London in the seventies oozed temporary secretaries. Aussies and Kiwis eager for work were snapped up by agencies, and the old Remington and Olivetti typewriters rattled all the way along Oxford Street.
Typing was our ticket to freedom. It meant meals, rent and travel, our passport to Europe. Shipped into England by Shaw Savill and Flotto Lauro, we were young and hopeful wanderers undaunted by gloom and pessimism. We arrived in Southampton restless and ready for change, and in spite of the freezing weather and a postal strike we headed straight for London to pursue our dreams.
Once in London we congregated in Earls Court. Handy to bus, tube and 24 hour food it was a dirty, noisy league of nations and a favourite haunt for Colonials. We soon found a flat, a large and draughty basement, where we huddled around the gas heater wrapped in blankets. We ate endless varieties of mince stew and sausages and tried to forget the icy winter and the lack of overseas mail.
It wasn’t long before the novelty and the funds disappeared – together with our dreams of a trip to Europe. Telephone calls home for news and financial reinforcements proved futile. Those who had return tickets or insurance policies cashed them in but for the rest of us, the good times were over and it was back to reality – and that meant work!
Temporary typing suited our transient lifestyle and London was a real mecca, with agencies always advertising for Aussies and Kiwis. We were resourceful, unafraid of change and prepared to work hard. While some of us were good typists, others scraped by on thirty words a minute and said we were “a bit rusty”. It didn’t take long before we were proficient on machines we’d never used before – dictaphones, switchboards and telexes. We were temps on a mission; while the agencies promised the pounds, we worked and saved for our trips to Europe.
Life as a temp was never dull. We left and returned home in the dark, and through a winter of power blackouts we often worked by candlelight. Bonded together with a common purpose we were committed only to the moment, and if one particular job didn’t suit us there was always another. A sense of humour was a definite advantage. The locals were intrigued by our accents and lifestyle. They questioned our “grass hut” existence in the colonies and often expressed amazement that we spoke such excellent English.
A temp could get lucky or she could get a lady boss like Jasmin, who used her ruler like a Sergeant with a gun. With military precision she bossed us into silence, using tea breaks as incentives and her ruler as a preventative. Plugged into our dictaphones we all grew rebellious until Teresa from Capetown declared typists’ war. Our typewritten letters came back with “doll’s typewriter used??” and “can’t you spell?” scrawled across the pages. We remained poker-faced and silent until payday, when we marched out forever, presenting Jasmin with a token of our ingratitude – a brand new ruler!
All along the temporary trail were the characters we left behind; people like Major John from Beulah Hill, Uncle Tom from Bethnal Green, Pearl from Paddington, Mr Uganda, Darlene from Brighton, Australia, and Jean-Claude Magoo from Malta. London served us well. She was our mother hen, the place where we survived together for over three years, temping and travelling backwards and forwards to Europe until eventually, tired of our nomadic existence, we climbed out of our Earls Court nest and returned home to the colonies to roost.
© Tina Blackmur 2002