Other people's jobs: No 9 The insurance man

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I READ the impressive poster, glazed and framed in brushed aluminium. It is attributed to Winston Churchill, who spoke in capital letters. The sepia ghost of his face can be discerned pushing its way towards his chiselled white words: 'IF I HAD MY WAY I'D WRITE THE WORD 'INSURE' UPON THE DOOR OF EVERY COTTAGE AND UPON THE BLOTTING BOOK OF EVERY PUBLIC MAN. BECAUSE I AM CONVINCED FOR SACRIFICES WHICH ARE INCONCEIVABLY SMALL, FAMILIES AND ESTATES CAN BE PROTECTED AGAINST CATASTROPHES WHICH WOULD OTHERWISE SMASH THEM UP FOREVER.'

'That's laying it on a bit; isn't it?' I say to Stavros ('Call me Stav'), a Mancunian Greek brought up in Milton Keynes and educated at a naval college.

'Now, now,' Stav wags a long, sallow finger at me in an engaging sort of way. 'Life's a high-risk activity.'

We are both sitting behind a long counter on office-friendly chairs with controlled back recline, slippery swivel action and five nimble castors which mean we can both propel ourselves up and down behind the counter darting from telephone to on-line computer to automatic kettle. I play with my chair levers and with a sudden drop, and a twinge in my back, find myself a good foot nearer the floor.

'You could be insured against that you know,' advises Stav, as the telephone rings. Someone, somewhere, is thinking of buying a 125cc Vespa. He's a chef. He's got a provisional licence. Wonder if he has 'INSURE' written on the door of his frail cottage?

'High-risk client,' says Stav, his hand over the mouthpiece. He slides over to the computer and punches in the details. The screen flickers then holds, with little coded boxes saying: 'NAC2 TERMS' (named and approved, over 25 years old, comprehensive cover, first pounds 50 pounds claimed excess) and OLD FAP (meaning old full annual premium). These aren't exactly relevant to a 19-year-old chef wanting to get his Vespa buzzing, so Stav punches a few more keys, the screen holds its breath for a couple of seconds and then flashes up the relevant quote: pounds 377 for TPFT (third party, fire and theft).

'Thanks but . . .' the chef begins to say.

'Believe me, sir, you're unlikely to get it cheaper elsewhere.'

The chef hangs up.

''What are you exactly Stav?'

'What do you mean?'

'Your job? An insurance broker?'

'Oh no,' he smiles and chuckles, 'I'm a Centre Assistant, but I should be a Centre Supervisor by now. I'm ambitious. And then, before long, I could be a Unit Manager in charge of my own area; three or four offices. Some people aren't ambitious. I've been on some extra courses.'

'Like what?'

'Well, everybody has to go on some of the courses - computer-familiarity, filling in policy documents, but I've also done a two-hour course of assertiveness training. You learn the correct balance between gentle behaviour and aggression.'

A potential client comes through the door and starts browsing among the stacked leaflets which touch jumpy nerves with capitalised questions in dark blue print. 'HOW WOULD YOU COPE IF A SERIOUS ACCIDENT LEFT YOU UNABLE TO WORK AGAIN?????' That's five question marks expecting (who knows?) five answers.

The client, a young man with a stifling scarf and mildewed Hush Puppies has picked up the Pedal Cycle Insurance leaflet which shows a intrepid cyclist making his way along the bough of a tropical tree.

'Can I help at all?' asks Stav in a very gentle way but with, perhaps, just a tickle of aggression.

'Oh no, just looking.'

Stav says: 'I have relatives on seven Greek islands. When I was a student I used to spend two months a year out there in the summer helping my uncle hire out scooters and cars. Greece isn't a big place for insurance.'

'It must seem like a long way from Greece here,' I suggest.

He smiles: 'A long way from Greece. Yes. Not much plate smashing goes on in this office.

'You know what I really want to do? Run my own business. Be my own man.'

As I leave I nearly collide with a couple of lanky T-shirts ('Godflesh' and 'Death Thrash') holding guitars. Now, if these T-shirt wearers are into low-risk lifestyles they might be well advised to take out the pretty comprehensive Musical Instrument and Equipment Insurance Policy.

However, they'd have to be aware of the principal exclusion clause. The fifth part states there will be no redress for: breakage of strings, skins, reeds, drum sticks and brushes, or bruising or denting. No use calling in with a bruised guitar.-