April 07, 2005

Coming of wage

Today was the eighteenth anniversary of the day I started my first proper job. I started at the Department of Health of Social Security, at Harcourt House on Marston Road in Oxford, as part of a training group of twenty-seven people, on a thirteen-week course in Supplementary Benefit and the associated functions that went along with the job of administering and paying it. I stayed in the job for six and a half years, which is almost twice the length of time that I have stayed in any job subsequently. On 3 December 1993, with the ultimately abortive and futile idea of becoming a writer, I moved on. The benefit involved had already changed, as had – twice – the name of the department, and I believe the office has since moved elsewhere as well. All things are grass.

I can remember the date I left, as I can remember the date, 6 April 1987, on which I began, without difficulty, when the start and finish dates of other jobs are lost to my memory forever. It reminded me of the old prole that Winston Smith meets in the pub and pumps for memories of life before the Revolution: able to recall events from a long way back but not more recent ones, as I remember, say, Cup Final scores from the Seventies but not, or not without a struggle, from the Nineties. But it turned out that my memory was even at fault here. It's not the distance of the events that affects the old man’s memory, and the memory of the proles in general, but merely their import:
They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the _expression on a long-dead sister's face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.
In truth I had even forgotten that it wasn't really my first job. I actually worked for one day in a restaurant in Norwich, where I was living in between dropping out of a teacher training course at the University of East Anglia and returning to Oxford where I had been previously. One of my housemates worked in the kitchens there and knew they were looking for people to help with the washing up, a particularly gargantuan task given that it was the period just before Xmas and the restaurant was therefore packed. As were the sink, the draining boards and every spare inch of space that could be used for dirty plates, dirty cutlery, dirty kitchen tools.

It proved too much a task for me, and when the time at which I was supposed to finish was long past, but the pile of washing up, though much diminished, was yet in existence, I left. Although I was paid - a tenner, as I recall - I was not asked to come back, or, more accurately, I was asked not to come back. I therefore achieved the distinction of being sacked after my first day of my first job.

A memorable distinction, one might think, but not so memorable that I can usually remember it. Or that I care to commemorate it when I do. I have never been sacked since. (Or not yet, anyway.) I have never been promoted. I have acquired no property with my earnings. But I have, just this month, succeeded in paying off the remnants of my debts, and have therefore managed to return to the precise point where I started. Jjust about dead level. All those years and nothing gained.

Not being sacked, then, may be the only thing I have achieved in the eighteen years, eighteen years today, since I began. And tomorrow will be eighteen years, and one day.


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