Much as we tried to avoid it, Plokta is hopelessly blighted with lengthy articles by Alison. Here's another one....

Every Office Has One

Walter was the bookchecker in the office where I first worked. He would print the pension books, and check them, and send them out. I should think he's retired now -- there's not many jobs left these days for people like Walter. First they computerised, so your book comes from a vast computer centre somewhere on an industrial site in the frozen North, and now they're doing away with pension books all together in favour of a whizzy benefit payment card. And doing away with hundreds of Walters, in the process.

I first encountered Walter a few weeks after I started work. As part of my training, I spent a day or half a day in each section of the office, learning a bit about the different jobs. My three hours spent in the bookroom were interminable, as Walter showed me exactly how to print a pension book -- the machine going c'thunk c'thunk as each week's £42.60 was stamped on the book. When it was done, he showed me how they were authorised, and where to stick the little stamp that showed that the £10 Christmas bonus should be paid on the first Monday in December. One of the side-effects of computerisation was that these stickers were no longer used. Instead, the amount on the order for that week was increased by £10. We got hundreds of phone calls from sweet old biddies demanding to know what had happened to their bonus, and refusing to accept that the £10 increase in their pension meant the same as the little stamp.

The books had to be posted as well as printed, and Walter showed me how to use a brush to wet the glue on five envelopes at once. He'd line them up neatly, then brush along the line very carefully. I was fairly sure it would be quicker to do them one at a time, but it wouldn't be Art. Licking them would be easier yet, but would probably have given Walter paper cuts on his tongue. He noted all the names and addresses in a big hardback book; the security measures were of course critical -- if any of the procedures in the big security code wasn't followed, it would be the end of civilisation as we knew it. I nodded. All of these explanations took a long time, because Walter was afflicted with a terrible stammer. By the end of the morning, I was exhausted, and I had decided that I never, ever, wanted to work in a finance section.

Walter applied for promotion once, under the rule that anyone could be seen by a promotion board once every three years, even if their line manager marked them "will never under any circumstances be fitted for promotion". This was at a time when the Department was downsizing; supervisors were expected to take on increasing spans of control, and to manage staff and budgets in a much more determined fashion. There had been several recent large internal frauds, and systems security was much on our minds. The interviews were tough, and candidates returned visibly shaken. Walter seemed relatively cheerful. We wondered what questions he'd been asked. He explained that the interviewers had been very nice, and confined their questions to pension books, and book rooms, and finance. Anything on management? Budgets? Security? "Oh, yes!" he explained. "They asked me what I would look for if I suspected that a girocheque had been altered by a claimant."

I'm not sure what Walter wore to his interview. He had a blue jacket which he wore every day -- it looked very much as if he had borrowed it from a bus conductor. This was not, in fact, beyond the bounds of possibility, as he was very fond of buses. He wore a number of enamel badges from various bus lines on the lapels of his jacket. One way to animate Walter was to engage him in conversation on the subject of early double decker engineering. He also had a wide variety of lurid shirts and ties, which often clashed in odd ways. His ties were particularly vile; mostly knitted or tweed, in a weird variety of colours that can never have been fashionable. The nastiest was a woven yellow and black tartan, a little like Rupert Bear's trousers. He also had a wide variety of lurid shirts, and the shirts and ties often clashed in a peculiar manner. This was because he wore his shirts in strict rotation, and ditto his ties. He explained that as he had a different number of shirts and ties, this ensured that he got to wear every possible combination. (Pedants will have noted that this is only the case if the numbers of shirts and ties are relatively prime.)

The inexorable march of progress meant that bookchecking ceased to occupy all of Walter's time. One of his new duties was the shredding of pension books which had been returned to the office for amendment. The old books would be destroyed to prevent their re-use, and new books would be printed and sent out to the customers. Shredding pension books was well within Walter's capabilities, or so we thought; but one day, tragedy struck. Walter got his tie caught in the shredder. You would think there would be a safety cut-out, but no. The machine gave an awful gurgle, and then decided that it was quite capable of shredding the tie -- and Walter too, come to that. An awful scene ensued, with Walter pulling away from the shredder for all he was worth while more and more of his tie got eaten. He yelled for help, quite forgetting to stutter in his distress. There were actually two other people in the book room at the time, either one of whom could have switched off the machine and rescued him. Unfortunately, they were both helpless with laughter.

Luckily, when the shredder reached the knot in the tie, the extra material tripped the safety and Walter was saved. He was a little shaken, but otherwise fine. The tie, on the other hand, was shredded right up to the knot. Walter was mournful; it was one of his favourites. Most of the rest of the office was impressed with the shredder's sartorial discernment. A "Ties for Walter" campaign was quickly started, and several dozen ties were donated. Walter was not impressed. These ties, which were mostly only a few years out of fashion, were not at all to his taste. Very few of them were woven, and none were knitted. Many of the patterns were subtle or stylish or both. Walter continued to wear the rest of his old ties, spurning the new ones. However, he took to tying a huge knot -- a sort of Quadruple Windsor -- in his tie, leaving only a few inches of material below. This removed any risk of future shredder attacks. A memo came round to all Departmental staff the following week from London, warning of the dangers of allowing loose clothing to get caught in office machinery. (Since then, I understand that Dilbert has got his tie caught in the shredder, and that ties in shredders are an office legend. I assure you, this really happened. I saw the tie.)

Alison discovered why the autoshredder had been playing up recently...

As computers became more pervasive, Walter's job changed further. The big hardback book was replaced by a big hardback computer. Everyone had to have a password to operate the system, and the word on the grapevine was that Walter's password was b-b-b-b-bus. All the computers in the office were stand-alone microcomputers, and had to be backed up every night. I was fond of complaining about how long the backup took, and what a pain it was. Walter was unimpressed. He knew all about backups. "I have to do it twice a night," he explained. "The first time it's hard, but the second time it's floppy. The hard one's quite quick, but the floppy one takes ages."

I'm sure that not all finance staff are like this. Nevertheless, many of the ones I've met seem to be, and I've continued to avoid working in any area of the Department that has any involvement with money. Nowadays I work in Headquarters, alongside the charming, high-powered Finance Division staff who negotiate with Treasury for the £90 billion a year budget, but I remain convinced that inside each and every one of them is a pension book checker waiting to get out.

-- Alison Scott

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