THE longest six months of my life was spent working at a cardboard factory in the gap between leaving school and starting a journalism course. It paid extremely well, with unlimited overtime, but the shifts seemed endless.
The worst job in the factory, so far as I was concerned, was ‘tailing off’ on the Corrugator, a massive machine some 60 yards long which spewed out 6ft sheets of very hot, extremely sharp board that would be used to make boxes for washing machines. This had to be gathered by hand and placed on pallets in piles up to 8ft high. Regulars on the Corry, as it was known, were at least 6ft, extremely fit and could do the tasks at a stroll. I was 5ft 6in, out of condition and had to run to keep up with the others.
It was hellish – so hot that we tended to work in just a vest and shorts. Before long my hands and body were a mass of painful paper cuts. Gloves were out of the question in this macho environment – you would have been beaten up for being a sissy. No wonder Elton John wrote Corry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.
Thankfully there were complaints about crookedness at the top of my cardboard piles and I was moved to a two-man machine called the Seyfert. If you’ve ever wondered where the separators in boxes of wine come from, this was it. The operator, a bald, lugubrious old cove named Ted, would load in pieces of ready-grooved card and they would come out the other end slotted together. The tailer, myself, had to count them in multiples of 12 or 16, bundle them with twine and place them on a pallet. Old hands warned me that I would find myself counting in my sleep and it was true. Even 20 years later I would realise I’d unconsciously been counting anything from cars going by to the dog’s snores.
Every couple of hours we took a short break known as Bacca Time – a visit to the locker room which would last as long as it took the operator to smoke two Player’s No 6, the second lit from the first.
There were usually at least a dozen blokes in the room, reading papers, telling jokes and putting the world to rights. One, named Derek Crutchley, was a crashing bore who monopolised every conversation with his predictable and tedious observations.
One day he was in full flow when a chap known as Baz interrupted him. ‘Here, Derek, do you fancy a lying-down job?’ he asked before presenting him with a copy of the local paper. Baz had ringed an advert in the Situations Vacant columns which stated: ‘Engineering firm requires horizontal borer’. There was uproar as this was passed around and Crutchley didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He left for a new job soon afterwards.
In my final week at the factory I worked 96 hours and took home well over £100, which was a huge sum for an 18-year-old in 1973.
Several years later in a working men’s club I was approached by a chap in a ridiculous blond wig which appeared to be made of plastic. ‘Hiya, Alan, remember me?’ he said. ‘Ted, from the cardboard factory.’
He asked what I was up to these days and I said with some pride that I was now on a national newspaper.
Ted tutted, shook his head and declared sadly: ‘Do you know, if you’d stayed you could have been an operator by now.’
Northern comedy heroes – Wandering Walter
UNLESS you come from Lancashire it is extremely unlikely that you will have heard of Wandering Walter. Yet he is a legend in these parts and probably the funniest comedian I ever saw, although there was lots of competition in them days.
Walter Horam, from Preston, was an engineer, working for English Electric and Leyland Motors, but spent almost every evening entertaining all-male audiences in working men’s clubs. This was before the days of mobile phone cameras so there is scant footage of his genius at work. However he once made a cameo appearance on the Little and Large show. Although his style is obviously cramped by the two hopeless hosts, this gives a flavour of Walter’s unique delivery. I particularly love the jokes about the wife on the plane and the son who had never spoken.
Having heard how he talked, now imagine him telling these gags in that rich Preston accent:
On the way home, we saw this farmer wrestling this sheep in a field. I said: ‘Are you shearing?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘find your own’.
I was walking past (Preston North End’s ground) Deepdale one evening in July and noticed that the floodlights were on. Since it was still the close season I thought this was unusual and so I asked a steward if he knew who was playing. He said it was the annual charity match between the Freemasons and the Knights of St Columba. ‘Oh, right,’ I said, ‘who’s winning?’ ‘Don’t know,’ he said, ‘it’s a secret.’
I was a great footballer, you know. In 1956 I was up for Footballer of the Year and I said to the missus: ‘You could be sleeping with the Footballer of the Year tonight.’ We got to the ceremony and the announcer said: ‘In third place, Tom Finney, in second place, Wandering Walter, in first place, Stanley Matthews.’ My missus said: ‘Is Stanley coming here or do I need to go to him?’
I was at a football do, and got talking to Jimmy Greaves. He said: ‘Well, Walter, what about football in Preston?’ ‘What a good idea,’ said I.
I was dancing one night at the farmers’ ball at Preston Public Hall when suddenly chairs and tables started flying. My girlfriend said: ‘Aren’t farmers’ balls rough?’ I said: ‘It’s the trousers they wear.’
This football referee keeps blowing the whistle on a big centre-half. Frustrated, the defender asks him: ‘What would you do if I called you a pillock?’ ‘Why, I’d send you off.’ ‘And what if I thought you were a pillock?’ ‘Why, I couldn’t do anything.’ ‘In that case, I think you’re a pillock.’
Once Walter was appearing at a Catholic club, where on the wall was a lifesize figure of Jesus on the cross. ‘That’s a bit harsh’, he told the club secretary. ‘Just because the poor bugger didn’t pay his subs.’
And here is one of my favourites. ‘We got burgled the other day. The wife and I went out and she left a big pan of broth on the stove. When we got back the door was open and our telly had gone. And, worse, the dirty buggers had shat, SHAT! in the broth. Do you know, we had to throw nearly HALF of it away!
Walter died in 2012, aged 84. We miss you, fettler.
FOLLOWING my piece about nouvelle cuisine last week, expatriate Burnleyite Bob Lee emailed with a recollection from 1980 of boning up on fine wine before taking his future wife to a posh country inn with an extensive cellar. Spotting Gevrey Chambertin on the list he ordered a bottle of the ’76 and was assured it was a sound choice. ‘The next day, I couldn’t resist checking out my Wine Companion to get a fuller picture of what I’d shelled out 25 quid of the £100 total bill for. A self-satisfied smirk on initial perusing of the Gevrey Chambertin write-up was swiftly wiped away when I noted an asterisk referring me to a note which read, “Beware ’76. Rot was rife”.’
RIP Michael Nesmith
I WAS saddened to learn that Michael had died from heart failure at the age of 78, leaving Micky Dolenz as the only surviving Monkee. Here is a piece I wrote about Nes last year. And here is a lovely live version of one of his finest songs, Some of Shelly’s Blues.
A PS from PG:
I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters