27 September 2015

Modern life is hell and Reggie Perrin had it easy


In the wake of the death of author David Nobbs earlier this year a magazine suggested its readers should revisit the set of his novels on which the TV series “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” was based.

For the uninitiated, Nobbs’ books and the programmes they spawned chart the mental demise of Reggie Perrin, a successful sales manager at a company making desserts, and his attempts to shrug off the monotony of his life in favour of something new.

Spoiler alert: Reggie’s breakdown starts slowly (being unable to stop himself saying “parsnips” instead of whatever he should be saying), and ends big (faking his own death).

Thanks to the TV series, Perrin became the champion of everymen everywhere. He was a well-meaning chap, moderately successful, no money worries, married to an attractive and attentive woman and with two healthy grown up children. Reggie’s 1970s life wasn’t at all bad, compared to many of the day; but it was mind-numbingly dull and heaving with petty defeats.

Perrin, a man of intelligence, railed against his commute, the small-mindedness of his colleagues, the pointlessness of striving to increase the sales of a company making exotic ice creams and the repetitive normalness of his life. I won’t ruin it for those of you who don’t know, but his solutions are radical, poignant and often hilarious.

So, having always meant to read the books, the magazine article encouraged me to go out and buy the omnibus edition of the novels and I dived in.

I’d been reading them about a week when something stuck me. Compared to my generation this man has nothing – nothing – to whinge about. The life of Reggie Perrin, compared to that of the modern office worker/commuter, was one of unimagined joy.

Let me explain.

Perrin moans about how his morning train into London, the 0846, is always late. He moans that because it’s made of old rolling stock the seat in his compartment is uncomfortable and he moans that his fare (measured by the way in pence, not pounds) is extortionate. A train at 0846? Seat? Compartment? Expensive? Try the 0630, no seats left, standing all the way crushed into some middle manager’s armpit, still being late and paying £500-a-month for the privilege.

When Reggie arrives at work he moans that his office’s two sets of windows only have views on to the railway yard at Waterloo, and that his oak desk and filing cabinets are drab. An office! With a view! A pipe dream for the battery-farm modern worker in his (probably hot-desked) “work-station”.

And he works for a company which makes something. It has factories and dispatch departments. It stems from the days when Britain’s economy wasn’t based on millions of people pitching things to one another; the days when middle men were the minority, not pretty much all we produced as a nation.

Alright, he works for a company that makes sponge fingers and apple flans, but they are “things”. It doesn’t make Power Point presentations.

Reggie grumbles about having to dictate dull letters to Joan, his long serving secretary. Dictation? As opposed to staring at a monitor all day which wrecks your eyes, and tapping on a keyboard which wrecks your wrists.

Reggie is annoyed at the predictability of conversation in The Feathers every lunchtime. He’s in the pub every lunchtime, and the HR department doesn’t stage an intervention.

Then at 5pm he’s off. Yes, at 5pm, as opposed to 8pm. And not for him the weight of the smartphone in the pocket. No, when Reggie leaves the office at 5pm that, my friends, is that. Done for the day. No calls, no emails on the train. Finished until the next day.

Before which of course he goes home to his large new-build house which is pleasingly mortgage free. At 46 years of age. Do you know any working people who have a large house without a mortgage at 46? No, me neither. We’ll all be working until we’re 70 to pay our houses off, large or otherwise.

This life of his leads to a nervous breakdown. It is presented at the worst of ruts and we are expected to feel deeply sorry for him.

Well I can’t speak for you but for my generation the phrase that springs to mind is “all progress is backwards”. And for the one after me, the kids in their 20s now? To Generation Rent Perrin’s life looks like a fairy story.

There’s a serious point involved in all of this of course. It’s easy to see why Reggie had a breakdown – he was miserable, he knew what his days would be like before they started, and it looked to him like that would be his lot until either retirement (NB: for younger readers “retirement” refers to the ancient but now extinct practice of stopping work at 55 and living off your final salary company pension for the rest of your life – look it up on the internet) or death.

Is it really worse for us today? Arguably it is. Medical treatments are vastly more advanced, but many health outcomes are significantly worse owing to lifestyle. We have the internet, but for many that is less a useful tool than another provider of stress; measurements of stress by the way are off the chart compared to previous generations.

We have more labour-saving devices both at work and home than Reggie Perrin could have dreamed of, and yet we work longer hours than any generation before us, or than any other country in Europe. How does that work?

What remains the same is that scientists continue to say that happiness is the single biggest determiner of staying healthy, and work and commuting plays a huge part in that.

In 2010 researchers showed that it was the mundane nature of, and lack of control over, commuting and many other mundane activities which led to an affect out of all proportion to their actual significance (Pinquart, M., & Silbereisen, R. K. ((2010)). Patterns of fulfilment in the domains of work, intimate relationship, and leisure).

Like numerous other studies they showed that subjects could score well on all the usual key indicators of happiness (stability of home life, income et cetera) but still be, to use a non-scientific term, seriously pissed off. This was down to the small things, not the big ones.

It would be easy to dismiss such grumbles at #middleclassproblems, as Twitter would say, but actually when they are as certain to occur every day, in the same way, at the same time, potentially for the rest of one’s working life, as the sun coming up, it’s easier to see how they come to play on the mind.

I met a lovely old gent at Paddington Station recently in the crush as we were being held (before being given the usual generous three or four minutes to board a train). He was in 1st Class these days, being in his 70s, and fairly well off, only travelling into London twice a week. He told me he started commuting on the line in the 1960s. Back then he said it was cheap, the journey time was actually shorter and you got a seat every day… usually the same seat with the same people, which made the whole thing quite social.

“I look at you poor blokes today squashed in back there and I tell you this,” he said, “If I was starting again now there’s no sum of money that would make me do what you do.”

I suspect I should show some solidarity with Comrade Perrin, rather than making comparisons, given that he and I and millions upon millions more of us continue to suffer the same daily grinds even 40 years apart.

But much as I’m rooting for him as I turn the pages, and much as I’m loving the books, I find myself thinking as I set the alarm for 0530 again and try to stay awake for another page or two; and what I find myself thinking is “parsnips”.

Sorry, I don’t mean “parsnips”, I mean “you don’t know you’re bloody born mate.”

James Clark is a communications consultant and journalist.