Monday, 18 July 2011

Right Town, Wrong Depot

A well-known international delivery (sorry, logistics) service tried to deliver a parcel earlier this week. No-one was home. They left a card.

The card didn't say much about my options, so I tried phoning. After 15 minutes of being passed from one automated queue to another, and irritated by various pieces of soothing music, I gave up. So, I went to the website, which is pretty much where both the card and the recorded messages wanted me to go, anyway.

"Find your nearest Customer Centre" it said. Fine. I entered my postcode, and got an address in Eastleigh, a neighbouring town. I tried ringing to establish (a) whether they had my parcel, and (b) what hours they were open. Same automatic queues, same music. I gave up again and went back to the website. My options appeared to be either to schedule a re-delivery, or collect it myself from the Customer Centre. I could see my parcel had started its journey in Eastleigh, and concluded that's where it would be now. I opted to collect.

Next day, I drove over to Eastleigh, to the address given on the website. It was one of those little industrial estates, not much more than a loop of one-way road, with "units" and yards of varying sizes on either side. I drove slowly round, trying to spot the company logo. No luck. I drove round again. And again. So I parked, and walked round the one-way.

I eventually glimpsed a liveried truck through a tall hedge. I walked round the one-way again, trying to find an entrance. It was quite a run-down place -- the road and pavements were cracked and uncared for, with weeds and overgrown hedges everywhere, and beat-up, oil-stained yards behind tall fences topped with razor wire. I felt sorry for anyone who had to work there, although my photographic antennae were twitching like mad.

Eventually, I asked a guy having a fag by the roadside. He said to go round the corner, and press the buzzer by the locked gate. I did, and a woman's voice came over the speaker, asking me what I wanted.

"I want to collect my parcel," I said.
"What's your postcode?" she said. I told her.
"You've come to the wrong depot," she said. "We have two depots in Eastleigh, and you want the other one." Well, of course. She said to come in, unbuzzed the gate, met me at the door, and handed me a photocopied map. This happens all the time, she said. Oh, really? I went back to the car, and drove to the location of the other depot.

Except I couldn't find it, either. The instructions on the map were very like those instructions you get for a rented cottage: "Drive out of town until you see the burned-out phone box, turn left, then after a mile and a half take the unmarked track on the right, until you see the giant wicker man, etc." I had got to the right street without problem, and found a place to park. It was right next to the railway, and on the face of it was a simple residential street of terraced houses. But behind the houses was an alternative universe, a warren of alleyways, fences, yards, workshops and warehouses that made the previous place look utopian in its cleanliness and workmanlike simplicity.

Again, I wandered around looking for the elusive company colours. Again, I asked a man with a fag. Again, I ended up pressing a buzzer on an anonymous gate in a wire-mesh fence.

After a bit, a frail-looking security man with a clipboard and some bits of uniform appeared. He tried to raise some attention from the parcel depot for me, but nothing happened. In the end, he let me through the gate, saying, "See that building over there with the plants growing out of the roof? Go over there and press the buzzer next to the door round the side."

I found a peculiar situation developing there. Various drivers, clearly wearing the uniform of the company in question, were unable to gain admittance to their own depot, and were shouting through the glass door at a woman inside. Something about new codes on the door. The woman looked drunk or stoned to me -- she was swaying slightly, and had that look of vague concern that wasted people affect when they haven't a clue why everyone is shouting at them. The drivers were unphased, however; they clearly expected obstacles to be put in their way, and were taking a resigned pleasure in having their expectations fulfilled. An intoxicated receptionist and changed entry codes was par for the course. Typical, innit?

Anyway. I eventually got my parcel, after a wait of about 20 minutes in a grubby lobby with a couple of chairs that looked like they'd been rescued from a skip. The whole thing was a very depressing experience: what I'd imagined as a 30 minute round trip took me 2 hours. But what was particularly striking was the contrast between the chirpy, "can do!" optimism of the company website, and the dreary, "couldn't give a toss!" inefficiency of the operation on the ground.

Now, I'm still close enough to my roots to understand the bitter truth of that Soviet-era joke: they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. My uncles' stories of the goings-on in a car-manufacturing plant and the print room of a newspaper in the 1960s were both hilarious and jaw-dropping (mandatory "snooze shifts" and the like). The sheer bloody-minded unco-operativeness of the British worker has been truly heroic in its scope. Although it never did quite match the awe-inspiring incompetence of the British manager. But, put the two together, and you have the industry that gave the world the Austin Allegro. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

But I also know that pretending to work is demoralising. It's like staying in bed all day; it starts out well, but ends in a headache and a depressing feeling of aimlessness. No-one wants to waste their life, of course, but if a job is pointless enough and badly-paid enough, it can seem preferable. It has a certain self-harming dignity, like a hunger strike. But I admit I thought that world had passed away, and that service industries like "logistics" were run by a flip-chart corporatism that requires ant-like subservience, backed up by the very real threat of unemployment. Surely surly blokes with their feet up in a back room, contemplating the finer points of Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi all morning over serial cups of tea, would never nowadays get through their annual appraisal?

It was a salutary glimpse of a world that could easily have been mine. A little less brain power, a little more "attitude" and less tolerance for school, and I would have been a poorly-qualified school leaver in 1970, just in time for the collapse of the 1960s job boom. A life of limited expectations would have awaited me, with alternating stretches of McJobs and unemployment, in a world that seems to have increasingly little use for young men and none at all for old ones. I discovered recently that one of my primary school chums who had gone to secondary modern school ended up emigrating to South Africa in the 1970s. That was one answer, I suppose.

It also reminded me that my father had been made redundant in 1972, when the engineering factory he had worked in since 1946 was closed down. I was "too busy being free" to notice, at the time, or to think much about what this meant for him. But I realise, to my amazement and shame, that he was younger then than I am now. He never really worked again.

But I guess I would have paid more attention if I, too, had wanted a job making useful things out of steel, but could only get minimum-wage work stacking parcels in a warehouse, forced to wear some corporate polo shirt, like the disposable footman of a multinational overlord.


Martyn Cornell said...

It was taking the 801 bus through the factory area every morning on the way to school that encouraged me to work hard enough to get the grades that would enable me to go to university.

Mike C. said...


I have come to the conclusion that what differentiates a "middle class person of working class extraction" and "a middle class person of middle class extraction" is precisely this: where would you have ended up if you were of average or lower intelligence and left school at 16?

I also think (and I've posted about this before) that one of society's most pressing problems is ensuring there is suitable work for fit young men of average or lower intelligence who do leave school at 16.

The post-Blair worldview seems to assume everyone wants (or should want) to push paper in an office.


Dave Leeke said...

Hmm. . . interestingly, I am a "middle class person of working class extraction". I chose NOT to go to Uni - I didn't have the opportunity as I screwed up all chances of getting there. That's if I had wanted to. Which I didn't.

I went to Uni at about the age of 39 because I had finally reached a point where I realised I needed to. The first of my family to go to Uni - even at that age. I am now very middle class (a teacher) and fairly happy about what (little) I've achieved.

However, I'm not too happy about where it all seems to be going. Looking at the news today (I mean over the last few weeks)I'm beginning to wonder where it all went wrong.

All that way for this?

Mike C. said...


Of all the choices I've dithered over in my life, going to university wasn't one of them (though staying on in the 6th form was -- I was very tempted by the College at one point -- got tired of being harassed over my hair and not shaving).

I, too, was the first to university, and until my son went only one other family member, a niece, had followed me -- liking school doesn't run deep in our family. On reflection, I can't think of anyone I knew at our school who wasn't the first.

I've never quite pulled off middle class, but make a very passable aristocrat.

Yes, teaching is in for a shake-up (again) and I don't envy you. Any news on redundancies?