The Unorthodox Website Blog

Characters at work

18 Mar

I thought I’d do a light-hearted blog about some of the characters I’ve worked with over the decades. My first job in the Work Study Office of the Alcuin Press, Welwyn Garden City from 1961-1962 brought me in touch with the Father of the Chapel. ‘Oh, they must be very religious,’ I thought, till I discovered in the printing trade this is what they call the shop steward of the Union.

Len Poulter worked there, and was always ribbing me about the ban-the-bomb badge I wore. For some reason he completely ignored a girl in the same office who was a Communist, her father also being a member of the party. Making for lively discussion there was also a Roman Catholic named John and a Jehovah’s Witness in the office. Most of the heated discussions took place between these last two, such as whether JC was crucified on a Cross or a Tree.

I moved on to the head office of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent) in Carthusian St, London EC1 (later we moved to Gray’s Inn Road) where a whole host of characters were to come into my life.

There was David who worked with Jimpy (another character) in the sales department. David greeted everyone who came in to this department, be they customer or staff, with: ‘Greetings comrade!’ Jimpy had rigged up an alarm to make sure nobody made off with ban-the-bomb badges, etc. – it consisted of a tin can on a piece of string attached to the door.

Peggy Duff, the Organizing Secretary, chain-smoked all day and rushed around like a demented being organizing the Aldermaston March and other protests, screaming: ‘Get me the Canon on the phone’ (Canon Collins, CND Chairperson) or slagging off George Clark (a Committee of 100 member who was also a character and a thorn in some people’s sides, along with fellow Committee off 100 member Peter Cadogan. These two were loose cannons in the movement).

Canon Collins was a figure-head for the movement after Bertrand Russell resigned as its only President to form the direct action Committee of 100. The Canon would visit the office at Christmas, and staff stood round awkardly with a drink wondering what to say, so someone suggested a song. Since the staff consisted of Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and a lot of atheists and agnostics, Christmas carols were off the agenda. We finally thought of a song we could all sing with gusto, and the Canon led us in a vigorous rendition of ‘The Red Flag’. This Leftie canon of St Paul’s Cathedral annoyed a lot of people by voting for Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election, justifying voting for the most rightwing Tory Prime Minister ever by saying it was time a woman was given a chance. We sympathized with his motives, but not the woman and Party he voted for. The Canon died soon after, so never suffered the full consequences of his vote. Just helped to  f***k things up for the rest of us.

Poor young Dorothy, the receptionist/switchboard operator, struggled in an hour late most mornings having come all around the Circle Line from Victoria, and then we acquired from the Canon’s Christian Action office a Tanganyikan named Dadu, whom we called ‘David’, who was a Muslim till he fasted at Ramadan, said it nearly killed him and converted to atheistic Maoism. David refused to do any work, and passed it all on to me saying I knew English better than he did. He ran down everything in the country, such as Buckingham Palace which he said didn’t even compare with the splendor of buildings back home in Dar-Es-Salaam.

David insulted a dedicated voluntary worker called Joan Stavenhagen, saying she was ‘a bourgeois housewife’ and ought to get a proper job. In the nearby cafe, Silvios, one day he asked Joan and Helen, both happily married to men, how lesbians make love.

When Queen Frederika of Greece paid a State visit to London the nuclear disarmament movement, both CND and the Committee of 100, organized protests because she was a fascist, ex-member of the Hitler youth, and the rightwing Greek government had recently murdered a leftwing MP, Lambrakis, who had been on an Aldermaston March. David, however, claimed it was he who started the booing of not just Frederika but Queen Elizabeth II outside Claridges. The newspapers were full of it the next day: ‘Queen Booed’.  David was unrepentant.

He was adept at getting this sort of publicity, and organized a protest of his own because Woolworths were segregating their dining rooms. He busied himself making placards and then got me, a Kenyan and a Sikh who worked in the office to go with him to Oxford Street in the lunch hour and picket Woolworths. A reporter from the Daily Telegraph saw this tiny protest, and got out of his car to ask David what it was all about. David told him, and claimed hundreds more were waiting to join the picket.

Not only was the Woolworths who segregated their dining room in Alabama rather than Oxford Street, London, but there was nobody else involved in the protest. David said he had friends at an African club nearby who would have said they were ready to join the protest if the Daily Telegraph reporter had asked to see the reserve troops. Next day a full column appeared on the front page about this non-existent campaign to boycott Woolworths.

Next David ordered some posters saying this year’s Aldermaston March was being organized by Afro-Asian CND. This was another organization which didn’t really exist except in David’s vivid imagination. It consisted of three people who worked in the office – David, Duncan the Kenyan, and Gurmukh the Sikh. Only David was actively involved, mainly in ordering these posters. Peggy Duff was furious when she saw one of these posters, but David calmly pointed out the microscopic lettering beneath the legend ‘Organized by Afro-Asian CND’ which read: ‘in conjunction with CND’. In actual fact, of course, David had nothing whatsoever to do with the organization of the March, nor did the non-existent ‘Afro-Asian CND’.

On another occasion David noticed Union flags flying from public buildings, I forget the exact occasion, possibly the Queen’s official birthday. The way he asked about them was: ‘Why do they fly these rags today?’ He then proceeded to make a flag of his own out of a white CND symbol on a black background and stick it out of the window in defiance.

One day David came into the office and gravely announced to Jessie Goodchild, the office manager, that his sister was seriously ill and dying in Switzerland. Naturally she was very sympathetic and granted him compassionate leave. Weeks later someone rang up and asked for David’s job. Jessie explained that David had not left, but was visiting his dying sister in Switzerland. ‘Oh no,’ the caller replied,’He’s working at the East African Embassy, and said I could have his old job as he doesn’t want it anymore.’

Jessie was furious. There was no dying sister in Switzerland, David just wanted to keep his options open in case the Embassy job didn’t work out. Duncan went to visit him there, and said he had caused chaos the very first day. He walked into his office and demanded a picture of the Queen be taken down, and threw the desk Bible into the wastepaper bin. They didn’t suffer him long, and next thing I knew Duncan said David was offering a free ticket to Peking (now Beijing) and would I like it. I said I’d be interested if it was a return ticket, but that wasn’t on offer. We later heard that David had taken advantage of the free ticket himself, and was working for Radio Peking broadcasting Maoist propaganda to East Africa.

There were numerous characters in CND. Malvin Side, a sweet little old lady who was on all demonstrations, and who came in with a little donation but then wasted everybody’s time by chatting all afternoon. I recorded one of her visits once and played it back to my mother. All she heard was Mrs Side complaining of everything that was wrong in the country and the world and then adding: ‘And it’s all that dreadful Harold Wilson’s fault!’.

She came into the office one day looking ill, telling us all to meet in Trafalgar Square the next weekend to confront the fascists. It turned out Mrs Side had a fractured skull from when a marble clock fell on her from a mantelpiece, and she had been advised to rest. No matter what we told her, she was determined to go to Trafalgar Square and heckle the National Front cracked skull or no fractured skull. She was last heard of selling ‘Sanity’ the CND newspaper in a care home where she then resided.

Little Lucy Behenna was another voluntary worker, very quiet and timid, a Quaker. David Wickes, my boss, asked her if she was canvassing for the Labour Party in the General Election. ‘Oh no, I’m not allowed to,’ Lucy said timidly. ‘Not allowed to? Why ever not?’ asked David. ‘Well I’m CP,’ whispered Lucy. She was a Quaker but also a member of the Communist Party.

David was little more use to the Labour Party. Yes, he went out and canvassed for them, but on Election day voted Communist. (There was a surplus of ‘Davids’ working in CND Head Office over the years. David, Jimpy’s assistant, who didn’t stay long after I arrived. Dadu, known as David, the Maoist Tanganyikan. David Wickes, a rotund aging accountant and my boss for many years. Also David Bolton, editor of CND’s newspaper ‘Sanity’.)

Gertrude Minnion was another voluntary worker whose son, John, was a leading light in West Midlands CND.  Mrs Minnion was a Labour Party member, born in Saskatchewan, Canada. She hated anything to do with the USA with a vengeance, and swore Coca-Cola was a CIA plot to rot the world’s stomachs. She flew into a fury if I bought Maryland Cookies to go with our tea, saying we should have English biscuits. She was convinced American singers that I liked such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. should be banned from touring here, especially after I and some other rockers wrecked the Saville Theater when they brought down the curtain in the middle of Chuck Berry’s act. She was going to the same theater later in the week to see an African Dance Company perform, and was unimpressed when I told her the best way to invade the stage was to climb up the side of the orchestra pit.

She was also unimpressed when at an office party I jumped up and danced on the trestle table which the volunteers used to stuff envelopes. She, at her own expense, had covered it with marble-like formica, but after a few glasses of scrumpy cider, the sounds of Mr Presley singing ‘Jailhouse Rock’ caused me to jump up and bop on her table, something she never let me forget. ‘Tony Papard gets up and dances on the table’ she’d tell visitors, as though I did this every day. She also told visitors that I would answer the office phone by shouting: ‘Wotcha want?’ This was because she came in after I answered the phone, put it down to get a pen and some paper, and then asked the person on the line what they wanted, as they were ordering merchandise.

Mrs Minnion was of the strong opinion that the uprising and Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 was entirely the fault of the Americans. ‘What did you expect the Russians to do with the Voice of America encouraging the Hungarians to rise up and revolt?’ she said.

Keith Nicholson organized Project 67, which was a holiday scheme for mainly young people to visit Israel and the Socialist countries. I went with them on my first trip abroad, by train across Europe to Moscow and Leningrad. Irate mothers would ring up and demand to know why CND was encouraging their daughters to go gallivating halfway around the world with a group of irresponsible, sex-mad hippies likely to put their offspring in the family way.

There were many more characters who came in and out of CND head office – a girl who claimed she was in love. We asked her who with, and she said: ‘With Communism!’ This or another girl who came in to do voluntary work always stood in a galvanized dustbin when answering the phone – the dustbin was kept in the office in the day and put out on the pavement at night (the girl was no longer in it by then of course.) Yet another girl came in with her young son, who amused himself tearing up invoices we were due to send out. One day she came in heavily pregnant again. ‘Who’s the father this time? ‘ asked David Wickes. ‘Don’t really know,’ she replied, ‘Could be almost anyone at university.’ She was still at university 20 years later, in her 40s, her children grown up by then.

At the Gray’s Inn Road office in the mid-1960s Molly Coffin arrived, CND’s first Membership Secretary. The organization had no formal national membership before that,  just supporters. Molly declared she couldn’t work in any environment which wasn’t painted white, so proceeded to paint the walls and everything with white paint. She couldn’t be bothered to move the duplicator, so just painted the table round it which it stood on. Later she moved into Peggy Duff’s office, and painted her half white, but the brush-strokes just petered out on Peggy’s side of the office which remained unpainted. CND adopted World Cup Willie, the lion which was the mascot of the 1966 World Football Cup (which of course England won that year), as the mascot for the membership drive, and a lion suit was acquired. Whenever Molly got bored with addressing envelopes with the addressograph she said: ‘I feel like going out in my lion costume’, so she’d put on the lion suit and walk up and down Gray’s Inn Road, along High Holborn etc. I don’t think she got many, if any, new members this way, but it relieved her boredom.

She knew I loved rock’n’roll and promised to bring a load of old 78s from her home in Cornwall when she next went down there. She fulfilled her promise, sort of. Having kept the records safe for over a decade, she dropped the case containing them on the platform and most were smashed or just held together by their labels. They were  rock’n’roll records by the likes of Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Little Richard. I still have a few which just about survived, though have nothing to play them on.

Leaving CND, I went to Post Office Overseas Telegrams based at Electra House. This was full of eccentric characters, like the neat man in a suit with a neat attache case. It was full of hardcore pornography which he hawked around the building. Many people had sidelines selling things, including Edna who had her hair in a 1940s page-boy style (this was in the late 1960s/early 1970s). I was working with a woman one day and she said: ‘To think I turned down a career in the WRAF to work in this dump!’ Looking at Edna she said: ‘I mean look at that woman there, she hasn’t had her hair done since 1946!’

Then there was Miss Prout, who loved cardinals. Any cardinals – real ones or actors portraying them. She sat around looking at pictures of them all day, saying to anyone who would listen: ‘Hasn’t he got a lovely face?’ Then there was Millie, on permanent nights on double time every other night which counted as overtime. She was so rich she traveled to and from work in a taxi, and never did a stroke of work all night. A lot of people on nights brought in camp beds and slept, since many circuits had little or no work to do – only the Far Eastern ones were busy at night. Millie amused herself making tea for the supervisors, and perhaps filing one or two telegrams in a 12 hour shift.

One man signed in at 8 am, then went off and took his family to the seaside for the day, telling his mates if the supervisor asked where he was to say he’d just gone for a break. The place was so big, and you changed jobs every few hours, so nobody knew where people were or who they were half the time. The man went to the seaside, came back into work and signed off, getting paid for the day.

Another man on nights went straight down to the bar, instead of reporting to the supervisor. Eventually going up there an hour or so later,  the supervisor said: ‘I’ve been looking for you since 8pm.’ ‘Oh have you?’ said the man, adding cheekily:’Well you wouldn’t have found me unless you came down to the bar, ‘cos that’s where I was!’ The Post Office tightened up on all this laxity eventually, and people like Millie didn’t like it at all.

Later I worked at an Australian company with my life-partner. The two directors were brothers called Roy and Llyn Evans. Born in Australia, they had gone to a British public school, and had thoroughly British upper class accents and attitudes. All the male staff were addressed by their surnames only: ‘Oh Papard, I have a telex for you!’ This was Mr Roy as we called him. One day he rang the man in the postroom: ‘Ah Twigg, I need my fountain pen filled.’ Peter Twigg was furious, and mixed the ink with blotting paper, tea leaves and all sorts of other things to clog up the director’s expensive fountain pen.

‘That’s the last time he’ll ask me to fill his pen. Who does he think he is? He and his brother were running around the Outback as kids with a load of bloody Abbos with the arse hanging out of the back of their trousers!’

Reigning supreme over Austral Development was Queen Hilda, who’d been there since the year dot and had the Office Manager twisted round her little finger. She did very little work, though was supposed to be a filing clerk. She sat looking at Argos catalogs much of the time, ordering little luxuries for the ladies’ room (the men had to be content with a basement room full of old junk.) At the annual Ladies’ Christmas Lunch at the Overseas Club nearby, she sat at the head of the table like the Queen of Austral.

She annoyed my life-partner George one day in September, before we’d even gone on our annual holiday to Spain, by giving her silly smile as she looked at the Argos catalog and saying: ‘Time to be thinking about Christmassy things!’ George bloody hated Christmas, and certainly didn’t want to be told about it before we’d even had our Summer holiday. His mother died at Christmas time, so it wasn’t a cause for celebration. Being Scots, he celebrated Hogmanay instead. When the Company Secretary died, Hilda passed me on the stairs, gave her stupid grin and said: ‘Lovely day for a funeral!’

The men were not invited to a Christmas lunch, all we got if we were lucky were rusty and dented cans of Foster’s lager which was then imported by us from Australia and sent out in Xmas packs. One day I saw Peter Twigg bashing crates of this lager on the side of his big wooden bench so they were all dented before he posted them off. ‘This is another lot which will come back rejected. Plenty of lager for us this Christmas, lads!’ he said.

You couldn’t really blame him. He’d had a good job as a shipping manager at a previous firm, been made redundant and because of his age could only get a job in the postroom.

At my last job, Amnesty International, people were relatively normal. I can’t think of any really eccentric characters. Some nice ones, some not so nice, some very bossy. There was one guy who did very little work, and his office was decorated with Xmas decorations all year round. He boasted it was always Christmas in his office, and always had some sherry and mince pies ready for visitors.

There was a temp who came to work in the Telex Room for a week or so soon after I arrived. She was a black girl but had an English accent, so must have either been born here or come here very young. She was looking at a world map around the Caribbean, so I asked her what she was looking for, thinking probably Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados. ‘I can’t seem to find England,’ she said. Didn’t she wonder why we had such cold winters here? Didn’t they learn geography at school?

Another temp, a man, sat and read the Urgent Actions we were supposed to send out by telex. I asked him what he was doing and said: ‘We haven’t time to read them all, these have to be sent out urgently.’ ‘Oh it’s good here isn’t it?’ he replied. ‘I love reading all about torture.’ Needless to say he wouldn’t have been allowed within a mile of the place as a permanent staff member, he came for a day form an agency to fill in when someone was on holiday.

So these are just a few of the characters I’ve worked with over the years. If I myself am now considered whacky and eccentric, well is it any wonder?

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