What do you do all day?
Several years ago, washed up on the shores of (occasionally selective) unemployment, I didn’t work. Much. Sometimes I went into offices and answered telephones. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I lined up with blowsy actresses and sang “Annie Get Your Gun” songs in front of audition panels. Then, unkempt and annoyed, I shuffled back to my lovely flat hoping secretly I wouldn’t have to go to Bolton for £250 a week. I realised early on that getting paid to do something was an erroneous fallacy; that it was a deception to tell young people that the journey to adult self-reckoning starts with ungainful employ. I got the taste for liberty and I liked it. I learnt the art of using it.
They call it ‘head space’. I sat happy in that eerie silence that you feel in blocks of residential flats at 11.30am on Tuesdays. Occasionally I worried that I really ought to have more concern for establishing financial security, but I always came round to thinking things always work out in the end. No one would ring; everyone was out chasing a different kind of life. My friends were robustly going about establishing their careers. They bought flats, shopped in Jigsaw, moved, had splendid cars, enjoyed extravagances I never thought of – and moved again. Back in my head space, the North London streets were nearly as peaceful in the middle of the working day as they are in the middle of the night. The air freed up and allowed you to think, and it was wonderful to think that the world and its hassles had temporarily forgotten me. I was very very fortunate; I lived rent-free in a flat 15 minutes from Central London. I had to pay for bills and living costs only, so I worked enough to get by (having found signing on demoralizing, so stopped doing it after two months although I liked the money) and the rest of the time I enjoyed myself. Not only did I morally feel unobligated to do anything else, but I felt there was a moral imperative to the freedom I had serendipitously acquired.
“So, what do you do all day?”
The question came in lulls, after coffee. It came from the bilious, the inquisitive and the sulky. It was underscored with worldweary incredulity and sometimes it sounded a little bit cross.
My philosophy was built not on the accrual of money but on a reward system where I earned leisure. If I earned £50 a day in an office, I told myself, I paid myself for two days of leisure. One week on; one week off. I earned, and decided to spend that money on time. I did time, like a prisoner in an office, and then I was rewarded time. Whilst there is nothing noble in idleness, it still doesn’t mean that is something noble in doingness – not if you don’t believe in what you are doing. Time, like money, means nothing if you do nothing with it. And what did I do with that time – what, to paraphase the bitter, did I “do all day?”
I woke up, had breakfast and smoked a Silk Cut King Size. I read history books, sometimes one in two days, whizzed through a vast selection of fiction works, started a short story and then took my washing to the launderette. Then, came back, had a cheese sandwich and basically did the same thing all over again – biographies, history of Hollywood, obscure tales of London – or if I wasn’t reading, I was learning Italian, or singing through all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks so often (maybe Monday Harold Arlen’s, Tuesday Rogers & Hart) that in about five months I had 150 songs memorized which I haven’t ever forgotten. I would wrestle with Debussy at the piano for 45 minutes or so until supper. Sometimes the neighbours would applaud my singing and playing, but mostly they would shout out of their windows “Can you turn it DOWN?!” I wrote poetry (badly but at least it wasn’t as risible as the short story I started that morning), had a bath and put some Dizzy Gillespie on. I never thought of TV until the evening, and had no internet to distract me either. I hardly drank, never went to the hairdressers, and rarely went shopping. I didn’t have a holiday for a couple of years. It was splendid. I read more books than I read during my entire Masters course a decade later. What I understood was how to be still in my own space; how I worked, when I should work, and what I ought to do with my life. More importantly, I learned how to accommodate, be the master of and enjoy, time. None of what I was doing felt like labour; it was all just me being me and doing what came naturally, anyway. Unbeknownst to me, I was shoring up intellectual resources by banking everything I was learning which meant I was able to withdraw much of it for a MA ten years in the future.
As the years have rolled by, and automony and financial necessity have caught up with me, I now find the world turned upside down. I am working like a Trojan. All the people who were strongly advancing their careers and sacrificing their liberty ten years ago are now at home all day, agitated and confused victims of le crunch de credite. It is the first recession of our major adult lives, and one of every two of my friends is blinking into the sunlight and coping with NGE (no gainful employ) in the near future. They panic, of course. It is ten years later and liberty doesn’t pay. Their financial commitments are those of the 35 year old, not the 25 year old, but once some peace of mind is gained on the finance situation (the biggest battle of them all) they don’t know what to do with their time. They don’t know what to be with their time. They feel odd. Bit by bit – and then suddenly all at once – they get it.
They get the glorious liberty of peace at 11.30am on a Tuesday morning in a residential street. They feel the value of it and understand it is meaningful. They get the quality of life without obligation, except that to yourself. They wear what they want. They get that to give a corporation anything other than your time (loyalty, devotion, conscience) is unwise. They wander if life is made up of a different kind of stuff than the stuff they have been busy with for ten years. Silently, rapidly, space clears in their heads. Many have taken up baking or crafts – in particular work that uses manual skills – and most have started to read or learned a language. They feel the worth of peace and find they don’t need the things they used to spend money on anyway. They stop buying new clothes and it never bothers them. (The greatest shame is that I am the only person who has managed not to lose their job during the recession so I can’t join them for lunch. Dammit!) Most of these people find jobs again, some in the same sector, but some in vastly different areas. One has pledged never to work again, although is unsure how to manage this unless she takes up prostitution. Everyone is – at the end of the process – happier. Time has landed on their doorsteps, whether they liked it or not, and it’s visit has been ultimately rewarding.
And (I like to think) everyone gets me a little bit more. Or if not, the person I was, and what I was doing when they were all out developing careers; that they fathom what it’s all about. I never ask “So, what do you do all day?” as people used to do to me. If anything, I get over-excited if someone gets paid off for getting laid off and think its marvellous. “Great! Think of all the things you can do?! Would you like to go on a day tip to Bath?” This over-excitement isn’t always appreciated, to be honest. People are anxious, exhausted and poorer than they were two years ago. The only thing they are rich in is time. Although I have to work now (and will, no doubt be buried with a computer attached to me so that I can do some emails for my boss from beyond the grave) I had my time, did my freedom and mined the various spaces in my head. Looking back, it is singular that it never bothered me what those who asked “So, what do you do all day?” thought or felt. I just kept on doing my thing. Funds are low at the moment, but the liberty I banked in the past granted me perspective, made me stop a first, false career and sharpened new ambitions. And you can’t put a price on that.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.