Part 5: The Government years (2) Going underground
I’ve always been a writer ……………………………
“The smoking carriage for this train is the 4th carriage! That’s the 4th carriage for smokers,” yelled the Guard up and down the platform.
Returning from an out of town management briefing by train in the 1990s, a group of dispirited colleagues of the same grade took seats in the, surprisingly deserted, 4th carriage. We all smoked. In that grey cloud-filled compartment, the grim reality of our working environment provoked an almost joint hysterical, gallows humoured, don’t let the bastards grind us down, work together and support each other response. And there and then, on that train, we created a secret, membership only group, operating within a Division of a Government Department Headquarters. We gave ourselves a name: The Fourth Carriage, of course! We were beside ourselves with excitement.
At our first meeting soon afterwards, fittingly in an underground wine bar vault, around half a dozen drunken Civil Servants did what came naturally and agreed our Group operational parameters.
1. Overall objective: to discover, report and take action on enemy (that’s senior management) plans that would adversely affect us.
2. Operational objective: to recruit new operatives urgently to keep an eye on Brussels (we did some EU stuff).
3. Regularity of and timings for ordinary general meetings, agenda suggestions and circulation, numbers required for necessary changes, notified in advance and effected by vote.
4. Minute writing, clearance and circulation. (Under cover obviously.)
We then proposed and voted to elect our officials. Chair (me), Secretary and Treasurer. We believed we had created a group as watertight, mysterious and opaque as ‘The 39 Steps’. We could only hope that ‘The 39 Steps’ assumed the same levels of professionalism.
At the subsequent and frequent meetings of The Fourth Carriage in the wine vaults, we found it necessary to come up with:
• An initiation ceremony for new recruits. Word got round, (underground obviously) and folk clamoured to join us. In the end we settled on an impression of a Mr Whippy ice cream spiralling into a cornet, performed in an open office space with at least 3 Fourth Carriage members present. They flocked!
• Secret member greetings on official business. We came up with a number of verbal, (eg ‘I hear you’re a smoker.’) or physical acknowledgments (eg a touch of the side of one’s nose or forearm by acknowledging members.)
• The Chair’s signal to bring a meeting to order – a box of matches on top of my head. Matches were always around as we were the smokers of The Fourth Carriage.
• The supreme punishment for breaking cover – defenestration (which means deliberately chucking someone out of a high storey window, as popularised during a political incident in 19th century Prague.)
We spent a lot of time cracked up with laughter, accusing fellow operatives of (ridiculous and usually invented) ‘indiscretions’ and discussing how, when and where (through which window) to enact a defenestration. (Despite excellent and detailed plans, thankfully, no defenestration was enacted.) We were giddy and drunk and letting off steam. And did I say drunk? We had invented the Marx Brothers version of ‘The 39 Steps’.
It won’t surprise you to learn, if you follow this blog, that we produced a magazine – but strictly underground for the eyes of members only. It was a scurrilous, gossipy and silly rag produced for our sole amusement. I remember the highlights from one issue included a report from, “Les oreilles (ears) de Bruxelles’ about a conversation in the back of a taxi, and an advertisement for a discreet spying device worn on the shoulder, called a ‘see-backa-scope’. It was accompanied by my very own hand drawn image of a suited man carrying a huge lump on his shoulder under his jacket.
Alongside our secret signals, initiation ceremonies, the production and circulation of confidential ‘Carriage’ documents through the internal post, we played our part in the running of the country as normal. Our work was unaffected but our spirits were lifted as we amused ourselves and each other daily. Our new-found team spirit was an unexpected by-product of a dull and will-sapping away-day. Senior Management might have wondered what had got into us. However, I doubt they noticed anything of what was happening right under their noses.
It was a brief period as circumstances (new jobs and/or premises, pregnancy leave, relocation) scattered our membership. Sadly brief, as it was the most fun I ever had with work colleagues, both in and out of the office. But, I suspect, mercifully brief in terms of our careers. Here’s to the memory of The Fourth Carriage’!