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

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