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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Red Letter Day

It is three weeks until the start of the cricket season. It is the time of year when you begin to think of summer and  sitting outside all day in a pleasant village green, sipping a gradually warming pint of Old Marsden's ale,  watching men in white flannel strike leather balls with willow bats. Mid afternoon you might have a snooze in the sun while butterflys flutter-by then towards evening, as swallows swoop over the field, and it eventually turns cool-ish, you slip on a light jacket, applaud the players from the field and return home, languished, pleasantly snoozy, civilised.

Toshack wakes me at five thirty as usual, mithering to be allowed out to play. Not for the first time, I curse the fetish for insulation that prevents me from installing a cat flap which would allow him a degree of autonomy, but I get up anyway, wander downstairs accompanied by a constantly miaowing cat (who seems to think that I might be in danger of forgetting exactly why he awoke me with a precisely inserted claw up the left nostril) and head for the back door. We open the door together, Tosh pawing at bottom, me using the handle and I chuck a few dentabite treats into the garden so he can forage. Three weeks before the start of the cricket season, the treats sail into the air before landing in four inches of virgin snow. It is not just cold in the UK right now, it is 'bitter' and it wasnt until we returned here six years, three months, fifteen days and seven hours ago that I truly appreciated (or perhaps remembered) what 'bitter' means. It is not cold, it is Cold.  The Cold in this part of the world, even at only minus 1 or 2C is wet, flaccid, heavy and slow. It does not make you want to go out and fool around, it makes you want to be somewhere else. If a door opens, the Cold floats in, like a bad smell, and hangs around - it is not dispelled by the warmth inside, it infects it, wetting it, cooling it and loading it. In short, it puts me in a very bad mood - Cold has a purpose, sure, but on March 22nd, that purpose is long gone. It is time for Warm.

Today though, I dont mind the bad mood, as I have some letters to write. In true British style, they are all letters of complaint and the bad mood will sharpen the words. As an aside, and in truth, I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter that was not of complaint, although I am sure I have done so at some point. But while in the past , I would write letters of complaint at unscheduled (though hardly spontaneous) intervals, these days I tend to consider the task of  complaint letter writing a unitary activity - each letter feeds the other until the general mood reached can be described as apoplectic. It is very satisfying.

While the mood  has a unitary flavour, though, the technique for each complaint is slightly different. For example, I start with a letter addressed to a whole row of houses outside of which a driver attempted to kill me and (worse), damage the Crosstowner. The reason the letter has to be addressed to the whole row of houses is that the car that was driven (very badly) cut in front of me to access the driveway that leads to a parking area behind this row of house. In doing so, it cut across me, and the sidewalk at about twenty miles per hour, missing the front wheel of the bike by about five inches. I fell off, of course, but by the time I had regained my feet, the car had disappeared into the parking area which has residents only card access. So I could not reach the driver to talk to him or her about their idiocy. Therefore I decide on a tactic of writing to every house (about twenty) that has access to the parking area. The letter is deliberately handwritten, and (returning to a theme regular readers will recognize) will be badly photocopied - deliberately so that it will stand out from the junk mail everyone recieves. The technique here is to be angry and cold, definitely unthreatening, superior and matter of fact. Dont say "hazardous driving" when you mean "murderous stupidity". Dont say "I would advice you to consider your actions" when you mean "You should not be allowed to drive". There's no attempt at dialogue - you are just telling someone they are an idiot and expecting no return. Be offensive (as in 'this letter will offend someone's defensive sensibilities' but  not coarse and dont exagerrate) you are not trying to critique or engage in constructive criticism, you are simply pointing out that someone has irredeemably sinned because they are (objectively) a  dickhead.

The letter of complaint to the Rail company - First Hull trains in this case - needs a different approach. You want a response in the form of  compensation for their actions in cancelling every train  (without notice) one Sunday evening, effectively stranding you in London overnight. However, you dont want - because it infuriates you beyond apoplexy, beyond stratospheric,  and definitely beyond sanity - a marketing driven "Customer Services", mangled syntax (non-deliberately), mealy mouthed, insincere, meaningless...............[and yes, I know there is the occasional Philosopher, Scientist and anthropologist who read this blog and objects to the word meaningless but I would argue that meaningless - as in 'insensate and lumpen' - is entirely appropriate because  when these English customer services departments send these apologies, they may as well send a sample of laminate flooring instead, because the words bear about as much relationship to any action they may take, any emotion they may feel, any lesson they may learn or any message they wish to convey as an entirely unrelated, randomly chosen,  useless artifact would]............where was I... oh yes..... insincere, meaningless, drivel-atious, anti-poetic, generic plops of language apology, especially one that starts "We are sincerely .....".and includes the phrase "..for any inconvenience you may have ......" . I mean, of course, I was incon-fucking-venienced, I would'nt be writing if I was not. So the trick is to try to get the money and dissuade the rail company from apologising and/or thanking your for being a 'customer". So the letter here has to imply  that you will take the matter further through appropriate channels if you dont get satisfaction so thus has to have an air of authority and confidence. And it also has to be logical, evidence driven and factually correct. If it can also be sarcastic to the extent that the company doesnt want to apologise to you, that is a bonus, but  you also want to establish a dialogue - albeit a short one - in which you get some compensation. It is a fine balance and takes time but that is ok because the time it takes makes you more angry and the angrier you are, in preparation for the next letter, the better.

The next, and for today, the final letter, is a letter that addresses an issue wherein I have not been paid for work done. Not being paid for work I have done is an issue that drives me past apoplexy, beyond stratospheric anger and into the realm of searing contempt (for the non-payer), while not loosing the aforementioned apoplexy and anger. If it is not immediately obvious to a reader why non-payment for work is about the worst thing you can do to someone - outside of illegal activities like violence and murder- then you, dear reader, are probably living in the kindom of searing contempt as a contemptee, although having said that, the kingdom of searing contempt is quite big and includes provinces where contempt is also focused on people who have made others unjustifiably redundant, denied wage rises or dub themselves 'thought leaders'. Here though, it is doubly complicated, because you also want, need actually,  to work for the person on subsequent occasions (employment does not grow on trees even three weeks before the start of the cricket season), and you want/need the money. It is a horrible letter to try to write:  do you go with the  apology approach, whereby you apologize for any misunderstanding and offer to take whatever the contemptee will give you? Or do you try to draw a line in the sand: the "I'm worth something to you and this is the way its gonna be.." approach? In my experience, neither work (with any reliability) because the reason the contemptee hasnt paid you in the first place is a reflection of what they think of you ( which is not a lot) and anything you write either puts you in the position being someone who is thought of as 'not-a-lot-and-a-pushover' or 'not-a-lot-and-a-pain-in-the-ass'.  I half consdier going with apology when RHB announces she is going shopping, and can we afford to buy 'X". The anger rises "Why the F*** am I apologizing to them c***?" , so I draft a work of art full of righteous anger. The result  is beautiful, dripping with sarcasm, vague references to the legal position (actually in the UK there is nothing you can really do if someone choses not to pay you), commentary about the social contract, allusion to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is angry, full nostrils flared angry, rising from the sea and smiting angry, Hammer of the Gods angry. And it is contemptuous - 'how petty over such a small sum', 'doubtless their dentist bill is paid' (they have very bad  teeth), and it threatens social sanctions - 'surprised because I had heard they were good community members'. I am about to send, when RHB returns and I read it triumphantly.  "Well, that gives them every reason not to pay you doesnt  it?" she notes. I re-read, she is right - it is brilliant but it is a declaration of war. I go back to the letter and , exhausted by Cold, apoplexy, photocopying and the action of actually using a pen to write something, I draft an  'apology' for putting myself in the position (by dutifully doing work over a period of three months) where I had placed them in the very awkward position of having not to pay me for the work I had excelled in, and an apology for not understanding that they were not going to pay me, a misunderstanding (on my part) that led to me unnecessarily provoking them with requests for the money they had no intention of paying which  I had (mistakenly) thought I had earned. I press send.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Broken Beliefs

The knock on the door is either a welcome or unwelcome distraction. Actually, in these days  people seldom knock on eachother's doors unannounced.  Text, tweet, IM, Facebook have replaced this for people who are geographically close and close kin  and, in other 'circles' where kin are distant and  social diaspora is a fact - for example myself and RHB where our  nearest friends are in Aberdeen, Bristol, the Wildings of Shrewsbury, London,  Canada and New Zealand - the geographical seperatedness means that chums popping in for wet Wednesday and a biscuit is unlikely. Actually, given the geographical and linguistic diversity of our friends, if they did just pop in for a wet Wednesday and a biscuit, we would have to spend quite a while explaining what they were being offered, which would tempt me into a discussion about linguistic diversity, which would probably end up in a critiue of determinism which would spar RHB into an retort about anti-science and things would escalate from there.The cats would take sides and guests would be drawn into the debate.  Four hours later, there would be a group of Interpretivists barricaded behind our table (which I would have mentoined that I had made personally) exchanging rifle fire with a group of Scientists who would be behind the couch. Truth and objectivity bombs would be thrown by the interpretivists, backed up by ontological mortars (which having been launched would land four hours later and open to display a nice bouqet of flowers) and epistemological surface-to-[experienced]-surface missiles. The Scientists would have reams of data fired from  an SPSS cannon and hard-copy shrapnel grenades which upon bursting would shower the opposition with numbers although sometimes the numbers would just refuse to operate.

It is a scenario I wish to avoid happening, for obvious reasons, so when there is a knock on my door - and when, like Schroedinger's cat, I am neither "not in" nor "dead"  and can therefore answer the door, and perhaps more importantly,  be observed (by my own cats)  in the act of answering the door - I hesitate for a second. Then I consider - this might be a delivery of books, a neigghbour needing assistance that Facebook cant help or "like", or a police officer with some important information. So I carefully "save" the transcript of the interview with a teacher I was pretending to be getting on with (while actually watching "Cats can be jerks" on You Tube), and answer the door. The answeree is a short woman, densely black hair, suntanned and sunworn face, stinking of cigarettes wearing a tweed skirt, green tracksuit top and massive furry boots. She has a woven basket full of what I can only describe as crap. Not real crap in the sense of animal waste products, you understand, but just rubbish 'stuff' that is a lot less useful than fertilizable manure.

"Godblessyasir" she says "howareyoudoingI'msellingsomecharmsforyerwifeGodBless"

She pauses and I nod, leaning forward about to deliver a killer smile and a "no thanks", a technique perfected over years of easily dismissing earnest Christians who are trying to sell God. Her pause is microseconds however, timed to perfection


At this point, there are a few things going on. I am thinking "The stuff in this basket really is a load of crap".  I am also thinking "Nel will kill me when she finds out how much I spent on this crap". The lady - who is a traveller (travellers are also called "gypsy", "tinker" but I will stick with  'traveller') is hovering expectantly, an expert in reading people.

"Well" I say " I do need a pan scrubber"

""Two for four pound fifty" she says.  I hand over four pounds fifty pence (approximately 100 times the going value of these articles) in exact change.

"A charm fer yer wife, cross yer palm I will, God Bless. Only three pounds each, fiver for two".

She has slowed down in delivery, the need for speed is gone. Now she needs only to be precise, patient and perfect - an angler at the top of their game judging when to haul in the fish. [Incidentally, I am not exagerrating the dialogue here it is about as word perfect as I remember].

I look at the 'charms'. They are Chinese made plastic key rings all with the letter "Y" at one end, or 1cm diameter polished stones in turqoise, green and orange - the type many people empty onto the surface of the soil in  potted house plants to preserve moisture. They cost about one pound for a bag of twenty - a fact I know as I have recently purchased a bag.

"You have no "N" 's ? " I ask delving through the keyrings. The traveller lady looks confused and I think, based on the way she reacts - which is to just pick up the key rings (all "Y") one by one  and show them to me -  that maybe she cannot read. I am anxious to assert myself , so I trimuphantly state "Well, I cant buy a key ring. You dont have my wife's initials!" I have to admit that I actually feel, for a brief second, quite virtuous that I have managed to resist the temptation to buy a useless, overpriced, ugly item.

Following this triumph against the hard sell, I am keen to continue demonstrating that I am a man with a mind of his own, not someone who buys junk will-nilly! 'No' I think to myself  'when I buy junk it is because I am in control. It is for Good Reasons and I know what I am doing' so when a  couple of crappy little glass stones are forced into my hand  with "Fiver only there you are God Bless", I bargain hard. I pick one out of my hand and firmly hand it back.

"I only want one of these" I say, proferring a ten pound note.

"Gotnochange" says traveller lady.

I look at her with what, in some circles, is called 'askance'.

"I just gave you four pound notes and fifty pence in change" I say.

"Gotnochange. GodBless" says the lady and snatches the ten pound note from my hand, gives me the additional charm and a key ring and smiles "God Bless you sir".

I let her go with no further argument. I suppose I could have tried to strike a deal but suspect that I would have ended up handing over a lot more cash. And I dont blame the lady. I have cycled extensively in this city which is a hub for travellers. You hardly ever see them, particulalry the women and the sites they live in are in the worst, smelliest, dirtiest post-apocalyptic post industrial contaminated places imaginable. One traveller site I know of has a polluted silt filled river on one side that continuously smells of hydrogen suplhide, a paint factory on another and a tannery on the other. The way travellers are treated in much of Britain is effectively "Go away, we dont want you but we have a legal obligation to accomodate you so why dont you try living in this toilet". Its retrospective justification to say that I was trying to help because travellers are oppressed, and it would also be untrue. I was, by most measures, ripped off. But this isnt the traveller lady's fault - a combination of superstition and social conscience, guilt and solidarity, softness and pliancy on my part was responsible. In this case, I ripped myself off.

I dont tell RHB where the new dish scrubbers come from - there is no need because they both break the next day as I am using them for the purposes they are allegedly designed for. I give the key rings and charms to a neighbour's children who are respectively three, four and five years old. The kids are delighted to have "gypsy treasure' although I feel a bit guilty giving them this crap. I chat with the kids and their dad about the frogs in our pond which have just started emerging. The next day there is a knock at the door just when I am trying to SPSS some survey data. The children have come back, and drawn a picture of a frog, some treasure and a princess (I dont know where the princess comes from). The picture has the primitive brilliance of kid's drawings and is signed by them all in sprawling signatures that go along the top then down the side of the page. Lucky charms indeed.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Crossing cultures

As anyone reading this blog is aware, I am a lapsed atheist. That is, I dont believe that there is a Higher Power but also, and unlike those like Dawkins who think it is terribly important, I dont really think that this belief (for that is what my atheism is) or more accurately  lack of faith, is really that important or significant. Sure, there have been huge benefits to religion: most of Western science that has not been purloined from the ancient  Greek, Arab world or China,  was facilitated by  religion if only in the sense of  it (religion)being kind enough to not execute or imprison  every  pioneer of science (with a few notable unlucky exceptions such as Galileo).

I should, as is the wont of this blog, to digress here. The tendency of Western Culture  to ' borrow' mentioned in the previous  paragraph, is well established  and is not a feature of an illustrious past that features a cultural pattern where we once borrowed but have moved on since then. Indeed the cultural meme that claims that 'this pattern (of stealing/borrowing original ideas form elsewhere and passing them off as your own) did exist but does no longer and is justified because it unequivocably led to greater things' (such as using Arab and Chinese pilots to sail us round Africa in the days of sail,  then taking that knowledge and 'improving' it so that 'we' got to the Americas first) is a vital part of the West's self image that eventually arrives at the justification for the West's self-perception that it   "leads' the World.

Perhaps the central notion of this meme is that such stealing/borrowing is "in the past". A quick glance at the twentieth century tells you that "in the past" (related to borrowing ideas from elsewhere) as a pillar of faith is wildly inaccurate. Think of the space programmes (Soviet and German technology), surfboards, katamarans (Polynesia), the concept (but not the practice) of 'democracy' (Greece), the notion of 'social cohesion' (Kaldun/Africa), riot police (Rome/Zulu), the worship of cats (Egypt), ideas about holisticism ('Eastern Mysticism), industrial organisation (Japan), the Scout Movement (Maasai), Vygotsky and 'scaffolding' (never his term), underfloor heating (everywhere), Universities (Greece again). And prior to the 20th century the list is much, much longer : guns and gunpowder, steam power, navigation, three masted ship construction, mining, bronze work, iron work, solar power..........

I should make it every clear that this is not a criticism of the fact that the West has stolen - I am sitting, relatively happily, in a comfortable house partly because of this tendency.  And there is no claim that other cultures do not beg, steal or borrow because  they quite clearly do  -  think of Meiji Japan and, perhaps,  contemporary  China and India. No, the issue in focus here is the idea that "we in the West" are particularly innovative, somehow - genetically or maybe structurally or politically - "we" are inevitably innovators. And I would argue that concept is ridiculous and not supported by historical fact. However, I will not dismiss this false notion of Western-innovation-as-an-exclusive-property without providing a replacement hypothesis. This replacement hypothesis/half baked notion is fully consistent with "Civilisation -Why?" and can simply be illustrated by directing you - if you are a Western reader - to your own email. I would bet a considerable sum that you have a calendar associated with your email and that you regularly update it, consult it, amend it, get reminders from it. You probably re-format it every year in the post New Year doldrums. Prior to a computerised calendar/diary you probably had a paper journal, assidously recording everything, making appointments and lists of things to do. A person I know even makes 'to -do" lists for social evenings out, reminding herself of conversational items she wants to 'achieve'.

It is this cultural feature, planning rather than innovation (which is a universal human condition), which is specific to Western Culture. Planning  is rationalisation taken to the nth degree, a belief system that has eradicated religion (which was only useful for as long as it gave a reliable framework for planning) and a style of thinking that says "We can achieve anything as long as we write a long enough "to do" list" or that we have a good enough computer programme that allows us to 'project manage' efficiently enough. And when our plans are destabilised, we tend to act erratically - our God has deserted us.

I have recently found myself in this very predicament. I am currently engaged in 'fieldwork' (I dont really know what else to call it although I am not in any fields) associated with my PhD. This fieldwork is complex and multi-faceted. If I may blow my own trumpet for a moment, I would say it is real mixed methods (ie I actually use sciency stuff with real statistics, descriptivey stuff with proper observations sheets and a technique for impromptu observation, interpretatitive stuff with a series of in depth interviews that have arisen from relationships that it has taken me about eighteen months to forge and the critical stuff of in-depth discourse analysis which is a bit sciencey and a bit critical) rather than ad-hoc and it is very exciting. In fact the diagrams I have drawn up to explain the work, and how it has all been planned to dovetail together have elicted gasps of admiration (from me) and nods of understanding from really clever people  in research seminars and conferences  where I have presented my approach. As a plan it is beautiful and is exactly what everyone wants to see.

Of course, as an intact construct, said plan lasted about a week in the field when a regular informant withdrew from the research. Then a class time in a college changed. Then funding was withdrawn for another programme and finally, after revisiting the pilot studies, I found that one idea which was central to my working hypothesis was a load of old codswallop. Grief stricken, I returned to my office, fondly gazing on my plan  (which occupies one wall like those cop shows where there are loads of lines connecting pictures of dead bodies, shop fronts and mug shots) for one last time. Then I photographed it (why ?) took it down placing deceased elements and unsolved loose ends into cardboard shoe boxes and drank a bottle of tequila. The next day, and in a night of passion and urgency, I made another plan - using much of the same materials and all of the same ribbon to connect things. I had realised I could not live without a plan, even if that plan is only to have a plan.