Friday, 31 October 2014

31/10/14 - Brrrr, etc

As the nights draw in and the mercury descends toward the part of the thermometer labelled ‘mittens’, we can forget about the talk of an Indian Summer and prepare ourselves for the other freakish weather phenomenon prophesied by the press: biblical snowfall. (Probably. The Express are always shitting on about that, aren’t they? Tales of ‘unseasonable coldness’ and ‘cold snaps’ that normal people just call ‘winter’.) Pack the lightweight cotton garments away and replace them with chunky cable-knits and fleecey, behooded alternatives. The long British winter is coming, and it’ll be here until, ooh, April-ish.

The natural thing for the office workers of this meteorologically unfortunate isle to do around Novembertime is to complain about how cold it is at work. (Well, this is a year-round behaviour, really. But it becomes more pronounced when the ambient temperature plummets and frequency of rain/gloom increases.) We sit at our desks shivering, shuddering, growing increasingly irritated with the air-con, making mental notes to dress more appropriately tomorrow. When, of course, we’ll all be wearing eight layers, just in time to enjoy the heating which has been switched to max in response to yesterday’s complaints.
Let me make you feel a little better about this. Let me tell you about Unit 6.

I used to work at a place called Impress Publishing in Canterbury. It’s a charity Christmas card fulfilment house, which means that it’s the central supply hub for the customers of a number of those charity catalogues you get through the post or come across in glossy magazines; Macmillan Cancer Support was the biggest one when I was there in 2003-5, and there was also Breast Cancer Care, SSAFA, the British Heart Foundation and various others. (Including the House of Lords, weirdly – one of their designs, entitled ‘Portcullis’, was exactly that: a crimson card with an embossed gold portcullis on the front. Not very Christmassy, is it?) I’ve slagged Impress off a lot over the years, perhaps rather unfairly. I mean, they did employ me for eighteen months, so they’re not all bad. OK, their draconian clocking-in/out system meant that if you were a minute late you lost 15 minutes’ pay, their attitude to employing warehouse staff was basically ‘let the Job Centre send absolutely anyone down, and when they start nicking stuff, slashing people’s tyres, or just don’t turn up, we’ll get some more of the same in’, the one staff jolly that I recall involved going to a cricket ground 500 yards from the office, but... oh, I forget the point I was making. Anyway, the reason I was working there was that I’d just graduated, I had a mate who worked there and I needed some ready cash before starting the jobhunting proper. It wasn’t Impress’s fault that I ended up working there for eighteen months. And they didn’t seem to mind having a fresh English Lit graduate running their warehouse for the princely sum of £12,000pa. (To be fair, that worked out about thirty pence an hour above the national minimum wage at the time, so I was ever-so-slightly better off than the klepto eighteen-year-olds I was managing - tiny crumb of self-respect there. Although my unfortunate habit of clocking in at 8:01am every day [due to an inexplicable quirk of Canterbury traffic, it didn’t seem to matter what time I left the house - I’d always find that I was a little over sixty seconds late when I got there] ensured that I was docked quite a lot of that.)

Now, the nature of charity Christmas card fulfilment is that, of course, it’s quite seasonal. The first catalogues would go out halfway through the year, so there’d be an initial flurry of orders from mad old biddies who wanted cards in July to avoid the rush, and then from about September onwards it steadily increased into being ridiculously busy from late October through to mid-December, at which point it’d drop off again. The early part of the year was used for preparing, ordering and organising stock and systems for the busy season. And a key part of this was sorting out Unit 6.

Unit 6 was a storage warehouse on the other side of the business park. Throughout peak season, it was necessary to nip over there every now and then with a forklift and pull back pallets of cards to the main fulfilment area. Naturally, given how busy it all was, any semblance of order in Unit 6 was quickly lost as you’d just shift things around, grab what you needed and run. So in January, in the aftermath of the festive season, Unit 6 was the big project. And it was something to dread. There would be pallets, half-pallets and random stacks of stock everywhere. The entire numbering system lay in ruins. It took weeks on end to shift everything out, re-pack it, re-label it and store it in a logical fashion on the racks.
That can’t be so hellish though, can it? It’s just a methodical ordering process, right? And isn’t it fun to operate a forklift?
Well, yeah – but this was in January. In an unheated warehouse, you may as well be outside. Every exhalation saw breath hanging in the air in a mocking mist. Fingers froze on levers operating recalcitrant, under-performing hydraulics. Icy winds whispered through myriad cracks in the walls. Minutes bled into hours at glacial pace. Bitter cold. Isolation. Desperation. Hopelessness. An ever-present dew-drop hanging from the tip of the nose.

It’s not actually so bad sitting at your desk, is it?

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