16/09/2021

Civil servant

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After walking out of college, the bookies kept me occupied for the summer until I found temporary work at the Ministry of Labour. My role was to take on people to deliver the Christmas Post – a legion of temps who handled the glut of post leading up to the holiday.

I was appointed at the lowest grade of civil servant, a temporary grade 7 or clerical assistant. My first task was to open letters of application, fill the applicant’s details into a lined exercise book, then handwrite the address details on an envelope and post off a formal application form of. A covering note pointed out that ex-cons and other classes of applicant would not be considered. For those reasons and others, a little less than half would actually ever return the form.

Bristol Labour Exchange, Nelson Street

I suggested to my line manager, a clerical officer grade 6, that perhaps I should open the applications and skip the book entry to write the address directly onto an envelope, and only bother to put those who returned a completed form in the book. I was told in no uncertain terms that a temporary grade 7 was not paid to think, but to do as he was told. This response would shortly become rather embarrassing for him.

Someone in power in the Ministry realised I had some academic qualifications and put me through a Civil Service Board to become a grade 6, a clerical officer, the same as my ‘boss’ -but he still trumped me on seniority. The next Board made me a grade 5 executive officer, thus in less than a few months I had emerged as senior to him!

In the ultimate of ironies I was then moved across to Review Interviewing. Whenever someone with an exemplary career path had been unemployed for two weeks, I called them in to see how we might help get them back to work promptly. This was ironic, as I had no work record of substance and no idea what I wanted to do for work myself, yet I had to have the audacity to advise others – those both senior and more experienced than I.

My fondest memory of the role was when one day I called up the next person who, on seeing my nameplate, said ‘We might be brothers’. I looked up into the beaming West Indian face of Steve Denton. Given the common surname, we hit it off and I found him a job. He took his first afternoon off to come in and thank me; I gently suggested he ought to get back there or he might risk losing his new position. He wanted to thank me by taking me to the Bamboo Club in St Pauls. I agreed and it proved interesting. I was the only white person in the club that night, a very loud and dark joint – where you clearly could buy one.

To appreciate how this was remarkable, you need to understand something of those different times. There was a system used by the Exchange that qualified some vacant posts as ‘HSR’, literally meaning ‘High Standard Required’. We were taught, in fact, that HSR meant no coloureds, no Irish and no ex-convicts should be sent for the job. To do so would alienate the employer and other recruitment agencies were springing up that would take any future vacancies away from us.

ASIDE: Another life lesson learnt here was from an old boy employed as a filing clerk who everyone ignored; he wasn’t even a grade 7! I talked with him and found he had travelled extensively and enjoyed a rich and varied life – with more experience than any of the established civil servants I met there. He just didn’t wish to become involved and was content to live under their radar. I enjoyed our chats together.

Amazing how things stick in your mind. Applicants’ files were small packs of documents joined at the corner with a treasury tag. They were perhaps Octavo-sized, used in a landscape format. One much-used document was a ‘UI589’. This was a blank Octavo sheet, punched at its top left-hand corner and for some reason the corner was chamfered off at the top right-hand edge. We wrote our comments during interviews on these sheets. Presumably this otherwise unremarkable piece of paper was expensively procured for Britain’s labour exchanges. In retrospect I’m surprised the grade 7s weren’t simply asked to cut, punch and clip two of them from a foolscap page.

ASIDE: Back then we did not have the A-series of paper sizes. Popular Imperial sizes were Quarto (10×8 inches, 254x203mm), Octavo (5×8 inches, 127x203mm) and Foolscap (8×13 inches, 203x330mm). There were also smaller sheets – the UI589 may have been Duke (5.5×7 inches, 140x178mm) – A5 is a tad larger (148x210mm).

In my youth Britain tortured its school children, forcing them to learn a panoply of base numbers.  We had to work with 16 ounces to a pound, 14 pounds to a stone, 8 stones to a hundredweight, and 2240 pounds in a ton. It has always stumped me that a ton is often said to be exchangeable with a tonne (metric ton), but I still recall that there are only 2.204lbs in a kilo so isn’t a tonne 36lbs/16.3kilos lighter than a ton? Is it a little known effect of shrinkflation, like chocolate bars getting smaller!.

We had 8 pints to a gallon, 8 quarts to a peck, 4 pecks a bushel, 36 gallons to a barrel.  There were four farthings to the penny, 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, and 21 shillings in a guinea. We had 12 inches to the foot (each inch divided into 16ths on rulers), 3 feet to a yard, 6 feet to a fathom, 66 feet in a chain, 220 yards in a furlong, 1760 yards and 8 furlongs in a mile, 9 square feet in a square yard, 43,560 square feet in an acre, 640 acres per square mile. Time of course was the same Phoenician system with 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 28-to-31 days in a month, and a leap year every four years, except those ending 00. No wonder we were confused by all those bases – is this why mathematics proved unpopular?
Bristol Education Authority exercise book
rear cover showing Imperial units

For some unemployed applicants we had to use a ‘UI589(Derog)’ sheets, precisely the same sheet of paper but it was placed at the rear of the package to show the imprisonment record of the applicant. With UI589(Derog) clearly marked on the front sheet you couldn’t miss it. Applicants weren’t getting offered work anytime soon with such an appendix sheet.

Numbers were important. There was a huge tome that we could reference that categorised every type of occupation and described the key features required to be suitable. One of the most popular designations for an applicant or job was L594.3 meaning ‘general labourer’. While suggesting no particular skills (a non-driver for example), it indicated physical capability. L594.5 indicated ‘light labourer’ which meant frail, old, disabled – or workshy! Many applicants knew if that they could get graded as L594.5 they wouldn’t be bothered with job offers. The lowest form of life appeared to be the L023.2, a kitchen porter – barely discernible from someone sleeping rough (and often they were). But they worked in hotels and restaurants handling crockery and cutlery that we would later eat from!

The tome was interesting as it listed many of the casual jobs that I had done and now I was getting a bird’s-eye-view of the pecking orders, skills required and prospects.

Paying out the dole money

Occasionally I was asked to assist with the pay-out on a Friday morning (see above re paying it out here and collecting it in the next day at the bookies). The main Labour Exchange on a Friday seemed to be my vision of hell. The room ran the length of the ground floor of the Exchange with multiple entry doors on one long side and a very long open-topped counter on the other. Queues to serving points were organised by alphabet or by type. There was a look in the eyes of the payees which was perhaps heightened by the sight of my obvious youth. It was part-shame, part-defiance – shame over accepting dole money, but defiance as they saw it as their right. The look was on the majority of faces, but professional long-term claimants were more often expressionless.

If someone disagreed with the sum paid out, they would remonstrate across the wide counter. However an ultimate sanction evolved. The payer would jump onto the counter and say that no-one would receive any money until the complainant left. The claimant- complainant usually left promptly on seeing the hostility of the other payees. Now the look of shame was on my face. No-one should be treated in such an inhumane manner.

Fortunately, my Grade 5 was confirmed and I used this to move off to the Ministry of Social Security (aka Ministry of Stealth & Total Obscurity’) where I dealt with those on welfare. This was thus my first formal full-time job at £9.73 per week or £506 per annum. (My parents’ advice to get a trade and earn £1,000 pa was ringing in my ears. Were they right?).

As a port it seemed Bristol had more than its fair share of Commonwealth immigrant arrivals. Many arrived unable to speak English, proffering a scrap of paper saying ‘B1 form please’ – a form I had never encountered and about which I don’t suppose many Brits would have known. The form was needed to apply for supplementary benefit as, freshly-arrived, they were ineligible for unemployment benefit. Freshly arrived and yet they knew how to work the system.

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