Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A job

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: A job

'Science Is Golden' - The Grates (drmigs)

A song about a job... this should be a relatively short post, as let's face it, I've never really had a job. Well, that's not strictly true. I leave the house of a morning, come home at night, get a wage, get a pension and pay National Insurance. But it's not a job job.

Basically, I went to university, and never left. I have changed campuses and whatnot, but over a decade after first entering a uni, I'm still bumbling around the corridors of academia; I'm just wearing a bit more brown these days. OK yes, to say I've not had a job is an exaggeration. I very fortuitously have managed to secure a research scientist job in Birmingham for about three years, and a staff post at a neuroimaging centre. And I do do worky stuff, alongst while burying my head in research.

I was keen to establish my work history, so as to make the point that it's tricky for me to nail down a song that reminds me of a particular job. I kinda feel that my career has been a continuum rather than a clearly punctuated set of epochs. Hence, my associations with different jobs isn't so clear cut, as I've typically been doing very similar jobs, just in different places and with increasing responsibility. That said, I do have a song and a job to write about, so don't worry; this aimless waffle has a purpose, even if the preamble may appear somewhat academic.

So, as I've already said, I was lucky enough to secure a research scientist post in Birmingham for just under three years. Which probably is enough info for most of you on TAON to piece together my contacts. I shared an office with Alison, and played footie with Ben. Somewhat inevitably, music became a topic of conversation. As is abundantly obvious, I'm no muso. I have no musical pedigree, and my learnedness on the matter is almost certainly less than anyone else who posts on here.

But that's immaterial to the fact that I like music. And there are aspects of my work that are infinitely enhanced by a tune or three. For instance, brainwaves are much more easily analysed to a suitable soundtrack. And to me, the idea that you can draft a report or paper without music is ludicrous. It's just kinda necessary. As a result, I listen to quite a few tunes. And whilst at Birmingham, my musical exposure broadened no end.

To try and narrow down one song to that period of time in Birmingham is pointless. There was so much new stuff that I was exposed to, it would be ludicrous to try and catalogue it. However, there is one song that I associate with my work in general that I was introduced to by Alison, and that is 'Science Is Golden' by The Grates.

When you're trudging through data, or doing a repetitive analysis, you need something up-tempo. I like to nod my head and tap my foot, and if I have just enough of a distraction from one source only, I can get in the zone. Otherwise, my train of thought has a habit of being a bit like a Julia fractal set. I find that music like that of The Grates etc is lively enough to keep my grey cells on the straight and narrow.

There is an initial and obvious association with my work as a scientist, and 'Science is Golden', which I don't think I need to labour. Quite naturally, I like the overall sentiment of the song. It starts with the wonderfully confrontational "What's the go with all these new set of rules that you live by? / 'Fraid you might die, watch 'em go by...", and the confrontation continues through to the confident exclamation "I don't know why you lay me out to follow / I don't know why you lay me outside, because / Science is golden! / Science is golden! / Watch yourself, 'cause science is golden!" You can see what it's saying, so I'm not going to analyse the song any further. You can easily do a YouTube jobby, or check out the lyrics yourself. What I want to get across is what this song reminds me of.

It's not just the kind of music that I listen to when I work, it's more than that. One of my current roles is to get across the general field of brain imaging and neuroscience to people new to the field. Every now and then, I'm approached by someone who has an insatiable curiosity for the field; someone with a wide-eyed enthusiasm to learn. And that's fantastic. I love days when this happens. It's great to see that spark of enthusiasm, that questioning imagination; and it's great to be kept on my academic toes. And if there were a soundtrack to these occurrences, well, it would have to be 'Science Is Golden'. The energy and message of the song somehow mirrors the carefree questions that come from the passionate student. And that's the real reason why I associate 'Science Is Golden' with my job. And what a happy association it is.

'Wannabe' - The Spice Girls (Swiss Toni)

For a number of months between finishing university and starting my first "proper" job, I worked behind the counter of the HMV in York. In theory, of course, this was a dream job for a young(-ish) music lover, certainly far superior to any bar or waiting job, coming as it did with a flat 25% discount off everything and first pickings of any sale. Standing behind a counter listening to music and making sneery faces at all the people buying 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'? Sounds brilliant, no? In practice though, it was a bit of a nightmare: the long days were incredibly hard on the legs and we would sometimes be forced to work unpaid overtime when the manager would simply lock us all in the building until the sale was fully put out.

We would get to listen to music all day, it's true, but the fact was that we were forced to listen to the albums that were most likely to sell. All day. On endless repeat. You soon learn to mostly tune it out, phasing in and out and noticing it only as a marker that another hour has passed. It is, however, impossible to completely shut it out, and before long you are anxiously scanning the release schedules to see when the next Now That's What I Call Music album is coming to torment you. We were, at least, spared the hell that is Christmas music. In the run-up to the festive period we mainly listened to the endlessly released Ministry Of Sound-type compilations that were newly released for the Christmas market. We resisted any actual Christmas music until Christmas Eve, and even then we had that off by lunchtime as none of us could bear it for a second longer.

Worst of all, I think, was when we were allowed to listen to an album that we actually liked. Although it was initially a blessed relief to be able to put on OK Computer by Radiohead or Everything Must Go by Manic Street Preachers, endless repetition will eventually kill something that you love as surely as it will kill something you hate. It was many, many years before I was able to listen to that Radiohead album and really appreciate how good it was, so efficiently had its impact been deadened by repeat listens over the course of a couple of weeks.

There were funny moments too, of course. I still chuckle at the way that we would race across the shopfloor when The Fat Of The Land rolled around to 'Smack My Bitch Up' and we had to desperately hurl ourselves across the counter to prevent such foul language being broadcast across the store... that is, until I taught the store manager how to use the programming functionality on the CD player. I also remember a long, animated and pretty much pointless discussion with a colleague over whether 'Insomnia' by Faithless was a better song than 'Kevin Carter' by the Manics.

What I remember most, though, is the fucking Spice Girls. This was the time when their debut album was out and they were absolutely bloody everywhere. I must have heard that album played over and over again solidly, ten hours a day, for at least a month. An unfortunate legacy of my time in the store is that I am unfortunately able to remember every single word of the whole damn album. I wish it wasn't so, but it is sadly a cross that I will have to bear until my dying day. Every last bloody "Zig-a-zig-ah".

Dream job my arse.

'Strangers In The Night' - Frank Sinatra (Ben)

At university I somehow avoided having to get a term-time job, but it came at a cost – I had to work over the summer holidays, when everyone else seemed to be off interrailing or "finding themselves" by getting fucked off their faces on Thai beaches and on the east coast of Australia. Bitter, moi?

The first two summers I worked at the same place, a local farm centre run by a spectacularly dysfunctional family who never seemed happier than when they were at each other’s throats or pinching pennies. The parents owned it, the son and his wife managed the farm, one daughter ran the shop and the other the café – all of them equally unpleasant.

I was set to work in the café, and I’m still not sure what the worst aspect of the job was.

Being bossed around by a grouchy woman whose arse was, incredibly, nearly as wide as she was tall (seriously, she waddled around like a pyramid on legs, having difficulty fitting through doors)?

Or perhaps having to work with a sweaty, blubbery chef who thought nothing of handling food straight after coming in from a fag break or accidentally dropping a burger on the floor, wiping it on his sleeve and slapping it back in the bun to go out to a customer?

Or was it the customers themselves – who, before the schools broke up, were largely mothers who looked sneeringly down their noses at you as you served up their plate of chips, their adorable offspring less interested in seeing their first sheep than in kicking each other in the shins?

Or clearing up after the kids (which occasionally involved mopping up a slick of spew in the soft play area) or the odd animal that had taken an illicit wander into the café (I once had to be very quick sweeping up after a goat, when one small girl went running triumphantly to her mum with what she thought was a handful of raisins)?

Still, an invaluable learning experience, I guess – one I thing I learned being not to put on a full percolator of coffee and forget to put the glass jug underneath.

Anyway, enough preamble. Those tragicomic months may have played out to a commercial radio soundtrack of the very worst kind – Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ and Madonna’s ‘Beautiful Stranger’ (come to think of it, the chef had worse teeth than Austin Powers) – but thankfully I don’t associate either quite as strongly with the job as ‘Strangers In The Night’.

Each year the farm centre held a summer fair over one weekend in August – not much more than a few small fairground rides and additional activities, but it seemed to draw in the punters all the same. The second year (I think it must have been) I was asked to work on the gates. Even though this meant being cooped up the best part of seven hours in a wooden shed at the entrance collecting money, it was infinitely preferable to another gruelling stint in the kitchen – particularly given that it was a glorious summer’s day.

By mid-afternoon the steady stream of people arriving had stopped, and I was able to sit there, feet up, with the shed door open, looking out over sunlit fields and the wooded valley in the distance beneath a cloudless sky. The music floating hazily over from one of the fairground rides in the paddock wasn’t the usual thumping techno, but a compilation of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits. Sedate and serene, ‘Strangers In The Night’ in particular seemed to suit the moment perfectly, somehow.

Of course the moment was just that – a moment. The serenity didn’t last long, no doubt rudely interrupted by something or someone, but just long enough to be savoured and committed to memory – a memory that will hopefully last longer than the memory of the job itself...

'All I Want For Christmas Is You' - Mariah Carey (Skif)

The girlfriend I spoke of in the last Memories Can’t Wait was, amongst other things, a Mariah Carey fan. I remember being incredulous about this at the time. “How can you”, I hoitily used to put it, “as a student of music, like that (and here I got technical) shit?” An arrogant positioning you’ll agree, and no less annoying than the “that has no musical merit what. so. ever” my old man used to hit me with when disgusted about my musical choices on MTV back in the early- to mid- 90s. Not exactly a man passionate about his music but then, by the same token, who did I think I was?

Why wouldn’t someone studying music enjoy Mariah Carey when said singer makes a habit of hurdling all the notes in her range in every song, looking every bit the hubristic showpony, if a showpony were to have a head that looked like a beige plectrum. Mariah’s music, to my mind, has less soul than a centuries-buried skeletal husk. As discussed last time, me and the first girlf clearly weren’t meant to be together. The differences were insurmountable, the differences in our esteem for Mariah anyway, but that was more than enough.

So how does this relate to a job? Well, my first position after qualifying as a librarian was at an NHS library in Liverpool; a great place with great people. One of them, Nic, was about as polar an opposite to me as you can get, enjoying 'Big Brother', Jeremy Kyle, clubbing and such, but we got on famously. Well, I’d like to think so anyway.

As such I can forgive her for the greatest crime known to ears – making me enjoy Mariah Carey. Well, I say enjoy, it was more an amiable toleration, but still this was progress. Of a sort.

Now you might imagine that listening to an album of Christmas hits in the workplace on a loop might have you wishing for a heroin addict’s used needle to plough deep, DEEP into your temple. Well, put aside that thought and now imagine that you have the same single Christmas song playing over and over and over again.

Then once more.

Last time.

I promise.

I mean it this time.

You know you love it.

No this really will be it.



Hey, you know what we haven’t heard in a while?

There will be some of you that imagine this will have been like being on a water-slide. A water-slide like that one which the mop-haired, boss-eyed fella who conceals a proximity card in his trunks sweeps down in that Barclaycard ad. Only this water-slide is littered along its entire route with turkey guts, monkey entrails and bum product. You’ll imagine it was a long journey of unimaginable horror that shaped me, changed me, that gave me a new appreciation for life once I had come through it all.

Yet, you know, I’m still alive. I’m here, able to tell you about it, so how bad could it have been? Is Mariah really so reprehensible? Isn’t 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' not just a joyous celebration of love and the holiday season?

I grant you, there may have been a Stockholm Syndrome element to all of this.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs, Swiss Toni and Skif for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is a night out.


Blogger ChcltBrcn said...

Loving it skif!

10:23 am  

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