Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Adventures in insurance: the Lloyd’s year, 1990-1991. Part three (of five): it gets nastier. On both sides.

…in which our boy grows the first of many beards. Pisses off many people. The two are partly connected.

If you’ve come straight from the previous insurance entry on this blog, thank you and welcome back. Do feel you can skip the next paragraph if need be. For the rest of you, here’s a brief recap and dramatis personae:

Left school. No A Levels. Landed cushy, dispensable job in London agency. Five weeks of fun. Assisted by Daddy, finds serious job at Lloyd’s brokerage, processes claims forms, hopes to ascend career ziggurat. Principal characters: horsey boss Andrea, simian, huge-handed deputy Rick, cheeky funster Richard ‘Col’ Collander, his underling Don and smart Essex Girl Michelle. Has epiphanic moment: regrets decision to work here within two days of joining, decides to put misgivings aside for six months and see what happens. Makes a note of decision date in desk calendar. Gets on with job. Wow, my last blog took about 1,800 words more to say all that. Pressure is a great motivator. But oh, I do like to waffle so — and boy, you’re gonna get it this time around. It’s all about the telling less than the tale, though, don’t you think?

The crazy world of Lloyd’s Of London insurance. First off, I set about learning the esoteric methods employed, presumably for generations before me, to prepare the claims documents for broking. Unfortunately, I encountered, instantly, too many personality clashes for coincidence. Michelle showed me — with very little grace or patience — how to write the lines of the claims out and total up the figures requiring payment by the underwriters. In order to maintain legibility, she claimed, every line of information had to be handwritten on the claims form with a ruler. Try it: this instantly renders zeroes and Os as egg shapes with flattened bottoms. What do you do with letters such as y, g, j and other drop-tailed characters, I asked? You write them without the tails and add them in later. This was all supposed to render the claims form information in a uniform fashion irrespective of the individual eccentricities of any one’s personal script, but to my eyes it made everything on this highly important and precise document read like it was set out in that funky ovoid font used on the side of a packet of Spangles and early Van der Graaf Generator albums. Some time later I noticed Michelle writing out a greetings card, ruler dutifully under writing hand, keeping it level. A bloody greetings card.

Andrea soon displayed a wild oscillation between friendliness and a condescending, brittle attitude. I quickly concluded that the latter made up the majority of her manner and the former merely a momentary aberration from it. Col revealed a wonderfully quick-witted and sick sense of humour, plus a propensity for making up disparaging songs about other people in the office. I rather liked him initially, but the feeling was not mutual. He was destined to be the person I probably spent most time with in the office and doubtless this familiarity bred his contempt for me. All my attempts to discuss anything outside of the work in hand with any degree of enthusiasm would be batted aside with a snippy comment, although I was left to watch as he pointedly indulged in office banter with everyone else. On Friday lunchtimes, he would get drunk and return to the office in a mixture of bullish joviality and open hostility. I spent numerous Friday afternoons on the receiving end of increasingly insulting questions during which I would be frequently referred to, with an uncharacteristic lapse of Col wit, as ‘a cunt’. Henceforward I reverted to calling him ‘Richard’ at every opportunity, making me the only person in the office not to use his nickname.

Don fancied himself as much as a piss-taker as Richard, but he wasn’t in the same league of brightness and was destined forever, in the office as much as in my mind right now, to be his inferior sidekick, his feed-man. From Don I learned an essential bit of vocabulary when discussing the female genitalia: ‘vag-piece’. How nice. The one time I remember bonding with him over anything was the time he asked me if I could acquire any cannabis in return for a hooky copy of Back To The Future Part III on videotape — and as luck would have it, I had some seeds. I wish I can recall where I got them, but really, I can’t. Anyway, I brought some in and we tried planting them in the soil surrounding the big tree within the office. Oddly, It never occurred to me at that this was naughty — I rather suspected that the narcotic of choice, if any, for the average insurance broker was cocaine — as well it might have been there, at the fag end of the Eighties. Besides, they probably weren’t even marijuana pods. In any case, nothing grew for Don or me.

The other egregious Dick — sorry — Rick knew how to use his outsized hands and the girls in the office would often be on the end of impromptu massages, which I am recounting, in this current age of industrial tribunals and harassment hearings, with absolute incredulity. He was a smug geezer was Rick, suspicious of academia, having been a successful broker on leaving school at 16 — and given to be rather lordly in his dealings with the temp girls and me.

Rick’s approach to me had echoes in everyone else in the office. I was viewed with suspicion: the spoddy, bespectacled loser who’d wasted two years, trying and failing to get further qualifications while the rest of my colleagues had been making their insurance bones. Additionally, my accent was distinctly Home Counties compared to the Estuarine accents of most of my cohorts, a detail I had learned of old rarely mitigated in my favour. The posh boy. The one whose Daddy got him the job.

It occurs to me that I may have had sufficient grounds to level accusations of bullying and social harassment,  but I imagine that this particular 19-year-old had neither the wit nor the recourse to give it consideration. I’d further surmise that a cry of hassle to a male employee in the early Nineties would not be taken too seriously. Most of all, I must stress that I never truly felt like that much of a victim. In actual fact, I think I was never more suitably equipped as I was then in the noble and subtle art of Not Giving Too Much Of A Shit.

There’s one other thing I’ve not mentioned — something you may well have deduced: I was monumentally crap at my job. I just couldn’t get into it. The accounts side of it involved precisely the kind of maths I had gone to such pains avoiding in my school career. I had to make weekly phone calls to certain underwriters to remind them of monies they owed. Such humourless and unnecessarily impatient people. Much of the rest of my work involved either tedious data input for hours at my desk or physical filing of dusty boxes full of dog-eared documents dating back decades — or hours spent in either the office cellar or one in a run-down building down the road. The briefest fun could be had from finding a policy covering celebrity insurance. Finding a photocopy of a medical certificate from Les Dawson’s GP dating back to the early Eighties, countersigned by both Mr Dawson and my father, attesting to the exemplary state of his client’s health, was momentarily diverting. One of the more protracted claims I worked on so incompetently was for the payouts after poor Natalie Wood drowned in mysterious circumstances in 1981. The very lovely Ms Wood was filming Brainstorm at the time and the movie’s producers, fearing the tragedy could derail their precious flick so near to completion, had called in some big favours of Lloyd’s underwriting Syndicates. Large sums of money were still being claimed, piecemeal, when I was processing the claims forms nine years later. After you’ve seen Natalie Wood’s death certificate for the fortieth time the fascination wears off.

I did my best not to let things show. Despite my colleagues’ sharp comments to the contrary, I felt the best ways to learn were — are — to make mistakes, ask questions and get stuck into it.  So I kept my head down and inwardly detested it — the dullest, most illogical and timeserving work I have ever undertaken — and believe me, I’ve worked in Argos. With the advent of computerised accounts systems I understand the job, such as it exists today, has become streamlined and likely more pleasurable — but this was 1990. No need to imagine the scene: take a good look at the set dressing for the first series of Drop The Dead Donkey and you’ll see what we were all up against. Clunky blocks of cathode ray tube glass encased in chunky hard plastic of a dirt-showing beige. The keyboards, still essentially modelled on typewriter analogues, could easily double as Shiatsu neck massagers once you shook the crumbed bits of bacon sarny out from between the keys. The single office laser printer took anywhere between 10 to twenty minutes to run off a sheet — provided the server didn’t detect another user, or else there’d be a delay. Make one mistake, and you had to amend and reprint from the comfort of your green-screen monitor. Believe me, no one thought this was a miracle of modern technology — it was a pain in the arse, although I do remember how gratifying it was to see something you typed printed flawlessly onto Conqueror vellum weave in a serif-y font — it made it seem more ‘real’. The photocopier was kept in a separate room as it was wider than a Smart Car, twice as long, almost as high and made a hellish racket as it rattled off copies. They were built to last in those days, though; I never remember it breaking down once.

At this point you may be forgiven for thinking that my run-ins with my workmates were at the very least due in some part to me. I’ll admit it reads that way. I have outlined on sufficient occasions what an arrogant and cocksure little sod I could be, particularly as a teenager. I have no doubt that I entered the job in good faith — I felt a lot was riding on me. Between the lines of my Diary can be detected a great deal of puzzlement and no small degree of hurt. I had enjoyed good relations with everyone at my previous job, and I didn’t want for friends outside of work either. Consequently, my present situation did not compute. Little by little, in the dwindling weeks of 1990, I started to withdraw into myself. Only my friends Chris and Rich, similarly shortchanged by school work, were local enough to see with any frequency. Otherwise, my time was occupied with visits from my brother, his wife and their newborn daughter; their first child, whom I quickly made sure was exposed to a subliminal diet of the Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. Such is being Uncle.

I bought CDs in abundance and spent most evenings in my bedroom catching up on the super sounds of the Seventies in solitude and making compilation tapes for my Walkman. My Diary at this point is often no more than a list of everything I was buying in absence of anyone else to spend my wages on. I was envious of my friends who had started their University courses and not easily contactable. Many of my Saturdays were spent sitting in the living room with my father, staring vacantly at the TV screen as he watched Grandstand. I don’t recall a single thing I watched. I just felt wiped out at the end of every week — and not due to a heavy Friday night session; no one would drink with me and I didn’t want to do the same, so it was straight home to my parents’ every evening. What a shame that any resemblance to Drop The Dead Donkey in the workplace didn’t extend to the cast. I’d have happily settled for a lunchtime snifter of white wine with George Dent in those days.

Amidst this self-pity, I started to foment. Petty acts of micro-resistance. To begin, it was time to try growing a beard again. My previous attempt was pathetic, yielding clumps of typically adolescent bum-fluff on my top lip and a healthy growth of what can only be described as pubes on my cheeks — the cheeks on my face — and chin. It had been about six months since I’d let myself go enough to get it to this stage. Now I didn’t care: official. I encouraged a marginally healthier-looking fungus to flourish on my face, to the despair of my father. It was all right for him; he had a proper ‘tache and looked like Arthur Lowe’s harder elder brother. I had to start somewhere. Anyway, he was obliged to cease complaining when one of his friends visited and tugged my sideburns affectionately, pronouncing, “Ey, Aloysius, I like your mutton chops!”

The hirsute horror did not go down well at work, but I had accurately estimated their reactions to a fine degree: instead of asking me to buy a razor and shave it off in my lunchbreak, I was given the kind of berth accorded tramps on Underground carriages. I also knew that the face foliage ensured that I’d be kept in the office in shame, only rarely allowed to ride the broker’s minibus up to the Lloyd’s Underwriting Rooms to do trade. I had bumped myself down the ranks with a beard.

You may leave school, but it never leaves you, said XTC’s Andy Partridge once. I found myself falling back on those old playground survival tactics. The affected, arrogant schoolboy surfaced again. Whether I was truly cleverer or intellectually superior to these people was irrelevant: I believed it and that’s all that mattered. Insouciance crept in. Cheek — not just the hirsute kind — entered into my conversational tone. Until now I had tried getting things right and worked myself up into hot-faced mini-panics when things went awry as a result, but now — fuck it. I started to embrace the chaos and take a deadly pride in my mistakes. Rick already thought I was some kind of collegiate type slumming it in the City, but to be fair to him, he rated my intelligence. Interestingly, I found out, no doubt as a side-effect of this, that he believed everything I said.

“Paul, it’s taken you three weeks to process this form.”

Yes, Richard. It used to visibly needle him, calling him that.

“It’s a claim for two million pounds. That’s a lotta bucks, Paul.”

Yes, Richard.

“I’m not being funny, Paul, but you don’t seem to appreciate what a big deal it is.”

I’m sorry, Richard, it just doesn’t seem that way to me.

“What do you mean, Paul?”

Well, it’s just numbers on a piece of paper to me, Richard.

“Numbers?! On a piece of paper?! Where on earth did you get that stee-yoopid idea from?”

From Andrea. She told me that in my interview. Points theatrically over to where madam is sitting.

I can still see Rick, so very clearly, the compact little shaved monkey-boy, blond eyebrows furrowing as he clenched in his seat, huge hands dropping the form on the desk and then, behind an audibly gritted smile, mutter, “You’re pushing it, sonny.”

I was brought out of self-imposed exile at home on Hallowe’en night, for a trip to the Comedy Store in Leicester Square with members of the old school guard. Some of them are well worth mentioning: my good friend June, unassumingly brilliant then just as she is now, down from her first term at Oxford; my future first girlfriend Christine: witty, lovely and just a little crazy — she didn’t know how much I was in love with her. Then again, I was callow and nineteen, so she probably did. There was Kevin, unnaturally dour and cynical for one so young. We clashed again and yet again. I reckon we’d get on pretty well these days. Tony, a cocky, breezily outgoing Northerner with dark red spiky hair and a generally superb taste in music. A terrible guitarist, but never dull. We were more alike than I’d care to have admitted and naturally, we fell out as hard as we fell in from one day to the next. Last and least, Stefan, a prick. Twenty years hence has not dulled this perception. According to my Diary, I intended to buy some vodka and have a good time, but writing a day later:

Yeah, I bought some vodka — didn’t have a really good time but it was OK…didn’t go to Comedy Store; went to a pub after wasting some hours.

What my wretched journal fails to mention in those wasted hours is how I bought a large tub of McDonald’s cola and topped it up with the voddie. This was passed round all passengers in the car in the journey from central London back to Sidcup. No Congestion Charge in those days — nor shame neither. By the time we had crossed over London Bridge, the tub contained no more than ice slush. I asked to pull over when we got to Southwark, right outside the place of my employment. Three o’clock in the morning on a school night and no CCTV cameras. Lurching up to the forecourt, I stood before the grand old church building containing my office and proceeded to rant drunkenly, noisily at the bell tower framed, sharp but unimpressed, against the chilly night sky. A good minute or so of solid invective later, I slung the container and its slurried contents at the front door in impotent rage, ducked back in the car and scarpered, quick-smart. There was no trace of the mess when I arrived at work, deeply hungover, several hours later. You’d have thought my Diary would have chronicled this tiny act of teenage rebellion, but my mind must have been elsewhere.

Vodka and I renewed acquaintance at Christmas time. The occasion of the office party: free drinks and nibbles, held at a smart, old-fashioned boozer in the arches of London Bridge station. I maintained distance from my colleagues and got busy on vodka and coke, scotch and coke, anything and coke — but mostly Smirnoff. My spell-checker suggests ‘voodoo’ as an alternative to ‘voddie’. How brilliant! I certainly exhibited all outward signs of the walking dead that evening. I can’t recall a single word to anyone — nothing coherent in any case. Homeward bound, I hung my head out of the window on the train into blasts of icy cold air that cut soothingly through the nausea and froze my features off — in the vain hope that somehow it wouldn’t be as bad throwing up with a numb face. I got off at Orpington Station and promptly puked copiously on the platform: once, twice, thrice — the first, but sadly not the last time I would ever be sick on booze in my entire life. Everything felt better in that euphoric rush of well-being that comes with fresh air on the cold sweat and the passing of nausea post-vomit. I repressed the play button on my Walkman and strutted with ill-advised cockiness down to the town centre with Jethro Tull’s ‘Minstrel In The Gallery’ ringing triumphantly between my ears. Smooth operator. I vowed never to touch vodka again. To this day I rarely drink the stuff. The last time I drank large quantities of it was in New York, 1999, when I met Matt Dillon and freaked him out. Ah, that’s for another time, maybe. Hm, yes.

A wild, wet, windy Christmas Day saw me laid in bed with the onset of a stinking, nauseating cold that lasted all the way into New Year — or ‘flu’ as I called it. My Diary on Boxing Day recounts what presents I received, but nothing compelled me to write in it after that for three weeks into the New Year. 1990, a year that had started with me as a fulsome, garrulous schoolboy, ended with me feeling ill, sad, lonely, disenfranchised and stuck in a job I hated with colleagues who despised me — and worse still, a sneaking sense that I didn’t like myself very much to boot. All-in-all, a whimper, a palpable whimper. Little did I know what lay in store for me in 1991. Wonderful things!

As I’d have said to my 19-year-old self: hang on in there!


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)
Unicorn (Hesperus, 1997)

Currently reading:

Currently watching:
The Bounder (Yorkshire Television, 1982-1983)
Drop The Dead Donkey: Series 1 (Channel 4, 1990)


  1. So, all this wonderful personal history and all I can comment on is..."Currently watching The Bounder"?

    That said, my "Currently Watching" is Artemis 81...

  2. I thought of you when I saw THAT logo in the title sequence. They neatly frame it within the barred window of a cell door, but you and I both know it cannot be contained for long!

    Thanks for reading, dear boy - I am just about to read your new one myself...