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A Shout From The Attic: Return To Zin - 2

"It is unthinkable now, but back in 1961, it was a common problem and anyone who worked in a mill or factory at that time will confirm that fact: workmen’s toilets did not have toilet paper supplied; instead, they used newspapers brought by the workers. That is just the way it was, and they were lucky to have toilets!'' recalls Ronnie Bray.

I got a job at Lisle and Munday’s paint factory in Southampton. It was a division of International paints Limited, and their products were world class, manufactured for the shipping and the boating leisure industries. My area of work was in the varnish department; mixing and watching the process make hundreds of gallons at a time. The work was not very demanding and I took along my expensive transistor radio to sit on the shelf and listen to music as I worked.

Such was the state of management-worker relations that I was told to turn it off and not bring it again. My arguments in favour of having the radio were ignored, and the negative directive reissued with more volume, as if that somehow made it more effective. I was broke, I needed the job, and so I turned it off and did not bring it again. My stand attracted some attention from nearby workers who said they had never heard anyone argue with a department manager before. I mumbled that it was time they started arguing and having their voices heard.

Eventually, I walked out of Lisle and Munday’s over what I considered to be an unreasonable order. When we arrived for work one Monday morning, we discovered that intruders, most likely children, had got into the compound where the linseed oil storage vats were located and opened a tap, allowing more than a thousand gallons of the oil to run out into the yard. It was a mess!

The varnish maker proper, under whose tutelage I worked, told me to go into the yard and sweep the oil into a drain. I looked out with him into the teeth of a blizzard and asked him for some waterproof clothing to protect me from the rude elements as I did so. He told me gruffly that there were not any and I would have to go out and clean it up dressed as I was.

For some reason, I was not an overcoat person in those days. I had been when I was younger, but it had worn off whilst I was in the army and it had not worn on again. I figured that it would take me about eight or ten minutes to become saturated through to my skin and no dry clothes to change into afterwards, and no place to dry clothes, and no place to dry myself, and so I politely refused.

My enthusiastic refusal brought forth an immoderate tirade from the unhappy man who felt it was his place to solve a sticky problem by using me as the catalyst. With the veins in his neck and on his swarthy forehead looking like to burst, he explained whilst spluttering stuff from between his clenched teeth, that if I did not go out into the storm, the like of which had not been seen since Captain Scott went out into one whilst he was camping somewhere, then he would have to go out and do it.

I tried to reason with the poor man that since the vat was now empty, and that most of the stuff had apparently run into the town drain anyway, and since the storm would make the yard an extremely dangerous place, and since there were no protective garments or footwear available, that only a fool would feel any need to tackle the problem immediately, and that if he must do it, then he must do it, but I would not.

Instead of putting his excited mind at rest my reasonable explanation seemed to agitate him further and he went back to the beginning of his explanation, following which I went back to the beginning of mine, and so we went at it for some time, until I ran out of patience and bid him a good day and went to catch the bus back to my lodgings, and I returned only to collect my outstanding wages, but have not been back since.

The toilet paper? Oh, yes! I had not been working there very long when I had to go to the toilet. There was a row of four stalls each containing a toilet in parlous condition that threw my mind immediately back to the black plague. The floor of each cubicle was littered with scraps of newspaper that had to serve not only as reading material for the resting workers but doubled as toilet tissue as well. It was disgusting and I was very annoyed that workers should have to take their comfort in such conditions.

I found the works manager, the same one that had silenced my radio, and asked him where the toilet paper was kept. He did a passable imitation of a complete idiot acting as if he had never heard of the stuff. However, right was on my side this time and I was in no mood to take prisoners!

“There is no toilet paper in the toilets,” I said, my voice at once soft yet insistent, as if it was his fault.

“Toilet paper?” He stood still in his tracks and swayed, as if in doubt to stay or go.

“There is no toilet paper in the toilets,” I repeated, allowing time for it to sink in.

“What do you expect me to do?” he asked.

“Just tell me where it is and I’ll get it.”

He was obviously thinking. After a long short pause he rejoined, “I don’t know anything about toilet paper!”

“Do you use the works toilets?”

“No. I use the manager’s toilets.”

“Is there any toilet paper in them?”

“I don’t know,” he lied.

“Will you go and see, and if there is, will you bring some for me?”

“You’ll have to ask in the office!” he spluttered, walking hurriedly away.

Highly motivated, I went through the door that divided the works from the office, climbed the stairs and entered a world of walnut panelled walls, brocade curtained windows, carpeted floors, and the sweet smell of fresh cut flowers.

I was impressed. The office had a small reception window upon which I knocked. The window opened and a respectable, middle-aged, well-put-together lady who managed the office asked after my errand. I said that I needed some toilet paper for the factory toilets and left my request there in mid air – explanations only confuse people, and should never be offered.

“We do not have toilet paper for the works toilets,” she offered, somewhat defensively.

“I was told that you issued the toilet paper.”

“I only keep it for the Managing Director’s toilet.

“Could I have a roll of that? Please?”

She went to look and quickly reappeared.

“We only have two rolls!”

“I only want one!” The office behind her had fallen silent – fingers rested on still typewriter keys, all eyes on the aperture.

She went into what I had come to recognise as the standard Lisle and Munday way of thinking on her feet with pursed silent mouth, as her face spoke volumes by contorting, first this way and then that, as she lengthily and painstakingly considered her narrow options. Having considered them, she spun around on her heels, disappeared again and in the briefest of moments replaced herself before the orifice holding a fine-looking roll of Andrex Super Velvet Toilet Tissue that she thrust at me in a silent but highly charged attacking motion through the citadel aperture that separated and demarcated our two different worlds.

“Thank you very much.” I said softly but fulsomely as, smilingly, I accepting the gift she capitulated with palpable disinclination before she slammed the window shut as hard as she could while retaining any semblance of what she considered to be a lady-like demeanour.

Clasping the hard-won prize to my bosom, I bore it in suitable but self-effacing triumph through the factory to the workers’ toilet suite where I had first grabs at it.

Over the next couple of days, a score of gobsmacked fellow employees came to my desk as expressed their wonder at something they had, “never seen that stuff before in that place in all the years I bin here, Mush!”

All of which only goes to show that things will never change by our wishing that they would, but only by facing our problems head on and dealing with them as people with dignity and righteous expectations of natural justice, will the old unwholesome orders yield place to new and better orders rich with humanity and justice, and so make of our world, our communities, and our families better places in which to enjoy our years, be they few or many, and that when make life difficult for others, either deliberately or through our insouciant carelessness, and then attempt to justify our actions by reference to the ‘way things have always been’ or to ‘the way things have to be’ we are, whether we like it or not, doing the Devil’s work of making life as hard as possible for others, and we should stop it right away.

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