Gallery 5. Ogle Street. 1969. September 6th to the 10th. What a working week.
I had been bored most of the summer holiday that year (tho’ it might have been the year my father took me to Yugoslavia, in which case I hadn’t been bored at all) but there was still a week of the summer holiday left. My mother had recently started working as a PA to Jan Pienkowski, a popular graphic artist and designer, and she thought it would be nice for me to earn some money too. So she arranged for me to work downstairs in the packing area.
I was thrilled as I usually had very little opportunity to do anything like this, and so I started work. The room was small and crammed with boxes and boxes of stickers. Pictures of iconic elephants and cats. Clashing garish colours, all very psychedelic, mad, colourful and exotic. Wonderful. Instead of going to Smith’s to gaze longingly at them, here I was in the midst of them. Sealing them into their plastic envelopes on big hot machines were two elderly ladies (probably in their forties if I think about it now, but they seemed extremely old to me at the time). They introduced themselves as Ada and Doreen, showed me what I had to do and then more or less ignored me for a while. My job was to just slip the sheets into the transparent envelopes. excruciatingly boring, as you can imagine. That evening I went home with my mother, quite satisfied that I was earning a significant amount – four shillings an hour I think – and looking forward to the next day.
And next day was good. Two young men came to work downstairs, and we were introduced, and they were illegals from Poland. Very handsome, students in their twenties, whose names I do not remember. Time flew by for the next two or three days as they chatted to me and I tried to talk to them. I was still very shy, in those days, but slowly coming out from my shell. My mother was pleased, I thought; I was happy and all was well with the world.
The tenth of September was my 16th birthday, and for some reason my mother was going away that day. I wasn’t too bothered until about mid -morning when she came downstairs to the basement and told me the embarrassing news that my services would no longer be required!
Oh the embarrassment. Sacked from my first job. When I asked why, I was told it was because I talked too much. Apparently Ada and Doreen had complained that I talked too much to the boys and they couldn’t understand, because we were talking in Polish.
We didn’t talk about them, of course, but this is what they thought. And they blamed me because I was the latest addition to the “team”.
I was extremely disappointed and a little bit hurt – but they paid me and off I went to Selfridge’s to buy myself a handbag; I can see it now, three beige leather pouches joined together with a chain handle – one pouch for my glasses, one for my purse and one for my hankie. Those were the days!
For weeks afterwards I used to dream coloured elephants. I never did acquire any, but they were engraved on my mind for a long time.
The one lesson I learnt however, was that you should never ever speak a different language in front of people who don’t understand, unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Some people genuinely don’t mind, but many do.