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Roneo Vickers Engineer : circa 1950
I was regularly being called out to firms and factories all over the East Midlands. Some I enjoyed going out to but others I dreaded. First among the latter was a Mental Hospital in Northampton.
The building was a late Victorian place set in its own grounds. My visits went like this: The call would come into the office and what was usually said was,
‘The printing machine is only inking down one side!’
Until I cracked the problem I’d be frankly puzzled, for this type of breakdown was being reported even though I’d reset the inking rollers just a few days before.
Every door and gate had to be unlocked and locked in this place. I’d walk down the lane to the prefabricated reception block and knock on the door then out would pop one of the supervising male nurses who would smile and say something like,
‘Not you again?!’
After seeing his door was securely locked he would then cross the lane with me, unlock the gate into the recreation exercise yard, push me inside and lock the gate behind me. So, there I’d be in a large exercise yard surrounded by the inmates. One I remember very clearly, and it was quite obvious his mind was completely gone.
‘1914 Mans, 1915 Lens and Loos, 1916 the Somme……!’
At one time I’d asked one of the attendants why was he shouting out World War I battles, only to be told the patient was a GPI. Asking what this meant I was told he’d caught syphilis whilst in France during the Great War and never had it treated properly because of the shame. GPI meant General Paralysis of the Insane. Another old boy parading around the yard was clothed in a thick padded type of boiler suit which he was constantly plucking at. I was told he would reduce his suit to shreds in three days at the most. Some patients would be screaming, others muttering and one chap used to creep up behind me and jump on my back! Caught unawares I usually thought I’d have a heart attack!
In the building where the printing machine was set a male nurse who gave patients some simple instruction would point out that the ink rollers were completely out of ‘kittle’ and I would reset them using special gauges. It was during this last visit I dreamt up a scheme which the supervisor agreed to. He left the workroom whilst I concealed myself behind a store cupboard. Ten minutes elapsed and I was about to give it all up as a waste of time when I saw one of the patients who’d been in the next room under another supervisor, creep in, sidle up to the machine I’d spent 10 minutes setting up, then start to twist the setting bars on the inking rollers. Satisfied, he crept out again. Problem solved!
During one of these visits the attendant asked if I’d like to be shown around. I said yes please. We went through, ward after ward, with door after door being unlocked and then locked behind us. It was heart breaking to see how many mentally ill people had been locked away as they were too ill to be allowed out into society. Finally, we went through a door and emerged into a cobbled yard, open to the sky but surrounded by the tall hospital buildings. It was deadly quiet and what shot through my mind was I’d been transported back to the 19thcentury. Suddenly a scream rang out. A blood curdling ‘make your hair stand on end’ type of scream! All the fiends of hell seemed to be contained in it and I just looked at my escort, lost for words. Very quietly he said,
‘That’s one of our worst cases. Locked away, never to be approached without three of us in his padded cell and even then he wears a special harness to prevent him harming himself, and us!’
I was never so glad to leave a place.
Not all of my outside visits were as bad as that one however, and I soon found I could get on with the customers ranging from the Chairman of the Board to the office boy or girl. I was, dare I say it, good at my job!
Often whilst working on this or that customer’s machine the operatives or departmental managers would come and chat to me recounting incidents or happenings in the daily life of their firm. For example:
The boss of this shoe factory was a Czech Jewish gent who was often to be seen storming around his factory berating any worker who just happened to raise his eyes from the job as the boss went past. Going into the yard cum loading dock area the boss saw two men sitting at the side of the yard having a smoke and picking winners from that day’s ‘Racing News’. The boss went spare,
‘I don’t pay idle buggers like you pair to sit around doing bugger all’ he screamed. ‘Get your bloody stuff together and wait here. The pair of you are sacked!’
With that he stormed off to tell the cashier to go and get their clock numbers so their wages could be made up. To hear is to obey and our friend in the wages department did as his lord and master instructed. The departmental manager then approached the pair, still sitting there with their mouths open, and said,
‘You’re a pair of idiots! Fancy letting the boss catch you out like that! Now I have to sack you!’
The two mouths closed with an audible ‘click’.
‘You can’t bloody sack us’ said one ‘for the simple reason we don’t work for that mad man! We’re sitting here waiting for the cart to come then we can get on with emptying the dustbins! We’re dustbin men!’
One of the largest factories I serviced was in stitches over this other true story:
The Board of Directors were having a meeting and all the top brass were present. Needing a paper from the work’s office the Chairman rang down with the instruction, ‘Send the Office Junior along with it; no need to come yourself!’
Now as it happened the office junior was ‘Cowboys and Indians’ mad and it just so happened the doors into the conference room were of the bar room swing door type. Seeing these the lad tucked the called for paper under his arm, then kicked the swing doors open and dashed in making like a cowboy pulling his trusty two six shooters from their holsters, shouting, ‘Stick em up!’
The whole room went quiet and then as one, every member of the Board of the largest factory, probably in the City, stood up and raised their hands above their heads. Lovely!
Then again, all of us on the outside staff (service and mechanics) got the odd awkward beggar, and this one was the Chairman’s Secretary!
I fell foul of her simply because, having been called out to see why the print was very faint down one side of the paper (and this was usually because the ink container needed more ink) I lifted one of the offending sheets to see whether the faintness was left or right of the page. Hardly had I had a chance to even look at the print when the paper was snatched from my hand and I was snappily told,
That’s private!’
I began to explain I wasn’t interested in the contents of the said page, when she snapped,
‘You’re banned!’
Bloody hell! Being banned was a first for me!
When I got back to the branch the boss was not a happy man.
‘How could you upset a customer like this one?’ he asked.
He was still going on about it an hour later when the chap he’d sent straight after me to placate the woman came back with his tail between his legs. He’d been banned as well! In all, that woman banned every outside rep in the place, and then the day came, as I knew it would, when she rang in needing a service rep or mechanic. The boss was called to the phone to tell her,
‘I’m terribly sorry Miss Queen but you’ve banned every one that works for us!’
Now she had to think fast for she may have been the boss’s secretary but that machine needed attention. Her boss wouldn’t like it if he knew that with each one of us banned by her the only way out would be to buy another expensive machine. She had to eat dirt!
‘Oh well, you’d better send that first chap’ she said.
We had to start all over again but not quite, for I now had the measure of her!
Her continual complaint was that the machine was too heavy to turn by hand but it was an electrically driven machine! The operator only needed to turn by hand once to turn out a copy for checking. See what I mean by an awkward beggar?!
Of course, things happened in the firm’s branches as well!
Reggy was a Manager of another branch and was a beggar to work under but like all branch managers he went in fear and trembling lest sales dropped and the wrath of Head Office fell upon him. He’d taken on a new salesman whose performance was not coming up to scratch and so Reggy called the man into his office and warned him,
‘If you don’t pull your finger out, you’ll be out of a job!’
When nothing much happened in relation to this poor bloke getting new business he got another warning!
Now, Reggy could be quite nasty and this warning was delivered without mincing words. Still hopeless, so the poor bloke had to go! Reggy called him into his office and really laid into the chap. He could’ve just said ‘you’re fired’ but no, Reggy being Reggy he just had to rub it in. Whilst he was ranting and raving the soon to be former salesman reached into his left-hand pocket and took out a newspaper which he very carefully, almost tenderly, laid out and smoothed on Reggy’s desk. Next, he reached into his right-hand pocket and took out a one-pound tube of our oil based black ink. Slowly he unscrewed the cap of the tube and slowly squeezed the entire contents all over the newspaper. By now Reggy was panicking,
‘What are you doing you fool? Get out of my office.’
Slowly, oh so very slowly, our friend lifted the newspaper at each side and up ended it all over his seemingly, by now, paralyzed manager, or should I say ‘former manager!’
I had problems of my own for one of our salesmen disliked me intensely, mainly I think because he was quite a short chap and I was over six feet tall. It all stemmed from the fact our salesman friend thought I should load and unload his car whilst he stood and watched. Now, I pointed out quite reasonably I thought, that whilst I was more than prepared to help him load & unload I was in fact the branch mechanic and not his beast of burden! Matters came to a head one evening when again he came storming into the showroom demanding I unload his car. I refused, saying I’d be quite happy to help him but I wasn’t going to be his ‘skivvy.’
Now, as it happened, the branch manager was a new chap and my friend decided to push for a confrontation. He turned to the new manager and said, ‘Did you hear that? Now, either he goes, or I go!’
The manger’s reply was, ‘Really! So when will you be giving me your notice?’
That finished it and forever after it was, ‘Would you give me a hand to unload my machines, please?’
When I eventually left the firm this same man sent me a card every Christmas for years!
(Norman Hastings: Through My Eyes Too. Tales from a Leicester Boardman – available from Amazon)

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