Thursday, 25 June 2009

Defecting to the Enemy - Vodka and Tonic

When I left school at the tender age of 14 the "careers" chap asked me what I wanted to do. No idea said I. He pressed me for an answer. OK, I wouldn't mind your job I said. He chuckled and then gave up. I had a succesion of jobs, including apprentice plumber for 6 months. Laundry worker, 6 weeks. Van boy, potato selling. Working as a car number plate maker for the White Metal Company, Croydon (a one man band).

Actually, this was quite an interesting job, using dampish sand and white hot metal. I would press the template letters and numbers in the sand mould and pour the molten metal in. Quite liked this experience other than having to get to work at 7 a.m. to get all the coke fires going!

Moved on to working in West Croydon Railway station booking office, mainly in the left luggage department. When posted to a lonely spot at Redhill, doing a boring rolling stock returns job, I jacked that in. Went to work in an office of a brewery firm (Charringtons) and then into the RAF.

Next it was the bookie business and a bit of selling. Not a marvellous CV as I'll guess you'd agree. So where to next?

Who was "the enemy" of the title of this post? The taxman is the answer. Yes, I had plenty of dealings with HM Customs and Excise during my bookie years. We had the betting levy and betting tax to pay and the Customs were the collectors of the betting tax. I got to know our "collection officer" during his inspection visits. In fact I think I taught him all about bookmakers and their various shennanigans in those days.

I thought he had quite a decent sort of job. He said he was virtually his own boss. He went into his office maybe once a week, otherwise he worked from home. Not bad I thought. Wouldn't mind that way of life.

In 1972 Customs and Excise were recruiting executive officers in readiness for the dreaded VAT, due to be launched on 1st April 1973. Yes, April Fool's Day no less! I applied, ignoring the fact that I had no GCSEs of any description.

Called to a mass civil service examination in Whitehall. Large room crammed with desks - about 60 or more. Sat down at 10 a.m. with a scary-looking female and assistants glowering at us from the front desk.

Scary-face then said: "Before we start are there any objections to smoking during the exam?" Not a murmur in the hushed room. Slowly a lone hand was raised. Just one solitary objector, a young lady. A brave young lady I'd have to say!

"Right then" boomed scary-face, smiling faintly, "No smoking!" She seemed quite pleased with that single objection to smoking. "You may now turn over your paper and begin."

After the first exam, (English), we were told we could have a ten minute comfort break. On resumption of the exams there were quite a few empty desks. Either the exams had defeated the examinee or the no-smoking had!

After a few weeks I was informed that I had passed all the exams which were said to be of GCE standard. I was then invited to interview, again in London. This was to be somewhat more difficult than the actual exams.

The interview board comprised five senior people, with a mature-looking lady in the centre whom I assumed was the principal interviewer. I fielded their questions as well as I could; some easier than others.

On the far left of the interview board sat a rather ruddy-faced mustachioed chap. An ex-military type I guessed. He seemed to take a dislike to me for some reason. Maybe he didn't like bookie types; maybe my accent wasn't plummy enough. He seemed to snort disgruntedly at my replies to his questions.

The other board members seemed very friendly, especially the chair-lady. She smiled encouragingly whenever I looked at her. She brought the interview to a close by saying: "Thank you very much Mr. Harfleet. May I say that I think you handled your fences very well. We shall write to you soon."

She might have been either a lover of racing or of horses. I smiled back at her, saying "Thank you" and left the room. Her reference to "handling your fences ..." gave me encourgement. Eventually I was offered the post of Executive Officer, to work in Adelaide House on London Bridge. Not in the VAT department but in the remains of the old Purchase Tax department!

There were two things wrong with this offer. Firstly, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new tax system; secondly I was living in near Diss, in Norfolk!

I rang the personnel department and asked if I could have a posting nearing to Norwich. The answer was a firm NO. Take the offer or decline it. There are no other options.

The distance from Diss to London was around 100 miles. The train journey would take about two hours or so - that is, four hours travelling a day. And this is if there were no holdups or breakdowns on the railway.

Oh well, take it or leave it. I took it.

Bought an annual season ticket from Diss to Liverpool Street station and began my new career in Her Majesty's Customs and Excise - the oldest and proudest of the tax gatherers.

My daily schedule started by driving to Diss railway station (a lovely little station in 1972) and boarding the 6.40 a.m. train to London. Breakfast on the train, and very nice it was too. Fortunately the civil service operated a flexi-time system which enabled me to get into the office at any time before 10 a.m. and to leave after the required 7.5 hours later. I usually caught the 18.40 train from Liverpool Street station, sometimes waiting for it in "Dirty Dick's" bar close to the station.

Dirty Dick's bar was supposedly owned many decades earlier by a man who was jilted by his love. He vowed never to clean the floor of the bar until she returned to him, (or something like that). In keeping with this legend, sawdust is strewn on the floor and there were a few other less-than-pristine effects. Must try to visit this place again before shuffling off this mortal coil.

So that's how I became an E.O. in HM Customs & Excise. The bookies would call me a renegade I guess. Never mind, somebody has to do the job.

Enough for now ...


Jo said...

My goodness you have had an interesting life. You will have to be sure and visit "Dirty Dick's" and tell us all about it.

We had a pub like that in Vancouver, that had peanut shells on the floor. People were served bowls of peanuts as well, and were encouraged to throw the shells on the floor. I never did understand why...

PhilipH said...

Thanks for the comment Jo.

Your peanut vendor bar is not unlike some establishments in parts of the UK - except the customers are NOT supposed to litter the place with peanut shells.

There are many old and interesting pubs in London; I used to like the underground kind of place with the vaulted ceiling and stone floors etc. Much more appealing than all the chrome and polished wood affairs.

Cheers, Phil