I have a lot to thank the Fifties for. It was a time when Britain was reviewing its social structure and one conclusion was that there weren’t enough ‘common’ people in the Civil Service. In particular, the Foreign Office needed to come down a peg or two from its dizzy heights.
I was indisputably common. My Dad was a gardener. His Dad was a carpenter and his Dad, a brickmaker. Before that the men were all described as agricultural labourers, moving from place to place to till the soil and tug their forelocks.
Robert Henry Kent, my dad, cutting a dash at Ryde?
In 1955, having taken my A Level exams (English, French and History), I told the careers officer that I wanted to travel. He came up with the idea that I take a Civil Service exam and somehow I was in the top percentage that might be considered for the FO.
Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed 18 year old.
At home, there were ripples on the waters of our tranquil existence. Apart from my dear mother going into meltdown at the thought of losing me, unfamiliar cars began to park in the road. Men who were not as the rest of us, well dressed, well groomed, carrying briefcases, visited my parents and others. They probed into my life, my parents’ politics. Presumably we weren’t a danger to the nation so in 1955 I moved to London.
Now, I had only been to London once, with an aunt and for the day. She took me to see the sights including Downing St and on that first day at work I was headed in that direction. Goodness knows what I was feeling. I was staying with the vicar’s cousin in a leafy suburb called Elmer’s End. That is where I first heard the expression “leaves on the line,” because invariably the train was delayed because of flooding. The journey entailed taking the train to Charing Cross, exiting into the Strand, down into Whitehall, past Northumberland Avenue, into Downing St (no barriers in those days) and then through the arch into King Charles St.
What I made of it all is difficult to imagine. I shared an office with several other people, all busy, while a nice girl called Margot instructed me as to what I had to do. Seemingly it was my job to locate files from a library somewhere in the building, whenever one of the mysterious voices on the telephone asked for them. I didn’t have to go and fetch them myself -there were porters employed for such humble tasks.
The telephone. Hard as it may be to believe, we didn’t have a telephone at home and I had never had a reason to use one. It was as alien and terrifying as an unexploded bomb. With hindsight, I can’t imagine how I ever survived the training, but somehow, I did.
Lunchtimes introduced me to Sandwich Bars, with alien fillings such as avocado and prawns. I suspect I stuck to egg or cheese.
At first, I went home every weekend and it was difficult to persuade myself to go back. As a regular commuter however I began to notice familiar passengers on the trains. Perhaps London was only a series of villages? At lunch times I grew braver, turned left from the office and walked to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, or turned right and went to the Tate. In summer I ate my sandwiches in St James’s Park. London metamorphosed from the terrifying to the exciting.
Two of my cousins moved to London. One didn’t have any formal qualifications and went to work at Joe Lyons, living in their hostel. After some months she moved in with a man from Granada and this introduced me to a different side of London and the West Indian community who were arriving, full of hope to our damp, grey capital. Unhappily their welcome was damp and grey as well, if not downright frosty.
My other cousin was spending a year in London before going to university. We got a bedsit together and now buoyed up with the knowledge that we weren’t alone, we started to explore wider afield. We found the ABC Cinema, showing films we didn’t quite understand. I don’t know what my Mum had said about politics, but my cousin and I were Socialists in a that It’s Not Fair, school of thought. There were free lectures and, oh joy! demonstrations. CND, anti-Apartheid, we were out there marching with the best of them. We once rubbed shoulders with Joshus Nkomo.
All of this either went unnoticed, or the FO thought I would grow out of it and after three unforgettable years being a Londoner, I was posted abroad!