Don’t Cross a Pelican

Like Anthony Burgess, John Barbirolli and Morrisey, I’ve always been a fan of Manchester Central Library which sits prettily in St Peter’s Square in all its faux pantheon splendour.

It has a reputation as the noisiest library in the country, a result of it circular design which causes every heavy book closure, every sneeze and cough to echo round the main reading room like whispering gallery at St Paul’s. Not that I would know much about that because my visits are confined to the local studies section which resides in the outer halls.

Or at least it did until recently because the library has now closed until 2013 for a major renovation with 22 miles worth of books going into storage down a Cheshire salt mine for the duration.

All of which would be a bit of a pain if you happened to need to return an overdue library book, except that the library has moved to a temporary new home at Elliot House on the corner of Deansgate and Jackson’s Row which is where I was yesterday, not just to consult the local history records, but also to take a nostalgic trip into my own past.

It began with my first job after leaving school back in the days when the main employment worry was not ‘where can I get a job?’ but ‘which job offer shall I accept?’. Mine was as junior in the town clerk’s department at Manchester City Council.

Mt first posting was in the policy and finance office. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was the premier billet for an aspiring local government officer. It certainly didn’t feel like it. My time was spent getting papers ready for the innumerable committees, brewing the tea and filing, the most boring job I’d ever had since making cardboard boxes during the school holidays.

After about six months I had an interview with the senior personnel officer. This was before such people became ‘heads of’ and well before personnel became human resources. We were to discuss the next steps in my career as an LGO and he was quite taken aback that I had no intention of spending my days in the city’s hallowed town halls.

Perhaps I should have listened. That’s him pictured right, now a deputy-lieutenant of Greater Manchester whereas I’m plainly not. The upshot of our conversation was that I soon found myself on the transfer list to the road safety office, the gulag of the town clerk’s department for LGO dissidents.

And that’s where the library comes in. The road safety office was in Siberia, at least relative to the main town hall, being housed on the top floor of the Elliot House mentioned above and which is now home to the local studies library I visited yesterday.

It wasn’t quite the exile that Paul Goddard may have thought. They were quite a mixed bunch — an ex-bobby, an ex-driving instructor and other ex-something or others — but then I doubt if there was the same career structure for safety busybodies that there is today.

The work itself ranged from organising cycling proficiency lessons and the Tufty Club in local schools to advanced driving and some hair-raising Top Gear stuff on the SELNEC bus company’s skid-pan. As the junior, my duties were equally varied and the library room I was in yesterday was where I would run through and repair our school road safety films, usually featuring Disney characters.

Many of my memories involve the boss, Mr MacFarlane, who wa a bit a self-important dipstick. Like when he tried out one of the then relatively new breathalyzers after the Christmas lunch and the look on his face as the crystals turned green before he disappeared to walk it off.

Or during the three-day-week. He always left at 5pm on the dot, exactly the same time as the power was cut, and got himself stuck in the old-fashioned concertina-doored lift. Seeing our chance for petty revenge, we ignored his plaintiff cries for help and snuck off sniggering down the back stairs.

But it is the Pelican Brief that stands out. There was a big push in the early 1970s to promote the recently introduced pelican crossings and we took delivery of hundreds of thousands of boxed leaflets which we loaded into the back of the blue road safety van. If you’ve ever had any dealings with boxed printing, you’ll know that paper is bloody heavy stuff and the van’s suspension was on the floor as it set off.

Cec, the ex-driving instructor, was behind the wheel and only got as far as Albert Square when disaster struck. The van was leaning precariously as he rounded the square when the lights  at a crossing changed to red. He jammed on the anchors and managed to stop the van, but the same couldn’t be said for the boxes of leaflets which carried on travelling over his shoulder, exiting via the windscreen.

It was all hands to the pumps to clear up the mess and push the van out of sight before the photographer from the nearby Evening News could get to the scene for a highly embarrassing front page photo.

I did think about making a career of road safety and was even interviewed for a job in Preston. Luckily for me they turned me down and not long after I was transferred to the publicity office where I had a boss who lost his job over a typewriter and met the man who had a hit with ‘She Wears My Ring‘ and his wife who I guess was who the song was about.

That will keep for another time.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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