In Search of My Father 2017 Writing Project

In Search of My Father 2017 Writing Project
In Search of My Father, 2017 writing project supported by The National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Thursday, 2 June 2016

BHS - A LOT TO BE GRATEFUL FOR, A LOT TO REMEMBER

1973 – 1984
BRITISH HOME STORES (BHS) – TRAINEE MANAGER, DEPARTMENT MANAGER, PROJECT MANAGER, AUDIT MANAGER

I remember my delight at getting a letter inviting me to an interview with BHS Personnel in London. I was in Belfast and this felt exotic.

I remember flying into Heathrow Airport and staying at the White House Hotel in London. Expenses in the 1970s were not on the ‘sensitive’ agenda.

I remember only one line of questioning from the BHS interviewer: “What’s it like to grow up without a father present? Do you feel inadequate in any way?”  I think I remember saying something like: “I don’t know.  All I know is that my mother looks after us very well.”

I remember getting the letter offering me the job. I posted my “yes” within an hour.

I remember getting measured for suits at Jackson the Tailor in Royal Avenue, Belfast.

I remember my very first Chinese meal at The New Blue Sky, Royal Avenue. Curry and rice. (I know!)

I remember my first day (17 September, 1973) walking into British Home Stores, Castle Place, Belfast, feeling very nervous.

I remember being greeted by the Staff Manager and getting a brief tour of the shop. I was conscious of people watching me, weighing me up.
I remember the store manager, the deputy manager and the department managers were all English, on secondment from what they referred to as “the mainland”.

I remember standing on the stairs as the store manager introduced me to all the staff. I’m sure I was blushing but I remember being relieved that I didn’t have to make a speech.

I remember being given my 9-months training plan covering introductions to the shop floor and behind the scenes in the stockroom and the cash office.

I remember our store, like most other stores in Belfast city centre, had security people at every entrance door to check bags and pockets of customers entering.

I remember after nearly a year, my post-training assessment and being signed off as a department manager for menswear.

I remember the mainstay of every work morning was the routine of a departmental inspection, actually putting ‘retail is detail’ into action.

I remember bomb scares and evacuating the shop. Managers had to stay to help police and soldiers to search for anything suspicious. We would pat any merchandise with pockets for possible incendiary devices. I repeat, we would pat any merchandise with pockets for possible incendiary devices. What were we thinking?

I remember a sniffer dog shitting on the floor in my department, a deposit that I later shovelled into a bucket for disposal.

I remember on Wednesday afternoons, we closed at one o’clock.

I remember a deputy manager who appeared to have a new suit every week eventually being dismissed for stealing money.

I remember a van exploding, without warning, in Castle Place, Belfast and windows in our store and other premises shattered, the impact sending a blizzard of glass fragments up through the food hall.  It was a terrifying day. We stayed into the early hours sweeping up, checking every shelf and item for glass and got the store ready for business the next morning.

I remember business as usual during troubled times.

I remember it took nearly an hour to check that all the store’s windows and doors were locked after 5.30pm closing.

I remember one particularly cocky English manager who thought it hilarious to take the piss out of the Northern Ireland accent. We locals were beneath him, but we weren’t pricks.

I remember rush-hour buses cancelled because of riots and having to walk home, choosing the route with care. The stench of burning tyres always seemed to be in the air.

I remember during working hours, whatever our religious backgrounds, homegrown employees would get on well with lots of good-natured banter before going home at the end of the day to our own areas.

I remember taking turns at the baling machine to bundle flattened cardboard boxes together.

I remember the English managers took delivery of their company car – a sort of army green colour that was changed to a different coloured car rather rapidly.

I remember when retailing was fun, not just because of banter but also pranks. One time, we scared a fellow employee by placing a mannequin’s hand just around a corner on a stair’s handrail. He never found out who did it but he did develop a suspicious eye.

I remember a bag of money was left on the cash office window sill overnight and when the store manager found out, his foul mood was set for the day. We all got a tongue-lashing for something or other that day.

I remember we had to take turns to compile the weekly sales report on a Monday morning. The report was called “the ormig”. No, me neither.

I remember the Regional Manager paying us regular monthly visits from England. He was of Falstaffian physique with a puffed up ego and could be fearsome.

I remember writing on the back of my hand some sales information in case the Regional Manager asked me a question about how my department was doing.

I remember my first store manager left to go back to England and his replacement arrived from England. This new man was to become one of two managers in my entire career that influenced my management style in the most positive way possible, especially in how to treat people of any status.

I remember hearing the horrifying news of The Abercorn Restaurant bombing. The restaurant and bar was next door to BHS, on the Castle Lane side. It was a Saturday in 1972 and I was on a day off. The busiest shopping day of the week and the murderers saw a chance to cause death, injury and mayhem in the late afternoon – two people killed, over 100 injured and more terror was added to the black history of Belfast. It was a stark reminder that no matter how normal working in the city became, it was an abnormal time of random risks and dangers.

I remember the manager telling us that he was going to relocate departments on the ground floor to the first floor and we would start the move from close of business at 5.30 on a Saturday and finish it in time for opening on Monday morning at 9.00am. (No Sunday opening in those days.) We did it but it was bloody hard work.

I remember an old drunk man, oblivious to all around him, on Christmas Eve afternoon standing in a puddle of his own piss on the shop floor.

I remember Monday mornings were always busy with ladies hats being returned as ‘unsuitable’.  We reckoned they must have looked great at weekend weddings.

I remember standing on wobbly step ladders many times to take down fixtures on the lighting department, precarious especially on very busy days.

I remember a particularly nasty phase of incendiary devices being found in city centre premises around Christmas and worries about what might happen over the two days when the shop was closed.  A rota of shifts was devised and I volunteered along with another colleague to stay in the store overnight on Boxing Day. Nothing happened but it was spooky, especially since one of the lifts would suddenly spring into action for no fathomable reason. The first time we heard the lift noise, we jumped. If there was a ghost, we didn’t see it.

I remember being asked to consider a move as Department Manager to BHS, Manchester. It was a chance to get away from Belfast’s trouble.

I remember an emotional farewell to my mother. It was 1976, I was twenty-two and a home-loving man.

I remember arriving at Manchester’s Ringway Airport and getting a taxi to a bed and breakfast near Stockport. It was a strange and lonely night.

I remember my first day at BHS, Oldham Street. Apart from the store manager and a trainee, all the managers were female and full of mischief. They tried to send me for a glass hammer, a left-handed screwdriver, etc.

I remember the deputy manager would rush on to the shop floor occasionally to warn us that the store manager was on his way and that he was “on the turn”, a signal to brace ourselves for a bad mood.

I remember being warned to look out for a local gangster and his minder.  At random, they would swagger from the front entrance to the back exit, stopping occasionally to stare at managers and staff before walking on. We were told not to provoke him or react in any way, and certainly not to lock into his stare. I took the advice.

I remember running every day for what seemed like an eternity to buy the lunchtime edition of the Manchester Evening News in a flat-hunting frenzy and then running to a phone box to call the numbers. I saw quite a few grotty flats and rooms but struck lucky with a place in Heaton Moor, Lea Road to be precise. The landlord was Mister Kola.

I remember a work colleague making fun of my Belfast accent and asking me if I was ‘on the run’. I began to adapt the way I spoke.

I remember ironing only the collars and front panels of work shirts because the rest of the shirt would be hidden under a jacket.

I remember seeing a memo on the store manager’s desk. It was a cost-cutting plan that included the removal of at least one department manager. Me.

I remember my friend and fellow department manager from BHS, Belfast, Tom McGarrity, transferred to BHS, Stockport and eventually we shared a flat above a row of shops on the Heaton Moor Road.  We made several trips on foot to my nearby flat in Lea Road and carried stuff from one flat to the other, including a heavy TV. The beers went down easily that night.

I remember a marathon pub crawl in Manchester with Tom (14 September, 1976) – Mitre Hotel; Town Hall Tavern; Vine Inn; Crown; Grey Horse; Flanagan’s; Portland Hotel; Piccadilly Hotel; Shakespeare. The next morning we noticed an ashtray, although neither of us smoked.

I remember in one pub we saw a lady sitting at the bar drinking lager and blackcurrant juice and eating a beetroot sandwich, in between puffs on a cigarette. Her stockings were laddered.

I remember the long, hot, sweaty summer of 1976 and a pint of Boddington’s beer for 21p.

I remember Tommy Ducks, an amazing Manchester pub. The ceiling was adorned with a variety of knickers donated by female customers. There was a coffin-counter in the middle of the room. Dead centre.

I remember being transferred to BHS, Romford, Essex. Mr Robinson, the boss, was an old-school manager and terrifying when he wanted to be. He had a moustache.

I remember meeting Irene at the men’s underwear section of BHS, Romford, a genuine brief encounter.

I remember the bestselling ladies clothing item was an acrylic, ribbed polo neck jumper, item number 1530 (fifteen-thirty) in about a dizen colours.

I remember following and apprehending a shoplifter for the first time. He was a big, scary guy.  I was a slightly smaller scared guy.

I remember living in Chadwell Heath, east London and Friday night beers at The Cooper’s Arms where a band called Ropey Boat played various songs including Love Potion No. 9.

I remember the assistant manager in BHS, Romford eating two cheese and marmalade rolls every morning on his coffee break. He was an open-mouthed, smacky kind of eater with crumbs all over his lips.

I remember if you wanted a new duster for your department, you had to take your old one to the manager’s office, knock the door, await his barking instruction to enter and then request a replacement cloth.  He would be reclining back in his chair, stone faced and, I swear, not blinking.  He would grab the old rag dangling from your trembling fingers, hold it up to the light, peer at you through the holes in the fabric and then thrust it back at you.  “There’s at least half a dozen more cleans in that, boy,” he would shout.

I remember the holiday relief store manager and over time we bonded. I worked for him in another phase of my career and he was very supportive of me. I miss him. RIP.

I remember covering a store manager’s holiday week in BHS, East Ham. The canteen manager used to insist on serving me lunch at my table, always a mountain of food, much more than I noticed on anyone else’s plate.  After day three, it was torture.

I remember when shop closed, all the department managers waited around for the store manager to leave. It wasn’t really a rule, we were just afraid he’d go off on one if he noticed anyone missing.

I remember the era of management/staff formalities. We were Mr, Mrs or Miss. First names and a casual approach were some way into the future.

I remember covering a store manager’s holiday week in BHS, Hackney. Alarmingly, I was shown some baseball-type sticks in the counter cupboards nearest to the doors and told that it was a daily occurrence for three or four thugs to swagger in and steal entire racks of clothing. The sticks, I was advised, were a last resort if we needed to defend ourselves. They did not see the light of day in my time, although we did have two or three raids on the fashion department.

I remember great camaraderie in BHS, Romford amongst department managers, all united in our feelings for the store manager. Most evenings after work, we’d gather in The Golden Lion pub to plot revenge that, of course, never came to anything. Beer bravado.

I remember being asked to transfer to BHS, Wood Green in North London. Onward.

I remember meeting another new Wood Green Department Manager, Paul, on the first day. We would share a flat together for a year or so in Crouch End, near Finsbury Park – an upstairs flat on the corner of Crouch Hill and Sparsholt Road. I can’t recall the landlord’s name but I think he was a bulky Irishman, a builder, whose office was in the same building at street level. We would deliver our monthly rent cheques and get our book updated “paid in full”.

I remember we frequented The Stapleton Hall Tavern. There was a guy there who always wore a leather cowboy hat. He mooched about cadging drinks and fags. We called him Buffalo Bill, but not to his face.

I remember our Jamaican neighbour from the upstairs flat cleaning his car in the early hours of the morning and playing reggae music quite loud. Occasional shouts of ‘turn that bloody racket down’ bounced off the walls along the street.

I remember a sweet, smoky smell coming from the general direction of our neighbour’s landing.

I remember BHS, Wood Green was hard work but a lot of fun. The store manager was a bit of a stickler for merchandising standards via the morning and evening inspections and the two assistant managers were always trying to outdo each other to impress themselves to their next career promotion. There was camaraderie, morale was good and, still in the days of shops closing at 5.30pm, we bonded even more in The Wellington pub (The Welly) across the road most early evenings.

I remember the store manager wore hard-heeled shoes and had a distinctive rhythm to his footsteps. I could mimic his stride and every now and then would walk up the corridor before sticking my head round the training room door frame to cries of: “You bastard.”

I remember during an intense period of work changing the salesfloor layout that included employment of toolkits to dismantle counters and rebuild them, one of our number redefined BHS as Bangers, Humpers and Screwers.

I remember we had huge respect for the store manager, some of us seeing him as a role model, tough but fair and generous enough always to buy the first round in the pub whenever he was there. However, some years later, as Chief Executive of another company, he was implicated in a sales dodge that inflated the books and was struck off as a director of anything for seven years, narrowly avoiding a prison sentence. In our time, he was great to work for but he did a stupid thing and ruined his reputation.

I remember when Paul left the Crouch End flat, a newly transferred department manager, David, took his place but we had much the same routines – work, pub, home for some food, pub, sleep, work, etc.

I remember a Pakistani country and western singer in The Wellington one time. He was wearing a white suit and doing a decent Nashville turn.

I remember phone calls home were made in a call box.

I remember Friday nights always ended up with a lot of beer drunk and doner kebabs consumed. I never really understood those vertical meat rotisserie things, was never clear whether it was lamb, chicken, beef or whatever. Tasted good, though, back then.

I remember the big news that BHS was changing from old NCR ‘kerching’ cash registers to new, computerised IBM tills.  The project was called “Point of Sale Conversion. I was chosen as one of six Team Leaders to implement the training across the chain, starting in the Wood Green store. My base – Head Office.

I remember a feeling of immense pride when I walked into BHS Head Office on the Marylebone Road in London to start my new job as Point of Sale Team Leader working under the umbrella of the Stores Administration Department.

I remember great fun and hard work during the new POS team’s training on the new equipment and new business reports. The first weeks also gave us an opportunity to bond as a group and to develop team spirit through enthusiasm and humour.

I remember travelling to various UK locations, talking to groups of managers and staff about the exciting changes in the company. It was one of the most enjoyable phases of my career and I developed a hankering for a training job.

I remember working with a man called Ray Gunn. His nickname for Terry Lenthall, one of the company directors, was Cherry Menthol. Oh, how we laughed.

I remember when the POS installation project finished, I was asked to be Audit Manager, primarily managing the company’s stocktake team and schedule. I like working from Head Office, so I said yes.

I remember the holiday relief manager with whom I bonded well in my Romford days was to be my boss. I was delighted.

I remember most of the audit work was routine and dull but the team was an interesting mix of introverts and extroverts.

I remember some of the debates with store managers when I revealed their stocktake results. The good results were easy to relate but the bad results sometimes lit a fuse with some of the more fiery store managers who initially adopted the tactic of blaming “the system”. Redoing a stocktake was a rare thing.  Stores had to wait until the next schedule to see if the books balanced over a longer period.

I remember the Tuesday queue to reclaim expenses at the accounts office. There was a noisy shutter window.

I remember a particularly slimey character who worked in our office. He was well-known as “a character”. He had a penchant for telling dirty jokes no matter who was in the room. I would see some people laughing genuinely and others, like me, laughing to be polite. He wasn’t a very nice man.

I remember one day the actor Derek Nimmo walked in to our ground floor office and asked if he could use the phone as his car had broken down. He was wearing a bright pink tie.

I remember one of the auditors as quite dour most of the time. Her voice was monotone. I saw her and always thought of Eeyore.


I remember horrible Head Office machine coffee but, as there was nothing else on offer other than horrible tea, I drank it anyway.

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