The Jobcentre(+plus - they are very particular about their +plus) people kindly intimated that a course was on offer that might help me in my quest for gainful employment. They said that if I didn't kindly accept their kind offer, my income might be stopped for an unspecified period of time. So I kindly accepted. The nice lady at Jobcentre+ suggested I bring my CV and see if I could get some advice for how to deal with the seven year gaping hole in my employment record, which seemed utterly sound to me. Then, the day before, another nice lady telephoned me to ask whether I was still intending to turn up, and to say it wasn't really about CVs, but about "self-esteem". Ho hum.
So, off I set, at quarter to eight on the Thursday morning, because I had to sign on that day as well, and the course started at ten, and the traffic on the bus at Headington Roundabout is treacherous in the rush hour. Of course, normally, unemployed people lie in bed all day watching Jeremy Kyle, and I was just doing this for sport. As luck would have it, the bus sailed into town half an hour early, so I had time to falsify my returns in my little "what have you done to justify your existence?" booklet, before walking in to the dole office just after the doors opened at 9. I somehow can't bring myself to join the queue waiting outside. With leisurely haste, they let me sign for the money from the insurance scheme my taxes have been paying for all these years, and I still had time to loiter about a bit. I went into the Register Office to ask whether under the Equal Marriage Act everyone's marriages go down in the same register. Turns out, they do. That surprised, and pleased, me.
And so to A4e. This outfit is an independent company hired by the Department for Work and Pensions (prop: The Rt. Hon. Mr Iain Duncan Smith, MP)to facilitate (for profit) unemployable people back into employment. "Private Eye" has for some time been remarking that they make precisely no difference to a person's chances of actually finding a job, compared with just looking for themselves. I approached the whole process with an open mind.
The most striking thing at first was the hugeness of the office building. It's a great big monster, with a massive staircase, and two lifts, occupying space for several families, and doing, as far as I could see, rather little. The same was true of the office space itself, on the first floor. I counted at least eighteen desks, of which no more than six were actually in use, but presumably all of them were being paid for by our taxes. But it was a nice, light, airy, calm, unbusy, sort of space. You could almost believe the people here were civil servants. But they weren't.
And so to the bizarre crooked room in the corner where the twelve of us were to be taught how to esteem ourselves. It was poorly lit, L-shaped, and the one window was only onto an internal fire escape, through which one couldn't actually escape in the event of a fire. Truly, "design by committee". We were rallied by the lovely and robust Ann, who in another life could have been Theresa May's Good Twin. There was a likeness, in both looks and manner, but with a definite undercurrent of kindliness that the Bad Twin doesn't have. We spent the next two hours dealing with administration. Forty-five minutes were devoted to deciding who was there who shouldn't be, and who was not on the list, but could be, and who was utterly kosher, but still needed to sign twice anyway, and proving who we were with identification documents we had not been asked in advance to bring. Then we had procedures, having to tick boxes to say we were sure that we were not going to be harassed or bullied, bombed, or set fire to, without prior permission in triplicate. There was to be no smoking in the building (I wonder, is that a new thing in public office buildings in 2014?). We were even warned about Weil's Disease. This was a bit of a surprise. When I was a student, a quarter of a century ago, we used to call this "rat syphilis" (you've got admit it's more catchy) and you got it from bad punting. However, we were warned sternly, on the first floor of an apparently waterproof and vermin-free building, to be wary of stagnant water, and the diseases that rats might find, and carry, from it, to bite you. Well, that was helpful.
And finally at noon, we got to "Self-Esteem". And this, it seems, is what this little two-day course was all about. My pet nun at Fairacres long ago found and copied for me a song - "Accentuate the Positive" - and really, you might just as well have played that for a few hours. Apparently for every negative there is a positive. I suppose in the same way that when someone dies you say "well, at least they were alive for a time", or when a baby is born, you say "it could have been dead". This is the key to finding work. You have to think you are the bees' knees, and that the job you have selected is the best thing since sliced bread, and the people interviewing you are the nicest Dutch uncles since it was outlawed.
Gradations were allowed, however; it was acknowledged that not everyone was seeking work just now, it was about "how to move on from where you are". We were given the analogy of being in a lift in a tall building, at the top of which was a job, but all the intermediate floors represented progress. I personally detest lifts, for me they resemble coffins. This did not help. We were told to "make choices for yourself, not for the JobCentre". And also to "imagine the JobCentre as your employer". A little contradictory, but if you don't join them together, charming ideas in their way.
And there, one day melds into the next, because we were not give a programme of what to expect, with timings for when to expect it, and even though we didn't have a timetable, it was quite clear that nothing ran to time. When you've taken services at a crematorium you understand about running to time, and delivering what is expected in whatever time is allowed. Each day was broken by the happy interlude of trays of sandwiches, and fruit and crisps, delivered by Pret a Manger. Charming though this would have been, I just needed to escape from that claustrophobic cage for a while, and instead went to sit in the churchyard of S. Thomas the Martyr, Osney, with its beehives, and John Coombe's House, where I used to live, and the graves of some people I used to know years ago. We could, of course, have been advised to bring our own lunch.
A few themes emerged as proceedings went on - Day Two was about "Action Plans" and "Transferable Skills" (incidentally, I have just written a clearer account of proceedings than we were given ourselves). One was that most of us had had a bruising experience at the hands of Atos, the French-owned private company whose purpose was to drive people with physical or mental health problems off the appropriate benefits and into the arms of the JobCentre. In meeting its targets, Atos has of course completely buggered up the JobCentres in meeting theirs, by forcing a lot of unemployables onto the books. When I mentioned to our Cheer-Leader that she would, of course, also have targets to attain, she went demurely quiet. When it came to transferring skills, we were told that just following the instructions to come to the course was a skill in itself. My contribution of "yes, it shows low cunning, and recognition that your enemy is stronger than you are" did not meet with a genuine smile. And we had a lot of nonsense about how as it is illegal to discriminate against you on the grounds of sex, age, race, and whatnot (sexuality wasn't mentioned, which I found interesting, but I don't think was noticed) then there's no point in fretting about it, because you can't prove it. There is a logic to this, but no justice. It is not ultimately satisfying.
We were also persistently told (rain has persisted down less tediously) that just because we have been rejected for a job at one interview, or application, that doesn't mean it will happen again, because it's a whole new world and a whole new you, now! Oh yes. So it is. My observation that we are taught as children that if we don't learn from experience, we are stupid, did not go down well (except with the other children).
We had to fill in an appraisal form which contained precisely no space for articulated criticism, which suggests a certain institutional weak-bladderedness. But we were told we COULD say what we HAD learnt. I said I had learnt that my deep-seated animosity towards this happy-go-lucky floppy-hatted optimistic flannel was either proof that I am still deeply in the grip of the depression that Atos couldn't diagnose, or that they are mad. I don't imagine this will go down well. I don't imagine it will be read at all. Which is why I am writing this.
The last time I asked them for help, they sent me to a lady who said "I think you should make your CV a little less interesting".
This, my fellow citizens, is where our taxes are going.