stores, takeaways and laundrettes in the area I lived.

I guess I probably look back on those days with nostalgia. When I saw a programme some months ago which said that many British people would probably view the period 1997-2007 and the 'best years of their lives', I was a little sceptical but think I have now come around to that perspective myself. It is argued that the post-war boom ran from about 1948/55-71/73. However, with 2008 we seem to have ended even the post-boom period. It is as if the experiment of the third quarter of the 20th century, has finally, through the sustained efforts of hardline Conservatives been brought to an end. The sense that society needed to work for prosperity in general rather than for the already rich alone and the belief that people fell on hard times through no fault of their own so needed state support, have been crushed. That period now appears to have been simply an anomaly. Instead we are getting back to the kind of society that someone in 1892 rather than 1962 would be very familiar with. If you think of the Dickens novels so many of them could be translated to now. No, there are no workhouses and instead Oliver Twist would be in a children’s home where he would be sexually abused, just as children were in the Victorian period; the age of consent was only raised from 13 to 16 in 1861. Workers are losing rights by the day and for example, employees at Comet turn up to find they have two days work left. Housing is beyond the reach of most people even in the middle classes.

Two-thirds of people receiving benefits are in employment. I will say that again, two-thirds of people who receive benefits are in work. This is not because they are cheating the system, it is because their employers are allowed to pay them so little that the state has to subsidise their income in order for these people to have a basic standard of living. Without rent control, rents are rising, far faster than incomes. Most young people have given up on the idea of owning a home and people like me have slipped from being property owners to being tenants once again and exposed to the tricks and exploitation of landlords/ladies and especially letting agencies. Food and petrol have always been expensive in Britain and remain so in relation to incomes even with supposed competition between supermarkets. Utilities since privatisation have always been cartelised and prices continue to rise unchecked. The government continues to peddle the myth that to get into work is to solve your problems, whereas in fact that is a lie. Back in the 1980s, some Conservative argued that Britain had to become the Taiwan of Western Europe, a low-wage, high-tech economy, banging out cheap consumer goods. We are roughly in that position now, though with less of the high-tech than we might like. Yet, despite the low wages, British industry is not booming, in large part because so much of profits is not reinvested and instead goes on salaries, bonuses and paying shareholders. Apparently a company director can earn as much as 350 times what the lowest paid employees in that company earn. We have returned to a Victorian socio-economic pattern yet lacking the output and sales that Britain enjoyed back in that era.

Despite all these problems, to the elderly, it can never be as bad as the times they lived through. The traffic now, despite its increase, the presence of so many huge cars driven poorly and the disappearance of traffic police, somehow cannot be worse than it was in the 1990s. Employers with their ability to sack whomever they choose, with their obsession on minutiae and workers’ declining ability to go to tribunals, somehow cannot be as bad as twenty years ago. Yes, employment might be better than in 1952 or 1972, certainly in terms of discrimination, but it is certainly not as good as 1982, 1992 or even 2002. There is a particular challenge in being listened to in Britain and that is the country’s love of complaining. I know other countries have people who moan and complain but if it was an Olympic sport, Britain would have won gold every time. One point of moaning is to trump the others around you, something well satirised by the sketch from the Monty Python comedy team in the 1970s when a group of northern English men keep portraying their lives as worse than the others to the extent that one states he lived at the bottom of a lake and worked 29 hours per day.

There is a chain of behaviour. An elderly person says that it is not as bad as what they experienced. Thus, you being unable to cope with it shows you must be incompetent. As you are incompetent, you are unworthy of any help. The help they give, however inappropriate, they believe they give for charitable reasons. No matter how grateful you say you are for the help, you are not then permitted to criticise anything about your current situation. The elderly believe that their charity eliminates any problem that you might ever encounter for ever more. Consequently if new problems arise or old ones remain unresolved, you cannot mention these without triggering charges that you are ungrateful. You have to accept the help no matter what other costs there are or even if the help is in fact less helpful than if they had done nothing. I often use the example of my father giving a lift to my girlfriend and driving so fast and recklessly that she was terrified. Simply expressing that terror at the time means that even five years on she is regularly criticised for that statement she made as it apparently shows how rude and ungrateful she is after all this time. I know The Who said, ‘I hope I die before I get old’, certainly if I ever behave to younger people like this I insist someone comes and shoots me. Life is hard without incessantly being told you are useless and ungrateful for years to come.

Is there any risk in the elderly dismissing the challenges and concerns of younger people? Yes, because it means they do not take serious problems seriously. They dismiss them as nothing compared to the burdens they had to face. Consequently they do not give appropriate practical support or even listen to what they are being told. Sometimes just being heard can be vitally important to someone under stress. Above all they are prone to being deluded by politicians who tell them that there is no need to worry about benefits cuts as these are only impacting on the lazy and the feckless. The elderly public’s view of younger people as simply complaining about trivialities rather than the genuine problems they encountered, feeds right into this. Of course, we know that 60% of benefits are paid to people actually in work and many of the unemployed go in and out of the job sector as they are employed on short-term contracts that are so common these days. Benefits are a subsidy to employers wanting to keep wage rates down and their profits incredibly high. Cutting them off would have no impact on their behaviour, they would probably simply relish the control they have over people who had no alternative but to work for low wages in poor conditions or face starvation. The number of children in Britain not eating breakfast or not eating breakfast and lunch is incredibly high and the reappearance of rickets caused by malnutrition, an illness almost eliminated in the mid-20th century in Britain, shows that, no matter what the elderly feel, we have returned to the lifestyle of the Victorian poor.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Book I Read In October

'The Picador Book of the New Gothic', ed. by Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow
For the second month running I have been disappointed by a short story collection that I had hoped would be interesting and contained at least one story which I found so unpleasant that I decided to throw the book away rather than pass it on to someone else as I usually do.  This book is in large part an artificial creation and demonstrates that when it was published in 1991, it would have been wrong to have spoken of the 'New Gothic' if this is what it consists of.  The reviews and introduction speak of this genre as being about terror in the mind more than physical fears, though also suggests that the stories will often occur in traditional Gothic contexts.  In fact the collection falls down on both accounts.

'Ovando' by Jamaica Kincaid is an engaging story of the rise of a demon to great power in the world and is quite lyrical though rather too sweeping a subject for a short story.  'Horrorday' is an extract from 'London Fields' by Martin Amis (1989) with 'horror' appended to words in a story about an ordinary man involved in quite mundane activities and some violence in London and comes over as very artificial.  'Newton' by Jeanette Winterson is a strange story, with a reasonably unnerving edge, about a seemingly unconventional man in suburban USA that does not really develop.   'Banquo and the Black Banana' by Paul West is a rambling story about a ghost viewing various developments through history and with more coherence would have been an interesting story.  'Freniere' by Anne Rice is an extract from her novel 'Interview with the Vampire' (1976) which was dated even when this book was produced but I suppose fitted the rediscovery of vampires in the 1990s and is a decent enough story in itself, though of course by now looks doubly tired.

'Blood' by Janice Galloway, apart from the title, does not belong in this collection.  It is a mundane story about a girl whose mouth is bleeding when she has a tooth extracted who returns to school to do some piano practice and seems to have no connection with any era of Gothic.  'Didn't She Know' by Scott Bradfield perhaps comes close to what you could define as 'New Gothic' featuring a lower middle class woman exploiting her friendship with elderly men of various degrees of wealth for financial gain.  It has that kind of amorality and almost predestined outcome that is at least characteristic of film noir and probably a form of Gothic.  'Regulus and Maximus' by John Hawkes almost comes over as some kind of strange parable and only seems to be featured because it is about monks.  Two sets are fleeing from monasteries running contrasting regimes. 

'A Dead Summer' by Lynne Tillman consists of a series of fragments from the viewpoint of a girl/woman over a period of time.  This disjuncture and the things she sees actually make this worthy of being in this collection.  If there is one common theme in this book, it is how unpleasant suburban life, especially in the USA can be, and how unpleasantness is most unsettling when it is mundane.  This is sustained in 'Why Don't You Come Live With Me It's Time' by Joyce Carol Oates about a girl making a night-time visit to her grandmother's house and finding her not to be the woman she thought she was.  This reminded me of the style of Roald Dahl 'Tales of the Unexpected' stories and better than some of the others which have a child's perspective show that the adult world is difficult to judge and that its unfamiliarity can in itself seem sinister, but that does not mean that it is not indeed genuinely threatening or dangerous.

'The Dead Queen' by Robert Coover is a modern seeing of the Snow White fairy story and so of course now reminds me of the television series 'Once Upon A Time'.  It is decent, but probably does not exploit the actual Gothic aspects of fairy tales to the extent that it could have done.  'The Merchant of Shadows' by Angela Carter exploits that dark aspect of Hollywood cross-fertilised by European Expressionist cinema and if this story was made into a television drama Mark Gatiss would be involved.  It rather does not know how to end and the twist is rather too telegraphed.  However, compared to some of the other stories in the collection it seems to fit the 'New Gothic' designation.  'The Road to Nadeja' by Bradford Morrow, is another which is not stunning but not appalling.  It is about a kleptomaniac stealing from and deceiving her friend and reminded me of the movie 'Heavenly Creatures' (1994).  'For Dear Life' by Ruth Rendell is an extract from her novel 'King Solomon's Carpet' (1991) and is about a spoilt wealthy young woman dying on the underground really because she cannot simply cope with being so close to ordinary people.  Rendell is pretty good at dark contemporary tales such as 'A Fatal Inversion' (1987) and 'Gallowglass' (1990) and probably could be ascribed to 'New Gothic'.  Unfortunately in this story you care too little about the central character to feel any of her fear, with someone less privileged the story would have been more effective. In fact by the end you are quite glad to see the back of her and that reduces the potential to scare.

'Rigor Beach' by Emma Tennent is an account of a few hours in a beach house with a man and a woman.  It is well described but very little happens.  It is more a setting for a story than the story itself.  'The Smell' by Patrick McGrath, whilst again reminding me of Dahl, but maybe that is inevitable with edgy short stories, is probably the one story that deserves the 'New Gothic' tag and combines that terror from the mundane suburban life  with the macabre.  'The Kingdom of Heaven' by Peter Straub, is an extract from his novel 'Throat'.  He produced a novel called the 'The Throat' but that was not published until 1993, so this may have been a preceding shorter story; that is supposedly a successful horror book, but those elements seem to be missing from this extract.  Fine as it is, a well described story of US unit in the Vietnam War charged with collecting corpses of fallen soldiers.  The individuals and the scenes are well described, but it is too clinical for Gothic, it lacks that unearthliness, whether implied or exposed that is necessary for the Gothic sense.  'Fever' by John Edgar Wideman is pretty much the same, a good description of a black man in 18th century America dealing with the spread of disease and the racism he faces.  It describes these things well as a historical story, but lacks any Gothicism.

'J' by Kathy Acker is a waste of space, simply 'dropping the c bomb' as I have heard it described, using offensive words for the sake of it, rambling on about AIDS incoherently.  This certainly has no relevance to this book and is why I cannot send it to a charity shop.  Yes, AIDS is a terror of our time and there are effective stories using it as a horrific threat, involving deception and modern versions of Gothic settings and yet this story does not put such aspects to any effective use.  It revels in simply tossing these words around and in that way is no more impacting than a child waggling its tongue at you.

'The Grave of Lost Stories' by William T. Vollmann is clever, exploring what happens to those stories and the characters in them that authors do not complete.  It is whimsical rather than frightening but a good antidote to Acker's stuff.  Again if intended to be more Gothic, it would have portrayed the characters as being more threatening to the author's sanity.

Whilst there are some stories which are reasonable and many more which are poor, many of them have simply been cobbled into this collection without bearing much relevance to the theme.  Obscenity is not horror, to be genuinely frightening that has to be far more subtle, upfront, aggressive abuse is not that, it is too explicit to really terrify.  On the evidence of this book, I conclude that aside from some disparate writings there certainly was not a 'New Gothic' genre in the early 1990s.

Monday, 29 October 2012

What If The Tour De France Rankings Were Reallocated

Like Miguel Indurain, I still have doubts about the case made against Lance Armstrong on the grounds that he had performance enhancing chemicals during his career.  As I have noted before I feel a lot of this is more about international politics than about cycling.  On 22nd October, Armstrong was stripped of all of his seven wins of the Tour De France, i.e. 1999-2005.  However, the rankings have not been reallocated to other men who came in behind Armstrong.  Of course, many of these men have already suffered penalties as a result of their drug cheating, as 'The Guardian' noted on 13th October, 89 of the 190 men who had received a podium position in the Tour De France, Giro D'Italia and Vuelta a Espana, i.e. in the top 3 places in the race, since 1992, have now faced penalties. In fact I believe they have left out a number more who have done so. What interests me in this posting is, assuming that all of the drugs cheats had been eliminated, who would have been the winners of the Tour De France?  With Armstrong and these others gone, we see very interesting patterns appearing and men who are known only to cycling enthusiasts would probably be known across the world, the way Armstrong became.

Miguel Indurain won the Tour De France five times in a row, 1991-5 and with Armstrong gone is now an unrivalled record once more.  Indurain has never been found guilty of any drugs cheating so these wins would remain.  However, Claudio Chiappuci who came 2nd in 1992, Tony Rominger who came 2nd in 1993, Marco Pantani who came 2nd in 1994 and Alex Zulle who came 2nd and Bjarne Riis who came 3rd in 1995 would all be removed.  Bjarne Riis would also lose his 1st place in 1996, a year when the top three riders, Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque being the other two, were all drugs cheats. 

Rather than writing out all the changes in text, a list is probably easier.  This in italics are riders who would have risen up the table if the drugs cheats had been removed:

1st Miguel Indurain (Spain)
2nd Gianni Bugno (Italy)
3rd Andrew Hampstein (USA)

Hampstein was twice winner of the Tour De Suisse and once the Giro D'Italia and only lost out to Bugno in the 1992 Tour De France in the final time trial.

1st Miguel Indurain (Spain)
2nd Zenon Jaskula (Poland)
3rd Álvaro Mejía (Colombia)

Jaskula had won the Volta a Portugal and stages of stage races and Mejia had won regional ones such as the tours of Galicia and Murcia.

1st Miguel Indurain (Spain)
2nd Piotr Ugrumov (Latvia)
3rd Roberto Conti (Italy)

Conti came 6th, his best ever position in the Tour De France, but the three riders above him, including Pantani, Luc Leblanc and Virenque have either been penalised or have admitted being drugs cheats.

1st Miguel Indurain (Spain)
2nd Melcior Mauri (Spain)
3rd Fernando Escartin (Spain)

Mauri won the Vuelta a Espana and Escartin came 2nd in that race twice.  Them stepping up the rankings from 6th and 7th place, would have made 1995 a clean sweep for the Spanish.

In 1996 and 1997, all of the top three finishers were drugs cheats, so after Indurain ended his reign, we would have seen men in this top spot that did not attract as much attention at the time.

1st Peter Luttenberger (Austria)
2nd Piotr Ugrumov (Latvia)
3rd Fernando Escartin (Spain)

Now, we begin to see history becoming changed. Luttenberger is basically unknown beyond tight circles, but is now becoming recognised as the 'real' winner in 1996.  Ugrumov would have won his second 2nd place and Escartin would have come 3rd two years running, meaning more attention would have been on these men and they would likely have attracted teams and support that was otherwise missing when they were just in the top 10.

1st Abraham Olano (Spain)
2nd Fernando Escartin (Spain)
3rd José María Jiménez (Spain)

With Ulrich, Virenque and Patani as the top 3 in 1997, again we would see different names coming to the fore, altering people's careers to a great extent.  Olano and his compatriots would have continued the Spanish predominance in the 1990s.  Like a number of the winners, he won the Vuelta a Espana.  Escartin would have been on the podium for the third year in a row.  This would no doubt have attracted attention to him to a greater extent than happened, he may have been seen the way Cadel Evans was in the latter 2000s as an 'almost man'.  He would have been a rare sprinter to win the race.  Of course, if he had held these positions, he may have been projected to win.  Jimenez would die of a heart attack only five years later at the age of 32.  However, no evidence of drugs cheating has come out against him.

1st Christophe Rinero (France)
2nd Michael Boogerd (Netherlands)
3rd Jean-Cyril Robin (France)

The 1998 tour was seen as the one in which doping came really to the fore, so eliminating many riders for taking ranking positions, again wiping out the top 3, Pantani, Ullrich and Bobby Julich.  Reassinging their positions brings the men skilled on climbs, Rinero and Boogerd to the fore.  This would have been seen as the year in which the French and the promising Dutch fought back against Spanish dominance of the race.

1st Fernando Escartin (Spain)
2nd Angel Casero (Spain)
3rd Abraham Olano (Spain)

The blip of 1998 would have been overcome and the Spanish would be back in control.  Escartin, the most consistent rider in the Tour of the late 1990s would finally have got his win.  By now he would be far more recognised than has been the case with others like Lance Armstrong, Alex Zulle and Jan Ullrich cheating to take the positions over this period.  However, a new personality would have been poised to step into the limelight and have the longest run of wins since Indurain.

1st Joseba Beloki (Spain)
2nd Santiago Botero (Colombia)
3rd Fernando Escartin (Spain)

As you will notice, with so many of the top cyclists taking drugs, we similarly see other names appearing on a regular basis with Beloki but also Escartin still on the podium. Though Beloki was investigated for doping, he was cleared in 2006.  Out of the top 6, the others being Armstrong, Ullrich, Christophe Moreau, Roberto Heras, Virenque, Beloki was a rare one in the top flight not to be taking drugs, or has so far been proven.

1st Joseba Beloki (Spain)
2nd Andrey Kivilev (Kazakhstan)
3rd Igor González (Spain)

The podium positions of the 2000 race: Armstrong, Ullrich, Beloki, were repeated in 2001.  However, eliminating the drugs cheats, still gives Beloki his second win of the race, but brings other names forward.  It certainly would have put Kazakhstan on the map of cycling to a much greater extent.  Some believe Kivilev should have won 2001 because of the subsequent suspicions around Beloki.  Whatever happened it would make his death in 2003 during the Paris-Nice race from injuries sustained even more poignant.  The Spanish would be continuing their pre-eminent position seen in the 1990s.

1st Joseba Beloki (Spain)
2nd Santiago Botero (Colombia)
3rd Igor González (Spain)

Beloki came 2nd in 2002, but taking out Armstrong would have given him his third consecutive win, and a very small group it is that have done that.  The Spanish would still be to the fore.

1st Haimar Zubeldia (Spain)
2nd Carlos Sastre (Spain)
3rd Denis Menchov (Russia)

With Armstrong, Ullrich, Alexandre Vinoukourov, Tyler Hamilton, Iban Mayo, Ivan Basso, Moreau and Francisco Macebo, eight of the top ten have all had drugs penalties.  Thus, even with a number of Spaniards now being caught, 2003 would see the continuing Spanish dominance.  It has been suggested to me, that by this stage the race organisers would have altered the routes to play down the mountains on which so many Spanish and Colombians are strong.

1st Andreas Klöden (Germany)
2nd José Azevedo (Portugal)
3rd Georg Totschnig (Austria)

2004 would have been like 1998, the year when the consistent line of Spanish victories was broken briefly.  Azevedo rode for Armstrong's team so may in future be proven to have been on drugs, but so far I cannot find a record of him being accused.  Klöden came 2nd anyway and is now being acclaimed as the 2004 winner by some.

1st Cadel Evans (Australia)
2nd Óscar Pereiro (Spain)
3rd Haimar Zubeldia (Spain)

With the top 6 riders having faced drugs penalties and three already having been disqualified: Armstrong, Ullrich and Levi Leipheimer, 2005 would have been the year of Cadel Evans first victory, six years earlier than has been recorded.  Australian riders were coming to the fore in this period, but it would be years before they reached the level that they should have done.  The number of drugs cheats, and it seems Yaroslav Popovych should be among them even though he has denied the charges, means that Zubeldia, originally 15th in the race and now 11th due to disqualifications, would have been back on the podium, reasserting Spain's standing.

1st Óscar Pereiro (Spain)
2nd Andreas Klöden (Germany)
3rd Carlos Sastre (Spain)

By 2006 we would be seeing the development of a leading clutch of riders, given that Evans came in 5th, moved up to 4th already now by the disqualification of Floyd Landis.  It would have been fascinating to see how close the quartet of Evans, Pereiro, Klöden and Sastre, probably Zubeldia too, would have been.  This was the first year that Armstrong was not the winner for seven years, but in this readjusted race, there would be a number of leading names, not seemingly as unassailable as Armstrong, but still with credit.

1st Cadel Evans (Australia)
2nd Carlos Sastre (Spain)
3rd Haimar Zubeldia (Spain)

Sastre would have clearly staked his claim as being the latest of the Spaniards who dominated the Tour De France in the 1990s and 2000s.  Evans would have won his second Tour after the disappointment of 2006.  In theory with Alberto Contador being removed for drugs Evans won this year anyway.


1st Carlos Sastre (Spain)
2nd Cadel Evans (Australia)
3rd Denis Menchov (Russia)

With the reassignment of positions, the rise of Sastre would be much clearer, with him stepping up the podium in succeeding years and developing a clear head-to-head battle with Evans.  Menchov, who it is often commented is the quiet man of the Tour would have again received greater recognition.

1st Andy Schleck (Luxembourg)
2nd Bradley Wiggins (UK)
3rd Andreas Klöden (Germany)

As it is, the winner of the race, Alberto Contador has been stripped of the title for drug cheating so Schleck is the actual winner.  With Armstrong also out, Wiggins's story changes and he arrives on the podium three years earlier than the history we know.  Klöden again shows he had not disappeared in the battle between Evans and the Spaniards.  Frank Schleck originally came 4th but has now been found to have been a cheat, possibly being fairer on his brother than I was on Popovych, I have left Andy in place until proven guilty.  If that does ever happen, then the 'Year of the British' would have come first in 2009 rather than 2012.

1st Andy Schleck (Luxembourg)
2nd Denis Menchov (Russia)
3rd Samuel Sanchez (Spain)

For the first time in two decades, there is no need to alter the rankings of the 2010 Tour De France.  With these changes, Schleck would have won his second consecutive tour and the arrival of Menchov in 2nd place after two 3rds over a seven year period would be less of a surprise.  Sanchez, no doubt, would be seen as the latest in a long line of Spaniards right at the top of the Tour.

1st Cadel Evans (Australia)
2nd Andy Schleck (Luxembourg)
3rd Thomas Voeckler (France)

With Frank Schleck removed from 3rd place for drugs, the ever popular Frenchman, Voeckler, a winner of some stunning stage victories would get on the podium, the first one since Rinero's victory in 1998.  Sanchez would have come 4th, showing that whilst to the end of the 2000s and into the 2010s, other nationalities were coming to the fore, Spain was not lagging too far.  Evans would have been winning his third victory at the Tour which would probably make him insufferable but also the winner with victories stretched out the longest, over seven years.

1st Bradley Wiggins (UK)
2nd Chris Froome (UK)
3rd Vincenzo Nibali (Italy)

Another, which as far as we know needs no alterations.  However, it would seem less incredible given Wiggins's 2nd place in 2009, though there would probably be even more discussion of where he had been in the meantime.

Thus, if we remove all the drugs cheats from the Tour De France rankings, we discover a difference race.  However, one, that seems to make more sense.  It is clear that Indurain ushered in a period of Spanish dominance of the race, even setting aside the Spaniards who have used drugs, and in this I am including EPO, doctored blood.  We see much more the rise of riders like Zubeldia, Pereiro and Sastre, even of Menchov.  There were interesting battles among a leading group of cyclists, which of course how the races have been shown, was ignored, because these men had been fighting sometimes for 10th place.  However, all were putting in good times and doing so through their own effort.

Doing the analysis for this posting, however, has probably brought me around to the UCI's view that the slots of those men disqualified should not be filled.  When you find the large majority of the top 10 or 20 of those who came home in any Tour De France were on substances of one kind or another, it makes nonsense of the whole process.  I do hope, as some commentators are doing, as on Wikipedia, that those men who rode clean and so ended up 5th or 11th or something similar because they were up against drugs cheats, will get the recognition that they should receive for their efforts.

Friday, 26 October 2012

‘You Can’t Handle The Truth’: Forced To Create A ‘Legend’ In The Workplace

As regular readers will know in the past few years I have suffered in jobs as a result of individual words and sentences that I have uttered. These were not rude words or offensive sentences, they just did not fit with very exacting standards that employers have around every word you might utter. I have got into trouble for saying ‘I am not a cleaner’ when in fact I was not a cleaner. I have got into trouble for trying to notify my manager of a hospital appointment connected with my diabetes. I have got into trouble discussing the curriculum that the boy who lived in my house was studying. I have got into trouble for saying that I was not responsible for organising an even date that, in fact, I truly was not responsible for organising. I guess one problem is that as yet I have not learnt how to suck up all the blame being levelled at my managers as if it was my own fault; I do not step forward fast enough or enthusiastically enough to take the blame off their shoulders and as a result it is open season to criticise me as ‘inappropriate’ or rude or incompetent.  The censorship and self-censorship that develops can harm companies, see:

Now, I know from people who have written to me, that I am not alone in suffering such problems and that schools should teach young people that in any job, no matter how competent they might, they must always expect to be the ‘fall guy’ for any errors made around them even if they are not connected to them. My mistake has been not been ready to do that. Ironically as a consequence I am portrayed as the one creating a ‘blame culture’ simply because I am not able to absorb the blame into myself quickly enough. In this I am hampered further as it seems I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Whilst I doubt it has worsened in recent years, the clear changes in UK society and in working culture mean that there are more pitfalls that I may be missing with heavy consequences for my job and thus for the rest of my life which has been largely wrecked this year.

I began a new job in September and was relieved that a lot of the behaviour I have noted above was absent. This was both relaxing and also reminded me how abnormal the previous places actually were. Workers should behave as adults not primary school children and certainly it seemed as if that was more the case where I am now working, despite the fact that the company, like most in the UK is facing hard economic times and so instability. However, the seemingly warm reception I received in this job clearly led me into a false sense of security. I had originally gone there, scared from my previous jobs to mention anything about my life outside work or my past. However, with people confiding in me about their cancer treatment, medical conditions, marital problems, etc., I too opened up especially about some of the things that have hit me this year. Partly this was also because I have had to speak with people so much about losing my job, my house and household that they have now become mundane; they are the ache that has become dull so to me these things are no longer a big issue. To start viewing this way and even letting down my guard a little has proven to be a big mistake.

On Friday I was summoned to see my line manager who outlined the complaints against me. Now, these differ in nature to the problems I have had before. These days I avoid making statements unprompted even to people I think will not distort them. However, when people ask me questions I respond truthfully. Given that the workplace has an atmosphere of being open, people have asked direct personal questions that they might not have done elsewhere. The first was that I had been asked why I was eating biscuits during a training session. I explained briefly that this was because as a diabetic I tend to have a low blood sugar in the late afternoon especially when I have been on a day’s training as had been the case that day and so ran the risk of hypoglaecemia. I know I should not have used the word ‘hypoglaecemia’ but when you have had a condition 24 years as I have done, you tend to slip into these things. I have explained my diabetes to hundreds of people, so think nothing of it.

The second one was I was asked why I had left the lovely town on the south coast that I have recently moved from, by someone who still lives close by but is also employed now by the same company as me. I responded, ‘because I lost my house’. Now that is the truthful answer, it is the only reason why I left, but again that was an unacceptable answer. A similar situation came when waiting for a meeting to start there were comments at how the set-up of the room resembled that for an interview. I was asked as a newly appointed member of staff, how many interviews I had had. Again I told the truth: ‘67 in the past 4 years’.

I have noted before how people feel somehow contaminated by reference to redundancy and unemployment:  However, when asked a direct question, and this may be as a result of Asperger’s, I have the tendency to give the truth. Yet, me describing what has happened to me or my medical condition, not in an unprompted way, but in response to a question, is these days seen as ‘inappropriate’ and even verging on the offensive. Clearly I cannot read the mind of the person asking me the question. I have been alerted to the fact by one company that has interviewed me three times, that I give an answer without first having ascertaining the type of answer the questioner is looking for. I missed out on the training on this approach to answering at school, university and in work. In fact, I received the opposite: answer a question as directly and truthfully as you can. I know I am enthusiastic when talking with people and these days they will not tolerate an answer which is shorter than the question asked. I thought I had cracked that with the answers given above. However, now I have to also quickly judge whether the truthful answer is what they are seeking.

I am in no position to say ‘well that is my business’ as I could clearly have done with these three personal questions or even ‘why are you asking that?’ as that would clearly been seen as rude. You cannot be defensive as that rouses suspicion. The truth, if it encompasses failure or illness or simply bad luck is also unacceptable whether given briefly or explained in full. Thus, my line manager has now advised me to come up with what I call a ‘legend’. This is the term used by spies and undercover police to describe the false identity they establish. It is a fiction, weaving in elements of the truth, but in general appealing to the assumptions of the people that the agent will be working with whilst distancing this fictional personality from the agent’s genuine one. I need to learn this legend well and be able to respond with aspects of it whenever I am asked a personal question again. I have to be careful, as, unfortunately, I have already revealed the truth about my life to quite a few people. I also have to avoid slip-ups that contradict or differ from what I have said before.

Now, from the troublesome questions I have faced recently, I have to come up with an explanation for why I might eat carbohydrates in the afternoon, which does not reference any medical condition nor makes me appear a glutton. I suppose in future I must sneak off to the toilet to eat them. This presents an ideological challenge for me. Back in 2005 when the UK law put diabetics into the disabled category, I took the decision to ‘come out’ as a diabetic. Now it appears I have to go back into the medical closet and conceal my condition as best I can. In terms of why I left the town, I am rather stumped what to say. All the suggestions about house prices seem to be equally as negative and something along the lines that the area was going down clearly are not true to people who know the town. If I say it is simply because I tired of the place, that might make me look feckless. Even saying that I moved to be closer to family would sound like there was bad luck if not for me then for them, so that is out. With the interviews, clearly I have to severely reduce the number. I cannot really guess what the tolerable number of interviews would be over a 4-year period, do readers think 10 still sounds excessive?

The one thing that I must bury even deeper in my legend, is a sense of indignation.  People accuse me of self-pity, however, it is impossible to keep lying to yourself that things will get better or to take all the blame on to yourself for how you have been mistreated; as it is, I cannot shake the sense of guilt at what I may have done wrong, not helped by people telling me that I am a 'natural victim', something which I reject entirely as that is the path to racism and disability discrimination, things I will have no truck with.  As the government tells us that we need to suffer for the sake of the country, people in many workplaces see it as wrong to even indicate that you are suffering as a consequence.  I cannot reveal how badly I have been treated in previous jobs, the social class discrimination, the disability discrimination and the simple maliciousness I have encountered. I cannot express my dismay at the fact that in 2009 I earned £42,000 per year and had 35 days leave and now earn £26,000 (what I was earning in 2002) and get 19 days and 2 hours leave (what is the point of 2 hours’ leave?). I have to pretend that my life has not gone down the drain in so many ways and that my chances of ever owning even a flat, let alone a house, are now zero.   I have to conceal how the pressure from the bad treatment I have received has worsened my blood pressure and consequently my eye sight. My legend has to show me as a successful man, going places despite the worst economic depression in 80 years. It has to pander to the assumptions of the people who ask me questions. It has to provide the answers that they find acceptable, because it has been made very clear to me that in fact, they cannot handle the truth.