Comment: Striking look back at life in the 70s

Today is the 40th anniversary of the announcement of the three-day working week, introduced by Edward Heath’s beleaguered (and soon ousted) government in 1973. How well I remember that winter of discontent and its endless strikes.

As a pupil in my first term at Watford Grammar, I stood for hours in the cold waiting for a bus that never came and then ate supper at home by candlelight. I hadn’t given the strikes a moment’s thought until an acquaintance rang me this week to ask if I could fix her teenage son up with some work experience on this paper because he longs to be a journalist. I get lots of these requests, often from people I barely know and I sometimes find myself advising parents not to let their son or daughter try journalism at their tender age, not because they lack talent, (how would I know, I’ve never met them?), but for fear that it will put them off.

Let them stack shelves in a supermarket or make beds in an old people’s home, I say, anything other than having a crack at their dream job. They need ideals at their age, please don’t let them lose their illusions just yet.

It wasn’t what this ambitious mum wanted to hear of course. Naturally, she was hoping that, with a good word from me, her son would get his foot in the door faster than all the other media wannabes out there.

It’s not that I mean to be discouraging or that I’m cynical about my own trade; it’s just that I spent a fortnight after my O- levels on a local paper (not this one!) and it succeeded in putting me off journalism for nearly 15 years.

How come? Well, since you asked, too many fat men, too many skinny, hard-bitten women, too much talk about bonking and too many tobacco stains on the newsroom walls were more than a 16-year-old ingenue could cope with (not to mention tea-making and photocopying).

Actually, I’m exaggerating. The real answer is I had naively hoped that my two weeks would see me rushing to road accidents, cornering criminals in their lair or catching county councillors with their hand in the till.

Instead I was asked to list cinema opening times and to interview a golden wedding couple. With the arrogance of youth, I left feeling journalism wasn’t for me, rather than listening to my instincts. What I didn’t appreciate is most jobs are just not designed for clueless school kids.

There is never a spare desk or computer for a start, busy people don’t have time for you and quite simply, deadlines can’t wait for a rookie to do something again and again until she gets it right. So, the poor “workie” gets envelopes to lick and often goes home wondering if the job is right for her after all.

I mentioned this to my daughters the other day when they were discussing what they want to do when they grow up. It’s important to listen to what your heart is telling you when considering career options, of course, but young people and their pushy parents don’t need to feel you have to get it right first time.

In fact, today’s over-indulged kids might find that spending a couple of months in a call centre or putting labels on jam pots knocks the corners off them.

When I was at school, I always fancied being a writer and if it hadn’t been for my bruising work experience, I might have tried it earlier. On the other hand, the circuitous route I took to get there, via sales, PR and radio research, taught me a great deal, as well as giving me a fund of anecdotes for my journalism.

Funnily enough, and this is where the strikes of the 1970s come in, my father was keen that I should go into personnel (now called HR) and was always telling me how fascinating it would be to work for a big organisation and get to negotiate with the unions. Silly man, he couldn’t have put me off more effectively if he’d tried.

To a teenage girl nothing, absolutely nothing, could have been less attractive than the prospect of being in the same room, never mind at the same table, with the sort of 1970s trade union leaders who popped up on telly every night, with their stained teeth, scowling faces and comb-overs.

You’re probably expecting me to say that despite all this, my next career move will be into HR. Well, no, I like the sound of my own voice too much to listen to other people’s grievances for long. But isn’t it curious that, given my adolescent dislike of hard-drinking, heavy-smoking men, I should have ended up in journalism?

Of all the things that surely must have been in that rough, dingy little stable 2,000 years ago, animal poo is not one that ever gets a mention.. After all, with the donkey Mary rode on and shepherds’ lambs, we can be sure there was plenty around.

The rudest thing I can remember about Christmas as a child was a carol that mentioned “a breast full of milk”, a pretty daft choice for primary school kids to sing, if I may say so.

Now, the nativity image is sanitised to the point of being glammed up. I have already received two Christmas cards that show Mary wearing a robe of deep, sumptuous purple, when the likelihood is she would have been in a grubby hessian smock.

So, hats off to Chenies Baptist Church for helping to show it like it was on Sunday evening. My daughters and I joined their torch-lit procession to a stable at North Hill Farm in neighbouring Sarratt for a short carol service in their barn, complete with hay on the floor, horses neighing and breaking wind and yes, that distinctive smell that would have assailed Mary’s nostrils.

The small barn was cold and dimly lit, the feeding troughs (mangers) were grimy and covered in dried animal spittle – a million miles away from the cosy Nativity scenes we see in department stores and most churches.

Thankfully, perhaps as a concession to the 21st Century, we were treated to hot apple juice and mince pies.

I just hope for Mary’s sake the innkeeper’s wife thought to bring her a hot toddy too.

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