arschloch! Nazi arschloch!" Belatedly realising that the words
were directed at me, I turned round to face my tormentors.
We were in Zwiesel, halfway up a mountain near the borders of Bavaria
and Czechoslovakia, a one-goat town of wooden gables and lumber stacks,
whose inhabitants pined for either the good old days of the Housepainter,
or yearned to be anywhere but Zwiesel. Grinding up the mountain roads
earlier, Angi, our engineer from Bremen, who possessed red dreadlocks
and the North German's natural distrust of all things Bavarian, had
groaned aloud in anticipation of the horrors in store. "They will
burn me on a wooden cross!" she lamented, wringing her hands theatrically.
As the snow got thicker, and the hindquarters of the wayside goats became
bandier, we began to share her apprehension.
Zwiesel was in Fiesta mode. That's why we were there, on a plausible
financial guarantee, as part of the celebrations. Our status as international
rock ambassadors, though slight, was bolstered by the very fact that
we were not from Zwiesel - indeed not even from over the next mountain
- but rare, foreign and exotic. Entering the town after dark, Angi was
comforted by the sight of revellers with naked pine torches carousing
in the streets. Faggots of wood and inquisitions sprang to mind. We
kept the doors locked.
After the soundcheck I made my way down through the town to find a phonebox,
wrapped securely against the snow in a huge NATO parka, nothing but
my para-boots visible at the bottom end, and traces of an extremely
short haircut at the top. The phonebox was occupied by a woman who seemed
to have the whole tragic history of continental Europe to relate in
10 pfennig pieces. I waited.
After some minutes, I became aware of a commotion behind me - "Nazi
Arschloch! Nazi Arschloch!" a voice was repeating persistently,
egged on by the drunken encouragement of lesser acolytes. It began to
dawn on me that this abuse could be aimed at me. I turned to find three
young punk rockers, well advanced in drink, and a couple of village
girls of vaguely New-Wave tendency, preparing to be impressed by their
menfolk. The boldest of the lads was addressing his harangue to me.
I was, it seemed, expected to respond.
"Excuse me," I addressed the least drunken of the three. "Is
there something wrong with your friend?" They gaped, and my accuser
stepped forward to touch me.
"Uuuhhhh - English?" I nodded.
"So.. not Nazi?"
"No," I agreed, "Not Nazi."
"Aieeee! Blith pooer?"
"Blyth Power," I corrected them gently. The miscreants fell
to their knees and begged my pardon. I looked, they said, just like
a Nazi. Please, please could I forgive them.
I looked around at the village; the bench beside the phonebox and at
all the familiar hallmarks of a small country town existence, just like
the one I hadn't thought twice about leaving behind in Somerset, fifteen
Perhaps, I mused, if I'd had the courage to shout "Arschloch!"
at a few people then, it might have been for the good. Perhaps I might
just have got my head kicked in - but would this chap be picking on
me if I wasn't a dwarf and outnumbered five to one? Is he courageous
and principled, or is he just a "divvy?"
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I crossed myself piously and absolved
the kneeling children of their sin.
An English Hell To Pay
happens when the light's go out? What fears used to torment us when,
as children, terrified of the dark, we lay in the tenuous security of
our beds, the sheets pulled up to our nose, and the pillow down over
eyes, listening to the distant cackling of the cuckoo clock, chiming
in the empty house below? I was scared of something. I didn't know what,
but something without a name knew I was there and wished me to the Devil.
It wasn't the black skeleton - that was just a name we'd invented to
frighten each other, and I knew he wasn't really there, but what did
he represent? I had no real fear of the weather-cock either. He too
was just a name, applied to an unknown, made all the more terrible for
concealing its identity. Some nights I would distract myself with other
more tangible fears. What if I got appendicitis? What if it wasn't discovered
until it was too late to save me? What would happen to me then?
I was frightened of a lot of things when I was a child. Frightened of
the dark; frightened of heights; frightened by the noise of a train
passing too close, or one of the jets from Yeovilton when it flew too
low; frightened of dogs, frightened of cows, frightened of ghosts and
graveyards, in fact its a wonder I survived my childhood at all I was
When I was still in my cot, my elder siblings used to taunt me with
a performance known as the Vendetta Lullaby, as a punishment for my
constant whining and threatening to tell mum. Vendetta was an early
sixties' crime serial, one episode of which ended with a man being shot,
and sliding to the ground with a ghastly smile across his face. Predictably
I was terrified. Mother would sometimes sing to me over the cot, to
soothe my fears: 'Go to sleep my baby, close your pretty eyes,' but
when she came to the line in which 'Angels up above you, are smiling
at you sweetly from the skies,' Beverly and Colin would leer round her
shoulders and perform this same Vendetta death-grin. My screams of terror
only added fuel to their campaign, and resulted in a flood of cartoon
drawings, depicting me as a long-faced set of bagpipes, mouth agape
in a tartan body, shrieking in tuneless falsetto.
I cannot, to this day, rationalise or define all these fears, but if
there is one emotional instant in my past which outweighs them all,
and deserves recognition as the worst moment of my life, it must be
that moment, on my first day at Strode's when the chargehand, finished
with instructing me, left me to get on with the task which for all I
knew then, was to be mine for the rest of my life.
Components - now a victim of the recession, rot it's ugly soul - made
little bits of shoes for the Clark's factory in the neighbouring town
of Street. Myriad heel and sole shapes that had to be glued or stapled
together, stacked into little boxes and pushed off along a conveyor
belt. I found myself not quite as far down the production line as I
was down the pecking order as most of my 'workmates' were ex-Ansford
scholars, and quite apart from their links with my, by now, sworn enemies,
resented the presence among them of a 'Sexey's snob.' I was, it became
apparent, wantonly throwing away the opportunities that had been given
me by the eleven plus, and should know better than to waste the education
that anyone of them would, they sought to make me believe, have given
an arm and a leg for. This rubbish was fed to me daily through the cold
shoulders and taunts that I was obliged to put up with. If I was grateful
for my educational opportunities, then it was for the determination
they had given me to make up my own mind about the future. At the moment
I felt under no obligations, and my only concern was with being a musician
but as I had no definite scheme for improving my lot, I had no option
but to shut up and get on with my job.
I was initially required to assemble cardboard components with a staple-gun.
This was a category 'B' task, and was rewarded on a piece-work basis.
Assembling the cardboard boxes into which the pieces had to be packed,
a matter that occupied some five minutes in every two hours, was category
'C', and paid at a different rate. This meant that every time I ran
out of boxes, I had to hunt out a chargehand and get my timesheet signed,
both before and after, and in this way much time was wasted seeking
the man out, and queuing up with all the other labourers involved in
momentary changes of occupation. It is hardly surprising, in light of
this, that my first pay packet contained a modest £17.40p. That
the factory, run on such a ludicrous system, lasted into the mid-eighties
is little short of miraculous.
After a couple of weeks I was transferred to a ghastly glue-spreading
machine, and befriended by the fellow on the next bench, who kept me
constantly entertained with improbable tales of his sexual conquests,
and more believable ones about his beer consumption. This new-found
warmth failed to reconcile me to my misfortune. The glue in the machine
stank only slightly less than the chemicals I used to clean it, the
bulk of the workforce remained either surly or indifferent to my presence,
and the chargehand immediately above me was, in my considered opinion,
a slimy git. I began to plan my escape, applying to other local factories,
farms, hotels - anything in the hope of finding a way out.
I was made a trade union member. "You'll lose your job my lad if
you fail to enroll." This was the summer before the Winter of Discontent,
as history now remembers it with a pang of regret, and union activity
was rife. The TGWU operated a closed shop at Strodes', and although
politics and unions meant little to me, outside the lyrics of a punk
song, I was more than happy at the prospect of a union meeting to break
up the monotony of a day's work. An afternoon dozing in the sunshine
listening to the elders droning on was a welcome change from the glue
and chemicals. I didn't need to listen to what was being said - I'd
have jumped at the opportunity to down tools and would have gone on
strike to support a wage cut if that was the price of freedom.
Perhaps the deepest impression left on me at this time was the strange
and unsympathetic attitude of the factory's middle management to my
ambitions as a musician. An opportunity arose to play with The Mob at
the Metro Club in Plymouth, which necessitated an afternoon off work
to ride down in their van. Being engagingly innocent, not to mention
dumb, I asked my chargehand for the time off. He conferred with his
direct superior, and together they gave me a paternal lecture on my
responsibilities as an employee, finally granting me leave with heavy
hearts, and much sorrowful shaking of heads and admonishments. They
hoped, they said, that this was not to become a frequent occurrence.
In my innocence, I was astounded. I certainly hoped it would become
exactly that, but the real shock was the thought that I was in some
way supposed to care about their stupid factory, that making bits of
shoe was first and foremost my duty and vocation, and that my own plans
were subordinate to this. Well, I thought, if that's the way it is,
next time I'll just kill off a relative or catch some dreadful disease.
Suddenly it all became clear. They were quite mad! They thought I was
a shoemaker! They really couldn't see the insanity of the situation.
To live only to work, rather than to work only to live! From that moment
on, inside the bleary-eyed little automaton, feverishly struggling to
keep abreast of the piece-work quotas, there crouched a frenzied screaming
death-dwarf, only awaiting the opportunity to leap upon the amazed chargehand,
rip open his belly and bathe its hands in his hot stinking entrails.
I never did this. Instead I applied successfully for a job at Unigate
Foods Ltd. in Evercreech, which although far removed from perfection,
by comparison with Strode's was heaven on earth. I handed in my notice
to the slimy chargehand, who was deeply hurt. "You'll be sorry,"
he warned me. "We get a lot of men from Unigate come up here."
As far as I was concerned, they were welcome to it. Not even the menial
nature of my week's notice could smother my joy at impending departure.
The petulant overseer had me sweeping out the toilets every morning,
by no means a necessary task, but calculated to insult. I couldn't have
cared less. Come Friday I was off, and he could stay behind and stuff
his shoe factory, and all the cobblers in it.
When I left Strode's, I was worth £23 a week, £5 of which
I was giving to my mother for housekeeping - she wouldn't take more.
I smoked John Player's cigarettes, and considered myself worldly. More
importantly, I had settled into my accidental role of drummer to the
extent that I was no longer content with my tiny Hoshino kit. Having
twice now played upon Graham's golden premiers, I firmly believed that
I needed more drums in order to become proficient. Will had now left
the band, we changed the name to Valley Forge and Alvin and I were in
the saddle, jointly writing songs and organising bizarre gigs in local
village halls, which we would hire, and endeavour to persuade people
to come to. Invariably we lost money, but it was worth all the effort
involved just to be playing live. Even these homespun affairs gave the
illusion of progress. Someday, we believed, someone might actually pay
us to do it. Our best, and most expensive effort was the Rock against
Disco RSPCA benefit we staged at The Pilgrim's Rest in Lovington. I
personally shelled out for the hire of the hall, and a vast sum was
tapped off me to pay expenses for the other bands, including The Mob,
who came over from Yeovil. The City Boot turned out in force, with murder
in their hearts, but the be-leathered presence of our Grebo bouncers
tied their hands, and they could only gape in impotent fury as The Mob
played Jailhouse Rock in a style of which the King would not have approved.
I took another step into the quagmire of hire-purchase and bought my
second drumkit from a shop in Yeovil. £250, spread over twelve
monthly payments was the price of my further indenture to Somerset's
company store. I was happy, on the one hand, to invest in my future
with this expensive piece of infrastructure, but the downside was the
commitment it spelled to staying on at Unigate and paying off the debt.
Fortunately the new toy was big enough, and shiny enough, to keep me
happy for the time being.
My new acquisition was a five piece kit by Maxwin, a subsidiary company
of Pearl, long since banished to obscurity. It comprised bass, snare,
two rack-mounted toms, a floor tom, two cymbals with stands, a hi-hat
and a bass pedal, the drums finished in a shiny blue veneer. The bass
drum had a 22 inch shell, and two feeble little legs, which I had, over
the years, cause to bemoan. The rack-mounts I subsequently replaced
with premier parts, as the Maxwin fittings were rubbish - as indeed
were most of the stands and fittings, none of which stood up to even
my feeble patterings. The cymbal stands were flimsy enough to bend with
your teeth, and the hi-hat scarcely lasted beyond two rehearsals. The
cymbals were by Zyn, and deplorable, but as my drumming was equally
dreadful, it didn't make a lot of difference. I soon learned to stuff
a pillow into the bass drum, to dampen it's hideous booming, and since
then it has performed faultlessly, surviving thousands of hours unsubtle
pounding, and several styles of upholstery. The tom-toms sounded fine,
as did the snare, but the cheap hardware and stands simply did not work,
and the kit slipped and slid, bounced and slumped and would become quite
unplayable. Drumkits are too often treated like scrote Cortinas - cluttered
up with all manner of expensive embellishments, to the neglect of the
engine and gearbox. A furry set of dice, may look lovely, but will not
compensate for the problems caused by bald tyres.
Neither will furry dice teach you to drive. I bought my new drums, and
proceeded to play them as badly as I had the old ones, with an enthusiasm
and panache that far outweighed my modest talents. I was never taught
to play, and my powers of observation were too limited to pick up more
than the occasional hint from watching Graham. I assumed, initially,
that it was down to me to play each different song in a different style,
on different parts of the kit. Thus one song, Civil war, would be hammered
furiously on the edge of a ride cymbal, in a vain attempt to sound like
Rat Scabies, while another would be pounded out on tom-toms in a frantic
impersonation of the introduction to Pretty Vacant. Gradually I calmed
down, but it took several years, and several bands before it finally
dawned on me that it is the drummer's sad monotonous lot to play the
same patterns, and repeat the same actions, for the whole of his or
her neglected life. That was when I took up singing. Singing is a pleasure.
Drumming has become a necessity born of a reluctance to let anyone else
do it for me, a mistrust that condemns me, like Chief Ironside, to deliver
my lines sitting down. A treadmill, I may complain, but a better one
than I found myself on at Strode's, and a sweeter smelling one than
that which awaited my arrival at Unigate in the first week of September,
By the time that autumn turned into the Winter of Discontent, I was
well ensconced at my new workplace, and set in a daily pattern which
became tolerable, partly through familiarity, and partly through the
good company in which I found myself, although doubtless I would have
embraced Hitler as a friend, after Strodes', if he'd happened to be
working in Men's Pre-pack. Each morning I would wait patiently on Station
Road for the works bus to come rumbling in to view. My fellow workers,
shivering in line at the bus stop, were all of my parent's generation,
and beyond the pettiness of my contemporaries, being on the whole good-natured
and content with their lot. Wrapped in Macintoshes and armed with the
Daily Mirror and the football scores, they would hiss and grumble without
malice, expelling plumes of steamy vapour to mingle with the blue smoke
from their woodbines. 07.30 on an icy morning was neither the time or
the place to light up the first fag of the day. I normally waited until
I had taken my place on the bus, next to my mate, old Bill Vining, before
setting fire to one of the bone-dry roll-ups that I had now taken to
making on a machine the night before. Coughing and choking, weak and
nauseous, I would let it go out and relight it time and time again to
Bill's amusement. "Yerrr me boy - you don't know how to smoke yet,"
he would sigh. "You'm too young." He would cackle as a fresh
spasm of coughing racked my young body, and I would endeavour to compose
myself and glare through the misted windows at the bare elm trees, inwardly
agreeing with him, sick to my bones.
Bill knew my father from their days as volunteer ambulance men. He wore
a Red Cross patch on his white overalls, as a qualified first-aid hand,
and worked on the machine next to mine. We enjoyed an amiable comradeship
for the nine months I worked at Unigate. He reminded me of a badger,
only taller, and had a ready supply of indecent responses to my complaints
of ill-fortune. "Oh it's so hard Bill"' I would opine, heaving
another block of cheddar off the pallet.
"No me son, 'tis only half hard at the moment."
Bill on the subject of the masculine organ: "Now lad, you only
need two inches. Two in, two out, and two going in and out." I
never quite understood this particular riposte, but it seemed to amuse
him no end, and I have inexplicably failed to forget it.
Prior to Unigate, Bill had worked on a sewage farm - "'Tis a step
down here for old Bill, me son, that 'tis" - and was prone to professional
reminiscences. One fine day, he recounted, the heir to the throne came
on a tour of inspection. "We was all given little fishing nets,"
Bill recalled, "and we had to fish out all they Johnny-bags from
the tanks, so's his Highness wasn't offended." I was enchanted
by this tale, and by a vision of Bill with a little pink net on a cane,
scouring the vats of turd, lest the princely eyes light on something
uncouth. "And all they jamrags too, me son," he went on "
he weren't to see them neither." The Prince's unorthodox ambitions
in the field of feminine hygiene were not yet a matter of public knowledge.
Bill was even-tempered to the point of serenity, and I, like Charles
Windsor, found my working day a better place for his having been there.
Unigate Foods Ltd. took up most of Evercreech - another village familiar
to those Glastonbury pilgrims, whom the town's shopkeepers were wont
to fleece at festival time. Revellers straying from the site in search
of sustenance would find prices inflated to Weimar proportions for the
duration, unless you could prove you were not one of 'them hippies.'
The factory is a huge sprawling complex of brick and glass, employing
a couple of thousand local souls, in two main sections: the cottage
cheese department, where foul slimy concoctions of offal and rinds are
blended with rotten, putrid vegetable matter and shipped out as delicious
low-fat consumer delicacies, and the pre-pack, where various cheddars
arrive by the lorry load and are processed, packed and dispatched to
supermarket chains. I never had the misfortune to work among those grim-faced
men in green wellingtons, who toiled in the noisome vats, neither did
I fraternise. I was in pre-pack, and both branches kept close ranks,
rarely giving each other the time of day: "Who? Oh - He's in cottage
So the activities of the cottage cheese department must remain shrouded
in mystery. What little I learned of their dark endeavour was enough
to put me off for life, but the ways of the pre-pack folk were my own
for nigh on a year, and I learned them well enough for me to assume
the identity now of a forty pound block of Irish cheddar, and tell of
the journey from my initial arrival in an articulated lorry at the main
cold store, to my final dispatch from the loading bay by the men's cloakroom,
in which unhallowed closet a group of cheesemen daily meet to consume
These men are all crucial to our odyssey of cheese. Cecil Tucker; fiftyish,
stout, and ruddy-cheeked, is a forklift driver in the big coldstore,
and known among his friends as a wit. Cecil motorbikes in daily from
Shepton Mallet, and will probably die one day at the controls of his
forklift. Ernie Higgins - retirement beckons for Ernie - is a cadaverous,
mouse-faced, wrinkled little man, who sports those immense ears so common
among men of his generation, and so respected by the Germans. Do our
ears grow in our sixties? Or do our heads shrink? Ernie has teeth, although
not so's you'd notice, and if you could understand his broad west country
accent, you'd realise that he was quite happy in his senior years, and
that the security and companionship of the cheese factory was all he'd
ever wanted. Ernie likes to listen to the toilet-orientated banter of
the locker room, and one day, when Keith Pankhurst, the afro-permed
lorry driver, brings in an Ivor Biggun cassette, Ernie nearly chokes
on a mint imperial, so heartily is he amused. Ernie doesn't drive the
fastest milk cart in the west. He loads cheese into a machine called
Besides a perm, Keith Pankhurst sports a moustache, and grey overalls,
which set him above the grubby white of his colleagues. Keith is cock
of the walk and king of the road, besides having the biggest mouth.
The highspot of 1978 for this wag is the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, on the
crest of which he rides with a daily crop of vulgar jokes pertaining
to that man's downfall. By the cheese-capped standards of the pre-pack
men, Keith is a globetrotter, and daily hauls his load to Scrubb's lane,
in the wicked city of London.
Brian Morris, early twenties, raven-haired and handsome, is another
forklift driver, but his parish is the front loading dock. As we near
completion of our fragrant journey, it is Brian who will ultimately
load us into Keith Pankhurst's lorry. Brian is from Bruton, which we
mustn't hold against him, and in his youth probably threw stones at
the windows of Sexey's school, the educational establishment that did
so much to shape the character of the youngest member of the company.
But Brian is a lovely boy, and bears his fellow no ill will.
This youngster, then, is Gary Hatcher. He's a punk rocker that one.
He's sprayed his workboots pink, and wears brown American army spats
to shield them from the cheese. In his locker he keeps a dinner jacket,
with tails, which he wears over his boilersuit as he carefully eats
his jam sandwiches with a pair of surgical artery forceps. Ernie finds
this toothlessly amusing, but no one can be certain if the garrulous
Charlie Frampton finds it funny. Charlie, the last of our fellowship,
doesn't talk too much. A dour, choleric man, much advanced in years,
Charlie's only concern is not to be outdone on the block quotas by his
fellow workers, everyone of whom he mistrusts as a bitter rival. When
he does speak, it is in a dialect so broad as to be unintelligible even
These men, then, Cecil Tucker, Ernie Higgins, Keith Pankhurst, Brian
Morris, Gary Hatcher and the brooding Charles, comprise the male half
of a production line along which we can now, in our cloak of cheese,
wend our way. Safe hands, these, each schooled by repetition in their
appointed task, and we need fear neither accident nor misadventure as
we traverse the factory from one end to the other. Come with me now.....
out the back of the factory, an articulated lorry has deposited me,
and many others like me, at the Goods In dock. I am a forty pound block
of tasty mature Irish cheddar, but at the moment you can't see me as
I am tightly packed in several layers of protective wrapping, in consequence
of which I am unable to tell much about my journey to the main cold
store, and can only guess as to how I come to be deposited in the enchanted
realm of the men's pre-pack department. Finally unmasked, I watch as
my fellows are, one by one, stripped of their shells and piled up alongside
me by a thickset man with a red face, and safety spectacles. I have
been, it becomes clear, enclosed first in a cardboard box, and then
packed tightly around with wooden slats, and it is these that the thickset
man is stacking, having first cut through the metal straps that hold
them with a pair of rubber handled tinsnips. We are 'on block', the
conversation around me reveals, traditionally the part of the factory
where newcomers are initiated into the ways of cheese. Many a callow
beardless youth has started his time here, under the watchful eyes of
the ruddy faced man, addressed by his colleagues as Charlie. I watch
the tinsnips, mesmerised by their rapid action, but it is not so easy
as it seems. One youngster, who obviously hasn't mastered the tool yet,
is chafed by his fellows. "Come on me son, slip 'er under - do
ye 'ave as much trouble slippin' yer little cock into yer missus?"
The youth blushes hotly, struggling to slide the blades under the wire
band. "I bet 'e'll fuck 'is missus with a shoehorn when 'er comes
to wed," the uncouth voice continues. The boy, thoroughly abashed
now, lets the heavy block, still bound in its slats, roll off the pallet
and land corner first on his little foot. He hurls a virgin oath, to
the great amusement of the older men. "Garn! I thought 'e didn't
know 'ow to cuss."
This interesting little tableau disappears from view, as I, along with
forty or so others, am trundled off on a rol-a-truc to a room behind
a plastic curtain. As I am now wrapped only in transparent plastic,
I am able to watch with interest the activity that now surrounds me.
I am a cheese, trapped in a literary device that is now careering out
of control. I have been stripped almost naked, and rolled into a terrible
room, air-conditioned and clinical, in which everything is made of stainless
steel. White robotic figures bend and scrape at their labours. I am
dropped, along with my pallet-mates, next to a short youth who is working
at a silver table, peeling the plastic film from my fellow cheeses,
and scraping them all over with deft movements of an iron tool, to remove
the crust of salt that accumulated at the dairy. This child wears spats
over his pink workboots, and a white plastic hard-hat. On the back of
his slightly rancid white boilersuit is the legend HATCHER 036 calligraphed
in black roman letters, his hair, underneath the white helmet, is cropped
short, and he has the biggest chin that I have ever seen. At an adjacent
table an old codger, so mousey looking that I half expect him to start
nibbling at me, cackles toothlessly over his work as he duplicates the
youths movements, although more haltingly, and without the fluid grace
of the younger man.
HATCHER 036 - I discern this to denote his identity - heaves me off
the pallet. "Oh its hard Bill!" he opines. An indecipherable
reply comes from another figure in white, but I am already moving onto
the next stage of my journey. HATCHER 036 has carried me to a machine
marked Alpma 3 and dropped me onto a platform, screwing a hatch shut
behind me. I am delivered into the hands of the blue-clad wenches and
left to my fate by HATCHER 036, who plods awkwardly back to his work
station without pausing to tease or flirt with the girls on the production
lines, for that, it is apparent, is not his way. Is he content that
this should be so? Does the flamboyance of his manner in the men's half
of the room, so subdued among the women betray a shyness, an awkwardness?
A sense of inadequacy? Something about his gait excites pity in my cheddar
breast, and I yearn to call after him, with words of comfort, but I
am made of cheese, and so unable.
With a hard-faced leer, the blue-clad harpy pushes a button, and I am
forced through a series of wire grids until my whole forty pound bulk
is reduced to eight ounce wedges. Hereafter, my journey is a wild switchback
ride along the conveyor belts, until I drop, wrapped, weighed, priced,
and quality-controlled onto a revolving table. The excitement ends in
a plastic bucket in a large chilly warehouse, bewildered, dazed, and
labelled 'Marks and Spencers.'
The portly man driving the forklift truck, that carries me on the penultimate
stage of my trans-pre-pack adventure, has about him an air of coarse
fishing and DIY. He deposits me in a dock, from which another forklift,
whose raven-haired driver sits astride his machine like a young god,
bears me tenderly to another loading bay where a sleazy, permed lothario
lounges by his juggernaut, scrutinizing the bosoms of passing women.
I am gently laid to rest in the lorry's hold, and at last have time
to gather my wits. It has been a hectic and busy day. I am weary, and
though only a piece of cheese, I have faculties of my own which are
quite as susceptible as yours or, indeed, HATCHER 036's, to the trials
and pressures of the cheese factory.
Before the doors close, I catch a glimpse of a group of men, several
now familiar to me, passing through a dirty blue door with the air of
those about to eat sandwiches, and before the lorry has even passed
the factory gates, I know deep in my cheesy heart that I will never
see them again.
recall with, fondness, my second experience of British industrial relations,
and that happy phase in the discontented winter when all the lorry drivers
went on strike and no cheese found its way into the factory for a whole
week. While Keith Pankhurst's long-suffering wife was rewarded with
an opportunity to finally wash his lorry-driver-trousers (you know,
the ones with the stitched in creases), the whole of the pre-pack department
ground to a halt, and I wandered the factory with a broom in my hand,
trying to look like I was being useful. The strike failed to affect
the cottage cheese workers, whose raw materials were scraped from the
local drains, and weren't dependent on truckers. Likewise the lab-workers,
who continued to concoct ever more ghastly experimental products, samples
of which regularly passed through the hands of the workforce en route
for the locker-room dustbins. Pre-pack, on the whole, was conservative
in its approach to diet, and not yet ready to appreciate yoghurts flavoured
with carrot and onion, or chicken tikka.
I sat on the other side of the industrial fence too. My readiness to
pull my own weight was mistaken by the chargehands for some kind of
zeal. In fact, after a week or so I hated the sight of cheese, and felt
no loyalty towards the stuff. My willingness to strive stemmed only
from a reluctance to oblige others to do my share of the work, which
I considered shameful, but it was decided by someone, somewhere, that
I might be the stuff of which Gauleiters are made. I was trained as
an emergency chargehand for a week - a kind of last resort in case all
the others were off sick simultaneously.
This had an upside. I spent a week armed with a clipboard, doing very
little, but the downside was that it soon became clear that my word
carried little weight with those older, and considerably taller than
I, and my trials as a chargehand were not dissimilar to those of that
half-pint drill instructor in the army cadets:
(approaching fat youth chatting up woman by Alpma 4): "Trevor,
could you give Bill a hand please, only he's running out of cheese."
TREVOR LUNT (for it is he): "Yerr, fuck off tiddler, I'll be back
in a bit."
woeful inability to instill fear into the work shy became apparent,
and whether by fortune, or design, I was never called upon to act in
authority again. I didn't mind.
Besides providing me with an inferiority complex, Unigate served to
further my musical education. After the A-level examinations in the
spring, one Jeremy Adams, late of Sexey's school, came to work in pre-pack
for the summer. I remembered him from school, but hadn't spoken a word
to him there, being his junior by two years. He was put to work with
Bill, on Alpma 4, becoming my immediate neighbour and constant companion
throughout the working day. Jeremy had a sixth-form taste in music,
which encompassed prog-rock in all its nastiest forms. Yes, Boston,
UFO, and all the multifarious works of the counter-revolution were in
Jeremy's record collection, and we set to work to convert each other
with fanatic's zeal. We started a programme of cultural exchange. He
would lend me his records, and I would lend him mine, and in this way
I became exposed to what I believed were all the reasons punk rock bands
had come to exist. On one dark night, I sat through all six sides of
Yessongs, studiously preparing a criticism to deliver over the following
morning's cheese, while Jeremy got off lightly, with Penetration's Moving
Targets. He was not averse to the idea of punk rock, and professed respect
for both Stranglers and Sex Pistols, but in general my records were
a little too wholemeal for his tastes, and I soon knew better than to
try him with Eater or The Adverts. For my part, Yessongs convinced me
that everything the punk movement stood for was right, and neither Lynyrd
Skynyrd nor Led Zeppelin were going to change my mind.
So the cheese factory wasn't entirely the dark satanic mill it could
have been, but neither was it a world of sweetness and light. In fact
it was smelly, boring and hard work. I have a recurring nightmare that
I have returned to my old employment there after decades adrift, to
find Alpma 3 and all my old colleagues waiting for me with 'I told you
so' expressions on their faces. Wrenching myself into wakefulness brings
a relief every bit as real as that I felt when I handed my cheese-scraper
back in to the company store for the last time. To my blessed relief,
I never dream of Strode's.
I have been in many bands, and had long years of association with the
music industry, but only worked in two factories. Familiarity sometimes
brings with it a deep ennui, and consequently I am able to amuse myself
more by reminiscences of cheese, than of the wild excesses of rock and
roll. This is unfair, in fact, because by the time I made my first and
only foray into the enchanted world of Yes, Valley Forge had improved
to the point of being able to not only start, but to finish a song together
as well. Our set had swollen and improved with the addition of creditable
covers of Indian Reservation, The Boy's Backstage Pass, and an obscure
song discovered on the Farewell to the Roxy live LP by a band called
The Red Lights. Never wanna leave, by virtue of its catchy chorus, has
since been covered by more bands than Sweet Jane. It should have been
We went into an eight-track recording studio in Yeovil, and spent the
day recording a hesitant version of our most tuneful song, Departure.
The studio engineers dazzled us with science and jargon. Expressions
like 'Pipe it through the cans John' and 'Give me some kick please'
defied comprehension, and when I was asked to go into the drum booth
and 'Play a straight four-four,' I was completely flummoxed. Although
they were barely more competent than us, we were impressed and awed
by their leather trousers, and not displeased with our finished effort,
which had a start, three verses, a guitar break, and a fade out at the
end - just like the real thing.
My love affair with London had continued throughout those dark months
of employment, and regular visits to Colin had done nothing to curb
my disaffection for Somerset. I would spend days lurking pointlessly
in Soho, wasting money on Big Macs and Chinese takeaways. I went to
see The Adverts in Woolwich, and they were brilliant. I saw Richard
Jobson posing outside the Notre Dame nightclub, and decided he wasn't.
I took myself down into the tube station at midnight, and I tried to
be noticeable in the King's Road. Most remarkable was the production
of Volpone that Colin took me to at the National Theatre, which knocked
the spots off McDonalds, and laid the foundations for an abiding love
of Benjamin Jonson and his work which was one day to lead me into unashamed
acts of plagiarism and idolatry.
But nothing matched that final decision to go. Colin had moved into
a new flat off Camberwell New Road. The old block in Deptford, Speedwell
House, was rubble, and the £40.11p that I was worth at Unigate
was slowly eating its way through the hire purchase debt. It was on
my second visit to Camberwell that Colin casually suggested that I take
the plunge and move up to London. He offered me floor space, anything
I wanted to induce me to just get up and go! I considered my debts.
At the moment I was tied to Alpma 3 until September, but an acceleration
of payments, and a reduction in expenditure to the bare essentials that
my record collection demanded, would enable me to get out much sooner,
and for the first time I left London with a feeling of elation, my spirits
soaring at the knowledge that I would be coming back for good. I worked
out that I could leave work, a free man, in just over a month, and on
my return to Somerset I spread the news exultantly, only refraining
from telling the chargehands at Unigate, lest they be tempted to deal
with me as spitefully as their counterparts at Strode's.
This was not to be. They were sorry to see me go, as I was one of their
most reliable workers. I could always come back, they assured me. "We'll
see you in a few weeks," some said skeptically, but I knew otherwise.
I stuck to Alpma 3 right up to my last day - June 30th 1979 - and it
is only in those terrible dreams that I have ever returned.
I enjoyed every minute of those last weeks, secure in the knowledge
of my impending escape, but I didn't waste any time saying goodbye.
The morning after I quit Unigate, my family waved me off at Castle Cary
station behind 50020 Revenge, laden down with one small suitcase full
of clothes, and my entire record collection hung about my person in
a series of unwieldy plastic bags. My drums were packed up and ready
to follow by Red Star as soon as I had found a band to join. It was
summer; I was seventeen and a half, and stupid, but as the train pulled
round the corner at Wyke, I had left Castle Cary, Alpma 3 and, I truly
believed, my self-conscious childhood behind me.
let me see," said Brer Anancy, at which point the whip leapt up
and began to beat him, chanting shrilly:
"Work, let me see! Work, let me see!"
Somewhere on a shelf in Marks & Spencers, a lump of tasty Irish
cheddar is expostulating to its brethren. "I am not the cheese
I was before I started my journey," it is saying. " I am an
older cheese, not necessarily a wiser one, but inescapably a different
cheese to the one that first passed through the gates of Unigate Foods
Ltd., Evercreech. How then can I, from this distant perspective, tell
you of the cheese I was without distorting the picture through the focus
of cheesy hindsigh?. I cannot. I can only tell you of the things I did
and saw, and hope that these will suffice to tell my story. What I was,
is past. What I am and will become is of no matter. What I felt, throughout
those early trials of factory and dairy are matters from which you must
draw your own conclusions.
And what of HATCHER 036? An enigma I stumbled upon in my childhood,
that I never knew, and cannot now remember. What did he think? What
did he feel, as he scraped away the endless days at the steel table
in that sterile room? Was he brave? Was he lucky in love? From the fleeting
glimpse I have offered, you will be little the wiser, and having seen
only the surface I cannot say that I knew him at all. Who was he? Where
did he go? What was he really like?"
"He was a fool, my Lord, that the lady Olivia took much delight
in. He is about the house."
"Go. Seek him out, and play the tune a while."