10 July 2023

Blinded by the light : 1967 : Architectural Drawing Services, 27b High Street, Camberley

 It was a mystery. Questions were asked. Answers were not forthcoming. Nobody could understand what had happened. Evidently something must have occurred. But what? And how? The professionals were stumped. I could not help. I had no answers either. Had I been in an accident? No. Had I hit my head? No. Had my face been hurt? No. I remained as baffled as were they. I had no answers. The whole thing was to remain a complete mystery … for decades.

Once a year, we were told to stand in line in the corridor in our underwear. Boys in the morning, girls in the afternoon. I hated standing around near-naked in public. One by one we were ushered into an office where a nurse rushed through an eye test, a hearing test and pinged our underpants’ elastic for a gender check. It was the result of my eye test that held up the ‘production line’ for processing my classmates. The record card had logged my vision as 20/20 one year ago. How come, now, I was so short-sighted that I could read no further than the second line on the eye chart? It was a complete mystery.

Children tend to join a ‘family business’ once they have finished their education. I was put to work by my father before I started school. Once I could walk, I accompanied him on appointments to measure houses, shops, offices and factories where I held the end of a long tape measure marked in feet-and-inches, wound out from a brown holder the size and shape of a discus. Once I could read, I ensured copies of design periodicals including ‘Architects Journal’ were returned to his office shelves in strict chronological order. Once I could write, I used Letraset sheets to transfer stylised, appropriately scaled men or women pushing pushchairs onto his ‘artist’s impression’ building elevation plans. Such was the volume of graphics and lettering I used that the well-thumbed, thick, ring-bound Letraset catalogue became the closest we had to a Bible in our house.

My father’s office was a Portacabin behind the garage in our back garden. As our house was only 300 yards from the town centre, clients could visit him easily. However, my parents were about to move to a house they had been building two miles on the opposite side of town that was reached by an unmade road. It would prove useless for a business. The solution was the rental of a town centre office at 27b High Street on a busy pedestrian alleyway connecting to the Knoll Road public car parks. It had three rooms: a small lobby, a main room large enough for two drawing boards and a desk with an electric typewriter, plus a smaller back room. My father registered a company named ‘Architectural Drawing Services’ and ordered letterheads, invoices, statements and business cards with an olive-green border from Southwell Press in Park Street.

The office windows faced the wall of the Midland Bank building on the other side of the alley. My mother had applied to work there in the early 1950’s, desiring a job closer to home than the administrative role at Elizabeth Shaw’s chocolate factory she had taken after leaving the grammar school on Frimley Road. Thrilled to learn that her application had been successful, she was disappointed to be told she could not work there because no women’s toilet existed in the building where only men were employed. Instead, she was offered the same job at the Midland branch in Farnborough where she could use the female public toilet in the newly built Queensmead shopping plaza … which she accepted and had to commute.

In my father’s new office, I was given three additional tasks. At the end of each month, I typed the invoices, statements and their envelopes. If clients’ payments were overdue, I had a box of green, yellow and red warning stickers I would lick and attach to their statements, printed with progressively strident threats. I handwrote details of each invoice into a large accounting ledger, the opposite page of which my mother updated with bill payments she had made.

Secondly, once school finished at four o’clock, I would pay a halfpenny to catch the number 1 or 2 or 3C bus to the town centre and wait in my father’s office until he was ready to drive us home for ‘tea’ at our new house. He would regularly ‘pop out’ and leave me alone in order to (I learned much later from my mother) spend an hour or so with his current mistress. Clients and potential clients visiting the office late afternoon might find it manned only by a polite nine-year old boy, banging out documents on an IBM Selectric typewriter he had mastered years earlier. It must have seemed bizarre.

Things could have been worse. If I had been born a hundred years earlier, I might have been sent up chimneys as I was appropriately thin and tall (only Pamela Munroe and Marina Hirons were taller in my class of thirty). As it was, I was made familiar with most aspects of running a small business by the time I finished primary school. These were skills that schools (and even university) failed to consider worthwhile imparting, and why girls like my mother had to be sent subsequently to ‘secretarial school’ to learn the practical aspects of commerce about which their male bosses would never need to worry their unpretty big heads.

My third task was to work in the rear office that was off-limit to clients, kept darkened by a venetian blind across its window and contained two printing machines. One was an absolutely massive dyeline printer that used ammonia solution and photosensitive paper to reproduce paper copies of 36- by 48-inch architectural plans drawn onto tracing paper. There was no ventilation from the room as the door to the main office had to be kept shut to keep out the light, as did the one window to prevent a breeze blowing the blind. The second machine was a Rank Xerox monochrome photocopier that used ultraviolet light to print onto photosensitive A4 paper.

During term time, I would regularly do small copying jobs for my father after school on both machines. I hated the smell of the ammonia, the heat generated by the machines and the bright light emitted by the photocopier. During this era, such machines were uncommon outside cities and my father soon realised he could subsidise their cost by offering copying services to non-clients. He was approached by the Associated Examining Board [AEB], the only GCE examination board not linked to a university, which had moved from London to nearby Aldershot in 1966 and was seeking a business to contract for photocopying services. It would mean taking on a lot of seasonal work but the returns would prove significant. The deal was done.

Schools in the UK and former colonies took GCE exams every June, sent them directly to the persons appointed to mark them, who then sent them to AEB. A percentage of papers for each subject were then forwarded by AEB to a different academic whose job was to check that the initial marking was appropriate and consistent. They were sent a photocopy of the student’s marked work to ensure the original would not be lost. Turnaround time for these tasks was critical as exam boards notified students of their results in August before the new school year started the following month.

My mother was occupied at home caring for my younger preschool brother so it fell upon me to fulfil this contract. Most of my school summer holiday had to be spent in the darkened back room of my father’s office, photocopying thousands of examination scripts for days on end. It was hot work and the ultraviolet light flashed around the edges of the document plateau thousands of times. AEB were pleased with the results and renewed the contract to execute the same work for their less busy December exam retakes. Bang went my Christmas holidays too!

The outcome, which everyone had apparently failed to anticipate, was my mother taking me to Leightons opticians at the top of the High Street to purchase my first pair of NHS glasses with thick lenses in tortoiseshell frames. I refused to wear them at school, not because I feared being bullied (something never witnessed at Cordwalles Junior School) but because it was so rare then for children of my age to wear glasses. My stubbornness perplexed teacher Mr Hales who struggled to comprehend why I could no longer copy down things he wrote on the blackboard. Had one of 4H’s brightest students suddenly become illiterate?

Subsequent eye tests proved just as baffling to opticians who could not understand why my eyesight had deteriorated so suddenly during one year, but then remained static for years afterwards. It confounded me too for a long time until I finally understood the havoc wreaked on eyesight by lengthy unfiltered exposure to UV light. The only positive side effect was that, in every workplace I have since worked, I have been the one person in the office who can be relied upon to fix a malfunctioning photocopier!

Once I progressed to secondary school in 1969, I became too busy completing mountains of homework to continue the monthly office tasks. Besides, my father was about to upgrade my ‘help’ to evaluating the potential profitability of local property deals for a considerably more lucrative sideline he had discovered. I also suspect he preferred I spend less time at his office because, the older I was, the more difficult it became for him to disguise his dalliances with women.

In 1972, my father left our family forever to run off with recent teenage bride Suzie Anthony who lived a few doors away. The courts ordered him to pay the mortgage on our house and maintenance to my mother and her three children. He avoided payment, claiming he was unemployed despite living in salubrious, gated St Georges Hill, Weybridge. He broke into our house while we were out and stole almost everything he had ever provided for us, including some of my treasured vinyl records purchased with pocket money. My mother had to take both a day job and an evening cleaning job to try and make ends meet.

On my sixteenth birthday in 1974, my father applied to Farnham court to reduce my maintenance payment to £1 per year, arguing that I was now old enough to take a job. The court agreed, despite him already owing thousands in arrears and me about to take eight O-level exams and hoping to continue my education with A-levels and university. I received a letter from the court informing me of its decision at a hearing of which neither I nor my mother had prior knowledge. When the amount owing mounted even further, he fled abroad. Farnham court said it was our responsibility to trace his whereabouts.

In 1976, entirely coincidentally, my first paying job was processing examination papers at AEB in Aldershot. Almost a decade had passed since I had similarly handled thousands of students’ handwritten GCE scripts from all over the world in my father’s office. It was difficult not to believe in some kind of ‘fate’.

My father died in 2013 though I was not invited to his funeral. A handwritten will bequeathed the majority of his assets to my younger brother whose contribution to my father’s business in Camberley had been … zero.

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