Hinton Poultry was a particularly foul place to work, perhaps on a par with having someone push your head into a bucket of maggots. It was a chicken processing plant to which tens of thousands of chickens were delivered each day to be unceremoniously massacred, plucked, and then ripped to pieces. It was a place of hugely significant vocational unpleasantness but, way-back-when, if you wanted to earn as much money as possible to go away to university with or to take travelling or something, the general consensus was that because it paid quite well one would get a job either there or in the yoghurt factory in Frome. The yoghurt factory was, by all accounts, an equally vile establishment. Of course, if you were thick and had few aspirations, if any beyond ten kids, an obsession with Jeremy Kyle and a satellite dish, one could work there too and hope to make shift supervisor by the age of forty. However, my hopes and dreams extended far beyond the egg and chips TV dinner and so, once more skint I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride and my snobbish superiority complex and got a job 'down chickerrr' (that's pikey-speak for 'the chicken factory').
All those years ago, despite it being one of the most revolting places on the planet there was actually a challenge (of sorts) among us non-satellite dish-orientated folk to getting a job there... aside from the avoidance of starvation to death of course, which, in retrospect may have been worthy of further consideration. The challenge was simply to stick it out for a longer time than any of your peers did. Then the record stood at just short of three weeks. I lasted one day.
Waiting for the bus laid on (pardon the pun) by the company, I spent the first few minutes watching people driving by in their smart new Mercedes and BMWs. Each occupant was clearly blissfully unaware, and not in the slightest bit interested that I was about to undergo eight hours of disgusting psychological torment. I remember thinking that I wanted to be them; any of them. But alas, I was Dan W.Griffin and about to be kitted-out in a set of white plastic overalls and a hairnet and hang twelve thousand chickens on a rack.
For my first task I was sent to 'the chillers', presumably so-called because it was not so much chilly as so cold that you'd be far more comfortable standing in a freezer while someone sprayed your hands with liquid nitrogen and then smacked you in the face with a brick. It was here where thousands upon thousands of cold, lifeless, recently-beheaded soggy lumps of grey-fleshed bird poured onto a conveyor for me to grab by the feet and stick on the rack above me. On that day a delivery of twenty-four thousand chickens had come in and for the first four hours on my shift twelve thousand of them passed dead through my numb, almost frostbitten fingers.
That's fifty for every minute I stood there trying to divert my attention away from the tedious unpleasantness of the job. Those four hours felt like a hundred as I thought about my life and just how thoroughly depressing it had become. I tried counting them as they thumped onto the rubber conveyor in front of me but I lost track after about a thousand. And as I contemplated seeing just how big a pile they'd have to make (after coming out of the plucking machine) before they started spilling onto the floor, someone tapped me on the shoulder and told me that it was time for a break.
Without thinking I bought a chicken sandwich to eat and while I struggled to avoid vomiting it over the table in front of me I pondered just what type of machine could possibly pluck the feathers from three thousand chickens in a single hour. I found the concept to be quite amusing, envisaging a giant washing machine stuffed with birds and spinning so fast that all their feathers fell off. I was brought back to reality overhearing a conversation about two of my colleagues, both of whom had recently celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
At first, I felt a sort of congratulatory happiness for them, as one does when one hears of a couple who have actually found genuine love for each other and stayed married for longer than three weeks. However, that feeling of congratulatory happiness soon transformed to horror as I learned that twenty-six years previously they'd actually met at the chicken factory, presumably their eyes meeting across a bag of frozen drumsticks. I then amused myself by wondering just what on earth their conversations might be like at home:
‘How was your day, Dear?’
‘I put some chicken giblets in a sack. And you, Dear?’
‘Er... me too. What's for dinner?’
There was something of an experienced-based hierarchy in the team and its 'leader' was a guy with a head that looked a little like a football trophy crossed with a startled rat. He was about forty with a couple of protruding teeth and ears that stuck too far out from the side of his head. In my mind's eye I can see him now... although, in saying that, the image that I have of him is with his two hands raised to his chest as he nibbles on a piece of cheese. It may, therefore, not be entirely accurate. Anyway. Somewhat tragically he'd been employed at Hinton Poultry since the age of sixteen and he now had some kind of aura about him that commanded a kind of respect. Whenever he spoke the canteen went eerily quiet which, it did when at one point he decided to crack a joke. It was a joke about killin'. Because I was unable to converse in chickerr-pikey-speak (as I was), it was a joke that I missed entirely and simply smiled nervously as all around me roared with laughter.
Killin' (or rather 'killing' if you possess the ability to speak properly) was pretty self-explanatory but a job intended only for the upper echelons of the chicken factory labour force. It was the job of executing the birds straight off the back of the truck. Because I was new, therefore, I could only wonder how twenty-four thousand chickens were slaughtered: Rat-boy and his team of crazed, psychopathic idiots running around with clubs and sticks and battering the poor things to pieces once more being a concept that I found rather amusing.
Break time finished and now fearing for my sanity, having spent the best part of thirty minutes grinning like an idiot and feeling rather sick, I trudged reluctantly back to the factory floor where the shift manager, glancing briefly at his clipboard, directed me to a different conveyor belt in a different section of the factory.
I've no idea of his name but I despised him immediately. Although his job didn't call for it he wore one of the cheapest suits you could imagine and possessed an incredibly out-of-place and unnecessary superiority complex that would seem to be highly prevalent among smarmy idiots who think that their position of responsibility gives them the absolute privilege to be rude and demeaning to anyone in a lesser role. It made me angry to think that the greatest thrill of his working day was more than likely to be preparing the shift rota and determining which of us dumb peasants would work where. I was ordered to stand for the next four hours at a conveyor belt ensuring that the second twelve of that twenty-four thousand chickens' legs were the right way up. I tried to concentrate as once more thousands after thousands of chicken legs passed under my watchful eye, a sense of excitement welling up inside each time I came upon one that required me to reach and turn it over. I knew I was going nuts.
After about an hour Jobsworth came up to me, his clipboard shining in the ice cold glow of the industrial fluorescent tubing. I was ordered to spend the next hour rinsing out trays and putting chicken giblets in a sack. When done I was to return to the chicken leg turning over section.
I'd been at the factory for about six and a half hours by the time my legs seized up. Through standing so long in the sub-zero temperatures of this godforsaken hole they had obviously decided that they were no longer prepared to function properly and told me so by sending pain impulses up my back and into my head. I decided to rest them a little by leaning on the side of the conveyor. Disappointingly, however, it was less than a minute before Jobsworth shouted at me from across the factory floor; storming over with his eyes filled with a rage as frightening as a slice of toast and hurling various abuses that would have been far less morale destroying had he used the words 'please' and 'thank you' to illustrate his concerns rather than 'fucking' and 'sacked'. And so, as he turned I threw a chicken leg at the back of his head. Unfortunately (although perhaps only in a single sense) with my balance no longer what it was it missed him completely and landed somewhere without he or anyone else noticing. Two hours later and I still had my job.
I spent a while considering whether or not to go back the next day; arguing with myself as to whether the torment could be overcome sufficiently to earn that golden pay-packet at the end of the week. Needs must, I thought. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day. It wasn't.
On the following day, after donning my overalls and hairnet Jobsworth appeared and read out our duties. Once more I was sent to the chillers to hang another twenty-thousand birds on a rack. I wanted to hurt him very badly indeed.
It was about twenty minutes until I thought, 'Fuck this. I'm off.' And as I write this now I wonder how different things would be if, like my sister a couple of years previously I'd opted for the yoghurt experience instead. After all, some years later she gained a first class degree from Oxford. And I... well... look at me now!