Are You Being Served?

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

The photo above, which I took in 1981, shows Bloomsbury Square, London, following a seasonal snowfall. At the time that I took the photo, I was working part-time at Selfridges, a well-known department store on nearby Oxford Street.

In previous posts, I’ve described how I moved to London in October 1981, to begin my studies for an Electronic Engineering degree at Imperial College.

In Britain, each undergraduate academic year is divided into three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. There’s a short Christmas break between the Autumn and Spring terms, and another Easter break between the Spring and Summer terms. Typically, during the short breaks, young students return home to their parents, and take the time off.

My family situation, however, was somewhat different. My father had died in 1979, and my mother was struggling to support herself, so I did not feel that I could just go back and expect her to support me as well. Instead, I decided that I would try to stay in London and obtain temporary work during the short breaks. I found that it was possible to stay in my student accommodations during the breaks if I paid additional rent.

Finding suitable work turned out to be relatively easy, but, in retrospect, I have come to doubt that the job choices I made were for the best.

The Scarborough Pattern

During my schooldays, I had become accustomed to seeking work in menial jobs during the school holidays. In a seaside resort like Scarborough, that usually meant working as a waiter in a hotel or café, or perhaps as a shop assistant. Even if I had had the skills to do more sophisticated work at that age, such work was probably not available in that town anyway.

Thus, when I found myself becoming a student again, this time in London, I fell into the mindset of seeking out types of temporary work that were similar to those that I’d done in Scarborough.

That was a mistake; I should have searched for jobs that would have made better use of my special skills, and would probably have paid better. I was in the very unusual situation of having just worked fulltime in accounting for 2 years prior to starting my studies. Surely, in a world financial center such as London, I could have obtained some temporary work in that field!

The only good aspect of these menial jobs was that the experiences have left me with a cache of anecdotes about the events that occurred.

Mister Selfridge

Prior to the Christmas break for my first academic year in London, I applied to Selfridges Department Store for a sales assistant position, and was accepted.

As a teenager growing up during the 1970s, I was very familiar with the popular (but low-brow) situation comedy series Are You Being Served?, which actually ran on the BBC from 1972 through 1985. The show was set in a fictitious London store called Grace Brothers, but, as I was to discover, the staff uniform of Grace Brothers was strangely similar to that of Selfridges.

More recently, Selfridges has gained worldwide fame as a result of the television series Mister Selfridge, which portrays the early history of the business. Although the TV series used specially-built sets to depict the store, many of these seemed very accurate, and reminded me of the rooms and corridors within the huge building.

The illustration below is an advertisement that Selfridges ran in a 1964 book about London boroughs.

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

There are many stories to tell of surprising and amusing incidents that I experienced while working at Selfridges (and also at Harrods, during one break), or in some cases heard about from other employees, but there isn’t room to tell all of them in this article. Between Christmas 1981 and Spring 1983, I worked in several different Selfridges departments, including luggage, gifts, and finally electronics.

The Electronics Department

In this article, I’ll jump ahead to what turned out to be my final stint as a part-time employee at Selfridges. During the Spring of 1983, I worked Saturdays-only in the Electronics Department in the Oxford Street store.

Now, surely, this department was ideal for me. After all, I was an undergraduate EE student, so now I would be able to bring that knowledge directly to bear in helping Selfridges’ customers. While that turned out to be true, I discovered later that my special skills were not received in a similar light by the department’s regular staff. Although the store hired many students as part-time workers, there was also a substantial staff of full-time employees, whose entire career was wrapped up in their work there.

One Saturday, I was standing at the counter in the Electronics Department when I was approached by an apparently exasperated customer. He explained to me that he wanted to power an item of equipment from a 12V car battery. He knew the maximum current that the battery could supply, but didn’t know whether the battery could supply sufficient power for the equipment.

I explained to him the simple equation relating electrical power to voltage and current (W = VI) that I’d learned during my O-level Physics classes at school. We were able to determine that his battery would be able to supply more than sufficient power for the equipment.

After we’d finished performing the calculation, the customer had a question for me:

“How come I’ve asked this question of every assistant in this department, and you’re the only one who could tell me?”

I responded, truthfully, that it was probably because I was the only undergraduate electrical engineering student working in the department.

I thought nothing more of the incident, which seemed at the time to be just another of the usual daily problems that arose, and which I had successfully handled. My Saturdays-only employment terminated by mutual consent, and as far as I was aware, there was nothing but goodwill between myself and my employer.

The Assistant Who Knew Too Much

When I subsequently applied for re-employment during Christmas 1983, I received the following surprising and mystifying response:

Rejection!

Rejection!

I can only believe that, unbeknown to me until then, my unusual expertise in electronics had ruffled some feathers somewhere among the store’s fulltime staff. The content of the letter is strangely brusque and unhelpful; it’s obviously a form letter, personalized with my name and address, but not the date!

Unfortunately, there are no photos of me working at Selfridges (or at any of the other London locations where I did temporary work). However, the photo below was taken at about the same time that I was doing those Saturday stints at Selfridges, and just after I had produced a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard at the Imperial College TV Studio.

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard, 1983

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

In retrospect, then, I have come to believe that working in those menial jobs was a mistake, and I recommend others in a similar situation to think very seriously before committing to such work.

The issue isn’t simply that you’ll be wasting your time and skills, and perhaps accepting lower compensation than necessary in return. There’s also the problem that your superior skills are likely to cause resentment among others, who in some cases may go to considerable lengths to combat what they see as your “unfair advantage”.

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

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