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Things we learn at school

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 27/12/2020 - 2:24pm in

For the last few years I have been working at a local supermarket. Because there are three of them within walking distance, and provided I don't specify which one it is, I believe I can talk about what it's like without violating any confidentiality agreements I may have made during the "yeah, whatever" signing-on-dotted-lines stage of the hiring process.

I was happy enough to do the job for a year or two, but then 2020 happened, so let's make that three or four.

As one of those people who push a trolley round the shop picking online orders, I'm basically paid to get in peoples' way. The maddening thing about it is that when I am in somebody's way, it's they who apologise. Stop saying sorry, people! You haven't done anything wrong!

There's the occasional exception to this rule, memorable for it's rarity. Recently an old fellow grunted "Can you move?", not even prefaced with "excuse me". (Witty response that came to me five minutes too late: "Can I move? You should see me on the dance floor, grandad!")

However by and large, the job is utterly uninteresting, if physically taxing, which comes as a relief to this middle-aged burnout case. If one has to choose, it's far better to punish your body than your psyche.

A while ago my GP asked how work was going, and I replied that over time, the range of things I've been asked to do has expanded. "Oh good," he said, "Intellectual stimulation. You need that."

He's a queer fish, my GP. He makes so much money from treating sneezes and sniffles, and the various diseases of suburban despair, that he's on holiday most of the time for tax reasons, drifting around the world in a little bubble of affluence. I don't think he's quite grasped how much intellectual stimulation is involved in any aspect of running a supermarket — or indeed in most jobs. Which is to say, none whatsoever.

There are points of interest to the experience, mainly derived from observing what various people bring to it. I've seen a lot of people come and go in a few years, which is not unusual down here near minimum wage.

On my trolley is a little computer which, when it's not malfuctioning, leads me about the supermarket by the nose like a pack animal, telling me what to get and where to get it. When you are new to the job, in the process of being broken in, it is emphasised that if you can't find something quickly you should "out of stock it" and move on. Of course the little computer is surveilling you and extracting performance metrics at all times, so speed is of the essence.

Eventually, you realise that the system's little database of stock is chronically incomplete and inaccurate, so you develop workarounds. You also work out that the people who stock the shelves are likewise evaluated by crude metrics, and that it's not in their interest to take care in their work if they will be punished for it, so (for example) a tin of tomatoes is a tin of tomatoes. Whether it's whole, diced, or crushed tomatoes is not a distinction they'll be rewarded for honouring; just get it all on the shelves as quickly as possible.

Once you've amassed a catalogue of all the managerially-imposed perverse incentives relevant to your task, you can start to reverse engineer from these a mental map of the ways that things will inevitably go wrong, and graduate from following a precisely wrong model of how the place works to a fuzzily right model.

The practical upshot of this is that, for example, you don't "out of stock" so often, yet you still get round the shop relatively quickly. Can't find something where your computer says it will be, though there's supposed to be plenty of in stock? Is the amount claimed to be in stock plausible, or likely an artifact of the periodic farcical charade known as "stocktake" (where every item gets counted, but as the item that is supposed to be in that position rather than the item it actually is)? Is it on special this week (in which case it is likely to be on prominent display somewhere else not know to the system, as it's not worth being too fussy about updating the location database week-by-week; that degree of accuracy is not easily measured, and is therefore not incentivised)? Have a look a couple of inches or feet away where there's another product with quite similar packaging. Peer right to the back of the shelf. Insert your arm, James-Herriot-style, up to the shoulder and have a good rummage. When your fingertips make contact with something, grab it, and give it a good yank, bloodying knuckles in the process. Aha! Beep it, bag it, move on…

Now none of that is intrinsically interesting. What is interesting is how long it takes for people to surmount the blind faith in the flawless way that things are supposed to work. Now after a few years, I believe I've identified a statistically significant age-related difference in the attitude that one brings to a new job, which generalises beyond this particular example. It can be summarised like so:

  • Teens/twenties: How does it work?
  • Thirties: How should it work?
  • Forties and older: In what ways is it f**ed up?

You'll be slower and less effective for longer the younger you are, and more likely to be leaned on (which in a deregulated workplace includes being given fewer and fewer hours) till you quit. There are exceptions of course. Personally, I was wandering about in a comically innocent daze until I was in my forties. But in general I've found that the strength of this childlike belief in a world which is pretty well ordered, by grownups who know what they're doing, is proportional to one's degree of, and temporal proximity to, formal education.

So it's not strictly age related. If you're on the sort of career track where you're enjoying "lifelong learning", then clearly reality is not for you. You've taken the blue pill. You're paid to push an arbitrary sort of accountability down the hierarchy by measuring the easily quantifiable, and your only worry is the smaller degree of whimsical discipline imposed from above by those even deeper in cloud cuckoo land.

There's an interesting body of academic work on this, which I'll write about when I get round to reading it. It basically all boils down to Goodhart's Law.

The general cause of the problem is a neoliberal shift from academic education, concerned primarily with how the world actually is, to vocational education which, whether the practitioners know it or not, is about how this or that group of people believe the world should be. In extreme cases, such as mainstream economics, there's no recognition of a possible distinction between the two, since we live in a Panglossian best of all possible worlds, and one can not only derive ought from is, but also go in the other direction. Fault therefore lies not in our systems, but in ourselves. Therefore, it makes sense to measure our virtues using the simple numerical targets of our broken systems: in a word, meritocracy.

My whole working life I've heard conversations among exasperated colleages that run something like "Why do they still not get it? What can we do with them?", often in rooms I've just entered which suddenly fall silent when I'm noticed. To be functional in a fantasy world is to be able to practice the doublethink necessary to insist that the system is fundamentally sound, while intuitively implementing baroque workarounds for the fact that it is fundamentally broken. This phenomenon is fractal, and scales up to the global level, which might give one pause as we "return to normal" in 2021.

I've no conclusion to this…

The Cornell Effect: Being a Fan

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 12:22am in

Never Mind the Magma Creature, Here's the Caves of Androzani

I have on several occasions unsuccessfully tried to explain the virtues of fandom to my friend and occasional acting coach Tony Wickert (director of, among other things, numerous episodes of Z-Cars but no Doctor Who; Verity Lambert approached him, but he turned it down!).

It is vital that the object of your fandom is not uniformly excellent. It should be occasionally excellent, mostly good, sometimes bad, and every now and then absolutely atrocious. Such variation encourages the development of the cultural literacy necessary to explain it, and contributes to the depth and richness of one's appreciation of any work of art. A consistent work of unalloyed genius would be absolutely useless to this end.

By this measure, the mid-1980s was perhaps the best time to be a Doctor Who fan, regardless of how we felt at the time. When thinking about this period, I can't but recall an excellent article written at the time by the frighteningly prolific Paul Cornell (writer of Father's Day for Christopher Ecclestone's Doctor, and Human Nature for David Tennant, as well as being a one-man industry of print fiction including, but far from limited to, titles within the worlds of Doctor Who of varying levels of canonicity).

Titled "The Androzani Effect", it absolutely nailed what had gone wrong with Doctor Who to produce the appalling first full series of Colin Baker's Doctor in 1985. About five years ago, I was looking for a copy of this article online, and found there was none, but (of course) I had a cardboard box in the cupboard full of fanzines, so I asked Paul via his website if it would be okay if I preserved it for digital posterity, and he very kindly agreed. A few personal developments in the meantime meant that I didn't get round to it until recently. However, before the casual viewer of New Who has a very rewarding read of it, I feel obliged to add my two cents worth of context.

Firstly, one must consider the average age of fandom in 1985. A decade earlier, then producer Philip Hinchcliffe established, in his own mind at least, that the core audience for Doctor Who was "intelligent fourteen-year-olds". I was fourteen years old in 1985. Current Doctor Who showrunner (as far as I can make out, "showrunner" is a merging of the old roles of producer and script editor) Chris Chibnall was fifteen. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman — basically the authorial class of 2005 New Who — were all teenagers. Emeritus showrunners Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat were in their early twenties. When you are fourteen (if my own experience is any guide) you're suddenly taller than your parents, there are hormones raging, and you feel intensely passionate about the oddest things. For some reason the The Famous Five and the Tomorrow People lose their allure, and you're desperate for something that will stretch your imagination and flex your intellectual muscles, because you have an inkling that something big is about to happen, and you need to be ready for it. (Sadly, I'm still waiting.) Suffice it to say that this is an audience you disappoint at your peril.

The aforementioned Hinchcliffe, along with script editor Robert Holmes — a tall, urbane fellow, perpetually wreathed in pipe tobacco smoke, who had been writing for Doctor Who since the 60s — presided over what (to hell with it I'll give up on qualifiers) was the programme's Golden Era. It's this period that most people think of when they consider classic Who. Tom Baker was dazzling and working incredibly hard, rather than phoning it in or sending it up, as he was later inclined to do. Elizabeth Sladen as the indefatigable Sarah Jane Smith was an acting masterclass in every episode; the difference between what she was sometimes given on the page and what she delivered on screen is just amazing. And beneath it all was the work of Robert Holmes, writing, or more often heavily re-writing, the majority of the stories.

Nobody knew the soul of Doctor Who like Holmes. To be sure, other writers have equalled him in one way or another. Stephen Moffat can write dialogue to equal Wilde, but too often Moffat writes his characters from the outside in, and sometimes not very far in. With Holmes, the wit bubbles up from from the core of the character. Often it's when two characters realise they are just fundamentally not on the same page and they are going to have to muddle through as best they can; for the initiated, think Litefoot and Leela's supper in Talons of Weng-Chiang, or Harry and Vira in the Ark in Space.

[I, and I realise I may be in a minority here, love Harry Sullivan. Conventional wisdom says that he was devised to cater for the casting of a Doctor older and less partial to physical action than Jon Pertwee's, and upon the casting of a younger Doctor was relegated to the role of buffoon. I disagree; he was a character who functioned extremely well in a very particular and familiar context, and taken out of that context he adapted in ways that were sometimes sub-optimal, but still revealed his fundamental decency. He ought to be regarded as a template for how to do a companion, not an aberration.]

The point of all this waffle is to say that the story of what went wrong with Doctor Who in the 80s begins with what went wrong with Doctor Who in the 70s. After Hinchcliffe and Holmes left, the program cruised along under the momentum they had given it for a while. At some point, possibly due to the existence of a subsidised bar at the BBC, somebody thought it would be a ripping wheeze to hire the notoriously deadline-averse Douglas Adams as script editor while he was also supposed to be writing the second radio series of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This worked to the detriment of both programmes (despite providing the delightful Adams-penned romp City of Death).

At the same time the second oil crisis of the 1970s hit the UK, causing devastating inflation, the winter of discontent, and strikes such as those which terminated the production of Adams' next story Shada. Due to inflation, budgets planned at the start of a series' run dwindled to nothing by the time it came to produce the last episodes, and the programme, never blessed with the money necessary to realise its ambitions, began to look decidedly cheap. Nobody was at the wheel, and the programme's charismatic star had become lazy and petulant. As commentators subsequently put it, Doctor Who had become, at best, "The Tom Baker Comedy Half-Hour".

Enter a saviour in 1980: John Nathan-Turner, or JN-T to fans, having worked his way up the BBC ladder from floor assistant on shows such as BBC's Doctor Who to the rank of producer for the eighteenth series.

JN-T sincerely loved and believed in Doctor Who; he just didn't understand it.

Fortunately he had new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, with a history not just as a scriptwriter, but also as a science journalist, and by heavens Bidmead worked himself as hard in that year as Holmes had done previously. The scripts were tighter, and there were thematic threads of varying degrees of subtlety that ran through the series, prefiguring New Who. The errant star, despite being "ill" much of the time (of the kind of illness you might catch in the public bar of the Coach and Horses or the Colony Room) delivered some of his best performances, "reined in" as they say, but still utterly beguiling.

And then the wheels came off. Baker demanded more money, which gave JN-T the opportunity to wish him all the best for the future. Bidmead also left, and JN-T, with no real idea what he was doing, managed to coast along on scripts Bidmead had commissioned for series nineteen, along with no small amount of luck. The casting of Peter Davison as the Doctor could be considered genius, were it not for JN-T's own admission that the reasoning behind it was that he wanted to contrast an older actor with curly hair with a young actor with straight hair. #facepalm

Here's where we get to Cornell's critique. Halfway though series nineteen, a young writer named Eric Saward was taken on as script editor. Like JN-T, he didn't understand Doctor Who, but unlike JN-T I don't think he ever really cared about it.

Saward's universe was bleak, and its inhabitants were constantly bickering to no good end. Endless whining in the Tardis console room was, for Saward, the stuff of drama. It became painful to spend time with these people. Once outside the Tardis (and sometimes even inside), body counts and bloody vengeance were at the core of Saward's 80s Hollywood sensibility.

Davison deployed all his charm in consistently playing against Saward's version of the Doctor: melancholic, irritable, amoral. His successor, Colin Baker. on the other hand, took that brief and ran with it. But first there was the return of Robert Holmes.

JN-T was vehemently opposed to hiring old hands, but Saward, to his credit, felt that Holmes was the person to write the Doctor Who twentieth anniversary special. Holmes wisely refused to shoehorn five Doctors, every supporting actor that could be rounded up, and a grab-bag of old monsters whose costumes hadn't disintegrated while in storage, into ninety minutes. That job fell to his script editing predecessor Terrance Dicks, who did about as well as can be expected with Peter Davison, two other Doctors, a stand-in for one, and some location footage from the unfinished Shada in lieu of an egotistical Baker. Then, for Davison's final story a year later, Saward again turned to Holmes.

Here you should transport yourself back to 1985 and turn to Paul Cornell's insightful analysis. I'll be waiting here till you're done.

Good, wasn't it? I remind you that the author was at an age where many of his peers were still saying things like "Wouldn't it be great if the Cybermen battled the Daleks?". No Russell, it wouldn't! It would be very, very boring!

I desperately tried to enjoy series twenty-two and Colin Baker's Doctor. True, at the age of fifteen, I was probably at my most vulnerable to Saward's excesses (I was also watching a lot of James Bond at the time; a penchant I now find utterly inexplicable). Other criticisms of the show's direction failed to persuade me. Founding member of Australian Doctor Who fandom Antony Howe famously railed against "Doctor Whooligan" and basically quit all association with the program in protest, yet I was unmoved.

Yes, series 22 was, in comparison to its predecessor, a dud series, but it had its bright spots. Vengeance on Varos was at its core a clever variation on prior dystopic tales like the Sun Makers, somehow managing to critique reality television long before the term had even been coined. The Mark of the Rani was an old-school psuedo-historical which ought to have pleased the traditionalists. Holmes' the Two Doctors suffered from a mostly superflous, exposition-heavy first episode and flat direction which utterly failed to take advantage of much-hyped location filming in Spain (an example of JN-T's instinct to produce based on what would make for a good press release while being quite unconcerned by what ended up on the screen), still it is not quite without charm and Swiftian bite ("But I remember a dish… Shepherd's Pie." "Shepherd's Pie? Oh, a shepherd! Can't we walk faster?").

Saward created for the series 22 finale (here I perhaps damn with faint praise) his best credited work on the programme in Revelation of the Daleks. Cornell is of course quite right in identifying it as largely the product of lessons half-learned from Holmes. But on the other hand, Saward did at least bother to draw a wider than usual net of cultural influences including Evelyn Waugh's the Loved One and ripping yarns of the Knights Templar. And it is tightly paced, save for the by then traditional plot exile into which he sends the Doctor and Peri, who wander around aimlessly for the whole of the first episode, and in fact barely influence events at all throughout the entire story. Saward did not much like his regular cast, and prefered to do without them wherever possible.

It was Cornell's dissection of the way that Saward had learned all the wrong lessons from Homes that shook me from complacency, making fan commentary I'd previously dismissed suddenly salient. Certainly in retrospect it was on target in a way that hindsight has only vindicated.

Still, if there is anything Doctor Who does well, it's reinvention. Two troubled series later, once Andrew Cartmell, who both loved and understood the series as well as recognising its potential to break new ground, was firmly established as script editor the show was as solid, and certainly as innovative as it had ever been.

But by then Doctor Who was the only drama that the BBC was still producing in-house, as the corporation preferred to follow strict Thatcherite doctrine by becoming a purely managerial enterprise, and outsourcing actual production to companies without the merest sliver of the institutional expertise that the Beeb once had. It is doubtful that any programme could have survived in this environment.

However it is tempting to look at how well 1989's series 26 and (if one really must adopt new nomclementure) 2005's season 1 (really series 27) mesh together, and wonder what might have been. I know that Cornell, Cartmell, et al. were having fun writing novels, audio dramas, and so on, but oh! for another couple of years at least with Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred…

Bondi Junction: A Quick Red Brick Tour, Part One

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 15/12/2020 - 9:19pm in

I'd long assumed that the flat that I lived in a quarter of a century ago had been demolished for high-rise or retail. I can't easily get there to verify that, so I recently checked to see if this was the case, using a certain Evil service through which one may View a Street.

Here it is:

Ours is on the first floor; the two windows on the right. Having removed that element of suspense, I will proceed to tackle the biographical and geographical significance of that flat in a roundabout way.

One thing that definitely doesn't exist any more is Oscar's Palace, just around the corner from that flat. This is where I think it used to be:

I am not sure about this, as most of the surrounding landmarks have also been demolished, but this is the only block of land in the general area wide enough to have accommodated it.

In the early nineties, in what was to become a recurring motif in our relationship, my then-girlfriend thought it a very good idea that I lived somewhere she didn't. The reasons for this were utterly mysterious to me at the time, although embarrassingly, humiliatingly, mortifyingly obvious since. So she found an advertisement for a room in a boarding house in Bondi Junction.

It was a mere eighty dollars a week, which is a steal for a pretentious unemployed youngster intent on writing a great novel, despite displaying no previous aptitude in this area, and not even having a particular fondness for long-form written fiction. And of course she would be visiting at every opportunity, as would anybody offered the prospect of a miserable time with a drunk, know-nothing, self-obsessed bore, with a once-pretty face rapidly growing flabby in proportion to the rest of his body, with the exception of the thinning hair.

So, having visited said establishment and verifying that I could in fact live there, according to some broad definition of "live", I went along with this plan, signing a six-month lease for a single room with bed, tap and basin in the corner, two-ring cooker on the sideboard, and bar fridge.

Oscars's Palace was obviously once a rather grand three-story house, sufficiently far out from the industrial squalor of Darlinghurst and Paddington to be genteel, but still close enough to the city for an easy commute. I'm no judge of such things, but I'd say it may well have been built before the electric tramline along Oxford Street.

At some point, the residence fell from grace and was divided into two semi-detatched houses, and then into the final indignity of being a boarding house for those working their way down to homelessness.

Every floorboard creaked beneath the loose folds of fraying carpet, and the stairwell reeked of cat urine. The cats themselves were mangy, rail-thin, and hissed at everyone, including each other. I presumed they belonged to the couple upstairs, who also spent most of the day engaged in loud mutual verbal abuse. (However that was the most violence I ever experienced there, which from the perspective of my current neighbourhood, seems quite idyllic.)

The shared bathroom on my landing had a lavatory, a basin, a shower head sticking out of the wall, and a drain in the middle of the floor. So if someone had just showered, you had to splash across the room to get to the lav. The real challenge was the gent residing at the far end of the landing, in the room nearest the bathroom. He was a man of regular habits, the first of which was to throw up all over the bathroom floor, before donning his off-white linen suit and fedora, to go off and do whatever he needed to do in order to perform the same feat the next morning. So if you didn't want to tiptoe though a minefield of diced carrot to have your morning shower, you had to be an early riser.

The other thing was to give your luggage a good brisk shake before closing it and setting off anywhere. Because ideally, you want the mice to leap out of your bag before you get to your destination, unless you have the bravado to smile broadly and cry "Ta-da!"

The place was riddled with mice. The feral cats clearly felt they had bigger fish to fry, as they seemed not at all interested in something so petty as mice. They had so much stuff to hiss at or piss on; one simply cannot be looking after everything!

Within a couple of months, I was going insane. I had no idea how to look after myself. I had quit my job with the intention of writing the work of genius that had been sitting inside me, desperate to be delivered, yet the typewriter sat idle. I realised that without a job I couldn't carry on bouncing from pub to pub with occasional stops for junk food, so my solution was to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in bulk and eat it over the course of a few days to a week, washed down with ouzo and lemonade, of all things. I can't imagine how sweet, sparkling, southern fried, liquorice-scented chicken, never made it onto the bathroom floor along with the diced carrot. It appears I did have some measure of self-control, after all.

The old chap who set up office every day in the shed out back was heavy set, but took your four twenties each week in a genial, grandfatherly way before slipping them into his cashbox, locking it up, and issuing a stamped and signed receipt. I was afraid that, at the end of six months, when I told him I was moving out, that he might feel offended. He smiled, took my eighty dollars, and gave me a receipt.

I actually met Oscar, in a manner of speaking, shortly before moving out. I was on my way somewhere, locking the door behind me, and turned around to see a couple of unusually respectable people coming up the stairs, and only then noticed a dapper little old man at about eye level with my belly looking up at me, beaming and waving a silver-topped cane, crying "Ah! Velcome! Velcome!" He continued on to the next tenant, coming down the stairs, "Velcome! Velcome!"

Makes the regal "And what do you do?" seem positively garrulous.

I surmised that, as a young man disembarking at Circular Quay and seeing all the potential for urban decay that Sydney had to offer, he realised that he would need to pick up a smattering of English if he were ever to become a successful slumlord, and with a shrewd businessman's knack for economy, decided that "welcome" was sufficently convivial to pretty much cover it.

Now, you may well ask, how did I know his name was Oscar? I didn't at the time, but I did a couple of years later thanks to my friends Chris and Dave, and an establishment called Billy the Pig's…