The West End

By Tony Moorby October 05, 2018

It was necessary to keep up with changing fashions in the Swinging Sixties. Small changes could occur as often as every two weeks. Major changes took a little longer, such as the shift from ‘Rockers’, the motorcycle riding, greasy haired fellows to ‘Mods’, those that followed The Who, rode garishly decked out Lambrettas and Vespas and wore brightly colored pants and Ben Sherman shirts while parkas replaced leather jackets.

All this cost a lot of money, so my brother and I worked during the holidays and weekends in retail stores in London’s West End.

In the posh area of Kensington High Street there were three renowned stores – Barkers, Derry and Toms and Pontings. All next door to one another, they had been built in the mid-Victorian era of the 1800s, although broadly refitted in the ‘30s Art Deco style. Barkers was on a par with Harrods of Knightsbridge and was high class and expensive with liveried, white-gloved doormen and elevator operators who would announce the lift’s destination at each floor. There was an old joke about ladies’ dresses going up, ladies’ underwear going down…

Derry and Toms, a little more down-market, but nevertheless frequented by the gentry, boasted a roof garden and The Rainbow Room, an art deco masterpiece where events could range from tea dances to full banquettes.

A walk-thru arcade joined Derry and Toms to Pontings, the ugly sister of all three. Distinctly down market in comparison, it completed the prospect of being able to buy virtually anything from the combined stores. Pontings always had things on-sale – a winter sale, a white sale, a Christmas sale, you get the idea. The store was distinctly dowdy and attracted a very different clientele from the other two.

If you’ve ever seen the BBC series “Are You Being Served?” you’ll have the very picture of our workplace and the personnel involved. I worked in the soft furnishings department – selling everything from loose chair covers to net curtains and bolts of fabric from voile to velour. Meanwhile Robin was in the bedding department next door.

Mr. Phillips, the buyer, housed in the corner of the department was rarely seen. He had the simpering appearance of a hen-pecked husband; a bald pate, fringed by a veil of thinning white hair and rimless spectacles, always impeccably dressed in a dark suit, underscoring the image. His lieutenant, the ‘floorwalker’, was named Mr. Kyte – we always had to address one another formally as Mister or Miss, regardless of a lady’s marital status. Kyte was vertically challenged and made up for his miniscule stature by acting like a junk yard pit bull, barking orders so officiously, his saliva spat out in chunks. For a while I thought he had moss on his jacket. His dress was known as “city attire”; always a black jacket, gray and black pinstriped trousers, a light gray waistcoat (vest), a stiff detachable, starched collar and a silver-gray tie, rounded out by the shiniest of black shoes – always black, never brown. He strutted around like a figure from the silent movies, his roving eye catching every nuance of business being transacted. He always used three syllables where one would do; “Mr. Moorby, a client for your indulgence, if you would oblige us with your kind attention!”

The rest of the staff was made up of elderly ladies or men who were too old to have been called up for armed service during the war or younger types from the fringes of other professions – actors who were “resting” or “between parts.” Pantomime and vaudeville provided a steady stream of workers from flouncy, gay men to ardent students, filling in to make a living.

With time on our hands, pranks and larks became everyday events.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 October 2018 19:00

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