Work

‘The same people who are murdered slowly in the mechanized slaughterhouses of work are also arguing, singing, drinking, dancing, making love, taking to the streets, picking up weapons and inventing a new poetry.’

 Raoul Vaneigem

16649Over the past few years, during the months of late summer, I walk through the campus of a London university, on the way to work. Students gather around stalls from multinational firms- KPMG, Goldman Sachs, Glaxo-Smith Kline- snaring carrier bags of logo-ed mouse mats, coffee cups, and promotional material, accepting the skin bargain.

My first job after finishing university was packing radiator covers in a factory on the outskirts of Telford. While the other workers played football during their lunch breaks, I stayed by a desk in the corner and read The Alexandria Quartet, making notes in the red diary I carried around with me at that time. From then on, I was stuck in the pattern of minor jobs. A bookshop (of course). Kitchen work in restaurants. Selling bathrooms by telephone (I lasted one afternoon at that one). Potting plants in a nursery. Working as a hospital porter, a wine-merchant, for a small charity. Deleting a whole library of books, which I satirized in a short story, which gave rise to the name of this blog. Temporary contracts across London. And inevitably into office work: a desk, a phone, a computer. The way we work now.

Yes, I teach the odd creative class, but I’m mainly entrenched in what anarchists call ‘bullshit jobs’. To quote David Graeber, ‘Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.’ I’ve had a soft spot for anarchists ever since reading Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, and enjoying its sense of utopian confrontation. It occurred to me at the time, that a form of anarchism (think of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Stewart Home) should be a true writer’s default political position. Obviously, it only works if you have no contact with other anarchists.

It’s arguable that any work which doesn’t save lives is bullshit. The anarchists have a point. But as much as these jobs defeat us, they give us something to work against. Mesitu-percussionistsaningless work, the hypnotism of routine, the vacuity of the grind: it at least conditions you to the essential uselessness of writing. If you’re going to choose to spend your life in this way, it’s best to consider the void. Once upon a time, I was the kind of person you might imagine blithely name-checking Rimbaud or Kerouac. These days, I cling to the examples of Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka, (or when times are really bad, Emily Dickinson). It’s probably a healthy sign to imagine wanting to meet your younger self and punch him swiftly in the face. Clearly, I’d be lying if I said that work hasn’t been like a toad squatting on my life. If you don’t benefit from the market, and you don’t have a university lectureship, you have to write with one eye on either of those two choices to save you from the ugly fact of work. And yet… Something about writing around a job appeals to me. Maybe this is because I’ve always thought of good writing as operating between the market and the academy, a third, no doubt illusory place beyond sales and research. Probably, I’m a fantasist. But the idea of the professional writer is a comparatively late, (and brief) development, and rather than being the dalliances of the occasional hobbyist, it occurs to me that writing should be part of a double identity. I’ve always been suspicious of the public writer, anyway. There’s something perpetually interesting about the ideal of quiet obscurity.

attachmentAlan Warner once wrote that nothing gives you better material for writing than working in shit jobs. Henry Green became managing director of his family firm in Birmingham, until losing himself to drink and the Ottoman Empire. R. F. Langley worked as a teacher, Iain Sinclair as a gardener, Roberto Bolano as a nightwatchman. American writing has (or once had) more of a tradition of working writers. Sinclair Lewis wrote on his daily train. Charles Bukowski worked for over ten years in the post office, and did it without going on a killing spree. James Sallis worked in hospitals. Like Henry Green, the poet William Bronk turned his back on academia and went to work for the family firm. Lorine Niedecker scrubbed floors and became a librarian. Inevitably, we will have to consider Raymond Carver. I always felt that a certain degree of prodigality was essential to any writer, or, at least, any writer with a decent story to tell. And what better measure of prodigality is there than to waste time in the day job?

When I lived in Brixton in the late nineties, a friend of mine had a flat off Coldharbour Lane. The first time I visited, he showed me the view from his back window. It looked over the garden of the downstairs flat, little more than a paved-over space, occupied by a single deck chair. I asked him about his neighbour. ‘I don’t know. Magnus… He’s written a novel, or something.’ He lived above Magnus Mills. Famously, Mills worked as a bus driver while writing his first novel The Restraint of Beasts, a book about cB_Bukowskyasual work. I heard recently that Mills had returned to driving buses after giving it up to pursue the writing career. I see this less an admission of defeat about the writing life, and more about what moves some writers to start in the first place. Those days when I was free to write, I hardly committed to anything worthwhile. Something about fitting the writing around a job which doesn’t quite suit, honouring the larger vocation, scraping together material, reading, drifting, letting things go: all of that turned me into a writer, for better or worse. Only when I worked, did I realise what I’d lost. My writing became charged with that purest, if hopeless, objective: to claw back all the lost time.

  ‘Let’s play Ask for a job.
What can you do?
         I can hammer and saw
         and feed a dog.
You’ll do! Take this slip
to the department of song.’

Lorine Niedecker

 

 

Games

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‘Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game.’ Roberto Bolano

Years ago, I knew someone with ambitions to be a writer. Like many of us, this friend – let’s call him Felix – brimmed with curiosity and youthful ambition, and, as Fitzgerald writes of a novelist character in Tender is The Night, ‘Fine dives have been made from flimsier spring-boards’. We both worked night jobs, and during the week we would hang out around his flat, drink beer, play computer games, talk about books. Real life might have been calling to us from the street outside, but we could ignore it quite easily. Real life was at work.

The trouble with ambition and ideas comes when they get thwarted by irredeemable fact. And the trouble with writing is that, well, it’s actually hard. You can try to cheat your way into the castle, but the guards always track you down. Sooner or later you get the tiny inkling that you’re not even half as clever as you think you are, and Samuel Johnson starts kicking your skull like a rock.

Felix struggled to get anything done. He told himself that he had a good armory in terms of language and ideas- ideas were never really his problem- but he was missing characters. During his adolescence, he’d been a keen player of role-playing games, and he still had some of those many-sided dice. He decided to score personality traits from dice rolls and draw up characters for his novel. You know the kind of thing: Anger 20, Obsession 15. Capacity for Love 5. I’m not really sure how these cards would have been used in practice, but for Felix, this represented an experimental solution to his problem. William S. Burroughs and B.S. Johnson had attempted similar things. J.G. Ballard would surely have approved. This would be Felix’s contribution to the avant-garde.

hqdefaultWriting is hard. But sometimes, for whatever reason, we make it harder than it ought to be. For most writers, it’s enough to keep an eye out for the people who cross their paths, to create characters from the composite sketches from that intersection of memory, insight and imagination. Sometimes, though, some of us want a bit of magic. Tricks become fascinating: those conjurings and deceptions, those games. Felix’s character compositions came back to me when I read ‘Enrique Martin Arturo’, Roberto Bolano’s short story about warring poets, which includes a mysterious folder of writing left to the narrator by the eponymous character. Bolano knew all about games. His novel The Third Reich tells the story of a professional war gamer struggling with the demands of romantic love. Any time he had away from writing (what time?) Bolano would spend playing world conquest games on a Playstation. Salman Rushdie came out of his years of hiding with a nasty Mario addiction. Georges Perec played pinball machines in his favourite cafe, and became a member of Oulipo, the group which aimed to advance the potential of writing by forcing it into inventive constraints. After all, if a game is defined by anything it’s the rules. When it comes down to it, writing is a game. Both depend on compulsion and delusion. Both make you believe in things which have no substance. Both are ways of spinning away your life. The real world? That’s at work. And we want to play.

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I sometimes wonder what happened to Felix’s character sketches. I imagine them as the kind of arcane text-a Book of Thoth, a testament of Caspar Hauser- the kind of thing that might have been pasted onto the back of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I like to think of them being unearthed in a hundred years or so, poured over for significance. Perhaps those rolls of the dice tore something loose in reality. Perhaps one of those characters is about to walk through the door of this café, where I’m writing this, on a rather grey day in early February. Perhaps I’m actually one of those characters, writing a story about Felix, who all this time has been writing a story about me.

Five or so years ago, I started taking my daughter to swimming lessons. In between watching her work through the lengths of the pool, I would write poems on my phone. It’s never far way, that secret voice, however much you try to suppress it. One of my neighbours would sit a few rows down from me. Doubtless he thought me rude at the time, but later, he found out I’d written a novel, and I told him about spending those lessons writing poetry on my phone.

‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘I always thought you were playing games.’