Holding on to our humanity

Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski

This stunning forward (below) by best-selling author, Niall Griffiths (Sheepshagger, Grits, Stump), of Charles Bukowski’s brilliant book (read Post Office and everything by Charles Bukowski, novels and poems, before you die) is even more resonant in these times of enforced austerity than it was when written. Both the forward and the novel will always be relevant for anyone in a dead-end job whose spirit is not yet crushed, or for those who have given up but whose inner flame of resistance can still be reignited, and for all of us fighting to recover – or hold onto – our humanity while struggling against the torrent of a life-denying culture of rampant consumerism and political double-think which ceaselessly attempts to undermine our striving for a life of meaning and authenticity. The hope that reading one book gave Niall when he was stuck in the same dead-end role as Bukowski is moving indeed. Maybe the same book can give you the same hope – and this forward too. Read on:

The Forward to Post Office

By Niall Griffiths

It wasn’t so much the work itself that was getting to me as the people I had to work alongside. With the work, well, you could just switch off, go onto automatic pilot, let your mind drift and dance as your hands and arms went through the robotic motions; scoop the letters out of the central trough onto the conveyor belt that ran at crotch height, place parcels and outsize packages into the pigeon-holes at face-height. Brainless and easy, albeit mind-numbingly boring after several hours. But the people, God, my fellow workers…..one would shout ‘ah yip! ah yip!’ in a high-pitched screech whenever another sack of mail was emptied into the trough; one would call his workmates over to stand and point and snigger if I looped the sacks incorrectly onto the brackets; another kept shaving his head for charity (‘do anything for the kiddies, me’) and made sure that everyone else knew about it; and, when I fortuitously found a letter addressed to myself out of the many hundreds in the trough and suspected that it was an urgently-needed cheque and asked the boss if I could take it home rather than wait the three days for it to be delivered, he looked at me as if I’d just asked him for permission to expose myself to a nun.

How do I know it’s for you?’ ‘Because it’s got my name on.’ ‘Could be for someone else with the same name.’ ‘What, at the same address?’ ‘How do I know it’s your address?’ ‘Because it’s on the form I filled in for you when I started here. Go and check. I really need that money.’ ‘This is the ROYAL Mail. Until it goes through the letterbox it’s the property of Her Majesty the Queen. Can’t let people take it willy-nilly. Now get back to work and put that letter on the belt.’

And so on. The envelope tsunamis kept coming. Tens of thousands of letters each night. Scores of thousands. Every night.

I’d read some of Bukowski’s work before circumstances drove me to the job at the sorting office, and the film Barfly had just come out, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, based on Bukowski’s early life as a bum, so I had some idea of who he was and what he was about. I’d read the novel Women, and a couple of his poetry collections had been my sole companions on many daytime drinking sprees. I’d liked what I’d read, but the only editions of his books available at that time were expensive American imports, so his was one the names I’d look out for on the cheap second-hand bookstalls in the market square. Which was where I found Post Office, in a nice hardback, fine condition, two quid.

I could barely afford even that meagre amount; most of my earnings were being given up to debtors so that I wouldn’t be evicted from my bedsit or taken to court or have my legs broken, and anything left over went on food and drink. I couldn’t afford to buy books. And I didn’t want to half-inch this one because I knew and liked the stall-holder, so I handed over the two quid and prepared myself to go hungry for a day. Maybe I could scrounge a few spuds from the couple upstairs, or a tin of soup from the feller below. Steal from the communal fridge. Something.

Food quickly ceased to matter. I took the book home, sat in my chair by the window, and, in the few hours I had to myself before I had to clock on at the sorting office, read the entire thing twice. I devoured it … the cool messiness of the writing and how it manages somehow to imbue mundane ritual with a mythological weight; how it helped me to feel that what I was doing, what I was being forced to do in order to continue breathing, were scenes in a life lived specially; the validity of the individual experience gulped in a vast and featureless organisation (the mail was Royal, I was never allowed to forget, it belonged to The Queen). I knew, reading it, that the tedium of that night’s work to come would be just a little bit more bearable.

The book tosses you about like a choppy sea; you’re laughing, then you’re feeling the heartbreak of the narrator’s return to Betty, and then this anguished rage at her premature death, and then you’re immersed in Bukowski’s metaphor for existence – horseracing – and then you’re back to laughing. The book throws you about all over the place. In truth, the post office features rarely, at least in any immediate sense, although it looms like a war in the background, behind the stuff about relationships and writing and the fun and frozen wastes of being alive.

And, of course, there’s more to it than that. Central to much of Bukowski’s work is a striving towards a kind of Zen-like detachment, a reaching of the perennial Outsider towards some understanding of his place in a world which he feels to be botched (Post Office’s opening line – ‘It began as a mistake’ – resonates in this respect), and to seek the meaning, if there is one to be sought, in his capacity and role as alien. America, or the stage of human evolution that post-war America represents, has jettisoned its soul; the clock is dominant, technology is choking, the manufactured and accepted need to consume has replaced any hunger for spiritual sustenance. And in the underground figure are battles for the fulfilment of base needs and the demand to live a worthwhile existence, through sex and love and laughter and booze and music and the written word. Bukowski was writing about Los Angeles; I was working in a sorting office on the outskirts of Cambridge. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Mailman, you got any mail for me?’ his postman narrator is asked, and he screams in reply: ‘Lady, how the hell do I know who you are or who I am or who anybody is?’ We’re forced into absurd lives, against which the only sane response is to wage a guerrilla operation of humour and lust and madness. The post office, or any world of work, is only one institutionalised system of control that is designed to beat people, to condition them into accepting that humiliation and failure is the norm. Those who do not rebel against this lose any ability to think for themselves. The workers are robbed of power whilst the bosses have only a small amount of it and can only use it arbitrarily, which is to say, pointlessly.

In Post Office this situation is seen not only in the titular establishment but also in human interactions, marriage, consumerism, the hippy movement. Far from feeling hopeless, though, or despairing, we’re shown that in resisting lies the potential for growth. These arenas – which are encapsulated in the phrase ‘war all the time’, as the title of one of Bukowski’s many poetry collections has it – with their intricate systems of power and control, offer, in fact, an environment in which the human animal, in all its wildness, can flourish.

So the influence of Bukowski is more attitudinal than literary or stylistic. His novels – and Post Office, being his first, is no exception – are messy, ramshackle, rambling, structurally chaotic, held together, it seems, by bits of Sellotape and string. Even the punctuation defies basic grammatical rules. Yet to criticise it with the exegetical tools of formal literary appreciation is to entirely miss the point; the disorder of it, the near illiteracy of it, even, is of a piece with the explicit command it contains to construct a uniquely personal set of rules and beliefs as a way of resisting absorption and remaining, in a very real sense of the word, alive. This was vital to me at the time, living as I was surrounded by ivied halls and towers in which literature was unstintingly drained of all blood and relevance. It remains so. Bukowski’s work, with less mess, with less chaos, with more reins and restrictions, would lose most of its value and charm.

He was an astonishingly prolific writer, Bukowski, producing scores of volumes of letters and poetry and essays and short stories and novels and screenplays and journals, some of it great, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it terrible. But the work thrusts itself into the world as he did himself; beer-bellied, flatulent, crude, aggressive, sensitive, acne-scarred, everything. It must be taken as a whole.

When that envelope was eventually put through my letterbox it contained not the cheque I was praying for but a final threat of eviction; I was able to laugh, and sign up for more overtime at the sorting office, feeling less pain than I would’ve done before I read the book you’re holding in your hands right now. And if this is your first contact with this odd and unique writer’s work, and you want to read more, then be happy because there’s a huge wave of it out there. Ah yip.

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