Thursday, January 08, 2009

Sticks and Stones

I have really been smoldering with indignation since reading this post. (Go on, I'll wait.) All I can think is how angry and violated I would feel if someone did that to me. Perhaps it has touched such a raw nerve because, in a way, someone did do something like that to me, and it left me feeling angry and violated. So let me tell you about it.

Now grab yourself a beverage, sit back and listen to my tale:

This may surprise many of you, but there was a time when the Internet did not exist. During those days, if you wanted a lot of people to read what you wrote (this is assuming you weren't Jane Austin or Charles Dickens) you had to write, revise, type the words into little columns, paste them onto a sheet of paper so they looked roughly like a newsletter and then run a few dozen copies off on the office copier when no one was looking. Believe me, signing up for Blogger is a lot less hassle.

Accordingly, people who wanted to be annoying in a literary sort of way on a regular basis required more than your average amount of dedication. Unfortunately, I was dedicated.

I produced a newsletter spoofing our official Agency newsletter, which turned out to be a lot more popular than the official newsletter. The Agency stopped putting out their newsletter after a single issue. I didn't. My monthly offering grew in popularity until I was finally called into the Director's office and told to cut it out. This was Civil Service, which means they couldn't fire me, but they could make me wish they had, so I stopped.

There was no way they could make me delete everything I had ever written, so they settled for banning my words from the agency building, instead. This was quite a feat considering I was often publishing in newspapers by that time.

As it transpired, I continued to write newsletters as an out-of-work hobby but was careful not to bring them to the office. I was not above standing outside the building handing them to people, however. One such recipient was a young lady who was a fan of my work. I told her, as I told everyone, not to take it out in the office but to read it at home, and she dutifully put it in her handbag. But not before someone saw her with it.

A few hours later, this girl looked up from her keypunch machine to find her supervisor, the shift supervisor and the shift manager surrounding her desk like hoods moving in on a potential mugging victim who has strayed onto their turf.

"Michael handed you something and you put it in your purse," the Shift Manager said. "Give it to me!"

I have no problem with the fact that the girl swiftly complied, but can someone tell me how many laws were broken in that little episode?

The three managers then took the newsletter to their lair, poured over it until they found something vaguely offensive (it was humor, they didn't need to look very far) and then filed harassment charges against me.

Yeah, it got ugly; I ended up consulting a lawyer. Suffice it to say that I eventually moved to another agency and was promoted beyond their levels and now live the life of an international jet-setter, so I feel like I've, if not won, at least moved beyond it.

But it leaves me in awe of the power of words, how the pusillanimous are petrified of them, how the despot despises them, how the politicians pervert them and how people are sacked, or worse, because of them.

As writers, we need to be careful with words: use them wisely, use them bravely, but use them with care.

And just in case you're ever in a position where you're forced to delete them, always keep them backed up.


  1. Oh my God! That's much worse than what happened to me. I love the fact that you were so dedicated to continuing your newsletter. I just backed down straight away.

    It's funny how if you're inclined to write, your words will find a way, whether it's through newsletters or blogs...

    Thanks for your support for my story!

    -PS- Anywhere I can find more info about your book?

  2. Lauren,

    Thanks for asking about my book. I thought it was obvious but now that I look I see it is not. You can buy the book using the linked buttons on the left, but what the book is about is different. The best way to see what the book is about is to check out my other blog: The book is basically a lot of similar essay-type humor about what it's like to live in the UK. Getting a non-fiction, humor book published was a bit of a surprise; my goal, like yours, is to publish novels.

    Best of luck.

  3. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for sharing this case!
    I to got so angry when I read her awful experience with her company!
    I have left a comment for Marsha on her blog.

    That is completely out of order what her company made her do!
    In my opinion she has very good grounds to take some kind of legal action against them (and I would if I were her) as the only thing that they could have made her delete would have been the actual post where she bad-mouthed the spa, and not her complete blog!
    That is unforgivable, despicable and they are just complete bullies.
    If it were me I would start preparing the ground in complete pleasure to drag them through a legal situation to teach them a lesson and make them see that they can't treat employees like this!
    Shame on them...

    All the best!
    Angrily, Donnie

  4. Donnie: Yes, that does make one seeth. The situation, I believe, was possible because we are so conditioned to do as we're told, especially by supposed authority figures. If your boss says, "Do it!" you do it; never mind that they aren't technically your boss anymore.

    And if I learned anything from my own experience, it is that sometimes it is best to walk away. (But I still think I would have un-deleted the blog at first opportunity and put up a big post saying, "IN YOUR FACE!" ;)

  5. mikeh, I am only thankful that I am long retired. Although, it just occurs to me that, as a junior officer (at the time) I acceded to the Chief Officer's request to start up a Brigade Magazine. I was irreverant from day one but, bearing in mind that I am talking about being in a uniformed and disciplined Service, it turned out to be the making of me!

    The same CFO fast-tracked me with 'a promotion a year' (not unlike a blog a day) ;-) To his credit, not once did he ever try to influence or intimidate me.

    However, I was never unaware of how rare the situation was, or ungrateful The real beauty was that he had never liked me, personally. It takes all sorts.

  6. Billy: you're a lucky man; I don't know of vary many organizations (or the people put in charge of them) that can tolerate having the Mickey taken out of them.