The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The European Commission building in Brussels
This is to inform you that you have been shortlisted for the post of A3
in DGV at the European Commission in Brussels. Your next step should
be to contact your Director-General at the address overleaf.
Director of Personnel (European)
I had had letters telling me that I had been shortlisted for prizes in competitions for which I had never entered, but never before had I been shortlisted for a job for which I had never applied. I rummaged in the crevices of my memory for something that might have provoked this inter-office memo.
Yes, that must be it! Months ago I had been sent a circular inviting staff to ‘express an interest’ in working with the European Commission in Brussels. Well, who wouldn’t have expressed an interest in escaping this drab little box of an office overlooking the graffiti scarred squalor of a south London shopping centre, where downtrodden mothers dragged fractious toddlers around dreary supermarkets while I seeped away my life administering the British government’s policy on War Widows’ Pensions.
Government policy on War Widows’ Pensions consisted essentially in resisting demands to improve them. My principal duty was to reply to irate elderly widows who wrote in contrasting their late husband’s sacrifice with the government’s parsimony. One told me she was so disgusted she had allowed her daughter to marry a German.
I replied explaining government policy and wishing the young couple every happiness; I replied again when she wrote to my boss and he passed the letter to me, and again when she wrote to the Minister and he passed the letter to my boss and he passed it to me. The same happened when she wrote to the Secretary of State and then the Prime Minister and then to the Queen. So as not to give her an undue sense of importance I was allowed to sign all these letters myself, following the formula ‘The Prime Minister/ The Queen/ Whoever has asked me to reply to your letter of . . .’
I also read post-mortem reports on ex-prisoners of war to confirm that there was no link between the cause of death and the experience of captivity that might give rise to a War Widow’s Pension. At that time ex-POWs died at the rate of about four a day, so I developed a routine of reading through two of the bulky reports before tea break and two more before lunch. I never found any links, for these were aging veterans from a war that had ended thirty years ago.
My most exciting activities were occasional outings to Bolton or Basildon to sit on local War Pension Committees. Brussels seemed positively exotic.
I turned over the memo and to my disappointment saw that my putative Director-General had not yet taken up his post. He was still at his office in Hammersmith. All I was getting out of this was a ride on the Piccadilly Line.
I showed Diana the memo and a booklet they had sent me called ‘Brussels Briefing’. It said nothing about what DGV was or what an A3 did but the pay scales translated into Sterling at four times my current salary.
‘I shouldn’t get excited’, she said. ‘Who knows what that would buy in Brussels. We’ll discuss this when you get offered the job.’
She spoke with the soothing commonsense with which she silenced over-excited children at breakfast and made them eat up their cornflakes. As far as Di was concerned I already had a good job – reasonable pay, regular hours, good holidays and an excellent pension. My day dreams were not her concern.
The future Director-General’s office took up almost an entire floor in a skyscraper office block. A secretary opened the door and I had a distant prospect of a great desk beyond a sea of carpet with a small man with a bald head peeping up behind the desk.
I waded across the carpet and stood in front of him. He rose to take my hand.
‘Ah, Mr Edwards – may I call you James? – I don’t suppose you know anything about this job, do you?’
‘Er – no’ (should I?)
‘Well let’s look at this organigram then – I expect it would be one of these.’ He spread out a very complicated organisation chart across the desk. ‘Bring your chair round, James, and we’ll look at it together.’
‘It could be this’, he said, ‘or this, or this’. He ran his stubby pink finger over a line of boxes with titles in French.
I tried to look intelligent. ‘Tell me about this one’, I said, jabbing at a box at random.
He explained the duties of the post.
‘No, you’d need a pure economist for that’, I answered. ‘What about this one?’
He made some notes and then explained the next job.
‘Could be’, I said, ‘but you’d do better with someone with more welfare experience.’
He made more notes. ‘What about this one?’ he said, explaining a third job.
‘That’s more my line’, I answered. ‘I think I’ve the experience for that.’
‘Right’, said the little great man, ‘so it’s the Social Security job we’re talking about.’
A secretary hovered. I sensed the interview drawing to a close and I had a cold feeling in my stomach. All at once I knew that I could not handle this job and that it would blow apart my quiet, well-ordered life.
‘But – but – don’t you want to know anything about me?’
‘I think I’ve enough here already’, he replied, tapping a bulky file on the corner of the desk, bigger than any of my post-mortem reports.
I made a last bid for failure. ‘I – there’s something I ought to tell you – I don’t speak French very well.’
This was one of the great understatements of my life. I had joyfully abandoned studying French at sixteen to escape my teacher’s sarcasm and my schoolmates’ ridicule.
It was a false move. He draped an arm over my shoulder. ‘Got the same problem myself, Old Boy.’
‘When will I know?’ I whispered.
‘I’ll contact you in a fortnight.’
A fortnight and forty post-mortems later there was still no news. Perhaps it had been a dream – perhaps I had misunderstood him – perhaps I shouldn’t have lost my nerve and thrown it away.
Three weeks after the interview. My phone rang.
‘Robert here. It’ll be the Social Security job, OK?’
‘OK’, I answered meekly.
‘Next month then. See you in Brussels. Bye.’
That evening Di flatly refused to go. The next morning she told the children we were moving to Brussels. None of them finished their cornflakes.
In the next few weeks we unravelled one life and took up the threads of another. At last the day came and it was all really happening. I swore my oath never to bring the European Commission into disrepute (so I can never write my memoirs!), I was given my carte de service and my almond-eyed Italian secretary ushered me into my new office.
It was all mine – the high chair, the leather bound desk and the plate glass view over the Brussels skyline.
The title on the door read Chef de Division but my secretary called me Capite de Divisione, which sounded much more dashing. She didn’t seem to speak English, but with a girl like that who cared?
There was one letter in the in-try. It was addressed to the President of the Commission and I was to write a reply on his behalf. I sat down to read it.
Dear Monsieur President
I am writing to you on behalf of the war widows of Great Britain to tell you how badly our Government treats us. I have written to everybody I can in Britain, including the Prime Minister and The Queen, but always my letters are answered by the same civil servant. Now that we have joined Europe I can at last get past him, to reach somebody who will listen . . .
I read no further but began to draft.
Dear Mrs Courage
The President of the European Commission has asked me to reply to your letter of . . .