Ipswich: Midge was born halfway through First World War, was sent presents from Hitler’s Doctors and is now the grand old age of 98 - but she is still working hard
- Credit: Lucy taylor
To celebrate the International Day of Older Persons – today – Age UK Suffolk has launched ‘Inspiring Age’.
The charity wants us to nominate inspirational older people who deserve recognition.
Steven Rusell (51 and 11/12ths) is reunited with a woman who rubbed shoulders with George Orwell and was sent presents by Hitler’s doctor.
You’ll still find Midge Bussey on the till a couple of afternoons a week – taking debit card payments in her stride and teasing the men. Midge is 98 – born halfway through the First World War – but if you can still do the job, you can do the job.
How long does she reckon to carry on as an Age UK Suffolk volunteer?
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“Til I can’t. I get a voice sometimes in the morning, saying ‘I don’t think you can go in…’, and another voice saying ‘Get up you lazy so-and-so and go in!’
“Well, you’ve got to. You’ve got to be positive. Once you start saying ‘Oh, I can’t do it…’”
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I knew Midge more than 20 years ago, when she was a copytaker with the East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star. She called a spade a spade, and hasn’t changed. Perhaps being true to yourself is one of the secrets of longevity.
Midge is a Londoner. As a teenager she learned type-writing and shorthand through a firm in Victoria Street that did office work, and later worked for the woman who ran it.
“That was Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and she was George Orwell’s wife.”
Orwell – Eric Blair, officially – was of course the novelist who’d become famous for books such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.
“I used to see him, but I didn’t like him,” says Midge, typically blunt. “He was a funny bloke. He went to this posh school and he looked down on those that were not below him but above him.”
Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s brother, Laurence, was a distinguished thoracic surgeon who (before the war) had worked in Berlin under Hitler’s doctor. “He was writing a book on Professor Saarbruck,” says Midge. “He used to write little bits in German and I had to do them on the typewriter – I was only about 16 – and Professor Saarbruck got to know me.” She can still reel off his Berlin address.
“He used to call me Die Kind and he used to send me over presents – and that was Hitler’s ruddy doctor!”
Midge’s family left London for Suffolk in the 1930s. Her father kept the Shotley Rose pub in the middle of that decade. “Mum got fed up of the country, so we came into town” – to The Maybush in St Helen’s Street, Ipswich. Next was the Westerfield Swan, which the family ran from about 1936/37 until 1957.
Midge worked at the Ipswich engineering firm Ransomes & Rapier for a while. “Then I was on mine-sinkers (mine-layers). Not physically; in the office!” she laughs. “We used to have these big bods from the Navy come in.”
Change was in the air, though.
“Someone told me that Churchmans” – the Ipswich tobacco firm – “was needing people who could use the machines I could, because the men were going (to war). And they were paying jolly good money. So I put my notice in.
“You had to give a reason, and I said it worried me that I was helping make mine-sinkers which were killing people, and I said I preferred to work for a place that was giving comfort. They were, in those days – cigarettes!
“I stayed there until 1942. I had to leave because I had my first child. Then the boss wanted me to go back. I had to go in the VIP air raid shelters with them!”
Midge had married Ron – he was the insurance agent – and they had two daughters about 15 months apart.
When her elder girl was 15, Midge went to work for a freelance journalist called Rummy Weston, who supplied stories to newspapers and regional TV.
“If he taught you your job, you knew it, but by God he was awful to work for. Swear? He used to call me an effing old so-and-so, and I’d say ‘I don’t mind the first word much, and I don’t mind the third, but cut out the ‘old’!”
After that, she spent a couple of years at the Evening Standard’s office in Ipswich, typing up thing like horse-racing results.
An advert for copytakers at the Evening Star took Midge to the newspaper’s then office in Carr Street, Ipswich, in 1964.
She must have typed tens of thousands of journalists’ words over nearly 30 years – wearing a headset and tapping them out on a typewriter before technology brought computers into the newsroom.
Midge took down articles dictated on all kinds of subjects, but much of her time was spent on sport, and it’s the characters from that department that she remembers most strongly.
She recalls sports writer Elvin King going to Scandinavia to cover an event and filing his copy by phone from the boat back to England.
The timings meant Midge was at home. Things weren’t so high-tech then – so, using her ingenuity, she fixed up a stocking over her head to clamp the old-style receiver to her ear and typed away in the dining room. “Of course, there was a hitch and my brother and his wife were standing there, roaring their heads off. Anyway, we got it through. So that was all right. Bit hot, though…”
Midge said farewell to the EADT and Star in the early 1990s, when she would have been well past “normal” retirement age. Ron – who also worked there as one of the folk keeping the oils wheeled – left about the same time.
Sadly, he died a couple of years later, of cancer. Midge spent about 18 months nursing him.
She was already a charity volunteer – her involvement going back to the times when Age UK had a different name and different premises. The shop used to be in Carr Precinct and called Gladrags. It later moved to Northgate Street and now is in Upper Brook Street.
“My sister-in-law worked here and sometimes, when I was on the Green Un” – it was our Saturday night sports paper – “I used to pop in and fiddle around and then go off to the Green Un. So when I packed up there, I thought I might as well carry on here.
“I used to come here when Ron was ill. I nursed him at home, but I used to have Saturday afternoons. He’d have the phone by him, so if he wanted me he’d ring. I would only go for about four hours, but that gave me a change.”
Today, she still loves working on the till. “Look at the people you meet. We have a chat, and tease the life out of the men. You’ve got to laugh. If you don’t laugh, you cry, and nobody likes you!”
As an older person, she doesn’t think she’s found herself being underestimated or discriminated against too often. “It all depends what sort of person you’re with. Now, I get (a bit deaf) and I have trouble over the phone. But often you find people are kind.”
A gentleman never asks a lady’s age – so I’ve already fallen at that fence – but I will keep mum about her real first name. Her grimace shows it’s not one she’d have chosen herself. But what of the nickname? How did that come about?
Blame the night editor of the East Anglian Daily Times when she started work at the paper.
“He said ‘We’ve got a midge here’, and ‘Midge’ stuck,” she smiles.
Do you know of anyone older than Midge who is still working regularly – either in a paid job (you never know!) or doing voluntary work? We’d love to hear. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 01473 324667.