9 October 2023

If you can’t stand accounts, get out of the kitchen : 1966 : Whites of Camberley payroll & the pink fridge

 “Grant, why haven’t you written anything? What did you do yesterday evening?”

Our teacher had walked along the row of desks in the classroom and noticed that I had yet to start writing. I had been staring at a blank page in my exercise book, trying to imagine a way to pen two sentences and crayon an accompanying picture. I had to draw a deep breath to explain:

“Yesterday I helped my mum in our kitchen, calculating the Income Tax and National Insurance on an adding machine for the fifty people where she works, updating their record cards for Inland Revenue and then writing those amounts on their pay packets.”

The teacher looked thoughtful for a while. What on earth was this eight-year-old boy talking about? He had a wild imagination! After some reflection, she said:

“Just write that you went out to play with your friends and draw a picture of them.”

I did not relish the idea of lying but, if even my teacher could not find a way to summarise what I had really been doing the previous evening, I would follow her suggestion. This was the first (and last) occasion I tried to explain to anyone the work I did once a week with my mother in our home kitchen. Classmates remained oblivious to the range of administrative duties I performed regularly for my mother’s employer and my father’s business. While they were playing with their Sindy or Action Man dolls, I was busy reconciling accounting entries in a financial ledger.

The kitchen was a rear extension to our suburban, two-up two-down, semi-detached house. Downstairs had been transformed into one massive room since my father had removed the dividing wall. From the front of the house, you could now look through the window and see straight through to the rear garden. Visitors would gasp and enquire why the ceiling had not fallen down as ‘knock-throughs’ were unheard of in the early 1960’s. I remember the dust clouds when builders installed an iron girder in the ceiling to replace the wall they had just demolished.

The kitchen had once been of adequate size but now was somewhat cramped following the arrival of our latest ‘mod con’ – a fridge. Before then, milk bottles had been stored precariously on the rear window’s outdoor sill. Two years earlier, my father had been intrigued by a private ‘for sale’ advertisement in his favourite journal ‘Exchange & Mart’ (think ‘eBay’ on paper) and had arranged a viewing. We drove miles to locate the U.S. Air Force base and suddenly entered a parallel, colourful 3D world only previously viewed in 405-line, black and white location shots of ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘Bewitched’. It was a miniature slice of modern-day America incongruously tucked into a hidden, rural corner of bleak, post-war Britain.

My father had to switch to the right side of the road to drive our pink and white ‘Rambler Classic 770’ station wagon along the base’s wide roads lined with identical, single-story chalets built on spacious plots around which was a complete absence of fences. This was the North America to which my parents had long dreamed of emigrating and why they had embraced all things American since the 1950’s, including their children’s names, the oversized American Motors cars they drove, the pop music they loved and their ‘Life’ magazine subscription. Three decades later, when I glimpsed the neighbourhood in ‘Edward Scissorhands’, I was transported back to my first childhood impression of American suburbia on that day.

We located the house of the lovely American couple selling the fridge who explained they were about to be posted ‘back home’ at the conclusion of their tour of duty and were selling their household contents. The fridge was a huge American 'Kelvinator' and, to our amazement, was bright ‘Bermuda Pink’. It had a huge horizontal chrome door handle, a foot pedal to open the door if your hands were full and a freezer compartment which I was already scheming to fill with ‘Zoom’, ‘Fab’ and ‘Funny Faces’ ice lollies or blocks of 'Neapolitan' ice cream, on sale in the corner shop yards from our home. Smitten, my parents needed no convincing to purchase the fridge with cash they had brought.

The Americans asked if my parents wanted a foot-high stack of DC Comics which they were happy to throw in for free. Although the fridge would not fit in our car, we could take the comics home with us. Before we left the base, we popped into its ‘grocery store’ which was filled with American brands of cookie, breakfast cereal and sweets that, until then, we had only seen in American magazine advertisements. Having spent ages selecting a variety of items, we were disappointed at the checkout to be told that the shop only accepted American dollars or credit cards, neither of which my parents possessed. We would just have to wait a little longer to sample such delights once our emigration had been realised.

A fortnight later, a truck delivered the fridge to our home. However, because everything in America was genuinely ‘bigger and better’, it was found to be too wide to fit through the house’s backdoor. My parents’ unbridled enthusiasm had overshadowed the practicality of measuring their purchase, as the fridge had appeared perfectly scaled inside the American-style kitchen we had visited on the base. Now it had to remain outside unused (houses had no outdoor power points) for more weeks until a solution was executed. The old sash window at the back of our living room had to be replaced with a modern double-glazed version and, during this building work, the wall below it would be unbricked to carry in the oversized fridge and then replaced (floor-length ‘French windows’ were unknown then).

This operation successfully moved the fridge into the living room but, once again, my parents had failed to measure the internal doorway to the kitchen extension. It was too narrow. The door was removed from its hinges. It still did not fit. The door frame had to be removed. Only then, accompanied by my father’s considerable vocabulary of swear words, did the fridge just fit with tenths of an inch to spare. Finally, the object was inside the kitchen. Our home now had not only an enlarged living room but also a door-free walk-in kitchen, both of which were unusual. It may have contravened building safety regulations but it had accidentally created a large, unified downstairs space which we loved. There still remained one problem. The fridge operated on America’s 110-volt system so a large transformer box had to be found and bought before it would function.

We now had a huge fridge but a considerably smaller kitchen space. This is where, once a week, my mother would bring her adding machine home from work and all the paperwork necessary to calculate and record the wages to be paid to the staff of Whites (Camberley) Limited where she worked as bookkeeper. Founded by Percy White in 1908 and now managed by his son Peter, the family business had diversified from bicycles into car sales and repairs, a service station and coach hire from its plum town centre location at the corner of London Road and Knoll Road.

At the beginning of each tax year and after a government budget announcement, telephone-directory-like books were mailed to every employer in the country, filled with tables to calculate how much Income Tax and National Insurance contributions were to be deducted from pay, according to the worker’s tax code and whether they were paid weekly or monthly. The skill I perfected was in looking up the appropriate amounts for each member of staff every week, entering these figures on the employee’s blue card and then writing these amounts on small brown ‘wage packet’ envelopes. My mother took these to work the following day and counted out cash from the company safe to insert in each. I always wondered if Whites’ staff ever wondered why their pay details appeared in an eight-year old’s handwriting.

I learnt to be nimble on the adding machine, keying in amounts that my mother would read out, producing totals that could be torn off from a roll of paper. At the end of each ‘tax year’ in April were additional tasks of totalling up each employee’s contribution card, reconciling these amounts with the ledger entries and sending all the cards to Inland Revenue. We also had to handwrite P60 end-of-year certificates for each employee and, if a worker left their job during the year, we had to write out a P45 form in triplicate. Only a small table would now fit in the kitchen so we had to cram the ledger, adding machine and documents there, plus lay paperwork out on the worktop area and even on top of the fridge. As no homework was set by my school, these evenings proved no distraction from my education. Instead, I became an expert in double-entry bookkeeping and the intricacies of the British taxation system at an early age.

I adored the DC comics that had accompanied our pink fridge and handled them with the utmost care, keeping them in pristine condition under my bed. They were as yet not on sale in Britain, so I was looking forward to buying more once we emigrated. However, for reasons never understood, my parents decided to give up their long-held plan to move to Canada and instead they bought a plot of land locally to build their own house. Although their obsession with Americana remained unabated, it was tinged with the sadness of a shared dream that had failed to materialise. Within a few years, their marriage disintegrated and our family broke up for good. My mother cancelled her decade-long subscription to ‘Life’ magazine. After the 1973 oil crisis, American cars became too expensive to run, particularly when she was now a single parent.

When we moved out of our house in 1968, we sadly left the pink fridge behind. I always wondered what transpired as the new owners would have had to knock a hole in an external wall to remove it from the house if they no longer wanted it. That huge pink fridge was as indestructible as Captain Scarlet!

Two decades later, I returned home to retrieve my treasured DC comic collection, only to discover that my younger brother had crayoned all over them and torn out pages while I had been away. Our 1960’s dreams had all turned to dust.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating blog article and blog site. Thanks so much. I had an uncle who worked for Whites and then Trumans. Enjoyed this.