After spending a number of years at sea, I decided to go ashore for a while and try my hand at something completely different. I was willing to have a go at almost anything apart from selling life insurance; a popular refuge for ships’ officers washed up on the beach. I worked through an A to Z of careers in the public library and was getting very near the end when I came across the entry for Youth Employment Officer. It was an unusual choice, but it seemed an easy number and would be a welcome change from the long hours at sea. Today, the same job is called a careers adviser. I found a position in a quiet rural backwater which was as far removed from the sea as one could imagine. My elderly colleagues, who included a retired vicar and a failed car salesman, must have had other sources of income for the wages were dismal. But it was just about enough to live on and, each morning, I cycled to work through leafy lanes without a care in the world.
In those days, most young people left school at 15 and my new job involved giving them a talk, a guidance interview and help with finding work. The school talk was to encourage youngsters to be realistic about themselves and adaptable for the future ‘.... for we cannot tell what changes may lie ahead’. How true those words ring now. Container ships were starting to raise their ugly square heads over the horizon and, at sea, we would laugh at them with derision. Having little work experience, apart from being a seafarer, my talks were peppered with nautical anecdotes and the number of boys and girls wanting to go to sea, or emigrate, increased considerably. Indeed, one irate parent, a rather pompous man, berated me for daring to encourage his son consider such a dead end occupation. When I replied that it might be the ideal escape for him, the poor man almost had a seizure.
I shall always remember my first client. He was rather scruffy, so I lent him a tie which we kept in the office, and gave him an introduction card for an interview. This stated that the employer’s premises were situated at the back of Swan Yard. He returned a couple of hours later and I asked him if all had gone well.
‘No,’ he replied, looking a little crestfallen. ‘I found Swan Yard all right but I couldn’t find the Backof.’
I began to realise that there was rather more to this vocational guidance business than meets the eye and another lesson was about to follow.
Some days later, a young girl came in to the office and she appeared quite distressed. She told me that she was working as a mother’s help for a wealthy family but that the lady of the house was beating her, locking her up in her room and fining her for petty mistakes. I could hardly believe it. This, after all, was the era of the Beatles, free love and all that, and what she described harked back to the turn of the century. I spoke to her employer on the phone explaining that the girl had lodged a complaint and would not be returning to work. I consoled the girl as best I knew and arranged for her to return to the office with her mother. After she had left, I studied a guide to youth employment with Bill, the office manager, and we discovered that mother’s helps, along with seafarers and the feeble-minded, were remarkably well protected by employment laws. In fact, there was a detailed complaints procedure which had to be followed.
‘I’d have a word with the Old Crow, if I were you.’ said Bill.
The Old Crow was our area boss and she was shocked when I reported the case to her. She knew the lady in question well. It appeared that Mrs L was a pillar of the community, a regular churchgoer and, like the Old Crow, a leading member of several women’s societies and the local conservative party. It was utterly inconceivable that this decent woman would treat her staff in such an appalling manner. She decided to investigate the complaint and I was quite relieved to hand it over to her.
Later, she told me that the girl had confessed that the story was a fabrication. Her mother had found the job for her, but she had really wanted to work with her friends in an electronics factory and earn a lot more money. Accordingly, the Old Crow had sent this young madam from the office with a flea in her ear and reassured her recent employer that it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding. Needless to say, the girl found work in the electronics factory. That evening, in the local pub, Bill and I pondered over the possible pain and embarrassment we might have caused a fine and virtuous woman had not our leader intervened and we raised a glass to them both. In truth, we probably raised several glasses because I recall cycling home that night and falling off my bike into a ditch.
But all good things must pass. Once again, the sea beckoned and I returned to face those cold grey mornings on watch. I was able, however, to entertain my shipmates with anecdotes from my recent shore employment; it made a change from comparing riotous nights ashore. They particularly enjoyed hearing about the officer who was sacked for stealing £450, which was about half a year’s salary then. Unbeknown to anyone, he sneaked a few coins from the petty cash box each week but was eventually caught and admitted doing it for ten years. Ten years! Occasionally, I told them the tale about the pretty young caller who had played on my good nature and lack of experience, and must confess to embellishing it a little. For example, in one version, I had the lady who had been kind enough to give her a decent start in life, arrested and thrown into the cells of the local police station. The young apprentices, however, only wanted to know more about the girl and how I had consoled her. It was an ideal opportunity for more embellishment, but I preferred to focus on the importance of seeking advice from one’s superiors before rushing into a decision which could have most unfortunate consequences.
But now I discover that I should have waited a little longer to tie up the loose ends of that tale. In fact, I should have waited forty years. Not long ago, I was helping out aboard the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship which was being fitted out for the West African coast. In countries like Togo and Sierra Leone, a team of volunteer doctors would provide free operations to restore eyesight and correct facial disfigurements for desperately poor people with little or no access to medical facilities. I noticed that the engine room was short of cotton waste or cleaning rags, so called in at my local charity shop to collect a large supply of unwanted towels. As we bagged them up, I was chatting to a shop volunteer about the unexpected ways in which our lives unfold. By a strange coincidence, I discovered that she had once lived in that quiet backwater where I sought to escape from the sea and was the niece of the now sadly departed pillar of the community. Without going into much detail, I explained that I had once had some dealings with her late aunt whilst working in the Youth Employment Service. Upon hearing this, she turned rather pale and gripped my arm.
‘Don’t tell me,’ she implored, ‘That you sent anyone to work for her.’
I assured her that I hadn’t, which was true, but asked why. She explained that for many years, she and her sisters were forbidden to visit or have anything to do with this aunt. She was shunned by the family because of the way she treated her domestic workers.
‘Can you tell me more about this treatment?’ I asked.
She suggested that I would find it very hard to believe.
‘I can try,’ I replied, but with a sinking feeling for I had already guessed what was coming.
‘Well, when my aunt was in a rage, which was quite often,’ she explained, ‘She would lock them in their rooms or fine them for the most trivial things. Sometimes, she would beat them. Of course, when they escaped, they never returned. In fact, she should have been locked up herself.’
Tony Crowley (c) 2005