When a green girl leaves her rigid and narrow home for the first time, all sorts of things can happen, particularly if this clueless innocent moves from a mid sized provincial town in one country to a vast metropolis in another country, which has recently embraced a new, swinging age of free love, drug experimentation and above all, the birth of counter-culture and social revolution. For as long as this girl lives in the bosom of a respectable family in the new country, attends her classes at college regularly and only goes out at the weekend, she is safe. But then again, who wants to stay safe when all around the old values are breaking up and the whole world is in turmoil.
When the Moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace shall guide the planets, and love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius ....
I am, of course, talking about Friko's adventures in London in the late 60s and early 70s. College finished, a diploma safely tucked into her pocket, the age of Aquarius beckoned. At the time it was all wonderfully exciting, freedom at last. But freedom needed to be paid for: there was rent to find for a single furnished room in grotty student accommodation and there was also the small matter of keeping body and soul together, as they said then. Before Britain's entry into the EEC in 1973 made travel and moving between Germany and Britain easier, very few occupations were open to foreigners; we could only work as housemaids, cleaners in hospitals, or in other menial jobs, and even that required a permit.
My first legal job was at a laundry, ironing shirts. There was a whole floor of a large building devoted to nothing else but washing and pressing men's shirts. There were girls, mostly foreigners and a few poor English and Irish women, standing all day at large presses, with hot steam rising from them constantly, lifting the heavy lids, arranging the shirts on the wide ironing boards by reaching far in and stretching them tightly, then bringing the lids down again on to the shirts for an exact number of seconds. Most of the new girls had burn marks on arms and hands and if you were really careless you could burn your forehead on the edge of the lid. The current obsession with Health & Safety hadn't been invented yet. The work was piecework, you got paid per item. If you fell below a certain number of items after the initial training period, the supervisor came to speak to you to encourage you to work a bit faster. If you still showed no sign of improvement, you were called to 'the office', the encouragement turning a little more threatening. The company could afford to hire and fire at will, most of the workers were too poor to rebel and foreigners like me, who, for whatever reason, wanted to stay in the country for a while longer, had no other legal option.
I hated working at the presses. I'd never really done any physical work at all; this was me being thrown in at the deep end. I lagged far behind the other girls' output and was finally called to 'the office'. As a child I had had asthma; I promptly used my childhood illness as a reason for not being able to work at the presses. "OK", they said, "we'll switch you to the finishing line. But you'll have to have a medical examination. The works doctor will take care of that."
The finishing line was less hot and steamy. Here shirt collars and cuffs, the band at the top of backs, sleeves and pleats were finished off by hand. This was also the place where dress shirts and the shirts of people, who were paying for a superior service, were pressed. The job was no better paid, in fact, the painstaking work meant that your tally of shirts was lower than at the presses; some of the hand-pressers were really good at their work, but there were others, me among them, who achieved only creased garments, which then had to be dampened and pressed again. The supervisor kept a close eye on the slackers.
There was little camaraderie amongst the workers. I tagged along with a small group of other Germans, who, together with a group of Nigerians, men and women who worked in a different part of the factory, went for lunch to the nearest 'greasy spoon' - small cafeterias which served a very basic lunch, a few sandwiches and tea from a large urn on the counter. There were sticky buns and slices of fruitcake under a fly-blown plastic dome for those with a sweet tooth. These cafeterias were everywhere in London, thousands of them; office workers used them, as did factory and shop workers; they were cheap and cheerful, you got what you paid for, and nothing more.
I wasn't quite as dependent on my earnings at the laundry as most of the others. Whenever I was down to my last pound Mum and Dad came to the rescue; they actually still made me a small allowance, although they constantly tried to persuade me to return home. Having these extra pounds in my pocket meant that I still had money at the end of the week to buy my usual lunch, whereas some of the others had to cut back by about Thursday. Payday was Friday. Sometimes I lent a friend a pound or two. But I was by no means well-off, just a little less hard-pressed than some.
Being a total innocent, I was usually cheerful and bright and inclined to chat with all and sundry. I was also bookish and having had an education of sorts made me quite self-confident. The Nigerians fascinated me; several of them were well educated and articulate and I happily sat with them at lunch in the cafe, having the kind of conversation in which my German fellow workers had no interest. One of the Nigerian men invited me to join their group to celebrate a Nigerian national holiday at their home; although I was innocent, I wasn't foolhardy. I asked them to let me think it over. Besides, I had a boyfriend.
One of the German girls, a very thin, intense, blonde, with a pointy noise and narrow mouth had overheard this invitation. She was one of the best workers at the laundry, earning unheard of piecework rates. She and her boyfriend saved every last penny towards a home of their own, she spent almost nothing and brought her own sandwiches to work. She came to the cafe to have a cup of tea and because there was nowhere cheaper for her to go during our lunch breaks.
The place was busy, break was nearly over but most of the regulars, including other local workers were still there. As we were getting ready to leave, this girl stood up, turned to me and said, in English, not German, in a clear voice, designed to penetrate every corner of the small space: "You really need to be more careful who you mix with. And you need to stop throwing your money around. We all know how you earn it. It's all over the factory that you're the "One-Pound-Whore."
to be continued