043: Working Girl
Muriel Spark's "A Far Cry from Kensington," the pitfalls of competency, PowerPoint, Slack, Word & other terrors, the loyalty of friends and colleagues, and why this newsletter is three days late
My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is to not demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.
--Muriel Spark, from A Far Cry From Kensington
The Scottish novelist, Muriel Spark, isn’t always to my taste, and it’s surely reflective of my limitations as a reader, because she lived–and wrote about–one of those 20th century lives which can only be gaped at: she was married in Edinburgh in 1937 to a much older man at 20, packed off to what was then called Southern Rhodesia where she gave birth to a son and, kind of at the same time, realized her husband was violently mentally ill. When the war broke out she stored the son in a convent and went home to write propaganda for MI6, including advising the Germans that “the plot against Hitler had resulted in the Führer getting his trousers burnt off "(source).
After the war, she got her son back out of the convent and dropped him off with his grandparents, began to work seriously as a writer, got addicted to diet pills, believed that T.S. Eliot’s poems were secret messages, had a full blown nervous breakdown, and then got herself back together. As her fame increased, so did the intensity of a couple of stalker/hangers-on types, so she decamped to New York City where William Shawn made her famous on this side of the pond by publishing her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in its entirety in one issue of the New Yorker. Spark then moved on to Rome, where she met a young sculptor ‘of means,’ as they say, eventually decamping with her to Tuscany, where as far as I can tell they lived happily ever after.
Along the way Spark leaned Labour, fell out with her son over his preference for Judaism over her Catholicism, developed, by all reports, spectacular taste in furniture, furs, couture, and, somewhat inexplicably, ended up anarchist.
The point is, I should probably love all of her novels, but for me there is just the one: A Far Cry from Kensington. I think it’s best described as a spy novel with more than the average amount of humor. It’s also a workplace satire: in characterization and in setting, Spark is occupying the same terrain as Dickens, delivering the same deadly wit and witness of The Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son, albeit in a much more concise package.
The MI6/spy novel qualities are what Kensington is known for, but for me, after the week I just had, it’s the workplace satire part of it that delivers the key learnings in today’s agenda.
Nancy Hawkins, the twenty-something, war-widowed protagonist of the story, like me, has a tendency to run through jobs.
At the beginning of the novel, she’s working as an editor/Girl Friday/therapist and confidante to her boss, Martin York, at a failing literary publisher called Ullswater Press. York, it turns out, is running the place into the ground by publishing all of his friends from boarding school and the war. Also, he’s forging checks to keep the place afloat. Nancy tells us that part of her job is to shoo the war comrades and schoolboy connections ,or “flocks of carrion crows,” who descend on York during his evening whiskey drinking hours.
When not at work, Nancy lives in one of those boarding houses in post-war London that serve so well as the settings for novels. This one is “semi-detached” (a house description that I will never not adore) and among its inhabitants are the requisite ‘quiet couple,’ in this case called the Carlins; a “Polish dressmaker whose capacity for suffering verged on rapacity,” called Wanda Podolak; a district nurse who “detested germs, the work of the Devil” and who spends her free evenings scrubbing her linoleum with Dettol, called Kate Parker; a young woman called Isobel who “had a telephone of her own in her room so that she could ring her Daddy in Sussex every evening;” and a medical student called William Todd who listens to the Third Programme on his wireless, because of course he does.
From the jump it’s clear that Nancy is at the social and operational center of the house in the same way she is at work. She forges a close friendship with Milly, its owner, consoles and helps Wanda when she is terrorized by a mysterious group called The Organisers, commiserates with Kate, looks in on Isobel and fends off Isobel’s father who wants Nancy to find his daughter a real job, and keeps things low key friendly with William.
Enter the villain of the novel, a pseudo-intellectual and would-be author called Hector Bartlett, who “vomited literary matter . . . inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words,” Hector will not take no for an answer at the publishers, persistently name-dropping his more successful connections and arguing his book’s merits and going so far as to follow Nancy to and from work. One day, fed up with his stalkery, she calls him a pisseur de copie, ie a writer who pisses out rubbish. Hector wastes no time in calling his better-connected friends, who call Martin York, and Nancy is, of course, sacked.
Nancy is unphased. She spruces up her rooms, dusts of whatever the equivalent of a 1940s resume is, and goes looking for work. There’s actually a whole delightful chapter about her philosophy of job searching, including:
When you are looking for a job the best thing to do is to tell everyone, high and humble, and keep reminding them please to look out for you. This advice is not guaranteed to find you a job, but it is remarkable how suitable jobs can be found through the most unlikely people . . . you should tell the postman, the mechanic in the garage, the waiter in the restaurant, the hotel porter, the grocer, the butcher, the daily domestic help; you should tell everyone, including people you meet on the train…People love coincidence, destiny, a lucky chance. It is worth telling everyone if you want a job.
To me, it holds up.
In due time, this strategy works and Nancy is re-employed, this time at substantially more well-resourced publisher. Once again she thrives, and once again the pisseur de copie pisses on her parade. This time he’s submitted his terrible book with a request that Nancy, in particular, be the one to edit it.
Nancy tries. She really does. When her boss asks her for her assessment, she says only, “I consider that it cannot be improved upon.” When he asks her why, she sticks to her talking point. The man is a pisseur de copie. There is a scene in a restaurant in which Bartlett splashes mustard on a dog. There is a scene with her boss and the well-connected friend in which she is told to consider Bartlett’s “good points” and that he “tries.” There is a final scene where she tells them that the book and its author, like a faulty appliance, should be sent back.
She loses her job for the second time.
As previously mentioned, I’ve had a lot of jobs, though I tend to leave because of my principles, not get sacked. My current role is the best of the lot, by far, but last week was rough.
Part of it is that things have just generally gotten busier. Last week was only a four day week, and in addition to daily video stand-ups, semi-weekly video 1:1s with my direct reports, weekly video 1:1s with my boss and a weekly “F2F” meeting with my boss and the rest of our leadership team (or LT), I also did the following: