In June, 2004, I finally went mad; not mad as in drinking quite a lot, having a curry, then climbing atop a bus shelter with my trousers worn upon my head, nor mad meaning I walked through the village one Sunday wearing a rather unusual hat like one of those tediously middle-class fuckers who used to write in to John Peel's Home Truths radio show; no - my madness took the form of serious clinical depression, according to my doctor. Work at Royal Mail, and by association my own life, had been getting steadily more difficult since at least the mid-nineties, contrary to the truism that a job will become easier as one accrues experience and seniority. Each year, the management made more cuts in the name of savings. Each year, we were asked to do more and to do it quicker until the demands of the job began to border on the impossible.
Then at some point around February 2004, the hearing went in my right ear, replaced at first by a jangling noise, next day becoming something sounding like one of the less tuneful Merzbow albums. I had experienced tinnitus before but only infrequently, usually after going to see a gig and having forgotten to take earplugs with which to deaden the sound; but this was different - just one ear and so loud that it prevented my sleeping for the first couple of nights. Worse still, I'd begun to suffer dizzy spells and had experienced trouble crossing the road, or indeed doing anything which required me to turn my head.
Something was very clearly wrong so I went to see the doctor. She shone lights into my ear and told me it looked fine. She brought in another doctor who told me that I should take care when listening to music with earbuds. The advice seemed useless, not least because it contained no actual diagnosis of my problem. I listened to music a lot whilst at work, and so accordingly took great care regarding volume and how many continuous hours I would spend listening to CDs of enthusiastically violent rap music. Working without music wasn't really an option, because it was the constant soundtrack of drive-by shootings and territorial violence which was keeping me sane. Months passed, and neither the work nor the ear were getting any better. Return visits to Crystal Palace Road Medical Centre brought no new understanding beyond the reality of lengthy NHS waiting lists for specialist treatment.
On Sunday the 4th of April 2004 I wrote in my diary:
I feel approaching normal for the first time in almost a week. I am able to string two thoughts together. I am not completely knackered. The ear infection has waned a little, the blockage and horribly jangling high frequency noise are mostly gone, although the tinnitus remains.
I rose at eleven after an enforced lay-in - I needed it, plus my enthusiasm for consciousness is not all it could be at the moment. I'd had a slightly restless night with dream after dream of work related horror without any actual symbolic content. I stayed up and watched Brassed Off last night, which seemed apt. The part where Stephen Tompkinson hangs himself from the colliery pit head may have been intended as humour, seeing as he was dressed as a clown - albeit very black humour - but it didn't make me laugh.
Work is unbearable - really, really, really unbearable. We are expected to do what is tantamount to ten hours work in an eight hour day, and it absolutely cannot be done. The carrot on the stick is a five rather than six day working week, but it isn't worth it; not when all the me time is spent in recovery; and why should this be exactly? Because Tom Willis - who has never actually done the job - believes the Royal Mail has to change, as he phrases it - another one of those meaningless mantras employed by corporate cock suckers in service of making themselves appear thrusting and businessy.
Why does it have to change?
It was working before, just about.
Now it's fucked.
I once at least had the minor satisfaction of doing a pointless job well. Now I can't even say that much, and it's become a Kafkaesque exercise in moving bits of paper that no-one wants to read backwards and forwards between sorting frame and pouching box until someone finds time to deliver it to the house containing the dustbin into which it will inevitably fly unopened.
I cried my fucking eyes out on Monday when I was finished, having got a mere third of the shit delivered. I was crying yesterday too, stood before a sorting frame about twice the size of what I'm used to, just staring at those massive piles of shite knowing I had no chance of getting it done, and even with at least another four hours to go. It's killing me.
I described another minor breakdown similar to the above in greater detail in a letter sent to Allan Leighton, predatory corporate carnivore and then chairman of Royal Mail. The letter, dated Tuesday the 4th of May, attempts to explain at length why the changes to Royal Mail working practice which he had implemented were impractical from the perspective of us poor cunts trying to do the job.
Two weeks ago, after finishing (barely) at two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, I went to the café as is my custom. I bought a newspaper, ordered a very late breakfast and sat down. First I found that I could not actually read the paper. I could not keep an entire sentence in mind for longer than it took to read. Then my food arrived but I found that I could not eat it. So I just sat there, staring into space, crying - a grown man of thirty-eight sat in a café crying without even knowing why.
Surprisingly he never replied. Maybe he wrote back but it was mislaid in the mail, the hopelessly inefficient mail.
I was beginning to lose it. My snapping point occurred on one particularly improbably heavy day as I opened up my pouching box. A pouching box is either free-standing or attached to an existing post box, a kind of safe in which a Royal Mail driver will deposit additional bags of sorted mail when the mail for a designated delivery route is of such volume as to exceed what the postman or postwoman is able to carry under their own steam. It was, as stated, an improbably heavy day, and so much so that I hadn't finished preparing my mail for delivery until just before noon - a task which would once have been done by eight in the morning at the latest. This left me two hours in which to deliver roughly four hours work, but I just had to get on with it and do what I could, and any mail left undelivered by the time I was due to finish my eight hour day was simply not my problem. I'd done all of those little closes off East Dulwich Grove - Steen Way, Deventer Crescent and the rest - and I was at the pouching box. I took out my key, unlocked the box, and wrestled the grey mailbag onto the ground. I took one corner and tipped everything out, then started picking up the individual bundles of mail, noting the addresses so as to stuff them into the front basket of my bike in the right order - Matham Grove, Tell Grove, the lower numbers of Glengarry Road...
I stared at the addresses unable to work out why none of them made sense. These were the wrong bundles of mail. These were bundles of mail which should have been in the bag dropped off at the pouching box outside the working man's club, half a mile down the road. This mail should be in the other box. My driver had mixed up the bags. There was more mail here than I could carry on my bike, and it would requite two or three trips to set it right, to take this mail down the road and fetch back the bundles I needed right now, but for some reason I couldn't seem to fit all of this information inside my head in one shot, and apparently I was talking to myself and had been doing so for a couple of minutes. The day had been kicking me in the arse since five that morning, and this was just one kick too many.
I couldn't think.
I stuffed the bundles of mail back into the bag, then the bag back into the box and locked up. I cycled back to the sorting office and went in. Something was wrong with me, but I couldn't quite tell what.
The sorting office was empty but for Lee, the manager, and some agency worker. The two of them were talking, and talking slowly, and I badly needed to say something, to explain what had happened but I couldn't interrupt, and I had a feeling that whatever I said would sound mad. I felt as though I was about to explode. All I could hear was this person I had never seen before in my life telling the manager about something which didn't matter, droning on and on and on, never ending, blah blah blah...
Feeling an upsurge of something unpleasant and unavoidable, I went to a different part of the office - a safe distance - and attacked one of the sorting frames, mainly headbutting, some kicks and a few thumps - really putting everything into driving my fucking skull through that stupid sheet of stupid fucking shitting fucking shitting pissing fucking metal. I screamed in pain but couldn't get it anything like as loud as it should be. I screamed so loud that my throat hurt but it wasn't enough. Hopefully I would be sacked, and would no longer have to deal with any of this stupid fucking shitting fucking shitting pissing fucking stupid shit. There was no conceivable future in which this situation was going to sort itself out.
To my astonishment, Lee understood completely. I tried to explain what had set me off, and how I had lost the ability to think straight, to hold more than a few basic thoughts in my head at the same time. I recall words interspersed with manic flourishes of laughter, just like when you see a crazy person in a film, and I was amused - maybe even a little pleased - to realise that it had come naturally and that clichéd mad laughter was really a thing. I may even have shared this observation with my manager. In any case, he seemed to get it and told me to go home and not come back until I'd sorted myself out.
'Your mental health is more important than this fucking job.'
I could tell that he meant it.
So I went home, then took another trip down to the medical centre and had myself signed off for a couple of weeks with stress, or serious clinical depression, as it was described to me. My panic response, the instinct which would have inspired fight or flight under other circumstances, had become jammed on eleven as a result of month after month after month of working under such back-breaking conditions whilst upper management told us that it wasn't enough. This explained the bursting into tears for no obvious reason apparently. This made me feel a little better, an authority figure telling me that my job was definitively shit, as opposed to scowling and asking if I couldn't just put a little more effort into it.
Every so often a missive would come down from on high, from Allan Leighton himself, stressing how we really needed to start pulling our fingers out so as to ensure the future success of Royal Mail as a business. We're all in this together, he would tell us, so let's crack on. I suppose he imagined us all stood around sneering in our respective sorting offices - huh, men in suits, what do they know?
'Hold up, lads,' one of us would cry like the first worker who really gets it in a 1930s Soviet propaganda film. 'This bloke's speaking our language!,' and thus would we crack on.
Working a back-breaking eight hour day and still having trouble paying the rent, or being paid a million pounds a minute to blow shareholders in some board room - we were a team, all cogs in the same machine, apparently.
I went home and spent a couple of weeks as a walk-on part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, making the most of the sick pay which I really felt I had earned; and I knew that I couldn't go back to Royal Mail. Before I'd signed up back in 1988, I'd had an interview with London Underground. Apparently I had done well on the interview, but I wasn't offered a job. It seems that this had been down to the answer I gave to one crucial question.
You're on your own on the platform late at night, just yourself and a gang of fifty rowdy skinheads, obviously pissed, all busily kicking someone's head in. What do you do?
'Well, I would advise them to behave and to conduct themselves in a more orderly fashion,' I squeaked, 'and then I would call for assistance.'
This was the wrong answer I was later told, because it means you're either an idiot or a liar, and London Transport are reluctant to employ people who are likely to get themselves kicked inside out by fifty rowdy skinheads. Now knowing that this was obviously the wrong answer, it seemed like I may as well try again, and so I applied and was interviewed, and was told I would be given a start date at some point soon; but the call never came. I went back to the doctor and was signed off as mad for another month without feeling even remotely guilty, and I continued to wait.
Eventually the word came back. The hold up was due to the fact of my having been to see a doctor about my ear during the previous six months, and that doctor had recommended me to a specialist, bringing about a Kafkaesque situation. We've written to your doctor asking for him to write to the specialist to write back to your doctor with the results of your consultation so he can send them to us, and that was the last I heard from them. I made phone calls back and forth, then eventually gave up and reluctantly shuffled back to the sorting office around September. I had been away for two glorious months and had even begun to remember what it was like to not feel knackered and pissed off all the time. Unfortunately things had changed since I had been away. Lee, our manager, had been pulled on the grounds of his inability to bully workers into delivering square pegs unto round holes. In his place was Audrey.
My doctor had told me I was to insist on light duties, not least because my ear was not significantly better, and I had experienced a resurgence of the problem with my balance.
Audrey was a slender, hawkish black woman with shoulder pads and a harsh, barking tone. I knocked and went into her office to introduce myself. 'I'm afraid you'll need to put me on something light for a week, or so, because the—'
'Let's just get this straight, Mr. Burton.' Her voice rose to unnecessary volume, sharp stabbing words with the sort of emphasis you employ when setting a five-year old on the right path; and she was smiling, which seemed kind of weird. 'You do not come into my office and tell me what you are going to do or what you are not going to do. Do I make myself clear?'
I tried to remember the last time I had been spoken to in this way, but couldn't because I've never been in either the army or prison.
'If you have a problem then you come and tell me about it, and I make the decision about what you can or cannot do. Do you understand?'
I either nodded or grunted, some token acknowledging that I wasn't resisting arrest, and that there was no need for the taser.
She introduced herself as a sort of postal celebrity - although I hadn't asked - describing how she had come over from Camberwell sorting office, airdropped in on the strength of a solid reputation for getting problem offices working. Such was her popularity that she was known as the people's manager to some, so she claimed. She seemed to be working by the assumption that I could be restored to fully operational status through bullying alone, and seemed strangely crestfallen when I told her I had an appointment for an MRI scan in hope of discerning whatever the hell was wrong with my ear. I had denied her some small pleasure, because it might be something real. She was silent for a moment and then testily informed me that I would need to bring her a letter from my doctor confirming the appointment.
I was assigned to inside duties for a week which meant I saw a lot of Audrey, and heard a lot of her as she patrolled the office loudly explaining her own excellence to whichever subordinate happened to be available. Each time she passed my way she seemed to be in the middle of expanding upon her thoroughly Darwinian views of the sick, the lame, and the useless. I had the impression she didn't like me very much. The next week I went back out on a delivery regardless, because it was better than being stuck inside listening to Audrey with all her theories of success - every morning I like to begin the day with some uplifting Gospel music, and other soundbites which could easily have been quoted from The Silence of the Lambs or American Psycho.
In December I had the MRI scan but nothing was found, and eventually my ear set itself right of its own accord. Thankfully I managed to sign for one of the better walks in the office, and whilst Audrey remained an abrasive and often unpleasant personality, she seemed to thaw a little, at least towards me. I had stopped caring, and had adopted a policy of agreeing to whatever unrealistic demand she made, then just going ahead and doing whatever was practical in the time given. Weirdly, being white, I no longer seemed to be a target. For some reason she really seemed to have it in for young, black males. Had she herself been white, I suspect the issue may not have been quite so readily dismissed when formal complaints were made.
There is a theory presently finding increasing support in psychiatric circles that mental illness is, in a majority of cases, an inevitable by-product of capitalism. In the March 2015 issue of Southwark Mental Health News, Robert Dellar summarised the correlation quite succinctly:
People with diagnoses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the exponentially growing varieties of "personality disorder" of which there are currently about five-hundred, are affected by these states in ways which very often lead to withdrawal, isolation, hopelessness, confusion, chaos, inability to look after themselves, to distinguish fantasy from reality, and all too often, suicide. These situations can often be proven to be caused by concrete social factors. Their progression and the possibility of their alleviation, or at least their co-existence with a decent quality of life are influenced without exception by concrete social factors.
I've known some mad buggers in my time, and whilst a few were undoubtedly already playing with a stacked deck, the above seems to pretty much nail it, and certainly rings bells with me. Week after week, month after month, year after year I struggled with a job often so demanding as to mean that the remainder of my free time was mostly spent either asleep or recovering from the day's labour, because rampant capitalism given free-reign will tend to human centipede its workforce into disposable biological profit generators by whatever means it can get away with. In our case this included sending out an employee satisfaction survey every few months in the mistaken belief of our being so stupid as to believe it meant they gave a shit; and I suppose it helped shareholders sleep better at night, in the event of concerns of our well-being ever troubling them, which I find unlikely.
I always took great trouble over those surveys, ticking the boxes - strongly disagree in most cases - then giving reasons with assorted home truths in the space allowed for those who responded other. The surveys posed hypothetical statements such as I am very happy with my job and feel that I am adequately paid, or I am confident that as an employer Royal Mail has my best interests at heart. I don't know a single person who would have ticked strongly agree, agree, or even no opinion to any of that sort of thing, and yet a week or so later, the results always came back the same. The manager would gather us together and tell us that most Royal Mail employees were very happy in their work, but some were just a teensy weensy bit fretful over job security, although they didn't really like to mention it because they felt confident it would all be sorted out in the end.
Somehow we got the impression that the employee satisfaction survey was a waste of time. I regularly concluded mine with hyperbolic intimation of suicidal thoughts, made partially for the sake of indicating strength of feeling; and yet the one time I was called into the office to give account of my supposedly confidential answers was the time when I adopted a more sarcastic tone, ticking strongly agree to anything with which I strongly disagreed, and suggesting I would be happy to have half my wages cut if I could just be sure it guaranteed superior investment security for my superiors.
'You were joking, right?' the manager asked, regarding me with some caution, as though I had properly flipped. I don't think he'd had much experience of sarcasm at such levels of toxicity.
'Yes, I was joking.'
He seemed relieved, and most depressing of all, I could tell he understood. He probably felt the same.