Friday, 25 April 2014

The Job

At some point during February 1989 I made an entry in my notebook suggesting that anyone in possession of jiffy bags already containing dog poo or other unpleasant substance of a kind you really wouldn't wish to receive in the mail, might like to address them to Dennis Landers of Lapwing Close, Lordswood, Chatham, Kent. The entry is written as though addressing those representatives of a future generation who would one day find my notebook an endlessly fascinating glimpse into the formative years of a great artist, cartoonist, musician, or master of some other craft upon which I hadn't yet quite decided, but which would be easier than working.

I'd bought the notebook earlier that month, without quite knowing why, and had taken to carrying it around with me, presumably in the event of my witnessing any occurrence so momentous as to warrant taking notes. John Jasper who lived in Gordon Road and who wrote darkly hilarious Pinteresque plays for his own amusement always seemed to have a notebook about his person, and I had adopted the habit in case there was something in it.

A slightly later entry dated to Monday the 27th of February 1989 reads as follows:

Chaos is the absence of order and hence in one sense an artificially imposed state of being. Also it could be said that it does not exist, being as mankind is as much a part of nature as is weather. A nuclear reactor is in a sense no less natural and no less a part of chaos than a dog turd or an owl pellet. If all is chaos, including order (within that chaos - true order can only be imposed from outside) then there is no chaos just as there is no night without day. Order cannot derive from or be produced by chaos by the very nature of chaos.

In the same way, good is surely some form of evil. Evil is the absence of empathy. An animal killing for food cannot be considered evil - it is killing for food to sustain itself, and empathy does not enter into it. Killing for pleasure alone could be said to be evil for the motivation bears no relation to the continued existence of the killer. Hence the death is meaningless. If the killer could truly experience the feelings of the victim - empathise - then they would not be able to see that the fear outweighs their pleasure. However, this is rarely considered. The human race seems to be 99% incapable of empathy and is by this definition evil. This would go some way towards explaining why Dennis Landers is such an utter wanker.

Suffice to say, I was not overly fond of Dennis Landers.

To start at one of many possible beginnings, by June 1988 I'd been unemployed for almost a full year, and had been regularly obliged to attend a daily DHSS initiative known as Job Club for most of that time, one of those soul sapping exercises in governmental number crunching entailing a lot of enforced bonhomie and the sort of jargon by which even the act of scraping effluvia from between the cracks in the tile floor of a public lavatory can be redefined as an opportunity.

'They're making you attend Job Club?' one of my friends observed with a sceptical and yet amused frown, 'but you can already read and write, can't you?'

'Ha ha,' I conceded.

Glenn Wallis referred to it as Joke Club, and Alun Jones would make wisecracks about whether or not I'd had a chance to play in the sandpit that day.

We would spend three mornings a week tarting up our CVs, seeking opportunities in local newspapers, using the DHSS telephone to enquire after possible vacancies, or writing out applications. I seemed to make an impression on the young woman who led the group and occasionally gave us pep talks involving flip charts and further overuse of the word opportunity. Specifically she was impressed by how many applications and speculative letters I was sending out, thanks to stationary and postage stamps paid for by the Great British Taxpayer. She was less impressed when she read one of my speculative letters. The glue on the envelope had apparently failed, and my letter had fallen onto her desk before she could take preventative measures in order to keep herself from accidentally reading the whole thing.

Glenn Wallis had somehow come by a postal address pertaining to the group Yello, the Swiss electronic band of which we were both fans. I had written asking if they had any jobs available and whether they could be induced to listen to a tape of my own music. For this introductory letter I'd adopted a fairly informal, conversational, even chatty tone. This really wasn't what Job Club was about, my group leader explained, now coming around to a revised impression of me as a cranky and probably unemployable weirdo - which on reflection may have been a reasonable assessment.

Her suspicions had been aroused by the great number of speculative letters I'd been sending out in comparison to what few responses were coming back. Equally curious was my status as longest serving Job Club member, having put in close to a full year's loyal jobseekage when the average dole scrounging sponge monkey usually lasted about three months before ascending to their employment destiny either at a burger bar or as one of the local council's elite litter picking team. Twelve proud months and I hadn't yet fooled anyone into even granting me an interview. The problem seemed to be that I was limiting my applications to jobs I thought I could stand to do, and for which I was in some way qualified.

Grudgingly I conceded to take what my group leader termed a more inclusive approach, applying for jobs I either couldn't do or didn't want. This secured me an interview with a corporate design company in Gravesend. The interviewer explained that my application had seemed so peculiar that they just had to bring me in to see what the hell I was about, given that I had neither experience nor interest in corporate design. In interview terms I was a palate cleanser, although on the positive side, the Great British Taxpayers paid my train fare, so thanks for that, you lot!

Then came the missive from Royal Mail, specifically an interview date. It hadn't occurred to me that they would bother to reply, but I guess they replied to everyone. Having disliked the necessity of doing a paper round as a kid, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to engage myself with the grown-up version, but the appeal of actually getting paid for something I could do was overwhelming.

I was interviewed by a man named Cliff, an unambiguous authority figure with the moustache of a detective inspector from a cop show. He was personable, but wasn't interested in making friends. He asked me about art college, about my fine art degree. I had been doing my best to sound like a normal person, someone unfettered by the sort of absurd ambition that would render them  unreliable in the workplace. I would not be pulling a sickie because I wished to go and see the Brancusi at the Southbank Centre.

'I'm not really interested in that,' I said. 'It's all behind me now.'

The words sounded fake as I spoke them, about as convincing as  John Simon Ritchie's no more heroin for me, thank you very much, but apparently they were what Cliff had wanted to hear. I was the correct man for the job.

A week later I was sat in a room in the Best Street sorting office taking an aptitude test with eight or nine other applicants. Amongst these were Mike Barfoot and Mr. Logic. Mike was probably a nice enough lad, although I never really found out because he was from Newcastle and I literally couldn't understand a single word he said. Mr. Logic was a tall, skinny youth with a huge chin and pudding-bowl haircut resembling the character from Viz comic but for his unsettling, staring eyes. He delighted in regaling anyone within earshot of random facts and observations as they occurred to him.

'Now that is what is known as a U-matic video recorder,' he informed us in his slightly nasal voice, smiling as he indicated the video player by which we had just viewed an instructional video describing the life that awaited us as part of the Royal Mail family.

No-one had asked, but then none of Mr. Logic's previous addresses had been requested either. We were all hoping he would shut up, but he began to explain how U-matic video recorders are used by professionals working for large television companies.

'I know,' I interrupted with enough volume to make it clear that I knew I was interrupting. 'I've just finished a three-year degree course specialising in video. I know it's a U-matic recorder. I've used them before, many times.'

I may have sounded like a wanker, but he started it, and it did at least shut him up for a few minutes.

The aptitude test had taken half an hour or so, comprising a booklet of multiple choice questions testing basic ability to reason, to spot the difference, and that sort of thing. I couldn't imagine anyone being unable to pass it. Nevertheless only Mike Barfoot, Mr. Logic and myself made it through from the original group. Given that a seagull probably could have passed the aptitude test, I suspect the other four or five simply hadn't been able to face the prospect of working with Mr. Logic. They needn't have worried. After three weeks of explaining different types of spigot or finding himself inspired to oratory by certain door hinges, he stopped turning up, apparently having found the work more demanding than he'd anticipated.

It was indeed more physically demanding than I myself had expected - carrying fifteen or so kilos around on one's back for a couple of hours every day and starting work at five in the morning - but it was good exercise and I quickly got used to it.

Slightly more terrifying were my colleagues, or so it seemed to me. They were white working class males of various ages, and most of them were interested in drinking and football, and there were only three females working in the entire building, excluding canteen staff. I had come from the same socio-economic background, but I didn't like football, and I did like reading books and had spent three years at art college. I had no problem with them, but felt it likely that they would view me with suspicion, hostility, or at least some mockery on account of my occasional use of long, fancy words. I knew that it would be vital that I blend in to some degree, that I attract no undue attention, at least until I had enough of an understanding of the environment to appear sociable without coming across like David Attenborough amongst the bonobos.

I'd already shot myself in the proverbial foot by having a strategic haircut prior to interview in an attempt to make myself seem employable. I had grown my hair at least as long as that of any member of a 1960s psychedelic band and hadn't had it cut for years, and being a cheapskate I asked a friend - Sue Chinn - if she could have a go at it. Sue did a great job but for having to battle against my whining resentment of a world in which a haircut equated to improved employment prospects. Fearful of leaving me so radically shorn as to induce trauma, she held back, and ended up unwittingly styling my hair in a pseudo-medieval form reminiscent of that worn by Rowan Atkinson in the first series of Blackadder. A few years later at least two thirds of the population of Manchester would sport the same look whilst declaring themselves mad for it, but it was 1988 in Chatham, and I was less able to pass my appearance of as resulting from a love of either having it large or anything that might be considered top.

At Royal Mail I was immediately given the name Baldrick, because although my haircut bore no resemblance to that of the character played by Tony Robinson, the fictional Edmund Blackadder was given to frequently calling out the name when requiring the attention of his servant. I tried to point out how as a nickname it didn't actually quite work, and was essentially the same as naming someone Mr. Grimsdale because they resembled Norman Wisdom; but it worked for my new colleagues in so much as it made everyone laugh, and that was the point.

Communication became difficult, because introductions could not be effected when the other person already knew me as Baldrick, and already had a few ready formulated lines by which to take the piss, usually quotes from episodes of Blackadder with the humorous content replaced by something more directly pertinent to life at Royal Mail. The fact that I found this slightly annoying only served to make it seem all the more funny amongst my colleagues, and so I kept myself almost entirely to myself for at least the first six weeks. I was there to do a job rather than to make friends. I had nothing against my colleagues beyond those few keeping the Baldrick jokes going, but neither did I have any strong desire to accumulate friends just for the sake of it.

Of those my own age, there were few with whom I really had much in common. The loudest were Ian Young - imaginatively nicknamed Youngie - and Nappy. I never found out Nappy's real name, but the nickname was apparently an oblique reference to his behavioural age. They would laugh hysterically at each other's jokes.

'My girlfriend asked me if I loved her last night,' Youngie reported over his egg and chips in the snooker room next to the canteen. He spoke quickly, and I sometimes found it difficult to catch what he said.

'Yeah?' posited Nappy, grinning in anticipation of a punchline.

'I told her to fuck off,' Youngie guffawed.

Nappy laughed, throwing his head back and shaking his mullet like an excitable Bay City Roller.

Those who regarded these two as the heart and soul of the sorting office either laughed, or at least grinned so as not to appear too craven. I didn't laugh.

'How's it going, Balders?' Youngie grinned at me. Baldrick had been shortened to the less formal Balders.

'It's going fine.'

'Good old Balders.' He paused in the name of comic timing.  'What a cunt!'

Oh how we laughed, except for me. I knew it would be pointless to even attempt to compete whilst Youngie's team of writers kept him supplied with material of such calibre.

The Gay Bandalero would smile broadly, just enough to show his allegiance without openly joining in with the humiliation of a colleague who might one day make fun of his own considerable weight and resemblance to a Russ Abbot Show version of a stereotypical Mexican bandit. His name was Phil, and his presence served to illustrate how Mr. Logic might have worked out had he stuck with the job and developed a sense of humour. Working next to Phil became something of a chore because he would spend the time either congratulating Nappy on the most recent hilarious remark, or otherwise taking his work far too seriously. Despite my being slightly older, he briefly seemed to imagine himself as Yoda to my young padawan, officiously instructing me in the performance of tasks I already understood quite well, and with which I'd coped just fine over the previous six months.

I had been taught by an older postman called Pete, a likeable old clown who frowned quietly to himself when he heard me addressed as Baldrick. In my first week he took me out on his regular walk - Snodhurst Avenue and Harptree Drive in Walderslade. We would return to the sorting office after the first delivery, usually to a hail of jokes about how little I would learn from my mentor.

'The blind leading the blind, I call it,' Pete would agree.

By the second week I was doing the walk myself without a safety net. The job really wasn't that difficult to pick up.

'How you getting on with it?' Nigel asked.

There were seven or eight of us all sat in the back of a Royal Mail transit van being driven out to Walderslade. I was perched upon the wheel arch watching the tarmac as we motored along. The rear roller door was open and the sun was coming up over Magpie Hall Road. It was a strange moment, one of those that inspire one to ask how did I get here? It felt as though we were going off to war.

Six o'clock in the morning,
And I'm the last person in this plane still awake.
Y'know I can almost smell the blood washing against the shores,
Of this land that can't forget its past.

Nigel was a young soul boy, traditionally my enemy according to the sort of morons I tended to listen to as a teenager. He chewed gum constantly, wore dazzling white socks, and rarely cracked a smile without good reason. He seemed to regard both Nappy and Youngie as idiots. He was all right.

'It's okay, I suppose,' I said in reference to the job. I had a fear I might suddenly find myself talking about Viennese performance art or something else that would expose me as being out of my depth.

'Better than the old jam roll though, innit!'

'Jam roll?'

'The dole. It's better than signing on, yeah?'

'Oh yes.'

I didn't say anything about being called Baldrick, or my dislike of the nickname. It was something I knew I just had to take in my stride. I was trying to get along with people. Eventually I got there, or at least most of the way. Eventually I began to feel at home, and had earned the luxury of being able to regard some of my colleagues as dicks, if that was what they were.

'Oh yes,' Phil observed in the wake of another wisecrack. 'He's a damn fine postman is Nappy, a damn fine postman.' He affected a far away look with which to garnish his retired colonel style delivery. The comment was predicated on the assumption that we all enjoyed Nappy's humour, so I said nothing.

By Christmas I had come to the realisation that most of the staff were okay, and most of them were also very funny without needing to submit regular broadcasts to the rest of us. There was Steve, who called me Baldrick with more venomous enthusiasm than anyone, and whose main hobby was starting fights outside Gillingham night clubs on Saturday evening, but who had a kind of brutal honesty about him that was difficult to dislike; and there was Johnny Hollands, a man approaching retirement age who still wore the older grey uniform, and whose patter recalled the sauce of the London music hall, which as such had me crying with laughter on a regular basis; and Henry who became my regular van driver, a little round man resembling Roy Kinnear who was probably the first person I could have called a friend at Royal Mail. I'd weathered the first six months of bullshit and conversational equivalents of being sent to the stores for a tin of striped paint without too much flinching, and I had achieved a degree of acceptance. I was a postman rather than a former art student, and only a few people continued to refer to me as Baldrick, presumably having tired of my continuing failure to react. These were Nappy and Youngie whom I'd come to regard as harmless if not particularly funny clowns; and Dennis Landers, who seemed to hate me for no reason I fully understood.

Dennis was middle aged with thick glasses which reduced each eye to a vague tadpole swimming around behind a crystal ball. He would burst into song without warning - I like it, I like it, but only ever that opening line of the one crappy song by Gerry and his bloody awful Pacemakers. Dennis seemingly considered himself a bit of a character.

I worked next to him for a week and we spoke from time to time, and he took a profound dislike to me. Sometimes he would complain that I smelled bad, scowling at me whilst fanning a hand in front of his face for the amusement of Doyle, his sidekick with the blonde curly hair of Andy Pandy, the children's television puppet, and a face made for gurning. Doyle would gurgle with delight and mutter something identifying me as Baldrick - what a loser I was, or something of that general theme.

I asked everyone I knew whether I smelled bad, seeing as no-one had actually mentioned this to me before, and the conclusion seemed to be that I might occasionally benefit from a more thorough application of underarm deodorant, but otherwise it was not generally anything noticeable.

'He wants us all to be like him,' Dennis sneered in my direction after a loudly broadcast discussion of my failings which was otherwise somehow oddly lacking in specifics. 'He wants us to be all serious.'

I hadn't laughed at any of his jokes, but then I tended not to laugh at anyone's jokes unless they were funny. Neither had I rolled my eyes nor expressed any damning testimony on his general lack of wit. In truth I'd hardly spoken to the man because I didn't feel we had much to say to each other. This was an acknowledgement of differences rather than any sort of value judgement.

Now apparently I required that my colleagues be all serious. This was my crime. It seemed like an accusation made by a five-year old. It was bewildering. I couldn't have cared less whether my colleagues walked around in face paint and big red shoes so long as they didn't call me fucking Baldrick. The rest was up to them.

The lowest, most ridiculous point of this war of nerves was reached as I entered the office one morning, passing Dennis and Doyle as they worked at the sorting frame. I had my waterproof coat in my bag, and it seemed sensible to take it out and stow it on top of the frame right then rather than later, for all sorts of boring reasons which would make the story far too long were I to list them.

I placed my bag on the bay.

I opened my bag.

I took out my waterproof coat.

'What's he fucking think he's doing?' Doyle sneered with a venom that would have been appropriate had I taken out my penis and started talking to it. 'A fucking Paul Daniels magic trick?'

Dennis exploded with laughter.

Now the little Doyle too laughed to see such fun.

They both stood howling, almost crying with hysterics at my ker-raaazzzy coat extraction routine, the funniest three seconds of hopeless Baldrick saddo loser tomfoolery to ever split the sides of Chatham sorting office's two most violently dynamic men.

A month or so later, I found myself assigned to the walk upon which was situated the home of Dennis Landers. I delivered his mail dutifully and without complaint or temptation towards rancorous acts, aside from jotting down the address in my notebook as a deserving destination of unpleasant parcels sent from anonymous sources. This coincided with the cessation of hostilities. I knew where he lived, and he knew that I knew.

In May, 1989 I transferred to the Coventry sorting office, having been employed at Best Street for less than a year. Chatham hadn't really worked out for me as I had hoped, and my father had moved to the city of Coventry a few years earlier, and it seemed like a change of scenery was as good a move as any. During the three weeks it took for my transfer to be processed, I spent some time wondering as to whether it was the right decision. I'd begun to make friends at Best Street, but then I'd spent five years in the county of Kent and it seemed like enough; and Royal Mail had forced evolution upon me, transforming a somewhat neurotic ex-art student into someone who could at least deliver letters, bring home a wage, and eventually handle the occasional insult from witless twats without wishing anonymously mailed parcels of fecal matter upon them, an impotent response if ever there was.

I have no idea whether Dennis Landers continues to draw breath, but if so I would hope he's evolved beyond courageously picking on such easy targets. If not, I suppose it doesn't make much difference. I haven't yet grown out of the pleasure taken from imagining him stood in his hallway horrified by the delivery of a bowel movement by first class post, and nearly a quarter century has passed. For me, it remains a pleasing and enduring image, which I suppose must be why I made that entry in my notebook in the first place.

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