I started work just before my eighteenth birthday. Well, I started working in a ‘proper’ job just before my eighteenth birthday – I had worked on a Youth Training Scheme before then which should have been for art, design and printing, but mostly entailed cleaning out the gent’s loos. Oh, I did do some art, design and printing. And a little video photography. And quite a bit of rub-down letter transferring. I left there after a few months as the toilet cleaning was preventing me from learning how to transfer the letters in a straight line. I would have loved to have continued in that line of work. The arty side, that is.

Anyway, things moved on. I left, and after a few more months of being out of work, I started working on Directory Enquiries.

I was a nervous wreck. I’d managed to get through the training by the skin of my teeth, because of my nerves. Luckily for me, I had to endure two months of listening in to the calls before my training commenced, so I was literally being paid for doing nothing apart from watching and listening.

Part of my nervousness was due to the fact that I had never before spoken on a telephone. As strange as that sounds, we never had a phone, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I do it all the time now, but back then my expectations were somehow far higher as to what it would be like to speak on a telephone. I know: random. But that’s how my mind works…

So, I got through my training with flying colours. Ahem. I was set free into the mystical and magical world of Directory Enquiries. The place where no-one could ever get through to straight away. The place where everyone thought we were all filing our nails and chatting about things outside of Directory Enquiry-land. Of course, this was exactly what we were doing. And drinking copious amounts of tea, eating cakes and biscuits, and getting up every now and then to answer one of the phones that were on the tables around us that just never stopped ringing. We never had any directories by us. If we knew the number off by heart we gave it out, if not, we’d say “Sorry, there’s nothing listed” or “Sorry, that number is ex-directory”.

OK. Just to shatter the illusion for a brief moment. We were sat around, or rather sat in long rows in an office with diffused up-lighting and old stylee green screen computer monitors, and if we were really unlucky, we were surrounded by hundreds of microfiche folders that contained the names, addresses and phone numbers of almost everyone in the UK. Instead of phones, we wore headsets that looked as though they came out of the ark. Great big trumpets and clamps that held them in place on our heads. And the phones never rang. They simply clicked, one second after the previous call had finished. We didn’t need to answer them – the caller was there, automatically on the line. Usually asking if we had enjoyed our nail filing, cup of tea or cream cake! We just had to play along!

After a couple of years on this job, I was able to move up slightly, and received more training to work on the switchboard, answering 100 operator assistance calls, and the emergency service number of 999. This switchboard also looked as though it had come off the ark… I think it was built to match the headsets! In front of us, we had two rows of six plugs on cords, in which we answered the call with the back plug, and through connected the call with the front plug. We were in serious trouble if we’d forget and answer the call with the front plug. How dare we! Luckily, we didn’t do that often. And the people calling us on 100 usually wanted to know what time our colleagues’ breaks would be over on Directory Enquiries. The whole building would shake if an emergency call came through. A bright red light would glow at one end of the switchboard, and an extremely loud buzzer would sound as well. The good thing about this was, if all of our cords were in use and the buzzer went, we were allowed to disconnect one of the calls to answer the emergency call. Well, not good if you were on the call that had been disconnected I suppose, but the emergency calls always take priority.

There were about three male operators when I worked there. Everyone else was female. We were all greeted the same way each morning by the manager who would regally walk into the switchroom and bellow “Good Morning, Girls!” at the top of her voice. It was strange at first, but I got used to it.

One day, a man called through on 100, and was in an extremely chatty mood. He asked me to ask the colleagues around me to come up with a good collective name for a group of telephone operators. We were ever so professional, and came up with terms such as a ‘conversation of operators’, or a ‘connection of operators’, or an ‘engagement of operators’. He said they were good, but liked his suggestion better. A ‘gossip’. Charming.

Not only was I a girl, I was now a gossip.

Never mind. The man went on to ask how I liked working as a call girl.

I’ve done a variety of jobs in my lifetime so far. Versatility could be my middle name, but if it were, I’d keep it quiet. Being a call girl has to be the strangest job I’ve never done. Having said that, the biscuits were very nice.

Posted by Tom Merriman

A future writer living in the present day

10 Comments

  1. I don’t know how you ever put up with all those calls everyday, some more than irate I suspect. Still it sounded fun and anything with biscuits has to be good

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    1. It was fun at times, Trevor, and quite demanding at others. I seem to remember that one of the terms used for working on the switchboard was ‘on demand’, although that job wasn’t as demanding as the 192 one!

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  2. LOL!!! Call girl!! I want to say “That’s classic” but something tells me it isn’t 😛

    I would have preferred cookies instead of biscuits, unless biscuits and cookies are the same, because to me it isn’t. Cookies are yummier that biscuits. I also hope they served coffee with those biscuits!

    I had a friend that worked as a CSR and he told me that when a caller is put on hold, most times its because they are out there having a cigarette break or in the loo or something!

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    1. Hi Shree, no the term ‘call girl’ was the general nickname for telephone operators back then (it may still be so now, but I’m not sure!)

      I always class cookies as slightly bigger biscuits, but I could be wrong… and yes, we had tea, coffee and lemon tea.

      We had to finish our calls before going to the loo… they certainly took advantage of us!

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  3. yup, get your priorities right, … the biscuits have to be good … no wonder you’re confused, a girl, a gossip and a call girl all in one … do you want to stretch out on this handy red Chaise Longue, and tell me ALL about it … my colleague, Mr F. Spike will be in shortly to check on your progress!! He can seem a bit of a dragon at first but you’ll get used to him… Now, when did this surreal episode become a reality in your mind? Hmm? 😉 xPenx

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    1. I’m not confused now, Pen, well, I don’t think I am anyway, erm…

      A red Chaise Longue? Is it in a darkened room?

      Your colleague, Mr F Spike, sounds strangely familiar to me…

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  4. hilarious look into your work history Tom, great read.

    i admit i was thrown by the title of the post – very clever!

    happy to know the biscuits were nice – biscuits and cookies and pretty much how i judge things, so it seems like a pretty good gig to me.

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    1. Thanks, Bex. The title of the post came naturally after I had written it!

      The biscuits were a little bit of a problem, after eating them whilst sitting down year after year… tasted good though 😀 !

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  5. […] by the operator. That said, I was a telephone operator back in the 1980s (we were nicknamed Call Girls back then – I know! Terrible!), and the practise of being put through was still going on then as […]

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  6. […] all of this briefly in earlier posts, but I’ll quickly go through the details again. I worked on Directory Enquiries, sitting there hour after hour, day after day, reading telephone numbers out. Dull as it sounds, it […]

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