Well, shudder. Offer me London in the heat to join a huge crowd of people and I’d usually hide in a dark corner. But at the moment, if you’re a sane and normal person who doesn’t hate basically everyone who isn’t a Nazi or a dictator, then Trump is a lightning rod. One giant orange symbol standing for anti-climate change, anti-refugees, anti-immigration, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, lies, violence, bigotry of every stripe, misogyny… The list goes on and on, even longer than the march.
So, I was there. Not part of a Corbyn ‘rent a mob’ as the right wing gutter press will have it. No one offered to pay me and Corbyn is fucking useless. Just an individual, joining up with a lot of other individuals, because we’re really angry now and we’ve had enough.
People, and women in particular, are not supposed to be angry. Anger is so negative, so uncontrollable. But what, then are we allowed to feel? What is considered appropriate? Because I am angry about Brexit. I am angry about Trump. I am angry that May simpers at Trump (and for the love of all the gods, woman, find either a dress that fits or a fucking tailor. Michelle Obama could probably help if you ask nicely.) I am angry that we have no political leadership or opposition in this country, rendering me disenfranchised. I am angry that I wrote ‘we’ve had enough’, knowing full well that there is more to come and little to be done about it.
So I marched. Because, despite the rage and the fury, I’m not the sort of person who breaks windows or chains themselves to railings.
I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.
As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.
The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.
Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.
I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman.
Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.
Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.
Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.
Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.
I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.
Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.
They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.
Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.
And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.
Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.
The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.
After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.
Time is a little bit blurry for me at the moment, but the fact that we’re now in July means that I’ve been at S’s house for about 10 days. Wow. Which at least is enough time for some dust to settle. Life persists in feeling surreal, though, so I think I might still be in some kind of shock. I’m aware of waiting for life to get back to normal, so I have to keep reminding myself that this is the new normal.
What I’ve learned, or rather, been reminded of, is that when the going gets tough, it is the strong women in your life who you fall back on. For the practical stuff, for the pep talks, for the wine, the doughnuts and the kick up the arse to get out of the house or do some yoga. So it’s my sister who says ‘Don’t be stupid, of course you’ll get another job and in the meantime you could do this, and this, and this…’ It’s my friend S who cleared out her spare room, set up the air mattress, made space in the closet and the fridge and the freezer, and made dinner – and all that on the day she got back from the US after an overnight flight and a painful journey home. It’s the friend who, amid her own crazy work and family life, makes time to call and check in on me; and the friend who said ‘If you need me, I will get on a ‘plane.’
These are the women who are keeping my head above the water, and I know damn well that I’m lucky.
Meanwhile, in the latest dramatic switchback on the hurtling coastal road of life, the house is back on. Well, maybe. I had a couple of conversations with my vendors, who have found a new house to buy and are pretty sure it can all happen by the end of July. That is the cut off point I’ve set, and if all goes tits up again, I will walk away and back to the grim world of renting. For now, it’s a holding pattern.
Which means, the cats are now in their second cattery. This is far and away the worst part of this whole life collapse business. I don’t care how luxurious a cattery is and how much people claim their cats settle down, it’s jail for kittens. I saw Belle and Charlie in their last, lovely, spacious place, where I know they were being well looked after by great people. Charlie would barely come out of his box, both of them were jumpy and wide eyed at every sudden noise. It breaks me to see them and it breaks me not to see them and I will never get over the guilt.
There are jobs to be applied for and some recruiters are calling. There is a certain kind of freedom and luxury in stepping away from the position of ‘Well, I earn x so I don’t see how I could work for less than y’ to ‘If I earn z then I’m covered.’ I’m lucky here, too, in that as my identity isn’t bound up in holding a certain professional position or earning a certain amount, any which way I can cover my costs will be fine by me. I’ve stacked shelves in a store before, and I’ve also been in meetings that are way more boring than that. Thank goodness for savings, though. I can hold the wolf from the door until the end of the year, and if I have to I will fucking kill and skin the wolf, the cats can eat him and we’ll all huddle together in a wolfskin.
Last week, when I started packing boxes for the move, it was tiring but it was also exciting. Because the boxes needed labelling as to which room they were destined for in my house, and so I had that image in my head of the unpacking and the sorting and the arranging. After months of waiting, my own place was finally in reach.
Now, I’m finishing the packing and I don’t know where the boxes will go. On Monday, the chain collapsed. One of the vendors further down the line doesn’t even have their mortgage approved; my vendors decided not to go ahead with the sale. While this saved me a decision, it also crash landed my hopes and wrecked the day dreams that have basically gotten me through the last few months. I had a lot riding on that house, and I am bereft of that vision of my future, of my own home.
On Tuesday, I had a conversation with my manager in which I negotiated my exit from my job. (I’ve just realised that was yesterday, but time seems particularly fluid at the moment.) I’ll take a few days to wrap things up, some paid vacation time and then three months’ paid gardening leave. It will see me through to October, and in the moments when I’m not panicking I think it must be perfectly possible to find a job, any job within that timescale.
Also on Tuesday, I took a lunch hour and spent it sitting in my car, phoning letting agents and trying to book appointments to see rentals at the weekend. The usual conversations ensued: ‘No, the landlord won’t accept pets’, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry we’ve just had references back on that one’, ‘Well, we’ve got four viewings on that today so I think it’ll be gone by the weekend’. And so the whole, tedious process began.
Then I came home to a half empty house because A had moved out. Odd how a half empty house can seem emptier than one that is fully vacant. I suppose because what is missing is emphasised.
Today I tricked the cats into their carriers and took them to the cattery. We all cried, until I realised that I would absolutely never forgive myself if I had an accident and they got hurt, and so pulled myself together. I don’t know when they’ll be coming home or where home will be.
If I could pack myself away in one of the boxes, I would. It would be dark, and cosy and safe. It would be time stolen from time, and I would just sleep, dreamlessly.
I now have a counsellor, as my anxiety achieved a sudden spike one day and I thought ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more’. She immediately made me feel better by listening to all the shit that is happening at the moment and saying ‘Well, of course you feel like it’s too much, it is too much.’ So, not just me being a whiny ass, then. We agreed that the anxiety was situational and that as soon as I moved house, I’d feel a lot better. Hurrah!
But, that was at the point when I still thought I’d be moving house next week and I would take a week off to move and get myself settled. Now there’s a problem with the chain, and someone is going on holiday and maybe I’ll be moving end of July. Maybe. This gives me pause for reflection, given that the removal company is coming on Thursday and the new owners are moving into my current house about four days later. Short term lets are crazy expensive and you can’t have pets. The cats are facing six weeks in a cattery. I was freaking out about one week. This is not good.
A day after all this landed, I had another one of those ‘Is this the right role for you?’ chats with my manager. Parsing this out of corporate speak, what it means is ‘I have decided that this is not the right role for you and I would really prefer it if you could hurry up and arrive at the same conclusion and hand in your notice. Please jump so I don’t have to push you.’
Well, he is right. I hate my job, I would never have applied for it, I would never have been recruited for it, and I have never claimed to have the requisite skills and experience. It’s just where I’ve ended up after unofficial departmental re-shufflings. Since January I have been calling out that I don’t have the experience and could I have some help or training please, so I’m finding it a bit ironic to be informed of the gaps as though it’s a surprise to anyone. My manager did say ‘I think you’re good at thinking and strategy’, to which I managed not to reply ‘No shit, Sherlock, that’s what I was hired for.’ Unfortunately, that thinking role never existed as other than an outgoing hiring manager’s dream.
Of course, this isn’t an unusual situation in a large company, and the official line is coaching, training and finally, performance management, all of which is supposedly intended to upskill the relevant person so they can stay in role, or in the business. I’ve done that with someone who reported to me and it takes time and effort and determination on both sides.
But performance management is also a very easy process to exploit. It’s subjective and there’s no oversight and by the time you body slam an employee with what is seen as a threat, they’re scared. They don’t know the process, they don’t know their rights, there is little HR support. Consequently, performance management has a bad rap in the business because it’s usually done to make someone’s life so uncomfortable that they leave, and that is exactly what happens. I’ve been told just this week that managers should have 10% of their reports on performance management all the time, because that way you ensure that a proportion of people will always be leaving. So it’s a way of managing headcount and staying lean.
In my case, my manager can use all of this to circumvent going through the hassle of doing the right thing. He’s told me that he already knows what the outcome would be (very capable, but in the wrong role), so he wants to avoid going down that route. He’s also done some not-so-subtle cuing up by telling me that he thinks I’m stubborn and I don’t like to give in. Right again, but surely being pretty focused on trying to do a good job is a positive trait…? Yes, except when it isn’t.
This creates a clever trap, in that even if I force the issue (stubborn!), the outcome is pre-determined. He’s also using the perception of performance management as a lever: ‘You’re well respected in the business, I’d hate to tarnish your reputation’ style messaging. That’s a threat neatly wrapped up as concern, all dressed up in the wide-eyed guise of ‘I’d much prefer to have an honest conversation.’ Really, you’ve got to admire the tactic, even if not endorsing the ethical standards it evidences. This is how managers get to say ‘I’ve never performance managed someone out of the business.’ The system is weighted so that they don’t have to.
So, next steps? Jump or be pushed. Or more likely, ‘reach mutual agreement that I will leave the business’. Either way, it’s a three month notice period so the only conversation is around whether I work those three months or not. I’m thinking not, as I can’t afford to be unemployed so I’ll need that time to get something else.
I have to think seriously about whether proceeding with buying a house at this point is the right thing to do, or whether it’s too risky. I could still get my deposit back and that would buy me a few more months’ survival without a job. I will need to move fast because if I have to rent again, it will be impossible without a job so I need to still be technically employed.
I don’t think 2018 is going down as one of my favourite years.
I know I’m not the first person to realise this, but LinkedIn is the Facebook of work, and I gave up on FB over a year ago. It’s bad enough that at work I can’t just do my job and we all have to play the game of cheerleading about ourselves to as many senior people as possible, while ostentatiously collecting ‘Recognition events’ for ‘Living the company values’. I realise it’s difficult to tell, but those things in quotation marks are real; I am actually not making this ridiculous shit up for effect. A great deal of money, time and effort goes into creating corporate values. Loads of companies have them and without fail they can be summed up as ‘Don’t be a dick’. Recognition platforms are becomingly increasingly gamified, too, with managers now having points they can allocate to their reports as reward for scoring highly on the values. And what do points mean? Prizes!
Admittedly, I am a miserable, cynical old cow, but I started work in the era before objectives, 121s, recognition and managers who were supposed to talk to their direct reports. You were just left to get on with your job, and if you did it, great and you probably got a bit of a payrise and eventually a promotion, and if you didn’t, you got shunted off to another department or life was made a bit miserable until you left.
So, as far as I can see, nothing has changed in terms of end results, there’s just a load more hoop jumping and specialised vocabulary along the way. Oh, and more people being signed off with stress.
Anyway, so where Facebook was the platform on which people carefully curated their lives, LinkedIn is the professional equivalent. Even more than Twitter, it’s the place where personal and professional boundaries blur, to create an environment where curated professional personalities perform their jobs. At one extreme, people just whore out their accounts to their employer’s social media agency. Those accounts then become simply a stream of airbrushed marketing fluff, patently superficial. Disconcertingly, the odd real post can still sneak in, which only goes to underline the falsity of the majority of the content.
At the other end of the scale, you can continue to manage your own account, but following all the best practice tips to maximise views and interactions. This is the slightly sneakier way, a more personally crafted version of authenticity, which still manages to showcase either your own awesomeness, or ideally, lavishes awesome sauce on your company as well. Sometimes, it’s an inverted way of showcasing awesomeness, when you write a ‘triumph over adversity’ post that starts off by outlining the problem/thing you didn’t realise, and ends up with the solution/lightbulb moment. It’s best if you can ensure that the realisation is either due to teamwork or your own moment of humbleness and genuine learning.
No one ever just posts the reality that they’ve had a great day because they had one good conversation that unblocked a difficult situation, or someone fixed the vending machine; or a shit day, because your budget just got wiped and now you have to deliver all the same stuff but with no money and fewer people.
Because we must all be our best professional selves all the time on LinkedIn. It’s like doing your job twice over, once during the working day (assuming you’re a hold out who has a working day and doesn’t live in the interstices between emails), and then again, by booming out the edited highlights into the echo chamber.
I’d like to propose an alternative site, LinkedIntrovert. We can all just post our CVs or any jobs we’re recruiting for, and then shut the fuck up.
Not that Grimwood needs my good words after this weekend’s note in The Times from Marcel Berlins. I’d link to it but, paywall. And I regret to say that I’ll be a bit vague, because I listened to the audio version and so can’t refer back to the actual text. The audio version was so good, it made me want to drive to the Leicester office for more listening time en route. Of course, once I got to Leicester I immediately wanted to come home again, but you can’t have everything.
Nightfall Berlin is the second novel to feature Major Tom Fox, following his first outing in Moskva a couple of years back. I loved Moskva to the extent that I bought copies as gifts for a couple of people. It’s a proper, old school, Cold War thriller, introducing Fox as a flawed lead with plenty of his own ghosts to be dealing with while he’s trying to find the missing 15 year old daughter of the British Ambassador. I wasn’t even all that interested the Cold War period, and now I’m finding it fascinating.
At least in Moskva, Fox was on official business. In Nightfall Berlin, he’s on the wrong side of the Berlin wall without any papers or allies, on the run because suspected of murder. He was sent to bring back a horrible old man who defected some years back and now wants to come home and die in peace. Or something like that – the letter the old git sends to The Times contains a deliberately mistaken classical reference linking to an old case, and the game is afoot when the man is found murdered in his flat.
The Stasi, the KGB and his own people are all after Fox at one time or another. They all want the memoirs the old man was writing and they’re willing to beat the truth out of Fox when he denies having them. Repeatedly. There are twists, turns, failed attempts to escape back to West Berlin, shootings, meetings in the zoo, conspiracies, and cover ups. While that could sound like box ticking, that’s not at all how it reads. Comparisons with Le Carre are inevitable, and there’s a nice nod when Fox’s former handler hands him a copy of the latest Le Carre novel, intended for the KGB. The copy is returned with a book report.
Grimwood is great at representing the paranoia and bleakness of East Berlin, and the ever shifting relationships between the different sides as they carry out the behind-the-scenes dirty work that lets official policy continue. Fox isn’t being paranoid when he says ‘Trust no one’, nor even when it’s ‘There’s no one to trust’. Allegiances seem to shift on a dime, even Fox worries that the KGB uniform he ends up in at one point suits him surprisingly well.
My favourite threat (no spoilers as to circumstances): ‘… I’ll have you killed. I won’t even bother to do it myself, I’ll just look at the photographs.’ Boom.