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Friday, 29 September 2017

Falling Back On Pitmans


Although Wombwell Hall provided a very good general education in the mid 1950s it had not instilled much patience or persistence in me which was regrettable because Miss Hart always maintained that what We Girls needed more than anything else was what she called, variously, Staying Power and Stickability. She lamented those of us who dropped out of the Pitmans course expressing a foolish desire to simply be copy typists and reminded us that such attitudes would never help us Rise ThroughThe Ranks. At the time I felt smug because I was mastering Pitmans without too much effort even though I was seriously toying with becoming a Sister of Mercy rather than a secretary. Miss Hart said she understood completely but she couldn’t emphasise enough that we should all Stick At mastering the mysteries of office work because then, whatever happened, we could always Fall Back On It. Because I found it easy, I happily Stuck At It. Nevertheless a year or so later that schoolgirl Stickability was not helping me Rise ThroughThe Ranks at Messrs. Francis, Day & Hunter.

I had been working for exactly ten months when I decided that the job was not providing the stimulus it had originally seemed to offer. Celebrities visiting the Copyright Department remained thin on the ground and the exotic duo of shorthand typists in the Professional Department did not seem to be in any hurry to move on and vacate their glamorous positions to me. Nor was I being offered a Rise in pay and remained on what I soon came to view as a rather ungenerous five pounds per week. This dearth of Rises helped me to conclude that I should move on.

Back in those days office jobs were very easy into find and so making a change did not pose any problem and in any case I had overheard in Julie’s, the cafĂ© at the end of Denmark Street, that Lawrence Wright, a rival publisher, was in need of secretarial help in his much acclaimed Light Music Department. I popped in there during my next lunch break and applied for the position. They hired me on the spot and to my great surprise were willing to pay me six pounds a week, pleasingly at once aware of my undoubted star potential. Miss Hart would be proud of me and as I occasionally saw her out on an evening walk if I got off the train at Northfleet rather than Gravesend, I resolved that at the very next opportunity I would fill her in with all the glorious details of my success. She was bound to be impressed.

I knew very little about Lawrence Wright except that he was spoken of in hushed tones in the environs of Denmark Street because he was also the famous song writer, Horatio Nicholls but then I had never heard of Horatio Nicholls either so his notoriety meant nothing to me. When I told my copyright department colleague, Pat, who I was moving on to work for she said that Horatio Nicholls had written legendary numbers like Among My Souvenirs and what’s more had founded Melody Maker magazine which I immediately put on my reading list. Later I was to learn from the Man Himself whilst serving his first cup of tea of the day that he had been born in Leicester in 1888 the son of a violin teacher so from my point of view he had had a flying start as far as making progress in the Music Business was concerned. He left school at twelve to be apprenticed to a printer but by the time he was eighteen was selling sheet music in the local market, ensuring good sales by singing the songs himself whilst playing an ancient upright piano. He was a young man of determined spirit, definitely a Go Getter, and when London Music Publishers did not show an interest in the songs he wrote, he decided to found his own publishing company!

When I arrived in the Light Music Department in 1957 Mr Wright still came to the office each morning by taxi at eight fifteen am and as I was required to start at eight thirty and my first job of the day was to make him a pot of tea we had many an early morning conversation. By this time, having researched him thoroughly via Westminster Public Library, I was grudgingly in awe of him which seemed to please him. He told me that he was infamous for a number of startling publicity stunts such as hiring a plane from Imperial Airways in 1927 with the Jack Hylton Orchestra on board playing his latest number Me & Jane In A Plane as it circled over Blackpool Tower Ballroom. He was not known as The Grand Old Man of Tin Pan Alley for nothing though there may well have been an element of exaggeration in these sagas retold for the edification of a star struck teenager. I would have told equally extravagant tales about myself given half a chance but unfortunately he always seemed much keener to talk about his life than mine so I had to save them for Delores with whom I shared an office in the illustrious Professional Department.

Delores was nearly sixty and she seemed a very old lady to me at the time. She lived in a top floor flatlet in Muswell Hill and had a cat called Jeremiah. I was now to be Secretary to Mr Eddie Schubert who was also keen to tell me all about himself and I learned that he had fled Vienna in 1938 with his violin and found himself in London via a very circuitous route. He was responsible for overseeing and promoting the company’s `Light Orchestral’ music which included some of the stirring marches of John Philip Sousa of which I became very fond.

The secretarial services of Delores were shared by Mr Ted Raymond and Mr Johnny Wise who were the senior song pluggers. Mr Raymond lived in a picturesque cottage in the village of Meopham, close to Gravesend, and he took a fast train home each evening from Victoria Station. Mr Wise on the other hand was a dedicated Londoner, originally from the East End but now resident in a Maida Vale mansion flat with wife and teenage daughter. On the ground floor of our building was the reception desk where a pretty Welsh girl called Olwen was both telephonist and receptionist and at the rear was the space where Benny and Lenny smoked and swore and sorted sheet music to be sent to various theatres and dance halls around the country. Benny was a tall and handsome eighteen year old with a motor bike and a girlfriend called Shirl and Lenny had just left school, had thick glasses and pimples and got excited and sweaty when he spoke more than a word or two.

With the new job I determined to make an entirely new start and turn over a new leaf and to this end created a novel and exciting fantasy family, venturing into the unfamiliar and thrilling world of stepmothers for the first time. I was now an only child. My father, Joshua, a small town lawyer had inadvisably and against all the advice of his friends, married Jessica an actress after the death of my mother some years previously. I did not get on with Jessica or either of her nineteen year old twin sons, who were called Brent and Stuart in honour of the Tarleton Twins in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, and looked very much as they did in the film. Needless to say I had very recently read Margaret Mitchell’s book described by my mother as The Book Of The Film and over the years I had viewed the film at least three times in the company of various tearful female relatives. Three viewings proved to be rather too many and reduced the tribulations of Scarlet O’Hara to the decidedly tedious. My mythical stepmother had in fact auditioned for the part of Scarlet in the David Selznick production but it went to Vivien Leigh and she never really got over the disappointment. Joshua rather rapidly realised he had made a mistake in marrying this disappointed thespian but had resigned himself to trying to make the marriage work. I was very much in favour of the idea of couples working hard at their partnerships. Early in 1957 we had moved from our thatched cottage in Cobham village, a home much loved by my father to a very new and exclusive apartment overlooking the river in Gravesend, close to Bawley Bay. My stepmother maintained that the apartment was a great improvement on the draughty old cottage. She hated cooking and because help was very hard to find in those days, we were now able to eat out on a regular basis at the steak bar in the Royal Clarendon Hotel which was fortunately close by or even the new Chinese restaurant in the town centre.

Delores shook her head sympathetically upon hearing of the family problems and described my father as a Poor Soul and told me I should do everything in my power to be of emotional support to him. When she asked curiously whether the boys had jobs, referring to them as Those Twins, I took delight in explaining how much Jessica was opposed to the idea of them working and wanted them to have their freedom despite the fact that my father thought it would be good for them to join the work force. She shook her head again and repeated that my father was a Poor Dear Soul. All this was most gratifying and I began to plan a weekend family outing to tell her about, to a smart London restaurant, even Rules perhaps where we could celebrate the twentieth birthday of the twins and where Jessica could look utterly splendid in an ocelot coat. I had only a hazy idea of what an ocelot coat might look like but knew that Jessica would undoubtedly love one. Possibly Joshua could have given her one when they first got married. The outing to Rules might end in disaster with Jessica storming out into rainy Covent Garden and the twins going in search of her. The possibilities were delightfully endless. I might keep this satisfying newly developed family for the remainder of the year. I was beginning to become fond of them.

When I finally bumped into Miss Hart outside Northfleet Station one evening in early October she seemed eager to know how life was going for me. I would have very much enjoyed telling her about my stepmother and the twins and elaborating on situations endured by my father such as the unfortunate evening at Rules but as I couldn’t recall what I might have told her in the past, the idea had to be reluctantly set aside. Instead I quite unexpectedly found myself telling her that I had recently auditioned for the part of a governess in a TV version of Jane Eyre and had that very afternoon been made aware that I had won the role. She was overjoyed for me because Pitmans did not have to be For Ever and she thought I could always Fall Back On It. She was definitely going to watch the play and she would tell everyone at school. I walked away feeling strangely uneasy and for the first time wished fervently for a simple way to stop myself recounting such irrational and easily disproved stories.

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