4 years in London

Sheen RoadI lived in London for almost four years from September 1970. I lived in several flats, shared with a bunch of different people but all the time I worked for just one company, Royal Dutch Shell. They were formative years but I’ve got so say they were still a part of my growing up. I was still not the finished article. And rather surprisingly I don’t remember much about it. I had a camera and took photos but only occasionally so I don’t have much of a record of those days.

I joined Shell because it offered me the most money. I seem to recall that out of the milk round I got job offers from Shell, ICI, BEA (that’s British European Airways, one of the precursors of BA), Unilever and Alcan but Shell offered me the most money, £1600/year plus £100 London weighting, and I knew it anyway having worked at its Thornton Research Centre before Uni and in the 1968 long vac. I worked in its operational research group and learnt how to write computer programs in Fortran. We ran these on big fat Univac 1108 mainframe computers with the then revolutionary feature of ‘demand processing’. This used mechanical teletypes whereby we interacted with the computer in real time just as we now take for granted with our smart phones and other devices.

My first semi-permanent accommodation was a bed sit in Frognal in a nondescript neighbourhood between Finchley Road and Hampstead. My bed sit was in a converted terraced house which would nowadays be termed an HMU, a house of multiple occupation. The room was big enough for a bed and there was a shower and a kitchen unit. I fed a meter to get electricity.

With hindsight it was a miserable place but it sufficed at the time. A short walk took me to the Finchley Road tube station from which it was a six stop ride to Waterloo on the Bakerloo Line and that took me to work. There must have been a convenient launderette, I remember an excellent fish and chip shop nearby and the pubs of Hampstead were within easy reach. I paid £8 a week which seemed the norm throughout my life in London.

I guess I wasn’t an ideal tenant. I once locked myself out so had to ring the concierge to let me in. On another occasion during a violent dream I put my fist through the window. I also found out how to slide a beer mat under the coin drop to make my electricity money go a little further.

Early in 1971 I moved into a flat in Pinner which I shared with Frank Fuller, a colleague at Shell. It wasn’t the most obvious place being way out on the Metropolitan Line but it was a modern build ‘maisonette’ and, with the same hindsight, rather splendid. The owners were a young couple and he worked for ITV and they let the flat out whilst they moved to a job in Birmingham.

It wasn’t nearly as convenient for work as Frognal was but I did have a car and over the months that we lived there we developed a route into Shell Centre which took us past some of London’s great landmarks including Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, and through Hyde Park without any silly queuing.

Pinner itself was very much a suburban village in those days. It had its tube station but out there it was overground not underground. There was a high street with an old fashioned Sainsbury’s and a cinema.

It was during these days that I first experienced international business travel. Of course I’d been born in South Africa and I had enjoyed three camping holidays sur le continent but I’d never been on an aeroplane and now Shell gave me this opportunity.

I don’t know if such opportunities continue but back then Shell ran the Graduate Staff Introduction Course which was half in London and half in The Hague. Probably forty of us were on the course, a great mix of nationalities and business functions. In addition to the presentations and the dinners we got to visit Shell’s Pernis oil refinery where we were proudly shown its approach to beating air pollution: a tall stack. Push the stuff high enough up and it’ll just disappear.

We had only lived in Pinner for about nine months when our landlord came back from Birmingham and evicted us. If anything we found a better flat in the top floor of an Edwardian semi being converted. It was on Sheen road in Richmond which gave us fast mainline trains into Waterloo.

(The photo that accompanies this post, one of the few that I took during my time in London, is the view from my bedroom window at Sheen Road and you can see the pagoda at Kew Gardens which would have been just about due north.)

I must have stayed in Richmond for the best part of two years and it was a momentous time. We had the Munich Olympics with the black power demonstrations by American sprinters and the dreadful massacre of Israeli athletes. Back home we had the first miners’ strike which gave us power cuts early in 1972, continuous high inflation (which was only to presage worse to come) and the troubles in Northern Ireland continued to worsen with the start of the bombings in England.

I had a life of some routine, don’t I always? I’d cash a cheque for maybe £10 on Friday, credit cards were still in their infancy with the Access card, now Mastercharge, only launched in 1972, and that would see me through the weekend and the following week. There’d be nights out on Friday and Saturday but not many more and eating out was a rarity.

There was lots of choice of course. You don’t live in London and not recognise its offering of entertainment and to some extent Richmond was a microcosm with its cinemas, pubs, restaurants and discos. Our local was the Mitre just round the corner from the flat but I also remember Sunday lunchtime jazz events at a place along the Upper Richmond Road towards East Sheen.

We did however pretend to entertain and held dinner parties where we probably served Coq au Vin and drank cheap and cheerful plonk. At Sheen Road we were the only tenants for some time so we commandeered one of the downstairs rooms which had a big table and many chairs surrounded by dust and disrepair. It was all very Bohemian.

Saturday afternoon was rugby time, at least in season. I first played for the Shell sports club but for some reason I fell out with them and then turned out for the ‘extra A’ side at Roslyn Park. I played everywhere behind the scrum but ended up as full back. Roslyn Park were rather grand in those days and ran a splendid end of season black tie dinner dance at Derry & Tom’s which must have been just before it closed.

My job at Shell was going well and in 1972 and then again in 1973 I enjoyed long trips to Japan. Before the last one for some reason I decided that I needed to make a change and gave notice to Frank and our landlord so that when I returned I had to start flat hunting again.

It was not easy but I eventually found myself in Crookham Road in Fulham where I shared with two others through the summer of 1973. I had a fairly easy drive into work, it was an easy walk to the Duke of Cumberland on Parson’s Green and there was a billiard hall close by!

The lead tenant was a chap called Chris and he had a bit of a past. He’d been a part of the infamous Joe Crocker Australian tour and although he was pretty regular when I knew him he wasn’t far away from the drug scene. We generally got on well, he gave me a late introduction to cannabis, but after some months we agreed that I would move out.

This time it was straight forward. Ed Libbey had just returned from Canada and was starting at BP so he and I shared a flat in Rodenhurst Road in Clapham close to Clapham North tube station which took me to work along the Northern Line.

This was to prove to be another six month job and it was another momentous time.

Personally I made my peace with the rugby club at Shell and returned to captain the B side. Because I was captain I could play where I wanted so I became a fly half and I got to take all the kicks at goal which I was really rather good at!. And then early in 1974 I flew over to New York for an interview with Mobil Oil. That proved to be successful and I left Shell and London in March.

In the world at large we had the oil crisis which resulted in queues at filling stations and then another miners’ strike which would lead to the downfall of Edward Heath’s government.

There was also a toilet paper famine and unless you were a regular shops wouldn’t supply you. We used to do our weekly shop at a local store in Abbeville Road where a kindly proprietor stood in the back overseeing a team of young girls who served his customers. It was good to be regarded by him as a regular and to get our supply!

For some reason we got into the habit on Sunday lunchtimes of heading off to the Atlantic on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. I would guess that Ed and I being neither Irish nor black added to the ethnic diversity of the clientele.

And that was it. After three and a half years I left London and would never again do my weekly wash in a launderette. I would be fortunate and find myself a little up the salary scale and but for later periods of redundancy led unemployment I’ve never looked back. But it was a good time and I’d do it again.

PS there is of course a thread missing from this. Life was not just about work and rugby and beer. As a young man with a half way decent salary I did enjoy my encounters with the opposite sex and there were a few. But that’s another story and, if it were interesting, one that would be worth telling in its own right.

 

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