Jamie Woodcock – Working the Phones (Pluto)

Everyone should read Jamie Woodcock’s book. It is a covert work on call centres. It explodes several myths. The first is about post-industrial labour and ‘office work’ being some sort of Hegelian historical progress, as though the next silhouette in the chimp parade is wearing a suit, tie and headset.

This work is as brutal as factory labour, but it focuses its regime on the psyche first, rather than the body first. Of course, once the subject is defeated, the symptoms will then map onto the body, as they do onto the mind in excessive bodily labour.

This book also shows the benefits of covert ethnography and gives the lie to this weird idea that if everyone knows you are doing it, and the people you come into contact with finally view and edit the work for you, then it is all somehow ‘ethical’.

The grim, horrible, no future life Woodcock describes more than justifies covert work. But it should not just be ‘accepted’, on occasions, where it is needed. No, there should be departments specialising in this kind of work, particularly since the decline of print media and the collapse of high quality investigative journalism.

There is a whole hidden world of call centre activism, where infiltrators gain jobs to scope places out and eventually expose or respond to their abuses. So, Woodcock’s method is not just a response to workplace surveillance, it is utterly appropriate to the subject.

The part where Woodcock describes managers who would sack employees for not singing in team building exercises gave me the chills. I attended an event as an employee of the Halifax plc, soon to be HBOS. Everyone had to sing ‘nobody does it better, Halifax you’re the best.’

The event was filmed and it turned out that two of us refused to sing and I was one of them. We were later shown the video in a massive open plan office, containing all the assembled employees of marketing. The camera honed in on the two refuseniks, tight lipped and solemn.

I was supposed to feel ashamed, but I felt proud. Six years later the entire banking group crashed through the floor and so to have sung ‘nobody does it better’ would have been a lie. At this hotel away day many of the ‘singers’ had slept with each other behind the backs of their husbands and wives. It was an astonishing event in many ways.

There was no resistance there, one simply had to leave. The Halifax even had its own fake union. But here, Woodcock describes the tactics of resistance in call centres and they are fascinating. One activist strategy in particular sticks in my mind: It involves turning the tables completely on the call centre and the concept of ‘cold calling’; activists will phone the call centre en masse at a particular time and give the worker information on how to resist. This will then be followed up with a mailout or flyering exercise.

But this book isn’t just of interest to the call centre worker or sociologist, it is relevant to all 21st century labourers who have targets imposed on them and zero hours contracts. It is relevant to all who do sales jobs.

Woodcock describes the mind games of being told to sing along with Kermit the Frog. It is not enough just to sing, but to appear to enjoy it to the point where the performance and reality blend. The ever-present supervisor is pacing the floor, like an overseer on horseback. The 1-2-1 meetings are simply formalised, interrogative bullying.

The infantile culture that can be found in places such as these is not just a sticking plaster, it is an intrinsic part of the regime. I am reminded of the scene on the bus at the end of Dirty Harry, ‘row row row your boat, gently down the stream…’

Our horrifying rightward political shift is trying to normalise this kind of work and describe those who complain using terms such as the recent ‘snowflake’.

Well, maybe we do need to toughen up, but in order to throw the situations described in Working the Phones back in the faces of those who set them up.

Sous les paves, la vide

Neil Campbell – Sky Hooks (Salt)

The landscape of this novel is very particular and familiar. Apart from some trips away, the story takes place almost completely in the strip around the Manchester university campuses which stretches out to Ardwick, then up to Longsight and Levenshulme. The protagonist gets a black eye outside Retro Bar: These are real places; and of course one asks how much of this is simply biographical, but with the names of those who might litigate changed. In fact, it feels as though it is exactly that.

The tower blocks by the MMU and Manchester University campuses are already important urban geography lessons: Here the largely privileged young make their way through everyday rites of credentialism and qualification, they enjoy the city centre with all its exhilarating, transgressive cultural scenes; yet in and among all of this are places of acute poverty and misery.

This is in fact the landscape of the Russell Club and post-punk Manchester: Hulme is on the border of this book’s territory too. But it is also the post-rave landscape of Mark Fisher, the hollowed out futureless emptiness. Except in Manchester, that void has always been there.

As Peck and Ward observed in 2001, even before the crash of 2008, jaw dropping structural poverty existed. Here, in a tower block by the Mancunian Way, women are on the game, blokes are mugging people for their phones and selling drugs. Campbell is essentially describing the ‘qualities’ of structural, unecessary abjection in the name of riches for the few.

Manchester has long had a psychogeographic tradition, but in 2016, with all the sinkholes opening up – including the now legendary chasm under the Mancunian Way – it is no longer ‘sous les paves, la plage’, but Under the Paving Stones, The Void.

Those holes are very far from just metaphorical: There are terrible jobs in vast, freezing warehouses. At one point our narrator says that manual labour is the worst kind of work there is. He is right. Yet we still hear it, from the Northern Powerhouse House rhetoric to leftwing chest-beating: ‘This wonderful world “we” have lost’; but how many of those who bemoan the loss of industry actually worked a factory job for any length of time without alternatives? I expect none of them.

The protagonist describes being threatened on a monthly basis with job loss, by the company boss, if they don’t work harder. He doesn’t give a toss and rightly so. His work regime only speeds up when he wants to get through the day that way: He knows this life is a dead end, he can see it in those who have been there for forty years. I have had all of those experiences and so have many people I know. This is a book of shared ‘experience’ in the sense that Raymond Williams uses that word: That the working classes have what the posh people call ‘heritage’; and this is fucking it.

J.B. Priestly said something like, when you’re done in the factory, all you want to do is go to a pub to quench your thirst, preferably where there are some girls. You don’t go home and read a book by the fireside like the middle classes. This is not a ‘choice’, this is structural, it is in the labour, and it is in the division of labour. Yet the right and far right dogma piles up, that ‘these people’ have a choice, that behaving differently is somehow a flat decision between good and bad. It is not. Our protagonist says exactly the same as Priestly: Your first pint after work is the best thing you have ever tasted. But the trajectory from there on, short, medium and long term, is of course something else.

But there are no chumpy political speeches or cloying sentiments here. This book is strong precisely because it doesn’t have characters standing by the fireplace talking about co-operation, like some ghastly Walter Greenwood novel. The work it does is largely done through flat description and that description is as close to the interior monologue of a young Mancunian lad of a particular generation as it is possible to get and still end up with a saleable book. For that alone, this novel is surely already a regional classic of some sort.

This book has its nearest equivalent in Mark Hodkinson’s northern writing. It is unpretentious and powerful, cuttingly honest. It would be a mistake to put this book in the lineage of the ‘lad fiction’ that emerged in the 1990s, with Irvine Welsh as its Guru, although I expect some reviewers might.

This book is far too subtle. It tightens its grip on you by loosening its hold. It achieves high results by not trying. It is the first time in a long time that I have immersed myself in a novel, forgetting, for significant periods of time, that I was reading at all. This may be because I am of the same gender, class and probably generation, give or take a decade or so. But that isn’t the whole reason. It silently slides its tentacles around you, showing you how life in structural poverty feels.

All of this is achieved through very workaday description, interior monologue and dialoge. A football, blowing in the wind on the roof of the International College, links back to the protagonist’s failed career with Manchester City. The author has mastered the art of tiny details that do massive amounts of work. It should be given to creative writing undergraduates for exactly that reason. ‘Creative’ as a word arrives loaded with connotations of being ostentatiously free to overflow with ‘expression’. Campbell’s writing sticks deadpan to its own minimal code and by doing so is hugely creative.

There is a section where the protagonist goes through a brief phase of picking prostitutes up on the streets. It is chillingly, shockingly matter-of-fact. It is an incredibly refreshing antidote to the hearts and flowers gush of… well, most contemporary writing, frankly. His youth is rising in him constantly, he ogles the women at work. These obsessive oglings are not edited out, but the book is far stronger and more honest for that. Some, of course, might object.

He goes off to America, naive, and on other trips. He tries to have sex. He honestly describes the banality of failure. He comes back and it feels ten times worse. He is looking for something, but without any of the familiar signposts or advice that arrives naturally in middle class households. His escape, finally, is going to university, one of the big Manchester ones.

At one point he describes folding university hoodies and putting them on sale where the German literature used to be. He is clear that he becomes someone else by going to university and emerging out the other side. I am equally clear, as I work in them, and this detail speaks to the idea, that the university is becoming something else. The book ends with the author publishing his first novel.

Much of the narrative is bleak. But it is what might happen to the escape routes writers such as Campbell have taken that is, for me, the bleakest story of all. The unwritten story, that is nonetheless present. The people who don’t make it through this rite-of-passage, through the class maze, which at the bottom has no clear signposts, will be stuck in dead end jobs. Turning to drink, drugs, prostitution and crime. Or just stagnating in nothing. An early death in emiserating circumstances is the price of this obscene masterpiece we live in.

George Osborne still fantasises about it, and anyone who clings to this fantasy, even just a little bit, should read this book and renew their refusal one thousand fold.

The Geeks Inherit the Earth

Clare Nina Norelli – Soundtrack from Twin Peaks (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)
Eliot Wilder – Endtroducing (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)
Sean L. Maloney – The Modern Lovers (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)
Paula Mejia – Psychocandy (33.3, Bloomsbury Academic)

This series surely could not exist without Revolution in the Head, the song-by-song book about the Beatles back catalogue by Ian MacDonald.

Each book in the series focuses on one iconic album, exploring its music, its cultural and historical context, its production and the biographies of the key players and its sleeve art.

Some of the books will be great for music students, rather than just culture vultures like me. I tend to zone out when the ‘G-C-F Sharp sequence’ is explained, but the level of detail is admirable.

The Soundtrack from Twin Peaks book is thoroughly enjoyable. It is music I know backwards, but it gives me all kinds of new trajectories and connections.

By 1985, Elizabeth Fraser was David Lynch’s favourite living singer. Lynch wanted her version of ‘Song To The Siren’, the Tim Buckley track, recorded with the studio collective This Mortal Coil, for Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. He wanted Fraser and her partner Robin Guthrie to mime on stage in the prom scene. I had no idea this was the case.

The problem was that Tim Buckley’s estate demanded $20,000 for the rights. The director then asked composer Angelo Badalamenti to create ‘Mysteries Of Love’, eventually sung by Julee Cruise. As Martin Aston describes it, in his excellent history of the 4AD label, Facing the Other Way:

‘Starting with Blue Velvet, and most famously on his TV series Twin Peaks, Lynch fashioned a world that appeared seamless, unruffled and presentable on the surface, but scarred and disturbed underneath, foaming with a barely controllable darkness.’

There has always been a coalseam of lush melancholia running underneath the 1980s recordings of the Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, Julee Cruise and even Chris Isaak. Reading Nina Norelli’s Twin Peaks book shows me that the connections are not merely incidental.

Again, Martin Aston explains that This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song To The Siren’ became a cult from the day of its release. Annie Lennox of Eurythmics and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran named it their singles of the year.

Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons calls it ‘the best recording of the Eighties’. For years, he says, he was also ‘spellbound by the Julee Cruise catalogue’, but ‘didn’t know why.’ ‘It was so beautiful and yet so horribly cryptic’ and ‘there seemed to be something terrible lurking beneath the breathy sheen.’ Years later, he fully understood when he heard ‘that Lynch had originally wanted to license “Song To The Siren.”’

Now, with this work by Nina Norelli, we can trace all of this even further back to Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, who as the Anglicised ‘Andy Badale’ wrote songs for Della Reese and Nina Simone. ‘I Hold No Grudge’ by Nina Simone shows a peep of the dark, seductive sound of Lynch’s American Gothic Surrealism. There is a lineage here, a thread I didn’t know, despite being very aware of all the music, the Twin Peaks Soundtrack, the Julee Cruise record and This Mortal Coil. This is the strength of this series.

Equally, the book on DJ Shadow’s flawless masterpiece Endtroducing is a thing of joy, to sink into and emerge from, frantically searching for your copy of the record. The links between the suburban LA garage Shadow developed his sound in and the slick west coast jazz scene of Nat Adderley and David Axelrod are wonderful. The Modern Lovers’ album also gets the treatment it deserves, as does the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. The latter comes out of an East Kilbride downpour with total attitude.

If I have a problem it is that Beverley Craven and Abba Gold seem to be the only solidly non-hipster inclusions in the 33.3 series. The list is so self-consciously cool it hurts. I’d like to see totally random writers paid to review randomly selected albums. But until someone is brave enough to commit funds to such a project, the 33.3 series continues to develop very nicely indeed.