I ended the previous episode with a reference to my post-graduation move to London, but that was a little premature. There are a couple more tales to tell from my student days before I go there. The first of these definitely has a food-related side to it, but in a very different way from the other posts in this series. There'll be no recipes or restaurants here. There won't even be any descriptions of dishes - lousy or otherwise. There will, however, be plenty of food. Tons and tons of it. Seemingly infinite lines of it, shifting along mechanised conduits and tumbling into vast blanching tanks and freezers; relentless rivers of produce flowing through a sinister steel and plastic landscape on an inexorable journey to seas of supermarkets and small food stores. When I die I'll go to heaven because I've done my time in hell: working in a frozen food factory at the very bottom of the labour ladder.
I had no idea what to expect, but I suspected it would be tough. It was. In 1977 – the summer before I went to university - I secured a summer job at a place called Northray Frozen Foods. We "casuals" (or "bloody spongeing student *!#*s", as the "regulars" preferred to call us) were expected to work a minimum of five eight-hour shifts per week. These shifts rotated on a weekly basis: one week on mornings (7:00 – 3:00), the next on evenings (3:00 – 11:00) and the third on nights (11:00 – 7:00). The reality was that this was the busiest time of the year; the gentle arable fields of Lincolnshire were bursting with ripe green veg, and the peas (and later, beans) needed to be harvested, processed and packed as quickly and efficiently as possible. 12-hour shifts were routine and we generally worked Saturdays and often Sundays, too. The good thing was that this was proper, union-backed labour so we were paid for every bit of overtime we did. As temporary student workers desperate for cash we were all keen to get as much of this lucrative overtime as possible, even if the work nearly killed us. During the height of the harvest this was no problem; there was more than enough for everyone. But as the season drew to a close the overtime gradually became as sparse as the denuded pea fields. It then became clear that the supervisors were far from averse to playing "favourites" in allocating overtime - one of my first experiences of worker exploitation, comrades!
The factory was situated out in the Lincolnshire countryside so I needed to take a company bus to get there and back. Night shifts were especially tough because I had to curtail socialising with my friends in the pub so that I didn't miss my 10:00 pick-up. The 45-minute ride to the factory was eased a little by having had several pints of beer to blur the edges, but this was somewhat negated by also having to contemplate the drudgery ahead, and the irksome knowledge that one's friends would still be whooping it up until time was called.
By the time the bus reached Grimsby's dismal limits it would be so full of cigarette smoke that your eyes would sting and, if you'd overdone it on the ale, you'd be feeling slightly sick. You had to cope with this for another half an hour as the bus made its way through Lincolnshire's bland landscape and then the harsh white lights of the factory would loom out of the darkness and the bus would bump down the unpaved track that led to the factory gate: a sinister iron arch with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" engraved on its hellish, rusting facade.
Okay, I'm lying about the last bit, but it sure felt that way, sometimes. We'd stumble out of the vehicle in a cloud of cigarette smoke, then cough and grumble our way to the clock punch to make sure we got our cards stamped before the hour passed (if you missed that by even one minute you'd have your pay docked by a full quarter hour). Then we'd head to the changing room, don our battered, ill-fitting white overalls and grubby caps, and get to our posts to relieve the guys on the previous shift. It was almost exclusively guys on the line. Women – including the relatively few female student casuals - were generally found in the offices or the canteen. The seventies weren't exactly enlightened times.
What did we do, exactly? To answer that, I should probably describe the main stages of the veg-freezing line.