Weird dreams…

For the last two nights I have very odd dreams – also unusual in that I actually remembered them fairly clearly, probably because I woke up a couple of times in the middle of the night, slightly discombobulated for a few moments sitting up in the dark with the dream still foremost in my mind, before becoming awake enough to realise it was just a dream. Then back to sleep and the dream continues – similarly when I actually woke up the dream was still running through my head.

Last night for some peculiar reason I dreamed I was making a documentary – said documentary involved, for no obvious reason I can think of, old folk artists the Alexander Brothers who we were filming on a kayak expedition. This kayak expedition started along the Scottish coast but soon moved inland where, due to severe floods, the towns nearby had been utterly flooded and we all paddled our canoes through the streets and, at several points, right through several houses, paddling along halls and into someone’s deluged living room, filming the brothers discussing climate change and the pleasures of both sea and the new urban kayaking in Scotland.

Edinburgh Canal Festival 2012 013

No, I have no idea where this came from, I haven’t been in a canoe since I was in the Boy’s Brigade at an outdoor centre (and that wasn’t yesterday!) and quite why this documentary was about the Alexander Brothers and kayaks I have no idea…

The night before that I dreamed my work told me that they were expanding the store above into the basement, so my desk down under the depths of the Bridges had to be moved even deeper down. I was taken on a long walk down a dark tunnel even deeper into the undercity below, where after a good half hour’s walk from my old desk we came to a floodlit area in one of the deep stone tunnels. It’s a bit of a walk to your desk, I’m afraid, they told me, then also added that I would have to put up with some noise and coming and going as there was an archaeological excavation going on just a few feet from where they had set up my desk. When I woke up in the middle of the night the dream was so strong in my head I was sitting there for a few moments thinking I’m not letting them treat me like this, must call my union rep… Oh, hold on, dream… And like last night, when I fell asleep again the same dream ran again. Not unusual for me to have odd dreams, we all have those, and the amount I read it’s not surprising I get a lot of them, but very unusual to remember them so clearly well into waking. And really, what the smeg was the canoeing through houses with a pair of old folk musician documentary about??

My Interstellar Journey to the Forbidden Planet

I was invited down to London yesterday for a friendly chat at Forbidden Planet International after they had contacted me last week. FP are wanting to improve their graphic novels and SF books side of the business and wanted someone who could promote good books, select them and who was enthusiastic for the genre (there are plenty of folks at FP who, like me, are seriously into the books, comics, RPGs etc which they sell; they retail them but they are also fans). They had heard of me though all that had happened and liked what they saw – the kind words of support from you all has really helped here and again I thank you all.

I will be based in the Edinburgh branch and start on Monday 14th – so a nice Valentine’s present for me as Matthew remarked – with interaction with other crew and perhaps some branch visits etc as required. Obviously I am happy to be going back to work again – it is a great weight off me. I am even more delighted to be going to a better job (and better pay, thank you) where my enthusiasm, knowledge and skills have been actively sought and encouraged.

I am also over the moon to remain in the book trade and to be in a position where I can continue to promote good writing and exciting new authors. I’ll be doing online work and hopefully working with the store staff on in-shop material too. We have ideas to begin with but it is the kind of new post that is going to mutate as it goes along and I’m sure both FP and myself will be coming up with new directions and ideas for me to perform. Frankly I’m looking forward to that aspect of the post – it will be a lot of work but I’m sure if I can promote good SF in a mainstream store I can really do it here. The fact that the post is likely to grow and change as we think on new areas I can contribute to is great and I’m pleased that I’m still going to be a part of the SF community as a fan, a reviewer and a bookseller.

And no, I didn’t meet Leslie Neilsen or Robbie the Robot on the journey (and I was on the look out for Monster from the ID) and if I am honest it was inter-city rather than interstellar, but that’s artistic license for you :-). I did have a trip into deepest, darkest Essex to visit the warehouse. There were so many piles of Spike figures from Buffy that it would have had female fans of James Masters (and some of the boys too I guess) exploding from the groin outwards. There was an incredible Spider-Man which was basically a life-size decoration – I know one mate who would love it as an alternative garden ornament (beats the hell out gnomes, but harder to take on airplane rides a la Amelie).

The power of communication

Word of mouth has long been a method of communication which many people like – it’s personal and direct. In the Information Age we have electronic word of mouth: a message, if it strikes the right chord, may ripple outwards, forwarded on and on. That certainly seems to be the case here as other people around the planet, from around the UK, Europe, America, Canada, Australia and others have been commenting (mostly in a supportive way, thank you).

My blog was something I ran for fun, for therapeutic value and because I enjoyed the fact I entertained some friends with it and made new friends via it. Small-scale and mostly read by friends and friends of friends and the occasional person who would come across it somehow – just another (darkly humorous) blog among many tens of thousands around the globe. Now it is being discussed for good or ill by a large number of people around the world – other bloggers, fellow booksellers (in and out of my former company), publishers, fellow reviewers and writers and even journalists.

Neil Gaiman has just discussed it on his journal – very nice to see he remembers me and the enjoyable events we’ve held together in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh (the very first one in our windowless basement, full to capacity, just after Neverwhere came out, years back when I still had hair. For the second one in a nice, Georgian restaurant I had to make up the fliers myself – another piece of promotion I undertook myself for a company event to make sure it went well and readers knew of it).

Jo Best has written a fine article on the online journal Silicon.Com here and Tim Richardson of online IT journal The Register has posted another article here. Martin Waller has written a short article on the City desk of the Times (thanks to Olly for the direct link and also for pointing out Jo Best’s article is also here on CNET). I’ve had some more enquiries this afternoon and will keep you all posted. I’d like to add, for the benefit of anyone who thinks I am just trying to extract some sort of vengeance that this could all have been avoided easily and that I am mostly being approached by journalists who have read of this on another blog or Boing Boing or in one case I was told the reporter heard of it via a writer who brought it to his attention, so I’m not muck-raking or mud-slinging here – people seem to want to know about what has happened.

It is good to see how many people, many of whom I have never met or heard from before, are offering me their best wishes and sharing their outrage. Right now I’m getting ready for a trip to the Job Centre for my interview, searching every site I can online for work and desperately hoping to sort something out before I hit a financial black hole (oddly enough I really didn’t plan out my finances, such as they are – bookselling, like retail, not being a big pay industry – around losing a job after eleven years at the start of the New Year. Bizarre Kafka-esque black comedy notions are running through my head and the timing, being suspended right before Xmas, adds an almost Dickensian flavour to the proceedings.

When I think on what may happen if I don’t get work quickly I feel physically sick with worry – the many offers of support so many of you have extended to me, along with the help and love of friends and family who have been wonderful throughout keeps picking me up when the black waves of despair break upon my shores. The late, great Douglas Adams once said you should always know where your towel is – if I may extend the earlier metaphor, my friends and loved ones have picked me up and towelled me down.

Richard Morgan offers support

With the kind permission of author Richard Morgan I’m posting the text of a rather eloquent letter he wrote to my former manager and is copying to Waterstone’s head office:

Dear sir,

I am writing with regard to the dismissal this week of one of your long-time employees, Joe Gordon. As an author who has had dealings with Joe through author events and signings at your branch, I was stunned to learn about the proceedings. I can honestly say that in my experience, Joe has always behaved with the utmost professionalism and enthusiasm, and a brief round of conversations with other authors has only reinforced this impression. He is a valuable member of staff of the sort that any bookstore should count itself fortunate to have.

I understand that this dismissal has been occasioned by comments on Joe’s blog column, which I read on a regular basis and thus am familiar with. While I don’t wish to interfere in company business, I have to say I think this bears comparison with taking disciplinary action based on private conversation overheard in a pub, and raises some disturbing issues of freedom of speech. Waterstones is, after all, a bookseller, whose stock in trade is the purveying of opinion, not all of it palatable to those concerned. You sell books which offer serious critique of the corporate environment and government, but do not expect to suffer punitive action from government or corporate quarters as a result. You sell books which criticise and satirise religious and political groups, but you do not expect to be firebombed by extremists as a result. Surely Joe has the right to let off steam in his free time without having to fear for his livelihood as a result. The action that has been taken so far bears more resemblance to the behaviour of an American fast food chain than a company who deal in intellectual freedoms and the concerns of a pluralist liberal society.

It seems to me that this whole matter has been an unfortunate over-reaction with no positive outcome for anyone concerned. Joe has lost a job he liked and did well, Waterstones the company in general and your branch in particular will attract rather negative publicity from the incident, and there will doubtless now be all the lengthy confrontational unpleasantness of an industrial tribunal. In short it leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Surely there has to be a more productive way to deal with the issue. I worked for many years in management myself, and I understand well the stresses and complexities of situations like this. But given the value that Joe offers as a participative member of Waterstones staff, and given the issues of free speech raised, I would hope that some compromise more in keeping with a civilised society and an intellectually involved company could be reached.

Though I shall hardcopy this letter to you and Waterstones head office next week, I would appreciate your response to this e-mail as soon as you have the opportunity.

Many thanks.

Yours faithfully

Richard Morgan

Another author, Edinburgh-based Charlie Stross has also posted a very considered opinion on his live journal.

Spreading

Since Cory Doctorow posted the dismissal story on the excellent Boing Boing yesterday there has been a lot more discussion on this matter (Boing Boing also has an interesting related article on companies who have fired staff over blogs – a worrying trend). Quite a few more comments posted here and a number of other web sites discussing the matter now.

I’ve also had some very kind emails expressing sympathy, outrage and support from a wide variety of people, many of whom I have never met, including some people who I can’t name because they work in the book industry in the UK (indeed some actually work for Waterstone’s all around the country) and I don’t want to cause them any problems – nonetheless it was very kind of you to get in touch with me, thank you. Kind words from several writers and editors I have worked with have helped cheer me up. One editor generously commented that I had helped increase the awareness and sales of some of their imprint’s writers. It’s nice to know that so many people appreciated my efforts in bookselling, even if my own company ultimately did not.

As the ostensible reason for my being dismissed was that my sarcastic rambling were bringing the company into disrepute (a rather flexible and nebulous term) this whole shameful debacle has been something of an own-goal for Waterstone’s. The thing is, they must have anticipated that the story would become more widely know if they fired me. Both my union rep and I pointed out that potential bad publicity could be an outcome if I was fired (in a general manner, we certainly did not threaten them with such a tactic).

As this move was supposedly because they felt I was causing harm to the company’s image why then would the company make this move which could only result in more discussion and coverage of their actions, which most folk seem to agree was heavy-handed? It seems to fly in the face of the argument that they were trying to protect their public image. Quite a number of people have expressed their disgust and their intention to go elsewhere for book purchases, so this whole thing has been an enormously counter-productive move and one which need not have happened had reason prevailed.

Among the latest folk discussing developments(not enough time and space to list everyone) are: The Community At Large, Scribbling Woman, The Republic of T (which also has an interesting piece on an international blogger’s rights ‘bill‘), Detrimental Postulation, Cyber Junky, Foreword.

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.

Enquiry of the Month

Enquiry of the Month goes to the elderly man with the long, straggly beard. In a time of many a stupid question he takes the ship’s biscuit for asking me where in Edinburgh he could obtain an 18th century sextant. Bear in mind I work in a bookstore, not a store specialising in purveying the finest navigational instruments of previous historical eras. When I told him I had no idea and that if anyone did have an 18th century sextant for sale it would most likely be at Christie’s Auction Rooms he was not amused. Shaking his greasy grey hair and ratty beard he explained to me that he was, of course, looking for a shop which sold replica 18th century sextants. Ah, I thinks, why didn’t you say that the first time? Have you tried Ye Olde Sextant Simulacra Store on the Canongate? It’s run by the Sea Captain from the Simpsons when he’s not filming the series… I love working with the public… I did try to be helpful but had no idea of where to help and he seemed most annoyed that I couldn’t tell him where to obtain replicas of 200 year old navigational devices.

The fun of work

Another overloaded day at work – far too much to do for the new month’s campaign and not enough booksellers. For this I got out of bed at 6.30 am on a wet and windy morning?

On the plus side however, Matthew came past (hiding from his exams? Er, I mean studying outside?) and we are making a fair bit of headway on the important matter of what cartoon alter-ego each member of staff has. I was hoping for Bugs Bunny (childhood role model) but fear secretly I have more in common with Sylvester the Cat (suffering succatash!). So far we have a Pink Panther, Chucky from Rug Rats, Penelope Pitstop, the Ant Hill Mob, a Power puff Girl, Elmer Food, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian and Pepe le Peu. Surrounded by the finest of world literature and the collected sum of all human knowledge, we discuss important matters, we booksellers.

We also had a visit from Iain Banks who is making a brave attempt to read all of the SF prize shortlist entries I had on display. I asked if he is working on a new SF novel and it transpires Iain is working on something even more important – a book on whisky. Normally he isn’t overly keen on research but he seems to be enjoying his research into uisge betha. Heading off to the Western Isles (home of the finest single malts in the history of humanity) he enlisted the willing aid of fellow local scribe Ken MacLeod as a native guide. We can only hope Iain is successful in persuading the publishers the book should be launched here in Edinburgh and not London – and that they remember to invite the local bookselling fraternity, naturally.