Monday, 29 June 2015

Chapter 6 1973-1974

I never kept a proper written record of events, only sketchy appointments in diaries.  I am weaving this story from a collection of ephemera which I troll through and then forget which bit I wanted to include.   I have even mislaid one important folder which listed all our employees when we closed the production side of the business and whom I wanted to name at appropriate times.   It will turn up again, no doubt, but I have wasted a lot of time looking for it.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter if this story isn’t quite in the correct order.   The main thing is to try and paint the picture of what it is like to run a small business.   The advantage of writing a blog against publishing a proper book is that I can always correct things later.

The spare bedroom in the flat is full of stuff, including thousands of slides which must eventually be sorted, though dear Julie spent ages some years ago digitising the early photos of the family, and she is providing some of the illustrations which will appear in the blog.   But I never did have a good memory and in old age it is certainly deteriorating.   How we managed to hold a business together I don’t know – probably through the tremendous support we received from our employees.   The cost being that we spent rather too much on wages, employing people to do the jobs we didn’t like doing!

While John was dyslexic – something which was not understood when we were at Sidcot School during the war – I have “face blindness”.    Its proper name is prosopagnosia, caused by brain damage after birth.   I cannot bring John’s face up in my head and I find it difficult to remember people unless I see them regularly;  it can be so severe that one doesn’t recognise one’s own children.   This was a disadvantage in business of course when people were the most important players in the story. 

I am also red/green/brown colour blind, which is quite rare in women.   I can see colours, but sometimes matching them can be difficult in artificial light – John always used to check whether I had indavertently mixed green and brown clothing when we were going out at night.   Once, on holiday in Ireland years ago, John said:  “What are those flowers in the hedge?”   I had to get out of the car and have a closer look.   They were brilliant red fuschias in a brilliant green hedge and the two colours had merged together when seen from a distance.   This of course made things difficult if I was helping a customer to choose some picture framing when we had the shop.

Stop making excuses I hear you say and get on with the story.

In my box of ephemera for 1973 I have found a Berni Inn menu which I must have smuggled out under my coat.   We were regular patrons, especially when taking Rob out on half term visits to Leighton Park School, Reading – though this copy is from Nottingham and presumably I filched it when we were attending the Nottingham Gift Fair (which we only did on the one occasion).   Those lovely steaks.   The most expansive meal was fillet steak for £1.41, “served with French fried potatoes, button mushrooms, a fresh lettuce and tomato salad, roll and butter.”  But on one occasion at Blackpool Gift Fair, when we were taking a couple of agents in a taxi out to supper and requested that we should be taken to the local Berni Inn, the driver said “This one  isn’t really your sort of pub – rather a rough house,” and he took us somewhere else.   I look back now and wonder if he was paid to bring the other place some business!

Linda Garland started work at 5A on 6 August.   Her job was secretarial and to help with sorting out the prints for the hand painters, based on current orders, ready for the supervisor to visit every fortnight – we called this the “milk round”.  We had a duplicating machine for producing our own forms and some circular letters.   This entailed typing a stencil on the typewriter, inking the drum of the machine, carefully stretching the stencil round it and then feeding it with paper and turning the handle.   Ink would get everywhere.   No photo copiers in those days.   Linda became an expert in this.

John was finding it difficult to supervise the workshop, undertake the milk round and find time to produce new designs, so we were taking on staff to do those jobs for us.   Other names mentioned in my diary are Joyce Walton, Jean Batten and Tony Osmond, Vera’s husband, who left his job in Clark’s to join Gprints as our Manager.

After Blackpool Gift Fair, we took on Bertram Ellis who lived in Carlise and who covered Scotland with his son Peter.   He achieved sales in March worth £176.86 and I think we were paying 15% commission at that time;   his file is full of letters discussing customers, new prices, problems with damaged goods and late payment.   My policy was to refuse any further orders from a shop which kept us waiting for their cheque and once, at Torquay, I actually turned away a lady looking at the new range with the words “Sorry, you are a slow payer and I am afraid we won’t supply you any more”.

I see from a letter written to Bertram that in May, John and I drive to Scotland  in order to visit castles, which John photographed in order to draw them later.   Another letter on 3 July says “John is really going to have a concentrated bash at the castles … we expect a worthwhile range being on time for the new year.”   On September 28 we write “We were thrilled with your news about the reception of Inverary Castle.”   We must have provided him with an advance example of the picture.   The reaction from the Duke of Argyll was “Where is my standard?”   John’s photo had been rather indistinct and he hadn’t bothered to include it in his original drawing, but dutifully added it to the final version.   And later next year, when Bertram took the castle series to the gift shop at Craigevar, the manageress commented “Oh dear, we don’t want any more publicity.”

Craigevar is my favourite Scottish Castle;  it reminds me of the story “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down thy hair.”   A delicate, fairy tale building, one enters very gloomy, cramped rooms because of the thick walls, but as one ascends to the upper floors the spaces become larger and larger, until one reaches the huge room spanning the top of the tower with magnificent views, where the residents would promenande when the weather was unclement.   As for Blair Atholl Castle, we had visited that for the first time in the sixties.   On one occasion there was a demonstration of Scottish piping and I was a little disconcerted afterwards when I overheard them talking with American accents.   This reminds me of the time when I took the children to an event at the American Museum in Bath, when the Red Indians performing their war dances turned out to be from Birmingham.

At some point in the early years of Gprints (as we used to call it), John and I went on a 6 weeks evening course at Bridgwater Technical College, conducted by Mr Mayman of Bristol University, on “How to Read a Balance Sheet”.   I am still none the wiser, and John wasn’t much better – after all, at Morlands he had been supported by departments whose job it was to manage such affairs as finances and publicity – he was the creative one.   But I do remember one piece of good advice which we should have acted upon years later.  “Whatever your advisors such as bank manager, accountant or business consultant may suggest, only you know your business best.”

The bank of course has the greatest power of withdrawing its services;  our bank manager was too eager in the late 1990’s to lend us more money and no doubt this was the same problem with Morlands and the other companies who came unstuck in the slump.   We ended up paying 17% interest on our huge loan – how can a small business make a profit with that hanging round its neck?   Our mortgate with CoSIRA (Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas) on Number 10 High Street, taken out in 1975, was 14% but the mortgage on Schehallion was only 4 ½% and fortunately, by the time the crunch came, our insurance policy had paid back the loan.

So when exactly did we take on two more rooms at 5A High Street?   And then there was the expansion in January 1975 into making our own frames in Garvin’s Old Ciderhouse, Back Lane off Benedict Street – demolished when Garvin’s Way and Carmen Close were built – at least our landlord’s name lives on.   Was it Dudley Tremaine of Cooper and Tanner or Cyril Driver of IMCO Plastics who tipped us off about this property becoming vacant?      
Before that we had made arrangements with Roly Bisgrove, who had done a lot of building work on our home over the years and who was a good friend from Cradlebridge Gun Club days, for us to use his premises at Baltonsborough for our expanding production.   We even got as far as installing a huge old guillotine for cutting mount board.   Alas, I am sure it was our arbitrary decision to pull out of this arrangement and I have always felt very guilty about letting Roly down, as he had given up his other work and must have lost money, taking time to get back into his former self employed lifestyle.

We learned the rudiments of picture framing from Bill Williams (then acting as agent for Whitehouse, Willetts & Bennion  and for Artistic Framing) and from Douglas Lee of W.W. & B. who couldn’t have been kinder to us, so that when eventually we no longer needed to buy finished goods from them, we really missed those trips to Worcester.   But a fortnight after beginning to make our own frames etc. the compressor on the pinning machine broke down and we had to ring Douglas and plead for emergency supplies of frames to tide us over.   The silence at the other end of the phone was most worrying – he turned out to be in fits of laughter at our predicament and we were afraid he would do himself an injury.

John has always been a stickler for quality and his high standards at all stages of production have often driven us to moments of despair.   But coming from a craft industry he knew only too well the pitfalls which can await any manufacturer when complaints come in, resulting in damage to works morale besides losing customers.   All the artists’ watercolours used in the hand colouring were light tested (in the roof of our greenhouse at home), together with samples of mounting board (which eliminated most of them).  John wrote a letter to the Fine Art Trade Journal (November 1977) complaining about lack of colour fastness in the trade, even with limited edition colour prints which were inclined to fade.

It is January 1974 and we are getting ready for the Torquay Gift Fair, to be held as before in the Rosetor Hotel under the aegis of Sherriff & Williams.   And we have booked the International Gift Fair, Blackpool – in the Talbot Hall again, staying in the Elgin Hotel, Queens Promenade.   John and I once made nine trips each from the top to the bottom of the building, carrying our the contents of our stand down unlighted steps for the car (while others waited for hours to get porters) and then, exhausted and filthy dirty, we went round the corner and had the best fish and chips we’d ever tasted.
We must have carried it all up there in the first place too.

Julie’s Idle Fancies are included in the new range for the spring.   It seems we only took about £2,000 worth of orders at Blackpool that year, but we also had export enquiries from Amsterdam, Basel, Canada and Macy’s of New York - I don’t think the latter ever ordered from us though.

Photos by Brian Walker for the International Gift Fair News, Feb 3rd 1974 

Julie and I enjoyed an adventure in the autumn of 1974;  somewhere I had read about the Americans
celebrating the 200th anniversary of American Independence with subsidised trips to the States under the banner “Meet the Americans”.   We flew out to San Francisco on October 11 with 248 other people for a 10 day visit to California and stayed with a family in San Diego.   I did offer to return their hospitality but sadly they didn’t want to visit the UK.   They took us on a trip across to Tihuana in Mexico on one occasion and I bought a very heavy glass lampshade for ten dollars and a kiss.   It was packed up carefully in a huge cardboard box and fortunately there was a spare seat on the plane home.

Wrapping the Lampshade

  An American couple once bought an enormous framed picture from Glastonbury Galleries – about which we were most doubtful.  However, they returned the next year and told us that it had been safely stowed away behind the pilot’s seat when they flew back.

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