Tuesday, April 12, 2011

That's My Stapler!

If you're looking for your hose reel, I think I know where it is.
Twenty odd years ago, having passed my Civil Service entrance exams and then an interview, I took up my first job in the MOD at a pay office, where I was to be the manager of a section of 8 pay clerks.  Everything about the place seemed so incredibly old fashioned.  When we went outside one day to do fire training, an ancient hand drawn fire cart with an enormous hose reel was produced; I kid you not, it looked like something out of a 1940s Will Hay film.

My section was one of several located in a large open plan office, each section’s desks being laid out in regimental rows with me and my counterparts at the head of each one, for all the world feeling like a Victorian school master.  The MOD was still very grade conscious back then, so my desk had to be at a different angle to theirs.  At least by that stage they’d stopped using your grade as a way of deciding whether you were entitled to a piece of carpet around your work space.

The building was basically an enormous pre-fabricated hut with draughty old metal window frames.  Along the entire length of the room ran a corridor which was divided from the main room by a plaster board and glass partition, with doors every 20 metres or so.  Legend had it that the glass was there so that the senior managers could walk along and see who was not at their desk without actually having to talk to the workers.  Complete nonsense of course, but it demonstrates the less than happy working atmosphere that prevailed there.

Just a few days after my arrival I became aware of an excited undercurrent amongst my colleagues.  Looking up I could see a lady slowly pushing a trolley along the corridor.  Although I hadn’t seen her on previous days, my first thought was one of amazement that the civil service should still employ tea ladies.  The trolley finally entered the room through one of the many doors, at which point several people got up and dashed over.  More out of curiosity than the need for a cup of tea, I wandered across to where they were all crowding around the trolley.

Soon all became clear.  The lady was not dispensing tea and biscuits; she was just delivering the stationery order.  Middle aged clerks were arguing over the various tools of the trade as politely as they could (“I think you’ll find the hole punch is mine, Mary. Perhaps you forgot to order one?”)  I was fine for pens, etc. so I stepped back to my desk, making a mental note never to allow myself to become territorial about a stapler.

I stayed at the pay office for 3 years.  My final job there was assisting the ‘Accountant’; I suspected she was out of her depth, mostly because she was completely unqualified and was studying for her maths O-Level in her spare time.  By the time I left, things had moved on a little. The regimented rows of desks were being reconfigured around poles carrying the cabling for the new-fangled desktop computers, and the typing pool ladies (with whom I had frequently done battle over their misguided belief that they could re-write my letters using their unique approach to grammar) were either being let go or redeployed as all this new technology arrived.

I, however, was off to work in Germany where I too would finally be able to write out my own grammatically pure letters as and when was convenient to me.  As it turned out I would be doing this on an ancient typewriter, because IT had yet to arrive in Hannover, but that’s another story …
Got any Custard Creams?

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