‘Disappointed. Deeply disappointed.’
This was the brief comment made by my PhD supervisor when he returned my draft of the first few chapters of my thesis. He proposed a completely new structure to the work, ordering me to jettison my original arguments. I wonder how disappointed he would be if he could see me now, wearing a navy-blue polyester uniform and hefting groceries onto supermarket shelves so that weary shoppers can stare at the bewildering variety of gravy powders and fabric conditioners and tinned peaches.
My mother was also disappointed in me; as an Irish Catholic, she was conditioned to expect that her first son would join the clergy. The idea of my pursuing any other career path was never even considered, since having a priest in the family is a guaranteed bonus ticket to the Pearly Gates.
So here it is, Merry Xmaz Everybody’s Having Fun! It’s the day before the day before Christmas; this time last year I was just nearing the end of my second month at Kernow Coatings, down the road in Tamworth where I was employed as a technologist – spraying powder and liquid coatings onto gritblasted aluminised steel panels.
The gritblast booth was downstairs in the workshop next to the warehouse where they cut the rolls of fluorinated plastic film into sections. There was also a liquid ammonia treatment tank for activating the polymer surface but I never had any contact with this department.
The lads on the factory floor would have a radio blaring all day; and in the run up to Xmas, the playlist included Slade, Wizzard, and Mud along with Dame Eltonia (Step into Xmas) and Gilbert (I’m Not Dreaming of a White Xmas).
Did they listen to any of the Christmas Oratorio by JS Bach? No, they did not.
But now it’s a year on, and I am working as a shelf-stacker in a local supermarket, carrying cardboard trays laden with tins of peaches, pears and prunes. Cartons of milk – skimmed, semi-skimmed, goats’ milk, soya milk, almond milk, rice milk. Plastic tubs of fruit, the mandarin segments drifting lazily in their crystal-clear juice like laboratory specimens. Tinned fruit in syrup. Tinned fruit in juice. Plastic fruit in peach jelly, in strawberry jelly, in tropical jelly.
The individual cartons are packed together as a group of three in a gleaming cardboard sleeve, gorgeously printed with the company logo and an illustration of the fruit itself. The cardboard had to be inspected during production; the pigments in the printing ink were tested for colour strength and light-fastness and nitrosamine residues before they were approved for use in this food-packaging application.
The pigments and resins and surfactants were all produced on the far side of the globe and transported by ship to Europe, where they were inspected and packed into smaller containers, each of which bore a company identifying label; the adhesive and paper and printing inks on this label were likewise carefully tested for lightfastness and mechanical strength, and to ensure that these labels did not succumb to attack by moulds and moisture, the components were all dosed with a tiny level (0.3 – 0.7 percent) of some biocidal preservative compound such as the lovely isothiazoline or nicotinamide derivatives.
Of course, the peaches begin their life on trees where they are sprayed with an assortment of deadly potions to stop attack by insects and diseases. Then they end up on a cargo ship where they are generously dusted with preservative powder to prevent microbial degradation before being packed into large cartons by illiterate, poorly-paid workers on inspection lines.
Renoir and his contemporaries enjoyed painting peaches as preparation for rendering in smooth, unctuous oils the tempting buttocks of their female nudes. The French Impressionists used powerful, vivid colours made from lead chromate, which cannot be matched by any of the currently available organic yellow pigments, the luscious derivatives of benzimidazole or quinophthalone carefully crystallised from huge pressurised vats of solvent – one false move and the residents of a small town could be annihilated, another Bhopal or Seveso, another clumsy dosing of the air with dioxin contaminated agent blue-agent-green-agent-purple-agent-pink-agent-orange.
The supermarket floor, meanwhile, is firmly bound with stain-resistant tiles carrying a random design of mottled grains so that any blemishes are easy to ignore. The powder-coated shelves are finished in a neutral beige that renders them invisible; the passing shoppers see nothing but the tins they’re looking for. They don’t see the tins of low-cost, budget merchandise that snobbery won’t even let them touch; they don’t see the shelf that holds the goods aloft; they don’t even notice me, on hands and knees trying to adjust the position of a tray of blueberry pie-filling tins.
We have a dazzling array of jams and preserves – strawberry, black cherry, fig, raspberry, seedless raspberry, strawberry plus wild strawberry, apricot, blueberry, blackcurrant – but today a customer asked me for quince jelly, which I had never seen on our shelves. I felt quite deflated by this encounter, and my only consolation was thinking that quince fruit is a bold yellow shade that could be achieved using a blend of bismuth vanadate with benzimidazolone yellow.
We have a staggering range of cake decorations – tiny milk chocolate strands, small candy beads in a range of colours, white chocolate stars, gold confetti, dainty little flowers made of icing, white pearlescent beads, metallised silver beads, and food colouring gel – but today a customer asked me for dark chocolate hundreds-and-thousands, which I had never seen on our shelves. This failure to satisfy plunged me into a grim depression.
And since it is Christmas, the store is filled with tempting pastries – mince pies, brandy-laced mince pies, puff pastry mince pies, gluten-free mince pies, diabetic mince pies, large family mince pies, chocolate flavoured mince pies, ice-cream mince pies – but today a customer asked me if we had any mince pies and I cheerfully advised him that we had an aisle dedicated to festive produce. He shook his head sadly; sorry, he said, but you’ve run out.
I wanted to yell ‘Thank God for that!’ before performing a series of cartwheels the entire length of the shop and somersaulting gaily into a towering display of Fox’s Luxury Biscuits: but instead, I merely said ‘I’m sorry to hear that; we may have some delivered tomorrow morning.’
After unpacking the tins and packets of peaches and noodles and healthy soya-bean bars, we are left with an immense mound of torn cardboard. Some of this card is actually a pristine white colour, and is printed to make it resemble brown kraft paper board. Instead of the usual CMYK four colour print system, these cardboard cases often use bespoke inks in blue and brown.
And the packaging design has probably been tested by a dozen focus groups to establish which particular style of lettering and which background colour serves to make the contents look most appealing. All the abandoned cardboard reminds me of the ESOF16 Science Fair, when I worked as a volunteer helper, packing the delegate bags with glossy brochures and advertising flyers. After an hour, we had generated enough waste card to fill three mobile skips.
In the store, we have had the public address system broadcasting suitably seasonal tunes; we have Shakin’ Stevens and Paul McCartney and Slade and Wizzard (but no Gary Glitter, whose jaunty tale of another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas filled many a dancefloor in the seventies).
But tonight, for some reason, after about eleven o’clock we were treated to Simply Red Greatest Hits. Whenever I hear ‘Holding Back the Years’ I am reminded of Del-boy Trotter looking miserable at a wedding reception, and I half expected the lights to be dimmed and a languid mirrorball to cover the walls with skating mysterons when this song started up.
On previous occasions, when I have left the store at half-past midnight, there has been bold, vigorous birdsong echoing across the car park; but tonight it was silent except for the hum of the chiller units. Perhaps the bird had been scared off by Hurricane Barbara who descended on Scotland today and then hit Manchester, giving us a five-minute horizontal deluge…like walking through a car-wash, as my workmate described it.
Anyway, I was instructed to fill the shelves with all manner of full-fat sugar-laden goodies, and my colleague told me to make sure that all the tins were uniformly aligned, with their name facing directly forwards. This struck me as being a kind of obsessive behaviour, and just goes to show that ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’.