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.
‘Ray! Mitch! This ’ere’s the new boy. Show ’im the ropes,’ said Mr Hoskyns, and disappeared back into his lair.
Ray was a boy of about my stature, though (I guessed) about a year younger. He was smoking a cigarette which dangled rakishly from his lower lip, and which he occasionally transferred from one side of his mouth to the other without using his hands, as if to demonstrate that in one respect at least he had an advantage over Mr Hoskyns. He kept his hands plunged into the pockets of an Army Surplus windbreaker, and wore heavy boots protruding from frayed trousers. Mitch (I never did discover whether this was a nickname or a contraction of a real first or second name) was very small and of indeterminate age. He had a dirty, wizened little face like a monkey’s, and bit his nails continuously. He wore a collarless shirt and the jacket and trousers of two different striped suits, of the kind working-class boys often wear for Sunday best in cheap imitation of their fathers: the jacket was brown and the trousers were blue, and both garments were in a state of considerable disrepair. They looked at me in my grey flannels and the grammar school blazer which, on the advice of my mother, I had decided to ‘wear out’ on the job, since I would have no further use for it.
‘Wotcher wanner dead-end job like this for then?’ was Ray’s first utterance.
‘I’m only doing it for a month,’ I said. ‘Just while I’m waiting to go to University.’
‘University? Yer mean, like Oxford and Cambridge? The Boat Race and that?’ (It should be remembered that going to University was a rarer phenomenon in 1952 than it is now.)
‘No, London University. The London School of Economics.’
‘To get a degree.’
‘What use is that to yer?’
I pondered a short, simple answer to this question. ‘You get a better job in life afterwards,’ I said at length. I didn’t bother to explain that personally I wouldn’t be looking for a job, since a thriving little business was being kept warm for me. Mitch, nibbling at his fingers, stared at me intently, like a savage pigmy surprised by the appearance of a white explorer in the jungle.
Mr Hoskyns popped an angry head round the door, ‘I thought I said, “Show ’im the ropes,” didn’t I?’
The ropes were simple enough. You loaded your trolley with newspapers and magazines, and trundled off to platforms where trains were filling up prior to their departure. There were no kiosks on the actual platforms of Waterloo Station in those days, and we were meant to serve passengers who had passed through the ticket barriers without providing themselves with reading matter. The briskest trade came from the boat trains that connected at Southampton with the transatlantic liners (remember them?) whose passengers always included a quota of Americans anxious to free their pockets of the heavy British change. Next in importance were the expresses to the holiday resorts and county towns of the south-west, especially the all-Pullman ‘Bournemouth Belle’, with its pink-shaded table lamps at every curtained window. The late-afternoon and early-evening commuting crowds, cramming themselves back into the same grimy carriages that had disgorged them in the morning, bought little except newspapers from us. Our brief was simply to roam the station in search of custom. When our stocks were low, we pushed our trolleys back to the shop to replenish them. Brenda, a pleasant young married woman with elaborately permed hair, who served behind the counter, would give us the items we asked for and make a note of the quantities.
I did not dislike the work. Railway stations are places of considerable sociological interest. The subtle gradations of the British class-system are displayed there with unparalleled richness and range of illustration. You see every human type, and may eavesdrop on some of the most deeply emotional moments in people’s lives: separations and reunions of spouses and sweethearts, soldiers off to fight in distant wars, families off to start a new life in the Dominions, honeymoon couples off to ... whatever honeymoon couples did. I had only very hazy ideas about that, having been too busy swotting for my A-levels to spare much time for thinking about sex, much less having any, even the solitary kind. When Ray told me on my second day that I ought to have some copies of the Wanker’s Times on my trolley, I innocently went and asked Brenda for some. The word was new to me. As for the activity to which it referred, my father had effectively warned me off that in his Facts of Life talk when I was fourteen. (This talk was also delivered ostensibly to my mother while I eavesdropped in the dining-room. ‘I never wasted my strength when I was a lad, you know what I mean?’ my father loudly declared. ‘I saved it for the right time and place.’ ‘I should think so too,’ said my mother.) Brenda turned brick red, and went off muttering to complain to Mr Hoskyns, who came bouncing out of his office, impassive on one side of his face, angry on the other.
‘What’s the idea, insulting Brenda like that? You’d better wash your mouth out, my lad, or out you go on your arse.’ He checked himself, evidently recognising my bewilderment was genuine. ‘Did Ray put you up to it, then?’ He sniggered, and shook his shoulders in suppressed mirth, making the little golden chain chink faintly. ‘All right, I’ll speak to ’im. But don’t be so simple, another time.’ Across the station’s expanse, lurking beside the Speak Your Weight machine, I could see Ray and Mitch watching this scene with broad grins on their faces, nudging and jostling each other. ‘And by the way,’ Mr Hoskyns threw over his shoulder as he returned to his office, ‘we never send out Health and Efficiency on the trolleys.’ (Health and Efficiency, I usually have to explain to the children at this point, was one of the very few publications on open sale, in those days, in which one might examine photographs of the naked female form, tastefully disposed among sand dunes, or clasping strategically-positioned beach-balls.)
At the end of the day we took our money to be counted by Mr Hoskyns and entered in his ledger. On my first day I took £3 15s 6d, Mitch £5 7s 8d, and Ray £7 0s 5d. It wasn’t really surprising that I lagged behind the other two, because they knew from experience the times and locations of the trains that provided the best custom. By the following Friday, the busiest day of the week, I had almost caught up with Mitch – £8 19s 6d to his £9 1s 6d – though Ray had taken £10 15s 9d.
‘What’s the highest amount you’ve ever taken in one day?’ I asked, as we left the shop, pocketing our meagre wages, and prepared to join the homegoing crowds. It irked me somewhat that these secondary modern types, even allowing for their greater experience, were able to take more cash than me. It bothered me much more than the practical joke over Health and Efficiency.
‘Ray took eleven parn nineteen ’n’ six one Friday,’ said Mitch. ‘That’s the all-time record.’
Fatal phrase! Like the smell of liquor to an alcoholic. The job was suddenly transformed into a contest – like school, like examinations, except that one’s performance was measured in £SD instead of percentage marks. I set myself to beat Ray’s record the following Friday. I still remember the shocked, unbelieving expressions on Ray’s and Mitch’s faces as Mr Hoskyns called out my total.
‘Twelve pounds eggs-actly! Well done, lad! That’s the best ever, I do believe.’
The following day, Saturday, I noticed that Ray was assiduously working the long lines of holidaymakers queuing for the special trains to the seaside resorts, milking their custom before they ever got to the platforms where Mitch and I plied our trade. When Mr Hoskyns announced the tallies at the end of the day, Ray had taken £12 7s 8d – a new record, and particularly remarkable in being achieved on a Saturday.
Suddenly, we were locked in fierce competition. Economically, it was quite absurd, for we were paid no commission on sales – though Mr Hoskyns certainly was, and manifested understandable pleasure as our daily and weekly takings escalated. At the sound of our trolleys returning in the late afternoon, he would come out of his cubbyhole to greet us with a lopsided smile, his gold chain glinting in the pale sunlight that slanted through the grimy glass of the station roof. The old record of £11 19s 6d soon seemed a negligible sum – something any one of us could achieve effortlessly on a wet Monday or Tuesday. On the third Friday of my employment, we grossed over fifty pounds between us. Ray’s face was white and strained as Mr Hoskyns called out the totals, and Mitch gnawed his fingernails like a starving cannibal reduced to self-consumption. Mitch had taken £14 10s 3d, Ray £18 4s 9d and myself £19 1s 3d.
The following week was my last on the job. Aware of this fact, Ray and Mitch competed fiercely to exceed my takings, while I responded eagerly to the challenge. We ran, literally ran, with our trolleys from platform to platform, as one train departed and another began to fill up. We picked out rich-looking Americans in the boat-train crowd and hung about in their vicinity with our most expensive magazines, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, that cost a whole half-crown each, prominently displayed. We developed an eye for the kind of young man on the ‘Bournemouth Belle’ who would try to impress his girlfriend with a lavish expenditure of money on magazines that clearly neither of them would be reading. We shuffled our stocks and rearranged them several times a day to appeal to the clientele of the moment. We abbreviated our lunch-hour, and took our tea-breaks on the move. In takings, Ray and I were neck and neck, day by day: sometimes he was the winner by a few shillings, sometimes myself. But the real needle match between us was on the Friday, which was to be my last day of work, since I had earned some overtime which entitled me to have the last Saturday off. Both Ray and I realised that this Friday would see the record smashed yet again, and perhaps the magic figure of £20 in a single day – the four-minute mile of our world – achieved by one or other of us.
Recklessly we raced across the station with our trolleys, that day, to claim the most favourable pitch, beside the first-class compartments of departing expresses; jealously we eyed each other’s dwindling stocks. Like Arab street-traders we accosted astonished passengers and pestered them to buy our wares, forcing our way into intimate circles of tearfully embracing relatives, or tapping urgently on the windows of carriages whose occupants had already settled themselves for a quiet snooze. At one point I saw Ray actually running beside a moving train to complete the sale of a copy of Homes and Gardens.
At the end of the day, Mitch had taken £15 8s 6d, Ray £20 1s 9d and myself £21 2s 6d. Ray turned away, sick and white, and ground the cigarette he had been smoking under his heel. Mitch swore softly and drew blood from his mutilated finger ends. I felt suddenly sorry for them both. The future stretched out for me as rosy as the table lamps of the ‘Bournemouth Belle’. Within a few years, I had reason to hope, it would be me who would be taking his seat for luncheon on the plump Pullman cushions; and although I didn’t actually guess that before many more had passed I would be catching the boat train for the Queen Mary and a Fellowship in the United States, I had a hunch that such extended horizons would one day be mine. While for Ray and Mitch the future held only the prospect of pushing the trolleys from platform to platform, until perhaps they graduated to serving behind the counters of the shop – or, more likely – became porters or cleaners. I regretted, now, that I had won the competition for takings, and denied them the small satisfaction of beating me in that respect at least. But the worst was still to come.
Mr Hoskyns was paying me off: three one pound notes and a ten shilling note. ‘You’ve done well, son,’ he said. ‘Sales from the trolleys have turned up a treat since you came ’ere. You’ve shown these two idle little sods what ’ard work really means. And mark my words,’ he continued, turning to Ray and Mitch, ‘I expect you two to keep up the good work after ’e’s gorn. If you don’t turn in this sort of sum every Friday, from now on, I’ll want to know the reason why – you understand?’
The next day, I overheard my parents talking in the kitchen. ‘He seems very moody,’ said my mother, ‘Do you think he’s fallen in love?’ My father snorted derisively. ‘In love? He’s probably just constipated.’ ‘He seemed very quiet when he came home from work yesterday,’ said my mother. ‘You’d almost think he was sorry to leave.’ ‘He’s probably wondering whether it’s a good idea to go to University after all,’ said my father. ‘Well, he can come straight into the business now, if he wants to.’
I burst into the kitchen. ‘I’ll tell you why I’m moody!’ I cried.
‘You shouldn’t listen to other people’s private conversations,’ said my mother.
‘It’s because I’ve seen how capitalism exploits the workers! How it sets one man against another, cons them into competing with each other, and takes all the profit. I’ll have nothing more to do with it!’
My father sank on to a kitchen chair with a groan, and covered his face with his hands. ‘I knew it, I knew it would happen one day. My only son, who I have been slaving for all these years, has had a brainstorm. What have I done to deserve that this should happen to me?’
So that was how I became a sociologist. My first job was also my last. (I don’t call this a job – reading books and talking about them to a captive audience; I would pay to do it if they weren’t paying me). I didn’t, as you see, go into business; I went into academic life, where the Protestant ethic does less harm to one’s fellow men. But the faces of Ray and Mitch still haunt me, as I last saw them, with the realisation slowly sinking in that they were committed to maintaining that punishing tempo of work, that extraordinary volume of sales, indefinitely, and to no personal advantage, or else be subjected to constant complaint and abuse. All because of me.
After my lecture on Weber, I usually go back to Marx and Engels.