I crossed off next week yesterday

Not a lot of blogging around here lately. There are a number of reasons for that, not all of which I’m entirely aware of, but one factor has got to be work.

Which reminds me, indirectly, of Jonathan Coe’s second novel, A touch of love. Two extracts:

Friday 4th July, 1986

‘Some years ago – I don’t know if you remember – I defended this man called Fairchild. Hugh Fairchild. He was being prosecuted by the DHSS for fraud. He’d finished his Ph.D., and he was doing a bit of teaching at the university, earning about ten pounds a week or something, only at the same time he was claiming the dole. So the DHSS finally cottoned on to this and they asked for everything back. It wasn’t very much, a few hundred pounds or so, but it was far more than he had, and it actually looked for a while as though he might have been facing some kind of jail sentence. … So he pleaded guilty of course, and then I got this quite convincing case together and we managed to get him off with a fine and negotiate quite a sensible repayment programme. Which, so far as I know, he’s still in the middle of.’ She frowned. ‘Four years ago, now, at least. Strange how time goes, isn’t it?’

Friday 19th December, 1986

It was at last beginning to dawn on Hugh that he would never find an academic job. The realisation had made its inroads slowly, like the winter weather, and he had developed the same way of coping with both, namely lying in bed for as long as possible, with the gas fire turned up to top heat. Half the time he would doze, half the time he would be wide awake, staring frog-eyed at the ceiling, his hand resting absently on his genitals. In this position, in order to avoid thinking of the future, he would think of the past. He would rehearse the proudest episodes of his life and compare them with his present state of stifled inertia: his graduation … the flush of intellectual excitement in which he had completed his MA thesis … the second graduation ceremony, at which he had been awarded his doctorate.

But always at the front of his mind there festered the knowledge that these events had taken place a long time ago. They had all occurred within a period of eight years, and since then nearly the same period had elapsed, and in all that time nothing had happened. Not a solitary highlight. … That day of triumph in Coventry cathedral seemed neither recent nor distant; it seemed, if anything, to belong to a quite different level of existence. His life now comprised other realities: the hiss of the gas fire and the heavy warmth of his bedroom; the texture of pubic hair as he twined it around his index finger; the smell (to which he had long since become immune) of the unwashed socks and underpants stashed under the bed; and the daily routine of forcing himself, at about 2.30, out of his bed, out of the flat, onto a bus and onto the university campus, in search of a kind of companionship.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who’s liked anything else by the subsequently much more successful Coe. (I say ‘book’ rather than ‘novel’, which I’m not sure it is, quite.) The way Hugh’s character develops in these extracts from light comedy to extravagant grotesquery and on to a kind of grim pathos is typical of the skill & heartlessness with which Coe writes, or used to write. ‘At the front of his mind’ is good, too. (Digression on Coe’s ‘heartlessness’. It’s an odd style, which seems to be heavily influenced by Beckett’s first couple of novels; it combines a numb, depressive certainty that things are only going to get worse with a driven, determined and often really ingenious playfulness. You feel for his characters, but you don’t always connect with them as people. Coe’s earlier books are more heavily dominated by this style; his first novel, An accidental woman, is at once excruciatingly sad and infuriatingly arch. Something shifts with the fourth, the magnificent, unrepeatable What a carve-up!, where (as Justin reminded me in comments) the same hopeless world-view is felt from within as well as being played for laughs.)

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. My question is: what is this man living on? If he’s earning money from teaching, it must be teaching that can be done after 2.30 p.m. and without any preparation – and there’s not much like that. He hasn’t got any money saved up and his teaching pay, such as it is, isn’t being supplemented by the DHSS – on the contrary, he’s paying them. (Either that or he’s not doing any teaching at all and his benefit’s being docked at source. Either way, he’s not exactly flush.) We can make allowances – maybe he doesn’t always stay in bed till 2.30; maybe he gets a lot done on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then spends the rest of the week vegetating in bed and mooching around campus... The trouble is, scaling back Hugh’s grotesquery for the sake of realism would deprive him of his pathos as well: he’s not doing that badly – at least he’s got a bit of money coming in, and he’s only having to work a couple of days a week…

I read this passage shortly after starting on Coe’s fascinating biography of B.S. Johnson, and it reminded me of Johnson’s doctrine of truth in the novel – ‘telling stories is telling lies’. It’s a dour and forbidding credo for a novelist; the results are only interesting in Johnson’s case because, in Johnson’s case, they’re so weird, in ways which don’t seem to be related to the ‘truth’ policy (although they may be related to what drove Johnson to adopt it). Nevertheless, the more I think about Hugh the more I think Johnson had a point. The character’s obviously meant to be representative of a certain kind of academic dead-end, and of the general apathy anomie acedie ect ect of its inhabitants. The dead-end is located quite specifically, in England, outside London and in the 1980s; the implication is that it’s one that Coe observed (or narrowly avoided) in person. But the real Hughs can’t have spent every morning lying in bed for as long as possible, with the gas fire turned up to top heat; not every day, not for a period of years – nobody could. And if that’s not true…

(Hugh isn’t the central character of the book, by the way. I wouldn’t want to put you off.)

I guess that particular shoe wouldn’t pinch most readers; the idea of never find[ing] an academic job is of more than academic (ho ho) interest to me at the moment. I got my doctorate just over three years ago, which in turn was six years after I got my MA. I’ve been working in academia, for various values of ‘working’, for four years now; as I write I’m living on odd bits of teaching, supplemented by smaller bits of research and editing. This is going to go on in various forms for at least the next seven months, and hopefully into next summer. After that, we’ll be into the next academic year, and who knows?

But there’s not much of the hiss of the gas fire and the heavy warmth of his bedroom about it. I made a list last week and realised that – what with current teaching, research, next semester’s teaching and various other bits of stuff – my to-do list includes pressing short-term tasks in three separate subject areas, large and demanding medium-term tasks in another three areas, and longer-term commitments (some of them with definite due dates) in another four. There’s other research I could be doing – I can think of three papers I could be working on without pausing for breath – but realistically I could only do it if I had more hours in the day, and more headspace to park the ideas in. The time and space I’ve got all seems to be booked up.

Looking on the bright side, by the time I get to the next academic year I should be quite staggeringly employable – particularly if I can find a job requiring expertise in behavioural regulation in the criminal justice system, complaints against the police, contemporary Italian politics, desistance from criminal activity, drugs, the Italian Communist Party, political violence, the Semantic Web, social statistics and victims of crime.

(On second thoughts, preferably not all of those.)

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 4 November 2008 at 11:19 | Permalink | Reply

    Heartless?

  2. Posted 4 November 2008 at 12:21 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m shocked. I read the whole final section of WACU! in a rush one morning, & my abiding memory of Michael is of someone who turns out to be the missing piece of someone else’s jigsaw – the Cluedo detective who is also the suspect. Even so, I don’t know how I could have forgotten that plot, let alone that scene. ‘Heartless’ would cover the Winshaws and Shirley Eaton and even the ‘necessary brio’, but certainly not that.

    I’m glad that last sentence was wrong, by the way.

  3. Posted 4 November 2008 at 19:37 | Permalink | Reply

    biro

  4. Phil
    Posted 6 November 2008 at 22:59 | Permalink | Reply

    Spoiler space!

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