Like so many others, my first introduction to dance pioneers Underworld came with a viewing of the iconic Nineties Scottish film, Trainspotting. If it was not the network television premiere, back when we only had four channels to watch, it was certainly within a year or two of release.
When the newsagent John Menzies had a summer sale, in 2000 or more likely 2001, I picked up two albums on CD for pennies: Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend and Underworld’s Everything Everything. I remember the date of those purchases not because the price reduction was notable (though it was), but because it was the time when this diehard teenaged metalhead began to discover and appreciate electronic music. Everything Everything cost me forty-nine pence, at a time when Menzies were punting new albums for seventeen pounds. For that amount, without knowing what to expect but with their definitive Trainspotting hit ‘Born Slippy’ on the tracklisting, I took the risk. That song was good enough to merit the splurging of half a quid.
It took no time into the first listen to realise that it was a live album, and what an album! Track after track of brilliant, uplifting music, building and releasing and building again, washing over euphoric crowds and taking them with it. I loved it, and sixteen years later I believe it is probably the live album I have listened to most in my life – comfortably eclipsing Iron Maiden’s seminal Live After Death.
With limited internet – by which I mean the internet itself was limited, back when downloading one song took hours and an entire album meant leaving the computer running Napster, Kazaa, or Audiogalaxy overnight – I sought out physical copies of their studio recordings, buying the first two. In 2007, I finally saw Underworld play live, an unforgettable experience in Glasgow’s corporate-sponsored Academy. The concert was recorded and released immediately afterwards for sale on compact disc, an official bootleg of the kind Pearl Jam first offered, as every show on the tour was turned into the best kind of souvenir or the collecting completist’s expensive nightmare. Thankfully, most of them are online now.
I saw Underworld play again in 2010, at the legendary Barrowland, and once more in 2015 – in the interim they scored the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games for director Danny Boyle, and their prolonged hiatus drove me to sieze the opportunity and see them at both their London shows in 2016. By this time, I had more live bootlegs than I can listen to in two straight days, and my left forearm has been completely given over to a tattoo inspired by them. Also in 2016, filming began on the sequel to Trainspotting.
The original launched the careers of Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle, heading an ensemble cast who have all enjoyed career success since, and was directed by Danny Boyle. The film reached far beyond its Scottish roots, quotes and music and scenes and marketing artwork all quickly becoming ingrained in popular culture. Any follow-up would be hotly anticipated and have to be confident of adding to the legacy.
As a fan of the film, of the band, and as someone who works in film and television, I joined the long list of people hoping to find work on the return trip. With luck, I found myself employed in the props department for a couple of days.
I do not recall if I signed a non-disclosure agreement or not, but I suspect that I did and I am certainly going to write as though that is the case. I was told that the script was kept locked in a safe, with readings restricted and sometimes supervised – true or not, this one is definitely hotly anticipated.
My role was functional, rather than artistic – emptying lorries, unpacking boxes, tidying stock, moving furniture, cleaning, and so on: a cog in a very big wheel, delighted to be involved in this momentous project. I try not to write much about my professional life. It interests me, but I am wary of being boring or worse, a blowhard. Despite the proximity to famous people, our paths rarely cross, and most of my days are spent preparing things before they arrive or removing them afterwards. That said, in relation to this film, I was secretly thrilled to walk past Sick Boy at one point. Technically I walked past an actor, outside and thirty feet away, but history and association and his bleached hair meant that, to me, I saw Sick Boy.
Where is this self-proclaimed dubious claim to fame? In the studio. Various sets had been built, some completed and filmed in, others in the early stages of construction. To tell you that there was a pub interior and some homes and a nightclub toilet is to give little away. The toilet had seven cubicles, and a floor that was still being laid with rubber tiles. A couple of tilers finished the sinks, and I was instructed to move fixings and hardware to the back of the set – ready for installation – and place toilet pans into the cubicles. From memory, and this will have no bearing on your enjoyment of the movie, there were four white pans, four stainless steel, four white lids, and four black. These would be fixed in position later, once the designer had chosen combinations for the desired look.
That was more or less the last thing I did, to close my second of two shifts. I was happy enough – I worked and reconnected with good people, on something I had for months wanted to be part of, and it paid me. Having been told some of the storyline and how it would relate to the first film, and with all of the main cast and crew back for the second run, I could rejoin the ranks of everyone else waiting to see the result – my existing belief that it will be great now bolstered by the additional insight. I thought no more about it.
Then what happened is, six months down the line, the official trailer came out. It was accompanied by a new teaser poster, depicting the four male leads.
Above: Some time after my involvement had ended. Watch the trailer.
And that, despite my preference to keep these things grounded and relatable, is just about the most dubious claim to fame I could possibly hope for – this image has been seen millions of times, and I put those toilets there. This, ignoring appearances to the contrary, is icing on the cake. The 1996 version of me cannot stop smiling.
A rewriting of an article that appeared online today, Easter Sunday 2014, and which is now truer than it ever was when the MOS published it. Some original text kept, the rest written for parody.
I doubt I will ever be entirely certain, but it is possible that I may once have attracted the amorous attentions of the writer of a Golden Globe-winning, Gold-selling, chart-topping single. There is the distinct possibility that it was all completely innocent, of course, and that is the version of the story I hold to be true. The following is told without prejudice.
I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, a degree which allowed me to arrange work placements in my final year. Many of my peers elected to gain experience with companies in Scotland, most notably Scottish Opera and the Theatre Royal. In my very finite wisdom – in hindsight, making contacts in this country would have been sensible in the long run – I decided that I would set my sights further afield than the venue which was literally across the street, and began applying for internships in America. Somewhere between a dozen and twenty emails later, one organisation replied offering me a place. Lasting nine weeks over the summer, it would count as two of my five allocations, contributing to my learning while also providing me with my first trip outside Europe.
As I would be studying throughout the summer of 2005, the payoff was time off during the preceding term – time spent hoovering up every available shift in the pub where I was ordinarily employed at weekends only. I saved hard, since the gig provided accomodation and nothing else, and booked my flights. A couple of months later, I was in the USA. I quickly befriended the Assistant Technical Director, bonding on the first day while talking about music.
“I like metal, but I like it messed-up,” he said. “Like Mindless Self Indulgence.”
“You should check out Combichrist,” I said, referring to an act I had discovered and seen a month previously. I saw them for a second time in New York City, about a month after this conversation, and Graham was at the gig with me. He was the only one wearing trainers (sneakers) and I was the only one wearing a kilt. MSI and Combi later toured together, and eventually remixed singles for each other too. On the way out of the venue I stole an event poster off the wall, which I still have. In December 2013 I saw Combichrist play live for the twenty-eighth time.
I found Americans to be friendly, happy to engage with the “crazy Scotsman” in their midst. The girls loved my accent, and there was at one time a photograph showing me at an opening night party, surrounded by four or five women. They were seen to be hanging on my every word, and what was never clear from the picture is that the word they were hanging on was “squirrel.”
“Say it again!” they cried, delighted as I truncated the “u” and rolled the Rs. Being a wind-up merchant of some years standing, it did not take long before I aped their pronunciation. “Say ‘squirrel’!”
I worked on a number of shows as a stage carpenter, learning a lot about life and professionalism (as well as my trade) in the daytime, and out-drinking most of the crew and other interns in the evening. I have a lot of fond memories of that time, and maintain a handful of friendships with those I met. It was a place outside NYC where new plays could air to audiences without the pressure of critical scrutiny, a safe workshop environment where – while I was there – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright could test his latest script, starring someone who would later become a Muppets villain.
At some point, in all of this, I was introduced to the lovely Amanda McBroom. She was working on lyrics for a new musical adaptation of a film, having once penned a song – famously sung by Bette Midler – called The Rose.
We spoke a few times, on various occasions at company parties or in the production office, and she told me that she had visited Glasgow and eaten in Ashton Lane’s famous restaurant The Ubiquitous Chip. She was usually accompanied by her friend and stage manager, a pleasant Englishwoman who had served her time in the West End. Back then, I had vague notions of pursuing a career in that hallowed district – soon abandoned when I realised that I do not even like visiting London, and would find living there to be unbearable.
When the 7/7 bombings happened, I called home to check my wee cousin was okay – thankfully she was. The stage manager, having far more contacts in the vicinity than I, made frantic phonecall after frantic phonecall, visibly upset as she did so. I remember the callous – almost ridiculous – uttering of our production manager, a man with the unenviable knack of making you feel uncomfortable by merely speaking to you. He would look at you slightly longer than necessary, as if waiting or searching for a response, for some continuation of the conversation or expected answer which was not apparent. As this poor woman desperately tried to reach her friends and relations, his attempt at sympathy extended to a misguided “Now you know how we felt on 9/11.”
After a series of fun adventures I returned home, receiving an email shortly afterwards from the stage manager. Amanda was working on a new project based on Shakespeare’s female characters, and I was asked if I would record myself reading the Lady Macbeth lyrics. This would serve as a basis for her to practise and recite it in a broadly-authentic accent, taking into consideration that Macbeth was not Glaswegian and that US ears would need to comprehend the language.
Theatre being an industry that often thrives on favours, especially when you are a student of the craft, I thought nothing of it. I altered the perfect English of the writing to reflect the Scottish vernacular, changing the “didn’ts” to “didnaes” and so forth. As I recall, I read it aloud into a microphone and converted the digital recording into a file small enough to email across, including with it my version of the lyrics. I was careful to only reflect the local dialect, turning things like the “ofs” to “aes”, because however much of an ego you may think I have, it does not extend to redrafting the work of someone who only missed out on an Oscar nomination because her song predated the film that made it famous.
It was during this endeavour that the question was asked of me: “Why are you doing this?”
“I was asked to.”
“Aye, but – have you not got a lassie friend that could read it. Would that not make more sense, for her to learn from another female instead of a deep-voiced guy?”
I had given it no thought. Perhaps naively, I believed I was simply fulfilling a request that had been made of me, from someone who had been warm and friendly when I met her in a foreign land. The implication that she “maybe had a wee thing” for me had passed me by until that point. I genuinely do not know. Granted, I am tall, dark-haired, was then aged twenty-three, and had spent the summer wearing a kilt instead of shorts. However, I am not big-headed enough to presume that I did anything other than make an acquaintance.
Furthermore, dealing solely in facts, it remains the only time that a multi-award-winning songwriter – responsible for a world-famous hit – has asked me for any kind of collaborative input. I was happy to oblige.
Two weeks ago, a couple of guys from the water board chapped my door and asked me to check if my cold water was running.
There has been an issue with the pressure in my tenement, and they were trying to ascertain – not for the first time – if the boundary stopcock outside the close entrance was affecting supply when they turned it. On that occasion, it was not. I still had water coming from my taps – in truth, the best place to have water coming from when it is in your home.
The guys thanked me and, as I left some minutes later to go about my day’s business, I passed them spraypainting around the metal plate on the ground outside. I thought no more about it.
On the other side of the street, a digging crew has appeared recently and begun laying a new gas main. I surmise it to be a gas job on account of the size and length of trench they have dug, and due to the large yellow plastic piping that is on site. Their workspace is cordoned off using orange and white striped barriers. Last week, an unmarked white works van pulled up outside my front window and offloaded half a dozen blue plastic barriers and a couple of temporary traffic signs. I was curious to know what was going on, having received no notification of work to be carried out in the vicinity.
I presumed it to be preparation by Scottish Water, given that they had marked the ground, due to the different type of barrier and the quantity left, and because the crew working over the road are – well, working over the road. It made no sense for them to mark out a second site while tied up with the first, the replacement of the main clearly some way from being completed.
If water maintenance was required, it would mean erecting barriers that would severely impede access into this building. If I was also going to lose my supply, I would like to know when and for how long, which I do not think is an unreasonable request. Shortly after the equipment was delivered, I called Scottish Water.
“Are you about to dig up the pavement right outside the front door?”
The girl checked her computer. “No, the only work in that street is for gas. Phone the Scottish Gas Network.”
I thanked her and called them.
“Are you about to dig up the pavement right outside the front door?”
“No, that’s not us, we’re working over the road. Try Scottish Water.”
I called Scottish Water a second time. I explained, again, why I initially thought it was them and why my call to the Gas Network confirmed my suspicions. The girl this time checked another system available to her.
“Oh yeah, it is us.”
“Am I going to lose my water supply, and if so, when?”
“We usually put letters through before we start work.”
“And you usually don’t drop barriers at a site until you’re ready to start work.”
“I’ll see if someone can phone you back.”
“Try that, but I’m not convinced they’ll be able to work the buttons.”
I posted the above summation of two hours of conversations onto social media. A friend revealed she works for the water company, and informed me that these days many works can be done without switching the water off. When I gave her more detail she provided an in-depth explanation. I was grateful for that, because Scottish Water never did return my call. The pavement was dug up the next day, after I had gone out, the disruption not affecting me personally as the job was done by the time I came home. Considering they were replacing a communication pipe, their own communication was sorely lacking.
Full credit to the Scottish Gas Network though. They had an engineer contact me promptly, from an unblocked mobile number, to say that the barriers were not theirs but that they would be working on my side of the street at a later date. On my side it will only be a partial replacement, and he did not have details to hand about whether that will involve loss of service. As promised, he did then check the blueprints the next morning and left me a voicemail (and his direct contact number to field any questions) to say that this future work will not involve my tenement or the two east of it.
It is not difficult, in this technological age, to share information effectively or communicate easily. Too many large corporations have yet to master it.
After being asked to provide feedback, I composed this letter. I expected no response, and so I wrote freely and for my own amusement/pleasure. I rather like the result, and it saw me invited to meet one of the bosses to discuss what changes could be made. They refused to pay me a consultant’s fee, though, so this is all they got. Well, this and two years of my life.
Dear Work Programme/Working Links/[Company name redacted]/Whatever organisation I actually attended,
You asked for my feedback. Make yourself a cup of tea and come back to this, it is going to be lengthy.
For a start, why have you asked for “customer” feedback? I am not a customer, I was forced to attend mandatory fortnightly meetings. By definition, as I did not purchase goods or services from you, it is incorrect to address me in this manner. Had there been any element of choice, be assured that I would have avoided your organisation like the plague it so often seems to be.
Your survey asks about the welcome I received upon first attending [company name redacted]. I remember this clearly, as my hobby is stand-up comedy and in the beginning I was provided with ample source material. Having been required to attend a computer course, the level of which ensured that I knew not to stand on top of the monitor while typing, I was treated to the sight of the man next to me drooling over his keyboard. Meanwhile, two of your staff members demanded to know of an Iraqi gentleman with poor English if he was in this country legally. Given that we were all referred as JSA recipients, a benefit (before that became a dirty word) claimed by having a National Insurance number, it would suggest he had gone through due process to be (mis)treated in this way.
My confidence in your staff waned swiftly, after the lead tutor (and my initial advisor) turned from one desk and walked fully into a pillar into the centre of the room. I am not convinced that slapstick is necessary or conducive to your role, although the distraction was appreciated. I am not inclined to trust someone to help me find a job if they are not even able to simply avoid smacking into the architecture of their surroundings.
After this shambolic introduction to your services, during which I had to fill in a form that asked for full detail of my circumstances but which limited me (as I discovered after twenty minutes of typing) to a few hundred characters – thus preventing me from answering the questions asked – I was referred to a CV-writing course.
Call me old-fashioned, but if you are going to employ somebody to teach me how to write an appropriate cover letter perhaps you could ensure that their spelling is up to scratch and in line with accepted grammatical standards. I am not professionally successful enough to refer to myself as “a writer”, yet I do write often and am frequently praised on my output (without wishing to blow my own trumpet, this is just a fact provided for background) – and so it was insulting to have my time wasted by a writing coach who could barely spell the term “CV.”
I have kept a blog for some years now, on which I documented a few of the more absurd or frustrating elements encountered on your programme, and I will provide external links to these articles rather than re-write them here. However, in brief, my feedback will include:
– Your inability to provide the training I most need and which would render me extremely employable.
– Frequent, positive talk of jobs that failed to materialise (painting a factory, window-fitting, landscaping).
– Being accepted for a job that I was then told I could not take (parks department).
– Being promised four months of work, which turned into seventeen days and thus cost me money (Royal Mail/Manpower).
– Having my advisor changed several times, and having to re-explain my circumstances repeatedly.
– The suggestion that I might like to attend something that I later realised was mandatory.
– Being coerced into working in your call-centre under the guise of being “trained.”
– Having my ILA courses booked, cancelled, and rebooked so often that I never used the funding available to me in the end.
– Having my time thoroughly wasted applying for a call-centre job for which I was not eligible.
Let us begin.
I learned to drive when I was eighteen, and was at a standard where I would have passed my test, as my instructor repeatedly told me. For one reason or another, I neither booked nor sat the theory test, and was therefore unable to sit the practical. Years later, when I realised how important my driving license would be in my chosen career, I sat the theory and passed it comfortably. Unfortunately, life intervened and I could not afford the necessary refresher lessons prior to taking the practical. Owing to its limited validity, I now need to take the theory test again.
Twice in my working life I have been in a position to pay for the few lessons and two tests it would take to immeasurably enhance my employment chances. The first time, I was hit with a backdated council tax bill for two-thousand pounds. The second time, I lost my job and was forced to use my savings to pay my rent.
From my very first day with your programme, and at every subsequent meeting and with every single advisor since, I have been asked what the major barrier is to my finding and staying in work. This is my answer, and it is always met with the same response – you do not fund driving lessons. Neither does the Jobcentre. I know this, believe me when I say that this is a conversation I have had easily a dozen or more times, and probably twice that. It turns out that I have a second major barrier to employment – your organisation.
My background is theatre. I have worked behind the scenes since I was fourteen, running shows from the legal minimum age of sixteen. It began as a hobby, becoming a paid hobby as I subsidised my everyday work with casual shifts, and when I decided to obtain a degree there was only one subject that interested me sufficiently to ensure I would put in the necessary work. I continued to work casually during my studies, later supporting myself with work in theatre, film, and television. My ambition, in my final year, was to obtain my own listing on IMDB, the Internet Movie Database. Having achieved that within six months of graduating, I now understand that I should have aimed higher.
My argument is that, by funding my driving license two full years ago, you would have spent more or less the same amount as you did on my case anyway, except that I would now be in a far better position to achieve and maintain employment. You have wasted your money and you have wasted my time. My advisors have told me that you used to fund it, or whatever else was required to get people back into work. It is disheartening to know that I am not worth the expenditure, and it is a sham that you ask what barriers are in the way of your “customers” finding work while effectively putting up a barrier of your very own.
The Work Programme is not about getting the unemployed into employment – it is about shuffling numbers.
There have been various moments of hope in the past two years, fleeting moments where your advisors have had information about work coming in and positively spoken of it.
I am available and looking for work. I was turning thirty years old when I was referred to you. This is, in theory, the prime of my life – I am still considered young, and about as fit and healthy as I am likely to be for the rest of my life. I did a degree in theatre, specialising in scenic carpentry, only to find that these skills are not easily transferable to the construction industry (itself in decline) as I do not hold any recognisable joinery qualifications. There was talk, at one time, of trying to obtain these, but your organisation would only go so far as to get me the most basic CSCS card, enabling me to be a site labourer. There is plenty of competition out there for site labourers, believe me.
I am educated, intelligent, diligent, polite, and good-humoured. Your organisation has no idea how to cope with this. I am no work-shy waster, I am desperate to be in employment, to be surviving off my own back, contributing to my country, and with my confidence, self-esteem, and sense of purpose restored. This is useless. I am willing and able to undertake virtually any job offered to me, the only exception being jobs to which I am not suited. I am not sure how much wider my scope could be, and yet in twenty-four months you managed to find me a mere seventeen days of work.
Please do not get me wrong, there was plenty of talk of jobs. There was the taken-over car factory/showroom that needed a complete repaint. There is a subtle pronunciation difference between carpenter and car-painter, but I was happy to overlook that. Despite my asthma, and the known irritant that is paint fumes, I was willing to do the job on provision of respirators and other appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE). It came to nothing.
When I was given my second or third advisor, he guided me through a complete overhaul of my CVs – I have two – and rang me up one day, all excited that he had found a window-fitter loooking to take someone on. This client wanted somebody with knowledge and skills, was willing to train them in all aspects of the job, had steady work lined up, and specifically wanted somebody a bit older – perhaps aged thirty – who would treat this as a career and not as a way to kill some time in their late teens. It sounded perfect, and was certainly talked up to be so. This positivity continued for approximately five weeks, before petering out exactly as the painting job had done.
Most recently, I spent six weeks dreaming of a job landscaping in and around Glasgow. There was a group overview from the employer, individual interviews, and then – nothing. Weeks and weeks of nothing. I later overheard that the employer had taken a contract with one firm, and then tried to avoid using their staff/clients. I can only presume that negotiations broke down somewhere, or that he was unable to provide the promised employment to the sixty or so of us who attended the overview session.
The Work Programme is a purveyor of false hope. It is very hard to be enthusiastic at the prospect of some new job that yet again fails to materialise. These are just three examples, the most memorable ones, indicative of the impotence of your organisation. You are very good at making empty promises, and little else.
On one occasion, one of these jobs actually transformed into something almost tangible. The council were recruiting for their parks department, on a strict six-month contract. Not ideal, but it was a start, and as I have stated I am prepared to do just about anything for apppropriate financial remuneration. Working in the parks in summertime? That would be, well, a walk in the park. I am not above picking up leaves and emptying bins. Provided with the right PPE, I would do more than that.
All went well. I was given the description and the application form. The group session was fine, as was my interview, and everything looked to be in place for the start date. I had filled in the medical form, giving details of my asthma and hayfever since those may temporarily affect my ability to do the job. Both are controlled with medication, and I was not unduly worried that it would prevent an offer of work forthcoming. I also noted that, in my teens, I had had a problem with my knee.
When I say that I walk everywhere, I mean that I walk everywhere. Shanks’s Pony. Having lived in Glasgow for nine years, I know my way about. My feet are cheaper and often faster than public transport, especially in the centre of town at rush hour. I currently live four miles from the heart of town, and I regularly walk home – it keeps me vaguely fit, it gives me thinking time, and it allows me to avoid the overpriced fares, slow maneouvring, and BO stench of public transport. I know all of the landmarks on the way, and can make it home in forty-five minutes or an hour.
This was of no interest to your organisation, who dismissed my application out of hand on the grounds that “the job involves a lot of walking and bending.” I had no opportunity to plead my case, although I asked to do so. It seemed, and seems, ridiculous to me that – in the interest of full disclosure – I managed to lose a job based on something that affected me seventeen years ago. There have been no recurring problems, no adverse side effects, and although it was over half of my life ago, I felt it best to be honest. The more I see of the world, the more I discover that honesty is rarely rewarded.
The Work Programme, it appears, will use the flimsiest pretext to keep somebody on their books. Whatever your motives might be, you would not allow me to appeal against the decision to not employ me – even though I was fit for the job, willing, and capable.
To your credit, you did find me work once. Unfortunately, it was an absolute farce that ended up costing me money. You claim ignorance and innocence, of course, and I cannot prove that you knew the full details – but somebody did, and we were stitched up properly.
The agency Manpower were recruiting on behalf of the Royal Mail, looking for Christmas staff. The hoops were all jumped through – meetings, application form-filling sessions, interviews, all the usual. As is standard, start dates were promised and changed, hopes were raised, postponed, dashed, and then finally – miracle of miracles – a contract was signed.
Throughout, your advisors assured us that this would be a few months of work – starting in November, and ending around March. Perfect! Four months of guaranteed work, regular hours, steady wages. Chance would have been a fine thing.
Off we went, me and (conversations revealed) a dozen or more others all from the Work Programme. In came the mail cages, lined up in neat rows, and the sacks were emptied. Small parcels were sorted into first and second class, with additional cages for foreign mail and bulkier parcels. There was a high turnover of work, a fast-paced environment where any delay caused congestion and build-ups as more lorries arrived and were unloaded.
It had been drilled into us, through you, that the best way to be kept on was to keep our heads down and work hard. I wanted to be kept on. Very quickly, I stepped up and began emptying the front cages in the row, into the sorting trays for others to separate, removing the empty cages and replacing them with full cages from behind. I ran the risk of being told to get back to doing the same work as the others, but instead I was instructed to continue. My job, then, became to keep the work flowing for everybody else – often I was left unattended, relied upon to shuttle cages around neatly, quickly, and efficiently. I emptied front cages, replaced them, and broke them down, before returning to do the same again. Every night I broke sweat, a fact regularly commented on by my supervisor, and I noticeably lost weight while working there. I am not clear how much harder I could have worked. I was determined to prove my worth, and in truth I enjoyed the job and the responsibility.
The work tailed off as Christmas approached, and on Thursday the 22nd we were sent home early and told to await a phone call. On the Friday, an hour before my shift was due to start, I ended up calling the agency to find out if I had a job to go to, or not. The answer, given rather curtly, was not. This four months of work had ended after seventeen days, at zero notice, on Christmas weekend.
Do you know anything about the infrastructure of the Department Of Work And Pensions? Or how it relates to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit? You see, it is entirely possible that you can work enough to lose all of your benefits, without earning enough to cover your rent and bills. By the time I added up my earnings and took into account all of my outgoings, I owed my landlord just over a hundred pounds. It cost me money to work. And to work, as I have tried to demonstrate, remarkably hard.
Please remember, here, that “benefits” is not the bad word that the Conservatives and the Daily Mail would like you to believe. Housing Benefit in particular is available to those who are in work but on low-paid jobs, and if we were to stop and think about it then perhaps we would realise that work should pay enough to exist on without subsidy. Benefits, too, are drawn from the pool of money to which every person who has paid tax has contributed. We have all paid this money so that, in times of crisis or when there are insufficient jobs, we can claim some of it back and not be utterly destitute. It is a stop-gap, and I personally am angered that it is seen as shameful to briefly rely on a fund into which I have paid, and which I will pay into again once I find my feet. If we could get away from the propaganda for a minute, perhaps the truth would become evident.
The Work Programme expressed, or feigned, sympathy at my predicament. They had not known, they claimed, that the job would end so abruptly. It is my firm belief that somebody knew. Manpower could not have been less interested, although they did invite me to a meeting to discuss the issue. As it was one of their own who had been so ignorant and rude to me on the phone, I put little faith in their desire to actually pursue anything against him. My suspicions were correct, and the branch manager wrote to me on headed notepaper. As I was certain to get nowhere with it, and as she had printed her reply upside-down on the headed paper, I decided to write an entirely facetious letter of complaint. You can read it on my blog if you are interested.
The Work Programme, then, on the sole occasion it actually helped me into employment, left me financially worse off and more demoralised than I had been to start with.
This experience with the Royal Mail made me realise that my most recent advisor was effectively just a big drink of water, a streak of piss with no substance to him. Unbelievably, I was relieved to return to my original advisor, the one who had walked into a pillar on my first day there. We had spent much of the time since at loggerheads, until she miraculously revealed herself to be human after all on the back of this debacle.
We found a new understanding, something almost akin to friendship insofar as two people on opposite sides of your desk can be in any way “friends.” She sympathised, she almost empathised, and she changed tack. It is possible she now saw just how and why I feel so defeated by the entire process, and there was no hiding the strength of my desire to be in work and out of this situation. She enjoyed reading the very cheeky letter I had sent Manpower, and passed it round the office. In truth, that was the most that I had hoped to achieve with it.
She no longer works for [company name redacted], she left while I was in employment the second time. That was three months in a call centre which you provided no help in finding.
I have had other advisors too – the one who redrafted my CV for me and found the alleged window-fitting vacancy. You did not renew his contract.
There was the big guy that I have seen twice in two years, several months apart. There was the hard-faced woman who would not even given you the steam off her mince and tatties. There was the tall incompetent guy who had persuaded me about the benefits of the Royal Mail gig. He shrunk away quite fast after that, and has fastidiously avoided eye contact ever since. There have been various people who have turned up long enough to discuss specific jobs that have (of course!) never come to anything – one for the call centre fiasco (I will get to that) and one for the landscaping.
My most recent advisor has been comparatively helpful, revealing herself to be very human after a bumpy start. She sees that I do not need my hand held, and that this string of incompetence and falsely-raised hopes has coloured my vision of you and all who work for you.
The first time we met, she asked – as so many before her have – about my background, qualifications, and why I felt I was not in work. I asked her if she was joking, adding an expletive that I shall not include here for fear of undermining my point. The pair of us were stand-offish from the beginning, her wanting to know why I was being so sullenly defensive, and me demanding to know why she did not just read my file, which must surely by now contain every last detail.
Slowly, I began to explain everything that I have detailed here so far, and she accepted the reason for my demeanour. Once we got past that, we developed a healthy working relationship, although I am fully aware of the irony of using the word “working” here. If I was working, I would never have had to speak to her nor attend your utterly worthless organisation.
The Work Programme is a great place for meeting new people, and then being forced to explain your entire life story to each of them in turn – even to the ones that you only see once. If i ever see a job vacancy advertising for somebody to be a parrot, I will apply. You have given me a great deal of experience in repeating myself.
One of my many temporary advisors went to great lengths to make a local job fair seem appealing. He told me how wonderful an opportunity it would be, and I suspect that he could see my cynicism. I am past being able to hide it well, especially not within the walls of your office.
Credit to him, he was brilliant at selling all of the points and making it sound like a helpful and useful thing. Unfortunately for him, I did not appreciate his subterfuge and he had to resort to telling me explicitly that it was mandatory. I will not go into further detail here, I wrote a couple of blogs about it.
The Work Programme is a place where advisors try to disguise the compulsory nature of its role by making it appear like they are doing you a favour.
Another bone of contention with my original advisor came at the point when I was instructed to attend a fortnight of training in your call centre.
The training facility is in a place most accurately described as the middle of nowhere. It is a secret location reached only by taking two buses, in the kind of area where you can watch a man enthusiastically punching another man’s head in broad daylight. Once you alight from the bus, and walk a mile in the wrong direction, you will find a petrol station. Upon entering, you will be asked if you are looking for the [company name redacted] training centre, a sure sign that everybody follows the same route. A signpost would not kill you.
Upon arrival, it quickly became apparent that I would be doing a few days of training, followed by five weeks of taking calls. This sounds less like training and more like work. My argument, and I did argue, is that if it looks like work and it feels like work, then it is work and should be paid at a legal wage. Forty hours a week for seventy pounds does not equate to anything close to the minimum hourly amount set out in law.
While I was debating this with my advisor and with my trainer, I received a phone call from a friend (and sometimes casual employer) who posited that, instead of working for the Work Programme for nothing, I could go and work for his company for nothing instead – and at least be in the industry that I trained for.
This is a problem in my industry, everybody wants you to break your back in return for “experience” because it “looks good on your CV” – neither of which pay the bills. I did my time in that capacity, as did virtually every student on any kind of technical theatre degree. You quickly learn that the only thing it is good for on your CV is showing that you will work for nothing. Experience shows that, the less money that is involved in a given production, the more hassle you will have to put up with. Therefore, I decided a long time ago that my skills, knowledge, and experience are worth something. I do not work for nothing, be it for a call centre or for a chancing mate.
These points, eloquently put, convinced my advisor that the call centre was not for me. In the end, I found a job in a call centre of my own accord, and without mention of this episode.
Around the time I was removed early from your training programme, [details about a potential job offer redacted] It would be full-time, permanent, and paid at ten pounds per hour. It sounded ideal, not least because permanent jobs rarely turn up, and it offered everything that I wanted in a career – my industry, in an established firm, with job security and plenty of variety. There was, of course, one catch. It was being created using the Commonwealth Jobs Fund.
I did not meet the criteria to apply for a job that was virtually created with me in mind. The funding they applied for had an upper age eligibility of twenty-five, and I was thirty. I asked my advisor to check for loopholes, I called the council to find out if there was any leeway, I even wrote to my local MP to see if he would intervene. He did not reply, the council refused to consider my plea, and my advisor ran out of options. The job went to somebody else. He still works there.
My advisor’s best solution was to suggest that I go in to the office, speak to them in person, and offer to undercut the wage they were offering. The funding required that the position be created and paid at a living wage, the company were offering more than that, and I was advised to go in and say that I would accept less than the obligatory amount required by the funding small print.
This is the Work Programme, where my time and abilities have no value. The Work Programme, who could not help me to obtain a job that would have seen me in steady employment for the rest of my working life. A job that I was crying out to be allowed to merely apply for, but which I was denied by bureaucracy. The Work Programme – utterly impotent when it comes to having any say in anything that might have offered me a way out.
The problem with having so many advisors is that, among other things, they gave conflicting advice. I am entitled to ILA funding of two-hundred pounds, which I can use for one of a variety of courses.
What these courses are is a mystery, the website would let me search if I knew what I was searching for, but had no option to see what was available. There were no affordable joinery or welding qualifications, and I was told that upholstery was too niche (and again too expensive) for it to be viable. It was recommended that I get my CSCS card. This was duly booked, and cancelled, and booked, and cancelled again.
Later, I was informed that I would only be eligible for the most basic CSCS card, which would allow me on site to be a labourer and nothing else. To be a joiner, I would need to apply for another (or a different) card. I do not possess the joinery qualifications for that, and was dissuaded from acquiring the basic card as there is no pressing need for another entry-level site labourer in the construction industry.
Another advisor figured that I should apply for my SIA badge, and look for security or door work. He told me that it has a respectable number of vacancies just now, and that makes sense to me – as more people have less money, crime is bound to increase, and it seems logical to hire people to guard your property if you have it. I actually tried to apply to join the police, figuring that when the rioting starts I would prefer to be on the side with the weaponry, but as that industry is suffering from cutbacks and seeing the amalgamation into one unified force, they were not hiring at the time. I also considered the fire service, but my asthma makes me a liability.
With conflicting advice as to what would actually prove useful for me, and with interruptions as I left to work for seventeen days or when members of staff departed for pastures new, my ILA funding remains unused. I am still no clearer as to what I should use it for anyway. There was once talk of some new brewery-sponsored hospitality management thing. However, as so often with the Work Programme, it remained just talk. It never transpired into anything even vaguely approaching useful.
Speaking of massive wastes of my time, the one thing you are truly outstanding at, I think the pinnacle was the three hours you killed for me earlier this year.
I spent the last quarter of 2012 working in a call centre, a job which I sourced, applied for, and got, without your help. Unlike your call centre, this one was willing to pay me at the rate demanded by the government. I signed off, and went to work. It was a joyous time, the sun rose every morning and lit the world in a bountiful feast of colour. Birds whistled gaily overhead, small children skipped and laughed in the streets, and there was good cheer throughout the land. The girls were pretty, the guys were handsome, the food never tasted so sweet, and everything just felt right with the world. A general contentment settled upon me, and instead of simply existing I suddenly felt alive.
There is a small chance that I am romanticising here, but you get the gist.
I was amongst the first to be let go after Christmas. They took on in excess of six-hundred people, and could not sustain that level of employment. The company handle a lot of contracts, and a few months later I received a call from the Work Programme. An opportunity had arisen, and I was invited to attend your offices for a guaranteed telephone interview. There would, I was told, be an online aspect to the application, followed by the interview. It sounded simple, and easy. I gratefully accepted and headed in as arranged.
The online part, it turned out, involved filling in the appropriate form on the company website. Had I known, I would have done this in advance at home. I object to being made to use your computers, as I am reluctant to enter any personal details without knowing how secure my data is. Furthermore, in the course of completing one form (as it happened, the company had my details stored on file, all I had to do was log in and update my employment history accordingly) your computer system crashed three times. It was bad enough being forced to use your system, without having to suffer further by repeatedly waiting for the thing to reboot. A small mercy, I suppose, is that the majority of my form was already there for retrieval. Had I begun from scratch, I might still be there today, cursing the slow and unreliable nature of your terminals.
Having completed this aspect, and with my teeth now ground to a fine powder, it was time for a presentation. Hurrah, the Work Programme has discovered Powerpoint! Having emerged raring to go after submitting the form, I was instead treated to thirty minutes of the most tedious and uninspiring slides, described in monotonous detail by an advisor I had never previously encountered. He took my enthusiasm and deftly eroded it with pointless facts about the vocal cords, body language, and an illustration of the brain stem. Quite why this key part of the central nervous system was pictured is beyond me – I associated it in my head with Chris Morris’s brilliant satire “Brass Eye” and imagined that I was listening instead to Noel Edmonds describing the part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon. If you get that reference, you will know that Cake is a made-up drug.
When all of the energy had been unceremoniously drained from me, and with no acknowledgement that I had passed a telephone interview for the same company a few months previously, it was time to be interviewed. All I had to do was wait for twenty other people to be interviewed ahead of me, averaging ten minutes per call, and with only two phones available. What could be easier? Or less exciting? Good thing I was not in a hurry.
The advisor, another newcomer, took the phone from the person before me, and guided me along a corridor into a private room. He spoke to the interviewer, wished me luck, and handed me the unpleasantly greasy communal mobile.
The interviewer took my name, confirmed that I had worked for the company before, and accessed my file. She relayed the information visible to her – next to my name, where it asked “rehire?” it said “no.” Thus began my very long walk back to find the advisor, to present his confused face with the phone. I was as delighted as I am now being sarcastic at having so much of my afternoon wasted. A little advance research could have saved hours of our time, and saved you the cost of my travel expenses. What is four quid, though, if it keeps me occupied for half a day and permits you to check off the necessary paperwork?
I am no clearer as to why I was refused employment with them, by the way. To find out, I need to put my request in writing and post it to the operations manager. Rather than highlight myself in this way, I will continue to live in ignorance. My boss only ever spoke to me to praise my performance, with relative frequency and without prompting, and so I am confident that I conducted myself in a satisfactory manner. It must be some clandestine company policy that prevents me from reapplying so soon after being let go.
The Work Programme provides computers that are slower than a week in the jail, and which crash more than the average joyrider. The unnecessary (in my case) pre-interview training would render the most alert man catatonic, delivered as it was by an advisor unafraid of maintaining a speaking drone that failed to change in pace, pitch, or tone.
This is where I envisaged ending what has hopefully been an enlightening, if not altogether positive, insight into the Work Programme. However, there has been a development in the days since I began composing this essay.
I received a call on Friday, from another unknown advisor, alluding to some joinery work that has come in. The Hydro is behind schedule, and this new national venue requires carpenters immediately. It cannot open its doors as planned if those doors are not yet hung.
I was instantly wary, having observed and suffered so many pitfalls before now. He tried to allay my fears: it would not matter that I am not carded, no CSCS is required; I do not require a driving license, provided I can get my tools to the site; it is full-time paid work, for a few months.
I have zero faith in your staff or in their ability to actually find or help me into employment. However, I am in no position to turn down work, regardless of how unlikely it is to transpire. I agreed that he could pass my number on, listening to and then obeying his instruction to keep my phone switched on and nearby for the rest of the day. Unsurprisingly, the call never came. It never came on Monday either. I will chase it up on Tuesday, but I will not hold out much hope. Having singularly failed to help me while I was obliged to attend the Work Programme, logic dictates that you are even less likely to be of use now I have left.
I find it difficult to believe that a venue as high-profile as the Hydro is willing to take on emergency staff not in possession of the relevant safety qualification. [Edit: they weren’t. I was misinformed, unsurprisingly.] If they are, then it begs the question as to what purpose the thing serves in the first place – “you must have a safety card, unless we are pushed for time.”
My inclination is that this work will be uncontracted, with joiners booked on a week-to-week or even day-by-day basis. This is at odds with how the DWP operates – to sign off is a huge gamble, if there is no guaranteed number of hours per week. Work too little, and you cannot pay the bills. Work for just a fortnight and there is a chance you will end up losing three weeks of Housing Allowance. I have been stung twice before, once of my own accord and once with your help. I am unwilling to risk being stung again – I am unable to afford to live as it is, without accruing further debt and arrears.
I chased up this offer of employment, but my advisor could not tell me who had called me, and insisted that you do not have any contracts with The Hydro. She promised to investigate, aware of all the concerns I have listed above. It proved to me that I was correct to no longer raise my hopes on the back of anything you tell me. You have never achieved anything on my behalf.
To conclude, this has been the feedback you requested. It details, or addresses, every complaint that springs to mind when I think back over the past 730 days during which we have been acquainted. Two full years of empty promises, false hope, incompetence, ignorance, and downright inconvenience. I leave in exactly the same position as I started, only more bitter and jaded. You have achieved absolutely nothing, in my interest at least. You have wasted your money, you have wasted our time, and, since that first day when my future advisor walked into the pillar, nobody has even had the good grace to make me laugh.
I doubt that you will reply to any of this – for a start, it is going to take somebody an afternoon just to read it all. There is nothing you can really say anyway, save for a stock response about “taking my feedback on board.” If all you have is a stock response, please do not send me it.
Oh, your questionnaire asked, if I recall correctly, how likely I am to recommend the Work Programme to others. Not at all likely.
Not at all.
Glasgow, August 2013
References, listed on embracetheabsurdity.wordpress.com
Losing the parks job: https://embracetheabsurdity.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/hello-world-you-are-absurd/
An overview of the Work Programme: https://embracetheabsurdity.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/the-work-programme-doesnt-really-work/
Mandatory jobs fair attendance, and driving license funding: https://embracetheabsurdity.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/free-to-do-as-youre-told/
Why the jobs fair was useless: https://embracetheabsurdity.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/further-down-the-spiral/
Follow-up post about G4S and the jobs fair: https://embracetheabsurdity.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/the-work-programme-still-not-working/
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.”
I changed my phone recently, a saga that will merit one or possibly two blogs of its own. My new data allowance is a meagre 750mb/month, and I managed to use it all within four days. As this is my sole means of getting online, it is not exactly ideal.
During this transitionary period, my access was slowed to an unpleasant crawl and I was forced to rely on the germ breeding-grounds of library computers (with their one-hour usage limits, and surrounded by unwashed heavy-breathers.) It had an effect on the time I was able to put into job-hunting online, and I resorted to other methods in order to fulfil the mandatory minimum of twenty hours’ searching per week. Last week, for example, I printed CVs and handed them into various suitable establishments.
On Monday night, in the small hours, my phone decided that it would ease up on the throttling, allowing me an unfettered 3G signal. This happens periodically, with no rhyme or reason, and it is extremely volatile. I seized the opportunity, jumping onto the app of one renowned job site, and applying for the first appropriate vacancy. As seems increasingly standard, I was required to create an account on the employer’s page, going through a number of different forms and saving them all as I went. The norm is that, upon completion of several different sections, you can only then submit your application. I duly began typing, using a smartphone that I hate using and which has difficulty responding to touch.
Three hours later, and I dearly wish that that was an exaggeration, I had finished describing why I want to work for them, with plenty of reasons why I am an exemplary staff member in every conceivable way. All I had to do was upload my CV, and this is where it all fell apart. My limited data policy would not let me transfer a file, regardless of size. I was due to sign on the next day, and as the jobcentre recently revealed that they have computers for “customer” use (I reject that word with reference to the context in which they use it), I decided I would take my CV along on a USB stick. It would be a simple matter to add it to my saved application, and theory is a wonderful thing.
Above: Image taken from lawblogone
My signer combed my job diary, checking that I had listed all of the jobs that I look at, whether or not I can actually apply for them. She questioned why I had noted seven hours of handing out CVs. I explained my situation, which led to a conversation that leaves me incredulous. She began by referring to a condition of claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance:
“Handing out CVs doesn’t count as Actively Seeking Work.”
Shall I repeat that? Read it again. Handing out CVs does not count as Actively Seeking Work. I asked the obvious question:
“How much more active can I be?! I spent seven hours traipsing the city centre!”
“Yes, but that is not in your jobseeker’s agreement. You’ve agreed to spend twenty hours a week looking online.”
I handed my CV in to businesses operating within industries where I have previous experience. The Jobcentre instructs me that my time would be better spent looking at advertised vacancies, regardless of how inexperienced, underqualified or under-skilled I am.
“That reminds me,” I said, “my advisor wrote into my agreement that I have internet access at home. I don’t. She asked if I had a computer at home, which I do. It’s not connected to anything though.”
This was corrected, and I signed the amended form. I asked if I could use their computers to upload my CV, complete this particular application, and submit it. Having spent three hours on it at home, ten minutes would be enough to send it off – once I also double-checked that auto-correct had not embarrassed me.
“I can book you in, certainly. The first available slot is on Friday morning.”
Friday morning? That was a full three days away, and I could have taken my sweet time over the form rather than rush to complete it. I had gone to bed at 4am, prior to my 10am appointment. This signer, incidentally, had previously “helped” (read “hindered”) me when I needed a Tax Rebate form stamped. On that occasion, one of the security guards had approached me when she left to photocopy something, looking at me sympathetically and confiding “she’s murder, mate.”
I decided that I would go to the library, taking my chances that I might get online sooner than seventy-two hours. Sitting down at a computer, having been struck by just how very empty the place was, a staff member apologetically informed me that all of Glasgow Libraries’ computers were being upgraded and thus unavailable “today and tomorrow.” Thursday would be the earliest I could get online. By Wednesday afternoon I had had enough of this ridiculous situation, and called the Jobcentre to speak to my advisor. I needed, and her title suggested she should provide, advice.
It was her day off. I spoke to an alternate member of staff, who listened to me.
“I have an agreement that says I need to search for twenty hours a week, online. The library is open six days a week, and the maximum computer time per person per day is two hours. I can go in every day and still be eight hours short. I can use your computers, but only once this week. Other forms of job search are discounted. All I want to do, at this point, is submit an application for a job that I have seen advertised, and want, and have already filled in the form for. They are not going to wait for me. What am I supposed to do?”
I can go in at 9am tomorrow and he will sort it out for me, making him the single most helpful member of staff I have yet encountered within that (dis)organisation. As it happens, I have newly taken out a contract for mobile internet, from a provider whose cheapest deal means that I have a new SIM card in my old phone, connected to my laptop and used as a modem. Being essentially a second phone contract, I realise that I should have shopped around instead of taking the primary one I agreed to two months ago. This new phone has enough inclusive texts and minutes to cover everything I would comfortably use within a month. So now I have two phones: one that I hate and struggle to use, both because it is unwieldy and because of the poor data allowance; and one that sits untouched on my table, connecting me to the outside world and to all the jobs advertised there. I am paying twice what I need to, two-thirds of it to a company whose services I do not require.
I cannot afford to be connected to the internet but, more importantly, I cannot afford to not be connected.
Today, I told my friend about this CV-handing-out anomaly – how looking for work no longer counts as looking for work.
“I was in that Jobcentre last week,” she told me. “They said that instead of just looking for jobs online, I should go round places handing my CV in.”
You know what? If they spent half as much time and resources on creating jobs as they do on clamping down on those desperate to find work, perhaps we would be in a better state. As it stands, the United Nations is now investigating the policies of this Tory Government. It is time for change. I am voting for independence.
I used to work for the catalogue firm Index, one of only two companies encapsulating pictures of their products in glossy books rather than following the more conventional method of putting items on display.
Index ceased trading in the mid-2000s, shortly after I stopped working for them, though I imagine it was unrelated. It was obvious that the company was in trouble, inasmuch as we noticed that less and less staff were being hired to replace those who left. To this day, when asked if I cope well under pressure, I recall that Boxing Sunday when I single-handedly manned the customer service desk while also broadly overseeing the collection desk, jewellery counter, and till points. The queue for returns was so long that its end rarely made it within the confines of the shop, people lined up all the way to the front door and spilling into the shopping mall beyond.
At the time, I hated the job – or, more specifically, most of the customers – but in hindsight I enjoyed the responsibility I was afforded. The staff were good fun too, and there was a healthy cameraderie between us. Like any working environment, there were issues and grievances, but on the whole we got on, worked well together, shared a very bawdy sense of humour, and socialised frequently. We were young and carefree, twenty-somethings who did not take the work entirely seriously. At least three of us were regularly pulled up for poor time-keeping, the reason that I eventually quit, and one of my friends lost her job due to repeated lateness. She went in crying and pleading to be given another chance, was given that chance, and then – come her next shift – decided she had had enough, and stayed home. In retrospect, it is not exactly commendable behaviour, although probably on a par with the majority of attitudes at that age.
A year after I left, my old manager phoned me about a rather more serious matter. One of the women had made allegations against the most charismatic of the stockroom staff, accusing him of sexual harrassment. It was laughable, but policy dictated that it was treated with due gravity. I did not give much truck to the claims, as the guy in question was a friend who had a steady girlfriend and who – although his humour could be coarse and perverse – did not stand out any more than anyone else because of this. His boss, for one, was a dirty old man in the making, as I often joked with them both.
The other reason that it was laughable is that the complainant herself often instigated as many filthy comments as she was now calling inappropriate. She was short, bespectacled, and somewhere in her forties – it was hard to be sure, as she had the haggard face of a lifelong smoker, and the cough to go with it. There is little attractive about somebody who laughs in a manner that suggests they may be about to hack up a lung. As I understood it, her action had proved divisive in the little shop of thirty staff. The managers had to try and remain diplomatically neutral, but I got the impression that of those thirty staff twenty-nine thought she was “at it.”
In defence of my friend, I thought back to an incident some time previously, at one of the periodic staff nights out. This woman had produced, unwarranted, a bag of assorted genital-themed accessories, the most memorable of them being penis straws and earrings similarly shaped like the male member. She was in no way the chaste, put-upon innocent that she was now claiming to be. In truth, the thought of her naked would not so much turn you on as turn your stomach. In a building full of twenty-year-olds, she was not getting much of a look in, and this accusation looked like a bid to effortlessly secure a sizeable payout. I heard no more about the case, and am uncertain as to how it ended.
The conversation at that night out, at a table littered with shaped foil confetti and the remnants of explicit straws, was of a suitably risque nature. Drink flowed, and one of our supervisors was introduced to the term “sixty-nine.” This mutual sex act, named for the position of the bodies in relation to the figure 69, had hitherto bypassed our good Catholic boss.
You know that way, when you hear something for the first time, have a few drinks, and then later try to refer to your new knowledge but with only a vague recollection as to what it was? Thus we were all treated to the inebriated question “what is it again, forty-seven?”
It is hard to know what a 47 would look like, and it does not lend itself to seeming particularly comfortable. If any keen experimenters want to figure it out and let me know, I will be happy to share your findings.
At least she knew better than to call it a ninety-nine. There has been no point in anybody’s life, lying naked in bed with a partner, when one of them has interrupted coitus to say “honey, you know what I want to try right now? An ice-cream cone with a flake in it.”
With a remark like that, you would be guaranteed to make the bedroom cold enough to prevent your ice-cream from melting.
There is very little that is more awkward than your boss, who is roughly ages with you, trying to communicate to a roomful of employees but becoming stuck between talking on their level, and being aware of the environment and of the expectations of his corporate masters.
While twenty of us sat around the edges of this call-centre classroom one afternoon, our speaker tried to best illustrate a particular point with a modern phrase known to us all. He failed to fully commit to its use, however, and trailed off after saying “Bros before…” – the missing final word being “Hos.” It was never clear quite how this American frat-boy mantra, which advocates prioritising guy friends over girlfriends, was relevant to the customer service emails we were being taught to compose and send.
I can, at least, understand why – at each mention – the boss began the statement and then bailed with the words “I won’t finish that sentence.” I think, and hope, that he was shying away from using the derogatory term “ho”, short for “whore” or – as it was phonetically written on the graffitied walls of my secondary school – “hooer.” Though perhaps he is just staunchly against the further Americanisation of Scottish culture.
During the course of the informal tutorial, several of my co-workers used the phrase too, all of them stopping short of completing it. I decided that it was time to derive some humour from it, since the word play is – at least, I thought – obvious. One of the girls quoted the saying, and by this time it was a running joke that you would only give voice to the first two words. Deadpan, I asked my question to the room at large:
“What is it about that particular garden implement that means you can’t say it??”
There was a pause, as the pun registered with almost everyone in the room, leading to laughter. The only person not laughing was the person who had last expressed the term.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“Garden implements,” the boss explained, smiling. Her blank stare was met with further explanation. “Hoes.”
“Oh!” She exclaimed. “I thought you meant like a trowel or something.”
“Yeah,” I said, matter-of-factly inserting that in place of the omitted word. “Bros before trowels.”
We had been taken on as temporary staff. They kept her on, they let me go.
The Two Ronnies, and some confusion over “hoes” – starts at 2m 18s.