Culture Decoder

Nice Work

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The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.


Nice Work (1988) is a novel by David Lodge, adapted for TV and broadcast by the BBC in 1989. I watched it that year and then read the novel. I was 23. I was dirt poor and still four years away from attending university, where half of the novel is set. The other half of the action takes place in a factory, a rather grim environment where people do repetitive and physically challenging work, but where the employees, from the craftspeople to the managers, are just as committed to their jobs as the neighbouring academics. Because I was still a few years away from fulfilling a dream of becoming a student, I used to work in factories like the one in the book. Not in the foundry but in the office. I taught myself to type and then to use word processing software. In Nice Work, the university and the factory are set in the fictional city of Rummidge. It is a thinly disguised depiction of the city of Birmingham in the UK, which was my home town. The novel is set in what was then the present day. So when I read it, I was reading about my own present day, in the place where I then lived.

Here’s the scene, both in Lodge’s novel and in my life at that time. It’s the 1980s in Birmingham, a large city in the UK that has a history of industry. It was full of factories that made things. Cutlery, automobiles, jewellery, guns. Its metalwork industry dated back to the 1600s. It did very well during the Industrial Revolution and is the reason why so many Victorian ‘industrial novels’ are set in the Midlands. But by the 1980s it was struggling. There was an economic recession in the early ’80s that was the worst since World War II. Birmingham’s economy collapsed. Factories struggled, many closed. Unemployment skyrocketed. The government sold off national industries and cut its funding of universities, leaving academics feeling defensive and afraid. These are the circumstances of the novel and also of my life at that time. I felt lucky that I was able to find clerical work. Academia remained a distant dream.

Of all the characters in the book, the ones I should have identified with are the female office workers at Vic Wilcox’s factory. If not them, his wife. If not her, then Vic himself. They did not have a lot of education and they staunchly faced their dark economic situation. But in my eyes, the only and true heroine of the book was Robyn Penrose. A feminist. A scholar of industrial novels. An academic. In my life at that time, I knew no-one of her class or in her line of work. But she was one more thing, that made her very attractive.

A semiologist.

In a situation which is utterly realistic for Birmingham in the mid-1980s, Dr Robyn Penrose of Rummidge University, and Vic Wilcox, MD of Pringle’s Engineering, are thrust into each other’s company through a dubious government scheme which is intended to improve links between academia and industry. Robyn is compelled to shadow Vic in his manufacturing job. This takes her into the foundry, a place she has only read about, where she is prissily horrified at the noise and heat. It takes her to management meetings, where she struggles to abstain from telling the other attendees how to do their jobs. Most importantly, it places her in Vic’s car as they travel up and down Britain’s motorways and at lunches in tasteless roadside pubs. This is where her skill as a semiologist is revealed. To Vic’s amazement and eventual admiration, she skilfully decodes everything she can see. Cigarette ads on roadside billboards. Pub menus, with their pan-fried this and farm-fresh that. Mock-Tudor buildings. Everything is subjected to semiotic analysis, which Robyn expertly conjures at a moment’s notice.

I wanted that, so badly. I wanted to be her. I thought Vic was sweaty and coarse. I wanted to be Robyn the magician, Robyn who got paid to read books and say clever things about advertising. At that time, for me, it was a novel about her and her ‘nice work’.

Over the next thirty years, I became her, or something like her. I am paid to do what she does. I publish. I say clever things about advertising. But I’m now much older than Robyn was in the book and as I’ve matured, I’ve gradually come to appreciate Vic Wilcox. His pragmatism and thorough engagement with reality. His commitment to making his factory survive. His stoicism and resourcefulness when he is laid off. I see the wisdom and the point of him now. I am still not sure whether he would approve of me, even though I could easily conjure some lovely marketing for his new business. I can hear him scoffing, still. Semiotics. Nice work if you can get it.


DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Román Esqueda (Mexico) on TBD | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Gemma Jones (Netherlands) on EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on TBD | Martha Arango (Sweden) on TBD | Becks Collins (England) on TBD.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

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