The London Years: How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box (6 of 20)

I signed my name and walked behind my more experienced colleague. It is surprisingly cold in most parts of the Palace of Westminster. We navigated the little corridors – green carpets for the House of Commons and red for the House of Lords – to reach another little reception. We signed in and followed a kindly lady (“nobody steals here” she said to me as I hesitated to leave my bag outside – I think about that often). She checked, opened the door and quickly ushered us onto the officials’ box – a tight “balcony” hanging on the wall behind the Speaker. I sat down and if this was a bad novel I would have pinched myself. As it is not, I just stared at the House of Commons and the assembled MPs of the United Kingdom. Ain’t life strange?

Don’t know what’s going on? I’m leaving London soon so this is one of my 20 London stories – a celebration of 20 years of my life here.

My first job in London was at Phones4U – a mobile phone retailer. I used to spend most of my time there taking stock and dealing with the admin. I was sufficiently crap at it but a girl’s gotta eat. While I remember lovely people and fun moments, it was terrible, in the main, and I spent a lot of time applying to other jobs.

Relatively early I found myself interviewing for the UK civil service and got a job at the Serious Fraud Office. Starting out as a Law Clerk and then moving over to the Policy team, this is where I found the answer to how I could get into tech without being an engineer – it was basically the start of my career in policy.

The fact that I had joined the UK Civil Service caused some hilarity for my Greek family. I had refused to apply to any Greek Civil Service positions – considering it a path to boredom – and yet here I was, bowing going in and out of the Courtrooms in London. Fun fact, you don’t bow to the Judge. You bow to the coat of arms behind him, to show respect to the Queen’s justice. Do you really get more British than that?

That was a brilliant job. I was surrounded by smart, dedicated people who believed they were working for a worthwhile cause – and to be honest, they were. I was working with police officers, lawyers and accountants. I did all sorts of things that thinking back seem extraordinary for an immigrant. I helped prepare court documents, I went to help the solicitors, I sat down with barristers as they were discussing briefs and I even participated in dawn raids.

Dawn raids are basically like unannounced inspections – only more legally complicated than that – and I’ll tell you the best thing about them. Just ask the appropriate person and you can get invited to the coppers‘ breakfast – around five in the morning before the team officially departs to go give someone’s lawyers a heart attack. I’ve discovered the best breakfast spots around London this way and was taught how to drink “proper english tea” which should always be with milk and really strong.

I think that part of the reason why I like the Ben Aaronovitch’s officer Grant / Rivers of London novels is because all the coppers in the books remind me of the coppers I knew. Matter of fact, keen, overworked and with a great sense of humour. It always saddens me when the Met gets in trouble, an affinity I would certainly not feel for the Greek police.

Anyway, the job was incredibly serious and enjoyable and it came with perks as I’ve mentioned – it was a gateway to parts of British culture. In the summer of 2005 I even followed, learned about and celebrated cricket as the England team took the Ashes, their first win since 1986–87. My boss at the time was a cricket umpire and really, they are the only ones who can explain cricket to the uninitiated even though, he used to say, even they have to look up the rules.

I worked as a Law Clerk for a good while and then I applied to a Policy position. To my eternal amazement – I became a junior member of a team that took care of parliamentary correspondence and briefed the Solicitor General.

This was serious and scary work as it was immediately explained to me that a Minister misleading the House is a serious offence and so I had to always be accurate, specific and triple check everything. I was terrified and excited every time I briefed the Solicitor General or when I responded to questions in Parliamentary Correspondence. And I was surrounded by kind people who helped me do good work.

Sometimes – not all the time but when the Solicitor General would discuss a specific issue pertaining to our Office in the House – my presence might be required. This is when a meeting might be held beforehand for clarifications. Following that, you take the back corridors to get to the Officials’ box and stare at your Minister as he gives answers you have prepared, taking care not to show any panic I guess. We all wished that would be it. Any meetings post his Questions in the House would not be good news – it being understood that you had royally fucked up with information missing or – God forbid – information being wrong.

I recall a lot of good times in that job but mostly how welcoming and respectful people were. Especially considering where we are today with Brexit, I feel particularly lucky to have experienced the fundamental decency of the civil service.

And here’s the kicker. We had an office party at some point and the Director of one of the divisions was asking me about my story. This was a talented lawyer, career civil servant and admired by her team. I remember her clearly praising me for doing so well, working hard, going to University and how she felt that as a Brit she would not be brave nor talented enough to move abroad and do well in another country’s civil service. I remember thanking her but I don’t think I explained how that would not be her fault, but the fault of her new country.

So you see, this is one of the reasons that I’m disappointed but not bitter with Brexit. I was there, part of “the establishment”, the Greek girl in her twenties. I sat at the officials’ box, managing not to bite my nails as a Minister read from my brief. I had breakfast with the coppers who had always been to Santorini. I learned from brilliant and dedicated people and they opened a door I would not have been able to open alone into British culture.

And, you know, I joyfully clogged my arteries a bit and will forever know what is the atmosphere John le Carré describes when he writes about Whitehall. Not bad eh?

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My #20LondonStories

  1. Grexit/ Brexit 
  2. The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
  3. The night bus 
  4. Words save our lives… sometimes 
  5. The rest is noise 
  6. How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box 
  7. Always have a sister 
  8. Greek London 
  9. This green and pleasant land 
  10. The bridge of aspiration 
  11. The knight in well travelled armor 
  12. Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
  13. Moments in Art 
  14. The NHS hunger games 
  15. In nocte consilium
  16. The friends we found, the friends we lost
  17. Blogging tips for beginners 
  18. Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
  19. γνῶθι σεαυτόν
  20. How to leave London

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