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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Closing time

I always say to myself and my wife: “I’ll leave the bar before closing time”. If I don’t I’ll have had too much to drink, the journey home will be hell and I’ll show myself up as I try to get undressed while brushing my teeth at the same time.

And what happens? We’re the last two or three in the wine bar; the staff hanging around while we finish off another bottle of white wine long after the other customers have left.

We usually meet at around 6:30 pm on a Friday, once every three months. They’re ex work mates from my days in the Treasury. Two are still there steering the country’s economy through the financial wreaks and reefs that litter the dog days of our Labour government. The other two work in other departments. And I’m retired.

I’m usually the first one at the bar. The rest come in dribs and drabs; with the two Treasury lads last. The Treasury has always had a long hours culture. Ministers work late, senior management work late and so do the work horse economists and policy wonks. If you’re in the Treasury you work long hours because the work’s so damn interesting that you can’t bear to leave your desk. If you’re in another department it’s because Treasury people are sad, lonely nerds without any life outside work.

It’s interesting to note however that when the Treasury guys arrive the conversation gets really lively. It’s partly because there is so much interesting stuff happening there. The Treasury has its fingers in so many other departmental pies so people working there know a lot of what’s going on across government. That in itself is interesting enough, but add to that the politics and personalities in the Treasury’s higher reaches and it becomes addictive.

So we chat about the latest financial crisis, which Minister is not on his game and which senior official is in line for elevation or the push. “The push” is a technical term used in the civil service meaning side way promotion – so they’re put out of harm’s way. Even if it means burdening some other poor department with their incompetence.

And my drinking colleagues will talk about what they’re involved in at work, and I think they’re all doing good work – keeping the wheels turning; trying in their own way to free up the arthritic joints of government.

The wine continues to be poured – each of us buying a bottle and more, until a couple with wives and long commutes home peel off, leaving me and my two Treasury chums to chat on. By which time the machinations of the Treasury are long forgotten and we’re onto credit card deals, holidays and TV programmes we love and hate – in no particular order.

We don’t stagger out – quite. One of us is clearly worse for wear and the conversation along Victoria Street is boarding on the incoherent. The other is off to buy a big Mac and I make my way gingerly to the Victoria Line.

I am sober at this point, but I have forgotten that every time before when I get to Walthamstow I’m less so. It’s quite simple – the journey time from Victoria to Walthamstow Central is just long enough for the alcohol to flush through my system and swamp my brain. And so I arrive at home unsteady, key in door, shoes off and into the kitchen to eat half a loaf and cheese and pickle having forgotten to eat out. It’s into the bathroom – I take pride in a thorough wash and brush up before going to bed – and I slip between the sheets of the marital pit hoping not to wake the missus.

And as I slip into unconsciousness, I think, “I must write to the Council about ……..”

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