Monday, August 29, 2011

A Welsh Artist Responds to Just Criticism

I salute Madame Boyo's indefatigability in guessing my password and subjecting my film treatments to literally unanswerable analysis.

She had been similarly unimpressed by my first effort, "Escape From Bikini Island", and its radical revision - "No Escape From Bikini Island".

I acknowledge my error in following the decadent individualist advice to "write about what you know", which in my case is the porn/sci-fi axis around which the fulcrum of my mind rotates.

Hence "Alien vs Predator vs Dalek" and "The Lion Tamer", featuring Rt Hon Theresa May PC MP, HM Secretary of State for the Home Department, and a still-warm pelt.

I can only adopt the Deakin Defence - "I shouldn't ought to have done so, but I did it anyway. Let History be my judge" - and go back to Les Cahiers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Stone of Oblivion

Keen readers of my web blog will recall a previous foray into management consultancy, in which I explained how best to use the office sociopath. I've given the topic more thought of late, and reached the conclusion that most managerial problems can be solved at the recruitment stage.

The overwhelming majority of managers, and "overwhelming" is a word readily associated with them, are unsuited to the job. The reason is that anyone who seeks to attend meetings, read memos, conduct appraisal interviews and associate with other managers is a drainage channel for moral slurry.

How to stop these "cc" zombies from taking over your world?

1. Advertise your managerial post with the usual verbiage about "top-shelf thinking", "disaggregating the transformational foliage" and "synergising the priority valve", take all the applications, and throw them away.

2. Find some normal colleagues. Normal people are those who laugh when they read newspapers, like to play sports rather than go to the gym, and have moderately untidy hair. They gather in bars and smoking areas, even if they neither drink nor smoke. They do not own Morcheeba CDs. If you have no such people or places at work, get another job.

3. Appoint these normal people as managers. They will instinctively know what to do, which most of the time is nothing. But, when danger looms in the shape of visit from Head Office or some sort of inquiry from the Personnel Department, they will lope into action like Lytton Strachey by interposing themselves between their staff and the incoming idiocy.

The result is that work will proceed, unhindered by "evaluations". Budgets will blossom, freed from the weeds of outside consultants. After a few months you will be able to say "pass me a form" to a colleague, and they will hand over a betting slip. An inquiry about "issues" will elicit a copy of the Racing Post. They may even have circled Ham Spanner for you in the 2:30 at Chepstow. In red pencil.

Some readers will nod with an uneasy sense of familiarity. For this is how we used to recruit in the days before management became an industry in itself rather than a way of keeping twits away from heavy machinery. Back then we were the toolbox of the known world. We invented interesting games, as well as gravity, the telly and the wireless, built two empires, won several wars against all comers, and had decent lunch breaks.

Now we do little but sell one another houses, loan our army to desert kleptomaniacs and wonder idly whether we ought to learn Chinese as we nibble a sandwich-style snack unit in a "breakout area". And all because of the wrong type of manager.

Take our spies, for example. They are all fools. Why? Because MI5 and co recruit their staff by asking "Hi there, does anyone want to be a spy?", then have to find safe things for the shiny pods of public-school fascists, child-molesters and Territorial Army rejects to do. Some turn up to interviews in tuxedos and scuba-masks, and bring their own car batteries.

How did the KGB find their own excellent bunch of spies? Imagine you were a bright student at some Soviet university. A chap with proper shoes would sit next to you at the trolleybus hangar one day. He would say that they had been observing your progress with interest for some time, and invite you to join the KGB.

The correct answer was "Rather!", unless you really disliked your parents and fancied a few years of underwater shale-dredging above the Arctic Circle.

Britain did something similar in the 1930s and 40s, but made the mistake of restricting its trawl to Oxbridge inverts - a small pool of talent if what you're looking for is brains and discretion. There's no surprise that the best fellows we recruited were already working for Uncle Joe, and somehow managed to live with the conflict of interest.

We need to return to this simple form of recruitment. Those dead-eyed weasels who do slip through under some New Labour full-employment scam can be dealt with through my Workplace Psycho Deployment Programme. (Remember: "If the Job's Worth Doing, Let Someone Else Do It.")

The righteous manager still has to deal with unenlightened organisations, such as the Personnel Department, for all our sakes, and here I offer a simple technique that worked for me.

My sole stint as a manager came during a posting overseas. We had a general manager who dealt with the local police, firemen and blackmailers, leaving one of the remaining expats to handle staff and editorial matters.

As in all well-run offices, this grisly job fell to the last man in - just as the tardiest reporter to file his copy with The Western Mail had to don the didacoi 'kerchief and write the horoscopes.

My turn came once I'd worked out how to switch on the special computer that contained the email link to Head Office back in Britain.

The special computer had one purpose - to send me strange messages from blonde PAs called Nikki "regarding" various matters of breathtaking inertia, requests for arcane information from the Personnel Department ("Does Mr Rashid have the capabilities to speak Kabbalist?") and misspelt threats from various Health & Safety 'droids ("There have been a case off rabies in your country in question and request your evcaute expatriate staff with IMMEDIATE effect, thank you regards.").

I would have turned to my predecessor for guidance, but he had already waved a quick cheerio and headed off to be languidly fellated in some souk. I remembered that he had told me to print off all these messages and deal with them "in order of some sort of priority". So I printed them off, stacked them on my desk, and ignored them.

Several days later the wind started to blow from High Tartary, buffeting the drapes and scattering reeds and papyri about the place. I found a large stone in the garden, which on reflection may have been the fossilised skull of an Sogdian betel trader, and adopted it as a paperweight. I put all my managerial emails under it and ignored them.

The Stone of Oblivion was born.

I soon found an agreeable managerial rhythm:

If Nikki or one of her revolving-door cohorts sent me a follow-up email ("Hi this is regarding an email I sent you regarding the issue regarding..."), I would fish the original missive out from under the Stone of Oblivion, put it in my in-tray and ignore it.

If the correspondence stretched to a third plea ("Mr Rashid's file does not indicate whether he is a man or a woman, please clarify") I would dispatch the Standard Stalling Response ("We are dealing with your inquiry"), and that would normally be the end of that. The original email would then go back under the Stone of Oblivion.

At the end of each month, I would sort out my paperwork. Everything under the Stone would be binned, and everything in the in-tray would go back under The Stone of Oblivion.

I estimate that I had to reply to fewer than one in ten of the emails I received, and only a fraction of those merited anything beyond the Standard Stalling Response. That fraction almost entirely consisted of pitiful attempts on the Nikkis' part to deal with one of our simple requests, such as some money to pay staff wages.

The Stone of Oblivion still has its place in a wired-up world where even journalists have computers, wap-drives and ceefaxes. A managerial spouse of mine handles much of her correspondence by funnelling it into mailbox folders that cannot be accessed and which, through the loving grace of technology, send back a conquering worm that destroys all evidence of the original message.

In this new age of austerity all the justly employed must bar the way to this Managerial Moloch. As companies close and municipal programmes implode, wingèd monkeys of misery flit through the heavy skies in search of new perches.

Before you know it, you have more Human Resources Facilitators than human beings on your payroll, and all your corner offices belong to diagonal roll-out directors and their clumpy-heeled 5k-a-day consultants.

Decent managers owe it to their colleagues to repel these powerpoint pirates through a cannonade of common sense and, if necessary, some dirty rock and roll. (Fact: managerial parasites cannot withstand the weaving guitars of late '60s Rolling Stones).

Or you could always rent a farmer. He'll spot the bullshit for you, and his rough rustic ways will send the interlopers fleeing for the nearest latte bar.

Otherwise you'd better invest heavily in quarries, because your Ziggurats of Oblivion are going to split the skies.

"Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me."

Friday, August 05, 2011

I Misteri d'Italia

Mr Cameron, the occluded laird who heads This Great Coalition of Ours, let us all down with his gauche refusal to tip a Tuscan waitress.

The young lady told the prime minister she was too busy to carry his cups of coffee out onto the terrace. In primary-school pique he withheld the 150,000,000 lire she might have expected to find stacked under a saucer. Perhaps she should have been grateful that he didn't scoop up the loose change left on neighbouring tables and wheelbarrow it away to keep Mr Osborne quiet.

I see little point in allowing aristocrats back into power unless they show the world how to behave. We might as well have stuck with Mr Brown, who would not only have tipped correctly with the help of a slide-rule but might even have taken the used cups back to the kitchen.

But remember where we are. This isn't Greece, where you can wander around dressed like a refugee yet still get a slap-up fish grill. This isn't Spain, where the locals have set up zones of tolerance for the English and their deep-fried ways. This is Italy, and Mr Cameron not only broke some of its most fearsome laws, but fundamentally missed the point.

Italy, like the bumblebee, shouldn't get off the ground but it does. It seems anarchic:

  • no one pays taxes;
  • the South is run by the Corleones;
  • the rest is run by a priapic TV mogul;
  • buildings look as if they were recently strafed by a vengeful Ethopian air force; and
  • post a letter and three months later Il Postino may disentangle himself from your wife long enough to piss in the pillar box then set it alight.

And yet it's an excellent place to live. Why? Because Italy is Schelling's nightmare and Germany's antithesis - instead of elemental chaos boiling beneath a crust of civility, you have a rigidly conformist society that charms the world with its raffish air. The locals work hard to bring you the illusion of languor.

Italians travel relatively little, not only because they already live in Paradise but because we clearly see their Shinto uniformity when the Bel Paese spell is broken. Remember the plug of identically-kitted language students blocking the exit of the Tube carriage, or the Knightsbridge boutiques selling a sort of silken tweed and cavalry twill only worn in Milan.

The Italians do their best to shield the tourist from the secret mechanisms of their society. You can eat and drink whenever you like, padding about their cities with your trainers, singlets and water bottles, as if you were about to enter a bumpkin marathon. They say nothing, but have already silently allocated you a status just below lunatic and a little above leper.

Other European countries also understand that first impressions are always right, but play fair by letting you know about it. A lady friend popped out in her tracksuit to buy a pint of milk on Vienna's Graben, and still winces at the memory of trudging home with matrons pointing her out to their amused but wary grandchildren.

Dress like that in Paris and a foie gras seller may ask whether you've lost your house keys while nervously beckoning to the gendarme.

The Italians have no intention of sharing their social miracle with passing trade. Let us never know that the crumbling façade conceals a polished palazzo. But once in a while a kindly Etruscan may break ranks and tactfully try to tempt the wanderer into fare bella figura.

Mr Cameron's waitress was one such Samaritan. The prime minister thought he was simply ordering a couple of cappuccinos, a milky beverage that's conquered the world but which in Italy is spooned into infants. No one takes milk in their coffee after breakfast.

Most Italian cafés will gladly churn this out for the tee-shirted barbarians, but our waitress must have taken pity on Mr Cameron. By bearing the cappuccinos to his table in the late morning she would have exposed him and the willowy Mrs Cameron as little better than Dutchmen.

By feigning preoccupation she left Mr Cameron to carry the cups himself. A strolling local would then have taken the prime minister, with his crumpled shirt and bizarre shoes, to be an anæmic Albanian beggar earning a few florins by ferrying froth to some backpackers, and thought no ill of him.

An English gentleman would have learned enough Apennine ways on his Grand Tour to have instinctively understood the waitress's selfless gesture. But she overestimated Mr Cameron, who would have done better to take Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, in particular The Roads Round Pisa, as his holiday reading rather than the usual dim volume of American social philosophy. Truly was it said that no good turn goes unpunished.

I was once lucky enough to see a chip in the lacquer, and appreciated how tartly Italians treat their errant own. I was at Bologna airport, whiling away the minutes before my flight over an espresso. A 30-something man, clearly Italian, dressed, pressed and crimped with designer shades, man-bag and tender shoes, nodded to the waitress and asked for a macchiato - an espresso with a gust of hot milk.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon.

The waitress paused. He repeated his order with a pleasant smile, but might as well have asked her to top the cup up from her own tawny teats. The rest of us pretended to read our Calvino novels, but every plucked and vaselined eyebrow was arched in his direction.

The waitress nodded, approached the coffee dragon - Claudia Cardinale's jilted and unforgiving aunt - and gave the order. The dragon cast a glance at the cheery customer, grunted and made him an espresso. She set it aside and let the waitress bustle about until the fool's flight was called. Only then did he get his coffee, with no time to collect his change.

We saw nothing. Thus does Italy guard her secrets. Silendo libertatem servo.