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Yesterday I covered my first job, as a farm-hand. Today I'll cover some other jobs that I've had that taught me a lot about different aspects of life. I do think everyone benefits from working in jobs that are outside the professional bubble, and I'm very glad for the experience.
At the high school I went to, we had an old letterpress press. Letterpress is the old-fashioned lead type where each letter is on a separate piece of metal. So I learned my way around those funny trays which hold the letters, where the divisions are all different sizes.The space allocated to a letter depended partly on how common it is, and partly on how big it is (physically). "e" is the biggest since it is the most common letter and not small like a comma. Ligatures like "ffi", which have their own piece of type, are the smallest. Eventually, the school's press ended up in a museum.
Composing was the name given for putting the type together to make, say, the program for the school play. The letters had to be assembled into a sort of metal clamp from the case (you had to learn where the letters were, they are not labeled) and eventually they would be transferred to the frame in which the type was held for printing. The letters were backward (mirror image) and even today I can read mirror image type without difficulty. After the printing was finished, each piece of type had to be put back in its correct slot, known as dissing (short for distributing, I think). You could tell who was inexperienced since they would put the 'b's in the 'd's and vice versa (remember, type is mirror image).
Between each row of letters would often be a strip of lead. If you've come across the term "leading" meaning the vertical space between lines in a word processor, then this is where that word comes from. You may have seen the phrase "don't bury the lede", meaning a journalist shouldn't put the most important part of the story in paragraph 17. The reason "lede" is spelled in a strange way is to avoid confusion with "lead" (the metal, not leadership) from the days of metal type.
But even then, real-world printing was done mostly with offset lithography. Lithos is the Greek for stone, but actually, the printing was done on metal plates. Using a photographic process, the material to be printed would be transferred to the metal plate, leaving a waxy residue where the type should be printed. During printing, the plate would first be wet (with water). Then a roller would put ink on. But the ink would only stick where the water was not. Then the plate would be rolled over the paper and the ink and water transferred to the paper. Both water and ink would dry. This description makes it sound like a slow manual process, but the printing machine would run at several sheets of paper per second, and was almost completely automatic apart from refilling with paper and ink, and making small adjustments.
In Bath, I worked for an artisinal bakery, the Old Red House Bakery. That's it in the picture above, although it is now an architect's office, not a running bakery. That was back before artisinal bakeries were a thing. The oven was coal-fired, so it was hard-core artisinal. Our bread was good enough that some of the first batch had to be taken to the train station to get the train to London (100 miles away) to be taken to hotels that cared about their bread. The baker I worked with used to work on the Queen Mary liner, back in the days before air travel. I'd never thought about it before I worked there, but obviously, they had to bake their own bread. They couldn't just load up with a week's worth in Southampton to last them to New York, since it would be stale.
The hours were the only thing bad about that job. On a normal day, we started at 5am (the master baker, who made the first dough, had been there since about 3am, but he left mid-morning). We finished around noon or 1pm. But Fridays we did a double shift. Having worked 5am to noon or so, we started again at 9pm and worked until about 6am making all the bread for everyone's weekend.
There was a meme on Twitter recently, that "you are transported back to 1918, what job are you qualified for?". Well, I can still bake bread if I can get flour and yeast. That's more useful in 1918 than knowing how to design a NAND-gate or write a compiler. Baking bread isn't difficult, and if you have young kids, it is a great thing to do with them. Kneading bread, leaving it to rise and finding it has doubled in size, smelling it cooking, eating it when it is too hot to touch, these are all wonderful things to do with your children. If you are single, and want something unique to do on a date, bake bread together.
I worked for Fry's Somerdale factory in Keynsham, near Bath, for three summers. Fry's was, by then, a subsidiary of Cadbury, and Cadbury would eventually end up as part of Kraft. The first year, I was on the night shift, which was four 10-hour shifts from 8pm to 7am. In a job like that, without going near a jet, you are permanently jet-lagged, working at night, and trying to have a social life when your friends are up and about at the weekends. My job was on a machine that packed Fry's Chocolate Cream, a type of confectionary that had been made for over a hundred years. After about two days, I could do every job around the machine, as we rotated, without thinking, so we would sit there for 10 hours chatting about whatever took our fancy. It was all men, women were not allowed to work night shifts in those days (at least in factories).
The second and third years, I was in the warehouse, making up orders. It was a horrible job in comparison. It was during the day, so I had to work five days rather than four. But I had to think. I would pick up an order printout, then wander around the warehouse collecting what was on the order. Sometimes, I'd check other people's orders, since we double-checked every order. So in addition to not having the same social component, since we were all moving around all the time, I was on my feet the entire shift. In the middle of the third year, I got a job programming (see tomorrow's post) and I was rescued from factory work forever.
Next I worked for a company called PGL Adventure Holidays in France. As you might guess from the name, they were actually an English company, and they ran holidays for English people (and also some groups from the Netherlands). The groups would go to the Ardèche and canoe down the river through the Ardèche Gorge for a week, and then go to Port Grimaud on the Mediterranean and sail for a week. It seems PGL still exist and even still take groups down the Ardèche gorge.
I worked at the canoe part in the Ardèche. I'd never canoed. Since the Ardèche gorge was formed out of limestone, there were lots of caves too. At Cambridge, I'd been in the caving club (Americans call it "spelunking") so I knew my way around underground. So I was the caver and took groups caving, most of whom had never been underground before. The most interesting and fun one required swimming across an underground lake (very cold) and then going through several chambers decorated with stalactites (free hanging) and curtains (attached to the cave wall). It was beautiful, especially by candlelight. After the challenge of swimming through very cold water, people loved finding themselves next in a huge underground cavern with an austere beauty that nature had made over thousands of years.
When we were not on the river, we all stayed in a big old house, Le Mas, at about the midpoint of the journey down the gorge. As well as taking groups down the caves, I would go down to the bottom of the gorge and meet groups coming down and help secure all the canoes and guide the groups up the path out of the gorge to the big old house. Just up the river from that point was a nudist camp. Generally, the group leaders told everyone when they went through that part of the gorge that they had to be nude too. Everyone knew it wasn't really true, but many of them did it anyway.
One of the group leaders was Angus. I think his name was really Cameron, but since he was Scottish, his nickname was Angus. He had been the President of the Edinburgh University Canoe Club (EUCC). Since I had learned the basics of canoeing at PGL, when I got to Edinburgh, I joined the EUCC myself and learned how to canoe pretty well (actually white-water kayaking, but in Britain, we call all of it canoeing). I am even a "British Canoe Union Senior Instructor", or at least I was then. Graduate students were always in demand since British driving license regulations have an age limit of 17 for driving a car, but 21 for driving a minibus. Most undergraduates were too young to drive the minibuses. I think there may have been some additional regulations since we were also always pulling a trailer with all the canoes. Anyway, following in Angus/Cameron's footsteps, several years later, I too would become President of the Edinburgh University Canoe Club.
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