Friday, December 09, 2005

Geography, and Knowing your Place

Norman Wisdom solves world crisis.

SOME years ago I was browsing in a Job Centre within sight of Big Ben when I spotted a job card on which the only qualifications required seemed to be British nationality and parentage. On enquiring I was told to write to the government department concerned. Being not so much optimistic as desperate at the time, I did. As a result, much to my surprise, a few months and an application form later, I stepped into an elegant stuccoed terrace house near St.James' Park and sat down to an aptitude test.
I had better go careful on detail as the government is swinging out with the Official Secrets Act, But anyway, you'll be relieved to know that my codebreaking skills, fieldcraft and small arms expertise were not examined. I just had to play an amusing computer game juggling supposed room users among a set of meeting rooms on a diagram, do some sums, and proof-read columns of figures.
Friends, and even more my late beloved parents oleh b'shalom, would be surpised to hear I passed.

But then came a short preliminary interview, just to see if I was worth sending before the proper interview panel. "You mention that you are interested in better understanding between nations. What do you mean by that?" The interviewer's expression of distaste did not look too encouraging As to my mention of visits to Israel and Bosnia to illustrate my interest in world affairs, this seemed to strike her as highly suspect. And that wasn't all.

"Under 'administrative experience' you say that you took part in a committee arranging a trade union conference. ... Do you think trade unions have any place in the modern world?"
She affects incredulity. I say, affecting a sage statesmanlike air, that yes, people do need representation in the workplace and it can make for better relations. I sense she is not impressed.

It gets trickier. The Department is part of the civil service, the interviewer explains, and has to work with the governemnt of the day, regardless of its political complexion. Sounds fair enough.
"We can't let our own political views influence us...Do you have any strong political convictions yourself?"

"Well", I drawl, trying to sound old and wise again, "when I was young I thought things were simple, but as I get older I realise the world is more complex, and there's more than one side to the story...." The interviewer seems about to yawn as I waffle on. OK, better give her something. "I suppose you could say I'm still a socialist of sorts...."

"You realise the panel will take a dim view of that!"
Oh well, and there I was nearly forgetting that in Britain "no politics" means being safely conservative.

On to easier questions. How well would I get on working with younger people, would I wear a tie, what did I think I could contribute to the job? I venture to say that I am industrious, resilient, have a sense of humour, and ....
"My knowledge of geography might come in handy"

"You'll get no chance to use that here!"

I'm not sure if her indignant tone is genuine or meant to test my afore-mentioned sense of humour. I can't resist a slight grin as I remember the moment in "Carlton Brown of the FO" when they are desperately searching through dusty old maps to find out where on earth a suddenly-important island is.

A day or so later I heard that I had not got the job. Pity. I wasn't seriously expecting to save the world or set Britain's policies right, but it had seemed a nice place to work, and sorting out who went into which room might have been fun, even if my status might have been like Norman Wisdom in that other film, coming to work among the mandarins, with his sandwiches and flask in a carrier-bag marked in biro "E II R" Still, I wouldn't have to struggle into a tie.

Talking to a mate in the pub, he laughs when I get to the geography bit. "Of course, you know that Giles works in that Department don't you?"


Giles is a young chap who comes in the same pub, nice chap, always looks neat and smart, white collars and dark tie, trim moustache, an expert on military bands I'm told, but I'd taken his place in the pub quiz team when he was dumped for too many duff answers.

It occurs to us then that there is method in the ministry's madness. So long as you have a fellow who can put the files in order or take a message, you don't want them taking too much interest in the places the files are about, or which airport someone is 'phoning from. Or you might indeed have someone with opinions, even a "security risk". Worse, on hearing Sir Montague Ffortescue-Smythe saying he doesn't know where some godforsaken island is, or confusing his Slovenia and Slovakia, say, a lowly menial might forget their place, and seek to advise or correct their better - and such lese majesty, as we know, could seriously undermine society. (I know, I've sometimes made the mistake of trying to be helpful in other jobs, it's a good way of getting to the top - of the redundancy list).

So there you have it kids, make sure you do well in history and geography at school, and you'll probably not get a job, but you can be the toast of your pub quiz team and the smartest guy in the Labour Exchange (or Job Centres as they're now amusingly described).

What brought on this story? Well apart from it being one I wanted to tell, I've just been reading how residents of Balmore Street in Dundee, Scotland, were bemused to recieve a glossy consultation pack describing a proposed controlled parking zone and 20mph speed limit with "traffic calming" (speed humps) and inviting their comments. Most thought it was a bit daft asking, since the proposals were from Camden council in north London, and related to Balmore Street in Highgate - only 500 miles south from them. (Bungled humps mailshot to Dundee really takes the cake Camden New Journal, December 8).

Reminds me of when I was working for Associated Electrical Industries(AEI) and someone reputedly put the wrong labels on a packing case so that a huge piece of switchgear equipment was shipped out to Singapore when it should only have gone to Walthamstow power station. Mind you, I could not verify that story whereas the Camden mailshot seems genuine. AEI was eventually taken over and shut, but Camden's mistake will be paid for by council taxpayers.

What I find hard to imagine when I read stories like this is someone labelling all this mail and someone franking it for the post and nobody apparently noticing anything wrong or stopping to ask about it. "Computer error" -clot at the keyboards I suppose. Mind you have you heard some of the daft answers you get people giving on quiz games these days? And they've nearly all got good jobs, at least when they say what they do at the start I haven't even got a clue what it means half the time.
I'm getting old.

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