Monday, 8 December 2008

A Civil Servant

I joined the civil service in late October 1979. After the Youth Opportunity Programme sponsored make work employment at the Fire Brigade this was my first proper job. I entered on the lowest rung of the ladder as a Clerical Assistant, there were cleaners with more authority than me in the South West Regional Office of the Manpower Services Commission. I spent my days writing out Giro cheques for, ironically, people on YOP schemes all over the west country. It was an open plan office, where we sat in little clusters of desks, wreathed in cigarette smoke, and overseen by a young man called Brian.


Brian's real interest in life was women's hockey, which tells you everything you need to know about him. He passed the time between matches by micro-managing every aspect of Giro writing, and particularly mine, with the kind of anal-retentiveness that makes for a good junior civil servant and, presumably, a great women's hockey coach.


My colleagues were a nice enough bunch of mostly middle-aged women who chain-smoked through out the day and seemed to talk about nothing other than various operations they had had, and a number of younger women with unfathomably complicated love lives. Towards the end of each day we would stuff the Giro cheques into envelopes, ensuring that the hand written addresses were visible in the little transparent windows, and stick a postage stamp on it. (In the top right corner. You see, I hadn't forgotten my life skills training from earlier in the summer. (See In The Summer Of '79)). After several months of this daily routine we received a franking machine which did away with the need to lick stamps.


Being the most junior of junior civil servants meant I was not required to think. So to compensate I wrote scurrilous articles for a very unofficial office newsletter which was pinned to the notice board secretly during lunch breaks. But the best thing about the job was that it made absolutely no demands on my spare time. This was good because I was happily involved with helping to run the youth group at the church, and since learning to drive was in a position to mcct up with friends like Darren, who at the time was, for some reason, living in Cheddar (where the cheese comes from), and Jay who had dropped out of University and was kicking around like me.


For a while Jay and I shared a house that was so cold that the only way to stop the milk from freezing was to put it in the fridge. As a result we would often eat out, visiting a series of restaurants on a regular basis. Paul joined us for a few weeks but sensibly decided it was too cold and went back to the warmth of his parent's house. Eventually our landlord sold the house and I went back to live at home. Jay moved into the first of a series of bcdsits where I would visit him and from which we would continue visiting restaurants on rotation. All the while I was finding walking more difficult and was in near constant pain as the muscles in my back weakened. My car, a white Mini, was the saving grace, giving me freedom to move around the city, freeing me from walking distances and waiting for busses.


The highlight of each working day came when I got to sit at the newly acquired franking machine and, while feeding envelopes through one at a time, got to enjoy the panoramic view of Bristol from the 5th floor office window. I would watch seagulls wheeling beneath me and the comings and goings of the busy city centre. It was my 20 minutes of mindless relief from the hand-cramping Giro writing. But then, one day Brian looked in the staff manual and realised that a lowly Clerical Assistant was too junior a creature to operate such important equipment. I was relegated back to sealing envelopes. Enough was enough. I determined to make my escape. But escape to where?


Then, one day in early 1981, I found I could barely walk from my car to the office anymore. My back was in excruciating pain. A doctor signed me off work and warned me it would never get better. I quit the Civil Service and swore never, ever to work in an office again.