Idle Hands

By Tony Moorby October 10, 2018 1967

In spite of its constant sales, Pontings, the department store where Robin and I worked, wasn’t always busy and time could hang heavy. You know the old expression about idle hands making the devil’s work. We were teenagers but some of the grown men were more mischievous.

In the soft furnishings department, bales, bolts and rolls of material were displayed around the walls. They all leaned against one another and were nice and stable, that is until someone balanced them in such a way that the slightest touch would send the heavy rolls all over the place. Customers, if uninjured, would apologize profusely for messing up the display or colleagues would know they’d been had. Robin’s fellow workers would use single beds and push them around the aisles of the bedding department like go-karts. Pillow fights were also a common occurrence.

Unlike the posh elevator operators in the other two stores, Pontings had chaps who wore a light brown shop coat, most of the geezers as old as the elevators themselves. The lifts were intriguingly Victorian – a thick rope passed through the ceiling and floor of the front, right-hand side and a gentle tug up or down on the rope sent the machine in whichever direction required, the rope actuating a hydraulic pump hidden in the bowels of the basement.

The staff and cargo elevators, at the back of the store, were similarly equipped but with no operator. We soon discovered that the speed of the tug on the rope dictated the speed of ascent or descent of the lift. Similarly, grabbing the rope to stop its passage would give an alarming screech to a stop, leaving the lift to bounce around in its shaft. New h ires, older workers or colleagues with armfuls of wears were fair game for this frightening escapade.

Eventually, we graduated to the luxury store that was Liberty’s of London. At the junction of Regent Street, Great Marlborough Street and the famous Carnaby Street, we were in the thick of all that encompassed the “Swinging Sixties.” The store itself stood out from its neighbors having been built in a Tudor Revival style, using timbers from two old navy ships, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. The timbers on the outside were exquisitely carved and on the inside they supported a four-story atrium.

Liberty’s was famous for its association with selling luxury items from the East. Robin was in the gifts section and I worked in the oriental carpet department. Antique silk Kashans, Indian Duhrries or French Aubussons still fascinate me.

Liberty’s was everything that Pontings was not – no raucous tomfoolery here but the staid quietness of a library. All the staff was expected to wear their very best attire so that customers felt they were being dealt with by their social equivalents.

Each Saturday morning we would drive to the outskirts of London and then switch to the Underground – The Tube.

The walk from Piccadilly Station to the staff entrance involved a stroll along Carnaby Street; a veritable feast for the eyes of a pair of seventeen-year-olds seeing mini skirts getshorter by the week and pop music blaring from the boutiques and clubs. La Valbonne, in neighboring Kingly Street, with its roaring gas lamp out front, was always a favorite. The famous Lord John’s menswear shop was a massive draw and drained much of my Saturday job’s earnings just to keep pace with the fashions.

It was a fascinating time to be around and it taught us, early on, about customer relationships and working with others – who made a good boss and who was an overbearing jerk.

I’d recommend holiday jobs to anyone.


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Last modified on Friday, 07 June 2019 12:12