Me First

Andrew O’Hagan

In the mid-Eighties, my family felt everything would be fine if I could just get something with a shirt and tie. My three elder brothers wore nailbags, overalls and aprons – the respective black robes of time-served apprenticeship – but even that world was going by the time it got to be my turn, and it was hoped that I might be found fit for the crisp shirt and tie of the clerical elect. I had stayed on at school, bringing home the first family O-Level, and after the celebrations were over – a bottle of Merrydown cider in the garage of an epileptic pal ready for the dole – I thought about what it might mean to start thinking about the future. We sat on blue Calor-gas bottles, not quite ourselves, doing our thinking about the future as we looked out through the garage mouth. There wasn’t a great deal to look at: cars without tyres in the car park, a load of council fencing stretching up and away. My pal Tam made a joke about the state we were in, slugged the last of the cider, then fell to the floor and started wriggling about.

I failed in my first bid for Eighties office-boy superstardom. It was, as it happens, a job as office aide to the local brute responsible for most of the fencing around the estate. He didn’t really have an office – it was a sort of Portakabin – but even so I jogged down the road to meet him in a fluffy grey suit (punitively old-fashioned: my brother’s) and a new shirt and tie that were entirely fashionable (I thought) and mine. The cabin was tight up against the railway line; the yard was muddy and full of band-saws and scrap. I went into the cabin to meet the boss and, safe to say, his bulldog face fairly crumpled as I rambled on. He let me talk for some time about numeric filing systems and letterheads and ways of answering the phone, then he stopped me: ‘Look, son, am jeest lookin’ furra wee lassie tae mak the tea.’ I sat up, softly stroking my tie, pulling my face into the very picture of accommodation and swift comprehension. ‘Tea?’ I said, nodding all the while, the lonesome whirr of back-peddling sounding in my ears, ‘I’m very good at tea.’ My guts were in agony; they positively burned with the shame of it all.

‘Whitz that in yer pocket?’ he growled. (I knew I was done for.) ‘Just a book,’ I mumbled by way of reply. (The shame.) I handed it over. ‘Na ... Nya ... Now ... Nay.’

‘Nausea,’ I interjected, sinking into my shirt. ‘It’s Existentialist. By a French author.’

‘Oh awa you and read books!’ he said, getting a bit red in the face. ‘Awa tae university or somethin’. It’s a wee lassie am lookin’ fur.’

We thought he was probably quite mad, and not at all attuned to the new way of doing things. So it was with refreshed vigour that I made my way to the Jobcentre a few days on, where they hired me themselves, in the noble position of clerical assistant. I was to sit at the front desk, giving out information to ex-miners and steel-workers, to people looking for any sort of job. They were men in their forties and fifties, girls and boys like me just out of school, women laidoff from hosiery factories or from council-work recently privatised. I soon found that there was little to offer them. Halfway through the Eighties, they were calling our part of Ayrshire an unemployment black spot, and you could see things darkening, growing more and more hopeless, and people got a bit fearful.

My box was full of dud jobs: Youth Training Scheme ‘opportunities’ with no guaranteed employment at the end; stints in community service for a tenner more than your dole money; fairly dodgy places on government schemes to relieve the unemployed, or the unemployment figures; and a handful of greatly-contested jobs glueing circuit boards together on a production line. The same people came back each day, and I came to hate that box, with its fetid stack of cards, its excruciating pile of non-jobs. My colleagues, as I was encouraged to call them, were not government plants, ideologues or Thatcherite subalterns: they were local folk, sons and daughters of people pleased to see them spending their days in a shirt and tie, or in a blouse and nice skirt – not in overalls, like they were.

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