Occasionally, when at a supper, or a shabby winefest deep in the bowels of Holborn, or polishing off a delightful pudding at a theatrical soiree, I fill a hole in the chatter by saying I used to work in local government. It never fails. People spit out bits of meringue. “You!” they point a spoon in my direction. “You’re the person who didn’t open the front door to the council tax people for a year and a half in case they worked out you lived in your house.” “But it is true,” I protest, blinking first at the brandy, then at the coffee, and then again at the brandy. “I was at the sharp end, loves. Typing and everything. It was like being in an episode of GBH.” I reach for the Bendicks Bittermints. “Permanently.”
“But you?” they squeak. “You come from a line of self-employed tax dodgers who, when they used to receive cash payment long ago, would sign for tax in the names of minor Shakespearean characters. You’re a non-civically caring hussy. Pass the brandy.”
Alas, it is true. Once I shared corridors with funny looking mayors who wore those freaky masonic necklaces whilst marching to the Council Chamber. These things are necessary. As I keep reminding the youngsters who irresponsible parents occasionally leave in my charge; books, pretty stationery and a never-ending supply of Clinique lip gloss costs something, and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and get a job. Once there they do things like pay you for the stuff you actually do in your spare time (make tea, check Facebook, read news, check Facebook again). I have had any number of these. In fact, so many that they have blurred into one ten year long mesh of post files and dictation tapes. Soon they reveal themselves to be undistinguishable from each other and merge into one. But one of my jobs has never managed to merge into the others because it inhabited such a zone of lunatic tomfoolery that it defies connection to any other job. Or any other part of my life. Or anything that is normal. It was the only job that made me want to go home and cry in the shower (and I include performing in pantomime where a fourteen year old child kept hollering “Lezzer!” at the stage every time I sang).
And, no, I don’t know how entirely it happened. One minute I was paper shuffling and not working very hard at all in a finance division of the social services area with people wearing tracksuits putting through invoices for payment, and the next I was at the Town Hall where the people with suits are, and making tea for the Chief Executive who had had a humour bypass. On my first day, I was instructed how long to leave her teabag in her tea before serving it, which should give you some indication of the Council’s priorities. This was back in the day when New Labour were still relatively new, when the phrase “credit crunch” seemed unimaginable, and when you would frequently get home from work to find that some 12 year old who worked in the credit division for Mastercard was offering you a new little flexible friend with £1,000,000 credit on it. Result.
Part of this lunatic expenditure was to book temporary staff via agencies to do many admin roles. This meant that a job worth £25,000 could cost the Council as little as £50,000, once agency commission had been taken into account. Marvellous. I rocked up to the Town Hall and got a good salary for a job that involved cutting the hot cross buns for Council meetings. I got told off when I did this and the buns were sent back. I was supposed to cut them in half downwards instead of sideways. Who does that? Perverts who work in local government, that’s who. Sometimes we had meetings about whether or not to have meetings. Most of the time I dealt with irate callers who wanted to know why their car was clamped or who threatened to kill someone if their parking penalty wasn’t cancelled. Some of them asked me my name but, strangely, when I told them, everyone thought I was lying. I was always getting told off by the Chief Exec’s co-hussy person, mainly because the bizarre jobs they told me to do took longer than they thought they should. I was frequently told that I wasn’t doing things right, although everyone else was doing things wrong. I didn’t understand why all the Lib Dem councillors had to have lesbian trouser suits on (even the men) and was forced to adhere to a complicated “post-it” sticking procedure on the Chief Executive’s invitations, which would arrive by the thousand through the mail. Meetings would go on for three hours. Sometimes I would look at the papers for these meetings, and they were all in gobbeldegook. Most of them contained phrases that weren’t English like “Process to be implemented to initiate middle management strata for organisation and execution of domestic refuse sub-laws” which translates in English to “bin collection”. I had never seen sentences with so many verbs in them. I thought, “This has to be a cover for something else – something concrete – something useful.” But as usual, my hopes that I was working for humans were dashed.
I was in trouble. It was manic, and it took half an hour every morning to check the supplies of sweets (the leader of the council had to be given sweets when he visited). My fellow accomplice (PA) tried to book a holiday. She set up the entire thing, only to find at the last minute that the person who had agreed to cover for her had decided to commit suicide instead. Which meant that I had to cover. For the top PA. In a suit and everything. It was quite possibly the most unpleasant week of my life. I inadvertently destroyed a bunch of papers that the Chief Executive was supposed to take on a train the next morning to Liverpool. I was too busy trying to look through the envelope with her payslip inside it to see how much she was paid, and suppose I just sort of mislaid the papers. This meant a crazed half an hour at 5.30pm trying to locate the in-house lawyer who picked his nose and who had the original paperwork in his office. Eventually, papers located, Chief Exec got on her train and all was okay. The following week I got the push for “standing up too quickly when people entered the room and offering them tea”, which was perplexing. The suggestion was made that I didn’t really suit being a PA, although I had been one for ten years, and that perhaps I would suit something more arty. I could have a meeting about ordering the wrong kind of biscuits, but essentially, it was “bog off as soon as this week’s timesheet is signed”.
On my last day, things were sinister. I got a signed card from my disapproving fellow PA with odd phrases in it, like : “As you spread your wings and fly away to a new chapter…” All right, take it easy – I was only there for 6 weeks. I had to go through the humiliating rigmarole of “leaving drinks” which the Chief Executive actually turned up to and we glared smilingly at each other for half an hour over dry white wine. She was decidedly jolly about getting rid of me but nothing had disarmed me more than these six weeks at Town Hall. At least in social services everyone was normal, if congenitally lazy. The oddest thing that happened to me in social services was that I think someone asked me on a wife swapping evening (but am not sure) but at the higher echelons I spent my days standing with trays full of mugs of tea, waiting to be signed by a regal wave of the hand to present them to the Council table, as if I was serving Marie Antoinette in pre-revolutionary France.
The monarchistic regalia had been replaced by the oddest kind of bureaucratic madness. This was back in the early years of the noughties; that time when Alistair Campbell conjured up his own image of absolutist rule when he blithely commented that only seven people in the country mattered and “…all of them are in Millbank Tower”. The power of our palaces may have diminished over the years, but there are always callow puppet princes to take their place. The extent of waste was hugely shocking and seemed to go on for about five years after I last filled the council biscuit tin. I can only hope someone gets value for money these days; and that all those people who owed parking penalties frequently drove into the Town Hall. Never before or since has my working life been more futile or depressing. I hope this was a symptom of only the New Labour years but I fear it isn’t the case. As for yours truly? “Well,” I say, as I put the brandy bottle back and everyone has stopped laughing. “I deigned to have nothing more to do with the public sector ever again.” Which I didn’t. After all, the only bonus was you were the first in line for the annual flu jab, and if avoiding disease is the best thing about your job then, frankly, you’re better off in private enterprise.