Arbeit macht frei.

(Today, Joe asked his readers: What’s the worst job you ever had? This is an extended version of the answer I left in his comments.)

Aged 17, in the summer of 1979, I took a holiday job at a wholesale warehouse, back in the South Yorkshire town where I was born. Well, I say “took”, as if there were some element of choice in the matter; in actual fact, there was none.

Rather than have me loaf around at home for six weeks, my father decided that it would be “character-building” for me to step out into the “real world”, and so had a word with the bosses of the warehouse: two brothers, both the living embodiments of the puffed-up small town plutocrat. From their handlebar moustaches, cherry-wood pipes, watch-chains and waistcoats, to the cut-glass decanters of whisky in their offices and the mahogany veneer on the dashboards of their Bentleys, they could have stepped straight from a left-wing political cartoon of the 1920s. All they needed to complete the picture were little bags of cash piled up on their desks, each marked with a big pound sign.

The interview, with the warehouse’s kindly operational manager, was a mere formality. After no more than a couple of minutes, he beamed his congratulations. “You’ve got a job!” Fifteen pounds a week, start Monday.

Up until this point, I had never been burdened by much in the way of hard manual labour, as the soft folds of flesh on my palms would (and still do) testify. Indeed, I was more or less your classic lily-livered nine-stone wimp, with meekness to match. Whereas nowadays, I can generally laugh off my perpetually troubled relationship with the physical world (“I exist on a rarified cerebral plane!” “I’m an effete drawing-room fop!”), my exceptional lack of physical co-ordination and stamina was still a source of great self-consciousness and shame.

Nevertheless, I was greeted warmly by my new colleagues, most of whom were only three or four years older than me, when I joined them at the loading bay for crate-shifting duties. The work was tough, and my body never stopped aching from one day to the next – but I did my best, and my comparative lack of skill was accepted with no more than mildest of ribbings. (“How many O-levels did you say you had? Ten? Yeah, but I bet you can’t lift this crate – here, catch!”)

However, it was only a matter of time before word got out that I was “a friend of the boss” – which was hardly surprising, as the older of the two brothers frequently gave me a lift back to my father’s office at the end of the working day. In truth, I despised the man – and felt downright loathing towards his lazy, arrogant younger brother, with the scarlet face and the liver spots, who barely bothered to disguise the contempt he felt towards the men whose labours kept him in creature comforts. Since rank-pulling was all he had, he duly insulated himself with delusions of his own natural superiority, and strutted round the warehouse in a perpetual state of faux-patrician peevishness.

The contempt was, needless to say, mutual. It was also contagious. One by one, my former comrades gradually cold-shouldered me, their former good-natured joshing replaced by icy stares and silent, barely suppressed malice. Only the older men continued to treat me as before, their knee-jerk them-and-us mentalities tempered by observation and experience. Occasionally, one of them would take me aside and discreetly ask after my welfare. (“Some of these young ‘uns, they won’t understand.”)

I should have confronted the situation, of course – but my sense of disempowerment was total. Instead, I bit my lip and knuckled down, my already low self-esteem plummeting ever further.

Eventually – and presumably this was for my own well-being, and kindly meant – I was moved out of the loading bay, and taken to the larger and much quieter warehouse round the corner. There, I was given a small (and fairly blunt) hand scythe, with which to cut down the tall weeds that flanked the long entrance drive. The job took many days, and was mind-numbingly arduous. I particularly remember the younger brother standing over me as I struggled on the first morning, taking puffs on his pipe, and hissing into my ear: “Don’t let them see you’re a weakling.” Once again: them and us. I deeply resented being placed into the middle of this set of assumptions and perceptions, but continued to say nothing.

(What I wanted to do, more than anything else, was show solidarity with my fellow workers, to explain that I was no management stooge and no industrial spy, that I thought that their bosses were wankers just as much as they did, and that I hadn’t even wanted the shitty job in the first place. But you can see the potential pitfalls in that.)

There was one last humiliation in store. My step-sisters – who had their own reasons for despising me, but that’s a whole other story – had a friend whose boyfriend worked at the same warehouse. Word of my progress, or lack of it, filtered back, and was eventually, and with no small measure of relish, thrown in my face. (“You don’t do any real work. We’ve heard! You just sit in the garden all day!”)

Still saying nothing, I comforted myself only with thoughts of escape. Four months later, I seized my chance, never to return.

A few years later, I met the younger brother once again, at a formal dinner that was regularly staged by the self-styled intelligentsia of the local business community (no women admitted). My father had dragged me along, eager for the fifth generation of first sons to make his social debut, and had duly shoved me into an ill-fitting hired dinner suit, with a particularly rank frilled trim on the lapels.

“Monty, do you remember my son Michael?”

“Of course! We showed you how the other half live, didn’t we!”

I think I was supposed to thank him for his avuncular magnanimity, and for the valuable life lessons that he had bestowed upon me.

Oh, I had certainly learnt some lessons. But they weren’t the sort of lessons that anyone could teach, even if they had been minded to do so. And so I assumed an appropriately grateful expression, and smiled, and turned away as quickly as good manners would allow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s