A Bit of This, and A Bit of That – Remembering 1978

On account of a comment that Derrick Knight made this week, I was looking at Right Move UK and I saw that a portion of Michael’s Nook in Cumbria was up for sale.  I worked there on several occasions when it was a complete house, and I thought I might base my next post on that experience.

I’ve had a great writing day today. The words have been flowing freely, and although there is a huge difference in style between novel writing and raconteuring, even on this second project my fingers skipped along in time with my thoughts. And my thoughts skipped around. So this post, actually, has diddly-squat to do with Michael’s Nook. Trust me though, I will get there eventually.

I left Adelaide on the 1st May 1978, bound for England via Sydney and Singapore. I was on a five year “working holiday” visa. It was the first time I had been out of Australia and I was six weeks short of my twenty-third birthday. A birthday I would celebrate in Moscow, as part of my coach-camping tour of countries behind the Iron Curtain. After the tour, which also taught me the ins and outs of travel in Europe, I ventured off on my own until around the end of October, when it was time to come “home” to England for the winter, and build up the bank again. Over the final eighteen months or so in Australia I’d amassed $6000. Given I was only earning about $9000 a year, before tax, that was no mean feat. But that’s one of the great things about growing up poor. You learn to live frugally.

Problem was, more than a third of it had gone before I left Australia. Plane fares then were not much less than they are now, and even though I never used it, it was good advice to buy a return ticket. Add in the organised tour, a three month Eurailpass, Youth Hostel membership and passport expenses and the bank started with a serious dent in it. Not to mention the $1000 worth of travellers cheques I’d bought a few days before departure and left on the bank counter. Fortunately they rang me immediately.

The places I went on the continent are a story for another day. What has inspired this post is what happened when I got back to England.

I took a spot in a mansion in Earls Court, then in its dying days as “Kangaroo Valley”. There were eight or ten of us in single beds in one massive room, and I befriended Wendy, another Aussie (as opposed to a Kiwi – there were no other nationalities in our dormitory). I registered with a temp agency, and pretty soon I had a job. It was with the National Health. Another massive room in a building overlooking Paddington Station. There were two rows of wooden desks aligned end to end running down the length of the room. There was seating for about fifty at a guess. Each wall contained cabinets with hundreds of index cards in the drawers. These represented every person listed on the health system. Our job was to address pre-printed forms which asked “are you still living at this address? If not, please advise your new one,” then stick the form in an envelope, address that, put it in the out mail basket, and update the index form to say we’d sent the request.

Now, I know as a species we colonials weren’t regarded a life form as evolved as the Brits – but it struck me as a pretty stupid idea. If the registrant was no longer living at that address, how would he or she know we were asking? But another thing a poor upbringing teaches you is – never bite the hand that feeds you. So I shut up and kept writing.

It was a time when the IRA were active with their bombs. One day we received an alert that our building contained one. We were evacuated down hundreds of steps in a back stairwell, through a labyrinth of dark tunnels, and after about ten minutes of continuous walking, wound up at the end of a disused platform in Paddington station. After some time of aimless hanging around, I walked into the open and looked up. Our building was towering over us. If a bomb had gone off, I figured the masonry would have rained down on us. If it was heavy enough, we might have been crushed under the roof of the shelter. I was relieved when the all clear was called and we could go back to the mind-numbing job of addressing nonsensical letters.

I returned to the agency and asked for another posting and they sent me to another National Health job, this time as a receptionist in a family planning clinic. I can’t remember where, but I remember the areas were broken into classifications and this one was social class 5 or something similar. It was full of women from various African backgrounds who had been taught since puberty that their job was to procreate. They were pretty confused about this family planning thing, and so was I when one of them slapped a brown paper package on the counter and said, “I don’t want this Durex – my husband won’t use it.” Where I came from, Durex was sticky tape. I thought to myself, gee, I knew this National Health was in bad shape, but – sticky tape? How do they use it? Won’t it just get wet and fall off?’ 

I expressed my confusion to the chief doctor. Thinking back, I should feel honoured that he even noticed me out on the front counter. He not only noticed, he took me to his “toolkit” cupboard and talked me through every form of contraception on offer. There was stuff there I didn’t even know existed. It’s a wonder anyone was having babies, but clearly, the message wasn’t getting through.

I can’t remember where Wendy was working, but we were kindred spirits within a few weeks, so we decided to take off to Wolverhampton together. How we got there, and why we went there, eludes me. I think she had some business with a distant relative or something.

I remember I tagged along because I’d heard that there was plenty of work to be had on the ski-fields at Aviemore in Scotland, and I thought this trip would get me one step closer. What did I know about snow and ski-ing? I’d only had my first look at the white stuff in Switzerland when there was an early fall in October. The trees were still in their autumn glory. When the snow melted the next day, stubborn red and golden leaves were still clinging to the branches.

I never got to Aviemore. Still never been to Scotland. Cumbria was the closest I got. More in my  next post 🙂

25 thoughts on “A Bit of This, and A Bit of That – Remembering 1978

  1. Pingback: Part 3 of A Bit of This, and A Bit of That – Remembering 1978 | The Reluctant Retiree

  2. Fascinating story. At 23 that was probably very courageous to have such an adventure. As usual I’m behind in my reading so when I caught the title of your most recent I had to go back and catch up with this first.

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    • Always happy to hear from you. At 23, I had already experienced so much, I still believe I was mature enough to take on journey, and also it was so common in my peer group; although not all the girls travelled alone. When you think about that time, it was still common for women to be married by then and starting their families. Anyway, I am great believer in not worrying about things until I know what it is I have to worry about. So off I went 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Part 2 of A Bit of This, and A Bit of That – Remembering 1978 | The Reluctant Retiree

  4. Gwen – while you were doing all this I was busy, in England, getting together with what would be my third husband some years later. Jumping on his boat and sailing to Australia – Wollongong being our destination – ending by sailing back to the UK and then back to live here permanently (you know the story!) Incidentally Rob lived in Solihull, very close to Wolverhampton – what a coincidence if you’d met him then!

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  5. Four years earlier and I loved it. But a wife and year old son and no work permit made me burn up all my life savings much too quickly. The Irish weren’t bombing London then but the ‘troubles’ were very much on people’s minds.

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  6. Nostalgic post for me, Gwen. I lived in Soho in 1978 and heard those bombs going off in Oxford Street; and, as you know, spent many years working close to Paddington. Presumably the building you mention was St Mary’s hospital, where I had my hip replacement.

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    • Luckily I never experienced the bombs first hand. Your comment about St Mary’s bugged me, as I couldn’t remember the building as a hospital. I could remember the room, the high ceilings, the bank of windows along one wall, the filtered light and oppressing atmosphere – but in my memory it was an anonymous, soulless admin building. So I dug out the letters I wrote my mother, and here it is verbatim – “We worked in a very large room, with double rows of tables right down the length, about a hundred and fifty people altogether on different jobs. Shades of a typing pool minus the typewriters. I got on well with my supervisor and one or two others, but the rest didn’t make much effort to talk to a newcomer. Our office was on the fifth floor and one time I was staring out of the window at the view of London, not much to see really, lots of traffic and dirty grey buildings with sky to match – my supervisor came up to me and said, ‘That’s freedom out there’ – my sentiments exactly.”
      Derrick, my apologies I appear to be slagging London, but it WAS getting towards winter, and the clerical job WAS very boring so that may have coloured my perception. Can you place the building?

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  7. Hello again, We were in Keswick all last week, staying in Carol’s flat. Had a great time walking in the countryside every day. Found plenty of quiet places despite it being the next to last week of the school holidays. Round Crummockwater, up Rannerdale, along part of Ullswater’s shore, up and over Place Fell, to the Newlands valley and across to Caldbeck (where John Peel the huntsman is buried) and the delightful little village of Hesket Newmarket. Jim and Izzy dropped in on their way back from Scotland.
    We have a new favourite place in Grasmere, close to Michael’s Nook. Called Forest Side, it opened last February and had a Michelin Star by October, so we decided to dash over and try their lunch offer, in December and then with a friend for my 60th. It has a sister hotel nearer to home where we have eaten a few times. So drove past Michael’s Nook on Monday last.
    Our house at Masongill of Conan Doyle fame has recently sold and the lady who bought it from us is temporarily lodging next door with our neighbour. Weird.
    Ian has a new pet project, as nerdy as train-spotting (and wild flower identification which is my preference!). Everytime we go past a small rural churchyard he gets all excited and has to get out to photograph the church and as many gravestones as I have patience for, so he can upload them on a website where people can research their relaitves. He has already helped a lady in Canada who made enquiries through the site. Whatever rocks your boat, but as you are also interested in family history I thought I’d tell you!
    xxx

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    • I’m envious. I SO love the Lakes District. One of these days I’ll get to spend an entire season there. It sounds as if Ian might be part of the “Find a Grave” project, or something similar. I am sure you haven’t forgotten I dragged you around Cartmel Church’s graveyard when I was last there. I love them, and the information in them is so important to family historians. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea, I am the first to admit 🙂

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