I spent three years as a university student, and worked as a temp during the holidays, when I went back home. These were truly awful jobs; folding sheets in an industrial laundry, sweeping floors during a night-shift at a cardboard factory, removing labels from clothes in a warehouse, assembling mobile phone aerials on an industrial estate, moulding plastics, answering phones in a call centre, picking food items to fulfill orders in a vast warehouse, screwing small components together, operating an industrial metal press, soldering parts to a baseboard. These were all assigned to me by a temp agency; they would be flooded with students during the summer, all competing for temporary jobs, and had to try to allocate different people to fit the needs of local companies. I used to dread the telephone call from the agency, to hear which terrible job they would be offering me this week; I wasn’t in the position to decline, so I had to accept whatever job came my way.
I still have a scar from one job; a penknife I was using to trim off some plastic slipped, and sliced the palm of the hand and my thumb; a quick trip to the hospital ensued, followed by a couple of weeks off work. Most of the jobs became bearable simply because some of my friends were working there too; there could be great camaraderie among the temps, with a we’re-all-in-this-together mentality. These jobs were physically demanding, and we all longed for finishing on Friday, when we would gather in the town’s pubs for much-needed mischief and merriment.
At the time, I used to wonder if this was what life was like for my paternal grandfather, who had spent most of his working life employed in factories of one sort or another. My grandmother told me that she had worked in a factory during the war, and although the work was monotonous, she had made great friends there, and enjoyed the social side of it. What I learned from this experience: factory life was not for me; it was only bearable because I knew it was temporary and I needed the money.
During university, I had an occasional job as a waiter, working for a caterer. I had to serve food at a Freemason lodge, during breaks in their meetings. I wore black trousers, a white shirt and a black bow tie, and did my best to look like I knew what I was doing. The diners were elderly, and I amused myself by trying to see which people were wearing wigs. I only had a couple of mishaps as a waiter; once sloshing a bowl of soup all over someone’s plate when I tried to serve them, and then, I think on the same night, as I was clearing away bowls after dessert, a spoon slipped out of my hand and inadvertently flicked ice cream down the back of a lady’s dress. She didn’t notice, so I didn’t tell her. What I learned from this: I am no good as a waiter.