Filming in the Gardens

I was asked recently to do another interview about blogging for an upcoming TV programme. They wanted to avoid the normal static interview so opted for asking me questions while walking alongside me with a camera in Princes Street Gardens, which was fine, except being a sunny, spring day the place was full and, not unnaturally, everyone was looking at us (is it for the telly? Who is he?). I’m pretty far from shy but neither am I a total extrovert (regardless of what some folks think! I think I am a bit of an introverted extrovert actually, which, if it sounds like a contradiction in terms is fine, because I’ve always enjoyed being one of those) but jeez, talk about self-conscious! This is why I much prefer doing radio (plus I have a good body for radio) or being on the other side of the camera.

Anyway, it seemed to go well and I managed to forget about everyone watching us as I got onto my High Horse and discussed freedom of expression in blogging and tried to relate it to the growing culture of censorship we seem to be experiencing from governments and corporations alike. How much of it ends up in the cut I have no idea, although the folks making it did tell me they had interviewed someone at the LSE before coming to see me and he had apparently been interested in seeing my interview because that case still comes up; I quite liked the idea of my overly-opinionated blog posts being referenced in an academic essay, it appealed to the part of me that is the Eternal Student (frankly I’d be happy spending half my life studying one degree after the other if it was feasible, purely for the pleasure of learning and applying it). It does all make me wonder what my old computer mediated communications lecturer would make of it all; I’m sure Mad Dog McMurdo would probably find it amusing.

Apart from some mild embarrassment though it seemed to go quite well and they will let me know once it is all put together, etc. Not sure I actually want to see it since frankly I avoid being in pictures for the most part, but I know my mum will want to see her wee boy on the screen; before anyone asks, I am not available to join other Z-list celebs on I’m A Talentless Twat Get Me Out of Here or Big Brother, although I am available to kiss Shilpa Shetty. Talking of which, how mad was that reaction to a very showbiz kiss? I’m told that public kissing is frowned upon in much of India; I know one shouldn’t disrespect different cultures, but burning effigies because someone kissed in public? Good grief, get over yourselves you stupid, uptight numpties!!! Can this really be the land that gave us the Kama Sutra?!!? And you just know most of the guy burning those effigies and professing outrage at this kiss would bloody love to get a chance to snog Shilpa, hypocritical tossers.

Funny thing was, as we were setting up to film I got a phone call from my Norwegian friend Vidar; by coincidence he and his friend were lying on the grass in the Gardens enjoying the sun and nursing hangovers and had spotted us, so I went off to join them afterwards. When they asked us what it was I told them we were location scouting for a new Scottish porno movie “Tossing the Caber”, but alas these days I suspect I would be relegated to a bit part (mind you, depending what bit it could still be interesting). Since it was a warm, sunny evening I ended up doing the Annual Rite of Spring, which involves paying homage to the return of the Earth Goddess in the time honoured Celtic tradition (we went to the Pear Tree and sat out in the huge, cobbled beer garden for some al fresco drinking).

Blogging anniversary

Bobbie Johnson wrote a feature in the Guardian at the weekend celebrating the tenth anniversary of blogging (ironically just as I was celebrating the fourth birthday of the Woolamaloo blog), running through various events, from the first blogs, to the appearance of Boing Boing, politicians joining the blogosphere, blogs from inside Iraq, regimes trying to censor blog and imprison their writers, the first high profile ‘doocing‘, the recent case in France with Petite Anglaise (who I’m glad to see won her case against her employers) and hey, what do you know, a mention of myself and a certain sandal-wearing Evil Boss at the Bookstore That Shall Not Be Named. Funny old world. The Guardian, along with the Scotsman, was one of the first print newspapers to pick up on that case, here it is a couple of years on still being mentioned there.

On the nature of appeals

Well folks not quite there yet, but we’re almost there. Paul, my RBA union rep called me this morning to say that the company had been in touch again. We actually received a letter regarding the appeal last week but as it was subject to ongoing negotiations between the union and the HR dept I hope you’ll all understand I couldn’t really talk about it on the blog, although it was a positive letter.

From this morning’s call it sounds like we’re hopefully going to be wrapping this whole episode up very shortly and, I am pleased to say, in a manner which is mutually amicable. Sorry to be such a tease, but I promise I will post to let you all know the full outcome as soon as I can, but I did want you all to know that it seems to be going very well from both sides.

Archived

I had a most peculiar email the other day there from the National Library of Scotland. They, along with the National Library of Wales and the British Library are involved in a project called the UK Web Archiving Consortium, archiving (as the name rather implies) selected sites from the various kingdoms which make up the UK. They were asking for permission to archive a version of the Woolamaloo as a Scottish site of interest.

Well, as you can imagine I was as surprised as the man who ordered smoked kippers for breakfast only to be given a suffocating fish and a packet of ciggies. My poor flabber has been somewhat gasted, to say the least and I think I will humbly respond in the affirmative, while maintaining my right to mutter ‘wow’ and ‘huh?’ as the occassion warrants. Tell me, guys, is it just me or is that one of those events that just makes you go ‘what?’ in a bemused fashion?

There was also a little flurry of press attention again at the end of last week. I’m told I was in the List (the indispensable Glasgow & Edinburgh what’s on guide, which also has a very good comics and graphic novels section in the books review pages) and the Edinburgh Evening News ran a nice follow up story covering my move to Forbidden Planet. You can’t see it on the online version but the picture clearly had the Gandalf standup lurking in the background. I’m sure Sir Ian wouldn’t mind.

BBC Radio Five Live had me for a short interview which was more on work and blog matters in general rather than my own experience specifically and a photographer from the Independent came to take a pic for an article being written by Michael for this Wednesday’s edition, which again is on blogging and work issues and not just on me (which I’m sure is a relief to everyone tired of reading about it). I still feel a bit silly posing for pics and it is still very odd to read about or see yourself in the papers. Perhaps I should get a stylist. Although I suspect I’d require an army of stylists to try and do a make-over on me and even then they’d have their work cut out. Oh well – to thine own self be true as they say.

And in a bit of late-breaking news my old mate at Nil Desperandum who works for a major mental health charity tells me that The Third Force, a weekly newspaper from the SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations) featured the old Gazette this week as well. I’m still rather amazed at the way this has gone around.

Herald

One of my friends phoned me this morning to tell me to check out the Glasgow-published Herald. There was an article expanding upon a join letter attacking Waterstone’s over-reaction to my blog sent in by Ken MacLeod, A L Kennedy, Iain Banks and Neil Davidson.

I was unaware of this happening – Ken had hinted that there was some form of joint letter by authors in the works, but this was a (pleasant) surprise. I’ve had so many folk from around our little, wired planet offering support and it is still incredibly uplifting to see something like this; to know that people will take some of their own time to help someone else. I feel humbled and uplifted at the same time and very, very grateful.

Appeal

Well, the appeal was yesterday afternoon. Ironically the location was at the branch down in Leith (the harbour area of Edinburgh), which I was instrumental in helping to set up back in the autumn of 2003. Last time I was there I had any number of bods from our head office coming up to view it and shaking my hand while congratulating me and my little team for the very good work we had done. Odd way to return.

We kept things short. We contested the notion of ‘public domain’ since there is no way an obscure blog can be compared to the likes of writing in a mainstream publication or mass media outlet – it is (or was) hard to find unless you knew what you were looking for and the supposedly offensive articles spread throughout large amounts of other material even more difficult to locate (assuming you knew to look for them to begin with).

We also pointed out that no customers had ever complained after reading it and that indeed I knew friends who read the blog and still shopped at Waterstone’s and writers who would attend events and buy books there, so the idea that I was somehow destroying the company’s image was ridiculous – they read it and still shopped there.

The new item was the recent news I received from my previous manager who left over a year ago. He kindly contacted me after reading about it all to say he was surprised that the blog should suddenly become such a bone of contention as he and the then Area Manager both were aware of it way back then (2003). So why was it okay then but suddenly a firing offence in December a year later?

And again if the company was taking such exception to it, why not take me aside and talk to me about it? Understandably this meant that the folk conducting the appeal were unable to give us a decision since they will obviously need to look into this and discuss it, so at the moment the union and I are waiting to see what develops. It would be nice to think that the company will be reasonable since no-one wants to go down the route of an industrial tribunal, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Fired by Bastardstone’s

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want rain without thunder and lightning.”
Frederick Douglass

Over the course of the Woolamaloo Gazette I have posted on a wide variety of subjects; sometimes on books, movies or simply the city of Edinburgh; often on topical and troublesome ones. This however is one of the most difficult I have ever had to write. Shortly before Christmas, in the spirit of that season, my manager at Waterstone’s asked me to come into the office. Within a few, short moments I was told that for comments I had posted on this web site I was now subject to an enquiry to determine if I should face a disciplinary hearing for ‘gross misconduct’ because I had ‘brought the company into disrepute’. I was informed (more than once) that this could cause my dismissal. I was suspended on pay and escorted from the premises of the bookstore I had worked in for over  eleven years.

Because of the holidays the disciplinary hearing was not held until yesterday, Wednesday 5th (although the company tried to hold it right before Christmas, which gives you an idea of their mentality; the union told them no). I could not really talk about it here while the process was ongoing – I am now free to discuss what happened for the brutally simple reason that Waterstone’s dismissed me from my job yesterday. They took great exception to my mentioning of work on my blog. They said I had violated the rules and brought the company into disrepute. I think by their actions they have brought the UK’s biggest book chain into disrepute.

Anyone who has been a regular reader of the Gazette will know that I do occasionally mention my work life, although it accounts for a fraction of my written output. Like many folk I am not always happy at work (I have good days too, I don’t go in miserable all the time as I’m sure former colleagues would attest if they could) and me being me when I mention bad days or annoying occurrences I do so in my own satirical, sarcastic, comedic style. I often put many things into a basic narrative form, add characters etc. So I would coin terms such as ‘Bastardstone’s’ and have a character called ‘Evil Boss’ (my equivalent to Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss – in fact I compared head office directives to being in a Dilbert cartoon). I once referred to a chum and former colleague, Olly, when he found a full time IT job after his graduation as being a successful member of the Escape Committee at work. This was brought up at my hearing yesterday. My protest that this was (to me a bloody obvious) spoof on the Great Escape didn’t seem to cut any ice. This will give you an idea of what I faced.

I pointed out that I had not set out to deliberately ruin the company’s image. In fact I don’t think I have even inadvertently; if I had wished to do that then I would have been running less satirical and far more biting comments on a rather more regular basis, rather than commenting from time to time about a bad day at work, a grumpy manager or the like. You’d think I had run a sustained propaganda campaign of subversion.

I pointed out that I did not let my annoyances get in the way of performing my duties at work (indeed no complaint was made about my work) and that, like many bloggers it was therapeutic to vent steam outside of work. I pointed out that I posted these comments in my OWN time, writing in my OWN home for my OWN blog. It’s not linked to any official Waterstone’s site and does not reflect their opinion but mine. The site clearly says (twice) on the header that it is SATIRICAL and that it is my ‘mumblings and rants’. I expressed my own OPINION in my own time, something I am legally entitled do (the European Convention on Human Rights, part of Scots Law since the devolved parliament was brought in expressly guarantees this right). I told them I felt they were violating my civil rights. I told them I have informed my MSP because of this.

Long before full universal suffrage in this country we still had stinging satire (recall those Punch cartoons among many others) – it is an accepted part of our culture and one of the ways individuals have to remind large organisations, be they companies or governments that we too have a voice and a right to use it. People have used satire, sarcasm and humour to make points for centuries. Today that freedom is enshrined in law.

I pointed out that I had over my eleven years promoted Waterstone’s in many ways, sometimes on my own time. I have organised and hosted more author events with more writers for the enjoyment of more book-buyers than I can recall. I have written for the guide books which Waterstone’s had printed on various genres. I have appeared in print media and broadcast, talking on the BBC in my own time about literature, introduced as an expert bookseller from Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. That’s publicity you can’t buy. I had contributed to the Edinburgh International Book Festival when Waterstone’s still sponsored them. I told them that there were numerous authors who would tell them that I had been an excellent ambassador for the company. I even defended them when the company was attacked in the Scottish press for not supporting independent Scots publishers (oh the irony). None of this seemed to matter to Waterstone’s yesterday.

I asked why, if the company did not like me commenting about work on my blog they did not simply have the branch manager have a quiet word with me? Should that not have been the proper way to deal with this? I told the hearing that if this had been done I probably would have refrained to keep the peace. My union rep also brought up this point. We did not get a proper answer to this question. We asked how the blog (which is not exactly high profile) came to their attention and who lodged the complaint. They didn’t know. Enquiries were made during and adjournment. We asked again afterwards. We were told that they were not at liberty to tell us this. So I do not know who my accuser is, which seems rather unfair to me.

I pointed out once more that I was outraged that a company seemed to think it had the right to tell an employee what opinions they could articulate in their own time. I asked if I repeated some of the articles they found offensive in the blog to a friend in the pub would that not also be defaming the company by the logic they were employing here? I was not answered. I pointed out that this was like the Thought Police and invasive of my rights. I was told that if I discussed anything to do with work then I was representing the company and must conform to their rules. Obviously I dispute this strongly – this is like saying we have a new feudal system where companies are the lords and employees are mere serfs who they own. How can I possibly be considered to be representing the company on my own site in my own time? In fact do not most companies around the world have riders attached to their email saying explicitly that any comments within are not necessarily those of the company? So why do they assume I am talking for the company on my own site in my own time? That makes no sense to me.

I am not a serf; I am not an indentured servant. I am a free man with the right of freedom of expression. The company does not own me, body and soul – conforming to their rules at work is to be expected, but in your own time and space? How can anyone be expected to go through their personal life in fear of saying the wrong thing? No-one should.

This has left me dreadfully upset. That a company I have given so many years to could treat me in such a brutal manner is despicable. That a book company thinks so little of the primacy of freedom of expression is alarming. I pointed out that Waterstone’s has stated publicly several times in the past that as a bookseller they believe in the freedom of expression and not in censorship. In fact a campaign was mounted a few years back which had banners along the lines of ‘what did Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot have in common? They feared the power of the written word. Celebrate Freedom of expression with us.’ Some folks may recall it. I asked if this was actually meant or was it simply cynical marketing? I was not answered.

I have never been fired in my life until now. I have never even been unemployed – I worked my way through college (that’s when I began at Waterstone’s). Now I find myself having to urgently try and find work at short notice, I find myself worried about my financial security, my bills, my mortgage and how to get another job after eleven years of service and where that will be and when. I find myself having to consult with my union over what appeal or action we can now take against this company for their despicable, dishonourable actions.

Fortunately my family, my friends, fellow bloggers, fellow reviewers and writers have been offering me sympathy, advice and support. Times like this, they say, are where you find out who your friends are. Well, I have found out I have a lot of immensely good friends and they have lifted my spirits remarkably. I’m not alone.

And other bloggers and readers, new to this site, you too should pay some attention here because I’m not alone and these shameful actions affect more than just me. These actions have implications for everyone who blogs and works, which, let’s face it, would be thousands of us. If my rights to the freedom of expression can be ignored in this manner then so can the rights of any worker’s. You also have to ask yourself who is listening to you? Who is reading what you write and passing judgement? Is it acceptable for companies to be monitoring what their employees do in their own time? To act as if your employment contract controls every aspect of your personal life outside of work?

The free expression of opinions and thoughts is the most primal of our democratic rights. Our entire culture is based around it. The book trade could not exist without it. The internet would not exist without it. Blogs would not exist without it. Once upon a time a man was executed for translating the Bible into English – considered a dreadful heresy and, more importantly, a threat to the power and control of the authorities of the time. Eras change, but the notion of powerful groups trying to subvert the ability of others to communicate remains constant. That’s why we have laws and rights.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression. These are not idle words. They are not some dusty old phrases liberals like to mention from time to time. They are as vital to our free, democratic way of life as water and air.

The word is already spreading beyond my family and friends. A lot of people are thinking about this and asking themselves if this is a company they want to deal with. That is not for me to say; it is for them to decide – but you should certainly be made aware of their actions when deciding.

Other friends and bloggers have already spoken out on this and I wish to thank them very, very much for their kind words and generous support. Friends closer to home have dragged me out for food and drink and movies to cheer me up. There’s nothing in this life like knowing you have people who care for you and will always help you. It’s humbling, it’s inspiring – it sustains you when all else seems dark and I thank you all so very much.

There are more than I can properly thank here, but here are some of their writings on the subject already expressed: Ariel; Matthew; Lili; Nil Desperandum. Many more have emailed me. I really can’t express my gratitude enough to you.