This year, the World Book Night annual collaborative book event at the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England, will feature Charles Bukowski's 1971 novel, Post Office. I'm pleased to have been asked to contribute some thoughts.
Bucket of Crabs*
I left the post office in 1990 to study art at university in Liverpool. I graduated in 1993 and spent the next twelve months looking for a job and doing voluntary work in galleries. The only ‘DSS welcome’ place I could find was a room-share with a neo-nazi who burnt my belongings and threw them out of a first floor window. Frustrated, I decided to spend my time more productively; I mainly smoked weed which I rolled with tobacco sourced from the ashtrays of a biker bar in town. When I wasn’t doing that, I was drinking 25p cans of Skandia Green lager and trying to stay away from my flat.
One day, I went for a Restart at Toxteth job centre. I was told to bring three job cards with me. I searched the racks but they were all empty, not a single card in the whole place. I went in for my interview and the R.E.M song, Shiny Happy People played over the P.A. as the job centre man signed me on again.
Cutting a long story short, I eventually found myself back at the Royal Mail in Huddersfield, utterly defeated. This is when I first read Post Office. It was an easy read and very funny. As objectionable as the book's main protagonist is at times, I could identify with him. Henry Chinaski's impeccably flawed combination of bravado, cynicism, righteous indignation and pissed-up bewilderment made him real and authentic and he operated in a very familiar world.
I think Charles Bukowski wrote himself into the book as Chinaski—a fantasised, exaggerated version of himself in a profoundly observed environment.
Where Bukowski wrote himself into his books, I write myself out of mine. I’ve found that being a postman makes me almost invisible on the streets. Drama is everywhere and it is my anonymity that facilitates my access to it. I am looking in from the outside. In effect, I have escaped the post office by writing about it from the outside on the inside. Unfortunately for Charles Bukowski, he never thought of this clever conceit and his only option was to leave the post office and fall back on a career as a massively successful writer of short stories, novels, poetry, and films.
Suffice to say that reading Post Office this time around was like pulling teeth. In fact, I was struggling through it in the dentist's waiting room the other day and was relieved when the receptionist called me for my treatment.