Someone recently asked me what the best job I ever had was. I found it quite hard to answer. For a start, define “job”; would I include all paid employment, self employment and voluntary work? I decided to exclude voluntary work for the time being, but then I had to work out what I meant by “best”.
I decided that it meant the most enjoyable, rather than the best paid, or the easiest. The answer still did not jump out immediately; I have done a lot of jobs in my time. Running through the chronological list, they all seemed to have their pros and cons. So I took another angle, and rephrased the question – what job do I most regret not doing for longer?
Here’s the list: shop assistant (Woolworths, Boots), factory progress chaser, lathe operator, office worker, library assistant, school teacher, television producer, trainer, manager, university lecturer, writer. Of course the time I spent doing these jobs varied, from a few weeks to several years, but each experience was memorable in its own way.
I loved working in Boots the Chemist in Wembley High Road on Saturdays at the age of 16, because I got to meet people, count out pills and be surrounded by young women. Progress chasing in a GEC factory making X-Ray machines was a revelation because I found out how complex manufacturing operations worked, how unmotivated factory workers could be at the time and how to miss deadlines. Working in a machine shop was repetitive but flirting in the canteen was great. Directing and producing TV programmes was not always what it’s cracked up to be, but at least I sometimes got on-air credits, which pleased my mum no end.
And so on – pros and cons. The more I thought about all these jobs, the harder it became to choose, but I kept at it.
Then, rather to my surprise, one job did eventually emerge as the one I most regretted not having stuck with. No, not the TV producer or university lecturer, but the library assistant. This was the first permanent job I was ever offered, having graduated in 1966 with a rather mediocre degree in French and Philosophy (not much of a job ticket). Technically I was, I suppose, overqualified, shelf stacking and book-stamping in Wealdstone public library, but I just loved it from the very first moment I reported for duty.
The salary was rubbish of course, but getting a regular paycheck was a delicious novelty in itself. I took simple pleasure in getting to know the Dewey Decimal classification system, there were quite a few laughs to be had and I never had to get wet or cold. I also got to be in charge of a mobile library van, plugged into a suburban lamp-post. Another surprise, I found I loved dealing with the public.
I can’t remember what I said at interview (or even if I had one,) but I know I had no intention of climbing a career ladder in librarianship. Is it just nostalgia that I now think of this temporary job with such affection? Was it really better than working for the BBC or a bunch of universities in later years?
Perhaps one reason I liked this job so much at the time was that our local library in Wembley Park had been a haven for me and my sister when we were at school. Looking back I’m sure I learned more about life browsing the public library bookshelves than I ever did at grammar school, at least before the sixth form.
The key word here is browsing. Much later, when I became interested in education and theories of learning, I became convinced that learning thrives best when the learner is motivated to learn rather than be taught, and that browsing is a natural impulse of a keen learner. Throughout our history, libraries, whether real or virtual, have always been important places of learning, because they enable us to learn by browsing. Whether public libraries will eventually be replaced by the internet is debatable, but I hope they can co-exist.
But my love of libraries and belief in their social and personal value does not really account for my choice of best job. Thinking it through, I realise now that what I was really comparing was not so much jobs, as bosses.
The library job stands out now because of my memory of a truly wonderful librarian, Miss Bugler, a canny woman on a personal lifetime mission to encourage and promote reading to all comers in the London Borough of Harrow. Her down-to-earth, day-by-day dedication to literature was for me such a welcome change from the ivory tower irrelevancies trotted out by my university tutors. (My fault – I chose the wrong subjects.)
Miss Bugler was a good boss because she really cared about her staff and took a personal interest in us. Although I worked in the library only for a few months, Miss Bugler has stayed in my head probably more than any subsequent boss. She practiced streetwise public service, led by example and inspired trust.
A case in point was her approach to the daily problem of local “dossers” – harmless and sometimes unwashed characters using the library as a convenient place to sleep, keep warm and use the toilets. Rather than throw them out, she got to know them and negotiated a deal with them. They could stay in the library so long as they read a book of her choosing and agreed to discuss it when they had finished it. The books she chose were intentionally challenging, but it seemed to work. I recall one old boy slamming down a copy of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” on the counter and demanding more books by this Russian bloke. I had not heard of Solzhenitsyn at that time, so I immediately borrowed book myself and duly got hooked.
Accepting that what I have valued most in my working life has been a good boss, I naturally went on to ask myself what other bosses came up to the mark. I selected only three, out of about twenty.
In chronological order, they were George Ball, John Reid and John Frost. Each of them took a personal interest in me and allowed me to make my own mistakes without rancour. In each case the relationship was one of mutual respect and trust. I felt loyal toward them, so I tried my best to succeed and felt bad when I failed. I can’t help comparing them with some of the other bosses (and bossy also-rans) down the years who were more interested in their own careers, micro-managing, interfering or just being self-centred control-freaks.
George Ball was the headmaster at Dargaville High School in New Zealand, who selected me to teach French and English there. He was himself a French graduate of many years’ standing, so he felt we had something on common from the start. This was in 1968, and my wife and I had emigrated only months before. He was a kind man, who preferred reason to blind authority, persuasion to the cane. He never interfered with my work, even though I did struggle at times. He let me learn by my own small failures and successes. Unfortunately he was disliked for these very virtues by many staff and parents who thought he was too soft, and he retired a year or so later, to be replaced by a racist cane-wielding charlatan, so that was that.
John Reid was a genial boss, a former radio producer who regarded his staff as a family. He headed up an obscure department of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, whose basic function was to repackage radio and television programmes for overseas sale. The department was based in Wellington, and my appointment in 1971 had involved moving my wife and very young daughter from sub tropical Auckland to the windy city. John simply took us under his wing – more like an uncle than a boss. In fact all my colleagues there were kind to us, probably because they too thrived under this most kind of men.
When I first met John Frost, he was a TV producer at BBC South, where I had been appointed in 1976 as an assistant producer, aka TV director. For a time I was hardly aware of him, until I extricated myself from the febrile and mostly pointless daily labours of the regional newsroom in Southampton, to work more and more on features. He was duly promoted to head producer, and became my de facto line manager. It was a bit different this time, as John and I often disagreed about the job, but in retrospect I realise now that he allowed me to take creative risks and took a personal interest in me. Oddly, this rather edgy relationship matured after his retirement and my own exit from the BBC, when I worked for him as a freelancer in Newcastle.
Miss Bugler, George Ball, John Reid and John Frost, you were great bosses, and I sincerely regret that I never had the wit to thank you when you were alive.
When I was looking for pictures for this post I came across a couple of quotes which chime with my view of what makes a good boss:
HSM Burns turns out to be a former president of the Shell Oil company, famous for pithy quotes. (I guess we’ll have to forgive him for equating “manager” with “man”, as this was written in the fifties.)