A stethoscope. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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My keyboard is held together by Sellotape. And what’s that strange buzzing in my groin?

Failing hardware and Withnail occupy Nicholas Lezard.

It’s a weird period, the week between Boxing Day and New Year. It’s as if the whole country is wandering around in its pyjamas, muttering to itself. I hunker down in the Hovel behind a barricade of wine bottles; it seems like the wisest course of action.

Company eventually comes in the form of the daughter, who likes to use the Hovel as a launchpad for her return to university. She finds it a convivial place and seems to enjoy my ideas of how to entertain ourselves in the evening. (Though she loves her brothers, they are not given to conversation once settled in front of their screens.) So the first part of Monday evening is spent eating pizza and watching Withnail and I. Normally I am strict about the matter of talking when a film is on but we’ve seen Withnail so many times between us that occasionally we feel moved to comment when we have something we think is interesting to say about it.

There are, I gather, people who not only do not like this film particularly but think that it is a bit odd to have watched it around 50 times. (This is a conservative estimate.) To which I can only reply: would you put a limit on the number of times you would listen to a favourite piece of music? Moreover, although the film may have, to us, reached the condition of music, there are plenty of times in life when it seems directly relevant.

One of them, which I keep quiet about, occurs early when Marwood (this is the name of the “I” character), after a 60-hour speed binge, says: “My thumbs have gone weird.” I have not been on such a binge myself and neither have my thumbs gone weird; but my groin has. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if someone has left a very tiny mobile phone in the front of my undercrackers and left it on “vibrate” mode, set to go off every three seconds or so.

It is the kind of thing one hesitates to go to the doctor about. Not only is it painless, it’s not entirely unpleasant. But it is not normal; I certainly haven’t read about this in the user’s manual. I am, at the moment, due to illness in the family (and terminal illness at that), becoming rather sensitised to the shocks that flesh is heir to and I wonder if this is the start of something nasty. Then again, the toes on my left foot have been ever so slightly numb for about ten years now. That hasn’t got any better but it hasn’t got any worse.

I suppose I am at the age when the downhill progress starts accelerating. I can see this happening right now on the machine I am using to write this piece. A Lenovo PC of some venerability, it is sort of held together by Sellotape and the keyboard makes a funny, squeaking noise as I type. The built-in mouse has ceased to function, as has the fingerprint reader (a rather snazzy feature that impressed my children when this computer was a new arrival). Somehow I managed to dig out an external mouse from the crap on my desk; only now the cursor seems to skip about after a few hours of use and I will suddenly look to the screen – I’ve never learned to touch-type – and see that I’ve inserted several sentences into the first paragraph, where they do not belong.

Which is all rather tiresome but not unliveable with. After all, the alternative – to get something done about these things, rather than simply to put up with them – does not appeal. One would involve a doctor either putting his or her hand down my pants or telling me to stop wasting his or her time; and the other would involve either buying a new laptop, which is financially beyond me, or replacing the keyboard again. Having had both a new keyboard and a new screen, my laptop now resembles grandfather’s axe, or Theseus’s ship, thus raising the philosophical problem of whether something whose component parts have all been replaced can still be said to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, buzz, buzz goes the groin again, as if a miniaturised submarine full of tiny doctors (including, wondrously, a microscopic Raquel Welch) had got jammed somewhere below the pubic bone. Everything else down there, I hasten to add, is in fine working order. Certainly finer than I might expect of someone of my age and lifestyle. So one does not want to go to the doctor in case one is told that one of the body’s key components needs replacing. Or that one needs an external mouse. Actually, that’s a line of speculation I’m going to close off right now. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war