…in which our hero has the first of two epiphanic moments.
“What’s your name?” said the tall, burly, curly haired chap.
“I’m Paul, but my friends call me Murph” I offered, hopefully.
“In that case, I’m gonna call you Paul,” he replied evenly, his sad eyes momentarily lighting with a devilish flicker. Welcome to the world of insurance in the big city.
September 1990. I had failed my A Levels the previous June but possessed what I liked to think was a sunny disposition and bags of self-belief — although the latter, on reflection, was tempered and twisted by a frankly shocking level of arrogance that thankfully confined itself largely to inner thoughts and my dreadful Diary entries. I stumbled into my first full-time job in August as an office junior for an insurance personnel recruitment agency in the heart of the City. The work, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, was to a lad of my sensibilities then somewhat on the perfunctory, simplistic and menial side, but in truth entirely suited to someone of my age and experience. I delivered letters on foot, filed forms and press cuttings, undertook large amounts of photocopying and, naturally, my share of the tea making. It was a truly joyous, exciting, inspirational and educational time, due almost entirely to one simple fact: the people I worked with were fantastic. They were largely lively, intelligent, stylish, confident and good at drinking — or at least any four out of those five. It was never going to be a job for life of course, and after five weeks and numerous interviews, I had secured myself what I referred to as a proper job. My colleagues told me I’d found a proper job, too, praising my good fortune to land a position in a Lloyd’s Of London brokerage.
A week shy of my 19th birthday and I was going to be broking! At Lloyd’s Of London! How big and glamorous this felt at the time. My new place of work was not in either Richard Rogers’ the iconic ‘inside-out’ structure on Leadenhall Street, ‘the 1986 building’ as we called it — nor the austere grandeur of the previous trading rooms on Lime Street known as ‘the 1958 building’. No, my new office, based near London Bridge had been converted from the shell of an old church, complete with bell tower still intact and functional, so I was told. The accounts department were housed in the choir lofts, accessible as it had been in ecumenical days by a flight of narrow wooden steps. I worked in the main area, the vast open space of the interior proper, with nothing between me and the vaulted ceiling some 30 feet above. Some of the directors sat, fittingly, raised from the rest of the staff by the dais that once supported the altar. Where pews were once arrayed sat large, old, wooden desks in open-plan blocks of three or four, an enormous green-screen monitor with a chunky, chocolate-block keyboard attached on every desktop — this being 1990 after all. Files lined the walls everywhere. At the very centre of the room to complete this Harry Potterish collision of Victorian Gothica and City Boy technophistication stood a living tree, incongruously held fast in earth contained in an enormous wooden bucket about 10 feet in diameter, the rim of which came up to my shoulder. It was arcane and exciting. Lloyd’s Of London was, and remains — however battle-worn — the equivalent to insurance of what EMI is to the record industry. Only much classier, believe me. At least it should have been. Decorum requires me to make name changes across the board from here on in.
“Sorry, am I keeping you up?” said Andrea, the horsey, statuesque floor manager of my department during my interview the previous week. I had yawned involuntarily. Flushed, flustered and caught out, I made some vague and weedy excuse of having a sleepless night with the nerves of this, my impending interview. She snorted — I remember this distinctly.
“You’ll be processing claims forms and passing exchanges consisting of millions of pounds,” Andrea continued, “but it won’t seem like a big deal as it’ll just be numbers on a piece of paper.”
I nodded enthusiastically and probably half-winked in that way that shows your total, complicit understanding of what the job entailed. In the end, I concluded to myself that my honesty in the face of my faux-pas may have come across as the right kind of stuff. In any event, I was in.
Before I became a professional broker, I had to learn the trade from scratch — no lessons in Marine/Non-Marine Excess Of Loss Claims processing at school, of course. I shan’t trouble you with the details of this, but you’ll appreciate, like most apprenticeships, that there’s a great deal of peripheral work before the broker can take his claims to the underwriters and make deals — the actual wording, physical composition and compilation of these documents into a large folder known as a ‘brief’ for a start. This is what I would learn before I even set foot on the hallowed marble halls of Lloyd’s Of London.
At this point I looked to my new colleagues for guidance. Meet the team. You’ve already met Andrea, the cantering floor manager. You’ve also had the pleasure of Richard Collander, known to his friends as ‘Col‘ — he was the be-ringleted chap who made the introductions at the beginning. Sat beside him was a tall, handsome, rangy lad a couple of months my senior, who managed to skitter in Col’s tow with a puppyish manner that belied his size. This was Don, who announced soon after we met to be mad-keen on The Farm, who had recently enjoyed a hit single with the infectious ‘Groovy Train’. Don also claimed to be able to procure the most recent cinema releases on bootleg VHS.
Rick was the other Richard in the office. Take an albino gorilla, shave strategically, apply liberal splashes of Blue Stratos, squeeze him into shirtsleeves and give him hands the size of Pat Jennings: the resemblance was truly remarkable.
Michelle added a touch of Essex Girl glamour, if that’s not too much of a contradiction. The de rigeur perma-tan and perma-curls didn’t entirely ruin her essentially smartly packaged attractiveness. She was lively, loud, sharp and most of the men in the office liked her a lot. Sharon, also from Essex, was not attractive at all. Nor do I remember her actually doing much work, although I soon learned she was breeding. Towards the end of her tenure we all knew, as we would receive regular updates across the office on how much and how often she was discharging colostrum. Classy lady.
Owen was training to be a lawyer, but earning some decent dough to get him through college on the side. Blonde, bespectacled, he was a dead ringer for Wesley Wyndham-Price in the Buffy and Angel tv series. He had an effortless, easygoing manner and was rightly liked by everyone. He left not long after I joined to qualify. Cormac was Irish as the day is long, short, cheeky and compact like a jockey, with an appalling gingery mullet ‘do and a pronounced brogue that very few people in the office could understand. Oddly, I could. We got on well. Shame he left after a few months too.
Finally, there was Anita, pale and skinny, with a massive explosion of naturally curly hair and chirpy, elfin features. I never quite worked out what she did in the office, but she drifted through with enigmatic serenity clutching files and making frequent trips to the upstairs choir loft to talk to accountants. She thought I was sweet. There were other people in the office, most notably the Company Directors, but their interactions with me were minimal. The cast above constituted the corpus of colleagues I saw on a daily basis.
My Diary entry from the day after I started work sketches a crisp, bleak thumbnail of what would become the next nine months. Between clearly more interesting details of my sister’s 24th birthday, the album I bought for her (Inspiral Carpets, principally famous for the shoegazing classic ‘This Is How It Feels’) and the CDs and videos I bought for myself over the previous weekend, we have this curt bit of phrasing:
Started new job yesterday — HARDER than [my previous job] IPS. It’s not great — the people are OK etc but it’s tough — will get easier.
If I close my eyes I can even visualise the dust motes shining gauzily through the church windows as I stood among tall filing cabinets laden with aging policy documents — and re-experience that precise, clanging and indeed epiphanic moment, the afternoon of my second day of employment.
This Job Is Not For Me.
I can even bring back, with eidetic emotional sensation, the rapid-fire conflict that ensued in my head. It’s too soon to be saying that, Paul, I reasoned, work at it for six months and see how you feel then. At least you’d have given it a shot. Wise words from one so young. With this in mind, several weeks later, with the end of 1990 in sight and taking delivery of a brand new tear-off desk calendar, I wrote on the page for Monday, 18th March, 1991 — six months hence from that second day at work:
If you are reading this now, leave now. You’ve changed, Paul, you’re not the person you used to be. GET OUT NOW!
What brought on this instant, intellectually allergic reaction to a career I had spent little more than a day and a half upon? I am afraid I really cannot say for certain, but I would imagine I had experienced a deep level of culture shock I simply had not felt when I joined my previous job. I had never been so sure of anything in my life till then. I am aware now that I was effectively setting in motion a self-determining, self-fulfilling prophecy, but you must accept my assurance that I did my best to give this moment as little thought as possible. It was time to crack on, and crack on I did.
Almost instantly, the cracks started to appear in this plan. There is a happy ending to the tale, but that’s still a few months off. In the meantime, I spent possibly the longest period of sustained misery I have ever undergone. In nine months I pissed away my promise and potential in the lucrative domain of insurance broking and systematically made enemies of nearly everyone I worked with. There was only one thing to do under such circumstances. The time-honoured Porridge solution to institutionalised tyranny: you can’t beat the system, but you can score those ‘little victories’. It was time to use my brains the best way I knew how and get weaving — and I don’t mean mail bags.
The story gets worse before it gets better. But it’s funny, too. I’ll tell you all about it next time. But first, a drink.
Currently listening to:
The Future Now (Peter Hammill, 1978)
And Close As This (Peter Hammill, 1986)
The Rising Of The Lights (William D Drake, 2011)
Red Dwarf VI-VIII (BBC, 1993-1999)
Red Dwarf: Back To Earth (Dave, 2009)
The Bounder (Yorkshire Television 1982-1983)