Tuesday, 29 November 2011

George Harrison day by day

Ten years ago today, George Harrison died. I thought I'd commemorate this by collating just a few of the many rather charming quotidian references to Harrison in Michael Palin's diaries.
Saturday, September 6th 1980

George is mending an electric hedge-cutter which cut through its own flex. As George tinkers in homely fashion with his garden equipment ('I was an electrical apprentice,' he assured me. 'For three weeks.') the boys and I swim in the buff in his swimming pool, surrounded by lifelike voyeuristic models of monks and nuns.

Saturday, January 9th 1982
Call George in Henley at nine o'clock. After a few rather terse exchanges he says 'You're obviously not a Dallas fan, then' and I realise I've interrupted a favourite viewing.
Sunday, June 16th 1985
George H calls from Australia. He's in a Sydney hotel room (it's 2.30) and for some reason announces himself as Jane Asher. He sounds at first rather sleepy and, as the call goes on, rather drunk. I'm reminded of GC's inexplicable midnight calls, except there is no invective here, just a rather sad GH reflecting on the joys of chewing 'Nicorette' gum, and anxious to tell me that he's given up smoking, and drugs, and his only vice is Carlton Lager, three of which he's just consumed. He wants to know if I will come to China with him and his acupuncturist next year.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Enter your pin please

Reading Clive James's new book A Point of View, an anthology of his ten-minute talks on Radio 4 from a few years ago, I found this passage:

'People really do define themselves by their jobs, even when their job is humble. That's why the lady behind one of the many counters of the department store proclaims her ownership of the goods you wish to purchase from her. ('I've only got it in these two colours at the moment but I should have the complete range in again by Saturday morning.') At the supermarket, the person on the cash desk will ask you to enter your pin number even after you have already begun to enter it. ('Can you enter your pin number for me?') The person is really telling you that he or she is an indispensable part of the process. We should try not to smile knowingly: in the same position we would do it too. And in any kind of cooperative venture, to make light of somebody's job is the quickest way of making an enemy.'

Work defines us. 'Why do half the things we do,' asked Thomas Traherne, 'when one could sit under a tree?' But sitting under a tree would soon get boring, wouldn't it? Thoreau said we should not calculate our wealth by how much we earn or own, but by how much free time we have left over when our basic needs have been met. Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays, seems to have this Thoreauvian idea of work, because he refers to his large salary as 'compensation', as though it  were keeping him from more important stuff he could be getting on with. But Thoreau always seemed to me to be pretty confident, if not overconfident, about finding things to do with his free time.  

I have been on a research fellowship this year so I haven't been doing any of my normal teaching or admin. In September, although I was officially on leave, I kept being interrupted by knocks on the door by people who didn't know I wasn't officially supposed to be here. But people twigged soon enough: the knocks became more spread out, the phone stopped ringing, emails became less insistent. Much office conversation is spontaneous and accidental, and people don't stop by unless they need to. An MIT study conducted in the 1970s found that office workers are four times more likely to talk if they are sat six rather than 60 feet apart, and that people seated more than 75 feet apart hardly speak at all. We like to imagine we are in some way indispensable; in fact everything goes fine, if not better, in our absence. It is salutary to get this little inkling of a semi-posthumous existence when our jobs will go on without us.

Absorption in daily activities, even if they are as meaningless as the emptying of an in-tray, is a way of giving our lives rhythm and pattern, and the idea that there is something better we could be doing with our time is perhaps a comforting delusion. 'Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame', reflects Mrs Dalloway. 'All the more … must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries …'

According to Clive James, the most tragic line in Shakespeare is 'Othello's occupation's gone.'

Mundane quote for the day: 'Our life becomes divided between "work" time and "free" time. Both are part of that grand illusion, the Spectacle. Within the society of Spectacle all time is spectacular time. Sometimes we are the commodity and sometimes the consumer. In our "free" time we buy back what we made during our "work" time. "Work" time and "free" time serve each other.' - Guy Debord

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A single oak tree

I’ve posted before about the work of the painter Stephen Taylor, who spent three years in a field in West Bergholt, East Anglia painting the same oak tree in different lights, seasons and weathers. Now he has collected much of this work in a book entitled Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Painters (Princeton Architectural Press). ‘The branches from the lower part of the trunk had been pollarded (cut back), so its upper part seemed to float,’ writes Taylor, explaining how he chose the tree. ‘From the field in winter, it had a dramatic, clear structure against the sky. In summer, it was a magnet for birds, and as the sun crossed the sky it reflected sunlight in such a way that you did not see its shaded side, making the tree look quite flat. The whole thing lit up like a colour-changing emblem.’

As the series progresses you see the tree losing and regaining its leaves, developing a film of snow and being populated by crows, and the colour of the surrounding field changing dramatically as the crops are rotated. Taylor started painting the oak in June 2003 – looking for a ‘still point of the turning world’ after the death of his parents and a close friend - and finished in August 2006, sitting in a crop of rape when the seed pods were a garish green.

Taylor’s oak is, he estimates, 250 years old. There is something about the sturdiness of the oak that appeals to the English imagination. Ironically, as Richard Mabey reminds us in his book Beechcombings, much of this dates back to the birth of scientific forestry in the late seventeenth century. In Sylva: A Discourse of Forest Trees, published in 1664 to encourage tree-planting to provide timber for the navy’s warships, John Evelyn was probably the first to use the phrase ‘hearts of oak,’ which David Garrick later reworked for his 1759 sea shanty, now the Royal Navy’s official marching tune: ‘Hearts of oak are our ships / Hearts of oak are our men.’

As he points out, Taylor was painting just a few miles from Constable Country. Interestingly, Constable gave his famous painting of a cart and horse standing in a millpond the title, ‘Noon’. It was someone else who named it ‘The Haywain’. Artists, aware of the changing light, are far more sensitive to the time of day than ordinary people are: Monet’s Rouen cathedral series, which Taylor’s oak series has echoes of, are meant to show it at different times of the day and year.

John Mollon, professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has described Taylor’s work as ‘parsing nature’. I wish I could notice the day as it passes as lovingly and perceptively as Taylor does in these paintings. My days hurry by in a homogeneous haze of fluorescent strip lighting and computer screen glow.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Quiet pleas

I wrote this for the Guardian a few years ago:

On 11 November 1937, an ex-serviceman, Stanley Storey, interrupted the two minutes’ silence at the Cenotaph. Breaking through the crowd and running into the road, he screamed “All this hypocrisy!” and something else that sounded like “Preparing for war!” Half a dozen policemen gave chase and, just yards from the Prime Minister, clambered on top of him and muffled his cries.

It turned out that Storey was an escapee from a mental asylum. But his shattering of the two minutes’ silence struck a chord. The Daily Mirror argued that the silence was now “a silence of shared impotence … what is the use of paying homage when every day we drift nearer and nearer to another war?” According to a 1938 Mass-Observation survey, 43 per cent of people were against continuing the tradition of the silence.

Nearly seventy years later, however, the silence remains unbroken. The British Legion, which has long campaigned for its observance on Armistice Day proper as well as Remembrance Sunday, is organising a big event this Saturday on the same scale as the Cenotaph service: an hour-long ceremony in Trafalgar Square which will culminate in the two minutes’ silence, followed by an RAF flypast, the Last Post and the scattering of poppies in the fountains.

The ebbing and flowing of observation of the silence has always mirrored political anxieties. In 1919, with much of Europe in revolutionary turmoil, it seemed like a good idea to have a secular ritual that could unite the people without demanding too much of them. “Capital and Labour were as one for two minutes,” the Times wrote approvingly of what was then called the Great Silence, “and the eloquence of the agitator was stayed by an impelling force.” The government moved the silence to Remembrance Sunday after World War II because it felt that commemorating the exact time of the 1918 Armistice was disrespectful to the dead of the more recent war. The revival of the silence on Armistice Day dates from 1996, following a two-year-long, rather bullying crusade by the tabloids to get the BBC and high street stores to observe it. The crusade began as a backlash against John Major’s ill-advised plans to “celebrate” the anniversary of the D-Day landings with spam-fritter frying competitions.

But the two minutes’ silence is more than simply a vehicle for the righteous anger of tabloid editors – partly because it hauntingly confirms John Cage’s observation that “there is no such thing as silence”. Jonty Semper’s CD, Kenotaphion, collects together recordings of the silences held at the Cenotaph since 1929. In each case the chimes of Big Ben are followed not by silence but by ambient noise: birdsong, distant traffic, shuffling feet, babies crying, the rustling of leaves. This is why the BBC lobbied hard in the 1920s to broadcast the silence from the Cenotaph. It knew that simply shutting down the airwaves for two minutes would not have the same impact as this resonant near-silence. The silence was a paradoxical by-product of mass society: a temporary stilling of the chaos of urban life which required all the accoutrements of modernity, like radio time signals and newspaper propaganda campaigns, to make it work.

Collective silence is now the default option to commemorate events of very different import, from the Indonesian Tsunami to the death of ex-footballers. No one is sure what these silences are for. So we have arguments about “silence inflation” - whether to raise the bar to three minutes for large-scale disasters – or wonder if it is more appropriate to clap than stand there silently. We seem to want silence to carry a freight of meaning that it can never bear, and to prescribe what effect it should have in a way that is likely to lessen its impact. The two minutes’ silence on Armistice Day, initially intended as a one-off, became a national tradition precisely because its meanings were so unstable and various. As one journalist wrote in 1919, it was an opportunity to unite in “thanksgiving, rejoicing, pity, life-long pride and grief”. The silence works by maintaining a delicate balance between public coercion and private reflection. All it requires of us is that we are silent.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Britain in a Day

Today, Saturday 12 November, the directors Ridley Scott and Morgan Matthews have invited Britons to capture their day on video camera and to upload their clips to a dedicated YouTube Channel:


The resulting archive will be edited into a film that will be shown in cinemas and on BBC2 next year.

It follows Life in a Day, a similarly crowdsourced film about a single day – Saturday 24 July 2010 - lived all over the world. They received 85,326 clips from 198 countries, from Burkina Faso to French Polynesia. The film, which was shown on TV a few weeks ago, opens with the sound of a thousand concurrent breaths. Highlights include the Mexicans who produce a time-lapse film of the life of a pizza, from the dough being kneaded to the empty plate being washed up, and the man who takes viewers on a tour of Roanoke, Virginia, stopping to appraise his favourite lifts.

There is of course an Ur-text for these films and other similar projects: their inspiration is the Mass Observation Day Surveys, the first of which was on Friday 12 March 1937. Volunteers were asked simply to describe what happened to them on the 12th day of each month, however mundane. On 12 March, in Liverpool, a young office worker accidentally knocked down an elderly woman on his bike, and a labourer told him off for not ringing his bell. He went out at lunchtime to buy a hat for his wedding, and then ate at a Lyons Corner House with a friend. In a Birmingham suburb, a housewife was awakened from a strange dream about the author Aldous Huxley by her five-year-old son singing nursery rhymes. She waited for a man to call to read the gas meter, before going out to return some library books. In Northumberland, an accountant rose at 7.50am and decided to postpone shaving because he was going to a dance in the evening. At lunchtime he withdrew some money from the bank. On the evening train home, he noticed his fellow passengers had made little circles in the steamed-up windows with their coat sleeves so they could look out, which reminded him off ‘wiping the bloom off a plum’.

As the Belgian situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem once wrote: ‘There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies.’ One problem: I don’t have a video camera. Enjoy filming, the rest of you.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The early editions of the evening papers had startled London with enormous headlines: “Remarkable story from Woking.”’ – H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Under the office

I’ve posted before about Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s wonderful book, The Office, a novel-cum-essay published in 1970 which is really more like a prose poem about those ‘minute rhythms like the slow breathing of the IN Tray, emptying and filling, filling and emptying’. Jonathan wrote to me to tell me that he has now written a play, Under the Office, based on this earlier book, which is to be performed at the Stahl Theatre at Oundle School between 24 and 26 November. It’s a bit far for me to go but if any quotidianist is reading this and in that area …

Office life is never news because, however unfulfilling it might be, it seems unproblematic and apolitical. Office politics are not real politics; they are petty, gossipy, personal, unchangeable. Office life is invisible to anyone who isn’t a part of it. According to the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the dynamics of modern, deregulated economies are increasingly hidden in this way: ‘The place of the visible character of work, concentrated in factory halls and tall buildings, is taken by an invisible organization of the firm.’ City-centre offices might serve as the company’s brand statement, with their high-rise towers, mirror-glass walls and welcoming atria. But the essential drudgery takes place where land and labour are cheap: in anonymous, shed-like buildings in out-of-town office parks, surrounded by parking lots and security barriers, without even a logo outside identifying the company.

Since this kind of mundane existence is how many people fill their days, it is odd that we reflect so little on its history and politics. With a few exceptions, like C. Wright Mills and David Lockwood in the 1950s, sociologists have steered clear of office life, preferring to focus on more obvious forms of social inequality. It has mainly been left to creative writers to cover this terra incognita. In Joshua Ferris’s novel, Then We Came to the End, rituals like ‘the great unsung pastime of American corporate life, the wadded paper toss’ continually subvert the managerial insistence that our working lives be creative and meaningful.

After World War II, William H. Whyte noted the rise of a management style that sought moral legitimacy through its emphasis on the employee’s ‘personality’ and ‘soul’. Whyte’s ‘organization man’ was suspicious of authoritarian leadership and viewed the group as the appropriate space for negotiating and resolving problems. But as Whyte noted perceptively, ‘if every member simply wants to do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything’. He invented a term, ‘groupthink’, to describe the forms of irrational collective psychology that developed in office cultures in which the overriding aim was consensus.

By the early 1980s, human-relations management had mutated into an evangelical new concept: corporate culture. In their book In Search of Excellence (1982), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argued that the best companies had strong cultures, in which all employees felt part of the firm and bought into a common ideal. This book, the first management text to make the New York Times bestseller list, appeared at an opportune moment – in the middle of a recession in America, when the Japanese work model of company songs and other rituals of belonging seemed to be the future. Britain was also going through a recession at this time, as well as supposedly suffering from the more chronic ‘British disease’ of mediocre management and demotivated workers. Fostering a strong corporate culture, particularly by urging workers to have a positive, can-do attitude, soon became a ruling motif in transatlantic business life.

But the decline of formal office hierarchies comes at the cost of uncertainty about where work begins and ends. The academic Andrew Ross, who spent several months in a trendy, Manhattan media firm in the late 1990s, calls it ‘no-collar’ work. Its first-name etiquette and dress-down culture tend to blur the distinctions between the office and our social lives, reframing work as an ‘existential challenge’ and enlisting ‘employees’ freest thoughts and impulses in the services of salaried time’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘An unreasonable world, sacrificing bird-song and tranquil dusk and high-golden noons to selling junk – yet it rules us. And life is there. The office is filled with thrills of love and distrust and ambition.’ - Sinclair Lewis, The Job