Monday, 2 December 2013

(.... till I end my song)


            My mother and I returned to London in the autumn of 1952.  This time we were going to live here together, and we had to hunt around for a place to live in.  We would stay here for the next seven years and during that period we moved several times.  First we found a small flat in Kensington.  We found it a bit small and we moved to Thurloe Square.  Here we had a basement flat which was better, but rather dark.  We moved again to a flat on Clapham Common, which was larger but cheaper.  It was modern and bright and we stayed here for some time, although it took longer to get to work.  Our final move was to a rented room in Hampstead.  The room was in a large and comfortable flat owned by a Jewish couple.  We shared the kitchen and bathroom with the owners.  We very rarely met up and we both liked the location, which was close to the Heath.

         I was still bent on finding work in publishing, which was probably why I took a job working for Kegan & Paul, Trench Trubner, Oriental booksellers.  Books was surely the next best thing.  I recently came across some writing of mine about it.  I had written quite a lot.  Evidently I found it intriguing.  Here are a few extracts:

         “The shop stood on a corner, a tall four-storeyed building, grey and rather shabby, with dingy green painting which was slightly flaking off.  It was distinguished by a grilled doorway, and by its many windows, three on each side and Gothic arched in shape.  As you looked upwards, they became dustier and piles of books could be dimly seen inside, and propped up on the window sills.  They looked as though they had been there a long time and you could almost see the dust settling on them.  The rest of the room faded into greyness.

         It was winter when I first came, and bitterly cold.  I walked through the shop and into the back part, where a man and a girl were sitting.  They both looked up but neither of them said a word.  I asked if I could see Mr. Coles, the manager, and added, tentatively, that I had come to work there.”

         Mr. Coles was a big, loud man with a florid complexion.  He and I shared an office, he had a big rolltop desk by the window, whilst I had a much smaller one in the corner with my Remington typewriter on it and a stenciling machine at the side. There were books everywhere, on the floor, on the table, on both desks, as well as piles of correspondence.  Here is what I wrote about him.

         “I soon discovered that Mr. Coles had had many secretaries, both male and female.  My predecessor had been a man.  Mr. Coles had hoped that a man would get through his letters more quickly.  It was a vain hope.  I could soon see why.  There was a vast backlog of unanswered letters which had been accumulating over the past thirty years.  Mr. Coles’ way of dictating was discursive and leisurely.  His letters reflected his mood, they were not business letters, couched in formal terms, but personal and creative letters. 

         Whenever a letter could not be found, one assumed that it would be found on one of the piles on his desk.  Some of the letters were seven or eight years old, some four to five years old, but the main bulk was about a year old.  Such were the dilatory ways of the antique book trade, where some learned museum would suddenly unearth an invoice ten years of age and realize that they had not paid it.  Books would be sent a year or two after the original enquiry and letters answered, if the customer were lucky, within a couple of months.

         One might imagine from all this that the business of the shop was conducted in a leisurely and carefree old world manner.  Far from it.  Time always pressed on Mr. Coles as he rushed from one, two or three jobs to the next one.  When he was dictating, he was constantly being interrupted by his brother wanting him to price a book, or by the telephone.  With his feet up on the desk he would embark on a long conversation with Mr. Locke, the Secretary of the firm, a man of his own intelligence, and Labour to boot.  Many wisecracks, mainly political and economic, would fly back and forth between them.

         By this time it would be teatime.  Teatime was sacrosanct and was the one time when Mr. Coles would allow everyone a little relaxation.  He enjoyed his tea.  He would wipe his damp brow and lean back with a sigh.  The rest of us would congregate down in the basement, where there was a coal fire.  We would warm our backsides, eat our chocolate digestives or Petit Beurre biscuits and chat. Sometimes this extended to half an hour, when Mr. Coles would suddenly appear and we would rapidly disperse.”

         From where I sat, facing a dingy yellow, stained wall, I received all the draughts coming from the front door, and listened to the interminable conversations between Miss Mayhew and Mr. Transfield in the next office.  They were as different as chalk and cheese.  Transfield, who looked after the accounts, wore beautifully tailored suits, was fastidious and very neat.  He was logical and aseptic.  Miss Mayhew always looked rather grubby and one sometimes caught a glimpse of a dirty petticoat.  She had a wild imagination and loved to recount her dreams.  She was very keen on interior decorating and I learnt a great deal on how to stain floors, board up chimneys and make shelves, all in the cheapest possible manner.

         For a time I developed a slight crush on Transfield, but when he did not turn up for a date I discovered that he was a mother’s boy, and it came to a early end.  This did not stop him from drooling over me when we all went on our annual outing together, and he had drunk too many beers.

         He did not endear himself to me when my dear friend Kate, from Mousehole days, came in to see me.  She created quite a stir as she swept into the shop, dressed in a bright flowing skirt, long ropes of  beads, huge earrings, several jangling bangles, and her red hair.  She charmed little Mr. Coles Junior.  “Da-arling” she said when she saw me.  I heard Transfield mutter:  “The poor man’s Rita Hayworth.”

          I was not unhappy here and I was amused by the eccentricities of the staff, but I still felt that  I should be keeping an eye out for a job in publishing. I applied for a job in a small publishing firm which sounded promising.  I had become quite fond of Mr. Coles by now, he was in his way a kindly man, and 1left with some sadness.

         So I started my job in the new firm.  It consisted of one man and myself. I do not remember the name of it and I do not think it any longer exists.