YESTERDAY was my birthday, one day and I’m a whole year older. The years may make me feel like a piece of history, I remember things which are written about in history books. Of course my life isn’t there, I’m anonymous, one of the anonymous crowds. Although to me my life is centre stage, I’m the principal character, the world exists as it touches my life; my birth, my schooling, the work I did and the choices I made. My parents were born in the second decade of the twentieth century, that is a hundred years ago. A hundred years, a century, that is a historical period: two world wars, the Great Depression, the birth of the Welfare State, a period of prosperity and the death of many staple industries; coal mining, steel, shipbuilding, engineering and one of the biggest, domestic service and the birth and huge rise of the communications industry. So many people sitting at a desk talking to lots of people they can’t see and reading from a script which is written on a screen in front of them. All of us trying to make sense of this ever changing, complex world as we try to navigate our way through it.
My parents are no longer here , I find myself thinking about them more frequently now. Their lives were very harsh in a way I find almost impossible to imagine. Father was the son of a shipyard labourer, in his youth the shipyards were often on short time or closed. Dad had a part-time job from the age of 12 years, delivering groceries by bicycle to those who couldn’t carry their own. Mother also had a part-time job, cleaning for a neighbour who took in lodgers. I didn’t start earning money until I was almost 17, I stayed on at school to take my O levels, they were taken towards the end of the fifth year.
My first job was in an office, the kind of office you used to see in American films, an enormous room, full of rows and rows of desks, some very large machines which were printing on card. They made a huge clattering, clanking noise. Each part of the process of collecting the money and printing it on the master card and passing the orders to the warehouse was divided into the smallest possible tasks. There was scientific reasoning behind this, the simple and more repetitive the process the quicker the operative would get through hundreds of identical checks, efficiency and speed being the most desired behaviour. It could be compared to a factory worker standing at machine when spinning and weaving became mechanised industries in the nineteenth century. Except for most of us there was no machinery only a desk and a printed catalogue, we sat at a desk and the papers were brought to us and collected from us when we had completed our allotted task. The firm was a mail order firm, the first in the town in 1955, at lunch time we had a meal in the canteen and the opportunity to have a chat. There were clean toilets on the premises, an empty seat at a desk was very visible so lingering was unwise.
My sister was already working there and my father soon joined us, although in the warehouse and not the office. He stood and walked, picking out clothes from the shelves. As I sat down on that first Monday morning, the strangeness of everything was overpowering, in front of me I had a rectangular well full of thin cardboard cards all numbered in order, these were the Master Cards. At regular intervals a bunch of smaller white cards were placed on the supporting wooden frame and my task was to pick out the appropriate Master Card and attach it to the Agent’s card and then put the bundle on the other side of the frame to be collected. The first feeling I had was an overwhelming feeling of relief, I can do this. I don’t have to speak to anyone, I just look at the order of the numbers and match them up. I can do it! Later I had other feelings but that was much later. On Friday I gave my mother my pay packet with a real sense of pride, she took out some money and gave me enough for my bus fares and lunches and a treat, may be a trip to the pictures. I felt I was making a contribution. Mother was happy, her two eldest were working in an office, life was just a tiny bit easier.
We were at that time living in a council house, the biggest problem was that to get anywhere you had to get on a bus, the buses were frequent, the fares relatively cheap and the bus-stop was just across the road. My brother had started primary school, he too had to get on a bus, my sister accompanied him to the school gate. Hundreds of family houses but no school. My youngest sister had not yet started school, she was two and a half years old.