Talking to Stewart during breaks at CPI was almost always interesting and instructive. Stewart is one I would describe as a broad minded liberal in his relationship with people different from him.
One day he confided in me his misgivings about the rising number of immigrants in Leicester. Already it had been estimated that by 2010 English whites would be in the minority in Leicester. The growing number of foreigners from Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Poland, Hungary and Romania made him feel more and more insecure, like an alien in his mother-city.
I sympathized with Stewart but I also reminded him that his countrymen, the British did the same to my part of the world. They flooded Singapore and Malaya with Chinese and Indian workers at the turn of the (20th) century and since then we had no choice but to accept the fact that our land had to be shared with others different from us. For the British, it's like the sins of the fathers visiting upon the child! Good ole Stewart agreed!
Stewart Knight was one of the many good friends I had when I was an Agency worker during the latter part of the 1990s. How did this ex-teacher land up working in an industrial estate in Leicester? That will be a separate story but today my mates at CPI take priority.
CPI (Centre for Process Innovation), located at Beaumont Leys, specialised in designing and making products for advertising display. The nature of each job was never the same. One week you could be making display mounts for Rimmel's cosmetic products. Another week it would be sticking posters on smallish and huge (about as tall as myself) display mounts for Nokia. Sometimes you got to handle power drills to attach screws to metal modules. The best job was packing, sorting and putting together multi-coloured beads and baubles and ribbons.
About 90% of the workforce on the shop floor were white working class - a group much maligned as drunken , lazy louts. Their women were supposedly loud and aggressive. Furthermore they were a hotbed of racists!
Yes, they do go to the pubs on Friday afternoons after a week of hard work, not unlike Malaysians and Singaporeans who would spend their time to relax at food centres and kopi tiams and karaoke lounges.
Yes, some of them do drink too much depending on what kind of week they had at home and at work. But there was always someone to see that they got home safely.
Of course, some of the women joined the men for a drink but they hardly went over the top because over their weekends they had to do the family shopping for the week, get the house cleaning and laundry done, prepare the Sunday dinner and see to the children and /or their parents.
Racists? I have been at the receiving end of racist taunts from whites, British-born Indians and those of mixed black-and-white race! In fact a British-born second or third generation Indian working at the Job Centre told my young French friend that she had to speak better English if she wanted to get a job in Leicester. Caroline speaks English as good as any second generation immigrant - with a charming Gallic lilt.
I could go at lengths describing their kindness and consideration for a 'senior' Muslim woman. In my late 50s, I was the second eldest, after Maurice who was in his mid-60s. Very, very often they would buy me coffee from the machine using their Company Token Card . As an Agency worker I would have had to pay my own, at 15p a cup. Sometimes I would get cheeky comments like - "Coffee's bad for you, especially at your age". Then they made a quick run for it before I got 'violent'.
Someone, male or female, was always around to help when I had to lift and carry boxes from the pallet to the work-table. They always minded their language when I was about - limiting and hushing their 4-letter words and expletives. I had to tell them that I also have a vocabulary (in 4 languages) that would shock a sailor - and I would resort to it when the situation required! Hence, in their book I was a 'star'!
During Ramadan - which at that time was during winter - I asked Mark, my Supervisor, if I could forego my 10-minute tea break for later so I could break my fast. Well, from then on, he took it upon himself to remind me of my break-fast by tapping his watch and pointing to the break room. Sometimes he would whisper, "Go on Maizie, take a little longer".
And so on Eid, on a cold winter's day, the spouse and I would deliver to my work mates at CPI a Malay meal for their dinner. By the way, the mid-day meal for the English working class is called dinner, which is also their main meal for the day. As for the toffs and the gaffers, they have lunch instead. My mates at CPI have tea at 6 o'clock - their evening meal. For the middle and upper classes tea-time is just tea and cakes and sandwiches at 4 o'clock! That's British class distinction for you.
The dinner went down very quickly. I was left with empty food containers and received in return loads of kisses and pecks on the cheek that smelled of spice, sambal kacang
and pachri nenas
. One of them even asked me if I could find him a Malay wife. Cheeky sod!
As an Agency worker, I have worked in all sorts of jobs, from a Plant Nursery worker, a packer of soft surgical material in the Royal Infirmary's Operating Theatre's Unit and packing gateaux, cakes and confectionery for P & O Ocean Liners. But CPI was the best. There were no politics, no knives in your back, no explicit and implicit discrimination, no hypocrisy and no over-ambitious colleagues and superiors. We worked as a team. In fact this was the happiest of all the jobs I have ever held since I started working life in 1967.
I stopped my Agency work in 2005. They gave me a surprise farewell gift of a box of Thorntons Chocolate (my favourite), a bunch of red roses and a 'collection' for my retirement. How else could I show my appreciation of their warmth and kindness? I asked the spouse, and he happily obliged, to draw them this picture.
All the small stickers are their names which Iain had cut out from their farewell card. Note the Black and Decker power drill in my possession. Also look for the Map of Difficult and Foreign Places in my coat pocket - that could be Jalan Pudu. I hope you notice the difference between the two MOGS. The one at the rear is the Miserable Old Git and leading the trooper is the Magnificient Ole Gal. Yeah!
There is no happy ending to this story. Hard times were coming. CPI was shut down. I hoped against hope that my dear friends have been able to find alternative employment. But my heart feels heavy for these youngsters. The economic collapse caused by greed on the high street is being paid for by the loss of livelihood and dignity of the working class. Young men and women, young couples with families are thrown on the scrap heap to sustain and protect the privileges of the elite in this class-ridden society.
P.S. To get a better 'view' of the drawing, click it once and then click it again.