One of the horrible inventions of company life is the ‘company do’. I am sure there are many extroverts who actually enjoy these things. Just like some like plastic flowers. Don’t worry I haven’t set fire to any ballrooms. I certainly haven’t set fire to any dance floors! Hot footed I am not. Although mum did often refer to me as ‘clever clogs’ whatever that meant.
I’ll remind you that I was a shy sixteen year-old when I started at the firm. After surviving my embarrassing behaviour with the Dolly Birds, you would think I had reached my low point. Ha!
Our department threw a big party – dinner/dance – for the employees and any attachments once a year. I was sixteen and single and had never been to a ‘do’.
I was encouraged by the friendly ladies in the typing pool to come along. I signed up.
On the day of the ‘do’ Elsie the Tea Lady took me aside for some advice. I can’t call Elsie Frank for obvious reasons and she wasn’t a Frankie or Francine. She was Elsie!
Elsie would bring the coffee trolley around each morning around 10am and the tea trolley around 3pm. Neither the coffee or tea were drinkable without the addition of three or four spoonfuls of sugar. I think this is where Mary Poppins must have worked before becoming a child-minder and general know-it-all.
Elsie was a woman of wisdom – down to earth, East-End of London wisdom. She knew everything that was going on in the firm and enjoyed sharing her knowledge while on her rounds, and in the privacy of her domain – a small kitchen at the end of the corridor. Elsie also provided some terrible cakes that we all bought and choked down with the dreadful coffee. There were no spoons on offer so we stirred the coffee with our pencils. The added tones of wood and pencil lead did not harm the flavour.
I loved Elsie, she was like my work mum.
On the day of the ‘do’ Elsie called me into her kitchen. She told me that there would be a lot of drinking at the ‘do’ and even though I was only sixteen I would be expected to join in. She advised me to drink lots of milk before the ‘do’, “It will coat your stomach”.
I really didn’t like milk much in those days. But with the addition of three or four spoons of sugar I could get it down almost as easily as the coffee. As an aside, my mum used to buy 8 pounds of sugar each week. Well, there were four of us in the house.
At last the evening came and we all got dressed up and went to a posh London hotel. I was seated at a table with a couple of my work mates, some of the single typists and my boss and his wife.
Meanwhile, back at the ‘do’, dinner was fine. The toasts were ok. I loved the sound of the live dance band. Not exactly Glen Miller, but the saxophones and drums were impressive to this sixteen year-old.
Elsie was right, there was a fair amount of alcohol delivered and received – some individuals acted like a loading dock and were soon fully loaded.
I was, I thought, being quite careful. But a couple of glasses of Chablis can creep up on you when you are not looking and only weigh 120 lbs. I found myself on the dance floor attempting to reproduce a Cossack dance, which was rather strange as the band was playing a popular jewish tune at the time.
I was having a reasonably good time until the MC announced, with a drum roll accompaniment, it was FUN TIME, tada boom. I wondered what we had been doing up till then. Anyone already on the dance floor had to stay – rats, I was trapped.
If you have seen the movie Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (a favourite of Susan’s that we have watched many times); you may remember the scene where Audrey and Cary were at a night-club. The MC got them to join in a game with an orange. The idea was to form two lines – man, woman, man, woman and so on. Then the first in the line was given an orange to hold under the chin. They were to pass it to the next person in line (of the opposite gender). This was to be done without the use of hands. It necessitated the two becoming rather close friends. Apparently this was amusing to onlookers. Cary Grant had to retrieve the orange from a full-figured woman – with embarrassing, and apparently hilarious results. Maybe it was funny the first seven times we watched it…
I think the writer of that scene must have been watching what happened to me at the ‘do’. I had been sort of dancing with one of the typists (who had taken pity on the young lad), but found myself in the line next to my boss’s wife. Now my boss’s wife was not a slim person. You would definitely not hear her described as trim. She was a large person. I on the other hand was skinny. 5’8″ and 120 pounds holding a bag a potatoes. Maybe I needed more sugar in my diet. Like Cary, I had to try to take the orange from under one of her chins without the use of my hands. She was not just a large lady, she was also full-figured. To reach her neck meant leaning over her rather impressive bosom. Very embarrassing. When the orange slipped into a very deep valley we became the object of great amusement to the room.
I eventually managed to retrieve the orange, without the use of my hands, but a fare bit of unintentional nuzzling, and pass it along to the next person in line. It took a long, long time before I could sleep with two pillows again.
That was the last ‘office do’ I ever attended. Thanks to Elsie I felt quite chipper the next day and was almost a hero in the office, at least that’s how I chose to interpret the slaps on the back from all the chaps, and the applause from the typing pool.
This is the end of my series on working in London in the 60’s but I may have a few tales to tell about working in Canada in the late 60s, 70s and 80s.