December 18, 2005

Give us pause

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

I can recite the whole soliloquy: I used to be able to recite the whole thing in about forty-seven seconds. I learned it, twelve years ago this month, as a party trick to celebrate the leaving of a job, choosing the high-speed Hamlet rather than - my other idea - learning to recite the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody backwards, beginning with blows wind the anyway and closing with life real the this is? I've never got round to learning the latter of these party tricks: I thought I'd save it until I celebrated leaving another job. And now I am leaving another job, I find myself not in the mood for celebration.

I wasn't really in the mood before, if truth be told. I resigned that job, twelve years ago, in a tide of anger and a torrent of relief. In truth, the job resigned itself. It had become impossible to do. Impossible for me to function in the job. Impossible for me to function while I did the job. When she left the Labour Party, Shirley Williams notoriously claimed that she hadn't left the Party, so much as the Labour Party had left her: the sentiment applied to my job and my leaving of it rather more than it ever really did to Shirley Williams. The job was gone, disappeared, disintegrated: it couldn't be done any more. Some line had been crossed, some line which marked the end of patience, the end of will, the end of my resistance. My notice wasn't resignation so much as recognition. I spelled it out before it was spelled out for me. Like Duran said to Leonard: no mas, no mas. No more, no more, he said, and turned and walked away.

On my CV, or on job application forms, the reason for leaving - when they ask - is thus: wanted to write a book. Well, so I did, and write the book I did, although the book was written many months later, and not, in fact, begun until I was back in a job. I had certainly intended to write. but it was not the desire to write that gave me the impetus to leave my job: it was, instead, leaving my job that gave me the impetus to write. Gave me the chance, the opportunity: more than that, gave me the possibility. I couldn't write until I gave up the job. I couldn't do anything until I gave up the job. I didn't have another job to go to: it took me six months to find another. It made no difference. I couldn't have written any job applications while I still did the job. I couldn't write, sleep, think or even talk properly while I did the job: my speech would cut up, tangle, words with which I was familiar would elude my stressed-out mind. I could not have learned a line of Hamlet, let alone recited it. I could not have written a word until I wrote my resignation. They say of sackings, we have to let you go: to resign my job was a release.

I had been working for six years, nearly seven, at the DHSS. Processing claims for Supplementary Benefit, which then became Income Support. The DHSS became the DSS and then the Benefits Agency: the name changed but the job remained the same, until I moved onto the front desk and a job that was usually no worse wearying became, instead, intolerable. To be in the job was to be in a position of conflict: it was to pay, or withhold payment, to people who had no money and needed it. To pay them later when they wanted it sooner, to pay them not at all when they needed it desperately. I had no qualms about the job, not from the point of view of conscience: if I didn't pay everybody who I thought should have been paid, paying people was my daily job and every day, people who came with nothing left with something because of what I did.

It wasn't conscience, it was conflict. It was people shouting at you, swearing at you, threatening you, hating you, down the phone, in the letters that they wrote, in person if you saw them on the front. It was not intolerable, provided it was intermittent: it was rarely meant seriously, it was just somebody lashing out, and while, given the choice, one would rather have done without, it was just one of those things that makes a job unpleasant rather than impossible. Rude customers, if you are a shop assistant: faredodgers, if you drive a bus. There is always something, somebody: the intermittent conflict was less troubling to the mind than the permanent understaffing and the permanent overwork. You could never achieve anything: you could never get anything significant done. The most that you could do was clear your desk, and that was rare enough. For most people beyond all hope of ever happening.

But other jobs, too, are pretty much like that. You never complete any projects, never clinch any deals, never win any trophies, never change anything so things are never quite the same again. Jobs get you down: it's what they do. They get you down, and get you down, and then you go home and put the job away until the next day. As long as you can do that, then the job survives and you survive. But when the job allows no separation, when it preys on you, disrupts you, messes up your head outside the hours that they are paying you, then there is no job, because it is not a job but an affliction. It needs not to be done but to be cured.

My job became an affliction after they moved me onto the front desk: I survived there, as I recall, nearly two years, which was by, a distance, longer than the time which you could reasonably be expected to serve. It was rather like the bombing missions in Catch-22, in which the number the airmen were required to complete before they were allowed to go increased every time they approached it. The only difference was that there was no set time you were supposed to serve on this front, so you knew officially ,as it were, that you were there for infinity - or before it did for you, whichever came the sooner.

Strictly speaking, this was not true. There was a recommended time of maximum service, agreed by the management and unions, which was something like six months, but subject to "the needs of the office", which meant, just as it always means, that the needs of the officie came before your human needs as surely as a full house beats two pairs. You had no chance. Your only options were desertion or discharge through incapacity.

The difference was the sheer relentlessness of working on the front. You couldn't get away from it. Nor could you walk away from somebody as easily as you could terminate a conversation on the phone - they were still there for somebody to see and there was a limited degree to which you could either ask other people to take over from you, or - in extremis - ask that they be removed. It was no longer within your own control to call a halt when things got too unpleasant.

Nor, if you called a halt, did it stop there. Not there, not at the time the job was over, not ever. At work, you would be threatened: outside work, you would be recognised. The line that spearated job from life, the line which saves us all from being driven frantic from our jobs, no longer held. You do not want, perhaps, to be a faceless bureacrat. It is a soulless, stupid, sullen role to play. But worse than that is being a bureaucrat with a face. You cannot take impersonal decisions on the government's behalf when you are a person who people recognise. I was recognised, in the street. Not often, but enough, enough to make me worry that I might be recognised. Recognised and - very occasionally - threatened.

You can be threatened a hundred times anonymously on the phone, at work, and you can handle it. But once you are threatened personally, outside work, there is no "outside work". There is no rest, no relaxation, no refuge from the stresses of your job. And the more the job eats into your personal space, the more that it eats into you. Until there is no you, just the job that is no longer even a job but something foul. You go to work with a sense of dread: you leave work with a sense of dread. You cannot deal with such a job, cannot negotiate with yourself to enable yourself to cope with it: because negotation defines limits, boundaries, points which may not be crossed. And the job has said it will not respect boundaries. Those lines are crossed. The line of no return is crossed as well.

There was one other aspect to this dread, this fear of being at work. It was the fear that, whatever happened in these situations of conflict, you would always be let down by the people above you in the system. You were obliged to say no to claimants: you could always save yourself that conflict by saying yes, but you were supposed sometimes - not sometimes, often - to tell people no. You were obliged, therefore, to bring hatred down upon your head. The limits of your discretion didn't extend, often, to whether or not somebody was entitled to be paid. They did, however, extend to whether or not they should be paid now, a giro, a counter payment, money they could take away that day. Except they didn't: your discretion was hedged about by guidelines and realities. Nobody ever wants their payment later than it has to be: everybody wanted a counter payment. To say yes to all of them was impossible - you had to say no far more often than you could say yes. But to say no to any of them was to risk the consequences in abuse and threats.

These limits of discretion extended too to the question of identification, without which no payments could, theoretically, be made. There was, however, no official limit as to what was, and what was not, acceptable ID. There was merely a short list of some documents which would be acceptable, without that list being exhaustive. There were ground rules which existed in each office, known to the staff working on the front and theoretically the basis for our practice. Official documents were acceptable, handwritten letters not, that sort of thing.

But these rules were not written down in any form, and could not be. But because they were not, they provided the get-out for every spineless manager who would not face up to the pressures that their staff experienced every day. You would turn down a request for a counter payment, perhaps on the grounds of insufficient ID, and you would get many mouthfuls of abuse in consequence. Yet you would stand firm, because those were the guidelines, that was what had been agreed, that was the proper and professional thing to do. So then the supervisor or the manager would be called: and they would decide to exercise their discretion. They would play Mr Generous to your Mr Nasty. They had no stomach for abuse: they would decide to bend where you had known that you should not. And they would let you down. They would always let you down.

If you complained, they would have none of it: they would always say that you should have exercised your discretion, that you could after all have referred it to them if you'd wanted. It was true, yet it was one of those truths which everybody knows is actually a lie. They knew very well you could not do this every time. They knew very well you were going by guidelines they themselves had set. It did not matter. You were the bad guy, inflexible. They were the good guy. They used their discretion.

The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes

It stank, and everybody knew it stank, and yet you knew, you knew in advance that they would do it. You knew, even as you were taking the abuse, that they would do it. You knew, even before you saw the claimant in the first place, what would happen. You knew you were going to put yourself through a vile experience and be left looking like a fool as a reward. And this knowledge, just as surely, just as often as the threats would fill your mind with dread. With anger and frustration and disgust and hopelessness. t was the most impossible of impossible positions. It was impossible to stand: it was impossible to function. It was destructive. It destroyed you.

Eventually, inside work and outside it, your head would fill with stress, blotting out everything but itself: a buzzing in your head, although a buzzing without noise. A ringing in your head, although a ringing without bells. You had to walk away. You had to walk away before you could do anything else. You had to walk away and say no mas, no mas, or else there would be no-one left to walk away. So walk away I did, December 1993, and left with Hamlet rather than a buzzing in my ears.

That was then: this is now. I have left several jobs since, some willingly, the jobs I hated, some unwillingly, when they closed down or I had to move on to something prearranged. But I have not, since then, resigned a job without something else to go to, not until no. Not until, with dread in my head and a buzzing in my ears, I resigned a job which I have been in for four lousy, fruitless years. Four years of being fobbed off, being let down, being put in impossible situations. The details do not matter. It is not detail but consequences which matter. I have no other job to go to, but I have learned this, learned this from a dozen years ago. You cannot let a job destroy you.

You cannot let them put you in impossible positions. You cannot let them treat you as though you were there to take the heat off them. You cannot let them fob you off until you give up dealing with your problems in despair. (The problems, of course, remain.) You cannot let them give you instructions and then pretend they are nothing to do with it when you put those instructions into practice. You cannot let them drive you mad, you cannot let them drive you into anger, you cannot let them fill your head with dread. If they do, at that point you have to walk away and damn the consequences of your doing so.

So I have walked away. I will not lt them do it to me. I will not let them interfere with me, with the private me, with the person who cannot function properly if his mind is filled with dread. I have other things to occupy that mind, other things I need to occupy that mind, other things that need that mind to be free of worry, free of loathing, free in general if I am to live my life. So I have walked away. And when you take a decision, and know that that decision was the right one, come what may, you always know, at the same time, that the decision should have been taken long before. I should have walked away a long time before now. A long time. I know this, know this, know this. I know, in knowing, that I knew it long ago.

God, I know it. God, I know it. God, they made sure that I know it. I have worked for them four lousy, fruitless years and at the very end of it, a few days past, I sat in an office and had a manager from Human Resources, an arrogant suit with no thought in her head other than to bully me into submission, stand over me. Stand over me raising her voice, finger jabbing repeatedly towards my face. A bully out of control, a bully almost breathless with the thrill of bullying. And I thought, God, I should have done this many months ago. God, I thought, how I hate you. Imperial College London Libraries, I thought, how I hate you. I thought, I would rather live on fresh air than work for you. But most of all, I thought: I should have done this many months ago.

But it is done now, at any rate. No recitations, no party tricks. It is done now, damn the consequences. I do not know exactly what will happen now and I do not care.

And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Not this time, Prince. Nor any time again.


At December 19, 2005 12:15 pm, Blogger Gothamimage said...

Just popped over from another blog and noticed the Hamlet - if you read our second most recent post, a about the alleged 'conversation' between Hitchens and Bush, you may spot the Hamlet references.

At December 19, 2005 12:30 pm, Anonymous warszawa said...

Bob Black's brilliant and deservedly famous polemic might provide some solace:

"The Abolition of Work"

At December 19, 2005 12:54 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So why not get a job you enjoy... You claim to have a good degree. You seem to be well read. Why do you not use them both...?

At December 19, 2005 4:56 pm, Anonymous CP said...

The DHSS...
I must have been a great customer.
When I left school I went to fill in the claim form for unemployment and completed the whole lot out with the final tick by the box to declare I wasn't looking for work.

I didn't argue when the guy behind the desk said I didn't stand a chance.

If I owned "Private Eye", I would employ you.

At December 19, 2005 10:09 pm, Blogger JPD said...

The person who left the third comment is either a personnel (sorry, "human resources") knob, a Tory MP or a cunt...or quite possibly all three.

At December 21, 2005 1:35 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At January 07, 2006 12:31 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit belated, but just to say I left my last permanent job a year & a half ago,'cos it was doing my head in, & it has been OK & I haven't regretted it. I wouldn't say fantastic new doors have opened, but I'm happier job-wise and no longer have that dreadful trapped feeling. Good luck.


At January 14, 2006 12:24 am, Anonymous Christo said...

Yeah I'm in exactly the same position at the moment: resigning on Monday, months if not years too late (my cyberslacking began when I should have resigned properly), with no other job to go to but, as you say, there's no way I could find another job while still in this pointless position buried under an ever increasing tide of paperwork while management refuse to hire extra hands to to help, etc.

Good Luck, Justin!

At January 17, 2006 5:58 pm, Anonymous Sarsparilla said...

What a fantastic post. Glad to have read it.


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