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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Barbara, Margaret, Sir Clive and Me

December 1982.

I needed a holiday job so I got on my bike, visited shops and asked if they had anything suitable. I was 17, I didn’t know any better.

But my naivety paid off when I visited WH Smith on Princes Street. They were gearing up for a bumper Christmas selling the new ZX Spectrum personal computer developed by the late Sir Clive Sinclair. WH Smith were hiring someone to work on the “computer desk” for three weeks. I was the ideal candidate: no retail experience but – critically it seemed to my interviewer – I was studying computer science at Heriot Watt University.

Only nine weeks into my university education I knew nothing about anything, although I had a suspicion that my beginners COBOL and theoretical understanding of databases wasn’t going to be in the least use in selling £125 personal computers capable only of playing Breakout and a couple of other rudimentary games. I was right, like iPhones today these things sold themselves and well before Christmas Eve we’d sold every ZX Spectrum we had in stock.

One day my immediate boss, Barbara or Margaret, I can’t remember, and who at the time I took to be at least 50 years old but on reflection was probably not even 30, was on her lunchbreak when yet another customer asked if we would be getting any more ZX Spectrums before Christmas. On hearing that we wouldn't, he looked downcast and was about to leave when his eyes alighted on our display model. “Is that one for sale?” Since I’d never been told it wasn’t, I generously knocked £5 off for the lack of box and chalked up another sale.

There was a bit of a scene when Barbara / Margaret returned from lunch.

“Where’s the display machine?”

“Oh, I sold it.”

“So, how do we demonstrate the ZX Spectrum now, clever clocks?” (She meant clogs.)

“We don’t have anything to sell so why would we be demonstrating anything?”

Later that day, Barbara / Margaret’s boss (the bloke who had originally hired me) came over to have a word with me. I assumed I was about to receive my marching orders and steeled myself for the lonely, shameful retreat through the snow packed streets to spend the remaining weeks of the Christmas holidays at home watching repeats of Carry On films.

But no. When I was at a loose end on the computer desk and the adjacent record department had been busy I had gone over to help them. Now that we had no computers to sell, I was being moved over to the record department on a permanent basis or until Epiphany, whichever event occured first.

Laughably the reason for my promotion (as I saw it) wasn’t the supply chain issue (as I now see it) but – and these words have stuck with me – “you got to grips with the record filing system really quickly”. The record filing “system” didn’t require any judgement on the part of the user, you didn’t have to decide if Depeche Mode were electronic or new wave, if The Higsons were funk or punk. In fact you only needed to be a grade slightly above idiot to master the “system” of filing the records alphabetically by artist, then by title. Still, I was a grade slightly above idiot and I had mastered it really quickly.

Post-Christmas at the WH Smith record department was frantic, selling bucket loads of John Lennon, Duran Duran and the Kids from Fame (oh yeah). Stock was arriving every day and it was quite a job to keep the aisles between the storage shelves clear of boxes of vinyl. I noticed that there was a gap between the top shelf and the ceiling which looked like it would be a suitable storage space. So, standing on tip toes I lifted one box onto the top shelf, edged it backwards and then without warning (why would there be?) it just disappeared. Evidently there was a void between the storage shelves and the wall. And in that inaccessible void now lay 50 copies of Love Over Gold by Dire Straits, a secret I have kept to myself until now.

So what lessons did I learn from my time at WH Smith?

First – and I mean this sincerely – don’t waste too much time preparing for job interviews. Check the address of where you’re going certainly, read over the job description even, but anything beyond that is likely to be counterproductive. They say knowledge is power but, in my experience, knowledge can also cause confusion. Just wing it.

Second, the big take from both the unauthorised sale of the display ZX Spectrum and the inadvertent disappearing of the Dire Straits vinyl is: do stuff. In all the years that I had people working for me I’d far rather that they do things even if those things turned out to be the wrong decisions. So often in business there are endless discussions about actions to be taken. Often it is quicker to do something, act on initiative and if it transpires that action was the wrong one, then correct it later.

But most of all, working that Christmas on the shop floor of WH Smith I learned more of practical use than I did in the whole of my three years at university. And for that I am forever indebted to Barbara, Margaret and Sir Clive.

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