I’m in a bit of a pickle, get me out of here

This article is part of The Age’s My First Job series, where Age writers and columnists share their humorous, poignant tales of finding their feet and receiving their first paychecks.

I stank of vinegar. There were no two ways around it: I was simply foul. I was on an Underground train in the middle of the London rush hour and – unheard of – there was a circle of space around me. I couldn’t blame the other passengers; I wanted to get away from the smell as well. Some of them were holding their noses. If I’d had some pegs, I would have handed them out.

It was 50 years ago. My friend Piers and I had found an agency that offered temporary industrial work in the summer holidays. We were 16 and up for anything.

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Well, almost anything. We drew the line at the first tempting offer – pulling the guts out of pigs in a pork-pie factory – and accepted the slightly more attractive place of employment: a pickle factory in the east end of London.

Marela Pickles was on Saunders Ness Road, deep in the Isle of Dogs, that loop in the Thames opposite the grandeur of Greenwich and the elegance of the Christopher Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College. The Isle of Dogs – not to be confused with the Wes Anderson film – was in those days a hive of wharves, docks, factories and homes. Supposedly, Henry VIII had kept his dogs there, which explains its name. Eliot included a reference in The Waste Land: The barges wash/ Drifting logs/ Down Greenwich reach/ Past the Isle of Dogs.”

In 1970, the Isle declared unilateral independence from the rest of London, inspired perhaps by that classic Ealing comedy, Passport to Pimlico. But there were legitimate grievances about the lack of schools, transport and health facilities for the residents, and they blocked the isle on March 1, 1970, produced “entry permits” to the “Isle of Dogs: independent state of London” and had a president and two prime ministers, who managed to wangle a meeting with future British prime minister James Callaghan, who was then home secretary.

As we lived on the other side of London, it meant an early start: down to the station, jump on a District Line train and get to Mile End Station by 6am – 25 stops, taking nearly an hour – to get the work bus to the factory. Miss the bus and you missed a day’s pay.

The bus was alive with voices and unlike me after work, the smell was wonderful, as the mostly Indian and Bangladeshi workers ate their breakfasts in transit.

At Marela’s, you never spent more than a day on a particular task. Even the bosses recognised the work was deadly dull. How do you feel about a shift bottling mint sauce? Never my favourite accompaniment to roast lamb, the procedure was simple enough if staggeringly boring after the novelty wore off, and that took only a matter of minutes. Piers was on the horseradish. Lucky guy.

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Jason Steger at 16, in cleanish clothes and free of the stink of vinegar.
Jason Steger at 16, in cleanish clothes and free of the stink of vinegar.

It had all been worked out to the last second, no doubt by some time-and-motion guru who knew all about making money but nothing about the people who did the work. Along came a bottle, which you grabbed and placed promptly below a spout. You had to be quick as out came a squirt of dark green mush. Hesitate and it was disaster.

Another day was spent shovelling pickled red cabbage into a similar bottling operation. It left me exhausted and vowing never to eat the stuff again. I collected it in a large sort of wheelie bin, placed it carefully adjacent to the bottling operation and heaved shovel-loads of crunchy cabbage onto it all day, making sure I collected more cabbage in time. It would be a disaster if the supply ran out.

I missed out on the job of mixing the vinegar concoction and boy was I glad of that. Piers was instructed to use a couple of fluid ounces of acid to which he was to add 40 gallons of water. And make sure you don’t get any on yourself, he was cautioned. A potential health hazard for those who made the pickles and those who ate them. Hopefully, he got the quantities right.

Of course there were some characters. The works canteen was dominated by a Welsh bloke who had worked there for ages. He managed more use of the word f— than anyone I have ever met. He had a bright red face and word was that he had won the football pools; you could win big – but had opened the letter on the toilet and never told his wife.

The Isle of Dogs is virtually unrecognisable these days. Factories demolished, docks closed, new buildings and massive office towers dominating.

Our time at Marela’s was brief. Next came an architect’s office, printing out plans. Boring, boring, boring. There was real life at the factory. I’ve had plenty of jobs since then, and been in plenty of pickles, but still have never eaten mint sauce.

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