Sunday 12 August 2012

The Olympics: or Why I Was Wrong

I was probably as cynical as anyone in the run-up to the Olympics. I thought it was going to be a disaster, and on some levels kind of almost hoped that it was.

But the last few weeks have been entertaining, inspiring and generally pretty amazing. As well as being happy that London 2012 has gone well, I've actually realised what makes the Olympics such a fantastic and important thing.

For those of you who already know, you don't need me to explain it to you. But it's not true that for those who don't, no explanation will be enough. Because I didn't know. I didn't get it. But I do now.

Every day, and pretty much on an hourly basis, people who had travelled around the world achieved their life's ambitions.

Somehow, I didn't quite get that before. I somewhat wrote it off as "just sport". Possibly because I'm about the least sporty person I know. Possibly because, at school, sport represented something I was never going to be good at, and never going to be accepted at.  Possibly because it was something I always associated with negativity. But whatever it was, I was wrong.

The opening ceremony helped. It was such an astonishing spectacle of positivity and multiculturalism (which helpfully annoyed all the right people). It was something people talked about and were generally rather wonderfully enthusiastic about. It was something which a lot of people had been dreading, but went beautifully.

Team GB have performed really well, and other than some tabloid whining when they weren't winning golds, it hasn't felt particularly jingoistic in the same way that it's felt like it did when football was on.

I was a British teenager living in Ireland when some of the English fans (who were linked with neo-Nazi group Combat 18) tore up sections of an Irish football stadium during a friendly match. It made me feel physically ill when it happened. That happened a year before Euro '96, and it meant that I saw a nasty edge to the Jingoism that took hold, culminating with headlines like "For You, Fritz, Ze European Cup Is Over".

That was difficult to let go of. It was difficult not to feel as my first reaction any time England or Britain were mentioned in conjunction with sports. It was difficult not to associate it with a sickening and undeserved sense of self-entitlement and xenophobia.

However, the Olympics, and Team GB's achievements, haven't reflected that. Instead, they've reflected a rather beautiful example of how much Britain has changed, and how much it has changed for the better. A multicultural, slightly bonkers, weird, wonderful and humourous country. I mean, the most popular man in the country right now is called Mohamed. That's just brilliant.

But it wasn't just Team GB. Watching athletes reacting to losing or winning was continually fascinating. Seeing people cry due to a combination of exhaustion and pride while listening to their national anthem being played was truly inspirational.

Wrongly, I tended to not think about sporting achievements in the same way as I thought about artistic or scientific achievement.

But we saw records being set. We saw people continually achieving at the very pinnacle of human physical ability. Work, dedication and passion. People showing what we can achieve when we put our minds and bodies to it.

That's what the Olympics are all about. The mental, brilliant opening ceremony was about that too. And the fact that we landed Curiosity on Mars seemed appropriate.

Because we're human beings, and we continue to achieve amazing, wonderful, beautiful things. Creatively, scientifically and physically. The Olympics are a showcase for part of that. And we do it because we can.

If I wished one thing about the Olympics, it's that they'd been better for local businesses. Because that was promised, and it doesn't feel like it happened. That's not quibbling either. But now's not the time for it. That's tomorrow's discusssion.

For now, well done to everyone involved with London 2012. The organisers, the athletes, the volunteers, and the utterly wonderful BBC for presenting it so well.

Saturday 4 August 2012

The Secretary - Short Story

The most important thing you need to know about me is that “secretary” is just a job title. I have levels of clearance within this government that are higher than most people know exist. When the Prime Minister wants information regarding the department I work in, he calls me directly and it is down to my discretion whether or not I tell him.

My predecessor committed suicide before she turned fifty. So did her predecessor. I didn’t ask any further back than that. This job has unique benefits but also unique pressures. This is why I am retiring at a young age. I do not intend to kill myself. So I am training my replacement and then I am walking away.

I was psychologically evaluated by the age of fifteen. I had seduced my headmaster to improve my grades, and was implicated in his divorce. Due to my age, it should have been something which he was seen as being more responsible for, but for the fact that I was caught sleeping with his temporary replacement two months later in an attempt to improve my chemistry grade. Add in a little matter of compulsive theft, and my mother became concerned and sought professional help.

I maintain that she felt threatened by me. By the time I was a teenager, I had a way with men that she had never been able to compete with. Perhaps if she had been more concerned about the way my stepfather had attempted to assert his dominance over me, it may have been more useful.

It was actually a relief when I was diagnosed as sociopathic. It made sense to me. I was also described as being intensely manipulative, which I didn’t particularly see as a bad thing.

I got into trouble again when I was in my late teens. My ambition was not high, and my social opportunities weren’t many. I’d become involved with gangs, and ended up playing two East London gangs against each other. I had a rival, who had tried to spread rumours about me, and they almost got me killed. I was more efficient in my response.

I was told my mother wanted to see me. I didn’t care. I was old enough now to be sentenced as an adult, and had my own problems to deal with.

It was around then that she came to see me. The most amazing woman I ever met. Katherine Pettaval.

“We’ve been watching you for some time,” she said.

“How?” I asked.

“We work closely with psychologists who deal with children and teenagers.”


“So they can alert us to promising recruits.”

I looked her up and down. She looked strict and harsh at first, but when she smiled at me, I felt accepted for the first time. I felt an aching for her in every part of my body and my soul.

“Promising in what way?”

“I’ll teach you to be like me.” Katherine said.

I wanted that more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life.

“What do I have to do?” I asked.

“You sign your life to us, and we’ll compensate you. You’ll be educated, trained and given every benefit the British Government can. Then you do what we tell you to do. Primarily, you’ll be taking care… very particular care… to one of our biggest assets.”

I expressed misgivings about working for “the establishment” like that. Well, I was young.

She laughed. “The establishment is very different when you’re on this side of it. Believe me. I’m offering you the Golden Ticket.”

I accepted.

The training took years, but I came out of it as someone who could walk into any meeting room in the Civil Service and take control of it. I came out of it as someone who could convince someone to do what I wanted them to, and also have them utterly convinced that it was their idea in the first place.

I raced up the ladder, and excelled at every part of my role.

Eventually, I was called in by Katherine, as I had been judged ready to learn about their secrets. Only Katherine and the head of the Service, who everyone called “Mother” were there.

I was handed a file. It was thick. “This,” Mother said, “is our secret weapon.”

“We find suitable agents,” Katherine said. “We then manipulate them to see the world in a certain way.”

“In our way.” Mother said.

“In our way, yes.” Katherine agreed. “It means that their life completely revolves around the job that we send them on. Everything they think, everything they want… their reaction to everything around them has been planned to the smallest detail.”

“You mean you brainwash them, ma’am?” I asked. It was impertinent, but I knew when to cut through the bullshit.

Mother looked at Katherine for a moment. A brief glance that most would miss. But, as I said, I was trained very well. “Yes,” Katherine said. “That’s exactly what we do.”

I opened the file, to see pictures of a man. He was tall, muscular and slim, and most would think of him as being attractive. I hated him at first glance. I didn’t know why. That was just the first though. There were others too.

“There is a down side to this kind of programming, though,” Katherine said.

“They don’t live long,” Mother said. “They’re put into very, very high risk situations. We trust them implicitly to use their own judgement, as they’ll use the judgement we train them to.”

“How do you find suitable candidates?” I asked.

“The same way we found you,” she said. “Psychological profiling. Both of these roles require very… specific criteria.”

Katherine elaborated. “Part of the way we do this is to have very specifically designated relationships. Mother becomes the most important thing in the subject’s life, and pleasing Mother is always the one thing they strive to do.”

“So where do we come into it?”

She smiled, and while I still felt it deep inside, I’d been taught to contain it now. “We’re the life they can never have.”

“Is that important?”

“It’s vital. They’ve got to have the dream that this is just temporary, and that they can some day give this up. You’ve got to be the one they’re in love with.”

I tilted my head to the side. “How much of a relationship are we talking about here?”

“Oh, don’t worry. You won’t actually have to do anything.” She laughed. “They’re designed to see women purely as something to rescue, kill or fuck. They’re users by design.”

“And we’re different?”

“Oh yes. You’re the one he never gets to fuck. You’re the one he never gets to have. You’re the one who always promises more. You’re the relationship he desperately wants, but never gets.”

“And that works?” I asked.

“It’s worked beautifully so far. We’ve given them the appropriate memories, so their upbringing, their defining experiences….they’re all planted.”

I continued looking through the file. “All the rest got killed on duty. How come this one,” I asked, pointing, “committed suicide off-duty? Did something go wrong?”

“He fell in love with someone.” Mother said. “We cut ties after she died.”

“He begged to come back,” Katherine said. “But the programming had been broken. We actually incorporated the dead wife into their back-story. It worked, as it gave them something extra to obsess over. It actually made them better agents.”

I laughed. It wasn’t intended as spiteful. It just seemed so absurd.

I wasn’t able to be part of the meetings with him. I had to content myself with watching camera footage in another room of meetings, in order to learn about him. The room itself had to be perfectly maintained. The placement of everything, the smells, the visuals…it all had to feed into the programming. Complement it.

I hated him. Immediately, I hated him. The way he carried himself, the way he spoke. I couldn’t define it, but I hated him.

I told Katherine about it when she came to see me afterwards.

“I hate him too,” she said. “It isn’t important. Don’t think of him as a person. He’s a weapon. That’s all. Think of him as machinery.”

I watched those meetings until he died a few years later, shot through the head while on assignment.

Mother told me, also letting me know that the next one would be ready for assignments in two years time, and that he would be mine, not Katherine’s.  I was given a codename.

The next time I met Katherine, she was distraught.

“I miss him.” She said. “I wasn’t expecting to. I hated him so much, but so much of my life was spent being his life. I was the closest thing to a relationship that he ever had, and he was the closest thing that I ever had.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She killed herself a year later. I had somewhat expected it.

My assignments went mostly well. I actually oversaw a few of them over the years. Bringing them in, being the woman they wanted to spend their life with, smiling at them and flirting at them, and loving them with my eyes and sending them to die.

It takes a toll. Of course it does. So I finally got to select and train my replacement.

I sit back in the same room I did when I watched Katherine. I feel pride watching her.

I see her preparing. Practicing the surprised turn from the filing cabinet. A gasp with a perfectly rounded mouth, followed by the warmest smile you’ve ever seen since mine. Tits and teeth, darling.

The door opens, and he walks in. I watch the monitor carefully. This one doesn’t walk. He prowls, like an alpha male lion, all muscular brutality and lethal intent wrapped in a designer suit.

She hits it perfectly. The turn, the smile and the warmth. I see him fall in love with her.

“Hello James. M will be ready for you in just a minute.”