Friday, 24 February 2012

I become a working man

Volume 1 – chapter 14 –Part 1

I wonder how the world saw me when I left school. They did not see me the way I saw myself, though I might have thought they did, we all tend to believe that others see us as we see ourselves. Like so many young people I imagined, or had the impression that I was going to be an asset to society, it took quite some time for me to realise that this might not be the case. If the world in general looked at me at all, it certainly did not see the person I thought I was. The fact was that I was quiet, modest, and shy, and to make matters worse, I had this idea in my head that my worth would be instantly recognised, without any effort on my part. I was so good at everything or so I thought, they will all want my services, how amusing it is to look back and remember the naivety of youth. My state of mind was in a way a protection from the harsh realities of life, how applicable were the sayings: ‘Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.’ And: ‘When ignorance is Bliss, it’s folly to be Wise.’

The education system that controlled me carried me to the end of its conveyor belt, and ready or not deposited me without further protection into the disinterested bosom of society. It was all neat and tidy from their perspective, they had a system and it worked, a careers officer arranged a job for each school leaver. We were not just dumped like so many unwanted rejects, we had a purpose and this was clearly demonstrated by our inclusion in the work force. We had been trained to obey authority without question; it never occurred to us that we had the right to question decisions, so I went obediently to the job that was assigned to me. The system had no interest in finding jobs that were suited to each individual, we were just so much grist for the mill, or to put it another way, we were shovelled in to the industrial furnace like so much coal.

I began my working life as an apprentice auto-electrician, which on paper did not look too bad. In reality I soon discovered that I was to be a labourer and general dogs-body, I fetched and carried, swept and cleaned and did every dirty job that no one else wanted to do. What I did not know of course, this was the way employers usually treated so called apprentices. Under the guise of an apprenticeship they would extract years of cheap labour from poorly paid young people, telling them that they were doing them a favour by providing them with an opportunity to learn a trade. It could be argued that if it took years to train someone, the employer was entitled to his pound of flesh in return, but in reality it usually did not need years to teach a bright pupil. This was to be demonstrated to me after only a few weeks in this job, when the man that ran the battery shop decided to leave. It was decided that I would take his job over, and in a few days I was given a crash course, before finding myself on my own running an important part of the firm’s activities.

My place of work was in Longton, five minutes’ walk from the Town Hall, and opposite the best fish and chip shop in town. The shop belonged to my Uncle Bruce, my mother’s oldest brother who was a nice man, which encouraged me to become a regular visitor to his shop. An even greater attraction was the excellent fish and chips, with which I was provided free of charge by my kindly uncle. A free dinner was a very big attraction, because my pay was very small indeed, and my pay packet was handed over to my mother, which left me with very little to spend. I was allowed pocket money and money to buy my lunch, so didn’t feel any objection to handing over my wages. Like all young people I didn’t give much thought to the cost of living, even so I realised that my parents were not making much profit from the small amount I was earning. I was also aware that I never went short of anything I needed, for example I went to work in a smart new boiler suit from the very first day, and that must have been quite an expense.

It had always been my impression that my role in life was to help others, now however, I was beginning to discover that I was the one that needed help. It was hard to get used to and I never completely lost my old habits, for example I always tried to repay my uncle for his kindness. One day I saw he had an electric fan in his shop which did not work, so with my new found knowledge of electrical contrivances, I generously offered to fix it for him. Taking it back to my place of work I thought to myself that I could get the advice of my fellow experts if I could not fix it myself. On examination I discovered that this would not be necessary, the problem was simply that it had become glued up with grease from the continuous deep frying at the shop. After careful cleaning it not only looked as good as new, but it ran as good as it had ever done. My uncle was very impressed with what I had done, though I did not reveal just how simple the solution had been.

Virtue is its own reward, or so I have always found, feeling well rewarded when I did what I conceived myself to be a good deed. Like the day when I set off home from work, walking the short distance to the bus station in town to catch my bus. When I was nearing my particular bus stop, I came upon an elderly man who was busking with an accordion. I stopped for a moment to listen to him, deciding that although his instrument was not bad, he himself was not very musical. He was doing his best to produce a melody with his treble hand, but wisely he was leaving the bass well alone. I knew I could show him how to improve without too much effort, so I thought to myself why not do him a favour. Without thinking that I might cause offence I spoke to him and offered to help, and he accepted my offer without hesitation. Taking up his instrument, I began to play his melody adding the appropriate bass accompaniment, which impressed the old man greatly. My playing also attracted the passers by and to my amusement they began to shower the begging bowl with coins, which pleased the busker very much. A few minutes clip_image002later I saw my bus pulling into the depot, so I had to dash away, but it appeared to me that the old man had made more money in five or ten minutes than he had made in several days of his own feeble efforts. All the way home on the bus I sat in a glow of satisfaction, so pleased with myself for my noble deed.

Here you can see me playing my accordion in the garden, and I am still dressed in my boiler suit which I wore to work.

To the best of my knowledge I had only worked for my employers about three weeks when the problem of the battery shop came up. In that short time they must have decided that I was capable of doing much more than skivvy around the place. So, with mixed feelings I now found myself in charge, and the sole operator of, an important department, within the company. The work was not difficult, but it was arduous and involved some risks, though I gave that no thought when I began. There was plenty of work and I found myself going home dirty and exhausted at the end of each day. The job consisted of setting up new car batteries, reconditioning old ones, servicing those that were in use, and recovering materials from old batteries that had reached the end of their lives. New batteries were straight forward, all I had to do was fill them with battery acid and put them on charge. Servicing was not difficult, new acid, a cleanup, and a charge on the electrical charger, and they were as good as new. Recovering materials was a messy job, with the old cells having to be removed by melting the pitch that held them in place and then the lead had to be melted down for re-use. Then the battery cases had to be cleaned and saved for use in making reconditioned batteries. The worst job of all was the manufacture of the reconstituted battery, which involved the assembly of new cells with the appropriate plates and dividers. The new cells had to be set in place with super heated pitch, and then lead connectors and terminal posts had to be made by pouring molten lead into suitable moulds. Once filled with acid and charged, you had a new battery which was worth almost as much as one produced by Exide, or one of the other manufacturers.

For maybe three months I did this job without any trouble, it was not enjoyable work, but I was glad that I was no longer a basic labourer at everyone’s beck and call. It was important work I was told, and I was doing it well, ‘oh’ yes, plenty of pats on the back, but no mention of an increase in pay. I never had much idea what I was paid, but it was not more than £2/3 pounds a week, nor did I know how much money I was making for my employer, but it must have been quite a sum. With the usual acceptance of the working man in those days, I would have probably gone on being exploited for a long time, but another factor came into play. I did not realise it, but the battery shop was constantly full of fumes from the large quantities of sulphuric acid involved in the work. After a while they began to have an effect on my skin, especially the exposed skin of my face, and when I developed ugly skin blotches and swellings, my mother insisted on a visit to the doctor. It did not take him long to discover the answer to my problem, and when he explained it, my mother decided that I would resign immediately. No discussion or opinions from me, or anyone else for that matter. Where my health was concerned my mother would make the decisions.

Giving up my job after only a few weeks did not seem like a promising beginning to my working career. I had only been out of school for two or three months and already I was one of the great unemployed, something of a sin at a time when one was expected to keep a job for years. Changing jobs often labelled you as a rolling stone, someone who could not stay the course, as they used to say. At least I was well and truly off the conveyor belt and could decide for myself what I would do next. No help from my parents of course, my mother was willing to tell me what I could not do, but she was singularly lacking it advice about what I should do next. My father’s attitude I have already described, so I do not have to say that he was no help to me either.

It was 1948 and I had no idea what I should do with the future a total mystery. I was fifteen and a half years old, with no education, and no prospects or opportunities. I had two brothers, Paul was now eight years old and Douglas was 2 years old. My parents had no money, as far as I knew, so there seemed little option but to paddle my own canoe.


Another picture taken in the garden though why I was still wearing my overalls I have no idea. Possibly it was in the afternoon after I had arrived home, and had not yet had time to change.

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