10 May 2009


Towards the end of the Second World War my mother went for a job interview. Her husband was serving in Egypt with the Eighth Army. She had not set eyes on him since early in 1940: and would not do so again until the end of 1945. Her current employer, a manufacturer of bombsights, was on the verge of bankruptcy caused by mismanagement and waste.

The interview was conducted by a Mr Weiss, a Viennese businessman who had escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth, his life having been saved by a phone call saying that arrest was only minutes away. He had fled Austria with his wife and two suitcases, together with her jewellery and whatever sum of cash he had been able, in the anxiety of the preceding weeks, to scrape together and convert into precious metal. His house, his thriving business, his extensive factory, Weiss had bequeathed to Hitler.

Soon after his arrival in London war had broken out and he had been temporarily interned as a suspicious alien. On release he had bought a manufacturing business in the town where my mother then lived. The business was very small, not much more than a kitchen-table outfit, but he was working it up and needed a personal assistant, a secretary, someone intelligent and responsible who, if he were away trying to drum up trade, could make decisions on his behalf.

My mother had left school at fourteen, when she was miraculously chosen from a snaking queue of girls and their mothers who had heard that a job was vacant in a box factory. By dint of voracious reading and night school she educated herself and became proficient in shorthand and typing, skills which in the 1930s could lift a girl out of the swamp and into the uplands of office work. The factory made boxes for a large and very famous London department store. At sixteen she was transferred to the store itself, being given, for her first day, the humiliating job of wandering the floors selling Boat Race favours – little ribbons in dark or light blue – from a tray suspended by a strap round her neck. She had been given this job because she was pretty: more than pretty, and she attracted a steady stream of customers, preponderantly young and preponderantly male. The following day she was found some proper work to do.

By this time her typing speed and accuracy were impressive, thanks to the night school, though she knew she had more progress to make. From the typing pool she soon found herself appropriated by a management type, the head of legal affairs, who needed a secretary. Quickly realizing what he had, this excellent man encouraged my mother in every fatherly way, and under his tutelage she began to learn a great deal about human nature, the judicious exercise of authority, and the way the world works. But in the course of time she was poached by someone higher up, the son of the owner, and then by the owner himself. In 1938 she married and left the company. Had she stayed, I don’t doubt that she would have ended up on the board.

So there she was, in 1944, not just being interviewed by Mr Weiss but also – if he did but know it – interviewing him. She liked what she saw, she needed the job, and he offered it to her.

Mr Weiss wished to get back to the industry he knew best, making electrical fittings. That was what he had been doing in Vienna. A few months after the interview, he found some suitable premises, a smallish factory that had been used for light assembly. He assumed there would be no difficulty with the planning permission, with the change of use: what concerned him more was getting the necessary certification to make the metal parts for his plugs and sockets. Priority was given to “war work” – manufacturing directly related to the struggle against Germany.

To his surprise, the town council turned down his application for change of use. The factory was located at the end of a somewhat lowly residential street, but the use Weiss was proposing was no more disruptive than the last: he couldn’t make it out.

Meanwhile, the request for certification was in train. Having seen what had gone on at the bombsight factory, my mother had a jaundiced view about this. She reasoned also that electrical fittings were crucial to the war effort in many different ways, and had felt no compunction in applying for the most enabling permission there was.

The local official charged with dispensing such permissions was a man of about my mother’s age. Somewhat unconventionally, he invited her to lunch to discuss the matter, and during the conversation my mother mentioned her employer’s troubles with the town hall.

“Oh,” said the man. “That factory? He’ll never get his hands on it.”


“Course not.” He gave her a conspiratorial smile. “You know. He’s one of those.”

“One of what?”

“The Chosen.”

If her life had worked out differently, my mother might have been an actress. She could maintain a most equable front, no matter what was going on inside. At this critical moment she managed to produce a smile of her own, a counterpart of the one he had given her.

“Thompkins wants it,” he went on, thinking that he had achieved his goal and impressed her with his inside knowledge. “The builder. He’s on the council. The planning committee, as a matter of fact.”

“That explains it.”

“Oh yes. Thing is, he’s having trouble raising the money. We’re at the same lodge, you know.” The Masonic Lodge.

On my father’s left hand, somewhere in Egypt, was a gold ring. Its companion, in plain sight, was on my mother’s hand. The official reached in his pocket and brought out a comb, a woman’s comb, unused, in a paper wrapper. It was not easy to get such things in wartime. “Would you like this?” he said. “I came by it yesterday. I thought it might be of some use to you.”

My mother looked at the comb, gave another smile, and accepted, thinking of her friend Mr Weiss. Thereupon she skilfully steered the official away from asking for a date, but left him with a faint impression that such a request, in the future, might not be declined.

When she got back to the office she made a telephone call. During her time working for the head of legal affairs, she had had many dealings with London’s leading firm of planning consultants. She now engaged them on behalf of Mr Weiss and his application.

A few days later the certification came through. The proposed factory would have A1 Priority, meaning it would have no trouble sourcing machine tools, brass, steel – everything it needed. The day after that, Mr Weiss received a call from the agent handling the sale. Was he still interested? Another buyer was in the frame.

Instantly Weiss knew that the other buyer was offering less: why else should he have been called? He said he was engaged at the moment and asked whether he might call back in ten minutes. He needed time to think.

The planning consultants had by no means arrived at a definitive answer, but would if necessary go over the heads of the town hall and appeal to Whitehall. My mother had naturally divulged this to Weiss, but not the full contents of her lunchtime chat.

Weiss told her what the agent had said. What should he do?

“Buy it.”

He looked away, racked with indecision, and looked back again.

“You did ask me, Franz. I say buy it.”

He bought the factory, for the full asking price. My mother later learned, with quiet satisfaction, of the anger and discomfiture of Thompkins. The business was successful; she became a director and worked with Mr Weiss until 1954, when he died of a heart attack and his wife took over.

His wife was a different sort of woman altogether, and my mother resigned in 1955 to start her own business, but that, as you are already half expecting me to say, is another story.


paulkbiba said...

Fascinating, I'd love to hear the rest of the story.


A Fan said...

Quite fitting for Mother's Day (here in the US). Thank you!