DIARY 2 November 1967 Swinging down King’s Road Chelsea

If you are new to London, don’t bother with an expensive sightseeing tour bus unless you like an open top in the rain and commentary in 12 languages. Just take the number 11 bus. I would get on it near Manresa Road on King’s Road and it would take me eastwards towards Victoria and thence to the City. It would pass Sloane Square, Victoria, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Fleet Street and the Bank. Get off anywhere and within a short walk you will find most of London’s worthwhile sights.

Although I would arrive at South Kensington station in the morning and walk to college, the most useful bus was the number 11. It would take me to cinemas, clubs, demonstrations, galleries; or I could simply stay on until the terminus at Liverpool Street and take in the sights.

That is, if I wanted to escape from King’s Road. In 1967 it was the epitome of swinging London with new boutiques pioneered by Mary Quant and others, bars and clubs frequented by pop stars, lurid colour schemes applied to both buildings and vehicles, and bright young things in their mini-skirts and paisley shirts.

Collage Kings Road

Of course, I quite liked it. The vibrancy, the music that blared from shops, cars treated as art objects with two fingers in the face of stuffy 1950s London. Here I was in a place that seemed unique and promised to be the centre of a new expanding universe providing what some of us young people wanted.

It might have looked wildly chaotic to the staid observer but it was really not much more than a fashion statement, however revolutionary the mini-skirt and psychedelic colours appeared. The celebrities were pop stars or the entrepreneurs themselves such as Mary Quant and Alvaro Maccioni the restaurant owner.

There were some attempts to show that this was a dangerous place; but King’s Road was no Haight-Ashbury with its free love and drug-taking. I recall a popular sensationalist magazine called Titbits which asked the question ‘Are our girls in danger in swinging Chelsea?’. This headline was above a picture of a group of young women walking down King’s Road arm-in-arm. They need not have worried. These women were all known to me as fellow students and with their knee-length tweed skirts and sensible shoes they were completely incorruptible. King’s Road, with its new shops and restaurants patronised by some of the better-off was something of a breath of fresh air in a London still showing the scars of the Blitz, dirty buildings and grey streets. I had to go to Soho or Covent Garden (still a vegetable market) or the East End to find the darker places where there might be danger.

Collage My places

Not that I could actually go to many places in King’s Road. As a penniless student I could not afford the entry fee or the price of drinks and I knew no-one who could introduce me. Fortunately, there was a new concrete shopping centre called King’s Walk with a Boots and a supermarket where I could buy my essentials. The places I could afford were the Picasso Café where I ate my first proper spaghetti and the Six Bells which served ghastly Watney’s keg beer; I was forced to drink bottled brown ale. I chose this pub because Dylan Thomas had been a regular and they had jazz upstairs on Fridays; this was old bohemian Chelsea. I could buy a meal at The Chelsea Kitchen or The Stockpot. It was free to go into Gandalf’s Garden where you could lounge on large cushions and drink herbal tea. Late at night you could have tea and a sausage sandwich at a stall in Sloane Square; this is where I witnessed the cliched conjunction of a man in evening dress, a drunk, and a ragged homeless man all together at 2am one morning.

In the evening, I would meander back through the streets of South Kensington and take the Piccadilly Line back to Turnham Green and unremarkable Acton.

 

© Derek Perry 2017

DIARY 12 October 1967 First days at university

manresa001_1316065607

The impressive frontage of Chelsea College along Manresa Road[1], London SW3.

An open book

I joined the other freshers for our introductory talk in the wood-panelled lecture theatre which dated back to the 1890s. The lecturer must have been in his thirties and, due to his low status in the academic hierarchy, he was given the job of introducing the college to us oiks. We would not be introduced to the senior lecturers for some time.

This lecturer was dressed in the academics’ relaxed garb of tweed jacket, knitted tie and slacks. No academic gown but the college had only just become a university[2]. He was as bemused as we were; he commented on the fact that two or three of us men were wearing pink shirts which should not have been surprising since we were just one hundred feet from the boutique-laden King’s Road, Chelsea.

No register, no class timetable, no uniform, no compulsory sports, time off to read. We could even smoke in lectures although no-one did. It wasn’t much like school after all. I reckoned I could deal with this. I had a good education, passed my exams to get there, there was enough money to get by, and I had somewhere to live.

I tried to make friends but it was not long before I discovered how different I was from my fellow students. They, mainly men but a few women, appeared to have all grown up in the suburbs of London or Surrey. The first person I tried to strike up a conversation with had grown up in Surbiton which already had a reputation as the archetypal suburbia with social pretensions[3]. Several were the children of pharmacists or doctors; I decided to keep quiet about my origins.

They all had middle class accents; no sign of Cockney, not even the odd ‘gie us a butchers’. I was looking forward to meeting my first real Londoners but it would not be at Chelsea College. There weren’t many regional accents either. My Birmingham lilt confused some who asked if I came from Liverpool and did I know the Beatles? I admit to trying to change my accent, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was fed up with explaining that that I was not Liverpudlian. I did notice a distinct drop in interest when I revealed from whence I hailed so I just said I was from Acton.

I didn’t make any friends at college. They all went back to Surbiton or Wimbledon at the end of the day whereas I was on a voyage of discovery. No-one was interested in poking around the pubs of Soho, or the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, or slumming it in Covent Garden (still, at that time, a fruit and veg market, not the tourist trap it is today). I wanted to explore not just places and events but culture and ideas.

Chelsea_College_Library_at_Manresa_Road,_1970s_  manresa-road-ref-copy

The public library, Manresa Road, outside and inside, where I discovered much.

I had not read much as a teenager; science exams and spending evenings at a youth club left little time for inspirational or enjoyable reading. At school the fiction I read off-curriculum was a couple of Hardy’s Wessex novels, a bit of Tolkien and I quite liked Dylan Thomas. Whilst growing up, however, we had a small library at home; an alcove bookshelf next to the fireplace and behind the television. These had been bought by Dad either in bulk round about the time I was born or through a book club. Most were published by a company called Odhams whose books you rarely saw in shops.

My father will never know how grateful I was for this library. There were encyclopedias, history books, photograph albums, novels, popular science texts, how to make and do things. I must have read them all, several times. Then I would go to the public library in Bournville to find more books. When I had read everything of interest in the children’s section, by the age of ten or eleven, I was in the adult section absorbing anything that appealed at the time including Scottish history, steam engines, electronics, radio comedy scripts, Punch magazine, philately. Not much imaginative writing however; no novels, just a little poetry.

Diary 671002 First day at university

I devoured these brilliant books. And more, including Turgenev, Camus, Kafka, Anouilh etc.

In Chelsea, the public library and the college next door were symbiotic; I could borrow books using my college library card. It became my haven where I discovered French and Russian novels; German, British and American poetry, existentialist literature, absurd theatre, modern English and American writers and so much more.

I was on the road to ruin; I would never be the same again. In the evening I would go back to Acton, to Mrs Haggar, Jeffrey and Rusty. With no television or even a radio I would carry on reading.

[1] The building was sold off to property developers and by 2015 Manresa Road was considered to be the third most expensive street in England with average property prices approaching £7.5 million. As I write, a seven-bedroom flat is for sale at £25.5 million. Just a few years ago it was the home for students, artists, writers. Now it is an expensive sterile desert. I also think this is a photoshopped picture – the building was never this long!

[2] The college was built in 1895 as a high level academic institution devoted to science and technology, as opposed to the humanitarian objectives of established universities. Other advanced institutes were established as ‘polytechnics’ at the time, taking their inspiration from the Ecole Polytechnic set up by Napoleon in Paris. The college awarded degrees endorsed by the University of London until it was given university status in 1966.

[3] A popular British sitcom of the 1970s, The Good Life, was set in Surbiton. It contrasted the lives of neighbours, one couple attempting to be self-sufficient by turning their suburban home into a small holding and their upwardly mobile, snobbish neighbours.

DIARY 2 October 1967 Going to London

 

Manresa Road   

Destination: Chelsea College of Science and Technology, Manresa Road, London SW3.

Going to London

Monday 2 October 1967 was an ordinary day in Birmingham. There were rain showers, interspersed with occasional clear skies, about usual for the season. But for me it was far from ordinary. I was leaving home to go to university in London. It meant saying goodbye to everyone I knew to go to a place where I knew no-one. I was not daunted; my anticipation was high.

I put my few clothes and other personal items into an ex-Navy duffel bag; my wardrobe was still suffering from an excess of school uniform and regulation grey trousers and white shirts which I gladly jettisoned. I said ‘goodbye’ to Mom in the living room. We were not an expressive family but I kissed her on the cheek and felt as if I was abandoning her.

My brother and sister were at school or work; Dad was in hospital. I had already said goodbye to my girlfriend, promising to come back for weekends. I slung my bag over my shoulder and left through the front door. No-one was there to wave goodbye and I didn’t look back. I walked down the road and caught the bus to town.

Getting off the bus, I walked round New Street railway station to Digbeth coach station where I paid just over a pound for my one-way ticket on the Midland Red motorway express. I had twelve pounds in my pocket, saved up from my summer job at Boots, about a week’s wages for some. I had refused financial help from my family. I had opened my first proper bank account at Barclays and I had a grant cheque for £128. It was more cash than I had ever owned at one time although it included my rent and had to last until Christmas.

CM6T

Considering my current business venture (as a manufacturer of model buses), I could not miss this opportunity to include a picture of a bus. This is the Midland Red Birmingham to London motorway express 1967.

Although the motorway began and ended short of both cities, I reached Victoria in less than three hours. Compared to the decrepit steam railway, these coaches reached up to 80 miles an hour on the new motorway and seemed to be the future. I relaxed, temporarily, in its fast-moving luxury. Then, suddenly, I was pitched into the apparent chaos of London, all alone, heaving a duffel bag that seemed to be getting heavier.

New students were normally expected to live in a hall of residence but Chelsea College of Science and Technology had only just received university status and did not have enough rooms for all its freshers. I was placed in ‘digs’ in Acton. Although I had been on the tube (once) before it was perplexing to find my way to Turnham Green. Once there, I began to use my new A to Z to find my way to Hatfield Road, London W3.

Hatfield Road

Our room was the upstairs front bedroom.

I was introduced to Jeffrey, a third-year student of pharmacology with whom I would be sharing a room. We had little in common except our field of study. He came from Mountain Ash in south Wales and, I believe, returned there after his studies. I was surprised about how two years in London had changed him not at all.

Our landlady, Mrs Haggar, lived downstairs. She was becoming elderly and was not overtly friendly; she would spend her days in a small living room with her dog, a Labrador cross called Rusty. He, on the other hand, was wildly enthusiastic; we were two young men away from home and far from those who might show us affection. We were grateful for Rusty’s attention and I would take him for walks in the local park where we both enjoyed a feeling of freedom.    

Mrs Haggar provided us with breakfast every morning but we hardly ever saw her. She cooked eggs early in the morning and left them for us. By the time we partook of this feast they would have congealed into something unrecognisable as food. Rusty would snap them up but I worried for his health. Feeding them to the dog might have been a mistake because it looked as if we had actually enjoyed them and so they kept coming nearly every morning.

The next day Jeffrey helped me to find my way to the college. Back to Turnham Green station, we took the Piccadilly Line and got off at South Kensington. Finding our way through one of those typical London squares I noted that the houses were very palatial but still in a terraced row like Dawlish Road back home (but completely unlike in all other respects).

After a couple of confusing turns, we were in Manresa Road. To the left was Chelsea College of Art and to the right Chelsea College of Science and Technology. They might have appeared to be a matching pair but I later learned that there was virtually no contact, academically, socially or culturally between the two colleges.

College Manresa Road Door

Chelsea College entrance, Manresa Road.

I presented myself at the college door with the other new students, adjusted my red chiffon scarf, buttoned up my maroon cord jacket and registered.

 

Copyright © Derek Perry according to current law. Not to be reproduced in any medium without permission. Applicable to all pages published here.

 

 

DIARY 25 September 1967 Birthday boy

19 years old today

1967 Derek Perry CROP

Probably my ‘official’ photo from 1967 for my passport and ID cards. Possibly the only time I wore a suit and tie that year. Hair still struggling to grow out of my school cut but the sideburns are doing rather well. I hoped the spectacles would make me look intellectual but John Lennon style wire spectacles were much desired.

Nineteen today. Celebrations were overshadowed by the fact of me leaving home soon and my Father becoming seriously ill.

My girlfriend gave me a silver Saint Christopher medallion; a nice one, set in a silver ring and personally engraved ‘with love’. A gift for a traveller which I treasured for a long time. I can’t remember how we celebrated; we were not part of any group we could go to a party with, but we did occasionally go dancing. I would be leaving for London within a week.

The Station Inn opposite Selly Oak station used a large room for ‘socials’ which meant having someone play records to dance to and the occasional live band. I definitely recall seeing Jimmy Cliff. There was also a band called ‘Way of Life’ who appeared at the Station Inn earlier in the year with a great drummer called John Bonham[1]; by the end of 1967 he had joined up with a guitarist called Robert Plant to form ‘Band of Joy’.

The Station Inn had ultra-violet lighting which would make white knickers glow in the dark unless you wore a dark skirt. This lighting had other strange effects. At that time, there was an attempt to market dry shampoo which meant combing a white powder through your hair. This was impossible to remove completely and young women would appear with an ethereal halo due to the ultra-violet. 

Station Inn 1996

The Station Inn a few years later; behind the five windows was the music room. For a short time, this was on the Birmingham’s music club circuit. Now renamed ‘The Bristol Pear’ but I am not sure why.

My Father had been ill for several years with heart disease. About four years earlier he had suffered a heart attack which left him weakened and short of breath. He had to give up his job as a milkman; heaving full crates of milk had become impossible. However, Cadbury’s gave him a sitting down job measuring the size of chocolate particles using a microscope which required much less effort.

Nevertheless, he spent the next few years short of breath, occasionally in pain and on constant medication with warfarin[2]. There were several scares when he would be taken to hospital by ambulance. Nowadays, with the availability of better medication and surgery, Dad would have been restored to better health. For us teenage brothers and sisters, we had to avoid upsetting him in case of triggering a heart attack; this was difficult, at a time when we would be naturally rebelling, to have to tread so carefully.

Just before my birthday we had to call the ambulance again. Dad survived and was allowed home a few days later; at the age of 55 it looked as if he might be housebound for the rest of his life. It was not a particularly happy birthday.

[1] Do I have to tell you he was one of the greatest drummers in the world in one of the greatest bands in the world, Led Zeppelin? On this day, 25 September 1980 John Bonham died after consuming 40 shots of vodka.

[2] We only knew this as rat poison and thought it odd that something used to kill rats was keeping our Dad alive.

DIARY 18 September 1967 Whither university

Whither university for this boy?

BRISTOL RD, SELLY OAK 22-8-52  Dawlish Road 1964 JPG

Left: Birmingham University tower and the Great Hall. The clock tower is 99 metres tall and is the largest freestanding clock tower in the world. It dominated the skyline over Bristol Road, the main street through Selly Oak. Dawlish Road joins it to the right, opposite the white building. Right. Dawlish Road in the 1960s. Fifty years later many of these houses are let to students.

 

No-one in my family had ever been to any university. My father grew up in Dawlish Road, Selly Oak with the tower of Birmingham University looming over the terraced streets barely a mile away.  Despite its proximity it was a world away; I did not venture into the grounds until I was sixteen.  

I knew no-one who had ever been to a university among my extended family, friends or neighbours.  My parents had left school at fourteen with no prospect of further education. In the 1960s, you only had to stay in school until you were fifteen. With plenty of jobs and a pointless education, most young people were glad to leave. Your future was decided at age 11 when everyone took a school examination called the ‘Eleven-plus’. Those who passed would be offered a place in a grammar school or similar. The rest, including everyone at Raddlebarn School except me, went to a secondary modern school.

In a secondary modern school the pupils were not expected to take ‘O’ levels[1]; boys and girls were kept busy learning useful basic skills while they waited to be fifteen and left for a job in a factory or a shop. I passed the eleven-plus and took another exam to get into King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys[2]. This was an offshoot of King Edward VI School in Edgbaston, founded by the eponymous Edward in 1552. The Camp Hill school dated from 1883 and had moved into fine new buildings with extensive grounds and sports facilities at Kings Heath in 1956.

We were advised by a family friend who was a headmistress that this was a very good school and I deserved to go because I was so clever. She tutored me through the 11-plus. There was some reluctance from my parents because of the cost. My place was free but the school uniform would cost a fortune. Apart from the jacket and tie, they required a rugby shirt in school colours and even gym shorts in a specific shade of maroon only available from one shop. My Dad explained the problem but, as always, said that such choices were mine. If I thought it was a good idea then he would help as much as possible. Although I had only just turned twelve I got a job as a butcher’s boy to help pay for it.

While my old school friends went off to be factory fodder, I was to read Shakespeare, learn Latin and French, study nature and even a bit of philosophy. No use whatsoever at Cadbury’s or ‘the Austin’. No-one, including myself, understood what I was meant to do with all this apparently useless knowledge; I thought it was a reward for being clever. It seems that the middle and upper classes did not have enough intelligent people to manage their affairs so they selected a few of us brighter working class children to be trained up as managers and administrators.

Going to Camp Hill school was not an end in itself. After leaving school, you would be expected to go on and qualify as something else or go into your father’s business. For me, I had no idea what a useful qualification might look like; and there was no family business to aspire to.[3] When I passed my ‘A’ levels I had no idea what I would do. Going to university allowed me to put off the decision of how to obtain an income. I assumed I would go to Birmingham University so that I could live cheaply at home. In those days, there were no fees and I would get a grant[4].

My family was somewhat perplexed by my decision. I do not remember being congratulated on getting a university place because to them my future was now completely uncertain. It was put to me that with my ‘A’ levels I could get a damn good job with Cadbury’s or ‘the Austin’. However, my mental landscape was widening and the prospect of being stuck in a factory disconcerted me.

In any case, I was clearly a bright boy and deserved better. I had already excelled at church, at Boy Scouts, at the local youth club, as a paper boy. I was ahead of everyone at primary school.  At King Edwards VI Camp Hill School I was up against boys who had also excelled by passing the 11-plus. Winning first place became less frequent but I still won prizes and plaudits for biology and nature studies. Despite my lack of interest in sport, I was even selected to play rugby for the school (2nd XV) and cross-country team[5]. I was quite popular amongst my classmates.

It seemed natural that I would continue to aspire. I had achieved everything that could be achieved by a boy from Raddlebarn. Unfortunately, I had no idea what else I could do or how I would be received. Before I left school I found out that it would not be so easy. I was good at zoology and had a genuine interest in nature. Becoming a doctor (GP) seemed a good idea, and I had heard that Cambridge had a well-respected medical school. I was informed by the school careers master that this was out of my league; what he meant was that working class boys did not become doctors.

At the time I accepted this situation and opted to study pharmacy.  Becoming a chemist with a shop seemed more feasible; I could not imagine becoming like the only doctor I knew, our middle-aged grey-suited GP, Dr Donovan.

So off I went, to London, because that was where I had been offered a place to study pharmacy. I had been warned that university was not like school but I decided I could handle the different teaching methods. What I was not prepared for were the social differences.

[1] Education authorities later invented the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) for these schools which was a sort of second grade ‘O’ level; you could get a GCSE in typing or technical drawing.

[2] King Edward VI Camp Hill School would never call itself a ‘grammar school’. There was a grammar school nearby in Kings Norton which dated back as far as King Edward VI High School and even had the original half-timbered building to prove it. However, it was always considered somewhat inferior despite being a perfectly good school.

[3] In my family, working life would always mean having a job working for someone else. The idea that any of us might run our own business or employ our own workers was beyond our comprehension. When I was eleven years old, a regular school exercise was a spelling test in which I invariably scored 100%. Except once when a girl named Gloria came top because I could not spell the word ‘business’. The concept was so alien that I could not even spell the word correctly.

[4] The grant was £385 per year for living expenses during term time only; during vacations I would have to get a job (the Post Office at Christmas was useful for this). This gave me over £10 a week during term time, not much less than the wage an eighteen-year old might expect starting work in 1967.

[5] The main result of all this physical activity was that I developed muscular thighs which ruined the fit of slim jeans and slacks.

DIARY 1 September 1967 My lonely summer

lulworth-cove-and-durdle

Durdle Door, near Lulworth Cove. I came here for three years running 1965 to 1967 with friends, staying in a caravan site on top of the cliffs.

I spent a miserable week alone in a decrepit caravan at Lulworth Cove in September 1967. I should have been joined by my friend Rayner Bourton[1] but he wanted to be an actor and had been diverted by an opportunity. It took him three days to let me know but he had a good excuse, whatever it was. His absence did not increase my misery.

I spent my time wandering along the beaches and reading. I joined another boy of my age who was taking a boat from beach to beach along the coast selling ice cream. I went along for the ride and he seemed happy with my company. Otherwise, I was on my own.

My girlfriend was on a P&O cruise to the Canary Islands with her mother. Her father had died the previous year and this trip was meant to be either a consolation or a celebration. I had hitched a lift in her mother’s car to the south coast. I would see her off at Southampton, go to Lulworth and greet her as she returned. The ship’s departure was delayed for 24 hours so I was sneaked on board for the night and we watched The Manchurian Candidate in the ship’s cinema.

Next morning, I said ‘bon voyage’ to my girlfriend and she sailed off. Instead of a quick hug and a wave goodbye this enormous ship slowly heaved itself away from the dockside and down the Solent to the sound of a band playing, with flags flying and hooters hooting. Perhaps it was the theatrical nature of this departure but I felt as if I was saying goodbye to something for ever.

I had already thought a lot about going to London and leaving my girlfriend behind. Perhaps I should have been sensible and accepted that a long-distance relationship would not work. But, I was inexperienced in such things, and I was in love. I could still spend my weekends in Birmingham.  Was the feeling I had as the ship disappeared a premonition?

I got through my lonely week in the caravan somehow. I scratched her name in ten-foot high letters on the beach and watched the tide wash it away. I wrote love letters I never posted. I spent the last of my money on a bunch of red roses to be delivered to her when the ship docked. This extravagant gesture was not simply to welcome her back; it was meant somehow to obliterate the gap that was now between us.

I went back to Southampton to greet her as the ship arrived. I felt immediately that something had changed. Her greeting seemed perfunctory; I had expected something more affectionate. My roses had been delivered but they were in an untidy bunch and some had bent stems. I was put in the back of the car and felt ignored with mother and daughter in the front seats. I felt even more superfluous when she suggested we pick up a couple of hitchhikers.

I was devastated; what had happened to her? Why was she rejecting me? There were hints of a relationship with the ship’s photographer but how far had it gone? She had changed somehow in ways that I could not understand. I began to realise that my future with her may be uncertain. She would be seeking out new things just as I was would be doing in London.

Back in Birmingham I had a few days to sort out my luggage. It would be many years before I could deal with the emotional baggage from that summer.

[1] Rayner Bourton lived in Selly Park with his aunt. We were teenage friends, making a threesome with Roy Harrison. Rayner became an actor and was the first Rocky Horror on stage in The Rocky Horror Show. Roy became an estate agent and married Sue, the girl I wanted to take home one night from the youth club.

DIARY 5 August 1967 Mysteries of the apothecary

774BristolRoadSouth Boots JPEG  harborne-high-street-c1955 JPEGharborne-prince-s-corner-c1965 JPEG

Harborne High Street, Birmingham. Top left. A typical Boots the Chemist shop in 1955 in Northfield. Top right. Harborne High Street in 1955. Boots was to the right, out of picture, if I recall. These are bit early for 1967 but I like the Jowett Javelin car and the Woolworth sign. Bottom. General view of Harborne High Street as it was in the late 1960s. Harborne was always a bit posher, being close to Edgbaston. Now it has a Waitrose where I think Boots was.

5 August 1967. Mysteries of the apothecary

I needed a holiday job before going to university to study pharmacy so becoming a dispensing assistant at Boots[1] the Chemist in Harborne[2] was a logical choice. Please note the job title; an ‘assistant’, not just a delivery boy or floor scrubber as I had been before. I got to wear a white coat.

This was more than protective clothing; it demonstrated your place in the jobs hierarchy. If you wore blue overalls, you got your hands dirty, and your overalls were usually dirty as well. The foreman, who told the people in blue overalls what to do, wore a brown coat. He did not usually get his hands dirty so his coat would have been clean. However, if you wore a white coat, you were never going to get your hands dirty. Your immaculate coat proved your superiority.

At school, I had been good at science, especially biology. I was fascinated by the complexity of cells; the structure of DNA[3] was a wonder. I procured a poster which detailed the various processes of the Krebs Cycle[4] like a magic spell that turned chemistry into life. This is what drew me to chemistry and biology. I did not think of myself as a swot (the word for nerd in those days). But I was delighted when I discovered a second-hand book for next to nothing which explained the structures and reactions of ketones and aldehydes[5].

I was still essentially a shop assistant. But at least I did not have to sweep or scrub. A chemist’s shop was not self-service, as most shops are today. I had to learn quickly not to be embarrassed when a woman would ask for tampons, or an older person would ask for suppositories. There was always a way out of a difficulty, for both myself and the customer, by suggesting we call the pharmacist. I was still floored when a man walked in one day and cheerily asked for a dozen Durex without any sign of embarrassment. It was my face that went red.

Fifty years ago, medicines were not supplied in bubble packs or in measured doses. They would arrive in bulk, up to 500 tablets in a drum, or half a gallon of liquid. My job was to decant tonic, syrup or linctus into smaller brown bottles and attach a personalised label. Plastic screw tops lids had just been introduced and some older people were suspicious because they did not have a cork. I had to count the tablets into even smaller bottles, or small white card boxes, add a piece of cotton wool to stop them rattling, and then the label.

We had a simple gadget for counting tablets. A triangular tray which arranged them in rows starting with one at the apex, two in the next row, then three etc. I simply counted the rows which immediately gave me the total number of tablets. I still remember that seven rows equal four weeks’ supply at one a day.

Dispensing pharmaceuticals meant only counting and measuring. Although the shop had a shelf or two of old jars with abbreviated Latin names on them, no-one made up ointments or mixed potions any more. Nevertheless, I am sure that a present-day pharmacist would be bemused by the meagre stock carried by a chemist in the 1960s. Nowadays, there is a vast range of different medications, with pre-packaged doses in similar cartons. Pharmacists today have mechanised revolving shelving to allow them to store and keep track of the ever-multiplying products of the pharmaceutical industry[6].

It was just for a few weeks but it gave me a few pounds to take to London with me. I could also say that I had experienced life as a pharmacist and had earned the right to wear a white coat. 

[1] Boots the Chemist is one of the long-established retail business which can now be seen in virtually every high street or shopping mall. John Boot established his herbalist shop in Nottingham in 1849 and since then it has grown into an international brand. In 1967, one of its main rivals on the high street was Timothy White’s & Taylor’s, chemists. In 1968, Boots took over their 662 branches.

[2] Harborne is a suburb near to Selly Oak on the western side of Birmingham. It was close to Birmingham University and Queen Elizabeth Hospital and so attracted academic and medical professionals. I would travel there by taking the Outer Circle route number 11. Despite being close to where I lived I had never, in my memory, been to Harborne before.

[3] The structure of DNA was elucidated in 1953 following work by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. The study of DNA and the processes of the cell cycle such as mitosis and meiosis were part of my ‘A’ level curriculum in the 1960s. I continue to be astonished by genetics, the genome, and the possibilities which were inconceivable fifty years ago.

[4] Sir Hans Krebs (1900 – 1981) was a pioneering biochemist who described how cells produce energy from the breakdown of glucose in a process called the citric acid cycle, often referred to as the Krebs Cycle.

[5] Ketones and aldehydes are organic compounds with similar structures. They can be highly reactive, such as formaldehyde which is used to produce bakelite. Acetone is a ketone which is solvent used for thinning paint. To know the difference at age 18 meant you were a nerd.

[6] Damien Hurst turned a pharmacy shelf into an artwork and even used it as the theme for a restaurant. Mr Boot would not have been amused.


Advertisement

Nostalgic about
Birmingham’s buses?

Scale models for
collectors from
Forward Models

Forward Models was set up in 2011 to
produce models of Birmingham’s
buses from the 1950s and 60s.
If you remember the tin front radiators
and entrances at the rear,
please take a look!
With authentic adverts from the time.

332 #4

                                          Several types and routes available from
www.my-collection.co.uk

FM logo black and white

Information from: www.forwardmodels.net