Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Don't Mention The Balanced Scorecard!

I have a new manager. She's a little middle-aged lady who behaves a bit mumsy and probably thinks that's a good way to approach her role. I'm not sure she's going to be able to handle the insanity that is The Bank's bureaucracy and that she's going to blame us because we can and she doesn't get what we're doing.

We had a little “team meeting” this morning. She mentioned “Balanced Scorecards” and this set me off. All my intentions of being really calm and team-player-y went out of the window.

For those lucky enough not to know what a “Balanced Scorecard” is, it's a piece of HR bureaucracy that pretends that everyone in the company has jobs where they can meet a wide range of objectives: financial, operational, customer service, team development, whatever. I have to have “Treating Customers Fairly” (or TCF) objectives – TCF is itself a piece of bureaucratic nonsense imposed on banks by the FSA, and the last thing it ensures is that you'll get a fair shake from HSBC, Barclays or anyone else. I don't deal with customers. The only people who have less customer contact than me, or less influence over customer service, are the guys in the post room. But TCF has to be on my Scorecard.

And no, the Scorecards have nothing to do with our bonuses, pay rises and appraisals. Those are set at company level and in a discussion between the department heads every six months. We are judged entirely on how well we worked and played well with others, what impression we made around the office and if we saved anyone's backside from a kicking.

Making the managers go through the Scorecard process is designed to hide that fact. Because it's a pointless exercise in form-filling, it has no credibility with anyone. Yet we all have to pretend that it does. I had one manager who treated it with the affable contempt it deserved and I produced my best fiction in return. The New Lady Manager sounds as if she's going to take it seriously. In which case, she's going to have to do a lot of pretending, and ask her team to pretend a lot as well. Which means we're all living in Denial.

Which means that for me there's some raw emotional stuff going on. The way the system works is that the managers are nice to us for the six months on a daily basis – after all, they don't want to piss us off, they're busy and they can't take the conflict generated by handling a problem as it arises. So they store up the bad stuff and dump it out every six months in our appraisals. In writing. They might even be nice in the face-to-face meeting, but on the form, out comes all the stuff they didn't have the guts to handle at the time. Sound like the kind of family where you were snarked at for not knowing what to do, but no-one ever told you? Where instead of being proper guides to how to behave and what's expected, your parents sat back and judged, treating you not like their children but like strange visitors they couldn't get rid of? That's what happens at The Bank. And Balanced Scorecards are the way that gets covered up. To go along with the process is to be forced into some kind of complicity with denial. I really don't like that. And that's where the reaction came from.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Once More on the iPhone

I realised the other day that there are two things keeping me from getting an iPhone. First is the price combined with the 18- or 24-month contracts. Second and far more important is that I didn't want to look like Sad Dad with a Young Person's Toy. iPhone usage had to pass a certain unknown but clear point where anyone could have one and not look like they were trying to look like someone who “really” used one of the things. By the time Vodafone put it on their network, that usage point will have been reached. At least in central London.

Now to the price comparison. Or rather, putting my professional hat on, the price / feature comparison. Apple are often considered “expensive” as in “you can get a laptop for £400, and a MacBook costs £800”. This is true, but irrelevant. You can't get a Dell or HP laptop with the same spec as a MacBook for £400. Try it on the Dell website and see what happens: you wind up very close to the Apple price.

The iPhone looks bloody expensive compared to a £15 pcm Nokia 6303, but it has just a few more features. Apple control the price plan so that all the operators offer the same product and it's a full-weight plan: 600 minutes, 500mb download domestic use with 100 minutes and 20mb roaming. (There is a 150 minute option, but it's there to make the 600 minute one look good – it costs all of £5 a month less.) There's a charge for the phone at the lower end of the price plans. Spreading the charge for the phone over the term of the contract, the 600 minutes x 18 month contract works out at £50 pcm, 600 x 24 at £39 pcm and the 1200 minute plans at £44 pcm for either length of contract. Ignore that £50 pcm plan: that's there to upsell you to the 24-month version, or to the 1200 minute plan. Even so... ouch! Fix “the cost” at £39 pcm over 24 months.

The comparable Vodafone plans for the comparable kit from Blackberry (Storm 2), Nokia (E72 or N97 Mini) are, including the phones, £35 for 24 months. Step down to the Blackberry Curve 8520 or take the HTC Tattoo and you're at £30 pcm. So the “iPhone Premium” is £4 a month, or £92 for the 24 month contract. That's about the price of two seats in the Stalls of a top West End show. Or look at this way: for 13p a day, you get a nice warm glow of cool every day for two years. Over having anything else.

The SIM-only 600-minute with 500 MB of Internet and webmail is £20 pcm on a 30-day contract. So the I-need-a-new-phone-that-does-e-mail-really-well-with-a-QWERTY-keyboard premium is £10 pcm, and the touchscreen-and-really-good-web-browsing premium is £15 pcm. So the choice is between an 8520 (I need Mac synching) at £30 pcm and an iPhone at £39 pcm. And if I have Berry, I still need an iPod. It's coming up replacement time for my old iPod Mini. That's about £5 a month over two years. See how the gap closes?

I wouldn't even be thinking about this, but remember The Bank has banned us from using Google Mail and the like. If I had the sort of life where I needed to deal with personal mails during the day, I would need to be spending an extra £15 - £20 a month because of it, which is a direct cost of working there. There will come a time when I will need easily managed e-mails. I'll need to send and read attachments as well. But then, I'll be looking for a new job and will easily be able to justify the cost of the mobile Internet.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Fitzrovia Connections

There are some parts of London I don't visit or pass through from one year to the next. Fitzrovia is one of these. My connection to the area is that way, way back when I was a teenager, I spent the academic year 1972-73 at the Polytechnic of Central London engineering building on Howland Street.

It's now called the University of Westminster, and I'm betting a few other things have changed, for instance, the bible for first-year electronics is no longer Electronic Devices and Circuits by Millman and Halkias. At least not the edition we used. I wasn't the happiest of bunnies while I was there, and I abandoned the course to start at Exeter University in 1973. Walking past the place Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like yesterday when I'd been there, while much of the 1980's is as far away as the Hundred Years's War. It's a quiet part of town, with lots of advertising, media, design, education and about a million small cafes and restaurants. And Fitzroy Square...

I love that Winter afternoon light. To borrow a sentiment from The Kinks, "as long as I gaze on a West End sunset / I am in paradise".  My favourite was the view over the West end from the eight floor

stacks of the Senate House library, which I used to be a Convocation Member of until I let it lapse sometime in the late 90's. When you start your life, everywhere you go is about possibilities, but lately I've been noticing that it's more about memories. Fifty-five is an odd age. They say that the brain re-arranges itself in adolescence: I wonder if that happens in whichever part of middle-age I'm in. I could be full of remorse for all the things I didn't do, but somehow, it's as if that part of my life is gone, and I'm starting a new one.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Christmas Logistics

Okay, a really short one today. It's Christmas, a time of year that always takes me by surprise because I forget that the world closes for four days in nine. The 24th is a half-day and the shops are emptying out, the 25th and 26th are closed and then the days between that and the 30th are on half-speed, with the 31st another half-day and the 1st a Bank Holiday. Only the British could decide to have a two week semi-vacation in the depth of winter - a sensible nation would do it in, oh, July. Except the sun rarely shines in July these days. I've taken the week off to use up my holidays for the year, but it doesn't feel as restful as the other weeks do, because I have all these logistics about food to cope with. Basically Wednesday is the last day we can get food before Sunday. And don't hold out too much hope that the supermarkets will have a decent stock of anything on Sunday. Monday I'm back at work but half the cafes and sandwich bars in the West End will be shut. Now I think of it, I've been doing just-in-time inventory for food way before the car industry. And Christmas plays havoc with it. Easter is just as closed, but the crowds aren't as desperate. That's what really puts me off: the sheer desperation on everyone's faces as they rush round the shops, stocking up on stuff to have a "good time". I intend watching a few choice DVD's and trying to finish Enjoy Your Symptoms.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sophie's Choice and Striking Cabin Staff

I'm reading my way through Zizek's Enjoy Your Symptoms and in one essay he discusses William Styron's Sophie's Choice. Sophie (aka Meryl Streep before she discovered her true calling as a comedienne) was in a German prison camp. A guard tells her she has to choose one of her two sons to be saved, or both will be killed. She chooses one and the other dies. This induces so much maddening guilt that well after the war she chooses a relationship with a struggling painter and the two of them commit suicide. Zizek takes the whole thing very seriously, and why not? It was a successful movie and Styron was one of the great mid-century Writer-Drunks.

It's a crock, of course. First, on the safe assumption that the sons are equally worthy of being saved, Sophie is not making a choice, she's flipping a coin. Choice needs reasons, and the story doesn't work if there are reasons for preferring one son over the other. If there are no reasons, there is no choice, there is only picking. It isn't Sophie's choice at all, and nor is it Sophie's choice. It was the guard's. He woke up that morning and decided to give Sophie this chance. He might not have.

A more appropriate reaction is not guilt, but thanks. Remember, Sophie was going to lose both sons until given this chance. A better reaction might be anger at having to lose even one son and at being in the situation where the only reason she didn't lose both was the arbitrary power of the guard. But that would be a tad political. It doesn't give us a set-up for hundreds of pages of emotional indulgence and a slow descent into a kind of madness.

No guilt, no story - no story at least that a drunk could write. So for reasons internal to the needs of his story Styron has to hide whose choice it really was. But we go along with it. We go along with it because as readers of a story we are willing to be lead where the story-teller wants us to go, but also because we accept that those in or wielding power are not to be called to account for their actions. They do what they do because they can. We do not have the right to demand explanations or to pass judgement: only those with power can do that.

When the British Airways cabin staff were lead to a twelve-day strike, the story was about them and Unite. It was not about a management who pay people a basic £13,500 a year and expect them to live near Heathrow or Gatwick. An expectation that is so unrealistic given the rents and costs of houses in those areas that it tells you just how arrogant the management of BA are. The management are not seen as contributing to the strike by paying a wage too small to cover rent and council tax, let alone food and heating. The actions of the powerful in this story are as invisible as the moral choices of the guard in Sophie's Choice. How on earth did this happen? How did the powerful get to be invisible? Because it's easier for the victim to blame themselves and treat the actions of the powerful as like the weather, than it is to blame the powerful and so be lead to the need for political action.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Boy Meets Girl

One evening long ago when I was an attractive young man, I was having a picnic in St James's Park one summer evening with a young lady who was working as an M.P.'s researcher. We had one of those unresolved, will-we-won't-we, do-we-don't-we relationships that had been going on for a few years. At some stage she mentioned YABF (Yet Another Boyfriend) and I decided that the answer was NO, we weren't going to. It was at this point that I lost interest in our story. Not in her as a person, or in that evening – we were almost-flirting almost out of habit – but in our story. Boy Meets Girl is the most interesting story we human beings know, but that interest ends the moment we know that they are going to go their separate ways home with no residual regrets, desires or fantasies. Boy Meets Girl gets its potency because it's about possibility, about what might happen, and, which is what makes it unique, how long it might happen for. Boy Meets Girl doesn't end with the wedding, or the kids or even the divorce. As long as there is some reason they might meet again, something still between them, the story remains. It only ends when they walk away from each other with nothing to suggest that they must meet each other again.

Monday, 14 December 2009

I Can't Live Without... La Torre

Pret a Manger is all very well for a fast sandwich, but there is no substitute for a good Sandwich Bar. You can have the La Torre special (beef, blue cheese, mushrooms on ciabatta toasted) or you can make it up from the ingredients you see through the counter.  They have pasta and chicken curry, beef curry, meat balls with spaghetti or baked potato or salad or however you want it. As often as not, I get a fairly routine chicken escalope with salad to take away - being on a minimum-carb diet thing.

The real treat is to drop in first thing if I had to leave the house too quickly. Egg-and-bacon toasted on brown, cappucino. The ultimate filling breakfast. Eat at the counter in the window and watch the world hurry to work, the morning swimmers from The Oasis stop for a cup of coffee.

Good food is the strating point, it's the atmosphere that makes the place special. It needs an energetic owner who recognises his regulars, the right kind of lighting and decoration, enough of the smell of cooking to be welcoming and just enough background from the radio in the morning and conversations at lunchtime. La Torre has all of them. It's at 32 Endell Street in Covent Garden and well worth a visit.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Read The Manual

Most things now, from your mobile phone through Excel and on to cooking, are way too complicated to be understood from A to Z in one lesson. There are subtleties about the use of a paintbrush or a screwdriver that only craftsmen know. Quick: why should a frying pan be heavier rather than lighter?

The more you know you can do, the more you will do. The more you know about your tools and materials, the more you can get out of them and the easier your life will be. But you have to read the books. Why? well, spreadsheet software has been with us now for over twenty-five years and some of the smartest people alive have worked on developing Excel, Calc and the others. You're going to learn everything it can do in a five-day course and a Dummies manual? I don't think so. And that's just one of the applications you're using.

A good manual can be a straightforward how-to: Haynes car manuals and O'Reilly software books are terrific examples. The Dummies books are good as well if you can live with the style. Sometimes "the manual" is a love-it-or-hate-it book that makes you think – hate McKee's Story or like it, but you will never think the same way about writing after you're read it. At the other extreme is something as gnomic as The Art of War: that is a manual, but you've got to interpret it. A J Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic is a clearly written and vivid manual - of how to apply Logical Positivism - and it made him famous. Categories for the Working Mathematician is a manual, and good luck.

A genuine manual does not promise to make you rich, tell you secrets, solve all your problems or otherwise change your life. Those are fakes, designed not to inform, but to mislead you into thinking that all it takes is a good idea and some trick of character. You're quite right to ask why if it works, the authors aren't millionaires as well.

The brain is a "use it or lose it" device: learning new stuff grows new neurons. You will learn stuff to do your job more easily and the other applicants didn’t. Read the manual.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The John Lewis Redhead

Today is utter trivia. There is something about tall, slim red-heads that cuts right through all my defences and makes me want to be... well, whatever it takes to be their husband or lover. Redheads are one of Nature's secrets: think carefully, you've never seen an ugly redhead. Ever. They are rarely shatteringly glamorous or sultry as brunettes and blondes can be, but they are always attractive and sexy. Well, John Lewis' agency Adam & Eve found a fine example and put her right at the end of their “Sweet Child of Mine” Christmas ad, and she's the best thing about Christmas so far.

I wish I could find a larger picture. I take one look at her and know that this is someone to whom nothing bad has ever happened nor will it ever happen. She's a one-woman oasis of calm, serenity and understated sensuality. In my dreams. And maybe in her life.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Examined Life - The Movie

I saw Examined Life recently: it's a film of interviews with a bunch of big-name philosophers: Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor.

Cornel West rapped away, interesting right up to the point where he mentioned 'white supremacy' and lost me. Are people still going on about that? Haven't they realised that it's only some white men who have the power and the rest of us are as screwed as everyone else? Appiah made sense at the time but nothing stuck. Singer is... Singer. Avital Ronnell made very little sense but sounded the part – that's what translating Derrida and studying with Kristeva will do to you. Michael Hardt rowed round Central Park, as he admitted that the idea of “going to the mountains, forming an armed cell and starting a revolution” was totally outside his experience. I got the idea he wanted some kind of revolution, but not what or how. It vanished into the mists of his syntax. Judith Butler takes a walk with the painter and activist Sunaura Taylor through the graffiti walls of San Francisco and they buy a sweater at a thrift shop. They talked about what it meant for someone in a wheelchair to “take a walk” and made the usual kinds of remarks about gender and disability being social constructions. Nussbaum mentioned capabilities and how she agreed with Aristotle that the aim of a society should be to allow each of its members to develop their abilities. I couldn't help thinking that she's a very handsome woman – but then I'm shallow like that. Zizek was huge fun, wandering around a rubbish tip, suggesting amongst a hundred other things that Nature is a series of catastrophes and not a beautiful system in fragile balance threatened by your breathing too hard. At one point he picks up a scrap from a porn mag and shakes his head “oh no, you call this porn?” suggesting a robust knowledge of the real stuff. The ICA audience laughed out loud. Of all of them, he's the best value for money.

The selection is not representative of modern philosophy, it's representative of the best-sellers of modern American philosophy. All of these people - except Nussbaum - are influenced by the French superstars: Barthes, Baudrillard, Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault. They're all more Hegelian than Popperian, more inclined to using words at the edge of their meaning rather than using a plain-speaking style. None are technical philosophers: epistemologists, philosophers of science or mathematics, metaphysicians or logicians. But then perhaps those guys don't examine life, only knowledge and its relatives.

The philosophy section in Foyles is packed with the French superstars and their backing bands and influences. There are few of the British Analytical Philosophers I grew up with (though Gilbert Ryle must have had a birthday or something because there's a chunk of his stuff). These people are the current thing. But then Peter Strawson was a star once and while I don't wish to speak ill of the recently departed, his signature work Individuals was one of the more unreadable and pointless uses of the human mind until the minor String Theorists got going.

Props, however, to Astra Taylor for making the movie. She looks to be the next Brian Magee, a sensitive and informed populariser of philosophy, and we've been overdue one of those for a while. I found I "got" some of them the better for having seen them: having seen Judith Butler, her performative theory of gender makes a lot more sense (even if it still doesn't quite work at more than the hand-waving stage).

Friday, 4 December 2009

Professor Singer's Drowning Child

In the movie Examined Life the philosopher Peter Singer gets to rehash that parable of the drowning child. Here's how it goes. You're walking through a public park and you see a small girl drowning in a shallow pool. You could save the girl easily enough, but you're going to ruin your shoes. What do you do? Well, gee whiz, I bet you said you'd save the little girl. Singer then points out that there are children dying every day who could be saved for the price of a pair of shoes – so why aren't you giving? Feel a little guilty now?

He really should have worked on Madison Avenue. Because as a philosophical story, this one is awful. So you get a feel for just how manipulative the example is, here are some other ways of looking at it.

There's no need to ruin your shoes. Just kick them off. A woman in high heels would do so without even thinking about it. Doesn't take three seconds. So where's the dilemma? You have to force it: it's not genuine.

How is a child drowning in the six inches of water usually found in a public fountain? Kids are really good at getting out of places they don't want to be if they have the slightest chance, and they make enough noise protesting. So who took all the little girl's chances away? Did she fall and hit her head? What did she fall on and might you do the same, with worse consequences since you weigh more and are falling from a greater height? Maybe she's so heavy she can't move herself, and you might not be able to either. Maybe someone's holding her down, and you've got a fight on your hands. Or maybe someone dumped her there, drugged, and is watching to make sure she dies, and you still have a fight on your hands.

Aid is the same. It's not enough to toss bags of rice out of an aircraft. You have to make sure the rice isn't appropriated by warlords or sold to buy gee-gaws or hoarded by the Big Men. You have to make sure that the money you gave is matched by the country's government, or they may just buy a nice trip abroad with the money they would have spent on rice but now don't need to because you bought the rice instead. See why my suggestion that the little girl was being held down isn't so silly?

When you rescue that little girl, she's not going to die of famine, civil war, disease, ethnic cleansing or drought next year. She's going to go on to live a good life, albeit with ups, downs and the odd traffic conviction. The little girl you save today through your charitable donation has much longer odds against surviving past, oh, next year. Which is why newspapers love stories about the one girl in the village who made it to Oxford University and don't tell you about the five others who died before they reached sixteen.

I know you think Professor Singer is “just saying we should think of others and we should give more”. No. He's really not. Read his books. He says you should give ten percent of your post-tax income to charity. Not because he's about good works, but because he's about playing on your middle-class liberal guilt with specious arguments to build a reputation.

The way you know he's not about the good works is that he doesn't insist that you should make sure you don't waste your donation. He doesn't say, anywhere, that you should examine the aims and activities of the charity, its organisation, track record and expertise, and give if you think it will be successful. I say, if you don't do this, you are being irresponsible, because you may be giving money to an organisation which will achieve nothing with it, when you could be giving to one that will make your money matter.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Names for Relationships

On hearing the phrase “friends with benefits” recently, my sister snorted something about silly pretentious phrases. Why can't they say “boyfriend”, she asked. I thought the phrase was a tad silly until I discovered that there is an episode of Sex and the City actually called “The Fuck Buddy”, which is a phrase I had only heard once before used by an ex-girlfriend to describe a relationship in her life at the time. I didn't like it then and I think it's an ugly phrase, but it describes something real.

The name from an earlier time were all linked to an overwhelming assumption of marriage as the only legitimate means of (hetero-)sexual relations. An “affair” was a long-running sexual relationship between two people at least one of whom was married. If neither party was married, it might be a “casual fling” if marriage was not on either parties' mind. If at least one party was married, and the relationship was casual, she was his “bit on the side” if he was married, and vice versa if she was. A boyfriend was just that: a boy-friend. If there was sex involved, they were lovers. She was a girlfriend in either case, because a mistress was in it for the money as much as the sex. A mistress knew he wasn't going to leave his wife, just as a male lover knew she wasn't going to leave her husband. Marriage was the context and the reference point.

Well, that ain't so now. People still get married, but much later and often after they have had children. An “ex” is the divorced or separated mother of your children. If there are no children, she's not an “ex”, but a former wife or old girlfriend. Before she was an “ex”, she was a wife or a partner or in certain contexts, “the mother of my children”. Before that she was your fiancee, and before that, your girlfriend. “Significant other” is an affectation, like calling women "the distaff side".

What's new are words to describe relationships that involve sex but not the assumption that you will start along the route to marriage or children. If you're having sex and living together, you're partners. When you're having sex, going to the movies, not living together and not intending to get married or move in, that's when you need “boy / girl friend”. If you both accept that you're still looking for Mr/s Right while in the relationship, that's “friends with benefits” unless you are both grown-ups, when you can call it “an affair”. Do not talk about “girlf's” and “boyf's” unless you are as cute as Susie Bubble. And if you're having sex regularly, but only sex, and then getting back to your lives? In the old days that was called “having an arrangement” and personally I think that phrase is preferable to “fuck buddies”. The phrases “fuck buddy” and “friend with benefits” both, to me, speak to a certain shallowness, and even callowness. Which is probably what my sister was really objecting to.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Normal People - Again

For reasons too complicated to explain, I found myself over the weekend needing a serious definition of the phrase “normal people”. The flip definition is that a normal person is anyone who protests that there is no such thing as a normal person: genuine misfits, weirdos, addicts and head-cases know damn well that they aren't like everyone else and that normal people exist, even if they are defined negatively. As not having substance- or activity-abuse issues or a DSM IV-strength Personality Disorder – a group of people colloquially known as “screw-ups”. That's the strong sense of normal. The underlying claim is that you simply can't have much in common as regards background, upbringing, specific developmental abuses and personal attitudes with screw-ups without turning into one yourself. There are very few shades of grey between being a screw-up and normal.

There's a slightly weaker sense of the phrase, as it used in such as examples as “Windows 7 boots fast enough for normal people” or “normal people don't read postgraduate mathematics textbooks as culture”. Normal people, in this sense, are not at either end of the Bell curve: neither dumb beyond belief, nor smart enough to actually use LISP in daily problem-solving life. Normal people can do anything that clever or dedicated non-normal people can do, but just not as well. Doing anything really well – from cultivating a garden to chess - requires an amount of dedication, application and practice that is incompatable with a couple of pints with the gang after work, playing with the kids when you get home, paying attention to your partner when (s)he talks about, well, anything that isn't on your agenda, putting in time at the local church, visting friends and family and of course wasting hours watching reality TV (which is what normal people really do with their lives). Channeling Ambrose Bierce for a moment, in this sense, a normal person is a mediocrity whose motives elude you.

Then there's a judgemental sense of the phrase, as in “normal people don't do X”. Normal people don't blow themselves up on a crowded bus, they don't suddenly shout out a word-salad in the middle of supper, nor do they get fall-over drunk on the second date. They don't have mood swings, collect train numbers and they always notice when their lady partner has had a haircut. A “normal person” wouldn't do or say something you've just done or said that the person you're with wishes you hadn't. We can dismiss this sense of the phrase as nothing more than a fancy insult.

The converse compliment to that insult is as in “gee, (insert name of famous person here) was just like a normal person”. As in having no airs, false graces, attitude, extravagent demands, stand-offishness or distance. They said hello and goodbye and helped you carry your shopping to the car because they could see you were struggling.

For me, normal people live in the world but don't feel it under their skin. They can tune it out, let it in one ear and out of the other, and have most things pass them over like water off a duck's back. Occasionally something will rankle with them for longer than they know is healthy, but not often and not for much longer. As a result of this temperament, normal people generally have enough skills to do their job, but don't acquire any more for the sake of it. They don't stick at exercise regimes past three months (except Marathons – running Marathons is very normal as long as you take longer than three-and-a-half hours to do it), they can't play a musical instrument with facility and don't have maths, science or philosophy degrees. Barristers are not normal, nor are musicians, soldiers and athletes. To adapt the only phrase of Tolstoy's that everyone knows: all normal people are normal in the same way, non-normal people are each non-normal in an unique way.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Sonera, Helsinki and London

This is Helsinki Cathederal, taken, I think on a June evening in 2002. Back then I was working for Sonera, the Finnish telephone company responsible for international traffic (Helsinki and many other parts of Finland have their own phone companies). Every now and then, I would be deputed to attend the monthly meeting of all the subsidiaries: London, Stockholm, Frankfurt and New York. We would meet during the day and the Finns would use it as an excuse to go drinking in the evening. Being tee-total, I would head down to the excellent Nevski restaurant by the harbour for supper. That far north, it doesn't really get dark in June, though the quality of the light changes. In the afternoon, it's a regular summer day, but by 22:30 hours it feels like three o'clock on a sunny November afternoon. My inner clock and calander was seriously confused by the whole experience.

Sonera was at the time embroiled in a series of financial and management scandels and the Finnish government sold it to Telia, the Swedish telephone company. In the summer of 2003, Telia closed the overseas subsidiaries – despite being offered over £2m for the business – and made us all redundant. Our sorrow in London was mitigated by the fact that our CEO, Cliff Derbyshire, had put very generous reduandancy settlements into our contracts. So a quick shout to Shaza Rahhal, Peter Davidson, Jessica Henley and Paul Woolley, who were the team in the London office. Cliff retired, Shaza went to work for Telia, Paul Woolley went to work for his local police as a CSI, Peter went on to run a local business for BT and Jessica went chasing City boys. It was a terrific team.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Revisiting A Home

At the end of October I went back to the house where I was a child. I don't remember the very first place I lived in: I'm told it was a cottage in Yorkshire. My parents moved from God's Own County to Bexleyheath, Kent, on the south-east edges of the London sprawl, sometime in the mid 1950's. This is the house, 5 Hyde Road, with that steep roof. My bedroom was the dowstairs room on the left, until may parents swapped my sister and I over, and I had the upstairs room with a little door to the under-roof attic space.

I did the walk from Bexleyheath station to Hyde Road without thinking. What I hadn't remembered was how short it is compared to the marathon walks I've had to stations since. Every street name seemed to have a ready-made slot in my memory. I realised that I haven't bothered to remember street names since I left Bexleyheath. I get around by landmarks, habit and some kind of internal map, not by knowing that Acacia Grove leads to Black Street and thus to White Crescent, which is what I used to know.

In the Nineties, the difference between have and have-not High Streets became more marked: Kingston, Richmond, Guildford and their ilk get Waitrose and Bang & Olufson, while Hounslow, Bexleyheath and their ilk get Aldi, Western Union and T K Maxx. And those High Streets make Dalston and other such places in east London look like third-world parades.

Maybe it was just too long ago, but I didn't feel any emotions. Boys between the ages of five and eleven pretty much live in the present and their emotions are transient. The scars get left by the cruelties of adolesence. What struck me was how small it was, and how cosy it seemed even if it is a farily uniform post-war suburban development.

While I was taking photographs, one of the three young lads messing around on their bikes – just as I used to – asked me if I was photgraphing for the internet. If I was, I said, I'd be a van with a whirling camera on top. I told them I used to live in that house. One of them told me that his mother lived in three houses: one on Hyde Road, two in other places I didn't understand. I have no idea what you say to that.

Monday, 23 November 2009

One-to-Ones and Conversations

My preferred conversational mode is the informal discussion, that just starts up around a subject and then stops because someone's phone rings or you have to get back to work. I can handle conversation round a supper table if I know the people, but if I don't, I tend to let the practiced talkers do their thing. At the other end are meetings at work, where I only speak if called on, and then keep it short. In between is anything arranged, from “let's have a chat and a pizza” to a one-to-one with a manager. These invariably turn into me listening and the other person talking, and when I do say something, it just launches the other person off again about half-way into my first sentence.

When I was a young lad, people used to say that the important thing was to be “a good listener”. You sat there, seemingly entranced, while the other person went on about... anything. Well, maybe that works if you're the young Marcel Proust and the other person is whoever the original for the Duchesse de Guermantes was. Since I'm not and neither are you, “being a good listener” is not a good deal. Why not? Because it turns me into a nodding donkey and a lot of the time I zone out. After all, I don't need to hear what the other person is saying if they don't need me to say anything substantial in reply.

If it's work, I have to listen, because I need to catch the subtext. Or not so sub-text-y, sometimes. I mean, if your manager says things like “If I didn't want you, I could get rid of you” and “I've been impressed by what I've seen” and “I need you to do ….”, how much interpretation does that need? I've lost count of the number of times he's used phrases like “engage with the stakeholders” and hasn't used phrases like “the sooner we start using the forecasting facilities of SAS, the better”. He needs me to do good work so he can “re-position me and help me get to where I want to go”. Except I told him where I wanted to go and he told me why that was the wrong answer. If he had just said “I need you to do this and in return I will sort out that”, he would have come across as honest. Now he's just come across as insincere. In a one to one, the manager tells you what he needs you to hear and you tell him what he wants to hear. Only a psychopath would think that's a good setup.

A large number of philosophers and psychologists will state without so much as a reservation that we gain a sense of our identity, indeed, that we become aware of our identity, through our interactions with other people. Well, that just ain't so. Almost all dealings of people with each other are instrumental, and since that includes the surgeon who saved your daughter's life, “instrumental” ain't always bad. Almost everyone either doesn't need to interact with us at all or is looking for someone to fit into their plans and fantasies. All you learn from them is that you're so not what they hoped you would be.

I suggest we get most of our positive sense of identity, and certainly I get all of mine, from our interaction with culture: from reading, listening to music, looking at art. (Those are produced by other people, but I'm not interacting with Ed Ruscha or Igor Shaferavitch, I'm interacting with their work.) There are a small number of people with whom I can have a meaningful conversation from time to time, and a slightly larger number of people with whom I can gossip, talk about movies, bullshit about the state of the world and who is and isn't fanciable. That passes the time of day, but it doesn't fill my world.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Bad Transport

The A316 is one of two major westerly arterial roads from London: it turns into the M3. It is surrounded by rabbit warren suburbs where cars are parked both sides of the road and buses can barely pass. If there's an accident on the A316 and they close the road, that's it. You're taking four lanes of heavy fast-moving traffic east- and west- bound and dumping it on two-lane side roads bristling with right turns, traffic lights, mini-roundabouts, traffic-calming and bus lanes. Ain't gonna move. Which it didn't this evening. I left Richmond at six o'clock, saw that the A316 wasn't moving and tried every back street I knew. All of them. Jammed. It took seventy minutes to make a journey that takes ten minutes when the road is clear. I thought I was going to run out of petrol. It was the kind of journey that reminded me of why people arrive home and pour themselves a stiff drink.

The traffic was made worse, and I was only driving in the first place, by the fact that the trains on the Reading and Windsor lines through Richmond aren't getting any further than the western edge of Hounslow Heath. A one-hundred year-old tunnel to take the River Crane under the railway had its foundations washed away by the recent heavy rain. No trains may safely pass. I've been driving to within walking distance of Richmond and catching the trains or tubes. It adds twenty minutes to the commute either way. If I took the emergency buses, it would add forty-five minutes. Which you really want, to be stuck on an emergency bus, stinking of desiel fumes, crawling through school-run SUV hell, at 07:45 in the morning. That would make my day. I'm glad this week is over.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Why Do I Go To Meetings?

Anyone with long-term sobriety asks themselves this from time to time. After all, we have lives that work – pretty much – and the last cravings for a drink or a drug were years ago, so why bother? I don't really have that much I need to share. I'm not sure the experience I have is all that transferable, as I'm an ACoA with a drinking problem, not an alcoholic with a parent problem. As for strength, I don't know that I have any: does it take strength to grind out endless forgettable days or just cowardice? I honestly don't know. And hope? I am so unfamiliar with it, I had to look up what it means: a feeling of expectation that something might happen; grounds for believing that something good might happen. Nah. Not so much. I would not even know what a “good” thing would be to wish for it. Everything in my world has consequences, after-effects and presents a bill for immediate payment.

It's been a long time since I went to a meeting and came out calmer and a little closer to centre – that used to happen all the time in the early days. So why do I go? To be honest, if I wasn't working in central London, I might not go that often, but my regular meeting is at six o'clock three hundred yards from where I work. Do I get any kind of social life from attending? Well, no. I don't. For one thing, I'm a lot older than most of the people there and I know how I felt about having guys with grey hair around when I was trying to have fun.

Maybe it's because I don't want to be crawling on the floor at two-thirty in the morning, crying with self-pity and thinking about calling someone to tell them how awful my life is. I don't want to be driving home someone back from a weekend in the country and almost falling asleep at the wheel because I've been up forty hours straight partying. I don't want to smell of booze on the commute and I don't want to behave like the piss-elegant asshole I could be after a little too much. I don't want entire weekends to vanish in hangovers and the pub and I don't want to find myself sloshed when I only needed a glass of wine with supper.

Do I honestly believe I will relapse? That I will lose what emotional poise I have? No. I think I'm pretty much okay there. I'm not the only person who goes to meetings “just in case”. It's an hour a week – what do I have to lose? Well, I can at times come out feeling worse than when I came in, but that, I have realised, is either because someone said something that stirred up stuff I'd been trying to ignore, or and more likely, that I started fancying someone and of course didn't do anything about it. (Which argues great sense: she's in a meeting fer gawd's sake! She's as screwed up as I am – or worse. Catch is, that's all true, but she's still attractive.)

Just in case” is one reason. The other is that every now and then I hear in those rooms something that speaks directly to my experience, either of drinking in the past, how I felt in the past or living sober now. It reminds me I only look like I'm leading a normal life, but really I'm not. I am not like you. You are not going to die the next time you have a couple of whiskies to get rid of a shitty week. I will. And those people in the rooms are the only people who know I'm not exaggerating when I say that.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Where's The Re-Lo?

You will recall that my grades in my section of The Bank had a re-organisation in summer. That was itself six months after we were told that a re-organisation was coming. Part of the re-organisation was closing offices in Chester, much to the traumatic dismay of almost everyone there. Those with children were having nothing to do with London schools (here “London” means “London commuter zone”), which would, they rightly feared, turn their children into illiterate crack addicts or make them wear burquas. Those whose partners had the higher-paying job in the area weren't moving either. This left about twenty people who were interested in moving to London.

Well, it's five months later and the management still hasn't settled the relocation offer. The latest rumour is that The Bank will pay a premium for two years but if the taker leaves before three years then they will have to repay some of it. You may think that doesn't quite show the required generosity of spirit that an organisation with free cash flows in the billions could afford. You may think that a professionally-run organisation would have had the relocation package in place before making the announcement: after all, it should be part of their standard terms and conditions of employment, right? That, at least, is what some HR professionals of my social acquaintance tell me. In the meantime, anyone who was thinking of moving to London is getting more reluctant by the day. The lack of love and co-operation with which they are being greeted by other parts of the organisation when they try to do their jobs isn't making a good impression on them either. You may think that the organisation would want to get people down and settled in quickly, so it can get on with the difficult task of re-building morale and letting everyone establish their networks.

Oh yes, the morale is shot – at least in my part of the business. The results of the summer staff satisfaction survey sucked so badly that they weren't released. I was privy to a handful of the results. The third quarter survey has closed and I await the lack of announcement of those results with great expectations. Management has done nothing to raise morale – in fact, they are in chronic denial about how bad everyone is feeling. They send out weekly missives describing their meetings for the week and praising selected troops for their sterling efforts. Because everyone is really convinced by that.

The whole exercise has made me appreciate just how effective the old-fashioned re-organisation was. That's the one where the guy at the top decides who he wants to get rid of, then the guys he's keeping decide who they want to get rid of, then the guys those guys are keeping decide who they want to get rid of... and so on. HR is brought in to fill in the P45's, make offers that will dissuade solicitors from taking on employee grievances, and back-fill the due process paperwork. One day names are called, one of the salesmen tries to hit a manager, one of the girls breaks down and cries, rumours fly, no-one else does any work for the day and the announcement is released around midday. It's cheap and nasty, but it leaves most people unaffected because you don't actually change anything except a few reporting lines, and who cares about those? It's a little tougher to do when you have to negotiate with the Union and make announcements to the Stock Exchange, but frankly, what the hell do you employ HR, PR and all those other R's for if not to make it all look legit while you get on with the job? The Bank did it in a manner that was supposed to be “open” but the decisions were still made by a bunch of guys locked in a conference room passing the dutchie on the left hand side and the results bore no relation to anything anyone wanted.

My thought last week was this: five months is way too long to be incompetence. Expecting ordinary white-collar workers to commit for three years is some kind of fantasy, and a claw-back provision is evidence of a very mean spirit or a recognition that people will find those three years unbearable enough to want to leave. No. Something is going on in the Upper Political Stratosphere. It might have been the recent Competition Commission announcement, but if it was, why wasn't the final re-lo package announced afterwards? So it wasn't that. I'm out of options as to what might be going on. But then, The Bank is the ultimate insider business: only the Board and a few Ministers know what's going on. Everyone else is a spectator, a bag man or a messenger girl. Which itself makes for feelings of dignity and worth all round.

Friday, 13 November 2009

My Philosophy of Gadgets

Following on from that last post, what I really want is a gadget that's a phone, handles e-mails and file transfer and connects to anything in sight: 3G, GPRS, WiFi, Bluetooth, 2G, USB, landlines and LANs. It should let me make VoIP calls and handle Skype. It has to play nice with iSync and Outlook. Plus if I attach an external ariel, I want it to connect to satellite services. I want to be able to plug this thing into any telecomms outlet anywhere in the world, have it identify what sort of communication protocol is being used and hook me up. When I plug into a landline, it uses that and not the wireless signal. The microphone cuts out all the background noise and the speaker has hi-fi quality. When a new comms technology passes some kind of acceptance tipping point, I can get an upgrade to include it. I don't want it to be a camera and I don't want it to play music. I have dedicated gadgets for that. I know: it's going to cost. I would be willing to pay.

I was raised as an engineer. (Okay, I have an OND in Engineering and did the first year of an Electrical Engineering degree before going off to read Mathematics and Philosophy.) I regard gadgets as tools to do a job. Non-engineers coo over the champagne colour of their hi-fi separates or how nice the iPod Nano feels in their hands. Non-engineers think that Swiss Army knives are a good idea. Real Engineers would not be seen dead with one. Real Engineers want an optimised tool to do a job, not a gimmick that will break if you put any torque on it. Marketers and designers love smartphones, but Real Engineers don't.

There's another reason I want simplicity of function combined with depth of ability. I want to believe I understand and am or could be a master of my gadgets. A gazillion features are not something I can master. I get nervous around Swiss Army knives: is there a killer feature I haven't found that will make my life easier and more convenient? I still feel that way about my digital camera – there's all sorts of things it can do I haven't internalised yet. (Programming languages are only an apparent exception to that: I can master the language fairly easily and most IDE's are very similar. The libraries are separate toolkits: I don't mind whole boxes of neat stuff I can rummage around.)

A gadget with a dozen redundant features is an offence to my sense of a properly-built, elegant, efficient, simple world. The tools are there to extend my mastery of the world, not to taunt me with my ignorance of twenty-three features I haven't gotten to yet. Non-engineers don't feel that way: they think it's great that they've just discovered their phone can do horoscopes.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Phones, Cameras, iPods and Other Gadgets

My trusty iPod Mini is on its second battery and that's starting to deteriorate. Where once a charge would last four days of ordinary commuting, I'm lucky to get two days out of it now. I could take it back to the tech shop and have them swap in a new battery. Cost about £30. Or I could just upgrade.

If only it were that simple. But there are so many all-in-one options. My mobile is a Motorola V220. I like it, but it's even older than the iPod Mini. It plays nice with my Mac, which the Samsung U600 I had doesn't. I lost the phone I really liked, which was the Motorola V3 Razr. While we're on the subject, I carry a Canon A590 IS as my camera. That's staying. How many cameras have a viewfinder these days?

So why not upgrade to the iPhone? Because it's expensive and I'd still keep the Canon. At £35 a month for an 18-month contract, it costs £97 for the 8GB model. That's a contract cost of £727 or £485 a year. Sure I get all that bandwidth and minutes, but I don't need all those minutes and I won't use all that bandwidth. My life is nowhere near that interesting. Plus I have a fixed abode and a credit rating, so I can get fixed-line broadband. The iPhone is for three groups of people: Apple fanboys; people who think the Apple cool will rub off on them (it doesn't); and people who don't have credit ratings and fixed abodes. None of those groups are me. I can't deny I'm tempted, but I think I can resist it.

So then there's a Nano. The 8GB model is £115 from my nearby Regent Street Apple store or £105+p&p from Amazon. It's the closest replacement for my 4GB Mini. I doubt I'll use the camera, but maybe I will if it's there. In between is the iTouch. The 8GB model is £149 from the Apple Store. I get better software, WiFi, a bigger screen, the camera and all for an additional £34 over the Nano. Same question: do I have an exciting enough life? Plus, I'll only get e-mails if I'm on a WiFi at Starbucks or Virgin trains or like that. Okay: not the iTouch.

I think I can see where this is going. Except for the Apple devices, you know the MP3 players on regular phones aren't going to be as good as an iPod, plus there's no guarantee the phones will work with iTunes on a Mac. So the Nano it is, if I don't just get the battery changed on the Mini. So the last thing I need is an all-singing and dancing phone. Except they all are now.

My current mobile phone costs me around £180 a year on a £15 SIM-only contract. Occasionally I overrun, so call it £240. Finding a neat handset that plays nice with iSync isn't easy. The only reason I need to update is that The Sodding Bank has blocked all webmail accounts, so I have to get home to look at my mails. Or use an Internet shop at £1 a time. A phone with webmail would be useful. A Blackberry price plan from Vodafone costs £10 a month more than the SIM-only with the same amount of minutes, but that's on a 24-month contract for the Blackberry. The phone is free on £25 (or more) a month contracts. At least I could get my e-mails. The issue with the Blackberry is its lingering “Crackberry” image, but I have seen Young Folk using them recently. Looking through the forums, it seems the Blackberry can be made to play with Macs, but not easily. So when the job search starts in earnest I'll need the Blackberry or equivalent smart phone, but not until then.

Monday, 9 November 2009

On Soho Cafes

The best cafe in Soho used to be Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street. It had communal tables at the front and two long bench tables at the back. You might sit next to anyone and strike up a conversation. The staff were extravert Italians and the cakes as good as it got in London. In the mid-Oughties they took out the long communal tables at the back, installed some stairs and opened upstairs. The Italian staff went down the road to Amato. The current Pat Val's décor is drab and lifeless, which can be a description of the staff, who are not Italian anymore. I went down the road to Amato, following a lot of the people from Pat Val's. A year or so ago, Amato changed hands and badly re-furbished: the atmosphere vanished. I went there twice and gave up. It was replaced by a Richoux that is almost empty all the time. Running cafes is in a nation's blood: the Dutch can do it, so can the Italians, Spanish, Austrians and French. Caffee Nero gets it right because it models itself on Italian cafes; a good Starbucks is okay, a poor one is dismal. You don't need armchairs and piped music, but you do need atmosphere, the sound of cheerful activity, good coffee and sweet things to nibble on. Look for the university lecturer in the corner, her papers spread around her, marking or making notes as if she's been there for an hour. Then you've found a good one.

I like the Milkbar on Bateman Street to read after work;

the venerable Bar Italia on Frith Street for a quick espresso;

and Number 34B on Old Compton Street for pancakes.

Friday, 6 November 2009

There's A Place for Me, Somewhere A Place For Me...

For reasons that don't matter but weren't indicative of my ability to work and play well with others, I didn't have a good first year at The Bank. As a result, I got “Partially Met” in my appraisals. Since the grades are given out on a distribution, someone has to get one. Once you've got one, you get all the others. Added to which, I am not of a temperament to be a “manager” as that role is understood at The Bank. Middle managers in The Bank are bag carriers and messengers: when senior management wants their opinion, it tells them what it wants them to say, often in farcical sermons passed off as interviews in the house magazine. That is not me and never will be. You've gathered by now that I don't drink the Kool Aid either. By their standards, I will never meet the criteria for my grade. I accept that, where we differ is that I know their standards suck and they spend more energy in denial than an apprentice cocaine addict.

So when the re-organisation came along this summer, I was given a choice: I could be made redundant after the inevitable failed effort of finding a job in another section (my appraisals would guarantee I wouldn't even get an interview) or I could take a role a grade below mine. I took the money. Under the rules, my salary is protected for two years starting on my date of appointment, after which they can review it and my role, and adjust accordingly. Salaries in the next grade down are thirty percent lower.

So when I accepted that role, both the company and I knew that I would have to leave sometime in the next two years or take a whopping pay cut. Knowing and believing, believing and accepting, and accepting and being unaffected by, are utterly different states of mind. I've been working through them over the last few weeks and it's been painful. I'm almost there. It's only when I am there I can draft a CV and a campaign that will sound positive rather than just help-get-me-out-of-here.

I've been doing this working shit for thirty years. I don't have a pension worth a damn, so I can't take early retirement and get a lower-paid but more manageable job to keep going. Anyway, I'm not sure there are lower-stress, manageable jobs around. Teaching sure ain't it. No public sector job is.

I've worked at a string of companies with busted morale and broken organisations, and some of them are household names. It's left me wondering if all small companies are run by chancers and all large ones have outsourced all the real work and retained the politics. The Bank's Head Office is like one of those mythical castles, with servants, courtiers, knights and nobles. Servants excepted, no-one actually does a real job in those castles: it's all about making alliances, sabotaging your competitors and getting preferment. Am I just going from one frying-pan to another?

The answer to that question does matter because it will affect the way I interview. If I believe it's all bullshit, I'm scuppered, because I can't fool myself anymore. I have to believe that The Bank is dysfunctional – more accurately, that the whole financial services sector is dysfunctional (of course it is: they trained all those people to mis-sell pensions and savings plans and no-one said “no, stop, this is wrong” - not and kept their job anyway) – and that there are decent companies out there with useful products and a right relation with their customers and staff. And that I'll find one. Just like the song.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I Can't Live Without... Caffe Nero, Seven Dials

They know me here, as they know a lot of the people who come in through the doors before about half-past nine each weekday morning. I get a single espresso in the morning and a small tea in the afternoon.

Every now and then I confuse them by changing the order. Sometimes I get croissant in the morning and maybe something in the afternoon. If get either, I have to pay respects to the god of diet and recognise it means I'm feeling upset about something. The afternoon tea is a break from the office. In the summer, I and a colleague would get tea and sit and watch all the pretty girls go by. Then the winter came and all the pretty girls went back to Spain and Italy and France.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Legalising Drugs

I usually steer clear of the detritus of passing political arguments but the drug advice board thing happened just as I'd finished reading Misha Glenny's McMafia: Serious Organised Crime and my brain was in that mode. This is about legalisation, not about whether the Government were right to sack their advisor.

Any product which costs almost nothing to make, has a high consumer value and requires almost no start-up capital and expertise to make is going to be interesting to organised crime. Especially if there are significant excises, customs and sales taxes – which allow criminals to undercut the legal price and still make super-profits. Criminals don't (at least in Europe) make cigarettes, because although a pack of twenty costs almost nothing to produce, you need a lot of money and expertise to set up the factories to make the things. Plus you have to haul a lot of tobacco leaf around. By contrast, the largest LSD factory in Europe in the 1980's was a small house in a sleepy south-west London suburb (Operation Julie). Nobody saw a thing for years.

Any product where there is a significant difference in the taxation imposed by nearby countries with leaky borders or bribable customs officials will also attract the criminals. Tax arbitrage is an easy source of super-profits for the bad guys as well as Barclays Capital Markets. Cigarette smuggling is still a popular sport along the Italian coastline.

Criminals love drugs because the margins are phenomenal and the production and set-up costs are minimal. They like diamonds, illegal immigrants, small electronics, CD's and DVD's for the same reason. Luxury goods – Louis Voitton and Rolex knock-offs – are not much more difficult once you have found your Chinese manufacturer. The work is all about logistics and security: that's why a gang can switch from drugs to people to counterfeit so quickly. Once you have the logistics in place and the guards bribed, you can move almost anything.

Legalising the substance will not remove the criminals from the trade. In fact, it will start a round of violence the like of which we have only seen at the movies, as gangs fight for control of the sale of something that is just too profitable to ignore. Worse, enforcing any licensing regime (for quality, manufacture or distribution) simply turns the British Government into another drug dealer enforcing its right to be in sole control of the trade and making sure it gets its cut. The accompanying corruption of public servants and the Police would make the 1960's pornography scandals look like your maiden Aunt's tea-party.

The debate is often about the absolute or relative harms caused by the drugs, but that's not the real issue. The real issue is about the damage to society caused by the organised crime that will follow legalisation.

(If there are genuine medical benefits for some people from marijuana, then let's confirm it and prescribe if it makes sense. What on earth the medicinal benefits from speed, crack, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ketamine or skunk could be I have no idea.)

Maybe we de-criminalise use but criminalise manufacture and supply as the Dutch do. I suspect the liberalisers would be happy with this. But wait, drivers of taxis, private cars, buses, trains, lorries and cranes have got to be clean and sober. So have doctors, policemen, nurses, teachers, judges and Court officers, customs and excise staff, air traffic controllers, airline pilots, the guys who run power stations, oil refineries and the various power grids, anyone who works power tools or on a construction site... I'd rather like to believe that the guys who designed the buildings I work in and the lifts I use weren't stoned at the time, and triple that for any crucial software that runs anything... The legislation making drugs illegal would be replaced by legislation making it illegal or sackable for various employees to be caught under the influence.

You see where this is going? Given how long drugs stay in the system, the only people who will be able to take drugs without fear of losing their jobs will be the unskilled, unemployed and low-paid. Which is not what the skilled, employed, high-paid liberalisers want: they want to get high as well. But most of them won't be able to because of the jobs they do and because their employers don't want them coming in wasted. And so we get back more or less to the same frustrations we had at the start, except the entire underclass is now wasted all the time and their children go into school smelling of last night's skunk. Legally.

And no, this is England, land of the binge-drinker and exporter of drunken louts to the world. The English are not going to do drugs like the self-respecting middle-class Dutch do: they are going to do drugs like they do booze. Which is going to be a really pretty sight. 

Friday, 30 October 2009

The first draft of anything is… in dire need of improvement

So said Papa Hemingway. Actually he said: "the first draft of anything is shit". You don’t really know what you need to say until you have tried to say it. You may know what you want to say, but if that's all you say, it's just self-indulgence. You say what you need to say. You check the facts you are stating and the assumptions you are making. You search and delete clichés, urban myths, lazy short-cuts, waffle and boilerplate… and replace them with clear, simple ideas well-expressed. Mutatis mutandis if you are working in the visual arts.

Actors, dancers and musicians rehearse, soldiers, sportsmen and athletes train. Drafting is what writers, programmers, designers and artists do – or should do. Fashion photographers used to take hundreds of shots to get the magic for the cover of Vogue (now they take any old thing and Photoshop it to death). Painters scrape off the oil and start over, musicians stop the tape and record it again, movie directors do take after take of a scene. Because that’s the way you get the little flashes of magic that make it something to be proud of.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

I Can't Live Without... Shirts

Every time I want to buy shirts I dutifully walk up and down Jermyn Street looking in all the shops: Turnbull & Asser, T.M. Lewin, New & Lingwood, Harvie & Hudson, Hildtich & Key and Pink.

I always end up back at Tyrwhitt's. I prefer their conservative styling and colours - Hawes and Curtis have gone particularly wild for the A/W 2009/10 season - and they don't use cutaway collars. The fact they almost always have some sort of "sale" going that means you get a shirt for around £25 that is a lot better than anything Marks and Spencer sell at the same price. One the other hand, I always look at Cordings...

... and wish I could wear more of their clothes. I have two pairs of their corduroy trousers (dark blue and dark purple) but their clothes are for the damp English countryside and London has been getting warmer every year recently.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Monday, Monday

Another week's holiday, this one around London because I can't afford to go abroad. This morning was warm and sunny, so I went for a stroll with the camera round Virginia Water.

Autumn colours at their best. In the afternoon, I went to the Ed Ruscha exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and was surprised. I'd always thought of Ruscha as a Pop Artist, but he's developed throughout his career. The best painting there is the Old Trade School Building...

... the windows are boarded up and it's surrounded by chain-link fencing - the painting of the boarding and fencing is extraordinary. It used to teach young men useful trades they could take to the aerospace and defence industries, but it's as dead as those industries are in California. And it's a wonderful composition. I followed that with a burger and ice cream (holiday, remember?) at Giraffe under the Festival Hall - when I think of the awful facilities they had in the 70's - and the Britten Ensemble with Roger Norrington waving his hands at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Purcell, Handel, Hayden, Mendelsohn, Martinu.

Oh, and I had a blinding glimpse of the obvious about the job. Plus that cold has gone. And it's only Monday.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Meditations on a Bar of Chocolate

The other evening I finished a whole 99p bar of Cadbury's Whole Nut. I have a cold, so I'm allowed to eat sugar and carbs. But I only meant to eat a couple of lines or six chunks. As if. I just finished the lot. I didn't want to rush out and buy another, but I did have to finish it.

Alcoholism is: you don't stop once you start. Addiction is: you keep choosing to start. Insisting that starting and then carrying on are choices frees the addict and the alcoholic from dependancy on “cures” or having to believe there's something “wrong” with them that needs endless therapy. It's the start of taking responsibility for yourself.

The real trick is this: even if you do want to start, you don't actually do anything about it. You can think what you like and feel what you like, as long as you don't have that first drink, drug or piece of chocolate. It's a trick because it leaves your head alone and concentrates on your actions. In the early days, it's a lot easier not to buy a drink than it is not to want one, and it's always easier not to buy chocolate than not to want it.

You can do anything alcoholically: drink, drugs, food (over-eating), buying CD's, sex, decorating, working, travelling, running, exercising, name it. Why you do it is between you and the darker reaches of your psyche. That's complicated and messy and even if you did understand it, there's no guarantee you would stop as a result. Stopping is one thing, understanding is another. How you stop is easy – don't start. One day at a time.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Great London Pretty Girl Puzzle

I've just come back from a brief business trip to a Town Outside the M25 with some of the lads from work. And we were all reminded of the Great London Girl Puzzle. Which is this...

There may be some dazzlers out in the E-something postcodes, but where I and everyone I know lives and works, there are no pretty girls. There are women with trim figures, some Eastern Europeans with that fragile and quick-burning glamour, but no pretty girls. Not like Brighton, Chester, Nottingham, Newcastle or Hull. This is not just my opinion: I've checked it out with any number of the lads at work and we all feel the same way. It's a London thing, not a girl thing.

(Note: in what follows, “girls” means “female between the age of eighteen and when they start looking worn or maternal who are studying, have or trying to get proper paying jobs”. “Lads” means “male who is studying, has or trying to get a proper job and between the age of eighteen and when they start taking themselves seriously or have seriousness forced on them”.)

There are a number of theories about why. Mine is that a working in London is now the second or third job you do – you have to do somewhere in the sticks and suburbs first. So that means the girls are about twenty-four to twenty-six before they make it up to the Smoke. They've been working for five years already and have a nasty feeling they are going to be doing this shit for the rest of their lives. This may make for character, but it does not make for pretty. Now I think about it, women in the Oughties look like men did in the Fifties and Sixties: trapped, strained and forcing the fun.

What about the students? Central London should be full of them. There's the LSE, Imperial, Kings, UCL, Birkbeck, SSOA and on and on. Well, those colleges have been selling themselves to foreign students for the money. They also draw from London's multicultural population. So the pretty English girls come down on the open day, see lots of people not-like-them, and choose Hull or Newcastle instead.

The best, due to a fellow lad at work, is this. In the old days, pretty English girls came from the country to the Big Smoke for the freedom, the fun and the money. The jobs they did are now being done by Aussies, Kiwis, Latvians and Russians. Who are harder, more ambitious and not as pretty. Added to which, they can find the freedom, fun and often a better quality of life outside London. So the pretty girls don't come to London anymore.

The London girls have to look credible at work, because they want careers. So they dress, groom and prepare themselves with the same care and attention as the men. De minimus, in other words. There are a few exceptions: the impact Melissa Deep had on a roomful of male telecoms account managers had to be seen to be believed (honeypot, a, round, bees, like). There was only one of Ms Deep in the whole London scene.

Maybe the London boys aren't that worth the effort. After all, unless they're City Boys, they aren't paid enough to set up a decent life, and if they are City Boys, they have other issues. And maybe the girls come to London to get away from the whole marriage, children and family thing. Resigned to a life of unending salaried work, she could give a damn if she partners up or not.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Brush With the UCAS Personal Statement

Yet another hour on the phone with my nephew discussing his Personal Statement. For those who
graduated a long time ago, applying to university has got a whole lot more bureaucratic. Also it's online. Part of the application is the aforesaid Personal Statement, which is a 4000-character (!) essay on yourself and why you want to study whatever it is wherever it is. Only you can't tailor it university by university, so it has to be carefully neutral about the institution.

Preparing for an earlier draft, I asked the Young Folk at work what they did for their statements. My manager said he talked a lot about his extra-curricular activities - which made sense since he's that sort of person (an invaluable part of the Sports and Social Club, Fire Warden). An even younger analyst said he talked about why he liked the subject and a little bit about his pastimes, but had also put in paragraphs relating the other subjects he did at A-level to the one he wanted to study.

The Nephew has the same genetic difficulty presenting himself as I do, his mother does and all his grandparents do or did. We just don't do sharing ourselves – our thoughts and ideas, yes, but ourselves, no. (Look carefully at my entries on this blog: are they about me or are they reports of my passing thoughts and opinions?) He wants to study history and if you talk to him for ten minutes you will hear his interest in the subject. For god's sake he's read books about the early Crusades.

My only contribution has been a) editing, and b) asking questions. Plus of course patience and a little knowledge of and sympathy for the awful struggles going on inside the poor lad. I bought him 40 Successful Personal Statements: For UCAS Application, which on first pass scared the living daylights out of me and then, having realised that they teach even less grammar and writing technique than they did when I went to school, The Complete Plain Words. But then I buy everybody that.

Maybe some people can just write about themselves and why they want to study Serbo-Croat and Theoretical Physics. If you asked me what I wanted to study Mathematics and Philosophy I might have said something like “Logic”, but the simple answer was that I'd started out with Electrical Engineering (vocation) and then read some philosophy and knew that was it. It made sense to me in a way that nothing else ever had or ever has. I'm guessing that's the way my nephew feels about history. But how do you say that in boilerplate? And without opening up a question you couldn't answer? Yet it's the best answer there is.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Middle-Class Chavs

Right, I'm going to get this off my chest once and for all. It's not nice to talk about class or style and the English – unless you're being rude about the rich, wealthy and stylish, of course. The proper view is that the moral worth, personal charm and pleasance of a person cannot be known by outward signs but only by keeping their company on their terms. This is, of course, the most arrant bosh but it goes down well. It's true that none of us are on interview form all day and all of us would like to be able to take back the odd first impression. But some people go way past this. They thought about what they did to make this list and so they don't get excused.

Dreadful Parents, pushing their huge strollers and frustrated, wailing children round suburban shopping centres; Commuter Chompers, desperately scarfing down Burger Kings on the later evening commuter trains; Pavement-Blocking Paula and Friends, walking slowly four wide on narrow London pavements as if there are no other people in the world; Tennants Terry, drinking himself inebriate on his way home and stinking the place out with booze fumes; Popcorn Peter, chomping away in the seat behind me at the cinema; Mobile-Phone Mandy, making her social arrangements so, like, we can all hear her; Chanting Colin and Scarf-Waving Wally on their way to a football match; Wales-Supporter Clive and all those self-satisfied overweight bozos who fill Richmond and Twickenham after a rugby match. Anyone who drives an SUV. There are probably a hundred more, but those are the ones who appear in my little world.

Some of these people earn six-figure sums as consultants at Accenture, BBC bureaucrats, senior civil servants and soi-disant senior managers in local councils. I don't care where they went to school or what Daddy-in-Law does for a living. They are middle-class chavs.

Dreadful Parents should leave their children with their friends (oh, wait, maybe they have no...). Pavement-blocking Paula is doing it deliberately (she's in London, it's busy, don't tell me she hasn't noticed). You have to live in the area to know what a pain Wales-Supporter Clive is. Commuter Chompers? Tennants Terry? Popcorn Peter? Mobile Phone Mandy? SUV Drivers? We're in agreement here.

Chavism is not about accent, education or undesirable post code. It's about a gross and wilful lack of style, taste, manners and consideration. And no, it's not a wonky little part of them. It's who they are through and through. And I don't care if they do love their cat and randomly donate to charity.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Vanilla Shakes at Ed's

I took this very early one Thursday morning at the start of the Oughties, on my way to Tower Hill and all things AT&T. Thursday was "routing day" when I tipped up early to get the LCR analysis done before the crowd appeared and distracted me. I was using a simple camera and analogue film. But when it works, it works.

Yup, it's a photograph because I felt so down today I had a vanilla shake from Ed's in Soho. There's nothing wrong with the shakes at Ed's - in my not-so-humble opinion, they're the best in town, and priced accordingly. It's just that I don't want sugar when I'm feeling okay. I'll blame the weather and the darker evenings. At least I'm two-thirds of my way through the Phenomenology.

Monday, 12 October 2009

On AA Birthdays

There's another reason I'm feeling odd and unsettled and my diet still has too many carbs and and and. It's almost my AA Birthday. My last drink was Saturday 9th October 1993, when I went to see Sleepless In Seattle with an attractive former colleague. I had one or two glasses of wine and it felt like someone was scraping the inside of my skull with a fork. I called the AA telephone office at ten o'clock that Monday and went to my first meeting on Wednesday 13th October 1993. I haven't had a drink or a drug since that Saturday but I count the 13th as my AA birthday. Of course, the programme is one-day-at-a-time, so no day is supposed to be special, but sobriety birthdays have a meaning way beyond what we call a “belly button birthday”. All that time ago, I made this huge decision because I felt my life was totally f....d. I was tired of being drunk, I was tired of being tired and I was tired of thinking it was all my fault, that I was useless, that I didn't understand the world and was making no progress in it. I had no idea what relationship drinking bore to any of that because my drinking never took me anywhere dangerous or illegal and I never harmed anyone as a result of it (I pissed plenty of people off, but pissed off isn't being harmed.) I was, of course, way more emotionally jerry-built than I had any idea at the time. It's taken me years to sort all that stuff out. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will. Someone said something at my meeting the other week: as an alcoholic, you survive, but you don't rise. And that's what comes back to haunt me. I crashed and I've got back to where I was, but I never get any further. Most of the time I can ignore that. But on my birthday, it looms large.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The A - Z Classical Music Project

A couple of years ago my morale was really low and only started to recover when I thought up a little project. One CD by a composer I had never heard of before from each letter of the alphabet: it had to be budget-price and on the shelves of the old Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus and I had to buy it on a Friday evening after work. I could buy in any order. This was how it went:

Anton Arensky, Piano Trios, Chandos
Rutland Boughton, Oboe and String Quartets, Helios
Doreen Carwithn, ODTAA and Others, Chandos
Francois Devienne, Four Bassoon Concertos, CPO
Giles Farnaby, Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord, Naxos
Francesco Geminiani, Cello Sonatas Op 3, L'Oiseau-Lyre
Johann Hasse, Salve Regina, Arkiv
Akira Ifukube, Ritmica Ostinata / Symphonic Fantasia 1, Naxos
Hyacinthe Jadin, Sonates pur pianoforte, Harmonia Mundi
Ivan Khandoshkin, Violin Music, Naxos
Thomas Linley, Music For the Tempest etc, Helios
George Muffat, Florilegium Secundum, L'Oiseau-Lyre
Ernesto Nazareth, Tangos, Waltzes and Polkas, Naxos
Georges Onslow, String Quartets Op 9, CPO
Giovanni Platti, Six Flute Sonatas, Op 3, Naxos
Max Reger, Four Sonatos for Unaccompanied Violin, Dorian Recordings
Johannes Schenk, Le Nymphe de Rheno Op 8 Vol 2, Naxos
Ernst Toch, Tanz-Suite etc, Naxos
Leopoldo de Urcullu, Guitar Music, Naxos
Henri Vieuxtemps, Cello Concerto No 1 and 2, EMI Classics
Unico Van Wassenaer, Six Concerti Armonici, apex
Iannis Xenakis, Various, apex
Eugene Ysaye, Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Helios
Jan Zelenka, The Lamentations of Jeremiah, Helios

I called it quits after five months in Spring '08. No E. It turns out every composer beginning with an E who isn't Enescu is Elgar. The most commonly-used letter in the English language has the least number of composers. There was Thomas Quilter, but I just can't do historical English folk songs. I did cheat slightly: the Reger was in my collection before I started, but I hadn't heard of him when I bought it. I had heard of Xenakis (who hasn't?) but it was an excuse to buy a CD of his stuff. A couple of weeks after I bought the Carwithen, I heard it on Radio Three. That happened again with the Linley. If you're going to do this, you have to stop listening to Radio Three.

Sadly Tower Records has been no more for a long while now, which means that Central London has nowhere good to browse through classical music. To Amazon we all have to go.