PART II: LONDON, ENGLAND
My second experience of working in a factory was in London, following seven months of fruitlessly searching for a job in which I could use my writing skills, seven months during which we lived on Shirley’s earnings as a supply teacher in various London schools, while I stayed at home and cooked terrible meals that have become a famous family joke, especially my much-criticized lemon meringue pie. I went, as before, to the Labour Exchange, and was directed to a food factory maintained in Hammersmith by the Lyons company that operated hundreds of corner tea-shops as they were called, or cafes as they might now be more correctly called.
The process at the Lyons employment office differed markedly from what I had undergone at the Australian Jam Company in Melbourne a couple of years before. Then I’d been greeted by a rough-looking diamond in an open-necked shirt, no jacket or tie, the factory manager, no less, who had me working within minutes.
In London, by contrast, I presented my card to a woman behind a desk who told me the wages were six pounds four and six with an eleven shilling bonus, forty-eight hours a week, seven-thirty to five, with work every Saturday morning till twelve, and not much overtime. After a long wait, I was shown into the office of the Personnel Officer, who asked what had I been doing between December 1950 and February 1952? Just what had I been doing in India? “Of course,” she said, sounding dissatisfied with my responses, “we will need two references….”
Next I went to a little man in a white coat, the Superintendent of the department in which I was to work. He seemed slightly put out that I could speak English rather better than he could, and seemed nervous as to my intentions. “Are you just coming to us as a stop-gap?” he asked. I stumbled that, well, in the absence of anything else, after all…. He told me to report next morning. I reported, and sat for a long time in a room with a group of girls destined to work “in the ice cream,” they said, and a Ukrainian lion-tamer reading a copy of a newspaper called The Entertainer. Someone came and gave us a booklet outlining the firm’s benefits. We would have two weeks’ holiday after a year; after two years we could join the firm’s pension fund; after five years, if we decided to marry, the firm would sell us a wedding cake at a twenty per cent reduction. I read this out and everyone laughed.
My first regular job was on the baler. Some men and women stood at machines stitching the cardboard cartons in which food was dispatched to Lyons restaurants throughout England. My job was to pick up stray pieces of cardboard and rope and make them into bales. My workmates couldn’t figure out, from my accent, why I was there. “Are you ’ere reg’lar?” they asked me, day after day. After all, I was evidently educated.
After a week I was replaced on the baler by an Irishman called Pat, one of hundreds of Irish favored by the company because they were so hard to organize into unions. Pat told me he never went to school for more than a week at a time: instead, he worked on local farms to help his widowed mother. At thirteen he got a job as a bootboy in a London hotel, for which he left home. But he chucked up that job, and when the war broke out enlisted. He’d been told that after the war they were going to create an England fit for heroes. Discharged, he was given a ticket and told to present it to his local Labour Exchange in Northern Ireland, and it would get him a job. He turned up, along with two hundred others, to find no jobs on offer. He returned to England, worked in automobile factories, coal mines, steel works, before drifting to the food factory. He had been a member of dozens of unions, and had no faith in them. He had learned one lesson in life: “They’re all in it for what they can get out of it. It’s all just a big racket, so it is.” Like me, he hated and distrusted conservatives, but when I tried to convince him to be a socialist, he simply scoffed.
Next I fed raw material to a conveyor belt on which a long line of women filled cardboard cartons with cakes (Swiss rolls, cup cakes, etc, all inedible stuff). The work of pulling up the crates came easily to Sailor and Dutchy, my workmates, but lifting the heavy trays out of the crates taxed my strength to the limit. Dutchy (from Holland) talked all the time about the great jobs he had held previously. He had a better education than most of the others, and was regularly accused of being a fucking foreign bastard.
Sailor had been twenty-six years in the Navy as a bosun. He was cool to me at first because he had no time for New Zealand. This was why: in 1926 one of his friends was stranded in Melbourne (as close to New Zealand as Moscow is to London) after missing his ship, and he had to pay his own fare north to Singapore! "There's more restrictions there than what there is here,” he said, definitively. He’d been pushing the bins on the conveyor belt for seventeen years, and was terribly rude to the women, Navy-style. The younger women were flashy and rowdy, the middle-aged women comfortable and cheerful. They all made life miserable for Christine, a strong, nubile Greek girl, who had fallen among them. She was a bloody foreigner to all of them. Sailor, pulling her bra straps and tickling her, was her protector, but he hid it under a barrage of off- colour remarks that would have offended her had she understood half of them. He informed me indignantly that one of the women had described her as a Jewish pig. He told me the girl was of Jewish origin. I said I thought she was Greek Orthodox. “Yes, she’s Greek Orthodox,” he said, “but she’s Jewish,” a glorious example of his logic.
They all seemed still to be living the war. “Trubble is,” said Mary, an adorable duck from Nottingham, “too many furriners ruunin’ cuntry nawadays.” One day I told them I wouldn’t fight in the next war. Ada screamed at me that I would think different if I’d been through a war, as she had. Nora weighed in: “We’re British to the backbone. We fight ’cause we know we’re in t’ right.” She invited Shirley and me home for dinner one night and confided in us that “there’s one good thing Hitler done anyway.” What was that? I asked. “He got rid of all them Jews.” Such a charmer, she was.
On the other side of the track were Sid, Jack and Harry. Jack had once been an assistant stage manager; Harry had six children and had lost his previous job as a wine cellarman for being drunk on the job; Sid was the only one of the 8,800 workers in the factory who professed to be a voting Conservative. The rest, though I could hardly call them socialists, were Labour Party voters to a man.
I liked these people, but I found it hard to credit that these meaningless jobs and restricted prospects were what confronted them for the rest of their lives, and there was no escape for any of them. The wages were minimal. The foremen were appalling little snitches who were always trying to catch workers eating the goods they were packing, or taking a surreptitious smoke. When one shouted at me on my second day, I shouted back at him; and thereafter we weren’t on speaking terms. The Superintendent seldom emerged from his office in a corner of the department. The factory manager, of course, was never seen.
As I prepared to quit, I was again, as in Australia, offered promotion to a more responsible job. I was even more pleased than before to tell them I was leaving.