A few years ago, the BBC made a series of programmes called, What Do Artists Do All Day? Jack Vettriano, Scottish painter, was the subject of one. Sitting in his semmit vest humming Blue Velvet whist making tiny marks on the canvas, he turns to the camera: “I’m usually painting by 5am, steal a march on the world, get up early, and get on with the bloody job.” He tells us his dad worked down a coal mine in Methil, Fife, so Vettriano is acutely aware of this ‘work’ being quite different to that which may have encumbered him. However, at an easel by at window, in what looks like his front room, with endless coffee and cigarettes, there’s no denying Vettriano is working: alone, focused, quietly singing “softer than satin was the light.” Another artist featured in the series is Anthony Gormley, the sculptor who makes casts of himself in what he calls, “a fundamentally narcissistic, terrible project.” Gormley works a part of a team in an industrial-looking warehouse – polished concrete floors, drills, heavy duty tools, used in combination with computer software – to create 3-D images from which he aims to “capture a fugitive moment of lived time.” How’s that for a day’s work?
Sara Baume, Irish artist and writer, did not feature in the series, but I dipped into one of her books recently, Handiwork, in which she tells us what she does all day. Handiwork takes us into the quiet industriousness of her home with its sub-divided spaces for writing and for art. Baume has pulled off that feat Virginia Woolf spoke of in her diaries: “to always contrive that work is pleasant.” It is as though Baume has never left the craft table from senior infants’ class, and she manages to approach her work with the same blithe seriousness as a child. Often, her thoughts drift away from what she is doing, perhaps distracted by what she sees outside (she has a fixation with birds), or by a snippet she hears on the radio (she works with it permanently turned low), or a remembered image from years back that, in stirring a paint pot, rises to the surface of her mind. What do artists do all day? They work, they play.
I satellite around my small flat and colonise each corner with forms of – for want of a better word – work. Reading takes place in bed, in the bath, at the kitchen table, laid out on the sofa. If it is something I am reading with purpose, I will sit upright, pen in my hand, a tiny carnet of sticky tabs within reach, ready to mark a page or section. Writing takes place in all those same spots (bar the bath) and two more: a desk in the box room and one by the window in the front room into which noise from the street below bleeds, sirens so predictable they almost pacify my thinking. This is the desk where I do almost all my paid work, which, come to think of it, is the only thing I stamp as ‘work’. Neither reading nor writing is work, and believe me, that is not because I have pulled off Woolf’s trick of contriving that it is pleasant, sometimes I’d rather pull matted gloops of hair from the plug hole than get down to write, but I still don’t see it as work.
Tobias Wolff, an American writer, tells a story about another, John Cheever: “When he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work.” Tobias Wolff goes on to say, “This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life.”
Many people have work lives that are less ordinary than they used to be, juggling where and when they work. Last week I returned, for the first time in two years, to the Poetry Library, a space where I used for work pre-pandemic. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed it (a deliberate forgetting, self-taught to get me through times of solitude). The library is next to a school playground and I could hear the children flap and squawk during their breaktime, a pleasant soundtrack. In my front room, I hear buses, cars, the bleep of the pedestrian crossing, people shouting. At the back, I hear and see the birds. Last week, as I was doing the dishes (house‘work’), a robin with no sense of a workload, but busier than any of us, was non-stop flying, darting, singing, moving, keeping occupied.
These days, I’ve even come around to the notion of re-labelling paid work so as not to have the w-word tip the dominoes that might set off its list of unpleasant synonyms: toil, graft, grind, drudgery. Words that slap you down before you’ve even begun. The absence of a formal workplace aids my thinking on this, flitting ten paces from bed to kitchen, to box room, to beside the bay window. Snail tracks from basecamp hardly lend a feeling of the old formal workplace to this new way of grouting work into a day. With a flick of a mental switch work becomes ‘activity’, ‘endeavour’, ‘a project’. Easy for me to say when the only person relying on me for work is myself. I can play word games all day long, write a personal essay on the re-classification of work, while others do jobs to keep the world turning. Or do they?
Orwell put work under the microscope when he went Down and Out in Paris and London posing the provocative question: What is work? He answers it thus: “A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless.”
Useful or useless, I’m off to capture a fugitive moment of lived time.