Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A personal message to the people of Scotland: Don't you forget about us!

The debate over Scotland and its position in the United Kingdom has long been discussed on these pages, and in varying moods, depending on the context of the time. A while back I laid heavily into Alex Salmond for his demagogical bluster, opportunism and whipping up of sentimental feelings. I don't regret this, as I feel his policies after a possible vote for independence in Scotland are still incredibly self-glorifying and for all intents and purposes quite unfeasible. But this article is not about old fishface Salmond and his army of cybernats and spin doctors. This is about what the whole issue will come down to in the end: emotion, a sense of belonging, and ultimately familiarity with the status quo.

Comparable regions and nations inside other national borders would be Catalonia, Wales, Bavaria, Flanders, Brittany, Corsica or the Basque Country, and yet none of these have such a distinct identity as Scotland. There are certain items that people from quite close to those regions and nations would recognise as being typical, for example food or clothes. But with Scotland, there is a whole package, most of which would be recognised by many outside these isles, meaning there is simply no country like Scotland. It is a very, very distinct country within a country, and compared to all others in similar situations, Scottish culture and identity is so evidently unique.

Added to this, there are the everyday things we use that originated in Scotland: tarmacadam, the first passenger steamboat, the cash machine, modern economics, sociology, geology, electromagnetism, oil refining, fingerprinting, the Kelvin temperature scale, golf, curling, the refrigerator, the macintosh overcoat, the lawnmower, the Bank of England, the Bank of France even, the New York Herald, the television, penicillin, the ultrasound... the list is endless. Many of the inventions are based on a philanthropic philosophy that has been prevalent in Scotland for centuries. This is borne of a community spirit forged out of the unique conditions their culture, climate and history have created. That's my opinion, you may have yours.

In any case, you may have noticed, I have used "their", "them" and "they". That's because although they make up part of the peoples of the British Isles, their identity is indisputable. And that is the point. Although they are "they", they are also, due to their contribution to the British story, most certainly "us". And I like it that they are.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying the United Kingdom needs to go back to the old ways of centralisation - totally the opposite - I am saying that they deserve their own recognition as the great nation they are, but I really don't want them to leave us to our own devices. I want the Kingdom to stay United. They are the down-to-earth counterbalance to the snooty southern English. They provide the social conscience for their southern neighbours' rampant capitalism. They put an anti-establishment middle finger up at the great and the good, which is what those obedient, docile Home Counties people should do more of. The Scottish people I know are also much better educated than any other people in the English-speaking world. In English schools, it's really not cool to be clever, but in Scotland I noticed intelligence is not something to be apologised for there as it might be in England.

I have no authority to tell the Scottish people to stay within the Union, but I would just say this: I have, for as long as I can remember, been British. Not English or Londoner. The universal nature of the word "British" signifies who I am and I would feel the legitimacy of that would be eroded if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom. No matter what happens, Scotland can do a great job of governing itself. Its ultra-modern Parliament is a uniquely transparent and enlightened institution, with a much more "village hall" feel to it, as a Parliament should be; its policies on education, health and welfare are far more generous and egalitarian than anything found to its immediate south, and quite frankly, its notions of Europeanness are much deeper than that of England. But I don't care about that so much. What I hope, though, that Scotland's political set-up can have a profound effect on England's. I hope England will, over time, take on Scotland's example of the treatment of the poor and needy. I hope England will make strides in opening up academic learning for all in the same way as that in Scotland and I hope England will learn from Scotland that not voting ideologically for the same mainstream parties will result in a much more representative and multi-party parliament in Westminster.

Whatever happens, the referendum in September will have far-reaching implications for the UK. And for that reason, here is my hope for after the referendum: if Scotland votes to remain in the United Kingdom, I hope England learns its lessons, changing its political stance and becoming more attuned to the needs of all people. I hope the nature of the debate that takes place after the referendum will allow us to make the UK much more federalised. Maybe with the knowledge that the Palace of Westminster needs huge renovations, we could even take the House of Commons on the road. Sitting in Edinburgh and Cardiff would be an excellent start to resetting the relationship between all the countries on the island. Parliament would need some logistical backup, but with the technology available to us, this should not be a problem. I would also hope a vote to remain in the UK would see the end of the career of Alex Salmond. His smartypants demeanour and opportunistic ability to articulate his mood whether offended, sarcastic, petulant, super-confident or any other state will have come to nothing, or even been the reason for his demise. My grandmother used to get animated and often threaten the destruction of the television each time Margaret Thatcher showed her face on it. I often feel the same way when that smug megalomaniac's fizzog makes an unwelcome appearance on mine.

If Scotland decides to leave the United Kingdom, I also understand. Let us forget the history of the relationship of the two countries and consider the present: why else would you want to remain in a union where the ruling party never really represents you? Why would you want to remain in a union where the ruling party did things completely against your own instincts? Why wouldn't you want to leave the union that forced the bedroom tax upon some of your most hard-up citizens? I hope the downfall of the Conservative-LibDem government would take place soon after such a referendum, and a lot of English soul-searching would result in the conclusion that England is just too right-wing and London-centric for its own good.

But I cannot stomach that for now. I am sure, if that does happen, I will feel totally devastated. I want Scotland to remain in the Union, not because of the scary scenarios that seem to be the nightmare du jour for the "No" campaign; I want Scotland to remain in the Union because this will do untold damage to my own identity and that of many others. It would make me feel incomplete.

If I were Scottish and had a say in the outcome, I would probably weigh up the pros and the cons and decide still to remain, because (whisper it quietly) I think we are going through a period where we might start learning from each other. The Commonwealth Games, taking place in Glasgow as I write these lines, seems to have had the opposite effect on its people, and provided a new friendship between England and Scotland that politics has so sadly jettisoned. It will be the people who decide the fate of Scotland, and I will not sleep so easily in my bed until I know the results of the referendum.

Finally, I wonder what we would call the UK without Scotland - could it keep the same name? I don't really think so. It would need a new name. Southern Britain and Northern Ireland? SBNI? What a mouthful. The Kingdom of the Isles? More acceptable, but a little bit too Arthurian. Union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Well no. So maybe it would keep the name. But frankly, I am not going to even contemplate the idea that the Scottish would vote to become foreigners on their own island.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Why I refuse to buy anything from China

I am an animal lover. I am also a meat lover.

I get great pleasure from tucking into a freshly-roasted joint of pork. I've also had some remarkable encounters with pigs, who are incredibly intelligent, contemplative and playful. I remember going to a Christmas market in the nearby town of Sierck-Les-Bains, just over the border in France, and seeing a wild boar on an open spit fire. This was the closest I ever came to becoming a vegetarian. I never will, of course, because I am also a part of this Darwinist set-up, and I firmly believe in the circle of life.

However, I believe in killing as part of the circle of life only as a necessity, for example as food, or to avoid infestations. So as you can imagine, I am a firm supporter of the least harmful ways of going about this. Speed of death being one. We are humans, after all. In the animal world, when I see a cat throwing a bird into the air so that it crashes onto a hard surface, I know that cat is softening up the meat. And although it is awful to see a bird being devoured by a cat, this is the circle of life. And death. Many creatures, when they know they are going to be eaten, go into shutdown mode, and curl up ready for their last second.

Cats, who are notoriously fickle creatures, and may actually abandon the prey before eating it, or even leave it still alive but completely destroyed, have the air of harmless little things in front of their owners, yet carry the reputation of scourge of the garden amongst the rodent and bird populations. But they are cats. And they have little or no real understanding of the world around them, other than this strange instinct that they need to behave similarly to their ancestors back in Africa and Asia, although they don't know why. I hate seeing a dead bird abandoned or half-eaten on my doormat or in the garden, because I know, especially at this time of year, that poor creature had a family somewhere that relied on it to bring food, and the callous cat didn't even have the decency to finish it off. The circle of life. And what a circle it is. A majestic balance of nature that maintains the order of hierarchy among us living things.

And we are at the top.

This means we have a duty to tend to our planet, to act as custodians of the Earth, and to maintain the laws of nature. But we do not. We allow dastardly organisations to defile our food chain by wiping out the bees; we allow nefarious multinationals to stick out their sharp elbows and run farms into the ground in the name of their equally barbarous customers, the supermarkets; and we allow the killing of animals for the sake of vanity. And this I find to be the greatest tragedy to befall us in the 21st century. That the silent majority goes on buying utter rubbish in the supermarkets, feeding their families on stuff that comes out of plastic packets and paper boxes.

This has to stop. We are ruining our world by not doing anything about it. By buying the stuff that these multinationals fabricate to allegedly make our lives easier or better, we are also making others' lives much more miserable or of a much lower quality. Not just humans, but also mammals and fish, trees and plants. And this, just to save a few cents on an evening meal.

Why aren't more of us angry? How are we learning to live with and accept this? I'll tell you.

We are slowly learning to edit our lives. It's an unconscious thing, but it is happening. We are airbrushing out the cruelty that is going on in our world, from the unfathomable barbarism that humans are capable of, right down to Facebook's ridiculous policy of censoring some body parts, even in factual posts. They are being wiped out by politically correct zealots who complain that "this sort of thing is not suitable for people to see", by social media admins who control what you show to the world very rigorously and by yourselves, when you question whether you should show or introduce something to a wider audience. It also has to stop - we need to see some things in order to stop them. That's what warnings are for.

That is why I am posting this video from PETA (this contains appalling scenes of animal cruelty):


It is the most extremely shocking thing I think I have ever seen. It is barbaric beyond all comprehension, that people - PEOPLE - in the 21st century can still care so little for another living creature which, however far down the food chain it may be, still has complex feelings. But it is also beyond belief that PC nutters are also likely to point their pious fingers in the direction of those who expose this cruelty and tell them to remove it for fear of scaring those of a delicate constitution.

Well they can go to hell along with the monsters who kill innocent creatures for fur in the first place, for they are both supporting each other in helping to maintain the status quo. Next time someone wants something removed because it's upsetting, remind them that they too are helping the perpetrators by not passing on the gravity of the acts, all because they don't want to get too upset. Poor dears.

This is how I rationalise my world, and how I see the role of humans in it. Hunting in Africa, especially rhino and elephants, the fur trade, and dangerously cheap goods - the paper trail leads back to one country - China. There are other countries in the world doing this too, and I am sure the Chinese propaganda experts are, as you read this, finding ways to show me that other nations are a lot worse than the Chinese. I am sure they will try to disprove this or denounce me, but WMYTIGAF? I really don't. The more vociferous the denials, the truer the scandal they are trying to cover up. The more they try to expose their critics, the smellier the shit they are hiding. To be attacked by that lot I would regard as a badge of honour.

And so this leads me to the final thought on this matter: what should we do about it?

Well, just stop buying anything from China. Anything at all. You won't do much to their economy by boycotting just this awful animal trophy trade. Most do already. You need to make a principled and conscious effort to shun, ignore and denounce anything at all from there. I know it's hard, especially with computer equipment, but in other areas like toys, clothes, furniture and the like, there are richer pickings, and the more trade China loses due to its moral standing, the more embarrassed their leaders might become. Initially, probably not, but if it hurts their economy, they may sit up and take note that, despite the corrupt and nepotistic nature of worldwide politics these days, at least the ordinary people are doing something.

It is said that the behaviour of a nation's people towards their animals shows how advanced their civilisation is. I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

I don't usually swear, Mr Farage, but I'll make an exception for you

The European elections are in a few days' time, and I am voting with my feet. There are no politicians I really want to vote for and the answer lies in the fact that they are no longer politicians - they are just elected civil servants: bumbling drudges with such negligible inspiration or vision, that they need to pay external organisations known as think-tanks to come up with ideas for them. I could not imagine, when the great William Beveridge sat down to write his paper on the founding of the NHS, that he first called up some freelance ideologues in trendy suits, smoking slim cigarettes and mumbling "here's what we do with this, right?" before fabricating a fanciful presentation full of euphemistic terms like "care pathway" and "care programme approach" (or CPA for short) before sending an invoice for the "work carried out" on its conception. Mr Beveridge was so visionary, so driven and so original, that a copy of his report was discovered by the Soviet army when they arrived at Hitler's bunker.

My point is, politicians fall short of every single mark they are compared to. They are weak-willed, ineloquent, obfuscating, money-grabbing daylight robbers who revel in telling us we need to reduce our budgets yet give themselves fat pay rises and swan about between the darkened windows of upmarket vehicles that most honest Romanians would fail to pay for if they saved up for 20 years.

And this segway brings me nicely to Romanians. And UKIP. And Nigel Farage himself. And his hordes of tub-thumping minions, for they are the beneficiaries of the protest voters' anger at the lack of leadership and vision in Europe at this time.

Type "Farage Romania" into Google and you will see a host of texts and videos about his views on those people, including the fact that he would not want to live next door to any. Well Mr Farage, I can tell you for nothing, you odious little weasel, that I know a great deal of Romanians, indeed several of whom come to my house on a regular basis, and I see them no differently to anyone else. But I see the person, not the nationality.

Then you said something about feeling uncomfortable about hearing a foreign language on a train. Where do you think you are, Nigel, you loathsome scab? I live in Germany and work in Luxembourg. Every day I hear Portuguese, German, French, Lithuanian and lots of other languages being spoken on various modes of public transport I take, and not one eyebrow is raised from any of the other passengers. Only those who bellow inanely into their mobile phones for the rest of the bus to hear and those who play loud music thoughtlessly to us all, thinking we'd like to hear it, but they don't have to be Romanians, Nigel, you opportunistic piece of farmyard genitalia. And I think this is the same in the UK too. So why it should give you the tummy trots, dear Nige, is anyone's guess...

You married a German. And when questioned as to whether it applied to her, you said that she wouldn't speak German on a train.

Oh puh-lease!

But you also feel, do you not, you miserable shadow of a man, that we should know the difference between a German neighbour and a Romanian one, and we would want one much less than the other moving in next to us. Well I live next to a German-French family, and I would gladly swap them for almost anyone, even the Osborne family (Ozzy, not George). They bought the house for €450,000, selling their other properties to pay for it. They have several cars and work in fairly elevated positions. But they are the result of what happens when neighbourhood discipline and respect don't matter any more. Their offspring scream their heads off on their trampoline which is placed strategically next to our land without so much as an admonishing word on the dishonour and embarrassment this brings to their family; the mother glories in showing how upwardly mobile, capable and alpha-male her Tarzanesque husband is; they allow their elder two sons and three boisterous mates to noisily pack their minivan for a week-long trip to the Netherlands at midnight on a swelteringly hot Sunday-to-Monday night in the street outside my open window when the rest of us have to get up for work in the morning, and they love making backhanded compliments about my building and planting work in the garden, and how they are so lucky their garden was ready-made when they moved in. In other words, rich peasants who have no clue how to handle their upward societal trajectory.

I bought my house 6 months before they moved in. If they had been there when I came to view the house, there is no way I would have bought it. I can tell you, Mr Farage, what it is to live next door to nasty neighbours. But they do not need to be poor, or uneducated, or Romanian, or whatever. They just need to be sociopaths. I hate them so much, I don't care if they read this. It will do them good to know the contempt in which I hold them. And only a last-class monolingual, monocultural, uncouth fucking dickpunnet like yourself would associate the quality of a human being with their nationality. Only a blatantly racist scumbag would believe that speaking a foreign language is the path to sedition and deviant behaviour. I speak ten languages, Mr Farage, and I can only tell you how small your world is compared to mine. How much you are missing by not understanding anything else except your own language. How unimaginably broad my mind is compared to yours, because languages are not only about ordering a paella in Palamos or a pizza in Parma, it is also a gateway to understanding how minds work, how the collective memory of a country's inhabitants leads them to react in a certain way to various events in history or gestures you make.

Furthermore, Mr Farage, your own unpardonable views and comments on anyone east of the Oder-Neisse line leads me to this conclusion: I have walked among the poor and destitute of many cities in that part of the world, and this, and I have made some very poignant observations: the poorest people are often those who have the greatest protective instincts, the largest hearts and the most welcoming homes. If indeed they have homes. They can be ruthless when times are hard, but necessity is the mother of invention. If, Mr Farage, they were going to make their way to your home and camp on the grass, rather than calling the police, go and drink a cup of tea with them and see what you can do to help. You may find that showing respect to people will lead to reciprocal action. Rather than deport them for being here, find them a place where they can fit in. Yes, there are lots of rogue elements, but they are from every corner of our continent, and they need to be handled differently. But among those who move to get a better life, would you heartlessly send them back to square one? What has happened to that meritocratic ideal that our country is famous for?

So learn a few languages, go and smoke a pipe of peace and do a little research on why those people act the way they do. Don't pander to the uninformed; that's just being a dickhead. Stand up and be counted, be that visionary we so badly need right now, and lead us out of the darkness of ignorance and small-mindedness.

I apologise for the bad language used in this article, even if I believe and stand by every word I have written.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Eurovision 2014: Conchita fires the starting pistol for 21st-century warfare

Something monumental yet very subtle happened last night in Copenhagen. Something that was barely noticed by the audience of 11,000 in the B&W Hallerne and approximately 120 million in the rest of Europe and the world at large. It was so subtle, I think most people haven't actually got it even now, 24 hours later. Conchita Wurst, the Queen of Austria, swept away the competition towards the end of voting, giving her home country its first win since 1966. It wasn't this either. It was the bit before that. The liberal-minded people of Europe voted for her against a backdrop of recent turmoil in lands further east, where it is not uncommon to attack, harass or even jail people of Conchita's kind with total impunity. There was a subliminal groundswell of support for Conchita earlier in the week; but what happened on the night was the Europe of tolerance and understanding giving the inflexible and sneering part of Europe a damn good open-hand slap on the chops.

What made this the moment the starting pistol of war was fired, even if it was a pistol stuffed full of shredded tinsel and stardust and made a fizzing sound upon pulling the trigger, was Conchita's acceptance speech on-stage: "This is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity and we are unstoppable." Bang. 

Or is that Boom-Bang-A-Bang?

Anyhow, it infuriated the Russians, who swiftly turned their post-Eurovision chat show into a tubthumping diatribe of everything wrong with Europe and why you'd be morally safe and sound under Putin's parental umbrella. In fact one of the key speakers in the debate said that it was the "end of Europe". Look out for your children all those with sons and daughters abroad in the EU - they might return gay. Or worse still, wearing a long figure-hugging sequined dress and sporting a beard. Yeah, right... I think if you find something to your liking you'll do it anyway. And vice-versa.

"I really dream of a world where we don't have to talk about unnecessary things like sexuality, where you're from or who you love," she went on. "This is not what it's all about." Well that's now where Europe's at, girlfriend. It's just up to the rest of the world to fall into line. In fact, I think you single-handedly made Gay Pride events in the EU obsolete. They were set up to further tolerance and understanding for the LGBT community. Well I get the impression they've been firmly accepted now. And thanks to you, we can get to grips with what is really right and wrong on our controversy-torn continent. There is one thing you can tell to President Putin over there in his sumptuous palace that he is loath to abandon: people's freedom does not start at the ballot box. It does not start at the push of a telephone button. It does not even start at the supermarket checkout. The freedom to choose, which is an important one, whether it be a politician, the next singing sensation or that evening's dinner, is so wide of the mark as to be insulting to 21st century human intelligence. And two of those you try your hardest to rig. The fact is, it starts in our heads and in our hearts. And when leaders of pressure groups, religious organisations and political parties try to lobby for the censorship of what you can and cannot see/do/think/feel, it can only create a huge storm in our society as to make the tectonic plates of opinion and philosophy rub so hard against each other as to cause an irreparable continental divide so powerful, it will take a war to put it together again. 

And that is what happened last night. 

But this war will not be not a cold war. It is not any particular temperature at all. We had the War of Jenkins' Ear, well this will be the War of Conchita's Song, and it will not be fought on any battlefield with any military hardware at all. This will be fought on computer keyboards, smartphone tapscreens and tablets all over the world. It is a war against immorality. 21st-century immorality. I am totally convinced that the word "morality" has fundamentally changed in meaning. It no longer just stands for that Judaeo-Roman ideal of patriarch-dominated heterosexual image of society as the "Guide to Family Life" would have us believe. "Morality" is not about believing society will collapse like Sodom and Gomorrah. "Morality" in the 21st century stands for accepting the idea of freedom to be who you want to be, without fear of insult, slander or persecution. It is the freedom to make choices based on your own sexual preference, your own religious belief and your own political stance. 

And the war we are fighting is one of 21st-century morality: small-mindedness versus understanding.

I remember, when I was an impressionable young lad back in the nineties, being taken round a busy office building. It was a bit like open day. And I distinctively remember seeing a guy with a beard, hairy neck, a bit of a beer belly and stubby, freckled arms and legs, also fairly hairy. I say legs, because I saw them poking out from under his tartan skirt. A little later, and a long way out of earshot, I discreetly inquired as to that man, and the answer I got changed my opinion about life in oh-so-many different ways: the guide, who was also his boss, said: "if you're ever as good as he is in your job, you can come to work in a bikini if you like." Well I won't, because the weather's bad enough as it is, without me causing driving rain and thunderstorms by showing off my legs and arms. And I am sure way more than half of those who voted for Conchita last night would say the same. But this is where we stand out from the intolerant rabble: we wouldn't dress in a skirt and beard ourselves, but you have our blessing, and we'll damned well defend your right to do it if you want. 

So Conchita, I salute you for showing up the amoral people in our society for the small-minded, mealy-mouthed drabs that they are, and I look forward to love-bombing a few of them on your behalf very soon.

See you in Vienna in May 2015!

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.


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

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


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.