Want to sell ice-creams on the French Riviera? Well, yes but failing that…
During my first year at College, a flyer appeared in the common room. Want to sell ice creams on the French Riviera this summer? Please send CV, plus £1 administration fee to Golden Sands Ltd, PO Box 4324.
‘It’s the perfect job for me,’ I explained to my father during our weekly Saturday morning phone call. ‘I’ll be out in the sunshine, keeping fit and learning French.’
There was disapproving silence on the line. Dad was not a great dreams man. Certainly not when it came to employment opportunities.
‘Sounds a bit of a cod to me,’ he said. ‘How could you keep the ice cream from melting? The sun will be splitting the stones over there.’
‘It’s France, Dad,’ I said primly. ‘They’re more technologically advanced than this country.’
To be honest, I was not exactly banging the drum for UK PLC in this era. The election of Margaret Thatcher that May had put my Trotskyist nose seriously out of joint. Tragically, many workers had ignored our leaflets telling them what was good for them. This meant that the inevitable-overthrow-of-capitalism might take a little longer than billed.
In the meantime, I needed a summer job.
So I sent off my cheque and CV to that magic PO Box. In my mental diary, the date was already booked. On the 1st July, I would abandon grey British skies for glorious blue French ones. The prospect cheered me as I revised for my exams.
Weeks passed. Exams came and went. But no envelope with an exotic post stamp appeared in my pigeonhole. What did arrive were bills, many requiring urgent payment for this and that.
It was time for Plan B.
I told my fellow socialist society bigwig, Steve Gordon, the sorry tale of how I would not be spending the summer sauntering up and down French sand.
‘So now I’m looking for a job in London, too.’
Steve leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘I might be able to get you something with the council where I’m working.’ He explained that his father, a personnel manager for one London’s municipal councils. Mr Gordon was, in short, the man with the key to the refuse collection jobs cabinet.
That trumped me. In student lefty circles, my father’s bus driving had some cache — but he couldn’t wangle me a job. London Transport weren’t going to throw me the keys to Dad’s double-decker. Steve, on the other hand
‘I’d really appreciate it,’ I said as we staggered out of the pub.
‘No problem,’ said Steve, with a matey wink. ‘That’s what socialism is all about, really. Comrades helping each other out.’
Mr Gordon gave me a very brief telephone interview.‘There’s something going on the sweeps. ‘Have you got a driving licence?’
‘Only a provisional,’ I said. ‘I’m still taking lessons.’
‘That’ll do,’ he said. ‘Come to the depot Monday 8.00 sharp.’
And with that, he was gone, leaving me to stew over the weekend. Had there had been a misunderstanding. Did Mr Gprdpm expect me to drive one of those monster garbage trucks? Should I have pointed out that I had only had two driving lessons?
I expressed all my fears to the depot manager on my first morning. He listened in silence.
‘Of course I’d be happy to extra training,’ I said.
‘Don’t think that will be necessary, mate,’ he said, suddenly struggling to keep his poker face. ‘That’s what you’re driving.’
He pointed to a contraption that looked like a cross between milk float and horizontal metal dustbin. A long cylindrical handle controlled the steering. A button started and stopped the motor.
I would be walking the streets of London, pulling a battery-powered cart behind me. A task traditionally requiring an ass — one with arms in the modern version. No special training required.
With power comes responsibility. I was now the crew leader, the captain of dustcart, the man on the bridge. Dick and Charlie, two Irishmen with well over a hundred years between them, were my assistants. They walked behind me on either side of the truck, sweeping the kerbs with huge brooms.
Five minutes into my first shift, a near miss with a stationary taxi caused a mutiny. My men downed brooms.
‘You don’t know how to operate this, do you?’ said Charlie.
I looked down at my now dusty shoes. ‘Well, I haven’t had much experience of this particular type of…’
‘We’ll take charge, son,’ said Dick. He was a short dapper man, with a snappy, miraculously unsoiled green golf jacket. ‘Just do what we say and you’ll be fine.’
In my second week on the sweeps, I bumped into Steve. He was with the binmen, the aristocrats of sanitation, hanging on the side of their mighty lorry in full high viz. We exchanged waves.
Dick glanced up. ‘So that’s how you got this job. You know Gordon’s boy?’
Blushing, I feigned confusion. ‘Gordon who?’
‘Mr Gordon. Our boss. That’s his son.’
‘No! I mean I do know Steve from college,’ I said, shifting from foot to dusty foot. ‘but I had an interview…’
‘With his dad?’
‘Sort of, yes, but… I trailed off. They weren’t buying a word of it.
‘Don’t worry son,’ said Charlie kindly. ‘Everyone knows someone here. That’s how it works.’
My new colleagues were street-sweeping maestros. Charlie and Dick could manoeuvre our rickety truck it in and out of the tightest of spots. They also knew how to make it work for them in another sense.
‘If you play your cards right,’ said Charlie. ‘You can earn a little bit of extra cash.’
‘Help you pay for your books and pencils,’ said Dick, tapping his nose.
Earning my ‘pencils’ involved a strictly unofficial service of ‘favours’ for householders. For a ‘drink’ (£5) we would remove that manky old carpet. Or discreetly dispose of your daughter’s deceased rabbit.
Another key feature not mentioned in the job description was that our work was strictly weather dependent. At the faintest rumour of rain, we would park the truck and head to a cafe. There my Dick and Charlie would opine on the issues of the day. The plight of the boat people was a favourite topic
‘Those poor old Vietnamese. Sailing on the high seas.’
‘In boats that couldn’t get across a bath.’
‘Packed in like sardines. Half of them drowned on the way.’
I cleared my throat. ‘The real problem is US imperialism,’ I pronounced. ‘The Vietnamese economy has been economically isolated.’
Charlie continued to chew his breakfast sausage. Then he dried his mouth with a serviette. Like Oliver Hardy, he combined a broad beam with delicate manners. ‘The Americans have gone though, haven’t they?’
‘On those helicopters,’ added Dick. ‘Clinging on to their suitcases.’
‘Yes, they left in 1975,’ I conceded. ‘But if you look at it from a –‘
I continued to blah bah about this perspective and that one, trying to remember the gist of a pamphlet I’d read. Charlie nodded thoughtfully between mouthfuls of tea and fried bread.
‘Of course I haven’t had the benefit of your college education,’ he said when I finally concluded my lecture. ‘But I can’t help noticing that these boats are only heading in one direction.’
Dick chuckled at this. ‘They are in no hurry back. Thanks for the offer, Ho Chi, but I’m settled out here in Canada now.’
‘I think it’s more complicated than that,’ I said .
‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway,’ said Charlie. ‘And the rain has stopped. Shall we get on with cleaning Blythe Road?’
For all their rain-breaks and off-books side-jobs, Charlie and Dick were impressively efficient. They marched down streets literally sweeping all before them.
Once Dick came across a dead cat lying in the gutter. Without breaking stride, he deposited into the truck with a single swing of his shovel.
Even with my ham-fisted driving, we cover our route swiftly. This left ample time to squeeze in requests for ‘favours’. There were strict protocols for these — no dodgy stuff, no price haggling, no receipts. The service was also available on a pro-bono basis for the elderly and others we judged incapable of paying for it.
The financial returns for this rule bending wee modest. I frittered away my ‘pencil fund’ on various sundries. My two seniors invested their sideline cash in unsuccessful betting slips, which they then analysed at length, like batsmen trying to work out the action of an impossibly cunning leg spinner.
‘I was sure that horse would last the distance. But he was going to backwards in the final furlong.’
‘Perhaps he needed softer ground. If they’d had this a bit of this rain now…’
And so my summer passed, tramping the dusty streets under leaden west London skies. Deep down, I was relieved. Beaches in the blazing sun were not really my thing.
‘So it’s back to your books on Monday?’ said Charlie. It was the Friday of the August Bank holiday, our final shift.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we wouldn’t be opening them for a good month. ‘Pretty soon.’
He gave me a wink. ‘Stick at them son. You don’t want to end up us like us eejits.’
Then, after brisk handshakes, our roads forked. I never saw them again.
On the morning of my return to College, my father hollered across the house. ‘George! There’s a man on the phone for you.’
‘Who is it?’ I mouthed as I came out into the hall.
‘He won’t say,’ said Dad loudly.
I swallowed hard and took the phone with a clammy hand.
‘My name is Detective Sanford. I am from the Scotland Yard Fraud Squad. It’s regarding your summer job….
My heart thumped louder than the electronic tick of our plastic hall clock. Which ‘favour’ had brought us down?
‘You sent a cheque to a company called Golden Sands?’
I breathed more easily. Surely, that wasn’t a crime? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Only a pound.’
‘Well there were a lot of pounds, I’m afraid,’ said the detective. ‘But no jobs. I’m afraid it was a fraud, sir. We’ll do what we can to get your money back.’
Resisting the temptation to say, ‘Don’t bother!’ I thanked him for the update and replaced the receiver.
My father met was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, peering up. ‘Who was it? Is there something wrong?’
‘No, nothing. It was just about that job in France. Apparently, it wasn’t quite what it seemed.’
I braced for a reminder about melting ice creams.
‘It turned out alright though, didn’t it?’ he said gently, perhaps sensing my wounded pride. ‘Sure, there’s no loss on you?’
‘No,’ I said, already turning the experience into a comic tale in my head. ‘No loss at all.’
More from my memoir: 8 Davisville here.