Getting Back to Work – a Follow Up

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This is an article about working with a team of good and decent people in a professional kitchen as the Potwash. It’s also about spurious advice and hope for the future. I will also be calling out Boris Johnson as a manipulative hack, so skip to the end for that.

This is a follow-up post to this one, which, as one now deleted comment to it pointed out, is about a “snowflake who wouldn’t last an hour in my kitchen”. It wasn’t about that at all unless that’s your particular, very archaic and even anachronistic approach to work. It’s maybe useful for context to read it.

For those of you (gawd bless your cotton hearts) who did read the original, the TL;DR of this is: I went to work. I worked. I didn’t fuck up. I ache all over. I’ve been offered more work and maybe even some cooking again. The workplace is one where people front of house, chefs, bosses, go about their jobs professionally and take time to point the new lad (I’m 55) in the right direction even at the height of service.

It was a good experience. I look forward to going back to Potwash with this team as soon as possible. Thanks to them all.

Now, the longer version, with added invective and where I call Boris Johnson a dangerous hack.

The Meat of the Matter

This week I went back to work for the first time since my business failed in December leaving me deep in debt. This new work is in a busy, professional kitchen.

During this break, while I could chat, and smile and laugh and give a perfect impression of functionality but I was too fearful to actually leave the house.

If I absolutely had to, I would chose times and places where I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have to interact with people. If I absolutely had to interact with people, I would but as briefly as possible until I simply didn’t go out at all. People would come to our house for meals and I would be fine, only self-medicating with gin (thank you fashionable spirits!) to the point of black-out, that’s all. No biggie. 

I am fortunate to have a fabulous wife who will go out and socialise with our friends, live life, be superb at her job and love me as much as I love her – which is with all my heart. I also have some wonderfully understanding friends who, knowing my history of Depression, don’t see my long absences as rude. They are happy to see me as and when even if the whens are months apart, and as is “as drunk as a skunk or silent as a mole”.

So, I have become a Potwash. That’s the name you’re given, that’s the job you do. In this context Pot is shorthand for “every fucking thing in the place that can be used to prep and serve food”. George Orwell would have called it le Plongeur, but he was in Paris. I’m in Yorkshire. In either place, it’s a hot, wet, often chaotic if you let it get that way, and a very back-of-house, out of the way role.

Some well intentioned people read the original article as being about a once proud chef and baker in his late middle age having to start again from the lowest of the low. That the article was about pride and redemption. It wasn’t but I can see how it could be read that way. I could have read it that way.

It was about being incredibly skint and having to make a decision to go outside. I should have written with more clarity. The post was about how other people, outside support, decency and goodness are keys to unlocking hope from dread.

The support and patience of my wife and other friends, the offer of a job in a tremendous workplace from the people who make it that way, all of these things helped with me attempt to at least briefly curtail the angst that is crippling me. I should have made that much more clear, much more obvious.

I can see how the article can be read as “a man starts again from the bottom using inner strength, redemption calls”. For a start, in the original article I called The Potwash “The lowest form of life in the professional kitchen”, and that was a misleading mistake on my part.

One of my bosses read the article and responded with a swift and timely correction. She wrote “Potwash is (by a long way) not the lowest position – in my experience, it is absolutely crucial and is the beating heart behind it all”, and she’s right. I had forgotten that.

The bistro I’m working in is a small place that serves a blind tasting menu that is dependent on available seasonal produce and the creative whim of the chef/proprietor. The menu, including snacks, is upwards of 11 courses. Each course has its own cutlery. Each course has its own plate or bowl (sometimes both), maybe a jug, maybe a butter dish. Each course has its own prep: pans, pots, Pacojet blades, knives, spoons, ladles, spatulas, whisks, bowls. You get the idea.

If the Potwash slows down the pace, or fucks up by prioritising the wrong items to wash (no point in washing those frying pans if the food is cooked but there are no plates for the guests to eat their food from), or simply goes out for a smoke at the wrong time, then everything else gets backed up.

This means guests don’t get the experience they deserve. It put the front of house even more in the firing line, “I’m sorry for your wait but we don’t have any plates because the Potwash was polishing the mandolin in between smoking fags next to the bins”.

It makes the chefs look bad because not matter how wonderfully you cook the food (and the chefs at my job cook wonderfully) food that has to wait is not good food.

However, if the Potwash does his or her job methodically and with care (maybe some pride), then he or she is a part of the team, a part of a smoothly operating machine that serves up delicious food to happy guests who want to come back, and tell their friends to come.

So, with the help of the comment from my new boss, I was able to think differently about the job in hand. I immersed my hands in the hot water, and the whole of me into the role. I was able to interact with the front of house staff and the chefs and get the work done.

The proposition that I should leave the house, let alone talk to other people still fills me with sickening fear. But I’ve just worked two shifts in two days, and have been offered more work. The comment made by my new boss is no mean feat. It was succinct, to the point, factual and was without grandiosity or the performative emptiness often pervades insights into Depression, anxiety and angst.

Finally Boris Johnson

So, finally we get to Boris Johnson. Again the tl;dr version: Boris rolls out the vague and unhelpful idea that “work cures depression, just look at Winston Churchill”. He’s wrong on many counts.
You might think my story supports this contention about Work=Happy . It doesn’t. Johnson is a hack who will say anything to play to the crowd. Here he’s using a tawdry old canard. Not quite, “Work Sets you Free” but a close ally. It encapsulates the falsity that identity comes from labour no matter what that labour might be. It is always rolled out by the people who labour the least. At its heart is a cold, inhumane, unpleasant ideology that illness is weakness and that strength is inflexible, total and inviolable.

In a recent column in a British newspaper he used his alter-ego, a fantasy figure he has created and which he disguises himself in as another way of distracting the electorate from his own lack of character.

This disguise is based loosely on British wartime PM, Sir Winston Churchill. When Boris Johnson invokes Sir Winston we are actually supposed to see an amalgam, a new creation, called Boris Churchill, and attach a gravitas and meaning to the invocation.

Take Boris Churchill’s recent column in The Telegraph in which he ventriloquises Sir Actual Churchill like so:

“It was with work that (Sir Actual Churchill) pitchforked off his depression; and what was true for Churchill is basically true for all of us: that to a very large extent we derive our self-esteem from what we do.

“It is often from our jobs – from being engrossed in our daily tasks – that we get that all-important sense of satisfaction.”

Sir Actual Churchill never said anything like this. Nor did his doctors, his family, anyone in fact. This conjecture is entirely Boris Churchill’s.

What Boris Churchill also doesn’t mention is the ongoing debate as to whether Sir Actual Churchill suffered from Depression at all. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine goes as far as stating:

“Our view, then, is that the available evidence suggests that Churchill suffered no major psychiatric disorder… The myth of the ‘Black Dog’ as Churchill’s metaphor for severe clinical mood disorder is just that – a myth”.

What Boris Churchill is actually saying is, “If you’re not working, no wonder you’re a mental case and a bit blue, buck up!” He’s wrong.

Work is a generalised idea. Where you work, what you do for work, how you work, who you work with, how you are made to feel at work, how you are compensated for that work, all of these components are essential to “bucking up and not being so down”.

What happens outside of work effects work. This is also very much true in vice versa. Life is an entanglement of work and not-work. Saying that anybody can “pitchfork off his or her depression” with work misrepresents both work and mental health.

He further conflates “being engrossed in our daily tasks” with our jobs, our work. For many people their work, their jobs are far from engrossing. At turns they can be staggeringly stultifying or intensely stress inducing. A work place where bullying or tedium pervade, a job which is repetitive, unthanked, demeaning or so low paid as to make it feel soul destroying and alone will not cure anybody’s passing sadness let alone a deeply ingrained depression or stomach churning anxiety.

Johnson is wrong and dangerously so. He gives fuel to bad managers who can use the excuse of, “Work will make you better. You’re obviously not working harder” to further encourage illness and pain. He gives people with Depression and its eternal outriders of anxiety, fear, loneliness, pain and angst another push towards the lack of self-worth that ends in the kind of death that brings agonies to friends and family.

Work can be wonderful with the right people in the right place even doing things that are sometimes – like being a Potwash in a restaurant – hard and even greasily gross. When colleagues are gracious, dignified, courteous and professional in everything (even washing pots can be thought through to give it dignity) and they want their workplace to reflect that, then there’s some hope.

I’ve been offered the chance to cook at a sister restaurant soon. So, it seems that washing pots with a sense of pride might pay off… with the right people behind me.

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