VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 12: Work!
Chapter written 1999 & last revised 2013

I don't suppose it's as easy to get a place at Barnet College these days!
As soon as I left school my mother dragged me along to the Youth Employment Office.  The clerk suggested that all I had to do to continue my education was to apply to the newly opened Barnet College.  This was one of the revolutionary new establishments intended for those leaving secondary education without qualifications.  I told my mother that under no circumstances would I go back to to any kind of education.  I refused to believe that it could be all that much different from school.  Notwithstanding, she propelled me without hesitation into the college and insisted on an immediate interview with the principal.  He was full of praise for my mother's stance.  I expressed my feelings on the matter unequivocally, yet he remained very keen on giving me a place there.  He insisted that the new colleges were totally different from school.  Teachers and students called each other by their first names, there were no compulsory games and a grown-up atmosphere was encouraged.  He said, furthermore, that he wasn't remotely interested in contacting the school for a report or references because he could tell that I had potential, and that I would fit in well.  But it was no use.  I refused to listen to his or my mother’s exhortations, so it was back to the Youth Employment office, where the disappointed clerk sent me for a job at an ironmonger's in East Barnet.
For those who know East Barnet, here's a photo of the premises as it is now (2010).Even for 1959, Mr Coe's ironmongery shop was old-fashioned.  All manner of solvents, lubricants and liquid fuels were available on draught, by the pint or gallon, as was vinegar.  The customer provided the bottle or can.  There was a vast and bewildering collection of fixings and other devices for the building trade, in hundreds of little drawers all the way up the wall behind the counter.  Many of them were unknown even to builders and had terrifying names.
Mr Coe was a crusty old man who never tired of saying, with considerable gravity, as though it were the greatest piece of wisdom available, "Time is money".  In fact the job interview consisted mainly of his repetition of this maxim, alternating it with my mother's "up the Grammar".  He took me on as a trainee assistant at £1 per 55-hour week, having assured my mother " 'E won't 'ear no swearin' 'ere".
Paraffin stoves were still a popular method of heating.Mr Coe was greatly helped in all aspects of the business by his hard-working son Brian, who was as calm and pleasant as his father was worried and irascible.  At first, one of my main duties was to fill the gallon cans brought in by the customers with paraffin from two beer pumps behind the counter.  One yielded Aladdin Pink and the other Esso Blue.  Some customers had their paraffin delivered in five-gallon drums and sometimes, to avoid the expense of using the van, or when the snow was too bad, I had to deliver these on foot when I had filled them.  This was extremely hard work, especially whenever I had trouble finding an address.
Sometimes, when the the shop was particularly busy, I had to leave the paraffin pumps to help with serving customers, By and large the male customers were good-humoured about my ignorance and the time it took me to find what they wanted.  But the women who came in for soap powder and kitchen utensils were a nightmare.  Mostly, they were haughty, imperious, humourless, hopelessly impatient and determined to show me up and humiliate me as much as possible.  They often complained stridently to Mr Coe about my stupidity, slowness and anything else they could think up.  These spoilt and perpetually indignant middle-class women were a common species in those days and they were responsible for the revival of my childhood radicalism (see Chapter 3).  But that fantasy-world of Regenesia had not included the means by which it had been brought about - it was already established as a going utopia when I entered it.  I now became more interested in the violent revolution necessary before any such utopia could exist.  This was partly because I knew that no idea would have shocked and horrified these women more than that of social upheaval and chaos.  But the new thoughts also afforded me the opportunity of being the leader of the execution squad in charge of removing these undesirables from the world.
"As far as I can see", Mr Coe announced after a few weeks "You ain't got no initiative.  I can't 'ave you in the shop no more, you're drivin' all me customers out".  So I was assigned to various menial tasks away from the sharp end of business, in the back room, the yard and the sheds that served as a warehouse.  At first, my main job of this sort was bottling.  This entailed putting the hundreds of bottles of all sorts that Brian somehow managed to scrounge, into a large water tank in the yard and removing the labels, prior to filling them from drums with meths, linseed oil, turps etc, then sticking new hand-written labels on them.  In the summer, the label removal meant having one's hands in a soup of mosquito larvae, but putting the new labels on was a nice easy job in the back room.  Well, actually, it turned out not to be easy enough for me, insofar as I managed to write the wrong things on many of the labels, so people who asked for meths got turps, etc.  After a good rant and rave involving Grammar Schools, Mr Coe took me off that job and got me scraping rust off various items of hardware and repainting them to be sold as new.  Of course, I made a terrible mess of that, so was eventually banished to the great cellar to clean teapots.
Mr Coe had for some extraordinary reason accumulated a vast collection of teapots of all shapes, sizes and colours - thousands of them.  There were only a few on display in the shop, and it was a rare occurrence for one to be sold.  Presumably, these teapots had taken a lifetime to collect, but they were now languishing in the cellar, covered with a prodigiously thick mantle of dust and cobwebs.  I loved it down there.  It was silent (you couldn't even hear the traffic of East Barnet Road) and dark.  I had to run a cable down there with a light bulb on the end.  It was also very dirty and great heads of fungus crowded the joists and beams.  I was certainly worried about spiders, as I suffered very badly from arachnophobia in those days, but even that wasn't enough to spoil my little holiday down there.  I may have cleaned the odd teapot, but mostly I daydreamed, planned the immediate aftermath of the Revolution (the settling of scores bit) or hunted among the dust for interesting artefacts.  I found a rusty old clock, which I managed to get going (I had a way with clocks) and I added it to the 8 or 9 other rescued and restored clocks that were responsible for 24-hour cacophony in my bedroom.  I also found a rotting heap of 1930s porn mags.  They certainly helped while away some of the time.
Oddly enough, during the two or three weeks I was down there, Mr Coe never came to see how I was getting on.  He just yelled down the steps now and again when there was something urgent to be done.  One of these urgent things occurred when the Esso paraffin tanker arrived one day.  There were two 600-gallon tanks in the yard, one for Esso Blue, the other for Aladdin Pink.  Coe and son were too busy in the shop to show the driver which of these two tanks to discharge his load into, so I was summoned from the depths to see to it.  When a good deal of paraffin spilled over into the yard, the driver accused Mr Coe of not reading the dipstick properly and therefore ordering paraffin too soon, and Mr Coe accused the driver of not knowing what he was doing.  The two had a blazing row.  A couple of hours later, I was again summoned from the cellar, this time with a demonic roar.  Mr Coe stood purple-faced by the paraffin pumps, a milk bottle of mauve paraffin in his hand.  Brian looked terrified.  The customers were laughing.  Coe, choking with rage, spluttered incoherently for a bit, then pointed at me and bellowed "NOT SUIT'BLE!"  Brian muttered to me to come back for my cards and outstanding wages in a few days, by which time the old man should have calmed down a bit.
That was how my career in ironmongery ended.  And to this day, I've worn that wonderful qualification with pride: I'm not suit'ble!
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