Crooked paths to freedom

labour exchange


I was twenty-three and living in London for the first time.  I should’ve been fulfilling my father’s dreams for me, which had me doing a qualifying teacher training year in some grimy Midlands town.  Instead I was working for the British Civil Service in a Labour Exchange in Westminster.  I knew I was wasting my life and was very ashamed.  A casual former boyfriend said to me, “You’re wasting your degree,” as if that was all there was to it, and in his mind that was all there was to say.  I was squandering the perks and privileges of having a university degree through some in-built need to lower myself, to stay timid and ignored.  Living was like that, for the young, in those days, maybe still is.  Your life was your own until you seemed to throw it away.

I’m now almost seventy.  That gives you an idea of how long ago it was – the Sixties, post-World War Two, and a city that had once been the heart of an empire flooded with new money, just beginning to shimmer and shine.  A fresh generation out to get theirs.  Looking back, I was enmeshed in all those strands.  I knew the society I lived in but couldn’t move in it.  During that year I learned very little except how other people judged me.


The Labour Exchange was in an upscale district – tall blocks of late Victorian, red brick service flats, private squares, houses of politicians past and present.  The Exchange itself was a cheap, concrete and glass construction standing on a curve in the road.  Inside it was a barn-like cavern of emptiness more like a warehouse than a government office.  On the ground floor men lined up to sign in, weekly.  Upstairs there were cubicles where the men were interviewed and sent off to jobs in the neighbourhood, that is, if they couldn’t think of a reason not to go.  Back then there was no signing in by mail.  The unemployed came in person and signed on a beige-coloured oblong card.  If there was a scribbled marking on the card they were pulled aside to speak to a supervisor.

The mood was sullen.  The men who came in – there were very few women – wore baggy, slightly musty clothes and shuffled, sometimes resentfully, at times with a more pugnacious air, pushing forward, elbowing their way through hard times, mentally speaking.  Some wore striped waiters’ pants, and I knew from the cards they worked in restaurants in various ways.  Some had longish hair and clear, resonant voices, and they were registered as actors.  The others were even more worn down, more in retreat.  They answered yes or no, and didn’t look you in the eye.  They were registered as labourers and had the fattest files, the greatest number of beige cards per man.

I couldn’t help figuring out those men though I knew I couldn’t have got close to them if I’d tried.  They interacted as little as possible, once they got up to the counter.  It was us versus them.  At the same time, I knew who they were.  I could see who they were from several yards’ distance, because classifying people, putting each person in the right box with the right social label is a habit virtually all the British have, and I’d grown up with it.  Coming of age in England in the fifties and into the sixties was rather like being at the centre of an enormous jigsaw puzzle that made up the social world, the only world worth knowing.  People came in different shapes and with different coloured markings and you instinctively fitted them into the whole, this one here, that one over there, until you had the picture, different subdivisions of class, region, right, deprivation, people more or less close to despair.  The exercise was entirely passive, completely uninvolved.  It filled up a space in your head and passed the time.  Speaking for myself, I needed that space filled.  I needed to put up fences.  I needed to be frozen inside.  I believed then that was as far down as you could go.  I know now there is much greater suffering, much greater confusion, a cruelty and an indifference of an entirely different order.


My job for the first few weeks was to hunt down lost cards.  I was a trainee Executive Officer, meaning I didn’t have specific work responsibilities but rotated from department to department learning how things were done.  I was started off in Claims, given a list of letter-number codes standing for Social Insurance numbers and expected to find the corresponding beige card.  In the main work area there were dozens of rectangular cardboard boxes filled with sign-in cards – these were current claims – and along the sides were those weighty steel filing cabinets which clanked when you opened them.  The filing cabinets looked as if they could’ve withstood several flying bombs in World War Two, and quite possibly had.  They held the expired claims, and this was where the men who were most down-and-out were most likely to be found.  I think my job was called Forensics, or something vaguely menacing like that.  Of course, they could’ve called it Lost Cards but if they had the supervisor could just have made a new card and that could only be done after an unspecified number of weeks of searching.  In the meantime, I went from cardboard box to cardboard box and from there to the mammoth-sized filing cabinets, and I watched the big, round institutional clock on the wall as its minute hand jerked forward like an involuntary spasm.  At one o’clock I was released for one hour.  At five I was free for the day.

The people I worked with were salt of the earth types, native Londoners, not Cockneys – strictly speaking, Cockneys are East Enders – but people with similar feelings of solidarity.  They wouldn’t look outside their group for friendship.  They were clerks, not executive level, and almost all women.  They were pleasant enough but I’m sure they knew I didn’t belong.  I was from the suburbs.  In addition, I wore miniskirts and brightly coloured clothes and straightened out my hair with curling tongs to give it the London look.  I’ve always been young looking, and I must’ve looked as if I was just out of school.  The only time I can remember any of them speaking to me in any but a strictly routine, could-you-do-this way was when I came in one morning with puffy eyes, no doubt camouflaged with thick brown eyeliner and mascara.  The night before my boyfriend of the last year had finally broken up with me.  One of the younger women said, kindly, “What happened to you?”  I said, “I had a fight with someone”, and she nodded, as if she understood everything.


The boyfriend was the reason I was there, among other reasons.  He was also the reason I stuck it out, not because I thought he would come back – I knew with the certainty of the young that he’d shut me out for good – but because I knew I had to get out from where I was, and having my job and going to work each day was the only way I knew to do that.  I knew without being told I had to have the job I had to find another.  That was survival day to day.  As far as larger prospects went, the check I got at the end of the month paid my share of the rent in a semi-basement flat in Swiss Cottage.  I lived there with three other girls I’d been friends with at university.  (We were all girls in those days.  We became women only when we did something for other people like having a baby or working long-term in a profession.)  The flat was in bad shape, damp, described as a “garden flat” in the advertisement – there was a weed choked, rather smelly garden sloping upwards from my bedroom window – but it wasn’t my parents’ home, and that was the main thing.  My parents’ house was a bigger emotional desert even than the Labour Exchange, and before I started working and still had to live there my father would come home in the evening with brochures on different solid, unexciting jobs – librarianship, nursing, things like that.  He’d throw them on the side table in the dining room when I was there and I’d feel his unspoken anger, his deep resentment tightly repressed.  Of course, my father was also telling me that he would have to pay, as he had paid for the teacher training year, or a good part of it.  My father’s anger had a violent quality to it, feeling more like an eruption of powerlessness than a reaction to my misdeeds.  It always made me recoil, though it was hard to erase the memory.

My brother was already in the Civil Service, and desperately unhappy.  He’d failed to get into university, at least to do Economics, which was what my father wanted, and he’d obligingly gone into the Estate Duty Office (handling death taxes) and begun to study law, which he had no interest in and no talent for.  Outwardly, he’d stopped fighting and he never really came back alive.  He was like a plant that had withered.  He’d poured acid over his own feelings so as not to rebel.  My poor mother was torn between concern for her children and loyalty to my father.  Her loyalty always won out.  I think she was the unhappiest of all of us.

My father wasn’t a bad man.  My boyfriend maybe was, in some respects.  He could sense other people’s trouble, their feelings of insecurity, and use his own awareness to put them down.  He knew how to create a strange kind of dependency because at times he made you feel he needed you but he gave almost nothing in return.  I still don’t understand how my boyfriend could do that, although I know now it’s something people do when their loyalties are split, when the people they believe they have to put first aren’t the people they want to be with or aren’t the people who’ll let them in close.  I was never one of those people.  I was never central to his life.  I suppose you could say he used me – in a way I couldn’t recognize.  He was older than I was and sophisticated – he knew his way around London, the restaurants, the streets, and the parking spots.  He knew people with comfortable London houses and some with self-important jobs.  Oddly enough, my father rather liked him.  My boyfriend would’ve been a good marriage prospect if it ever came to that, although I knew it wouldn’t.  It was my boyfriend’s idea that I shouldn’t teach, but my father was never angry at him.  It was only at me.

I remember one weekend, probably a Saturday, because I was feeling especially desolate and alone.  It was late afternoon and I was sitting in the Laundromat in Swiss Cottage waiting for my wash cycle to end.  My boyfriend still came up to the flat sometimes, though now we weren’t going out any more there were no ties.  He could come and go as he felt inclined.  He didn’t come every weekend, and once he phoned to cancel in the middle of a party, when there were other people around who would see I’d been let down.  Maybe that weekend he didn’t come or maybe he’d left already, I can’t remember.  What I remember is the view out of the window in the Laundromat, looking out onto a small square or a meeting of roads which forms the centre of Swiss Cottage, like a village square.  There was a collection of shops, a newsagent’s, a couple of small grocery stores, and a dress shop.  I was staring out and then I looked over at another young woman, a few years older than I was, a bit dowdy but not ordinary and with a poise I didn’t have, as if she’d know how to defend what was hers.  She was feeding men’s clothes into the washer, one or two pairs of pants, some shirts, and several dark grey woolen socks.  It was the socks that did it.  Loneliness poured over me like a warm wave.  I knew I was younger and prettier and probably sweeter and kinder than she was, and I had no one to wash for, no one to make a life with.  It’d always been my secret dream, never voiced, that when I came to London I’d work and share a flat with my boyfriend and here I was in the middle of the weekend with no one to talk to and nothing to do.  At that moment I believed I’d accomplished nothing since I’d left my parents’ house at nineteen and I cried, not because my boyfriend wasn’t there but for myself.  I felt like an overgrown, useless adolescent who would never quite escape from my parents’ home, someone who stood in the way of other people’s happiness, whom other people worried and stressed over and could never quite love.

It was 1968, Carnaby Street and the Rolling Stones.  Too much red wine, too much loud, raucous living on weekends.  It was a grey, overcast day in October with a chill that clings to the cheeks and hands and darkens the soul in the way only a drab London day can.


What young woman now cries over wet socks?  When I look around at the young women I see on the streets, confident, striding, I’m sure they would judge me for what I was then, for being lost, for that mix of sexual and social inadequacy that sapped my energy and hollowed out my self-esteem.  How could she do that to herself?  I’ve heard women ask often enough about other women, and I’ve always been careful not to say.  Because I know how hard it is to understand, even within yourself.

In eight months I was out of it.  I’d come home from the Labour Exchange in the evenings and search through the want ads in The Times.  I’d type out letters of application for all the jobs I thought I could do.  For months I heard nothing and suddenly, unpredictably, I had two interviews and was offered a job I liked.  I resigned from the Civil Service and never looked back.  Next I found a smaller, cleaner, warmer flat in a different part of London (also from The Times) and moved in with one of the girls from the Swiss Cottage (who brought her boyfriend).  I remember I used to count up on my fingers the things I needed to be happy:  job, flat, boyfriend.  The first two came fairly easily, the last took longer.  When I found him he was an American and I moved to the United States and from there to Canada.

Once I got established in North America, and after a time, I simply left it all off my CV, the Labour Exchange and the teacher training.  For a good few years I scarcely thought about it, but probably no one buries a part of their life without paying for it.  For me, that spell in the Labour Exchange prompted my initiation into public lying, or at least concealing a truth that mattered.  I don’t think I ever told my father my teaching diploma wasn’t valid until I’d done a year’s probationary teaching, and as I didn’t do that year I effectively threw my diploma away.  I don’t think I ever told my husband about the Labour Exchange or even about the teacher training.  I told him about the boyfriend but I don’t think it meant much to him.  I think to him I was always the way I seemed to be when he first met me, a bit unsure, more than usually anxious about open competition, more driven than he would have liked.  Once I began to falter it was like the chips were called in, though I had only the vaguest idea of what I’d been playing with in the first place.  I had no clear sense of my strengths and weaknesses, no clear view of what it took to succeed.  With a past I’d kept blurred it was more difficult to ask other people for help.

Though I still have trouble convincing myself I did anything much wrong in a personal moral sense.  I actually never much wanted to do the teacher training year, but when my father insisted I didn’t feel I was good enough at other things to oppose him.  When I started teacher training I intended to go through with it but with my boyfriend so against it my confidence drained away.  When I applied to the Civil Service I applied to the Department of Education but I can remember now how much the chair of the interview panel obviously disliked me.  He kept asking me questions about what my father did as if I had no identity of my own.  Or maybe the mini-skirt told him he could push me around.  In any case, when the letter came I found I’d been put in the Department of Employment and was told to report to the Labour Exchange on a certain day.  It was my first experience of institutional bullying, of being deliberately sidelined and having no recourse.

So I do know how young women can lose direction and self-belief.  I know how they can be made to pay, more for other people’s insensitivity, even malice, than for their own impulsiveness or over-readiness to trust.  And I know that I was lucky.  I didn’t have to live with other people’s impersonal, condemning judgment – What Kind Of A Person Could Do That? – all my life.


Catherine Watson has taught sociology, worked as a survey interviewer and as a temporary secretary. She is a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.