“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Monday, 15 February 2016

Same Day Delivery

On Friday I spent all day in bed. I remember reading once about an ancient culture who practised a "one day on, one day off" way of living. I don't remember the specifics, so it could just as easily have been a dream, but the idea appeals to me greatly. (Let's pretend it's my idea). You work for one day, rest the next. No weeks or weekends as such. Presumably this made practical sense: the manual labour and agricultural work that occupied most ancient people is exhausting. Each working day you rise with the sun and rest with its setting. A rest every other day to recuperate before going back to the fields, furnaces or workshops would presumably make the whole process twice as tolerable. Not only that, but it's a wonderfully simple way to emphasise and enshrine in your culture what today we laughingly approximate to with the idea of a "work-life balance". (Note the tacit, otherwise unspoken, acknowledgement that to work is not to live). In Jewish tradition, the "Sabbath" is of central importance: one day out of every seven is spent in a rigidly understood state of abstinence from melachah - "creation" or "work". Since God rested on the seventh day of creation, so should people. The idea of balance - between nature and divine activity on one hand, and artifice and human work on the other - is key, and I think the idea, that refraining from work is the side of the coin more closely associated with the natural and divine, is worth considering: all the more so from this side of the Reformation, since when the protestant work ethic's disastrously unbalanced emphasis on the virtue of work has come to engulf our now ridiculous culture.

All that said, spending a whole day in bed, floating in and out of consciousness to classic Star Trek episodes on your chromebook probably doesn't fit exactly into any ancient concept of reverence for life and its divine creator. Oh, and yes, I like watching Star Trek. So what? It has an optimistic vision of the human race's future. Despite everything, so do I.

I spent the day in bed on Friday because I was exhausted. I wasn't exhausted from a hard day's work on Thursday, or a poor night's sleep. I'm just generally exhausted. I can’t remember the last time I had a proper night’s sleep. This is what working night shifts for three-and-a-half years will do to you. At first, your human body just starts to get mildly confused. What are you doing? it asks. You know you’re supposed to be asleep, don’t you? It’s dark outside! It’s 3 in the morning. Who cares about spreadsheets? You ignore the question, because that’s your job. Your body, gradually and begrudgingly, adjusts. OK, so you’re a night owl? I can work with that, ‘course I can. Adjustments are made to sleep patterns, energy levels, appetite, ability to concentrate, patience. It wants the best for you, does your human body, it really does. It’s more sensitive to the nuances of daylight, climate and the changing of the seasons than you, the young 21st-century urbanite, will ever understand. That’s because it’s not really young at all. Yours might be – but yours is only the latest model in a long line of ever-evolving human bodies. It only got to be where it is today through generation after generation of very hard work. There was a lot of trial and error, but now it’s ready for anything. It can subsist indefinitely on nothing but Monster Munch. It can survive in the air pocket of a capsized boat in the Atlantic ocean, a cave in the Utah desert or floating in zero gravity inside a sealed metal tube for months, miles above the earth from whence it came.  I have never done any of those things (though the Monster Munch-diet does sound tempting) so I don’t know what I'm talking about.  I do know, however, that after a few years of a regimen of working 3-5 twelve-hour night shifts a week, the body stops asking so many questions.  Any time you want to sleep, that’s fine by me, it says.  So afternoon naps become nine-hour comas.  This is your body’s passive-aggressive form of revenge.  Sleeping well is the best revenge.

So on Friday, I slept - all through the day, and most of the night.  Around 5:30am on Saturday, I stirred my lazy bones back to a vertical position and checked my email.  Several of the books I’ve listed on amazon had sold.  I processed the emails, and wrapped and labelled the packages ready for my morning jaunt to the post office.  I noticed that one of the addresses was in Stockport.  Stockport, I thought.  That’s not far from Manchester.  I could walk it, deliver the package in person.  It will save on postage costs.  My body, who hadn't really woken up yet and still needed a piss, tried to pay attention.  Don’t do this, it pleaded.  So I did it anyway, because I hadn't written the previous paragraph yet.  It was a nice enough day for North West England in February (it wasn't even chucking it down) and what else was I going to do?  Clock in some more overtime at work on those sexy spreadsheets?  No.  Turns out I don’t care about spreadsheets at any hour of the day.  I know some people do, some of the hours.  These people are not my friends.  Give me an absence of spreadsheets or give me death.

As the googlebird maps, my destination was 7 miles from home. It looked like the kind of walk at that would become more pleasant towards the end, as I left the inner city behind and encroached upon the Cheshire countryside. I put the package to be delivered into my bag along with a packet of peanuts, two tins of beans - the ones that open with a ring pull, so I didn't have to carry a tin opener – a fork, my headphones and a day’s worth of mp3s. The peanuts and the beans were for energy along the road, and to save having to spend money on food. A petrol station sandwich and a bag of Wotsits are not actually the food of the true nomad. This is the game I'm playing now. Thought maybe I could channel the spirit of Jeremy Corbyn for lunch.

Turns out google doesn't know absolutely everything about everything. One of the things it doesn't know is that you can’t just go for a country walk along a motorway. So adjusting for reality, this lengthened my hike to just over 9 miles. An 18-mile round trip. Worth the cost of a small, first class parcel, if you ask me.
 



I've always been fond of the bleaker underbelly of urban life. Not so much the people as the spaces between people. The liminal places that exist only to be passed through, paused at, rather than occupied or observed: airports, lay-bys, industrial estates. Small litter-lined becks between one housing estate and another housing estate. Horses. Discarded mattresses and disused petrol stations. Scrapyards. I don’t know why. I think it’s the stillness, or the beauty that you can see in anything ugly and motionless if you stare at it long enough, slow down your awareness to their imperceptible speed. Beauty that isn't "in your face". Beauty that's in nobody's face. Broken and abandoned things. Things with a history nobody will ever write down. Boring things. They've never bored me.





I wandered and wondered as I walked, lonely as a crowd. I had started walking at 10:30am. By lunchtime I was at Gorton Market, a little shy of 4 miles from home, and a little shy. Gorton is not a "nice area". The rising poverty that's encroaching on more and more of us but not too much yet on the middle class, is blatant here. Everything in my own middle-class upbringing told me to feel as if I didn't belong here. (This makes perfect sense, of course, since the essence of being middle class is the feeling of not belonging anywhere; just as "what it means to be British" just is having awkward conversations about what it means to be British, in which everyone tries to say something substantial and meaningful, without sounding too racist, but no-one ever does). There are much "nicer" places for lunch. But I didn't feel hungry anyway. Jeremy obviously had other plans today. So I bought myself a black coffee laced with white sugar and drank it outside of Tesco. It warmed my cold hands and sharpened my wits as only cheap coffee can: but I didn't really need a coffee, and I smirked at the irony of the now juxtaposed frugal motivations for my journey. Black coffee at Gorton market costs £1. Sending a small, first class parcel costs around £1.30. I carried on walking, still 30 pence richer.



I arrived at the parcel's destination around 2:30pm. I had now walked 9.1 miles - and it wasn't just google that was telling me this. It was my smartwatch, which is made by Samsung, a rival corporation, which means you can be sure the data is accurate. My feet concurred. I decided against knocking on the front door and delivering the parcel into the buyer's hand directly. As it fell through the letter box, for a nanosecond I felt euphoric. Another thing gone. Another book I hadn't read, that perhaps I never would, that had sat on my bookshelves for who knows how long, doing nothing but showing off.

Delivering this parcel in person was a tiny gesture, probably silly, even more probably pretentious, and absolutely certainly counter-productive. Two miles back into the return hike, I stopped into an inviting pub for a rest and a pint of beer. My feet were really starting to ache now, and I told myself I'd earned the pint. It cost £3.10, bringing today's balance into the red. I drank the pint and gawped at the muted television, tuned to a channel that seemed to do nothing but advertise other channels. There was a carvery on, a recurrent Saturday event apparently. Already well-fed families out for the proverbial pub lunch queued for slices of hot animal corpse. I felt blank, and it was nice. Back on foot, the alcohol numbed the aches that were still rising through my feet up into my ankles and calves. I wondered how unfit I was, and how many calories all this was burning. I started snacking on the peanuts I'd brought along. I had change in my pocket for a bus ride home. Warm buses passed me every 10 - 15 minutes. I felt cold, slightly tipsy from drinking on a half-empty stomach. The euphoria of having delivered my payload was quickly forgotten. It was a little like the thrill of consumption, in reverse: of opening a newly purchased thing, taking it out of the box and turning it on, or putting it in place, or whatever purpose you'd bought it to fulfil. It lasted just as long.

Years ago, in my somewhat more evangelical days, I spent a week in "silence" in the Taizé community.  I use the inverted commas are because it's not total silence: you aren't supposed to speak to anyone except for the brother you meet with once a day for about half an hour, to discuss spiritual matters, or whatever comes to mind. The brothers of Taizé live a monastic existence: while multi-denominational and non-dogmatic in nature, they keep the traditional monastic vows of charity, celibacy and poverty. They're progressive in some senses, less so in others. (Having a penis is a requirement for full membership, for instance: there are no Taizé sisters). All things considered though, it's a wonderful and unique place, and certainly a force for good in the world. The brothers are gentle, intelligent, non-judgemental to a fault, charitable - and wise. During one of our daily conversations, I asked my assigned brother if it had been difficult hard for him to give up all his worldly possessions, when he joined the community at the age of only 20. He replied without any hesitation: no. Giving things up is hard. Giving everything up is easy. I think about this a lot. Sometimes I like to flatter myself by pretending I understood what he meant.

By the time I made it home, my feet and my ankles and my calves and my hips burned. A mile from home, I found a half-eaten bar of chocolate in a bush, just across the road from the northern powerhouse I wrote about last weekend. Having learned nothing much yet, I scoffed it. The sugar rush gave me my last legs. At 5:30pm, I collapsed onto my bed and drifted off to sleep. I wondered if Mr P of Stockport had seen the parcel on his doormat, and if it had spurred wonderings of his own, how it had arrived there unstamped or postmarked, less than 24 hours after he ordered it. Bloody amazon. Too efficient for their own good.

I'd woken up at dawn and now at dusk I was falling back to sleep. Tomorrow night I'd be back at work again, five stories high and staring at a spreadsheet beneath fluorescent lights, but for now I felt part of the earth again, for the first time in far too long.