This morning I was trying to remember when the UK introduced the decimal currency and that got me thinking about my first jobs as a child. The currency changed on 15th February 1971. My first job that I was paid for was when I was about twelve. There was a card in the local newsagent’s near Gipton Wood on Roundhay Road that was advertising for someone to cut the grass and do a little gardening for a couple of hours a fortnight.
I bravely called around to the house on Arlington Road to see if the position was still available. An nice elderly lady answered the door and we had a quick chat, my first interview. She was prepared to give a young lad a go and I was to do two hours every Sunday morning. I think I was about twelve and the pay rate was half a crown an hour. I turned up the first Sunday and she had a little push lawnmower and I cut the front verge, lawn and back garden. Cutting the grass was fairly easy, but I remember the strange feeling that someone was going to pay me for my labours. It was so unusual a situation. I had been given pocket money and there may have been some expectations that I would do something in the house, but being paid to work was something else. I never went beyond her kitchen, but the house was neat and so was the garden. She was a nice old lady and she gave me the key for the wooden garage and there I found the tools. I remember the smell of wood, damp and age in the shed, but it was neat, well ordered and everything had its place. I cut the grass and then set about edging the lawn with her edging shears. It made a big difference, but I still had forty minutes to go and set about weeding. I hated weeding and still do. The soil in Leeds is boulder clay and heavy. In summer it dries brick hard, but is a sticky unyielding mass when wet. In Perth, where I now live, our soil is pure sand and so weeding and digging is so easy. I think I did a reasonable job and when she brought me a drink of orange squash, she cast her eye over my work. I don’t believe that she was overly impressed with the amount I had managed, but she wanted me to return in a fortnight and handed me my five shillings. I held the coins in my hands and realised that this was how it was going to be forever. People would pay me to work and work was hard and not always enjoyable, but there was satisfaction in knowing that the money was mine and that I had earned it. It wasn’t a handout from parents or relatives, but the fruits of my labour. I put the tools away, tidied up and made my way home. My mother was interested in knowing how it had gone and I believe my mum and dad might have walked past to inspect my handiwork, but they never said anything. I returned the next time and everything was as it had been before. I worked all that summer until the weather changed and the grass no longer needed cutting.
I didn’t go back the next year as I wanted to earn a little more money and that was when I got a job delivering Sunday papers. I think my older brother Andrew had a job delivering papers for the paper shop across the road from the steps in Gipton Wood, near the Oakwood Hotel. I am not sure if it is still a newsagent’s, but I must check when I return to Leeds later this year. I think Andrew got me the opportunity to deliver the Sunday papers and I remember going to meet the newsagent. After a short chat he told me to come back the next Sunday morning. The week passed quickly and with a certain amount of trepidation and anxiety I got up early on Sunday and made my way to the shop. It seemed very early to me, but I am not sure of the exact starting time. It may have been seven o’clock, but what I remember is that the shop was a hive of organisational activity. The newsagent was sorting papers, spread across every counter. He checked his lists and added papers to bags and each bag was for a designated round. He wrote house numbers on the papers and I was given my bag and a clear series of streets to cover and they were mainly the Montagu streets near our house on Gipton Wood Crescent. I was staggered by the bag. It was so heavy! The Sunday papers were so thick, with magazines and supplements and some addresses had a number of different papers.
With an encouraging word from the newsagent I staggered out, almost buckling under the weight of half a forest of paper, crossed Roundhay Road and went back up through Gipton Wood. The climb was agonising and I had to swap shoulders, but finally I got to the first house. The letterbox was tiny, but I carefully separated the papers to push them through, to the sound of a frantic small dog on the other side. I can’t say I noticed any change in weight after the first delivery, but eventually it did become easier. I learned one thing that first morning. It appeared that the people with the smallest letter boxes ordered the most newspapers and it took quite a time to post them all through without tearing any. You had to be careful as people were very quick to report to the newsagent if you had damaged any. The other thing I learned very quickly was to check for dogs. Sometimes you opened the gate and strode forward to suddenly be confronted by an aggressive, and obviously angry, pet. On such occasions you had to beat a hasty retreat and hope that the owner would come out to see what the commotion was.
I managed to deliver all the papers that first Sunday and wearily I trudged back to the newsagent’s and returned the newspaper-bag. I collected my wages. I can’t remember what the wages would have been. Was it ten shillings? Maybe someone can help me here. Anyway, I went home and returned the following Sunday and many after that. It was on one of these days that I decided to buy some cigarettes. I had never smoked properly before. I may have been allowed a puff of my dad’s on a few occasions. Can you imagine the fuss that would create nowadays? It would be seen as child abuse, but these were very different times. There were coin cigarette machines on most parades of shops and anyone could buy them. Anyway, I decided to give it a try. One of my first rebellious moments. I didn’t have much money and wasn’t sure what to get, but I had heard of Woodbines and so I put my coin in the slot. I think it was two shillings, a florin, pulled the drawer and there was the packet. It was only small and there were ten in a packet and I felt very naughty. I had prepared by bringing some matches from home and I slipped the cigarettes into my pocket, lifted the great weight of newspapers onto my shoulder and headed back up through Gipton Wood. I stopped in the wood to try my first cigarette. It was something special opening the packet, removing the silver paper covering the cigarettes and pulling out the first cigarette. It was surprisingly small, smelt strong and strange. The paper itself was thin with almost grey stripes along its length. There was no filter, but I raised it to my lips and held it there whilst I fumbled with a match. The match struck, there was a sudden flare and I raised the burning match to the end of the cigarette. I had seen my dad and many others smoking so I knew what to do. I was aware that you had to inhale the smoke and so I sucked on the cigarette whilst the burning flame touched the cigarette. The cigarette lit, I drew in a mouthful of smoke, shook the match to extinguish it and then my lungs felt like they were about to explode and I started coughing violently. The cool lad I expected to become didn’t materialise. The taste was acrid, strong and not pleasant at all. I persevered and took another drag. This was a little better as I only sucked in a small amount. I felt a little smug as I was getting the hang of it. I repeated the process and blew out the smoke with a nonchalant air. Any young girl would be impressed by my maturity and masculinity, or at least so I thought. Alas it was not to be. After a few more drags I started to feel dizzy and nauseous and I feared I would be sick. I ground the cigarette out with my heel and threw the packet away. I swore I would never smoke again but, unfortunately, that was a promise I would not keep.
I set back off on my paper round and it took half the route before I felt better enough to regret the two shillings I had wasted. Like many things in life, it takes experience to realise our folly and in this case, and in others in my life, I returned to the habit. I stopped when my first child was on the way and I have never smoked since.