'There were continual practical jokes'

Tuna-taster, shirt-seller, librarian, actor and sociology professor. Laurie Taylor's career path has ranged almost as widely as the conversations on his Radio 4 Wednesday afternoon programme Thinking Allowed. He was educated at St Mary's College, Liverpool until the Christian Brothers who ran it cast him out like Lucifer, for what he judges to be his "general atheism". He started work in a mail-order warehouse. "Then I realised I needed a proper career."

He became a sales clerk at British Enka, a company next to the Aintree racecourse that manufactured rayon. A synthetic fabric made from extruded wood-pulp, rayon was the cheap alternative to nylon, which itself was the cheap alternative to anything remotely classy; it was a bit like starting a newspaper for people who thought the Daily Sport was too highbrow.

Still, there was a market for rayon in the late Fifties, and 19-year-old Laurie sat in an office with a large book in which he wrote down, using a primitive dip-pen, the orders for the "beams" or rolls of rayon. His shoes were highly polished, his shirt was white, and he wore a suit.

"I was told I was going to become a sales representative - everyone was." He reached this executive position for one day, when he was sent off to win an order from Farnworth's in the town of Farnworth. Sitting behind a desk was a large Lancastrian, possibly a Mr Farnworth, who snapped, "Get some shit on your shoes!" Laurie could practically see his blush reflected in his shiny toecaps. Next day, he was a sales clerk again. He remained one for a total of four years.

"The place was full of laughter," he remembers. It wasn't supposed to be but there was the camaraderie of the workforce and the continual practical jokes. "It was like a boarding school. It taught me that there is something ludicrous about all institutions. They are a sort of prison which generates a subculture of people who fight back against authority." The inmates learn the secret places for a quick smoke and snog.

British Enka wasn't like the workplaces of today, when everyone has to look busy-busy-busy: "They could afford to carry a few passengers." In some ways he became one. He was the official aesthete. He grew his hair slightly longer and sent ridiculous poems to the factory magazine. He put on plays in the staff canteen. He was invited to watch the Grand National - on the platform outside the cooling tower of the factory, which gave a grandstand view of the course.

Gambling? That would be the least of his sins in the eyes of his Christian Brother teachers. They will not be surprised to learn that he has literally gone to the devil: he is currently working on a Channel 5 programme on the Beast of the Apocalypse, to be transmitted on 6 June of this year - that is, 6.6.06.