Sunday, September 30, 2007

Yours, Very Sincerely Indeed

I recently read about a Zimbabwean refugee who was sent a letter by the Home Office, which stated that his presence in the UK was "not essential for him to enjoy family ties with his new partner and her family". The letter went on to demand that he leave "without delay" and that this might be "enforced". Well, it wouldn't; the courts having ruled that Zimbabwe is too dangerous to send people back to, their hands are tied.

Somehow, though, the government continues to contend that although the legal test of refugee status is "a well-founded fear of persecution", the fact that asylum-seekers cannot be returned to Zimbabwe for fear they might die does not imply that their fear of this fate is well-founded. This pernicious fuckery just keeps going; it is one of the most repellent features of the post-Michael Howard Home Office that it has so little respect for legality. An unfavourable judgment is not a fact that should alter behaviour, but an unreasonable caprice to be reversed by superior power as soon as possible.

Therefore, it is still worth menacing "Thomas" in the hope he might bugger off; and if he was to do so, and later die in some unpleasantly public fashion in Zimbabwe, the government would bear no responsibility for it. (Even if they paid for his ticket.)

But what was the official who signed this document thinking when they signed their name to the statement that his presence was "not essential to enjoy family ties with his new partner and her children"? What on earth does this mean? Are we to believe that he could pop around at the weekend? Perhaps videoconferencing might be a solution, if he can find a computer and an operational Internet connection whilst keeping away from the Central Intelligence Organisation and not starving to death?

Clearly, this sentence should read something along the lines of "We are aware of your family, and we are indifferent to them," or perhaps just "We don't care." But this would make it a far harder document to sign; it's traditional to cite Orwell's Politics and the English Language at this point. I prefer Vaclav Havel's parable about the baker, who every year put a sign in his window on Revolution Day that read: Workers of the world, unite! Havel asked if he was actually enthused at all about the idea of unity among the workers of the world - of course not. He did it because the Party wanted him to.

But, Havel wrote, had the Party demanded that he put the sign's actual meaning there - a sign that said I am afraid, and therefore obedient - he would have been far less indifferent to its content. If we were to rewrite the letter, we might frame it like this:
Dear Sir,
We want you to go back to Zimbabwe because we think you are a liar. Unfortunately, the courts do not agree with us and will not permit us to force you, but this makes no difference to our opinion. We are aware of your family, but we do not care.

If I don't sign this they'll sack me.

Yours,

Civil Servant X.
I agree that the tone is harsh, but it could hardly be more distressing for the recipient than the original. I'm not sure what the correct formula of politeness is. (Yours faithfully? Surely not. With kind regards? Nuh. Yours sincerely? That's more like it, I suppose - this version is nothing if not sincere.) But at least, it is clear to the writer what is meant; it would be considerably harder to sign this without examining your conscience, and you could not sign very many without altering your opinion of yourself.

That such a programme of ruthless honesty, and specifically honesty with self, would be a good first step is a cliché. But sometimes, I doubt it. Consider this column in the FT, by ex-Sunday Torygraph editor Sarah Sands.
So, my Polish builder first worked on my house only a year ago. Seven days a week, 14 hours a day with his crack team. Barely spoke a word in English. Refused tea or coffee, just smoked and consumed Coca-Cola and chocolate biscuits. I was so swelled up with pride at my good fortune that, last December, I recommended him to a liberally inclined film director. I waited for grateful e-mails but none came. I grew a little uneasy.

Then a few months ago, I commissioned my Pole to do a bathroom. He returned without his team. Where were they? He was a little vague; they had disbanded/gone back to Poland/were busy elsewhere, but I should not worry about that.

I didn’t, until it became clear that he was arriving at 10 and knocking off at five. The driven gang was gone. Now he had a baby-faced apprentice who spilt his fizzy drinks on the carpets and broke the window. Every couple of hours they would down amateurish tools for a break. Finally my tight-lipped resentment spilt over.

“What on earth has happened to you?” I cried. “Why don’t you work any more?”
Well, you cannot accuse her of not being conscious of the literal meaning of her words. You could accuse her of class prejudice, exploitation, snobbery, and just being fucking gratuitiously unpleasant because she can, like a dog licking his balls. But you cannot imagine that she was not fully aware of her own meaning, and so, responsible for it.

It's also hypocritical; by her own lights, why didn't she put in more time at the Torygraph? Maybe she would still be there - and then, I could more thoroughly avoid the risk of reading her thoughts. Anyway, if you doubt that this little tale is serious, you might read this, published the same day.
Listening to all these experiences, it was as if all the Factory Acts and health and safety regulations had suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke, along with 150 years of trade union gains. None of this protection existed in the minds of these workers. The government will point to an avalanche of legislation, but the devil is in the detail.
I refer the honourable gentleman to this post, this one, and this one.

8 comments:

Justin said...

it's traditional to cite Orwell's Politics and the English Language at this point

And why the hell not. Some things never go out of fashion, baby.

Devil's Kitchen said...

For anyone reading this, they may want to read the next paragraph of Sarah Sands piece; you know, just in case you thought that Alex was being in any way impartial.

"My Pole explained, in fluent English, that he wanted a bit of work- life balance. He had acquired a baby and a Rottweiller, like his neighbours. He was content. How could I reply without sounding like a resurrected Leona Helmsley? My Pole merely wants to live like an Englishman."

I think that paragraph puts a rather different spin on the tone of the piece, don't you?

DK

Alex said...

Not really: it just makes it even clearer that she considers the working class deeply inferior. The extensive literature on the colonial notion of the lazy native should help you.

ejh said...

Do you know George Mikes' How To Be An Alien?

There's a section where he's talking about the difference between Contintental and British bureaucracy and he recalls a letter received by (I think) a fellow-Hungarian telling them that their right to remain had expired and they were to leave immediately. It concludes:

I remain,

Sir,

Your obedient servant

Justin said...

My Pole. My Pole.

Her tone says it all to be honest. Alex is right. When Sands says 'My Pole merely wants to live like an Englishman', she means 'English prole'. She prefers the Polish flavour.

Anonymous said...

She prefers a hard working builder to a less hard working builder.

Nothing strange about that.

Do you think she should reverse her preferences, and only hire builders who work short hours?

Tom Scudder said...

Some sort of link creep in the first link, unless you meant to link to an article entitled "Bingo club closures tear apart social web"

Scruggs said...

Anonymous @9:40 PM,

Seven days a week, 14 hours a day is not a sustainable pace in the building trade, or in any trade, for that matter. People get tired and make mistakes, which can be bad for their health and costly to remedy. It is completely unreasonable to expect anyone to maintain that pace long term. Her disappointment is fatuous and her expectations are childish.

"Do you think she should reverse her preferences, and only hire builders who work short hours?"

She might consider putting her considerable intellect to work instead. Busyness is not productivity! Hours by themselves don't amount to much. There are no end of goldbrickers, cowboys and hacks willing to submit hours in place of competent, finished and enduring work -- fussbudget former editors, for example.

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