View from Vitalia: Reflections of a would-be cutlet-making apparatus operator

The number of apparently pointless jobs, including some in the technology sector, seems to be on the rise again.

The closer I get to retirement, the more interested I'm becoming in the jobs I see advertised.

Ageism or not, at a certain point in life all the job ads stop being of any personal significance and become just reading matter: at times, inspiring and entertaining; at other times, depressing. Those in search of the latter can consult the recently published bestseller 'Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work, and What We Can Do About It' by David Graeber.

My observations suggest that quite a lot of these roles (in the interest of politeness, let’s call them BSJs) are to be found in the fields of engineering and technology. I remember, while still a junior schoolkid in the USSR, leafing through a weighty spravochnik (directory) of all existing jobs in the Soviet Union (in my ‘socialist’ motherland everything – from nappies to job titles – had to be numbered and standardised). Among them was the mysterious yet impressive sounding machinist kotletnogo apparata – literally, 'operator of a cutlet-making apparatus'. That seemed like a hugely lucrative occupation, or as we say in the West, sinecure, for I used to adore the fried-meat patties, similar to burgers and known as kotleti, and could myself easily pass if not for a cutlet-maker then definitely for a walking cutlet-gobbling apparatus.

My cutlet-deficient imagination pictured a podgy yet happy and permanently smiling 'machinist' ferreting hot cutlets with his bare hands out of the dark recesses of the hard-working 'apparatus', which I imagined to take the form of a giant meat-mincer, and transferring them methodically to his own mouth, one by one.

How much I wanted to be like him! I remember embarrassing myself and my parents when, during a young pioneer consecration ceremony, I was asked what I’d like to be when I grew up. Unlike all other children who wanted to become cosmonauts and firemen (boys) and doctors and teachers (girls: this was long before the 1990s, when the majority of the surveyed girls in Moscow dreamed of becoming hard-currency prostitutes), I said that I saw myself as a cutlet-making apparatus operator! 

Another fancy BSJ I craved as a kid was that of musical fountain deputy director. Yes, in the city where I lived there was a ‘Gorky Park of Relaxation and Rest’, a cemeterial (if only in sound) namesake of the one in Moscow immortalised in Martin Cruz Smith's eponymous novel, and in that park there was a large fountain.

I’ve noticed that public fountains are normally very popular among dictators, big and small, and all totalitarian states are resplendent with them. Leafing through 'Korea Today', a favourite glossy magazine of my Soviet childhood (in all fairness, it should have been called 'North Korea Today') which used to give me momentary relief from our gloomy Soviet reality by taking me to the country whose reality was much gloomier than ours, I kept coming across numerous photos of fountains in public parks, “from where working people’s jolly laughter can often be heard”, according to the frequently repeated caption.

The advantages of fountains are obvious: they are hard to overlook and invariably instill in the public a momentary sense of prosperity and well-being. They are also cheap, easy to build and never fail to make an impression.

The one in our own Gorky Park was run by a crew of two people, the director and his deputy (or so I was told). Whereas the director himself must have been burdened with important managerial responsibilities to make sure that the flow and the colour of water in his fountain stayed up to the high Soviet standards, his deputy’s job was a pure sinecure - to sit all day in the tiny wooden shed of an ‘office’ next to the fountain and play crackling old records on an antediluvian turntable to make the passing workers even happier.

Well, that was in the Soviet Union, which did function according to the cliched, yet very true-to-life saying: “We pretend that we work; they pretend that they pay us.” Surely, it should have all been different in the West, where cruel and greedy ‘capitalists’ were bound to exploit their hard-working labourers by making them toil 24/7. Or so we thought.

Having lived for many years in both Britain and Australia, I was surprised to see that it was not so. In my first BBC TV documentary 'My Friend Little Ben', broadcast in 1990, I even had to conclude that people in the UK tended to “play when they are supposed to be working and work when they are supposed to be playing.”

That observation, unexpectedly, found a lot of support among the natives, who showered me with letters of agreement.

It was even worse (or should I say better) in early-1990s Australia. With Joan Kirner, aptly nicknamed Mother Russia, the premier of the State of Victoria, there were alleged cases when builders gave up working and went on strike, having spotted a mouse on the building site; when electricians demanded that a qualified nurse was always present whenever they had to climb up the ladder (in case they fell down and hurt themselves); when two stevedores in the Melbourne Port refused to handle a large box with nothing but a lady’s fancy hat in it and demanded a third worker to join them in case the box turned out to be too heavy. As for the postmen, they were coveninently (for themselves) delivering mail only three days a week - from Tuesday to Friday.

During my 30 years in Britain, I myself once became a BSJ holder while coming out of a long personal crisis, when I had been physically unable to write, to work or to function properly for nearly five years.

It was then that I was hired by a brand new company - let's call it Britafra TV Ltd - with offices in Tottenham Court Road. The main (and only) purpose of the company, which was - significantly - run from a large Russian city in the Urals, was translating the whole output of the BBC World Service Television into Russian and recording it on tapes. What for? A good question, to which, as it turned out, there was no coherent answer.

In the course of several subsequent months, I often recalled one particular passage from the satirical novel 'The Golden Calf' by my beloved tandem of 1930s writers, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. It dealt with the more than shadowy past of Alexander Koreiko, the underground Soviet millionaire and one of the novel’s two main protagonists, and described one of the many scams that had helped him to accumulate his fortune.

"The back room [of the token Revenge Chemical Plant started by Koreiko] was the workshop. It contained two oak barrels with manometers and hydrometers, one on the floor and the other on a raised platform. The barrels were joined by a thin enema tube through which a liquid flowed, gurgling busily. As soon as the liquid had passed from the top to the bottom barrel, a boy in felt boots entered the workroom. Sighing in an unchildlike way, the boy scooped the liquid out of the bottom barrel with a bucket, dragged it up to the platform, and poured it into the second barrel. Having completed this complicated operation, the boy went off to the office to get warm, while the enema tube again began emitting a gurgling noise: the liquid was making a routine journey from the top container to the bottom one..."

It later turned out that the gurgling liquid in the ‘enema tube’ was pure water.

What Ilf and Petrov portrayed was a classic money-laundering operation: a totally useless work cycle that nevertheless allowed for considerable sums of dirty money to be cleaned (or ‘laundered’) through it.

The nature of money-laundering had not changed a lot since the 1930s, and the early 21st-century London - thanks to UK regulations which meant anybody could open a limited company having paid a single pound in tax, no questions asked - became one of its global centres. It didn’t take me long to establish without a shadow of doubt that my new employer was one such international scam. It was like an unhappy marriage; you know from the start that it is wrong, but think you have no choice other than to carry on with it.

We translators worked in two shifts every day of the week, including Sundays (with no extra pay). We watched the latest BBC World Service news on our monitors, then translated it all into Russian, timing every single word. At the end of the day, we were expected to voice the programs in the basement studio, so that by the following morning the entire previous day's World Service output was available in Russian.

The blow came about a month into the job, for which I was yet to be paid.

I stayed at the office longer than usual and, having left the studio well after 9pm, returned ten minutes later to pick up a ready-made dinner that I'd left behind in the office fridge. The front doors were closed and as I approached the building’s rear entrance I saw Pete, our sound technician, disposing of a stack of video cassettes by putting them, one by one, inside a huge black wheelie bin. A handwritten label on each of them left little doubt that those were the cassettes so painstakingly recorded during the day.

It was then that I remembered the boy with the bucket from 'The Golden Calf'.

Needless to say, we never got any payment from Britafra, which soon announced its bankruptcy. It turned out that in all five months of its existence it didn't pay a penny of tax (except perhaps for the founding one pound) and nothing at all for the rented offices and equipment. Eventually, following the employment tribunal, I did receive a small compensation from an insolvency agency. The founders, however, escaped unscathed.

Is it any wonder that the UK remains a lucrative target for international money launderers and, consequently, for useless jobs? I'm convinced of this by messages that arrive almost every day in my omnivorous office email box.

Here’s a job ad for a senior editor position in a B2B marketing company (as I said earlier, I am approaching retirement and therefore am not applying for any jobs, but they keep sending me details anyway – another BS job in its own right), whose company benefits include: “Regular employee awards; bring your dog to work policy; staff party every month; perkbox membership [whatever that can mean]; music played in the office every Friday; fresh fruit, tea and coffee available every day; and, last but not least, free alcohol after 4.30pm every Friday [!]”.

And here’s a fresh PR agency press-release, dated 20 February 2020, with the catchy headline 'Brits go to work for a rest': “A recent poll has shown that Brits look forward to travelling on business so that they can ‘get away from the family’”. Sounds almost like a quote from the above-mentioned 'My Friend Little Ben' movie of mine...

Having read all those, I came close to shelving my retirement plans, particularly after coming across a newspaper story with the following headline: “Help! Beatles fan is needed to give tours of Paul McCartney’s old home” (‘I’ newspaper, 22 February 2020). It was about the National Trust advertising for a new custodian of the house in Liverpool where Sir Paul McCartney spent his childhood. 

A Beatles fan of many years standing, I would qualify for the job easily. As one of their songs goes: “Nothing’s gonna change my world...”

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