Outward Bound At The Inland Revenue
I used to work for the Inland Revenue, long before it was renamed Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and at the time when Working and Child Tax Credits were being introduced.
It was an alright job, for what it was, and it gave me an insight into civil service life and how much money is (or was) squandered there. My job was to check data that had scanned incorrectly when the application forms went through OCR, by calling people up or issuing letters to enquire whether their name was John (as common sense would dictate) rather than what the computer had read and input as j04n. Initially, such judgement calls were disallowed, and I had many embarrassing conversations asking for details that seemed obvious.
We processed a huge number of claims, so efficiently that our contracts were repeatedly extended while other centres in the UK wound down. There were incidences of two teams in the same building working on the same caseload, though, and occasionally we would contact people or read notes only to find out that someone else had done the same work an hour earlier. We came in at night and worked for a few hours, getting attitude from the permanent day staff whose desks we had to use. I signed the Official Secrets Act before starting there, and at the time I was convinced it was so I could not tell anyone how badly the place was run.
It is my firm belief that nobody is truly incompetent until they work for the government.
I was part of a small team working in a huge glass-walled office building, and we got on well. We would socialise together, initially sharing jokes and collaborating on the paper’s cryptic crossword when the work dried up, as it frequently did during the evening. As we worked through printed lists of National Insurance numbers, pulling up files and generating letters or making calls as appropriate, there was a great sense of camaraderie. Being young, and perceiving incompetence within the methodology and managers, we were passively rebellious. All of us took smoking breaks, regardless of nicotine intake, and the best days were Sundays and Bank Holidays. These were voluntary, and you would be assigned to some supervisor who did not know you. Many were the hours of taxpayers money wasted as we sat and played Solitaire instead of doing paperwork. You had to be careful, though – if it was dark outside, and you were sitting facing into the office (so your monitor display could not be seen), the reflection of it in the window was occasionally noticed.
One colleague successfully used the Jedi Mind Trick on our boss, when asked to hand in a contract renewal form. He waved his hand in front of the gaffer’s face, telling him “I already gave you it back.” The boss moved away, before realising this was an untruth.
Another friend asked me to join her on a smoking break, during a Bank Holiday shift when we were being largely unmonitored. Outside, with no cigarettes, we jumped into her van and drove to the shops. On the way back, being a nice day, she suggested a detour. I had no real choice, given that hers was the sole mode of transport back to the office, and it was not ideally situated for walking. I do not advocate skiving, and I am ordinarily conscientious and hard-working. However, as it really was a nice day, and since we were driving past the park anyway, I had no issue with stopping for a while.
Admittedly, drinking a recreational drug, then hiring a pedalo and cruising on the park’s lake, might have been taking the piss a wee bit. If every smoking break lasted ninety minutes and included a boat-ride in the sunshine, while paid on the company’s time, I would take up the habit.
To reiterate, I do not condone this as the actions of a responsible adult. However, I was only twenty-two at the time – an adult, but still irresponsible. We were on temporary contracts with definite end-dates, and I was starting my degree that year, and so I held no real fear of repercussion.
Entry to the building was, as you may imagine, strictly controlled. Photographic ID was issued, and checked by security guards manning the front doors. Nobody was exempt, and our shift began with several hundred people filing past the uniformed staff glancing at every pass. It seemed to me that they did not always give their full attention to the job, and in my last week I elected to have some fun.
I wanted to find a picture of a gorilla, that I could cut out and stick over my photo. I am not saying that they were lax, but as I write that sentence I realise that it is indicative of the solemnity with which we did not treat this job. I cannot fathom, now, that I would ever pull that stunt while working for a high-profile authoritative department. At the time, it was in keeping with our collective attitude, but I failed to find an appropriate photo (this being the age before the internet really took off, when Encarta was as close as you got to a Google image search.) I did manage to locate an image of Al Pacino, however, and duly substituted it. Nobody noticed, at all.
I endeavoured to make the point, kicking subtlety out of the window and jettisoning the star of Dog Day Afternoon. I needed something bolder, something so ridiculous that to not spot it would be hilariously inept. I found a book that had been an unwanted present, setting about it with a pair of scissors and deftly removing the face of another movie icon. I attached it over my own headshot, and the next day – my last – I walked into the office unchallenged, despite having a photographic ID card that, in place of me, bore the likeness of Darth Vader.
Before condemning the desk staff for being particularly unobservant, it is worth noting that I was very visually recognisable in those days. The dress code was “no football shirts, nothing offensive” and I took that to the extreme. This later became a staple of my stand-up set, but every word of it is true, right down to the final, contemporary observation:
“When I was 20, everyone had wallet chains. I had a wallet chain and four pairs of handcuffs, hanging from the belt-loops of my blue camouflage combats. Those were tucked into my calf-high Doc Martens, and I wore them with a band t-shirt. On top of that, I wore a white doctors coat, and on the back of it I painted ‘Trust Me’ in red, so it looked like blood. The sleeves were rolled up and on the left forearm I wore a black leather spiked armband, which ran from wrist to elbow with spikes two-inches high all down it. On the other arm, I had a smaller armband, with smaller spikes. On my head, I wore a black top hat.
I might have looked like a dick, but I had a fucking cool shadow.”