Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
Not only did I buy the camera, but I also invested in an enlarger, a lens and developing equipment. Mum and Dad couldn't understand how I'd managed to buy them and the situation wasn't helped by my brother-in-law, Harold Regal, who said, 'This is very expensive stuff, Alan. How have you managed to afford all this?' I didn't need him winding the old man up.
My father was such a worrier. I swear he thought that one day there'd be a policeman knocking at our door - I don't know why. He just couldn't accept what this young lad was up to. My only criticism of him would be that he didn't support me in any of these activities and always seemed to think there was something wrong. I wouldn't say the same about my mother though; she was quite supportive.
Once I'd got the equipment and converted my dad's workshop (the spare bedroom) into a darkroom by putting a blanket across the window and shutting the door, I set about finding customers. It struck me that many of our neighbours had kids and grandchildren, so I decided to knock on people's doors and ask them if they'd like me to photograph the children on a 'no obligation' basis - a no-brainer, as you can imagine. 'Sure,' they invariably replied. I took the precaution of writing 'PROOF' on the corner of the photos
in biro and presented them to the parents and grandparents who, of course, loved them.
'What's this word "proof"?' they would say. 'Can't I have one without that on it?'
'Well, that's a rough example. If you want a final, good-quality one, I'll print you off a large one for half a crown.'
That was it! I was at the races. It was pictures of children and grandchildren for the next few months.
At school, photography was becoming a fashionable hobby and we had a photographic society whose members included one of the more financially fortunate pupils, a posh kid who used to hold court. His dad owned a shop and everybody looked up to him as if his shit didn't stink.
When I showed my photographs, he'd sneer at them and look down on me as a second-class photographer. On one occasion, I showed him some negatives I'd developed myself. He observed some smear marks on them and announced haughtily, in front of the society, 'Oh, Sugar, it seems that you dry your negatives by farting on them.' You can imagine the laughter.
My next scheme wiped the smile off his face, in more ways than one. At that time, he used to be the supplier of photographic materials to the kids and the teachers. Now, at the rear of Mr Allen's shop there was a small film-processing factory. I'd occasionally go and see how the developing process worked and noticed that they discarded the empty 35mm cartridge cases. I wondered what could be done with these seemingly useless items, but at the time nothing came to mind. Until one day I went into the ex-army shop on Chatsworth Road in Hackney. Ex-army stores originally sold second-hand uniforms, boots and other surplus army supplies, but the availability of this stuff diminished in the post-war years, so they extended their stock to
surplus. I went to buy a pair of army boots (a fashion statement at that time) and noticed some large, round cans that looked like something you would store film in - the type of film you'd see on a cinema projector. I asked the fellow what was in the cans and he told me he'd bought a job lot of unexposed Ilford FP3 film, as used by film studios for the making of black-and-white movies. FP3 was also sold in photographic stores as black-and-white transparency film for around 5s 1d for a 20-exposure roll and 6s 10d for a 36-exposure roll. Now here I was in the ex-army store, with reels and reels of this stuff, each reel with hundreds of yards of film on it, the very same film you could buy in the photographic shops, but in bulk. The vision of the empty 35mm cartridges came out of my memory bank and I asked the man how much he wanted for a reel.
'What are you going to do with it?' he asked. 'Who do you think you are - Hitchcock?'
'Never mind that, mate, how much for a reel?' I persisted.
He was bright, because before he gave a price, he wanted to know what I had in mind for it, in case he was missing a trick. There must have been fifty cans there, so who knows how much he paid for them. I bet he bought them for the scrap value of the metal cans.
'How much do you want to pay?' he said.
I looked at the can. The label indicated 500 yards of film inside. I knew from watching the process at the development factory that a 36-exposure film, out of its cartridge, was about two yards long. If I sold the film to the punters and undercut the shops by, say, 50 per cent, it would mean that I'd have to charge about three bob for a 36-exposure film. I quickly worked out that 250 x 3s came to PS37 10s.
'I'll give you five quid for one can,' I said. After a bit of haggling, the bloke accepted. He was intrigued about what I was going to do with it. Now I had to set up a production line. Although I'd converted my dad's workshop into a darkroom, there was still light coming around the edges of the blanket over the window and around the door frame. This was good enough for developing prints on photographic paper, but not good enough for playing with unexposed film.
My second darkroom was my bed. Under the bedcovers, I'd open the developing tank, take the undeveloped exposed film out of its cartridge, thread the film on to the tank spool and then put the lid on the tank, ready for the developer fluid to be poured in. I went back under the covers for this bulk film operation. With a pair of scissors and the wooden yardstick my dad used for tailoring, I measured off and cut the film into two-yard lengths from the bulk reel. The whole operation was risky because if any light got in, I could expose the whole spool and that'd be a fiver down the drain. Once cut, I loaded the film into one of the discarded empty 35mm cartridges. I tried to be selective and take only those that had an original Ilford FP3 label on them, but I had to accept what was available. If I loaded the film into a cartridge with an FP3 label, it would be an easier sell; if I had to use an empty Kodak cartridge, you can imagine it would take a bit of explaining as to why the film inside was FP3.
In those days there were no inkjet printers or photocopiers to run off labels. Instead, I got some kid at school to use the library typewriter to type out 'ILFORD FP3 36 EXP' over and over on a sheet of A4 paper, cut the words out and glue them on to the non-Ilford cartridges using LePages glue. In exchange, I gave him some film, so he was happy as Larry.
Word spread like wildfire at school: 'Hey, Sugar's got 36 EXP FP3 for three bob!' At first, I had to overcome the suspicion that they'd fallen off the back of a lorry, a rumour put about by the posh tosser. That was easy to dispel because when you looked at the end product you could see it wasn't packaged in the same way as retail film. I was soon getting orders from the kids, the kids' parents and the teachers. Like all products, it was accepted with scepticism at first, but eventually they realised it was okay. In fact, my generous length of two yards gave them forty-odd exposures.
The posh tosser didn't give up. After his suggestion that the stuff was nicked had backfired, he then said the film was out-of-date and thus inferior. I killed that one off by offering a money-back guarantee.
This exercise had a twofold benefit. Firstly, I made some money and saw how cutting prices generates sales. But I also learned a valuable lesson about what happens when someone encroaches upon the territory of the so-called elite, be it disturbing their business or upsetting what they perceive to be their special rights. They go into arsehole mode and use rather sneaky and spiteful tactics.
I don't know what happened to this prat in later life. He's probably a
journalist. From what I recall, he fits the criteria exactly: a pathetic loser who does nothing in life other than engage in spiteful sniping to cover up his own lack of achievement.
Having ruined the tosser's film business, I decided to rub it in a bit more by showing the photographic society how to get - in photographic terms - a real scoop. One sports day, I took pictures of the guys running around the track at Eton Manor Sports Centre at Hackney Marshes. I developed the photos overnight and delivered them next morning - something no one thought possible. Of course, nowadays, we can take pictures with a digital camera and print them instantly; in those days you took your film to a developer, it went away for processing and maybe a week to ten days later you'd get your pictures. Well, here's me: Eton Manor, three o'clock in the afternoon, snapping one of our champion runners, pictures on the desk next morning - scoop!
The tosser and his hangers-on assembled quickly at the notice-board where I'd displayed the pictures. There were a few where the runners' arms were blurred, as I hadn't used a fast enough shutter speed, and the tosser was holding court, criticising. 'I say, Sugar, about time you got yourself a camera with a two-thousandth of a second shutter speed.'
His snipe was squashed when Mr Pollard, my form tutor and chemistry teacher, came up behind the assembled crowd and expressed his admiration
for the blurred pictures from an artistic point of view - the way they portrayed a feeling of speed. He was so impressed he called over Mr Cannon, my housemaster. Instead of complimenting me, Mr Cannon said, 'You must have been up all night, Sugar - this must have taken you ages. You were supposed to be doing your homework. How are you going to pass your GCEs?'
'Screw him,' I thought to myself.
While on the subject of photography, one of the young lads I'd seen around was soon to be Bar Mitzvah'd and, as his mum and dad couldn't afford much, I offered to take the Bar Mitzvah photographs.
Bloody hell, what a risk that was! When I got to the venue, I found myself taking pictures of adults and doing group photos. Only then did it dawn on me: these people are expecting memorable photographs, pictures they'll frame and treasure for the rest of their lives. I thought to myself, 'What have I done? What am I doing here?' Thankfully, it came off quite well in the end. I can't remember what I charged but I certainly undercut the professional photographer.
Based on that event, I decided to professionalise myself. I went to a local printer's, Austin Press, who made me a rubber stamp:
ALAN SUGAR - Phone: UPP 7875'. Even as I tell this story, I can see my mum smiling and shrugging her shoulders and my dad still shaking his head.
Along with photography I was fascinated by electronics. In Dalston Lane, Hackney there was a shop called Tiny's Radio where we kids would go to buy things such as diodes, coils, resistors and variable capacitors. With these components, we could cobble together a 'crystal set' which could pick up radio stations.
For my Bar Mitzvah, my mum and dad had bought me an 'Elizabethan' tape recorder. This was a really high-class piece of kit. It was a lot of money for them to invest, but it was a special occasion. A tape recorder was a fashionable thing to have and if you were a dab hand you could connect your valve radio's output to your tape recorder's input and record things off the radio.
Having acquired a soldering iron and conferred with a few of the school boffs, I assembled my crystal set and plugged it into the microphone input of the tape recorder. Suddenly the sound of radio blasted out. My dad ran up the stairs and said, 'Where's the music coming from? How have you managed to do that?' I showed him this little crystal set and tried to explain what was
going on. He seemed quite impressed, for once, with how I had managed to do it.
As I mentioned earlier, I became a recluse during this period. Because of this, my mum and dad allowed me to get involved in any kind of hobby I wanted, in order to keep me occupied. When I think back to those days, I never went anywhere other than to Dalston Lane or Tottenham Court Road - to buy electronic components - then back home again. My mum and dad were really worried - no question about it. So were my brother and sisters. It was a topic of much debate within the family. As we all know, the worst thing you can ever do in this situation is to try and fix someone up with a friend. My mother would 'find' me friends and force me to go round and visit them, but to no avail.
In the summer, my mum and dad went on holiday to Cliftonville in Kent and they dragged me along. To keep the cost down, the three of us shared one room in a small hotel. There were quite a few young people staying there and I got very friendly with them that week. My mum and dad were delighted, but of course the holiday came to an end, we all went back home, and the people I'd met didn't live in my vicinity - so back I went into my shell again.
I remember my dad saying to me, 'What's the matter with you? You enjoyed yourself while you were on holiday - why can't you go back to the youth clubs and find yourself friends again?'
And I remember thinking, 'Leave me alone - stop pushing,' and I just carried on in a very quiet way.
Monday to Friday there was no problem - school took up most of my time. But the highlight of the weekends was taking the 653 bus to Tottenham Court Road to buy a reel of solder.
Eventually, Daphne and my sister-in-law Brenda cornered me one Friday evening and tried, in a more caring manner, to address what was going on. They wanted to understand what the problem was and why I wouldn't socialise with other kids. Was it perhaps that I was mixing too much with adults and not getting the opportunity to meet youngsters? That, of course, was wrong because previously I
enjoyed a social life - with the ratbags who gave me the elbow.
In one of the pep talks that Daphne and Brenda gave me, Brenda said that her brother, Adrian Press, would gladly play host and take me around the youth clubs that he went to. 'You know Adrian,' Brenda said. 'You've played with him when you've been round my mum and dad's house. You were page boys together at our wedding. It's not like he's a stranger. Why don't you agree to meet up with him and let him introduce you to a bunch of pals?'