Here’s a second piece which I’ve written as a contribution for this week’s ‘Writing about your life’ session at Histon library.
‘The winter of 1973/74 began with the Yom Kippur War and ended with a miners strike. The first limited petrol supplies and the second gave rise to the three day week and led to the fall of Ted Heath’s government. It was a pretty grim time to be in the UK and early in 1974 I flew for an interview with Mobil Oil to New York.
At the time I was working for Shell in London in operational research writing computer programs to help it to run its refineries, to schedule its tankers and to support the operations of its LNG* ventures in the Far East. One of my commercial colleagues in the LNG business moved to Mobil in a similar role and suggested that I follow him so I did but in the meantime I had a process to go through and that meant an interview.
I hadn’t been to the US before although I had touched down a few times in Alaska en route to and from Japan, nowadays of course you fly non-stop, so I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew came from what I’d read and such writings can be famously unhelpful.
It’s difficult to appreciate in 2018 looking back at what the experience would have been then. It was still the early days of jet travel and I flew with BOAC on a VC-10 which was the end of this country’s participation in the passenger jet market until Airbus came along. We flew into JFK and I certainly do not recall the queues and long, long waits to get through immigration which we get now. Long waits for baggage however were the norm. I was then out and into a taxi and the ride into the city.
I don’t think I rode in a Chequer Cab, those excellent roomy taxis as much a part of New York as black cabs are of London. More likely it was a clapped out Chevy with a Perspex screen between me and the driver. It was mid winter so there was no colour to be seen and until I got close to the Manhattan skyline all I saw was the freeway, untidy street scenes and clapboard houses.
There’d been an article about New York in the Sunday Times some weeks previously and it had described a bleak, lawless city where crime roamed the streets. I was expecting to be mugged the minute I stepped out of the cab but it didn’t happen and I was safe to check in at the Biltmore on Madison Avenue at 43nd Street next to Grand Central Station.
The Biltmore ceased being a hotel in the early 80s but I remember it in its perhaps fading glory. There was nothing modern or glitzy about it and you could wait for an age for a lift. There was a tea garden off the lobby which you entered under an arch with a clock. ‘Ladies who lunch’ were said to ‘meet under the clock’ at the Biltmore.
The Men’s Bar was an institution. It was en route from Madison Avenue to the station and filled every evening by ad men on their way home. The decor was plain wood and it was standing room only around a central bar. There was a bunch of bartenders in long white aprons who seemed to do nothing but mix dry martinis on the rocks with an olive or a twist. They did it with a precision born of practice: nothing was measured and the volume from the shaker was always just right for the glass. It was frenetic, like drinking the night before prohibition must have been. I enjoyed one drink there on my last night and believe me one was enough. In the late 70s it came under attack from the feminist movement and subsequently opened its doors to women and renamed itself the Biltmore Bar.
I ate in the hotel restaurant, I knew nothing abut eating out in New York and anyway I thought I would probably have been mugged if I stepped outside the hotel in the dark. The Maitre d’ noticed that I was an out of towner and realised that I didn’t appreciate the finer points of New York dining etiquette. He told me how to tip and stood over me as I added an optional gratuity to the bill which I signed.
I’d been smart and arranged to arrive two days before my interview so on my free day I could take a city tour, clearly I could manage that without being mugged, and then in the evening I went to a show on Broadway. This added to my culture shock when I found that there was no bar for interval drinks. This place wasn’t civilised. I avoided being mugged as I returned to the Biltmore by walking quickly and close to the road.
My interview was in the Mobil Oil building at 150 E 42nd Street. It was just a short walk from the Biltmore and daytime I was sure that I wouldn’t be mugged. I’d been used to tall buildings of course with working at Shell Centre but that was a one off. In New York all the buildings were tall and the Socony-Mobil building was up with the best at 42 floors.
I was to meet Harold J. Inman, I learnt that Americans love their middle initials, a Texan ex navy career oilman. What first hit me was his accent, a slow Texan drawl, and he threw me right at the beginning by pronouncing the name of my erstwhile Shell colleague in a manner that made Colin Geddes sound like ‘coal and gas’. It was the beginning of a long love hate relationship with Americans and American English.
I was also interviewed by someone from Mobil’s management sciences group. I seem to recall that he was big and a little forbidding and that he had difficulty understanding me but eventually we must have communicated. For some reason I returned the next morning but that was it. However I must have done something right, or maybe they were just desperate, because I got the job.
My first US trip didn’t end there though. I had also been talking to Bonner & Moore, a small consultancy specialising in linear programming based in Houston, who had made me a job offer. When I knew I’d be in the US they told me to come down and meet them and sent me an air ticket. Not only was it an air ticket, it was a first class air ticket so I left New York in some style.
I returned in April as a Mobil employee. The company gave me an apartment on the corner of 38th and 3rd. It was spring and then summer and somehow I lost my fear of being mugged. I ranged far and wide both within the city and outside. As a young man, unmarried and living on expenses life couldn’t have been much better.’
*LNG Liquefied Natural Gas
Amazingly although I had a camera when I was in New York I can only find three photos which I took during that time. The above is one of them