Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Here be Dragons

Well now, I have been minded to close this blog down for quite some time. Although I've enjoyed writing it, and some few have enjoyed reading it apparently, it had grown into a huge jumble-sale of opinions, facts, personal reminiscences. So I started tinkering with it months ago, but gradually it has been borne in on me (the operative word is "tenosynovitis") that rejigging it, and even just keeping it going, is taking more and more of the time and energy that I no longer have to spare.

I must confess, these latest posts have been those I had in hand anyway, written in easier times, awaiting opportunity to put them up, so I've been able to delay the end.

Then, on top of that, I have noticed that the blogsphere is not immune to the difficulties that beset other internet communities.

A fellow blogger has expressed the conviction to me that internet friendships are not "real" friendships. They are different, certainly. My ex, who had to do a lot of business over the net, used to complain that different standards of behaviour applied in the virtual world. If you wrote someone a letter, she said grimly, or even just left a message on an answerphone, you usually got a response; but an email or a text message could get completely ignored and you'd never know why.

I know people who flatly refuse to take part in internet conferences or symposia; they say that it is impossible to get a "feel" of what's going on, what the consensus really is, what people really are thinking.

Lucky those who can progress from virtual contact to personal, and find that their hopes were not dashed. (I can't say, instincts. There's nothing for the instincts to work on, in virtual contact. The tiny changes in facial expression, in tone of voice, the infinitesimal pauses in response, the whole-body language, all the things that give welcoming or warning signals.)

Same with internet forums and messageboards. I shall always owe a debt to ouch! talk because I stumbled across it at a stage when I was not adjusting at all to the notion of being disabled for the rest of my life, and there, at that time, I found those who were patient with newbies and willing (after the obligatory lurking and first ignored postings period) to stretch out a friendly hand. B W-F, CP, JQ, AH, and many more whose "real" names I never knew, I salute you and I keep you in what passes for my heart in gratitude. But sadly, those boards became overrun with trolls (so did most of the BBC boards at that time) and the BBC proved helpless to do anything about it. Well, you can to a degree put up with unpleasantness and bullying at work - look at The Apprentice - but who invites it into their own living room? So I drifted away, as did many of those who had been regular posters, and in my case have never bothered to return, though I hope all is well there now. It is so easy to let go: there are no meetings to be cut, no social arrangements to be altered, you don't even have to write a letter of resignation. And so it goes.

One of the BBC boards was so thoroughly destroyed by trolling that a new, privately-run forum was set up and worked well for a long time. Then it got religion - oh my paws and whiskers, if you want to plumb the depths of nastiness on the internet, go to religious sites - the BBC's own were pretty terrible, modding or not (usually not). But then there was a clampdown on bullying, and it's up-and-running as good as new again. These things change and pass.

Even in the blogsphere, I know two or three others who have in plain English been driven out of their blogspace, either by being outed against their express wishes (Gimpy Mumpy, for example), or by abuse after airing unpopular views (Al Masters, for example), or by having their URL hijacked (several, but I'm damned if I'm going to publicize stolen goods). None of these are what the "real" world would call decent behaviour.

I was once hiking through Castleton, in the Peak District, which is a little old town with narrow streets and lots of tourist in the season: result, traffic jams. There was one fat little guy sitting in his car, pounding his horn, scowling and mouthing insults at pedestrians and motorists who presumed to delay his majestic progress. I always remember that scarlet, pouting face, and my immediate thought: I bet you don't carry on like a two-year-old outside your car. The closed car is a kind of protective shell, a mini-world permitting behaviour that the individual would be inhibited from perpetrating in the "real" world. Same with the internet, I think. Normal courtesies do not always apply and will not be resumed after the break.

I am grateful to those who have read this blog and commented, it's the communication that has made the effort worthwhile. Who, apart from a few dedicated diarists, writes into a vacuum? So, my thanks and good wishes and keep blogging.

Whew! Glad that's over at last!

Hic dracones, indeed.

Defining Moments

There are some times in a life when you come up against a realization. I'm not talking about a moral choice, here, or a recognition of what is the Right And Noble Thing To Do; I'm talking about experiences where you realize, helplessly, whose side you are going to be on, take it or leave it.

It once happened to me years ago, when I was about sixteen or seventeen in fact.

Our school, like most in those days, had a Policy on Smoking. (It had to have, because just about everybody puffed away then, watch old films and you'll see.) The policy was, of course, that there was to be no smoking in school uniform, on or off the premises.

Anyway, one afternoon two lads on the bus home from school lit up (you were allowed to smoke on the upper deck of buses, then.) And a third lad saw them and remonstrated with them, so naturally enough, they told him to fuck off. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing he said he would report them, and he did.

Now get this, this lad was not a prefect or a monitor; had not, as far as I am aware, any right at all to go enforcing regulations against all and sundry, so why he did it, apart from being a creep, I do not know. And what he didn't know, was that Authority, aware of the enormous social example and peer pressure involved, was desperately turning a blind eye to the flouting of the rule.

So Authority, next day, was not at all grateful for this information, which put it in a bit of a bind. It did what Authorities always do when someone blows an inconvenient whistle: it ratted. The two miscreants were promptly suspended, but instead of smuggling the informant out the back door, Authority then let it be known who had grassed, sat back and washed its hands.

And there was a riot. I didn't know any of this at first; I was Library Monitor that day, which was the sort of dumb job they landed on senior pondlife who were regarded as too unreliable/too little imbued with the School Spirit, to be promoted prefects. I had to stay in the Library, stamp out books and try to enforce the No Talking rule, while the teacher in charge skived off for a well-earned fag and a cuppa up the staffroom.

We could hear this sort of dull roaring from a distance. The Library, which was usually full of people avoiding the cold, wet playground, emptied rapidly. I sat like Horatius at the bridge wondering what the hell was going on, until two lads burst through the door. They'd had a tremendous experience and they couldn't wait to share it.

Apparently the sneak had been rapidly surrounded by a vengeful, baying crowd and was only protected physically by a reluctant ring of prefects as he was hustled into safety and then sent home. Not a teacher to be seen. The two witnesses vied with each other in recalling the episode, what they had shouted at him, how one of them had spat in his face, on and on. Their eyes were gleaming, their faces flushed, their mouths were wet. I've never assisted at a bullfight or a fox-hunt, but I guess you would see the same symptoms there. And these were young lads, who had nothing to do with the original offence, weren't even friends, I found out later, of the smokers. Goddammit, there were people in that crowd who, as they talked about it later, you realised didn't even know the origin of the row. They'd just joined in the baiting out of....?

Well, it all simmered down as these things do. I can't even remember what happened to the main protagonists, whether they all returned to that school or not. But what I do remember, looking at those exultant faces, was feeling in my gut, "Well, I don't think much of the creep who started this, but, by God, I like your sort even less."