A long time ago, in a work environment far, far away….
The year was 1976. It was autumn, and I was in the second year of my apprenticeship with Post Office Telecommunications – or BT as it has now become.
The beginning of that September saw me transferred from Exchange Maintenance to the Overhead and Underground unit, or Poles and Holes as we called them. Apprentices were rotated through every specialist section of BT telecommunications, so that they are exposed to all aspects of the business.
So far, I had enjoyed working with Subsciber Installations, Planning, Exchange Construction and Exchange Mintenance. I really wasn’t looking forward to working at the industrial end of the business -especially not during the onset of winter!
On my first day of training with them, I strolled into the Telephone Engineering Centre in the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinsead,
Opening my locker, I pulled my tool kit out, and whistling tunelessly, made my way into the restroom to grab some breakfast, and meet my mentors, before we set off into my next adventure.
I barged into the brightly lit rest room, which was noisy with laughter, and hazy with cigarette smoke. Damn – I just loved the smell of Old Holborn.
I poured myself a cup of tea from the enormous aluminium tea pot, gulping some down as I waited for my two slices of toast to pop. I had to quaff it reasonably quickly as it would have stripped the enamel from my teeth otherwise.
I used the opportunity to discretely assess my new team mates and trainers. In the far corner, sat a small and wizened man, whose leathery skin contrasted starkly with his silver-grey hair, which had been buzz cut to within 2 millimetres of his scalp.
He was chatting loudly with a man of simply enormous proportions, whose bulk leaked like decomposing blancmange into every crevice of the chair he was sitting in.
They were known to all as Laurel and Hardy. The smaller of the two was Jim Smith, and Mr. Blancmange was Bert Handy. I had heard through the grapevine, and from other apprentices, that they were both real characters, but Bert was also “A bit of a Perv.” Whether or not this would prove to be true remained to be seen.
I glanced again at the pair, and was rewarded to see Bert insert one large and grimy finger into his nostril, and enthusiastically start what looked like major excavation work. He didn’t even stop talking to Jim, who seemed oblivious of the fact that Bert was so avidly picking his nose.
So it was that I started this new and somewhat uninspiring part of my training.
My days consisted of driving out to some country lane, somewhere in the wilds of Sussex, looking for faults, or renewing spans of cable.
I had developed a simple routine to avoid the discomfort of wearing my armoured wellies all the time. I left my boots in the box section of the lorry, and simply sat on the bench, placing a foot into each wellie in turn.
The box section of the van contained all that a crew needed to perform its duties, from cables, joints, s calor gas burner, a bench with a vice and a whole spectrum of tools on racks on the inner walls.
The job was frequently a messy one, as the cables were filled with a vaseline type grease to prevent water penetrating the cable. When this was cut, or we were crimping joints together, this messy stuff would get everywhere.
The company had thoughtfully provided hand cleaner, and a couple of large pans for cleaning purposes. They were large and had a long wooden handle – for all the world like a Wok on steroids.
I had been soundly berated a few days after joining the section for preparing hot water for hand washing in the red handled pan. To be fair, I hadn’t been told otherwise.
It seems that the pan with red insulating tape wound round the handle was NOT used for hand washing, but for relieving oneself when working away from public lavatories. such as residential roads, and parts of town centres that had no public conveniences.
Everytime one of the lads needed to go, they would simply discretely climb into the back of the truck, use the red handled pan, and then empty this into the gutter, sluicing it away with water from the jerry cans on board.
So, cutting a long story short…
Once Laurel and Hardy got to know me, they used to fool around and joke.
On this particular morning, they were both very quiet, and I picked up an air of supressed anticipation.
I found out about this, when I sat dowm, popped my size nines into my wellies, stood up, and then face planted myself on the floor.
The rotten sods had screwed my wellies to the floor of the truck!
Oh, how I laughed.
Now, I am not a venegful person by any means, but my nose took a bit of damage in the incident, which caused much mirth and hilarity back at the yard. However, every dog has his day, and I planned my retaliatory mission with care.
The next day, we bumped and groaned our way into the back lanes around Hartfield, eventiually parking up not far from the place where A.A. Milne wrote the Winnie The Pooh stories.
Without delay, we set about locating the fault, and preparing the new piece of cable.
Bert straightened up, and slowly made his way back to the van, whilst Jim and I carried on crimping connectors onto the cable.
I watched as Bert climbed the steps and disappeared into the van, closing the door behind him.
I mentally counted…
“One, two three…” I reckoned it would take about six seconds. “four, five, six, seven….. ARGGGHHHH – You bastards!”
He came rocketing out of the van with the pan in his hand, slopping liquid everywhere. He bent and emptied it into the gutter, and advanced up the road in a very threatening manner.
His overalls had a horizontal wet line running across his upper thighs – in fact he appeared to be soaked in a broad stripe about two inches wide.
It’s amazing what a 1/16th drill can do if applied to a red-handled pan in a circular fashion.
Jim just looked at me. “You nutty bugger!”
Bert was still fuming by lunchtime, but I think he forgave me later, when his overalls had dried out.
There is a further episode to this ongoing battle of wits (or should I say half-wits) but that willl have to wait for another time.
This is a modified extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – A Salesman’s Story (or Don’t Spend the Commission)
It was a rainy day in mid-April. The year was 1980, and I was approaching my 21st Birthday. Despite the overcast day, I was feeling happy, contended and confident. I was sitting in a queue of traffic, which, as was normal for the small West Sussex market town of East Grinstead, was at a standstill. Light drizzle was spattering the windscreen, distorting the outline of the cars ahead.
I idly flicked the wipers, and they stammered their way across the window in a reluctant arc, redistributing the greasy water around the glass. Out of boredom, I turned on the radio. Martha and the Muffins were extolling the virtues of Echo Beach. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, and checked out my image, which was faintly reflected in the window of Baldwin’s, the local Hardware store.
I congratulated myself on my obviously cool look. Despite the gloom and the rain, red framed mirror-finished sunglasses, and a snappy beige three-piece suit can’t fail to impress. You can’t be too under dressed working as an Office Equipment Field Sales Executive can you?
My first appointment was to see the Chief Purchasing Officer of the local Borough Council, who was interested in buying a small photocopier for the planning office.
I do not trust copiers, they are fickle and I am sure they are fitted at the time of manufacture with a malevolent force.
In the early 1980s, the choice for copiers at the low volume end of the market were limited. For very low users, 3M manufactured a small machine that used specially treated paper and a thermal imaging system, and copies were performed individually.
For medium users, there were compact copiers from a variety of manufacturers, but whilst they all operated on a photographic process, some required liquid toner to produce the image, rather than the dry black powder toner used today.
Arriving at the Town Hall, I informed the receptionist that I was there to see Mr Maskell, the Town Clerk to demonstrate a copier.
A few minutes later Mr Maskell arrived, looking a little like a flustered Secretary Bird. He showed me to a large open plan office, which had been freshly decorated, and still smelled of adhesives and paint.
The floor had been laid in black and white carpet tiles, and I felt as if I were a pawn in a forthcoming chess match.
I realised that all was not well when Mr Maskell started getting an odd look in his eyes. He was desperate to interrupt, but I was in full flow, and he was a courteous man, so the first inkling that I had that there was a problem, was when toner fluid suddenly gushed from the machine, vomiting out in a greenish stream, soaking my hand, trouser leg, and flooding onto the carpet tiles below.
“Oh God!” he shrieked, “It’s a brand new carpet –tell me it won’t damage or stain the carpet!”
I decided to play it cool and unflappable. “Of course it won’t Sir” I replied, hoping fervently that I was right. “It’s completely inert, and won’t hurt the carpet.”
He calmed down visibly, and remaining in position, I completed my demonstration. Having seen the quality of the copies, he seemed impressed, so I moved in for the kill.
“Will you be purchasing or leasing the copier?” I asked.
“Oh, outright purchase” he replied airily “We never rent anything at the Council”
“Come this way, and I’ll see that Doreen raises the requisition and the necessary paperwork” He strode off towards the stairwell, and I moved to follow him – and almost fell over.
With sickening realisation, and a sense of impending doom, I looked down, and realised with horror, that I appeared to have a black carpet tile stuck to my left shoe, and a white tile struck to my right.
I furtively tugged at it, but it seemed that the fluid was in fact a solvent, which had bonded the plastic sole of my shoe to the acrylic surface of the tile. Looking round anxiously, I slipped out of my shoes, and attempted to rip them free, but all I succeeded in doing was pulling both tiles from the floor.
At that moment, Mr Maskell reappeared, concerned that I wasn’t following him.
He immediately assessed the situation and was evidently not happy to see a red-faced suited bloke apparently wrenching his floor up. He escorted me to his office, where Doreen kindly cut round the shoes with scissors, leaving each one with a new sole, one white, one black.
With profuse apologies, I withdrew from the Town Hall, embarrassed and sweating, assuring Mr Maskell that the company would pay for the damage.
He did eventually forgive me, and ultimately I did get the order but lost most of the commission in repair bills.
My second brush with copiers came about two weeks later when Geoff Brown asked me to help him demonstrate a Mita Copystar DC-161 copier to a firm of solicitors in Horsham.
I was always keen to help my colleagues, as I learned a lot at these sessions.
“The Mita DC-161 is a beast” I looked at Geoff and wondered quite what he meant.
“It’s VERY heavy, and you need to keep a straight back to lift it. You must lift with your knees. It’s very definitely a two man lift, and it’s not very maneuverable, particularly up and down stairs, so we always take the lift”
I eyed the pink and white monster with a degree of trepidation. It was large, measuring about 4 feet long, by 2 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep. It had a state of the art control panel on the right hand side, and a large plastic cover over the copying bed. It also cost a whopping £3000, so would attract commission in the region of £600.00!
Geoff continued, explaining that in order to carry it, we would need to use his car, a Ford Cortina Mk III Estate, and use the Demtruck, which was a small trolley that could be swiftly dismantled to enable the copier to be slid in and out of the vehicle without breaking the backs of the staff.
So, having loaded the beast, we cruised over to Horsham, and parked up outside the solicitor’s office. It was an old building, so there would be no lift to assist us, and worse still it was a three-storey building.
We wheeled the trolley into reception, and were instructed to carry the machine up to the third floor.
Geoff motioned me to one end of the machine, and I pulled the carry handles from their concealed recesses within the copiers body, and keeping a straight back, and a rigid posture, we hobbled our way to the foot of the stairwell.
Geoff then manoeuvred me so that I would have to ascend the steep flight of stairs in reverse – and, to my chagrin, I realised that he had also slyly ensured that I had the heavy end of the machine containing the bonding rollers.
I began to dot and carry myself up the stairs, puffing with the exertion. Each step was an act of faith, in that my foot would land squarely onto the stair tread. I couldn’t see down, as the copier impeded my view; I couldn’t look behind me, as I was rigid, and my arms were locked straight down
“Am I at the top yet Geoff?” I grunted.
“Couple more mate” He panted
I shuffled a further two agonising steps, and asked again “Am I there yet Geoff?”
“Yep!” came his wheezing response.
Instead of then lifting my foot, I moved it straight back, and immediately discovered that Geoff had lied to me…
There was another step.
At this moment the twin laws of gravity and impetus conspired against me, and I gracefully and inevitably toppled backwards, still holding the copier, which now slowly settled upon my chest.
I was now trapped, lying flat on my back, pinned to the flight of stairs by what felt like half a ton of copier.
“Gerrritoffme!” I shouted to Geoff.
“I can’t mate, he replied, I can’t let go of this end, or the whole sodding lot lands on you or carts us both off down the stairs.!”
The situation got worse, as I suddenly saw the funny side of my predicament, and I started laughing which was a bad move as the copier now lovingly wriggled and pressed harder into my chest.
“HELP!” bellowed Geoff, “Help”
After a couple of minutes, the partners appeared at the top of the stairs. My heart sank, as all of them, appeared to be somewhere between eighty and death – how could they help?
With much huffing and puffing, and the help from an amply bosomed matronly secretary, we got the copier into the office where Geoff proceeded to demonstrate its capabilities.
An hour later, and we were happily wandering back to the car.
“So what finally persuaded them to take it?” I asked. Shooting me a big grin, he replied “I told them that if they didn’t order it, then they would have to help me carry it back down the stairs to the car!”
A few days later, I received a call from Neville Fuller, who asked me to supply him with a copier. Having discussed the various models and price options with him, we decided that a re-conditioned Sharp machine would do the trick, and I made an appointment to see him that Tuesday.
Now, I should explain here, that Neville Fuller was a courtly “Old School” gentleman, a retired accountant who now ran a small consultancy from his home. His wife was a very elegant, house-proud woman, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple – even down to her fondness for wearing tweed two-piece outfits and pearls. They lived in a beautiful custom-built bungalow at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of East Grinstead.
Before going further, I should tell a little about my company car. I was given a 1978 blue Vauxhall Chevette estate car. It was, to put it bluntly, an amazingly, stupendously awful car. It was a true bitch to start, especially in the wet, handled like a trifle, and leaked water. Its only redeeming feature was a radio-cassette player, and even that was highly temperamental. Unreliable, despite the best efforts of Whites in Redhill, it broke down regularly, and was referred to as the Vauxhall Shove-it.
The latest fault to afflict this self-propelled scrap heap was that the parking brake could not be fully applied, despite the handbrake lever being applied so much that the handle pointed vertically at the roof. I was therefore quite cautious as to where I parked.
On the day of the appointment, I swung the car into the cul de sac, and executed a precision three-point turn, smoothly reversing down the drive. I stabbed the radio switch, rendering Sad Cafe silent.
I threw open the door, and grabbed my jacket from the hanger behind the driver’s seat. Patting my hair down, I strode to the front door, and pressed the doorbell.
Neville Fuller opened the door, and I proffered my business card, and introduced myself, whilst stifling a degree of incredulity.
For a second I was totally nonplussed – he was wearing what I can only describe as a Victorian Gentleman’s smoking gown, complete with a cravat in a lurid paisley design. Regaining my composure, I put my briefcase down, and stood patiently in the small porch.
Neville took my card, and peered at it, “Ahhh, the copier man. You’d better come in” he said, standing aside and indicating the chintzy hall beyond.
At that moment a loud, dull, echoing, thud interrupted the birdsong.
As if in slow motion, we both turned to see what had caused the noise, and I was astounded to see that my car had decided to make its way down the remaining 6 feet of the drive, and had now come to rest with its rear bumper lovingly contained in the warped embrace of the once pristine up and over door.
“Ohmigod I’m sorry Mr. Fuller” I blurted, I will move it….”
I jumped into the car, started it up, and gently eased forwards, amidst the sound of rending plastic and distorting mild steel.
Resetting the hand brake, I took the precaution of engaging first gear, to prevent my car further raping my customer’s garage.
Neville was busy inspecting his door, so I joined him to review the damage.
“Is it bad?” I enquired.
“No – don’t worry, its popped back into shape, and the paint is just a bit scuffed, but it needed re-painting anyway”
This was very generous of him, as the glossy almost mirror finish clearly indicated that the door was virtually brand new.
“Would you like a coffee?” he asked as we walked into his smart bungalow.
“If that’s not too much trouble, that would be good. White with two please”
“I say Daphne, bring a coffee, white with two” he bellowed into the inner sanctum of his home.
He ushered me into his office, which was quite compact, and quite dwarfed by a huge desk, literally strewn with papers
“Where would you like me to demonstrate the copier?” I asked.
“Oh, just on the desk there will be fine” he said, swiftly gathering up stacks of paper, thus clearing a space on the desk.
Luckily the model of copier that I was about to demonstrate was a refurbished Sharp machine, one that used a black carbon powder to create the copies. It also had a bed that moved left and right upon which the original document was placed.
Being a fairly current model, it was light enough to be carried by a single person, and it had a reasonably low profile, but as a result, it was also quite wide – certainly not wide enough to be carried in a flat level upright manner through a standard UK internal doorway.
I discovered this as I was attempting to carry the machine into the office.
Approaching the doorway, I found that the copier was too wide by about 6 inches, taking my arms into account. I smoothly turned my body through ninety degrees, and tilted the copier towards my chest, thus giving ample room for me to shuffle in sideways through the door.
And that is where the plan came unstuck. Tilting the copier so far from its normal horizontal caused the black carbon toner to spill from the machine.
I heard a loud dull thud as about a kilo of toner hit the pristine white carpet at my feet, and I was temporarily enveloped in a cloud of cloying black dust. Mr. Fuller made a small squeaking sound, and through the stygian haze, I could see that his eyes were bulging, and he had a stricken look on his face.
I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to move, for fear of further contaminating the snowy white floor.
“Darling!” he croaked, “Would you please fetch the vacuum cleaner – quickly please”
I was impressed with his sang-froid. I had just obliterated about two square metres of luxury Persian carpet with fine black dust – carpet-bombing in its purest form.
I gingerly placed the sooty copier on the desk, and looked at the devastation.
Mrs. Fuller arrived with the vacuum cleaner, and took in the scene with one glance. “Ohh! She exclaimed – I’ll go and get the Shake and Vac!”
“No!” I yelped. You mustn’t rub it or it will bond to the fibres of the carpet”
I plugged the vacuum in, and gingerly sucked up the vast majority of the toner, leaving only a small patch of carpet with dark black staining, – the original point of impact.
Completing my task, I looked up to see Mr. Fuller looking at me in a bemused way over the top of his half-moon glasses.
“Err…. I don’t suppose you will still want to see the copier after this” I said, gesturing to the mess on the floor.
“Well – you’re here now” he said, “So you might as well show it to me”
Generous gesture, that.
So, I plugged in the machine, and eventually had it producing crystal clear copies of ledgers, letters and forms.
I plucked up the courage to ask if I could “fill in the paperwork”, and to my amazement, he happily filled in the Rental Agreement, thus committing himself to a three year contract, and earning me just over eighty pounds in commission.
I left a darn sight happier than his insurance company would be, having to shell out for a repair to a garage door, and the cleaning of most of the downstairs fitted carpets – all of which had been contaminated to a lesser extent, despite our care in not walking in the insidious powder.
And this is how I know that copiers are most definitely the work of the devil…