Stephen King’s Wolves of the Calla tells the story of the doomed priest Father Callahan, who was cast out of his home town in an earlier book, ‘Salem’s Lot. Since then Callahan has become a man of the roads, travelling all over America, sleeping in drunks’ shelters and on park benches, doing day-labour work in warehouses and kitchens – riding the highways in hiding.
Reading it, I was reminded of my own life shortly after leaving university. Once you get your degree you are entering a harsh and unfamiliar world. You discover that what you have been studying these past three years is of little value or interest to this world. You discover the truth of Calvin Coolidge’s saying: that nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
At this time I lived in the Hyde Park area of Leeds. This was – still is – a bohemian sprawl just off the edge of the park which runs right from the outskirts to the centre of town. Hyde Park was a labyrinth of crowded streets, of Hessles and Brudenells and Harolds; people were crammed in five-six houseshares at rents inflated by the buy-to-let scum. It was a place of Asian supermarkets, 24-hour Spars and arthouse cinema, a place whose residents were mostly students or ex-students, ravers and outsiders and poseurs and immigrants and pillheads and beautiful women.
My local was the Hyde Park Social, a two-floor pub filled with old sofas and armchairs that sold beer for one-eighty a pint and sandwiches for a pound. The landlord was a big, genial hippy pragmatist; his dog and his little son would run among the drinkers. The posters on the walls advertised raves in the Hollies, squats that had been closed down by police, campaigns to save obscure stone circles. You’d walk in there on a Sunday afternoon and there would be some guy (Spinny Tom was his name) barefoot and feeding coins into the fruit machine.
I had moved up to Leeds in the summer of ’03, more or less on a whim. I had always liked Leeds, there was a magical quality about the place; something to do with the taste of the air in the summertime, the tunnel that linked the teaching hospital to the university buildings, Otley Road with its rows of student pubs and charity bookshops, the way the streets and areas connected (easy to get lost, but once you’d lived there a while, the geography just clicked in your head) and the feeling you got walking along the roads through the park at dusk, and watching the softening shadows of the trees. It was an obscure quality, but everyone I’ve known who’s lived in Hyde Park has felt it.
The assumption I’d made was that there would be plenty of work in Leeds. This turned out to be true, but it was mainly call centre work in one of various competing oligopolies. Twenty of us would meet in the Social and compare notes, and we’d realise that between us we only worked for about five different companies. There was a company that made hampers (not Fairpak, although it operated in pretty much the same way). There was British Gas. And there was the Inland Revenue, where I worked.
For call centre work you regularly need to commute out of the city to far-flung industrial wastelands that look like the remains of ancient machine civilisation. I got the train there and back with other articulate and impractical early-twenties graduates like myself. There was one guy who wanted to be a musician. Another who wanted to be a film producer. Aspiring writers, DJs, dancers, poets; all phone-monkeys in this chaotic netherworld. Working in places where you could get fired for eating at your desk or asking the wrong kind of question during a training course.
There were no permanent jobs, and few jobs that paid over ten grand a year. I knew a girl who earned £18,0000 as a researcher; to us this woman seemed like a millionairess, as distant from our struggling milieu as the fame and success of our creative heroes. The temp jobs were easy to lose. Every day you’d come in and someone’s desk would be cleared, his name erased from the rota, never to be spoken of again. The permanent staff regarded you with a smug, stoical envy; you had the future and the prospects, but you were second-class employees.
The jobs were easy to lose, easy to find. I worked in three call centres over a period of five months. Plus a stint doing data entry for Audiences Yorkshire, and doing the admin for a claims management firm. (There was a long period, due to anxiety disorders, that I didn’t work at all… but that, Constant Reader, is another tale for another day.)
The blogger Colby Buzzell described people my age as the ‘boomerang generation – we were always two paycheques from moving back home.’ He was right. The average wage was about six pound an hour – this in 2004. You had to economise. My aspiring producer friend used to do unpaid work experience at a production company during the day, then work the call centre phones at night. He took to living off toast; making up a huge batch in the morning, then stuffing the slices in his bag and eating from them all day and evening. This guy had an MA in film production.
It was a time of chaotic insecurity, of cheap wine, rolling tobacco and secondhand books. It was about that time, being a working man, that I started to notice how old and fucked up and ill the passengers looked on the call centre trains. At uni, everyone looked great all the time; but this was the world of work, and I was finding out what work does to people – the marks it leaves on the face. I thought of Blake’s poem, ‘London’:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
It was a time of hard work, and a end to romantic illusions about hard work.
And yet we always found the money for hedonism. I was at the Social every single night. At the weekends we’d hit three or four Call Lane bars, then back to Hyde Park for an afterparty. Sometimes you knew someone who was having a bash; sometimes you just wandered in. Parties in the streets and the woods. One New Year’s Eve twenty of us had a blowout in a hired cottage in Ribblesdale.
I’ve moved on now. No doubt some of my contemporaries from that time still ride those highways in hiding. Some will have moved home; some will have clawed their way up to some kind of stability; some may even be married with kids. I’d love to know. Because I miss those times. Our ambition, our capacity for adventure, laughter and dance, faced with a world that had lost sight of pleasure and humanity, and was ground down by a puritanical pragmatism. Those times came back to me as I read these lines from Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary:
I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.