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I answered an advert in the “Evening News” and started working for George Anson in September 1960. The firm was based in Southwark Street SE1. Their business was photocopiers. I was to be a trainee photocopier engineer. It offered the prospect of using a van to visit premises all over London to repair photocopiers. This was what I wanted - wasn’t it?
On my first day I arrived at Southwark Street and was led up a flight of stairs. Half way up, on a sort of half landing, I watched in sheer amazement and disbelief as my escort climbed through an open window. I followed and found myself out on a ledge. Situated on this ledge was a large, wooden shed! I followed him in through the door.
The shed was windowless, lit by half a dozen naked bulbs hanging on wires from the roof. There was an aroma of stale cigarette smoke. In the middle of the shed was a large wooden workbench on which were assorted types of machines, which I presumed were photocopiers, in various stages of dismantlement. Around the walls were a large number of cardboard boxes, stacked up to six high. There were three other people in the shed.
I was introduced first to Bernie, the Repairs Supervisor. He was a man in his fifties,. I would guess, short grey hair and wearing a brown Chesterfield coat. He looked anxious, one hand in the pocket of his Chesterfield the other fiddling with the numerous pens in his top pocket. Straight away I noticed that he had an irritating nervous cough and that he avoided eye contact.
Next there was Sid. Sid was probably in his early twenties and reminded me of a weasel. Long, thin face, black beady eyes and black, slicked back Brylcreemed hair cut in a Tony Curtis or DA (Duck’s Arse) style at the back He had a roll-up dangling from his lip. He would frequently take a lighter from his pocket and flare it against the roll-up. A nod of recognition passed for a welcome but masked what was obviously an instant mistrust of any newcomer.
And then there was Simon. Again twentyish, tall, with short cut fair hair, a wide forehead and thick lips. He spoke with an educated voice, friendly tone - public school boy I presumed.
Bernie made it clear that he was in charge. “Anything you want to know, come to me - OK?” Cough, cough. Eyes looking away from me. A soft, barely audible comment by Sid, which sounded like “Cunt” from the other side of the bench, causes Bernie to look in Sid’s direction anxiously. Sid lifts his lighter to his dangling stogie and flares it dangerously.
The job was explained to me. In the cardboard boxes were new photocopiers. But these were not the “dry” type associated with Rank-Xerox . Oh no, this was 1960 and these were the much earlier “wet” type photocopiers. The image was captured on an A4 sized sheet of negative photographic paper and passed, with a sheet of “positive” paper, through a tank of developing fluid and out through a roller onto a “drying” bed. After four of five minutes, the papers were separated and the image was there on the positive sheet. That is, provided the negative and positive papers married up properly on their way through the tank of developer. It was a frequent occurrence for this not to happen, however, resulting in only half the image being reproduced. Needless to say, the process was designed for single copies only. The technology was not there to produce even two copies let alone 200! I often think that had the Xerox system not been invented we would probably have had paperless offices 30 years ago.
My induction into the world of photocopiers began by Bernie explaining to me that all the machines were 3M photocopies, imported from the USA. 3M stood for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company who I only knew as manufacturers of abrasive products such as emery paper. They all came fitted with an American rubber moulded two-pin electric plug.
The first job was to cut this off with a pair of wire cutters and to fit a standard British 13-amp plug in its place. The next stage involved removing the small aluminium identification plate bearing the 3M serial number embossed on it. Something akin to the VIN-plate you find on the engine block of cars. This was located at the back of the machine. The third step required an important – ney crucial - decision to be made. The form which accompanied every photocopier requiring this change in its identity showed clearly whether it was to be re-badged as an ANSON machine or a SKYCOPY machine. Bernie made it clear that his was important to get right. Apparently, ANSON machines were ones which were sold to individual customers whilst SKYCOPY machines were those supplied to corporate customers on some kind of leasing or rental basis.
Having given the machine its new identity and made it possible to connect to the electricity supply, the next step was to test it. This entail filling up the developing tank with developing fluid, plugging the machine into one of the 13-amp sockets conveniently located around the walls of the shed, waiting for the developer to warm up for a couple of minutes and then TESTING IT!
A test original was passed through the rubber rollers at one end of the machine and a set of reproductive papers, one positive and one negative, coated sides facing each other, into the rollers at the other end. The trick was to ensure that one of the sheets – I forget whether it was the pos or the neg – was about a quarter of an inch advanced when they were fed into the rollers. When the Start button was depressed, the original would be drawn into the machine whilst at the same time the set of pos and neg papers would be simultaneously drawn in. After passing around one set of rollers, the pos and neg papers were forced to take different paths by some kind of separator. The neg paper took a route which married it up with the original and both then passed through a light box, before being separated. The original took a path which eventually led to it being disgorged from the machine at the same end it had been fed into.
Meanwhile, the neg found itself being passed through the onboard tank of developing fluid and upon emerging, dripping wet and shiny, passed though yet another roller which married it up with the pos paper which had been circling within the machine – like an aircraft waiting for its landing spot to become available. Both then passed through a final roller and emerged at the opposite end of the machine to the original. The coupled sheets, still damp with developer, were placed on a flat surface for a couple of minutes until the developer had dried completely. Then came the moment of truth! If all had gone well, separating the pos from the neg would reveal a perfect copy of the original on the pos sheet. If the copy was too dark, the intensity of the light in the light box was too low. Conversely, too light a copy image indicated too bright a light in the light box. Adjustments would need to be made to the lighting level, using trial and error techniques, and the process repeated until the result required was finally achieved.
Keeping these settings, the machine would then be switched off, the developing tank removed and the developer decanted into a container. Once dried and cleaned, the developer tank would be replaced in the machine and the whole gubbins put back in its cardboard box. Once the box had been re-sealed with tape, a label would be attached to the box indicating whether its contents bore the identity of either ANSON or SKYCOPY. At various times of the day, we would be asked by Bernie to move the boxes containing the “finished” machines out of the shed, through the window and down stairs to the purchasing dept where they would again be stacked in separate piles of ANSON and SKYCOPY machines to await a Purchase Order from Sales.
The sheer mind-numbing boredom of the job was only made tolerable because of the presence of Sid. Bernie found reasons to absent himself from the shed on the pretext of “checking with the warehouse” quite a lot.
“Do you notice the way the c*** coughs all the f******** time?” Sid asked during one of Bernie’s absences. I said that I had noticed.
“That’s because the c***’s paranoid. He thinks we are f******** Teddy Boys and feels threatened by being with us in such a f******** confined space” he said, a weasally smile lighting up his thin face for a few seconds before he convulsed into a fit of coughing. “F****** fags!” he hissed before recovering his breath and applying his lighter to the limp stogie which still managed to keep contact with his bottom lip despite the trauma of his coughing fit.
In forty years of working life I have never met anyone quite like Sid. He did look like a latter day Teddy Boy with his DA haircut. His use of the English language in general, and his continual and strange application of expletives was something which I will never forget. He managed to get the word “f******” into the average sentence more times than anyone I have ever met. Not even the completely un-reconstructed London Dock workers that I would come to know and work with later on could manage to compete with the art form involving the repetitive use of specific expletives which Sid had well nigh perfected.
Plus Sid had this invariable rule that reference to any male person in his conversations would always be “that c***” and references to the opposite sex would always be “that cow”. If he told you about a girl he had been out with it was along the lines of -
“I took the cow out to a pub and she kept on drinking f******** vodka and tonics all f******** night. It cost me a f******** fortune. And this f******** c*** at the next f******** table kept looking at the f******** cow all f******** night.”
And he hated Bernie with an intensity which was scary.
He told me that “ the c*** is f******** scared shitless that I will f******** do something to him – that’s why he f******** coughs like he f******** does – silly c***. You watch him – the c*** never f******** turns his f******** back on me.” And I noticed that Bernie did not turn his back on Sid. He did turn his back on me though, that is until something happened which changed his whole attitude towards me.
I had been working at Anson’s for a few days and was getting the hang of the work. I would therefore now take boxes from the pile awaiting their identity change instead of waiting for Bernie to provide me with another machine himself. Likewise, I would add the boxes containing the machines I had finished with to the growing pile awaiting later transportation down to the Purchasing Dept.
On this particular day, Simon had gone out on a repair job somewhere in the City. Sid and I had all been working quite hard. Bernie had, uncharacteristically, not gone off on his usual “checking the warehouse” ruse all that morning so there had been little time for Sid and I to engage in conversation whilst doing fuck all. Consequently there were more and more boxes being stacked up containing the finished machines. These were now piled eight or nine high instead of the normal six. That meant that you could no longer see over the top of the pile of boxes at what was going on behind them.
Bernie was fussing around checking the incoming boxes against their Order Forms, coughing and fiddling with his pens. At the moment I happened to look up he was facing away from me. I couldn’t see Sid who I supposed was working on the bench now obscured by the stack of eight high boxes. I guessed that he couldn’t see Sid either. Bloody hell Bernie, I thought, I’d watch my back if I were you.
Then, without warning, the pile of eight high boxes toppled over onto Bernie, knocking him off balance although he just managed to stop himself falling to the floor. Sid was suddenly there pulling the boxes away from him. Bernie struggled to his feet. He was looking directly at me. His face was bright red, flushed with what was obviously suppressed anger.
“You trying to kill me?” he hissed, his face twitching. Behind him, unseen by Bernie, Sid’s weasally face smiled briefly and humourlessly. Then his thin mouth, silently but unmistakably mouthed the word “c***!” Involuntarily I laughed out loud, unable to stop myself, so amused was I by Sid’s antics. Bernie looked as if he was about to shout at me when he suddenly realized that he couldn’t see Sid. His face betrayed his sudden anxiety. He began to cough, cough, then he turned around quickly to check behind him. Sid was standing there, looking at Bernie, his thin face expressionless. Bernie turned back to look at me again, this time with what looked like fear in his eyes. He fiddled with his pens, eyes looking down.
“Make sure you stack the boxes properly from now on” he said. Cough, cough. Fiddle, fiddle. “I’m off to check with the warehouse”. With that, Bernie backed towards the door, by doing so able to keep both Sid and I in view until he had safely exited arse first through the shed window.
With Bernie out of earshot Sid began to smile in his customary, weasally way. “The poor f******** c*** now thinks you are out to f******** kill him as well! He’ll be even more f******** paranoid now trying to f******** stop turning his f******** back on you as well as me at the same f******** time! ” he laughed in a dry cackling voice which ended in a coughing fit again. “F****** fags!” he said. And he brought the lighter out of his pocket to re-kindle the sad old stogie dangling from his thin lip for the umpteenth time that morning.
Up until that incident Sid had treated me with a large measure of mistrust. I was I suppose the proverbial rookie in the job, looking and sounding like the boy just out of school, and, therefore, in his eyes possibly also a “bit of a cunt”. I think he believed that I had caused the pile of boxes to fall on Bernie, when I thought that he had. But it seems he hadn’t done it. So he thought that it must be me, never for a second considering that it could have been because the boxes had been stacked too high and had taken it upon themselves to topple over onto poor old unsuspecting Bernie.
I immediately realized that letting Sid continue to think that I had toppled the boxes onto Bernie was the best thing for me to do. Although the term was yet to be coined ( remember this is 1960) I had gained the necessary “street cred” and became accepted by Sid as a “non c***” who just happened to talk a bit posh.
On Simon’s return from the repair job in the City, Sid regaled him with the morning’s events. Simon was equally impressed with the fact that I had caused this to happen to Bernie. I never found out what Simon had done to earn Sid’s acceptance as a fellow “non c***”. I suspect that it was nothing he actually did. Simon was one of those people that instinctively you know you should automatically dislike because of his boyish good looks and his air of confidence and superiority. But that confidence tends to disarm potential enemies and his type becomes accepted without the necessary trial by ordeal stuff reserved for others. Like me. Sid had accepted Simon but I had had to prove myself to him.
Henceforth, we became like the three amigos. We bantered while working in the shed, we joked while lunching together in the numerous local café’s which abounded in the Southwark Street area at that time. And we boasted and bragged and greatly exaggerated our experiences with girls and talked endlessly and usually in great ignorance about which cars were the best performers.
Our favourite lunch was steak, egg and chips with bread and butter followed by syrup pudding ( known as ‘duff’) and custard washed down with a mug of tea. The price of this extravaganza varied slightly between one greasy spoon and another depending whether you had just duff and syrup or double duff and syrup but in general terms it cost, from memory, between 2/6d and 3/0d.. Or between 12˝p and 15p in new money.
I had been working at George Anson’s for two weeks when I got my first chance to visit the Sales Dept. Like most Sales Depts the people in it regarded themselves as something special and tended to look down their noses when oiks from the Servicing Dept , like me, entered their domain.
Bernie said that the Sales Dept needed a new machine to demonstrate to customers. And asked me to take one down to them. I went out through the window and Bernie handed me a copier filled with developer and ready to be used. I waited for the lift to come and managed to get down to the Ground Floor where the Sales Dept was located.
I walked in to a lushly carpeted showroom with various models of photocopier on display on a range of desks around the room. Snappily dressed Salesmen and a couple of tasty-looking girls were in the room, all studiously avoiding me.
“Where do you want this?” I asked in a thin, timid voice. It was at this point that I became aware of a dripping sound quite close by. I looked down and, to my horror, saw that I was not holding the photocopier in an horizontal plane. Consequently, developing fluid was dribbling out of the lower end onto the nice, blue carpet, instantly staining it. I leveled the copier and looked at the Salesmen. No one was looking in my direction. I used my shoe to try and spread the wetness around so that it wouldn’t look so obvious.
“Put it on the desk” one of the snappily dressed Saleman said waving his hand imperiously towards the desk to his left whilst not turning to look at me but continuing to talk to a colleague across the room.
With great haste I set the copier down on the desk as instructed and fled the room in a mixture of panic and embarrassment. “Everthing OK?” asked Bernie on my return to the shed. “Fine” I lied.
For the rest of the day I kept thinking of that bloody stain on the carpet. I waited anxiously for the summons to the Sales Manager for what I expected would be a bollocking and the sack! But for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. I had gotten away with it! After a couple of days when I was pretty sure nothing was going to happen I told the details to Sid and Simon over lunch. Sid was in raptures. “I hate those f******** stuck up c***'s and cows in Sales” he informed us. “I hope one of them got the f******** blame for it!” To celebrate my unexpected good fortune, I treated us all to a second cup of tea.
Part of the daily ritual at Anson’s was clocking-on and clocking-off. The time-clock was located on the ground floor. In the morning, people arrived over the period 8.30am to 9.00 am and clocked on without too much hassle. Clocking-off time, however, was somewhat different.
Clocking-off was at 5.00 pm. From around 4.55 pm people started to congregate in the vicinity of the time-clock watching and waiting for hands to reach 5.00 pm. On one particular day, George Anson presented himself at the time-clock at around 4.57 pm. His name belied his origins. He was not English but a portly, mittle-European Jew with a thick, Germanic accent.He prowled around the gathering meleé of people waiting to clock out. Suddenly he addressed himself to a guy who was standing closest to the time-clock. I recognised him as a Salesman, impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and with well brylcreemed hair.
“Wass the matter you? Can’t you a-give a-me a few minutes of your a-time?” he growled at the poor guy. “Don”t-a you like working for me?” The guy regarded Anson casually. “No” came the flat voiced reply. There was a deathly hush as his reply floated in the air then died.
“Then you’re a-fired! Get out! Get out now!” roared Anson, his face incandescent with rage, his fat body quivering like a jelly and his arms flailing like the sails of a windmill. “Get out! Get out!”
The Salesman shrugged his shoulders, tore his time-card in half and tossed it onto the floor and finally made his exit as cool as a cucumber watched by the rest of us who were witnesses to the incident. Anson spun round, regarding the rest of us with ill-concealed malice. Most of us kept our gaze firmly fixed on our feet, avoiding eye contact with him at all costs in case he was looking to repeat his question to someone else. By now the time-clock was showing it was 5.02 pm but nobody stepped forward to clock-off. We all just stood there, feeling rather embarrassed, wondering who would be the first to clock-off. Would he or she be meted out the same punishment for not giving Anson a few minutes of their time?
But Anson seemed to feel he had made his point and left, leaving us one by one to take our turn at clocking-off. After that, however, there was never a queue of people at 4.55 pm. Most of us gave Anson a few minutes of our time just to be safe!.