I apologise to those who remember the small part of this first paragraph I previously posted in an essay describing the marvellous institution of Cluttons of 1940. I believe it and what follows demonstrates, graphically, the changes wrought in business since then.
I was articled as a Valuation Surveyor to Cluttons. – the most august Surveyors in Britain, The building, near the Victoria Tower at Westminster, of redbrick and cream sandstone, is at least 150 years old. That first day is impossible to describe – the transformation from the schoolboy to the worker. I had my first suit, and was absorbed into the closed atmosphere of that office. They successfully fostered a sense of belonging, the man and boy ethos, once a Clutton’s man always a Clutton’s man – and it worked. The building itself had a faint aroma of polish and leather bindings, not unpleasant, which imparted a feeling of familiarity.
Then it possessed the most charming lift, in the building centre, built like a wrought-iron bird-cage, with filigree ornamentation. The wrought iron safety frame was open right to the roof with its weights and ropes naked. The lift was almost a living eccentric, it had a will of its own. One entered through a garden gate, pressed the ‘Floor’ button, pulled on a rope and nothing happened. A few more pulls. it grunted into a stately rise, or fall, under sufferance, barely obliging, We, too young to take office life totally seriously, could stop it at any time by opening a gate on another floor and strand it between floors. We dropped hole-puncher confetti down the shaft as the cage had no top,. I was the lowliest of the low. My immediate boss, a Sergeant Commissionaire, in the blue serge uniform, patent leather belt, and medal ribbons, was a tall, stern, imposing figure, and a punctilious disciplinarian. He guarded the door, was receptionist, part-time telephone operator and post boy, and promptly transferred all that to me. As relief telephone operator I could listen, if I cared to, so that I might understand the working of the office. Nothing is more boring than other people’s conversations, if one has to break off to answer other calls. I did that work for about a fortnight and then went to the Cashier’s Department, known as ‘Accounts’.
We dealt with properties of the Crown Commissioners and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, which meant most of London, with properties as disparate as Park Lane and Kennington. Later I was to find they had odours to match. We worked at Dickensian-like desks, at standing height, with sloping tops, an ink pot set into the back, lids that lifted, to reveal personal possessions, and a high chair for when a little relief for the back was called for. The ledgers, like the desks were of another age. Leather bound, huge and thick, the size of a volume of the Encyclopaedia-Britannica, with pages twice as heavy. We recorded all payments in and out, we balanced every day, every week, every month and every quarter – and I still got it wrong. The theory of reciprocal mistakes states, that if there is the most minute discrepancy, it is likely that there are two mistakes which nearly cancel one another out. I have proved the theory to be true over and again. On my first balance I had some minuscule difference in the totals and suggested a modification in the pence column would save us all a lot of time WRONGGGGG!! When I totted up for the umpteenth time, two horrendous errors practically cancelled one another.
My huge, antique desk was one of a contiguous row and my immediate superior in Accounts, Fletcher, seated at the end of the row, would talk down to me most of the time as if I was the seventh idiot son of a seventh idiot. There was a lady clerk who was a tease. She soon discovered I blushed and, with a large enough audience, and often goaded by the odious Fletcher, she would try one of her many ploys on me to make me go red to the tops of my socks. When I would be working at my ledger, she would come tight beside me and lay her copious bosom gently on the ledger so I could not fail to see it, and the chances were I would bump into it before I was aware of its presence. It was like a gift, not an appendage to her person. At just seventeen, I was deeply embarrassed, as intended. Other times she would squeeze past me so I was fully aware of what bits of her were where and often they were coming in touch with my protrusions. Again she was right on the button, she embarrassed me and was well aware of the fact, she couldn’t have failed to be under the circumstances. In the end, not knowing what I know now about the delicacy of ladies and their appendages, I shut the ledger on her pride and that put an end to my torture.