Arnold Bennett, Lemmy, Mitchell and Butlers, Mr Kipling Cakes, National Garden Festival, Nottingham Forest, production lines, Robbie Williams, Slash, Staffordshire oatcakes, Stanley Matthews, Stoke on Trent
A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 102
I’ve always been very fond of Stoke. I lived here for a while in the late seventies. I stayed with friends who both worked for big pot banks (both now closed down), and worked night-shifts at the Mr Kipling Bakery in Trent Vale. It had an immense turnover of staff. By the time I had been there for four weeks I was an old hand. By the time I had been there for seven weeks I couldn’t stand it any longer.
Boredom was the main problem. The shift lasted eleven hours making a fifty five hour week. There wasn’t much opportunity for conversation during the working hours as endless lines of almond cake came out of endless ovens to be made into almond slices by the cutting machine that just kept on going up and down up and down. There was little stimulus in picking the cakes up and placing them in the plastic trays that were the inner wrappers. For two minutes, on the first day, the task was tricky and then it became monotonous. To break the boredom we’d try to cram eight cakes into a tray designed for six which would soon have a quality controller running.
Breaks were regular to allow for the monotony. There was nothing to do during the breaks other than to go to the canteen where a wall eyed chef with a limited repertoire served an awful lot of toasted cheese. In the first weeks we used to go to the pub that stood between the Kipling bakery and the larger Mothers’ Pride Bakery next door. Our jobs may have bored us to death, in return for a wage that was hardly generous, but there were those whose loyalty to the firm went to commendable lengths. Just as there are skirmishes and fights between students at adjacent schools so there were fights between workers of the respective bakeries. I can just about imagine the conditions where I would be prepared to fight for my country (conditions a little like the start of World War two would do it) but I cannot imagine ever being prepared to stand up and fight for the good name of Mr Kipling against the slanders thrown by loyal employees of Mothers’ Pride. As far as I was aware, both were owned by the same Rank Hovis MacDougall organisation. But fellows did come to fisticuffs and blood was spilt and we were forbidden to take our breaks over a pint of Mitchell and Butlers.
So it was the canteen and a plate of toasted cheese (sometimes with chopped onion, sometimes with tomato – the chef had an extensive range) every break time. Boredom was rife even during these breaks and card schools dominated the canteens. I regularly witnessed £100 or £200 change hands over a game of five card brag or poker. Fifty five hours of Kipling put about £120 in you pocket.
Workers of little brain would go to any length to advance the company. Most of us looked for ways of making the eleven hours pass more quickly. One way was to press the red stop button on the cutter. All the foreman had to do to get the line working again was to press the green start button right next to the red one. He couldn’t do this. One of the ‘operatives’ (we weren’t afforded the respect of a good proletarian term like ‘workers’. Operatives of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your dignity.) was delegated to sweep the uncut mass of cake into black polythene bags while the rest of us were despatched to the canteen where some reverted to cards and I had another round of tea and toasted cheese and read a book quietly in the corner. A pair of fitters were called for, who took much of the machinery to pieces before re-assembling it, pressing the green button and the cutter began it’s up and downing again and we were called back from raising seeing and a taut narrative structure.
There was also a work cycle that everyone who lasted more than a month followed. Pretend you were finding your job taxing would see you transferred to a simpler task. If you said you couldn’t pack the cakes then they’d move you onto loading the cardboard boxes into the automatic packing machine. Sometimes these boxes said Mr Kiplings on them and sometimes they said Sainsbury’s. The same cakes filled them. Tire of that and they’d move you onto packing the individual boxes (the ones you buy in the supermarket) into large cardboard cartons. This involved sitting around a large rotating table as the boxes of cakes came down the line. The worst job involved the least work. It was to sit next to a very fast moving conveyer belt which whisked the boxes of cakes from packing area to rotating table. There was nothing to do until a box got caught and a blockage was created. At first you stare at the belt and watch the boxes of cakes flash by. After two minutes you were hypnotised to the ninth degree and liable to fall off your stool. The only way to do the job was to turn your back on the belt and sing along with the songs on the incessant radio until disturbed by the clatter of boxes tumbling onto the floor.
There was a huge problem with pilfering. Management tried to get round this by selling us cakes for next to no money. I was happy with this and left each morning with a couple of carrier bags of assorted fancies for friends to hand round at morning break at the pot banks. Others saw theft as part of the challenge. Once caught you were summarily dismissed. People still did it. There was no skill, no camaraderie and no dignity in the job. Some of those who lost fortunes at cards worked weekends as well and some drove taxis on top of that. There had recently been a change of government and we had all been promised that discord would turn to harmony. It was the early stages of Thatcher’s Britain and my God it was dismal.
I’d walk home in the morning and have the first pleasant thought in a dozen hours as I watched commuters going to work as I was heading in the opposite direction. I remember it was the year Nottingham Forest won the European Cup. My brother in law lived in Stoke and was a keen Forest fan. I began to take an interest. When I started at Kiplings, Forest were an also run side from the East Midlands who had had an good season. By the time I left the cake factory they were the best team in the world. I’d buy a paper and some oatcakes and make a Staffordshire breakfast of bacon and cheese wrapped tortilla style (we didn’t know what a tortilla was so weren’t aware of this) and eaten with relish before going to bed.
On Saturdays I missed out sleep as I joined in a social day that began with badminton but had descended to downing pints by lunch-time. One day I walked all the way to the factory gates and found that I just couldn’t go in. I stood there for a while aware that there was a major unemployment problem in the country at large. But I just couldn’t face another shift. Eventually I turned on my heels and found a pub where I quietly drank four pints of malt beer before walking home.
The city has gone through hard times since then. All of the people I knew have since left the area. Potbanks closed one after the other. The government financed a garden scheme that allowed them to say they were helping the deprived regions while continuing to close the coal mines that were Stoke’s other means of employment. I’m fond of the place. It served its time in creating the wealth of the nation but has never been particularly well served by the nation.
As well as Thomas Minton, and the two Josiahs (Wedgewood and Spode), the Five Towns have given us Arnold Bennett (one of my favourite novelists and one who had kept me company on the early part of this journey as well as during my time at Kiplings. The book I read in the canteen was Anna of the Five Towns). It gave England its greatest ever footballer in Stanley Matthews. RJ Mitchell, the man who designed the Spitfire (and arguably thereby won the war for England) was born in nearby Kidsgrove and went to school in Hanley. Stoke has made the dubious contribution to world music by providing us with Slash, guitarist from Guns and Roses, Lemmy from Motorhead and Robbie Williams from Take That. The trail of misfortune continues. Edward Smith, the captain of The Titanic was from Stoke. Its most famous current resident is probably Phil “The Power” Taylor who has been world champion at darts more times than anyone else. As I said. Times have been hard for Stoke. Even toilet manufacturers Twyfords have relocated to Alsager leaving the city without the proverbial pot.
I pass by and feel for the place. Good people live here. They’ve waited long enough for the good times.