Peter Ling pops up to the second floor to meet Albert Short, head of the post room
Perhaps it’s because his mother was born on the island of St Helena – but Mr Short has never liked to stay in one place for too long.
In fact his present job, in charge of the General Office and Post Room on the second floor of Television House, probably ranks high on his list of long-term occupations, for he has been at Kingsway for over three years. Before that, he was – in his own phrase – ‘a bit of a rolling stone’.
He was born 45 years ago, in Portsmouth Military Hospital, but his boyhood was spent around Dovercourt and Harwich, learning to sail and fish, and living by, with, on and frequently in the North Sea.
When he was fifteen, he joined the Merchant Service and began to travel. For some time he worked on the Red Star line, living in Antwerp when he was ashore, and getting to know and like the Belgian way of life. ‘I picked up a certain amount of the language,’ he says, admitting disarmingly: ‘Well, the bad language, anyhow.’
His next job was on board the S.S. Belgianland, under the command of the United States Mercantile Marine – a luxury passenger-liner of 42,000 tons, with a cargo that seemed to consist largely of retired millionaires and beautiful blondes. But high life can pall after a time, and during one world tour he left the ship in North China, to spend six months working in a North Chinese coal-mine… ‘Well, I got kind of interested in the place and the people – still am, as a matter of fact – and I wanted to get to know it better.’
Between times, he returned to Harwich, and when he couldn’t get a ship, he began to take temporary jobs in various hospitals as a medical orderly.
He even had one brush with show business, when he acted as Publicity Manager for a lady fortune-teller called ‘The Hooded Woman’ who was touring East Anglia at the time. The war broke out, and Mr Short found himself attached to the Admiralty for marine salvage and degaussing; when that job was over, he returned to hospitals again, and worked for some years at the British Legion Sanatorium near Maidstone in charge of the surgical wards.
At last the rolling stone paused for a moment… Emergency operations in the small hours of the night, and shift-work all round the clock – somehow, it had lost some of its original glamour, and Mr Short decided to try the experiment of regular working-hours.
He heard of an interesting post in the General Office of the British Electric Traction Company at Stratton House, and worked there for two years; then – almost by accident – he found himself being transferred to Television House.
If moss ever does grow on this rolling stone, it will be Hertfordshire moss. Mr Short has been living in Herts for the last two and a half years, and finds that staying in one place has its compensations.
‘I watch television a good deal,’ he admits. ‘I like the serious programmes chiefly; drama, features, anything of a philosophical nature… Mind you, I won’t say I’m not partial to a ‘whodunnit’ now and again – I am. And I’m passionately fond of music; any kind of music, so long as it’s good of its kind. I’m what you might call catholic in my tastes.’
Light Entertainment doesn’t have quite such a strong appeal; for instance, it would probably be true to say that Mr Short has seen Michael Miles more frequently in the General Office than on the screen.
‘I’ll never forget that time we were sorting letters for Mr Miles’ Diamond Rush…’ His walnut face pales slightly at the recollection. ‘You know, we had one and a half million entries for that contest.’
In a single day, the total number of letters coming through Mr Short’s office may top 70,000. If you ask him how he begins to cope with this amount of mail, he shrugs calmly: ‘It’s just a question of organization; everybody knows what his job is, and gets on with it. So many start sorting, so many delivering and collecting round the floors. Apart from my assistant, Mr Pullen, I’ve got seven boys working in the office at present, aged between sixteen and nineteen. Of course, they come and go; a good many of our boys have moved on to really good jobs on the technical start. We’re rather proud of that – if there is an opportunity for a promising lad, I like to help him along if I can.’
Mr Short’s past training comes in handy; his attitude to his teen-age staff owes something to the Bos’un in charge of a bunch of ‘first-trippers’ – and an occasional reversion to hospital experience, as he watches for revealing symptoms. (‘Some of them smoke too much, and don’t get enough sleep… I have to keep an eye on them.’)
But he enjoys his work, and finds life continually interesting. ‘Being in the Post Room makes you a bit of a philosopher,’ he says. ‘Well, you’re always meeting people – and you never know what you’re going to be faced with. We get some very peculiar parcels sometimes – the other day there was a box of kippers – and once we had a bundle of dirty laundry from a viewer in Wales. She said she couldn’t get her husband’s shirts really white, so would we please pass the enclosed on to Mrs Bradshaw, and let her get on with it.’
Does this all mean that the rolling stone has settled down at last?
Mr Short nods briskly. ‘Oh, I think so.’ Then he smiles, and adds: ‘But then I always think so, every time… After all, you never know what might be round the corner!’
But at this moment, there is only one thing coming round the corner – the afternoon collection of office mail. The door opens, and a stream of boys bustle in, with their arms full of letters, packages, memos and Ooms … Mr Short takes one brief look, squares his shoulders, and sets to work again.