The Worst of Times: I was 18, and they'd call me 'Captain Birds Eye': Peter Simon talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I DECIDED I wasn't going to take my A- levels because I was planning to go into the Army, then I didn't get into the Army - and I didn't have any A-levels. That was pretty dispiriting.

I worked as an encyclopaedia salesman in the East End of London, which I survived for six to nine months.

But eventually I had to get a bit serious about things, and I did one of those career-guidance computer tests, and it threw out that I was quite good at selling, so I got a job at Unilever, as a salesman for Birds Eye.

I was going up and down the country selling all the Birds Eye products, fish fingers to frozen peas. There were huge regional variations in food. Faggots in gravy sold well in South Wales, but not in the South-east; fish fingers and fish products sold well in the Midlands, and north- east England and Scotland bought huge amounts of cakes and sweets.

What I remember most about the job was how miserable a lot of the areas were. I would be in some God-forsaken place, like Blyth in Northumberland, which is really like the dead end of the world, and God, that was depressing.

But the worst thing, for a self-conscious 18-year-old, was walking into corner stores and supermarkets, wearing this silly suit and trilby hat, and having people address you as 'Captain Birds Eye'.

Also, to compound the misery, you were normally left standing around waiting for hours with your order form while the managers talked to their customers. Then, when they deigned to give you their attention, you got the moans of the retailers about all of their problems, and you'd have to listen to that, when what you really wanted to do was get the order and get the hell out of it.

The orders had to be phoned into head office by a certain time every night. So 7.00 of an evening you'd be stuck in a phone box shouting out: 'Bailey's Corner Store: two dozen frozen peas, five dozen Brussels sprouts, five thousand Arctic Rolls, five million faggots in gravy, a billion boxes of grapefruit juice . . .' and you'd be in that coin box for half an hour reading through these orders, with somebody outside thinking you were a nutcase]

When you got the deliveries, you'd have to fight for space in the stores' deep freezes. You would come in and see that Birds Eye had, say, two feet of space, and Findus had four feet, so you'd chuck Findus up as far as you could one end and make Birds Eye six feet, so you could take an order for six feet.

Invariably, the Findus guy came the next day and chucked all the Birds Eye down the other end, and made his patch six feet.

My contemporaries and friends were either going to university or hanging out in London, and going out with girls - having a very good time, like I should have been doing.

Very occasionally I would drive down to London . . . it was like going to heaven. But then I had to go back up to Northumberland and start selling peas and beans again, and it was like going back into a completely different world. Hell.

Meanwhile, I was learning all sorts of strange things, learning about marketing, about selling. Having not made a success of my exams, having not gone into the Army, it was important to me to make a success of something, it didn't matter what it was. And I was actually regarded as being quite good at selling.

Looking back, I achieved something. I stuck the job, I didn't quit; I met a lot of different people, saw parts of Britain I didn't know existed, and I suppose I grew up. But I never liked the job, it was not a happy time at all.

I don't really think about it at all now, it's too painful. I just think that being a rep is a very difficult job, and I've done it, and I don't ever want to do it again.

Peter Simon is the founder and owner of Monsoon, the clothes chain.

(Photograph omitted)