Being on the bottom rung, so to speak, brought me all sorts of experiences, challenging, stimulating, scary, and puzzling. Most challenges are sometimes those grey areas in our human experience that can be so difficult to understand at the time. It brought me into contact with the lives of so many different people. Lives so different to my own.
On the corner of our street, South Molton Street, there was a street trader by the name of Sam. Everybody seemed to know Sam. My father and he would exchange polite greetings each morning, which surprised me. My father like so many shop keepers at the time, was not over enthusiastic on the subject of street traders. Whether this was fair or not I didn’t know, but I noted that my father and Sam always exchanged good mornings.
In those days, there were street traders on every corner into Oxford Street. They sold mainly fruit and were very busy supplying office workers and the crowds that thronged Oxford Street. Oxford Street at times, was one mass of people like a moving current of water, either moving towards Oxford Circus or the other way to Marble Arch. The trader’s barrows were positioned so that one had to move around them to proceed along Oxford Street. The second world war was over and London’s West End was the place to be.
The traders that sold fruit, or barrow boys as they were affectionally called, were not the only street traders on Oxford Street. Positioned outside the large stores, salesmen would stand with trays round their necks displaying all sorts of goods, from jumping toys on springs to ladies stockings. They were obviously breaking some law or another because they had lookouts watching for the police. In those days, policemen were taller and you could see their helmets bobbing through the crowds as they approached. when they hear the alarm, immediately the salesman would shut his case, with a quick “Sorry darling, back in a minute” and disappear into the crowd.
I saw sometimes six or seven barrow boys in a line being taken up Oxford Street pushing their barrows, escorted by the police who had been on a routine purge. Our manager said that they had fallen foul of the powers that be, but their fines would be paid, and I would see them out as usual next day. Which I did.
At the corner of South Molton Street there was a Public House “The Hog in the pound”. In those days, it was on the corner of South Molton Street and Oxford Street. Early mornings would see the barrels of beer being delivered on carts pulled by great Shire horses. The horses looking so proud and majestic, beautifully brushed and presented.
Sam’s barrow was just outside the pub. When I was passing on deliveries, I noticed Sam was often inside at the bar, though keeping an eye on his barrow. Sam was short, stocky with a short neck, and what I thought was a very red face and a sort of purply coloured nose.
One morning, I was busy with the task of preparing 150 7oz packs of ground coffee which I would deliver to three restaurants in the city later that day. I saw Sam in deep conversation with our manager, then being taken down stairs where my father was roasting coffee. Sam appeared a little while later with a box containing a selection of our weights.
I asked what was going on. Our manager explained that Sam had caught wind of the fact that he was about to receive a visit by inspectors from The Weights and Measures Department. Sam was concerned about his weights being up to standard and passing the inspection. Our manager explained to me, that if Sam was concerned, he doubted they would. Our weights and scales were always absolutely up to standard, my father was very particular about this. We had them serviced and checked every three months, something we still do to this day. My father was very strict on the customer getting the correct weight. If I let the scale pan crash down too heavily I would hear: “Tony, how are we going to make a profit it you are giving the coffee away?” Suitably chastened, I would go back to weighing with deeper concentration.
I had personally met the weights and measures inspectors in what had turned out for me, at the time, a very anxious moment. They had arrived, unannounced, as they always do. After showing their identities, they started examining all the scales and weights in the business. My father and the manager were not at all bothered. I had been helping out from school, weighing up lots of 10oz packs for a restaurant. There were at least a hundred packs on the shelf, all waiting to be made into parcels. The inspectors proceeded to weigh every packet, my heart beating faster every moment,. To my horror there were two that were just under weight! I thought Oh help! What now? But the inspector simply said, “Ah well, just a little bit left in the scale pan”. Every body laughed, and I, red faced, re-weighed the offending packets. I never forgot it.
In the late afternoon on the day that Sam had borrowed some of our weights, I returned from taking the parcels to the Post Office. A daily trip balancing six or even eight sacks full of parcels on to the sack trolley. A job I tried to do before home-going workers filled the street heading for the underground. Especially the young ladies from the Triangle Secretarial College, who would erupt into South Molton Street. Returning I found our manager in a good mood, quietly humming to himself. My sister Audrey, already a director, had warned me that when in a good mood he hummed, in a bad mood he would croon Red Sales in the Sunset. So, it was a good day. On the counter was a large bag of all kinds of fruit and there were our weights back.
I felt I had to have this out with my father. He was downstairs working on figures. Surely this wasn’t right? We were assisting Sam in possibly breaking the law. Surely it wasn’t right for us to cover up for him in this way?
My father listened to me quietly as he always did, and then said. “Tony I hope you will always behave with honesty and integrity. You will encounter all sorts of people in your life. Inevitably there will be some unscrupulous people, perhaps some real villains. Sam isn’t one of them. There will be times when you have to be able to look beyond what appears on the surface." He finished by telling me that Sam had an ill mother to look after.
I pondered this as the business wound down for the day. I had just completed the job of refilling the grease pots on the roaster. This meant climbing between the motors and drive belts of the machine crawling around those spaces that were impossible to get to when the machine was running. Fishing out the coffee beans that had somehow found their way into the most awkward of places. I sat crossed legged on top of a pile of Brazilian coffee and thoughtfully unzipped a banana. The ways of the world were difficult to follow. How did you tell what people were really like? Or what lay behind their motives? I supposed I would understand, one day.
Very sadly, Sam died not so long after. “Heart" said the manager. “More likely liver” said my father. So I never had a conversation with him. But whenever I passed him, even when he was serving his queue of customers, he would give a me a nod.
Many years later, reading my father’s diaries I realised that he had so much trouble with the ways of officialdom and the bureaucracy of the time. At the start of our business, he always had a soft spot for the underdog.
With my very best wishes,