Carry on post-Brexit, whether you're calm or not

Last Wednesday, someone at the BBC phoned to ask if I'd like to go on the radio to talk about high heels.

No, I said, I was too busy. It was a barefaced lie as I've seldom been less busy in three decades of office life than I was last week. Instead, I sat at my desk wringing my hands, transfixed by the tragic slapstick of British politics.

The reason I couldn't go on the radio to discuss high heels was because I couldn't face it. If I ever cared about what women wore on their feet to work, I no longer did. The fact that 149,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban on employers forcing them to wear heels to work left me cold.

We are in the biggest domestic political crisis of my life; it was no time, I reasoned, for strong feelings on footwear.

This is only the second time I can remember when the normal, trivial business of office life has stopped - and stayed stopped.

I've witnessed a few surprising general election results, a few terrible terrorist events, a few sporting triumphs and defeats where we stopped and gawped and worried or marvelled for a little, but it never lasted long.

Instead I went to work, and read more gloom about the United Kingdom's economy. Sterling falling. Buyers pulling out of the property market. Decline in new job postings. And that is before the productivity catastrophe created by all this lethargy and all-round uncertainty. Then it occurred to me that I am not powerless at all. There is something big I can do. I can pretend nothing is happening and get on with the ordinary business of living and working.

One of the oddest and most reassuring things about office life is that it has a momentum so powerful that it rumbles on, more or less whatever. Even in the middle of the financial crisis, working life continued in a normal-ish fashion.

The only other time I can remember when everything ceased was after 9/11.

It is not just me - the Financial Times' chief trivia correspondent - who has lost heart for business as usual. An earnest acquaintance in a city law firm tells me that almost nothing was done in her office last week. No new business came in, and no one felt moved to do more than the barest minimum on existing cases. Another acquaintance, who holds a senior management job at a well-known company, reported feeling so lethargic and powerless, he cancelled all but the most essential meetings and sat in his office staring at the news on screen, feeling increasingly out of control.

At home early one morning last week, I watched with envy as a man I'd paid to sort out my garden busied himself with an overgrown shrub.

It must be nice, I said, to work with plants.

My Pyracantha and Ceanothus bushes didn't clash over Brexit, and have no views on who leads either the Tory or Labour parties.

He shook his head and said he was as badly affected as anyone - every 15 minutes he got his phone out of his pocket to check the latest news - and was in danger of losing interest in gardening altogether.

Gloomily, we stood by my pond and studied its green slimy water. You need a filtration system, he said. Later, he texted me some names and numbers of pond experts, but I ignored them. I just couldn't face fussing about filters at a time like this.

Instead I went to work, and read more gloom about the United Kingdom's economy. Sterling falling. Buyers pulling out of the property market. Decline in new job postings. And that is before the productivity catastrophe created by all this lethargy and all-round uncertainty.

Then it occurred to me that I am not powerless at all. There is something big I can do. I can pretend nothing is happening and get on with the ordinary business of living and working.

It's not trivial to be worrying about slimy ponds at all. It is the only way to go. I seized the phone and made an imminent date with a man to discuss my green slimy water, and in due course will doubtless be employing him.

Equally, it is not too trivial to be thinking about shoes. If it was my job pre-Brexit to write about incidental details of office life, that is still my job now. I phoned the BBC back and said I had miraculously become less busy and would be delighted to come and talk about high heels after all.

When I turned up at the studio, I found a lawyer and a university lecturer had been dragooned to join the discussion too. Both had reached the same conclusion as me: In the absence of any better idea of how to improve matters, keeping on doing our jobs regardless seemed as good a plan as any.

So we talked shoes as if our lives depended on it. Variously we debated whether it should be illegal to make women wear high heels at work (obviously), whether high heels make you feel more powerful (possibly) and whether they are likely to do long-term damage to your spine (if you're unlucky).

For 10 minutes on air, I held all anxiety at bay; they were the sanest minutes I've had since the referendum. I was doing my job and there was comfort in that. There is a way out of this. It's not to keep calm and carry on, but to carry on whether you feel calm or not.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'Carry on post-Brexit, whether you're calm or not'. Print Edition | Subscribe