Modern life is rubbish

Posted on April 1, 2006


By Susan Tomaselli

“The devil will find work for idle hands to do.”

Take a defunct lit-mag, a pizza box and a biro. The result: Michael Smith’s brilliant slacker assault on bourgeois myths and solutions to modern-day living. First, let me explain the pizza box. The gestation of The Giro Playboy was a slow one; debuting as a four-pager in Zembla magazine in 2003, it was then issued by Zembla‘s publisher Simon Finch as an artful edition of eight pamphlets in a customised pizza box (complete with a CD and doodled-on pebbles), before turning up in its present book form. And there is something quite artful about the whole endeavour – from the pizza box style cover to Smith’s naif pen drawings illustrating his escapades.

Michael Smith borrows from Jerome K. Jerome, steals from the Beats, employs the dead-pan narrative voice of Alan Bennett and swallows the ethos of The Idler magazine whole (“The idea of the ‘job’ as the answer to all woes, individual and social, is one of the most pernicious myths of modern society”), giving birth to a new anti-hero, a modern-day Bartleby who refuses to work for the man, relying instead on the dole to fuel his drink and drug-addled lifestyle. His words are colourful, lazy monologues, each thought trips into the next, and before you know it, you are seduced, drifting along to Smith’s dreamlike rhythm:

“All alone in that strange town with nothing to fill the days, and loneliness and isolation began to make me strange too… days and days inside a room, broken up with occasional shopping forays and restless walk…doing drugs alone, falling out of step with the rhythms of the outside world…”

It was Thomas Carlyle who said that “man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream… every idle moment is treason” and Smith makes some half-arsed attempts at seeking gainful employment:

“I tried to get another job as the driver on this miniature Victorian train that ran up and down the prom, but they gave it to a guy who fit the bill better, a chubby little bald guy who looked like the fat controller off Thomas the Tank Engine… I didn’t get the job in the cemetery where Aleister Crowley was buried either… “

But, like Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville‘s refusenik of Wall Street, Smith would simply prefer not to, realising that “going to the temping job in the morning just didn’t make any sense … I could see right through it … I was stuck on the lowest levels of a corporate reality that was obviously utterly meaningless and phoney.” Instead Smith, and I’ve assumed his narrator is semi-autobiographical, spends time lying in the bath, watching TV and smoking, the mixture of enforced solitude and leisure producing little epiphanies, his mind twisted ‘on every street drug except glue’. He shrugs his hallucinations and visions of Bat Wing with, “I guess that’s just what happens to people who live alone in bedsits in strange towns…”

Trading the seaside town for London, “raw and full on and exciting”, a “great place to be when you don’t know what to do with yourself … there are loads of opportunities to look down blind alleys ..”, he becomes a giro tourist, subsiding on a diet of starchy kid’s snacks, losing himself riding atop double decker buses, epic Iain Sinclair-like rides through the lesser seen parts of the city. William Blake was found of wandering pre-industrial London, and Smith’s strolls the streets make a fascinating journey, a little act of revolt against busyness and bustle of the city. Like William Blake’s poem ‘London’, Smith treats us to a classic piece of flânerie: Smith, notebook in hand, fag in the other, taking notes on his observations, imparts the following gem:

“When I wander round these parts, I sometimes imagine the titanic days of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the epic, sprawling stream of life flowing everywhere, flowing like the River Fleet beneath the Holburn Viaduct – beggars with no legs, top-hatted occultists, balloonists crashing their balloons completely battered on opium, barefoot Irishmen in rags, thieving chimney sweeps, Indian holymen, floating Qabbalistic Rabbis, shifty looking Chinamen with long nails, syphilitic sailors, gin palaces, music hall drag queens, bearded ladies, animal markets full of monkeys and parakeets, horse shit everywhere, smog, smog, smog and not a car or a Starbucks in sight …”

A disastrous outing through Wiccan Essex results in a spell in hospital and gives Smith so not much his wake-up call, but a recognition that if he wants to get on, he can turn all the shit into gold by writing about it:

“I had the idiot notion that eking out a tenner over three days by living on Space Raiders somehow made you holier, like some phoney Buddhist rubbish .. I realised in that hospital bed that the meek aren’t blessed and they aren’t going to inherit bugger all, and if you wanted poetry you were going to have to pull your finger out of your arse and write some down..and in the end living like a giro playboy amounted to fuck all anyway..”

The Giro Playboy is an exercise in idleness, a well-executed down and out in Brighton, Hartlepool and London. It is being marketed as a ’21st century Beat classic’, but while Kerouac’s “witness is the empty sky”, Smith’s is altogether more parochial and more claustrophobic. That said, this is a highly readable and enjoyable work, and if Smith is to marketed as the New Whoever, B.S. Johnson and his “truth in the form of a novel” seems more apt.

The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith
Faber & Faber
208 Pages

Posted in: Reading