During my time in Oxford I started keeping a diary (as Wilde remarked, one should always have something exciting to read on the train) and the entries lurch from November 1991 (Terry Waite returns to UK, Freddie Mercury dies, Robert Maxwell falls off his yacht) straight to Feb 1992 with nothing in between.
In Jan ’92 I had a job interview with a firm called Carrs Paints in Birmingham. It seemed to go well; I chatted about my chemistry background and my research project. When I arrived back home my housemates were in a state of wild excitement: ‘Where have you been! The agency keeps ringing up to speak to you – they want to offer you the job!’
So we ran around squealing with delight, and then rushed off to Sainsbury’s to buy some olives and ham and a bottle of wine to celebrate. The next morning I rang the agency, who confirmed that Carrs had been very impressed with my performance and were keen to offer me a job.
However, when I hadn’t heard anything more after ten days I decided to ring the agency for some info. ‘Oh, there’s been a hiccup’ said the nice man; ‘Carrs have just announced a restructuring, and have decided to suspend all their recruitment programmes so they won’t be offering you a place after all.’
So I had to slink back to the Executive Jobclub and inform them that I would not, after all, be leaving to start my new career.
Then in March ’92 I was invited back to Carrs Paints for another interview, this time at their Small Heath site – a cramped factory hemmed in by the canal, the railway line and the main road, and bathed in a fog of butyl acetate fumes.
Again, I chatted about my research project; the interviewers were rather sceptical, and remarked that ‘You don’t really have any practical experience, we don’t need anybody here with an academic background, and we don’t think you would fit in here.’
They also commented (out of the blue) that ‘Your research was funded by Evode, wasn’t it?’ to which I said ‘Yes, along with Permabond, and Hunting Engineering, and Austin Rover, and three other industrial sponsors.’ I had actually approached Evode twice asking about employment opportunities, but they had rejected me on both occasions.
Shortly afterwards, I had a phone call from the agency telling me that Carrs were willing to offer me a job. Back then, the phrase ‘Yeah, whatever’ had not yet been invented, but I would have considered it to be the perfect response; instead, I just said that I was very pleased, but could they possibly send me something in writing before I make a decision?
So they sent me a letter, and I went to start work, and on my first day I was taken to see the chief accountant. ‘Right then, let’s have your P45’ he said.
I told him that I hadn’t been issued with a P45 document, so he asked me where I had come from. When I said I had been in Oxford, he said ‘No, I mean which paint company were you working for?’
Slightly bewildered, I pointed out that I had spent the past few months unemployed, and had never worked in the paint industry before; at this, he fell silent and glared at my boss. Eventually they managed to get me registered on the payroll.
Nine months later, in December 1992, I was offered a formal contract of employment – which included, in very small print, a phrase confirming that I had been issued with the company handbook. Which I actually had not, but the general ambiance was so hostile and bleak that I dared not challenge this, and signed the contract in order to acquire some job security.
Hang myself when I get enough rope’;
That’s what the man said on TV
Although he wore grey suit expensive tie
I could sense his lizard eyes scanning the ether
Trying to locate my whereabouts.
The stranded crystals on the ocean floor
Took lifetimes to accumulate; they started
Off as gentle things with no idea of what
Intensely rocky future lay ahead.
They found their way as powdered flakes
Into a sort of nylon rope, with insect-wings
Of borazine to hold at bay
The ionising missiles of despair
That left a dozen generations short of breath.
‘Once upon a time our forebears wore no masks’
It said on a forgotten wall. The gentle artificial silk
Is wrapped into a dozen frames of reference
To make a carapace of living stone. The
Feeble twitching that we mistake
For personality fills us at once
With fierce delight and towering despair.
Two beads of light like distant stars
Hover on the surface of a ring, linked
By a slender chord that is
No longer than it needs to be. Stranded
On the ocean floor and polished
By a restless moon, the crystals wait
To be discovered