Thursday, May 24, 2012

You've all done very well!

Young Mr Grace

One of the many ways I bore ‘my readers’ (how grand) is with tales of the various jobs I’ve done over the years. Many of them were student vacation jobs, some enjoyable, others less so.

During my first Christmas holidays from university in the late 1970s I managed to get 3 weeks’ work at Rackham’s department store in Shrewsbury. I was not to be trusted with talking to customers or telling them in the style of ‘Are you Being Served’ that the sleeves of a new jacket would ride up with wear. Instead I was given the grand title of Display Manager’s Assistant.

My duties mostly involved fetching and carrying mannequins and other display paraphernalia from the attic store rooms down to the display windows at the front of the shop.  Incidentally, it’s harder to cart a mannequin around than you might think. Sharing a lift with customers and trying not to look self conscious was difficult enough, but I seemed incapable of getting the thing from the lift door to the display window without knocking someone’s hat off.

The Display Manager himself was a dapper, middle aged man called Robbie who frankly made John Inman look butch. He was always immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit and had a wavy hairdo. While I somehow managed to get covered in dust and dirt just walking into the store room, Robbie never had so much as a hair out of place. His dress, manner and way of talking were enough to subject me to some outrageous comments from some of the others in the staff canteen, but despite their ribaldry and typical 1970s assumption that all gay men prey on teenage boys, Robbie was never anything but a kind hearted man who treated me as he would any other member of staff.

Furthermore it could hardly be said that he made the work taxing for me. Apart from a bit of fetching and carrying I did little more than help him dress the mannequins (again, not as easy as you might think) and also wait for him to tell me from outside whether to move something a bit to the left or to the right. 

You can only change a window display so many times, and consequently I got quite a bit of down time. Robbie was happy for me to pass the time quietly in the canteen (I have no idea what he did with the rest of his day), but this was soon thwarted, and I ended up doing odd jobs for other departments. I didn’t mind too much, although years later I realised that as an empty headed teenager I was not always the best candidate. On one occasion I was asked to walk to the bank down the High Street with a lady cashier, who was not much older than me. Unbelievably I was expected to be her ‘minder’ as she carried a huge bag of money, I think to obtain change for the tills. At this point in my life I was about as tough looking as the bloke on the ‘Mr Muscle’ adverts.

The store itself had 2 sides to it; that is to say the customers saw nothing but plush carpets, shiny mirrors, and courteous smartly dressed assistants selling what was generally considered to be quality products. Had they looked harder they would have seen dust and dirt behind the counters, staff toilets that might have harboured the plague, and poorly paid staff bickering in the canteen for the want of anything else to actually talk about.

Still, it was a painlessly short period of employment for me which paid me untold wealth in the form of £35 a week. This was enough to keep me in Christmas fags and booze, unlike the permanent staff in the canteen who earned not much more but had families to provide for. I was only 18 and a student; what other reward could I have wanted, except perhaps a visit from a young Mr Grace to tell us we had “all done very well”?

Mind your hats

No comments:

Post a Comment