Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Adrian Beecroft, Vince Cable and the Foyle's Bookshop Strike 1965

"Bonkers!" (Vince Cable), "Socialist!" (Adrian Beecroft). Today's ding-dong over employment law has an endearing, pantomime quality.

Mr Beecroft, who we had never heard of, but who is a venture capitalist and major Conservative Party donor, was entrusted by Number Ten ("Hapless!") with the task of reviewing employment law. Number Ten redacted his least palatable proposals before releasing his report but even then there is plenty to disagree about, notably Beecroft's support for "No Fault" dismissal.

For some reason it all reminded me of my first real experience of the world of work back in 1965 at Foyle's Bookshop in the Charing Cross Road.

I was 17. After A levels in summer 1964 I went back to school for the Autumn Term to do Oxbridge Entrance (I already had a place but was after a Scholarship) and then needed to work to raise funds to buy all the things on my Oxford college's required list - gown, mortar board, dark suit, white bow tie, that sort of thing.

Christina Foyle interviewed me, as she interviewed everyone (including the shop lifters). Here is my Contract of Employment.



I was set to work in charge of Foyle's Postal Library, supplying romantic fiction to dowagers in rural areas and banned books to serious readers in the Republic of Ireland.



Foyle's sought to recruit people like me who were not going to stay and acquire employment rights. Many staff were recruited outside the UK. In those days, you needed work permits and Foyle's had a production line for obtaining them. Probably ninety percent of the staff were students or young people "in transit". Nowadays, that's true of most restaurants and bars in London but in 1965 it was not so common. At the time, I thought Foyle's was Dickensian. Now they look more like pioneers of the casualisation of labour.

It happened that in a given week too many new workers might arrive or too many old ones fail to leave. And some people might be about to pass the six month period after which they acquired additional statutory employee rights

This is where Mr Ronald Batty entered the scene. He was the store manager and Christina Foyle's husband. He walked the shop floors sacking people. He inspired genuine fear and on Fridays there were always people in tears, many of them pretty girls.

I had never really seen pretty girls before and I became serially infatuated. I had absolutely no idea how to approach them or relate to them and I was terribly burdened by my own circumstances - on Boxing Day 1964, just a week before my start at Foyle's, my mother with whom I lived had been taken in an ambulance to a mental hospital.

Technically, people held work permits that restricted them to employment with Foyle's. But even then I guess it was possible to work illegally. Nonetheless, I was affected by the girls in tears and I did not like the ruthless atmosphere.

Nor did other people. Some of them, inspired I think by a charismatic Australian, Marius Webb, had started a clandestine branch of the Union of Shop Distributive and Alled Workers (USDAW). It had to be secret because Foyle's did not recognise Unions and Mr Batty would simply have sacked you. I became responsible for collecting Union dues in the building which housed the postal library and wholesale order departments. There must have been meetings too but I don't recall them.

After a few months, I found myself another job in local government and nearer home. It was a stupid move which I have always regretted: at Foyle's, I was meeting the kind of people I should have been meeting at my age and with my aspirations. If I had stuck it out, I might even have got myself a girl friend.



Soon after, USDAW called an official strike at Foyle's for Union recognition, better pay and other things. It was wildly popular - all kinds of people came forward to say that they had once worked for Christina Foyle and could they please give a large donation to Strike funds. Private Eye did a lovely and very funny piece.

On Saturdays I used to go and join the picket line. And when it was all over in July The Daily Worker put two pretty girls on the front page - a tradition which nowadays only The Daily Telegraph keeps up.









2 comments:

  1. I remember the pickets, asking passers by- in broken English - to support the strike. I also remember, from other occasions, the rigmarole involved in actually purchasing a book; hunt the book, then hunt the salesperson. When I think that Waterstones is bad, I remind myself of what it was like at Foyles.

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  2. Not sure what you and your mates did, brilliant if you ask me, but when I applied for a job in Foyles possibly early 70s they had sussed it all out and pre-selected us hopefuls sitting outside the recruitment office by asking if we were 'English'.

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