I seem doomed to keep breaking my pledges where this column’s concerned. The first instalment of Heretic Songs was back in September, and I said I’d see you next month; after which, nothing more until February. In that instalment, I pledged to talk next about the role of supernatural horror fiction when religious belief wasn’t involved. Guess what? I’m not doing that either. (Next time, maybe.)
On the other hand, I did say I’d provide an explanation for the lengthy silence, so here it is.
Back in January, I was taking the bus to college, and it passed through a part of Salford called Irlams O’The Height. It was dusk, and from the bus’ top deck there was a great view of the Pennines coming alive with lights. The whole scene was lit by a soft, silvery twilight; it was beautiful, and I’d never have got to see it on any weekday while attending my day job. A small thing, but it crystallised something in me, and convinced me that the decision I’d made a few weeks earlier had been the right one.
I’ve always worked day jobs, and they’ve always been fairly crappy, low-level affairs. Partly because, really, writing’s what I’m here for; it always has been, and anything else is just paying the bills. Plus, even a professional novelist had better resign himself to a low income.
As the writing career has started picking up, there has been just the glimmer of a chance that things might change. But until it was certain, I decided, I’d remain employed. That was the voice of the sensible, middle-class kid I’d been raised to be: don’t jump until you have something else to go to. I think I even congratulated myself on how sensible I was being – how mature. If that isn’t begging life to teach you a lesson, nothing is.
Trouble is, of course, if you’re a writer – hell, any kind of creative artist – being sensible has nothing to do with it. Your whole life, what you do, is about dreams and fancies, what-ifs and maybes. It’s about looking out of the bus window and seeing another world in the shadows and twilight of the real one. It’s about wanting moments like that: landscapes at dusk, walks in the rain. It’s about finding beauty and wonder in a vacant lot or abandoned building. One way or another, openly or covertly, that side will always be at war with the prosaic, repetitive dictates of a nine to five job.
I’ve worked in a call centre for five years. In 2011, I’d had to take four months off work due to stress – an occupational hazard among call centre workers, albeit one I’d always been sceptical about until I actually fell victim to it. When I’d returned, I was bunged straight back into my old role and expected to do the same job that had caused the problem in the first place – there was no prospect of a change of duties. Well, I only intended the return to be short-term – my aim was to get away and do something different. But, all through last year, the problems mounted, and the pressure grew. I’d had a clean disciplinary record throughout my time with my employer, but in 2012 I had two formal disciplinary meetings within a matter of months, both rooted on my struggles to cope with the job.
Then, at the end of September, I terminated a call from a difficult customer. I felt I was within my rights to do so, but management disagreed. I was suspended, pending a third disciplinary hearing that would almost certainly end in dismissal.
Other than a month in 1998 when I was still living with my parents, I’d never been unemployed. Last time I’d changed jobs, I’d been hunting for one for months, and that was before the recession hit. Even trying to picture what I’d do if I got sacked paralysed me. I was a wreck, and – surprise, surprise – was soon signed off with stress again.
As so often happens, the writing helped keep me something approaching sane – the rest of 2012 was spent finishing the final draft of novel number three, then writing the first draft of novel number four. I couldn’t think far enough ahead to contemplate the future. A friend asked if I could afford to freelance for a few months. Initially I dismissed the idea, trying to work out which low-level, badly-paid jobs I should apply for – jobs I didn’t want, but which would pay the bills.
The hard fact is that there’s always a price. A day job gives you a steady income, but most of them demand almost everything you have in return. That’s especially true of sales and ‘customer service’ roles – increasingly prevalent in a Britain where no one makes anything anymore. They’re called ‘soul-destroying’ for a reason.
Uncertainty is the price you pay for freedom, but it’s also a part of life. We all assume, day to day, that things will mostly stay the same: long-term planning would be impossible if you couldn’t depend on some things, at least, remaining constant. That you’ll still have a job, that you’ll still have your health, your home, your marriage – hell, that the world will still be here. But none of these things are guaranteed. The economy could tank; your company could go bust or they could ‘restructure’, leaving you out of a job, or some new technology could suddenly make your whole profession redundant. You could find yourself with cancer, or any one of a hundred debilitating or lethal medical conditions – your brakes could fail on the motorway or you could cross the path of a drunk driver. War could break out, or the whole planet could get hit by a comet tomorrow morning. And then you’re gone, and all the dreams you didn’t live are dust.
All that we love is fragile, we possess it only by the whim of chance. It could be taken away at any moment. No wonder some of us weave stories out of that – where monsters, human or otherwise, come to rob us of what we cherish most.
So I thought of the past few months, aside from the dread-making spectre of unemployment, they’d been happy. Writing hadn’t been something to be juggled any more, squeezed in around a stressful, draining shift. It had been the day’s work, and you could make your own hours, step away from the desk and wander off if needs be – to admire a dusk, or walk in the rain. It was, beyond doubt, not just the way I wanted to live, but how I needed to. All of a sudden, that suggestion about freelancing didn’t seem so foolish. It might – just might – be practicable. That was the decision I made – the one I knew had been the right one that evening on the bus through the Height.
And so, on the 20 February this year, I resigned from my job and registered as self-employed. It’s frightening, of course – for the first time, the security of a monthly salary isn’t there. But I feel happy, and alive, as I haven’t in years, and I think – hope – I’ll be okay. Even though nothing’s guaranteed.
As Steve Jobs once pointed out, your time is limited. You can’t have everything, so learn what matters most to you. And if you find that you want the dusk, you don’t really have a choice.
Till next time.
PHOTO: ANGUS CLYNE
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