Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Say No To The Show:

Hi. Um, so it’s been a while, first off. That’s what we’re all thinking. The old blog’s been a fair bit neglected lately, and now here I am typing again for my own gratification again, apparently out of the blue. “What is going on?” you might well ask. 

Well what’s going on, boys and girls, is that I have been inspired. Roll your eyes if you like, but it’s the truth. I’m deadly serious. From once-dry earth the muse has brought forth fruit, because I have something on my mind. Something, which needs to be talked about openly. Something which has managed to infiltrate every household in the Western hemisphere. Something that has burrowed into the back of my skull like some sinister mental larvae, driving my private speculations into the realms of the obsessive. Tonight, this blog is jettisoning any former pretension of discussing the human condition, and taking a GCSE Media Studies class instead. 

So thus enthused, I would like to borrow just a few minutes of your time, to talk about a television program which has -and I feel it’s no exaggeration to say this- ruined my entire life.

And that program is Say Yes To The Dress. 

(Abandon Hope All Ye Who Watch This)

Say Yes To The Dress is a reality show airing on TLC, and it is honestly one of the most baffling pieces of broadcast media that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. I can’t understand how someone could enjoy it. I have never watched anything where so little happens in the space of 22 minutes. I mean, in 1990-whatever, when Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David sat down with the mission brief of writing, in their words; “a show about nothing,” they couldn’t manage it. Seinfeld had a point to it, even if it was only concerned with the little things.

Say Yes To The Dress on the other hand … Well, let’s just say that Seinfeld’s failure was TLC’s triumph, because believe me when I say this, Say Yes To The Dress is about absolutely fuck-all. It’s almost like something written by Samuel Beckett, except with utterly no subtext whatsoever.

(They beat you to it Jerry.)

Ok, I’m getting ahead of myself here. So the premise of Say Yes To The Dress, (or ‘SYTTD’ if you’d prefer to wring my dignity dry) is that we view some random women filing into a Manhattan bridal boutique to buy themselves a wedding dress. They um and ah and over the merchandise for an indeterminate period, and then they pick one. 

Then they buy it. Then they leave. That’s it.  

Lather, rinse, repeat, then roll credits. Occasionally a hissy fit will break out over some perceived sartorial crisis, but moments of actual tension are pretty remote. This is the whole show, and there’s 10 seasons. I wouldn’t have thought you could get 10 minutes out of it, but apparently I’m out of touch. 1.6 million people tuned into last season’s opener. Think about that for a second. 1.6 million people had nothing better to do for twenty minutes than watch strangers go shopping for an event they’re not invited to. If that sounds like a pointless exercise, then that’s because it is. 

For those of you who have never seen it, or are unfamiliar with it, or simply prefer to forgo self-harm, I’ve included a YouTube link below to a typical episode, so you can get yourself up to speed. Watch it, and you’ll appreciate the level of inanity I’m talking about:

That episode you watched was chosen completely at random, because it really didn’t matter what particular episode I showed you. Each instalment is more or less indistinguishable from any other: if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. It’s as formulaic as they come.

Now conventionally speaking, formalism is simply an attribute of most reality TV, and in many cases a good formula becomes a real strength of the programme. If you think about the way things like The X Factor or Big Brother are put together, this makes a lot of sense. Shows like those are broadcast to the general public at a very specific time of transmission, with the intent of making the live shenanigans feel like a big event. The well-known formula involves the viewer through a familiarity of structure. It draws out the anticipation and makes you feel like you’re participating in a telly institution. Heck, drama can be formulaic; think about Buffy, or House or Friends – they all follow familiar patterns. Formulas can be used cleverly, inverted or subverted, to play with audience expectation or meta-textuality.
(It's like, deep. For real yo.)
But Say Yes To The Dress doesn’t do anything like this, because the formula is all it has going for it. The episodes are so homogenous, they can’t do anything unique. Once 'women buying stuff' is your premise, you’ve really limited yourself - the experience will be the same no matter what. Which makes me think that Say Yes To The Dress isn’t really entertainment, so much as heroin you can watch. What TLC has done essentially, is produce the exact same episode 181 times, and gotten away with it. 

If pressed to assign a genre to this show, I’d call it ‘wedding porn.’ There’s no regard paid to anything except immediate gratification. Any given episode will open with a montage of wedding dresses: a rapid-fire cutaway collage of them, paraded in front of our eyes for about a minute before anything actually happens. It’s almost ballsy how confident these sequences are in themselves. The director just blithely assumes that wedding dresses are what we’re here for, and that we’ll enjoy watching them for the sake of it. It’s unrestrained spectacle, of a style which has more in common with advertising than entertainment; as if marriage wasn’t an institution, but a ubiquitous product, much like life insurance, to be shoved down our throats. 

("Why d'you need three mirrors? Why not just turn your head?")
From there we’re introduced to our host, Randy Fenoli, the fashion director at Kleinfeld Bridal, a man who has managed to become something of an icon for this show. If I had to pin down why this was I would attribute it to Randy’s almost saintly levels of patience when it comes to dealing with rude and entitled people. Underneath Randy’s Botox injections, I see a guy with a lot on his plate. Nominally, Randy and his beleaguered staff are the only people in the show you wouldn’t hurl into a wood-chipper at a moment’s notice. 

It’s Randy’s job to sell these women a dress to wear at their ceremony, and it’s a tough gig. There’s always some seemingly-inconsequential problem barring them from actually handing over the cash. Maybe the bride’s gained weight. Maybe she’s on a tight budget and has to compromise on the quality. Maybe she’s a mother of two and doesn’t want something too provocative. Maybe she wants something to impress her husband and her dad, but can’t get them to agree, maybe the dress has to be themed, or maybe she just wants something that shows off her tits. Maybe longer, maybe shorter, less frills, more frills, without sleeves, with or without a veil: it goes on and on. Every choice is agonised over at length in a quest to find the right outfit.  
(Pictured: The Messiah.)
You see, from my limited male perspective, what to wear to a wedding comes down to one choice: suit or kilt. What either of those outfits will actually look like is entirely immaterial. But women can ill-afford the luxury of such flippancy when it comes to the bridal gown, and the show certainly does not shy away from this anxiety. Randy makes it continually clear that This Dress Is The Most Important Piece of Clothing You Will Ever Wear, and that Every Marriage Is Special, and that Every Woman Deserves To Look Beautiful. He repeats these tenets over and over again, like the newspeak of some nuptial thought-police. 

Now I’d like to make something clear. As I am now, I’m not at all interested in the prospect of marriage. This may well change. In a few years I could have a totally new opinion on it. If you ask again in 2025, I might well have a ring on my finger. But as I am now, typing these words, I’m not interested. The idea of the ceremony doesn’t fill me with any excitement, the vows ring hollow, and the whole thing just seems like a sentimental, over-expensive waste of time. Were it not an ancient tradition, nobody living today would think it was a good idea. Nobody thinks “we need some legal documents to make our love official”, without prompting I feel.
(The theme is 'whipped cream'.)
But on the other hand, I can be prompted to care about marriage, provided there’s something personal at stake. For example, two of my very best friends are now engaged and will marry in the near future: this is an event I do care about, and have a vested interest in. I will play an active role in the proceedings, and so naturally I want the event to be a success. (It’s much the same attitude I have to football: I don’t enjoy the sport myself, but that’s not to say I would begrudge others an enthusiasm for the world cup.) 

With this in mind, it’s interesting that the show doesn’t exploit emotional empathy properly, something which is particularly egregious if you recall that most of the brides seem to have been specially selected from a pool of the most obnoxious people on the face of the Earth. It tries: there’s ham-fisted music cues and slow-mo shots of teary-eyed girls, but no genuine pathos. It’s so hard to care about the plight of these women when we’ve only had two and a half minutes to know their entire life story. That’s less time than I spend in the company of the average taxi driver. It feels like having an autobiography thrown at you from out of a moving train. Just sayin’.   
(Gripping stuff right here.)
I will admit, very occasionally I’ll be roused from a stupor of total indifference by the appearance of a same-sex couple on the show.* I say this because what usually follows is a  genuinely interesting study of the way in which lesbian couples manage to manoeuvre archaic tradition and enjoy the same ceremony as heteronormative couples, without compromising on the issue of their own sexuality. These women sometimes need two dresses, both of which cater to their individual tastes and physiology, yet also compliment each other stylistically. At a time when this issue has been so hotly debated over, and the right hard-won by its supporters, it’s actually refreshing to see the minutiae of gay marriage shown so candidly and sensitively.

(From the gay spin-off; 'Say Okay To The Suit.')

But I still contend that when the unexpected appearance of lesbians is the only thing holding the audience’s attention, your programme’s format is probably doing something wrong.**

So if I had to boil down my displeasure down to one caustic criticism, then it would have to be the fact that there is simply nothing at stake. There’s no jeopardy whatsoever. The entire concept is a foregone conclusion. I mean, they’re going to buy a dress, right? If not actually on the show, then at least offscreen. A dress will be said yes to; it’s simply a process of elimination. It’s not as though there has ever been an episode where, by the end, the bride has shrugged and gone: “Well fuck it man, we can’t find it. I guess the dress I want doesn’t exist. Shit, we’ll have to cancel the whole thing. The wedding’s fucked, and I’ll have to dump Allan and move back in with my parents.” The lassie will have to wear something down the aisle, even it’s only a bin bag with a paper napkin on her head. I can’t be the only idiot to work this out.
(It would look better than this.)
It is this sense of useless routine more than anything else, which inspires the ontological tedium of ‘Say Yes To The Dress.’  TLC have told the same shaggy dog story over and over and over again for a decade. Even by the standards of your average television executive, that’s a pretty cynical exploitation of the general public’s spare time.  

And it’s not as though its content is the problem. For example, BBC 3’s ‘Don’t Tell The Bride’ is a successful reality show about the pitfalls of wedding planning. The premise is that the groom has to plan and pull of the entire ceremony single-handed, without contacting the bride face-to-face until the big day. The results are often disastrous and cringeworthy, but it’s exactly this which generates drama. There’s tension in every decision, because there’s every chance that it could all go horribly wrong, and all the while the gormless groom is running out of time and money. The show tries to ask “how well does he know her?”, which is surely a more interesting question than “what shoes go with that?” Okay, it’s not exactly I, Claudius, but it’s a start.

(A patrician's show if ever there was one.)
But the sheer laziness inherent in SYTTD puts me in the paradoxical state of being simultaneously bored to tears and also angry at the show for wasting my time. It’s not just that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s that I’m offended anyone even could. The sad part is that a bunch of suits actually sat down in room, ordered lunch, looked at a demographic of women, decided what sort of content they would enjoy, and came up with this. 

I don’t know who those women are, but I hope to god they’re as pissed off as I am. 


* And now, after the Supreme Court Ruling, this post is now officially Topical. Aren’t you glad you waded through 2000 words to get some kind of point?  

** Unless it airs on Babestation, in which case it’s what some might call a climax.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Someone New, Something different:

(Trumpets please ... any second now ... okay never mind, fuck it)

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand just like that, it's been a year since my last post. Well well well, tempus fugit when you're avoiding doing something you really, urgently should do. At this rate I should be about ninety before I actually get round to composing The Great Scottish Novel that'll make me some fucking money for a change.

But I digress ... and therein lies the problem.

For the three of you (and you know who you are, don't be coy now) who have had nothing better to do than wait approximately three-hundred and sixty-five days for me to peddle some newly-written, nondescript drivel over your newsfeed: CONGRATULATIONS! You've displayed unwavering loyalty to this blog and learned a valuable life lesson on the nature of procrastination - on the nature of mine anyway. Hopefully you've used this time to reflect on your poor life choices. For everyone else who's decided to jump in, let me bring you up to speed. Quick recap:

1: This is a blog.

2: I write it.
3: I write about myself.
4: This isn't an original concept, but never mind that now.
5: I try to be funny about things that aren't very funny at all.

Here's a pie chart:
(It contains no information whatsoever, but I think it comforts people)

And for those of you looking for a synopsis:

"-I'm not happy so here's a webpage with my words on it, there's really quite a lot of them and there's even more inside my head bursting to get out, so we've got a lot to get through; this is myself described and tidied up a bit with all the bad parts carefully ignored or omitted so you like me more, where have all my friends gone, I'm not happy, I wish I could make friends, I'm worried, death is inevitable, death is inevitable, death is inevitable, maybe violin will make death evitable, and gosh look at me go I've really got a lot to talk about haven't I, my last job was shit, I'm not happy-"

Then silence. For twelve months.

Now for the longest time I've been meaning to engage in casual writing again, since that was what this whole thing was supposed to be about, and yet despite all my best intentions, every weekend I had free to actually sit down, chill out and let go came my way, something, some nebulous, halting feeling of numbness and boredom would overcome me. It turned the fresh white page of word processor into a blank towel, soaking up word after sentence after paragraph, first drafts hesitantly typed, examined and deleted again, a turn of phrase or idea set to text for scrutiny, then discarded. And for as long as I struggled to articulate myself, I struggled to answer why. I think I have an answer of sorts now. I dunno if it's any good.

( ... )
A lot of it has to do with the fact that I've gradually found myself becoming content with life again. I'll give you a second to climb back on your chair and read that again if you need to. 'That miserable bastard Henderson finally has NOTHING to whine on about?' I hear you exclaim, dumbfounded. Well believe me, I'm as shocked as you are. Can't go back and trace this thread to the seam. Nothing momentous occurred. No big revelation, no epiphany. I didn't scale a mountain, consult a hermit  under a tree, spot a tiny daisy clinging to the cliff edge and think: "Golly gosh, this whole darn life business actually jolly well worth living! I'm going to feed the homeless, save the whales, eat nothing but fat-free, fair-trade, organic lentils and spend 6 months in Asia 'finding myself!" No, the sensation stole over me, very slowly, very gently, like a changing of seasons, winter to spring, from within.

(Pictured: inner peace, tranquility, and some trees and shit)
Now a lot of different things have helped to give me this perspective. True I've had to repeat another year at university, and I'm living with my folks for the time being, but I've gained work experience, learned to look after myself a little better, saw a few good old faces who knew I was in need, and gave myself days to think about study, and qualifications and a career actually decide to do it for myself this time around, not as some stuffy grown-up stranger, but as myself.

And of course, I can't mention happiness without my girlfriend. (or I could, and end up seriously maimed, in whatever ward hospitals reserve for terminally short-sighted boyfriends) I have, with much trepidation, been able to love someone again, after I thought I'd had enough of the whole desperate pantomime. What a warn-down, clapped out, corny, cheesy fucking rom-com cliche that is, but I am hysterically glad it's happened to me. But Tessa and I enjoy indulging in cheesy, so long as it's private. There you are, why bother being ironic about it. Love is the same old cycle of biology that's turned since the misty Cambrian millennia of long ago, and will turn on and on until the last thing breathing dies. It's been around longer than you. It was a cliche to the dinosaurs. There's not much new you can do with it.

And this love has not been like an effortless fall, that way was lost to me forever. It's been like creeping downstairs in the dark, surprised by that sudden empty step. But that's good too. It feels adult: careful and cautious and rewarding. Tessa has helped me claw back so much, and I couldn't be more grateful. I haven't had much luck with relationships in the past, but I hope this new thing I've stumbled into lasts as long as possible. She really one of the most incredible people I've ever met in my life, and if not for her inexhaustible reserves of kindness and patience, I'd still be a broken man. There will be a much longer, much more flowery post devoted solely to her in the next week, and I hope to explore funny coupley-stuff more frequently in posts to come.

(The best Google images had to offer)

Anyway guys, THIS post has taken me some time to straighten out in my head, there's more to come, so be gentle with it. I'm out of practice, but high on material. There's so much to say and so little time. My last job, did I tell you about that? What about when I went on that holiday to Budapest? Good times man! Or when me and Tessa went to Bruges? Or halls in first year, or my job in Waterstone's and how the violin's getting on. What about how my last relationship ended, and how I struggled with self-loathing and doubt until I managed to carve a space inside myself to store the pain away ... and fuck, what about the time I threw up everywhere on a three hour long public bus journey?
Christ, where have I been all this time, where have YOU been? This is better than smoking, and I'm getting back into the swing. We've a lot of ground to cover, a lot of me to talk about and my disgusting ego won't feed itself ya'know. Pull up an internet. Let's get started. Normal services have resumed.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Minimum Fun at Minimum Wage (Part 2):

"Boredom: (Adjective) an emotional state experienced by those who have been left without anything in particular to do, or have no interest in their surroundings."

Hmmm. Well well well welly welly well.

"Boredom"- maybe you feel that you can share an experience with me on this one; hold a candle next to mine in fellowship and say 'it's alright mate, I understand. I've been there. I know.' Maybe you believe you've held down an especially dull job at some point; perhaps one equal in terms of dullness to mine.  Maybe ... maybe.

Well, let me just alleviate you of that paradigm right fucking now: NO YOU HAVEN'T. Until you've worked in a factory environment, trust me on this one, you don't know what boring is. You might have tricked yourself into a passable impression of boredom at one time or another, but that holds about as much weight as a helium fart as far as I'm concerned. Your job was a birthday, Christmas, and VE Day rolled into one in comparison to my summer serfdom. Ten minutes in the biscuit factory and you'd pray to Christ almighty for an hour in San Quentin. You've scaled only the meanest foothills of the doldrums, thinking yourselves heroes of alpinism, while vast, Olympian heights of tedium tower further afield. For I alone among the ranks of mortal men have stared unblinking into the uttermost depths of abyss and survived, shaken and disturbed, to share my grim account with humanity ...  

(Waaaaaaaaah! WHAAAAAAAH!)
My point is that packing biscuit boxes wasn't very fun, alright? I might've exaggerated at teensy bit there. Anyway, moving on - let's not make a song and dance about it. Blimey.

So in the last post I mentioned the awful working hours, the dire pay, the long drive and the unpleasant smell; all legitimately unpleasant aspects of an unpleasant job. But each and every one of these minor issues pales before the unapologetic dreariness of the daily grind. Now some people cope well with monotony: they are skilled in and comforted by repetitive tasks, those labors which keep idle hands busy and the mind blissfully unburdened. I get it.

I know I must sound like the most disgusting snob to have ever drawn breath, but I'm honestly not trying to sound elitist when I tell you that, from the well of my soul, I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE. I'm easily distracted, I find focusing on uninteresting things insurmountably difficult, and I deal with stressful situations by running away from them and hiding until they magically diffuse themselves. None of those attributes are particularly savory to the prospective employer I'll grant you, but on the frantic factory floor it makes you as valuable as a paraplegic ballerina.

(You can forget about Mariinsky theatre Natalie!) 

Of course, in the grand tradition of the sadistic farce I like to call 'My Life' I didn't realize this until it was too late. Apparently my brain is like a petulant spoiled child; if it isn't being amused or diverted it throws a tantrum. Repetitive tasks do not a happy Hendo make. As a result, my new job soon felt like one of the more ironic hells that Dante kept in reserve for particularly loathsome sinners.

I worked chiefly in packaging: which is exactly the sum total of what the word entails. I constructed boxes by folding flat-packed cardboard, standing up, eight hours a day, five days a week. Let me break the process down for you:

1: Quickly pick up cardboard from the seven-foot-tall mountain on your right, making doubly sure to have it facing the right way up.

2: Fold cardboard into cuboid shape, using instructions provided, with the bottom of the newly-engineered box resting against the small desk in front of you.

(Note: failure to rest the bottom of a newly-engineered box against a small desk will leave the incoming biscuits unsupported, with the entirety of your product spilling onto the floor, leaving you looking like a dopey preschool twat. The more you know!) 

3: Nab eight biscuit packets from the conveyor belt to your left. 

4: Neatly stack biscuit packets in the newly-engineered box, in a pair of four. Again, all facing exactly the correct way.

(Note: for the love of Cthulhu and all his spawn you'd better have your biscuits stacked the correct way, because if you don't it will be literally impossible for humanity to ever contemplate enjoying a biscuit again. Shoddy stacking will irrevocably sully the experience for everyone forever. Society itself will collapse into anarchy if those biscuits aren't stacked like the bricks of the fucking Parthenon, you'd better believe it.)

5: Place box back on assembly line to be sellotaped shut.

6: Do all of this, like a robot, in less than ten seconds. 

7: Lose the will to live.

8: Contemplate the pros and cons of a shooting spree

9: Repeat ad nauseam, until the sweet release of death.

Not exactly spellbinding is it? Not unless we're referring to the Cruciatus Curse of course; then you're hitting the nail right on the head. Into the victim's eye socket. It was the apotheosis of monotony. The only way this would be an engaging vocation would be if I'd been born in a basement, and had spent the last 20 years in total darkness, eating flies.   

(Boxes: fascinating shit, yeah?)
 But I wasn't simply given a forklift's worth of raw materials to casually assemble at my leisure. Hell no! We're not playing with K'nex here kids; this is mass-production. If you miss even one box, you're buggered. See you don't have time to pick up the slack and fix that last one, because another is already on the way and you're out of rhythm as it is. So you decide to leave that half-finished bastard for now. But later: oops! Butterfingers! You've missed another. Now you've got a steadily-collecting pile on your hands. Miss a third and you might as well go the whole hog and just start sabotaging equipment and pissing into the mixture, because shit has just gone critical. Now everyone will fucking despise you and some other more competent individual will have to be dragged away from whatever he/she was doing to deal with your metashambles. Now you have no choice but to slink away, humiliated and ashamed, to find a job even less menial than biscuit packing. Maybe licking toilet seats clean, or waxing your manager's car with your bare arse. Odds are that's the only way you'll stay on the payroll.

(Come on, get licking)
You see, the assembly line is as relentless as age: a sprawling, gargantuan monster, messily devouring ton after ton of fresh oats, digesting them in the roasting, churning furnace of its belly, only to shit it all over you later on. Working with it is like nursing a beached whale. A beast with a hunger that never ends, with needs that will never be sated, moaning and wheezing for your undivided attention. Sore back? Stiff arms? No sleep? Tough. Fucking. Tomalley. The beast doesn't rest. The beast doesn't care. It needs attending to. It need attending to. It needs attending to. It needs attending to. It needs attending to. It need attending to. IT NEED ATTENDING TO!!!! AHAHAHAHAHAAAA!!! ABIDING SYNTAX CAN'T ANSWER THE PHONE RIGHT NOW PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE WITH THIS DUCK, AND I'LL PURLOIN YOUR CORNSTARCH KIDNEYS POSTHASTE-

... Ahem.

As you can see, after a fortnight of all this, I genuinely started to go a bit mental. I conducted my various duties in a slack-jawed, zombie-like stupor, perceiving the farcical tableau as though through smeared lens, or dense fog. Instructions barked at me were muted to inaudibility. At times it felt like my feet had lifted off the ground and the world had dropped away from me. Gradually, inevitably, I retreated inside myself to escape it all. At one point in the midst of my industry, my routine became so repetitive, that I experienced the epiphany that each individual moment of my life was now utterly indistinguishable from those proceeding and following it. It was an almost perfect display of recursion. Locked in the ever-shrinking cage of my own brain, I realised that, since physicists tend to define the passage of time as being dependent on the movement or transfer of energy, or a change in the state of matter, I conjectured that since each of the various reactions and operations surrounding me, observable or not, were identical; I had essentially entered a state of mind in which the clocks had stopped, the hands frozen, the gears ground to a halt. Inside my own skull I held time suspended.

It was times like those when I sincerely considered whether amateur lobotomy would make my new-found career more bearable. In any case, it might've been comparatively less painful.
(Pictured: the only escape)
My initial accidents and screw-ups were met with a sort of cheerful tolerance, later: weary resignation, and in due course: barely disguised irritation. I could sense the foreman's glare through the walls from several rooms away as I ineffectually dithered about. By the end of my brief tenure: I absolutely fucking despised that guy. There are very few people whom I can say I hate without compunction; but after two weeks of that bastard breathing down my neck, by golly he made the list. That put him, in terms of my estimation of his character, alongside my ex-girlfriend and Alan Carr. Make of that what you will.

(Irritation personified if you ask me)
My co-workers were a strange and unsettling bunch of misfits it must be said; hardly conducive to an atmosphere of solidarity. Most of them were Polish or Latvian for a start, and their English was less than conversational. The remainder could be neatly filed into the broken, missing or useless section of society; of which I now consider myself an honorary member. There was a sixteen year old with more boils than skin, a middle-aged mother of five who talked to herself under her breath as she worked, and stocky, scowling Greek who seemed to have made it his mission in life to pull me aside every fifteen minutes to explain the dumbfoundingly obvious, among others.

Most insane of all was Gordon; a 6 ft 2 man of perhaps fifty, who also happened to be a sufferer of Tourettes Syndrome. And I'm not talking the oh-so-comical TV Tourettes either; I'm talking about the Tourettes with the tics, jitters, stutters and spasms to boot. He was like a half-rusted clockwork toy, sprung jerkily into a shambling parody of animation. His motion wasn't so much a stride as a series of sudden falls indefinitely postponed. He marched from A to B and back again like something out of the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, always on edge and unsettled. He had this strange compulsion to keep himself moving at all times, like a shark or something.
(He was nothing like this, really)
Despite my pity, he was a headache to be around. Simple tasks became Herculean. His palsy made making tea excruciating. The rest of us would be reading the paper, texting, perhaps staring thoughtfully out of the window as if engaged in some unfathomable act of cognition. A complete pantomime of course; we were all painfully aware of Gordon's presence and knew that catastrophe was sure to befall him at any moment. After the long process of dribbling milk into his cup, and shaking out half a packet of granulated sugar, Gordon would then attempt to proceed to his seat at the table without incident. At this point all pretense at nonchalance had been dropped like a hot potato: we were now all on tenderhooks, watching the poor sod shuffle along at a snails pace. Gordon would tense up every muscle in his body to keep the tremors under control. The whole room would be livid with anticipation, and once he was over the halfway mark, there would come a mad, desperate moment wherein we all deluded ourselves into believing that he might actually make it. But, or course, at that very moment a shaking fit would overtake him and he would shower us with a torrential downpour of scalding tea. You had to be quick to use a magazine or a tea-towel as a shield, otherwise there were some third-degree-burns in your future. Of course, being drenched in hot tea would mean that we all had to (Say it with me now) strip of our lab-coats, bin them, and put on new ones. There would be apologies from Gordon, but he'd be so flustered that all we got was stuttering. It was quite sad really.  

(Picture this, on a Hurricane Katrina scale)
From up here on my high-horse (a perch I seem to find myself on rather often admittedly), it's easy to make fun of Gordon, with these snide anecdotes. But even he, for all his shortcomings and handicaps, was capable of doing his fucking job. Lest we forget, I was not so competent. There was a chap I worked with called Iain, and I'm not trying to sound like a bigot here, but he was retarded. Slow. Mentally deficient. I felt sorry for the guy, because some of the other workers would take the piss and wind him up. Not to the point of open cruelty, just needling, annoying him by asking questions he couldn't know the answers to. A twelve-year-old could've outwitted him, so a bored adult could run rings around the guy. Every day he would bring in the same lunch into work in the same old lunchbox, (cold ham roll, orange, Babybell cheese, Capri-Sun) the sleeves of his shirt stained with snot from where he'd wiped his runny nose. He was an overweight, dribbling mouth-breather. When he was confused, which was often when he elected to talk back to his tormentors, he glitched, and fell back on repeating the last thing said to him over and over again, this endless broken-record loop that lost all meaning until he hesitated, blinked, and recovered.
("Yup, it's a box alright.")
Iain was not handsome, or charming, or clever. But he was a wizard when it came to packaging. He would fold, stack dump with effortless grace. It was like a dance; there was a practiced rhythm to his movements. No-one else could do that job so well and for so long without a single complaint. I'm not trying to patronize the man with that comment, really I'm not. I wish I could tell you that Iain was secretly an idiot savant with a master talent for watercolors or the trombone: but he wasn't. He was dull-witted bloke doing a boring job for bad pay. But in a way I admire him. I remember watching him while he worked, gobsmacked, envious of his skill. I could'nae hack it and Iain could. It's simple as that. So disabled or not, on the factory floor that made him more valuable than me.

(Shit man, in the factory the bucket and mop were more valuable than me)
So there came the day when my manager called me into his office, and asked me how I felt I was getting on. I replied with the supreme understatement that I didn't think I was getting on so well. he agreed. To his credit the man didn't mince words. He told me that my abilities, whatever they were, clearly weren't suited to this environment, and concurrently I was to be taken off the payroll. I shook his hand, stripped and binned for the last time, and walked out the door. Humiliated and upset, I went for lunch and phoned my then-girlfriend, who was in Estonia at the time, expecting reassurance and understanding. I received only laughter and mild disinterest. I came home, broke the news to my folks, and walked the dogs. I think we can all agree life was all uphill from there.

(Always sympathetic ... unless there's bacon on the go)
As much as I joke about my experience, I know that I was only ever a tourist in hell; sampling the food, the big sights, the cosy cafes, but never really taking up permanent lodgings. Maybe I'm destined for bigger and better things, maybe not, but for some people that factory, that job, is their lives. It's what they get up in the morning for, it's where they work and struggle and labor for peanuts. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. Just to earn a bed and satellite telly. All for the few hours of real life they're left to squeeze in-between shifts. It's sad. Not all of us can live that dream of carefree affluence, of security, satisfaction and leisure. I think about the people I met who are still working that thankless job for minimum wage, and I'm damned grateful. I am. I think we all have to make the choice to do a really shitty job at least once in life, if only for the motivation to never end up having no choice at all ...

(This week I've been reading Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility.' It was alright. Didn't like it as much as 'Pride and Prejudice'. Not as witty. Protagonist's were less interesting ... What? Christ I've been revising this thing for days people! I've said everything I want to say in past-papers! Give me a break already! Jeez.) 

(On an unrelated note, check the cleavage on Marianne there. Crickey!)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Minimum Fun At Minimum Wage (Part 1):

Minimum wage; it's not a payroll for the haughty is it? You kinda sag inside like a burst sofa just contemplating it.  When I tell people that I'm earning that salary, it feels like admitting to an erectile dysfunction. It's like:

"Hey Callum, not seen you in while man! What you been up to?"

"Ah, you know, Uni. I'm working."

"Cool, how much do you earn?"

"Uh, minimum wage."


"Yeah. Minimum wage. The least amount of money I could legally be paid. I couldn't earn less if I tried. Yup. I mean, my boss would like to pay me less, by Christ he would, but there are laws stopping him. Otherwise I'd have the same salary as Bob Cratchitt. Sooooo all those years of education I've been through, are apparently completely wasted on me, because I'm now employed to perform a task that could be better accomplished by a ring-tailed macaque for a weekly paycheck that buys me a Pot Noodle in this economy. Until I have to pay tax. Top-banana."

(Would you like some self-respect with that?)
But there's minimum-wage and then there's minimum-wage. Some jobs are thankless and dull, but endurable despite it all. You expect nothing good from them, and you're never disappointed. You develop a camaraderie with your co-workers over how shit things are. You learn how to skive-off and forecast your managers moods. Eventually, with practice, it becomes just another round in the game of life.

Then there's the other kind; the kind of job that leaves you with PTSD after your first shift, the kind of job that reduces you to a gaunt, hollow-cheeked husk after a week. The kind of job that kills you, buries you in a shallow grave by a roadside dyke, then after sixty-hundred-and-sixty-six months uses the arcane arts of necromancy to reanimate you and put you back on the payroll.

(Working hard or hardly wor-ARRGHGHGHCKH!)
This was the type of job I got myself fired from. I'm still pretty steamed about it. You can't tell, can you?

In the June of '12, my dearest mother gave me a phone call to announce, with audible pride, that she'd secured my summer employment. She'd been drinking with people at the local highland games, exchanging news and gossip, and had managed to convince a friend's husband to give me a job in his biscuit factory. Interested was I. Naive was I. Unbroken was I.

You know, I was actually pretty stoked for it. I'd been unemployed over the last summer and it had not sat well with me. Plus the prospect of filling out applications and printing CV's and sending e-mails and the endless, endless rejection was too arduous to even consider. It was a job right? Money in my pocket: I didn't give a soggy shite how I got my hands on it, just as long as the labour was mindless, the pay regular and I could piss-off home before 5pm. It was a biscuit factory man, how hard could it be? I wasn't being sent down a mine-shaft, I'd be boxing oatcakes, Easy cash, right?

(The horror! OH THE HUMANITY!)
Wrong. In fact, I couldn't have been more wrong, not even if I had a PHD in cocking-up from the University of Gimboid.

For a start, I was informed that my shifts lasted from 6am to 3pm, every weekday. Since the factory was in Niddrie and I live in Bathgate, this meant that every morning started with a 40 minute drive. To get to work on time I had to climb out of my bed at 5am. Dear readers, 5am is not something that regularly happens to me. I have never been, of my own free will, fully conscious at this hour. I never had any desire to experience 5am. 5am is a phenomenon for those of us who have never had the good fortune to have heard of half twelve.
(Not pictured: me awake at this ungodly hour)
There's our first mark on the tally of shittiness: 5am start. So I was a bit miffed about the hours, but so what? I'm the employee here, I thought, I can't presume to dictate my shift pattern; that's arrogance. Let's actually work a day before we start with the whining, aw'right?

So Monday morning I pitched up at the gates, 5.55 sharp, signed all the appropriate forms and donned my work clothes. When dealing with food; I don't have to tell you guys how important sanitation and hygiene was to the business ... but fuck it, I'll tell you anyway. All employees had to adhere to a strict dress-code. We were required to wear a hairnet at all times for a start, and that was fucking humiliating. And I didn't get a baseball cap hiding it like the kids in Subway. Nah, I was constantly aware of how much of a twat I looked; and I looked like a monumental twat. I could actually feel my stifling twatishness and it was suffocating. I felt like a sideshow attraction.  

(And I looked like this. Seriously)
Then there were these rubber soles that we had to pull over our boot-heels, for some tenebrous reason which continues to escape me to this day. The piercing squeak they made when rubbed against linoleum was excruciating, and it soon came to be the bane of my senses. My skin would crawl and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in anticipation of it, it was so horrible. They were of the one-size-doesn't-quite-fit-anybody variety, and a bitch to pull on. Even harder to take off, come to think of it: I once went home with them still attached because anything shy of a crowbar would not have budged 'em.

(The engineer's shoehorn)
We also had to wear these disposable labcoats, which seemed to be made out of wood-pulp and tissue paper as far as I could discern. They could be torn by a butterfly's eyelash and they practically dissolved in water. You had to strip everything off and throw it in the bin every single time you left the factory floor. Every time you had a break, took out the bins, went to the toilet, masturbated, murdered a co-worker, whatever, you had to strip off, bin your clothes, and put on new stuff. It doesn't sound so bad does it? But believe me, after you've done this approximately eight times a day, it starts to wear you down.

So, properly attired, I was ready (not really) to commence my imminent carousel-ride through all seven circles of Hell. The next fortnight was as traumatic as watching your girlfriend have an affair with your Alsatian.  

(Adultery's a sin Rover)
Can I say before I begin my account; this job was not in any way complicated. I had few responsibilities, and it wasn't like any mistakes I made lost the business thousands, or put other careers in jeopardy. Yet I still managed to get myself fired without pouring anthrax into the vats or committing embezzlement. It took a staggering degree of stupidity, but I managed it.

So I was a factory worker; not a position I was proud of by any stretch of the imagination, but I was also a new guy with no previous experience, which put me roughly just below yeast in the factory food-chain. I was everybody's bitch, and for good reason: I never had a clue what I was doing. Usually I had a lot of janitorial work to do, because by and large it was the one type of work that I could do without ruining everything. This meant a lot of sweeping, which was good, because usually when you're sweeping people leave you alone. It's such a dull, pointless lowbrow task that supervisors usually pay it no heed. Often, they wouldn't notice that I'd been meticulously sweeping the same four feet for twenty minutes, which left me free to daydream. If any of you guys suffer the misfortune to become janitors, I've got one piece of advice for you: learn to mop in your sleep. It will make your life immeasurably easier.

(These are life skills I'm teaching you guys)
But that was the nicey-nicey stuff. I also had to wheel this wire-frame trolley about the place, just in this perpetual circuit, picking up litter and dragging it out to the recycling dumpster outside. Well I say dumpster, really it was this huge steel shipping container that was stacked fit to burst with cardboard and paper and zip-tags. 

I also had the ignomious job of collecting the waste biscuits in these large cylindrical plastic bins, and dumping them in an entirely separate shipping container. This was by far the most repugnant of my various duties, and the one I loathed the most. For a start, those bins were heavy. You might not think that oatcakes are the weightiest of foodstuffs, but once those bins were full they became as dense as a collapsing star. Also, I had this job before I started taking regular exercise and weight-training seriously, so my soft wee noodle arms would struggle to lift even one more than ten feet without my having an asthma attack. The only choice you had if you wanted to avoid picking up fifty metric tonnes was to jog around the factory floor, taking out the bins before they got too full. Anything filled more than halfway was exhausting to shift, so you had to be quick, but often the effort of keeping up with the pace of the machinery was more knackering than just heaving the bloody things out when they were full.

(Don't look at me like that, lifting things is hard)
 The recycled biscuits were to be shipped off to feed swine, which meant they needed to at least be edible. That meant that on more than one occasion, I had to climb into this dank, rusted shipping container to clear out the rodents that were nesting in the waste product. I'd have to wade through sodden, moldy biscuits, stabbing mice out of the oaten heaps with the end of my broom, wincing as they scurried past my shins in their droves. I was like the pied piper if he'd fallen on hard times in the recession. I mean, have any of you ever had to endure the rank stench of mountains of soggy biscuits mouldering away in the darkness? In a cramped, confined space, juxtaposed with the biting odor of rat droppings? That experience will change you. After a while, the smell just settles into your lungs and stays there for good. I started to sweat biscuit and cough up crumbs. It bleached my eyebrows white. The smell of hyacinths, a lovers perfume, cinnamon, coffee, cloves, garlic, mint and rosemary; these scents are all lost to me now. The factory was overall extremely clean, and we had the vermin situation under control, but I personally had a plague to deal with. I felt positively bubonic by the end of each shift. That shipping container became my Room 101.   
(How do those rat turds taste Babe?)
But the fun didn't stop there folks! We're only on the tip of this horse-manure iceberg, and things only got progressively worse ... 


(This week I've been reading the famous satirical mock-epic 'The Rape of the Lock' by Alexander Pope, which is; shock and horror, actually pretty funny. Imagine that! People in ye olden days had senses of humor! In all seriousness if you haven't read it yourself, then give it a look, particularly if your a classics student with a firm knowledge of 'The Iliad' or 'The Aeneid' - I'm looking at you Rachel - although I still haven't read either myself ... Whoops. There goes my carefully cultivated facade of literacy ...)

(Alexander Pope: A Pretty Cool Guy)