A week in the life of a teenage bureaucrat

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I left school, I took a year off because I wanted to laze around. My parents wanted me to get a job. They said that getting a job would improve me; it would teach me something about the world. What they meant was that getting a job would teach me not to be lazy. But I was adamant. Why should I get a job? I'd just spent 13 years doing the worst job in the world. I'd been a virtual slave for as long as I could remember. I reminded them: this was a year off. Not another bloody year

of pointless work. It's not pointless, they

said. I told them to bugger off, then sat up half the night drinking with a few other teenage wasters in somebody else's parents' house.

I started work as a clerical assistant for the DHSS the next week. But don't think I wasn't sceptical; I was extremely sceptical. I thought the job would be absolute rubbish, a waste of time; getting paid next to nothing for sitting at a desk, thankless and virtually useless. I didn't think it would improve me. It was already making me bitter, and I hadn't even started it yet. On my first morning, I breakfasted in silence. My younger brother, on holiday from school, ate his toast. He was his normal, happy self. Ahead of him lay a day of freedom, of messing around to his heart's content. It made me feel felt like crying.

I caught the bus and walked into the office. I really wanted to run out again. Somebody showed me to a desk. I sat down. The first hour was a blur: people telling me how to write Giro cheques, me not listening, and having to be told again. The experience was already making me stupid.

Then I was left alone. I sat, doing nothing, for ages. The time did not pass. So I started to work. I opened a cardboard file and did what I had to do. It's not a simple business writing Giro cheques. You have to get about nine bits of information from the file, and then fill in the cheque according to this information. After I'd done a lot of cheques, the tea-trolley arrived. This was the mid-morning tea-trolley. I would have to write a lot more cheques,

even before lunch. And then the afternoon.

There were two other people on my desk. To me, they looked horribly old, but they were both in their twenties. One had been to university, and then started a temporary job at the DHSS; that had been six years ago. He had never left. The other had had a place at university, and gone to the DHSS in his year off; he had never taken up the place. I could see what had happened; they had been gradually sucked in; their brains had rotted. One of them told me it wasn't so bad after a while, it was quite good, in fact, when you got to be a Clerical Officer.

In my lunch break I walked around outside the building, feeling so alienated that even places I knew looked odd. Then I went back into the office and wrote more Giro cheques.

At the end of the day, I went home, disgusted with myself. And then I went back the next day, and the next. On the Thursday, I couldn't believe that it wasn't Friday. I was dead, and being punished. I sat in the office, staring at things: elastic bands, envelopes, date-stamps, dockets. Drawers with keys in them. Ballpoint pens.

On the Monday I was walking along the corridor to my office.

'William . . .'

It was my boss, or rather my uberboss, someone so important I'd never seen him before. He motioned me into his room and told me to sit down. His voice was thin and croaky. 'William, you left your desk on Friday and you didn't lock your Giros away.'

That was a rule of the place; you had to lock your Giro cheques away, in case of larceny on the part of your colleagues. The rule was that you couldn't leave the desk without locking them away.

'But I didn't let them out of my sight. I only went to the tea-trolley . . .' I'd vaguely wondered, in fact, what would happen about this. I had been a few paces away from my desk. I'd done virtually nothing other than stand up, in fact. This I explained.

'I'm prepared to overlook this. But if it happens once more . . .' he paused, pathetically, for effect, 'we're going to have to let you go.' I walked to my office. Which of my two desk-mates, I wondered, had grassed on me?

Later that day, I was engaged on one of my routine tasks, which was stacking envelopes in groups of 10, then pulling an elastic band around them and putting the now-tight packs on top of each other.

'Hello, son.' It was the Premises Higher Executive Officer, a man I'd heard about, but never seen. He was 70-ish, and semi-retired, but he still walked around, blustering away. He stopped and looked at me. Then he said: 'Watch me.'

He put his ancient hands into the pile of elastic bands and envelopes, and started flicking his fingers, like some kind of performance artist, an incredible flurry, a blur; the bands miraculously snapped around the envelopes, which piled up neatly, amazingly fast. He was a genius. After a couple of minutes, my hour-long job was done. Each band was perfectly placed, exactly halfway down each envelope. He smiled at me.


'Well . . . when you've been here as long as I have, you'll be able to do that. You may not think so now. But you will.' He smiled again, and walked off jauntily.

That was the Monday afternoon. On the Tuesday morning, I unlocked my desk, took my Giro cheques out, put them on the table, stood up, and walked out of the room. They sacked me after lunch. It took them that long. As I packed up my things - or rather, as I put my jacket on and picked up my tabloid - the two Clerical Officers on my desk were smirking and looking at each other.

Then I walked out of the office and into

the car-park, one iota more selfish, lazy, feckless, irresponsible and spoilt than I had been eight days before. I had, I believed wrongly, learnt nothing of importance. My happiness was complete.