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The Soul of a Buying Clerk
He works in the buying department of the Chester-Perry Organisation. No, correction, he doesn’t actually work. Bristow gossips, snoozes, wanders round the directors-only top floor ("Getting the feel of the place in case the call comes"), disappears to the factory floor, taunts Sir Reginald’s chauffeur, banters with the post boy, takes long lunch breaks, engages in fruitless arguments with his suppliers about missing orders and files paperwork using a system no-one else in the office can understand. When he appears to be working he is more likely to be writing one of his atrocious pieces of fiction. He is known as the firm’s worst gossip and as the man who knows all the angles and dodges, especially when it comes to evading work.
From time to time he will be caught by his boss, Fudge, whilst dozing, staring out of the window or sneaking in late, and given either a short bawlout "Get on with your work" or taken into the inner sanctum for the full five star shouting match, in which the words lazy, good-for-nothing and idle will feature prominently. Bristow will emerge with his head spinning and then carry on as before.
Who is Bristow?
And yet Bristow himself remains rather elusive. So much about him must be inferred from the tantalising hints spread around the strip. Above all, why does he continue to work in a job he loathes for a company that he despises, with colleagues who make him sick to his stomach, with no prospects for anything other than the remorseless grind of a buying clerk's life for the rest of his working days? Perhaps he is a symbol of the plight of all workers in a capitalist society. Or maybe he just doesn't have the gumption to change his life. Or maybe, very deep down, he enjoys being a buying clerk and has found his true heaven behind his battered old desk, with a steaming cup of freshly brewed (okay, freshly poured) tea, a copy of the House Journal to pour scorn over and Jones to be ribbed.
Bristow has no immediate family, friends or sex life. Or if he does they are so unconnected to his office life that there is no reason for them to be mentioned. In fact few of the inhabitants of C-Ps have much of a life outside the office. We know that Atkins of Accounts is married and we have the odd glimpse in the home life of Mr. Smethwick, a director. We glimpse the breakup of Hickford's marriage (caused by too much devotion to House Journal editing). About Bristow there is a huge void. He is certainly single, takes his holidays alone and has never been seen to have anyone share his bed. His longings for Miss Pretty of Kleenaphone suggest a heterosexual orientation. However he has never made a pass at any of the girls in the office, albeit that most of them would treat him with amused contempt if he did (see Bristow's Romances). He does have a few uncles and aunts from whom he receives Christmas cards (displayed in the office to impress the other clerks) but hardly ever visits them.
He does encounter one relative on holiday, a lady who describes him to her son as "Uncle Bristow". The holiday was not a success but the son is quite taken with his new uncle and begins phoning him at work to Bristow's intense irritation. Perhaps there is a future buying clerk in the making here.
His first name begins with an "R" but it is never used at work. He signs all his correspondence as RB (an opposite number at Gun & Fames thinks of him as "Rat’s Breath") but is known as Bristow to his colleagues and Mr. Bristow (or Mr. B.) to the minions. Sometimes the trendy youngsters such as Mr. Jackson or the lift boy call him "Bristers". Any attempt at intimacy is quickly stopped. Once at the Annual Dinner and Dance the post boy, perhaps emboldened by drink and the conviviality of the occasion asks his first name. Bristow slaps him down hard. "Its not that convivial you young pup". His birthday, 9th December, is known to his fellow clerks because tea and cakes must be bought for anyone who remembers, however Bristow tends to claim that his birthday was on the preceding Sunday and when his sceptical colleagues check up on the files in Personnel they find a page suspiciously missing from the records.
We learn that his religion is Church of England (during a routine interrogation by the switchboard before they let him have an outside line) but (other than an early strip showing him praying for the health of the wages department) he does not attend Church nor take part in any religious activity. On the other hand his favourite exclamation is "Holy Mackerel".
How old is he?
He is age is never discussed but some deductions can be made. Educated at St Mary’s Mixed Infants, he presumably went on to a secondary school but left with few if any qualifications at 15 or 16. His first job, (mentioned in strip 745 from June 1963), was as office boy in an ice-cream factory. Then he worked for a while at Effandee Holdings as a buying clerk. When he joined C-Ps he was called "Young Mr. Bristow" but was already sufficiently experienced in office procedures to go confidently to sleep at the desk on his first day.
We know, because Bristow often remarks on it, that he has been with C-Ps eight and two third years. He was at Effandee long enough to call one of his colleagues "Young" Taylor. So he is probably past his late twenties and is likely to be a few years past thirty. Though gradually confirming as a bachelor he is still young enough to dream, yet already so set in his ways that to leave C-Ps would be unthinkable, unless it were to take a similar job in a similar office.One final piece of evidence is an unnumbered strip (published in December 1962) where he speculates about retirement in thirty three years time. Normal retirement in those days was at 65 for men so perhaps he is about 32.
It is fascinating to try to place Bristow in that early 1960s world in which he emerged. Let us suppose he was meant to be aged about 32 in 1962. Then he would have left school in 1944-45, too young to fight in the war. But he is of reasonable health and good eyesight, and has no special skills. He must therefore have been called up under the conscription program which went on until the end of the 1950s. He would have done two years National Service, perhaps stuck in barracks in the UK or maybe with a posting to one of the trouble spots of the day, possibly even seeing active service in Korea. As this is never referred to in the strip one can only speculate. And who might his drill sergeant have been? In strip 669 Bristow tells us that Fudge was a sergeant-major. Could it be - does one dare to hope that Fudge might have drilled Bristow? That Bristow joined C-Ps only to discover with horror that his new boss was a familiar figure? That S-M Fudge, thankfully leaving the army for civvy street and gaining a good posting with C-Ps hears one day that Personnel have assigned him a new clerk, and looks up to see.....?
Bristow is often described as "middle-aged" (for example, on the cover of the BBC recording of the radio series). Perhaps this is based on his toothbrush moustache and sedentary habits but it is not really borne out by the evidence. It may not be co-incidence that he is about the same age as his creator (Frank Dickens was born in 1931) at the birth of the cartoon strip but maybe he ages a little as it progresses.
Bristow invariably wears a dark jacket, pinstriped trousers, shirt, tie and black shoes for work. So do all his male colleagues, although some (including the postboy and Benny "the Duke" Gibson) sport bow ties. In the earlier days bowler hats were worn. This is the uniform of the Civil Service, the Law and in an earlier generation, the senior domestic servant. When the Evening Standard dropped the strip in 2001 the reason given was that "The day of the bowler hat is over". This is undeniable - non-Britons might imagine a London of fogs and clattering hansom cabs, bowler hats, nursemaids in the park and flower-sellers in Piccadilly but this had become a tired cliché even before the strip began. It is not really the point. The bowler is a symbol of a type of person, the "commuter-clerk" as it said on the back of first of the Bristow book collections, and as a symbol it still has a certain power. Of course Bristow would wear one. It defines him and gives him a certain dignity. Even if he would not wear it today, it would still hang up on his hat-stand at home.
Although he always wears the same clothes, and seems to have no dress sense at all, he is vain about his appearance. He resents the jibes of Jones and the postboy when he puts on weight (and it stimulates a would-be best seller, The Finish of the Fat Man). He is fond of going on diets or taking crash courses of exercise. The latter usually result in a rapid jog down the corridor to the tea-trolley and extra cakes to compensate. But maybe his regular panic-stricken race to work keeps him fit. He is thrifty with his clothes and has kept the very suit that he first wore to work at C-Ps. Probably too thrifty. People are always noticing him in the street and being reminded to get the dog's dinner. And from time to time Jones will lose patience and refuse to walk alongside him in the street. "Honestly Bristow don't you ever tire of posing as a brain surgeon on holiday".
Brain surgery is just one of Bristow's plans to escape from clerkery. He often claims that he has no idea why he ever took an indoors job when he really should have been a sales rep. See Bristow's Ambitions for more on what he would really like to do.
The clerk as hero
He has a wary relationship with many of his colleagues. Well known as the biggest gossip and rumour-monger in the firm, he is mortally offended when people cut him out of the grapevine, on the grounds that he is a blabbermouth. But he is soon re-instated - "Sweet talked my way back in". When Atkins of Accounts has a stag night, he doesn't invite Bristow. Bristow finds out because one of the invitees foolishly wears his best clothes to the office. However the reason for his exclusion is benign; Atkins, who makes up the wages, knows that Bristow can't afford to come. On a later occasion when Atkins hosts a card night (his wife being away) Bristow is one of the eager poker players.
There is no doubting his bravery. Splashed by Sir Reginald's Rolls whilst crossing the road he shakes his fist at the fast-vanishing car (then spends the week anticipating the sack). When confronted by Benny ("the Duke") Gibson and his henchmen in a thrilling standoff in the canteen, Bristow stands his ground . And though he is fearful of being caught time-wasting by Fudge, he never seems to mind the shouting, threats and all-round abuse that normally follow. Instead he adopts an air of dignified calm and makes mental notes of the furnishings of Fudge's office, preparing for the day that he will take up residence there.
So is he a true hero for our time, a shining example of courage and perserverance, a man true to himself in the face of overwhelming odds? Or just a lazy, bone-idle chancer who is hanging on to his job by the skin of his teeth? I doubt if anything on the remainder of this website will help you decide.