I’ve been thinking recently about the process of welcoming new members and, naturally, this dredged up memories of the many ‘first days’ I experienced. The most notable – and traumatic – was my first real job when I joined the Home Office and, one hour into the day, became convinced I’d accidentally joined MI5. That story appears in my short collection the Free Cornish Army and Other Stuff I Could Have Been Arrested For. This blog post is about my next job.
In 1979 I left the Home Office to join North East Gas in Leeds as a computer programmer. I was told to report to the head office where I’d spend the morning on an induction course.
Everything started well. The head office wasn’t a secret unmarked building with no way to identify if it was the right building or not. Yes, after my first day at the Home Office, my expectations were set very low. I arrived at reception, told them I was here for the induction course, and went off to the find the room.
What I didn’t know was that there were two induction courses being run that morning. One for office staff, and one for gas fitters. The receptionist had taken one look at me and thought – gas fitter.
So, off I went to what I thought was an induction course for computer programmers. Well, actually, I’d never been on an induction course before so I had no idea what I was going to. I was young and naive and, after last time, thankful no one had pressed a gun into my hand and ducked behind a desk.
We were shown into an enormous room that looked like a film set. There were mock ups of kitchens and lounges and bathrooms everywhere. This was where the gas fitters learned how to install and maintain gas fires, cookers and boilers. I was impressed. And it wasn’t just the fitting they did. The instructor told us that it was just as important to tidy up after ourselves and ensure the room was as clean after as it was before. Hence all the rooms were well-decorated, the carpets were clean and the wallpaper unblemished.
My initial impression of the course was favourable. It made sense to give new starters a good grounding in all the things that North East Gas did. But after twenty minutes I began to think that maybe they were going a little overboard on the gas fitting bits. What about the other jobs?
Doubt is insidious. It creeps and it grows. The instructor was still talking about gas fitting and I was beginning to cast the odd look at my fellow inductees. I appeared to be the only one in a suit. And there were a lot of overalls.
Doubt continued to grow. Was I in the wrong place? He’d been talking for over half hour and still hadn’t mentioned computers!
Now, I’m British. A child of the 1950s. We don’t make a fuss. If we walk into the wrong room at the Old Bailey and find ourselves unexpectedly in the dock on trial for murder, we don’t complain. We wait, politely, for the mistake to be corrected.
The talk continued. We were taken on a guided tour of all the demo rooms. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. And wondering what the etiquette was for extricating yourself from the wrong meeting without causing a fuss or looking an idiot. I thought a hand raised five minutes into the meeting with a polite query as to whether this was the induction course for computer programmers would have been eminently acceptable. But I’d been there for forty minutes. That’s into laughing stock territory.
As we approached the hour mark a new concern surfaced. The instructor seemed to be indicating that there might be a practical element to this induction course. Maybe a volunteer or two having a chance to do a bit of fitting. This went down very well with everyone except the sweaty young lad in the suit. I knew all about volunteering. Whoever put their hands up, he’d choose me. And the thought of me being handed a wrench and a blow torch and pointed anywhere near a gas main, was beyond terrifying. I had no practical genes. I had plenty of genes for blowing things up in ways no one had ever thought possible.
I slipped to the back of the group and tried to blend into the background. As if that would work. I was the long-red-haired, red-faced lad in the suit – in the middle of a group of short-haired overall wearers.
As I saw it, I had three options. One, bluff it out – and blow up the head office before my first day had even finished. Two, make a run for it – fewer people killed and I did have that job offer from British Aerospace. Or three, keep my head down and pretend to be French.
Wisely, I went with option three. I had my phrases ready. Je suis Francais. Je ne comprends pas le gas fitting. Ou est les toilettes?
Ok, it wasn’t much of a plan, but compared to turning half of Leeds into rubble, it was genius.
The final twenty minutes of the course passed by in an excruciating blur. I hid at the back of the group, ducking down, staring at the floor, trying to blot everything out and praying my name or ‘Hey ginger! Come and have a go!’ was never uttered. And, as soon as the course finished and we were told to go and get some coffee from the machine, I was away, hurrying for the door and safety. Oh la la.
Chris Dolley is a New York Times bestselling author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .