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When I began commuting to Derby in 1976, I travelled on a number of occasions with another Coventry based Engineer I’d not previously met who was running another project at Derby. That project finished in 1977 several months before mine. Back in Coventry in early 1978 I learned that he had been transferred to Grimsby. Meanwhile I had no substantial task. A couple of the projects I assisted on took me to the noisiest work places I have ever known – fortunately for only a brief visit – I can not begin to imagine what it would be like to spend eight hours in such an environment.
One was a weaving shed in Skelmersdale where I went to investigate a problem with yarn breaking because of the air conditioning system not maintaining optimum humidity. I recall a vast shed filled with looms as far as the eye could see and a noise that I can only liken to what it might be like to be inside an aircraft engine.
The other noisy environment was a wire winding shed. One of the principal markets for the company’s original product, rayon fibre, was as tire cord. By the seventies rayon was being replaced in many tires by steel cord. Courtaulds had purchased a steel tire cord manufacturer and we were asked to look at some proposed improvement or other. Again my recollection is of a vast shed filled with machines that took thin strands of brass plated steel wire and twisted them together to form the cord. And, again, I recall a thunderous roar that vibrated in my chest, never mind its effect on my ear drums.
These memories remind me of the many different products that Courtaulds had in its portfolio at the time and might be worth mentioning before we leave the 1970s. I mentioned in a previous episode that in the mid-sixties Courtaulds had fought off a take-over bid from ICI. The resistance had been led by a director who was a Chemist.
ICI’s interest was in gaining access to Courtaulds’ considerable reserves of cash resulting from the forced sale in 1941 of it’s American subsidiary as part of an agreement, called “lend-lease”, under which the USA supplied the allies with war materiel and other goods free of charge. With the battle with ICI won, the Chemist became Chief Executive and used that cash reserve to embark on a series of investments.
One facet of this strategy was the purchase of companies whose businesses complemented Courtaulds’ own. In particular they adopted a policy of ‘vertical integration’. Put simply, this involved the taking over of businesses that used Courtaulds’ raw materials, so it included weavers, spinners, worsted mills and garment manufacturers, many of them with household name brands such as Wolseley, Lyle and Scott, Bear Brand and Contessa among many others.
In effect they were tying these companies in to buying their raw materials from Courtaulds at the expense of the enemy, ICI. At Courtaulds Engineering one of my colleagues headed up a Materials Handling section where conveyor systems and packing lines were designed and installed in many of these factories. Often branded products were produced alongside those bearing the labels of well known chain stores.
Under the second element of the strategy, the Research and Development teams were funded to investigate new products using the same basic techniques as used in the manufacture of synthetic fibres. One such was KESP – spun soya protein as a substitute for meat. It featured on an edition of the BBC’s technology showcase “Tomorrow’s World”.
Versions of the product appeared in the company’s shop and we tried it. As an alternative to stewing meat, the chunks were acceptable but needed a good seasoning of herbs and other flavourings. The pilot plant and manufacturing license were sold to a food processor in East Anglia but the product never achieved significant commercial success. Interestingly similar products are once again being offered for sale, no doubt in response to an upsurge in vegetarianism and veganism.
Another attempt to introduce a new product into an established market concerned tobacco. I have no idea of the process used to manufacture Courtaulds’ tobacco substitute. Employees were offered the opportunity to blind test samples of different compositions. This must have been before I left for South Africa because I gave up smoking a few months after our return. I do remember that the particular formulation I was given to sample tasted horrible. The best way I can describe it is by reference to an occasion when I inadvertently lit the wrong end of a tipped cigarette.
Another business that Courtaulds purchased at this time was International Paints. This once again brought them into direct competition with ICI who owned the Dulux paint brand. International’s specialty was anti-fouling paints used by shipping world wide.*
I remember once creating the script for an imagined TV commercial demonstrating, via a series of short clips, how every activity during an ordinary day in someone’s life brought him or her into contact with a Courtaulds product. The strap line or slogan would have been “We are all around you” and it certainly seemed at the time that Courtaulds had such a huge variety of products and brands that it was indeed impossible to avoid contact with the company, although most people would have been unaware of the ultimate ownership of those brands.
I suppose the fact that I found time to indulge in such exercises as devising a TV commercial confirms that I did not have enough to do. That was changed by a phone call from the man who had occasionally given me a lift to Derby.
He was now head of the capital projects department for the company’s Courtelle Division at Grimsby. Courtelle was the company’s acrylic fibre and the production facility at Grimsby had been steadily expanded over the preceding fifteen years. They had an annual budget for modernisation and improvement projects, one of which consisted of the complete overhaul of some of the older production lines. Each would be shut down for three months at a time, stripped down, major repairs carried out and new equipment incorporated. I was seconded for an initial period of six months to manage the work.
*For more on Courtaulds history, see http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/courtaulds-plc-history/
One of the conditions of buying a house from Hereford City Council was that we were not supposed to sell at a profit, at least, not until we’d lived in it for five years. We could, however incorporate the value of ‘improvements’ within the sale price, with the agreement of the council. I’d built a few cupboards and shelves, we were leaving behind a new, Cyril Lord, fitted carpet and there was the garden that I’d created from nothing. We were, therefore, able to put the house on the market for around £600 more than the original price we’d paid, and had no difficulty finding a buyer at that price.
Finding a house in Coventry at the same price was not as easy. For a start you could only get a building society mortgage if you had been saving with the same society for at least 3 months. That was not a problem, nor was the imposed limit of 3 times annual earnings. However the notional 10% deposit required was. Any loan against a house purchase would be a maximum of 90%, not of the asking price, but of the society’s valuation and this was almost always lower.
To give a hypothetical example, a house on the market for £4,000 could, in theory, be acquired with a deposit of £400. The building society might value it at £3850, meaning that, unless the vendor was prepared to accept a reduced offer, the purchaser would have to find £535. And then there were solicitor’s fees and agent’s commission, not forgetting any redecorating that might need doing on a house that had been occupied for a number of years.
We made one or two weekend house hunting forays to Coventry. Freda’s brother drove us there on at least one such occasion. We looked at a number of prewar houses which, once we took account of the above factors, proved to be beyond our means.
Some of these viewings provided our first experience of families whose origins were in the Indian sub-continent. It was not unusual to find that only the children spoke English. The cooking smells, too, were a revelation to us. I can honestly say that we did not find any of this objectionable. Hereford, at the time, had only a handful of families of foreign origin so we had little experience of alien cultures*. Nevertheless, the presence of such diversity was one of the attractions of the move to Coventry. Hereford, by comparison, seemed backward.
Not withstanding the cooking smells, there was no doubt the homes of Asian families in Coventry were clean, something that I could not say about some homes I’d visited on a regular basis during the preceding couple of years in my role as collector for a football based charity lottery. In the mid-fifties a producer of nickel alloys established its manufacturing base in Hereford. Over the following years the company’s old units in Birmingham and Glasgow were closed and a number of employees moved to Hereford where many were housed in the same estate on which we had purchased our house.
I recall being horrified by the condition of a few homes I visited; just a few years old yet the front doors were filthy. On at least one occasion I saw a front door with a large hole caused, like the muck, I suppose, either by a football or a boot. When the door was opened the person doing so would be followed by a blast of warm, fetid air ripe with the smell of dog.
After looking at several preowned homes it became obvious that our best bet would be to find a newly built house on a modern estate. One such was almost complete on a site previously occupied by Coventry’s greyhound stadium. The Stadium Estate was a relatively small development consisting of semi-detached and terraced houses and a couple of two story apartment blocks, between Holbrooks Lane and Lockhurst Lane on the North West outskirts of the city. There was a bus stop within comfortable walking distance, on Holbrooks Lane, making access to the city and my place of work easy.
The house we purchased was at the end of a block of 3 next to a junction between two culs-de-sac. There was very little garden at the front, most of which was occupied by a car port. There was, however, a modest area at the back which I could turn into a garden.
You will recall that I had given up on motoring upon getting married some five years previously. Working for Denco Miller I occasionally drove a car from the company pool. To get to Cambridge and Coventry for my interviews I hired a Mini. With its low centre of gravity, front wheel drive and innovative suspension, the Mini was especially good at going around corners fast. I remember boasting at how quickly I’d covered those two journeys, neither of which included sections of motorway. That network, in the UK, was still in its infancy.
For the first five months of working in Coventry I used the bus; departing Hereford on Sunday afternoon and returning Friday evening. But for the weekend of our move I needed a car to convey wife, child and those domestic essentials that we would need whilst unpacking the big stuff from the furniture van. The car rental company in Coventry didn’t have a Mini available but could rent me a brand new Morris Minor. Although new, this vehicle was based on outdated technology and was far less manoeverable than the Mini, as I was to discover to my cost.
One of the recent additions to the embryonic motorway network, the M5, crossed the road I had to travel. A new bridge had been constructed with a wide approach for maybe 50 metres either side, after which it reverted to its narrow, winding norm. It was November, dark, damp and, possibly, icy. I accelerated on the wide section of road and entered the first half of an ‘S’ bend traveling much too fast. This meant I was on the wrong side of the road approaching the second half of the ‘S’. I mounted the grass verge and was brought to a stop by the hedge.
I mentally sighed with relief and began to wonder where I could find someone to tow me out of the hedge. I felt the car start to tilt and at once I was upside down then the right way up, with the sound of water trickling somewhere.
The driver’s side door was jammed against a grass bank and would not open. I clambered across to the passenger door and exited the car. I had left the road on the right hand side so the road should now be on my left. The spin made me think the car had turned around to face the wrong way. So I climbed over the bonnet of the car to ascend the bank on the driver’s side and found to my surprise I was in a field.
When I eventually made my way onto the road I could see the lights of a building about 100 metres ahead. Somewhere, I hoped, where I might get help and access to a telephone. I realised that my back was wet. I could not sense any injury – later I discovered a graze on my left hip left by the seat belt. The building whose lights had attracted me revealed itself as a pub. I explained my situation and was pointed to a telephone from which I called the police to report the accident (necessary for the rental company’s insurance) and a neighbour to let Freda know I was unhurt but would be home late. Could she contact her brother to come and get me?
I was quite shaken by the experience and asked the pub landlady for a large whisky. She sensibly advised against alcohol until after the police had talked to me.
The following morning I had to hire another car in Hereford for our journey to Coventry. On the way we stopped to look at the Morris Minor and rescue some of my belongings from it. The back window had shattered as the car rolled into a deep ditch beyond the hedge. Everything was soaked in stagnant, evil smelling water.
There was no doubt that I was very fortunate: firstly that there was nothing coming from the other direction when I crossed the road and secondly that I was uninjured in the subsequent roll-over. The car was invisible from the road and, had I been immobilised, I could have lain there all night.
*I ought to add that one of my colleagues at Denco Miller, a highly intelligent and educated young Engineer, was Indian, having graduated from one of India’s universities before completing his Masters degree in London. As a Proposals Engineer he had set up one of the contracts that was handed to me to execute and I remember traveling with him to London for a meeting with the client and being introduced to some of his University friends at an Indian restaurant.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
Our first flat was on the first floor of a large Victorian house. It consisted of two adjacent rooms with high ceilings and no interconnecting door. We had to go out on to a landing shared with a couple of other tenants in order to get from living room to bedroom. We shared the bathroom with the other tenants on that landing and had a kitchenette not much bigger than a wardrobe at the far end of the landing.
Both rooms had gas fires. There was no central heating; that was uncommon even in new houses in the 1960s. It was not unusual, as autumn gave way to winter, for us to go to bed early in order to keep warm. We would take our transistor radio with us and listen to Radio Luxemburg. I will never forget the night when programmes were interrupted to announce that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
By Christmas we had found a much better apartment at the same weekly rent. The whole ground floor of an Edwardian semi-detached house, it was almost self-contained, consisting of living room, bedroom, good sized kitchen and bathroom. We shared an entrance and hallway with the tenants who lived on the two upper floors. As the foot of the stairs was close to the front door this was never a problem. By a remarkable coincidence, both houses had the same number – 17 – although on different roads.
We got on famously with the landlady of number 17 St. James’ Road. She allowed us to bring in our own furniture as we acquired bits and pieces in readiness for the house we knew we would have one day. She was putting together a portfolio of similar houses which she converted into flats and bedsits. Freda, on her day off from work, would sometimes accompany her on trips to auction houses in search of the crockery and small appliances with which she equipped each flat. We acquired several items in this way. Freda would also assist with painting and decorating, for which she was paid.
We got to know the other tenants fairly well, especially David and Marie who lived on the first floor. David was a semi-professional singer who also claimed to be an expert at paper hanging. The landlady agreed that our kitchen needed re-decorating and allowed us to choose wall paper which David hung for us. When he had finished, quite late one evening, we were more than a little concerned to see the many wrinkles and bubbles adorning his handiwork.
“Don’t worry,” was David’s parting comment. “The paper will stretch as it dries and it will look fine in the morning.”
Needless to say, it was not “fine in the morning”. I tried slitting the bubbles with a razor blade in order to get the paper to lie flat but that didn’t help; if anything it made things worse. The land lady agreed with us that it was not a satisfactory job. I didn’t think that, after that experience, she’d be willing to let me have a go but she did. So I set about stripping and re-papering the walls myself, which I managed without a single bubble or wrinkle.
With my apprenticeship completed I was faced with a choice: continue with evening classes to enhance my engineering qualification or settle for the adequate qualification already obtained by part-time and evening study. I still had ambitions to become a writer so embarked instead on a correspondence course. A colleague loaned me a portable typewriter. I remember a short story and a radio play that I produced during this period but I never completed the course. Life, as they say, got in the way.
About this time our local authority was building houses for sale and several colleagues had bought semi-detached houses under this scheme. It was our ambition to do the same, although we knew it would be a while before we would be able to afford to do so. Then a block of terraced houses became available to purchase. The story was that, because the back gardens of these houses adjoined the gardens of some large detached houses whose occupants had objected to the prospect of council tenants in such close proximity, the council had compromised by agreeing to sell them.
Being priced lower than the standard semi-detached houses they were within our budget and so, in August of 1964 we signed up to purchase one. It was completed, and we moved in, in March of 1965. We had a 100% mortgage at a little above the standard rate of interest charged by banks and building societies at the time, financed through the government’s Public Works Loan Board, and repayable over 30 years. At £5/5s a week, including rates*, it cost around 1/3 of my weekly income.
Meanwhile a small flat on the top floor of 17 St. James’ Road became vacant and the landlady allowed us to take advantage of the lower rent and move upstairs for the 5 months whilst we waited for our house to be completed. It was there, sometime in December, that our son was conceived.
The six months between moving in to our new house and the arrival of our child were occupied with all the little jobs that need doing even in a new house – erecting shelves, constructing additional cupboards, preparing the smallest bedroom for its role as nursery. And there were the gardens at front and back to cultivate and plant.
Men – even husbands – were not permitted in the delivery room in those days. And there was no way of determining the gender of a child before its birth. Freda went into hospital several days before the birth, believing the child to be over-due. She went into labour in the early hours of Saturday morning, 11th September. When she was moved to the delivery room, at around noon, the midwife told me to go for a walk and not come back for an hour or two.
By the time I did get back it was to find my mother-in-law also waiting in the corridor for news. I think I probably offered her a cigarette and we both stood there nervously smoking until someone came out to tell me “You have a son, Mr Parker.”
Freda remained in hospital for a further 4 or 5 days at the end of which my colleagues decided we must go out to ‘wet the baby’s head’. We had formed the habit of weekly nights out at the local football supporters’ club where we would consume a couple of drinks and enjoy a friendly game of darts. This particular evening, because a celebration seemed in order, the number of drinks consumed was rather more than usual.
I’m fairly certain that someone had the clever idea to lace my beer with spirits. Whatever the reason, I remember waking around 6am the following morning to feel my sheets and pillow sticky with what I quickly realised was vomit. The colleague who had brought me home had agreed to come and collect me in time for work the following morning. Before that happened I had to get busy washing sheets and pillow cases so that they were clean by the time wife and son arrived home later that day. I learned my lesson from that event and have never since got quite that drunk.
Freda was 20, I not yet 24, and we were parents and home-owners. I can’t help thinking how very fortunate we were. Very few people of that age today can afford either to own a home or to rent privately.
*Rates were a UK local government tax based on the notional value of the property, payable by all householders, now superceded by the Council Tax.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
Younger people may be surprised to learn that as recently as the 1960s one did not become an adult under English law until one reached the age of 21. I passed that milestone in November 1962. It meant a second pay rise in 3 months. Prior to that my wage had increased each year on the anniversary of my starting my apprenticeship – 8th August. I treated myself to a block of driving lessons and took my test in January. The main advantage of having a car, and a license to drive it, was that my girl friend and I would no longer have to rely on public transport, our bikes, or lifts with friends, to get to town for work and entertainment or to the dances in village halls which we enjoyed.
The first 3 months of 1963 turned out to be one of the coldest for a very long time with snow that hung around until well into March. And local authorities did not salt the roads back then, either. They applied grit which was meant to provide a degree of adhesion on compacted snow. It’s not surprising that I failed a driving test in such conditions. I booked a second test for some time in March. Meanwhile I was looking for a car. For the equivalent of two weeks earnings I purchased a prewar Morris 8. I came to an arrangement with the farmer who owned a shed near our house and stored the car there. I took additional lessons with a friend in his van. Nevertheless, I failed again at my second attempt.
Whilst waiting for my third test, scheduled for early June, I took the engine apart and ‘decoked’ it. This involved removing the accumulation of carbon on the cylinders and cylinder head, cleaning and adjusting the spark plugs and the carburetor and then putting it all back together again. With my test passed we were able to take full advantage of our new mobility through the summer. Except that one part of the car I’d not expected to let me down, did.
The lever that operates the clutch when one depresses the clutch pedal on these old cars pushes the clutch disks apart via a carbon pad which, over time, wears out. If not attended to promptly the matching surface quickly becomes rough. This roughness then causes the new carbon pad to wear out very quickly. Without a clutch it’s not possible to change gear. As a result we had several embarrassing incidents wherein we had to push the car into the kerb in order to carry out running repairs.
By the last weekend in August the engine was starting to make worrying noises, over-heating, and generally becoming a cause for concern. I knew the agricultural engineer who maintained the tractors and other machinery at a big farm where I had often worked at weekends and during holidays from my main employment.
I asked his advice
“Your big-ends have gone,” was the verdict.
“Can it be repaired?”
“Needs to be stripped down, the cam shaft ground and new shell bearings fitted.”
“Can you do that – and how much will it cost?”
“I can, but a less costly alternative would be to purchase a re-conditioned engine. Cost you around forty quid.”
At double what I’d paid for the car that seemed to be beyond affordability. How were we supposed to save up to get married with expenses like that?
By then I’d had another raise in pay – a surprisingly big one. At the end of my apprenticeship my employer was not obliged to offer me a job, but he had, and on terms that exceeded the rate agreed between the Employers’ Federation and the Trade Unions. Even so, £40 was a big expense. I conceived a plan which I put to my girl friend later that Saturday.
But before I explain that I need to backtrack to 1962. I had ‘popped the question’ (“How do you fancy being Mrs Parker?”) around 1:30 on the morning of December 27th 1961, as I wished her goodnight outside her home after the boxing night dance. I’d explained that she should have an engagement ring for her 17th birthday present the following June and that for now it would be our secret. We would not be able to get married until a year or two after I’d finished my apprenticeship as it would take a while to save up enough money to set up home together.
Courting during that long cold spell at the beginning of 1963 was not something either of us wanted to repeat. Being alone together inside somewhere warm cost money. Outside, we froze. And negotiating the road between my home and hers on my bike on frozen snow was extremely hazardous. Now the failure of the car to offer a solution made it seem imperative that we tie the knot as soon as possible. We had agreed to each take one of our statutory weeks’ holiday in mid-September. The plan I put to my fiancee that Saturday at the end of August was that we get married the weekend before that ‘holiday’ (we were not planning to go away) and use the week as our honeymoon.
I’d looked at advertisements in the local paper for flats and apartments in town and it seemed that we should be able to get somewhere to live quite cheaply. The notion was financially viable when one took account of the cost of daily travel to work and the amounts we each contributed to our family budgets. And we would not need to spend money on ‘going out’ in order to spend time together.
She accepted the idea and we swung into action, making appointments to view various flats after work on Monday and to talk to the vicar about booking the church. That’s where we came up against the only snag – the banns (formal announcement of the marriage) had to be published on 3 consecutive Sundays. There were only two before the date (Saturday 14th) we had chosen. So we decided to hold the ceremony in the middle of our holiday week.
It was a frugal affair, arranged, as it was, in such a hurry. The young man who had allowed me to get driving practice in his van and who frequently accompanied us to dances agreed to be my ‘best man’. We each have two sisters who took on the roles of bride’s maid although there was neither time nor money to dress them in anything other than their usual ‘Sunday Best’. The bride wore a navy blue suit and a pill box hat. I wore the same suit I wore to dances. The reception was held in the bride’s home – booze in the garage, sandwiches in the kitchen.
Before that, of course, there was the ‘stag night’. Equally unusual, this requires me to backtrack briefly to the summer of 1958 and my attempts to re-integrate into the village community after 6 years at boarding school. Among other things, I joined the bell ringers at the village church. We practiced once a week and rang on Sundays for evensong which was held fortnightly at 6pm.
On weeks when evensong was not held there was matins, a 10 o’clock service for which it proved impossible to muster a team of ringers. Fortunately the tower was equipped with something called an Ellacombe apparatus. This enabled each bell to be rung from a single array of ropes by a single operator – usually me. It was possible to ring some hymn tunes on this apparatus and I did, as well as a few ‘changes’.
We would ring for any weddings that took place in our church, usually on a Saturday morning or afternoon. When it came to my wedding, however, that was held in a different church, the one in my fiancee’s parish which did not have a ring of bells. So it was agreed we would celebrate our wedding, and my leaving the team after 5 years service, by ringing a quarter peel. This was, of course, followed by an adjournment to the village pub for a small libation.
More than a few of our friends and relatives assumed a very different reason for our haste to get married – after all some of them had been forced into marriage in order to avoid giving birth outside of wedlock. How times have changed!
Footnote: the subject of ‘change ringing’ and the definition of a ‘quarter peel’ are dealt with here.
For me it was becoming a shop-keeper. I’d taken up politics in a big way and took the opportunity my employer provided to take voluntary redundancy.
What to do with that lump sum?
Why, open a shop, of course!
Nothing wrong with the idea in principle, nor the detailed plan – if only we’d stuck to the plan! Instead we were seduced by a man who had a small shop selling his home made ready meals. He was moving into larger commercial premises and needed someone to take on the lease of his shop and continue to sell his products as well as all the usual deli items.
Great for a few months, until he lost a big contract and had to close the manufacturing unit.
The location was all wrong for that kind of shop without his USP.
Supermarkets were starting to develop their own deli counters.
We learned a valuable lesson about following the right dream and not allowing yourself to be seduced by a superficially attractive alternative.
Enough about that, now read Jaye and Anita’s reverse bucket list then go to the comments, either here or over there, and tell us about your worst mistake(s).