And so I got spewed up onto the streets of Wandsworth, South London with my suitcase wheels clicking and clacking over the cracks in the pavement.
It was plain to see, within seconds of getting to London, that the streets were not paved with gold at all, despite what some massive Dick had once claimed. Instead, they were spattered with black chewing gum stains, spat out greenies and the occasional dog turd.
Menacing teenagers were slumped in sulky gangs outside the Arndale Centre and the jammed traffic belched black fumes all the way back to Clapham.
Not sure of which direction to take, I pulled out my Nokia to call my friend Orange, whose spare room I was about to reside in for a period of up to one month.
As well as a suitcase, I had with me a small rucksack which contained three ounces of the West Country’s finest skunk weed. I figured I could maybe supplement whatever income I managed to rustle up in London with a spot of low-level weed dealing. And because I have consistently been incapable of following the advice to ‘never get high off your own supply’, all of the following should be taken as a work of fiction, pieced together from the scraps of detritus my brain managed to hold onto during my time in the capital.
* * *
“Well, good to have you here, mate,” Orange was saying, offering me a line of coke. “But now you are here, what are you gonna do?”
“I’m still working on that bit,” I said, snorting. “I’ll sort something out.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Orange. “London’s full of opportunities. Only it’s also full of people jostling to take them.”
* * *
And so it was, looking in Loot, that I managed to fall into a job answering the telephone at Reuters, a position I would remain in for two years. The job was boring yet not stressful enough to warrant quitting- paying enough to put up with it, yet not enough to allow me ambition to think beyond the next pay day.
It had its advantages. At 7p.m. you were on your own- which meant locking the security door until the 11pm switchboard person came on. On the night shift you were alone until 7a.m. The phone would ring maybe three or four times in the night and then you’d have to do something. Otherwise, it was just sleeping on the sofa, smoking, watching TV and drinking the odd beer (or six).
The week of nights meant being driven to work along the Embankment by an Addison Lee BMW or similar, whose regular drivers would pin me down into spilling the beans on what was really going on the country- what I thought of various political and media personages and why everything was so corrupt these days.
“You know,” my regular Indian driver would often say, “I have them all in my car- government ministers, journalists, civil servants; and you are better informed than nearly all of them.”
“You know I had Margaret Thatcher’s dresser in the car the other day? She says the poor old dear is so gaga she doesn’t even realise Dennis is dead!”
“I do so enjoy our chats,” he would say as he dropped me off at the offices. “Take care, my friend.”
I never had the heart to admit I was only a switchboard operator. It seemed churlish.
I perfected delivery of these three phrases:
- Good morning, Reuters.
- Good afternoon, Reuters.
- Good evening, Reuters.
This was a lot more impressive than Reuter’s New York switchboard managed- i.e. “Reuters- how may I direct your call?”
At least at the London end, we held up the illusion that- just possibly- you were talking to somebody who might be actually important and was just passing the phone when it had begun to ring.
And to be fair, we had access to enormous files and folders with some quite confidential information regarding the contact details of the great and good. Had I wanted to, for example, do a poo on one of the trustees’ Bentleys, I could have tracked them down to their London townhouse, Cornwall getaway, gite in France or New York penthouse.
* * *
On the day that America commenced its 2003 ‘Shock & Awe’ attack on Iraq, the switchboard became very busy indeed. An endless stream of journalists and picture editors, some unable to contain their pants-jizzing excitement, were all ringing in and out in a self-important way. It was sickening.
I had to go for a drink straight after my early shift had finished, heading to the nearest pub at St. Katherine’s Docks. I had written to my MP, attended the million-strong Stop the War march, been to various meetings and yet could do nothing. Nobody in power was listening. It was a depressing experience, compounded that day by the journalists all coming alive like vampires in the aftermath.
I got a pint from the bar and took a seat outside the pub- a warm afternoon for early Spring.
Sitting a couple of tables up were a male journalist (who was writing in shorthand in a journalist’s pad) and what I guess was a pictures editor, a woman flicking listlessly through photos of carnage and catastrophe on an IBM laptop, occasionally stopping to go “Oh, that’s a good one” or “That one’s quite nice”.
She turned to the man, speaking with the unmistakable tones of the English ruling classes: “Ya, so, how’s the leader column going?”
“Hunh!” the man replied. “You know how it is: bang after bang after bang. The usual jingoistic nonsense for The Sun, but David’s asked me to write it, so what can I do…”
“Uh-hu. Yah. Well,” she said, “See you back at the office.”
As she was getting up, my fists were clenched with rage. I couldn’t decide whether to leap over the table and take a swing at this odious, lying little turd whose weasel words were empowering the monstrous injustice of the attack on Iraq. But I sat there quaking with impotent rage instead, drained my drink and trudged away sadly. I walked as far as Embankment tube, crying most of the way.
* * *
Answering the phone at a financial and news conglomerate wasn’t what I was really in London to do, however (regular readers will remember the whole ‘moving to London’ thing was a bit of a cock up in the first place); though the week off on full-pay after each week of nights meant I ended up trapped there longer than I should have been. To date, it remains my longest period of continued employment, only terminated after then-CEO Tom Glocer implemented a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy for lateness.
As my commute went something like: walk to bus stop, bus to Clapham Junction, train to Victoria, Tube to Tower Hill, walk to office, it wasn’t long before I found myself on my third strike. I resigned rather than have my contract terminated, leading to other unpleasantness that I shall return to later, like a dog returning to a pile of steaming vomit.
I have now realized that this wasn’t the piece I meant to write here at all. I was going to write the amusing story of how I totally fucked up the chance of being a Runner on Richard & Judy. Oh well. Maybe next time.
To wet your whistle, here’s a funny clip of Richard & Judy dealing with a stoned caller on ‘You Say We Pay’: