It’s undeniably spring again. The lemon tree that i brought indoors to protect it from the frost that never was (see picture) has burst into bloom, incongruously filling my office with an overpowering Mediterranean perfume. Saint David’s Day has been and gone, as has International Women’s Day. The daffodils are out, the blossoms are falling from the plum tree on the roof terrace and here comes that itch in the fingers to scrabble in earth.
I read the other day that there are actually bacteria in soil that activate the production of serotonin. It seems too neat to be true. The short dark days and lack of vitamins in the winter diet produce depression. Then along comes the urge to grub around in the soil and plant things and bingo, not only have we been programmed to produce food for the rest of the year but we also rid ourselves of the winter blues.
Only in my case this hasn’t actually led to anything more active than ordering some tomato seeds online. I haven’t even moved the lemon tree back outside where it can be pollinated let alone begun to weed or dig or tidy up. The huge weight of things undone makes it seem too much like playing truant, even though it’s Sunday. And writing this blog (which I see I have barely touched in a year) provokes similar feelings of guilt.
Looking back over my life I cannot ever remember a time when there wasn’t a pile of unanswered letters, neglected friends, unpaid bills, unfiled invoices, unwritten articles (or, once upon a time, essays), boxes in the attic still unpacked. I suppose this is how most people’s lives feel. Though I am sure that many are more successful than me in avoiding that feeling of being a donkey with a carrot attached to the browband of its halter, ceaselessly following the unattainable moment when all will be completed, the desk empty, the moment finally arrived when I can write what I really want to write, go where I really want to go. That moment, as Bob Dylan put it ‘when I paint that masterpiece’.
I once, in the 1970s, worked in an office where editors (of whom I was one) worked alongside civil servants. The culture was one which must have vanished long ago. You weren’t allowed a typewriter on your desk, though everything – every phone call you had with a publisher, every meeting – had to be recorded. On your desk were three trays: in, out and pending. If you wanted to send someone a letter, or write a note of what had taken place in a phone conversation you had to write it out in longhand, or (if you were more senior and that way inclined) dictate it into recording device. You then put it into your out tray from which it was collected by a messenger and taken to a typing pool where it was typed up in four or more copies. There was one for the recipient (with an additional copy for anyone else who was copied in to the letter, or had attended the meeting that was being recorded), one for the official files, one to be put in a folder that would be circulated around the department, department for everyone to read, a practice known in some offices as ‘dailies’ but, for some reason, in ours as ‘chronologicals’, and finally one for the ‘bring up’. The bring up was supposed to be a reminder to oneself to chase the issue up in case there had been no response. When the typed document was brought to you for checking and signing, you wrote the bring-up date in the top right corner and it would appear in your inbox on the due date. Usually you couldn’t think what to do with it so you simply crossed out the date and replaced it with another one. Some dog-eared documents might have up to a dozen dates on them. The chronologicals folders (one per day, I think it was, or perhaps one per week) would pile up waiting for a day when you were too hung over or bored to do anything else and would be binge-read before being passed on to the next reader. Writing up one’s file notes was done at least in part with the readers of the chronologicals in mind. The challenge was to find a style that was sufficiently po-faced to sit formally in the files and act as a record in case a decision was challenged or a complaint made, but to make it amusing enough to raise a smile from colleagues in the know.
Why am I recalling all this now? It is of course of some interest to historians of office work – particularly (and some of the more horrible features of software packages like Outlook can probably be traced back to such origins). But what brought it to mind is my memory of one of the civil servants who worked down the corridor from me. I’m not sure what his job was, but he was clearly very efficient at it because he was the only person I ever knew who often had both his in tray AND his pending tray entirely empty. He would sit with his arms folded with a tidily piled outbox, waiting for the messenger to come round and bring him more work. He took his tea breaks and lunch breaks punctiliously, always going to the staffroom for that purpose (not drinking sloppily at his desk as we editors did) but his strong sense of morality did not permit him to pass the time doing anything that wasn’t work-related (like the Guardian crossword, which he happily worked on in the staff room). It would be easy to caricature him as one of those automaton-like bowler-hatted city gents with no inner life (like Dylan’s ‘Mr Jones’ who knows something is happening but doesn’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?) but that would be unfair. Like many of the civil servants I remember from that time he had passionate interests outside work: amateur dramatics, opera, botany, hiking in obscure parts of the world, I can’t now remember which but at least one such thing.
What must it be to have such an orderly life, to trade daily boredom for security and defer gratification not indefintely, as disorderly bohemians do, but in measured doses: to the weekend, the summer holiday, the early, well-pensioned retirement? I doubt whether there will be a generation any time soon that will know the answer to such a question. That model of work seems well and truly gone. (and if you want to know why I think this is so, here’s a recent article: http://analytica.metapress.com/content/632j131722874242/fulltext.pdf