I had an aunt whose father was the longtime vicar of Kintbury. He was notoriously vague. Once, coming home with his wife, he discovered that they had been burgled. He rushed to the phone and rang 999. His wife, Barbara, calmly checked what might (or might not) have gone missing. Exasperated, he shouted after her. “Appalling. The police. Why don’t they answer?” She stuck her head round the door and looked at him.
“Well, Basil,” she said patiently, “It might help if you picked up the receiver.”
The Reverend Basil Martin-Jones was the perfect, harried prototype for a British comedy stalwart. One day, caught short in the centre of town, he nipped into the public loo. Relieving himself, he recognised the attendant as one of his loyal parishioners. In the moment, he felt compelled to say something. He launched a half formulated question.
“Hello,” he said. ” How’s, er, business?”
“Oh, it’s terrible, Vicar,” replied the man. “We’re nearly two hundred shits down on last month.”
“That doesn’t sound very good,” said Basil, not entirely sure how to respond.
“Yes, Vicar,” said his parishioner. “I mean, to you a shit is just a shit but, to me, it’s bread and butter.”
I thought about this as I took a holiday job, as a student, at the Molins factory near High Wycombe. It lasted very nearly three months. I was a lavatory attendant.
Molins employed about 1000 workers on a huge site in the Buckinghamshire village of Saunderton. A precision engineering business, the company manufactured machines that made cigarettes. In 1980, these cost around a million quid each. The machines looked like larger, dumpier versions of R2-D2 and produced hundreds of cigarettes a minute. A great deal of tobacco was kept under lock and key, in bond, used for testing them out. Walking the production lines, I’d come across small, earnest gangs of men in white coats, watching as machine gun sprays of fags shot into the air. Some of group would be absent-mindedly puffing on the rejects, the more epic fails being anything up to a foot long. Others would suck carefully on the lumpy little Twiglets. As the chief charge hand was tweaking some screw or other, the gathering exhaled languidly, a Wonky Ciggies Club, recast as if for a group portrait painting.
Smoking the test cigarettes wasn’t, technically, permitted. The tobacco was supposed to go back to the strong room. Every now and then, we’d be descended upon by HM Customs officers. I think they saw themselves as some sort of paramilitary wing of Ofsted, but they were actually rather jovial. Painstakingly weighing the tobacco, the uniformed men would wink before deciding what duty to charge for the missing deficit.
Amongst the actual factory workers, I was entranced by the collision of old-fashioned, British industrial values, curiously James Bond-like gadgetry and slightly-below-the-radar tobacco consumption.
My boss was very small and Welsh. On the cusp of retirement, Arthur had been a nurse for most of his life, until lavatory attending loomed into view as the closing act. He had round glasses, a happy face untroubled by cynicism and a characteristic sing-song voice. On his insistence, we were ‘hygiene operatives’. He went to the pub on Friday lunchtimes. In half an hour, he’d drink three or four pints at breakneck speed with a few blokes from the line, and return pissed. He struck me as extremely happy with his lot.
Most mornings, we’d sit in the canteen with mugs of tea at elevenses, ruminating on the numbers, digestive incidents and habits of our respective customers. Curry nights take on a whole new meaning when you’re a loo attendant. I had 200 men going into one of my facilities (‘C’, the one where I sat in an old shower), and 250 into ‘D’, which was the other. I had to be there for 7.30 am. The start of the factory’s day shift was 8am. Without fail, six blokes would appear in ‘C’ when the hooter sounded and disappear, in a perfect, synchronised steeplechase, into the six traps, each with a cup of tea, a newspaper, a packet of fags or rolling tobacco and deep sighs of contentment. With luck, they’d reappear by 8.30. Beaming.
My predecessor had thoughtfully left a stack of rather tame pornographic magazines in my shower to while away the hours. Instead, I mostly wrote geography essays, or actually set about cleaning the place to the surprise of my clientele. On several occasions, I was on the receiving end of exchanges of the ‘Blimey-a-bloke-who-actually-cleans-the-toilets’ variety, both heartening and human. Arthur’s advice was that, when bored or wanting a leg stretch, I should arm myself with the most evil looking, black and glistening toilet brush I could find and march about the factory. “No-one will come close to you,” he said with authority. He was right. I explored the whole site whilst onlookers gave me the widest possible berth.
My time at Molins proved of great interest in job interviews when I left university, two years later. Perhaps the apotheosis of my hygiene operations came in ‘D’ block. On a normal day, I would visit the more populated of my two establishments, just off the main production line, simply to check, clean up, refill the paper supply, the towels and the soap before scuttling back to my shower and writing about adiabatic lapse rates or tilt flow rain gauges. That morning, I wandered in to discover the urinals were blocked. It was awful. Who knew what with.
I ran to Arthur. He rose to the occasion with magisterial grace. “Dyno-rod,” he said firmly. “I’ll call them.”
We sat and munched ginger biscuits. I thought of what I’d seen. A grotesque aberration of the Trevi Fountain, it was my first major ‘incident’. Arthur counselled me with solemn reassurance. Dyno-rod would arrive in minutes. They’d do their Swat team stuff. Meanwhile, 250 men were having to pee in other loos in the factory. I squirmed, convinced it was my fault.
“Happens all the time,” ventured Arthur. “All be alright. You’ll see.”
A tall, thin man approached us with the gravity of an undertaker. He was a line worker in dark blue overalls. “Hello, mate of mine,” sang Arthur. The man ducked his balding head.
“I think you’d better come and have a look at Block D,” he said and left it at that. We hurried away.
When you pump nine cubic metres of air through a hole the size of a cigar in just under a second, the results are spectacular. Cigarette ends. Matches. Pineapple chunks. Small change. The floor, walls and ceiling of Block D were coated with the post explosive shrapnel that had caused the blockage. Everything was hideously damp. Hieronymous Bosch teaming up with the special effects department from Ridley Scott’s Alien couldn’t have done better. I was very nearly sick. Four hours later, after some intense, high pressure hose action and a lot of protective clothing, I restored the place to normal service.
Stepping onto the Molins operated coach towards home that afternoon, an older factory worker sitting at the front looked at me kindly and spoke up. “It’s the bog bloke, driver,” he announced. “Ee dun a good job today.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever received higher praise.