"Use the STAR model to show your skills and experience in answers to shortlisting questions or in a supporting statement as well as for interview questions."
In a moment of school-hours madness I thought of applying for a 18.5hrs/week Council 'housing service advisor' job (£24,000 pro-rata, so about £12K a year or £12.50 per hour); but once I'd logged my complete employment history (a morning's work in itself, but at least it is saved for any future applications) and got to the business part, just looking at the questions, or rather the performative STAR jumps ("Situation, Task, Action, Result" in case you were wondering) they demanded by way of answers, made me feel sick.
It might have already been like this for months or years, I can't remember, but really, candidates must now answer these bullshit questions through a designated talent show acronym? Are we no longer permitted to think for ourselves? Do they want a person to fill in their applications, or a pre-programmed AI? Maybe this is how the great robot takeover starts: design an application form no human can stomach, and then make the interview into a reverse Voight-Kampff test, to ensure that only synthetic beings can get through the recruitment process.
The job is entirely working-from-home, a virtual set-up raising issues of space and resources which will probably not be addressed in the application. And of course although this is supposedly an entry-level job, and they say you can use scenarios from home or education as well as work, their 'example' has someone describing what they do in their current role, which conveniently involves the same duties required for this post. In contrast, any experience I have of "working in a demanding, customer focused role" is from a time before Zoom and Teams and whatever other apps and buzzwords have been installed in people's brains, so I have no relevant 'situation' to impart. That is, unless I recast my daughter as a demanding customer whom I am providing with a service (although she would no doubt take issue with that).
This is not new, of course. It's just that every so often I feel a certain social/material pressure to audition for these normative roles (currently a need to improve our housing conditions, ironically), to imagine myself treading the boards as a public sector administrator: customer-focused, IT literate, one of the team. But as I get older, the twitches and glitches get more pronounced, the animosity becomes more difficult to hide, and the act becomes less and less plausible.
I have long since been excluded from these sorts of jobs, regardless of my actual skills or experience. I am moving further away from them and the world they represent.
I am not so much a STAR as a black hole.
'Where was it you grew up, Dad?'
'Gateway 14, although it wasn't called that then.'
* * * * *
/ / / / ////
* * * * *
Where? On the head, no, in the head. Just... there. Ah fuck. Yes. Right there. Like a... f/f/f/u/u/u/u/u/ck/ck/ckthat/hurtssooooom/uuuu/c/hhh/
Pain. Full stop. No. Try again. Pain, comma
Pain, like a blocked pathway, like a severed limb, li- a/a/a/a/h/st/op/it/st/op/it/ststssss
Like a void. Like avoid. Get it? Like, avoid. Avoid at all costs.
Awake. Like, a wake. As in a party for someone who just died. Have I just died?
Sleep. As in
* * * * *
Let's see. Tracking off, history off, AR off. Someone ripped out your hard drive...
'I said someone ripped out your hard drive.'
'And it looks like they weren’t very clever about it. You're not even on factory settings. It's a miracle you can even hear me.'
I can hear you?
'Don't worry, I'm not going to report you. But even with my profile they'll pick up on an unknown interaction. Hang on.'
'Get in here...'
* * * * *
Welcome. You are entering Gateway 14, a logistics hub allowing assembly, storage and tariff-free transport of imported commodities to onward destinations via the M14 link road. The site covers an area of 585 acres, incorporating research bases, warehouses, communication networks and human resources. Please download a site map onto your app for details of specific locations. Entrance to Gateway 14 is by Digipass only, through QR code or optical recognition. Please ensure resident-worker or executive citizen status is up to date. Access is managed by smart barriers linked to a physical security team. The Gateway 14 territory is owned by Virtua in partnership with the Anglia Enterprise Consortium. In the event of any queries please use the online chat feature. We hope your visit will be pleasant and productive. Respect.
* * * * *
Respect. Samia from Sector 8. My rent and energy bills currently exceed my income by 25%. How is this manageable?'
'Respect Samia, it may be that a negative mindset is holding you back. You must consider positive solutions. You say this is about your rent and bills, but really this is about resilience. How are you filling your spare time? If you have time to call in here, you have time to work more. If you work more, you earn more. And there are special offers you can take advantage of. Check with your provider. We have introduced a new income upgrade. Please check your app. Help is there, but in the end it is up to you. We help those who help themselves. I wish you all the best.'
'Thank you Minister, wise advice I'm sure. Next we have...'
Background chatter. I am slumped against a wall. My lips are wet and next to me is a bottle of liquid. The pain is still here, but it has faded and I now feel it as part of that same background, muffled, almost as another voice. It is at least at a distance.
It takes a few seconds to realise the sound is coming from an external source. It is not fed directly into my ear. The three-dimensionality of the sound, regardless of its content, is disorientating. It has shape and form, spanning out from a device on top of a cabinet a few metres away. Or at least it seems to be. A display on the device flashes in time with the words.
'I can assure you that we are straining every sinew to find the people responsible for these dreadful acts. This sort of behaviour is not acceptable in a modern democracy and make no mistake, we will put a stop to it.'
The pain rises up with the applause, merging with it, and I let out a groan.
'I know. Fucking scumbags, right?'
‘No, the government.’ He leans close, so I can taste his breath, and whispers. ‘Fucking. Scumbags. If blocking a 10G signal is terrorism, I’m with the terrorists.’ He steps back and grins. ‘How’s the head?’
I knock on my skull with my knuckles as if it is a tin can and make a comedy listening face. ‘Empty.’
‘Excellent. You’ll be wanting some of this.’ He passes the bottle. A cold, sharp taste. ‘Coffee with a bit of something extra.’ He winks, a gesture I remember seeing on television in my childhood, although he looks younger than me. ‘Welcome aboard.’
More sounds float over from the device on the cabinet. A rhythm emerges: Questioning, timid, careful, small, individual; official tone of affirmation, confidence, authority, large, institutional; Applause; Businesslike moderation, solicitation of another question. And so on.
The cabinet stands against a corrugated metal wall, surrounded by boxes. There is a musty smell and an uneven warmth. No windows, and no door that I can see. My host is cutting open boxes with a knife and taking objects out, muttering to himself. Automatically I go to check my location status, and the blankness behind my eyelids reminds me.
I wanted to be nowhere. And here I am.
Sitting on a wall on the way home from school, practising maths.
‘...and how old will you be in ten years’ time?’
‘That’s right, very good.’
‘And Daddy how old will you be then?’
‘Well what’s fifty plus ten?’
‘Yes, well done.’
‘Daddy, how old will you be when I’m 105?’
‘Oh I don’t know, very, very old.’
When you’re 105 I’ll be 148. Yes. I’ll be 148.
When the new terms and conditions came through, they were as bad as expected: all employees were required to donate their right arms to the company. This was due to a global shortage of right arms, which was due to some shit somewhere that no-one could do anything about.
Line manager Lee got the team together for a meeting in the storeroom. 'I'm really sorry guys, it's come down from head office, there's nothing I can do about it. Believe me, I'm as upset as you are, but I'm powerless and they've dropped me in it too. It won't be painless, but as respected members of staff if you sign up I can sort out a deal for you, with compensation, anaesthetic and some other things. On the other ha- oops, sorry, bad phrasing - alternatively, if you don't sign it'll only turn out worse for you: I'll probably have to cut off both your arms,' he makes a grimace, 'because apparently they can do that and it's all legal.'
As a group of workers, do you:
a) Do as line manager Lee says, sign the contracts and let Lee cut off your right arms ('this is hurting me as much as it hurts you...') so you can barely function, let alone meet your picking targets, while Lee swaps his right arm for a high grade prosthetic paid for by the company and gets his bonus and his loft conversion, or;
b) Tell Lee to either back you up or fuck off, confiscate his saw and stop work until the chief executive commits to either cancelling the carnage or having his own limb severed on the premises?
It has been held that the Universe constitutes a thermodynamically closed system, and if this were true it would mean that a time must finally come when the Universe "unwinds" itself, no energy being available for use. This state is referred to as the "Heat Death of the Universe."
What constitutes life today? What is a home? What is work, what is a school? Where are they? Where are we? What are we?
Apps you know and love
We are adaptable. Flexible. Resilient. Productive. Innovative. Positive. Above all, we are individuals, on a journey, as pliable as the tools we use, copied and pasted, regularly updated, equipped with the latest climate-proof clothing and anti-viral software.
Outside, in the yard, the rubbish piles up.
Solutions for your busy life, confirmed
A 5-year-old clicks through exercises on a laptop. Last week she had a high temperature and understandably would not submit to a lateral flow test, so this week she is not allowed to go to school or see other children. Having reported the symptoms and accepted the consequences (for fear of worse consequences if he didn’t), her father asked, via the online portal through which the teachers communicate with parents, for some materials to be provided relating to the topics listed for this week. He was sent a generic ‘isolation timetable’ dating from the previous term (when the child was also off for a week) consisting of some CBeebies links and suggestions such as making a rocket out of recycling, and tersely told to look up resources online. The implication was that to expect anything more was unreasonable. Yes, this is a common and predictable occurrence, yes we have a range of resources at our disposal, and yes the child’s absence is due not to illness but to government policy. But, well, we are very busy. In the absence of a negative test result, the responsibility for your child’s education has been passed over to you. Thank you for your co-operation.
Luckily the father does not have to ‘work’ during school hours (actually how much this is luck and how much a matter of being excluded from paid employment opportunities due to childcare responsibilities is something of a grey area), so is ‘free’ to set up and supervise the child’s learning, cajole her into maths and phonics, tend to her needs, clean up after her and make desultory attempts at housework. In the bedroom the child’s mother works full-time for a large public sector organisation. Her desk is a window sill. A rubbish-and-dogshit-strewn patch of turf behind the block counts as a communal ‘garden’. The wifi sags under the strain of homeworking and homeschooling. On weekend mornings he works as a cleaner. He used to write.
In the evenings they watch the news.
He tries to picture Hugh Pym languishing on an NHS waiting list, Owen Jones opening a DWP brown envelope, Ayesha Hazarika on a rail replacement bus service. It is impossible.
He goes outside to the yard and flings another full rubbish bag on top of the overflowing wheelie bins. Does Laura Kuenssberg have to put up with his? He wonders as he goes back in.
On the fluted and flowered white plastic lid of the diaper bin she has written in Blushing Pink Nitetime lipstick a phrase to ward off fumey ammoniac despair. "The nitrogen cycle is the vital round of organic and inorganic exchange on earth. The sweet breath of the Universe." On the wall by the washing machine are Yin and Yang signs, mandalas, and the words, "Many young wives feel trapped. It is a contemporary sociological phenomenon which may be explained in part by a gap between changing living patterns and the accommodation of social services to these patterns." Over the stove she had written "Help, Help, Help, Help, Help."
The child is not eating properly. She refuses all but two types of dinner offered to her. She will not eat any vegetables. Whole meals are thrown away. The problem has been going on for over a year. People say it’s just a phase.
He phones the GP surgery. Do they have a dietitian linked to the surgery who can dispense advice? (Not to actually see the child. No-one expects that any more, except in A&E or cancer wards.) The administrator goes to check.
As he waits on the phone he looks out of the window at the heaps of rubbish overflowing from the communal bins, like a stinking cliché of social decay. How long has it been now - three weeks, four?
There is no dietitian. It will need to be a referral from a GP, who will need to speak to you. You will need to phone at 8.15am to make a same-day appointment.
The surgery has been run this way since before the pandemic. It does not operate a proper appointments system. Anyone who wants to see a GP must ring at 8.15am - on the dot, not a minute earlier (answerphone) or later (engaged) - and try to get through to an administrator, who will ask a series of questions and decide whether a slot can be allocated on that day. Now of course, in the pandemic era, the prize at the end of the 8.15 phone-in lottery is invariably not an in-person appointment, but another phone call.
This means patients become rivals in a competition for spaces, who have to be ready to play the game, guessing the right time to ring and upselling their distress to get a slot. This system is regarded as completely normal, and anyone who takes issue with the surgery for imposing it is deemed unreasonable. The ‘appointments’ are not even really appointments; a five-minute phone call will be scheduled between, say, 11am and midday, and the person has to wait near the phone and be prepared to drop whatever they are doing when it rings.
It is difficult to think of a system more likely to discriminate against people with mental health problems, and to exacerbate those problems. If someone is suffering from depression and already feels worthless, let alone ready to push past other people to get help, this system will not enable that person to seek support, it will do the opposite. If you are already suffering from anxiety, waiting for the clock to tick round to 8.15 and scrambling to get through, then winning a few moments of clinical attention but still not knowing when the phone will ring or if you will miss the call and lose your slot (as has happened to people, for instance with physical disabilities) is guaranteed to cause huge distress.
The deterrent aspect also encourages people to put off addressing health problems - with themselves, or with their children - until they become more acute, and require more intervention, take up more resources, create more stress and long-term complications, and lead to less time for routine appointments. And so it goes on.
None of this is of any interest to the administrators. It’s just how it is, sir. As for the clinicians, who knows? They are so remote and their time is so mysterious and precious that every second has to count towards the immediate issue.
Hello, you are through to the NHS. We cannot help you. Please do not attempt to visit your GP surgery. Stay at home, or go to work. Good morning, this is the NHS. Please do not use our service if you can avoid it. Press 1 to continue, or hang up. Good morning, you are through to the world-renowned, world-beating NHS. All our staff are very busy saving lives right now. If we leave our duties to answer your call, someone in real need could die as a result. Do you want that on your conscience? If the answer is ‘Yes’, please hold. If the answer is ‘No’, please don’t bother us. There are apps, there are websites, there are over-the-counter pills. Why not use them? Good morning, this is the NHS. Have you considered going private? Good morning, you are through to the NHS, the UK’s leading heritage healthcare brand. If you need us, this means you have failed to keep yourself well; just like if you are claiming welfare benefits it is because you have failed to keep yourself financially healthy. Please hold. We are very busy. You, evidently, are not. Thank you for your understanding.
I was wandering through the upper floor of the library, cleaning spray and damp cloth in my plastic gloved hands, when I noticed a small bird flutter down from the ceiling and land a short distance in front of me, on a walkway between the biography section and the study area. I stood still so as not to alarm it, and looked closely to make sure I didn’t imagine it. Sure enough, there it was, a sparrow, as quiet and timid as I was. I looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed it (the library wasn’t that busy). I was wondering whether to just leave it to its own devices when I spotted one of the caretakers, a gentle, rotund man in his sixties, on patrol a few metres away.
I motioned him over and whispered, ‘There’s a bird in the library.’ I pointed out the tiny visitor, gesturing round the corner of a bookshelf.
It took him a few seconds to see it. Then he stepped slowly in front of me. ‘Pass me that cloth,’ he said, quietly but purposefully. I did so. He moved closer, then jumped forward onto the floor, throwing the cloth over the creature and holding it there. It wriggled but didn’t seem to put up much resistance. Although dramatic, the moment passed almost entirely unobserved. The main floor was near-deserted and no one in the study area looked up from their laptops. The caretaker got up and walked briskly to the lift, cupping the trembling bundle in his hands.
I found another cloth and resumed my cleaning duties.
Later I saw the caretaker in the staff kitchen. He told me they knew the sparrow was somewhere in the building; it had been inside for a couple of days but hadn’t been sighted for a while. Birds sometimes fly in through the front doors or the windows in the roof, and get trapped. This one would have been imprisoned without food or water for at least 48 hours. Trapped in this glass cell with no opportunity for nourishment, it would have got progressively weaker, until it could barely move.
The caretaker had taken the bird outside and unwrapped it, but it didn’t take off. It just stood there. When he went back after a couple of hours, it had gone.
My daughter is hiding under the living room table because she doesn’t want to have a bath, because she doesn’t want to have the plaster taken off her forehead, because she is scared it might hurt.
After a minute I say, ‘I have to tell you something. Remember that new scooter we looked at? Well, I ordered it and I got an email to say it’s coming today. But they said they won’t deliver it until you’ve taken the plaster off.’
She comes out from under the table. ‘But how will they know I’ve taken the plaster off?’
‘They know everything. They know everything we do, everything we say, everything about our lives. The driver has the scooter in the back of his van now and he’s waiting for a message to say your plaster is off. Then he’ll deliver it.’
She weighs this up practically. ‘OK.’ She gets into the bath. After a while I wash her hair and take the plaster off. It hurts a bit. I tell her she is very brave. She gets out. Just as I am drying her hair the intercom buzzes.
She gasps. ‘It’s here!’
Siri, what Tier am I in today?
'Good morning! Today you are in Tier 5b. Going outside is prohibited except for essential work purposes. This will be reviewed at 3pm. Would you like me to update you if your tier status changes?'
[goes back to sleep]