*Dead Man Working

For as long as I’ve been engaged in paid employment, I’ve had a fear of working. I don’t so much mean a fear of not being idle, although I mean that as well, but, rather, that I am always tortured with overwhelming uneasiness at the prospect of being in a workplace and carrying out duties that others are paying me to perform.

I had my first job when I was fifteen years old; it was in an ice-cream parlour that had, for some reason, a faux-Scandinavian name. I recall that before commencing there, I felt like the Last Woman in Australia to be Hanged and the unfortunate thing was that my pessimism was entirely warranted. I only ever worked one shift a week, on Saturday mornings, for four hours, but was so fearful of customers coming in and asking me to do anything whatsoever for them that each second I spent in those chilly blue and white environs seemed an eternity.

Eventually, I more or less managed to master the task of scooping out a ball of ice cream and placing it in a receptacle, but then there were those flavours, such as vanilla, that, for some reason, had the consistency of rock candy were it kept in a frozen cave for one million years. I still remember the time that I passed a man an ice cream that was merely a small collection of chiffon-thin shavings balanced on a cone, and his facial expression being one of such hatred and disappointment that it was as though he were an only child left, Christina Crawford-style, out of his wealthy parent’s will.

Furthermore, being required to do anything more complicated than preparing an ice-cream cone, such as operating the milkshake machine, or whipping up a sundae and then using my shaking hand to adorn it with hundreds and thousands, was, to me, as confronting as someone coming in and demanding that I operate, then and there, on their ribbon-bedecked pedigree dog. I found that I would spend the one hundred and sixty or so hours between my shifts at the ice-cream parlour thinking almost solely about the fact that I was going to have to go back there.

Regrettably, this habit of letting the prospect of my hours at work dominate the hours I’m not at work hasn’t abated with time. An overwhelming feeling of bleakness at the idea of going to a job is for me, as much a part and parcel of work as is actually being at the workplace. I remember once having a conversation with a friend about when exactly at the weekend I would start thinking about my return to work, and decided that, on average, it was upon waking on Sunday morning. He, on the other hand, told me that the prospect of Monday morning would start tormenting him on Friday night.

I wonder if, at least in part, I associate being at work with profound dejection because I saw T.R. Baskin at a formative age. This film stars Candice Bergen as an alienated young woman who moves to Chicago to have an exciting new life, but ends up working for a faceless corporation. There she has a friendless existence and performs menial labour while the wind whips around her office building. T.R. Baskin is almost unfeasibly depressing, even for a film made in 1971, and is quite likely why the iron entered my soul.

Still, despite T.R. Baskin having poisoned my view of working life, I find there is no work of literature or film that I can’t enjoy at least a little if it pays some mind to the characters’ place of employment, and its daily stresses and strains. John Grisham’s The Firm, for example, is of great interest to me when brilliant young attorney Mitch McDeere is having his job interview and being told about all the perks he’s going to get, while, on the other hand, I have no curiosity about all that business regarding the firm’s involvement with the Chicago mob. I would have liked much more of The Firm to be devoted to first-day-on-the-job pain, such as arriving so early that the office is barely open and so, first, looking like an idiot and, second, ensuring that your new colleagues hate you on sight; not being able to adjust your office chair upward from a height appropriate only for the Mayor of Munchkin Town; or getting told off for not letting everyone know in advance that you’re going to be printing out a five-hundred page document on the only functioning printer.

In fact, whenever I’m in a state of high anxiety about work, I find the best remedy to be a night in with a movie that is solely about having problems on the job. Therefore, I can emphatically recommend Paper Mask, starring Paul McGann as an orderly who, after assuming the identity of a doctor who’s been killed in a car accident, is employed in a hospital emergency room. To start with, it is passably interesting to see Amanda Donohoe, post the ‘Ant Music’ video but before her featured role in LA Law as a beauteous lesbian who doesn’t stand on ceremony, playing the nurse who helps this fellow perpetuate his crazy scam. Most importantly, though, Paper Mask is enormously cheering in terms of putting one’s own work stresses into proportion, because it has a protagonist who actually kills someone.

On the other hand, the words ‘crazy scam’ are also the key to why Paper Mask is not the consummate movie if you want only to feel better about your own failings at work. After all, aside from Frank Abagnale Jr, what kind of loon is going to pretend they’re a doctor? (I did actually once meet a doctor who found Paper Mask to be entirely plausible, because, he claimed, there was nothing more to the job than strolling around the ward, occasionally recommending to patients that they take a Panadol. However, I simply don’t believe this.)

So, Paper Mask’s unlikeliness means that it must, for my purposes, be ranked below Shattered Glass, which is, of course, about brainy, if toadying and underhanded, journalist Stephen Glass. He was discovered to have fabricated a good amount, and possibly all, of his stories for The New Republic, a magazine that everyone in the movie keeps pompously referring to as ‘the inflight magazine for Air Force One’. I never get sick of watching the net close over Stephen when it becomes apparent that his article about computer hackers is about as grounded in reality as is the scene in Shattered Glass itself when the staff spontaneously break into applause for the magazine’s editor, whom they had previously loathed and despised, after he has exposed Glass.

Still, while I like almost nothing more than watching someone who isn’t myself being crucified because they have spun a workplace web of deceit and trouble, even Shattered Glass isn’t my number one recommendation for a work-angst tonic. Unlike Paper Mask, it does have the advantage of being based on a true story but, at the end of the day, all Glass was doing was playing fast and loose with the facts in some magazine stories. Don’t get me wrong, I regard trampling on journalistic ethics as a very serious matter but I really require nothing less than death or widescale ruination to put my own job woes into perspective.

For these reasons, it is simply impossible to go past Rogue Trader, with Ewan McGregor as Nick Leeson, the derivatives trader who engaged in much speculative trading off his own bat, lost hundreds of millions of pounds and caused the collapse of the United Kingdom’s oldest investment bank. Regardless of the merits  (very few, some – though not I – would say) of the film, given Rogue Trader’s factual nature and the stakes with which its hero is playing, it is quite simply the ultimate anxious-sweating-and-nervous-vomiting-due-to-work-troubles flick. I not only saw Rogue Trader at the cinema, I have my own copy of it on DVD as an emergency remedy for employment-related unease and I urge anyone currently in work to do the same.

I note too that Nick Leeson himself has authored a book called Back from the Brink: Coping with Stress, and he does appear to be the man for the job. The volume itself is spruiked on Leeson’s website in copy that, like everything else on the site, is, for some reason, written in the third person. The website also states that ‘Nick Leeson is one of the world’s most sought-after speakers’, as ‘Nick Leeson’s story has a number of human interest aspects that will astound any audience’, which I can certainly believe. Leeson’s website even talks up Rogue Trader itself, noting that ‘it premiered in London to a host of stars, one month prior to Nick’s release from Prison’ (this is Leeson’s capital ‘P’, incidentally). Now, I’m not saying it’s a good thing that a man who has inflicted so much rack and ruin is this pleased with himself, but you have to admit that it gives hope to all of us who have ever suffered even a moment’s anxiety about doing something stupid at our place of business.

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