I’m spinning some plates just now. As well as pulling together all the short fiction I wrote during 2017 for a new anthology, Life In A Conversation, and reworking the very first book I wrote, I’m getting close to finalising my sequel to my first published novel, Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle. This new book is loosely based around my first real job, as a trainee solicitor in the West End of London – what was then called an Articled Clerk which was as Dickensian as it sounds. Re-reading the opening chapters brought back many memories of that first terrifying year in work.
The firm of solicitors that had, madly, offered me two years of employment were a three partner firm in Welbeck Street, a rather dull north-south road of terraced properties, formerly houses but now mostly professional offices – lawyers, doctors, dentists, surveyors, ne’er-do-wells and other charlatans.
The senior partner was a fifty something man of rotund aspect, and jovial in everything unless you were asking for legal advice when he tended to favour the rabbit-in-the-headlights aspect. We will call him Mr Botts, which is close enough. He had a Christian name but one so lowly as me did not dare utilise it. He didn’t mind but his secretary – let us call her Elsie – did, a formidable matron whose horn-rimmed glasses were liable to combust were one to be so egregiously familiar.
Mr Botts was notionally in charge but the real power lay with the next most senior partner. Heather – also near enough – insisted on Christian names. She juggled the requirements of the practice with those of her daughter and husband, both of whom needed as much discreet attention as did the law firm. She was amazing. Without her I think I might have taken to burger flipping. Her secretary – shall we say Sharon? – was a twenty-something woman who appeared at first blush to be quiet, withdrawn almost but who understood what Heather needed and provided her with insightful and continuous support. Elsie, and the other super-old secretary Jane came across as the powers behind the thrones and while it suited Heather and Sharon to let them release of significant quantities of steam, when the chips were down you knew who’d eventually come out on top.
The junior partner was Paul. He was made partner at a ridiculously young age and was doing a pretty good job of it. It took me the best part of the two years I was there to realise both how well he was doing and how little he really knew. He had inherited a rather good secretary of the Elsie school – the aforesaid Jane – who enjoyed nothing better than seeing Elsie slip up. If the outside world ever interrupted their cold warring, they were formidable allies but left to their own devices they were as devious as a bunch of psychopathic cats.
Into this mix I was dropped one bright March day in 1979. I was seated in an enormous room on the first floor with Paul, ostensibly to help him but in practice getting most work and most help from Heather. Her room was a further flight up, half the size and organised in a way which suggested it had recently been bombed.
That first day I realised there were two terrifying pieces of technology that I had to get to grips with: the dictaphone and the telephone.
Ok, so I’d used a phone before but not to make a business call. And not in the earshot of my boss who could listen in on my patent incompetence and – as he often did – correct me. This was usually after I’d finished but occasionally I’d look up to find him frantically waving his hands, making a cutting motion across his throat. That gesture contained a frightening ambiguity. It could mean he wanted me to end the call as soon as was polite. More likely, to my by now befuddled and terrified mind he could be indicating that what I had just said would mean he was going to decapitate me at the soonest convenient juncture.
There was an inevitability, therefore to my use of the phone. I’d wait until he left the room and try and cram in as many calls as I could while he was wherever he was.
However, even employing this stratagem I was only one third of the way through the torment of phone usage. You see – and I know I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious here – a phone call, if successfully made, requires another participant. This someone would have to listen to me, react to whatever I managed to say and, no doubt form a fairly instant impression that my law firm had employed a barely legible halfwit – though ‘half’ is possibly on the generous side.
I recall one early task I was allotted: to discover the right temperature at which commercial supplies of blackberries should be frozen. You may well be asking why this was relevant and I will suggest that you merely enjoy the luxury of not knowing. Were I to begin to explain the purpose of this abstruse enquiry to you, I feel sure you would feel obliged to gnaw off a handy body part before I was even halfway through.
Indeed such was the absurdity of the task, such was the convoluted explanation I had to give that several of the people I called chose to share with me some salty Anglo-Saxon, which while not helping me with my task, was understandable.
Nothing, however, not even this oral torture prepared me for the use of the dictaphone. This device, unknown to today’s youthful workforce as they type their own emails provided a method whereby all correspondence I was required to prepare could be recorded on a small cassette tape and given to one of a number of secretaries who inhabited a typing pool. ‘Typing Pool’ is redolent of water and cocktails and expensive holidays but here it was situated in a basement room without windows in which three novice secretaries sat and typed. I was one of several junior members of staff who worked for the partners who gave these young women work – not forgetting two ancient consultants who rented office space from law firm and the use of a typist (more of these two aged souls anon, perhaps another post).
Re-reading this paragraph, I can see there is so much that will make no sense to today’s office inhabitant. ‘Cassette’ and ‘typist’ and ‘correspondence’. How far have we come? How low have we sunk?
I dictated letters and telexes – don’t ask, just read this – conveying our queries and responses and advices to many and varied recipients and these were turned into ‘hard copies’ in the typing pool. Pretty straightforward?
If Paul would occasionally proffer a suggestion as to how I might improve my telephone manner, he was almost fixated with getting me to correct my dictation. And – and let’s be honest here – it was a fucking minefield.
‘Dear Sir’… You can’t go wrong, can you? Unless you are writing this for someone else, who knows who they are writing to.
Ok. So that’s ‘Dear Mr Smith…’
‘Dear Mr Smith’ is fine for, say, another lawyer with whom you have a distant professional relationship.
If you know them well then it’s… go on, what do you think?
Did you chose ‘Dear Gerald’?
Wrong. WRONG. It’s ‘Dear Smith’ for those you know, your mates. ‘Dear Gerald’ is reserved for the family. Or Americans. And other upstart crows…
Which would be fine. If you didn’t have to write to clergymen of all kinds, earls, members of families with hereditary titles, knights of the realm, of the garter… the list seemed endless.
Ok, so we’ve sorted out the salutation. What next? Oh yes… ‘We thank you for your letter of third August…’
Cretin. Fool. Nincompoop. Bashi-Bazouk. If the letter you are replying to was in the same month as your reply then it would be ‘We thank you for your letter of the Third Inst.’ Were it to be the previous month it would be ‘We thank you for your letter of the third ultimo.’
If you’ve steered your way past these traps for young players, you might actually set out the subject matter of your letter. Believe me, this is ripe for ridicule, correction and a general verbal flogging. Which Paul regularly inflicted.
You’re on the home stretch, aren’t you? I mean what’s left?
‘Yours sincerely/faithfully/truly’ that’s what. Which do you use and when? Frankly, I really don’t give a nadger’s belly fluff for the answer. I’m fried, frazzled and fidgetty-fuckled by trying to remember.
Sometimes, I’d finish a letter when Paul was out and think I’d got away with it. Then the phone would go and I’d be distracted. Coming back to my dictaphone I’d try and recall where I left off so would rewind a couple of phrases and play it back…
‘Hang on, Geoff. What are you saying there?’ And we’d be off, deconstructing both my prose and my confidence.
I had a lot to learn. Maybe I’ll dig about in the recesses of my memory – the canyons of my mind – and see what comes out. Goodness I was naive.