The Worst Job I ever had?...Christ on a bike. Where do I start? I suppose I could always go into the minutiae of passive aggression and thinly-veiled sociopathy that characterised much of my white collar life and it’s very tempting.
That way, I could talk about the Christmas office party where my Secret Santa was one of the company directors and his gift to me was a spud wrapped in a small Union Jack. Or even about the sneering line-manager who asked me if thought I was doing them a favour by coming into work during a family bereavement. I’ve always marvelled at how much deeply unpleasant behaviour people put up with in an office context.
While these environments are thoroughly depressing and almost certainly damaging to your mental health in the long run, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is how many people actually prefer to work. I guess I just lack the corporate killer instinct when it comes to screwing over my colleagues (ie. other human beings with families and feelings) for the sake of a kiss-my-arse title or a few dollars more. So in that regard, I guess it’s not you, it’s me.
My attitude to work has always been simple: I contract with you for my labour or expertise for a given period of time and in return for that, you pay me. I’ll take pride in good workmanship whether it’s roofing or reporting and if I do the job well; you either give me more money or longer holidays.
I’m not interested in workplace politics, I don’t want to have smoke blown up my ass with fancy-schmancy titles or award presentations and I certainly don’t want to lick arse or be at the mercy of a petty tyrant line manager. You don’t own me but I’ll do my job whether I like you or not because that’s the professional way. However, if you do want my respect or loyalty as an employee then you better earn it. And that’s why I try not to work in offices any more.
So if I’m not really office material, I can’t really be surprised if the places are toxic to me. I would therefore rule out the white-collar roles on my resumé in that quest for the worst job I ever had...
I’d have to go back to the summer of 1988 in search of that particular superlative. One Friday lunch-time when I was on a concrete gang in the Isle of Dogs, I bumped into an old school friend who was a dumper driver on site and he took me to down to a pub near the river where they had strippers on.
Each passing ream on the conveyor belt could be the one that bit deep into the soft creases of your fingers.
As a good-looking housewife danced, disrobed and played with a hairbrush, we swallowed four pints and Eamonn told me about a mate of his down in Bermondsey who was looking for someone to work in his paper recycling plant. The money was better and I’d be guaranteed a lift to work, he said.
The following Monday, a red XR3i Cabriolet pulled up beside me on Deptford Broadway. I was picked up by two sullen young men in their early twenties. Daryl and Lee were brothers and the plant belonged to their old man. There wasn’t much conversation thrown my direction so I was glad it was a short journey.
We arrived at the plant, which was a big unit in the middle of a light industrial estate by the arches of the London Bridge viaduct. I was introduced to Arthur the line manager as ‘Fat Eamonn’s mate'. Arthur was a stocky wee hard nut from Rotherhithe who straight away took to calling me Seamus O’Semtex (I kid you not). “Take your bombs with you there now Seamus and I’ll show you where you are on the line.”
I followed him into the warehouse which was dominated by a machine that stood as tall as a terraced house, back and centre. A wide conveyor belt, with men working on either side of it, ran at waist height for most of the length of the building, before sweeping steeply upwards to drop through a chute fifteen feet up in the front of this massive mechanical paper shredder.
The job was straight forward; paper was shredded and baled for recycling according to varying grades and thicknesses. I was quickly shown the grades and told to get on with it. Most of the paper came from local printers as rejects; where the colours had bled, the print had blurred or there’d been a kink in the roll when the printers were threading it through the rollers.
The first thing I noticed was the paper cuts. This can be a minor irritation when you’re an office bod but on an industrial scale, it can be very problematic. Because the grade of the paper was determined as much by touch as sight; the wearing of gloves was impossible. Each passing ream on the conveyor belt could be the one that bit deep into the soft creases of your fingers. Sweat salt continually stung the little lacerations.
The other thing I noticed pretty quickly was the content of the printed material being shredded. Some of it was from technical manuals and trade journals but a huge amount of it was pure filth. Jazz Magazines, Art pamphlets and grumblemags; a smorgasbord of porn, all passing me by on a conveyor belt like a mucky Yo Sushi. Now at first, I didn’t pay too much attention to this but I must admit that from time to time, I did snatch a glimpse or too (and vice versa).
All I could think was ‘Dear God, please don’t let them forget we’re in here and turn the shredder back on.’
My fat morose colleague along the line was not so bashful. When a particularly juicy batch trundled by, he grabbed a fistful and shoved it up his jumper. He then made some threadbare excuse about last night’s Ruby and shuffled off to the bog.
The heat in the warehouse was unbearable and the bales of paper sucked every bit of moisture out of the still stale air. When my colleague arrived back on the line, I could see a line of perspiration glistening on his top lip and I breathed through my nose so I wouldn’t have to smell his stale wank-sweat.
I might have been able to put up with that but there was worse to come. The machine broke down occasionally, when the feed on the belt was too heavy or someone had neglected to remove wooden pallets from the production line.
When the huge shredder clogged, there was only one thing for it; send someone up the conveyor belt to climb down into the machine to work the great steel wheels free. I was sent up with an old hand to watch how it was done.
Once we dropped down into the gloom, I could make out six cogged wheels, each was about a metre in diameter and a quarter as thick. I’m not sure how fast they turned but I knew they had enough RPM to turn me a big pink smoothie. All I could think was ‘Dear God, please don’t let them forget we’re in here and turn the shredder back on.’ We set to work dislodging the giant paper jam and when the wheels were free enough for us to tread a complete revolution, we climbed back out. All in a day’s work.
What happened the next day is what made me quit. It started out business as usual; paper cuts and fuckbooks. Then there was a sudden terrific clatter from the shredder. A sheet of steel about four foot square shot out of the machine, arcing across the warehouse before clattering to the floor about a yard away from me. The flying metal had been part of an awning which covered the wheel housing. It had come loose and fallen into the works, to be spat back out just as quickly.
I didn’t go back after lunch. The next morning, I was down at Archway Tube Station, looking for a start again with a concrete gang.
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