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In all fairness a road trip is a metaphor for life. We live in perpetual motion, moving forward and going from place to place. Our time is spent through journeys in our space, through the time of our lifespan. Alone or with others, planned or unplanned journeys are to happen. That is life as it is.
Sometimes of course a road trip is nothing more than an actual trip in a countryside, quickly to be forgotten replaced by the next one! On this occasion, I shall try to narrate it as it happened, as it is fresh in my mind and the images can be vividly recalled. Maybe in future it would serve as a reminder, but on this occasion, it is merely a reminder of a very odd trip! At this stage, I would like to state that no humans nor animals were hurt during this road trip.
I am driving on one of the island’s country roads, the road is narrow going through the lush pine forest, some sycamore trees on the side. The track is leading up and down the mountainous path. The scenery is scenic and probably the reason people choose it. The road alternates views from the forest, the valleys, the canyons and the sea in the distance. Hues of green, and blue everywhere; and the smell. The pines joined with thyme and other fragrant herbs, a combination that gives the air that scent I cannot describe. The light blue of the sky meet the Aegean blue in the distance.
As per usual, on a road trip I prepare my maps, and plan the route in advance, but just in case I also keep an eye on the road in case there is a change. On this occasion, the public works are working wonders; the street signs are non-existent so I opted out. Interestingly instead of traffic information there were signs but not about the road ahead. Somewhere is the midst of the journey there is the first sign about Jesus. According to the sign “He is the truth, the way and the life”. I am unsure about the destination, but at least Jesus is aware. The next couple of signs involve Jesus and his teachings whilst the last one is making me feel a bit uncomfortable. “Jesus died for your sins” it proclaims! Ok fair enough, let’s say that he did. Any chance of knowing also whereabouts I am and where I am heading. The route continues with further signs until we come to a stop.
Finally, more signs. On this occasion there are some holy sites and monasteries. One of them is of a Saint most revered that apparently most of his body rests in a nearby location, (minus an arm and a shin). Later, I discover the Saint helps sick children and those who suffer from cancer. Admirable, considering that he’s almost 300 years dead. Still no actual traffic information on the road! At least the signs got me reading of a fascinating man long gone. It is fascinating reading on beliefs and miracles. Within them they hold peoples’ most secret expectations, those that under normal circumstances, they dare not to speak about. This is a blog post for another time; back on the road trip and almost two hours on the journey.
At this point, a herd of cows who have been lunching on the side of the road, decided to take a nap on the road. To be honest, it is only one of them who is blocking the way, but the rest are near idly watching. At this stage, I come to a stop waiting for the cow to move. The cow who was napping opened her eyes and looks at me, I look back, she looks away and continues to lay motionless in the middle of the road. I briefly evoke the Saint. Nothing. I am contemplating Jesus and still nothing. After some time, around an hour of cow staring I am going for my last resort. I get out of the car and promise that unless the cow moves, I shall part with vegetarianism. Now I am openly threatening the cow to eat her. This is when nature retaliates. A flock of goats join the cow. They meander around me and the stubborn bovine. The road is now akin to a petting zoo.
I employ a trick I picked up from cowboy films. I raise my hat, luckily, I am wearing a hat, weaving my arms furiously and making sounds. The cow is despondent at first and the goats just talk back. After a few minutes I have managed to get the cow to move and the goats are now at the side of the road. That’s my opportunity to leave. As I turn back, I notice another car behind me; they are also travelers who begin to applaud my efforts at husbandry. The road is clear, and I am on my way.
The next hour is less eventful although the road is still hairpinned; now it’s heading downwards and from the mountains its heading to the sea. I arrive at the sea way over the expected time and I manage to find a spot to park. One the wall, next to the spot someone wrote “you vote for them every four years like cows”. The writing is black, so I assume an anarchist, or maybe the author had a similar driving experience to me, or it’s just an unfortunate metaphor. The sea is cool and the views of the sea and in the distance a group of islands, spectacular. There are hot springs near by but in this weather the sea is more than enough. After all that drive, a stop at a local taverna is inevitable. Speciality dish mosxaraki or beef stew! I think the Saint is testing me!
On the way back, the road is empty. The cows rest on the side of the road. I slow down, I look out…they look away. At a local coffee shop a patron asks for the Covid-special coffee. I suppose a joke about the thing that occupies everyone’s mind. He doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem to believe this pandemic “nonsense”. I was wondering if he is related to the stubborn cow. The trip ended and it formed another of those planned road trips. There was nothing spectacular about it. There is however the crux of my point. Like life, most of our roadtrips are unspectacular on their own. It is what we remember of them that matters. In the last months millions of people went into lockdown. Their lives seemed to stand still; a road trip can also be a metaphor, provided we don’t forget the details.
A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question. It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’. It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t. There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations.
My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers. The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this. If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now. Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done. Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.
Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan. There is always an element of redundancy. When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions. More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.
As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?
It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.
On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?
The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.
All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.
But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.
The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.
So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.
In post-war cinema, movies became part of political propaganda, especially when the creators did not want to tackle directly on a particular issue.* The use of metaphors and euphemisms became part of the story telling especially when the creators tried to avoid strong opposition from censors and political groups. This allowed social commentary to be made under the nose of “puritan” critics! Visual semiotics in modern cinema revealed a new reality in social symbolism.
One of those symbolisms was the living dead, later known as zombies! Zombies appear on the screens in the late 40s and 50s but predominately appear with the name in the 70s. The critics show in their representation of apathetic citizens who are not alert to the dangers of communism. Originally the zombie and the alien body-snatcher became metaphors of the red danger in the US at the time of McCarthyism. The fear of communist expansion was fertile ground to play with public fears. It became evident that a good citizen in order to avoid zombification has to take up arms and resist the menace. Inaction is accessory to the crime of overthrowing the social order.
As the paranoia leading to the red danger subsided, the zombie metaphor began to lose it potency and it become a cult population for those who love watching “B-movies.” In the 80s and 90s, zombie movies became aligned with the impeding doom of the millennium and technological bug that allegedly was coming to wipe out civilisation as we know it.
In the new century, zombie became a representation of those who succumb to technology and become its blind users. Generations Y and Z were accused of spending more time than before on game consoles, surfing the web and becoming “couch potatoes.” The gamers who binge on games for days, losing all other engagements with life until the game is completed. The motionless body of the gamer sitting in the same spot, non-engaging in conversation, was likened to the brainless zombie who slowly moves in space with no volition and conscience.
More recently, the zombie movie genre promoted the idea of a global medical pandemic, mostly caused by a virus that mutates people and turn them into flesh eating abominations! The virus breakout of the zombie disease became so convincing that a concerned member of the public back in 2011 asked Leicester City Council about their preparation in case of an invasion. Of course, at the time, cultural sociologists argued how zombies are a representation of “the other” in terms of race, nationality, and of course gender. Whilst others saw them as a representation of end of days, an eschatological message that bring an end to life as we know it.
Therefore, in the situation of Covid-19 the contagion of the potent virus that can kill some whilst others carry it without even realising it, brings to the surface the zombie fears Hollywood warn us about. In a recent survey a third of US believe that the virus was created in a lab, and whilst most people according to WHO acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic there are those who question its existence. With opinions divided about the causes of covid19, life in 2020 appears to be a prequel to a post-apocalyptic reality.
Back in zombie movies and we are coming out of a lockdown when cities and towns feel deserted like 28 Days Later, people came out with protective masks like in Resident Evil and became frightened of the invisible threat like in every movie in the genre. Back in 2011, we laughed at the question “how ready are we for a zombie apocalypse?” Maybe if we asked is there a likelihood for a pandemic we could have planned and prepared for now, slightly better. There are great lessons to be learned here and possibly we can establish that when we are looking at healthcare and services, we cannot do more with less! Just whatever what you do, do not take lessons from Hollywood!
Until the next time!
*At this stage, I would like to apologise to my younger colleague and blog comrade @treventoursu who is far more knowledgeable than myself on movies!
I woke up this morning with a feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders. My problems are insignificant compared to many others, but I did think, wouldn’t it be nice to get off this merry-go-round. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could stop thinking about the injustices in the world and the part I play in them, how the problems might be solved, how best I can do my job online and give all of my students what they need, how best I can deal with tricky relationships at work and do my best for all concerned How I might ensure that my family are looked after and take on significant responsibilities in looking after the interests of an elderly relative whilst ensuring fairness all round. How can I do the right thing and not send myself into bouts of depression?
And as I thought of all of these things I came to an interesting question. Is it better to be ignorant, inept and irresponsible?
If I was ignorant, if I didn’t bother to watch the news, to critique, to engage in discussion, to think about the social world and my place in it. If I was to carry on in blissful ignorance of what is going on around me would I not be happier? If I am not aware of social injustices, then it would be easy to take a stance that what matters is simple, law and order for instance. I could become a Sun reader, more interested in the pictures than the content. The headlines would capture my imagine for a nano second and I could simply agree about how terrible this or that issue is before blissfully moving on to something else. I don’t know what everyone else is complaining about, I’m alright Jack, or should that be Jill, I must stop thinking.
If I was inept, I make a bit of an assumption here that I’m not, I guess others will judge, then that ineptitude would ensure that I wasn’t given any responsibilities, well none that really mattered. Cock things up a few times and suddenly you find that nobody wants to give you the work and nobody really wants to do any work to deal with your ineptitude, and nobody thanks them if they do. In other words, you are ‘quids in’, minimal work and nobody on your back. Couple this with blissful ignorance and life is so much easier.
If I was irresponsible, or at least seen as that, then I wouldn’t be asked to take on responsibility and all of the ramifications that go with it. No longer asked to do something that is important and has significant ramifications if you cock it up. That takes us back to ineptitude, being inept leads to no responsibility, being irresponsible gives the appearance of being inept. If I am blissfully ignorant of what people might think of me or what I might have cocked up, then no need to worry.
The only fly in the ointment here, is that in being educated, I am able to write this blog. I am able to place myself in society and sadly acknowledge my part in it. I pride myself in doing a good job and I don’t shy away from responsibility although I might get there kicking and screaming at myself for the angst and inner turmoil it sometimes creates. Knowledge is powerful, education gives you knowledge and self-awareness. The greater the knowledge the greater the self-awareness, the greater the self-awareness, the greater the thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing blissful to be found there though.