The author of this description of the nothingness of a nightwatchman’s existence—‘a negative-image of day-time work’—is now a teacher and journalist. Thirty-three years old t.c.n. recently graduated to these professions after many years of travelling, studying and passing from one job to another.
Property is protected in a thousand ways. The oldest, simplest kind of protection was by a man armed with a club. In spite of the State and the police and ideologies, this sort of elementary defence still survives against the most elementary enemy of property, the thief. But until recently, in a vestigial form only: the faithful servant of the firm, ageing or handicapped, drowsing the night away beside his fire. Solitude, estrangement from daylight living, and a kind of half-organized vacancy were the essence of his task. Nowadays, this figure is being thrust aside along with so many other archaisms, by the growth in the scale of property and a corresponding growth in the scale of criminal operations. Loss by theft or fire would be a small item in the books of the great corporations. But the insurance companies meeting the loss force business to protect itself more efficiently. This new protection is complex. A rationalized surveillance invades the night, organizing nothingness into a quasi-military discipline of uniforms and signals, making sleep at noon a permanent way of life for thousands. The most marginal of tasks is swollen into a growth-trade, a hive of men guarding the sleep of capital. Producing nothing, this labour exists to make nothing happen, its aim is emptiness. Its abstract and solitary structure, like a negative-image of day-time work, reverses the diurnal beat of life and betrays the meaning of labour, creating a new, pure, objectless estrangement lasting from every twilight until long after dawn.
I might as well talk about the first night. Like so many counters dropping through a vacuum, the others were all the same. Of course their effect on me was not the same: it was boring by the second night, and turned into a slow torture that lasted all the time I was awake, until I would either have gone mad or—worse—got used to the job’s madness. Thinking back to the first night, I can see why, as a traveller across an immense desert, all of whose parts resembled each other, might present the meaning of his journey by speaking of the first miles.
The first, strangest thing was the silence.
When I arrived at the warehouse—a huge rectangle of greying bricks and barred windows in the north of the city—the other four men were
Before many nights had passed, I understood why. Night-workers go to work in the evening. That is, the evening ceases to exist for them, in the important, usual sense. But evening is the great cushion, the shock-absorber everything rests on, in normal labour. It is the mirage of afterwork, the collective dream of later-on, in the cinema, or at a dance, or with a wife; it draws people through their work, by organizing their feelings in relation to something else. Its appearance as nature, this inevitable-seeming place in the alternation of day and night, conceals the artificiality of what is really an institution. Evening is a function of our civilization, as much as of the turning of the earth. Like everything else it has been turned into an instrument by a society that has discovered how to create a light as bright and permanent as the sun’s.
Night-men go back from work not to evenings but to an unavoidable tension with the routines of others. They have to fit their lives in at odd times. Imagine never seeing films except at big suburban cinemas on week-day afternoons, the isolated figures of old-age pensioners and children playing truant in the great dark spaces, the silence following gags and hair-raising murders alike. Everything becomes like this, after a time. One always arrives just as other people go away, or before they appear. After a few weeks, they are surprised to see one, one has become like a very distant, forgotten relative, or a ghost, whose movements are random or obey unknown laws. It was only possible to really emerge from this under-sea silence when one had at least two nights off, though even then one walked blinking across the marvellous island of ordinary living, like an animal out of hibernation, scarcely able to re-adjust in the time available. Then one was back among the fish again.