My First Job

David Lodge

You don’t have to be Protestant to have the Protestant Ethic, I tell my students, when we come to Weber in my survey course on Sociological Grand Theory. Look at me, I say: Jewish father, Catholic mother – and I develop an allergic rash at the mere mention of the word ‘holiday’, with all its connotations of reckless expenditure of time and money. Accumulate, accumulate! – that’s my motto, whether it’s publications, index cards, or those flimsier bits of paper that promise to pay the bearer so many pounds if he presents them to the Bank of England. Work! Strive! Excel! For the job’s own sake! My students, lolling in their seats, mentally preoccupied with the problem of how to draw the dole and hitchhike to Greece this summer, grin tolerantly and unbelievingly at me through their beards and fringes. Sometimes, to try and make them understand, I tell them the story of my first job.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in the olden days, or, to be more precise, in the summer of 1952 (so I begin), at the age of seventeen and three-quarters, I got my first job, selling newspapers and magazines off a little trolley on Waterloo Station. It was a temporary job, to fill in a few weeks between getting my A-level results (which were excellent, I need hardly say) and going to University. There was no real economic need for me to work, and the weekly wage of £3 10s 0d (even allowing for subsequent inflation) made it scarcely worthwhile to travel up from my home in Greenwich daily. It was a matter of principle. My father, who ran his own dressmaking business employing thirty people (which he intended to hand on to me, his only child), was dubious of the point or profit of a university education, and determined that at least I should not loaf idly about the house while I waited to commence it. It was he who spotted the advert in the Evening Standard, phoned up the manager of the shop, and talked him into giving me the job on a temporary basis, without even consulting me. My mother looked at the advertisement. ‘It says, “suitable school-leaver”,’ she observed.

‘Well, he’s left school, hasn’t he?’ demanded my father.

‘ “School-leaver” means some no-hope fifteen-year-old from a secondary modern,’ said my mother. ‘It’s a euphemism.’ She was a well-educated woman, my mother. ‘Pays like a euphemism, too,’ she added. Years of marriage to my father had imparted a Yiddish edge to her Irish sense of humour.

‘Never mind, it will give him an idea of what the real world is like,’ said my father. ‘Before he buries his head in books for another three years.’

‘It’s true, he ought to give his eyes a rest,’ my mother agreed.

This conversation took place in the kitchen. I overheard it, sitting in the dining-room, going through my stamp collection (I was totting up the value of all my stamps in the Stanley Gibbons catalogue: I seemed to be worth thousands, though I had no intention of selling). I was meant to overhear the conversation, and to be ready to give an answer when the substance of it was formally put to me. Diplomatic leaks of this kind oiled the wheels of family life wonderfully.

My father came into the dining-room. ‘Oh, there you are,’ he said, affecting surprise. ‘I’ve found a job for you.’

‘What kind of job?’ I enquired coyly. I had already decided to accept it.

The next Monday morning, I presented myself, promptly at 8.30, at the bookstall, a large green island in the middle of Waterloo Station. Waves of office workers arriving on suburban trains surged across the station precinct as if pursued by demons, pausing only to snatch newspapers and magazines from the counters of the shop for the next stage of their journeys by tube or bus. Inside the shop, in a cramped and stuffy little office, seated at a desk heaped with invoices and ringed with the traces of innumerable mugs of tea, was the manager, Mr Hoskyns: a harassed, irascible little man who had evidently suffered a stroke or some kind of palsy, since the right-hand side of his face was paralysed and the corner of his mouth was held up by a little gold hook and chain suspended from his spectacles. Out of the other corner of his mouth he asked me how much change I would give from a ten-shilling note to a customer who had bought three items costing ninepence, two and sixpence, and a penny-halfpence, respectively. Suppressing an urge to remind him that I had just passed A-level Maths-with-Stats with flying colours, I patiently answered the question, with a speed that seemed to impress him. Then Mr Hoskyns took me outside to where two youths loitered beside three mobile news-stands. These were green-painted wooden barrows, their steeply-angled sides fitted with racks for displaying magazines and newspapers.

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in