“By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” (Robert Frost)

Oh, the joys of mid-January.  The seemingly never-ending greyness of it all.  The lights of Christmas and resolutions of New Year have long faded and you’re back at work.  Work: the daily commute wedged into someone’s armpit, steam rising off everyone’s drizzle-soaked clothes; arriving at your office to realise your colleague has stolen your favourite coffee mug and still hasn’t eaten the unidentifiable gelatinous foodstuff they brought in from home 3 weeks ago; faux-friendly emails from your work-shy boss asking you for fourteen completed reports before the end of the day, signed off with an inappropriate and frankly borderline-sarcastic emoticon. If this is your experience take comfort from the fact that you are far from alone.  This week I’m looking at novels that deal with the daily grind of our work lives.

Firstly, Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971). Bukowski is one of the best-known beat generation authors, and Post Office was his first novel.  It’s a short work (160 pages in my edition) and details the insanity of working for the titular organisation with its impossible targets and low pay. Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego) suffers at the hands of his bullying supervisors, indifferent colleagues and the unpredictable public.  His hard-living ways do not anaesthetise the situation:

“Each route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them.  Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort.  The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets.  That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart.  It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4.30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.

One day I was out on the street and the route was going well, though it was a new one, and I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe for the first time in two years I’ll be able to eat lunch.”

Needless to say, he doesn’t get lunch.  Bukowski is great at describing the tedium of a job that holds no meaning (for him, my particular postie has been doing the job for 30 years this year and tells me he loves it for the most part), and the seediness of the life he lives and those who surround him.  But he tempers the tale with humour which stops the portrait being too relentlessly bleak:

“I picked my cap up out of the street, put it on my head.  Put the sack back onto the left side of my spine, started out again. 100 degrees.

I walked past one house and a woman ran out after me.

‘Mailman! Mailman!  Don’t you have a letter for me?’

‘Lady, if I didn’t put one in your box, that means you don’t have any mail.’

‘But I know you have a letter for me!’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me.’

‘Lady, I don’t have a letter for you.’

‘I know you have! I know you have! I know it’s there!’

She started to reach for a handful of letters.

‘DON’T TOUCH THE UNITED STATES MAILS, LADY!  THERE’S NOTHING THERE FOR YOU TODAY!’

I turned and walked off.

“I KNOW YOU HAVE MY LETTER!”

Another woman stood on her porch.

‘You’re late today.’

‘Yes, mam.’

‘Where’s my regular man today?’

‘He’s dying of cancer.’

‘Dying of cancer? Harold is dying of cancer?’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

I handed her mail to her.

‘BILLS!BILLS! BILLS!’ she screamed. ‘IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?’

‘Yes, mam, that’s all I can bring you.’

I turned and walked on.”

Post Office is unrelenting in the cynical gaze it casts over tragi-comedy of the working day.  If you’re sick of your job, this is the novel for you.

Secondly, Year of the King by Antony Sher.  I’m going a bit off-piste here because this is a diary and not fiction, but Jeanette Winterson says there’s no such thing as autobiography, only art and lies, so I think this allows for admission into a blog about fiction.  (Confession: when I first thought of this blog post I was going to write about Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris as the second book, but I started it 3 weeks ago and I’m only 100 pages in.  It had cracking reviews so I’m surprised I’m not getting on with it.  If you’ve read it can you tell me, should I persevere or give up?) So, I chose Year of the King for this theme as it details a year in a working life, in this case one of the finest actors of his generation as he grapples with the eponymous role in Richard III.  If you love your work but worry constantly that you’re not good enough, this is the book for you.  It’s so reassuring to read how this incredible actor feels he struggles with the language of Shakespeare, and messes up his first reading in front of the rest of the cast.  Having admired so many of his accomplished performances, I found myself thinking really? Well, if Antony Sher struggles maybe I’m not doing so badly after all…

“‘Just read it,’ says Bill grinning.

‘ “Now is the winter of our discontent…”’

I read badly, rather monotonously or else I over-stress.  Mercifully Bill stops me after about ten lines and starts to pick at words and discuss meanings.

We have begun.”

Sher is a great writer (it’s something he’s done more and more of) and his style is easy to read yet vivid.

“Bill suggests running the scene ‘trying to be more bestial’.  The result is a disaster.  Behaviour not from the animal world but the world of pantomime.  Cackling laughter, food being thrown around, sinewy ‘wicked’ acting. Although I’m participating and probably responsible for some of the worst excesses, I can hardly bear to watch the others.  Have to bury my head on the crutches for much of the scene.”

Ah yes, the crutches.  If you don’t know, Sher performed the “bottled spider” role in crutches.  What’s so interesting is amongst all the self-doubt and creative process, are vacillations over the use of the crutches, which for the reader 30 years on is a source of amusement.  The play went down a storm, Sher’s performance was showered with praise, and the crutches became stuff of theatrical legend:

The book holds all the things you would expect in an actor’s diary: taking us though the research process, details of the politics of rehearsal, fond (and discreet) portraits of his fellow actors and theatre professionals (Michael Gambon in particular seems a large, hilarious personality).  But Sher offers much more, such as beautiful images of the surrounding environment:

“An oil slick on the river today, from the long weekend’s abuse.  In the morning sunshine it’s as if a rainbow has fallen in the water and is being gently rubbed against the bank, washed and cleaned until its transparent again.”

The diary is also filled with his brilliant drawings, such as this one of Olivier, whose filmed performance of Richard casts a long shadow:

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Year of the King has a lot to offer the great variety of readers (little – very little – joke there for any Shakespeare fans): if you’re interested in the acting process, in approaches to Shakespeare, in the realities of theatrical production, or in Antony Sher himself, you’ll find Year of the King a rewarding read.

To end, here is a clip to bring some joy & colour into these grey January days spent in dreary magnolia offices:

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (Samuel Johnson)

So, to start I thought I’d look at my home city.  I am Londoner born and bred – that’s the truth, people.  Sometime in the last few years perceptions of London seem to have got confused with those of LA, and taxi drivers don’t believe any one is born here, they only move here.  Tedious conversations regarding my birthplace are the price I pay for one the best things about London: the constant ebb and flow of people from just about everywhere. Anyone of these people who live in London will tell you that this great city (for great it is, far from perfect, but still great, like Battersea Power Station) suffers in its portrayals.  Actually that’s not true.  I suspect a lot of Londoners haven’t given a second thought as to how their city is portrayed.  They don’t give a shit.  And that, that is what makes them Londoners.  How I miss it when I’m away.

I digress…. as I was failing to say, rarely am I presented with a London I recognise (Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland aside, which I truly recognised, given that it was partly shot in my local supermarket.  Don’t let that banal detail put you off, it’s a very good film, you should watch it). Yet there are a few examples of London literature that Madam Bibi recommends.

Firstly, The Room of Lost Things, by Stella Duffy (Virago, 2008).  Robert teaches Akeel the ropes of the dry cleaning business in Loughborough Junction.  Over a cup of tea they shake hands in contract: “They hardly know each other.  It’s a beginning.”  This beginning leads to a delicate, unspoken understanding between two very different characters. The men are the protagonists of the novel, but South London is the hero.

“Robert hears a shout from below and turns round to look back up Coldharbour Lane to where Dan is whooping and Charlie grinning from their perch on his old settee, the one he dragged out two nights ago. They lift their Special Brew cans like hand weights and belch belly laughs as one after the other, and slowly, half a dozen crates of carefully stacked tomatoes and red peppers and potatoes fall from their perfect positioning outside the halal shop and flow into the road, a guilty skateboarder racing off, the mix of brown and clashing reds running into the gutter.”

Beautiful, right?  And so completely London. Stella Duffy looks at people and the city with an entirely unsentimental eye, and yet still shows the beauty that exists in places where it’s not usually looked for or expected.

As a proud south Londoner (we are a beleaguered people, yet secure in the knowledge that the great advantage of our part of the city is a distinct lack of smug north Londoners) it pleased me to see the bus I caught to work for 4 years on the cover of this artfully written, closely observed novel.  The 345 even has a supporting role in the story.  If you want to know the breadth of South London (and why wouldn’t you?) catch this bus for the duration of its route.  From the sterile squares of South Ken to the not-so-sterile streets of Peckham, it’s a most unlikely journey.  One time I caught the 345 at a bus stop littered with a lobster carcass, and I got off at a bus stop littered with chicken bones.  I’ll leave it to you to guess which direction I was travelling in. Back to The Room of Lost Things: “A regular river crossing is the gift of South London.”

Secondly, the poetry of Tobias Hill. If you find contemporary poetry off-putting but fancy giving it a chance, there are worse places to start than this accessible poet who looks unflinchingly at the isolation that exists within the crowds of cities, and casts a unique perspective through inventive language.  In his second volume Midnight in the City of Clocks (Oxford University Press, 1996) there are poems about Japanese cities and Rio as well as London.  For Zoo (Oxford University Press, 1996), Tobias Hill was the inaugural Poet for Zoos, and writes about London Zoo in particular. Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow (Salt, 2006, 2007) is his most recent collection and includes A Year in London, with a poem for each month.  Here is the first stanza of November:

London – there’s a rhythm to the name,

its ending an echo of its beginning,

as if London were the name of somewhere

full to the brim with its own echoes.”

This is what Tobias Hill does so well – points out something you can’t believe you hadn’t noticed before, and makes the wholly familiar newly unsettling.

Finally, James Boswell’s London Journal (Penguin).  Unlike my previous examples, I can’t claim for the veracity of the portrayal of London, seeing as how it was written in 1762-3. What I can vouch for is that it’s a brilliantly entertaining read.  James Boswell is 22, arriving in London for the second time in his life, and completely in love with the city and all it offers.  He evokes London in vivid detail: the people in high society, the prostitutes in the parks, chestnut sellers, his nights at the opera and theatre, visits to exhibitions, and his restaurant meals.

“The conversation was on indifferent common topics.  The Peace.  Lord Bute. Footmen & Cookery. I went to Douglasse’s & drank tea. I next went & called in Southampton Street Strand, for Miss Sally Forrester my first love.  Who lived at the blue Periwig.  I found that the People of the house were broke & dead & could hear nothing of her.  I also called for Miss Jenny Wells in Barrack Street Soho, and found that she was fled and they knew not whither & had been ruined with extravagance.”

It’s unintentionally funny; Boswell wants to be so much better than he is, and that remains timeless.  “Since my being honoured with the friendship of Mr Johnson [Samuel, who provided the title of this entry], I have more seriously considered the dutys of Morality and Religion, and the dignity of Human Nature.  I have considered that promiscuous concubinage is certainly wrong…. Notwithstanding of these Reflections, I have stooped to mean profligacy even yesterday.”

Oh James, we’ve all been there, led astray by the city.  I haven’t slept with a prostitute in ages (that’s a joke, promise), but my own internal struggle is usually along the following lines: “I need to lose weight.  I’m going on a diet…. But if God wanted me to be thinner, he wouldn’t have invented cheese…..or wine……or France……or Europe….or the Middle East.  I’m hungry. That’s it, I’m off to Edgware Road.”  Damn you, Edgware Road.

And so to finish, I choose neither North nor South London, but directly in between, and one of the greatest ground level (OK, slightly elevated, otherwise you’d get wet) views you can find in the city –immortalised by Ray Davies for a reason.  Here are my books on Waterloo Bridge. (We caught the 345 to Battersea Bridge and walked east along the river to get there).  I had hoped to capture the books in front of the view (that would have made a decent photo), but I couldn’t work out how to do this safely – leaping into the Thames in a failed rescue attempt of my rapidly disappearing books would not impress the river police, I fear.  So instead a poor photo of the view, and a picture of my books precariously balanced on the bridge, much to the bemusement of the Scandinavian tourists just out of shot, who watched my every move without offering to help.  Maybe they thought it was a weird English thing, which I suppose it sort of was.   I hope they enjoyed their trip to London, and that they read a book that captures the atmosphere for them as they remember it.

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Maybe if you squint, turn your head sideways and jiggle the screen a little, you’ll get the photo I was aiming for….