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Saturday, 2 May 2009

Fit as a butcher's dog. Part three


The Rydes Years and final part of the story.

We are now coming to the end of the 1970s and on until the final dénouement in the year of 1988. I had applied at Rydes the Pork Butchers in the Cornmarket just around the corner from the Guildhall and the old Market Square in the recently christened ‘city’ of Derby. I wanted a wage rise and less travelling. I already had a Master Butchers Certificate so I was well on my way in terms of professional butchering experience.

The shop was managed by a former manager of one of the Dewhurst branches, a man called Steven Robertson. He had the air of a smarmy working man’s club comedian without the laughs and next to no managing skills. Most of the time he was off on angling trips in work time and colluded with the assistant manager to explain his regular absences to anyone who was interested to know. The head office would ring and ask to speak to Mr Robertson and we used to answer “Oh he’s out on deliveries” or “stuck in traffic.” Complete lies. He was very full of himself and thought himself quite the ladies man. When he gave me the job I had no idea of the fun and games in store for me.

The odious assistant manager was known throughout the shop simply as ‘Butch’. Another clown, this one modelled himself on Bernard Manning – he was vastly obese, arrogant, a real bully, uncouth, a ridiculous show off, louder than loud and those were his good characteristics. He made the ‘lads’ lives hell by constantly ringing the shop service bell that linked with an upstairs preparation room. I think that he thought himself as some kind of Lord of the Manor. You had to answer it very quickly otherwise he would go ballistic and thunder his demands up the stairwell. Ironically, after using the young work force to run constant personal errands for him, he would complain if the tasks of the working day weren’t completed on time. He never called any of the lads by their correct name and referred to me constantly as Stanley. I have no idea why but it used to annoy the hell out of me back then. Consequently, I grew to hate this obscene man and have no doubt that a few of the lads spat vigorously in his cups of tea that he was constantly insisting on.

As well as a Saturday girl there were three other older ladies who used to do most of the serving and monitored the cooked meats side of the counter display, all of whom were friendly, down to earth women, who just got on with the job. Like Dewhursts, it was a very busy shop and the main branch in a butchery empire of about twelve shops spread across Derbyshire. In the early 80s there were a fair few independent butchers on the high streets of towns and cities. The major supermarket chains like Tesco and Asda had yet to monopolise the food industry and strip the towns, cities and villages of any individuality.

Whilst employed at Ryde’s I began to discover an latent talent for poetry and a love of language through joining Derby Theatre In The Round and Derby Shakespeare Society and I remember writing pleasantly satirical poems about the members of staff and did caricatures of them that got pinned up on the staff room wall for everyone’s amusement. At the same I wrote a long lost poem about my gross unhappiness working in the butchery trade and called it Murderous Monotony. I got a prize for it in The Derby Poetry Reading competition. I also wrote another called ‘It’s not for me you see’ based on the customers and their own perception of appearing to ask for something awkward or different and pretending that the item was for another. That got published in the local paper and I got a fiver for my efforts back then. There is an expression I heard from the female staff at Rydes as I started to develop as a creative individual and that was “You are wasted here”. They weren’t wrong but it took me a fair few years to escape the ‘murderous monotony’.

Part of my escape was to get out of the shop at lunchtimes and go somewhere else to read or learn German as I was keen on doing at the time through a Linguaphone course. Where did I go? Well hold your breath and get ready to gasp, and this wasn’t a political decision at the time. I wouldn’t have known a political decision if it had raised its manifesto and slapped me about the head. So personal politics aside, where did I go?

I went to the Lettuce Leaf on Friar Gate. A vegetarian café! I just loved the gentle ambiance and the lemon meringues were to die for. I never wanted to go back to work as I sat amongst their big paper lamps, brushed pine interiors and friendly, intelligent salad and vegetable lovers. Over time I taught myself quite a lot of German in there and got to meet some very nice people. Did I tell them I was a butcher by trade? I think they could probably smell it from my clothes but they never kicked me out and were very kind to me once when I had a couple of bad nosebleeds in the café.


Back at the butchers’ shop I had a lot of near misses with serious accidents. One time I nearly lost my arm when a chain saw flew from its housing as I was sawing up some marrow bones: I got several scars from stabbing myself with a boning knife, one of which I can still see between right thumb and fore finger, and I can’t count the amount of times that my Doc Martin boots saved me from a cleaver or carving knife going through my foot as the sharp instrument crashed precariously to the floor. One day I missed being ran over by a bus by seconds as I rolled out of the way after the hooked end of the pole meant for pulling out the shop blind suddenly fell off. This meant that I landed on my back in the middle of a busy road and I narrowly missed being crushed by the No 67a bus.

We still had to unload the vans in the morning with fresh supplies and this time the heavy fore quarters and hind quarters not only had to be carried into the shop across slippery wet tiles but then we had to carry them upstairs to the first floor prep room. Plenty of back injury potential there, and once I slipped on a wet floor carrying a big round metal bowl of pigs liver and seriously put my back out as I crashed to the ground legs akimbo and was off work in great pain for thirteen weeks. Unlucky for some I guess you could say. For months afterwards I suffered from bad sciatica and was sent to another branch on the outskirts of Derby (Alvaston) as punishment for taking such a long time off work!

After that I stayed at Alvaston for a couple of years with an odd trip up to Allenton where Rydes had another branch. Alvaston and Allenton are two big council housing estates near Derby. I got to know a few more managers who were equally as characterful as those I had encountered in town. But at least they weren't  the out and out bully that Butch was, far from it.

There was a nice guy called Sandy, the Alvaston branch manager, and another man called Curley who, later in life, had a strange epiphany and became a dedicated marathon runner. At least both managers stayed on the premises during their working hours even if it was to enjoy looking at the council estate womenfolk going by the shop or to comment on their ‘availability’ or ‘attributes’ in a thinly disguised backslang. This was the politically incorrect 1970s and 80s remember. I confess I went along with the backslang habit at the time too and fancied a young woman called Ann at the local bookies on the parade. Sadly she was already taken.

Whilst I was Sandy’s assistant manager he got himself excruciatingly entangled with the razor sharp circular blade of the bacon slicing machine in that its blade cut deeply into his left palm as he cleaned it one day. He, understandably squealed like a stuck pig  as blood poured down his arm and he wanly awaited the ambulance. That meant that he was off work for a fair while and I had to take over as manager and run the branch. Curley had been 'let go' for taking too much time off work practising running and Sandy took over his shop due to his eventual recovery and lack of manager in Allenton..

Although I was never that interested in being a manager I did feel some benefits in the freedom it offered me and the lack of abuse from other folk like ‘Butch’ from the Cornmarket branch. I looked after a young lad called Lee and treated him with respect. It was wonderful not being dictated to. At this time I was actively participating in amateur theatre and seriously considering going to drama school such was my passion.

In the late 1980s the branches of the Rydes butchery empire got sold off one- by-one as they were becoming unprofitable due to the rise of the hypermarkets and supermarkets opening up all over Derby and enticing customers with cheap offers and free buses to their sites. We just couldn’t compete. I got briefly employed by another butchery firm from Nottingham (for two and a half days!) until they discovered that they had been given inflated figures by the sellers and they suddenly pulled out leaving me and Lee instantly out of a job.

Myself and my faithful assistant Lee then got re-employed by Rydes and when they sold the property again within three months I had to fight for a redundancy claim (as a new employee). Good huh? I was out of work for a long period of time but it was the best thing that ever happened to me as it gave me the determination to go to University and live out my artistic dreams of doing a Performance Art BA (Hons) degree for three years.

For a long time I lost total interest in the world of butchery and even suffered some bad nightmares over the years from the cruel actions of some of the ‘delightful’ characters I encountered along the way. But, I am pleased to say I have put all that behind me now and presently see so many specialist butchers firms still surviving in today’s economic climate and along with my general interest in foods can see a more mature and encouraging approach for meat products through the Farmers Markets and organic farming.
 

10 comments:

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Oh my, I had no idea that butchery was such a perilous profession! I had a deranged boss for a long time, he also specialized in "management by tyranny".

Do you suppose the draw to the vegetarian cafe had anything to with being around meat and blood and bones all the time? I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, really really interesting.

Gail's Man said...

Been a great story. My working life started off in the Lace Market, back in 1979. Alas no real colourful characters that I can remember. But they still used Bakelite phones and a girl used to man (person) the switchboard. The old fashioned type with the plugs.

StGeorgeOfEngland said...

I demand an autobiography Phil. Suggested title, 'My names not effing Stanley!'.
A third episode and as entertaining as the previous two. Great reading my friend.

I was lucky training in retail management. I started with my dad, very much a 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves' sort of businessman. In my time with Central Midlands Co-Op I trained under (not physically) two fine ladies. Sue at Cheddesden and Janet at Duffield.
It was the area managers that were the b*****ds. They were the reason for my departure from a trade I loved despite the poor pay and long hours.
Good memories though for the most part.
Thanks for the smiles. You help pass my working sunday away nicely.
G.

Phil Lowe said...

Elizabeth: I think I just craved some intelligent conversation and company. I am quite a sensitive man really and was getting my real kicks from the drama groups I'd joined and had discovered my real self. Just doing it in the evenings wasn't enough and ... those meringues were really good.

Gail'sMan: Bakelite phones! Wow, I bet they be collectors items by now. Thanks for your comments on how you've enjoyed my writing. I am considering developing this aspect of my life into a humourous book.

Guy:No! my name's NOT effing Stanley! lol

There are lots of butchery related stories that I have left out and I've actually changed the names of the folk at Rydes and some of the stories would be unbelievable if I wrote them (due to the cruel tricks played on younger members of staff like the YOP scheme boys) and 'fingers in the till' stories.

Athina said...

Knives and electric saws and tyrant managers - very dangerous workplace the butchers'. Glad you survived in one piece and a better person.

More powers to your writing, Phil.

Cheryl said...

The butchering trade may not have nurtured your artistic side but it does seem to have given you a lot of artistic fodder. And it's hilarious, and fitting, that your escape would be the Lettuce Leaf.

I've really enjoyed following your personal history, btw.

Phil Lowe said...

Thanks Athina and Cheryl. It is quite ironic that a veggie cafe should be my bolt hole from the world of butchery isn't it?

French Fancy said...

Bits of this I had to nip past with my eyes half shut. I loved your 'young' photo - and fancy being a qualified Master Butcher.

You are a fascinating chap, Phil

Phil Lowe said...

Cheers French Fancy, your comment about me being a 'fascinating chap' made my day. I've certainly led an interesting life so far and I love writing about it with humour. On occasion humour can dispell a few ghosts of the past.

Dean said...

Very interesting story and one that you could well make into a great short autobiography worthy of printing, Real life stories like this are hard to come by yet tell the real local history which is lost as time goes by.
I have enjoyed reading the series, Thank you for writing them.