A Ghost Story, July 2013
There’s a notion that’s been put out by people who have no experience of real work, that aspiring to something better is a form of snobbery. That in these times of austerity, you take what you are offered: no matter how cheap and demeaning; you accept a no-wage, zero hour, minimum wage job; you accept without complaint (because otherwise the structures that are there to protect your family from penury, will be taken away).
I started work at 16. A full-time job which involved manual labour and working outside. And I was lucky, because this was a time when people were not expected to be unpaid interns (the word did not exist in the UK). All my friends left school at 16 and started work. Many as engineering apprentices, low grade civil servants or as shop assistants.
Work was plentiful and there were real opportunities for advancement. Bright kids taken on by the larger industries, were often paid through universities: they were being groomed for management or more senior roles, but it was because they were intelligent, not because they went to the right school or were born into a certain class.
My job ended when the school term began in September. I continued working during the summers and Christmases (as a waiter and postman respectively); I paid my way because my parents were poor and there was no such thing as student loans or banks willing to lend to the likes of me.
Eventually I was sucked into the world of work, and work I certainly did. By then all the industry was gone in my home town, the place was decimated. So I moved from the North East to London, and never returned. There was a blip, sometime in the early nineties (during the last recession) when I tried unsuccessfully to move home. But I found the situation had worsened, and home was actually where all my adult life had been lived, London.
I’ve been lucky, sometimes. Worked for myself; worked in some desirable places; earned a good salary and paid myself a good salary. I’ve hired people, and trained people. I’ve worked through the night, and been on-call 24/7. I worked the weekend following Princess Diana’s death, because a documentary had to be re-jigged and I could facilitate that. And I got stuck in a job that paid more than most, which crushed creativity, and became a sort of prison.
The real value of my wages fell every year following 2000. The cost of living in London, outstripped any pay rises. And when the global financial crisis happened; I spent a couple of years watching people receive phone calls at their desk, and never return. I was asked to create procedures, systems and training programmes for an overseas office; a sadistic prelude to redundancy.
My call came just after the Christmas break. I left a workplace of eight years with nothing: all the accumulated knowledge was either in my head or on a company server. The possessions stored in drawers, I deliberately left. A security guard, made sure my exit was permanent.
I don’t look back on that last big employer with fondness; but they never pretended to be anything other than a money-making machine. The old fashioned industries of my youth, where men worked for 30 years are now about as real as Shangri-La ; they shimmer like a mirage.
The constant rhetoric about hard work is meaningless, when at the end of the day a huge portion of the population is mired in debt and miserably paid. London is now a bubble, where a certain class of people, enjoy well paid employment and have Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Hoxton as their playgrounds. As skilled employment evaporates, what’s left are: the nightclub hostess, the ridiculously named baristas, the shop workers and mini-cab drivers, the girl who hands out flyers on the street and the sad faced people who greet you in a local supermarket.
And what of the remainder, we are simply ghosts in the machine.