Monday, 30 April 2012

Books I Read In April

‘Skin Tight’ by Carl Hiaasen
This was the last of the three books in the Hiaasen anthology I have been reading.  It features a former public attorney’s investigator, Stranahan being drawn into attempts to stop the uncovering of the true story of a 4-year old disappearance of a young woman following a visit to a cosmetic surgeon.  As with Hiaasen’s other novels it features a whole host of, at times grotesque, characters running around southern Florida.  There is an assassin who has a strimmer installed in place of his hand when it is eaten by a barracuda.  In some ways, by this stage in his writing, Hiaasen was coming to spoof his own work.  In this story Stranahan has, not one, but five former wives all bent on doing harm to him. Yet again a new woman on the scene becomes the hero’s love interest.  The novel drags on far too long and could have been 100 pages shorter.  Too many of the characters are caricatures and this one lacks the redeeming features of the other two Hiaasen novels I read.  It is not helped by me presumably missing the satirical elements about Florida/US society of the late 1980s.  Overall, an annoying book. 

‘Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Decisions of World War II’ ed. by Peter G. Tsouras
As it suggests in the title, this is a collection of counter-factual essays.  Some, such as ‘May Day the Premiership of Lord Halifax’ by Nigel Jones are quite expected, seeing Churchill’s replacement leading to a peace treaty with Hitler.  Charles Vasey’s ‘Peace in Our Time’ seeing Hitler dying in 1943 and replaced by victorious Goering is a story rather than an essay and not bad.

There is an interesting focus in the book on the Mediterranean theatre with John Prados looking at Operation Felix to capture Gibraltar from the British; Wade G. Dudley considering more effective use of the Italian Navy and David C. Isby seeing Italy being bought off by the USA from participating in the war.

Some of the essays fall victim to the over-detail which is an issue with some of Tsouras’s own books.  It can be bewildering trying to follow descriptions of individual units going different places on the battlefield to in our world.   After all the detail it is difficult to appreciate the differences of ‘To the Last Drop of Blood: The Fall of Moscow’ by Kim H. Campbell until Stalin is assassinated.  This is only a little less of a problem with ‘The Stalingrad Breakout’ by Tsouras himself.  John D. Burt’s minor alteration of the loss of Malta after one convoy fails to reach it, illustrates minimal changes leading simply to a different emphasis in the war.  It is followed by ‘Ike’s Cockade’ envisaging an Allied invasion of the Cotentin Peninsula in 1943, and proposes some similar developments to Birt's chapter.  In contrast, more fantastical are David D. Keithly’s ‘Black Cross, Green Crescent, Black Gold: The Drive to the Indus’ which has interesting stuff on Hitler’s view of Islam and ‘Wings over the Caucasus’ which sees German paratroop raids far behind Soviet lines in order to secure oil supplies. 

As so many reviewers note with books these days, especially e-books, but also printed ones like this, there are grammar errors in the book. I guess we simply have to swallow that, even in a book written as far back as 2006.  They jar with the reader, though, given how common they are in published writing, perhaps not as much as two glaring geographical errors which Tsouras, if he was genuinely editing, should have noticed.  The Cotentin Peninsula, the area of northern France which is the hinterland of Cherbourg is not in the Bay of Biscay; it extends into the English Channel. the Dodecanese Islands are in the Aegean Sea rather than the Adriatic Sea as stated in this book, the former being between Greece and Turkey; the latter between Italy and Slovenia/Croatia/Albania. 

‘The Faber Book of Espionage’ ed. by Nigel West
This book was a disappointment.  It is an anthology of extracts of books of all kinds written by men and a few women who happened to be spies for the UK in the 20th century.  Some of what is included is fictional, a lot of it autobiographical, some of it having no relevance to spying, simply written by a spy as if that made it important.  Falling into that third category, the piece from Kim Philby is particularly weak.  Some of the extracts are exciting and some informative, though of the latter there are simply too many about the original C of MI6 and his labyrinthine headquarters.  The one thing the book shows is how inter-tangled all the British espionage operatives of the 20th century were.  They drew from a small circle and all seem to have known or even been related to each other.  In many ways this is really a book that gives a flavour of a kind of British social class sub-set.  It shows their rather debased attitudes even when they were supposed to be guarding the UK’s security at home and overseas.  Perhaps, in many ways this was what made the deception by traitors to that cause so easy for them to pull off.  A book simply including biographies of the various characters and even family trees might have been better than this collection of extracts that only occasionally are of genuine interest.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Struggling With The New Blogger Interface

When I came to write a new posting today I found that the blog interface had changed and it has proven to be an utter nightmare.  Every five words or so the system backs up what I have written, freezing the screen and leaving my laptop to labour with its fan going at full blast.  The interface cannot keep up with the speed I type at.  Every saving wastes about twenty seconds let alone losing the words that I have typed in after it decided to save.  Even this short posting has taken many minutes to produce and it means a longer piece is going to need much more time than use to be the case with the former interface.  Given the frustration of having to write and stop, write and stop, not knowing at which moment I am going to be interrupted by the system, I do not know if I have the patience to continue with this blog.  It is very, very irritating now and so causes tension whereas in the past it has been an outlet for tension.  Why do companies always feel they have to 'improve' a system when in fact they end up providing you with something so much worse than what was available before?  They have probably now wrecked the good reputation they once had for blogging facilities.  I, for one, am now looking for some other host with a much less stupid interface!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Cambridge And Me

The other day looking for work I went to Cambridge.  It is a town that I have visited erratically over the past 20 years.  One day I will produce a posting about Oxford which I have a much longer, deeper and more complex relationship with.  However, for now I will look at its 'sister' university town.  The first time I went to the town was in 1987.  At the time I was a student at a different university, but wearing a university scarf meant tourists simply assumed I was at the University of Cambridge.  Having been rejected from Oxford, I felt ambivalent about that as I was still filled with a kind of fantasy of what university life should be, as with many people, something pretty much like 'Brideshead Revisited' or at least 'Shadowlands', with lots of intellectual discussion in cafes. 

I do not know if universities have ever really provided that experience.  I am sure even in the days of C.S. Lewis let alone Alan Turing, the obsessions were much the same as now, with the opposite sex and alcohol, perhaps with posing.  Unfortunately I had a very romantic approach to these things and had enduring fantasies of meeting the right woman (i.e. one who could envisage having an intimate relationship with me however briefly) and acting out our romance against such a backdrop; Freiburg-am-Breisgau was even worse for that. Cambridge, like towns such as Oxford, Salisbury, Bath, Durham, York, Warwick, even parts of Norwich, seem to be almost like theme parks.  If they did not exist then they would have been created by some developer from the USA.  Much of these towns effectively have stunning cliff faces: buildings of a certain religious or academic architecture that present an impenetrable face to the large majority of visitors to Cambridge.  Even if you get inside, you are never 'inside', always the alien to these spaces.

I travelled from Coventry to visit a friend of mine who was studying at the university.  We went to see The Bhundu Boys a Zimbabwean band which were very popular in 1986-7, even supporting Madonna.  It was a surprise on the part of my friend.  I had already bought tickets to see them in Coventry and so ended up seeing them twice in the same week.  The music was good but I was not really that big a fan.  My friend was making a move on woman at this stage.  I never know what happened to that relationship.  We saw the band in The Cornmarket but what I primarily remember now is a middle-aged man who looked like he had just stepped off the beach, steadily swaying backwards throughout the course of the evening, edging our group of four, typically British in not saying anything, further and further back towards the rear wall of the venue.

The second time I went to Cambridge was as a detour travelling back from Norwich to London. I remember going to Ely and across the flat rural lands in a diesel train which more resembled a bus from the 1970s than it did the usual type of train. I remember a Chinese student being charged a supplement on his ticked because he had gone and sat in the first class section of the carriage, a short, broad glassed off area. Why simply having a glass door in front of you warranted paying more given how noisy and smelly the train was overall, I do not know. The landscape made me think of the mid-West of the USA though I guess there the horizon is much farther away.

Anyway I arrived in Cambridge and visited my friend who was still at Queen's College one of the historic ones.  The first time I had gone he lived in accommodation on the edge of town which looked like a disused hospital; this second time he had a room in the historic college buildings themselves. He was keen that in the few hours that I had, that I should experience the whole Cambridge experience and go punting. The gloomy weather and wind saw that plan off. We just wandered around The Backs which means along the banks of the River Cam which means you tend to look at the rear of the main colleges in the town centre. I remember we were with his Canadian girlfriend who later would begin correspondence with his friends directly, something I found very peculiar. She also turned out to be both bisexual and unfaithful. I suppose an ideal character for a modern murder mystery, perhaps given her forthright nature, even the detective.

These visits allowed me to see the side of the town that tourists saw and the locals.  I remember certainly on the first trip going into the suburbs and a mundane pub.  That sense of the everyday alongside theme park looking buildings and an archaic university system always reminded me of a kind of parallel worlds, something like 'Neverwhere' (1996) in which different ways of being live alongside each other, rarely bisecting.

It would be over a decade before I returned to Cambridge and this time it would be on a bicycle rather than a train and coming from Milton Keynes, which lies 70Km to the West of Cambridge.  This was my most touristic experience.  I came on a bank holiday weekend, on a Saturday in 2003.  I stayed in the youth hostel and returned on the Sunday.  It was a gloriously sunny weekend.  I remember walking around all the tourist locations and having tea in the grounds of a church, a nice break from the press of the crowds.  I did walk extensively around town, which is not difficult given how small it is and how the main sights are packed into a narrow area.  I remember I was asked to take a photograph of a couple, tourists, with King's College in the background.  It was the first time I had used the digital camera and I was put out when they came over and looked at the image I had taken and insisted that I did it again.  I continued using film cameras myself until 2008.

I remember I found it a challenge to get dinner in the early evening after cafes had closed and before reasonably priced restaurants opened.  I managed to be the last customer getting food in a pub before they stopped serving at 6pm.  This is one thing that has changed massively in the past nine years, something I discuss below.  I remember walking back and forth across the large stretch of grass called Parker's Piece to reach the Grafton shopping centre.  It is a modern shopping centre which seems terribly incongrous sitting so close to buildings hundreds of years old.  However, it was there that I saw sequel, 'Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life' simply to pass the evening.  With this visit I felt I had 'done' Cambridge.

It would be another six years before I returned and I realised that I no longer held any wistful attachment to the town.  Perhaps that youthful sense had been burnt out of me by repeated failures to have any kind of relationship let alone one set against some romantic historic town.  Maybe it was simply age.  Anyway, I was coming for an interview and this time driving.  All I remember is the sat nav being utterly confused by the one way systems and me driving around for ages trying to find a car park then the office that I was being interviewed in.  My impression of the whole day was worsened by the fact that the interviewers could not operate the computer and screen projector that we were compelled to give presentations on and all the interviews were delayed by an hour as that was how long it took to get a technician in.  Given that I had an interview in Southampton later the same day, this destroyed my delicate schedule.  The other mad thing was that the interviewers had asked for every single academic certificate I had received going back to my first 'O' level in 1983.  A man sat in the corner of the interview room comparing the originals against the photocopies I had made and signed each copy off when he was satisfied as if me getting a 'B' or a 'C' in 'O' level Chemistry in 1984 was going to make any difference to do the job I was being interviewed.  My dismay at this behaviour and the lack of technical knowledge probably came out in the interview.  I neither got that job nor the one in Southampton.

Anyway, I went back to Cambridge before Easter and was very much prepared to have any affection for the town burnt out of me.  However, I guess my previous experience put me in a stronger position.  I ignored the sat nav and simply headed to a car park with spaces though detecting the entrance to a car park is a real art in Cambridge town centre.  The fact that students were already on 'vacation' for Easter helped in reducing the (cycle) traffic.  I found the office without difficulty and the interview was run well.  It was glorious weather but too early on in the year for Cambridge to become the mad press it does in the summer, like a seaside resort without a beach.  I did find the town claustrophobic and on some of the roads into the centre very tired.  There certainly seemed to be a need for street cleaning and a general smartening up.  All ancient towns have 1960s and 1970s bits that look very grim these days.  The greatest change that struck me in the nine years since I last wandered the streets is simply how many food outlets there are.  Simply walking along the Hills Road where I had looked for somewhere to eat in 2003, I found that three to four out of every five frontages was either a cafe or a restaurant.  Most of the restaurants were not open being lunchtime, but some were, as were all the cafes.  I guess these all feed the numerous tourists.  What struck me in the town centre was that whilst there were some charity shops there were no empty shops; this and the number of food outlets suggested the town remains prosperous.

Cambridge is a town I feel I should like more than I do.  There are parts that are timeless and are beautiful.  The amount of green spaces in the town centre is wonderful.  However, compared to Oxford it suffers from its size.  You cannot pack so many people into a historic town like that without it seeming overfull.  This means it seems dusty and noisy when you are seeking quiet.  It also contrasts to Oxford where there are many parts you can step away from the crowds very quickly even at the height of summer.  Maybe I should go there in winter and look at the frost covered buildings and grass.  Maybe it is simply I am jaded and I would have lost my affection for places which held such charm for me such as Oxford, Norwich and Freiburg.  Maybe I should avoid going back to them so as not to 'use up' the crumbs of wistfulness that seem so important to me.

Monday, 9 April 2012

'Fall Of The Samurai': Not Worth The Effort

As regular readers of this blog will know I have long been a fan of the 'Total War' series of games which I have been playing since 1999:  While I have been fascinated by the games I have often been exasperated by the game mechanics especially the imbalance between what the troops of you as the player can do in contrast to the greater abilities of your opponents run by the computer:  I have also been frustrated by the difficulties of accessing the games now that you have to go via the online Steam portal:  The fact that since January I had been unable to access the bulk of the games that I used via Steam meant I went back to playing 'Medieval II Total War' for which you only need the disk.  Being attacked up a mountain slope by catapults firing uphill and being rolled into position so that they could hit my troops on the first shot better than modern day artillery could, reminded me of some of the most grave game imbalances that the series has suffered.

This month I was finally able to access 'Total War: Shogun 2' for the first time in three months; logging on actually let me back into the game rather than crashing while one of the wait screens was displayed.  I was heartened as there was also a major patch from Steam as over Christmas I kept on getting to a stage when the game would simply halt and crash, typically when I was winning.  I was also eager to play 'Fall of the Samurai' a standalone addition to the game covering the period 1864-76 when Japan was effectively at civil war between forces loyal to the Shogun and the eventual victors who wanted to restore the Emperor to the role he had held in the early middle ages.  The two sides had fluctuating relationships with the Americans, British and French.  This meant that modern weaponry came into the country used to a greater or lesser extent by different clans so swords and spears were used alongside rifles and artillery.  The period is reasonably well illustrated by the movie 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

In the new game you can play one of six clans, Aizu, Nagaoka or Jozai supporting the Shogun and Choshu, Satsuma or Tosa supporting the Emperor.  If you pre-ordered as I did you get a neutral seventh clan, the Tsu, to play as well.  The styling of the game with all the maps, buildings, characters, etc. is well done, fitting in with mid-nineteeth century styles.  You can develop a range of buildings and can emphasise traditional or modern forces or even mix the two though this can hamper your overall development.  In theory you should be able to get to the stage with you clan having iron clad battleships and gatling guns mounted in castle towers, if you want that is.  Alternatively you can continue with swords, spears and cavalry.  As in the games since 'Empire Total War' you can follow different paths in development as well.  Thus, in theory you can play the game very differently again and again even if you choose to play the same clan.  You can develop relations with the Americans, British or French or ignore them as you wish.

Overall I was looking forward to a great new gaming experience over the Easter period wargaming in a fascinating slice of history.  However, this hope was soon wrecked.  On my fourth failed attempt trying to escape from my start province, playing on 'Easy' level with a clan that was supposedly 'Easy' to play, I realised I was never going to recruit an iron clad battleship or in fact very many soldiers at all.  In addition, even with a sizeable army, well armed, I was not going to be able to beat even the first of the opponents I had to face.  The game is terribly begrudging.  After winning my first victory with 1000 soldiers surviving compared to my opponent's 19 troops left, I was told this was only a 'close victory'.  Besieging a town proved utterly futile as all my soldiers were cut down before they even got close to the walls, despite me having more than double the number of defenders.  I am used to being defeated but being wiped out so thoroughly within the first few game months of play was utterly disheartening.  As in previous 'Total War' games, when it comes to the tally of the casualties you find you have only killed a fraction of those troops you saw shot dead when in the battle.

As in all previous 'Total War' games, bar perhaps 'Empire Total War', troops armed with guns no matter whether they are one of the more skilled or even elite units you can recruit are underpowered and can be cut through by a levy force armed with spears in a matter of seconds.  There is no point in building up better buildings that allow these more skilled firearm troops as all you need is one group of samurai on horseback to appear and they will be slaughtered.  The game seems heavily weighted to those clans which stick to traditional samurai weapons. 

Another problem brought over from previous 'Total War' games is the fact that long before radar was invented you find your opponent's ships turning up in precisely the right place and precisely the right strength to destroy you.   They seem to have longer range on their guns even when you have equivalent or better ships and they can hit you perfectly even through the thickest fog.  I know you can improve the weapons on your ships but right from the start you will find your opponents are able to hit you spot on immediately and you cannot get the range or the target at all.  This is no different to catapults in 'Medieval II Total War' you found yours always fired short or long over the target whereas your opponent's catapults would hit your troops from the first shot even if your troops and the catapult was moving at the same time.

A particular problem which appeared in 'Total War: Shogun 2' is the imbalance in areas of control between you and your opponents.  In theory each army has an area of control around it which if an enemy army enters a battle must ensue.  This is certainly the case if you advance into an opponent's area of control and both on land and at sea it can be difficult to bring two armies or navies to bear on your opponent as the moment one enters the zone the battle starts before you have brought the other force close enough.  The reverse does not apply to your armies or navies.  As I have noted before, Japan has few routes across the country and is known from historical battles and is actually discussed in the game information there are 'choke points' that can be blocked by an army.  However, in this game that does not work.  An enemy simply walks passed you without triggering a battle and usually wanders around your province with impunity smashing up farms, factories, ports, etc.  This zone of control problem makes it very difficult to defend your developed buildings and facilities.  You find yourself chasing around trying to catch the raiders who even if they have an army of many hundreds of men 'disappear', literally no longer appearing on the map, even when in sight of a town.  If you could do the same it would not be such a problem but there is one rule for the human player and one for the computer.

As for all the wonderful buildings I might liked to have built, there was no chance.  My province at full tax was at best turning in 1000 koku per month compared to 4500 koku I needed to build a castle.  At that level of taxation you cannot continue without uprisings.  Given that in battles where I had 700 more troops than my opponent I was still bound to lose, I had also to spend a lot of money trying to build up armies strong enough to defend my single province.  If this was what I was experiencing at such an early stage on Easy/Easy setting with an Easy clan, how did I stand any chance of anything more challenging.  I guess I would be eliminated within the first turn rather than the first ten.

It took me so long to hold on to my own start province that I realised that there was insufficient time left to conquer the 24 other provinces I need to win, let alone to ensure that in total 50 provinces were supporting the faction I was playing as.  Progress can be slow in 'Total War' games and you sometimes realise you have had to fight so hard and long that you are already running out of time, but in this scenario it is far, far worse and if you get to see anywhere beyond the boundaries of your starting province then you are lucky.  If it is this hard on the Easy setting, how short must the games be on Normal setting, you must just start and be eliminated.  It is very disheartening.

I know there has been much discussion around the debate of the balance between realism and game play in terms of the 'Total War' games, but now it seems that that is the wrong focus.  The game play has always been imbalanced.  The computer always recruits the correct troops and moves them perfectly to where they need to be in a way few humans could ever match.  Thus, further imbalance in terms of how feeble your soldiers are, even when they outnumber their opponents two or three times, makes the game unplayable.  Setting the cost of even starter-level buildings so far above the revenue that you can raise from a province similarly means you are stuck with low level soldiers or better buildings and too few soldiers to defend them; either way you lose the game quickly. 

It is such a pity that so much effort has gone into making an interesting game and then rendering it unplayable.  Given the extended difficulties I have had in using Steam and now the massive disappointment of playing 'Fall of the Samurai', I will have to start breaking my habit of buying 'Total War' games and look to something which is challenging but actually feasible to play.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Chucking-Out Time - Short Story

There is a lag between me writing stuff for the writers' group and it appearing here, so there will be a break for a while covering the period I have been away over Easter.  This story came from a task we were set to 'show rather than tell'.  We were given three sentences to convert into a more showing format and then encouraged to develop one of them into something longer.  This story was stimulated by the sentence: 'Claire walked in the door, still feeling angry with John'.  How it develops was stimulated by incidents occurring in the library where the group meets as every week at closing time there is a scene between the librarians and security guards and a man who tries to inhabit the library.

Chucking-Out Time
Claire thrust the door open, sending it crashing against the hinges before it swung back and closed. 

“Bastard!”  She spat back at John who stood the other side of the glass. 

John’s eyes remained as if seeking to scorch the glass; Claire shuddered as she turned away still sensing their weight.  She tried to busy herself with tidying the leaflets on the front desk but soon was looking back out to the dark street. 

Claire marched away from the reception area up to the mezzanine.  It was tidy with no books or magazines out of place but she stomped around straightening items with no need of straightening.  She went to the bank of switches and with her fingers spread across them all, she clicked them off, then back on and off once more with a force which turned the flesh of her fingers pale. 

Below, the eyes, the body shape, the pale-lit coat remained, made more spectral by the glass between.  Claire almost ran back to the glass and bringing her palm up underarm as if to slap on the pane.  She held it back at the last; her arm muscles straining at the sudden halt to the motion. 

Pedantically now Claire went into the disabled toilet and pulled out one sheet, two, three and returned to the glass, wiping away her spittle as if it was a true health hazard; putting her hand between her line of sight and John’s static gaze.  She rubbed as if to erase him. 

“Ready to go?”  Narinder asked. 

“Sure.”  Claire responded, but forcing the words out.  “I’ll come out the back way tonight.”  She added. 

“Suit yourself.” 

Claire snapped a look back at the glass and sneered and then turned to walk to the other exit.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Gran With A Pearl Hearing Aid - Short Story

This story stemmed from another task set at the writers' group I attend, to write a parody. One challenge that regular readers of this blog will know is that I read very little mainstream fiction so it was difficult thinking of a story that I knew well enough that was going to be known to a sufficient number of people in the group. Thus I alighted on 'Girl With A Pearl Earring' by Tracy Chevalier which I read last year.

Gran With A Pearl Hearing Aid

“Into the corner.” Vanbeer commanded.

“But I’ve already hoovered there.” Leer complained.


Leer complied and bundled herself into the enclosed space. She looked back at the painter apprehensively. Vanbeer disappeared behind his canvas but emerged moments later; both his hands grasping an open tin of emulsion: white with a hint of pear. The paint ejaculated from the tin, drenching the helpless elderly cleaner. Paint coated her hair and face; flowed down her shoulders, down her arms; streaked from her overalls and pooled on the floor.


“Stop what?” Leer asked, her voice a little muffled as her lips struggled to free themselves of sticking paint.

“Stop breathing, of course: you’re spoiling the effect.”

Worried what the artist might do if she did not obey, Leer held her breath. She kept her gaze on the radiator, itself enhanced by the pale green that covered her. That was, apart from a stretch of what, the outline of which matched the lower part of her stance and the shape of her vacuum cleaner.

Without warning, Vanbeer lunged forward again; a broad brush in one hand and another pot in the other, this time of an emerald green. He dabbed a lump of paint on to Leer’s caked hair and splashed highlights on to her cheeks and shoulder. Now this pot was abandoned and he returned with the roller that Leer knew all too well. Thrust back and forth in the tray of sky blue it was soon being propelled up and down her body almost entirely obscuring the greens below.

Paint trickled down Leer’s face, warming to body temperature as it did. It dripped steadily from her chin. Then it collected in her nostrils and Leer feared they would block. She wheezed but only when Vanbeer’s back was turned. Yet, it was not enough: a sneeze burst from within spattering mucus across the dry floor in front of her; mucus artfully blended with shades of the sea; shades of the forest.

Vanbeer span on his heel. “Ruined! Ruined!” He bellowed. “How could you do this to me? To my work?” He stormed from the studio.

Does that mean I can breathe now?” Leer asked in a small voice.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Walking On - Short Story

Back in March I joined a writers' group in the town where I work during the week.  Partly it was because aside from the unpleasant situation at work and trying to remain happy and yet deal with problems at home, I realised I was not talking to anyone.  To some degree that got me into a situation of simply bouncing between the demands of home and work with no let out.  Even after the first meeting I realised I should have come to the group much sooner as I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the people, a real mixture, were friendly.  Having a common interest in writing, which can be very much influenced by yourself and the challenges you are facing is a good outlet when under stress.  The sessions are split into two parts with us doing an activity in one part and reading our own work in the other.  This has led me to write very short pieces of fiction in response to the stimuli we are given and I have decided to post them here.  In length, this one is 380 words, they are more like what is now fashionably termed 'flash fiction'; the Bridport Prize competition defines flash fiction as being under 250 words, so maybe I do not fit with that precisely.

This story was inspired by listening, at the writers' group, to the Clair de Lune movement of the Suite Bergamasque written by Claude Debussy in 1890 and published in 1905.  Not knowing the background of the piece I was inspired by the music itself to think of sunny fields.  Whilst the latter parts of the piece seem to have a 'darkness' I translated that into grief rather than actual night-time.  The sense I had was that this story is set in the 1920s and features a woman returning to the battlefields of northern France where her brother was killed in the First World War.  However, as it is written it could easily be applied to the post-Second World War period or to other conflicts, probably in Europe given the landscape described.

Walking On
The wind swept across the wheat as they walked along the track.  The clouds skittered across the sky sending bands of light and dark over the land.  Anne looked to the horizon.  Beyond the woods lay the shore, but from where they walked now, it was concealed.  She looked across the fields to either side not really knowing what she was seeking.  She both wanted and did not want to catch sight of some scar, some ruin from what happened here barely four years ago.  There was a derelict farm building but that could have been seen many decades back, nothing showed her that it was shells that had wrecked it. 

David walked a little ahead of her and she stepped to draw level with him: to gather from more than simply his stance how her felt.  His hand clasped Charles’s; the boy’s entirely encompassed by his father’s.  That gesture should have been something signalling hope and yet, like so many shards of things; things that would come to any of her senses it thrust into her.  It thrust painfully as she remembered holding her first Charles’s hand much the same way: the hand of her brother, not so much smaller than her own, not as much as the difference between that of her husband and her son. 

Was it a mistake to be here?  Not for the first time did her brother’s form watch her from the shadows at the edge of the woodland.  She banished it once more with the shake of her head and looked up the road, beyond the trees to where the painfully light, shard-infested blue of the sea beneath the smooth paste blue of the sky came into sight.  Anne stared hard, trying to catch as many glints as she could in her eyes to burn out the hanging weight of grief.  She took her son’s other hand in her own to make a structure, a fence of life, of young and mature skin, of energy.  She felt that she could draw strength from it and whilst David could not see her she gazed at his red-touched skin that she knew by every pore and down to the hair of her son, swept like the wheat by the breeze.  She walked on.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Trying Not To Become Contaminated With Hatred

As regular readers of this blog will know my line manager in my current job has systematically driven me from it.  She has set up conflicting demands, i.e. that by dismissing any suggestion I make as irrelevant or 'inappropriate', even striking through proposals I have written and then complains that I defer to her too much and do not propose innovations.  Similarly she complained that I bothered her too much coming to talk to her about things, so I reduced that and used more emails, but that too is wrong as now I am not speaking to her sufficiently and not asking 'probing questions'.  She says she finds me too submissive but fears coming to speak to me.

One reason for not asking probing questions and getting everything written down, as I have explained before, is because she forgets what she has said to me previously, for example, switching the days of regular meetings and twice altering the number of copies of reports that have to be produced.  Now, there is no problem changing your mind, but when she has she insists it must be me who was doing it deliberately wrongly as she could 'never' have thought the other way let alone given instructions saying that.  I have tried to fit in with everything she instructs but even that is apparently inappropriate 'complying' or 'fitting in' with her wishes is the wrong attitude, so she says, though she cannot indicate the right attitude I would adopt, it is just that I am wrong. 

Anyway, in the current pattern of working in the UK, the line manager decides everything and so removes you by the rules she sets with no come-back.  Thus, over a period of nine months not only has this job proven to be impossible for me to hold on to, no matter what I try to do, it has effectively brought my career to an end at the age of 44.  Ahead lies having my house repossessed and a long period of unemployment for me, simply because of the caprice and personal prejudices of one manager.

Obviously all of this has caused stress for me as I have sought ways to please my manager and cling on to my job only for her to come back with new criticisms in the highly indignant way which is apparently the common attitude.  My very behaviour is insulting and apparently even a question I asked at a public lecture was insulting to her and 'an embarrassment' to myself and the unit, despite the fact that the lecture was unrelated to the work of my company let alone my unit.  Apparently, I am both too confident and outspoken, but insufficiently positive and by that very fact I disparage the unit.  I would ask anyone how could they be positive when facing such criticism especially when it is often contradictory.  I think I am doing well not to have had a nervous breakdown faced with such Kafkaesque treatment.

I know I will not work again for a long time and that all that I have worked for over the past ten years has been trashed in less than hat in months.  One challenge going forward is not holding on to hatred.  It is so easy to curse my boss and just to think, 'what if?' before one of these nasty meetings (typically lasting 2-3 hours).  What if her car broke down, what if she was attacked in the street, what if she fell ill, what if someone found something to complain about her for, what if someone made her comply with the rules of the company, what if her friends in high places disowned her, or even better, turned on her?  It is very easy, sometimes consoling to run through these scenarios.  However, I realise how corrosive such thoughts can be.  I have written recently about how anger might feel good, but like a narcotic actually damages you and hatred is much the same. 

I am undecided on whether I believe in karma, but I do think that you can trigger some immediate effect if you let yourself hate.  It begins to blind you to how someone else believes.  Perhaps my manager has set out intentionally to do me harm, but it is more likely that she genuinely believes she is right to criticise me and remove me from the company, that I am truly insulting and will damage the reputation of her and the business she works for.  If I cannot see the way she sees the world then I cannot be alert to things I might be able to do to make things that little bit less unpleasant for me.  Another thing, I realise, is that I am probably well out-of-step with current business culture, in which you are free to take individual words or even tone of voice as something which causes offence to you, for which you have to become vocally indignant and visibly horrified.  I must say some of the 'horrified' performances are quite comic as if the manager in question has suddenly gone back to the days of Jane Austen and seen an inappropriately clad man emerging from the lake. 

Though I do not like Catherine Tate's 'comic characters', I think the phrase of one of them 'how very dare you?' perfectly sums up the indignant tone so often used; self-righteousness taken to an absurd level.  Maybe the absurdity is why I am slow to spot that such an attitude is a weapon that can be turned against anyone they choose.  By being offended you stop the question being one of a difference of opinion and turn it immediately into a moral question, one in which you have already seized the 'high ground'.  In addition the horror expressed at the view disagreed with means that they can shut down any rational discussion, 'it's so offensive, I can't talk about it' means that they can make a charge, define that it is bad and shoot down any challenge all in one.

Perhaps rather than anger, I should pity the people who are so lacking in business skills that they have to resort to such tricks simply to get their way.  Getting their way is a key goal, not just in substance but down to the minute details, individual words, colour of text, absolutely everything.  For them getting 99% of what they want is not enough.  Even with 100% it is not 'wrong' or 'inappropriate' if not expressed precisely the way they want it (even if they never actually tell you this).  Unless you can read your manager's mind you are going to suffer.  Maybe I am less tolerant of this attitude than some people but I have seen even very good workers who are praised across their departments, criticised over small issues, sending an email a day later than expected (even with two weeks remaining before the deadline) and not expressing something the exact way the manager wants.  Even such petty things they are told, is 'letting the side down'.

I am getting back into repeating my postings about indignitaries and this posting is about something different, even though in my case it has been prompted by indignitary behaviour.  What I check myself from doing is running through all this speculation of how bad or even mildly discomforting things should happen to my line manager, even if in part as some kind of balance for the unpleasantness she has assiduously inflicted on me, whatever her motive.  Beginning to have thoughts like these are the first step on being contaminated by hatred.  Such fantasies begin to dominate your waking thoughts, perhaps even your dreams.  They can easily become more extreme.  Talking with friends and colleagues it was fascinating how one advised me in all seriousness to shoot my manager and that he being in with certain people in West London could organise that.  Another said how he had identified the car park at the company which had no CCTV surveillance and was near to a public exit to the site so was the ideal one for assaulting people returning to their car!  To some degree it is heartening to think that I am not alone in thinking this way about our company's management, but on the other hand, it alarmed me to think that I was at risk of becoming like these two, just a step away from actual violence.

I know that simple prejudice at work can muck up your entire life and the lives of those people around you.  Violence would do that to a greater extent, not only messing up the life of the manager, perhaps she would simply brush it off, but others around her and of course, myself and others around me.  I do worry that if she is mugged or burgled or her car vandalised, already it is me at the top of the suspect list which would put me into even worse circumstances.  In addition, it is corrosive to think this way.  If there is no way you can get at being treated so badly by your manager, then you have to rely on non-human sources.
I think the reason why karma and 'vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord' were brought in for humans was to stop them wasting their lives.  It is so easy to get into a frame of mind in which you think about how the person might come unstuck from severe action you might take against them to humiliate or discredit them to simple things such as their car breaking down on their way to the meeting at which they are going to treat you so badly.  This clogs up your brain and means you fail to focus on things like trying to get another job or engaging with effective ways of winning some compensation,  Thoughts of revenge easily become your entire focus and sap your energy.  While the target is probably oblivious to your thoughts, you are effectively helping them to win by damaging your own life on top of the damage they have already inflicted.

It can be stunning how many people cannot see beyond their own egos.  Not only my current manager but also bullies in the past have believed that I 'need to see' that what they are doing is 'right' because it is nothing more than common sense.  Their view of the world is so distorted that they set their own moral boundaries.  I have sometimes thought what characterises evil and have come to a conclusion that it is a focus which is just on the benefit of the individual and however that can be achieved, with no thought or even disapproval of those affected by the actions of the evil person.  If we look at real evil people (as opposed to portrayals) they generally do not believe they are evil.  Think of the serial killers and the war criminals, they all believe what they did was 'right' even 'moral'.  Yet by objective judgement they are evil.  Now I am not equating my manager with such criminals, but it seems all too common that you have people in business who are so focused on their own personal advancement and ensuring their personal perspectives are the only acceptable ones that they begin to stray into modes of behaviour that we see among the genuinely evil.

Everyone, even the most powerful will face people they feel hard done by, whether this is genuine or not.  In some/most/all cases we can wreak retribution on these people.  Yet to be obsessed in planning to do so, let alone acting on it, we are further corroding ourselves.  We become consumed, literally, eaten up by the need for revenge.  It strips us of our faculties, we can no longer see clearly, we can no longer hear differing advice, we cannot think about other things, certainly we lose enjoyment.   We all hope that 'whatever comes around, goes around' and that the person gets their come-uppance.  Of course, quite often we never see them 'fall', but from the moment they begin treating us and others badly, they are beginning to lose and they will continue losing.  Perhaps not in the financial sense, but in the fact that they chip away at their humanity and people respond to that. 

For all her apparent success, no-one trusts my manager and they only do what she wants not out of respect but from fear of their own positions, something which will no doubt increase now they have seen what has been done to me and how quickly.  Things will be done for her at best in a lacklustre way.  In addition even the CEO of a company cannot work in a vacuum they need to hear differing perspectives to their own.  If they are not then the company will falter, not immediately but steadily.  This is happening in my context already no-one is warning my manager of the pitfalls she is walking into.  To do so would be to risk being treated the way I have been.  Being way behind schedule in planning a prestige event, not keeping the website updated, jobs she has taken on herself but is neglecting because she puts no store by the views of colleagues; only she can be right.  When your views are rejected so often you stop giving your view.  Consequently you can already see she is walking head long into failure.  Her obsession with the advertising of an upcoming prestige event has meant she has neglected the organisation of the event and with less than four weeks to go has only a single speaker for the whole day.  There is no incentive for me to step in and try to rectify that.  My ideas have now been taken up by her and have become 'hers' but her obsession with style over substance means that the event will fail, it is too late to prevent this now.

It is hard not to wallow in anger and a desire for revenge against someone who has treated you badly.  However, with reflection it can be seen that it does more harm to you than to them.  In addition, there will be revenge maybe that you will never witness, but it will come.  A person who is a bully reaps the consequences of such behaviour and will fail.  Their narrow focus means they miss the warning signs and they will not listen to any alerts that they are busily marching towards such an outcome.  You have to accept that some balance ensure they will not escape unpunished by their behaviour and instead cut yourself off from concerning yourself any longer with that person otherwise you risk being dragged down into their morass alongside them.