The office in the 1970s

For readers who have grown up with the mobile phone and the internet, the opening chapter of this book may come as something of a surprise. In the office of the 1970s, such technology was unheard of – all correspondence was typed or handwritten, the main items of equipment were the adding machine, the typewriter and the filing cabinet, and even the humble fax machine was considered to be cutting edge.

There were also cultural differences. The factory workers at Beech Brothers would have had to clock in every day, and account for every working minute (see my note on Marion’s dockets below). Some of them might well resent the more relaxed atmosphere of the office, and office staff in their turn might look down upon the factory hands. In those days, the creeping horror of performance management had not been unleashed on office staff, though it apparently has a history dating back to the Wei Dynasty in the third century AD.

Funny postcards

The postcard Marion refers to existed in various versions, all suggesting that a neat (or tidy) desk is the sign of a sick mind. It was one of a series of similar postcards, the most popular of which bore the slogan You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

Marion’s dockets

One of Marion’s tasks is to ensure that the work done by the manual workers (machine minders, engravers, warehouse workers and so on) is assigned to the appropriate job. The workers record their hours on the dockets, which MM collects on the following day, assuming he remembers, and takes upstairs to the office. Marion adds the hours worked on each job to the running total kept in each file, calculates the ongoing cost and checks it against the estimate. Foolproof.

They point their fingers and scream at him…

According to the author, this image is meant to evoke the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the 1978 Philip Kaufmann re-make of the 1956 Don Siegel original, which in turn was based on the 1955 novel by Jack Finney. Aside from the anomalous nature of the reference – which is excusable, because the connection exists in the author’s head, rather than MM’s – I find this a little tenuous. Aside from the fact that there are no divers in the film, the context is completely different. A more convincing reference to the same film is recorded in my notes to Chapter 11.

Rabbiting – to rabbit is rhyming slang for talk, particularly to talk at great length about trivial subjects (from rabbit and pork).

Jaffa cakes

For anyone unfamiliar with them, Jaffa cakes are small, round, chocolate-covered, orange-flavoured cakes. After years of controversy, a VAT tribunal of 1991 ruled definitively that a Jaffa cake is a cake, not a biscuit. The tribunal was persuaded in part by the argument that a cake goes hard when stale, whereas a biscuit goes soft. Personally, I remain unconvinced. If I were to order tea and cake in a cafe, I would be more than disappointed to receive a cuppa and a Jaffa cake.

Twix

Since my comments several years ago about the placement of the Twix bar, I have discovered that some controversy surrounds its history. What I presume from the reference to candy are American sources claim that, from its invention in Slough in 1967 until its introduction into the USA in 1991, the Twix bar was called Raider throughout Europe. What I take to be UK sources, however, maintain that in the UK the bar was always called Twix, and known only in mainland Europe as Raider.

Upon consulting my focus group, I found nobody could remember a bar called Raider. In my mind, this settles it. Old and doddery they may be, but if they can remember sherbet dip, flying saucers and the ha’penny chew, to say nothing of the Jamboree bag, I’m sure they’d remember the Raider bar. And the name just doesn’t sound British, does it?

Captain Jack

Beech Brothers Printing and Packaging, as its name suggests, is a family firm managed by three brothers. Captain Jack Beech, so-called because of his naval past and his ongoing interest in sailing, is the Chairman. He sometimes appears on a Wednesday morning, and explains his absence on Monday and Tuesday by muttering becalmed in the Channel – despite the fact that he owns the firm and can do pretty much whatever he wants. Mr Eddie Beech is the Sales Director, notorious for his shaky hands. No-one has ever seen the third brother, Mr Barnaby Beech, and in fact he may not exist.

A decent bung – a generous backhander or bribe.

Sandwich spread

Information about sandwich spread is decidedly thin on the ground, and I can find no reliable source to confirm when it was first produced. Some of my focus group members recall a ghastly paste occasionally found in the sandwiches in their school lunchboxes, and agree that it might well be described as creamy sick… dotted with lumps of orange and green. However, that’s as far as I’ve got.

A slab of crusted white stinking cheese

When I texted him for more information, MW identified the cheese in question as stinking bishop and pointed out, somewhat irritably, that he names it as such in a subsequent chapter. However, my research suggests that this may not be wholly accurate. For one thing, placing stinking bishop in the early 1970s may be anachronistic. Though one source claims that the cheese was first manufactured in 1972, another more authoritative source suggests it was launched in 1994. This anomaly may arise because the first source conflates the date when the cheesemaker’s business began (1972) with the date when this particular cheese was first produced (1994).

There is also the issue of credibility. Whenever it was first produced, stinking bishop is a handmade cheese not available in supermarkets, comparatively expensive and unlikely to have been knocked off by Ted. As we subsequently discover, the cheap yoghurts and processed cheese Ted distributes are mass-produced by the Happy Valley company, which is highly unlikely to stock stinking bishop. The conclusive point, however, is its appearance. The cheese described in this chapter is blue-veined, whereas aside from the multi-coloured spots of mould which may sometimes appear on the rind, stinking bishop is uniformly pallid.

On the basis of this evidence, I think we can now safely conclude that the cheese in question is not stinking bishop, and that MW has confused it with a different cheese, such as Blue Monk or Oxford Blue. (Other exotic cheeses are available, including Yarg, Blue Vinney and Slack ma Girdle.) The most likely explanation, in my view, is that the author was more interested in the smell and the evocative name than in historical or visual accuracy. Which, if I may say so, is typical.

Half-inched, pinched, nicked, knocked off – synonyms for stolen.

It’s true what that bloke said, you know – it’s a greater crime to make this stuff than to nick it

The bloke in question may be Macheath, and Ted may be misapplying his observation on banking (in Act 3, Scene 3 of The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht) to the process of cheese manufacture. The best translation I can find is What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank? though to make perfect sense the quote should be It’s a greater crime to own a bank than to rob it – a sentiment with which Ted might well agree.  

Top-notch VCRs

Ted is trying to sell MM a Japanese video cassette recorder – a device for recording TV programmes on a cassette tape. Popular commercial films also used to be recorded on video cassettes for home viewing. At its inception, there were two competing videotape formats – VHS and Betamax – but VHS became dominant largely, it seems, through the power of marketing. Though this technology has long been surpassed, first by DVDs and then by the internet, at one time video recordings were as common as streaming.

Gizmo – though the meaning of gizmo is generally given as a gadget or device, here Ted refers not so much to the device itself, but to its particular features.

A butcher’s – rhyming slang for a look (from butcher’s hook).

Skint – slang for broke, originally a contraction of skinned.

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