An angel in a London rubbish skip

LONDON CALLING Commuting in Britain’s largest city has always been a challenging experience.

A Writer’s next day job.

SINCE I’d gotten to England on a one way ticket, once drama school came to an end I decided to try my luck in the entertainment industry over there.

Exactly where and how that industry operated remained a complete mystery while I polished my skills in the Yorkshire flatlands.

But with the last of the funds raised to send me to college in the UK, I boarded a train from York and headed south to London, home of the West End, Pinewood Studios, and the BBC.

Like thousands of others I tried to make my way through the front door of any number of institutions offering cadetships and assistance programs for graduates by dreaming-up fabulous ideas for TV shows and trying to encapsulate my potential on paper in the long-winded applications.

But none of these doors opened for me.

One door that did was that of the flat of an Australian friend who allowed me to sleep on her floor for a couple of weeks.

One of my grandfathers, Stanley Hamill Crawford (whom I never knew), was born in London, a quirk of ancestry which allowed me to stay in the UK indefinitely and work without a visa. But the paperwork took a few weeks to arrange via New Zealand (where Stanley’s only daughter, my mother Pat, was born), and I needed an income, so I just started working illegally.

Another friend got me onto the list at her temp agency, and being their only male client I was immediately employed by a major book publisher in Hammersmith to push the mail trolley across eight floors for a three-week stint.

So, in the early days of my first London Spring I joined the crowds on the Tube, minding the gap, rolling my eyes at the constant announcements of apology for late trains, and succumbing to the near silent buffering that is London commuting.

I missed most of the romance the city had to offer in the process.

In the mail room I spent my mornings sorting packages and committing their recipient’s names and office locations to memory – I still recall these names, because they seemed so literary and important.

Then, for the rest of the day, I delivered the packages, on occasion meeting the recipients – generally curt literary mavens.

Breaks were spent outside by a line of rubbish skips, and on day one I noticed the contents consisted solely of countless brand new books.

Since no-one really cared I explored the skips at great length, creating quite a collection of perfectly good editions of some of the greatest books of the year, and a wealth of 20th century classics.

Intrigued as to the reason for the abundance of free books, I asked if they were perhaps uncorrected proofs or remaindered mis-prints? Apparently not – they were just surplus to the needs of the company.

I was a boy whose only surviving grandfather had instilled in me a sense of adventure when it came to inspecting rubbish tips. Grandpa had worked his way into an old one down the hill from my Grandparent’s house in Inverell, and would often take me down to stand at the edge and catch any treasures he fished-out from underneath.

It was like a goldmine – antique hurricane lamps, china plates, enamel ware, and an assortment of vintage items came out of that tip. The deeper Grandpa got, the older and more interesting the treasures he unearthed.

ANTIPODEAN ANGEL Janet Frame in post-WW2 London.

So it was retired farmer and gentle man Gordon Burge who inspired me the day when I discovered about fifty copies of Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at my Table in the publisher’s skip during my last week.

One copy would do me – Frame’s account of her early life included an apt section about her first encounter with London, and I took a lot of heart from her survival of the strangeness of the city when one is used to the elemental expanses of the Antipodes.

It took travelling to London to learn what that term actually means – the diametric opposite of wherever you are on Earth. It has a deeper meaning in the UK, because growing-up on the other side of the world makes you different, apparently. You’ll have to ask the Brits why they call those of us from Australia and New Zealand ‘Antipodeans’, often with a ‘certain air’.

The rest of Janet’s autobiographies I decided to do something about, and, with my rose-coloured glasses firmly in place, I took them to one of the large Charing Cross Road bargain bookstores on my way home that evening, thinking that Helene Hanff would be proud of me for some kind of book-trade continuum.

The shop owner was very dubious. He inspected my booty and flicked through a few pages, marvelling that they were indeed brand new and perfectly saleable, but he would not take them off my hands, even for free.

Feeling slightly silly for trying to facilitate an act of recycling, I left them under one of the tables out the front of the shop.

Maybe he’d notice them and would just sell them? No-one would be the wiser – not the publisher, not the customers, not Janet Frame.

I never found out. My work permit came through and I ventured deeper into the West End with a resume under my arm, hoping, like Janet Frame and Helene Hanff before me, that somewhere in that romantic place a door would open on my dreams.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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