Sunday, September 13, 2015
Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (21) On work (cont.)
I was not able to take up that job because I had found another one; fulltime work for the whole 6 weeks of the summer holiday 1961 in Baxter’s Sausage Factory at Sarre (one of the historic Cinque Ports on the Isle of Thanet). I cannot remember how I got the job; I think I must have responded to an advertisement in the local paper. Anyway, it involved getting up at about 5 am, catching a company bus from the Canterbury Road at 6am sharp. Don’t get up, miss the bus, you lose the job; now there was a lesson in life.
And the job itself was to become a major lesson in my young life. It was a fascinating environment with concrete floors, the ever present whirring of machinery and production lines, and a constant background smell of spices. The smell emanated from a loft where a number of us went to eat lunch, and I have strong visual memories of the loft, which must have been strengthened by the intensity of all of the spices. These, of course, were used in the recipes for sausages, and pork pies and a range of meat pies.
My first job was to stand for most of the shift at an automated pastry stamper. A tray would arrive at my left, with small steel pots holding a specific sized round piece of pastry. I had to take a pot off the tray and place it on a carousel that rotated steadily under the stamper. There were no hand guards, so you had to learn to be careful. When the pot rotated to my right with the pastry neatly pressed into the shape of the pot, I had to lift it off and put it on the empty tray to my right. The movement of the left arm and right arm had to be synchronised to lift one on, and at the same time lift one off. I became a tired automaton shifting from one leg to the other for hour after hour. Breaks were a massive relief, and were signalled by a Klaxon – run for the thermos, sit, chat and run back at the sound of the second Klaxon.
There were other people working on similar tasks – like putting the pork pie sausage meat into the pastried pot. The next person down the line after that would pour some heated gelatine around each blob of meat. The next person placed a stamped out pastry top on a second stamper which rotated to stamp the top of the pork pie. The next would collect a completed tray and take them to the oven for cooking.
We got to talking. Well, in the early days it was more that several older women on the lines joined in teasing me for bits of inaccuracy or slowness. One of the women had worked in the factory for 35 years; a jovial grandmother with a grand sense of humour, but also a strong sense of care. They wanted to know about my history, were intrigued that I wanted to be a doctor, and had a million and one questions. Of course they would talk amongst themselves about ailments I knew nothing about. It was women’s talk, and often about women’s ailments. I kept quiet, and occasionally blushed; which caused hilarity. But it was all in good humour. I learned a lot; most of all to curb my tongue, and soak up the atmosphere and the knowledge and wisdom of ordinary folk.
Jobs were changed to reduce monotony but also, I suspect, to ease muscle groups – a crude form of prevention of muscular problems. So you always stood next to someone new. There were prize jobs only given to experienced people, and toward the end of my time I became a wrapper of pork pies. A square piece of cellophane was laid over a hole, into which the pie was pressed, and the corners folded neatly into the middle. The job was then to place a heat sensitive label on top to hold the wrapping together, and pull down a heated lever to seal the pie. Lift the lever, place the wrapped pie on a tray and move on to the next one. All done at speed, like everything else, and under the watchful eye of a supervisor who ensured a quality result, and the requisite number of pies labelled in the time allotted.
So I learned about production lines, and how human beings manage themselves in the context of unbelievable tedium and repetition. I learned about the daily lives of ordinary people, and in particular the lives of women having to work part time to support their families. I learned about female illnesses from the sufferer’s point of view. Most of all I learned about community pride, and that odd sense of belonging and mutual support that occurs on factory floors.
I also learned about making sausages, though I was never to be involved in that production line. But I have a vivid memory of an enormous rotating bowl, the forerunner of a modern day electric mixer. Into this were placed the ingredients, including large chunks of meat, and the spices. Under a protective housing a large circular saw cut into the mix while the bowl rotated. What I found odd, was that the mix was enhanced by all the pork pies and sausages returned to the factory if they were not sold for three days. Of course it was all to go back through the cooker again, but from a modern perspective of food safety, I suspect that such a process would no longer be tolerated. I also suspect that it was this and a couple of other episodes that put me off eating pies and sausages for a number of years.
The supervisor of the bowl was a good-looking man in his 30s, one of very few in the factory. He stood all day, putting in the ingredients, and making sure it was all mixed to his satisfaction. He achieved this by inserting his right hand into the mix of the open side of the bowl, and away from the cutters, and their housing. He would repetitively turn the mix manually as it rotated, until the proper consistency was achieved. As you can imagine, his forearm and upper arm muscles had become huge over the years; but only on the right. I assume he was right handed, but I could never quite work out why he did not, from time to time turn around and used his left arm, which appeared puny by comparison.
I graduated to the line making pasties. I began with a pile of pastry circles. Each one had to be slapped onto a board floating in a small bath of water. The circles then had to be placed (half a wet side up) on a conveyor belt. The next person had a bowl of meat and potatoes, and would lift a spoonful of the mix and place it on the dry half. The next person in the line would fold the pastry over and press the edges of the half round together, the dampened side making this possible of course. The next person used both sets of finger tips to ensure the sides were joined, and impart a pattern of sorts. Finally, a person with an ordinary kitchen knife placed a small hole in the top to allow steam to escape during cooking. The completed pasty was then placed on a tray, and eventually the multiple trays were moved off tot eh oven.
Of course being ‘a slapper’ was the most menial of the tasks. Placing a spoonful of meat on the proto-pasty was skilled as was the folding. The ‘presser’ was highly skilled, giving shape to the final pre-cooked article. And the person wielding the knife at the end was ‘an artist’. The day I graduated to this role was a triumph, until I found out how boring stabbing hundreds of pasties could be. I asked innocently whether anyone had ever placed 2 holes in the top, and this caused some mirth. I tried giving two jabs as the soggy object passed me, and there was more mirth. The next day, I improvised and tried three stabs, and then getting a little cocky, successfully tried a cross in the top. The final act was to try a circle, and this defeated me for some time, the positioning of the fingers and movements of the wrist quite intricate.
There was never any sanction for these minor acts of vandalism. The women were all amused, a supervisor did not seem interested in my pathetic attempts to ward off boredom, and there were never any complaints from butchers or grocers who received the finished articles (at least during my time). The pasties, like other products were trucked across Britain, often to Butlins holiday camps at all of the seaside towns. I never heard complaints from any of them either (nor about my labelling on the bottom of pork pies). I remained wary of pasties for a very long time. I have subsequently had a lifelong curiosity about the shape of the hole in the pasties, and always make a point of looking, though I am sure recent developments would have moved on the full mechanisation.
One final event was to put me off eating so-called Gala pies – large oblong pork pies with eggs in a row at the bottom. The pies were sliced for presentation to the customer, so the size of your particular slice of egg was pure chance of course. On one occasion I was helping out at the production line that, strangely was always manned by men (nice little redundancy of the English language). The environment at Baxter’s was always kept clean, and they must have used some kind of spray before work began each day to keep the flies at bay, in addition to using those Perspex strip flappy door openings. The odd successful entrant would immediately be swatted. On this particular day, I happened to notice a bluebottle struggling at the base of the pie in between two hard-boiled eggs. When I mentioned it, there was general male mirth. “Well some bastard is going to be lucky!” I could not believe it, was acutely uncomfortable, and I just had to stand there with a forced smile as the forced meat was scooped in to cover the eggs (and provide a mausoleum for a fly). I have been deeply suspicious of slices of Gala pie to this day, and while I find them delicious (especially with Branston pickle), I always obsessively search for the fly before handing out plates to family members.
Over six weeks, I had become a short term member of a community, and felt a deep sense of loss for weeks afterward. I have always been grateful for the experience, and always thought highly of people who do mind-numbing jobs with humour and a deep sense of community joy.