Hired

Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low Wage Britain
James Bloodworth

The ‘post-work’ world has become a media talking point now that the jobs of affluent professionals are threatened with automation. Yet there are parts of Britain that have long inhabited something resembling a ‘post-work’ realm. Indeed, at times the Valleys look an awful lot like a precursor to an automated – and therefore jobless – future.

James Bloodworth is a journalist by profession, but decided to spend six months living and working among the lowest paid people in Britain. This saw him working as a Picker at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, a Care Worker in Blackpool, a Call Centre worker in Wales and an Uber driver in London.

Good on him, I say.

It’s a book that everyone should read.  For this reason alone:

Most people living in poverty in Britain today are going out to work.

I know it’s hard to comprehend. I find it hard to understand and I’m one of those terrible single mothers who claim benefits, while doing two part-time jobs. Why should it be that I earn the minimum wage, despite having a university degree?

A 2015 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that more than half (58.8 per cent) of graduates were in jobs that did not require a degree

(All quotes are from Hired, by the way).

I’m not asking anyone to care.  Just to be aware.  The media loves to paint everyone on benefits as ‘scroungers’, but a large number of people claiming Tax Credits or Housing Benefit are actually in work.

A couple of hours ago I had one of my wisdom teeth extracted and it didn’t cost me a penny, so part of me really appreciates this country and its welfare system.  But on the other hand, I feel quite despondent about the state of Britain.  Working class people are no longer represented by any political party, the Labour Party sold out decades ago and the ‘Left’ has gone loopy over pointless identity politics.  Meanwhile, workers rights and working conditions have been eroded and the employment market seems increasingly like Victorian England with its sweated labour and piece work.

I wanted to illustrate the contrast between the prosperity of ‘Middle England’ on the one hand and that dark, insecure world where low pay is synonymous with tyrannical landlords, bad bosses and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness on the other.

Bloodworth offers no solutions, but merely presents what he experienced, backed up by research and interviews with workers in similar positions. He isn’t an ideologue and it isn’t a rant of a book, nor does it hark back nostalgically to the time when Britain was the ‘workshop of the world’.

However, it does remind us that there was a time when a skilled worker could command a decent wage. There was a time when a working class person could have their dignity and take pride in their occupation. I remember this time. I’m from a family of mostly factory workers – one of my uncles was a tool maker, the other a welder. They earned a good living and their skills were in demand.

I can’t help but be heartbroken for the decline of Britain’s industry and the state of the country now.  Those people a couple of rungs up the employment ladder should take note – soon computers and robots will be able to do your jobs faster and more efficiently. Already, hardly any of the shops I go into have shop assistants – it’s all ‘self-service checkouts’.  Post-industrial Britain is bad enough, what is Post-work, fully automated Britain going to look like?  I dread to think.

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They All Love Jack

I’m a couple of chapters into They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson.  *Spoiler alert* a Freemason done it.  It’s about 800 pages long, so I may be some time…imamason

Charles II

20180507_113712Charles II – The Star King
Clare Jackson

I’m sure it’s evident to any regular reader by now, that I am completely in the thrall of Waterstones.  They only have to put out a display of pretty books and I’m bound to buy one.  Hence my purchase of a beautiful little book on the subject of Charles Two.

Clare Jackson’s thematic overview of this most rock star-like of monarchs is excellent – its packs a lot into a small space and left me wanting to read more.  I was particularly interesting in the chapter on ‘Image’, as King Charles II is probably the most recognisable of monarchs (although he apparently disliked sitting for portraits).  At six foot two, he certainly cut a striking figure – swarthy, with long black curls and with an entourage of ‘groupies’.

I’m being rather flippant – the restoration of the monarchy was a turbulent time, with Charles the fulcrum of various religious, political and diplomatic spheres of interest.  It’s not for me to say whether he was a good king, although I would personally have preferred to live under his leadership than that of the puritanical Cromwell.  Charles was accused of debauchery, but really that is only of concern because of the political implications of his producing more than a dozen illegitimate offspring; I couldn’t care less from a personal point of view.

I’m ambivalent when it comes to royalty, but Charles II reigned at a time when people believed in the divine right of kings and that a touch from his hands could cure scrofula.  I’m with Christopher Hitchens, on the subject of deifying humans:

“Humans should not worship other humans at all, but if they must do so it is better that the worshipped ones do not occupy any positions of political power.”
Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish

This book left me unsure of what sort of man Charles was, but then it is easier to revere someone who is enigmatic and unknowable.  The current royal family should probably bear this in mind if they wish the monarchy to survive.

Shackleton’s Boat Journey

Frank_Worsley

F.A. Worsley

Shackleton’s Boat Journey
F.A. Worsley

For three hours, our thirst almost forgotten, we looked death square in the eye.

I first read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South when I was in my twenties and became completely smitten with him. He’s my hero.  The story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is an incredible tale of courage in the face of adversity and it was not only Shackleton who showed great fortitude; the crew of the Endurance lived through conditions which would have finished me off in about five minutes. Not only that, they survived without turning on one another – there was no vying for position or treachery.  I’m sure they pissed one another off no end, but ultimately their survival was achieved through mutual cooperation and Shackleton’s superb leadership.

It was grin and bear it; for it was Sir Ernest’s theory that by keeping our tempers and general cheeriness we helped to keep one another up.

F. A. Worsley was the Captain of the Endurance and Shackleton’s navigator and this particular account was written by him years later.  It recounts the latter part of the expedition – the pack ice had destroyed their ship The Endurance and the crew had no choice but to escape in the three lifeboats.  They made a treacherous journey to Elephant Island and from there Shackleton took a six man party, which included Worsley, in the largest of the lifeboats to seek rescue.  A couple of weeks and about 800 nautical miles later, they reached the island of South Georgia.

I’ve made it sound easy, but they were sailing in a small boat that was about as deep as a bathtub.  They were constantly soaked to the skin and on the verge of frostbite.  They were tossed about by huge waves and blown by gales; often driven southwards, so that they made no progress.  Worsley’s understated description is wonderful, with not a hint of self-pity and full of generosity and humour:

Sweeping seas came over us all day and maintained our moisture.

“Maintained our moisture”! It cracks me up. They were never dry. They ‘slept’ in sodden reindeer skin sleeping bags that were so rotten they were ‘fermenting’. They had hardly any food and barely enough water. They smoked cigarettes rolled from toilet paper and navigated by the light of a quarter of an inch of precious candle. Actually, it must have been terrifying – they were sailing ‘the Stormy fifties’ home to the “highest, broadest and longest swells in the world…”

I’m such a coward, I can’t even go on a rollercoaster and have delayed having my wisdom teeth extracted for about five years now, because I’m scared of dentists.  I’m a complete wimp.  I need to harness the spirit of Shackleton, described here by his good friend, Worsley:

Shackleton would undertake this most dangerous and difficult task himself. […]  Being a born leader, he had to lead in the position of most danger, difficulty and responsibility.  I have seen him turn pale, yet force himself into the post of greatest peril. That was his type of courage; he would do the job that he was most afraid of.

This is such a wonderful book. Everyone should be made to read it. We’re so spoilt and cossetted nowadays – I think we need these stories to give us a sense of perspective.  I read this book this morning, while eating fresh strawberries and with the sunshine streaming through my bedroom window – I felt so very, very lucky.  I’m considering sticking quotes from it around my house, in the style of corny office motivational posters.  Here’s the first one:

“Do not let it be said that Shackleton has failed… No man fails that sets an example of high courage, of unbroken resolution, of unshrinking endurance.” Roald Amundsen

Now there’s a quote to live by.

Heartburn

20180502_224330 Heartburn
Nora Ephron

I’ve been seduced by a beautiful cover again. My photograph doesn’t really do it justice, but at least you can tell it has foiling.  My local Waterstone’s has a display table of these gorgeous Virago Modern Classics and they are very tempting.  To make matters worse, one of the booksellers in there actually came up behind me and whispered, “you should buy them all.”  Not really the sort of thing I needed to hear.  I need a Jiminy Cricket on my other shoulder saying, “Stop! You have too many books and no decent work shoes.”  Sadly, now I’m a plump middle-aged frump, buying clothes and shoes doesn’t work as retail therapy.

Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally, so if you can’t abide that movie, then you definitely won’t enjoy this semi-autobiographical novel.  Heartburn is light and comic, but sometimes scathing and sardonic.  It’s an easy read, but I think it’s quite wise too – well, perhaps it’s full of the sort insight instilled by years of therapy?

The protagonist Rachel is seven months pregnant when she discovers that her husband is in love with another woman.  It gets worse – she realises that he’s been having an affair throughout the whole of her pregnancy.  Her husband’s flaws are gradually revealed to us, so that you probably wonder why she married him in the first place… But then, we all do things that we shouldn’t do.  All the time.  We all ignore our Jiminy Crickets, or intuition, or advice of friends and end up in a mess.  I think it’s nice to read about other people making appalling life choices, especially if they’re as witty about it as Nora Ephron.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot.  Rachel is a cookery writer, so Heartburn even includes the odd recipe.  As I said previously, I love novels with food in them.  I probably sounded like I wilfully don’t enjoy eating in my last post and I’d like to clarify that I am in fact a greedy guts – it’s just that my sense of taste seems to have diminished in my old age.  Hence, my imagination can still conjure up something superior to the actual thing, as it remembers the subtlety and delicacy of flavours.  It may run in the family, as my great-grandfather used to cover everything he ate with pepper, great clouds of the stuff apparently.  Marmite is my condiment of choice.

There’s no mention of marmite in Heartburn, I’ve just gone off on a weird tangent.  If you need a pretty book in your life, that’s also wryly amusing, then look no further.

 

 

Cooking with…

I love Valerie Stivers’ Eat Your Words series in the Paris Review and amazingly it isn’t hidden behind a paywall. Here is the Cooking with… Sylvia Plath edition.

Plath was fixated with food – this is evident from her writing. I kept one of her recipes for years and years, for tomato soup cake, but never got round to baking it.  It sounds very strange, but then, so does carrot cake.

I prefer the idea of food to actually eating and I absolutely hate cooking, but perversely I read cookery books for pleasure. Food never tastes as good as I expect it to, but I enjoy imagining what it tastes like, and I’m delighted if an author describes a meal in their novel.  Barbara Pym is good for disappointing English cuisine, such as the austere post-war meals eaten by country Vicars.  I also love it when writers use food as a descriptive devise, such as this simile in Dorothy Parker’s short story, The Custard Heart:

Her heart, soft and sweet as a perfectly made crème renversee, quivered in her breast, and in her eyes lay the far light of suffering.

or this beautifully poetic sentence:

She had gowns of velvet like poured country cream and satin with the lacquer of buttercups and chiffon that spiraled about her like golden smoke.

The Custard Heart is one of those £1 Penguin Modern books, of which I now have five – I can never resist a bargain and Dorothy Parker’s writing is an unexpected delight.

Smoking in Bed

Smoking in Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson
Alistair Owen

Smoking in Bed is taken from a series of interviews by Alistair Owen.  This sounds like the making of quite a dull book, except if your interviewee happens to be Bruce Robinson, who is intelligent, knowledgeable and hilariously funny.

Robinson wrote and directed Withnail and I and wrote the screenplay for the film The Killing Fields (for which he won a BAFTA), but started out as an actor.  Smoking in Bed covers Robinson’s career from his time at the Central School of Speech and Drama, through his various projects, both those that were made and those that were shelved; his successes and failures.

Alistair Owen is an excellent interviewer, unobtrusive but extremely knowledgeable about film and about his subject, Bruce Robinson.  I would recommend this to anyone who wants to become a screenwriter and I know that a lot of young people do, because I met them through work.  I was quite happy just doing an office job at the British Film Institute, but flocks of young men and women saw it as a potential stepping stone into film-making; which of course, it wasn’t.  Robinson’s experience shows what a cut-throat industry it is, particularly if you are dealing with Hollywood moguls, where the writer is seen as disposable and whose work can be fucked around with until its almost unrecognisable.

Robinson had this experience on numerous occasions, though it particularly seemed to hurt with the movie Fat Man and Little Boy, which was released as Shadow Makers. He poured over two years of his life into researching the Manhattan Project, but was never consulted about his script once it fell into the hands of the director Roland Joffe, who then rewrote it.  In the meantime, Robinson had become something of an expert on the Atomic Bomb.  This makes for a very interesting interview and I particularly enjoyed this section of the book.

Robinson was in his early fifties when the interviews took place and I was sad to hear him say that he felt something of a failure, because he’d only had three big successes: Withnail and IThe Killing Fields and his novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman.  Oh, to be that much of a failure!

Apart from the Monty Python films, Withnail and I is the film I’ve heard quoted the most.  I know someone who can recite virtually the entire script.  Even I can remember lines from it and I have the worst memory going.  If I’d only written one thing in my life and that was Withnail and I, I’d be feeling pretty fucking pleased with myself.  I guess it’s not enough to rest on one’s laurels.

Bruce isn’t even a one hit wonder, but it got me thinking about people who were, but who are still considered successful writers.  J D Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, there are probably loads of writers who only pulled it off once.  Perhaps it’s because Robinson’s literary heroes are Shakespeare and Dickens?  I don’t think it’s helpful for any writer to compare themselves to those two.

The Peculiar Memories…

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
Bruce Robinson

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” (Withnail and I)

This line from Withnail and I, pretty much sums up how I feel about my life.  I therefore have a strong attachment to the film, and particularly to the character of Withnail, who seems ill-prepared for most things, including holidays in the Lake District.  I watched it again the other day and was too knackered to move afterwards, so I watched the DVD extras too.  One of which was Bruce Robinson being interviewed about the autobiographical inspiration behind the movie (he is the ‘I’ character of the film’s title) and also about his novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman.

The novel hasn’t replaced Withnail and I in my affections, but I still found it really enjoyable.  It has an austere post-War British atmosphere and focuses on the scatological home life of teenager Thomas Penman.  His family life is chaotic and confusing; Thomas loves his grandfather, Walter, but his parents live in a constant state of suppressed hostility.  This animosity manifests itself in strange ways, such as his mother allowing the pet dogs to shit all over the house, in a sort of ‘dirty protest’.  Family secrets are at the root of their misery, but Thomas is more interested in seeking out his grandfather’s extensive and unusual pornography collection, than he is in unearthing potentially painful information.  At least in the beginning…

The novel is full of lovely details – Thomas is connected with his grandfather via a secret language, Morse Code, and they have a machine rigged up between Walter’s bedroom and the garden shed.  Thomas also uses Walter’s old shed as a sort of munitions factory, where he constructs quite sophisticated explosives.  It is this relationship with his grandfather which I found particularly touching and I wished that it had featured more.  However, Thomas falls in love with a girl called Gwyn and sex and romance quite rightly become more of a focus in his life than the old fashioned things which connected him with his grandfather’s past.

I’m no Jungian scholar, but this novel would definitely lend itself to Jungian interpretation.  Perhaps I’ll read up on Jung and have a go?  It seems to be full of archetypes, but I have no idea if this is by accident or design.  In any case, it’s a peculiar memoir and most entertaining.

Self-Help

Self Help
Lorrie Moore

It’s hard to believe that Moore was only in her twenties when she wrote these short stories.  She was already a confident writer with a distinctive voice and sophisticated and emotionally nuanced style.  I couldn’t possibly write anything like these stories, as I am emotionally basic.  I’m surprised how much I enjoyed them, as they tend to veer into the histrionic.  Moore references opera and stage musicals quite often and her writing seems very theatrical to me.  All of her characters have very complicated relationships and feel lots of different things!  It made me think of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I found them quite exhausting, really, but very enjoyable and incredibly impressive.  Yes, I’m very impressed with Lorrie Moore’s writing and will definitely seek out more of her work.

 

Poor Cow

Poor Cow
Nell Dunn

Poor Cow tells Joy’s story – a working class girl from south London, we first see her walking home from the hospital with her newborn baby.  Her husband, Tom, is a ‘tealeaf’ and soon ends up inside.  Joy then takes up with another thief, Dave, and enjoys a short period of bliss, before he too ends up in prison, leaving her to fend for herself and her young son.  Joy’s narrative then splits – her thoughts of men and sex, compared with the reality of sleeping with men for money; her dreams of romance, contrasted with the realities of poverty and domesticity.

I can’t abear the thought of all these women in the flats around me – all doing the same things – mopping down the lino, washing their husband’s shirts, changing their babies, doing the shopping, it’s all gone bent on me – the everyday life – the sight of a shopping basket almost turns my guts.

Although it was written in the late 1960s, Poor Cow is still relevant. Working class women are rarely given their own voices, and although Nell Dunn was herself from an upper class background, Joy’s voice seems very authentic. Dunn lived and worked in Battersea and befriended girls like Joy. She knew them intimately and this shows in her writing.

I first read Poor Cow and Up the Junction when I was a Sixties obsessed school girl.  I remember trying to quiz my taciturn mother about ‘the Swinging Sixties’ and receiving an extremely disappointing response – “the Swinging Sixties didn’t come to Smethwick.”  I think that’s probably true.  Reading Poor Cow, you get a sense of the myth of Swinging London seeping into Joy’s dreams, but remaining unattainable for women from a lower class background.  Women who are trying to scrape a living, caught up in damaging relationships, ‘getting caught’ and having backstreet abortions, ending up middle-aged and on the game…

It’s quite depressing, but Nell Dunn’s lightness of touch lifts this novel from ‘kitchen sink drama’ by sharing with us Joy’s inner thoughts, which are bright and romantic.  Although it was written before I was born, Poor Cow spoke to me of the continued gulf between expectation and reality in the lives of working class women, and seems just as important now as it was in 1967.