Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Seven people or things that changed my life (4) John on permanent nights

John lived upstairs from us and he worked permanent nights.  The landlord kept his rent down in return for a bit of handyman help, not that much handiwork was ever done, and for rent collection.  John used to do these things in the late afternoon when he woke up, so if you wanted to do something you didn't want John to know about you did it in the mornings,  and you made sure you did it quietly.  John took his duties very seriously.  He was a trusty.  John had no teeth in the front of his mouth.  I suppose John was about thirty-five.  His personal life, if he had one, was a mystery.  It was generally thought that if you worked permanent nights your personal life must be in some way shabby or damaged.  This was what people who worked in factories said.  And at that time in my life, the start of my twenties, I worked in factories, and lived with people who did.  But despite what people said, I thought there was something louchely attractive about permanent
nights.  Night shifts screwed you up, that much was true, no good for the digestion and in the summer you couldn't sleep, too light and too noisy, but the main problem was the changeover.  Some of the factories had a thing called "double back", where if you were on a week of nights you worked the Thursday night and then, instead of having to work the Friday night and have most of Saturday gone because you were asleep and then stay up half the night Saturday and sleep in till Sunday afternoon and not be able to sleep Sunday night and be a write-off for your morning shift on Monday and take till about Wednesday to recover, instead of all that you caught about three hours' sleep on Friday morning and then worked an evening shift and got to the pub for last orders on Friday night, like normal people do.  The best changeover was mornings to evenings, when you finished on Friday afternoon and didn't start again till Monday afternoon.  But it was the
changeovers themselves that did you in.  And if you worked permanent nights you never had that.  They said it was the changeovers that gave a lot of the older men heart attacks.  Permanent nights, I reasoned, you had no changeover, so you would generally feel better, and in winter you stood a chance of seeing daylight because you could be up and out before four in the afternoon.  And you still had the weekends.  There was no such thing as permanent mornings or permanent evenings.  There was only permanent nights or changeovers.  No-one knew why.  And hardly anyone did permanent nights.  But really I was looking for routine not romance.  As I always have been.

This was West Country workers' life in the 1970s.  There was the chocolate (Fry's) in Keynsham; the tobacco (Wills') in Bristol; there was a lot of light engineering around Bath then, and we lived in Bath and I was a visitor in that life for a year or two.  I learned to work, living that life, and I have never forgotten how, and I learned from John-on-permanent-nights that not everyone lived in a Nice Family - I had got to the age of 21 without ever realising that, having always thought that if people, or even families, weren't Nice then it was an Exception, or at worst that the family was A Bit Rough.  In John-on-permanent-nights-with-no-teeth I saw a lonely man, who dealt with his loneliness through routine.  His routine was his work - when I worked nights myself in later years I understood how important your colleagues, and the small rituals of working life, like the rest-room and the kettle and the chocolate machine, are when you can't pop to Marks
and Spencers at lunchtime because it's four o'clock in the morning.  Part of John's routine lay in the other things he did, like collect the rent from some of the tenants and engage in some quiet little scams that might have involved transactions in small-scale dodgy merchandise, but mainly it was his work.  This started me thinking about work.  

Around this time I read Robert Tressell's 'The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists for the first time.  Set among painters and decorators in Hastings at the turn of the twentieth century, it is the only portrayal of manual working life I have ever read that was real, and that was still real in the 1970s.  I was a factory worker, and then I was the pregnant wife of a factory worker, and there was no money.  In the 1970s consumer electrical goods were expensive.  To be sure of waking up in time for your shift you had to have an alarm clock.  No using your mobile as an alarm (which is what I do now) because there were no mobiles.  If you had no alarm clock, or yours had stopped working, and you were a manual labourer, a new one at the cheaper end of the scale would cost you about £3, when you might not be earning much more than £20 take home in  a week.  If you were a working-class man, and sometimes if you were not, you had probably made an early marriage,
and had a child, or more than one, or one on the way, and a wife who was more or less dependent on you, and that alarm clock was hard to get.  Children's clothes were expensive, there were no £2 T-shirts then - when my granddaughter was born in 2007 I made a fool of myself buying piles of little cotton T-shirts and dresses and leggings for her.  Nobody wanted them, they could buy them easily themselves, though they would have quite liked the deposit on a flat.  I had taken that fear, of not being able to provide, very deep inside, so that it was still there 30 years later.

Tressell's Hastings (Tressell himself was a South African and was writing as a visitor) was peopled by workers who could be sacked without benefit of tribunal at an employer's whim, and too little has changed since.  One of his characters is desperately worried about losing his job, and is likely to do so if he is ever late for work again.  His shift starts at seven o'clock in the morning.  He has no alarm clock.  At intervals during the night he gets up, leaves the house and walks to the High Street to look at the time on the clocks in a shop window.  It is winter and dark.  Each time he does this he is more tired than the last.  The final time, he walks on slow feet to the shop window.  It is exactly seven o'clock.

We were visitors, I suppose, to that life, though it was those wages that kept us, our parents did not have money and would not have given us any if they had.  And Bath was beautiful.  The sun shone every day on the golden stone (it was 1976).  We had a ground-floor flat with a little brook running across its path, and a patch of scrubby parkland in front.  On one of our last days there I sat at the window with the baby.  The glass was old, and distorted what you saw through it slightly,  so that moving figures seemed to undulate and blur.  The others were throwing a frisbee, and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells was playing.  The others couldn't hear it, but the music in my ears made the same shapes in the landscape in my head as the others did as they crossed and recrossed the sunny grass.  Then we left, and John stayed behind, on permanent nights.  

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