People in education and learning often imagine that everyone works in an office and is in need of hokey 'Leadership' training. Working people who do physical jobs, not on Zoom, are often written out of the narrative. I've had some of those jobs.
In fact, I’m always surprised when young people get to University or start their first job after graduating, having never worked. Sure paper rounds have gone the way of newspapers, and employing children is no longer easy but it’s part of growing up. More than school, college or any University, it’s your first honest encounter with real people and the real world.
What follows may seem like fiction but, believe me, every word is hard fact. I had a paper round for two years, delivering the Evening News (Pink on a Saturday) in a tough housing estate (scheme in Scotland) called Craigshill (affectionally called Crazyhill by those in the posher estates to the west). I also had to collect the money, which wasn’t easy, as my pay was a percentage of the takings. It is where we lived and seemed quite normal but nothing prepared me for my first real job. I was 16, still another year to go at school and I got work at Halls of Broxburn. It was a slaughterhouse.
Up early in those wet, dark mornings, it was five miles by bus. Nothing prepared me for what was coming. There were three of us and we were given white lab-like coats, tight greenish gloves, hair nets and black wellingtons. This seemed nice, I thought, almost clinical. In we went, pushing through big black plastic sheets that acted as doors and then the smell hit me. It was an indescribable concoction, a thick, meaty but also charnel and chemical smell. It smelt like hell.
Our first task was standing either side of the bandsaw, where huge, half carcasses of pigs were sliced up into great chunks, one to the left, the other the right – legs, loins, bellies and shoulders. The great chunks of flesh slid off into our hands and we packed them into big, white, plastic tubs. It was dangerous work and more than one of the old hands literally had an old hand that was missing a finger or two.
The butchers worked away on benches, skilled men, paring red meat from the bone. They moved quickly, knives flashing, tossing the shorn meat into vats. One later showed me the scars on his stomach, they all had them from knives that had, by accident, slipped. Every so often one would stop and sharpen the blade on a rough rod of steel. The noise was chilling.
A few days in, I knew something was up. I had already been sent for the left handed screwdriver and was now wary of these rituals but was told to go to the station at the far end of the slaughterhouse. This, I knew, was where the pigs were slaughtered. Pushing hard through two transparent flaps of plastic I saw a gruesome spectacle. Pigs came in, hung up by their back legs. They had been stunned. You could hear the shots, on the other side, great thuds but far worse, the horrific squeals. And here, right in front of me, they were having their throats cut. Out of the red slash on their throats thick spurts of blood pumped out, straight into big aluminium milk vats. It was a rite of passage for newbies like us and they enjoyed the idea of us weaklings having a heart of darkness moment. I mean that literally, as stunned but still living, their beating hearts pumped the blood out into the vats. This blood was later congealed, spiced and turned into black puddings. Three hundred pigs a day were slaughtered and moved around on a rail on the roof, hung up on chains by their back feet, a great cavalcade of carcasses, that wobbled, shivered, some still jerking.
I remember a pig escaped from the pens and was running around really fast, squealing. No one wanted to face up to it as it was big, strong and and was charging at people on the trot. It was eventually boxed in with moveable fences and sent back to its death. That was maybe the saddest moment of the whole experience, seeing that poor, terrified creature, witness its own fate.
Back on the bandsaws, my hands had developed sores, as the freshly cut bones had shards that cut through the plastic gloves into our palms. My hands stung when we had to pack the great chunks of loins and gammons into huge vats, filled with salt and nitrate liquid for curing.
Then one day another instruction. I was sent to the ‘burners’. I had no idea what this meant but was about to find out. The great parade of carcasses, once killed and bled, went through to another room. I had heard the noise, a roar every minute or so, regular like great waves hitting the shore and through the slit in the huge, black plastic doors, an orange glow. It looked and sounded like Dante’s Inferno. It was worse.
What I saw were vertical gas jets that roared out flames. They wrapped and licked round the hung carcass. This was to burn the hair off the pig. Pigs are a lot hairier than you think, great thick hairs. Once flamed the hairs singed and curled black and we had to step forward onto little platforms, stripped to the waist, and stand with great curved knives, a wooden handle on both ends, to scrape the burnt hair off in great long, downward strokes. But it was the smell I will never forget, that smell of singed hair you sometimes get when a candle perhaps brushes your hair. Imagine that multiplied by a thousand, a great sickly burning smell hanging in the air. I did this for a day. It was foul work.
At this point I was sure there was no worse job on earth than scraping burnt hair from the skin of still warm pigs. I was wrong. Again after a couple of days back on the bandsaws, my hands now pitted with bone cuts, I was sent to the ‘gut room’. I remember the guy with the Glasgow Rangers scarf, which he wore every day to work, like a cravat, grinning when I walked down toward the gut room.
There was an open door and on the left hand side of the door, a hatch, with what looked like a slide from a children’s playground that went down into the orange glow of the room below. A man stood next to the slide and split the carcass from head to toe, inserted his hand and knife deep inside the split to gather the insides with his arms, an enormous bulbous bundle of organs, then expertly pared and separated them off from the flesh and guided it on to the slide, where it slid silently down into the depths of the gut room.
I has been given huge galoshes and a big rubber apron. Why? Heaven knows, I didn’t. But I was about to find out. Stepping down the wooden staircase, there was a square room, like a cube. It was several inches deep in a sticky, yellowish liquid and in the middle there was a huge mangle. Once again, my forearm came automatically up to cover my nose. This time a sharp, metallic, acidic smell hit the back of my throat. It was the acid contents of stomachs, mixed with great piles of noxious shit from the intestines that were being squeezed out through the mangle. There was surely not a place, even in hell, as awful as this. I’ve yet to find one.
After several weeks of blood, shit, and I don’t mind admitting it - tears, I had made enough money to quit. It was twenty quid a week. My mother charged me rent, that was the deal back then. You work, you pay your way. Even then, I felt as rich as Croesus. Up to that point my experience of money had been entirely in coins. I now had notes!
It was the tail end of summer, so off I went on my own, an old rucksack with leather straps and hitch hiked round Scotland. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free. The air smelt sweet, the hills spectacularly green. I stayed in youth hostels, walked from Inverness through beautiful Glen Affric to the Kyle of Lochalsh then on to Skye and Rasaay. My parents had no idea where I was - no smartphones then. I never looked back. It was too damn frightening to look back.
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