Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Corporate Procedure and Artistic Expression

Last month I was summoned to a 'formal interview', and two days later a letter informed me that I was to attend a 'disciplinary hearing'.

I sent a text to Linda: A chocolate has mysteriously found its way into my lunch box. I am giving it a 'formal interview' to establish why it hasn't followed 'procedures'. If I discover that the chocolate has a brain and is capable of acting upon its own initiative, it will be given a 'disciplinary hearing' and charged with 'conduct unbecoming of a lemon cream'.

The manager conducting the hearing showed all the humanity and sense of proportion I expect of a speed camera. When I reminded him that I had an exemplary record during my eight years with the company and that no-one had suffered from my 'crimes', he informed me sanctimoniously that a murderer is still a murderer, even if he (or she) has led a previously blameless life.

The night after the hearing I dreamt that I was back in the flat in Colnbrook. Concorde had just been bought by Quantas, painted bright red, and was about to make its first flight since coming out of retirement. We rushed to the windows to watch the beautiful bright red bird ascend smoothly into the stratosphere, but then something went horribly wrong. The plane went into a spin, then plummeted earthwards, disintegrating into flaming pieces. Horrified, I could only think of all those people on board, anticipating the journey of a lifetime and a happy landing on the other side of the world.
I woke up at 3.30 wondering whether this dream was symbolic of the crashing and burning of my driving career, or of the more widespread crushing of the human spirit's freedom to soar by the weight of procedure and legislation. Are we in the hands of incompetent pilots or afflicted by a more general social malaise that is eliminating human essence from existence?

The divorce of essence from labour was fundamental to the antagonism Marx felt towards capitalism. In performing the dull and repetitive tasks generated by the division of labour, the factory workers spawned by the Industrial Revolution were no longer making use of the invention and imagination that distinguished human productivity from the instinctive forms of production practised by animals. 'Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, ' declared The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848), 'the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, the most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.' Because such labour separated people from the distinctive qualities that made them human, Marx contended in the mid-nineteenth century that they were scarely identifiable any more as human beings.

In the twenty-first century, management issue 'procedures' like confetti because people cannot be programmed into instinctive obedience like computers. Imposed to eliminate the requirement to think, 'procedures' - never to be questioned, overlooked or disobeyed - are the next best thing. I'd left the hearing with a 'Final Written Warning' (an odd concept considering I've never previously had a 'written warning') and questioning the manager's grip on reality. I hadn't murdered, hurt or maimed anyone. I hadn't been rude or abusive. I hadn't damaged any equipment. I hadn't stolen from anyone or attempted to defraud the company. I had committed the worst heresy of all in failing to follow 'company procedures'.

If this computer malfunctions once more it will be scrapped
For the past eight years the day job has served its purpose admirably. It demands no thought, so I have been able to perform my daily tasks on automatic pilot, pay the bills and get on with what makes me human: creating 'Why Don't You Fly?' and Karl Marx and Careful Driving. An idea is sometimes so good that I have to stop in the next lay-by or service area to write it down in my notebook before continuing, but the disciplinary hearing followed by the dream are the clearest signals that I have reached one of life's T-junctions. I can now hardly bear the prospect of going to the place I call work, where 'procedures' overrule common sense and where for the next twelve months I'll be operating under the threat of dismissal for the smallest misdemeanour or mistake.
Reuniting human essence with existence can only achieved by forging a career as author and inspirational speaker, but if I am to abandon the day job I must write one or more best-sellers and / or build a client base for my talks which means approaching more schools, colleges and universities, places where each year I'll be speaking to a different set of pupils or students.

Neither task will be easy. First of all the writing: I was simultaneously appalled and inspired by an article in the Sunday Times Magazine about the author Stephen Benatar. I had never heard of him.

'No, I never felt downhearted about the failure of any of my books. I have wondered why they haven't been taken up by readers and why does nobody know me? The thing is, I love to write. '

Stephen Benatar writes for exactly the same reason that I do: because he wants to be read. He got his first rejection slip at the age of twelve for a short story. At the age of 19 his first novel was rejected. He wrote 11 novels over the next two decades, but all were rejected by publishers. When The Man on the Bridge was published by Harvester when Benatar was 44, he dared to believe that finally, his literary career was about to take off. Despite good reviews, however, the novel failed to get good sales. Wish Her Safe At Home was then published in 1982 by The Bodley Head. The book received great reviews and was the runner-up for the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, but like The Man on the Bridge it was unable to generate good sales figures. Bloodied but unbowed, Benatar kept on writing. By the end of the eighties he had written 15 books, only four of which were published. Cosmo Landesman, the Sunday Times interviewer, asked Benatar if he was downhearted during this period. His answer is salutary, proof to me that writing is a vocation, something one simply has to do irrespective of income.

'No, I don't feel any bitterness or envy of successful authors. Honest. People like Ian McEwan, I don't envy him because I don't rate his work. '

In 2007 Benatar attempted to get Wish Her Safe At Home republished as a Penguin Classic, but despite a fantastic review from Professor John Carey, a highly regarded reviewer for the Sunday Times, they rejected him. So did 36 other publishers. He took to republishing his novels under his own imprint - Welbeck Classics - and selling signed copies personally at bookshops. Managers have been astonished by his success - he sells on average around 50 books on each appearance. His record is 128. His secret is to approach browsers in bookshops and chat to them about his book - something that admittedly I'd find very hard to do.

Now, at the age of 73, after decades of obscurity and countless rejection slips, Stephen Benatar is finally on the verge of finding success as a writer. The New York Review of Books, having already published his novel Wish Her Safe At Home in the States, is about to launch a British edition. His lucky break came when he bumped into the managing editor of the publishing section in a bookshop and persuaded him to buy a copy. 'I read the book straight away and was knocked out . It's not every day you find a neglected classic from an Englishman who is still alive. Everyone in the office read it and was just as excited as I was,' said Franks.


I hope I get my lucky break before I reach my seventies, but I may never get it at all. Like Benatar, however, I will keep writing. What started out many years ago as Driving Dorabella, a story about one man driving his truck from the United Kingdom to the oil fields in Kazakhstan has metamorphosed into Karl Marx and Careful Driving, a grand opera in three parts about European history and the ideas that shaped it. For centuries the conductor of this great opera was thought to be supernatural but the rise of humanism in the fourteenth century led to an increasing belief that human beings are the directors of their own opera. Because of the role his ideas played in the political history of the land through which the author is travelling, Karl Marx is the star. The validity of his materialist conception of human nature and his critique of nineteenth century working life is tested against the author's personal experience of working life at the end of the twentieth century. Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Rousseau, Aristotle and Plato are co-stars, and Emperor Constantine, St Augustine, Tsar Nicholas II, Ronald Reagan, Bakunin, Feuerbach, Hegel and John Locke are amongst an illustrious supporting cast.

Thinking that watching someone else talk about an epic cycling adventure might give me some ideas of how to improve my own talk, we went to Malvern Theatres on 22 April to see a talk by the record-breaking long-distance cyclist Mark Beaumont. In 2008 Mark took 81 days off the previous record for the time taken to circumnavigate the world by bicycle, covering the 18,300 miles in 194 days and 17 hours, and crossing four continents and 20 countries. 16 months later he cycled 13,000 miles from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego. I would estimate that there would have been perhaps around 800 people who paid £14 each for tickets to see the talk and Mark
probably sold around 200 copies of his book in a single evening.

Two years ago the Ludlow Cycle Users Group hired Ludlow Assembly Rooms and opened my own talk and slideshow up to the general public. Over a hundred people paid £5.00 per ticket, and many more were apparently turned away at the doors. The talk was well received and I sold 20 copies of 'Why Don't You Fly?' afterwards. I began to think that as well as approaching groups such as the W.I., Townswomen's Guilds and Probus Groups, I ought to be hiring theatres and directing my talks to the general public. Unlike Mark I haven't broken any world records and my journey hasn't been serialised by the BBC, but the experience in Ludlow indicates that I might reasonably expect audiences of between 100 and 200 people to turn up and pay £7.50 each to hear about another epic ride. Hopefully they might also purchase 20 - 30 copies of 'Why Don't You Fly?'.

On Saturday 24 April we went to the Symphony Hall to see a performance by the Academy of Ancient Music of the Overture to Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, Mozart's Piano Concerto No 25 in C major, and Mozart's Requiem. Two of the soloists in the Requiem interested me a great deal. James Gilchrist, the tenor, used to be a doctor before turning to a full-time career in music in 1996:

'I was once accosted by someone after a concert in Aldeburgh, who told me I wouldn’t remember him (he was not quite right, but I certainly couldn’t place him), and telling me that he used to tell me off for humming during his operations when I was a student of surgery, and now look – he’s having to fork out a fortune to hear me! He was delighted to do so, of course, and it was an important lesson for me about why music is so valuable to us all. I believe the arts are in some profound way essential to all of us. Artistic expression and endeavour are what make us human, and the most visceral and basic of our modes of communication. It’s glib to call music the medicine of the soul, but I think there’s some truth in that. '


Christopher Purves, the bass, began as a performer with the rock and roll group Harvey and the Wallbangers before embarking upon a career singing as a classical soloist:

Purves came to opera late and not by the well-trodden route of young artist programmes, prizes and talent scouts. He didn’t study music (he read English at Cambridge) and sang in a rock band, Harvey and the Wallbangers, until 1987. He also recorded the theme to the Um Bongo soft drink ads (“Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo . . .) “Not the prime way of getting into opera,” he notes drily.


I rather like people who don't follow established procedures. James Gilchrist and Christopher Purves are wonderful talents. Artistic expression and endeavour are what make us human.

Nodding donkeys near Atyrau, Kazakhstan (photo courtesy of Lenny Coulson)

May promises to be a busy month. Switching from one line of narrative to another in Karl Marx and Careful Driving must be achieved without derailing the reader, so points will have to be oiled. I must research the oil industry in Kazakhstan and the Crusades, and re-read Rousseau's Social Contract.