Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Unpalatable Inquisitiveness of the Human Resources Manager

I am independent, meaning I work for myself. This puts some obstacles in my way, like the strange and paradoxical view of banks everywhere that I am therefore a financial risk to them. Paradoxical because employees everywhere are apparently risk-free, yet they have placed all of their career eggs into one basket but if I lose a client, I pick up another one before the end of the week, so I always have my supply of work more or less guaranteed. This is their way of working, always making you unquestioningly open up your life to them so they can assess not just your finances, but get a pretty good idea of your behind-the-scenes life.

This is copied and enlarged by all types of people and organisations. But amongst the most staggeringly, breathtakingly intrusive groups of people lie the Human Resources Departments. They have ways that make it so easy for them to wheedle information from you without you knowing it. It lies in the type of answers to their questions that you give. This can be at the opening interviews, or at the yearly evaluation, both of which are, to some degree, the most degrading thing people have to suffer in the Western world. Here are some standard questions at interviews:

  1. You will have experienced some changes in company policy in your career. How did you deal with them?
  2. How do you avoid mistakes in your work?
  3. Where do you want to be in five / ten years?
  4. How do you prioritise when you have a heavy workload?
  5. Have you ever done something different to usual because you thought it was more effective, even if it was not standard procedure?
Out of these questions above, the average HR professional can deduce a lot of things about you. Here are the keys to the above:
  1. Your flexibility (what they really want to know is how malleable you are).
  2. Your precision (in other words, your drudgery. They want to know how much of an automaton you are).
  3. Your ambitions (here, they can deduce how you see yourself and whether you wish to work hard on your way up the ladder, or if you have dangerous ambitions to take over the department immediately).
  4. Your logical thinking (or preparing you for the fact that this will happen, because the whole company is understaffed and they need you to understand that you will actually be doing 2 or maybe 3 people's jobs).
  5. Your initiative (or your willingness to agree with your superiors, even if, as is often the case, they are less intelligent or less capable than you, and often want things done a specific way because they can't cope with some underling who may be more suitable for the position).
There are some things about the HR manager that are truly bewildering, such as their inexplicable ability to understand terminology and often whole documents that seem to have been written by the descendants of Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a European civil servant. They have a truly incomprehensible terminology of euphemisms that makes Newspeak seem perfectly rational. What do I mean? Well, take a look for yourself at some of the stuff they dream up:

  1. Alternation Ranking Method: ranking employees on a particular trait or feature, e.g. flexibility or punctuality, from best to worst
  2. Correlation Coefficients: a statistical procedure that compares an employee's job performance with his/her test score
  3. Emotional Intelligence: the ability of an employee to be sensitive or understanding to the emotions of others, as well as his/her own impulses
  4. Flexible Staffing: a policy to hire temporary or contractual employees on a short-term basis to fill vacancies usually occupied by permanent members of staff. This may help with this...
  5. Attrition: not hiring new members of staff after permanent ones have died, resigned, been fired or joined another department.
These are just some of the words and phrases employed by HR departments everywhere, collecting information about you, comparing you to other colleagues, making notes about your suitability, your job longevity, your probability of being promoted, etc... Can you imagine what files those people must be keeping about you?

But here is the main point: a lot of this is just methodology and procedure thought up by a leading psychologist to give HR people everywhere something to follow, something to adhere to, in order to draw comparisons and conclusions using the same scales and statistics for all employees. These are of course flawed, for various reasons, as every human being is (still) different, in the same way that everyone's metabolism is different. Eating an salad every day for some is what they need to keep healthy, but for others it makes them constipated, or the opposite... And so HR methods are unwieldy, inaccurate and useless, but it makes them feel more in control of the situation, because little by little, people's characters, preferences, working habits and routines are slowly converging into the sheeple that those in control crave for. 

Take a look at people's daily routines:
Get up, wash/shower, quick breakfast, commute, arrive, badge in, work, lunch, work, badge out, travel home, eat, watch television, bed. Repeat five days a week, meet friends on Fridays, go shopping on Saturdays, do some housework on Sundays, and a hobby or two. That's how most people's lives go. At least those working in offices. People no longer have time to develop hobbies, see family and friends on a regular basis, cook proper food every evening, get involved in cultural activities, etc. Most people's ambition is having 2 weeks at the beach per year. And yet they have to regurgitate all the ridiculous New-agey stuff at their annual review, where the questions... oh you know the deal. But changing jobs brings out the most gibberish.
  1. Why do you want this job?
  2. Why do you want to leave the other job?
  3. How many hours did you work?
  4. What aims do you have for the future?
  5. Where would you like to be in ... years?
  6. Do you prefer to work independently or in a team?
  7. If you know your superior is wrong, how do you handle it?
The list is endless. But quite frankly, the vast majority of people like me, who often require people for various roles, can tell in the first ten minutes if someone is right for the job or not, simply by having a basic chat. There is no need for such a lot of questions, because in the end, if you respect your employees, if you value their work, if you believe they have a right to privacy and to being their own person, you will simply ask for a certificate of good conduct from the police to make sure they're OK, and a few other documents for administration.

What you will not do is make a pseudo-psychological analysis and diagnose your potential employee with one or other potential category of performance. How dare you?

Finally, let me answer the seven questions above:

  1. Why do you want this job? Because it pays the bills, but apart from that, why else would I want to shift paper from one pile to another day in-day out?
  2. Why do you want to leave the other job? Because you pay more.
  3. How many hours did you work? None of your business.
  4. What aims do you have for the future? Ditto. But I can tell you it does include money.
  5. Where would you like to be in ... years? See my previous answer. But ideally far away from here.
  6. Do you prefer to work independently or in a team? Depends. Generally though, in a team my voice of logic and reason is drowned out by the dronings of the one with the loudest voice and the sharpest elbows. On my own, I find I get given targets that are unattainable and so I think I prefer to walk off from the interview now.
  7. If you know your superior is wrong, how do you handle it? There are many ways, but one of my favourites is to shrug my shoulders, do it as he/she asks, then when the whole thing goes down the toilet, get fired for obeying instructions.
Quite frankly, I like being independent. I like being able to tell a client to go fly a kite when I get tired of the exaggerated demands. It's a lot like being a babysitter rather than a parent. At the end of the day, you can just hand the little brats back to their respective owners rather than having to take them home with you.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The hazards and misfortunes of being a language trainer

There are few things I find more frustrating, upsetting, enervating and infuriating than the English language training sector and the people involved. I shall elaborate, but this is really just a small part of the overall picture:

There is an awful paradox at the heart of it all that needs somehow to be killed off. If you look at people of other professions coming into contact with large groups of customers on a daily basis, like accountants, doctors, lawyers and the like, they keep themselves to themselves and don't reveal their secrets to the world so readily. They also provide a "need-to-have" service, rather than a  "nice-to-have" service, such as artists, restaurateurs and gardeners. For that reason they can charge a lot of money for their services. Artists, restaurateurs and gardeners too, but there are very few of the latter who actually can afford the kind of gated properties of the former. In fact, they are liable to be the clients of the latter. And far fewer in number, which is why most artists don't make a huge amount of sales.

Language training falls in a middle category. For some it is a "nice-to-have", for others a "need-to-have", where half are learning languages to better carry out their job, and the other half so they can hold conversations with strangers on hotel terraces; and herein lies the problem. The managers and owners of language schools are able to get the best of both worlds by charging clients in the "need-to-have" category a lot of money for the services of their trainers/teachers, yet pay their personnel the same kind of fees from the "nice-to-have" category. It is a trick of the trade, and a very prevalent one. Furthermore, a sizeable minority of the teachers are gap-year students, or freshly diploma'd twenty-somethings who can barely recognise the difference between a preposition and their elbow. The rest, who are trying to make a career out of it are terrorised by their employer by making competitors out of your colleagues (ever wondered why many are reluctant to share?) and making every day in the school seem like it's your last one. But the most despicable part of their little ruse is how many hoops they make you jump through for such a paltry salary. Take a look at some of the jobs on offer on the TEFL websites. Here's one I found today:

[Name removed] is a leader in the provision of educational travel programmes. Accredited by the British Council, we've been teaching English to international students for 20 years. Our aim is to provide students with a fun, friendly and safe environment in which to develop their communication skills in English.

We are looking for talented and committed EFL teachers to work on a non-residential basis at our centre based at [name removed].

This is a 1 week post, teaching up to 20 hours.


So far, so good.

Then:

Essential:
- CELTA, Trinity TESOL, PGCE in English or an MFL, or equivalent
-Bachelor Degree

Desirable:
- Experience of teaching students of university age
-An undergraduate degree

PLEASE NOTE THIS IS A NON RESIDENTIAL POSITION AND WE ARE UNABLE TO PROVIDE ACCOMMODATION.

So, you're thinking it's going to reward you for the fact you have a degree and you need to pay for your own accommodation? Wait for it...

From £12.50 per teaching hour.

I say, what?

From £12.50 per teaching hour.

I did read that right?

Yep, you definitely did.

That's virtually nothing. I got more per hour for mowing lawns, and that was back in the mid-nineties.

So, let's say you're doing the maximum 20 hours for the week. That works out at £250 for the week. Then let's add in your accommodation. You're in a well-to-do provincial city in the late summer. Kids are back at school but it's still warm. You're looking at £25-£40 per night, for a youth hostel or a cheap hotel. So that's between £170 and £280 for the week. In the youth hostel category, you come out with £80 profit, leaving you with just over £10 per day for food. In the cheap hotel category, you're £30 out of pocket even before you've bought a muesli bar for your evening meal. And you still have to factor in that you need to travel there. Oh yes, and UK tax. And that's not for preparing lessons, correcting and marking work and doing the admin. It says "From £12.50 per teaching hour".

This repeats itself over and over again in varying forms of ruthless cheapskatery and devious mind-trickery as to leave most people with the idea that you should be grateful for actually having something to bloody well do, and you're actually such an ungrateful little weasel for demanding a higher salary. You are supposed to understand that you are doing a humanitarian act, and asking for more money will lead to demands from the others, which in the end if all the teachers did it would lead the school to bankruptcy.

Utter rubbish.

Imagine you've got a class of 8 students. Their parents have paid a package of £500 to £900 for the week, including all meals and basic accommodation in the residence halls of the campus. That's about £4000 to £7200 per class. That means the people on the course are from families that are not poor. Indeed, they're likely to be the lawyers and doctors of the future. The school has overheads, so let's take away 60%. That still leaves £1600 to £2880 per group. And they can't pay proper salaries to their teachers?

There are many standard replies to that question, including the old cliché about profit margins and the like. But what I find most baffling is that these schools really do find the personnel for their courses. There really are people who wish to fill the gaps. And these are the pedagogical versions of interns, that new breed of modern crypto-slave that will do anything for the promise of a job in the future. Except in this business, there is no guarantee of success or riches beyond the current hourly rate afforded by language schools across the world.

I think it is really high time serious language trainers got together and separated themselves from the amateurish schools willing to employ bookish recent graduates looking for a jobby (job + hobby) from the more serious ones who look after their staff and treat them more like the career-minded human beings they are trying to become.

Career-wise, I live in a bubble of contentedness, and I am thankfully not in this predicament that the vast majority of my fellow language trainers find themselves in. But when I look through the job ads just to see what else I could be doing, I despair for the predicament of those wanting to join me in this noble yet poorly-rewarded of professions. It is a very well-oiled ladder, and that's how the schools like it.

Finally, a short note about the people who do my job. They are extraordinarily proud people, preferring to let someone else organise the lessons, set up the course locations, find the clients, level-test them, propose times and hours for their course, and ask them for post-course feedback. The teacher is only willing to involve him/herself in the bare minimum of extra activity, and you have to ask why. That is because it is not their job. They are paid to teach and give advice, mark work and guide students to their target. Correcting tests, preparing lessons and writing course records go largely unpaid. Many would say that out of every hour spent in the classroom, about 25 to 40 minutes is spent doing the accompanying admin. And in the class, the energy spent giving the lesson in comparison to the monetary rewards has a real effect on morale, psyche and sense of self-worth.

So next time you question the commitment and satisfaction of language teachers, remember there may be a hundred reasons behind it. Either the language schools need to stop their ludicrous race to the bottom with their course fees (a recent article in Swedish on public procurement of language services, this time translation and interpretation, found that low pricing had an adverse effect on overall quality and client satisfaction) or trainers need to refuse jobs that don't properly reward them for their efforts. I know already what is going to happen: all the time there are people willing to work simply for the work experience, who were legally minors less than 5 years before they do their dodgy TEFL qualifications, the rest will be exploited. And this particular formula is repeating itself in many other professional sectors.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Both Whistleblowers and the Silent Majority have a Common Purpose

In recent weeks, there has been a gradual increase in the amount of press time dedicated to the personal vilification of Julian Assange, a man who has not been charged with anything, yet has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in fear of his life. Let us look at the facts:

  • He is accused of rape in Sweden.
  • He has been handed an extradition order in the UK.
  • He has embarrassed Western governments over their sinister activities in the Middle East and elsewhere.
  • The United States has put like-minded individuals in a not-too-comfortable waiting room until they come to trial.
There is a link in all of this. The governments are playing the people for idiots. Most other whistleblowers and protestors unhappy with their government's actions (who are worth their salt) have been slowly picked off by governments for various other petty crimes, in a way Stalin and Khrushchëv would have approved of.

The whole planet is engulfed in an unofficial war of governor versus governed, but many do not see it yet. Or are indifferent to it. I wonder for how long. Assange is not alone in his plight, where even some anti-rape organisations do not want to see him extradited.

There is Pussy Riot in Russia, who like Assange, were not accused of their original anti-government "sin"; that of singing an anti-Putin song in an Orthodox church. To be sentenced to two years' hard labour for that is an exaggeration of breathtaking proportions. But during their trial, these three women were put in a glass cage, as if they were King Kong at any minute about to leap out and devour everyone. That is not taking into account the fact that they had the majority of their witnesses rejected by the judge. In the end, that may have been a blessing in disguise, as they could have got themselves into a whole lot of deeper trouble by having them politicise this sham trial even further. But I am convinced, that if they had not sung about their grievances with Putin, they would have just got their fingers rapped for it and everyone would have said the punishment fit the crime.

Then there was Bradley Manning, who leaked over a quarter of a million diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. After festering in various sinister U.S. detention centres for far longer than is legal under several laws and conventions, he is finally about to be put on trial. But for what, actually? For having passed classified information on to a third party; classified information that would put most Western governments on trial for less. Surely, as it was in the public interest, it should have made governments take a step back and look at their abhorrent treatment of poorer countries. But not a jot of it. This man is a liability and he will be hung, drawn and quartered for it.

Furthermore, he is not alone. James Gee, a Guantanamo priest, who blew the whistle on Guantanamo Bay torture, was charged with adultery and pornography on a government computer. How convenient.

Janis Karpinski, a former Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, was charged with shoplifting after revealing Donald Rumsfeld's policy of torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Funny that.

Scott Ritter, a UN weapons inspector, who was adamantly against the invasion of Iraq, having found no evidence of WMD. He was detained for soliciting minors for sex on the Internet in 2001, charges he was later absolved of, but was rearrested nine years later on similar charges.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who accused the Karimov régime of human rights abuses was suddenly accused of trying to seek sexual favours from visa applicants, which caused his removal.

Then there are the show trials in less democratic parts of the world, like that of Dzimitry Kanavalau and Vlad Kavalyou, the "lone wolves" accused of blowing up Oktyabrskaya station in the Minsk Metro in 2011, despite vast amounts of evidence to back their innocence. This includes the fact that a BBC journalist timed the walk from the station to the flat of the accused in just under half an hour, even though the Belarusian authorities claimed the accused had done it in four minutes. Even the Interpol representative was taken in enough to congratulate the Belarusian authorities for finding the perpetrators so quickly. Western governments not so much, but still, Interpol should have known better. Their real crime? They had been "spreading provocative rumours, sowing panic", by bringing up their own theories behind the bombings on social network sites. It was enough to make Lukashenko want to nail them for the charges, even finding evidence that they had committed another atrocity four years earlier at a concert.

But the fact that Western governments questioned the whole nature of the criminal proceedings against the men, and the European Parliament condemned the Belarusian government for sentencing them to death by firing squad, shows the underlying hypocrisy at the heart of Western politics. With Western governments professing to benignly protecting their citizens from cyber-attacks and terrorism whilst at the same time being connected to sinister acts of their own, I would argue that this makes it the most worrying aspect of it all.

We are all now suspects. And it is about to get worse with the attempt by governments to create a central authority that will handle Internet transparency: read this and weep.

If this becomes reality, we will all, at some point, do something that governments and law courts can use against us if they do not like our political views, or feel we are public nuisances, whether it be a naughty rendezvous we organised via Skype or Facebook, or a bill we erroneously forgot to pay, or a flippant remark we make on Twitter. It will also allow governments to crack down on what news we read about, how long it remains online (archiving online will surely mean we won't have backdated copies as evidence so readily available in years to come), and what they can rake up on us if they want to make us out to be persona non grata. It is a tactic used by dictatorships all over the planet, one now being employed indiscriminately by Western democracies, and by taking control of our Internet, our last freedoms are about to be extinguished. People are going to be put on trial for mere nothings simply to discredit them.

Fortunately, many actually see the comical side to this tinpot dictatorial stance by the West, as we saw last night on BBC3. "The Revolution Will Be Televised" is a spoof comedy in which two men drive a combine harvester straight through the Establishment. In one of the scenes, they try to get Tony Blair sainted, and campaign vigorously for it, claiming that turning a short speech into a large bundle of cash is evidence of a miracle. I punched the air with Schadenfreude at this, and when they turned up at Blair's London residence with a stained glass window of him in a venerable portrait with wings and a halo, I could not believe it that the housekeeper (or security) actually lent them a ladder to see if that small object of facetiousness actually fit above the front door. It was a moment when comedy came of age. A moment that said, "we're coming after you, and we're doing it through the medium of spoof television." Pussy Riot meets Sasha Baron Cohen and Monty Python on speed.

Although this type of hard-hitting satire is still possible in Western democracies, I see a slow degradation of our rights and freedom of speech. This process is so slow as to be very difficult to notice for the average Panem et Circences citizen of the silent majority. It is a little like watching a close family member growing up. You don't notice because you see that person every day, but others who only visit every Christmas do. Whether in the supermarket, driving your car, at school, on public transport, or when addressing your local council, technology has already taken the heart out of the procedures it was designed to administrate/calculate/record, by making them rigid, inflexible and often quite intrusive, insulting and undignifying, but just imagine what it would do to your democratic and even basic rights. Under this setup, everyone who is recorded doing something that legally is a grey area, or anyone trying to use their own initiative to speed up a process or help someone get out of a mess which is not the correct procedure, could be subject to investigation or even indictment.

If you want to change a law, the best way is to galvanise public opinion first. Make a scapegoat, get the information, hang it over the piranhas at the press and let them make the most out of it. It is a simple enough thing to do with the right power and money. And these days, governments do not need Berlusconi-esque control over their media to do that, although many prefer it.

Coming back to the main point: if you think the Assange dilemma is about rape, think again. He may have been a cad, he may be accused of having partaken in what George Galloway called "bad sexual etiquette" in a moment of extremely clouded judgement, but for him to prefer to spend what may turn out to be an excessively long period of time in the Ecuadorian embassy in London rather than go to Sweden to face those charges, I think there are some very big fish circling in the waters all around him, and if anyone is going to know it, then that's the boss of WikiLeaks. If this is a sign of things to come, I sure hope the televised revolution promised on BBC3 comes sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

An Olympic Homecoming

Three weeks and two days ago, the country of my birth kicked off the greatest show on Earth in East London's Stratford with a breathtaking, genial and charming, if somewhat trippy, opening ceremony. Some of it was truly inspired, but most of it reflected what Britain is all about, and who the British are. Probably more than any other public demonstration ever staged, transforming opinions of the United Kingdom by removing them out of the thoughts of the provincial-minded and landing them firmly at the door of the cosmopolitan, international, multicultural and the (figuratively) colourblind.

London is a city for everyone willing to give it a try. It has had a permanent stream of immigrants which started in Roman times and carries on today, which is why people from many countries find it hard to understand what constitutes a British person. In the opening ceremony, even some Americans thought the use of a black guy and girl in the dance sequence on the World Wide Web was an attempt at political correctness. That is so far from the truth as not only to be cynical but also patronising to the majority of people in the United Kingdom who do not see someone as a colour but as a human being. And a fellow Brit. And they are. But they can also be something else too, whether Caribbean, Australian, Kenyan, Sri Lankan or Turkish. In fact, the gripe in the British newspapers was that they were chosen due to their ridiculously photogenic features, that no ugly ones were allowed. Colour meant nothing.

This is how it works: you come to the UK with a smile and a wish to contribute, learn the language and join in with local society, and within a short space of time, you'll be just as British as everyone else. Which is to say with a pinch of immigrant in you. Practically everyone is. If you come to rip the state off, claim benefits and make chaos, you'll be a hate figure in the Daily Mail one day. And that is not a pretty place to find yourself.

They say you can never go back home once you've left. And yes that's true. The parental home is a place of your childhood, and to overstay your time or to move back in when you should be moving on is to risk causing untold damage to the relationship you have with your family. It did with mine. I went to university and afterwards, without money or a good contact to give my career a push (who needs linguistic skills in London?), I moved back into my parents' house. I became depressed, I started to neglect myself and I got involved in things which only bored twenty-somethings can get away with calling the madness of youth. When I hit my thirties, I soon got it thrown in my face and resolved to leave. Despite fly-by-night jobs, I was never mentally strong-willed enough to fly the nest. House/flat rentals were still prohibitively expensive, even at the turn of the century, and I didn't feel like flat sharing. An event in my life so disturbing as to make me physically sick occurred just before Christmas 2000, and I felt the urge to get out as life had become not only intolerable, but also impossible. I went to Prague for a few weeks to get over the ordeal and away from the situation. While I was there, I received a call inviting me to live and work in Belgium. Living costs were far lower there, and so I left the very next week for Belgium, where I remained for seven years.

But after nearly 12 years outside the country of my birth, which I appreciated more by not living there, and had only visited for long weekends once every funeral or shopping trip, it came as a surprise to arrive on 9th August 2012, in the middle of the Olympic Games, in the Britain I remembered from the late seventies and early eighties (my early childhood), where strangers said a merry "hello" to you, where station inspectors waved you through in the belief you had been good enough to buy a ticket, where you could leave your bag next to the table at a restaurant knowing it would still be there even if you did not keep an eye on it.

Yet what had fundamentally changed was the skin complexion. And I believe for the better. Living here in the countryside of Germany, it is seldom that you stumble upon a person who is not white. So I was always going to notice the change more than someone who already lives there. It's like an aunt you haven't seen in ten years who says "my my, haven't you grown?!" but your parents don't notice this because they see you every day. Local people seemed to be of all colours and religions. Despite the riots last year, London is still a triumph of integration. I saw a Moslem woman and a black woman sitting on a bench in Greenwich Park chatting and laughing in the manner of old mates, which they probably were; I saw a group of people in Jamaican flags in the shopping centre next to the Olympic Park showing a Polish girl how to get to the Underground station. I saw a guy in a turban draped in the Union Flag, hurrying to his venue. I saw a black woman weeping during the closing ceremony while the National Anthem was being played. The United Kingdom I had gone back to had caused these people to integrate in ways other nations had failed. In fact, I am doing them a great injustice by mentioning integration. A huge amount of them will have been born there. To be honest, even after seven years in Belgium and four in Germany, I cannot think of a moment when I truly felt proud of the places I lived in, and in Belgium I sympathised a lot with the North Africans in my neighbourhood, who had clearly been born there, but were still referred to in Dutch as "allochtoon", or all-comers. That was clearly not the case for these people in London.

Recently, I joined an online forum in Germany to discuss living in Rheinland Pfalz. One asked me where I was from, thinking he had noticed my bad German grammar. I said London. He replied that it would be impractical to meet then, wouldn't it? I told him I lived in Saarburg but I was from London. And there's your difference. People round here don't generally move further than their own WiFi zone. "Where you are from?" and "where you live?" are one and the same for most. But in London, the first question would be phrased, "what are your roots?"

In London, I have a Persian friend who was born in Italy. He's Jewish. I've known him for many many years, and not once would I ever say he was anything else except a Londoner. London made him a successful man and he makes sure he contributes back. I also have a Slovak friend who was a professional BMX athlete, who is still popular enough in those circles to get herself inside the Czech section of the Olympic Village. I met her in Bratislava a decade ago, when I coincidentally ran into a friend of mine and her mother out for a drink. Doing BMX, Slovakia was never going to provide the funding or the facilities to give her the career she deserved. So she moved to the UK. To Scotland first, and then to London. When I left her last, back in about 2003, she had a strong Slovak accent and a problem with articles (the/a/an). When I met her again in London last week, she was glottally stopping and diphthonging like a cockney wideboy. She's still Slovak, but she likes my country enough to want to sell her house in Slovakia and stay where she is, despite her long working hours, the much smaller living spaces and the relatively more expensive cost of living.

Many other nations in the world are frightened about the encroachment of "foreignness" on their culture, the French being the most useful example in their recent banning of Moslem veils, an act that would never be tolerated on the other side of the Channel. What you wear and who you are are not inextricably linked. Although many may find it not their own taste in clothes, most would go very far to assure those people the right to wear what they wanted. Britain vacuums up cultures, religions and colours and redistributes them equally, indiscriminately and fairly, a process that highlights the futility of the actions and ridiculousness of the views of extremists on any side, whether English Defence League activists, BNP marchers, Islamists, or non-integrationists like the parents who murdered their own daughter because she did not want to marry the man they had chosen for her back in Pakistan.

In his book "Johnson's Life of London", Boris Johnson, that most intelligent of merry-makers and mayor, said, "You would expect me to say this, and I must of course acknowledge that great many cities can make all kinds of claims to primacy, but at a moment when it is perhaps excessively fashionable to b gloomy about Western civilisation I would tentatively suggest that London is just about the most culturally, technologically, politically and linguistically influential city of the past five hundred years. In fact, I don't think even the mayors of Paris, New York, Moscow, Berlin, Madrid, Tokyo, Beijing or Amsterdam would quibble when I say that London is - after Athens and Rome - the third most programmatic city in history." I happen to agree with him. And my friends called it home, because it doesn't feel strange to them. It has an air of familiarity to everyone.

And the same thing happened to me. I suddenly, self-consciously and openly declared I found Britain was my home once more. But not the parental home in Kentish London. No. Too many memories, too many ghosts. But London as a whole. I was charmed by the village-like features of Kew where I have my pied-à-terre; I was beguiled by the noble maritime feel of Greenwich; I was blown away by the magnificence of the Thames as I travelled down it by boat from Hungerford Bridge to Tower Bridge; I was awestruck by the sheer opulence of Hampton Court Palace and its ancient gardens; I was taken aback by the amicable grandiosity of the Olympic Stadium as I viewed it from the top-floor window of a department store in the shopping centre. And it's so green, even in Homerton, Frognal and Bow. But most of all my heart was warmed by the Polish waitress at the restaurant on the South Bank who addressed me as "love" in true London fashion; I was impressed by the command of English of the German curator's assistant at Hampton Court; I was humbled by the local knowledge of the French-Spanish waitress at my favourite restaurant under the arches at London Bridge station; I was doubly impressed by the Persian man who could cook a splendid Full English breakfast at the greasy spoon at Kew Gardens station. There is simply no other city on Earth where inhabitants from every corner of the globe live side-by-side in fairly peaceful circumstances as equals. It is a success story that was highlighted at the Olympic opening ceremony, when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the selfless British inventor of this fabulous tool we call the WorldWideWeb that I am writing these words on now, typed out on the stadium's LED pixels, "this is for everyone". How true.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Please learn to use the apostrophe - we're not all greengrocers!!

The famous apostrophe - there are some very simple guidelines; please follow them to make yourself look less like a knobhead:

In English, plurals do not require apostrophes. Nor do verbs in the third person singular (he/she/it).
Apostrophes are used in two instances:
1. Possessives in singular and plural (Jean's book, for our members' convenience)
2. Shortening of auxiliary verbs (like he's and we're, it'll or we've, etc...)

The use of the apostrophe is very important in writing, for the reasons below:

This sign implies there is only room for one guest. When we want to say "of the only guest", we write guest's, but when we mean "of all the guests", we write guests'. Furthermore, why is every word here capitalised? We're not German!

Wrong again. Some plural words do not end in "s", like men, women, children. In this case, it is already evident there is more than one. We don't need to put the apostrophe afterwards like ordinary plurals, so we can write men's, women's, children's. What is the singular of men's, women's, children's? Answer at the bottom.

 
 Above, a supermarket forgets it's is short for it is, and below the other way round:

It's very simple:
his + its = of him + of it
he's + it's = he is + it is.
Funny people know the rule when they use the feminine she's and her...

This is why the apostrophe is important in writing:

 The symbol of everything wrong with the British attitude to their own language, the greengrocer:


Finally, this abomination:

Let us end with this simple lesson on spelling and pronunciation:

The sign above is wrong. Firstly, the word "bench" ends in a sound like "garage", "church", "wish", "stage", so we need to pronounce an extra sound "ɪ" before the plural, meaning these words might need an extra letter: "churches", "wishes", and therefore "benches". The same is true of he/she/it plus verbs of this kind: I fish ==> he fishes; I reach ==> he reaches.

And here, I rest my case:


 

...I guess this guy hates almost everyone - he didn't listen to his English teacher either...

The answer to the question what is the singular of men's, women's, children's? Man's, woman's and child's of course, but you knew that... right?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Bereft of any ideas, politics gets nasty

There is a general rule of thumb in politics - when things are OK, politicians can afford to be nice to their rivals and opposite numbers. Even their enemies. When things are bad, politicians are bloody awful people to be around. And this past month has seen a couple of really awful bad-mouthers in the US GOP swinging verbal punches at each other. It is not pretty. I am not sure if the US is a democracy any more. They spend vast amounts of money on year-long election campaigns, money that could alleviate the poverty in inner-city areas of the north and storm-battered villages in the south. There is the saying that anyone can be elected president in the US. But I would add, "...as long as you've got some friends who are billionaires and you have spent 20 years proving you can lick hide."

Added to this, in the last few weeks, there has been a slow build-up of tension between France and the UK (read: Sarkozy and Cameron). It seems the French president is using French patriotism and Brit-bashing to try and win the election. It is not working, as he keeps getting his facts wrong, which the French press so deftly points out. "The UK has no industry any more," he says. "Well, actually," say the press, "they have a larger industrial base than France." But Sarko's message is clear - he is appealing to his supporters. Both of them.

I think point-scoring, lying and exaggerating to get your own way should be outlawed. I think politicians should be made to say things as they are. I regularly watch political interviews and cannot understand why politicians so blatantly dress things up, try to make a positive out of what is clearly a negative and hide true statistics, relying on the data given to them by their researcher, who is paid to warp the reality of the situation. Politics needs Someone Who Tells It Like It Is. But that is not so easy any more. And there is a reason for it.

We have all been told to follow the crowd. No deviating from the path, no imagination, no inspiration. Just do your job. Politicians see it the same too now, I am sure. Unless you're at the very top, in which case you can just do what you please for the term until a few months before the next election. But even then, European politicians gather in huge groups, trying to decide what crisis to conjure up next and what country to sell to Asia next.

What we all need is a figure to step forward and say, "I have a vision, I think it's a good solution, now let's debate it." But we have such nasty-minded political figures around at the moment:
Alex Salmond, digging up all kinds of skeletons for his one-man campaign to break up the United Kingdom, dredging all the muck he can find.
David Cameron, the banker-in-chief, whose vision for Britain is one where we all look after ourselves and to hell with our neighbours and friends.
Ed Miliband, who prefer jokes at the expense of his rivals rather than any true substance.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the point-scoring, penis-size-measuring buffoon whose time in the political world is coming to an end.
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who cannot keep their debates civilised enough to have a proper Republican candidate contest.
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is trying to drum up more support in her country by waving a finger at the Falklands and saying it's hers.
Any Mediterranean politician who has been twenty minutes in a room with Angela Merkel, and comes out saying "we're so hard done-by" because they spent all their money in the 90s, lived off credit in the 2000s and now they're broke and looking for a scapegoat.
Nigel Farage, who does nothing except blow his nose over the very institutions that pay his wages.
Viktor Orban, who is ruining his country's reputation by removing democratic pillars and filling them with his friends.
I could go on, but I won't.

Well, they can all go to hell in a handcart.

Would some straight-talking visionaries please stand up? You're needed in parliaments, senates and cabinets the world over!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Pick on someone your own size, Salmond!

There is a sliding scale of things it's best not to be if you don't want to be shot at. Firstly, being white. Then able-bodied, followed by middle or upper class, and finally being male. However, there is one heinous crime above all others: being English.
Not any old English, as regional dialects give you an oppressed edge about you. I mean, from the South-East corner, the Home Counties, the bit of England that's rarely covered in cloud. It's the way they speak. It's not cool to be clever in the UK, and it's certainly not cool to sound it, even if you're not. Even within the South East, there is a divide in the perceptions amongst various speakers. Sound like you're ready to go for auditions to EastEnders, and you're all right. Make the most basic of grammatical mistakes (we was, I would of/should of, etc.) and you're immediately accepted to the human race. But do your best to speak properly or lose your regional accent (Andrew Marr, for example) and you're mockfodder to the masses, a pull for the polemic pursuer, a target for the tormentor. When I say speak properly, I don't mean sound like a posher version of Prince Charles, but generally grammatically correct and sounding like you're from the South East.

And so everyone else in the country thinks you are an oppressor, a politically incorrect incarnation of imperial oppression in human form, a grotesque being who likes treading on hungry proles. There are several things that made me sit up and take note this week - one was an article in the Guardian about political correctness (not the article but the posts of left-wing indignity after it) and the other was the merciless right-wing press stories about Scottish independence. Is nobody reasonable any more?

The Scots who want independence, and I do not think there are as many of them as we are led to believe, don't really want independence from the Liverpudlian or the Newcastrian English, but more from the Kentish and the Oxfordian English.

Although I don't profess to being English but British, I have had to follow my geographical birthplace around with me. I remember well the various times I have been confronted with people from different parts of the English-speaking world and there has never been a problem until someone turns up with a chip on his or her shoulder about either my accent or my place of birth. Once, an Australian, a Scot and a Canadian all set upon me because I don't have the accent of a colonially oppressed individual. This was more bizarre because the fourth person was from Manchester. It's a southern English thing. And it's really just jealousy.

Scottish people want independence, do they? I'm not really so sure. I think a lot of English would be very happy to see them go, but despite all their bluster, I think they realise what a waste it would be to ditch England. Some English, though, see them as economic millstones around their necks, or creamers of the milk of social welfare and education.

SNP supporters talk about being independent, but I have a message for them: be careful what you wish for... Have you thought about how your standing in the world will be after separation? You'll be half the size of Belgium, population-wise, and the same size as the Czech Republic, size-wise. Your position now, as part of the United Kingdom, means you punch above your weight in international organisations. Scottish people have the opportunity to be candidates for the UK's seat on the UN Security Council, to be the UK's Prime Minister with all the functions that entails and to be part of a powerful national bloc of seats in the EU which is taken far more seriously due to its size than a country with the population of, say, Slovakia. For England, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, losing 8% of the people will be no big deal.

Concerning your currency, you will need to set up your own, because I do not think a country can truly call itself independent without finding its place in the world financially. It is also terribly unfair to the country whose currency tailcoat you are hanging on to, and I do not think the Chancellor in London will permit you anyhow. The euro may beckon for you, but you would be wiser joining NAFTA or EFTA, I think, and setting up the Scottish Pound to float on its own. While we're at it, I think you should be informed about the Northern Irish question. The Protestants of the proud province of Ulster claim to be mainly of British descent. Many of them were originally Scottish crofters. So as far as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned, you will be the natural inheritors of that little debate too.

Actually, it is starting to look quite sunny for the English. I have personally always abhorred your infatuation with cheering English sporting misery and your openly discriminatory nature towards your southern naighbours, despite benefiting quite nicely from the union, so maybe as a separate country, you will mature and see England as a friendly neighbour, like the Irish, and the English will one day forgive you for being so boorish in the past. I take particular offence in anyone getting picked upon for no good reason, and the English get it from everyone. The French, Australians, Scottish, Argentinians, Spanish and Russians have all recently had a bone to pick with the English, (not the British, please note), and it's time they got a little sympathy. I touched this a while ago with this blog.

I have always called myself British. It is a proud, all-inclusive word that distinguishes us from other European nations in that you can be any colour, have any origin, and still be British. French people have had a much greater problem integrating non-French people precisely because "French" is an ethnie as well as a nationality, whereas "British" means you can be English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish and British, but also Indian, Jamaican, Ghanaian or Canadian and British. I think the UK is stronger in Europe and the world when the whole island is united but I think I am becoming less against the idea of Scottish independence, simply because I am slowly getting tired of Alex "Bravebelly" Salmond and his party wittering on about how they would love independence from the UK. Well, I do not think they really do. And deep down, I don't think the English do either, but they would be less affected by Scotland leaving than the Scottish themselves.