The Wings of Youth
The Scottish Executive has just sent me a newsletter suggesting that as the demographic time-bomb is upon us, I should get used to the idea of employing older workers. Why should I? I am quite happy with my current girls aged 67,61,60,42 and 35. At 66 myself, I know that Younger People come, and then equally quickly, go. Witness my Saturday staff; where are they now?
They were students, or schoolboys: Thomas, the school dux, and later brother Stephen, now a town planner. Craig, the archetypal Scots Nationalist, went to work in the Foreign Office: the man who came to vet him asked me if he were patriotic. ‘Intensely!’ I replied, swallowing hard. Tim, tall and methodical, endlessly trying to reduce the chaos of the far corner by arranging the art books in alphabetical order, despite their diverse sizes – last heard of producing mathematical models for underwater lava flows. Next Will, who was outraged by a customer telling him ‘If I employed you, I’d get you to cut your hair.’ I told him that I was more interested in what was inside his head, and so was Oxford University, where he graduated with the best English degree of his year, and is now a fellow, despite never somehow having mastered the craft of floor cleaning.
Andrew, whose mother had run off with his trust fund, persuaded me to open on Sundays and weekday lunches; he would work the new shifts and if it didn’t pay would take nothing. That American entrepreneurial streak also saw him caddying, but under the less dignified pseudonym of Bob. If, in that pre-digital age, he got to the Swilcan bridge and realised his clients weren’t going to tip, he would cut their heads off when taking their photos. When Andrew went on to do a doctorate at Cambridge, a local caddy told me Bob’s Punting Tours were doing very well there. He handed over to Nick, who also got a first class degree, and, on the strength of that and his debating skills, got into Michael Mansfield’s chambers as a trainee barrister and is now in Manchester specialising in human rights. Last time he visited I hardly recognised him until I heard the familiar Ulster twang. Then another Craig, who managed to translate everything written in foreign golf magazines about the Quarto except for the Japanese article – last heard of working for the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, doing field work on the border between those old rivals, the East Germans and the Poles.
Saturday girls and female students formed another equally diverse bunch; two actors, the Deputy Mayor of Hackney, a University lecturer and two doctors among them. One actor wrote to tell me that she had just landed the part of the young Princess Diana in a made-for-TV film called Whatever Love Means. ‘I’ll send you a picture of me as Her, if you promise not to sell it to the paparazzi… unless you’re really really broke!’ I hope they don’t divulge how much better at cleaning floors they were than their male counterparts or, in the words of my old college head, ‘Someone will have them doing it for ever.’ One of the medics came back full of excitement, having registered for a bone marrow matching scheme and been told she was a possible match. ‘Just think: it could save his life!’ When she described the procedure she almost had to resuscitate me. My current junior staff have both just achieved first class honours degrees, and will be off like migrating swallows any day now, while the father of a four years ago Saturday girl dropped in to tell me that Jenny has a first in psychology from Glasgow, as did her colleague, Luke, from Cambridge. He painted golfing murals on our walls before taking a year off to cycle up South America, and is now learning Chinese.
They never stay, they want wider horizons, and who can blame them?
Customers, on the other hand, except for the students, get older and older. I wonder if it is only retirement that liberates people to read books again, or if the computer habit is creeping up the age range, so that soon only over sixties will turn to books as a first choice in the evenings while others trawl the net, play their computer games or visit porno sites. A few younger people do visit with their frighteningly intelligent children, who at nine appear to have read everything in the children’s section and are currently looking for books on astronomy or the Roman Empire.
The other day a thirty-something man told me he remembered being brought to the shop as a child while his dad looked for golf books. Apparently he only learned that the Quarto possesses a downstairs section last summer, on asking for theology books. Try as I might, I couldn’t wind back the years and imagine him as a ten year old, or think who his dad might have been. I hope it wasn’t the golfer who rejected my offer for Henry Cotton’s My Swing with contumely because ‘He’s put in all his own ideas about how to do it and such like, I thought it must be worth much more than that!’ I could bring to mind no golfer, from Harry Vardon to Harvey Penick, who had put in someone else’s ideas about how to do it, but merely shrugged and told him it was the market price. Could the dad perhaps have been the Mr Galloway who was co-opted into the Bass Rock Golf Club for their annual match with Dirleton Castle on the first tee? According to the History of the Bass Rock Golf Club, the Club Secretary would like to contact Mr Galloway, who never paid for his post match refreshments, despite having saved the Bass Rock from their usual ignominious defeat. Possibly his dad didn’t even buy golf books. He could have been the organist who bought a 20 pence copy of some music: ‘I can sight read this easily enough, there’s no point practicing Bach for hours if all they’re going to do is chat through it. This is good enough back-ground music.’ Or he could have been the customer who told me about a really old book of poetry (1910) by Samuel Taylor. After much research I asked if it could possibly be Samuel Taylor Coleridge. ‘Oh, I thought Coleridge was the publisher!’ Perhaps it’s as well I don’t know who his father was: he seems a very pleasant chap, and I shouldn’t visit the sins of the father upon him. He could well be the son of the wonderful man who ran down the street after a shoplifter in the very first Open we were open, and snatched back the most valuable book in the shop; or the son of the customer who always raised his hat to me.
Those habits died with the generation reared in the sixties: now that everyone from the sales person who tries to get me to change my telecomm account to the student researcher calls me ‘Margaret’, it is almost a sign of intimacy for anyone to call me ‘Mrs Squires’, as do the man who has cleaned our windows for thirty six years and the customer who writes as well as buys books on music. Just as well I still employ Saturday staff, or I would get set in my ways as a grumpy old woman deploring modern youth and their lack of manners.
© Margaret Squires 2005