The Department

‘Life without industry is guilt and industry without art is brutality’

John Ruskin

‘Only fools and horses work’

John Sullivan

Phil

I used to work here once. My first proper job. The Department of Employment’s East Lane headquarters in Runcorn. The civil service.  Pen pushing. Joined as a clerical assistant, a CA, the lowest of the low in the Central Pay Office or CPO.  Piece of piss really. CPO paid all the other civil servants across the country  and there were hundreds of staff, mostly women and each office had its own team of Executive Officers, EOs and Clerical Officers, COs.

The COs made different kinds of payments on large A4 numbered pads which they passed to me for batching. I’d sort them out into different payment types, stamp them with a number, count them out, complete a batch header form and place them in bags ready to be taken the girls in data preparation who’d sort them out again with other jobs from other sections before passing them to the girls who keyed all the information into the mainframe computer. Then when the weekly and monthly payrolls were completed, I’d get the forms back, sort them alphabetically and file them away. Thousands and thousands and thousands of the fuckers.

It was no job for someone with a grammar school education behind him, someone expected to go to university but to be honest but I was always a lazy, unambitious student and so, after leaving school at 16 with four GCSEs and ending up on a YTS scheme, any kind of job was valuable at that time. It was 1984 and Orwell’s dystopian nightmare wasn’t that far off. Thatcher’s regime had cast millions of us aside and Big Brother was definitely watching us at GCHQ where union membership was outlawed. The miner’s strike lead by Arthur Scargill began the same year and Orgreave would be the old trade union movement’s Waterloo.

A photo of the queen stood proudly in the entrance and we were in effect, all employees of the crown. We had to sign the official fucking secrets act and anyone who harboured left wing views was felt to be a subversive and corrosive influence in the obedient hierarchy that sustained the government departments. We were all tiny cogs in the giant wheel that kept the empire running.

The offices weren’t open plan back then, each wing was separated into individual spaces and each office would house one of two teams headed by an EO. The other wings contained other larger office spaces, the data preparation area and the the computer block, the state of the art technical superstructure that kept the entire department up and running. I remember an old episode of ‘Some Mothers Do Have Em’ where Frank Spencer was working in some kind of computer room and his boss kept saying ‘have we got the tape from Runcorn?’ and we were made up because they mentioned our town on the telly.

There was also a piece on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ about the busway, which was a busses only road that connected all the different new town estates and was thought to be a pretty futuristic transport solution.

There were also estates like Southgate that we called ‘Legoland’ because of their space age design and I suppose back in the early 70s, it was like living in the kind of place that the architects and the town planners had predicted for the future; like something from ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

The computer wing  was the one place you could make decent money, even a lowly CA could claim shift allowances and lots of overtime so after a few years of filing forms, I got a chance to move to the computer room but found that I wasn’t cut out for the more challenging work involved and didn’t get kept on after a trial period so ended up in data preparation, preparing the forms for the girls to key in or tapes for the computer lads to run. It was boring, repetitive, mindless, I loved it.

I was still casual at the time that meant I didn’t get any service counted towards a pension or any pay rise then after two years, got kept on permanent, which was a big deal, as you had a regular income and that was important as me dad had just been made redundant from his job on the docks at Weston Point and any money coming into the house with four kids was needed.

 

Supplement to Liverpool Daily Post – Wed July 17, 1968
 

Runcorn New Town advert

“A New Factory?

Runcorn is making a fast start to its period of rapid expansion which will take the population from the existing 30,000 to 75,000 within the next 12 years. As a location for new industry it has many advantages :

Labour – there is an abundant supply of semi-skilled and trainable adult males and a government training centre opening in the town this year. Attractive housing is available for employees.

Communications – industrial estates are 8 miles from M6 with direct motorway links planned, newly electrified rail service – 2 and half hours to London by direct Pullman service, the Garston freightliner terminal is 8 miles way, Liverpool airport is 10 minutes away by road. Liverpool docks are only a short distance away and Runcorn itself has docking facilities.

Development area – status brings with it a full range of Board of Trade grants and incentives.

New factories and sites are available now.

Another 2000 houses in next stage of giant scheme – the construction of Castlefields estate.   
 
SNW Selleck, Nicholls Williams (E,G.G) Ltd Abbey House Victoria St London advert 
  
Moving in – between 1969 and 1971, 2,200 families (and Cindy)
 
Responsible – SNW, the Runcorn Development Corporation and McAlpine’s
 
The £8,000,000 contract in Runcorn will house 8000 people and is one of the largest single housing contracts ever to be awarded in Great Britain. The Castlefields development is due to be completed in 1971, the first large contract in the New Town programme.

Lee

We moved to Castlefields when I was 7 or 8 in the early 70s. We were from Kirkdale way originally but me dad thought we’d all have a better life out in the country as he called it. It was a bit of a shock when we moved to Castlefields cos the flats were horrible, really small and the estate was only half built when we moved in.

The locals didn’t like us neither, the woolybacks, as soon as we moved in, there was aggro with the locals;‘Scouse bastards’ the usual stuff. They hated us and I suppose cos we were miles away from home we didn’t want to mix with them. I had to go to one of their junior schools for a few years and that was murder for a while but it soon settled down. There was a lot of fighting in the 70s and 80s, we were always having battles with the wools but I think my lads’ generation, it’s not two towns any more, just different estates.

Me dad got a job on the Astmoor, it was easy to get a job back then, all the industrial estates had loads of different firms there and the DevCo would box them off with subsidies so that they’d stay there. When I left school I started working at Schreiber, the furniture place, then me uncle got me a job at Bass. I was there till it closed down in the 90s. Once the Devco pulled out, I think a lot of companies just thought ‘ah, fuck this, it’s cheaper in Poland or wherever.’

They’ve started pulling down al the flats in Castlefields now, about time too. It was really bad here a few years ago, once they pulled Southgate down all the smackheads moved here and it went down hill but now its looking pretty good. Me son has one of the new houses they’ve built and it’s dead nice, nice enough to bring your kids up here again.

All these estates they built are being knocked down. Southgate, Halton Brook, they were as bad as the places we left back in Liverpool, worse even cos you were stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. I’ve thought about moving back a few times but once you have kids and that they get their own little group of mates and then you don’t want to uproot all over again.

I’m glad we moved here really, cos I like fishing and I only have to walk down the road and you’ve got the canal and the countryside close by. I’m still in the same house I moved into when I got married in 1987 and it does us, now the kids have moved out but I’ve got me name down for one of the new houses so hopefully we’ll be in one of those soon.

It’s not easy cos I’ve been bad the past few years and had to jack me job in and that’s been hard. I was made redundant from Bass and then had a few shit jobs in the factories on Astmoor and Whitehouse but the money was shite, no unions, really bad hours, weekend shifts for no extra pay but that’s how it is today.

My lads don’t know what a union is, one works in a call centre and the other’s just been laid off. They’ve got no idea. I can’t really see it getting any better neither because all those old industries have gone for good now. You might get Fords taking on now and then but that’s rare and even then unless you know someone it’s impossible to get a job there. It’s the same wherever you go though. I worry for the young uns or maybe they expect too much. As long as I can go and have a fish and the odd pint I’m happy mate.

Phil

I remember those estates being built. We lived in a 50s terrace on the Grange estate which I suppose was state of the art when my mam and dad moved in in the early 60s. I was born in 65 and my earlist memories are walking up the field behind our house with me grandad to Grice’s Farm and the figure eight fishing pit. It was still all farmlands then stretching away to Frodsham and the Cheshire plain. Then it was all tractors and lorries and JCBs and building sites as the three story tenements of the Halton Lodge and Halton Brook estates were built just up the road for the scousers and also new houses with indoor toilets and central heating were built directly behind our house for the old town residents. We moved into one of these when I was 5 or 6.

The whole estate had an arborial theme; we moved from 2 Larch Road to 33 Poplar Close. There was Poplar Road, Elm Drive, Cypress Grove, Ash Road, Sycamore Road, Maple Avenue, Lime Grove, Cherry Tree Avenue, Willow Grove, Laburnum Road, Pine Road. Some were rougher than others but they were all rough. Not that we knew any different. Kids don’t appreciate poverty till they have something to compare it with.

Where me granddad lived a few miles away in Castle Rise was a really poor area. This was where my mum grew up whereas my dad came from Dukesfied the little warren of terraced Victorian streets underneath the Liverpool to London railways bridge. This was also a very poor area.

At the end of Castle Rise was the Skill Centre, where they had all different workshops teaching kids how to do different jobs. There was also a barbers and hairdressers section where me grandad used to go to get a free haircut, even though he was bald. He’d take me to get mine cut too some times.  I was always scared of the kids in Castle Rise because it was a rough street, some of the houses there were proper slums, they really had fuck all. You forget that level of poverty existed, it still exists today but not like that, not to the same degree, it wasn’t 48 inch plasma screen on the drip poverty.

The local tip was also housed right behind the houses and smell of the tip and the nearby lard factory, always made me feel sick when we visited the skilly or me grandad took me down the brew to Halton Road bookies. It was if the council had deliberately placed the worst factories and the tip right next to this estate as if the people weren’t worth a fuck.

Me grandad He used to work in the tanneries that used to the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship canal; Camden Tannery, Puritan Tannery, Highfield Tannery. Even in his 70s his arms were as strong and sinewy. You could tell he’d grafted all his life. The last tanneries closed in the 1960s when plastic and synethics replaced leather and even though it was a dangerous industry with all the chemcials they used, he still talked about the place as it was the best place on earth.  The only reason these factories were situated in the town was because they could pump all the waste into the canals without treating it.

I used to scoff at his boast that he’d never had a day off sick in 40 years; more fool him! But then back then there was no such thing as Statutory Sick Pay and a day off sick meant less food for his kids. Yet he was a Tory, he believed in the Queen and the certainty of the Empire, that it stood for all that was great about the country and that all the people of the nation benefitted if not equally then at least proportionately.

He was born in 1901 and used to tell us he was too young to fight in the first world war and too old to fight in the second, although 38 seems a little young to be excluded from military service. Maybe he had a reserved occupation but tanners didn’t seem to be crucial to the war effort.

At any rate three of his children served in the forces during the war and my mum, although only a young girl can still recall the German planes flying over on bombing missions to Liverpool. They can try and dress it up as a fight against tyrrany but really it’s just business. Import and export, share prices, stocks and assets. Leather and chemicals and steel and crops. Ships unloaded, materials processed. My dad worked on Weston Point docks and growing up in the 70s seemed to be for ever on strike.

Advert from Daily Post supplement, 1969 

Weston Point docks
 
– on the Cheshire side of the River Mersey


– well sited as a transhipment point between seagoing vessels, river barges, canal craft and road vehicles


– regularly used by seagoing vessels with a cargo capacity of to about 16,000 tons


– quick turn-round of vessels


– 4,500 feet of quay length, 78,000 sq ft of warehouse accomodation for traffic requiring protection for customs’ clearance


– 350,000 sq ft of open storage space


– electric cranes (including mobile cranes) fork-lift trucks, mechanical shovels and portable conveyors providing a modern, efficient and rapid service for handling the goods ashore

British Waterways


Mr. H. Holland, the manager (Weston Point and Anderton) will be pleased to tell you more. His address is Weston Point Docks, Runcorn, Cheshire and his tel no is Runcorn 2218

Brian

I left school when I was 15, went into the merchant navy as lots of young lads did back then, this was 1953, 54, sailed all over the world to Valparaiso in Chile, then I got a job on the tugs as a deck-hand before ending up on the docks.  All the jobs were based around the canals, then ICI ofcourse, the salt works. I worked on the docks from 1962 to 1985, then we got made redundant. That was the worst period of my life, having to sign on, it was humilitating. I was no use around the house, my wife, Dot was working in the day and I just felt useless. It was a bad time for fellars of my generation, we were used to grafting, there was always a job you could go to but with Thatcher all the old industrial jobs went, it was all shipped abroad. The Tories said it was all about efficiency, the British workers had to compete with the rest of the world but it was never about that, it was jobs for the boys. All her cronies raking it in, all the privatisation schemes, they sold it all off to their mates in the city.

I had a few years doing crap jobs in factories and then ended up in the DEP, the offices in East Lane, where I was a porter. Most of the porters were ex-tug fellars and dockers like me. I was there for nearly 12 years before I retired. It was OK, the money wasn’t great but we had a good set of lads there, had some good nights in the bar. I miss that. We always had a bottle of whisky on a Friday afternoon, stretch the jobs out till the weekend.

Phil

I was pretty active in the union, the CPSA, the Civil and Public Servants Association. I’d go round with the bucket collecting during the miner’s strike and we were pretty militant in the 80s, always on strike and I used to be pretty hostile on the picket line. I suppose I got a reputation as a troublemaker and the bosses certainly hated me but I enjoyed that. It was us and them. When we had to represent these pricks when the unions merged and became  PCS, the bosses, the HEOs and SEOs on four times as much as me, then it all changed.

I moved to the accounts office for a few years. I couldn’t hack that either. Moved back to CPO after a bit and got promoted to CO, although they were called Admin Officers, AOs now. It wasn’t that I was really interested in promotion but if you stuck around for long enough then you tended to get promoted by osmosis.  I was getting married too so needed a few more bob in me pocket to put a deposit down on a house. CPO was worse as an AO though, really boring and quite hard work, well hard if you no head for figures.   I just couldn’t get me head round numbers so obviously the right place for me was the statistics department, which is where I moved in 1991.

My first daughter was only a few months old when I moved down to Watford for a few months and brought the jobs back to Runcorn. This is how it went all the time. New ministers would come in and try to make a name for themselves by shaking things up. Some wanted jobs to transfer from London and the south up to the north and then once they’d moved, some other minister would come in and it’d go the other way, more centralisation. When we moved back there wasn’t enough room in East Lane so we went into Grosvenor House named after the Duke of Westminster who owns half of Cheshire and London. The richest man in Britain, wealthy from stolen land granted to his cattle rustling ancestors a thousand years ago.

I worked on the Average Earnings Index, which was even more boring than payroll. We had to send these forms out to various companies asking for their weekly and monthly payroll totals and how many employees they had. They’d fill them in and then we’d work out the average and key into our computers. If the average was up or down by a certain percent we’d have to phone them up and ask them for an explanation.

Half the time I just made it up. We had to put coded notes on our reports that the EO would then scrutinise MBTAAOT for example – monthly back to average after overtime or WHiB – weekly high bonus. Each AO had about a thousand companies in their allocation and even though the job itself wasn’t hard, it was boring as fuck, same thing every month.

You had a certain allocation in various Standard Industrial Classifications, SICs. There was a big book of all the different SICs and most of them belonged to the industrial revolution, really specialised old trades that had died out years ago. Each company was weighted by its importance to the particular SIC, not only by how many employess it had but by how big it was to the rest of the other companies in the same SIC. You had to get these ones in at all costs, if not you had to make an estimate based on previous figures and when the real ones came through they’d do an adjustment the next month as well as making seasonal adjustments.

It sounds dull because it was. It was fucking soul destroying in fact. I needed to get out but we were skint, we had two kids, my wife didn’t have a permanent job, the mortgage interest rate had gone sky high and the wages were shit but was else was there? Any job’s better than no job. I envied me dad’s generation, the fellars who started work in the 1950s and 60s. Of all the millions of workers who were spat out over the past century or so, they had it the best. My dad came home with his pay packet every week, boxed off me ma with her keep, she paid the rent man, kept us fed and clothed and he spent as he wanted. Life was simple. If he lost a job, he could get another one, if he went out on strike, the bosses usually backed down. If he fancied a pint or four at dinner time, the ship could wait.

Brian

We had to fight for everything we got on the docks. We were treated like shit but we stuck together. It was a dangerous job, especially where we worked on Weston Point docks where it was all chemicals and it was hard work. My arms and shoulders are knackered now, it took it out of you, so we deserved a few pints after unloading two or three boats a day.

I couldn’t have been one of these fellars at ICI watching dials all day long, sat on their arses. We were on good money but we fought for every penny. It was never a job for life, there’s no such thing as a job for life, but we deserved decent pay for what we did. When containers came in, that was it for the dockers. I didn’t mind the work in the DEP, we did a lot of moving and shifting, grafting jobs, spun it out, got our ovies in, weekend shift allowance, we knew how to work it to our advantage. This lot wouldn’t have lived with us, they’re too soft, too greedy. No-one wants to put the effort in these days. No-one sticks together.

Tommy

Work is a protestant scam. The protestant work ethic? Fuck that! The people who tell you that work is ennobling, that work is dignified have never done a hard day’s graft in their fucking lives. That’s what they want you to think, the God is up there shaking his head if you skive off, take a sickie, laze about when you should be grafting, sweating for your master, slaving away, night and day.

 Time and motion, counting the seconds, the minutes, the hours, designing the processes, the mechanics of slavery.  They’re all in it together, the only conspiracy at work in the world is keeping the rich, rich. So they invent systems and traditions, they invent their own myths and morality. They invent their own countries and borders and races. They invent their own laws and codes and rules. They invent their own religions and rituals and beliefs. They invent their own armies and police forces and political parties.

The rich get rich through luck, through ruthlessness, through hard work sometimes but most get rich by inheritance and this wealth is handed down through the generations and has to be protected at all costs.

The wealth is created by the workers and the carrot they are tempted with is minimal and pathetic, a few quid more for a few hours less, enough spare cash to finance a mortgage, a new car, a holiday abroad, the odd treat here and there, the mirage of success.

Whilst the majority are caged by these timid ambitions, those who fall by the wayside, those who can’t compete through their own lack of education or indolence or disability or bad luck, those who can’t or won’t work become non-people, obsolete. You are fit for only one thing; to work, they need you to be strong enough to fulfil your role, your sacred duty, to place your body at the mercy of the market, the phoney market that sustains all life.

There is no such thing as the free market, there never has been, there never will be. Nothing is free in this life or the afterlife, you have to pay. Pay in blood, pay in sweat, pay in pain. Pay with your body and your soul, if you believe in such things. Suicide is a sin because no matter how shit your life may be, they don’t want to risk fit and able slaves killing themselves rather than wasting away through hard labour. They want to own  your immortal soul too.

 Rich people become rich by exploiting those unable to defend themselves, by bullying the weak, by stealing their land, their resources, their livelihoods, their children. The rich stay rich by protecting this wealth by warfare, by bribery, by starvation and disease, by appealing to abstract notions of democracy and fairness and liberty and civilised values.

The Puritans believed idleness was a sin against God, that every waking moment should be spent in toil or prayer, yet God only put in a six day shift and his sat on his arse ever since those wandering desert tribes  invented Him.

 Clock on, clock off, clock on, clock off. Make things, grow things, grow things to make things, sell things, make things to sell things, invest things, sell things to invest things. Interest. Percentages. Returns. Share options. Bonuses. The wheel keeps spinning.

 Clock on, clock off, clock on, clock off. We live to work. We work to live. In not working we become redundant, we become nothing, we become other. We define ourselves by our jobs, our trades, our tribes, our colours and collars. We feed our children to that hungry Moloch who demands sacrifice in bones and blood, who offers protection and stability to those who truly believe in him. The fire keeps burning day and night, relentless, greedy, it needs to be fed. Clock on, clock off, clock on, clock off.     

Phil

I moved again to another stats office fiddling the unemployment figures and there was also a section that compiled  union membership and industrial dispute details, which was pretty interesting but part of the Tory’s propaganda campaign to virtually criminalise industrial action.

The membership numbers were falling all the time because of the decline of the old heavy industries and the strikes were down to almost nil because of the anti-union legislation. This was all presented as the ordinary worker becoming disillusioned with trade unionism and all the stats were fiddled if not by us being lazy then certainly by the aristocratic strata of professional statisticians who applied various formulae to spin a story in any direction their paymasters wanted.

I moved back to East Lane in the mid-90s when the stats departments merged with the Central Statistics Office, CSO to become the all-new politically independent Office for National Statistics, ONS. I was part of a small, elite team that was tasked with restructuring the entire department.

It was my first and only flirtation with ambition.  I was an AO along with 3 HEOs and an SEO and got temporary promotion to the EO grade.  We followed the old CSO Newport model that had a central data input department who did the dogsbody business of keying all the various forms in, two information sections, one for earnings and one for employment and a newly created secretariat which was the cushy number and the place all of the restructuring team ended up.

It was a disaster really and the statisticians who became our managers were not up to the job.  They were mathematicians not managers and so we were outmanoeuvred by other more ruthless bosses in London and South Wales and made redundant in 2002. It came as a relief to be honest. All my mates had found work elsewhere, the morale had become steadily worse, the grade structure more oppressive, the pay and conditions worse and worse, the place was dying before our eyes. Even the bar where I spent many good hours was almost empty, even on a Friday when we’d sign ourselves out for two or three hours for a lunch time bevvy. Only me dad and a few of the other porters and some from the computer room were keeping it open.

Also, the place was riddled with asbestos. In the 90s they’d closed parts of the building off while they removed the asbestos from the ceilings, whilst keeping the rest of the building open. They said there was no risk of contamination but then they would say that. It would’ve cost em a fortune to close the entire building down and it was a massive logistical problem to do the work on other premises.  People are fundamentally lazy and fundamentally greedy, including me, so why risk all the aggro?

The old Department of Employment had also been re-named the Department for Education and Employment, DfEE and a new building was constructed behind East Lane called Castle View House. As various departments and offices moved from East Lane to Castle View in the 90s, whole wings became vacant.

Just as we’d moved jobs up from Watford, so once the new building had been constructed, bit by bit the work began to drain away from Runcorn as costs were cut and departments merged, as new ministers sought the limelight and policy changed overnight. Now Castle View is almost deserted on most floors and East Lane stands as a fitting testimony to the decline of the economy. Left abandoned to vandals and arsonists, pigeons and rats, weeds and scrub, the offices are too dangerous to demolish because of the asbestos and so remain as an ironic mausoleum and monument to the redundancy of Employment.

I used to work here once but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it was a lie, maybe I didn’t work here, maybe this building doesn’t exist. I can see faces at the windows, I can hear the sound of vans and the shouts of porters, the tapping of keyboards, the clink of glasses, the laughter of prisoners, the sobbing of the dead.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work will set you free)

Auschwitz  Gates

‘Been workin’ and slavin’
an’ workin’ and workin’
but I still got so terribly far to go’

Nina Simone