Sonhood starts here

One of the most difficult jobs in the bakery was using the large pastry press to make sheets of short crust big enough to do a good run of sausage rolls or apple turnovers. I never really mastered the machine. Imagine a bridge with flaps that lift up and rolling pins that can turn in either direction in the centre. The flaps were pushed down to make an overall length of about 3m. A large piece of pastry was pushed through the rolling pins for the first time and pressed down a little. Then the direction of the pins was changed and the by now larger thinner sheet of pastry was pushed through the rolling pins again and was further flattened. By now it had doubled in size and was beginning to be difficult to handle. You had to run to one end and gather up the pastry in folds because it was longer than the flaps of the table. When it was gathered up you changed the direction of the rolling pins so they would catch the pastry and pull it through in the other direction. Gradually the pastry became thinner and thinner until it was the right thickness for cutting out. It had to have a solid quality that was elastic enough for it to be worked properly and could not be too thin otherwise it would break. Now you had a large, maybe 5m length of short crust pastry, that you could use.

The pastry was rolled onto a metal tube and transferred to one of the long stainless steel topped working tables. There it was laid out. If it was for sausage rolls the dividers came out. I loved the dividers. They were like a concertina that could be set to a range of widths. At the base of each spine was a round metal disc with a sharp edge that would cut the pastry into eight equally distanced strips of pastry. Then the sausage-filling bucket would come out. The sausage bucket was one of a number of things in the bakery that I look back on with absolute horror. There was the bucket with the filling for the Eccles cakes which was as far as I could tell was the repository for any odd bits and pieces that were left over from other mixes but which was bulked out by the addition of a large quantity of currents and sultanas immediately prior to making the Eccles up. The sausage bucket had a similar sense of permanence about it. New sausage meat was added to old and I never remember it being completely finished. I assume that something was done about it when the health inspector was due to visit. An event we always seemed to know about in advance.

From this bucket a large pile sausage meat – perhaps filling is a better word because I am sure the meat content was low –was scooped out and into a piping bag. This was fitted with a plain nozzle and the meat was piped out onto the pastry in a long line. Then the pastry was folded over so the sausage was engulfed into its pastry blanket – hence the name pigs in blankets. The dividers were brought out again and the long pig in a blanket was divided up into individual sausage rolls about six inches long. There were cut out, trayed up and then put in the fridge. I remember both Robert and Bernard doing this job at different times. It was a skilled and demanding task to get the pastry to exactly the right thickness. Bernard would go about the task in silent concentration. He never spoke very much; he was serious and always surprisingly clean. His grey beard and maturity made him a distinctive presence in the bakery. He never shouted, never got involved in much of the banter but worked through a huge amount of production. I always imagined Bernard had a secret life and lived in a cave or a hut by Mudeford Quay because he looked like a fisherman. When Dad closed the last of his larger bake houses, Yeoman’s way, Bernard, like so many others, got a job in an in-store bakery.

Robert, the other pastry baker, was very different. He spent his entire time complaining. He would complain about the temperature of the bakehouse – too hot if the ovens were working, too cold if the dispatch door was open for deliveries. He would complain that the last person to use whatever it was he was using had not cleaned it properly. But most of all he would complain about Beer and Australia. Beer was his only interest in life as far as I could tell. The price and relative quality of the beer determined were he did his drinking. This is a phrase I must have first heard in the bake house but which I have heard many times since. It must be a peculiarly British phrase connected to the institution of the pub. It implies that drinking is an activity like eating or sleeping, that it is perfectly natural to do and that there must be a place, chosen over others, in which you are going to do it routinely. Robert had trouble settling down to a particular place in which to do his drinking. The local Conservative club was for a long time the cheapest place to obtain beer of sufficient quality for his needs. He would therefore attack any alternative venue vigorously for not being as good or as cheap as the Conservative club. He complained and worked at the same time. Indeed the former seemed to be a necessary lubricant to the later.

His views on Australia were more complex than his views on beer. His brother had recently gone to live there and Robert had visited. After that visit Australia became a sort of standard against which he measured things. Admittedly, Australia was too warm and the beer was too cold, but everything else was better and bigger. His long complaints would end with the general announcement that he would go and live in Australia. Before he visited his brother in Australia, his complaints had used to end: I should have been an electrician. I am not sure he ever did go to live there. It would have involved a level of concerted effort and organisation that I suspect was considerably beyond is capacity. It would also have removed his ability to complain at will and at length. I imagine him now as an old man, sitting in the Conservative Club, complaining that his life would have been much better if only he had gone to live in Australia.

At least Robert spoke. This was something Trevor rarely, if ever, did. Trevor had a purple Ford Capri in which he would occasionally give me a lift home. He was very blond and white skinned and always seemed to be enveloped in flour, which of course made him appear even whiter, almost Albino. He was the white rabbit. He seemed to be frozen in a moment of perpetual schoolboy hood. An oversized schoolboy and a silent white rabbit – Trevor was endlessly fascinating. His movements were slow in everything he did. Even if my father was shouting at him he would not move any quicker. He worked at this set pace through all his jobs until they were done. He never seemed on top of this work and it always appeared he was going to be behind which was when my father would start to shout at him. The shouting would have no impact, Trevor would not break his stride in the least, just carry on with what he was doing at the exact same slow speed until my father ran out of wind. Like a schoolboy being shouted at by the teacher, the failure to respond did not encourage my father in the way that it did with some people who met his voice with silence. In Trevor’s case it rather deflated him. As though they both knew it was not going to make any difference and the stuff would be made on time whether he shouted or not. Trevor’s chief virtue in my eyes was the Ford Capri that seemed a rather glamorous car. I measure my growing sense of maturity by my attitude to that car. At first it seemed immensely grown up. I had a toy one at home, yellow rather than purple, which I loved very much. So Trevor having a real one seemed incredible. Gradually, over the years as the car did not change but become progressively dirtier and dirtier and patches of rust appeared, I felt less in awe of it. Perhaps of course the dirt and the rust had been there the whole time but I only saw them later. By the time I was 16 I thought the car silly and no long looked forward to drives home in it so much.

Trevor’s demeanour reflected the way in which the internal dynamics between the different teams in the bakery resembled school. Both Robert and Trevor had come to work for Dad straight from school and many of the girls in the fancy cake department and in the office were taken on as school leavers or shortly afterwards. There was the same atmosphere of gossip and gangs, the same sense of people finding their places in the interplay of personalities and power struggles.

There were some jobs that were a little frightening because they brought me close to heat or in someway had a process that I did not like. Greasing the tins for the bread to go in was such a job. There was nothing actually painful about it but my had was just the right size to fit into a 20lb bread tin. The grease was in a bucket, in the bucket was a hard gease cloth which you had to hold in a fist then dip into the fat and line the tin’s bottom and sides. This had to be done well, especially if my father was the oven man. As the bread was ready the oven man would lift the tins out and knock them out onto the knocking out table. If they stuck the loaf would rip open and be ruined. Dad sweating from the heat of the oven and probably already a little niggled by some burns would explode. But the grease had a life of its own. It would spread from the cloth onto my hands and arms. I would forget to wash and scratch me hair which would then have bits of grease in. It would collect under my finger nails. The main force used to spread the grease were your knuckles and these would gradually become raw so I would change technique and use the cloth to wipe the tins out. This took longer and tended to get grease onto the outside of the tin which was best avoided because it smoked out the ovens. So the knuckle style would be returned to and the rawness endured.

This changing of method was something that annoyed my father. He would usually show me how to do something, like greasing the tins and in explaining he would always assume that I would then use his method of doing the job. However I liked to try different methods and experiment. While some of the jobs in the bake house were exciting and fun, many of the others, like greasing tins, were extremely dull, so a bit of variety was called for. With 24 2lb white bread tins in a try I would do all the bottoms, then all the left sides, then all the right sides, then the top ends and then the bottom ends. Or I would try to do it double handed. I remember one occasion when I became so absorbed in an elaborate way of greasing that I did not notice my Dad had come across to the greasing corner and was watching. I had two trays of tins laid out on the table. I started with the bottom right hand corner of tray number 1 and then did the same on tray 2 and so on. By the time Dad had come up the game had become even more complex. First I would do the sides of a tin on tray 1 and then the sides of a tin on tray 2 and so on. Jumping between the two and keeping up a whispered commentary about the order. Suddenly my Dad’s voice broke the spell: “Sometimes I really worry about the boy”. he said loudly to no one in particular. I then knocked a tray of tins onto the floor.

And I stood and looked at him. What did I feel that day, that moment. It was as if I felt pure hate. Undiluted by analysis, by age, by distance. I hated him. Did anyone else hear? See? Would they be able to repeat back to me what had happened? When I saw would they know? Would they be thinking from now on, well the boss thinks he is an idiot, well the boss despairs of him so why should we take any notice, lets get him. If Dad could not protect me here then where could he protect. But then it would stop. As we reached the outer shores of the possible consequences of these phrase I would look again at him. And then I would notice what I always saw, the softness of his mouth as he looked at me, the twinkle in his eyes always present no matter how bad things were around him, that slight twinkle was there if I was around and then it was impossible to hate him. Did I understand then, why I was there? Did I see the point of my being brought to the bakery on all those endless mornings.