Working Lives

Carbon paper, Canada and the civil service (1961-1996)

Location: Norwich

Lal became a secretary in Oxford and London and then went to Canada for a few years – she worked in Toronto and Vancouver. On returning to England she became a civil servant and eventually moved to Norwich with her husband.

Secretarial college

I left school when I was just 18 and I went to secretarial college for a year. that’s where I learned shorthand and typing.

We worked quite hard, really, it was quite strict in a way. Many people were there, especially as it was in Oxford, for social reasons, but I lived in Oxford. It was fun. I achieved 120 words per minute in shorthand, which was considered quite good, especially because I was left-handed and shorthand is more difficult for a left-hander, because it was made up for a right-hander. Only 40 words a minute typing, but of course this was on a manual typewriter, which is hard work.

First job

My first job started in September of ’61 at the University Registry in Oxford. It was in a very iconic building, which you often see on Morse, so when I am watching Morse, I can say ‘Oh, there’s my office! I can see the window.’

It was the sort of administrative part of the university. The sort of work we did was presenting stuff for approval to Congregation, which was the university parliament, roughly. It all had to be prepared in a certain format and you had to word it in a certain way. Actually all I was really doing was shorthand-typing in a typing pool. We all worked together in a big attic room. I am not sure that it would be considered very healthy nowadays because there were only two quite tiny windows. This is a very old building, the one with pillars that you see, just near the Bodleian.

There we were, all stuffed in this room, and of course people smoked in those days so it was not probably the healthiest of places. But we all got on very well. It was fun. We had a nice time. What happened was, people rang up and said ‘Can you send somebody down?’ and there was a woman – only a girl, we were all very young, she said, ‘Well, you can go … or you can go…!’ We were pretty good about taking it in turns, because some people were popular and some people weren’t, and you had to take a term at all of them, really. ‘Oh, goodness, not Mr Whatnot!’ you did your bit really.

They were Registrars which we were asked to go to, Assistant Registrars and – whatever were they called? I think they were just called officers. They were admin assistants – not really managerial. But they had responsibilities for various things. The person that I worked for most, who was really nice, was to do mostly with history really.

All the Faculty of History, everything that happened, committees, the running of the History Faculty of the University came under him, I suppose, in a way.

We arranged meetings, and we took the minutes – oh, God, the minutes! It was terrible. I had to type out … First of all I took shorthand for the whole morning, it took so long. Then I had to type it back. And the most you could do, or the most I could ever do on a manual was six copies with carbon paper in between the paper. This is probably a bit mysterious to some people. You folded it all up, with the carbon paper in between and you’d get this into your machine. Of course it helps if you are a very accurate typist. I wasn’t too bad but if you made a mistake you had to rub it out, there was no other way. We didn’t even have what they called Tippex, which was a sort of white liquid, it hadn’t been invented.

You had to rub it out on each copy, and you know, it was not easy. Actually, it was quite good in that you improved your typing because you couldn’t bear the thought of … what was so ghastly was when you got to the bottom of the fifth page and suddenly you realised you had left a bit out. That was terrible, really. There were ways round these things, anyway. It had to be perfect when it was finished. I suppose the six copies must have been enough. We didn’t have a photocopier.

I remember when the first photocopier first arrived – an enormous, gigantic machine about six foot by six foot arrived, which was called The Photocopying Machine, and no-one was allowed to use it except for one special person who had had ‘training’ (reverential voice). So when you wanted photocopies, you went down and this person assumed a rather over-important kind of role. ‘Oh, well, I’ll see … I’ve got some work for Mr Whatsaname, and you’ll have to wait at least an hour.’ Stuff like this. ‘Oh, please, I need it … ‘

Six of us were working in the typing pool. We were all squeezed up. We did have a table each and a typewriter of course. You sort of progressed. When you first arrived you got the worst table and the worst typewriter. Then you kind of moved, as people got promotion. Some people became actual Secretaries, which meant they worked for only one person.

So that was what we were all supposedly striving to achieve. But I didn’t really want to because I liked the person that I worked for mainly. But I didn’t work for him all the time. I wasn’t very ambitious. But eventually I did have to become the person in charge, the one who actually told the other people what to do and where to go – ran it to some extent.

Two years it took me to get that position. People came and went. They were all lovely. I liked them so much. I am actually not in touch with them now, but I certainly was a long time after leaving. Then I moved on and I went to London.


I moved to London in 1963. I decided that London was exciting so I’d have a go at London. I had already moved out of home and I lived in a flat in Oxford. But that was sort of half-way, because my parents were still there. But London was more sort of scary.

I got a job which was advertised in the Daily Telegraph. That was how you got jobs in those days, mostly through the paper. Some through agencies – I did get jobs through an agency, but only temp. work.

This job was with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. I hadn’t got a clue what that was. But it was linked to the Tavistock Clinic, which was psychiatry really, quite famous. Human Relations was – well a lot of it to me seemed to be a lot of words, writing books and producing papers about the very obvious really. But because they were psychologists, really, they wrote about things like ‘ Leadership’.

This was a secretarial job, I worked for one person, and he was ‘difficult’ to work for. He smoked a lot; cigars as well as cigarettes. People can’t imagine what the atmosphere in these places was like. He drank a lot. One of the jobs was stocking up the drinks cabinet. Another job was feeding the parking meter – because this was London, Devonshire Street, a nice part of London.

He wanted me to arrange for his car to be valeted. I’d never heard of valeting, or whatever you called it. I suppose he was very well off; he had a Bentley. And he had to have his suits cleaned at some frightfully posh place and I’d see about that as well. Also buying presents for various people, his wife, perfume and that sort of thing. I was not exactly ‘up from the country’, but I hadn’t got much of an idea.

It was quite fun having a wander round looking for stuff. It used to take me quite a long time wandering around Selfridges perfume department. Anyway, he was writing a book, and it was terribly, terribly boring really. Endless typing of this stuff that I – well, I thought it was very obvious, fancy making money out of this, really. I am probably running him down terribly.

Some of the people who worked there were quite interesting, quite famous. There was Bowlby. He made a film all about children being left in hospital on their own. It was all a big new thing that they needed their mothers with them. It did damage to the children if they were abandoned. Because they were in those days. You were taken to hospital and you weren’t allowed to visit them. My sister was in hospital for a week with her tonsils and you were only allowed to look through a window. That was normal. So this chap was – it was quite interesting anyway.

I didn’t particularly like them very much, the employers. I did meet lots of nice people, and one of the girls I met, I’m still friends with now. I met her last week. I am glad I met her. Also there was a very nice canteen. I loved the canteen; the food was really nice.

My wages most definitely increased, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I started off in a hostel, then I went to another hostel and then I shared a flat with somebody else. It cost seven pounds a week, which was a lot of money. Which we shared, so we were paying three pounds ten a week.

I was probably earning about ten pounds a week, not very much. But I suppose it just went a long way in those days. We didn’t live very exotic lives. We didn’t buy a lot of clothes and we didn’t have very exciting meals. Of course we cooked for ourselves completely. You just didn’t go out in the same way.

You went out if somebody took you out, which was very nice, very welcome, but (laughs) it didn’t happen often really. Not for a meal – that was quite serious, a meal! Drinks was a bit different. We had a lot of eggs, and things out of tins. No fridge, of course. This kitchen, no fridge, no telephone, you know …

For our uniform we had to wear skirts. Definitely no trousers ever. Until much later on. What we wore were what I would call tight skirts. Everybody wore them. With heels, high heels, and a top of some kind, or a jacket. They were not very practical clothes really. The bosses liked them because the skirts were quite tight and they rode up when you sat down to take dictation. That sort of thing went on quite a lot – people looking down your cleavage and stuff like that. On the whole I had quite okay bosses, but some were a bit … you know.

Unfortunately, dare I say it now, I don’t know if we accepted it exactly, but it was just part of the job. If it had been really overt, I certainly would have said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ and probably gone and told somebody. Not everybody would have done. There was a lot of inappropriate behaviour, really. Secretaries were looked upon as ‘dolly birds’, you know. You weren’t supposed to have any brains. Well, that’s not quite fair really, because some of them appreciated the fact that you could think it out a bit for yourself. On the whole, you were a machine; a shorthand-taker and a typing machine, really.

I didn’t work at Tavistock long, Only about a year. I didn’t like it, you see. So I moved on and I then got a job, which was a nice job actually, with the Engineering Industry Training Board, which doesn’t exist now.

These industrial training boards were set up with for various industries because the government was worried about the state of training in the country. Apprenticeships were dying out and people were not reaching skill levels that they should do. (Have we heard this anywhere lately?) The solution then was thought to be that that every employer with above a certain number of employees, probably about four, would be registered and a levy would be imposed on all employers in a graduated way, and this money would pay for training schemes.

So this was quite a major undertaking really. Suddenly you have got to find out who all these people are, where they are and how many people they employ, what they do and this that and the other.

So that was the job really. It was brand new, and I was there right at the beginning, which I thought was exciting really. I worked initially for two men who were civil servants, they were seconded to do this work. In fact, we had to set up a sort of quasi-commercial organisation really. Because we had to buy all the equipment – they were given money to do this – and find premises.

Considering neither of them had done anything like it before they did it pretty well. I suppose, thinking back, they were specially picked for the job. I was quite proud that I was specially picked – well I was thought to be okay. I was the only employee for some time. I worked for both of them, shorthand-typing letters etc. But also I was interviewing people about things like what kind of carbon paper we should have and what kind of typewriters we should have. That was my decision, quite exciting!.

We got the most modern electric typewriters, and they were called golf-ball machines. The typeface was on a round thing like a golf-ball and it moved round. As you pressed the key, this thing sort of twiddled. Very new! And a very new kind of duplicator, which was ghastly really, I hated it. It was considered to be the bee’s knees at the time, because the print was very clear, different from what we’d used before which was called a stencil. Which was alright, not particularly clear, especially after about a hundred copies. Offset-litho, that’s right. it was automatic, you pressed a button – terrifying thing. I was scared to death of it.

I was very relieved when they employed an offset litho operator and that was her only job. She was frightened of it too! Especially after me training her. She did actually go on a course as well. She was still pretty scared of it – that was her job and she had to do it.

I was buying all sorts of things like supplies – furniture and so on. All these salesmen came in and I’d never had experience of it before. And you know how salesmen talk to you to try and persuade you to select their particular brand. They’d take you out to lunch and things, as well. I’d never had that before. And bring you little things – ‘You can keep this.’ ‘Oh, thanks very much.’

And we’d never had anything like this before – it had been very hand to mouth before. I remember having a real battle over the loo paper. It was just when soft toilet paper was coming in, and I wanted that, but the two bosses, the men, ‘oh no, that’s useless, comes to pieces in your hands’ sort of thing. So we’d have to have Bronco too which was a stiff tracing paper type of thing. I think this went on for quite a long time. Years after I’d left people said, ‘Why do we have two types of toilet paper?’

It was an interesting job too, because we met the Committee for this Board – the Board I suppose they were was composed partly of big employers, the Chairman of General Electric or something like that, in Britain, and also Union leaders. So that was fun.

The Electrical Trades Union, the Engineering Federation – these were the big cheeses at the time. And they were a very interesting mixture. I had to do all the arranging the room, tea and coffee, you had to give them these blotters and bits of paper and jugs of water. All of that went on. It was a nice job, actually.

I really felt that I was doing something – I wouldn’t say, work really, I felt I was really at the nerve centre, which was interesting.

I stayed there until I decided to go to Canada! A friend and I were talking one day and we said, you know, we were a bit sick of London and everything. I suppose we’d fallen out with a boyfriend, either she had or I had, I don’t know.

Thinking back, we lived in a very kind of superficial way. I feel quite ashamed looking back. You know, these were jobs, it was not a career, you earned the money so that you could live, pay for your flat or room, some clothes and having a bit of entertainment and going out and that was about it, really. I am afraid I didn’t really have any idea of careers at that point.

So Canada was quite an idea, really. First of all we wanted to go to America, but it was too hard. America didn’t really want people to come and they made it pretty difficult to get a working visa. But Canada was much easier. Having said that, we had to go for two interviews at Canada House, also a health check. They were frightened to death that you were going to bring TB into the country.

That was the main thing. They checked everything; it was quite a full medical. Anyway, we were granted our working visas. We had to emigrate, we had to be emigrants. We had to say that we had x amount of money, which was very very little. I think we had to have about 80 quid or something.

Moving to Canada

I went with a friend, and we went by boat, because it was cheaper to go by boat.

I had some savings, I had a savings book when I was born, you know, they opened a savings account for me. And over the years it was added to a bit. The fare to Canada one way was £82 and I had just about enough really. I also had some other savings, because you had to have this money.

My parents gave me some as well. They didn’t seem worried at all, but it must have been quite something. There I was setting off – I was then 23, and it wasn’t like now. You didn’t have a phone and e-mail and anything like that. It was a little bit different from when people used to go to Australia on a £10 ticket and you never saw them ever again. How could you afford the fare?

Canada, in a dire emergency, was doable. You could find the money to fly to Canada. I suppose they might have done if I’d been desperately ill or something. So we set off for Canada and we had a very exciting crossing, very rough. I’m good sailor. There were six of us in the dining room on one day, one of them was me. Everybody else was laid up, feeling very ill.

When we got to Canada, first of all we were going to Montreal. We landed at Montreal and we did have a room at the YMCA hostel, which I’d booked from England by letter, of course.

We went to an agency in Montreal, and they were very very sniffy with us, because we didn’t speak French. And it was at a time when the nationalists – Quebec nationalists – were raising their game quite a lot and they were being funny about people who weren’t bilingual. So neither of us were proficient enough in French, I was better than my friend, but she was extremely worried about this. So we thought, oh, better go to Toronto!

We did vaguely have contacts. People gave you names of people they had worked with, or they were cousins of their brother-in-law or something like that. My friend had an address of some people in Toronto, so we thought, well, we’ll go there. So we caught the bus, that was the cheapest, and it was something like seven hours on the bus. When we go to Toronto we went to the YWCA and luckily they had a room.

Bit lucky wasn’t it, really.

But it was gorgeous, absolutely amazing. Compared to what you got in England it was like a posh hotel really, and a very lovely setting. Somebody had given this house and it was in beautiful grounds – this palatial room with a bathroom. Unbelievable. Never seen anything like it. This was a hostel, only paying about 10 bob or something.

Then we set off to try and find jobs. We did go to agencies then. We went to Manpower. If you went to Manpower, you were known as ‘The Girl with White Gloves’. We hadn’t got any white gloves, but they said we could join. We had to do a test – typing test, shorthand test, and then they sent us off to jobs. My friend went to something called the Public Trustee – I think she got that through the agency, or she might have applied through the paper.

I got a temporary job with a Jewish organisation, a charitable organisation. It was very interesting. The people were very nice. To be perfectly truthful I had not met many Jewish people.

It was extremely interesting because I didn’t really know much about the Jewish religion or anything like that. But I learnt a lot. The people we worked for were very nice, apart from one of the chaps who was a sort of workaholic. I think it was me really. I inadvertently got him into trouble because he called me in to work on one of the Jewish holidays. I answered the phone while I was there and unfortunately it was another of the people who worked in the organisation. ‘What are you doing there?’ So I had to say that I was working for Mr X and that caused trouble. Otherwise, what had I done, broken into the building? Everybody else was on holiday, enforced holiday. I liked it but obviously I got paid more money if I came in. I was still temping then so I got paid by the day. Tricky

Anyway, despite this, they took me on permanently. Though I wasn’t very permanent in the end! It became a permanent job. Of course it was good for them, because they didn’t have to pay the agency fee. So they stole me from the agency. It was the sort of thing that people did. Obviously the agencies didn’t like it very much. It was quite common, really.

In fact, interspersed with these jobs were many short-term jobs and everyone that I took offered me a full-time job. I’m very proud of that. Especially when they give you this old typewriter, half broken and some broken chair to sit on and they don’t tell you where the ladies is. They certainly don’t tell you anything about coffee break or anything like that. You’re on your own.

As I say, the Jewish people were so nice, and it was so interesting. There was one other woman who worked there who was Scottish and she’d been in Canada a long time. She wasn’t Jewish, but everybody else was.

The charity which I worked for was raising money for various projects in Israel – trees for the desert, or something like that. Making the desert bloom, you know. This is early on – we are talking less than 20 years after the war had ended.

Israel was still developing. Student projects in Israel. People going on scholarships, to work in kibbutz. That sort of thing. A lot of fund-raising. They did a lot of fundraising, this organisation. I’d never heard of them, those things where you pay for a table at a function and they get some well-known guest to address it. I didn’t know anything about that but this is what I found out about.

People would ring up and say, ‘I’ll take a table.’ And ‘what are you called?’ sort of thing. They had amazing names. The other interesting thing was, sometimes when people came into the office they used to say, quietly ‘Mr So-and-so is a survivor.’ Of course, what they went was he, or she, was a concentration camp survivor, and they had the numbers, you see. That was very sobering, actually.

These people were the lucky ones, they’d done well, some of them had done very well, but it didn’t alter the fact that they’d been through that experience. I was still quite young, but I found it quite sobering really.

That was just another interesting part of it. We had a lovely time in Toronto and really enjoyed ourselves. We met up with my friend Jo’s friends. They were wonderful, so helpful. They managed to get us a phone. We had to have a phone. We did get a flat, that was kind of peculiar as well. Just luck really. We met this person who said, ‘I know a flat.’ Piled into this little VW and this enormous woman, drove hell for leather …

Anyway, the house we lived in was all converted into flats and that was real fun. The people were just so peculiar. They were all lovely actually. Some of them were from England as well, long ago.

That was the unbelievable thing. One of the women who had the ground floor room had been to my school – before me. Two or three years before me. You go all the way to Canada and then about the second person you meet is … this is after a while we found this out. And then I met another woman – we took up bridge as an interesting thing to do. We went to a group/class. It was fun really. I can’t play bridge at all. My friend is a good bridge player now.

One of the people we met, who was also dabbling in bridge was the cousin of somebody who had been in my class at school. When she said her name, I said, that’s funny because I knew somebody called that. She’s my cousin. You just don’t believe it. I only ended up working there for about seven months.


We decided we’d move on in Canada and go to Vancouver.

I sadly left the Jewish organisation and we went by train in January from Toronto to Vancouver. It was very exciting because it was extremely snowy, as you can imagine, right across the Prairies, and the train before us had actually got snowed in and people had to be rescued by helicopter because the train couldn’t move. These people would have starved to death or something terrible. Anyway, it didn’t happen to us, we were just something like twelve hours late. But no helicopters.

The thing about Vancouver was that I did have some sort of vague relatives. My father’s uncle had emigrated, so they were all his descendants. There were many and they all lived in and around Vancouver.

One couple, who we had been in touch with and they had come to England, we knew them vaguely. My parents wrote to them and they very kindly helped us out. I don’t know where we were staying – did we stay with them? I think I went to stay with them.

Within two days we found a flat. Honestly I can’t believe how casually I did this really. We didn’t have much money – nothing to fall back on. There was this thing about getting ill. There was no health service or anything, but we managed.

I got a job, again, probably through an agency, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which is like the BBC. This was their Vancouver branch, or office. It was in the Hotel Vancouver. So that was quite exciting. The people were very nice. I have been lucky. They were extremely interesting people really; they were all producers. They were responsible for various programmes which went out on CBC.

I remember very well that when I started – I had an absolutely terrible cold. But I had to start because otherwise I wouldn’t get any money. By this time we’d been about a week out of work. As I say, it was a bit hand to mouth. I had this terrible cold. I was filling up this wastepaper basket with tissues, which was disgusting. What on earth could they have thought? This awful English girl streaming with cold. Could hardly speak. Then the wastepaper basket caught fire. I would think it was somebody who had lit a cigarette and thrown it in. anyway, there was a conflagration on my first day, and I was absolutely mortified. Oh god, they’re going to give me the sack right away. They could have done that – I was only on approval. But they didn’t. They were very kind and let me stay on. I did get better; I was young then and it didn’t take that long. But I can’t believe how awful it must have been.

I was a shorthand typist again, but electric typewriters in Canada. It was just an ordinary electric typewriter. They are a lot easier, unbelievable the difference between a manual and an electric! We worked very hard. In Canada, if you went to work, you went to work. There wasn’t that chatting and messing around or anything like that. Wandering round the building talking to people – they weren’t very keen on that. The producers were nice and also the secretaries were nice as well. I worked for two people. They were amazing really.

I never worked nine to five. It was about nine to 5.30 or something like that. When I started work we did Saturdays as well. Saturday morning. Only in my first job, actually. That was another thing about getting to London, we only did a five day week. Quite a long week. The same in Canada.

The thing about Canada is, you got very few holidays. I didn’t stay long enough, but even today, in Canada and America, it’s quite rare for somebody to get a month’s holiday, which is interesting I think.

My friend then decided that she was a bit miserable, so she went home. That left me in a flat in Vancouver, with no-one, so I had to find someone, which I did. I don’t know how. Somebody must have known somebody. I had never met this person – so there you are sharing. It’s happened since then. Amazing what you do! You’re not just sharing a flat, you’re sharing a room with this completely unknown person. (laughs) It was a woman, but you never know, do you?

After that, I lost it a bit really. Although Vancouver is a wonderful place, the mountains and the sea. Absolutely fantastic really. People really did go skiing in the morning and swimming in the afternoon, things like that.

So I thought, well I think I’ll go home as well. After my friend, but all in all I was only in Canada for about 14 months. But I had made enough money to travel down to Los Angeles where a friend that I’d worked with in oxford was now living and I went by bus all the way from Vancouver down to Los Angeles, stopping at San Francisco for a day.

Which enabled me to go on a trip round Alcatraz and the redwoods and this that and the other. And on to Los Angeles and met up with her. It was lovely to see them. And I flew home all the way from Los Angeles to London by Pan Am. Pan Am had films on board! They were the very first airline to do that, so it was great. Also, which I didn’t realise until I got on board, they gave you free drinks. You could get absolutely plastered if you wanted to!

Back to Oxford

When I went back to Oxford, I stayed with my mother in the dining room as she had lodgers.

Job wise, I tempted for a bit. A very elderly lady who was very well connected. Her father had been a general. I found out much later that she had been the principal of a quasi-religious college, not exactly for nuns, but for religious women. I didn’t find this out until about two years ago. She had a lot of important connections but she was very elderly and spent a lot of time in bed. So I used to go round to her house and sit by her bed. A bit like Winston Churchill really. And take the shorthand and then I went home and typed it. I had little portable typewriter by then. Then I brought back the letters the next day. She signed them and I posted them and so it went on. They were all ‘Dear Sir So and So’ and ‘Dear Lord This’, ‘Dear Dame …’ She was sweet, I can see her now sitting up in bed.

Then I worked a little bit in the Education Office in Oxford.

Bristol and the South West Region

Then I got another job in Bristol. A friend of mine was going to Bristol and she said, would I like to come and share a flat in Bristol. And I thought, why not, I hadn’t been there. I was at a bit of a crossroads and in Bristol I worked for the Education office, the Council – Bristol Education office.

I worked for two people which was very difficult, because they were not friendly, I mean not friendly to each other, they were all right with me.

So if one of them wanted me to take dictation –everything was a priority. One of them was a workaholic, the woman. She was amazing really, terrific. I admired her because she was so efficient. The chap was lovely but terribly hard to understand. This is another thing with taking shorthand dictation. You are a bit dependent on how clearly people speak. Also he was very prone to writing stuff as well, and he had the worst writing ever. That’s why I am so good at reading writing. Later on people would say, ‘Ask Lal, because she’ll know what this says.’ I got so used to deciphering this ghastly writing. I suppose that’s sort of a skill.

It was such an amazing office – I forgot to say – it was a complete throwback, because we worked in the one big office. Once again there we were at our desks with the typewriters all banging away. I think we were back to manuals. That was pretty ghastly because I wasn’t used to it. I’d been soft in Canada. And it was a regimented office. When you came in in the morning there was a book. You had to sign in, and this chap who was ‘in charge’ – I don’t know what else he did but he drew the red line at 9 o’clock and woe betide if you were under the red line. If you were he told you off. You signed out, as well, in the evening. I don’t think you signed out at lunchtime. But you absolutely couldn’t take a minute longer than your hour. Of course you couldn’t get away on time because people kept you. They didn’t respect the dinner hour in the same way as some people did. Twenty past one, you were still there.

You still had to be back for 2 o’clock. By then that was very old fashioned, I hadn’t had that before. You didn’t take liberties in the other jobs but there weren’t any laid down rules as such. Nothing like a book with red lines. People accepted all this.

People were very strict about the stationery in that job. If you wanted a new biro or pencil, you actually had to take the old one to show them that it was worn out. How much did that cost, a penny? A shorthand notebook had to literally be full (‘there are two pages here’).

After about a year in Bristol, I was getting a bit older, I was 25 or so. I decided that I didn’t want to be a secretary, shorthand-typist any more. I didn’t want to do all these things – feeding parking meters and buying drink and stuff. Just being a somebody’s beck and call really. So I was going to get a more responsible job. I was going to be the person who actually told other people what to do.

To be fair, this is due to my dad, he was in the Department of Employment and quite senior, really. He said, ‘Why don’t you go in for the Executive … ? I don’t think it was an exam, it was just an interview. Because I had two A levels I was eligible to apply.

I thought, ‘Well, give it a go.’ And surprise I got called for interview. Terrifying! I turned out for interview and unfortunately it was a day that started off very nice, and just before I arrived at the place where the interview was, it came on to rain. Of course I was all dressed up and I hadn’t got an umbrella or anything.

So when I arrived I was sitting there in this new dress and my hair was dripping into the carpet. It was the most terrifying interview I had ever been to because you sat facing, I should think at least six people. I’d never ever had an interview like that. I’d always had interviews, but not like that. And then they really went for you. ‘Why do you want to do it?’ They were quite interested about Canada and they said, ‘What did I think about the system in Canada?’ which obviously wasn’t a benefit system and all the rest, and public health and all the rest. I remember saying that I thought that having a choice – terrible, I can’t believe it said it – having a choice of whether or not you paid for things like health was quite a good thing. People should be able to choose. I can’t believe I said it. I do not think this now, but that was then!|

Anyway, they seemed to think that was rather good. I remember this woman saying to me, ‘Miss … (I was then), do you think that perhaps in Britain we are over ‘welfared’?’ I said, ‘Well, perhaps I would agree with that.’ I didn’t know anything! I had no idea really.

I was successful in getting the job, but very alarmingly, there were two training offices in the South West region, it was called. I thought of course that I would do my training in Bristol where I had a flat and I was sharing with a very nice friend. No, this bombshell letter arrived saying, report to Plymouth. So I thought, oh no, I don’t think I want to do it now. The training was only six months and I thought perhaps I’d get back to Bristol after that, but I never did.

The job was called Executive. You could be in charge of perhaps five people who were doing things like interviewing the public for jobs or taking details of jobs from potential employers. In those days the offices did everything. Like they do now, but they also had a spell when they were divided.

They were also paying benefits, so that was a large part of it as well. It depended a bit where you ended up. Of course initially, this was the problem really, in order to train to be an Executive Officer in charge of these people you had to ‘do the job’. You were parachuted into a Section, which was perhaps six people, who had all been doing the job for ages and were still hoping to get promotion but they hadn’t got it, whereas I had already got it through doing nothing. ‘who does she think she is, miss smarty-pants, wafting in here and thinking she can do it when we have all been doing it for ten years and we still haven’t got promotion.’ You see what I mean.

Of course I was earning more money, even then. Not popular. And I was earning more money even then, than many of them. Some of these people had been doing it man and boy, girl and woman.

Plymouth is not particularly wonderful for employment, though it was better then when the dockyard was much more buoyant, but even so. there was more factory work, I suppose.

I was learning and being resented really. But luckily there was another girl who was in the same boat, so we held each other up, really. And gradually people kind of got used to us. We had to work in every single section of the office.

We had to do youth employment, adult employment, we had to do women – we were segregated from men then. Then you did disabled people, of course. And the benefit side as well.

Even I think some of the personnel stuff. Terribly strict, unbelievably strict office. They actually had you in a room and you put your hand on this book which turned out not to be the Bible, it was a dictionary, somebody said in the end. Anyway, you swore on this dictionary (bible) that you would uphold the Queen and not divulge any secrets and this that and the other. Probably still in force, actually.

After the training, I’d had a wonderful time in Plymouth, an absolutely fantastic time. Socially as well as in the office. I was hoping that I’d stay there.

No, you’ll report to Salisbury as a Youth Employment Officer, a careers officer, that was what they called it. It was run by the Department of Employment in those days. Scary! But very fortunately the woman I had made friends with in Plymouth had already moved to her first post and that was also in Salisbury, thank goodness.

I am still in touch with her as well. We shared a flat and we were both quite miserable really because we didn’t know what we were doing basically. Suddenly you are this fully fledged Executive Officer doing this job about which you know nothing, really.

There were two other Youth Employment Officers besides me. We covered this whole area of Salisbury Plain. The main job was going out to schools to give so-called careers interviews. When somebody was coming up to fifteen – or fourteen – people left school at 15 then.

All round Salisbury, Salisbury Plain, places like Amesbury and Durrington, and of course in Salisbury Plain an awful lot of the children are, or were, army children. So there are particular problems with that.

Everything is different now because they are all closed probably. These children had moved an awful lot. Education had suffered a lot really. We were allowed to go to secondary modern schools.

There weren’t any comprehensives there. We were always trying to get into the grammar schools. Only one private school allowed us in. I did get into the girls’ grammar school in Salisbury because when she [the Head] met me she thought I was ‘suitable’. I got her number pretty quickly. She didn’t want me talking about things like hairdressing and things like that to her girls. As long as I was going to talk about things like becoming a doctor or going into the Law and things like that it was fine.

I probably there for about two years. Quite a long time for me. I hadn’t got a car so I was doing all this travelling out to schools by bus.

You can imagine standing by the bus stop at night sometimes. We had to go out and address parents’ evenings, that was one of the jobs.

A hundred and fifty people sitting there, you’re talking about opportunities for their children and then come home on the bus from the wilds of Salisbury Plain and you’d be standing there in the dark praying that the bus was going to turn up. I don’t know what I would have done, really. How I would have summoned a taxi I can’t imagine. Maybe there would have been an army lorry going by. You never know!

Back to London

That’s when I moved back to London. I got a transfer. My sister was living in London and she said, ‘You can come and share the flat.’ So it thought I’d get a transfer. And I did get a transfer. After a while – this all takes time. They needed people in London. Like now. It was expensive, even though you got a so-called London weighting. You are not paid enough really to live there.

Even then it wasn’t very much. So they were always looking for people to transfer. It wasn’t as difficult as all that. There was a new thing starting up called Occupational Guidance for Adults, so it was kind of a follow-on from what I had been doing. I suppose it made sense.

Loads of training. Terrifying training – you had to interview people in a room with a camera and outside all the rest of the course, about 16 people, are sitting there watching you doing this. A nightmare really. And there was a format for these occupational guidance interviews. Obviously you didn’t stick to it rigidly but you knew what you were working your way through.

The idea was that people who had been in jobs for a long time, obviously signed on for benefit and they wouldn’t accept what was offered to them because they didn’t want to do it anymore, really. So what you were trying to do was to put to them other possibilities that they might apply for or look at with the qualifications or experience that they had acquired, and they might not have thought of for themselves.

There was not computer, internet or that sort of thing. You couldn’t tap it in and come up with six varieties. So we did that. I think for some people it really was quite helpful. They had a special long interview; much longer than you would normally get in the Job Centre. Obviously in more depth. They did a test, which was a sort of aptitude test really to give us some idea, but also to give them some idea of what they could turn their hand to. ‘I’d never thought of that. Have I got the right qualifications?’ ‘Well yes, you have. You’ve got this and that.’ If you could brush up your … whatever … you’d be okay’ so people did actually change, became social workers and care workers. It was at all levels. On the whole rather more professional people – middle people, really, not senior people.

I did about a year and a half in occupational guidance, and then I went to another office which was called ‘Professional and Executive recruitment’ for senior people.

In those days it was separated, so if you qualified as a professional person, there were lots of rather peculiar definitions and cut-off points etc. they were dealt with by another office and different employment officers.

To be fair, it is impossible to know about every single job, what’s required, anything from waitress right up to people like judges. Because unfortunately everybody – well many people – at all levels do become unemployed for one reason or another.

Professional and executive recruitment – that was nice too, and very hard work. Because they were going over to a quasii-computer system.

So everybody’s paper records had to be converted into a format that would be accepted by the computer. They had to be coded and it was very hard work. We had piles like this. Once again I was in a big room with lots of people who were all the same grade as me. Nice, bright. Every morning piles of … (gales of laughter) … well you would have got depressed but [others were] doing it as well. It was a bit of a competition. ‘How many have you done?’

I stayed in the job for about two years, actually. That’s when we moved to the new office at Grosvenor Place which is right on Hyde Park Corner – unbelievable. Brand new office – open plan completely. I was in charge of a Section there. I had five or six people working for me – I was organising the section.

Not exactly telling people what to do but asking them –arranging it. Deciding who was going to interview whom and deciding who was going to do the computer work etc. etc. and the so-called matching which was looking at people to see whether there were any jobs that had just come in that would suit them. That sort of thing.

It was semi-computerised, but not frightfully well.

You had to do an awful lot yourself. With judgement and knowing things. It was certainly not fail-safe. And then of course we had the influx which completely knocked everything for six, which was the Ugandan Asians. These poor people were literally more or less put on a plane. They were given something like a month, 30 days, to leave and the trauma of it all was unbelievable when you think about it.

I didn’t really probably have enough understanding of it. Thinking back. We were not unsympathetic, but we were deluged. Unfortunately everybody who came over considered themselves to be professional.

That was tricky really, because – I don’t know what to say, really – in Uganda the Asians were sort of middle-class and senior class of worker.

We had to interview these people who came from Uganda and try to explain to them that the opportunities in Britain were not going to be the same as they had been for them in Uganda.

Obviously Britain was a much bigger place and qualifications and even experience – what was required were at a different level really to what they had achieved before. We had a lot of difficulty with certificates and qualifications that were actually bogus, really. It was the early days of people applying for certificates from various establishments and universities and medical schools. We had to be very careful, you couldn’t allow people who were not sufficiently qualified to apply for jobs in this country, because it could have resulted in real problems.

So there was a lot of difficulty with the job. So we spent a lot of time interviewing people and I did the very difficult ones that the other people had come to grief with, really. obviously I was older then and more experienced, but not really in this particular field.

Thinking back we ought to have definitely had some help, some training, some briefing on what exactly was happening. Where these people had come from, why it had happened. You only knew from general knowledge watching the news and anecdotal stuff and you learned as you went along. That’s what you did.

One interview, somebody said something or other: ‘You know that was very hard, because I had to take this, had to pay for this (goodness me) particular qualification.’ That was how you learnt. You could apply it perhaps to the next one. We pooled our knowledge as well. We did talk about people we had seen that day and that sort of thing.

And the general work of the Section went on. People had staff problems, they had personal problems, you were dealing with this. At quite a lowish level, but you were the first person that people came to. And again, some of the people who were working with me were really nice people – we send Christmas cards and write to each other, that sort of thing.

Moving to Norwich

I then got married. I was working at PER and then my husband transferred to Norwich. He got a job in Norwich.

Mainly because we wanted to buy a house and we couldn’t afford anything anywhere near London, really. We did look a bit at places like Chatham but the travelling would have been so expensive that it wasn’t really worth it. The houses were much cheaper (because they weren’t very nice) but then we thought … He was from Norwich, and my family were originally from Norwich as well, even though I’d never lived in Norwich.

My grandparents came from here. So I sort of knew it and it seemed like the best idea. Because in Norwich we could actually just afford to buy a house.

We bought a house and it cost £6,700 and it was very tight. Chris was working at County Hall and we got a mortgage. The only mortgage we could get was from the Council and they would only take, 25 percent – or 50 percent – of my earnings into consideration, though in fact I was earning more than him at that time.

I applied for a transfer to Norwich. I was still an Executive Officer in London. But I couldn’t get one. So we were six months he was here and I was there. In the end I had to go down a grade and get a transfer as what they called a Clerical Officer (or they did then) and then I did get one.

That was at the Job Centre which was then where Superdrug is now, St Stephens – anyway, one of those. It was Job Centre work. I just worked on interviewing the public. By that time jobs had been separated from benefit – it was another experiment that didn’t last forever.

We were in St Stephen’s. As I say, interviewing people who came in. ‘What would you like to do?’ It was difficult for me, because I wasn’t very good at Norfolk accent and at least for the first month I had quite a problem really. Some people were still in those days very broad Norfolk. One of my very first clients was a marshman – I got about one word in five, I think really.

You battle on and gradually get an ear for it. And of course, I found the Norwich office terribly strange after the London office. Norwich was really a very (it’s rather rude to say) … things were still quite old fashioned really. obviously I wasn’t in charge of the Section any more, I was working for another guy who was in charge and he was a very hard task master. He liked you to have your nose to the grindstone every minute. I got used to it but it took time to get into that job really.

I didn’t stay more than a year or so, about 14 months once again. Because I then left to have my daughter. That’s when I left the Job Centre and work for a long time.

I didn’t work in what you might call a proper job after that, though I did do some cleaning, and I helped with a playgroup. The cleaning was paid – the playgroup was voluntary, oh no I was paid a bit. They gave me about 10 shillings or a pound I don’t know.

I did get a one day a week secretarial job as well. I worked in somebody’s attic. That was quite good because I managed to do it after all those years, typing and all that. Good to keep my hand in really.

This is when my little girl started to go to places like playgroup and things like that. I had the odd morning when I could do these jobs. And then she went to her grandmother’s one afternoon a week so that was another time.

And then I got divorced and so I needed a job. I had custody of Susanna and we were living in the house and I needed to pay for the house and we needed to live on something. It took me a while before I could get a job. We were on income support. But we managed fine on about £46 a week. That was then!

In September’84 I got a job back at the Job Centre. But it was only temporary then and it was an even lower grade. The absolute bottom – clerical assistant they called it. You just did everything really.

I worked for a very interesting woman who was at that time disablement resettlement. She had had a chequered career really – she’d been the manageress of a dress shop in Oxford Street. She’d done lots of things. She wanted me to do things like going out shopping and one of the very first jobs was to go and buy for her granddaughter a My Little Pony. I shall never forget it – they were the toy of the time. This one was called Bluebell. It was quite hard to find Bluebell and I wasn’t frightfully keen on this idea that she was going to send me off. That was the first day. And on the second day I said I didn’t really want to go shopping because I need to shop for myself and my daughter in the lunch hour.

She knew about my single parent status. I think she might have been a single parent herself so she was quite sympathetic really. She accepted that and she made some other chap go and do it instead. Anyway, she didn’t really have any work for me to do. So I did a lot of reading the telephone book or something like that. Looking busy when you’re not busy is one of the worst things, I think. I’d miles rather be overworked.

Luckily, after six months, a permanent job must have come up and I applied for it and got it. As a Clerical Officer so I went up a bit. And that’s what I did for ages and ages and ages. From ’84 to ’96. Not the same job, every possible thing you could do within the Job Centre. But I never did get promotion back to Executive Officer. I did go for two interviews. I had to go to Nottingham but I didn’t get it either time. At 25 I was suitable and up to it, but later on at 35, I wasn’t.

There was a problem with it, because in those days if you got an Executive Officer job you were expected to be mobile and that would have been a problem. I don’t know how I would have managed really. It was a bit touch and go. I could have been mobile to somewhere like Wymondham which would have been just about possible – or Yarmouth where you could go on the train. But it would have been tricky because the childcare thing would not have been easy.

That’s why I didn’t go back to work. I got divorced before then but I didn’t go back to work till ’84 because of finding a job and also because the childcare thing was non-existent really. By that time she was about seven I think and my next door neighbour had her after school. It was all very ad hoc really.

I then retired in 1996 due to health reasons. I retired early, I was about 55 or 56. And that was it. By that time we were doing benefit again. I did that as well, not all the time, some employment and some benefit. A bit of this and a bit of that. So I retired but I did have another job, because I hadn’t got enough money.

I only had one pension and it wasn’t enough so I got a part-time job, early mornings, I had to get the bus at half past six. It was opening the post at Baltic House which is the Social Security. You only worked from seven till nine. So it was an ideal job in a way. I worked there about three years.

But it was hard work. You worked very hard for two hours. Then it was over and you had the rest of the day. It was a very early start. I got up at half past five I think. I’m not really a natural early riser and I certainly don’t rise early now if I don’t have to, but at least I know I can do it. It was an extraordinary set-up, very macho. Lots of people had been there for many years and there was, for me about the first time I’d come across this, sexist type of talk and behaviour. I didn’t love it really, but when I turned 60 I got two pensions – I got the government one as well so that was enough and I was able to leave.

Lal (b. 1942) talking to WISEArchive on 24th June 2015 in Norwich.

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