- since 2011 -

All play and no work

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Meaningfully employed - you're having a laugh

The devil wore Prada and behind her the imp modelled Doc Martens. Its face was hidden behind an unkempt thicket - what Dan, a work colleague of mine at the time, was wont to call a 'hairdon't' - and its upper body was draped in a big baggy jumper and a tatty old rucksack scrawled with the names of obscure indie bands. Beneath twig-thin legs in frayed black denim protruded a pair of regulation rubber-soul boots caked in all manner of gunk, samples of which would've worried biochemists.

These two beings - one the über-glam editor of a fashion bible, the other a grubby contributor to a music paper - were in the same lift in the same building in the same dimension day after day after day. In the mid-1990s this happened when you worked for a big company that published hundreds of magazines, long before Big Brother ever put random personalities together in a confined space. Also among the journalists crammed into the elevator: a Henrietta with a padded gilet, ponytail and 12-bore shotgun; an ex-professional footballer with a bad leather jacket and Hasselhoff mullet, ogling the women and trying his hand at the writing game now his journeyman career had petered out; and every form of human life in-between.

The metal doors would swish shut as the lift began its rapid ascent, bypassing the first dozen floors in seconds and zooming up to the mist-shrouded offices of such hallowed titles as Woman's Weekly, World Soccer, Ideal Home, Practical Woodworker, Shooting Times and Cage & Aviary Bird, which if you said it quickly sounded like Cajun Aviary Bird, which wasn't funny after about the fiftieth time. At one point Marie Claire was next door to our football mag but we were worlds apart and never really mixed. They had an ice-maiden on reception with platinum-blonde hair, we had a sticky door with a broken buzzer. They had shiny desks piled high with fragrant goodie bags, we had frowzy tea mugs colonised by unclassified vegetation. Their dress-code was chic, ours desultory. I saw The Devil Wears Prada for real the other week on TV and it took me back to how the other half lived and how good we, the poor relations, had it too.

Up until a few years ago some of us would still gather for a Christmas reunion at The Two Brydges, a pokey little club sequestered behind a nondescript door along a threadlike jigger behind the English National Opera in Covent Garden, the kind of place where you might find find Mike Leigh and Ralph Steadman deconstructing Ibsen's Wild Duck over pumpkin tortellini while meejah luvvies yelled yeah-no-definitely into their smartphones. And us, a dozen or so sore-thumbs from Up North, Down South and Scotland trading playful slag-offs, laughing at each other's football teams and being told by camp waiters that it's okay to sing but could we keep the table-thumping down please.

"I was not put on this planet to work." Mark, one of the gang and an ex-punk from Edinburgh, used to say this all the time. To be fair he wasn't afraid of hard graft - he fought it succesfully for years (© Giant Book of Insults). Personally I don't know whether work - when it's there to be had, of course, and these days there's no guarantee - enslaves or sets us free. They say it was invented by enlightened Joseph Priestley types in the 18th century to keep the common man and woman distracted. "While you're working you don't have to look life in the eye," claims Daniel Sempere, the narrator of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's bestseller The Shadow of the Wind. In Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous, his 1897 novella about American fishermen, one veteran of the Grand Banks fleet tells a young lad, "A little work will ease your head." For Kipling it was simple but profound: work gave your life meaning. It also stopped the 'black dog' of depression from creeping up to your shoulder.

Front cover of The Guardian with illustration by Jim Stoten

Front cover of The Guardian with illustration by Jim Stoten

A couple of years ago the philosopher and TV presenter Alain de Botton wrote a book called The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work and made the point that the most meaningful work is often the least financially rewarding. In a subsequent interview with his alma mater King's Collge London (whose alumni mag I briefly edited) he said: "Machines and technology have enabled us to generate huge amounts of cash but really only in areas which are generally low down on the ladder of meaning. The big profits are made trading commodities, mass manufacturing soap suds or setting up call-centres processing insurance forms - whereas occupations like nursing, poetry writing or landscape gardening remain at pre-industrial levels of profitability. So we have an odd situation where the best educated, most successful members of our society are frequently doing jobs which earn a lot of money but leave them wondering what real difference they are making, while those transforming others' lives are barely scraping by."

Not everyone can be a sculptor - some poor sod's got to drive the taxi. Even so, if it's neither lucrative nor ennobling, if it's dull, repetitive, back-breaking, loathsome, futile and necessary, is it too much to ask that occasionally, just now and again, it's actually fun? By and large, like I say, I've been lucky. If Pinocchio had a nose that grew, then according to another old workmate I had a dimple of deceit - which is to say that I could never pull someone's leg in the office because it would ineluctably manifest itself, thereby giving the game away straightaway. But I still dine out on one practical joke that involved a straight face beyond the call of duty. One summer, on that same football magazine we all worked for, came an invitation to play in a five-a-side tournament at a big music festival. The rules said we needed at least two celebrities or ex-professional players in our team. Dan, the pal mentioned at the top of this story, was deputy editor and also our best player by a mile. But due a series of unfortunate episodes on past journalistic assignments (sleep-walking across a Dubai golf course before being woken by security guards on the 18th green with his trousers round his ankles, that sort of thing) he was haunted about being a 'Jonah' or jinx. Nonetheless he valiantly hammered the phone doing the ring-around to recruit a couple of star players for our side.

Result: first up we got broadcaster Dominik Diamond who qualified by having a daft name and turned out to be a nice guy and decent player. Now we just needed a proper former footballer. I suggested a famous ex-Liverpool player whose phone number we had and whom for discretion's sake we'll call Dicky Mint. Dan phoned Dicky and Dicky said yes, he'd love to take part. Dan slammed down the phone in triumph - this called for a celebration. We settled for a quick ciggie and rode that self-same elevator to the 26th floor 'smoking room' (insert your own tumour here) where we were careful not to flick our Embassy No1s near the fire-hazard that was Cousin-It-from-the-lift's crusty tour T-shirt.

So, I said to Dan, trying to appear serious now - who had we really got to play for our team? "What d'you mean?" he shrugged, not following. "We got Dicky Mint, didn't we, like we said we would." I pulled my best wince/frown and Dan, suddenly concerned, asked: "Why - what's wrong with him?" Deadpan, I explained that I'd only suggested Dicky Mint for a laugh and hadn't he heard the news - about Dicky losing his left leg in a tragic DIY accident and only recently being fitted with a false one? Dan went wan. Back downstairs, a few nudges and winks and everyone was in on the act while Dan was on the blower to Mick, the tournament's Cockney organiser, asking whether it would be a problem if one of our players had a prosthetic limb. Like something out of a film, Dan grimaced and held the phone away from his ear. What sounded like a tiny version of Mick explained very clearly down the receiver that, to the best of his knowledge, nowhere in the rules did it say that entrants could field "a five-a-side team with nine ****ing legs."

Dan, fraught, was back on the phone to Dicky. Was he sure he'd be alright, what with his leg and all that? "Me leg?" said Dicky down the line, completely nonplussed. Yeah, y'know, your leg? "Er, yeah, I'll be fine…so do I need to bring my own boots?" Bottom lip aquiver, Dan asked if he could call him back. By now all around the office shoulders were quaking and tears streaming down cheeks. Finally, despite the manic, furtive headshakes of sadistic colleagues who wanted to keep the gag going, I cracked and put him out of his misery. But what goes around comes around and it wasn't long before the great god Payback came knocking on my door. That's another story though. For now I better get back to work.

'The metal doors swished shut as the lift began its rapid ascent, bypassing the first dozen floors and zooming up to the mist-shrouded offices of such hallowed titles as Woman’s Weekly and Cage & Aviary Bird'


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All Play and No work

Peel on wheels

Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

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Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

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On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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