It was nice seasonal work if you could get it – evening shift, good pay, easy on the brain, a good grounding for a green 21 year-old, living cheap and hand-to-mouth, finding his feet in the Big Smoke. He could hardly have moved further from the world he’d left behind. He could hardly have wished for more.
His work station, as it wasn’t called in those days, when Upper Street was all left-wing bookshops and greasy spoons, was a wall of pigeonholes headed “Sussex”. Each compartment was labelled with the name of a town, alphabetically-ordered: Hassocks, Hastings, Haywards Heath… He soon had them down like QWERTY.
The job was to help each piece of mail dropped into an Islington post box on its way to its doormat destination; to impose the next phase of envelope sub-division on the one that had gone before, getting every item literally sorted for loading into the red vans, which would then head off into the night, south of the river and on towards the Home Counties and the coast.
He didn’t get to know many of the others. It was only a short-term term, lasting no longer than the peak Christmas rush. The full-timers ignored him. Fellow temps were kept occupied: one, seen from a distance, a nervy-looking bespectacled man with defiantly-dyed hair, wore a badge saying “faggots ignite”.
There were only a handful to whom he spoke, one man in particular. He was older, perhaps in his forties, white, rather intense, with the air of someone who belonged somewhere else. Sometimes, during their break, they’d nip round to the pub. It was during such a foray that the younger man noticed how the hands of his companion shook.
The older man spoke about his past. He’d been a reporter with the Daily Express. The 1960s had been his prime: “We were really what was happening back then.”
They sat, they drank, they smoked. Two or three others were there too. They only had half an hour. The hands of the older man didn’t always shake, but when they did, they really did.
Sometimes, he moaned. One night, he moaned about Syd Burke, presenter of the LBC’s Rice ‘n’ Peas, a magazine show made “from a black point of view”. It was popular with listeners, but the ex-Express man did not approve. He asked, rhetorically, white man to white man, why his Sunday listening had to be ruined by this rubbish.
The young man was familiar with Rice ‘n’ Peas, but offered no opinion about it. Although new to the city, he had already learned that arguing the point would be futile. He went back to his work, filled his pigeonholes – Battle, Bexhill, Bognor – collected his money and was glad. He had no wish to write for the Daily Express. His hands did not shake. He was what was happening now.