Notes From Office Britain
I wrote this in April 1996 during what was, with hindsight, a nervous breakdown. Truth be told, it felt like it at the time—it’s just easier to big up your depression with a bit of distance…
Anyway, this was how it was. Every observation was being made at the time of writing, as I alt-tabbed between PowerPoint and Notepad at work. (I also channelled my yearning for release into The Politics of the Body.) I first published it as a pamphlet, anonymously, then it appeared in the Neither Work Nor Leisure zine. It was dedicated to "all who have worked, are working, or will work in hateful jobs that kill our bodies. May we all live to see the day when there is no work, only play…"
Are my perceptions sharpening, heightened by some mantra-like quality of repetitive typing work and the glare of monitors and strip lights? Or is it just that the faces around here have been hardened and rigidified into easily-spotted emotional responses to the world?
A woman from (in)Human Resources (employees = coal) just around the corner walks past every now and then, and it amazes me more each time how set her basic expression is. She often tries to soften her harsh white neck with a flowing pastel-coloured piece of silky material tied around, but it only contrasts and heightens. Maybe that’s the point—there is a curious allure to her demeanour. But any attraction I feel is usually burst by an aching flash that tries to imagine and conjure up the feelings in her past that have led to her face being so stone-cold sculptured.
Projection plays its part here, no doubt. But I can’t help noticing the obviousness of all the varied masks worn around here. A woman working across the desk in Facilities has a very similar rigidity, but her set reaction to the world seems to be turned more inward. She seems painfully timid, and there’s a perpetually wounded undercurrent to her. I can’t imagine her belly-laughing, which is sad. Only Debbie, who sits next to me (separated by the oh-so pleasantly dark pink neck-high partitions), comes across more hopefully, constantly bubbling with girlish enthusiasm. Her nasal Yorkshire cry of "Y’alright?" to everyone who walks past is only occasionally unendearing. She’s bright and shining, despite the beginnings of strained wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and her commitment to her work seems strangely inspiring (I usually find that seeing a commitment to nine to five rituals inspires only hollow despair).
Aside from the masks that people try to pass off as faces, there are also the masks that are worn as a specific reaction to the utterly weird, unnatural situation of office work. Vast amounts of people of differing interests, wills, social classes, ambitions, needs and desires, thrown together under the tenuously homogenizing umbrella of Corporate Image—"teamwork", "people are our greatest asset", "one vision", and the insubstantial carrot-on-a-stick of internal prize-giving ("We did it! We collected a million pounds in credit payments!") The masks are worn, the roles are played, so the corporate mechanisms can continue to buzz and whirr. In fact, I often think of this as an acting job. I’m paid to come in here and play a role, audience and co-stars being the same people. When I go for a dump and lock the cubicle door, I always get the sensation of stepping off-stage.
But… the disguises are never air-tight, and the escaping emotional gases either filter out through office gossip and back-stabbing, or get turned within to plague the body and nerves.
My boss is a friendly enough guy, even if his apparent air-tightness is unnerving. We occasionally share a mild bout of humour in reference to some difficulty in the latest document that needs infinite amendments, and he’s been known to show interest in my life outside work. But one evening, after we had both stayed behind an hour late to finish a particular document, we ended up walking out of the building at the same time. I could feel that thin crust of a role I wear in work flaking off as we neared the door, and we barely exchanged a word. Outside, greeted by a view of Leeds’ cityscape crowned by a rich and glorious sunset, we parted. He didn’t even look at me when he muttered goodbye. It doesn’t make me sad in the slightest. What does make me sad is that such a vast amount of people are forced to invest their time and their energy in fashioning masks so they can just get along with people they wouldn’t even think of interacting with in everyday life. And that this paper-thin, toxic and soul-sapping illusion of transcendence of boundaries experienced in office work is perhaps the only taste of transcendence many people have. I live in a culture where two men share laughter under strip-lights and over a plastic desk, but shrink into entirely different worlds before the beauty of the sun sinking into the earth.
At the opposite end of this vast open-plan C-shaped office, there’s a big glass case. Inside, together with a wooden shield studded with smaller silver shields, is an ornate golden chalice. I’ve just been down there, surreptitiously stopping for a peep to remind me on the way to the toilets at the other end of the building. Underneath the chalice, floridly engraved on a plaque, is:
The Holy Grail of Excellence
Awarded to Sir Bernard Crooks
and his Valiant Operations Team.
‘Excellence’ is a key word in corporate word-image jargon. I thought Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were making it all up when they did their Rhodes Boyson piss-take. Both of them as rosy-cheeked, lamb-chopped, waffling Boysons, orgasmically repeating phrases like "Standards of accountability" and "Centres of excellence". It was Hugh Laurie’s blustery Boyson voice I heard when I first saw "centre of excellence" on one of the director’s slide shows I had to design. Along with other phrases like "risk excellence" and a whole slide occupied with the words "……Our people are enriched, cherished, motivated and prosperous," I had to laugh to myself. (The next slide made me sad, though—it shot me through with infectious hollowness. "Our biggest asset is… ‘THE LEEDS SPIRIT’" …there was a cheesy clip-art graphic of a crowd of literally faceless people, and underneath… "= Team Spirit," and on a the next line, "is unquenchable.")
Sir Bernard must have creamed in his pants (or in the chalice itself) when he got the fucking Holy Grail of Excellence. Perhaps the valiant attainment of his Operations Team was commemorated by some mid-office ceremony, waves of applause greeting the presentation of the chalice at its climax. Last time I was working here, everyone was undergoing ‘Service Excellence’ training. Like credit financiers really serve their customers.
Now they’ve put up inverted triangle SERVICE EXCELLENCE signs above those departments who have achieved this mystical height of superior functioning. ‘Excellence’ being the Holy Grail of corporate performance (or rather of corporate linguistic masturbation), this must have been the Holy Grail of Holy Grails. In fact, it is a symbol of a symbol, a twice-removed abstract cousin only tenuously related to reality, and utterly unrelated to actions that, to me, may constitute excellence. As a friend said last night, they’re not talking the same language as Bill & Ted.
And though I know that ‘Holy Grail’, as a concept and phrase, has passed into popular use and is universally understood in the very broad sense of "the ultimate prize or achievement", I still can’t help seeing this particular chalice as a very specific bastardization of one of the most profound archetypes to be found in English mythology. What heightens this is my conviction that the National Lottery (the presence of which is strong in office culture) is a conscious conspiracy to bastardize, mock, and ultimately defuse the most potent return-to-Eden myth-structure this country has.
During the eighties, the Tories did a brilliant job of making it absolutely clear that Britain is truly a Waste Land. They rubbed salt into the Wounded King’s gaping thigh. And now, when our need is at its greatest, Camelot (plc) returns! But instead of healing this wasted land, it plasters it over with a thick layer of banknotes-cum-bandages, blotting out awareness with cash-lust, scratch-card fetishes and the televisually-synchronized stimulation of millions of adrenal glands. "Whom does the Grail serve?" is the mythical question that heals the King and the Land, which can more prosaically be seen as clear, sudden and crystalline awareness, a direct confrontation with the reality of the Waste Land—perhaps leading to acceptance and that over-theologized humdinger, redemption.
Here, in a tastefully decorated modern office, replete with plants and mineral water dispensers, I can sense the cover-up, feel the decay and rot beneath layer upon layer of solidified denial. It’s a place where I’m forced to brush against what is, sadly, contemporary British culture: nine-to-five work, clubbing at the weekend, multiplex cinemas designed like efficient slaughterhouses, nervous breakdowns, choked motorways, MacDonald’s… and National Lottery syndicates.
Two days ago the self-confessed reincarnation of Arthur Pendragon was arrested at Newbury in the midst of the protest to halt the destruction of ancient woodland to make way for an ineffectual bypass. He was arrested for carrying an offensive weapon—his broadsword (aka Excalibur). And the Holy Grail stands in an office of the consumer finance division of one of the world’s largest multinationals. I haven’t a fucking clue what that says about Britain, but I suspect it means we’re in trouble.
In the unconscious, cerebral is genital. The word cerebral is from the same root as Ceres, goddess of cereals, of growth and fertility; the same root as cresco, to grow, and creo, to create. Onians, archaeologist of language, who uncovers lost worlds of meaning, buried meanings, has dug up a prehistoric image of the body, according to which the head and genital intercommunicate via the spinal column: the gray matter of the brain, the spinal marrow, and the seminal fluid are all one identical substance, on tap in the genital and stored in the head.
Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body
The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens they need A KICK IN THE SEAT OF THE PANTS.
blurb on cover of a business training manual seen in my employers’ Education Centre
The "prehistoric image of the body" unearthed by Richard Onians testifies to a lack of schism between thought and sexuality in archaic cultures, and forms a skeletal map of a persistently recurring model of human experience of the cosmos. The three-levelled shamanic plan of existence embraces the Underworld, Middleworld and Upperworld—less holistically seen in the later, and confused, Heaven, Earth and Hell. The shamanic map is usually centred around a natural axis mundi, centre of the world, like a tree or a mountain. One may speculate as to whether the first shamans derived this map from observation of natural phenomena or from inward perception of the structure of the body, but ultimately this is pointless. It seems natural to assume that the genesis of this model lies in both phenomena, for its obvious secret is that it describes the fundamental identity of the human body and the universe. It seems to be the basic form underlying the varying chakra systems from around the world. The base of the spine, or root (spine = tree), is associated with sexuality, basic impulses of life and creative forces—corresponding to the Underworld’s traditional association with the generative furnaces of nature (alienation from nature thus turning the Underworld into Hell). The trunk—stomach, solar plexus or heart—corresponds to Middleworld, the earthly realm. And somewhere in or above the skull lies the Upperworld, world of gods and archetypes. The spine branches out into the myriad branches, twigs and leaves of the neural network.
Christopher Hyatt touched something important when he said in his Undoing Yourself that you should live from the gut so that you can use both ends (see also the Amerindian concept of ‘speaking from the heart’). This ideal of balanced human behaviour, cerebrality and sexuality utilized and co-ordinated at gut/heart level, interestingly reflects the transhuman spiritual condition of the shaman, walker between worlds, who has gained access to both Under- and Upperworlds, yet lives in this world, mediating between these simple divisions of reality.
Throughout the esoteric traditions of the world you will find variations on these themes, the three-levelled nature of both the universe and the psychoplasmic body, and their ultimate unity. From the cosmic body-maps of Tantric art to the Body of Christ and his post-execution trip down to Hell and up to Heaven; from the Siberian shaman’s ascent of the World Tree to the Indian yogi’s raising of the Kundalini snake-energy; from the semen, grey matter and spinal fluid of Onians to the past, future and NOW of thee Psychick Cross.
And here, in a microcosmic reflection of how far ‘progress’ has tried to override nature, or just go completely against it, we find a business training manual that says (let us remind ourselves): "The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on." The repression of sexuality is complete, the domination of the grey matter end of the spectrum total. Sexual energy is sublimated into the brain, which is in turn used for brain-numbing tasks that are an insult to our being. The ‘other end’, down there, is just a portable cushion, supporting the body so the mind can more easily numb itself.
Now, according to this manual, some people get the ends "mixed up". Sitting on your head isn’t a widespread problem, I think, but people getting ideas, even feelings, about playing about with their own and other people’s bodies for pleasure… this can represent a serious threat to keeping it all under Control. Of course, we’re lucky enough to have loads of handy conventions through which we can safely channel this energy, if our job doesn’t drain it all.
But BE WARNED. If you start ‘mixing up’ your bodily poles too often, you’ll get a good kick in the pants. Experiences of polymorphous perversity, full bodily pleasure, are punishable by death.
This job is perfect for me, and I for it. I’ve lost my soul and found my home.
It now happens that I look forward to coming here—as long as I’m given work to keep my fingers flowing over the keyboard. If I’m left with nothing to do for a while, the remnants of my spirit, lashing out at any aspect of me it can find, cause me too much pain. Some acid philosopher has said that ‘Bad Trips’ are caused by the experience of viewing the limited, petty ego through the lens of your own Higher Intelligence. Feels like I’m getting a real good look these days, but the experience is ever more frictionless, an elusive, floating numbness. My Higher Intelligence is fed up of fighting this rigid snarling bunch of defences, and has left me for a while. Maybe merciful—would I be able to stand the harshness of seeing myself through its lens every day? So the mercy of the universe has dropped me into this temporary realisation of my fundamental identity as the perfect office worker.
As I said, I’m perfect for this job, temperamentally ideal. Last time I worked here I felt like an actor, an alien, an agent. I couldn’t believe these people were letting me, subversive me, have potential access to all the company’s mainframe drives and files. On the last day I got round to taking the risk of doing some photocopying (they’re very tight on this sort of thing), and nearly got caught, but walked out triumphant, never to see the place again. However, debts still needed paying, and the temp agency phoned me, the company wanted me, my skills, to save them from a mess. Perfect for the job… So, I’m here again, drawn back to my place, same desk, same job, different me.
Last time, I felt horror at the deadness in all the bodies around me who had surrendered their energy to the Corporation. I recognized the process in myself, too, which deepened my resolve to reclaim my energy and melt the frozen river.
NOW—I feel like an alien with my ‘friends’. I was a double agent after all, and now my True Self, energy repressed and sacrificed to the mysterious operations of Office Britain plc, is revealed. I feel at home typing out other people’s words, and I’m at a vague loss when I reach my house and have nothing to do. Even outside the office, my True Self manifests, unable to make a positive stand on anything important, unspontaneous, unimaginative, unstable, timid, just a cancerous agent among those who are naturally themselves. I drain them using the fabricated threads of companionship my Cover Self has woven around them. If they ignore me, it confirms my status as a fake, an outsider to integrity and value. If they try to help me… HA! They can’t imagine the tangled nets of lies and scared fakery I have at my disposal. I will find it easy to convince them of my essential lowliness, and woe to those who would double-bluff. I’ll shrivel up and turn away if you try to agree with my withering view of myself. I’m a black hole employed by the Corporation, my body is cold and unyielding, my embrace is uncomfortable. I’m lonely, I need warmth. Please, don’t come near me.
After about two solid weeks of unadulterated GREY, no sun, no cloud formations, definitely no sky, it’s happened. I noticed a curious brightness to the GREY walking to the bus stop this morning, enough to make things different. And walking towards the business park, I actually glimpsed the outline of the sun’s disc through the GREY. Sat here at my desk (sorry, workstation), it was quite stirring to see some differentiation happening in that dull blanket, then… Shit! The sun rays, breaking through, making everything haloed… a secretary casually walks over to the windows and presses the button to bring the automated blinds down… dzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Can’t see the monitor with the damn sun behind it. Shut it out. I relish the squinting, and turn up the contrast on my screen.
Perhaps even more lovely than the sunlight are the clouds. Probably because you can see them, look at them as objects. Beautiful grey fluffy walruses and candy mountains lined with shining silver. They’re drifting away now, as I look out of the one unblinded window, chased off by hefty weights of dark, dark, grey cloud, with the smeared bottom edges that prophesy rain. Maybe a real rain will come and wash all the scum out of my head.
I feel really guilty about writing that shit about the woman from (in)Human Resources. I have had my words in my head every time I see her, their meanings projected invisibly over her features. And something in me resisted this, scornful of my readiness to box up someone else’s emotional life in words as readily as I do my own. I started seeing her doing other things than walking past my desk with that slow, precise, purposeful stride. I started noticing the gentle bounce in her walk, and appreciated the fact that she was unhurried and focused. So many women trot past frantically, all their muscles buzzed into jerky near-paralysis by Chasing The Corporate Carrot. I even heard her voice, as she walked past with a colleague—it’s a warm but defined Leeds accent. And every now and then she would smile, the ‘mask’ quickly breaking into curves, her eyes shining. She’s attractive.
She’s not really from (in)Human Resources, though she spends a lot of time there. She works for a temping agency which this company has made a big deal with, big enough for the agency to have a few people in here virtually full-time. It’s a French-based agency called ECCO, a name I playfully allowed to weird me out when I tried to get a job through them, as I had previously only known ‘ECCO’ as John C. Lilly’s impersonal term for what others may call God, Brahman, Wakan Tanka, or The Management. Earth Coincidence Control Office. Being ’employed by ECCO’ takes on hilariously grandiose resonances. And to weird things up a bit more, the abbreviated name of the multinational of which this company is a part is GE. Ge happens to be the Thracian form of the Greek goddess Gaia… the most common current name for Mother Earth. Working in GE for ECCO! Together with the Grail sat at the other end of this office and Camelot plc, this whole scene seems like a set-up designed by Carl Jung and John Major to baffle and subvert the psyches of unbalanced mystics. Only humour and humility saves me, that and knowing there’s only three weeks left…
A week and a half left. I asked one of my boss’s secretaries yesterday if I could work another week, because that would just clear my debts—my monetary guilt. She didn’t know. My boss phoned from his meeting in London—she popped the question to him, and I had a minor panic feeling hearing her say, "Oh, so you want him indefinitely, at least until the end of April?" My fragile mental state has left me with a disturbing feeling that I’m stuck here, that this is my fucking vocation, to be a nobody spineless temp. I often forget that it’s up to me whether I stay. I felt like someone had signed my contract behind my back. I quickly told her I could only really manage to stay until the end of next week, because I’ve got so much to do (which I have, but that doesn’t matter; I want OUT of here as soon as my debts are cleared).
Now that the sun shines daily, and the end is in sight, I am beginning to taste my non-corporate self, my own body, not the legal and financial body I’ve been a cell in for the past few weeks of eternity.
And still I feel slips. My veganism has lapsed since being here. Cheese in the canteen. What the fuck? Today, after eight months of not smoking, I had a red Marlboro. Lisa, Becca and I sat outside, luxuriating in our extended lunch break and giggling like kids excited to have a school lesson outside on the grass. I’ve been having vague inclinations to smoke recently, and today I went for the "I’ll have one to remind myself I don’t want to smoke" line of irrationality. It tasted nice, felt weird in between my fingers a bizarre appendage), and made me feel quite sick afterwards. Irrationality worked. I got into office gossip for the first time.
This whole trip, this whole descent into deadness, and my hidden longing for deadness, I don’t know yet how it stands, in the balance of my life. I often think of J.G. Ballard, that warrior of the imagination, doing battle on the fringes of modern, corporate and suburban lunacy. He lives in Shepperton, surrounded by the tarmac smells, angular concrete sights and stale consumer environments of road and airport culture. He sees suburbs as dangerous places—you don’t get mugged, but some passing corporation might steal your soul. (I get the worst of both worlds—I got mugged a few weeks ago on the highly dodgy Hyde Park, and come here to this business park every day to have my soul methodically drained and sapped.) Ballard rhapsodizes about Thatcher when she’s on TV, follows the Royal Family with the eye of an obsessive research scientist, and launches into expressing his desire to have thermonuclear weapons stationed behind his garden at any mention of CND. His playfulness and irony plunge into Britain’s cancers with the reckless resolve of the proto-shaman who surrenders hirself to hir initiatory sickness. Hoping to come through the other side, finding the meaning of the disease, conquering the sickness by becoming the sickness. He hopes to double-bluff the Apocalypse by affirming it so thoroughly and methodically that its destructiveness is negated.
Can I hope for a similar victory? When is resistance necessary, and when is it the resistance that traps us? When I surrender to the pleasure of a schedule laid out for me, the insidious comfort and niceties of the corporate environment, do I lose part of my soul? Or do I shred it and tear it when I resist, trying to hold onto the walls on my descent? Can I exorcize my ignored childhood desires for homogeneities—to smother my pain—through indulging them to the point where my unconscious, my body, my natural instincts for survival and healthy chaos, rise up and quell the subtle dominion of Thanatos?
I have felt some curious little satoris of resignation over the weeks, the rubble of my collapsing life mounting up around me until I give up trying to break out. Sometimes the giving up is followed by just more pain and shame, sometimes there’s a surprising peace. In the midst of what I think should be a most hideous depression, I find pleasure in small things, and easily share warm, funny exchanges with others. It often happens that the momentum of my self-hate refuses this unexpected break in the clouds, and angrily works to conjure up more clouds, magically regenerating itself in defiance of this illogical moment of grace. But I’m starting to see that self-hate is exhaustible; just don’t get drawn into wrestling with it, and it wrestles itself into submission.
That woman. The ECCO woman, she really does work for God. Maybe all that stone-cold mask shit was just a heap of confused projection after all. Or maybe she’s just smiling and talking more these days. She radiates as she walks past, and she brightens my days.
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