In January 2001 I was made redundant from a job I’d had for ten years. The pay-off was fairly good, around a year’s wages (after tax). Six months later I’d split up from my girlfriend, moved into the spare room at my sister’s house and still didn’t have a job. There was some cash left, but not an awful lot. I needed to earn some money. I’d applied for a place on a degree course at Portsmouth University but that was still three months away. The solution was, of course, to get a job in a factory that made moulded plastic, working 12 hour shifts. Obvious really.
It was Monday July 2nd 2001.
Me and a mate had gone to an employment agency and taken the first job they’d offered to us.
“It’s 12 hour shifts” the woman told us, in a way that, when you look back, was her way of saying “Are you sure about this”?
“Yeah, no problem” we replied.
We got to the factory that Monday morning and were “shown the ropes” by Lynne, one of the supervisors. The factory floor contained a number of huge machines that, depending on which particular piece of plastic they were producing, spat out hot, foul-smelling plastic mouldings every few seconds or maybe a couple of times a minute. The job was to make sure that each machine ran smoothly (if there was a problem with a machine you had to notify someone) and then pack the bit of plastic into a cardboard box until it was full. A bloke called Jason showed us how to convert a flat piece of cardboard into a box into which you could place bits of plastic a few times a minute for twelve hours a day. It sounds better than it actually was.
Some of the mouldings had to be made smooth before being packed into the inevitable cardboard box. If your machine was making plastic handles for nail scissors, a tiny piece of hard plastic on the handle had to be nipped off before you packed it. For this task you had a scalpel which you used to cut off the offending article. On other jobs a small pair of pliers could be used for the same job. I won’t bore you with the whys-and-wherefores, just trust me.
Shifts started at 6 am and finished at 6 pm. There was a 15 minute break in mid-morning and again in mid-afternoon. Lunch was half an hour. It was mind-numbingly boring work, you’ll be surprised to learn. We got £5 an hour but paid no tax as we were students (or about to be). Some weeks you worked three days, other weeks four days. The four day weeks were like having your spleen ripped out and thrown to a pack of honey badgers. Overtime was occasionally available on Saturdays but I never did any. Jason did, staggering in after twenty-three Bacardi Breezers the night before to make up a thousand cardboard boxes for the following week.
The radio played constantly, and you could just about hear it over the drone of the machines. Dido’s “Thank You” and “Sing” by Travis were each played about seven times a day. It would have been enough to drive you mad, but you already were, because you were working in a place like that. If you had a few pints the night before (and you usually needed them after twelve hours of utter tedium) then you felt less than joyful as your alarm went off at 5.20 the next morning.
After a week, my mate had had enough. He’d been picking me up in his car in the mornings, so now I had to bike to work, which meant leaving home at least ten minutes earlier than I had been. At least it was the summer. Getting up in the middle of winter to cycle through freezing rain to spend twelve hours throwing plastic mouldings into cardboard boxes is surely a sign from God that you really need to consider throwing yourself under a train.
My workmates were an odd lot. Lynne smoked like a chimney and had a face like a pickled walnut. Jason got hammered on Bacardi Breezers, which I think was the only aspect of his life we ever discussed. The blokes who fixed the machines were a monosyllabic bunch who wore baseball caps and could have scowled for England. A supervisor, chief supervisor I think, called Colin came up to me at around eight minutes past six one morning:
“Er, yes thanks” (He’d never asked me that before)
“Just wondered if there was a problem”
“I noticed you’ve been getting in a bit late”
He was right. A couple of times I’d clocked in at two or three minutes past six. An evening or two in the pub or snooker club had left me with only about five hours’ sleep. I’d rolled over and gone back to sleep, and left myself with the impossible task of cycling to work in thirteen minutes, including stopping for a sandwich and paper on the way. Fair cop, guv. I did think about asking him if he realised that I had “A” Levels and shouldn’t be doing this kind of shit, but I reckoned he might have reacted badly to that kind of talk. On reflection, I think that was the right decision.
Another bloke there was Dave. Dave was an ex-printer who’d worked in Fleet Street in the 70s and 80s at the height of union power. He’d been earning big money and all the overtime he wanted before Murdoch and Wapping messed everything up. Dave was what people call “straight talking”, a man who would have exited in the first round of any “suffering fools gladly” contest. He had a young grandson who had come round one day and then deliberately smashed some of Dave’s wife’s ornaments. Dave told me, totally deadpan and without a trace of comedy, that he’d simply phoned his daughter and said to her:
“Come and get this c*nt”
I have no idea how, but I kept a straight face. I knew that the merest trace of a smile would have been bad news for my continued relationship with Dave.
One day Dave recounted to me the story of how the Managing Director of the company had been doing his rounds on the factory floor one day (a rare event) at the same time that the machine Dave was working on had decided to go into meltdown. Dave was swearing away at the machine and the boss spotted this and mentioned to Dave, in a light-hearted way, that wishing him a “Good morning” was probably not a good idea.
“No, it probably fucking isn’t” replied Dave.
Another bloke there was called Ken. No-one was really sure what Ken did, but Ken had managed to forge a career in looking busy and carrying a broom around. He looked like Captain Birdseye but made much less sense. He wore a white t-shirt, white socks, white shorts and plimsolls. He looked like, at any moment, he would be shuffling onto the Centre Court and taking on Goran Ivanisevic. With a broom though, not a tennis racket.
Then there was Glenn, nicknamed “WG” or “WB” or something. I can’t remember why. Glenn was in his sixties and had retired from a good job. But his wife apparently wanted him “out the house and not under her feet” so he worked here, fiddling around with plastic mouldings when he should have been taking the grandchildren to the park or sunning himself in Spain. When he revealed to us, one lunchtime, that this job was “just to keep me off the streets” our mouths fell open in amazement. We’d all rather have been walking the streets than working in this hell-hole.
One morning, maybe half an hour into a shift, I went to slice off an offending small piece of plastic from a bigger piece of plastic and missed. The scalpel sliced through the little finger on my left hand and blood spurted everywhere. I wasn’t in the main factory but in a smaller factory next door and, at the time, was the only person there. This may have contravened Health & Safety regulations, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. If it had, I don’t think I’d have queried it with Colin. That conversation would not have gone well.
Anyway, I started thinking that maybe this was a sign that, with university only six weeks away, I should think about bidding a fond farewell to moulded plastics. The stench of the hot plastic as the machine spewed it out, Jason’s Bacardi Breezer stories, Dido’s wailing and the likelihood of not having ten fingers for much longer if I kept doing this job were all good reasons to quit. But, as I’d worked for only four days that year prior to 2nd July, perhaps mid-August was a little early to be going back to bed until October? I decided I’d crack on.
By early September you could no longer kid yourself that it was “summer”. OK, Ken was still coming in dressed as Jimmy Connors, but we expected nothing else. It was becoming decidedly autumnal, and the bike ride to work was becoming even less appealing than it had before. I’d started winding-up the night-shift workers as they arrived: “Only twelve hours to go lads” and the such-like was funny at 6pm as I walked out of the factory, but at 6 am when they greeted me with the same comments it wasn’t funny at all. I’d just about had enough.
And then it happened.
Tuesday 11th September 2001 must have started like any other. I must have cycled to work, possibly with a hangover, and probably arrived at 6.02am hoping Colin was on the bog reading “The Sun”. I probably looked at my watch after what seemed like hours of throwing warm bits of yellow plastic into a cardboard box, only to discover it was 7.23am and tea-break was still over an hour away. I probably ate a cheese sandwich and bag of McCoys in the staff canteen, realised that Juan Sebastian Veron (who’d just signed for Man Utd) earned more in an hour than I did in a week, then went back to the factory floor wondering whether it would be Dido or Travis providing the soundtrack to another exciting afternoon.
At some time that afternoon I realised that a pretty major news story was developing. Above the machine noise I heard scraps of information on the radio regarding New York and the World Trade Centre. By 5pm it had become pretty clear that a major atrocity had occurred and that hundreds, probably thousands, were dead. I’d not spoken to any of my colleagues about it, but decided I’d risk Colin’s wrath by strolling over to Dave to see what he made of the situation.
“Have you heard that on the news, Dave”? I asked
“Yeah” he replied.
Then there was a pause. Maybe I was expecting some insightful comment on the global situation, maybe just a “hanging’s too good for them”. Yeah, probably the latter. But what followed told me that I really needed to get out of that place. Immediately.
“That fucking Machine Seven’s playing up again”
Goodbye moulded plastics. It was absolute hell while it lasted.
Dave was sick of Machine Seven. This time it was war.