The entry I’m about to write is personal, and refers to the first boss I ever worked under, as a cleaner at a printing factory, aged 17. The experience of my time with Carmichael & Co. Ltd (Brighton) was so profound that it shaped my life thereafter. The reason for this entry is that he passed away on June 14th, which I found out about only recently.
Blackman, as I always refer to him, was a staunch right-wing Conservative Party councillor in Brighton, an arch-Thatcherite. He was the Mayor of Brighton from 1984-85 and if you ever see a clip of documentaries of Thatcher dancing the night before the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel, Blackman is the Mayor seen in a dance with her. (His son, also called John, and also working at Carmichael’s, was even worse, a supporter of the arch-right wing Monday Club.)
Blackman set up his own printing business and it was quite a successful one. It was also one that refused to recognise the trade unions, which at the time operated the ‘closed shop’, whereby you needed to be a member of one of the trade unions to apply for a job in the print. Usually those working at Carmichal’s were not members of a union.
As a 17 year old I had no clue who I was working for, let alone the situation of trade unions. I’d struggled to find jobs anywhere after leaving school, and got this one having been for loads of interviews. Ninety percent of the time those jobs fell through because employers wanted me to be able to use the telephone. I’d already been working as a cleaner part time, notably at Sussex University. When the job centre asked me if I had any other ideas of jobs I would like to do other than computing or clerical, I told him that I had an uncle who worked in the printing and that might be something I’d consider. He pulled out a card for a cleaner/print room assistant at Carmichel & Co. I went along for a job interview. It was a small company employing around 20 people.
A director guy with the second name of Beebe interviewed me, along with Blackman’s son John. Beebe wasn’t convinced I could do the job; actually neither of them were. It involved lifting stacks of paper into printing presses, and other manual labour. Sure, I was some skinny guy back then, but I wasn’t entirely limp. I kept telling them I could do it, no problem at all. They summoned in Blackman, and it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for his involvement I wouldn’t have got that job. He said I should be given a chance. My first impression of him was as a very grumpy old man, who told me he had no idea what the wages where, ‘it might be nothing’. I think it was something like £17 or £24 a week; whatever, it was quite low, but I was grateful to take anything. (There was no DLA at the time!)
Working for Blackman wasn’t a relaxing or pleasant experience. When he took me round the factory to ‘train’ me on aspects of the print, he would be explaining the names of various tools or equipment and then he would suddenly say ‘what is it?’ to ensure I had understood him. It came so suddenly and out of no-where, taking me by surprise, but most of the time I understood him. But I was nervous of the guy in those early years, so much seemed to depend on working to his satisfaction. Once he asked to polish his car and gave me something; I had no idea what it was and began to apply it to the main body of the car. Blackman came storming out: it was chrome polish I’d been given and I was only meant to polish the chrome parts of the car. Blimey. I had no idea cos I never imagined I’d be asked to do a job like that. Of course, I was apologetic; for six months there were occasions such as these, with Blackman having little outbursts whenever I didn’t do a task to his satisfaction.
After six months I was expected to undertake an apprenticeship. That was the norm for all print room assistants who worked at Carmichaels. But unbeknown to me, he’d called in a lawyer of some kind, and they were advised to prolong the trial while they considered whether it was safe for me to work the print machines. They were worried that if I was involved in an accident, the company would be liable having not taken the fact I was deaf into account. It may, therefore, require extra insurance for the company. They had contacted my former teaching assistant, Ms Taylor. She had been the sole support I had during my time at secondary school, coming in once a week to help me out with English, Maths and any other subject. She had given me a positive report.
I was annoyed that my trial was extended for an extra six months, but didn’t complain. It was hard, however, to dislike Blackman, as he did have a certain charm. After a while of knowing him, it was possible to laugh at some of the comments and things he said: like when at lunch time I would sit reading the Sun or the Mirror, and he asked me why I read ‘that rubbish’, and ‘why don’t you read The Times’, little things like that. He would glare at me and I would laugh, and he would just shrug and walk away. When I got into a panic with printing taskes he would put it into perspective: ‘have you ever seen a man dying,’ he would say. ‘Err, no,’ I would respond. ‘You wouldn’t want to,’ he said. Blackman had seen action, while in the Navy, in the second world war. You had to respect that.
I did get some experience on the printing presses, usually when a worker was ill. I shouldn’t have been, for health and safety reasons (untrained, etc.) but I got work done for them. But Blackman did something else, he gave me a go on the typesetting machine at Carmichaels. I was getting experience in all departments, and after a year they asked me if I’d be interested in working as a full-time typesetter. ‘You wasn’t very good working on the machines,’ he told me, although I’d hardly had much of an opportunity. Still, it was very true my skills were better used in that department. His son, John, tried to train me, but was always leaving it until 4.30pm in the afternoon or getting called away, so I had to learn most of it myself, and with help from other workers who knew how to use the typesetters. Rather strangely, one other woman would come in about once a week to do typesetting, and she had the same surname as me, and was called Sandra, so two S. Emery’s working as a typesetter in such a small printing company was rather amazing!
I continued, however, to get rollickings. I recall one incident, before I formally began as a typesetter, Blackman was unhappy with something, or with a job I did badly. I got a severe dressing down and was ordered to sweep the floors of the print factory. It was utterly humiliating, but I didn’t feel I had a choice.
But Blackman gained my respect in perhaps a bizzare way. When I was made Typesetter, I’d made a hash of some jobs, particularly with my spelling. I still remember spelling principle rather then principal, for example. Beebe mocked me: ‘you can’t spell can you’ and that was irritating, it was a comment Blackman would never have made. There was one occasion where there was a problem with a job, and for the first time ever I defending myself. Blackman respected my defense and left it at that, but from that point on, I found Blackman changed. We would disagree over many things, and I found myself challenging and responding in a way that was impossible when I was a print room assistant. I would do the same with Beebe and John.
I used to mess around a lot with my fellow workers; we got caught out doing some blatant stuff but Blackman never said anything, instead grumbled and muttered. Then, once, from the far end of the corridor, I gave a colleage a gentle poked in the tummy and Blackman came storming over, summonded us into the office, gave us a severe bollocking, I protested but it was hopeless. I’ve still got the letter of an official warning from him, for ‘skylarking’.
I was confident enough, therefore, to challenge on a regular basis, my fears of Blackman having reduced. I had also become more politically aware and asked to join the trade union the NGA. ‘Blackman, that c***,’ they always said. They were delighted to have me as a member. They wanted me to leave Carmichaels and join a unionised factory, but I wanted to stay on and fight for the unionisation of the company. That couldn’t be done alone, of course, but had to involve other workers joining the union. I managed to recruit a few others, sort out some problems that others had, and was really pushing on. Whether Blackman was aware or not, I have no idea, but it did get bad. I was always refusing to work overtime. It got the extent that Blackman was training a young guy to take over from me, but Blackman couldn’t do very much because I worked hard and well. The overtime issue came to a head one evening when Beebe and John sat down and told me that if I didn’t work overtime I’d be sacked. I relented and worked overtime in order to stay on, they let the poor young lad go, in tears; but it was obviously clear from that point on that my time was up there.
I handed in my notice soon after, having secured a job in Burgess Hill with the assistance of the NGA. My co worker told me there were tears in his eyes when he was talking to her about my going. He wasn’t around on my last day so I never got to say goodbye to him; and when I visited the factory a few years later, he wasn’t in the office. I wrote to him for a reference a year or two after that, but, probably not surprisingly, received no reply.
That was some experience for a young lad who started there at 17 and left at 20. But the trasformation I underwent when Blackman was my main boss was lifelong, changing me into something that was the exact opposite politically of what he was. He was also the architect at giving me experience on Typesetting machines, which led to being experienced in a trade that was very well paid, and, providing you were a union member, very easy to find job a job in at a time when jobs were hard to come by. I spent a further seven years working in the print.
I have a grudging respect for Blackman in that regard. On starting at Carmichael’s he became a figure I respected but also detested and was angry with on a lot of occasions, but when I challenged, he returned respect. His aggression towards me stopped and he treated me like any other worker. All of that gave me a lot of confidence as a person and in myself.
It would be wrong to say I ever missed the guy, and hypocritical to write anything of a glowing tribute. I am, however, extremely happy to have met him and had him as a boss, however hard going it was at the time. What I will also say is that the guy will never be forgotten by me, even though he is gone.