‘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.’
Over 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. Meaningless 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.
Alan 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 casual 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.’