A Lesson from Lockdown?

In we filed, squinting in the harsh fluorescent light, six of us, clones, dressed in pin-stripes suits, carrying pads of yellow paper, pencils, audit programmes and of course our precious briefcases housing indispensable calculators. The bald headed, older man at the corner desk, looked up, showed the ghost of a smile under his greying moustache and sighed. The auditors had arrived for another year.

It was the late 1970’s in Northolt, west London. North Sea oil had been discovered and hundreds of millions of US dollars were being invested every day. Jan, as I came to know him, was a bought ledger clerk. A mundane role, shared with twelve others, male and female, all of differing abilities. All processing purchase orders and invoices, all day, every day. The financial numbers may have been vast, but it was still paper shuffling. Uninspiring work executed in an unattractive back office, labouring under that harsh light. There was no excitement, no helicopter flights, no big investment planning meetings, no oil rig visits. Just paper and more paper, but never a grumble from Jan.

Over my three weeks there, I learned a lot. Jan could count in his head far, far faster than our fingers stumbled across our calculator keys. He was Hungarian and fluent in French, Russian and English. He did the Times Cryptic Crossword within ten minutes, every lunchtime, every day. Ten minutes, in your fourth language? Very impressive. What was a multilingual, intelligent man doing as a lowly clerk in this tawdry, Dickensian-style office I asked? Well as a young lecturer in a leading university in Hungary he’d detested the Russian straitjacket on his country. In 1956 he joined the Uprising. But Molotov cocktails and idealists were no match for Russian tanks and ruthless professional soldiers. Jan had to flee with his passport, basic clothes and a pocketful of forints. His brothers died in either Budapest or a Gulag. Eventually he arrived in London. A refugee but free. He found a job. This job, where he stayed almost 34 years. Why did you never move to something better? Why not use your languages? He smiled. Well, he had what he wanted, freedom, and he cherished it every day. He didn’t need much money. He didn’t crave status. They delivered little. He prized freedom. He had it, granted, not where he’d expected, but he still had it. He could enjoy the French, Russian and Hungarian classics and music in his small flat in the evenings. He had no cause to grumble.

Did I hear in Jan’s story shades of St Paul… ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation?’