Friday, 31 July 2009

What's Normal?

There are two schools of thought about the existence of “normal”. The first is that there's no such thing, and the second is that there is, but you have to be a fuck-up or excellent to know it. I subscribe to the second school.

Normal isn't about what you are, what you do or what's happened to you, it's about how it affects you, how you handle it and how you carry yourself in this world. To keep it simple: normal people don't go in for any extreme behaviour, and don't have extreme and lasting reactions to the indignities, insolences and incompetencies of life. If you're a normal person, all but the most dramatic events in life roll off your back like water off a duck's back, leaves you pretty much unchanged. The world as seen by normal people is an impersonal place and much of what happens in it is not the result of human agency, so they don't take anything personally and don't get upset when things don't work. Normal people accept that when they and other normal people go to work, they are bound by the rules of the institution for which they work and are therefore not responsible for doing bad things to people during working hours. They didn't, after all, make the rules.

Not-normal people see a world made by people, in which most events happen because someone decided that or not, did or didn't do, thought of or ignored something that made whatever it was happen. Someone made the rules. Someone decided to spend the money on the roof not the medicines, the computer systems not the number of social workers. Someone left the train full of discarded newspapers from last night, and those parents definitely decided to bring their child on this eleven-hour flight, where it is keeping us all awake with its crying and squalling.

Normal doesn't mean ordinary, dull or conventional. It doesn't mean well-behaved, it doesn't even mean particularly moral. Normal people can be into BDSM or missionary sex once a month, or just have given up. They can like spicy food and flamenco or white food and Big Brother. They can be graphic artists, plumbers, driving instructors and bus drivers – but mostly they work in central and local government, the NHS, education, banks and other large institutions. They can be spiteful, kind, honest, boot-lickers, creeps or stand-up guys. They drive at thirty-five in a thirty-zone and occasionally park really badly.

What they don't do is steal from the supermarket or drive at sixty past a school at tipping-out time. They don't sell drugs to schoolchildren and they don't get into fights because they like it. Normal people aren't alcoholics, junkies, degenerate gamblers and people who sleep with anyone they pick up just so they don't have to be alone. They don't have a DSM-IV personality disorder (you have to be seriously messed-up to have one of those). They don't grieve too long, hold grudges too long and get upset when you downsize them.

That's the good news. On the other hand, they aren't on the Olympic squad, don't know any chess opening more than about four moves deep and they don't even get to the heats of a major music competition. The highs and lows of human achievement and failure are not theirs. No-one in a Western professional Armed Service is normal: the standards and risks are way too high.

This may seem a little unfair on normal people: can't they achieve excellence as well? Bluntly, no. Being good is one thing, being excellent takes another one or two orders of magnitude of practice, dedication and single-mindedness, which means far more time than most people will have after they pay proper attention to their everyday lives. John Coltrane was a finer man than many of us, but even the other jazz musicians noticed he practiced a lot. CEO's who do nothing but work aren't normal either, nor are creative mathematicians (who will tell you that you have to work six days a week just to stay in the game). They may be having fun and could not think of anything better to do, but they are not “normal” - and thank God for it.

After you're twenty or so, you're either normal or not. Whatever it is that turns people not-normal has happened – and maybe it was the genes – and cannot be undone. Nor can being normal. You can change the details of your behaviour, your style and manner, but not the fundamental emotional reactions, and you can hope that whatever it is that will reveal you as a not-normal will never actually happen. A friend of mine back in the day once said: “inside all of us is a normal person screaming to get out”. The more I see, the more I think this is not true. Everyone goes off the rails, the only question is when and for how long. Normal people get back on fairly quickly, while the rest of us are de-railed for life. Some of us were never on the damn rails in the first place.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Movie List: Part 3

The Battle of Algiers – Gillo Pontecorvo
If the French army ever had a colonel as lucid and objective as Colonel Mathieu, sent in to quash the OAS after its first bombing campaign, then it was a lucky army. When he dismisses the border controls at the edge of the Kasbah with the remark “If anyone's papers are going to be in order, it will be a terrorist's” you know the guy is smarter than you average flic. The French army were not angels, but neither were the OAS – Pontecorvo makes you realise just how shattering bombing civilians is. Made with the assistance of the people in the Algiers Kasbah and many amateur actors, the film is tight, balanced, cool and manages to get you feeling for both sides. It's still the finest political film ever made.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her – Jean-Luc Godard
This is the movie where a lump of sugar dissolving in a cup of coffee becomes the entire universe, each bubble a galaxy against the blackness of space. You have to see it to believe it. The opening has a 360-degree pan round a suburban housing estate: before it's half-way through you don't know if you're going right-to-left or vice-versa or where on earth you are. That's why Godard is a genius. “Her” is Paris, and Juliette Janson, a housewife who has to turn tricks in Paris to earn extra cash to pay the bills in her family's new and more expensive apartment in the suburbs. It's based on an article about such housewives – called “shooting stars”. The film is Godard at his poetic best.

My Girlfriend's Boyfriend – Eric Rohmer
This was the film that converted me to Rohmer: it bore a reasonable resemblance to my own love life at the time. The fact that it was set in an Eighties suburban development of Paris also helped, as did the wonderful performance of the central character by Emmanuelle Chaulet and the fact that the two male leads, Eric Viellard and Fran├žois-Eric Gendron, had a lot of characteristics in common with me as well. The structure is neat, the story moves along, the moments are real and it feels real, as all Rohmer's movies do.

Grand Prix – John Frankenheimer
This remains the best film about motor racing ever made. It's set in the Golden Age of semi-pro Formula One, before the huge budgets, wind-tunnel testing and non-stop circus. There are real motor racing drivers in the background (look out for Graham Hill's moustache), while the climactic ending was to be done for real in the 1967 Monza Grand Prix when Honda won its only race with John Surtees at the wheel. The cars are Formula Three dressed up as Formula One, and the tracks are for real. The on-car filmed racing sequences are still more exciting than the live broadcasts. The scene you will remember for ever is Antonio Sabato picking up Francois Hardy and I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Last Seen Wearing (Inspector Morse) – BBC
How this Season Two, Episode Two tale got by the BBC censors I will never know: it drips the same insight and contempt for the influential upper-middle classes that comes off the pages of Raymond Chandler. A depressed and morose Morse crosses his own boss, an influential businessman whose daughter has gone missing, exasperates Lewis with his insistence that the girl is dead, gazes at a field of teenage girls in sports kit and interviews a young but buxom Elizabeth Hurley. It's the 1980's and there's an air of money, power and intrusive change – that mechanical digger outside Morse's house is a metaphor. It's the standout episode from a standout series.

The Long Goodbye – Robert Altman
Chandler purists were outraged by this adaption. Elliott Gould shambles through the story the hippest Marlowe there ever was. Today it's a classic and regarded as one of the best Chandler adaptations ever.

Catch Us If You Can – John Boorman
The best Swinging Sixties movie made: it's as sour and refreshing as a lemon, sharply written, the photography is luminous and it doesn't matter that the acting creaks a little.

Duck Soup – Marx Brothers
You haven't seen this? Get the boxed set of the early Marx Brothers from Amazon and do so now. It contains the funniest scene in the history of cinema.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Imagine This

I'm going to ask you to try to imagine something. Imagine that everything you ever did, however high as a kite it might have sent you at the time, always felt hollow because there was only ever you doing it, because you had to plan it, get there, get back and always do it on your own. Imagine that you never had any active encouragement to do anything you wanted to do and did. No-one stopped you, but no-one helped you either. Imagine whenever you did things with other people, you never quite knew why. Imagine half the sex you had was faked (oh yes, men can have fake sex too). Imagine looking at the world and wondering why people did what they do, and when you tried it, wondering what you must be missing out on because otherwise what's the fuss? Imagine that no matter where you are and who you're with, at the back of your mind, you don't want to be there. Not because you don't like wherever and whoever it is, but because you just went there faux de meiux. Tricky, isn't it? Keep trying. What you'll have problems with is getting the exact feeling of emptiness, the exact sound of a hollow steel drum from your insides, the exact way the feeling of pain sweeps through you when you heard the sounds of laughter in the next room. Now imagine that nothing seems to be able to make you feel better – not even drugs and booze and movies and chocolate and sex, not even all of them together. Except maybe for a moment. Which fades.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Why Soaps Aren't Drama

There is a fascinating series to be written about a real hospital: how people lie around in casualty for hours because there is only one decision-making doctor and he's in an emergency surgery for the rest of his shift, how people with cancers are turned away as being pregnant or suffering from indigestion, how doctors don't dare call consultants at the weekend and one consultant would rather leave a patient suffering than deal with another consultant's case – Private Eye's On The Rounds or any of the medical blogs will give a writer and producer endless material. A few dozen hours spent with nurses and disenchanted NHS managers will give them the inside stories and the touches of realism you need.

That series is not Casualty, Holby City or any of the others currently on British television. None of those hospitals is recognisable as any I have ever been in. Where are the groups of nursing assistants gossiping at the admin desk but doing nothing? Why is a consultant wandering around the ward waiting for something to happen? Why are the staff talking in English voices? How did any patient get treatment within three hours? How on earth did they find a nurse who knew the patient's name? And where did they dig up the awful chavs who have family rows by the hospital bedside? If there's one thing that impresses me about hospitals, it's how quiet, considerate and well-mannered the visitors are – and my local hospital is the West Middlesex. What are doctors doing having affairs with nurses or each other? Have you seen real doctors and nurses? Would you have an affair with them? Anyway, that myth grew up in the time when a fair number of nurses came from the same strata of society as the doctors – rather as airline stewardesses came from a similar strata as their passengers in the Fifties and Sixties, when airline travel was for an elite, not you and me.

You have to like your characters to tell stories about them – even the bad guys, in fact, especially the bad guys. You can't like them unless you let them into your head. And who would want to let the endless parade of chavs, dysfunctionals, mediocrities, uglies and nobodies who make usual people in The Bill? It's as if there is a guideline that attractive, intelligent, well-balanced and communicative people must not be portrayed.

You also have to understand the world of your characters, and by the nature of the job of writing, what most writers understand is the world of the freelance and the edges of the State arts bureaucracy and the BBC. They have never worked in a public- or private-sector management role and don't know what happens there. They haven't worked on the railways, in a hospital, a local council, a bank, a retailer or anywhere else. They have no idea how modern corporations and institutions work. I'm not expecting every writer to be Neil Simon, but they ought to do better than the utterly unrealistic portrayal of journalism and politics that is State of Play. Any journalist who behaved as the Kelly MacDonald character did would never keep a job on a national newspaper.

The major employers of writers in the UK are the Big Soaps. Soap operas have strict conventions, the most important for our purposes is that the characters cannot develop, only suffer random setbacks that result from the clash of circumstance and their static character (in tragedy, the setback arises from the character, not a car crash). Hence no-one can learn, there is no development: slimy Nick Cotton is down but will return, as nasty as ever, in a few episodes' time. In a Soap, these defined and stable characters meet life's insults, challenges, whips and scorns and fight back, break down or run away and cry, as they might. But never change – even when they are written out. (Okay, the best cop show ever made – The Shield – has the structure of a soap opera, as does The West Wing. Sometimes it can work. )

Soap characters live in the most heavily-populated town in England: Denial. They cannot believe this could happen, nor that you could have done it to them. What were you thinking? You're in trouble now, this could ruin everything. I can't believe this has happened. It can't be true. Not only are English soaps are set in Denial, they are set in the lower-income end at that, Denial-by-the-Industrial Estate. This limits the characters even more, as they have no money or time for any moments of contemplative life, their every waking moment taken up with the daily round, dodging, diving, grafting and, oh yes, drinking tea and beer. This ensures the viewer never thinks to ask why the characters don't do something about their lives. The Soap inhabitants of Denial are nothing like the people who really live there but a parade of stock characters, who appear in every Soap, sometimes wearing a stethoscope, sometimes pulling a pint, sometimes teaching a class.

Because the Soap cannot countenance change, it is not drama. Drama is about change: characters develop through meeting or not the circumstances they find themselves in. The Soap therefore has to substitute conflict and confusion for drama (there's nothing wrong with either as plot devices - Romeo and Juliet has a plot based on the conflict between the Capulets and Montagues, but it's a love story). Writing conflict and confusion is a lot easier than writing drama: all you need are people shouting at each other because they thought that he was cheating on her with Sally Evans, when all he was doing was hiding her birthday present there. It's why Soaps are reassuringly unrealistic, as our daily lives are carefully organised to reduce the possibility of conflict and so little happens in them that there is very little room for confusion.

Soaps corrupt writers. A writer's job is drama, and there is no drama without change, development, a character's strengths holding them up through a crisis as their weaknesses threaten something fundamental about their existence. This can be done without guns, crossed messages, mis-communication and fist-fights: it can be done without conflict. Eric Rohmer's charming little ditties are drama on exactly this level.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Living With Yourself: Part Five

We had reached the bit where you were extolling the virtues of grinding it out, keeping a stiff upper lip and behaving like a professional when I was stuck in a job and life I didn't like. I should spare everyone my feelings and get out, leaving behind such a huge pink cloud of goodwill that people will wonder why I left.

That would be called “denial” and it is very definitely a Bad Thing.

You see, for those of you who haven't been there and don't know – it's not like having a headache or a cold or a cough. It's like having a permanently bad knee, or tinnitus, or air bubbles in your retina which cause blank patches, or an ache that won't go away because the bones didn't quite heal right. When something happens to you, gentle reader, you get upset, you get angry or down in the dumps: that's the emotional equivalent of a cold. You can “move on” from that – if you can find somewhere to go - or you can adjust, behave professionally, take it in your stride. What happened to us is for life. We can learn some tricks – they teach you to “manage” tinnitus, which means they can't cure it, and you can “manage” it, but it doesn't go away – we can manage our behaviour and reactions, but the underlying emotions are still there and if the trigger is too strong, blooey – we're off. Would you say to someone born with a dodgy heart “so you have a dodgy heart, get over it”? Maybe if you're that insensitive. What we have is like a dodgy heart – no, metaphorically, it is a dodgy heart. If you're a normal person, you have no idea what I'm talking about, and if you do know you might not believe that your emotional stuff is as permanent as a physical condition, but it is. The deep emotional stuff is as debilitating, hampering, disabling, disadvantaging, irritating, upsetting and painful as any serious physical injury.

So when you say words to the effect of “grind it out”, “get over it”, “you need to move on”, ask yourself what you're really asking us to do. It's okay to ask that we stop moaning around you – if done with some firm kindness, that's not insensitive. Are you asking that? Or are you honestly suggesting that we leave behind emotions we can barely name caused by incidents we can't even remember in the same way you left behind the carpets when you moved house?

That's one of the things you don't get. We often don't know where it hurts, what hurts and what effect that hurt is having on us. Get an abscess on your foot and you will soon wind up with pains all through your back as you adjust how you walk and hold yourself. If you don't know what's happening, are you going to connect the neck pain with the foot problem? We know something wasn't right, but we don't know what because we don't know how it was supposed to be. That's another of the things you don't get. You can, in the end, look at your foot and you know you're not supposed to have an abscess there – we don't know what's right and wrong, what was us and what was them.

Does this stuff really last as long as this? We really can go into our late middle age with it? Doesn't it fade away? Like the colour of the spines of books exposed to sunlight? Wrong analogy. It's cracks in walls, too much sand in the cement, trees drying out the soil in your foundations; it's the way your face changes as you get older and you did nothing to make it look like that, it just happened; it's the way your body just decided it would not recover from that collision in the rugby match so quickly. The soul might be immortal, but it is not ageless. It wears and tears and cracks and you have to go round fixing it.

Call no-one normal until they are dead. And then call them lucky. Lucky that nothing happened in their whole lives that hit one of the weaknesses in their morale, identity, character or emotional make-up. Lucky that if it did, they had friends, relatives or colleagues who could help them, people to tell them how to handle it, that it isn't their fault, that, yes, actually that boss / girlfriend / boyfriend / relative / whoever is a Bad Person / degenerate addict / thief / psycho and you are best off away from them. What you don't get is that we never had anyone like that.

The question is: what can we change, what do we have to live with and what won't we give up?

Monday, 20 July 2009

Employment Update

The Manager called on Saturday morning (!) to tell me that I hadn't got any of the jobs I had applied for – which, given that he had told me that he would oppose me getting any of them, wasn't such a surprise. I agreed to dodge the process whereby I got the “at risk” letter and had to look for another job in the company, and go straight for a role a grade lower. (I keep the same money and conditions.) Which was what I was expecting (2:1 on; 2:1 against, compulsory redundancy).

Now what I have to do is focus on the positive side. I started the year assuming I would be out of work by now. I have a job. Now I can get on with the house, have a holiday, buy some toys... Work will still suck, but I can live with that if a chunk of the rest of my life is making progress.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Metaphysics of Juries

I'm on Jury Service this week. The first trial was stopped short when the main witness for the prosecution – a twenty-year-old girl whose boyfriend, the Crown were about to allege, had put a knife in her back during a drunken argument – maintained in contradiction to her statement to the police that it was an accident. The Crown dropped the charges, though frankly I think they would have had a good run at it despite her testimony – and we returned a verdict of Not Guilty on the judge's direction. At least we were sworn in. The second case plead out at the last minute, so we never even entered the Court. The third one is on-going, so I can't comment.

The thing is this. Down in the waiting room, the usher calls out fifteen or sixteen names. You sing out when you hear yours and line up, to be taken to the Court. At this point, you are not a Jury, because there's fifteen of you and you haven't been sworn, but you are more than a bunch of guys following someone in a black cloak. You're a Jury-In-Waiting. Not a Jury, and yet one. In-Waiting, a sort of limbo, each juror in an incoherent state of being and not-being a juror, only fixed in one eigenstate or the other by being called by the Clerk and swearing-in. In a state of Waiting, ready to do what's needed, excluding all other things, but yet no acting either. It's an old phrase from a more expressive time.

It's my third time, but they changed the rules a couple of years ago. Once you were done after the third time. Now they can call you every two years. If they do call you, don't try to get out of it – do your duty. It's mostly sitting around, but juries are so important that every Labour and the odd Conservative government tries to get rid of them, or restrict the cases they can hear. When you speak as a Jury, no-one can ignore you, gainsay you or contradict you, you are forbidden by law from explaining your decision and they can't ask. Only God-like senior judges in courts of appeal can over-rule the twelve of you.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The History Boys

I'd been wondering if I should watch The History Boys for some time, any reluctance caused by the trailers which suggested that it was Stand and Deliver in an idyllic Yorkshire setting. A friend told me I really should see it, so I did. Stand and Deliver it sure ain't. It's probably the most cynical exercise in... I have no idea in what. Pandering to everything bad about the English. Where the hell do I start?

It's set in 1983. It has to be. In 1985 British teachers started a campaign of strikes that ended in 1987 with the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act. In 1986 the two-tier syllabuses and examinations at sixteen – GCE's for brighter pupil's and CSE's for the rest – were replaced with a two-tier examination called the GCSE based on a common syllabus. In 1985, Britain was the only country in the world that taught elementary calculus to under-sixteens: after the GCSE, it became possible to get an A-level without knowing the derivative of sin(x). 1983 is British education Before The Fall. It's Britain before the Fall of the 1984/5 Miner's Strike, after which the Left had no moral centre.

The History Boys themselves have astounding confidence, memories like fly-paper, the concentration of astronauts and a security about their sexual identity that means they no hang-ups whatsoever about the well-meaning but gently gay Fat Teacher feeling them up as he gives them rides home on his motorbike, despite the fact that only one of them has a girlfriend (the school secretary, this being the only school in the world where the secretary isn't about a hundred years old.) They are what big, well-financed sixth-formers look like from the outside – but not on the inside. They are introduced to us as the best the school has ever had.

The History Boys says it's about education, the idealism of the Richard Griffiths character versus the cynical tricks of the Stephen Campbell Moore character. Griffiths will educate them – as well as make them learn poetry by heart (they quote Stevie Smith – Stevie Smith!) and the endings of camp films and plays by heart – but Moore and his tricks will get them into Oxbridge. It says it's a feel-good movie, but a feel-good movie has to have something at stake for our heroes, and there is no chance in hell these History Boys are going to fail. Not one. They have no weaknesses, their families don't exist and the whole thing takes place in an idyllic valley somewhere near Sheffield. Sheffield was one of the most prosperous town in the country, but by 1983 it was closed for business. The Full Monty was set in Sheffield in 1972 and it didn't get any better afterwards.

My friend gets very cross with me when I criticise a film for being “unrealistic”. He thinks I mean that the clothes were wrong or that the bus was the wrong type. I can live with that. Except when the story depends on it. Teenage boys are not relaxed about sixty-year old teachers groping them and they would not have the relationship they have with the character if he did – but then, if they did, and he didn't, the whole ending would disappear in smoke. And that's what the whole thing is – a smoke-and-mirrors magic trick written for people who want to be deceived. The lie is that it's all painless: that excellent A-level results (especially in 1983) could be gained while learning the ending of Brief Encounter, whereas that much work leaves people changed for life. It was A-levels and the university interviews that was the rite-of-passage. University and a degree was the reward for A-levels well done. The myth of pain-free life. Any time you can put that in a movie, you will find a willing audience in Britain.

If I'd been given the script? Well, the Sexually Confident One would have had three girlfriends in the course of the film. His mate would have been pining for some unattainable beauty and caught having a shag with an all-too-attainable one. No homosexuality and the Campbell Moore character would have gone to Jesus College, Oxford. We would have seen how good Rudge was at Rugby – that would have been my opening scene. We would have seen a Saturday afternoon in Sheffield so we understood why they wanted to leave. If they really cared about history, they would know where the best courses for their periods were – that discussion would have been in there and I would have sub-contracted it to a History teacher at a top public school. We would understand why they want to go to Oxford or Cambridge – contacts, CV, Footlights (one of them is a demon pianist and the other sings), whatever. Why were they interested in History? A few hi-jinks involving drink, soft drugs and someone else's girlfriend. Edited highlights of a real Oxbridge interview. But mostly we have to care that they get in – and not just because, well, they would, wouldn't they, because how could you not want to go there? Each one of them has to have a failing they need to overcome if they are to get in, and since there's eight of them that's enough story for anyone. And that's why you're going to care – because you want them to overcome their faults. Oh, and one little thing: at some point we the viewer get to see how much a conscientious A-level and Oxbridge History student has to read. The sheer pile of books, lingered over for one minute of it and we're sold on these guys being serious.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Living With Yourself: Part Four

The therapeutic idea of normality is one thing, the common idea, found in counselling and every twelve-step meeting in the world, is something else entirely. This is normality as fitting-in, being able to make the right noises and gestures at the right time, feeling part of where you live and work, recovering quickly from life's upsets, and somehow being able to live without any one person's approval and brush of any one person's disapproval, gliding through the world in a haze of well-balanced equanimity. This is the goal of many people who have had chaotic emotional lives that led to substance abuse. I understand why, but it's not something I'd hold up as an ideal. It's a little too Buddhist for me.

Some things about ourselves we can change at any point in our lives – which is why there is almost no excuse for dressing badly, not being able to cook and being badly-groomed after the age of thirty. The only acceptable excuse is that you will be ostracised by the only peer group you have for not wearing a track suit and white trainers.

Other things are a little more difficult. We can learn to change the way we react to events that happen more frequently than events that happen infrequently: commuters eventually don't even notice that the train is ten minutes late – unless they have been standing since entering Zone 6. No-one ever learns to react with resignation or equanimity to being made redundant, and nor should they (though some people are overjoyed because it's what they want). And some things pass straight through some people while upsetting others deeply.

In common with many people from my background, I don't do bonding and I don't do fun. No fancy dress, fairground rides and paper hats at Christmas. No pub crawls, treasure hunts or bungee-jumping. I went paint-balling once and I'd like to give it another go when most of the others aren't all ex-South African Army Rangers (no, I'm not kidding, some of those guys could vanish into the ground right in front of your eyes.) I don't do mentors, father-figures or authority either - I respect your expertise and ability, but not your position. I don't believe in compliments much either: managers use them because they have been told to and women use them because they think it will make up for saying no. I can take collegial comments on my work, but those biannual appraisals? Any criticism of my work or behaviour threatens my very survival. Because you're plotting to sack me and I'll be without an income. Because you're going to pass on the pay rise and I'l be five percent or more less well-off next year than this. Because you've stored this up for five months and not done anything to help, because all you do is look for faults, because you have nothing constructive to say or do.

Get the idea? You may be unfazed by appraisals, being told no, by fake compliments from your manager, and be able to go happily on the company bonding outings while listening to the most crass motivational codswallop. I can't. It hits all sorts of primeval stuff.

Is it “who I am”? No, it's “how I behave when you do stuff that hits my nerve”. My having nerves there may make me a little hard to work or live with, given you think it's acceptable to behave like that. (If you don't think it is, but you do anyway because that's the game, that's what “lacking integrity” means. If you were wondering.) My having nerves there may mean I'm going to have a hard time finding somewhere I can settle, but that doesn't mean I'm “wrong”. If I wanted to stay in the employment environment I'm in, I would have to work on this stuff. I would have to play the game. One of the reasons they play the games is that the work they do is marginal at best and redundant at worst. They could vanish overnight and no-one would notice the difference for months. I'd prefer to do some real work.

We fit into our environments more or less well. We are under no obligation to fit in, but then the environment is under no obligation to support us if we don't. Sometimes the answer is not to change ourselves but to change our environment. Get another job, another partner, another neighbourhood, move your son to another school, change the gym you work out in. Sometimes we can do this, and sometimes the economy sucks and we're stuck for a while. How are we supposed to behave when we are stuck somewhere we really can't function?

I know what you're going to say: grit your teeth, grind it out and stop complaining. How's that working out for you? How much do you drink? How well are you sleeping? How much weight have you put on? How's your libido these days? How did you feel when you saw the office after that holiday? Just how much did your guts twist?

Saturday, 11 July 2009

If It's This Bad At Cadbury's, It's Way Worse Than We Think

I received a job description via an agent recently with gems like this in it – this is for Cadbury's, a famous blue-chip company, not some dodgy fly-by-night outfit...

Create time to develop yourself and others, look to keep your functional and professional skills up to date. Translation: there's no formal training programme, there's not even an informal one and unless you book the days out, you could get swamped. Leave it to Cadbury's HR and your manager and you could work there a decade and never see a bar of chocolate. That isn't how it was back in the day.

Be resilient and tenacious when faced with difficulty, courageous and tough minded to overcome obstacles, promote change and act quickly, persuade and engage others, project yourself with impact and presence, gain support for and commitment to a course of action, build and maintain effective team relationships, understand how the organisation works, think and act beyond borders and functions, deal with conflict and criticism constructively - trust me that's about a quarter of the job description. Translation: your department has no clout, so you'll be brushed off with all sorts of excuses (“Project Moonshine is our top priority and we have no spare resource until H2 next year”), plus there are processes and procedures that will make you tear your hair out with their pointlessness, furthermore you'll have to figure out how things work for yourself because your manager doesn't know and if you don't go along, man are you ever not going to get along, because it's that kind of a place.

Exercise sound judgement of inputs to arrive at a balanced viewpoint, think in a rigorously analytical way, think differently about the future and how to get things done, anticipate events and possible alternatives. They have to ask for this? Why? Because so few people there do this?

This kind of HR job description twaddle was unknown thirty years ago. Companies accepted that no-one would do things the Cadbury way and took pride in training people to do it the Cadbury way – now they don't because no-one knows what the Cadbury way is anymore. A company would never have expected people to work against its own informal culture as this role is being expected to do. Because it would never have destroyed its traditions, networks and experience in twenty years of downsizing, sales, mergers, reorganisations and redundancies. Companies are a mess, so it becomes the role of the most junior of managers to do what the company once would have done automatically but now can no longer even describe in plain English.

You don't believe me? Here's the job: "to understand the role of price and promotion in driving growth and efficiency; using all data sources available and working closely with the Insights team to determine the role and context of price and promotion in the in store decision making process; develop market tracking reports to monitor price realisation for Cadbury UK and competitors; develop market place tracking for Cadbury UK & competitor pricing and format changes (standard and seasonal) by channel to inform how we price our products to deliver an improved revenue realisation; develop tracking reports to monitor and understand retailer, competitor and adjacent market promotional programmes and strategies to help inform promotional guidelines; develop and implement methods that combine market, customer, financial, and forecasting data in order that we can establish ongoing promotional evaluations, and therefore create future promotional guidelines; provide market data and selling rationale to support the price increase process; develop an agreed methodology to establish the link between Price and volume (price elasticity)".

Huh? Cadbury's don't have a price elasticity model? It's the end of the Oughties, they've been in business how long and they don't have a price elasticity model? They don't have an understanding of the role of price and promotion in the “store decision making process”? And they're in fmcg? What the heck have they been doing for the last thirty years? What act of corporate amnesia lost all the work on those things from the 80's and 90's? They would have had such models back then because I was reading ads like this for jobs like that back then. Do they really mean that no-one is tracking what the competition get up to now? Wouldn't that be something you'd do as natural as breathing? What the heck are the “Insights” team doing if they don't have an understanding of how shoppers make decisions? (By the way, the moment you see a company has an “Insight” team, you can safely assume they have no idea about their customers and never will. In the modern corporation, “insight” means “data dredging”.) How much trouble are they in? And what do you think happened to the previous guy?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Living With Yourself: Part Three

Psychological personality types are always fun. It's a respectable version of “what star sign are you”? There was a huge fad for the Belbin Team Roles in the Seventies – does anyone use them now? Completer-Finishers, Specialists and Team Players? It's tempting to use a typology and then explain yourself with it: you do that because you're an ISTJ.

It doesn't work like that. Typologies are not explanations.

A personality typology is an attempt at an equivalence relation: two people are equivalent modulo the typology if they satisfy the same characteristics. Any bunches of characteristics will do as long as they are mutually exclusive and comprehensive, in other words, you can't be two types and you must be one of them. Most typologies suffer from four faults: politeness, vagueness, ambiguity and optimism. They are polite, so there's no type(s) for jerks, screw-ups and substance-abusing degenerates; they are vague, so that you wind up identifying with two or more of the types; and they are optimistic, in that the criteria chosen are drawn from the lighter, positive side of human nature. The questionnaires are not going to ask you anything about how often you have thought about making your quietus with a bare bodkin. Finally the questions are ambiguous. As an example from an online survey, You rapidly get involved in social life at a new workplace. Well, you did at the last one, but this lot are a bunch of stiffs and frankly the less you see of them the better – you're going to be making a lot of phone calls and visits to old haunts until you can find another job. And which social life? The sports-and-social club life or the serious gossipy-drinkers? Different people will have different interpretations. If you raise these questions while you're doing a typology quiz, you'll be told to interpret it how you understand it, which is not the right answer, but does get you to finish the exercise. They need you to finish or they can't work their ju-ju.

Until the twentieth century, the most developed typologies came from the various forms of astrology. The more academically-serious the typology, the more it scores you along various axes or characteristics, rather than putting you into one of a small-ish number of pigeon-holes: an equivalence relation based on a continuous parameter is still an equivalence relation.

The real problem with typologies is that their reading of you may be of the person you are pretending to be, have learned to be, have compromised as or are for want of any ideas of your own. Anyone who works in business will pay lip service to meeting deadlines, having objectives, being professional, punctual and all those other good things, even if it they don't do it very well and would not if they had the choice. People can spot the “right answers” a mile off and can be guaranteed to provide them.

According to the Chinese, I'm a Yang Wood Horse; to Western Astrology, a Taurus with Venus and Jupiter in Mercury, Mars in Capricorn and Aries rising (I think); my Enneatype for a long while was a Romantic; and to Myers-Briggs, I'm all over the INxy's. Does this help me any?

Not much. The real questions are: how did I get to be an INTP? Am I happy being one? Is it a good fit with where I work? With my partner? With my ambitions and dreams? Am I stuck with being the wrong “type” for my hopes or have you got to change your hopes to fit my “type”?

The most a typology quiz can do is help you think about yourself, how you behave, react and feel. And about the differences between how you do those things and how you would like to do them. It's the space between what we do and what we would like to do that measures how far we are from ourselves – or how much of a fantasist we are.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Living With Yourself: Part Two

Once upon a time no-one was f---d-up: not because they weren't, but because there was no concept of being normal. Read any philosopher from Plato to John Stuart Mill – not one of them uses the idea of being a “normal” person. They may refer to “savages” (very un-PC) or to “children” as a contrast to mature adults capable of making reasonably prudent decisions, but never to being “normal” (they did talk about “ordinary people”, but that always meant “people who don't hold the silly views I am now criticising”). You won't find the modern therapeutic idea of “normal people” or “functional people (or families)” and certainly not the idea of “dysfunctional people (or families)”. The psychotherapists gave us the idea.

Psychotherapists are not psychologists, though they may have started their training as one. Psychology has two branches: there is a science that investigates the relationship between emotional states and behaviours and brain-states and hormone levels; then there is a a branch of moral philosophy masquerading as a descriptive science, and that's where the ideas of “normal”, “dysfunctional”, “personality disorder” and other such things come from. (In case you're wondering, psychiatry is a branch of medicine, not psychology. Psychiatrists may use Freudian or other ideas to help them, but then some GP's will give alternative medicines a shot as well.) All those personality typologies – Myers-Briggs, 16PF, the “Big Five” - are just well-researched versions of the Ancient Greek “humours”. Descriptions of the various personality types or traits are riddled with evaluative language and often show rather less subtlety than a sophisticated character reading from a horoscope.

Modern psychotherapy starts with that well-known coke-head Sigmund Freud, who stated that the aim of his therapy was to replace neurotic misery with ordinary unhappiness. In this aim, a lot of people have devised a lot of techniques, theories, schools, cliques and cults. People from L Ron Hubbard to Carl Jung, via Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith, have devised therapeutic techniques to cure a wide range of “feeling-bad” and self-destructive behaviour. The idea of a “normal” person arises as a contrast to the parade of human upset, misery, craziness and plain bad behaviour that passes through therapists' consulting rooms every year. A “normal / functioning / healthy person” is someone who doesn't suffer from any of those complaints and also manages to meet a number of basic social norms – for instance, regular washing, holding down a job, paying bills and driving on the proper side of the road.

Now, it is not obvious that a society that only had normal people would make any progress. Normal people are not so ambitious they will sacrifice or set aside much of their lives to achieve a very specific goal – so they aren't excellent at anything (trust me on this, I work in a company full of normal people). Anyone who tells you that an Olympic gold medallist, Oscar-winning writer, or well-known-in-their-profession scientist, engineer, medical consultant or artist is “an ordinary person” is simply not thinking straight. Normal people watch junk TV and spend Saturdays playing amateur sports, recovering from hangovers or taking their children to the zoo – not doing mathematics or practising a Bach cello suite for an upcoming performance on a Sunday.

The therapeutic idea of normality is not the moral idea: a therapeutically healthy person can indulge in hard-core BDSM, extreme sports, make their money from playing online poker and relax by watching endless re-runs of The Simpsons and eating Doritos. As long as they're happy, meeting those basic social norms and not messing up anybody else's life, they count as normal. By contrast, the straightest girl on the block who works diligently for a local accounting firm, plays in an amateur hockey team, works in the soup kitchen Saturday Night and listens to Radios Three and Four, might feel as hollow as an empty oil-drum, as fake as a van Meergeren and as out of place as the proverbial bacon sandwich. Fortunately for the therapy business, almost all criminals and a majority of life's anti-social assholes do suffer from either psychiatric problems or addictions and so couldn't be happy if they tried. It's the jerks who are pleased with themselves who make you wonder if being less of a Good Person might actually have an improving effect on the quality of your life.

A therapeutically-healthy person is not a cohesive character: it's defined by absence, a “healthy person” doesn't do all that stuff. What appears to be positive advice or characteristics - “strong boundaries”, “letting go” - is in fact what you do when you don't do what screwed-up people do. Most ordinary people will have one or two “normality flaws” - things they do that a therapeutically-healthy person should not. This just means they aren't perfect, not that they need to start going to group sessions. Normal / Healthy / Functional is where we start, not where we finish. Though if you've spent twenty years in a cocaine-and-whisky haze, you may be happy just to be at the starting-point, since it's way on from where you were.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Eighties Music

I can't remember how many times I've come close to buying a Level 42 compilation. Back in the day I thought Level 42 – the eponymous album and The Early Tapes – were the business. I had their stuff on a cassette for my Walkman when I took a week's holiday in Paris, met a girl on the train over and spent not many nights at the hotel I'd booked. (And you thought Before Dawn didn't happen in real life?) As for the SOS Band, Jackie Graham, Joe Jackson's Night and Day, The Fatback Band, anything produced by Jam and Lewis, Spandau Ballet, MARRS, The Smiths, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC, pretty much anything else produced by Trevor Horn (even Hand Held In Black and White)... the list goes on and on. All of them strong songs, great production... and I every time I think of putting a CD of it onto the iPod, I stop and put the CD back.

This only happens with Eighties music. I'm fine with all the other stuff. There's too many memories. Too many feelings. Which is odd, because I “grew up” in the Sixties and Seventies. I did my homework by candlelight in the Three-Day Weeks, I can remember double-figure inflation, flared trousers and the Sex Pistols on Top of The Pops. I saw Bob Marley and the Wailers at university and Sam Peckinpah movies as they came out. The strong feelings are all supposed to be around being a teenager, falling in love all the time and discovering the world.

The Eighties was when I screwed up. It's when my future disappeared (at thirty – that's when you've had a great future behind you), when I realised that the party was anywhere I wasn't and on the rare occasions I found it, I didn't really get what was going on. It's when the Girl I Should Have Married told me she was marrying someone else – I hyperventilated for a couple of hours after that phone call. It's when I realised that at the end of the evening, I was the one who dropped everyone else off and then drove the last stretch back “home” on my own. Always. It's when my career crashed and burned, even as my salary went up. It's when I wished I was an accountant – so that I could be as self-satisfied and apparently as securely employed as they were. Did I mention the property company I worked for company whose CEO wound up in jail? Or the way the decade ended with me drinking myself into... well, let's say a state of mind I don't actually want to visit again in case I don't come back from it. Ever. If your character is built on sand, as mine was, then there's a time the lack of foundations is going to show: teens, twenties, thirties... all the way up to your seventies (after that you get to pass it off as “senior moments”). For me it was Eighties. And that music was the soundtrack.

I wasn't screwing up because I wasn't going about getting what I wanted very well: I was screwing up because I had no idea who I was. I thought I wanted the English dream: one wife, two children, three holidays, a four-by-four, five bedrooms and six good friends thing. I didn't. I'm so much more shallow that that. I didn't know that at the time. I didn't really chase after the English dream but I didn't chase after anything else either. Because I didn't know what it was I wanted to chase after. Other than fame, wealth and beautiful lovers – Freud's account of the motivations of artists everywhere – and there was and is no way I had the courage or talent to chase after that. I was too busy doing the damn day job, getting drunk, commuting, keeping up a reasonably respectable front and pretending even to myself to be having a life that was going somewhere.

If it wasn't for the memories, I think I'd be prepared to say that the popular music of the Eighties was about as good as it gets. Technically the writing, recording, arranging and production was way ahead of anything from the previous decades: the lyrics weren't as good, and I keel over now when critics quote the lyrics from Oughties songs because the entire lyrical output of the last ten years isn't worth the lyrics on Like A Rolling Stone. I'm going to assume that if you were nineteen, it had an emotional resonance that would have passed me by as I wasn't nineteen anymore, but was as strong for you as the music that was around when I was nineteen. Don't ask me what those emotions were though, because I can't guess, but your music provided the soundtrack to my lost years. Which is why I always put the CD back into the rack – no matter how much I remember that I liked the songs at the time.

Friday, 3 July 2009

How Not To Do Things With Words

Rae Langton is an America feminist philosopher who wrote a paper, Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts, in which she used some ideas of J L Austin to defend the view that, despite the rulings of the Supreme Court, pornography should be actively banned by the US Federal Government. Unsurprisingly those ideas just won't get us to the required conclusion, and it's half-interesting to see why. Her argument is that exposure to pornography makes it impossible for men to hear a woman refusing their advances. She can say the words, but the meaning just doesn't get across. The same happens when she tries to give testimony during a rape trial: she can use the words, but the jury just don't get it. It's important to understand that Miss Langton is not saying that the female refusal and testimony is ignored. If something is ignored, it's at least heard. She's saying that pornography so alters the meaning of women's speech that they cannot find any words successfully to express sexual refusal. Run over that again and see if it makes sense to you. Let me try to explain why someone once thought it would.

Remember the bit in Blazing Saddles where the sheriff says “You'd do it for Randolph Scott” and the whole town removes its collective hat and says reverently “Randolph Scott!”? Well, quoting J L Austin's name in philosophical circles has the same effect – or is supposed to. Around about the same time as Wittgenstein was developing his ideas of language games, Austin developed his ideas of speech acts in a famous essay called How To Do Things With Words. The idea of both thinkers was that, pace the logical positivists, we use words to do more than describe the real world. We do things like recommending, promising, insulting, praising, instructing, suggesting, inspiring and so on. Austin called these illocutionary acts: what we do in saying something. Uttering the sentence itself is the locutionary act. The consequences of the illocutionary act are the perlocutionary acts. The terminology varies from writer to writer: your Mac dictionary will tell you that perlocutionary acts are those which intend to influence the actions of others, but are not themselves actions: in this sense, recommending, suggesting and persuading are perlocutionary, while promising, warning and prescribing (medicine) are illocutionary.

Langton's thesis is that though women can say No (locutionary act) they cannot express refusal by so doing (illocutionary act) because men who have seen pornography have been deafened to the possibility of female sexual refusal. According to Langton, women can speak, but in a culture with pornography their words carry no meaning. So pornography should be banned.

Refusing is an illocutionary act. When I say “no, thank you” (locutionary act), I am refusing (illocutionary act) with the intention that you cease trying to sell me double-glazing (perlocutionary act). What has gone wrong if you don't stop? Perhaps my locutionary act failed: you didn't hear me. Let me say it again louder. Did my illocutionary act fail? Did I fail to express refusal? I expressed it just fine: “no thank you” expresses refusal in a polite manner. Perhaps you failed to recognise it. Let's try “which part of 'get lost' didn't you understand?” and see if you go on talking. If you do, it's pretty clear that you are rude and persistent and I can close the door in your face with a clear conscience.

However, you explain that you have been trained to regard any remark like “no thank you” not as a refusal, but as an “objection” and your sales trainer has taught you a number of hokey tricks to “overcome” the objection. What left me as a refusal arrived with you as an objection. This might sound convincing, except that the very reason you are taught to regard what I say as an “objection” is exactly because you and your sales manager know very well it's a refusal. If you didn't, you wouldn't need to be trained to “overcome” it.

When might an illocutionary act fail? In other words, given that I have not mis-spoken, but used words that under the circumstances would be deemed by other people to convey my wish, can I still fail to refuse? Well, perhaps if I go to an Arab bazaar things might be a little odd. English is a curt language used by a blunt people: we say things once and expect to be understood halfway through the utterance. Other languages belong to more verbose and courtly cultures, and in those cultures it may be normal to express what in English would be a refusal but is actually a response to see how serious you are about selling to me. If you are, you will ask again, to see how serious I am about refusing. You change your sales pitch slightly and lower the price. I shake my head but do not move away. Last chance. If I refuse this time, we're over. If I don't understand that you come from such a culture, we are going to have a communication problem: what leaves me in English as a refusal, arrives with you in Arabic as a possible opening move of a negotiation. I need to find different words to express my intention: I need the Arabic for “I really, really am not interested, stop trying to sell me your damn carpets”. Or maybe I just have to say it three times.

A poorly-phrased locutionary act can fail to express my intentions, and thus express an illocutionary act I did not mean to express. But that's the point: the rest of the world hears my (ill-chosen) words and deduces my illocutionary intentions from those words. That's why it's my fault if I get the words out wrong. The illocutionary act is tied to my words, not to some mysterious inner state of mine. If I get the words out right, it's your fault (of commission if you ignore me or omission if you haven't bothered to learn the rules) if you don't understand it as a reasonable, educated speaker of the language would understand it. This is why a man who tries to defend himself by saying he didn't think she meant it is onto a loser: it isn't what he thought she meant, or even what she thought she meant, it's what she said that matters.

Now we have an empirical question. Has anyone ever re-wired the language of refusal? As far as I know, while various cultures have made "bad" come out "good", no-one has ever made No mean Yes. “Get away from me”, “get your hands off”, “let me out of the car now”, “it's time you got a cab home”, “what the …. do you think you're doing?” - these words mean only one thing. Anyone who thinks they mean “carry on trying your luck” is just hoping to con the jury. No (locutionary act) means NO (illocutionary act). No-one can change that, let alone a guy with a video camera, Devon Lee's number and a day's rent of a studio in the San Fernando valley.

However, Miss Langton may be thinking of, and at one point her discussion suggests she is, the more appalling excesses of the High School Entitled Jock. It's just possible that Entitled Jocks really do believe that No means Try Harder and a study of the collected works of Annie Cruz have been a part of gaining that belief. We call them Entitled Jerks and send them to jail if they behave like that: because they have such faulty illocutionary hearing and poor judgement they commit crimes as a result. High School is not the Marrakesh bazaar: Entitled Jerks are not culturally different, but culturally ignorant.

Langton conflates understanding what someone says with accepting the wishes it expresses and so makes success part of my illocutionary act. According to that, I haven't refused, or been heard as refusing, if you go on pitching your double-glazing at me. Which is convenient for you, as you are no longer a rude oaf for carrying on, but merely someone who has chosen the meaning of the words they hear to suit their purposes. And that brings us right back to it: if you had to choose the meaning you needed, it was because you knew that the meaning I intended did not suit your purposes. You knew darn well what I meant by “no thank you”. You just chose to ignore it and then hide that rudeness behind a philosophical theory of language. Why a feminist philosopher would devise that theory is beyond me, unless she was trying to argue something that really doesn't want to be a conclusion.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Gruesome Doubts and Testing

It's fairly easy to test that something does what it's supposed to do. That's what specifications and user acceptance testing is for. Let's call a requirement locally positive if it states that under conditions X, Y, Z the widget will do W within T seconds (or after N repetitions). Locally positive requirements are obtained by a demonstration: here it is doing it. An indefinite positive requirement, is one that asks that the widget does whatever it is at some unspecified time in the future. Similarly, a requirement is locally negative if it demands the widget doesn't do something within T seconds; it is indefinite negative if it demands the widget never does it. A locally negative requirement can be demonstrated: we set up the conditions, start up the widget and wait T seconds or N repetitions. No puff of smoke and it passes. How do we prove an unrestricted negative or an unrestricted positive? We can't, we don't have enough time. No amount of evidence will prove it, because tomorrow something might go wrong or it might go right. And since tomorrow never comes...

Now let's look at some doubts. A doubt is specific if it is about the widget's ability to fulfil a locally positive or negative requirement. Specific doubts are testable. A doubt is gruesome if it claims that under some as yet unknown set of circumstances, the widget will fail to do what we would want it to do if we knew the circumstances.

Why “gruesome”? The philosopher Nelson Goodman invented a predicate “grue”. An object is grue if it is green up to some date and blue afterwards. An emerald might be grue. His point was that if the date is far enough into the future, any evidence that the object was green and would not turn colour on the given date was also evidence that it was grue and would turn colour on the given date. You object to the idea of “grue” as a colour only if you've forgotten that many leaves are “gred”: green before autumn, and red during autumn. Gruesome doubts amount to the claim that the widget is reliable up to some unspecified time or event in the future and unreliable at or after that point. Or that it is reliable for a wide range of inputs but not for an as yet unspecified but suspected set of inputs. The point is, of course, that any evidence that the widget is reliable is also evidence that it is gruesome-ly unreliable.

Here's the point. No evidence can satisfy anyone with a gruesome doubt – and there is no point in trying. Gruesome doubts can, if expressed in the right way give you a reputation for wise caution: “let's keep an eye on it”, you say, or, “we should monitor it for any anomalies”, or “the tests seem to indicate that it is working, but I'd like to run some more later”. Gruesome doubts can also be used to bully people: “how do I know it will work with any bit of data / tomorrow / next week?” Don't use these arguments because they won't listen. They are out to make everyone involved look as if they haven't done a good job of testing and make them look bad and feel crazy. Why is she asking this when there is no answer? If you're in this position, philosophy is likely to be little consolation.