A piece in The Guardian a while back, in which various (well-known) people talked about the summer jobs they had done while they were students, got me thinking about my own ventures into similar areas of casual labour. Like many of my generation, my first ever paid job, when I was fifteen, getting on sixteen – GCEs, I remember, the old ‘O’ levels, were on the horizon – was as a newspaper delivery boy for the paper shop just across the road from where we lived in Camden, North London. Bernard Shaw Court, to be precise. After that, still at school, I had a short-lived job behind the scenes at a small Sainsbury’s in Somers Town, close to King’s Cross Station. One summer – I think I must have been in the sixth form by now – I worked as a porter in the Covent Garden Fruit & Vegetable Market, before it moved from the area around Drury Lane several miles west to Nine Elms; the summer after that was spent sweeping out the cages in the Lesser Mammal House at London Zoo. And through much of this time, summer holidays excepted, and beginning, I think, in the second year of sixth form, I worked in various capacities for J. Lyons & Co Ltd.
In the first half of the last century, Lyons was the largest catering company in the world. Beginning in 1894 with one tea shop on Piccadilly – basically a café selling teas, coffees et cetera and hot or cold food at reasonable prices – by the turn of the century there were 37 tea shops in London and 14 in major cities outside; at the beginning of the Second World War, the number had risen to 253. Nor was it just tea shops. In 1909, the first Lyons Corner House opened on Coventry Street; larger, grander and appealing to a more upmarket clientele, it could seat an amazing 2,000 people at any one time. The Corner House restaurants often featured live music, and it was at the Marble Arch branch, in my early teens and in the company of my mother and my aunt, having trailed after them around Selfridges, that I heard Ivy Benson and her All-Girls Band, my first experience of listening to live big band jazz.
But back to the work. My years in the sixth form coincided with a rise in the popularity of jazz, the traditional variety in particular, and a corresponding increase in the number of clubs where bands might play. Even if you were prepared to walk home at the end of the evening, rather than take the bus, clubs cost money. And, on average, I suppose I would go two or three times a week. The 100 Club on Oxford Street, the Fishmongers’ Arms in Wood Green, small clubs scattered across North London – Finchley, Barnet, Golders Green. Pocket money not really being a thing, the only way to get the necessary was to go out and earn it.
At first, I just worked weekends, then, gradually, added a couple of nights a week. Initially, I was at the tea shop opposite Charing Cross station [It’s now a Pizza Express] and after a year or so, I was transferred to 213 Piccadilly – yes, the site of the first Lyons tea shop ever. Staff were rotated through various tasks when on duty, the two busiest of which were ‘the steam’ – making teas, coffees and other hot drinks – and ‘the grill’ – making sure there was a plentiful supply of hot toast, grilled bacon and sausages and poached eggs, as well as making up sample plates and putting them on display. In especially busy periods, you would often be turning bacon under the grill and removing toast from the toaster with one hand, while cracking eggs with the other hand and lowering them into the simmering water of the poacher, which was long enough to take at least a dozen eggs at any one time.
Though some of the staff were full-time, a good proportion were casual and ever-changing, so those part-time workers who weren’t shy of putting in a good shift were quickly noted by the management and a beneficial two-way relationship evolved. If the duty manager [she would have been called a manageress – senior management aside, all the people I worked under were female] knew you could be trusted to work the early evening shift on the grill several nights running without complaint, you were less likely to be sent out onto the floor to clear tables overflowing with dirty crockery.
Beginning, as I say, when I was still at school, I worked, on and off, for Lyons up to and including my three years at Goldsmiths when I was doing my teacher training: some eight years in total. And [mostly] enjoyed it. During the latter part of that time, I worked alongside a man called Richard, whose day job was at the John Lewis store on Oxford Street. After one especially busy period, a bank holiday weekend as I remember it, in which we’d performed above the call of duty sufficiently to be mentioned in despatches, both Richard and I were summoned to appear before a senior manager and invited to join the management training scheme, with the promise that within twelve months we would be managing shops of our own, with a clear career path upwards and beyond. I decided to stick with the teaching; the last I heard of Richard, he was managing a tea shop in Brighton.