Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Office Gossip

For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently temping for the first time ever. Previously, I’ve always been a genuine member of staff. So I’m somewhat surprised at the number of people who look right through me, who aren’t interested in even finding out my name. I’m just another in a long line of ever-changing faces who sit in the same chair for a week, do some half-cocked work and then disappear never to be seen again. The sensation of being virtually anonymous, almost like a ghost drifting eerily between the kettle and the computer, is weird. I’m a little affronted by people’s behaviour, but at the same time it’s somewhat liberating. I don’t have to care about fitting in. I’m not at the very centre of what’s happening. I don’t have to play the game. I can just turn up, clock in seven and a half hours, work at my own pace and then go home.

I’m just data entering. It’s easy and mindless, but with one ear listening to those around me I’m reminded as to why I hate working for large organisations. Everyone is caught up in their own petty agendas whether it’s ensuring that they have enough of the particular pens they like, getting revenge over the bitch in accounts who jumped the queue for the photocopier, or even how it’s so unfair that the management have changed the brand of coffee available. As though it’s been done to personally spite them. The majority of people seem to consider their main function to argue with other departments or to get one over on the management.

Screwing over unrecognised directors who they’ve never even met could virtually be a national sport. The number of organisations it takes place at is incredible, as is the glee people participate with. As far as I can tell there are active attempts to get at least two senior members of staff fired to satisfy personal vendettas. If as much time was devoted to actually working rather than doing over colleagues, then I am certain these self-confessed “busiest people in the universe” would find they had far more hours in the day.

Of course not buggering off home at four-thirty would probably help too.

The most shocking thing, though, is the sheer inanity of the conversation. Witty banter is a far distant dream. It is sufficient to make you consider hacking out your ear drums with a biro. So, in the style of Michael Holden’s wonderful All Ears column in the Guardian Guide every Saturday here’s an example:

The first woman sits typing single fingered, barely paying attention to what she is doing. The second woman enters the room at a pace which is surprising for her size. Both are in their mid-twenties.

Second Woman: Oh my God! Oh my God!
First Woman (not looking up): What? What?
Second Woman: That Hosay Mourinho’s gone and left Chelsea, hasn’t he?
First Woman: Has he? Isn’t that funny?
Second Woman: Is it Hosay or Joesay? I dunno…
First Woman: Umm…
Me (fearing a protracted debate about this): It’s Jose.
Second Woman (looking at me as though she’s surprised I actually exist): Is it? Oh…
First Woman: I hate him.
Second Woman: I think he’s quite good looking. (Pause) Dunno what’ll happen now. Suppose he’ll find someone to look after it for him.
First Woman: Yeah. (She pauses and then goes back to typing.)
Second Woman (not giving up on the conversation): I didn’t see it coming. I’m shocked, really I am. Shocked.
First Woman: I don’t like football.
Second Woman: No, me neither.
First Woman: I suppose Craig’ll tell me about it later. He’ll be pleased. He hates him too.
Second Woman: Does he like football, then?
First Woman: Nah.

A couple of days later the following exchange took place between (incredibly) the same two people.

Both women are busy looking out the window.
Second Woman: What you doing at the weekend?
First Woman: Going up to Boston to see Craig’s Dad.
Second Woman: Is that where he lives?
First Woman: Yeah.
Second Woman: How is he?
First Woman: Good. He’s up and about again. Recovering.
Second Woman: Was he ill, then?
First Woman: Not really.
Second Woman: When you going?
First Woman: Tonight.
Second Woman: Tonight?
First Woman: Yeah. Craig says that if we get up tomorrow, in London, we won’t be arsed to go and we’ll just stay here and he really, really wants to see his Dad.
Second Woman: Where is it?
First Woman: Boston.
Second Woman: Boston?
First Woman: Yeah.
Second Woman: How long does it take to get there, then?
First Woman: I drove once and it took an hour and ten minutes. (What in? A jump-jet?)
Second Woman: NO! (I’d have to agree here.)
First Woman: Yeah. (No, really now, you didn’t.)
Second Woman: No.
First Woman: Yeah.
Second Woman: Where is it anyway? Scotland?
First Woman: Somewhere like that.

Holy fuck, people!!!

All of which has got me thinking about office space and one’s activities when at work. We used to have a spare room, but then Beck decided that she didn’t want to keep on her studio in New Cross. It was an extra expense and because it was either a short drive or fifteen minutes on the bus it was never really worth going to for an hour or so in the evening, or on a Sunday morning or whenever. She wanted a space she could use more frequently and more flexibly. So, we re-branded the spare room.

I used to write at the table downstairs, clearing away my stuff when we wanted to eat or needed it for something else. (I can’t actually think what else at the moment - a jigsaw perhaps?) But since I’ve decided to go on this course and generally speaking spend more time writing we cleared a corner of the studio, put a random little table (where did this come from?) and cleared some space on the shelves. I’m now fully set up with laptop on a couple of old u-shaped bits of wood to raise it up, space for either the external keyboard or a pad of paper for rough drafts, room on the shelves for my dictionary, reference notes and broken bits of IT kit. I’m good to go. The room is now known as the studio-office, but before long it’ll be the office-studio.

During the couple of months that Beck’s in Canada I’m going to be personalising my work station. I’ll be putting things on the wall, attaching amusing shit to my computer, but I’ll also, sub-consciously, be setting a routine for how I like to spend the day: what time I’ll make some tea; how frequently I get up to pace around thoughtfully; how much I talk to myself; whether it’s acceptable to break wind in the office-studio; what time I take my morning dump.

I’ll be putting paper, envelopes, ink cartridges in places that seem convenient to me, but probably aren’t. By the time she gets back I’m going to be quite set in my ways and will find it hard to get used to sharing my office. Whilst she, fresh from a large studio space with a panoramic view of the Rockies, will be planning on getting back into her old studio habits. We’re both going to have to do something we’re not very good at: compromise.

We’re going to end up developing our own micro-office politics. Wars will be fought over whose turn it is to make the coffee, who’s going to answer the ringing phone, why am I incapable of typing quietly and hasn’t she got the right edit of that four second video clip yet? Are we going to work to music or in silence? Wow, that’s going to create a whole apocalypse of its own - The Clash or Katie Melua? Elvis Costello or Burt Bacharch? Sly and the Family Stone or REM?

All that’s fine, really. We’re used to it. It’s human nature and besides we bicker incessantly at the best of times. If, though, you ever hear us arguing over the geographical location of Solihull kill us both immediately.


Tuesday, 18 September 2007

David Marston Writes

Let’s go back a few months,

It’s April, 2007. Things are looking bad. I’m tired of selling exhibition stand space for business-to-business construction shows. It’s unseasonably hot for this time of the year, especially down in London. It’s so hot that the melting the of the ice caps seems imminent and crops up in virtually every conversation. Eco-bullying is becoming cool. The idea of a summer of floods seems ridiculous. The local house prices have just taken another jump up even though interest rates are rising (I know, it doesn’t make any sense to me either) which pushes me out of the market for a nice two bedroom flat. The idea of living in a shitty one bed or a okay bed-sit doesn’t appeal. Birmingham City look like they might have to take the lottery of the play-offs to get back into the Premiership. Beck and I appear to have survived the worst patch, by a long way, of our ten year relationship, but if I’m truly honest with myself it’s still too early to be sure.

And I’m rapidly approaching my twenty-eighth birthday.

On the positive side my writing is going well. For the first time in about six years I’m writing most days. This makes me happy - which is good because all of the above is making me pretty damn depressed and everyone needs some light in their life. I’ve always loved writing. Whenever I indulge in day dreams about the future (usually when I’m trying not to inhale oxygen as my mouth and nose are worrying close to someone’s armpit on the tube and the lack of air makes me hallucinate) I have a career as a writer. Hardly anybody knows this. It’s something I keep quiet. It’s not that what I write is particularly personal, although it often is, but rather it’s that I’m ashamed at my lack of success. How can I consider myself a writer when I haven’t actually been published? A more pertinent point would be: how can I consider myself a writer when I rarely write anything?

You see, the problem is I’m naturally quite lazy and I tend to easily find an excuse not to sit down and produce something. In January, though, I pulled myself up on this. “Listen,” I said, one eye closed trying focus on my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It had be a particularly heavy night which helps explain my mood. “If you don’t start forming words into coherent sentences, then putting them down on paper and then sending them off to places it is just not going to happen. Okay?”

“Okay,” I replied to myself.

So. Being partially inspired by Beck’s blossoming art career I start to write short stories regularly for competitions and magazines. I send a few off. The work is slow because my day job is demanding, but I try to write something every day. Some of my work gets pretty positive feedback, some gets published.

It’s April and I’m nearly twenty-eight. I’m messing around looking at jobs I’m not qualified for because I don’t know what I really want to do. I’m using UCAS’ website to look up post-graduate courses in museum studies and curator skills. There aren’t many. There are even less that I have the experience to apply for. “You’re not even serious about this,” I tell myself. I’m talking to myself a lot; it’s a worrying sign.

On a sudden whim and only because I have the search engine running I change the settings and look for creative writing courses. There are several. All of which I could apply for. So I do. But I’m telling myself that it’s really just to see what the response is. I’m not even truly convinced I want to go back to University but then another part of me is whispering “you’re nearly thirty; you’re nearly middle-aged.”

This sudden preoccupation with age is pretty odd in itself. It’s never bothered me before. I’ve always been pretty happy with the age I am - not that there’s anything you can do about it, unless you have some very clever friends involved in either genetics or physics. I’ve never had any regrets, I’ve never wanted to go back. Maybe I suddenly feel old (I look it - I’m starting to go gray). Maybe it’s just because I’m knackered - I’ve been working silly hours for months now. It’s been over a year since I had more than a couple of days off. Maybe I’m regretting that as a nineteen year old I created strict definitions of the ages of man and that these mean I’m now rapidly approaching “middle-age” (more on this at another time, perhaps). Maybe it’s because I’m suddenly aware of the inevitable downward slide away from youth that is the rest of my life.

It’s kind of therefore appropriate that the following happens on my birthday. I am having dinner with friends in Le Mercury on Upper Street in Islington. I’m sitting next to the a friend’s boyfriend, someone I’ve only met a couple of times, but he turns to me and asks how I’m getting on applying for whatever oddball job it was that I’d been fixated on whenever it was that we last met. I barely know him, but incredibly I turn to him and say “oh, I’ve decided to apply for a post-grad course instead.” The table goes silent.

“What in, Dave?” Steve asks loudly from the other side of the table. I tell them. There’s general surprise. I’m surrounded by some of my closest friends and not one of them will have known that I write.

“Shit. There’s no going back now,” my inner monologue helpfully points out.

Fortunately I get offers. UEL quickly offer me an unconditional place, but I’m sceptical about going to do a writing course at a university that makes spelling mistakes in its own application forms. (That said, UEL seem convinced that I am going and bombard me with emails on a weekly basis giving me reading list, registration times, etc. I’ve given up ringing or emailing to correct them. I wonder whether they’ll realise that I never attend. I fully expect a letter this week telling me which halls of residence I’ve been allocated to. One day I might even get a qualification in the post.) Kingston call me in for an interview and then offer me a place on the spot. I enjoy the interview and really get on with the tutor, but it’s well over an hour to get there by car or public transport and whilst it’s within the M25 it really does feel too Surrey. I tentatively accept. Brunel write saying that I forgot to declare whether I’ve ever been in prison or not. Brunel’s in Middlesex. It would be quicker to get there from Birmingham than Brockley. I decide to leave them guessing as to whether I’ve ever been an international diamond smuggler or not. Birkbeck reject me, but to be fair I was a couple of weeks late with the application. Middlesex ask me to go for an interview, but I decline. The campus is in the middle of a country park and it’s even harder to get to than Kingston. The internet is full of students grumbling either about the isolation and how little else there is to do in the area. It’s perhaps a little foolhardy, but then Goldsmith’s have asked me to go in for an interview.

The Saturday morning after the interview I’m lying awake in bed at about seven in the morning. I hear the thud of the post on the mat and scamper down the stairs stark naked. I’ve been offered a place. I accept enthusiastically. Not only is Goldsmith’s under a half hour’s walk from my house (having spent the past three and a half year’s with a minimum of a hour’s commute using three trains, one overland, two underground, this is very appealing), but I also think it has the best lecturer mix and the most interesting course structure. It also appears to be the one that we make me actually write the most.

So, I resigned, worked for a further two months and then went on holiday for three weeks. Just over a fortnight camping around Croatia and then five days in Venice for the Biennale art show. It was very nice, thanks, even if looking at around a hundred pieces of art a day for the best part of a week has left my brain feeling a little damaged.

And now here I am.

I’m not selling shows. I have no job beyond a bit of temping work. The weather seems to be back to normal. I’ve decided property ownership is over-rated anyway. Birmingham came second in the Championship and just beat Bolton one-nil yesterday. Beck and I are good. Better than that, even.

Why am I telling you all this?

For two reasons. Firstly, I’ve put myself into a situation where most days I’m going to get up, possibly wash, but maybe I’ll just sit in my pants because, hell, I can. I’ll pour some coffee and then look at a blank sheet of paper. This is a, frankly, terrifying prospect so the blog is intended to ensure that I at least write something every week. It’s much easier (possibly) to just rant on about any old subject, or to recount amusing anecdotes from the week than to sit here worrying about characterisation, plot and voice. So you lot (yes, both of the two people who are actually reading this - hi, Mum) are going to help me get in the habit of spending time in a small, dark room with just a keyboard and a dictionary for company until that way of life seems perfectly normal. I’ve just re-read that sentence. We may be here some time.

Secondly, there is the quite real prospect that I have gone stark, raving mad! The above makes quite a nice little story, but you could always look at it another way: Lazy, unfulfilled, border line alcoholic twenty-eight year old still harbours pubescent fantasy of being a writer, i.e: sitting around all day reading, dashing off a few lines just before tea time which automatically bring in a six-figure income after which darting of for a night of decadence, a sort of Oscar Wilde lifestyle. Only without the buggery and imprisonment. Perhaps I’ve panicked at the prospect of actually having to work hard to for my over inflated pay check that was acquired more by luck and circumstance than ability. I’ve jacked in my job, messed around for a few weeks not really doing anything and am now off to do a course I’ve somehow blagged my way onto and for which I am hopelessly unprepared. Financial ruin and personal disaster are looming heavily in the near future. How are we going to pay the rent? I’ve got savings and am happy to temp or do bar work, but I live with an artist - and one who as I type is flying off to Canada for a seven week unpaid residency. Okay, so Beck earns pretty well, but money’s not exactly gushing through the letter box. (Not that it is for anybody, but wouldn’t that be great way to be paid? “H’mm, it must be the last Friday of the month, dear, someone’s shoving a grand’s worth of dirty tenners through the door.”)

What if I can’t think of anything to write? I’ve been writing all week, but really I’m just tidying up unfinished pieces and working through some old plots and ideas. There’s nothing new coming through. And if I do think of anything to write somebody’s going to ask me to put my work in a “contemporary literary context.” I’m going to have to do that without my mouth hanging open gormlessly for the first three minutes.

So. This is either going to be the best thing that I’ve ever done and some sort of sensible career or at least a sense of contentment and achievement is going to come out of it, or it’s going to be a utter, utter disaster. Either way, I thought it might be interesting to let everyone watch.