I’m pleased to see this novel published by Verbivoracious Press, 25 Years On. Why should you care? Well, I make my pitch below. Robert Alan Jamieson is sometimes appreciated, but not often enough, and he’s certainly one of the best experimental writers alive and at work in Scotland and beyond. This is a copy of the introduction I’ve written for the new edition of one of his finest early works, given new life in 2017. You can buy the book here. It’s a secret, but it’s a good one.
Introduction to A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson
by Rodge Glass
- The Way In
A Day at the Office was published by Polygon 25 years ago and hasn’t been reprinted since. That in itself is nothing special – the vast majority of good novels only live once, and in their own time. This one though is special: daring, and truly experimental, and in terms of form (I’m guessing here) unlike anything else you’ve ever read. It also does the basics right: it’s full of carefully drawn, convincing, fully rounded characters and, like all great novels, it has grown in relevance with the passage of time. The further away the Scotland of 1990 retreats into memory, the more this portrait of it feels accurate. So, though it’s no shame to be printed once, I’m pleased to see A Day at the Office reappear in this new edition from Verbivoracious Press. And I hope it represents an early part of the novel’s life. Sometimes, it takes a while to spread the word about a great book. Twenty-five years may be a long time in contemporary fiction, but it’s almost no time at all in literature.
So what is A Day at the Office? Well, the narrator gives readers a strong clue right at the outset:
This book is a day and a night in the life of a Scottish city, seen through the imaging eye of a dreaming worker, who conjures to life the novel’s three motor characters – Ray, age nineteen; Helen, twenty-four, and Douglas, twenty-nine. Their connection is brief, yet inevitable in the fact that they are all parts of the single psyche, that of the dreamer/conjuror.
The book being described here may turn out to be a challenging read, but I can’t think of another novel that explains so very clearly, right at the start, what it’s going to do.
What follows is a series of fragments from the (both inner and outer) lives of Ray, Helen and Douglas, three young people trying to get life started, or re-started, and not quite knowing how to do it. The ‘dreaming worker’ (or novelist) makes the three central characters motor the novel along, occasionally crossing each other but usually circling – it’s not really until the final, tense scene between Douglas and Helen some of those connections become clear. Meanwhile, as with so much of Robert Alan Jamieson’s writing, the novel has an intimate tone. It’s delivered in a clear but unassuming way. It’s as modest as its author. Like the prose of any good poet, not a syllable is wasted. And yes, like the voice told us at the start, the novel takes place over one long day, starting at 0430 as
the moonwise children
to the other side
The novel pans away from these three exactly 24 hours later, once
the earth has turned
in the night
and the up may be down
in the morning light
The characters have been thoroughly shoogled about in the interim, awaking to find that ‘up may be down’. They’re aware of how small they are, how insignificant. But they are at least watched closely by someone, our dreamer/conjuror, who always has eyes on them. The voice reappears intermittently, and does so on the novel’s final page. The voice –
the cauldron of dreams
That suggests we leave Ray, Helen and Douglas as the whole cycle, their next ‘day at the office’, is beginning again. The sign-off implies that all readers have just witnessed is about to happen all over again, only in different shapes. Perhaps, as Douglas says to Helen, it’s finally time for the characters to ‘stop being kids’, to ‘really leave home’, to ‘grow up’, and there will be real change in their stuck lives after all. Maybe that’s just late night talk that will be forgotten in the morning, or at the very least, postponed. Either way, this is just one angle from which to look at A Day at the Office. And it’s not the only one.
Another is to say it’s a story about the effect death has on the living.
Another is to call it a love story.
Another is to call it a story about the pull of drugs.
Another is to call it a story about margins. About how difficult it is to escape them.
Another is to say it is a rare convincing portrait of the Scottish working class.
Another is to say that really, at heart, it’s about the distance between what’s on the TV and the drudgery of daily existence for ordinary people –
the events of
a day at the office
a plane has crashed
a politician lied
an actor wrote a book
WHAT ELSE IS NEWS
the headtalkings tie
Another is to see it as a story about the end-of-Thatcher landscape in Scotland. What those years did. Their legacy.
One more: another way is to see A Day at the Office is as the story of Edinburgh in the year of the fall of the Berlin wall. A snapshot of time in its long history, of which the year 1990 is a short footnote, Edinburgh being the ‘coral reef’ that Helen Ray and Douglas merely rent, without ever having a hope of owning it –
but she is not new
she is not ours
she is the coral reef
we explore til we give up
nothing is ever made new
make it together
zeroing out at the end
cramped in the upstairs room
the mattress behind the door
that face at the mirror
In a way, each of these descriptions above contains some element of truth, but on their own they don’t tell the whole story. If you look past the hi-fis, the played-to-death Smiths tapes and the fall of the Wall, all that places the book at the turn of that decade, here is a timeless novel, hard to reduce to trend or tradition. For me, it’s not just about the content anyway, but also the presentation. Whenever I get the chance to recommend this book to someone, that’s where I always start. The form.
As you’ll soon see, A Day at the Office isn’t presented like a conventional novel. Chapter titles. Clear divisions. Blank pages where you’d expect. All that. No, it slides from prose to poetry and back again, then into script and back again, into various different forms of script too. It flips into italics and back, INTO CAPITALS, shrinking out of them in just the right place, utilising bold type for effect. It bleeds large words into small, sometimes overlapping, sometimes that strange small type worrying away at the edges of the main narrative as if whispering in its ear, trying to distract it from the main story. No matter which trail readers are following, Helen, Douglas or Ray, their subconscious voice is always in competition with the voice that can be heard by others. Sometimes the words clash. For me, this is central to any understanding of how the world of this novel works.
Now for a brief historical digression.
Such typographical play was not unique in novels of the 1980s and 90s. In 1984 Alasdair Gray’s masterpiece 1982, Janine deployed it in more extreme form, using the presentation of words on the page as a way to represent his protagonist Jock McLeish’s total mental breakdown. (And he’d used similar techniques in his debut novel, Lanark, in 1981.) In 1989, Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing employed it in a more sparing way by using experiments like floating words, also words falling off the page, again with a character struggling to hold on to her sense of self. Each of these are key touchstones in late 20th Century experimental literature. (There are others in the European tradition too. There’s no reason to see this novel just as a representative of Scotland. All writers read and write across borders.) Anyway, what’s different about A Day at the Office is that, to my knowledge, it’s the only full-length work of this period to genuinely meld prose, poetry and script throughout – with the entire book being neither one nor the other nor the other, but a satisfying mix of all three forms which feels natural, unforced. Jamieson doesn’t just use typographical play when he needs to find new ways to represent moments of particular strain on the mental states of his characters. This is how they always are. It’s how they live, how they interact with the world around them, even when that interaction is as simple as avoiding your mum’s awkward questions about money, or buying enough weed to get you by, or thinking about last night’s sex. Every word spoken out loud is accompanied by an internal echo. And sometimes the echo is fighting itself.
- The Way Back
In 2005 Glasgow University’s Professor Willy Maley, knowing I was an admirer of Robert Alan Jamieson, asked me to write a short piece on A Day at the Office for The List magazine’s 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time. By then I had been living in Scotland for eight years. I had just published my own first novel but was naive and inexperienced. Still, I was keen, and since arriving in Glasgow in 1997 I had been in love with contemporary Scottish fiction, all of which was news to me, as none of these writers had been part of my literary education. I soon began working as Alasdair Gray’s secretary. This lasted for four years, then I wrote his biography for another three, and for the duration of the project I had much more reading and research to do. Around this time I discovered plenty of essential local voices through Gray’s own recommendations, and found that much of the best of it spoke to me in a way that my own culture and background – Jewish, middle-class, English – somehow could not do. So I set about hoovering up as much of the stuff as possible. That meant all the names you might expect if you were in and around Glasgow or Edinburgh at the turn of the century – Galloway Gray Kay Kelman Kennedy Lochhead Morgan Warner Welsh – some of whom have now, years later, graduated to positions of influence which must have seemed distant impossibilities when they were starting out, trying to inch the door open. But it meant many talented others too, and many who don’t usually get included in that list. I’m thinking of the likes of Agnes Owens. (Gray believed she was unfairly overlooked because she was female, working class, Glaswegian, and earned money as a cleaner.) I’m thinking of Frank Kuppner, Laura Hird. Writers of great talent who never quite had the recognition they deserved, never had London come calling. In my earlier days in Glasgow, it never occurred to me that Robert Alan Jamieson might also be included in that latter bracket. I thought he was a giant.
The final decade or two of the 20th Century saw an extraordinary flowering of Scottish literary work across the forms, and it may take a few more decades to appreciate it fully, to understand where it came from. When I moved to Glasgow, all that history was still happening, and many of the players were still on the way up. Having read Robert Alan Jamieson’s work at the same time as I devoured novels, stories and poems by many of the names above I noted the quality of it, also the influence his writing seemed to have on others publishing at the time. I just assumed his prose was widely acknowledged. Willy’s inclusion of A Day at the Office in his 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time reinforced that perception. Only afterwards, while conducting extensive interviews for my Gray biography (which meant talking at length with many of the most experienced literary artists in the country) did I realise that hardly anyone in the Scottish literary world, even the most well-read, the most interested, the most passionate, the most engaged, had even heard of it.
In the decade that passed between 100 Best Scottish Books and being asked to write a short piece for Verbivoracious Press in 2015, A Day at the Office had been mentioned to me by precisely no one. Though I often recommended it to others, I had also never found anyone who had read it. Jamieson was certainly a respected poet, particularly in Scotland, and since this novel was first published his reputation has grown significantly as a prose writer too. (His novel Da Happie Laand, published by Luath and shortlisted for the Saltire Society Book of the Year Award in 2010, is stunning in both range and execution.) But whenever I tried to find enthusiasts for A Day at the Office, I failed. I came to realise that the novel had found few readers in the early 90s, as well as little critical attention. Some might find this a depressing picture. I don’t. The early history of any great novel has little to do with the words inside the pages. It often has plenty to do with context. And the context at Polygon in 1991 is crucial in understanding why few readers were given the chance to find this book on its first printing. If we’re going to talk about the novel’s future, we should at least acknowledge its past too.
The first thing to note is the original artwork. Which was terrible. As those on the inside at Polygon at the time now admit, the jacket was perhaps one of the worst they ever passed for publication. Looking at it now, in the copy I’ve been rereading these past few weeks, I’m still amazed by how it looks like something more suited to a cheap home-made publication from the 1960s, not the 1990s, and from a serious, ambitious publisher who counted James Kelman, Janice Galloway and James Meek among their list. The green jacket had a badly printed copy of a typewriter and an alarm clock all skew-whiff on the front. It didn’t have a hope. Which reminds me of what one writer told me recently when her publishers sent her back a proof of her latest-novel-to-be with a note attached reading ‘Hope you like the cover’. She said, ‘I gave them sex, murder, heads on spikes – and they gave me a coat on a hook!’ A Day at the Office contained myriad opportunities for something direct, dark, appealing. Given the underwhelming artwork, what’s really astonishing is that anyone bought the novel at all.
In 1991, there were other challenges too. Like Frank Kuppner, also published by Polygon in this period, Jamieson was not easy to classify. Known primarily as a Shetlandic poet, this not-quite-novel-not-quite-long-poem was difficult to pitch. The impact of that may have been compounded by the fact that R.A.J. was, and remains, on the quieter end of the scale when it comes to self-promotion. Or as Willy Maley has it, ‘A shy wean gets nae toffee’. One person working on the original publication now claims Jamieson was ‘never fashionable, never shouty’, and ‘in the early 1990s in Scottish Literature, if you weren’t shouty, you didn’t get heard’. In my opinion use of that word, ‘shouty’, isn’t a hint about literally shouting your way to being noticed – it’s a publisher’s term in reference to how, in media/press terms, a writer might be viewed. For example, the likes of combative Kelman and gritty Galloway, both forthright, quotable characters, were easier to pitch for interviews and promotion than certain others, especially back in the days when it was so difficult for Scottish writers to get any press coverage at all. Polygon were publishing 35 books a year at the time A Day in the Office appeared. Which meant that every year, some sank by sunset.
Another issue was the experimental subject matter. Undoubtedly, Polygon took on A Day at the Office because it was a fine novel, but not because it was easy reading. Jamieson was partly published out of love for the work, and commercial expectations were never high; it’s no stretch to suggest that little investment was made in promoting the novel beyond appealing to those who had already enjoyed his poetry, or previous novels Soor Hearts (1984) and Thin Wealth (1986) – such as the critic and University of Glasgow Professor Douglas Gifford, a long-standing supporter. So: bad jacket, poorly marketed, quiet author, experimental material. All of which explains the reception at the time, at least to some extent.
Praise be, such immediate commercial concerns are less relevant twenty-five years later, as we begin to reflect on the context of the time, and the enduring value of the novel. And perhaps, if anything, instead of being castigated for not spreading it further and wider, Polygon should be applauded for investing at all in material which was so unconventional, so experimental, in the first place. It allows us to see it now. And appreciate it. Most good writers have reputations that evolve steadily over time, and those reputations are rarely diminished by sales figures. They are read by other writers, influence those writers, and in the end I do believe their voices are heard. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.
- The Way Out
At times, I have wondered whether appreciation of this novel was a club that only Willy Maley and I belonged to. With this reprint from Verbivoracious Press, I am happy to be proved wrong, and excited that A Day at the Office will be finding new readers who may also join the club. Meanwhile, writing this introduction gave me an excuse to talk to Willy about the book again, and discuss how the novel stands up after all these years. Where it fits in, if anywhere. As ever, Willy is positive about not just the work, but also the possibilities for giving it new life in the future, and I’d like him to have the last word:
Reprints are an essential means by which neglected works, books thought to have had their day, are brought back into view.… A Day at the Office is ripe for revisiting, rereading, and reviewing. Notice has to be taken. Attention must be paid to the smallest detail, the most modest, self-effacing work of literary art. Scottish fiction is arguably better served in this regard than it was in 1991, and the digital age allows easier access than the print culture of old. Once this novel shows up on the radar again I am confident it will find an appreciative audience and increase our understanding of just how rich the literature of the last two or three decades has been. Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark was a poet’s novel. A Day at the Office is a poet’s novel. Then again, all of Muriel Spark’s novels are the work of a poet, yet she who saw herself primarily as a poet is regarded first and foremost as a novelist. A Day at the Races. A Night at the Opera. These are significant events. A Day at the Office in its new jacket is an event too. A publishing event. A great day’s work. I’ll be rereading it and recommending it to lovers of poetic fiction at its finest… Whatever the reasons for its slipping out of sight, Robert Alan Jamieson’s A Day at the Office thoroughly deserves its day in the sun, its second life, its new dawn, its day after tomorrow.’
Quite right too, Willy. Reader, I hope you enjoy this novel. And if you like it, maybe pass it on, eh?
Even the Berlin Wall can fall, and time might alter anything. As anyone who’s ever read a book that changed the way they saw the world well knows, anything can happen in a day.
Rodge Glass, September 2016