The continuing story of Malcolm Brown and his transition from art student to arb expert on the local parks department. 

TOWARDS the end of 1997 Malcolm’s career got an unexpected boost when he was seconded to the top office to act as temporary tree officer for the council. The previous holder had just retired and, the council being the council, nobody had thought of who his replacement might be.

“It will have to be advertised externally,” said Dave, his boss. “But this should put you in good stead for a shot at the post.”

Malcolm was delighted. It had been a pretty shit year with almost constant rain and he was fed up of trudging to work in the dark and getting home soaked and covered in mud. Now that winter was here it was getting bloody chilly too, so he was looking forward to having a nice warm office to sit in.

“You’ll hate being in an office,” said Ray, as they worked between showers on Malcolm’s last day on the tools.

Malcolm grinned as water dripped off the end of his nose. “When I’m staring at all this rain through the window of a nice warm office, you must call me up to remind me how I hate it.”

READ MORE: Tree Gang Pt. 42: A journey up the ladder of council arb

His first day drew a few curious stares when he turned up in the suit he hadn’t worn since his wedding back in 1982. Pinstripped with too much 1970’s fashion still lurking in its lapels but at least it still fitted him, just about. His new temporary boss Steve Wight took one look and got him fitted out with one of the pale grey corporate suits that served as the equivalent of work overalls for the office staff. It wouldn’t win him any fashion awards but at least he no longer looked like an extra from Saturday Night Fever.

At first Malcolm enjoyed his new posting and the novelty of a morning lie-in (he didn’t start until 8.30 am). He also liked the idea of flexi-time, which allowed him to accrue hours and take them off when he wanted. 

His new surroundings took a little getting used to, though. Hardened by years of working outside in all weathers, Malcolm found the dry heat of the office too much. He turned down the thermostat on the radiator and opened a window to get some air flowing but still found himself sitting in his shirt sleeves. Other office staff, who popped in to drop off papers or ask him questions, never lingered for long. They stood, near the door, quivering like hothouse flowers left in a draught and threw Malcolm incredulous stares. 

The new job wasn’t all office-based, though. When Malcolm got bored, he hopped on his bike and headed off to check on jobs, liaise with residents, councillors or just to inspect the area. Most of these little outings involved crossing the town centre where he might grab a sandwich or make a small purchase. All without the hassle of wondering how long he could get away with leaving a council van parked up on view to any pedantic traffic warden. His road cycle was far less visible and so much easier for negotiating Hanbridge’s traffic-choked roads. 

When time or distance was a problem, he borrowed a van from the pool but not very often. Malcolm had never had so much freedom to plan out his working day and revelled in every moment. Of course, it couldn’t last.

After two weeks of blissful freedom Malcolm found himself evicted from his little side office by the director of planning, who up until then had been sharing with the chief liaison officer. Apparently such reshuffles happened all the time, though they had yet to develop into the full-scale “hot desking” that would arrive a few restructures down the line.

So, it was that Malcolm found himself shunted into a larger office along with the head of purchasing and his assistant. Both of whom were “hothouse flowers” with no intention of turning down radiators or opening windows. After a week Malcolm was reeling under the heat. He had bunged up sinuses, sneezed every five minutes and was sweating like a marathon runner in August. The hothouse flowers asked if he needed the heating turned up.

Then there was the small talk and the cakes.

Every day seemed to be somebody’s birthday/anniversary or something, somewhere across the spread of offices and everyone brought cake and distributed it through the entire complex. 

People would descend on them as if they had never seen an empty calorie in their lives with cries of: “Oh no. I really shouldn’t but go on, just the one, or maybe two … is that chocolate torte?”

As if that wasn’t enough there was a cake lady, who came round in the afternoons with a trolley. It didn’t take Malcolm long to realise why all those officers who came out on site to inspect some tree all had bulging midriffs.

“Did you watch the match last night?” asked one of his co-workers through a mouthful of Victoria sponge.

Malcolm tried to cover his ignorance with a non-committal “mmmm”, whilst trying to digest an éclair.   

His team members back on the tree gang were no intellectual giants but they were interested in the things Malcolm was and weren’t afraid to state an opinion in a manner one might charitably describe as ‘forceful’.

His new office colleagues seemed obsessed with sport, soap operas and political manoeuvring.  Opinions were not statements of belief but calculated investigations of allegiance.

The co-worker segued into: “So … Malcolm, what do you think of the director’s new drive to develop a cross-department series of focus meetings to establish how best to implement an open policy that will improve productivity while addressing the legitimate needs of our staff?” 

There was no sensible way to answer this even if Malcolm understood it. This was no casual interest in Malcolm’s views on impenetrable council policy but rather a toe in the water to see if he was a threat. Was he someone to get on side or step on? Malcolm didn’t care. He preferred clear-cut arguments, like was that tree dying through honey fungus? Or, were those little mushrooms growing around the trunk some less virulent infection? He also preferred to be called a bloody idiot rather than have someone give him a crocodile smile and say something like “well done anyway”. Damned with faint praise was a real thing in the office where politeness went hand–in–hand with passive aggressiveness.

Initially, the really exciting thing about working in the office, apart from an escape from the cold and the rain, was the chance to work with computers. 

Back in 1997 Malcolm was a recent convert to the world of PC technology, having purchased a PC armed with a huge 512 MB hard drive (yes, that is megabytes not gigabytes) and a blistering 32 MB of RAM from a computer–whizz friend of his. It had more in common with technical Lego than the super smooth computers you get now but it helped him while away countless hours playing Doom and Civilisation.

Malcolm was keen to learn the more practical applications of PC technology but the corporate laptop he was given for his various assignments was a bitter disappointment. 

It ran an early version of Window NT on a less than adequate 16 MB of RAM and was prone to frequent screen freezes. There was an embryonic intranet around the offices but it was less than ideal. In theory one could upload data direct to the servers but that often took hours and in the meantime everything else on his laptop slowed down.

Near the end of his secondment Malcolm was charged with compiling a database of all the tree work in Hanbridge over the past year. He diligently created a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet that detailed everything from quotes, summary prices, work details, variations, dates, invoices, etc. and used the data from that to produce a database in Access for reference, reporting and analysis. It took him a week, poring over the computer in the sweltering heat of the office, with a running nose and red stinging eyes (Malcolm had decided that something in the building was aggravating his dust allergies). 

Once compiled he tried to upload it onto the main server but the office intranet said: “NO!” So, he decided to burn his data onto a CD instead. 

Forestry Journal:

Several little spinning hourglasses later he had a disc labelled up and dropped it off with the director. He had sore eyes and an aching wrist from hours of typing but Hanbridge Parks Department at least had a comprehensive list detailing all the tree work done over a 12-month period. 

His pride at completing such a mammoth task, however, was soon to suffer a devastating blow. The next morning he received a phone call from the director.

“What’s this disc you’ve given me? My computer just spits it out.” 

Malcolm was puzzled. He was sure he’d copied the files over. “I’ll have a look.”

He collected the disc from the director’s secretary and loaded it into his laptop. Nothing.

He ran an analysis which came back with the annoying phrase ‘disc corrupted’. 
Malcolm swore but this sort of problem wasn’t unusual. He would just have to burn another copy. That was when his week really slid into techno hell.

He tried to open his carefully compiled database and spreadsheet only to get the chilling message ‘file corrupted’. 

Malcolm spent the next few hours trying everything he could think of to recover the lost files but to no avail. They were gone and with them an entire week’s work.

Malcolm had little choice but to start all over from scratch, making several backups as he went. The whole process took another week and a half and left him with a backlog of work that took his remaining time on secondment to clear.

His time in the office came to an end in February 1998 and he returned to the more familiar world of tree surgery. His allergies cleared up within a week and his waistline gradually returned to normal. The honest, if insulting, banter of his colleagues came as a welcome relief after the backstabbing office politics and when someone from outside the council was appointed to the post of Tree Officer, Malcolm wasn’t too disappointed.

As he said to his fellow tree workers: “At least when you fell a tree it stays felled. You don’t have to go and cut the bugger down again the following week.”

Malcolm had had his fill of working with computers for the time being.