Odyssey, Pt. 2

Endless Shit Jobs

I’d moved to Southampton. I had a place to live, I did not have a job, but I was confident that was just a matter of days from being resolved. I turned up at Manpower Southampton and reminded them of their commitment to get me set up at BT. There was (surprised face) a problem. At that time they only had part time positions, which should convert to full time ‘any day now’. I should have walked, and shopped around, I didn’t. My rent was under £50 a week, I could make it work, short term. I had not yet learnt to go with my gut in these situations.

Next morning I reported to Friary House, a modern(ish) brick building next to BT’s towering main office, the imaginatively named ‘Telephone House’. Next problem: This job was dealing with small business customers, filtering them through to the relevant departments. It was right on the margin of requiring enough knowledge to not be able to do it it on autopilot, yet still be utterly boring. Also, it was staffed almost entirely by old people (they were probably in their 40s) and I hated it. It was a four hour shift that lasted approximately 100 years. We didn’t even have internet to distract ourselves. Fucking Stone Age, I tell you.

I’d been optimistic in my ability to get by on the money. It wasn’t desperate, but I had beer to drink, and takeaways to buy. This would not do. I asked about the possibility of going full time. Soon, I was told. Somewhere deep down, I knew what it meant.

Socially, I was in what felt like a tricky position. Every friend I had in the city lived a mile away from me, and I started to feel a bit awkward calling P practically every day to do something. I think I was needy, and it wasn’t his job to entertain me. I can’t have been a lot of fun, being uncertain of things, broke, and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake. P however was a saint, he helped me a huge amount at this time, buying my drinks, bunging me the occasional bit of cash when I’d (frequently) overextended myself, but I had enough pride to not enjoy this version of myself. I had become rather depressed and flirted with the idea of packing it all in and bailing out.

I took walks up to the end of the street to the phonebox, where I would spend one of the newer, thinner 50 pence pieces on calling home, arguably making myself feel even worse before trudging back down the street.

I flirted with the idea of going to London, I’d just been up there to spend the weekend with my sister, Leona, and I’d be close to family.

I came to my senses. Everything in London would be worse. It’s more expensive, I hardly knew anyone, and It would probably crush me. Big cities can be cold and lonely places when you’re on the bottom rung of the ladder. Fuck that. At this time, one of P’s housemates, Jason, seemed to pick up on something and went out of his way to cheer me up. He even made me a cassette tape of songs. That’s right, a grown man made another grown man a mixtape. It was the 90s, kids. I don’t think he understood what a difference it made. The gesture and his general demeanor really did cheer me up. I resolved to try and make it work.

I went to another agency, Kelly Services on Hanover Buildings (this is, oddly, a street name), and asked if they had anything. The manager was a lady called Jo, and I remember she had a teal trouser suit and was, I estimated, pretty attractive for an older woman (age: 33). They had a job open at Hampshire Constabulary. It had a very good hourly rate, way higher than I’d get anywhere else (for some time actually…) and I could start the following week. Downside? It was maternity cover, but she didn’t seem to think that would end the contract as they were understaffed. Both things weren’t true. I can tell you’re shocked.

I let manpower know, and they immediately – as if by magic – offered me full time hours at BT. I told them it was a day late and a dollar short, and they told me leaving at short notice would reflect badly on me. I told them I’d live with the burden of disappointing a recruitment consultant, thank you. Why do recruiters always forget it’s a two-way street? And anyway, it was bollocks. You can leave anytime you want, there’s no notice needed. How much notice do you think you’d be given if they no longer required you?

In a rather Jungian turn of events (no you get over yourself), Jason was moving away from Southampton, and, would I like his room? Rent at Graham Rd was just over £100 a month. Insanely cheap, but not without reason, because it was a tip, in a shit part of town, but it was where I wanted to be. My entire circle of friends was contained in that house. Graham Rd was ‘inner city’, in one of the poorer areas of town. The gang liked it, because it was right next to the hospital and the adjoining nursing residence where they all lived as students. For all that, I never felt unsafe down there, not once. There were routinely prostitutes at the top of the street, but that was about the only sign it was a dodgy area. P got mugged coming through the city park one day, but that was bad luck and the parks today remain a high-risk area for sexual assaults and robbery, especially after dark.

Things were coming together nicely. There were some hitches though, mostly unexpected. Disappointingly, one of the girls that lived at the house expressed some objection to the idea of me moving there, with the complaint to the effect of “I was an outsider”. This was curious as to me as we got on very well, and I wasn’t happy about it as my mindset was already quite agitated with how things had gone thus far. I was in no mood for it.

I did not deal with this well.

I took it very personally, felt that somebody was screwing with my housing plans at a delicate time, on top of behaving as if she didn’t know full well who I was. I ended up yelling at her and she left in tears. This created a very awkward situation with P, who had known her for some years, and here I was wading in with my size twelves and blowing up his harmonious household. That said, I apologized for the scene, but he did not appear to consider it a big deal. This was fortunate, because she was also (I think?) romantically involved with one of the other housemates, Kevin. She left shortly after and I never spoke to her or saw her again. It was a shame, because prior to this inexplicable episode we got on, or so I thought. So unnecessary.

It was September. I’d taken over Jason’s room, at the far end of the house on the top floor. I missed Jason a lot, he was the person I knew the most after all my visits, one of those guys that was always there, but he was off to make a new life with his partner Emma. I shared the house with Rob, Kev, and Phil. Everyone’s still talking a quarter century later, so it was clearly a good mix. Things were looking okay.

Then after about three weeks, I got fired from my job.

I had to sign the official secrets act for my work at the Constabulary, so I can’t disclose much, but it was a very basic admin job involving distributing paperwork to various desks in an administrative function. The office had four middle aged women in it, and I can tell you there is a certain type of middle-aged white woman that in a group becomes an absolute nightmare. It remains the most hostile environment I’ve ever worked in. The boss was a nasally little weasel called Mark, and his deputy a former police sergeant, a very old school copper. He was the only one in the room I got on with. The women in the office very, very obviously did not want me there, and I persistently complained of having nothing to do after 11am, for which I was told I had to come in earlier to “…avoid work being taken by the earlier starters” but my hours started at 0830 and if they wanted me earlier they could make it official. I also pointed out this would probably mean I’d be asking for more work even earlier, but nobody ever credited civil servants with much imagination.

I of course decided to work at a pace that fitted the workload, which clearly was the ethic of the office. On my last morning there, I came in and the boss said to me that an unopened letter containing a cheque had been found in my waste disposal, and I could complete my hours for the remainder of the week but after Friday they did not expect to see me again. I told him that wasn’t going to work for me, and I walked out. You can do that when you’re a contractor.

I’d never had the slightest issue at any job I’d done, and I was upset and shocked to be let go. With hindsight, I was annoyed I did not make more of a fuss because the whole thing was very strange. Was it possible I’d been negligent? Absolutely. But the work was so sparse, so plodding, it seemed unlikely. How was it found, and by whom? I had the feeling I’d been stitched up by one of the awful women in the office. I’ll never know. One thing I took from that whole thing was I got on with actual police very well, but the civilian employees are a different story. They’re a certain type. Bunch of arseholes, as Dickens might put it.

So, that was that. I got myself on the dole immediately, along with housing benefit as I had no idea how long this might last. Everyone in the house was great; if they had concerns they didn’t say anything to me.

Some years previously in York my friend Jamie told me, of his year off, that if you are the sort of person that can cope with doing nothing, it’s a surprisingly pleasant existence, being on the dole. I had a lot of social conditioning about this kind of thing, my dad however made it very clear to me it’s there to be used, and you’ve worked and paid taxes, so take it.

I was out of work for nearly six months. Some of that was the situation, a lot of it was me just taking my time and getting a bit too comfortable doing bugger all.

It was an easy existence, bumming around in the winter of 97-98, playing on the PC all day, having the odd evening out. If you were careful with the allowance, it was quite possible to live an okay if not excitable life. It was somewhere between Withnail and I and The Young Ones. Rob was the only person that expressed a little concern. He wasn’t being shitty, he was worried about where my head was. Kevin for his part told me to stop relying on agencies and get ‘a proper job’, and he wasn’t wrong, but there weren’t that many options. British Gas had a big call centre just at the end of the street, but they didn’t want me.

I figured enough dust had settled that I could talk to Kelly Services again. I got a little lecture about personality conflicts at work, but also the admission that the constabulary gig was ‘a difficult environment’ (my eyebrows almost jumped off my head, I can tell you) but that they had something for me. It was a job on the transportation desk at Meyer Panel, a timber importer.

This was something of a return to normality; it was a decent place, not bad people, but shipping is full of lifers that have been doing it for 100 years and hate everything about the work and themselves. My boss was an uptight Geordie named Warren, who could see his future every day in the walking cadaver occupying the office upstairs, and boy did he know it. This office, in scale and atmosphere, was the closest approximation I ever observed to David Brent’s Wernham Hogg. Warren was a company man. Not a bad guy, but we got on each other’s nerves a bit as he felt the occasional need to get on my case. I had a go at his opposite number in the Newcastle office once and he let me know in no uncertain terms to never do It again. My explanation that the guy was a twat was not seen as an acceptable reason. I had so much to teach.

If it sounds like it was all a bit of a game to me, I will cop to that. At this stage in my life, I tended not to take things seriously. I’d turn up on time, do all my work, but I had a glib attitude that I think was palpable to some people, and it wound them up. There are people that take the importation and distribution of plywood extremely seriously, believe it or not.

Around this time I’d started taking regular trips to see my dad in his flat in London. It felt like a little holiday into luxury for me, sitting in his riverside flat, visiting the local pubs with him. It was just the two of us, and I really loved those weekends. It showed me another life that I enjoyed stepping into once in a while. I used to lament the drive from Rotherhithe to Waterloo on a Sunday afternoon. I can still transport myself to that feeling now when I think about walking up those steps into the terminal. I

Concourse of Waterloo Station by Matt Whyndham

In August ’98 it became apparent I wouldn’t get a permanent position at Meyer, and Kelly told me that there were some prized temp-to-perm placements back at BT, this time in the corporate office. The money was good and the work actually sounded interesting, so I handed in my notice to an entirely unsurprised Warren. I encountered him some years later on a night out. He was in good spirits and there was no drama, and I was glad to see him doing alright.

I squeezed in a trip to York during this period, spent a week with my old buddies. Only now writing this did I realize I was starting to think the same way about York that I did Southampton before. Things had reversed. I was missing my old home, but there were signs that people were moving on there. The pub that was the locus of everything for me – Fibbers – was now sported a canary yellow interior, a casualty of this trend for everything to become a ‘bar’. I don’t want to look at people in a pub, thank you. Let me hide in the darkness. I still felt something of a pull toward the city. I had a huge amount of personal history there. One thing I’d forgotten was the energy of a Northern night out. They were raw, booze-fueled jaunts through the city, and had an energy I’d never seen in the South. “Down South for five minutes and You’ve gone soft, you poof” Observed Darryl, during my exit interview on the pavement of Micklegate as I turned for home.

BT was great. It was in their corporate clients office, looking after leisure (hotel and travel) customers. The money was good, the office was nice, the people were nice, it was Summer. Things were looking great.

I’d been there about two weeks, when I encountered Beth.

I knew her only by name because she’d been out on leave, and I was at her desk. She came in one morning, chest pushed out, conspicuous tan, strutting towards the desk, eyes fixed on me, in her space. The only thing missing was dry ice and ominous music. Beth, even all these years later, is traffic-stoppingly beautiful, long blonde hair, big eyes, and best of all, she could drink. She was from Durham, but I didn’t hold it against her.

The Summer at BT was marked by interesting work, dreadful senior management, no small amount of institutionalized sexism (easily the worst I have ever encountered in any job) and frustration with converting the role to a permanent position. Along with Beth came Helen, a mathematics graduate, if memory serves. They were chalk and cheese, but I adored them both. Great reasons to go to work. Helen was laconic and had a stillness, versus the ball of charisma and intensity that was Beth. Whenever I see Better Call Saul’s Kim and Jimmy smoking in the garage, It reminded me of Beth furtively slipping away to the basement of Friary House for smokes and gossip.

Friary House Parking Garage, Circa 2000

As November came around, we moved house. It was time to say goodbye to Graham road, and hello to a smaller but much nicer property on Burlington Road, about a block away from where I first lived those nascent weeks after Arriving. The rent was about double (£225 pcm each) what we paid at Graham Rd, but we could all afford it. It was a nice street, but the football stadium was at the end of the street which made for noisy Saturdays. I have a lot of memories of late nights on the Playstation with P and his late and very much missed brother Neil, playing split-screen Gran Turismo between cigarettes and beer. Neil had a YouTube channel, and sometimes I’ll watch and listen to him because it takes me back to those happy times.

My Second trip of the year to York occurred then, and I spent a lot of time with my friends Gav and Darryl. I always thought these two really got me, and I told Darryl I hadn’t ruled out coming back North if the opportunity presented itself. I don’t know how serious I was. Truly. My mum was still there so anything was possible.

Back in Southampton. I had a lot of nights out with Beth, when she wasn’t with her bloke. It felt good to have a life outside of the house circle and I needed that. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Beth and I were both outsiders to the city.

There was an emerging issue at the house, namely the council had a stupid rule about parking (because all these houses were multi-tenant) where only one vehicle was allowed per household. This became a big problem for Rob in particular, and would contribute to our relatively short tenure at at Burlington Rd.

In the new year, I got involved with a South African girl working as a nurse at Princess Ann. We’d known each other through mutual friends for a while. This turned out to be the beginning of what was then my longest and most serious relationship. It would end about as pleasantly as the Hindenburg, but I’ll get to that much later.

I don’t recall much standing out from the first half of 1999, things just ticked over, but at BT the first signs of trouble started. I did not have a degree, and this was normally a condition (why?) of the permanent post. However, this was not a hard limitation, and If I took on more responsibility it would look good in my case for the position, or so it was sold to me. I effectively took on a service-manager role in a newly organized team. I was the only member on Contract, everyone else was permanent. Everyone involved knew this was not a fair arrangement. I had to pretend to be an equal to people that had job security and a pension, while earning £5.50 an hour. BT had some great staff, but it had cultural leftovers from the early privatisation days, and it was a boy’s club of incompetent city wankers. Operationally, there were good, knowledgable people.

Summer Brought the first and only argument I ever had with P. We had to find somewhere else to live, and I was difficult about this because I liked Burlington Road and didn’t really feel like any of this was my problem – I didn’t own a car. I did want to stay with the lads though, and I went along with it, with a minor tantrum about the contract length (they wanted 18 months, I wanted a year) and so we moved to Middle Street, in the North of the city. it was…alright. I liked this place the least of all the houses we lived in. It was the most distant from everything and at the risk of sound like a wanker I just didn’t like the vibe. I spent most of the time at my girlfriend’s so it wasn’t a huge deal. Rob also had his girlfriend Harriet living with him, and it was nice to have another face around, and even I’d known of Harry for years. Women, when they can tolerate it, bring something to a house full of lads, it shaves off a little testosterone and prevents everyone from going full caveman.

I loved these guys, I really did, and it makes me sad to remember it, because that house was the beginning of the end for us. The last place we lived in before we all scattered.

Despite promises of progression at BT, I started to get the impression I was being fucked about. I was overworked and irritable, and I grew resentful. Beth quipped that “…if you had a pair of tits you’d be permanent by now” which made me laugh, but didn’t do much for my mood.

My girlfriend told me to just pack it in if it wasn’t working, don’t worry about the money, she said, with the implication she would help. She was a theater nurse and relatively well paid. And, so I quit. Walked away, no notice, as was my prerogative. For the second time in Southampton, I was unemployed. I had about two months runway, and my girlfriend lent me a month’s worth, giving me three months. I did not claim dole this time. I did not anticipate being out of work long.

My memory of that summer is heat. It felt like it went on forever and in my memory it was perpetual afternoon brightness. I got invited on a boat trip (booze cruise) with my former BT colleagues (I’d do the Xmas parties as Beth’s +1 for the next 3 years) Got so drunk I was throwing up for the entirety of the next day (still can’t drink vodka and orange, to this day) and worked the odd temp job here and there. I was an office mover for a while, and even – gasp – a recruitment consultant. Then an auditing job at City College came up. It was September 1999.

This introduced me to Southampton City College. A further education college (community college in US terms) in a former Victorian workhouse (the principal had heard all the jokes, but it didn’t stop me)

John Savage, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Colleges get paid based on the returns they send to the DofE. This data includes number of achievers (passed), number of completions (including non-passes), withdrawals etc. You get paid based on the first two. The college was facing an audit and their data was incomplete. They were under-claiming. This was costing them money, plus the record keeping was an inspection criteria. They hired a team to clean it up. My boss was Ray Howell, part of the college’s senior management, and an absolute all-round top bloke.

For several months we went through the data and had to interview several members of staff about their student records, which ranged from “Here’s everything from the last decade” to “I remember him, he was a right little bastard” all the way to “we had some students once, can’t tell you more than that” (thanks, Trade Union studies!). We got through it.

It was my habit to take lunch at the greasy spoon over the road, often with Ray. We’d talk a bit ,and he seemed to have a sense I was a bit lost, and clearly saw a solution of sorts. One day he said to me, over my coffee and baked potato “Why don’t you do an engineering foundation degree for the University? We do them right here.”

Hearing it from someone like Ray sounded like a very big deal. I sensed a great opportunity. It felt like the right time, and Ray put me in touch with the people I needed. I filed a UCAS application that week. In time, The University of Southampton wrote back to me with an invitation for an open day, maths assessment (shiiiiit!) and interview early in the next year.

That’s for the next part…







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