Friday, 21 February 2014


In September, 2009 I handed in my notice at Royal Mail - a company with which I'd been employed since 1988 - and moved back to my mother's house in Coventry, England. The job had changed beyond endurance thanks in part to the interests of shareholders taking priority over those of anyone intending to either send or receive something by post, and life in the capital had becoming difficult to sustain. South London had succumbed to a tide of website designers, DJs, media consultants, and other overmoneyed types who had found ways to get by without actually having to work for a living, and the attendant surfeit of wine bars, restaurants serving overpriced food on square plates, and boutique shops which didn't actually sell anything; all of which conspired to drive the average rent up beyond what I could reasonably afford on the wages of a back-breaking forty-hour week. I had moved three times in four years, and each new flat had been smaller and more expensive than its predecessor. It was getting depressing.

I say moved back to my mother's house in Coventry, although she'd actually bought the place a few years after I first left home at the age of eighteen, so I'd never lived there before. It seemed a desperate move at the time, but I had to do something to break out of the cycle that had me trapped in London. It was time for a change and I had a sort of plan. I had a novel to write, and I needed to raise money for a move to the United States whilst rationalising all the crap I'd accumulated over the years - books and comics all going on eBay, slimming the bulk of what I would end up having to pack, and hopefully bringing in a few shekels so as to pay for the shipping of the stuff I wasn't selling. So for the first time in twenty-one years I was unemployed, and having paid a massive wodge in tax for the entirety of those twenty-one years, I didn't think it would be too cheeky of me to sign on the dole whilst looking for whatever temporary work I could find that wasn't going to interfere with either my flogging comic books on eBay or writing a novel - or at least arguing with a micromanaging editor about writing a novel.

The dole office was on Torrington Avenue in Tile Hill, a few miles from my mother's house. It was depressing as such places invariably tend to be. There was an expansive lounge area filled with the kind of seating which affects a sort of casual conviviality entirely at odds with the prime directive of those who work there. The chairs say hey friend, relax and let's check out some employment opportunities, which can be done on a series of touch screen PCs mounted within durable moulded housings designed to stand up to the kind of violence which can erupt when jobseekers go nuts. The unemployed mill around as they wait for their names to be called, all ages and races, mostly looking like they want to be somewhere else.

Those working the desks down one side of the office will ask what you have done in order to find employment since your appointment two weeks previous. Their purpose is to get you back to work, or more specifically to find a way of taking your name from their books. Doubtless there are well-meaning and good-hearted souls amongst the dole office staff, but it isn't really in their interest to care whether or not you're likely to be fulfilled cleaning toilets for ten pence an hour, and they're there to impress upon you that benefits may be withdrawn if there is any reason to suspect you're spending the day sat on your arse watching children's television and chugging pot noodle rather than out and about battering down the factory gates in search of honest graft.

'I don't want to seem like I'm being fussy,' I told the woman who was handling my case, 'but I've been in work for two decades, I've got a degree, and now I'm writing a novel at the specific request of a publisher, so I don't feel it's asking too much to expect a certain standard here. Do you know what I mean?'

She did, and I expect she held back from pointing out that my benefits could be stopped were I to refuse any work that had been offered, because it would have sounded bloody stupid. Additionally, she probably had an idea that my fine art degree was effectively useless, but pointing this out would have been tantamount to admitting that the entire system was inherently flawed.

'You were a postman, weren't you?'

I nodded. 'I would have put in for a transfer to Coventry, but it could have taken years to come through with the way things are going; and unfortunately they're not recruiting right now.'

'So are you going to try for that when they start recruiting again?'

'Yes.' I wasn't actually sure of this being as twenty-one years of shoving pizza leaflets through letterboxes had felt like more than enough, but it seemed like the best answer under the circumstances.

'So what do you have there?'

I handed over the slips printed out from the touch screen PC I'd been using earlier. She looked through. They were all gardening jobs - probably a poor choice in the middle of winter, but it was something I could do.

'Would you like me to call any of these to arrange an interview for you?' She almost had her hand upon the phone.

'No. I'd like to think about it some more.'

'How about this?' She pushed a slip of paper back to me as though fearful that I was about to change my mind. It was a chess match in which she had now granted me the opportunity to show willing.

I took another look. The job was gardening at some large house, five days a week starting at seven each morning. The pay was marginally better than what I was receiving in unemployment benefit.

'Where's Baddesley Clinton exactly?'

She tapped at her keyboard then turned the screen so I could see the map she had summoned. I could see that the village was near Rowington, a fair distance from Coventry.

'That looks quite some way.'

She brought up the actual figure. 'It's twelve miles.'

'That seems a lot, and I was really hoping for something closer. I would be travelling by bike as I don't drive.'

Twenty four miles a day - there was no way, not for that money.

'You could take the bus.'

I studied the winding spaghetti strands of road criss-crossing rural Warwickshire to a village so small that I'd never heard of it despite having been born around these parts. I could take the bus, I supposed, but that would most likely entail having to go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon and then back out again. I was fine with playing the game and making a show of greeting each supposed job opportunity with a display of hopeful enthusiasm, but three hours spent on a bus every day was too much to ask.

She read my mind. 'You will recall how the jobseeker's agreement determines that anything within fifteen miles of your home must be considered an acceptable travel distance, and refusal of any offer of employment falling within that range could be seen as a failure to actively seek work?'

I smiled, recognising this as simple interview strategy. I hadn't actually yet had an offer of work I could refuse.

'I'll think about it.'

I didn't.

Some months later, just as I'd begun to build up a reasonable head of steam on eBay, it transpired that Royal Mail in Coventry were once again recruiting temporary staff for the summer period. Whilst it wasn't a job to which I was eager to return, it would be regular money and it was one I could do, and I felt fairly confident I would breeze the interview seeing as I'd require no training. Further to my hypothetical eligibility, I'd already worked as a postman in Coventry some twenty years earlier prior to putting in for a transfer to London, and so I took the online test and received an interview date.

Back in 1990, Coventry Royal Mail had been located at a single large sorting office on Bishop Street. This desirable central location had since been sold off in the name of ensuring a restful night's sleep for shareholders, with the workforce divided up between two warehouse style mail depots on the outskirts of the city.

I recognised the woman who interviewed me, and she seemed to feel she had seen me somewhere before. I explained why I'd moved from London, and why I was now reapplying, and why I hadn't instead opted for a transfer. I told her that given how I was working towards moving to the United States, a temporary position would suit me down to the ground. We spoke some more and she said she looked forward to working with me soon. I left, heading for the bike racks and against all odds ran into a more obviously familiar face.

'Steve Prewitt!' He was older, and he'd lost the mullet but there was no mistaking him. We hadn't exactly been friends, but I'd laughed at his jokes and he may even have laughed at some of mine. He was one of those people whom you might not quite call a nice guy, but who was at the same time very funny and difficult to dislike.


I winced, recalling how this had been my nickname twenty years ago. My hair had been long, hippy length, and hippies were popularly regarded as being of a mellow disposition. The nickname performed double duty as I was prone to becoming easily and vocally irritated by the minor frustrations of the job, and could therefore hardly be considered mellow. By the same logic an unusually slow postman I had known in Catford, whose regular route had been centred around Conisborough Cresent, became known as The Conisborough Flyer in the fashion of a rural Victorian steam engine. This nickname was eventually shortened to just The Flyer, prior to revision as Plater, which was something to do with a hypothesised gift for cleaning dinner plates using his enormous tongue.

Steve and I compared notes and quickly caught up in so much as it's possible to catch up with someone you haven't seen for two decades and didn't know particularly well in the first place. It was genuinely great to see him, and I promised that we would see each other again fairly soon, so of course it transpired that I hadn't got the job after all.

My failure was dissected back at the dole office, and we identified the problem as having been my honesty. I'd told my interviewer why I would be very happy to take a specifically temporary job and given reasons in detail. I should have remembered that Royal Mail recruits temporary staff partially so as to have a resource from which permanent staff can be selected, because it's easier to get rid of someone who turns out to be useless if they only have a temporary contract; in other words, they weren't actually interested in temporary staff at all, contrary to the advertising.

I was running out of places in which to look for work, or at least to look for vacancies by which I could demonstrate that I was actively seeking work. Everywhere had the same crap jobs advertised over and over - jobs that no-one wanted because the pay was terrible and this was 2009 rather than 1825. I began looking on Gumtree, a classified advertisements website which I decided, being somewhat adrift of the places a person might ordinarily look for work, could at least yield something a bit different. Most of the Gumtree jobs entailed stuffing leaflets in envelopes for a pay equivalent to ten pence every three years before tax, but I found an opening for a proofreader which seemed potentially interesting. A few of my friends had recently undertaken proofing work, hammering the words of the less conspicuously literate into something resembling language for a fee, and it was a line of work I'd considered for myself on and off.

I sent samples of what I'd written - mostly excerpts from the novel I was working on - and received by email a few passages of text I was asked to beautify so that my prospective employer might see whether I had what it took. It turned out that I did, and so next came the real work - the copy of some long-winded publicity material along with a letter explaining that if the managing director was happy with my work, there was the chance of a permanent and fairly highly paid position. This was a small company, one that had just started out, and here was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. It was obviously bullshit, but I had nothing better to do so I played along.

The text requiring my attention read as though composed by someone for whom English was an unfamiliar language only recently learned, and it comprised many, many paragraphs singing the praises of a stage hypnotist named Derek Pasty in unusually defensive terms, as 
though the reader had already decided that this man needed locking up. The major problem as I saw it was that such a high percentage of the word count had been spent refuting imagined accusations that it came across as the work of a nutcase, which it probably was. It may as well have read Derek Pasty is a very good hypnotist, and you can trust him because he will not rape you. I wish to God I had kept the original borderline Surrealist text, that I hadn't eventually consigned it to the electronic dustbin of my email account, but sadly all that remains is my own translation retaining only a little of the creepy quality of the original:

If you're reading this, chance is you're looking to hire a stage hypnotist, so it gives me great pleasure to introduce one of the best.

I have worked as a hypnotist for a great many years, well over several decades, so I am aware of the often uncomfortable relationship between stage hypnotism and those hypnotherapy practitioners who feel that stage hypnosis gives their profession a bad name.

However, from my extensive experience in the field, I conclude that, when conducted in a safe and ethical manner, stage hypnosis serves only to encourage a healthy interest in hypnosis as both therapy and performance. And that is why I am happy to recommend the services of my good friend and student Derek Pasty, accomplished magician and hypnotist.

Derek takes a unique approach to stage hypnosis, combining psychological suggestion and traditional magician's craft to coax his audience into performing unusual stunts, creating the illusion of hypnosis without actually hypnotising anyone.

Pseudo-Hypnosis is a practical alternative to traditional stage hypnosis, and can be safely performed at any venue where hypnosis is either prohibited or otherwise difficult to stage due to regulations. Moreover, Derek's shows are exciting, fun filled, and can be tailored towards both family and adult audiences, providing quality comedy entertainment for your private party, special event, or charity fund raiser.

Alternately, if a show comprising genuine stage hypnosis is required, Derek has the requisite liability insurance and experience of procuring the necessary performance of hypnotism license from local authorities. His show, if using genuine hypnosis where circumstances allow, is presented in strict accordance with the 1996 amendment of the 1952 hypnotism act, and neither pseudo-stage hypnosis nor genuine hypnosis is ever performed upon persons under 18 years of age.

As mentioned, Derek is in addition an accomplished magician, regularly performing close-up magic in restaurants, on stage as an illusionist, balloon modelling at outdoor public events, or even one-on-one fortune-telling (for entertainment purposes only!). His highly original magical routines are presented through a winning combination of psychological misdirection, sleight of hand, and mind-reading with results that never fail to make a great impression.

Whether close-up or stand-up, whether it be an intimate or a public setting, Derek's magic is ideal for receptions, trade shows, restaurant events, or private parties. Whatever your requirements, if you want to entertain, astonish and delight your guests, Derek Pasty has a show tailored just for you.

So in summary:
There's this guy called Derek Pasty, who definitely isn't me, because I'm a professional with all sorts of qualifications which I don't have time to go into here. So this guy who isn't me won't really hypnotise you, so you need not worry about any weird or funny stuff, although he can hypnotise you if you really want (and as I say, he's a good boy, legal and all that, definitely nothing too strange). In fact fuck it, he'll even make balloon animals if that's what it takes. He'll do anything! But nothing bizarre or illegal, as I said. I really can't stress that last point enough.

Derek's agent - or whatever he was pretending to be - was pleased with my work, and told me there would soon be more where that came from, and that if I played my cards right I would probably be a millionaire by this time next year. First, however, he had to pay me, and so he enquired as to where he should send the postal order.

This was the point at which I began to suspect I was probably dealing with a cranky shut-in rather than a seasoned confidence trickster. Reasoning that this person had only my email address, and couldn't really do much with just that and a home address, I told him where I was living. Surprisingly the promised postal order never arrived, and nothing more came of this brief engagement.

Many months later, about a year after I had initially signed on I joined an employment agency who found me temporary work with Parcel Force, which is probably another story. Doubtless I could have gone to an employment agency straight away, but I had taken a dim view of them from experience with agency workers at Royal Mail. These people were hired to do the same work as everyone else at a significantly lower rate of pay, and if they didn't like it, they could go back to the job centre and see how far that got them.

My impression of staff at the Torrington Road dole office in Coventry is that their main priority was to get you off the books, to put an end to your claiming jobseeker's allowance - as it was quaintly titled - either by square-pegging you into the round hole of some job that had only become available because they couldn't even get a robot to do it, or by pissing you off so much that you withdrew your claim, preferring instead to seek an income in crack dealing, car theft, or burglary, none of which would be the problem of the Department of Work and Pensions. The elephant in the room, the truism which dare not speak its name was that simply there really were very few decent jobs out there, the rare exception being if you were the lucky one who got picked from the three or four hundred people who had turned up for an interview. The UK economy was such that employers required obedient carbon blobs to perform those menial tasks which couldn't be automated or shipped out to a country with even less value placed on human dignity in respect to employment laws, but they didn't want to have pay for such work. The argument as to why this should be is possibly larger and more complicated than I am prepared or even able to set forth here, but the salient points are that even complete dummies deserve to be paid a decent wage for what work they undertake, and that those who bleat about the rights of millionaires and ask will no-one think of the multinational conglomerates? should probably feel free to delete themselves from the great tapestry of human existence right now.

I worked for twenty-one years as a postman, and all that time I paid roughly a third of my wages in tax. Of all the reasons I may have resented paying that tax, the piddling percentage going to those understandably reluctant to engage with the sort of shitty underpaid work I would not do myself never occupied my thoughts for a single second; which is because I'm a grown, reasoning adult with a sense of decency informed by sources other than what I've read in a newspaper.

It's not that difficult to understand.

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