This Sort of Thing...


Back in the M.A.F.F.


It was the first time I’d ever been asked the question ‘Are you allergic to silage?’ at a job interview. I couldn’t give a definitive answer because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever even met any silage.

I had told the woman behind the desk at Seacroft Job Centre that it was a complete` and utter waste of time going after a job that I wasn’t the slightest bit qualified to do and that I didn’t really want it anyway, but she said that it would affect my benefits if I didn’t pursue every opportunity that raised its head in the job market. I was sure that there were vacancies for brain surgeons and ballet dancers but she wasn’t sending me away for interviews for those, so why did she want me to go and work as a scientist? I vaguely remember her being called Janine. For every Jimmy in Glasgow and every Dimitar in Bulgaria, there’s a Janine in Seacroft; a not entirely salubrious district on the sunny eastern side of Leeds.

I had GCE ‘O’ Levels in ten different subjects plus a couple of ‘A’ Levels, an Efficient Deck Hand certificate, a document stating that I was proficient at lifeboatmanship and a note from my mum saying that if they didn’t get me back in work a bit sharpish she’d be jolly cross with them, and me.

The problem was that I didn’t have an ‘O’ Level in biology which the people at the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (M.A.F.F.) were insisting upon. While I was pouring out my personal details so that the Job Centre staff could set up a file on me I had mentioned that I had kept tropical fish for a while and that I was very fond of food, so it was probably this that made them think I might be suitable for the job. All my knowledge of biology was self-taught.

I wasn’t particularly worried about these benefits that they spoke of and I told Janine so, much to her annoyance. She had wanted to torment and blackmail me for being one of those awful people that was out of work. When I sat down in front of her desk I’d only been unemployed for just over an hour. Until a little more than a day before that I had been away, working on a ship in some of the hottest bits of the world for nine months which meant that I was entitled to nine weeks of paid leave. I’d phoned the shipping company’s office in Glasgow to tell the personnel officer (you may remember the poor, bewildered Jimmy from an earlier episode of my life story) to tell him that it was probably for the best for all concerned if my life on the ocean wave was to come to an end. It was my idea for this working relationship to cease but he made no attempt to talk me out of it so you might say that I had left the company by mutual consent, in true football manager style. He said he’d arrange for my final month’s salary to be paid immediately together with the nine weeks’ holiday pay that was due to me. This sudden influx of funds meant that I couldn’t give a bosun's whistle about the two pounds sixty-three and a half pence per day or something like that that was on the table to keep me alive until I found a new job. Even with no job I was going to be financially fine for around three months, especially considering that at the back end of a Leeds winter there was very little to spend money on anyway other than Guinness, records and the occasional night out with a Janine.

However, I went for the job interview anyway because I knew I’d have to find some sort of gainful employment eventually so it would have been a mistake to go upsetting Job Centre Janine. I also had to remember to tread carefully as she was a friend of my sister who also worked there but who wasn’t allowed to deal with my case because, as a close relative, there existed the risk of her letting me have the two pounds sixty-three and a half pence per day or something like that without my meeting all of the requirements set out in Department of Health and Social Security (D.H.S.S.) regulations.

Not feeling the slightest bit nervous, I turned up at the M.A.F.F. regional headquarters at the other side of Leeds later that day to face a group of middle management people dressed in almost white laboratory coats with breast pockets stuffed full of Bic biros and last year’s poppy still attached to the lapel. Although they worked in a scientific environment they never left their office desks so there was absolutely no need for them to wear the white lab coats other than for the fact that the blizzard of dandruff from their almost entirely bald heads was less likely to be noticed on their shoulders. Upon meeting them, and to give me something to do during the interview, I started to think of a suitable collective noun for them and quickly settled upon a scabbiness of civil servants.

The only smart clothes that I had at the time were those that made up my merchant navy trainee officer’s uniform and I was sure that I would have looked a bit of a prat wearing that on the bus riding round Leeds ring road to the Government Buildings in Lawnswood. I had even looked a bit of a prat wearing it on ships and consequently didn’t. So I arrived for the interview in my best tee-shirt and the only pair of jeans that I had that weren’t held together with Rolling Stones and Leeds United patches, a leather bomber jacket, a tropical tan and hair down to my shoulders. I must have looked like a Bee Gee or a member of that other popular beat combo that everyone loved at the time, Olivia, Newt and John. But still they offered me the job. What were they doing wasting taxpayers’ money in this way? They were obviously more desperate to fill the post than I was to be used as the filler.

Could I start tomorrow? No I bloody well couldn’t! It was just over twenty-four hours since I had arrived home by plane from Tampa in Florida. I probably still smelt of the phosphates (fossilised bird shit used as fertiliser) that I had been involved in supervising the loading of until the point when I left the ship. I still had a mild case of jetlag and because I’d been so busy during my first day at home ending one career and trying to start another, I hadn’t had even a suggestion of a good long sleep in my own bed. Technically, due to the expedience of Janine, the begrudged cooperation of me and the desperation of the desperate men at the M.A.F.F., I was only unemployed for six hours but managed to hold out until the following Monday before starting work and actually earning any money.

I was taken on by these people to carry out the work of simulating (not stimulating) a cow’s stomach, a field in which I suppose I already had quite a bit of experience, even though I had gained it in more of a pub and curry house situation than in a field. Nobody was thinking about Brexit back then because the European Union hadn’t even started. Everybody in and out of politics seemed to be quite happy that we were members of the Common Market, except for a few people in places like Harrogate who found it a bit common. But it was quite important that the stuffed shirts in Brussels were kept absolutely up to date with what our farmers were feeding to their bovine stock.

I shouldn’t be telling you this because before they would give me my own supply of white lab coats and Bic biros from the stores department I was forced to sign the Official Secrets Act. Some of the things I tell you in my writing might be a bit tongue in cheek but this bit is absolutely true. If the Russians were ever to find out that some cows in North Yorkshire were having trouble going for a poo, then fingers would be pointed and I would be in big big trouble.

So if you promise never to repeat a word of this I can tell you that each day I had the responsibility of accurately weighing out twenty-five grams of each of twenty-four different samples of cattle food that had been sent to us by north east England’s finest cattle food manufacturers for testing. I had to individually wash/squirt each sample with acetone (which smelt rather nice, by the way) before boiling them for one hour in an alkaline solution, filtering them, washing them again with acetone (mmhh, it certainly had a bit of a kick to it), boiling them for an hour in an acid solution, filtering again, and then another acetone squirt (by now I was feeling rather squiffy). Every day I processed twelve samples each morning and another twelve in the afternoon before toasting them in a laboratory furnace overnight. Apparently this is exactly what goes on in the stomach of a cow. Poor cow!

The following morning, I would be left with only a bit of ash in the samples’ individual glass dishes. This was the fibre remaining at the end of the digestive process. I had to weigh these and calculate what percentage they were of the original twenty-five gram samples. The figure needed to be exactly three percent for the sample to pass the test and the manufacturer to be able to sell that particular batch of feed. If it was less than three percent, there existed the risk that any cow that it was fed to might be constipated and if it was above three percent there was the risk of it having a dose of the skitters.

Now this might sound like a load of cow shit to you but to me it was bread and butter. It was nowhere near as monotonous as you may think and for anyone with a bit of imagination it was a wonderful job. While the laboratory beakers and jars of stuff that ironically looked like Bovril bubbled away above Bunsen burners I couldn’t leave my place at the bench because there was a risk that the samples in their solutions might boil over. If they had done I would have had to start from scratch and the scabby heads in the office would have stopped scratching and come down on me like a ton of bricks for not meeting targets. So I kept one eye on my apparatus and one eye on whatever book I was reading at the time.

The daily journeys on Leeds buses to and from work each day might be described as the mother of all monotony, even when Leeds City Transport put some shiny new buses into operation on the route. I always had a paperback book in my pocket so that I had something to read to keep me awake and reduce the risk of me missing my stop. If I had missed it, the answer to my problem would have been to sit tight as it was the number nine Ring Road service, so within two or three hours I would have got back to where I wanted to be without getting off and standing at another bus stop on the opposite side of the road in the West Yorkshire rain and wind that made the empty cigarette packets swirl so beautifully around inside the confines of the bus shelter.

I could say that in this period of my life I was reading significantly more than in any that had gone before. I was reading to escape and there seemed to be so many things that I needed to escape from; home, work, the climate that I was struggling to readjust to after having been floating around close to the equator for so long in my previous job, the bus, the other passengers on the bus who would become a bit malodorous if they got wet and my lack of any friends who might be up for a bit of a night out on any night of the week other than Friday. On a couple of occasions on the bus to work I had missed my stop because I had become so engrossed in my book; the permanently steamed-up windows that I couldn’t see out of having added to the problem of being in the right place at the right time. Thank goodness for flexi-time and flexible right times! The fact that I could continue reading when I arrived at work was a huge bonus, though being a true professional Assistant Scientific Officer (Casual), as my branch of the Civil Service had branded me, I never got so engrossed that I let my beakers of silage broth boil over. A claim to fame that I have remained proud of to this day.

The afternoons in the lab were much more interesting than the mornings as some of my fellow cow cake processors would go off to the nearby pub, the Lawnswood Arms, at lunchtime (sometimes I would join them for a fruit juice or a small sherry) returning in a state far more interesting than the one in which they had left and in the ideal mood for doing a bit of entertaining.

My dear colleague, Colin the Contortionist, really was called Colin but he was employed by the M.A.F.F. more as a Scientific Officer than as a contortionist. Most Government departments at the time would have had us believe that there was no need for a contortionist on their premises but we had one anyway and our daily rigmarole would have been a lot less bearable without him. He was known the length and breadth of the Government Buildings site in Lawnswood for the incredible party tricks he was able to perform. He should have been very good at being a scientist because with his unkempt spiky hair, his wispy beard and his wee round John Lennon glasses he looked like a scientist, if not a nutty professor. But he wasn’t very good at science and had dropped out of his degree course at Leeds University two years earlier. He had got this job because he was terrified of facing the wrath of his parents if he went home to Sussex to tell them he was never going to have his name up there in lights alongside the likes of Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin as they had hoped he would and as they had told their neighbours accordingly, and too hastily in my opinion. He was possibly the skinniest person that I have ever met and to demonstrate his incredible physique, or lack of it, he would take off his white lab coat and his purple tie-dye grandpa vest, stand on a stool and protrude his shoulder blades until he could hook them onto a shelf high up on the wall of the laboratory. He would then invite one of his audience (he really deserved to have an attractive young lady assistant in a sparkly leotard and a dramatic drum roll) to remove the stool, leaving him dangling there until it was time to go home or one of the dandruff-bearing management team walked in on us and he would jump down.

Another man, much older than the rest of us, would tell us tales about what had happened to him with a girl he had met the previous evening. He had a different story every single day, the plotline was always something quite sordid, it had always taken place in his kitchen and it had always taken him totally by surprise. We fathomed that he was a regular customer at the ‘special’ cinema in a part of town that most of is never went to (well, not very often) where films about people who were a bit overcome by the heat had had to loosen their clothing and then all of a sudden they were down to their vest and pants or less and you wouldn’t want the priest to find out about what happened next. He’d obviously wanted to share his experience with his colleagues in the hope that somebody in the world might find him interesting but he knew that if he told us the precise truth we’d vandalise his mucky mac. I suspect that these days he has a mucky Apple Mac in his bedroom so he no longer needs to leave home to watch the sinners and fornicators, and that the special cinema has gone out of business. Another casualty of digital technology.

We had a political activist working amongst us. Everyone called him Frudd. One day I asked, ‘Why does everyone call him Frudd?’

‘Because that’s his name,’ everyone replied. ‘John Frudd.’

Had it not been for the rampant acne and the grey polyester trousers dotted with patches of egg yolk and ketchup from a myriad of staff canteen breakfasts, I would have said that he looked like he’d been made from modelling clay and possessed some of the physical features that might have made a person think that he was the Incredible Hulk, had the Incredible Hulk been only five feet tall. He had had to ask his mum to turn up his white lab coat to stop it from trailing on the ground and getting dirty (or dirtier). He was an avid supporter of a political organisation that I had previously had no experience of. This party, called the National Front, was a fine body of bonehead Fascists who Frudd was quite confident would win the approaching May 1979 general election, form a government and get Britain back on its feet. Thankfully they didn’t win but the people who did turned out to be not much better. Someone asked him to go through the key features of his party’s election manifesto. His response, although quite rude, was perfectly succinct. In fact, it amounted to only two single syllable words.

‘Why do you read the Daily Star and not the Sun?’ someone asked him, thinking that the reputation of the latter would deem it to be right up his street.

‘Because the Star has greater political content’ he replied. ‘That’s why the photos of the girls with their paps out have to be pushed right back to page five, rather than on page three where you would always find them in the less intellectual rival, the Sun.’

I remember a man called Tony, whose job seemed to be nothing more than giving us all a form (an item of official M.A.F.F. stationery known as a CF6 or a VAT69 or an AK47 or something like that) on a Monday morning for us to enter our flexi-time hours that week as we worked them, and then to collect the completed forms as we went out of the door on Friday afternoon. One lunchtime he went to a shop in town and returned with a brown paper bag containing around a dozen shiny tin kazoos. He handed them out to us and we spent a lively couple of hours performing the music of popular recording artists like the New Seekers, the Bay City Rollers and Petula Clarke on these small and very simple, but highly entertaining instruments as our bovine beakers bubbled. At five o’clock he asked for them back because he was taking them to a children’s party. I thought this was terrible. What did seven-year-olds know about Petula Clarke?

The Government Buildings on Otley Road in Leeds had formerly housed the Government’s War Room, opened in the early 1950’s but within a few years, nuclear technology left it obsolete as the H bomb threat required a new breed of protected accommodation. So the M.A.F.F. moved their business in, along with the Department of Health & Social Security (D.H.S.S.) and the Department of the Environment (D.O.E.). It was a very cosy arrangement but I still don’t know what the collective noun is for a group of government departments. A nebuliser, perhaps? We used to chat with their staff and even meet up with them for a beer in the Lawnswood Arms on a lunchtime or in the city centre pubs at the weekends. They were nice people and they didn’t smell of silage. With a few of them I established friendships that continued until long after I’d moved on to another job.

On Thursdays after work we’d play each other at football on the nearby university sports fields, but because football is a game for two teams and we were three government departments, one week in three we’d have to take our turn at not playing and just going home for our tea instead. I rarely played in these games because I wasn’t particularly talented at football or at inflicting grievous bodily harm on people so I wasn’t often picked by the team selectors. Although these sporting events were supposed to be a bit of good natured, inter-departmental camaraderie it was often the case that a fight would break out over a hotly disputed refereeing decision, a boot aimed at a shin rather than the ball or the mention of the fact that we were allowed to read books at work and our opponents weren’t. Sometimes there was the suggestion that the police might be called, not because of the fighting but because we weren’t really allowed to be playing our games on the property of Leeds University so the groundsman would come along and shout abuse at us whilst trying to catch hold of our ball and run away with it.

I remember him threatening us with the pointed end of a corner flag whilst shouting, ‘You shouldn’t be here because you’re nothing but bloody riff-raff sitting in that bomb shelter all day long doing sod all except wasting taxpayers’ money and if you want to play on this pitch you should go to university and learn something decent and then you might be able to get a proper job and I wish they’d come and drop a bomb on that place anyway because it’s just a pile of old concrete and rust and then where would you be?’ We weren’t afraid of him but there was no point in trying to play football with him around, so we removed the lumps of the mud that had accumulated around the studs on our boots and threw them at him as we departed for the pub.

It wasn’t a place that I could say was a nice pub or had a good atmosphere or good beer but I do remember having some good times there. But what I remember even more clearly was being there on one occasion with my girlfriend Debbie (she wasn’t from Leeds so she wasn’t called Janine) and not having a good time. She was a permanent employee at the M.A.F.F., several grades higher than me and worked in the laboratory where they did autopsies on deceased farm animals. If you live on a farm and your animal dies you can’t just go making it into chops and sausages, you know. Civil Servants have to take it away and carry out all manner of investigating to establish if it had died from natural causes, or in suspicious circumstances, perhaps murdered in the library with a candlestick, or from a disease that the nation’s agriculturalists needed to get into a panic over. I, in particular, was worried that Debbie might catch something incurable from a poorly member of some farmer’s herd and that we would both have to be destroyed by a government vet.

Anyway, we’d often meet straight after work in the pub when it opened at 5:30. I was always there first because she cared about her work. Even though we weren’t together very long it was always nice to see her, but one evening when she sat down at our table she seemed a bit unhappy and not at all talkative. I tried to make her smile by telling her some silage jokes but she was in an awful mood and was determined to stay there.

So nervously I asked her, ‘What’s wrong Debbie?’

‘I’ve been doing fucking pig shits all day,’ she snapped at the top of her voice, ‘and I can still smell them!’ causing twenty or thirty elderly customers, who were in the pub for the Tuesday teatime pensioners’ special, to turn their heads and scowl at us in horror.

That district of Leeds was quite well-to-do so those people would have had absolutely no time at all for young folk who did pig shits. However, if Debbie had thought to include the words ‘analysis of’ and ‘for scientific purposes’ in her outburst I’m sure they’d have been more accepting of her and possibly even offered her a bit of their teatime special, which hopefully wasn’t pork.

Not being pensioners ourselves, we never found out what made these Tuesday teatime pensioners’ specials so special. We suspected that it was the Sunday lunchtime ordinary food warmed up and sold off at a reduced price before it went off. Debbie suggested that the pensioners’ specials might actually contain bits of pensioner which would have been awful because, if this was so, the meat eating public of Great Britain would no longer need farm produced foodstuffs and the M.A.F.F. and Debbie and I would all be out of a job.

My contract had been for six months with the possibility of an extension to this if I was any good at the job, but working beyond the end of the six months never came up for discussion as after three I had moved on to something that could more realistically be considered a career.

I had been taken on as a casual employee which was along the lines of what might be called a zero hours contract today. There was no sick pay, holiday pay, pension scheme or invitation to become a member of the golf club. I worked flexi-time and I could decide for myself each morning whether or not I was going in to work that day, as long as I phoned them to tell them if I wasn’t and accepted that I wouldn’t get paid. They encouraged me to work a minimum of three days per week but some weeks I’d only work two days and others four or five. This meant that I could have a day off whenever the weather was exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, or if I had a job interview to go to elsewhere or if I simply couldn’t be bothered being a stand in for the digestive tract of a cow. During my time there I took a couple of days off as an act of solidarity with my colleagues who were permanent employees and were striking for better pay and conditions. They told me that if I crossed their picket line as a non-union member they’d never buy me a pint again. So I joined them on their picket line, handed out a few leaflets, shouted some mildly uncomplimentary things about a man called Fred Peart who was the Labour Government’s Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and then, at the end of a hard day’s striking, we all (with the exception of Fred Peart) toddled off to the pub.

I’ll never forget my short time working as a civil servant. It was an ideal stopgap between two careers, giving me a bit of extra time and money to look round for a more suitable job. Sometimes it was an absolute scream being there and I made some wonderful friends. At the time I wouldn’t have called it my dream job but, looking back, it definitely was a job and I spent a lot of my working hours there in a bit of a dream as I reflected upon the seafaring career that I had given up and wondered what excitement might lie ahead in my next line of work.

Not long before I said goodbye to the M.A.F.F. I got a letter from Seacroft Job Centre, signed not by Janine but by the general manager. At my introductory interview with them they had asked me a series of generic, multi-choice questions about myself, my interests and my expectations. The idea was that they would punch my answers into a computer, press a button and then after a bit of clanking and whirring a piece of paper would emerge containing a description of my dream job. After more than two months of clanking and whirring (I was obviously a bit of a challenge) the machine came to the conclusion that I should be working for the Forestry Commission. And as luck would have it, the general manager added, there was currently a vacancy for someone to work in the cafeteria at the forest on the Scottish Isle of Raasay.

So I went to work in London.


Back in the M.A.F.F.


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