It's my last week at work. For the past two days, I've been doing a lot of data input. I've had seven A3 sheets of information to input in four days. That's one and three-quarters of a page per day. In the last two days, I've cleared four pages, so I felt able to kick back a bit today, and try a little experiment.
As I'm just doing data input, there's no harm in me listening to Emma, my mp3 player, whilst doing it. Yesterday, I listened to the first two albums by the Shins. Tuesday, I tried listening to the Wu Tang Clan, which worked oddly well. But then… I had an idea.
You see, "The Drift" by Scott Walker has been lurking on my mp3 player for a while. I listened to a bit of it a while back, but never all the way through. This was because it was a bit scary. I felt pretty bad as my friend Jessie burnt it for me specially and I really should have listened to it by now. Anyway, what would happen if I forced myself to listen to the whole of "The Drift" in an office environment? This was my challenge!
Below, you shall find my track-by-track report of listening to "The Drift" whilst doing data input. The tenses are all over the place, but I think you get a good idea of the experience that I had. It was enlightening.
Or the opposite of that. It was endarkening.
The air conditioning seems to be cranked a little higher as my challenge begins. Seriously, is it colder in here just because of the song? The thumping drums are quite good at maintaining a rhythm, though. "That's a nice suit / That's a swanky suit," sings Scott. How apt. I am wearing a suit! Thanks, man. It needs dry cleaning, though. This is going fine!
A gentle, yet threatening beginning gives way to cacophonous droning and that infamous meat-punching, punctuated by klangs of horrible guitar. It is oddly apt for the workplace. The stapler appears to be smiling at me. There's a brief respite whilst I highlight an error using a blue highlighter; the droning stops so Scott can sing about Mussolini's lover waiting for execution. This song is lending my every salary adjustment an enormous significance. Some electronic squiggling sound, accompanied by the sound of a man thwacking a side of pork, is giving me a headache. A man has started yelling - it might be in the song, it might be in the office. I can't tell. Similarly, the sound of the cleaners putting some cups in the dishwasher is strongly redolent of wartime Italy. "This is not a terrapin!" sings Scott.
Oh good. The droning is back. Scott is whispering about poking a man with a stick. I notice someone, possibly me, has categorised this album as "Classical". That might be a joke.
Dear lord, what was that?! Scott shrieked and surprised me.
"Noseholes caked in black cocaine," trills Scott, as I repeat the same data input pattern I've been doing for three days now. Someone calls the phone on my desk, but rings off after one ring. Sinister. I probably would have been too scared to answer it, in case it was Elvis's dead twin, who this song is about. It's a slow burning song, and isn't giving me much of a rhythm to my inputting. "I'm the only one left alive! I'm the only one left alive!" howls Scott, a capella.
Jolson and Jones
Drums! Hooray! Accompanied by some electric crickets and some atonal organ. Boo. I really haven't done a lot of inputting over the last song. I need this song to help me get down to it. It is unfailingly sinister. And, unfortunately for my work, its stop-start time signatures and free-form structure doesn't really do what I need.
Ah! A crazed donkey has just started braying. "Curare, curare," sings Scott. I'm just sitting here, a little dumbfounded. I pull myself together and input the salary information of someone in the Treasury department whilst a lone piper on a blasted heath toots plaintively - about what, I do not know. But it is scary.
"I'll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway! I'll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!" yells Scott.
Five tracks in, and I think my productivity levels have been halved. Let's hope for a nice jaunty singalong that will not invade my headspace!
No. We get threatening Holst-style strings and Scott singing on the same notes he has for the past four songs. No idea what this song is about either. I think he might have just sung "Charmed like a muscle" or "Charmed like a mussle". Someone has started hitting a box. My colleague asks for a pencil sharpener; I ask him what he means. Turns out he just wants a pencil sharpener. This song is ten and a half minutes long. Sheesh.
Woah! Horrible, horrible Psycho strings! Over and over again! Scott is singing about a fat black crocodile. This is truly horrible. The strings slide down over and over again. "Slicing the swine!" bellows Scott. There was a regular beat for a while there, but it's now stopped. Someone is playing a bugle horn.
A long lull with nothing of note happening. Well, nothing of note but CONSTANTLY BUILDING DREAD. Which comes to nothing - the song comes to a quiet halt.
Hand Me Ups
Blistering, atonal cacophony is the order of the day in the intro to this song. Following the quiet end of the previous one, it is deeply unpleasant. Gritty, distorted sine waves and someone singing inaudibly in the background. "I tried, I tried," sings Scott, "Teeth taken out with a stroke / Rain running down a long spear… I felt the nail driving into my foot! I felt the nail driving into my hand!" There's a nice saxophone bit playing in the background. A screaming sound from either a woman or a violin.
It goes without saying, this is the most unpleasant one yet.
Some atonal harpsichord is accompanied by a lute. "The audience is waiting!" croons Scott. As is my boss, waiting for me to input these numbers. Sorry, boss. This is an important experiment.
Did he just sing "bat the rat"? Is this a song about a summer fete? Oh. Probably not. He just sung about "splintering white bone". I don't remember that at a summer fete.
Radio static! Brilliant. That's always helpful for data input. Now, some low singing about varnishing a fort (possibly), and someone hitting a wine glass. Someone in Marketing is doing terribly well with their salary.
Scott just came up with the first actual vocal melody on the album. It's track seven! True to form, it was over the lyric "Somebody dies!" After "Hand Me Ups", this is actually quite pleasant, although at the same time - of course - unbearably tense.
Oh. I've just worked out what that lyric is. "Stick the fork in him! He's done boys!" That's really put a crimp on my enjoyment of the song.
This title doesn't bode well. As it is 10.40am, I decide elevenses are appropriate. I avail myself of an over-ripe banana and a tiny can of executive lemonade and crash on with the song. This banana really is very ripe. "Jada! Jada! Jing jing jing!" sings Scott. The banana is too ripe to eat. You know when bananas are too ripe and they taste a little alcoholic, that's what this one tasted like. The lemonade is sweet and fizzy. It also claims it is "Made with real lemons!" Great.
"Here come the blankets!" sings Scott. I do like a good blanket. This song isn't so bad, perhaps because that banana was slightly more horrible than the song. The song is over. That wasn't so bad.
The banana, however, was awful.
Before this song starts, a colleague asks me to do some work for her when I've finished inputting. I obviously look a bit suspicious. To alleviate the tension, I give her a high ten. I'm not sure that's appropriate office behaviour. My guide to what is right and what is wrong has been skewed by Scott.
I start the song. Gentle, military tattoo and quiet, threatening, descending double bass. Ah, and now skittering treated violin whilst Scott sings "You and me against the world!" I think he might be covering that Space song.
There's only one track to go! This realisation gives me hope that everything will be okay.
Dear Christ! Horrible gremlin voices! Stalking strings! This is horrible! It's like Orville is coming to kill me!
A Lover Loves
The beginning of this sounds disconcertingly like "If You Go Away". Scott psst-pssts to get my attention. Leave off, Scott! I'm trying to do data input! It is gentle, and acoustic, and rather lovely. If it wasn't for the pssting, it would be fine, but the pssting is really distracting. And then it ends.
The registration process for temp agencies probably hasn't changed since the advent of the mainstream office computer. For those of y'all who have never registered as a temp, there are three components:- Filling out lots of forms of personal details, bank information, that sort of thing; a typing and/or software test; and finally an interview with a slightly surly temp controller, whose job it is to impress upon the prospective temp that a) fucking about is not an option; b) they will get you a job.
Today, I visited two temp agencies to register. Now it is October, the summer temp job drought has eased and they are finally taking on new people. In those difficult summer months, one is often met with a stark "the students are back" excuse from agencies, before they fragrantly hang up. People who work in temp agencies are often beautiful psirens, luring you into signing documents with their slightly prissy, slightly maternal sexuality. I was once registered by a male temp controller, and he converted this coy flirtation into beery mateyness, which seemed to me highly inappropriate. Anyway, today, now, I am in need of a job. Let's see what London has to offer.
First up was the worryingly-named Next Employment, on Oxford Circus. I was made aware of the existence of Next Employment both by my housemate Jasmine - who, in her impressive position in the sales department of a publishing house, frequently gets temps from Next - and my friend Kinky Will who used to temp for Next. Kinky Will was keen to emphasise that the person who signed you up for Next was "a very flirtatious Australian woman". I attempted to contact said flirtatious Antipodean over the summer, but a stream of calls and emails came to naught. The summer drought, I thought, had claimed Next's interest, but come the Autumn months, contact was made.
The receptionist, an American lady who seemed quite tall when she was sitting down, welcomed me to the reception area with a clipboard, some forms and a pen. I asked if I could help myself to water from the conveniently-located watercooler, and she gave me permission. I filled the cup, and drank thereof. Cool, soothing water. Is there a drink more satisfying? No. There were only two forms to fill in, and they were relatively straightforward. The only thing that caused any consternation was the References section, which invited me to put down phone numbers. I don't like putting down phone numbers for references, after one of my referees, my friend Hayley, suggested that Office Angels had been harrassing her on my behalf. Anyway, I skipped past those sections of the form and handed the clipboard and pen back to the receptionist. She led me to the computers for stage two: the typing test.
This was not just a typing test, however. I was to be tested on Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint, and then the typing test. I breezed through much of the software tests without complaint, pausing only to notice two glitches in the tests themselves. Firstly, occasionally one's mouse pointer would disappear from the screen, leaving one to guess where it had got to and click randomly in the hope that the button you should be clicking would be clucked. Secondly, if a menu was opened and then you clicked on the wrong option, the programme would assume that you had clicked the right option. I exploited this weakness mercilessly, all the time thinking about how I was a cool computer hacker, like Robert Redford in "Sneakers". God, "Sneakers" was a cool film.
Then, onto the typing test. One of the joys of the typing test is the document they get you to type. It is always nonsensical, and as all but the fastest typers only use the first paragraph or so, the end of each document is often quite factually inaccurate and ludicrous, as if the copywriter got bored halfway through writing it. As an example of the type of material one is expected to type, I once spent about five minutes typing up a document about genetically-modified grain and the impact upon the bread industry for an Office Angels type test.
Next's typing test centred on the importance of imagination in the work place, and suggested that it was essential and marked the difference between the average and the excellent candidate. I looked out of the window and was confronted by a brick wall with an air conditioning unit on it. Imagination in the workplace suddenly became something of a cruel joke. The document also contained the priceless advice:- "If you have a problem, sing a song about it, and then sing a song as a solution." I would like to try this in real life. My songs would be "I Am Unemployable (And Overqualified)" and its response song "You are Buggered".
You are buggered / You are screwed / You've been fucked over / By educational ambition
Oh dear oh dear oh dear / It's too late now / Say hello to / Malnutrition
After finishing the tests, I returned to the reception area. The tall receptionist said "I'll just take these results to Sally". (Sally is the flirtatious Australian.) The receptionist then said, in a hushed voice, "They're really good, these results. You got 62 words per minute... with no mistakes!" "Blimey," I said.
Sally invited me into a very small room, and invited me to sit. She sat in a chair with a little table attached to it, like they have in American classrooms. "The thing is," she said, "I want more information on your CV. We need to sell you to the employers, and just putting 'Various Temp Positions' doesn't do it." We ran through my last few temp agencies, what I actually did for them, and she looked pleased. Then she turned to my test results.
"WOW," she said, in capitals, "do you know what you got?" "Um... not really," I lied. "62 words per minute," she said, with awe in her voice, "with no mistakes. I haven't seen results like this since..." - she grasped for a comparison, and failed - "... since ever." "Blimey," I said.
"And Office Angels had you working in a warehouse? With results like these?"
She shook her head sadly. I copied her. We sat there, shaking our heads. It was a moment of communion.
She promised to find me a job and shook my hand, warmly. Shaking hands is important. A good grip, and plenty of eye contact. It communicates confidence. I went on my way. Apparently, the guy who was inside C3PO was in the HMV opposite the agency at about the time I left, but I didn't want to brave the Geek Chorus within.
The second agency was Crone Corkhill in Green Park. I walked into the rather opulent building and was asked by the security lady to stand in front of a camera, which took a picture of me, in a suit, slightly overdressed. "Thank you," she said, "make sure you come and see me before you leave. You need to go to the sixth floor."
The offices of Crone Corkhill are all polished wood, bold positive colours, and smart office furniture. The reception area looks like a smart cafe in the Docklands, the corridors look like a private health clinic, or a sperm donation centre. All of the receptionists - and there are about fifteen of them - are attractive, tanned women, in black suits with very prominent cleavage. I started to think I'd wandered into the wrong office, but no, they welcomed me to Crone Corkhill. A Stepford receptionist said she would take me to a room where I could fill in the forms. She led me into a corridor of about twelve tiny interview rooms, with a little sliding window on each door that said VACANT/BUSY. She took me into a VACANT room, slid the little window to BUSY and said I could fill in the forms. The room was empty, but for a table and two chairs. On the table, a dispenser of Crone Corkhill leaflets and, bizarrely, a box of tissues. "This is a sperm donation clinic," I thought, "How weird, to run a sperm donation clinic and a temp agency from the same office."
I took a photo, because I knew you wouldn't believe me.
After filling out the forms, of which there were approximately three hundred, I returned to the reception area, taking immense care not to look in any of the other rooms down "The Corridor Of Shame". One of the forms was a spelling test, which had four options of spellings of words that you will never use, like "conscientious". The problem with this is that even though one's spelling may be perfect, the combination of pressure, too many options, and the fact that you might, at any moment, be given a small Tupperware container, inevitably leads you to making a few dodgy decisions. Parallel? Parrallel? Parrallell? I don't know. I don't particularly care.
Then, onto the typing test. Again, I was asked to do tests for software. No glitches in the software this time, although it didn't tell you if you were right at any point, so one was in the dark for pretty much the whole thing. The document of the typing test, in an audacious display of self-referentiality, was about interview technique. "Shaking hands is important," read the document, "Make sure you have a good grip, and use plenty of eye contact. It communicates confidence."
After the test was over, I went back to the reception desk. "I've finished," I said.
"Yes," said the same woman from earlier. Or it might have been a different one. "I have your results here. You got 63 words per minute. That's excellent," she said, without looking impressed.
"That's one word more per minute than this morning," I thought. "I am on FIRE!"
"So," said the receptionist, "I'll pass these onto Poppy. Thanks very much."
I left the office thinking it was odd that I didn't meet a temp controller. I had only had two stages of the three standard stages. It was getting late - it was about 6pm by this point - perhaps Poppy had gone home and would call me tomorrow.
As I came out of the Underground at Finsbury Park, I got a voicemail message on my phone.
"Tom, it's Poppy. There's been a bit of a misunderstanding in reception. Could you turn round and come back in?"
"No," I thought.
How troubling that salsa should be held in a cellar. It's like that Mel Gibson film "Ransom"; you are lead into a cellar, but with jaunty Latin music playing instead of pounding industrial.
The classes before the club night are intended to educate any newbies about the steps, holds and turns neccessary to partake in salsa. Being a belligerent youth, I decided not to bother. Classes are for losers.
I attended the night with Hayley, who is my colleague. I say "my colleague", she's my boss.
This was pointed out in the most brutish way by Hayley herself while we were having a conversation with the guy who runs the joint. "This is Tom," she said, "I'm his boss." I attempted to joke about this, but she was deadly serious. "I had it written into his contract," she said, "that he would accompany me to salsa." I cursed the fact that I had not read the small print.
Salsa is a strange dance. All of the songs are the same tempo (160bpm), they're all in a minor key, and this relentlessness makes for a rather grim night. However, the dance is flighty and entertaining, and occasionally the people who know what they are doing make hilarious errors. One guy leant seductively against a wall, attempting to lure his dance partner into some dirty dancing. She buggered off, leaving him looking not a little twattish.
And that Crouch End experience is carried down into the Salsa Cellar... The people are a mix of young Afro-Caribbean guys looking impressive and skillful, and a load of white middle-aged women looking at the young guys. There are also old white guys with faded t-shirts and grown-out hippy hair; greasy ponytails and glumly-accepted sensible adult haircuts. Where the haircuts are sensible, they are matched with a lurid turquoise short-sleeved shirt.
For the newcomer, salsa is quite a bit like ice skating. You know how the first time you attempt to ice skate, there are always people doing fantastically complicated things in the middle of the rink whilst you're clinging gingerly to the side? And perhaps when you're a little better at it, there's only one move you can do - leaving your left leg static on the ice and pushing yourself along with your right foot. That's what salsa feels like to me. Even when you get the hang of it, you need to put in a hell of a lot of practice before you can skate backwards.
As a viewing experience, however, the Salsa Cellar is entertainment indeed. Plus, there might even be a chance that the middle-aged women of Crouch End might take a shine to you, and let you inherit their estate. So to speak.
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