My department up the Council comprises six people of such little collective significance that we don’t even have a manager. Instead, we have a Team Leader, whose role is secondary to her main job as the assistant to the Head of Contingency Planning, and being someone else’s secretary gives you an idea of how far down the food chain we are. My only real contact with her is our weekly ten minute catch up, where I am invited to discuss any difficulty I might be having putting things in envelopes or counting the jumpers in the uniform cupboard. I usually get bored and guide the conversation in such a way that I can claim, for example, that gravity doesn’t exist because everything would be too heavy if it did, or that if dogs aren’t people why does mine like Tia Maria, and so on, because having a thick person speak to me like I have a learning difficulty is often the highlight of my day.
My experience of office work hasn’t always been like this. Once, I strode like a mighty colossus among the water coolers and yucca plants of a global telecoms company at the end of Old Street, EC1. I was a senior databuilder: I ‘built data’ to a high standard, and constructed, repaired and maintained digital connections around the various London telephone exchanges (or ‘switches’, as they are known) with it. My wingman was Hynesy, from deepest Lancashire, who I called Northern Baloo on account of his overall demeanour being strongly reminiscent of the stoner bear from the Jungle Book. During moments of stress I would shout stop eating fucking ants you fucking weirdo and so on at him, and I feel this helped. It was not a straightforward co-worker arrangement, however, because in the same way that my current Team Leader’s job is less important than organising biscuits at departmental meetings for the Head of Contingency Planning, my job as a senior databuilder was of secondary importance to nursing Hynesy through the bankruptcy of Oldham Athletic. In this regard, he had very much not, in the words of his Disney counterpart, forgotten about his worries and his strife.
Prior to meeting Hynsey, my only experience of Oldham Athletic had been seeing West Ham lose there 6-0 in a cup semi final. This was followed by scuffles a-plenty with jubilant Cockney-hating locals and a nine-hour overnight crawl home by train to rush hour Euston, to find the events of the night before commemorated in the Sun headline Oh My Gawd, No!. Times had changed. As the twenty first century dawned, Oldham, whose brief moment of footballing pre-eminence predated Britpop, were a spent force, and the club was on the verge of vanishing. The effect on Hynesy was extraordinary. He lost weight, despite spending every lunchtime eating bags of jelly babies in his car, exhibited signs of morbid depression, and hatched a worryingly sophisticated plan to assassinate businessman Chris Moore, responsible for the club’s plight, by running him off the A62 in a van. For a larf, I suggested that maybe rich Americans would buy the club and rename it Oldham Fever. He was so upset that I sponsored a seat at their ground for £150 to make amends. The prospect of losing Oldham Athletic had driven Hynesy to the edge of reason, but at least the weight loss was due to drinking and poor diet, and not a cartoon orangutan called King Louis stealing his dinner money because Mowgli wouldn’t give him the power of Man’s red flower, as I had feared.
Hynesy decided the only way out was to adopt a new sport, and pour his emotional energies into that instead. To this end, we spent a memorable day in the Eagle on City Road considering potential candidates. There were stipulations of course: his new sport needed to be something he could plausibly participate in, ruling out tossing the caber and synchronised swimming, wasn’t full of toffs, which saw rugby, rowing and dressage bite the dust, and obviously not golf. It also needed to be popular and accessible, but something to which he had no prior cultural attachment. The process of mending Hynsey’s broken footie heart saw us cover a table the with charts and graphs and Venn diagrams – but, after participation from bar staff and fellow patrons, we hit upon a final, definite answer: baseball. Overnight, Hynsey became a fan of, for some reason, the Los
Angeles Dodgers. Not only a fan, but an obsessed fan, knowing everything about the game, betraying how much Oldham-related pain he needed to bury in ground ball/fly ball ratios, earned run averages and World Series results from the 1950s. Magically, baseball stopped him drinking so heavily. This was fortunate, because one weekend he went on a bender from Friday to Sunday and, on the Monday morning, had no memory beyond leaving his girlfriend and winning a cream cracker eating competition in a Southend pub. I am certain he was drinking while working from home, too, as he once convinced himself that his opposite neighbour had hanged himself from the light fitting in his bathroom, having spotted what appeared to be a corpse through the window. After hammering on the front door as a precursor to breaking in, the reassuringly living neighbour answered and explained that the ‘corpse’ was a suit hanging over the door, ready for a job interview the next day. By his own admission, Hynsey began literally sobbing with relief. These are the actions of a man driven beyond endurance by financial irregularities at a small provincial football club. It could happen to any of us.
It was financial irregularities that ended my telecoms career, too. The industry giant we worked for was Worldcom, shortly to become notorious for perpetuating a corporate fraud so massive that five thousand people were obliged to lose their jobs to allow it to stay afloat. I was one of them, although I did have the opportunity for a parting shot at a huge ‘It’s going to be alright’ corporate get-together at the Barbican. The highlight of this was the chief executive explaining that, although all the job losses were inconvenient, seeing a ‘good colleague and friend’ – who had devised and perpetuated the scam in the
first place – being led out of a courtroom to jail, was ‘heart breaking’. Raising my hand, I pointed out that it wasn’t that heart breaking, when you think about it, because after all he had swindled four billion dollars from the Federal government and then lied to Congress, which is exactly the sort of thing that prison is for. It was, I went on, significantly more heart breaking for the blameless people whose livelihoods he had forfeited as a result, and the following sixty seconds or so remain the only time in my life I have been cheered and applauded by a large number of people at the same time. In the eye of the storm, amid the clapping and noise and arms leaning across rows of seats to shake my hand, Hynsey whispered quietly in my ear: ‘You’re fucked’, he said. He was right, too – like Nelson and Ben Kenobi, I was a marked man, cut down in my moment of triumph. Six weeks later I was behind a market stall in Camden. Ah well.
Eventually, things improved for Oldham Athletic. While never yet recapturing their early 90s peak, they clawed themselves away from oblivion thanks to the superhuman work of their supporters, and those of other clubs, who chipped in money and time for the cause. Hynesy never became a murderer, avoiding the job losses and reuniting with his girlfriend, marrying her and regularly taking their subsequent two children to see Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga, who he adopted as a second team ‘just in case’. Fascinated by his baseball odyssey, I have become a bit of a fan myself, ruining my sleep patterns by following the LA Dodgems to post season defeats against Boston’s Red Socks and the Washington Nationalists in recent years. I will be forever saddened that stomach cancer killed Hynesy when he was barely into his forties, diagnosed far too late to make any difference to anything. A last picture shows him on Tandle Hill, overlooking his beloved Oldham. ‘Next time I’ll be here, I’ll be in a bloody urn’, reads the caption. He was right about that, too, although I refuse to come to terms with it.
Main: Baloo with a snack. Hynsey’s would be like this, except that the paw-paws and prickly pears would be a catering sack of Smarties.
Inset top: The Eagle, City Road. ‘Up and down the City Road / In and out the Eagle / That’s the way the money goes’ – the Eagle was once at the centre of a vast slum district, and the famous nursery rhyme is a sanitised version of an earlier lyrical description of the lives of the London poor.
Text insets: Old work IM conversations – ‘the s’ is me, ‘the h’ is Hynsey.
Middle inset: A switch. It’s a big spooky humming room full of row upon row of cabinets like this.