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Portrait of a very different Essex
8:00pm Friday 11th May 2012 in Memories
THE generation which came of age just after the Second World War has started to write up its memoirs.
Most may struggle to match war veterans’ tales of adventure, suffering and derring-do, yet in many ways, their experiences are equally fascinating, as they speak of a time of momentous social change.
From our perspective, the world of mid 20th-century Essex can seem a bizarre, faraway, place. Did people really live like that, just 60 or so years ago?
The atmosphere of those decades is caught in the privately-published memoirs of Reg Higgins, of Woodside, Leigh, who celebrates his 80th birthday this month.
Reg wrote his book, An Under-whatter? to highlight the differences between life then and now.
He says: “I’m one of a generation that formed a sort of bridge. I was born before the war, but too young to take part in it.
“So much has changed in my lifetime. I wanted to leave something for my two sons. I also wanted them to see how different the world was when I was young.”
Reg is the very essence of a normal bloke, and on the face of it, he lived a pretty unremarkable life.
The author-blurb on the back cover reads: “Reg Higgins is a retired insurance underwriter who lives in Leigh-on-Sea. He is a family man, married to Cherry with two sons, Colin and Pat.”
That's it. No bombs. No orgies. No wild adventures. No previous books.
Yet Reg has a gift for injecting life and rollicking humour into the most mundane of environments and the most everyday of situations. His chronicle of National Service, commuting and office life in the Fifties and Sixties is straight out of the classic film comedies of the era, usually starring the likes of Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas.
What, for example, could be more humdrum than the daily commute from Westcliff to Fenchurch Street and back? Yet Reg’s portrait of the railway line in Fifties – with its superannuated steam locos falling to pieces in front of the passengers’ eyes, its hotch-potch of carriages hitched up from mouldy sidings around the country, and its gratuitously rude staff – is so intoxicating readers will almost feel nostalgic for the old days of the Misery Line.
To alleviate the boredom and take their minds off their dismal surroundings, Reg and a number of his commuter mates set up a smoking club. The idea was to get through as many cigarettes as possible before they reached London.
When it came to keeping other commuters out of their part of the train, the members-only club proved as ruthless as any snobbish Pall Mall establishment.
One member would run along the platform at Westcliff station and bag an empty smoking compartment. (These were the days of individual compartments with their own doors).
Reg recalls: “Once inside, a penny was inserted into the door lock to keep out those nasty people boarding at Benfleet.”
If challenged, “club” members would shrug their shoulders as if to say: “British Railways doors, eh? Jammed again. What can you do?”
Anyone curious as to why Britain was in almost terminal economic decline at the time, might wish to consult Reg’s account of Southend office life in the Fifites.
He says: “People had no idea about management. Idiots were in charge. It was a world of jobs for life and dead men’s shoes. You got an office job and if you played your cards right, you stayed there to retirement, and gradually got promoted until you reached the top.”
Young Reg Higgins landed his first job at the old Sun insurance office. He was surprised how easily he walked into the post.
He says: “It was not until some time later I found out it was company practice to recruit from the two local grammar schools alternately. It was the turn of Westcliff High School and I was the only applicant.”
The dozy, jobsworth environment soon stifled anything in the way of initiative. He recalls: “Mornings started with an hour’s discussion of the previous night’s radio and television programmes, followed by a long coffee break. After reviewing what was on offer at the local cinemas, it was time for a long lunch.”
The idle hours were interspersed by odd practical jokes, such as wrapping the gold leaf sun which hung on the office facade in toilet paper.
When an outbreak of tiny holes began to spread from the woodwork of one desk to another, builders were called in to investigate. The verdict was woodworm.
Reg writes: “The only solution was immediate incineration and with that, the offending desks were taken into the garden, doused with petrol and sent to the other Sun office in the sky.”
Only after the arrival of brand new desks was the true nature of the “woodworm” revealed – one of the clerks had developed an irritating habit with a pair of compasses.
Mike escaped office life for two years to complete his National Service and it is a story from this time which inspired the book’s rather quirky title.
When he showed up for his medical, a somewhat snooty military doctor demanded to know what Reg did for a living, back in civvy street. Told he was underwriter for an insurance company, the incredulous medic looked down his nose and sneered: “An under-whatter?”
Reg’s account of life on an RAF base in Singapore recalls another institution which touched the lives of most young British males in the Fifties, only to quickly vanish from our national experience.
As might be expected, Reg brings a wry and humorous eye to bear on this period of his life.
Even in the RAF, the dullard bureaucratic spirit was ever-present. The barracks sat in the middle of a grove where coconuts grew like weeds and the lads were often kept awake at night by the sound of them dropping onto iron roofs.
Reg says: “We all loved coconuts, but there was a large notice posted outside the hut, stating the coconuts were Government property and eating a coconut was a criminal offence.”
Having done his bit for Queen and country, Reg returned to the Sun office in Southend, just in time to be involved in the merger process which created the giant Sun Alliance insurance group.
After that, he was bound for the City of London, where he worked for the rest of his career.
His old manager’s advice on commuting was brief: “Wear a bowler and carry a rolled-up umbrella, and you’ll fit in.”
Hundreds of thousands of commuters, identically dressed in this style, poured into the City every day, but Reg was enough of his own man to ignore this advice.
He dressed as he chose, a small act of rebellion which reflected the way England was gradually changing.
Now retired for 20 years, Reg says he has passed the intervening years, “generally just loafing around”.
From the vantage-point of his armchair, he concedes the modern British workplace is probably “livelier and more dynamic”.
However, for all the shortcomings of the old, more leisurely days, he feels one thing has been lost.
He says: “We used to make good friends at work.
“They were friendships which lasted. I’ve got six people from the Sun office coming to my 80th birthday party. People don’t seem to have time to make friends like that any more at work.”
An Under-whatter? is available from www.lulu.com at £6.99.
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