Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Cocoa nut

Not all chocolate is created equal.

Once you get past the Cadbury's stage of your life, venture into Lindt territory and rest a little in the fertile dale that is Green & Blacks (replete with a river of it's heavenly hot chocolate) it is very difficult to go back to the sweet paste that most people consume with relish.

So it is that my concept of what real chocolate is has progressed once again. Last night, with a twinkle in her eye, Adriana fed me a selection of things from L'artisan du Chocolat. You could almost sense the swish of a devil's tail in her composure as the blade of a sharp little knife crackled through crisp top layers of beautifully hand-painted couture chocolate and slid it's way through ganache that was the epitome of decadent. She split them into four (Adriana, Perry, M and I), we took them and let the pieces rest on our tongues, warming the chocolate to reveal it's flavour. We made noises that are usually not acceptable in polite society, compared notes on our experience and cleansed our palettes with ice cold water to prepare them for the next round.

Now, this chocolatier has been described to me in various ways - from guilty murmurs about how very good it feels to taste the chocolate to descriptions of refined ladies abandoning all constraint to speak to a stranger about salted caramel to wide-eyed and passionate speeches stating that this is the best chocolate in the world (from someone who has travelled widely, this is no faint praise).

Each tablet we sampled was completely, completely different to the next. The complexity of flavours was simply stunning as was the idea behind each, the range of things that chocolate can taste like that melds into the richness of 70% cocoa without clashing with it in any way.

So what did I try? Only a few of the range available (descriptions taken from site):

You start with single plantation chocolates - they are the least complex and give you a single flavour to concentrate on:

Madagascar 64%: made with the most distinctive criollo beans , intense red fruit notes reminiscent of the best wines.

Dominican Republic 70%: single plantation chocolate from Samana low in acidity with exceptionally long taste and spicy notes of liquorice and tobacco.

You then move to those which are a blend of different plantation's beans - we skipped to the last stage, to the infused ganaches.....starting with the softest and moving to those that are far more robust.

Verbena: infusion of a herb from the vervain family with notes of vanilla and lemon.

Earl grey tea: distinctive bergamote flavour released in waves by this classical tea.

Tobacco: (on request only) a taste experience suggested by Heston blumenthal- the talented chef of the Fat Duck in Bray. First the pipe tobacco flavours of caramel, coffee and vanilla; then a tickle on the throat and the buzz of the tobacco released.

Jasmine Tea: a subtle and fragrant tea infused with fresh jasmine flowers, made with the best Jasmine tea we have ever come across, a tea that has 5 times its weight of Jasmine flowers.

Green cardamon: traditionally used in Bedouin coffee, cardamon pods bring all their force and comfort to this fresh ganache.

Oh, and of course the Salted Caramels - made by adding sel de guerande to a milk chocolate caramel to cut its sweet aftertaste. They. Are. Just. Incredible.

My favorite? The Jasmine Tea - I was breathing jasmine as I was tasting it and it reminded me of earlier in the day at Roja Dove's Haute Parfumerie on the fifth floor of Harrods.

It is a perfumerie unlike any other - usually reserved for appointments only in order to consult with the expert staff (£50 per hour or £200 per hour with Roja Dove himself) to choose a fragrance that suits you, your lifestyle and your skin.

The place itself is tucked away from view and is a study in the discovery of luxury. A beautiful curved room of of black lacquered walls and furnishings, of silk, mirrors, glass and crystal lit softly and carefully to make key bottles of perfume look like a suspended jewels. The carpet is soft, the room silent and surprisingly lightly scented considering the potency of the perfumes held there. These are not the perfumes found on the retail floor of the department store - these are the real thing, made with the finest ingredients in the world...some taking years to mature to the perfect point to harvest.

Adriana and I had wandered in at an opportune moment and spent a good half hour with an expert perfumer who told us about the three layers of fragrance in perfumes, how and where to wear them on the body, the time it takes to make each ingredient and all kinds of other things that left the two of us girlishly wide-eyed with wonder. He then went through and found a perfume for each of us - mine was Guerlain's Samsara...which smells like fresh-cut jasmine and spring.

What a wonderful day for all the senses. This is what holidays are all about.

M


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Friday, December 24, 2004

Oplatek

It is so very easy to be cynical around Christmas time - to be inundated with tinny carols and gaudily orchestrated lights and to be frustrated with uncharacteristic crowds.

Around this time of year, so many people try to write about *the* meaning of Christmas, when I tend to think there are many different meanings for many different people.

Families differ so much that where one person may consider a certain dish to 'make' Christmas, another may love the smell of a baking pie, or scrunched and discarded wrapping paper strewn across the floor, the sound of carols or the sight of so many people around a heavily laden table.

So let me share with you one of the things that always made Christmas such a different time of year for me.

I am half Russian and half Polish by birth and the Poles celebrate Christmas Eve far more than Christmas Day. This is the night that the family feasts and opens up presents after returning from midnight mass.

One of the elements of the feast is a tradition that I consider beautiful, still relevant and always poignant. It is the breaking and sharing of the 'oplatek' or wafer.

Similar to a communion wafer, the oplatek is usually rectangular and features intricate artwork pressed into it's almost transparent thinness.

At a certain point in the evening, the hosts will indicate that it is time to start the tradition. Each person has their own oplatek and turns to the person nearest to them, so that the room is split into pairs.

One person will offer their oplatek to the other, who will break off a small portion and hold it as the first person starts to talk.

And what is it that you say at this point? Some learned-by-rote incantation penned by another? No. These must be your words and they must be from the heart.

You must look the person in the eye and tell them how much you value them - and why. You talk about their traits and how much they mean to you. You tell them you love them (where appropriate). You wish for them the things that you know they wish for themselves in the next year. As you do this, they eat the piece of wafer they broke off. The roles are reversed before moving through the room and forming these kinds of partnerships with everyone else present.

When it's done with people that you know well, it can be such a tremendous experience. I've been in tears more than once, and have seen others cry with the simple joy (and sometimes the surprise) that comes from hearing the things said.

In this way, once a year you take a moment to look a person you know in the eye and tell them that their existence enriches your life, that they are a good and worthwhile human being and that you honestly wish them to achieve everything they strive for.

That, then, is the meaning of Christmas for me.

Sadly, it's not a tradition I've been able to do every year - but it is something that I know travels with me and that I love to participate in when the opportunity arises.

The West has it's equivalent in gift-giving, I know. We try to express those things we feel and think by choosing a token of our affection and wrapping it like a sweet confection for the ones we love.

That's why buying gifts this week was so lovely. For hours, I was able to peruse stores with only the thought of pleasing those I was buying for. I got to remember each in turn and think of what it was that essentialised them as a person - what they desired, what they needed, what they already had and what they loved.

Then I was able to choose something that - to me - said 'I was thinking, specifically, of *you* and valued you enough to buy this gift.'

If you ask me, I'll tell you that we are missing out on quite a bit by simply using tokens where words can communicate so much more eloquently and completely what we feel. But it's not something that we are taught to do and it's so much easier to hand someone a wrapped box than to look them in the eye and say "Your presence in my life makes me so happy." I suppose it's the decline of a certain spirit and bravery that we once had.

So there, to me, is what Christmas was always about. Not the food or the presents or the carols, but those few precious moments of confession with family and friends and the glowing contentment of sitting around a table afterward - to talk, to eat, to drink - and to do it all in the momentary yet solid assurance that you are truly surrounded by people who love you and that you love in return.

This year finds me away from many people I love. To those, I say that no matter how futile it seems at the time - I *do* wish for your presence with me at the Christmas table.

May you all have the Christmas you desire - the kind that stands as the final garnish of another year and that refreshes you for the year to come.

Monica

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Thursday, December 23, 2004

We wish you a creepy Christmas

What do you give the person who has everything this Christmas?

How about weasel spit?

The best part of typing that last sentence was knowing you all thought I was just being facetious.

May I present you with Weasel Coffee - "Picked and Regurgitated by a Weasel"



And where did I find that tasty little image? Why, I took it myself not a few hours ago at Selfridges.

Let me entice you by typing out what was written on the back of the packet.

"This is possibly one of the strangest coffees to be found on the planet! This coffee hails from the remote interior of Vietnam. It comes from a strange natural phenomenon."

You know, here I was thinking that some marketing types had just asked a lab to genetically engineer the wierdest freak-ass animal imaginable - replete with some sort of bulimic reaction to coffee beans. But no, it's natural. Read on.

"Wild Weasels roam the coffee plantations and eat the ripe coffee cherries, but rather than digest them the Weasel regurgitates them and vomits them up!"

What, it regurgitates them AND vomits them up? Both? Amazing. Please note the gratuitous use of exclamation marks here. Someone is too excited about the beauty and simplicity of the Wild Retching Weasel of Vietnam for their own good.

"Due to the fact that the cherries have been in the Weasel's gastric juices, it seems to dramatically alter the flavour of the beans once roasted. This coffee is collected by locals and roasted at very high temperatures in tin pans over an open fire. It is then ground and made into an espresso style drink, in Vietnam it is commonly consumed by adding a shot of condensed milk to the brew."

Mmmmm!

Now that's just going to hit the spot after pudding and custard, isn't it?



Now, if your loved one doesn't drink coffee, there are a whole load of other things that you can make them blissfully happy with this Christmas, namely:


Snake Vodka.





Giant Hornet Honey.




...and Scorpion Pops.




Go on, you know you want to :)

M



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Monday, December 20, 2004

McConflict

I occasionally head out of the house to a McDonald's in the centre of my village (Gosh, the Brits are funny about those things...I live a half hour from the Square Mile - nary a cow in sight - yet a part of my suburb is considered to be 'The Village of (my suburb)'). I go there for a change of scenery, sometimes for an hour just to break out of routine. I write or read, I take work with me most of the time.

Last night, I went because I knew I needed to write a blog post. One in particular I had been wanting to write was wriggling and flapping around the neck of my conscience like the proverbial albatross.

Settling down with the only thing I can guiltlessly justify from Grease Central - coffee - I pulled out pen and paper, winced at the first bitter mouthful and sat back for a moment's reflection.

"And so this is Christmas... And what have you done?"

...warbled the piped music that only a moment ago had been urging me to do something unmentionable to my ho.

"Another year over... And a new one just begun."

Well no, not really. That happens at New Year. You know - when the pain from a temporary onset of seasonal gout is somewhat mitigated by the anaesthetic qualities of Smirnoff in all its possible incarnations.

The music continued until the Junior Slaves Chorus from World Vision's Nabucco Centre chimed in:

"War is over... If you want it
War is over ... Now (ow, ow, ow)"

Desparate to distract myself from the lukewarm engine degreaser doing it's darndest to rid my throat of any natural mucous lining, I thought about the chorus for a while.

Specifically about war - what it is and why we should be constantly so desparate to stop it at any cost.

What is war, then? I suppose the official definition is overt conflict between two nation states regarding some issue or other. Then again, we had the Cold War which was anything bar overt. It was to war what Enid Wharton's 'Age of Innocence' is to the graphic romance novel - constant promises and tension, all bluster and no follow-through. Nowadays we're engaged in a War on Terror - where a loose confederation of governments is fighting an even looser confederation of assorted scum.

If I were to boil it down then, the central tenet I see is a conflict - irrespetive of it's physial expression. Furthermore it is almost always a conflict of ideas.

Given that there are some great ideas in the world, some not-so-very-great and some downright evil - and that all have the potential to significantly impact our lives - is it so very bad that humans are occasionally tempted to fight over them?

Sure, you're not always going to have a clear cut battle of Good V Evil. Communism and Nazism scrapping it out over Poland was simply a case of two totalitarian warlord states engaged in a monumental pissing contest.

At other times - WWI, WWII, Vietnam, The Cold War and our current War on Terror - it's clearer to see which side should win for the happiness of mankind.

I'm not saying that the protagonists. are 'Good' good and 'Bad' bad - it's never all that clear-cut. I've recently happened to read a little ancient Greek history. What was made painfully clear was that the good guys did some dastardly things in order to win and that the bad guys could be decent, valiant and damned worthy opponents.

Life, then, is not so much Gandalf V Sauron as it is Aragorn V Boromir. This doesn't mean the battle is futile because the characters aren't cartoonishly simple, it means that it is sometimes more important to look at the principles being fought for than at the players fighting for them.

So what does this McNavelGazing mean in today's world?

That Bush isn't perfect - I wouldn't call him heroic. That Blair can be a complete toad (and is, most of the time) . That Howard won't be featured in a Scorcese film anytime soon. That they may have made mistakes and it is possible (although I don't think all that probable) that they misled their citizens into war. But that all this detail doesn't really matter.

What matters, then?

Wht matters is that they've actively decided to fight. To go to W. A. R. despite enormously loud protestations from a minority of short sighted and publicity-seeking loons.

What matters is that they've pulled back from the usual concerns and historical scope of the politician (2-4 years) and had a good, long look at what's going on in the world.

What matters is that they've realised the need for war and committed to it - in the very unpopular and very necessary long term.

So..."War is over if you want it"?

No. War is over when war is over. I honestly don't think that war will ever be over between various factions in the human race - unless a larger, external foe suddenly appears brandishing tentacles, pasty green skin and laser cannons.

Then - like the uneasy and pragmatic Pan-hellenic alliance of old - ancient enemies will stand warily shoulder to shoulder to fight off a more immediate menace to survival.

And I have absolutely no doubt, even then - when the history of human fortune and folly is treble the current volume and full of almost comically repeated mistakes - some schmuck somewhere will compose a Christmas song:

"And so this is Kwanzaa
And what have you done?
Another Standard Annual Period is over
And a new one just begun

Intergalactic conflict is over
If you want it
Intergalatic confict is over
Now (ow, ow, ow)"

To be sung as cities are rendered to dust by an enemy that should just be 'engaged in negotiations and understood' rather than aimed for and shot at. *snort*

M

(Cross posted to A Western Heart)

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

I'll be back

Apologies for the latest dearth of posts - the things I've had on my mind aren't bloggable or in any way remotely interesting to you wonderful audience critters.

Shall be rectified in the next 24 hours. Don't go away, just help yourself at the bar fridge *points* ... and mingle. No biting.

M

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

What were they thinking?

I love finding strange things on my computer when hunting for more mundane things.

This time, I was looking for some photographs and I came across something I took at IKEA months ago. I really need to get myself a phone with an in-built camera. Life is just so sweetly ludicrous sometimes.

Anyway, the woodland scene cum children's bedroom...

It's as if we've caught these animals in a moment of self-discovery.

Imagine it - a quiet forest somewhere, a lovely dappled glade, no sound but the breeze through the trees and a gentle rustle steadily becoming louder.

Suddenly - out of nowhere - a team of marketing trolls leaps upon the innocent animals in the glade and affixes cheap, fluffy nylon tails to their behinds.

We see them in the first moment of realisation that something isn't Quite Right.



I'm honestly just glad that we can't see the faces that the creatures on the curtain are making:



I just want to know how it got past management.

M

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Friday, December 10, 2004

Invisible

This wasn't what I had expected – surely everyone could see. They should be staring at the hair that looks a little wrong, a little askew, a little fake.

They should be staring at me because I look like a whore or a lunatic. No-one else dresses like this.

I felt exceptionally self-conscious but for some reason no-one else would play along with my fevered imagination of the way the world would react to me in a wig.

I had purchased my dark, burgundy-tinted wig on a whim when last in Malaysia and hadn't really used it before. Cleaning out a cupboard here in London one day I came across it in it's professional little packet with it's foreign little accoutrements and a plan hatched in my mind that I was sure would toy with C's psyche in a most satisfactory manner.

Instead, once I had launched it, it seemed to be backfiring and was toying with mine.

You see, C's world is one made up of passion for history, books and her friends. These three things - in equal measure - define the C I know and give her unique strength of character as well as providing three targets for never-ending fun. In this case, I would trigger her passion for the wellbeing of her friends.

She had recommended a hairdresser to me, a hairdressing school, actually, for one of the better known and more fashionable salon chains. Her recent haircut had been wonderful, if slightly on the cutting-edge side of things.

I decided that I would put on the wig, take a photo with the digital camera and email it to her at work with an 'Oh my GOD, I went to those people you recommended and look what they've DONE!' message. I would explain that I had been talked into having my hair dyed as well as cut short. I took the shot, crafted the email and – just for dramatic effect – posted another image with the same kind of message on her online forum.

It worked. Within minutes, I received a frantic SMS from her – demanding to know if this was true, demanding details, consoling, detailing her shock.

I had hit one of the rawest of nerves. If all women have a natural maternal instinct to protect their young, C's has been rerouted to protect her set of friends.

We agreed to meet at M's office after work so that I could – in the manner of all women - recount exactly what had happened again and again, twittering at the tiniest detail and remembered eyebrow twitch of the hairdresser.

This was essential to get to the bottom of What Went Wrong.

I, for one, wondered how long I would be able to pull the charade off and how long it would take for her to notice that the hair wasn't real. I also hoped that I wouldn't get pummelled or excommunicated from the League of Extraordinary Friends once she realised what I had done.

So there I was late in the afternoon on my way to the city in one of the ubiquitous tube carriages that can lull me into a stupor like nothing else. I feel comfortable on the tube, the comfort that comes with a high level of predictability.

This time, though, I could feel the wig tight on my skull; sliding up miniscule millimetres with every step, every movement. I could feel the pins against my scalp, the foreign, cold hair brushing against my face and a dark fringe obscuring my sight, driving me mad with the desire to sweep it away. I had the urge to constantly pull the wig down...down because I could have sworn that the whole thing was perched like a dark octopus on top of my own, voluminous, pinned back tresses.

Now, stepping onto the tube felt so very different - my senses were heightened. I was very much alert to other's reactions. I was different, they had to see it.

Couldn’t they see it?

I felt that I was positively radiating differentness and strangeness. Every time someone's glance flicked in my direction, I was ready to see recognition of my attempted deviousness flicker across their features.

I had expected surreptitious stares as well as open ones. I had expected women to see through the disguise immediately and men to take a little longer to discern what was wrong.

But I didn’t receive anything of the sort.

In fact, I was disconcertingly invisible.

I didn't understand. Not only was I not receiving the level of eye contact I was used to on a normal basis – I was receiving less.

I stepped off the train and into a large crowd of commuters, many of them walking in the opposite direction. Again, less eye contact than normal.

Oh god…did I actually look like one of those people that you make a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with? One of those men whose clothing is kept together with safety pins or the women with the bulging-eyeballed look of the loon?

No, I didn’t. I caught my reflection in a store window and looked like anyone else.

Anyone else other than me, that is.

Suddenly, though, I understood. I recalled how the world had changed for C when she dyed her own very dark hair to a platinum blonde a few years ago. Crowds became a mass of men giving her attention, nightclubs were awash with admirers and co-workers who had seen her as part of the furniture suddenly discovered a rather attractive woman in the vicinity. C hated it. She felt cheap, she felt she was getting all this new attention only because of the colour of her hair.

I hadn't realised until that moment exactly how much eye contact I got as a blonde. That my hair makes me somewhat of a beacon in a crowd, even if only for one swift look from almost every stranger, male or female. This eye contact with people who walked past, this 'normal' facet of crowd interaction is what I was missing now. Far from making me an object of curiosity, the wig was hiding the very thing in me that caused my standard level of attracted curiosity. Fascinating.

I began to wonder how the world looked to redheads and women with jet-black hair. What it felt like to walk around as a man. What it was like to be black in this city. To be taller. To be short. To be thin. I wished then, and still do now, that I could wave a magic wand and try each – even if only for a few hours.

So the stunt I pulled, thinking that I would remain amused, detached and cleanly aloof, left me fundamentally changed. So much for pulling the strings and watching someone else dance.

Claire, by the way, only had a few seconds of speechless shock before my own nervousness and guilty conscience undid the elaborate caper. She was still looking at me, getting used to her first sight of my new look…when I automatically reached up for the thousandth time that hour to tug the hair down and accidentally gave the game away. Madame Bond I am not.

M

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What's your weakness?

The lovely Diane asked a pertinent question and one I’m asked quite often when people find out about my shameful HR past. I found that my answer was long…so I’ve made it into a post.

Diane asked:

What the hell is the "right" answer to the "What are your weaknesses?" question?

Should I lie and say:"I push myself too hard." or some bullshit like that

Or should I be honest and say:"I am lazy. So incredibly lazy that I would be happy to spend my life lying in bed reading. I only work because I don't want to starve"

or

"I can be a real ding-bat sometimes. I work constantly to remember details, and I am notorious for not remembering where I've left things."

My answer:

Diane - you know, it's just a bullshit question to be honest.

I've had to work with jerks who think they're real pros at drawing information out of people, at playing 'mind games'. It's a little sad to see them work their movie-derived arsenal on some poor sod who isn't quite sure what he's being asked for.

I mean, *really*, what kind of a surprise is a question that comes up at parties as a stock standard joke? :)

On the practical side, though, the safest bet is to 'play the game' and find a strength that you can present as a weakness - as in your first example.

If you really want to ace an interview, simply put yourself in the interviewer's position.

A couple of days before the meeting, sit down and think about what the company will be thinking. If you were in the position of the line manager - what would *you* ask the interviewee in regards to skills necessary? It's really, really predictable most of the time.

Then think about your views on things like:

* How to work well in a team (You know, communication, delegation etc.)
* Conflict resolution techniques with team members
* Personal time management / organisational skills

And some fluffy shite about your personal life ambitions. Something like "I'd like to die at my desk from overwork" might be overdoing it a tad - just a hint.

Then remember to make eye contact with everyone on the panel - but fractionally more with the person who asked the question, control what your hands do (DON'T fidget with your clothes, papers, pen or wring your hands, be aware of your body), don't slouch, don't tap your foot or twitch your leg if your legs are crossed, smile - but not like a hyena - just enough to help the assessors warm to you, answer your questions carefully and ALWAYS check if you've given them the info they wanted if you're not sure, don't offer more than you're asked - there lies the road to info that can unseat you, don't wear anything too sexually alluring or something that makes you look like your grandmother, don't wear a joke tie - ever, strike a balance between confident and enthusiastic - too much either way and you'll either be seen as too cocky or too naive, I'm sure there are other things, just can't think of them now.

Oh yeah, NEVER EVER EVER EVER relax until you're out of the goddamned building. I can't tell you how many interviewees develop a sudden case of Stockholm syndrome and confess stuff the minute they perceive the 'formal' interview is over. The interview is NEVER over, smile at the receptionist on the way out - you never know if she'll be talking to the panel about the rude git that scowled at her.

Oh yes, and know your shit re: the technical requirements of the job.

This advice is for dealing with the usual idiots that hire. If I were interviewing you, these things would be really cursory and you'd end up sweating as I delved into your childhood and asked you all about your co-workers at your last position. Then I'd give you a few hypothetical scenarios that don't actually have clear-cut answers and ask you to take me through your thought process as you consider them. Then we'd talk about the hobbies you have and why you like them – all kinds of things that don’t seem to have anything to do with the job – I’d be looking at you as a person, that ‘attitude’ thing I mentioned in those posts. Then someone technical on the panel would lightly grill you on both sides for technical knowledge. Then we would pour you out of the room and take on the next victim.

Sorry about the swearing, once I start it's hard to stop. :)

M

(You know, I read this and realised that people might begin to be a little frightened of me, especially my London friends who read this blog. Rest assured that I don't consciously x-ray you with all my questioning - I'm just a naturally curious person who doesn't take things people say at face value. So I ask questions. And note down the answers on a little sheet of paper. And then score you at the end of the night. Nothing strange about that at all.)


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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Sewing it all together

I've done something rather unusual today and posted a really (really) long essay.

Here are the links to each individual section, I do recommend reading the Introduction first so that you have some idea of what the hell I'm blathering about.

Stitches in Time - Introduction
Stitches in Time - PART I
Stitches in Time - PART II
Stitches in Time - PART III


M

UPDATE - There have been a couple of comments about my statement that the interview is solely for the benefit of the employer, not the employee.

I've thought about it and both of you are absolutely right - it's there for both parties. I guess I was working in places that were so very PC and afraid of interviewees claiming an unfair process (Yes, it happens - especially in government. You then need to conduct a full investigation and audit of each step in the hire.) that there was a definite slant toward the interview being there to appease all interviewee expectations at the sacrifice of it's usability to the employer.

As I said - it was written a while ago and was in reaction to severe frustration at work.

Thanks for pointing out my error guys - much appreciated.

M

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Stitches in Time - PART III

The Template and The Bar

You have interviewed six people for a particular post. None particularly caught your eye as being superb, but there was a clear ranking as to which were the best candidates. Which do you choose?

I’ll give you a hint – it’s not the best of that bunch. You don’t take anyone on in that scenario.

What I like to do with a panel before we start any interview is give them a grilling of my own. I ask them to imagine the candidate they want. Imagine how that ideal candidate would answer their questions. How confident, empathetic, understanding, knowledgeable or charismatic they would be. Even what kinds of clothes they would be wearing and how they would be groomed. This is then the yardstick – or template – by which I ask them to measure each interviewee. Sometimes – where interviews last for days – I re-focus the panel and go through the exercise again so that that image, that template, isn’t blurred.

I like to think of the template as a bar. It is the minimum standard at which a candidate has to be in order to be seriously considered for the role. In any given interviewing session, it is possible for all interviewees to be over the bar, only some interviewees to be over the bar or no interviewees at all to be over the bar. In the last case, don’t be afraid to re-advertise, it is the smartest strategic decision in the long run.

It is only those interviewees that make it ‘over the bar’ that should then be ranked against each-other. This may seem self-evident, but too often, interviewees are simply ranked against each other, not the ideal template. A panel, or lone interviewer, can then be struck with information overload and begin to make the hiring decision on arbitrary information that differentiates the candidates.

The benefit of the template and bar are then twofold:

Stops ‘the best of a bad bunch’ being hired.

Eases the final decision by giving one more step at which candidates are sifted out.

The Commitment

Am I asking for too much commitment of time and resources? How important a decision is this hire?

Say that it’s a £20,000 per year role – that’s junior administrative pay. The average stay in your company is six years. You’re making a £120,000 decision. Puts it in a different perspective, doesn’t it?

What are the usual procedures in your company to purchase something at that cost? What level of management usually signs it off?

Place recruitment in the perspective that it deserves and make the commitment to doing it right now.

Other Benefits

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to re-hire everyone in your organisation this way? In the current legislative climate, every poor hire is a serious liability for several reasons. Not only do they not give value in return for their salary in one way or another, they are very difficult to dismiss. Poor staff are also organisational morale and change-killers. People who are not happy at work are generally voluble about this fact, gossiping with workers, mulling over losses and bitching about management without having the impetus to get up and change whatever it is that’s annoying them so much.

I propose that hiring excellent people can be an antidote for some organisational problems. Positive, proactive people can and DO change the organisation around them – just as negative people can poison the organisation around them. As long as positive people are actively supported in the work they do and for the attitude they display, they can act as empowered and trusted agents of change dispersed throughout the organisation.

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to hire the best that you possibly can. People are what make the organisation work – whether they manage or execute, they are all important and have serious impact in every facet of the value chain. Organisations that realise, capitalise and leverage this have become leaders in their fields.

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Stitches in Time - PART II

The Tests/Scenarios

Hours of question and answer sessions are tedious for the interviewers as well as the interviewees.

Questions are also not the best way to test whether or not someone has the character attributes you are looking for. Anyone can say that they are a ‘team player’ or ‘enthusiastic’ – not everyone can pull off their best behaviour 1.5 hours into a group exercise under time pressure with everyone else also vying for attention from the assessors.

Group sessions usually consist of 10-15 candidates being presented with a series of group and individual exercises, group presentations and – commonly – a hypothetical scenario within which they must develop a framework to team-based decision making on the fly – sort out differences of opinion and make decisions under a strict time pressure.

Group sessions require the right room set-up as well as a high personnel count in order to keep the system running smoothly and ensure that each person in the group session is being observed. These sessions are most effective in weeding out candidates for formal interview from large groups of people – essentially a relatively time-effective way of getting through many people.

I won’t elaborate on or describe the exercises that can be done in group sessions as there is quite a lot of literature out there that covers this topic in depth and with useable examples.

What I will do is insist on the importance of using high-quality assessors in this exercise, tempting though it will be to beef up the numbers with people who merely have the time to be there on the day such as admin staff.

Assessment in the group session is a tough and multitasking activity. It is at once important to understand the logic behind each person’s arguments as well as judging how the communication was phrased, body language and effectiveness of contribution to the group (i.e.: are we looking for leaders or team players in this group scenario? Different things will be valued).

Whilst this is happening it is important to see the group dynamic as a whole – how do others, in turn receive this person’s contribution? Occasionally groups splinter and 2 or more people talk at once, compounding the observational problem. You really do want your assessors to be on the ball and experienced in essentialising observations of human behaviour.

The Interview Team & Observation

Anyone can ask interview questions and write down the candidate’s responses. That’s not the point of good interview technique. By the time a candidate has come to an interview, you should already be fairly confident that their technical abilities are up-to-scratch.

What a professional interviewer should look for is the way in which questions are answered and the way in which a person speaks in general, i.e.
* Has the question been answered at all? – Sometimes interviewees don’t actually get what it is they are being asked and will go off on a tangent. This is a good indicator of their listening and comprehension skills. An excellent candidate will check with the interviewer whether or not they’ve given the interviewer the information they require – after every difficult or ambiguous question. It can be as simple as ‘Does that answer your question?’

* Is the answer or their speech structured well? – Sometimes people will give me all the information I need but do it in such a roundabout manner that I will strain to catch their point. Being able to organise information mentally before dissemination is an important skill in many organisations. Look for a beginning, a middle and an end to any answer (where appropriate).

* Do they know how to answer a question or make a point? – There is a class of interviewee I call ‘The Waffler’ – they will ramble on and on (and on) to answer a question. Occasionally I see wafflers that have also missed the point of the question and end up giving me a diatribe on the benefits of bonsai pruning when I’m simply asking them a question about time organisation skills. This isn’t someone you want to hire in a position requiring good communication skills.

* (Interview only) Does what you are being told add up? Contradictions are serious red flags. Ensure you have glanced – even briefly – at the candidate’s CV a few minutes before you speak to them at the interview.

* Does the person show any enthusiasm? Are they personable? Are they quiet and methodical? Do they come across as ebullient or subdued? – Match this to the template of the ideal candidate you’re looking for.

- In group sessions

Group sessions will shed light on different aspects of candidate’s interactions with others as well as problem solving skills. Assessing a group session should be a draining exercise, the primary role of the assessors is to see how the problem was solved (methods, language, leadership, group dynamics) rather than the answer to the problem given.

If you are looking for a leader, take note of who contributes to the group discussion, ensures consensus, listens to the contributions of others, draws information/opinions out of the quieter participants, organises the time of the group, structures a framework for solving the problem or volunteers to time-keep or scribe. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the loudest person in the group or even one person – you will likely find different people exhibiting a few of the traits each.

If you are looking for a team member, take note of interaction with the group, listening to the contributions of others, a clear understanding of the task given, effective and reasoned contribution to the group discussion and any leadership type behaviour exhibited.

It is imperative that you choose excellent people to assess the group, preferably people who have interviewed before. It is very easy when assessing to get caught up in what the group is discussing rather than how it is going about its task. Group sessions can be confusing – many people are talking at once, it is important to note body language and aside-interaction as well as formal contribution.

The assessors must then essentialise their opinion on each candidate at the decision briefing to reach a consensus decision themselves. Ensure that your assessors are mature individuals who are able to make tough decisions quickly under pressure and won’t be influenced by the opinions of other assessors.

- In Panels

I used to think that an interview panel was simply a beaurocratic solution to the problem of political correctness in hiring. In the public service, panels are gender and race balanced as a matter of course – a lot of diddling about to ensure that no-one can accuse them of anything ‘improper’.

Silly though a panel may seem, it actually does have a beneficial side-effect which I discovered first hand.

Good interview technique requires a phenomenal amount of concentration in order to be able to capture everything necessary and write down one’s impressions. It is almost impossible to be able to be always alert, especially when one is looking down and writing. Other interviewers in the room are able to observe at the same time and hopefully they have managed to observe what you have not – and vice-versa.

Individual experience and opinion will vary – you will have a wide swathe of thoughts about each applicant. I’ve been amazed a few times with other’s pithy observations of things that I have missed and have been very glad there was another trusted pair of eyes and ears there with me. It is for this last reason – trust – that it is important that it is the very best people that are present at interviews, not just whoever was available on the day.

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Stitches in Time - PART I

Abstract – Why it’s important to take the time at sifting and interview stage to ensure that you get the right person for the job. How to go about a hire in a methodical manner. Why this is so important to the health of a company.

A lot of lip service goes into companies’ recruitment strategies. “Excellence” “The best people” “Strategic fit” “Ongoing development” “Rigorous selection”. To which I say: “Garbage!”

Garbage because these statements are mere puffery to make the shareholders feel better about who is employed, not because these kinds of hiring goals are incorrect. In the mad rush to appease bottom line and results-focused managers, HR goes through the motions of a recruitment without providing the expert advice which is really necessary to get the best person into the role. HR, in short, is not fully utilised in its originating and strongest capacity.

The best practice process for a hire is lengthy and expensive, requiring commitment from many different people in the organisation. Some organisations will carefully hire management levels but haphazardly hire administrative and support staff, others will promote internally without any process at all. Those who have read my other articles and who are familiar with my general outlook on business know that I like to strip as much unnecessary procedure out of any given task as I can. This is one of the rare times when I will advise to have MORE rather than less process. Not for the generally given reasons of ‘fairness’ or to ensure that the business’ backside is covered from appeal or unions – but simply because this is one of the most important things that a business does alongside its core process.

Businesses are made of products and people, in service businesses these two aren’t even distinct. The outcomes of hiring (whether in the short or long term) impact directly upon output, bottom line results, culture and overall excellence. The more complex your hiring process is, the more likely you will sieve out those that you want from those that don’t belong. In the long term, it is far better to spend time and money on a recruitment drive than later have to cope with a problem employee which will take even more time (thanks to business-unfriendly legislation) and effort to get rid of. Invest now for less headaches and expense later.

What, then, does a good recruitment involve? Let’s go back to defining what recruitment IS. Recruitment is the selection of a person to fill a role within a company. Implicitly, then, we need to know exactly what the role is and what kind of a person we want – then we see how closely we can match the two to have a solution to our staffing problem. We also have to decide how we will go about this. Common sense though this is, the implementation of this solution involves many disparate steps.

The role

Organisations must realise that an administrator is not an administrator is not an administrator. The same goes for managers, salespeople, cleaners, receptionists, process workers and any other role you care to name. The core function itself may be similar across sites or departments, but the people that the new hire must interact with will be different as well as the smaller jobs or responsibilities they will have in each separate locaton. HR often tries to save time by standardising Job Descriptions and interview questions. Don’t give into the temptation of taking either of these on without having a very thorough look through them to ensure that they are an EXACT fit to what you want. Fight HR if you need to – better now than when there’s already a person in place drawing your attention to the fact that what you’ve just asked them to do is not actually in their Job Description.

Take the time to sit down and really think about what this person will be doing, what kinds of skills they will HAVE to have on day one and which skills you can train in on-the-job. Decide on a title, decide on a remuneration – and don’t be stingy – you get what you pay for.
Don’t just do this with higher level and managerial positions. Any manager relies heavily on administrative and other support staff to make his or her ideas a concretised reality. Good support staff are essential for the efficient running of a business.

The person

There are two things you are looking for in every new hire. Skills and attitude.

I’ve talked about skills above. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a 50/50 split - here’s why.

Let me give you a scenario. You have hired someone with fantastic attitude but not enough skills to complete the job. You are faced with training them using any courses at your disposal as well as staff time to explain your systems. They are calm in accepting your assessment of their skill gap and easily commit to changing this. Their can-do attitude helps them learn quickly and apply that learning to their task. Their cheerful demeanour helps smooth the impact of any mistakes they have made on fellow staff. Your problem will be solved relatively quickly. If their role needs to undergo a change, there will be relatively little problem in selling this to them – in fact, they will probably help to develop the role to better serve the company.

Scenario two is the flipside of this. You have hired someone of startling technical competence but whose attitude needs a lot of work. In their first week, they have offended half your office and alienated the other half with their superiority complex. You approach them with your observations of their shortcomings and they react with anger and denial. You know that changing this innate character flaw will be an uphill and time-consuming battle. In the meantime, they produce excellent work within the parameters of their job but you can already imagine their vehemence if what they were asked to do changed even slightly.

Which would you prefer? Is skills and attitude really an equal trade-off? You can now see why I say ‘no’.

This is not to say that it is impossible to change the second type of person, but why give yourself that kind of grief if you can get things right in the first place?

This is why if I am to make any mistake at all in a hire, I would prefer overestimating someone’s skills rather than being mistaken as to their character.

On the practical side, when people are answering questions, take note of how they speak of their previous employer and co-workers, how they express the reasons for any failures they have had, what their attitude toward further learning is, how they speak to you, whether or not they make eye contact with everyone on the panel, what their body language is like, how they’ve chosen to dress, who on the panel they address when answering questions, how comfortable they are with a question out of left field, how they respond to a change of pace and formality in the interview etc. You need to take a lot of things into account before you get your ‘gut’ instinct about a person.

The Team

It’s all well and good to throw up the old bromides of ‘excellence’, ‘teamwork’, ‘dynamism’, ‘friendliness’, ‘leadership’ – but what do these mean in the context of where your new hire will work?

Will they need to be assertive in a team made up of strong individuals or will they need to take a leadership role in a team of people who can rarely come to a quick decision? Are you hiring people to bring a ‘breath of fresh air’ into the team or are you hiring someone to fit a role, a slot, EXACTLY without making too many waves in the process?

All of these considerations highlight my previous point of not taking a stock standard Job Description on – you simply won’t be selecting for the correct team fit if you don’t decide what kind of personality you want beforehand.

Make note of what kind of person you want and ensure that it is the focus of one or two formal interview questions.

The Questions

So we finally come to the questions to be asked. My take on this is that it is important to grill the interviewee for as long as it takes (why not make an interview 1.5 or 2 hours? Why the rush?) to ensure that you have covered all bases. Much more important than sparing yourself (or them) the ordeal of a tough interview process. It’s vital to end up with as complete a picture of each candidate as possible.

Standard HR will tell you to ask the same questions of each person to ensure ‘fairness’ – I prescribe the same process for an entirely different reason. In the end, an interview is there for the employer, not for the employee. It is a fact-finding mission, not an exercise in political correctness. So find facts – logically and systematically.

If you were comparing 5 brands of washers, you would probably set up a spreadsheet in order to track each washer’s size, cost, noise level, energy efficiency, water usage and aesthetic design. You would be, essentially, asking the same ‘questions’ of every model so that you could make an informed judgement as to the ranking of each against the key criteria.

Transfer this to an interview situation. By analysing the job itself you have determined what you need skills-wise, by analysing the team and the company you have determined what you need personality-wise. Why not ensure that you have asked each candidate the same questions so that when you come to the end of face to face interviews, you have a complete set of data to made decisions from?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for clarification on a point or delve deeper where you think there’s something interesting to be discovered.

Questions should be split between technical-style queries into the person’s competence in the field and more personally probing questions to see how the person has coped with or would cope with hypothetical scenarios.

You also have the choice of including a few ‘old chestnuts’ such as “What are your weaknesses?” and “Why should we choose you for the role?”

There are many books out there with sample interview questions that you can reference for the personality probing questions. Technical questions should be easy to write, a line manager will be able to determine what is needed in that area.

Above all, don’t include trick questions. An interview situation is a nerve wracking experience and the candidate will be taking everything you say literally, not reading shades of meaning into it. Like cryptic crossword clues that are obvious in hindsight, trick interview questions are merely a harder way to get to the end result – not necessarily a better way.

I also like to send the line manager the completed list of questions and ask them to write model answers in point form for me. This has a three-fold effect.

Firstly, I am a Human Resources person – I really don’t know what a good answer to a technical question looks like. The model answers help me to more confidently assess the interviewee’s skills competence in their field.

Secondly, this focuses the panel in comparing each interviewee against a template ‘model answer’ rather than just against the last interviewee or the group being interviewed. It also prevents each panel member from having their own idea of what an ideal candidate’s answers will look like. Keep your panel working off the same page.

Lastly, it helps the panel easily assess if the interviewee’s answer is on track very, very quickly and if they’ve covered all the points that should be covered in such an answer.

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Stitches in Time - Introduction

People often ask me what I do professionally. The answer is - I was in HR and no longer work there. Inevitably, I'm asked why I left and it's sometimes hard to fully explain the extent to which logic and rationality are missing from HR departments.

The reason I left HR was that I have definite ideas about HR's role in a company - and I don't think that that role is as the joy-killing thought police. One of the important roles of HR is in hiring, an area that is one of the most neglected in every company I have ever worked in.

So today, when looking for another document on my computer, I came across something I wrote when I was at my last contract. Something I had been trying to say and to implement there and which was routinely ignored.

It's in three parts as it was essentially an essay that I wrote on a longish train journey north to try and mitigate the fact that no-one seemed to be listening to me. I also wanted to clarify my thoughts and essentialise my experience in the field of slotting people into jobs. Either way, I had a need to write it down - a precursor to blogging, methinks.

I thought I would share it with you - who knows, you may learn something interesting.

M

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bears repeating

The 2004 Weblog awards are on and I was rather surprised (although very pleasantly) that this blog has been shortlisted for the 'Best UK Blog' - so thank you to my anonymous fairy blogmothers who made that happen.

Two things, therefore, need to be done.

A campaign speech, of course. But first I wanted to reproduce a comment I made on the site regarding all this controversy about the nomination/selection process. It seems some people aren't particularly happy about who was shortlisted and are really acting like jerks about it.

I'm not going to be apologetic for being on the list because there's no conspiracy that put me there in the first place. So far as I know, there has been no behind-the-scenes string-pulling and friendship-using. In fact, I was the one who told a couple of the Samizdata crew that they were up for the award themselves - days after the selection list went up.

So here's my comment, repeated, because I thought it was pertinent:

"Why is there so much goddamned bitterness about this? We're not exactly talking about cash prizes and bikini babes draped over expensive, high performance cars. We're talking about a little bit of extra traffic for a couple of weeks.

If the blogs are, indeed, shite then that traffic spike won't last beyond that boost.

Disliking the list because you dislike the politics or don't actually read those blogs is one thing.
Resorting to disparaging the authors of those blogs ("Disturbing-out-of-touch-with-reality-extremists") is a little juvenile. I'm one of the bloggers on that list - nominated without my knowledge and then shortlisted without my knowledge or input.


Don't like the competition? Do the most American thing in the world, get out there and run your own competition instead of doing the very French thing and whining about the unfairness of it all."

Right, now that that unpleasantness is over and done with, let's get on with the fun part - me making promises I have no intention of keeping past the inaugurtion my campaign spiel.

On to the next post.

M

_____

***Campaign Speech - DRAFT - Not To Be Released. ***

My fellow bloggers, readers and even those unpleasant lurking assholes who do nothing bar leave nasty comments all over the 'net,

I think it's important to remember why we're doing this in the first place - why we blog. We blog for money power revenge babes something to do on the lonely nights when even the dog won't spend time with us the pleasure of striking fear into the hearts of lizards like Dan Rather the fun of it.

We are a rare increasingly common breed of people who have some desire to stir the pot have our say in the world. By publishing our thoughts online, we hope to provoke thought and unmitigated violence rational discussion on topics close to us. Some of us just like to waffle on about crap that no-one else cares about muse on different topics or describe our lives - and that's just fine too.

Fine because, in the end, blogs are irrelevant a 'pull' rather than 'flush' 'push' medium. If people don't agree with or like some blogs, they just disparage them and slander the author any way they can ignore them and go read something they like - casting their vote with their readership and loyalty.

So here's the deal with these awards and what I promise.

I promise absolutely nothing.

Nothing will change on this blog if I win or lose or come in somewhere in the middle. I have loyal readers, some of which have become close friends, which I would lose if I were to suddenly decide to engineer this thing toward the sole end of popularity. I enjoy writing the things I do on here, in the style which I choose to do it in, at the pace which I've chosen and with the quirks, irregularities and annoyances which probably means that I have and will always have a limited audence.

So be it.

So to those that have come to this blog because you clicked through from Wizbang's awards - welcome. There are a lot of archives here and my writing doesn't tend to be too topical, so it's worth a read even if it's months old.

To those of my readers who genuinely think that mine is the best blog listed under that category - please vote for me. If you think mine's no good - may I suggest you take a look at Samizdata. My standing at the end of the awards won't make me cry but some support is, of course, nice.

To those who weren't nominated this year, tough well, there's always next year. You could always do what I did and sleep with all the guys making the decisions to shortlist completely ignore the awards and have them sneak up on you in a pleasant way.

In any case, let's keep our focus on what's really important in the blogosphere fisking anyone within range - writing.

M



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A reminder

It's no secret that I love Jack Vettriano's art and no secret that only a handful of things are keeping me living in London - the accessibility of great art, of educational gallery talks and other presentations, work/business opportunties, the proximity to Europe and the ability to mix with some truly exceptional people (thank you again, Perry, for the lovely Christmas party).

And so emails from C with cultural events are always welcome in moments when I am trying to remember what the hell I'm doing here on these grey, grey not-quite-proper-winter-but-chilly-and-nasty days.

So -

Jack Vettriano will be signing copies of Anthony Quinn's 'Jack Vettriano', which is essentially a book that will supersede the excellent 'Lovers and Other Strangers'. His eminence will be at the Pan Bookshop in Chelsea, London on the 9th of December at 7.30pm for anyone wishing to purchase a copy and have it signed.

Merry Christmas to me :)

M


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Sunday, December 05, 2004

A winter's tale

I know that winter has descended on London, yet some part of me revolts against the idea.

Winter, you see, comes with a certain smell about it - the smell of real cold.

It's not something I've ever been able to whittle down to its constituent components. If you asked me to be logical about it, I would tell you it smells like wood long burnt and cooled, like smoke, like faint, cool embers, like concrete and bitumen and more than a little like metal if metal were a living thing.

Real cold takes your breath away.

In Warsaw, I would pad down the institutional green-and-grey painted stairs in my apartment block - boots fur-lined, bulky sweater under bulkier coat, gloves and hat and scarf and bag all adding to make my profile more yeti than human. I marched through cloyingly warm centrally heated air into the antechamber of the entrance hall, hurrying to work. Here, the two doors to the outside formed an airlock between the false summer inside and the very real winter waiting beyond.

The first thing I would feel was the mild sting of the suddenly freezing air against any exposed skin. The light, already bright in the cloudless morning, would reflect off the snow covering every surface and dazzle me into a state of clarity and alertness. My first breath would always catch, lungs protesting such a rude and sudden change of atmosphere. That first fight for breath was what marked the start of every winter morning that I knew.

I thought I knew the feeling of real cold until I travelled to a small village on the Russian border where my father grew up and where the bulk of my extended family still lived. Disembarking from the train to a deserted platform, I made my way out of the station laden with a basket of gifts for innumerable and interchangeable cousins that I still can't name with any great accuracy.

I stood in the street, small pricks of cold on my face dissolving the fantasy of gentle, kind snow and I breathed in deeply. Cold. Pure cold. From the moment I had stepped off that train it had been seeping it's way into the cracks between layers of clothing. It whispered against my cheeks, where the skin was taking longer and longer to regenerate warmth between each frigid kiss.

I looked around for some lee that would protect me from the wind without obscuring me from view. I was to be plucked from the snow and delivered to the family by an uncle, there to be gawped at and prodded and asked friendly questions and outright quizzed on any topic that they chose like a sideshow attraction or an oddity of some sort. They didn't get to see many Australians - if any at all - and my function was to be congenial and informative and entertaining for a few days. I was resigned to the time I would spend with them, knowing that what I wanted most was to sate my hunger for new landscapes and experiences.

I found a bus shelter a little way off and sat down to wait. The cold, though, the wretched fascinating cold didn't abate - it just crept up more slowly to chill me in a way I had never thought possible.

It seemed that I was there forever and it seemed for all the world that I was completely alone. No car drove by, no human came into view, no animal stirred and no branch of any tree moved an inch.

Leaves and garbage and the thousand incidental things that usually move to give the landscape some life were preternaturally still. The only thing animated was the snow - falling at a slight angle, at a constant rate and as silent as a rain of cotton wool.

I was trapped in a painting with one perpetually repeating, moving element. So quiet that it seemed I had lost all sense of sound. So cold that only one sense began to matter.

The coat, gloves, scarf and hat that had been perfectly adequate for the metropolis of Warsaw were laughably useless here. The muscles of my arms and legs had locked in a clench that would only move from the shudders emanating from my very core. To blink I drew two chilled sheaths over my eyes.

I waited, playing a game of dare, seeing how long I could stand the discomfort before seeking relief or walking across the town in a blind search for my family. Every minute that I stood there was a miniscule win against an invisible foe.

The car did arrive eventually, as did the apologetic uncle. I thawed gently in the passenger seat, half listening to him, looking out the window with a new appreciation for the power of nature.

In the ensuing days, I would use any excuse to go outside and any tactic for it to be by myself. No errand was too small to run for my grandmother and no distance too large to traverse on foot.

I came to look forward to my encounters with the cold and noticed myself change the moment I stepped outside. I would smile at the frozen landscape, my heart light, triggered by that first raw breath and the smell of winter. It made me feel inexplicably alive, as has real cold every time I've encountered it since.


M

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Nom de plume

I remember quite clearly the decisions that brought me to starting this blog. I remember doodling on a notepad to come up with a name and sifting through some pretty hideous colour combinations to choose a template I liked. I remember wondering if anyone would actually read what I had to say.

I also remember making a very important decision - whether or not to blog anonymously.

There have been times, especially lately, when I've had more than a passing wish that my legal name weren't right there next to my actual mugshot.

There are so many things I'd absolutely love to write about that I can't because they've been told to me in confidence, because there are large companies or known names involved, because I'm privy to something that I just shouldn't be privy to (although it's been buzzing around my head like a trapped blowfly), because I would love to vent a scathing criticism of an acquaintances's behavior but know that many of my friends read this blog and could very easily figure out who I'm referring to. Sometimes I know a regular reader of this blog would instantly recognise themselves in a scenario and be rather upset.

In short, this isn't a diary or a forgiving blank page that will absorb everything I want to say, take away my frustration or let me rant and rave at leisure with no criticism or repercussions.

Today I had lunch with someone who has that freedom and I have to admit it made me a little jealous.

She's Russian, although fluent in English and had recently started a new job here in England. Overwhelmed with impressions, she sat down and wrote a couple of essays about her experiences at work. I know that those experiences aren't particularly positive and don't paint her co-workers or the way things run in this country in the rosiest light. I also know that this is well deserved. We both know that she would be fired if her writing became publicly associated with her name.

She sent the essays in to a widely circulated Russian newspaper and they liked them so much that they published them as columns.

The considerable interest that her writing generated has prompted the newspaper to commission a book from her - one that will be distributed to Russian speakers not only in the Federation, but (more importantly and profitably) to the millions in Europe and America.

Her eyes sparkled as she described some of the things she had written about already and some of the things to come - as well as the general outline of the book. Based on her experiences in this particular profession (no, I don't think I can tell you which profession, sorry), it looks at the instition she works in from the perspective of the clients and the providers of the service. It will be a work of fiction but the characters will be very much grounded in the people she observes daily.

Suddenly, she tells me, going to work is a completely different experience. She is acutely aware of everything around her. Mundane details are now a backdrop that needs to be remembered and described. The frustrations and tantrums are just more fodder for the story. She doesn't particularly care that she's paid a pittance. Work, she says, has become fun.

I started to imagine all the things I'd actually like to write about on here but have censored, and I came to realise how very different this blog would have been had I decided on anonymity from the beginning.

I'm not sorry for my decision - I've met some phenomenal people by freely giving out my identity. It just drives home to me once again how much communication is tailored to the audiences in our lives.

M


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