136 Kingsland High Street, London, E8
In association with Hackney W.E.A.
First published 1977
Dave Boldinger was born in Hammersmith in 1952. His father was a French polisher and his mother a housewife.
He was brought up in Hackney until he was twelve years old when his family moved to Harlow New Town, Essex where he attended Passmores County Comprehensive School. He moved back to Hackney in 1967 and attended Brooke House School.
He has worked on a fairground, as a concert tour 'roadie' and in his spare time works public-address systems for various people and has organised a few concerts.
He has worked as shop assistant in a builders' merchants since 1967.
When my family moved back to London in 1967 after three and a half years in Harlow, Essex I went to Brooke House School. The school I had been at in Essex, Passmores County Secondary School, had been very good. In the fourth year you had a lot of freedom and could choose your own subjects. I did a whole diverse range: Printing, Metal Work and Technical Drawing. Printing interested me the most. But at the Brooke House School, where I finished my school days, I didn't get any education at all, not one bit. The attitude of the school was "The Reputation of the school", the football team and so on.
Even though I didn't know what kind of job I would get or want, I was feeling that I could take on anything, I had no idea whatsoever where. I just made sure that I could take on anything I said to myself.
When I used to go visit my grandma, I used to pass a builders' merchants in Stoke Newington Church Street - they had a lot of wood stacked up and concrete slabs like coal bunkers. The Youth Employment Officer interviewed the kids that were leaving school (I left at 15 because I didn't feel I'd get an education by staying there). He asked me what kind of job I wanted to do. I had this image of the place in Church Street and I just described it. "Mainly dealing with people" __ that meant a shop, not a factory where you're closed in. I wanted to deal with the public. I just had this image and he got me a job with a builders' merchants. My parents told me that he said I was the only one he'd interviewed that knew what he wanted to do. (I don't know if that's true, but that's what they told me.) This was in spite of the school's efforts. I remember going from school, a lot of us, to visit the General Post Office (Sorting) in Mount Pleasant, and previous to that the class visited the Metropolitan Water Board, and everybody had to do essays about it, although I didn't attend that trip. It doesn't sound as if these visits helped anybody choose a job.
I went for an interview at the builders' merchants, and me a chap there. It wasn't a long interview __ about a quarter of an hour. We discussed things __ wages, hours, conditions. They said,
because that's the easiest. We're going to see how you go."
I've been there ever since. I don't know how that reflects on me.
On the first day I was __ I can't say afraid __ just mystified as to what would happen. I felt an unknowingness, facing something that would be alien to me, that I'd never done before. "You're going to work. You've never done a full time job in your life before and you just don't know what's going to happen." I was thinking to myself, "Just take it as it comes, just see what's it's like." They had told me to come in on the first day at 9.00. The actual work started at 8.15, but they said,
Wallpaper Department and see Mr. Ramsey."
I got there at 10 past 9. I couldn't fine the place. I'd been there once before, but I couldn't find the place. It was in a back street and I ended up there about ten minutes late, and saw Mr. Ramsey. He didn't know, he's "not expecting" me, "no one's told" him that I'm supposed to be there. He said,
"I'm supposed to be working here, sir."
"Pardon __ nobody's told me."
He was a pretty nice guy, He said,
"There's your coat. Put it on."
He sent me downstairs to the basement, which stored boxes wallpaper and rolls of vinyl in big wooden racks against one whole wall. The whole of the rest of the basement was filled with boxes of wallpaper. They were in a terrible state. They were in no numerical order whatsoever. He said,
Get it working. Put it right."
I was down there for there solid days. Every box was moved. I was on my own down there. Everything was in a mess, but by the time I'd finished I knew every wallpaper pattern and the numbers. I as getting the feeling that this was a sort of test to see if I could take it. I said to myself,
It's not going to last for ever.
You just keep on at.
It's your first job and you're
not going to lose it that quickly."
I was sweating like mad. It was really hard work. I was only fifteen. It was just Hell down there, literally, for three days. He never came down there. He just stayed in his office reading a book. Sometimes I used to sit down for five minutes, making a little noise with my feet to let him think that I was working. I didn't see daylight hardly at all for three days.
I was surprised, after that, how he trusted me with the money. He showed me how to work the till. I'd never handled that amount of money before. I had worked for a while at a fairground, but that was handling sixpence's. In this place it was about forty pounds. And I was frightened of selling things in case I made a mistake. The whole thing was alien to me, Mr. Ramsey showed me the works __ how the papers were supposed to be on the racks, how they had shade numbers and how to convert the mill numbers into code numbers and vice versa. He also explained the way we charge people, depending on who they are. Shops get discounts, builders get discounts, but retail customers don't get discounts. I was wondering how I was going to tell the retail trade from the shop trade. He said,
Now I know, but then I didn't. he was a nice guy. He reminded me of a teacher who did metal work at school in Harlow. I liked him, so I liked Mr Ramsey. If I asked him a question, he would answer me, which I like. If someone doesn't answer you, you don't stand a chance of learning anything. He was willing to teach me. When he left, he said,
I've just been around longer".
That was true. He had taught me all he knew.
I felt strange earning money. I had never worked full-time before. It was my first job and I was wondering. "If you leave you might not get another job." Everyone was saying jobs were short __ which I don't think they were. The money was terrible. The first day I got there the wage was 5 pounds 5 shillings. The manager said,
Let's make it 6 pounds."
So I got a rise the first day. Out of my pay I gave my Gran one pound a week because I used to have dinners at her place. I think I gave two pounds to my mother. Then there was National Insurance __ which left about two pounds. "Bus fare came to about 10/-.
At work we used to have tea and a roll in the morning, and coffee and cake in the afternoon, which came to about 10/-. So that left me one pound. I don't know what I did with that _ little odds and ends.
Once I got used to the job, I found that generally in builders' merchants the assistants don't run around too much. If they did, they'd go mad. You really have to restrain yourself from going too far for customers, because if you do you get so overworked __ and you're not rewarded for it at all. Why ruin your sanity for the sake of a few minutes. It's a necessity in that kind of place to be able to take it easy, because really you could go crazy. One of the things I did have to learn, though was to trim wallpaper. The manager used to make me laugh because he could do it so quickly. I used to do it very slowly __ and I was dead scared of doing it because if you trim it just a little bit out, that's the end of that roll __ it's wasted. You also get to know all the standard sizes, and regulations about using wallpaper and so on. For example Islington Council said a few years ago that no one should put up any ceiling tiles unless they were fire retardant or self-extinguishing, so we wouldn't sell ordinary ceiling tiles to anyone from Islington. We used to tell them "The Council says so-and-so". And if we think someone is doing a job wrong, we tell them how to do it, provided we are sure ourselves. We're advisors __ customer's can really drain our brains and we get fed up with that. They come in and all they do is ask questions on how to do something. We get really wild sometimes if a builder comes in and asks questions, because builders should know anyway. It's the same if someone comes in calling himself a decorator, and asks how to put up wallpaper. Some people thing polystyrene tiles are used for sound-proofing, but when they come in we say,
forget it. Get a detached house."
Which is true. That's one of the things we do tell people, like people in Pop groups with 100-att amplifiers who want to practice in their front rooms. But we can't know everything. In one department you just can't learn, and even if you worked in all departments you'd have to be there ten years before you knew enough to get by, there are so many things __ screws, nails, LCC piping, drainage materials, water cylinder tanks, lagging sets, and so on. And some of the people who do the paper work are so busy they have to take work home __ they're crazy.
I know a lot of customers as regulars, especially the builders, because they are in so regularly. The shop is used as office in the morning by one firm. They meet there every day, drinking coffee, just using the place. We say.
the shop as an office, pay rent!"
They talk about what they're doing, where they're going to-day, what they need for the job. And they never buy any wallpaper.
Sometimes builders just come in for a chat if they're not working or if it's raining. They always have a moan at the architects because it's well known that they don't know what they're doing. For instance, they specify things that don't exist, like a style of brick that's not made, or an odd sized door.
Sometimes we get some rotten customers who treat us like dirt, so we treat them in the same way. Builders! They seem to be pretty tough people. They've got to be. They're all crooks. I think they're the most shady kind of people going. They're the most likely to do something crooked, to swindle you. There's some people I don't like to serve, but I won't have a go at them or tell them so. I just avoid them.
It's surprising how much builders know each other socially. When they go bankrupt, as a lot do, they often manage to carry on under a different name. There's a lot of business talk in the shop, because it's an obvious place where different firms can meet. It's the same in any trade __ if there's a particular shop that caters for just one trade, that trade can meet there. That's what happens where I work. The building trade meet there. That's what happens where I work. There building trade meet there and eventually get to know each other. We even introduce them to each other sometimes.
We don't rally regard what we do as a job. We get a wage once a week to do something. I just go there and serve people as they come in, and collect money for it at the end of the week. I have thought of leaving a few times, but they push up the wages when I mention it. Last year I was going to leave. I was really fed up. I said to myself,
I'll do, but I'm going to get out of it."
I gave in my notice, Two weeks later, my manager says,
"You're not going, because I am."
So I got a large wage increase to look after the place.
Then he came back, but I'm still on the same rate. Everybody has to negotiate their own wage __ there's nothing standardised.
A lot of young people who come to work here don't stay long, mainly, I suppose, because of the wages and because it's a boring life unless you've something else to think about. I work from 8.15 until 5.15, with an hour for lunch, and almost every Saturday morning. You get two weeks holiday a year and after you've been there two years you get three weeks. Sometimes when people leave, especially if they've been there a long time, there's a collection for a present. But the trouble is that when they leave, they die __ it's a well-known fact. A lot of them have been there all their lives. It's just their way of life. They know a lot, though some of them think they know a lot, but don't, or else knew a lot a few years ago, which is so completely out of fashion now that is doesn't bear any resemblance to to-day.
I pick up new knowledge by trying to read the trade magazines. Things don't really change that much, though, and if they do it's at a slow pace. You find out what's going on. Reps come in and have a talk, so we find out about new products. If we like the idea of a product, we'll stock it. For example, we sell ready-pasted wallpaper, although that's not new. It was done a long time ago and has been brought back. It's been done before. Now, though, a lot of it is vinyl, which is better than ordinary wallpaper.
The main thing that's changed in the seven years I have been working in the shop is that, whereas nearly all wallpaper used to be untrimmed, now it's nearly all trimmed. Another thing is it's a lot cleaner, because it's all wrapped up in, polythene. Also there's not so much dust, and you can see the patterns, which are more colourful. The other change is that our shop has been completely modernised. It's got a new racking system, with metal shelves, and the whole shop has been painted up, which got done when I threatened to leave. I decided before I left _ I told the managing director,
It had been like that for seven years. I couldn't stand it any more. So they did __ and did the whole place over at the same time.
I can always fill the time up. If I'm not very busy I lounge around or read some music paper, or Exchange and Mart. There is no music in there, but I'm not bothered to listen to a radio. The boss doesn't like it. He has made it known. If somebody has one on, hell tell them,
Once in a while we have jokes. We had one passed round a technical drawing thing of a water system. It's in three stages, Mark 1, Mark 2 and Mark 3, all drawn on a bit of paper. Mark 1 is the open version. For Mark 2, you fold the paper and you get a smaller version, a cheaper one. For Mark 3, the cheapest, you fold it again and you get just a toilet seat!
Another thing we do to pass the time is play games with the customers. When retail people come in sometimes we guess what they want before they finish off what they're going to say. They usually come in with set ideas. Sometimes they'll come in and say a size of something. I'll know there's only one thing of that size and I'll finish off the sentence __ for example, if they wan a "2 ounce " of something, that's a 2 ounce of Clam 7, because that's the only thing of that size we sell. Clam, 7 is a little tube of glue. We know. If they say they want something "18 inch", that's Fablon, because that's the only thing we've got that's 18 inches. If they say something "2 metes", that's polythene __ and so on. Sometimes we mess about and give them a whole lot of jargon, quick. Well give them a whole lot of sizes, because we really know them you know. There's only two of us, and we really know that place. That's why we can mess about. We've got to know the place __ otherwise we would be in trouble. We'll give them measurements __ for instance, if it's wallpaper with 21 inch width of printing, we'll tell them it's got 5% tolerance; or if it's 10.05 metres long we'll tell them it got one and one half percent tolerance and so on saying a whole lot of jargon to get them confused.
I'm going to stay in this job until something else comes up. But I don't look out for other jobs. I do want to change jobs, but I don't know to what. I can't think of one. I've never thought of going to Evening Classes or anything. I don't know what I'd do. I don't want to stay in this trade. I don't like the idea. It's not my scene. I have thought about working in a pawn shop, or a second-hand junk shop, because I know a bit about mechanical things like radios, cameras, musical instruments and stuff. A market stall selling second-hand radios would be nice. That would have to be a full-time thing, though, not part-time, because it would take up time. If you're going to do something, it has to be done properly. It's no use doing something unless you are sure you can do it.