Plucking hell


I wrote the the other day about some great jobs I’ve had and the cushiest number in the Met Police. But it got me thinking about some of the worst jobs I’ve had to endure. I had a few lulus working at the bakery during school holidays. One job involved standing by this conveyor belt for a 12 hour shift loading freshly baked loaves hot from the oven onto trollies. The problem was that you were completely alone facing a wall and at head height about 4 feet away hung a large clock which was impossible to ignore. There was nothing to distract you from its torturous gaze. I can tell you that those shifts felt 18 hours long.

That was tough to endure but far grimmer was the job of the grease monkey. Every few weeks it was necessary to re-grease every tin in which dough was placed before they were placed in the oven for baking. This involved thousands of tins and one poor sod (always a student; often me) had to load a cloth with cooking fat – you started off with a pile of fat about two foot high – and then smear the inside of every single tin with a generous coating to prevent loaves from sticking. It took a good six hours to do them all. My back ached and your hands and fingers stank of fat for days afterwards making sandwich eating at breaktime totally unbearable. In those days there weren’t too many sushi bars around in Blackpool to compensate; in fact there aren’t any yet.  It took weeks to clean my fingernails of the cloying manky crud. This wasn’t the job to be allocated if you had a date that evening.

That was pretty bloody grimy but it wasn’t the worst experience. Oh no. That was to be found during one winter vacation whilst at University. C and I were married at the end of my first year and because C had a full-time job in the town it meant we stayed on in Aberystwyth until we headed to our folks’ homes for Xmas. So I needed to get a temporary job but the local economy was nothing like as vibrant as Blackpool’s then was. I searched for days and eventually I got hired by a turkey farm a few miles out of town. The task of course was to pluck the birds but the pay was based on piecework – it was a rubbish rate of  around 20p a bird but I was led to believe that orders were pretty strong so there was scope to earn pretty well over the 8-9 days left before Xmas, providing I was a fast plucker. Well I’ve been called worse (and similar) so I  was up for the challenge.

Next day I got up early. C made me some sarnies wrapped in foil and I headed off to the farm like the first day at a new school.  I’d got the job over the phone and hadn’t yet seen the place. I was expecting a modern well-run humane operation. I found the location shoot for Saw. The blokes who ran the farm were cast members from Deliverance. Having a student in their employ and an English one at that seemed to bring out the generous side of their Welsh spirit. They were, how can I best describe them, ignorant twats. They did point out that I’d need more substantial clothing than a t-shirt. Check.  They then strode through the fowl pen pointing out the turkies to me. Check (did they think I was stupid?) And as they wandered through the birds they took huge swipes at them with their great big clod-hopper boots. They explained that as the birds were about to die ignominiously they were actually beat-uppable and chuckled crazily. Now I’m not a pet person/animal lover but I absolutely hate cruelty to dumb animals especially when performed by dumb animals. It was also a pretty weird way to treat your prime stock but as there were hundreds and hundreds cooped up they just didn’t care. Cretins.

Their next step was to show me the process of killing-plucking-stringing up or the ‘drip’ as they called it. I didn’t ask why but would find out in due course. First up I was introduced to the chain, this was a constantly moving conveyor system of hooks strung from the rafters about 6 feet off the floor. The turkies with a death wish who came withing reaching distance of the duelling banjo brothers were caught by their necks and strung up by their feet on these hooks. Flapping around madly they then proceeded towards the metal plate which was supposed to stun them as their heads passed over it. Except of course their flailing around meant that very few of them got the electric shock. And so the turkies proceeded on their upside-down way, very much still alive, to meet their maker courtesy of the Butcher of Penrhyn Coch. Ah the good Butcher. He didn’t bother standing up to greet me. He continued to sit on his chair with his wellies in a bath of blood. He was wearing a white plastic apron which was splattered in blood and he was sporting those rimless glasses like Heinrich Himmler and a strange pork pie hat (everyone was wearing hats with brims like in a spaghetti western, it was very odd). Now the Butcher’s job was to grab the head of the next oncoming unstunned turkey, thrust a knife down its gullet, slit its throat and let the blood seep across his lap and into the bath. That’s all he did all day every day, and he whistled little tunes as he did it. That bath would be a foot deep in blood by the time he’d finished his shift. It was like a scene from a slasher movie except he was very much for  real. Now there aren’t many men who I’ve found intimidating but I have to admit he scared the crap out of me, featuring in several of my creepiest nightmares. Still does.

Back to the flow process. The next step for the poor turkey was to be sent through a threshing machine as dozens of stiff rubber welts thrashed the soft downy feathers from its body. To complete the torment the poor bird was then dipped, still upside-down, into a large bath of boiling water for a minute or so to soften up their skin to assist the plucking of the large wing feathers. It also supposed to be the final frontier for any tough old birds.

And so the moment came when I was handed my first fowl. It was taken off the ‘death room’ pulley system and handed to me to string up on another hook and pulley system which wandered off into the cavernous hanging room. We walked as we plucked. I did it gingerely at first, the poor gobbler was still warm of course. I must have spent 40 minutes on it and got the brothers Grim in my face as the standard plucking time was around 10 minutes. It was made clear, as they gave me my first token for the plucked bird, that student boy would have to shape up or ship out. I didn’t really need to be told as at my going rate I’d earn around £2.40 for a day’s work. This might have been 1973 but that was still a miserable frigging daily wage.

I learned a few things that first day:

– I could pluck turkies quicker by just adopting a ripping technique and ceasing to wonder whether the birds were hurting. They were dead.

– Or not quite in some cases; I had more than one near heart attack as the occasional bird somehow managed to survive the process and rear up in my face still alive. Argh… ffs. The bad lads Wattle and Snood were on hand to help at this point – they would rip the bird from its hooks, jump on its head and hand it back sans cranium. Very nice, thanks fellas. They’d cackle like maniacs again. I often wondered what these cretins did for entertainment. I imagined it wasn’t watching videos of Ivor Emanuel or Max Boyce in concert. Or maybe that’s exactly what did give them their personality disorders.

– the rest facilities were non-existent. There was one loo which hadn’t been cleaned in years (and those country boys aren’t particular about their hygiene) and no wash basin at all, just a cold water tap in the yard. Nice for cleaning your hands before eating the sarnies. There was nowhere to sit at lunchtime other than on piles of logs outside – and this was December!

– you didn’t want to eat inside because of the reason why everyone wore trilbies and other assorted brimmed hats. The pulley system eventually climbed higher into the rafters of the building where the plucked birds were allowed to hang to drain their blood away. And it would drip on you all day long from on high. My hair and t-shirt were covered in blood by the end of the day. It was revolting.

– never trust a Welsh farmer. Those assurances about plentiful orders was a lie. The second day there we were stood down for 3 hours until an order came in. So after plucking about 30 birds the first day, it was only possible to do around 18 the second day. On the 3rd day it was worse as I did 10 birds across 8 very cold hours. At the end of that day I cashed in my tokens and got paid my £11.60 less some stoppages for use of facilities (freezing tap water) and took my £10 and went home to C never to return.

It was the only time in my life I’d walked away from a job but I just couldn’t hack it any more. I ate turkey that Xmas but with a very heavy heart. I’d seen the ‘process’ and met the disturbed individuals for whom turkey farming was a career. I think I saw them again many years later down in Cardiff when we were hosting a rugby event and we’d gone out afterwards into town for a drink. They were 50+ year old men singing their dopey rugby songs about saucepan lids or something when I swear they started belting out the words to ‘I was there’ the theme song of the one and only Max Boyce.

I figured it right all those years earlier.


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