My young friend Brendan, has just started a blog http://brendo91.wordpress.com/ about his year of work experience, working with his father who is a TV producer. It is interesting stuff and he has had the chance to experience and write (and well) about the events of this year, including one entry entitled: My first job: Franco Zeffirelli, where he worked as sound engineer on an interview with the legendary Italian film director. Some first job!
He’s a bright guy and I hope he will go far and he’s already had some wonderful and eye-opening experiences. It made me smile to think about a story I wrote a while ago, describing my first job: driving vans in South Wales . . . I include the yarn below for no other reason except that it was period of my life of which I have fond memories – No Zeffirelli but equally a ‘first experience’.
My first job; a holiday job was working for a wholesale newsagent which entailed getting up very early 6 mornings every week – which often felt like I’d got up before I’d even been to bed. I would wake at 2.30 am and walk into Swansea to the warehouse, a walk that even in July was very cold. The routine was that we would go the station to unload the newspapers which would arrive already tied into bundles and ordered into the correct loads for the various delivery runs. The train would arrive at 3.20 am, and despite the cold a huge cloud of condensation would emerge from the trucks when the doors opened. They looked like cattle trucks and were packed with papers and packers. These guys travelled up to London the night before, had a few beers (at least), and then sweated like animals the entire journey from Paddington to Swansea whist sorting and tying the bundles of paper. It was like a scene from the Inferno, exhausted sweat-covered males in vests, enjoying a cigarette, whilst we buzzed around trying to get our loads on to the vans.
Moving the papers to the vans involved the use of a trolley, of which there were two types. There were a small number of original railway station trolleys with a long wooden handle and heavy cast iron wheels. Then there were the NEW IMPROVED trolleys: blue cages which were impossible to pull in a straight line, and wouldn’t take half their capacity before they refused to budge at all. There was always a bit of rivalry between our team and the other wholesale newsagents as to who would get the old trolleys in preference to the new ones which were always referred to as BRUTEs. I always assumed that this was a reference to the difficulty in using them until someone told me that it was actually an acronym: British Rail Utility Transport Equipment. An engineer with a sense of humour, eh?
The runs to the shops varied, one took you out into Carmarthenshire, another went into central Swansea, and then there was easy one which I did at first, which involved driving around the Gower peninsular. I liked this one as the drive along the estuary, with the sun coming up and the birds flying out of the reeds, was a very pleasant second start to the day. Unfortunately as I gained driving experience I was given the harder longer run. On more than one occasion, there were sections of the road which I couldn’t remember seeing, as I was so exhausted.
As with all jobs, of course, there were some perks. First of all, there were always newspapers free, and some magazines though nothing too esoteric, as they were usually ordered for specific shops. I also discovered a new currency. When the ‘cattle trucks’ pulled into the station, there was little conversation except the usual crude banter, but then as drivers finished getting their loads onto a trolley, they often shouted: ‘give me couple of sets’ or one of the ‘smoking sweaters’ would say; ‘How many sets d’ya want?’ After a few weeks, I plucked up courage to ask what a set was. It turned out to be four newspapers: Sun, Mirror, Express and Mail. The drivers would take these and exchange them for goods along their route. So I started doing the same, and it suddenly became clear to me why the owner of one garage was always outside waving when I passed at 5-30 am. The sets provided me with sufficient tobacco to satisfy my cigarette habit, and covered some daily chocolate bars to keep the blood sugar levels up. This system of barter also worked with the businesses close to the warehouse (located incidentally, behind the Swansea cafe made famous in “Twin Town”) A collection of newspapers and a copy of the Handicap Book got us bacon butties from the cafe, and cakes from the bakers. The fruit warehouse next door, could be bribed into strawberries, bananas and the odd pineapple (very sophisticated in 1969!) by a few sets, and a couple of dirty magazines!
They were a good bunch, and I seemed to be accepted, which meant that when I ran out of diesel in one of the vans, they took the mickey mercilessly for several weeks. It was for that reason that I was glad they didn’t know about my other vehicle incident. One day I was sent off to deliver toy windmills, buckets and spades, and other summer bric-a brac to the camp sites in Pembrokeshire. It was a day’s drive which was very pleasant. Beginning the journey home, I pulled into my final call, a petrol station, thinking how nice all the people I’d met that day had been. So I wasn’t surprised when the owner of the garage ran out of the kiosk waving his arms, as I pulled the van in next to the pumps. Hearing a strange scraping sound, and realising that the waving was somewhat more frantic than you’d expect a friendly greeting to be, the truth dawned. The roof of the truck was wedged underneath the roof of the filling station. I stopped and got out to see the van firmly stuck. Muttering apologies, I sheepishly let the tyres down until I could get the vehicle out, reinflated the tyres and headed off with my metaphoric tail between my legs. I had to tell the foreman, though I did embellish the story to minimize my culpability, which meant I skilfully avoided another fortnight of ridicule.
I actually enjoyed the job a lot. The guys were a rough bunch, several had prison records, and they were clearly the sort of lads you would want on your side in the case of brawl. There was one guy who didn’t like me, and one morning when he was still drunk arriving at work, he started ‘having a go at me’, and then decided that beating me up would be a good move. Stout saved me. Stout’s name came from his build: I suspect it would have been impossible to tip him over given that his centre of gravity was so low. He was also as strong as an ox. I would struggle to carry two bales of newspapers., whilst Stout would carry two in each hand, and one under his left arm, whilst cheerfully and repeatedly singing “Roll it, Roll It, Roll it on the river”, as he didn’t seem to know any other words of Credence Clearwater Revival’s hit of the time. I repaid Stout by picking him up in the morning, when I had a vehicle, though he would often keep me waiting for some time when my arrival outside his house seemed to coincide with him being, as he put it ‘on the nest’: a fact which he would announce as he got into the van enjoying a post coital cigarette.
Dicky was another good guy. Twenty years later, I met him serving behind the bar of a pub in Swansea. “Hiya, how you doing?” he said. Having just left teaching to take up a new career, I proudly said “I’m working as a producer” Dicky not even seem vaguely interested in what this might be, simply pulled me a pint. “Great. As long as you’re happy.” Though it was not his intention, I felt suitably humbled. Dennis the foreman, as well as stopping Stout from killing the man who wanted to kill me, was also entertaining. Every morning without fail, would take his breakfast, always a ham roll, out of the bag and bang it on the table, proclaiming “Like a pig’s foot.” I’m still not sure why, but I always laughed.
The last day of work, they took me to the pub, and after several beers, they drove me home before driving back to the pub to carry on. In the meantime, I muttered something to my mother about being very tired, and went into a coma. Happy days.