I threatened last week to start posting reminiscences of childhood in Metroland.
Well here’s the first one and goes back to the late 60s when I was around ten years old. For a ten year old back then there were three types of gainful employment, one poor, one middling and the third the pinnacle.
The pinnacle was the milk round, but I’ll relay that in another post. The poor one was the paper round. Poor because you needed to rise early no matter what the weather and lug a smelly old bag around that weighed up to twice your own body weight. Not for me I thought, as I heard tales of rabid dogs and sinister old people told during break time at school. However, both my Father, my Grandfather and my Great Uncle worked in the newspaper business, so I suppose it was preordained that I should dip my toe into the print media world.
My chosen occupation was the middling one. This again saw you out in all weathers, but your hours of work didn’t start until 4.30 in the afternoon. Through some convoluted method of succession with my peers and knowing the right people I found myself at the top of the list and became a London Evening Standard newspaper seller.
You needed three core strengths to fulfil the role, relatively numerate to give the right change, possess a penknife to cut the nylon string that bound the bundle of papers and the ability to bark out “Staaaaaandaaaard!” as the next wave of commuters made their way out of the tube station.
The first I could do relatively well, the second I passed, although mine was a bone handled hunting knife which you’d probably be arrested for carrying now. It was the third one I struggled on.
I’d already been given the inside track by the soon to be previous incumbent, “Fred/ ‘arry /Bill “, for these were the names of all gangmasters in the newspaper retail game, “likes to hear a good shout from ‘is boys”, so for several weeks I did the rounds of sellers outside the local stations to try and get a handle on the salutation. They were many and varied and not all shouted by mere youths such as I. Some were shouted by seasoned pro’s, usually short little men in overcoats and flat caps and the obligatory fag, who to my mind looked ancient. I favoured the short abrupt “Stanart” or sometimes “Stanard” by the more eloquent seller, but there was also the lilting “Staaaaaandard” with the inflection in the drawn out middle. You could always tell the old timers, as they would add “Fyanal” to the end of their call. At first I heard it as “Lionel” and wondered if they were shouting out to a mate, but as they did this at every call I reasoned that the chances of all the punters being call Lionel, even the women, were a bit slim. Then it dawned that the word was “Final”, denoting the last and most up to date issue of the paper.
Practice makes perfect so they say and I laboured at my task during break times and on my way to and from school. Came the day and I was told to be outside the station at 4 O’clock sharp. Getting there straight from school, I hung about until I was met by Fred/ ‘arry /Bill . who arrived on an old rickety ladies bicycle. Adeptly removing his bicycle clips while still walking. “Firstup, git de bleedinbin roun de front”, he instructed, teeth clenched around a small hand rolled cigarette. This was the metal display and storage case for the written headline sheet that came with the papers. This was stored about a hundred yards away down an alley and it became clear that there was a fourth core strength that had not been communicated, and that was the strength to carry the bin back to the pitch. I struggled with the heavy object for ages and then unselfconsciously dragged it along the pavement, sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard to be greeted with a curt “’bout bleedin time”. The rest of the induction was monosyllabic “Cash”, “Pot”, “Bag” as a nicotine stained finger jabbed at the tools of the trade. The float for the days trading, the pot to put it in and the bank bag to collect the days takings in.
One thing was missing, the newspapers that the soon expected punters would be clamoring for. After a few minutes wait the sound of a revving motor and a squeal of brakes announced that the delivery van had arrived. I received a “Mindya bleedin self” from my mentor as barely stopping a huge wad of papers was flung from the side door of the van towards us to land with a thud at our feet. “Getem bleedin open” was the next instruction with the added “lively” to imbue a sense of urgency. I set to with my knife on the string, like a hunter gutting a freshly killed Stag, my trusty blade garnered no comment but I’m certain his fag was clamped a little tighter between his stained teeth as he announced “Watch”. This wasn’t an enquiry as to if I owned a timepiece, but an enjoinder to follow his every move as he deftly unclamped the wire mesh at the front of the bin, slid in the evening headlines and then clamped it shut.
The last job was to get the papers on top of the bin ready for sale, but I found I couldn’t lift the whole bundle, so for some inexplicable reason started transferring them one at a time rather than taking a manageable amount. I received a curt “Owwt” as he muscled me aside and easily lifted the remaining papers, placing them down with a discontented thud which shook the bin and if I’m honest, me. He picked up the wrapping paper handing it to me with the word “Bin”. Adeptly I took it to a small rubbish container in the foyer of the station. When I returned my tutor was a few yards away in deep conversation with a man who could have been a clone they looked so similar. Fags and mumbled conversations were being earnestly exchanged, so I stood behind the bin and tried to effect the demeanor of an old timer, seen it all, been round the block newspaper vendor. The conversation continued and at one point a thumb was jerked towards me and I heard the word “New”, the other man looked at me and they both exchanged grimaces and shrugs.
By then the first of the early commuters were making their way either in or out of the station. I knew the ropes through my daily vigil at other pitches and had papers in one hand and change in the other to help with a speedy transaction. My mentor seemed satisfied after five minutes of scrutiny that I was just about up to the job and so re-attached his cycle clips, but before pedalling away approached me and asked, “Canya shout boy”? This was the moment of truth, the moment that the weeks of practice had been leading up to, this was crunch time, this is where I would let forth with a Caruso like volley of sound proclaiming that I, a mere boy of ten had papers to sell and by God was I gonna sell ’em.
What emanated from me however, was cross between a public school boy and the adenoidal braying of Kenneth Williams as a quavering “Staindiard” self consciously left my lips with a slight double “d” at the end.
Fred/ ‘arry /Bill’s teeth tightened on his rollup and through them muttered, “I’ll be watchin’ you boy”. This was delivered with such menace that he could have added “step outta line, and I’ll gut ya like a bleedin fish!” and it wouldn’t have surprised me. On that, he turned mounted his ladies bicycle and pedalled off to the next pitch. From that day until I finished with the job I never once spoke to him again, although I would see him every weekday. He would peddle up and sit for a minute or so watching me from a distance, and then depart. I’d learnt all the various fiddles and cons from my predecessors, but his admonishment and continued scrutiny always kept me on the straight and narrow.
Fast forward fifty years and the Evening Standard is now a free newspaper given away to commuters and pedestrians alike. There are some “Profferers” (they certainly aren’t sellers) that do have the odd stab at “Standard”! but they are a far cry from the seller of yesteryear.
“Evening Standard seller? ‘ardest game in world”