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Saturday, 17 October 2015

Posters on the Wall

Guinness, Smirnoff, Accountancy and Monty Python

Athena tennis girl poster
There was a time when no self-respecting, young person’s bedsit would be complete without an iconic Athena poster. Along with the thousands of other young persons who had exactly the same one, it was a statement of your individuality. Full-blooded young males could have a sexy French lingerie model or the knickerless tennis girl absent-mindedly rubbing her naked bottom (gratuitously included here). The more emancipated might have the muscular man cradling a baby. For the rebellious it would be Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix surrounded by psychedelic swirls. The arty could choose a fine reproduction print, perhaps a Salvador Dali to indicate their leanings towards the avante garde. For the revolutionary Marxist it had to be Che Guevara. For those of a philosophical bent it might be seagulls in mid-flight, quoting Virgil: “They can because they think they can.”

Posters on the wallAthena outlets sprang up in most large towns and cities, and for a couple of decades they made good profits. Not out of cheapskates like me though. My walls were adorned with a scruffy and eclectic mix of images acquired entirely free of charge. Here are some of them in my attic bedroom in our dingy shared house in Leeds in 1972, next to some colourful ink blots on blotting paper, the product of an idle, unsupervised afternoon at work.

One was a Guinness poster to show that independence and resilience were important parts of my individuality. You had to be pretty independent and resilient to drink the stuff. No one else I knew liked its burnt and heavy flavour. I’m not even sure that I did.

I had sent Guinness a sycophantic letter admiring one of their newspaper adverts: ‘How to Make Guinness’. Back came a roughly A2-sized poster in a cardboard tube.* It caricatured the process from harvesting the barley through to delivery by road tanker, and gave sound advice on how to avoid common errors such as brewing it upside down with the head underneath the body.  

Smirnoff poster: accountancy was my life
Then there was the Smirnoff poster: “Accountancy was my life until I discovered Smirnoff.” Well, it was true, accountancy was my life, and I dearly wished it wasn’t. Oh that something so simple as learning to handle a bottle of vodka could instantaneously transform it from the humdrum into one of glamour and excitement! But, from the other adverts in the series, I would rather have been the camel train trekker who used to take the caravan to Southend but now traversed the desert, or the mainstay of the Public Library who had escaped to carefree rural reverie, rather than the suited, cigar-smoking, nineteen-thirties City of Westminster gangster in the wide-brimmed Panama hat.

Anyone would have thought that accountancy was boring. Well, thanks to John Cleese and Monty Python, that is exactly what most of my contemporaries did think. Most damaging was the ‘Vocational Guidance Counsellor’ sketch about an insignificant little man whose careers advisor declared without doubt that the ideal job for him was chartered accountancy. “But I am a chartered accountant,” he protested. He wanted a new job, “something exciting that will let me live.” He wanted to be a lion tamer. Chartered accountancy was “dull, dull, dull ...”,  a career in which it was a positive advantage to be “unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab.” The sketch ends by asking for donations to The League for Fighting Chartered Accountancy: “this terrible debilitating social disease.” I am certain it influenced my subsequent rejection of the career. So much for independence and resilience.

The senior partner where I worked found the sketch so offensive it became practically a dismissable offence to admit you watched the programme. John Cleese, however, discovered that his own accountant was not offended in any way at all. When asked why, he explained it was because the sketch was about chartered accountancy, whereas he himself was a certified accountant.

But a fervent Monty Python fan I was, one of those who could recite ‘The Piranha Brothers’ and ‘Room for an Argument’ off by heart. We even used to audio-tape and transcribe the television shows so we could act them out ourselves in our shared house. My brother used the school's photographic equipment to make a poster from the Whizzo Quality Assortment page of Monty Python’s Big Red Book. This showed a box of chocolates containing such delights as Crunchy Frog, made using only the finest baby frogs, dew picked and flown from Iraq. “Do you take the bones out?” “No, it wouldn’t be crunchy if we did.” That poster went on my wall too.

In 1973, I went with a group of mates to the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House in New Briggate to see Monty Python on tour. Many of the sketches, such as ‘The Parrot Sketch’, and the animations projected on to a screen, were straight from the television series, but there was some new material too. In one sketch a group of bowler-hatted city gents were sitting on stools reading newspapers in a cocktail bar. It got its first laugh simply by using language you would not then have expected in a theatre, not even in Monty Python: “I see Nixon’s had an arsehole transplant.” The punchline brought the house down: “It says here the arsehole rejected him.”

The programme for the show was in the form of a huge poster. Many of them ended up gliding gracefully across the vast auditorium in the form of paper aeroplanes, but with my bare walls in mind, I carefully rolled mine up and took it home. Here it is, well just the lower edge of it, at the other end of my attic room above a messy desk of reel-to-reel tapes, guitar music and the camera case. I still have it today in the Guinness cardboard tube, much faded, its corners damaged by drawing-pins and blue-tack. All serious offers considered!

Cluttered desk

Monty Python's Farewell Tour Official Programme

* With it came a smaller poster, ‘How to economise on Guinness’, which suggests mixing it half and half with champagne to make ‘black velvet’. This can be seen to the right of the ‘How to make Guinness’ poster.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Partners and Seniors

Andrew and I spoke in low voices, trying to look as if we were working hard.

“G eight”

“Splash”

“B nine”

“Miss”

“G nine”

“You’ve just hit Mr. Hawkwind.”

We were playing ‘Partners and Seniors’. It was based on ‘Battleships’, a pencil and paper game for two players.

In ‘Battleships’, each player rules out two 10 x 10 grids for their own and their opponent’s fleets of warships, and then positions their own fleet secretly in their own grid. Typically, they would have an aircraft carrier occupying five squares, a battleship occupying four, a destroyer and a submarine of three squares each, and a minesweeper occupying two. Neither player should be able to see the other’s grids.

The objective is to sink the opponent’s fleet before they sink yours. There are many variations, ours being as follows. Players take turns to shoot by naming a square in the opponent’s grid. If the square is occupied by one of the opponent’s ships then it is announced as a ‘hit’. If the square is adjacent to an opponent’s ship it is a ‘splash’. If the square is neither occupied nor adjacent it is a ‘miss’. A ship is sunk when all its squares have been hit. Players use their second 10 x 10 grids to record the results of their shots and to decide where to target subsequent shots.

But we weren’t playing ‘Battleships’. Our game had evolved into ‘Partners and Seniors’. In place of warships we had Chartered Accountants. Instead of aircraft carriers, destroyers and minesweepers, we had partners, seniors and articled clerks from the firm where we worked. Mr. Hawkwind was one of the partners.

Partners and Seniors

We were out on audit at a clients’ premises, the most mind-numbing of all the audits we did. You could be there for several months, sitting in a little room off the side of the open-plan sales ledger office putting ticks on ledger cards. As far as Mr. Hawkwind was concerned, you could have disappeared off the face of the earth.

The client was a cloth merchants, an old family firm. They bought rolls of cloth from the manufacturers in every weight, weave, colour, stripe and herringbone imaginable, and re-sold it in suit lengths – the amount needed to make men’s bespoke two-piece or three-piece suits, with or without extra pairs of trousers. The rolls of cloth were stored elsewhere in the building, away from the damaging effects of heat and light. The cool, shadowy stillness of the warehouse had a strange musty smell: presumably a mixture of dyes, preservatives and the scent of the cloth itself.  

The firm supplied just about every tailor and outfitter in the country. In other words, they had a lot of customers: twenty or so trays full of them in fact. For each customer there was a sales ledger card around eight by ten inches in size. The cards were arranged alphabetically in long-legged metal trays on wheels which looked like miniature babies’ prams. They were referred to as buses. “Have you seen the ‘W-X’ bus?” “Please could I have the ‘B’ bus after you?”

Some of the office staff had been there for decades, from the days when most clerical jobs were done by men. They all still wore suits and ties, and kept their jackets on all day. Only the office manager, in the room next to ours, worked in his shirtsleeves. He was not an attractive sight: a fearsome, grossly overweight man who always left his unpleasant outdoor shoes, or in winter his stinking wellington boots, beside the radiator.

One of the clerks, in his mid-forties, all teeth and thick glasses, would have been tall had he stood straight, but he had acquired a stoop from years bent at a desk. As he hunched to push the ledger buses, his jacket draped itself around the cards as if trying to consume them.

One Friday afternoon we listened, able to overhear the office manager tell the clerk, completely out of the blue, that he was no longer needed. “You realise this is absolutely no reflection on you in any way whatsoever,” he tried to reassure him, as if it made things better. The clerk seemed unable to reply. A week or two later his job was taken by a new girl straight from school.

The business was beginning to struggle, and trying to cut costs. Demand for made-to-measure suits was falling because of changing fashions and cheaper, ready-made, ‘off-the-peg’ garments. One floor of the warehouse was now empty. Within not so many years the family owners would decide to give up the ghost and lease the building to the old adversary: the Inland Revenue.

But that was in the future and the firm still had a few years left to run. As auditors, we were required to check that every sale the firm had made during the year had been correctly recorded on the correct ledger card. So for several weeks each year, a couple of articled clerks would spend their days ticking off the cards against the order books and sales invoices. Then, as if to ensure they received an appropriate breadth of professional experience, they would go through all the incoming payments and tick those off against the ledger cards too. One year you would use a red pen, the following year a green, and then back to red again. The exhilaration was tangible. You really looked forward to getting up in a morning.

What made the task seem even more superfluous and unnecessary was that the ledger cards were partly computerised. They were printed by machine, and each yellow card carried three dark-brown, machine-readable, magnetic stripes to record all the transactions. It was an early and primitive system, but really, wouldn’t some kind of statistical sampling been sufficient to ensure the cards were reasonably accurate? Any mistakes that crept in could have been corrected as and when they were discovered. The firm must have wanted everything checked by the auditors. Articled clerks were paid a pittance so it didn’t cost a lot. Perhaps they needed to keep tabs on the inexperienced staff they were now taking on. 

I never did find an error. That is not to say there weren’t any, but the job was so soporific that any I came across would probably have got ticked correct anyway.

Is there any wonder we invented diversions such as ‘Partners and Seniors’ to brighten up the day?

“J nine”

“You’ve just sunk Mr. Hawkwind.”

Mr. Hawkwind would surely have sunk us if he’d known what we were up to.