Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rat Race ?

The "rat race" should probably renamed going on how long it takes to get out of London Bridge station these days. Here is an example of the queue just to get off the platform one morning this month.

Although, at least it seems very orderly. No one is in too much of a rush to make it to the office just yet !

Secrets and Lies

Post Secret is a very well known site that consists entirely of "secrets" mailed anonymously from all over the world although being US based has an inevitable US weighting.

The secrets range from the bizarre to the tragic, from the horrific to the trivial and come from all types of people in all types of situation.
It seems to be a form of 21st Century confessional at least as far as those sending in secrets generally seem to feel some sort of release from sharing their secret.

There is undoubtedly a voyeuristic element to reading other people's secrets but as they are from unknown people it seems relatively harmless. The appeal of the site comes from the sharing of secrets and realising that a secret is actually not so unique but often a similar issue to one shared by many others.

The above postcard struck my eye as one that summed up the general status of "celebrities" in these times. While many may shrug their shoulders and say "not me" to the idea of being much concerned with the lives and fates of hollywood stars or soap opera actors, I suspect when expanded to its widest definition to include sports stars, tv hosts and even politicians, many more of us are to some extent "guilty" of this secret. Celebrity in its widest definition seems more interesting and more exciting than some of those in our own families. The fact that the cult of celebrity is essentially one lie and this interest will never be reciprocated goes overlooked. This is sad as it is times of trouble that only relatives can and will help.

Thank you to the poster of this secret for reminding us of one of the big lies in everyday life- the lie that celebrities matter and count for anything much.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A miracle in the eye of the beholder

Magda is in charge of the café in the office where I work. The café serves a rather uninspiring collection of sandwiches, salads, crisps and soft drinks. This is not the fault of Magda but the outsourced catering company who employ Magda. Magda is always pressing for improvements. One "victory" was the introduction of jacket potatoes! Ludicrous fire regulations prevent even toast being made in our office but Magda somehow gets around the regulations and has a virtual black market in things like bacon and sausage around breakfast time. Magda knows what the customer wants even if her employers don't.

Despite being in the centre of London with sandwich shops and cafes all around, the office café is always packed at lunch. I think in no small part, the loyalty to the humble office café is due to the attitude of Magda to her customers.Magda greets each customer and gets to know everyone's name despite the relatively high turnover of people in the office. Magda has made herself everyone's favourite Auntie in the office. She shares in the delights of life like births, engagements and weddings. She is also a counsellor especially to the "girls" in the office who are periodically whisked into her office next to the café to discuss some crisis or other.

Magda is both sensitive and outgoing knowing which customer can take a joke and which customer just wants a quiet word.

For all her cheerfulness, Magda over 18 months of selling sandwiches to me has revealed a life story that on many levels seems tragic.

I don't know the full details but she shares fragments with me and others in quiet moments when the café is empty.

Magda was born in Poland but somehow came to England during the Cold War. She married quite a successful Englishman and they had one daughter. Magda lived the life of a comfortable London housewife and mother, taking her daughter to school and in addition to keeping house and home didn't need to work so spent time visiting art galleries and exhibitions with her circle of friends.Then her young daughter became sick. A form of leukaemia was diagnosed and British hospitals seemed unable to offer any real hope. There were options but they were in America . Magda and her husband made the difficult but inevitable decision to remortgage their house to pay for the travel and treatment in America . The treatment was received but ultimately failed. Magda's only child died the tragic death of the young.

Subsequently and in circumstances Magda has not revealed, her husband died. Magda was widowed and alone in London with a huge mortgage on her house. In circumstances that would have crushed many Magda got on with life although that simple line cannot do justice to all the trials and issues she must have faced.

Magda the kept lady of leisure, now widowed and childless had to work. She ended up working for the office café and is still paying off her mortgage.

Now in her late forties, Magda has a remarkable love of life and love of humanity in general. However her life cannot be easy. Her employers, the outsourced catering company are far from generous employers and at times such as the recent underground strikes, Magda was forced to get up at 4am to take an elaborate route of buses into work to be around to have the café ready for the start of the day. There was no taxi offered by her employer to beat the strike. As on other occasions Magda perseveres where others would give up.

Magda's finances seem precarious. She earns £8.50 an hour which does not go a long way in London especially when still paying off a big mortgage. Other than that she has to return to Poland periodically to visit her aging Mother.

Then recently an old stray cat entered Magda's garden in West London . The cat obviously had some instinct as I doubt it would have got such a generous welcome in many other gardens.
The flea bitten cat was cared for, fed and revived by Magda. Then it managed to loose and swallow a tooth resulting in vet bills of over £400, money Magda could ill afford in reality. Magda keeps a £500 emergency fund for trips to Poland if she needs to see her Mother. This was largely exhausted by the stray cat.

However while according to conventional wisdom Magda was financially unwise, Magda's life has taught her that the loss of wealth is far less painful than the loss of life so she saved the cat.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her experiences Magda is a strong Roman Catholic and her faith is the one thing that keeps her strong.

The Firm has recently introduced awards for exceptional service and despite working officially for another company, Magda was nominated and then given an award. In the context of a 200 partner firm where many partners often earn over £1 million a year the monthly award at £500 was not particularly significant. However to Magda, saviour of stray cats and friend to all while earning £8.50 an hour, the award was a major issue.Magda was delighted and declared loudly "It's a miracle". Her finances, for now at least, are liquid once more.

I was just struck by the positive outlook of one who has lost the two people closest to her in being able to declare a miracle over £500. Miracles are not much recognised these days but as Magda proves there are miracles each day and sometimes they do not seem significant to others. For a partner in the firm I work, £1 million may not even be a miracle. But in comparison to infinity a million pounds is also insignificant. Money like so many things, depends on the meaning we give it and the purpose we put it to. I think Magda will give her £500 more purpose than many others would. Miracles are in the eye of the beholder.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Facing the gun

My colleague, who I will call Brenda, is really the salt of the earth. A high flyer, no, but a sincere person, yes. She does not pretend to anyone she loves her job but she does like people and above all she cares for and loves her daughter.

Brenda rings her daughter each day around 4pm to check on her progress home from school. Her daughter is 13 and Brenda is finding need to raise her voice a bit more to get her home these days. She doesn't want her daughter hanging around in the local shopping centre or with "unsuitable" boys in general.

Last Friday Brenda's daughter wasn't at school. The teachers were having a training day and Brenda's daughter was at home. In actual fact Brenda had arranged for a friend to be around and keep an eye on the girl. Another friend's son was also around.

Then in the middle of the day, Brenda took a call and her voice was raised to an unprecendented level during my time in the office.

"I don't care. You get home immediately" she cried through gritted teeth down the phone. She had gone from mild mannered lady to a cauldron of anger and fear at the flick of a switch. It was Brenda's business but I was guessing her daughter was really getting hard work !

However, the real problem Brenda revealled later was her friend's son had had a gun put to his head while walking through the park with a friend. Two youths had demanded his mobile phone. He handed it over without a murmur. The other boy had no phone and was beaten in the face as "punishment".

The youths with the gun scarpered and a short while later the police arrived. Brenda's daughter had not been there but she came out to the park and was there when she called her mother. Hence the fear and anger combined.

Brenda does not live in the nicest bit of London but equally not the worst by a long way. The boy who had a gun put to his head was visiting from nearby Dartford in Kent.

Brenda was angry and upset that her beloved daughter was so close to such goings on. She could have all to easily been with the two boys when they were attacked.

This is the closest that the recent spate of gun crime has reached people I know so far. I generally assume that media coverage can overstate the risks. Yes there have been a few dreadful killings of young people but in a country of 60 million these things need to be kept in perspective. Yet I am starting to realise the killings are only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg of intimidation and fear in this country.

The received wisdom now is that one should never fight back in any robbery or mugging situation. My colleagues, grown men and Fathers, say they would never go out and confront a youth damaging a car or neighbour's fence. The stock response is either ignore it or call the police.

Likewise horrific stories sometimes emerge in the media of people being attacked on buses and trains while fellow passengers ignore the incident as they are too afraid to help.

I would see two types of situation in this area.

Firstly, where it is unjustifiably risky to fight back. In this category a gun against the head for a mobile phone is a straightforward calculation. While Britain has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world and many guns are fakes, many others are not. The value of any phone does not justify risking getting shot. So anyone is right to hand over their phone in such a situation.

The second situation is where intervention or "fighting back" is a real option and I believe as a country the law abiding majority are getting too collectively cowardly for their own good.

If someone is punched and kicked by a lone thug on a crowded train then surely we need to learn as a society to club together and tackle the thug ? That is not exceptional bravery, it is a calculated risk in challenging aggression and doing what is right.

The risk is, if we move ever more to never challenging criminals that they will get ever more brazen and more of us will be victims.

Criminals are rarely good marksmen and rarely skilled fighters. Their sole competive advantage is a willingness to resort to intimidation and crude violence against the general population who are too fearful to engage them.

The law abiding majority need to raise their game, take self defence classes, martial arts classes and similar if need be. While we don't need to take silly risks we do need to sometime draw a line and learn to intelligently fight back.

Otherwise 13 year old boys getting guns put to their head in a park on a Friday afternoon may get a lot more common than it is now.

On another continent and a very different culture, over 100 volunteers were murdered in Pakistan this week, as they protected Benazir Bhutto from a predicted attack. By forming a human shield they prevented the suicide bombers getting close enough to kill Benazir Bhutto. She owes her life to hundreds and thousands who volunteered to protect her vehicle while having a pretty good idea of the risks. That sacrifice is awe inspiring and one that few of us in comfortable countries such as Britain can really imagine doing. However the principle of being prepared to stand up to violence and intimidation is ultimately the same.

Sometimes the price of challenging aggression can be high but the alternative of always protecting our own safety and lives will ironically end up in an existence that could not be seen as living at all. For two thirteen year olds to walk in the park should not be a dangerous thing to do but increasing numbers are finding that in a nation intimidated by a minority of unchallenged criminals many ordinary activities in ordinary places are getting very dangerous.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Pillars

I believe this photo is now over 12 years old but I still find it fascinating and genuinely awe-inspiring.

I found myself thinking of it today and was struggling with the scale of it all. I am no astomoner but I understand this is a star factory. It is called the Eagle Nebula, with its soaring star factories dubbed the Pillars of Creation. It is star birth in action, all captured in vivid color by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The scale of it is so difficult to comprehend but our Earth would not show up in any way if it was in the scale of this photograph.

While I am not suggesting we all sit around star gazing, the scale of creation in general can be useful in putting every day issues in perspective.

I recently had to deal with a rather peeved team member over some extra "compassionate leave" given to a colleague at the time a family member died. Peeved team member had lost his Father earlier this year and had been given a total of 7 days leave in addition to his normal 25 days holiday. However at the age of 48 he could not countenance that someone might get more compassionate leave than he did.

As diplomatically as I could I implied it was none of his business and it was a matter for HR, the powers that be in such matters. He grumbled that if the colleague was given more leave than him he would want some retrospective compassionate leave.

I tried to end the conversation having already taken half an hour on "the issue". I was frankly bemused that a man of 48 years old could be so petty, so jealous, so pathetic in his desire for "equality" in work. He has worked too long in the office, has lost his sense of perspective and although fundementally a nice man has become embittered in his pursuit of equal treatment when in reality there will never be equal or certainly not identical treatment of human situations that always vary and are never the same. If I hadn't been constrained by the need to act "professionally" and the sombre nature of circumstances behind compassionate leave I would have laughed at the very concept that he could get compassionate leave retrospectively.

I find the sense of entitlement and the concern over office life amazing in one who seems to have lived most of life's main experiences.

Perhaps I'll take a print of the pillars into work sometime. Maybe it could just bring home that our lives are but one tiny portion of all life that is spread over time and space. Against that the leave of a colleague might assume slightly less significance than it does at present !

In the meantime take a look at the Pillars of Creation....

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Time Curves on the Greenwich Meridian

I am coming to the conclusion that Fatherhood (of a young baby) does not always fit well with writing a blog- or for that matter any other regular activity !!

However I am still here and from time to time reading my favourite blogs written by others (I think they know who they are !).

For now, here is a photo from a very sunny October Sunday in Greenwich.

Virtually on the Greenwich Meridian they were shooting "The Duchess" starring Keira Knightley and due to be released in 2008. KK stars as Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, the scandalous 18th-century English aristocrat. These two 18th century ladies attracted some attention as they chatted on their mobiles !! Time seemed to have curved on the Meridian today.

Young Luis slept through it all. At 3 and a half months he is a veteran of on location film shoots. A fortnight ago he shook hands with Emma Thompson who was shooting on the South Bank of the Thames alongside Dustin Hoffman. They were starring in a romantic comedy, "Last Chance Harvey" also released next year. Emma Thompson called young Luis " a cutie".

Two conclusions:

i) contemporary London seems to be turning into a Hollywood film set.

ii) It's far easier to hobnob with actresses when you're three month's old and convincingly act as if you don't care either way :-)