Joanna Briscoe: At The Sharp End
'Beneath my slacker habits lies an inner spod, horrified if I haven't produced a literary masterpiece in under a year'
Wednesday 06 December 2006
Why are we such lazy tossers? I'm sitting here now, torn between watching one of the very final wring-it-till-it's-desiccated I'm a Celebrity post-series catch-ups, and doing a spot of work. I'm not talking A&E night shifts or a Sunday in chambers charging through legal briefs. Oh no. Just a little light columning in my dressing gown. But the prospect of a deadline quite spoilt my weekend, thank you very much, then injected a flavour of surly urgency into the early part of the week.
Though we all have a complex attitude towards work, the freelance approach is screamingly dysfunctional. We long-term self-employed are the perpetual mistresses of the workforce when it comes to our relationship with our computers: vulnerable, self-defeating, accusatory, given to serial resolutions but essentially unable to learn as we partake once again in the daily dance of death with our cursors.
My own latest self-improvement push involves working in the British Library. I do realise that a couple of centuries' worth of novelists before me have come up with this particular wheeze, but hey, it's a revelation to me. You can't talk! You can't e-mail! You're surrounded by dweebs! You have to work!
An institutional atmosphere is the only thing the poor conditioned mind responds to after years of studying: how encouraging the rustling of paper, the ink regulations, the stone courtyards, the lockers and drinking fountains. To put it simply, the conditions of double maths have to be recreated to rev up one's word count, otherwise the temptations of Popbitch are too strong.
The British Library is the soft version of what's really needed. What muscular masterpieces one could fashion if imprisoned, like Gramsci, Wilde, or, er, Jeffrey Archer. How prettily one could produce limpid French accounts of adolescence if, like Colette, one had a husband called Willy to lock one up in one's writing room.
It seems that anyone who tangles with a computer for their living suffers the same tiresome mental paradoxes and procrastination habits. Having just completed my own telephone survey, I offer you some common office-work avoidance techniques. Spurious stationery cupboard forays for Sellotape ("office retail therapy"). Visits to the post room for extra Jiffy bags. Tea-making. Foraging trips for things to eat ("especially visits to marketing in hope of the Slovenian liqueur chocolates they had last week"). Discreet online supermarket shopping, and browsing of the Topshop website and cheap city breaks.
Freelance techniques are well known: washing machine, tea, e-mails, chocolate, e-mails, coffee, tea, e-mails, tea, banana, milk-buying, tea, walk, newspaper, sudden bath, e-mails, tea, tea, tea. Then there's Googling your friends. Googling your enemies. Googling your exes. Googling your exes' partners. Googling yourself. Consulting Friendsreunited, Yournotme.co.uk and Awfulplasticsurgery.com. Just as we all wrote our Sylvia Plath dissertations on the last two days of the holidays, so we cram the urgent stuff into less time by whipping up false adrenaline.
No wonder. We have the longest working hours in Europe and the second-longest in the world. Longer hours are statistically bad for productivity, health and sex lives: it's inevitable we have to rebel in puerile fashion. Procrastination is also linked to perfectionism, which makes sense to me: beneath my slacker habits lies an inner spod, basically eternally horrified if I haven't produced a literary masterpiece in under a year through rigorous lucubration. According to the University of Cambridge Counselling Service, procrastination "commonly involves feelings such as guilt, inadequacy, self-disgust, stress and depression". The medieval image of a lazy man lying on a bed of spikes just about sums it up. Clever medievals.
The only problem with the British Library is that, in flagrant contravention of its rules, you can text in the reading rooms on silent mode. Oh for that distracting little vibration....
Size 12 is the new 16. Since the size-0 debate, non-anorexic women in the public eye are described as "a curvy size 12". I even read a recent interview in which some micro-celeb felt driven to declare, "I'm a curvy size 10" in defensive tones. Jen Hunter, the size 12 one-off from Make Me a Supermodel, says, "I was made to feel like a freak." Forgive me if I'm a walking lard mountain, but size 12 seems ideal to me. About time that footbinding came in, isn't it?
Apparently William Windsor has made it to the Sword of Honour shortlist for best officer cadet at Sandhurst. How we all snorted. This is the same William who recently mislaid one's machine gun. The same William who was a member of Pop at Eton. Whose pater was head boy of Gordonstoun, and whose uncle Edward got into Cambridge on a C and two Ds at A-level. And we shout about cash for honours? A meritocracy quietly leapfrogged by a plutocracy exists now just as it did under Thatcher. I recommend out-and-out cynicism as a logical mindset.
Joanna Briscoe's novel Sleep with Me is published by Bloomsbury (£7.99).
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