David, Claudia and me

Sonhood starts here

There was something of the showman or actor manager about my Father. A bake house is like a stage. There is a fixed amount of time to produce the goods. The shift begins with the surfaces clear and then the actors assemble. Production comes in stages like the acts of a play. But it would not be enough to be a leading man. To manage a group of characters like the people my father employed, required a sense of occasion, of timing and drama. There was always a certain amount of shouting going on. There were often scenes in which things were thrown – insults or bits of dough. Mixing bowls crashed down on mental topped tables in anger, yelling punctuated the making of the dough. Occasionally, people walked out. More often they just got back to work after a while. Much of the anger was performance. My Dad would say that this kept things interesting.

I was never shouted at the way my father shouted at my brother. I vividly recall the moment I understood this. Dad trained at the national bakery school in the Borough, London. He won cups for his bread baking in 1958 and was the star student of his year. In his early teens he took David to a bakery exhibition in Birmingham. From that moment Dave wanted to be a baker and eventually he was a very good one, especially a bread baker. To train David followed Dad to the Borough. Free in London at the age of 16 he had a wonderful time and was not top of his class. David’s results were perfectly fine, but not good enough for my father. I was sitting in the dining room at our house doing some homework. It was a project about Napoleon and I was copying information from the encyclopaedia while David was showing Dad his results in the next room. Dad now began to yell at David. He was a bit of a bully and the best way to deal with him was to shout back even louder, which is what my mother did. My brother just sat and took it. Dave sat and took verbal punch after verbal punch. The more he was silent the louder my father yelled. Until he was reduced to simply asking “Why?” Over and over again. To which David did not have an answer. Finally, he stopped and walked into the dining room, seeing me for the first time. “Titch, I didn’t know you were there. Oh well, perhaps you will have learnt something”. I concentrated on my homework.

David worked at various places around the country after this and eventually came back to work in the business. Because I was the youngest I never experienced Dad’s temper so forcefully or perhaps having heard this I was just much better at not exposing myself to the full force of his self-disappointment. David could not escape this because the relationship between my Dad and my brother was different. On David’s shoulders were placed the expectations of the eldest son. In contrast I could do what ever I wanted. I am sure it drove my brother and sister crazy. I also escaped the family business and therefore did not face the consequences of the eventual collapse of the little world. My brother did. With my sister Claudia the battle was different.

The expression in the bake house for tidying up between jobs and shifts was clearing the decks; it was an important part of finishing a production run. The next shift would then be able to assemble their ingredients and get to work. A new shift arrives in stages. Justino, the bread baker, would often get in early to start organising his tins and racks and preparing his doughs. The pastry bakers would then come in and begin rolling out their short crust and puff. Lastly, the packers would arrive and start organising the dispatch. By the time they came in the night’s work was well advanced and the early loaves or perhaps a few racks of rolls would have been pushed through into dispatch for packing.

If there is a single image that returns to me most often of the bakery it is of the clean surfaces before a shift is about to begin. There was something clinical in the tidiness. Latent in the machinery was the bread and cakes about to be created. Quite often on a Sunday morning or when the day shift had ended and before the night shift started, there would be just my Dad and me getting things ready. My father would follow his arrival at the bakery with a general tour of inspection, yelling at people when necessary, with a period of quiet preparation of his own. There were two points in a shift at which he looked most relaxed. At the start in a clean white coat, carrying a box of fat or a sack of flour, my father looked more utterly at home than at any other time. The anticipation of the night to come was realer to him than anything else. His sense of purpose and organisation, the unassailability of his expertise and skill, were evident in the smooth confidence of his actions. Obvious too was the relief he felt at being focused on the making of things and not the management of people or balance sheets. Baking was what he loved to do the most in the world and this was the beginning of the process of creation. The other point was at the end of a production run. When all the racks of hot bread and buns had been pushed through into the dispatch section of the bakery. After we had finished on a Saturday morning he would sit on the knocking out table drinking a cup of tea, perhaps eating a roll or a bun and would chat happily about the night’s events. For the rest of the shift, in-between these two points he would be a bundle of energy and a source of direction. If it was a Sunday morning and things were going well my father might even break into song. He would be almost playful. I suppose I liked the quiet times before the shift best for this reason. However, it is also a moment I think about often because it recurs when I bake at home and when I clean the kitchen.

But these moments would quickly pass and Dad would be announce his arrival. Even as he climbed out of the car drivers standing around smoking or fiddling with jump leads would leap to life. By the time we had come from the office and changed into our whites, the general speed of activity across the bake house increased markedly. I went off to start work. My father set about motivating the night shift into a final push to finish things off and get them out.

As I began work I could hear Dad’s distinctive style of repetitive yelling from across the bake house. “What the fuck are you doing in there, get out and sweep. What are you doing? No, no, please tell me, I’m interested, what are you doing?”. “What are those supposed to be? I showed you, I showed you a hundred times. I showed you. We can’t sell those. We can’t sell those” “Where are the racks? Where are the racks? Organise the racks first, clean the trays. Throw out the old paper and then tray up. Look, throw the old paper out, put the new paper in and then tray up”. “How can you work in this mess? This mess, how can you work in it? How? Clear a proper space”. “Rows of four staggered. Staggered. Rows of fours staggered by six. 24 a tray. Rows of four staggered and six rows. 24 a tray. Have you got it? Pardon? Have you got it?”