THE FIRST DAY
On my fourteenth birthday I left a London elementary school and was flung into industrial life, or, to be exact, I left on Friday and was fourteen on Monday. There was nothing unusual about this, most of the boys at school followed that custom. I do not know what became of any after the school door closed on them and me, except one, whom I met some years later in prison. He recalled himself to my memory. I was then working in the prison kitchen.
"I was at school with you - poke us a bit of pudden through the window!" he muttered urgently from outside. The others called him my college chum.
When I left the red-brick building called the Lancastrian School, whose bell at the end of the street had so often hastened my morning toilet, I was anxious to find work and make my way in the world. I was very vague about how to do this. For although I took a vivid and romantic interest in the world around me I had no definite, practical aim. In any case I had to find a job whatever was open. It was not for me to choose.
I went to see an estate agent who advertised for a boy in his office. He was a most gentlemanly man, with
grey moustache and greying hair, of the sort who deal in desirable residences. He weighed my capabilities closely. I had, I remember, two or three interviews with him, but, in the end, I was beaten. Otherwise I might have been selling desirable residences now.
Next I visited a sweet factory. The manager here had not the manners of the estate agent. He was brusque. But a lasting memory of the works is of a large number of charming girls, in light coloured overalls, each shut in a glass case, like lady cashiers. They were packing sweets behind glass partitions. The manager seemed to resent my coming - even in response to his advertisement. I decided he was not my type, and he made a similar decision.
I did not appreciate the droll side of this at the time. I was frightfully anxious to get work. Not because of financial stringency. My father was a skilled engineering workman - who had several small mechanical inventions to his credit. He had worked for an automatic machine company - the penny-in-the-slot kind - and had invented horse racing, boxing, balloon racing and other machines, which the company had taken over for a few pounds. He was fairly sure of constant employment, the danger was that when he was given a position of authority he would side with the men against the management. This had led to more than one abrupt dismissal. My mother had been headmistress of a school. I had a pleasant home. I was not pressed to find a job, though I was expected to do so.
My father is a man with a craftsman's mind it was characteristic of him that while he would spend nights and weeks and months fiddling with bits of metal, making clay moulds for lead weights, trying patiently to perfect this or the other movement, he was never able to handle the business side of his inventions. What he received from them did not compensate him for the money, time and effort put in. But he got a great joy out of this.
For years my brothers and myself played with a fishing machine which he had constructed, but could not put on the market. By dropping a penny in the slot, a catch holding a small metal fishing rod was released and a magnet at the end of the line could be worked along above the cardboard fish which lay at the bottom of a glass sea. Each fish had a metal ring through its nose. The skill, after catching the fish, consisted in guiding it through grim-looking, jagged, overhanging cork cliffs to the landing-stage, without its being knocked off. This was a good game, but it was spoilt for me by the memory of the hours of desolation I had spent, holding the clay mould, assisting in the adjustment of the various releases, when I would much rather have been reading an interesting book, walking along the streets, mingling with the stream of people or just looking at those gorgeous red sunsets which the dust and smoke of London helped to create in such perfection.
No, it was not because of money but because of pride that I wanted to get work as soon as I left school. I imagined after a week or two that my lack of success meant that I was unemployable. "Fancy!" I thought, "going right through life and never getting a job once!" I saw myself as one of the seedy occupants of the park benches - the yawning dispirited fraternity, turning bleary, hopeless eyes to the dawn.
Near where I lived was the gasworks. During the dinner hour I saw men lounging outside the gate waiting for the works hooter to sound. Many of them wore no collars, their clothes were greasy and untidy. Now, I thought, if I had a job, I would be smart and alert. I would show by my manner that I was worthy of some responsible position - say that of a works manager. I would impress the higher powers - the higher powers were represented to me by a mental picture of a rather stoutish gentleman with a thick watchchain across his waistcoat. When I heard the errand boy at the oil shop boasting that he had filled his pockets with woody pears from a tree which grew in the patch of yard behind his employer's shop, I pitied him for wasting the energy which should have been used to impress his employer. Impatiently I shook my bridle and champed my bit, eager to pull the load.
I had left school three weeks when I tracked down a job at Stour & Loughboroughs, art metal workers. They advertised for a boy, and at five in the morning - they opened at six - I was sitting on the rail opposite the wooden doors of the firm waiting. There were five or six of us perched like sparrows on the rail. It was a foggy, raw morning and we sat in depressed silence. We were rivals. At eight o'clock Mr. Stour decided to see us. The little gate cut into the big wooden one was opened and we went through a yard to a small glass office at the end. Mr. Stour - a middle-aged, bearded man, of benevolent appearance - took us in turn. When my turn came I answered his questions firmly. A spark of understanding flashed between us. He did not need to tell me I was engaged. I had won my first battle in the industrial field. I had found work.
At six o'clock on Saturday morning I began, stepping through the little wooden door, a shade timidly but with a feeling that I had a right to be there. I saw by the door racks of metal-round, square and angle. Farther on, planks of wood were stacked, for, besides making gates and metascroll work, the firm produced wooden revolving shutters. On one side of the yard was the smithy, dark and wide, with glowing fires and the ring of hammers and anvils. Straight ahead, next to the little office, was the machine shop. Here were benches of thick wood equipped with vices. There were a few drilling machines and, at the end, in a railed-off space was a gas engine which supplied the power. The gas engine was started by slowly pushing round an enormous fly-wheel. A few pulls and pushes and its steady beat could be heard all over the works, even in the smithy above the ring of the hammers. Higher up, in a shop reached by a corkscrew iron staircase, was the woodwork department. The morning I started work there was much activity in the wood shop. Big carpenter's planes were wielded and curly shavings went flying until boards looked as smooth and glossy as clothes which have been freshly ironed. Soon a litter of shavings spread over the floor and I was told to take these down to the yard and burn them. Down I clattered with boxes full of shavings and lit a bonfire in the yard. But the foreman of the smithy - poking a pale face out of the murk objected to the smoke blowing into his shop. I was faced with my first interdepartmental dispute. The smithy foreman insisted that I burn the shavings in the fireplace above, the head of the wood department commanded, " Take them below! "
This state of discord was general. Mr. Stour would order me to take metal from the rack. Mr. Loughborough would tell me to pile up his planks. "Why aren't you doing those rods? " Stour demanded. I explained. "I don't care who told you! Do as I say!" Then Mr. Loughborough would come back.
On the first morning it was all very strange. I burnt the shavings - armfuls of them - under difficulties. I sorted nails and screws. The smithy foreman ordered me to tidy the yard. I started out hopefully, making it as neat as I could. At eight-thirty we breakfasted for half an hour, and then worked until one o'clock. The morning seemed terribly long. I had not yet fitted into the mechanism of the shop, and the tasks I was given to keep me going did not really fill up the time. I swept the yard again and again, until not even a stray pin could have escaped my notice. From eleven o'clock there was a long, tedious pause. At twelve I was told to take the hand truck to bring supplies of castings. The handcart was built for strength. It had great heavy cartwheels which aroused the derision of passing draymen. Two of us were needed to manage the load, and my companion was Bert, an impish Cockney boy. At the foundry the handcart was loaded up with rough castings, and we trundled it back. When we reached a back lane Bert let down the handle of the cart with a jerk, and sat on it.
" Wot's the time? " he asked.
" Half-past twelve," I answered.
"We don't want to break nothing," he said.
"We'll get back just on one. We won't do nothing more to-day! "
Bert told me how glad he was that it was Saturday. "The days are that long," he said. "I don't know how I can stick it till Saturday comes round."
That Saturday morning had certainly been long though the patches of waiting had been most tedious. I was used to school hours from nine thirty to twelve and from two to four thirty. And these had been packed with varied interesting activity. To face a whole week of days stretching from six a.m. to six p.m., filled with petty laborious work, suddenly seemed a dreary prospect.