...........................commentary

....................THE JOB
 

 

or: A slightly tacky account (written some years ago but can't be arsed to improve) of:

How I Landed in a Phony Slackers' Paradise

                             ..     - 1 -

It's a warm June afternoon in 1978. Through the window are fields and beyond them woods and hills all around. I sit at my desk in a rented room of an old stone farmhouse that has walls three feet thick, and wonder where the years have gone, what the future holds.

Today a season in my life has closed. There is a sense in which I feel I have arrived. But I am really at a beginning, and consider myself fortunate to be embarking on a promising career. At least, promise is what I detect; though a curious trace of foreboding oppresses me which is quite unaccountable. I can only attribute it to uncertainty and inexperience. In fact, today was my last day as a student, and the university finished early, at lunchtime. After the farewells I traipsed down the long hill - it must be at least a mile - slung my shabby old briefcase into my car, and walked into the city. I made a habit of parking near the ring-road, partly to save petrol and partly to limit the strain of the hill on the ailing rust-heap, but mainly it was a device for freeing my brain, which exercise tends to do quite effectively.

Bath is the most picturesque English city I know; and today it seemed more fresh and alive than usual; sparkling in the sunshine as it did, everywhere looked cleaner and brighter than I've noticed before. At one point, I walked past the Pump-House and, in its customary animated way, the little Palm Court orchestra played a popular cheerful Boccherini. The music seemed to dance around the square and flow out behind me through the pillared arch, back into a maze of narrow streets and alleys: old lampposts festooned in flowers, little shops bright with garments, fresh fruit, trinkets and bric-a-brac, and crowds of laughing children. Eventually, I came out by the river where I sat watching reflections of the trees and thinking of what lay ahead for me. I could spend hours, years, idling like that, wandering the streets, soaking in the ambiance, quietly musing and staring at reflections.

It has always been impressed on me that aimless wandering and daydreaming is a shameless squandering of time. But I can think of no better use for time; to squander it is to fail to enjoy it, time enjoyed is time well used. I believe time is the most undervalued and misunderstood of all worldly possessions. It is like a reservoir ascribed to us when we are born, each with our pre-set volume which leaks relentlessly away, and which for the most part goes unnoticed, untasted. If we do taste it, we are inclined to detect bitterness. But this is because our 'noses' are infected with instilled negativity, or the flavour is contaminated by whatever we have in mind.

It is said, and I do not doubt it, that of the five billion people in the world, more than half are undernourished or starving. It is said that two thirds have inadequate shelter and own nothing but the shirt on their back. And it is said that one percent of mankind owns ninety-five percent of the wealth - wealth created by the labour of the dispossessed ninety-nine percent.

Unmoved, I watch idly as these taints sidle through my brain, knowing that I am powerless to change anything. A little way down the road from here is a store where I can buy with my allowance easily more than I need. I can afford to smoke, buy good wine occasionally, flavoursome cheese, fresh fruit, vegetables, fish.

Yet still it is only in moments of self-remembering when I detect the fragrance of that reservoir whose contents drain so insidiously and inexorably away. Those moments have become more elusive these days. Today, however, was unusually full of them as I wandered about the city, and again when I arrived back at the farmhouse. As usual, I was greeted by the old sheep-dog who lingers about the yard among hens and guinea-fowl. I stroked him for a while then went into the hall where a letter I had been expecting lay by the telephone.

I pulled open the seal as I climbed the stairs and then sat on my bed reading it:


                                 Public Broadcasting Corporation
                                 PBC Centre
                                 LONDON W12
Phil Clarke
Charmy Down Farm
Bath
Avon
                                 June 6th   1978

Dear Mr Clarke,                      
       We have pleasure in inviting you to attend an interview with our selection board for the post of Network Engineer. The interview will be held on July 3 at 14.00 in room 32, Cavendish  House, Cavendish  Square, London  WC4. If  this  is inconvenient, please contact me on 01 743 2112.

Yours sincerely
                           Trisha Rabagliati      enc.

Enclosed was a small map of how to get there.

After two cups of tea, I went for a long walk through the fields. The letter had both excited and unsettled me, and the walk provided suitable respite. When I got back - a few moments ago - I dug out a novella of Twain's 'The Mysterious Stranger', which I bought yesterday on the recommendation of Bob Carter, a colleague and friend for the past year who I'll probably never see again. I'm looking forward to learning what it's about, so I'll break off here to read it.

Later:
It's an impressive work. Twain probably wrote it shortly before he died at 75, because it was published posthumously in 1916. He must have carried its messages in his head all his life, without knowing how best to tell them; and then, at the last minute, he wrote it anyway, so that what he had to say could be recorded somehow, even if not exactly as he wished.

In his 'Eagle and Earwig' Colin Wilson says: '...if Twain had had the courage to write it at the beginning of his career instead of at the end, he might have become a truly great writer.' and adds, '...it may ultimately be an unsatisfactory work, but at least it throws down a challenge: it suggests what great art could be.'

I think we all carry the messages of Twain's story. It's just that most of us fail to acknowledge them, even when confronted with them head-on, as happens often in everyday life.

The story shows how easily led we are, how we succumb to prejudices expounded by those who have hoisted themselves, usually by devious means, into the most influential positions in society.

We are shown how uneasy we feel at first, but cowered by the confident manner of our 'superiors' we soon acclimatise and accept their self-appointed right to exploit us - though no-one can ever satisfactorily explain how this right has come about, except by the very fact that it has been grasped. What's more, we come to believe that the prejudices and ideas instilled in us are our own and have been derived naturally and spontaneously from our own hearts, so that what was there originally becomes displaced and serves as a focus for our suspicion and distrust.

When I began to think about it, I could see how, as in Twain's day, we are still encouraged to distrust our intuitions right from our earliest days: Mother and Father know best; teacher knows best; the manager, the law, the government knows best. It is easy to see why this story has been kept out of the limelight.


This has been a strange and interesting day. I feel oddly light and invigorated by what has happened, and moreso perhaps by what is going to happen, the uncertainty, the expectation, the hope. The evening sunshine has a golden edge to it which is augmented by long dark shadows of the trees and a broken line of soft-edged nimbus that skirts the horizon. I shall go for another walk before bed and watch the sun set from a mound at the top of the down. From there, across the old wartime airfield, across remnants of tarmac runway standing out among wild grasses that burst from the innumerable cracks, can be seen the Vale of Bath and the hazy evening glow of Bristol as it competes with the fading twilight. I can almost picture the Lancasters as they must have screamed from the old runway loaded with bombs, struggling skyward; and then silence, years compressed into seconds, the dilapidated ammunition stores, their red bricks crumbling now beneath a patchwork veneer of moss and ivy.


                                   -2-

July 3rd already! The interview is over, and I'm feeling strangely ambivalent. The board was held on the third floor of a grubby Victorian block. When I entered the room three men and a woman sat behind a long bench facing me. A very lonely upright chair stood in the centre of the huge space between us; otherwise there was nothing, no carpet, not even a picture, which made the room seem enormous. Patches of pealing paintwork glared from the walls. Above the chair, a single unshaded bulb hung from a huge ornate rose that was blistered and flaking. Before anyone spoke, I was struck by a disquieting echo in the room. Two tall windows behind the interviewers gave me a view of treetops wavering in the wind on the far side of the square, and behind them the roofs of more Victorian blocks. I closed the door and waited for them to invite me to sit; it would have been careless of me to behave arrogantly; a slight obsequiousness always goes down well. And it wasn't easy holding a good posture on that chair for half an hour, keeping my hands in my lap so as not to betray anxiety or psychological hangups. This concern was unnecessary because I did not feel particularly nervous. Before entering, I had wondered if during the interview someone would come in with a lukewarm cup of tea and spill it accidentally-on-purpose into my lap to see how I would respond to a sudden crisis. But it was immediately clear to me that the layout was too primitive for such 'tests of character', which these days have probably been discarded in favour of simpler, less obvious techniques. The scene and procedure were twenty years out of date. Most interviews now are informal where people lounge around in easy chairs and sip coffee. I hadn't expected that; but in retrospect I'm glad they used the old method because it was easier to act according to how I guessed they would expect. It didn't enter my head that the set-up might be some new form of assessment.

Luckily, I had brushed up the night before on photography and tape recording. In fact, I own neither camera nor tape machine. They appeared to assume I was familiar with both and understood every detail of their function. I stumbled on a few questions, about transistors, signal frequencies and optimum recording levels, but I bluffed through the rest fairly convincingly. At least, they looked pleased at the end, and treated me with a respect that I would normally expect from an undertaker these days: demure restraint tempered by vague ingratiating smiles  - as though, I reflected afterwards, I were holding a gun at them. But one man, a manager from the department that hoped to recruit me who sat on my left at the end of the bench, showed none of the docile efficiency of the personnel woman, nor the easy confidence of both the engineering recruitment man and his colleague from appointments. He looked thoroughly fed up, and on two occasions appeared to have fallen asleep. It was his questions that baffled me. And I'm not sure that he himself understood what he was asking in his cheerless hooting drawl. He'd obviously been drinking, or else was suffering an acute bout of depression. Fortunately, the appointments man took the lead and rescued me. Unlike the manager, he was young and had a friendly sparkle in his eyes, which meant we soon established a good rapport. This was doubtless highly favourable to me, overriding my inarticulate fumbling with the manager's incoherent questions.

When the interview was over, and before I had got up, the appointments man said, 'If you could wait outside, we'll discuss the position and let you know shortly.' I said, 'Certainly.' and got up to leave. Then he said, 'On second thoughts, perhaps we should let you know by post. There's no sense in keeping you waiting.'

As I said, I had weighed up beforehand several of the psychological tactics used in interviews, and although this one was new to me I nonetheless clearly recognised it as such. For one thing, they would have decided beforehand about how to inform interviewees of their performance; and for another, I knew that to tell people straight away would have meant breaking a well established convention - at least, for a civil-service styled organisation like the PBC. It was imperative, therefore, that my response was guarded and precise, and revealed no signs of impatience or attempts to sway their authority. I responded with a kind of obliging disinterest. I said, 'That would be fine. Whatever's most convenient.' Then I smiled, said 'Thank you.' and left the room.

Another 'trick' I used when that manager had asked a string of unfathomable questions: I said, in the pause that ensued, 'I'm sorry if I've wasted your time.' To which the appointment man replied at once, 'Oh, don't think that.' and then went on to ask about my former employers - another minefield for the uninitiated. Needless to say, I painted a very bright picture, and the appointments man looked extraordinarily happy, his face seemed to shine. The question I am left with is: do they want submissive cooperative types or supreme technical competence? I sense it will be the former, and hence that I've clinched the job.

When I got out into the street I went straight to the nearest pub. This was in a narrow backstreet off Cavendish Square. After sinking a pint of bitter I traced a route to the Tate Gallery. Ever since I first saw it, I have always been fascinated by Turner's work, how the perspectives of his paintings seem to grow as his work evolved, how he had striven for a kind of subliminal radiance, a source of illumination that appears almost natural to the eye but which contains something hidden that seems designed to address the unconscious. This mystical quality reveals a dimension that goes beyond the mere picture. It takes you gently by the throat and lifts you out of yourself; and I mean by the throat; it jerks you awake and away. The drama becomes intensified and the scene projects a story that endures beyond the confines of its time. It is this quality, probably present in any masterpiece, which makes Turner really work for me, takes me up and propels me into that zone of forgetfulness which I'm always seeking. It is rather like being elevated into a region from which the world becomes translucent to the inner eye. To recognise what is 'seen' from this unfamiliar position probably takes a deal of experience, for the images are mysterious and indefinable, and their meaning subtle and elusive. Although clearly present, nothing is obvious, and one gets the impression that it all could be deciphered like hieroglyphics on an ancient tomb - if only one had the key.

But this was my third visit to the Tate that year, and the paintings seemed no less fresh and inspiring than before. I thought: Who cares if I failed the interview, just so long as art like this exists? While I looked at those paintings, I had a peculiar sense that they were connected to me in some way, as if the one I was viewing was part of me. And suddenly the thought struck me that those pictures were inevitable; even if they were to vanish now in a fire or some other catastrophe, they could not possibly never have existed, any more than trees and clouds could never have existed. They possessed an eternal quality, as though without them the world would be a very different place. I've heard people refer to the music of Mozart in this way, and the writings of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky.

Years before, I had a book of Turner's great works much reduced in size - some of the originals are enormous - but they meant no more to me than other good pictures. Only when I saw them 'live' did that curious feeling of timelessness hit me. I remember standing there overwhelmed - it would have been quite impossible to speak to anyone  - and thinking: This is the purpose of life; this is why I am here. I can only describe it as a profoundly emotional experience, similar to the effect that music sometimes has. With the paintings, though, the experience is sustained for as long as you can go on looking. And it isn't boredom that makes you deflect your eyes, but the need to recover some sense of what we normally regard as reality, to return to the familiar, the safe, the comprehensible mundane. After an excursion into that other region one can be left slightly off balance, and remain so for some time afterwards if not distracted by some practical problem that requires a degree of thought. But even without distractions the influence slowly diminishes like a discharging battery, and which for me at this moment is no more than a vestige of what it was this afternoon. If only I could capture it, hold onto it and sustain the effect indefinitely.

The first time this happened - on my first visit to the Tate - it reminded me of my first experience of orgasm: a sense of exquisite confusion mixed with a unique sensual delight and self-forgetfulness (ie, one is momentarily projected into n-dimensional space), after which I had spent the rest of the day going about in a daze, feeling somewhat enervated but also as if I had discovered the Ultimate (it is never quite the same again, though it is possible to get close). That was during a most peculiar episode with my first intimate friend, which, important for its being a 'first experience', for both of us, I regard also as one of my 'significant events'. Such childhood reminiscences (we were both only fourteen) leave a distinct echo, and the repercussions, like those of other 'significant events', can influence one's whole life even when the event itself is consciously long forgotten. For the episode I mention, the memory has lost its impact, has mellowed and matured into a charming but very faint glow; whereas, in the subconscious, its strength may remain as inviolable as when it took place.

So Turner, for one, returns to me that glimpse upon the secret of freedom, which I believe many of us spend our lives searching for.

Since that first encounter with Turner's work, I began to notice a similar effect from Titian, Monet, Cezanne and others, as though I had awoken to a new sense that had lain dormant and unnoticed until Turner had alerted me.

So, two hours later, when I left the Tate (I had no choice: they were about to close) I returned home in an elated frame of mind, and was quite indifferent about the outcome of the interview, which I'd almost forgotten as if it had taken place a month earlier.


                                         - 3 -

July 18. I've just spent the last two weeks in a dream. I haven't tried to anticipate anything, though I shall be surprised if I haven't got the job. My decision to apply was made on impulse. I was sitting in the Student Union lounge with a copy of the 'Appointments Directory' intending to investigate the aviation industry. The television was on and the place was deserted. When I began filling out a form for one of the big aerospace firms, I found the television distracting and I got up to switch it off. As I went towards it the thought suddenly struck me: Why not try the entertainment industry? After a pause, I turned the sound down and watched the screen. I can't remember what was on; I think it was a children's cartoon. But during the next few minutes television took on a completely different meaning, as if I had glimpsed a whole new world: video, telecine, cameras, lights, props and so on. I saw myself standing in a studio beside a TV camera with its side open exposing circuit boards and cable harnesses. By the time I sat down again, my mind had cleared and I began to think rationally again. With no experience in television - the university course had barely touched the subject - I saw little point in applying, and dismissed my 'visions' as mere imaginative wishful thinking. But then I thought: What harm can it do? So, after checking the address in the Directory, I immediately wrote a letter to PBC Engineering Recruitment.

I'm beginning to feel excited. If they were going to turn me down I would have heard by now. In knowing I wasn't an ideal applicant, and was likely to be rejected, I hadn't felt nervous at the interview which I think made a good impression. Of course, I would have to move. Besides being 70 miles from London, living with my parents is restricting. I shall miss the home comforts, but I've got to break away sometime and this would be a perfect opportunity.


It's August 2nd. And today I got the letter. I can hardly believe it; yet it is roughly what I expected. I'm to report to the Engineering Training Dept at Evesham on September 4th where I shall be for three weeks before starting work in London. Everything I look at seems to sparkle. I see ahead only a life of pleasure and happiness where even work will be something to look forward to. All day today, since reading the letter, I've done absolutely nothing, and yet I haven't been bored for a minute. I can't imagine at this moment how anyone could be bored, just as I can't imagine it could be snowing outside instead of a sweltering 30 deg C.

I remember when I was fourteen being so bored at school sometimes that I would spend hours making little dashes on a sheet of paper, each dash representing a minute, and then crossing them off so that the time would pass more quickly. It worked, but it left me feeling utterly shattered; not that it demanded any effort, but I was so demoralised and depleted of energy that when I got home all I could do was flop into a chair and spend the evening watching television. Then later, I would go to bed under a cloud of remorse, feeling like a hopeless degenerate, a good-for-nothing. If I had betrayed a friend or destroyed something beautiful then this would have made sense. As it was, I was baffled.

Altogether, I must have spent several months doing that: killing time, as they say. And 'killing' is the right word for it. It horrifies me now when I think what I could have been doing instead. But the real horror lies in the fact that time happens only once; every second is a once-off, never to happen again - unless you believe in 'eternal recurrence'. But there I sat, day after day obliviously crossing out whole chunks of my life. I was convinced that at some time in the future I would regret wasting those seconds and even if I became a millionaire would be prepared to sacrifice everything I owned to have them back. I knew that by then I would be in no condition to enjoy them as I could have at fourteen.

'killing time or time killing?' - nicked from banksy

In a sense, though, the time wasn't entirely wasted because after that year I resolved never to do it again, and if necessary I would just walk out from wherever I was and go home. By that time I was fifteen and had developed a stronger sense of my own autonomy. In fact, at the beginning of that last year I devised a method of playing truant that was unlikely to be detected. It involved avoiding the first register so that when a teacher failed to call my name at subsequent lessons I realised that all I had to do was attend those classes where they did call me - those for which the register was already compiled. This meant I only had to attend school for two days a week. The other three were my own and I made good use of them.

 

I remember frequently walking miles into countryside where I'd never been before. Often I would lay by the river in some remote spot with a piece of straw in my mouth like Huckleberry Finn and think of how I should like to spend my whole life wandering and lazing about like that. If I reflected upon where I might have been instead, in a stuffy classroom crossing off the minutes, then I used to grin with pleasure and feel like an escaped convict whose escape has gone undetected.

Earlier today when I was thinking about boredom, trying to understand why I didn't feel bored with nothing to do, I realised that there are actually two kinds of boredom, possibly more. The most gruelling is the kind I had to deal with at school where I was stuck in a situation and had to remain there for hours ahead. There was nothing to do, or if there was then doing nothing seemed preferable. This is what prison must be like.

Then there's the kind of boredom that's really inexperienced freedom, where you can do as you please but are unmotivated and unable to generate the willpower to do anything. If there actually is nothing that needs to be done, then this is what I would call 'luxuriant boredom'. I've noticed that people are generally prepared to accept enforced boredom - such as school, or work they don't particularly enjoy - and regard it as a necessary and inevitable ingredient of life. But when faced with 'luxuriant boredom' their attitude changes. Instead of joyfully embracing it, as one might expect, or even of making an effort to learn how to use it, they choose to disparage it, and ultimately they refuse to accept it and go to almost any lengths to avoid it - they will even exchange it for the enforced kind where they no longer have control or responsibility. In fact, it is my view that most people are scared of freedom because of this very responsibility. They have not been brought up to appreciate the enormous benefits of self-responsibility. Rather, they have been encouraged by the 'establishment' to see the benefits as a distinct disadvantage, so they grow up needing constant guidance and direction from their superiors; (cf, Twain's story referred to earlier). And however high they climb there is always someone or something above them to suggest how they should use their time. (This explains why even a millionaire goes to work and puts up with all the associated hassle.)

Putting this another way: because time is so phenomenally precious, deciding how to use it is for most people too great a responsibility. So they delegate a good chunk of it to the marketplace, which is eager to take advantage, and then they feel relieved. If they but knew it, deciding how to use time is not in the least difficult or daunting. While I was emulating Huck, to decide that I might like to spend my whole life that way was not even easy: the idea came into my head of its own accord. All I needed was to be relaxed, detached from the cares of the world and aware of the radiance of the moment.

While I was thinking these things, it seemed to me that people who prefer to surrender control of their time, especially when to something for which they have no feeling or commitment, are performing a kind of suicide. For what is suicide but the destruction of time? And if it is forced upon them against their will then it is equivalent to murder. If we have to work to survive then we are being murdered by society; yet society cannot function unless people work. This paradox presented an impasse I couldn't resolve. So then I tried looking at the problem another way. Supposing, I thought, that the world could be run by machines and we were never obliged to think or do anything in particular. Would this result in a decline of what we call civilisation? Or would we at last be free to experience consciousness, both of ourselves and the world, instead of preferring to lose ourselves in the dull meaninglessness of everyday trivia as many of us do now? (By trivia, I don't mean that mass of minor stimulating pleasures that flow naturally from life in general, but the endless pressure of conforming, of being pushed this way and that by rules and laws and obligations that are irrelevant to the immediacy of living and are of no use to anyone except those who have a vested interest in power and control over others.) But to experience consciousness, that's the secret. And isn't consciousness the fountainhead of creativity?

As for me, I was entering an arena of creativity. There would be no dull meaninglessness where I was going. Nothing could have been more certain. 'All The World's A Stage!' said Shakespeare. Well, true or not, it certainly applies to television…


The End

 

 
     
     

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