To those of you who are following my blog I owe an apology for the hiatus between my last post and this one. It has been a rather tricky time on the home front and my attention has been diverted elsewhere. However, I’m back so I had better get on with it!
I was employed at Scandura as a Clerk in the Production Control Office. This was a wide, open-plan space where lowly clerks like myself worked alongside more senior people and middle managers. On two sides of the main space were glass partitioned offices occupied by more Senior managers who oversaw the activities of the Department. I was hired to implement – under the instruction of an external Consultant – a new system of charting the progress of orders through the works, from calculating the weight and cost of a given weave, through the asbestos weaving sheds, the picking shed and the warehouse. It was thought advisable to bring in someone new to do this as many of the existing staff had shown themselves resistant to change and quite hostile to the Consultant and all his works!
The majority of the women in the department were stock-control clerks, a group of young married women who could reliably be expected to leave at regular intervals to have babies, not necessarily to return. The two “Senior” women were a pair of “ladies of a certain age” called Doreen and Marjorie. They were not managers, per se, but had a certain amount of seniority which enabled them to act as though they were managers in respect of the younger female staff. The remaining staff were senior male clerks and middle managers, each of whom had their own specific role within the department.
To say that the Department was “cliquey” was to seriously understate the case! Doreen, Marjorie and the stock-control clerks formed a tight-knit little group which had very little to do with anyone else in the office, over and above the day-to-day interactions required by their jobs. The senior clerks (all male save for one, lone woman called Joan) hung together in their group and the Middle Managers were generally the busiest folk in the office and hadn’t the time for “cliques”. My role, being bran-new, fitted into none of these groups and as a result I was largely ignored by the younger women and teased by the men. Doreen and Marjorie found that I did not fall under their bailiwick and they were NOT happy about it!
My job involved, among other things, making a tour of the weaving, picking and warehousing twice a day – to deliver new job cards and collect completed ones. The weaving staff were largely of Asian origin and were, to a man, incredibly polite, courteous and respectful towards me at all times. They worked incredibly hard in an environment which we now know (and probably knew back then) was slowly killing them from the inhalation of the asbestos fibres which they were weaving. Their Foreman was a middle-aged white guy who treated all office staff with a certain amount of contempt, myself included. The picking shed was operated by only one young married man whose job it was to “pick” out the knots and lumps in finished weaving where the weft had been spliced. He, too, was slowly being suffocated and while I was employed there his lungs collapsed on two separate occasions. His name was Neil and we got on very well together, which led to a lot of nasty gossip back in the offices – it was that sort of place. The warehouse was managed by a brisk, efficient middle-aged man who had little time for chat but treated me with respect. My twice-daily “rounds” were frequently the highlight of my day, which was otherwise fraught with taboos and shibboleths of which I was ignorant until I transgressed one of them!
One of the highlights of the working year at BBA was the “Miss BBA Contest” in which female employees from all the companies within the group were encouraged to enter a beauty contest, the winner of which would represent the Group at various national events. From the get-go, my Manager wanted me to enter and, being flattered, I was nothing loath. Doreen and Marjorie paid lip-service to the idea but obviously resented not only my role in the Department (falling largely outwith their auspices) but also the ease with which I made friends with the male staff and managers and their encouragement of my entry into the contest. They began to set little traps for me in respect of procedure and office etiquette and would then pounce on me when I fell into them. Their campaign against me lasted throughout my employment in the Department.
The first year in which I entered the competition, I came second to a stunningly beautiful and very articulate girl from Mintex, one of the other companies in the Group. I enjoyed the experience and, let’s be honest, all the attention that came with it, but was not unduly unhappy about failing to win. In my mind, it had all been “a giggle” and that was that. However, Doreen and Marjorie, had a field day with false commiserations, snide criticisms and nasty, petty comments which went on for months.
Almost as soon as I started work at BBA, relations between Mum and I took another dip and I sought – and found – a bed-sitter in Cleckheaton, near to my work. As luck would have it the room was in a huge, old house on Booth Street, the street where some of my maternal relatives had lived when I was a baby. When Mum and I lived with Dad, she hardly ever took an alcoholic drink but once I started to enjoy a drink myself, Mum also “discovered” alcohol and found that she could whistle through her housework with the help of a few cans of Carlsberg Special Brew. Unfortunately, she was the living embodiment of the old saying “in vino veritas” and, Boy! could she tell some veritas with a few Special Brews inside her!
I learned far more than I really wanted to know about her life with Dad, especially as my relationship with Dad was now improving out of all recognition. We wrote to each other regularly and he came up to visit both Mum and I from time to time, usually to do some work on Mum’s bungalow for her. In the meantime, he had spent time working with the police force out in Anguila in the Caribbean and returned to the UK the colour of dark mahogany. After his first visit on his return, I began to hear rumours that Mum had “Tekken oop wi’ a Paki!” (for those not well-versed in Yorkshire dialect, “Been seen out with an Asian gentleman”) – had they bothered to look closely at Dad’s bright blue eyes they would have realised that this was not the case – not that it mattered to either Mum or me in the slightest!
Unfortunately, with a drink in her Mum could dredge up not only Dad’s past bad behaviour but also mine and arguments between us became pretty inflammatory until I found my bed-sit. It was grim but it was my own space (except for the shared bathroom and kitchen) and with John’s help I papered the walls in a truly psychedelic paisley design of turquoise and purple on a black background! It sounds hideous, I know, but I assure you it was all the rage at the time! I loved it, in spite of not having a clue how to cook my own meals and only a limited idea about such things as laundry. BBA had an excellent subsidised canteen, of which I made full use and for the evenings and weekends there were chip shops, “Vesta” curries and a handy launderette which enjoyed my regular patronage.
Eventually, the Consultant who had initiated my employment at Scandura moved on and I was “taken over” by one of the Middle Managers, a very nice man called Fred. Fred was middle-aged and limped slightly as a result, I believe, of a childhood illness. He and his wife had been blessed with a son quite late in life, so although he was older than my own Mum and Dad, his son was only about 10 or 11 years old. He was kind and quite protective of me, which I very much appreciated, although he was unable to shield me completely from Doreen and Marjorie’s malice. Now that the Consultant had moved on, they lobbied for me to learn how all the clerical jobs in the Department worked, which had apparently been the practice before the “New System” was introduced. The Department Manager (a lovely man called Harold) eventually caved in and I was to spend part of every day learning all the routines of the office under Doreen and Marjorie’s not-so-tender tutelage.
It was a nightmare! They bullied me unmercifully and set me up to fail whenever and wherever they thought they could get away with it. Things got so bad at one point that I have a vivid memory of Fred facing the two of them down in Harold’s office, shouting at the top of his voice, slamming a bunch of papers (some evidence of my “incompetence” which the Gruesome Twosome had been gleefully presenting to Harold) down on Harold’s desk and marching out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Fred was a quiet, gentle, softly spoken man and this was completely out of character for him, which fact I think made Harold take his side in the argument and foil the Gruesome Twosome’s latest plot, but they were nothing if not persistent and the fact that I had a “champion” only seemed to make them more determined to make my life a misery.
When the Miss BBA Contest came around again, Fred encouraged me to enter a second time – thinking that the PR work involved for the winner would get me out of their clutches for at least some of the time. (I also think he wanted me to “give them one in the eye” by winning, but this was never actually said aloud!) So once again I competed for the title and this time I was successful. It involved a tremendous amount of “Hoop-La”, including interviews with the local papers and the like. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it … and it did make it just that little bit more difficult for the Gruesome Twosome to get rid of me, which was now their goal.
I went to industry Exhibitions, went with a colliery “Queen” down a coal mine (Scandura made conveyor belting for the then National Coal Board) and was automatically entered into the “Miss Motor Show” contest down in London. Dad squired me to this event and it was one of the happiest night’s of my life. He was so proud of me (even though I wasn’t placed in the contest, which was won by “Miss Jaguar”) and we made the most of the occasion, having a lovely meal together and enjoying the post-contest Disco.
Meanwhile, back at the office, the Gruesome Twosome redoubled their efforts to get rid of me. Even now, I can see them strutting about the building together: Doreen short and round, looking like a dyspeptic owl; Marjorie tall and built like a brick-outhouse, capable of descending on a hapless victim like a battleship in full sail! Just writing about them makes my heart pound and brings on an unpleasant, queasy feeling. There came a point when their bullying began to make me physically ill. My eczema – more or less dormant for years – broke out with a vengeance over every inch of my body. Nothing seemed to relieve it and it developed into weeping sores which made it impossible to wear clothes (other than a loose night-dress) and made it and any sheets I touched stick to my body. When I tried to “unstick” them the tops of all the sores came off and the weeping began all over again. Needless to say, I was unable to go into work in this condition.
One of the large, ground floor rooms of the house on Booth Street was occupied at the time by an elderly couple reduced by the husband’s gambling to very straightened circumstances. The wife, Mary, was almost always short of money and would sometimes “borrow” from me “Until the cheque arrives.” Seeing me struggling into the bathroom one day, she asked me what was up and I showed her some of the more readily accessible bits of my weeping anatomy. In minutes she had sent for my doctor, stripped and remade my bed and made me a cup of tea. For the next three weeks she stripped my bed and washed my linen daily (she had a twin-tub machine in her room) and did her best to look after me and to help me to keep the open lesions clean. The doctor prescribed phenargan pills and cortico steroid ointments, which Mary collected from the chemist for me. I really do not know how I would have coped without her help and whenever I think of her it is with deep gratitude.
Phenargan made me very drowsy so the days passed in a blur and it took me all my time to send a note and the Doctor’s Certificate to BBA, indicating that I was unfit to work for the next four weeks. I received a note from Harold to say that they had received my Certificate and that an appointment would be made for me to see the Company Doctor on my return to work. In due course, I returned to the office and was promptly despatched to see the Company Doctor, as arranged.
His first words to me were along the lines of “Now – what’s REALLY wrong with you.” I explained that I suffered from what was then called “Nervous Eczema” and that my treatment at the hands of the Gruesome Twosome had brought on an extremely severe outbreak, as indicated by my own GP. “I don’t believe that.” he replied, “How can someone as extrovert as a Miss BBA winner possibly suffer so badly from nerves?” I said I didn’t know but that that was the truth, whether he believed it or not. His attitude was verging on the hostile throughout the interview and I think he thought I was either covering up some other medical issue or just swinging the lead. As I walked across the works back to the office, I decided that my days at BBA were probably numbered and it was time to start looking for another job.