Charles Bukowski (2009 [1971]) Post Office

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Let’s start at the end:

In the morning and I was still alive.

Maybe, I’ll write a novel, I thought.

And then I did.

The  largely autobiographical novel Charles Bukowski wrote in 1969 was a short book, Post Office, which sold over one million copies and gives all us other fifty-year-old bums that do a bit of writing a bit of hope. Somebody took a chance on Bukowski and it’s the classic rags-to-riches story, which is so fucking depressing, because it’s the very stick used to beat the rest of us would-be writers ( and artists), in general with.  Bukowski would understand that we can’t be all sitting in an Edinburgh café writing about fucking boy wizards.  The magic wand of publication is based on a myth-making lie.

To simplify realism  there’s lived experience and there’s stuff we read about and make up.

Here’s the character Henry Chinaski kicking off the sixties and subbing in a job in the post office.

Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them. Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were always ready for a rape, murder, dogs or insanity of some sort. The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets. That was the only advantage they had—except knowing the case by heart. It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, want to bed at 2 am., rose at 4.30 am. after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.

Let’s cut to the bone. Here’s one of his crazy customers he carries for and corners him.

‘Now let me out of here!’

With one hand I tried to push her aside. She clawed one side of my face, good. I dropped my bag, my cap fell off, and as I held a handkerchief to the blood she came up and raked the other side…

I reached down and got one of her tits, then switched to the other.

‘Rape! Rape! I’m being raped!’

She was right, I got her pants down, unzipped my fly and got it in, then walked her backwards to the couch. We fell down on top of it.

‘RAPE!’ she screamed.

I finished her off, zipped my fly and picked up my mail pouch and walked out leaving her staring at the ceiling.

I missed lunch, but still couldn’t make the schedule.

‘You’re 15 minutes late,’ said The Stone.

The Stone is Chinaski’s supervisor, a thirty-year veteran of the Post Office. ‘The subs themselves made Johnstone [Stone] possible by obeying his impossible orders.’ The Stones of this world we are all familiar with. Company men and women that make the little people’s life hell.   They are the type of buffoon, and generals, mirrored  in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Them and us. The Howl of Ginsberg and the Beat Generation and anti-establishment. But certainly not #MeToo.

They can be contrasted with the ordered Post Office world of Alan Johnstone, Please Mr Postman,  in seventies London, who did much the same job as Bukowski in the sorting office and delivering mail, with overtime keeping him afloat.

Henry Chianski likes to gamble on the track. Play the odds. He hooks up with a young chick and marries her, leaving Betty in the lurch. He can’t save Betty when they hook up again. Her ass is no longer firm and she’s gone to pot.  She drinks herself to death and Chinaski has his own Howl moment as he rages at the nurses not caring for her in a public hospital.

I’ll bet if that were the president or the governor or mayor or some rich son of a bitch, there would be doctors all over the room doing something! Why do you just let them die? What’s the sin in being poor?’

The great sin of being poor is being powerless. Bukowski’s pared down and honest prose captures that circle of hell for the working poor very well. He’s a drunk and a bum and a rapist, but he’s not a liar. That’s all I ask for a book. Don’t tell me middle-class gob-shite and expect me to lap it up as some kind of nectar. Bukowski saint and sinner, but a real novelist. He tells it like it is, genital warts and all.

Alan Johnson (2015) This Boy, A Memoir of Childhood.

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This Boy is a prequel to Alan Johnson’s Please Mr Postman, set before he started his working life spent, mostly, in the Post Office and via his union involvement access to the Labour Party, becoming an MP and becoming Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government. Our current Prime Minster Teresa May, was, of course, a former Home Secretary. Her father was a vicar. Alan Johnson’s father was an arsehole. In the prologue we’re shown a black and white picture of the happy married couple, January 1945. Stephen Arthur Johnson and Lillian May Gibson.

His smile is slight, betraying a determination not to show his teeth. The beautifully knotted beret – angled slightly too high on one side – covering his red hair. She seems happy. A pretty, petite Liverpudlian with a Doris Day nose (what she called her ‘titty nose’, which she insisted I had inherited); smart in her cockade hat, placed at the same rakish angle as his beret…He was small, she was smaller – not much more than five feet.

Part 1, Steve and Lily recalls how his sister Linda and he were born in different epochs. Linda was born before the creation of the NHS in 1947 and he was born after it in 1950 into a boom economy. His mother was advised to have no more children. Living in slum housing that had been condemned in the 1930s they had the luxury of two rooms. One for eating in and one for sleeping in, gas mantle for lighting a communal toilet in a yard with Paddington Station as a backdrop to early life in Kensal Town, Notting Hill. In the 1960s they moved up in the world, three rooms and a communal cooker on the landing for tenants where Lily burned things. Lily spent her short life hoping for the luxury of a council house.  Food, or lack of it, played a big role in Alan’s early life. Free school milk and filling up on free school dinners were a big part of his upbringing.

Cash was always tight. Steve worked intermittently as a painter and decorator, but had a gift for music and could play any tune he heard on the piano. Pubs were his natural environment and the wages he made was spent on his entertainment. Lily, to get by, worked for pin-money in the fancy houses in Ladbroke Grove and South Kensington, worked in shops and cafes and it was Linda, his elder sister’s job to take care of her brother, while their mother worked. Pin money was their only source of income and Steve, when drunk, which was much of the time, was violent. The harder she worked the worse her health got. Lily had a heart condition which killed her, but a consultant might advise her to take it easy and rest but Lily often had to pray to God for a shilling to put in the meter and asked local, family-run, shops to give her tick. Even when they said no, she’d go back, and try and wear their resistance down. She had to work in the same way that the kids had to eat.

Steve had his playtime with one of his mate’s wife. He was a lady’s man as they said in those days. Steve left Lily for Elsie and Alan never found out until years later he had a half-brother, David. The bad news for Linda and Alan was that the breakup of their mum and dad’s marriage was temporary. He came back to live with them, but that was temporary too. He disappeared on a day when they out, all his clothes, open razor, stubby shaving brush and belonging gone and moved in with another fancy piece. Impoverishment was not just monetary, but of Lily’s hopes. She believed in marriage being for life and Steve leaving aged her.

From an early age Linda taught her younger brother how to duck down and hide away from the windows when the tallyman came knocking at the door looking for money. Lily, like most others, did the pools, religiously, every week. In 1957 her luck was in. She won around £90, the equivalent of around three-month’s wages for a manual worker. No more ducking down needed and downpayments on a three-piece suite, a sideboard, a kitchen table, a Spanish guitar for Alan and a Dansette record player for Linda. Lily was in her early thirties, but luxury never lasts. She was, in effect, a single parent.

Alan measures his life against some of his school friends. Tony Cox’s father, for example, had also been in the war, and he wished he was his dad too. He was steady, decent, hardworking and provided the kind of life Alan could only dream of,  ‘they had an entire room that you had neither to eat or sleep in’ and it was ‘gloriously warm’. Tony Cox also had the great merit of being the best fighter and best sportsman in their neck of the woods, which offered Alan a kind of protection.

Reading was Alan’s thing and by some fluke that was enough to get him a pass in the Eleven-Plus and place in Grammar School. Only around a quarter of kids were offered places, but it wasn’t quite as simple as that. They had to find a Grammar School that would take Tony, waive the fees and Lily would have to pay for extras like school uniforms. Getting Alan into Grammar school was the be and end of all of her ambition and Alan admits he didn’t really do much when he was there. His great interest was music. This resurfaces in Mr Postman, when he gets to play the guitar in a band and dreams of stardom. Of course all their gear got nicked from the pub where they kept it. Echoes of his past, when the guy he delivered milk for presented him with nicked guitar from a selection in his basement.

The hole in his life, was, of course, his mother’s early death. She dithered whether to have the operation that would extend her life, but died before she could see her daughter married and her son grow into a man, courting his sister’s friend at 17 and married with a stepchild at 21. Life over. Yeh, that’s how is seems when we’re young. But there’s a lot of living still to do. Johnson has a follow up book, The Long and Winding Road. This is a Home Secretary who did know about poverty and the stigma of being a single mother. I’m sure it shames him as it shames me that so many children live in poverty and are reliant on Food Banks. We seem to be going backwards and not forward in time.