Archive for May 2004
Does Life imitate Art, or vice versa? The very first scenes of The West Wing had the White House staff wondering how to explain the way fictional President Bartlet fell off his bike. Back in the real world, President Bush is sporting cuts and bruises after trying to ride a mountain bike along a forest track. Oh, well…
My all-time favourite examples of “art imitating life imitating art” has to involve This Is Spinal Tap. Too many examples to mention, but the bands of the 80’s all saw it, loved it, and didn’t moderate their antics one little bit. The Rock ‘n Roll Creation sequence, with bassist Derek Smalls trapped inside a strange pod-thing, really happened, to Bill Nelson in his Be Bop Deluxe days; besides, don’t ask where Metallica’s Black Album came from.
One of the running jokes in the “rockumentary” is the way the band went through drummers like a drummer goes through drumsticks, starting with “a bizarre gardening accident” that took out their first drummer. Fast forward ten years, in the “real world”, and Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro dies in what was first thought to be… “a bizarre gardening accident”. The initial explanation involved an adverse reaction to a weedkiller: later, there was talk of a cocaine-weakened cardiovascular system. Even so, his place in the Spinal Tap A-to-Zed is assured.
It’s election time here in Dublin, again, and this time round I have but one thing to say, except that Billy Connolly beat me to it:
The desire to become a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one.
You campaign with poetry, but govern with prose.
The West Wing
I thought I might be overdosing on it, but a new episode is on now, and this one is impressive as ever. It’s also highly relevant to me and my job, since it includes controversy surrounding the outsourcing of 17,000 IT jobs to India and how it breaks election campaign promises.
I’m not allowed to discuss quite how relevant, though my own job is not at risk. Yet. It ties into a wider issue that was predicted long before it actually happened: the way people can no longer expect a job for life, but will need to totally change careers several times. It’s ironic, in a personal way, to note how my current job is the most stable one I’ve ever had, but I had more real responsibility almost fifteen years ago. Back then people could have died if I made a serious mistake; the consequences are generally less serious now, though there are exceptions such as hospitals and stock exchanges to worry about.
I’ve been aware of this for years and expected to be laid off by now: a large redundancy payment would come in very handy, actually. My employer seems to be taking the attitude that I should be happy to be keeping my job in the face of all the changes that surround me, and they don’t have to do any more; but I’m not happy, I do expect more, and there are other things I could be doing. The only restrictions are financial – as always – but I’m in better shape there than I’ve ever been, and have the feeling I could take more risks, throw a few things at the wall and see what sticks. We’ll see.
Last night I had the strangest dream… no, really. Some details are missing, but it was about getting a new job in what I think was a notary’s office in a medium-sized town in England. Some scenes from my interview, after which I was immediately hired and started work on the spot. But there was very little work involved, all I seemed to do was wander around, staring at the furniture and annoying co-workers, all of whom were as witty as I was, and we had each other in stitches. (Hey, it was my dream.)
There was a commute to work, but one so short I blinked and missed it. The office was centrally located off some town square like Nottingham’s, with panelled walls, wires everywhere behind the desks, and strange portraits on the walls. The last thing I remember was a curiously-stuffed armchair in the lobby, with an strange name embossed on the cushions, like a reject from a Harry Potter book. Maybe it had magical powers?
I’ll never know, since my alarm went off and swept it all away. But it was nice while it lasted: wishful thinking on my part?
An hour later: remembering and writing about my dream has somehow brought together a number of different questions in my mind. I’ve been able to do a little research here at work, and I think I see a way to achieve real progress in my career. Or, to put it another way – a chance to actually have a career, and not just a job. It’s not the first time I’ve had ideas like these and, like before, I’m not going to write about them here so soon.
When I returned from South Africa, in late 1991, the country was still an international pariah state, thanks to “apartheid”. I could compare the way the country was portrayed in the media, first from the inside, and with the view from the outside. While I learned a lot, I came to some conclusions that might surprise some.
In the English-speaking community, not only were we well in touch with the way South Africa was viewed, we didn’t think or act in a racist fashion, and we could see the inevitability of change. The “white” community in South Africa was never united in favour of apartheid; my last two years of school were in a large town, big enough for multiple schools, and mine was definitely British, both in language and culture. Even among Afrikaners, the divisions were clear, with a liberal Afrikaans press taking regular pot-shots at government policies, though it was rare to hear openly anti-apartheid rhetoric there.
The business community can take more credit, for the end of “apartheid”, than any number of politicians or protesters. Money talks, and business interests such as the Anglo-American Corporation – who I worked for and still hold a few shares in – were publicly pushing for change. By 1992, President F.W. de Klerk had released all the political prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela, and pushed through the repeal of the laws that formed the legal basis of apartheid. By 1994, the ANC was in charge, after the first elections to include all citizens.
My work for Anglo-American (late 80’s) was for the Highveld Steel company and subsidiaries, and the workforce was divided; but it was more a class division than a racial one, at that time. We had three obvious working classes – management, skilled, and unskilled – which you could take as a reasonable model of the country’s population. The first two were mostly, but not exclusively, white, but improvements in education meant that my fellow apprentices were of all colours, and management was starting to go that way too. Meritocracy was, in principle, the order of the day.
The unskilled majority were unionised, and walked out a few times, once with fairly serious consequences. The rest of us weren’t unionised and didn’t understand what the strike was about, so we were quite happy to keep things going, scoring overtime and bonus pay as a result. Over one memorable fortnight, just two of us ran a whole division of the factory at night, with a manager occasionally dropping in to check on us. It was mostly manual work, mainly controlling conveyors for loading of coal into coking furnaces, that produced carbon monoxide to fuel the steel furnaces. We didn’t find it too difficult, and actually got in a few hours sleep in the middle of the shift – but it took about 20 workers under normal conditions.
The experience brought home an essential point about the role of the company as an employer: these unskilled workers needed the work, and far more of them were employed than were actually needed. The company played a larger social role, offering adult education, health care, and other social benefits. It’s not surprising, looking at it from that angle, that their wages were low; yet their grievances were, if I recall correctly, related to pay and employment security.
This to me is the true legacy of apartheid, one that will take many more years to correct: a huge under-educated majority is not something that can be sustained in a modern economy, and the last decade has not seen sufficient improvement in education standards and availability – the major challenge facing South Africa today. Factories such as the one I worked in are huge concentrations of employment, so much so that many workers are migrants, far from home; they were once prevented by law from settling in “white” areas, and even though the legal restrictions are now gone, the economic problems barely make life any easier today. The fact that South Africa has not yet gone up in flames, due to economic unrest, is laudable, but the long honeymoon is almost over, with so much more still to do.
Back in London, however, I found an incredible wilful ignorance about the complexities of the South African situation, and the ties to British colonial history. (For example, the word “kaffir” is a racial pejorative, yet it comes from the Arabic “qafir”, meaning “unbeliever (of Islam)”. It was once benign and was used in a official capacity by the British government long before it became insulting.) Instead, all I found was blind prejudice and soundbites, and an assumption that anyone who lived there, even a Brit like myself, had picked up racism and carried it with them like a virus. The opposite was true: I was not brought up as a racist, and didn’t feel I had to go to extraordinary lengths to fight apartheid visibly, or preach loudly against it. We just got on with life, did the right things, and that was enough.
Today brought the news that South Africa is to host the 2010 World Cup Soccer tournament: a signal that South Africa is now truly accepted in the international community, in a way they haven’t been for as long as SA has been a country at all. The year is significant and may have played a part in the decision, even though I didn’t hear it mentioned: 2010 will be the centenary of the Union of South Africa, the first time that all the major provinces came together as one country.
Perhaps, in a few years, I wil feel ready to go back there for a visit, preferably when I have learned to drive. Like America, the cities alone are not the main attraction, and though I have seen the Rockies and the Alps, I will have no trouble recognizing the Drakensberg when I see them again. JRR Tolkien, who lived in the area as a child, hadn’t seen them for years before writing The Hobbit, yet the “Dragon Mountains” are a clear inspiration for his descriptions of landscapes.
Yippee: Dubai is a go, first week in August, today I got the flights I wanted (on British Airways) at a price I would describe as “sensible” (but hardly budget). I had to do it by phone, since even the fact that I’m using a UK-issued credit card in Ireland is enough to require special attention, just in case I’m an international terrorist looking to cover my tracks. I expect my details will be handed over to the Dubai authorities and I will undergo some kind of automated background check. At least I don’t need a visa, I can just join the queue at Immigration on arrival at 7:30 in the morning, when the temperature will be “only” in the 30’s.I wrote, a few weeks ago, that a holiday to the Middle East was low on my list of ideal holidays, and it still is, if I think about an independent holiday. This trip will be nothing of the sort, since I will be around friends for most of it, if not all. A dependent holiday, you might say, not the kind I normally go on, but it’s worth it just to see friends again, and as a quick introduction to the region.
Oh dear… it’s never a good sign when you return from holiday and find yourself losing it completely within an hour. It’s as though everyone involved conspired to push all my buttons at once, rather than allow me to settle back in gracefully. I’m being dramatic here, of course, I “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.I didn’t get home till 10PM last night, but still managed to fit in two episodes of The West Wing. The nominal running time of an hour is actually only 42-43 minutes, without the commercials. More tonight, too – I frankly need the escapism after a day here. Today isn’t that bad, actually – I’m finding time to do this, after all.
Well, that was the week that was. Not very productive, as it turned out, but I think I’m fairly chilled out by now, which makes it worth it.Today I finally succumbed, and have spent half of today watching The West Wing from Series 1 Episode 1 on. It is seductive in a particular way, portraying a world in which real people do real things, but also act in ways not normally seen in this world: they say what they mean, do what they say they will, follow through on commitments and actually think about what they’re doing. Pure indulgent fantasy, in other words.
The ideas I wrote about eight days ago are still setting sparks off in my head, and there are more where they came from. I have a theory I want to expand on later, but I’ll put it down here for future reference. It involves the basic principle behind technology in all its forms: starting with how the harnessing of energy led to the use of force to reshape the world. Our modern world runs on one major principle: the targeted and controlled release of energy, whether in the internal combustion engine, or just by flicking a switch to let electricity flow through a light bulb. Progress has also put force in the hands of almost anyone who might want to use it against anyone else, in the form of weapons such as guns and explosives.
My point is that I see no way to get off this slippery slope of technological progress: even without ethnic, religious and cultural differences, there would still be population pressures to cause friction, with any one person now able to cause a frightening amount of death and destruction.
There is a surplus of young men in the world, and what are they all good for? We don’t need the muscle; technology has repackaged the energy they used to provide into machines. Only the best are needed for breeding purposes, the rest, like me, are surplus to requirements. Taking a hard view, that leaves one outlet for all this frustration: War. It worked for all the ancient cultures, after all, and the basic principle hasn’t changed.
What a great thought to end a holiday with, eh? Back to work.