Well here we are, on an unfeasibly sunny day in October when the stuff in the planters can’t work out whether to put out more blossom or just curl up and die, and the country in its sleep of reason is out in force, unmasked and undistanced.
We went up to the cinema complex in Birstall this lunchtime, determined to overcome our suspicions and nervousness about Out There (where There Be Tygers, and the world’s winds puff their cheeks from the corners of the map). We have been in no enclosed public spaces for at least 18 months, and it makes you timid. Cautious, anyway. Neverthless, we want to see James Bond on a big screen, and we went to check out the seating and booking arrangements for a showing at 10.15am next Tuesday, when it’s plain we will not be jostled by crowds.
Which is just as well since there were queues of cars happily burning fuel as they waited to get through the DriveThru Macdonalds; Nando’s car park was rammed as was every other fast food joint. Goodness knows what it was like in IKEA. No one…or hardly anyone, was masked. Everywhere seemed happily oblivious to the parlous state we’re in. It was unnerving.
I’ll tell you how serious the state of England is. You can’t find anywhere with Auntie Bessie’s Giant Yorkshire Puddings in stock. I remember the dismay when, some years ago, there was a fire at Auntie B’s factory in Brid, and there were no giant Yorkshires to be had for months. I remember the joy when they came back.
I guess this put me in a nostalgic frame of mind…you know the kind of thing. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together but we were happy. That kind of nonsense.
So I’ve been trawling the stand-ups and the stocking fillers for something that fit the mood, and came up with these.
In the early 60s you could effectively get a job just about anywhere simply by knocking on the office door and asking. I’m not talking about salaried work. I’m talking about the kinds of jobs that someone has to do, the ones that Tory politicians call ‘low-skilled’ and have never themselves tried to do. Most folk of my generation have done them if they were students. “Holiday jobs’. I worked in a biscuit factory, a woollen warehouse, delivering Christmas post; I picked potatoes….The latter was the only one that would now be called a zero-hours one. The thing was, you didn’t get paid lots, but you did get paid. Everyone who’s done temporary jobs as a student has her/his own stories. Here’s two of mine.
The first is set in 1964. Eventually it was published in the first issue of Strix, and was used in an exhibition in Leeds celebrating the experience of work and immigration. But originally, it was just an anecdotal poem for open mics.
There’s jobs I’d rather forget like the biscuit-tin steamer at the biscuit factory and the paint factory machine that clamped lids onto tins of bright blue hot enamel and the drums of acetone that melted sacks of cotton and working with the engineer from Pakistan and the doctor and the tailor and the rest who lived in one small terrace house where the beds were never cool who came to work to work and nothing else these men who kept to themselves or were made to keep to themselves because in those days I didn’t know which was which but anyway would rather miss the break not just because it’s in a lavatory open to the sky and because they don’t understand this fifteen minutes in the smell of piss and cigarettes is sacrosanct because they only want to keep on running pieces through their big machines that turn miles of polyester stuff into something with a nap and tumble it to a semblance of a leopardskin for steering wheels and the seats of Triumph Heralds and Cortinas but any way they’d rather stand in cleaner air and wonder how soon they can get back to work and crank the pieces out piecework being the system and the point because they don’t smoke and they send every penny back to Pakistan because one day their children will own taxicabs and chipshops barbers kebab houses small garages off-licenses that never shut and one day they will build mosques with golden domes and the men I have to work with don’t like work and the one I’m partnered with comes late every morning because he doesn’t have a family in Pakistan waiting on the next instalment for a ticket on a plane and neither do I but I need to work and turn the pieces out but I’m not let to start the machine till he clocks in and I don’t want to have to watch him have his breakfast which is always in his jacket pocket and always is a battered fish he bought the night before on his way home from the Institute and he swears it’s better the next morning and swears the smell of curry makes him sick.
The second is set in the following summer of 1965. The Silver Paint and Laquer Company was the creation of Leslie Silver who went on to become Chairman of Leeds United and be awarded an OBE, but in this incarnation, his factory was a fire hazard, and after three weeks I was the longest-serving person in the place apart from the permanent staff like the chemist, the drivers, the engineers and the folk in the office. For younger readers, Queen Salote of Tonga was the smash hit of the Coronation procession in 1953. She had a ball
A temporary post
In those days you could walk down Bradford Road and get a job with anyone
just for the asking, like the one I had working on a machine that turned printed
polyester fabric into fakefur leopardskin for the steering wheels of Triumph Heralds
and Cortinas but that was nothing in the light of the Silver Paint and Laquer plant
in Burnley’s old mill buildings where everything was a flat affront to Health and Safety
where the extractor fans were always breaking down and where I spent one summer’s
afternoon pouring drums of acetone and bales of cotton pellets into a paint mill making
white enamel without any ventilation, the day I rode home and up the wrong street on
my Lambretta and tried to get into someone else’s house, and after two days off
sick I got shifted into filling tins, like the rush job for Queen Salote’s palace, and I
hope it got there quickly because she died five months later, but mainly I remember
the bright blue gloss that came still hot from the paintmills and melted all the shellac
seals of the tins I poured it in and lidded. It was cerulean. That kind of blue. I’ve recently
been told off for using it in a poem. If you know a better word than bright, I’ll gladly use it.
Well, that was a more than a tad self-indulgent. But next week proper service will be resumed, and I’ll be sharing my enthusiasm for a poet whose work never fails to move and excite. See you then.