Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"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.


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