At Motherwell Station, there is a reception committee awaiting me – or is it some sort of posse, with me in the Butch Cassidy role? One … two … three … no fewer than six ticket collectors bar my way. Golly!
There must be a certain frenzy involved in quitting the town – I envision flying wedges of berserkers without the wherewithal, desperate to board a local service for Garscadden or even a long-distance one to Berwick. Ever keen to lighten an official stoppage with banter, I say, “Whoa! What a lot of ticket collectors! I haven’t seen so many ticket collectors in one place in … I dunno – like, never. What is this, some sort of job-creation scheme?” My sally is punctured forthwith by the hole-puncher nearest to me, a saturnine fellow with corrugated brows. “Ticket, please,” he says, although what he means is: “I’d like to put a neat, two-millimetre hole in your fucking eye.”
“What,” I persist, as I pass the pasteboard, “are you not fond of a joke?”
“I am,” he says coldly, “but only when they’re funny.”
I could see his point. Plenty of little girls and boys dream of becoming train drivers but I can’t imagine that many fantasise about becoming ticket collectors. What must it be like to find yourself in a job that is not only tediously repetitive but also involves dealing with members of the fickle public, who veer between the enraged and the jocose? None of which explains why there were six of them.
It seems bizarre to suggest in these days of public-sector cuts and half-time working in the private sector, not to mention out-and-out redundancy, that crowds of superfluous personnel may be the order of the day, yet this is the case. A week earlier, dining at a gastropub on the A4 outside Reading, I was bewildered by the number of bar staff – there were more bodies behind than in front and, when I ordered a Virgin Mary, four of them collaborated in making it for me.
I spoke to one of these supernumeraries and it transpired that, until a year previously, he’d been part of a still madder crowd: British expats in Dubai. He said he’d loved Dubai, despite a rather tricky time towards the end, when, due to, um, personal debts, he’d been unable to leave the country. “What did you do there?” I asked. He said he’d worked in human resources. I laughed bitterly and said that was rich, considering Dubai was a racist shit hole built on slave labour. He laughed still more bitterly and said that everyone was entitled to his opinion – although what he meant was: “I’d like to shove this two-litre vodka bottle right up your jacksy, then use the optic to suck out your lifeblood.”
At this juncture, I forbore from observing how wry it was to view his work history as a sort of arcade game – one of those penny cascades where the coins build up and up until they tumble down to the level below. Subject to the merciless buffeting of late capitalism, he had been catapulted from one overmanned economy to another and, in due course, he would doubtless tumble into the oubliette of unemployment. All of the above is my rather heartless way of pointing out that this crowd is crazed for a good reason: it senses the axe whistling about its ears.
The phenomenon of too many workers, far from being a sign of a booming economy, heralds the stage in a slump just before swaths get the scythe. Capitalism has a rotten skull beneath its toned, moisturised skin.
As a system, it is predicated quite as much on the supply of and demand for workers as it is on the supply of and demand for the things they make and the services they offer. In times of plenty – even mock-plenty – you will know capitalism by the scarcity of labour, which means potential employees, whether plumbers or prostitutes, are always being hurried to some location where money can make more of itself out of them; but, in times of crisis, look out for the masses deranged by their sense of being inutile.
Let us typists, however, not be immune to the vicissitudes of global finance and local indebtedness. It was the first time I’d seen six ticket collectors in one place but I’ve often seen six economically non-viable writers cheerfully congregate – and how deranging is that? The only solution is a carefully targeted programme of public investment in viable infrastructure – such as railways – and a literary set-aside scheme, whereby the government subsidises authors to produce books that will never be read. Only drastic measures such as these will give us the good mental health afforded by full employment.