The last outpost of Bohemia

I may be surviving on carpet lint and the charity of friends, but at least I don’t have to get up in

For reasons that I do not feel have been adequately explained to me, I have been asked to file my copy a day early, which is an outrage. At the time of being told, I blithely said – Lord, how I cringe to recall it – that a delivery date of Monday was “cool”. What I had failed to take into account was that this Monday was the day after my birthday, and so was to have been spent entirely under the duvet, with maybe the Test on the radio in the background playing very quietly indeed.

But I cannot grumble. I live in the last outpost of Bohemia, and am full of pity for all the people who have to get up in the morning at least five days a week. I once was one of them, and would vow to myself, as I found myself jammed against my fellow commuters at half-past eight in the morning, that I would, come what may, arrange my life in such a way that I would never suffer such horrific indignity again.

Buying a motorcycle went some way to addressing the problem – it meant that nowhere in London was ever more than 15 minutes away, which meant extra time between the sheets every morning – but it did not solve the central issue of having to sit in an office every weekday and listen to a load of bollocks about Total Quality Management and pretend to be excited about fax machines.

Not that it was too bad. I discovered that the way to survive in a large company was: a) to have an office with a lockable door and b) to make sure that when outside the office, en route to canteen, pub, or sympathetic fellow wage slaves to waste a bit of time with, I always walked briskly carrying a piece of paper with something written on it. I survived for two or three years like this until one day I was offered promotion. Realising that any organisation that was going to promote me had to be imbecilic
up to top management level, and that my degree of inactivity might have fooled everyone else but not the secretary I was going to be given, I resigned. (The only stroke of work that I can remember doing was writing a flyer for a forthcoming exhibition of answerphones or something. Completely stumped for ideas, I went to the local for a few jars and when I came back scrawled “The Future Starts Here”, and nothing else, on the back of an envelope and handed it in with a sneer. I was lauded as a genius. Christ.) Resigning wasn’t the smartest move ever, because two months later the company – a large telecommunications business you might have heard of called British Telecom – decided to sack half its executives anyway, sugaring the pill with substantial amounts of cash. I had been suspicious of the company ever since my interview, which consisted of them asking me what I would do with a lorryload of surplus dental amalgam, and what I would do if I were a transport minister charged with switching the country to driving on the right. (“Grow a beard and leave the country,” I said. And: “I went to Cambridge.”) Sometimes I dream I’m still there, becoming increasingly anxious about being paid a reasonable wage without having the faintest idea of what I am meant to be doing.

Still, I do not regret giving up the day job, and now find myself in the position of the great Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, whose greatness resides, in my opinion, not so much in his literary ability (of which I am largely ignorant) but in his attitude to mornings, which as far as he was concerned could go and screw themselves while leaving him in peace. The story goes that he was once called as a witness in a court case, and a friend was despatched to make sure he got up in time for it. Stumbling bleary-eyed through the commuter-thronged streets, Molnár asked his companion, “Bloody hell, are all these people involved in this stupid case as well?”

Not having to get up in the mornings does, though, mean that you don’t get much opportunity to use the creative faculty when it comes to feigning reasons why you can’t come into work that day. I was once delighted when a young lady who was sharing my bed one Monday morning called the office to say, “I’m afraid I can’t come in, my glands are up,” and then, with the most outrageous wink, “and I can’t swallow anything.” Through iron self-control I managed not to laugh, but I damn nearly gave myself a hernia suppressing the impulse.

But we are not meant to do this kind of thing – go to the office every day. When I did, I would cry myself to sleep every evening. I am amazed that everyone else doesn’t do the same thing, too. Of course, it means I have to survive on carpet lint and the charity of friends, but it beats getting up in the morning.

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.