Celtic Illumination, part 306, The blind leading the blind.
Back in Skelmersdale life began to fall back in to its normal routine, although to call my life normal is a bit of a stretch. The course at TPT had closed and I was waiting for some instruction from Action For Blind People. I had been told that the nationwide board of directors had approved the Irish plan in principal and all we were now waiting for was for them all to physically get together in London and formally approve the scheme. Once that had happened I was off to Ireland. I was surprised to see how many people, especially family, who were relieved that I had finally seen sense and had taken a normal job. As with the air cadets, I was only there for my two eldest boys, so although I found the job with Action For Blind People exciting, invigorating and hugely rewarding, it was a side line for me, I still was intent on becoming a professional writer.
I’m not sure whether or not they did it on purpose but TPT had notified the unemployment office that I was now unemployed, this angered me, I wasn’t unemployed, I was self-employed. I received a letter that told me to report to their offices for an interview. I had dealt with the unemployment office for some time and I was not impressed with their approach or ability. I didn’t want to be associated with unemployed people as the ones I had witnessed really were the bottom of the social pile. I remember the first time I had gone in to an unemployment office and saw the scuff marks and damage around interview booths that made me wonder what type of people they were. As time passed I could see that yes, perhaps some of the unemployed had no education, no future and no ambition, but experience showed me that you could probably say the same for the people behind the desks.
One of the only ways of expressing themselves would have been to strike out and hit an inanimate object. I went for the interview feeling that I would be meeting them as an equal, even though I had passed the civil service fast stream tests and was competent enough to run their whole set up. I was in for a shock. I can remember sitting in a large office. It had two rows of desks running along either side of the office and a central seating area for the clients. I sat myself down and waited. There was a girl at a desk in front of me. She checked her paperwork and asked me my name. “Oh,” she says, once I’ve told her. “I’m supposed to deal with you, but I haven’t had my break yet.” You would expect a normal human being to call you over and run through whatever it was she had to say to me but no, she took out a can of soft drink and a packet of crisps, sank back into her chair and began to enjoy her snack.
I could feel my ears burning with the rage that was building up inside me and I could see exactly why people might attack the booths that these cretins populated. Suddenly I thought I had discovered a group of morons who would give social workers and teachers a run for their money in the stupidity stakes. I kid you not; she made me sit there for twenty minutes while she finished her snack and held a conversation with the girl in the next booth, about her forthcoming holiday. She then invited me over and asked me to take a seat. “What have you been doing to find work?” she asked, as if I wasn’t there. “Nothing,” I replied, which was the truth. I don’t think anyone had ever said that to her before. She then began to give me a lecture on how I had a responsibility to look for work. I interrupted her and explained that I already had a job; I was just waiting for a start date. Apparently this didn’t matter. I should attend one of their courses and learn how to make a CV, they would even help me prepare for interviews and apply for jobs.
I found it quite funny at her blinkered attitude; she was treating every person that sat before her as the same. I looked around the unemployment office and realised that I was in the company of failed social workers. These cretins knew nothing, they had no real life experience yet they believed they knew everything. I was smiling away to myself at my accidental discovery of a new and lower group of stupid people when she began to tell me that should I manage to get an interview, I should try to smarten myself up. ASDA had just opened a huge supermarket in the town and she informed me that I could get a nice pair of black trousers for a couple of pounds. This would help me look smart, and if I had a comb I should run it through my hair. I had stopped smiling now, for this was getting insulting. I completely shut down as I used to do with the RAF police. I had reached the point where it was impossible for me to deal with these people in a rational way, they were beyond stupid.
I enjoyed stepping out into the fresh air and promised myself that I would never go back in to that office. How wrong was I? I got a call from TPT, “How would I like a couple of weeks work while waiting or Action For Blind People to get their act together?” “Sure,” I said. “Why not?” There is a large office complex in Skelmersdale housing companies like the Co-op bank, various legal firms, council offices and the unemployment people. The whole complex is called Whelmar House. The unemployment people have two whole floors, at one end of the building. TPT had secured a government contract to run a course for unemployed people. Anyone who had been out of work, for more than six months, had to attend the course, or lose their benefits. I was to be a course facilitator on the top floor of Whelmar House. I was to again, assess individuals, help them prepare their CV’s, letters of application and basically encourage them back into work.
I went over to TPT to talk to John and find out some more details about the job. I explained that the job was a bit of a God send as it would get the unemployment people off my back and then growled at John that he shouldn’t have informed them in the first place. “Ah,” says John. Now; I’ve been in one or two strange situations in my life and believe it or not I was about to find myself in the middle of another. “We can’t pay you,” said John, who, knowing me, must have known what I was about to tell him to do with his job. My experience of TPT told me that they were second, if not third, rate people who liked to pretend that were high flying business people. “What we would like you to do is submit a legitimate business receipt, or receipts, every week, for the amount of wages we have agreed, and we will give you the cash. There was no way I was going to scrabble around finding legitimate business receipts for TPT every week, however, I had been doing some research for my move to Ireland, and knew that I should be able to present them with one receipt every week for the exact amount of wages I was due, and; it was legitimate.
I went to a local travel agent and asked to book a return flight to Belfast from Liverpool. It wasn’t enough but with a bit of jiggling, we managed to find a hire car for three days in Belfast which gave me the exact amount I required every week. The manager of the travel agents agreed that as long as I paid the initial amount he would give me a receipt, every week, and then allow me to cancel the booking, until the following week. This wasn’t the strangest part of the set up as on the following Monday morning I was stood standing in front of a class full of long term unemployed people, about to lead them through a two week long course, that would help and encourage them to find work, and I myself was registered as unemployed. The classroom was three floors above the unemployment offices, on the top floor of Whelmar House. It confirmed to me that the whole set up surrounding unemployed people and government training schemes was absolutely useless, no one involved had a clue.
But temptation flashed its ugly face before me. Despite being knocked back by Carol Anne Duffy’s literary agent I was still writing to literary agents and publishers all over the UK and I was still following the rule, or perhaps suggestion, in the Writers and Artists Year Book that I should only contact one agent and one publisher at a time. I now had unlimited access to a photocopier, free envelopes, free stamps and a long list of literary agents and publishers that was going to take me eight months, at least, to work my way through. I had one of those ‘sod it’ moments and wrote to them all in one fell swoop. By the way, thank you very much TPT for paying for all that postage and stationary, it certainly did help to bridge the gap between what you were paying me and what I should have been paid.
Some of the people on the course had no intention of getting a job; they already had jobs and were angry that they had to attend the course. One or two were unemployed, didn’t want to work, had never worked in their lives and made money in the drug trade. Occasionally one or two people would genuinely ask for help and it was great fun getting stuck in and arranging grants and funding for them so that they actually could move forwards. But it was the first Friday afternoon that something strange and sinister happened. A clipboard carrying girl came in to the suite of offices where we were. She asked to see the tutor and I stepped forward fearing that I had been found out. I was registered as unemployed, thanks to the cretin I had initially met, but I had no intention of returning to those offices and no intention of explaining myself to these people. By not turning up they would remove me from their system. She asked me to sit down with her at a desk, which I did. “Tell me,” she asked, glancing about, to make sure the classroom was empty. “You’ve had this lot in for a week now; do you think any of them, who are all registered as unemployed, actually have a job?” You know something, I could think of a few but I was sure about one.