Over at Scrambled Messages’s Facebook group Cassie started us chatting about working in telecoms. A whole range of work emerged and it seems, following on from my last post, that so many people facilitate the in-between of messages. We just rarely hear their stories.
Although I don’t think my family have worked in telecoms themselves, in May I had the privilege of recording the wonderful story of someone who had been a telegram boy in the 1950s. Bernard O’Connor arrived in Covent Garden in 1953 and began working as a telegram boy in Leicester Square, cycling round on his push bike, delivering telegrams. His vivid description of the smog brought that time to life for me: You couldn’t see your hand in front of you and it was so dangerous that the bus conductor would walk along with a flare in his hand to light up the kerbs so that the driver could see where he was going. In the early 1950s there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the roads, so there weren’t many accidents. Yet, if you had chest problems, the smog could kill you.
Bernard’s story isn’t just about being a telegram boy however, it describes community. You can read it here, and I very much hope you do. Writing someone else’s voice felt odd as I tried to keep my own from intruding. I also interviewed Tom Cook, equally a privilege. These and the other stories from the project sound the voice of a community worth listening to.
Even though it’s not yet December, we can’t avoid Christmas. Eager shoppers swarmed my own town this weekend, Santa was about, and I expect in the next few weeks many of you will join the throngs looking at Covent Garden’s shops or celebrate in its bars. And then you will go home again. The festive noise (and, indeed, the year round commercial noise) drowns out the sound of the people for whom Covent Garden is home; when talking to people about the project, many said that they hadn’t realised people still live there. But they do, and their stories might make Covent Garden more than shops, food and drink for you. They did for me. The Covent Garden Memories project made me realise the value of oral history and the interest of listening to usually unheard voices.
We might be studying the victorian telegraph in Scrambled Messages, but I’m certain listening to more recent stories of telecoms workers will change the way we think about our project in valuable ways. So if you have a working in telecoms family story there’s still time to share it with Scrambled Messages. We’d love to hear it.