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Hard work and no profit.

OF THE MANY unquestioned beliefs of society, bandied about by parents and politicians, the first I learned to dismiss was that hard work produced proportionate rewards. Effort put in would be more than equalled by what came out was the assumption. It just never seemed to turn out like that for me. I don’t have any figures or think-thank reports to back up my judgement; only personal experience, but that’s authoritative enough as far as I’m concerned.

I have worked hard a number of times in my life and benefited very little from it financially. Conversely, I discovered that those jobs or assignments which returned the greatest amount of cash for the least amount of effort were always the easiest. And I do mean always.

One of those jobs, for instance, was acting as Poetry Editor for a popular weekly magazine for the rural set back in the 1980s. Once a month a motorcycle messenger would turn up at my door and hand me a jiffy bag stuffed with verse from (usually hopeless) hopefuls. Making a selection never took more than half an hour, for which I was then paid the magnificent sum of £50. Even 30 years ago that was a good whack.

It contrasted greatly with other literary hack work I was also involved in, namely, reading manuscripts for two big London literary agents. This time the fat jiffies didn’t arrive by Motorcycle Man and they took considerably longer to process than the hopeless poems I got once a month. Poems, even bad ones, are short. Novels aren’t. Some of those I received were as weighty and dull as government reports that you see being wheelbarrowed into public enquiries. Finding something to write about them was anguish in itself. And the pay for each one was so meagre it would have stirred the heart of Samuel Johnson to pity.

Years later in Lincolnshire I spent a few months working for Ordnance Survey, driving around the county with a bundle of maps and a sheet of addresses, matching the latter with real, identifiable buildings. There was no one looking over my shoulder, I could start when I wanted and finish when it got dark, and I got to drive around some of the remotest parts of county (often ending ending up drinking cups of tea with old boys on their farms). It still counts as the best job I ever had.

I think I worked hardest when I was running my own publishing business. Selling books is hard; selling literary books is hellish. Selling poetry is like voluntarily putting yourself on a treadmill. Applying to arts boards for grants requires guts of steel and the tenacity of extreme obsessive-compulsiveness fuelled with amphetamines. If you aren’t already mentally deranged when you start, you will be by the time you finish.

It’s politicians, of course, who are advocates of the ethic of hard work. They’re forever talking about “hard working families”, and encouraging us to graft more. They’re always claiming they’re hard workers themselves. That most of them are, I don’t doubt. It’s just that most of their efforts result in the inevitable failure of botched, expensive, short-term, counter-productive policies. We’d be better off if they sat on their backsides all day doing nothing but watch repeats of The Professionals on Dave. If only Gordon Brown had been less of a workaholic and more of a slacker we wouldn’t be destined for years of austerity and the bleating denialism of the BBC and Guardian.

So that’s why I believe everyone should experience hard work at least twice in their early years so they realise how overrated it is, and how it’s usually a waste of time (especially if you can get someone else to do it). No gut-busting for me. If a job isn’t easy and quickly done, with the guarantee of a bag of filthy lucre at the end of it, forget it.

Michael Blackburn.

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