This article comes with a health and safety warning. It is recollecting events of 35 years ago and, therefore, much that should be remembered is forgotten and much that should be forgotten is remembered.
But it remains the truth that employment as the British Safety Council’s press officer was the first ‘proper’ job I ever had. Leaving Exeter University in 1982 with an English degree was not perhaps the best entry into the employment market, then in the middle of one of Margaret Thatcher’s (this is hurting you far more than it is hurting me) recessions.
I was delighted to get a job almost immediately when most of my contemporaries were signing on or working in pubs, and pleased also to have one that was local (my family not having moved from the Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham for a century or more) but still sounded quite cool, as we said then.
And when I said I was the press officer, what I actually mean is that I was one of about 10 people in the British Safety Council communications department. Others included Charlie Leadbeater and Michael Harrison, later leading journalists at the FT and Independent respectively. Mark Wheeler, who went on to be a senior press person at the HSE, ran the information ‘hotline’. There were ex-Fleet Street pros, hustlers, and the wonderful Colin Fletcher, the in-house photographer with a view of life that Raymond Chandler would have found sardonic.
Why, you may ask, did the British Safety Council need a comms department that was larger than many of its other ‘proper’ functions, including sales, training and membership. The answer to this question, and to almost any other there in the 1980s was: James Tye.
The founder, guru and dominant personality in its four decades has become a legend. Tye created the organisation and put it on the map. And crucial to that was his understanding of what makes people sit up and pay attention. In a rather staid and formal world, James Tye, with his bow tie, Trumpesque management style and love of the good life, was a revelation.
I lost count of the times my boss would say, make sure James doesn’t see you today, as he wants to sack you. Traumatic at first, this became routine. I would disappear with Colin to the bar at Riverside Studios and wait – sometimes several hours – until the coast was clear.
The remedy was to get James into the national press – it didn’t matter which paper, or even if the story was good or bad. Coverage is what counted as success and earned me a reprieve for another week.
Once, with our brilliant graphic artist –yes we had one of those too, in fact two I think– I designed a cartoon strip warning against the dangers of fireworks. James suggested we expanded it to make direct comparison with the Falklands War. It worked. I think we made page two of some tabloids, but not in a good way. I hid in Riverside for a couple of days, but James was delighted.
I only lasted just over a year at the British Safety Council, though I am still in contact with some of my contemporaries. It was not the polished and professional organisation it is now. But it was fun. I hope it still is.
First jobs leave a lasting impression, and I will always be grateful to the organisation for introducing me to the world of work, for knocking a little of the pretentiousness off and for paying me the sum of £4,500 a year.
I’m delighted the British Safety Council has stayed in Hammersmith and has grown in size and reputation over the past 30 years. Its creation marked the sea-change in culture that led to safety in the workplace becoming a priority after the 1974 Act.
When I was shadow justice minister, for six years until last summer, I often met insurers or policy wonks who tried to persuade me that we no longer needed or could afford the legal and institutional protections against accidents at work or elsewhere built up in the past 40 years.
I politely disagreed, and did so with the knowledge I had somehow absorbed in the sometimes chaotic, always stimulating environment of Chancellor’s Road circa 1982.
I wish the British Safety Council a very happy 60th birthday.
Watch Andy Slaughter MP at the launch of our manifesto Working Well in 2012 here
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