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24 November 2021

Why a holiday in Cornwall left me longing for work

After my break-up, the deadlines and rhythms of work gave me purpose. Without it, sadness crept in.

By Pippa Bailey

In early November I took a week off work and drove (well, my friend drove, and I provided her with snacks and audiobook-based entertainment) the seven hours to Cornwall. We stayed, as we do every year, at a glass-fronted house right on the beach; outside there is the road, and then, beyond it, nothing but sea. It is quite possible to pass a whole morning there watching surfers tumble and triumph, a whole afternoon pottering around the independent shops of St Ives’ wonky side streets, and a whole evening clambering over rocky outcrops in the pink half-light of dusk. It was, or it should have been, idyllic. But the guilty truth is that I missed work, I itched for it.

This magazine has become, in the five months since my break-up, a refuge of sorts – and not just for the therapeutic benefits of writing Deleted Scenes. Work is somehow, curiously, the one part of my brain that has continued to function almost uninterrupted – even in those early, sleepless days and nights. Its deadlines and rhythms gave me purpose, forced me onwards. Without it, I am unmoored. A holiday, it turns out, is exactly what I don’t need. Within days, A— was in my dreams once more; in my head first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Sadness crept in.

There are times in life when it is necessary and right to fiercely protect your personal life from your professional life, but I am coming to believe that there are also times to work with abandon; to not dwell for too long on the many proffered cons of being a “workaholic”, and to embrace the relief it offers. At work there may be problems, but – unlike in my private life – there are also clear and logical solutions: systems to be designed, meetings to be arranged, responsibilities to be delegated. In the world of work I have the power to fix what is wrong – or at least to try.

But there is something dark beneath this fervour, too. My great-grandmother used to say – or so I am told; I never met her – that women should be ornamental or useful (presumably, both would be preferable). And while I would consider this a cruel thing to say to another person, I have internalised such standards for myself. If a woman is not lovely enough to be a lover then she must be a “career woman”, or else she is nothing. I work to justify my existence.

I am often asked, once someone has learned about my job and my many and varied commitments outside it (you don’t have to follow this column for very long to gather that I accrue hobbies like a sixth-form student collecting extracurriculars for Ucas), how I find time for it all. The answer is that I am driven above all by efficiency, by the need to produce something of “worth”. There is no place for idleness.

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And yet this approach has already failed me. Most of my anger about the end of my relationship is directed not towards my ex, nor any particular event, but, fruitlessly, towards the unthinking universe. All my life I have worked hard, done what was expected of me, and this is my reward? Of course, I know I have no right to consider my circumstances unjust. As PJ O’Rourke once said of his daughter’s protestations that life wasn’t fair, “You’re cute, that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off, that’s not fair. You were born in America, that’s not fair. Darling, you had better get down on your knees and pray that things don’t start getting fair for you.” There is no rational link between hard work and protection from pain; no guarantee that bad things only happen to bad people (if there is such a thing).

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But I am a child of the Blair years. I was raised to believe that I could do anything, have anything, if only I worked hard enough and long enough. My school motto was: “Preparing you for a world of opportunity”. (It should, perhaps, have been, “Preparing you for a world in which, no matter what you do, you will sometimes get hurt,” but I expect that wouldn’t have had the desired effect on prospective pupils.) Our very own American Dream.

So I continue to channel all my energy – and my anger, too – into work. Because perhaps it could yet offer some redemption. And because I don’t know what else to do.

[See also: How I found strength in the body I discounted as a child]

This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos