Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Workplace Bullying: Putting myself at risk

In my post of 16th March 2007, 'Bullying in the UK Workplace' I outlined how three colleagues at my company were being bullied by managers using the company's mechanisms to do it. The intention of the managers is to get these people to leave or be sacked simply because the managers do not like these staff. The colleagues are all hard working with years of service to the company, but that seems to count for nothing when a manager simply takes a dislike to you.

The worst bullying, of a woman by her female boss, has now been going on for over 6 months and I assumed that it was common knowledge in the company as it is often a topic of conversation when I meet with people across the company. Last week towards the end of a very informal meeting (one of the colleagues described a play she had seen recently and people talked about the weather) among colleagues of the same rank and status across the company, one manager was present. She has begun bullying a different colleague so that he retires early as she seems to see him as 'dead wood' which has clearly distressed him. I thought (probably foolishly) if I brought up the other two cases of bullying currently going on in other sections, that it might make her stop and reflect on what she is doing herself.

What I had not anticipated was that one of the colleagues on my level was surprised when I mentioned the bullying of the woman that has been happening for 6 months. She dismissed it as nothing and furthermore that the manager in question (who I assume now must be a friend of hers) had the right to behave how she chose because she headed a section. When I complained about the time and effort that must have gone into the trumped up complaints, she dismissed this too, saying if discipline was needed then it had to be thoroughly documented. She gave no consideration that the poor woman being bullied is not guilty of any of the charges put against her. That seemed to be less concern than the manager being able to act how she felt fit.

Now, I know that we all live in hard times in business, but the assumption that someone can simply have someone they dislike removed seems to jar with the personnel policies of the company which portrays itself as a model employer. The dismissal of a complaint because the manager has an important job simply smacked of the attitudes you find in totalitarian states, that the leader is always right simply because they are the leader and no morals come into it. I had previously respected the colleague who spouted these views and she lost that respect entirely in a matter of minutes. I did not come into this business to work in an environment, which I accept is not like a real dictatorship (I have studied enough of those over the years), but is showing similar patterns of behaviour.

I had joked with another colleague who was at this meeting, that in the bullying environment we were now working in, we had to be careful about who overheard our conversations. In the meeting I also began by saying that I was worried that once the three people being bullied have been pushed out or left, the bullying managers would turn their targets on other people. Both of these things now seem to have come true and this week I have found out that that I should not have treated them lightly or rhetorically.

Back after the Bank Holiday break, I was called immediately to my boss's office and warned that my comments in the meeting had been reported to senior colleagues and that there was now a sense that the section I am working in 'is out of control'. I was a fool to take the informal atmosphere at face value, I was a fool to think my previously respected colleague had shared my opinion on the rights or wrongs of what is going on. Now I am seen as a trouble maker and am being encouraged to re-build bridges for the sake of my section. My workplace has changed in 6 months to a place where you cannot judge any situation on its merits or morality, you simply have to toe the line of the managers as they seek to expand their empires and not only eliminate anyone who stands in their way, but anyone they simply take a dislike to.

No, I am not going to be found face down in the company pond, but I could find difficulties in my work and under attack from the managers I have raised concerns about. I cannot believe that morality has gone so quickly out of the window at this company, which was never previously a 'greed is good' place to work. The greed here seems to be about arrogance and vanity, that managers cannot accept anyone with a different view to themselves or even a different way of behaving or thinking, despite all the supposed efforts at inclusivity. No-one seems willing to stick up their hand and say 'hang on, surely we should not behaving so shabbily to workers here'. This is not the place I came to work for in 2005 and it is not an atmosphere I want to remain in.

I need to get out as quickly as I can and find somewhere with the approach this place had a couple of years ago. I know that is abandoning a sinking ship (I doubt this company can succeed in the long term if it permits such corrosive behaviour among its managers) but I fear I will damage my long-term future if I stay here, whether I protest or not, especially if the 'removal machinery' is turned on me. I know my life is nowhere near as bad as those who flee tyranny, but these incidents have certainly allowed me greater insight into what people must experience in those conditions.

Clearly I am not going to risk my job by stating the name of the company here, but if you wish to know, especially if you work or intend to work in the UK, then email me and I will let you know. Saying that I increasingly guess from what I read that tens of UK employers in my industry and elsewhere turn a blind eye to bullying especially when it is carried out by senior staff.

Rehabilitating John Buchan

There are many things which come back to irritate me at regular intervals, that probably seem trivial to the bulk of the population, but for some reason grate me. One purpose of these 'lead tablets' is to get them out in the open and so lift some of that irritation from myself and to show people my particular perspective on these things, a perspective they are free to agree with or challenge or ignore as they feel fit.

Now, whenever a version of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (there were versions made in 1935, 1959 and 1978) is shown on television, someone writes in the review 'based on the book by the anti-Semitic author John Buchan'. I have no time for anti-Semites (i.e. people who hate Jews) and I once dumped a friend immediately when she spouted anti-Jewish views (I stand up equally strongly for Arabs not to be prejudiced against either), but I do have time for John Buchan (1875-1940). In some ways he stood for things I am opposed to, the nobility (he ended his life as Baron Tweedsmuir) and imperialism, but certainly in the novels of his I have read I have not detected anti-Semitism which is why I get irritated when he is labelled constantly that way. He acted as a journalist and as an intelligence officer, being UK Director of Intelligence at the end of the First World War. He was a Conservative MP 1927-35 and ended his life as Governor-General of Canada. He published almost 30 novels, 7 collections of short stories and about 60 historical books, political tracts and even a tax guide. You can find one of his short novels, 'The Power-House' in available in its entirety online and extensive extracts of his other novels are also available if you surf for them.

Buchan is best remembered for his Richard Hannay books, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1914), 'Greenmantle' (1915), 'Mr. Standfast' (1919), 'The Three Hostages' (1924) and 'The Island of Sheep' (1936). These stories drew on his own expertise as an intelligence officer, from South Africa and living in London. They are of their period and exhibit attitudes of the time such as a hostility to foreigners (though this is one that has persisted in the UK into the 21st century). Hannay is a so-called 'clubland hero' but unlike the heroes of other similar authors of the time such Dornford Yates and Sapper, he is more of a self-made man, a mining engineer originally from Scotland, (a country which influenced Buchan's work, for example also in 'Castle Gay' (1930)) who though he has experience in intelligence and warfare from the Boer War (1899-1902) is in fact an amateur who gets drawn into conspiracies. Buchan manages to bring excitement and realism to his plots, including incidents during the First World War which must have been difficult given so many people were affected by it at the time he was writing. The well written adventure of these stories often with themes that chime with us today is one reason why they have outlived many of their contemporaries. Even in 1988, Thames Television produced two series of dramas entitled 'Hannay', set in 1912, two years before 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' and based just on Buchan characters not actual stories, shows the kind of appeal the concepts retained. 'The Complete Richard Hannay' an anthology of the five original books was published as late as 1993.

To some extent, though an amateur, Hannay able to charm ladies (though as was typical of the time he marries and has a son in the later books) and mix in different levels of society he forms a link between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond and his legacy runs on into spy novels of the 1960s and 1970s such as the 'Harry Palmer' novels of Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne character recently seen in movies ('The Bourne Identity' (2002), 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004)). These later characters are professionals but like Hannay are important for readers in an age when we feel we are at the mercy of faceless conspiracies and the machinery of governments and their networks (as people really began to feel for the first time during the First World War, a sense that peaked again during the Cold War), the individual, though at times cynical of what he can achieve, can make a difference through cunning, good humour and with a moral sense too of what is ultimately good and bad for the world.

So, this is really an appeal for television reviewers, next time, do not write 'John Buchan - anti-Semite', read the books and see that he was a man of his age with attitudes of his age, no less attractive than those of many authors today, and see that he wrote exciting but realistic stories that decades afterwards people were keen to film (another screen version, probably for television, of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' is being discussed, apparently).

Monday, 28 May 2007

Rubbish policies - the stench and the greed

If you live in the UK or have an interest in the country (which I acknowledge is a small collection of islands off the European continent) you will know that one key problem, as outlined in my posts is that utility bills are high and you get appalling service for your money. A 'utility' I have not mentioned so far is the collection of rubbish. This is carried out by local councils and is currently funded from council tax which every household pays. With rising costs, especially for things like residential care for the elderly, road maintenance, etc., many councils are finding it difficult to balance their accounts and have either had to cut back on provision of services or raise council tax. This is the legacy of the poll tax (a.k.a community charge) introduced in Scotland in 1989 and the rest of the UK in 1990. It was a charge at a flat-rate determined for each borough (taking no account of the household's ability to pay) levied on all households. The idea of the Conservative Government was that it would encourage people to vote for Conservative local governments which tended to cut services and charge lower poll tax than Labour or Liberal Democrat councils. There was massive default of payment (which still has a big impact as people remain worried about registering to vote even now, for example Tower Hamlets council in East London has 60,000 more adults registered with doctors in the borough than it has on its electoral register) and to rioting, notably in the centre of London in March 1990. It was scrapped and replaced by the council tax in 1993. However, the policy of always trying to keep council tax low because this is what voters want has hampered many councils from raising the revenue they need.

Another policy introduced during the Thatcher years had a detrimental impact on refuse collection. In 1988 all councils were forced to privatise 8 core services including collecting rubbish and they had to award it to the cheapest bid. Previously such work was part of the duties of the council, now they were forced to contract the work out but still pay for it. This meant refuse workers thrown out of work and often re-employed at lower wages, and refuse collectors never earned high salaries at the best of time. As always with privatisation in the UK it was the 'cowboy' companies who won the contracts and service deteriorated.

In the 2000s a new element has entered the equation, recycling. Though in some parts of the UK this has been improving, the UK was lagging behind its European neighbours, so last year councils were compelled to introduce recycling schemes. Each seems to have adopted different rules and some will recycle somethings such as shredded paper or bottles than a neighbouring borough will refuse. You now have a range of different coloured bins and bags and boxes and depending where you live you have to sort to a greater or a lesser extent what you throw out. People who get the wrong things in the wrong bag or box may be liable to a fine of £50 (€73; US$100) and it tends to be the elderly who suffer when they get confused, or as often happens, guidance is not clear. In my town they just stick embarrassing 'Contaminated' stickers on your bin. There has been a tendency not to consider the size of the households so blocks of flats often have too few bins and people with many children get penalised when their bins are over-full.

Now, I support recycling whole-heartedly. I have seen countries like Belgium and Germany that are well ahead of the UK in what and how much they recycle. Whilst there have been bottle banks and paper banks in the UK for years now, they tend to be used by a certain set of middle class people keen to show off how much wine they drink and what newspapers they read rather than by the mass of the population. In addition you need a decent sized car to transport all the stuff to the banks and there is a dichotomy here because you produce carbon emissions taking your recycling to these banks. So, to get up to targets the system has to be one of collection (one truck pollutes far less than a street of people driving to a bottle bank) and simple to understand, otherwise you will not get the bulk of people to be involved.

Of course the government, seeing that voluntary involvement has been so bungled by numerous councils now turns to penalties. About 4 million rubbish bins in the UK now have computer chips in them (we were told they would not be used for monitoring, but no-one believed that and of course we were proven right barely months later). Other countries, such as Belgium, already monitor how much each house throws out and matches this against what they expect for the particular household and rebates their council tax accordingly. In the UK it will be the opposite, you will be charged by amount of non-recyclable rubbish you throw out. Landfill sites are filling up so it is getting more costly, and given the shortfall in council incomes they cannot pay rebates on council tax. However, the government and councils do not seem to realise what they have unleashed.

I used to live in Milton Keynes in the early 2000s and it had one of the best recycling policies in the country at the time (though not always popular as it had potential of £50 fines and arsonists attacked both of its recycling plants and burned them to the ground). Yet, with all its woodland and parks it suffered immensely from people dumping their waste into hedgerows. Gypsies were often blamed but it was proven that none were in the city at the time the incidents occurred and then White, middle and working class people started getting caught on camera doing it. So, if in a town where recycling was easy and collected from your door, people dumped what is it going to be like elsewhere, especially when you begin being charged for every bin full of things you throw out. It will be far easier to throw it into your neighbour's garden or in the woods and avoid the charge.

The potential for hostility does not stop there, as some European countries have found, the dustbin collectors themselves become lords, as if they reject how you have packaged your rubbish or how small you have snapped the twigs, etc. they reject it and you pay heavily. In some areas of the UK dustbin workers have already come under attack and are likely to face that more in the future.

There is yet another twist to all this. An increasing number of councils will only collect refuse once per fortnight. Earlier this year there was scientific 'evidence' produced which conveniently showed that this was not a risk to hygeine. However, in London wherever you are you are only 13 feet (4.3 m) from a rat already. We are told that wrapping rubbish in two dustbin bags stops any smell. This is a scientific experiment you can do in your own house. After less than a week old food (which given that you cannot compost either, those people have the room for a compost anyway, usually consists of cooked vegetables and meat which vermin love) begins to smell, no matter how many bags it is in. In hot weather (and the UK reached 26oC (79oF) this week it gets even worse. Double the time you have to hold on to that rubbish and you can see how bad it is going to get in houses (and especially flats) across the country. The UK is set to become as smelly as some Third World countries and probably as equally plagued with rats and flies.

Yet again the UK has ended up with an ill-thought out policy. Most people see the point of recycling, but given that they already pay council tax which they resent, and have to pay high charges for utilities, adding an extra, complicated cost on to them is not going to win them over to recycling. In fact it is going to make rubbish a problem across more and more of our towns and rural areas. It is going to cost far more for councils to send workers round picking up all the stuff dumped in hedgerows than they are going to make from charging us for disposing of our rubbish. The fortnightly rubbish collection is unnecessary, especially if we are going to be paying more for our refuse collection, surely some of that can fund a weekly collections (some towns used to have collection every 4 rather than 7 days, but that was in the days when hygeine and not greed was the driving factor). So, if you live outside the UK, I suggest making any tourist visits you are intending to the UK in the next couple of months, otherwise you will be coming to a country with rubbish abandoned on every and the stench of two-week old decayed food in every kitchen.

Return of the Sus Laws

I was not really surprised to hear this week that the UK Government has decided to re-introduce police powers to stop and search people at random. In my recent post 'Combating Terrorism - Responding to whose Agenda?' I wrote that I anticipated an erosion of civil liberties in the UK (and the USA) in the name of combating terrorism and it seems to be quickly coming true.

The UK has had bitter experience of so-called 'sus' laws before. In the 1824 the UK police just being created at the time were able to stop and search anyone on 'suspicion' (hence the moniker 'sus') of about to be doing something illegal. These laws do not seem to have been overly abused until the late 1970s when they were increasingly used against Afro-Caribbean people (usually young men) especially living in London. Blacks made up a tiny proportion of the police and the predominantly white police force, some of whom were being influenced by the attitudes of the NF (National Front - a UK Fascist Party) which was prominent at the time simply used the laws to harrass Blacks. Sometimes they did catch people with concealed weapons or drugs but most of the people stopped were just going about their business. In other areas young, male Whites suffered too, I knew someone who was stopped on his way to work and the police claimed the tools he used for his job as a printer (this was in the age before everything was electronic in printing) were weapons. The sus laws and their abuse was one of the major causes (though not sole reason) of the Brixton Riot of 1980. Brixton is an area of South London which has long had a large Black population, there was also rioting in the St. Paul's area of Bristol. This was followed in 1981 by the Toxteth Riot in Liverpool. Surprisingly, the Thatcher Government, despite being hardline Conservative, scrapped the laws in 1981.

Now (still) Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has announced the re-introduction of these laws in an attempt to combat terrorism. Now the police will be able to stop and search anyone even if they are just behaving normally. Up until now they had to be doing something illegal such as being clearly drunk or urinating in public or commiting a crime. Clearly this policy adds to the feeling that Blair wants an authoritarian regime as the people who have had these powers in the past have been forces such as the Gestapo (Nazi secret police), the Stasi (East German secret police), the KGB (Soviet secret police) and so on; not democratic police forces. In addition, the fear is now among Middle Eastern and South Asian people who made up 4% of the UK population in 2001. (If anyone says the UK is becoming 'overcrowded' with people of non-White races tell them Whites make up 92% of the population, so non-Whites are less than 1 in 10 of the population). Even Hispanic people are at risk from laws which open up opportunities for bigoted policing and the general difficulty the UK police have in identifying suspects. Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed, pale-skinned, Brazilian was shot 7 times in the head and once in the shoulder on 22nd July 2005 because he was thought to be a Middle Eastern terrorist. It is anticipated that young Asians and Hispanics going to work or going out for an evening will now be stopped and searched as 'terrorist suspects' in fact just simply to fulfill police officers' racist attitudes. It should be noted that despite having identified the men who would engineer the 7th July bombing in London in 2005, MI5 (the UK's secret police force) did not follow them or seek their arrest. They had the power to do that and yet they did not, so why do they think additional powers will help cover their inabilities?

Of course, it really has little to do with sufficient powers to stop terrorism. The UK has long had sufficient powers to do that, as was shown throughout the past 35 years in combating the threat from IRA terrorists. In the 1980s the UK Government even began assassinating Irish terrorists. No, this policy is about Blair (and his supporters) who feel Britain should move away from democracy to a 'moral' dictatorship, a kind of clerico-authoritarian regime as I have outline before. Blair has said that those who have raised questions about the re-introduction of the sus laws have made a 'misjudgement' about how important civil liberties are. Given that people have fought for centuries to try to secure these, surely he is misjudging what he is in such a hurry to scrap. The assumption is that these laws are to defend our democracy and we have to lose some freedom to protect it. However, I believe Blair has gone beyond that and is in fact seeking to curtail may freedoms, not because he wants to defend democracy, but because he would prefer an authoritarian state which he genuinely believes is what the UK needs.

It seems that the only hope is that Blair will leave before he can force through these new rules. People who love freedom and democracy and especially those drawn from the Asian population of the UK and putting their hopes in Blair successor, Gordon Brown and possible deputy prime ministers like Peter Hain (famous for campaigning against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s). Once the Blair Party has yielded power, hopefully something more like the Labour Party will come to the fore and stand up for decency over dictatorship. We are holding our breaths and praying it will be so.

Friday, 25 May 2007

The Steampunk Genre

Anyone who has read my posts will know I am interested in 'what if?' history whether as a tool for testing history or as an entertainment. Related to that in my interests is what is called 'steampunk', which refers to novels, movies, artwork. For those unfamiliar with this, here is some background.

We have to go back to 1984 when the book 'Neuromancer' by William Gibson was published. Gibson is seen as the 'father of Cyberpunk', though others had already contributed to it, such as Philip K. Dick, publishing from 1950s onwards, who died in 1982 (many of whose books have become movies such as 'Blade Runner', 'Total Recall', 'Paycheck', 'Through A Mirror Darkly') and John Brunner a science fiction author publishing since the late 1960s. Gibson envisaged a dystopian world of the near future with two important characteristics. First that people could physically connect to the internet and send their consciousness into it in order to conduct business or hack. Second, that people would have cybernetic enhancements, such as blades coming from their fists or cameras in their eyes. This latter element Gibson did not invent but what he did was give it a 'sexier' edge. So you had the 'cyber' of cybernetics and the punk of very urban, dirty, sprawling cities. In particular, Gibson's portrayal of a high-tech world dominated by huge, amoral corporations called zaibatsu (the Japanese word for such corporations) seemed to really chime with 1980s 'greed is good' culture. Gibson continued writing with 'Count Zero' (1986), 'Mona Lisa Overdrive' (1988), 'Burning Chrome' (1986 - a short story collection) being the core of his cyberpunk work. I find Gibson's work good on ideas but rather clunky in construction.

Other good cyberpunk autors, if you are interested, include Walter Jon Williams, Lewis Shiner (a European angle on Cyberpunk with references to Michael Moorcock's work too), George Alec Effinger (whose Cyberpunk stories have an interesting Middle Eastern take on the genre) and Bruce Sterling. Sterling is an all round writer who includes historical as well as science fiction stories and I feel his writing is smoother than Gibson's. His 1980 'The Artificial Kid' predates Gibson's work, and whilst not set on Earth has many cyberpunk elements.

Right, you may ask what has all this cyberpunk got to do with steampunk? Well, in 1990, Gibson and Sterling jointly wrote a book called 'The Difference Engine' which envisaged a mid-Victorian Britain in which technology, notably Charles Babbage's computer (the Difference Engine) which in reality was experimented on in the 1840s, was a success and led to a computer age in the mid-19th century (so a kind of 'what if?' which as you know, appeals to me). [Difference engines had been proposed as early as 1786 and after Babbage, Per Georg Scheutz built a number in the 1850s including one he sold to the British Government.] The expansion of computing leads to other things like the streamlining of traction engines for racing and the British House of Lords becomes filled with inventors and explorers rather than simply noblemen who have inherited their titles. This is seen as the first steampunk book, like the cyberpunk books exploring a world where technology is key and creates turmoil in a society of conflicting pressures.

There are older roots to the genre. There was a US TV series 'Wild Wild West' which was a TV series which ran for 4 seasons 1965-9. It seems to have been set between the end of the American Civil War and 1875 and Grant is the President (1869-77) shown. The heroes' nemesis, Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, is supposed to have died in 1880. The spark of the original series was rather overshadowed by a couple of really dull TV movies in the 1980s using original cast members who were pretty old by then, and the rather failed 'Wild Wild West' (1999) movie with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, though it gives you a flavour of the original with their private train and the technology that they had. The first three series were darker and shot in black and white, but matching trends in US television at the time by the end of the run it became more 'camp' as have been the subsequent movies. However, they all included various Steampunk equipment such as concealed guns and a stage coach with an ejector seat. The attempts to dismember the USA as featured in the movie plots are common 'what if?' history scenarios (see also 'The Mask of Zorro' (1998)). After this series there seems to have been little interest in Steampunk in the USA until the 1990s.

In novels you have to mention Ronald W. Clark's 1969 novel 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' which envisages an atomic bomb being developed in the 1830s, testing in India and almost used in the Crimean War. Michael Moorcock's books 'Warlord of the Air' (1971), 'The Land Leviathan' (1974) and 'The Steel Tsar' (1981) also featured what can be termed Steampunk elements. In addition, by having Oswald Bastable as the hero of these books, a character who appears as a child in E. Nesbitt's 'The Story of the Treasure Seekers', Moorcock established the Steampunk approach of having characters from other authors' stories featuring as genuine people (alongside historical people too, as Clark had done extensively), a trend taken further by Alan Moore's graphic Steampunk novel, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (starting 1999). The the thread goes back even beyond these novels of course.

It can be argued that the real originators of steampunk were Victorian authors themselves. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with their stories set in contemporary times to them but featuring huge airships, large submarines, tanks, flying motorbikes, a tunnel under the English Channel (as well as more fantastical devices to travel in time or to the Moon or make people invisible) built on the rush of technology throughout the 19th century and took their envisaging further, usually to look at moral issues in such a context, and like the steampunk authors, looking at the dilemmas that such technologies bring. These stories directly influence steampunk authors today, though their morals questions tend to be more direct and simpler than their Victorian predecessors.

What appeals to readers of steampunk is that it is technology but with elegance. In contrast to the sleek chrome of the model day it is brass and iron cast into elaborate shapes. Just look at any movie version of 'The Time Machine', it depicts a machine of elegance, all spinning, with inlaid knobs and polished buttons. In addition, in contrast to the cyberpunk novels which tend to portray people as playthings of vast multinational corporations, the heroes of steampunk are often ordinary people who can invent, they turn out a flying machine in the shed in the garden. Whilst this can be seen as very British, it has appeal in the USA for readers looking back to Ford or the Wright Brothers and their developments. However, the greatest success has been in Japan and from there have come notable steampunk movies such as 'Steamboy' (2005 - set in the UK) and 'Howl's Moving Castle' (2005) based on British author Diana Wynne Jones's 1986 novel of the same name.

Cyberpunk and steampunk have faded from their positions on the bestseller lists that they held in the 1980s and 1990s, but they have now effectively entered the mainstream. Graphic novelists have taken them up, notably in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentleman' (Alan Moore's novel and a 2003 movie). Cyberpunk has informed how we view the internet (Gibson is credited with inventing the word 'cyberspace') and are likely to view cybernetic implants (especially the potential for dehumanisation from them) and the position of the individual in relation to corporations. Steampunk is likely to have less impact, but my affection for it probably reflects me being British and so an in-built nostalgia for past things. Its impact is most likely to be in the style of items in the future and you can already see examples of people 'steampimping' their computers, much in the same way that people in the 1970s put their televisions in ornate wooden cabinets and those of the 1980s put their video cassettes in fake leather book covers.

In the meantime, for anyone interested in 'what if?' and 'why not?' in history, I recommend steampunk stories. To blow my own trumpet I intend to put a short story in that genre on this blog in coming weeks.

P.P. 26/10/2009: Despite my efforts at the time of writing this posting I have realised that I had missed out a vital slice of the history of the development of the steampunk genre.  This was the first use of the term steampunk, which was by author K.W. Jeter writing to the science fiction magazine, 'Locus' in April 1987, so preceding 'The Difference Engine' by four years.  According to wikipedia, Jeter was looking for an umbrella term for novels of the time, 'The Anubis Gates' (1983) by Tim Powers, 'Homunculus' (1986) by James Blaylock and 'Morlock Night' (1979) and 'Infernal Devices' (1987) that he had written himself which were set in the 19th century and took on board elements of the speculative writing naturally in the style of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and so included anachronistic technology.  Thus, of course, steampunk even in its latest manifestation predated cyberpunk, but that term was so snappy you can see why Jeter thought it was a good one to mutate for the genre he was writing in and certainly better than the description of Powers, Blaylock and Jeter writing in the so-called 'gonzo-historical manner'!  Michael Moorcock noted this year (2009) that there is actually little 'punk' in most steampunk writing and he favours 'steam opera'.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Back to the Medieval Village

A few years ago I put forward the 'what if?' history scenario, 'what if cheap public transport had never developed?' As I will outline in a moment it is an issue which seems to be coming on to the political agenda in the UK, but first I will outline by what I meant by this scenario.

The 19th century saw a rapid change from the fastest form of transport being a horse or the wind in your sails to machinery that did not tire and was less influence by the weather. Canals cannot go up hill except using locks which are time consuming, trains can tackle very varied environments. The span of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) saw steam trains and ships become commonplace. Not only was this important for opening up North America and Russia, but it brought great changes to much smaller countries such as the UK. The age of the commuter was born and suburbs grew rapidly around large cities, particularly London. No longer did you have to live within a few miles of your job. Seaside resorts which had been the reserve of the wealthy now became accessible for daytrips. The way people moved around the country and what they could access became very different. The railways were a vital element of the industrial revolution, not simply because of the cargo they could move but also because of the workers. In the Middle Ages and beyond, even to the late 18th century, the bulk of the population never moved farther than a 2-mile (3.2 Km) radius of their homes now they would often travel many times that just to get to work. There were people who lived near their work, many factory, mine and farmworkers did, but even they could travel to the market town or the big city. Importantly, it enabled political movements to take speakers and pamphlets to the people and for those people to travel to towns to hear speakers and take part in political rallies and in riots. The spread of the railways also came alongside the development of the telegraph system (the first one was invented in 1837) and Tom Standage has argued that this was the first internet age, because you could telegraph orders and have them despatched to you by train in the way that we order stuff from Amazon or eBay online and a van brings it to us.

Right, so that was the way things developed: a railway system with fares that ordinary people could afford, so unlike their ancestors they could move around for work or leisure in a matter of hours rather than days that had been the case before. My 'what if?' scenario was what would have happened if railways had developed in a different way. In the UK many canals were built on the orders of nobles and wealthy landowners who used them for own purposes and certainly not for mass transit. Could railways have developed the same? Was there ever any need for passengers? What if heavy, slow trains only capable of shifting loads of coal or other raw materials had been the only ones on the railways. What if rather than cheap fares, the companies decided to focus on exclusive, luxury, high cost travel. Well, likely, as happened to some extent anyway in the 18th century, people would have moved to the factories on foot and then stayed in their vicinity. Communication across country would have been a lot slower and democracy may not have developed as quickly as it did with the widening of who could vote through the 19th century. As in the Middle Ages, there would have been people who travelled even in the 11th century some went on Crusade and others traded, but the bulk of the population would have not had access to things that were created far from where they lived and certainly would not have got to travel to the seaside or London or wherever. Potentially similar trends could have happened across Europe and the East coast of the USA.

So what relevance does this brief history of trains and telegraph and a 'what if?' of a different pattern of transport development have to issues now? Well, in previous posts I have already noted how increasingly expensive it is to travel on trains in the UK now. This is combined with the fragmentation of the service which has taken it back to a system that had not been seen in the UK since the early 1920s. This means getting connections is difficult and lengthens journey times. The complexity of different ticket systems and the lack of reliable information about services and tickets means you run the risk of incurring heavy fines, not for fare dodging, but from getting on the 'wrong' train at the 'wrong' time of the 'wrong' company with the 'wrong' ticket; some services now even have different parts of the same train run by different companies. Unsurprisingly, many people like myself, now drive, as it is cheaper and generally more reliable, though adding more to pollution and meaning you face the problems of congestion.

These issues of congestion and pollution have prompted the government to move towards 'road pricing', announced this week (in the face of a 1.8 million person petition against it). Effectively by means of electronic devices all main roads will become toll roads, with the price varying depending on when you are travelling. I accept that this will reduce congestion and contribute revenue, which, hopefully, will be directed to reducing pollution. However, with no reliable public transport system to fall back on what options are there for us to travel in the UK. What happens to visitors to our country? Other countries have toll roads, but the charges are not excessive. The UK is very densely packed. London has 10 million people in it, with another 15 million living in commuting distance of it. This is more than the number of people who live in the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) countries all put together but in a smaller area; it is 50% more than the total population of Australia, and a little less than 1/10th of the population of the USA (the UK as a whole has over 60 million people now, so about 1/4 of the USA's population living in a space, half the size of the state of Alabama). The tolls will drive people even more on to backroads and in many cases simply stop people going outside their home towns. I drive 60 miles (96Km) per day so my bills are going to rise sharply, on top of all the utility ones I am suffering under.

I accept pollution needs to fall, but in the UK, without a good public transport system, you are effectively deeming the freedom to travel to be based on the status of individuals. The rich will be able to take trains or drive, us in the middle (I earn £8000 more per year than the national average salary) or poorer will be denied access to other areas. I have not had a holiday for 2 years simply because I cannot afford it. In my youth, in the 1970s, my parents (my father was a technician for a television company, my mother a nurse) could take me and my brother abroad each year, so we were exposed to other cultures and languages, I am effectively wealthier than they were then, but cannot afford to take my wife and step-son anywhere (going on holiday in the UK is far more expensive than going to a country like Spain or Greece because hotel, house rental, food and entertainment prices are so high).

When I lived in East London in the late 1990s, I was a rich man in my street. I earned £9500 per year (€13800; US$19000) and many of my neighbours were on unemployment or sickness benefit. The radius in which they moved was about 2 miles of their homes. I would talk about taking the 25-minute underground train ride to Covent Garden in Central London and to them it was as if I was talking about flying to Paris for the weekend. As most were dependent on council or housing association housing, when their children left home they tended to stay close so that they came under the same housing provider (and because of the population density of London, each borough is often only a few miles end-to-end), and so that they could draw on family to provide child care, etc. These people, effectively were living in a similar structure to ancestors 600+ years ago. 60% of the people of the UK die within 5 miles (8Km) of where they were born. Of course some people manage to get out, but so did some people go on Crusade from their medieval village.

This problem which affected the bottom rung of society is now going to rise higher and higher so that even me in the middle will be limited in where I can go. The problem with that is it closes down minds. If people of my age and standing and our children do not encounter other people and other ways we become closed in our attitudes and very parochial in outlook. Do not tell me, 'well, the internet solves that, you can be in contact with people across the world', because in the UK, the lag in connection speeds, the poor service broadband providers give, the technical difficulties and above all, the rising costs, are denying access to such provision to more and more people, rather than increasing coverage.

The UK needs an integrated transport policy which tackles pollution and congestion but allows people to travel around. UK governments complain the British are unwilling to relocate to find work and yet all their policies in terms of transport and housing make it so hard for anyone to afford to move even if they want to. A whole new approach is needed now, because as most people know, the attitudes and behaviour of the medieval village are not what we need in 21st century society.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Men: our narrow window of opportunity with women

This blog was initially intended to be about me throwing my concerns out of my mind into the pool that is the internet. However, it has gone off in a rather different direction, and tempted by the fact that I note journalists now look for blogged responses to developments in current affairs I have moved from my own life to broader concerns. This has been beneficial as it has got many things that had been milling around in my mind, out of it. Yet, now I feel that as I encounter more crises in my life I should return (briefly) to the more personal function of the blog.

As you will know I have felt under siege recently. The combination of rising utility bills, poor service when trying to get things sorted for my house, the £14,000 bill from Newham Council, the ongoing bullying of three of my work colleagues, all have been weighing heavily on me. There is now an additional factor, though in fact probably one which has been around for a while but I have neglected, so it is time to turn to it.

Some background. I am 39 and until I was 37 I had never lived with anyone. I had had housemates but I had never shared a house just with a 'partner' (in the UK people have tried to get this term to cover anyone you live with on an intimate basis and are not married to, though it retains connotations of a homosexual partner, even though now gays can marry too; in my case, she is a woman). I had been terribly shy throughout school and college made worse by scarring on my body which I feared would put off any potential girlfriends. At university I always seem to be chasing after a woman just after she (unbeknown to me) had just found a boyfriend. So I reached my early 20s with lots of female friends but absolutely no experience of anything; this is not all that uncommon, despite the media hype, 40% of UK students leave universities as virgins. Clearly it was something that made me unhappy, but at the time I did not realise the extent to which I had missed the window of opportunity for good.

Throughout my 20s and 30s I sought relationships with women and especially living in London had quite a few dates and relationships lasting a few months, but nothing too substantial. My opinion of myself was low, so when a rival appeared on the scene I would always bow out leaving the woman to him. Now, too late, I have read all this stuff about how you should be cocky and confident, but I thought I should just be myself and be 'nice'. That was a huge mistake, women do not like or want men like that at all. (I realise now that for the woman I had brief relationships with I was the 'rebound' man, ideal for restoring their confidence after a divorce or some other incident, but once back on their feet they no longer needed or wanted me.) My self-esteem was further dented by women demanding I apologise for asking them out for a drink, as they were so offended that I even considered myself in their league. I did keep bouncing back and kept asking, but with minimal success compared to the number of knock-backs. I assumed that my life would be better if I could only find the right woman and then live with her, I was deluded.

So, with lack of success of finding Ms. Right, I continued living with flatmates or on my own. I thought wrongly that that was a plus because I could keep house, unlike many other men. In the meantime encountered the problem that most men living alone in the UK experience, you are now considered the modern day witches, and a single man in a house in many people's minds simply means a child molestor; particularly an attitude in Milton Keynes which has a birth rate much higher than the UK average and is painfully family orientated.

As I aged, I found that my lack of experience angered women. They assume that by the time you turn 30 you will have lived in a domestic situation with a woman and know exactly what they (not women in general, but that specific woman) want. They also expect you to be very sexually knowledgeable and get angry if you are not. So, my advice to any men aged 16+ is get out there and have sex. Have it with the drunken woman you pick up at closing time in the pub; have it with a long-term female friend even if it means the end of your friendship; have it with any women you can, but make sure you get at least 5-6 partners under your belt before focusing in on the woman you want to live with. Have safe sex, use condoms, but make sure you have sex, certainly before you turn 21, otherwise you will basically have ruled yourself out of having any sex for the rest of your life. Any sexual partner who finds out you have minimal experience will be angry and is liable to dump you instantly (this happened with my first sexual partner). You can lie to her, but she will know and that is it.

The other thing which plagued me was not having lived with a woman. This is almost a lose/lose situation. If you live alone and do as I do, build up experience ironing, doing laundry, cooking reasonable meals, keeping a house clean and tidy, then you are considered either to be gay or simply pathetic. You gain nothing from this expertise. You must live like a slob until the woman in question comes and 'rescues' you. Then when you move in with her, and only then, will you be expected to do all of these chores expertly. Even if, as a single man, you keep your house clean, married couples will assume 'you know nothing about these things' (an actual quote from a married man to me) and no matter how much you protest they will believe you live in a pile of pizza boxes anyway. So, do not bother to be clean and tidy or do chores until the woman you want to impress comes along.

Now, how does all this background impinge on my current situation? Well, back in 2005 via the internet, I met a fellow Goth and we hit it off very quickly, so that within six months of meeting we were living together. She was 32 and I was 37; she had a son of 3 whose father had run off when he was conceived; I had no fear of children having trained as a teacher and worked as a volunteer in a primary school. Now, two years on I realise how I had missed that window of opportunity and made a mistake in still trying to have a relationship. I lack the experience in terms of sexual partners, I lack the experience in how to share a house with a woman and it is too late to gain those skills, the window closed 15-18 years ago.

Relationships do not break down the way they show on television programmes, with lots of screaming, shouting and things being thrown. They rot. The breakdown is made up of silences and small irritations, the increasing inability to resolve anything, the growing resentment, the fact that you no longer do things like wake, eat, go to bed on the same schedule as each other. People ask why do marriages break down so much these days compared to the past. The real answer is because women now will not put up with the rubbish their grandmothers tolerated. It is no better or worse in a modern marriage, it is just there are more options, especially for some, though not all women.

The key problem is what binds us. It is not marriage vows. My partner and I have lacked the money to afford to get marry and all the tax burdens it brings, but like many couples we are locked together by money. Neither of us can afford to pay the rent and the utility bills alone. The financial bonds are far tighter than those that any ceremony could impose. So things will break apart at a time designated by the letting agency rather than ourselves. It is not that we no longer love each other (well I do not think that is the case) it is just that the weariness, the frustration, the anger of struggling through the rubbish that every day throws at you smothers any affection. If I had had the experience in living with someone I could tackle this. If I had the sexual experience I could at least alleviate the gloom at times, but having missed the window of opportunity I lack these things and so cannot retrieve the relationship. I am part of a national trend anyway. At a school I knew, in one class only 2 out of 30 of the children had parents still living together and one of those 2 asked his father why he still lived with his mother. Ironically within the space of the year the man had left his wife and soon emigrated and re-married. Thirty years ago children of divorcees were often ostracised in the playground, now it is the children of married parents who suffer that way.

Anyway, in a round about way, I come to my conclusion. Basically as a man if you have not had multiple sexual partners by the time you are 21 and have not lived with a woman by the time you are 25, you stand no chance whatsoever of doing this successfully in subsequent years. You might think that finding the perfect woman will be the answer you are looking for, but you are wrong. Once you have missed that window of opportunity in which you can learn and in which women are tolerant, there is no chance of recapturing it.

Of course, if you have gained the necessary experiences by the correct age you have no worries then about trying to find a woman right throughout your life, these days even if you are elderly there are available women out there who want to start a relationship in their 70s or 80s. For the rest of us who missed the chance to get the necessary skills, the door is closed for ever more. If you are beyond the age of 25 and have failed to live with a woman yet, give up on the dating websites, give up on the speed dating, you have no hope of success and even if you do succeed it will be brief and even more painful than if you had not bothered. Men who are over 25 and have not co-habited: stick to your beer, your football, your Playstation, women are now a lost world to you. I know I have been there and suffered the consequences and expense - emotional, personal and financial.

The Usefulness of 'What If?' History

'What If?' history also known as alternate history or counter-factual history occasionally strays into mainstream culture. It imagines what would have happened if there had been a different outcome of certain events in the past. Notable over the past few years have been 'Fatherland' which was both a bestseller book and a not so successful movie in 1994 starring Rutger Hauer. The story was set in the 1960s in a world where the Nazis had won the Second World War and Germany ruled Europe, having pushed the Soviet Union back over the Ural Mountains. A kind of Cold War had developed between the USA and the German Empire. More recently was the movie 'C.S.A. - Confederate States of America' (2004) which envisaged that the Confederate States, i.e. the South had won the American Civil War. Each year numerous books come out covering various 'what ifs?', the Nazis and the South being the most featured, but there are many other scenarios such as a successful Spanish Armada or the Black Death wiping out far more of Europe's population. I hope to feature some lists of these on future posts.

So is 'what if?' history simply an entertainment, a kind of game to speculate how things might have turned out if someone had done something differently? This is an aspect, but I think there is a more serious side to the approach. The BBC website used to run an excellent 'what if?' discussion board. It was set up in conjunction with a series of radio programmes in the 1990s that would bring in historians, politicians, commentators, etc. to discuss a 'what if?' scenario. The message board became very busy with people putting forward different scenarios each week and people being free to comment on them. I found that it would often provoke me to go and read more on what had actually happened. The contributors varied from school children to retired people and it was a stimulating way to spend a lunch break. However, the BBC discontinued it in the mid-2000s. What it demonstrated though, was that rather than just being a game, speculating on counter-factual history actually aids getting to grips with actual historical events.

For one thing, the message board sometimes showed that changes in history might not have had as great an impact on how things turned out as we might think. In Stephen Fry's book 'Making History' (1996) scientists stop Hitler being conceived. What happens is that another leader, a German hero from the First World War ends up effectively in Hitler's place. However, being calmer and more calculating he executes the war more effectively and wins, the world breaks into the kind of Cold War envisaged in 'Fatherland' but for the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Russians in the occupied territories, the outcome is the same as if Hitler had existed: they are slaughtered. Thus, one can argue that in a broad sense it was Germany per se that was leading to such an outcome and it would be a difference in small details if it had been Hitler or Himmler or whoever, who had been the actual dictator.

A classic case of some factors not mattering as much as we might think is the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon did not start the attack until 11 a.m. arguing that the ground made muddy by rain would prevent cannon balls from working effectively. (Most damage caused by cannon balls was as they bounced along the ground hitting rows of troops, with mud they just plonked into it and stuck). However, waiting a couple of hours, it is argued gave little time for the ground to dry but allowed the Prussian troops to move that closer to aid the British and their allies. However, through discussion and even reconstruction of the battle (easily done these days with even cheap software) you can see it did not matter what time Napoleon started as the British defensive position was so strong and even if Napoleon had wiped out the British and their Dutch and Belgian allies, the Prussians would have swept up his exhausted army later in the afternoon. Wellington might not have been a hero, but Napoleon still would have lost and Europe would have changed as it did. Add into this the factor that Napoleon was ill and could not focus on the battle and you see the 'what if?' of Napoleon starting earlier makes a difference to the course of the battle but no difference to the world 190 years later. So we can argue, that is not a key factor. Contrast this with, for example, Hitler's decision to stop the German troops storming the British and French forces contained at Dunkirk in 1940 which allowed over 300,000 troops to escape and the basis of the Free French movement to be established, as well as Winston Churchill to retain his position as British Prime Minister you can see that sometimes a 'what if?' would have meant a very different world.

In the late 1990s Eric Hobsbawm, a veteran historian, gave a lecture about counter-factual history. People might have expected him to dismiss it as a kind of game for popular novels or the discussions of historians over a beer. However, instead, he showed how putting forward counter-factual scenarios can be used to test the significance of contributing factors to a particular historical event, along the lines of what I have said about the Battle of Waterloo earlier. Too often historians simply assume that something is important without testing it. So using 'what ifs?' is like a scientific test, you alter one factor and see if it is important, then try another and so on. Obviously it is not objective as we can only speculate on what might have happened we cannot see it. Yet, it is better than simply thinking something was important and not making any test.

Hobsbawm did make one vital distinction between types of 'what ifs?'. The only ones he would accept were those in which someone could make a different decision based on the knowledge they possessed. Both Napoleon and Hitler could have chosen something different at the time of the examples I have used. However, Hobsbawm, unlike novelists, would not accept speculation on 'what if it had not rained the day before?' or 'what if Hitler had atomic weapons in 1940?'. He would not tolerate speculation about things over which people have no control, especially the weather (important in many battles) or things that would have needed changes in behaviour across a whole society, especially in terms of technological development. For him, the testing of causes had to be about human choices rather than working miracles. I agree with him to some extent, though I would also note that in dictatorships and even in democracies often the leader can shape broader developments. For example, it was Hitler's personal enthusiasms which led to the development of the V1 and V2 rockets and to tanks which were far too complicated and too heavy to be of much use in fast moving war, in contrast to the Soviets whose tanks were comparatively easy and effective. Different decisions by the leader would have meant a different war.

A very interesting location for discussing counter-factuals (especially since the BBC closed its 'what if?' discussion board in 2005) is:
http://www.alternatehistory.com/discussion/index.php There is even help and advice about how to think about counter-factual history. If you are interested in alternate history fiction (whether in English or other languages), a wonderful site is: http://www.uchronia.net/ with reviews, it seems of every counter-factual book written and with a regularly changing front page showing recent releases in the genre.

'What if?' history can be interesting and good for your knowledge too. It is a form of entertainment but also has very useful functions in 'serious' history. If anyone knows a good online venue where different alternatives are discussed, let me know. It might be a minority, slightly geeky hobby, but one I miss. I intend to start posting some of my favourite scenarios and details of 'what if?' books on this blog in coming months.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Beer and Sandwiches ... yes, and pizza and omlettes too

This is just a little political aside that I was reminded of when writing about John Prescott. In the early 1990s I was fortunate to be invited to look around Number 10 Downing Street, which is the official residence of the British prime minister. It was an interesting tour. The thing about the house is that it is actually cramped, especially in the residential area upstairs. This is why when Tony Blair came to power he actually swapped with Gordon Brown. Blair with (at the time 3 and later 4) children took over the much bigger flat at the Chancellor of the Exchequer's residence of Number 11. Brown at the time was unmarried so used the premier's smaller flat.

Now off on another point before I bring them together. In the 1960s and 1970s especially when the Labour Party was in power, the media would refer rather derogatively to the 'beer and sandwiches' talks between the prime minister and trade union leaders. It was portrayed rather as the premier, especially Harold Wilson (prime minister 1964-70 and 1974-6) as trying to come down to the level of the ordinary man. What the media neglected to note was that there are no large catering facilities at Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street than there are in the average family home. So, in the days before fast food outlets, bottled beer and sandwiches were the practical way to feed people during long meetings at Number 10.

The 'beer and sandwiches' comment is still used to refer rather dismissively to the (nowadays rare) talks between ministers and trade unionists. However, things have moved on. Margaret Thatcher would run up to her flat when Cabinet meetings dragged on and make the Cabinet (around 22-24 people, plus the Cabinet Secretary, the leading civil servant) omlettes, which suggests she must have had stacks of eggs available. John Major, however, maybe reflecting his populist roots would send out for pizzas to be delivered from the Victoria branch of Pizza Hut. It is ironic that no terrorists caught on to this. The IRA fired mortars which landed in the garden of Number 10 and shrapnel flew through the windows (why they were not bullet/blast proof I do not know) damaging a painting inside, but they never replaced John Major's pizza order with explosives.

So, sometimes these phrases bandied around by the media actually have a more practical basis than their abuse gives credit for. It will be interesting to see if Brown has 'coca cola and burgers' talk with trade unionists in the future or whether they all simply pop out for a kebab.

In Praise of Prescott - the left-hand man

One point that seems to have been missed in all the recent fuss over the departure of Tony Blair after having been UK prime minister for 10 years, is one record his Cabinet has established. This is that, certainly compared to the 20th century (and especially Margaret Thatcher who regularly 'shuffled' her Cabinet), and probably the 19th century as well, the top positions have changed the least. Gordon Brown has to be the first Chancellor of the Exchequer to have overseen 11 budgets in a row. John Prescott is certainly the longest serving Deputy Prime Minister ever, like Brown, having been in the same post since Labour won the election in 1997.

A lot is going to be said about Gordon Brown in the coming years, so in this post I am going to turn to John Prescott and assess his career. He will step down at the same time as Blair does. The Deputy Prime Minister, unlike say the US Vice-President, is not an official British ministerial position, it is one that comes in and out of use as is needed or wanted. Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party was deputy prime minister 1940-5 under Winston Churchill as prime minister. Churchill, the Conservative, was heading a coalition government and so it was a reward to Attlee for his participation. Whilst Churchill handled the war and international issues, Attlee focused on the domestic issues and the Home Front. The next Deputy Prime Minister did not appear until Margaret Thatcher appointed William Whitelaw in the 1980s (more on that later). In some cases as with Michael Heseltine under John Major the deputy premiership is to keep a rival close and onside rather than conspiring against you. Under Blair, this is what happened to Brown, but he got the Chancellorship instead.

So what of John Prescott? Why was he given the Deputy Prime Minister's position? The prime reason seems to be that it was a sop to 'Old' Labour to ensure, at least initially, that they would not cause problems for the Blairite Party, New Labour, which had come to power, effectively in coalition with them. Prescott has been ridiculed ceaselessly in the press, partly because as a worker himself (he was a seaman before turning to politics in the late 1960s) he is not glamorous or trendy. He is a stocky man with a common accent, which seems so out-of-step with 1990s politics. He is portrayed as stupid, but anyone who has read his political analysis, even dating back to the 1960s can see there is more of a brain and more political skill inside the man than most people realise. The deputy prime minister position had no portfolio so he was given a mess of things covering the regions, transport and the environment. Yet, things for which he was ridiculed such as bus lanes on motorways actually set out to achieve what they were meant to do, i.e. speed up traffic, though he never received credit for them.

Unlike Blair the glamorous leader or Brown the puritan, Prescott has behaved in the way many, many British men behave, but maybe that is not suitable in this media age. He had an affair, but so has about one-in-four ministers or party leaders of the past thirty years. He got into fights with people when provoked, but in 2003 he also saved someone from drowning. He was also ridiculed as 'two jags' Prescott for wanting two cars to ferry him and his wife around, but to me, that seemed like a man, who unlike the former lawyer Blair, had had to wait a long time for any decent perks. The key issue in all this is that Prescott has been the fall guy, when he is around to ridicule, the media have had no need to stray into picking on Blair himself. Thus, I perceive Prescott as having a 'shield' role for Blair and his regime.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, referring to her deputy prime minister said 'everyone needs a willy' (taken as an inadvertent joke given the references to Thatcher's butch approach to things. However, I think in much the same way, Blair needed his Prescott. Whitelaw rarely appeared to be doing much visible work and Prescott has been the same. However, as Thatcher had difficulty dealing with her Cabinet ministers and had to use Whitelaw as a go-between, so has Prescott acted for Blair, especially with those from the Old Labour camp who have been granted ministerial positions. His crucial function has been in mediating between Blair and Brown. The two have been the best of friends and the best of enemies, disagreeing on so many policies and almost falling out on many occasions. However, we already know that Prescott has been there, laying on the dinners, getting them round the table to hold the line, to keep the partnership together. Without Prescott I doubt that Blair would have been able to choose his own time to depart and Brown may have gone in any number of directions.

As a Renaissance ruler you always kept your potential rival as your 'right-hand man' literally sitting on your right, so that if needs be, being right-handed you could thrust a dagger in his back if he moved to betray you. It was the 'left-hand man' out of reach of your blade who had the greater function as conciliator and he was the one you actually trusted more even though his status was not so high. This is the role Prescott has played very well and probably at cost to his own career. I hope that with the Blair era he could put his analytical and conciliatory skills to good use. I imagine he will be forgotten once Blair has gone, but without him, Blair's government would not have been as enduring or functioned quite as well as it did.

Bullying in the UK Workplace

If like me you are a regular reader of websites such as the BBC News pages then over the past couple of years you will have seen a lot of comment about the increase of bullying in UK schools and of various initiatives to try to combat it. The trend seems to be stretching into the adult world of the UK too, as this week, for example, it was reported that 30% of people who work in British universities say they have or are being bullied at work. The greater use of SMS text messaging, email and the internet is helping this trend and 'cyber-bullying' is now an accepted term.

I suffered about 12 months of bullying at work in 2002/3. I was with a large employer who had about 5000 staff when I started, though 25% were made redundant while I worked there. The bullying was very insidious which made it harder to deal with. The colleague with whom I shared an office slowly but surely undermined my position telling people to ignore my reports and ultimately insisting that I put his name on everything I wrote because he had to have had such a major impact on any work I did. He would edit and censor anything I produced until it got to a state in which I felt it futile to produce anything. Even my mother threatened to come to my employer to complain. Fortunately the colleague decided that he 'had done all that he could do for the place' and resigned. That day I felt physically as if a weight had been lifted from me, and I literally skipped home singing 'Oh Happy Day'. It was only at that stage I realised how bad it had got. I do not really blame the man, I see that he was under immense pressure with a child of 2 and a new baby at home, plus studying for a degree part-time and moving house and he took his tension out on me. This was helped by his faith which gave him a rather 'holier than thou' attitude and meant he looked down upon my unmarried state.

The key problem was everyone kept telling me he was such a wonderful fellow and our boss, head of the whole department, did not seem to comprehend what I was complaining about his behaviour. I was not a union member at the time so had no-one to turn to bar family and friends who could do nothing in my workplace. Two years later while still working at the same place, the issue came up and now my boss, who had stepped down from the senior post, accused me of having made up the whole thing and now more knowledgeable on such matters I was forced to bring a complaint against her as her dismissal of my concerns as fantasy were beginning to undermine my position. Her problem is that she believed any different view of the past from the one her unreliable memory held, had to be lies.

Anyway, I set that out to show that I have been through the mill myself and so am now alert to such behaviour being imposed on colleagues. I left that employer and got a better job at a similarly large, though smaller place. Fortunately here I have not suffered any bullying, but the same cannot be said for colleagues. Currently I know of three of them, each being bullied by a different manager. One is near retirement but they want him out even quicker than that. The other two seem to be that the manager has just decided that they do not like the person in question, despite the fact that both of the women are incredibly hardworking and if they go it will make much work harder to achieve. The approaches adopted by the bullies vary. One is simply declaring the person redundant though is already advertising for their replacement. Another has worked for six months setting impossible tasks, in some cases that could have put clients at risk and put the person under daily scrutiny (they have to log everything they do hour-by-hour and have weekly reviews). The person being bullied made a complaint and despite receiving union backing, the company has managed to delay and dissipate her complaint whilst now saying she needs to be disciplined. The third person has to ask permission to attend meetings relevant to his work, and recently giving permission has been delayed often for a fortnight, which is actually stopping him working effectively (probably intentionally so that he appears ineffectual).

These three cases are putting decent colleagues under immense pressure and despite the legislation in place these days, those being bullied seem to have no power to resist what is being done to them. The three victims work assiduously and have just been unlucky that a manager has taken a dislike to them. The arrogance of these people is astounding, that they feel justified to wreck the job and damage the life of someone junior to them. They may be jealous of them or see them as a threat or something, it is not clear. I can only blame current trends in managerial behaviour, that seem to still retain too many hangovers from the 'dog-eat-dog' attitudes of the 1980s. These managers are able to use the disciplinary machinery and sometimes simply their status to pressurise these workers on a daily basis. They do not see how their own ego trips (and it is nothing else) are damaging the company's business because these people are actually being prevented from doing their work properly. However, the effects go wider than this. Not only is it difficult to liaise with the colleagues being bullied but now an atmosphere of fear is creeping across the whole workplace. People are using private email accounts to email colleagues rather than their work email accounts which might be monitored; similarly they use mobile phones rather than office ones. Within the space of a few months we have started behaving as if we were living under a Communist or Nazi regime, meeting in public places, not trusting anyone, fearing that after these three have been bullied out of their positions one of us will fall foul of the dislike of one of these managers.

It is often not easy simply to throw in a job. The ties of mortgages, schooling, friends, pension schemes are strong. My employer is supposed to be a company which sets an example as a good one in its region, so if such behaviour is going within its walls, I dread to think how many UK workers are having their lives wrecked by workplace bullies at other, less prominent companies.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The British and Foreign Languages

Given that in the UK at any one time you are usually an hour or less flight time to a country which speaks a different language; in parts of Kent you can even see France, it seems odd that the UK has such a poor record in speaking languages. I can understand the difficulty if you live say somewhere in Nebraska or in Alice Springs, but leaving my house now I could be in a foreign country quicker than I could be in Scotland. London is actually closer to Prague than many Scottish islands and closer to Berlin than it is to the Shetland Islands. Yet, when travelling you find most British people have no grasp of a single other language. Contrast this to people you meet from the rest of Western Europe who generally have English in addition to their own language, and often have German or Russian or French too. Many Spanish speak Italian and vice versa; Finns are brought up speaking their own language and Swedish from the start. Of course a lot of British people or their parents or grandparents come from another country and speak languages such as Urdu, Hindi, Cantonese. However, even among such communities it is common within a couple of generations for people to lose knowledge of this kind. There are British people with language skills, but they are seen as eccentric. The British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden (1955-57) spoke fluent Arabic and Farsi at a time when the British were having difficulties with Egypt (Arabic speaking) and Iran (Farsi speaking), so he could have addressed these people in their own language, understood nationalist radio broadcasts, etc. Yet, he never revealed this ability publicly because he knew it would make him appear suspect in the eyes of the British population.

Why are the bulk of the British so poor at languages? Is it simply a fear of appearing 'suspect'? You see them failing to grasp things or even have a smattering of local languages and we are not talking about ones which are far away such as Arabic or Japanese, but ones that are in close proximity, such as French and German. Some (Anglo-Saxon) Americans can be as bad, but these days more and more of them can speak Spanish at least. Is the British problem that so many people speak English? Apparently 380 million people have it as their first language, and primarily because of US culture, it is dominant across the world in pop music and movies, and so it is usurprising that a fifth of the world's population (about 1.3 billion people) can speak English to some degree or another. So does this simply make us lazy? Is it a hangover of British imperialism? Whilst checking some facts for this post I came across blog entries asking why British school children should bother learning any foreign languages. If at most you have to wait until the fifth person comes along to get someone to speak to you in English, I guess that is a fair argument. However, it is one I will contest, if you give me a moment.

One reason why the British are so poor at languages is that they start late. If you begin before the age of 8, learning any foreign language you will find it far easier to develop that language or pick up another. However, until recently most British schools started no languages until a child turned 11. This has improved. However, if the parents speak no foreign language there is no support for the child's study at home in the way there is with things like English and Mathematics. If you go to a university as I have often done, you will find that many of the students who do well in languages have parents of different nationalities, I have encountered many with one French and one British parent or even one Chilean and one Norwegian in one woman's case. In the latter case she was operating in a third language, English. It is far rarer to find children of British-British parents with any foreign language skill. The situation has deteriorated since the government stopped making any languages compulsory once pupils turned 14; now they are backtracking furiously because recruitment on to language courses at higher levels, even GCSE (the examinations at 16 years old) which is very basic conversation level, were falling sharply.

So British people do not exposed to languages much at school. They do not seem to pick them up elsewhere either. This is despite the fact that the ownership by Britons of homes in France and Spain has reached high levels (250,000 houses in France are now owned by British people). I think this can be explained by the fact that the British form enclaves in which they eat, sleep and speak English. Talking with a British builder's merchant who now runs his business in Bordeaux, he said that there (which unlike regions such as Normandy or the Dordogne is not renowned for having lots of British) he never spoke French as all his customers were either British builders working in the region or British home owners. (As an aside when the British complain about immigrants in the UK they should remember that 1 in 10 of the British population now lives outside the UK; though still not learning the local language).

Another reason why British people do not grasp foreign languages is that there is a real snobbery. In the UK someone will ask you if you speak a language, if you say 'yes' they assume you can speak it perfectly and will get angry if you make any mistakes; even, as is common they know no foreign languages. It is all or nothing for the British in contrast to much of the world, who as someone recently noted, 'get by in bad English' when they do not have a common language. Yet another factor, certainly in contrast with neighbouring countries in Europe, you cannot pick up any foreign television channels in the UK. In contrast many Dutch, Belgians and French write in to programmes shown on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).

Yet another reason I have had suggested to me is that 'all the intelligent British people have left the UK'. This argument goes along the lines that with migration to the empire in the 19th and early 20th century and to the Commonwealth and especially to the USA after the Second World War (the so-called 'Brain Drain') and now with middle and upper class people choosing to live abroad (saying which when in Milton Keynes you would encounter people who commuted from Caen in France because with budget airlines the combined flight and coach ride to reach the city was £16 (€23; US$32) compared to £36 (€52; US$72) for the train journey from London), the argument is that those with the intellectual ability to grasp foreign languages have left. They have been replaced by the people with 'get up and go' from South Asia and now Eastern Europe. Certainly, if you look at successful businesses in post-1945 Britain many have been founded by immigrants or first generation settlers.

Why does all of this matter? If the British in the UK are the dim leftovers who rarely travel abroad and when they do go only to British enclaves why do they need foreign languages? It is about more than the language, it is about the mentality and analysis that knowing another language provides. As I age my memory is deteriorating rapidly, so I have forgotten so much of what I learned when younger, but I have been having ago at learning Mandarin Chinese and I have found out interesting things about its sentence structure. Questions are sentences with a question word put at the end. In English we would say 'Are you hungry?' in Mandarin it would work out 'Hungry, are you?'; 'Is it raining?'; 'Raining, is it?' and so on. (Someone said to me today it is speaking like Yoda from the 'Star Wars' movies, and that is the case, because Yoda intentionally is supposed to be a sage and in the West we often see sages as being Oriental, hence such a sentence structure). Now, people say to me, 'Chinese people never ask any questions' and no I know why this appears to be the case. If I asked you 'Are you ready? Do you have any questions?' and you are Chinese you have to track down the actual question word and then make your own question sentence, bringing on board all your vocabulary, but getting it in the backward questioning way that us English speakers like. By the time you have done that the average English speaker has assumed you have no questions and have moved on.

So, my argument is, that until you begin to learn another language, you do not come to understand the other ways in which people of the world structure their thinking. Neither do you know how hard it is to get across what you want to say and the embarrassment of getting it wrong. Someone who bellows all the time in English is never going to appreciate such perspectives. It allows them to make sweeping judgements about other people's attitudes and so they see hostility rather than co-operation. Individuals do not notice that the best jobs are now going to educated people from continental Europe who speak two or three languages and British society, increasingly uneasy with dealing with the rest of the EU let alone markets in China and elsewhere, is shutting itself off from both intellectual and financial benefits.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Caught at Speed - the Public & Safety Cameras

Today I step away from politics, though I noticed that 'The Daily Telegraph' a newspaper I am hardly a fan of had the headline 'The End of New Labour' and it appears they agree with my diagnosis that it has been the personal party of Tony Blair that has been in power in the UK for the past ten years, not something broader or more firmly established.

Today I am turning to speed cameras or safety cameras as they seem to have been rebranded. They were invented in the 1950s using film and have grown in use in the UK since the 1980s especially with the introduction of digital ones in the following decade. They are used for various purposes to catch people jumping traffic lights that are on red or driving down lanes reserved for buses as well as photographing people who are breaking the speed limit. The UK is one of the most monitored countries in the world in terms of cameras and CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) but I have no problem with the ones that catch people making traffic violations. I drive 60 miles (96Km) and stick to the speed limits. In the UK the highest speed you can drive on a public road is 70mph (112kph) but daily I see people driving at 90-110mph. The stopping distance at 70mph is the length of 24 cars, but most drivers leave just room for 2 cars stopping distance. Even at 30mph it is the length of 6 cars, double what it is at 20mph. On average locations where there are speed cameras serious injury and fatalities are reduced by 22%-40%, the fact that it is not more is due to the fact that many drivers are not even paying attention to the road, are still on hand-held mobile phones despite the increased penalties or expect pedestrians simply to get out of their way.

You would think that the bulk of the population would have no problem with speed cameras, but you are wrong. They are the source of constant complaint in public and even radio DJs complain about them constantly, portraying them as a form of tax or a way for the police or local authorities to raise money. There have been attacks on speed cameras with people setting light to them or trying to blow them up. Speed cameras are not a toll on our roads, if you stick to the speed limits you will not get caught by them; you will not have to pay a fine. The same applies to traffic light and bus lane cameras; they help keep you the driver alive as well as people around you. They are there for a purpose. It might be a big business to supply these cameras, I accept that, but they would raise no revenue if everyone drove by the rules.

The main complainers about speed cameras are men (and some women) who drive large and fast cars and feel that they are outside the law. Why should they have one set of rules and the rest of us another? Why should they be permitted to put the lives of people at risk just so that they can show off their wealth and status. Even if they do not care about their own lives they need to be made to care about those who have no ability to choose in these situations - the general public and the passengers in the cars these maniacs are driving. Many of those who oppose speed cameras stand very strongly on law enforcement. They want longer prison sentences, they want the death penalty, but for their own personal offences they want no restrictions. If they support the removal of speed cameras, should they not also support the removal of CCTV from shops so that people can have the 'right' to freely shop lift? Should they not also support the removal of cameras from cash point machines so that people can have the 'right' to commit card fraud?

Why is the freedom to drive fast and to kill different from the freedom to commit other crimes which society has decided should be stopped? We do not live in primeval times, we live in a society which these people profess to support; they need to learn that that means taking responsibility and not being driven by childish urges. If they grew up and took their responsibilities seriously there would be no need for any speed cameras at all because everyone would be complying with the laws of the road not trying to subvert them.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Combating Terrorism - Responding to whose Agenda?

In the 1970s-90s, West Germany and then reunified Germany suffered a series of terrorist attacks from a group calling itself the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction) a group set up in 1970 and commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang after two of its founder members. The group received funds from the East German secret police, the Stasi, and in the early 1970s had training from the PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organisation). The group espoused radical left-wing policies though it can be argued that they were really simply spoilt rich people who got excitement from the bank robberies and assassinations, usually of businessmen, that they carried out. The group formally ended in 1998, partly as the world had moved on and they could no longer use the excuse of a need to promote a revolutionary and/or Communist society.

The Gang claimed that many of their actions in the 1970s were about challenging the authoritarian state that they saw West Germany to be. The result was that their actions actually pushed West Germany more towards authoritarianism: people with left-wing leanings, even if not supporters of the Gang, were removed from public sector positions such as the post office; the West German border police and police for the protection of the constitution (as these were federal as opposed to Land, i.e. regional, police forces) were strengthened and anti-terrorist units were created such as GSG9; the law was changed so that lawyers felt to be sympathetic to the gang could be excluded from any trials. When a number of the Gang were captured in 1977 three were murdered in prison and one severely injured. They had been sentenced to life imprisonment, West Germany not having the death penalty, but it was clear that the German state preferred to kill these convicts without any legal process, a so-called 'extra-judicial execution'. Thus, by the 1980s the Gang had effectively made West Germany more the kind of the regime it had argued it was from the start than if they had done nothing. All democratic states face the danger of losing what they seek to defend from terrorists.

One reason why there was bitterness in Europe over the American reaction to the September 11th attacks was that the Americans seemed to think that they were the only people who had ever suffered such things. Britain had been experiencing bombings throughout the 1960s-1980s and Northern Ireland after that too, killing and maiming numerous people. As a child in the 1970s I remember being separated from my mother so that she and I could both be searched, like all the other visitors, for weapons when we went to the Tower of London where there is still a plaque to mark where tourists had been killed by a bomb. I witnessed the Docklands bomb of 1996 from the window of my flat and I have known people caught up in the London bus bomb and Manchester bomb of the same year, this was all before anyone had even dreamed of the term 'al-Qaeda'. Countries like the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain have had such incidents repeatedly over the last few decades from various groups and yet we did not whine and expect the whole world to follow us in using the incidents to go off at a tangent and kill unrelated people. Given how the USA had behaved, particularly in carpet bombing Vietnamese people over so many years (and the mutations of Vietnamese children due to chemicals dropped by the American forces continues even now) it seemed very rich for them to then expect everyone to be so sympathetic to them about a single incident. Do not get me wrong, what happened was tragic, but that does not excuse the Bush regime's subsequent behaviour.

Adopting a sober reaction to terrorism is always hard for democracies. The UK fell into behaviour such as internment and the 'shoot-to-kill' policy of SAS (Special Air Service, the most famous UK special forces unit) against IRA (Irish Republican Army, since the late 1960s usually referring to the Provisional IRA or 'Provos' guerilla group as opposed to the broader organisation of the 1920s) suspects. However, what is apparent is under the cover of responding to terrorism, governments take the opportunity to extend their control over the population. As with the West German example at the start of this post, such a clampdown affects far more than any suspects. In the USA you had the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security, effective censorship of dissenting voices, the suspension of due process for suspects thrown without trial into the concentration camp at Gunatanamo Bay and so on. The UK has adopted similar policies allowing for longer detention without charge or trial, the greater monitoring of the population, the introduction of identity cards and so on.

You may argue that to defend democracy needs harsh measures. However, in turn you are doing more damage to democracy than the terrorists themselves. Even experts argue that things such as identity cards would not have stopped the 7th July bombers in London. Yet, the powers implemented to stop terrorism can easily be turned on others, for example, anyone protesting against the war in Iraq or even about a by-pass being built over a woodland. As has been proven in states like 1930s Germany, by the time people generally realise what freedoms they are losing they are in no position any longer to do anything about it. Defending democracy needs democracy to be strong, its institutions to stand for fairness and democracy, to unite, not divide a people.

So, we have the erosion of democracy in the name of defending it. No-one can deny that there is terrorist activity in the UK, but certainly not of the scale that we have been warned about repeatedly since 2001. A scared population is a compliant one and that is what governments like. To some degree most Britons have seen so much of terrorism in their lives that the 'warnings' just wash over them, in contrast, it seems to many Americans, who have experienced far fewer incidents of this kind. I do not believe al-Qaeda exists, certainly in the form it is portrayed with Osama bin Laden sitting like a villain from a James Bond movie hidded in an underground base, watching a map showing all his cells operating across the world. Al-Qaeda is like a brand that local terrorist groups can attach themselves to; it is a short hand for use by government and the media but one that fails to reflect the complexity and the diverse motivations of those who turn to terrorism. This is why, if we simply focus on rooting out al-Qaeda we will come nowhere near to ending Islamist-influenced terrorism. Watch 'The Power of Nightmares' series from the BBC, it is very good on these issues.

The current governments of the UK and USA, though, have not stopped at simply making their own countries more authoritarian, they have found an additional use for 'the war on terror' and that is, to advance economic and geo-political goals. Everyone knows that Saddam Hussain was no supporter of Islamist terrorism. He ran a secular state and was having to keep the different Muslim sects in his country in check. Support for that kind of terrorism was more likely to come from the British and American ally, Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussain had been an ally of the West during the Cold War and after the Ayatollah's regime came to power in Iran in 1979, but by the 1990s his purpose was over. For the West he was becoming too nationalistic (this is the time when Western powers usually intervene, for example, with Nasser in Egypt in 1956) and of course, as I have discussed in the post 'Oil. What's it Good For? War!' the USA needed to secure a good source of oil for itself that the Chinese were not involved with yet. So, the war on terror was used as an excuse for a neo-colonial war to secure resources, so familiar in the 19th century, but seemingly less common now, or so we thought ...

Back to the UK perspective. I think Tony Blair, poor man, did genuinely believe that he was fighting a major threat in Iraq. He liked the fact that the terror 'threat' allowed him to be stricter in the UK, because, as I noted in '10 Years of the Blair Party', he has always had some authoritarian tendencies. However, he also allowed himself to be convinced, not by his own intelligence services, but by material from them distorted by political players, that Iraq was a threat. In addition, Saddam Hussain was a cruel dictator who needed to fall, but the West had already failed at that once in 1991 and while they actually removed the man this time, they unleashed all the forces that his strength had kept in check, all for the sake, not of countering terrorism because that has increased since the war, but for the oil reserves his regime sat on. In reviews of Blair's career today, Iraq overshadows everything else he did. This is fair, it was his greatest blunder, the blood of thousands of people is on his hands and it showed that despite his charisma and his belief that he controlled events, he was a weak leader, too easily influenced by one of the most brainless politicians a democracy has suffered. It showed, too, at the end of the day, he lacked the confidence in himself to divert Bush's plan. In 1950, Prime Minister Clement Attlee (unintentionally turning into a bit of a hero on these pages) flew to the USA and successfully persuaded President Truman not to drop atomic bombs on North Korea. Though this is an overlooked historical incident, it no doubt saved the fates of millions and a lot of the Korean peninsula is not a wasteland. Blair would have gone down in history if he could have acted as such a brake on Bush, but instead decided to not only roll over for his objectives but actively support such a foolish, and probably illegal, step.