Friday, 25 March 2011

My first job

On Tuesday evening I was due to meet a friend for tea in the Liverpool Street area of London. I had a few minutes to spare before we met and decided to take a look at Curtain Road, just to the north of the station.

The area has undergone massive changes since I lived in the area as a child. Where there were scruffy buildings and bombed sites are now massive office blocks.

Curtain Road  was the site of one of the original Elizabethan London theatres. It's other claim to fame is that it was the location of my very first full time job.

At the age of sixteen I made my way from Hackney to number 23 Curtain Road, a then modern office block and home to the London headquarters of Gestetner duplicators. It was 1964. In those days children from Hackney's secondary modern schools were given fairly stark advice - get a job as an office boy or become a machine minder in a factory, and if you had a Dad who could pull strings, get into Fleet Street.

Well I became an office boy. It was not as easy transition from school to work. Most of the staff in my office were "Essex girls" and I could not join the conversation. However the credit controller was a very well educated  Indian and he took me under his wing.

It was interesting to see the accounts. (Am I about to break commercial confidentiality?) Some firms had massive discounts. These included the Communist Party of Great Britain - quite a good customer - and the Leysian Methodist Mission, who really didn't spend very much at all. The credit controller explained to me that discounts were sometimes offered on the basis of sentiment rather than sales. I don't think he approved of this system as it depressed the monthly sales figures which determined bonuses.

My career trajectory was apparently pre-ordained. After a couple of years in the office I would go on the road with a rep for a couple of months and then be given my own accounts. I'd have a reasonable, though low salary, with a very progressive commission structure. I would have nothing to worry about. Gestetner was the world's leading brand. The Americans and Japanese were experimenting with photocopiers but these would be far too expensive for most offices. My job would be safe.

In 1997 when in Japan I met the MD of the company that had bought up the shell that was left of Gestetners. They had bought the company for a song, sold off the property portfolio, took on the goodwill and absorbed a fraction of the UK workforce.

Now looking grubby and dated 23 Curtain Road still stands and is the home of several office service companies using and selling the products that swept Gestetner duplicators from the office.

What happened to my glittering career as a sales rep? Well when the GCE results came in I found that I had passed commerce and English. But the English result was a real surprise as I had got it at grade 1, the equivalent of an A star today.

Our secondary modern had just become a comprehensive. There was a catch up sixth form. I returned, and two years later became the first student from the school to go direct to university at a time when only 1 in 100 boys from Hackney stayed in education beyond the age of 18.

Walking along Curtain Road, peering through the windows, remembering the Essex girls and the sales reps, certainly brought back some memories. Just for a moment, I did wonder, did I make the right decision? Life would have been very different had I stayed.

2 comments:

Diane Goldman said...

David - for some reason this morning I decided to do a search on 23 Curtain Road as my first job was with Gestetner.I was interested to see what, if anything, had happened to the building. I was a filing clerk and my job was to plug in all of the machines in the morning and unplug them at night. My handwriting was as bad as it is today and I was fired after one week. I was a bit rude to the office manager - quite a grumpy woman - I called her an old cow - but I was well brought up and mad sure I apologised before I left. I was pleased to be going. My wage was £5 a week. Looks like we both has a lucky escape. Quite a coincidence as we have met before at the Royal Free and spent on the odd 10 minutes remembering being brought up in Hackney.

Kind Regards - Diane Goldman

Methodist Preacher said...

Wow Diane that IS a coincidence. Next time I'm at the RF we will have to compare dates. Hope you are all well.