Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs: "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"

Saturday jobs help young people to avoid future failure in the workplace, says the businesswoman Baroness Brady. So how did these Independent writers earn their first pay cheques?
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Simon O'Hagan, Comment Editor

I can't believe how easy it was to find casual work during my school holidays in the 1970s. I grew up in Kent and fruit farms always needed extra labour. So I'd pick raspberries, which was preferable to picking strawberries because they are a nice comfortable height. You got paid by the weight of fruit you picked. Piecework, it was called, and I never seemed to be able to pick as much as other people. Another time, I worked in a fruit-packing depot and we'd have apple fights, like snowball fights but using rotten apples. And quite often apples that weren't rotten. I got a job harvesting and lasted three days. It was back-breaking. I can still picture the full-time farm labourer I was paired with. He was rapier-thin and he just had the knack.

Work didn't get more casual than that, but for something more reliable there was an employment agency in Maidstone called Manpower and you'd walk in off the street and sign up. I remember spending a month as a lorry driver's mate. We'd drive around Kent delivering crates of soft drinks to pubs and restaurants. There were always "breakages" – that was the best bit. Another time, I worked in a freezer depot, loading and unloading packs of frozen food. We were given big suits similar to ski suits to put on and you weren't allowed to stay in there for more than half an hour. I still remember the sensation of my nostrils freezing up.

The area was full of distribution depots. During the long hot summer of 1976, which was the end of my first year at university, I spent six weeks working in one loading and unloading domestic appliances out of the back of huge trailers. Almost everyone else was a lot older than me but there was one boy my age I got friends with and although I don't now remember his name, the thing I do remember is that he put me on to The Rolling Stones' album Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! So if I had to tell Karren Brady what I got out of all these holiday jobs, that's what I'd say – The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! It's a brilliant album.

Sean O'Grady, Associate Editor

What did I learn from working at Walkers Crisps?

First: how to make a decent crisp. The secret is an unrelenting focus on quality. Despite the genuinely handsome wage I was paid (about £300 a week in today's money, including overtime), I hold no particular brief for Walkers; but the spin the company put out in its ads was true: it would not permit even the tiniest fraction of a greeny-purply mouldy spud into its giant fryer (about the size of a small bungalow), nor a burnt crisp into a packet, nor an underweight pack out of the factory. From chopping Maris Pipers in half (yes, that was the full job description), through packing bags of crisps, 48 at a time, into boxes, to cleaning down the machinery, I did every job going and I can now bore anyone, on an industrial scale, about how to make crisps.

Second: on top of my schoolboy French, I acquired, unexpectedly, a smattering of Hindi. As the factory was in Leicester, and the great majority of the workers had (quite varied) Indian subcontinent heritages, I learnt a little about these different cultures, though it remained a mystery as to how and why the Sikh guys monopolised driving the forklifts. So while other students were making an exotic, Beatles-style voyage of discovery half a world away, I was doing something of the same at the Cobden Street works. No maharishis, though; just charge hands yelling: "Jeldi, jeldi."

Third: no matter how miserable you might feel in any white-collar "graduate" job, it is infinitely better than spending eight hours a day, or more, on your feet in noisy, sweltering heat and coming home at 6am marinated in what was then the exciting new prawn-cocktail flavouring (an especially powdery concoction that used to fly around and get into everyone's eyes and hair). I liked my fellow workers, and was very grateful for the money, but the stark horror of returning to my potato-based living hell has kept me in an office ever since. I have certainly never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job; in effect I retired from real work at the age of 22 or so.

Alice Jones, Deputy Arts Editor

The day before my 16th birthday, I got a job working at Nantwich Library as the Saturday girl. And while I quickly learnt that I would never be allowed to do the high-glamour tasks such as scanning and stamping books or using the till, it was a pretty nice job. For a start, the library was open for only half a day on Saturdays. I earned about £2.75 an hour but there were free Jaffa Cakes in the staffroom so, you know, not bad. It was enough to keep me in All Saints albums and Rimmel.

I was one of our two juniors and our job was to shelve books – getting the returned ones back on the shelf as fast as possible so the hard-core Saturday browsers could have the freshest pick. We had the Dewey decimal system, naturally, but we shelvers operated on a broader system. First, you'd prioritise the trolleys full of Mills & Boons because there was no need to alphabetise them; you could just shove them on the shelf with all the other pink books in Romance. Craving Jamie right next to The Greek Tycoon's Blackmailed Mistress – not a problem. Haynes car manuals were another easy job.

The next-best thing would be a trolleyful of Rough Guides because the Travel section was upstairs and out of sight. Last and very much least would be the children's trolley – a dog-eared mess of Point Horrors and Goosebumps, all of which would stay on the shelf for 20 seconds before being thrown on to the floor. Harrowing in its own hushed way.

The other part of the job was dealing with customer enquiries. The erotica hunters were the worst. This was pre-Google, you see. I learnt never to underestimate the capacity of a person looking for a book to be mind-bogglingly specific. "Do you have any books on aromatherapy… for cats?" "Where are your books on witchcraft in Bulgaria?" "I'm looking for something on travel… by barge… in the 1870s?" Argh.

It taught me to think laterally and to remember things, to deal politely with adults I didn't know, and that you can glean a lot about a person if you only ask a few questions about the thing they're interested in. I suppose it's been quite useful in the end.

Arifa Akbar, Literary Editor

The family standard for Saturday jobs was set high by my glamorous elder sister, who worked her way up the high street, from Miss Selfridge to Warehouse to the dizzy heights of Hobbs, bringing back discounted clothes that filled me with longing. Sadly, I wasn't as successful in my applications. My first weekend job, aged 14, was at the stationery shop round the corner, which remains to this day, and which, every time I walk in, reminds me of the tedium of price guns and counting out 50 sheaves of Conqueror paper to sell in packets and eating my lunch standing up.

On reflection, those were heady days. I lost my mojo when I progressed to WH Smith's and they put me in the music department. Yes, it was the 1980s and most 16-year-olds would have given their back teeth to play Morrissey and New Order on the sound system on the basement floor of the Swiss Cottage branch of the store, but I had cut my teeth on stationery so this was strange new ground. I left voluntarily after the manager called me into his office, for the third time, because I had forgotten to take another credit-card payment. He said there would be no fourth time and I took my leave while the going was good.

The final indignity came with McDonald's in Kentish Town, which, again, remains to this day on the same, sad street corner. I was excited at the prospect of working on the tills, fetching all those fries. But they took one look at me – a morose, badly dressed teenager – and put me in the kitchens, flipping Quarter Pounders in a hat and bib. I lasted three weeks, and it wasn't because I was a vegetarian or that the smell of cheap meat and fried onions seamed deep beneath my pores, to the very core of me, but that we were given a dose of free McDonald's every four hours, and all those Happy Meals, even the meat-free ones, gave me serious gut ache.

Did my Saturday jobs help me later in life? Only in showing me what I didn't want to do with my life.

Alexander Fury, Fashion Editor

I grew up working class in the North of England, in a village so minute it barely made a smear on an Ordnance Survey and the local newsagent had specially to order in my copy of British Vogue every month. Of course, I had a Saturday job. I had two, actually: lugging rugs on a market stall (I lasted about 25 minutes), and an odd stint at a haberdashery (that was for a few years, before hitting university).

To me – as to most teenagers – a Saturday job meant freedom and independence from the parental yoke. It gave you somewhere to go and something to do. Most importantly, it gave you money – money to fritter away recklessly on computer games, ill-gotten cider to chug at bus stops or, in my case, dodgy bits of mid-1990s Jeans de Christian Lacroix and cheap Vivienne Westwood. I wasn't terribly good at being a teenager. I blame all those copies of Vogue, which I also wasted a fair portion of my wages on.

There's an argument that a part-time job robs you of childhood, hurling you a good half-decade early into the workplace when you should be knocking a ball about and frolicking through meadows, picnicking and skinning your knees shinning up trees. Maybe that school of thought comes from people reading too many Enid Blyton novels. Get real: in the 21st century (or in my case, the final years of the 20th), work is a way of life. You may as well get used to it early, as you'll probably be doing it well into your seventies. Plus, a part-time job gives you a certain sense of responsibility. Self-awareness. Experience. All invaluable.

Most of that is rubbish. It gives you disposable income to spend on stuff you enjoy way more than your job. Such is life in a capitalist society and you may as well start buying early. Sorry, Marx.

Rob Hastings, Assistant News Editor

It was my barber who broke the news to me. I'd been working in a baguette shop in north London for a year or two during my A-levels, and I enjoyed making sandwiches and serving coffees – but I had been wondering who a couple of our customers were.

Most of our clientele were workers from other local shops in the quiet suburban street, or commuters on their way to the train station just down the road. The closest thing I got to serving a celebrity was when the Conservative MP David Willetts popped in for a ham and mayonnaise baguette.

But one day, a couple of young women began coming in, always dressed in smart but skimpy clothes and wearing lots of make-up. There was an older woman, too, and a couple of blokes who seemed to own the flat upstairs.

I used to get my hair cut by a barber who worked across the road from the café, an old-school Londoner with a dry sense of humour, and one day he patted me on the shoulder and said: "I hope you're not spending all your earnings upstairs." At first, I couldn't work out what he was talking about, but then he told me: "Don't you know? There's a knocking shop above your baguette shop, mate."

For the record, I didn't spend any of my money in the brothel that had opened in the upstairs flat – I think I spent it on a new cricket bat instead. But from then onwards, I did feel a bit queasy whenever I had to serve baguettes to the pimps, the madam and the prostitutes, who sometimes would come in for as many as seven coffees a day. I guess they needed the caffeine.

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