Saturday, 31 March 2012

Books I Read In March

'Double Whammy' by Carl Hiaasen
There is something about Hiaasen's books that I do not like but as yet cannot identify.  This story is set among the competition bass fishing community of southern Florida and the scandals and murders involved around the big prize competitions.  After 'Tourist Season' I have learnt the tropes of Hiaasen's work and too many appear in this story too.  There is a former journalist who now works as a private detective.  He has an ex-wife who he is still in contact with and there is an additional woman that the detective sleeps with.  The role of the two women in aiding or hindering the investigator is switched from 'Tourist Season'.  Another ongoing aspect is some muted criticism of the  destruction of the environment of southern Florida, its over-development and the idiotic people this attracts.  As with 'Tourist Season' Hiaasen draws thorough if eccentric characters and has an overly complex plot, as before involving a scene shift, this time as far as Louisiana.  Perhaps it is all simply too American for me, perhaps I feel the attempts at satire or black humour out-dated so incomprehensible or simply just laboured.  Something stops me liking these novels as much as the character portrayal might warrant.

'Disaster At D-Day.  The Germans Defeat The Allies, June 1944' by Peter Tsouras
Tsouras is very capable at writing counter-factual books around wars and their consequences.  This is one of those very detailed books which if you did not know it was not truthful you could read as if it were simply a historical account.  This will not appeal to some details as you have to keep track of numerous companies, platoons, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, armies and army groups and numerous individuals on both sides.  Even having cycled through many of the towns and villages mentioned I found it difficult to follow.  In addition, I quickly found it difficult to distinguish where Tsouras's book diverged from what actually happened; a typical complaint against counter-factual novels let alone more historical style books like this.  The main difference seems to be that the landings of US troops at the Omaha beach, i.e. between Pointe du Hoc and Port en Bessin to the western end of Normandy was completely repelled rather than mauled as in our world.  This distorted the front opened up by the Allies and made it shorter.  How other battles between units differ I do not know and I certainly would have welcomed something like a parallel text to show the differences.  This book might be fascinating but it is really only full understandable to someone who knows the history of the D-Day landings and follow-up battles in immense detail.

Another thing that spoilt my enjoyment of the book was a serious publishing error.  The version I have is the D-Day 60th Anniversary Edition.  In my copy and I assume many others, you get pages 1-32 then you get pages 1-32 again; pages 33-74 are missing and so after the second page 32 you jump to page 75.  This means you miss the whole section about the Utah and Omaha landings which leaves you not seeing the greatest divergence from our history.  I bought this book a few years back and it is a shame that I did not check it as I would have sent it back to the publishers, Greenhill Books in London and Stackpole Books in Pennsylvania and demanded a refund.

'The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes.  The Story of George Scovell' by Mark Urban
I bought this book new in 2001 as a spare one to carry in my car in case I found myself in a situation without anything to read.  Having taken two days' leave I had foolishly brought only one book along with me which I finished while watching an hour-long Karate lesson and so turned to this emergency volume.  As the title suggests it is a biography of George Scovell, an officer in the Quartermaster's section of the British Army in the Peninsular War who became an intelligence officer and a cryptographer.  His story shows the hazards of snobbery in the army not least when Lieutenant-General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) refused to meet with the Portuguese Commandant of Braga on the grounds that he felt he was too socially inferior.  This man, a senior Portuguese officer (and Portugal was Britain's ally) had vital information of the routes along which Marshal Soult was escaping from Portugal so letting tens of thousands of French troops escape.

The story is a good coverage of the Peninsular War not always showing Wellington in the best light, though highlighting his French counterparts as a lot worse.  It is interesting in terms of looking at the relationships between different members of the staff on the British side and the relationship between the theatre of war and London.  It is thoroughly supported by a wide range of British and French sources.  As well as engaging descriptions of the battles it is also fascinating in showing how the Grand Paris Cipher was worn down.  All round a well written book which draws you in, in the way the best history particularly for mainstream consumption, always should.

'Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?.  More Puzzles in Classic Fiction' by John Sutherland
This is the sequel to 'Is Heathcliff A Murderer?' produced in 1996.  Like the previous book it looks at issues in classic fiction in a series of short essays that are great for dipping into.  This volume goes back into the 18th century and forward into the 20th century but again primarily focuses on Victorian literature.  Sutherland writes in such a way that even if you are unfamiliar with the original book you can engage quickly with the point he is discussing.  As in 'Is Heathcliff A Murderer?' the essays cover errors in the authors' writing but also things that modern readers will see as errors but were in fact deliberate.  Some errors shown include 'Lemon or Ladle' referencing George Eliot's 'Felix Holt, the Radical' and 'Wanted: Deaf-and-Dumb Dog Feeder' in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.  This highlights the difficulty of keeping consistency in a long narrative in the days before wordprocessors and especially when authors were under pressure to write serials as they went along, with no ability to go back and change what had already been published.

It is clear that often 19th century authors liked to play around with chronology and in particular have contemporary characters operating in a context which preceded their own time, particularly the era of the railways in rural areas of Britain, an example is the chapter 'The Barchester Towers that Never Was'.  The book also highlights aspects of British society we have forgotten such as 'Pug: dog or bitch?' referring to 'Mansfield Park' and 'How Vulgar is Mrs Elton?' from 'Emma' both by Jane Austen.  'How Good a Swimmer is Magwitch' from Charles Dickens's 'Great Expectations' and 'Clarissa's Invisible Taxi' from Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs. Dalloway' remind us not to patronise authors of the past for making mistakes when their perceptions and what was worth mentioning from among them, were shaped by their times, not ours.  I will have to look out for other books on this basis that Sutherland has produced, 'Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?' (1999) and 'Henry V, War Criminal?' (2000).

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Caution: Indignitaries At Work

I am now in line to be kicked out of my job.  It is not on the grounds that I have stolen money or harrassed anyone or even was incompetent, it is simply that my manager dislikes me.  She somehow sees my very person let alone my manner, offensive.  She complains I repeat myself and write too long emails and yet goes on at length repeatedly around the office whining the same stories to everyone about her washing machine.  She complains I do not meet the 'high standards' of the department, primarily on the basis that I lack 'team spirit' a very ill-defined criterion which basically comes down to whatever she thinks it should be.  It has nothing to do with being a colleague as I have worked successfully with the other seven people in my office and tens of others across the company.  What is alarming is how a single manager has so much power, how she can set different rules for me to my colleagues.  I am supposed to eat elsewhere, I am supposed to knock more loudly on her door than my colleagues, I have to notify her in a particular way if I have to go to the doctor, something my colleagues do not have to do.  She complains that I am too outspoken but also that I defer to her too much.  There are no objective measures of her criteria which allows her to say such contradictory things at one time.  She spends so much time socialising with senior staff, taking up a large part of the working day, that they take her views without question.  I have tried to talk to her manager and simply have been told he cannot discuss the case.  There is no-one I can turn to bar the union representative and I have no idea what you do in such situations if you are not in a union.

For me the severity of this step is great.  I am liable to be kicked out with no pay and so will immediately default on the mortgage payments on my house meaning that my fears of having it repossessed have only been delayed by a year.  It seems unlikely that I will work again as I will be unable to get anything but a highly biased reference from my manager.  I have explored the problems with this particular manager before:

Looking back I wonder if I could have done anything different to forestall this problem and the answer seems to be no.  The case against me has been built on such insubstantial complaints that if it had not been these then it would have been something else.  Basically the difficulties were two emails which apparently were critical of how my unit worked, though you would struggle to find that meaning in what I wrote.  I suppose that I should not have said that I had no ability to control scheduling, the thing that the correspondent was making a mild complaint against.  Apparently I was supposed to accept blame for things I cannot control.  I was told I should not have said a colleague was off sick, even though that is completely the reverse approach to the previous place I worked.  There they felt if you did not reveal the cause of the shortage of staff as something legitimate like illness then you were effectively criticising the company for not looking ahead sensibly to recruit sufficient staff.  A more established in my office made the identical error some weeks later and while he has been chastised for it he is not being kicked out.  I also said that my job did not involve cleaning up, which is a statement of fact.  However, in a twisted way, this has been portrayed as being an unacceptable statement, on the grounds that it is both disparaging to cleaners who do a wonderful job; makes me appear as arrogant due to my qualifications and experience and yet also is said to show I have no pride in myself and thus, by implication no pride in my colleagues, thus violating the team spirit requirement.  This statement was apparently so offensive that it led to a complaint being telephoned in by a visitor.

The last damning charge is that I did not inform my manager correctly before going to a hospital appointment despite it being in the Outlook system she can access for weeks and me talking about it with her for 10 minutes precisely a day before I went.  Apparently it is fine that she forgot the conversation and she argues that she cannot afford the few seconds it takes to check the Outlook calendar.  It is also apparently acceptable for her to stamp around the office demanding where I am, when just asking one of the colleagues could have revealed that.  My behaviour is portrayed as 'discourteous' whereas hers is apparently beyond reproach though to most readers I would assume it would appear at best childish at worst idiotic, but maybe I am wrong in modern British society.

This is the key factor: indignation.   In our powerless society, it seems that no-one can be anyone  I am the first to admit that I make mistakes, but I learn from them.  In addition, I have never done anything that is so severe it should lose you your job.  Is it fair that individual words, assuming they are not racist, sexist or otherwise insulting should be enough to bring down your career?  Maybe in this era of unemployment it is sufficient and we should all look at every single word we use thinking how it might be turned against us. 

Of course, it is impossible to see through someone else's eyes, so what to us might be anondyne, apparently can be highly inappropriate to someone else.  I have neither violated what society would deem acceptable nor what my company does, just what my manager 'feels' is unacceptable.  That is not even direct criticism, but apparently something that seems to her as being insufficiently ardent in singing the praises of the unit she runs.  From my historical knowledge such mentality seems very much like a personality cult and I am someone like those who stopped clapping some seconds before the rest of the people having heard one of Stalin's or Mao's speeches.  Of course, I will not be killed but at the age of 44, my career is over and I have effectively become unemployable for the rest of my life.

As I have noted before, it is no longer sufficient in the UK to complain about something, you have to stamp and shout at your loudest.  Neither is it sufficient to be irritated, annoyed or put out, you must be utterly appalled, completely indignant, generally way out of proportion to what has happened:  I suppose given the prevalence of this trend in society we should not be surprised to find it in the workplace.  It is exacerbated by procedures like performance reviews, appraisals, probation periods, fixed-term contracts which put immense power into the hands of often poorly trained managers certainly without an ability to detach personal prejudice from their judgements of work effectiveness.  It is a kind of focused discrimination, not on race, age or gender, but simply on who they like or dislike.  Staff of all levels will not discuss or debate or really just complain they become indignant as if even the most minor misunderstanding has been concocted with malicious intent, both offensive in itself and aimed at bringing the company into disrepute.  Of course, none of these things is done that way.  However, not being indignant gives away the few grams of power they feel they have snatched and, horror of horrors, they might be forced to admit that they are sometimes wrong, something my manager seems incapable of acknowledging.  Thus, by being so offended, she can play, 'it is so terrible I cannot even talk about it' card, shutting down any reasonable rational debate.

As I have noted before, the clamping down on discussion let alone the suggestion of different approaches or Heaven forbid, even mild criticism, is damaging to British business:  I have no idea when I might work again and it seems unlikely that it will ever be for a large company.  I am naturally bitter that years of study and hard work can be trashed by the prejudice of a single individual, but I imagine it is a common occurrence.  There was nothing I could have done once I got the job.  If I kept quiet I was being rude and not taking sufficient initiative, if I spoke I was being rude and arrogant.  There was never a way of winning and never any redemption for my 'offences'.  I just post this as a warning for people who might be in similar positions, I do pity you, yet I fear this approach in the workplace will become even more common as incompetent people remain in position and unemployment rises higher.

Friday, 9 March 2012

My Changing Views Of Anger

I suppose many blogs show a 'journey' of the person blogging.  I had never intended that for this blog, it was simply a way for me to relieve myself of many of the thoughts and particularly irritations in my mind.  It was also an outlet when I have felt powerless against what seems to have been an incessant chain of bad landlords and bad managers causing me such grief.  However, recently I read a quotation from Buddha that said 'You will not be punished for your anger, but by your anger.' and I realised that I now understood that statement.  In addition, in doing so I could see a great change from the attitude I had about anger back in October 2008:

Do not worry, this is not going to be some pitch about how I found God or Buddha or anything like that, it is simply me reflecting on why and how I came to hold an opposite opinion to one I held before.  Regular readers will know that it is rare for me to shift my opinion on anything which is what makes this case unusual.  At the time I could see the reasons for having anger and it did make me feel good.  I felt just as powerless as I do these days facing up to the weight of the economy, finding sustained work and maintaining a place to live.  Constantly I seemed to encounter people who wanted to rub my face in the mud and I had no ability to get back at them.  That has not changed, I have a manager who treats me as some combination between a rude idiot and an aggressive threat and picks me up on rules she has made up after the fact.  That is the second manager I have had like that and between them they have ruined my career.  I was able to get away from landlords in 2007 but since being made redundant in 2009 I have regularly faced the worry of having the house repossessed and have only be saved by loans from my family and HM Revenue & Customs accepting that it had wrongly taxed me £16,000 back in 2007.  Thus, problems have not gone away from me and, in fact, unemployment is far higher now and the economy in much a worse state than back in 2008 making the near future appear even bleaker.

What has changed is that I realised that anger was a drug.  Some people facing the difficulties I was facing and feeling so powerless of oppose them would have turned to alcohol or narcotics or over-eating, perhaps to violence or self-harm.  Some people are able to buckle down and simply tolerate what is being inflicted on them, but they are rare.  We live in a society where public anger is now incredibly commonplace.  Every time you drive, every time you go to a supermarket or try to check in for an aeroplane or to catch a train there is a good chance in the UK that you will see unbridled fury.  Typically it is not over anything major, usually the reverse, that someone is driving at a different speed to you or will not let you into a queue or is simply in the wrong car or you cannot find the product you want or it has sold out or the company has made a mistake on your ticket or the flight or train has been cancelled.  These are nothing compared to the anger you should feel against a government which is destroying opportunities, education, pensions and the health service and telling us we should be glad about it.  Yet, while we know we can do absolutely nothing to change David Cameron's mind, we feel, however unlikely, that if we shout and make a fuss, we can squeeze out some change to our benefit; the car driver will feel ashamed or we will be 'bumped up' on to a flight or a train.  Over the past decades we have been tutored to believe this by what we witness in public and on television programmes.  It is strength by the sense that is so powerful of resentment against those who are getting some that we are not.

Over the past few years, even before I went into counselling as a result of mistreatment in my current job, I came to realise that anger achieved very little, no more than getting drunk would do.  It made me feel good for a short time but the come down in terms of high blood pressure and constipation were just like a hangover after alcohol and actually made it harder to deal with the problems the next day.  Being angry you see things only from your own perspective.  You know your limits and forget that those around you do not.  This was the impact on the woman and boy who lived in my house.  They saw me shouting and hitting the furniture and wondered if it would be them next that I would hit.  They saw me revving the car engine and felt powerless as they had no control over whether I rammed into the car in front of me or not.  Reassurance and even repeated examples when nothing dire occurs makes it no less frightening to them wondering if 'this time' something more severe would occur. 

This links to the next issue is that even in a life when everything seems a battle there are scraps of light.  Not going all religious, this is simple things like having a good meal or just all of you sat in front of the television or just laughing about something silly or remembering a good day.  They may only be scraps but I found these were being over-shadowed literally by the 'fear and loathing'.  In turn this meant that I did not even have these scraps of happiness to fall back on so meaning that I then lacked the kind of resources I needed to deal well with all the nastiness I was facing, especially at work.  The two worlds were contaminating each other and that meant there was no refuge.  It was easy to get into a vicious circle.  Whilst unemployment dropped me into new problems it gave me the time to change things.  Partly it was because I was freed from having a nasty manager waiting to pick up any new imagined example of an error in order to hound me with it.  Instead I was in my home all the time and had reasonably behaving job centre staff to deal with once per fortnight rather than malicious colleagues every day.  In between applying for jobs, I also took the opportunity to look at anger management.  This came in part from prompting from the woman who lived in my house, but also from having just one too many anger hangovers - constipation concentrates the mind very well.

Then I found that it is incredibly difficult to get help with anger management.  My experience in this respect was very much the same as when I tried to seek help as I came closer to being unable to pay my mortgage.  I contacted the building society when I had enough money to pay three months' mortgage payments and they would not discuss  the issue with me.  They said I had to be down to the final month's payment before they could even talk about it.  To me this seemed ridiculous.  They did not seem to realise that talking about the situation would have taken some pressure off me and most likely would have meant better performance at interviews and so the chance of getting a job to pay the mortgage.  The same situation occurred with anger management.  I found that in my town the last courses in anger management had ended two years earlier and that nowadays they only train counsellors in anger management for counties around; I would have had to travel to London for such help.  Anger management in my town is only available to people who have been referred to it by the courts or social welfare.  Thus, as with defaulting with the mortgage, it was only at the final stage that help became available.  To me this seems short-sighted, but I guess it comes from targeting money at those who need it the most rather than preventing problems from developing.

Given that I could find no groups or individuals to help, I thought 'well, I am an intelligent man, surely there are some books or something I can use'.  Well it turned out that I could find no books on anger management, again except for professionals counselling people rather than for those suffering from anger problems.  I guess the sense is that someone suffering anger will not be able to see that they need help.  However, I was able to find bits of references from extensive internet searches to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).  This sounded rather alarmingly like some pseudo-science, but actually turned out to be something legitimate.  It would have been the approach I would have been exposed to if I had applied for one of the courses two years earlier.  What I liked was that looked to treat causes rather than symptoms.  There is a lot on the internet about methods to reduce anger such as meditation but these did not seem feasible when you are driving and experience 'road rage'.  The NLP advocates likened most anger management to fixing a tyre when you had driven over broken glass and their method as being one that took you down a road without broken glass.  Anyway, from various sources I found exercises that I was able to do on my own.  Surprisingly, I found I quickly got into a 'virtuous circle' as being able to break the narcotic pleasure of anger I saw it was only doing harm and as anger became rarer it lost the psychological 'high' and feeling of power it had once given.  I was then able to recover those scraps of life that made me happy and in turn the two people living in my house felt more reassured so a feedback loop developed,

I have not reached a situation in which I am never angry, especially when dealing with computer games.  However, I can identify the symptoms so much faster and change what I am doing.  Probably the largest change has come in driving, knowing that I am giving power to worthless people if I get worked up when they hoot or flash or shout at me.  They are dangerous drivers and I need to get away from them, typically slowing down helps in that situation.  I think I felt I had a 'right' to anger something which was exacerbated because I was told I had other rights, no right to work, no right to enjoy a house without hassle, no right not to be treated as an idiot/inappropriate/to be dismissed, no right to drive my car without being forced off the road and so on.  However, I see now that the anger actually just made the things that I had under-valued, have less value.  Anger contaminates everything it touches and you need to be going in the opposite direction.  If you can derive happiness from lots of small and simple things then you become more robust.  You do not need a god to show you that, you can do it yourself.  Once you do, you then build up a reserve of some sort of energy that allows you to resist the trouble people seem so intent on pressing down on you, much more effectively.  Another trick that I have learnt since from counselling is to keep home and work in different silos, but that is a story for another day.

Monday, 5 March 2012

When Knowing A Foreign Language Is Something To Be Ashamed Of

I think I have been rather beaten to this posting by Will Hutton writing in ‘The Guardian’:  However, I guess there is no harm in me adding my perspective too.  As with Hutton, my thoughts were triggered by the fact that the two leading men aiming to be nominated to be the Republican candidate for the coming US Presidential elections, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were attacking each other on the simple basis of whether they spoke French or not.  As the BBC noted last month, they probably both do:  Romney spent 30 months in Bordeaux and Paris as a Mormon missionary in the 1960s whilst Gingrich wrote a PhD on Belgian educational policy in the Congo 1945-60 and cites a number of French-language texts in the bibliography; he might not be able to speak French but we have to assume that he reads it.  I guess Gingrich is also ‘Dr. Newt Gingrich’ something else he is keeping quiet.  Gingrich has produced an advertisement which refers to Romney’s ability to speak French.  The reason for such an attack comes from what Republican politicians associate with Europe – the euro and all its difficulties; a strong welfare budget and an unwillingness to engage in futile military conflicts.  Like most Britons they do not seem to associate Britain with Europe.

It seems incredible that there is more to gain politically from disguising that you have intellectual skills and that the grasp of a foreign language is something to use as an insult to your opponent or at least something which you feel the electorate should be dubious about.  However, it is probably worth noting that both former President George Bush Jr. (2001-9) and his father’s Vice-President Dan Quayle (1989-93) both demonstrated difficulties with English and yet seemed sufficiently popular.  In Britain, Nick Clegg when he became deputy prime minister was viewed suspiciously by Conservatives less for his political views and more for the fact that his wife is Spanish, his mother Dutch, his father half-Russian and he speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish; his children are English-Spanish bilingual.  In a continental politician such abilities would be commended or at worst seen as normal.  However, in the UK, as in the USA, learning can be seen as an electoral liability which is why I never saw reference to Dr. Gordon Brown or Dr. Mo Mowlem even though that was in fact the case.
  This is in sharp contrast to countries like Germany or many states in the Arab World.

Ironically Clegg is very much like the nobility and royal families of Europe of the 19th century.  Queen Victoria (actual first name Alexandrina), born to a German family, married to a German prince, had children who married into the different royal families of Europe including those of Germany and Russia.  Victoria spoke German with her children and presumably her husband too.  At the time upper class people across Europe spoke French to the extent that you often cannot find copies of treaties Britain was party to actually in English (I have looked) as French was spoken so widely among the civil service and I imagine the entire diplomatic corps. Of course, there has always been one rule for the rich and another for the rest.  Whilst the wealthy of the UK including many members of the Conservative Party may look in disdain at our European neighbours let alone nationalities further afield and voice this attitude, this does not actually stop them from taking expensive holidays in exotic countries and mixing with the 'right sort' of foreigner; wealth is a language all of its own.
  I do not know when the attitude shifted, but to me it seems it came during the First World War as Britain looked on both its opponents and its allies with disdain and focused on things that looked 'unBritish'; even the royal family was compelled to drop the surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in favour of Windsor.   Throughout the 20th century foreigners seem to have lost the sense of being worthy rivals to being people who should at best be patronised and at worst attacked.  Perhaps it was the fact that Sir Anthony Eden, foreign secretary (1935-8; 1940-5; 1951-5) and prime minister (1955-7) did not reveal that he had a degree in Farsi (spoken in Iran) and Arabic and could speak reasonably good French in the documentary film, 'Le Chagrin et la PitiĆ©' (1969) though he switches to English towards the end.  I always note that Eden could have understood the broadcasts in Arabic by his great antagonist Egyptian leader Colonel Nasser without a translator.  The fact that Eden had this knowledge yet it was effectively concealed probably shows the stage that knowing a foreign language in Britain was no longer seen as beneficial but suspicious

I would argue that the criticism of people for having language skills is part of a broader anti-intellectualism that has been common in the UK since the 1970s and probably quite a bit longer.  It is interesting that the website of the ‘Daily Mail’ has now just overtaken the ‘New York Times’ as the most often accessed English-language news site.  The ‘Daily Mail’ is clearly nationalistic, anti-European Integration and generally right-wing.  It tends to focus on glamour rather than intellectual issues and presents solutions to most of the world’s problems as based on getting foreigners to listen to British common sense.  Hutton takes a more specific focus in his seeking for an answer.

Hutton notes that there has been a fall of 21% in students applying for university degree courses in non-European languages, exceeding the general fall of around 9% in all university applications, despite the fact that having such skills makes graduates highly employable.  Part of the difficulty is the fall in the feed-through of students who speak any foreign languages, as only 43% of even GSCE level students study any language.  At ‘A’ level in 2011 only just over 13,000 students took French down 5% from 2010; 7,600 took Spanish; 5,100 took German a fall of 7%; Chinese was taken by 3,100; Polish by 458 and Irish by 339.  A key reason for not studying a language at university is that language degrees last 4 rather than 3 years so accruing more fees, though as with sandwich courses with industrial placements the fees may be reduced when the student is away from their home campus.

Hutton quotes translator Michael Hofmann who argues that only speaking one language traps you in a ‘cultural cage’ only able to perceive one position on issues.  Consequently he sees an advantage in terms of getting employment not simply through being able to talk to people from a different country but because you develop a flexibility of mind which allows you to adapt to different circumstances even if that is shifting from one company to another simply within the UK.  Hutton thinks that the lack of affinity for language learning stems from seeing foreigners as ‘invaders’, indeed some kind of benefit pillagers.  Whilst we like the fact that English is so widely spoken in the world (but still by fewer people that Mandarin Chinese) we do not like the fact that it makes it easier for them to come to the UK to work or claim benefits.  In addition, most British are not interested in going out to countries to assist in strengthening their economies to make even recession hit UK look less attractive.  While we may not have shaken off the sense of imperial superiority we certainly have lost any sense of a patrician approach which once was an element of British colonialism. 

Hutton feels the sense that foreigners are a threat is why those studying languages are so often ridiculed in the UK as if daring to learn the alien’s language makes you a source of suspicion, much as we see it doing in the USA.  Putting in effort to learn a foreign language, apparently shows that you are focusing on the wrong priorities because you are putting at least some emphasis on a different culture from your own and somehow that wanting to know more about another culture suggests you lack pride in your own.  As Hutton notes this cultural censuring of language learning runs counter to the best interests of those people choosing what subjects to study.  I had a friend who learnt Korean.  He seems to have been the first person ever to complete a Linguaphone course in that language as he noticed that tapes 3 and 4 in the set (this predated CDs let alone downloads) that he had bought were identical.  The company had recorded tape 4 but had been dispatching the wrong one in its place.  Anyway, he was so in demand that when travelling on public transport anyone in the UK or South Korea found he spoke Korean they would offer him a job.  Anyone who speaks fluent English and can get a decent grasp of Mandarin or Arabic or Russian or even Portuguese is liable to be in high demand and yet young people cannot see that. 

Weirdly the basic Chinese course from the Open University available on ITunesU is one of the top 3 downloaded courses but no-one seems to go beyond lesson one.  Perhaps as I have argued before the British have no language ability: so the fall in students taking them suggests that they have stopped trying to learn the languages and humiliating themselves.  I have forgotten all the foreign languages I ever learnt and as it was only got 10% in my Chinese test after 18 months study.  However, I am not going to ridicule anyone who learns a foreign language or see them suspiciously.  It seems ironic that those who are so much more nationalistic than me are so hostile to language learning not realising that if you are ignorant of someone else's language and yet they know yours, it is you who is at a disadvantage.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Rise And Fall Of My Blood Pressure

I have always said that this would not be a blog that was about the steady deterioration in my health, but occasionally things that arise in that area of my life have a wider application.  Regular readers will know the following two details: that I have suffered from Type 1 Diabetes for over twenty years and that I have a real bully of a line manager.  Now, hyper-tension, i.e. high blood pressure is an ever increasing condition among the global population especially in the West.  It has a particular impact for diabetics as it can lead to retinopathy, the swelling and bursting of blood vessels in the eye leading to the eye working less effectively and subsequently scarring and potentially blindness. 

Since about 2002 all diabetics in the UK have been prescribed three tablets in addition to any injected or tablet form insulin they take.  One is a mild aspirin to help with the condition of your heart, one is an anti-cholestrol tablet and one is a tablet to lower blood pressure.  When I was first prescribed the blood pressure tablet it led to me 'zoning out' because after the morning rush my blood pressure fell away anyway, so I was put on a lower dose which I have remained with for almost a decade.

When I joined my current job back in June 2011 the Occupational Health unit was in chaos something which still has not settled down and more than eight months since I started, I am still waiting for my initial assessment.  In the meantime my GP, the nurse at the medical centre and the diabetic clinic at the local hospital have all noted how my blood pressure was running high.  This contrasted with my blood pressure for the previous twenty years, bar two periods of being bullied, first by a colleague in 2003 and by my line manager in 2010.  This time they expected it to fall away now that I was in work after a period of unemployment.  Of course, this line manager has turned out to be incredibly self-centred and pig-headed fussing about how everything appears rather than what is being done.  She will not tell you how she wants something done as she assumes her way is common sense, but if you do it differently you are criticised for hours about how nasty you must be to think that that way was acceptable.  This sense that you do things in a particular way with some malicious intent or are constantly plotting to undermine her is clearly not healthy either for her or for her workforce.  Not surprisingly my blood pressure has not fallen.

The latest incident came around me having to go to the hospital.  When you move into a new health authority area they always like to check you out, this is doubled if you have a long-term health condition as I do.  In addition, in contrast to where I used to be treated, this authority has its various facilities spread over 17Km meaning various trips to reach them.  As I maintained a high blood pressure and within six months had developed Grade 2 retinopathy in one eye and Grade 1 in the other (Grade 1 is the lesser) I was called for more appointments than ever. 

ow, the appointments are always during working hours and I get them scheduled early in the morning or late in the afternoon to reduce the impact on my work.  One day when I had three appointments one at a health centre and two in different parts of the same hospital I actually took leave as my line manager whined so much.  I put all the appointments on to my computer diary to which my line manager has permanent access but she complained that I should not expect her to read this diary though she can check it in seconds.

One morning when I was at the hospital she was stamping around questioning my colleagues about my whereabouts.  I had spoken to her about the appointment just the morning before and outlined where I was going and how long it would take and what time I would be back.  My predicted time of return was only out by 15 minutes and that was due to public transport disruption (you cannot drive when you are going to have treatment on your eyes).   Somehow in the 24 hours between the conversation and me being at the appointment my line manager forgot all that I had told her bar the bare outline that I had something wrong with her eyes.  Thus, I get a forceful email going on about how discourteous I had been not to let her know precisely where I was and when.  Of course, I had done that both on my computer diary and orally but neither format was acceptable to her.  I began leaving her copies of the letters I receive from the hospital but that apparently was unacceptable too 'because of confidentiality'.  Given that it is my confidentiality in question, surely that decision should be down to me.  Finally she said I must send an email precisely seven days before the appointment, with the details I have already put in the computer diary.  When I asked why she could not have told me that weeks earlier and why she had to be so indignant about these little issues, she said all I did was make sustained allegations.  Of course, like many line managers she is untouchable so even a anodyne suggestion of the kind I made can be portrayed as 'inappropriate' and something against which 'measures must be taken'.

It can be no surprise that with such capricious behaviour and the fact that she has to make such a grand fuss about every small issue, with extreme language when a simple suggestion 'please do it this way' would have sufficed, my blood pressure is rising higher.  The only solution given that I cannot get my line manager to modify her behaviour and get no-one at the company to take steps to restrain her, was to have my dosage of blood pressure tablets increased.  This proved to be a matter of less than a minute with my doctor.  The outcome brings us to the nub of today's posting.

Fortunately I did not take the stronger dose blood pressure tablets until the weekend.  I guess I probably needed a x1.3 or x1.5 strength over what I had before rather than the double dose as I woke up on Saturday morning feeling incredibly good, too good in fact.  The fish in the tank were beautiful and I found myself staring at them.  At times my speech would wander off and words would just become very long.  This had a great comic effect for the woman who lives in my house as it appeared as if I was on a narcotic.  In myself I felt very different.  My blood pressure has been so high at times that my girlfriend has been able to feel my heart thumping on the mattress when we lie in bed.  In addition, my limbs have felt very heavy and in my mind's eye their flesh has been dark like aged steak, I guess from me imagining all the blood pulsing into them.  Now however, I see the flesh as a whitey-pink and my limbs feel lifted up by balloons.  The other thing is that my work life is not haunting me right through the weekend in the way it did.  The downside is that I have lost a lot of initiative and it took a lot of will power to get out of bed on the Saturday to do all the chores I have to complete.

It seems incredible that I can have an effect like that from something issued for free (because I am diabetic: prevention is much cheaper than cure in the long run) on the NHS. From when I got diabetes I became conscious that never again could I live without medication and that I was fortunate that I lived in a country where this would be for free and was readily available. I am also worried that my peace of mind has become dependent on a medicine, it seems all too much like 'Brave New World' (1932), 'a gramme is better than a damn' in reference to the drug soma which features in that story.  As an aside, the answer on about that quotation is completely wrong.  I want to be able to build my own happiness rather than have it prescribed.  Having spent weeks in counselling as a result of my line manager's behaviour I was able to reduce the worst impacts but clearly not completely free myself of them.

I am glad that I can reduce my blood pressure and hopefully head off serious damage to my eyesight.  However, I am also dismayed that I have not ability to change my working context in order to prevent me facing this kind of pressure simply due to the quirks of a single person who never seems to never have to answer for her actions despite the fact that they cause so much trouble not just for me but a range of staff; a colleague in my department under the same manager has had a heart attack and a stroke most likely provoked if not caused by the manager's treatment of that person.  The consolation is that with these tablets at least my free time is now time off from the burden of working in that context and that, I feel will have a cumulative effect in that I can forget work and really recharge rather than struggling to free my mind of worries about what will be the petty issue my line manager is going to harangue me about for weeks to come.