Lessons learned in your youth can be very important. But not always in the way you think.
In the early 1970s, I was asked to help with a Sunday newspaper round. It was an opportunity to supplement my pocket money and so I said yes. Steven was a sixth former, the son of a friend of my mother’s, and he had an established round which required two people to do it properly. A few months later, he handed the round over to me as his A-levels were coming up and he needed to study. I took on my own helper, the son of someone on the round, I think, although I can’t remember his name. He was a scrawny little kid who must only have been about ten.
I collected my newspapers from a ramshackle old shop in Market Street that was only open on Sundays. The interior was lit by a single lightbulb and stacked high with teetering piles of newspapers giving everything the vinegary stink of newsprint. There were others there, too, noisily getting their supplies for different areas of the town. As we assembled in the shadowy light, there was an atmosphere of Fagin’s London, not least because Market Street was a crumbling medieval place with a raised pavement. Eventually I’d pile my order into a big, old pram that I kept in the garage at home and then set off, collecting my little helper along the way.
I started at about six thirty in the morning. Summers were fine but winters were awful, especially if there was snow or when it didn’t get light until eight. Some mornings I had on so many clothes, including a balaclava and thick gloves, that only my eyes were visible, and when it rained I would be soaked by mid-morning. I had a notebook in which everyone’s orders were written. There were so many different Sunday papers at that time, most of them fat with supplements and glossy magazines – the Sunday Times, The Observer, the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, The People, The News of the World. I also took a few downmarket magazines, like Reveille and Weekend, that had salacious stories in them I longed to read. It was quite a cargo but, as the hours passed, the pram became emptier and easier to push.
The streets of my round were pretty ordinary, lined with neat stone terraces or 1930s semi-detached houses; some had gardens full of flowers and I was always pleased to encounter friendly dogs. Most people left their money in an envelope or a tin next to their milk bottles on the doorstep but occasionally I would have to knock and someone in a dressing gown would open the front door to pay me, the smell of toast or bacon spilling out along with the warmth. I kept all the money in a canvas bag slung around my waist, getting heavier as the morning passed.
My little helper was a bouncy little fellow, always chatting away, telling me about someone amazing he’d seen on ‘New Faces’ that week or about a fight his older brother had been in or going through the plot of a television programme. His constant chatter irritated me at first but over time, I became quite fond of him, amused by the way he was so happy to be doing this, and so interested in everything around him. Occasionally he didn’t turn up and I had to do the whole round on my own and that made me appreciate his help.
By midday we were done and would make our way to the Tuck Shop on Hereford Road, a sizeable place that sold only sweets and cigarettes. There was another sweet shop a few doors down, and plenty more dotted throughout the town. No wonder British teeth were so bad. The owner was a friendly woman who wore a nylon housecoat and she would carefully count all my coins and then hand me a bundle of pound notes. We then made our way back to Market Street and I’d return whatever newspapers we hadn’t sold and Mr Morgan would then work out what I owed him – the wholesale price of the papers. I’d pay him and then give my little helper whatever we’d agreed on, and the rest was all mine. It was a reasonable sum.
Looking back, it all seems rather remarkable that I did this. It was quite different from the newspaper rounds others had, simply delivering the newspapers from a newsagency and not handling money at all. I had responsibility. If, say, some of the papers fell in a puddle then the loss was mine. I was also carrying a fair amount of money but thankfully muggings in Abergavenny were unheard of.
This early experience of buying and selling might have been a crucial first step in my way forward into business. The truth is, though, that it didn’t inspire anything of the sort. I had no interest in working out ways to take on more rounds or employ others to do it, to become Abergavenny’s Mr Big of Sunday newspaper rounds. More than anything I wanted to be the person who had things delivered to them, the one who sat at the cosy breakfast table, waiting for the Sunday newspaper to be brought to his door. So I was terribly glad when we moved to Yorkshire because then I had to give my little business away. I could now loll in bed on a Sunday morning, as most adolescents like to.
So what lessons did I learn? Perhaps that I was quite good at doing things I didn’t really want to do. That I was dependable, always turning up. I saw that the people in the smartest houses weren’t always the friendliest. That money has to be earned. It’s not a great deal, is it?
I sometimes think of my skinny little helper and wonder what happened to him. With his lively love for what we did, did he go on and make his fortune? I rather hope he did. He certainly deserved it, as much as I didn’t. But maybe there’s a lesson in that, too.
Did you have a job when you were at school?
Lovely and thoughtful as usual Colin but I kept on expecting the ‘big reveal’ at the end re. your 2IC.
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Lovely, and as usual, thoughtful.
I did expect the ‘big reveal’ at the end as to what happened to your 2IC.
I’m guessing these ‘slight’ jottings take a long time to write. Thinking, writing, editing must be a great pleasure for you. The end result is charming.
That would have been excellent, to reveal him to have become a media mogul! Sadly real life isn’t always so obliging… Thanks for your comments. I love writing and these blogs give me an opportunity to meander through all kinds of topics. Glad you enjoyed this one!
What a sweet little slice from the memory box! You certainly had a lot of responsibility as an enterprising young man. I worked at the local drug store, starting on the checkouts and moving up to pharmacist’s assistant. I learned how to deal with the public and a crotchety boss and, above all, that the customer was king. All valuable life lessons.
I remember that getting a Saturday job at Boots the chemists in the UK was a great prize for many girls at my school (the make-up counters being the main lure). Sounds like you had much more responsibility, which says a lot for your character. You’re right, dealing with the public is quite a lesson, especially as people are just so unpredictable… Thankfully my dealings with the public were few and far between – I think most of them were sorry for the bedraggled thirteen year old trying to keep their newspaper dry as he brought it to the door. I do remember a slice of cake being offered, on occasions!