Friday, 30 July 2010

Love on the picket line

The world’s greatest 20-year-old unpublished poet in the spring of 1965 decided that a temporary job at Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road would nourish his muse until he started his sociology degree that September.
It was hell. Eccentric owner Christina Foyle hadn’t changed working practices in the store for 30 years. I was sent to work in the international sales department.
I had to tour the warren-like store (much modernised since) searching the shelves for books to be despatched abroad. The assistants had no incentive to help; being short, I remember the shelves as being tall.
The only redeeming feature of the workday was mixing with young people from around the world whom Christina employed because she could pay peanuts and fire on a whim.
I fell for a German girl. I’ll call her Madelena. Her actual name is long forgotten. She had “green and gold-flecked eyes” or so I described in one of the many poems I wrote about her in the seclusion of my bedroom when I arrived home each night.
I never actually spoke to her in that first week. But O frabjous day when I arrived for work on the second Monday, a number of staff were on strike and my schone fraulein was on picket duty.
I had no idea a strike was being planned nor what were its demands. But by the end of the morning I had joined the shop workers union USDAW and by the afternoon I was on the picket rota.
I would have thrown my body over my dream girl to protect her from the management’s advancing tanks but the only time we might have touched was when her hand brushed mine as I collected my share of protest leaflets.
I recall collecting some strike pay and playing table tennis in the basement of the union’s London branch. But of Madelena, I can tell you no more. We never had a proper conversation other than to shout, “What do we want – fair pay” in unison.
She may be a Berliner grandmutter now – and very happy I hope too. Thanks to my spring of love she will be forever young.
There is a less wholesome postscript to my fortnight at Foyles (finding another temporary job I soon abandoned the good fight).
I returned later to the bookshop to collect my week’s wages and promptly lost all my money having been lured into playing Find the Lady by three-card con artists who operated in a nearby side street.
I didn’t write a soulful poem on that occasion even though the loss of the money was more painful than any unrequited love.


  1. Hey GC, you must be the only person who could work in a famous bookshop and not buy a book there, [your acount does not refer to such an event]. And I thought that romance and literature went together, says Jaffa.

  2. Jaffa, I was there just five days. GC


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