Writer, Rastafarian, reggae poet and OBE refusenik, Benjamin Zephaniah was 16 when he went for his first job – first job, that is, in the outside world: "I'd done some painting and decorating at approved school," he explains, "where I'd been sent for general unruliness." He turned up at a small engineering company in Birmingham and announced, "I'm a welder."
It wasn't welding as such or, indeed, at all that they gave him to do. Instead, he became a whistleblower, not in the sense of exposing malpractice but in the sense of blowing whistles, which is what you'd expect from the company's name: J Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd.
"You put the whistles into a kind of miniature oven; it wasn't like a furnace. That was the first day. On the second day they said, 'We'll have you doing some whistle testing.' You put the whistle in a machine and press a button. Then I had to blow it manually." (Mouthily, to be precise.) "After a while it hurts your cheeks.
"On the third day I blew whistles for an hour and then they gave me a broom. Two-and-a-half days – and the job was going downhill. I thought, 'Uh-oh, I'm going.' And I don't think I even got my money."
He has no cause to blow the whistle on the company's treatment of a black teenager: "I don't think it was racist; it was just a small, closed company and I felt like a complete outsider. They would point out someone and tell me, 'Tom's been here for 30 years.'"
"I went back there a couple of years ago to photograph it. My agent said, 'You've got to do your autobiography.' I said, 'I'm too young,' but I wanted a record of the company while it was still there." And was it? "Its name was still there in the brickwork but it looked rather quiet. But maybe that was because it was the evening."
Benjamin was very pleased to learn, when I found the firm's website, that J Hudson & Co is still going, and blowing, strong (trading as Acme Whistles) in traditional areas such as "Dog Training, Hunting & Countryside, Marine & Safety, Orchestral and Police". A top-of-the-range model, "the legendary Acme Thunderer", constructed out of solid brass with cushioned fingergrip, is still available for £9.79, while £15.45 buys a dozen whistles in different colours.
Meanwhile, young Benjamin went back to his painting career, in particular for a woman who wanted him to decorate her house: "She said I could have £300 more if I worked at night. I said OK. I later worked out that she was a lady of the night and so was sleeping during the day." She told her friends that he could be trusted: "I had the niche market of decorating for prostitutes." No further details; this is another job about which he will not be blowing any whistles.
'Teacher's Dead', the young adult novel by Benjamin Zephaniah, came out in October (£5.99, Bloomsbury)Reuse content