Wednesday 30 September 2009

Zero Hour Looms

This time tomorrow night I'll be at a Poetry Cafe gig. Five hours after that ends I'll be on the plinth.

If you aren't already doing it, watch my twitter feed. At some point tomorrow I'll reveal the anonymous twitter id and password that will allow people to tweet me the things they're afraid to say without fear of being found out. Look for the hashtags #imafraidtosayitbut and #account/password .

Sunday 27 September 2009

How you can help

A campaign is afoot on twitter to get people to sponsor me for my plinth gig. We've already raised quite a bit of cash collecting in Borders Gateshead, but if you're further afield there are ways you can help too.
The best way is to donate to International PEN directly, and tell them I sent you. You can contact them via email at , or phone on 0207 405 0338 to make a donation. You can also get their postal address from the link in the post below.
Thanks for reading, and go give them lots of money!

Edit at 19:04, Sunday 27/09 - English PEN, the founding chapter of International PEN, have a link to an online donation form at their website. If you want to donate online, this is another way in which you can do so. Please tell them I sent you at the top of the form, though - I'm not making any money out of this, but getting some props would give me a happy. Thanks.

Saturday 26 September 2009

New Readers Start Here

If you're here because I gave you a slip at the store today, then the first thing I have to say is thank you. Because if I gave you one of those slips, it's because you donated money to International PEN, to whom I am dedicating my hour on the Fourth Plinth as part of Antony Gormley's One and Other project. Not only that, it means you bothered to follow the link on the slip, which probably makes you quite a rare person indeed. I'm under no illusions that most of those slips won't end up in peoples' wastepaper baskets but, at least in your case, they didn't. You're generous, you listen to people when they talk to you, and you're curious enough to follow up information when it's given to you. You're exactly the sort of person I want reading this blog, in fact. Welcome aboard.

And now, orientation. First a little about me, then a little - probably a lot - about my plans for One and Other, and how I want you to take part.

*** Important Brevityfail Warning - Extremely Long Post ***
Due to my own crippling verbosity and the sheer amount of information I'm trying to get across to you here, this post has turned out to be, in specialised posting terminology, VFL or Very Flippin' Long. If you're busy, but still want to know what my plans are for the plinth, I recommend you skip to the section helpfully formatted in bold towards the bottom of this entry. Thank you.

*** We now return you to the rest of the post ***

What do you need to know about me? I've been writing and performing poetry for ten years. I've been published by a variety of magazines and I've performed in Liverpool, Hastings, Edinburgh, Baltimore and just about every place you can mention in the North East. I've had a long hiatus from writing on a serious basis while I've been working on my psychology degree, but I've returned to it now that I'm done with that. During the summer, I applied, almost on a whim, to take part in One and Other, never expecting that I'd be one of the people selected. Having made an application, I promptly forgot all about it. I still watched the plinth, but the thought of being on it had clean left my mind.

Until the message arrived in my inbox, telling me I had been chosen. As you can imagine, my first thought was 'oh f**k.' My second thought was that I should immediately hit the reject button. I wasn't confident. I wasn't prepared, and I didn't have a great deal of time in which to prepare. I wasn't ready. Wasn't good enough. Not worthy.

My third thought, fortunately, was that I should stop being so bloody stupid. And that instead of repeating all the reasons why I couldn't do it, I should click accept and start thinking instead about what I could do.

As a poet I knew that I could perform some work on the plinth. But I wanted to do something more. I hit on the idea of writing something with the audience: with that thought in place, it was a question of what to write and how to go about writing it. Having joined Twitter recently, I was interested in the potential for using it as a creative space. Plus, I realised, by asking people to help on Twitter, I could expand my potential temporary writing collective beyond whoever happened to be in Trafalgar Square at the time.

But what to write? That was the question. And it was one I decided to back-burner for a while, while I looked into finding a charity to represent.

I chose International PEN because, as a writer and a bookseller, as someone who trafficks with the written word almost every hour of the day, their role as defenders of free expression was something that resonated with me. I also knew they were a less well-known charity, and so I felt that by dedicating my plinth time to them, I could have a more positive effect in raising awareness of them, their work, and the threats which are faced by writers, journalists and librarians around the world today who dare to criticise repressive regimes. Money-wise, I couldn't match the donations they receive from their corporate sponsors; but if I could at least say that, because of me, people who wouldn't otherwise have heard of PEN now had, that would be an achievement. And I've managed that. And raised quite a bit of money too, though how much I don't know, yet - in my stupidity I purchased a receptacle for the money which I can only open by destroying it. It's pretty damn heavy now, and I know there's a lot of £1 and £2 coins in there, so we'll just have to see. Wednesday night's when it gets opened and counted. Stay tuned for the big reveal!

So - what do I do with the hour? I toyed with various ideas, but finally, at about two in the morning one night, I hit on the idea that had been staring me in the face all along.

Freedom of expression is what PEN are all about. It's also something important to me as a poet. In my poetry, I get to express, in a lyrical manner, truths about myself and my world which would fall flat if I had to describe them prosaically in my halting, stumbling everyday voice, but which gain a higher truth and meaning from being said in the controlled form of poetry. Furthermore, I've always seen part of my role as giving voice to people who are denied a voice in the culture, or people whose voice doesn't get heard because of the endless thumping drone of bigotry, ignorance and lies to which we are daily subjected by the media. This, I realised, had to play a part in the collective writing part of the hour. So here are the details of the exercise:

The Fourth Plinth Piece - all you need to know

1. It will be titled 'I'm afraid to say this, but...'
2. It will have a rough sonnet form - 14 lines in all.
3. Every line will be a contribution from a member of the public, whether shouted out or tweeted.
4. Every line will be a continuation of the first sentence, e.g. 'I'm afraid to say this but...I don't believe in God/I'm in love with my best friend/I have disturbing thoughts about Anne Robinson etc etc'
5. I will work on it with the audience as I perform my other work. When we have a fallow period, I'll get on with performing, and check in with people periodically to see how we're doing.
6.At the end of the hour, I will perform the poem as the closing number of my set.

What I want people to contribute are things they fear to say. What I'm exploring here is the idea that, in this culture, we curtail freedom of expression, but in more subtle ways than imprisonment or assassination. By the end of the hour we'll have a poem which represents a record of the kind of things people felt they couldn't say in Britain and around the world in the year 2009. More information on what I'm trying to say with this here.

This has been a long post, and you're busy, but if you've read this far it's time for me to say thank you again for taking the time. I hope you'll help me out by contributing your thoughts to this piece of work, and I hope you stick around. Stay tuned.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Bless my cotton socks I'm in the news...

I really must stop over-using that Teardrop Explodes quotation, but it's damn hard not to today. My plinth appearance has been reported in an actually rather wonderful piece in the local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo. I'm on page ten of the print edition - can't find any reference on the website, though, but I'm not too worried about that. They'll probably get it on there eventually, and if they don't at least the thing I feared happening - getting bumped to the website but not making it into print - didn't occur. It feels good seeing myself in the paper. Print gives things some kind of validation.

Despite my Sontag-esque musings yesterday, the accompanying photo came out rather well too, I think. I mean I've only glanced at it out of the corner of my eye, but it seems to make me look like a normal and respectable human being, so the photographer, Corrina, has done an extremely good job there.

News also arrives from the excellent Streetcake magazine, who have accepted a poem of mine for publication in their next issue. I was turned on to Streetcake - which sounds vaguely like a line you might hear in a Chris Morris spoof - by the blindingly fabulous Angela Readman, who suggested I send them some material when I was casting about for places to submit to as part of my clumsy, faltering attempts to get back on the poetry horse. And I'd be glad that she put me on to them even if they hadn't accepted my work, because theirs is a genuinely interesting publication, a poetry online mag that shows a commendable interest in using the fact that they publish to screen rather than page to take a more adventurous approach to the visual appearance of the work they publish. My poem, 'The Mechanics of the Scissorhold', will be published in issue 7, due soon, but there's a lot of interesting stuff to peruse at their site while you wait for it. Go read.

In other news, a Blackberry owner is now me. I finally took the decision to get me one of those new-fangled smartypants-phones after concluding that lugging a laptop down to London to receive peoples' tweets for my collaborative plinth poem would be just too much hassle - especially given that I have a Roland Microcube to lug down there too - and that, while I needed something small and portable which could quickly process tweets, my dislike of touchscreens precluded me buying an iPhone. Yes, I know, I'm a keyboard-loving dinosaur doomed to never fit in with the coolest kids when we all live in some Minority Report world where we write everything by grabbing floaty letters out of the air. So what? A Blackberry is tremendously ahead of the curve for me. Remember, I still genuinely feel aggreived at the demise of the 3 1/4" floppy (it was the noise; that satisfying thump-click as you slid the bad boy in and got ready for business. You don't get that action from one of yer weeny little USB sticks.).

And so, with the amp here and working, the comms taken care of, and the media informed, it's all just down on me now to rehearse this thing and try to make it the best that I can. Having completed my first full rehearsal I can say that initial impressions are good. Maybe it's just that Fish Manor has better acoustics for practicing in, but I really feel now that I'm finding my voice again, and looking forward to running my dirty little mouth off in public again for all you beautiful little monsters. More updates as and when...

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Ready for my Close-up

In her preface to Robert Mapplethorpe's Certain People, Susan Sontag wrote:

'When I am photographed, this normally outgoing, fervent relation of consciousness to the world is jammed. I yield to another command station of consciousness, which "faces" me...Stowed away, berthed, brought to heel, my consciousness has abdicated its normal function...I don't feel threatened. But I do feel disarmed, my consciousness reduced to an embarrassed knot of self-consciousness striving for composure...I experience myself as behind my face, looking out through the windows of my eyes, like the prisoner in the iron mask in Dumas's novel.'

Yesterday, I had to have myself photographed for an article about my plinth appearance. And while I'm not sure it was exactly as nerve-wracking an experience for me as it was for Sontag, it was, I'll admit, a little embarrassing. I can be pretty good in a performance context, I like to think, but sitting down, looking at a camera and, well, posing...I found that a lot harder than I'd imagined. It's probably safe to say I have a new-found respect for models.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

I Know What I'm (t)Here For

Well now. There are ten days left before I'm on the plinth. It's about time I decided what I'm doing.

And I have.

I'm doing this to raise money for International PEN. They defend peoples' right to freedom of expression. It follows, then, that that should be the theme of my performance. And it will be.

In countries like Cuba and Mexico, people are kept quiet by fear of imprisonment or disappearance. We're cleverer, here. In the UK, in the US, in the quote-unquote 'civilised' world, we keep quiet because we don't want to look weird. We don't want to offend the 'Values Voters', and their UK avatars. We want to keep our jobs.

The punishment we face is less extreme: the end result is still the same. We keep schtum, afraid of punishment. But we don't have to.

As part of my time on the plinth, I want to write a sonnet. 14 lines. Doesn't have to be Petrarchan, or Spenserian. Doesn't even have to rhyme. But I want each line to be a genuine expression from someone - maybe in the crowd, maybe on the net, wherever. And I want each line to be something you're afraid to say. Something you'd like to say, but which you keep quiet for fear of the consequences. Those consequences might be ostracision, or prison, or a beating, or being called names on the schoolyard, or unemployment, or just an indefinable fear that folk will think less of you - but as part of my hour on the plinth, I want you to shout what you're afraid to say, and I will shout it with you. Call out, or tweet, your line, and I will read it for you.

If you want anonymity, then fine. Before I go down to London, I'll set up a collective twitter ID, give out the password, and if you really don't want to admit to what you fear to express, then you can tweet using that. A caveat though. Log out when you're finished, and let others have a go.

However you do it - whether you want to shout at me in public or send me a message over the ether - I hope you take part. For an hour, in a way I never imagined, I get the chance to express myself - to put my psyche on the line and let the world know who I am. And, for good or ill, I want to bring you with me.

October 2nd. 0400-0500 AM. 'I'm afraid to say it, but...' let's do this thing.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Take it away, Mr Moore...

'I'm thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It's cold and it's mean-spirited and I don't like it here anymore.' - Alan Moore, intro to DC Comics TPB of V for Vendetta, 1988.

It's twenty-one years later, but seeing this kind of thing, who could blame him?

'Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory. Hello the Voice of Fate and V FOR VENDETTA.' - Alan Moore, op.cit.

Thursday 17 September 2009

The Sod 'Em All Key

And so: the arrival in bookshops worldwide of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, and its inevitable massive sales across the globe. It'll be no surprise to readers that I don't, on an aesthetic level, like Brown's work. It took me two reads of the first sentence of The Da Vinci Code - the second read necessary to check that the sentence really had been that much of a clunker - to decide that it wasn't for me. And, from the look of it, Brown's writing hasn't improved for the third volume.

But the thing is, I accept the Dan Browns of this world. Not everyone wants to read the highbrow stuff. I realise that. Sometimes people just want trash, sure. Hell, even I have my guilty pleasures - I genuinely enjoy watching wrestling, for God's sake - so I can understand that sometimes you want to switch off the critical faculties and read something dumb. And the dumbness has a second, higher purpose, too - in much the same way that Sky Arts is partly subsidised by those who shell out to watch Breaking Point on pay-per-view , so the vast amounts of money made by Dan Brown's latest opus will help to pay for a good crop of literary fiction from the likes of Adam Thirlwell or Julian Barnes , so it's all good.

Except for the bookshops, all of whom have had to discount it to such an extent that none of us will make any money off it. I'd deny being bitter about this but to hell with it, I am bitter. This is the biggest book of the year. For any bookshop, this thing ought to be a gold bar in a dustcover. But because of the ridiculous, supermarket-driven culture of deep discounting which is now endemic in bookselling, the fact is that some of us are actually going to lose money when we sell a copy. In what other line of business does the biggest hit of the year actually hurt the pockets of the people who sell it?

On Twitter today, Richard Wiseman joked that the lost symbol of the book's title is a dollar sign. Maybe it is for Brown, Doubleday and Transworld. But for those of us at the sharp end of the book biz, that symbol is a big, fat zero, slap-bang in the profit column. And you don't need to be Robert Langdon to figure out that that ain't good.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

The Daily Express is a Rubbish Newspaper owned by a Porn Baron I've mentioned on here previously. But, weirdly, I've never hated the Express as much as I hate the Daily Mail. I think, in part, this is because I know a lot of people who read the Express, while I've never knowingly interacted with a Mail reader outside of selling them their Daily Hate at work.

My parents read it. My ex-wife reads it. There's a woman who regularly visits our shop to buy her copy and who seems like a genuinely nice person. There are good people who read it - precisely because they know how evil the Mail is and they want to read a middle-market paper which isn't that evil.

And I remember when the Express genuinely was better than the Mail. I remember the late '90s, when they took a generally left-of-centre stance on issues instead of trying to copy Paul 'Vagina Monologue' Dacre's editorial stance. Back when Rosie Boycott was editor-in-chief, and they agitated vocally for the legalisation of cannabis, the Express was my second-favourite paper (after the Grauniad), for reasons my legal counsel has advised me not to go into. Irie.

But today, the headline on the Express' front page - the headline on the paper which is meant to be not quite as bad as the Mail - was 'Unions Want Even Higher Taxes.'

Fuck you, Daily Express. You're fucking dead to me.

Thursday 10 September 2009

The Plan Mutates

So I've been thinking about my plans for the One and Other appearance. Thinking, and simplifying. The idea of using a projector is out. The idea of taking a laptop down and working on the piece using that is out. Simplify, simplify, simplify. There's only so much space, there's only so much power, there's only so much time to faff around. I do still intend to take a mike and PA down, and still need to get that sorted out. But as far as writing the thing I'm going old-school: pen and paper. Read it out as we go.

I will still be eliciting lines for the poem from the audience, via both the tried-and-trusted method of asking them to shout, and also taking tweets from people, but instead of lugging my laptop onto the plinth I plan to just use an iPhone or similar to stay in touch with the tweetstream, either borrowed from someone else, or I may actually use this event as an excuse to catch up with everyone else and buy one.

Tickets have been bought, travelling down and back on the National Express from Newcastle. Reminds me of the Hastings Poetry Festival ten years ago, when I did the same thing. No accommodation booked as yet, because it's an odd time to book - the coach back from London departs at about half nine, and rather than go back to a hotel I'm toying with staying up mainlining coffee, walking the streets of London at dawn and grabbing a massive greasy spoon breakfast, then sleeping on the bus.

Monday 7 September 2009

The Plan

I promised more info on what I want to do with my One and Other time slot, so here we go.

My initial response was, oh well, obvious really, take a mike and a PA and treat the thing as a gig. Easy. But then I thought that this wasn't really stepping up to the mark properly, in spirit anyway. Given the uniqueness of the situation, I figured what I needed to do was something that responded to the situation.

I decided that what I want to do is not to simply perform something on the plinth, I want to write something while I'm there. And I want people to see what I'm writing while I'm writing it, so I need some way of transmitting it as I work on it.

At first I thought the way to go was to get a laptop projector. But I'm concerned about the logistics. The ideal I have in mind is something along the lines of Jenny Holzer's projections, but we all know what Eliot said about ideals and realities. And where to project it? A screen behind me might take up space on the plinth without really being that visible to the crowd. And projecting onto the square itself - would that work?

So, because we're still at an early stage, it's time to open things up. It's not the time, yet, to get into Space Pen thinking. I don't need a projector, necessarily - but what I do need is some way in which people can see the progress of what I'm creating as I create it. Any ideas?

Sunday 6 September 2009

I'm gonna be on telly!*

I received an email late yesterday to say that I have been selected to be art for an hour (specifically, 0400-0500) as part of One and Other in Trafalgar Square on the 2nd of October.

I know what I want to do, and will be providing more details later. For now, though, I want to beg shamelessly for equipment. To help me with this, you will need:

* a projector which I can hook up to my laptop

* a mike and PA system which can fit on the plinth (or a megaphone, possibly)

* a flask of weak lemon drink.

If you can provide any of these things, or any other skills/equipment you think will be useful, please mention it below. More detailed updates later, once I've worked out transport to and accommodation in the Great Wen. Laters, yeah?

Oh, almost forgot - drink your weak lemon drink NOW!

* well, streaming internet anyway. It's almost like telly.

Thursday 3 September 2009

All work and no play makes Jack a dull culture

As I write this I'm sitting in the draughty old dining room of Stately Fish Manor, debating whether to whip up another two cups of South American coffee in the cafetiere. I haven't eaten as yet; I should probably get around to that sometime soon. Especially because a patch of undeleted junk mental code from my teenage anorexic days is chattering away that if I hang on for another seven hours, it'll have been a whole day since I last ate something OMG. Bloody annoying, though to be honest right now it's only coffee I crave. Maybe I've broken through some crack in the genome, and mutated into the world's first human with an entirely caffeine-based metabolism. God knows it's plausible, given the amount of the stuff I get through. Or maybe I'm just so hyper-caffeinated I haven't yet noticed I'm hungry.

Today's main task was going to be writing out an application for a Library job at a local university, but that will not happen now, because I looked at the hours on offer. The best job, the one with the most hours, in fact actually the only one that could be done anything like full-time, is a five-to-midnight shift. Five o'clock to midnight every night, week in, week out. Aside from the fact that's going to make it very hard to attend gigs, there's transport to consider: last Metro from Newcastle leaves before midnight. Last bus to where I live from Heworth leaves just after eleven. The only alternative is to cripple myself financially by paying for a taxi home every night, or to cripple myself in both wallet and liver by hanging around the late-night bars then walking the streets like David Thewlis in Naked during those last dark interstitial hours when the bars are shut and the cafes aren't yet open, before finally getting on the earliest bus home and going to sleep at the crack of dawn. No thanks: I may like reading about vampires, but I'm past the age where I'd really like to be one.

There is a deeper appeal about that kind of shift though, and it's what I call the Jack Torrance Factor. You'll recall that in The Shining, Jack accepts the job of caretaker at the Overlook Hotel because, among other things, it's a quiet gig which'll give him time to get some writing done. This, in the past, was one of the unspoken perks of this kind of job: it was dull, uninteresting and involved anti-social hours, but it would give you some time away from the hurly-burly in which to write your novel. As long as you turned up and were on the scene to do what was required when necessary, you were free, during the longeurs of the job, to do what you wanted with the time. There are whole novels and corpuses of poetry out there which were written by people when they were theoretically at work but had nothing to do, and not just at the low-pay, menial end of the spectrum either. TS Eliot was a banker. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. We can't know exactly when they were working, but it's a good bet that at least some sections of The Waste Land or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird were written during empty hours at the office desk.

They probably wouldn't have gotten away with it today, though. The modern workplace is a Calvinist treadmill where the worker is expected to be (horrible phrase) on task for every minute that they're present, even - especially - when there is nothing for them to actually do. I once worked in an appalling job at a call-centre for a retail operation which is now (as proof that karma does work sometimes) a shadow of what it once was: my job was to take calls from impoverished parents already killing themselves by paying for plasma-screen TVs on hire-purchase, and convince them to dig themselves further into debt by signing up for the company's credit card. It was the kind of job which slowly warps the soul and which seemed to have marked the management with all the outward and visible signs of an inner and invisible gracelessness: they were, beyond doubt, the ugliest people I have never met. More than once, I forced myself to suppress an urge to ask them what they were doing there, and whether they actually thought Jabba the Hutt's palace was going to guard itself.

But what made it worse, what turned it from a merely bad, mind-numbing job into some Kafkan mental torture, was the fact that there were long periods during which no calls were coming in, and in which we were expected to do - nothing. We couldn't talk to each other. We couldn't read while we waited. We couldn't write. Even though there was actually nothing that could be done during these temporal lacunae, it was considered vitally important by the management that we should be in a state of perpetual readiness, never knowing the day or hour when, like a thief in the night, a harrassed mother-of-seven from a council estate in Romford would phone up placing a bulk order for Lonsdale hoodies or Lacoste polo shirts, but ever watchful, ever vigilant. And ever, it need not be said, bored.

Filling any of this dead time with writing was strictly verboten, even should the result of that writing turn out to have been as good as 'The Burial of the Dead.' Nothing I ever wrote was that good, but I was forbidden to try it anyway. The managers there were not a particularly literate bunch, their collective devotion to Heat magazine notwithstanding, and I think they disliked writing even more than reading, in part because they saw it as a standing rebuke to their own ignorance, and in part I suspect because, in some small, ever-suspicious part of their reptile brain, they feared I was writing about them. The fact that I usually was writing about them doesn't make their attitude acceptable, though I admit that is a rather nice distinction.

One can't really blame them on a personal level, though. Good and faithful servants of an increasingly managerialist culture, they were just doing their job, and any capacity to question had been beaten out of them long ago in the extended process of soul-annihilation that the job entailed. That's what I like to think, because the alternative is that they had always lacked the capacity to question their role, and didn't really care to, either. One of the saddest things about the world is that that second explanation is probably, in fact, more plausible.

The greater fault lies with the culture that grants such people legitimacy. As pointed out by Adam Curtis in his excellent documentary series The Trap we live in a culture where we no longer trust ourselves. We live in a culture which believes that unless a worker is on-task every minute of the day, they can't be working, and that the only way to make people stay on-task is to task other people with the job of supervising them. There have always been hierarchies at work, but never to the extent that we have them today. Go into any modern workplace and you'll see an inverted pyramid of supervisors, team leaders, leadership supervisors, leadership supervisor team leaders, assistant managers, deputy managers, branch managers, assistant general managers, general managers, etc etc, not to mention byzantine structures of 'line management' in which it sometimes seems like everyone's watching everyone else. Right-wing cretins like to bash the public sector as if it's the only part of the workforce that engages in this stupidity, but in my experience the private sector is just as good at erecting needless levels of authority in order to keep an eye on the workers below.

The problem with these structures is that they provide a natural home for the worst kind of employees, smug careerist types with no real sense of insight or humanity, just a relentless reptilian urge to get on. To move up the ladder. These people aren't particularly interested in doing a good job. For them, it's all about promotion. If you want loyalty, they say, buy a dog. (Weirdly, in my experience a lot of these people actually have dogs. Make of that what you will.) They don't have time to waste hanging around and learning how to do a job properly. They have presentations to give, people to impress. Everything becomes subordinate to their irresistible rise to the top, and if you actually refer to their career in those terms they'll take it as a compliment and completely miss the Arturo Ui reference.

And the only way they can complete that irresistible rise is by showing their superiors (who are themselves all obsessed with how they, too, will get to be King of the Mountain) how great a job they're doing. And this is where the train runs into the buffers, of course, because actually these people can't prove that they are doing a great job in any legitimate way, because these people aren't necessary.

If you're at the coalface, you can prove that you're doing a good job really easily. If you make things, you either make them well and quickly, or you don't. If you sell things, you either sell a lot of them or you don't. If you drive a bus, you either turn up at stops on time or not. Simple.

If you manage people at the coalface, though, you can't prove you're doing a good job so simply. In fact you depend entirely on the people underneath you. In this situation what you want is for everyone to be doing a terrible job, because then there'll be something you can do. But what if they aren't? What if, like most people in most jobs most of the time, they're doing a perfectly good job and things are ticking over and stuff's getting done? How the hell are you going to impress your boss in that situation? How are you going to actually justify yourself being in that position, come to that, if everything's working perfectly well without you?

This is where you have to initiate schemes to improve things. To raise productivity. To go the extra mile (only managers can go the extra mile and have it be a good thing. Go an extra mile as a bus driver or a postman and you'll be sacked for deviating from your route.). And this is where the relentless drive to get and keep people on-task sets in. You might suggest the use of keylogging software. You might start an incentive scheme. You might agitate for the introduction of some meaningless management fad like the pseudoscientific quackery of Six Sigma. But whatever you do, you must do something. If it ain't broke, at least pretend to be trying to fix it.

In this situation, the people beneath you - the people actually doing the job - become your enemy. They are the ones holding you back. They are the reason you haven't advanced up the ladder. Because they haven't been working hard enough. They haven't been on-task enough of the time. You must make them work. You must keep them on-task. And you must keep them on-task even when there's no task to be on. If necessary, you must make them pretend like they're working.

This is not a work culture which produces healthy workers. It is a culture which produces sick drones who plug away at jobs they know to be bullshit week in, week out, and try to blot out their deep, soul-gnawing sense of frustration in what off-time they have with bad food, bad booze, bad drugs and bad media. This is a work culture which kills truth and breeds lies like mutant rabbits. And the biggest lie of all is that by following the nostrums of this culture, by increasing productivity and keeping everyone on-task all day, every day, we create a happy and vibrant workplace in which everybody has a chance to grow.

You want to imagine the future? Imagine a call centre in which everyone sits around staring straight ahead, blank-eyed, in total silence, every ounce of original thought in their minds slowly calcifying into a carapace of mean-minded, envious prejudice, forbidden by managerial gatekeepers who make the Morlocks look like decent human beings to show any sign of thought, of dreams, of life, on the off-chance that someone might call to buy a three-piece suite.

And if that isn't what you want, imagine better. But remember not to do it while at work. Wouldn't want you going off-task, now, would we?

Tuesday 1 September 2009

BBC in 'total balls deficiency' shock

Tonight, I watched Hardcore Profits, a BBC2 documentary (which looks a lot like it was originally made for BBC3) about how 'legitimate, respectable companies' are making out like gangbusters from people accessing porn via the net, pay-per-view TV and mobile 'phones.

This is a massive, world-shattering shock - as long as you initially subscribed to the idea that mobile phone networks, credit card companies, and the Marriott hotel chain were paragons of virtue to begin with.

If, however, like any intelligent adult, you're aware that mobile phones can be used to detonate bombs, credit cards can be used to purchase all kinds of illicit commodities (and are also damned handy for chopping out lines of coke), and hotel rooms can play host to all kinds of kinkiness without the TV even being on, you'll think, meh.

Y'know what would be a good angle, though?

You could investigate a moralising middle-market newspaper which gives column inches to extremely conservative commentators and prints scathing reviews of films it considers pornographic, yet which turns out to be owned by a corrupt porn baron who runs television companies whose websites promise 'immediate access to hundreds of hardcore videos and images'.

You could follow up that angle. But they didn't. Why not?