Atlantic House, 1971

By John Wellington Wells

I ought to begin with an apology: I now work for the organisation that demolished Atlantic House and replaced it with a functional but anonymous post-modern slab. (Nobody asked me about this, let me say.) Not that the old Atlantic House was a thing of beauty, but it had a certain character, possibly because of the certain characters it once contained. The first dispersal had already been perpetrated by the time I joined HMSO, so Atlantic House was the domain of Publications, P&B, CRS and other stubbornly metropolitan outfits and what a cast of characters was there. Maud Rix, Charles Golding, Harry Edwards, Muriel Searle, Paddy Epstein, Margot Carpenter, Stan Smith, Alec Gravatt, Ivy Lee, Charlie Walker and Eddie Sargent every one of them a fully paid up character. ‘Where are the office characters of today?’ I asked Is*b*l W*ll**ms*n a few years ago. ‘Look in the mirror, dear,’ she replied. Sauce! But I digress, no apology required, constant digression being the saving grace of senile reminiscence.

Young people smile when you tell them that thirty-five years ago the most junior staff did not qualify for arms on their chairs, and that linoleum — or to be precise the degree to which it was covered up — was a status symbol: people would get very exercised about the precise size of the piece of carpet they were allocated if, that is, they were grand enough to get one at all. On the other hand there wasn’t a computer to be seen, the one and only fax machine was as remote and mysterious as the Oracle at Delphi, and hi-tech was represented by our brand new calculators operated by whizzing a knob round and round. And, of course, the place was a constant fug of tobacco smoke. There was even a tobacconist’s kiosk in the D floor (Holborn Viaduct) foyer, though it soon closed down and smokers had to nip out to stock up in local shops. I sometimes wonder if I dreamt of Gamages. It seemed to vanish overnight leaving not a wrack behind. I have dim memories of staircases everywhere and a bewilderingly arbitrary range of products. (There is a whole piece waiting to be written on department stores of yesteryear: Swan & Edgar, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Derry & Toms — and Dickens & Jones are about to shut too.)

In Pubns the day’s batch of publications came round in a large blue plastic folder for all to see. Looking back, what a lot there were! Some, it is true, were of anaesthetic dullness (amendments to Abrasive Wheels Regulations, anyone?) but there were some really excellent reads in there, from guides to the Lake District to the ABC of Cookery to War Histories to British Poisonous Plants (which I still have a copy of for use if I’m ever in a tight corner.) I don’t know if it’s the ink or the paper, but books used to smell better then than they do now. Half the pleasure of the Blue Bag was sniffing the books. No, really! Would you pass me my pills, please? I’ll be all right in a moment.

Perhaps someone can, at last, enlighten me what the purpose of the volume called ‘the H5’ was. It was a list of something or other, was subsequently renamed the Accounts 520, and Norah Henderson told me firmly that I had to keep it up to date. I don’t know that I ever actually opened it and I certainly didn’t do anything else to it. No disaster seems to have been precipitated by this dereliction.

In a recent email to habitués of this site Reg, our genial Editor, mentioned the Craven Club. There has clearly been a breach of security here: only CRS were supposed to know about the Craven Club. I could tell you a thing or two about the Craven Club if only I could remember them. But there were other favourite watering holes: I dimly recall reeling out of the Brahms and Liszt wine bar with Stan Smith, and emerging from another on a bright summer day as Alec Gravatt thoughtfully observed, ‘I hate coming out of pubs in daylight: it seems all wrong.’ It was Alec, too, who puffing up a flight of stairs complained, ‘They’ve taken out all the old steps and put steeper ones in.’ Aetat nineteen I thought he was joking. In my fifties, I’ve discovered he was right. Heigh-ho! More anon if anyone is minded to read this stuff.