Helen Martin: This former Saturday girl fears for Fraser's

MANY people will be glad that anyone, even Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley, was ­prepared to buy House of Fraser at the last minute rather than just let the iconic Scottish department store business collapse and disappear.
House of Fraser's future now lies in Mike Ashley's hands. Picture: GettyHouse of Fraser's future now lies in Mike Ashley's hands. Picture: Getty
House of Fraser's future now lies in Mike Ashley's hands. Picture: Getty

But everyone will be concerned about how Ashley plans Fraser’s future to play out.

Growing up on the outskirts of Glasgow, my first Saturday job at 16 was working for the poshest, ­biggest shop in the city. House of Fraser’s Buchanan Street emporium was accepted by most in the west as our equivalent of Harrods.

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We young shop assistants had to wear navy or black dresses, ­ideally with white collars. There was no “hanging around” in our department, in my case Young World children’s wear and accessories. If customers didn’t want our assistance we had to be polishing glass counters, dusting ornamental areas, tidying the department store room or refolding goods on display shelves to keep everything orderly – especially when Sir Hugh Fraser was doing regular tours of the store.

Saturday girls didn’t get commission. We did the work, helped the customer, then took them and their purchase to a full-timer who logged the sale in their name, processed sent the cash to accounts through these old-fashioned suction tubes, carefully wrapped the purchase, after which the receipt whizzed back down the tubes.

Young World provided everything for children, especially little girls, from frilly knickers and white cotton gloves, to utter luxuries, such as a little red, velvet dress with a bowed belt and a Victorian style painted brooch. In 1969 it cost £35. Putting that in ­context, my day’s pay was 19/6d.

When I took on the summer job, my rate went up to £6 and 10 shillings a week, and I was moved to the teenage department with a blend of “big” children’s wear and small adult-type designs. The changing rooms had gilt, upholstered chairs with golden velvet covers matching the room curtains. Our job was to remain close, offer help, go and fetch different sizes, colours or styles. And of course, we addressed customers as Sir or Madam.

By 1982 Fraser’s had become more modern and I hadn’t worked there for 12 years. I had a decade of journalism under my belt, through which I met Sir Hugh through interviews, functions and mutual friends. He was a kind, charming man who laughed when I told him what it had been like in Buchanan Street as a Saturday girl. One day he invited me to join him on his chartered and piloted three-seater plane to consider a feature on Hebridean Herbals, a local cosmetic and skin care firm on the island of Coll to which he’d given financial backing. He had no high-handed snobbery. He was friends with the locals. A true gentleman.

He’d inherited Fraser’s vast empire (which included a lot more than the department stores) but confessed to me, he wasn’t the tough, hard-nosed businessman he felt he should have been. As ownership shifted, he opened his own department store Sir Hugh returning to top notch goods. Sadly, it didn’t last long. Even more sadly, nor did he. In May 1987, aged just 50, he died of lung cancer.

To my mind, House of Fraser was almost a memorial to him. But the direction it will all take under Mike Ashley? Who knows?

Council may rue charge to cash in on parking

NEWS readers’ letters are right. The council cannot impose charges on employers offering parking spaces to staff, without paying the same themselves. Have councillors thought this through?

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Offering parking spaces helps recruitment. As house prices rise, more and more people come from well outside the city, not always with easy and frequent public transport options. Transport costs are rising, so employees will lose money and spend longer commuting, adding to their costs and cutting down on home time.

Can businesses afford to pay such charges or will they be passed on to staff, lowering wages? Will firms leave the city?

Has the council considered all that? Or do they automatically put council income way above the damage it can cause citizens?

I’ll be having a word with Alexa

AMAZON’S Alexa and Apple’s Siri don’t recognise accents other than standard English. The same applies to some rhyming word games, automated phone systems etc. Just ask Alexa: “Is it gonnae be dreich the day?” And if she can’t answer, tell her: “Awa’ an bile yer heid!”