Friday, 8 February 2008

Yeah, but....

I went to a job interview today.

I researched the company, checked out how to get there, liaised with the Telford based employment agency which set it up and read up about the place the company is based in. A couple of days before, I checked out a day return price for the train ticket.


How much!!?

Yep. Really.

£15.80 for a one day return.

How much for a one year season ticket, then?


Oh, Jesus. The pay had better be good.

The trouble is, because the company was cagey about the salary to the employment agency, the agency couldn't tell me whether the job was worth going for or not. The only way to find out was to go there and find out for myself.

I hate it when the job is advertised as "£Excellent + benefits". The reader has no idea about whether potential employers are so embarrassed by the low pay that they don't want to put people off or whether they do offer "£Excellent + benefits" and want to reduce the number of time wasters.

The joke is, this job has been advertised on and off for months. I had even applied directly to the company when they advertised it themselves.

The trouble was that it is a good old distance away from Wolverhampton and after I applied by sending my CV and they responded by sending me an application form, I Googled the place and found out that by going from Birmingham it would take the best part of 2 hours per journey. That's a four hour commute every day. I can't read very well on trains. I told them I'd pass.

Now I've found out that Birmingham isn't the best place to start the journey. It's Wolves. Take the train to Shrewsbury and then change for a Wales bound train heading in the direction of Church Stretton. That way, it "only" takes about one and a half hours. Three hours a day commuting. All I need is a half decent personal stereo.


It was a beautiful spring like day and I thought the good weather was a good omen. Magical or wishful thinking is part of the whole depression/OCD thing. On a good day, I know that good weather, or a happy reading from my Eight Ball fortune teller or a good horoscope means absolutely fuck all. On a bad day, a bad "omen" can send me back to bed for the day ringing in sick with a "migraine" or a "stomach bug". Psychosomatic symtoms meant I'm not really lying.

So I put on my best "office smart" clothes and wore my best coat and waddled off to the train station. I got on the Shrewsbury train and watched the hills and the flood water and the sheep go by. There were lots of sheep. And hills. And dips. And floodwater. And sheep. And hills. And stations.

On the way, I rang the employment agency. I'd remembered the address and the research but I'd forgotten the name of the interviewer. Could they help? The nice lady gave the name of a woman and I thanked her. She called off wishing me good luck and I thanked her.

Shrewsbury train station was a large Victorian place which had seen better days. There were ferns growing out of some of the roof tiles and a generally rusty appearance to the metalwork.

I got off my train on Platform 7 and walked to a monitor in front of the waiting room to try and track down a train to Church Stretton.

In train stations, there are platform specific monitors which only tell you what's going to arrive on the platform you're standing on and then there are more general monitors dotted around, which tell you the destination of all the departing trains, their platforms, the departure times and how late the trains are running.

This is England, the trains are always running late.

Before I could work out what the monitors were trying to tell me, an announcement came over the tannoy. I wasn't paying attention so I didn't hear the first part. My ears only pricked up when I heard the magic words "Church Stretton"








Well, I'd got off the train on Platform 7, which means I needed the next but one. As I was about to climb the stairs to get to 5, I decided to check the platform number.


I stood with my back to the stairs, facing the waiting room and looking at the platform numbers. Yep. 7 was on my left with 4 on my right. Which meant, what, that 6 and 5 were hiding?!

I walked down platform 4 past the waiting room and a small cafe and found two more platforms hiding behind the building. 7 and 4 were through platforms which allowed trains to pass on to further destinations, 6 and 5 were termination platforms which stopped the trains going any further.

Platform 5 was home to what looked like a single carriage. OH DON'T TELL ME I MISSED IT AFTER ALL THAT!!

I waddled quickly up to the guard on the carriage and asked if this was the Swansea train. Yes, he said in a thick Welsh accent, it was. Is Church Stretton a request stop? No, he replied and I heaved myself on.

There were more hills. And sheep. And hills. And sheep. And water. And sheep. And hills. And sheep. And water. And hills. And sheep. And sheep. And hills. There was so much scenery out there! I couldn't believe how isolated this place was.

Coming into the station, it was possible to catch snatched glimpses through the windows of a large plant like building that was up next to the rail lines. They seemed filled with silver coloured reaction vessels, pipes, conduits, dials, gauges and people in white coats. At least the place was close to the transport link.

The station consisted of two platforms with tiny, concrete shelters. There didn't seem to be a ticket office. Just some information boards and a small bridge linking the two short platforms.

I got off on the opposing platform, forgot to cross the station bridge and walked the long way round disorienting myself in the process.

I walked across a pretty bridge, towards a tree lined country road and a sign. "Thank you for visiting Church Stretton". Oh bloody hell! I was walking in the wrong direction.

I turned back and went back the way I'd come. I found what I thought was the right door on the right road. It was a splendid, large and imposing late Georgian/early Victorian building with a huge front door and security cameras pointing towards the door and the pavement around it. I pressed an intercom and a confused sounding woman told me to wait.

She came to the door, cracked it open and then held it so that I could just about see her. Tubby like me, she seemed to be in late middle age and spoke as if worried or distracted. She asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was there for the interview. She told me that was impossible. She asked me where I thought I was. I told her. No, she said, I needed the building behind the one I was at. She then smartly shut the door, leaving me wondering what on earth was in there to merit three CCTV cameras, a Securiphone and such paranoia.

I went round the building, down what looked liked its driveway to the Reception of the place I should have been at all along.

Well, it was no wonder I couldn't find the place, what with it's proximity to the railway station, the fact that it's the biggest building around and it had the name of the place in three foot high letters above the door. Of course I missed it.


I presented myself to the Receptionist who asked me to fill in a Visitors badge which was then inserted into a faulty clip pouch. Could I get it open? Could I buffalo! I told her I was there for the 9:30 interview and gave the name of the lady I was given by the employment agency.

"I think you're looking for me", said a smiling man striding up a corridor with his right hand outstretched to shake mine.

"Oh, right" I said, confused and shaking his hand. He explained the lady I asked after worked in HR, but she trusted him to do the interview because he was the manager who was looking for staff after all.

"Oh right" I said. I'm really good at conversation when I'm wrong footed and nervous. It's a great way to show off how brilliant I am.


He showed me into an office and we got down to the interview.

He'd been given only a selective career history by the HR lady who in turn had only been given the bare minimum by the employment agency. Did I have a copy of my CV? Luckily I had. For just such an occasion, I had earlier printed off three copies in case I was ambushed by one of those 3 to 1 interviews which seem to be increasingly popular these days.

The interview jogged along, but he talked as if he were used to people who had never worked in a lab before. He felt the need to explain how prescription safety glasses were acquired. How, as it was a laboratory environment, people needed to wear enclosed footwear (no open sandals) and how people dressed in long trousers with no short skirts or shorts allowed. I was able to finish some of his sentences for him.

I exceeded the academic qualifications needed, I exceeded the experience needed and I generally exceeded the person specification all around. That did not bode well. Especially, when I went with him on the guided tour of the lab.

It was extremely warm. Each person had their own work station which consisted of a fume cupboard, an HPLC system, a column which was being packed and tested, all the associated kit and a stool. There was no music, no conversation and nothing but the hypnotic knocking sound of HPLC pumps slowly ticking over.

I could see myself, if hired, head first in the fume cupboard snoring loudly. I was going to have to start main-lining Red Bull just to keep my eyes open. It looked like a mind-bogglingly boring job.

I could see the job and my enthusiasm for it floating away as if caught on a stiff breeze and as they cheerfully waved "Bye, bye!", the Interviewer and I went back into the office and he came to the "Well, do you have any questions? Now is the time to ask."

I just had to bring up the subject of pay. A good interviewee isn't supposed to mention the subject of filthy lucre at a job interview, but the £2,800 and something pounds for the one year season ticket to get there was preying on my mind.

The pay scale, he told me, was £13,000 to £16,000. Obviously, new recruits were meant to start at the bottom of the scale, but if they thought they had found the right candidate, then they were prepared to fight for him or her. For a starting position that wasn't bad pay. For me, it was lousy.

I explained my dilemma. That the costs of travelling to and from work were close to £3k a year and that's after tax.

He saw my problem and made a quick calculation. "So, realistically, to work here, you need to be earning about £18,000 minimum."

I nodded helplessly in agreement "Well," I paused, "yeah."

He liked me, I liked him and the atmosphere seemed friendly enough but I needed to start at £2k more than the maximum on his pay scale and he wasn't prepared to fight that hard for me. I couldn't blame him. I wouldn't hire me for that job either.

He was one of those people who believed that all meetings should end on a positive. It was obvious I was no longer a candidate but he sat there and told me the interview went very well.

"Well," I agreed, "there's no blood up the walls and we'll both walk out of here breathing - yeah, it went well."

He laughed, a slightly too jolly laugh, and, showing me out, wished me all the best. I thanked him for inviting me.

As I was on my way out, he greeted another candidate in dressed in her best "office smart".

So. What to do with myself for the rest of the day. It wasn't even 11am.

Sightseeing. I'd explore the place. It was a nice day, the scenery was beautiful and I was unlikely to visit the place again. Why not take a tour of the place?

It turns out that Church Stretton is a ridiculously pretty, stereotypically Olde Englishe small town nestled amongst the picturesque Stretton Hills of Shropshire. With all the craft and "antique" shops you can eat, you can Tea Shoppe yourself to death within a week. Just how much home made carrot cake can one town need for crying out loud?

The whole town seemed to have been given over to tourism and did have the air of a seaside town out of season. It just seemed to be ticking over until the tourists arrived. There were few people younger than retirement age, next to no pushchairs or toddlers and it had ominous signs that although property prices were currently high, things weren't as rosy as they first appeared.

There were a number of closed down shops - in a town that small even one was noticeable. A shoe shop was closing down and even made the front page of the local paper.

The local Farmers' Market was in town and consisted, pitifully, of three stalls. There were next to no customers.

In a side street there was a "furniture initiative" funded by the local county council and a charity so that hard up people could buy good quality, second hand, furniture. It was the only shop open in that street.

The town was a higgledy-piggledy mix of black and white, half timber, Elizabethan cottages, early and late Georgian and Victorian houses, including a stunningly pretty terrace of Victorian workmens cottages opposite the church, some lovely Edwardian villas, some bungalows from between the wars and the 1950s and 60s and more clunkily obvious, modern 1970s and 80s houses.

There were some new build houses and flats for sale that had been built in a faux Elizabethan style and had been worked around a cobbled courtyard. They were empty and still for sale after they had been completed last summer.

After I walked up and down one of the hills to take in the views which were stunning, I went to the local library which doubled as the Tourist Information office.

The Church Stretton Town Council had set up a display asking the townspeople to comment on the new planning regulations. As the place was stuffed to the gills with Listed Buildings and was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, planning was singularly important.

The posters on the noticeboard advertised everything from "Flicks in the Sticks" to the local Organic Potato Day. A £4 entrance fee entitled the punters to a day in the local hall learning about Shropshires' potato crops and buying organic seed potatoes and a lunch (consisting mainly of potatoes).

The Tourist Office yielded train timetables, a scary bus timetable (one every two hours on a week day) and leaflets

Outdoor Activities for All

Walking the Stretton Hills

explore open access land

Craven Arms

Much more than just a pub name

The Strettons consisted of Church Stretton, All Stretton and Little Stretton, buried deep in the Shropshire Hills. Rural and picturesque, farming was a big deal (stock prices were listed in the local paper (and they were all depressed)), the National Trust looked after a large swathe of the local countryside and there was naff all to do except walk through the countryside, look at the scenery and gawp at peoples' historic houses.

I set about looking for lunch. Oh now. Decisions, decisions.

The organic deli looked good. So did the tea shop down the neighbouring alleyway, the bakery and cafe smelt good, so did the black painted tea shop nearby. In the end I went to Flinders. A couple of steps down and I was given the choice of take-away or sit down waitress service. Complimentary newspapers were folded and piled on a shelf with yet more tourist leaflets.

I had a ham salad baguette which arrived with a garnish of ready salted crisps, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and orange slices. I washed it all down with Diet Coke. It was very nice. I'd chosen my venue well. It was popular. There were quite a few people in there. Every table was filled and there was a steady trail of take-away customers. The Soup of the Day was very popular and came with an entire baguette and butter.

On the way back to the station, I wandered from one side of the road to the other, looking in shop windows and visiting the newsagents for papers and more to drink for the journey back to Shrewsbury.

On my way back to the station, I saw an old fashioned hardware store - just like the ones I remembered from my childhood. A fine collection of pots, pans and housewares on the lino'ed side of the shop for the ladies and a large and fairly diverse collection of outdoor "mens" things on the other bare wooden floored side.

There was a fine collection of sticky back plastic disguises for your wheely bin (including Leylandii, yew and border flowers), caustic soda and spirits of salts sat side by side the household cleansers and at the back of the shop was a key cutting counter.

This place was just old fashioned enough for what I needed. 21mm, cockspur, lockable window handles for my bathroom windows.

It's a story that's nearly four years old. Ever since I bought my house, I've been looking for these things and this guy might have them.

No. He used to sell them. But not now. The people he used to get them from went bust, oooooh, years ago now.

I could try EB Smith by Welsh Bridge in Shrewsbury or there was a place in Craven Arms I could try.

I thanked him and went on my way to the train station. Shrewsbury. I'm going there anyway, I can take a detour.

When I got to Shrewsbury, I left the station and gawped at the castle. It was very plain compared with the faded Victorian Gothic grandeur of the train station. I walked out as far as the Royal Mail building before I asked for directions. The Royal Mail guy smoking a cigarette told me to go back the way I'd come and follow the signs to the Welsh Bridge.

It was only then that I realised that I wasn't looking for a suburb, I was looking for an actual bridge. Back at the train station, I found a map. There was a Welsh Bridge and an English Bridge.

I followed the road through the town and I was stunned. The main town centre is historic. Half timbered black and white Elizabethan houses were actual shops. Doorways between them led into tiny courtyards through which people reached their front doors.

This was living, breathing history. Instead of turning the town into a gigantic, tourist dependent museum or just flattening the place and starting again like a large portion of the Midlands, the town was beautiful. Conserved and adjusted for the rigours of modern living not preserved or destroyed.

I followed the road as instructed but got lost. I went to ask for directions in another hardware store I was passing. It was a simple structure, almost like a garage. The big doors had been pegged back and wares were hanging from hooks and nails on the inside of the doors. Great straw brooms, old fashioned besoms, various metal and coir doormats, watering cans and the usual plastic ware. This being more than halfway to Wales, the doormats had greetings in English and Welsh.

When I went to the back of the shop, I swear I smelt paraffin. The shopkeeper was a woman who looked a lot like I would in about 30 years time. She was a round, sensibly dressed, little woman with short, curly, greying hair, a round face and a button nose. I asked for directions. In a thick, Shropshire accent, Future Me told me to keep going and the Welsh Bridge would be on my right.

Off I went again. The road followed the river. It was running very high and very fast. The fear of flooding must be a major headache around there. A team of rowers zapped past with little effort. Sure enough, I eventually, came across a grey stone bridge called Welsh Bridge.

Crossing it, the views were very fine. There were modern buildings, most noticeably the Council Buildings and very old buildings all built one after the other. No modern zones and historic areas just old and new side by side. It was lovely.

I found EB Smith. It was an old fashioned hardware shop and locksmith. Brilliant. They were bound to have what I wanted.

Or not.

The shop was split into two levels, with counters keeping the customers at bay. There was a short ladder which connected ground with mezzanine and an old man was climbing down it as he served a customer. He called out and a younger man came out to serve me. I showed him the picture of what I wanted that I keep on my mobile 'phone.

Ooooh. He used to sell those, but the company went bust and he hadn't seen them for years, now. I could try Salop Glass. They might have them.

He then went on to tell me where Salop Glass in Ditherington was. Out. Across the Welsh Bridge, on to the train station, left to the Royal Mail sorting office, did I know where that was?

I'll find it.

Carry on walking and Salop Glass is on the left.

I thanked him and left. Seething.

I was going to have to backtrack to the train station and return to the Royal Mail.

I started walking.

Out through the historic old town centre. Out past a phenomenal library building that looked like it was built about the same time as the castle, out past the station, out past the Royal Mail sorting office, and out. And out. And out.

I had walked so far I was starting to lose hope. Then I saw the sign. Salop Glass.

I walked in and a bell rang. An old man shuffled up to the counter which held the customers out by the front door, in a tiny area which contained two seventies style, office chairs and nothing else.

I showed him the picture on my mobile 'phone. Ooooooh. Now. And he shuffled off out of sight down a corridor. After a couple of minutes I could hear him shuffling back. He had a choice of handles. The silver one was too small but the white one looked just right.


How many did I want?

Two pairs. Left and right.

Two pairs of left and two pairs of right. Right.

I thought hard.

Um, no. I want two matching pairs.

Two pairs of left and two pairs of right. Right.

He turned as if to shuffle off again.

No. I want two left handles and two right handles.

Oh right.

And he shuffled off.

He came back with four individually wrapped handles. Nothing else.

As I looked at them and confirmed that they were two left and right handles. I hazarded a question.

Do they come with screws?

No. They do come with screw covers, though.

I looked at the keyholes.

Do they come with keys?

No. They have to be ordered separate. But we got some.

And he shuffled off. Leaving me with the unpaid for handles.

He shuffled back with a large cardboard box, jabbing his thumb behind him.

He says he's seen the keys, but I can't find them.

I didn't bother asking who "he" was. We searched through the box, unloading handles and flapping around inside the box looking for the keys.

As we searched, he explained that his firm had won the contract with a local hospital to replace all the window locks but had some left over after they'd finished. The locks were a special commission. They used to sell them but the company they dealt with had gone bust and they hadn't had them in for years before these.

Eventually, we found a small packet with the screw covers, but still no keys.

We loaded the box back up with the handles and he shuffled off telling me he'd look again for the keys.

I was now in possession of handles and screw covers. Nearly there. My quest of nearly four years was almost over.

He was so long away that I was starting to wonder what had happened to him. He eventually shuffled back.

Nope. He says they're there but I can't find them. But you got the handles.

So I shelled out £7 per handle (+VAT) and promised to come back for the keys. After witnessing that performance, I didn't trust him with my name and address. Besides, I wanted to come back to Shrewsbury to do some sightseeing.

I walked back to Shrewsbury. Well, I limped. I'd spent so much time walking today, that the plantar fasciitis was really playing up. But, today it didn't matter. Today, I had my handles which were stuffed into my handbag which was now swollen with newspapers, hardware and a bottle of drink.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Shrewsbury, delighted at the sights, following the little lanes and folds around the town centre and only going back to the train station when it started to get dark.

When I got home, I couldn't wait to get the locks on the windows. I used the screws that were already there to put the locks on. And I nearly screamed when I realised that the wedges on the window frames which the cockspurs fitted onto were now too thin. The handles fitted the screw holes but they had slightly different cockspur heights. It was a matter of millimetres. The windows were now loose in their frames.

Until I find new wedges, the bathroom windows are being held tight to the frames with pieces of folded card.

Brilliant. So near and yet so far.