“And what do you do?”.
For nearly thirty years I had to contend with this question at parties, in the pub or in the street when meeting somebody for the first time. And I never managed to formulate an answer that did not make me feel uncomfortable and embarassed. The conversation usually went something like this:
“And what do you do”?
(Please don’t ask that question).
“I work for the Government” or “I’m a civil servant”.
“Oh, what department do you work in?” or “you work for the council then do you?”
(Please don’t ask that question either).
“I work in social security”.
(Here we go – I’ve never claimed a penny in my life / they are all scroungers / all you do is drink tea all day waiting to pick up your fat pension / my granny is not getting all her benefits, can you help me if I give you her details – or some permutation of the foregoing).
“I’ve never claimed a penny in my life / they are all scroungers / all you do is drink tea all day waiting to pick up your fat pension / my granny is not getting all her benefits, can you help me if I give you her details?”
(Now what do I say? Express an opinion, provoking a heated debate, change the subject or walk away?).
Sometimes, a sympathetic shrug and weak smile would dull the interest. And I could often dredge up the hardy excuse that that was not my particular area of expertise. Either way, the conversation would always dribble to an unsatisfactory end.
The irony is, of course, that I did perform a valuable function on behalf of the British taxpayer, whatever the tabloid press might wish to feed the electorate. And, working in welfare, I did contribute in a small way to reducing unemployment, alleviating child poverty or making the lives of the elderly and infirm dignified and comfortable.
But I, and, I know, many colleagues could not make that leap from modest self-gratification to public pride when confronted by someone who did a job that was, or was perceived to be, productive in a more tangible way.
I’m sure there are many other jobs that incite similar reactions, but welfare is one area where everyone has a stake – after all, they pay taxes and national insurance and know people either who are claiming or who should not, in their view, be claiming. More to the point, they believe that that entitles them to have an opinion, irrespective of its value, that they own a piece of you and that you are fair game, even when off duty, for a favour or an argument.
Well, at least that’s in the past now. Or is it?
Yesterday, a taxi driver shipping me and two weighty bags full of Sainsbury’s ready meals to my 83 year old father asked me whether it was my day off and what did I do (to earn a living). Here we go – confidence and pride be my companions now. Frying pan and fire spring immediately to mind as, for the first time since announcing to myself that I am now a writer, someone has tested that new resolve and self-confidence.
“I’m actually retired from the civil service - I know I don’t look old enough (why must I always add that, one day it won’t be true), but ……. (deep breath) I’m doing some writing now (phew, got that out, move on quickly), and I need to keep a regular eye on my father, doing all his shopping, washing, ironing and so on.
(Think I got the mention of writing in ok but he’ll have forgotten that bit by now).
“Oh, going to write your memoirs now about working for the Government?” What was it exactly that you did?”