Outdoor World

We took acid and got scared of the pillowcases: what we learned from our holiday jobs

Can summer work be life-enhancing? Writers, politicians and musicians share what they learned in the laundrette, behind the bar or cleaning earwax off hearing aids

Bibi Pillay

Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, believes young people taking a summer task is” connected to having a successful future … They can help people develop their customer service and problem-solving skills, build their resilience and attitude to work, as well as improve day management and the ability to juggle different priorities .” Last week, she launched a campaign” to make the example for part-time, Saturday and summer chores “. She fondly recalled her own student holiday chore as a waitress, and said it had directed her away from the law and towards a job in the media.

McVey has been under a cloud recently, accused of misinforming parliament on the rollout of universal credit, so may be hoping for some good publicity. Unfortunately, her Telegraph article announcing her jobs-for-students campaign is, rather like her initial statement on universal credit, disingenuous. She says that” the percentage of young people working while studying has more than halved, falling to 18% in 2014 from 42% in 1997″. Readers would probably take this to include university students, but it is only the proportion of 16 – and 17 -year-olds holding down a part-time job that has halved. By contrast( and not mentioned by McVey ), the proportion of university students who work while studying has risen, and is now almost eight in 10.

I was at university in the 1970 s, when people were less likely to have a holiday job. I remember signing on but never got offered any work- thank God, I thought at the time. Reading about the summer chores remembered here makes me feel I missed out- I could have done with a few of those life-enhancing experiences rather than lying on the sofa watching cricket on Tv or idly flicking through textbooks on Anglo-Saxon history. I comprehensively failed the McVey initiative test. Even if you hate your vacation chore, it’s still worth doing because, as one student about to embark on his second vacation job told me recently:” Holiday tasks might not be good at demonstrating you what you want to do in life, but they can be brilliant at demonstrating you what you don’t want to do .” As some of the writers below discovered.

Alex James

Musician and cheesemaker

Alex James. Photograph: ITV/ Rex Features

I had dozens of summertime chores, from working as a scaffolder’s mate with a convicted murderer who maintained a pistol in the glove compartment of his Ford Escort to donning a white suit and Geiger counter to carry out maintenance on the core of the main reactor at a nuclear power station. I learned a hundred things from each and every job, but it was working as a grocery assistant at my local supermarket that had the most impact.

My best friend and I both got tasks there at the same time. He was a star musician at school, a brilliant academic, but he couldn’t take the pace and got fired after a couple of months. It was unbelievably hard, repetitive work. The manager was an ex-army major: very strict on haircuts, discipline and stealing. There was always the prospect of the Tannoy announcement” customer service one hundred “, which was code for” shoplifter spotted”, at which point all the male floor staff were required to assemble at till No 1 to tackle the suspect- who would sometimes become violent.

I was much happier building the cheese look pretty and eventually became the ruler of the entire soft dairy aisle- a project I’m still working on.

Owen Jones

Guardian columnist

Owen Jones. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Ah, the unforgettable summertime of 2003, which I expended working for a hearing-aid company on an industrial park on the outskirts of Stockport. I remember my induction well. My line director cheerfully handed me a box of rejected hearing aids, a pair of latex gloves and a bottle of disinfectant: I had to clean the earwax from them. If you’re feeling somewhat nauseous at this image, try doing it.

Phone calls with would-be customers were a challenge, what with them ringing for assistance with their hearing. Somewhat bleaker was that these inexpensive aids were pretty rubbish and it was all only a data-farming exercise to try to rip off largely ageing customers with more expensive products. Widows would ring, tearfully begging me to stop sending their late husbands promotional material for useless gadgets. So what did I learn from this particular summer job? Not much, other than confirming my suspicion that late-capitalism sucks.

Zoe Williams

Guardian columnist

Zoe Williams. Photo: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

In 1991, it was perfectly possible to finish your -Alevels, walk into a eatery on Chancery Lane with just about enough experience to tell a bread roll from a complicated napkin, and score a job as a waitress- but it came at a price. Any demeaning wheeze they cooked up would fall to the idiot, and so it was that at precisely 3pm, I had to go from table to table, asking QCs whether they wanted a dessert wine. It had to be dessert wine. I wasn’t allowed to say:” Anything else to drink ?”

In the history of the rule of law, there has never been a professional in it who wanted a tokaji and hadn’t already asked for one. You cannot upsell to these people. You would be brave to even try to take their coat. They would look at me as though I’d tried to sell them some weed in a petrol station. “No” was as polite as it ever get, and often they would just gaze, as if I’d made a catastrophic mistake that I would, by the grace of the system, soon pay for.

The following summertime I worked in an industrial launderette, which was so boring that every Friday everyone took acid and got scared of the pillowcases, and I learned something interesting about camaraderie overcoming meaninglessness. I also learned silver service one summer, and still astound associates with how many plates I can carry at once. On Chancery Lane, I merely learned that you expect drunk people to be cheerful, which they are, right up until you imply that they are pissheads who will drink anything; then they become exaggeratedly haughty. But this insight has been moderately useful.

Coco Khan

Guardian columnist

Coco Khan. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

Music festival bar faculty sounded like the ultimate summertime job. Rather than work behind a bar for minimum wage to pay for one festival, work the festival itself. Pull pints in full view of the main stage. Spend free time checking out other stages. Pitch up in a cleaner field for staff. Make friends, and leave with some pocket money.

I signed up to as many festivals I could; a full of summertime of love. At the smaller events, that dreaming was fulfilled. But as the summer progressed and the events grew bigger, the tenor changed. Shifts were long and exhaust, and the weather had turned. Far from a sweet deal where everyone’s a winner, I had been ferried to a remote corner of the UK to work night shift for minimum wage and shiver in a tent.

One especially awful gig was at a dance music festival where half the punters were high on( presumably) ecstasy and I had to refuse to serve swathes of them unless the order was water. In the mayhem, one punter pointed out that I hadn’t dedicated him a receipt. He said:” It says here that if you forget the receipt, I get these for free .” ” Sorry ,” I replied,” it’s been a long shift and to be honest that money will come out of my wages .”” Not my problem ,” he said. And I believed ecstasy was meant to make you love everyone.

Did it help me toward my career? Not at all, although it gave me a profound respect for bar staff and taught me a life lesson: never mix business and pleasure.

Jess Phillips

MP for Birmingham Yardley

Jess Phillips. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/ Getty

Every summer while at school and university, I worked in local pub. I collected glass, and worked in kitchens and behind the bar. No other chore I ever had better trained me for the world of politics. Working behind a bar teaches you to talk to anyone, especially those you really cannot stand. It taught me to hold my own in a masculine environment and not to take any crap from people who deemed me inferior. In one saloon, there was a huge mirror behind the bar, and I would constantly get caught out by it as I turned away from customers who I was placating with fake laughter, merely to pull a face or roll my eyes as soon as my back was turned.

Working in the saloon was where I fell in love with my husband, who was also a seasoned barman. One day, when I give up the world of politics, we dream of buying a little saloon and going back to one of the best jobs we ever had.

David Lammy

MP for Tottenham

David Lammy. Photo: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

My dad left when I was young, leaving my mother on a very low income to support the family. Understandably, she was constantly fretting about money. So from about the age of 12, I was aware that I had to work every holiday. I did so many different jobs that it’s easy to lose track.

One of my longest-lasting jobs was the paper round. I delivered the Haringey Advertiser to what must have been half of Tottenham for several years. My mother and sister would muck in when necessary. I was paid by the batch, so it was vital to deliver every paper. Another summertime chore was at KFC. As well as demonstrating me how to fry chicken, Bibi Pillay, my brilliant West Indian boss, taught me how to be nice to people, even when I wasn’t in the mood- a great lesson for politics.

It was the people I worked with who made my summertime tasks worthwhile. Missing a father figure, I sometimes looked to them for guidance. In summer 1988, I worked at the Windsmoor clothing company. My role involved boxing and stacking clothes, which sounds repetitive, but for me it was a fascinating job. This was mostly because of the brilliant conversations I had with my supervisor, Simon, who was three or four years older, and had a cool, cockney, Danny Dyer-type demeanour.

Later, in my university holidays, I worked night shift as a security guard on the construction site of the Goldman Sachs building on Fleet street. Most of the men I worked with were first-generation immigrants in their late 40 s. As a young student, I surely stood out. But they were not afraid to share their rich stories about the bars, bazaars, alleyways and women in Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Turkey, Iran and beyond. They taught me so much about the world. My summer jobs built me an adult.

Michael Rosen

Children’s writer

Michael Rosen in the 1960 s. Photograph: Michael Rosen

I had a deal with my mum that over the school and university holidays, wherever I went, she would pay for my upkeep, but anything else I had to work for. Travel costs and camping gear was my affair. In the 1960 s, you could work” on the post” doing delivery rounds over Christmas, but there was more cash moving mailbags. I landed up in the Kentish Town depot with a political activist called Rashmi from what was then Rhodesia, who was planning to topple the white regime; an antisemitic old boy who had worked for the Post Office all his life; and a Jamaican bloke who said, as we were cleaning our hands in the Portakabin, a white guy had once asked him how he knew if his hands were dirty or not. I eventually got fired for taking the mick out of the foreman. I’ve still got the hiking rain gear I bought from what I earned, and these fragments of racialised and politicised London from 50 years ago have survived, too.

Magid Magid

Lord mayor of Sheffield

Sheffield Magid Magid. Photo: Sheffield city council

For about 10 weeks in 2009, I worked 12 -hour shiftings at the Next distribution centre in Wath-upon-Dearne, just outside Sheffield. I used to get the bus to the station, the develop to Swinton, then another bus to the warehouse. It was the year before I went to university and I needed money to do some travelling- I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro and travel around the Middle East and Europe.

The job involved the most mundane tasks- picking the orders out and putting them in boxes. What was great about it was the people: I worked with quite a lot of Indian international students who I bonded with. And I got a 20% discount. The canteen was really good, too- dinner was the main event.

You used to be able to listen to music while you worked. I was listening to a lot of Black Eyed Peas; I would transport myself to a different world in my head and fantasise about my travels, what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. It used to carry me through. Then they banned headphones- a lot of people were kicking off.

It gave me discipline. I always think that if I want something, then I’m willing to really graft for it. It also gave me the skill of dealing with really boring stuff, of just getting on with things. That helps now when I’ve got lots of emails that need responding to- sometimes people ask the same questions again and again, but I know it needs to get done.

Tamal Ray

Doctor, baker and Guardian columnist

Tamal Ray. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

I did my six years of medical school in London, which basically objective up as six years of financial struggle. My student loan was only enough to cover my rent for the year and, as my mothers couldn’t afford to help support me, it meant that all my living money came from my summer and part-time work. During term day, I worked evenings in a clothes shop on Oxford Street. But during the summer, I worked as an office temp for a big mobile phone company.

The work was the usual office spreadsheet juggling, but the people I worked with were a lot of fun. The company had a real ethos of treating its staff well and was always putting on after-work drinks. It was also sponsoring a big reality present at the time, so we would get visits to the office from some of the contestants. I had a slightly awkward moment when my dad found pictures I’d had taken with some of them and thought I’d been going to strip clubs.

Working in the corporate world of mobile phones hasn’t got much in common with what I do now as an anaesthetist in the NHS. But that summer task still has an impact on how I think about work. It showed me what a large organisation can do when it has the resources; striving for efficiency in the NHS is pretty meaningless when you don’t even have functioning IT. It also taught me that poor work conditions and low morale aren’t things that should be allowed to perpetuate; they harm the individual and the organisation.

I’m so grateful to have had the job. I satisfied some amazing people and the money was a life-saver. Am I a more rounded person, though, for having worked during my summer holidays? I have no notion. Would I have learned as much if I’d expended my summers vomiting cocktails up on a moonlit Thai beach?

And here is a selection of our readers’ responses …

Mark, 56, consultant for a global software and analytics company, Northamptonshire

From the age of 16 I was an ice-cream human. Compared to what my friends were doing, I counted this as a wonderful job. I benefited from being multi-skilled- which meant being able to produce a respectable cornet from either the harder “pre-frozen” product or from the soft-whip product.

I was treated very well by the family firm I worked for. I’m sure this shaped my philosophy when I aimed up being responsible for managing people. Having experience of direct interaction and service provision to the Great British Public opened my eyes in many ways- some positive, some less so. Above all, it helped teach me not to make assumptions.

Jennifer Macaire, artist and writer, Mantes la Jiolie, France

Since the age of 12, I had summertime chores. The first one was babysitting; the next year, I got a job at the state fairground. My best task was when I decided to sell my own artwork at a beach one summertime. I get permission from a local restaurant to sell my draws and watercolours from their veranda. I was 16 and saving fund- I wanted to go to New York City to live after graduation. My part-time and summer jobs helped get me off the island( St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands) where I was living. But low pay, long hours , no contract and no insurance also taught me about how hard it is to earn money.

Suzanne, 26, working in children’s publishing as an editorial assistant, London

I had a wide variety of holiday jobs from summer camp leader to Christmas elf, but my most memorable one was a holiday I expended working in a factory. All I had to do was pull a lever to put foil on small plastic plaques- over and over and over again. The pay was awful( about PS2. 50 an hour)- I largely took the job to prove a point to my mothers that I could survive in the world of work- but it made me exceedingly disciplined. I kept one of the small plaques to remind me of the experience and to promote me to work hard so that I didn’t end up with a chore like that for ever. I now have a great work ethic and appreciate any chore that doesn’t involve pulling levers all day!

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ fund/ 2018/ aug/ 02/ what-we-learned-summer-holiday-jobs

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