Wednesday, 8 June 2016

A sad little tale of Them and Us

Strong and positive self-perception is a key element in maintaining robust mental health, and the ability to cope with all the real-life situations that crop up every day. Of course, one's self-perception must be honest and not self-deceiving: nobody can really be a Superhero with amazing powers; nobody can really be the Chosen Instrument of a Supernatural Being, no matter what voices they imagine hearing. In short, nobody is without flaws and shortcomings that cut them down to human size; and should make them feel humble, and very much less than perfect.

So it's always a mistake to idolise anyone - because to do so is to ignore their humanity, and be wilfully blind to their defects. The possession of great talent - a magic voice, magic feet, or magic leadership qualities - does not trump everything else a person is. If ever you are inclined to place anybody on a pedestal - a political or religious leader, a royal person, or a 'celebrity' of any kind - remember that - like you - they go to the toilet, have silly little fears and prejudices, may be mean and spiteful, and in their lives they have - like you - most certainly done and said things they are thoroughly ashamed of. This line of thinking will take the lustre away, and reveal them as pretty ordinary. Unless they are mad, but then I suppose a little madness is nothing unusual either. Looniness abounds.

Remember also that all persons get old and die. Heroes wither, and perish squalidly, and may eventually disappear from even the footnotes of history. And all thousand-year empires go with them.

You still think that it's worth selling your soul for a moment's fame? Well, do it to make a difference for the time being - in a good way, to make the world a better place - and not to find permanent personal glory. Because there is no hope of that. History won't be kind. And one day, if we blow ourselves up, or starve each other to death, history will be irrelevant.

I'm not saying that all the Great People of History - which means the ones whose deeds got recorded, deliberately or accidentally - deserve to be mocked or despised. Some of them had strengths, good or bad, that should be studied so that we may be the wiser. But it's no good cherry-picking their admirable bits and ignoring their less-attractive sides. That's as bad as having an overblown and unrealistic opinion of one's own worth.

Nevertheless, I stick to my guns: it pays to develop a strong sense of personal identity and personal value. If you possess that, you can withstand almost anything, and see the way to whatever you might yet achieve.

A number of personal viewpoints or statements of 'what it means to be me' seem part and parcel of having strong and positive self-perception. Such as:

I like being myself, even if I have defects.
I feel no shame about having a very personal point of view.
I have the self-confidence, good grace, and good humour to own up to the errors I've made.
I admit to not knowing too much, but I make a point of learning new things all the time.
I have discovered many ways of doing things that work well for me, but recognise that 'my way' is not the only way.
I am wide open to suggestions from anyone, so long as I can assess them thoroughly, and reject them if they make no sense or do not suit me.
I assert my human duty to take a sophisticated and critical look at whatever is presented as truth.
I expect sound ideas and concepts to be grounded in demonstrable facts, and not in faith, fantasy, or unfounded assumptions.
I do not automatically follow the crowd or popular trends.
I am not a creature of artificial or contrived convention.
I feel there is only a false sense of rightness and safety in following 'the normal rules of behaviour'.

And so on. It's easy to construct and play around with a list like this. Easier still if you are fundamentally an individualist.

I certainly adopt the maxims in italics above. I'd say that despite the occasional concern, I step through the world with my head held up, even if caution and discretion walk with me. I may have my moments of indecision and frailty, but I won't tolerate anyone being rude to me, or wanting to push me around. Whatever their precise kind, bullies are selfish people out of control, playing a power game, and must never be appeased. You can't reform them, you can't even dent their self-perception, but you can wrong-foot them, and embarrass them, and generally aim to put them off. I'm confident that I have the quick command of language - and the right kind of voice - to put most such people in their place, if I wish to use these gifts. Obviously I wouldn't argue with direct threats of violence, but in principle the tongue is mightier than the fist, and certainly leaves longer-lasting wounds that sting, fester and scar.

And here we get to the kernel of this post. An incident years ago, that I had forgotten, but popped into my memory again the other day.

It involved words directed at me from someone who harboured a grudge. It was a shock to discover how much I was disliked by this person, and how easily they had assumed my guilt for some damage done.

I'd never heard of them before. I didn't know who they were. And they did not know me. They only knew what I did in the workplace, that I was 'one of those hoity-toity Inspectors on Floor Six who think they rule the world'. They worked on a lower floor, in a lower grade, for much less pay. They were a little younger, maybe ten years in it. And they were disabled.

I was not guilty as accused, but that 'disabled' bit wrong-footed me at the time, as much as the accusation itself. I felt guilty for being senior, better-paid, and inadequate in the face of disability. I could show I was innocent; but I couldn't heal my accuser's physical inadequacy, nor bridge the gulf between our minds.

You'll need a bit of background. This happened in late 2004, or early 2005, during my last months at the office. I was a middling-senior Inspector of Taxes, engaged in investigation work at a high-rise office in Croydon in south London. Mostly limited companies, rather than non-incorporated businesses. I had a mandate to get as many cases settled as I could, to make way for other investigation projects.

If I did at this point actually have a retirement date, then this 'get-them-settled-fast' push would have been really urgent. In the time available, it was only possible with the smaller cases, of course. But I had been lining up meetings aplenty, to wrap things up on those cases, agree a conclusion, and get the case out of the way, so that once I had left it didn't become part of the unwanted baggage someone else would have to take over.

Mostly the negotiations and wrap-up dealing involved meetings away from the office. And therefore driving my car to work, using it to get myself - and large boxes of papers - to and from the meeting. You couldn't do that on the bus, train or tram. There was taxpayer confidentiality to consider, as well as bulk. My car proved ideal. This wasn't something I needed to do every day, or every week even, but towards the end it was happening often enough for people to notice my blue Honda CR-V in the office car park.

The office in Croydon had a fair amount of ground-level car parking, but not nearly enough for everyone, and I wasn't entitled to a daily space. Few people were. Even disabled staff might not have a space, or at any rate a space they would consider perfect for their convenience. Most staff, whatever their grade, had to park expensively in a council multi-storey car park, or take their chance on a back street somewhere. But occasional users like myself, with a definite business need, could - just for the day - get an official pass for one of the small number of spaces always kept free for Special Use.

The very existence of these special spaces was resented. Anyone who seemed to be using them frequently was also resented. They were often assumed to be senior staff, and it would seem like a perk for the higher-ups, even an abuse. And I was at this time getting authorisation far too often, in the opinion of some junior staff on lower floors.

My car - a 4x4 - was a biggish car for 2005. I'd bought it to haul the caravan, not for parking in south London. The office spaces were not generously wide, and anyone who parked either side of me might find it a bit of a squeeze to get in and out of their own cars. Or indeed I might find that, getting in and out of my own car. So you'd habitually take care. This said, mine was by no means the only large car there, and the general situation was really no worse than found at any supermarket car park, then or now. But if one were so minded, any little inconvenience would niggle. And the person who flung their accusation at me one day was niggled and annoyed by my car being there at all.

My Honda CR-V was still only six years old. I'd looked after it. It still looked fairly new. Here are some contemporary photos of it, all taken in 2005, and in fact after the incident I am telling you about. It was no wreck: it was clean, shiny, and my pride and joy.

As you can see, my car was a distinctive dark electric blue, with black plastic trim to protect the doors getting scraped when opened. And although the doors could open wide, it was an easy car to get in and out of. I often had to get in through a half-opened door when visiting a supermarket, even though I was as chubby as now.

In 2005, 4x4s like this were still something of a novelty. They were not in the Range Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser class, but nevertheless my Honda was regarded as an aspirational chariot, possessing an upmarket, country air. And a certain cachet. People might well take it for granted that a car like this was expensive, even if bought second-hand. Mine, an ex-lease car, had cost me £12,000 in 2002. Yes, not peanuts.

This was not the kind of car a clerical member of staff could afford. My Honda was an 'Inspector's car'. It said - whether I wanted this or not - that the driver had a damned good salary, and a lifestyle to match. You see the potential for envy. Despite great efforts to reform, the Revenue still had a class system - Technical Staff and The Rest.

On arrival, and armed with my parking pass, I had taken scrupulous care to park the Honda properly in the space I had to use. The person who was to complain had already parked to my right. I was able to open my driver's door and step out without any difficulty.

Then, mid-morning, I got a call from downstairs, from a junior manager. One of their staff had visited their parked car and found it damaged. There was a big fresh blue paint mark on their nearside, as if the driver of a blue car had opened his door and crashed it carelessly and hard into the side of this person's car. My car was blue. Could I come down and discuss this?

Of course. But let me see the situation for myself first. Give me ten minutes.

Well, I asked myself, could I have even touched this persons car with my driver's door? I couldn't remember. I'd have tried not to. I certainly hadn't 'crashed' my door open. Let's see, anyway.

Hmm. Two things were obvious. One: if I'd touched this person's car at all, then it would have been with the protective black plastic trim. That wouldn't have left a blue paint mark. Two: there was no 'big blue paint mark'. There were quite a lot of minor marks on the nearside door. But which one was supposed to be the fresh mark? I did locate a blue mark that might be the centre of this fuss, but it was a light blue mark, not the dark electric blue of my car.

Right. This could take delicate handling. But I felt convinced, on good evidence, that I was not guilty.

But, as you will already have guessed, it did not go well. I was introduced to the person making the complaint against me, and left to it. Ah. They were in a wheelchair. With attitude.

I let the chap say his piece, in a querulous voice that was aware of my seniority but ready to take the issue a long way if forced to. I didn't interrupt. I showed concern and patience.

Then I described what I'd actually found at the crime scene, pointing out that (a) this didn't prove my car made the alleged mark, and (b) I hadn't anyway 'crashed' my door into the side of their car. I wouldn't because I was careful about these things; and besides my car was cherished and I would never be so careless. I thought he must easily see that I could not possibly be the kind of person who would damage his car.

But I didn't put my case with the vim I'd have shown if my accuser had been able-bodied. That was a double mistake. First: why should a feisty, argumentative chap in a wheelchair be handled with kid gloves - effectively treating him with disrespect and condescension? He was a grown-up. I should have been forthright. Second: by not being adequately assertive about my innocence, I weakened my case and made it seem unconvincing.

Well, the matter ended there. Officially. There was no formal complaint made against me. I had defended myself enough to forestall that. Even the union didn't take it up. But the man did not have the good manners to make a handsome apology. I didn't press for one. I felt later that I should have, but by then it was too late.

His wheelchair - his badge of victimhood - his attitude towards me - the very fact that he had thought fit to make a definite accusation against me when he had no idea who I was, except that I was 'an Inspector' - had all thrown me. I was used to contrived snarls and crossness from accountants and their clients, but I felt personally attacked here and curiously vulnerable. For no good reason that I could see, I was resented. Not because I had been nasty to him in any way, but because of my higher status in that building, and because of my nice car, which had perhaps been a slap in the face in some way. I felt I'd been made an example of.

I felt sure that he would make out that I'd told a weasel story, that I had bullied him, pulled rank. And that it wouldn't have been any good pushing the thing further, because my word would prevail against his, no matter what.

And I soon had some reason to suppose that my name was indeed besmirched on that lower floor. For when it became widely known throughout the building that I was one of the very few to get early retirement in May 2005 - all of them Inspectors by the way, because the 'deal' on offer was too poor for a low-paid clerical person to consider - I heard some grumblings and murmurings from that very floor. The sort of sour-grapes stuff that comes out when you are maliciously envied, and thought to be undeserving.

I hated it. It was unjust. And I was hurt that anyone could think bad things of me, when I had done nothing wrong. When I simply wasn't the kind of person to be careless with other people, or their possessions, and felt - not without justification - that one could tell this just by looking at me. I was learning a lesson: that imagined slights can become real (and very useful) to those who want to be victims of authority. That 'underdogs' look for ways to manipulate a situation. That it gives them power, smooths the way to compensation, and makes them feel better.

I don't know what brought this fifteen-year-old incident back to mind. I would of course handle it differently now. I've been through enough since 2005 to stand no nonsense from anyone. And, of course, as a retired private citizen of independent means, I don't have to toe any line.

So be warned, you victimised folk. You self-styled underdogs. I've become bolshy. Try it on, and I'll bite back hard.

Only if I need to, of course!

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