In the 90s they used to hide behind screens of bullet-proof glass at Shaftesbury Square dole office. They needed them. The barrier fostered abuse of power, rage, fear, oppression, and violence. It encouraged those civil servants who were disposed towards playground megalomania and sadism to indulge themselves in bullying their helpless clients.
There were two rooms: one downstairs, where you queued up to sign on, and one upstairs, where they dealt with administrative stuff like new claims. I spent time in both places. I had to sign on once a fortnight at the same window at a designated time, and I often got the same young guy signing me on; I hated having to face him. He had small, mean eyes, behind black-rimmed specs, combed-back dark, greasy, hair, and a thick, white, neck. Through thin lips, he interrogated his subjects about their pathetic attempts to find work, with the forensic attention of a Cold-War spycatcher. There was a lad with special needs whose signing time was five minutes before me; needless to say he always got challenged, and usually ended up in tears, appealing pointlessly to the clerk’s better nature. We were all soft targets – it was easy to pick holes in our jobsearch evidence – but he was a real gift to his tormentor, who took every opportunity to wield his power. I don’t think he ever went as far as getting the boy’s benefit stopped though; this would have ended his fun. No torturer worth his salt ever lets his victim die.
The upstairs room was laid out differently, with tables for filling out forms, and chairs for enduring the inevitable long wait. Everything was bolted to the floor. One time I was up there when this woman came in, all tracksuit, tattoos, and thick Scottish accent; you couldn’t miss the smell of drink off her. It was about ten in the morning and she was already blocked. Within minutes of being in front of the screen she was roaring and cursing, banging on the thick laminated glass with her fists. They must have stopped her money or refused a payment. She tried to lift the seat next to her, but it was securely fastened down. The clerk studied her quietly and impassively in the few seconds before security arrived and dragged her away. The next week, when I went back, the same partition was cracked into a spider-web where somebody had managed to attack it with a heavy object. I wondered if the Scottish woman had done it.
Twelve years later the place has changed completely: the plate-glass has gone, and both floors are open-plan, with booths. The staff are friendly; they call you by your first name as they discuss your situation. The taunting and goading has ceased, and you sit down on comfortable seats while you wait to be called to sign; there is no more queuing in line. It seems that in the years since I was last here, somebody somewhere up the chain wised up and introduced humanity to the building. There are still security guards, but the jobs have been outsourced and they are from a private company. I got talking to one a couple of weeks ago when I was getting used to the new ticketed waiting system. He was very friendly, in his late fifties I’d say, with this mad grey hair that stuck straight up like Don King’s. After giving me the information I needed, he started to chat away to me, asked me about my story, offered commiserations. Then it began: I’m not racist, but see them Eastern Europeans? Why are they being let in here? Can’t even speak our language, just come here to scrounge off us. They should all be sent packing. I gently argued with him, and seeing that he wasn’t getting a sympathetic ear he rapidly moderated his tone.
I went to sit, watching the board for my number to come up. It was warm in the room, and most of the male advisers were in t-shirts. There was an overweight female adviser opposite me, with bad makeup and frizzy blonde hair, wearing a light fluffy jumper and a bright, gaudy scarf. She was eating a bag of crisps at her desk, and indulging in occasional conversation around the partition between her and the young lad at the next booth. He was trying to get some work done and wasn’t very responsive, so she finished her snack and quietly called out her client’s name. It was almost inaudible, even from where I was sitting. Unsurprisingly, nobody stirred, and she went about her work, lethargically typing with two fingers. She didn’t make any further attempt to call her client: if he was in the room he must have missed his appointment, and that would not go well for him. Moments later my phone rang; a withheld number, possibly important. I answered it, and in a matter of seconds Don King was over telling me to end the call. But what if it was a job offer? No matter, Rules is rules; you can text, but no phone calls. The threat successfully neutralised, he sauntered back to his position by the door. As I settled back to my waiting, I became aware of the piped-in background music for the first time: Ghost Town by The Specials was playing. England in 1980: rampant racism, Thatcher’s Conservative government, rioting, soaring unemployment, inequality, recession, media manipulation, class war. What’s next? I wondered, UB40’s “One in Ten”, maybe? In fact, the next song was Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie, from 1981. That DJ has a dark sense of humour, I thought to myself, as I crossed the room to sign on.