Thursday, June 9, 2011

Old News: The Chance Not Taken

Fleet Street, London, England: one of the world’s great communication centres. Tall buildings bear the names of venerable newspapers.

It is 1974. The 1940s Retro Look is in. The maze of winding streets and the fast trains of the underground Tube are full of young women in ruby-red lipstick, heavy eyeliner, hats with demi-veils, padded shoulders, seamed stockings, platform shoes. The occasional brave young man in feminine drag can be seen in broad daylight. The rock-and-roll beat of Swinging London is giving way to disco and reggae. Every race, every language and every accent seems to be represented here.

A bewildered colonial, age 22, stands at several crossroads, wondering which way to go. She travels with a copy of London A-Z, but it doesn’t always provide enough direction in the moment. Above ground, she dodges an endless stream of small British cars that whizz around roundabouts like wind-up toys.

I’m here because I chose to accompany my professor dad (on a one-year sabbatical to study the British economy) my mom and two little sisters, though I could have survived at home in Canada on my own.

Canada hasn’t been our home forever. I grew up in the semi-desert of southern Idaho. We moved to the Canadian prairie in 1967, and there is the rub. We are all still American citizens.

No one in the family needs a job except me. My sisters are in public school (“public” in the American sense), and settling in reasonably well, as far as they’ve told me. Mom is a housewife, and she could do that job anywhere. Dad takes field trips. They live in a picturesque village in Surrey, where I visit them on weekends.

I thought of dabbling in university classes, but that wasn’t practical. The tuition would have been much higher than for a native, and to earn a degree, I would have to start at the beginning and soldier on for years. Nix that option.

I need a job. I’ve gone to two employment agencies, which have already sent me to various job interviews. Young women of my age seem to be in demand for display jobs of all sorts: as shop assistants, waitresses, secretary/receptionists, typists. Especially typists. I’ve taken some university classes in Canada, and I’ve done summer typing jobs. Now I seem to be type-cast.

I told one of the employment agencies about my special problem: non-Commonwealth citizenship. Anyone who hires me would have to navigate some red tape to do it. Or I would have to find a loophole for myself in a national system designed (like all others) to favour the home-grown.

The other employment agency doesn’t know I am legally still American. I was asked where I came from, and I said, “Canada.” That answer seemed satisfactory.

Going from one interview to another, I try to see myself through the eyes of prospective employers: young and trainable, short and slim, pink-skinned and brown-haired (not an “immigrant” in the racist sense), lacking in style (but after all, she’s from one of the Ends of the Earth), and the accent – good Lord! Eliza Doolittle of the North, with Canadian vowels. But given time, she could learn to Speak Properly and be promoted from the back office to the front desk.

I usually go to job interviews in my Metis Hat, as I think of it: a hand-sewn tan leather hat with a beaded band, made on a native reserve in northern Saskatchewan. If I'm an obvious colonial, I might as well adopt a visual signature.

The agency that doesn’t know about my citizenship has given me a lead on a writing job for the London Daily Telegraph. This sounds almost too exciting to be real, but a newspaper office is a practical place. Demonstrated skill in writing might substitute for credentials or experience in journalism. I know I can do this. The interviewer will want to know how I spell “centre” and “colour” and “civilised.” Hello! I’m a quick study and I attended secondary school in Canada.

The agency that knows about my citizenship problem has set me up with a charity organisation, the Cancer Research Campaign. They need something called an Area Clerk. It sounds less stressful than the newspaper job. It sounds boring.

I go to Fleet Street. I find the office of the Daily Telegraph, which looks intimidating. I don’t go in.

There is no good time in an interview to bring up a hiring problem which the interviewer was not told about before. What if I convince someone that I am a brilliant writer, with a nose for news, and then let them know that to hire me, they have to apply for government permission? Pissed-off Londoners are a scary lot. Someone might even tell me to go back to wherever I came from.

I go to the Cancer Research Campaign. A brisk woman interviewer is professionally charitable. She offers to take me on as a Clerk to be paid in luncheon vouchers and Tube fare until I am legally approved, then I am to be paid an extra two pounds per week to compensate for my indentured-servant phase. Luckily, I am already living with my new boyfriend, so I don’t need to pay rent.

I report back to both employment agencies that I have found a job. I never see the inside of the Daily Telegraph office.

For years afterward, I remember a newspaper comic strip of my youth, Brenda Starr: Girl Reporter, and substitute my own name (or pen name) for hers. Here is Jean Roberta, Foreign Correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, reporting from Cairo, Jerusalem, Moscow, Paris, Washington DC. Or even from Ottawa, capital city of Canada, or the town in the wheat-growing region where she spent part of her youth. Between news articles, I might be assigned to write local-colour stories about dusty corners of the Empire on which Queen Victoria's sun never set.

By 2011, my accent would probably be acceptable by London standards, if not exactly suited for marrying into the Royal Family (never my ambition anyway). Would I have bullet-holes in my luggage? Would I have a repertoire of war stories? Would I be dead? Perhaps I've experienced all that in a parallel dimension.

Back to 1974: at the urging of my Nigerian boyfriend, I return to Canada with my family, and become a Canadian citizen. This change of status will make it easier for me to get typing jobs with various branches of the Canadian government. It will also make it easier to bring Boyfriend into Canada as my fiance. He expects to marry into luxury.

As they say, hindsight is perfect.

I could have stayed in London when my parents and sisters left Surrey. I was so useful to the Cancer Research Campaign that I probably could have stayed at my desk there as long as I could stand it. The retired military men who ran the place might even have helped me sort out my citizenship problem.

But that's not the choice I made. Now I don't remember where I left my Metis Hat. I wonder if London would recognise me without it. Or vice versa.



  1. Hello, Jean,

    This is a wonderful post, with yet more stories I didn't know about you.

    It's hard to look back on that kind of choice point when you think that maybe you got it wrong.

    Perhaps you might exorcise some of the regret (if you have some) by writing a story about the you who might have been created if you hadn't been too intimidated by the Daily Telegraph. I have the feeling you can picture her vividly.


    P.S. Why don't you add a picture of a Metis hat? I really can't visualize it.

  2. Oh those roads not travelled -- full of "why didn't we?" and "what ifs?"

    We all do it -- I remember my Mum telling me that she wished she'd been a GI Bride!

    I'm researching my family history -- all of those people who made the "what ifs" that made me be here -- right now.

  3. Lisabet, I netsurfed to find an image of my "Metis" (i.e. halfbreed) hat, but couldn't find it anywhere! All I found were cowboy hats, which look much different. Mine has a shape more like that of a matador or male flamenco dancer - shallow crown with flat top, fairly wide brim with stitching, removable beaded band on crown. If I find it, I'll make a photo.
    Billierosie, I know several Canadians of my generation (born just after WW2) whose mothers were English war brides - some of them travelled across the ocean after agreeing to marry men they had known for a few weeks! Definitely a life-changing decision. The war brides here had regular reunions for years, but now they're dying out.
    "What-ifs" are a great source of story ideas. :)

  4. Aw... I had such a girl crush on Brenda Starr! Come to think of it, I probably still do. ;)

  5. Jean - Your life is fascinating. So much adventure!


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