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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (liber voluptarius)

Alan and the Culture Clash

I work for a computer training company and we provide a lot of training on behalf of Microsoft.

Once upon a time it was very easy to become a Microsoft trainer. All you had to do was pass an exam in the product you wanted to train, and supply Microsoft with a video of yourself in full classroom flow, in order to prove that you were actually capable of standing in front of a group of people and talking coherently. Presumably Microsoft played the video to their staff during Friday afternoon drinks and if everyone laughed loudly enough you got to be a trainer.

Actually, since nobody in Microsoft ever laughs at anything, that probably isn't true. Microsoft is a particularly humourless organisation which takes itself far too seriously. I told a joke to a Microsofty once.

"When you go and work for Microsoft," I said, "they arrange for you to have an operation to put a microchip into your head to turn you into a robot. And because the surgeons are very cost conscious, they usually take the opportunity to remove your sense of humour gland at the same time."

"That's ridiculous," said the Microsofty indignantly. "Microsoft don't operate on their new employees." He sounded quite angry. "That's a stupid thing to say."

"See?" I said, and laughed.

He looked bewildered.

The Last English King is a historical novel about Harold, the English king whose unfortunate fate it was to face the invasion of England by William of Normandy in 1066. In his introduction, Julian Rathbone points out that the novel, while seriously intentioned, is full of anachronisms because anachronisms amuse him, though he does not understand why. I have to confess I’m on his side – playing the game of spot the anachronism adds a whole new dimension to the book. Thus I was hugely delighted to find on page 60 that the hero, an elite soldier in King Harold’s household guard, sports a tattoo in Danish runes that says "Winners Dare". He had it done in Hereford. Also, on page 63, an entertainer:

                                …twanged away at a tuneless lute and wailed nasally above
                                the noise he extracted from it. A sad ditty about how the answer
                                to everything was blowing in the breeze.

The book is full of extremely good jokes but nevertheless it has the deeply serious intention of dramatising and explaining a very complex and very important time in English history (and therefore, indirectly, of the history of the world). I enjoyed it so much, I immediately went out and bought two more of Rathbone’s historical novels.

Kings of Albion brings the same narrative techniques to bear on the Wars of the Roses; a subject dear to my heart for I was born in Yorkshire and my parents were both born in Lancashire. The white rose and the red were always at loggerheads as I grew up. It made for a tempestuous household. The book is deeply weird, for it is told from the viewpoint of a troupe of travellers from the Middle East who have come to England in search of a missing kinsman and therefore, to an extent, the book also concerns itself with the politics and culture of the East as well as the West. That’s a large canvas to paint on. But Rathbone never misses a beat. The Eastern travellers are horrified by the European weather and disgusted by the food. They are confused by the politics (why does the Emperor of the Romans live in Germany and the Christian High Priest in Rome?). The book is by turns amusing, anachronistic (of course), gruesome and extremely lucid. I loved it.

A Very English Agent opens during the Battle of Waterloo. Charlie Boylan is getting his end away. But at the climactic moment his inamorata is decapitated by a mortar shell. Charlie Boylan’s memoirs (of which this is an extract) could prove very embarrassing for the British Government. Not because of his sexual exploits (though these do titillate and sometimes disgust the Victorian officials who are reading them) but because Charlie was a secret agent, employed by the Government during the tumultuous years that followed the victory at Waterloo. Britain (and Europe) teetered on the brink of revolution. It was a time of great social and technological upheaval. Ned Ludd and Captain Swing were a force in the land, and the first trade unions were being formed. Charlie (agent 003, licensed to kill) was one of those charged with keeping the pot from boiling over (or even coming to the boil at all). It was, you might say, a process of elimination. Everyone is anxious to keep it all quiet. But Charlie claims he hasn’t been paid for some of his jobs and unless he gets his money, his memoirs might somehow get published…

With wry wit and impeccable bad taste, Rathbone gleefully examines the sordid side of the social history of the nineteenth century. It’s a wonderful book.

Over the years, the criteria for becoming a Microsoft trainer have become much more formalised and much tougher to meet. The programme also stopped being free – for the last few years, all trainers have been required to pay an annual fee to maintain their certification.

The introduction of that requirement was when we discovered that Microsoft had their own extremely bizarre notions of world geography. New Zealand, I was surprised to find, is a state of Australia. In the first year of the new regime, New Zealand trainers were required to pay their renewal fee in Australian dollars. New Zealand dollars were not acceptable. (To be fair, Microsoft fixed that in subsequent years). Furthermore, in the first year of the programme they made such a mess of implementing exchange rates that trainers in the UK ended up paying about $100 (American) more than trainers anywhere else in the world. However this was offset by setting the exchange rate for Greek drachmas to such a ridiculous level that the Greeks ended up paying vastly less than anyone else in the world. Since both Greece and the UK are part of the European Union, a lot of UK trainers renewed their certifications in Greece in order to avoid the massive extra costs.

The storm of complaints over this seemed to take Microsoft a little by surprise. It was almost as if they had no real understanding of the non-American world. Perhaps their programmers simply implemented "foreign" requirements because the specifications told them to, but they didn't really believe that foreigners were different from Americans, so they didn't test the system out too well before it went into production. After all, if programmers at NASA can completely destroy a space probe because they don't know (or don't care) about the difference between imperial and metric measure, then I'm sure Microsoft programmers can do the equivalent in their own areas of (non)-expertise. Doesn't everyone know that the world outside of America is purely imaginary, somewhat akin to the square root of minus one?

Trainers see evidence of this every day in the classroom. All our students are presented with a training manual printed on American letter stationery and bound in a three ring binder. It is completely impossible to buy American letter stationery in this country and it is almost impossible to buy three-ring hole punches. In New Zealand, in common with most of the rest of the non-American world, we print on A4 paper and bind the pages in two ring binders. As a direct result of this thoughtlessness, non-American students cannot bind the notes they take in the class into their manuals. Even if they do manage to get the holes into the right place on the paper, the pages stick out from the rest of the manual and very quickly tear and get dirty.

Last Tango in Aberystwyth is the second in Malcolm Pryce’s brilliant saga of an alternate universe where Aberystwyth is a huge, and seedy power in the world (though the rebellion in its Patagonian colonies has hurt it sorely). Aberystwyth is the city of dreams to the girls from the hill farms who come to make their fortune in the "What The Butler Saw" movie industry. To Dean Morgan, who teaches at the Faculty of Undertaking, it is a place to get the raw materials for his classes. But when the Dean checks in to a notorious bed and breakfast place in the ghetto and accidentally picks up a suitcase intended for a ruthless Druid assassin, he soon finds himself running for his life.

Louie Knight, Aberystwyth’s only private eye, pursues the Dean through the immoral netherworld of Druid speakeasies and toffee apple dens where every spinning wheel tells the story of a broken heart, and the porn star known as Judy Juice plays havoc with a man’s emotions.

The Anvil of the World is Kage Baker’s new novel. It is not part of her ongoing series about The Company – rather it is a delightful fantasy novel made as a fix-up from three novellas. It is the tale of a man called Smith who was once a political assassin. He has been forced to change his name and travel incognito. In order to earn a living he agrees to lead a caravan from Troon to Salesh. But the caravan is dogged by misfortune, murder, magic and the threat of the Master of the Mountain, a powerful demon. However, unknown (initially) to Smith, the Master is not quite the threat that he might be, for one of his relatives is a passenger in the caravan. The cook (another Smith; there are lots of them) takes some comfort in this.

The book is very witty, and beautifully written in lush and evocative prose. And it’s the only book I’ve ever read which has gourmet cuisine, a white uniformed nurse, one hundred and forty four glass butterflies and a steamboat. It’s magnificent. Kage Baker really is the great undiscovered genius of science fiction and fantasy and I simply cannot understand why she isn’t hugely rich and famous and inundated with awards. She deserves to be.

Barbara Nadel’s new novel about Inspector Ikmen of the Turkish police is a big disappointment. Her earlier novels in the series were rich and fascinating, but Harem is very weak. It starts out promisingly enough when the body of a teenage girl is discovered in an old cistern deep below Istanbul. She is dressed as a nineteenth century odalisque. She has been raped.

Ikmen’s investigations suggest that there are links between the death and people in high places in the Turkish government. There also appear to be overseas connections. Political pressure is brought to bear on Ikmen. Naturally he ignores it.

The denouement, when it comes, is trite and unbelievable. It almost appears that Nadel has written herself into a corner and, unable to resolve the unravelling thread of her plot, resorts instead to cliché and shallowness. It is by far the weakest of her novels.

When you are a trainer, it is necessary to update your knowledge all the time. New products are constantly appearing, new things are always on the horizon. If you fall behind, you quickly lose credibility in the classroom. One way of keeping up to date is to attend technical presentations and meetings. Consequently when Microsoft announced the release of their new .NET environment, I went to a technical presentation to start learning about how it worked.

An extremely competent and switched on Microsofty stood on the stage and demonstrated many of the features of .NET. He wrote programs and made things happen. He really was very good indeed and was obviously thoroughly familiar with his material. He wrote a program which displayed a red square on the screen.

"Watch this," he said and pressed a key. The red square turned green. The audience watched in polite silence. Red square, green square. Very nice.

The demonstrator seemed quite nonplussed.

"When I do this in America," he said, "the audience always cheers and whistles and applauds when the square changes colour."

He did it again; and again it was received with a silence of the polite persuasion.

"I guess I really am in a foreign country," he said wistfully. "OK," he continued. "I'll write you another .NET program. You'll love this. It simulates the magic 8-ball!"

He beamed with pride and waited for an audience reaction again. Nothing happened and his smile gradually wilted away in the silence.

When the silence had endured for an almost unbearable length of time, a voice from the audience yelled, "What's a magic 8-ball?"

"You're kidding me, right?" asked the Microsofty, disbelief dripping from every word. "You really don't know what the magic 8-ball is?"

Silence again.

"Gee - I thought everybody knew about the magic 8-ball."

Since we obviously didn't know what he was talking about, he tried to explain the magic 8-ball, but since he hadn't pre-prepared the explanation (because he'd assumed that we'd know) it wasn't a particularly lucid explanation. If I understood him correctly, the magic 8-ball is a pool table ball that provides essentially random answers to questions and therefore "foretells the future".

He struggled bravely through the rest of the demonstration, but his two doses of culture shock had obviously unnerved him.

I think I hate Alexander McCall Smith. He has written a book called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and it is so magnificent that I am going to have to buy everything else that he has written – and he has written a LOT! Humph!

Precious Ramotswe lives in Botswana. When her father dies she inherits one hundred and eighty cattle. With the proceeds from the sale of the herd, she starts her own business, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Many of her cases are mundane – wayward daughters, missing husbands, philandering partners. But Precious gives every case her full and serious attention and when she needs advice she visits Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the owner and proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

Not all of her cases are mundane and not everything can be solved by thoughtfully drinking redbush tea (though it helps). Precious stumbles across disturbing evidence in the case of a missing child. Witchcraft might be involved, and more than a little danger.

Smith tells his tale in prose of deceptive simplicity. The characters come alive off the page and you find yourself really caring about Precious and Mr Matekoni. Botswana is described lyrically and lovingly (and very funnily). It would be easy to sneer at the unsophisticated approach to life that seems the norm in Botswana, but Smith never falls into that trap. Instead he makes a virtue of it and traps the reader in a delightfully realised world. It’s sly and wry and warm. And guess what? I was wrong about it being unsophisticated; that’s its actual genius.

A Question of Blood is Ian Rankin’s new novel about Inspector Rebus. There has been a shooting incident at a small private school just north of Edinburgh. Two seventeen year old boys have been killed by an ex-army loner who seems to have gone off the rails. One other boy was wounded. The killer turned the gun on himself. There’s no mystery here, except of course the mystery of why the man did it. Rebus himself was once in the army and he becomes fascinated by the killer. He is not alone; the army is investigating its own and operatives from military intelligence are on the scene. The man had friends both high and low. Civic leaders were involved with him and so were the local Goths. He seems surrounded by secrets and lies.

And Rebus himself is a suspect in another murder. A small time thug who has been stalking one of Rebus’ colleagues has been found burned to death. And Rebus has blisters on his hands.

This is a novel about blood in all its aspects. It is grim and gritty. One of the best Rebus novels yet.

George Bernard Shaw claimed that the Americans and the English are two nations separated by a common language. He's quite right - but there's more to it than that. They are also separated by a common culture. The similarities often blind you to the differences and when you stumble over the differences it can sometimes be a real surprise to both sides.

For example, several years ago, shortly before Microsoft announced one of their significant new products to the world, some of our trainers went over to Microsoft's headquarters in America to get some pre-release training straight from the horse's mouth. The different approach to learning that the different nationalities adopted was quite an eye opener.

American students clustered near the front of the classroom; they were quiet, polite and attentive. They took copious notes and asked grimly intelligent questions and appeared to respect their trainers almost to the point of adulation. And they applauded, cheered and whistled when red squares turned green (or whatever).

The Brits, Australians and New Zealanders, on the other hand, clustered at the back of the room, sniggered, made lots of sarcastic comments, and sneered at the trainers. They asked awkward questions, when they bothered to ask questions at all, and they didn't applaud anything.

As a trainer, I much prefer the latter behaviour in my students. Attentive respect, amounting sometimes to obsequiousness, scares the willies out of me and I’m never sure how to cope. I prefer my students to be a bit more bolshy. But then I would feel like that, since I share that same cultural background.

Despite this, all our trainers came back from America full of enthusiasm for the new product and stuffed to the gills with esoteric knowledge. All said they'd had a great time and learned heaps. So obviously the experience wasn’t wasted. But they were quite unsettled by the behaviour they'd observed in the Americans. And I bet the Americans were equally unsettled by the behaviour they'd observed in our trainers.

Beginning with Kydd, Julian Stockwin has started a series of novels about life in the British navy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It’s been done many times before, of course. Stockwin’s only claim to originality is that he tells the tale from the point of view of an ordinary seaman whereas most other writers in this genre tell the tale from an officer’s viewpoint. However the blurb suggests that the whole saga will tell the tale of Thomas Kydd’s progress from seaman to Admiral, so I guess we’ll get the officer’s point of view eventually.

The books are actually very readable. Stockwin is no Patrick O’Brian but he’s certainly on a par with Alexander Kent. The books are good fun, but slight.

Yeah! Robert Rankin is back. The Witches of Chiswick has five loose ends and therefore is probably the first book of a pentalogy. Fleeing from germanic automata armed with General Electric Miniguns, Will Starling travels through time to the nineteenth century. But it is a nineteenth century like no other you have heard of. It seems that Hugo Rune introduced Charles Babbage to Queen Victoria and as a result he met Nikolas Tesla and together they have transformed society. Babbage’s calculating engines (known by the new-fangled word ‘computer’) and Tesla’s wireless broadcasting of electrical power have spread the might of the British Empire over all the Earth. And the Empire will soon spread beyond the Earth, for a spaceship is due to take off for the moon, piloted by Will Starling’s umpty-umpth great grandfather. Such wonders to behold! The Martians are not pleased.

But both Hugo Rune and Barry, the time travelling brussel sprout, are worried about the evil incarnate that is the Chiswick Townswomen’s Guild and when Rune is murdered by Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes passes the case on to Will to solve in his own way, for Holmes is busy in Dartmoor.

The book has rather more plot than we are used to from Rankin, but all his trademark obsessions are here. Running gags, sprouts, the mysterious oriental martial art called Dimac, taking tea with the parson, Brentford, Neville the part time barman, pints of Large and lots and lots and lots of jokes about willies. It’s wonderful. It’s utterly deranged. It’s Robert Rankin at his best.

I suspect that cultural blindness exists mainly in the English speaking world. Other areas of the world generally do not share a language or a common cultural background with their neighbours and therefore they don't expect people from other countries to be the same as they are. Because they expect differences, they sometimes tend to respect them more.

But the old British Empire that formed our common background was just too damn large and too damn complacent, and its scattered remnants have grown too diverse without us realising it. Consequently we take each other by surprise far too often. The superficially familiar turns out to be unfamiliar when we examine it closely, which is unsettling. And that inculcates a distinct lack of respect for any cultural differences (both our own and others) since we find it too bewildering. Because we expect (and often require) similarity instead of difference, we become less tolerant. And the more extreme the difference the less patience we have with it. The truly foreign can often be terrifying in its unfamiliarity, and we want no part of it. Instead, we tend to insist that our own culture is the norm and deviations are not permitted (they frighten us).

Americans in general, and Microsoft in particular, are often completely indifferent to the annoyance that their cultural insensitivity engenders overseas. Indeed, I'm sure they don't even notice it happening much of the time since they never seem to change anything to suit local conditions (we've been getting three-ring binders and letter stationery for donkey's years). Might is right. In many ways America is merely Microsoft writ large.

However there are occasions when I find this behaviour extremely offensive. An American hotel once refused to take my reservation because I didn't have a zip code in my home address - not only was that offensive, it was damned inconvenient. Other things, such as the magic 8-ball, just make me laugh. But given that I do sometimes find the behaviour offensive, I think it is only fair to ask myself just how much of my own instinctive behaviour offends members of other cultures? I'm sure it must happen rather more often than I realise; and that makes me feel uncomfortable for I do not like to think of myself as a cultural chauvinist, though I suppose at times I must be.

Currently the Americans seem keen to impose their thinking upon the world by force of arms rather than by force of commerce. Starbucks and MacDonald’s and Microsoft are no longer in the vanguard. These days tanks and missiles are the preferred propaganda. And yet America appears to be having a lot of trouble with the idea that this forceful imposition may not be wanted at all in many places, and they seem somewhat bewildered by the resistance they are experiencing. If they don't learn to recognise the reality of the cultural differences they are so intent on smothering; if they don't learn to be more flexible in their attitudes to both small things (zip codes, three-ring binders and backward dates) and large things (Islam, oil and human rights) they may well find themselves the pariahs of the world instead of its saviours. There is much to admire about American culture, but its blind insensitivity to other viewpoints may well prove to be its downfall. I’m not very comfortable with the metaphor of Microsoft as representative of America – but the parallels are more than just anecdotal; they are truly scary.

Julian Rathbone The Last English King Abacus
Julian Rathbone Kings of Albion Abacus
Julian Rathbone A Very English Agent Abacus
Malcolm Pryce Last Tango in Aberystwyth Bloomsbury
Kage Baker The Anvil of the World Tor
Barbara Nadel Harem Headline
Alexander McCall Smith The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Abacus
Ian Rankin A Question of Blood Orion
Julian Stockwyn Kydd Coronet
Julian Stockwyn Artemis Coronet
Julian Stockwyn Seaflower Hodder & Stoughton
Robert Rankin The Witches of Chiswick Gollancz
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