Thursday, March 06, 2014
I love reading the private documents and ephemera of public figures. I know that some insist creative work should be read and understood without reference to its creator; but something that excites my intellect or my imagination always provokes an extra curiosity in me. When I read “A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud the fabulousness of it made me want to know more about the person responsible for bringing it into the world. Not that Rimbaud was an easy man to locate.
Which has me wondering, today, how the arrival of the technological age will affect our future study of the arts. My poet friends and I used to send each other letters; I have an archive of handwritten or typed and hand-signed communication from many people who are gone now. Anybody who wanted to build a picture of Dave Church, Joe Speer and Norbert Blei, among others—a picture that is distinct from the surviving published work—can access my archive, and those accumulated by my friends, and the men behind the poetry and the prose live and breathe again.
These days, however, poets and writers send emails and use social media like everybody else. Do they print them for posterity? I used to, but the cost became prohibitive. So my exchanges with other artists are either preserved for however long Facebook survives, or they disappear immediately into the void. I keep a handwritten journal as well as a public blog . . . do others? Or am I just carrying on the furtive behaviour of the socially inadequate teenager I once was?
Educators (as opposed to tutors) will know more about where the study of literature is heading; and I’m sure postmodernists would have something to say about technology and the Self that would be completely brilliant and apropos, although I’m equally sure I wouldn’t understand it. I have never had much of a head for theory. I like to read the lives of my authors and historical personalities the way I read their works, and by putting man or woman and work together, attempt a deeper understanding of both. If anybody wants to do that in 50 years they will have a much harder time than I’ve had, thanks to email and Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg. Will the public interview become our portal to the private from now on? and how much is that going to hide?
Sunday, March 02, 2014
The Royal Mail job seemed like it would be okay. I needed the money, and we would only be doing 8 hours a day 5 days a week. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found at the freezing cold, leaky warehouse the Royal Mail had rented temporarily for the Christmas season. Some of it still echoes unpleasantly in my mind three months later.
At the warehouse most of the things being sorted and dispatched were parcels from Amazon and Kuehne-Nagel, and the workforce doing the sorting across early, late and night shifts were either all the Royal Mail’s own casual workers or people recruited from agencies. There were also two “workplace coaches” on hand to instruct workers in safe practice and give whatever other advice and support (work-related, in theory) that we needed. One flirted shamelessly with the younger females and took the piss out of a female line manager at every available opportunity; both slagged off their colleagues at the main sorting office across town and said that the union gave everyone there the excuse to work poorly and be obstructive.
Hatred for the union among the permanent Royal Mail staff at the warehouse was pathological. My line manager, who rightly or wrongly was described to me as a “man-eater,” kept stopping me in my work. When it wasn’t to show me texts from her son or a picture taken by a casual who had left the country, but whose number she had stored in her phone, it was to describe the petty, self-indulgent, immature behaviour of unionised workers who had “been there too long and thought the world owed them a living.” “Where else,” she said, “can you get paid what they do for an unskilled job?”
This line manager was ridiculed by everybody who worked in her section for her constant shouting. She would stop for fifteen minutes in an aisle to look at her phone or talk about everything except work to a casual, and then shout at someone else, usually a younger person, for taking a minute out to catch up with someone in a different section. I heard the same names over and over and over again. Most of the time, when something more than a name was being shouted, I couldn’t understand what she said because of the way her voice echoed around the high walls and roof of the warehouse. But when her nightly frenzy climaxed I could hear, “Sort don’t talk!” and “Work faster!” At one point she simply bellowed “WORK!” elongating the word in a way that’s impossible to describe.
Maybe this is common practice now, but I found it stupid, disrespectful and counter-productive. It’s bad enough that people should only be paid minimum wage to exhaust themselves daily; shouldn’t the compensation they receive for that be a recognition of their right to be treated in a dignified fashion? Or have we reached the point, in our hurtling journey back to the Victorian Era, where employees are expected to be grateful that they have any work at all?
One of the managers spoke to me towards the end of my contract about the things that had been achieved in the two months. Number one out of all the PSCs (parcel sorting centres) in the country since it opened (or nearly). He said “We wouldn’t have had that success if we followed the working model used in other places. This is the model we intend to move to. But that’s for the future.”
The model? Workers with no rights. More than one casual in my time there was fired on the spot because they were found, during one of the daily, and allegedly random, security checks, to have a mobile phone on the operational floor. Only the managers were allowed to carry phones, just as they were the only ones allowed to bring in water. You’d think it reasonably obvious that a manager might be able to steal, or arrange a theft via a mobile, as easily as a casual; but one of the managers explained the distinction to me while I was being checked: “Instances of theft among casuals are very high.” (Even if this is true, might a living wage rather than a subsistence wage go some way to solving the problem?)
Other people disappeared too, one after having two days off to look after her poorly child. If you’re a casual worker, of course, your manager can do that; he or she can flick you out of the building like balled-up KitKat paper from a desk. The most infamous of the departures was a guy who, when asked to come for a security check, told the manager to fuck off. After he was escorted from the building my line manager, who at the time I still thought—mistakenly—that I could talk to like an equal, came over to tell me about it. We agreed that he probably had something on him he didn’t want anybody to find. “But people do get upset about their human rights,” I said. “Maybe it was that.”
“It’s not an infringement of his human rights to be asked to turn out his pockets,” she bristled. “It’s in his contract.”
The Royal Mail hires now through an agency called Angard. At the end of the Christmas period every year the managers put forward names of suitable employees to Angard, who then, supposedly at their own discretion, take on those they like to fill in sickness and annual leave shifts at the mail centres. After long stints of working as an agency employee within the Royal Mail, you are then considered for permanent status. As our contract came to an end getting on the list was the talk of the workforce; nearly all of us, obviously, needed the money even if the work was boring us senseless. “It’s going to be a very small list,” one of the managers said to me, on the same day he talked about the model of work used at the PSC. He then went on to eulogise about the performance of one casual who’d stayed until four in the morning to help clear a backlog.
Which is fine; but not everybody can do that. And not just because they are old-fashioned, unhelpful jobsworths. The guy who did that was 25 years younger than me and 35 years younger than some of the others. People have families also. Is a labourer only worthy of his hire if, for minimum wage, he exists only to work?
I should have known then that my chances of getting on their exalted list and being put forward to work for Angard were fucked. I had done no overtime at all, primarily because I was scared that getting overly tired would affect my epilepsy. But my line manager had told me I would be on the list and I thought she was telling me the truth.
Then I really ruined it. On the last day the manager walked from person to person with feedback sheets. We were told to fill them in –“Be as honest as you like”—and sign them. While he waited to make sure that every person had completed one. Who ever heard of a feedback sheet that you sign your name to? Naively, I now realise, I wrote, “My only gripe is that we were not allowed to have water with us while we worked.” I could have written a hundred other things, but I was trying to be reasonable. The manager looked at it expressionlessly—he would make a good chess player—and slipped it into his pile of completed sheets.
A guy who had done nothing but bitch when we were in the canteen passed by. The manager stopped him and told him to fill out a form. He asked what he should write in the comments at the bottom. “Anything you want,” came the answer. “Be as honest as you like.” The guy shrugged insouciantly. “I have no complaints,” he said. “Everything is wonderful!” “Write that then,” said the manager, looking much more pleased with him than he was with me.
After the manager had moved on to tell the next victim to be as honest as they liked, I challenged the guy: “How could you say everything was wonderful? All you’ve done is slag everything off since you started here!” “Do you think those twats are gonna offer me any work after Christmas if I criticise them and put my name to it?” he asked. “Grow up.”
His words stung because I knew he was right, and the prediction turned out to be true. Several of the casuals I worked alongside at the PSC were invited by Angard to go to the mail centre in January; and despite my line manager’s promise that I was on the list, and her boss’ public declaration in the main entrance one day that I was doing a fine job on my station, I haven’t heard a word from Angard or the Royal Mail in three months. The price you pay in this country, it seems, for thinking you have a right to speak freely when you’re on the bottom of the economic ladder (a rung poets share with warehouse workers, cleaners and—bizarrely—care assistants) is social exclusion and penury.
And now the vacancies Angard advertise list, under requirements, “receptivity to change.” That’s that new model of work creeping slowly over the hill, the one that employees themselves will be forced to assist the managers in creating, by sheer economic necessity. It will be something like a strong cat putting itself to sleep, but what can you do? Food must be put on the table. It’s hard to take the longer view when your landlord is banging on the door for rent.
Posted by Bruce Hodder at Sunday, March 02, 2014
Saturday, March 01, 2014
|Virginia Cherrill with Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights"|
There are two scenes in all the movies I've ever watched that I would run into a burning house to save if the last copy were inside. One is the final moment of Eric Rohmer's "Le Rayon Vert," where Marie Riviere sits on the cliffside with a new love as the sun goes down over the sea. The other is the scene in "City Lights" where Virginia Cherrill's flower girl, her sight restored, sees Charlie Chaplin's tramp for the first time. Both moments are so beautiful and so moving I cry every time they're on.
A week or so ago Michelle and I were in Kettering, touring the charity shops as we do in search of rare books, movies and things for the flat; and we heard a violin playing mournfully. Someone nearby was busking in the rain. "God, that music so reminds me of 'City Lights'," I said, and began talking, probably for the hundredth time, about the scene with the flower girl.
"Le Rayon Vert" has an underlying theme about personal signs and symbols; how one needs to read them to live life freely. Two minutes after we'd heard the violin player we went into another charity shop and Michelle found "Chaplin's Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill" by Miranda Seymour (2009). How strange is that? I wasn't sure whether it would be my sort of book, but because of my love for that movie I bought it.
I'm happy to report that it's wonderful. It's not academic by any means, nor is it particularly incisive, and sometimes it's poorly written, or edited ( two paragraphs begin "confirmation of this..." on consecutive pages); but Virginia Cherrill's life in the ten years that the book broadly covers is so amazing the reader can't wait to find out what happens next.
Every film enthusiast has seen "City Lights" and knows about "the flower girl." Who knew that she married and divorced Cary Grant, had a non-committal affair with David Niven? (Consequently she loved watching "The Bishop's Wife" in later years.) Who knew that the same woman, bored by movies, went to England? was courted by a maharajah? rejected him because of the misogyny of Indian traditions and their brutality towards animals? Who knew she married a lord, and became "Mother" during WWII to a squadron of Polish fighter pilots?
Like every good biographer Seymour is a little bit in love with her subject. When you read the book you can't help liking Virginia Cherrill quite a bit yourself. It takes style to find fame and fortune in the palm of your hand and throw them both away. But Cherrill had a life of such adventure afterwards, and found riches again so quickly, it would be surprising if she missed Hollywood at all.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
|Life in Technicolour by Tegaki. Not in exhibition.|
But then I sparked up the capricious, prehistoric laptop someone gave me at uni three years ago and my mood improved. I had an invitation from artist/singer-songwriter Helen Verrill to go and read some poems at the Technicolour Dreams Art Exhibition in Northampton in March (the exhibition runs to the end of April). I thought about it for a while and then said yes. I need something nice to happen right now, and some practice before Woodfest in August wouldn't hurt.
Technicolour Dreams will be a showcase for the work of Helen and some of her artist friends. When I report on it again I'll share their names. It's being held in the old cinema, which I've written about here twice before--yes, the site of P.J. Proby's infamous trouser-splitting episode, and the show by the Beatles. I've always wanted to go inside and walk along the same corridors (possibly) that John Lennon walked.
The only problem with me reading there (I will be doing an evening show on March 14th) is that it's now owned by the Jesus Army. Which means that a large number of my poems, including "Jack the Bastard" and "Racist," probably aren't appropriate. Even if the Jesus Army wouldn't mind I wouldn't feel quite right, doing my usual potty-mouthed act in their place of worship. I'm sure I've got something good enough in the locker, though, that isn't liberally peppered with swear words. I'll have to start digging and see what I come up with.
Posted by Bruce Hodder at Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Saturday, February 22, 2014
The shameful treatment of Pussy Riot at the Winter Olympics was noticeably under-reported by Western media this week. We saw the pictures, but all of the debates about our responsibilities towards those feeling the whip hand of repressive Russian government were exhausted before the tournament had even started. Most of us would agree that the public flogging of a musical group engaged in a funny demonstration is ugly and excessive, but we would prefer to be able to focus on the curling thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin and his thugs know nothing about the true nature of rock and roll anyway. If they really want to neutralise whatever threat Pussy Riot pose to their nasty bigoted criminal rule, they should give the band a multi-million pound contract with a major label; and then let them headline big shows in Moscow and St Petersburg. Nothing sucks the juice out of rebellion like success.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
|Guy Pearce in "The Proposition," written by Nick Cave. A brutal, occasionally surreal Australian Western in which Pearce has to track down his own brother and kill him. How weird that the kid next door from "Neighbours" became such a wonderful actor.|
|Clint Eastwood ordering a gang of gunslingers to apologise to his mule in "A Fistful of Dollars," my favourite Eastwood pic even though there are better ones. My mate Salvatore used to do a great Italian-accented impersonation of this speech.|
|Al Pacino in "Serpico." I first saw this in '81 or '82 and something in it chimed with me immediately. Perhaps it was Serpico's rather unbending morality; or maybe just his loneliness. I didn't feel I fitted in with the crowd either.|
Posted by Bruce Hodder at Wednesday, February 19, 2014