I wasn’t dreading those leaving drinks as much as all that. The fact that I was one of four people being honoured would take the edge off the most cringing aspects of the proceedings. And it would not actually be my last day at work, thanks to a few extra shifts I’d taken on. I would enter a twilight zone, rather than immediately disappear into the sunset.
It was a late shift. When I turned up at 13:00 I told the day editor, Tim, that I intended to work, and probably meant it. My job was to help him run the world desk. Fun and games were all very well, I said, but my hours were numbered and important things might be unfolding in Afghanistan.
Tim, a compatriot with whom I have pleasant, bilingual exchanges, explained that the office function would take place at 16:00. It would be streamed on Zoom. At 17:00 the party would move to the pub: people would be dropping in and out as work and family commitments dictated. I could do as I pleased.
I had three hours of proper work ahead of me, but first I needed to write in the farewell cards for my three fellow departees. Tim said: “Pas de problèmes. Take your time.”
An hour later, he asked me to work out break times for the evening. I had no idea who was working from home — and was still on my second card. I looked at him blankly. “Never mind, I’ll do it,” Tim said. “Continue à écrire tes cartes.”
By 16:00, I had scribbled on all three. The party started on time. A dozen off-duty colleagues had shown up: there had not been such a crowd in the office since last year.
As I had hoped, the shared nature of the valediction made things bearable, even pleasant. Speeches were mercifully short, as were the video tributes made up of self-recorded clips. My own three-minute monologue, which I read into a laptop, combined humour with nostalgia. The main emotion at the end of 30 years with the corporation, I said, was a profound sense of failure: dangling modifiers and other crimes against the English language were still disgracing our pages. Some of the jokes fell flat — self-deprecation is a difficult art — but the overall reception was positive.
Julian delivered his speech without any notes. It had more bite than mine. He spoke of his elation at completing what he described as a 22-year sentence, spinning the penitentiary metaphor in arresting ways. He also evoked colleagues who had made his shifts miserable over the years; none were still with us, he added, but I’m not sure everyone on the call heard the clarification.
The contrast between the customary charm of this most accomplished of Englishmen and the ferocity of his oration had everyone in stitches.
Prosecco was consumed. Gifts were handed out. I got a bottle of champagne, shopping vouchers, and a collection of Michel Houellebecq’s journalism. That had been chosen by Becky, a strong progressive with whom I get on with very well despite our intellectual disagreements.
Then came the time to hit the pub. I told Tim I’d be back at 18:00 so he could take his break from editing the front page.
“Tu peux revenir à 19h. It’s your leaving-do. Enjoy it.”
The Horse and Groom was empty on a Friday evening — a measure of how the pandemic has changed life in this city. Our little group was lively, however, and it grew in liveliness as more participants joined.
Among them was Jim, who retired a year ago. He was always an impressive editor, but few things he told me impressed me more than his reflections, a year before he left, on the importance of saying goodbye to colleagues who had meant something to you. It was nice to see him again.
We were all vaccinated and many had had covid as well. With so many antibodies in our systems, and with the addition of alcohol, distancing rules were dispensed with. We socialized like it was 2019.
Julian was due to start his night shift at 21:00 — he too was having his leaving-do before his last day. He was enjoying himself as if there was no tomorrow, let alone tonight. I had to be at my desk much earlier than he did, so went easy on the drinking.
I was back in the newsroom well before 19:00 and said to Tim: “I’ll look after things while you have a break.”
“Tu es sûr? I could stay.”
“C’est pas trois demi-pintes qui vont m’assommer. You go.”
A large part of a front-page editor’s job consists in watching what is on the horizon and being prepared for action, as in Dino Buzzati’s Tartar Steppe. I focused on the wires, confident in my ability to jump into breaking news mode should the Taliban seize the Panjshir Valley.
Over the next hour nothing happened. When Tim returned he said: “You can go back to the pub and stay there.”
“But my shift doesn’t end until 23:00. Ça va peut-être péter en Afghanistan.”
“It’s late over there now. Je n’ai pas besoin de toi.”
There were still a lot of people at the Horse and Groom. Jim bought me a drink. I bought someone else a drink. I’d never socialised like this, not even in 2019.
By 21:00 the crowd had thinned out. Julian had to start his night shift. Others were reclaimed by their families. The rest of us were hungry and a nearby restaurant was mentioned. I was sober enough for scruples and called Tim to ask whether he could still do without me. “Of course,” he said. “Vas-y, au restau.”
There were six of us around a table: Jim, myself, David — a fellow leaver of 1959 vintage — and three fiftysomethings who could not afford to retire quite yet.
Inevitably, the conversation revolved around the old days — a time when there were still typewriters on desks and people routinely drank on the job. It was also a time when organisations were paternalistic but colleagues could be brutal. Paulin, who joined the World Service newsroom from a language section around the same time I did, recalled being publicly humiliated by his regional editor after his first go at writing a 25-second radio item. We laughed, but Paulin did not laugh then.
My own induction, I said, had been less traumatic. I was asked to write about the shooting of two activists in Malawi, one of whom had died. After I delivered my bulletin piece for subbing, the senior duty editor, a Jupiter-like figure in the Bush House newsroom, came over and said in mild reproof: “Henri, you killed the wrong man!”
It was 23:00 when we staggered out of the restaurant and parted. I returned to the office to pick up my gifts. At this late hour I was entitled to a company cab for my trip home. But having done virtually no work, I decided it that the decent thing to do was take the tube.
As Evelyn Waugh wrote: “In the matter of Good Conscience, I was a man of few possessions and held them at a corresponding value.” On my way out I signalled my commuting virtue to Tim, who was about to take his well-earned taxi, and to Julian, who had miraculously recovered from the libations and was now in charge.
On the train back I had reflected drunkenly about the connections we make during our working lives: their very superficiality makes them necessary to acknowledge.
Personal bonds are robust and need no final affirmation. If a loved one dies suddenly we feel pain, but we don’t regret having missed a chance to say: “You meant a lot to me.”
Relationships at work, on the other hand, are vulnerable to trivial incidents. A thoughtless remark, an unanswered email, a career move can damage or end them. They are individually tenuous but vital on aggregate, and demand to be rounded off.
The collective nature of the validation is important. You won’t reach every significant colleague: communal recognition helps fill the holes. It also provides cover for those who may be glad to see the back of you.
Such gestures and tokens matter particularly if you have spent most of your career with a single employer, an increasing rarity. The gig economy may have its own codes, of which I am not aware. The main point is: ours was a proper send-off.
As my stop approached I opened the Houellebecq. On behalf of the team, Becky had written: “We will miss you enormously, even though you read books like this.”