‘Unlike even the humblest worker on a production line, he doesn’t produce anything. He battles with phantoms, abstracts: runs in a paper chase that goes on year after year, and seems utterly pointless. How can there be anything else other than boredom in it for him?’ pc is a clerk and has worked in various offices for the last 15 years. He is also a writer and, aged 40, is married with a teenage daughter.
Start at the beginning: Civil Service Clerk, Temporary, at the local Ministry of Works depot in my home town. Can’t get any lower than that. At the base of the bureaucratic pyramid, buried alive in fact, the temporary clerk is the navvy of the Civil Service, without status or security. When I took the job I’d only worked in factories, and so was a bit in awe of the office world I was about to enter. As an apprentice, queueing in the spotless corridor on Thursdays outside the Wages window, peering in at the comparative purity of desks and paper and slick dandified staff, you got a queer, dizzy sensation—something like Alice in Wonderland. My brother was a clerk himself, at the Council House, but I never connected him with this Thursday vision.
On my first day as a clerk, going down the street with my brother, I confessed how nervous I was. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you can write your name can’t you? You can add up? Then you can be a clerk.’
It was true. The depot was a big old house near the city centre, with the offices upstairs. My boss had a room at the front to himself, and behind him was a door leading to my den, which contained three others. This boss, a big, bumbling, embarrassed man addressed us all with the ‘Mr’ fixed firmly between, as if to maintain his distance. Everybody accepted his remoteness as inevitable, something which struck me as weird from the beginning, especially as you had to go to and fro behind his chair to the outer door every time you went to the lavatory, to the foreman downstairs, to interview Irish labourers, and so forth. The boss sat through it all encased in silence and dignity, like an Under Secretary.
Holed up in the back room it was snug and at first I liked it, till the novelty wore off and the chronic, stagnant boredom began to take over.
I ought to mention another clerk, who worked out in the boss’s sanctum, I presume because of lack of space. I don’t think he was higher in grade than the other two. Between him and the two in my place there was a non-stop cold war going on—I never found out why. The old man was treated with amiable contempt by the established clerks, who asserted their superiority now and again, and, as the old man was deaf, kept up a running commentary, half fun and half malice, which they evidently found necessary to break the monotony. Before long I needed it as much as they did. The worst aspect of a clerk’s existence was being rubbed into me: it’s how prison must be. At first you don’t even notice; then it starts to bite in. Because of the terrible limitation on your physical freedom—chained to a desk is right—you are soon forced to make your own amusements in order to make life bearable. You have to liven it up. And with the constriction comes inevitably an undertow of bitterness, and all kinds of petty behaviour arise out of the rubbing frustration, the enforced closeness. Plenty of it is malicious.