Episodes in the Literary Life 3: Crappy jobs before the writing by Matt Rees

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(This continues my series of autobiographical vignettes, intended to demonstrate the neuroses, ambition, talent, chance, mischance, place, alcohol and attitude that go toward the creation of a writer. The tales may be instructive or proscriptive. This one concerns work –– something writing should never be.)

In the summer after my second year at Oxford, I found a job at Andre Deutsch. Though I worked in the mail room and answered the telephones, I had found a place in the world of books. It also dawned on me as I came up the long escalator at Tottenham Court Road Tube station, that I had probably done my last day’s work in a crappy job.

Deutsch was a small publisher in London’s Bloomsbury area just along Great Russell Street from the British Museum. Unlike today’s publishing megaliths, it was run by one man, the eponymous director, Andre Deutsch. Hungarian-born, he was the charming patriarch of a firm which fitted in its entirety into two townhouses. He was the publisher of great names like V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Ogden Nash.

The realization that I had graduated from the depths of my previous employment in supermarkets, DIY megastores, kitchens, and building sites was almost enough to make me happy. Unfortunately I was 20, which meant I was a boy in a rush, unable to enjoy the moment and doomed constantly to wish himself somewhere else until the age of about 41 when I eventually saw that I had it pretty good.

The first job I managed to hold down for any length of time was when I was 16 at a DIY warehouse in Croydon. One fellow asked me to carry his bag of cement on my back to his car, which I did. He gave me a 10 pence tip. Which wasn’t much, even in 1983.

The DIY store was in a sleepy suburb of Croydon called Sanderstead. Eager for the bright lights of West Croydon, where there were frequent knife fights on the street, I secured a job at the new Ponderosa Steakhouse there. And found myself in the middle of a knife fight in the kitchen.

I was hired as a fry cook. My job was to take the plates of steak, chicken and fish grilled by a big West Indian fellow, Irving, and a cocky young blonde fellow, Dave, and to add fried chips, fried onion rings, or baked potatoes. I did this in the company of a Greek lad named Christos. Bad blood soon developed between Dave and Christos, mostly because Dave liked to suggest that Christos wanted Irving to put his meat in Christos’s deep fryer. If you see what I mean.

While the ugly banter accumulated layers of spite, I spent my nights wrestling the baked potato tray out of the oven. It was above head height and the tray expanded during cooking so that it would only come out when yanked rather hard. In the process a dozen or so superheated baked potatoes would cascade onto my face and arms, sometimes even crushing the brown Smurf hat I was compelled to wear.

One night after closing up late, I was draining the boiling fat from the fryers and the other boys were cleaning. Dave squeezed Christos’s backside. The Greek wheeled on him with a long carving knife. Irving jumped between them. Dave was pressed to the grill by Irving’s bulk, which tipped over on him because of Christos’s momentum. On moment they were writhing against each other, yelling insults and warnings, the next they all went suddenly still and quiet. If I hadn’t been there, I think they’d have kissed. Maybe they did the next night, because I quit on the spot.

I moved on from there to the Sainsbury’s supermarket in Purley. Had I not worked there, I expect the Sainsbury boys could’ve afforded a few more old masters or perhaps even a divorce from Nigella Lawson, such was the quantity of meat pies, yoghourts and Scotch eggs I consumed in the cosy little corner of the storeroom allotted to me.

It’s possible that I displayed some attitude there, because when I eventually quit the personnel manager said, “I think that’s for the best.” I told her it was a shame really, because I felt myself to have been on a rocket ship to the stars with Sainsbury’s but had come to be disillusioned with the company’s ideals. “As I say,” was all she said.

In any case, I had acquired an extraordinary dislike of the manager. After one stock-taking night, I handed him my account of how many vanilla puddings and packets of smoked ham occupied the long fridge on my deli aisle. He glanced at it and tossed it back to me. “No continental sevens,” he said. His voice was South London, nasal, contemptuous, no lip movement.

“I thought they looked nice,” I replied. “Anyway I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to use them.”

“You was told,” he barked.

“I … weren’t,” I stammered, unsure if using correct grammar would’ve made him doubly upset.

His balding, ginger-haired deputy once told me I could be on a rocket ship to the stars if I stayed with Sainsbury’s. This was when he was trying to convince me that I should apply for the company’s management programme instead of studying at Oxford, where I had secured a place, perhaps because of my predilection for the continental seven. “You go to uni, you’ll end up with a stuffy job at a bank, when you could be working here,” he said, gesturing expansively at the dog food and the cat litter.

During my first university vacation, my Dad found me a job on the building site where he worked in central London. It gave me a deeper respect for my Dad, as I joined him on the freezing, midnight-dark platform at East Croydon Station at ten to six in the morning. I shivered in my donkey jacket, but my Dad had already done a half hour of yoga and was eager to be at his day. Which technically started while it was still night and about five hours before I would’ve got out of bed had I been back at college.

We were trying to stop a hospital falling down. A massive wing of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital had unintentionally been built over the underground stream of the River Fleet. And it was listing rather to one side, slipping down into the caverns of the river.

I would arrive at work still long before sunrise and share a cup of tea with a fifty-year-old Irish navy. Paddy, for indeed this was his name, slept in the park and was never quite sober or coherent. He smelled worse than a town near my childhood home in South Wales where the steelworks pumped out the noxious raw-fart of methane and coal-tar gas round the clock. Then I would set off with Vic, the West Indian carpenter, to put up shelves and tear out other shelves which had been warped by the tilt in the building.

Vic was in his late fifties. He didn’t get a lot of work done. He liked to tell me to “take it cool and easy.” It took him about five seconds to pronounce all the Os in “cool.” Gurdip Singh, the foreman, used to urge me to get Vic to work faster. I told him he ought to take it cool and easy. He lost his cool at that point. Or that may have been when he found me, Vic and the lift man playing cricket with a length of wood and a wadded up rags and twine.

The best part of the job was when a young Irish lad and I did something which today would probably fall foul of a dozen safety laws. Even then it seemed pretty reckless and irresponsible.

A long wall of cinder block had to be demolished on the sixth floor. We did this with gusto, smashing a sledgehammer through the light bricks. Then we were supposed to fill wheelbarrows and take the debris down the lift to the dumpster.

But we saw a short cut.

The dumpster was below the end of our corridor. It was only seven or eight yards from the building. If we threw the bricks down, we’d save a great deal of time. Time in which we wouldn’t have to work, because the foreman had told us our job would take all day.

Workers on building sites prefer, incidentally, not to do any work.

So we cheerfully hauled ten-pound bricks off the sixth floor, landing most of them in the dumpster below. Some of them missed. And none of the workers passing the dumpster en route for the canteen were injured, though one of them shouted something at us after a near miss. He was from Newcastle with a thick Geordie accent. We’d have had no idea what he was saying, had we been doing anything other than dropping bricks on him from a height of eighty feet.

After university, instead of returning to Andre Deutsch I decided I’d see the world through journalism. Little did I know that a whole host of crappy jobs – though jobs no one else would know were crappy – awaited me. (Read on, next week.)

The wait for a successor to Amadeus is over.  MOZART’S LAST ARIA by Matt Rees www.mattrees.net

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