How my career as a greengrocer was cut short by a Scottish invasion
I READ the line ‘My mum used to send me to the greengrocers with a grubby old canvas carrier, into which were loaded loose potatoes, onions and a cabbage’ in a TCW article last month, and it brought back vivid memories of my first Saturday job. Soon after my 15th birthday, I started as an assistant on Saturday mornings to the local door-to-door greengrocer, known to me and all his customers only as Harry. I would knock on the door of his regulars, write down their order on a scrap of paper and take that and their ‘grubby bag’ to the back of the converted removal lorry that held the stock and the scales. Harry would make up the order, then I’d give it to the customer, collect payment and hand that over to Harry.
Harry had a lock-up that had begun life as a stable at the end of what in the better parts of London would have been called a mews. There he stored the vegetables that would keep for a week or more – potatoes in 56lb hessian sacks, carrots and onions in 28lb nets. He was a daily buyer at Covent Garden for the more perishable goods, apples in cardboard boxes, oranges in wooden crates, bananas in coffin-like hinged boxes. Cabbages and sprouts in winter, peas and beans in season. If you want avocados or mushrooms, he’d say, try the shops in the High Street!
I worked from 8am until we finished, usually around 1.30, including all through the winter of 1963 when the snow was piled high from Boxing Day until March along the sides of the suburban roads we served. My weekly pay was 12s 6d, and Harry usually told me to take a bag of fruit for my mum – I think he had a bit of a soft spot for her which probably explains how I got the job in the first place.
It was a useful experience in real life for a rather naive grammar school boy, more fun than a paper round, and it came in handy when I was in need of a job after being removed from school. I had stayed on after completing my ‘A’ Levels to study for the Oxbridge entrance exams, but relieving the fifth form boys of their lunch money by teaching them to play three card brag was regarded as beyond the pale.
So I started work at a greengrocer’s in Wembley, one of a small parade of shops not far from the stadium. It was long hours and a five and a half day week, but I still remember my excitement when at the end of the first week I was given ten £1 notes as my reward, a useful sum for a 17-year-old in 1965. The manager and his deputy were the only other staff and they had me doing most of the behind-the-scenes work – keeping the wooden trays topped up with spuds and carrots, trimming the caulis, sweeping the floor etc.
However one afternoon I was dealing with an elderly lady customer whom the other two avoided if at all possible as she was known to be very fussy. How much are your oranges, she asked. Tuppence each, I replied, but you can have half a dozen for a shilling. She fell for it and as she left the shop, the manager smiled and said, ‘We might make a greengrocer of you yet.’
But they didn’t, and events a few weeks after that were the final straw for me. England were playing Scotland at Wembley and as the last of our Saturday morning regular customers departed, the parade was overrun by a hundred or more large men in kilts, with red hair and tartan bonnets. They cleaned out the off-licence opposite (although they had the good taste to leave the Watneys Party Fours) then descended on us. Within five minutes, there wasn’t a single piece of fruit left in the shop or the storeroom and both the manager and I had been roughed up when we protested. Despite the legendary Scottish liking for Neeps and Tatties, our vegetables were left untouched.
The local plod, of course, were nowhere to be seen and when they did arrive, they managed to make us laugh by asking for a description of the villains. That was the end of my career as a greengrocer – I figured the local betting shop was a safer way of passing the remaining weeks before I set off for university.