Posts Tagged ‘Temping’

   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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   Morale at MCS didn’t seem that great. On my last day, maybe a half-dozen people told me how lucky I was to only be there for a week.

   Certainly in the post room they weren’t happy. They were mostly older folks, Londoners with that cheerful London thing of enjoying a good joke, appreciating little courtesies. The second week one of the Londoners was replaced by Hank, a hangdog American, originally from Brooklyn, who’d been living in London off and on since the 70’s. He wasn’t particularly friendly at first – he had that laconic NY thing but e warmed up quite a bit after I’d done the post room a few favours.

   He said he’d lived in Gramercy Park and drank at Pete’s Tavern on 18th – he seemed like a Pete’s Tavern kind of guy. He’d lived in the area in the 60’s, when the area must have been prime real estate – the beautiful Manhattan before the 70’s crash. Until recently, he’d stayed at the Gramercy Park Hotel, across the street from 1 Lexington where I had my first job in New York. “All the models used to stay there. But they renovated a couple of years ago and now I couldn’t afford it.”

   I never found out what his deal was, or why he worked the postroom at the Cancer Support. I don’t think he or any of the others were volunteers – they complained about the way they were treated and seemed to want to get out each morning as fast as they could. Maybe they were retirees. Hank mentioned being sent to London by his company, who had a branch plant here.

   Then there was Gerald, the guy from Zimbabwe. At first he kind of irritated me since I often had to repeat myself telling him things and yet he’d get defensive when I DID tell him things and I generally like to work alone anyway. He WAS a volunteer, and came in twice a week to help out. He’d only left Zimbabwe the year before. His daughter worked in the building – I guess that’s why he volunteered.

  He seemed sad, a little lost, caught up in his nostalgia for Rhodesia. Twice, he showed me his tennis booklet, from his Rhodesian Tennis Club in 1969, showing me all the people he knew. Of course they were all white, with bright, ruddy faces and sharp white tennis clothes. He said he used to be a manager of a sugar firm, and I had the sense that white people in Rhodesia had been able shift into pretty much any job they’d wanted and it was hard not to feel just a bit of ‘well, you’re getting yours now,’ at first.

   Then he told me that for awhile he’d thought he had Alzhiemer’s because his memory was going, that his doctor had confirmed it until a specialist in Alzheimer’s said no, he was fine in every other respect, he was just having memory loss. He explained that he’d gone to the aid of one of his employees at the sugar firm who was being attacked by some of Mugabe’s henchmen, and the henchmen had turned on him and beaten him unconscious and he’d had short-term memory loss ever since. “I don’t think I could go back to the positions I was in before. I don’t think I could manage it – I forget things too easily now. But it’s funny, once I remember something, it’s in there.”

   I understood him a little better after that. Ian Smith had just died that week and he said he’d thought Smith had he’d never liked the way things were gone. He’d stayed on all those years, not just after independence, but after things started going very badly later on. He’d lost not just Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, but a part of himself as well. He and his wife left Zimbabwe not long after his injury, so whatever physical damage he’d suffered had been compounded by leaving the country where he’d lived all his life, by leaving so much of himself behind and coming to London.

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   MacMillan Cancer Support is a 15-story building across the Thames from the Tate Britain and next to M16. On the 14th floor, where I was based, I could see right into their windows, and the patio on the roof with the little tables. ‘Spying on the spies’ I said to the guy who was showing me around. Comic Relief, which does regular fundraisers for MacMillan Cancer Support starring Lenny Henry and other big shots, as well as other linked organizations, have their offices in the building, as do a couple of non-related companies –but mostly it is MCS.

   As far as I could tell, a good part of the MCS operation was about fund-raising. Events, marketing, direct marketing. The post room was the prison laundry of these kinds of places, where everything pass through on it’s way in or out. A good deal of incoming mail involves cheques and pledges – CS provides grants to cancer sufferers who can’t pay their rent, etc. Yet so much revenue must go into paying rent, paying for staff, for the reams of promotional material.

   The fundraising team take up half a floor and seem completely cut off from the rest of the organization. They seemed a racier, more flamboyant, perhaps even self-conciously bohemian bunch. A group of them got in the lift when I was going for lunch one day, gathered around a black guy with an Afro and a ‘Jesus Loves Me’ belt in the lift who mused the whole way down on the best place in the area to go for salad. I watched the whole scene through the window. All these guys walking around with the hands free, making big gestures as they tried to suck money out of some sponsor. This must be the infamous boiler room  – it would be the same scene for an NGO, or a pyramid scheme or a hedge fund. Much more aggressive, much more clubby than the people on the upper floors – you had the sense they drank together after work. One morning they had a big pep rally, with some guy pointing at a chart and naming people on the team who I guess had made the best sales and everyone clapping enthusiastically like they really believed in what they were doing.

   The other floors were all open-plan with waist high dividers so you could see the person in the next seat, even when you aren’t sitting down. I wasn’t at the desk much, but I’m sure it would be a little unbearable after awhile – the phones going off, everyone talking around you. Staring at the computer for hours on end. I spent all my time running between floors – I must have spent a good hour of the day in the lift – so I didn’t see much of that side. One temp, an Indian girl they sat right next to the post room, has the most boring job I could imagine, sitting at that desk, updating spreadsheets, typing up letters, looking so bored sometimes that I felt for her. When the 11th floor had a speech and a party of some sort, she wasn’t included except for the speech and then she had to go back to her desk, put on her Ipod, and go back to her spreadsheets.

   A lot of people seem to spend most of their time on Facebook – how much is everything from facebook to chat rooms to blogs to ‘have your say’ add-ons to newspaper articles, are designed for office culture.

   Every floor had its’ kitchen area but only the 13th had a lunch room, complete with microwave and tables and chairs. People were quite free about making breakfast in the morning to have at their desks – at lunch they microwave their food and had it in the lunchroom or at their desks. A sort of nauseating, lazy habit – you’d think they’d seize any chance for fresh air, for natural light, especially this time of year.

   At lunch, after checking email, I went to the park to look at the animals. They have a ‘little farm’ at the bottom of the park where the horses run free in a pen and horses, pigs, roosters, goats, ferrets, ducks, bunnies and a couple of lemur type creatures, are kept in small pens behind the park and you can walk between the pens and look at the animals looking back with mute animal eyes. At first they just looked stupid, chewing cud and staring pointlessly off into the distance but then the keeper explained that the cow cares for the younger goat, protecting it and showing it affection by stroking it with it’s big bovine tongue, and the goats and the cows respond to affection, have tugs of wars with the keepers and even respond to their names.

   And sure enough I watched the goats nudge and pester one of the volunteer kids, chewing at his sweater, sniffing around for his sandwich, and putting their noses up to be rubbed, while the cow rubbed it’s big head up and down the little goat’s back. The kids who worked there all seemed to be misfits in some way. Two teenage boys who were studying farming and wanted to start a farm because they ‘loved animals’ – I didn’t have the heart to say that farming is a tough haul, and that they’d have to kill their animals to survive. One kid had two wide eyes and buck teeth, but he was a friendly kid with funny anecdotes about the animals and every time I went down he’d say “alright then?” Watching the animals, I understood how a kid, especially a kid who had a hard time fitting into the normal school world, could find solace, even peace, in this animal world – as I probably did for a time as a boy. The animal world does seem gentle from a distance – after all, the animals in the little farm have their basic needs – food, reproduction and safety from predators – taken care of and have no need to be aggressive.

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