Secrets of the bowler hat brigade

Should we care that 100,000 Civil Servants are to lose their jobs? After all, they're just boring, faceless pen-pushers, aren't they? From personal experience, Philip Hensher would beg to differ
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the Conservative Party mounted a campaign about the monstrous overstaffing of the Civil Service back in February, they found it quite easy to come up with an image. It was an army of faceless individuals in suits and bowler hats - the universal signifier of the English Civil Servant, understood from here to Beijing.

When the Conservative Party mounted a campaign about the monstrous overstaffing of the Civil Service back in February, they found it quite easy to come up with an image. It was an army of faceless individuals in suits and bowler hats - the universal signifier of the English Civil Servant, understood from here to Beijing.

One rarely sees a bowler hat any more these days - actually, you probably haven't seen one in the last 30 years, unless it was in an amateur production of Cabaret. In fact, I think I probably worked with the very last public servant in the country who routinely wore a bowler hat to work, and he persisted until the early 1990s.

By then, of course, a House of Commons official who wore a bowler hat did so not out of pompous conventionality, but out of wild eccentricity, and my much-loved colleague was one of the most celebrated eccentrics in the department. Almost incredible tales of his finest moments were told and retold between the generations; the day when he decided to take a bath, only to be disturbed by the division bell; he took the division bell wrapped in a bath-sheet. The department had long decided that he could not be promoted further, but in his own quiet corner he provided endless, Gothic amusement; so routinely shouting at messengers from Hansard that one day he made a mistake, and told rather a fresh-faced MP to get out of his office; or his rather brilliant knack of turning the titles of inane statutory instruments into Gregorian chants, and parading the office singing "Lead in Ducks and Geese". What he actually did, few people knew: but it was clear that the bowler hat was the tip of an iceberg of fantasy.

Public servants are an easy target for politicians whenever they feel like being popular. Few voters are going to worry too much when Gordon Brown proposes cutting the Civil Service by 100,000 jobs. It's difficult to imagine any other sector, however wasteful, where such a proposal wouldn't be greeted with outrage; even though firefighters clearly spend a lot of their time sitting around uselessly, no intelligent politician would suggest cutting their numbers even by 1,000.

The reason we don't much care about Civil Servants is that, over the years, they've acquired the image of dim, grey, characterless people, shuffling paper around in a mean-spirited way. Conventional and boring, they watch the clock and try not to stand out; away with 100,000 of them!

I worked for six years for the House of Commons as a clerk, which is technically not a Civil Service job, but as good as the same thing. And, frankly, you would be hard- put to find a more richly eccentric and peculiar group of people in any working environment. Drab and colourless, they are not. Some of them had taken the opportunity to pursue scholarly interests to a very high level, and actually published immense monographs on historical subjects with university presses, very respectable editions of minor English writers, or even novels.

Where they found the time to do this, I never quite knew, and some did it in quite unorthodox ways. Before I arrived, one clerk had been involved in a cause célèbre when it emerged that, in the course of his scholarly investigations, he'd illicitly purloined hundreds of volumes from the library of a major London museum for his own benefit.

Wild eccentricity was evident across the board. One colleague of mine used to arrive in the office at 6am every day, and shut himself in his office until home-time, undertaking completely mysterious tasks that no one ever found out about; occasionally, he would emerge to talk about a new hi-fi system he had acquired, though never about music, which he didn't seem to care for much. Another did literally nothing all day, until 4pm, when he would pick up the telephone and call his butcher to discuss the day's stock. It was never remotely surprising to enter a colleague's office and find him practising a golf swing or conducting an imaginary orchestra. In one or two cases, the diversions of very clever people grew less attractive, and gossip maintained that this colleague drank heavily in the office; or, when the internet arrived, that another one used to entertain himself with some very alarming pornography.

The sometimes bizarre behaviour apparent in the office was not, it turned out, a new thing, and the office where I worked used to keep a glorious file of enraged, small-minded correspondence from the Second World War, labelled "The Spirit of the Journal Office". It concerned the indefatigable attempts of a clerk to extract money from the department for the nights when, due to heavy bombing, he was obliged to remain in the building. For sheer pig-headed nuttiness, it took some beating, and I wish I'd taken a copy of the correspondence before leaving.

Of course, the department didn't exist in a state of permanent idleness, and in fact, most people worked extremely hard much of the time. The nature of the work encouraged, though, a certain kind of recklessness. Most of the work is spent directing the inquiries of select committees, acting as watchdogs over individual government departments. That peculiar role did encourage clerks with a slightly swashbuckling streak, and many of them took the opportunity to pursue long vendettas on areas of government policy, to everyone else's complete bemusement. Sometimes, the political agenda behind these dashing forays emerged, and made you wonder even more about your colleagues: "Of course," I heard one say to his committee once, "I'm in favour of armed revolution, so I couldn't really say whether I agree with this or not." The committee laughed, very nervously.

The lurid nature of life in the Commons is partly down to the oddity of the role. But it isn't hard to realise that in the Civil Service itself, eccentricity and wilful individualism is everywhere. Stella Rimington's new novel, At Risk, before it gets down to the usual thriller plot, has some delightful and obviously very authentic scenes in the office at MI5: bitching about their snobbish colleagues over the river, carrying on long-running jokes about Rosa Klebb and Miss Moneypenny; dressing up as David Shayler for Christmas parties. It all seems completely plausible.

A predominant flavour of public administration is the running joke, and, in my experience, a public official with a sardonic sense of humour, used to the point of recklessness, can expect to be popular and successful. Bernard Ingham's turn of phrase became celebrated, particularly when he was publicly bitching about an unfavoured Cabinet minister, but that was only a visible instance of a style of wit much relished in the Civil Service.

Reading the feline memoranda that the Civil Service exchanges when it is determined to outwit a minister, even a Prime Minister, it is all too easy to recreate the sharper tones and unrecorded bons mots that the participants used to entertain each other. The long-running saga of Harold Wilson's attempts to persuade the Civil Service to show confidential papers to Marcia Falkender is very enjoyably recorded in a series of po-faced, but very funny memoranda. Each enquires, in best Sir Humphrey style, whether the Prime Minister really meant what he said in his previous message; and, of course, the quiet humorists won the day. Peter Hennessy, commenting on one of these, remarks: "One gets the feeling that somebody took considerable pleasure in writing these instructions." It is also clear that the authors had a certain dashing style, and I'd love to have overheard the running jokes they no doubt had about Mrs Falkender.

Even in very serious situations, the eccentric mandarin sense of humour has a tendency to start enjoying itself. Towards the end of Mrs Thatcher's administration, particularly as the Gulf War loomed, her Civil Servants grew frustrated at her tendency to govern through casual, unminuted conversations, just as Tony Blair is now accused of doing. Some officials took to holding meetings among themselves, simply to find out what anyone knew of the Prime Minister's intentions. Hennessy has discovered that two of them, Patrick Wright and Percy Cradock, found a moment to exchange limericks. Wright first:

"Robin Butler, preparing for doom/ Called the mandarins into his room/ As he turned out the light/ He said 'Let's get this right/ Who does what and with what and to whom?"

Cradock quickly responded:

"'Dear Robin,' the mandarins said/ 'There are letters that may not be read./ There are minutes as well/ Which no man may tell/ And which all must be kept in the dark./ And from this the conclusion is stark/ That we all must remain in the dark./ While our Masters decide/ Without briefing or guide/ Who does what and to whom in Iraq'."

There is no doubt that, at this exact moment, someone in the Cabinet Office is exchanging viciously satirical limericks with a trusted colleague in, say, the Treasury. It probably won't come to light; but an important part of the Civil Service atmosphere is of sharp wit and often rather abstruse joking. When Sir Robert Armstrong, during the Spycatcher trial, remarked that something was not exactly lying, more being "economical with the truth", he instantly launched a phrase into the English language. Most commentators took it for granted that he was being weaselly, or hypocritical. In fact, as everyone who has ever worked with that sort of mandarin instantly recognised, it was exactly the sort of caustic joke that gets bandied over the lunch table by the upper grades. He was trying to be funny.

Nothing could be further from the truth than to think of Civil Servants as dim, dull, characterless people. From top to bottom, the service is filled with eccentrics, wits, obsessives, and plain terrifying weirdos - the mass murderer Dennis Nilsen was, remember, a Civil Servant. The truth, perhaps, is that after a while, the sheer oddity and inevitable failure of your task start to nag away, and the only reasonable response is to start enjoying yourself.

The life of a nation comes at you in great waves, whether you are dealing with social-security claimants in Leeds, or sitting in Whitehall, trying your best to keep the economy from running into the sand. And all the time, you know that there is not much you can do about any of it, and most of what you have is a set of rules and not- quite-relevant laws. If, in some cases, the result is to grind down the personality into grey, conventional, narrow ways, it can't be denied that others - often the ones who make a success of it - find themselves responding with exuberance, black humour and sheer, insane eccentricity.

Comments