The first in a series of posts exploring my work history, eventually revealing how I ended up working in libraries. This post: delivering newspapers and working in a bakery.
I’m 42, married, with two children, and I work in an academic library in Oxford, as a part-time library assistant. How did I end up here? Let’s start at the beginning…
Like many school kids in the 1980s, my first paid job was working as a paperboy, delivering local free newspapers twice a week after school. I did not enjoy folding those piles of newspapers, inserting all the leaflets, and then lugging them around my neighbourhood in a shopping trolley. I didn’t like getting my hands covered in newsprint, or having to go outside during bad weather. I did enjoy, however, listening to my Walkman while I was delivering the newspapers, and I certainly came to appreciate getting paid each week. I tended to save up those precious pounds, to later spend in Woolworths, buying new tapes to play on the aforementioned Walkman. I was a paperboy for two or three years, and as I progressed through my awkward teenage years, the less I wanted to be seen doing it. What I learned from this: sometimes you have to suffer to get paid, but music makes everything better.
The summer before sixth form started (i.e. the same summer that I had completed my GCSE exams) my parents were keen for me to take up a proper summer job. One of their friends knew someone who worked in a bakery, and apparently, they said they would find me a summer job there. I was told to go to the bakery one Monday morning, because a job had been lined up for me. I dutifully cycled across town, to the bakery, which was actually an industrial-scale bakery, situated among the factories on an industrial estate. It was owned by a famous chef, who I will refrain from identifying, for reasons which shall become apparent. I walked into the reception area, and told the member of staff that I was here to start work today. She looked a little puzzled, said she wasn’t aware that I would be coming, and didn’t recognize my name. However, she called one of the chefs through, who escorted me to the staff locker room, handed me a white chef’s jacket and invited me through to the factory floor.
I spent the next few weeks standing at a counter, with a bunch of temporary employees, making mini pizzas; we were given trays of prepared pizza bases, and had to ladle on tomato sauce, sprinkle on some cheese, and place an olive and an anchovy on each one. It was messy, boring, smelly repetitive work, and by the end of each day my white overalls were splattered with so much tomato sauce that it looked like I had murdered someone.
As the end of summer approached, I was asked if I would be interested in staying on as a weekend-only member of staff; obviously, I thought to myself, my pizza-topping skills had not gone unnoticed. I accepted, and although dismayed at the prospect of losing all my weekends, I looked forward to earning more money that I had ever had before, while simultaneously studying for my A levels. For the next two years, I worked from 6am until 2pm every Saturday and Sunday.
Thankfully, my duties progressed from topping pizzas to rolling croissants, inserting the chocolate sticks into pain au chocolat, and eventually, I became supervisor in the packing department, being responsible for individually wrapping croissants and cakes that were ordered by Heathrow and Gatwick airports, P&O Ferries, and Buckingham Palace. Yes, it is quite possible that the Queen has eaten a croissant that I helped to make.
Hot and Cold
Working in a bakery, as you can imagine, was quite lovely in winter, when I would be warmed by the ovens and soothed by the smell of hundreds of croissants being baked. In summer, though, it was a different story; those ovens would torment me by raising the already high temperatures, and I would sweat while unloading hot croissants from the baking trays, so I could pack them. I used to sneak off to the huge walk-in fridges, where all the cream cakes and pastries were stored, and stand in there for a few minutes to cool myself down.
Often there would be a delay while I was waiting for the croissants to cook, so I would head upstairs to the store-room, and eat handfuls of raisins and, occasionally, some of the sticks of dark chocolate that would otherwise be intended for the pain au chocolat. Sometimes, to relieve the boredom, I would hide raisins in some of the croissants, wondering if anyone would notice when they ate them, smirking to myself as I imagined their surprise.
Ready to quit
Two years there was enough, and I quit, so that I could spend my weekends revising for my A level exams. During that time, though, I had saved so much money, more money than I had ever had before, that I was able to afford to take a gap year before I had to go to university. I was thrilled at the prospect of a whole year of freedom, after having had spent all my weekends surrounded by never-ending trays of croissants. I used to love croissants, but it was at least five years before I could bring myself to eat one again. Upon leaving, I realized my parents’ friend hadn’t set me up with a job at all; I had simply walked into that bakery and told them I was starting work that day, and against all the odds, they actually gave me a job. It wasn’t until I told them I wanted to resign that they discovered they had no record of me in their HR system; it was a miracle that I had actually got paid each month! What I learned from this: sometimes you really can just walk into a job.
Part Two to follow…