I’m on my way to Manchester for an RSA Networks open day, of which more later. When RCE (Barbara, or ‘the Real Chief Executive’ as everyone knows her) told me my train was at 6.20 I was spectacularly unchuffed. It’s not so much the getting up early that I find objectionable more the going to bed early that I find impossible.
Walking through the streets of Lambeth at half past five this morning I was reminded of my brief stint as a street cleaner in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It was the summer of 1977. Every morning I was full of energy and hope, even though I’d rarely had more than three hours sleep. I loved walking across Chelsea Bridge as the sun was rising, and even one day when I watched the police river boat haul a body from the Thames it seemed somehow elegiac.
I recall my first morning most vividly. I turned up at 5.00 am and the foreman allocated me to Reg, a short, stoop shouldered man with skin etched with street dust and a dormant roll-up permanently attached to his bottom lip. He looked about 75 but I later found out was in his mid fifties. Reg took me to a street behind Sloane Square gave me a broom and set me to work.
After about half an hour I was regretting ever taking this summer job. I was covered in sweat, my eyes were streaming and I had already developed a pathological hatred for dog owners. Reg sidled up to me. He pointed back to the pristine pavement stretching 100 yards or so behind me. ‘’Ave you done this?; he asked in such accusatory tones that I assumed my productivity was well below par. ‘Yes’ I nodded, bracing myself for a lecture about the fecklessness of youth. ‘Listen mate’ said Reg patting me on the back ‘this is a job not a bleeding vocation’.
That’s when the proper initiation began, the most important part of which concerned the morning inspection round made by the foreman on his motor scooter. Looking in his white pith helmet every inch a district superintendent on an imperial posting, the supervisor made it a matter of pride that he kept always to a strict timetable. You could set your clock by when you would hear the putter of his scooter rounding the corner and see his jaunty salute as he satisfied himself and the Royal Borough that its staff were hard at work.
And we did set our clocks.
For this was the only time of the day when we could reliably be found with brooms in our hands. At all other times we would be distributed far and wide, some at home, some in the pub or the betting shop, one even pursuing a Lawrencian affair with a Sloane dowager. The only one of us who was generally to be seen with his handcart was Sean the junky who used his to secrete car radios nicked to pay for his habit.
Now, I guess, I do have a vocation, or at least a mission. Today is a big day for the RSA as we try to transform the Society into a powerful force for social innovation. The Fellowship and network teams have done a great job of preparation and I am really looking forward to the day (I will report back later from the train home). But sometimes, only sometimes, I wish I could return to those days when creativity was something you used not to improve your job, but to avoid having to do it.