The small family bakery business is in terminal decline. Supermarket in-store bakeries and large chains are gradually wiping out the kind of bakery business my father ran. The harder question is whether the kind of man my father was is also disappearing. He loved his children but was never entirely sure what to do with them until he could bring them into his own domain. He was the kind of man for whom work was life, but who would cry at the thought of a grand child. He was a first generation immigrant, a typical masculine emotional enigma and the best crusty bread baker of his year at college.
What I come back to over and over again as I think about him is the quality and meaning of all these memories that I am writing down. It is such a conventional question that it seems like a cliché to even repeat it here but: why do we remember what we remember? Camus, the philosopher I used to pretend to understand in sixth form, argued that if you have lived free for a single day you have enough to remember for the rest of your life in prison. I think about that idea very often. What was freedom for a child like me, a happy child growing up in a mostly contented home? Why do I remember so little of school and so much of the bakery? I think in part this must be about status. In the bakery I was one of the boss’s sons – “Here comes: and sons.” my Dad used to say – and therefore sure of my place in the hierarchy. It was not a high place exactly but it was clearly defined so long as I continued to behave in the way that was expected of me. Sometimes I overstepped the mark.
At Elliot Road there was a production manager called David. I have no idea how good he was at his job but I always suspected he was one of the people my father carried because they were charming and good at talking, a key also to the way my father always indulged me. It was early on a Saturday morning. Everyone was working flat out. Dave was late. I heard my father shouting to someone in another part of the bakery: “Where the fuck is he?” and we all knew who “he” was.
Finally David arrived. He came straight into the creaming up room where I was working. I said, “Afternoon Dave”. It was the kind of banter I often heard amongst the bakers. A fairly gentle kind of teasing went on all the time. I very rarely joined in because I was not one of the bakers. So long as I behaved I had this sort of protected status. But I was not one of them so I should not have attacked. I should never have entered their verbal games. “Its okay for you, part timer, you haven’t had people phoning up about your house all night”. He was shouting, raving really. Crashing bowls and whisks onto the table. I knew he had been selling his house and trying to buy another. I had no idea why people would have been calling him all night about it. Of course I realise now, having bought and sold houses, that it was just stress speaking. Stress made him attack me like that. At the time I was devastated, close to tears. I hide for a time amongst the flour sacks on the far side of the bakery. Then crept back to work. Much later I sidled up to him and apologised. “That’s okay, you just don’t know what it has been like”. As he talked he filled 6 and 8 inch sponges with fresh cream in a neat spiral, replacing the lids and cleaning the nozzle. His stress soon got much worse. The house move went through and he became much like his old self, chatting about anything to anyone, usually cheerful and working for long periods in the production office, just as he had always done.
Dad then made him redundant. It was the first indication I had that something was quite wrong with the little world. It was the first real attempt my Dad made to get to grips with the managerial side of the business. He did not really believe in management. Consequently we did not have any managers as such who were not also on the production side. There was no one to think strategically except my father. It was a typical problem for a small business that had quickly grown into a large business. The trouble with Dave was that the nice guy who had come back when the stress disappeared was not up to the job. He was sitting in the production office as usual when I went to see him after hearing the news. He looked at me and said, “It is like a piece of the furniture going”. I wanted to say, echoing the talk at home the previous evening, “If you had spent less time on the furniture, then you wouldn’t be going”. But my previous encounter with him stopped me. My values were that sitting in an office was not getting the job done but rather being lazy. Dave was no manager but actually what my father needed most was more time sitting at his desk looking at the numbers and the margins and planning. Or he needed someone to do this for him while he made the stuff. Instead another production manager was appointed and things quickly went back to normal.
I’m really enjoying these reminiscences. Please keep them coming.