A Cleaner’s Diary Part III

In this final excerpt from his book Read Rees, author and musician Gareth Rees prepares to say goodbye to the Naval Base for good.

Dec 31st

An Oxford-educated bloke who reads the Financial Times and Le Monde on weekends said to me in the pub, ‘Why did the elephant paint its feet yellow?’ ‘Don’t know,’ I said. ‘Well, it didn’t want to be seen when it was upside down in a bowl of custard.’

Graham, a civil engineer said, between talking about F sharp minor sevenths, heavy gage strings and the space between notes, ‘There’re usually quite a few East Europeans in the work-force but this time there weren’t any. And it was very white. And then I was called away from the job – building a car park near Reading – to a classroom where some bloke was going on about national security and how we weren’t supposed to even tell our wives where we were working.’

I said, ‘When you were getting security clearance, did they ask what street in Accrington your great aunt was born in?’ When I left the pub, he said, ‘Keep walking through the cannon smoke, man. It drives ’em crazy.’

I got home and opened a bottle of Old Speckled Hen. My repose was shattered though by the sound of a howling hound, crying from abandonment and confinement in some nearby flat. I couldn’t stand the sound of that suffering. I was certainly thinking about my own peace of heart as much as the dog’s. I thought of the story I’d heard of nurses who’d run out of morphine becoming hysterical and unwittingly smothering to death Far East P.O.W. survivors whose screaming wouldn’t stop. They were survivors but only in the physical sense. Instead of shouting at the dog to cease crying – I wasn’t able to smother it – I went to the piano and played ‘Amazing Grace’. When I went back to my Speckled Hen, New Year’s Eve was quiet. Well, it was for a while. And then the explosions started and the ships’ foghorns blew their mournful song across the cold sea. My life’s not working properly, I thought. I’m doing stuff that’s eating away at my self-respect. I drained the Old Speckled Hen and went to bed.

Jan 18th

Always nice walking through Victoria Park and on my way home, especially on Friday, of course. I’m looking forward to the ecstasy of the postprandial lie-down after being on my feet for the best part of five hours. Today though, work chased after me in the form of a nasty letter from my employer – cold, bullying, bureaucratic and badly distorts the truth.

This letter was not preceded by someone saying to me, ‘Hey Gareth, come to my office. Let’s have a chat. You’ve been here for quite a while, much, much longer than most and that, in a situation of low staff retention, is good. There’s a problem with absenteeism as well and yet, in the three and a half years of your service, you’ve not taken a day off sick and you were only late once when you forgot your I.D… That’s almost over-conscientious, especially when you’re nearly in a minimum wage situation. Well done and how do you do it? Also, in your time, there have been countless rounds and only very few times when your work has not been passed as satisfactory, in spite of the obvious fact that there is no such thing as a perfect cleaner. Anybody disposed to finding fault will always succeed in finding dust and dirt somewhere. And then, for emphasis, the word ‘filthy’ will be employed.

‘But this is poor management. Intimidation like this, and it is intimidation, may engender docility but it produces also a dejected apathy which, of course, is not a good attribute in a worker. I believe good management is one which is inclined to show appreciation for the many things which are done well rather than undermining self-worth by focusing on what someone may have neglected. For example, rather than treating an employee like a recalcitrant child for sitting on a bed, perhaps I should first say how it is appreciated that every day you clean excrement from toilet bowls and, sometimes, because excrement can be very adhesive, you are on your knees using a scourer. This work is beyond the call of duty but, unfortunately, there are mummies’ boys and girls out there who don’t think the toilet brushes are for them to clean their own mess. Yes, thank you for dealing with this unpleasantness every day. And I haven’t forgotten the soiled porn magazines you also remove from cubicles or the used condom you inadvertently picked up the other day when you were on your back removing rubbish from under a bed. Yes, good management is showing awareness and appreciation for what you do. Bad management – intimidation – is showing awareness only for what you neglect to do.

‘It must be hard putting in a spirited performance and maintaining pride of work in a morale-sapping building like Britannia and especially on the ground floor with its chronic nasty smells and short-stay customers who have little stake in creating a pleasant environment. And you must sometimes think you are wasting your time in the utility rooms and elsewhere by scrubbing away with a de-scaler which is far too weak to do the job. You must get sapped by the loneliness of it sometimes as well and wonder about the health and safety issue should you fall from a bed whilst dusting the top of a cupboard and break a limb. Who’s there to find you? Some people in management are afraid that cleaners working together will fall into the idleness of gossip. My experience, however, tells me people are happier working as a team and perform better as a consequence. It’s so much easier in the new buildings, so much easier to keep on top of the job. Thank you again then, for working in the most difficult part of a difficult building.’

No, there was no such face-to-face meeting, just an authoritarian letter which began offensively by addressing me as ‘Dear Gareth’, as though I were a friend when, in truth, I was about to be caricatured as indolent and incompetent.
The writer of the letter, of course, wouldn’t have seen it this way. He was simply enforcing the rules and following bureaucratic procedure. This was a second “offence” bringing with it a mandatory written warning. He was just doing his job even though that defence has been somewhat discredited by the Nuremberg trials.

Even the strong boys of the army on a route march take the weight off their feet once an hour. Who hasn’t, on company time, sent a private email or stopped to natter about football, romance or the lack of it? Who hasn’t, at some time or another, been distracted from work by worry? To put a curse on my weekend – and curse it was, masquerading as professional duty – by writing a letter to me about sitting on a bed for a mere minute is the greater crime, I think, an inhuman reaction, hypocritical too, because I don’t believe there is a single worker anywhere who concentrates one hundred per cent on company business. If that was the case, such a person would undoubtedly be considered both robotic and insane.

However, seeing into the future, I can hear the barrister for the other side saying, ‘But this wasn’t the first time you’ve been caught reading, is it Mr. Rees?’ And I’d reply, ‘What is this with the pointing finger? I’ve shown my respect for the job by way of my attendance and time-keeping record. You might ask yourself why attendance and staff retention are so poor? Why don’t you managers examine yourselves?’

As we should all know by now – but we don’t, do we? – highlighting “poor performance” in others is a way of distracting ourselves from our own “poor performance”. The company, I think, expects management to be attentive to employees’ concerns. Twice under the old regime and once under the present one, I asked to work in the afternoon instead of the morning so as to make it easier to pursue my nocturnal musical pursuits. On each occasion I was told the matter would be looked into and a reply to my question would be forthcoming. I never got a response and consequently I thought about deleting the adjective “attentive” and replacing it with “indifferent” as a way of describing management. They don’t care about me. Why should I care about them? That’s not a healthy attitude. I concede that people are not always on top of their game and are often distracted by concerns, family matters perhaps. And when such people write letters to me about my not being on top of my game, the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of it rankles. I start to remember other things, the time, for example, when people arrived at the office to sign out after finishing work only to find the office locked. The wait was not long but it was nevertheless an act of disrespect, a theft of people’s time and the time of a cleaner is, of course, as precious as the time of anybody else.

When the new company took over management of the cleaners, I was aware straightaway of the toxicity of bullying on the part of immediate management. I began to make a note of the ill things I observed and suffered and I began to expect a day when I might have to raise matters even in a court room. But then the old regime passed away and I hoped the horror story was over.

Wishful thinking perhaps. The new regime seemed at first to be more humane and I was inclined to think this way until Friday’s letter arrived. Recently, another cleaner told me that management wanted rid of an employee because ‘she didn’t fit in’. And I said, if this is true, it sounds sinister and needs investigating. Well, this is hearsay evidence of course but I begin to wonder whether it is true, whether the real meaning of Friday’s letter is that, in some way, I ‘don’t fit in’ either and the negatives, always easy to find, are being promoted so as to prepare the ground for my departure from the company.

I think a copy of these words should accompany the Friday letter in my file. Maybe also copies should be sent to Human Resources in Bristol, to a solicitor, to the navy and to my doctors’ surgery.

Jan 22nd

Today, I attended that weird substitute for work that management call a ‘meeting’. The author of Friday’s letter seemed well-versed in bureaucratic procedure and at one point he started saying he was going to adjourn the meeting so that he could consult H.R. There seemed to be a stumbling block. I was confused until I realised that my interrogator wanted me, I think, to admit to the charge of having sat on a bed. It just seemed so silly but in order for the show to roll on, I made the admission, held my hand up and said, ‘Fair cop, guv.’

And then I presented my defence which was in the form of reading the words from my journal. I don’t know how well it impressed. All I know was that I was granted the courtesy of no interruption whilst I read.

It had been my intention not to say anything apart from reading the piece from the journal and it annoyed me that, out of nervousness, I started talking. At one point, I said that I’ve never been easy in a situation where a person who doesn’t do a job criticises someone who does. This seemed to touch a nerve and both managers were keen to let me know that they had experience of scrubbing and the like. Yes, but it’s one thing doing it occasionally. It’s something else when you do it day after day.

But the fact remained that I was away from my real work for an hour, employed instead in what was, for me, a puerile piece of theatre. Surely management had more important matters to deal with. Perhaps not. I often think the word “management” is a synonym for “bored”.

About half an hour after I’d returned to work, another cleaner came up to me and asked me if I wanted to know the outcome of the hearing I’d just attended. My initial reaction was astonishment and embarrassment over what appeared to be a total breach of confidentiality. Matters of first concern to me had, it appeared, been spread before others like a little snack of gossip.

Jan 23rd

Somebody had been sick in one of the cubicles. A lot of the vomit had missed the toilet bowl. We’re not supposed to touch emissions from orifices but we do. Normally I would have just got on with it and cleaned the mess. But after recent experience, I decided to observe the letter of the law and reported it.

Jan 24th

Today, I was irritated to find the sick of yesterday still in the toilet cubicle. I reported the matter again. Management apologised and straight away a thorough clean-up was carried out – by management itself.

Feb 4th

Just before leaving work today, M3 dropped another letter on me. He told me he hadn’t wanted to give it to me on Friday lest it had an ill effect on my weekend. How sensitive of him. And yet the contents were just the same as last time, written out in bureaucratic style masking, but not very well, a malignancy.

He’s like a lawyer spending a lot of time following procedure and crafting sentences carefully. And all over what? Underneath the authoritarian personality lies what, I wonder? Acute loneliness I should imagine because who’d ever want to float downstream beneath the willows with an overbearing arsehole? I’m trying to avoid the ‘bully’ word but it’s getting harder.

Feb 5th

Well, there was the dreary business of writing a response to the letter of yesterday which found me guilty of this and that, guilty of being a sinner with no saving graces.

I knew this was going to be the beginning of the fight I’d long anticipated and which would probably end with me leaving the job. Once I began writing the response though, a kind of peace settled on me. There’s no point doing the job if I have to waste time playing mind games with the authorities. I can see through outer pretences sometimes and when this happens, the person concerned feels threatened and wants to stamp out the threat rather than to examine self and to address the insecurity which, unaddressed, results in flailing behaviour.

Feb 6th

I heard this in the pub last night: ‘If you can’t kick a cat, kick a cleaner.’

It was strange that letter of yesterday. The prosecution was also judge and jury and this, of course, flies in the face of natural justice. There was so much certainty in the rightness of the conclusions, it made me feel that this was to mask a deep uncertainty in the writer.

Feb 11th

I decided to appeal against the aforementioned shenanigans. How can someone arse-on-a-chair most of the day, criminalise someone who’s on his feet most of time for sitting down for a moment?

Feb 18th

I was attending to my duties in the corridor when I saw yet another manager – M3 – accompanied by someone who it turned out had come down from London and bore the title of Compliance Manager. I was introduced to Lin, a tall woman dressed in a charcoal pin-stripe trouser suit. We were introduced. We conversed in the men’s toilet and it became clear she knew about my recidivism in respect to sitting down on beds.

She took the view that getting caught twice sitting on a bed didn’t create the best of impressions but that management’s response had perhaps been heavy-handed. I pretty much agreed.

Feb 19th

I went to the office and said, ‘I know it’s late notice but may I take Thursday off? My daughter’s involved in a show in London and she’s asked me to go.’ I was told that, because of staff shortages, it wouldn’t be possible. Piqued somewhat, I then made the decision that’s been on my mind for some time. ‘Another thing,’ I said, ‘I’m leaving the job. A month’s notice, I think.’

Feb 20th

Yes, a month’s notice was the form but I could leave earlier if I wanted to, I was told. I needed to put my decision in writing. And I wrote to the effect that I would work the month so management would have plenty of time to book the marquees and the Rolling Stones for my leaving splash.

Just as I was putting on my civvies to go home at twelve o’clock, Lin, the Compliance Manager came up to me and told me she’d read my letter. She liked the sense of humour, the bit about the Rolling Stones. She also said that I didn’t have to work a month’s notice. I could leave at the end of the month, a week away. Are they keen to see me go or am I a victim of egotistical paranoia?

Feb 21st

First thing in the morning, Lin came to say that she’d arranged for someone else to cover for me and we found an office so as to complete an “exit form”. After 90 minutes, the question came, ‘So what shall I write down as your reason for leaving?’ I replied, ‘Sleepy management and intimidation that I’m tired of resisting. On a positive note, I need to give more time to my artistic interests.’