I was becoming dissatisfied with my job at the “Hairdressers Journal”. It was obvious that I stood no chance of doing any writing for this purely technical paper whose articles were all contributed by hairdressers of long experience, most of them with their own salons. There was no such thing as reporting as it is known on a newspaper. I was clearly not going to progress. So I wrote again to several small London newspapers for a position. But either there were no vacancies, particularly as my shorthand was not yet up to standard, or premiums were requested for my training, which my father could not pay. I had no money of my own. My wages from the “Journal” merely paid for my fares and my keep. I had two shillings a week pocket money after I met all my expenses, which would buy newspapers and three packets of cigarettes. There was no way I was going to get rich like this.
The peculiar thing in those days was that we had been born and bred poor and never looked for anything else. If we did no more than pay our expenses and just keep our heads above water, we thought that we were well off. So many people slept in the parks or on the Thames Embankment, wrapped up in newspapers. At least we got a feed, and a roof over our heads and a regular job.
Frustrated by my lack of success, and reluctant to spend my life working to make the owners of the “Hairdressers Journal” rich, I allowed myself to be persuaded by my family to enter an examination for clerkships to the London County Council. With my schoolwork only a few months behind me, I could hardly fail, and I duly became a General Clerical Officer in the service of the body regulating the life in the County of London. I had a grandiloquent title, but more to the point, I earned two shillings a week over and above what I had received at Ogee’s.
I started work at County Hall, that huge building of endless corridors facing the Houses of Parliament across the River Thames, and I was allocated to the Highways and Main Drainage Committee. I saw nothing of highways or drains, however, and had only the vaguest notion of how the Committee functioned vis-a-vis the Council. My chief job was to make tea, and after that I did a little filing and batching up of papers. Much of my time was spent reading the Bressey Report, a praiseworthy plan for speeding up London’s traffic by means of viaducts, tunnels and roundabouts.
It was, however, a safe job. I was reminded of this time and time again by my parents, who had never themselves known such a luxury. Also there was a pension at the end of it and, although that meant nothing to me then, I would begin to understand its value after a few years.
I found myself in a dilemma. What was I to do? Should I make this local government my career? I felt the lack of movement after the busy days at Ogee’s. A job at County Hall meant a lifetime of unworried, unhurried paper shuffling. The majority of people seemed to carry few responsibilities. The tall poppies were hidden away in plush offices with carpets. (The majority of us made do with timber floors). What was I to do?
I had left school in the latter part of 1938, and started work at Ogee’s some weeks after. I transferred to the London County Council early in 1939 about six months later. Every morning and evening as I went upstairs on the grinding, sickening double decker electric tram, the air would be filled with cigarette smoke, and people would be hawking and spitting all over the place. We must have been a very unhygienic lot in those days. I would bury myself in books about the structure of short stories, novels and various types of newspaper reports. Sometimes I would read popular novels by Edgar Wallace and “Sapper”, who made a small fortune from lurid tales about a true blue British type called Bulldog Drummond. Drummond was always locked in mortal combat with an international criminal of indeterminate nationality called Carl Peterson. The “Saint” novels of Mr Leslie Charteris were also favourites of mine. I was beginning to read and enjoy the short stories of Guy de Maupassant in the original French. In my more serious moments I would attempt to understand the art of newspaper editorials better and also improve my bilingual ability by translating editorials into French, then rendering them back into English and comparing my efforts with the original.
Although my ambitions were journalistic, all this left me little time to read the newspapers as closely as I should have done. I was going off on a quasi-artistic kick. I read somewhere that Hitler and Stalin had concluded a non-aggression pact, and felt my heart sink, then tried to dismiss it and hoped that somehow we should muddle through.
My main worry now that I worked at the County Hall was what my next move was going to be.
A decision was forced on me by the inexorable wheel of history. German troops massed on the borders of Poland. The patience of the certifiable maniac in charge of Germany was once again exhausted.
I was suddenly transferred from County Hall to a fire station at Burdett Road, in the east end of London, half way between Hackney, where I was born, and Limehouse. Two days later, war broke out. I was seventeen and a half years old. We all knew that we were for it. Obviously the only thing I could do now was to stick to my job until I was called up.
In the Munich days of 1938, when the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was flying to placate Adolf Hitler – the black hearted, utterly wicked psychopath who led Germany – war seemed imminent. In London, volunteers worked all day long digging up parks and open spaces to construct the air raid shelters that should have been provided long ago. Passing strangers left the pavements, took off their coats, grabbed shovels and sweated. The green fields of Hackney Marshes became striated with trenches and battlements of black earth. When daylight had gone, the feverish digging continued by the light of oxy-acetylene and naphtha flares.
Chamberlain came back to England with a fluttering slip of paper held in his hand guaranteeing “peace in our time”, but at last the man in the street was alive to the danger, and although he longed for peace, was no longer really hopeful that it could be maintained. A country-wide campaign was set on foot to organise air raid precautions services, and as many men and women as possible were urged to join the Auxiliary Fire Service. A.R.P. and A.F.S. became key words in the language.
In London, the regular London Fire Brigade run by the London County Council was to be the backbone of the new service, and the volunteers, most of whom would become full time in the event of war, were to work under the supervision of this experienced body of men. This was the plan. The ironical fact was that when full-scale air raids on London eventually began, many auxiliaries acquired as much fire fighting experience in a few weeks as their professional colleagues had had in years and some were finally promoted and made senior to them.
When I arrived at the Burdett Road Fire Station, I found that a certain Mr G was to be my colleague. Mr G was a tall, thin, middle-aged man, always very neatly dressed and polite, with a habit of fingering his large, horn-rimmed spectacles. He had been “something in rubber”, but a market crash had forced him to seek other employment, and he had eventually taken a job with the London County Council as a fire station clerk. For although the burly, tattooed ex-navy men who seemed always to drift to the London Fire Brigade were excellent at their job of putting out fires, their powerful fingers seemed to become less capable when it came to putting pen to paper.
There was at this time a rush to join the auxiliary fire service, and Mr G and I used to sit at a table in a little upstairs room of the fire station, explaining the conditions of service to would-be recruits, and getting them to fill out the necessary forms. Then we would turn them over to the mercies of the regular firemen downstairs. We were joined a day or two later by Len, a tall, pipe-smoking young man with black hair, and a pair of thick framed spectacles to rival Mr G’s. Len was to be in charge. He was to be known as the Accounting Officer, and Mr G and I were to be his assistants. Our job was to make out pay sheets for the three hundred odd auxiliaries who would eventually be allocated to the several evacuated, sand bagged schools on our station’s ground. We would calculate their sick pay and injury pay deductions, draw money from the bank, and pay it out. We would balance anything left, and redeposit it in the bank. If it be thought that we were not fully occupied, remember that this was in the days before computers and office machines. All records were manually kept, and all calculations were worked out in the skull.
The bank was situated in Limehouse, and I always looked forward to the journey there by A.F.S. car or some dirty old requisitioned taxi with ladders strapped to the roof and a coil of fire hose in the back seat. The fan tan and opium dens of the Chinese quarter might be things of the past, but I could still let my imagination wander when I saw the unusual names over the chop suey restaurants in East India Dock Road and the tattered notices in Chinese characters pasted on the walls of the dingy houses in Pennyfields.
One other duty of ours was to stick stamps on hundreds of health and unemployment cards each week. Back to the old stamp licking again! This was an awkward business, since the stamps had to correspond exactly to the pay sheets, and there were many irregularities due to adjustments in respect of sickness or absence. The law said that once an insurance stamp was stuck on a man’s card let no man put the stamp and the card asunder! But since we were obliged to make the pay sheets up in advance and our information regarding attendance was not always correct, it was inevitable that we made mistakes. Then we had to indulge in minor illegalities and remove the wrongly affixed stamps. So we put the kettle on the stove in the little room next to the office, brought it to the boil, and steamed stamps off one card in order to stick them on another. What a ramshackle, improvised way to help run a war. But somehow we muddled through. And after Len was called up for the Air Force several firemen expressed their appreciation of the efficient and understanding, if slightly unorthodox way in which he had run his side of the station.
When I left the fire station between five and six in the evening, the streets were completely dark due to the strict blackout that had been imposed. Double decker trams were still running in the Mile End district at that time, although they were later replaced by trolley buses. Occasionally vivid flashes from the tram rails would light up the street like lightning coming from the earth. The large electric headlamp at the front and rear of each tram was obscured by a black metal disc, only a shaded slit of light being allowed to escape, and the lights inside the tram were dimmed and similarly shaded. The conductors, unless they made use of small battery and bulb contraptions attached to their uniform jackets, generally had to bend over the seats to see where they were punching their tickets.
It was an anxious time during those first few weeks. Everyone waited on doorsteps during the long twilight. The isolation and unfriendliness of people in the big city disappeared. For a while everybody went out of his way to be friendly to everybody else. People called each other “chum” or “mate”. In this way it was a good time, despite the anxiety of waiting for the first air raid. I always expected an air raid to catch me in the tram mid way between the fire station at Mile End and my home at Hackney. However, no air raid materialised in the first months of the war. Thus we soon became blasé, smoking in the blackout, flashing torches, and not taking any notice at all of the hoarse-voiced wardens in blue dungarees and black tin hats who would angrily shout at us to “Put that bloody light out”.