Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"till I end my song ..."


         Was my mother worried, I wonder?  She was a great worrier, and here I was going off to London on my own, without even having a job to go to.  I have no recollection of it, so it may be that she kept her worries to herself.  I was nearly twenty three years old and as green and callow as they come.

         I found a woman’s hostel in Bayswater, not far from Hyde Park, where I could board and get an evening meal.  There were mostly elder women living there, and one or two younger ones.  I never got to know them very well.  One was an alcoholic who, from to time, became drunk.  She would become garrulous and maudlin.  I felt very uncomfortable when this happened, and sad for her.

         I applied for several secretarial jobs in the publishing world.  I went to see a lady at the Publishers’ Association, which produced a weekly journal for booksellers.  I saw a grey haired, rather severe looking woman sitting behind a large desk, piles of publications lying everywhere, and shelves of large, forbidding reference books behind her.  My heart sank.

         “Tell me about yourself,” she said, in quite a kindly way.

         I froze.  I had no idea what to say. I had nothing to say.

         She dispatched me briefly and swiftly.

         I found a job, working for a company which published magazines dealing with mechanical engineering and related subjects.  I was in a large shorthand and typing pool.  I spent the first day copy typing a document, rather badly.  I hated it.  I had no idea what I was typing.  On the second day I was called to take some shorthand.  I realized straight away that my shorthand was inadequate, and I was unable to guess the technical language.  On the third day I was given the sack and told, quite kindly, that I should look for a typist’s job.

         I felt humiliated and deflated.  Here I was with a degree and it seemed that all I was good for was a job as a typist.

         Luckily for me, it was a time when jobs were plentiful.  I found another job, this time working in the Library of a Petrochemicals company, which was located on Piccadilly.  Not ideal, but at least it was in a nice part of London and easy to get to from my hostel.

         The job consisted of making card indexes for the books in the Library.  I had to type out several cards for each book, so that they could be filed in the appropriate box.  The Librarian was an Austrian Jewess.  She was a formidable lady who completely terrified me.  The cards had to be typed with meticulous accuracy, every dot and comma and capital letter in the right place.  Nothing in my entire life had prepared me for this.  My mind seemed to turn to jelly.  Time and again the cards were thrown back at me, incorrectly typed, I never seemed to get them right.  My working days became a nightmare.

         I endured it for about six months and then gave in my notice before I was sacked.  The other staff, who were always very nice to me, told me when I left they had been afraid I was going to have a nervous breakdown. 

         I can’t remember whether I confided at all in my mother about my problems.  We never seemed to talk very much about intimate things, so I probably kept it all from her.  She must have worried, I’m sure.  She was a great worrier.

         So I struggled on, and I soon found another job, this time working for a large wholesale bookseller called Simpkin Marshall, owned by the notorious Robert Maxwell.  I was to be a secretary to the Publicity Manager, Mr. Brown.  This seemed like a step in the right direction.

         Mr. Brown was a mild mannered man, quite laid back, with large, gentle brown eyes, and not at all intimidating.  I began to relax in this undemanding atmosphere.  I had been going to evening classes in shorthand, so had slightly improved this skill.  Fortunately for me, Mr. Brown dictated at such a pace that I could get most of it down in longhand.  Every month we published a list of new publications, mostly fiction, much more in my line.  Mr. Brown allowed me to write the captions for these books.  This was not very difficult, but I was pleased and felt that at last I was getting onto the path I had planned for myself.

         Quite early on, whilst I was at Petrochemicals on Piccadilly, I had met an artist called Michael and this relationship probably helped to sustain me during my ups and downs in the working world.  I will talk about Michael in the next chapter                                                      

"till I end my song ..."



            My mother was still working in Stratford-on-Avon and after university I joined her at the Arden Hotel.  Miss Watney offered me a part-time job working in the office as a receptionist.

         I had decided that I would try to find work in the publishing world, with the aim of becoming an editor.  To gain entry into that world, I would need some secretarial skills.  I would still need those skills if I wanted to use my languages.

         Just down the road from the Arden there lived an elderly lady who was teaching shorthand and typing from her own home.  To call it a school would be a bit of a misnomer.  The typing classes were held in the garden in a greenhouse, large enough to hold several desks, chairs and typewriters, and this was where I would go every morning for the next few months. For our shorthand lessons we had to go up to Mrs. Ellis’s bedroom as she was bedridden and we would sit by her bedside with our notebook and pencil.

         I cannot say that I found this an ideal arrangement.  It was all so haphazard and there was no discipline at all.  Miss Palmer, who taught us typing, was a woman without any authority.  The other students were all school leavers around sixteen, keen enough to learn, as this was to be their livelihood.  I had no motivation as I was not interested and I did not apply myself.  So I never learnt to touch type, though I did eventually pass a test at sixty words per minute, and I never got a shorthand qualification.

         In the afternoons I helped out in the office, usually on my own.  To begin with I was very nervous, but gradually I got used to it and found that I could cope quite well.  I took phone calls, made reservations and dealt with the guests;  it was largely a matter of commons sense.  The variety of the guests made the job interesting.  I remember hearing Kenneth Tynan, the theatre and film critic, complaining bitterly as he was coming downstairs, that he had not been on the scene when the Scone of Scotland had been stolen.  Miss Watney would come fussing in from time to time and this always made me nervous.  Fortunately, she did not take a fancy to me, as she did one of the other girls, whom she tried to embrace in the stationery cupboard.

         In the evenings I sometimes helped the other waitresses in the dining room.  I always enjoyed this job:  the physical activity, calling out the orders, waiting for my mother and Miss Watney to dish up the plates, Miss Watney always painfully slow, but she was the boss and we had to curb our impatience.

         I got to know the other staff again, who were always nice to me.  I was particularly fascinated by Snow.  She was a widow in her fifties, a very intelligent woman with a sardonic wit.  She had short, crinkly grey hair and her face was creased with laughter lines.  She talked to me as her equal, which I liked and I longed to be like her.  There was another widow called Beck. She was kind and gentle, but there was something very sad about her, and I learned later that she ended up in a mental home. The only real waitress was a woman called Kent. She was tall, with a large bosom, and a beautiful, upright posture. She had snow white hair which she wore piled up like a meringue. I think she rather looked down upon the rest of us.  In my callow youth I looked down on her.

         Time passed, Christmas came and went, and at some point early in 1951 I decided that it was time for me to look for a proper job.  Armed with my flimsy secretarial skills and a first class degree I moved to London.  I had no-one to advise me about the realities of life.  They say that ignorance is bliss.  I was certainly blissfully unaware of what lay ahead.