BANANAS: 1945 MUSHROOMS: 2020
My first job was in a supermarket. It lasted for 7 weeks. They treated us so badly. The Branch Manager had a stomach ulcer; the staff were severely reprimanded for not grabbing customer’s trolleys at the checkout and making them face the wrong way. It was the kind of European cheap shop that we all love now due to the ‘austerity’ that we are supposedly in together. It was of the upmost importance in this shop that, although all of the groceries could be scanned with a bar code, the fruit and vegetables had to me manually typed into the till with a code. Even though there was a list of all the fruit and vegetables we sold with all of the relevant 4 number codes at every till, it was frowned upon if you had to look at it. Perhaps the directors of the company were thinking about speed at the checkouts, or perhaps the directors were just horrible. I used to go into work at 7am every Saturday morning and they did not tell me when I would be able to go home. I swept, mopped, cleaned, tidied up the fruit and veg, brought out massive pallets of Coca Cola on a fork lift and piled it higher than I could see (I’m 6’ 2”) and tried very hard to remember all of the numerical codes for the fruit and veg for when I was on the checkout.
I’m aware that at no point here, have I mentioned the name of the shop. Well, it rhymes with Lidl because it is Lidl.
Here, for a more balanced view of the company is an extract from Lidl’s Wikipedia entry:
Trade unions in Germany and other countries have repeatedly criticised Lidl for mistreatment of workers, breach of lt European directives on working time and other abuses. These have been published in the Black Book on the Schwarz Retail Company published in Germany and are now also available in English.While The Times notes that Lidl managers work excessive hours, being obliged to sign out of the Working Time Directive when starting with the company, both The Guardian and The Times in the UK amongst other allegations have reported that Lidl spies on its workforce with cameras, makes extensive notes on employee behavior, particularly focusing on attempting to sack female workers who might become pregnant and also forces staff at warehouses to do "piece-rate" work. Lidl management has denied the charges. In Italy, in 2003, a judge in lt Savona sentenced Lidl for anti-union policies, a crime in that country.Lidl has been criticised in the United Kingdom and Ireland for not allowing workers to join unions.
In March 2008, the German news magazine Stern released a cover story reporting systematic surveillance of Lidl workers, including the most intimate details of their private affairs.
In November 2014, Lidl UK staff were stopped from speaking any language other than English - including . The Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith) said the policy was "appalling". The chairman, Jamie Bevan, added that "since the Welsh language bill was passed four years ago, it is illegal to stop staff from speaking to customers in Welsh".
The day that they announced that there would be an ‘exam’ on everyone’s memory of their ‘Fruit & Veg Codes’ intelligence’ was the day that I unashamedly asked my mam and dad for help and asked for them to test me on my ‘Fruit and Vegetable Lidl Cash Till Code Knowledge’. I vividly remember sitting in the garden with my mam, her shouting out names of vegetables and me remembering the four number codes for each one. My mother and I were passionate in our quest because this was my first job. I was bringing in weekly pay checks of sometimes 10s of pounds. Can you imagine that? Sometimes I made over 40 pounds a week! It was money I did not have before. It was 1999 and I was 17 years old. So the ‘exam’ came and a lady named some vegetables and I had to recite the numerical codes to her. The fact that I can still remember that bananas were ’1945’, mushrooms ‘2020’, potatoes ‘1000’, apples ‘5978’ and cabbage ‘3090’ is testament to how hard me and my mam worked that day to committing this stuff to my memory. Anyway, I did the test, I scored 91% - apparently, that was not good enough and that is why 3 days later, when they told me I was to be formally disciplined for the matter, I went on my break and did not go back.
I am fortunate now that I work for a company where morals and ethics are at the core and that my terms of work are backed by one of the biggest and best trade unions in the country. I spend an awful lot of my time at work and I throw myself into it. I love what I do now... most of the time.
From there I managed to find a job in a warehouse/factory typed place on the Team Valley in Gateshead. Not knowing what the job entailed beforehand and only the wage (I think around £3.50 per hour) was probably the only reason I had bothered making the journey there in the first place. On arrival, I was shown how to clock in and clock out via a card and time stamping machine on the wall by the door. It was explained that I would only be paid for the times between clocking in and clocking out. I was then shown to a big table on which there were thousands of text books. Now, due to some kind of Raggy Dolls type factory error, these particular text books had pages missing and it was our task to glue in the missing pages correctly. I say correctly, because you would not be paid your full £3.60 an hour unless all of your books were glued to a certain standard. Guess what…? None of the books I had painstakingly and frustratingly glued back together were of ‘a certain standard’ and so I wasn’t going to get paid a great deal at all. The shift was from 6pm until 11pm and to make matters worse, they tortured us by pumping in Metro Radio at high volume. Locals may be aware that if you happen to be in a factory gluing missing pages into text books at that time of the evening and getting it below a certain standard, with a supervisor looking over your shoulder when you are trying to insert page 168 between pages 167 and 169 and offering the advice “just pretend it’s a woman; pretend there’s hair around it” that you will be listening to Alan Robson on Metro Radio’s Night Owls, who is basically a Geordie real life equivalent of Alan Partridge. Around 9pm it was break time. We had to clock out for our break and I was able to stand in a gated cage around the fire door to smoke a cigarette and be invited no less than 20 times by a couple of my colleagues, one who looked like Skeletor and the other who looked like a lethargic Fingermouse, to go to their place later to smoke some dope. Obviously 10 minutes later it was time to clock back on and return to the haunting refrains of Alan Robson and gluing pages into text books, which I completed and then went home and didn’t go back.
When the Tories won the election, I won’t lie, I had a gig to do the following day, so managed to do that (badly) and then spent the next 2 days in bed. I could not see the point in being a part of society if society is going to piss all over everything I believe in. I’m alright! I actually will be better off financially under the Conservatives because now I’m a clever bloke who has a good job and earns a modest living & (let’s face it) can afford to fork out on putting on David Bowie tribute bands in his spare time. I don’t care about me. I kept chucking pound coins at homeless guys, I knew most of them by name and they waved at me just when you didn’t want a homeless guy waving at you. I dropped tins of food into food banks, I shopped in charity shops, I gave generously every time you wanted to run a marathon, climb a mountain or sit in a bath of baked beans for charity. And my 2 days in bed like John Lennon have only served to make me more generous than I was before. This is not ‘The Big Society, this is me having to do something that I did not have to do before. The Tories are cunts. I’ll be OK, but I’ll be inconvenienced by being a nice guy.
I reckon a lot of people feel like that. The government’s agenda appears to be that we should believe that the recession, the crash, the ‘austerity’ is a thing that is real and we should all now pull together and pay off the deficit. Now… I have been paying off the same Barclaycard Gold for 15 years, that they sent me when I was 19 (out of the blue), without me asking or even knowing what a Barclaycard Gold was… I just thought it was magic free money. I have never once complained that I need to pay it off or even tried to blame it on my former self. I had a bloody good time on it and I do not regret anything I did with that money (I got drunk, drunker, and then more drunk) with all of my friends. I imagine that there will be many young people who get themselves into that kind of mess with debt today and perhaps won’t be so lucky to eventually find themselves in a decent job that pays them enough money to both live and steadily pay off their debt. But hey, I’m sure with their zero hours contract, their cuts to any form of benefit or advice services, their lack of community arts projects and non existent sports, leisure or recreational facilities, they will soon find their way into a life of crime and will be able to happily fall off the government’s statistics and their radar, as well as Barclaycard’s, which will surely keep everyone’s book keeping in order.
I was stacking shelves in Bromsgrove, nearish Birmingham . It was nightshift. We had to roomshare in a hotel which was not a hotel but some shacks on the back of a petrol station. We worked for 12 hours every night and had 4 cans of lager to E4 repeats of Friends every morning, which I admit was much improved conditions from the old regime of endlessly being offered dope to Alan Robson. It was agency work, so we got paid for when we worked. There were the 4 of us from Newcastle… me, a man called David - who I quite fancied; our designated driver, who was a bit smelly but who I had the joy of sharing my shed/room with, and a man called Dave who was the most homophobic person I’d ever met. We got finished at 3am on the Friday and arrived back in Durham (where I was lodging at the time) at 6am on the Saturday. At which point I’d be able to have a quick bit of sleep with my partner, as I was 20 at the time and it had been a week since I had been able to have a room to myself (ourselves), then I had Saturday to myself – but an early night because on the Sunday it was time to head back down to Bromsgrove. We didn’t get paid for our travelling time. It was Christmas and I’d being doing the job for 3 month when I quietly wheeled my trolley back to the back of the shop, walked outside and did not stop walking. My dad picked me up 9 hours later. My dad finished work early to drive all the way from Newcastle to collect his now very drunk son. I didn’t go back.
I have received my P45 through the post many times, after just walking away from shitty jobs time after time. I know there are many people who do this kind of work and are grateful for it. But I can’t do it. It did not matter how much I was to drop myself in the plop financially, I could not bare to be mistreated. Now, when certain workers in certain sectors with unions and rights walk out on a strike, you should not think that they are just doing it for their own wages or their own conditions, because they are setting a certain standard and bench mark for all employment rights and other sectors and employers will take due note of the outcome. I suspect we will see a lot of this kind of thing happening over the next five years and if you are not a rich, greedy person who does not depend on employment to live from week to week or month to month, then you should take a great deal of interest in what happens.
In 1999, I attended a concert for the minimum wage at Newcastle’s ‘Metro Radio Alan Robson Memorial Arena’. It cost £3.60 for a ticket – or just £3.00 if you were under 22 years old (which was the then minimum wage rules) and started at 3 in the afternoon, so cool kids like me could attend and still get a bus home afterwards. There were speakers from Unison who were campaigning for the minimum wage (that had only just been introduced by the Labour government) to be raised to £5 an hour. ‘FIVE POUNDS!?!’ I thought. ‘No chance!’ I saw playing that day bands such as Fungus (?), Travis, Space, The Divine Comedy and Ash… well, I did not see Ash. Me and my friend decided to leave after The Divine Comedy as we believed that their ‘Bah Bah Bah’ choruses were superior to Ash’s Martian themed choruses and made a stand to leave before the headliners’ set. On the way out, a steward on the door told us “mind, if you go out, you can’t come back”. We told him that that was fine. And we didn’t go back. I’m still waiting for my P45 in the post.
I have been doing an awful lot of research on T. Dan Smith recently, and I kind of think of him now as a figure from the past that we should all look up to. Perhaps not look up to in the sense that Boris is going to end up leading our country eventully – but in another sense. Thomas Dan Smith, born in Wallsend, was an amazing man. He gave Newcastle lots of things and just because of accepting a few silly backhanders here and there his legacy has been forever tarnished… but I guess that’s another blog for another day – or perhaps the YouTube documentary film about him that I am currently working on. Watch this space.
It turns out I’m not the only Newcastle musician to write songs about T. Dan Smith (‘T. Dan’ from my album ‘Something Funny Happened On My Way To Utopia’ - available free from my website). Here’s Alan Hull from that Lindisfarne on the matter: