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To London, with 12 shillings in pocket by G V Krishnan Print E-mail

Once a newsman, now a 'was-man', G. V. Krishnan retired in 1998 as a Times of India correspondent. During his two decades with Times of India, he was posted in New Delhi, Bhopal, Chandigarh and Chennai. He was earlier with the National Herald, New Delhi, and on the news desk of The Northern Echo, a British provincial daily, in the mid-1960s. Krishnan, settled in Mysore, blogs at My Take by GVK. His email is This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

In 1964 I gave up a government job, at the Press Information Bureau in New Delhi, for an uncertain future in London. I was then 26, an age at which you think you know all the answers. Had it all worked out in my head - I had given myself three years in London, after which I wished to move on, to exotic Latin America to settle down in Sao Polo. As it turned out, I moved out of London in three years, only to return to the India I thought I wouldn't come back to. I am now 70, and settled in Mysore.

I went to England on a labour voucher. Those days (in the 60s), citizens of the Commonwealth countries could migrate to England on a voucher issued by the British ministry of labour. It didn't promise a job, but guaranteed a dole for a work-permit holder till he found employment. Getting a labour voucher posed no hassles for those with a university degree. And it was convenient for many educated unemployables from India and former African colonies to find their way to England.

Some of them, with a political agenda at home and flair for public speaking, went on dole for as long as they could, and spent time promoting their pet cause at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. It is the only place that guaranteed unfettered freedom of speech. You could even abuse the royalty. But then you could be taken for a crank. There was this middle-aged Irishman, who blamed his permanent unemployment status to the Royal Navy recruitment board. George brought his own soapbox to the Hyde Park corner on Saturday afternoons and held forth on his pet grouse against the armed forces.

The work permit listed my occupation as 'journalist'. It took me over two years to get a job on a British newspaper. Till then I did an assortment of odd jobs. Which included a two-week stint as a packer in a clothes wearhouse; and a clerical officer (a civil service job) in a post office savings bank.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) allowed a work-permit holder three pounds sterling as foreign exchange for travel. This was my pocket money during the 10-day boat trip from Bombay to Genova in Italy and an overnight train journey from there to London. That I was left with 12 shillings when I reached the London Victoria station, at the end of the 12-day journey, spoke much for my scrupulous money management. In violation of the currency regulations I carried a hundred-rupee note, but the only place en route where I could convert it was Karachi.

M.V. Asia, a Lloyd Triestino boat, sailed into Karachi a day after we left Bombay. After an over-night halt at the Pakistani port (during which I went ashore with a group of passengers to get a feel of the city) we sailed to Aden, and then on to Port Said through the Suez. It was during our transit through the canal we heard the news about the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru. We were quite a few Indians on board, and held a condolence meeting in the ship library. As I went ashore in Naples some people stopped me to enquire if I were Indian; and on my nod they said something Italian, of which the only word I understood was 'Nehru'. Such was his popularity. Saw his photo on Naple news-stands. Nehru was Page One in all the papers.

Disembarked from the boat in Genoa, from where I took a cross-country train to London, on Direct Orient (later edition of the famed Orient Express). My friend Satish Kohli (we used to live in the same neighbourhood in New Delhi) who was to meet my train at Victoria that afternoon wasn't there. Finding myself friendless in unfamiliar London, without an address to go to and with no more than 12 shillings in my pocket didn't do much good for my spirits. Satish did turn up eventually (he had been held up at work) and took me home to his bed-sitter at Golders Green.

London tended to grow on me. And even when I found work at a newspaper in North-East England I used to travel to London every other weekend. I was in England during the 'swinging' sixties, when the Beatles were a rage, and the Twiggy look was in vogue; when girls, in mini-skirts, went for a boyish cut and boys wore long hair. But there were things where change was inordinately slow in coming. Sound of Music was on at a Tottenhamcourt Road cinema house (the year was 1964). The movie was still running when I left London three years later! Agatha Christie's Moustrap was playing for the 13th year at a London theatre.

The first job I got through the employment exchange was that of a proof-reader at a North London printing press. At the employment exchange they don't keep you on dole for more than six weeks at a time. If you don't find anything worthwhile within this period, you have to take up whatever job they offer you at the labour exchange. And journalists were not recruited through labour exchange.

I didn't last for more than three weeks as a proof-reader. On the third pay-day (they pay weekly, on Fridays) I felt that my envelope was heavier than usual, and on counting the cash I found there was twice the amount I got as weekly wages. This was their way of showing you the door. My supervisor, a Pakistani, later explained to me over a drink that the manager who had bungled on a job work chose to make a scapegoat of me.

My next job was with India Weekly, brought out by a group of London-based Indian journalists and supported by the Indian High Commission. P N Haksar was deputy high commissioner and Salman Hyder, who retired as foreign secretary a few years back, was in the mid-sixties a first-secretary (information) at the High Commission. India Weekly was the brainchild of the then London bureau chief of the Calcutta daily Hindustan Standard, Dr. Tarapada Basu. He managed the weekly, with voluntary contributions from S K Shelvankar of The Hindu, Iqbal Singh of the Patriot and Shisantu Das of the Indian Express.

My position at India Weekly remained unspecified. So was my job description. I wasn't given an appointment letter. I was paid through office voucher an amount that was not much higher than what I would have got as dole, had I stayed home and registered myself as unemployed. You could call my stint at India Weekly sweat labour. But I cheerfully endured it. It kept me away from the humiliating dole queue.

© G V Krishnan 2009.

Comments
Add New Search
Kashmira   |2009-03-05
I LOVED reading this post!

Please do write a series on interesting areas of
your professional life.
Y. Yunus   |2013-12-24
Post your comments here.
I am reminded of the time when I had to choose a career
option and how horrified my elders were when I said I liker writing and wanted
to be a journalist. They knocked the idea out of my mind by saying that
journalists usually starved in the early years! This blog confirms what a
difficult profession it is.
The problem is that today, sixty years later I still
like to pen my thoughts on everything under the sun. Now the finished product
just goes into the drawer since I do not know who to share it with.
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