‘King’s for me is very fond memories...’ says Joe May to my opening question: ‘What does the Strand mean to you?’ [LISTEN HERE] So began my first attempt at asking questions and recording an interview as part of the Strandlines Oral History Project. I had lucked out with Joe; he is a born raconteur, willing to tell tales from his four decades at King’s College. It is an impossibility to try and condense his relationship – for Joe it is a relationship, not just a job – into an interview of less than an hour. It felt like I was reading the chapter headings of a book, intriguing and juicy subtitles that betrayed a far greater story. [Excuse the bookish analogies and extended metaphors I write as an English student after all...] From 1978 to 2008, when he retired, King’s College has been an integral part to Joe’s life: as has Joe to King’s College. As we walked to and from the borrowed office where we conducted the interview, we were interrupted by warm cries of recognition and bursts of laughter as Joe halted in the corridor to chat with the cleaning lady wielding her mop and then a few steps later a member of the Dean’s office; he greeted the former with a kiss, the latter with a handshake, and left both with the promise of a drink.
Joe is at ease with everyone. In the moments before and after the interview as he networked the Old Council Room with a joke and a smile for everyone, from those he has known for years to those for only a few minutes, I realised why and how he rose through the ranks of porter on the front gate in the early years to eventually become the assistant site services manager. Joe spoke of creating a working “family”: [LISTEN HERE] (Apologies for my laughter and yeahhs interrupting the recording, I kept breaking the first rule of oral historians: nod, don’t speak!)
His years before King’s as a toolmaker, butcher, in the stations at WHSmith’s and the toy department at John Lewis on Oxford Street, all served as rehearsals for the stage that is King’s and the performance that is all Joe’s. As he said: ‘It’s all showbiz’ [LISTEN HERE] The role of the porter is to be both on the stage, like a music hall compere, and behind it, creating the scenery and setting the stage for the next act. He was responsible for both front and back of house ensuring the smooth transition between scenes and ushering in the spectators. For as I learnt (and should have recognised before) King’s function is to facilitate far more than academic thought and research: from Scottish dancers who throw chalk and only drink orange juice, ‘they never touch a drop of drink’; to the annual Huguenot society conferences and dinners; to finding typewriters for members of the international ‘whodunit’ writers weekend. Joe’s reminiscences are a reminder that College life goes far beyond the library, lectures and seminars.
Part of Joe’s success is that he dressed for the role. Even now in his retirement he looks dapper, as he says ‘you’ve got to look right’. [LISTEN HERE] In comparison I feel decidedly under-dressed, frizzy and crumpled in my tired jumper and jeans compared to his neatly cropped hair, clean shaven face, suit jacket and razor sharp trouser creases and shining shoes. It is his attitude beyond the 9 to 5 as “face” and contact of the college that explains why he was often invited as an additional guest to Bar Mitzvah’s and weddings held at King’s. Joe speaks of a more commercial side of the College that takes place out of hours and the traditions of term-time routines where the student’s year is divided into semesters and examination periods. Everyday was ‘learning and meeting new people’ – the daily task of giving directions like a human satnav to all that enquired, liaising with the catering staff and all the other services, interspersed with the more unusual requests of making tea for (sometimes secret) meetings or publically announcing dignitaries and guiding politicians.
At other times there were ‘battles’ when a controversial speaker rallied protestors outside on the Strand and it was Joe who, unable to cross the blocked entrance, climbed out of a window and politely asked the protestors wielding their loudspeakers to leave. They soon did as they were told! When actors and film crews descended on the college he had the ‘pleasure of meeting Julie Christie’ and many other screen stars, an experience few can boast of. And yet I’m misrepresenting Joe for he does not boast despite all the great and sometimes not so good he has met, instead he is self-deprecating and modest; Joe’s central mantra in our interview is that to gain from his job he had to be dedicated to ‘the reputation and the standing of the college’. In 2003 Joe was recognised formally for being a key player in the great production that is King’s College when he was unexpectedly elected a Fellow, a story he tells far better than I can: [LISTEN HERE].
When I asked him which is his favourite space he asserts that it is the Great Hall with the memories it holds. From meetings of NATO to unofficial birthday parties, he jokes that with King’s as his ‘second home’ his friends would say he had the biggest ‘flat and front room in London’. With perhaps its nearest rival Buckingham Palace, he has met some of its residents more than once. It is in the Great Hall too where Joe has overheard many diverse lectures over the years, part of the cumulative experiences that mean he has effectively studied most subjects a little; he is a graduate of the “University of Life”. When I asked Joe if he could return as a student he replies that he would read music or history or war studies. But I wonder listening back on the interview if I asked the wrong thing – instead, I should have posed the question what would Joe teach? For that answer we will have to meet again.