“Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?”
The opening couplet from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Toads’ never fails to bring a smile of recognition to my face, as I suspect it does to millions of other readers stuck in jobs they hate, feeling their lives ebbing away like sand in an hour-glass. I was thinking about it today as I stared out the window in a meeting at Cash Cowboy Towers, trying to tune out the assertive ‘presentation’ voice of my boss Norman Shylock, who heads up our Online Marketing Bullshit Division. Shylock was taking us through his Q4 plans to advertise our new General Insurance offer in the digital space. Online, to you and me. Banner ads. Cheap and tacky ones. Nothing fancy like rich media, god forbid, with its hefty agency price tag. Mostly just four or five static frames apiece with OTT branding and a logo as big as the moon. The campaign, if that’s not stretching it, which had begun life as a suite of tightly-written humorous banners, skyscrapers and MPUs based around the theme of ‘shit happens’, had been metamorphosed into corporate wallpaper by Shylock and his boss Dick Holder, our Chief Marketing Officer. As usual Dick had personally ‘re-crafted’ the copy (i.e. dipped it in a cesspit of liquefied human turds), building in just about every tired insurance cliché and pun from the hackneyed handbook of crap copywriting. The ads blowed so hard that all my guys in the Studio now disowned ever having anything to do with them.
That’s how it goes at UK Cash Cowboys. Good creatives create great creative then corporate assholes like Dick suck all the life out of it, until it’s DOA. It pays the mortgage but slowly poisons the soul of any self-respecting copywriter. Most of our good ones walk out after six months. Zola, the latest to go, only lasted three. I came back to my desk after lunch last week and found a post-it note stuck to my screen saying “I resign, bye!” That was her resignation letter, in fluorescent pink, three inches square. Kinda classy exit, I thought. Fucked up Dick’s and Shylock’s day no end, which made it doubly awesome as far as I was concerned. Go Zola.
As Shylock fired up his deck on the wall monitor, taking the meeting through every frame of every ad, I opened my notebook and began writing a poem. I often do this in office meetings at UKCC. It helps block out the asphyxiating sense of claustrophobia I feel as life ticks by in a room of eager-to-impress corporate toadies trotting out mindless business prattle about the square root of jack shit. In fact I think some of my best poetry has begun its life in these daily planning and production meetings. The company thinks it owns my ass because it pushes me around from 9 to 5, but these secret little victories are my way of giving it the finger behind its back. Big time. Up yours Cleopatra LeGrande, and your tawdry little sweat shop of rip-off financial products that go by the name of UK Cash Cowboys. Eat my shorts.
The trick to writing fiction on the company’s time is to glance up every couple of minutes to make it look as if you’re taking notes. Ask the occasional question so they think you’re listening to the alien business-jarg gushing from their oh so earnest mouths. Pretty soon I had the bare bones of a five-verse lament on the theme of how work sucks. When I was done I scribbled the title across the top, ‘Bad day at the office 6’. In case you’re wondering, it shares the same title with 5 other poems. It’s a real fun place to work, here at the Cowboys. Here it is, anyway. It’s still pretty rough, but I think there’s something I could work on:
Bad day at the office 6
Is this it? Is this all there is?
All life has to offer?
9 to 5, Monday to Friday
From sixteen to sixty-five?
Ordered around by a bunch of jerks
Who can’t get an erection
Unless they’re squashing someone’s face
Under their corporate jackboot?
Being stuck in the wrong job, is like
Being stuck in the wrong relationship
A waste of a life
And you only get the one of those
God really screwed up when he made this species
Every other creature in nature is free
We’re the only ones
Who have voluntarily enslaved ourselves
Human beings are supposed to be
Earth’s most advanced life-form
Come and work at UK Cash Cowboys for a few days
And tell me you believe that
Okay, it needs work, and it’s a bit negative I’ll confess. Yes I know I’m supposed to offer an uplifting alternative like telling your boss where to shove his job and walking out and becoming a free spirit, but I wanted to keep it real. Reality for most people means they can’t afford to chuck their livelihoods because capitalism has them by the balls.
This thought brought to mind another famous poem of Philip Larkin’s, called ‘This Be The Verse’. It’s the one everybody knows. The one which opens with the immortal line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”. The poem laments how each generation is doomed to repeat the mistakes of their forebears. The final verse, ostensibly a rejection of parenthood – perhaps of life itself – can also be read as a rejection of the rat race and the sense of emasculation that comes from having to conform to societal norms like working the 9 to 5, getting a mortgage, raising a family etc. It’s the trade-off we all make to fit in, the tab society makes us pay to afford the lifestyles we crave, even though it enslaves us, robbing us of the time to enjoy them.
“Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself”
I suspect Larkin would never have written that last line about ‘kids’ if he’d had any. I used to think like that until my own son came along. The experience was like a light being switched on in my life, and I discovered a new level of love I never even knew existed. Nothing could even come close to the happiness my son has brought into my life. I suspect most parents feel the same. You’d die for your kids, you really would. They add to your life, not take away from it. Your children become the most important thing in your world, the reason you keep going when times get tough. Which I guess is Larkin’s point, because kids also bring responsibilities. You need a house they can call home, there are bills to pay, mouths to feed. Hence we all end up breaking rocks for psychotic corporate despots like Cleopatra LeGrande, at chain-gangs like UK Cash Cowboys. To get to heaven you have to go through hell.
Anyhow, I’d say that pretty much sums up where I’m at in the job satisfaction stakes right now. Screwed. To get the whole lowdown on how awful it is to work at a slave-labour joint like the Cowboys you’d need to read a few of the stories and poems in my collected fiction, Sex on the Brain. As a taster, here’s the opening page or two from ‘The Blonde Bombshell’, a short story about meeting Marilyn Monroe which begins with a few reflections about life at the Cowboys. Hope you enjoy it. If you do you can catch the whole story and many more like it in Sex on the Brain, at Amazon or Smashwords.
Excerpt from ‘The Blonde Bombshell’ by Frank Bukowski
“Dick’s the name. Dick Draper. Campaign Manager, UK Cash Cowboys. When I tell people I work in advertising their reaction is always the same. That must be fun. Sure, I say, if it wasn’t for all the corporate fuckwits with egos the size of their salaries who think they’re advertising geniuses. Take my boss Dick Holder, the Chief Marketing Officer. Yeah, another Dick. UK Cash Cowboys is full of dicks. Corporate dicks. Dick Holder is the Chief Dick. Oh sorry, Chief Marketing Dick. I use the term advisedly. He personally wrote one of our company straplines: Saddled with debt? Call UK Cash Cowboys. Genius. Really he’s an accountant who sucked the CEO’s dick until she gave him the Marketing function. That’s right, Cleopatra LeGrande, our CEO. She’s a woman, and she has a dick. Go figure. Two dicks. Her own dick, and Dick Holder. Two-Dicks LeGrande. She’s got more dicks than a man.
Dick Holder’s critique of an ad usually goes something like this.
1. How big’s the logo? The logo is our penis. Small ones suck.
2. Are our telephone number and URL large enough to be read by the legally blind, from outer space?
3. Are we making any outrageously extravagant product claims? If not, why not?
Getting a handle on Dick yet? The guy’s a walking ego, just like LeGrande. He’s a corporate cliché in a suit, she’s a cyborg. Dick wouldn’t know a decent ad if it climbed inside his pin-stripe pants and blew a tune on his custard cannon. His average day is like one big Morris dance of spreadsheets, decks, matrixes, committee meetings, compliance meetings, crisis meets, fire-storming, conf calls, shrink tanks, drainstorms, blame-storms, table-bang sessions, envelope-pushes, grey-sky meetings, meetings to discuss the agendas of future meetings, meetings to review the minutes of previous meetings. That’s why the UK economy is so fucked. Too many dicks. Nothing ever gets done. They’re too busy having meetings. Nobody can make a decision any more. Nobody dare. Send an email instead. Sit on the fence. Get a second opinion. Run it by a think tank. Put it out to research. Get the buy-in of key stakeholders. What does the CEO think? Set up a meeting. Better still, a committee!
Me and my marketing buddy Frank Bukowski often play bullshit bingo in these jolly gatherings, see who can check off the most ‘Holderisms’. A Holderism is complete and utter corporate bollocks. Dick Holder talks it all the time. Here’s my list from yesterday’s grey-sky. Rain-check… understand the deliverables… prioritise categories… I’m in a place where… co-ordinate our team-driven mindshare… test the paradigm shift… is it backwards-compatible… let’s put it into research… due diligence… accountability is paramount… the need to monetize… can we operationalize it… ducks in a row… the bottom line…
Yeah, advertising is fun all right. So funny I want to kill myself.
It’s easy to lose a sense of life’s purpose when you work for people like Dick and Two-Dicks LeGrande, at a dump like UK Cash Cowboys. When all you seem to do is drag your ass out of bed, go to work, take it up the chocolate starfish all day then limp home to sleep. Week in, week out, year after year. Especially in the north where winter rations the daylight to a few measly hours. The nine to five. And you do it every day until you retire. Then you die. Simples. No wonder old people go insane.
Nietzsche had this theory that madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, in cities, nations and political systems, it is the rule. He should come and work at UK Cash Cowboys for a week. My own personal sanity regime involves swimming. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday lunchtime I escape down the local pool. It’s not much, but it stops me taking out a shotgun licence. I put in twenty, sometimes thirty lengths, working my arms, legs, lungs, every muscle I got. If you get the breathing right you slip into this rhythm. It’s like, an almost meditative experience. Ying yang. Bing bong. Elemental shit. As far away from my desk as the moon. I sometimes think swimming pools would be almost spiritual places if it wasn’t for the women. It only takes two or three good looking ones in there and I go back to work more fucked up than I left.
I took up the cycling last spring. My friend Peggy gave me a mountain bike he won in a competition. He got a phone call from outer space. They said he’d won a prize. It might be a Caribbean cruise. A mountain bike. Or a nickel plated corkscrew. All he had to do was call the number and stay on the line pushing buttons and answering questions for fifteen years and they’d tell him which prize. It was too bad for Peggy. He got the mountain bike. Dick, he says, take the frickin thing, what am I gonna do with a mountain bike, I’ve only got one leg.
It’s not hard to get hooked on cycling. All that fresh air and exercise. Okay, it’s not swimming, but it whacks pounding the treadmill in a sweaty gym surrounded by all those lycra-clad thighs and boobs. Not to mention all the ripped guys with their Buzz Lightyear chins and Popeye the Sailor vests, making their moves in front of the mirrors. Cracking their pub minder necks. Bulging with rivers of steroids through inch-high veins, oiled and glistening like something from a porno film. Cycling don’t got none of that shit. It’s just you and the road. The sun on your face. The rain reminding you you’re alive. A crow wending across the horizon. A fox emerging from a wood at dusk. Ointment for the soul, my friend. Whoever said the city was an asphalt jungle sure got that right. My last girlfriend had this theory over my fucked upness. She put my big sex drive down to this connection I have with the animals. She’s like, when you fuck me, it’s like you turn into this dog. And I’m like, and? She looked it up in a book, said it was some weird shit called atavism. This buzz you get from being around nature, like some witchdoctor shaman deal. Apparently it goes back to our ancient ancestors. Cave time. When they didn’t got no cars or churches or microwave ovens. No income tax returns to fill in. No printer cartridges to change. No barbed wire. No anthrax or Zyclon B. All they did was eat and drink and have sex pretty much non-stop. I feel a strong connection coming through from that world. It’s like, how did we fuck that one up?
So, I was out on my early morning cycle ride. I was running late. I’d overslept and was peddling like a maniac through the village of Docking. I had fifty minutes to get back home, shower and drive in to work. Suddenly there she was, standing in the gravel driveway of this house, talking to a neighbour over the fence. You couldn’t miss her. She was like a traffic light. Her breasts lifted her tee shirt six inches from her body. The kind of breasts that stopped traffic. She had on these riding britches that looked so tight they had to be sewn on. When she turned in my direction I was like, no fucking way.
You know that saying that goes, ‘she looked just like so and so’? Well this lady didn’t look like nobody. She wasn’t even anyone’s identical twin sister. She WAS Marilyn Monroe. Oh hi, she said, in that trademark babydoll voice as I rode past, giving me the famous Hollywood smile.”
If you’d like to read the rest of ‘The Blonde Bombshell’, or any of the other stories or poems from Sex on the Brain, you can pick up a copy for hardly more than the price of a coffee at Amazon or Smashwords.