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Archive for the ‘Temping’ Category

Black Friday . . .

Work getting so scarce, you have to chase it like a boll weevil through the underbrush. At the JobCentre – known as the dole office in less PC times – they’re hiring more staff to take on the rush. You get £60 a week on the dole now, up from the £28.80 a week you got in my day in the early 90’s. Back when a pint of beer could still be had for £1.50.

Life in Britain . . . called Brook Street, one of dozens of agencies I registered with this summer and fall, none of whom have found me a fucking thing. Woman answers, regional accent, shrewish voice. “We’re busy right now . . . if there was anything we would have called you.” – then she hung up. Last week when I called in, she hectored me for not calling in more often. Hard times brings out this very Teutonic bullying quality in a certain kind of British person – the taste of power.

On the way home, the train was packed. Absurdly – you could hardly breathe. Usual plethora of people nattering on their mobiles. A black girl waving her arms around, acting out everything she was describing, smacking the other passengers. A woman just down the aisle, YELLING: “I can’t believe the fucking shit they make me put up with, I won’t take their FUCKING SHIT!!!”
I mean man. Five minutes on that train exhausted me. Wait ’til the pain really hits.

You see it in the ads: ‘Competitive rates: £7 per hour for admin, or admin work at minimum wage, less than £200 a week. How do you live in London on less than £200 a week?
Meanwhile: Bonuses for City high-flyers will be hard to reign in.

Seems Britain’s high-flying and obviously very valuable City execs, traders or whoever the fuck these people are will simply go to Mumbai Dubai Shanghai if they don’t get the million plus bonuses they feel they deserve. 

Well, let ’em go I say. Enough to make you a goddam Bolshevik. 

How about you readers, are recent events turning you into a Bolshevik?

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O Happy Days . . .

Good news on the train on the way in . . .

Tube fares to soar in the New Year. Food Prices is already risen by 8.3% this year. And some feller in the Guardian say the recession is gonna make people happier. Claims he already see it happening. Claims people are gonna go back to consuming sausage and chips (did they stop?) to save money instead of eating healthy. 

   Well I don’t know what Britain he’s living in, but I ain’t seeing more happy people in London. Not by a long shot. 

   I’m sure this sick joke of a summer is part of it – the Gulf Stream too far south this year or something. And Londoners didn’t seem happy last year either – hell, I’ve never known people in London to be happy – but they sure as hell seem a lot LESS happy now. Walking into my friendly local recruitment agency this morning was like walking into a morgue for all the glum faces – which I take to mean there’s not much recruitment going on.  On the train in, aside from the ubiquitious mobile phone rabbits filling the carriage with pathic bursts of their elevated, one-sided and profoundly annoying voices, everyone looked like their favorite pet had died just that morning. With all these glum headlines – economy in worst crisis in 60 years!! Gas prices going up by a zillion percent!! Gas companies record profits (another great British tradition – screwing the common man – that has never changed at all) – you don’t have to look far to find what’s behind all these sour faces.

   Fact is, you could feel the anger crackling just below the surface here even before the downturn. Wonder how things will be in six months, a year from now. And having been here for the middle of the last recession – 1991/ 92- I can say being broke back then didn’t make people happier. It made people in charge drunk with power and just plain mean. It made people depressed and desperate and anxious to get out. And people way up top made more money than ever.

   But maybe the Guardian feller has a point. Not about the sausages and chips – some traditions deserve to die – but maybe an end to the good times (that weren’t that good, either here or over the pond, for a whole lot of people) might make people return to some kind of values. Might make them think about their neighbor or spend more time reading or go back to that truly great British tradition, of fucking around on the job and taking the mickey out of the boss-man and generally screwing the system as much as possible. Of not taking things too serious. Might make this a fun place to be again, instead of the turbo-capitalist rich man’s palace that London has become in latter years.

Might bring back some form of real socialism, instead of the turbo-capitalism with a PC gloss that New Labour, Livingston et al have been peddling. Might. But folks are gonna have to get real unhappy first.

What do you think, readers? Are folks getting happier because there’s a recession on? Are you happier?

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Power tools whirring and roaring in the background, plaster dust and, above all, the cloying, poisonous smell of oil paint. For all the ‘healf and safety’ they bring onto jobsites here, charging you £25 for the pleasure of writing the test, they don’t seem to give a damn about oil fumes on a jobsite. Sometimes it’s been so bad your liver actually starts to ache and everyone runs around delirious and red-faced from the fumes . . .

   I’m in the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair . One of the foremen said they’d been working on it since March 2007, redoing the walls, putting in new floors. Spectacular staircase with iron railing and elaborate moulding around the skylight. Forgettable art – cast-iron snowbirds and some conceptual piece of hand grenades, three feet high then in done again in miniature and mounted on a length of wood – all made of coloured glass.  Neo-florentine statues made of black marble. Names like ‘Rites of Spring’. The kind of stuff that only a Russian nouveau-oligarich could love . .

   On Berkely square, a half street up, are four seperate auto dealerships – Porsche, Bentley, Jack Barclay and Rolls Royce. In the Bentley dealership the prices are listed right in the window, as if they expect people to drop in and pick up a luxury vehicle. And who knows, maybe people do . . . A Bentley coupe will set you back 141,000GBP.

    As on every jobsite, most of the guys are Polish. I thought it was a shit job, paying not nearly enough for the work involved ( knees still killing me from running up and down three flights of stairs, not to mention the unsecured scaffolding) but the Polish guys were even more unhappy about it than I was. They knew they were being underpaid, they knew the agencies were a rip-off and they hustling for something better.

    One guy said he lost everything gambling at the casinos. He had an interesting face, a nice watch and expenisve eyeglasses like he used to be someone. He’d gone through three wives, lived in Paris for years (where he also worked as a painter – said they used oil for everything – walls, ceiling). He was a photographer, but he needed to buy a good digital so he could start getting contracts again. Another guy said he’d been in London eight years, that in Poland he’d worked on surveillance towers, going up and down in a sling and been trained by the army, but that to qualify here he’d have to take a two year course. He said he’d been a trucker for awhile, and ended up driving from two am to six in the evening. “And it was a Polish guy who was the boss – they’re always the worst.” He’d been painting for a few years but, “the prices go down,” laughing, “mostly because of people like me.” Still, he’d made good money for awhile, enough to take his wife and son to Fiji. The trip had cost him seven grand GBP.

   “Why’d you want to go to Fiji?”

   He looked at me skeptically. “Why not? It was a beautiful place, I always want to go there . . . ”

   He wanted to go to Puerto Rico next. Like the other Poles, he was contemplating returning to Poland. The exchange rate – he said the pound has lost something like 50% to the euro in the last year – and the drop in wages didn’t make Britain a viable option anymore. He had friends in Manchester who made barely minimum wage . . .

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   Back home, sort of . . .if ever I could call London home. 

   The recession is starting to bite. Three weeks on, back to my old standby, housepainting (or ‘decorating’ as the term is here. How perfectly British is that) through some agency. £10.50 an hour, before tax, before the obligatory weekly fee of £13.50 (a bargain – another company charged £25) for the pleasure of being paid as a limited company which means only being taxed 20%, filing my own taxes and being able to write off . . . what? 

   One agency offered to send me back to St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, the same place I worked at last winter, for an absurd £7.25 an hour. Only this time it was ‘temp-long term’ – a euphemism for permanent with no benefits, no rights, and no money – and at a staggering £5.85 an hour. Of course, I refused. St. Martin’s is of course outsourcing all their staff, raising tuition, especially for foreign students, and neglecting their campuses as much as they can get away with – at the Southampton Row campus plaster was actually falling from the stairwell ceiling – in the rush to build their new campus at King’s Cross in time for 2012.

   Plenty of ads for ‘fantastic opportunities’ and ‘exciting roles’ at £7.50 an hour or £12,000 a year. After tax maybe £800 a month. How do you live in London on £800 a month? 

   In the news the other evening: 35% hike in gas and 9% hike in electric bills while British Gas sustains record profits. So we’re back to the old old days, which this Labour government was supposed to do away with forever, of the early 90’s recession, when the ‘captains of industry’ awarded themselves fatter and fatter bonuses for their very mediocre services. I still remember the footage of water being trucked in to Yorkshire by the army – during torrential rainstorms – because Yorkshire Water couldn’t deliver. And the chairman, Sir something, receiving his usual  fat bonus that year. 

   The prices here boggle the mind, especially when you convert them back to US dollars. £24.20 for a weekly Zone 1+2 tube pass – nearly fifty bucks US, twice the price of a weekly pass in New York. A box sandwich at Pret Manger for £3.50 – 7 bucks US. A movie? Twelve pounds – nearly 25 US$. A decent room in a shared apartment? At least a thousand bucks a month. The train in from Gatwick? 25 bucks. A Starbuck’s Vente Mild? 4 bucks US. 50 bucks US for a memory card (IGig) for my digital camera. Fish and chips in a pub? Nearly twenty bucks!! A ho-hum boquet of flowers in Victoria, should you be in a romantic mood – a walloping 80$!!!!

   And so on. Even the toilets in Victoria Station have gone from 20p to 30. 

   Forget sushi lunches, new clothes, shoes. Forget eating out, having your own flat, and any luxuries whatsoever. In a city where the average wage is apparently 13,000 pounds per annum a lot of people are bound to be hurting.

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More notes from St. Martin’s College . . .

 

      Ross, the guy I work with in the mornings, has finally started selling his art. In his 50’s. I wonder how many of the bright young things who breeze past the front desk ever dream it will take until their 50’s to make it. Soon he will retire from the regular working world and move to New York with his girlfriend, who has landed a job in Manhattan and a flat in the East Village. Ross has worked on facilities at St. Martin’s for thirteen years and said a few years ago he almost gave up and resigned himself to a life without art.

   It’s true that after even a few weeks, working at the school begins to play with your mind. You start to feel self-conscious about your lack of success and wonder if you should even tell anyone you’re an artist – if you should even let on that you aspire to anything artistic. You begin to question your own legitimacy as the artist you claim to be – the most dangerous position for any artist in which to find themselves – since you are essentially a hall monitor to bight young things with their whole future ahead of them. Even if you know, that for most of them, their confidence won’t survive beyond college, you still feel intimidated by that confidence and sense of purpose.

   In the mornings, I make the rounds, stocking toilets. I don’t mind it in the mornings – but for a few African cleaners, I’m pretty much alone. The classrooms are in terrible shape – the whitewashed walls are scuffed and dirty, dust sits in layers on top of the lights and water stains pour out over the ceiling. The lift has a mind of it’s own, so you’re never sure which floor it will stop on, or if, indeed, it will even work.

   The theatre space is in the sub-basement, along with the set design tables where students have pinned up posters of a church by Le Courboisier, paintings by Piet Mondrian. Garish set designs, and writing in Japanese script. I like to pause in the theatre space when the sets are in place – the lights hanging from the ceiling, or chairs arranged around the stage with costumes and notes on the floor. It’s like a little pause where I can remember another part of my life hanging around the fringes of these kinds of spaces, recalling the idealism with which I approached books, art, artists. With Bach or Massive Attack or Siouxse and the Banshees playing on the headphones, I can almost feel my way back into Montreal in the 80’s, New York in the early 90’s – even London when I lived in Bloomsbury.

 

   Back in the day, Pablo – who works the evening shift because of chronic insomnia – was a DJ then a hairdresser, hanging out in the rave scene way back in 87 or 88 – the years he said later became famous as the summer of love (Funny that I missed the early rave years entirely – as far as I was concerned, rave didn’t start until the early 90’s, after I’d stopped doing drugs, and dropped out of the youth scene altogether). Pablo tells me about going out to some farmer’s field where 20,000 people would dance stoned on ‘E’, and how in those early days the police would come to shut them down and not be able to do anything because the people who organized the raves had made a deal with the farmers who owned the field. He tells me about the football hooligans who came to raves and dropped E and forgot about being hooligans – except when the police came and tried to shut everything down and they weren’t protected by some deal with a farmer and the hooligans organized the ravers and together they rushed police lines. He tells me about the E casualties who never came back (and how much of this island has left something behind? Sometimes I feel like Britain has become a society of the permanently damaged and dislocated) – a black dude who’d never done E before and dropped 1-2-3 tabs at a show and jumped onstage and peeled off his clothes until ‘he was dancing naked with his big dick flopping around – dancing like someone who’s lost his mind.’

   Pablo lives on the Clapham Common Estate where he grew up. “You won’t get your flat robbed but you do get tired of people knocking on your door asking for a tenner.” I wouldn’t have placed him as a south London boy at first – with his goatee and shaved, his slightly formal accent with the rounded vowels and polite turns of phrase, he seemed unplaceable. He says he had to get rid of his accent when he was hairdressing, “the bosses didn’t like me talking down, as they put it,” but on the weekends he gets pissed up with his brother and his mates down in Clapham. “We’ll stay out ‘til eight, nine, ten in the morning, get a turntable, do some coke . . . I don’t do coke too much anymore, but me mates will.”

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   Working this week at St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, not far from Farringdon tube. Around the corner is the Bourne Estate, a warren-like structure of Victorian brick and great half moon entranceways, with a church in the middle ringing it’s bell on the hour and the Leather Lane market which comes to life at dawn and runs through most of the day.

   My friend X squatted there in the mid-80’s with a guy named Bill who came to hate Canadians (‘fucking Canadian vegetables’) after some Canadian girl dumped him for another Canadian. They had a two room flat and she had to pass through Bill’s room to get to hers and kept chamber pots in her room so she wouldn’t wake him up going to the toilet in the middle of the night – such was squatting in the 80’s. She claimed it was a rough estate and we were wary of some of the local pubs where the estate boys, drunk and disorderly, would smash bottles and get into fights – such too was London in the 80’s when that half hour after last call was the most dangerous time to be out in the city.

   The area is all cleaned up now, totally dominated by that other City – get out at Farringdon Road and all you see are people on their mobiles, striding purposefully ahead with that inward-looking gaze that Londoners on their mobiles get. The Back Hill campus is one of twenty, each with their own specialization. Back Hall is art and drama. The students start pouring in around eight-thirty and reach full capacity by ten-fifteen or so when they come in waves of several dozen, with each arrival of the tube. At reception, we have to check their passes and it is overwhelming when they all start coming in at once. Like art students anywhere, they favour dyed hair, piercings, baggy clothes on the girls and stovepipe jeans for the boys. All those pretty art school girls – fifteen, twenty years ago I would have dated girls just like them – art school girls willing to put up with crazy drunk boys like me. These are the faces of so many of my friends, taken back almost a generation – the naivety and basic optimism showing through the surface cyncism, the carefully maintained air of indifference. Like Ross, the guy I’m working with who is himself an artist, said, these kids dress pretty much like the art school kids did in our day.

   I haven’t made it anywhere upstairs, but apparently the rooms are in pretty bad shape – leaks, plaster falling from the celing, cracks in the walls. The college bosses are saving their pennies for the big new campus building at King’s Cross – like so much else in London, St. Martin’s is looking forward to 2012. In the meantime, the college rests on it’s reputation and brings in the foreign students, particularly Asians, who pay big money to study at the infamous St. Martin’s, while the school lets it’s campus fall to pieces and is looking to get rid of all it’s permanent and even contract staff and outsource the whole damn thing. Yet even at a glance, I can see how badly the place is run. No one tells anyone anything, and morale is low yet when the maintenance crew show up to take care of the voluminous repairs, they end up spending all their time in the crew room asleep or watching TV because no one is around to show them what to do and they aren’t allowed to do anything on their own.

   I don’t mind it, I guess, at least for a week or two. No one tells me anything so when people come up to the enquiries desk I have no idea what to tell them. I don’t like the way some students barge through without showing their passes because no one has bothered to check them, while others have to search through their bags and find their passes and even hang around the admin desk and pay five pounds because they’d been honest enough to admit they’ve lost theirs. I don’t like the absence of standards, which puts all the responsibility on beleagured temps like me. 

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   The chairman comes in once a week, on Thursdays, and some weeks he doesn’t come in at all. He has a big office with a fireplace and a clock with big black metal hands and the old two key system to wind it – one key for the chimes, the other for the clock itself – and he gets very upset if his clock isn’t wound properly. I’ve never met him, only stood in the gloom of his office, entering through the big wooden door with ‘managing director’ on a gold plaque across the front. The office is on the first floor, in the building adjacent to the store with it’s wooden floors, stacks of wine bottles, the big iron scale where you can weigh yourself and buy your weight in wine, the two assistants who stand by the doorway and hold the door open for customers.

   I presume Berry Brothers and Rudd was originally the store and the offices above it, but over the years the original building has joined up with Cutty Sark, the whisky company, taken over the building behind – which they converted into guest apartments and function rooms – and the building next door, which became offices. Since the Cutty Sark building is on Pall Mall and Berry Brothers and Rudd on St. James and a building sits between them, the two halves of the company are connected by a bridge on the third floor which has big glass windows and houses the all-important coffee machine.

   Only the Cutty Sark building has an elevator, so in the other three buildings you have to run up and down the stairs – old wooden stairs at the back of number 3 St. James (the store building), and a larger, modern staircase in number 4. Below all four buildings are the cellars. Most of the rooms are open, but there are one or two rooms where really expensive wines are kept behind iron bars. Mixed in with the wine cellars are store rooms, and impressive function rooms with bare stone walls, heavy wood beams holding up the ceiling, and framed prints that look like they were clipped from the old Punch magazine. Below the cellars and the conference rooms is a kitchen where a half-dozen or so cooks prepare lunch and dinner for functions.

   The whole is like a maze, with rooms leading to stairs and back into rooms. To get from one building to another, you often have to go down to the cellars and up again, or find your way to the bridge, or go out onto the street and re-enter through the front of either of the buildings. The function rooms above the store are even more impressive than the ones down below – old rooms with bottled sailing ships, and paintings of famous clippers and other sailboats – a reminder of England’s glorious seagoing past, at a time when Britain has hardly any presence on the sea (how does it affect the psychology of Britons, to have once had the sea so much a part of their lives, and to have it no more? To be landlocked on their little island?). A paneled table dominates the main room, the kind where you can take the panels in and out as you need them. I almost broke it my first day when I forgot to put in the supports first – the damn thing must be at least a century old. Old clocks like the one in the director’s office sit above the fireplace in each room, and it is my job to light the gas fireplaces each morning and wind the clocks every Monday and Friday. One clock, made of metal – unlike the others, whose casings are of deep brown wood – has 1656 stamped on the front and I nearly had a heart attack when, on Friday, the old one stopped ticking as I was winding it. Luckily, it started again after I stopped.

   Aside from taking care of the fireplaces and the clocks, my job is to collect and distribute the mail, open the rooms, stock the tea and coffee machines, replenish the water coolers and attend to whatever needs attending to. It’s not that hard, not yet anyway, but it does involve going up and down a lot of stairs – I get pretty tired at the end of the day. On the plus side, I like the feeling of having stepped back a hundred and fifty years, so that I half-expect to see a man in a top hat creaking up the stairs, or the lights fuelled by gas rather than electricity.

   So far I’ve been treated courteously enough by everybody. Maggie, the receptionist and the person I report to the most (I have to wear one of those little beeper things so she can page me wherever I am in the building), has been nice. She has those qualities I respect in a certain type of English woman – respect, civility, thoughtfulness, warmth. Humour, a finely developed sense of the absurd. She said she had been a special needs teacher for fifteen years but became burnt out because so many of her children would die over the course of the year from illness or just the natural course of their disability. “You couldn’t explain to the bureaucrats up above who wanted a special curriculum that the only curriculum many of these children needed was to stay alive. “ She didn’t want to dilute her passion by turning to some other form of teaching so she became a receptionist.

   The portraits of a young Queen with Prince Phillip adorn all the rooms. Buckingham Palace is just around the corner. Maggie said she met Princess Anne once when she was a teacher. “Very down to earth and seemed engaged with the real world.” On Friday, we got letters addressed to Buckingham Palace – postcode SW1A 1AA – and even one addressed to HRH Princess Anne. We had a laugh about it and Phillip Rudd, the very gay financial manager came out of a meeting and Maggie showed him the letter and we laughed about it again as Phillip said:

   “Oh Maggie, we are royalty. Most of us anyway.”

   Booze is everywhere – whiskey bottles line the shelves and desks and even the floor in the Cutty Sark building, booze and wine the St. James’ buildings. Far from making me want to drink, looking at it all day after day makes me slightly naseous – in many of the offices there is the sour odour of an opened whiskey bottle and I get the sense that some of the staff imbibe pretty regularly – that for some, imbibing is part of their job. But after a certain point, booze inspires no longing in me – it becomes just an object, like shoes or chocolate. 

 

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