Monday, 6 June 2011

Rat Race Misery and the Lies of Adolescence

It's worth re-iterating that the everyday mechanics of the rat race have never really appealed to this bunny. However, even I was startled when during what had been a very long, dispiriting and stressful day last week, I could feel the faintest drop of a tear coming from the back of my left eye. Why was I so depressed and downtrodden? Ok it was an afternoon when more had been thrown in the same direction than you could reasonably ask one man to handle, but everything had been just about dealt with and there had been nothing hostile, dangerous or unpleasant to take care of. No shouting matches, personal shit or name calling, and an absence of anything you might see as stratospheres above the pay grade.

Though the work I do is not exactly the sort to rapidly increase the circulation and make you leap out of bed at 5am, it is a paid job at a time in which there are a great many who would give a multitude of limbs for such a privilege. The people immediately around me are genuine types without exception and there are no imminent causes for alarm that I know of. I found myself asking, "c'mon Daz - what's your problem?".

Having pondered this question over the weekend and looked inward, outward and in a plethora of other directions I first came to the conclusion that none of this is the fault of any of those I work with on a daily basis. I'm glad I met many of them and don't currently have the displeasure of having to deal with anyone who would fall into the 'not if I can avoid it' category. The culture of many organisations is the same, blighted by the ten do's and the thousand do not's along with the petty, small and downright fucking stupid rules dreamed up by a bunch of wannabe traffic wardens who happen to wear a suit. You're gonna have to put up with this shit in most places, so it would be disingenuous of me to cite it as anything more than a marginal factor as to why my mojo got as low as it did last week.

Eventually, the interrogation turned towards the mirror. Is it actually your own fault that you feel as battered, broken and bruised as you sometimes do by the constant grind of racing rats? After much soul-searching and reflection, the jury of my conscience reached an inconclusive verdict - possibly, but it's complicated. The complication lies in the sense of having been misled, lied to and let down - that you kept your side of an understanding that existed between a triumvirate of yourself, the authority figures of your formative years and the man upstairs, only to see another party renege on their part of the equation further down the line. The possibly stems from the suggestion that perhaps I should have just have forgotten about the garden path down which I was led and understood that the words I was told as a teenager were tools of manipulation, a means by which you would voluntarily pin yourself in your box. After all, they can't help it - it's what control freaks do, isn't it?.

People making this observation are in all probability, ultimately right, but for a long time I thought we had a deal. My understanding from what my parents and teachers told me as a child and then a teenager was that making some sort of future for yourself essentially broke down to a series of trade-offs. I still remember now my physics teacher explaining to the class that the basic choice was between getting our heads down and blossoming into beautiful academic swans, or throwing our lives away by being 'Jack the lad's' (his exact words). As this was repeated over and over again at school and again ad nauseum at home, the picture being built up was both abundantly clear and exactly the one that their brushes had sought to produce.

Bury your head in books, resist all temptations and vices and a land of milk, honey and opportunity awaits in your late teens or early twenties. However, succumb to the triple lure of drink, drugs and the flesh (they say good things always come in threes) and the best you can expect is a job stacking shelves for three pounds an hour (no minimum wage back then of course) and a weekend spent watching roaches climb the wall of your council flat (apologies to Mr Jarvis Cocker). There is a nice mix of carrot and stick in that proposal and this bunny fell for it hook. line and sinker. I hardly ever left the house, refused to attend parties and suchlike, and studied furiously, often having to be told by those same parents to put said books down late at night.

It all felt like it was worth it at the time - I was merely upholding my half of the bargain and had genuinely been led to believe that by working harder than almost anyone at such a young age that a massive payday would arrive shortly after the eternal cramming of useless information into my head had ended. To quote Morrissey, I "lived for the written word, and people came second or possibly third". There was also the very exciting suggestion that life as an adult was more meritocratic, that who you knew was somehow less important and that one's abilities and talents alone would be the basis on which they were ultimately judged. While these promises and the hopes that came with them got superhuman efforts out of my growing body, I would eventually come to see both as the devious lines of bullshit that they were.

It was probably at around seventeen that I first realised that a I'd fallen for a sleight of hand. All of a sudden there were other factors other than basic aptitude being brought into everyday questions. It was clear that some people had contrived to become acquainted with every single person they had bumped into, and that the art networking was a more likely way to get ahead in life than actually being good at something. I began to resent all of the nights I'd spent indoors memorising passages from Shakespeare, when others my age had been out enjoying themselves, doing things they apparently should not have been and undergoing rites of passage. For the first time, life in the 'real world' looked frightening and littered with puzzles to which a forensic mind and a little common courtesy were no answer. This was not the main reason I packed in education of my own volition at eighteen, but it was part of the equation. I simply didn't know who or what to believe anymore.

A job would at least provide the comfort of money in the bank and get the parents off my case now that I was 'contributing' to their household. Those early experiences of the rat race brought other things too, and most of them were less than positive. The cliques, the bullshit that is management-speak, the rise of the mediocre whose faces happened to fit, and the enduring triumph of obedience over ability are like a stake through the heart to someone who has been led to believe that aptitude really is the only thing that matters. Moving to another building where the same culture reigns supreme solves the square root of nothing, so the conclusion I came to some time ago is that only doing the writing that I am right now, but for a living, will bring this bunny a sense of much-needed closure.

Winning your sympathy has not been the aim here - as many a bar-room philosopher would observe upon reading this tale, "you're not the first person this has ever happened to". Bar-room philiosophers tend not to be nearly as intelligent as they think they are but on this occasion he or she would be quite right. I wonder how many people have flushed their formative years down the toilet on the basis of what can at best be described as a broken promise and if we're being more to the point, a blantant and wicked lie. Maybe the reason I'm writing this is to reach out to anyone in that 15-17 bracket who is lost and unsure as to what the point is.

So what exactly would my advice to people of that age group be? Well the first thing worth noting is that I cannot tell you to do anything, and feel free to read what I put on the table, smile, quietly mutter the words, "fuck him" and walk away. The next question is:- are you prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed in the everyday streetfight that is the rat race? I'm not talking about the long hours or time away from the family you might choose to have. I'm referring of course to sacrifices of soul - the networking, the games, the politics, knowing whose big corporate arse to kiss, who to suck up to, which people to tread cautiously with and when to plunge the machete into the back of someone who is not expecting it. If the answer to that question is 'yes' then I'll stop wasting your time and admit that this probably isn't the site for you.

For those that remain, my advice would be simple - put life first and education a distant second. There will be plenty of time to enjoy literature away from the constraints of having to regurgitate it in exam conditions. As a general rule, ignore your teachers, for on the whole those who go into the education of others do so because they fell dismally short in some aspect of real life. There are honourable exceptions, but tend to be very few and far between, and I'm sure you'll work out who they are as you go along. On the subject of vices - well go ahead and try them if you want to. Building a personal narrative is central to becoming a relevant and memorable individual - in practice this means having experiences, both fond and highly regrettable ones, to draw on. Just keep yourself out of any serious danger and make up your own mind as to what you enjoy and what you don't. Surely it's better to get any sense of rebellion and playfulness out of one's system at an age where it can still be put down to the impetuousness of youth?

Most importantly, do not allow yourself to be conned into thinking that passing exams opens shiny new doors that are slammed firmly in your face if you happen not to do so well in them. People may scare you into believing that the present is the period of your life that will shape and define its outcome but you should remember that there are, in all likelihood, a minimum of sixty years to go before you can look back and analyse your mark on mortality. That's an awful long time in which to make up lost ground or render all your previous hard work utterly meaningless. I just wish someone had told me that when I was your age.


  1. I am all for getting on and doing whatever takes your interest at whatever stage in life.

    I left school at 15 with no qualifications and having paid very little attention to anything while I was there. It bored me. Obviously the only things I could do were low paid jobs with no responsibility and usually they were extremely tedious.

    But this was the 60's, the economy was pretty good and it was fairly easy to move from one job to another. I absorbed myself in revolutionary politics with youthful idealism and the delusion of being able to change the world. Unfortunately, this kind of activity is like cult religion. Your perception of the world is greatly distorted by the total immersion with people who think exactly the same way.

    Anyway, I found my way back into full time education and ended up with rather more education than the majority of people. For a short while I did a bit of lecturing, but academic life was not for me and I headed back to manual work.

    As I moved through my thirties and became a bit more settled in my family life I steadily grew out of infantile politics, stayed in the same occupation and shifted my attention to getting a better income and some more influence over my workplace.

    The result was that I spent less time on booze, drugs and futile attempts to re-design the human race. With that came quite a degree of contentment. I still found conflicts in many parts of my activity, that is just the way I am.

    Eventually I lost a major battle to do something I believed in and my working life came to an end. Shame it ended that way, but another great opportunity. Plenty of time now to do what I want.

    The moral of the story? I don't know really apart from no need for regrets. I am glad I left school when I did, it was a waste of my time and I was wasting theirs. The early years of rubbish, dangerous and dead end jobs taught me a fantastic amount and didn't damage me too much.

    I treasure the later education, when I was ready for it, every day of my life. I still search for new knowledge every day. The idiot politics of my youth gave me a profound understanding of how society works and the nature of organisations.

    What it amounts to is that most of the advice you get in life is crap. Experience and determination are of the greatest value. It is not necessarily the case that the most deserving do well, but it does no good to resent it. Take notice of the people who seem worthwhile and ignore the others. Be alert for the shits and don't take any crap.

    Do your own thing and don't take any notice of a self satisfied old bastard like me.

  2. I wouldn't describe you as a self satisfied old bastard Mal. It's difficult because of course deep down you know that resentment does no good. Most of the people telling others what to do invariably have some sort of problem closer to home.

    It's the old cliche of 'if I'd known then what I do now'...

    The value of experience, good or bad can never be overstated, you're quite right. I'll return to something less autobiographical tonight, promise!!

  3. My experience was somewhat different. Growing up in France I became accustomed to drinking Perrier. Oh how I dreamed of owning my very own brand of spring water and.......of course you guessed it........ I movedd to England and started Buxton Spring Water.

  4. Well Daz it looks like you have been led astray by growing up with a very unhealthy respect for authority.

    I on the otherhand questioned authority at an early age and at every opportunity. For example if academic brilliance is so highly valued, why do teachers drive such shit cars?

    I wasn't going to have any Austin Allegro driving academic telling me which side my bread was buttered. Not when my best mate Colin who could bearly read or write owned a Pontiac Trans Am.

  5. Eric, I'm delighted that your dream came true

    Head Boy, you're absolutely right that being brought up by my parents to trust authority was a massive part of the problem. Only when it was too late did I realise they had done this for their benefit (for an easy life with a complicit and weak-willed child) and not mine. Still, all we can do is make up for lost time and look forward.

    By the way, how old was Colin when he owned his first car? Sounds like he may not have been seventeen!!

  6. Correct he was 15. He stopped attending school at 12 and started woring in his Dad's house clearance business. He was already driving a pick up truck before he got the Pontiac