Growing Up And Early Work Experience
Author of the best selling Times of Our Lives, Michael Oke works with individual clients through his company Bound Biographies. Mike also lectures extensively, runs workshops and appears regularly in the media. He is based in Oxfordshire.
This chapter considers the formative years of your early working life. It includes growing up, early romances and learning about life, so even if higher education, the war or National Service coincided with these years, it is hoped that at least some of the topics will be relevant in the writing of your story.
Finding a job
When you left school you might not have had much choice about what job you took. Maybe some of the following case studies will strike a chord.
Going into service
Opportunities for going into domestic service may have been diminishing, but they were still the first choice for many.
Starting at the bottom of the ladder
For those who could not wait to leave school, the world of work was not always as glamorous as they had hoped.
You might have got a job at the place where your father worked, or perhaps a chance remark led to a career you never even knew existed whilst at school. However, often it was a case of parents knowing best.
For some it was a case of having to overcome parental opposition to follow the career of their choice.
Following the crowd
For many it was simply a case of taking what was available.
Setting the scene
Whatever your experience, you might like to write about:
- how nervous you were on your first day;
- your first impressions on seeing your new workplace;
- the size of the establishment and how many other staff there were;
- how you travelled to and from work, or your accommodation if you ‘lived in’;
- what the work entailed and if you had to wear any special uniform;
- how much you were paid, and your hours of work;
- how much you gave to your mother and what you had left;
- what holidays you were entitled to and any shut-down periods;
- what the people were like — the employers and staff;
- how you adapted to the work, and whether it was physically demanding, enjoyable, boring, etc.;
- what you liked about the work … and what you loathed;
- any special friends you made at work.
If you had several different jobs in your early working life, you can repeat this process.
Professional careers usually involved an apprenticeship, the contract often being signed by the father or guardian of the apprentice.
Even in 1955 when Ken Baxter started his apprenticeship with The International Tea Company’s Stores, to ‘learn the art, trade and business of a Grocer and Provision Merchant’, his father had to sign the indenture. This entitled Ken to the following weekly wages:
- between the age of 15 and 16 years: 55 shillings;
- between the age of 16 and 17 years: 60 shillings;
- between the age of 17 and 18 years: 65 shillings.
Joining the Services
Men who wanted to join a particular service often enlisted before being called up for National Service. Only a limited number of national servicemen could enter the RAF, and then not as pilots, and the Navy was open only to those signing on for a minimum of three years. Regulars also earned more money. Those who joined the services will find Chapters 8 and 9 useful.
Living away from home
If your work meant leaving home – probably for the first time – you will also want to consider:
- how you adjusted to living away from home;
- whether you were homesick;
- what the accommodation arrangements were;
- how often you were able to go home;
- what you did in your time off.
Those who lived in digs will have a rich fund of stories, not all ol them good.
Young, keen and gullible new employees are usually susceptible for a ‘wind-up’ by old hands, including being sent for a long weight (‘wait’), a left-handed screwdriver, a glass hammer, a bucket of steam or some elbow grease. If you were subjected to any such routines your readers will be delighted to learn of them. Similarly, it is worth recording rituals associated with completing an apprenticeship (getting your ‘credentials’) – in the print industry the newly qualified were immersed in a barrel of printing ink and all sorts of gunge.
Charles Durrett wasn’t quite so gullible when he went to London for the first time to sign on for the Army.
Early work experiences
It is likely that you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to including stories about your early working life. Whilst you are unlikely to want to go into intricate detail about every facet of the job, there will be some anecdotes that will be too good to omit.
At least going to work meant having some money in your pocket.
Fashion probably had little relevance in your childhood, but you may remember looking avidly at magazine advertisements, or delighting in the glamorous film stars, particularly the American . Depending on when you were born, your own fashion attempts might have included:
- smoking to look grown-up – if so what brand did you favour?;
- experimenting with make-up … including the reaction of your parents;
- having your ears pierced;
- wearing a hat;
- taking a greater pride in your appearance;
- learning new dances and looking forward to the next night out;
- having a ‘grown-up’ or fashionable hair style, perhaps a perm for the girls or a ‘DA’ and Brylcreem for the chaps;
- becoming a Teddy Boy, Beatnik, Mod, Rocker or whatever the current trend was;
- getting into ‘pop music’ – maybe skiffle, or lvis Presley, Bill Haley or even The Beatles;
- perhaps you had your own Dansette record player and can remember some of vour favourite records.
The men could take fashion equally seriously.
If you smoked, when did you start and why? It would also be interesting to know what your parents thought about this, and if they were happy to encourage you. Then there are the various different brands. Which did you prefer and why?
- Craven A claimed not to affect your throat;
- Senior Service;
- Woodbine- known as coffin nails;
- You were never alone with a Strand;
- Kensitas which provided ‘four for a friend’;
- De Reszke and Passing Cloud, preferred by the ladies;
- Churchman’s No. 1 were a bit more expensive – perhaps bought on pay day?
First dates, innocent crushes and awkward overtures to romance make for excellent reading.
When writing about matters of the heart, include only what you feel comfortable about. There is no compulsion to use names, or you can indulge in some artistic licence and alter them, especially if you want to protect others. You might also like to write about unrequited love, again, without revealing names if that is your preference.
Even having been diplomatic in your writing, if you still feel uncomfortable about sharing your innermost thoughts, don’t include them. Alternatively, if you fear that a spouse or loved one may take offence, consider asking them to read the manuscript. Your fears are likely to prove unfounded, but if action is needed the manuscript can be edited before any book is produced.
Ending a relationship
Whilst this was usually terribly traumatic, some people found easier ways round the problem.
Being home on time
Especially for girls, staying out late was always a bone of contention with Dad.
The first holiday without parents is always an exciting time. Perhaps it was abroad to visit a penfriend, or maybe to Butlin’s with a group of friends from work — whatever it was, it is likely to have been a memorable occasion. You might like to consider:
- what your parents thought about you going away;
- who you went with;
- where you went and what the accommodation was like;
- if it was abroad, how you coped with the travel and any language difficulties;
- holiday romances;
- how it felt to be ‘grown up’;
- if you kept in touch with anyone you met on holiday.
Ponits to ponder
You might like to consider a few more ‘firsts’, although how much you choose to write is a purely personal matter. These may include:
- first becoming aware of the opposite sex;
- .your first kiss;
- eating foreign food for the first time;
- your first alcoholic drink;
- buying a bottle of wine for the first time;
- your first trip abroad;
- your first journey in a plane.
- By all means use a thesaurus to increase your vocabulary. However, if you then have to use a dictionary to discover the meaning of that word, don’t use it in your book. It is clearly not in your everyday language and will sound false in your writing.
- It’s more important to get the story down than to worry about spelling and grammar – it can always be tidied up later, if necessary.