Last week I was in a branch of an exchange store in Camden. I was buying two second-hand Blu-ray films. On the counter was a notice asking for people to work in its shops. A young male assistant picked up the notice and started to joke, with his colleague, about the terms and conditions. It was obvious that their work didn’t pay much. I made some remark about jobs, poor pay and how chancellor George Osborne seemed out to attack the young both in work and out of work ( It was only a few hours after he’d delivered his budget speech, so its divide and rule agenda was still in my thoughts.)
A female assistant agreed with me. I made the obvious older persons’ remark about being glad that I was no longer young as it was so stressful for young people today. This was followed by ‘I knew the sixties. We were optimistic and believed we could change the world.’ The young man smiled half in envy and half in amazement. Almost as compensation, for a 21st century lack of idealism, the young woman declared, ‘Well we do have really nice people working here, and we all get on well.’ I said that was very good. She genuinely wished me to have a lovely evening and I left with the Blu-rays.
The young will put up with a lot because they are just starting out. Probably work for little money in order to gain experience. Apart from being shop assistants there are those entrepreneurial people who have clever ideas for online businesses that pay them buttons. I listened to a recent Radio 4 programme where the ‘strivers’ ( horrible term ) where having fun: crashing down with their sleeping bags on the floors of relatives and friends flats; running their own business, from their laptop, and having a second job, both providing meagre pay.
It made me think about how important it was to have meaningful work ( well paid or not ) and enjoy working with others. I didn’t think of the office or factory environment but the shop. Shop assistants have always been poorly paid and very few ever join a union to find out their rights. When I was young I worked in a record shop ( an almost vanished species. ) It was in Liverpool, just next door to Brian Epstein’s shop NEMS. It had a highly musically literate staff. Three guys were very knowledgable about classical music. One enthusiastically knew his jazz. The two women were totally grounded in folk and blues. Whist I kept up with everything happening in popular music.
We were not incredibly well paid, but never needed a second job, could afford to leave home and pay the rent for a bed sit and generally get by. The six of us inter-acting with one another, and the customers, like students doing some history of music course at a progressive Adult Education College. For me it was a wonderful exposure to music genres. I listened excitedly to The Doors and Velvet Underground: Mahler, Beethoven and Stravinsky were banging at the door, whilst Miles Davis and Stan Getz sneaked in round the back.
The owner of the shop, who was Jewish, and bore a slight resemblance to Gustav Mahler, enjoyed a little ‘easy listening.’ I scorned his love of the anodyne music arranger James Last. Yet so long as we didn’t over-indulge in chatting, over the counter, he gave us a free reign. He respected, though underpaid, his knowledgable staff, appreciating that staff camaraderie was important for us and his business.
Zero hour contracts didn’t exist back then. Neither did the minimum wage. But we were all permanent staff and to some degree less materialistic. Each of us was your average Joe doing his, or her, job without placing a high premium on ‘getting on’ and acquiring more money. It may have been an unambitious drift of a job, that few could do forever, but if you had enthusiasm for what you were selling, then it was a very pleasant occupation. No one then had aspirations to work in the city or be self-employed. Though we probably regarded our shop work as vastly superior to stacking goods on supermarket shelves or admin. work in an office.
I’m writing this essay, just after having a coffee in a West End branch of ‘Cafe Nero.’ I was sitting in the basement reading a novel, Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith. It’s quite brilliant, but so intense that I needed a short break. Three other people were there. Two young men, with laptops, where discussing a business model. And a young Chinese woman was scrolling through her phone and writing, pencil in hand, things down in a notebook.
My gaze was averted to the bookshelves where the spines of books played their part as some relaxing wallpaper. You know the kind of thing. Job lots of old books, remaindered hard cover bestsellers and the occasional coffee-table cook book or travel guide. I stood up and browsed through them, suspecting that this was very un-cool. As few people read the books and no one disturbs the decor.
The busy upstairs staff never looked at them too. In quieter moments they too pored over large or small screens. Such a self-contained activity. Perhaps this was the new camaraderie that they shared with the customers? A continuous passive, but genial, non-interaction. It was the glue that held them together. They’d become a community of hands, eyes and devices. Playing with information. ‘Nice people that got on well’ As the exchange shop assistant said.
I sure they also talked about what they were selling in that exchange shop. Whether it be a Blu-ray, a computer game or a smart phone. But did they really enthuse to the customer? Did they have the time, or motivation, to share some critical specialist knowledge or was it all a just stream of information, in constant need of processing? Was wading in the stream enough, where being an informant took precedence over opinions and knowledge?