Escape from unemployment, from the corrosive force of the everyday. You are brought into the office, a temp among other temps; there’s work to be done, no one is quite sure what – sit there, await instructions. You wait, minutes pass, then an hour, two hours. You take out your book; you read - but this is objectionable. Soon the woman from the temping agency, doing the rounds, comes to tell you off: think what an impression this makes, she says. You say: but there’s nothing to do. She says: they wouldn’t employ you if there was nothing to do.
So you play on the computer instead – there’s Solitaire, but this was before the Internet, before the World Wide Web, so in the end the screen is without depth. You change the background to Windows. You reset the defaults. You can offer to collect tea and coffee for everyone, that’s easy enough, off you go carrying the little plastic cup holder and returning with six cups. Or you can listen to conversations. Hot air, business talk. ‘Touching base’; ‘blue sky thinking’; ‘x [name of a customer] is screaming for y [name of a product or service]’. It is easy to make nonsense of sense, but how do you make sense of sense?, asks a phenomenologist. But the office is the place where sense frays, where it is undone and torn apart.
Gradually, you discover there are other temps; over the next few days, you find out they are unemployed actors, who occasionally have bit parts on The Bill. Sometimes you’ll work alongside them, it’s a laugh, work becomes a great parody. How does anything get done here?, you ask yourself, but you know you are in a backwater, you are working in admin and the sales team are downstairs.
Sales: that’s where it’s happening. Go downstairs, wonder down, drink coffee at their machine, use their kitchen. Yes, it’s happening, there’s excitement in the air. They seem more virile than the rest of us. More self-assured. For myself, as I get to know my job, I feel apologetic. It involves badgering engineers to fill out this form or that, to observe procedure. It is an interruption of work, not work. You take their time, get in the way. You’re apologetic, they’re polite, but you’re the obstacle.
Outside the office there is a little garden in the concrete. A fishpond. There are fields where buildings for hire have not yet been constructed; it’s peaceful. Then there’s the great carpark, car after car. You can’t drive. Driving is impossible. These vast company cars remain mysterious. Above all this, the sky, serene, indifferent. You are irrelevant here, there’s no reason why you should be here rather than anywhere else. In the end, they let you go because you aren’t filling in enough of the spreadsheets.
Next week, where will you be? The same company? Another one? This is Bracknell, there are infinite number of companies, all interchangeable. You are perfectly interchangeable. There are always more of you, a great army of temporary workers. And really, you have little to offer. You wander through the corridors, from coffee machine to coffee machine. The absurdity of non-work. For what do you hope? To be noticed as a non-worker among the workers? To be told off? Sacked?
They will let you go, it’s clear enough. Today or tomorrow, or next week or the week after that. Meanwhile, office time, the great expanse of minutes and office life – you receive phonecalls all day asking for ‘Sinjun’. He’s not here, you say. There’s no one of that name here. You are sitting next to St. John, but you didn’t know how his name was pronounced.
Then, for dinner, you seek to let yourself out into the air. You think to yourself: I’d like some air. You push the doors and – alarms – the whole canteen turns to look. No matter. You are invisible, interchangeable. No one says a word. To be told off would mean you would be thought worthy of developing, educating. But you are not quite in their world, any of them. There are lots of you, like ghosts. You drift around the building and sometimes come into contact.
But you are less real than the real workers. Descartes was right: there are degrees of reality, and you, as a temp, are less real than the rest. Listen to them talk, the real workers; plans for the weekend, for Friday and Saturday nights. All of them, around you, are planning a trip out. They go off to the pub on the Friday, leaving you there to man the phones. Then the big boss comes across to address the workers, announcing the rise and fall in the share-price. It comes over the intercom: a rise. Everyone around you is happy. They’ve made a little more money. A rise …
I like it when the lads from the warehouse come up to complain about something or other. They are dressed in denim, they’re out of place. They’re more real than the office workers, and they know it. They get angry – they’re not being given enough time, they say. You have to treat them with respect; the office workers are worried. Great dramas ensue. Quarrels. Then they all calm down. Quarrel over.
One day you are promised money for some piecework and go unpaid. You tell the other temps. This is social activism. They don’t like the sound of it. You tell them your wage, they tell you theirs. They’re being paid less than you. So you stage a sit in. You are not going to leave, you and a co-worker, until you’ve been paid. The middle manager talks to us in his office. We threaten to take him to court. No dice. He’s stubborn, we’re up against it, we haven’t got a chance. We give up the sit in, leave the building. A warm afternoon … you find yourself back in the everyday, it’s over, back to the dole …