I’m happily retired and have few regrets about my working life. I ended up working for a prestigious organization dealing with the world’s economies—the International Monetary Fund—even though after getting my economics degree, I said that I did not want to work as an economist. I applied for Social Science Research Council Grant after graduation, got it and a place at the London School of Economics (LSE); I turned down the LSE, as I wrote a few days ago, and ended up at University College doing graduate environmental studies, which included huge doses of housing and transport economics, and was geared toward urban planning, which is where I headed after I finished my M.Phil. But, my work life could have ended up quite differently.

When I was in my final undergraduate year, I looked at a range of jobs and (if memory serves well) looked at managerial training for companies like British Oxygen, Lloyds Bank (who offered me a job as a trainee branch manager), Lloyds Bank International, National Westminster–the banks were attractive not least for the pay but also the prospect of relatively fast advancement. But, somewhere along the way, I didn’t see these working out, and I opted to defer by doing postgraduate work.

But, let me hark back a lot further. While at school and later at university I did a lot of interesting jobs, none of which I regret and from each of which I learned many things. Being a labourer on a building site was the hardest physical work I have ever done and I remember being totally exhausted every evening and sore and stiff most of the summer, but I was fitter than most of teammates when it was time for pre-season training–this was also before the days when people would head off to gyms to ‘get fit’ and ‘lift weights’. This was still the era of climbing monkey bars, throwing medicine balls, climbing ropes and walking the beam for physical education (PE) at school.

Of the varied jobs, I’ll just list a few I did between about 1969-73.

I was a milkman, for Unigate. I got this job in the year I left grammar school (1973). Getting it was tricky as it involved an arithmetic test, because milkmen were paid for deliveries and had to be able to handle the cash accurately. Orders could get complicated with customers not necessarily having the same ‘one bottle of silver top’ every day, so could be multiple milk orders plus other items stocked (eg juices, eggs and bread). Anyway, I had an hour for the test and was done in 15 minutes: “That’s fast, Dennis!” said the tester. He graded my paper, which was in the 90s/100. He asked me if I only had O-level maths and I honestly said “Yes” (as told before, I didn’t even have that but I was not fool with arithmetic). So, I got hired. I was put with a young milkman, who would show me the ropes of loading my float early each day, checking that amy stock matched my orders, plus some slack, and how to organize my route. The depot in Southall was just past the train bridge. The first thing my ‘man’ showed me was how to make the electric float go really fast down the bridge and slam on the brakes and not loose the whole load. 

After a few days with him, I was assigned my route. I left home around 4am and was on the route by 5; I was usually done by about 8, and back home by 9. My father met me the first morning and asked if I’d been fired, but I explained as I headed back to bed.

Standard outfit for the day’s work; I never wore a cap
Doorstep deliveries were a fixture of British life

Daily deliveries were not that exciting, but when it came to ‘paying day’, things were different. My route involved a block of flats in Northolt, and the daily routine meant climbing several flights of stairs with crates to drop off my orders. But, on Fridays and Saturdays, I had to have less milk in my crate and my order book. One of the problems was the people would change their orders as they were dealing directly with the milkman and also as the weekend approached. So, for those two days it was more up and down the stairs to get my job done. It was knackering. But, it was also when I got to see and talk to most of my customers, and most were nice and some were VERY INTERESTING. Let me just leave there the apocryphal tale of the young lady who came to the door in her negligee and asked me in for a cup of tea while she got her money straight and decided on her order. I was hot under the collar and wondering what I could not see through the see-through nightie. 🙂 Stories of ‘amorous’ milkmen are not all fiction. I didn’t focus then on the fact that I was a young black man working in a predominantly white trade and serving mainly white customers. I’m sure I was lucky to be dealing with mainly decent people.

I’d worked several holidays for the Post Office as a temporary worker during both summer (leave period) and Christmas (rush)–thanks to my father’s connections–and delivering milk was much more fun, not least because I had wheels. Leaving milk on the doorstep or outside somewhere is far less hazardous than putting letters through a slot, especially if it’s narrow and sharp with a spring or if there is what seemed like a rabid door rushing towards your fingers. The UK has an amended Dangerous Dogs Act for good reason 😦

I was a runner not a jumper 🙂

I worked one summer in a Wall’s sausage factory in Southall (mainly doing loading a shifting of goods–I had no relevant skills), and I still love sauasages after seeing how they’re made 🙂

Wall’s sausage production, Acton, London

One of the great things about that job was being able to take ‘work’ home in the form of sausages, pies, etc. The pay was fine for a lad, but the food was great for the family.

Southall had recently had a wave of East Indian immigrants come to the area, already trending towards an Indian sub-continent neighbourhood and culture, but the workforce for simple labouring work was not reflective of that influx and most of the employees were white working-class with some Caribbean thrown in.

I worked one summer for a fashionable men’s clothing store, called Gary Elliott, first on the Earl’s Court Road (opposite the station) and then at the Knightsbridge branch; this was at the back-end of the ‘swinging 60s’ and ‘cool’ clothes were not just in Chelsea and on the King’s Road. What do I remember most? The incredible number of women who came to buy men’s jeans, saying the cut was better fitting. That, and the lady who came out of the changing room in her bra and jeans and asked me what I thought. I’m still thinking, while my 16-year-old body at the time was doing more than think 🙂

Such excitement aside, you have to note this was the era when the somewhat stodgy look for men, with suits offered by large branch networks like Burton’s, John Collier etc and ‘…by the mid-1960s, fashion-conscious young Londoners were challenging the staid rules of masculine etiquette that had persisted since Victorian times’ (as noted in a Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition on the ‘Peacock Revolution’.)

Rolling Stones album cover

This was the time of collarless shirts and jackets, colours were not just dark shades, and mixing and matching. Hairs was being grown longer and women’s skirts were getting shorter.

I don’t recall seeing many, if any, black people come into the stores, and though the Earl’s Court shop was close to what is now a well-defined ‘gay’ area, the clientele was never noticeably gay.

All the time, I was more focused on what the jobs offered in terms of pay, and it was never shabby. Never in my wildest dreams did I foresee where I would land, eventually.