Do you remember your first proper job? Not the weekend stint in the cake shop, the first post-school full time gig? I remember mine. If you worked for Sherwood Flexibles in Salford between 1983 and 1986 you’d remember it too. (* For legal reasons I’ve changed the names of individuals!)
My school exam results were a disaster, but not bad enough to keep me out of art college. I dropped out after a couple of months and studied for a few more O-levels, eventually leaving college in the teeth of an economic recession. Imagine my amazement then when my brother-in-law got me a job at the company where he worked. Sherwood Flexibles Ltd. The company made printing plates (a printing process known as flexographic) and I was taken on as an apprentice camera operator.
Working as the understudy to one of four directors I shall call Pierre, I thanked my brother-in-law and my lucky stars and embarked on three years of utter insanity.
Within a few months of my starting Pierre was bought out by the other three directors and against all union rules I found myself running the department single handed. One of the reps described me as the narrow neck of an egg timer, where the art studio sent work via me to the printing plate manufacturing department. It was an arrangement which suited me, but eventually I found myself apprenticed to a man I shall call Vince.
Vince was married, but nobody had told him. He fraternised with visiting female company reps, the younger secretary in the office and a woman who worked in another industrial unit for a totally separate company. Things came to a head one dinnertime when he was tracked down by one of his mistresses and he was forced to hide in the darkroom. He left me to lie and pretend I had no idea where he was.
Vince knew his onions and business boomed to such an extent that more staff was needed. Vince recommended his friend Edwin; an all-rounder. A man equally at home behind a camera, at a lightbox, processing plates or fettling artwork. Edwin was a devout atheist and owned a pet chimpanzee that attacked people who went round to his house. I never met this vicious primate, but I met Edwin’s intransigent atheism head on.
At the time I was a devout Catholic and one day we became entangled in a five hour argument about metaphysics and the existence of God. So distracting was this argument that we overlooked a very very urgent job. The argument also coincided with the bosses coming back to work paralytic following a liquid lunch. Both Edwin and I got the bollocking of a lifetime from one of the hardest directors this side of the Albanian Mafia. My brother-in-law was a witness and told me on the way home he thought the boss was going to punch me.
Edwin was sacked. He had it coming to him and a cheeky rumour circulated that when Vince described him as an all rounder he actually meant at cricket. With his own suspicious reputation in tatters Vince left the company shortly after – getting a job in a mattress factory of all places – and once again I was left in charge.
Of course it wasn’t all confrontation and theological disputes. My first job meant my first wage packet. £48 per week in 1983. It was a pittance even then, but it meant regular trips to the record shop, a Technics separates hi-fi system, and a car: a Vauxhall Viva with a dodgy clutch cable.
It also meant foreign holidays (to France and my notorious bilious assault on French schoolkids). I made a fatal mistake on this holiday: I went with a friend from Sherwood Flexibles, his name I shall call Mike, who was half-deaf and spoke broad Salfordian, which is unintelligible at the best of times. He drove me demented and after the holiday when I dropped him off at home, no one was in, so I left him on the front lawn with his suitcases.
Mike was also the co-driver in our ambitions to become rally drivers. The company said they’d sponsor us, but we couldn’t use my car for local rallying because it had twin carbs. (By now I had an Alfa Romeo with no first gear and a bonnet with weird crackling paintwork.) Twin-carbs were banned, so we needed to rely on Mike’s car. Except he didn’t have a car and when he went out to buy one he came back with a 1.3 litre Ford Escort estate.
In retrospect, with Mike navigating we wouldn’t have found our way over the start line, and he had a habit of referring to horse power as ‘bellows,’ leading Tom the proofreader to ask if we were going to compete by riding a bull. A better bet would have been Gavin (not his real name) in the art studio. Gavin was a car enthusiast who drove a Pontiac (backwards, as it happens, all the way home after losing every forward gear in his gearbox), and almost reversed over his own exhaust pipe when it dropped off one morning. Gavin had the cars, but probably not the common sense to make best use of them. To this day, he’s still the only person I know who confused a hand towel with a side dish in a Chinese restaurant and tried to eat it.
The directors began to expand the business and I was apprenticed to a man call Norbert. Norbert’s brother was called Aluitious and his son was called Martin. I can use Norbert’s real name because his son was Martin Hammett, Factory Records uber-producer and one of the most famous producers in the country at the time. Norbert had fame by association and when we all had our photos taken for a company brochure, some wise guy in the snooker club saw Norbert’s photo on page six and asked if he was the Sheriff of Nottingham?
Norbert was also a union man and wouldn’t pick up a dropped pencil because that was the responsibility of the maintenance department, even though Sherwood Flexibles didn’t have a maintenance department, only a cleaner who wheezed in time to his sweeping brush. Norbert had a friend of similar vintage called Rod. Rod worked next door with Mike in the etching department, was a working class Tory and a keen golfer. He belonged to a posh club on the Wirral and would often describe the club dances and a phenomenon known as the Lady’s Excuse Me, which no one understood.
Rod became known as Mr Bumble because of his ability to cause disasters. He probably wasn’t the best man to have in a department containing two 500 litre etching baths of concentrated nitric acid, a series of washing sinks containing dilute nitric acid, and a tank containing ethyl methyl ketone, a highly flammable liquid. After three years I had no sense of smell and still don’t thanks to the plumes of yellow acid cloud that would pulse out of the baths when they were opened. The EMK tank was built in Sweden with Swedish warning signs on it. The directors pondered the signs one afternoon until they finally agreed on a translation: yellow – hot; orange – very hot,; and red – fucking run for it lads it’s overheating.
All this merriment took place in the innocent days before ‘elfandsafety. And in the short time I was there one apprentice nearly suffocated after cleaning out a tank of polymer chemicals, and a man called Jack (not his real name) became known as Hoppity after dropping a one ton steel printing roller on his foot, crushing all the bones and ruining his shoe. Equally toxic was one man who worked in the plate making section who was arguably the most perverted human being on the planet.
My brother-in-law and I shared a car to work, and we provided a lift into Manchester for another bloke who was a dirty sod. But printing plate man, let’s call him Alfred, was worse; so depraved he couldn’t walk in a straight line. Looking like a demonic Mo Stooge, he drove a Citroen 2CV and was, not surprisingly, divorced.
In spite of perversion, danger, arguments and the strains of the local dialect, working at Sherwood Flexibles wasn’t all that bad. Being asked to break into a sales rep’s car and nick a load of magnesium was just one more task and I soon became the go-to man if anyone wanted a racing bike or unusual trainers. The descriptions of urgency on the order tickets evolved from urgent to very urgent, to screaming urgent to critical to ‘wanted yesterday’ to ‘too late, don’t bother.’ Even my mistake with Fisherman’s Friends labels and the resulting shut down of a printing press causing £50 000 pounds worth of wasted packaging didn’t lessen the enjoyment. No, the downfall came with the arrival of one man.
I shall call him Glenn McKen. He was also known as Glenn ‘Fucking’ McKen, universally despised, and to put it politely was an absolute c**t. He smoked a pipe that looked like a human proboscis, told me off every day for going to the toilet, and after three years of running the department single handed had me going to the chip shop and sweeping the floor. A United Nations arbitration team was brought in to keep the peace, but it was no use. I walked out, was told I was sacked then reinstated, which allowed me to resign.
My brother-in-law had long since left and after I left the company moved to Eccles, over-reached themselves and went into liquidation. By now I was at college studying A-levels and on my way to university. I don’t know what became of Mike or whether his hearing ever improved. I assume Norbert and Rod have long since passed away, (and the possibility that Norbert is still waiting for a maintenance team somewhere to shift his coffin). Vince will be too old to be sowing his oats and Edwin probably perished at the leathery hands of his own chimpanzee. I can only hope Glenn McKen suffered an equally agonising death!
My first job taught me not to be shy, taught me exquisite time management, and to ‘never assume.’ It showed me every facet of human nature from the lazy to the overworked and from decency to depravity. I was told I was arrogant and the angriest man in the world (courtesy of a mad trainee from Edinburgh). And if asked to name one highlight from three years of eye-watering luminosity it would be my weekly trips to a specialist record collector in Blackpool.
Every Saturday I would take my wage to Ron the Con and blow it on vinyl rarities. Stopping at a motorway service station for petrol I was entranced by an extraordinarily beautiful blonde member of staff crossing the forecourt. Worryingly, she knew me; she recognised my name on my credit card and said, ‘You obviously don’t remember me. Nobody remembers me.’ Even after telling me her name I couldn’t remember who she was until I was half way to Blackpool. On the way back I crossed the motorway bridge to tell her who she was, which she obviously already knew. For the next six months I spent a fortune on petrol, driving up and down the motorway hoping to catch her in at work and when I did, one fateful Saturday morning, I asked her out to the company’s annual Chinese Christmas meal.
She turned me down and I never saw her again. Her name – her real name – was Adele.