The dome of “the Mitchell”, standing above its columned façade, makes it look like a palace. Once inside, I sit in the reading room, alongside an assortment of old people poring over The Daily Record or Glasgow Herald. The old metal radiators and the wooden panelling give it a cosy feel and make it a good place to dry off. It’s usually busy. Glasgow is often wet; the fine rain it gets soaks through clothes faster than the heavy stuff. I go to the reading room every day at lunchtime and every evening as soon as I finish work. I mainly look for books on Vincent Van Gogh and Henry Fielding.
At work we sell energy plans to pensioners and, unlike most other call centres, we wait for incoming calls. This makes the work more acceptable. I know I’m not disturbing folk during their favourite T.V. programmes. I don’t have to deal with their anger. My old granddad told me he gets a lot of cold calls. People trying to sell him things he’s never needed.
When they call, he tells them to “hold on” while he gets a pen. Then he puts the phone down and goes back to watching the telly. If everyone did that, we’d have far fewer call centres and a lot more unemployment in Scotland.
I sometimes read bits of Blake on my lunch breaks and even before starting at night school I knew two solid things related to the opening of the poem “Milton”, the section used as the alternative national anthem of England, the part most people call “Jerusalem”.
Those two things are that the word “Satan” is an old Hebrew word which means the adversary of man and that the “dark satanic mills” are places where the most important thing to be ground down is the human spirit.
The most important thing about the call-centre I work in is sales.
I feel lucky, sitting in the Mitchell, reading. I have my escape route mapped out: a way to save what’s left of my soul.
I know that some people think teaching mature students is pointless. It’s something not many folk who work in big universities want done. More and more, adult education is seen as unnecessary and, here’s the crux of it, unprofitable.
For all of us attending the evening classes, at least for the ones I talk to, it’s a way out: a doorway, a key to a door long locked or a window left open, just for us. Evening classes are an opportunity to grow and get to know our own potential: a potential that many of us, by the way, have been told doesn’t exist.
I study two subjects and attend eight hours of classes: two hours per day, four days a week. I’ve studied Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the poetry of Wordsworth and now we’re working on the novel Joseph Andrews. I sometimes have to read the same page four or five times, but I think I’m starting to get it.
The beginnings of love for Goya, Picasso and Van Gogh are starting to bloom thanks to an introductory course to the history of art.
I, and a few of the others who attend the classes, go looking for meaning. Not just what does the book mean, or what does the painting mean, but why is any of it important anyway? I think the old man who teaches the history of art classes, a man with hearing aids behind each ear who could have chosen to retire long ago, understands this. He seems to know a lot.
I’m sure he wants us to understand the importance of what we’re dealing with. I think he has a good idea of what that understanding might lead to. There’s something real and truthful happening under the surface of what we see in our everyday lives. There has to be.
The old man sneers at people who only engage with the surface, and he’ll specifically target those he sees as pretentious. That’s why I love him. In the last lesson he talked about some people he met in Glasgow’s West End who had a print of Guernica on their living room walls and so could not have understood the meaning of the image.
He demands that we dissect paintings, not just look at them. He asks us to read criticism as if we were dealing with potential friends or foes. An argument broke out in class two weeks ago about David’s ‘Oath of Horace’: “David was a tribute act,” one girl said. Others joined in. We ganged up on the only guy who defended the painting. He took offence and hasn’t come back: a small victory.
At work, I make friends with a guy called Andy Williams from Balloch. He has a thin moustache, makes dirty jokes in front of the women, and seems to be sort of loved, indulged, and laughed at in equal measure. The younger girls get frustrated at him sometimes but tend to forgive. He moves between desks, like a bee involved in pollination: he dances, probes for and seeks out humour at each stop before moving on. He gossips too, or spreads rumours, which no-one believes, looking for his own type of sweet spot, the moment between incredulity and laughter. Sometimes the men are used as the butt of jokes, especially if, like me, they’re bad talkers and easily embarrassed. He gave me a porn star name in my first week in the job. I won’t say what it is, but it made the women laugh. He sings, “You’re just too good to be true,” the old song popular again, exhumed for use in an advert for jeans. He revels in the revival of his famous namesake and sings the song whenever he can. He keeps us going when spirits ebb, and they ebb quite often.
Downtime is becoming more frequent as the pauses between calls grow longer. And the more we edge towards summer, the fewer calls we get. The sense of boredom seems to expand before our eyes; it soon becomes a terminal ennui and leads to full-on existential crises throughout the building. “I’m losing the fucking will to live here,” Andy told me in a quiet moment. Some people have started to worry about their jobs and what the future will hold. The rumours and gossip reach all the way to the management desk.
The ‘team leaders’, all young university business graduates, were the ones who trained us, and tried to keep people motivated with talk about increased sales and league tables. Without offering rewards however, and lacking the skills to inspire anyone, they slowly slink back to the corners of the office, defeated. Now that they’re being asked about the laying-off of staff, there’s finally something more to do than browse the internet, and I don’t think they like it. Grudgingly, the tallest one and the highest-up mouthpiece declares: “There is no truth in the rumours we have to close, none whatsoever,” and then says that they’ve “rented the office space here for the next year, and will continue to employ a full complement of staff.”
Our fears are thus allayed by this elected speaker of management and we all shuffle to our desks.
In the wooden panelled reading room of the Mitchell, which is due to be modernised so as to stop punters coming in from the cold, I discover that you can ask for copies of old newspapers.
I ask for copies of the London Illustrated Times from the period when Van Gogh lived in London. I’d read somewhere that he used to subscribe to the newspaper and that he’d been influenced by the wood block printing techniques used by the illustrators. It gives me a buzz to know that what I’m reading and looking at is print and pictures that Van Gogh would have sat reading, over a century ago.
I stop at one of the pictures and write down its name and date so I can talk about it with my lecturer. It looks like it might have been an influence on one of Van Gogh’s early paintings: a man stooping while he works.
Joseph Andrews is still a struggle, but I’m slowly getting to grips with it. Last night, I asked the English lecturer why he’d chosen the book. He’s a young man, not much older than I am. I don’t trust him. He wears thick rimmed glasses, has a floppy centre parting and wears a jacket with patches. He looks and acts like he’s playing the part of an English Literature professor in a film and therefore forgets the seriousness of his job. I asked him if he was trying to dissuade weaker students by giving us the Fielding. There are full pages in the thing without full stops. He said he chose it because he liked it.
I need to stick with it in the hope that one day, and soon, it will open up to me and be what other people say it is: a work full of pathos, humanity and humour. At the moment, I can’t see the funny side. It’s dense, compared to modern books, and difficult to concentrate on, but my final essay will make the difference as to whether I get to university or not.
In a University building on the edge of Kelvingrove Park, the old lecturer checked out the thing I’d found on Van Gogh and came back to me excited. “I don’t think this has been written about before,” he said, “Congratulations.” Then he hurried off to other business. It was a good feeling.
If I can get past Joseph Andrews, I’ll be able to start studying during the daytime.
The next day at work, I see Andy shuttling between the management desks and the rest of us. Eventually he pauses at my table. “They want to know if you’ve got a degree.” I tell him I don’t, but that I’m studying at night-school. This is relayed back to them and a note is made.
By the afternoon, a list is produced: fewer than a dozen people, the ones with degrees, are to be kept on and about thirty of us are told we’ll be finishing work for good at 5pm.
I hear a woman that I shared breaks with saying that many of those being sacked had kids and families to look after, bills to pay, mortgages. She kept saying they’d lied to us. I said it didn’t matter now.
We’d receive no notice and no extra pay due to some recent changes in work legislation, brought in by the New Labour government. The company was entitled to get rid of us as soon as there was a downturn in sales.
Almost all of us head out for a drink. The team leaders come for a while. Some of them are sympathetic. The tall one makes a joke about us having to apply for benefits and Andy threatens to belt him. I get drunk and start talking to an American girl with perfect teeth. She seems keen, but for some reason all I can think to talk about is redundancy.
At closing time, Andy Williams and I walk out into the Glasgow night. That fine rain is falling again and we’re soon soaked. We say goodbye on Sauchiehall Street. Andy calls out to me over the noise of the traffic from the other side of the road: “One day a real rain’s going to come and wash all the scum off of the streets!”
I shout back to him, the thing about Blake and Satan, but drunk, and standing on a noisy street, I don’t think he hears it.
He waves me away and walks off. ●