When I recently managed to secure a few weeks of work, I had to telephone my local Benefit Processing Centre so that they could suspend my Jobseekers Allowance. As this is all new to me (and I obviously sound so green), I was told by the helpful woman on the other end of the phone that if found myself out of work again within 12 weeks (which I was certain to) then I could use their ‘rapid reclaim’ service to re-activate my benefit without the hassle of having to re-apply. That sounded perfect, so I happily went off to screen-grab from Horse & Country Television’s back-catalogue of equine-based programming.
When I finally came to use the ‘rapid reclaim’ service I was naively expecting my call to go through to some kind of Bat Phone, where my Jobseekers claim would be switched back on with the verbal equivalent of a simple nod.
I didn’t quite get through to the Bat Phone. However, I did get through to a lovely lady who patiently took me through a phone interview, which, ironically, was every bit as long as my original interview. With something of a heavy heart, she explained that they had new guidelines in place and that she was legally required to read out every single word of the questionnaire she had in front of her. And bless her, she did indeed read everything out – didn’t skimp one bit – but she did so with an apologetic tone. However, it did mean I had to sit through questions like:
Do you live with…
(a) Your husband/wife
(b) Your civil partner
(c) A dominatrix (or dominatrices)
(d) A Capuchin monkey (like when Ross lived with Marcel in season one of ‘Friends’)
(e) The perfectly preserved corpse of your mother, whose clothes you occasionally wear/smell
The fact that I live with my girlfriend required a tick in the ‘other’ box.
Aside from the infuriating lack of rapidity with regards to my reclaim, I was then told that I’d have to return to the Job Centre for an interview, and that I was booked in for 9:20am on a Saturday morning. (Honestly, the recession’s turned the world on its head! A Saturday??!)
Getting up and going to the Job Centre on a Saturday morning felt a bit like weekend detention, but without having to pick up litter in the playground or repeatedly excuse myself to go to the toilet for a cigarette. It felt quite weird. But perhaps the weirdest thing was some of the people who were in Saturday ‘detention’ with me.
I saw one man who looked a little bit like Quentin Letts. Forthright, well-spoken, bespectacled, and wearing a sensible jumper and chinos, he looked like he’d just parked a Porsche Cayenne Turbo outside (one of the last vestiges of his pre-recession life). Another man walked past me wearing designer glasses and a look of apprehension. It would only have been more obvious that he was a disillusioned professional if he’d been wearing a garish knitted jumper with those words emblazoned across his chest, or perhaps had them painfully tattooed across his forehead.
When you’re waiting in the Job Centre with a load of wiry, acne-ridden, Devvo-esque youths, it sort of gives you a sense of hope. The experience is so alien that you can’t help but think: “I very clearly don’t belong here with these people. This is obviously some sort of mistake that will swiftly be rectified.” However, when you’re in the Job Centre and find yourself brushing shoulders with unemployed thirty and fortysomething professionals, it reminds you that you’re caught up in something quite extraordinary and that ‘normality’ has been indefinitely suspended.
When my name was finally called out, my chatty and insuppressibly optimistic advisor almost convinced me that things were starting to look up. “Really?” I said, with a trace of suspicion in my voice. “Yes, well, there’s a Poundland opening soon, which should create lots of jobs,” she replied.
With a stony face I decided to ride roughshod over her optimism, saying: “That’s great. But in my world, things are still pretty slow.” I didn’t bother getting into a conversation about why Stratford-upon-Avon even needed another discount store when we already had a Poundstretcher. And I chose not to tell her the story about the one and only time I visited that store (for bargain basement batteries), which led to the humiliating experience of my debit card being inexplicably declined in front of a long queue of people. Before the man next to me could lynch me with his JML Fast-Fit ironing board cover, I indignantly grabbed my card from the Chip & Pin machine and fled the store – never to return.
Anyway, at least that’s my ‘rapid reclaim’ all sorted. It’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back, but it’s over with. Of course, now my Jobseekers Allowance has been re-started I’ve got to once again start keeping a fascinating job-search diary. I shall also be keeping a length of rope under the bed in case the words “Applied to Poundland” are ever scrawled on its pages.