When Lehman Brothers went bust in the summer of 2008, he had been working in the property industry for just under a year.
It was his second office-based job in central London. His first, at a lobbying group for the hospitality industry, was thanks to the benevolent action of one of his friends, who took pity on his precarious state and put him forward for a temp role. He had graduated from bartender to temporary office assistant (receptionist), although the pay was only marginally better. It gave him a foot in the door, and most importantly, enough money to cover his rent and outgoings and survive London a little while longer.
After the role became permanent, he was given a pay rise and a promotion, and eventually parlayed that pay rise and promotion into the job at a property lobbying group, which came with better pay and what he perceived to be more prestige. For a brief period, it enabled him to keep pace with his upwardly mobile friends.
His views about property were not uncritical. Those vast anonymous plazas of glass and steel. Shoe-box-sized flats in edifices. Places where people live, work and play. His father was a builder, but his father renovated and converted, he didn’t bulldoze and construct. He had taken the job partly because he thought his parents would be impressed, that they would be satisfied that he got the job that justified the years of learning and lolling.
The gap between pseudo-socialist refusenik to reluctant capitalist was easily bridged. He would be working for corporate entities the like of which he had contemplated with disdain at the milk round a few years earlier. He swallowed his principles like a cup of warm sick, knowing sooner or later they would come back up.
Furthermore, philosophically-speaking, property was pretty much persona non grata. At least within the ideological positions of the philosophy he favoured. Was it not Aristotle who remarked that democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are rulers? Or John Locke who sermonised, where there is no property, there is no injustice? And had not Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto called for the abolition of all private property?
John Stuart Mill argued, more sagely, that landlords grow richer, as it were, in their sleep, without working, risking or economising, while in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith intoned, As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produces. The value of property in the city was the product of centuries of acquisition and inheritance, of aristocratic serendipity. The fat of the land.
In truth, his own lean, hungry years had long been superseded by days of comfort and conspicuous consumption. He still harboured writerly aspirations, and wrote poetry near-constantly, but by now the pressing urgency of his original focus had faded.
More recently, he had turned to photography as a means of representing the city which was slowly eating him alive. Like many in the city, he believed he would soon make the switch from salariat to artistic polymath, the online persona he had now assumed via his blogspot and Flickr profiles.
It was just a matter of time.
The woman he had been recruited to replace was retiring, or had been encouraged to retire, it wasn’t entirely clear which. She had been there a long time and had acquired a formidable reputation. A force of nature, he was informed by all and sundry. Irreplaceable. Part of the furniture. Tough act to follow.
When he arrived for his first day, she was away from the office. On the day of her return, she bustled into the office, a portly woman in her late sixties, dwarfish and slightly hunchbacked, with cropped grey hair and round glasses.
He waited an hour or so before approaching her desk and introducing himself. She considered him in the way a food critic might consider a hair in her terrine de campagne. Witheringly. Under her gaze, he withered like a dehydrated hydrangea. I’m incredibly busy, I haven’t possibly got time to talk to you now, she said, in a voice husky and squeaky. So please go away. I will speak to you when I have time.
And she returned to her work without a second glance. This was the formidableness his new colleagues had spoken off. He was taken back to his schooldays, for it was then that anyone had been so openly hostile to him. Most people waited until they knew him a little better.
When he asked for a handover meeting in her final week, this time she looked at him as though he’d asked for a handjob. Given her vintage, that might have misheard, though more likely she viewed these things as unnecessary distractions to running her office. For it was her office, she informed him, and had been for some twenty-odd years. That, she continued, was why they needed two people to replace her. Him, and the new office manager.
During the meeting, she handed him several sheets of paper of varying size, all of which had been hastily scribbled on. These were her handover notes. When he asked her what the organisation’s members got in exchange for their membership she sweetly replied, Fuck all. That brought their meeting to a close.
Vexed that he had been recruited on salary higher than hers, she passed her last day in the office complaining about it to anyone within earshot. As he was temporarily seated at a desk in the centre of the room, he couldn’t avoid overhearing. He wondered quietly what he had let himself in for.
When people asked him what he did for a living, or how the new job was going, he couldn’t bear to answer them. He had no faith in what the organisation did, or what he himself was doing. It bored him to talk about it.
The only that bored him more than talking about his job was talking to his manager, a middle-aged former Northumbrian whose baldness and sinewy physique caused him to resemble a straining tortoise. The living embodiment of the Peter principle, his manager was about as dynamic as a shell-bearing testudine.
They hadn’t gelled particularly well in the interview, so much so that he had been surprised to be offered the job. Sometime later he learned he had indeed been the second choice.
The office’s frosty climate did not improve when he moved from his temporary position to his predecessor’s former seat, which was outside the office of his manager. This meant that his manager could call him into the office at will as he embarked on one of his many procedural flights of fancy.
Occasionally, when his manager was in a meeting with another luckless colleague, should a call happen to come through on his direct line, his manager would ask him to pick it up, as if he was his de facto personal assistant. Initially he feigned ignorance of the switchboard system. After a while he would simply pretend to be making a call of his own.
When called by his manager into his office he submitted himself to an excruciating, near-vaudevillian routine. Once seated his manager would first remove his glasses and rub his eyes with the heels of his hands, before looking at the desk, sighing deeply and staring balefully at him. After taking several seconds to collect his thoughts, his manager would then begin a long, detailed and frequently digressive monologue in his soft north-eastern accent.
Sometimes this concerned a whimsical observation about the operations of the office, sometimes he was treating him as a confidante about the behaviour of a colleague, and on other occasions it concerned a specific request the chief executive had made. Whatever they discussed it almost always caused his manager no small amount of anguish and grief, which he was now about to pass on to him as his subordinate.
Whenever he was in his manager’s office, which in those first months was almost hourly, he found his eye being drawn to a postcard pinned on the wall which bore a famous quote by the author Douglas Adams. I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
At the close of his monologue his manager would ask him for his thoughts. He opted against saying what was on his mind. Sometimes he would ask his manager what he himself thought, only to hear what was by now becoming a familiar catchphrase.
I don’t know.
His manager had a puppyish infatuation with the chief executive, a steely former civil servant of the Thatcher-lite variety, which expressed itself as an illimitable eagerness to please. In the hands of a more benign Creator, one who loved a happy ending, theirs would have been a relationship swiftly consummated after a brief, intense courtship, rather than the protracted and cringe-inducing exchange of remarks about otherwise unremarkable behaviour of their feline companions, their significant others, their children.
The chief executive had the air of a seasoned politico, one fond of helmets of platinum hair and power dressing, of hurried entrances and sweeping exits, of chewing the arm of her glasses when scrutinising something, or someone. With her sharp features and slender frame, her shoulders sloped like a hawk on the glove, at times she resembled a Gerald Scarfe caricature. Of herself.
As was common for many small not-for-profit organisations, her office, for it was her office and not that of his predecessor, was run through a system of discrete patronage. This lent a determinedly feudalistic atmosphere to the organisation’s internal culture, one informed by the regal light of her apparent divinity.
There were those who were invited to kiss the royal ring, and those who were not. Those who kissed the ring guaranteed safe passage in her kingdom. Those who didn’t were out in the cold. He had no interest in kissing the ring. The only ring he wanted to kiss was his wife’s.
His role, such as it was, was to oversee the organisation’s membership processes and organise their events. Two unwieldy jobs condensed into one role. Despite the best efforts of his predecessor, there was much that needed to be done. When he joined the organisation the database of members consisted of a poorly-maintained excel spreadsheet in the possession of the company secretary, and the scribbled sheets of his predecessor. Back of a fag packet stuff. The company secretary’s departure revealed a ledger-book of discrepancies between projected and actual income.
The organisation’s flagship events were tired, lacklustre and poorly-attended. However, this being a sector characterised by as entrenched a strain of conservatism as British politics itself, there was little appetite on the Board for making radical adjustments to their events. Instead his charge was to continue running the exact same events as his predecessor, only to do it better. Better venues, better speakers, better organisation. More delegates, more sponsors, more press coverage. And above all, more profit.
He had next to no experience of organising events. This had been the supreme blag of his application. And now it had come back to haunt him. There were conferences, dinners, seminars, monthly lunches and receptions to organise, and a score of colleagues grateful to him for replacing the woman they were terrified to approach for help in making their ideas for every kind of nebulous event become a reality. No longer.
For seven years he ground out countless events. The gala dinners, the political conferences, the policy conferences, the breakfast seminars, the invitation-only receptions, the monthly lunches in the same venues, with the same speakers, the same sponsors, the same delegates, the same faces, the same airs and graces, the same bowing and scraping, same purpose: to protect property.
What bothered him most about events was that it reminded him how rapidly time had passed, and how little he had achieved at the organisation, and outside of it. It was something which, like Bartleby, he preferred not to do. He knew there were far worse jobs. A&E nurse. Care home assistant. Street sweeper.
He had often wondered what it must be like to work in retail, where the logic of capitalism ushered in each season ahead of schedule, making Christmas come a little earlier each year and permanently leaving staff temporally and psychically discombobulated. It was just a matter of time. Looking ahead at the schedule of events for the next six months, he would silently hope he would be long gone by then, but when the event arrived and he found that he wasn’t, fell into a funk of dejection and depression.
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx described the estrangement (Entfremdung) of the self from what he termed its species-essence (Gattungwesen) through subjugation to the world of work. It is work as the physical expression of capitalism which denies the rational individual the right to think freely, to consider themselves autonomous beyond one’s economic productivity.
For Marx, the worker is a slave towards its object. They live to work and work to live. A double bind which alienates the worker from its mode of production. Those individuals who were not committed to maximising their economic productivity were regarded as morally dubious.
Capitalism begets atomisation. Social dislocation. Alienation. Failure.
Under neoliberalism the same rules applied. Everything that the organisation did was nebulous. Shaping policy. Restricting regulation. Affecting decisions. Publishing papers. Generating wealth for the already very wealthy. Men of property. Men of means. A female chief executive helped soften the tone. Everything that he did day to day was directed at ensuring the organisation had sufficient funds to fulfil this activity. Retaining members. Securing sponsors. Running a profit. In exchange the organisation provided him with sufficient funds to stay financially afloat in London. Monthly payslip. Pension contribution. Season ticket loan.
In the years he was at the organisation a crop of glass and steel edifices flowered throughout the city. Priapic constructions with quotidian names to make them seem more benign. The Cheesegrater. The Walkie Talkie. The Shard. The Heron. Towers of London.
At times he felt as if he was the property of the organisation, as if his body was no longer his own but the chattel of the Board. The time that he lent to his employer in exchange for salary + benefits had been taken permanently on loan. Each day that he buzzed into the office and sat at his desk he was marking time, dreaming of some great escape, while his inbox steadily filled and deadlines loomed. While he was adept at batting away extra work, from time to time he would lumber himself with a fruitless and frustrating project in order to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his superiors.
The organisation’s personal appraisal system reinforced this feeling of time passing, while inculcating the sense that one should be using one’s time better, by performing more effectively, working harder for the same money.
At his first appraisal, his manager drew a pyramid labelled ‘PR’ and divided it into segments labelled ‘Events’, ‘Marketing’, ‘Media’, ‘Social Media’, ‘Website’, ‘Public Affairs’ and so on. Each section represented one member of the communications team, and his challenge, his manager informed him, was to acquire skills in each of those areas. By doing this, he would secure a promotion to the position at the head of the pyramid, a position at present occupied by himself. Without acquiring these skills, the likelihood of progression within the organisation was minimal. Progression also depended upon his manager retiring, which as his manager pointed out was not going to happen any time soon.
Already he hated it. With a passion, with brimming heart, with total commitment. Every fibre of his being was working overtime to essay his hate. And hate was not too strong a word.
He hated the awkward commute to Victoria, the early morning crush, the early evening rush, the shoving crowds, the packed carriages, the standing journeys, the failed trains. Always the fucking failed trains.
He hated the stifling open plan office, the uncomfortable chairs, the desk which was too small and the monitor which was too low, the strip lighting and air conditioning which, when it wasn’t blasting into the office fragments of mysterious black matter, failed to adequately regulate the office temperature and made his skin look greasy and jaundiced.
He hated the petty internal politics, the debilitating presenteeism, the competing strains of entitlement and disaffection, the perpetual genuflection to autocracy. The careerism. The jargonese. The seriousness.
In his first year at the organisation he started using cocaine regularly, and with a purpose. To rid himself of whatever blight the organisation had placed upon his soul.
The verisimilitude of the names. Ion and Ian. Jonathan and James. Gareth and Ghislaine. Tom and Theo. Ghislaine and Gail. Kurt and Karen. Susan and Jane. Alex and Alice. Andrea and Andy. Andy and Andrew. Patrick and Patrick. Patrick and Peter. Peter and Paul. Michelle and Michael. Lizzie and Elizabeth. Matthew and Michelle. Liz and Louise. Benjamin and Beatrice. David and Dave. Cleo and Kamal. Rachel and Rachael.
So many. I did not know death had undone so many.
The bearish, curmudgeonly one. The raven-haired Rubenesque. The sharp man-about-town. The wild-haired would-be rock star. The God-fearing soul sister. The fashion entrepreneur. The ironman. The slicked-back Mod. The lanky Antipodean. The crestfallen Stephen Mangan. The misanthropic Chris Evans. The interchangeable intern. The multilingual lawyer. The softly-spoken Scot. The brassy barmaid. The Brummie blonde. The latex puppet. The PR guru. The boffin. The spiv. The devil. The tortoise. The hawk.
His colleagues were friendly, well-meaning people with bills to pay and families to feed. He felt sympathy for them, empathised with them and could not bear to be around them.
Come Friday they some configuration of the office could be found cramped around some small table in a West End pub, poring over the foibles and failings of their colleagues. In Victoria this was The Stage Door, and after they relocated from Victoria to Haymarket, The Captain’s Cabin. Neither pub was there anymore, having been demolished in huge redevelopment projects. Nothing stood in the way of progress, or property. Not even alcohol. Certainly not nostalgia.
There was much fuel for their ire. Disparity between salaries was inconsistent, unsustainable and divisive. Those who had kissed the royal ring progressed rapidly and were paid handsomely. Everyone knew what everyone else earned because the finance manager had left a spreadsheet of salaries on the shared printer.
Nominal pay rises were usually delivered on the day of the staff’s Christmas party. As an act of seasonal benevolence, it still seemed almost deliberately designed to engender antipathy and resentment among the recipients, those who had worked, or perceived that that they had worked, harder than everyone else. Someone always threw their toys out of the pram and threatened to spoil the party.
One by one they were called into the manager’s office, to listen to his appraisal of how the organisation’s finances were holding up and how would impact upon salaries in the long term and why this might be reflected in a paltry sum on this occasion. His speech concluded, his manager would slide a sheet of paper, face-down, across the table. On the sheet of paper was a typed letter, a short screed penned by himself but signed by the chief executive, which detailed his pay rise. As he looked up from the letter his manager smiled thinly.
It was always possible to tell who was unhappy with their pay rise, and who was satisfied, by the length of time they spent in the office. Like a good Christian at Christmas, he was always grateful for what he received. He merely wanted recompense for the time he had served sitting at his desk, doing a job no one appeared to value, least of all himself.
In his final year, he found it incapable to do his job anymore. He could not face one more day, let alone another yearly cycle of the same shit.
By now his son was two years old and his wife was pregnant with their second. He was about to begin his doctorate. He was also using cocaine at almost every opportunity, including at the office. When he asked about the possibility of reducing his hours and was informed by the chief executive that it was possible if he continued to work full time, he decided it was easier to leave than argue his case.
After seven years at the organisation, after countless half-hearted requests for more responsibility and opportunities for development, after countless arguments with his manager and innumerable failed interviews at other organisations, and after feeling for some time as if he could no longer go on (you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on), he quit.
When he looked back on his time there, he saw only failure, a series of mistakes and serial fuck ups, conflicted ideals and strained relationships. When tried to think of something he could reasonably describe as an achievement, a thing to share with his children, something to savour in old age, to turn over in his mind with the amber warmth of satisfaction, he could only think of only one thing.