I’ve only had one proper office job. I do not report this with any kind of pride. People who say things like “I could never work in an office” are closely related to the people who don’t believe in paying tax. They are not to be taken seriously. I once shared a house with someone like this. In addition to his belief that office work was for squares, for sad and castrated drones, he expressed a deep scepticism about government. Not: “I think the current administration is failing in important ways.” More: “I do not believe that we need a government at all.” He claimed not to know who the president was. He claimed to have never heard of Prince William. He told me that he did not believe in the economy. Exactly like that: “I don’t believe in the economy.”
He gave boa constrictor-ish hugs to everyone who came to the house. He got called Hugsy Malone almost straight away, a name which stuck so hard and fast that I have trouble remembering his real one. He had no time for deodorant. I do not recall ever seeing a toothbrush which could have belonged to him in the bathroom. He wore no shoes. He was robustly contemptuous of employment, as a concept, feeling especially that a 9-5 job was only for the hypnotised agents of the corporate state. One of our housemates worked for an accounting firm. On the rare occasions that he was awake when she left the house, he’d shake his head in disappointment as she walked out the door. Going to work again, I see. Off to your job again. He was a passionate conspiracy theorist. All the classics: Moon Landing, 9/11/, New World Order. He gave me a copy of the movie Zeitgeist the day he moved in. For a person who did not believe in money, he had a great deal to say about the secret cabals trying to create a single world bank. It is needless to add that he went to every trance party advertised. It is further unnecessary to explain that he was the worst kind of smooth alternative pervert. Hugsy once put his arm around my shoulder and slid his hand into my bra. He paid rent for two months, and then never again. When we raised an objection, he said that “it’s just money. It’s just paper. Paper comes from trees. How can you get so upset about a few trees?”
The actions and ideas of Hugsy gave me stories for years. Going on seven years, actually. I know that because his tenancy coincided with Obama’s first election campaign, in 2008. Everyone I knew took at least a mild interest in what was happening. Most people thought it was exciting. You do not need me to tell you that Hugsy went against the tide. If he was in the room when someone brought up the elections, he would get all fidgety and agitated. He would scratch at his cuticles and hustle his hands around in the pockets of his cargo shorts until finally, unable to muffle his truth, he would say, “I don’t know why you’re all so interested in this. Elections aren’t real. None of this is really happening.” The modern world was a difficult place for him. We eventually got it together to have him formally evicted. It was not easy. Again, for a person who did not believe in the rule of law, he knew an incredible amount about squatter rights. The policemen who came to escort him out of our lives were real champs about it.
The Hugsy Experience changed me as a person. It made me more uptight, less forgiving of those who feel that shoes are an optional accessory. You should always wear shoes. It made me more embarrassed for trustafarians than I already was. I will never read Kerouac or Hunter Thompson with a straight face again. Hugsy is the reason for my persistent allergy to trance music and Fight Club. Living in the same house as him for a year was an extended Teachable Moment: don’t take too many drugs, wake up at a normal time of day, get a job, get a job, get a job. The spectre of Hugsy scared the shit out of me.
I know that routine and externally imposed structure are important. I know that without a schedule, I am liable to become unhinged. But I’ve still only ever had one office job. The rest of the time has been spent grooving around in the upper reaches of postgraduate education. To do a PhD properly, you need a rigidly imposed system of internal discipline. You need to be able to survive on the wee-est little scraps of affirmation. You need to be confident. You should possess a thrusting individualism. You need to understand that the future is gearing up to find and kill you. You must look at the day stretched out in front of you, empty of obligations except for the ones to yourself, and you must do your work. None of this comes naturally to me. It is hard. I am frequently speechless with worry. What if I am exactly like Hugsy and I don’t even know? What if the reason I can remember everything about him a full seven years later is because we are Kin? Hugsy leans over me while I am asleep and whispers, We be of one blood, ye and I. These are just some of my concerns.
Doing a PhD means that the full deck of my personal flaws is fanned out in front of me on a daily basis. I am at peace with this – it is the comeuppance that I richly deserve. I believe that I will emerge from this victorious but diminished: I will no longer know how to dress in a cool way; I will have a frilly layered haircut and not know. I will acquire both my PhD and a series of verbal tics. Fine. I embrace this prospect. But it would all be so much easier if I could just be in an office. I know this is true. If I could just wake up every day and go to a cubicle and have someone tell me exactly what they expected of me, perhaps give me a list of small but manageable tasks that I could wrestle to the ground by the end of the day, I would be happy.
I loved working in an office. For a year of my life, at age 23, I was a very junior subeditor at Independent Newspapers. I had a desk, I had a boss who found me irritating, I had lunch in the cafeteria two floors above ours. I had to be at work at 6:30. This meant that I was finished by three in the afternoon. My friend Emma would pick me up from work and we’d go to the beach. There’d usually be a sort of party at my house in the evening. We all drank a lot, and I do not remember there ever being much eating or sleeping. I tried the other day, and I could not come up with a single specific meal I ate when I wasn’t at work. “Spaghetti”. “A salad.” I do not remember hangovers. I burst into the office every morning bristling with good cheer.
The job alternated between brief bursts of high tension, when a whole lot of stories would come in at once and we’d have to cut them and fix them and give them headlines as quickly as we could, and longer periods of waiting. The stories came in at 7am, and at 1. They would be too long, or too repetitive, and there would be inexplicable inaccuracies. They’d need to be cut down by half, by two thirds. It was sometimes necessary to swap paragraphs around and around. It was important to be neat and careful and anonymous. The flurry of getting everything cut and coherent lasted about an hour and a half. By the time it was all ready to go, the boss who I believed wished me dead would be red in the face and striding up and down with menace. She was extremely good at her job. I saw her the other day in a restaurant and I scooted right under the table so as not to see her failing to register who I was.
Three hours of intense concentration every day, and then the rest of the time you were nearly free. Sometimes you would have to take a little walk around the room in order to get the adrenaline out of your legs. Sometimes you would need to go and smoke two cigarettes in a row in the room designated for the purpose. I can’t believe they had a smoking room. What a wonderful thing. If anyone ever finds out that it’s gone, please keep it to yourself. After the smoking, and the walks, there was still all this nearly-free time. We had to be at our desks in case a story came into the queue, but there were whole hours with very little to do. Everyone, I think, has their own set of techniques or methods for dealing with this kind of holding pattern. Mine was self-improvement, or self-improvement as understood by a maniac. There was nothing strictly work-related to do, but I was At Work, and so I thought I should at least use the opportunity to better myself. This meant Wikipedia. I would use the time to teach myself the things it was important for me to know, as an adult, as a sophisticated potential attendee of dinner parties. Don’t forget that I was 23. Every day, I made a list of the things I had learned. Just the date, and key words. I still have this list. It runs to 28 typed pages. I have neurotically emailed it to myself over and over again, because even I can see that there is something deeply hilarious about it. Also something sweet. You can see me in there, sketching out the person I thought I wanted to be.
Here is a sample. The date is the 10th of June. The list is exactly as it appears in the original document.
- “Bon viveur
- Stated occupation vs observed occupation
- Silk cotton tree (ghosts)
- JOHN 11:35 Jesus wept
- Failure of imagination is a general term used to describe circumstances wherein something that was possible to predict or foresee was, in fact, not predicted or foreseen.
- Hanna arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem – a report on the banality of evil
- Zhou Enlai – Mao’s second in command
- “Racial hygiene” – eugenics
- “to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus” – Macbeth
- Colombian necktie”
Here is another. The date is the 22 August.
- “The marchesa casati
- Mary Vetsera – the mayerling incident “apparent suicide of the crown prince of Austria”)
- Balthus (painter)
- Bruce Davidson Brooklyn Gang
- Library of Congress Recordings
- The Alan Lomax Collection
- 100 most frequently challenged books
- The Regency (transition between Georgian and Victorian)
- The ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar wilde)
- Cambridge Apostles”
One more, from May:
- “Othello Act 5: “of one that loved not wisely but too well”
- The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars were conflicts in the East End of Glasgow in Scotland in the 1980s between rival ice cream van operators, over lucrative territory and suggested use of ice cream vans as a cover for selling drugs. The conflicts involved daily violence and intimidation, and led to the deaths by arson of several members of the family of one ice cream van driver and a consequent court case that lasted for 20 years.
- “I would never wear anything cheap unless I thought it was funny”
- Saturnine: cold and steady in mood : slow to act or change b : of a gloomy or surly disposition …
- A bellwether is any entity in a given arena that serves to create or influence trends or to presage future happenings.”
The last entry is the day my contract expired, in September. It just says “Prince John”. Prince John was the youngest son of George V. He was born in 1905 and died in 1919. He had epilepsy, and historians have suggested autism as the contemporary diagnosis for what was perceived as his “intellectual disability.” He was mostly looked after by his nanny, and when he was 14, he had a seizure, and died.
I only know this because I just looked it up. I am only guessing that I meant the real Prince John, and not the superior fictional one, from the Disney version of Robin Hood. I can’t know what the significance of that one name was, but I can look at this demented list, and understand its broader meaning. It stands as a monument to the work of my twenties, to all the cutting and shaping and fixing of myself that I did. I gave myself a job: be a proper adult. I did not understand at all what that meant. I did strange things. I lied. I failed to see things as they were. I edited myself into unreadable bits.
I slowly got better at it. I worked. The real and permanent shape of things started looming into view.