|The 40 In 40 Days Project.|
4. The Toy Store (1980)
The Au Pairs
in 1979, I had stayed on an extra term at boarding school in order to
sit the Oxbridge examinations. I was applying to join Christ’s College
Cambridge as a law student, where both my father and paternal
grandfather had studied. One of the people interviewing me was a
personal friend of my maternal grandfather (himself a QC and former
master of the Inner Temple), who had been tipped off in advance about
me. However, no nepotism in the world could have covered for the truly
pathetic interview which I gave, nor for the pitiful exam papers which I
submitted. Still, no matter – the Law department of Nottingham
University had offered me a place, commencing in the autumn 1980. My
future was secured.
So, how to fill the intervening nine
months? The idea of staying in the war zone that was the family home,
with my father and stepmother constantly rowing and constantly taking
their anger out on me, was just too awful to contemplate. Three years of
school holidays had done me quite enough emotional damage as it was. I
needed to escape.
Which is why I shall always be
eternally grateful to my aunt and uncle. No doubt knowing full well what
was going on up in North Nottinghamshire, they discreetly offered me
their spare bedroom in Loughton, Essex for the entire period, providing
I could find a job in London. And so I wrote letters to all the major
department stores, asking for work. Eventually, I was offered a job by
Hamleys of Regent Street, the world’s largest toy store, commencing in
On the morning of my last day at home,
my father came bursting into my room in a particularly filthy temper. He
was looking for an umbrella which he’d lent me a couple of days
earlier. While I had been using it, the button had somehow come off the
umbrella, so that it could no longer be closed properly. I hadn’t
dared tell him. Now he discovered it for himself. Flying into a rage, he
started trying to beat me on the backside with it. It’s the only time
he ever attempted violence towards me, and he wasn’t making a very
good job of it, but I was still already in tears when my stepmother
Sally entered the room.
In a parallel life, Sally could have
been a camp icon. With long blonde hair, a deep husky voice, a
theatrical manner and a sometimes outrageous dress sense, she exuded a
raddled glamour, a sexuality which could border on the threatening, but
also an underpinning, redeeming, vulnerability. Take equal measures of
Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter, Jilly Cooper, and Patsy Stone from Ab
Fab, and you’ll get the general idea. Seriously. I’m not joking.
Anyway, on that particular morning,
Sally was pure Alexis. She stood in the doorway, watching the pathetic
scene of enraged father smiting whimpering son, and then simply said, in
her iciest tones:
“John, don’t hit Michael. You might
break the umbrella.”
After breakfast, she spoke to me again.
“Michael, you are leaving this house
today. Frankly, up till now, you’ve been a bit of a bloody
disappointment. I hope that in the next few months, you’ll do some
On the train down to London, I resolved
never again to spend more than three or four consecutive nights at home.
I kept to that promise faithfully.
So, for the next few months, I commuted
between Loughton and Oxford Circus on the Central Line, and did my time
as a sales assistant on the ground floor of Hamleys. At the time, the
store was a few doors up from its current address, and the culture of
the place was still of the old fashioned, “Are You Being Served?”
variety. There were strict hierarchies within the company, and a great
deal of the usual (though new to me) management pettiness and employee
On the ground floor, there were a lot
of freelance product demonstrators who weren’t employed directly by
Hamleys. They were a great bunch, drawn to a great extent from
“resting” performers and musicians. Our Lego lady was a former
Tiller Girl, with legs to match. Our Pelhams puppets lady used to sing
with big showbands, such as Jack Parnell’s. In her younger days, our
Corgi lady used to do a “sexy stockings and suspenders” singing and
comedy act in the clubs – by then, she was getting jobs as an extra on
TV dramas such as Juliet Bravo. Our “Magic Plastic” demonstrator
(you know, those do-it-yourself balloon kits where you squeeze a blob of
gunk from a tube and inflate it – takes the polish off furniture, but
we don’t tell them that) had played some gigs with The Members
(“Sound Of The Suburbs”) and was forming a band with some former
members of X-Ray Spex. Most of them didn’t give a stuff about the job,
and so we’d have a good laugh and bitching session every lunchtime in
the Dog And Trumpet or the Shakespeare’s Head at the top of Carnaby
The biggest character of all, though,
was our floor manager – Keith. He had been a full-on hippy love child
in the 1960s (kaftans, bells, beads, flowers in the hair, technicolour
love-ins at Alexandra palace, the lot) and had never really recovered.
He claimed he’d “gone straight”, and so would sometimes attempt to
prove this by displays of excessive authoritarianism. The rest of the
time, he was a hoot. He would prowl round the floor like a subversive
caricature of Captain Peacock in a bubble perm, trying to score dope off
some of the younger assistants (and sometimes succeeding – you’d
occasionally see lumps of hash being flung over the counter at him in
full view of the punters), or sidling up to you while you were serving,
with a hardcore porn mag hidden inside a Hamleys bag, which he’d then
secretly show you as you were counting out the change (“What do you
think of the snatch on that, Mr. Slater?”)
Don’t get the wrong idea though.
Keith was immensely likeable and popular, and we developed a great
banter with each other. He saw me as something of a “project”, and
considered that, having led a sheltered life, I needed “bringing out
On one memorable occasion, Keith
approached me. “Mr. Slater, may I have a word with you please?”
“Certainly, Mr. H------“
“Some friends of mine are making a
pornographic movie, Mr. Slater, and I wondered whether you would be
interested in appearing in it. We are looking for an inexperienced,
spotty schoolboy type such as yourself.”
He outlined the plot for me. Scene One:
Mike walks down street, meets pretty lady. Scene Two: Mike and pretty
lady back at her place, getting jiggy with it, at length. Scene Three.
Pretty lady’s mother bursts in on us. She joins in. Scene Four.
Mother’s lady friend bursts in on us. She also joins in. Cue credits.
I politely declined. What, I explained,
would happen if my father were ever to see it?
I saved up my cash and in August 1980,
left Hamleys and went Interailing round Europe on my own for a month,
casting myself as Valerie Singleton in an extended “Blue Peter Special
Assignment” and not getting myself into nearly enough trouble.
Many years later, I met someone who had
worked at Hamleys a few years after me. I asked what had happened to
Keith. It turned out that he had got progressively weirder, and had
eventually taken his own life.
I did indeed do a lot of growing up down there.