In 2013 we encountered a pamphlet-sized book published by n+1 called No Regrets. It contained a series of conversations between different groups of women about the books that had formed them. Each discussion took the form of an edited transcript and was presented on the page as a dialogue, and although the format wasn’t original, it felt new and important. The discussions were frank, unexpected and revelatory in the way only conversations between friends can be. Yet how rarely is the feeling – and the work they do in shaping us – of those conversations captured?
This was our starting point when it came to introducing a new feature to this magazine. We wanted to host a series of discussion on topics that feel pertinent to our times, around the subjects that dominate our lives and politics, and impact how art is made and books written. We wanted to ask those with experience the questions we were asking ourselves, questions like ‘how did we get here?’ or simply, ‘how was it for you?’
This form, which we have called ‘roundtables’, blends the qualities of the personal essay and interview but aims to overcome the constraints of both. Instead of privileging only one voice, a number combine to share experiences and challenge each other. Informed but informal, led by anecdote and personal experience, we hope that each conversation will result in an unexpected and multi-faceted picture of the given topic – and inspire further conversations among readers.
Our first roundtable is on the subject of work, because how could it not be? The question of how we spend our days has never been more all-consuming or vexed. Over the past few years we have had to rethink everything we took for granted about work: getting paid, having a fixed place of work, the concept of leisure time, even the need for human beings in the workplace, when an app might do it better. But were we ever ready? As Joanna Biggs writes in All Day Long, her book on modern work, ‘University had made us employable but hadn’t prepared us for work. The novels we had studied were about love and depravity; they weren’t set in offices.’
Perhaps surprisingly, the participants in our roundtable didn’t dwell on the technological advances that dominate headlines about work. Instead, they discussed the human aspects: commitment and sacrifices, care work and emotional labour, frustrations, disappointments and joy. ‘Work is set against life, as if it were life’s opposite,’ writes Biggs, but ‘as the days slide by, it changes us almost unobserved.’
ŽELJKA MAROŠEVIĆ – When you’re at a party and somebody asks, ‘What do you do?’ how do you respond?
ZYGMUNT DAY – I say, ‘I work in construction’ and then either they say, ‘Ah, ok’ and talk about something else, or they say, ‘What do you do in construction?’ and I say I install audio-visual systems. Sometimes they ask, ‘What else you do?’ and I say, ‘Well I’m also a musician and I build recording studios as well.’ Because I do those things. Then sometimes that’s the interesting conversation and we take it that way, sometimes they want to talk about construction and we take it that way. So, it just depends. It depends on my audience, you know? I tailor it to my audience very much. In the pub I’m in construction… [Laughter]
JOANNA BIGGS – You never lie about it?
Z. DAY – No.
BIGGS – I try quite hard not to ask that question or to give that answer for a long time. I’m happy to talk about almost anything else, like the news or the weather or how they know the person whose party it is. Not because I’m ashamed of what I do but because it immediately places you in class terms, in money terms. It places you in a way that perhaps isn’t helpful to having an interesting conversation at a party.
JON DAY – You do end up doing it, I think, however you try to avoid it. But I do feel a bit like, ‘Fuck it, do I really have nothing more interesting to ask someone than what they do?’ ‘What gives you pleasure?’ is quite a good one.
VICTORIA ADUKWEI BULLEY – I’ve never been asked that before.
J. DAY – Is that bad? Is that a bad question?
BULLEY – It’s a good one, just nobody’s ever asked me that before!
I’m getting better at saying that I write and I’m a poet, and right now that feels good because in between stable jobs I’ve had a lot of poetry-based work, like commissions or workshops. So right now it’s fine because I can back it up and say, ‘Yeah, I am because I do.’ I like the simplicity of that because if you are really doing something, then why not say that you do that thing? You’re not lying. But it’s taken a long time to be confident in that because then the next question is, ‘Oh, what kind of poetry do you write?’ And it’s like, ‘I don’t write sonnets.’ You can’t answer that question. ‘What do you write about?’ ‘My cat, sometimes… periods’ and then the conversation is just dead.
BIGGS – What should you ask? ‘Are you a poet, when did you last go to the Lakes?’
Z. DAY – Don’t you think it’s also hard to talk about it because it’s not how you earn all of your money? It’s not what you do all of the time. When I tell people I’m a musician, they always say, ‘Oh, like full time?’ What they want to hear is, ‘Yeah! I’m on tour all the time.’ But actually it’s not your main job, or even your primary source of income. It’s maybe not even what you do with most of your time. A lot of the time I’m not spending most of my time on it. I’ve also got to eat, you know.
J. DAY – Do you think people who respond in that way want you to answer, ‘Oh, I’m a rock star, I’m on tour all the time’ because it’s a touch of glamour?
BULLEY – I feel like it might be the opposite.
Z. DAY – It’s easier, especially in England – it isn’t the same everywhere I’ve been – to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a bit shit, I’m having a terrible time, I’m not that good at it either.’ [Laughter]
BULLEY – I’ve never been to America but I’ve met a lot of Americans who have said, ‘That’s amazing! That’s great! Well done!’ Here you have to be quite subtle and self-effacing. I get it but I also think we don’t need to do that as much as we do. Why not say, ‘Oh yeah, I really enjoy this’?
Z. DAY – In America they’re good at it. When you say to someone, ‘What do you do?’ he’ll say, ‘Ah buddy, you know, I’m a poet.’ You look on his Instagram and there’s a picture of a cigarette with the words, ‘She left the bed cold.’
And then there’s some British person over there who’s written a fifteen-page sonnet sequence. They’re amazing, but when you say, ‘What do you do?’ they respond, ‘Oh you know, I work in admin.’ It’s an attitude thing, it’s a lot about the English idea of knowing your station, knowing your place.
J. DAY – In Britain work is the toad that squats on your life in a kind of Larkin-esque way, whereas in America they seem to believe, ‘I can find realisation, I can better myself and I can better my family’s station by striving.’ I mean, that’s far too simplistic as a dichotomy.
Z. DAY – That’s a weird thing: the idea that if you just work hard, you get good results. I’ve known it to be both true and not, in different types of work. For example, when I’ve been doing creative work and working really hard on it and it’s been going absolutely nowhere. You can sense that you’re getting better at it but the external bit of it that other people see, that’s not really happening. But then if you work really hard at your job, depending on what it is, you can actually get that result – where you get a pay rise and everyone’s happy with you.
BULLEY – It’s quantifiable.
Z. DAY – Exactly. That’s also the thing about working in construction: the jobs are finite. We say, ‘Right, we’re going to build that’ and then we build it, it’s done. Whereas with creative stuff, you’re slogging away at it for ages.
J. DAY – When I was a bicycle courier that was the best thing about it. The end of the day was the end of the day. I could leave it and I slept better than I have since because you’ve got nothing to worry about for the next day. You’ve just got to get up and do it all again. That was lovely.
SHIT JOBS; BIKE COURIERS; FASHION PEOPLE
MAROŠEVIĆ – Let’s talk about the jobs that you’ve done just for money, not necessarily because you were particularly interested in them.
J. DAY – I was partly attracted to being a bike courier for that very reason. It’s one of the few jobs that you could get physically exhausted doing, as far as I could tell. After leaving university I worked for three months at a TV company, which was just horrible. I hated being in an office and I hated people. I’m not a misanthrope but I didn’t like teamwork and ‘pulling together’ and, you know, working with people, so I just felt, ‘I need to get away from this.’ I’d always liked cycling and actually it is badly paid and it’s quite dangerous and it’s not the sort of thing I’d want to do for the rest of my life. But I did also have one eye on the fact that it’s quite a weird job and that I might write about it, so it became both a dead-end job but also an opportunity to write about something that other people didn’t know much about.
MAROŠEVIĆ – Did you feel disingenuous among your colleagues?
J. DAY – No, because tons of people do that too. Loads of people write books about being a courier. So many couriers have other projects on the go, all of them are artists or photographers. All of them are photographers, because that’s quite an easy thing to do when you’re on the bike. You get your camera out and take a sunset photo of London Bridge or whatever. But the interesting thing about that job was that it also conjured up a sense of grassroots solidarity. There’s no sick pay, you’re just paid job by job. About a decade ago, London couriers set up this thing called the London Courier Emergency Fund which is a kind of grassroots pay-out fund. They do fundraisers every now and then usually based around illegal road races. And then, if you’re knocked off your bike, you get £60 a week to tide you over.
BIGGS – The earliest unions were exactly that.
BULLEY – After I graduated in 2013 I worked in a school as a teaching assistant. I loved being around young people and it was like being back at school – and I really enjoyed school.
BULLEY Honestly, it was sick! I’d be in class and a kid would crack a joke and I’d have to remind myself not to laugh, that I wasn’t one of them anymore. I almost went and taught. I had a place on a PGCE and I turned it down because I thought, ‘I’m all of 23 years old, what do I have to teach?’ So I did an MA instead. While I was doing the MA I worked at Leon. I would work from 6.30 a.m. at the King’s Cross branch until 3.00 p.m. and then I would go from King’s Cross to SOAS and print my work and then go home. It was gruelling. I only did that for three months but it was a long three months.
MAROŠEVIĆ – How many days a week were you working?
BULLEY – I would do three days a week. It was minimum wage and it was hard because when you’re behind the counter, that’s literally all you are. And people talk to you any kind of way. I remember one time I gave this woman porridge and it was meant to have blueberries and honey in it but I gave her banana and chocolate and she was so bitter about it. When I went to give her her money back she was like, ‘No, keep the money. Just do better!’
J. DAY – Ugh!
BULLEY – And it really hurt because I didn’t do it on purpose. It felt really hurtful. People talk to you, they’re going everywhere. A lot of them are very wealthy. Fashion people were the worst.
J. DAY – Yeah, I found that when I was couriering. They were such—
BULLEY – They were the worst!
J. DAY – Was it freeing doing a job that’s so unrelated to your poetry? The fact that you keep them so separate: this is what I’m doing for my money, and it doesn’t take up any of my creative energies. Was that important to you?
BULLEY – Definitely, because I got a lot of ideas in the downtimes. Even if it’s just cleaning tables, you think, ‘Oh this is an idea I’ve had and I need to write about when I get home.’ Those ideas don’t necessari- ly always come when you aren’t doing that work.
Z. DAY – Occupy your hands and your brain has a bit of time.
BULLEY – Yeah, your brain does things. I think there’s value in that work but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.
MAROŠEVIĆ – When you were in these different work cultures, were you someone different? Did you find yourself behaving in a way that made you think, ‘If my friends were here now, they’d say “What are you doing?”’
J. DAY – Definitely. It’s such an anti-social world, the courier subculture. Firstly, you stink. You just sweat so much. You end up only hanging out with couriers because it attracts lots of people who can’t work in other environments, either through choice or because they can’t be employed for legal reasons. There are a lot of economic migrants. The courier companies are quite hands-off, they don’t really give a shit who’s doing their delivering and you don’t need to have particularly good language skills, and you don’t need CRB checks. So it has assembled this ragtag team of misfits really. Also because of the nature of the work you’re doing, to deliver a package quite quickly you have to ride like a bit of a dick and piss people off. It conjures up this sense of complete antagonism so that your only mates are people who are equally outsiders.