Odyssey, Pt. 3

FAIR SEAS, BUT A Storm warning

The millennium had arrived. 2000 was upon us, all the computers kept working, the apocalypse would have to wait for now. My auditing job at the College was coming to a close. They were trying their best to keep us on, but the urgency for the work was no longer present, and by February it was clear I’d need to move on. Martin, the curriculum manager at that time, told me to call him if I needed to keep the wolves at the door. I appreciated that. City College would feature in my future, in a significant way.

A note on memory and perception of time – I had been in Southampton less than 3yrs at this point, but in recollection it felt more like ten. Memory is an odd thing. Jobs I did for six months felt much longer, and it’s curious to me that this is not a long period of time I’m describing, but it feels it, perhaps because of the high number of events.

The university interview was one month away. It was not a certainty, I had an assessment to get through. In the meantime I needed work. On the way home to Middle Street I dropped into an Agency I’d noted in passing several times, they were small and I think Independent. I registered with the desk and they told me there was actually a job available In their office – talk about landing on your feet – and I could start when I liked. The rate was decent, just over £6 an hour (seems nothing now but it was enough for a modest living in Southampton in 2000) but it dead mean long days, 0830 – 1800 which I knew would be a drag. That was not the only issue.

The owner was a whip-thin middle-aged woman whom referred to her banana yellow German convertible as her ‘baby’ and seemed exceptionally highly strung. She barely spoke to me – ever – and instead relied on the office ‘business development manager’ Bernie, who was around 40, ex Royal Navy, and your stereotypical idea of a sales guy. He would schmooze customers, but was overbearing and brusque with employees. Between him and the owner, you never knew what you were walking into. The office manager was a German/English woman called Chris, who was quiet and a lot more even, but she also seemed ineffectual. Bernie was the owner’s bagman, and he knew it. An interesting feature of this workplace at that time was it allowed smoking, the only place I witnessed this, before or since. They all smoked. I could not, as I was out front.

I would deal with assessing employees and passing off leads to the consultants. A recruitment consultancy is a sales operation; the product is people; they stand or fall on their ability to secure staffing contracts from local business. This means most of the consultants day is spent trying to sell the company services. The staff are seen as lightbulbs, unscrew one, put another one in. This consultancy was an industrial recruiter, meaning factory workers were the majority of their business. I was the last ‘commercial’ (office) placement – in their own shop.

One morning I was at my desk writing some notes, and the phone rang. One ring. Bernie charged over and told me pointedly “You’ve got to be picking up that phone! Don’t let it ring!” Also keep the desk tidy, and stop going to the toilet so much (I mean, was I?). The owner was glowering at me, or us (I could not tell) in the background. For whatever reason, Bernie was on my case. One of the other consultants told me not to worry about him, that he did this to everyone – which he did – but I was already of the opinion that life was too short for this. I had my interview to look forward to. Whatever this was, I knew it wasn’t forever.

March had me attending the Lanchester Building at the back of University of Southampton’s Highfield Campus. It was a sunny day. I had an introductory talk about the foundation year (which lead into a full BSc engineering degree either there, or another university, for a total of 4 years). The head of the Foundation year was Dr. Anna Barney. Dr. Barney would, from start to finish, be fantastic. She asked me to do a single page mathematics assessment, which I was dreading. It was not difficult, about GCSE Maths level. She talked me through my performance (I could not remember how to do some fractions) and she was happy with the results. I’d got over the worst part.

This is important because maths was the big thing I was worried about and it didn’t seem to be the mountain I feared and I convinced myself it would be alright.

That said, I’d already made the first of many errors here. The crucial point I had underestimated is that I had been given a reading list and a table of topics I was expected to understand in fluent terms at the time the course started, i.e. it would not be covered, you’d be expected to know it already. The course starting point would be beyond these topics. This matters in mathematics because it is a semantic tree; you need to know the roots before the trunk, the trunk before the branches, the branches before the leaves. I emphasize this because it’s highly relevant to what came later.

I was in. I’d be starting October 4th, 2000. I went back the office, Bernie picked up on my good mood and did his best to ruin it, but it didn’t matter. This was my break. I would finally embark on a meaninfgul degree, start exploring my potential, and it made my modest existence completely tolerable, but I still had seven months to fill.

P, for his part, had also decided to go back to school and was prepping for a chemistry degree. In Leeds. He’d already taken a preparatory A-Level at my old shop City College, as he needed it for entry requirements. P, in retrospect, got it right. He is incredibly intelligent and I had the feeling it all came easily to him. What this also meant was we would definitely be parting ways, that the Southampton epoch was coming to an end. For him, at least. I would remain for another decade.

For me, I had to sort out my work situation. I was in my sixth week with the recruitment people; they had secured the contract to staff the Tall Ships Festival in Southampton that April. The resultant workload had caused objection from one of the consultants, Jackie. They sacked her on the spot, it was very ugly stuff (she left in tears, humiliated in front of everybody), and Bernie was the axe man. He came to me and told me “We’ve terminated Jackie’s contract, so any calls for her are to be directed to me”. It was all quite unpleasant. I understood the owner had a business to run but this seemed a bit much. I also realized that if that was how they treated tenured employees I was probably not going to last long.

On some days, Bernie would have his young son in, and I’d keep him busy with the pinball game on the desktop computer. Bernie can’t have been all bad because his lad was a terrific boy, but I caught Bernie glowering at me when I was talking to his son, as if I were about to offer him some heroin, but I hadn’t brought any with me that day.

when I was filing away paperwork in the main office something on a consultant’s notepad caught my eye. It was a telephone number and the word ‘Receptionist?’ written next to it. We didn’t do commercial recruitment. Reception was one of my responsibilities. I knew my number was up. I asked the consultant the next day and she told me I wasn’t supposed to know but yes, they (meaning the owner and Bernie) wanted someone else for my job. Bernie got wind I’d asked about it and called me upstairs to grip me.

He told me that “..You are not the world’s best receptionist” And I reminded him this was not a requirement of the job, because this was not the world’s best recruitment agency. This didn’t go over too well, and he told me I wasn’t a great employee, took too many breaks, ‘hovered around’ too much. I told him I didn’t plan on doing this forever, and he actually took a lot of interest in my plans. I had the impression office Bernie was a totally different person to the actual Bernie.

I didn’t care for the man, but I didn’t hold anything against him, he had his ways and that was it. He’d taught himself this overly assertive management style, but I think he needed to get out from under the owner, this was obvious to me, because it was toxic. I walked out at lunchtime and headed straight to the pub. That recruitment agency would be gone within two years, leaving just their head office in Basingstoke. Southampton has an abundance of employment and letting agents, most of the smaller ones get bought or die off.

I knew this was coming, so I’d already applied for a job at P&O Nedlloyd (herein PONL), the container line that had an operations office in Southampton. I did not disclose I had no intention of staying beyond October. The job was on the imports side, arranging land-side movement of containers coming into Southampton, and other UK ports. My prior experience at Meyer basically secured the job. There was a probationary period whereafter you’d be a permanent employee. It was about six months, the starting pay was decent. There was a week’s training, too.

This would be a very social place, it was a full floor of young people, with old bosses. My desk boss Mike, was a good guy but he picked up an air of indifference from me that drove him mad. I overheard him once talk about me to another employee. “The problem with James is that he thinks this place is a holiday camp.” I did not. I had no idea what he was on about. Perhaps it was the fact I continually ignored his repeated complaints about my work. You had to do a lot of billing calculations and I always left it last minute, because I didn’t like it. Then I would go and ride the ferris wheel.

It was all a little too much like hard work, and I knew that this was not going to be my career, so it was difficult to find much motivation. The high spot was the very active social life the place offered – I really enjoyed it.

By now I was doing regular study at night, for the first time in years. I was working through the foundation mathematics workbook as instructed by Dr. Barney. Progress was steady, and I wasn’t concerned, I just needed to keep at it. This isn’t foreshadowing, I did keep it up, but I realized I’d not complete all of the topics in time. I did not fret on the basis that I hadn’t struggled with any of it and so assumed that would be the case for the remainder.

I wanted to see if I could secure some part time work to help offset the cost of my education. University was no longer free, and my accomodation plans (I decided I wanted to stay at the university to get the full experience, leaving my girlfriend free to continue living in her very small apartment). I was concerned that if I tried to keep a foot in two worlds It might affect my commitment to the whole endeavour. My accomodation would be about £80 a week and anything I could do to offset the student loan would help. I got in touch with some old colleagues at BT, and they asked me to come back as a contractor but wanted me full time until October, wherein I could pick my hours. It was more money than PONL.

I gave Mike the good news who wished me good luck, and told me “not to fuck it up”. And so ended my time at PONL. I wasn’t especially sad to leave but I did miss the people, it was a fun scene. I never saw any of them again, which is a weird and repeated phenomenon given it’s a small town. PONL no longer exists either – they got swallowed by Maersk. I still see branded PONL containers here in the US. The former office was Carnival Cruises for a while, before being converted to student flats.

By now I’d fully realized a separate life from the people I’d come to live with and love. I had my own friends, had my own social circle. We still hung out all the time, but I no longer felt dependent on them, which was good because before long we’d all go our separate ways. This is one of the reasons I felt less positive about the Middle Street house – I associate it with this terminal period in our friendship.

BT was going through some changes. The corporate clients people had all moved into Friary House (where it all started for me), Telephone House would be sold, and the office was divided into fulfillment (back office) and services (talking to customers). I floated around fulfillment, handling work orders. My mate Beth was still there, and it was great to be back in regular contact with her. She was heavily pregnant, but it didn’t slow her down much. Helen was around too, and there was a lad called Matt who was another contractor, who I’d get to know. There was also Vicky(?) (I am not certain of my memory of her name), yet another Northerner who was a little stand-offish at first but we became good friends. This would be the most relaxed time at BT, nothing like before, and I felt the duties were appropriate to contract work; none of this bullshit of treating them as if they’re fully-signed up employees but with none of the rewards.

The Boat Show takes place around every September in Southampton. I didn’t usually bother going, it was expensive even for locals and attracted a lot of the hooray Henry and Henrietta types. All Range Rovers and hockey sticks. Not my people. For whatever reason, my mum decided she wanted to spend this weekend with me prior to me going back to university. It stays with me because we had a really pleasant time together, and it was the last time she would visit me there on her own. We looked at the brand new West Quay shopping centre (Europe’s biggest city-centre mall at that time) and around the boat show, laughing at all the yachties and marveling at the gin palaces. I had the impression she was worried about me, for some reason.

I think she knew something I didn’t.







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