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Monday 23 January 2023

Mick Copier

Most university lecturers work very hard (at least in my experience). They spend hours planning teaching and helping students, and give up too many of their evenings and weekends dealing with email. I also used to put in further time carrying out research, writing academic papers and applying for external funding. With some success, I might add.

Yet I always had a sneaking regard for those who did basically what was asked of them and little more. One such colleague was called Mick Copier.

I first came across him when I still worked in the software industry. My employer sent me on a course in SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method) and Mick was on the same course. Around a year later I got a job at the same university where he worked and found myself sharing an office with him. If truth be told, the course helped me get the job and Mick put in a good word for me.

Part of my role involved visiting students out on their work placement years. Late one morning, arriving back on the train, I was surprised to see Mick at the railway station. “Are you on a placement visit too?” I asked him. “No,” he said, “I’ve done all I need to do today so I thought I would have an afternoon out in York.”

Mick based much of his teaching around the SSADM course we have both been on. I sometimes used it too, but Mick took it to extremes. Every June, our office would fill up with boxes from the reprographics room. Soon they were stacked four or five high and three or four deep. They were his teaching materials for the next academic year. From October to April, all he then had to do was to hand out these pre-prepared notes and worksheets week-by-week and guide the students through them. They nicknamed him Mick Photocopier.

To be fair, he was extremely knowledgeable, and the students liked and respected him.

With his preparation all finished, Mick  then took all his holiday in one block over the summer. While workaholics like me spent our time writing and researching obsessively, he kept a boat on the River Ouse and could comfortably make it to the Mediterranean and back on the French canals. One day I would be like that, I told myself.

Mick came unstuck in the end. Well, sort of. The university decided it needed to reduce the number of lecturers and began a redundancy consultation. I survived, largely because of my research output. Mick didn’t. Instead, he accepted a large voluntary severance payment and walked straight into a new and highly paid position with a nearby passenger transport authority, restructuring their database of bus and train timetables. He even took some of our students on placement. He knew what he was doing, in more ways than one.

I never did get to be like Mick. I think now that I drove myself far too hard.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Night Cleaner

My mother would have said it was the only proper job I ever had. Being stuck in an accountants’ office didn’t count. Nor did poncing around in universities. But twelve-hour nights in a canning factory, well, that was the kind of work her family had always done, and people from her village too.

I was a night cleaner: not the sort of cleaner that normally comes to mind with mops, buckets and toilets, but sturdier stuff involving wellington boots, waterproofs and hosepipes. Our job was to clean the factory machinery overnight in readiness for the following day’s production. I spent three university summers there. It was very well paid.

Some of the permanent employees resented the students for the easy opportunities they had, especially Ken the electrician. His job seemed mainly to keep everything covered in a thick layer of grease to protect switches and circuits from all the water swilling around, but it was no match for our high pressure hoses. From the ladders we climbed to wash stray peas and other vegetables from the hoppers and seamers, it was impossible not to short-circuit his electrics now and again. It sent him apoplectic.

“Call yourselves bloody students? You don’t even have the intelligence you were born with. What the hell do they teach you at university? You can’t even piss straight.”

I once accidentally filled his toolbox trolley with water, the stream from my hose tracing a perfect arc across the factory ceiling. What he thought of that is unrepeatable. It involved the contents of my underpants and what would happen to them were I to do it again. 

The “regulars” knew how to keep the students in their place. The names they gave us, the sayings they used, the jokes they told, were outrageous. Mick, another night shift “regular”, had one of the most creative and imaginative senses of vulgarity I have encountered. He said if anyone tried to drink his tea while he was in the “bog” (toilet), he would tear open their throat and get it back while it flowed through. He didn’t just spit in his cup to make sure no one drank from it, he rubbed a certain part of his anatomy round the rim.

When Nevil Shute (in ‘Slide Rule’) wrote that people from this part of the world were “brutish and uncouth, … the lowest types … ever seen in England, and incredibly foul mouthed”, he simply didn’t get it. It might have been unsophisticated, but it was clever and hilarious.

Donny, however, was different. He was gentle and softly-spoken. He was the night cleaning foreman, our boss. He did not put you down when you missed something, but patiently showed you what was wrong so that you gradually learnt the job. Being quiet, he came in for a lot of teasing from the other “regulars”.

Much of this took place in the factory canteen. Typically, we would start our shift at six in the evening and help in the factory until production ended. We would then take a meal break before the canteen closed. One of the canteen staff was called Josie, a divorced lady who lived in Donny’s village. With her lovely dark hair, she must have been extremely attractive when young. It was made out that Donny had a soft spot for her. This led to rampant invention about what Donny dreamed about. How often did he walk secretly past her house? When would he pluck up the courage to ask her out? Did he keep her picture on the wall next to his bed? Josie laughed, but was clearly embarrassed. Donny said nothing, but took it in his stride. 

The final year I worked at the canning factory was its last. It was to close permanently at the end of the season. The “regulars” were served with redundancy notices. During the final week only Donny and I were on nights. We often finished early except for in the yard where we had to wait for daylight. Donny asked if I would run him to his girlfriends’ in my Minivan, finish on my own outside when it was light, and clock off his time card at six, which I did. It was the first I had heard of a girlfriend. He revealed it was Josie. 

I didn’t see Donny again, but thirty years later I noticed an obituary notice in the local newspaper which my father always saved for me. It was Josie. The final line read, “With heartfelt condolences to Donny, her long-time loving partner”.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Talk like a pirate

New month old post (first posted 19th September 2014)

Robert Newton: the man who taught us to talk like a pirate

Although we did not yet have a television set at home, I used to see Newton in ‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’ at great Aunty Gina’s, where I would go once each week after school for tea. The series was made in Australia in 1954, but by the time it appeared on our screens in England some three years later, he had died from heart failure brought about by chronic alcohol consumption. He had previously played the role in the film, ‘Treasure Island’, in 1950.

Newton’s idiosyncratic one-eyed, one-legged and parrot-shouldered portrayal of Silver was much parodied and instantly memorable. The wildly gyrating eyeball and oddly exaggerated throaty West Country accent became the stereotypical pirate for the next half-century. Its influences are still prominent in the 2003 film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Two Americans even thought it fitting to declare September 19th each year to be ‘International Talk Like A Pirate Day’ when everyone should greet each other with phrases such as “Ahoy, matey!”, and liberally sprinkle their speech with the pirate growl, “Aaarrrh”.

Exactly how do you talk like a pirate? It strikes me that the opening lines of ‘To The Hesitating Purchaser’ which begins Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel ‘Treasure Island’ provides a great model. Newton recites it at the start of every episode:

         If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
         Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
         If schooners, islands, and maroons,
         And buccaneers and buried gold,
         And all the old romance, retold,
         Exactly in the ancient way,
         Can please, as me they pleased of old,
         The wiser youngsters of today:
         So be it (Aarrrh Aarrrh), and fall on!

Just growl it out, stretching and rhoticising the ‘r’s and omitting the ‘d’ out of ‘adventure’, and you’ll sound pretty authentic.

To tell you the truth, I preferred the cleaner-cut, less eccentric Captain Dan Tempest in ‘The Buccaneers’, which was also set in the sixteenth-century age of pirates. Tempest was an ex-pirate, pardoned by the King and turned privateer to fight other pirates and the despicable Spaniards. He never caught the public imagination in the same way as Long John Silver. Perhaps it was because he didn’t talk like a pirate.