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Thursday, May 25, 2006
Places we lived in (Nr 2)
Places we lived (Nr 2)-Civil Service and London 2nd time around!
I didn’t have a great deal of luck after my Army Service, and before re-joining (this time as a Civilian).
Just to bring you up to date, I had spent my years in the Army in the fashion described elsewhere (look in the various sites), had gotten myself married, had decided to quit the Army, and had been looking forward to a certain amount of time “relaxing”.
None of that! In typical Army fashion, my release papers were signed the 31st March, and my engagement contract with Her Majesty’s Home Civil Service was dated the 28th March!
I never did get around to checking whether I was paid by BOTH for these 3 or 4 days!
Anyway, there I was, installed in an office at St. James’s Square, not far from the Strand, just around the corner from Whitehall, where my once upon a time Regimental compatriots would shortly be doing their tour, on horses!
The amalgamation of the Regiment, The Royal Dragoons, 1st Dragoons (The Royals), with the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) was about to take place, and I had profited to say “bye-bye” – I simply didn’t fancy the idea of horses, and parading on Whitehall uniforms, although I doubt very much whether this would have affected me, as one of the very few “bearded” serving soldiers. I preferred not to chance it, and had quit.
A more detailed account of my leaving is given in my Berlin article, already published.
Now, Civil Servant me wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be either civil or a servant, but I had to show willing, and I found my duties involved travelling up and down the country looking into various Employment Offices, going to their Sports Days etc.
I was a sort of “roaming reporter” for the Dept of Employment House Magazine “TEMPO”.
This hadn’t too pleased my wife, but at least it was based in London, and she could work back in her Hospital, Guy’s Hospital at London, where she had trained, some years before.
I was often absent, particularly at weekends, since sports days always seemed to take place on Saturday’s, but as time went on, I got the hang of things, and arranged to be at home most of the weekends.
After some months in this occupation, during which I had the pleasure to be swarmed over by all types of people, from Branch Managers down to office girls, who all wanted their photos in the magazine, my true values were finally appreciated, and at the expense of a promotion, I was transferred to HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationary Office) and had the dubious honour to become sub-editor of the world's oldest newspaper, the London Gazette. For those of you who don't know it, the London Gazette really IS the world's oldest newspaper, but has, for centuries, belonged to Government, and is used for Official announcements, including the honours lists, and Bankruptcy notices! I never did see a cartoon in it, although some of the content was highly amusing, if very tragic. I was stationed at St. Stephen's Parliamentary Press, and my job consisted in editing HUNDREDS of bankruptcy and other official notices, like Army promotions etc., none of which are official until published in the Gazette! At first, this was an interesting job, but rapidly became more a sort of public relations exercise between the Printing Unions and the Civil Service. Didn't always work, because those Printing Unions are full of obstinate, stubborn b*****s, who aim is simply the promotion of chaos!
This was towards the end of the 1970’s, and it appeared that we had missed all the “swingin’ London” stuff, but this didn’t upset us in the slightest, since we had been having “swingin’ Berlin” and “Swingin’ Germany” to get on with, a full time occupation, and actually we were looking forward to a calmer period.
One of the first things which had to be done, both of us now installed in so-called “responsible” jobs, was somewhere better to live, and this was concluded with the purchase of a 2 bedroom flat in Thornton Heath, a London Suburb, with train connections to London Bridge and to Charing Cross stations, which allowed both of us the transport required.
At the time, the price of £3,500 seemed to be rather expensive, but since it was over 25 years (!!!!!!!!) we went for it! This apparently covered us for accommodation, at least for the lease period of 99 years, after which we considered other arrangements may be necessary!
So there we were. After many years of globe-trotting, we found ourselves installed like the majority of the main backbone of the British Empire/Commonwealth, being civil, being servants and taking care of sick people, and all this for a mere pittance!
Calmer period? Did I say that?
Well – from the beginning it all went wrong, with the Old Boys Association (Old Grammarians) of the School I went to years before, in Streatham, requiring my presence every weekend to play either cricket or football, depending on the season, and eventually requiring the services of my wife for the Cricket lunches and teas, and the final calling to arrange the clubhouse bar and serve on the Social committees etc!
A very typical, normal, civilian life!
At first, any spare time we had was spent in re-visiting the places I had known years before, with which you are acquainted, Gordon’s Wine Bar (and George – who was still alive and working there), the Festival Club at Bridge’s Place, the ex-neighbour who had introduced me to all this at the time, Bill Newton (still alive, and not even retired), and we now added “The Civil Service Club” and various Army Clubs to our list, which were handy places, to replace others which had been closed over the years.
The “Brasserie” at the Strand Corner House had unfortunately been closed, and replaced by a thing called “The Showboat”. We gave it a try, but the show was lousy, and the food even worse, so we confined our trips to the Corner House to the Carving Room, the Trident, and occasionally The Grillroom.
In the Civil Service Club (situated at the time in the Whitehall) we had access to a waiter Restaurant, or a self-service thing, neither of which were very good, but filled the function of a snack-bar after using the clubs facilities. I recall using the indoor “golf driving range” (Which consisted of a small, sweaty room with a sort of mostiquo net anchored in the ceiling, on the walls, and contained a small piece of green carpeting with a rubber “tee”, from which one hammered golf balls, and hoped the net would stop them ricocheting back from the walls, to knock you unconscious!). There were, of course the customary “civil Service” indeed “Empire” occupations, snooker and billiards, and others. Newspapers lay around all over the Library, and there was still a waiter drinks service! All rather similar to a Warrant Officer and Sergeant’s Mess, except you didn’t have to jump up and down all the time, and (of course) there were women allowed all the time!
Actually, it was interesting to see that the female percentage was very feeble, considering that the Home Civil Service was practically run by women at the time, but I suppose they all suffered from that disease called “secondary occupation – Housewife”!
Anyway the Civil Servants Club in Central London was quite useful at the time, and the Sports Club, which was outside London, was quite enormous, and consisted of almost any sport you could imagine, even Polo (at the time). We didn’t spend a great deal of time at the Sports Club, being deeply involved with my Old Boys Club, the Old Grammarians, situated at Burntwood Lane, in Wandsworth.
So you see – life seemed to have taken a turn for the “normality”, and I dare say that had we stayed in the run of things, we probably would have become European Civil Servants, and therefore millionaires, just a few years later, but destiny took a hand!
Personally I started suffering from the “old soldiers” disease – a sort of “fed- up- staying- in- one- place- too- long- syndrome”, often to be seen with ex-Army people (families as well) and due to the almost permanent moving around which the Army service requires.
Although I enjoyed the work, the sport, the London lifestyle, it all seemed to be limited, and we could never go on Holiday – in fact the first holiday we ever had in our married life was years later, from West Berlin to Southern Spain. This wasn’t due to financial difficulties, although not over-rich, we were almost “comfortable” but was due more to commitments in the Capital over the whole year.
I recall one year that we actually had 14 days free, for us, and we decided to spend them in the Capital, doing things we couldn’t otherwise do (lack of time), and going places close by which we would never have time to visit under normal circumstances.
We re-visited all the old haunts – Kew Gardens, but my friends of once- upon- a -time had moved to Bermuda (who says gardeners don’t have fun), and in any case, I wouldn’t have had the time to play cards or Tennis with them. In fact I was hugely pleased to find myself playing Cricket, twice a year, on the Village green, in front of one of the entrances to Kew Gardens, just before Putney Bridge. It was a lovely, traditional scene, and to take your place at the wicket, the batsman had to cross the main road, bat in hand, as though he was prepared to attack any vehicle which dared to come too close.
I had the pleasure to hit, every year, at least one six, into the Grounds of Kew Gardens! It was a sort of traditional “thank you” to my friends of long ago!
I also took up (or rather recommenced) the ancient Scottish sport of Golf. I had played a little in the Army, particularly in West Berlin, where everything was free- Clubs, balls equipment, green fees, everything! Now, of course, it was different, and clubs had to be bought, green fees paid (although not as expensive as nowadays). My first outing came as the result of finding a Japanese furniture shop/chain, called “MFI” who offered a half-set of clubs (Japanese of course) together with bag, trolley and hundreds of balls for a reasonable price, so off I went!
I rapidly found out that practice was essential, and after losing some fifty of my 150 balls, in around 9 holes of golf, I decided that I would go back first of all to the Civil Service club!!
I did, finally, get the hang of it back again, and the highlight in my golfing life was the winning of the Old Grammarians Annual Golf Meeting (As the then President, Charlie l’Archer declared would be the “one and only time”) and upsetting the carefully laid plans of the committee to award the first prize of luxury travel suitcases to one of their own!
So there we were, travel-willing, and now with a whole set of luxury suitcases!
A couple more years were to pass before finally we both had had enough and the apartment went up for sale.
My wife had decided that my life as a Civil Servant was too enticing, and applied for a position herself. She was engaged as an EO (Executive Officer), and posted to the DHSS (Social Security) in Balham, which was just a couple of stations down the line from home. She hoped to enjoy a similarly quiet life as myself, but had unfortunately chosen the wrong Department!
She found herself in charge of the Section responsible for tracking down husbands who didn’t pay, and although she enjoyed the detective work, she couldn’t stand seeing the abject husbands in front of the beak! She came to an arrangement with a male colleague that she did the detective work, and he occupied himself with the courts!
None the less, she had a lot to do! Around this time was also a period of “letter bombings”, and as one of the senior people, she had to take her turn at supervising the opening of mail, “suspicious” or not. I am glad to say that she didn’t find anything, although just a couple of months later a colleague was badly injured in an incident, in the same office.
This stint at Balham enabled us to discover a couple of wonderful little Greek restaurants in the area, where the food was great, cheap, copious, and the evenings were always accompanied with Greek music and dancing. Quite an experience!
Finally those new suitcases had their opportunity! We both were able to find employment back in Germany, and as a member of the “Overseas Civil Service” I found myself in the singular position of actually working for the Army, in the same Barracks in Detmold, in which I had been stationed, once upon a time!
My wife, who never had any problems to find work in all our travels, had been employed by the local hospital, who snapped at the chance of a Guy’s trained, English Nurse.
The flat was sold - we got £4,000 – having paid £3,500 and were enormously pleased with ourselves, until I found out that just one year later, the thing was re-sold for £12,000!
I had tried to rent it out, but the only prospective tenant withdrew after just one month. He was Indian, and Thornton Heath didn’t have any Indian population at the time!
So it was that we left London, for the last time (apart from short visits) and started completely anew abroad.
London will still rest in my mind as one of my favourite places in the world - and I know quite a few!
(The next episode should deal with one or two episodes in our life in Germany).