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Saturday, 1 August 2020

New Month Old Post - Partners and Seniors

(First posted 6th October, 2015. 1,050 words)

Andrew and I were speaking in hushed voices, trying to look as if we were working.

“G-eight”
“Splash”
“B-nine”
“Miss”
“G-nine”
“You’ve 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 draws two 10 x 10 grids for their own and their opponent’s fleets of warships, and 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 your opponent’s fleet before they sink yours. There are many variations but we played it 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 grid to record the results of their shots and to decide where to target subsequent shots.

Partners and Seniors

Except 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. He occupied four squares.

We were working out of the office on the most mind-numbing of all the audits we did. You could be there for months putting ticks on ledger cards. It was like disappearing 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: 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 trolleys full. For each customer there were one or more yellow sales ledger cards around eight by ten inches in size. The cards were arranged alphabetically in boxes on long-legged, wheeled trolleys like miniature babies’ prams. They referred to them as buses. “Have you seen the ‘B’ bus?” “Could I have the ‘QR’ bus when you’ve finished?”

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 worry-lines, teeth and thick glasses, would have been tall had he stood upright, but was bent over from years at a desk. As he stooped 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, 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 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, 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 and firing rubber bands at paper cups to brighten up the day? 

“J-nine”
“You’ve just sunk Mr. Hawkwind.”

Mr. Hawkwind would have sunk us if we’d been caught. 

30 comments:

  1. Tasker this brought back such memories. My first husband and I used to play Battleships - I had completely forgotten about it.

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  2. A real tale of the boring office lives we had to live years back counting the hours. Never played 'Battleships' though.

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    1. We didn't always think of it as boring. It was just how things were. Sometimes it was really interesting, especially when you tried to tick more items than the day before.

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  3. That task reminds me of my very first job on leaving school. I worked for HM Customs & Excise at Heathrow Airport and my job consisted of checking piles of pink forms to make sure every box had been completed by the customs officers before sending them off to the data input centre. I only stuck it out for 3 months before boredom sent me off elsewhere.

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    1. Some people are never happy with their lot.

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  4. Battleships! One of the few table games I liked as a kid. We never kept s second grid though. You had to remember the hits and misses.

    This post was wonderful! Social history, commentary, insight into a workplace, what more could you ask.

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    1. Thank you. I don't think I would have been very good having to remember the hits and misses. It's a true story. I later left accountancy but the other guy passed all the exams and qualified.

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  5. I worked for one day at the Pensions Office at Longbenton. Having taken three months to get into the Civil Service I lasted one day. I was put on a desk checking through Widows Pension applications. I spoke to the person next to me and said it was my intention to move to another department as I had specifically said I did not want to work at Longbenton and he replied that they all said that on arrival and he pointed to people round the table saying how long each of them had been there. It ranged from 10 to 15 years and they were still waiting. I got the bus home, cried all the way and wrote out my letter of resignation. I had to sign papers to remove myself from the Official Secrets Act and was paid £3 for one day's work. We played Battleships and it was something of a cult thing in the early 1970s as I recall.

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    1. That was decisive. I bet people said it would have been better to try it for a time to see how things worked out.
      Battleships was before computer games - more fun, relaxing and sociable. Yet essentially it is no more interesting than the boring jobs we were supposed to be doing. We'd happily play battleships all day rather than process piles of documents.

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    2. No, nobody said a word. It was the right decision, I got another job the next day, as it was possible to do in the 1970s, and I never had any regrets. I just put it down to experience and part of the rich tapestry of life.

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    3. I would have had to put up with several people going on that "you didn't really give it a fair chance did you", but yes it was easy to change jobs then. Employers could make up their minds immediately without having all the human resources stuff to go through (although often "certain sections need not apply").

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    4. The biggest disappointment was to me and I kept it to myself but I had been having reservations during the long wait from receiving the appointment letter to the start date when I started thinking had I done the right thing in wanting to join the Civil Service. The conversation with the guy who was training me was enough to tip the balance. That conversation changed everything, or confirmed everything. I often wondered what he thought because the conversation was memorable and I think he knew it had affected me and he probably shouldn't have said what he said.

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  6. My first job was in an old established jewellers in a quiet country town. I had to sit in a little alcove next to a tasteful arrangement of costume jewellery and smile at the occasional passing client. It wasn't as exciting as it sounds.

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    1. Was that all? I think I'd rather tick ledger cards.

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  7. I can taste the boredom. So that's how you play Battleships.

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    1. You should try it. It's better than candy crush.

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    2. I never got any further than Hangman.

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  8. Hawkwind was the name of a progressive rock band. I believe their most successful and most familiar number was "I've Got A Silver Machine". Now I am imagining your Mr Hawkwind on stage singing it, with his eyes closed and groupies waiting at his changing room door to play his own, salacious version of "Battleships".

    How terribly sad that the loyal, time-served clerk was dumped so unceremoniously.

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    1. I went to see them at Leeds Town Hall and was deaf for a week afterwards. If only he'd really been called Mr Hawkwind.
      As an accountant you saw the ruthlessness of the business world. I remember another firm that appointed a new junior payroll clerk who was being trained by and paid more than the senior payroll clerk. You couldn't say or do anything.

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  9. Positively Dickensian! Both the work and your eloquent description of it!

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    1. Dickensian writing? I don't think there was all that much change to book keeping and accountancy work between 1870 and 1970 except for the quill pens. We had one guy who had been with the firm since leaving school, who could identify his own handwriting in ledgers in the 1920s. Not like the massive changes brought by computerisation and modern management methods since.

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  10. I started off in accountancy. I lasted about 10 weeks. I can relate to everything you said. I actually enjoyed reading it.

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    1. I stuck it out for over four years and even passed some of the exams, and might have enjoyed the career had I not had other issues at the time. It certainly shows you how the world works but I'm glad I left. So many things would have been different.

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  11. You have an enjoyable way with words. I could picture you working in the setting as you described it. I remember Battleship well. It was a creative change you made to the game that made it fit right in with your job.

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    1. Thank you. At that client we worked in a little office off the side of the main one so could get away with all kinds of things. As regards battleships, it's tempting to play it with politicians: "you've just sunk Trump".

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  12. And I used to run a department that came up against you auditors. And at the very same time, too. I took them from hand written ledgers to IBM. Those were some interesting times. The company dwindled away, too. Bought up by a bigger fish actually. And so it went.

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    1. We kept those handwritten ledgers neat and tidy with no crossings out and always added up correctly. A matter of pride.

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  13. Ah, Battleships! That was a fun game to play. Your sort of 'adult version' sounds rather interesting as well. :)

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    1. Adult version? Is that when you play with army ranks such as generals, colonels and lieutenants and use expressions such as 'You've just shot me in the privates'?

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