Memories in Coronavirus Week 8 – using Good Solid British Common Sense

Yes. Still here indeed. We should be in Egypt right now, snorkelling in the crystal clear water of the Red Sea, watching multi-coloured fish, or lying on a perfect white sandy beach…. but no. Philosopher and I feel fed up about holidays – we so enjoy them, and this summer we will lose Turkey as well as Egypt.  Worse, it is hard to imagine when we will be able to go to these places again…. To cheer herself up, Battleaxe is enjoying a different sort of journey – another trip into her past, back to the early 70s and the lost world of the London docks.

Is that Battleaxe and Philosopher, in the Red Sea? No, of course not.

We are told now that it is all our fault now if we get ill. We won’t have been sufficiently alert. As from yesterday the lockdown has ‘eased’ which apparently is giving many the freedom to cram onto buses and tubes without facemasks or bothering with social distancing. Ah well, there you go.

Two weeks ago I posted about my murky past working in a London casino in the 70s. I was asked to write more. Trouble is, If I go much further forward, people who were around then and who are still around will be reading the posts.

So, let’s go back one step from Ladbrokes, to 1971, when I was 21, working as a personnel assistant in a City shipping and freight forwarding agents, Schenkers, part of the LEP Group. Before, I’d been at the posh, genteel Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, based in Parliament Square, and nothing could have prepared me for the cultural shift I faced. We’ll visit the RICS in a future post!

LEP was based at the gloriously named Sunlight Wharf in Upper Thames Street, just where the Millennium Bridge is now. It is hard to believe that instead of modern office blocks, the river frontage was lined with bustling warehouses, festooned with cranes. However, by the 70s, those central London dock warehouses were already in decline. Interestingly, Sunlight Wharf was the very last to go, demolished in 1983. This plaque marks where it stood.

Barges pulled up on the river outside Sunlight Wharf to load goods on and off.  Cargo ranged from building materials (including asbestos) to wine, spirits and other precious items which went into the LEP bonded department.  Here is a post about it.

Sunlight Wharf was massive, noisy, scary and Dickensian. You clanked up in a rattling cage lift through the dusty, draughty warehouse floors – some space already unused – to the offices, high above the waterfront.  The whole building vibrated with clangs and bangs from the floors below, shouts from the open loading doors to the river.  On the top floor, I remember big rooms with rows of desks for the shipping clerks, with a supervisor on a raised dais. Management (all male of course) occupied a warren of sub-divided heavy dark panelled offices, smelling of tobacco and polish. My boss was Mr Brunner, Head of ‘Manpower’, with very modern attitudes for those days. He even used the word ‘equality’….

Sunlight Wharf from the river. You can see the offices at the top of the building
During demolition in 1983

I was sent to Schenkers, based across the city at Royal London House, Finsbury Square (now the Mountcalm Hotel), as their first personnel ‘professional’. I hated it.  Mr Spillett, General Manager, was in charge. Nearing retirement, he was stooped, crabbed and totally vicious, in a navy three-piece pinstripe suit with – yes – a watch chain, and yellowing strands of  grey hair plastered across his skull. He loathed Brunner and everything he stood for, and resented my presence. I was terrified of him.

I shared a poky office with Yvonne, Spillett’s PA.  At first, I was terrified of her too. She was a bit older than me, infinitely more confident and worldly-wise, a big, loud, blonde girl from Romford. Her father was a docker and a well-known high-up in the Union. As I was on ‘management’ grade, I wasn’t supposed to do my own typing, and for personnel jobs, I had to ask Yvonne. She’d glance up from her precious electric golf-ball typewriter, the only one in the building, and snap: ‘Nah, I’m on cornfidential work for Mr Spillett…’

Yvonne was in charge of office stationery and spent much time screaming at the trembling clerks: ‘Wot? Another rubber? You only ‘ad one last week!’ ‘Wot? Lorst it? I’ll set Spillett on yer!’ Then she’d start on me. ‘You’re Welfare aren’t yer? Well then, go and tell that Roy in the Post Room that ‘is BO is disgustin…’  But over time, we became firm friends. I’d go over to her big ultra-comfortable house in Romford. Miles of shag pile carpet, big patio doors, a fountain in the garden, talk of Torremolinos and Magaluf… It turned out she actually envied me, living away from home with two other girls in our own scruffy flat in Stockwell.

At Schenkers, there were more big offices full of clerks. They were all young East End lads, immaculate in their pointed-collar Ben Sherman shirts with pleats down the back, bright kipper ties, shiny Farrah flared trousers worn incredibly tight across the bum, platform shoes. Just naughty boys – as soon as the supervisor was out of the room, they were up, shouting, playing football in the aisles with screwed up balls of paper. I was supposed to look after their recruitment, training, sickness, overtime etc. Of course, they terrified me too… until I learned to copy Yvonne. ‘Wot?’ I’d scream, ‘no sick note! I’ll set Spillett on yer!’

An awful lot of shouting and screaming went on at Schenkers. The typing pool was filled with the deafening clack clack of manual typewriters. The supervisor was another big, scary woman. ‘Wot?’ she’d scream above the racket, ‘my girls can’t do that staff stuff – we got urgent manifests for Sunlight! I’m telling Mr Spillett!’

I still don’t know what manifests are – the whole shipping business was a mystery to me, and I never bothered to learn. Groupage, bills of lading, backhaul, bonding, wharfage, demurrage? There was a warehouse in Vallance Road in Whitechapel, which I never visited. Spillett said it was no place for girls, but Yvonne and I liked the Warehouse Manager. He brought us chocs and was the only one who stood up to Spillett: ‘Wot’ he’d scream… Oh, enough of that.

I spent as much time as possible escaping  ‘dahn Sunlight’. Strolling down Moorgate, passing the huge building site that was becoming the Barbican, wandering round Bank, Mansion House, the Guildhall, the City Churches, St Paul’s, down to the river… if I was careful, nobody knew how long I was out. It was no wonder that I soon started looking for other jobs, and the Ladbroke offer seemed like a dream…

I kept in touch with Yvonne for a few months – but then she somehow met an antiques dealer from Honiton in Devon. Next thing, she’d left Schenkers, left Romford and gone to live with him. I never heard from her again.

LEP and its whole world has vanished into history, but Schenkers still exists – it is a massive German transport firm.  I didn’t realise until today that the British Schenkers operation was seized from the Germans by the British Government in WW2 and given to LEP.  Germany only got it back in 1990.

Talking of WW2, of course it was VE Day last week. I talked about how it wasn’t my thing in the last post.We had our socially distanced drinks out in the road – actually it was very pleasant. Look how good we all were!

Have enjoyed more walks too – here is a view of the Country Park to finish. Let’s hope the area doesn’t get full up with strangers driving hundreds of miles for their ‘exercise…’

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