Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Half a Day in the Life of a Dole Scrounger

The rather sleazy-sounding Floyd's Row is a place I've known for long years. It's not very far from Christ Church, just down St Aldates (one of those saints who never actually existed) and next to the police station. As an undergraduate, I don't think I even noticed the street sign to this tiny street, tending only to remember the names of roads when there's something interesting or useful in them. But then I was unemployed for a time, and being no stranger to the dole office (in those days students were allowed to sign on in the summer vacations, and not permitted to work, that's how old I am) I went to sign on, and discovered that Floyd's Row was the place to do it. It was a shabby little space, with a few cubicled offices the other side of a queueing area fenced with snaking ropes. All very perfunctory "have you done any work? sign here" and off we popped. Unlike now, no pathetic attempts were made at rehabilitation. Thank goodness.

Years later, I had to return to sort out a payment that had gone wrong. It was entirely changed, a new entrance, with a ramp, a line of ten glitzed up offices behind strong glass, seating for those who had to wait (and as I recall, it was a long wait), even lavatories, and peopled on the peasants' side by a hundred or more souls, mostly characters I recognised from my few ghastly, traumatising, months working at the Oxford Night Shelter. These were the reason for the sign saying that anyone noticing hypodermic needles in the lavatories must notify the staff.

Yesterday I had to go there again to secure a dole scrounger's discount bus pass. It's taken about six months to qualify. The place was the same, but like a ghost town. I arrived with one other person, who quickly left, and I was alone. A security guard emerged from a room full of CCTV screens (or just as likely real TV screens, for all the action that was happening) and told me to go to Booth One and I would be dealt with. Slowly, slowly, I was. The nice lady took my form, and my passport photographs, sniffing a bit about having to find some scissors (what are the odds that if I'd done that bit myself they'd have told me it was wrong?) and to sit down and wait to be called back. I couldn't sit down. It was too eerie being in a place meant to be full of people, in broad daylight, in the busy time, and yet deserted, except for the security guards and office munchkins behind the scenes. To sit down would have been like standing on a chair in a doctor's waiting room, but that might only make sense to me. So, I paced. And for rather a long time, given that they weren't exactly pushed for work. A different munchkin finally summoned me to Booth Eight, and I wondered if they rotate which booths they use to keep the cleaners busy. The card was issued and I jovially supposed they must be preparing to sell up and move out, but no, this vast, empty, pointless, purpose-built, office complex was being kept on, because of that strong glass, for dealing with difficult types, cash, and valuable things like 3-month bus passes. Would I be more, or even less, likely to be employed if I were not the sort of person who notices this scandalous waste of our taxes?

And so, despite the wait, with time on my hands, time for a wander. I headed for Folly Bridge, and passed a fat man in a black cassock, with what was left of his balding hair scraped on the back of his head in what I'd call a ponytail, as that was the right location, but which really looked more like a bun. What with the black frock, and the miserable expression, he could almost have passed for Queen Victoria with a beard. And so to the river which links the city of my birth to this city of my adoption. The mallards were out in force, shouting and swearing, even though the breeding season is over, and there's really no call for it. The gentler and softly-spoken geese (but I have kept geese, I know this is just a front) were floating along in their flotilla, this year's new stock only distinguishable from the adults because their voices haven't yet broken. The banks were full of blackberries, a few already ripe, and nettles, which always are. Then I realised I was going nowhere interesting, so headed back for Christ Church Meadow, to make a round trip before my appointment at Nuffield College.

The view from the river to the colleges - you can't see anything of the city - is one I never tire of, although I realise it's becoming increasingly obscured by the success of the trees in the Meadow itself, and along the Broad Walk. Although novel to me, this restores the sight that Oxford people would have had from the time that Dean Fell's trees matured (they were planted in 1670) until the time they were felled by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. When we first came up, I remember my friend the Colonel's father telling us that the loss of those mighty trees was the biggest change to the place since he left it as a student in the late 1940s. The next biggest change was the scraping of the smog grime from Christ Church library and its restoration to how it would have looked until the Industrial Revolution, aided and abetted by the Thames mist, did their worst. It was rather touching that a Corpus man should have such strong memories of a neighbouring college. I can't remember anything at all about Corpus (except that we used to call them Corpuscles).

Having taken not the Broad Walk, but Dead Man's Walk (so named because it was the route from the Synagogue to the Jewish cemetery in Mediaeval times, when there was neither Tom Tower nor the Botanical Gardens to mark the beginning and end) and out through one of the three bicycle-deterrent gates on the Meadow. I had entered through the least-used one, at the back of the Head of the River pub, and this one slinks along between Merton and Corpus Christi Colleges. Yesterday, these gates being designed to slow down undergraduates, rather than speed up tourists, it was rather a lengthy wait to get through, but funny to see how it made some people cross, but others curious. They're probably Listed. The gates, not the tourists.

Town was more than its usual hectic self, being infested with the full crop of summer tourists, mainly my fellow Americans and Orientals, and Oriental Americans. I've always wished I could discern the different American accents better, but they were out in force yesterday. I think they all have their merits, but there are learned ways of speaking which are not so appealing. Some American voices are like smoked honey, others like wire wool scraping across glass. I suppose the same is true of voices from all over the world, but these are my cousins, so they interest me.

And so to Nuffield. Well, not Nuffield College itself, sadly, which I think is rather an attractive place, with the only spire in Oxford to contain not church bells but a library, but an outhouse they have in the mews behind. They run an outfit deliciously named CESS (been meaning to mention that to them for years, but it just never came up in conversation), which is the Centre of Experimental Social Science. Every so often they tout for trade in the local papers and impoverished, idle, but literate, people are paid small sums on top of their bus fare to sit in front of a computer screen and play mind games, or do questionnaires. Once I even ended up in a "focus group". It was very exciting. I was the only person there wearing a Panama hat.

After an hour and a half, clutching my £4 travel expenses, and £13.30 winnings, paid almost entirely in pound coins, rather annoyingly, which I promptly blew on a cleaning spray for my glasses and a bottle of not so cheap gin from Tesco's, I headed for the bus stop. I'd taken the Risinghurst bus in the morning, having just missed the Barton one actually in Barton, and preferring to keep walking to the next stop rather than wait, but on the way home it meant ending my journey in Headington. But I had candles to light and the ancient church in Headington is always open in the daytime.

And so it proved. After a little while remembering those on my mind at the moment, for whom I can offer no more material assistance, I sat in the chancel and I had a little chat with God. No one was about, so I could speak aloud. I felt a bit like Don Camillo.

Finally, a slow, cheerful walk home in the sunshine, under the ring road through the subway, and out to the top of Barton, with a view of the village, and the countryside beyond, yesterday under the most glorious Oxford blue sky, which is another of which I shall never tire, and home to cheerful cats, exhausted feet, and the realisation that the wretched people in the Dole Office didn't give me back the spare photos. Those cost a fiver. Drat. Only one job to do, and they couldn't even do that properly.

Richard Haggis
July 2014