In November 1961, I saw an advert for Clerical Officers with the Port of London Authority. The pay scale was attractive - more if you had two ‘A’ level GCE’s like I had - so I wrote off for an application form.
In the 1960’s, London was the largest port in the world in terms of the length of quay within an enclosed dock system. It had developed over the previous 100 years or so in response to the commercial demands of the British Empire. London became the market for the majority of goods traded throughout the world and the Port of London developed to service those markets.
It was of course based on the age old “break-bulk’ cargo proposition - ie where ships cargoes comprised a range of goods from a number of consignees that were “bulked” together in a series of holds by an agent on behalf of the the shipowner. Unloading of import cargoes required individual consignments to be “broken down” from their bulk storage in the ships holds for landing to quay or delivery overside to barges. Likewise, export cargoes were received on to the quay or overside from barges and “bulked-up”| in the ships holds. At this time, the use of sea containers was only being used in any meaningful way by a few shipowners operating services between ports in the USA. In 1962, it was a widely held belief that the Port of London, and as such the PLA, would endure for a long time to come. Therfore, a career in the PLA would be a good choice.
I was called for an interview at the PLA Headquarters at Tower Hill in due course. What an impressive building that was! ( insert some historical details here) I was interviewed by the Establishment Officer and two other people. Like most interviews which I had had at that time, once your educational status had been established and verified, the questions invariably concerned your “hobbies”. Now apart from railway modelling I had few hobbies. I always refrained from saying anything about my interest in “trains” for fear of being considered an anorak. So I played it safe and said “reading”.
I had had a bad bout of ‘flu earlier that year and had in fact been reading a lot of books borrowed from Walthamstow library in the High Street. I had read a lot of John Masters and then went on to read all the Graham Greene novels and “entertainments” as he called them.
The Establishment Officer, Mr Eldridge, was the epitomy of a personnel officer of the time. He had, I would have thought, spent his whole career in the “Establishment Dept” as the PLA preferred to call what others would have called “Personnel Dept”, ( the dreaded Human Resources Dept terminology was some way in the future still )working his way up to the top job. In his fifties, neatly dressed in a grey three-piece suit, he quizzed me on the books of Graham Greene. It was obvious that he also had read Greene’s books pretty thoroughly.
“What was my favourite?”
Sensing that he didn’t want it to be one of Greene’s “entertainments” but something more meaty, I answered “The Power and the Glory” which I had recently read.
“Mine too” he replied. Then the follow-up “killer” question. “What do you think that Greene was trying to say?” he asked
Despite feeling an inner panic, I managed to stay calm, thought about the question carefully - a considered response is always better received than an instantaneous one I had been told - and launched into my response. I constructed a reply which brought in Greene’s Catholic views interspersed with the humility of the Priest and the power of religious belief over the pain of mortal suffering by the agents of a cruel, anti-Christ regime.
Eldridge had heard what he wanted to hear. He knew that not only had I read the book but that I understood it. I knew at that moment that I had been successful. Sure enough, I received a letter with the offer of a post of Clerical Officer Class II within the Royal Group of Docks subject to a medical which would include a compulsory eye-test. The latter was because employment in the Docks may well mean working in an operational area and perfect eyesight was essential given the moving hazards which were common place there.
I therefore have Graham Greene to thank because I think my reading of his books gave me an edge at the interview. I may have got the job anyway. But after my experience with passing the Civil Service Exam but then failing at the subsequent interview, my feeling is that Greene definitely helped me get the job.
I had secured a job in an organisation that would offer me a variety of opportunities without having to change employers. It was to last for 18 years.
to see details of the positions I held during my 18 years with the PLA click on the buttons below.