A Victorian Christmas

HMS Victory, Portsmouth Naval Dockyard

HMS Victory, Portsmouth Naval Dockyard (Photo credit: EEPaul)

I have a certain reputation for being Mr “bah humbug” when it comes to Christmas, and yet my wife and I spent last weekend down in Portsmouth specifically to visit the Victorian Christmas fair in the historic Naval Dockyards. It is a magnificent setting combining an old Naval base, some magnificent old ships and all the Victorian trimmings of Christmas.

Trawling through a busy marketplace is not normally my idea of fun and yet the Christmas stalls at the fair were varied enough to be interesting, and I tucked into mulled wine like the best of them. As we walked around, there were loads of people dressed up in Victorian costume. From the bawdy wenches who gave me a hard time as I walked past to the guards and their convicts in manacles who marched around the place shouting “make way for innocent men.”

We paid a visit to Fagin’s tavern where various old-time music acts played. We were treated to Brian, the charming but slightly crap piano player taking us through his repertoire of Christmas tunes. After Brian, on came a Bavarian oompah band, who wanted far too much audience participation for our comfort, especially seeing as we were sat in the front row.

Everywhere we went, someone was either bursting into song or dancing or both. A bunch of orphans with their thumbs tucked into their armpits gave a he artful rendition of “Consider yourself” as artificial snow cascaded down on their heads. There was an excellent band of pipers marching up and down belting out some cracking tunes whilst everyone tried desperately to dive out of their way.

There was an antique shop on site which was packed to the rafters with amazing stuff. They had a magnificent array of weaponry including a surface to air missile and an AK47. There was a German MG34 dating from Word War 2 with my name on it, but my wife didn’t agree. I suppose it was a tad expensive at the best part of £7,000.

She did buy me my Christmas present though. A truly magnificent, atmospheric three-part painting by Rob Huxley which will look awesome in my newly decorated games room.

All in all, it was over far too quickly, and I might have felt the first stirrings of Christmas welling up inside me. I’ll have to learn more self-control.

 

Finding my demons

Madness

Madness (Photo credit: Dark Botxy)

I don’t know how I lost my memories, but I know I want them back. I pull against my restraints once more, testing them for no good reason other than nervousness. The man in the white coat is approaching once more, no doubt with yet another dour warning. I know that whatever made my mind shut down may be horrific, but I have to know otherwise what am I? Just an empty shell.

I find myself nodding in response to his questions, but if you asked me what those questions were, I would struggle to repeat them. I just want it over with. Give me my memories.

He fills a syringe, squirts out the excess, taps to eliminate any bubbles and bends over my supine form. I feel the sharp pain as the needle pierces my skin and everything goes black.

I start to hear voices at first, then I can smell the clinical smell of the treatment room. I eventually open my eyes – they feel sticky, my vision blurred. I can just make out a man in a white coat. He is asking me a question. It takes me a while to focus, to tune into his words.

“When you think of a flag burning, what do you remember?”

My head spins. Suddenly, I am no longer in the treatment room. I am in my student digs, looking out the window at a teeming mob below. A peaceful protest march suddenly is peaceful no more as violence breaks out. My eyes fixate on a flag which is now burning. As I watch, I become aware of my girlfriend’s arms around me. I can remember her name, Karen. She pulls me back to the bed and starts to delicately undress me. I cry out as I feel the pleasant memory drifting away from me as once I again I lapse into unconsciousness.

I slowly come round. Again, the man in the white coat is speaking to me.

“When you think of a Christmas tree, what do you remember?”

The disorientation sets in once more and I find myself in the lounge of a house, my house, no – our house. Mine and Karen’s. She’s now my wife. I slowly scan the room before resting my gaze on the charred Christmas tree in the corner. There is a letter addressed to me on the mantlepiece. I recognise Karen’s handwriting. Inside, she tells me of her love for another and I can hear screaming. It is me screaming. I beg the man in the white coat to put me under again and after an eternity, I drift away once more.

I awaken. The man in the white coat is still there.

“When you think of a butterfly brooch, what do you remember?”

Nausea kicks in as my stomach lurches. I feel my physical self vomit. I’m at a church. It’s my daughter’s wedding, but I’m not invited. I’m carrying something, a bottle. In horror, I realise that I intend to use the bottle to harm my daughter. I try to drop it, but I am a passenger of my memories. I can change nothing.

As she emerges from the church, I open the bottle and run towards her. Suited men rush to block me, but not before I launch the contents of the bottle at my daughter. She screams and so do I – at least my physical self does. The men in suits set about me. I feel physical pain, but it is nothing compared with the mental pain. Just before I mercifully slip into a coma, I notice my daughter’s butterfly brooch on the floor. It is badly damaged by the acid.

Gradually I come round. I feel exhausted and horrific memories fight for my attention. The man in the white coat is saying something to me.

“Congratulations Mr. Tomkins. Your treatment is now complete and you will in time regain all your memories. I have to ask you if you wish to keep them – if you would rather they were erased once more – it is a simple procedure.”

The more I remember, the more pain I feel. But is it worse than the emptiness of having no memories? I slowly make my decision. In a shaky voice, I make my request. For one last time, I feel the sharp pain of a needle and I drift off to sleep.

***

The man in the white coat walks over to his desk and picks up the phone.

“Would you please come and pick up Mr. Tomkins.”

The disembodied voice responds.

“Did he choose to keep his memories this time.”

The man in the white coat slowly shakes his head before answering.

“No, I’m afraid not. Maybe next time.”

Why be a leader?

Why

Why (Photo credit: banoootah_qtr)

Close to a battlefield over 200 years ago, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small group of exhausted battle-weary soldiers digging an obviously important defensive position. The section leader, making no effort to help, was shouting orders, threatening punishment if the work was not completed within the hour.

“Why are you are not helping?” asked the stranger on horseback.

“I am in charge. The men do as I tell them,” said the section leader, adding, “Help them yourself if you feel strongly about it.”

To the section leader’s surprise the stranger dismounted and helped the men until the job was finished. Before leaving the stranger congratulated the men for their work, and approached the puzzled section leader.

“You should notify top command next time your rank prevents you from supporting your men – and I will provide a more permanent solution,” said the stranger. Up close, the section leader now recognised General Washington, and also the lesson he’d just been taught.

Why would anyone want to be a leader? For close on a dozen years, I have led teams of people in Temenos. When I speak to people about leadership, there are people who say that they could never take on the responsibility. There is a lot of responsibility, but I don’t think it’s where people think it is.

Many people think that the main responsibility you take on is to get stuff done. I would argue that this is indeed important, but I think it is a side effect of the real responsibility of leadership. The true responsibility of leaders is to create an environment in which your people are happy and productive, which is not always easy.

If you are a leader for any length of time, you will go through ups and downs. In my 12 years, I have faced a lot of downs. The most reliable people in the world will occasionally let you down. Often it will be at the worst possible moment and after you have backed that person to the hilt. That’s pretty tough to deal with.

Sometimes, you will have someone who simply stops performing. Maybe their attendance goes down the tubes or they are not pulling their weight. Then it’s the slow painful treadmill of performance management. You hope against hope that the person steps off the treadmill, but all too often, the treadmill leads out the door. That’s pretty depressing.

There are even harder things still. Sometimes tragedy or serious illness will strike. Sometimes you have to tell your team that the cupboard is bare. Sometimes you have to let some of them go. I don’t have any children, but the experience is as close as I can imagine to choosing which of them to lose. It is something I will never, ever get used to.

So why would anyone want to be a leader ? I can tell you, it’s not the financial reward. The answer is that there is nothing like the feeling of watching your team succeed. When your team make you proud, you want everyone to know. When you see a member of your team grow as a person, it makes all the downs pale in comparison.

So my advice – if you want to get things done – stop focussing on the things and start focussing on the team and the things will take care of themselves.

Read the small print

Read the fine print!

Read the fine print! (Photo credit: snacktime2007)

Would you ever sign anything if you hadn’t read the small print? Would you ever click a button to indicate your agreement with something if you hadn’t read the small print? What about if there were reams and reams of small print? What if you started reading it, but after a couple of paragraphs, you couldn’t make head nor tail of it – would you still go on to sign in blood?

Pretty much every time you install a new piece of software, there will invariably be a huge agreement in unintelligible legalese. In order to go ahead and reap the benefits of whichever piece of software you are installing, you will be faced with a choice. Here’s a ton of legal gobbledegook, click here to go ahead and agree or hard cheese, you can’t have your software.

I’m no lawyer, but if you actually take the time to read some of this small print, it will typically indemnify the software publisher against pretty much anything. They won’t guarantee that the software is fit for purpose – which seems bizarre to me. They’re not so candid in their marketing. Come and buy our latest office software – it can do anything you want* (small print: we’re not guaranteeing it will do anything at all).

Typically, the small print will indemnify the publisher against any kind of defect. Having worked in software all my life, I do understand why this is in place. I doubt that there is any software in existence today that doesn’t have a bug in it somewhere, but to abandon all responsibility for the quality of your product seems outrageous.

There will also be something in there that limits the company’s liability. If there is a remedy, which is by no means guaranteed, it will usually be restricted to the purchase price of the software. Forget any consequential losses – worth bearing in mind next time you use a piece of software to produce your invoices or calculate your tax return.

Would any other vendor get away with it? You don’t get all that small print when you buy a car. How would you feel if at purchase time you get presented with a big contract with statements like; this car may not do everything you expect. We don’t offer any warranty and if, because the brakes fail, you run into something or someone expensive, the best you can expect is a refund.

How do they get away with it?