The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘I’m sick of this incompetence! Pack your case and get out. You’ve got fifteen minutes before I call the police.’
Mum was purple with rage. I had brought back pork and beef sausages from the Co-op, not pork sausages, as on my shopping list.
‘But Mum they didn’t have any pork sausages, so I bought pork and beef instead.’
‘You don’t make substitutions. I’m in charge here. You get what you’re told and if you can’t get it you don’t come back. Now get your case.’
There was no room for argument so I fetched out my battered cardboard suitcase and began to pack. Mum had been volatile for several days past. She was due to go into hospital later in the week for tests for a suspected urinary infection. I think she may have feared it was something more threatening. More importantly perhaps, she had never left the house in anybody else’s charge since she moved in before I was born. She had read too much about wild student parties and was anxious at leaving me alone at home for most of the day.
‘I know what you’ll do as soon as I’m not there – you’ll have all your friends around and God knows what they’ll do.’
The truth was that I had very few friends in the locality. I had not gone to a local school and university students like myself were rare in our working class suburb (this was the 1950’s). Added to which, although Dad worked long shifts, he was still there at night and my younger brother was still at school, so there was a strict limit to how long the feared party could last. The worst that was likely to befall if I was left in charge was that we would eat more expensive sausages.
Mum hung over the suitcase to make sure I didn’t take anything that was not mine.
‘I knitted those’, she said, grabbing back two pullovers, ‘and I bought that tie for you.’
‘Then I’ll take the tea-set’, I replied, ‘I bought that’, and I began wrapping the pieces in newspaper.
‘How could you be so mean? Don’t you know how to give a present?’
‘Don’t you know?’
She fell silent but I wasn’t intent on scoring points. I was hoping to trade, chinaware for woollens. Mum didn’t offer a trade; she thought I would never be so silly as to burden myself with such useless weight, but once started on this path I felt I had to go down it. In fact I carried that tea-set throughout all my travels and I’m proud to say that I cracked only one cup.
Mum grew tired of watching me wrap china and sensed a delaying tactic.
‘You’ve got five more minutes before I call the police. I’ll tell them that there’s an intruder in my house and I’m not strong enough to get him out.’
‘I’ve got much more than five minutes. First you’ve got to get to the phone box and if it’s not working you’ll have to find another one. Then when you do get through to the police you’ll have to choose between explaining the real situation, in which case they’ll decide it’s not an emergency and they’ll come round in their own time, if at all, probably long after I’ve gone, or you can mislead them, in which case they’ll be so annoyed when they get here that they’ll go off straight away and you’ll never get them back and you’d be lucky to get away with a caution for wasting police time.’
‘Do you have to argue about everything?’ she replied, but she left me to finish packing at my own pace.
In due course I humped my over-weighty case down the front steps and out into the Great Elsewhere.
You may think that I accepted my dismissal too meekly, that there should have been more sorrow, more anger, more remorse, more drama. After all I had just been ejected unconditionally and at ultra-short notice from the family home. However, I never imagined this was intended as a final break. Mum was fond of drama – she had been an actress before she became a housewife. This was a show of authority and I supposed that she expected me to reappear in the near future, suitably chastened, to beg for rehabilitation. She was showing who was in charge before she had to leave me in charge.
There was no doubt about where to go. It was the second week of the Long Vacation and I had spent most of the previous week looking for a vac job in the district, without success. This had exhausted Mum’s patience and made her the more eager that I should earn my keep by doing the shopping, at which I had been equally unsuccessful. She suspected that the entire student thing was a means to avoid gainful employment. Dad was more easy-going, but he never interfered in intra-familial disputes. He was content for me to go to university as long as the Government paid for it all (I had a State Scholarship from the Ministry of Education). Had my parents been better-off they would never have paid for me to go to Oxford; then again had they been better-off they would have been different people with different lives.
There was definitely no work locally, so I went to the Post Office, took out what I had in my savings book, and then did what thousands of young men in my position have done for centuries, I headed for London.
The landlady met me on the steps. She had a stolid manner which fitted oddly with her quick-fire London accent.
‘The accommodation agency sent me – they said you had a vacancy at the hostel’.
‘Can you pay in advance?’
‘No, I’ll pay you at the end of the week.’
‘Do you have a job?’
‘No, I’ll get one this week.’
‘I’ll show you where you can sleep.’
She took me to the top floor of the three-storey town house. We were in Islington, which had yet to be gentrified and was still bed-sitter land. The top floor had been converted into a single room. Once it had been two rooms on either side of a staircase and landing. Now it was open space with a hole in the floor for the stairs. There were six sets of two-bed bunks, to sleep twelve young men. Ten of them I hardly ever met. They were Irish, worked on construction sites, got up early and came in late. The other resident, who slept in the bed below me, was a Portuguese who like me was looking for work.
We breakfasted together in the local cafe, looking through the job ads in the Standard. His English was poor and we conversed mainly in French.
Before the week was out I had a job with a mail order firm in Soho. From the street it looked like a small Gents Outfitters but inside there was a broad staircase descending to an enormous cellar which stretched out under the shops on either side and under the street, so that one could see the feet of passers-by through the glass tiles in the ceiling. Along the length of the cellar were several work-benches at which a score or more of black men toiled at packing parcels. It looked like the hold of a slave ship.
I worked not among the packers but with two other men in a glass office in the corner, dealing with all the paperwork – registering cheques, making out receipts, franking parcels, etc. The business of the firm was to buy large lines of surplus goods, usually from the Government, and retail them by mail order through newspaper advertisements. Currently we dealt mainly in canvas shoes.
The packers were all either West Indians or Africans. A near riot broke out when a Caribbean worker told an African colleague to go back to his jungle. My two colleagues in the office were a big Guyanan with a booming voice, who was in charge, and a small, timid Pakistani. The Guyanan studied at the London School of Economics and explained to me constantly how the University was penalising him because of his political activities. The Pakistani was convinced the neighbourhood was dangerous (it had an even more colourful reputation in those days) and so we deputed him to take the bag of cheques to the bank at the end of each day. He was terrified and we had to push him through the door, thinking it very funny.
As the only white man in the cellar I was the butt of most of the jokes. Whenever a packer found an illegible address on one of his order forms he would wave it and shout ‘give it to the native!’ The man beside him would find this very funny and pass it on to the next man, repeating the joke, and so it passed from hand to hand until it reached my office, by which time everybody was calling out ‘give it to the native’ between gales of laughter. This happened two or three times a day and they never ceased to find it hilarious.
It was all very friendly, the requests were genuine and I did my best to help, but they revelled in the chance to make mildly racist jokes at the expense of a white man.
Even I was defeated by few of the addresses, usually those in Wales.
‘I may be a native’, I declared, ‘but I am not an aborigine.’
Nobody understood this, so I had to teach them the difference between the Welsh and the English. I also had a map to teach them the whereabouts of the different addresses, which helped them to recognise them.
It was an easy job, I liked the buzz and chatter of the workroom, but the pay was not great. I was paid three shillings (15p) an hour, giving me about a pound a day after deductions, for a five day week. My bunk at the hostel cost me two pounds and ten shillings (£2.50) a week. My longer term aim was to save enough money to go up to Oxford before the beginning of term and work for my start-of-term exams in the Bodleian Library. My most enjoyable days were when I had all day free to work in the Bodleian and marvel that the Government paid me for it!
What the mail order company paid me was just enough to survive. I needed a second job. I found it in Westminster, at the Pronto Bar. It was a Canadian-owned fast-food outlet, a pre-cursor of McDonald’s, except that it did not serve hot food. It was in Bridge Street, directly opposite Big Ben, and thus always crowded with tourists. We prided ourselves that we accepted payment in any currency. On one occasion a group of Brazilian sailors offered to pay in escudos and we found an exchange rate for them.
The staff were as diverse as the customers, except that we were all of us white. In those days employers did not want dark-skinned people to work face-to-face with the public – they hid them in cellars in Soho. It was difficult to keep track of the staff because the turn-over was so high, voluntary and involuntary. The Greek manager watched us like a hawk and anybody who did not measure up was dismissed at the end of the day. People left in tears. One girl was fired at five minutes notice (‘or I call the police’) on suspicion that she was pilfering from the till. I had to cover her station for the rest of the shift.
After two weeks I was asked to supervise a new waitress.
‘But Mister Antropos, I’ve only been here a fortnight.’
‘That means you’re my longest serving waiter, so you supervise the new staff.’
I was paid two and sixpence (12 1/2p) an hour plus any tips (which were rare – about two and sixpence an evening). However, with the week-end work, it doubled my income and since I was always at work I spent very little.
I finished work in Soho at 5.30 and started in Westminster at 6.0 p.m. It was a brisk walk with no time to stop to eat, so that by the time the bar had closed at ten and we had cleared up I had an edge to my appetite. We were allowed to eat up to five shillings (25p) worth of food between clearing up and locking up at eleven. Five shillings would buy a meal in many places, but not at our prices. I tended to be flexible with the price limit. One evening, as we ate our snack, I heard the manager’s voice over my shoulder.
‘You’re having a good meal there, Edward. Are you enjoying it?’
The group fell quiet, waiting for the coup de grace.
‘Yes, Mister Antropos’, I answered, as evenly as I could. I sensed my career at the Pronto Bar drawing to an abrupt end.
He nodded and moved on.
I could have worked at my two jobs all summer, although I was so tired when I got back to the hostel that I could hardly climb into my top bunk. However, I was soon to get an offer which looked too good to refuse.
‘That’s just the job for me!’
Earlier in the year I had registered with a scholastic recruitment agency in the hope of finding work as a tutor or coach, but the notices they sent me all seemed to be for maths tutors. One of the first things I did when I moved into the Islington hostel was to let them have my new address and now it seemed I had struck lucky.
I collected my mail from the window-sill in the hall and read it on the Underground. There was a notice from the agency that a prep school in Sussex needed a teacher for its summer programme teaching English to foreign schoolboys. The pay was £2/10/- a week but the school would provide accommodation and all meals. This was worth more than my mail order job and the accommodation had to be better than the top bunk in a room with twelve occupants. The duties were only two hours teaching a day so there should be plenty of spare time for my own work.
I took a day off work, bought a tie, went down to Sussex, saw the headmaster and got the job.
The brochure advertising the Summer Programme promised parents that the children would be taught by ‘competent and qualified staff’. I am not sure about the competence of either myself or my colleagues, but none of us had any teaching qualifications. There were five male staff, including myself, and two young women who served as Matrons. The headmaster and owner of the school was an ex-army officer. He also reared pigs. One day one of his animals escaped from its sty and intruded into the school. The headmaster was beside himself.
‘Stop it! Stop it! It’s losing weight.’
The excited schoolboys chased it around the school and tried to surround it but it was as big as any of them and broke through the cordon easily. Eventually it exhausted itself and the headmaster led it away, no doubt lighter from the exercise.
The headmaster’s son was the only other teaching member of staff apart from myself, although he did not seem to do much on the summer programme except help supervise the children at meals and on school trips. I remember him as remarkably effete in comparison with his military father. The other two men were a big Irishman who organised all the team games and an elderly, frail Englishman who was in charge after hours to deal with any emergencies which the matrons could not handle. The two matrons were a posh young girl from a London Art School who formed an intense relationship with the headmaster’s son and the regular school matron, an Irish girl who had dropped out of nursing training. I rather liked her but I never got near any form of relationship.
There were only twenty of thirty pupils at the school when I arrived, but the numbers built up inexorably. By the time I left there were perhaps seventy. They were all boys, aged from six to fifteen. Most were French but there were also Germans, Italians, Portuguese and Mexicans and also a few English children, as I will explain later. Most of them were unwilling pupils, who would far rather not have spent the summer holidays at school. They were homesick, resentful, ill-disciplined and had little interest in learning or improving their English, which varied from zero to reasonably good. In short they were nice kids when you got to know them, but difficult.
Sometimes they were more than difficult.
‘Sir! Sir! Rocco has pulled a knife on Guerin!’
A terrified little boy clutched at me as I entered the school hall. Inside the hall I found a big Italian boy thrusting a stiletto at a small French boy. I was very, very angry. I had collected a small arsenal of confiscated knives in my bedside table and I thought that by now I had disarmed my pupils. I pushed between the two boys.
‘Rocco, give me that knife!’
I acted unthinkingly and now I began to think. I was unarmed, face to face with an angry, confused Italian as tall as myself with a drawn dagger. Not that I would have been any happier had I had a dagger myself.
The Italian boy burst into tears.
‘Please, Sir, don’t take it from me. My father gave it to me. He will be so angry if I lose it.’
‘Don’t worry, Rocco’, I said as gently as I could. ‘I will look after it for you in my caravan and I’ll give it back at the end of term. You know you’re not allowed to have a knife at school.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’
He gave me the knife.
It was a school rule that only English was to be used in the classroom and at meals and staff were forbidden to address the boys in anything but English. Since I was the only member of staff who spoke even passable French the rule bore solely on myself. I broke it frequently in private – how can you comfort a homesick six year old in a foreign language? – and sometimes in public.
The headmaster reprimanded me. He reprimanded me quite often, mainly for not being strict enough with the boys.
‘I want this school run like a proper English Prep School’, he declared.
I had never been to a Prep School, as the Head knew, but I doubted whether even an experienced teacher could have reached this ideal or that it was either practicable or desirable.
I taught two classes of 30+ pupils each morning. I grouped them by age rather than proficiency in English, simply because it seemed easier to manage them that way. In so doing I discovered ‘mixed ability’ teaching. It seemed to work and the more proficient boys seemed to like helping the less proficient. It also engaged them in what were otherwise over-simple exercises, although it meant tolerating a lot of interaction in French and more noise than the Head would have preferred.
If this had been the end of my duties it would have been an easy job. Instead the work load grew steadily as more and more individuals and small groups of boys arrived whose parents had paid for extra tuition (and for which I received nothing extra). By the time the three sons of a Mexican millionaire arrived the only slot I had free was before breakfast, so I tutored them in my caravan from 7.30 to 8.30 a.m. before going to the school dining hall.
The most interesting of these groups was a party of eight boys aged 8 to 10 who were sent by the London County Council. I think they were all in Council care and were rated ESN (Educational Sub-Normal) – today we would call them children with learning difficulties. It worried me that a public authority should entrust such unfortunate children to someone as inexperienced and unqualified as myself. Actually they were the easiest of my charges: they did not pine for their Children’s Homes, they liked being in Sussex, they wanted to learn and they reveled in the adult attention.
When I first assessed the LCC boys I found them equally backward and so tutored them all together. I quickly found they were two very different groups which I had to tutor separately. Four boys were as bright as most others of their age and they learned at an amazing rate. By the time I left they could read and write quite well and their arithmetic was probably as good as mine. How they ever came to be so behind in their schooling was a mystery.
The other four had real learning difficulties. I spent three weeks teaching one boy to tell the time. I thought it best to concentrate on giving him at least one useful skill to take away at the end of term.
My duties did not end with teaching. I supervised a table at meal times, took the boys on walks and helped supervise the weekly trips to the seaside. The emergencies that sixty children of mixed nationalities can generate in an English seaside town are unimaginable. My only real free time was during organised games, about three times a week. I opted out from these and left them to the big Irishman. I think this lost me credit with the Head. After the first month I was looking forward to the end of term as eagerly as any of the boys.
Three weeks before the end the plague struck. We must have been the place where the Asian Flu epidemic first landed in Britain. It tore through the school. At one time about half the boys were in bed, tended by the two harassed young matrons. I don’t know how they didn’t succumb – I did. For two days I lay hallucinating in my caravan in a high fever. I think the Irish matron came to see me, but it may have been a dream.
As soon as I was on my feet I went and gave my morning lessons and then went to the Head and handed in my notice. I felt so feeble that I doubted I could face the rest of the week.
The Head was white with anger. I had just taken two days off and now I was resigning. He would have to take my classes himself but who would do the individual tuition? The parents had paid extra for this. Had he offered me some extra pay I might have been tempted, but fortunately, perhaps, he did not.
I think he sent a poor report on me to the scholastic agency, because they ceased to send me notices. So ended my short career as a schoolteacher. I had learned a lesson that that they do not include on most management courses, that the biggest problem in most jobs is not the customers but the boss. My exercise in independent living also came to an ignominious close. I had fallen ill, was unable to my job and in losing it had also lost my accommodation. It was time for the prodigal son to return home.
Mum had spent only a short time in hospital and was discharged without a diagnosis. Her symptoms did not recur, at least not at the time. Thirty years later she died of a urinary infection picked up in hospital, so maybe she was prescient.
I had visited her in hospital and afterwards at home and she had asked me to come back – all was forgiven, there had been a misunderstanding. I am not sure what was forgiven or what had been misunderstood – had she decided she preferred pork and beef? I declined the invitation, as it would have meant giving up my job. Now I had no job.
My story was that I wanted to come home to revise for my exams and that I had decided not to look for further work. In truth I was worn out. The books I had ordered on inter-library loan had arrived while I was away, which lent credibility to my story. Mother rolled her eyes and gave an ‘it’s all right for some’ look, but I came back on those terms. The tea set was restored to its cupboard, with one cracked item, and I took back the pullovers and ties.
So my first Long Vacation ended and I went back to Oxford. My friends had been touring abroad and were full of their adventures. I was ashamed of my vacation and had no stories to tell in exchange. Yet distance lends enchantment and I am telling you my adventures now; a glimpse of low-paid life in London and Sussex long ago.