I am walking slowly up a spiral staircase in the pseudo baronial Old Town House Aberdeen which has on the walls, portraits of Lord Provosts past. Their eyes seem to swivel disapprovingly in my direction as I go by. They are not a particularly attractive bunch…
I was to discover many of the living ones were none too pleasant either. But I wasn’t even there yet. I was 23. It was my first “real” job. I was their first ever “Twinning Officer” which was forever being mistaken by locals for a brand of herbal tea. I was going to be in charge of Aberdeen’s town twinning activities which were many as our local elected members loved their “fact-finding missions”. I have yet to find out what facts they were looking for given some of the things they used to get up to on these overseas trips.
This was all to come however. I was still only half way up the stairs a crisp suit, my first one, that Mum had bought for me in John Lewis sale.
I felt inadequate and scared as I spiralled upwards round the statue of Queen Victoria. I was to imagine many times over the next few years that if I threw myself off the staircase I would end up impaled on her crown and bleed all over the geraniums at her feet.
Turned out they had forgotten I was coming so there was no place for me to sit. I said “I don’t mind, as long as I have a desk”. The response was “Desk? Who said anything about a desk?”. That should have been a hint that things were not as they ought to be. I was given a space in an office later deemed too good for me. They later made up for the splendour by ensuring I had rubbish furniture. There were depressing oil paintings in there of sad orphans on loan from the Aberdeen Art Gallery Reserve Collection. It was very clear to me why they were on reserve….
On my first meeting with my new manager, a Scottish version of Sir Humphrey Appleby, I was told two important facts – one that the Lord Provost (our equivalent of Mayor) was “a bastard on a good day”, and two, that Aberdeen had agreed to Twin with a “Russian” City. I summoned the courage to make two points.
1. This City, Homiel, was NOT in Russia. It was in the then Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic
2. I followed up this shock news with, “have you looked on a map?”.
Homiel was the centre of a region heavily contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl four years before. As was their wont, a bunch of our whisky-laden Councillors had met their vodka-laden counterparts while seeking facts together aka some jolly in France. They had been seen coming, as they had undoubtedly been bragging about oil revenue and the £28 million Common Good Fund otherwise known as Robert the Bruce’s Sporran. The historic and binding deal was sealed, making our Cities friends for life, through thick and thin, dictatorship and plutonium.
Regarding my manager’s first point about the “Leadership Style” of the Lord Provost, I quickly realised that he lived up to his reputation. He could be ignorant, mean-spirited, gruff, and downright nasty. On day one with no warning, he summoned me to lunch in the restaurant where our elected Members got their daily free meals. They were all ears awaiting the initiation ceremony – a young lassie about to be served up on a plate. More palatable than the lukewarm mince and tatties nae doot. I had not been told a thing about an upcoming visit by a Japanese delegation and when the summons came, I had appealed to my boss for help. His response was to run in the opposite direction like a daddy long legs possessed. Feeling extremely unsure of myself I joined the Lord Provost. He didn’t say much but got to his feet and shouted “fa’s ‘at” (translation “who’s that?”) at one of his political opponents. The guest in question was a well-known business leader and so was “ahead of himself” right away, which was a clear fail in the Lord Provost’s eyes.
Then his attention turned to me. I sat there clearly being played with, dismissed as an idiot as I could not answer any of his questions, which he had clearly anticipated. When I watch my cat play with a half dead mouse am reminded of many such experiences at the hands of our elected members. I wasn’t to know at that stage that their issue was usually rooted in a firm sense of their own inadequacy made up for as far as they could, in power games, pomposity and a fondness for ceremonial robes. Early on, the Lord Provost had decided I was not up to the job. It helped this semi-literate ex railway shunter to reduce those he feared to zero.
I now understand with hindsight, that I had been propelled into a toxic working environment where to be declared “ahead of yourself” or worse, “clever”, was not a compliment. I was considerably younger than anyone else in my position. I was very raw material and raw material needs to be coaxed lovingly into the finished article rather than trampled on. I translated the messages I was getting re my lack of suitability for the job, my being “above myself”, into “must try harder”. I now know this was the last thing the powers that be wanted. It was to be an early lesson that if one values self-preservation above all else, the key is to achieve a kind of nameless, faceless mediocrity that attracts no attention, either positive or negative. This has been true throughout what passes for my working life. The mediocre are able to climb unnoticed up the ranks. The result is those at the top of the ladder are often subconsciously acutely aware of their own inadequacy, and seek to make up for it by protecting themselves with a brittle narcissism.
The other “not good enough” message I absorbed came from the stitch-up that had happened around my recruitment. I was offered the role but was deemed too young and green to be given the advertised salary for my post. I was offered the position on a lower rate and advised I would have training and support to enable me to grow into the role. This was speaking my language. I had never wanted position as an end in itself and would far rather have worked my way up the ladder on merit. I was also not at all confident in my own abilities and so I fell for it hook, line and sinker.
The first seeds of suspicion were planted when I came across a “Confidential” letter in which senior officials were congratulating one another at their success in getting me to accept a low salary and for the savings they had made as a result. There was no mention of the training and support that I had been offered, and indeed, my then boss was to deny emphatically that these promises were ever made.
I also found out that the elected members had not been informed of this deal so they expected me to put up with the abuse that they believed the higher grades merited. I was handed on a plate to the Lord Provost who commenced a campaign to bully me out of existence.
We went early on to Belarus via Moscow. He was so delighted to be making his first visit to the Socialist Paradise that was just about still the USSR. I can imagine his shock when he was to find at Sheremetyevo airport that he was treated with equal disdain to the rest of humanity shuffling through customs being quizzed about possible weapons-grade plutonium or birdseed in our luggage. It was of course MY fault. He dragged me by the arm across the concourse in search of this anticipated but non-existent VIP treatment. He was a long-standing Communist and discovering the reality of the dying embers of the USSR was too much for him.
On my return, he used every possible opportunity to denigrate me, belittle my work and even my language skills despite his own abilities in English being rather limited.
I was to discover that I may be plagued with anxiety, even terror at times and a crippling lack of self-belief but when against a wall, something in me seems to kick in. I turn and I face head on whatever it is and whoever it is.
I had an ally in the form of the Council’s Public Relations Officer. She was profoundly disliked as not only was she a well-known figure in Aberdeen from her previous TV career, she had also married into a high-profile local family who owned a number of important businesses and amenities in the City. Margaret was being put through the same mincer as I was. She was older than me and became a friend and mentor. We resorted to black humour for survival. We even tried witchcraft. We would sit in the Press Gallery during Council meetings willing the Lord Provost to keel over, in the way he would have wanted, in full throttle rant in the Council chamber. Our plan was to sprint down the spiral staircase and over the road to Oddbins for a bottle of Dom Perignon so that we could toast his departure.
I soon unleashed my talent for creative disruption. One day I came in early and stuck a big Room 101 poster on the grand wood-paneled door to the Lord Provost’s suite of offices. The trouble was, the inhabitants of our baronial building had not read Orwell and the TV programme was yet to exist so it was lost on them. It made me feel considerably better however.
I then sought a practical plan of action. I sensed that it needed some public acclaim for HIM, to make him understand my worth. I spotted an International Relations’ award and KNEW this largely meaningless gong would impress Comrade R in the style of winning a Stakhanovite medal, or the Order of Lenin. I entered and won an award for my work in Belarus and Zimbabwe “Best Contribution to World Harmony” at a ceremony at the Savoy and he had to go with me to London to accept it on behalf of the City. He had broken his leg so I was in effect his carer, which was a profound change in the dynamics between us.
There was what I now know is a power shift happening and this was to become a theme throughout the fragments of my life.
When we got back from London, I was called into the newly-arrived Chief Executive Donald McDonald, the Stalin of Stornoway, of whom very much more anon. McDonald was blithering that “something has happened to the Lord Provost”. He had apparently been to see him and demanded that I be given an assistant and a serious pay rise. I left McDonald’s office to a hearty “your days as a trainee are over”. Later that day, the Lord Provost publicly apologised to me. He said he had been unfair and that he hadn’t been aware of my status as “trainee”.
Shortly after that, my nemesis retired from office. The last time I saw him was on the street. I was in formerly “his” car, the chauffeur-driven Civic Daimler, having been at the airport seeing off a VIP. He was at the bus stop in the Aberdeen rain.
I waved at him. He waved back. A week later he was dead.