Charles Bukowski (2009 [1971]) Post Office

charle bukowski.jpg

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.

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Alan Johnson (2014) Please Mister Postman. A memoir.

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I’d a vague notion of who Alan Johnson was. I read this book because I wanted to chart his journey from ordinary working-class bloke—when the book begins, ‘a seventeen-year old shelf stacker at Anthony Jackson’s supermarket on the Upper Richmond Road in East Sheen’— to becoming an MP in the Conservative government under Thatcher, or John Major. I couldn’t remember which Prime minister it was. Alan Johnson became a Labour MP and severed in the Cabinet under Tony Blair. Same difference some of you might say. The journey is still the same one. But back then as he shows time and time again we had vague notions about equality. Government wasn’t entirely a more-it-tocracy increasingly serving the rich and their own interest. Economics wasn’t entirely about funnelling money from the poor to the rich under the pretence that it made the country stronger and more self-sufficient. The difference between Labour and Tories couldn’t be reduced to a simple equation of sacking as many workers as possible, make the remainder work harder to increase productivity and sell, pass the parcel of the company on, as quickly as possible to get an increased profit for the rich without the holes in the balance sheet and in people’s lives showing. Labour were for more and better government. Think about it for a second. Labour grew out of trade unions demanding rights for workers. It’s easy to forget that with this lot going to the same public schools, the same Oxbridge education and hob-nobbing with the Tories. Same old Tories, then as now, but we at least had a partial alternative.  The Tories were for less of everything, light-touch regulation and less being spent on things that didn’t and no longer matter to rich folk. Common things like having a home, being able to heat it and having food on the table. These were to be left to the market.

So I got it wrong he was in the different carriage of a train and got off at different station. Alan Johnson Labour MP. But here he is. ‘It’s Christmas Eve 1967. A Saturday. Four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m waiting for Mike.’ Mike’s married to Alan’s sister. An all-round good guy who likes a good drink. Back then drink driving was a laughable offence of finding your car key and being able to open the car door, rather than a criminal offence. Everybody did it. It never did you any harm school of tough love. Mike’s loveable, but his sister Linda is a little mum, their own mum, Lilian May Johnson, born 1921 had died 1964. Mike was his hero, but Linda provides the quiet corner of his life in which he can stretch and grow. Alan isn’t just a shelf-stacker. He writes songs, has started a band and hopes to hitch on the sixties zeitgeist and become a pop star.

The future Alan has planned out hits a speed-bump. He meets Judith Elizabeth Cox. He’s seventeen. She’s an older woman, twenty-one, with a child to another man. Melodrama. Not really. They are young and in love. They get married. Linda’s pregnant three months after the wedding. Thoughts of being the next Rolling Stone get shoved aside. He needs a steady job and a council house for his growing family.

Alan Johnson become a postman. He cycles from his digs in Notting Hill to Barnes Green, one of the smaller postal delivery routes in London. He’s a natural, it’s a steady job, a lot of ex-forces personnel. No corner cutting. No excuses.  The mail gets delivered come what may. He’s found a vocation. Something he’s good at.  But the money’s not too good. Overtime is the answer. Postman can work night and day, their job never ends (or so it seemed then).

Fast forward a few years. Alan’s got a council house in Slough. A little green were ten council houses nestled.  He can’t quite believe his luck. He can still cycle to work in Slough. Their neighbours are posh, the get-up-and-go type. And they do. When council houses are given away by the government they take theirs and move on. So does Alan.

Alan becomes a union rep. It’s not something he’s thought about a great deal, but he like to read and think. Only a fool can see that the workers were being screwed. It wasn’t all politics. Working class men had their clubs and after they put the politician in themselves to bed they had a shindig. Characters like ‘Big Joe Menzies’ a former railway worker from Perth, were both an inspiration and a role model. He tapped into reservoir of people that had worked with their hands and workers with fine minds that wanted to serve others like them.

Alan finds he’s spending more time on his union duties than on his postman’s job. He keeps working. He need to keep in touch with his colleagues. Their gripes are his gripes. Their causes his causes. He finds a sponsor and is promoted to full-time union officer. He travels the country. He’s a natural union rep as he was a postman. It’s a good combination, but his marriage suffers. He divorces. But life’s on the up and up.  But there’s a reminder that life isn’t something you can plan. Mike, his sister’s husband and one of his best friends, loses his job, admits he’s an alcoholic and hangs himself. Sobering.

But the years ahead with Cameron and his cronies gaining the levers of power are even more so. This book is a reminder that we once did things for ourselves, paid a decent(ish) wage, took pride in our work and did it well.  Perhaps that is the lesson that needs to be re-learned. No more to the robber-barons of government share issues, like the selling off of the post office, and an increasingly large share of any enterprise to the bloated and rich that produce nothing but stir the pot of the poor and take the honey. Alan Johnson’s memoir, it seems like Dickensian times now, rather than then.