Taxi Noir: A Legend in Your Own Lunchtime
I’m not surprised to hear home workers complaining. The pleasures of working from the comfort of your own home can quickly become eroded by boredom. The social aspect of work will be lost. I spent many years working alone driving a cab, but have recently returned to office work. I’m happy on my own, it’s nice to have someone to talk to if I want to.
(Cue swirly music as I go into reminiscing mode) It’s 1978, and I’m a callow sixteen year-old starting my first job as an office junior, commuting into Central London from the Essex suburbs. The older staff members took me under their wing, and it was quite an education. Most of my colleagues were hard-drinking out of work actors reduced to selling advertising space in some of the most boring magazines known to man. The office emptied out at lunchtime and we piled into the pubs of Covent Garden. The hard core just consumed booze, while the lightweights would accompany foaming jugs of bitter with something stewing its life away in a heated glass cabinet: the choice typically involved pies, sausages, chips and gravy. These were the days before low-fat hummus and wraps. I’ve still yet to eat a salad.
Back then, a lunch hour lasted, er, an hour. The relationship between the office and the pub was stronger. The pub was used as an extension of the office; where great ideas were floated, or used as what’s now known as a “break-out area”. I still had an hour as a careers adviser in 2001, and I’d often spend it at Wetherspoons. But employers tightened up when work became target-driven, and anything that could distract you from your work tasks was treated with suspicion. Drinking at lunchtime started to be frowned on.
When I became a Knowledge of London examiner in 2011, it was made clear to us that Transport for London saw no role for the pub; either as an area for reflection, or as somewhere to spend a relaxing lunch. My examiner colleague, Kath, and I were at the same staff induction. Kathy bravely articulated the question many of us had been thinking but were afraid to ask: “are we allowed to go to the pub at lunchtime?” The answer was an emphatic “No”. Answers to questions at TfL tend to be short and emphatic, and usually ending in “No.”
We only got a measly forty-five minutes lunch break anyway. The TfL café was five minutes away by lift, and it was a bit too healthy for my tastes. I don’t know what granola is, but they sold a lot of it. On Fridays a few of us would go to a local café. On other days I’d often find myself eating Thai or Lebanese food out of a cardboard box under a railway arch. As I dug my plastic spoon into my noodles I’d reflect on how things had changed.
I’m back working as a careers adviser. I’m the only person who takes an hour for lunch and I’m almost certainly considered odd. I consequently have to stay until most people have gone home at 5.30, but it’s a price worth paying to get off-site for a change of scenery, have lunch with metal cutlery, and a beer.
The culture has also changed due to practicalities. People tend to start and finish at different times now: the nine to five is elastic. People live further out. In the 1980s, most people working in London lived there. I knew nobody who drove to work and everyone lived near a tube station. We could all leave at 5 o’clock and have an hour in the pub before going home. Working in Northampton in 2001, and now Bedford, most people drive in, so are reluctant to have a drink after work.
On the cab I’d have an hour at a cab caff. Two mugs of coffee replaced the beer. I always envied the office drinkers as I drove past the pubs of the City and Mayfair. I wanted to be part of the throng of people standing outside with drinks in their hands, even if they were wearing suits, which had never really been my thing.
We have the opportunity to make the pub great again. Technology has just come at the right time to enable sophisticated home working. Total home working can be boring, but partial home working could be a positive move. We could bring the office back to the pub. Many pubs offer a safe, comfortable, environment: ideal for making phone calls or holding virtual meetings. Most British towns have at least one decent pub. There’s no need to worry about heating or electric bills; and food and drink is available all day. Pub chains such as Wetherspoons are already ahead of the curve with offers of unlimited coffee.
When I visited the pub after the lockdown I thought of myself as drinking for Britain. I hope workers returning to the office – either fully or partially – will have a greater appreciation of the social aspect of work, and help to get the country going again. When our towns and cities return to normal I’ll be raising a drink to you down the pub for sure.