DIARY 5 August 1967 Mysteries of the apothecary

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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.


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DIARY 27 Jul 1967 On the brink

1966 Derek Perry retouch

The way I looked when I was a schoolboy. Note the school tie, tied with the narrow end showing, with a Windsor knot, wide end tucked in the shirt. For some reason, I am not wearing my fashionable black square-rimmed glasses. My hair was fair and curly, a bit of a disappointment because I could not style it as a ‘Beatle-cut’.

27 July 1967 On the brink

Today is my girlfriend’s birthday. She has just turned 17 and goes to school in Bournville. I am 18 and have just finished school in Kings Heath.[1] I am waiting for my ‘A’ level results to see if I will be going to university in London in October.

I met my girlfriend the previous year at a youth club. I had walked other girls home from the same club but, as relationships go, they often didn’t last longer than that walk home. Some only allowed me to take them home for safety’s sake, including one girl who I considered to be very pretty with the latest bobbed hair style. The next night, my best friend walked her home; she must have like him a lot more than me because they are still married to each other.

This girlfriend was different to the other girls I had met. She was intelligent and knowledgeable. She read a lot and went to see arty films and knew about obscure musicians. She taught me how to pronounce ‘Dvořák’. I was also considered to be highly intelligent; that is a fact and not a boast.[2] But I was very ignorant of culture, politics, geography, history, literature. You don’t get these things at a boy’s school; we had sport and science.

My girlfriend opened the door to culture. We went to see foreign films, visited art galleries, listened to folk and jazz records, and went dancing. I can’t remember what we might have done to celebrate her birthday but it could well have been a Swedish film, perhaps by Ingmar Bergman. I recall seeing Smiles of a Summer Night with her.  In Birmingham, in those days, the only place to see foreign films was the Cinephone cinema on Bristol Street. This was not an art house movie theatre by any means; its staple fare was soft porn, usually Scandinavian. Bergman was probably shown simply because it was Swedish.

Until then, my life had been unremarkable. Within the petty hierarchies of family, school and church I had achieved some recognition; eldest son, head boy at primary school and class leader at Sunday school.  My place was assured and comfortable. Physical horizons were limited and stretched not much further than school and church (later replaced by the youth club). Intellectual horizons were equally narrow and my personal mental map was a landscape lacking in imagination.

I did not really know why I wanted to go to university, especially one in London.[3] I was clever and going to university seemed to be what clever people did. I could see Birmingham University’s tower from Raddlebarn Road, so I could at least imagine what university looked like if only at a distance. I thought it was just a bigger school with lots of people who studied a lot. My mental image of a student was someone with glasses wearing a tweed jacket, tie and a college scarf round his neck. I had chosen a subject (pharmacy) that was only available in a few places, including Nottingham and London. My future was decided when I was offered a place at Chelsea College of Science and Science and Technology, newly recognised as a college of the University of London.

There I was, somewhat naïve, waiting to go to Chelsea which was in the throes of being ‘swinging’ London. This boy, whose mind was already being stirred by new ideas and experiences, was beginning his personal voyage of discovery. It would prove to be eventful…

 

[1] King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, Vicarage Road, Kings Heath.

[2] Some years later, in my late thirties, I went for some psychological tests to assess my mental health. They established (I forget the precise mathematical formulation) that if you took a group of 1000 people with a similar background to mine, I would be in the top five according to my ability to solve certain intelligence tests. Their conclusion was that I was probably bored because I was too intelligent. Perhaps like Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin is the spaceship’s robot, afflicted with severe depression and boredom, because he has a ‘brain the size of a planet’. I am not sure that I trust a diagnosis of mental illness based on a humorous fictional fantasy.

[3] Coming soon: Going to university in the 1960s (see Encyclopedia).

DIARY FIRST ENTRY 1 July 1967

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Fifty years ago I was 18 years old. I had just left school and expecting to go to university. I was on the threshold of becoming an adult, which was exciting and bewildering enough for this working class youth from Birmingham. But little did I know that Britain was in the process of unprecedented social and cultural change which would sweep me along with it.

This summer, 2017, there are many anniversaries being celebrated. It is fifty years since the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fifty years since homosexuality was de-criminalised, Half a century since new laws were introduced promoting equal pay and making racial discrimination unlawful. At about this time, censorship was relaxed, abortion made legal and the contraceptive pill became easily available.

In 1967 we saw massive demonstrations against the war being waged in Vietnam by the USA. In a few months time, in May 1968 there would be a near revolution in Paris with other uprisings across the world including Czechoslovakia. The British Empire continued the decline it had suffered since the 1940s.

This blog will be my real time diary from fifty years ago. I will attempt to re-imagine what I was doing, thinking, feeling, reading, watching, experiencing at that time. I did not keep a diary at the time so I cannot be certain about dates or names in some cases. It will be how I remember it, with some hindsight, but I will try not to make things up. This is a true story. I will only use real names with permission.

This blog will be updated at least once a month. I aim to continue adding entries for about five years, covering the period up to summer 1972. If my memory holds, I may continue it further.