Work happy, school shy

11th September 1998 at 01:00
A common summer job sought after by our friends' school-age children in South-west France is castrating the maize. The technicalities sound painful, but despite high July temperatures, insects and the absence of breaks pupils queue up to seek one of the few holiday work opportunities.

Hurt by my recent Significant Birthday - even my headmaster sent me a card saying I didn't look my age, but that's because he'd told everybody I was 65 - I've been reflecting on past experiences. The current drive to shorten teachers' holidays brought to mind the summer when an administrative mistake by the embryo Strathclyde Region forced two extra weeks' holiday in June on to the reluctant teachers.

I remember helping out a friend who was a youth hostel warden in Sutherland by running the primary school used over the summer. Previously, my student job as assistant in Edinburgh's main hostel had been interrupted by a visit from the police intrigued by a reported resemblance between myself and the current photo-fit of Bible John.

If hostel wardening was an interesting pursuit, then the nadir was the job as van boy for a well known bacon company. This entailed delivering loads of wholesale groceries to shops and factories throughout the West of Scotland, and early on I was puzzled at the request to stay in the van while the driver spoke to the shop owners. Gradually the scam was revealed - anything smuggled from the wholesaler could be sold direct. My sympathy for the employer had been earlier eroded by his request to scrub the blue mould from a side of bacon for subsequent resale.

Summer jobs were an education in themselves. One friend worked for the Clyde Navigation Trust (or the Skye Navy as it was known) and managed to empty several tons of coal into the river by dint of poor ship to shore co-ordination. My wife had a job once in Germany selling encyclopaedias to American servicemen; another friend crawled round Ravenscraig's blast furnace doing work judged too difficult or dangerous for regular employees.

Certainly these were student jobs but pressures on children to take on midweek supermarket shifts or lose their job are the modern equivalent. Last year, negotiating an increase in productivity from one of our senior pupils, we explored his three nights a week shelf-stacking and the double time at weekends. As his timekeeping and industry left lots to be desired, I thought I had convinced him of the need for homework and even regular attendance. The arbitration met deadlock as he looked at me and countered: "I have to have a social life, too, you know."

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