Oh no, it’s forty years since 1970, and I’ve only just noticed. I was alerted to it by a sudden rash of anniversary articles about the (third and largest) Isle of Wight festival, which took place at the end of August that year, and which I was busy saving up to go to, in what I suppose was a sort of gap year, in today-speak. I’d been despatched to private schools since I was 8, and they for some reason had, perhaps have, a policy of speeding you through exams, so that I was still only sixteen when I emerged from my A levels. Nuts. They wouldn’t let me into university till I was 18, so I had almost a year to kill. Where did I go? Did I travel to the Far East? Did I opt for the mysteries of the Amazon? Did I devote myself to charitable works in Irkutsk? Not a bit of it. I spent the whole year in Sunderland, from which I had effectively been banned for more than half the year by ‘privilege’. I worked in the Locarno as a cleaner, in a car wash by the Barnes, and at this stage, forty years ago, I was working at South Hylton’s paper mill (then in its penultimate year, although I didn’t realise that). I bought Bitches Brew (Miles Davis) on the back of some overtime: that must have been almost forty years ago to the week. (I see Columbia has just issued a third incarnation of it, which is a bit much after the box set that cost an arm and a leg a few years ago. Bonus DVD, my arse.)
My job at the paper mill was, at least for the first four weeks, to be ‘soapbox boy’ (I think that’s right; I’ll correct it if my synapses perk up). This was a job traditionally given to any newbie: I met one man who had, as a youth, done it for twelve years, on shift work, the eight-hour shift changing every two weeks, so your sleep pattern was wrecked. But I only had to do it for four weeks.
There is a process in the making of paper (mainly the paper for the green Player’s No. 6 coupons in this case, as I remember) when the paper is just consistent enough for a skilled worker to take a leading edge and thread it through the first of a series of gigantic rollers. It can happen that the paper breaks at two specific points before the rollers dry and press the paper. The job of the soapbox boy was to sit in front of these two places, and to alert the machine-men that it had broken (which required turning the machine off quickly, and clearing the build-up of wet paper). This is how you alerted them, and bear in mind that the temperature was in the nineties, and the machines were incredibly loud: you stood up and shouted ‘IT’S BROKE’. You had about seven seconds, max, to take your eyes off these two places. Some nights or days it wouldn’t break. One night it broke forty-eight times.
Finding a place for your brain to go in these circumstances was a problem. I decided to prepare for university. I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – looking up every seven seconds. This has, how shall I put it, affected my view of Jane Austen quite considerably. It is a truth universally LOOK UP acknowledged that a single LOOK UP man in possession of a LOOK UP. Hmmm. You try it.