Amazon Kindle Store

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Fit as a butcher's dog. Part One.

I mentioned in the last post that I used to be a butcher and I thought that it might be of interest to my readers to know a little about that period in my life back in the early 1970s to the late 1980s. There are a lot of stories to tell you so I think I shall do it in three parts; the early years, the Dewhurst years and the years leading up to my escape.

Intrigued? Read on. Get the tissues because you won't stop laughing.

I left school with no qualifications and had, to be honest, very little idea of what I wanted to do as a job. I was a young man with his head filled with the Scouts, young women my age and not a lot else apart from a slowly growing love of language and writing. Initially I worked for Royal Crown Derby making bone china Dubloon pattern ashtrays and tea cup handles for dainty cups for dainty ladies. Alas, I broke so many in their biscuit state that, in the modern parlance, they had to ‘let me go’ after two years and many ignored ‘warnings’.

After my release from the world of broken porcelain I drifted for a couple of weeks and at one point got severely dissuaded by my Dad in my then, odd ambitions, to join the Army and work in the Army Catering Corps. Never occurred to me that I may have to go to war to feed the soldiers! Hey, but at least I showed early signs of now being interested in food!

So one day in the early 1970s I spied an advert in the Derby Evening Telegraph newspaper that was asking for an apprentice butcher or a ‘muggin’s’. The position was needed to be filled needed asap.

I applied rather eagerly, and in some desperation, as after two whole weeks of being out of work I was becoming the ‘slacker’ of the family and that wouldn’t do at all. So I went for this job at a butcher’s shop in the small lower Derbyshire village of Little Eaton. The establishment was called Bosworth’s the Butchers, situated just off Alfreton Road and next to the Queen’s Head pub. The shop is now run and owned by Barry Fitch and to my knowledge does very well. Back then I was accepted at a paupers wage and stayed there until 1975.

My work colleagues in the shop were all male. There was a big built fella called Alan who was the manager and looked an archetypal butcher in his blue striped apron and blood bruised white coat. He had arms thicker than my legs and enjoyed a constant moan about there being ‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians’ in the shop. This was a saying that was way beyond my understanding at the time. I don’t think that I had even met an Indian, American or otherwise. As well as Alan there was a ginger haired man with big sideburns. He was called Ted and he came from Bakewell and had a very broad Derbyshire accent. The words ‘home cured bacon’ came out of Ted’s mouth as “Om queue-ed baircon”. It took me months to understand him. Additionally there was a man called Richard and another older man called Jack who lived in the village itself. To my naïve knowledge of the world these gentlemen all seemed very worldly wise and grown up. On a Friday we all used to go to a working man’s café at Chester Green and buy our own dinner and custardy pudding. That my friends, was ultra grown up for me!

Most of the time that I was engaged in work there I would be delivering raw and cooked meat associated products and fresh farm eggs to folk in the village of Little Eaton, including to some businesses like the local pubs. My mode of transport was an ancient old Co-op ‘sit up and beg’ delivery bike with a colour scheme of black and rust. Real rust. It had a deep wicker woven basket in the front to carry the goods and a chain that had been deprived of the pleasure of a good oiling since Dickensian times, if not longer. Every morning except Sunday I would be whizzing around – come hail or shine- on this solid monster of a bike handing out parcels of goodies. The bike had no gears and the brakes were dodgy but I loved it. The company’s own cooked ham was very popular and came in pre-metric quarter pounds, half pounds and pounds and the less calculable element of individual slices’. On Saturday I would be collecting the monies owed for all the goods people had ordered 'on the slate.'

The loose paper-bagged eggs tended to dance about the basket and pre-scramble as I negotiated the various potholes in the roads, country lanes and also the rural train tracks that ran alongside the village brook. I loved cycling about on this old bike and remember an old and closed Paper Mill at the end of the orchard behind Bosworths’ where I used to take the bike and excitedly investigate the interior ramps in my dinner break. It was cool. I used to skid and race about all over the place, often narrowly missing going into the deep brook called Bottle brook.

Aside from my cycling deliveries I would go out in the van with Jack on a Tuesday morning and deliver ordered goods from the butchers to Breadsall Village, Morley Village and even parts of the bigger council estate of Chaddesden. I always enjoyed these day trips out. Jack was like an uncle figure and put up with the sulky teenager that was me as his delivery companion. The days out with Jack seemed adventurous and I can remember sitting in the passenger seat of this red van in my butchery gear and coat and wearing my cycling gloves and Eddy Mercx cycling cap. What must I have looked like!?

When it was cold I took out a tartan-patterned flask of Heinz tomato soup to keep me warm as well as some of me Mum’s best beef dripping and salt sandwiches. My Dad liked them so I had to endure them too as Mum did both ‘pack ups’ together and wasn’t going to mess around making different lots. One day I complained bitterly and from that day on I had to get my own sandwiches at a cost to me outside of the weekly money I gave my Mum for my board or upkeep. All I wanted was cheese salad sandwiches every day! Is that too much to ask?

My main work at Bosworth’s was to clean up after everybody and to help with the weekly routines that formed, amongst other things; the preparation of home-made sausages from the basic ingredients; the gutting of chickens; the cooking of hams and tongues in a big domestic style boiler; the slaughtering of cattle and lambs on a Monday and the washing down afterwards. Additionally I was made to scrub out the fridges on a thrice weekly basis and to clean the shop windows and the insides of the delivery vans. Looking back I was constantly up to my elbows in hot water and soap and surrounded with machinery covered in meat bits like the constantly used mincing machine and other butchery tools such as knifes and saws and cleavers.
I have to say that the abattoir aspect of the job came as a bit of a surprise. I thought that the cows had come for a trot around the orchard and a nibble at the grass not to be bumped off! I certainly have no recall of that being mentioned at the interview with Mrs B. The conversation probably went as such:

Mrs B: Ey up young 'un, do you need a job?

Me: Yes.

Mrs B: I can’t pay much.

Me: Er…

Mrs B: You’ll get some free faggots and sweetbreads and as many free bones for as you want for your dog.

Me: Er… my dog likes bones. What are faggots and sweet …?

Mrs B: I’ve got the kettle on the stove. Can’t stop. Busy. Your mother will have to wash your overalls and apron. OK? So you’ll start on Munday?

Me: Er… Yes.

Mrs B: Good lad. See ya Munday.

One of the less savoury jobs for the dogsbody that was me back then, was pushing wheelbarrow loads of steaming grass-green cow shit up the orchard after a beast had been slaughtered, usually followed by a lot of flies in the Summer. If I wasn’t engaged in this then I would have my right hand up a chicken’s arse in order to remove the guts and lungs and make the fowl less foul for the customer. Customers back in the 1970s were probably more aware of the provenance of their meat products especially in the village and its close historical associations with farm culture back then. However most still wanted to buy the sanitised version of the part or whole of the dead animal. Pre- Christmas the turkeys were all fresh and prepared at the butchers and I recall a special contraption that would yank the sinews out of the tough turkey legs and it was my job to make sure that there was nothing too chewy for the customers to complain about. I did a lot of yanking back then. I was a teenager.

At this stage in my apprenticeship there were still many things that I wasn’t allowed or able to do such as the complex ‘breaking up’ of the larger dead and hung animals. The bigger jobs would be the fore quarters and hind quarters of the steers and cows and the splitting of the pigs and lambs were left to the more experienced butchers at Bosworth’s too. Just before I left they allowed me to bone a leg of beef and I’d also been shown how to make up and string sausages as they pumped out of the skin fed metal tube like sausage toothpaste. Linking the sausages was like knitting with your hands and juggling very slippery sausages in their fresh wet skins. I also remember a lot of products sitting on buckets of brine in the stock fridge.

One of the ‘perks’ of the job was being forced to have lunch with the shop’s owner – the very scary Mrs Brenda Bosworth. She was like a gigantic lump of hairy lard in a shapeless paisley pattern dress with encrusted and stained apron. She always seemed to have rollers in her hair and a fag dangling from her bitter and twisted mouth. Railway Red lipstick graced her livery lips in a fashion that would suggest that she had very recently bitten the head off a terrifed chicken. So far in my teenage life she was the only woman I had seen with a moustache – like Hitler’s.

So anyway, all of us butchers would reluctantly converge in her grubby pre war style kitchen (she lived behind the shop) on a Thursday dinner and she would have cooked a lunch for us. All we had to do was eat it and wash up afterwards. It counted as part of one’s wages. It wasn’t a treat by any means. Usually it was shoulder of lamb, a mound of mashed potatoes and peas. One time the cooked meat had a silvery green tinge to it and smelt off but we still felt obliged to eat it.

Whilst eating, her Airedale dog, Patch, would sit and salivate by our knees and after soaking our shoes and legs in doggy drool the poor creature would be reprimanded by a shrieking Mrs B with an ear splitting “PATCH DOWN!” She was so loud that not only would Patch jump but all us blokes leapt up and the pot duck formation on the wall would move forward a notch. Not exactly a relaxed atmosphere for a meal. Her kitchen reeked of Capstan cigarette smoke and seemed a bit unsavoury with the bowls of congealed dog food by the foot of the gas cooker. The grey meat was a wonderful attraction for a disco of flies dancing about the surface of its contents.

Looking back it all seems to be from another old –fashioned era populated by domineering characters quite cartoon-like in their remembering such as Mrs B and her constant droop of ciggy ash from the glowing cigarette nub threatening to decorate the bacon slicer and condemn the premises as unhygienic. In my daily work I would only see the smoky vision of Mrs Bosworth as she appeared from the hatch of her hovel twice a week to demand a cut of meat from Alan the manager. She also had an odious brother who lived on the High Street who appeared very regularly ‘on the scrounge’ like the poor black sheep of the family. He hung around outside the shop in his filthy farmer’s overalls and wellies and the older members of staff like Jack and Alan were encouraged by Mrs B to keep him well away from the shop front. A bucket of icy cold water thrown in his direction would often suffice. This brother Grim would wear an old tweed jacket and fingerless gloves and a greasy cap even in the height of Summer along with his usual wardrobe of cow dung coloured wellies and overalls. He stunk very much of a fetid urinal on a hot day, with an extra bouquet of ancient sweat, both of the groin and the hairy underarm. Nice. On the plus side he did like Eccles cakes.

On a Friday, Mrs B would hand out the brown paper weekly wages envelopes, often blood stained as the money left her miserly grasp and to this day I have no idea if she calculated the tax or national insurance correctly as there was no wage slip. I think I earned seven pounds a week back then.

When I wasn’t involved in my butchering duties I would be ‘helping out’ by attempting to mow the long grass areas at the back of the shop. Part of this garden area was orchard with apple, plum and damson trees and as I tried to negotiate the rough grassy bits with a wretched and temperamental petrol-powered lawn mower I was constantly calling my co-workers in order for them to fire up the mower for me. I just couldn’t get the thing to operate for me. As part of the obstacle course that was my mowing duty Patch the dog had left a fair few white dog poos for me to skirt or spray myself with. The fresher the better.

I wasn’t learning very much during my years at Bosworths so to their great surprise I upped sticks and got a proper apprenticeship at Dewhurst the Butchers on Sadler Gate in Derby. More adventures in the meat trade will follow in a day or two.


StGeorgeOfEngland said...

Bloody brilliant read Phil.
I came back for a second read and smiled all the way through again.
I can relate to alot of what you said as I started working as a saturday lad at my dads small grocery store, as with you, after leaving school with nowt.
From there I went to work for Central Midlands Co-Op and started my manager training at Chaddesden before moving onto Duffield (I drove through Little Eaton to get there). I finally ended up at Breadsall Hilltop, boy what a place that was.
Great blog. So funny and yes, a bygone age before health and safety rules and those dumbass European laws and rules that inhibit so much.
Thanks for the laughs.

Phil Lowe said...

Thanks Guy for two things: your great compliment/reading it all twice and I can't beleive that you used to work at the Co-Op at the top of Scabby Rise and StAndrews View at Breadsall Hill Top. I used to live just down the road off Harrogate Crescent. We could have met way back then! Posh Duffield huh?

StGeorgeOfEngland said...

Haha. Scabby Rise. Oh dear, still laughing.
To be honest I found in my experience in retail that the friendliest and more down-to-earth people were those on the council estates. Dad's shop used to be on Bestwood Park and was an old VG store. He was the area sales manager for their distribution centre in Daybrook so he knew what stores were doing well. When VG shut down he did a deal for his final package and took one of their best stores. I trained under both my dad and a lovely man called George Brooks, who was the old VG manager. I worked for dad from 1980 until 1988 then went to the Co-Op. I would have been at 'Scabby Rise' in 1989 until I threatened to put my area manager through a wall for his verbal abuse. Funnily enough they didn't require my services any longer. Happy to say that I am not a violent man and would not have touched him really. Hehe.

From there I joined my brother into the print trade where I am still today. Boring. See no daylight but it pays the bills. Hehe.
Oh, and I just read it all again, still smiling.

French Fancy said...

That was a fabulous read - thank goodness I'm not a veggie - I might have had a fainting fit. You make Mrs B sound like the farmer's wife from Chicken Run. Maybe Nick Parke based it on her.

More please - or seconds, in other words.

Marian Barker said...

You could get a job in Arkwright's Emporium on "Open All Hours"!

Perhaps you could write a play?

Another great read

feasting-on-pixels (terrie) said...

What a wonderfully written tale cher Phil...looking forward to reading more when I can...bisous...TM