Leslie John Robinson (b.1929): Life and Labour

Leslie’s employment makes up a large part of his autobiography. So large in fact that I would estimate more than two thirds of it’s total pages are spent discussing his long and eventful working life. While this may initially seem excessive, it is only upon reading Leslie’s story that it becomes understandable. His life revolves around the various career paths he takes, from his first experience of paid work as a delivery boy to his long and successful career in the police force, Leslie strikes me as a man who was determined to make something of himself, and never rest on his laurels.

This began at the age of thirteen, when he and a friend joined the Sea Cadet Corps. This eagerness to get on is exhibited when Leslie says that he had his name on the waiting list “since my thirteenth birthday in February” (p.75), the earliest age of eligibility for the Corps, and his dedication never wavers despite “a two hour walk every parade night” (p.75) something which i imagine would immediately put off many children in this day and age.

sea cadet corps logo

Forced to leave the Sea Cadet Corps at the age of eighteen, Leslie described himself as being at a “loose end”, and shortly joined the Army Cadets on the advice of his friends. Again we see that Leslie wasn’t content to simply hang around, even at the age of eighteen. Shortly after he joins the T.A., and then very quickly decides that his future lies with the Army, and his formal training began on the 24th of September 1947, with Leslie “Bright eyed and bushy tailed” (p.86). There seemed to be an initial disappointment with the situation Leslie found himself in, as the adverts which had attracted so many to the armed forces didn’t reflect his situation.

“My pay was…..a big drop from the…..shillings I had earned as a painter, but I hadn’t joined up for the money; the posters had said ‘Join the Army and see the world’. So far there was no sport and the only travelling we did was up and down the parade ground” (p.87)

It is apparent that employment was taking up the lion’s share of Leslie’s life at this point, and despite his clear eagerness to improve himself and to climb the ladder, I sense there was an element of resentment initially, in that the job had not lived up to his expectations. Leslie mentions this desire to travel again after joining a different Army company

“I had chummed up with Driver Sid Horn…..who, like me, had got the urge to see the world” (p.89)

Leslie got his wish a short time later and was shipped out to Egypt with his friend Sid Horn, who would be his good friend for “three and a half years” (p.89). Despite the early disappointment Leslie enjoyed his time as a soldier, and remarks a few months after his arrival in Egypt that:

“I had been working as a painter earning three times as much as I was getting now, but I was glad I had gone for a soldier” (p.96)

Money wasn’t as important to Leslie as the job he was doing or the experience he was having, at least at that point in his life, perhaps unsurprising that a man who had been so used to a comparatively mundane early life would so embrace the chance to travel, he even remarked at being able to go sailing on a private boat while serving in Egypt. In 1950 after moving to a different company with Sid, Leslie was able to visit the great Pyramids.

“We visited many of the tourist attractions and I found the Museum of Antiquities breathtaking…..to be in Cairo and not to visit Gaza was unthinkable” (p.108)

Leslie was certainly living a more exotic life than the kind which had awaited him working as a painter in England. Despite the social experiences Robinson’s job progression never faltered, and less than three years after departing for Egypt “I was qualified to hold the rank of Staff Sergeant” (p.110)

Leslie’s final post in the Army was described to him as a “Job without a future” (p.138), and after a short period he resolved to move on with his life, and promptly picked up his “civvy suit” (p.140) on the 11th of February 1953, after five years of service.

Leslie’s break from public service was brief, and he was shortly enrolled in a training programme to become a member of the Metropolitan Police Force. Unfortunately for Leslie however, he was rejected for weight reasons, and was brought “down to earth with a bump” (p.144) by the job he did find as a bus driver, yet again a servant to the public. Leslie shows in this part of his autobiography that he is certainly not classist, and discusses the frustrations he had with people from all walks of life !

After a second rejection to become a police officer, this time because of his height, a stroke of luck eventually resulted in Leslie being accepted into the force and he was sworn in as Police Constable on the 6th of April 1956. Leslie’s work ethic shone through during his training, he makes little complaint about the strenuous aspect of the programme, eventually becoming the fifth highest scorer of a class of twenty five having “burned the midnight oil” (p.157) to do so.

What followed was a long and fruitful career in the police force, where Leslie continued to improve himself and constantly sought new challenges. As a result, there is relatively little we learn about his social life and it’s relation to his work. Leslie was undoubtedly a man who placed his work, and thus his ability to provide for his family, above all else. Despite at one point being out of work for “five months” (p.185) following an accident while pursuing a burglar, there is little mention of what he exactly he did during that break from the police force.

I believe Leslie’s lengthy detailing of his work was more than just an example of pride, it seems that work itself was a way of life, the discipline bestowed on him while in the Army translated to his civilian life, and he felt no need to break out of a work ethic which had served him so well. Even when Leslie leaves the police force and for the first time in years begins working away from the public sector for the first time he maintains his ties to the Sea Cadets, and the disciplinary work that entails.

Something which certainly amused me was Leslie’s admission that he was “fast becoming a workaholic” (p.228), a statement which seemed to me was twenty years overdue. Perhaps then Leslie’s focus on his working life for the majority of his autobiography was because he didn’t feel the need to discuss his more private moments, that the times he shared with his wife and children were his alone.

Leslie’s autobiography ends with an air of uncertainty. His relatively young business failed, and he was left bankrupt.

“For a fleeting moment my mind raced back to when i had been a young recruit, then i answered her, ‘we take it one step at a time, just like corporal said'” (p.231)

A fitting conclusion to the story of a man whose working life defined him.

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