Tuesday, 2 December 2008

In The Summer Of '79

I left school in the summer of 1979, at the dawn of the Thatcherite era and the end of disco. I had not applied to any colleges and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. My parents were in the process of moving house and everything felt very up in the air. My friends were moving on with their lives; Paul to be a rock star, gigging all over the country and Europe; Darren, to manage a shoe shop in Weston-Super-Mare; and Jay to study Astrophysics at University College London. For want of anything else to do I joined a government Youth Opportunities Programme.

The YOP was one of an endless series of schemes to shoehorn young people in to the workforce. Spiralling unemployment meant that young people with few or no qualifications were finding getting work difficult and so were sent on courses to learn skills. I found myself in a group of 30 or so, mostly young men,, learning how to write job application letters and where to stick the stamp on the envelope. Even with my pitiful handful of A level results I was massively over qualified for the course. I once spent a whole afternoon learning how to give imaginary change to imaginary shoppers for imaginary goods. I would have happily endured this less than mentally challenging employment substitute indefinitely, mastering such skills as shoe lace tying and bottom wiping one after another until I was as full of life skills is it was possible to be. However, the course was held in a converted Georgian house in a road off Park Street, the steepest shopping street in Bristol, a half mile walk uphill from the bus stop. However tempting it was to learn how to open a tin or polish your shoes, the walk was too much. It was time to move on.

I was placed, courtesy of the YOP, in the administration department of the local fire brigade, where it was my highly supervised job to procure provisions and equipment for our fire fighting heroes. My first job was to locate and purchase a stool for the brigade drummer to sit upon. It is responsibility like this that builds a man. This was my first experience working in an office. There were five, including me, in the procurement department, a microcosm of offices everywhere. One man stood out, and even to this day remains the rudest man I have ever known.

George was in his mid 50s, balding, with a comb-over. He wore a brown jacket, usually with a yellow shirt straining to close across an ample belly. His nose and cheeks were a fine network of red, broken capillaries, and tufts of grey hair sprouted from his ears.. In his desk draw he kept a flat bottle of Bell's whisky from which he took surreptitious slurps through out the day, winking at me and saying it was his medicine. Most mornings, but especially on a Monday, he would crash into the office, some ten to fifteen minutes late, plonk himself at his desk, and ask each of us in turn how much sex we'd had over weekend, and in what positions. Maureen, to my left, a married woman in her 40s would sniff and tell him to mind his own business. Colin, who I would guess to have been in this early 30s would make up a ridiculous figure and go back to reading the Sun, while Barry, who was supposed to be in charge, but was a good 20 years younger than George, would flush crimson and asked George if he had completed the Leyland order in an attempt to change the subject. George ignored him. He would lean across his desk, directly opposite mine and ask me if I'd 'got any' over the weekend. He seemed convinced that as a teenager I must be promiscuous and wanted every detail. Disappointed with my mumbled and evasive answers he would regale us with his own exploits in various clubs through out the city and tell racist jokes.

When ever I hear people moaning about how PC everything is these days I think or the odious George. And even though I was barely 18 at the time I still feel ashamed that I didn't stand up against him. Even in 1979 he was a dinosaur and I can't believe he was tolerated, let alone excused because he was 'only joking'.

I was only with the fire brigade for about 4 months before moving to the civil service, ironically to work in the department that paid young people on YOP schemes.