A couple of weeks ago I was setting up an interview with Ivor Southwood, the author of a wonderful book called Non-Stop Inertia, which uses political theory and personal experience to describe the realities of menial work, joblessness and a career seemingly without prospects. But when I suggested the interview, Ivor said it would be tricky, since he still spends his days packing boxes in a warehouse for minimum wage. The 40-year-old debut author has spent his years shuffling between work as a mental health nurse, various types of menial drudgery, many years living with his mum, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and long periods on the dole. In the email correspondence below (which I’ve had to edit), Ivor spoke to me about these experiences which started with his blog, Screened Out, and culminated in Non-Stop Inertia.
Hello Ivor, how are you finding the warehouse work?
There is an infantilising aspect of the work which is very frustrating. There is a lot of dead time where I have to either look busy or furtively read like a naughty teenager. I have no co-workers, only a supervisor with a penchant for Radio 1, and I'm stuck in a fairly confined space. On the upside, the hours are regular and I can just about sleepwalk through the week, and I don't have to smile on demand. But then every so often I realise I’m actually sleepwalking through my life and not smiling at all.
When you work these jobs, do you ever play that trick on yourself (as I have done) that instead of thinking of yourself as a menial worker, you're actually a writer doing research for a book or an article?
Haha yes, well sort of. I’ve always been a fan of Mike Leigh's films and when I started a new job, to distract myself I sometimes used to imagine I was an actor who had been sent by ML to do research for a character... the fun soon wears off though doesn't it. I told my boss at the interview that I’d written a book. He asked what about, and I euphemistically replied “cultural theory”, which seemed to assuage his curiosity (I really did need the job). 15 months later, senior colleagues occasionally refer to the book, or the university talks which have taken up about half of my leave days this year, in the manner of patting the head of a schoolboy. The boss once called it my “hobby”. They have no interest in finding out what the book is about. Part of me hopes they don’t ever bother looking it up, the other part wants to thrust it in their faces even if they’re not interested.
How did it come about, with regards to writing it and getting it published?
I've written things online for years and my blog, which I always meticulously maintained but assumed no-one would actually read, often including stuff about work/'jobseeking'. In early 2008 I posted something inspired by personal experience and theory stuff, about temporary work, rolling media, etc. One of the people who read the post mentioned the word 'precarity', which up to that point I had never heard of. In mid-2009 I was approached with the idea of writing a book for Zero, which came as a surprise. As a keen blog reader I was looking forward to reading their first titles, but hadn't expected to be writing one myself.
Hasn't the fact that you're now a published author helped you find better work – in say publishing or academia?
I suppose in application-form terms the book doesn't really exist, even though for the sort of jobs you mention I would obviously put it on there very prominently. It's not sufficient to overwrite my work history or, if you like, to provide an alibi. On paper I have worked in warehouses or been unemployed for the last four years. From the point of view of most employers it seems the process of writing a book is utterly insignificant compared to, say, an IT qualification or work experience. I have applied for a couple of entry-level publishing jobs but never got anywhere.
One thing I get accused of all the time is that I have a 'bad attitude'. Do you ever get this?
Yes, the 'bad attitude'. As work colonises feelings and relationships and claims them as materials for production, attitude becomes another duty to be fulfilled. One must not only complete the task to a given standard but be seen to complete it enthusiastically, to enjoy it. Also with recruitment, obviously: you must be seen to be not just applying for a job because you need the money, but to see it as a unique opportunity, etc.
I loathe the expectation that everyone has to sell themselves, compete with their peers and work up enthusiasm for work which is imposed on them. If most of us cannot afford to refuse work itself, to sell our labour, then we should at least, as far as possible, refuse the labour of packaging ourselves as endlessly flexible commodities and refuse to expect other people to produce themselves that way.
Also this is a way of conveying to bosses and managers and Job Centre staff that reality which is often taboo: that, despite the corporate party line, I don't have a choice. If I had a choice I wouldn't be here. Playing the game and going along with the pretence of choice makes them feel more comfortable, because they need to convince themselves that they’re not coercing you. So this kind of robotic indifference conveys the opposite.
Do you think to an extent that maybe we have been brought up too soft? By that, I mean do we complain too much about things our fathers and grandfathers wouldn't have moaned about? I mean, working in a call centre is no fun, but to me it doesn't compare with the horrors of coal mining.
Well, I suppose it’s not so much about things getting better or worse (although arguably with the dismantling of welfare we have now got to the point where things are going backwards compared with say 40 years ago) but more that the power relations remain basically the same and improvements in basic material conditions have been counterbalanced by more intimate and atomising forms of control. So we are constantly told by bosses and politicians how much better everything is, how much choice we have now, how we are free, we can achieve whatever we want if we put our minds to it. All this positive thinking stuff, which obviously also puts the blame for failure onto the individual, rather than external conditions – this creates an inner oppression and an isolation to which previous generations, in their undeniably horrendous physical working and living conditions, were perhaps not so routinely subjected.