Kieran Breen is a businessman who splits his time between Dublin and London. He writes about some of the colourful people he’s met in the course of his life. Kieran lives in Kilternan, Co. Dublin.
Here’s one of Kieran’s pieces set in London during the 1970s:
The Dole Office in Peckham
The smell of hash made working there more interesting. The queues got longer as unemployment grew. It was 1973 and the energy crisis in London meant the art gallery we rented in Selfridges was virtually closed as the escalators and the lifts to the fourth floor were used very sparingly. No customers, so I got a temporary job in the dole office in Peckham.
Peckham and Brixton are good pals, soulmates. A mixture of West Indians and Irish, some of the natives and some beautiful people decaying from drugs came in to sign on. It was the end of the liberal sixties, still interesting and different. I loved the place. Hash permeated the air and nobody seemed to mind. I volunteered for the counter which is the first line of defence.
“You must get a B1, sir, as you’ve no stamps. You didn’t work in the U.K. as you’ve just arrived here,” I taunted.
“Don mess me about man I don wan no fuckin B1 just wan tha money mess me about man mess me about man.” The West Indians said what they had to say, then repeated it softly to themselves again and again.
“I can’t help you unless you take a B1 to Social Security. Believe me, the quicker you go to DHSS the better.”
The West Indians were like myself — they gambled, drank, smoked dope and somehow got by. I’d spent some time on their side of the counter so they got the best possible advice on how to screw the system. Later they’d endeavour to get on my queue. “Get the Irish fella he don mess you about.” Nice compliment!
There were two Turkish claimants Shet-A-Bet and his nephew Shet-A-Bet Mo.
“Mr Shit-A-Bit please,” I called.
“Mr Shit-A-Bit more please,” feigning difficulty with the foreign names. The crowd would snigger at my apparent ignorance but it made my day brighter.
The manager of this odd place was a former drill sergeant in the British Army and he was thick, really thick. He arrived each morning at 6.30 for an 8.15 start while the doors opened for the punters at nine. This was his life and he loved the power. I flattered him: “How do you manage to run the place so well?”
“Discipline Paddy, I mean Kieran, in Army” (no definite article) “Most Irishmen are Paddy or Mick. You don’t mind if I call you Paddy?”
“Yes, we’ve a rubber stamp at home for the christening, we go Mick, Pat, Mick, Pat, just a few like me Kevin or Kieran. Bet in England you’ve one for George and John. Like you, Mr Smith. You’re John, aren’t you?”
He never suspected my mischievousness, he considered me a simple Paddy and that was beautiful.
“You good with claimants, Paddy,” he’d say now and then.
The months went by through the hot summer of ’73. The place swarmed all shades of brown, white, black and all shapes and sizes, all skint and demanding. At the end of my nine months the energy crisis was over and the gallery was opening again. I said goodbye to my friends in the queue, said goodbye to my boss Mr Smith, still in the simple Paddy mode.
“Sorry to be leaving, Mr Smith.”
“Stay on if you wish, Paddy.”
“No, Sir. Got a good job on the buildings and I start next week in Battersea.”
“Paddies good workers,” he said.
Farewell to Shit-A-Bit and Co and back to the sophistication, the bullshit and the fairy tales of the art world.