In the run-up to last Christmas I went to loads of parties. Of course I did, I’m a man, I’m a man with a plan-ner, a planner full of engagements and functions and social events to attend. Yeahhhhh…..Well, no, not really. One thing which set the last Christmas ‘party season’ apart from the rest – as if there have been others of note – was that at no point during any of these ‘parties’ which I found myself at, was I ever having any fun. Now I am not some sociopathic masochist, quite the opposite in fact—I am a self-diagnosed cringeaholic.
No, what I was doing at these ‘events’ was something that many people of my age have reluctantly found themselves doing. Something which has almost become a middle-class rite of passage. I talk, of course, about part-time catering work. ‘Catering,’ as it was simply known to me before I dipped my toe in to that unforgiving water. The word itself has a certain mystique. But in reality, no job is more life-sapping than maintaining rigid back and PVA smile for hours on end, while people around you get increasingly drunk and proportionately uncoordinated, threatening you and your tray’s raison d’etre.
Unfortunately though, raison d’etre doesn’t really come in to it when you’re a recent graduate, struggling to fund your insatiable falafel habit. And so, after much wallet excavating, I finally asked a friend to hook me up with the agency he had been doing a lot of work for. Now the friend in question isn’t nearly as cynical (or precious) as me and I was led to believe that this catering business would be a total lark.
I pictured myself as a mix between Jeeves and Woody Harrelson’s character in Cheers—sharing anecdotes with revelers, spinning martini shakers around my head whilst swooning female guests slipped tips, and their numbers, in to my apron. For those who find this image charming and comforting and don’t wish it to be shattered—stop reading now. For me, as is really very often the case, the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall.
I entered the game at peak season and I became fascinated by the racket these staffing agencies have got going on. In the run-up to Christmas there are hundreds of parties taking place in London every night, and all of these parties need waiting staff. Someone who wishes to throw a party must employ a party planner, who in turn pays a staffing agency, and a catering agency, to provide them with staff and, um, caterers. The staffing agencies effectively act like human farmers. They are paid a certain price per member of staff they provide, and it is their job to organise the staff and pay them a percentage of the money they receive. I never quite worked out how much I was being bargained for in this great game, but I’m pretty sure it was at least double the minimum wage that I was being paid, probably more.
A certain amount of resentment in any job is, I’ve always thought, healthy. But I had begun to set myself vehemently against my masters. The party planners and staff managers were fascists with clipboards and ear-pieces. Their positions of power over the lowly tray-holders made them faceless bureaucrats of party-planning. Suddenly, a degree in Events Management from Reading University became a rod with which to beat us down.
The problem was not hierarchical. The thing which really irked was the utter contempt that the clearers and carriers are treated with. We were the lowest of the low, beneath even the ‘mixologists’ (those who could make a mean vodka orange,) and the fact that most of the catering staff were young, and/or foreign, only deepened the divide. I had one job, a big movie premiere, which started at 12pm and finished at 5am. During this 17 hour shift, the nearly 100 staff – none of whom were younger than 18 – were given two sandwiches each, and when we were not required on deck, were all herded in to a very small windowless room.
The most excruciating experience was probably at a financial service company’s huge Christmas party; when all of the waiting staff were made to wear appalling Christmas jumpers with flashing red noses or sparkling sleighs on them. As the revelers became more and more intoxicated, their guffawing got louder, and their attempts to unburden us of the jumpers, more aggressive. Now, ordinarily, I would have welcomed such sartorial saviours, but having to suffer this embarrassment whilst maintaining a rigid back, smile, and carrying a tray of champagne flutes, well you can imagine the words swirling round my head.
However, rather than crush your spirits, when you are treated like a child, your natural reaction is to act like one. And there were times when I thought I would rupture some internal organ I was giggling so hard. During my time at the agency I met some really very interesting people from all over the place – many of them philosophers with jay cloths, some of whom I hope to know for a long time to come – and in collectively cursing our situations, a camaraderie arose. It was not exactly ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ between the staff and the partygoers, more ‘Upstairs, cupboard underneath the stairs necking champagne from the bottle.’
When I finally did go, invited, to a big catered event about a month or so after Christmas, I found myself scouring the room for empty glasses and thirsty guests. I sidled up to one of the waiters holding a tray of fizzing flutes. I took one and thanked him. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked, ‘Good,’ he replied. ‘Staff food good?’—‘When was the last time you had a break?’—‘Is your manager nice?’ He looked bemused as I fired off question after question about his night. After a retort of fairly monotonous one-word answers he made his excuses and left. I think he thought I was either a complete loner, or trying to flirt with him. Really I wanted to grab the tray from out of his hands and shout, ‘It’s alright!! I know what its like! I’m one of you….really,’ but instead I crawled back across the divide, to the ‘guests’ and began another conversation about my insatiable falafel habit.