Blue Sparks and Long Weights – the early working years

The workplace is a lot more politically correct now than it used to be. There are grievance procedures and HR departments if you get given grief whether disability related or otherwise. But it also used to be a lot less target-driven and there was more scope for people with certain challenges to develop without dismissal. Or was that just the place I worked…


I had left full-time education. I had a lot of anxiety and I needed more space to clear my head than I felt a coursework schedule would allow at the time. Knowing we were entering a recession at the time (1992) I decided to do the two year Work Preparation Programme at the college where I had been ‘studying’ over the preceding year. Little did I know I was basically stepping into a course that dealt with individuals who might be classed as dropouts and ruffians. My escapades on day release at college deserve a piece to themselves.

But I was getting through placements like underwear. Over the first four months or so there were two I left because I didn’t like them, one I got dismissed from after one day and another looked promising and earned me a day less in college (the better you were at your job the more days per week you spent on placement) until I was told that ‘two week trial’ did not mean I’d get taken on for longer if I did well.

But it was a few days after the last of these finished that the placements officer said “I’ve got something at a warehouse that does Christmas cards. Would you be interested?”

I said yes and the next day was driven to the warehouse of Alban Greetings. I was taken inside and introduced to the manager Colin Richards, a short man with a friendly but abrupt manner.

“Do you want to work here?” I did.

Initially it was a doddle. The newbies from the college usually spent the first day out helping one of the drivers and I was no exception. On the second day I was putting gift tags, string etc into boxes to be taken to our dedicated home workers to assemble. I enjoyed this. Nice and simple and colourful too. But on the third day I had a broom thrust in my hand and got told to sweep the floor.

So I did. And every time you finished there was more to do.

And more.

And more.

And still more.

How clean is clean? It was a while before anyone told me to just focus on the “big dirt” i.e. dropped polybags, discarded cellophane wrap etc rather than worry about wiping dust off railings. Colin’s temper had me abandoning logic to the point where I would ask Naz, Colin’s immediate junior, if I needed to pick up euro holes from the floor. He’d send me round to the machine room to collect twenty red ones “and make sure they’re not faded” and even the machine room supervisor saying I should tell Naz to get stuffed didn’t make me realise the guy was pulling my leg.

For the whole of that fifteen-month placement, sweeping and cleaning was my main task. I didn’t dare complain – Colin Richards turned out to be a fearsome man to get the wrong side of, although he did tactfully ask on one occasion how I felt about sweeping all the time and tell me how important my role was by saying that you couldn’t have a Red Indian chief without having lots of little Indians doing the menial work and giving me two free boxes of Christmas cards seemingly to placate me. But I didn’t dare leave either – I had been in too many placements in too few months to justify it, and besides there turned out to be a very warm family atmosphere there.

It was after Colin had left for pastures new that autumn that I moaned to Tom the stock control guy that I was here to learn work skills and I wasn’t learning them sweeping the floor. He passed this on to Naz who had taken on many of his former tasks of management who said that the only reason he hadn’t given me more to do was because I was much too precise which admittedly Colin had tactfully told me before then.

I got given other less menial stuff to do as time went on but it hadn’t taken Colin and the lads long to work out I was game for a wind up. I fell for two classic workplace pranks. One involved Colin sending me round all the other warehouses on the estate asking if we could have “blue sparks for the angle grinder”.

“What’s an angle grinder Colin?”

“It’s part of one of the machines. Now go!”

I should have remembered Colin had a habit of adopting a brusque tone in order to conceal a prank as well as when he really meant it. On one occasion he had placed a box of tray dividers in my hand and ordered me to take it up to the packing bench on the mezzanine floor.

“Take that up to Ike” he ordered “and tell him from me ‘Meshuggah. And it’s very important!”

Assuming Meshuggah to be the name of the manufacturer or somesuch, I obeyed.

Ike – Colin asked me to give you this,” – Ike looked at me quizzically – and he says “Meshuggah-”

Suddenly everyone burst out laughing. I went downstairs again in sheer embarrassment. Laughing, Colin told me it was “The Hungarian word for shirtlifter.” It later turned out to actually be a Yiddish word meaning ‘mad’. Ike, an elderly Jewish bloke, was not unused to Colin calling him this and had no objection  – it was just considered part of the banter.

Anyway, in a similarly brusque tone Colin had instructed me to get the “blue sparks”. I didn’t think he’d mean literal sparks, maybe something along the lines of a spark plug. The other three warehouses had nothing along those lines – one genteel receptionist even walked into the factory and returned saying “I’m sorry we don’t have anything like that”. No instruction that nothing “like that” actually existed.

It ended with my being told to look for them in the back of a delivery driver’s van but when I found it empty the subject was dropped. It was only about a year later that another guy on placement told me an angle grinder was a tool used in construction and that “The only blue sparks it’s got are the ones what fly out of it!”

The pranks didn’t stop there though. One time I reported to the office that I needed a plaster as I’d cut myself. After Colin had initially remarked “Well what do you want me to do? Kiss it better?!” he made some remark about how “There was a guy here who cut himself and died of gangrene a few years ago”. Hayley who ran the bench upstairs didn’t help when she said “Oh yeah I remember” when I told her about it – mind you her smile should have been a clue.I got really paranoid about cuts after that (usually incurred with a scalpel blade while cutting through shrink wrap) and Naz would tell me “OK just sit in the canteen holding your nose for five minutes”. I did this quite a few times before Colin told me there was no need and told Naz to stop. But even before then they were using other fake remedies like getting me to run down the side of the building and back in some crouched position. When I got back, Colin said “You know that’s the fastest anyone’s managed in the 16 years the company’s been running.” It wasn’t till a few months after Colin had left that I discovered no-one had died of gangrene. My health-related anxieties at work ceased therewith.

Another time I got paranoid about having to clean up a spillage of rat poison and whether I’d washed my hands sufficiently before eating. It was some weeks before Tom, who was the first aider, told me that it doesn’t kill humans, it only makes us throw up. They took advantage of my hypochondria no end – putting boxes on my feet so I didn’t step in the poison and writing brand names on them with their marker pens and one time even taping bin liners to me as protection before the driver I was assisting that day (who initially thought I was threatening to knife him when I used a kitchen knife in my lunch box to get them off) told me to use my common sense and that it was obviously a joke.

Apart from these psychological games however, I could still laugh at some of the more humorous pranks. One week a guy called Vince who was only working there for three months said to me in his most serious tone “Could you ask Naz to get me a long weight?”

I approached Naz with this request, keen to learn about a piece of equipment other than the broom.

“Oh” said Naz “I think Brian’s got it”. I duly walked to the machine room where Brian Mahoney operated the printing machine.

“Brian, Vince needs a long weight and Naz says you’ve got it.”

“Yeah mate I think I need to ask Colin first”. He disappeared.

Eventually 1.30 came round and the buzzer sounded for lunch break. When we resumed work at 2.00 I returned to Brian.

“Weren’t you going to get me the long weight?”

“Er I’m not sure I’m allowed to give it to you after 2pm”.

Eventually I gave up and walked over to Colin’s office. He told me to wait outside.

Colin disappeared through to the offices and eventually walked through again with a few blokes in suits.

“Colin weren’t you going to-”

“Wait WAIT!” he kept saying with a grin.

Eventually Michael Allan, a South African with a strong accent remarked “Why don’t you stop looking like the village idiot and think what it was you asked for.”

I did. And I got it. By now it was 3.30. I poked my head round the door of Colin’s office and said to the girl at the other desk, “Tell Colin thanks for the long weight.”

“You mean you fell for that old chestnut?” she laughed.

Apparently Colin had pulled this on people before but this was “Definitely the longest wait.”

But that evening when we gathered at a pub to bid farewell to Rhianna who ran the bench upstairs, I really felt like part of the family. Towards the end of the meal, Colin told me to make a speech. I could tell he was maybe having a bit of a joke at my expense but people liked what I came out about how brilliant Rhianna had been to work with with so it paid off once again.

Tom and his wife Jane gave me a lift home. It turned out Jane had already heard about me. “What have you heard?” I asked with slight apprehension.

“I hear you’re quite popular” she replied.

There was little doubt about it. People knew I was a bit different, they knew I was a wind-up target but they had seen me slaving away with the broom without complaint, they knew I knew my pop trivia and knew what year Simon Bates was doing on The Golden Hour (shows how long ago it was) and did good impressions of Colin etc and I knew how to be nice with old ladies anyway having a female curate for a mother – although Colin did once order me to go back upstairs and apologise for relieving my nose in their recycle bin. Heck I didn’t really understand why I was a bit different either and I was only just emerging from a period of OCD based anxiety, scruples etc so I hadn’t quite got back to my old self yet but with the motto in my heart that I must do everything to the best of my abilities no matter how much it hurt, I did this as best I could and it paid off. I learned something of how to roll with the punchesand turn it to good.

Let the reader understand I never sucked up to Colin. Some of his management techniques left a lot to be desired for. Everyone knew I was a bit odd so it wasn’t hard to call out whoever had left a floater in the gents having omitted to check whether a second flush was needed.

One day Colin was with some of the other lads chatting round a stationary fork-lift. As I passed, Colin called me over with a big grin on his face.

“Hey Chris. Chris. When did you last use the loo?”

I knew what would be coming. “Errr about 10-15 minutes ago?”

“You didn’t do a poopy did you?!”

“Er yeah I did actually.”

“Oh get away from me!” snapped Colin pushing me out of the way.

My mum wouldn’t have let me get away with that!” remarked Brian Mahoney referring more to my faux pas than Colin’s management technique.

Another time I was about to go into the single cubicle gents when Colin came up behind me.

“Chris! Tom wants you.”

I moved out of the way and he hastily entered the cubicle in my place.

I walked over to Tom who turned out not to really want me after all.

But for all that, it was clear I had Colin’s respect otherwise I would have been sent back to the college and had to wait around for another placement to turn up. When Colin left that autumn, I was, once again, invited to give a speech. The verbosity I now pour into writing came into these periodical speeches.

I mentioned that next week my favourite band (the Bee Gees) would be releasing a new album. “I think the title’s quite appropriate” I said “because it’s called… Size Isn’t Everything.”

Everyone burst out laughing. I was making a joke about Colin’s height, I had no idea it was an old phallic reference. “Well was that meant to be a compliment or what!” remarked Colin.

But clearly he wasn’t offended. When I left that day he said to me “It’s been a pleasure Chris and I mean that. Here’s my address, contact me if you ever need a reference.”

* * * * *

After Colin left, Naz effectively took charge. He became a lot more snappy. “Chris! How many times!” “Chris! What have I told you!” I could see that my difficulty in understanding certain instructions and in not being able to work both fast and accurately at the same time was obviously being caused by this condition and that I would need an official diagnosis in order to be able to tell employers about this then relatively unknown condition. I knew that I no longer had the luxury of the Special Educational Needs department behind me as I had had at school and that I needed something official in terms of proof. I had told Naz about it and that I would need to hear “move the pallet to your right” rather than “move that pallet”. He acknowledged it but said little.

I left Alban Greetings in May 1994 having done placement there for just over a year. I had had enough of constant reprimands, teasing, having to wipe bird droppings off directors’ cars and other menial tasks. No-one wanted to see me go and a petition was signed to keep me there. Naz signed it three times and a couple of wags wrote Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ. The next placement had me doing production line work which was actually a lot more fulfilling but didn’t lead to work by the time the course ended in June. Nevertheless I finished the course in good standing largely because of my work at Alban Greetings and I was praised by the tutors for my progress.

I took a few weeks to just recuperate emotionally after the course had ended. It had been a school of hard knocks and for a few weeks I was content just to eat doorstep sandwiches and watch reruns of Trumpton and the like. Eventually I got back to applying for work but the next big event on the horizon was my official diagnosis six months later.

So much made sense now. I began to realise I wasn’t just a freak. I was prone to missing a tease, not knowing how I came across, eccentric tics and all this was because of a condition that would never go away but could at least be tamed somewhat.

The following summer I returned to Alban Greetings on a paid contract. There had been a shake-up, certain key wind-up merchants had gone and although Naz and his new sidekick Ash could tear into you for England, the practical joking had stopped, no-one was sending me round to buy their rolls anymore and I could tell Naz must have had a word with everybody and told them the behaviours of old were off limits. Instead of just sweeping, I now worked with Tom on finished goods, preparing pallets for final dispatch. Two years later I left of my own free will to pursue other projects.

Since then I’ve had quite a few other jobs, most of which I didn’t leave of my own free will as well as lengthy periods of unemployment. But for all the political incorrectness, impatience, lack of HR department to report grievances through and flagrant disregard for health and safety (they never used the fork-lift cage), Alban Greetings gave me a chance in life that pretty much no other company ever did.

Names have been changed (mostly).