One of my first questions when I got home was “Where’s Les?” I hadn’t received a letter telling me that he had decided to stay in the army. I’d been relying on my older brother to help me find my way socially. I’d left civilian life at 16 and was virtually about to have a delayed late adolescence. His absence was a blow.
In India there’d been a notice on the board inviting applications for a Business Training Scheme. I put my name down but it was one of those things you apply for not really expecting to get but you never know your luck. At that time there had been no or very little formal preparation for a life in business. MBA courses came much later. You’d have thought that picking trainees would have meant assembling a high-powered interview board. I don’t remember going before such a thing but I did have to meet a shabby little middleaged clerk in the middle of an open plan office at the Labour Exchange.
Throughout the war I’d never told anybody, not even my best mates, that I’d joined up underage. Now I felt I could be open about it but the little man was horrified. “Don’t say that! Don’t say that!” At an age when I was exempt I had volunteered to try to defend my country against imminent invasion but it seemed that that was a shameworthy action. However I was accepted for the scheme and it began with a 3 month course in the basics of business at Loughborough Technical College (now Loughborough University.) Most of the others on the course were former officers. Now they were my equals and that was a big adjustment. There were about 25 of us, all male with the exception of one Czech girl. Rather to my surprise I was the one to whom she was attracted and I took her out a few times.
One Saturday I took her to a football match (soccer for the inhabitants of a certain former Colony). It was a cup tie, the ground was packed and the crowd very excited and noisy. Elisabeth turned to me at halftime and said “I thought the English weren’t emotional.” I told her that they weren’t about trivial things like politics and religion but when it came to something important it was a very different matter.
After the course the Government found berths for us with various firms. Another man and I were assigned to a firm of toy manufacturers in Northampton. In yet another example of how your life’s course can be changed by an arbitrary decision over which you have no control, Steve was allocated to the factory and I was put in the office.
The idea was that you would spend 2 years as a trainee, moving from department to department as was done formerly with the sons of company founders. During that time the government would pay us a weekly allowance that was just about enough to live on but not much more. The firms were able, if they wished, to supplement our pittance with an ex gratia payment. Our firm didn’t for a very long time.
I soon learned that a day or two watching the others work was more than enough. Instead I looked for the most menial worker in the department, often a girl called Maisie. I’d sit down beside her, ask her to show me what she did and then ask if I could help. Shortly Maisie would go sick or leave and I would be Maisie. When it was time to move to another section they didn’t want to let me go. It was cheap labour for the firm and excellent experience for me.
I was in digs only about 100 metres from work. Closeness was a mixed blessing. If you’re cutting it fine you can usually make up a bit of time. On such a short distance I’d need to have been an Olympic sprinter. My landlady was a nice but slightly strange lady. She did the football pools every week. I asked her what she would do if she won. As she didn’t seem to understand the question I made some suggestions. Buy a new house? “We’ve lived here all our lives, why would we want to move?” Buy some new furniture? “What’s wrong with this furniture?” Perhaps you might go on a holiday. “We went to Bournemouth once for two weeks but we couldn’t stand it and we came back after a week.” There was absolutely nothing she wanted. I don’t know whether she bet on the horses, probably not, but she would sit on the floor with newspapers spread around her studying trainers, jockeys, form and weights although I don’t think she really understood the latter. I heard her exclaim to herself. “Huh! That’s never going to win anything. It’s a very small horse. It’s only 7 stone 6.” (47kg) next