My First Job: John Hegley, performing poet, was a Social Security clerk

It was quite social, and very secure
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The Independent Online

John Hegley's father clearly didn't think his son would end up where he has - which, tonight, is on stage at the Harrow Arts Centre in west London.

With his guitar, glasses and lugubrious lines about Luton life, he has become a leading purveyor of hilarity to hip audiences. Yet when John left school at 18 in 1972 and went to work in a Social Security office, Mr Hegley Senior saw it as long-term job; he gave young John a metal calendar device which, in those non-digital days, you put on your office desk and tweaked during the days, months and years while you worked towards your pension.

Hegley Junior found Social Security employment to be quite social and very secure. Older members took him under their wing: "They were quite like benevolent patriarchs." Mr Morrison, his boss, even explained a tricky poem from Michael Horowitz's Children of Albion anthology, which John brought to work.

Everyone was Mr, Mrs or Miss. Even John was Mr Hegley, as in: "Mr Hegley, would you come here a moment?" (This meant he'd made a mistake in assessing a payment.) Kind Mr Scott, although of the same rank as John, would take it upon himself to ask: "Are you happy in your work?"

"Yes," was generally John's answer. "I felt I was part of the welfare state and I thought it did - at the time - a reasonably good job for the welfare of its citizens. I generally found that the relationship with the public was amicable. When I go on stage now, I feel people are on my side and I felt they were when I was on the Social Security counter. Nobody really came in saying, 'I can't live on this!'"

He saw the job as having three parts: "To be an interface with the public, which is what my job is now; hopefully to increase the wellbeing of the public, which is what my job is now; and to increase my knowledge of people, which is what I do now, by asking the audience questions.

"It was a gentle learning experience. There were people who had just come out of prison: I remember how thin a prison roll-up [cigarette] was. There were elderly people; I used to have a chat. There were people living in the squats on the edge of town. The notes for one claimant said, 'Only to be seen by male interviewers,' because he used to get up to smutty activity under the counter."

Most generously, his colleagues were in no way dismissive or jealous when, after eight months, he left them to go to university. And perhaps they felt he was better suited to student life than to the civil service: "I wasn't the best timekeeper and I generally looked scruffier than the people on the other side of the counter."

'Uncut Confetti' (£10.99, Methuen) is out next month. Tour details on www.johnhegley.co.uk

jonty@jonathansale.com

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