I arrived in Oxford in 1973 after the breakdown of my first marriage. My father had found a house for me to rent within walking distance of the city centre. I needed a job quickly. I had not worked for anyone for 17 years and was prepared to do almost anything but what I really wanted to do was to work within the University.
My first interview was with a firm of solicitors who turned me down because they thought I was probably too rusty (although I had been practising my Pitman`s shorthand by taking dictation from the radio). The next interview was with a College – they wanted a Fellows` secretary. My first interview with the Bursar went well – he actually knew my father (which I suppose was a help) but he explained he had others to see. At the second interview he took me into what was to be my office and introduced me to the other secretary who dealt with the Visiting Fellows. It was a Graduate College – no students. He left me with her. She suggested I might like to try out the typewriter. I had spent ages before the interview searching for Tippex and had some in my handbag (just in case). I sat down at the desk and rested my fingers on the `home` keys in the approved fashion. Wow! I hadn`t realised that electric typewriters had such a light touch. My home keys crashed together on the paper jamming beautifully. The girl had given me something to copy – I typed slowly but rubbish came out. I pecked away and declared I had finished. I stuffed the piece of paper in my handbag – it was gobbledegook and no way was it going to be examined by anyone else.
Back to the Bursar`s office who offered me the job (bless him he became my friend and mentor over the years – my Svengali. I learned never to to him with a problem unless I could present him with at least three possible solutions that we would discuss). He wanted me to start right away.
Well there were 70 Fellows in the College and I was their secretary – the only one. Somehow for seven years I managed to keep them all happy and they, in turn, rewarded nearly every piece of work I did for them with flowers, chocolates or gifts from their travels.
My very first piece of work was for an Italian Astrophysicist (was the Bursar trying me out?) – his continental-style handwriting was difficult to read but I quickly became familiar with pulsars, quasars and Black Holes. At that time Stephen Hawkins was just a young up and coming star in Cambridge (`the Other Place`).
I typed their lectures, learned papers and articles, books even – mostly from manuscript but gradually the Dictaphone was being used – I ran courses for interested Fellows called `How to be a Great Dictator`!
Some of the Fellows had their own typewriters. One quite elderly Professor wanted my help to choose an electric typewriter for him to buy. Believe it or not Woolworths sold some in those days and I found one that I thought would be suitable at a reasonable price. I asked him to come with me to see it. We walked down The High into Cornmarket and Woolworths. His eyes widened and he told me he hadn`t been in Woolworths since he was a boy. We went to the counter where they had the typewriters and the assistant put one out for him to try. Fine. He liked it. The assistant said she had to go to the storeroom to get one for him and disappeared. The Professor turned to me, looking a bit pathetic and said he wanted an icecream! I told him to stay where he was, not to touch anything, and darted off to get the ice. He duly paid for the typewriter,, juggling icecream whilst searching for his wallet and we headed back to the College. I went with him to his study to set up the typewriter. The lead wasn`t long enough to reach his desk. It was afternoon and there would be no scouts around to help or bring an extension lead. We ended up both lying on our stomachs on the carpet whilst I gave him a quick demonstration and showed him how the typewriter worked. I also expressed the hope that his wife wouldn`t walk in and find us on the floor or she would wonder what on earth we were up to.
I will continue this Blog in the next session.