Return to unemployment (essay)

The P.I.s at the U.B.O.

It’s a grey, sleety, cheerless January day and it occurred to me that it’s nearly thirty years since the grey, sleety cheerless January when I worked for a few weeks as a Clerical Assistant at the Cambridge Unemployment Benefit Office. Absolutely nothing is happening up here in 2011, so at the risk of premature descent into my anecdotage, I decided I would dredge up some memories of that time.

As you can imagine, work for a C.A. in the U.B.O. (acronyms are a civil service speciality) mainly involving the movement of bits of paper from one office to another, was pretty damn tedious. I imagine that now such work is even more bloody tedious, for these days, you have no reason to get up from your desk. Back then, computers were a mystery to most of us. I don't remember seeing one in the building, although there may have been one or two operated by treddle or paraffin in the wages office. Every claimant had a claim pack, a real bundle of paper, cardboard and rubber-bands, not a computer file. Depending on the claimant’s circumstances, needs and afflictions - fifteen children, chronic jet-lag, obligation to support relatives, refusal to support relatives, King’s Evil, and so on, the claim pack could be in any department of the large, charmless building, and minions such as myself spent most of the day traipsing up and down stairs, looking in filing cabinets, on windowsills and under desks for claimants’ details when our own department required them. The only part of the job I actually liked was taking fresh claims from the newly unemployed. Most of these ten-minute transactions were unmemorable, but I was surprised at just how many people there were who couldn’t read or communicate in writing. One week we had a run of people who said on their claim forms that they had previously been employed as jellies:

Name: Roger Donger Wattam Potter
Previous occupation: Jelly

Name: Fanny Payne
Previous Occupation: Jelly

The names, by the way, are real; scandalous that parents can be so lacking in compassion. There were several of these former jellies, few of them large and wobbly, so it was hard to see what had qualified them for the post. It was disappointing to learn that the Chivers jam, jelly and sweetie factory had laid off a large number of employees, and the jelly department had been hardest hit, splattering ex 'jellies' our way. Don’t know if it ever bounced back. (Sorry.)

The only day with potential for entertainment was Personal Issue, or P.I. day. Every Thursday, claimants who had no fixed abode came in to collect their giro cheques. Many of these were alcoholic or barking mad or both, and for three hours or so the public area was like the Bedlam Hospital. The inebriate, the hallucinant and the gibbering queued for their pittance and the smell of cider breath and old, urinous clothing was overwhelming. One old gentleman, possibly a Touretter, did bird impressions and ticked and chimed like a Grandfather clock. The day was both funny and deeply depressing. Where did these people go once they had collected their giros? To hostels, to B&Bs, to shelters, shop doorways and cardboard boxes. One snowy afternoon at dusk, a man whose claim had not been processed was turned away penniless just before closing. He gave the door a bloody good kicking before leaving. Solved nothing, but I would have done the same.

Into our Thursday afternoon atmosphere of piss, booze and demented babble there came a very elegant middle-aged lady whose natural habitat, I would have said, was Harrods food hall. She must have fallen on hard times and boy, had she picked the right day to feel degraded. As I was taking her claim, behind her a tall, gaunt elderly drunk was vying with her for my attention, waving and swearing at me like a miffed regular being ignored in a crowded pub. My lady turned and in an accent that could shatter glass, admonished him to wait his turn. As soon as she had concluded her business and risen from her seat, the drunken gentleman collided with her as he hastened to occupy it and she hastened to get the hell out into fresh air. I ascertained that the curmudgeonly and abusive gentleman was one Mr Michael Green of No-Fixed-Abode-a-Wee, Cambridge area.

‘What have you got against de Oyrish?’ he snarled at me as soon as he had taken his seat. ‘What de fuck have you got against the fuckin Oyrish?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘My mother’s Irish.’

Well, her grandmother was – half.

This news immediately brought about the most extraordinary sweetening of Mr Green’s demeanour. He beamed at me.

‘Which part of Oirland does yer mammy come from?’ he asked, almost tenderly.

Huddersfield,’ sez oi, beaming back.

‘Ah, now! Ah, now! Yer can see it! Yer can see it in yer face!’ He was all sunshine for the remaining minute or two of the transaction. I gave him whatever papers it was he needed from me and as he pocketed them, he winked and said ‘we all must live! We must all live!’

Ah, be Chroist, that we must, Mr Green, that we must. He went away a happy man.

One tries one’s best, I thought.

Next up is a youngish, slim and clerkly man in a pale grey suit, white shirt and pale grey tie, slightly nervous, leaning forward as one most anxious to be helpful. I ask for his name.

‘Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte,’ he says.

I ask him to repeat it.

‘Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte,’ he says again.

Yep, that’s what I thought you said. You don’t look like someone who’d be taking the piss, but…

‘Do you have any I.D.?’

He passed his driving license under the glass, and sure enough he was officially Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, of the same indeterminate abode as Mr Green. He seemed to have lived for weeks in a succession of guest-houses. When he came later to sign on, I heard him respectfully pointing out to the person on the desk that his name was Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, not just plain Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, as had appeared on his last giro. Had some shiny-arsed jobsworth at the post office quibbled about cashing his giro, as if he had several near-namesakes in the Cambridge area? I have met only one other person who had gone to the bother of changing his name by deed poll, swapping something clunky and commonplace for the more arresting and euphonious ‘Avon Huxor’, which sounds like a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide. He did this because he had a sense of humour. The Crown Prince, however, seemed entirely to lack this attribute, maintaining his earnest, slightly obsequious manner every time I encountered him. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he is presently detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for dismembering landladies.

On my last day, a little old lady came in, not to make a claim, but to warn us that we should all wear batteries in our hats. She indicated a couple of Evereadies tucked snugly into the band of her own. These would deflect the rays that aliens were beaming down onto the planet to brainwash us, and we'd all be alright. She was thanked for her concern, and went on her way, perhaps to apprise some other government office of the threat. She was right about the brainwashing because I have forgotten what size battery she specified, so you will just have to experiment and hope it isn't too late.

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