In which the tax office in Luton gains a reluctant clerical assistant who looks a bit German

The sojourn in Kent ended come September, and I drifted North by turns. Spent a couple or three weeks staying with my other sister, just off the Old Kent Road. Can’t remember if I signed on at that time, but it wasn’t long before I was staying, briefly, at sister #3’s house, in Watford, house sitting again. And finally, I washed up on the couch of sister #4 in Luton, where I stayed for several months, before bowing to the inevitable and moving back to my parents’ place for some privacy and a bed to sleep in.

I was signing on in Luton, and had dyed my hair to avoid my older brother, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Mike.

He was ten years older than me, and left home fairly early on: was gone before I was eight, maybe even before that. Repeating history, he had knocked up a fifteen year old girl (just as his father had). He and the girl ran away to Scotland, where they married, and lived for a couple of years before he deserted her and the baby, drifted South, did some prison time, fathered several more children by several more women, and ended up hanging around in Luton at the same time that I was.

We were both signing on, and because we shared a surname, our appointment time was the same: 11:15 on a Wednesday, or whatever day it was. I spotted him in the queue behind me and quckly turned away so he wouldn’t see my face. And then I dyed my hair blonde, so the following week he wouldn’t even recognise the back of my head.

That was the last time I ever saw him, in Luton, when he turned up at sister #4’s house and crashed for a few nights – which was awkward, because I was already crashing there. He had some kind of camp bed downstairs. He was writing a diary of his thoughts and feelings as part of his probation and psychological counselling after his latest girlfriend had phoned the police after he assaulted her. It was just for a few days, and he was gone. And that was it: never heard or saw from him again, though I always hesitated about joining social networks under my real name: just in case. It turns out he died a few years ago, so we’re all safe.

Luton wasn’t all bad: I got to see a decent dentist for the first and only time in my life: he was the one who replaced the horrible plastic plate with a porcelain bridge and crown.

And there came a time when I finally caught a break and got a job. I was not happy about this. After 18 months on the dole, I’d grown perfectly used to having no money, to wanting nothing, and to having all my time to myself. But every now and then you’d get called into the DHSS for one of those interviews where they grill you about how many jobs you’ve applied for. It wasn’t as bad as it is now, but it felt bad at the time. So when that was coming up, I applied for a few vacancies, including one at the Inland Revenue as a Clerical Assistant.

Here’s how ridiculous things were back then for me. I had eight (good) ‘O’ levels but no ‘A’ levels. And because I’d left school without finishing the ‘A’ levels, a cloud of suspicion, somehow, hung over me. It’s still something I have to gloss over in my CV, all these years later. Employers have absolutely zero empathy when it comes to biographical details like, left home/school when I was 18 because my parents were impossible. To be a Clerical Assistant in the civil service, you needed two (two) ‘O’ levels. To be the higher graded Tax Officer, you needed five. So I was over-qualified by a long way for the CA job. Still, I reported to the DHSS interviewer that I’d applied, and he dutifully wrote the details down, muttering, ‘Let me see what I can do,’ which was ominous.

What happened next was, I got an interview. Well, this never happened. I didn’t even have, after 18 months of virtually no money, a decent pair of trousers or a shirt and tie. I had to call on the charity of my mother, who paid for a pair of smart blue trousers and a shirt/tie combination. There was no budget for a jacket. I assume, to this day, that the interview only happened because someone from the DHSS was able to phone someone at the Inland Revenue and say, do us a favour: give this kid an interview, get him off our books.

As it turned out, the day of the interview was a hot one, and the interviewer commended me for dressing sensibly.

I got the job. I was gutted. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to work: I especially didn’t want to work for the fucking tax office. All the civil service stereotypes haunted me, demonised as they were in the right-wing press. Ironically, the same manager who praised my sensible dress policy at interview would fucking hammer me for everything I wore over the next couple of years, but that’s another story.

But, oh, the shame of it.

It was June 1982, and I was nineteen years old, about to start the job, when the Rolling Stones played at Wembley Stadium. John and Linda and I went to see them.

How was I able to afford this? Maybe there was some friendship charity, but also living with sister #4 was less expensive for me. She wouldn’t accept money for bills or rent, just food, so I had more to spend on myself. Anyway, we went down to London, arranged to stay with sister #2 who was still off the Old Kent Road, and headed off to Wembley early.

We wanted to be at the front, so we waited all day outside the gates and then made a dash for the front of stage area on the pitch when we were finally let in. Then, of course, the long wait for the Stones began. We had to suffer through the J Geils Band (‘Angel is a Centrefold’) and Black Uhuru (god knows) first. Our position wasn’t too bad. I remember being quite close and to one side for J Geils. But then when the Stones came on, there was a surge, as people who had arrived later and found themselves further back decided to force themselves to the front. Drink had been taken. Jagger was on the stage, the opening number was ‘Under My Thumb’. The level of booze-fueled aggression in the air rose by about 3000%.

John and I were all right: both 1.83m tall, we could see over the crowds and hold our own in the pushing and shoving. But Linda, shorter than us by some margin, was being crushed and suffocated, and was looking very distressed as well as being unable to see. We had no option other than to pull out and go further back. So much further back that any excitement engendered by the band had vanished. All I could notice from back there was that the Stones weren’t very good. They were shambolic, out of time, out of synch with each other, and Jagger’s voice (speed of sound) was out of synch with his face and lips on the big screens (speed of light). I think these days they make adjustments to fix that problem.

I basically wanted to go home immediately. And when we finally did leave, and encountered the usual Wembley transport chaos, jumping on a random bus just to get away, I sank into my eve-of-new-job misery. We got off the bus eventually and went on the Long Walk from North London all the way to the Old Kent Road, south of the river, and although we must have talked, I just remember looking back at John and Linda and feeling a simmering resentment, that it had been her fault we’d had to leave the mosh pit and experience the Stones at that non-exciting distance.

Completely irrational, unforgivable, and unfair.

There was some mention of my starting my new job. I don’t want to talk about it, I said, feeling that burn of shame. And later, I must have said to John words to the effect of: I really hate that I have to start this job, and I can’t face Linda, in my shame, for a while. So I don’t want to see her.

Lashing out.

Punishing her for my own weakness and embarrassment.

Still jealous after all these years.

And I never did see her again.

John and Linda split up, must have been within a couple of years, and he went through a series of girlfriends who seemed (to me) to be more or less fictional (I never met a single one of them) until meeting the one he would marry (and divorce, quickly). And although he remained friendly with Linda, and I would occasionally get second hand news of her, I could never push it (because: pride) and he was less and less likely to volunteer information. I learned she’d started working somewhere, that her Dad had bought her a flat.

Years (and years) later, I was briefly in touch with Sean, of glandular fever and bass playing fame, and I was fishing for news about people, all of whom I’d lost touch with. Sean wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d heard that she’d moved to Australia and become a born-again Christian. As unlikely as that sounded, it was also detailed enough to be possible, and I’ve wondered ever since if that’s what happened. I’d be disappointed in her if it was true: she really never seemed the type.

My first day in the Tax Office, a couple of days after seeing Linda for the last ever time, confirmed all my fears about stereotypes. There was the moany, grey haired woman who was as judgemental of others as she was oblivious to her own faults. She smoked heavily (you could in those days, of course) and tched at everybody else’s conversations. There was the frustrated punk rocker, hello Roger; the Trotskyite trade unionist who always saw a bigger, revolutionary picture; there was the careerist suck-up, who would blast through work in order to make himself look better than everyone else, leaving a scorched earth of unfinished business behind him. And there was the nice, slightly posh, girl, who couldn’t quite see that I was her intellectual match, even though I was a lowly clerical assistant and a bit more working class than her. And there was Kim, the girl in white tights, who swished by my desk several times a day and agreed to go for a cup of tea in Debenhams with me, and then more, and more.

Kim could happen, perhaps, because all my bridges had been burned. 

I did see Sarah one more time. Interesting Sarah from the shoe shop; the only girl I ever danced with; Sarah with the Beatles records and the Dansette record player when I was getting over glandular fever: that Sarah. 

I actually saw her in the same building as the tax office: she was with a bunch of girls waiting for another bunch of girls, about to go out for a boozy lunch, I suspect. Maybe it was the eve of someone’s wedding, maybe even hers, a special occasion, but there she was: the pretty blonde girl with the familiar face and the asymmetrical haircut, looking over her shoulder at me, and maybe recognising me. I looked a bit different. When I started in the tax office, I was still growing the bleached blonde out of my hair (everybody thought I was German on that first day), and I continued to dye my hair various colours for the next couple of years. So maybe she thought she recognised me but couldn’t be sure; anyway, nothing was said, and that was that.

I’d been radicalised, first by the NME, then by unemployment, and now by the condition of being an employee: at each stage, I bridled under inequality, under the pressure to conform, and I became an active member of the union, eventually Branch Organiser. I was told, by Dave the Trotskyite, that because of my activites, I was blacklisted, and so it seemed: I couldn’t get any other job, got no promotion until I’d served six years and made that fresh start in a new town. I had many interviews, passed a number of intelligence tests, but (and I at least once got as far as subject to references), it took acceptance at Nottingham University to get me out of there.


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