At some point during the summer of 2010, having decided there was nothing else for it, I signed up with an employment agency called Parkhouse Recruitment. The job situation in Coventry could be described as an employer's market, meaning that there were very few jobs available for anyone who wasn't already in work, or who lacked the necessary can do attitude regarding jobs paying significantly less than they might otherwise receive in benefits.
The term employer's market implies that it was just one of those things, and that we should all be happy for those lucky employers who get to choose the one person they deem best qualified to press a button causing a blob of paste to come out of a spigot every four seconds from a group of two million applicants. It implies that we should all be happy for the one lucky jobseeker who ceases to number amongst those dole scrounging chav sponge monkeys busily bringing a once great nation to its knees by stealing from the honest pockets of hard working shareholders.
Anyway, I had failed to find a job, and those I might have considered were mostly only available through employment agencies, because employers apparently felt it unfair that they should be expected to treat their workers as anything other than disposable labour units to be hired and fired as the almighty market dictates. I was reluctant to approach an employment agency, because they have a habit of keeping the lion's share of whatever you earn from whoever hires you; but it was that or another six months spent explaining to a twenty-two year old Department of Work and Pensions clerk with an overinflated sense of his own power just why I felt that cleaning the bowls of a busy public toilet with my own face for twenty pence an hour was beneath my dignity.
Nevertheless, I dutifully trudged along to the tower block that Parkhouse had borrowed for recruitment purposes in the pedestrianised centre of Coventry. There were twenty or thirty of us, mostly Asian, which I suppose identified our group as hanging from the lower branches of the socioeconomic tree, the ones who couldn't afford to be too choosy. Expecting interviews, we were simply given forms to fill in, most of which seemed to relate to ensuring potential employers that Parkhouse would not be supplying them with car thieves, compulsive arsonists, or the sort of greed-driven leftie maniacs who would kick up a fuss should we lose limbs or heads in industrial accidents occurring on their premises. As it turned out, it didn't even really seem to matter whether we could speak English provided we were able to follow basic instructions. The young Indian guy sat at the next desk told me we would probably be sent to a Parcel Force depot in Leicester. This was a good thing he suggested. He'd been to the place before, and the work was relatively light providing you didn't mind a shift beginning at midnight and ending at eight in the morning. Even without the issue of how I would get to Leicester, I didn't like the sound of this. I'd spent the previous two decades working relatively antisocial hours, and felt I had done my time.
Ellie, a chirpy blonde who looked to be about twenty-five years of age gathered our application material and promised to phone as soon as work became available. A few days later, the call came, or at least a call came. It wasn't work - although that would be happening very soon, she assured me - but I needed to fill in some of my forms again, as those copies already submitted had been lost due to an administrative error. A few more days and I was given my security pass, the passport photograph I had supplied stapled onto a square of card. It didn't look particularly authoritative, but it would apparently get me into the building once the work began to flood in which - thankfully - probably wouldn't be anywhere quite so far away as Leicester.
A few months before, I had attended the signing in day at another agency, and found myself in a room with a bunch of seasoned brickies and plasterers.
'Everyone got a hi-vis?' the recruiter had asked, prompting a mumble of concurrence from everyone except me. I wasn't even sure what he meant, although I guessed he could be referring to the kind of fluorescent plastic waistcoat worn so as to prevent a loss of profit resulting from fork lift drivers accidentally running over any agency workers they hadn't noticed stood on the loading bay at three in the morning; but I wasn't going to ask because my ignorance would reveal me as someone who probably wrote poetry and enjoyed pressing flowers. After a few more minutes I realised that, contrary to that which had been stated in the advertising, the only work available here was to be on a building site. I seriously doubted that I would be physically up to the demands of such work, and I lacked the requisite experience of my fellow applicants. Furthermore, it saddened me to realise that men who had laid bricks and built homes - surely the very definition of useful - were now reduced to seeking a living through an employment agency.
Ellie now asked me that same question, whether I was in possession of a hi-vis jacket, and this time I understood what it meant. I didn't, but I found one for about thirty quid at Go Outdoors, a warehouse-sized camping supplies outlet. Duly equipped, I turned up as requested at six in the morning at the Baginton National Parcel Force depot on the outskirts of Coventry, about four or five miles from home, or twenty-five minutes by bike. It was a long time since I had been the inexperienced new recruit, the guy whose job was to do as directed and try not to mess it up, and cycling past the unpleasantly aromatic Walker's Crisps factory each frosty morning before sunrise emphasised the resumption of my status as a cheap industrialised labour unit, but there wasn't much point resenting the fact.
The workers from the previous shift trickled out from the gate, and our lot filtered in. I showed my identity card to the security guard who confirmed that yes, I was indeed expected that morning; and so I was allowed on through with all the others, all filing into a building that could have been an aircraft hanger.
'I like your jacket.'
This was a full-time Parcel Force employee, a middle-aged woman. It took me a moment to recognise this as a straightforward statement. She really was admiring my hi-vis tabard. The compliment had confused me, and I had initially taken it for sarcasm because I couldn't imagine what it would be like to admire the hi-vis jacket of a complete stranger.
'Thanks.' I dispensed a diplomatic smile, hoping that this would suffice and followed everyone else into the building.
There were thirty or forty casual staff, and countless full-time employees. The better jobs entailed processing large packets and parcels as they were ferried into the depot on a line of large automated trolleys drawn along a chain-track set into the floor, specifically scanning barcodes and sorting by region - Scotland, Wales, Greater London, North-east and so on. A little further down the industrial pecking order were those employed in loading these parcels onto the conveyor belts of the appropriate bays set around the circumference of the depot. Each belt was mounted on a hydraulic boom which could be extended into the back of a trailer.
At the lowest end of the food chain of labour were those who, like myself, ended up in the back of a trailer, stacking whatever came down the belt until the thing was full and was thus ready to be driven off to another part of the country.
The steady running of the conveyor belt was dependent upon the removal of the item that had arrived at its end, as detected by a beam of light. If one failed to take the next parcel, the belt remained stationary. This prevented the possibility of employees buried alive beneath a mountain of packets, having paused for a second to adjust a pair of ill-fitting underpants. Unfortunately, this stop-start motion also tended to result in blockages out in the depot as a great many more objects were piled onto the belt than that with which one person could reasonably cope. As soon as a blockage occurred, a warning light outside the bay would draw the attention of Marcie, a stern but efficient woman resembling Peppermint Patty's friend all grown up and somewhat embittered by life in the West Midlands.
'Get this belt moving.'
It was never anything like a request, and her tone made it clear that you could be replaced very easily, which was of course the entire point of agency staff. The problem was that in order to keep the belt moving one had no choice but to cut corners, even to ignore the care which any sane person would take in such a job in an effort to avoid stacking the extremely heavy on top of the extremely fragile. The sound of unsuspected glass objects smashing inside some parcel as another was hoisted on top was a more than hourly occurrence, because you didn't actually have time to break wind, let alone subject each item to any sort of inspection. This was regarded as simple natural breakage by Parcel Force staff, something that statistically could not be avoided, particularly considering the weight of some of the objects being sent by mail. It was not unusual to find a complete motorbike engine mummified in polythene wrap on the belt, or the entire fibre glass siding of a car. Legally we weren't allowed by eminently sensible European law to lift such weights by ourselves, and officially we were expected to seek assistance, but again this proved impractical if you were to keep the belt moving and thus also keep your job. It was tough and exhausting, and it went on from six in the morning to two in the afternoon with two half hour breaks. My time at Royal Mail had amounted to twenty years of humping heavy weights in pouring rain whilst a man in a suit told you to pull your finger out, but this was much worse, much more demanding.
I lasted three days, then told Ellie that I'd had enough for one week. Perhaps conveniently it turned out that the National Parcel Force depot rarely required its complement of agency workers outside of the three heaviest days of the week, and I wasn't needed again until the following Tuesday; so it sort of worked out, aside from the fact of eighty or so pounds seeming a poor weekly wage for something quite so physically strenuous. It was almost a quarter of what I had earned working a five-day week at Royal Mail.
I went back of course, reasoning that a two or three day working week was manageable, despite those two or three days occasionally resembling some sort of conflation of the various tasks famously allotted to Hercules with what happened to Apprentice Mickey in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Over time, the job became, if not exactly bearable, at least do-able, and it was better than signing on. A social element would have made the working day more pleasant, but wasn't really practical whilst I was stuck grunting and sweating in the back of a trailer for the best part of the morning, even aside from the registry of my fellow agency workers being more or less different from one week to the next. Marcie was likeable in a gruff sort of way, consistent and thus trustworthy if not particularly warm or sympathetic; but it was clear that she was under at least as much pressure from the amoral boardroom counting machines as that which she applied to us, and even when she called you a useless arsehole, you knew it was never personal. The only other regular agency worker was Billy with his coke-bottle glasses and displaced Manchester accent, always borrowing just two pound coins for the canteen or the drinks machine, always delivering some weird announcement to no-one in particular.
'As soon as I get home I'm straight on facebook to all me mates!'
It wasn't just reportage of plans made for the rest of the day. It was offered as a mission statement, not so much what Billy would do as what he was, and God help the fool who tried to stop him. I always wondered who he was talking to; and I also wondered how someone so seemingly undernourished, how this weird little chain-smoking Bash Street Kid as written by Alan Bennett could spend all morning lifting concrete blocks onto a conveyor belt without complaint. He would lecture me during tea break, although I didn't mind. He would share tales of similarly tough agency work undertaken at other depots, day shifts enthusiastically grasped immediately following a night shift. I think he just liked to stay busy.
'As soon as I get in there,' he told me, referring to some new warehouse full of heavy machinery in which he'd made himself a permanent fixture, 'I get straight to that radio and it goes on Mercia!'
It seemed that his speciality was doing things immediately upon arriving somewhere. I'd never listened to Mercia, a local radio station playing what I imagined, perhaps wrongly, to be the usual mix of Spandau Ballet, Dire Straits, Status Quo and other favourites of those who don't really like music that much. It was strange to hear it held up as a proud standard of all that must be considered right and true, a cause in which Billy believed with some passion.
I lasted as long as I could at the National Parcel Force depot. The work became no easier, although I almost got used to it, and after a few weeks stuck in the back of trailers, I graduated to being given other duties every so often just to break things up a little. It was whilst humping parcels, motorbike engines, and other crap from the automated trolleys onto the belts that I lifted a crate which turned out to contain the smashed remains of a dozen bottles of red wine. I was soaked through and I smelled like an alcoholic, but it got me out of work for thirty minutes, and Marcie found me a Parcel Force uniform from the store as replacement for my own sodden clothes. I kept the uniform on the grounds that no-one asked for it back, and I continued to wear it to work in vague hope of being mistaken for a full-time employee and someone who might therefore deserve a slightly cushier number every once in a while.
No-one was fooled, although I was mistaken on one occasion for an Australian.
'No,' I explained, entirely bewildered. 'I'm English.'
'Oh I thought what with your vest,' - her words trailed off as she contemplated my ridiculous fluorescent tabard. 'It's really different.'
This wasn't even the same woman as before, so clearly my stupid bright yellow waistcoat was somehow so different to those worn by everyone else as to be worth noticing. Mine was purchased from a place specialising in sports and camping supplies. Everyone else, it turned out, wore the regular Parcel Force issue which was given free of charge even to agency staff. I could, I realised, have saved myself thirty quid and at least two weirdly bewildering conversations. I didn't even understand how anyone would notice the minor differences between their reflective jackets and mine, much less have so little going on in their lives as to consider it a worthy topic of conversation; and why Australian in particular? It didn't look identical to the kind worn by everyone else, but it's not like I'd accessorised with a hem of corks and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo sew-on patches.
At the point at which I'd had about enough of the slog, I found myself unexpectedly assigned to the International Parcel Force depot, a different warehouse sized building accessible by the same security gate. Whilst the change initially struck me as an immense pain in the arse - beginning somewhere new all over again - I got over my reticence when I realised the work at the other depot was conducted at a more humane pace with more reasonable demands on the individual. For some reason even the atmosphere was more pleasant, and instead of the vast industrial cavern I found myself walking in a brightly lit labyrinth of staircases, ladders, overhead walkways, and mysterious elevated tracks carrying packets here and there. It was like a chocolate factory designed by Jules Verne, which seemed preferable to industrial Tolkien.
I was introduced on my first day to Jim, as I'm fairly certain I remember him being called, a man in his fifties with a slight Irish accent, and an archetypical old boy of the kind with which a previous girlfriend had told me I was obsessed. The accusation had annoyed me, particularly coming from someone whose only experience of the working classes was when ordering room service or asking how soon something could be repaired. It wasn't that I was obsessed with old men as she had so cluelessly put it, but in every place I'd worked, the funniest and usually sharpest of my colleagues were almost always those of either my parents' generation or older. Jim fitted this bill, not least because he was very funny, and had perfected the art of taking the piss out of whoever was available without a hint of mean spirits. He took me under his wing almost as though I were an apprentice in the traditional sense, possibly being well-disposed towards me because I'd been a postman for so long. The international parcels tended to be of the kind sent by individual people to family members living in England, and less in the line of heavy machine parts as had been common at the national depot. Loading up an international trailer was therefore a slightly more relaxing affair conducted at a more reasonable pace, so much so that on slow mornings I was able to catch up on my reading; although shame obliged me to drop the habit on the morning when a slightly disgruntled supervisor visited my trailer to point out that my quota of parcels seemed light that morning because I hadn't actually turned on the belt, and the entire depot was now held up, waiting on Mary Shelley and myself to pull our respective fingers out. I saw the same supervisor a few hours later in the canteen reading something or other by Isaac Asimov, which I guessed accounted for why he hadn't been quite so angry as he might have been. It seemed like a good sign.
Occasionally Jim and I would swap roles to break the monotony. He would extend a boom into the trailer and I would load the belt, or scan the packets using a small computer which strapped onto my forearm and was linked to a laser scanner worn on the tip of one finger. It made me feel like a character from a Judge Dredd comic strip and appealed to my inner child.
These duties alternated with stints in the customs inspection room, watching as customs officials opened random packages of samurai swords, firearms, sex aids, or - most gruesome of all - parcels of bush meat sent from Africa by people who hadn't quite realised that bits of monkeys might not be quite so fresh by the time they reached England. For some weeks I had noticed a terrific eye-watering stench would occasionally pass through the depot like a huge smelly ghost. This turned out to be the signifier of each newly discovered consignment of bush meat. There was an element of novelty to working with the customs people, but the duty involved very little beyond standing around in a hot room for three or four hours at a time, and quickly became boring, almost as undesirable as working over at the national depot in its own way.
I spoke to Ellie on the phone and told her that if possible I'd prefer to not work than be sent to the National Parcel Force depot again. As with Royal Mail, it was an environment in which productivity demands had become such as to make it impossible to do the job as it should be done. She didn't seem to like this, but accepted that it would at least save her phoning with offers of work I was only going to turn down.
My time at Parcel Force ended with a few months in the arrivals section of the international depot, unloading trailers as they came in from the airports. It was harder work than before, but not unreasonably so. I would spend the morning extending a boom into the back of a trailer of parcels from China, India, or America whilst listening to my CDs of David Sedaris or Tony Hancock. Sometimes there would be two or more of us unloading a trailer together. Most of the others were okay, and they were at least an interesting mix. There was a young liberal democrat councillor from Ryton-on-Dunsmore, and an amateur boxer who didn't seem to like black people much, but was otherwise okay provided he could be kept from straying into his default conversational racism.
'I can't stand that bloke,' he scowled, glowering at a young guy of obviously Indian origin working over near the peculiar overhead monorail by which large bags of parcels were carried across the depot. 'He's so arrogant.'
Typically, I found myself getting on better with the supposed purveyor of arrogance than the amateur boxer. It turned out that he wasn't even remotely arrogant, but was simply a guy trying to get on with his job.
Eventually the work dried up and Ellie stopped calling me, aside from requesting that I come into the office to fill in my application forms a third time as they had been lost yet again. Given that I'd been on their books for a good nine months, I wasn't entirely sure how this worked. It also turned out that she now required references from previous employers. I did what I could, submitting an email from my old boss at Royal Mail, which for some reason turned out to be unsatisfactory. Ellie sent me a text message which read I'm sorry but I cannot except this. I couldn't bring myself to care about why I needed to submit an application to do something I had already been doing for the best part of a year, but I was slightly appalled that the particulars of my employment were in the hands of someone unable to distinguish between except and accept. I was a manual worker, a man paid to lift up heavy objects and put them down somewhere else, and Ellie herself was paid through my doing this. Parkhouse people, so the website states, are chosen for excellence - and hired for their passion, attitude, pride and fun, but apparently not for their understanding of basic grammar or spelling; but then I had endured six months of my name rendered as Lawerence on pay slips, so it wasn't a huge surprise.
My problem, so I gather, was that Parkhouse preferred workers who would take whatever jobs they were given without question, and I had limited myself by refusing work at both the National Parcel Force depot and weird shifts in neighbouring cities. It was disappointing, but at least it meant an end to my turning up as requested only to find that I hadn't been added to the list that day, contrary to promises made during the previous evening's phone call; and it was an end to work which, if pleasant enough in its own way, paid so little that I could quite easily blow half of my daily wage in the canteen at lunch.
It was marginally better than being on the dole, and I could happily have carried on indefinitely at the international depot had I not made other plans, and that's about as much as can be said about it.