Episode 14: Civil Service

Three months after I joined the Crown Estate Office we were dispersed to Bracknell New Town. The Development Corporation there offered me a modern second-floor flat overlooking open countryside. This was my dream come true! It felt time to ‘settle down’, to discover, or construct, an identity.

Soon after arriving in Bracknell I bought myself a second-hand Austin A40, and six months later passed the test. After that car fell apart when I drove through a ford which washed away the mud holding it together, I bought a Triumph Herald, which juddered uncontrollably when you got to 50, then an Austin 1100 which nearly fell in two, and at last a lovely new red Citroen Diane.

How different office work was in those days! One of my colleagues asphyxiated me with his cigarellas, there was a typing pool to which you sent your drafts, and from which you received neatly typed sheets with flimsies for filing … and there wasn’t a computer in sight!

I was involved in managing West Country agricultural estates, but we were invited to functions at Windsor where we brushed with royalty. Once a month I travelled up to Whitehall to take the minutes of the Commissioners’ meetings chaired by Lord Perth. Later I transferred to the training department where I introduced the staff to decimalisation with a tape and slide show made by Jack de Manio.

For a number of years I attended a series of monthly philosophy weekends at Oxford’s extra-mural department, and at the CityLit I enrolled in Naomi Lewis’s creative writing class.

I joined South Place Ethical Society (Conway Hall) and made friends with the director, Peter Cadogan, who had been on the Committee of One Hundred. He encouraged me to give a talk on Camus and put forward my name to the editor of The New Humanist to review a book on Sartre and Camus.

I joined the local Conservatives and stood three times, against the odds and unsuccessfully, in council elections. This was supposed to have been a step on the ladder to a political career. One year I attended the Party Conference in Brighton where I disgraced myself because, diverted by a pretty girl, I missed a dinner with our MP, William van Straubenzee!

 

I started to travel the world – in 1970 to Scandinavia, Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, in 1971 to the US and Canada, in 1972 to India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Algeria, and in 1973/74 to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt again.

 

Meanwhile I was using much of my spare time to walk as circuitously as possible from John O’Groats to Lands End. The aim was to traverse all the places which had some association in my life, or the lives of my ancestors. (I should have mentioned in a previous instalment that when I was at Birmingham I started to research my family history.) Altogether I covered a distance of 2257 miles!

 

My walking and travelling abroad were both helped by my transferring to the Immigration Service at Heathrow, Terminal 3, in 1970. The shift system there allowed me to take off four or five days in a row, which was ideal for the more far-flung parts of my trek across Britain. And my closeness to the airline business meant access to cheap flight deals.

 

At all hours of the day and night I would face the foreign hordes emerging from the decorative foliage in front of the immigration desks. The job had its moments, such as meeting Alistair Cook, André Previn and Mia Farrow, but my temperament was unsuited to enforcing the law. Every day I would climb the stairs to the office with dread in my stomach. I began to think of a quite different direction for my future.

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