Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing, and all at once those frozen hours melt through the nervous system and seep out the pores.
So begins Withnail and I’s soliloquy to Marwood’s narcotic of choice. A student favourite, the film is full of great lines and hilariously funny moments. However, at core it is essentially a representation of a career turning point. I/Marwood is faced with making a choice between remaining in the shabby, drug fuelled shadow of Withnail or striking out to pursue a career as an actor. In making this move he is letting go of much of his core identity and cutting his hair (be careful, they’re you’re aerials man!). However, he is also moving on and self-actualising in a way that would never be compatible in a life spent with Withnail.
Viewed through this lens, Withnail and I is an incredibly conventional and even conservative film. This is probably why it appeals to students as it promises that a few crazy years of wild-oat sowing do not need to leave you washed up in the counter-culture for good. If you just heed the classic piece of careers advice and “get a hair cut and get a real job” it is amazing how quickly you can restart your career and reintegrate into the mainstream. University manages this transition for us in a pretty comfortable way, or at least it did in my day, these days it is probably all employability skills and student satisfaction.
I’d guess that I haven’t watch Withnail and I for a decade. I’ve got kids/mortgage/job/partner (and haircut of sorts) and Withnail and I’s celebration of walking on the wild side feels at once puerile and intensely wistful. So why did the line about speed pop into my head this morning. I’m on a train with a tie on and entirely free from narcotic influence.
I suppose it is because work is functioning like a narcotic to me. I’m on trains and planes constantly, I’m battling deadlines and strategising – high on the buzz and occasionally drained by the adrenaline. Like Marwood’s speed addiction work eventually becomes my reality. While I stay within it everything makes sense and life proceeds with some perception of rationality. If I try and gain perspective on my behaviour by thinking back to what the me that was watching Withnail and I might have thought about it the whole thing looks as crazy as any other kind of altered consciousness.
Work forms our reality. There is no point in railing against it, because work is our reality, it is where we spend most of our time, energy and angst. However, we do need to remember that our particular form of “work” is a construct. Our sense of how much we should and do work, the nature of the relationship between work, recognition and recompense and the inter-relationship between paid work and our other types of activity all need to be looked at from outside from time to time. Careers work has the potential to do this. To quote the great careers advisor Timothy Leary, thinking about your careers can be about opening the “doors of perception”. It can be about helping you think about what might happen if you get off the transatlantic flights or at least helping you to notice that you are on a transatlantic flight.
Do these kinds of insights make us happier? Realising that you are a rat in a race might make you considerably more miserable as it labels you as a rat and your work as an arbitrary and pointless activity. But, it might also propel you to either get out of the race or see if you can change the rules. Marwood’s ability to build a critical frame of reference beyond his relationship with Withnail ultimately enables him to self-actualise and return to mainstream life. Your criticality might propel you in a different direction altogether as all of the downshifters have found.
Now, enough of this… bring me the finest wines known to humanity. I want them here and I want them now!