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Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Minster Minerals and the Little Red Book

My very first job was a paper round which paid me 7 /- 6d a week. Following a gentle hint from my dad I gave it to my mum for housekeeping in continuance of a long working class tradition. Both were pleased by the gesture, but mercifully it was returned.

After that, especially during my student years the part time job became paramount. I’ve worked delivering bread for ‘Mothers Pride’ bakeries and still remember the warm and sweet yeasty smell of the ovens and the diesel fumes of the vans, their engines running on dark winter mornings. I’ve queued for summer jobs at the Corona lemonade factory someway down Hall lane but the queues were always too long and I always got there too late.

The job which paid most money and which nearly destroyed my mind was the night shift in a bottling factory. Minster Minerals. I was put in charge of the capping machine which stood below a very large clock. The shift was 10 pm to 6 am, and my job was to refill the capping container when ever it ran low. This basically involved standing there, gazing from clock to capping machine and back again. The conveyer clinked and a thousand bottles passed; the caps in the transparent capper jiggled and slowly subsided like sand in an hour glass…The second hand ticked…You are feeling sleepy…sleepy…. It was crash course in self hypnosis – only when that happened the capping machine ran empty and hundreds of un-capped bottles passed on a conveyor belt that couldn’t be stopped.

The foreman screamed and you ran backwards and forwards in panic, taking off the uncapped bottles and re-filling the capping machine as fast as you could. Then back to the tick of the clock and a brain slowly dying.

There was one other person there with a worse job. Quality control. He had to sit by the side of the conveyor belt, scrutinizing each bottle as it passed, watching out for foreign bodies or a level of liquid that was more or less than it should be. He went quietly mad, putting in foreign bodies to give his job meaning. Cockroaches, wood-lice, some he even pissed in.

At last the foreman took pity on me. He put me in charge of a small forklift truck but this promotion ended when I ran over my own foot… Or was it me? Maybe Stephen King had once worked in Minster Minerals and shortly afterwards wrote Christine.
But the money was good, for those days, and I met interesting people. I met Tim, a casual teacher who worked when he needed money and spent the rest of the time wine-making and brewing beer, which he stored beneath the stairs. I met a Chinese student called Andy who was enamored of Mao tse Tung, and who handed round these little red books.

It was the height of the Cultural Revolution and about that time a Chinese Ship had berthed in Liverpool docks. It caused a great stir amongst the Dockers. The ship was festooned with banners and flags, its crew on all decks, singing and waving their books like handkerchiefs. The great proletarian revolution had arrived, much to the surprise of the Liverpool docker. ‘Daft twats’ said with amusement, seemed the prevailing view.

Not really Liverpool's style.

Shortly afterwards the little red book began to circulate, discarded by contemptuous Dockers. I have one still as a curiosity. I probably also have a file in British security by virtue of this Chinese student whose name I can't quite believe was Andy. He told me you could get white leather bound copies of the works of Chairman Mao by writing to the Chinese embassy. I looked at the capping machine.

“I’m not spending my money on that!”

“No, they give them away if you’re poor.”

Hmm… A Homer Simpson moment.

The Keyton acquisitive gene took over. And I duly wrote my begging letter stressing my poverty and my undying admiration for the Great Helmsman. They didn’t seem that impressed, sending me another copy of the little red book. No doubt they learnt about my well paid job in Minster Minerals.

Post script
All jobs have their drawbacks. My friend Geoff Fimister had a job cleaning out the sugar tunnels in Tate and Lyles. When he emerged after a shift his hair was four times bigger framing his face in Afro-Candy-floss. Still, better than teaching.


merrick said...

Great piece. I remember doing nightshifts on a carrot factory up beyond Southport, watching washed carrots go past on a conveyor belt. Again, people got so bored they put in the stuff they were supposed to watch for (errant parsnips, potatoes and the occasional drowned rodent).

Anyway, can you remember any more about Minster Minerals? Do you know where the factory was?

Mike Keyton said...

Hi Merrik,
thanks for the compliment, and for dropping by. I think the factory may have been on Smithdown lane. I've googled Minster Minerals since, looking for a picture of the factory or even a bottle to illustrate the piece. Other than it was once a subsidiary of, or at least supplied Tetley Walker, I don't remember anything else. Watching carrots go by sounds like fun - the drowned rodents especially so. I think the 1960's and 70's were the golden age of inventive industrial sabotage - Think the Liverpool echo compositers, and one particularly disgruntled employee of Blackpool Rock.

merrick said...

It's Googling Minster that led me here. I was just doing some idle background searching about John Freeborn, a Battle of Britain pilot who died last week, who was Minster's Regional Director after his wartime heroism was over.

There's a reference in 1971 to Minster being on Wellington Road

Would that be the Wellington Road in Toxteth or the one in Wavertree?

Can't find a bottle, but there's a jug for sale on Ebay

Regarding workers' sport, I know of two 1980s employees of Rathbones bread in Skem who were both smokers and would have gobbing competitions into the dough mixers. Nice.

merrick said...

And then there's a beermat for you.


Mike Keyton said...

Wavertree. Thanks. Thanks also for the ebay tips - only thing was, copied and pasted the two links only to find they've already gone. They're not there! Who'd a thought Minster would one day be collectible?
My favourite stories of industrial sabotage is the disgruntled employee who typeset 'Fuck Off' instead of 'Welcome to Blackpool' in sticks of Rock. I bet they'd be collectible. Then there were the Liverpool printers who in the Echo made mention of the actor Penis Price in the Empire theatre. They were forced to print a retraction the following day - which read: 'We apologise for yesterday's error which should of course have been Denis Prick in the Empire theatre