Although local authority student grants were very generous in the 1960’s, my parents struggled to put me through art school. I had chosen to study theatre design and the total course length was an astonishing five years, and I couldn’t see my mum sticking to her job as a bottler in Britvic’s for that long. So a series of ghastly holiday jobs necessarily ensued.
My first was at a rather dodgy lorry respray plant in the middle of a very thick wood. Who knows quite why these vehicles needed a new livery (ahem!), but I spent days on end, wet-and-dry sandpaper in hand, eradicating all traces of lettering…along with most of the skin on my fingers.
One day I got promoted to roofs. The guys went off for a mysteriously long lunch break and left me on top of a huge pantechnican with a big tub of sticky bituminous black paint. Stupidly, as I worked backwards along the lorry roof, I painted myself into a corner, with the ladder all of thirty feet away across an ocean of treacly blackness. It was a searingly hot day, and that stuff just refuses to dry in those conditions. The blokes arrived back some hours later to find me still trapped and turning a nasty shade of lobster pink in the sun. Oh how they laughed!
My dad was head gardener at the local waterworks and landed me a job trimming lawn edges. Day after tedious day I bent over the long-handled shears, snipping at wayward strands of grass. The place was vast and there were literally miles of lawn edges to be done, and the management wanted the place to look immaculate. On and on I would snip. And by the time I’d finished, the grass had grown again and I would start all over. These were the days before the Walkman and personal stereos. All I had to help me on my way were my own thoughts. And after three weeks I’d run out of them. After six weeks I had gone completely doolally.
How I longed to have a go at driving the sit-upon gang mower that my dad constantly circled on in the far distance. Mind you, he was probably as bored as I was!
Next up was the chicken factory. Perhaps the worst holiday job of all. How bad? Well, some inmates came on work experience from Chelmsford prison, and after just one day they asked to be sent back to the calaboose.
But at least it was varied. One day you’d be operating the ‘electrocutioner’, the next you’d be on giblets or forcing jellified blood down a drain hole with a rubber squeegee. Worst of all, you could be sent to ‘Hell’. This was an aptly named corner where all the overhead conveyors of slaughtered hens converged. Superheated steam loosened the feathers for the rubberised flails to deal with, then sets of flames singed off any remaining fluff on the never ending stream of chickens rattling past, whilst iced water came from another angle to make sure this operation didn’t par-cook the naked fowls.
Another stream of water carried the aforementioned giblets, which would later plop into the passing carcasses. Weirdly, when I first saw this, I was shocked that the chicken you buy in the shop contained a random set of giblets, not the ones that it had been carrying round inside itself for the last ten weeks!
Once you established yourself in ‘Hell’ and the conveyors (and blaring Radio 1) had been switched on, there was no escape until the klaxon went for lunch and the whole caboodle came to a standstill. Your job was to perch on a high stool, pincers poised, ready to pluck out any stray feather that had survived the process.
One day I was reaching out for a rogue quill and my overall button got caught on an empty stirrup on the conveyor. At first I kept calm and walked alongside the moving line, chickens bobbing on each side of me. Then to my horror I saw ahead of me that the conveyor changed direction. Upwards! It then disappeared through a flap high up in the wall into the packing plant. My arm stretched longer and longer but still I couldn’t extricate the button. Suddenly a very small woman clutching a very large pair of scissors and cracking a gap-toothed smile appeared and snipped off the offending button. I do not know from whence my saviour came, but I distinctly remember she had her name Biro’d onto her rubber apron. Liz Taylor. She was certainly no film star but at that moment she sure looked beautiful to me.
The other blokes at the factory had it in for the students. Especially me. I suppose it was a mistake to be seen reading The Guardian in the canteen. They used to put severed cockscombs on my plate when I wasn’t looking or even squeeze the hens to extricate soft shelled eggs with which to pelt my snobby head.
One particular bully goaded the others to work ever faster whenever I was operating the crate steriliser. The crates came out too quickly and too hot to handle. They would pile up and eventually I’d get completely buried in boxes and the machine would jam, causing the whole production line to come to a halt while everyone shouted at me that they were losing their productivity bonuses.
Later, the bully got promoted to driver. A fellow student sufferer and I devised a wicked scheme. We found that when loading his lorry from the steriliser, if one made certain minute adjustments to the towering stack of crates, although the load would pass muster under the eagle eye of the foreman, as the lorry turned out of the gate on the way back to the battery farm the whole lot would tumble off into the road. The driver would be reprimanded for speeding and we would glow with satisfaction at a job well done. This we did over and over and our ruse was never discovered.
Eventually the foreman decided I was so bad at all the different tasks, he put me on stray duty. This involved mooching around with a calliper on the end of a pole grabbing at any escapees or rejects. These latter consisted of birds with crossed beaks or other deformities that had been rejected by the pickers. Due to the battery system in use, these were many and varied, from those with both eyes on one side of their head to hens with three legs. Rather than pop them into my sack for extermination, I would often lurk around the big doors of the factory and release them into the countryside. There is nothing more joyful than seeing a three legged battery chicken belting off across a field towards the sheltering trees.
I’d like to think that to this day, deep in an Essex wood, there is a race of weirdly deformed but very happy chucks living it up, free range style!
My final ‘holiday’ job before becoming a grown up (what would now be called my gap year) was as a mortuary attendant. But that’s another story.