Sunday, October 16, 2005

The (in)credible opposition

On the first ever episode of The Young Ones, Rick insisted that he watch a programme called “Nosin’ Around” which was for young adults by young adults. It was all wobbly camera shots and snotty critiques of modern day living. One section saw a selection of disaffected youths explaining all the things you can do before you’re 18 (having sex with a partner of your choice, joining the army etc.) and the irony that, despite all this, you still can’t drink in pubs.

There was a debate on Radio 5 this morning about that reminded me of that sketch. It was about the banning of smoking in pubs. It degenerated into farce within seconds; the anti-ban lobbyist asking why we ban smoking when we still have people working in (dangerous) coalmines. His opposition claimed that there were many health and safety regulations regaring coalmines that protected miners, and there were none protecting non-smokers. This was quickly followed up with “I can’t BELIEVE he’s saying that coalmines are safer than pubs”. From here it basically became a debate on all the things that were more dangerous than smoking (bothering elephants, playing Netball on the M69, invading Iraq).

Eventually Nicky Campbell interrupted them; he asked the anti-ban lobby (a Tory) whether the government were screwing up on this issue. The bloke responded by saying “The Labour party are hypocrites, if they truly believed this they would ban all smoking and why don’t they do this? Because they make millions in taxes from smoking and because most Labour supporters in the north are smokers.”

You have got to love them, haven’t you?

Havana nice time (or what I did on my holidays several months ago)

The taps said it all. The hot tap in our hotel room turned clockwise, the cold, anti-clockwise. This is Cuba, a country pulling in opposite directions and yet, somehow, pulling together at the same time.

Take the Cuban economy, or should I say economies. Pesos for the Cubans and Convertible Pesos for tourists. There are separate shops for pesos and convertibles which work to different pricing structures. This is necessary because the average Cuban earns about £10 a month but the tourists can afford to buy a whole street at peso prices. Having two economies is the only way of getting in money and protecting against tourist driven inflation. The cheapest tickets for La Tropicana rock in at £40. The tourist industry is so potent within the Cuban economy that taxi drivers earn more than doctors. 3% of GDP is generated from US based Cubans sending home money.

The city itself is made up of perfectly restored colonial squares linked by wide leafy boulevards. These are punctuated within with slum-like alleyways where locals sit playing chess listening to loud salsa on poor quality stereos.

The streets are dark and could be perceived as menacing, but Cuba is surprisingly free of crime, especially violent crime. That said, you can’t walk down the street without a street hustler trying to sell you cigars, accommodation or prostitutes. Some simply shout at you (one broke off a date to try to talk to us). Others are more sophisticated spinning a yarn about needing milk for their babies. Apparently if you buy milk for them the shop will try to charge you about 6 pesos (£2). If you fall for that, the Jinetero simply returns the milk to the shop and splits the difference on the over inflated price with the shopkeeper. We were actually hustled by the same guy twice in two days; the first time we fell for it (he asked the time and said he had a friend in Cornwall; they all have friends in UK), second time we ignored him and he shouted “So you don’t speak to the Cuban people then?”.

The country is desperate for outside investment, and everyone is looking for money (the bellhop said he was quite happy to take our pounds when we arrived and our room cleaner told us that Friday was her day off, so we should remember to leave a tip on Thursday). Despite this, communism and Fidel is everywhere meaning the Americans and Japanese (the biggest source of tourist income) are notably absent. At the airport there are three TV’s showing departure times and 8 TV’s showing Fidel speeches. There are pictures everywhere that use brilliant revolutionary rhetoric of “glorious victories” and “gallant heroes”. Then is the CDR, a neighbourhood watch scheme designed to ensure that no Cuban gets too rich; anyone who gets above their station is reported to the authorities. Oh and there is an oppressive and pointless bureaucracy; 2 minutes per passenger going through customs (that’s 3 hours to process a jumbo jet of tourists).

Tell people you’re going to Cuba and they’ll tell you about the immaculate 1950’s vintage cars, the beautiful buildings, the salsa, the cigars and the rum. But this is re-branded Cuba and tells only part of the story. The real Cuba is sometimes like that, but the 1950’s cars are often seem held together with jam, the streets stink of diesel from the inefficient engines, the food is sometimes absolute garbage. These contradictions are what make it so interesting, it won’t last, the dollar is too seductive and the Cubans too desperate. When the US and Cuban governments finally grow up Cuba will undoubtedly become a more pleasant, but decidedly less interesting place to visit.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cutting ties

We have recently employed a student on his year out to gain some work experience. His job is a slightly ill-defined admin role; not necessarily the best way of enriching your working experience. The thing is we’re busy, so he gets to do stuff that makes us less so. In fact, the hardest thing, he says, is the fact he’s supposed to work 9am-5pm, presumably without a nap, or a beer. Bless.

Aside from the half-projects placed before him, probably the meanest thing we do is allow him to wear a suit. I don’t wear a suit to work unless I’ve something important on, but at least when I do I look like I should wear it.

Young men in their early twenties don’t wear suits well. They look all awkward, like they’re about to receive another ASBO. Part of the reason is economic; a lack of money means that they probably have only one, which is cheap, will get dirty and is probably slightly too big (they’ll grow into it). There’s also something about ties; young men don’t like wearing ties. I don’t like wearing ties. But, again, my cool, if I have any, is left at home; I am culturally indoctrinated to wear my tie, clean my shoes, tidy my hair, and make appallingly dull small talk with work colleagues. Doing my top button up and making sure the knot is straight is all part of Work-Me.

You don’t see people shopping on a Saturday wearing a suit and tie, a majority of people would not choose to wear one. You have to change your mindset, compromise who you are to wear one. Younger men have not been matured into this sad state of affairs. It is this, not the fact they’re brought in to enrich their working experience then left moving boxes and getting sandwiches, that makes internships most cruel.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Minor celebrity, get me out of here

Back when I worked for the Little Publishing Company on the Hill we were involved in putting on events about the Internet. This was before the dot-com boom, around the time when people knew that the web had potential but didn’t know how to realise it. It was all American gurus with pink hair, professors from NASA and loony Norwegian information specialists. Companies would try to sell technologies that nobody really understood. Unique selling points rarely featured anything to do with the product. Companies would turn up with Lamborghinis and Spice Girl look-a-likes to make themselves known; one woman enlisted the help of her friend Mick Jagger who wafted into our conference and became the most famous person I’ve seen at close quarters.

On occasions my job puts me in front of minor celebrities; Tony Hawks, Nicholas Witchell, Andrew Castle. I also come across senior professionals who seem to receive an even bigger celebrity treatment than Jagger did that day.

We were once visited at the Little Publishing Company by a big cheese from the company’s Dutch parent, we were given various instructions about how we should behave. In our youthful exuberance, we fantasised about running around the building riding a Bernie Clifton style ostrich outfit. In the end, the cheese was rolled in, and out. And nobody but the most important people saw him.

Last week I was at an exhibition, I was talking to someone on the edge of our stand. Behind me there was a flurry of excitement, flash bulbs and chatter. I turned around to see my Chief Executive shaking hands vigorously with a very senior civil servant who had been ushered in from a conference presentation he’d just made. He was a normal looking middle-aged man, surrounded by personal assistants and PR representatives holding clipboards. The photo opportunity over, he was ushered away, his team of six or seven moving as one choreographed unit with him. Assuming he can tie his own shoe laces and hold his winky when going to the toilet, you wander what all these people do. And then you realise; they spend an awful lot of time keeping their teeny weeny niche of responsibility clean.

In a separate incident, a couple of days later, we received a complaint about something that had been printed in our magazine. We’d put the word ‘terrorism’ in the same paragraph as the name of a senior bod in a major defence contractor. A hysterical press officer phoned up demanding a series of actions which would actually serve to draw attention to the piece. I tried to calm her down; I asked whether the bod had seen the piece. She assured me he would be apoplectic if he did. I asked whether it might be possible to talk to the bod himself, perhaps he would see the damage a page long retraction could do; “Further to the minor piece you probably didn’t read last month we would like to assure all readers that Big Defence Company thinks terrorism is bad and that this retraction should not be viewed as a company protesting a little too much”. I wasn’t going to talk to him; didn’t I know who this guy was? I didn’t, I suspected that he was, in essence, a logical and educated man, but to her he was God, someone who would share her panic and disgust.

Working in a big company, it seems, people are assigned jobs which allocate almost a binary set personal of objectives. You must achieve x, if you don’t, you have failed. The equivalent of employing a joiner to do nothing more than hit a nail into wood, if you miss the nail, you’re fired. Don’t think about it, just do it, your job is not to think about how your objectives relate to the real world, that’s someone else’s job. This woman’s whole job was to ensure that her company is only seen in a positive light, anything, however remote, that might suggest she hasn’t achieved that goal puts her in a flat spin. So specific was her goal that all her concentration was focussed on this one objective, she becomes detached from the real world and those around her. Her boss is an untouchable deity, a celebrity with which she has developed an almost personal relationship with through her single objective. To fail is to let him down. You wonder what would happen if businesses were run on normal human emotions and relationships.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home