Bad Bosses: A Short Story and an Even Shorter Essay

In the movies, the line between the bad boss and the good trodden-upon employee is a clear one.    The boss is incompetent, malicious, dishonest, rude, mean, lazy and/or even sometimes sexist or racist.   The employee does everything perfectly and that still isn’t good enough to satisfy her evil boss. In real life employees are seldom perfect.

I Put A Spell On You (Short Story)

Chair:  This is the substantive hearing of an unfair dismissal and discrimination claim brought under Part 10 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and Parts 2 and 5 of the Equality Act 2010 by Mrs Yetunde Toye, the Claimant,  against Robert Newham LLP, the Respondent.   I, Judy Bright QC, am the judge for this matter.   My colleagues, Mr Tony Harriman from ACAS who is also a trade union representative at Legal Sector Workers United and Mr Codie Swanson, managing partner of Lloyd Harman & Co will assist me with this claim as part of the panel today.

The background to the claim is that the  Respondent summarily dismissed the  Claimant from her position as  an Associate Solicitor  on the 10 December 2019 for gross misconduct.   The alleged gross misconduct related to aggressive and intimidating behavior, namely that on 1 December 2019, at a disciplinary hearing, the Claimant shouted and swore at Mr Peter Newton, partner, department head and the Claimant’s line manager and called him an offensive name, which he and the  other partners at the Respondent  also regard as a slur. 

The ET1 was issued at the Boston County and Family Court on 1 February 2020.  The grounds of claim will be expatiated on by her representative today but in summary while she admits that heated words were exchanged during the above named disciplinary hearing, she asserts that her outburst was as a result of Mr Newton’s ludicrous claims, which denigrated her character and which the other attendants at the disciplinary hearing did nothing about.  She also claims that her state of distress was as a result of a long campaign of harassment and bullying by  Mr Newton.  She states that there were no grounds for initiating the disciplinary process as they were based solely on words which Mr Newton heard her say after the termination of a telephone conversation between them.

In the alternative, she says that her outburst did not amount to gross misconduct, was a reaction to what she has described in her skeleton argument “astonishing accusations” by Mr Newton at the disciplinary hearing and that her outburst should have resulted in an investigation by the Respondent of Mr Newton and  his working relationship with the Claimant and other employees and were not grounds for summary dismissal.  The Claimant has also brought sex and race discrimination claims under the Equality Act.

Mrs Toye is represented by Ms Cynthia Wright of Counsel while the Respondent is represented by Mr Henry Ingram, a solicitor and director at Employment Lawyers Inc.    I have already mentioned that the claim form was issued on 1 February 2020.  We held a case management conference  by  telephone on 5 May 2020 and, subject to one extension, directions were complied with by both parties.  I am particularly grateful to both representatives for their timely co-operation during these difficult and unprecedented times.  Both parties have indicated their desire to make costs applications at the end of hearing and the Respondent  has submitted preliminary arguments in that regard but has reserved the right to make fuller submissions at the end of the substantive hearing.  Over to Ms Wright,  Counsel for the Claimant for examination in chief.

….

Chair:  Thank you very much, Ms Wright, and you too Mrs Toye.  I’ll check with my colleagues but I am minded to reserve the rest of my questions until  we have heard the cross-examination…. Is that….Ah, that’s a yes from my colleagues.   Mr Ingram.  Your witness.

Mr Ingram:  Thank you Ma’am.  Good morning, Mrs Toye.

Claimant:  Good morning.

Mr Ingram:  Let’s go back to your telephone call with Mr Newton on 18 November last year, shall we?  I believe the words you used you had both said your good-byes were, let me check my notes, “Na me answer your call, na e say make you dey craze for main road.  Somebody who bald-spot is always paining.”

Claimant:  Yes, but I thought I had ended the call.  I didn’t mean for him to hear that!

Mr Ingram:  Yes, Mrs Toye.  I believe you explained that in detail during your examination in chief.  For now, could you just explain to the tribunal what those words mean?  I believe a lot of it is in Nigerian pidgin English.

Claimant:  Well, it literally means, well not literally, but I can translate it as blaming myself for answering the call as it gave Mr Newton, I guess what you would call the…opportunity  to display signs of well, madness that is mental illness or maybe malevolence more than actual mental illness

Mr Ingram:  Is there more?  And the part about his bald spot?

Claimant:  I guess it means, I mean I guess I was suggesting that he had some sort of head or brain injury which was …..negatively influencing his capability to make reasonable decisions.  Like…when Americans suggest that someone bumped their head and did something insane.  Or when English people suggest you give your head a wobble…

Mr Ingram:  I think we get the point, Mrs Toye.  Do you believe Mr Newton to be mad, Mrs Toye and in what sense?

Claimant: No..I mean.. at least not before the disciplinary hearing? Maybe not mad, but irrational? He’s probably under stress…

Mr Ingram:  But you called him mad on 18 November.  Substantially before the disciplinary hearing.  Did you believe him to be mentally ill?

Claimant:  Not in any clinical sense.  I thought…and I meant, he was acting irrationally.  I guess. Also, it’s like an insult, I guess?

….

18 November 2019

Yetunde gritted her teeth.  She couldn’t for the life of her understand what Peter was on about.  She didn’t even understand how they had got here.  All she had asked for was some software and Peter had turned the conversation into a mini-appraisal.

“I don’t even understand why you always have to write such long advices anyway.  The clients don’t want that.  They just want to know what the answer is, Yetunde.”  Yetunde knew that it was unreasonable to be irritated by his pronunciation of her name (yee-TUN-dee instead of Yay-toon-day) but irritated she was.  After she had never corrected him.  Never even got to introduce herself.  Just nodded when he boomed ‘YEE-TUN-DEE’ at her when they first met, shook her hand and refused to make any further eye-contact for the rest of the interview.

“Ermm….”  Toye was trying very hard to be respectful . Peter had a reputation as an ego-driven, hypersensitive (little) man.

“Did the clients…I mean, have any of my clients mentioned this?”

“Look.  Your accounts are a mess.  You’ve got some seriously aged WIP on there.”

“What does that have to do with….errrr….sorry I’m missing the connection here.  Is that connected to the client…stuff?”

“You are.”

“Sorry, what am I?”

“Missing the connection.  And Charles said you missed the deadline for last month’s bills.”

Yetunde bit her tongue.  She hated IT.  If they had just said ‘no’ instead of copying Peter in, she would have left it alone.  She took a deep breath.  She decided to try again.

“Charles.  This software is unconnected to my WIP really.  I’ll only be using it to –

“Yes?!?”  Oh my gosh.  The man was a maniac and no one knew it.  Bizarrely, an old tune started playing in her head, but she couldn’t place it ‘He’s-a-maniac-and-he-doesn’t-even-know-it! He’s-a-maniac-and-he-doesn’t-even-know-it!’

She shut the voice out.  Maybe it was she who had run mad.  Been driven mad by the strain of working directly under Peter for 7 and a half weeks.

“I’ll only be using it to proof my work.  I won’t charge the client obviously as it’s a purely administrative expense.”

“I just don’t see the need for it.” Peter shot out after a slight pause.

“But it only cost £5.99 a month.” Yetunde said in a small but defiant voice.  Surely she was worth £5.99 a month.  She, who practically slept in the office at least twice a week.

“The price is not the point.  Why should you need something that no one else does?  Besides you only billed £4000 last month.”

“Which is of course substantially more than £5.99.  And I billed £4870.”  She should just withdraw her request and carry on with her work.  But one could not just withdraw a request that one had made to Peter.  One had to spend many many minutes explaining why they thought their request was worth disturbing Peter Newton’s precious day.  A day that she noticed was characterised by loud phone-calls while he paced around the office and mysterious disappearances for periods of at least 2 hours every lunchtime.

“I know that, Yetunde  (yee-tun-dee).  Don’t get…Look,your target is £6000 per month.  Why do you need it anyway?  What’s so special about this software?”

“Well.  For one thing, it gives me a better idea of how my advices are coming across.  It also reduces typographical and grammatical errors….”

Peter  gasped.  “You’ve been sending out typos???”

“Peter, I have to go.  I’m really sorry.  Can we continue this conversation later?  I’m so sorry.  Tim Kellers is going to call me at 11.”  It was convenient but also true.  She was expecting a call from the in-house lawyer at Slashed Stationery.  Apart from the fact that Tim’s phone call wasn’t until 11:30 am.

Yetunde disconnected the call, rolled her eyes and let out a long hissing sound.  Peter was so mad and that had been a complete waste of time.  She was, what her cousin Bukki called ‘Nigerian -Accent-Angry’.  She stared at her phone.

“I don’t blame you.  Na me answer your call, na e say make you dey craze for main road.  Someone that bald spot is always paining.”

She heard someone talking and looked around before noticing that she had not, in fact, disconnected the call. She did so quickly.  Thank goodness she had decided to speak in  pidgin English instead of calling him a rude word.  She tried to relax about the fact that she had ended the call and obviously not meant him to hear her but she was uneasy.  She hoped that what she had heard was he was talking to someone else at his end.

She reached for the Slashed Services debt portfolio  file.  She suddenly felt her eyes well up and her cheeks become hot and taut.  She was at least grateful she was working from home today.  It was all too much.  She just wanted a normal manager.  And a normal conversation with her normal manager.  Yes or no.  Read aloud proofreader or not.   She just wanted a little help.  She was tired.   She was always tired these days

She had a little weep.  She gave herself ten minutes.  Then, almost embarrassed, she started to read the last attendance note which  she had made on the file.

***

P Newton: …..Mrs Toye knows the ethos of the firm is centred around communication and respect.  She knows it.

Ms Wright:  Yes Mr Newton.

P Newton:  And she wasn’t respectful at that meeting.  No she wasn’t.

Ms Wright:  Could we perhaps return to the day of the phone call, Mr Newton? 18th of  November last year?

Ms Wright:  I’m afraid I’m going to need you to vocalise your answers, Mr Newton.  I believe this hearing is being recorded.

P Newton:  Yes, let’s go back to the 18th of  November.

Ms Wright:  Mr Newton, why did you report Ms Toye to HR after that phone call?

P Newton:  She was rude.  She called me rude words.  And she sucked her teeth.

Ms Wright:  Were you aware that the words quoted at the start of  the hearing, was said by Ms Toye after your  her phone call with Ms Toye has been terminated.

P Newton:  That’s what she says.

Ms Wright:  You don’t believe her?

P Newton:  What I’m saying is,  I’m not in her head, am I?  I don’t know what she thought when she said it.

Ms Wright:  Mr Newton, when did you report the phone call to HR.. .and the managing partner?

P Newton:  I don’t know, a week later we had it?

Ms Wright:  It says on page 153 of the bundle that you reported it on 27 November.  9 days after it occurred.

P Newton:  That’s when I reported it then.

Ms Wright:  Why did you wait for over a week?

P Newton:  I had my reasons.

Ms Wright:  I’m afraid that you are obliged to disclose those reasons to the tribunal.

Ms Wright:  It says in paragraph 11 of your witness statement, page 64 of the bundle, if you could turn to it please…It says that you spent some time researching what Ms Toye’s words meant.

P Newton:  Yes

Ms Wright:  It said you made enquiries of Nigerian chatrooms and investigated a language dictionary.  You even sent an email to the BBC Pidgin English Service.

P Newton:  I did.  It’s all there.

Ms Wright:  So even though you didn’t know what Ms Toye’s words meant….?

P Newton:  Let me stop you there.  An insult is an insult.  I don’t care what language it is spoken in.  I know when I’ve been insulted and I have a right not to be insulted when I speak to my employees.  Just like they have a right not to be insulted when they speak to me.

Ms Wright:  So if you felt you were so insulted, why didn’t you raise it with HR there an then or with Ms Toye?  Why hunt around for the meaning of the words for a few days?

P Newton:  Well obviously, I had to protect my position.  I’m not a man who likes to make accusations without knowing all the facts.

Ms Wright:  Even so, why couldn’t you raise it with Ms Toye if you knew….

P Newton:  I had to know what she said!

Chair:  Mr Newton.  I am sure there is no need to raise your voice.

***

On D-day, Yetunde woke up with a gassy, tied up, painful tummy.  She checked the time.  It was 3:03 am.  She still couldn’t believe she was going to attend a disciplinary hearing.  Her disciplinary hearing.  The first one she had ever been invited  to in her 15-year career.  Disciplinary hearings were for other people.  Like her friend, Jennifer, who had a problem with every  one she worked for.   Yetunde always made the right noises and in the moment; Jennifer did seem to have spectacularly bad luck with managers and colleagues.  That didn’t stop Yetunde from fervently asking the Universe to kill her if she ever got like Jennifer.

Now  Yetunde wondered what she would have been like if her first ever boss had Peter.  Maybe that was what had happened to Jennifer.  Yetunde was ashamed to say she couldn’t remember when Jennifer, who was one of her oldest friends, had started complaining about work..    The other day she had complained to Yetunde because her new manager – shock! horror! – came into the office everyday and did nothing but concentrate on her job.

If Yetunde was honest, this whole job had been a shambles from when she started a year ago.   She had just been lucky that her first manager was easy-going Marie who spent a lot of time bitching about the place before she moved back to France a couple of months ago.

Yetunde had been so well-loved at her last job that she was badly shocked at how averse her colleagues seemed to her presence.  Then Peter became her manager and she knew what real misery was.

****

Yetunde promised herself one more time that above all, she would remain calm, and opened the door.  Jo from HR gave her a pleasant grin. Peter didn’t.  Ned looked uncomfortable but managed to flash her a tiny embarrassed-looking smile.

She had  tried her hardest to exude all the right emotions  – calm but serious; professional but humane and endearing – during the meeting.  She really had.  Whenever she felt her voice wobbling, she took a sip of water.  She listened more than she talked.   She tried to remember that this meeting wasn’t about every petty grievance that she had against Peter, like the fact that whenever  she tried to join in any social conversations in which he was involved, he immediately ended it and walked away.  She stuck to the facts. She had wanted a new feature from Microsoft Word.  That was all she wanted.

Ned suddenly shifted and said.  “Okay.  Let’s get back to the phone call.  There’s no easy way to deal with this.”  Ned giggled nervously. “You’ve seen our letter and that we’ve managed to procure a translation-“

Yetunde straightened. “Look, Ned.  I’m very embarrassed about this but I’ve thought about it and I’ve spoken to friends and I’m sorry but I don’t think that the the firm is being completely reasonable about this. “

Peter snorted.  “Are you denying saying it then?”

God.  The man was irritating.  Yetunde felt embarrassed by all the times she spent sucking up to him, under the false impression that there was a human being lurking underneath all that unpleasantness and tweed.   She had even brought him chocolates from a trip to France once – not just him, everyone in their small debt collection team – and saw them languishing on his desk weeks later.

She glanced at him and continued:  “Look these things happen.  I was upset at how the conversation went.  I thought the call had ended.  I vocalised my upset.”  At least I didn’t call you a twat, she didn’t say.

Jo asked.  “What was so upsetting about the conversation?”

Yetunde felt her stomach lurch again.  It was difficult having this conversation in front of Peter.

“I just felt completely… derailed.  And slightly undermined, if I’m being honest.  One minute I was asking about software.  Which we are encouraged to do by the way.  We’re told to ask for anything that could make things better for the client.  And the next minute Peter was bringing up my hours, my performance, my billing.  It felt very overwhelming and stressful.”

Jo looked concerned.  “Did you feed this back to anyone?  HR?  Peter?”

“No.”  Yetunde said in a small voice.  Everyone, but maybe not HR, knew that if you took your career seriously, you couldn’t go running to HR every time you felt slighted.  You just had to get on with it.

“Curse his ass out and keep it moving!”  is what Bukki would have advised.  She wondered what Bukki would do in this situation.  No way would Bukki had bowed out of that conversation with a lie about a client call.  Bukki would have kept arguing, kept firmly bringing the conversation back to the £5.99 software until Peter got tired.  But then Bukki managed a pop-up retail business, earned £20,000 and holidayed in her caravan every year.  Yetunde earned about three times that much and, when she could take the time off, never went anywhere that wasn’t fully self-catered.

“I didn’t think it was significant enough to report.”

Jo was insistent. “But if you felt undermined….”

Peter snorted again.  “Are we ever going to get to the point of this meeting?”

Jo went pink and shuffled her papers: “I’m sorry Peter, I was just….”

Peter moved forward. “It’s just that  in my day, if you cursed a partner in African, there were consequences.  We didn’t spend hours pandering to internal workings of the recalcitrant employee’s mind.”

Yetunde had had enough.  “With respect, Peter, I didn’t ‘curse you in African’.  It was after the call had ended.  I didn’t know you could still hear me and for that I deeply apologise….”

“I think we can agree that you did in fact curse me in African.  You said-“

“I’m sorry.  I don’t even understand how you got a translation.”  Yetunde knew that wasn’t the point but it was a question that had been eating at her ever since she received the letter from HR.

“I can’t have you putting spells in me on and my family.  We’ve had enough bad luck, thank you.”

“Spells?!?”  Yetunde looked around the room for support.  Ned and Jo looked both apologetic and defiant.

“What do you mean, spells?”

“Listen!  I know about these kinds of things.  I read about other cultures.  I’m not completely ignorant.  My family and I have had a lot of bad luck.   Especially since you started at the firm.  You’ve always had it in for me.”

“Let me make this clear, Peter….”  Yetunde didn’t quite know how to finish the sentence.  She wasn’t even sure what Peter was suggesting exactly.  Her voice faded out without making anything clear to anyone.

“I’m not having you putting African spells on me!”

“Oh my God.  You are a complete and utter nutter.” She heard her voice say.

Ned said:  “Now hang on Yetunde…”

Peter had sat back, looking strangely satisfied, and folded his meaty arms.  Yetunde was still looking around, hair swishing from Ned to Jo and then back to Ned again.

“Hang on?  He just accused me of putting African curses on him!  African curses! Really?”

“Oh God.” Peter said, smiling for the first time during the meeting.  “There’s no need to get hysterical, Yetunde.  It’s not about you being African or “black” Complete with finger quotes.  “You see, my grandmother had a wretched gypsy curse her and….”

“YOUR GRANDMOTHER WAS NOT CURSED BY A GYPSY, YOU WANKER!  THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS SPELLS!!!!”

***

  • Judgment

“….We do not find the sex discrimination claim to be made out, despite Ms Wright’s points as summarised above and detailed in her closing submissions.

The race discrimination claim is more complicated.  The Claimant argues that as the only black person in her office, she had been singled out for exclusion and harassment by Mr Newton.  She argued that although she was at first unwilling to draw the conclusion that it was because of her race, she felt validated in her suspicions when Mr Newton accused her in the meeting  of the 1st December of  casting African spells on her.  She could not however provide any examples where non-white colleagues were treated differently in comparable situations.

The Respondent argues that the Claimant was not singled out for bad treatment.  Mr Newton’s criticisms of her performance were legitimate and justified and that Mr Newton did not have any social obligations towards her.  Mr Newton was entitled to his beliefs relating to spells and as he had stated in the meeting of the 1st of December, his beliefs were not confined to African people or people of any particular race and extended for example to gypsies.

It is with some reservation that the panel dismisses the first part of the Claimant’s  race discrimination claim.   Contrary to the Respondent’s arguments, as a manager, Mr  Newton does have some social obligations towards his employees.  Continually walking away whenever the Claimant attempts to start or continue a social conversation is a failure to treat an employee with respect and dignity and is humiliating for reasons which should be obvious to all parties.  Mr Newton has denied this charge in questioning but on balance the tribunal accepts the Claimant’s testimony and we are of the opinion that it is relevant to the  claim for unfair dismissal.

The Respondent has called Ms Scott who has claimed similar treatment from Mr Newton and his general reputation appears to be one of more than occasional unfriendliness.  This is not a credit to Mr Newton or to the Respondent for tolerating his behaviour but it does rather undermine the claim that the treatment that Ms Toye received was based on her race.

The claim for unfair dismissal is based generally on the narrower ground that the Claimant’s conduct at the meeting was a reaction to Mr Newton’s accusation that the Claimant was trying to put a spell on him and the lack of reaction by the Claimant’s and Mr Newton’s colleagues which included a human resources director.   The Claimant also claims that she was under the strain of working directly beneath a manager who she states  was hostile to her.  She also claimed that it was a reaction to being disciplined for words which she had said after she had terminated a telephone conversation with Mr Newton.

The Respondent states that the claims of spells is somewhat historical as Mr Newton had by the meeting of 1 December, obtained a translation of the words and knew that she did not in fact try to put a spell on her and was merely explaining why he felt he needed to obtain a translation.

The Claimant had not been working at the Respondent company for the statutory period of 2 years and therefore it is technically unnecessary for us to make any ruling about the narrow unfair dismissal claim as the Claimant simply does not qualify for it.  However, because it is linked to the second part of her race discrimination claim, we make the following  observations.

In a sense the matter is balanced.  As to the claim of a campaign of harassment and bullying by Mr Newton, the parties’ perspectives have to be taken into account.  The Respondent states that Mr Newton was legimately following up on issues about the Claimant’s performance while the Claimant states that she was overly criticised, in comparison to her colleagues, and that Mr Newton was frequently negative and unfriendly towards her and occasionally rude and hostile.  She said she constantly felt on edge around him; a situation which worsened when her former line manager left the employ of the firm.  While it is difficult to judge matters of perspective, we  are of the view, as stated above,  that some of Mr Newton’s behaviour amounted to a failure to treat an employee with dignity and respect.

However, previous lack of respect and dignity directed at a colleague does not justify gross misconduct at a subsequent meeting as was established by the fairly recent case of Khan v West Midlands Transport Co-operative (2014) which facts bear some similarity to this one.  Swearing and shouting at a colleague, including a manager, amounts to gross conduct.   As emphased by Mr Justice Owens in Khan, an employee or colleague is not permitted to store up grievances and erupt at a manager, regardless of how well-founded those grievances are.  The proper way to deal with such matters is to make a complaint to the human resources department.

The Claimant has not produced any medical evidence to show that she was suffering from clinical stress, anxiety or depression as a result of her experience at the Respondent’s firm although she has described her mental state with some clarity.   From the evidence, it seems that Mr Newton had a reputation for being difficult.  This and his accusations at the hearing should have prompted an investigation of all parties including of Mr Newton.  A suspension  instead of a summary dismissal would have been a more proportional response to the circumstances and this was in fact the recommendation of Ms Hodgson and Mr Cameron, also present at the meeting.  There is therefore some chance that, had the Claimant had the necessary length of service, we would have found that her dismissal was unfair.

Finally we come to the second part of the Claimant’s race discrimination claim.  We find this claim to be made out.  The Respondent argues that it is not racial discrimination to identify an insult or negative comment as being in an African language just because the Claimant happens to be of African origin.  This is undoubtedly true but as Ms Wright pointed out, to leap to the conclusion that a curse had been put on one by a member of an ethnic minority and link it to a curse supposedly placed on a member of a family by another ethnic minority shows a racial bias and in layman’s terms, a certain suspicion of foreigners or people not from your ethnic background.

It is for this reason that the tribunal has come to the conclusion that the Respondent failed to investigate this matter, including a possibility of racial bias.  The second ground of race discrimination is therefore made out. This means that that it is not necessary for the Claimant to demonstrate that she has been employed by the Respondent for two years to prove her race discrimination claim.

The tribunal therefore decides that the Respondent has, contrary to section 39 of the Equalities Act 2010 , discriminated against the Claimant on the basis of her race.

Turning to damages…..

The end

 

How to Cope With a Bad Boss

bad boss

Disclaimer – I am not an HR expert, employment lawyer (the case of Khan above is made up as is the law surrounding it), psychologist or any kind of therapist or expert on this matter.  I’m just a sensible, empathetic person.  Actually, I’m probably not even that.  These are just my thoughts on coping with this type of situation.

The first step in any kind of recovery-related process seems to be recognition.  Therefore the first step in coping with a bad boss is to ask whether you actually have a bad boss and to  evaluate your own expectations.  Do you expect every boss to be your friend?  Do you thrive on praise or challenges?  Is your boss actually a bad boss or person you don’t like?

There are different kinds of managers and management styles.  I prefer some, of course, but I think a wide range can be acceptable as long as basic values like honesty, respect, dignity and courtesy  are observed.  It’s not unreasonable to expect your boss to be friendly but, in my view, it is not a sign of bad management if managers are not naturally sociable or want to place boundaries on their time and professional relationships.

Almost every HR-related course which I have taken emphasises the need for positive reinforcement of the managed but I’ve found that some people will naturally praise while others are more  concerned about what can be done better.   In relation to the latter kind of manager, I believe that the thinking is sometimes  that the mere fact that the employee has been hired shows that they are competent; the focus should now be on continuous improvement.

Also, dare I speak such triteness as bosses are human too?  Like everyone else, they make mistakes and their first instincts (again like everyone else) may not be accept their errors.  They experience insecurity in decision-making, have their own workloads and are subject to constant interruptions especially from the kind of people who like to increase their sense of self-importance by running to the manager (with quick, little noisy steps) for every little thing.  Sometimes they themselves are badly managed.

It is worth going through this process and trying to separate your expectations from what the boss is actually doing wrong.  You may decide that your boss is someone who you are never going to be very sociable with but actually they are an adequate person to work with or work under.

However, most of us can recognise a bad boss or certain weaknesses in a boss like hostility, bullying, being manipulative, undermining and gaslighting, taking credit for your work and being overly critical.  If you have won the ‘bad boss lottery’, you’ll first need to recognise that that the situation  has not come about because you are weak, unlikeable or incompetent (relative to your experience) or  have somehow invited the bad behaviour.

I would advise also acknowledging that you are dealing with a stressful situation and giving yourself permission to be stressed about it.  This again sounds obvious but ideally there should be a time when you have emerged for constant feelings of stress, anxiety and even panic associated with work and told yourself expressly this.  This can keep you from feeling inadequate because it acknowledges that you aren’t somehow bringing these bad feelings upon yourself, or failing to be ‘grateful for what you have’ and that your feelings are a perfectly normal reaction to an external stressful situation.

Concentrate on your coping mechanism for dealing with this stress.  Self-preservation is key.  You are not there to save your bad boss’ or the company’s reputation.  Your job is to try to come out of the situation relatively unscathed – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically (some bosses have been known to hit their employees and vice-versa) and in terms of your career.  Also, you want to avoid a situation where you are coming into work every day to be freshly hurt and stunned by their bad behaviour.  My personal nightmare is having a loud, teary, incoherent melt-down in the office or getting so ill with stress, depression or anxiety (in so far as any of us can control those things) that I am no longer able to earn a living.

I find a good start is to focus on your goals.  Finding a new job will always be at the back of your mind but while you are there, other goals may include not damaging your reputation in your particular industry and getting on with the job, especially the parts that you actually like.  You may still enjoy helping clients or customers or you may want to keep up with your targets.  You may just wish to maintain your mental health and move from being anxious, sad, angry, or scared all the time

As I said put your health/survival (dramatic word I know!) first – you are not there to fix them.  My personal weakness is difficult people.  I think I can save them or charm them out of their bad behaviour.  It’s a narcissistic trait which I will freely admit to and a big no-no in this situation.  It will backfire and even worse, you may find yourself an ally and enabling their bad behaviour when they are bullying others

It also helps to remind yourself of your self-worth.  Their bad behaviour is a reflection of them; not you.  You are entitled to be treated in a dignified and respectful manner.  Dwell on your past achievements if necessary. Do not be tempted to wonder whether this means you have been crap all your life or career.

I would also suggest developing some coping mechanisms.  Avoid them as much as possible if necessary or communicate by e-mail; sometimes in advance of a difficult situation to diffuse it and as a less confrontational way of recording your communication.  I once complained to a friend about a bad conversation with a (bad) manager.  She advised me to ‘document it’ which was great advice.  Just write to them and say, ‘As a record of our conversation, you asked about this, I  said this and we agreed this.’

The more paranoid among us will hesitate to do this because we are worried that it is an open declaration of war or bad relations or something.  It may be but it is still necessary.  And you are probably not going to make an ally out of them regardless of how conciliatory you are  One way out for us wimps is to have written to the manager beforehand and then follow the e-mail up after the conversation.   Some bad managers will still be jerks about it, even complain about you overloading their inboxes, while others may be a bit more cautious in the future. Sending an e-mail prior to a meeting may also allow you to say what you want to say without interruptions or your mean boss demeaning or derailing you. 

Alternatively you can choose to ‘work around them’.  Once you realise that they wind you up something rotten, reduce opportunities for them to get to you.  Lockdown is good for that –  you have an excuse to come into the office less.  

You may choose to engage them only at things that you know they are good at if you have the strength and it is to your advantage.  In no way am I suggesting that it is up to you to somehow manage them.

You could try and find other sources of support within the organisation and if the opportunity arises, bond with another senior member of staff.  I once bonded with a senior barrister while I was doing a pupillage with a very critical barrister.  I still remember my pupil master bursting into the Head of Chambers’ room to say “_______ is stealing my pupil!”

Keep a note of any thing relevant to your work relationship and their behaviour towards you.  This is personal but I would complain about bad behaviour to HR instead of to your bad boss.  My theory is that people who behave badly in the first place are unlikely to welcome criticism  of that bad behaviour or even realise how bad it is .

It almost goes without saying that you should assess the organisation that you work for.  Regardless of how nice everyone else it, you have to question their judgment and your fit in the company if they’ve seen fit to hire a vile manager.

Try not to personalise their  bad behaviour.  If your boss is bullying you, report it as soon as you are comfortable doing so.  Don’t hesitate unless there really is a chance that you could lose your job, never get another one etc.  You probably don’t have a long term future with that company anyway and it may keep them on their toes.

However, try and get some perspective on their  behaviour.  I had a  ‘bad boss’ who constantly upset me and I fell into the trap of obsessing about how much he must hate me.  He may have disliked me but then so may many others.  I in fact dislike some people at work.  The relevant fact is  that he was unreasonable and sometimes disrespectful.  That is what is unacceptable; not him disliking me.

Try not to gossip about them  but if something slips out, give yourself a break.  It’s a valid response and outlet.  Your focus is on maintaining your sanity not saving their  reputation

Finally let’s talk about loss of confidence and looking for a new job.  In the movies, the line between the bad boss and the good trodden-upon employee is often a clear one.    The boss is incompetent, malicious, dishonest, rude, mean, lazy and/or even sometimes sexist or racist.   The employee does everything perfectly and still isn’t good enough for their evil manager.

In real life employees are seldom perfect. We all make mistakes.  We may make more mistakes under stress.  Sometimes a significant element of the bad boss’ behaviour is reacting badly to our mistakes.  Part of a manager’s job is to manage mistakes properly.  If no one is perfect, it is, in my view, disproportionate to react wildly simply because a mistake has been made – the relevant issues are (1) how to avoid a repeat of the mistake (2) assessing the consequences of the mistake and (3) questioning whether it is an indication that the employee and the role are not suited.

From an employee’s point of view, it is tempting to vow never to give the employer a reason to behave badly or worse sack you.  My own personal view is that not only is the mental strain of keeping that up going to be difficult to manage, it’s unlikely to happen, especially when you are working under stress. 

My own personal coping mechanism is to try and look at mistakes in the cold objective light of day; try and pretend that you do not constantly feel the fetid heat of your bad boss’ breath down your neck. In fact, pretend they do  not exist and you don’t have to answer to him.  You are your own boss.  What would you ask yourself?  In no particular order -what are the consequences of the mistake?  How can I fix or make it up?  Why did it happen?  What do I need to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?  What support can I get to ensure it doesn’t’ happen again? (Is this the right job for me?)

Easy to say but difficult to implement; nevertheless helpful to have at the back of your mind.

So that’s it.    Some of the above is helpful to have in mind constantly but in my view this level of engagement should be reserved for a truly bad boss.  I’m not suggesting that there is no need to work on difficult aspects of your relationship with an otherwise reasonable boss although I accept that this is challenging where there is an imbalance of power.

Hope you find the above helpful!

Coerced? – a nuanced discourse about consent – Tracy Ofarn

This blog, written by me for 9jafeminista.com, has been on my mind for some reason.  I feel it’s an important message which needs to be repeated from time to time.

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The issue of coerced sex is not a simple one; regardless of how many confident opinions you may see flying about the place. There are arguments over the differences between force and co-ercion; co-ercion and manipulation; manipulation and convincing.
I am by no means an expert on this subject but I understand coerced sex to be sex or sexual activity that a person didn’t want but was pressured into having, by another person. It can be easily distinguished from sex they wanted at the time, but are now regretting. A lot of people think it falls short of rape, depending on the particular circumstance, because of the existence of technical consent.
In high school, I’ve heard coercion described as ’emotional rape’. The term covered a range of activities – begging; badgering and/or crying (people have reported this kind of bothering for hours); threatening shame and public disgrace; creating and manipulating…

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Apologising for the Flood: Destroying the World in Order to Save It by Iain Lovejoy

In light of the many versions of the ‘Great Flood’ from different religions and cultures, should it matter whether the story of Noah’s ark is literally true or is explaining why a just and loving God would choose to wipe out all of mankind ( young and old; good or bad) more important’? A radical explanation by Iain Lovejoy…

The story of the ‘great flood’ is the oldest recorded story in the world. The first known version is Akkadian, dating to the 18th Century BC, and tells the story of Atrahasis: the great god Enlil and the other gods decide to destroy mankind because there are too many of them and they are becoming a nuisance, but the god Enki warns Atrahasis of the flood that is to come, and instructs him to build a boat, cover it in pitch and put him and his family and his animals on board, and thus ride out the flood.

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Atrahasis’ Boat

In the Babylonian version, dating to late in the same century, the hero is called Utnapshtim, and this version includes Utnapishtim sending out a dove, a swallow and a raven to determine if the waters had receded. Other cultures had similar stories.

 

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Image of Utnapshtim

These stories pre-date the writing of the Genesis account by centuries, and therefore when the Genesis account was written,  the tale of the gods sending a flood to destroy mankind and the world, and of the hero tipped off and in his boat and saving himself and mankind and all the animals must have been one of the most well known stories in the world. Ancestor lists, king lists and genealogies all traced themselves back to Noah or the local equivalent.

The point is this: when the flood story in Genesis was written, it was a story that everyone knew, or thought they knew, and, though known in no doubt many, many versions, a settled part of what everyone understood to be the origins of mankind.  The author’s task. therefore,  was to produce an “authorised version” of the tale, explaining what it meant and how it was to be understood in the context of the story of God and his relationship with his chosen people and mankind.

This must have, I imagine, left the author with a bit of a problem. The story assumes capricious gods who decide to destroy mankind on a whim, and another, different god thwarting his fellow gods and rescuing them. When you only have one God, who is supposed to be just, and slow to anger, and caring of his people, and whose will cannot be thwarted when he acts, it’s a very difficult story to explain. The author, however, was stuck with it, because if writing the history of mankind and the Jewish people, everyone will expect to see it, as it was ‘known’ to be part of that story, and it couldn’t simply be left out.

All those who insist on the “literal truth” of the flood, and glory in it, and even build theme parks to celebrate it, miss this point. The flood story wasn’t written as some glorious act of God to celebrate but as an attempt to explain an apparently inexplicable act of cruel caprice. That it is apparent from advances in geology and archaeology that whatever event these flood stories derive from was not, as was once thought, an attempt to wipe out all mankind but possibly some great but localised natural flood should be a matter of relief, not disappointment. However, why a loving God should choose to send or permit the infliction of such terrible disasters upon people is a very difficult thing to fathom.

The author of Genesis tackles the problem of the flood story as he knew it by first emphasising that this is an act of justice, saying that what grieved God was that “The wickedness of mankind was great in the earth, and every inclination of their thoughts was only evil continually” (6:5) where previous myths had the gods destroy mankind on a whim as they were too populous, or too noisy, or some similar complaint.

The author goes further, however. For the author it’s not enough to say that they were bad people and deserved it. What they say is “The earth was ruined (Hebrew verb “hashat”) in the sight of God, and the earth filled with violence. God looked upon the earth, and it was ruined (”hashat” again), for all flesh had made their ways on earth ruinous (”hashat”). God said to Noah: “I intend to make an end of all flesh, because the earth is full of violence because of them, and I shall bring them to ruin (again “hashat) along with the earth.” (6:11-15) The constant repetition of “ruin” / “hashat” in what mankind are doing, and then in what God decides to do must, I think, be deliberate. God isn’t acting out of revenge or anger: the author is saying that the flood happened because mankind were ruining the earth and had to be stopped, so God takes action to bring them to ruin along with the earth, so that mankind and life and the earth can be preserved and rebuilt through Noah.

This is how the author attempts to explain the otherwise inexplicable flood. He places it as part of the same narrative as the history of Israel – the people rebel against God, ruin the land and persecute strangers, widows and orphans, and are destroyed that, through a remnant, the kingdom can be rebuilt again as it was intended to be. But this is not written as a warning, but a promise. Most Bible scholars believe that the Noah story was incorporated into the Bible after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, probably during the exile in Babylon. The message is that there was a purpose to the washing away of the old world, a reassurance to the few drifting survivors of the disaster that all is under control and God has promised that they are to be the founders of the new world they will create.

In the New Testament this is made more explicit. According to 1 Peter 18-21, the flood prefigures Christian baptism, as the earth was cleansed with water and died, so as to be born anew following the flood. The author goes further – Jesus by dying was enabled to visit the spirits of the sinners imprisoned since the flood and preach salvation to them, too. The full story that the Bible tells is that the flood was not destruction, but renewal: without the flood all would have fallen to ruin with none to save them, with the flood the earth is saved by cleansing water from ruination by man, enabling instead through Noah, through the patriarchs, through Moses, through David, through destruction of Israel and the temple, and exile and return, and so ultimately Jesus, a salvation not just for those ancient people lost to the flood, but all who came after them, and all those we have lost through disaster and death, up to we ourselves now.

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COVID-19 Blues Part 2: The Cummings and Goings….

Some people will inevitably claim to not understand all the fuss being made out of the Dominic Cummings’, special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, journey to Durham in March and April 2020, during the national lockdown.  The journey was  apparently to obtain childcare while Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield were ill with the coronavirus and to some, they were faced with a difficult dilemna – unpredictable suffering or a liberal interpretation of the rules on lockdown and social distancing.

The facts, however are more complicated than that.  The story appeared, at first, to be that Cummings and his wife, having contracted the virus, drove to Durham to drop their four year-old son with his grandparents because they were too ill look after him.  People with more analytical instincts than me immediately asked how they could make a 260-mile one way trip while being too sick from the coronavirus.

The facts became more jumbled but the most benevolent version for a while was that having discovered that they were infected, they decided to leave their four-year son with his grandparents in case they got too ill to look after him.  So far, so bad-enough.  This  would not only be a breach of the lockdown regulations and the government guidance, it would be contrary to all the  medical advice on avoiding the spread of the virus.  The fundamental rule which was being broken even in this mild version (more versions to come!) was that anyone with symptoms of coronavirus is supposed to self-isolate for 14 days from when the symptoms first appear.   Also, Cummings’ parents are in their seventies and therefore in a recognised vulnerable group.

In relation to self-isolation, I must admit I  first wondered whether people shouldn’t be made to self-isolate for 14 days after all the symptoms disappear (the same logic used by schools when a child has diarrhea) instead of when the symptoms first appear.  However, I suppose this is to accommodate incubation periods.  When the symptoms first appear, the person is approaching the end of their infectious period, I think.   With Cummings and his family,  a significant concern was how many service stations they visited during their journey to and from Durham while he and/or his wife was ill with the virus and why they thought the best way to protect a young boy was to confine him with carriers of the disease for hours in a car.

Then more detail and contradicting versions came out.  One version was that it was  just Cummings’ wife  who had coronavirus and not him, begging the question why he could not then take over the childcare duties.  Unlike when Boris Johnson was ill, I do not remember a significant time when Cummings was ill although a Radio 4 broadcast is now making the rounds on social media where Wakefield tells about their experience with the disease.

I had questions.  Was Wakefield tested?  How sick did she get in the end?  Did he just assume he had it? Was he tested?  How happy were his parents about all of this?  Did he get childcare from them after all that? All of these questions no doubt appeared but disappeared into the vortex as the uproar increased about what he had done compared to the sacrifices that thousands  of British people grappling with the death, disease and confusing government guidance have made since this nightmare started.   

The media let us stew for 24 hours before revealing that Cummings made a second, and possibly third and fourth trips, separate from the one made in 27 March.  The police were involved at some point.  

The last bit of significant news  is the Radio 4 recording of someone reading his wife’s article about their experience with the virus,  with Cummings being the worse affected, according to her, and their son entertaining himself by playing doctor, all contradictory to the initial story about them needing or getting childcare from his grandparents.   The reasons for their trips to Durham and surrounding areas remain a mystery – apart from the obvious explanation that, when it came to his personal life and his family, Cummings never gave a stuff about the rules and did whatever he thought he could get away with.  The trips appeared to include a family outing in a tourist town.  Perhaps Cummings applied the 80/20 diet rule which is that if you are ‘good’ 80% of the time you probably will lose the weight/won’t spread the virus.

It ended with him giving a press interview on 25 May (https://www.itv.com/news/2020-05-25/dominic-cummings-public-statement/ -)  which left me no less confused.  I couldn’t get passed his account of driving to a tourist town to check whether his eyes were still working.

Three things, separate to why and when Cummings went to Durham and other places, made the whole thing about 1000 times worse.  Firstly, between the first and second story, a number of senior  MPs tweeted the most  vacuous crap in an attempt to defend what Cummings had done.  It is now being suggested they were ordered or asked to do so by the Tory party chief whip.  Some examples are worth repeating here:

Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West and Minister for international development tweeted:

AS

Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath and former education minister  tweeted:

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Golden boy and dispenser of cash-money, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer and MP for Richmond, Yorshire tweeted:

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Jacob Mogg-Rees, MP for somewhere in Somerset and wearer of silly hats and a silly smug face tweeted:

JRM

And the little bit of desiccated coconut on the cherry on the icing on the cake (on the plate on the birthday table cloth on the table on the floor etc), the Attorney General, Suella Braverman tweeted:

AG

These tweets did not  have the effect of making the public think ‘Awwww.  That poor man.  Give him a break.  He is a parent for goodness’ sake.  What parent, after advising the prime minister on lockdown rules, won’t completely break them if necessary?’.  They made us feel many things, some of which are covered below.  The first thing it made me think of is how corrupt-minded  the Conservative party (or maybe even politics as a whole) is and how easily they think public opinion can be swayed if they think a series of moronic tweets would have the effect of calming down an already excitable public, who after almost 9 weeks of lockdown, are at the  peak of their  rage, fear and grief.

Daily press briefings were held by Grant Shapps Minister for Transport, and the prime minister himself.  Shapps was reportedly almost dismissive saying that British people should interpret for themselves how they want to be locked down.   Maybe people were confused into thinking they had to follow government guidance as precisely as they could because of the emergency legislation , criminal sanctions, heightened policing and heavy fines for breaching lockdown rules  It’s difficult to tell.  After careful thought, Boris Johnson declared himself satisfied that Cummings had acted reasonably and “with integrity”.

The third thing is that journalist camped outside Cummings’ house and we continued to see him walking around in his mis-matched sporting gear snapping at journalists and defending himself, oblivious to the fact that this was now the time for that self-isolation he failed to undergotwo months ago.

The torrent of rage continues and is, to me who hasn’t suffered any real tragedy as a result of the pandemic, heart-breaking.  I don’t actually believe that if Cummings had said ‘Fair cop.  I put my hands up.  I did wrong and I am sorry’, people would have just left him alone as some are claiming.  Firstly, as I’ve said above, we are thoroughly fed up with the restrictions, the fear, the pain and suffering and the constant addictive bad news about the virus.  It doesn’t take much to tip us into incandescent rage.  Secondly, we are in the midst of a very real and prevalent outrage culture.  Every celebrity and governmental misdemeanour is discussed at an almost maximum level of disbelief and condemnation that when something really extraordinary happens, there really isn’t room to ramp up the rage any further.

Perhaps this was the reason the Tory government thought that it could, with a few platitudes from MPs sweep this under the carpet.  I say that we have outrage culture but in this case the outrage really is deserved.  The lengths to which people have gone  to obey the rules and government guidance, interpret and come up with plans to implement confusing messages from the government and to follow their conscience and protect strangers from the disease, as well as the country and the NHS from collapse have  been amazing.  What is being asked of us was huge from the start, which is why I never added my voice to  the self-righteous chants of ‘HOW HARD IS IT TO STAY AT HOME FFS?!!’

Leaving aside the general lockdown and being confined to our homes, small or large, suitable or not, with or without gardens, what a lot of sick people have done is nothing short of heroic.  Sick parents, some with other underlying conditions or recovering from or receiving treatment for cancer, have looked after multiple children without help.  They have learned how to isolate from their own children in their homes.  Children have gone along with it.  Children who don’t know how to pronounce ‘social distancing’ have accepted that they can’t go to school anymore, they can’t go anywhere, can’t go near anyone, sometimes even their own parents, and if they see their friends in the street, they must stay away.  Front-line workers have removed themselves from their family homes.  People have lost much-loved parents and relatives without being able to go near them for weeks; have had to attend funerals remotely.

The list is endless.   And after all this to be essentially  told that, in such circumstances and worse, it is “common sense” and the mark of a good parent to ignore the lockdown rules and do whatever your “instincts” tell you is right must be unbearable.

The rage is real.  Some if it is uncomfortable like watching Cummings’ house under siege.  But almost all of it is justifiable even before you take into account the threat to viability of lockdown itself and whether police officers, tired of the insults and accusation of heavy-handedness and no doubt going through their own personal situations, won’t just down tools and let people do what they like.

There’s no point in ending this piece on a sermon, as if to the Conservative government (‘look what you’ve done! you should be ashamed of yourselves!’).  My perhaps uncharitable reaction to people who do things that are completely outrageous is to ask myself whether, having thought it was okay to do it  in the first place, there is any real likelihood of them now genuinely accepting correction and understanding that what they did was wrong.  I don’t even think that this  is the time to tell people to take heed and vote better in future elections.

In my view,  the majority of people just need to realise that they are not overreacting or being silly or divisive, their outrage is justified and their sacrifices are worthy, valued and noted.  And oh yeah, Cummings gatsa to be goin’

A Journey to Self-Affirmation by Jasmine Ogboru

I still desired to know why I could not achieve what increasingly seemed impossible. It was the first time I’d ever had any of my dreams crushed by the word ‘impossible’.

When I was six, I once walked up to my parents and asked them – “Why am I not white?”

This was a defining moment of my childhood. The point where I just couldn’t stand being black.  The point where I just wanted to be Caucasian and have silky soft hair, where I just wanted to be “normal”. This was my first major internal crisis, and mainly because I wanted to acquire the impossible.

So, I asked my parents the big question: “Why?”

During various summer camps (sports, music or some random place or adventure my parents wanted me to experience), I was usually the only black person. I often wondered why my skin would turn an ashy grey after a shower and others did not.  Why my hair started breaking after a whole summer of daily washing while my mother asked me with wide eyes as she despairingly watched my luscious kinky curls break off after I got back from one summer camp, “Didn’t you explain to them that we don’t wash our hair every day?”

But I didn’t respond, I only wondered why I couldn’t achieve the seemingly impossible – silky, long, daily-washable locks.  I didn’t necessarily want to be Caucasian, I just wanted the hair, and only for ease of maintenance. However, I couldn’t have the hair without being the person, and this seemed impossible barring a miracle or science. I simply couldn’t have something that would’ve simply made my life as easy as I desired.

As my African tongue rolled out French words, I immersed myself in the French culture of “je ne sais quoi” during my years at the French international school. I learned that the colour of one’s skin did not determine intelligence, but my question nagged. Our various ethnicities created a rainbow of heroic hearts struggling to navigate the perfect storm of confusing calculus and turbulent algebraic expressions, but I still desired to know why I could not achieve what increasingly seemed impossible. It was the first time I’d ever had any of my dreams crushed by the word ‘impossible’.

The more I sought to become my perception of “normal” the more my curiosity pushed me to better define and understand “normalcy”. This gave me the opportunity to explore inherent talents and to develop certain skills, allowing me to see myself in a new light, as a beautiful, strong woman of colour. I started loving myself more and finally realised that being normal is not conforming to a standard, it’s what you make it.

As I learn to love new cultures every day, I observe that deep seated love for my native, “puff puff” (deep-fried dough) and my West African spicy brilliant orange “jollof” rice cooked down to a bubbly glaze, that transcends both race and colour. As I share the joy of music through teaching piano and violin to children who do not have the opportunities I had, I’ve also found that music has no colour, only heart and soul.

I mingle with over 99 other nationalities in my current school, whose foundational values emphasize international and intercultural understanding as well as the celebration of difference. In so doing, I have discovered my passion for the wilderness, which has led me to meet others and explore the vivid layered rocks of the Grand Canyon, as well as the beautiful wildlife and snowy peaks of the Santa Fe National Park. Rugged natural beauty that underscores the foundational message of UWC: despite our distant origins, our diverse aspirations are complementary and inextricable.

I’ve realized that I have finally attained the love for my skin colour, my culture, and most importantly myself.  For it is not colour that defines me, but my experiences and my aspirations, and with these tools I embrace the impossible.

 

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COVID-19 and the Lockdown Blues

My only coping mechanism is realising that people are more often than not coming from a place of  fear, pain, anger and/or  discomfort. 

In January 2020, I became vaguely aware of news reports about the Coronavirus, a supervirus causing havoc in China.   By February, the first person in the UK had been infected with the virus.  February and early March was spent faffing about with hand washing and making jokes and awkward gestures about handshakes.  On the 16th March, we were grappling with social distancing guidance.  On 20 March, all pubs and restaurants were shut.  On the 26 March, we were officially in lockdown……

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Lockdown measures have been extended for another three weeks (as of 16 April 2020 when I wrote the first draft of this essay).  I read the government’s message on Twitter today and they say that, although things are looking encouraging and there is evidence that social distancing was working, the restrictions on movement will not be lifted until five goals have been achieved.  The goals included (from memory) a reduction in the daily death toll, a reduction in the infection rate (I think that is a separate goal), evidence that removing the lockdown measures will not lead to a second peak in infections and proof that the National Health Service can cope with treating patients for the disease.

It’s almost too depressing to revisit the list.  I’m certainly not seeing many signs that ‘things are improving’ or ‘getting better’ and I sometimes wonder if the government added that bit in just to make us feel better.  The daily death rate, for instance, remains depressingly high and variable.  I can’t understand the information about infection rates and apparently they don’t mean much because not enough people are getting tested.

I am absolutely on board with social distancing and lockdown if it will mean saving lives and preventing the NHS from sinking, so why is this lockdown affecting me so badly?  Why am I unable to, like some, marshal my zeal for doing the right thing and turn it into slogans extolling people to #stayathomesavelives and comparing what is being asked of us to the likes of Ann Frank – stuck in two rooms with a large number of people for over 700 days  – or John McCain who was a prisoner of war for a whopping five and a half years?  Why do I feel a great weight tugging at my chest most of the time?  Why does the thought of waking up and seeing the same walls and doing the same thing over again fill me with dread in the early hours of the morning?

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I am not in a particularly bad situation.  I have a garden and I am not, in the short term, at risk of losing my job.    I am also trying to do the right things, if slightly halfheartedly – singing, writing, and slowly sorting out the house.  After the first two (to three) weeks of binge-eating, which, to be fair, included Easter and a birthday, I’ve even cut down  on alcohol, opting for the Calming Spa Music playlist on Spotify instead.  I’ve also resorted to My Fitness Pal to try and control my calorie intake.  I exercise almost everyday .

While I haven’t quite got the boundless energy and appetite for  podcasts and zoom seminars that my colleagues seem to have, I am quietly writing professional articles and e-mailing business contacts.   I am a homebody, honest.  I really thought I would handle this kind of crisis better.

It is, of course, natural to be unnerved by the huge change that we, as a society, have been suddenly asked to go through.  There seem to be different factions emerging from this crisis and I am convinced that most stances, especially the extreme ones, are just a way of coping with the crisis.  I feel that another one of my lists is called for!

  • There are the ‘stay at home’ and social distancing evangelists who, from views expressed on social media and reports of them accosting complete strangers, I can only imagine become filled with murderous rage whenever they see people outside.
  • On the opposite end are  the people who rail against the social distancing rules with logic such as ‘if the flu or abortions kill X amount of people a year, why are we ruining the economy for a virus that has only killed Y people so far.  The Spanish flu killed millions of people.  The earth didn’t exactly die, did it??’
  • Right from the start, there have been the people who have treated the virus like some sort of literal invader which they would  fight, not with the usual measures for combating a pandemic but with words like ‘strong’, ‘tough’ and ‘ready’ and who would, under no  circumstances, let the virus get the better of them.
  • Then we have the people who appear incredibly sage about it all,  say that the virus is here to teach humanity lessons and post that poem about everyone staying at home and the earth healing itself.  I am finding the piety very hard to deal with at the moment.   The failure to understand that preventing the spread of the virus is not necessarily about whether a certain individual, who considers themselves healthy, is likely to die from it but more about preventing the complete breakdown of our health services and the lack of care from so-called pro-life, Christians about the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of people when pitted against their freedoms bewilders me.   However, it is the sage, pious takes that make me itchy with aggravation.  I can only assume that I relate to the selfishness far more than the sanctimony.
  • There are the people who remind us quite rightly that we are privileged if we have a house and a garden to isolate in followed by inexplicable anger at people who spend their time posting professional-looking pictures of their flowers, gardens, meals and baking.
  • I’m obviously surprised to find myself also taking against the people who post professional-looking pictures of their flowers, gardens, meals and baking and as well as dreaded motivational speakers who tell you that not emerging from this crisis having achieved a substantial personal goal is a sign of a character flaw, although as you can tell from my endeavours to improve myself, I am secretly hoping that I will come out of lockdown with a narrower waistline, a vastly increased vocal range and a book deal.
  • I must mention one more set of people – the political commentators.  It’s easy to see that the UK government has made some avoidable mistakes  and I am irrationally aggrieved that once again Boris Johnson has managed to bugger off to Chequers (wherever and whatever that is) to recover while leaving other people to deal with the mess.   However, I think it’s also fair to acknowledge that there weren’t obvious answers to every single aspect of this pandemic.  I mean, I know we had fair warning from Italy and everything but still.

So basically, I am disturbed by every possible reaction to this pandemic (‘why have children if you don’t want to spend every waking hour with them with no school, no visits to grandparents, no zoos etc. and educate them on top of a full time job. Wow! I guess the hetero lifestyle is not what y’all claimed it would be.’ headasses).

This makes me think that I need to worry about my own issues instead of spending my evenings reading Twitter, criticising everybody else’s.

Let’s start with admitting that  I am a chronic worrier – with a very active imagination.  Reports of people struggling and a large part of the trading population being without an income immediately brings to my mind deprivation, suffering and crime.  Even innocent posts and charming little articles about animals taking over the picturesque towns makes me think that if we are stuck indoors for much longer, we are going to face aggressive gangs of killer rats and foxes (and worse ) in every green space we go to.   They may not even wait until we are back out.  Deprived of their steady diet of fast food litter, they may decide to take matters into their hands and invade our homes and gardens!  This is why I write fiction (**at the time of writing this paragraph I was still able to rationalise the above fears as being a product of my paranoid imagination.  Imagine my distress at sensationalised reports of rats taking over Edinburgh city such as this one – https://www.edinburghlive.co.uk/news/edinburgh-news/edinburghs-rat-population-out-control-18117893).

On a more serious note, I am very worried about what this virus will mean for humanity.  We have already seen the stockpiling and the empty shelves.  Yes, when we stopped to analyse, rather than self-righteously project, there was always going to be more demand that supermarkets had prepared for as people braced themselves for a possible 14 days of isolation when, and I cannot stress this enough, they had no experience of trying to feed their families without the usual school meals or restaurant and café trips.   With the constantly changing and sometimes contradictory government guidance  (‘only get your usual shop but shop as infrequently as possible’), it was difficult for people to find the balance between not breaking the rules or not being excessively selfish and being sensible about providing for their families.

However, we can’t deny reports of people rushing to fill their cars with more food than they could possibly need, trolleys full of a single items like giant bottles of cooking oil or dare I mention the name – toilet rolls! – and inevitably bins full of unopened fresh food.  The stockpiling was less of the point – the point was that, perhaps unsurprisingly, when push came to shove, people will excessively provide for themselves even when it was clear what a detrimental effect this was having on others such as the elderly and NHS staff.

Thankfully the shopping crisis seems to be largely over.  It is still very strange going to supermarkets or any public place (mostly the supermarket) when I have to.  People are less kind and more snappy, in my experience.  I have been a ‘victim’ of this, on that first weekend of lockdown, when we all thought no one else would have thought of going to  national parks and on my first trip to the supermarket after the lockdown started.  I have decided to punish society by becoming less smiley which should teach them.  I am of course also less patient and on the edge so I am in no position to judge.

When I think of the rise in domestic violence, the thought of being locked down with a person who abuses or horror stories about abusive men (I’m sure there are some women too) who insist on coming back to the house under the auspices of spending time with their children, the second-hand despair is almost too much.  I can’t imagine finally getting rid of an abusive ex-partner, starting to live my life only to have to suddenly deal with him on top of everything else about COVID-19.

We all worry about what is going to happen after all of this. We wonder how long the welfare system and loan and mortgage holidays will hold out and whether there will be mass unemployment and poverty.  I fear that, rather than turning into the kind of sharing, caring government that ensures that ‘no one is left behind’, the Conservative government will try to recover its spending during this period with savage cuts to public services, maintain their policy of protecting the truly rich from taxation and somehow manage to manipulate the fickle finger of public blame until it lands on the most vulnerable and disenfranchised.  Perhaps I am being unfair.

I’ve had my share of first world problems.  I am very aware of the lack of freedom even at times when I would be at home anyway.  I get weary of the monotony of spending all my time with my children and husband with not so much as a Butlins pantomime to distract us.  I worry even more than usual about what I have said to my husband and whether it has upset him or me or whether it will (gasp, horror!) CAUSE AN ARGUMENT.

I’m tired of the tedious routine of working, taking care of and schooling the children.  I’m sick of the endless mess and cleaning.  I deeply  regret the weight gain and the time wasted on Twitter or engaging in blank staring.  I’m lonely but paranoid – do friends really want to speak to me?  Am I ‘too much’ for them right now?  And if not, why haven’t they called me?  I am worried about my children falling behind in school.  I am supremely irritated by chirpy marketing e-mails.  I am making even more silly mistakes at work than usual – in the circumstances, all problems of the privileged.

My only coping mechanism is realising that we all are, to some extent, coming from a place of  fear, pain, anger and/or  discomfort.  I try to think of this before I respond to people on  at home, work or on social media (I often fail) and I try to examine my actions and reactions in this light.  I also try to share positive views which, at the moment, are so much better expressed by others than me, like this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpaiUK9j6RM

As I see it, my job is to spread positivity and kindness, where I can.

Most of all, I hold on to the high probability that all this will be over soon, in one way or the other, society will return to some normalcy (hey! perhaps even a better version of normalcy) and although initially unimpressed by the Queen’s speech on 5th April, I hold on even more fervently to her words ‘We will meet again.’

coro pic 4

***

Ps  I have donated to Solace Women’s Aid, a charity which assists domestic violence victims and are doing quite a lot during this lockdown to support those trapped at home with abusive partners.  If you would like to donate, here is the link – https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/12477#!/DonationDetails

 

Are Nigerians ‘Model Immigrants’?: A Lotta Hellas

Politicians and the media constantly promote the idea that immigrants are harming their host country simply by being there and the only that immigrants can counterbalance this harm is by giving back in an extraordinary and noticeable way. 

I left Twitter for the calmer environs of Facebook so I could be less angry – less visibly angry anyway.  I know that Facebook content tends to be more conservative and less socially aware so I had one simple rule  – I’d  unfollow anyone who tempted me to respond angrily.  When I broke that rule, twice, on one topic, I decided that it was time for another blog post.  

The background to this piece is the news that President’s Trump travel restrictions, the so-called travel ban, will, in February 2020, extend to Myanmar, Eritrea, Krygzstan, Sudan, Tanzania and to the shock of my fellow Nigerians, Nigeria.  I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little surprised.  I haven’t fully kept up to speed with Trump’s antics (atrocities?) and the last I heard, the travel ban was known as the Muslim ban.  My first hastily drawn conclusion was that this had something to do with Nigeria’s large Muslim population, Boko Haram and Islamophobia.

The restriction will prevent citizens of  the above countries from obtaining visas which would allow them to immigrate to the United States permanently but would still allow them temporary visas to visit, study or work temporarily.    Despite it not being a literal ban on Nigerians entering the US, an American former class mate, in the context of choosing a location for  our class re-union, has opined that it would be difficult for alumni with Nigerian passports to obtain a visa to travel to the US.  This could be because there will be additional hurdles even for those seeking temporary visas to show that they have no intention of seeking permanent residency, have private means of support etc.

There are over 300,000 documented Nigerians in the US and probably many more American-born citizens with ties to Nigeria.  Travel from Nigeria to the US from Nigerian citizens is already strictly controlled  and full of stories about arbitrary decisions and disproportionate questioning.  These new restrictions will have a significant impact on Nigerians, or people with Nigerian ties, on both sides of the travel divide.

Not knowing much about the travel ban, I expected to see debates from Nigerians  about whether the concept of travel bans are just or a draconian limitation on freedom of movement and whether the US has grounds to do apply these restrictions to Nigeria.  I no doubt expected questions as to why Nigeria was on this list.  The White House’s official statements asserts that  Nigeria is not complying with:

“the established identity-management and information sharing criteria assessed by performance metrics. Nigeria does not adequately share public-safety and terrorism-related information, which is necessary for the protection of the national security and public safety of the United States.” Therefore, “The entry into the United States of nationals of Nigeria,” with some exceptions, “is hereby suspended.”

The extract seems to me vague, difficult for a lay person to understand and more importantly to know what Nigeria has to do to reverse the ban.  The full statement is here:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-improving-enhanced-vetting-capabilities-processes-detecting-attempted-entry/

Relevant questions have been asked of course but some people have chosen to lament Trump’s decision on the basis that Nigerians are ‘model immigrants’ – the kind that work hard, are disciplined and eat good (or something).  This is hella wrong in a number of ways – hella delusional, hella generalising, hella offensive, hella right wing rhetoric and hella pointless.  Let’s flesh these hellas out.

  1. Hella…not really true:  Nigerians are model immigrants, apparently.  First of all:

giphy hella 1

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things which are great about being Nigerian but I think if you conducted a survey among, say, a medium sized group of law enforcement professionals, only a minority would agree that Nigerians are ‘model immigrants’.

Or perhaps it’s a different Nigeria they are talking about – not the one which sits between Chad and Benin Republics (and Cameroon).  Because it can’t be the same Nigeria whose citizens  are constantly the  butt of jokes about fraud, even in outer space (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lfwf9B0jUwM).  Not the same Nigerians in Peckham or any part of East London or London or any city in England or even Accra who other Africans complain are unbearably loud, rude, crass, pushy, arrogant (noooooo!) and dishonest.  Again, not the same Nigeria that one of my best friends was talking about when she confessed to me that she was nervous of making friends with me because her mother, like the parents of many Africans at our university, warned her to ‘stay away from Nigerians’.

During the induction course at my new firm, the Finance Director trained us on anti-money laundering regulations and told us about the official list of high risk countries maintained by the EU.  This Nigerian country, which produces ‘model immigrants’ can’t be the same country also named Nigeria which was not on the list of high risk countries but which my finance director felt compelled to mention.

“It may not be on the list now.” he said, in a tone that seemed to imply  that it had very recently, in his view, temporarily been removed.  “But you still have to be very careful of transactions involving Nigeria.” (causing me to take back my breath of relief when the list ended without Nigeria being on it.  I and other Nigerians do this a lot by the way.  When Kweku Adoboli was convicted in 2011 for  one of the biggest stock trading frauds in recent history, my first thought was “Well at least he isn’t Nigerian.”)

I don’t think you can just unilaterally declare yourself to be a country full of “model immigrants”.

2.    Hella generalising:  Let’s face it, despite the above, I’d be just as critical of  an article which suggested that Nigerians, as a whole are loud, uncouth criminals, perhaps even more so let’s analyse this claim a little further.

We all know that there are Nigerians and people of Nigerian origin, resident in the US and other parts of the world who have made extraordinary  achievements in science, medicine, literature, computing, sports and mathematics, to name a few areas. However, let’s hope, for the sake of sanity, that the  claims that Nigerians are model immigrants aren’t based on what can’t be more than a minute percentage of the Nigerian immigrant population.  To do the maths , if say, 5 million Nigerians live outside Nigeria (and the Nigerian Guardian estimates this figure to be more like 17 million) even 50,000 outstanding Nigerians would make up only 1% of the Nigerian diaspora.

They probably mean Nigerians who, because of their ambitions to become middle class, contribute through working, owning business, buying nice things (consumerism),  paying taxes, and perhaps the odd bit of mentoring as opposed to committing crimes, engaging in substance abuse, being unemployed and/or homeless and relying on state welfare.  Even if these are markers of being a good immigrant, is there any evidence that the Nigerians who do this are in the majority as compared with all the Nigerians in the diaspora?  And to put a slightly related  question, even if the ‘bad’ Nigerians are in the minority, are they are in such a small minority that the deeds of the model Nigerian immigrants cancel out their impact on society?

Nigerians have a reputation of being hard-working and ambitious.  Yet we hear overwhelmingly of Nigerians’ casual attitudes to integrity and dishonesty.  What really is the truth?

And what of the people from whom these model immigrants are drawn – the vast majority of Nigerians back home?  If their counter-parts in the diaspora are model immigrants, surely they should be model citizens.  Not if you ask these snooty, middle-class diasporans.  According to them, majority of Nigerians back home are a bunch of thieving, greedy, swindling, lazy, undisciplined  lot and part of the reason the model immigrants left the country in the first place.

However an alternative narrative  is that all a Nigerian needs to succeed and realise their true potential is to leave Nigeria.  It’s the leaders that are bad!  They are not Nigerian at all – they are from a planet called Planet Evil.

Nigeria is a difficult country and I am not denying that Nigerians are, by and large, used to working harder for the same or less gain.  However, what the average  middle class Nigerian is talking about when she calls Nigerians model immigrants are Nigerians from a relatively small and wealthy pool of  people, who have sometimes imbibed the values of the very unfair society that Nigeria is,  often with the means to pay for higher education, who are doing very well.

The fact that people like that are visible especially as black people in certain industries by no means prove that the rest of the Nigerian diaspora are model immigrants by even this standard.  What middle class Nigerians (myself included!) are insulated from are the struggles of poorer Nigerians with less auspicious backgrounds, the things they have to do to survive, sometimes the crimes they commit and more than anything else they are shielded from the horrendous reputation that Nigerians as a whole have in many parts of the world.

3.  Hella offensive: Before I go into what makes a good immigrant and how that fits into the right wing rhetoric, I have to say how offensive I find this statement to firstly to other African immigrants (and immigrants from other parts of the world in theory but I’m sure every region has that one country that fancies itself to produce ‘model immigrants’) and to black people, frequently non-Africans,  who have paved the way for Nigerian immigrants and African Americans in particular.

Firsly, who says that Ghana, Kenya or Sierra Leone are producing less than their fair share of people contributing in terms of working, running businesses and paying taxes?

hella 2
Kenyan man surprised and disappointed at his low ranking immigrant status.  “I thought we had a shot.”  he said mournfully

Why is the model immigrant assertion even an answer to the travel ban?  Isn’t it a way of saying, ‘what of all these scummy other immigrants? why not shut them out? why us????’

hella 3
Somali woman not at all surprised by her low ranking since she knows that us model immigrants have never forgiven her and her fellow  Somalians from fleeing a civil war and coming to the West in numbers.  Without their designer dregs.

Or is part of it  that Nigerians are trying to communicate to the world how different they are to those lazy, unambitious African Americans or in the UK, Caribbeans?

If so, it is hella offensive, isn’t it? It also completely fails to acknowledge that Nigerians have been able to succeed because of the grounds laid for them by these people and the welcome hands that have been stretched out to Nigerians who are able to jump back and forth between utlising laws intended to uplift African Americans from the traumatising impacts of slavery and Jim Crow laws  and claiming that they do not have the historic chip on their shoulders that African Americans carry and are therefore less problematic (not all Nigerians etc).   Attitudes like this contribute to the backlash against Nigerians in certain African American communities.

It’s also offensive in a less dramatic way.  People cannot help coming from poverty; from having to leave their country in circumstances here they have nothing; coming from a background where  there are other virtues apart from education and succeeding financially in a ruthlessly capitalistic world.  If Nigerians were naturally endowed with the hard work gene, I think it would have made itself evident in Nigeria as well.  What Nigerians have in abundance is a disproportionate respect for wealth and status that pushes them into certain professions.  A lot of their wealth and status in Nigeria is obtained at the expense of millions of other Nigerians.  A cleaner, a shop assistance, hairdresser  or a taxi driver is no less essential and no less ‘model’ than a bank manager or doctor .

4.  Hella right wing rhetoric:  So what makes a model immigrant and why do we care?  I don’t believe the concept of immigration laws and border control is in itself wrong.  However, immigration rhetoric, particularly those used in politics and in the media, is frequently flawed and bordering on fascist.  The basis of a lot of it is that an immigrant is taking something from the real citizens or the natives.   Therefore the reason why the topic of Nigerians being model immigrants in this context has even arisen is because of the belief that, every single immigrant is under a duty to show how they are personally giving back to their host countries.

In reality, inward migration brings with it new people to carry out jobs, form customer bases, pay taxes and open businesses.  Even on a hard line capitalist assessment and discounting things like new cultures, attitudes and food, all of these create employment and refresh the economy.   For example, if there were less people in the UK, housebuilders and retailers wouldn’t make as much money and various sectors wouldn’t have the skills they need.

Western governments know  this which is why they have several programs encouraging immigration yet politicians and the media consistently tell us, in so many ways, that  immigrants are harming their host  countries  simply by being there and some people have bought into the idea that the only way that immigrants can counterbalance this harm  is by giving back in an extraordinary and noticeable way.  In my view, justifying immigration of or  opposing immigration controls on a particular group of people on the basis that they are good immigrants encourages, not only prejudice and division, but the kind of unjust generalisations that crudely lumps people into categories and values or persecutes them accordingly.

Basing this qualification solely in terms of being ‘intelligent’ (better educated because they   had the means, however dodgily obtained,  to escape an economical and education that is failing the majority of Nigerians), hard working and ambitious which loosely translates into the fact that there are more rich Nigerians is unbelievably exclusionary.  It endorses an unequal system and doesn’t see the value in low paid jobs or people who are less able to perform traditional jobs and tasks, like disabled people.

By calling yourself or your group the good kind of  immigrants, you are not dismantling an incredibly dishonest rhetoric that has added another layer of suffering and misery  to immigrants struggling to cope even as they enable people from the host countries to be more prosperous.  You are enabling and facilitating a cruel system

5.  Hella pointless:  And it’s pointless.  The rage about immigration is not about good or bad immigrants, especially when it comes to people of colour (the only good immigrant is the white English speaking one, as the joke goes).  They don’t care how good you are at your job and you can cure cancer from your own damn country.  Your neighbourhood racist or xenophobic is not impressed by how many degrees you have.  They resent you for it and want you to go away.

This is difficult to explain and even more difficult to accept but the sight of your African looking face, especially if combined with an African language. agitates these kinds of people.  They have to take a breath, calm and rationalise with themselves  when they come face to face with the internal disruption from seeing you and people like you round the school gates.  They have been convinced, on some level,  that immigrants are spoiling their country by default.

It’s depressing enough to have to convince them that immigration is generally beneficial  (or that you are not, in fact, an immigrant but that is another blog post) but trying to distinguish yourselves from other groups of immigrants by telling them, don’t worry, we’re the good kind, the ‘model immigrants’ in fact?  They’ll decide that for themselves, mate.

So that’s it in a ranty nutshell.  I guess on a personal note, it is disappointing how quickly liberal Nigerians (and others ), without any apparent thought, revert to divisive right wing thinking as soon as they perceive any threat to their own interests.

 

 

 

Wish You Were Here By Iain Lovejoy

“I’m scared, Pastor Nick, and I wish you were here.”

A Short Story 
“I’m scared, Pastor Nick, and I wish you were here.
I am not sure what happened. I think there was an accident, I remember the bus, and a noise and a bang and everything rolling over and over and flames and pain, and now I’m here.
Judgement day over a city — Stock Photo
It’s cold, and it hurts and I don’t know what’s going on and I’m scared and there’s no-one to tell me what I am supposed to do.
There was noise, then darkness, then silence, then light. And people, lots of people, and they seemed to be going somewhere, and they were noisy and talking and playing and no-one seemed to be in charge. Except there was this scruffy looking little black girl who was talking to everyone and laughing and everyone seemed to be following her. And she knew my name, and she spoke to me and said “Come on, come with me to my daddy’s house and play with us: there’s a room ready, it’ll be fun!”
Image result for happy black girl
And I almost went; I almost fell for it: despite everything you taught me, Pastor Nick, I was almost fooled. You said the devil is a deceiver, and will try to trick me, and he nearly did. She seemed so friendly and nice, and everyone seemed so happy and getting on with each other and I nearly went.
You know what saved me, Pastor Nick? You know who I saw in the crowd? It was that gay kid, Jack, or John, or whatever his name was: you know, the one you tried to pray the devil out of, the one whose parents kicked him out when they found out about his boyfriend? I remember you telling us that he had never repented, that he had killed himself or something and had died in his sin. Well, there he was in the crowd, happy and smiling with the rest of them, and I knew right then where they were all really going, where that black little girl was really luring them to.
Then, the more I looked, the more I realised I was right. None of the saved were there: you weren’t there, the elders weren’t there, no-one. There were all sorts of people there I’d never seen in church, sinners and strangers, all the kind of people you always told me would lead me astray, and, if I hadn’t listened to you, Pastor Nick, they would have done.
So I said to the little girl “Get behind me, Satan!” like you said I should, and she looked kind of sad, and then I was falling and falling and falling…
I’ve got myself a room now. It’s sort of cold and hot and hurts all at the same time, and outside there’s what sounds like a huge storm trying to batter its way in, and I’m very scared, but at least it’s safe.
Image result for shadow of man sitting alone on floor"
Or it would be, except that scruffy little black girl is still here. I shout at her and tell her to leave me alone and call her all sorts of names but she won’t go. I can see the heat from the room blistering her skin, and that’s got to hurt, but still she sits there telling me over and over I don’t have to stay here, that I should come with her to see her father, who welcomes everyone, and who will make everything all right.
But my faith is strong, Pastor Nick. I know that, just like you told me, my father loves me and I am one of the chosen, and I’m not destined to go with that scruffy little girl and all those sinners to her father, who I bet just takes anyone: she can’t fool me.
But I’m scared, and it hurts, and there’s no-one to tell me what to do, and I’m afraid the little girl is never, ever going to leave me.

I wish you were here, Pastor Nick.”

By Iain Lovejoy

 

 


Immigration As Trauma

But immigration is trauma. That may sound dramatic but it is very true in its own way

 

Immigration, it seems, is the new trauma, the new misery-art, featuring….Nigeria (lately). In the last couple of weeks I’ve watched Farmed, a harrowing tale of a Nigerian boy’s journey from relatively good-naturedly racist foster home to Nigeria back to foster home and then into the arms of the local skin-heads first as a pet then as a not quite fully fledged member (as he finds out) and The Last Tree, a less-but-still harrowing tale of a Nigerian boy’s journey from non-racist foster home to Inner City London to Nigeria.

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Farmed

The context of both films is the practice of Nigerian parents of sending their children to foster homes while they continue their education, save money and/or look for jobs which will bring in enough money to take care of their families. Farmed, based on actor Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje’s experiences, takes place before parent-friendly education and work policies. In The Last Tree, I presume the mother just couldn’t afford to have a small child with her, regardless of any family friendly job opportunities which may have existed in the 1980s or 1990s when the film was set.

Agbaje
Actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

Immigration stories have always been popular. I’ve recently re-read CNA’s Americanah, a tale of two immigrants and their separate traumas.  In non-fiction or ‘real life’, we are not too far away from horror stories emanating from Theresa May’s hostile environment and Youtube clips of people telling us that they voted to leave the European Union to keep the Africans out.  Both of these are, in my view, the result of decades of demonisation and criminalisation of immigrants combined with under-investment in public services, including immigration control, and a reliance on scaring the public out of their wits of a UK brimming with immigrants singularly focused on stealing their jobs and stripping their public services to the bone.

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Former Prime Minister May – the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants was formulated when she was Home Secretary

But immigration is trauma. That may sound dramatic but in its own way it is, even when that trauma is not anybody’s fault. Regardless of your race and colour, if you can see your parents whenever you want (in theory; they might be avoiding you) and grew up with your grandparents only a drive away in a house they have lived in for forty years and maybe even got a glimpse of your great-grandparents or just missed them because you were born 3 days too late, you will never completely understand the hopeful trauma that is immigration.

Immigration, in the time period in which Farmed was set, was entrusting your children to strangers while working hard to get them out of there as soon as possible. Yes, white was right but having experienced racism yourself, perhaps you knew that plonking black children in a world that was conditioned to believe that black was inferior and proximity to the West was always an improvement, might not be altogether a wholesome experience.

Immigration is being wrenched from the world you’ve always known to stressed-out parents who treat you like we all sometimes treat our kids – 15% treasure, 85% nuisance.  It is relatives who expect you to suddenly understand their strange customs and parents who scream at you for embarrassing them by  not greeting elders like you are supposed to.  It is grandparents who are openly contemptuous  because you don’t know to jump at their every command and you flinch at traditional customs and foods.

Immigration is not seeing your parents for decades and being unable to visit them when they are ill or even attend their funeral because of financial or immigration-related constraints. Immigration means being fearful, even when you are a citizen or have permanent leave to remain or whatever, of a journey that starts at border control on the way to your country of origin. A fear which has been justified by stories of British citizens of Caribbean origin being conned out of their status documentation and then barred from re-entry in the UK as a matter of government policy.

Immigration is 19-year old me attending a meeting with a head teacher because my 14-year old brother was acting up and my parents were not in this country. It is me carrying the guilt of my brother’s eventual criminality, breakdown and mental health issues because I didn’t know how to be selfless enough to be a proper parent to him.

Immigration may have a hand in why Priti Patel can’t just be a fascist in peace, she has to also be a ‘ third generation immigrant’ (as someone on Twitter put it – although she said she was a ‘daughter of immigrants’. Wouldn’t that make her a ‘second generation immigrant’ or, what’s the word for it again? Oh yes, British) It may be why British Asians have to loudly declare their love for Britain before being allowed to criticize anything about it. Or why Asian men still answer to names Bobby, Bob, Rob, Craig and Chuck, short for Azis, Awra, Raja, Amar and Razik.

Immigration is me in 2017 trying to understand why my blind mother was being threatened with deportation by one department of the Home Office and  sent her 1978 permanent leave to remain documents by another. Immigration is me dealing with this saga for 2 years and still feeling ashamed when I had to talk about it, even to my husband and mother in law.

For immigration is indeed about shame. Through a set of historical events and political and racial manipulation, Britain has drawn immigrants from all over the world, including the Commonwealth being the countries formerly colonised by Britain. In some of these countries, a lot of people are living in circumstances which most people would find intolerable, from wars and conflicts (contributed to by Britain’s meddling in some cases) to situations of such bleak economic outlook that there is very little hope of any meaningful future for them and their children.

The United Kingdom has a right to control her borders of course. But British people emigrate for far less (I don’t want to measure the weather). People who immigrate to the United Kingdom are doing what anyone else would do in their position. Allow them entry, let them stay or not but there is really no need to make them feel ashamed. So ashamed that some of the victims of the Windrush scandal were almost more nervous about publicising their newly uncertain immigration status than the precarious situation they had been placed in. Immigration is a practical, governance issue not a moral one.

The irony is that a lot of immigrants are still being invited here to fill in skills gap from the NHS to various skilled workers and migrants schemes. Farming Today recently reported that the agricultural industry needs 70,000 migrant workers to pick fruit which is rotting by the tonne in bushes, fields and trees. The current farm workers migrant worker scheme only allows for a fraction of the required numbers. In carefully managed ignorance of this kind of thing, a large number of the British public voted for Brexit.

Immigration is being relieved you are no longer in the ‘old country’ but feeling strangely defensive about any criticism of it, which pales in comparison to your previous criticisms but somehow  seems hollow and dehumanising, lacking in context and complexity.

Immigration is the lack of logic in feeling ashamed of your accent and trying to change it as soon as possible. Your accent is a product of where you grew up. You grew up where you grew up. It is a fact and neither good nor bad. Even if you have no secrets about your life and a spanking new British passport and it is very obvious from your appearance that you are not the Queen’s cousin, eight times removed , you find yourself subconsciously hiding this part of yourself and your heritage from others.

Immigration is stumbling over the question ‘where are you from?’. If you never stumbled over that question, you do not know diluted joy of being an immigrant. Your mind races, in about three seconds, through a series of questions wondering what they are asking, what they really want to know and how you can reassure them, even you are not sure what you are supposed to be reassuring them of. You stumble through your well-rehearsed, but never well-delivered story, of how you were born in this country, went back to Nigeria because of whatever and came back whenever because of ‘instabilities’ until they kindly let you know that they were just asking what city you lived in.

Incidentally, I’m not sure what I think is going to happen if I don’t launch into a long explanation which ends in me firmly asserting my British citizenship. Do I think friends and acquaintances are going to ‘report me to immigration’? And so what if they do? I am a British citizen, aren’t I? The answer to that is that there is something negative about being from another country and living in the UK. You feel you have to explain why you are taking up their ___________

Immigration is coming to terms with all of the above only to relive the trauma when your children become of school age and you wonder whether it’s your kids that no one wants in their school because the more colour a school has the less likely it is to be ‘a good school apparently1‘ (I’m talking about regional England now not the liberal London Islington elite daring to express an opinion to the daughter of immigrants or whatever nonsense Priti Patel was spouting).

Immigration can of course be much worse. I’ve watched friends unable to work, having no future back in Nigeria and unsure of how much time to invest in the hope that they will become legal citizens. It can be living stripped of status, stateless in a hostile environment. It can be a state of being forced into criminality simply because there is no other way to survive. It can mean existing as an abused person, a slave or a victim of trafficking at the ‘mercy’ of hardened criminals simply because there is no where to go and no one to report anything to.

Immigration can be good trauma. Something that benefits in the future or knocks some sense into your head like finally catching your flaky boyfriend snogging another girl. But seriously, immigration frequently is positive beyond the opportunities available to you in their new country of residence and despite the questions and the negatives, the acceptance and politeness, especially in the UK.

Immigration can mean opening up to new cultures and new ways of life and ridding yourself of classism and other prejudices which was your way of life. For example, before the internet and its unreliable wokeness, many Nigerians were die-hard homophobes who had never met anyone who would admit to being gay and who have shed that prejudice as a result of their new country. Many of them lived in gated communities where they were taught not to think of working class or poor Nigerians as full humans like themselves and have found themselves, reluctantly or otherwise, interacting with Nigerians and people from all walks of life.

As in ‘The Last Tree’, many Nigerians grew up thinking that beating and physically punishing a child was the hallmark of good parenting, one that set them apart from these lax white people and useless ‘West Indians’, who let their children run riot, instead of the parental abuse which we now know that it is. That strategy has come home to roost, like the fabled chickens, as the news reports now feature violent West African young men who were probably brought up in that way. Not only ‘JAH-my-cans’ then. I found Femi’s mother’s behaviour appalling in those scenes , but also familiar, both from my childhood and as a parent and I am distressed by this.

One last word about the films. Femi and especially Enitan embodied the kind of surly, young, seemingly impenetrable older black teenage boy or young man that some people would cross the road to avoid, if only they could figure out how to do it in a way in which the person they are trying to avoid doesn’t notice. Faces that seem angry, invariably darker skinned, expressionless, hooded eyes, hoods (if worn) up, their walk a concentrated, forward-leaning, focused gait, their fists partly clenched. People are scared to look at them for too long or to get in their way in any other manner. They fear that once those boys get angry with you, no amount of reasoning would stop them from carrying out whatever course of action they think is justified. Dehumanising and reductive for starters and I dread to think how many black boys just walking around, thinking about their Tesco shop, are subjected to this kind of stereotyping. In the case of the films, the person doing the stereotyping would have been partially right, particularly in the case of Enitan.

What saves both boys and turns them into smiling, relatable human beings again is their association with Nigeria. In the first film, Enitan’s parents, now barristers in Nigeria, stump up the cash to send him to a special school which turns him from semi-illiterate skin-head to the holder of a masters degree in law and in the second, Femi’s trip back to Nigeria completes his healing.

What happens to the black boys for whom there is no deus ex machina from the motherland? But I digress. The one thing these films do well is show that Immigration is a trauma. A necessary, unavoidable trauma, and not all bad, but it is something that, in your own small way, if you are immigrant, you are continually recovering from.

This essay contains parts of an essay which I have partially written called “The Windrush Scandal and A Very Big Problem Called Immigration” which I will hopefully complete and post some day.

1You can in theory spend your time looking for a good school or area before realising it is you, your child and others like is what some people think make a school or area ‘bad’.

Book review: Ben Elton’s Identity Crisis

All this implies that the reason that #metoo has taken the spotlight is not because there was a problem with predatory sexual behaviour and crimes but because more and more women are either lying about or misconstruing sexual episodes.

 

First of all, warning: there are mild spoilers in this review!

I have read a lot of Ben Elton’s books (my favourite remains Two Brothers written in 2012 about the Holocaust) and I like to think I have some history with his writing. I obviously have this in common with a lot of people but he is one of four authors – including Marian Keyes, Chimamanda Adichie and Nick Hornby – who, when I see their new book already out in paperback, already on some sort of offer that I think “Oh! They have a new book out! How come I didn’t know about that, then?” It’s probably because Ben, Chimamanda and Nick are not on Twitter (and the latter two have obviously decided that they will never write a book again…..)

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Unlike me when I write fiction, Ben mixes his stories with social and political commentary. One can’t assume what his views are from what his characters think (indeed, you don’t have to assume them since he airs them freely in his non-fictional work and in  interviews) but there is always one or more characters who you can tell represent what he considers to be reasonable and/or common sense views. I would call him a preachy writer and next to Christianity, his writing (or  teachings ha ha) has been the biggest influence on my moral views – certainly my liberal ones anyway. In my view, he has a way of reasoning that doesn’t isolate people with opposing views. I was quite right wing when I started reading his books.

The social commentary in Identity Crisis is on cancel and outrage culture. I don’t remember him using the words ‘cancel culture’ in the book which may the first clue that he is not completely conversant with the issues that he attempts to tackle. The book covers the #Metoo movement, rejecting the gender binary, the bitter conflict between transwomen and so-called terfs, feminism and the constantly outraged Twitter ‘community’. I have of course touched on these subjects and am also a sometimes-outraged social media commentator so perhaps I read this book from a different angle than my previous readings of his other books

The book is set against the backdrop of an impending Brexit-like referendum – this time named ‘England Out’ – for the people to decide whether England should break away from the rest of the United Kingdom. The protagonist is Inspector Matlock who is investigating a series of murders. There is some stuff about foreign influence in public opinion and outrage, as expressed on social media, and in the campaign for the referendum but that is the whoddunit bit  which I don’t want to say too much about.

In terms of critiquing cancel culture, I’m not sure Ben Elton achieved any of the possible aims or messages that he may have been going for. At first, I thought he was trying to demonstrate how, through the excesses of social media’s expressions of outrage and piling on, a somewhat harmless person, especially one who is not from one of the protected categories – i.e. one who is white, male and straight, could turn to right wing fanaticism. It almost seemed like that was where the story was heading with Inspector Matlock but that sort of petered out.

I think the book may have been trying to portray excessive outrage over prejudice (or perceived prejudice) and prejudice as two sides of the same coin or two competing societal problems. The main problem is that the book does nothing to counter the fact that, despite some of the over the top reactions and obvious virtue-signalling of some social media commentators, that kind of behaviour is no where near as problematic as the actual bigotry that it is purporting to address – be it racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever it is that people are being cancelled for.

I don’t know when the book was written but at the time of writing this essay, immigrants are still being kept in cages with no basic hygiene in the US, black people are still being shot disproportionally (to put it mildly) by members of the American police force, some white people, far from expressing the disbelief that Ben’s reasonable characters display at racism, are taking this as a cue to attempt to remove black people from their sights by calling the police, and incels are writing articulate articles explaining how men cannot possibly survive unless women are packaged up and doled out like care parcels to the least sexually successful of them. We haven’t reached the age of post-sexism at all. Men aren’t advising each other on how to be better dates and boyfriends – they have concluded that the problem is that women have too much free will.

Ben obviously uses fictional examples in the book but I find that they bear little resemblance to reality. In an example which I find particularly annoying, a young man, Kurt, and the reality show that he is in are hounded by the press and on social media because of an apparent non-consensual second kiss, which flowed directly from a(n apparently) consensual first kiss with another contestant named Jemima. Ok, it turns out that most of the hounding is being done by bots (which I discovered, but should really have known, aren’t computer programmes that tweet randomly but a deliberate spread of misinformation  by actual people ).

The producers of the show are  terrified. This is exactly the kind of thing that can bring an entire network down, can’t it !?! Can it fuck. In this same western world where rapists who keep under-aged girls in cages (yes, cages again) as sexual slaves for months manage to escape custodial sentences because the ‘essentially good men’ with ‘good upbringings’ from ‘Christian homes’  who have made ‘mistakes’ (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/man-holds-teen-girl-captive-dog-cage-no-prison_n_5cc9a10ae4b0e4d7572c4a58?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAADRzNEkUQdEc1byDz26SLuQFCqI2gIyReUN4JzVX6s0rPEwkXT2LeRA8Z9SIvwlv3cDlhpgW5ndQMgV52x17RwEZbKHG9QO2AjzqMJ4av-AAI0LvWeaWdMt0erY-mNlRsyAO5arI49NGgwthublp93ETy5Q8dh1sHWz9mEPeXyko and https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/rape-teenager-court-case-judge-trial-new-jersey-family-a8985516.html)

The closest we have seen to anything justifying the hysteria that men will be rounded up and criminalised for nothing more than aggressive pursuing and dating, which was completely fine 20 short years ago, is the Azis Ansari affair (https://worldviewsandcurrentnews.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/the-aziz-ansari-story-me-too-or-not-right-now-grace/). And even that, while not being criminal, was very strange and creepy behaviour. It turns out porn is not liberating everybody; it is just making people (men, dare I say?), feel very entitled to some very funky sex from random strangers.

Identity Crisis admits that yes, there’s patriarchy and yes, there’s entitlement and even appears to acknowledge the existence of rape culture but still manages to imply that if Weinstein can get in trouble (after all these years), how about the rest of ‘us’ normal, nice guys who may have inadvertently overstepped the boundaries once or twice? An example of this is a character in the book, Narsti, who is a normal nice single young guy living a bachelor’s life. The fact that sexual predators are being called to task doesn’t make him think about consent. Instead he is worried that women, after a night of booze, sex, and drugs, will make accusations against him.  He receives reassuring text messages from some of his lady friends that this will not happen. He in turn has an affair with his older employer and is similarly decent about it , i.e. doesn’t take the opportunity to accuse her of sexual misconduct with a much younger, much more junior employee.

All this implies that the reason that #metoo has taken the spotlight is not because there was a problem with predatory sexual behaviour and crimes but because more and more women are either lying about or misconstruing sexual episodes. Again, this is not borne out by the facts. Men like Weinstein and Epstein were pursued and eventually arrested for criminal and horrendous behaviour not miserable but consensual one-night stands and almost consensual second kisses.

I can only imagine (hope?) that part of the reason why Weinstein’s comeuppance is producing such fear (“Women have all the power now!”) and hysteria about what will happen to normal men is because it took place in the entertainment industry which is rotten to the core (sexually) and that normal men don’t behave like sex-crazed animals. Or am I trying to maintain two incompatible positions – that everyone, deep down, knows the difference between abusing power for sex and dating and also that there is rape culture that encourages men to objectify women and ignore their free will in a sexual context?

I don’t have any simple answers and if I was forced to give one, I’d say that men (people) have a moral compass when it comes to sex. They also have an instinct to be extremely selfish. Patriarchal standards (or lack of) make it easy for men to ignore this compass especially when everyone else is doing it like in the entertainment industry or an overtly sexist society like Nigeria. Instead, rules and demands are made of women to excuse men from accountability. Change the standards. Punish the bad guys. That’s what I say.

Back to the book, I think most people understand the difference in culpability between a reluctant kiss, where it is very possible that the enthusiastic kisser didn’t know anything about the reluctance, and a man who verbally or physically harasses women about sex when all they want to do is their job. I was disappointed that the book conflated the two and even contemplated that a Kurt and Jemima situation could rattle a TV network to its very bones or that public money would be given to prosecute men, who have been dead for centuries for sexual crimes or that you would need to carry out a prosecution to condemn these crimes

At the end of the book, the very reasonable Matlock resigns from the police force, because the culture of outrage is driving him, a good white man away from service. Ben’s reasonable protagonists are always white, and almost always men. There may be secondary or tertiary reasonable woman or person of colour – this book showed promise in a scene with an older Asian woman  but, alas, she disappeared after one appearance.

In more than one book, Ben’s reasonable white male characters are driven to distraction by the excesses of liberal expression. But if Ben and the industry are so tired of accusations and attacks based so called white and male privilege, why not diversify things a little bit? There’s nothing Ben can do about having a few more black and brown authors but he could have the occasional non-white protagonist. If panic ensues, is this because literature’s favourite hero is giving in to this nonsense about diversity (“WHAT IS WRONG WITH WHITE MAIN CHARACTERS FOGGODSAKE, WE DON’T EVEN SEE COLOUR?!?”) or a sign that certain people are always going to get pissed off when an ethnic minority character is in the forefront (“WHAT IS WRONG WITH A WHITE 007?” “Well…what is wrong with a black one?”).

Having said the above the book is very entertaining and, almost needless to say, well-written. I may be overreaching on the feminist part of this essay because I am one of those angry feminists tweeps, as I said above. In full and fair disclosure, I have felt that some of the trans-speak is a bit overdone (because it doesn’t affect me directly) although it doesn’t change the fact that most people, despite woke social media’s efforts, still think of transpeople as sad, mental, sometimes dangerous, acts and that the excessive wokeness is nowhere as big a problem as actual transphobia. I would recommend the book for a good thriller.

Incidentally, I am also almost at the end of another book, ‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones. It is very very good and I shall be adding Ms Jones to my list of essential writers at this rate. It is about betrayal. You know when you hear that a wife snogs her colleague and you think ‘What a cow!’? Well, the level of betrayal in this book is so beyond this  that I find myself flipping through the book and thinking “She must have had her reasons. She must have had her reasons.” (She did. He was a cad.). Trigger warning: a lot of patriarchal stuff about how a man can’t survive without a woman’s down home cooking, endless labour and such other nonsense.

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