Saturday, 22 November 2014

Reunions

I ended my working days at a big Inland Revenue office in Croydon. I was there for the last five years until I retired early at age 52 in 2005. That sounds like a rather short career, but in fact I'd been working continuously since 1970, and had put in very nearly 35 years. So I was ready to go, and delighted when the chance came, quite out of the blue, with an offer of early severance - provided I accepted a reduced Civil Service Pension. For me the terms were just about good enough.

But I was really a bit too senior and skilled to be released. The government had wanted junior staff to leave, and in droves - the ones on lowish salaries, with short or part-time careers, who would be cheap to get rid of. It was a political matter - Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had announced job cuts of 10,000 or so right across the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise, which were to be combined into one Department (the present HMRC). It was vital to cut away surplus staff.

A massive response was expected from the junior staff. But for them the offer was not at all tempting. So the government didn't get anything like the numbers wanted, and was forced to give early retirement to the few who had actually applied - people like me - just to show some progress in getting staff numbers down. I went in the very first batch. It seemed like marvellously good luck, especially when subsequent severance offers effectively excluded senior managers and caseworkers from applying. I had escaped at the right moment.

I was very glad to contemplate all the freedom and leisure to come, but I wasn't satisfied with what I'd managed to achieve in those 35 years on the job. This was a niggle.

All along I'd privately considered that I'd been in the wrong job, one that hadn't made the best use of my talents, such as those were. But it had still been a good job, and besides paying the mortgage it had given me (as a tax investigator) many useful skills, and many insights into what people got up to in their financial lives. I suppose it had in a sense been a job that did suit me, in that I could use my eye for detail, and my talent for bringing many apparently unrelated facts together to form a big picture. This would reveal what the key issues were, and where the case needed to go next. I was good at formulating the questions to be asked, and I was good at parrying irrelevance, and insisting on clear answers. I certainly got some breakthroughs and some good results. But, hand on heart, I was quite certain that no case of mine ever realised its full potential. I did a satisfactory job, but I was no star. Some colleagues were absolutely stellar. I'd felt a bit lightweight at times.

My chief weaknesses were (a) a lack of 'killer instinct' - when to go in hard, and know that it would pay off; and (b) over-caution in negotiation (although to compensate I had excellent backup and advice from my senior managers).

The real trouble was a basic lack of self-belief. Of course, in retrospect, I now perfectly understand why this was! And although I can't prove it now, I believe that if it had been the 2014 self who had tackled those cases, the Revenue would have had much more value out of me, and I would have enjoyed my work a lot more.

Oh well! That will forever have to remain a conjecture. But I think the modern me would have stuck her neck out much more, and would have spoken with all the authority and persuasiveness that come from an unleashed personality.

I dare say many a person like me must look back at their former job, and feel quite certain that they could have done it in a better way - and could do so now, if ever they had another chance.

But I didn't myself want another chance, and after retirement I looked back on those 35 years as a finished era, never to be revisited. In August 2006 I completed a long essay about that time. I eventually published it on this blog, in a post dated 24 February 2010, called The Job. Its closing words were these:

Looking back
I feel some nostalgia, of course, but this is for the offices I attended and the people I worked with, not for the cases. I met some very pleasant people in a variety of offices; even so, with one exception they did not become permanent friends. I dare say I would be happy to reminisce with many of them if we ever meet in the future, but this doesn’t seem likely, and I am not going to seek anyone out. I also encountered some interesting taxpayers and accountants, but all of them must stay buried in the past. 

Dad advised me never to go back: to turn down, as he had, dinners, lunches and reunions. Certainly never to visit the office again. I knew he was right. Once gone you were old news and just a ghost from the past. What indeed was there to discuss, cut off from the day to day life of the office? Did people really want to know how much I was enjoying unlimited leisure on an ample pension? And would I want to learn that all my cases had been completely forgotten? Or that one or two had embarrassed the department?

Who would know who I was anyway? I had expected to slip from people's minds within six months. Even if this were not true, and I was long remembered, I was in effect a dead person, and must not return to haunt the living.

And yet I did eventually meet up with a few friendly colleagues from that time. Not at first. But, by 2011, I was ready to attend a lunch in Croydon, and to see what would happen. Well, here I was at the first of these lunches in February 2011 (only a week before my surgery, by the way):


I'd best not name my former colleagues, of course. But they seemed happy to be with me. They were still happy when we all met up again in April 2012 (and yes, my pizza really was that large!):


And we did it yet again a couple of days ago. This time my old boss came along. He is three years older than me, and is five years retired, as against my nine years. Here we are:


This 2014 reunion went especially well. I am now invited to an HMRC Christmas lunch in Croydon on 17 December, and we are all planning to meet up for an evening meal and drink in the New Year, probably on 29 January. I can use my new Senior Railcard for these trips, which, by the way, has now arrived:


So my Dad's advice about avoiding all reunions was perhaps a bit too negative - although I'm sure they can be deadly dull, and the food and drink awful.

Back in May 1992, I revisited my old grammar school in Southampton. It was on impulse, a sort of personal dare combined with a morbid desire to exorcise my dislike of the place. By then it was a co-ed college. I was aged 39 and rather young-looking, and very casually dressed - much like a student in fact - so I wasn't conspicuous, and nobody challenged me. I walked the corridors. I saw what had changed, and all the things that hadn't. What an odd sensation that was, to trespass without hindrance!

Curiosity got the better of me, and I looked in at the office and said who I was. To my consternation, I was immediately taken to the Staff Room and presented to the Vice-Principal. He was my old A-Level English master. Not someone I'd really wanted to meet again. He'd been scornful of me back in 1970, when I'd seen him last. But back then he'd been thirtyish and athletic and sharp. Now he was fat and grey and vulnerable. He'd hung on, and simply by staying put had made it almost to the top. I felt he'd sold out, lost his fire, and had become just a time-server. Because of that, I wasn't overawed - not that I should have been at age 39. But it's always potentially difficult to be assertive when meeting a person who once had the whip hand over you. I felt however strong and resilient, and when he asked me - almost instructed me - to come to a very boring-sounding Old Tauntonians' reunion, I was able to firmly quell the impulse to say 'Yes, sir', and instead declined the invitation with smooth and graceful words. That was one event I did not want to get sucked into. And the people he mentioned, my contemporaries, had not been the sort I'd got on with twenty-two years before. I wouldn't get on with them now. It would be a disaster.

I did wonder whether meeting my old boss a couple of days ago in Croydon would also be awkward - not because we hadn't worked well together, but because he'd never seen me as Lucy. He hadn't in fact seen me for nine whole years.

But I was silly to worry. He was joviality itself. The lunch, and the drink that followed, went beautifully well. There was no problem at all. When he did accidentally misgender me once or twice (I could tell he was trying very hard not to), I just gave him a playful slap. It seemed to be appreciated. That's why I feel no qualms at attending the larger social event on 17 December. I probably won't even have to explain my presence, nor say anything much about myself. I'll just chat away in my ordinary style, and eat and drink a lot, all the time with a daft but colourful paper hat askew on my head. Easy.

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