On My Friend Nigel

For the best part of twenty years, I worked in an office. I don’t know if local government has changed since the turn of the century, but in my time it seemed to be a haven for the most bewildering collection of oddballs. There was, of course, the expected bevy of middle-class leftie revolutionaries who treated working-class people with loathing and contempt and spent their entire time “building the struggle” rather than doing any of the actual work they were paid – often handsomely – to do. The “struggle” was always taking place in far flung countries of which they knew nothing, Nicaragua or Grenada for example, though it necessitated calling for strike action every few weeks. At least they had not yet developed a weird fixation with Israel and the Palestinians, which I suspect consumes most of them nowadays.

But there were other, far more outré, nutters, slumped over desks or leaping out from behind filing cabinets or patrolling the streets of the borough. There was a young hothead admin assistant who held the unshakeable conviction that Joseph Heller had written a novel entitled Catch-69 and looked with pitying condescension on those who tried to correct him. There was an Iranian quantity surveyor, the spit and image of Christopher Lee, in the garb of a dapper undertaker, who I swear did not cast a shadow. There was a paper pusher, obsessed with Viennese psychoanalysts, much given to explaining that he had “done everything”, sexually, without ever going into any detail of what “everything” might consist, and who was constantly on the verge of tears. There was the thespian refuse collector, who worked as a dustman between acting jobs, who had not had an acting job for twenty years, yet retained the mien and deportment and voice of Albert Finney in The Dresser. There was the evangelical Christian architect who would be found kneeling in prayer in the middle of the lobby, so visitors had to skirt around him on their way to the reception desk. There was the bluestocking temp who smoked a pipe, and there was the frazzled touch typist who handed in a forty-page report without noticing that it was forty pages of gibberish, having begun her typing session with her fingertips one key to the left of where they ought to have been, and who threatened to take out a formal grievance if she was asked to retype it, shouting her head off with such vituperation that no one dared to give her any more work for a week, so she sat happily manicuring her nails and reading magazines. And there was Nigel.

Back in the early 1980s, before fully fledged IT departments cut their chops, the embrace of “new technology” was done on an ad hoc basis. The department for which I worked decided to take on “someone who knew about computers”, as a permanent full-time employee, with a brief to act as a self-motivated technowhizz person. Nigel, who had a splendid interview technique, got the job, despite knowing next to nothing about computers, and caring even less. All he was really interested in was Hegel, the subject of the Ph.D. upon which he had embarked.

Some three months passed before Nigel’s manager noticed that there was no appreciable sign of progress towards his excitable vision of a computerised future. He assumed that Nigel, sitting at his (computerless) desk, deep in thought, making very – very – occasional notes of a few words on a scrap of paper, was summoning from his powerful brain ideas relevant to that future. Nigel was thinking about Hegel, waiting to be given a specific task to perform. The manager decided to hold a meeting, to make it clear in no uncertain terms that he wanted Nigel to buck his ideas up and zip about the office identifying exciting computer possibilities. Before the meeting could take place, however, there was one of those addled and ill-thought out reorganisations that occurred with bewildering frequency. The manager vanished, was not replaced, and Nigel was left to cogitate about Hegel undisturbed.

He remained undisturbed for some years. Every now and then he would be slotted in to a new departmental structure, without his new boss having the time or inclination to work out what he actually did. He took to coming in to work very early, sitting and thinking, making those very occasional brief notes, and leaving straight after lunch. All this time, those of us who were his friends knew that the masterwork, the thesis on Hegel, was being written, though he did the writing at home, not in the office. And lo!, it came to pass that it was finished. Nigel asked a work colleague, who had a degree in political science, to type it up for him. One day, she came over to my desk to see me, with a worried look on her face.

“This thesis of Nigel’s is incomprehensible,” she said, “For one thing, it’s the only Ph.D. thesis I’ve ever seen that hasn’t got a single reference or footnote, or a bibliography. Secondly, I’ve read a good deal of philosophy and political science, and I have a horrible feeling this is gibberish.”

It was a view to be shared by Nigel’s doctoral supervisor, who was equally befuddled. Nigel, who had spent years on what he considered the definitive work on Hegel, and who had a fine temper when roused, dismissed his supervisor as an idiot. “He isn’t fit to lick my boots!” he shouted at me, one evening in the pub. Eventually they agreed that the thesis be shown to a mutually admired Hegelian, a man whose opinion Nigel respected. If he pronounced it twaddle, Nigel would accept the verdict.

Meanwhile, he had inherited some money from a distant relative he had never met, and bought a house. Shortly after moving in, he decided it needed refurbishment, including, puzzlingly, shifting one of the doors slightly to one side. (I never saw the house, so have no idea whether there was any sense in this, but I suspect not.) To carry out the work, Nigel employed some blokes he met one night in his local pub. They spent the next few weeks fleecing him. Seemingly every day, they demanded more cash for materials which were suddenly essential, while rarely doing any work on the house.

With a bunch of scallywags exploiting him, no doubt until every last penny of his inheritance was spent, and the impending thunderbolt of having his thesis dismissed as mumbo jumbo, perhaps it was a mercy Nigel didn’t live to see his financial and intellectual ruin. His lodger returned from a weekend away to find him dead in his bed. He had suffered a massive heart attack. He was forty-four years old.