Far from Willoughby

In The Past
September 11, 2009

Went out for drinks last night with some ex-colleagues from my time in the City. It gave me a curious, shuddery feeling to be back among the dark suits and stripey shirts, to be on the train again with the sad-faced people still grimly working on their Blackberries at 10 o’clock at night.

Conversation with the ex-colleagues was interesting. Some are still in similar jobs, and a little rueful about it. One said “it’s taking the King’s shilling, of course, but you have to pay the bills somehow.” Another quizzed me intensely about whether it was really possible to make a living doing something creative (to which the answer is, of course, “yes, provided you accept that if you live in London it’ll be in a flat not a house, and in a non-descript area rather than a trendy or pretty one”). Some have now left the City – one described how much happier she is now she lives in Brighton, with a 10-minute walk to work and lunches on the beach. Another said that she’d had several unsuccessful rounds of IVF while working at a stressful City job, before changing to a more relaxed one and happily falling pregnant.

I wrote an article this time last year about the fall of Lehman’s in which I encouraged people who’d lost their jobs to see this as an opportunity to pursue their dreams. And, Guardian comments being what they are, got a lot of hostility from people who thought that, having worked in the City I was clearly an overprivileged hooray henry, and that the mere fact of writing a novel meant that I was well up my own arse and not in touch with reality. (And, apparently, it’s a terrible thing to be in your 20s or 30s and I should really have written my article for *real people* who are all in their 40s and 50s with several children.)

Now of course no one (for eg, not even Ben Bernanke) at that time knew how serious the fall of Lehman’s was going to prove, and I suppose I regret having mildly made light of the economic situation. But I don’t regret saying that many people in the City are unhappy. I think it’s true. And I don’t think that happiness is some kind of luxury that ‘real people’ don’t have time to worry about.

It’s true that there are many people on the breadline who’d be grateful for a job paying a tiny fraction of what City workers earn. But the human psyche is complex, and the mere fact that there are people worse off than us doesn’t automatically make us happy (cf everyone you’ve ever met). And the fact that there are worse off people in the world doesn’t mean that we *ought* not to try to be happy. In a sense, it’s more reprehensible to *have* all the skills and education and advantages of birth that mean that you could create a life that pleased you and instead to keep on miserably grinding away at the City’s money mine.

There *are* people who enjoy it, I know. There are also people who don’t love it, but don’t hate it either; I know quite a few men who work at City jobs with long hours to provide a beautiful home for their wife and children in the suburbs and they seem to feel the trade-off is worth it. But, my God, I met so many people who hated it but couldn’t think of another way to live. People who didn’t have a family, or whose family might perhaps have been just as happy in a smaller home or a different city. There were a lot of tears in that workplace, a lot of stress and stress-related illnesses. A while after I left there was even a suicide. And even if your distress didn’t reach that pitch, it was impossible to escape the atmosphere of meanness, posturing, back-stabbing and hostility.

[I happened on a Twilight Zone episode on YouTube yesterday which seemed to me to sum up a lot of the aggression, the resentment, the terror and eventual despair that go with doing a job day-in, day-out that goes against your deepest wishes. A Stop At Willoughby is worth a watch; plus it is very clearly a point of inspiration for Life on Mars.]

In about an hour, it’ll be eight years to the day since I stood in my office in Manhattan watching someone else’s office buildings burn and then crash to the ground. I thought that day about the people who like me had arrived in the office early, at least some of them to jobs they didn’t even like. It seemed to me then, perhaps ridiculously, more pointlessly horrific to die doing something you didn’t care about than something you at least felt had value and meaning.

In real life, things that happen don’t have neat endings or a moral to them. But, because of the way our minds work, we need to create a story out of the chaos. So that was the moral I drew from 9/11. Life is very short. It will bring with it enough unhappiness of its own without adding to it by forcing yourself to do work that you dislike. No one will come and present you with your happiness, but it is not being over-privileged or weak-willed or wussy to go and seek it for yourself. In fact, it is necessary.

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