Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
The story spread to the headmaster, the deputy head and the teaching staff. From that day on, I was known as the school's enterprise star, an accolade the headmaster never failed to bring up at open days.
The deputy head called me into the staffroom a few weeks later (I used to make the tea for the staff from time to time). He told me that while he was pleased with the school magazine enterprise, I had lumbered him with the Adana machine and it was up to me to sell it. I explained that to sell it I would need to advertise it in the
Exchange & Mart,
so if could he give me ten bob, I'd get the job done.
He turned to the other staff and said, 'Did you hear that? This boy has landed me with a fifteen-pound printing machine and now wants ten shillings to get rid of it for me!' He was seriously angry.
I shrugged my shoulders and politely suggested that if he had any other ideas, perhaps he should try to sell it himself. He told me to get on with it and I sold it for about PS17, so he had nothing to complain about.
There is a perverse kind of cruelty that can be put upon children, unwittingly, by parents who are meaning to do so well for them. Like all secondary school kids, I was growing every year and at twelve I needed a new school uniform. A new uniform represented a significant financial outlay to a poor family like ours. What's more, by now the school had become Brooke House Comprehensive and the new regime was very hot on uniform compliance. The local school outfitters, of course, had a field day. All the boys' parents took them there and kitted them out in grey short trousers (for the junior school), black jackets with the statutory school badge affixed to the breast pocket and, of course, the school tie.
I don't know what was going through my father's mind at the time - perhaps he really
that skint - but he decided he would
me my school uniform. Unfortunately, in doing so, he made me stand out from the other kids - quite unintentionally, of course.
Bless him, he had this worry about money falling out of my pockets - I think this may have happened to me
when I went to the cinema with my cousin Denise - so, in his mind, I needed deep pockets. He made me a pair of short trousers with very deep pockets. So deep, in fact, that in order to accommodate them, the overall length of the trousers had to be somewhat longer than normal. Now picture the scene: me arriving at school wearing a
pair of short trousers that were much longer than everybody else's. They looked like they were falling down, and this tempted the older lads to come up to me and try to pull them down.
As if that wasn't bad enough, in making the jacket, Dad decided to add some leather elbow patches, the sort you sometimes see on posh riding clothes. He reckoned that I, being a young lad, would lean on my elbows a lot and wear the material out. So the elbow patches were another object of ridicule. Thinking about it now, if felt-tip pens had been available in those days, he might have taken his old white wedding tie and tried to replicate the stripes of the official school tie. It must have killed him to actually have to pay for a real one.
Then there was the school badge. Instead of buying one and sewing it on, my Auntie Gertie, out of the kindness of her heart, embroidered one for me. This turned out to be slightly smaller than the official one. Luckily, to the untrained eyes of the other kids, it wasn't noticeable. Interestingly enough, however, the teachers would admire this piece of craftsmanship, which was fantastic, and say to me, 'Sugar, where did you get that badge? It's different, it's smaller. I've not seen those on sale.' I would explain that my aunt had embroidered it and they were very impressed.
The point illustrated by this episode is that even with the best intentions in the world, some parents' actions can end up subjecting their children to ridicule. It also serves to highlight how kids innately want to conform, and how they will torment a child who is not in 'standard issue', making them feel inadequate. I complained about this to my father several times, but it just fell upon deaf ears.
Fortunately, the following year I went into long trousers, plus I needed a bigger jacket. I must have kicked up enough of a fuss that a standard uniform was purchased. Come to think of it, I may well have paid for it myself from the proceeds of one of my enterprises.
The necessity of supplementing my pocket money was of prime importance to me. Looking back, I now realise that none of the other kids I knew, at school or in the flats, had the sort of motivation I did. Some of the Moores' kids would have a paper round or milk round, but nothing beyond that. Naturally, I did those things too - for two shillings a day. And on Saturdays I had jobs at the baker's and greengrocer's - for half a crown a day. All of these were, to use a good old-fashioned East End expression, 'two bob jobs', but considering I was eleven or twelve years old, one couldn't complain.
It was at the greengrocer's, Charlton's in Clapton, where my famous beetroot-boiling story originated. On Saturday mornings I would get up early and turn up at Charlton's for a seven o'clock start and part of my job was to help set out the display of veg at the front.
Beetroot was rarely purchased in its raw form; customers wanted it ready-boiled and we would provide this service. My first duty on arrival on Saturday morning was to get a small metal bath and place it on the gas ring, half fill the bath with water and chuck in a sack of raw beetroot. I would then light the gas and get on with my next task which was humping sacks of potatoes from the basement up the stairs. I'd cut the sacks open and put the potatoes out on display. Next I'd display the lettuces which were supplied in small wooden cases that first had to be broken open.
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't solely responsible for the whole display - others were there, busily preparing for the day's trade. Once the potatoes and lettuces were put out, my next duty was to carefully fold the sacks (displaying the grower's name on the outside) so that when the van went back to market the following week, Mr Charlton would be able to get his deposit back. Throughout the course of the day, I'd be constantly humping more potatoes up from the basement to replenish those being sold.
Back to the beetroots. After an hour or so, I had to call two sturdy men to lift the boiling bath of beetroot off the burner, walk it out to the yard, chuck out the water and then take the piping hot beetroots and put them out on display at the front of the shop. For some reason, the press, when covering my business career, have latched on to the beetroot story and repeat it endlessly and inaccurately. 'He used to sell beetroot from the back of his minivan' or 'He sold beetroot on a market stall' are a couple of variations. Well, you've just read the
beetroot story. Never let it be distorted again!
Ginger beer manufacture was another of my ventures, after talking to a lady in our flats who said she had a ginger beer plant, although to me it looked like a load of sand or sediment in some water. She told me how she used it to make ginger beer and explained that every week she would have to separate off half of the sediment and throw it away, as it grew too much. She offered to give me some of it and told me that if I continued to feed it with two teaspoons of sugar a day, plus some ginger and this and that, it would continue to grow. More importantly, the pint of liquid it resided in would turn into concentrated ginger beer which, by adding more water, some lemon juice and sugar, could produce
of ginger beer to drink. My entrepreneurial mind sprung into action again - after all, a large bottle of Tizer or R. Whites lemonade used to cost about 1s 3d in the shops.
In those days, there was no such thing as the disposable plastic bottle. Drinks bottles were made of glass and were quite valuable - they had a return value of a penny each. In one of my earlier ventures, I would scour the streets around our flats looking for empty bottles and I even asked some of the people living in the flats if they had any. I'd take any empties I collected round to the sweet shop and redeem them for cash to buy sweets. Now I had a dilemma: instead of returning the bottles for cash, I needed to use them for my own ginger beer production.
I used the fold-down table that went over the bath as my production bench, a plastic bucket to make the mass production quantity of mix and my mum's small funnel to pour it into the empty bottles. Then I started knocking on the neighbours' doors trying to flog them stuff again. They may have been thinking, 'Oh no, not him again,' but I'd have to say that there was always a smile on their faces.
I even tried to sell some ginger beer to the sweet shop downstairs. The owner agreed to take a few bottles on a sale-or-return basis and he did quite a good job trying to sell some, but with limited success. He explained to me that the presentation wasn't very professional, as the bottles didn't have labels.
Not one of my better ventures then. My mother, to say the least, was not happy with me using two teaspoons of sugar a day, not to mention the half a teaspoon of ginger. But, mothers being mothers, she never complained or charged me.
On reflection, I don't know how I fitted all this stuff in. On top of my more unusual activities, I always had time for the annual late-October tradition of making a Guy Fawkes out of my old clothes padded out with a load of newspapers. Armed with my Guy, I stood outside the flats on the main Upper Clapton Road asking passers-by for a 'penny for the Guy'. I'd use my takings to buy some fireworks for the various bonfire night parties on 5 November, mostly held on an old bombsite within the council estate.
There was no point asking my mum and dad for money to buy fireworks. To the old man it would have been like holding up a red rag to a bull - spending money on things that go up in flames. I recall comments like, 'Why do you want to waste your money on them? Why don't you just go and watch the other people letting off
fireworks?' I guess it was a good point, but you can't tell kids. Besides, there was a special excitement in lighting your own fireworks. In fact, if I remember rightly, my dad came down and took charge of letting off some of my rockets, launching them from an empty milk bottle.
Even with my money-making schemes, I couldn't afford to buy the kind of bicycle I wanted - a Pat Hanlon Special or a Condor Special. So when I was about thirteen I decided I would make one instead! It was amazing how people would throw away old frames, wheels, handlebars and so on, which I'd collect. My pals in the flats would teach me things like how to straighten spokes on wheels, how to assemble a chain and put the gears on - basically how to build bikes.
That knowledge hasn't left me, even today. I was in my local bike shop in Chigwell a while ago, having taken in my brand-new Italian Pinarello bike (sold to me by some American smoothie for the grand sum of $9,000). The bike was attracting a lot of attention from everyone in the shop. One of the customers, who must have been about my age, looked a bit sheepish as he recognised me as the bloke on the telly. He started speaking to me and I could see that he thought I was just one of those rich people who, now that biking was fashionable, had jumped on the bandwagon and bought the best bike available. Then I spotted an antique Pat Hanlon and mentioned that I used to go to her shop in Tottenham, near where I lived. I told him how I virtually used to sit on the doorstep there, driving her mad talking to her about bikes and I reminisced about Condor, when it was situated in Balls Pond Road. Well, I've never seen an attitude change so quickly. You would have thought he'd met a long-lost friend from fifty years ago - we were using old-fashioned terminology like 'tubs' (tyres that you used to glue onto the rims) which are called something else these days.
I still retain my bike-building skills, to the surprise of some of my friends, my wife and even my children. One of them would ask, 'Who fixed that puncture?'
'I did,' I'd say.
They'd look at me quizzically. 'How do you know how to fix punctures?'
'It's easy,' I'd shrug.
Not being aware of my childhood exploits, they'd be amazed that I was an expert at puncture repairs. In my youth, I used the back of a fork as a tyre lever, plus a bit of orange glue and some sandpaper.
In Weald Square, the flats opposite ours, lived Manny Phillips, one of my brother Derek's pals. Manny's family was more well-to-do; they had quite a good business selling things in the markets. During the summer holidays I'd go with Manny to Oxford market and Chelmsford market, as well as Ridley Road, Dalston. Manny sold foam rubber bits and pieces which people would
buy to make cushions. I'd help him load up the stall with the stuff, wrap it up for the customers and generally run back and forth to the cafe for him during the day. It was at Chelmsford where I first experienced the amazing salesmanship of some of these stall holders. The man on the stall next to Manny's sold towels and bedding and he attracted a crowd of people by piling his items one on top of another, creating a perception of value-for-money He'd start his patter by letting the crowd know the high prices of these items in the shops.
I was fascinated by his spiel. 'There you are, two big bath towels, three hand towels, four flannels, five pillow cases, three sets of sheets. I'll throw in two pillows and, wait for it, a wonderful full-size blanket. Now, the lady over there - put your hand down, love - I don't want twenty-five pounds, forget twenty pounds, forget fifteen, don't even think about ten. The lady over there - put your money away, dear. Now, I want
- hands up - five pounds the lot.'