Here is a story set in the mid-seventies, just as women were legally entitled to equal pay in Britain. Narrated by a young female production-line worker in a toilet roll factory, it concerns itself (lightly) with women’s rights and opportunities framed in the attitudes of the time, and politics in the dawn of the Thatcher era. Also featuring small acts of rebellion on the factory floor! It was published in Issue 59 of Tears in the Fence in 2014 . The protagonist’s academic ambitions are stymied by her family who insisted she leave school to take a job, despite her excellent exam results, but the teenager has the ambition to be a scientist. The reference to ‘winding starlight’ links to the discovery of pulsars by the astrophysicist, Jocelyn Bell, then a PhD student, who meticulously examined miles of rolls of chart-recorder output from a radio telescope she had helped to build. She identified tiny bursts of energy that she called ‘scruff’ – mysterious radio pulses that would later be identified as pulsars. I post this as Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell donates her £2.3m ‘Breakthrough’ award to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics. (See the Guardian article of 6 September by Ian Sample for the background).
My story has some autobiographical elements, but only as pointers. I didn’t need glasses then, but, having secured my place in university, I did spend a summer in a toilet roll factory! As a teenage girl interested in space, Jocelyn Bell was a woman to look up to. She was sometimes referred to as ‘a girl’ by male writers; a reference to her youth, perhaps, and, apart from being a diminutive term, there was a touch of glamour or raciness about being a ‘girl’, like a ‘Bond girl’, ‘page 3 girl’ or ‘hat check girl’. The semantics are of the time. Imagine: ‘Bond woman’, ‘page 3 woman’, and so on. A ‘woman’ was a wife, mother, char, cook, low-skilled production-line worker, but never physicist, chef, parliamentarian or, indeed, Prime Minister! How to write and speak about a woman PM still perplexes journalists and pundits.
For better, or for worse, here is my story:
The machines on our line are idle – they have been stopped for an hour now, because the winder has broken down again. All they need is a drive belt, but the spares department hasn’t got one. Sowden’s on the phone blasting someone. He hates the machines to stop, because it affects his bonus. We have nothing to do, and Percy Pig is over here annoying Gloria with his rude jokes. His line is idle too whilst they wait for the forklift to bring wrapping paper for the bum scuff, which is our cheapest toilet paper. I can’t imagine who buys it. Gloria is filing her nails with a diamond file. Percy Pig stands too close to her, and Gloria tells him he stinks. He says he’d have a bath if she would scrub his back for him.
Gloria and I usually pack toilet rolls on the Starlight line. ‘Pink Starlight’ is our most expensive brand.
Packing is ‘light industrial’ – women’s – work. We are like the seventies version of the women you see in all those old government films from the fifties where the women wear pinnies and bonnets and look content doing ‘light industrial work’ whilst the man commentating is saying how ideal it is for them, as if he’d found a solution to the occupation of working class women too stupid to educate, too weak for heavy work. Those sorts of films remind me of ‘Brave New World’, which I read at school. Light industrial work for Gamma Females. We aren’t very bright, and we don’t mind doing the same boring things day in day out.
I think that ‘Starlight’ is a stupid name for toilet paper – pink toilet paper at that. Goodness knows what idiot thought it up – probably someone like the man commentating on that film who knows nothing about real life. Starlight has to be packed in shrink wrap because of the perfumed cores. If it isn’t wrapped in polyethene, the scent pervades the shopping basket (that’s what the training woman said). Housewives don’t like that, apparently. Gloria said that once upon a time she had to apply the scent in a dropper bottle to each individual roll. Everyone’s clothes smelled of it then, let alone the scent merely ‘pervading the shopping basket’.
Sowden is off the phone now and he scurries back onto the factory floor. He is chewing, or perhaps he is just gnashing his crooked little teeth, and he looks right and left as if he as about to cross a road, then heads straight for Wobbo’s line. Wobbo uses the same kind of winder that Starlight does. Wobbo’s line does Premium, which is somewhere in between Starlight and bum scuff and is what most people buy.
The winders wind stock rolls of paper onto six-foot logs the thickness of household rolls. Then the logs get sliced up and sent down on a little belt to the wrapper. Wobbo’s is the only line working at the moment. Wobbo has a knack with the machines and keeps them steady, never pushing them more than they can take. All of our machinery is second-hand, chucked out from the factory in America – it breaks down if you work it too hard. A bit like Gloria.
Sowden stalks up to Wobbo whilst he sits at the machine, on his high stool, minding the feed. Wobbo ignores Sowden and keeps on winding. I bet Sowden thinks he can commandeer Wobbo’s winder. The Premium line has been humming all morning, the girls packing quick as a flick, and the boxes flying up the conveyor to the store. Sowden starts pointing and raises his voice. It says in the factory brochure that Starlight is our ‘flagship product’, but Premium is our biggest seller. Wobbo looks down at Sowden, and shrugs. Sowden raises his voice some more, and Wobbo shakes his head.
People are looking and Gloria mews, ‘Bloody Hell, let’s just bugger off home.’ She’s not much of a one for work is Glam Gloria. She lets me take her pick-up from the belt as well as mine when she’s stretching and eyeing up the men. She only gets away with it because Sowden fancies her, for all he’s got a wife and five kids, and Gloria’s not quite the glamour puss she was. It’s only because I’m quick that we don’t get jammed up.
Sowden reckons that Wobbo is a poof because he isn’t married, but he daren’t say it because Wobbo is an amateur wrestler with loads of heavyweight prizes. In the ring, he calls himself ‘Man Masher’. Wobbo doesn’t say much; he doesn’t need to, not just because of his size – Wobbo has dignity and, like the best teachers at school, he never has to shout.
Sowden is turning blotchy red, but Wobbo carries on watching the paper feed whilst the little man rants. Wobbo has a big production run on Premium, and he has a bonus to think of too, but he hasn’t got five kids and a wife to spend it on.
All the girls on Premium are gawping – Maeve, Scarlet and Veronica (who they call ‘Please Miss’ because she trained as a teacher). Toilet rolls are log jamming at the end of their conveyors – you have to work fast on Premium. Three twin-packs in a light fingertip pick up, a flick of the wrist, drop them in the box, four pickups – presto: two dozen twin rolls for the supermarket. Seal the box and scoot it off along the runway to the loader. But the girls on Premium have lost the beat and rolls spill over the floor.
Wobbo’s paper tears whilst Wobbo is batting Sowden’s finger from his ribs, and the end of the unfinished roll flaps on the spindle. Wobbo has to stop the machine. He’ll have to re-thread and send the thin log through the cutter to make rejects for staff sales. Sowden will get a docket for distracting Wobbo on his winding machine. They’re dangerous things – a woman got her hair caught in one, we were told on the safety course, and lost half her scalp.
Now Dick Pickles the foreman is tacking his way through the conveyor lines, flapping his clipboard, gesticulating to the packers and shouting, ‘Stop your gawping and get them rolls in the box…’ To Gloria and me he says, ‘You two, get over here and pick up the ones on the floor, and pack ‘em.’
Wobbo quietly deals with his machine, whilst Sowden swears at Dick Pickles and points at his winder, shouting about his production run. You’d think Starlight was some lifesaving drug the way Sowden carries on.
Gloria and I clean up the mess on the premium rolls and the other girls get back to work, flicking and packing. Whop, whop, whop, whop.
I get the broom and sweep under the packing machine on the Starlight line. Bits of plastic wrap get shredded and fall off. It’s a fire hazard. I don’t want Dick Pickles to think I’m lazy like Gloria. But Gloria just drapes herself over the end of the conveyor line. Gloria doesn’t wear a skirt or blouse under her overall, and her underwear shows through. She wears one of those uplift bras with padding underneath like earmuffs. Her bleached hair wisps out of her factory bonnet. The men whistle at her to keep on her good side (she has a foul temper sometimes). No one whistles at me, even though I am the youngest woman here. They whistle at Scarlet, who’s quite pretty, but wears too much red lipstick, and Maeve, because she dresses like a tart, even though she’s fifty. They don’t whistle at Veronica, because they are a bit scared of her – she reminds everyone of school. I think that she’d pull out a teacher’s whistle and whistle at them, and they’d stop what they were doing there and then, and stand still, like on the school playground.
Veronica keeps herself to herself; reading books at tea break. She told me to read ‘The Female Eunuch’ when I told her about getting ten O-Levels and having to work in a factory because my mum said I had to leave school. I borrowed it from the library, but had to hide it under my bed because my mum would have had a fit over the picture on the cover.
The people in the factory call me ‘Starlight’, ever since they found me reading a book about stars in the canteen. My mum blames too much reading for my poor eyesight, but I’ve had glasses since I was seven. I get teased about it. Especially since I said I wanted to be a lady scientist. According to my mother, girls like me don’t become scientists – they go to work in shops and factories. I want to be an astrophysicist like the one who discovered neutron stars – Jocelyn Bell. She has glasses and still looks clever and pretty. I have a picture of her in a book I bought with Christmas money when I was fifteen. But my school glasses make me look stupid and ugly. I’m saving up for a better pair, but mostly I’m saving so I can do the Open University and hopefully become a lady scientist one day. Now it’s 1975 and we have a lady scientist for leader of the Conservative Party, so it must be all right. My mother says Mrs Thatcher will never be a Prime Minister, though, science degree or no science degree; she’s still a woman. Mum laughs, and primps her hair, and says that women don’t need qualifications to be women. Heaven knows why anyone would think otherwise…
Dick Pickles is pointing to Sowden’s winder. He says that there’s a part on the way, and that Sowden can work down on the old machine with the bum scuff for the morning, now it’s got more wrapping paper. Sowden is furious, but he shouts at us to follow him down to the old wrapping machine and starts giving orders to Pig and Guffer who normally work it by themselves.
The old wrap machine on bum scuff is like something out of The Ark. Guffer is on the winder, which is so noisy it’s as well Guffer is already deaf. The machines are not usually run fast, and they don’t need packers. Percy Pig keeps the wrapper working, coughing out brown paper packs of four, and shoves them into huge boxes of forty-eight. Because it’s so slow, Percy can manage to walk between the wrapper and the packing station without breaking into a sweat (thank God). But today, Dick Pickles says they can turn up the speed on the machines this morning to make up for the idle time, so Sowden will need to watch the wrapper all the time because it goes out of line easily and then the paper won’t quite meet at one end of the pack. If it goes too far out of line, the rolls fall out, running down the conveyor belt and onto the floor. But today, we have speedy Sowden, cursing and swearing and setting it right again each time it starts to slip. He won’t let it stop.
Gloria won’t pack with Percy Pig, so I have to stand opposite the stinker. He says he doesn’t want to pack with a stupid four-eyed cow. Gloria, standing at a safe distance from Pig, seals the boxes with a tape gun and sends them up the conveyor to the store.
The winder shrieks and the floor shakes. They don’t run this line fast normally, because it isn’t worth having someone to spend all their time watching the wrapper. Percy Pig stinks like a dustbin after a week in the sun. I try not to breathe in. Gloria – with grudging meow face – pushes the full boxes half-heartedly up the steel runners, her tight overall riding up over her bum. Percy Pig ogles. Sowden swears at the wrapper, which was a museum piece when we got it from America years ago. They long since moved onto automated lines and shrink-wrap – heat seal technology all round. I read about it in the company magazine.
The brown paper wrap flaps up like a conjuror’s cloth and two metal arms fold it down over the four rolls and other arms move in and fold the ends down. Proper Heath Robinson my granddad would say. The pack ends are glued with labels that don’t stick very well, and sometimes they fly open when you’re packing and the whole lot comes out. Percy Pig swears at me when this happens on my side. Sowden looks over his shoulder and scowls at me to keep up. He’s got the machine jiggling for all it’s worth.
Guffer grins his gap teeth at me when I see him loading as many logs into the cutter as he can manage, thump, thump, thump. He knows Sowden’s sweating. Any time now the whole lot’ll come to a screeching halt and Sowden’ll have to lift off the cover and unblock it, taking out the squashed rolls and throw them in the reject bin.
I see Guffer fiddling with the roll thickness lever – he’s added a couple of extra winds and the wrap machine is sticking almost every other batch now, and Sowden has to keep stopping it. I feel like shouting to Sowden to keep up. He’s swearing and cursing, ripping the squashed rolls out with the torn wrapping paper.
All rubbish is supposed to be put in the bin, nothing left on the floor. Factory tidiness is dinned into us. Fire hazard, trip hazard, personal hazard (like long hair) – we know the rules. But Sowden is fighting the machine. Paper starts to go all over the place, and bad language too. Guffer knows exactly what he’s doing. I can see him laughing his head off and so can everyone else. We get about one box of wrapped rolls every five minutes, which is slower than normal, despite the machines going like mad. I see Guffer adjusting a lever on the winder again, and now it makes a horrible shriek at the end of winding a log. Now the rolls have to squeeze down the feed line. Talk about constipation…
The wrap barely covers the rolls, and they make the boxes bend outwards at the packing station – when we actually get enough to fill a box. But now the wrapper goes right out of synch and it tries to wrap before the rolls are all in, so the lot gets jammed and the thing stops with a horrible thunk – the wrapper arms in mid-lift. They have to shut down the line completely. Sowden says something even Gloria would wince at if she could hear it above the noise. Half the factory is watching. Sowden rips at paper, and throws the bent rolls everywhere. Everyone is laughing. Dick Pickles tacks from storeroom, around the edge of the floor, watching Sowden from all angles, and then he minces in his shiny, squeaky safety shoes to the old wrapper. Percy Pig watches, mouth gaping, and I see he doesn’t keep his teeth clean, either. Guffer slips the thickness lever back to normal.
Dick Pickles picks his way through a swathe of torn paper and bent bog rolls to where Sowden is ripping out the paper, tearing the mashed rolls from the machine. Now that the old machines have stopped, Sowden’s language is audible all down the factory floor.
Pickles lays into Sowden. Sowden uses language that even Percy Pig would wince at this time. Pickles points at the door to the staff area. Sowden scuttles off. He points at Percy to come and sort out the machine. He points at me to pick up the stuff from the floor. Gloria watches, her hair loose from the bonnet. She doesn’t help, just watches Sowden leaving. I throw bent bog rolls in the reject bin, and scoop up wrapping paper. Percy Pig soon has the machine to rights. He and Guffer are as stinky and crooked as the old stuff they work on, but they know these machines inside out. This must be the last factory in the group to be brought up-to-date with technology, and we’re still expected to do as well as the rest. They show our figures on a notice board outside the changing rooms. We’re always bottom of the table. In the German factory it’s all very efficient and modern, and they come top usually. They have women on the winders there too, but they say it’ll never happen here. Women’ve only just got equal pay in this country. Some said Jocelyn Bell didn’t get a look-in for the Nobel Prize for discovering neutron stars because she was a woman and women are not in charge of science. Women aren’t in charge of factories either.
What Jocelyn discovered is amazing. She had to look at rolls and rolls of recordings of radio signals from space and found a bleep that they couldn’t explain. First they wondered if it was from aliens, and they called them ‘Little Green Men’. Then they found another signal, and worked out that the bleeps came from huge spinning stars that have collapsed in on themselves until they are squashed into a space so small a teaspoonful would weigh as much as a mountain.
I see that a forklift is unloading a stock roll of Starlight onto Wobbo’s winder. Wobbo guides it onto the machine feeder and gets the paper leader into the roller. Soon, he’s winding away, and pretty pink Starlight winds onto perfumed cardboard cores. Whilst we have our lunch, a pile of logs will build up on a pallet alongside the cutting machine.
In the canteen, Sowden is nowhere to be seen. Normally he eats with other senior men. Machine men, chargehands, foremen. The only female chargehands work in the laundry, but they still have to wear plain white wrapovers like us, so we look all the same, like dumplings in pudding cloth, but we all sit together, watching and gossiping. Maeve is smoking some French cigarettes a man friend gave her. Gloria isn’t here; she disappeared after going to the ladies. Maeve speculates about what Gloria is up to. Scarlet puts on scarlet lipstick and says she wouldn’t touch Sowden with a long stick and rubber gloves. Maeve says that her seventeen-year-old daughter is having a baby. Veronica is reading a magazine about teaching and says that men are to be avoided. Maeve told me that Veronica got the sack for having an affair with her headmaster. He got moved to another school – but he kept his job.
We go down to the floor again. By my packing station stands Dick Pickles, clipboard clenched at the ready. He tells me to man my position, and doesn’t say anything about where Gloria’s got to. By the cutter is a stack of Starlight. Wobbo loads it in manually – normally it drops straight off the winder. Pickles starts up the shrink-wrap, and soon shiny parcels of shrink-wrapped Starlight plop onto the conveyor belt. Seems I’m expected to pack for two. I have to do that half the time anyway, even when Gloria is here. Dick Pickles watches, maybe he expects me to make a mess of it, but I don’t. I even manage to get the box away up the conveyor before the first package of the new batch comes off the wrapper. We carry on. Pickles acts as the machine man when the wrapper goes out of line. Even our most modern piece of equipment is second-hand, and needs regular adjustment. It’s odd having Pickles on the wrapper. I am almost amazed that he can do it; I find it hard to think of him without his clipboard. I imagine him using one at home to keep Mrs Pickles in order.
By the time Gloria gets back, I have shifted half the load. Seeing Dick Pickles, Gloria starts to pack, snatching the rolls off the line, but it takes her a while to get the rhythm, especially with her long nails, and the rolls build up at the station, so that it’s harder to pick them up. I grab some to ease the congestion and flick them into my box. Gloria snarls at me and lunges at the other packages. When her box is full, she sends it scooting up the conveyor at a funny angle, and it gets stuck at the flap that leads into the store. Pickles scowls at her. We have to stop the wrapper until the store man can unblock the hole. I can hear him shouting something from behind the partition. We get going again and Pickles tells us to keep at it when he has to make a phone call.
So Pickles isn’t around when the plastic goes out of line and the rolls have the label cut through the middle top and bottom like when the horizontal hold goes on the telly and you get the top and bottom of the picture in halves. Gloria just packs them, but I press the red button. All those rolls will be sent back if the shop gets them and we get it in the ear from management. Wobbo sees what’s going on, and he leaves the winder and shows me how to line up the wrap, and set the advance lever to get the slicer to cut along the guide marks.
We get another half-hour before it goes out again. I press the red button and Gloria sighs. Pickles is still not around, so I try what Wobbo showed me. I can see him watching, peering from around the machine. Some of the other men watch too. I know I am not supposed to do this, but Pickles isn’t in sight. It takes a bit of coordination, but not much brain. If I can get a grade A in physics I can get this going straight again, and I do. I press the start button – the rolls go through, perfectly synchronised. I go back to the packing station and see Gloria raising her eyebrows at the other women as if to say, ‘Look at her, why does she bother?’ But mostly, they don’t look at her; they just get on with their work. But I also see Dick Pickles stop, mid-clipboard flap, on his way to the machine. He can see it’s going all right again, and simply reverses on his heel, and goes back. Gloria raises her eyebrows at me, but says nothing. She keeps looking at the main entrance to the floor, as if she’s on some kind of timing mechanism.
We’ve cleared the logs before tea break, but Gloria doesn’t come into the canteen. When we go back we’re re-allocated. I get to pack premium with Maeve, and Veronica goes and helps in the store. Gloria is put on bum scuff and has to pack for Percy Pig and Guffer.
Maeve smirks when she sees what Gloria got. ‘Good for you, girl’, she says to me. Some say bad things about Maeve, with her dyed red hair and hard look, but she’s OK. I feel sorry for her daughter having a baby at seventeen.
On the works bus home, I see Gloria standing on the pavement. She doesn’t get on, but looks around nervously as if she is waiting for someone.
Our sun will never become a neutron star, because it is too small. Only big, hot, stars have enough gravity to suck in on themselves when they run out of fuel. They don’t last as long as little stars, but they go out with a supernova bang that can be seen across the galaxy, and what’s left shrinks to become a tiny pulsar that sends its signal to anyone patient enough to look. To try and find out what was happening, the scientists put in a faster recorder, which used lots more paper. Jocelyn would have had to have been very patient looking through all those rolls and rolls of paper, but she found the signal and analysed it – a little spurt of radio waves every 1.3 seconds or so. But no one really knew what it was – it was only when Jocelyn found another signal that they began to think it might be a real astronomical phenomenon. Amazing how spending hours on shifts, looking for squiggles on rolls of paper changed science.
We have a couple of days off before the shift change. Then it’s lates. Two till ten.
Back at work I bang in my card at the clocking station. It clips a corner off and prints on a time in wonky blue numerals. Before I can go into the changing room, Dick Pickles stops me. He is with a woman from Personnel.
Dick Pickles says that he thinks I might like to be considered for training as a machine man. Or machine woman. He says something about Equal Opportunities and that I’m the only woman who shows enough sense to be equal – or that’s what it sounded like. The lady from Personnel says I’d be paid on the men’s rates. Now we are supposed to have equal pay it’s not supposed to matter, but packers are paid much less than machine operators. Pickles says I could start on the winder today… I could fall though the floor right now, but I get my pinny on and get taken out with the Personnel woman with Dick Pickles following behind flapping his clipboard. He takes me to Wobbo’s winder for training. Everyone is watching and Pickles tells them to get on with their work.
There’s still no sign of Sowden; someone I don’t recognise is operating his winder. The women pack as usual on both lines. We’ve a big production run to fill, so I’ll get plenty of practice with rolls of paper. Now I’m on men’s rates I’ll save up for my OU course much sooner. Maybe one day I’ll be unwinding starlight, just like Jocelyn.