Of all the workshops in all the world, I felt most at home at Bristol- Myer, South Ruislip. This was a scion of a US cosmetics corporation that had taken root off London's arterial Western Avenue in a low-lying Art Deco inspired factory. Bristol-Myer made Mum Rolette, Clairol hair-conditioner, Ingram shaving cream and a canned drink called Nutrament, a zillion caloried pick-me-up for athletes that tasted, deliciously, of fruit-flavoured and only slightly diluted condensed milk.
A suburban factory making nothing I would want in adult life might seem an odd favourite. But, what I learnt in that pungent factory was a simple truth. You can travel to the most exotic places on earth, seek out the greatest adventures, but feel as much an outsider as the narrator in Camus' L'Etranger. The crowd at Bristol-Myer, save for one grisly old foreman, were a family of sorts writ large and Radio One loud. Broken up into clearly defined and jealous empires - Production, Warehouse, Goods- in, Goods-out and Export - this industrial family met together in the bright mezzanine canteen or else sprawled across the manicured factory lawn during dinner break.
The student's privilege was to work across departments, now making wooden cases in which to pack delicate goods, now whizzing around the warehouse on a red electric fork-lift truck, cleaning production-line machinery, loading and unloading lorries, sweeping yards and chatting to everyone.
Crossing departments was, nevertheless, a bit like travelling from country to country, each with its own government, customs and laws. Chubby, easy- come, easy-go Brian, with the Elvis quiff ran Goods-In with Peter, an ex-serviceman who span tea-break tales of the whores and bordelloes of the world. Richard, with the Hendrix-inspired "Afro" hair ruled Export. Richard was slight and highly-strung and dreamt of doing something "better". He worked like a Trojan, but in between rowed furiously with Karol, an ex-Polish Squadron fighter pilot, once based at nearby Northolt, who had stalwartly refused to improve his English since he arrived in here in 1939. Karol was in his late-sixties, could lift hundredweight barrels of hair-oil as if they were individual cans of Nutrament, drove an ancient two-tone Hillman Minx and called everyone who crossed him a "putana". Mick, the handsome middle-aged Irishman laughed the day away alongside them, winking and "Jesusing" wryly, as Karol and Richard "effed" and "putanaed" to the accompaniment of saws, drills, hammers and nails.
A second Mick, dominated the warehouse. A gossip without equal, he pirouetted across the lino floors in his nifty fork-lift truck, exchanging news and cutting asides, cackling with laughter and employing the Saxon word for "I thrust" as only lucid Celts know how.
Mick, who I liked because he despised General Franco who still had a year before Hell claimed him, enjoyed verbal fisticuffs with Reg, deputy- foreman from Production and last of the old-time, shirt-and-tie gentleman workers. Reg introduced me to "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists", "Cassandra" and any number of ranting, digging, shaking and otherwise dissenting texts. He was critical of the Soviet Union and had much to say about my holiday designed to take me to Japan via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The land of Goods-Out was overseen by two of the most perfect industrial knights I have ever met. Bert (who drove an immaculate Morris 1100 as if it were a classic Bentley) and John (who wobbled along on a Honda 50) sported spotless white coats and, if they were ever ruffled on a long, hot summer afternoon, never showed it. John talked obsessively of black silk stockings and suspenders as he took stock of hair-spray and shaving cream, leaning back in his battered black-plastic swivel chair, whilst Bert, quiet and dignified, kept underarm deodorants rolling effortlessly across the armpits of Europe.
Bristol-Myer women were confined to the purdah of Production, or else ran the canteen. There was the gorgeous Ingrid who wore short skirts and black stockings, drove John of Despatch delirious, but wanted me to date her. There was the wonderful lady with silver hair and manners that made the Queen Mum's look a bit gor-blimey, who ran the canteen and told everyone how lovely they looked. There was Linda with the staggeringly dirty jokes and even dirtier laugh and a gaggle of the youngest white girls who spent tea and dinner breaks relating the night before's disco-action. "And she goes, and I go, and, tee hee, this bloke this and my mum says ..." I could never get enough of it.
By the end of eight weeks, I felt fit (lifting, shoving, tugging and pulling on a Popeye-strong diet of Nutrament) and comfortably off (my pounds 18.50 a week basic was doubled most weeks with overtime and Saturday mornings). Most of all I felt I belonged.
Since 1974, I have travelled extensively and have had many adventures, but Bristol-Myer remains in my mind as a small, pungent and curiously exotic continent all of its own.Reuse content