Friday, April 7, 2017

Dipping a toe into hot water

I don't usually go near controversial topics.  I keep it light and fluffy and talk about how badly designed toilets are or sometimes about nothing at all.  But today, I'm going to turn a little bit serious and talk about women.  

The thing is, I can feel that even reading that there's been a sharp intake of breath amongst some people reading this.

So, on LinkedIn yesterday I recounted something which happened to me a few years ago.  It's a true story, and I gave only the highlights in a quick status update.  Here it is...

A few years ago, I met a recruiter for coffee.  During the conversation over coffee, he made one or two remarks about a woman who walked into the coffee shop which I thought were inappropriate remarks. 
I didn't say anything at the time, but never worked with the recruiter to either represent me, or to hire for me in any of the roles I've been in since. 
My only regret is that I didn't tell him why.  It feels a little bit too late to say something now, but I wish I'd said at the time that I wouldn't be using him, and why.   
He still calls every six months or so to see how I'm doing and whether he can help with hiring in my team.
It's a dangerous assumption that just because you're speaking with another man, you'll get away with making "laddish" comments about a woman's appearance.   
Those couple of comments have cost that recruiter quite a lot of roles over the years...

It's a brief account of coffee I had with a recruiter a few years ago, back in a previous job.  Meeting recruiters for coffee comes as part of the territory when you're a manager with a team.   You get to know some recruiters across the years, and will tend to stick with them as they move between companies, but there are always new ones who call out of the blue, buy you coffee and explain why you should start using them to fill your roles.  Quite often it comes to nothing, but sometimes you make a new relationship.

And so I was having coffee with a recruiter somewhere, and we were making the normal small-talk at the beginning of the meeting.  "What did you do at the weekend?" "Whereabouts do you live?" - all that kind of fluff that British people tend to start business meetings with.  In the midst of this initial flurry, a woman walked into the coffee shop and the recruiter stared at her, and then made a couple of comments to me about how she looked, with particular reference to her breasts.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with his remarks at the time, but for various reasons I never spoke up to say anything.  I just carried on with the conversation, said goodbye and then never followed up to introduce that recruiter into the process of where I was working at the time.  He still calls me every six months or so to see how I'm getting on.  I've never signed up to use him for hiring - either to represent me when I was looking for a new role, or when I'm managing a team and looking to hire some people into the team.  The truth is, I never will use him.  But I've never plucked up the courage to tell him that.

For the moment, though, let's wind back to the initial incident, and then we'll come back to today and the reactions I received to my post.

Whenever I am speaking to someone in a professional capacity, I am representing my company and they are representing theirs.   So if someone I'm speaking to professionally says something which I find objectionable, for me to call them out on it is to do so on behalf of the company, not just me.  That's something I'd be wary of doing, even if it's something as obviously unacceptable as uninvited sexual comments about a woman.  At the time I was a few years earlier on in my career in management, and I don't think I was quite as sure of myself as I am now.  And so I smiled politely and moved on with the conversation.   I think it's worth making clear that I have absolutely no doubt that the management of the company I worked for at the time would've backed me had I said something; my lack of confidence was in myself rather than in them.

The second reason I didn't say anything was more personal.  I identify unashamedly as a feminist these days, but that's not always been the case.  That's not to say that I've ever actively engaged in nor supported the subjugation of women, but it was something I hadn't really thought about.   Growing up as a white man, the fact that racism and sexism still run through daily life is something which can quite easily pass you by.  And it's to my own shame that I thought that as long as I wasn't being sexist or racist myself, that was enough.

My view changed when I asked a few questions of people I know well enough to speak openly with.  I read a few things which told me just how prevalent sexism still is, and I realised just how naive I'd been.  And so I asked a few women in my life for their own experiences.  I can point to those couple of days as precisely the time when I went from ignorance to anger to determination to help change things.    As a man you have to look to find sexism; as a woman it finds you every day.  It changes the way you walk to the shops to avoid the men on the building site who may whistle at you.  It affects how you feel about taking your car in for service because you're sick of being patronised by the mechanics.  It affects how confident you may feel in applying for a job because the company website feels "a bit blokey".    I can imagine that a woman reading this now will be surprised that this isn't bloody obvious to everyone.  But if you're a man reading this and think I'm overstating things, then talk to some women you know and trust, and ask them to tell you honestly what daily life is like for them.

And so back to the recruiter.  Of course, he didn't say the things loudly enough for the woman to hear.  He had presumed that because he was talking to another man, he could find common ground in ogling women. (Although it's not the point here, I find that quite ironic for another obvious reason, but moving on...)
But I'm sure she noticed him staring at her chest as she walked towards the counter.  I'm sure she noticed she was being watched and judged.

After my post on LinkedIn, quite a few people have told me that I should say something to him next time I speak with him.   But it's going to take effort, as I know it's not going to be easy.  It would've been much easier to say something at or close to the time.  But we are where we are, and I can't go back in time.  My issue is that to me this was something I recall clearly.  To him, it was probably just another meeting which didn't go anywhere and his comments are probably so common-place to him that he won't even recall making them.

The interesting thing isn't what people said in public, though; it's the private reaction I got to my post.  It was three-fold.

Firstly, I got a few messages of support.  People sharing similar stories and saying I did the right thing.  Although a few people also posted those messages in public, and much as they are welcome, they aren't the most interesting response.

Secondly, I got the expected messages telling me that I had over-reacted.  I had at least ten messages - some from people I know and some I don't - telling me that I'm being unfair, and that I shouldn't judge someone on the basis of a few comments made as an aside in the middle of a conversation.  All of these messages were from men, of course.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, are the number of people who've got in touch to say "were you talking about me? If so, let me explain... you misunderstood me...".  You'd be surprised how many people have got in touch to say this.

I've no intention of naming and shaming.  I'm going to park this and move on now.  I shall leave you with the door policy of a bar in Iceland.  It pretty much applies to who I invite into my life...




Added 10th April 2017:

A little postscript, which I guess I could've seen coming...

After having to spend far-too-much-of-my-time today deleting the more abusive and, shall we say, "unhelpful" comments from the post on LinkedIn, and reading and deleting the similar private messages I've received telling me that, amongst other things "I am only jealous because he saw her first" and "I am only angry because the recruiter fancied her and didn't fancy me" I've deleted the original comment on LinkedIn.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The pain of writing

A little while ago, I wrote about how I have difficult pronouncing a particular consonant.  Many people reading this have probably never heard me speak and so presumed that I had some hugely-apparent speech defect whereas the reaction from people who know me was generally that they had never even noticed which letter I have the problem with.   Fear of feeling self-conscious whenever I speak meant that I never did tell them which letter it was. I still avoid words which start with this particular letter if I have to do public speaking.

Which leads me to wonder if anyone has ever noticed the way I hold a pen.  I am generally right-handed (although I can play pool equally well either way around, amongst other things) and so my strange way to hold a pen isn't an adaption to prevent my left hand trailing over the wet ink as I move across the page. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that my thumbs will bend to a right-angle backwards, but won't bend forwards more than a few degrees...


For years, I presumed that everyone holds a pen as I do.  I love writing with a fountain pen and the tip of my little finger would quite often end up covered in ink; I presumed that happened to everyone.  I didn't really take much notice of how other people hold pens.



Recently, though, my pen holding has started to cause a problem.  On my right ring finger I started to get a little lump in the pad at the tip.  It was tiny to start with - maybe 3mm in diameter.  Recently I've been writing a lot more and it's definitely got bigger.  I write at least a journal entry every day and recently when I wrote a short work of fiction I wrote the first draft of that with a fountain pen on unlined paper.  But the lump in my finger has got considerably bigger.  Bigger to the point that I'm likely to have surgery in the near future to have it removed.

And so, I've been trying to teach myself how to hold a pen differently.  It's much harder than you would imagine.  When I was a teenager, I once tried to teach myself to write with my left hand and that didn't go particular well; I presumed this would be much easier.  I pride myself on having neat handwriting.  It's very rounded and flowing.  My Dad used to have incredibly neat handwriting and as I was growing up, the importance of neat writing was emphasised a lot.  So although I can make legible writing holding the pen between my thumb and index finger it's not as neat as I'd like it to be; I expect that's going to take longer to crack...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Les gerbilles se sont echappées!

Récemment, nous avons acheté une maison de campagne et nous y passons quelques jours chaque semaine avant de retourner à notre pied-à-terre Londonien.  

Les cochons-d ’Inde voyage avec nous à chaque fois.  Au début, elles n’aimaient pas cela, la cage étant liée, dans leurs esprits, aux voyages chez le vétérinaire et l’indignité qu’elles y subissaient.  Mais quelque mois plus tard, elles avaient embrassé la routine et leurs deux foyers.
En été, les cochons-d ‘Inde habitent dans une dépendance mais en hiver nous mettons leur clapier à la véranda.  La véranda est loin d’être luxueuse mais elle a un toit et du chauffage et constitue un refuge hors pair.

Nous avons également trois gerbilles mais celles-ci restent à la campagne même quand nous allons à Londres parce qu’elles peuvent très bien se débrouiller toute seules pendant deux ou trois jours.  Elles demeurent dans un vivarium en verre surmonté d’une cage en métal.  Les gerbilles a l’état sauvage vivent dans des galeries souterraines ; aussi les nôtres peuvent-elles, a l’intérieur de leur cage, creuser librement des tunnels dans le sable.  Elles passent tout leur temps dans ce labyrinthe à l’abri de la lumière et ne se montrent qu’occasionnellement.


Un jour, j’étais dans la véranda en train de nourrir les cochons-d ‘Inde et j’ai vu une souris qui se précipitait vers le coin.  Je n’étais pas surpris qu’il y ait des souris qui habitent dans la maison ; il est normal que l’on trouve les souris à la campagne, surtout quand il y a des boites de nourriture de gerbille.
Un mois plus tard, l’été est arrivé et il a fallu mettre la cage des cochons-d ’Inde a la dépendance pour qu’elles puissent passer du bon temps au jardin. 
Avant de déménager les cochons-d ‘Inde j’ai décidé de trouver les souris et les mettre au jardin aussi !  J’ai cherché dans le sac dans lequel on stocke la nourriture et il y a deux trous qu’elles ont rongé pour obtenir les délices dedans.  Dans le sac, il y avait un nid fait par les souris.

Soudain, deux petits animaux ont couru très rapidement et se sont cachés au-dessous du clapier des cocons-d ’Inde. 
Je me suis résolu a attraper les souris !   Je me suis couche sur le sol à côté du clapier.   J’ai vu un petit visage et deux yeux qui me regardaient.  J’ai reconnu ce visage.  Les deux animaux n’étaient pas des souris.  Deux gerbilles étaient au sol en train de me regarder.  Elles n’étaient plus dans leur cage !

Donc, nous n’avions pas de souris ! J’ai découvert un petit trou dans le couvercle de leur cage a travers lequel les deux plus petites gerbilles avaient réussi à s’extirper et s’échapper
Elles vivaient une vie très heureuse sur le sol de la véranda avec beaucoup de nourriture à manger sans limite !

Il nous a fallu acheter une cage plus solide pour contenir les gerbilles !


(This post was originally published here in English.  This is not a direct translation of the English but a re-write)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Green lights all the way

I don't believe that luck is anything other than chance.  It's like playing backgammon - you can get yourself into a position where almost every combination the dice fall in is positive, but you can never actually control how the dice are going to fall.

I was walking home from Liverpool Street station the other evening, and literally every crossing I changed to show a green man just as I walked up to it.  Every single one.  A bit like that annoying advert with James Corden, except I didn't ask anyone to "just call me Mr Green Light".

It wasn't my only stroke of luck during the day.  Earlier in the day, I'd been giving a serious announcement to my team in the office.  All standing around in a circle in the break-out space in the office, it was after I'd finished speaking the MD was talking that I realised that my phone wasn't on silent, that I was expecting a call and that my ringtone is currently the theme music from Strictly, starting with a bit "Hoooooooo!" noise at the beginning.  Even though the MD was talking, my attention was actually on my phone rather than her, willing it not to ring right at that moment.  Fortunately, it didn't.

Good luck must run out eventually.  Or more precisely, the random order in which good and bad things happen means that every run of good things is only going to be finite in length.  Like tossing a coin - every run of heads is going to be broken at some point.

I feel like there should be some metaphor here.  There isn't.  I was just struck by how many green lights I saw on the walk home the other evening. Nothing more.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Avoiding the obvious

Having a new house to sort out took away much of my free weekend time, and so I've not got through as many books this year as I would like to have done even though all the trips to Warrington gave me plenty of time on trains and in hotel rooms with nothing much else to do.

Hopefully in 2017 I should get a bit more reading done.  An upcoming new job is going to mean fewer train journeys, but a shorter commute is going to mean more time at home to while away the hours with a good book.

I've picked six books which I read in 2016(1)

So let's start at the bottom, shall we?(2)





Tales from the Dance Floor
Craig Revel Horwood

Don't be shocked that I read such things.  I think it's a mistake to presume that someone who reads a lot must read the highest literature.(3)  A lot of time spent on trains - and in a previous job, planes - makes me want something to keep the mind and the pages turning as time passes me by more slowly than normal.

I really rather enjoyed All Balls and Glitter(4), which was Craig Revel Horwood's previous autobiographical volume and so when I saw on Twitter that there was a follow-up I decided to hunt it down and use it to make a train journey disappear.  

It was actually harder to find that I thought it would be.  I had presumed that a new book by someone associated with the Strictly leviathan would be stacked near the door of every WHSmiths branch, especially at stations where people usually want something light and fluffy to read.(5)  I even went to Foyles to try to track it down, and spent quite some time going back and forth between the "Dance" and "Television" sections convinced that I must missed it somewhere on a shelf between the two.

Maybe I should've heard the sound of warning bells given how hard the book was to find but eventually I did the unthinkable and ordered it from Amazon.  I do use Amazon for many, many other things - yet I rarely buy books online.  

For me, it's nice to meander along the shelves and see the book before buying it.  How does it feel in my hand? How does it feel to flick through the pages?  I love cold, blue screens for doing research and reading short articles, but there's still nothing quite like a warm, yellow book to tell a story.

After a few pages, the first impression wasn't good.  It was obvious that the prose just didn't flow in the way the prose had done in the first volume.  The content wasn't bad - it certainly wasn't in the same category of drivel as a Dan Brown book, for instance(6) - but the way it was told felt like disjointed, uninteresting sentences falling one after the other like dominoes.  There was no change of pace, no pauses for contemplation and no dizzying whirlwind evenings played out on the page.  

All the moves were there, but there was no feeling in the stiff dance through the pages.  

Maybe he wrote it in a rush or maybe he was contractually obliged to write a second volume without real motivation to do so.  Either way, it was dangerous to have my expectations set so high. 



Spectacles.  A memoir.
Sue Perkins

Not all memoirs are bad; some are a joy to read.  I actually read this before the Craig Revel Horwood volume took away my trust in expectations and so I didn't really have many before I started reading.  

Unlike the previous book, this one was everywhere.  Every time I went into WHSmiths at Euston whilst waiting for the train to Warrington its white cover and striking portrait stared out at me.  But at twenty quid for the hardback, I wasn't so keen to rush in.  Eventually, when it was part of an offer I bought it and took it on the train with me.

Never have I smiled so much throughout a book.   I obviously knew of Sue Perkins before reading the book - and not just since Bake Off, although I do also love Bake Off(7) - and this isn't one of those autobiographies where people spill the beans on previous lovers to sell a few extra copies; it's much better than that and all the better for it. 

One moment, involving a bucket, made me splutter out loud on the 0930 Euston to Glasgow Central.  Read the book, and you'll know when you get there. Sometimes I should trust my gut and buy a book when I first see it rather than waiting an age to pick it up.  




SPQR
Mary Beard

I bought this book quite early.  Mary Beard is wonderful, and her previous books have been the most engaging and entertaining journeys to Ancient Rome I've ever taken.  But they were short.  And SPQR is not a short book.  I have a stack of books(8) I've not yet read and whenever I finish one I return to the shelf and select a new one to start reading.  Although there's no ordering to the books I select; I rarely select the one which has been on the shelf the longest and certainly never select it on those grounds alone.  Choosing a new book to read is like selecting a pair of socks.  It's a product of mood and feeling.  Where will I be going and what will I be doing?  

Such a long book on such a weighty subject never quite made it to the top of the pile and so it gathered quite a lot of dust before I finally decided to pick it up and get going.

I saw Mary Beard talking about the book at an event before I started reading it.   Whenever she talks, she is so engaging; the fact that her enthusiasm is so obviously real makes it heartwarming and contagious.  This wasn't the only time I'd seen Mary Beard talk, but as I sat there listening to her talk about why she started with Cicero and what she really thought of Rome's foundation myth I could feel the book on the shelf at home on the other side of London calling distantly to me.  I picked it up to start reading the next day.(9)

Mary Beard has a wonderful knack of presenting Rome as seen through the eyes of people rather than through the telescope of history.  The world she conjures up feels real and complete,  rendered even more imaginable by her reassuring reluctance to fill gaps in source material with unannounced guesswork. 

Just how the best celebrity memoirs avoid the lurid stories of kiss and tell, the Julio-Claudian Emperors' excesses aren't played for thrills here.  We all know they were pretty perverted in both senses of the word but this book shows the history of Ancient Rome to be so much more than Eastenders in togas.  This book is definitely going to be going into my roster of books I read time and time again and I an sure I'll discover something new each time.



What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell


On one occassion, I arrived at Euston for my weekly trip up to Warrington and realised I'd forgotten to pick up a book from the pile and so needed to find something in WHSmiths.  This cover jumped out at me almost as much as the fact that the book didn't seem that long and so I could probably get into it on a train journey. (10) I wasn't aware of the short story which had been reworked into the first section of the book, and so had no idea what I was going to be reading.  

I certainly wasn't expecting the tale of a dysfunctional relationship between an ex-pat American living in Bulgaria and a local prostitute. 

It's certainly quite a gritty and grubby tale at times - I wouldn't recommend it as bedtime reading for your kids - but it does manage to draw two characters together and apart many times without any of the twists and turns feeling forced for dramatic purposes. (11) 

I did leave it with the lingering question though of whether this was actually a made up tale.  Either the author has a very good imagination or there's a little more to this tale than simple fiction. (12)

The Scarlet Gospels
Clive Barker

I read a lot, but I don't tend to read many book reviews and so quite often when there's a new book out by one of my favourite authors, the first time I am aware of it  is when I am buying it.

I have read The Hellbound Heart a few times and always thought that the Hellraiser films didn't do justice to the book.(13)  They took away the subtlety and replaced it with guts, gore and sex to increasing degrees as the film series rumbled on. The decline of the film series into nonsense almost stopped me from buying this book but Clive Barker has never let me down so far (14) and so I decided to pick it up from WHSmiths at Euston and give it a go.  

If inhumanity is presented constantly, then it ceases to shock and in their desire to be gorier and bloodier than before each of the films seemed to neglect to portray the backdrop of humanity against which the inhuman story was played out.  The story may quickly make its way to Hell but its footsteps always lead back to the real world. (15)

It would've been easy for Clive Barker to sit back and accept the royalties he's no doubt being paid for the continuing roster of films or to simply write something which continued the gore fest in increasingly ridiculous ways but it's nice to seem an author take their creation back with such grace and dexterity. (16)


The Railways
Simon Bradley

Some books have to sell themselves to me and some are just obviously one day going to end up sitting on my shelf waiting for me to pick them up and open them for the first time.  I walked past this book myriad times in various railway stations before finally buying it and getting around to reading it.  It was so obvious to me that I'd end up buying and reading this book that I didn't feel the need to rush into it; one day it would just find its way onto my bookshelf of its own accord. (17)

This book was pretty weighty, but thankfully split into relatively distinct sections so would lend itself quite easily to a chapter or two in bed of a Saturday morning before getting up to face the weekend.  I've always have a fascination with railways, as I've written about previously, and I'm often fearful of reading books on subjects I love.

I try to make my life as evidence-based as possible and a necessary part of that is that sometimes my views change when I get new information.  But being rational doesn't stop my heart from attaching itself to enjoyable beliefs.  I yearn for the days when I believed in Santa. (18)

So it's always risky to open up something you hold dear and allow someone to give you new information.  My love of railways felt pretty safe, though.  In fact the book was about trains much more than it was about the railways they run on but it's entertaining to imagine yourself rattling along locked in a compartment with strangers who may be about to try to rob you or try to fleece money from you.  The Beeching map does get a reprint; and at the time I was yearning for more detail but sometimes the greatest pleasure in life can be achieved by avoiding the temptation of the obvious.




And so there you have it, it seems that I like to read things which avoid the obvious and aren't lurid.  Who knew I was so sophisticated in my taste..?







Footnotes

1.  Even though my reading time was limited I did read many more than six books.  Over sixty in fact.

2. I wrote this as the kind of thing CRH would say as a judge on Strictly but then became concerned it sounded homophobic.  Which it's not meant to be.  Maybe I should take it out in case people hate me for it?

3. I've read a couple of French novels, a book on advanced number theory and some poetry this year too, you know so it's not all been trashy nonsense.  Although there has been quite a lot of trashy nonsense in there, I guess. I'm not ashamed.

4. Best. Title. Ever.

5. I've never understood why it's presumed that those people getting on a train want something light to read, but those people getting on planes want something very thinky and business-oriented given the usual selection at airports.  I prefer "light and fluffy" on both.

6. I once started reading a Dan Brown book at an airport and it was _so_  fucking awful that I had to throw it away before getting on the place.  Fourteen hours to Tokyo with nothing to do was better than reading that drivel.  Sorry about my language by the way, but that's what you get for reading the footnotes.

7. On the BBC obviously.  It won't be the same on Channel 4.  

8. Anyone who's ready earlier posts will note that my time is now split between London and the countryside so for the pedants (and who else reads footnotes other than pedants?) I actually have two piles of books, one in each place.

9.  I am starting to worry that this isn't actually true, but for the purposes of dramatic narrative let's presume it is.  It was certainly pretty soon afterwards in any case.

10. I find that shorter books tend to have faster starts - I guess their whole pace tends to be quicker - so they are easier to get into on a train where I need something engaging straight away to take my mind off the journey.  It's the same reason I tend to start reading a new book just before a flight, so by the time the flight comes around I'm already invested in the narrative and so can close myself in the book more easily.

11. I am away that - if indeed this story is fiction and not autobiographical - the entire thing is made up for dramatic purposes.

12. I am actually quite glad this question hasn't been answered.  There was a great book called "A Million Little Pieces" which was presented as fact, and then exposed as fiction and the whole episode rather ruined the enjoyment of the book for me. A  little mystery is not a bad thing.


13. Given how few films I have seen in my life, I realise that it's odd that the Hellraiser films are there on the list.  But they are, and I rather enjoyed the first one, although I still preferred the version of the story in print.

14. I'm trying to think of this is actually 100% true.  I certainly can't think of a book of his I've been disappointed with at the time of writing. If I do think of one, I'll update this footnote accordingly.

15. I am aware that footsteps made by someone walking forward lead forward rather than backwards, but you know what I mean...

16. I thought it'd be fun to put in a little note at this point about whether Clive Barker is left-handed or right-handed.  The internet won't tell me, and although he doesn't appear on the many lists of "famous left-handed people" I read through I don't want to presume that he is therefore right-handed.  For some reason, he seems like the kind of person who would be left-handed, doesn't he?

17.  I mean here that I would eventually buy the book.  This isn't a euphemistic way to say that I stole the book. I most emphatically did not steal it.  I bought it from the little shop at Warrington Bank Quay station.

18. A recent conversation with my mother revealed that she doesn't think I ever believed in Santa, and come to think of it I don't remember a time when I believed in Santa either, but maybe I would be too little to remember it.  Anyway, my point isn't specifically about Santa so this doesn't really matter.  But then again, I guess if it did really matter, I'd have written it up there in the main text and not down here in the footnotes.