Friday, October 09, 2009

The song remains the same

I'd heard from some folks that the new centralised distribution system at my former work had been, frankly, a bit of a dog's breakfast, with a tendency to be unreliable on both general stock and special customer orders (none of which surprised me, I recall a centralised system when the company was part of WH Smith's years back and it too was a bloody mess of a thing), which has, understandably, exasperated staff (and worried publishers), who spoke about it in the Bookseller journal, which is the main trade periodical of the British book trade. So Waterstone's apparently moved to ensure staff couldn't access the Bookseller online, which has had the unfortunate outcome of meaning the story now becomes about a large bookseller gagging staff again when they have anything critical to say.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it? In fact the Guardian article name-checks me and my disturbing experience almost five years ago in the coverage of this new story. Again the same large bookseller appears to be condoning censorship, which, regardless of what you think of the rights or wrongs of the original story in the Bookseller, shows some very poor judgement on behalf of senior management, who should have anticipated that the act of gagging staff and blocking access to the main book trade journal in response to negative criticism would then create a second story which reflects badly on them. Some folks never learn...

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Gag that cartoonist



Yvonne sent me a link to this Daily Dilbert by Scott Adams, which I am guessing may refer to the recent case of the cartoonist Matt who works on the webcomic Three Panel Soul with Ian who was fired from a government job because he and a colleague were talking about hobbies and he said he enjoys paper target shooting. As R Stevens from Dieselsweeties notes, he wasn't talking about guns and people, shooting people or anything of that nature, in fact he was saying he thought it would be good to have guns which would be harder to use to keep people safe. He was fired because his colleagues are now apparently scared of him.



That may sound like nonsense to some who will be thinking hey, he must have done something else, but given that since Columbine a number of US schools have expelled kids who have done nothing wrong except wear a black duster coats (thus probably alienating the kids and giving them a real grieveance to hold, ironically) and an English major at college was harassed by campus police because he had written a horror story so the dumb-ass rentacops on campus assumed he must be a homicidal maniac, and suddenly it looks a lot more plausible. The great American official logic at work - don't do anything to control access to weapons, just fire people you don't like; of course, if Matt was a violent gun nut then surely this would have provoked him to march down to his ex employer and shoot all the former co-workers who got him fired??? Behold the one thing scarier than nutters with guns - the average fucking idiot...

But as Yvonne points out, this Dilbert cartoon also has a certain resonance to something closer to home, about a certain bookselling blogger fired by his version of Dilbert's Pointy Haired Boss, Evil Boss and his equally Evil Sandals, for mocking him and, of course, by firing him allowing him to step up the mocking to outright Defcon One Intercontinental Ballistic Lampooning launches. Stupidity rules, alas, but at least we can take the piss out those stupid smeggers!

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Monday, February 21, 2005

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.

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

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.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

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.

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Monday, January 17, 2005

I'm appealing

Okay, that's a matter of opinion, I grant you! But I refer not to my own (obviously wonderful) personal charm but to the fact that the union and I have drafted and sent in our appeal letter after I received my official notification of dismissal. Looks as if the appeal will be before the end of the month, quite possibly on the 25th of January. Which is, by coincidence, Burns Night, and also the night our SF Book Group was due to meet. If the appeal fails then the next step would be an industrial tribunal.

I'm glad to say the regulars of the Book Group still want to meet - obviously outside of my former bookshop - so we're still planning to get together to discuss Susannah Clarke's remarkable debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (great review here by Andy Sawyer on TAO). Again I've had terrific support from them and it is rewarding to know they want to continue the Book Group.

At the end of the week I was on a phone interview for a radio show in Eire and then was interviewed by a journalist from Italy and also a journalist from Germany. As if this were not enough I'm informed by a person I worked with many times over my years in the book trade that the story also made the lofty heights of the Dundee Courier! Quite a number of fellow bloggers have been continuing to mention the events on their own blogs - again I simply haven't had time to go through everyone's and post the links here (I have managed to read through them though - thank you all again for sending them).

I have now had comments on the blog and direct emails from every continent on our little wired planet with the exception of Antarctica (the penguins will be preparing for the Antarctic winter so will have little time for emailing) and the story has gone through a number of languages - it really is quite remarkable.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Quick Links

Your ever-so handy, cut-out and keep list of links pertinent to the current shenanigans, very kindly compiled and listed by Olly - much thanks, mate.

The story goes national

Had the unusual experience this afternoon of modeling in Princes Street near my former bookshop for two broadsheet newspapers, the Scotsman and the Guardian, both of whom had contacted me independently after coming across the story (which is thanks to the many people who have been discussing it - Great Zarquon I've had emails from Canada, America, South America, Europe, Australia and even from China), so if you are in the UK you know which papers to look in and if you are outside then the links above will take you to the online versions of both.

They requested photographs, hence my modeling in a very windy Princes Street this afternoon, much to the bemusement and amusement of passers-by (well, we always aim to entertain here too) and curious looks from a few former colleagues through the window. I had prepared a cover story just in case - since so many magazines have been criticised for contributing to eating disorders through the use of painfully thin models, this was a reaction. Ladies and gentlemen, the new fashion model for Beer Drinker's Monthly, sponsored by the Caledonian Brewery (I wish). The pull-out centrefold is, alas, just to fit in my tummy and my big mouth. I am a trifle worried about how many chins will be visible, but soldiered on nonetheless

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Monday, January 10, 2005

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.

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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.

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

“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 eleven years.

Because of the holidays the disciplinary hearing was not held until yesterday, Wednesday 5th. 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.

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