Five-minute Memoir: Salley Vickers on first-job hell


When I was not quite 15, my dad, who was the kindest of fathers, decided that I should learn what 'real' work meant. He was a trade union leader, head of what is now the PCS – the Public and Commercial Services Union – having come to that brand of socialism via a youthful commitment to communism. His particular union served that branch of the public sector which included office cleaners. Indeed, it was his proud boast that he had been responsible for unionising the public sector cleaners.

I was lucky enough to have reached secondary school age during the period that state scholarships were made available to public schools. I had won a scholarship to St Paul's, then as now one of the top girls' schools in the country, but my father's egalitarian principles had been tested by this piece of good fortune. My mother finally persuaded him that I should accept the place, but he was always concerned that I keep my feet on the ground and he never let me forget how the unprivileged had to live.

So when, that year, I asked for money to go on holiday, he said it was time I learnt to work for it.

My then boyfriend, another scholarship child, was in a similar position. His father was a police sergeant, a disciplinarian, and also believed that fun was not to be had by right but should be worked and paid for. My boyfriend accordingly did some research and by the start of the school holidays we signed up together to work for 'Blitz Cleaners'.

Blitz's principal clients were the guest houses in Earl's Court which in those days were legion. Tall, begrimed, stuccoed houses, now worth many millions, they had been compartmented into seedy rooms, with flimsy partition walls, the more expensive ones with basins, none of course 'en-suite'.

The hapless occupants had drifted there from far afield (many from abroad) in search of employment or the good life – with a bit of luck, they no doubt hoped, both. They were hinterland people: on the edges of a society which was about to become prosperous but with as yet few of the later prosperity's hallmarks.

If my socialist father had wanted to give me an idea of what real work was like, he could hardly have chosen better had he applied for advice to Karl Marx himself. Our job was to clean the rooms when vacated. All too often the departed occupants had been in situ for some time.

I was not an especially tidy girl, nor was ours a fanatically clean household. But I had never encountered squalor even approaching this. The washbasins were plugged with meshes of hair, smeared with grime and often bore traces of blood. (There was generally an alarming amount of blood on show.) The baths made up for their lack of enamel by an overlay of filth. And the toilets – even today I don't like to think about the toilets. They gave the impression that all human life had at some time been deposited there.

But what was perhaps the most depressing aspect of the job were the traces of evidence of pleasure-seeking. Most obvious were the fag ends. In those days, everyone smoked (indeed, one of the reasons we took the job was that it offered uninterrupted smoking opportunities). Rooms which had been occupied for several days took on the atmosphere of a giant ashtray. The other commonest pleasure-seeking sign was the beer bottles. Banks of them, usually having served as ashtrays. If the number of fag ends became too many for a bottle's capacity, they would be stubbed out on the pale brown lino, which was embellished with flagrant burn marks.

Then there were the syringes. I had just discovered the French avant garde and was busily steeping myself in Rimbaud, Verlaine, Genet and Gide. I told myself that this evidence of life at the edges was exciting – material for the art I was sure I would one day produce. But the truth was the dangerous-looking syringes disturbed me. With the cramped rooms, the unwholesome smells, the stained mattresses on the beds, they conjured up terrible, unforgettable images of loneliness and despair.

Hardest of all for a fastidious teenager were the condoms. Used condoms were rife: down the toilet, by the washbasin, in the wastebins, most disgustingly, abandoned among the soiled sheets. After two weeks, I handed in my notice and took another, safer, job with the Gas Board. It took me more than a month of daily calls to prise my pitiful wages out of Blitz. My father was delighted by the whole affair. He said it would teach me how to deal with capitalism.

Salley Vickers' latest novel 'The Cleaner of Chartres' (Viking, Penguin) and an e-book special 'Vacation' (Penguin) are out now

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test