Entering the USA – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

In 1971, under the auspices of Pete Smith, for whom travel was a mind-expanding necessity, we applied to go over to the States on a student Visa. We had to go to the American embassy to get orientated. They told us stories about English people not understanding American gun policy and hence getting themselves shot.

We were told of one unfortunate guy who had his back blown out by a neighbour because he was climbing in through his own front window having forgotten his key. The neighbour mistook him for a burglar. An easy mistake to make. Could happen anywhere!

The American diplomat explained to us that Americans shoot first and ask questions later.

We were told not to walk around in certain areas or districts of the city. It seemed that every city and town had a no-go area and every American was looking for an excuse to blast you full of lead. We were warned about race hatred, religious fervour and swearing. Contrary to Hollywood films, it seems that many Americans considered it a shooting matter if sworn at.

It seemed to us that you could get shot for almost anything.

We were warned about the evils of drugs. It seems that one puff on a ‘reefer’ and you were hooked. Not only that, but it turned you instantly into an insane degenerate. All your values disappeared and you inevitably got gonorrhoea, pregnant and became insane. Not only that but you had to steal and whore yourself to get a further ‘fix’. Wow! I never knew that. Any hint of interaction with drugs would result in our instant deportation or worse!

We were warned about communists. Communists were seeking to undermine American values. They, under many guises, such as student visas, sought to get into the country and ferment insurrection. He looked closely at each one of us as if peering into our souls, seeking out the slightest hint of communist ideology lurking in the crevices of our minds. It made us all very uneasy. I’d never been involved with any communist party but I certainly believed in equality and fairness. I suspected that might well be sufficient to ban me, lock me up or even have me lynched. Fairness and equality were not fundamental American values – competition and capitalism were. This was the land of the survival of the fittest. Speaking about anything that smacked of socialism could get you shot.

We were told of all the wonderful American values and what the nation stood for and all the other activities for which we could be instantly deported.

It seemed an extensive no-do list. I was concerned that I might not even remember it all and inadvertently find myself booted out for some minor indiscretion or other – like not paying sufficient respect to the American flag or not taking the vow of allegiance seriously. I could easily become deported for grinning at the wrong time. It was quite daunting.

The diplomatic official, without any hint of irony, explained to us that we were being privileged in that we were being allowed a look at the free world in action.

It didn’t actually sound very free to me.

After we’d proceeded through the six months of paperwork necessary to enter the ‘home of the free’, we found ourselves on a plane bound for New York.

At embarkation, we were ushered along in a lengthy slow-moving line. When it came to our turn we were scrutinised by a solemn Customs Officer. He dramatically opened a huge black book and scanned down the names to see if we were included. This contained all the names of communist sympathisers, fellow travellers and political activists. It had trades unionists, who were obviously commie sympathisers, and druggies, criminals and miscreants. There were a lot of people who were not allowed to be free. Nobody ever knew how they compiled this great mass of names, the book was massive, but if your name appeared in it you were forbidden entry.

As we stood there in front of this official from the land of freedom, we couldn’t help running through the checklist of possibilities for our exclusion. There seemed an infinite number of reasons why our names might find their way into inclusion in such a tome. I was surely guilty and hence unworthy of entry into the land of purity and apple pie. I harboured thoughts of equality and real freedom of thought and mouth. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I might pollute an American.

We waited for the finger to come to rest as it trailed down the endless list of names. The enormous book was a full six inches thick. It was huge. We stood there in front of the man trying to look innocent for what felt like ages. The names were tiny and arranged in neat columns. There had to be half the world in that book.

I couldn’t help wondering, as I stood there, if they actually did have all of Cuba, Russia and China in there to start with.

Absurd.

I strained to see how many Goodwins his finger was progressing through. There had to be a lot. We were an awkward bunch. It was genetic, you see.

We were sweating. If your name was in the book you were put on the next flight back and refused entry. You had no recourse to appeal. You were not told the reason why your name had been put on to the list. That nice Mr McCarthy had decided that America could only be kept free if unAmerican ideas were completely eradicated from the country.

At last the customs officer seemed satisfied and closed the book. He looked at us with a stony face, his grey eyes piercing into ours like swords, obviously unhappy that he had not found our names.

‘Are you, or have you ever been, a communist?’

Incredible, I thought. If I was a Russian spy or a communist agitator I was hardly likely to answer yes. I felt like asking what he meant. Did he mean had I ever joined the communist party or did he mean to question my philosophy? Did I believe in equality and ‘To each according to their needs – from each according to their ability’, because if that was the case then I was obviously a communist. But then if he meant did I subscribe to the fascist totalitarian apology for Socialism as epitomised by Russia then I would have to admit to being more of a Menshevik. But then this was most probably not the time to enter into discussion regarding the semantics of politics, was it?

‘No.’

‘Do you know anyone who is a communist, or have you ever known anyone who was a communist?’

Of course, I had.

‘No.’

Reluctantly he let us in.

21.9.01

 

What rights does a gannet have as it clings to the rugged rocks of a windy cliff? As it hangs in beauty on the edge of the wind with its white feathers glistening in the sun? As it steals fish from the trawler’s nets?

          15.9.01

 

 

 

Falling down a cliff – extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Happiness is when you are completely crazy and don’t know what the fuck is going on.

3.11.01

 

You have probably seen a film with the guy hanging off the cliff facing death and the whole of his life goes before his eyes. It is a recurring theme.

I’ve hung off a cliff.

Liz and I went on holiday illicitly, camping in Devon. Wow. I have a photo of her in our campsite. We pitched the tent between three dry stone wall of an old derelict barn. A most convenient campsite – sheltered and private. I was taking a photo and she was looking sexy and peeling her bikini top down. Incredibly, just as I was about to take the shot, a middle-aged couple walked past the front and Liz jerked the top up with an indignant look. That’s what I shot. It is a wonderful photo of her looking indignant.

Later we walked along the beach at Lyme Regis and there were fossils to be found. I’ve always loved fossils. I went back for a trowel and hammer and started digging in the blue lias shale, hoping to uncover a plesiosaur or an ichthyosaurus or two. At very least I wanted to find a nice full pyrites ammonite for Liz as a memento. In my usual manner, I became quite obsessive, particularly when I could not find what I wanted. All I was able to uncover were lousy flattened imprints. I wanted a good solid bronzed ammonite. I knew there was one in there. It had to be remarkable enough to impress Liz.

Liz sat on the beach in the sun. I became engrossed in digging in the shale and bashing open rocks. I had this notion that the best ones were higher up the layers in the cliff so I began working my way up the cliff face. The shale was very crumbly but I managed to secure footholds and handholds. I was hammering the trowel into the shale with the hammer so I could use the trowel as a piton for a handhold. Before long, without realising it, I had worked my way up to near the top.

I had just hammered the trowel in, when one foothold crumbled. I scrambled around with my foot to find another without success. Blue lias is like dried mud, layers of dried mud. It is very flaky. As I was feeling around with my foot the other foothold crumbled away. I was now high up the cliff clinging on to an embedded trowel and a handhold. I didn’t panic. It was all right. I had to get a new purchase in the lias, that’s all. It was OK. I looked down and it seemed a long way down to the rocks on the beach. Liz was not looking. I scrambled around with my feet but could not seem to find a crevice to get my toes into. The cliff was sheer and my arms were tiring. Then my handhold gave way and I knew I was in trouble. I was left hanging by two hands from the handle of the trowel and no matter how much I scrambled around I could not find a foothold. It was a matter of time. The trowel started slowly slipping out. I have to report that my life did not go through my mind, only a sense of foreboding accompanied by an exclamation or two.

The trowel finally came out and I went downwards.

Somehow I leaned into the cliff and clawed at the face with my nails and toes like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I crashed down the cliff and hit the bottom along in the midst of an avalanche of debris. Liz screamed.

When the dust had settled I stood up virtually unharmed.

I have a photo of two long gouge marks down the cliff, made by my feet and clawed hands as I clawed at the cliff on the way to the beach. I escaped with ripped nails and multiple lacerations and bruises over arms, hands, belly and legs. Nothing too spectacular.

I laughed it off. It could easily have been a lot worse.

3.11.01

 

Happiness is the feeling you get when you survive something unscathed that could have come out a lot different.

3.11.01

Facing death – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Happiness is cheating death.

3.11.01

 

I went to the mass X-ray unit. I wasn’t sleeping. The pain was worse and I kept breaking out in sweats. I wasn’t feeling good. Something was definitely wrong. I wanted to know what it was.

It was a simple procedure, they took a few snapshots and it was over in five minutes flat. The worst thing was the wait. It took over a week for the results to come through.

I had to pick them up from the doctor’s surgery.

I waited in the waiting room in a cold sweat. I was convinced that it was going to be bad news. I could feel the pain continuously now. Sometimes it was really painful. I was convinced I could feel it in the shape of a round tumour. There was no doubt. I tensed myself for the bad news. There was Liz to consider and the kids. I had to fight it. Who knows whether that was possible? Maybe something could be done! I was trying to be philosophical, but I did not want to die. I was too young! I DID NOT WANT TO DIE!!

I was eaten up with anxiety.

The results were clear. There was no tumour. There was nothing untoward.

The diagnosis was that my symptoms were psychosomatic caused by the death of my father the previous year. I had bottled it up. Although, there was a chance that it could be a gastric or bowel problem.

26.10.01

 

Happiness is fulfilment, satiation and love. Ah, to be in love!

3.11.01

 

The diagnosis did not allay my fears. It merely meant that my lungs were clear. There were other organs that a tumour could be gestating in.

The pain did not go away. I went back in for further consultation. The doctor could see I was suffering. He booked an appointment with a specialist.

The consultant examined me. He thought that it was probably psychosomatic but there was a chance that it could be a gastrointestinal problem and talked about displacement pain. He explained that such problems often manifested in the lower chest region. Maybe I had an ulcer. He arranged an endoscopic examination.

I was still convinced that I had cancer. Perhaps the tumour was in my stomach. I thought it was more likely in the liver where my father’s had been. The liver was situated under the rib cage. I reasoned that I would very likely feel it there – just where I was experiencing it.

I arrived at the hospital and undressed. I sat in the waiting room with a sorry bunch of individuals all waiting for the same procedure. We all wore those silly gowns that go on backwards and do not do up at the back so that your arse hangs out of them. What is that all about? I really could not see the practical reason. It certainly did nothing to ease your anxiety.

They wanted to give me an anaesthetic. An anaesthetic? I was quite shocked. I had thought that it was only a little tube down the throat. I didn’t want an anaesthetic. I asked if I could do it without needing a general anaesthetic. That was fine with the doctor.

It was also fine with me, up until I saw the size of the massive tube they were after shoving down my throat. Too late by then!

They sprayed the back of my throat with some local anaesthetic to stop the gagging process, and shoved the gigantic tube down my throat. They prodded and probed as I gasped and gagged. It was uncomfortable, it hurt and it made you feel panicky, but I began to relax and I could watch it on the TV screen which was fascinating and almost made it worthwhile. Once I had become used to it I was OK and the surgeon talked me through what he was looking for and what he was finding. My submucosa was healthy. Even I could not see any sign of a tumour. Neither could the doctor. There was no ulceration, no lumps or abnormalities.

“Looks healthy enough”, he said breezily, “no sign of problems.”

I was back to square one. I suppose I had been hoping for an ulcer. That would explain the pain but was treatable. Now I still had the pain but no explanation. Lungs and stomach/duodenum had been ruled out.

I still worried.

26.10.01

 

We are the biggest disaster that has ever hit this planet! By the time we have run our course we will have killed off a greater percentage of life here than any comet or natural disaster since the beginning of time.

Our priority is to ensure that we change and become less destructive; to ensure that my prophesy of our terrible effect on the rest of life does not come true; to ensure that the destruction we are wreaking is halted and we learn to live in harmony with each other and the world.

There’s nothing daft or soppy about that!

If we don’t learn how to do that we are, along with every other living thing, completely screwed!

11.11.01

 

The major problem is that we are too greedy. We are consuming too much of the world’s resources.

Try telling that to a meathead hell bent on owning the world and consuming it all. “Hey, look how important I am, yah! I own a castle, twenty Rolls Royces and a fleet of Lear Jets!”

But then we are all guilty.

How many tellies do you have?

Crazy isn’t it?

11.11.01

 

Happiness is when your endorphins flood your brain and tingle all your synapses.

3.11.01

The start of the wild life – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Happiness is freedom to do what you want!

3.11.01

 

Looking back I can see that my wild life started when I was fifteen. That was the year I hitch-hiked in France with my mate Foss. We spent the entire summer camping out the back of a Youth Hostel. It was an eye-opener – different food, culture, experiences and freedom. We had to cook, shop and clean up after ourselves. There were girls, wine, cheese and bread. I was adopted by some older Hungarian girls, had a Scottish girlfriend and was befriended by an enormous German guy who adored the Stones album I had brought with me. I made friends with the French guys, discovered yoghurt, and had a

It was also the year that Foss also took me to the local Walton Hop for my first taste of live Rock Music.

The Walton Hop was a notorious dive. It was the haunt of the Walton and Hersham Teddy Boys. There was a knife-fight in the carpark outside the gig that first night. We edged around a baying mob (mainly girls) who were wanting blood as two teds with flick-knives circled and slashed at each other.

The first band I saw was the British Birds who had Ron Wood on guitar. They had the hair, waist-coats and Chelsea boots. I just had to have some of those Chelsea boots. They were loud and raucous with synchronised beat and guitars. They even had someone turn the lights on and off in time to the music like some primitive light show. It was incredible.

Even more incredible were the audience. It was a bit of a time-warp to the fifties. Bottles and glasses flew through the air. Groups of Teds stood around the dance floor looking hard, with their greased hair, siddies, drape jackets with fur trim and brothel creepers. The girls grouped together with their beehive hairdo’s, full skirts, petty-coats and ankle socks. Some couples danced wildly, mainly jiving, spinning and throwing the girls around so that their skirts billowed out showing their knickers. One of them noisily screwed a very blousy looking girl against the wall on the landing of the stairs up to the gallery while a group of his friends stood around them shouting and clapping and egging them on. She looked completely disinterested throughout, chewing gum and looking bored while he thrust away under her lifted skirts. All quite a incredible to a fifteen-year-old lad. Some might have been put off by the experience but for me, it was incredibly exciting.

The next band I saw was Them with Van Morrison. They didn’t jump about quite so much and I remember being a bit disappointed at that. But they did stay behind at the end and sign postcard pictures. I had two of them. I later gave one to Phil at work, who was a big fan, and lost the other. I think my Mum threw it away when I was away at college.

Maybe it was the fighting that was the final straw that broke that camel’s back? The council closed it down, but I’d already got the taste. Live Rock Music set the heart thumping like nothing else.

I wonder what my parents were thinking, letting me go to a place like that at that age? I think they wanted me to live life and enjoy myself. They probably had no idea what it was really like. I’d always been pretty free and wild and they trusted Foss to look after me.

Perhaps they managed it about right. I’m not so sure I would have been happy letting my kids loose in France at fifteen years of age or to go to a dive with mad violent Teddy Boys!

3.11.01

 

Happiness. What the hell is happiness? A chemical rush? A hormonal surge? A state of euphoria? A sense of fulfilment?

3.11.01

My most pleasurable meal.

Every morning at six-thirty my dad would get me up. He would change my nappy and dress me and then take me through to the kitchen and put me in the high chair. He would then turn his mind to making porridge. He was good at all of this. He made the porridge with milk and sprinkled sugar on it. When it was cool enough he gave me a big bowl of it and left me to it.

How do I know this? Because my mother told me.

The object of the exercise was to transfer the porridge from the bowl to the stomach via the mouth. But for me, that was too boring. It would appear that my idea of fun was to eat half the porridge and distribute the other half anywhere that I could reach. The favourite place for this seemed to be in my long curly blond hair.

By the time my mum appeared I was usually sitting there with a bowl on my head and a drying coating of oats over my face, surrounded with a smeared gooey mess.

I enjoyed having breakfast with my father. Few meals since have ever been so enjoyable.

I wonder if he were to come back and we did it all over again if it would be half as much fun?

13.10.01

More tests – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

We are the biggest disaster that has ever hit this planet! By the time we have run our course, we will have killed off a greater percentage of life here than any comet or natural disaster since the beginning of time.

Our priority is to ensure that we change and become less destructive; to ensure that my prophecy of our terrible effect on the rest of life does not come true; to ensure that the destruction we are wreaking is halted and we learn to live in harmony with each other and the world.

There’s nothing daft or soppy about that!

If we don’t learn how to do that we are, along with every other living thing, completely screwed!

11.11.01

 

The major problem is that we are too greedy. We are consuming too much of the world’s resources.

Try telling that to a meathead hell-bent on owning the world and consuming it all. “Hey, look how important I am, yah! I own a castle, twenty Rolls Royces and a fleet of Lear Jets!”

But then we are all guilty.

How many tellies do you have?

Crazy isn’t it?

11.11.01

 

Happiness is when your endorphins flood your brain and tingle all your synapses.

3.11.01

 

Right. Despite all my tests, I was not satisfied. I requested a further consultation with the consultant. It wasn’t lungs and it wasn’t stomach, but the pain was still there and getting worse. I had decided that it had to be the colon. A section of the large intestine came up under the ribcage and that had to be the problem. By my calculations, it could be polyps, irritable bowel syndrome, or bowel cancer. I think I had already decided that it was bowel cancer.

Thank heavens we did not have the internet back then. I might have had a long list of possible ailments and have convinced myself I had them all.

The consultant was very sceptical about my condition. He reassured me that it was psychosomatic and would go away of its own accord. He doubted that there was any physical aspect to my pain. I was not convinced and he could see I was not going to let it rest until I had explored every possibility. There was nothing else for it other than a barium enema.

They dressed me in that same stupid backless thingee that you have to wear in hospitals, probably designed to make you feel embarrassed and stupid, so it keeps you in your place as a patient. Then they put me on a medical couch and inserted a hosepipe up my anus.

The nurse hovered closely watching the procedure. It was embarrassing but at least it did not impinge on your breathing and produce panic. The tube was uncomfortable but I could hardly complain. I had requested it.

They then poured a gallon or two of white barium solution down the pipe. It filled your rectum. It was at least warm and not too unpleasant – though it made me feel as if I were suffering from the worst case of diarrhoea I had ever experienced.

I had to lay still while they pawed over their monitor screens and positioned me in exactly the position they required on the X-ray machine. I lay there trying not to produce the biggest wet fart of all time. The major thing that was on my mind was the desperate need to get to the toilet without making a spectacle of yourself.

Once again I was able to see the results on the screen and the doctor talked me through. There were no tumours, polyps or abnormalities.

“It’s alright,” he reassured me, “it is all normal.”

I knew that I had to come to terms with this. Most probably my symptoms were psychosomatic after all? But I still wasn’t totally convinced.

28.10.01

 

Happiness is when your mind is in balance and is not craving for anything.

3.11.01

 

The art of living is doing and being.

11.11,01

 

I went back for a further consultation. The doctor argued his case that he could see no physical reason for my condition but I remained adamant. He recapped through the procedures; they had now checked the lungs and been in from both ends to check my gut, I had had a physical examination of abdomen and liver but he could see that I was still unconvinced, the only thing that was left was to check my abdomen with an ultrasound.

Once again I found myself in a hospital ward wearing one of those strange backless thingees.

The ultrasound technician was a young doctor. She placed me on a surgical couch and immediately lifted up the front of my smock to expose my abdomen. I found myself once again wondering what was the point of having a smock that had no back? but I did not put it in words. She unceremoniously plonked a big dollop of cold gel on my abdomen, which made me jump, and proceeded to smear it around.

I had this strange feeling that I had become pregnant. It was just association, Liz had had it done exactly this when she was pregnant. She began searching around with the sensor. She showed me the images on the screen and I found myself looking for a foetus. Pulling myself back to reality I pointed out where the pain was and she began checked, pushing the sensor over the area, in and out, focussing on the organs and providing me with a commentary of the organs we were looking at. As a biologist I found it easy to identify them and asked all manner of questions. She was very diligent and persisted until I was satisfied. There was nothing to see. Normality, bloody normality!

By this time I was hoping for a nice round tumour. Something they could identify and say- “See!  There!  That was what was causing the problem!” I wanted something they could easily cut out and deal with.

I did not want a negative result.

She checked the kidneys and liver, even had a look at the spleen. I was sure that it had to be lurking there somewhere. Everywhere she looking it came back with normality. The gut checked out, gall bladder had no sign of stones.

We ran out of places to look.

I had to face the truth – I was healthy.

28.10.01

 

Happiness is when you are completely crazy and don’t know what the fuck is going on.

3.11.01

Working at the bakery – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

After a year or two of working Friday nights at the bakery, I got moved onto forklift truck driving. This was great. The forklifts were electric and fairly zoomed about. My job was to pick up the bread pallets and load them on to the trucks. If you got it right you could swing a pallet on and brake so that it came off the prongs and came to rest in exactly the right place in the lorry. This was an art. I enjoyed that. You could spin those trucks on a sixpence.

One of my fellow forklift truck drivers was called Tiny. Tiny weighed about twenty stone and was not at all tiny. He was Scottish and he’d been a paratrooper and had fought in Korea. At tea break he would tell me about his exploits. On one occasion he had been part of a small patrol who had gone behind enemy lines on special operations. He showed me these huge scars on his legs. He explained that this was where he had got strafed with machine-gun fire on one of this particular ‘jaunt’. He’d been badly wounded in both legs and could not walk. One of his colleagues had incredibly carried him on his back for over twenty miles, over rough terrain, to get him back to his own lines. The alternative would have been to shoot him. Tiny was a huge man. That was almost a superhuman feat.

“We didn’t leave anyone behind alive to be captured,” he explained. “The North Koreans used to torture you, tie you up with barbed wire and leave you screaming for days. They wanted your mates to try to rescue you so that they could shoot them.”

So many people are traumatised by the horrors of war. Tiny was one of them.

Another guy I worked with was Henry. Henry was a huge Jamaican guy. He even made Tiny look small, but he was the gentlest man I have ever met. He spoke in a deep whisper and had this great rumble of a laugh. Because I was so little I think he felt very protective towards me.

One day I was doing a run up to one of the lorries and made a miscalculation. I accidentally put a prong through the side of the lorry. I went to find the driver to explain.

Now drivers are notorious for taking great care of their lorries. It was like a personal pride. The fact that I’d been careless, nay, malicious and stupid enough, to put a hole through the side of this guy’s lorry was inexcusable. The driver was a big guy. As soon as he saw what I had done to his lorry he became incandescent. He grabbed hold of me by the throat and was going to smack me right in the mouth. Just as I was grimacing in anticipation of seeing stars, a big black hand encompassed the driver’s fist as it hurtled towards my face and stopped it dead. Effortlessly the guy was spun him round to face Henry. It must have been quite a shock. Nonchalantly Henry picked him up with his other hand, by the scrunching up shirt and jacket and lifting this large man into the air. He then held him off the ground at arm’s length.

The guy was so shocked that at first, he didn’t even struggle. He could feel Henry’s enormous strength.

“Now what do you think you’re doing hitting my little friend?” Henry asked in a deep murmur.

I can to this day still see this guy being held off the floor with his feet dangling and hands clutching at this enormous arm. His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened and he tried to get loose – to no avail. Henry, as placid as a rock, held him tight. I don’t know if it is my memory playing tricks but I can see his legs kicking wildly in the air.

“Now calm yourself down,” Henry drawled.

Henry stood as firm as a rock and held that driver up there until he’d stopped struggling, then he gently put him down. The driver was in shock and quickly shuffled away muttering and casting wary eyes at Henry and me.

Another of my work colleagues was John a sixties freak like me. He had hair halfway down his back and the ambition to grow it down to his feet. To this end, he refused to brush or comb it. He reckoned that brushing or combing broke the ends off and so it took longer to grow.

John and I would spend the breaks discussing which albums we’d purchased, whether the Doors were better than Country Joe and the Fish, or Hendrix was as good as Cream. We’d talk about Middle Earth, UFO Club and Klooks Kleek, which club was best and who was on next.

John was really into acid and would take it regularly for his trips into the psychedelic cellars of London.

He was always telling me tales of coming out into the morning sun, still tripping, how one night the mounted police in Parliament Square all turned into centaurs, the trees breathed and pavement sweated. He even came into the bakery tripping and spent the evening saying ‘Wow’ and moving his hands slowly in front of his eyes to create slow motion trails. He said that the ovens glowed all colours of the rainbow, the bread was alive and throbbing, and the dough was luminous and pulsed as it was being plopped in the pans.

It freaked him out a bit to think that the bread was alive as it was going through the ovens.

All told, the bakery was an interesting place to work.

5.11.01

 

Some are obsessed with their physical shape and spend their lives counting calories, planning magic diets and refining exercise regimes in-between binge eating.

11.10.01

Working for the Council – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Tribal. We are tribal. We are xenophobic and territorial. We are designed to function in small groups. We have to recognise and fight that if we ever hope to be civilised.

7.11.01

 

When I was eighteen I obtained a job working for the council as a road sweeper. I enjoyed it. The group of road-sweepers I worked with were a bunch of communists and revolutionaries. We met up for two-hour tea-breaks, discussing what was wrong with the country and how the whole social order should be overthrown. Then we went back to work.

Taking a two-hour break was OK as long as you knew the system.

I soon learnt that the foreman came round to check on me at exactly the same time every day. All I had to do was to be working hard for when he turned up.

I also sussed out that the public only saw you when you were working. If they did not see you they forgot you existed. I developed a strategy. I worked extremely hard when I was on the job. I did all manner of things over and above the call of duty. I weeded and cleared litter and leaves from hedges. Then I hid my barrow and headed off home or to the café. I only worked for half the time but whenever anyone saw me I was going at a feverish pace.

People were impressed. They’d never seen such an energetic road sweeper. Some actually phoned in to praise my industry and accomplishments, which was unprecedented. I was the sweeper who was clearing out under hedges and pulling up weeds. Nobody ever rang in to say I was only doing a three hour day and was sitting around drinking tea and gabbing most of the day. That’s because they never knew.

One weekend I wanted to take the Friday off to make a long weekend. There was a Rock festival on that I wanted to get to. I was in a dilemma because I could not afford to lose pay. I had a story sorted for the foreman for when he came on his rounds and I was not to be found. I had been caught short and I’d gone to the loo. I thought I could get away with it.

On the Thursday I worked for five hours and went overboard. I dragged stuff out from under hedges that had been there since Alfred had been worrying about the Danes. By the time I had finished I had left heaps of rubbish all the way along my route to demonstrate how hard I had been working.

On Monday the foreman came round early. He seemed cross. I was preparing myself to confess and take the consequences. I suspected he would dock my pay and give me a ticking off but there was a chance that I would be summarily sacked. Too late now to do anything about it. I was resigned to my fate.

“You realise the problems you’ve caused?” He started, glaring at me.

I hung my head, mulling over what I could possibly say in my defence.

“You collected so much rubbish on Friday that the men refused to pick it all up. We had to give two men three hours overtime to collect it!”

I couldn’t quite believe my ears. I looked up at him in astonishment.

“You’re only here for the summer,” he admonished. “You don’t have to kill yourself. Slow down a bit and take it easy!”

It was quite amusing – I was being bollocked for working too hard on the day I’d skived off.

5.11.01

 

Some people seek out friends in order to gossip about trivia concerning their everyday lives.

11.10.01

 

We humans are strange creatures.

We are obsessed with status and power.

We construct huge edifices to our glory. We swank around dripping with jewellery. We festoon our homes with priceless artwork. We fill our lives with labour-saving devices.

We are also incredibly inquisitive.

We use our skills to travel the web in search of knowledge and entertainment. We analyse atoms and explore the reaches of space. We build machines to explore the bottoms of the oceans, the edges of the stratosphere and the far limits of the solar system. We extend the limits of our senses with instruments and supersede the limits of our powers with machines.

We are ingenious.

We construct vast, complex civilisations with cities, commerce and philosophy. Our ideas exceed our capacity to understand them. Our tools are now so complex few of us now understand the principles upon which they are constructed.

Yet for all our intelligence and cunning we still behave like the most primitive of animals. We are violent, cruel, tribal and belligerent.

Are we ever going to grow up?

8.11.01

Fred the doper – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Our doper was Fred. He was none too bright. He worked in the lacquer room which was contained behind double doors to cut down on evaporation of the volatile organic solvents in the lacquer.

We made a point of regularly visiting Fred for a few minutes at the beginning and end of sessions. You walked in took a few deep breaths of the heavy solvent laden atmosphere and walked back out as high as a kite for the next half-hour.

Fred worked in there all day.

“I love my job,” he told me. “I don’t take holidays even. I’m never sick. I miss it when I go home. I love my job.”

You felt like telling him to take a tub of the lacquer home with him so he could go away for a week. He could sniff it whenever he got the urge!

Fred must have been a complete addict without even knowing it. Heaven knows what it was doing to his liver or his brain! Perhaps he wasn’t quite so loopy when he started the job! Doesn’t bear thinking about.

You’d never get away with allowing anybody to work in those conditions under Health & Safety these days. Management must have known. They did not care!

5.11.01

 

Some people play sport and run around a field trying to knock a round object between two posts.

11.10.01

 

My friend Bali worked in a different part of the factory. He had a face pitted with smallpox scars. He’d got the disease as a baby in Pakistan and miraculously survived. He was a Muslim.

One day we were in the canteen having lunch. I had sausage and chips and Bali decided he’d have sausage and chips as well.

On the way out of the canteen, a thought came into my head.

“I thought you Muslims didn’t eat pork?”

He looked at me in horror as he digested the content of my words. He’d obviously thought they were beef sausages. Then he violently emptied the contents of his stomach over me and the corridor in one great liquid jet.

I wished I hadn’t asked.

5.11.01

 

Some people gyrate and flail around to rhythmical sounds. Some spend years learning how to use instruments to make rhythmical sounds for others to gyrate to.

11.10.01

 

 

Tribal. We are tribal. We are xenophobic and territorial. We are designed to function in small groups. We have to recognise and fight that if we ever hope to be civilised.

7.11.01

Loudspeaker cones – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

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.

5.11.01

 

 

Some people spend their life watching soap operas about the ordinary, everyday life of fictitious characters.

11.10.01

 

 

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!

7.11.01