The last year hasn’t only altered our relationship with work. It has also changed our ideas about its intrinsic value. An eastern adage says that work is the best entertainment. This sentiment is echoed in western literature in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) in which the detective tells his sidekick, Dr Watson, that work is the best antidote to sorrow. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was evidently a good Chekhovian since a similar sentiment was expressed nine years earlier at the end of Uncle Vanya: to cope with life’s disappointments “Everyone must work”.
The nature of work itself has changed from mostly manual in the Victorian era to brainwork in the 21st Century, at least in the wealthier countries. However, our elders still associate work with physical activity. I once heard a crooner saying that his mother believed he had never worked in his life because he just sang for a living. My mother finds it amusing whenever I tell her that I am at ‘work’ because they call it ‘duty’ in the Indian subcontinent, borrowing a moralistic expression from the Raj.
The recent pandemic has vindicated the fictional Sherlock Holmes by causing a mental health crisis of world-wide proportions. Covid-19 has sadly claimed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the last year and a half. A gap in someone’s CV employment history is generally considered a red mark, if not a red flag, by employers who often demand an explanation from such job applicants. However, since the pandemic has resulted in a tsunami of redundancies in 2020, the novel question asked these days is “So what have you done in the past year?”
When the first lockdown in London was announced, I knew that we were going to be under restrictions for a long while so I decided to work on a new book. It was published nine months later during the third lockdown. Those months seemed to have flown by. I had sustained my writing in the last two decades by working in the hospitality industry. It was therefore what a friend described as a ‘sucker punch’ to lose my job as a result of Covid-19.
Going through the rigmarole of job interviews has been a disconcerting experience. I remember that in Satyajit Ray’s film, The Middleman, a hapless candidate for a job is bombarded by what, when and where questions by an interviewing panel and is utterly baffled by an absurd question at the end of his interview. That film was made in 1975. Since then, our world appears to have become harsher rather than kinder.
I made an appointment with my barber for a haircut when he reopened his shop after the third lockdown in April. But I received a call for a job interview to be conducted a day before my scheduled haircut. I went to see the barber and told him about my predicament. He obliged by offering to give me a haircut if I arrived at his shop half an hour before his usual opening time. I would have gladly accepted an appointment even at the break of dawn, let alone at 8:30 am. After cutting my scruffy lockdown hair, he wished me luck with the interview.
It turned out to be a long informal chat during which the interviewer went to great lengths to extol the virtues of his company and informed me about the demographics – particularly the socio-economic status – of its clientele. At the end of our chat, my interviewer informed me that I would hear from them in a couple of weeks. Three months have passed since then with nary a word of response. I believed it is common courtesy to inform candidates about the outcome of their interviews but such courtesy is not always extended to jobseekers during these accursed times. What’s more, job interviews in the current climate are more like mind games. An HR consultant may politely let you know that it isn’t that you can’t perform an unfamiliar new role but that since you haven’t done it before, your chances of getting that position aren’t that good. It is even worse for the younger generation who are finding themselves trapped in a catch-22 situation.
At the beginning of this month, I received an offer for temping and accepted it happily, so eager was I to get back to work. A mainstream London publisher once remarked to my then literary agent how I liked to work in a transient place, i.e. a hotel. It is even more transient to temp as a Concierge at different locations. But I am grateful nevertheless that I have managed to get back to work.
The work-life balance is high on the agenda for most people but the WFH (Working From Home) shift during the pandemic has tipped the scales. Some people have booked into hotels or Airbnbs just for the sake of a change of scenery during lockdowns. Many have had to reevaluate their plans for the future. A friend who wanted to take early retirement told me recently that he has now changed his mind about that, having been unable to work for many months and experiencing what Baudelaire calls ‘an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom’ while sitting at home. Ennui was the French poet’s worst nightmare. And that is why many people engage in voluntary work when they retire to escape the boredom that is akin to death.
Writing is essentially a solitary exercise and some writers have become quite prolific during the lockdowns. However, you can retreat from society to write a book only if you are very fortunate and can live off a few books that you have already written or have got a generous patron. I cannot claim to be either kind of scribe. It was imperative for me to return to work in order to sustain myself and my writing.
The hospitality industry is still reeling under the impact of the pandemic and will bounce back only when international borders are fully reopened. But if we compare this summer with the last one, the outlook is optimistic. Our city centres are again teeming with people. I think we can live with the wearing of masks in buses and tube trains. We have certainly got used to a lot in the last 18 months.