Memoirs of the Office Temp

Temp

There is nothing really temporary about the state of the office temporary.  It can be a permanent state of being, if you’re particularly unlucky G.A.T. (The Girl About Town) temporary.  The impermanence becomes a state of permanence; each bubbly ripple of water cooler in the ear sounding like the next,  each Pret-A Manger crumbed work station as dubiously underachieving in cheap laminate as its predecessor, each clock ticking with constipated slowness until 5pm; and yes, this is the same, mild mannered clock which has ticked in the mind of every office lackey since the first office was built in the first town on that first day.  Even the hours smell as if they, too, had been already used.  It is a never-ending twilight life, with no prospect of change which – in some ways – can be quite enchanting : the limits are set at 60 words per minute, the three week booking will eventually end, the irritation of dealing with office smugs and creeps will soon be a thing of the past.  But there are no job prospects.  There will be no raises.  You will fear getting sick and losing the two days income the headcold has stolen from you.  You won’t have a holiday this year.  In fact, you probably won’t ever have a holiday ever again, because the chances are, if you are a temp, you are not exactly on a structured, driven career path.  You are probably considering becoming a make up assistant.  You have never been able to shop in Hobbs, even though you would like to.  You are probably in the arts.  And you know what that means, oh children of the City.  It means that unless you bog off into teaching you will never have much money your entire life.  This is why you have perfected the trick of living off £18,000 a year and making your clothes, nails and make up look like you earn £30,000.  It’s a gift.

  In others’ eyes the temporary assumes the same identity, a character that doesn’t mutate beyond the small chat over the making of the 10.45am milky Nescafe, a hireling with a name that no one can quite remember and who is ineligible for her own mug.   Someone may ask where you live, someone may ask whether you live alone (usually always an agenda here), someone may ask where have you worked recently?  The joy of the three week booking is that you can make everything up and invent and cardboard cut-out fantasy temporary life.  “I live on a houseboat.  Yes,  with Charles.  My last post was at the head office of BP.”  But the question that no one will ever ask is: Why?  Why are you doing this, oh temping rudderless one?  What is your secret ambition?  Why aren’t you like me?  The word “temp” sounds vaguely like taking the measure, or the temperature of someone.  I was a temp for 7 years, and most of it wasn’t too depressing, to be honest.  The rates were £7.50 for reception (City), £6.50 for reception (West End), £7.00 – £8.00 per hour team secretary(West End ) and £9.00 – £10.00 per hour team secretary (City).   This was in the very late 1990s.  Now the rates are only a little higher (£1 or £2 in either case)  yet only about 10% higher – and in a City like ours, with its hysterically burgeoning cost of living, it is not quite clear how people can keep themselves in Oasis office skirts with it.   May was a dreadful month – and yes, I know all about its darling buds and general air of breathtaking, Richard Curtis rom-com Englishness in its sun, but it has two bank holidays.  For most of the country that’s two glorious three day weekends, coming so chirpily and happily after Easter but for the temp it’s £100 less at the end of the month as two working days have fallen out of the calendar.  

The worst boss I had was a midget.  Well, I say midget, but perhaps he was just very small.  Quite big in the world of office fitouts though, apparently.  He shall remain nameless but his predecessor was a man called Nigel who I worked for for two weeks and who never once in that time removed his uncalloused, white-collar job hands from inside his pants.  Nigel referred to his wife as “Mrs H”.  “Mrs H is under the weather today…”  or “Mrs H is out of sorts [clutches at nutsack]”.  It became so funny I moved my chair so he couldn’t see me pulling disgusted faces from behind the off-white room divider that separated the part of the room laughingly referred to as my workstation from the part of the room where Nigel’s hand was permanently wedged into his underwear.   But then I got moved upstairs to a different department.  I got moved because they worked out I wasn’t doing a thing – I was mainly floating about on the internet, booking theatre tickets and shopping.  I got moved upstairs to a very airy, white painted room with an unhealthy hum of actual activity.  I was required to do some work here which, once I got over the inconvenience, I adjusted to with moderate application.  Upstairs I’d do dictation typing for a South African architect with ginger eyelashes who was extremely serious and spent much of the day marching around the office in pale blue shirts (architects only ever wear blue shirts) tutting and blowing air out of his mouth in an irritating manner.  But his boss was the midget.  And it became clear on Day 2 that this particular chap felt it would be worthy to add “sex machine” on his CV, just under the bit that said “dwarf”.  You can tell a lot about what a man thinks of his own sexual prowess by the way he sits on a swivel chair.

“So…” swivel hipped chair swivel. “Do you like cooking?”

“Erm…well, not much actually.”  (This was before I was married and/or cohabiting, and was a slutty G.A.T who seemed to subsist entirely on cheese sandwiches, Hula hoops, £3 bottles of red wine and the occasional scurvy-defying apple.  And I was a stone lighter.  I never cooked.). 

“Yeah, well, I’m half Spanish….” hip thrust swivel swivel.  “I’m an amazing cook.”  Click click annoying end of biro in midget hand that lent on arm of odious aforementioned chair de swivel. 

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  swivel swivel squeak squeak.  “So, does your boyfriend do all the cooking, then…..?”

“Yes.  He’s a Michelin starred chef.”

That kept him at a distance for a while, but he was on to me.  He had his revenge stored up and once, when I was in the middle of attempting to ask someone out over Hotmail, he zoomed the chair across, swivelling away and said that HR had been tracking my internet use and that I was registering 600-700 hits a day and had been flagged up.  I left soon after.

I avoided any office assignations.  I never met anyone I liked who worked anywhere I found myself anyway.  Yet, despite this, I was once asked out by a particularly determined Australian who, when I told him I wasn’t interested, spent the next two hours trying to convince me otherwise.  That is the damning shame of the reception desk.  It’s you, stuck, unable to get away, behind a cheap piece of wood from Viking Direct (I’m referring to the desk, not the Australian) and you can’t get out.  Sometimes they were even nice to you.  Once I spent two weeks arranging diaries / booking trains – oh all right – I spent two weeks doing fuck all – and got presented with a crate of wine from someone’s cellar in Rhiems to say “thank you”.  I was included in team nights out from time to time, but these could be worrying.  Sometimes they were cosy, friendly quizzes featuring fish and chip suppers in EC2 wine bars but once or twice they were people dangerously sozzled telling you about their sexual peccadilloes, and even on one occasion a previously mute, inconsequential looking accountant from Brentwood told me he actually worked for MI6.

More like MFI. The temp is the office lackey, the telephone answerer, the minutes’ typist obediently punching away at the Qwerty-board. And sometimes of course, when it all gets too dull, you have the temps way out.  The ONLY way out.  You can just fuck off.  No sooner had I started my temp career was I resurrecting already-dead grandparents and then killing them off again in virtue of going Absent Without Leave.  I had to keep a record of my trails of death though, clearly.  Once I returned to a company where five months before I’d left by rushing to the aid of a sickly and entirely non-existent Great Aunt only to be reminded when I came back in to cover for reception for three weeks by a lady in a grey suit standing there saying “I am so sorry about your Aunt’s death” whilst I gawped, not having a clue what she was  on about.   It turned out this particular woman liked to spend most of her days coming to the reception desk where I was illegally reading paperbacks and  running through the rollcall of names of everyone Ralph Fiennes had ever shagged.  I don’t know by what dastardly means she had come about this information, but it featured a fairly varied cast, if memory serves, and it all made me feel a little unwell.    She also had me on detective work : the phone bills had suddenly rocketed by £100s a month for the office.  We had an Ecuadorian cleaner and I had to go through the itemised bills with a blue highlighter pen every time an Ecuadorian number came up, which it did, every single evening.  For about two hours.  I always felt bad about having to do that.  I mean, the cleaner was a bit chatty, so what?  This company had plenty of money.   But, I did learn something because since that day I have never forgotten the international dialling code for Ecuador  (+593).

One of my first jobs was on the front desk of a City firm where, not understanding the enormous switchboard I had been put in charge of, and partly distracted by the camp security guard’s stories about when he worked for Ava Gardner, I jammed up the entire switchboard and no one got any calls for two hours.   When I did eventually pick the phone up, it was to a very important client (I did not know this) who was drunk.  I mean utterly pixellated.  Unrelentingly obliterated.  “Pu…me through to Dave…..David. JAMES I must speak to James….”  I tried to put him on hold.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  There was usually a nice lady next to me from Leytonstone who knew what to do but she’d buggered off to Marks.  I said I was putting him on hold “DON’T you fucking put me on hold, my girl….” came the Jameson fuelled growl from the other end of the phone.

Wow.  I mean – you know, Wow. I did the only reasonable thing a temp could do under the circs, and offloaded him on someone called Sandra.  The next day he sent me a bottle of brandy to say sorry.

I worked for everyone.  I worked for mental health NHS trusts (“So, how long have you worked in mental health?” someone said in the office.  “Seven minutes,” I said), for private hospitals (everyone who worked there lived in Cobham and had a bob hair style), television (worst pay, best gay friends), surveyors (excellent.  They’re out a lot salivating over highly-priced Westbourne Park bedsits.  Lots of time for standing around in the street smoking fags), hedge funds (can’t comment, don’t know what they do.  But the coffee was brilliant), architects (never encourage them to rebook you : it involves far too much standing about copy printing of A1 paper sized plans), internet start up companies (do they even still exist?  No, I doubt it.  They only really existed between March 2000 and August 2001.  They were decorated in primary colours and with office design shapes as simple as the PAs within them), Japanese construction companies (difficult to please.  Letters had to be stapled either at an exact horizontal line or an exact vertical line.  The rakish slant of a diagonal staple on a fax would drive them NUTS.  The Chief Exec used to announce his arrival each morning to me by stepping out of the lift on to the reception floor, walking forward one pace, barking his surname very loudly, turning around, and getting back in the lift again.  During this process he never removed the cigarette from his mouth), large City insurance companies (excellent pay, treated you very well, the nicest people I ever worked for.  The only sinister element being the exceedingly glamourous PA who used to come to the front desk to chat about books, and who loved Dostoevsky, and who – I noticed one day – had two matching scars on each of her inner wrists) and a party costume and corporate entertainment company (one exhaustive day in an over-heated office individually ringing up elderly people in Cricklewood to find out what they made of the new bingo hall).  Looking back, its astonishing what I used to do for £8.50 an hour.  Because most of the time I didn’t do anything.

Unlike now, of course.  Now I am very busy in my office job and have no time to write my blog (ahem).  But at least now I don’t dread May, and I have days off without worrying about the financial input.  Plus my current boss doesn’t know where my contract is filed and can’t remember what’s in it anyway.  So what has my experience taught you?  What would I advise you when it comes to how to treat a temp?

1.  Don’t come to the front desk giving her blow by blow accounts of a court case where a nanny may or may not have shaken a baby to death, when the temp clearly isn’t interested (You know who you were! EC1)

2.  Don’t blather on about your Princess Diana conspiracy theories (she isn’t in Herzegovina threatening to overthrow the Queen – office W2) or

3.  Start shouting that you don’t know exactly who the person was the police are arresting around the corner but you’d “bet he wasn’t white” (Uriah Heep look-a-likey, WC1), nor should you

4.  Assume the temp has any interest whatsoever in who you are, what you do and what your company is up to.  For example,  “WE’VE JUST SOLD ROVER!” someone shouted to me at BMW Park Lane in 2000.  I thought they meant a dog.

5. Don’t ask her out if you can tell she really really doesn’t want to go out with you.

6. Don’t be unfaithful to the permanent she has replaced by saying things such as “you’re much better than the person who usually does your job. She’s shit.”

7.  Don’t flirt with her for three weeks, make her come to the summer barbecue and stand around in a damp Tufnell Park garden and then ignore her (you know who you were, NW5).

8.  Learn her name.  Remember it.

9. If she’s an actress try not to ask “So, what have you been in?” because the answer is likely to be “lots of offices.”

10. PAY HER A LIVING WAGE.  No one who puts on a suit in London deserves to be paid less than £10 an hour.  No one.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Obviously, if you’re a temp you will as, like, you got tons of time haven’t you?  The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we’ll be back on April 3rd.  See you then, The London Bluebird x x x x

Mind the Gap : London versus the rest

Monday night saw the first part of Evan Davis’s two parter on why London appears to be separating itself off as a separate macro economy from the rest of the UK.  In this first episode is was all about London.  Londinium.  Augusta (as the Romans called it) and the next programme will be about the rest of the UK.  Davis is a great television reporter – he is engaging, informative, economically educated and accessible.  I liked his style very much, and enjoyed the cut of his jib.  Yet, the domination of London’s economic power over the rest of the country is no new thing, when you consider history.  And perhaps, this was the problem with the programme in the first place, it’s decision to avoid much historical context.

15% of the British workforce lives here, but London generates more than a fifth of the British economy.  This calls to mind the 15 year old quote that for every £10 that the country produces, £1 is generated by the City alone – that’s just that one square mile, not the whole Greater London area.  It was no secret that throughout the 20th century, London has pulled in more workers, generated higher incomes and higher standards of living and provided more products and services than the rest of the UK.  Although the programme made a point of remembering the dominance of the cotton mills of the North in the 19th century – the economic output of which outstripped London without, perhaps, enriching the economic strengths of its working classes  – it strangely treated this London economic dominance as if it was a new thing we all work up with one day in 1984.    Why is the capital so dominant? it asked.    How is London’s strength borne out in its market structures?  This is a two centuries old question, one that began to be pertinent after the 18th century Industrial Revolution.  But, aside from this lack of historical precedence regarding the issue, this is a question that continues to demand answers.

What Davis was particularly good at was explaining the economic formula that London is wrapped up in – how businesses choose to develop next to other like minded business, how productivity is raised when workers work in spaces where they are designed to be together, and introduced me to a term I had not heard before – agglomeration economics  – and what was particularly interesting is how mutual cultural values inspire buildings to have close geographical proximity (the new Kings Cross Google UK Headquarters site, which had been chosen partly due to its close proximity to the new Central St Martins art school was used to illustrate this).    But then we cut to Boris Johnson, our Chief Fool, who, over a dyspeptic looking breakfast up the Shard, produced a metaphor regarding the London economy that seemed to be based entirely on sea anemones and jam.   Nothing he said made the remotest bit of sense.   Then we cut to a blow-dried hussy of an elderly estate agent, who was trying to sell the ugliest and most vulgar of Mayfair houses to his ugliest and most vulgar of his international clients for a whopping £40million.  It was a disgusting house – full of Grimm fairy tale gold leaf plates and sinister baths.  But it will, of course, be sold, as London has become centre of the universe for billionaire despots with little taste in soft furnishings and legions of cash stuffed in off shore accounts.  This was an anomaly of the London housing market, but not a fair representation, but it fuelled the idea that London is full of foreigners and their foreign money and, by Jove, can anything be done about it, begad?

Well of course it can’t.  Too much of London’s current wealth relies on a European single currency currently on life support and rich Greeks frightened of civil war.  London might have been a bit more down the toilet of life if it wasn’t for foreign money and oil barons using West One property as a capital asset holding mechanism in which they can store their sisters / hairdressers / aunties, whilst waiting for their own economies to become slightly less lethal and prone to imminent collapse.  Yet, when Davis spoke of the rising population of London, and the effect it would have on our City’s transport infrastructure, he failed to point out that even if the London population increases continue at their current slightly-higher-than-we-thought target, it won’t come near the high population rate of 1939.  And that was when London had less tubes, less nightbuses and more people walked about.  Now no one walks about.  If we go back even further, the average Victorian clerk, as pointed out in Judith Flanders’s lovely book “The Victorian City : Everyday Life in Dickens’s London” walked three miles to the City for work in the morning and three miles back again at night.  The city still had railways and omnibuses, but many people simply chose to walk. It was estimated that 200,000 clerks walked daily to the City by the mid-1860s.  You’ll notice if you walk anywhere, unlike the Circle Line, there is always room for everybody.

But alas, now Londoners are often living more than three miles from their local station, let alone their City desk.  You can only feel sorry for the nobly named Glyn Britton, who commutes daily to Old Street from his home in Stockport, presumably due to the rising house prices in London which mean he cannot live nearer the City.  But no mention was made of how much it was costing him per year to have a daily commute from London to Cheshire.  Astonishingly, National Rail Enquiries tell me than an annual season ticket from Stockport to London Euston would cost £13,300 per year (an average of £27.20 per journey).  So if Glyn stays in his job for ten years, he would have spent £133,000 on getting to work and back (this does not factor in the underground zone ticket he would also have to buy to get to the hip, bearded population of the Silicon Roundabout each day after his arrival at London Euston).  I’m not saying that you can buy a house here for £133,000 but in a land with such expensive rail fares as ours, you have to be earning a fair sight over the national average income to justify doing this.   I only hope his lovely Cheshire home is worth it.

Of course, earlier Londoners would have done this if something as nice as Virgin Trains had existed then,  but the question on Evan Davis’s lips was why can’t Glyn’s job be based in Manchester or Sheffield?  Why is he so limited as to have to come to London each day and no other city?  Well, that’s a bit like asking why is red red or why is green green.  It just is.  A series of accidents, unfinished planning, cultural and economic factors and educational and social circumstances have meshed themselves together in London in such a non-rational and strange way that you can’t repeat it anywhere else.  Because it has a special formula, like that creepy KFC colonel, and no one can tell you what it is.   And the more it works, the more are drawn here.  It’s the ultimate urban endless circle.  The more we decide to be seen as unique, the more unique we become.  Money pours into London because London knows what to do with it.  As anyone who disapproved of the BBC move to Salford can testify, failing to see the logic in putting London-centric jobs in a random northern town incites attacks of the “you’re a southern soft media twat from London” variety.  There were many reasons why the BBC move to Salford were illogical.  Not one of them was because of southern, supercilious London twats.  Anyway, of course the BBC move to Salford was a success!  It brought great changes to the area.  As Shaun Ryder was brilliantly quoted at the time :  “You can tell they’re all moving up to Salford because our Tesco has got a Finest range now”.

The alchemic formula that makes our City what it is has had us ruminating over its magical dynamism ever since the first Roman chariot rolled up the banks of the Thames.   They tried a bit of this guff with Birmingham, do you remember?  Britain’s second city or similar.  And then the EU began awarding various cities in Britain as that year’s City of Culture.  But an EU directive to support regionalism is nothing more than a drop in Mother Thames.  London, as Davis illustrates, is forging ahead in its hard, expensive way more than ever.  This week it was thrilling viewing, once you got over the vulgar horror of the house prices, watching Davis operate cranes in the new London Gateway development, and walk through areas of Crossrail stations we have never seen.  Will Davis present a solution for the economic disparity in the regions?   Since the demise of the cotton mill industry, hasn’t the North been waiting for its next moment in the sun?  The first episode focused on the exuberance brilliance of London. Next week, which focuses only on the provinces, should prove to be altogether far more sober and difficult viewing.   Poverty in the regions in the UK was shockingly prevalent in the Means Tested 1930s, and London’s financial glories of the 1980s was unlikely to be reflected in the ghoulish puddles on the streets of Doncaster or Leeds.  What makes Davis’s programme so disheartening for those outside of the magic circle of the M25 was that it twas ever thus.   The story of London’s current dominance is no isolated episode : history has too many examples of it – but it would have been nice to see more historical vantage points from Davis’s programme.

Right, see you in two weeks you bunch of soft Southerners.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so our next instalment will be on Thursday March 20th.  Farewell until then, The London Bluebird xx