Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Very Junior Typist For The Lovells

My love affair with London emerged out of the books I borrowed from the library. This was almost certainly the case because when I looked back on my short life on the occasion of my fourteenth birthday, I realized I had only visited the city twice. Once was with my father when I was nine years old and he took me to the British Museum and again when I was thirteen when my mother organized a quite unexpected outing to London Zoo with a neighbor as a treat for my brother’s sixth birthday. Being quite unaccustomed to birthday treats the experience became vivid in memory. I was desperately anxious to make a trip to the exciting city only twenty miles up The Thames, by myself, an independent traveller but money was always the obstacle. The return ticket on the fast train was five shillings, slightly less on the slow train and even if I only allowed a little more for the necessary spending, the thought of somehow or other coming by the huge sum of almost ten shillings seemed quite impossible. Money, or the lack of it, invariably stood in the way of the progressing of my objectives.

My mother’s employers, The Lovells, had donated an outdated office typewriter to me when I first went to Wombwell Hall and began the Commercial Course that was going to give me a nice clean office job. The machine was an Underwood, made in 1914 and it took the combined efforts of the Lovell brothers, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Lawrence to transfer it from the back seat of their father’s car onto our kitchen table. My mother looked at it doubtfully, knowing how unlikely it was for it ever to be transferred elsewhere and Old Nan commented that she would have told them where to Shove It if she’d been present at its delivery and that it was the likes of Them Lovells That gave me my Airs & Graces. Nevertheless it was a most exciting moment as far as I was concerned especially as they had also given me a whole ream of A4 pale blue copy paper to accompany it. There was no doubt in my mind that I was now in possession of all I needed in order to become a famous novelist and in the interim I would be able to write letters to newspapers complaining about the lack of social housing and the behaviour of some local children on buses.

Because of the financial restraints our family was under, once the pale blue A4 paper ran out, which it did surprisingly quickly, I was not in a position to replace it so I began to steal paper from Miss Hart’s typing class at school, two or three sheets at any one time and I was always careful to use both sides once the thefts began which made me feel virtuous and very soon I did not look upon this pilfering as anything other than justified.
The positive aspect of both the typewriter and the thefts was that my typing was improving in leaps and bounds and I became by far the fastest and most accurate typist Miss Hart had ever encountered in her fifty two years of teaching, which was flattering if indeed it was true. She told me with her usual enthusiasm that I was a Natural Office Worker and would undoubtedly rise to the top of any Typing Pool.

When my mother proudly conveyed this pleasing news to the Lovells something very exciting happened. Mr. Bertram Lovell decided that during the coming school summer holiday period I should work in his office from nine until five daily as a junior shorthand typist and office assistant for which I would be paid one pound per week. Predictably Old Nan commented that this was Daylight Bleeding Robbery and even Aunts Martha and Maud were doubtful because their Pat and their June were getting nine and sixpence each on Saturdays at Woolworths in Dartford. Having never been the recipient of any sum in excess of two shillings previously in my life I was entirely elated. The reality of taking on the job at the tender age of not quite fifteen, however, proved when the time came to cause me more anxiety than I had bargained for.

Mr. Bertram Lovell was a lawyer and worked with his lawyer son, Mr. Christopher and a clerk called Henry in a tall house in one of the roads to the West of the station. Their secretary was called Pauline and she was engaged to Donald who lived in Norfolk and came from a farming background. She seemed to be very competent and I was quite taken aback by her shorthand speed because until I met her, I was convinced that being the fastest shorthand writer in Miss Hart’s class, I must also be the fastest in our corner of Kent. My first dictation session with Mr. Lovell Senior caused me to immediately revise that opinion.

There was really little need for me to be frightened of him. My mother had worked for the family for a number of years, cleaning their house dutifully three times each week and I had met each member of the family on a number of occasions. Nevertheless he struck fear into my heart, sitting there behind the wide expanse of desk wearing his dark blue pin stripe suit and burgundy tie and radiating middle class authority. He smiled, displaying huge yellow teeth and told me he would speak very slowly and that I should Sing Out At Once if I couldn’t keep up. He then proceeded to dictate three short letters at what I could only consider to be a horrendously rapid speed. However, helpful Pauline reassured me and said she’d been listening and had been relieved that he was going so slowly. I nodded, fought back tears that were almost choking me and turned my attention to the struggle ahead which was to decipher the symbols that jumped up and down on the page, trusting to luck that I would be able to make something of them and type up the result whilst it was all still fresh in my mind. However, the next day I courageously and firmly made the request that he slowed down – which he did, and thereafter, better still, I endeavoured to be the one who took dictation from Mr. Christopher who at least stopped every few seconds to think about what he might say next.

At the end of the first week, the one pound note in my brown wage packet was an event that was hard to process rationally, especially as the Lovells had kindly added a further one shilling and sixpence to cover my bus fares to and from Northfleet on the 496. I was officially a wage earner. Deliriously excited, instead of heading for the bus stop on that first Friday afternoon, I made my way to the book department at Bon Marche in the town centre where they didn’t close until six, and browsed among the poetry books. Eventually after a great deal of indecision I made my first purchase - an anthology containing my at the time favourites and costing four shillings and sixpence. On that delicious Friday life could hardly have been better. As time went on I discovered that my favourite reading matter could often be found in either one of the local second hand bookshops at greatly reduced prices which made me even happier.

Becoming a wage earner certainly improved both my self-esteem and my wardrobe. Not only did I become the proud owner of two orlon cardigans in pastel colours, at the same time I began to learn a little of the intricacies of the legal ups and downs in my home town. Most of the work the Lovells did was straightforward and boring but from time to time young Mr. Christopher was called upon to represent a minor criminal about to excitingly go through the local court system. These petty criminals fascinated me, especially if they sported DA haircuts and wore Teddy Boy suits with velvet collars. I twittered around them, hoping desperately to be noticed and perhaps asked out for one of the frothy topped cappuccinos just beginning to infiltrate local cafes, all now hastily renaming themselves from The Copper Kettle and Julie’s Teas to Daddy O’s and The Gondalier. Unfortunately I was generally ignored and thus forced to slouch hopefully across the blue formica tables alone whilst trying to appear slightly bored but interesting instead of anxious and optimistic.

My mother rapidly decided that I should share my current good fortune with my brother and donate two shillings of my weekly wage to him as pocket money. I did so resentfully. though he was of course, delighted and began also to haunt second hand shops for books on ornithology, his latest fixation.

When that eventful summer of 1955 was over I had made three trips on the fast train to Charing Cross to prowl the streets of London alone which was exhilarating, on one occasion not returning until nearly midnight which caused my mother huge distress. Furthermore when I returned to school I was of course even further ahead of my classmates in Miss Hart’s classes. She complimented me in front of the entire class pointing out that Most Girls Slide Back Over Summer and reiterating that I was a Born Office Worker and would undoubtedly Go Far in a work environment that supported a Big Pool, perhaps a Shipping Company or even an Insurance Company. Much despised Valerie Goldsack pointed out that as I had been working throughout the summer my progress was unsurprising but Miss Hart kindly ignored her which was thrilling because generally the staff admired Valerie because of her father being in the Police Force.

It was more than uplifting to be the object of praise but although my sudden flair for office work might advance me through the typing ranks at a faster rate than my peers in Class 2SC at Wombwell Hall I was only too aware that this startling ability in the commercial subjects unfortunately did not spread into other areas of the curriculum. The two Miss Smiths in the English Department for instance were most definitely not as impressed with my competence as I would have liked. My greatly adored Miss K. Smith had all too recently advised me that essays did not have to be quite as long as I seemed to imagine. For instance, my descriptive piece on London At Night, she said, was inclined to make even the most avid reader a little sleepy!

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