May the Fourth – The Day I Started Work

Today – 4th May is my ‘Started Work Day’ anniversary. I always remember it, my first day at work in a proper full-time job. I arrived dressed in a 3-piece navy pinstriped Austin Reed suit, grey shirt and red tie (no photo – see below). All set to work in an insurance office in the City of London. It was a start with the promise of half-decent salary, and an offer to relocate out of London with the Head Office after a year. The clincher was the offer of a subsidised mortgage (with additional relocation finance package) to buy my own place affording me the chance to leave home at the age of 21. It wasn’t my dream job, that was in radio and TV broadcasting, but it gave me a stepping stone to an independent life.

It was the 1980s. ‘Yuppies’ hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon, there were no mobile phones, and offices were reliant on paper-based systems where handwritten memos jostled for desk space with typed communiques, files, letters, and printed literature. Post trays filled and emptied as hurried messengers and couriers circulated correspondence, folders, batches of index cards, and documents of every size and weight between departments, buildings, or into the waiting Royal Mail vans ready to deliver to the rest of London, the UK, and the World – no networked desktop computers, Microsoft Windows or Office (and over a decade before the internet first appeared). The grip of the unions had been loosened, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was forging ahead with building a new enterprising Britain throwing off shackles of the past – a new dawn was rising.

The City of London, Britain’s financial centre was still a male-dominated domain comprised of the UKs major financial, trading and insurance institutions, banks, offices, pubs, wine/ale bars, dining rooms, sandwich bars, and the occasional jewellers and men’s tailoring shops. The City then emptied by 7pm in the evening and was a ghost town during the weekend.

No trendy jeans, dressing-down or designer suits as such for regular office workers. Conservative dress was the order of the day, often sourced from Savoy Tailor’s Guild, Moss Bros, and Burtons, where a suit was a necessary uniform and comb-overs were still prominent amongst ageing balding gents who preferred a pint, a smoke and a pie in the local bar instead of jogging to the local gym at lunchtime. Women clad in Jaeger, Dotty P’s, and Marks&Sparks chose to wrap themselves in Burberry raincoats and scarves, and bravely stuck to court shoes and small heals for their commute. Their ‘new romantics inspired’ flicked hair was morphing into perms and semi-perms as hair got bigger and new opportunities began to open up beyond the typing pool and personal assistant roles. People didn’t cycle to work unless you were a postman – alternatively that was for the eccentric and those of questionable hygiene and lifestyle, hence the conformity of office wear and ‘dress codes’ for so many. Lunches could be leisurely, alcohol consumption before, during (in some cases) and after work went ‘unfrowned upon’ and was completely accepted nee urged in some work places and industries.  It didn’t matter if you were pissed, as long as you were wearing a collar and tie (jacket/suit) and ‘kept your head down’. Flexitime, clocking in and out, lunch hours, and morning/afternoon coffee/tea breaks were de rigueur for most, and smoking in the office or mostly anywhere was normal.

Anonymity and personal privacy was the norm for nearly everyone, and you weren’t reachable 24/7 but only contacted when you happened to be in at home or at work to answer a landline phone or receive a letter. You could easily ‘disappear’ for days or weeks if you chose to. If meeting someone you’d prearrange a date, time, and location, and if you were late those you were meeting would either wait or move on without you – no texts or calls to say you’re running behind.

Photographing yourself was unthinkable or would be laughed at, and only tolerated on annual holidays or special occasions with a prepared camera loaded with film. Only company directors, famous people, The Queen, politicians, sportsmen, models and actors/musicians/artists sat for and had portrait photos. Other people who did so were regarded as extremely vain or suspiciously. Exceptions were made for ID or passport photos. Regular ‘picture taking’ was left to the Press ‘snappers’, professional photographers and passionate amateurs who developed their film in the darkness of their blacked-out spare rooms or broom cupboards – living for the moment when they would shoot that special image of a perky tit in their garden, or a pair on an ambitious young local girl with dreams of modelling in magazines and Page 3 of ‘The Sun’.

Looking back I still remember in detail those times, how much has changed, and how much hasn’t. I witnessed a colourful array of characters in my new world of work. The contrast of the young twenty-somethings with the old guard, some of whom were nearing retirement age that were closer to my Grandpa’s age and who’d worked with him in the post-war years through the 1950s and 60s. Then you could still expect a ‘job for life’, companies absorbed you into their whole fabric so you became ‘part of the furniture’, and subsidised staff canteens fed you cheaply. Many would clock up years and decades of service to one company, or at least the same industry where you’d be awarded a ‘gold watch’ for 25+ years service, with a guarantee of receiving a decent pension when reaching retirement age having paid off your mortgage several years before.

I made some good friends that first year with whom I’m still in touch even now decades later, and the lessons learnt in those early days still inform and support everything I’ve learnt and built upon since those few years in the insurance industry. Still so much more I plan to do in my ‘working life’, as I’m only halfway through. Bring it on! May the Fourth be with you!

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