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Interviewing with Jack M., a porter while Studs was in England

BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:12:22


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Studs Terkel Well, Jack M. is about forty-five has worked in hotels most his life. One of seven children, Cockney, lived on the East End, and I asked him when he started to work. He quit school at 14. We come into it now.

Jack M. Oh, I left school at 14 and I was started as a boots in a hotel on the coast and I'll never forget the manager said, "Well, you're too big for boots now." He said, "What are you gonna do, you stayin' in this trade or would you like to go in a garage or what?" I said, "I like this business very much." He said, "Right. I'll send you to the south of France for you to pick up some French." But of course, I went to Aix-les-Bains, actually "Bains", some people call it. And there was more Americans than English there than there were in [London?]. So I didn't pick up much French but the little I have learned has been a bit of a help, you know.

Studs Terkel You've been in the hotel trade, then, since you were 14. First, boots, when you say boots, you mean --

Jack M. Pageboy.

Studs Terkel Pageboy. First you opening the doors, you mean.

Jack M. That's right, yeah.

Studs Terkel So this has been your life for how long?

Jack M. I broke away from it quite a bit. I've been in, I been a London bus driver for about a year. I thought I'd do it because I wanted to -- Somebody said, "I'll bet you couldn't pass the bus driver's test." I says, "You drive a car but I bet you couldn't -- Test." So I broke away from my hotel specially to try it. And to my amazement I passed it. But after 12 months drivin' around London I got fed up with it, and as I said, "Hotel work's in my blood." I came back to it. Then I was an insurance agent. I've been all kinds of things.

Studs Terkel You say you were amazed when you passed the auto driver's test.

Jack M. Yeah, because it is such a, supposed to be such a stiff test, you go on the skid, then you -- Oh, it's a terrific test, really, though I say it myself. About -- I should say about 75 percent of 'em fail. So I must have been just lucky that day.

Studs Terkel Do you know London pretty well?

Jack M. Pretty well, yeah.

Studs Terkel You like London.

Jack M. I do, yeah.

Studs Terkel What is it about London that you like?

Jack M. I don't know. I've been all over England, in different parts of England, as I say, I've been abroad, I've been in the Merchant Navy as a steward. But after about a year I always wanna come back to London. I don't know what it is; it might be because I was born here, but I don't know. I always come back to London.

Studs Terkel The idea of the streets, you know, some of the streets have no numbers, just names, like Vigo Street, [unintelligible] Street. What's your memory, do you remember your first memories of London?

Jack M. My first memories of London when I -- I shouldn't forget the first round was about two and a half to three, and my mother used to go to a little, shop in Leytonstone, you see and I can remember it as vividly I can see you. They used to have these syphons of sodas round by the door, you know, and I always used to squirt the floor. That's my earliest memory.

Studs Terkel You remember as far back to two or three.

Jack M. Two or three, yeah.

Studs Terkel Where'd you live in London?

Jack M. Leytonstone.

Studs Terkel That's what, what kind of area was it?

Jack M. It's just on the borders of Epping Forest.

Studs Terkel Tell me, what are the changes? All those years you growing up. London has undergone many changes, you know. What's the biggest change?

Jack M. Oh, yes, I remember when I first came out of the Army even only in 1945. It was very hard to get a taxi in London so I bought an old car and I did some car hire work on me own account just used to stand outside these restaurants in Soho and I used to do pretty well until they got more taxis on the road. And I remember I was pitched outside a restaurant just off Leicester Square and on a Sunday I couldn't get a restaurant with a decent meal in it on a Sunday anywhere around Soho. You wouldn't believe, we all closed Sundays. So I went right out to Golders Green, used to be a Jewish restaurant out there and I'm a boy for me food, you know, I go miles if I'm hungry, specially if I get something decent, don't mind if it's me last pound note, I'd spend it on food. And I used to go right out to Golders Green for a decent place to eat right from the West End. All the decent places you'd seen'd be closed on a Sunday. Funny, wasn't it?

Studs Terkel And today?

Jack M. Today there's thousands of different restaurants opened.

Studs Terkel That's one of the big changes in London. What else, the automobile is more the streets today, too.

Jack M. There's one thing I wish I'd done, I don't know why, but when I was about 18 I came back from France and somebody said to me, "You would make a butler." So I thought I might do. So I went to this agency in Marylebone, you know, a big agency for private service and this Mrs. Hunt, she's dead now, the original owner of it. She said, "Yes, I think you'd do as a butler," she said. "But you have to be a footman first." So I interview this big man in Chelsea, and he said, "Yes, I think you'll do as a footman." He said, "You'll make a butler later on." Well, I was already been in the hotels and I been around France for one thing and another and my father stopped me goin'. I don't know why. He said, "You don't want a sissy job like that." He said, "You stay in hotels." He said, "You're not a sissy." He said, "You -- private service?" He said, "Never heard of it for a boy like you." So I listened, you see? But I often wonder if I'd have gone into that. Some of these butlers gettin' very good money now, you know.

Studs Terkel That's interesting, you would like to have been a butler.

Jack M. I would have done it.

Studs Terkel Your father thought it was sissy work because it was private service, is that it?

Jack M. Yeah,

Studs Terkel yeah. Did he feel, too, maybe that as a butler like at a hotel -- How can I put it some more -- Was your father conscious of class? Was --

Jack M. No, not as a matter of fact my father was a very regular kind of a man, you know, he was very broad-minded but, it's just that he didn't fancy me goin' into private service. I don't know why.

Studs Terkel John, this matter of class, you know we [allowed?] to talk about class, the welfare state, do you feel there has been a change in attitudes of people?

Jack M. Oh, yes, I think that before they had this welfare state I think people were more conscientious in their work. Since they've had that I -- Although I think it's a good thing for those who are ill or deserve it. It also creates a lot of spongers, you see, I mean there's a man livin' down my way, he says to me, "You're still workin' at your age?" I said, "Well, I'm not that old." He's about my age, I suppose he thinks we're getting on, I don't know what, he must be ill, I should think, I mean I feel as young, really. He said, "You'll want to do what I do." He said, "Go on the welfare state." He said, "I've been on it for four years now." I said, "Really?" And he said, "I'll bet you I get as much money as you." I said, "I dare say you do." I said, "But I'm not built that way, I don't want to lie about." And that is really a curse for men like that in my opinion.

Studs Terkel You think then, are there many such men, you think, who sponge off --

Jack M. Oh, I don't know, but I should think there is a fair amount, yes, I should think, yes.

Studs Terkel But, for though you say, you're not opposed to national health.

Jack M. Oh, no, I think really it's a good thing really, because I remember when I was a boy, I mean to say, I mean I was all right. My father always seemed to get a livin', used to do a bit of buyin' and sellin', you know, but I've seen people walkin' about pickin' up dog ends and they'd knock on your door and ask for a bit of bread and butter. Oh, it was terrible. But now to those days it's to me I feel like a rich man to what I used to feel like in those -- Although I wasn't right on the floor myself, the environment was there, do you understand what I mean? And I could smell it! And you had to be on your toes all the time, otherwise you'd fall with the others, you see, it kept you on your toes. That's what I was trying to say just now. You see, but now they know they can get this money, a lot take liberties with it.

Studs Terkel We -- You think with the welfare state some of the initiative has gone.

Jack M. I do.

Studs Terkel Would you prefer to go back to the old days?

Jack M. Well, I I would, really. I think myself if a man can't get a livin', if he's healthy, mind you, he ought to starve. That's my opinion, really, because I mean to say, that so many as I say I know that I don't know how many but I know there's a lot of people definitely taking advantage of this welfare state and I do think that if it was to go, if it -- we never will, I don't suppose, but I do think if they'd a stayed without the welfare state, it would've been a better country. And another thing I think in my little mind is this: that when they dropped the national service, that was another mistake.

Studs Terkel The national service, was that conscription?

Jack M. Yeah.

Studs Terkel Why was that a mistake?

Jack M. Well, I don't know really, but I I I should have thought that it would have made these youngsters more of a man, do you understand? I mean, I mean you've only got to look around England now, the youngsters of today, they're not men, half of 'em, are they? Would you call them -- you know? There's something missin', in my opinion. What do you reckon? Hey? Not all of them, but in a great number.

Studs Terkel You feel an army service would make more --

Jack M. I do, yeah.

Studs Terkel How do you feel about the young, with big changes taking place?

Jack M. Well, I mean I think, of course a lot of them are very intelligent and very nice young people but there's that there is that there are too many that are layin' about without havin' any proper training. That's how I see it. They're just been left to kind of drift without any anchor or anything, you know what I mean? Like a ship without an anchor. They're just driftin', aren't they?

Studs Terkel You think there was more drifting youth today than there were before the welfare state.

Jack M. I do.

Studs Terkel Is it that then each person knew his place, is that the idea? Every man knew his place?

Jack M. Yes. Yes. I mean to say, you take a man in a job. I mean, they used to be so more polite. I mean, if you was to go into a shop years ago, you got such better service, but now I don't know if you've noticed yourself, and if it's like that in your country, but they don't seem to care if they serve you or not. I don't say all, but in a lot of cases. Well, before the war you didn't get anything like that. It was "Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full." You know, and they could do anything for you. And they was, well, they were different all together to what they are now. Different world.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And thus the night porter, Jack M. at the hotel was reflecting. He has much more to say. Perhaps I'll play him in full at some future date. Primarily it was that sequence concerning today and yesterday, himself knowing his place, as sort of a postscript to the conversation with Professor Richard Hoggart.