My new life couldn't have varied more from the old had I taken up lion-taming. Having been housed by my bemused future mother-in-law, I'd swiftly scoured the Evening Standard jobs section and within days, had joined William Hill, the large betting company in the City, which then, as now, paid out on sports winnings. On day one as Pools Clerk, my new title, I was met and escorted to a large room full of tables and chairs to become the eighth woman alongside seven others. The work was bafflingly non-skilled and having been told that speed was essential, particularly when the 'payout' was large, I soon caught on. Briefly, it comprised of opening and sorting piles of post from piles of mailbags, each envelope containing a pools coupon and one or more postal orders, the value of which covered the number of 'lines' submitted. Having stamped and checked the coupons - retaining all winners to be paid out later - we'd sit speculating on how to spend their cash (in those days a £75,000 win was the maximum). It seemed unbelievable that such hassle-free work warranted a wage-packet. Full of chat, fuelled by gossip and smoke (almost everyone did) we worked fast and within weeks I knew what seemed like every engrossing detail of my co-workers existence, each day bringing forth yet more riveting information.
At that time, the girls were all native-born Londoners, bar two; beautiful, blonde, Birgitte, from a small town in Germany - the fastest, neatest worker on the floor - and Thelma, a quick-witted Mancunian, renown not only for her truly phenomenal consumption of chips but also for being first with the filthiest of jokes, the delivery of which could, as a stand-up, have kept her in luxury for life. Soon, having realised that my initial quiet demeanor was down to shyness, as opposed to 'We thought you was stuck-up' they began quizzing me about my former life with a daily 'Any news from home then?' As the baby of the group, I was well looked after and at lunchtimes, hauled off to Fred's Cafe, in City Road, for 'Egg and double chips, two slices and a tea, please' before moving on to Doreen's.
What a shop. Always friendly and packed with the latest fashions; a small deposit secured any garment. 'Quality" barely featured on a weekly wage of £6:00 (overtime paid extra but cropped up only two or three times a month) but who cared? Any overtime was useful as G. and I were saving hard - a new experience for us both - and trying to spend wisely. Ignoring the constant echo of Mother's voice and the phrase 'Cheap tat' wasn't easy.
A few weeks after joining W.H. I arrived one Monday morning to find larger than usual stacks of mailbags piled everywhere, unopened. Two or three of the older women were circuiting each table in turn, instructing everyone to 'Leave the bags. We're on strike.' A strike; a real strike. I felt like a character in a film as everyone sat around smoking and chatting, debating if and when there would be a settlement, murmuring 'Let the buggers sweat. You wait, they'll have to come round in the end.' The problem was overtime rates, not exactly generous at £1:50 for a Saturday, 9:00-5:30 and, £2:50 for the same hours on a Sunday - although it would never have occurred to me to have made such a stand. Throughout the morning, management appeared briefly and intermittently with a cajoling 'Now come along girls, back to work, if you please' to no effect whatsoever. By 2pm. they were back, looking seriously worried and stationed at the top end of the room, pleaded with us 'Please, girls. Please get back to work'. After two hours when no one had moved, negotiations went up a rung or two and by 5pm it was all over; although a few stalwarts stayed on to move the backlog. Such excitement. A totally new world and I loved it.
from SINGING TO THE GOLDFISH by Bev Pettifar
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