Wednesday 25 October 2023

What Would You do if Tom Jones Walked in Right Now?

I’m reading a book where the sort-of heroine, a very ordinary woman whose job is cleaning offices, suddenly becomes projected to fame. She gets to meet in real life various famous-for-being-famous television personalities who she could previously only dream about. (The book is If I Let You Go by Charlotte Levin - I’m not that convinced by it).

It reminded me of my time spent in a typing pool when I was a teenager. When I was small, my mother worked from home. She had a rented typewriter - a good old-fashioned mechanical one where all the work is done by the typist’s fingers. I was allowed to use it when she wasn’t, and as a result I could type capably by the time I was six. This has proven to be an extremely useful skill throughout the rest of my life.

Like most teenagers, I wanted to earn pocket money during the school holidays. Being able to type was a huge advantage. It meant that instead of doing manual work in a shop or factory, I could work in an office. I made more money, and the working conditions were a lot more pleasant. The first summer I signed up with a temp agency, whose role was to provide temporary office workers to replace people who were on holiday or to fill in for people who had left. I was only 15 - which I guess must have been legal, because I didn’t lie about my age. In subsequent summers I found an even better niche, as a Telex operator, but I hadn’t thought of that yet.

My first, and as it turned out only, job for the six weeks of the school holiday was in a local government office. Even now, fifty-odd years later, I should probably be discreet about exactly where, but I can say that it was an inner city borough, in East London. Poverty was rife. I worked in the typing pool of the Children’s Department.

A medium-sized typing pool, around 1930
“What’s a typing pool, grandad?” I can hear younger readers asking. Back then (this would have been the late 1960s), typing was a specialized skill. Most people didn’t do it, and anyway they didn’t have typewriters to hand. Executive types would dictate their missives to another disappeared breed, shorthand-typists. They would write down using a strange script that let them capture speech at normal speed. My mother was trained as one, and was very good at it. Later the typist would interpret her own shorthand and turn the letter, memo or whatever into an official-looking document, ready to be signed by her boss. (It’s safe to say “her” because male shorthand takers were practically unknown - in those days girls were guided into “suitable” occupations).

Other people, lower in the hierarchy, didn’t have this luxury. They would write their documents out longhand, and send them to the typing pool. This was, typically, a large office with anywhere from a handful to dozens of women (never men - see above), each slaving away over a mechanical typewriter, complete with all the sound-effect noises of clattering keys, dinging end-of-line bells and the thump as the carriage was returned to the start of the line. Occasionally you see this scene in old movies.

The office I was sent to had half-a-dozen women, aged between early 20s and mid 40s. They’d evidently been working together for quite a while, and spent a lot of time chatting about their personal lives and, most of all, what they’d seen on television. As a shy, male barely-teenager I was never included in these conversations, but it didn’t stop my inner anthropologist from taking a keen interest.

The actual work was quite interesting, as these things go. Nearly all of the work was transcribing handwritten forms generated by the care workers when they interviewed “clients”, copying them in typescript onto identical forms with several carbon copies.

Another interlude: “What’s a carbon copy, grandpa?”

Before computers, laser printers and Xerox machines, there was no convenient way to make a physical copy of a document. I saw my first Xerox machine at another summer job a couple of years later. So if you wanted multiple copies, they had to be created along with the original document. You loaded several pieces of paper (or identical forms) into the typewriter, interlaced with thin black carbon-coated paper. The typewriter letter struck the paper through an inked ribbon, which produced the image of the letter on the top copy. The impact also pressed the carbon paper against the second and subsequent pages, leaving an image. The first copy was clear, the second was fuzzy, and if you ever tried to make more than two copies, what you got was a barely legible smudge. It was a huge faff to deal with. Handling it inevitably covered your fingers in black stuff, which made its way onto the paper. Getting all these pieces of paper aligned as you loaded into the typewriter was near impossible.

And heaven help you if you made a mistake. No tapping the delete key and carrying on in an instant. You had to unpeel the carbon paper, carefully erase the erroneous letter from each copy and then retype the corrected letter. Little wonder that corrections were generally made afterwards with a pen.

Anyway, back to the Children’s Department. Just like doctors, the care workers seemed to be specially chosen for their illegible handwriting. There were times when I was reduced to guessing what they might have written. A word which cropped up often, and which I have barely ever seen since, was “putative”. It has nothing to do with sex workers, for my French readers. It means “supposed, generally believed” and it occurred in the expression “putative father”.

The care workers’ job, which must have been awful, was to spend all day interviewing distressed, penniless mothers who desperately needed help - money, accommodation, food, clothes for their hapless kids. The notes often contained things like, “The putative father of her three children left, taking all her cash. She has no money to buy food, and no food in her flat.”

And now, finally, to the title. Tom Jones was a pop singer of the era, a sexy hunk with a deep baritone voice who got knickers tingling the length and breadth of the country. At least once a day, when other conversational subjects had given all they could, one of my colleagues would say to the general audience (you have to imagine the cockney accent) “What would you do if Tom Jones walked through that door, right now?”

Needless to say this wasn’t very likely. But what followed was ten minutes of oohing and aahing as these ladies imagined getting their hands - and other bits - on their hero. It was harmless amusement, no different from speculating what you’d do with a lottery or football pools win. And it kept the Children’s Department typing pool running smoothly.

1 comment:

Dave G said...

Ah this brings back memories of Acre Road. Do you remember the typing pool there? We would have to write up our SPR answers and have them typed in by someone in the typing pool for dispatch to customers.