Monday, 19 March 2012

Nature does not cease– a woman in my life

Volume 2 – Chapter 3 –  – part 1 - post 47

After leaving Stanfields I was still under the care of the chest clinic who continued to insist that I was an invalid in need of complete rest. They were asking me to deny my every instinct, but I had little choice but to obey, I had already put myself into a life threatening situation twice in the last two years. Without the help of a good woman I would probably have failed again, but the woman in question encouraged me to be a man of leisure. Her name was Irene Parkinson and I had known her since moving to the Potteries from Derby, she was one of the children I had grown up with. Her family had moved to outer Blurton back in 1947 which is why I had met her on the bus stop out that way one day in 1953 and renewed our acquaintance. Irene had grown into a well built woman who was both handsome and intelligent, she had attended the Potteries most exclusive Grammar School for girls and when I met her again had been on her way to work. With an above average education Irene had been able to get a well paid job with a big engineering company in Hanley, and was now the office manager.

Irene and I had always been very good friends so it was to be expected that we should continue our friendship when we met again. Now however we were young adults and our physical development added to the chemical mix that had made us friends in the first place. She was a few months older than I was which is why I still felt she was like the big sister I had never had, though now there were social benefits available in being friends with Irene. In other words we began a relationship which enabled me to unburden my problems to her; she in her turn proved very understanding and encouraged me to do what I had to do. I began to spend much of my time in her company and often I would go to her home and have meals with the Parkinson family. They knew me well from previous times and I was accepted as a suitable boyfriend for Irene, and made to feel like one of the family. Her father was a hard bitten hard drinking working man and nobody’s fool, her mother a big woman with a gentle personality, there was also a younger sister named Norma who, like other younger sisters, got a crush on me which added to my favourable standing with the family.

After some months it was suggested to me that I should buy Irene a ring which I was quite prepared to do knowing it would make her happy. We never talked about marriage, nor did I ever propose to her, but everyone else took it that we were now engaged, which I suppose we were. Looking back I have no doubt that Irene helped me through a very difficult period of my life, though I had very little to offer her in return for her support. My mother never really approved of our relationship though she never told me why that was, and after my stay at Stanfields I began to see that I was not being fair to Irene. We never discussed our future together but I suppose a girl of her intelligence could see the signs and finally we decided my mutual consent that we should end our relationship. Our decision was the right one and it allowed her to go on and marry a man with far better prospects. I believe she became the part owner of her own engineering business along with her husband, and a younger brother who was born after I had departed eventually became a major part of her business activities.

So I moved on struggling to find a way forward and finding there was no easy answer to my problems, not that the problems I had were exclusive to me. I met others at the chest clinic that were in exactly the same situation as I was, one was a woman a couple of years older than myself who I noticed getting the same sort of treatment. After one visit to the clinic I went into Hanley to see an afternoon film, and sitting in the audience just a couple of seats away I observed the same woman. We acknowledged each other with a nod and during the interval joined each other for a chat; this led to a friendship which continued for some months. We had our illness in common and found it some comfort to share the problems we were having as a result of it. The friendship we formed was always platonic though under different circumstances it might well have become something more. Without discussing it we both adhered to the rules that we knew applied to people in our situation, we hardly ever touched each other and never even contemplated kissing or any other such physical contact. We just enjoyed each other’s company, which included me visiting her home where she lived with her father and a younger sister. She made meals for me and we talked at length about what we thought might happen in the future, though we never really found any sure fire solutions to our dilemma.

I mention this young woman as an example of others who were trapped in the same unfortunate position as I was; we reached out to each other but could nothing to help. Eventually we drifted apart and that was the end of it as far as I was concerned, though not from her perspective. Some years later she made contact with my parents in an attempt to renew old friendships, but I was married and living in New Zealand by that time, so she gave up the idea and I never heard of her again. I have described these relationships in the way they appeared to me, but realise that I never knew how they looked to the women involved; how serious they felt about our friendships I never knew.

Time waits for no man and 1954 moved remorselessly ahead, for the third time I found myself with no other option but to break the rules I was living under. I just had to find a job and this time I would reveal nothing about myself, I would try and avoid lying outright, but I would use deception if I had to. There was one other thing that was in my favour this time as well, my lung was no longer collapsed, it was stuck to the plural wall of my chest and of little use to me, but the threat of complications that treatment had caused were no longer likely. My searching revealed that the prestigious firm of Paragon China at Longton had a vacancy for a Matching Clerk so off I went to apply. This company were suppliers to the Royal Family’ they just had to be a firm worth working for, like Wedgwood’s. (Though I had found them wanting in some respects, poor pay, and with little interest in the future prospects of their workers.) At the interview they asked very few searching questions, and once I had told them that I had worked in the pottery industry before they seemed inclined to give me a trial run. My limited previous experience were not of much help they told me, and they really wanted an experienced man, but they would give me a six months trial on half pay, and if I proved satisfactory they would keep me on and put me on full pay. To get a job I would have worked for nothing so I accepted the conditions, though even at full pay the wages were pathetic. My guess would be that at the time the average take home pay was about £10 per week, and on full pay I would have been lucky to reach that figure, the reduced pay they offered me was in the region of £6 per week, hardly enough to live on.

There were two advantages to the job however, firstly I would be getting a record of employment, and secondly my position was deemed to be a staff job with all the advantages that went with such a title. For example I would not have to clock in or out each working day, I would have no supervision but would be responsible to the office, I would be entitled to sick leave and an extra week holiday. Oh yes a staff job was well worth having in those days, class distinction applied just as much in the work environment as it did in a social one, back in the 1950s, and to a lesser degree it still does today. So what was this grand job I had secured? I was to be in reality the lowest and most junior warehouse man in the factory. A warehouse man was responsible for the production and prompt delivery of certain patterns and lines of the range of pottery produced by the company. They had their own order book and a team of wrappers and packers in the finished warehouse, and the lord of all was the senior warehouse man, a man named Mr Barnes. I was the most junior and my job was to look after matching’s, which were orders for replacements from customers who had broken or lost a piece from their expensive sets of table ware. My job proved to be quite an interesting one, I would get a sample of the piece to be replaced, usually just a broken bit of a plate or a cup, and I had to begin by researching the records and the history of that particular article. Some were recent enough for replacements to be obtained from stock or current production, but most were old and no longer familiar to the present day work staff. This made the whole exercise a challenge and for me greatly absorbing; the greater the challenge the more I enjoyed it.

One or two examples of what I did would outline how interesting it was for me, which in turn explains why the time went so quickly; I had a job which I actually enjoyed most of the time. One of the most difficult I had was a cup sent from the USA which was many years old, after some research I found it was an old shape called ‘Banff’ so I had to find the original mould for it which was buried deep in the cellars below the old factory. The first step in the process was to have a dozen of this quality china cup made, then they had to be glazed and several that were perfect were then selected for the decoration. It had thick gold on the lip and the foot and on the handle, this was no problem as the guilders did this sort of work all the time, but before it was applied as the final step in the process, the body of the cup had to be painted with a pale green wash which had then to be stippled before firing. The shade of green was no problem, one of the best paintresses soon had it exact, but the problem was to match the stipple, together we tried every way we could, eventually getting an identical look by using cotton wool teased into a suitable texture and dabbed against the wet colour. We were paid little for our efforts but the firm charged a considerable sum for the replacement cup; though I was never told what the sum was.

Another example of the degree of difficulty that was sometimes involved was another cup again of an outmoded shape and pattern. Apart from a thick gold band around its upper part, which was imprinted with a black pattern known as a Greek Key pattern, the cup was plain porcelain. Although many designs and patterns are colourful and decorative it is not generally known outside the industry that such decoration is often used to camouflage the ware which is not perfect. High quality plain china is so difficult to produce; it sometimes needs a much larger number at the outset to produce a dozen perfect items. There can be imperfections in the original firing, then faults in the glaze where the thickness is inconsistent; there can be pinholes in the finish cause by minute bubbles of air still in the clay when it is fired. Stilt marks can sometimes spoil the look, though polishing is often used to reduce the problem, so you can see why decoration is often used to cover these faults so apparent on a plain piece of ware.

I was still spending lots of time enjoying the clean air of the seaside, though my aunt Nin had only an ordinary house for me to visit, even so I felt some obligation to her. It was time I showed my appreciation so I had made the best 21 piece tea set I could from the best plain Paragon china. I supervised it every step through the factory, chose only perfect pieces had them gilt with the best scour gold, and I knew it to be worth a considerable sum of money. My aunt’s daily use of it showed that she had little appreciation of its worth or the fact that there was no other tea set like it in the whole world. It is my belief that I did my job as well as anyone could, probably better than most of those who had gone before me. At the end of my six months probation I looked forward eagerly to my increase to the full salary, but it never appeared, I was too proud to ask for it so worked on for another few months expecting daily for my worth to be recognised. After a year I had learned enough about the people I worked for to know that they were not going to increase my pay, so I began to coast along and take liberties. I deliberately arrived late and left early waiting for some reaction from the office but to my surprise it never came. Words were said by the bad tempered Mr Barnes who was notorious for his bullying, but I gave him a terse reply telling him to mind his own business. There was nothing he could do about it because he knew I was not answerable to him, but I believe he did go and complain about me to the office, though nothing came of it. Barnes bullied everyone, which made me so angry but I in my turn could do nothing about that, if others were willing to submit themselves to his bad behaviour they had only themselves to blame. Over the time I saw him in action he became worse, the more the other workers submitted to his ill temper the worse he became.

So often I have found that the work I did was interesting, almost enjoyable, but the people around me so often spoiled what would have otherwise been a pleasant experience. My time at Paragon China was like that, the work was quite acceptable but people like Barnes, and even the management, made it unacceptable. They wanted all you had to give but offered little in return; there were a few privileges or perks for those that had something the employers wanted or needed, but those on the shop floor, those with few skills to offer, were treated with total indifference. Artisans and others involved in the manufacturing process, people who could not be easily replaced, were left undisturbed or treated with a degree of consideration, but the others in the work force those who could be easily replaced, were treated with callousness. The women who wrapped and packed in the warehouse were a case in point; they were seen as of little value and treated accordingly. I had one lady working for me, an elderly woman named Minnie, she was a good natured soul who would sing children’s songs and nursery rhymes much of the time. I can hear her now singing:
“Are you ready for a fight, we are the Romans,
Are you ready for a fight, for we’re the Roman soldiers?”
Minnie was simple minded, but she was good natured and happy all day long, and she could wrap the goods like lightening. I used to try and keep her busy if I could because it was understood that if she ran out of work from me, other work could be found for her. If Barnes saw her with idle hands even for a second he was down on her like a flash, he would growl and bluster calling her idle and good for nothing. He would load her with the worst work available and poor Minnie would be in tears for the rest of the day. Some of the workers had spent their whole working lives with the company, and there were some who had more than one generation in the family who had worked for Paragon China all their lives. People did not retire when they reached a certain age in the pottery industry; they worked until they could work no longer with most of them being the bread winners in the family their jobs were all important to them.

I shall never forget one day when the office sent a young girl with a note for one old lady who could no longer work with the efficiency expected of her. She was given a weeks’ notice to quit, with no consideration given to the fact that she had worked all her life for them. After something like fifty or sixty years of loyal service and hard work she was thrown aside without even a word of thanks or gratitude. She stood in the middle of the warehouse and wept, when we tried to console her she told us that she had an equally old husband who was disabled, her wage was all the money they had coming into the house: “What am I going to do?” she cried. It is true enough that the old woman had arthritis in her hands and was no longer as nimble as she had been, but she could still do the job albeit a little slower. It would have cost her employers little to keep her on the work force, and where was their appreciation for all the years she had helped them to make a considerable amount of money?

At Christmas time there was the usual company party for which no expense was spared, the Longton town hall was hired and a lavish dinner and dance arranged. The management and even the majority of the workers had a great time, with drink flowing in unlimited amounts and not a penny to pay. I attended and could describe the happy scene, but my heart would not be in it because never far from my mind was the thought of that poor old lady who was now unemployed. What would she be enjoying this Christmas? The story written by Charles Dickens about another Christmas came to mind; I could not help but compare the plight of the unfortunate Bob Cratchit with the poor old lady so casually dismissed. At least in the story all ended well, but in real life a happy ending rarely happens. All the signs were telling me that there was no promising future to be had with Paragon China, they did little for their employees and I was the least of them. They were well known for the quality china they shipped to the royal family, several tubs containing numerous tea sets being dispatched every month. (These tea sets were given as gifts to various people, mostly it was those that reached 100 years of age that were the lucky recipients, or so I was told.) It was a false image, no one heard about the callous and indifferent way they treated their workers.

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