I enjoyed my time in the architectural drafting group and learned how to cut paper by creasing and tearing. I learned about making large print copies from Frank, who looked after an amazingly dangerous contraption in the print room. The room was filled with fumes from chemicals used in the printing process. The machine had a place for the original to be fed and a large roll of print paper waiting to be exposed.
The printer worked a bit like the old photocopier machines. An original has bright light passed behind it which exposes the print paper and the lines of the drawing stop the light from hitting the paper and so they are reproduced.
The problem was how to make this work for very large sizes of paper. The architectural drawings had to be reproduced full size. This machine solved the problem. The solution was to suspend an arc lamp on a pulley system and have the machine winch the arc lamp across the face of the original drawing which was rolled along and several passes of the arc lamp were needed to cover the whole area. The photographic (copy) paper was unrolled at the same speed.
The arc lamp worked by having a space between two poles of high voltage electricity causing a very bright and continuous arcing. It was not a good idea to look directly at the arc lamp when being operated. And the smell was quite offensive. Frank was a jolly, friendly fellow. I expect his fellow travellers could smell him coming when he took the tube home. I am surprised the whole contraption didn’t blow up. It was fascinating to watch but I was always glad when I got out of the print room alive. Frank was one of those men who refer to himself by name: “So tell Frank how many prints you need.” “Frank has a lot in the queue but will do his best for ya”. In the beginning I looked around to see where Frank was hiding then realized it was him. I liked Frank.
I also learned how to carry a Dumpy-Level – a kind of theodolite and how to survey large buildings by measuring the floor plans with a 100 foot tape measure and counting the brick courses to estimate its height. I also learned to “Bring your work to you”. I never quite figured that one out. Something about not bending down to do things. I also learned not to ‘rush’ the surveyor. “Don’t rush me he would say”. I didn’t work with him for very long.
But despite all this excitement I opted to take an opening in the shopfitting department. Yes, shopfitting not shoplifting. This was the interior design side of the department and grocery business. We did store planning and design and also designed the fixtures such as display cases.
I joined as the junior member and found myself responsible for all the filing (I expect the Chief Clerk would have been amused, I wasn’t).
However, a perk of the appointment was to be sent to Technical College (Now the University of North London) where I studied Interior Design. This was a day-release scheme of the government. The firm was paid a grant for a day’s work, when I went to the college and I was expected to attend evening classes three evenings a week plus some Saturdays, as well as complete home assignments. It was a great way for me to learn.
The shopfitting department had more than its fair share of practical jokers.
New members of the team were subjected to a few rituals. One was ‘The Long Wait’. You were told by the boss to go to Frank and ask for the long wait – Frank would say, “just a minute.” After you had hung around for a while and went and asked him again for the long wait, he would send you off to someone else who he was sure would be able to give you the long wait. This new person, Frank, would also say, “just a minute lad.” Eventually you would realize you had already received the long wait and go back to ridicule and a ticking-off for being so gullible and wasting time.
I wore glasses for reading and drafting – long-sighted I was told. My cheep national health glasses had black frames. One day while I was at lunch the ‘team’ made up a mixture of rubber cement (we called it cow-gum) and black india ink (drafting ink), they applied the mixture the face side of the bridge of the glasses which I had left on my drawing board. I came back from lunch and put on my glasses to work. When I took them off everyone laughed because I had a sticky black blotch on the bridge of my nose. Actually they didn’t laugh until I had been to the typing pool on an errand and returned. The girls’ had been chuckling a lot when I was there. This is not easy stuff to remove and I probably had a slight dark smudge when I went home on the tube!
They didn’t know who they were dealing with. I am a firm believer in the principle of escalation. The next day, I hung around the office when everyone else went out for lunch. Each person had a drafting machine with a big black handle in the middle. Some also had black telephone handsets. I mixed up a very large batch of the inky rubber cement and applied it to every drafting machine and handset. It was a very interesting afternoon. Getting black ink all over your hands is not a happy event for a draftsman. You can ruin a lot of drawings if you don’t realize you have black, sticky fingers. I think that was the last practical joke they played on me.
I was young, and so were some of the others, and the young can be cruel without realizing it.
Our drawing boards were slanted by putting two bricks under the top edge. We were set up in rows of two on long drawing benches. We all wore ugly and itchy beige coloured smocks.
In the row in front of me was Old Frank. He was a nice old guy very close to retirement. Unfortunately Old Frank had a problem staying awake after lunch. The boss was situated some way away and could only see Frank’s back. Frank was able to balance his elbow in such a way that his drawing arm would move about while he slept. I don’t think the boss knew he was sleeping, but we did.
One day, when the boss was away, Old Frank was dozing in the early afternoon, and a few of us youngsters decided to play a prank. We took two of the bricks, and dropped them onto the wooden floor just behind Old Frank – CRASH! He woke with a start and his pencil hand (pencil clutched securely in it) ripped all the way up the drawing he had been working on every morning that week. Old Frank looked surprised and a bit hurt but just said “Oh yes, funny, quite funny, yes.” I didn’t take part in any more of the practical jokes in the office.
Well just one. We had an intercom machine with a row of switches for others on the system. To use the intercom you pushed the lever for the person you wanted to communicate with and pushed the connect button. This would cause the other person’s intercom to buzz, they would switch their machine to answer and call out “hello”. We discovered that you could call more than one person at a time. Hmmm. We decided it was fun to call three people at once and then listen to them all saying”hello” “hello” “Yes, what do you want?” “What do YOU want” etc. As I say, it doesn’t pay to let creative people become bored.
Next Time: Musical Flowers: Working in London in the Early 60s part 5