Southerly by David Haywood


It's Sad that You're Leaving Us, Steve

Russell Brown recently commented that ever since he's known me I've been about to leave my job. On some occasions, this was because the dark angel of redundancy was hovering over my humble work cubicle. On other occasions, it was because I felt myself to be an excellent candidate for vocational self-euthanasia.

In the end, I decided to jump before the redundancy angel gave me a push. Ten days ago I said goodbye to the Crown Research Institute (CRI) that has been my home for the last couple of years, and set off on my own as a freelance writer. Yes, I am really that stupid.

Major life changes tend to make me philosophical, and looking back over my scientific research career -- such as it was -- I think my greatest achievement is the fact that I never took sick leave from my job. I may have solved a few difficult equations, and I may have patented a few good ideas, but I suspect that my glowing attendance record is what really made me an outstanding CRI employee.

Of course, as a newly self-employed writer, I'm keen to maintain this exemplary work record. I simply can't afford to lose money through illness. Domestic accidents are the leading cause of lost work-hours, and on this basis I spent my first employer-less Saturday morning sharpening all the knives in our house. I have been told many times that a blunt knife is more dangerous than a sharp one, and -- by that measure -- I judged that our cutlery drawer was an accident hazard comparable to a box of loaded revolvers.

While cutting an apple that afternoon I had cause to appreciate my foresight. A doctor's scalpel couldn't have made a neater job of slicing open the fingers on my left hand. I shudder to think how much worse it would have been with a blunt knife.

Later that same day, while attempting to operate a pressure cooker with my heavily-plastered digits, I somehow managed to immerse my other hand in boiling water. If captured on film, the subsequent cascade of events would earn a fortune on 'The World's Funniest Home Videos'. Suffice it to say that -- in my hilarious attempts to get my burnt hand to the cold tap -- I smashed my knee into the corner of our table so hard that my leg went numb for three days.

Over the next week, while hopping one-legged around our house with both hands in bandages, my dodgy spine became agonizingly painful. Then, as an encore, my remaining operational limb began to exhibit symptoms of an affliction that I dubbed 'throbbing pulse kneecap'. Nothing ever came of this ailment -- and it's stopped throbbing now -- but I thought I should mention it for medical completeness.

So being self-employed isn't as easy as you'd think.

On the bright side, I've used my recuperation time to build this website. The intention is to advertise my writing wares so that people will hire me to produce articles for their newspapers and magazines. If you know a publisher who likes to throw money around then ask them to contact me.

I must admit that it's annoying to have spent so many years studying to be a scientist, only to wind up doing something entirely different. But I've discovered that science in this country is just too dependent on the whims of bureaucrats for my tastes. You need continuity to do proper research -- it takes many years of consistent funding to build a world-class science programme. It's not something that can be achieved by changing direction every eighteen months at the behest of pen-pushers. Sadly, many of my former colleagues have poured years of their lives into brilliant projects only to have them inexplicably cancelled in mid-stride. I've found myself particularly haunted by the comments of one senior scientist, who told me: "When I look back on my career all I see are decades of wasted effort".

That's just too depressing for me. Of course, I know other people have much less satisfactory jobs, and I know I should stay and fight the system. But you only get one life -- and I don't want to fritter it away on form-filling and scientific make-work.

Nevertheless, my last day as a scientist was somewhat emotional. There are only thirteen full-time employees at my office, but we are a reticent bunch and spend most of our working lives huddled alone in our cubicles. I have colleagues only a few metres away with whom I have exchanged barely a dozen awkward words over the past two years.

Surprisingly, it was one such colleague who presented me with a farewell card on my final afternoon. The card was inscribed with a simple but heartfelt message: "It's sad that you're leaving us, Steve. We will miss you. Good luck for your future endeavours."

I was almost reduced to tears by this testimony to my qualities as work-mate. And if only my name were Steve then it would have been really beautiful.

Thus a new and exciting chapter has opened in my life. I have enough paid writing work to provide a starvation wage for the next three months. If the work dries up then I begin auctioning off my body-organs to the highest bidder.

So if you're visiting Christchurch in six months time, and you see a particularly shabby-looking tramp with surgical scars -- perhaps holding a sign which reads: "My name is Steve, I solve differential equations for food" -- then please give generously. It will mean that self-employment hasn't really worked for me.


Several people have emailed me to ask if I was serious in this explanation of last week's post. It speaks volumes for the wonderful world of Cultural Studies that such questions are even possible.

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