Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Book I Read In September

'Steampunk' ed. by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
This review does contain spoilers because there are a couple of stories in this collection which I feel are inappropriate and may offend readers, so I feel it is important to alert readers to them.  Having begun work in the middle of this month I thought I would be reading more.  However, deliberately socialising with colleagues has meant me sitting in the works canteen, it is not called that but it is effectively what it is, rather than spending an hour reading each lunchtime.  In addition, in the evening I have been watching the two John Le Carre television series and now the entire 'Van Der Valk' series of DVDs on my laptop rather than reading.

This book is a collection of essays, short stories and novel extracts.  It does rather pin the Steampunk genre to American attitudes though there is some reference to British and Japanese work in this field.  One of the problems is the evangelist Jess Nevins who I have had problems with before:  and continues to wheel out a similar attempt to nail Steampunk to US culture that he has done before.

Before moving on to a broader survey of the book, I must address the two chapters which concerned me most.  The first is 'The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel' by Joe R. Lansdale.  The concept is fair: the time traveller from H.G. Wells' novel has torn the fabric of time and space by his travels, something also considered in 'The Time Ships' by Stephen Baxter (1995).  In doing so the traveller has been turned into a vampire and has returned to 19th century Mid West America where he feeds on people, aided by an army of Moorlocks [sic - in the original book they are 'Morlocks'; this may be a reference to Michael Moorcock often termed the 'godfather of steampunk'; it may simply be laziness].  A group of adventurers travel to do battle with him in a man-shaped walking vehicle which he counters with one made of wood.  The key trouble is simply how nasty the story is.  It quickly turns into a sequence of descriptions in too much detail of torture.  It turns out like a sadist text and any of the plot just disappears as Lansdale indulges his clear delight in describing torture.  The warning given by the editors at the start of the story is far too mild and I really believe that they should have thought twice before including this story in the collection as all it is, is a perverse torture story given Steampunk elements.

The other story that jars with the collection is 'Victoria' by Paul Di Filippo which is set in 1838 and envisages Queen Victoria newly on the throne being installed in a brothel by Lord Melbourne, her prime minister, so that she may learn more of her kingdom.  Her place is taken by a newt named Victoria that has been impregnated by human genes to grow to the size of a small woman of Queen Victoria's stature and who serves as a bestial prostitute in the brothel until the two have their roles reversed.  The clear descriptions of bestiality in themselves are distasteful.  Again this seems to be some perverse sexual story which has been wrapped up in steampunk trappings to get it a wider readership and yet completely brings the genre into disrepute.

If I had been the author of any of the other stories in this collection I would have been offended to see my work included alongside these others.  There are extracts from 'The Warlord of the Air' by Michael Moorcock which despite being over forty years old stands out as an engaging novel.  An excerpt from 'Tribes of the Pacific Coast' by Neal Stephenson is a decent post-apocalyptic story, though to me seeming more mainstream science fiction than steampunk.

'Lord Kelvin's Machine' by James P. Blaycock is a decent steampunk story about averting a meteorite crash into Earth and I liked the internecine battles between different scientists.  'The Giving Mouth' by Ian R. Macleod, is more like standard fantasy than steampunk, but for that, is pretty well written and I like the idea of living metal.  Like a couple of the stories it takes viewpoints from the workers of a steampunk world as much as from the rulers who tend to feature in these stories.  'A Sun in the Attic' by Mary Gentle is very much in the clockworkpunk style of Gentle and does its job pretty well, looking at why technology might be stopped from developing.  It also has the counter-factual element of a continent in the South Pacific which I liked.  'The God Clown is Near' by Jay Lake shows how you can write unnerving steampunk with genetic elements without sliding into obscenity of Lansdale.  The creation of a powerful being in a city which sits parallel to 19th century North America in the uncharted areas of the map is an interesting one and Lake conjures up this setting with its own dynamics, quickly and effectively. 'The Selene Gardening Society' by Molly Brown about bombarding the Moon with compost in order to develop and atmosphere on it, is interesting, but Brown seems undeveloped in short story writing skills, as unlike these other authors, she does not create a world in miniature and really very little happens in the story and we learn little of its context.

'Seventy Two Letters' by Ted Chiang is the second story after 'The God Clown is Near' to feature golems.  This story is set in a more standard 19th century Britain but in a short time shows a completely different society though with concerns of our own; it even envisages a different form of human reproduction.  In my view this is probably the best story of the collection.  'The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance' by Michael Chabon, one of the more broadly better known authors in this collection, is very different from the title and features two boys whose parents were involved in the Ohio Uprising against British rule of North America in a steampunk world and what happens to them before they are liberated from a children's home by their airship flying uncle.  This felt like proper steampunk with some counter-factual politics thrown in for good measure.  'Reflected Light' by Rachel E. Pollock is a little frustrating.  It is features steampunk wax recordings of the friend of a woman who went on to be a revolutionary in the world Pollock creates.  She does very well in quickly creating this world, but leaves the rest of the story to the reader's own imagination.  I guess I like a little bit more in my short stories in the way that Blaycock, Chiang, Gentle, etc. do.  'Minutes of the Last Meeting' by Stepan Chapman almost goes to the other extreme featuring a cyber/steampunk Russia in 1917 where there are nanobots alongside steam trains.  It features many historical characters and a whole host of scenes which rather overload the short story.  However, the set-up and the ideas are refreshing.  This one with Blaycock's have effectively encouraged me to abandon a steampunk short story I was to set in Russia on the grounds it would now appear derivative.

There are a couple of essays, 'The Steam-Driven Time Machine' by Rick Klaw and 'The Essential Sequential  Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre within the Comic Book Medium' by Bill Baker.  The former is better than the latter, though the limited space means they are naturally restricted.  I think the editors envisaged this collection being bought by people who have not encountered steampunk before because the content of those essays will not be news to anyone who has followed the genre to any degree.  I do worry because of the Lansdale and Di Filippo stories, this collection will drive general readers away from steampunk.  Reading online reviews of new books in the genre it is noticeable that some are being dismissed as 'airships and lesbians' and the straying into unnecessary perverse sexual contexts (I am not saying lesbians are perverse, this is referring the torture and bestiality of Lansdale and Di Filippo which are perverse) is liable to damage the genre.  Including such work in a book which is supposed to encourage general readers into the genre was a grave error on the part of the Vandermeers which steampunk authors should condemn.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Current Fashions In Interviews

I have commented before about how there are fashions in interviews: and my recommendations for running interviews effectively:  Looking back over these old postings has reminded me of how much fashions in interviewing have changed over the past 3 years. Who changes these fashions and where you can find out about them, remains a mystery to me. I guess you need to subscribe to some human resources journal to find out what is now required. The woman who lived in my house used to be sent the latest style of CV by her sister who appears to have had a supplier of these. I wonder why there are so many changes so frequently. To some degree I guess it is to keep human resources people in work or to make sifting out applicants easier. As yet I have to encounter a human resources department which is not over-staffed or one that is busy. Given that entire departments at two companies I have worked for take a whole day off not leaving even one person to answer the phones and that at least one had enough time to specifically write to the Department of Work and Pensions to try to get my benefits stopped, they clearly have a lot of time on their hands.

Certainly one thing they do not do is communicate what they have changed to other departments. The most disheartening thing, when you have followed every instruction to the letter to be told by the interviewers ‘well that’s not how we used to do it’ and ‘you must have got it wrong’. You are blamed for them not being updated that now applications come on this form or are sent to this person. I know blame-shifting is second nature these days, but to blame the poor applicant for a lack of communication within your company is terribly mean spirited.

Thus, having applied for 39 jobs since the start of June and having attended 14 interviews, with 2 more scheduled, I thought I would alert you to new trends in recruitment for the Autumn 2012 employment season in case you are out there trying to get a job.

The first thing is the deterioration of online application systems. About 90% of the jobs I apply for, I apply through an online system. This means I have to set up an account with them. I must be on fifty different companies systems now even if I have just applied for one job. In some cases this can be an advantage as I do not have to type in how many ‘O’ levels I got in 1983 again and again. I am always astounded how much information they want which is utterly irrelevant to the job. Does it really matter if I got an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ for O Level Chemistry in 1983? I am not applying to be a chemist. I suppose it helps with the filtering. I guess this is the reason why you have to list what school you attended and where, so they can simply bin those who did not go to Eton or one of its equivalents.

The problem is that these systems are unstable. They can lose everything you have written in an instant. They can suddenly deny you access to certain pages. Contacting the company whose website you are applying through is useless. They only see it from their side and so do not see the buttons missing for people coming from the public side. I had to abandon one application because there was no way I could register for an account, only people who already registered could get in. I emailed the company which sent me a link back to the page which was missing the registration button, telling me it was there. Again I am portrayed as the stupid one. Of course, a lot of companies simply buy in these systems without checking if they work or are suitable. I have mentioned before how you get 2000 characters to respond to 25 job requirements, working out at something like only 380 words. For one company I could not fit my response in the box they provided and asked what the character limit was for it and they said they did not know. Conversely, I have been given 5000 characters to write my nine character national insurance number into and 2000 characters to write ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the question about whether I had a right to work in the UK. Some employees are aware how bad their systems are to the extent that I have now learnt their names and simply email my application to them rather than trying to wrestle with the system. 

One element which has certainly been around for the last five years if not longer is the fact that if you cannot match every single one of the characteristics listed on the job specification, do not bother applying for the job.  Often if you say you have not used Software Package X but are very experienced in Software Package Y, which in my sector tends to be far more up-to-date than X, your application is often rejected even before it is seen by a human.  The trouble with this matching every requirement, typically 20-30, is that you can never progress.  You are only interviewed for jobs that you have entirely done before.  There is no ability to step up a level.  This is contrary to the long standing trend in the UK going back probably two centuries, that you moved job to climb to a higher position, something in contrast to Japan for example.  To progress you must pay to go on training courses and get certification yourself and in your own time, without support from your company even if they benefit from you doing this.  Being unemployed I do have the time but not the money to go on such training.  As a consequence my career having peaked in 2010 is now on a downward trajectory as some of the skills I have become obsolete, I cannot apply for as wide a range of jobs as I could have done two years ago.  People tell you that it is your job that becomes redundant not you as a person, but actually in the UK today, that is not the case.

Both salaries and leave are falling.  Jobs I held back in 2005 are now paying £5,000 per year less now than then, despite the sharp rise in the cost of living since then; petrol is twice the price per litre that it was in 2005.  Interestingly pay rates for the same jobs at different companies have now become incredibly varied.  I have seen everything from £27,000 to £44,000 per year for an identical post in different companies.  The most leave I have ever had in a job was 38 days and the average has been 33, but many jobs are now offering only 20 days.  The number of job specifications which state 'must be flexible as to hours' which in its poorly phrased way suggests that you will be expected often to come in early and work late or at weekends.  Clearly despite falling salaries companies want to squeeze more work out of each worker.  As discussed below, this is aided by new technologies which mean you are expected never to be free of the office.  The other thing is 'must be able to work under pressure and to tight deadlines'.  To me, any office especially one which is not associated with the media, where there is constant pressure and tight deadlines is a highly disorganised and inefficient office.  In addition, this requirement contradicts the many others about you being able to organise well, manage your time and prioritise effectively.  Consequently it suggests that the company expects bosses to suddenly spring work on you and expect you to do it for them.  I suppose that with so many attitudes in the UK returning to the 1950s we should not be surprised at this.  However, it hardly suggests working practices that are going to make British industry competitive.  The 1950s were the time when efficiency in British business slid fastest despite the growing prosperity not only in Britain but across Europe and in Japan and North America.

The length of time vacancies are advertised has been reduced with some being taken down within a few days of being advertised.  I imagine that is to reduce the number of applicants.  On a number of occasions jobs I have applied for have got back to me to say that the decision has been delayed by some weeks or the interview arranged for a date two months into the future.  Also vacancies have disappeared usually because the funding has been withdrawn.  I have found that there is absolutely no point in asking about these vacancies and certainly not to point out that you spent a lot of time applying for the post.  In my field it generally takes 8 hours and 5000 words to apply for a position.  The Job Centre presses you to chase up employers you have not heard from.  However, these vacancies which ultimately never have an interview and effectively, disappear, are treated by companies as a particular case.  Often their disappearance is the result of funding changes or difficulties or changes in policy so to respond to queries about the vacancies going is embarrassing to companies to the extent that they can be hostile to queries about them. This is added to the fact that they know they have wasted money in advertising the post and even beginning to analyse applications.  I have learnt it is better to fob off the Job Centre with an excuse which is probably close to what actually happened even if the company would not say it, e.g. that the funding for the post was reallocated and they decided not proceed with the vacancy and hope that the Job Centre staff do not insist on written proof of that supposition.

The other thing that has been reduced is the length of time in which you are notified of an interview.  Back in 2009 when I was invited to an interview 2 days later I was quite surprised but this is now the norm.  I rarely get even a week's notice.  The shortest notification was at 15.15 for an interview at 14.30 the following day, so less than 24 hours.  What made it worse was that the email giving me this information did not actually arrive in my In-box until 22.30, leading to me going to bed immediately.  Fortunately it turned out that the administrator has her work emails going to her smartphone day and night and she texted me back that night to say she had received my message.  I have not been able to afford a smartphone, but it is clear employers are now expecting you to be accessible via email even well outside office hours.  The thing about such short notice of interviews is that it discriminates against anyone with caring commitments.  In addition, it discriminates against people already in a job but looking to move.  Employers still prefer to employ someone currently working rather than someone unemployed, yet there is no way that you can book leave for the following day.  Thus, this approach clearly contradicts the actual attitudes of the companies with no real benefit in my view and in fact preventing many good candidates from attending the interview.

One thing which has certainly appeared in the past year is the need to prove your identity when you arrive at an interview.  The UK has stepped away from identity cards more than once in recent years, but these days to get a job, because of the immigration regulations, you have to constantly prove your identity.  All the markings on my passport have worn off as I have had to use it so often.  I cannot remember when I last travelled abroad, perhaps four years ago, so effectively my passport is no longer used for foreign travel, it is simply my UK identity card.  Mine has expired but I lack the funds to renew it and do not know anyone suitable to sign the photographs.  As yet I have not been challenged for using an out-of-date passport, but I know soon someone will say that they cannot be certain whether I am still British and will bar me from a job on that basis.  I do not know how anyone can claim that immigrants are taking British jobs because the nationality proof requirements are so stringent even if you want to attend an interview let alone actually get the job.  Of course, bigots exclaim loudest from positions of ignorance.

There are some interview trends that I am happy to see have apparently died.  From about 2003 up until last year 95% of the interviews I attended, somewhere around 80, insisted that you did a PowerPoint presentation.  Now, I became very adept at these.  Though some people complained my slides were too plain and lacked decoration, most welcomed their clarity.  The key problem was that in so many cases the interview panel could not operate the equipment.  On a number of occasions the interview was postponed by 1 hour whilst the technical staff were fetched.  On other occasions, I simply had to hold up print-outs of the slides I had produced.  This year interviewers have turned right around and say there will be no facilities for such presentations and you should not bring them.  The new fashion is 'initiating a discussion' on a particular theme.  I quite enjoy this approach.  The key difficulty is not being able to gauge how long to speak for.  This is the same with the responses to questions, you want to appear knowledgeable but not exceed the time the questioner has in their head for what is an appropriate answer.  The tolerated duration varies between the different members of the panel and bears no relevance to the length or complexity of the question asked nor to whether one question was asked or four were asked wrapped up to appear as a single question.

Another trend that I am glad to have seen the death of, is the requirement to bring along a copy of every single qualification you have ever received.  This never seemed to have any point for me as you cannot get 'A' Levels unless you have done GCSEs (or if you are as old as me, 'O' Levels) and you cannot get a degree unless you have 'A' Levels or some equivalent.  So each level effectively renders the previous one obsolete.  In the case of specific skills, such as have you studied French to 'A' Level when you did a degree in Financial Management is a fair thing to ask if appropriate for the job, but up until last year it was every single scrap of paper accumulated since I was aged 13.  Now about 20% of the interviews I have attended ask for qualification certificates and in every case only the highest.  However, you do still get asked about your competency in English, in fact, this is asked more than before, I think as adjunct to the immigration scrutiny.  I suppose also given how poor spelling and grammar is among young people today it is a fair point even for those with a degree, but to someone of my age it seems a bit silly.

A less common fashion is a revival of what I call the 'civil service' style.  I have had tens of appalling interviews in my career but one that sticks out in my mind was with what was then the Department of Employment in 1993 for a job in a Job Centre.  The lead interviewer held up a piece of paper in front of her face and simply read in a very mechanical tone a list of questions that all started with 'give us an example of ...'  I suppose you could say it was a very fair process, it was pretty much like being interviewed by a computer.  Two interviews I have had recently have used this style.  They have a list of 'competencies' and expect you to give an example which shows that you can do all of them.  They do this in addition to a normal interview.  Now, such requirements are standard on job specifications but they are not often checked in this mechanical way.  A challenge is that they often include a range of different aspects.  The classic one which I see on about 80% of job specifications is 'must be a team worker but also be able to work on your own initiative'.  Now this is one requirement yet responding to it you have to show skills that are in fact in the opposite direction.  Unsurprisingly the interviews at such companies using this competency approach constantly over-run as it is difficult to get through 20 competencies, a typical number in 30 minutes.  The last one I attended started 45 minutes late and rather than the 30 minutes I had been assigned mine ran to 45 minutes, adding a further 15 minutes to the delay for the next candidate.  Many interview panels simply pick a duration at random and do not make any effort to judge whether the number of questions and reasonable answers to these will fit into the time they have assigned.  It happens both ways.  At an interview due to last 1 hour we found it was all over after 40 minutes with all the questions thoroughly answered.

Two interviews on the same day with different panels is a fashion which, whilst not common, still seems to be around.  I have no real problem with this approach though often you find yourself repeating things to the second panel you said just moments before to the first panel.  The first panel is often in a rush as they are conscious of over-running, first because in two-panel interviews each session is shorter than a standard single panel interview and second because they are conscious that any delay at their end with impact on the scheduling for the second panel.

In my sector, something which has gone through a big revival is the activity test.  Sometimes these are cognitive analysis exercises.  However, they are generally purchased from generic business suppliers and in my position are not always suited to the jobs I do, particularly in the case of the level of proof which is required to make a judgement.  Most, however, consist of summarising a document or producing a policy briefing based on it.  Generally these are fine, though you need to learn to move fast to set up a strange computer to how you do things, especially if you are left-handed.  Some companies give you all the company documentation relevant to the task as if you had time to read it.  These are internal handbooks and guidelines not accessible outside the company.  Thus, whenever I am given so much documentation which could not be processed in the 30 minutes always assigned for the task, I know an internal candidate is favoured or in fact, as with so many aspects of interviewing, the panel have thought it a good idea to set a test but have not thought through how long it will take or what in fact it is supposed to be demonstrating.

I must say that employers are getting better at letting you know if you have not got the job.  A couple of years ago you simply heard nothing, but these days they send an email, sometimes telephone and in one case actually sent me a rejection letter.  I think they have realised that in a time of high unemployment, they get people ringing and ringing to find out what has happened, something we are strongly encouraged to do by the Job Centre.  Though they loath having to send out rejection messages, companies have learnt that it ultimately saves time fielding calls from concerned applicants.  Only two of the 14 companies have offered feedback on my interviews.  About a third have either ignored requests for it or have refused to give it citing confidentiality of the interview process.  Some of the feedback is useless, wheeling out the set phrase 'another candidate better matched the job description' which suggests they cannot really articulate what I did right or wrong because that judgement could easily have been made from the application form alone.  The number of companies paying interview expenses has fallen to about 1 in 3.  The rates have remained the same which means you are worse off with rising petrol prices.  The level varies quite considerably.  Having attended interviews at companies which lie less than 7 Km apart I received £35 to drive to one but £90 to drive to the other.  Of course, even with the rise in petrol costs, driving can be up to four times cheaper than travelling by train to the interview and as companies often do not pay beyond the main journey you are often stuck walking kilometres from the station or having to ride the back streets and housing estates on a local bus, assuming you can find the right one.

My concern in all of this is that British companies have still not found interview methods which provide them with the staff they actually need rather than what they think they need.  I am hearing of too many companies not being able to fill vacancies which in a time of high unemployment is very strange.  It seems to come from them setting job specifications that cover so many different skills that you need an individual who has had three or four different careers to be able to fulfil them.  In addition, the interview process is often so poor that the company does not know whether they have got a suitable person or not so err on the side of caution.  They have no willingness, however, to train or develop staff, so when they cannot find the people with 100% of the skills they want down to a very specific level, they would rather go without.  This leaves more work to fall on the existing staff increasing inefficiency.   You can do well with someone who has 90% or even 80% of the skills and they will like being able to expand into new areas rather than feeling they are trapped in a job which is identical to all the ones they have done before.  Companies also really need to reflect on what they actually need the person to do in the job rather than pile up a whole list of dream requirements that apparently make the company seem dynamic but actually make it appear poorly run.  They also need to give people time to apply for jobs and to arrange to attend interviews.  By using a 'just in time' approach to interviewing they actually exclude a lot of candidates who in fact may be the best they would get.  As with so much in British business, we need to move away from 'seems' being the driver for so much behaviour to approaches based on the actuality.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Facing Pride And Prejudice

Facing the repossession of our house, myself and the woman who lived there plus her ten-year old son initially sought to move to rent another house nearby, partially so that we did not have to have the chickens slaughtered and the boy could go to the same secondary school next year as he had intended to attend; the end of September being the deadline for applications to enter the competition for secondary schools. As I have noted before, in our town there are ten secondary schools, but five of them he could not apply for being either the wrong gender, the wrong religion or he had already been ruled out from attending on the grounds his teacher’s felt he would not pass the 11+ Examination. However, we soon found that because we had defaulted on paying our mortgage, we now have a black mark on our credit rating for the next six years, by which time I will be 50, so barring us from renting a house or in fact any other property, via a letting agency. We must now only rent property from a private landlord/lady who does not do a credit check.

With a seven-year waiting list for social housing in our town even for a woman with a primary school aged child, the options seemed to be living on the street or going to live with our families. Of our relatives only my parents and the woman’s sister live in this country. If my parents or her sister had managed to emigrate to Australia as they planned, then I would now be living in a tent illegally camped on common land and the woman and boy, I have no idea where. It is incredible how quickly in the UK you can go from having a house and a job, to having nothing and either being homeless or begging people for a bed. Hence the title of this posting. I have mentioned before how people now see the period of the British welfare state, of approximately 1948-82 as being anomalous. The ‘norm’ is what we are experiencing now. If you have work you may still need to ask for charity, just look at the number of people in employment getting food parcels from the Trussell Trust and other such charities. If you lose your job, depending on where you live, you may become homeless or be put up in a bed and breakfast room. There are apparently some council houses and flats left but personally I only know one couple who have managed to get one and they did that over a decade ago now.

Thus, people end up living with their families. The number of middle-aged people who, like me, with no other option, have gone to live with their parents once more is so much that it was warranted a feature in ‘The Guardian’. I have gone from being a renter and then an owner of a three-bedroomed house to living in a square room which is only 10cm longer along any wall than I am tall. Since the start of June alone, I have applied for 39 posts and have attended 13 interviews. I was offered a job which I accepted 8 weeks ago. Unfortunately I picked on someone to write a reference who went on holiday for 5 weeks so delaying the start date of my job which is still ten days away. I have been told that the work for me is piling up, but because of the precision required around references I am not able to start the job and begin reducing it. Apparently two of the three referees I had to provide have not been able to give the exact dates on which I started and left my employment, in one case going back to 2005; there is an issue about whether I started one job on the 1st or the 10th of a particular month. Due to this need for precision I am in this weird limbo of ‘having a job’ but not actually being employed. I guess people on zero-hour contract, i.e. with no assigned hours each week but required to be constantly available on call, can understand that previously anomalous, but now entirely acceptable position. I am still signing on unemployed while I wait for this situation to be resolved.

So I am living with my parents. Naturally I feel as if the last 26 years have been an utter failure. I am in fact worse off than when I left home to go to university at the age of 18. It is as if nothing that happened in the meantime ever amounted to anything. Mentally this is hard to deal with, but I am repeatedly told that I should not mention feeling down or confused, or any of the natural emotions losing your house and job throw up. The other thing I have stepped into a play of manners. The woman from my house is suffering it even more. When you are unemployed let alone when you are homeless, people feel that they are obliged to tell you how to live your life. Clearly everything you have ever decided to do, every decision or effort you made was wrong, it has been proven to be the case. This means that any opinion you hold is wrong and must not be expressed as it is illegitimate. Family members keep telling us how wrong we are. Any suggestions about improving our situations are dismissed as wrong or delusional and yet we are told that we are feckless, lazy, not applying ourselves. We are illegitimate and even if we accept that, it does not stop us being told many times per day that we are ‘wrong’. The criticism does not just stretch to work or economic issues but to everything. The woman from my house was questioned at length because she happened to kiss her former boyfriend when she met him, something her sister happened to witness. She was harangued when she mentioned in passing that she would like to buy a DVD of a particular series in the future. There is a sense that we should not even discuss or think about these things, these are not for the likes of us. 

As you see in dramatisations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens novels the family members seem to take delight in correcting us.  On one hand they feel a very heavy duty to correct us but also appear to get a pleasure or at least some contentment from doing it.  It is as if, because we failed to remain in work and keep our house, we must be doing things wrong right through our lives down to where we sit in the house, where we put glasses, how we communicate with other people and even how happy we are.  I am constantly being told off for looking 'too sad' as if given that after months of bullying and the collapse of the life I had I must be able to put all that behind me immediately and march boldly forwards without any feelings if something reminds me of better times, typically something I did with the woman and boy from my house.  Seeing 'Dr. Who' listed in the newspaper was painful as it was a programme that I would watch and discuss with the 10-year old and now I will never do that again.  It is not a bereavement or even a divorce but it feels incredibly close to those things and yet I have to keep on apologising for those feelings as they are 'inappropriate' in my current setting.

Since I lost my last job, I have increasingly felt as if I have become a species apart from other people. They can go into shops, they can think about a new car or a holiday even. I am not even allowed to discuss buying a DVD. Advertising now seems like something in an alien language. There is no point watching any of it, because even if there is something I can afford, if I bought it, it would be ‘wrong’. It is as if I have slipped through a membrane and whilst I slide through consumer society, I cannot touch or interact with it. Given my age, it is apparent that I will never likely touch it again. No house means no way to fund my care when I am elderly. For the first time I have begun to understand the rioters of last summer. You feel no qualms about damaging things from this other world that you are barred from. To think otherwise is equivalent to those who ran the Apollo space missions suddenly feeling guilty about damaging the Moon by landing men on it. It is that removed from my life now. This is why politicians fumble around for some explanation of what went on and simply blame whatever they want to criticise. If you can alienate a 44-year old, well-educated man from society, how are you going to hold on for those who had a lot less going for them and would envy the kind of life I have led up until now.

My father has not policed who I might kiss, but he has opinions on everything and seeks to put his nose into every corner. I was trying to speed up the references I was waiting for. My approach to writing an email to one of the referees actually worked out better than I had anticipated. However, it was not the way my father would have written it so I had to stand there why he shouted at me how much of an idiot I was and how na├»ve and foolish I was to think that was the right way to do things. My way succeeded, but because I am now categorised as being ‘wrong’ it still needed me to be abused. Talking to the Job Centre, he stands nearby tsking and criticising every response I give. I am caught between answering the demanding questions in a way that I think my father will approve of. I can never be ‘right’ even when my decisions are shown to be correct.

The fact that we are receiving charity means that every aspect of our behaviour can be policed. We have to be seen to be deserving of help. This is achieved by looking for jobs, not just any jobs, but the ones which our family feel we must get. If we do not get them, or in my case, not start them soon enough, then it is our fault. It is not because unemployment is too high or I am too old or too qualified or all the other excuses companies give me for not employing me. Whatever stops me and even more the woman from my house, in getting back into work is purely and simply our fault and we need to be lectured at length about it. We are incredibly grateful for the help we received knowing we would be on the streets otherwise, but the price demanded is impossible to pay, it is a thirst for indignation directed at us that can never be sated. It is not helped by the myths that these people believe in which I have highlighted before, the most common, ‘how come you cannot get council housing, all these immigrants turn up in Britain and get given a three-bedroomed house for nothing’. This is not true but they would rather believe the ‘Daily Mail’ than the actual responses you have got from councils and benefit bodies.

Another aspect is the house rules. I have mentioned before, the challenge of being a lodger. You will always fail unless you can precisely read the mind of the homeowner. The rules are immense, down to where you can put a glass, the amount of food you can eat, when even down to what demeanour you must have and what you can talk about in the house. Any violation leads to another round of haranguing, because if you have put a cup out of place then it shows once more how useless, feckless, lazy you are and you must be alerted to and lectured about that. It is exhausting but clearly satisfies some need in the charity-givers psyche. This has shown me why, as Francis Beckett highlighted in ‘Clem Attlee’ (1994), Attlee disliked charity and insisted that the state should dispassionately give assistance to those in need. The direct giving of charity, unmoderated by organisations, is acidic to the souls of both the giver and the receiver. Of course, this is something that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and those other writers who so effectively wrote about our times feature in their novels. The mid-20th century anomaly is over and I suppose as I find myself facing ‘Hard Times’ I guess tolerate a lack of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and simply cope with the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and pray that I can get a job and rent somewhere to be away from here.