Thursday, 2 February 2006

The Retreat from Moscow


About a fortnight ago I wandered into WH.Smiths in search of a suitable book to read on the tube. I headed straight for the history section and cast my eyes over the limited selection available. Two books grabbed my attention. The first was ‘1812, the story of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow’. The other was some tome about the First Crusade whose name for the moment escapes me. I weighed the two books in my head, trying to reach some conclusion as to which I should part with my hard earned cash for. In the end I decided on ‘1812, the story of Napoleons retreat from Moscow’ because, as I reflected, ‘more people get killed in this one’. I paused for a second. I had been confronted by one of those moments when a thought enters your head that are so morally reprehensible that it’s hard to understand where they have erupted from. It reminded me of that infamous occasion in 2003 when I completely lost my sense of empathy and supported the Iraq war because ‘there was nothing on T.V’.

I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as having a skewed system of ethics, and yet a cursory glance over my bookshelf would give you the impression I was some kind of a homicidal maniac. The books I own detail the deaths of millions of my fellow human beings; some froze to death in the icy wastes of Russia, some met a nasty end from the black death, others were sent off to war on the promise of glory and ended up decorating the barbed wire in front of the German trenches. These people weren’t the product of fiction, they lived real lives and died grisly deaths; and now the story of their untimely demise is my single source of entertainment during my commute to work. By chapter seven, Napoleon’s army had marched off into the Russian wilderness. Although winter had not yet begun its icy grip, the multinational army had already begun to drop like flies. In the present conflict our soldiers rightly complain when they have to pay for their own body amour. In Napoleon’s grand armee the soldiers were not issued enough rations to survive and the poor buggers in the cavalry had to routinely stick their hands inside their horse’s anal passage to remove blockages; in light of this, perhaps grappling with the photocopier isn’t so bad an occupation. By chapter ten, a few bloody battles had occurred and Napoleon had taken the questionable decision to sit tight in Moscow and dawdle while his army fell to pieces around him. The last third of the book was an almost pornographic orgy of death misery and violence as Napoleon marched his army through subzero temperatures back to Poland. Most of them had perished by the final chapters and, bravely, Napoleon buggers off back to Paris in a warm sled leaving the remnants of his depleted force to freeze to death.

It’s always comforting when a supposed military genius makes infantile errors of judgement such as this. Its also interesting that at the top of an organisation, one can make terrible mistakes that result in the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of people and yet be hailed as one of the greatest leaders of all time. Contrast this with being an admin assistant where you become labelled as an incompetent moron for the entire course of your employment if you so much as book a meeting room at the wrong time. At the other end of the scale, you can go drastically over budget, waste vast quantities of taxpayers money on an online database system that doesn’t work properly and expend resources recruiting ‘learning champions’ to promote the value of education in Nottingham’s poorest areas, only to find subsequently that most of them are in fact illiterate. This you can do with no threat of retribution whatsoever, whereas those at the bottom with little or no power must live on a knife-edge between public sector drudgery and redundancy. This raises an interesting question, why did those of the Grand Armee who had suffered such torment and hardship at Napoloeon’s account hold him in such high esteem. The answer lies in the memoirs of his soldiers that are littered with anecdotes about the great man. He visited their campfires, he rode up and down their battle-lines, he even kept a candle burning in his window every night to show his troops that he was up and working on their behalf into the dead of night. In return they loved him and died in his service. It’s a lesson that those in positions of power now would do well to heed. The style of leadership in vogue nowadays seem to involve sealing yourself off in an office, treating those under you with distain, keeping them at an aloof distance and writing them patronising emails telling them they need to be ‘more diverse’ and ‘goal focused’.

I completed ‘1812’ in record time and I have now started on the new biography of Stalin by Robert Service. The book is full of fantastic phrases such as ‘As a little boy, Stalin would play with his childhood friend Vassily. In an ironic twist, Vassily was later to be mown down by Stalin’s death squads during the purges of the nineteen thirties. I’m sure Vassily appreciated the irony.

One of the greatest aspects of my new job is the effect my re-branding has had on the way people interact with me. As an Admin Assistant, people in senior positions rarely bothered to learn my name. Instead they referred to me and fellow sufferers collectively as ‘the admin’ as if we both belonged to some servile tribe that had been enslaved to perform routine and monotonous tasks. Now I am a ‘Business Development Manager’ people ask me for my business card and go out of their way to speak to me. I am the same individual I was back in December, but as with everything in the workplace, the over inflated job title you give yourself is the single thing people take notice of. I have gone from the bottom of an organisation to the top of an organisation and now I get to see the cut-throat nature of business in its entirety. It’s a fascinating Machiavellian universe and I have picked up quite a few interesting terms. One of the best is ‘second mortgage fodder’. These are the poor blighters that will buy anything and everything, plunging themselves into vast amounts of debt and taking on financial commitments they cannot possibly fulfil. If someone takes out a second mortgage and fail to tick the right box their details are passed on to any number of sales and marketing organisations who plug as many products to them as possible. It is more than a little alarming to see that modern society is structured around driving people into as much debt as possible though credit cards, crippling interest rates and aggressive marketing. Still, that’s the system we all signed up for and we are just going to have to live with it.

The best thing I can say about East London is that last areas of it are scheduled for demolition. At then end of this month I shall be moving to a flat in Hendon amongst the quiet suburbs of north London. I shall miss the Indian chap in the local Costcutter with whom I have had a good rapport. I shall also miss the gangs of bored teenagers who stalk the streets outside the George V tube stop and with whom I am involved in a constant game of cat and mouse. According to the lady who owns the local chippy, they are partial to the odd ‘happy slap’ and like to prey on unsuspecting yuppies.

I shall also miss the tube now that I will be taking the bus instead. A lot of people unfairly stereotype London as an unfriendly city because they based their impression on their experience of our third world transport system. It’s a place that brings out the worst in humanity. Take thousands of highly stressed commuters, stick them in the kind of cramped conditions you would commonly associate with the black hole of Calcutta, hit them with a barrage of delays and patronising service announcements and watch as people’s moral fibre disintegrates under the pressure. I’ve seen yuppies in expensive suits shoulder barge old women out of the way in their efforts to make it up the escalator. I’ve seen small children pushed aside by rampant commuters as they struggle to make it into the office for nine o clock. As the doors of the northern line service open at Bank open the over-optimistic announcement comes over the tannoy system; “Thank you for standing aside and letting people off the train before you embark”. It’s a fantastically na├»ve statement, as if pre-empting peoples natural desire to act selfishly can somehow avert the impeding chaos. It soon becomes clear that the single-minded people on the platform have no such intention. Over the next few minutes a violent struggle erupts between the people on the train trying to get out and the people on the platform trying to get in before the doors close. The tannoy bursts into life again; “THANKYOU FOR STANDING ASIDE AND LETTING PEOPLE OUT OF THE TRAIN BEFORE YOU BOARD”. The voice has become imperative, the tone is that of a familiar annoyance. Clearly expecting people to stand aside on the tube is about as realistic as expecting the last remaining passengers on the Titanic to form an orderly queue for the lifeboats.

The struggle to get on the trains has been well documented. Another lesser known skirmish on the tube system is the battle to acquire decent reading material. When people reach their stop they usually leave their copy of the Metro by their seat. For someone like me who usually forgets to bring a book with them, these moments are gold-dust. I sit there studying the commuter like a hunter observing his prey. When he puts his metro down on the seat and gets up to leave my body is already coiled like a serpent, ready to grab the newspaper before anyone else can get their hands on it. Copys of the metro are the lesser prizes of the tube, on a good journey I aim to grab today’s issues of the Times or the Independent, though these are much harder to acquire. Many is the time that I have been thwarted by another commuter who has swooped at the last moment to grab the Evening Standard I observed when boarding the carriage. On these occasions I content myself with swearing at them beneath my breath. Such are the pleasures of the rat race.