On 15th August 1977 I entered the Oil and Gas Industry as a fresh-faced 16-year-old apprentice Instrument Artificer. I was indentured, which meant it would be four years before BP Chemicals could get rid of me. I was told, "You have a job for life son."
Within twenty-four hours two significant things happened. Firstly, Elvis Presley died, and secondly, I knew I had just made a huge mistake. On that fateful day, 16th August, they sat us in the training centre and handed out some test papers. I took one look at the paper and would have gladly swapped places with 'The King'. Everyone began scribbling answers while I pondered on the wisdom of taking French at school; I really should have taken some technical subjects. My new 'mates' all knew Ohm's Law but, as Ohm wasn't French, I was floundering.
The concern that I had made a mistake, however, seemed to pale into insignificance when compared in scale to the error in judgement that BP were about to realise they'd made.
I suspect from this day forth the interview process might focus more on a young chap's technical knowledge and potential, and less on his hobbies. I had in fact listed among my hobbies, working on my bicycle, and this little lie seemed to have prompted our ill-fated union. Perhaps if I had told the truth, "I like riding my bicycle, which my big brother fixes for me," then I might now be writing this with a career in waste management behind me.
Having realised that I was in the wrong job, BP and I set about getting through the next four years as quickly and as painlessly as possible. While my fellow apprentices learned the skills which would lead to a gold watch, I merely became an observer of the change in the political and industrial landscape which would coincide with my four year sentence.
In the third year of my apprenticeship I had reached the age of 18. This meant I could be released onto site where I would be taken under the wing of a tradesman, introducing a less academic and even more pointless period of practical work to my miserable existence. My first posting was the Instrument workshop. Here, broken instruments from around the productive areas of the chemical plant would arrive for repair, recalibration and overhaul. Big Eddie was given the heavy stuff to sort out, like control valves. Big Ian was given the more delicate instruments like recorders and controllers. Wee Jimmy looked after the stores. The team was completed by Teddy Telka who had not been allocated a size, presumably because he was Polish. He was in charge of time itself. On occasion, if pressed, he would repair clocks from the various control rooms around the site, but he never allowed such dull work to get in the way of his main role, which was repairing the workforce's watches. He had been set up in a 'clean' room, due to the delicacy of the timepieces he skilfully got going again.
Teddy was not actually an Instrument Fitter, Instrument Technician or even an Instrument Artificer, and to call him any of the aforementioned brought forth great rage and a torrent of Polish words, none of which any of us understood, but he did provide a primitive form of sign language to accompany them. Teddy was a watchmaker.
For Teddy, an extension of the adjective ban on size was the adjective ban on personal description. Whereas Big Eddie was "a drunk", Big Ian was "a poof", and Wee Jimmy was "an arse", Teddy was just Teddy.
It was commonplace for an apprentice to latch on to one or other of the tradesmen who had authority over their abject misery. I was never going to be Big Ian, "a poof", and I'd already been Wee Jimmy, "an arse", while at school and although I liked the idea of being just Andy, Teddy rejected the idea of competition so I was left with becoming, "a drunk". I often wonder how my life would have turned out if "medium-sized" Bob, "the intellectual", had been employed in the workshops. Sadly the entire site lacked medium-sized intellectuals, making for moot musing.
The fact that one had chosen a role model had no bearing on who one actually worked with. The workshop foreman, who I never met because he lived in an office, would send down a memo from time to time saying such things as, "Put Hutchinson with the poof today and get him setting up that Fisher controller," or, "stick Hutchinson with the arse and get him on a stock take."
It was very rare to be put with Teddy because apprentices were never deemed clean enough or skilled enough for such intricate work. Having said that, I was required to spend a total of 12 hours with Teddy to get my Workshop Training Completion Certificate signed. In this 12 hours I learned the arts of silence, contempt by proxy and tidying up. I also learned not to wear the replica Iron Cross I had bought in Blackpool on my summer holiday. The biggest lesson of all though was that things were going to be different under newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
BP had jumped on a fast-moving downsizing bandwagon which she had set in motion and was driving with great passion. As a result, our mysterious workshop foreman had been put out to grass and a lean, mean, younger version of power had taken his place. This new breed wanted to be involved and would occasionally turn up on the shop floor to send Big Eddie home to sober up or ask Big Ian to be less affectionate towards work placement schoolboys. He dealt with Wee Jimmy by simply getting rid of him and replacing him with a surplus-to-requirements secretary, safe in the knowledge that she would not be sexually harassed due to her warts. The 'new broom', however, seemed to have no issues with a non-productive watchmaker, and this sadly led to a site-wide view among the workforce that despite it being virtually impossible they should adopt an even more unproductive outlook on working life. Of course in reality this just extended the cull.
But why was Teddy being left alone? A number of theories were put forward. One, the foreman had simply not noticed him because the 'clean room' was not to be entered without permission even by someone in a suit and shiny shoes. Two, he feared a charge of persecution, because Poles were still benefitting from great sympathy due the Nazi atrocities only one generation earlier. Three, as Teddy was 64 it was simpler to just let him drift naturally into retirement and save the hassle of working out his redundancy package. As it turned out, none of these were true. The truth was, the new foreman had a nice collection of watches which he took great pride in. Teddy was safe because Margaret Thatcher had not put anything in the Queen's speech about dealing with vanity. Or at least, Teddy should have been safe.
The fall of Teddy Telka came the moment he uttered the following words to his new boss, "That'll be £11.25."
You see Teddy, despite benefitting from a very good wage, at that time about £108 a week, had always charged people for fixing their personal watches.
The question, "How far can too far go?" was answered on 19th July 1980 by workshop foreman, Robert James Johnston.
My personal view is that the World became a better place on August 7th 1980 when Teddy Telka and his shop steward had a joint leaving party at the Lea Park Hotel in Grangemouth.
I did not attend.