Saturday, September 19, 2015

Permanent parliament guaranteed: Dave's whopper of a lie to Scotland

I want to let you into a secret: Parliament cannot make a law that will last forever. In legal terms 'parliament cannot bind its successors' - which means that the next parliament can abolish everything its predecessor did and no-one can do a damn thing to stop it. All of which means that David Cameron's 'promise' to make it 'crystal clear' that the Scottish Parliament will be a forever thing might just as well be 'written in water' for all the good it will do. Politicians like promises, and Dave knows he hasn't delivered on the post-devolution referendum package that he, Clegg and Miliband made in the wake of last September's 'Yes' vote. But politicians also break promises - in the case of Cameron's Conservatives that list is long, and likely to get a lot longer. But his constitutional falsehoods need to be carefully considered: a promise or a guarantee to make an unchangeable law (entrenched law, as the lawyers call it) is simply beyond him. Countries with real, written constitutions make that sort of law - and the entrenched stuff can only be changed if the legislature (parliament and a a pre-determined majority of the electorate agree: that's real constitutionally entrenched law, Dave. And you and I both know that's the last thing your party would allow, because then the people really would be able to tell the politicians what to do.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A casual victim

I've been teaching Law in FE colleges and sixth forms forms for the past decade. Not any more. Despite good exam results (now the gold standard by which all teachers are ultimately judged), good student (sorry, learner) approval ratings - backed up by performance management appraisals and lesson observations, I found myself without a class to teach just 2 days into the new academic year. It was against this backdrop of newly enforced idleness - I was a 'freelance teacher': no contract, no guaranteed hours, but expectation of managing my own 'continuous professional development' and qualifications - that I read Jo Johnson's comments about 'lamentable teaching' standards in Higher Education. This Johnson is supposed to be capable of joined-up thinking that at least meets the standards of modern society, as opposed to bro BoJo who wants us to live in a classicists dreamworld, but the end result is the same - a fundamental disconnect and wilful refusal to accept the truth. Which is simply this: good teaching can only come from a well-trained, well-equipped and properly resourced professional teaching body. It can't be conjoured from thin air when teachers are forced to rely on temporary, or even no, contracts, and where there is no continuity of employment. When you are continually looking over your shoulder, wondering if the agency has found you enough work, at a high enough pay rate, then you cannot perform your duties to a high standard; and without the limited guarantee of of work from one week to the next you have no incentive to do more than the basic minimal level of work (Ofsted and PM obsessed line managers notwithstanding). And that, Mr Johnson, concludes your lesson in teaching reality for today, now write a 500 word essay on why casualisation is undermining the UK's vital FE and HE sectors.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Primal scream therapy for middle managers

“Frankly, I just can’t understand how you can still see things like this. We organise team building and personal development sessions to help you plan your career development and you go and behave like this.” Yes, Giles, I know, what an ungrateful wretch I am. How I’d love to take that propelling pencil next to your fancy executive toy and push it into your right ear. I’d do it hard enough to come out of the left and wheel you over to the window and push you out. Three floors to the car park. How would that develop your career? Tosser. “Pete, look. Let’s put it behind us. The overhead projector can be written off and I’ll make sure this little chat comes off your record in three months. Just try to play a fuller part in what I’m trying to do here.” Thank you, sir, can I go now. Smirking arse, Jim Porter, loitering outside Giles’ office. Prat. “Hope you had plenty of paper down the trousers. How was he?” “Talking bollocks, Jim, same as always.” “What did he say about the OHP?” “He’ll get it written off, apparently.” “Wouldn’t have minded, but you couldn’t see it was an arse anyway.” “Sod off – the glass splinters went a bit too close to the trademan’s and the family jewels for my liking.” I’ve been working at Milen for six years. Last two in the Blue Marketing Team, reporting to Giles Southwick, team leader and purveyor of crap to the young, gullible and deluded. To Giles, every new fad put out by HR or some overpaid consultant is the very thing we need to develop our careers or stimulate team working. He manages to sell a new suit of clothes to the directors – our corporate emperors – every couple of months; I wouldn’t mind if we sold as well as we bonded, but with Giles, there’s always another course or session that will sourt out our problems, all to do with motivation. Yeah, motivate me by my bank balance, not by making me listen to some latter day snake oil seller telling me my breather is the barrier to better selling, or that improving my arse-wiping technique will improve the share price. Back at my desk, I managed the grand total of two calls before another piece of electronic crap arrived: “Teams, As you know, the next phase of our improved targeting drive is due to be rolled out across group next month. To inspire interest beyond this section, we’re going to have a competition to decide on the name of the drive: something that will identify our ownership but also galvinise support in other departments. Answers in by Friday – I know you’ll rise to the challenge. Giles Southwick BA, MBA Marketing Teams Co-ordinator” Giles likes everyone to know he’s been to uni, twice. Bet he joined all the societies but still never managed to get a shag. “Hi, Pete, got a minute?” The lovely Julie. “Course, what’s up?” “The boy wonder’s just asked me if I want to gon on a time management course. Bloody nerve, I’ve got that much on my plate as it is – without being expected to swan off to Sheffield for two days. Then again, saying ‘no’ looks bad. What do you think?” “I think – as always – that it’s a waste of time. But I see your point: don’t want to upset him. Just don’t site on any overhead projectors while you’re away.” She needs time management training like a hole in the head. Julie has three kids and a husband in a wheelchair; juggling that lot – and a full time job – puts her streets ahead of the boy blunder. The rest of the day passed in the usual whirl of calls, faxes and emails, but at the end I still couldn’t work out what, if anything, I’d actually done. In the circumstances, I felt compelled to take my dark mood and indecision to the pub. Working in a dreary out of town office development at least means you get to travel against the flow at home time, as long as you leave it late enough to miss the first mad rush. That night I had a painless commute to the Barge and the third pint was wending its merry way down when I had a real blast from the past. In walked Neil Ferguson: naughty boy of these parts, former school mate and all round sight for sore eyes. A couple of drinks alter and we’re right up to speed. Neil’s just back from a spell at Her Majesty’s for deceptively removing a sum of cash from a gullible former business associate and I’m pouring out my hatred of Giles; lack of money; lack of woman; lack of everything, really. “You know what you need, Dex, old boy?” “No, what?” “An amusing diversion, a trick – of the confidence variety.” “Great, so I can add criminal record to my list of gripes?” “Nothing illegal – well, not so you’d notice. More like a ploy to catch the gullible. How does primal scream therapy grab you?” “Now, I get enough crap at work without you coming over all life-affirming on me. Is this what you get up to inside; screaming at the taxpayers’ expense? The bloody Mail’d have a ball with that one, I can picture the headline.” “No, it’s just an idea. Give your boss something to think about.” “How would you do it?” “Simple, just dangle it in front of him and see if he bites. I’m at a loose end, and catching a daft punter is all in a day’s work for me. Look at it this way, if he bites, he really goes on to hook himself, if he smells a rat, he walks and I’m out of there. Nothing new for me, it’s just a spot of practical continuous professional development, if you like.” Have to confess, the rest of the night was a bit of a blur, but I seem to remember a curry and a taxi; woke up feeling ghastly, but got into work without much bother. I didn’t hear from Neil for a couple of weeks. Naturally, I thought it had just been the beer talking. Then my ‘phone rang. “Dex. Has your boss told you all about his new training brochure yet?” No, look, I can’t talk here, what’s going on, Neil?” “Amazing the stuff you can get printed off the internet. Makes life much easier for bad boys like me.” We had a Blue Team meeting the following day. As usual, ‘continuous professional development’ was down as an agenda item, but just before we got to it, Giles passed round a glossy number from something called the “Empower Consultancy.” These meetings run over a lunchtime. I used to feel robbed of my break, but there’s sod all to do round here – and the food’s free – so now I look at them as a free feed, with the chance of a laugh at Giles thrown in.” Giles was very concerned by my coughing fit. He wondered if I’d swallowed a whole pea from one of the samoses. In reality, my ability to process food had been overcome by the sight of Empower Constultancy’s Lars Pedersen, who looked more than a little like Neil Ferguson in a ginger wig and naff beard set, on the back of the brochure, urging readers to “use scream therapy to readmit the primal energies of ‘fight or flight’ into modern-day marketing strategy and decision-making.” I’d just about recovered by breath when Giles said: “I know some in the team can be, how shall I put it, rather dismissive about my training and development ideas, but I think – mentioning no names, Mr Dexter – that the more resilient, laddish elements could find something in this on.” Giles went on: “Read what this Pedersen guy has to say about PST – that’s primal scream therapy – I think even the cynics will be impressed. He reports great results and I’ve checked out the Empower website, it’s amazing to see the companies they’ve worked with. It’s not all about sitting in a room full of people just bellowing your lungs out; just as well for you Pete, really, after the samosa encounter. For the first couple of sessions they work one-to-one. I’ve got funding for up to four of us to have two sessions: it’s first come, first served and I’ve bagged the first, so I’d get in quick if you’re interested. You never know where these new initiatives might take you.” I have a damn good idea, Giles, a damn good idea. Neil called me at work a couple of days later: “Dex, Fancy a drink tonight? See you in the Barge around seven?” “Are we going to scream at each other?” “Not a bit of it. Just wanted to let you know how we’re getting on with your boss?” “Can’t talk about it now. See you later.” I wanted to know exactly what Neil had planned, and whether he was going to limit himself to humiliation to graduate onto theft. “Just wanted to have a bit of fun with him”, Neil said as we settled ourselves at a table opposite the bar: “You were right about Giles, he really believes in the professional development bollocks. I’m just teasing him along at the moment. You tell him what you’re selling and hint that he can’t have it – not yet, anyway. You see, I think he needs some one-on-one sessions with Lars. That way, he’ll really get into the whole scream therapy thing.” “Have you met him yet?” “Nope. We’re having a meeting in his office on Friday afternoon. The con artist in me can’t wait to bait the hook. Don’t worry, I’m not into anything criminal, just keeping myself sharp. Something Giles would approve of.” I wasn’t so sure that coming to Milen during office hours during office hours was such a good idea, the place had security and closed-circuit TV cameras, but Neil wouldn’t be put off. He wanted to try his Lars persona out on Giles and couldn’t wait for a face-to-face encounter with his mark. Friday took an age in coming. I’ve never known a week take so long: holidays fly; boring weeks drag; but this one seemed to last a century. Finally, 2.30 found me loitering in the corridor a few doors from Giles’ office. There’s this little alcove with an unreliable photocopier in it, we only usually use it if the main one’s busy or broken, but today I decided it was ideal to copy a couple of files. I thought it look efficient, but Neil told me afterwards that I was so obviously snooping that I nearly put him off His entrance was just right, ginger wig and dodgy van dyke notwithstanding. Well dressed in blazer, grey trousers and those wanky loafers Americans wear. I could tell Giles was positively salivating at the prospect of ingratiating himself with this demigod of psychobabble. I’d expected Neil to do Lars as a Scandinavian, the name was sort of a giveaway, or so I thought; it was a surprise, however, to hear him talking softly and coming over very self-assured, in something I later discovered was Neil’s best Californian “just flown over the pond with the latest in wuff, teat argleblaft”: we’ve paid thousands to hear this, sitting on plush velour upholstered chairs with gilt metal frames, all lined up on badly air conditioned hotels and conference centres. And here was Neil, the respectable face of con, oozing “you too can be like me” faux charm into Giles’ ever so receptive shell-like. We’d arranged to meet at nine for a balti, but Neil left me hanging round for nearly three-quarters of an hour. “Where the hell have you been?” “Over at Giles’ place. Arsy little apartment thing in a tarted up mill. Supposed to be a ‘waterfront’ development; actually looks out over a weed infested bit of canal” “Yeah, heard he’d moved into a new place, never been invited myself.” “Right, let’s get some beers in and I’ll tell you about our little screamer.” Beer, poppadoms and bhajis followed as Neil told me about the meeting. Giles was absolutely suckered from the off. Neil sold him scream therapy as a way of releasing primal urges of fight and flight when faced with a threat. Only by learning to ball your brains out the Pedersen way, could you harness this latent power as a force in the commercial world. Transfer the primal urge to survive from Neolithic man to marketing and you unleash a potent force that increases sales potential. More beer, a chicken jalfrezi and prawn dopiaza, with naans the size of single duvets, accompanied Neil’s vivid description of Giles bursting to have his first session: “But I told him, you can’t rush this. I’m out of the country until the end of next week. It came to me from nowhere, and do you know, that gullible prat was almost begging to come with me! I swear, your boss is the easiest mark I’ve ever come across. It’s a good job he hasn’t got any money – I’d leave him naked in the street, smiling from ear to ear and thanking me for showing him the error of his ways!” “By the end of next week, he’ll be impossible to work with. What are you going to do with him then?” “Rent some office space for a couple of hours and let him start screaming. I’ve told him he’s got to be committed 110% before we can start work with his team. That’s when I got him to name you as one of the main doubters, one of those who scoff at change; even made him explain what scoff meant – it’s fun being American. He’s got a real thing about you – why didn’t you tell me about breaking his OHP?” “He told you about that? We were on a team-building thing; roll play and adventure training at some place in the wilds of Wensleydale. Saturday evening saw some drink taken, and I decided, so I was told afterwards, that the best way to round off the evening was try and project my arse onto the outside of a barn door; sod all else to do, what do you expect?” “What happened, apart from splinters near the sphincter?” “Five or six cans and a couple of whiskies made me underestimate my weight, probably thought I could levitate by then. Anyway, I came crashing down, the glass broke, bulb exploded; Shit for Brains came running out as we hightailed it round the back of the barn. Sunday morning; major sulk from Giles and full-on bollocking on Monday. Same day I met up with you in the Barge.” “Admire the risk-taking but it wouldn’t have worked anyway, OHPs don’t work in 3D images. Eat up. More beer? Well, we’re going to build up the one-to-one screaming until I’m, sorry Lars, is convinced that Giles is fully committed to the project – then I’m coming into Milen to video him in action. He’s going to get so much patter from me, he’ll burst his lungs to order.” As I made my way home, Neil’s excitement was beginning to wear off. What the hell were we doing? Giles was certainly gullible, more than a little stupid and drove me crazy, but this was shaping up to be the ultimate in humiliation, and how would he react if he realised it was all just a conman’s training exercise? Apart from a couple of text messages updating me on Giles’ progress, Neil didn’t get in touch until a week the following Thursday. It was all on for Saturday. He wanted me to give him a description of meeting rooms at Milen. We settled for the second floor boardroom. This was a long narrow affair with a balcony that split down the middle with a dividing partition that could be used for round table meetings or opened up as a large space for bigger seminars. Neil wanted it divided, he was going to video Giles in action – and I could watch the proceedings by forcing a small gap down the centre of the partition. This sounded crazy to me: I had no reason to be in the office on a Saturday and couldn’t see why Neil wanted me there. He brushed off my arguments, brusquely reminding me that he was doing me a favour and that he wanted me to see the effect of all his hard work. I got to the office just after 7.30 in the morning of the following Saturday. I told the security guard that I had some figures to sort out for a meeting on Monday, then made myself scarce, reading some advertising and marketing websites until I got a text from Neil to say he was in the boardroom. I felt like someone in a spy film, making my way up to the second floor. I peered into every office I passed on my way to the boardroom but there was no sign of anyone. I could hear Neil next door as I settled down to watch through the gap in the divider. With my left eye pressed hard up against the partition, I could see the video camera mounted on a tripod, pointing to a large swivel chair about three metres from the balcony window. Giles came in, he was wearing designer sports gear: jogging pants and trainers that had never seen a gym, expensive-looking T-shirt with a designer top over his shoulders. He looked nervous as he sat in the swivel chair. “Why do we need this?” Giles asked, gesturing towards the camera. “Simple”, drawled Neil; “it’s to give you all round vision. Look, think yourself into the part. This is your territory, when you feel threatened here, it heightens the ‘fight or flight’ response. In a few moments you’ll be tracking round and round in that chair, living the heightened response to primal fear. Only by seeing you – and you’re good, believe me – will your team buy into this project. I mean it, even the uptight Brit types – you know, Dexter, the guy you told me about with the OHP? Even he, I guarantee it, he’ll be right here with you on this one.” I noticed Giles tense momentarily when Neil mentioned my name, but he pushed himself back into the chair and waited for Neil to take over. “OK, Giles. Let’s try a few warm ups. Just loose shouts, if you like.” Giles emitted a small yelp, followed by a short growl. I hadn’t realised quite how ridiculous this would look. Standing there, with my face pressed up to the break in the divider, I was forcing myself not to laugh. Then Neil walked quickly across the room and smacked Giles full across the face. “No scream, you little shit, scream long and loud – go on!” At this, Giles looked up at Neil with absolute terror in his eyes and let go with an ear-splitting shriek. This first scream was followed by another, then another, building in intensity before he let out a long bellow that seemed to make the partition vibrate. As the noise died away, I was aware that the screaming had evoked a sense of fear in me. I wanted a piss and didn’t know if it was a response to Giles; like I was feeling ‘fight or flight’, or just the effect of standing in one place feeling nervous as hell. I was concentrating on my bladder so hard that it took me a while to take in what Neil was saying to Giles from behind the video camera, which I now saw had been positioned so that the Milen logo would be in shot, just above Giles’ left shoulder. “Good, good, now remember what I said about defecation: ‘fight or flight’ can make you want to open your bowels, perfectly natural response to extreme stress. It’s a primal reaction. Some folks just let it go – some even smear the spoor on their faces – kind of masks their own scent. Just seems to be instinctive, natural response, I guess.” The faint American accent, used with Neil’s quiet intensity, made this seem so plausible. I couldn’t begin to wonder what effect it would have on a suggestible character like Giles. “Can I go again, now?” Giles asked “Ready when you are, it’s going really well”, replied Neil. Again, Giles let out a scream followed by two more, building again in volume and intensity. I was so taken by the performance that I only realised the door to my part of the divided room was being opened from the outside. I don’t know how the hell I managed it, but I somehow transferred myself from being pressed against the divider to the underside of the meeting room table in about half a millisecond. Wedged between the table leg and two chairs, I could just make out the black Oxfords and perpetually grey-suited legs of John Pateman, Milen’s Finance Director. Pateman. Who else but a highly paid money junkie would be in the office at this time on a Saturday, dressed in his habitual grey suit. I knew his sartorial tastes of old. For six months I’d had an affair with his PA – the lovely Melanie of blessed memory, who confirmed the general sentiment that her boss preferred numbers to people and didn’t care much for workplace niceties. Just what he’d make of events on the other side of the partition was anyone’s guess. As the screams lessened, Pateman seemed to hesitate for a second. Watching his feet, he seemed to half turn, as if about to leave the room. I was so keenly aware of my senses of sight and hearing that the smell took a while to permeate, either that or I was shielded from it by the table. Whatever the reason, Pateman turned again and was now looking straight ahead down the room as he audibly sniffed the air. His sniff alerted me to the unmistakable stench of shit now wafting freely throughout the room. I knew Giles was gullible, but I hadn’t realised just how suggestible he could be if put under enough pressure. Neil had actually convinced him to shit himself to order. All I could think about at that moment was back in high school, when we were forced to play football on Wednesday afternoons. Our team captain, a drooling soccer nut called McPhee, had an annoying phrase he used to shout: “I’m in charge, do as I say; if I say ‘shit’, you ask for the shovel.” It didn’t make much sense back then, and he must have taken it from a film he’d seen – certainly he didn’t have the imagination or intelligence to come up with it himself, but now it struck me as the funniest thing in the world. I wanted to shout it to Neil next door. Fortunately, I was brought to what remained of my senses by the noise of Pateman slamming the door as he quickly left the room. The slam caused commotion next door. There was a heavy thud as Giles pushed the swivel chair over and ran out of the room, knocking over the tripod as he went. Giles barged into Pateman as he shot out of the room. I heard a faint scuffling as they collided in the corridor before Pateman shouted: “What the fuck are you doing, Southwell? What’s that smell? Is that shit on your face?” I went into work early on the Monday morning and at 9.15 I emailed a youtube video link to the blue, orange and yellow marketing teams from my mobile. At 10.00, Giles left Milen carrying two large black bin liners. Jim thought he was walked all the way to his car by a security guard. Strange, they usually just see you out of the back door and leave you to it. Adjustment, that’s what Giles called it, or sometimes it was “being freed up to pursue other opportunities”. Relief, however, proved to be short lived. At 10.30, an email came through from (in)Human Resources: “Giles Southwick has ceased to be employed at Milen with immediate effect. In order to ameliorate any detrimental effects in the marketing teams that formerly reported to him, a team building exercise will be held soon, date and venue to be notified in due course.” Arghghghghggh. More from the same author:

Friday, September 04, 2015

The joys of the flexible labour market

Flexibility. That's the key to a diverse economy, or so the free-market, no-regulation employers like us to believe. Well, in another first for me (after 38 years' work), today I find myself without a major source of employment. In my case, the need to remain flexible meant that my earnings were whittled away to such a point that it was no longer worth my while going to the office. But the client/employer (call them what you will - I've got a few names in play at the moment...) was still ready to whittle away a while longer than I was. Now, how long will it take me to fill the gap? And how long before I really lose it with the next smoothy chops Tory waste of space who tells me that 'work pays' or that the economy is looking up?

The long wait for the Labour ballot

Apparently, the Labour Party are going to start chivying along the more laid back of its members and supporters if they haven't voted by next Tuesday. Chance would be a fine thing in my case. I'm still waiting for the ballot email. All the 'help' desk minions can suggest is to make sure it's not in my spam folder - which it isn't. Anyone would think they've decided not to sent it out to me...