When I was seventeen I took this holiday job at Marconi making loudspeaker cones. It was a horrible, grubby factory. The machines and systems were labour intensive and the whole practice did not seem to have changed for fifty years. What made it worse was that it was a particularly hot summer so you were always sweaty and uncomfortable. It was frustrating as you could get a glimpse through the fanlight windows of a patch of beautiful blue sky. You imagined your friends out there chatting up the girls, swimming, lazing about, while you were stuck inside melting away in tedium. I’d signed up for ten weeks; ten weeks of utter boredom. I was very apprehensive but I needed the money.
The foreman showed me to my machine. It was a horrible squat thing. You sat in a chair in front of it and pressed the red button so it came to life. It was electric and seemed to run on compressed air. You placed a loudspeaker cone on to a template that matched the shape of the cone, pulled a lever and a heavy metal plate thumped down which had the function of trimming the edges off the loudspeaker cones. He demonstrated the procedure, showed me the safety precautions, watched while I did a few, then he nodded to me and disappeared.
I smiled around at the rest of my crew who were all staring at me. They glowered back at me. A good start.
The procedure was simple. Someone brought a heap of untrimmed cones and placed them in a pile at my side. With my left hand, I picked up a cone and placed it on a mould matching the shape of the cone. You withdrew your hand and pulled a lever with your right hand. This was like a fruit machine except it set a process into operation. This process caused a hiss of air and a cutter stamped down and trimmed the edges off the cone and then went up again. This cutter came down with enormous force. You knew that if your hand were in the way it would be taken off, crushed and severed. Fortunately, there was a safety shield that came down when you pulled the lever that was supposed to ensure this couldn’t happen. I didn’t experiment. You then took the trimmed cone off with your right hand and put it in a pile on your right.
There were a number of things that could go wrong. If you put the cone on crookedly it got ruined. If you knocked the pile they went all over the floor. If you were clumsy you could drop your cones. If you weren’t paying attention you lost the rhythm the whole procedure went to pieces. The process required a degree of coordination. You had to learn it in order to get your speed up. Ho hum.
Once you had the hang of it you reached a point where you were picking up, placing, pulling, taking off so that you were doing the two processes simultaneous with both hands doing different things at the same time. But this took a bit of time to get right. It was a bit like tapping your head while rubbing your belly.
You were there from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and most people then did an hour’s overtime until 6.00 p.m. You worked 5 days and then on Saturday morning up until midday (on time and a quarter). You had a break for fifteen minutes at 10.00 a.m. and lunch was between 12.00 noon and 1.00 p.m. You had to clock in and out. If you were three minutes late they docked you 15 minutes pay, ten minutes late and it was 30 minutes pay etc. We were paid by the hour with a large percentage being based on piecework. This was worked out for the whole line based on the number of completed cones you produced in a day. There was a formula. It meant that the pay of everyone in your line was determined by the speed of the slowest member.
There were a lot of lines. Each line was based on a different size or shape of cone.
My team consisted of a pulper (he prepared and maintained he consistency of the pulp used to make the cone – it had to be kept at a precise density), a sucker (he sucked the wood pulp onto a moulded suction end – this was considered semi-skilled as he had to suck exactly the right thickness onto his moulded end), a drier (he dried the cones), a centre puncher (he had a machine like mine that punched a hole in the middle), a trimmer (me), a doper (he dipped the cones in lacquer) and a gatherer (his job was to move the cones down the line so that you never ran out and pack them at the end). My team, like all the others, were entirely male. The only females in the place worked as secretaries in the office.
My colleagues, involved in making six-inch oval cones, introduced themselves to me in the toilets during the first break. They gathered around me and threatened me, punched me a few times, and generally promised me further attention, with various menaces, if I didn’t speed up. It seemed I was slowing the line down. I was committing the cardinal sin of losing all of them pay. I had better shape up quick and get my speed up or they would assist me by providing me with an incentive (though how you could work faster with broken fingers, fractured ribs and squashed testicles was beyond me). Fortunately, I’d managed to get the rhythm going and by the end of the day and managed to up my rate to that of my fellows. They seemed satisfied.
Once you’d mastered the technique the enemy was boredom. The minutes dragged. To say it was tedious was to understate the mind-numbing monotony. After a week I’d run out of songs to hum.
I designed a chart and stuck it on the wall by my trimmer. I’d plotted all the hours I was going to have to work in my ten weeks. At the end of a session, I crossed the hours off. I could see it slowly melt away – but at least my moment of salvation was visible.
Harry, our sucker and team leader, came past my work station one break. He was retiring at the end of the summer following his sixty-fifth birthday. He’d told me that he had started working there at the age of eleven, sweeping floors, and claimed to have got in fifty-four years without a day’s illness. He looked at my chart and asked what it was. I explained that I was checking off my hours. He glared at it and then ripped it off the wall and threw it in the bin.
Some people spend their life watching soap operas about the ordinary, everyday life of fictitious characters.
Ninety per cent of all we do is subliminal. We don’t even understand the reasons for our most basic behaviour. We make it up as we go along. What lies behind the things we do? We go status-seeking, power craving, accruing wealth and impressing the opposite sex (or same-sex).
A lot of our behaviour revolves around getting our genes into the next gene pool. Life is sex. We are ruled by our pheromones!