Google Analytics

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Compton Road Library

Compton Road Library, Leeds (from Pinterest)
Leeds Compton Road Library in the 1980s

This ‘memoir’ started as a kind of autobiographical attempt to understand how things changed during my time and how I got to where I am, a record for posterity in the forlorn and vainglorious misbelief that someone might one day be interested. I hope it is not too tedious to return to this idea now and again.

One thing I wonder about is how I fell into such an agreeable career in computing and universities after badly messing up three previous chances: failed ‘A’ levels, abandoned accountancy training and student teacher dropout. Fortunately, for post-war baby boomers, chopping and changing was easier than for any other generation before or since.

At twenty-four I was in a run-down shared house and ordinary office job, a lowly clerk with a Leeds clothing manufacturer. It was pleasant enough: home at five, no exams, no correspondence courses, no expectations. It was the largest clothing factory in Europe: cheap suits, nice canteen, warm sausage rolls on the tea break trolley and three hours in the pub every Friday afternoon. You could idle your whole life away. One lad just four years older had already done fourteen years. Real old-timers still talked fondly of Sir Montague, the firm’s founder, and crossed off their days to retirement on the calendar.

With my record what else could I do? Backtrack? Repeat the same things? They said to take the Cost and Management Accountants exams but I barely went through the motions. Eighteen months drifted by. Yet in that time I made progress – seemingly by doing nothing much at all. 

Compton Road Library, Leeds (from Pinterest)

Along the road was the tranquil lunchtime retreat of the Compton Road Library, an L-shaped building on the corner with Harehills Lane: the adult library in one wing, the children’s in the other, always warm, always silent, a pervading smell of floor polish throughout. Like all libraries then, they still used the 1895 Browne Issue System: the Pinterest photograph shows the catalogue drawers and tray of readers’ tickets holding cards from books out on loan.

It seemed far more extensive than the picture shows. I got through three or four books a week. It felt like a displacement activity but some left quite an impression. What did I read all that time ago?

Poucher: the Scottish Peaks

There were walking and mountaineering books. Chris Bonington’s I Chose to Climb and The Next Horizon really caught my imagination. I acted them out on walks, scrambled up mountains, bought a Minivan, grew a beard and tried to write things. I took W. A. Poucher’s The Scottish Peaks, a treasure trove of routes and photographs, to Glen Brittle in Skye in the Minivan door pocket and got it soaked. It looked so awful I daren’t take it back, so said I’d lost it and had to pay £1. I’ve still got its stained and curly pages.

There were biographies and autobiographies. I dreamt of escaping like a hermit to some isolated part of Scotland, like Gavin Maxwell in Ring of Bright Water. I tried to emulate R. F. Delderfield who mentions in For My Own Amusement that as a young writer he had been advised to write character sketches of people he knew: “mental photography” he called it. I wondered what it might be like in a garret in Paris struggling to be a writer like V. S. Pritchett in Midnight Oil, “a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive,” as Joni Mitchell put it.

I was unimpressed by Jonathan Aitken’s The Young Meteors in which he interviewed over two hundred leading lights of pop music, film, television, art, photography, clothing, design, politics and business from nineteen-sixties ‘swinging’ London. Some were truly talented but many had either known the right people or just been lucky. 

There was fiction: A. J. Cronin, O. Henry and more – anything so long as it was not accountancy.

And all the time I was asking “could I do that?”, “could I be like this?”, “could I write like that?”

We reach a point in our lives where we need to construct an identity for ourselves: to decide who we would like to be and who not. Some manage it as teenagers, others later and a few possibly never. Some get there gradually, others in leaps and bounds. It might take no conscience effort or be a tortured, soul-searching experience. It can take several attempts. For me, it was definitely late, bounding and tortured with false starts. 

“It’s a good career, accountancy. Stick at it. You’ll be all right once you’re qualified,” they said, but I was reading about people who had made their own way.

I was never going to chuck everything in for a Parisian garret or Scottish hermitage, but back came the idea of becoming a mature student: at university, not a return to Teacher Training College. The only way would be to take ‘A’ Levels again, a daunting prospect. I approached temp agencies to work flexibly while resitting them, and handed in my notice.

“Don’t cock it up again,” said one of the few supportive friends I had left, mock anguish on his face as he imagined the consequences.

“Course not,” I said with pretend confidence, not too sure.

One thing I am sure of though. A decade or so earlier there would have been no chance. In all likelihood, it would have been national service, back to where I came from, a mundane job and family responsibilities sooner rather than later. Ties. Restrictions. Few opportunities. I doubt I would get as many breaks now, either.

34 comments:

  1. Quite often it seems to me that we are presented with the best opportunities at a time when we are too young and immature to really appreciate them. That was certainly true in my case and I let my chance slip through my fingers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So true for so many people. Not everyone knows what they want before they are 18. And now that so many people go straight from school to university it's much easier to make an irrecoverable mess of things. There has been a big drop in the numbers of full-time UK mature students over the last decade or so which suggests that second (or third or fourth!) chances are harder to come by now.

      Delete
    2. I suspect that the drop has more than a little to do with the tragic introduction of Student Fees. What a bullet to the foot! We want a progressive, modern society, but, we don't want to enable the many, just the few...

      Delete
    3. I'm sure that's right. The powers that talk about the need for life-long learning because we can no longer expect the same career throughout don't provide any support. It would be much more difficult now to change careers like I did. There are very few places you can retake 'A' levels for a start.

      Delete
  2. Thank heavens for libraries.

    I will say something now that may be anathema to some women: all I ever wanted to be was a wife and mother. So glad I had the opportunity and the husband who financed that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nothing wrong with that (or with being a house husband). Ideally everyone should be able to choose the life they want, within limits I suppose.

      Delete
  3. Three hours in the pub on a Friday afternoon sounds just the ticket. I enjoyed reading this post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. It was known as the firm's four-and-a-half day week. Wasn't the only reason it went bust.

      Delete
  4. I'm on pins and needles. Did you pass your A-levels (whatever that means?) Breathlessly awaiting the next installment of My Life by Tasker Dunham.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'A' Levels are U.K. public examinations usually taken aged 18 to 'grade' people as to their suitablility for further education or the professions (although I've always thought that education and grading are incompatibly different things). Yes, thankfully I passed - copies of the English and Geography papers I took are on here somewhere.

      Delete
  5. This is a good post and I enjoyed it. I relate very well to what you describe here. Your paragraph that begins: "We reach a point in our lives where we need to construct an identity for ourselves: to decide who we would like to be and who not." says so much about life. I would say all teenagers should be required to read that paragraph but I remember those years and like many I was stubborn and saw what I wanted to see.

    I hope you will continue this post. Like RWP I'd like to see what's next!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I do think we all have to decide what kind of person we want to be, although it's not something that can be done overnight. I can think of people at school who did seem to know at an early age, and indeed went on to be so, which I feel is somehow slightly sinister. My brief "about me" bio in the sidebar outlines what happened.

      Delete
  6. It's like you took us to the end of a chapter with more chapters still to come. I hope I am right because I enjoyed the first instalment. Honest writing is usually the best kind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've not been writing chronologically so there are already earlier and later "chapters". As a teacher may I suggest you might (or might not) like "Weekend In College" and as an English teacher "'A' Level English 1977", although they are rather long.

      Delete
    2. I am not a teacher. I am a charity shop volunteer. Thanks for the indicators. I will certainly have a gander some time soon.

      Delete
  7. I started out in a library, buying books. A decent job for a new BA graduate. Then I thought teaching would be nice, and earned an MA, and taught. Then I was divorced with two children to support. I opened the help wanted ads to see who made the most money. Accountant, it was. Back to school for a BS and I was an accountant for a long time. Interesting journey's to the end for all of us, I know. I hope to read more of your journey.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our twists and turns are unpredictable. In retrospect I realise I learnt an enormous amount from accountancy - in essence how the world works. It later gave me the confidence to contest a tax demand for tax on travelling expenses to external engagements and to handle several deceased estates.

      Delete
  8. You may have guessed from my nickname here that originally, I am a Librarian - even though I have not worked in a Library since 1992. It was the third job I wanted when I was a teenager, and got it. The first two were Porcelain Painter (my great-granddad was one, and I used to be rather good at drawing and painting, plus we still had the Porcelain Manufacture in my home town back then), the second one was Baker (which I tried for a short internship at a bakery in Stuttgart but was put off by the prospect of ALWAYS having to get up so awfully early).
    I loved my work as Librarian and wouldn't mind going back in that area, but nowadays, I also really like my job and will probably stick to it until I reach retirement age, which should be in about 15 years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PS: When I started Librarian training in 1986, it was the cardboard cards and stamps similar to what you show in the pictures, and the large chests of drawers containing the catalogue. I still remember most of the rules for cataloguing!

      Delete
    2. Old libraries are tranquil spaces. I don't like them much now, full of computers and self-service issue stations, and cups of coffee and children's story-times. And they've made many of the knowledgeable and helpful proper librarians redundant. But my compensation will be to live to see your wonderfully painted porcelaine models of patisserie products for which you will become famous soon after retirement.

      Delete
  9. I haven't sat in a quiet library in some time. Your fee of £1 on the book you didn't return sounds quite hefty for the time. Yes, folk from your generation certainly did have a the chance to reinvent themselves, sometimes multiple times over. And that is a good thing. As you wrote, some people don't really figure out what they want to do, if ever, until years well beyond teenage-hood.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought they let me off lightly, really, because I guess the book would have cost perhaps £4 to £5 to replace, although they probably didn't. Many of today's school leavers don't even get much of a first chance let alone multiple ones.

      Delete
  10. I did a lot of things in a different order to the majority. I find it hard to talk about. I couldn't even read all your post. I am sure you will understand this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't mind, Rachel. It is self-indulgent. And there are other things I'd like to write about but don't feel able to. Thanks for looking.

      Delete
  11. I tried all sorts of nonsense; stockbroking, art gallery manager, antique dealing, etc, before deciding that a life of leisure was more to my style. I soon left for S W France, and am still enjoying that life today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I sometimes wonder whether our generation has been particularly favoured or whether most people eventually end up happy with their lot.

      Delete
  12. I feel the best opportunities sometimes slipped out from my hands during my teenager life, I believe I didn’t take it in a serious note to explore the opportunity given to me, now I regret on some note for my immaturity ☹. I just love your saying "We reach a point in our lives where we need to construct an identity for ourselves: to decide who we would like to be and who not." This says many things about LIFE !!! Thank you for the post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for visiting. I do believe that to an extent we can decide what kind of person we want to be (not that it's easy), and other life choices follow from that. However, I also believe it was easiest for the post-war generation who were able to try out different things, and that sadly there are more constraints now.

      Delete
  13. I liked your description of the vast clothing factory in Leeds, and your perfect sentence: *You could idle your whole life away.*

    Your blog is a find, just what I have been looking for.

    I only discovered it while searching for comments on Stan Barstow's novel The Watchers on the Shore, which I remember buying in its first Penguin imprint in The Grant Educational, Union Street, Glasgow.

    Just the kind of bookshop where a young loafer like myself could idle his life away. A white marble staircase, with a brass and mahogany handrail, led to the magical basement, where I bought my first Tin Tin books as a child; and there was a posh stationery section down there, selling fountain pens after which young posers dreamed.

    Funny thing is, I was always imagining another life. In the West or South Riding. Or in a town in Lancashire, not too far from the sea, or the fells and moors. The North had Ted Hughes but not a Houseman.

    And I did like the way Northern girls spoke, at least in the films and television plays. The waitresses in York's tearooms had real charm!

    Jack Haggerty, Glasgow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. Going by your comments on my review of the Barstow books, you should have your own blog. I would certainly follow it. The factory was enormous - you could hardly see from one end to the other - and for a young lad like me to walk through in a nice suit, shirt and tie was a revelation about northern girls' language and female on male sexual harassment. In another post I mention Nevil Shute's views on them - not very flattering, especially as he was talking about my grandmother and her cousins.

      Delete
    2. The Enormous Factory sounds like the seedbed for a comic, slightly surreal novel, Tasker.

      The much missed Beryl Bainbridge did it with The Bottle Factory Outing, which I have a notion to read again. My parents met in Rolls Royce factory during the war, the only reason I am here.

      I will look up your Nevil Shute reference. My Dad was an engineer and liked Shute's autobiography, Slide Rule. The early Shute flying novels are thrilling. Right now it feels like Shute's end of the world novel, On the Beach, not to mention the movie.

      Factory novels have a buzz. I am reading Mena Calthorpe's 1961 novel, The Dyehouse, reissued by Text Publishing, and set in Melbourne, among the textile workers. It throws out real sparks.

      I could never be a blogger, it is your forte, but I like cussed writers with their own voice like Calthorpe.

      Check out YouTube films on Australian novelist Gerald Murnane. He lives in remote Victoria, in a vast area called The Plains, and the photography is haunting. He has never left Australia.

      Also YouTube. A film on New Zealand short story master, Frank Sargeson, who found his voice and stuck with it. His mates gather in Frank's old cottage and have a chinwag about him.

      I enjoy your old photographs, and find myself studying the faces of the men and women there. The world we came from, devastated by two world worlds and terrible pandemics, but still here, ay?

      John Haggerty.

      Delete
    3. I'll follow up some of those references. To find my Shute piece just type Shute into the box top left above the blog banner. The factory was of course Burtons, anyone who knows Leeds would identify it immediately. I wasn't there long enough to know it well, and I doubt I'm a novelist anyway.

      Delete
  14. Excellent piece, Tasker! I pretty much grew up in Compton Road Library and it's back garden - a magical place with that odour of polish that everyone mentions.

    I left Harehills 3 decades ago, but that library in the 70s changed my life. My Dad, a lorry driver and the only member of his family to not spend his working life at Burtons and my Mum, a Home Help who found her calling in helping others, took me there and told me 'Anything you ever want to know, you can find it in a book.'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wonder if we were ever in there at the same time.

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).