The mid to late twenties of my life was a period lived in the principal town of Sutton in the South of London. These years were challenging, exciting, creative, sad, productive, frightening and inspiring. In these years the core of who I am today was formed. These were my nocturnal years and if I had almost been broken by hardship and sadness - these years would remain in my biography if the option to have changed it had ever existed.
I arrived from Australia when the world was in an economic recession and I quickly moved into a boarding room in Sutton, after a brief period living with my Auntie in Morden. I had managed to find a job and was most grateful for it. The work was in a cinema. I should have known the job would have its challenges when Kathy the supervisor phoned through the offer - "The job is yours; if you really want it!!!!"
I started this job one afternoon and worked in the confectionery section from midday until 10 in the evening. The customers would turn up before each film and order the popcorn or the nachos or the hotdogs. Racing around and filling the orders. There was little time to day dream - something I am rather prone to do. It was hardly a mental challenge but I was just happy to be earning some money and to be engaging with the world in a practical manner. Before this I had been studying philosophy for many years and it was as if my anchor had been detached - and I had been drifting between a sea of ideas and a sea of the material.
The pay was minimal and barely covered living expenses. To compensate we would work overtime hours and it was not unusual to work between 70 and 80 hours a week. Even doing these sort of hours I would earn less than I now earn in a day working as a computer engineer.
The turnover of staff was very high. I quickly discovered that many new starters simply didn't have a work ethic capable of sustaining the long hours and physical requirements. They would quit for the state benefits and the afternoon TV viewings. There were those not suited to shift work and they would quit for a nine to five job somewhere else. Others just needed temporary work in between college terms and they would often return a few times each year - year after year until graduation.
Those who would remain past the probation period all had something in common. We were all outsiders. The hours we worked were unsociable and so we would spend our free time together. We were as a family - misfits mostly young and alienated and not yet sure of our destinations. Some knew where they wanted to be but not how to get there. A few actually wanted the job and progressed through the ranks of management.
I kept the job going. I needed the money. An opportunity from within was advertised. Trainee part-time projectionist. The Chief Projectionist showed me how to lace the film to the projector. It was a complex looping of the film through various rollers and a shutter system. The test was then to perform the lacing on my own without instruction. Thankfully I achieved this and since I was the only one of the pool of applicants to do so - the position was offered.
I loved this job. The whirling of the projectors. The focus of the film. Putting films together and taking them apart. I applied for a full-time position and was successful. Slowly but steadily the secrets of the craft were revealed. How to calibrate the platters in order to deliver film at the correct speed - through the projectors. How to maintain the focal point and to maintain and replace the shutter system. How to cut and splice film correctly. The projector is the heart of the cinema experience. In operating and maintaining the projector I was putting on a show for the customer - delivering the two hour dream. It was worthwhile work.
A couple of years later the position of Chief Projectionist was a possibility. I applied and succeeded. I then learnt about the art of management and the demands of authority. In the small world of cinema operations I was now a big player - second only to the directing manager. I wore the suit and carried the badge. I would turn up for work, open the cinema door and note the ushers, the box office staff and confectionery workers coming to attention. Authority and responsibility.
I would spend five years working in the cinema. This short blog does not do any justice to the experience and a book could be written about the experiences. The course of life changed. Marriage and children. Responsibility and a need to do something else with greater material rewards. I always had a knack with computers. I attended a part time hardware maintenance course in the centre of London. I moved on.
Last Saturday I asked my dear lady if she wouldn't mind coming with me to revisit Sutton. To see the cinema and to see this world of the past. Travel need not be from place to place but also from the present to the past. Some of the past is carried into the present - and indeed this visit proved this to be true.
Here is the Robin Hood pub. Here I learnt that a British pub is more than just a boozer - it is the place to meet and to discuss the issues of the day. Those of us on the 10 pm finish shift would meet up here for a pint. It was a quite an investment given a price of a pint was almost an hour's work.
Here is the cinema. In my day it belonged to the UCI chain but is now an Empire cinema. I suspect they are the same company anyway. On entering the cinema I could see that much had been changed. The box office was now gone and replaced by the automatic digital machine. The sweet shop had gone and the Baskins and Robins ice cream stand, in which I spent many months working - this was replaced by a Benny and Jerries stall. The confectionary section remained and so too the main hallway leading to the auditoria – all six of them. This cinema was a novelty when it was built – the multiplex era in Britain had just begun.
I was tempted to ask for a projection booth tour. I am sure they would have obliged. After all - I was a Chief Projectionist of the past and therefore part of the history of the theatre. Today the projector has been replaced by a digital monster. I have a happy image of the whirling projectors beaming the dreams into the auditoria. I couldn't face what the booths will have become. I didn't ask the question.
And here is another pub - the Moon on the Hill. It was here that many first dates and romantic liaisons began. It was here we young lads would meet before getting a cab into Croydon for a night on the tiles – followed by the inevitable early morning kebab or burger and the overpriced minicab trip back to home. Thankfully the pub had not changed at all. Even this table I had sat in twenty years previous and ordered a meal and drink.
Peace To All