Sunday, April 14, 2024

PLAYERS PLEASE! By John McGregor

I loved it at John Player and Sons for the sheer difference to anything I’d ever experienced in the forces and the pure pleasure of people-watching: everyday working-class characters from the tough city I had grown up in.

I hadn’t seen this side of life while at school and then going straight into the RAF at seventeen. Now I had left and was applying for different jobs, but to earn some money I went to the ´Labour Exchange’ in Nottingham and was given a position helping to load lorries with cigarettes all day, for deliveries all over the UK.

The classic Sixties book and film ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ summed it all up perfectly, Alan Sillitoe brilliantly capturing the mood and behaviour of people, and his snapshots of factory life were spot on. He wrote about another great Nottingham institution, the pushbike manufacturing factory, Raleigh, but the same attitudes, disciplines and people were perfectly prevalent at Players.

My mentor was an older chap called Arthur who had worked at Players all his life. He quietly explained the daily situations that arose, like the blistering verbal attack the shop steward endured as he risked crossing the loading bay from my strident colleagues who were very unhappy with the new overtime rates.

The poor man tried to put the management’s view that the rates were in line with the industry, only to be sworn violently at and threatened with expulsion at the next opportunity.

Another huge fiasco kicked off as the annual bonus was announced. It seemed many people based their life on the payment and such items as holidays, schooling costs and transport aspects were key issues. This day I noticed everyone seemed to be in a rage, and on consulting the oracle Arthur told me that the annual payment would be approximately seventy pounds, per person which seemed a fortune to me. Alas, the rumour had been that it would be over one hundred pounds in line with the previous year – oh dear.

Friday afternoons were best for entertainment, as everyone went to the pub at lunchtime. In our four strong gang, we each bought a round so four pints in sixty minutes were a challenge, but after my lively years in the services I managed OK.

George, the West Indian, was a wonderful character. Every round he had a different drink, and his varied tastes were amazingly unpredictable. A bottled Guinness could be followed by a Cherry B, then maybe a gin and tonic, washed down by a pint of mild or a port and lemon.  He then laughed and joked his happy way through the afternoon singing Calypsos and dancing, he was an excellent entertainer.

The job of loading the huge lorries could be very boring, so I used to try to calculate the value of the load, about £50,000 then for a container of Players Number Six, the biggest and best-selling fag of the day. The drivers and their mates were great fun, always with a never-ending supply of the latest jokes. The ancient Players’ factories were in narrow streets, built when traffic was much lighter and big artics hadn’t been invented, so reversing into the loading bays from the streets was very tricky.

One lunchtime a reckless mate rashly bet his driver six pints he couldn’t do it in one. With an audience of about fifty, leaning out of his cab at right angles but still somehow operating the pedals, and literally with a couple of inches to spare the driver made it in one to huge cheers and his mate’s disgusted admiration as they headed for the pub.

Being casual labour I got frisked by security at least twice a week. At one minute to five everyone would be twitching in the corridors leading to the big doors, clutching their clocking in-and-out cards. As the big clock clicked time there was a scrum to punch your card, but as everyone surged for the door, someone – often me – was somehow, without violence lifted bodily off their feet by two burly uniformed men and transported into a tiny office and told, firmly but kindly to turn out their pockets.

Stealing was a sackable offence but I’m sure it went on. In the factories you just picked a fag up from the line and lit it, no-one said anything apparently, although out on the loading bays that wasn’t possible, which suited me anyway as the fresher air was definitely preferable. I kept hearing the name ‘Clinton Arms’ and one day asked Arthur. He chuckled.

‘It’s a grotty pub in town: they’ve got topless barmaids there – so they say, I’ve never been.’ My future father–in-law Mike came to stay one night, and suggested I show him some Nottingham hospitality, so I said we’d go into the city centre.

I found the Clinton Arms and parked nearby: Arthur was right, the pub was a bit rough, and perhaps understandably busy. Normally Mike and I would quibble to claim the right to buy the first round, but this time I let him go first into the pub.

As luck would have it, a barmaid was just about to start her shift and came past us as we walked in. She was short, plumpish, quite attractive and was wearing a fashionable bright yellow tank top and matching mini-skirt. She ducked down under the serving hatch, and swivelled round to face us.

With both hands she suddenly jerked the tank top down and as two large white breasts popped out, she smiled sweetly at my totally-unprepared father-in-law and asked him what he wanted to drink. To watch him trying to stammer out ‘Two pints of lager’ was just the funniest thing: he never forgot the experience and often brought it up in conversation.

In the last week I was at Players, all the permanent staff were bussed over to a new modern development area of Nottingham called Clifton. They were shown a huge new state-of-the-art cigarette-manufacturing plant called ‘Horizon’ which was almost complete, and in a few months everything and everyone would be moved there and the old Lenton sweatshops would be closed forever.

I really loved my time there, though, it was all so funny and memorable, and I was quite sad when I had to say goodbye to everyone, especially my ‘uncle’ Arthur. Soon after that I left my beloved Nottingham home for ever to start a new career and life – but I never forgot my one and only taste of factory life and the fun I’d had there: Player power!

 

 

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