It was the first job interview I had ever been to, in fact, 38 years later its still the only job interview I have ever been to for I got the job, that’s what happened in 1974, it was an employees market and so when Ron Ransom advertised for a trainee surveyor in his electrical contracting business he received only three replies from his newspaper advert and i, apparently, must have been the best – god help the other two then.
He didn’t even ask for proof of my O level exams, just asked if I had any, “Yes” I replied, “I have five” and then after a pause, “erm, six” and then he asked me to name them all, I would have struggled beyond Maths, English, Art, Geography, for I still can’t recall what the sixth one was but when I got to “Technical Drawing” his eyes lit up and he stopped me short of the embarrassing silence that would have occurred while I was trying to recall what the hell the other one was.
“You do technical drawing ?” he asked, puffing on his pipe and gradually disappearing behind a cloud of Old Holbourn smoke, “Yes” I replied, “So you’d be able to copy drawings like this one ?” he asked and threw a plan of a factory wiring schematic across his desk, “Yes” I lied.
“Congratulations” he said, standing up and offering his hand across the desk, “you’ve got the job, start Monday, salary £940 per annum” and then added after a pause, “do you smoke ?”
“No” I replied,
“That’s a shame” I’m sure I heard him mumble to himself.
Everyone at F.I Rice (Leeds) Ltd smoked, everyone except me, in fact it seemed like everyone in the world smoked except for me, instead I passive smoked as I found it cheaper that way, free in fact, ok so most of the smoke was second hand but not all of it, for as anyone who has ever sat across a desk from a chain smoker knows, most of the tobacco smoke from a burning cigarette that is sitting in an ashtray automatically makes its way across the smokers desk straight to the face of the non-smoker sat opposite, free smoke, free not-previously smoked smoke, you are smoking half of their cigarette and not having to pay for the privilege.
Ron Ransom smoked a pipe, and we all smoked it too, not that we actually borrowed his pipe but we smoked the smoke that his pipe produced for his pipe would be constantly refreshed from the tobacco pouch that he carried in his inside jacket pocket. His office was halfway down a narrow corridor, the sales and accounts office at one end, the surveyors office at the other end and Ron Ransoms office in the middle, I believe it was only a small office, around ten foot square, I say that i believe that it was only small because actually I never saw all of it for it was permanently shrouded in a dense fog of Old Holbourn smoke, thick as a London pea-souper it was and you only knew he was in there because as you stood at the door you could hear him speaking to you from somewhere inside the fog, he had a booming voice, a fog-horn of a voice, a voice that commanded respect because of its bass and volume, he’d be somewhere in there from early in the morning until late at night and other than at the interview I hardly ever actually saw him other than for a few rare occasions when he would emerge blinking and coughing into the corridor, the relatively fresher air outside of his office causing irritation to his throat, “I don’t know how you non-smokers breath this bloody fresh air” he’d say to me.
I was apprenticed to Frank Leadbetter, the most nervous man in the world, he ate constantly from a small pill box, presumably pills for his nerves, christ knows how jumpy he would have been without the pills but he was already the most nervous man in the world while consuming vast quantities of them – and Embassy Regal cigarettes “For me nerves” he’d explain as he lit up another one, another chain smoker I never saw Frank without a lighted cigarette in the ashtray, its lazy smoke drifting casually across the desk to my nostrils instead of his, no wonder he chain smoked, he hardly ever smoked any of the bloody things what with me getting the benefit of most of them.
Verna Dakin, the posh accounts clerk with the unfortunate habit of initialing all of the invoices with “VD” and Maureen the secretary with the amazing pair of baps, they both chain smoked in the front office, and John Pickard the buyer and man of constant motion shared their office and of course, chain smoked too.
Dennis, the little Jewish site supervisor who popped in and out of the surveyors office every morning also smoked, as did all of the foreman electricians who were seen from time to time, they’d all walk in, sit down, and the first thing they did was either take out their own pack of Embassy’s or ask someone if they had any to spare.
Wholesalers sales reps would visit us weekly, walk into the office and offer everyone a cigarette by means of introduction, they were paid to smoke by their company’s, had a cigarette expense account, “Have one of mine” they’d say offering their pack all around the office, “I get them on the petty cash” so everyone would help themselves and the smoke would rise to the ceiling in huge clouds, drift across to just above my desk and then fall like a deadly gas in a sci-fi film directly to my nostrils, more free smoke for my consumption.
And then Ron Ransom and Frank Leadbetter left the company and I was apprenticed to the replacement estimator, an old bloke called Harry who only had one leg and drove himself all the way from Doncaster every day for the pleasure of sitting at the desk opposite me, teaching me the job and smoking heavily – I believe that he once told me that he had bad circulation which had led to the amputation of one of his legs and he’d send me across to the butchers over the road for scrag ends for his dog every day because he couldn’t manage it with just the one leg, I could never understand the mentality of someone who has already lost one leg through smoking continuing to smoke forty or fifty a day, its almost like he didn’t really want the other leg at all.
Then he left, probably to have his other leg off and we moved to bigger offices upstairs and I was apprenticed to Eugene the estimator, and guess what – he chain smoked Embassy Regals, I know how many he smoked because one of my jobs was to nip next door to the sandwich shop and buy his supply for that day – two or three packs at a time, that’s about sixty a day, he was in his late twenties and doing a bloody good job of ruining his lungs before starting a family, who the hell needs lungs eh ?
And through all this I sat in cloudy offices with brown nicotine stained walls and no ventilation and of course in order to survive I breathed in their smoke, first and second hand, and its a bloody wonder that I survive to this day – I actually had my lungs x-rayed some time ago for a tb examination and they were clear as anything can be, its a miracle I tell you, I am the incredible passive smoking man.