When I was thirteen, I went to work for Knocker Drewe.
He was Mr Drewe to almost everybody to his face, Knocker behind his long lean back, which could still take a quarter of a cow in or out of the cold store any time necessary when he was in, I guess, his 60s.
In our town, the nickname meant somebody always complaining. Much later, somebody suggested it might have come from the idea of somebody always banging on loudly about something, and that sounded good, but I don’t know.
He was tall, spare, loud and rude. Besides all the bark he had a bite, but he was okay when you got used to him, and his short and tubby wife made a point of being sweet and kindly to make up for him. Even so, working for Knocker was recognised as a challenge and there was a bit of swagger in it – plus a bit extra on the going rate for shop boys.
Butchers’ boys were a couple of pence an hour more than grocers’ boys anyway and Knocker paid a bit of an active service bonus on top
When I joined, the only other boy was the regular, Barry, a Ted from a notorious village just up the valley – now a cutesy retirement community – where they didn’t need to go to school if there was a shilling going for something else. Like Knocker, he was okay when you got to know him, but he got fired for something or other and from then on he hung out at the main crossroads outside town, smoking with the big girls and throwing stones at Knocker’s boys. Eventually there were four or five of us part-timers on the roster, often working two at a time. We delivered up to three or four miles away on the bikes; we scrubbed yards and baskets and cutting blocks and washed hooks and knives. We gutted and trussed chickens and trimmed bones for sausage meat; and filled bags for the fat and bone man; and made the sausage meat, or the tea. At Christmas, we went up the road to the local turkey farm, to help pluck the birds before they stopped twitching and the feathers got clenched into their cooling skin.
We learned to brush and mop like matelots, getting into every corner, under Knocker’s caustic guidance. We learned to be shouted at. And to ride a delivery bike through a traffic jam with a mate in the carrier. And how to outwit a cat in the great game of leaving two cutlets and a kidney for a customer who is not at home. And in which hotel kitchens you had to watch out for the porter.
In the back yard, at times, you might have two or three boys and a van driver waiting for bits of meat and sausage to finish cooking, in the suet being melted for dripping in an old gas oven.
There was always spare sausage meat, and sausage slop, from the cleaning of the mixing bowl and its fearsome blades, and the sausage machine itself. Somebody discovered it would stick like glue to the brickwork of the historic chimney rising from the yard of the bakery next door. The game was to hit highest. It took a surprisingly long time before the bakery complained at what I can now see was the very definition of mindless vandalism. At least one or two of us got the sack over that one but thanks to seniority, I somehow got away with a warning. And have been ridiculously law abiding ever since.
Once you could wash and clean and handle a bit of blood, including your own, there was other work to be had, and eventually I moved on. But at 17-18 I went back, as van driver. At that time, Mr Drewe was preparing for retirement and I got some extra work helping his missis paint up the little cottage they would move to, from the narrow house alongside the shop. One way and another, they were a big part of my teenage work experience, and a formative influence of my life. They were good to me, and good for me.
I find myself heading for the old buffer’s conclusion that you couldn’t repeat the experience today. But almost certainly you could not. How does hooks and blades, blood, guts and predatory kitchen porters, sound as a roll-call of risks to run past the health and safety assessor who must by now have some say?
The other day, I opened a packet of spiral steel meat skewers I picked up somewhere, with a cry of triumph, while browsing for proper mop heads. Turns out they all have blunt square ends and are more or less useless.
I dream of Knocker being confronted by the health and safety man for reckless use of sharp skewers. I’d have liked to witness that.