I had several jobs in 1970 in Sunderland, but perhaps the most memorable was the 5-Minute Car Wash by the Barnes Hotel. It was a by-hand car wash at a time when new-fangled auto car-washes were just appearing (we were instructed to tell everyone who passed under our chamois and sponges of an entirely fictional case of someone who had had their car roof peeled back ‘like a sardine can’). There were five of us; it was an eight-hour stint, with half-an-hour off for lunch. It was May, but 1970 was cold. It had snowed in April, and there were days when the ice on the water-troughs had to be broken. It was really badly paid.
Two of the others were skinheads, and talked endlessly of various away-games at which they’d had good fights (they were almost certainly fictional fights). My problem was that, being from the posh suburbs north of Sunderland, and despite the standard scruffy regulation teenager clothes, I not only didn’t sound quite right (I was often asked if I was from Middlesbrough, which means that I was trying to get my Sunderland accent up to speed), but I also had a bigger secret. My father was the managing director of Doxford’s, the biggest shipyard employer in town – it included the family shipyard Greenwell’s as part of it – and he was at that time facing the longest strike since, if memory serves, the war. The fact that the drivers of some of the fancier cars through the wash said ‘Hello Bill’ in what suddenly seemed impossibly posh accents only complicated matters further.
There were three jobs – washing (two of us); drying (two of us); and (the plum job) writing down the numbers of the cars which we were cleaning for the nearby car-dealer. The jobs rotated amicably. One of the skinheads (softies compared to the London skinheads who had thrown sharpened pennies at me at the end of the previous year) was called Jim. On one memorable occasion, while on car-number-writing duty, Jim, usually very loquacious, suddenly grew very, very pensive as a car passed him. He chewed the pen; otherwise he was stock-still. Honestly, he was statuesque. The four of us watched him carefully.
After a small age, he looked up and across at us. ‘Good job I was wearing my Doc Martens,’ he said. ‘That car’s just run over my foot.’
Eventually the conversation turned to what our fathers did. Telling a good lie involves using part of the truth. I said he worked for Doxford’s. Was he on strike? I said something about maintenance work. ‘Ah, blackleg, is he?’ said Jim.
I told my father this when he came back late that night after long talks with the boilermakers. ‘Blackleg, is he?’ he repeated, and started to laugh. And laugh. Until he became almost helpless. After which he phoned his friends, and shared ‘Blackleg, is he?’ with them for what seemed hours and hours. We were almost never on bad terms after that.