The forgotten life: Part 2: Working, not working, half working

Wobbly Pallettes

First job: Working the Whisky line

In the late 1970’s I worked on the line in the whisky bottling plant in Drumchapel; I got the job because my dad was the onsite plumber.

For the first few weeks, as a soft man in a world of hard men, I had my life threatened daily. I had the combination of; apparently having the look of someone who thinks they are superior;  being obstinate, cheeky, skinny and a bit ill looking. This was not the best combination of attributes for a person working in a whisky bond in the heart of Drumchapel, which was and still is, a predominantly working class area with an aggressive macho culture – same as Clydebank – where I grew up. 

I survived initial attempts at being bullied by not doing what I was told when I was told; i.e. I  avoided being a ‘hard man’s water carrier’, (one task would be tending to your own line and the adjoining line – while they went to the toilet. i.e. they skived ).

The work was extremely physical work; loading and unloading boxes of whisky, empty at one end full at the other – and stacking palettes – in between avoiding being mown down by the forklift truck drivers. 

The ability to stack palettes to extraordinarily dangerous heights was a test of your manhood; if you could stack them at least 20 high you passed the test. To do it required balancing a heavy wooden palette on its edge with one hand while climbing the existing palette pile, then deftly flipping it on to the top. It was the equivalent of trapeze artist, weight lifter, juggler and high wire act. 

Fork lift truck drivers were regarded as being the top of the social scale at factory floor level; a bit like cool daredevil motor cyclist. They sped around at dangerous speeds and it was your responsibility not to be run over rather than their responsibility to avoid you.  

The job was physically hard and unbelievably tiring. I did nothing but work and sleep for the first three months. I stuck it out for about a year; which surprised those around me as they had me marked down as a student just doing a summer job. 

As a job I wouldn’t recommend it. It wasn’t funny – bullying, intimidation and violence were normal (in the ‘line’ area of the Bond; apparently it was more civilised elsewhere).  It could be dangerous and rolling the huge metal rimmed barrels through unexpectedly narrow openings (or high up in the narrow storage racks) meant lost fingers. Alcohol related health (or should I say un-health) conditions were common from a combination of all the free drink dished out each month and the whisky sooked through pen casings from the barrels. 

Back to education

I think at some point it must have dawned on me that I wasn’t cut out for physical work; however as a teenager the idea of using my brain to make a living was an alien concept.

My next career move (I was 18 or 19) was to become part of the national drive to train people for computing jobs. The training happened in Cardonald College.

I am still haunted by nearly being run over by a car in my rush to be ‘less late’. One morning I got off the bus, peered round the front of the bus and didn’t see a car in the ‘blind spot’ – I went to run across road and jumped back as a car appeared from nowhere. It ran over my foot then skidded to a halt 50 yards up the road. 

Instantly I knew that I’d just cheated death and that I’d been incredibly stupid. So did the driver of the car; who was enraged – and became the loudest angriest man in the world – reminding me a bit of an out of control Tasmanian devil. He was quite right to be; it was a frightening experience for both of us.

(This reminds me of another time I was just missed by a spinning car coming down the hill on Glasgow Street in Hillhead; it span around me like a dancer. It had been hit by a car coming out of a side street further up the hill. I was so effected by the experience that I was unable to concentrate on the training course I was supposed to deliver the following day – my mind wouldn’t stop re-living the experience from the day before. This cost me future work with that organisation as the training was nowhere nearly as good as it should have been).

My memory tells me that Cardonald College was mainly populated by trainee police students – who even at my age of innocence I recognised to be a lot less liberal minded than myself.

Computer punch card

Computing in the early 1980’s was about punching holes in cards then sending those cards off to be fed in to a mainframe computer. A stack of cards with holes in them was a computer programme. We got to visit a real computer on a day out to Strathclyde University. Computers were less sociable in those days; you’d be hard pushed to get anything out of a computer other than a pile of cards and a dot-matrix printed bug report. 

I went on work placement after three months and got offered a job as trainee programmer at a ’software house’. I was part of a small team programming applications for travel businesses. We programmed on dumb terminals connected to a mini-frame computer; this was before floppy discs; the disks we had were about 12 inches in circumference a couple of inches deep and you screwed them in to the cabinet next to the computer. The mini-frame computer was about the size of a washing machine.

One thing I remember from my first day in this new job was getting lost when I went out for lunch; I wasn’t very familiar with the streets of Glasgow. After a bit of anxiety and a lot of walking about I did eventually stumble across the office. Nobody asked why I was out so long and I didn’t mention it.

For someone like myself coming from the town of Clydebank, I thought of Glasgow as a huge glamorous city; I thought all cities were places of possibility, places with a magical energy where things could happen (things that couldn’t happen in a small town) – and Glasgow embodied all of these things. Ironically, now it feels quite friendly and the centre is certainly small enough that I would naturally walk everywhere.

Dumb computer terminal

I was in the computing job for about a year when the business went bust in a, ‘you wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true way’. One story (probably apocryphal) – is that the salesman ran off with the proceeds of the last sale and the wife of one of the owners. The owners of the business were two brothers; both seemed to just dissolve into thin air; disappeared without trace and without a goodbye.  

I was left in the office alone for the next six months working for the clients who had been left with half finished jobs. In essence I was a self employed programmer. In reality I was a confused 19 year old with no idea what I was doing. Looking back it was a missed opportunity; the required skills to run my own business were missing; I could have done with a mentor to point me in the right direction (nothing has changed since). During this time I was also offered jobs by the people I was doing work for but they would all have involved moving south –  to London or Brighton. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom now I wanted to stay in Glasgow so I turned them all down. What a bleedin’ idiot.

(I say that – but of course if I had moved I wouldn’t have met my wife Pat –my soulmate, partner and the love of my live.)

Gravestones and ghost

One memory from this period is of my ‘ghost’ experience. I was doing freelance work – programming on night shifts in an office next to a church cemetery. I’d been working for a few weeks and established my routine; arrive at about 11pm (after a long bus ride), turn the radio on, start programming; work until I knew the bus service was back on – go home, go to sleep.

This night I arrived as usual; after a few hours of on and off work. I shivered as I felt a sudden chill run through me; the radio lost reception becoming a loud scratchy buzz.  At the very same moment the shutters on the window adjoining the graveyard came crashing down landing on the desk beside me. I ran from the room shivering and shaking with terror. 

I paced the streets for the next few hours until dawn broke. I went back, put the shutters back up, locked the doors and left – for the last time. 

My memory of when things happened and in what order is very sketchy; but I think some of the following things happened in the 1980s.

Working for the Glasgow Roads Department

After a period of unemployment – following my ‘self employment – I was forced back into work as part of a government works scheme. I worked for the Glasgow Roads Department. I don’t remember the ‘why’ of what we (i.e. myself and a colleague also on the works scheme) did in that office – though I do remember the ‘what’. Each day we left the office to visit a set of streets; where we collected information about the street lights; we measured the width of the road, the type of light bulb in the light, the length of the light overhang and the number of lights in the street. Work is not the right word for this activity, the right words would include tedious; boring; vacuous and useless.

The office was populated by characters you would expect to find in a sitcom; a middle-aged man who sweated a lot; an old woman waiting to retire who hated everyone, and muttered under her breath constantly; a woman in her 30’s who I think was the office manager – who had a ‘career’ and a teenage boy who spoke of nothing other than his weekend sexual exploits; none of which anyone believed as he was a complete arse.

Rober Ramsay first wife portrait

To get through the day, we became cultured time wasters; instead of just hanging out in the van, to pass the time, we visited Glasgow’s art galleries and museums. I like art and paintings in particular, so this was me imposing my interests on my council van companion.

I do remember being very annoyed that the Burrell Collection on the south side didn’t have many paintings – and too many boring bits of pottery, tapestries and antiquities. This ‘job’ lasted just long enough for me to get familiar enough with the contents of the galleries that I started getting a bit bored by them.

I remember when I first started I went though a council driving test to be qualified to drive a council Van. I passed the test, drove the van back to the office multi story car park and parked it – forgetting to put the hand-brake on. The van rolled backwards from where it was parked and, luckily for me, just failing to roll down the spiral ‘road’ between car park floors; an inch of the tyre rested against the concrete curb. I got away with this mishap because the car park attendant, who must have been a saint, got a message to me in the office that I needed to go back to have a look at the van. He did this without alerting anyone else in the office – or saying what the problem was. I re-parked the van – and put the hand-brake on.

Van roads dept

Another thing I remember about this job is that I had time to read the paper every day – specifically the political commentary. Which was probably why I later decided to study politics at University. I was following a daily soap opera – and came to know every actor – or politician. Very good writers in the Guardian; I’m still a fan of the Saturday edition which I read from cover to cover with my weekend coffee; though I rarely read the political commentary now.

This was not my first connection with Politics; at seventeen I was a member of the Clydebank Labour Party – or more accurately a party of competing political cliques – who to a man and women were genuine – but unfortunately mostly focused on internal power struggles. I was asked by one of these cliques to run as a local councillor; they recognised a young, naive and a committed lefty, who would be easily controlled. Naive, yes, but not stupid – so I declined.

Stay tuned for part three where I meet the King of Sweden, Tom Waits, Chris Difford, Marti Pellow and Tim Benrers Lee. And get offered a record contract.


Bar stool philosopher: Songwriting for people who will never have a hit
Jim Byrne: Part 1: The forgotten life - Childhood

This section: Jim Byrne's forgotten life, Jim's Acoustic Music Blog, Memoir

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Avatar of JimByrne West End based web Developer, writer, songwriter and musician. And the person who takes lots of photos for the Glasgow West End website.

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