1970 – part 3

August 18, 2010

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.

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1970 – part 2

August 15, 2010

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last month in Oxford – longer than any time since I was a student there. I’m not a go-back person where Oxford is concerned, and I don’t have the dreaming-spires-in-my-eyes aura of an alumnus (a word of which I’m irrationally unfond). I was working with interesting students on a summer school at Exeter College, Oxford. This is curious only because I worked for 28 years at Exeter College, Exeter – quite a different institution, and one which features in the Exeter College, Oxford literature about the course, as in, Don’t Make A Mistake And Go To Exeter College, Exeter. I do have a vague memory of a student arriving in Exeter looking for Oxford.

I rang my son. Guess where I am? I said. I’m at Exeter College. Oh, he said, have they built another one? Yes, in 1314, I said.

My favourite moment was when a porter, attempting to get from A to B with some urgency, ran across the hallowed grass quadrangle. He was running so fast he was doing a sort of Norman Wisdom run. As he ran, he spotted me watching him. ‘You do realise,’ he called, ‘that you are not allowed to go across the quadrangle.’

It triggered various memories. One was of my father’s innocent delight when he found out I’d been accepted – there was relief in there, too, since I had quite churlishly indicated I wasn’t going there unless I got into the one modern, brutalistically designed college (Harold Macmillan had said it looked like a petrol station. I was therefore attracted). I had to wait about nine months before going. As the time for me to become an Oxford student approached, my father, never one to instigate a conversation about trivia, suddenly said ‘We must get you some new clothes.’

I asked him why.

He looked me up and down, and said, ‘Well you won’t be able to go to Oxford looking like that.’ He ran his eye over my wrecked T-shirt and jeans.

‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Everyone dresses like this at university.’

‘Don’t give me that.’ (A catchphrase of his.)

‘No, honestly.’

I can still see him, sitting down to ring one of his friends who had a student son, to prove me wrong. It would have been about forty years ago. I remember seeing the look of incredulity mosey over his face. He didn’t even bother to finish the conversation with me: just went off, shaking his head.


1970 – part 1

July 31, 2010

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 sinceĀ 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.