Sonhood begins here

Working a double shift with only a short rest was fairly typical of the physical demands my father liked to make on himself at busy times of year and when there was some sort of problem. There were often problems. The small bakery business functions in a cycle of production, distribution, sale and return. This cycle is vulnerable to many different kinds of disruption.

Stock controls can breakdown leaving you without vital ingredients or deliveries from wholesalers can fail to come in so you have to drive around other local bakeries and borrow things. Things can go wrong with the dough mixes so entire batches of bread or cakes have to be made again. Even after all the stuff is made there are problems. Drivers can load badly so that a sharp emergency stop will topple the tall towers of goods. If anything has gone wrong in production then as dawn approaches the packers will be arguing over the absence of the correct stock from earlier on in the shift. Packers also made genuine mistakes by miscounting something or leaving someone short of something. A tray or two will go to the wrong place and very few customers report a surplus. However, if they are short of anything they will be on the phone complaining by mid-morning. This adds to the overall headache.

But mistakes and shortages could also be the fault of staff. All staff steal. There is a sliding scale from the occasional roll for breakfast to substantial amounts packed in the wrong orders and delivered for cash to the wrong customers. Drivers can take things to the wrong place. Mix-up orders. Steal things off the back of the lorry and then claim the order was short. Drop things. Staff can also let you down at the last minute and you have to persuade people to stay on or come in early. Or worse, you have to phone one of the casual bakers who do the odd shift, some working other jobs and others working the benefit system. These characters might turn up or they might not. At really busy times they might get a better offer or if it is the height of the summer the sun might come out and they will head to the beach instead. Sometimes just the sheer size of the order throws you and your timings go wrong; all of which contributes to your labour costs and eats into your margins.

There was an underlying logic to the lay out of the bake house that was meant to create a flow of production. The stages in making each of the many lines that we carried was pretty much the same but there was a divide between those things which could be made ahead of time and either stored for baking off or packed for a longer life and other things that had to be made the night before they would be dispatched. This created another layer to the social hierarchy of the bake house, in my mind at least. The bread bakers were dominant. This was a position based on skill. There was a separate hierarchy amongst the drivers that was based on the number of wire baskets they could carry. But there were other layers of this class system and I imagined the bread and cakes themselves to have a social system of their own.

As I child I watched this little society and I made connections between it and what I was learning in school about Angles and Saxons, about Normans and the fall of feudalism, later about the industrial and the French revolutions, about Napoleon and the world of Dumas. In my mind then and in my memory now, there were ancient castes represented in the different functions performed by different people in the bakery and these differences were reflected in the goods themselves. I also linked them to my toys and games at home. I was between a world of toys and a world of books, between reality being my bedroom games and understanding that the world outside is made entirely independently of me. It was like that moment in life when you realise that other people exist for purposes other than the role they play in serving your own needs. With siblings this moment comes remarkably. The world of my games and toys remained a better reality for longer than I feel it did with other people I know well. It was still much closer to me.

There was nobility in some our products and the processes that went into to making them. There were also barbarians. The social structures were pyramid shaped with the bread bakers at the top. Therefore what they made were knights, regimented in their bread trolleys, crusty topped and unstoppable. The whole bread and Hovis tinned were like so many industrial magnates. All this fresh bread was the aristocracy of the bakery and it was English. There were, however, other pockets of nobility. The bloomers were like dandies in their 18th century frock coats. I always thought of the cream cakes as French nobles, with long canes and big hats and big hair, characters from the Three Musketeers. They also had this status because they could not be packed too tightly, having a space of their own in each of the trays. The uncut bread too had to have its own space in a single layer but was pushed up against each other.

In between these groups came the suburban middle class. In terms of the staff these were the pastry and choux bakers who made things but did not generally do bread or yeast products. In terms of goods these were the meat filled short crust pastry items like sausage rolls, meat pies, Cornish pasties and the rest. Allied to them were the fruit tarts in silver foil cases and the pound cakes of various kinds, cherry, fruit, date and walnut and so on. These were all solid citizens of the bake house lines – the bakewell tarts, the bread puddings, the almond rings. Larger than the individual items below them but not quite as significant or individual as the fresh cream cakes or larger gateaux like the Black Forest or the Strawberry Tart, they nevertheless had to be treated with care. They were packed carefully and the people who made them all had sufficient skill to be recognised as proper bakers.

Finally there were the masses: the bread rolls of all varieties, the buns of various kinds, and at the very bottom of the social heap – the cut bread. The rolls, when cool and either packed or unpacked could be heaped into the baskets in multiple rows, sometimes a dozen at a time. The buns could also come off their metal trays in fours or sixes and be packed in large numbers. These were the jumbled-up masses, the barbarian hordes. They sustained the heaviest losses in the time from production to packing. Many were broken and many were taken for morning snacks to be eaten hurriedly between the piles of wire baskets.

Imagining the bakery like this always helped me get through a long shift. There were other ways in which the world of games at home crossed over into the world of the bakery in my mind. If I had a rack of goods to cling film, for example, I divided the rack into sections set the clock and raced to see how many I could do in different segments of time. Or I imagined that the bakery was supplying the armies fighting the siege that began the opening titles of the Flashing Blade. As each basket was filled our side’s chances of seeing off the aggressors was increased. Or I would run through a Jonh Motson commentary on the speed, efficiency and skill with which I was moving through whatever mundane task I had been allotted. The problem was that these highly enjoyable daydreams would sometimes take over and I would leave the bakery and be on the walls of the castle helping defeat the enemy. I would be in the middle of a real game of football. It was usually at this point that my father would stroll past to check on me, “Stupid Boy”, a’la Dad’s Army.