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The Fishy Paypacket

April 15, 2014

I’ve had a varied career; games marketing, music management, publishing, web design, icing doughnuts, labouring, gutting fish. I guess for some reason I don’t really talk about the last few much, so I thought it was about time I took you on a little tour of my first working experiences.

For school work experience I managed to get a week in Boots. Rather than spending my time learning how to sell make-up to the locals (which would have given me a vocational qualification in turd-polishing), I would be at their factory in the nearby town of Airdrie. They didn’t trust me with the actual manufacturing of things like medicines, baby shampoo or the orange paint that passes for sun tan lotion in the West of Scotland, so I was to be learning the ropes in the accounts department. I’m not sure how this came about, possibly because I excelled at school at accounting and finance (albeit in a class of just two), or perhaps that throughout my life people have taken one look at me and thought “account”.

I spent the week gaining valuable insights into the financial workings of this huge organisation, particularly the use of “WordArt” to make signs to hang around the office, and how spreadsheets can be used to record how many sugars each member of staff had in their tea, cross-referenced with milk preferences, and tracked across multiple financial years.

"The green ones are this financial year, the slightly lighter green ones are last financial year."

“The green ones are this financial year, the slightly lighter green ones are last financial year.”

But what was really an eye-opener was when they took me down to see their ‘mainframe’. Essentially like a big arcade machine but without the graphics and the coin slot, the mainframe computer processed all the ordering information coming from different parts of the company all over the UK, and had to be left on 24 hours a day. The problem with this was that the built-in monitor with its grainy bright green text didn’t have it’s own power switch so had to be left on all night too. This meant with each passing day, the previous days’ numbers were quite literally burned onto the screen. When I saw it, the latest text on the screen was so hard to distinguish from the texts from the last couple of years, that I’m amazed the business managed to function. “OK we need 100 bottles of body lotion. No wait, I think it’s 8 bottles, no hang on, make that 63,944 bottles. No no, forget that, Martin’s just sneezed on the screen.”

I finished at Boots and left with a goodie bag of lotions and feminine hygiene products by way of their appreciation. I can say with great certainty that in my short time there I made a long-lasting impression. After all, they’d allowed me to type something on the mainframe…

When the time came for university I only applied for two things, accounts degree and media degree. I chose media, and of course was kicking myself because I could have spent that work experience time instead with one of Coatbridge and Airdrie’s many multi-national media agencies. But the time would come again where I’d have the opportunity to sample life in the workplace and that’s when I was introduced to the idea of the summer job.

Summer job. Sounds great right? Walking along the beach, serving cocktails, collecting deckchair money. Driving an ice cream van. Walking around holding a parasol for a rich heiress. Those were the things that had come to mind. It was not to be. I was enrolled with a temp agency called Primetime, which I assumed meant I’d be working between 8-10pm each night.

I chatted on the phone to Eddie, the recruitment cuntsultant whose favourite phrase was “what it is is”. He’d call me about an ‘opportunity’.  “Tell you what it is, it’s like, what it is is, is it’s factory work, and where it is is quite easy for you to get to, but the important thing is when it is because when it is is, is through the night.”

“Nightshift? Well everyone always tells me I’m a night owl anyway so…”

“Nah it’s not birds, what it is is, is it’s fish.”

“Fish factory? Night-shift?”

“Yeah but we’ve guaranteed you £3 an hour.”

“The minimum wage then. I think you’ll find the government guaranteed me that.”

“When can you start?”

I was nothing if not flexible. “I can start tomorrow?”

“Great. That’s tonight. Be there by 11.30 and ask for Fiona.”

Finally, paid work, a real job, a sense of purpose, a place in society, and FINALLY my mum can’t moan at me for sleeping all day! It didn’t turn out that way, as I was incapable of sleeping for days without feverish nightmares (or daymares) about dismembered fish attacking me with fillet knives. Then there was the headache caused by the stench. The phobia about fish also probably didn’t help either. I think I lasted two nights before I was sliced up and tossed on the jobless pile once again.

My next assignment was something I was much more suited for. Labouring. Yes, with my weedy 45kg frame you could really tell I’d been approached about this one over the telephone. But it felt familiar that for the second time, I’d be working in boots. I turned up to find I was joined on site by someone who arguably had trouble even coming up to my level of expertise in the manual field. Me and the malnourished ginger bloke I was partnered with spent a few days pottering around a builder’s yard, doing odd jobs, generally carrying one brick between two.

We should have just built one.

We should have just built one.

Our biggest contribution to this project was basically urine. Let me explain…

We discovered a few hours into our first day at the yard that the ‘toilets’ were behind lock and key, and we had to ask for the key should we need to pay a visit to this high-security facility. This would have been fine – weird, but fine – if there was ever anyone around to ask. We seemed to be the ONLY PEOPLE WORKING THERE most of the day. As a result, whenever we needed to relieve ourselves, we were forced to go ’round the back of something’. We’d marked so much territory by the end of this job I’m surprised we didn’t own the place.

My newly discovered manual labour talent was put to further use when, due to a skills shortage of some bizarre kind, myself and a van load of others were shipped across to Edinburgh every day for a week to build marquees for the Royal Highland Show. A familiar face was part of my crew in the van – my schoolchum Rob, the suspected sheep-enthusiast from my story The Penis, the Pint Glass and the Photocopier.

Only strict health and safety practices by the actual professionals supervising us prevented me from ending up smashed to pieces by a falling metal pole on several occasions. What I took from this experience was that just as I was not cut out to slice fish, I was equally not robust and sturdy enough to construct and deconstruct scaffolding. I think the phrase “Alan, just stand over there and don’t touch anything” summed up my contribution.

I was back to the drawing board, and soon to be chopping board as I found myself working in food production, making salads and ready meals for one of M&S’ suppliers. I forget the name of the company but I think it had the word Scot in it. I think there was a time when if you had a company in Scotland, you were required by law to call it “Scot-” followed by a word related to the industry you were in. So it was probably called Scotmunch, Scotgrub, Scotfood, Scotfeast or something like that.

It’s amazing that I did not pick up more home catering skills during this time. I think instead this experience put me off preparing food at home for many years. Every time I would see certain vegetables, songs that were playing seemingly on repeat on the radio at the factory, like Hanson’s “MMMBop” would play in my head. It took many years to shake this. And now I’ve remembered it, and written it down, many more years again to come.

Hand-twisted by a guy who's been filleting fish all night long.

Hand-twisted by a guy who’s been filleting fish all night long.

Well, after a time making other people’s lunches at Scotpantry or whatever it was called, I found myself in a yum-yum factory. On my watch, thousands of yum-yums went from mere puffs of dough, through the machines and into fully iced bundles of joy. It was all going as well as could be expected. I hated it, like the other jobs, but at least I was getting paid and getting some money to keep me going through the summer till my next student grant. But working at the yum yum factory I had met someone whose inexplicable fucking stupidity threatened even the concept of a day’s pay for a day’s work.

His name was Alaisdhair, I don’t know how he fucking spelt it but it was something like that, and if he had been fortunate enough to have as many brain cells as he had superfluous letters in his name, we wouldn’t have had a problem. I called him Ally. He was my driver. That is, he picked me up at the motorway and we both went to the factory, and he dropped me off again on the way back. This saved the temp agency from having to organise transport to the far flung place we were working, and in return for this Ally was on a “driver’s wage” meaning he got an extra 25p or something per hour.

Being driven by him was like torture by smalltalk. I’d have probably preferred being tied to the back of his car and dragged along the motorway. If anything, *I* should have been getting paid extra for this ordeal. But at least he got me there and back. It was working out fine until the paypacket arrived for the first week of the yum yum job. It was only four days’ worth of money but we’d worked Monday to Friday. Great, just what I need, a fuck up. I called Eddie, “Eddie – I’m a day short, much as I really only do this job for the love of ovens and Ally’s driving banter, I really need to get paid as well. I’ve got mouths to feed. Mine, for example.”

“Well what it was was, you guys only worked there Tuesday to Friday. So it is what it is.”

This was bollocks. We were there a whole week. I remember going there with Ally for five LONG days. In fact, my mum had been away for the weekend, and specifically had to change plans and get back insanely early Monday morning to look after my little sister, because I was working that day. Eddie started to think maybe they’d made a mistake with the days, and said he would double-check with Ally what days we worked. So it would all be fine, Ally would also say we started Monday and we’d get paid.

No. Turned out Ally couldn’t remember what day we started or how many days we had been working there. This was the previous week. He couldn’t recall if he was chilling out at home, or if he had driven about 50 miles to a factory and spent the day listening to MMMBop on the radio watching yum yums come out of the oven. We didn’t get paid. That dumb fuck let us spend a day in the factory for fucking free.

I had just about enough money to scrape through the rest of the summer and pay my mum digs, so I called it a day with the temping, figuring it’s not really worth it if I’m not actually going to get paid. I managed to get by without doing it again for the remainder of my Uni time, opting instead to take out extra student loans. I think overall that was for the best, although now as I write this blog I can’t help but wonder if there could have been potential for a lot more anecdotes if I’d stuck at it.

The most enduring lesson I learned though was at the yum yum factory, but it wasn’t the experience with that thick fuck Ally. It was that in making those yum yums, I seemed to demonstrate a talent for taking something plain and adding something shiny to produce a particularly sweet end product – and I think this skill has stayed with me throughout the rest of my career…

Don't just sit there, say something, the silence is freaking me out!