‘I burst into tears and ran’: our worst summer jobs

Holiday work has been a rite of passage since the 50s. Here, writers recall their character-building stints shivering in an ice factory or sorting chunks of fat into buckets

I can still smell the carbon dust, sweet and fresh, as they tipped it out of the plastic bags. We were a department of three: an old Polish army officer, a septuagenarian ex-navy guy who was an alcoholic, and me, doing my first day’s paid work in 1978.

We were attached to the lab, itself attached to a factory that turned coconut shells into carbon for use in filters. Our task was to grade each carbon dust sample by shaking it through a stack of brass filters, to calibrate its fineness. But the filters were old and it was not easy.

The problem was that the test results never added up right. So the first thing you had to learn was to cook the books, adding the odd percentage point here and there until they made sense. It was, if you like, fuzzy logic. Then you had to make tea and talk about the second world war.

Lunchtime was an hour, in a well-staffed canteen next to the works bowling green, followed by another hour spent covering for the ex-navy guy who could down seven or eight pints in the 90 minutes or so he spent each lunchtime in the pub.

Not surprisingly, soon the team was down to two. Even with just me and the Polish émigré, we managed to keep the workflow steady: there was, he showed me, a backlog of samples going back several years stacked above us in a capacious loft. So the samples we were testing, unless some emergency request came along, were irrelevant. The batch had long ago been shipped and our entire purpose was to cover the laboratory’s arse in terms of paperwork.

Then, after the old Polish soldier suffered a minor heart attack, it was just me. Would I, asked the laboratory manager, like to recruit one of my schoolmates to come and help?

I did, calling in a maths genius from my sixth form. The maths genius brought his calculator, and soon the samples added up to 100 without cheating. Plus, we drank less tea and no beer.

By the summer’s end, we had cleared the backlog of samples and were processing the factory’s output through the labs in real time. And we had secured a pay rise. Surveying the empty loft on his return from sick leave, the Polish officer declared this a “disaster”.

Summer jobs
Paul Mason grades coconut carbon filters. Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri

The social history of the summer job has not been written but it must begin in the early 1950s. There had always been seasonal employment at the seaside, in agriculture and in public parks and gardens. But by the early 1950s a growing cohort of working-class undergraduates was available every summer to boost numbers in the factories, already suffering from labour shortages due to full employment. There don’t seem to be any UK figures, but the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates between 45% and 60% of teenagers worked each summe (pdf) in the USA.

Today, a part-time job is part of the undergraduate way of life. But the difference is that the summer jobs of the Keynesian era were often “real”, well paid and with the offer of permanence if you would just give up your degree, stay in your home town and go to work.

My second summer of teenage work was in an all-male engineering factory in Widnes, which operated alongside an all-female assembly plant. Expeditions across the yard were rare and involuntary for any man under the age of 50 because – as my workmates warned me – “if you’re not careful they’ll have your pants off”. It was at this second plant, having spent a year studying anarcho-syndicalism at university, that I first encountered the real thing. Stuck in the yard, on an overcast summer’s day, stomachs groaning from the chips we’d eat every lunchtime, we were using hammers to shape metal widgets against a mould.

“I’m fed up now,” my workmate announced, and promptly destroyed the widget he was working on. So did the next guy. We all destroyed a few for good measure, swept them up and hid them.

So ingrained was the summer job tradition then that, when I quit that factory to spend more time actually studying over the summer, the dole pursued both me and the factory boss over the issue of whether I was “voluntarily unemployed”. Soon Margaret Thatcher would resolve this issue by making it impossible for students to claim unemployment benefit, and creating 4 million competitors for what jobs remained. What you learned on a summer job was more than skill. It was how to slot into a workplace hierarchy, which – it usually being your home town – fitted neatly on to the social hierarchy of the place you lived in. You learned how to sabotage production, slow down the pace, and you learned politics.

On the first day in the engineering factory, knowing it was unionised, I raised the issue of overtime pay over a game of Twizzle. Nobody was interested. Male, white and manual, all they wanted to talk about was The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, which their wives and girlfriends were reading. Above all, you learned how lucky you were that you could escape. There is nothing more frustrating than a summer’s afternoon spent inside a factory, nose glued to a hydraulic press, watching the sun slant slowly through the roof lights towards clocking-off time. “Thinking of jacking in college?” my workmates would joke. “Try doing this for 40 years.” Paul Mason

Summer jobs
Morwenna Ferrier in the meat factory. (Tabard: model’s own). Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri

‘I’d dealt with animals, dead and alive, since I was nine’

I worked for several summers in the pie department of my local factory as a teenager. My main job was to separate fat from cubes of steak for steak-and-kidney pies. I would sit on a stool in the corner on my own with a massive blue sack and, using my hands as a makeshift sieve, let the fat trickle through my fingers into a bucket. The chunks of meat went into another bucket and, eventually, ended up in £3.89 steak-and-kidney pies. It was oddly therapeutic, if lonely.

I had one friend, called Debbie. She was in her 40s, had coal-black hair and we shared cheese sandwiches and cartons of Um Bongo in the canteen. She was a good person to know because her son was the floor manager; I remember being impressed because he earned almost £30k.

The worst thing about the job was the temperature. The sacks of meat were so cold. Then, when you were dealing with the hot pies, you wore blue rubber gloves that would periodically melt when handling the foil trays.

It might seem an unlikely teenage job, but I’d been dealing with animals (dead and alive) since I was about nine. Spring would begin with bottle-feeding the lambs, but by summer we were eating them. When I was a little older, about 11, my stepdad paid me £5 a day to help transport animals from the market or farms to abattoirs where, in my role as “human gate”, I’d help ferry them inside towards their deaths. The manhandling was chilling to watch but by the end of summer at least I could afford to buy some rollerblades.

The factory wasn’t supposed to be character-building; it was just where everyone worked, mainly because it was local and because it paid well (we got about £12 an hour at weekends). After work, the factory would decamp to the pub, the Cerdic, a giant Wetherspoons housed in an art-deco building. Small mercy, I was still underage. My sister worked in the factory too but, being older (and probably more efficient), she ended up in the shop, where she sold reduced-price meals. The family ate ready-made meals for most of the summer until we all got ill – probably from E numbers, rather than meals being past their sell-by dates, I should add. Morwenna Ferrier

Summer jobs
Chitra Ramaswamy waitressing. Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri

‘I burst into full teen-scale tears. And ran away’

I was your average teenage waitress: depressed, snarky, clumsy as hell. It was your average faux-American burger restaurant in SW15, the 90s kind that thought bottles of ketchup and French’s mustard slightly stuck to each table were all it took to nail it. It was a grim summer job and within a few months I had achieved the full house of dissatisfaction in the catering industry: racism, food poisoning, and blubbing in front of the customers.

The first came courtesy of a table of white South Africans. They called me over with a click of the finger, sneered at me, barked their orders, and did impressions of me when I turned my back. As a 17-year-old Indian girl who had yet to realise the many shades of racism, I didn’t get it at first.

I continued to serve them and they continued to treat me like their servant. Finally, my manager pulled me aside and gently pointed out that they were being racist and did I not understand? I don’t remember my answer, only the feeling of wanting to disappear. I do, however, recall that she took over serving their table and I felt both touched and appalled by her small act of solidarity.

Then there was the time I carried an enormous tray of drinks to a table of braying, posh types. Four or five pints, a few glasses of wine. Only a hungover teenager would attempt to carry so much booze. Just as I got there, the whole thing toppled. Into one woman’s lap. I seized all the napkins from the table, some from the laps of her fellow diners, and violently wiped her down. Then I burst into teen-scale tears. And ran away.

By the end of the summer, I was so sick of burgers that one fateful day I made the mistake of having sausages for lunch. By the evening I was violently ill with what is still the worst food poisoning of my life. For days I could not eat and for years I could not look at sausages. I was off work for a week and when I went back I was like Elsa the lion after a stint in the wild: leaner, meaner and less trusting.

Nothing breeds prejudice like prejudice and it took a long time before my faith in South Africans was restored. I’m still a bit funny about sausages, though. Chitra Ramaswamy

Summer jobs
Tim Dowling at the ice factory. Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri

There were gas masks hanging everywhere’

A few weeks after I graduated from high school, my father came home and announced that he had found me a job. He’d had the manager of the local ice factory in his dental chair that afternoon. It turned out they were still looking for summer help.

I reported for work in early July, dressed, as instructed, for winter. The factory ran on a compressed ammonia system – there were gas masks hanging everywhere – and most areas were kept a few degrees below freezing. If there were any safety guidelines in place, they were not vouchsafed to me.

On my first day, they put me on block ice: the 150lb blocks were hauled up from a freezing chamber by a chain, and pushed down a shallow ramp. My job was to grab the block with a pair of iron tongs and guide it across the floor toward a machine that would saw it into 25lb sections. But I weighed less than the block, and could do nothing to disrupt its chosen path. It just went wherever it wanted, dragging me along behind.

A few blocks drifted into the sawing machine of their own accord, but most ended up against the far wall. I couldn’t do anything about them; new blocks were coming down the ramp all the time. After an hour of this, I was moved from blocks to cubes.

The cubes made themselves, and poured periodically into a giant hopper, where they froze together. My new assignment involved leaning over the lip of the hopper and poking the cubes apart with a long pole, so they would fall freely through a chute to the floor below, where another worker operated a bagging machine. If the cubes stopped flowing, he shouted and swore up the chute, calling me terrible names. I poked at the ice until my shoulders ached, and my feet were numb from cold. I may have cried a little.

Summer was their busiest season. Most of the ice was delivered, but during the day people with pick-up trucks would pull up unannounced at the loading dock to buy whole pallets of ice. It was almost impossible to keep up with demand. One afternoon I was allowed to stack bagged ice downstairs, but I wasn’t fast enough, and the next day I was sent back upstairs to poke. There was a rough, combative camaraderie among the ice men, but I was never part of it. I worked alone, with my long pole, all day, every day, until I quit three weeks later. The foreman said he was sorry to see me go, but I didn’t believe him. Tim Dowling

I can’t remember how often they threatened to sack me’

It came as a shock to the system to discover that I was ineffably crap at paid work. I’d been pretty good at school – conscientious, able to absorb stuff and pass exams. But when it came to work work, I was a dead loss.

My attitude didn’t help – I’ve never much liked or respected authority – but there was more to it than that: an overwhelming incompetence. In my first job, at the posh Manchester department store Kendals in 1979, I was hopeless at folding men’s clothes but masterful at putting people off buying them. I just couldn’t stop myself telling shoppers that the clothes were rubbish or overpriced or just horrible.

Next was services in Boots. There was something about driving the trolley I couldn’t quite grasp. And, to be honest, it was great fun when all the pallets came crashing down because I’d been bumper-car-ing my way along the warehouse floor. I can’t remember how many times they threatened to sack me in the month I worked there.

I didn’t have to wait too much longer for that, though. Ironically, the pub was called the Friendship Inn. I was 20 years old, and should have been a natural. After all, I had spent enough time in pubs, I knew what a pint should look and taste like. My friend Ned already had a job in the Friendship, and he got me the work there. I don’t know what it was – panic, brain fade, superhuman clumsiness? – but despite the fact that I had spent the past few years doing little else but drinking, I couldn’t serve a pint to save my life; all head, no head, I just couldn’t get it right. Nor could I remember who had ordered what. The one thing I’d always prided myself on was my mental arithmetic, but suddenly I couldn’t even count any more. I undercharged, overcharged, double charged, didn’t charge.

I was hot and sticky and terrified. Rivulets of sweat dripped down my forehead and cheeks into the pint glasses. I was banging into people, splodging beer and lager all over the floor. In my first hour, I broke two glasses. My mouth was dry, I couldn’t swallow, my brain was on fire.

An hour and a half into my first evening at the Friendship Inn, the landlord took me to one side and said he didn’t think I was cut out for bar work. He paid me for my hour and a half, which seemed to add insult to injury. I was burning with shame, and I couldn’t talk because I knew if I did I’d burst out crying. I took his money and looked for my escape, but I couldn’t find the bar flap, and when I finally did, I couldn’t lift it. My humiliation was complete. Simon Hattenstone

Summer jobs
Laura Barton selling perfume outside Debenhams. Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri

‘It was lonely. No one wants to talk to a perfume girl’

Picture a Smiths song selling mass-market fragrance, and you have an approximation of the brief yet miserable stint I spent as a department store perfume girl at Preston Debenhams in 1996. My task was to stand in the adjoining shopping centre promoting Estée Lauder’s Beautiful – a potent mix of rose, ylang ylang, tuberose and sandalwood that Lauder felt answered her desire to “create a fragrance that made every woman feel she was the most beautiful woman in the world”.

I did not feel very beautiful. I was, after all, wearing regulation pink lipstick and someone else’s navy blue blazer, standing in a small northern shopping centre attempting to spritz passers-by with clouds of unwanted ylang ylang.

It was a lonely time. No one ever wants to talk to a perfume girl; it’s a little like chugging, but without the whiff of moral superiority. Even the other perfume girls ignored me. At lunch, they sat around a table in the staff canteen, gossiping and painting their lips, while I lurked nearby reading the complete works of Chaucer and eating slices of toast. My one friend was an elderly man who would come to talk to me every afternoon. One day he told me I was “very classy” and that I reminded him of “that woman off the telly”. That woman transpired to be Jilly Goolden, the middle-aged wine critic from the Food & Drink programme.

By the third day, I could no longer deny that I was having some sort of allergic reaction to the perfume. There was a red patch beneath my nose, bumps on the inside of my wrist, and each day I went home with a gnawing tuberose headache.

The rash only added to my odd appearance; I never really looked the part. This was the 90s, a decade I had largely spent shod in paratrooper boots and Adidas shelltoes, meaning I was in no way prepared for standing for hours in a pair of court shoes. My hair, meanwhile, was a scalped-looking pixie cut, still tinged a faintly peculiar colour as its blue dye grew out. Behind me, a large, soft-focus picture of Elizabeth Hurley, then the face of the perfume house, seemed a taunting reminder of how a lady ought to look.

That same week, TK Maxx opened a store in the same shopping centre. It was running its own promotion, in which pairs of blonde and buxom young women wearing leather trousers and tight red T-shirts prowled the arcade handing out flyers. They glanced at me with pity as they passed: a wan, flat-chested figure standing in the shadow of the escalator, my over-painted face wearing the pained expression of a teenager whose shoes might not quite fit correctly, red-nosed, messy-haired, feeling for all the world like a sad, scented clown. Laura Barton


Paul Mason, Morwenna Ferrier, Chitra Ramaswamy, Tim Dowling, Simon Hattenstone, Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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