As usual, I’m in a nostalgic mood. This time it’s partly to do with interview week. The library has been swarming with youths to an unprecedented degree. This week the dreams of thousands of adolescent children crystallise and solidify into something palpable. In a month’s time they may be shattered, but over Christmas at least they will subsist. Fantasies of wearing coats and scarves, muffled against the Anglian cold. Lecturers who swear. Evensong. Toast. Punting. Girls. Confusing learning with the smell of cold stone (History Boys) can be an education too.
It’s not with shock but with a kind of contentment about its neatness that I realise it was ten years ago this month that I came up for interview at Christ’s. An inauspicious start. I was accommodated in the unprepossessing Typewriter, my interview was dismal, though perhaps slightly redeemed by a Bach dictation exercise, and after a month I received not a letter to say I hadn’t got in but a phone call from another college to tell me they were giving me a second chance. I remember that night in Christ’s, not vividly but with a probably false recollection of the excitement, the anxiety and the loneliness vying for supremacy within me. I know that before I went to bed I wrote a few paragraphs on a sheet of A4 lined paper, though now I can’t remember what. Probably a simple statement of my emotions. I have always found writing cathartic. I still have the paper in a folder somewhere, and will seek it out at Christmas. I wonder how much I have changed in the intervening decade, and whether I will find what I wrote then remotely enlightened or enlightening.
But I meant to write about my first proper job, which I found myself thinking about while writing Christmas cards this week. From October to December 2001 I worked in the Charity Christmas Card Shop at St Michael’s Church, Broad Street, Bath. I believe my job had a rather grand name, which may have been Assistant Floor Manager, though I don’t recall anyone ever using it. My being given this title may have been a token gesture to differentiate me from the kindly old ladies who volunteered at the tills. I have a vague memory that the shop in Bath was supposed to be the biggest in the country; it was certainly in the top ten.
I had two bosses, Jackie and Jacky. One was the nicest, most approachable lady in the world (a world she has now departed, I find; may God have mercy on her soul). The other was stern and formidable. You knew she wouldn’t take any shit, but sensed she had a heart of gold.
What I remember of the job is that it consisted largely of my manoeuvring boxes up and down the spiral staircase leading to the belfry so that they were arranged according to charity. I recall constructing and deconstructing cardboard boxes with cartoon Father Christmases on the side until my hands were sore, and using more parcel tape than I had been aware was in existence. Once I opened a box with a knife and found I had sliced one of the packets of cards down the front. I acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of which card belonged to which company, and knew exactly where to find each one. I remember titles like ‘The Flight into Egypt’, ‘The Virgin in Prayer’, ‘Peace/Light’, ‘Prospect Park’ and ‘Magpie in the Snow’ (this last a Monet card of which I was particularly fond). When family members came in to do their shopping I was able to direct them automatically to the pick of the cards.
A man working at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter downstairs used to bring up soup at lunchtimes for the staff of the shop. The tomato soup remains the best I have ever tasted, and I regret enormously not pressing him for the recipe. He said the secret ingredient was wine, and I have tried unsuccessfully to obliterate from memory my own hideous experiments to replicate it at home.
Most of the people I encountered working in Bath were lovely, but there was one lady of whom my memories are unpleasant. She was a nervous old bat whose responsibility it was to polish the brass in the church. One morning I arrived with a horrible cold and dripping nose to find her polishing the handles of the door into the church. She held it open for me to go through and I mumbled ‘thank you’ (alas, not loud enough for her to hear). I was halfway through the door when she shouted ‘THANK YOU!’ – as a reproach, I presume, for my having failed to thank her – and slammed the door forcefully on my back with me not yet fully through it. I maintain that my rucksack saved me from what would almost certainly have been a nasty spinal injury, and confess that the injustice led to numerous and inexcusable fantasies of my jumping out at her from behind a pillar and provoking a fatal heart attack.
Did I learn anything useful from my first genuine experience of work? The power of persuasion, perhaps. I managed one day, I’m not sure how, to convince one of the Jackies that it would be acceptable for me to play Christmassy music on the church’s electric piano as part of my work, in order to create a festive atmosphere. I also learned it is useful to have a secret place where it is possible to slack off but make it appear that you are working if another person catches you. This was the top of the spiral staircase next to the top boxes of cards, where from time to time I would look out of the high window at the Podium and watch people doing their Christmas shopping.
Of course, wasting time at work is a habit I have now entirely dispensed with.