Toads… (July 2009)

Many years ago I worked in a very particular office.  Nothing unusual about that – I’ve worked in a great many of them and been miserable as sin in a fair proportion.  But this was no ordinary office.  Forget Ricky Gervaise and the excruciating embarrassment of his TV version, this was the original, no holds barred mother and father of all desperately awful working experiences.

You can usually tell the bad signs from the moment you enter such an office.  This one looked as if it had not been re-equipped with new furniture since about 1860.  The desks were shiny from years of bodies slumped across them, deep grooves and doodles carved by people long since retired, driven no doubt by the sheer intensity of their boredom.  The lighting was dim and the venetian blinds covering the window seemed to have been long since glued by a potent combination of sugary tea, dust and sunlight, so that they would not now move in any direction.  Dim light came from ancient crackling florescent bulbs hidden way up on a high ceiling and shaded so the room was half in shadow and half bathed in blinding artificial white light.

This being before computers became (a) small and (b) cheap and plentiful, there were precisely two in the office.  One was a terminal to a mainframe computer, complete with green screen.  The other was an original IBM PC with a command line DOS interface and precisely two applications:  a prehistoric version of WordPerfect and a primitive spreadsheet like VisiCalc v1.0, on which accounts were maintained with religious regularity, and printed on enormous dot matrix printer that made the most incredible clattering noise.

But all this was not the reason for my hatred of working in this office.  That was just the set.  The players shuffled on stage at 8:55am every morning and shuffled off at 4:55pm each day. Not only did they conformed to every known stereotype, but formed lasting cliches in my mind:

There was the barrack-room lawyer, as my dad would have called him.  If anyone remembers Arthur Haynes, that was him to a tee – pompous belligerent ex-army type, yet remarkably servile when his boss was anywhere nearby.  Yes, he did have a bristling moustache and did smoke a pipe, often in the office.  Immediately I treated him with rather more deference than was due, much to his obvious delight, though in fact he was remarkably junior for his age (perhaps early 50s.)

Next there was the spinster, for spinster she undoubtedly was.  Possibly in her mid-40s, she spoke wistfully like a 70-year old about spending weekends with her nieces and nephews, and like Miss Haversham wore a permanent expression of noble sacrifice.  She was the high-necked priestess, the office oracle.  People, largely women, would come to her in a steady stream about everything, be it work, relationships, gardening, making clothes, hairstyles, you name it.  She knew every procedure, which form needed to be filled out for which purpose, where you filed the pink, green and yellow copies, who to go to for every possible grievance… yet it was her own life and career that seemed far more on the shelf.

The office junior, Terry, looked and behaved exactly like an awkward teenager in a totally alien environment.  He generally wore a pair of baggy brown trousers, a scruffy shirt with one or two buttons open to reveal a vest beneath, and a badly knotted tie of the high school monster variety, sometimes with a tank top in a vile shade of mauve or lime green knitted by his grandmother.  You could never engage him in eye-to-eye contact.  Conversations were short and painful.  If he had a job to do (which usually consisted of processing mail, making tea and filing endless reams of paper), it would be done in a surly and resentful fashion.  The only time I saw Terry spring to life was when I inadvertently caught him on the phone (one of those big old grey numbers with a dial and a chunky cord) talking to a mate about football or girls or nights out boozing, whatever it was.  But as soon as he saw me, down went the receiver and normal service was resumed.

Then the boss.  He (for they were always ‘he’ in those days) had a connecting office with frosted glass.  He actually said very little but did periodically come out to talk to Miss Haversham or Arthur Haynes in a gruff tone that sufficed for professional conduct in those days.  Even more mysterious, they were occasionally invited into his inner sanctum for deliberations, though nobody ever repeated a word.  I was largely ignored, and Terry the Teenager barely warranted so much as a glance.

Occasionally, someone got a roasting.  It was the most animated the boss ever got.  The victim was invited to sit before his desk while he ranted on in a not unkindly tone, befitting a man who found it utterly painful to hurt another human being, but one which left you feeling an abject failure, the most miserable snivelling creature crawling the earth.   Humiliation was called for and humilliation was what you got.  If it had been in Japan, the victim would have broken down and shot himself.  Here, people studiously ignored it and got on with whatever they were doing.  Dressings down were never ever referred to, even though every word could be heard.

So why was all this so miserable for me?  I could put up with the tellings off, largely because the boss did not really believe in what he said.  But I hated it because it felt DEAD!  All life and spirit had been surgically drained from people, the work was tedious and without variety.  Fulfilment, satisfaction, enthusiasm – all gone with the wind.  The highlights of the day?  Lunch (akin to old fashioned school dinners, of the liver and onions followed by steamed pudding and custard ilk), then home time.  As TS Eliot put it, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”, and in my time in that office clock watching was not just a sport, it was a religious observance.

So it was that I chanced upon Larkin’s poem Toads, and knew that at some point that toad WORK had to gain relevance, and that one day I would be using my wit as a pitchfork.  So it is, that I have now worked for myself these past 16+ years, like “lecturers, lispers, losels, loblolly-men (and) louts” I’ve lived by my wits. And it will never be any different, while I still live and breathe.

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