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Memories of P5 in the sixties

by   “Lilac Lil ”

“Lilac Lil” was a name given to me by the section head of P5B, a weird character who travelled up to London by train from Brighton each day. He had a detailed knowledge of Dingwall having spent many holidays there and was always interested to know what was going on in the area on my trips home.

My section head was a fellow Scot, Alex Laing, who seemed to approve of me. "Better than the last one" was his comment on the CO who joined his section taking over duties from Dave Martin. Dave had been told by Alex that I was all his. Did Alex have psychic powers, perhaps?

There were many quirky characters in Cornwall House and in particular in the P5 sections, which handled purchasing of commercially published UK and foreign books and periodicals. The surroundings might have been drab and dreary, but the personalities certainly were not and P5A, where I began my HMSO life, had its fair share of memorable folk.

To begin with there was John Terry. "The boss speaks very highly of you" was one of his oft-repeated expressions, closely followed by "You are falling down on the job." In common with many in those days, John regarded his annual leave allowance as 15 days plus 5 Whitleys. Notwithstanding this, he was a professed Christian (a member of the Exclusive Brethren) and a family man.

Bill Batho used to cycle umpteen miles to work and each morning would arrive in the office with cycle clips in place. He brought his lunch in his rucksack as he didn't believe in using the canteen, whether for reasons of menu, hygiene or other I never found out. He was a kind considerate guy who enjoyed outdoor pursuits. He was very fitness aware for a man of his years (early 40’s then seeming to a teenager like the far end of life!), a rugged and weather-beaten character with a heart of gold.

Harry Smith was an eccentric who was always trying to make anagrams out of people’s names. Work didn't seem to bother him or affect his mood. He was very absent-minded and on many an occasion at the end of the working day would go looking for his car in the car park only to remember that he had used the train that day. The reverse would occur as well. He would go for the train and then remember that the car was in the car park. He was probably the founder of laid-back philosophy.

Nelson Miller was a quiet shy person who was interested in jazz. He played either clarinet or saxophone but didn't seem to have much time to follow his hobby as he looked after and cared for his ageing mother. Every so often life would get too difficult for Nelson and the work dockets would be thrown in the air with Nelson shouting that he couldn't cope any longer. His phrase was "My concentration has gone". These outbursts would occur fairly frequently and he would be signed off for weeks at a time, which sometimes meant overtime for his colleagues when his work could otherwise be cleared. It was an ill wind . . .

Just about everyone in the P5 area that I joined as a 16-year old in 1962 seemed then to me to qualify for the description “a character”. I wonder if the office sections of today would strike me similarly? I’ll never know! More recollections at another time perhaps.
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