I must have worked at least twelve Christmases as a kitchen porter. It was a busy, cheerful little bistro on North Hill, Colchester. I was there, on and off, between 1973 and 1985. In the early days, hell-bent on rock stardom, I was also singer for Colchester’s premier (and only) glam rock group There's one in every town.
Having just left my difficult teens, it seemed a logical next move. The reality, however, was that the group wasn't earning quite enough to support us. There are a number of options open to a broke rock god with no educational qualifications. There is labouring. There is gardening: which is similar to labouring, if slightly more soulful. Or there is kitchen portering, which entails much washing up and many other cleaning duties, along with hauling heavy stuff around. If you're quick, industrious and can make the chef laugh, then you're in. You can sign on the dole, of course. But I never did that. I could hardly expect Edward Heath our PM to subsidise my youthful rebellion. As a daytime KP, I worked four days a week. I began work at 10am, finished at 4pm and was therefore always ready to be picked up for gigs when the van arrived.
In those days, 24 hours of gainful employment just about qualified me for my weekly national insurance stamp, at the same time as earning me so little money that I was barely taxable. The pay just about supported me. I stayed glamorous and thin by blagging make-up and clothes from girlfriends and only eating twice a day.
By day I was a dazed scruffy wretch who washed dishes, the remnants of last night's mascara still clinging to my eyes. By night I was a hyper-manic singer playing in dodgy venues, sometimes well into the small hours. During the later engagements, brawls might break out on the dance floor, while the band continued playing, huddled on a postage stamp of a stage, hoping not to get dragged into the punch-up. After such gigs, we and our roadies would usually have the Transit van loaded and ready to roll by somewhere around 1am. With luck, we’d be home and abed by a respectable 3am. "It’s better than working.” we'd say.
If I happened to be kitchen portering next day, I'd crash in a sleeping bag on the floor of the roadies flat. It could be uncomfortable sometimes but at least it was cold. The roadie's girlfriend gave me a shout before she went to work. I'd throw some cold water over my face, clean off the worst of the make-up, swallow a couple of painkillers and wander off up the road. “Back to the draining board.” I'd quip. My ears would still be hissing from the previous night's standing next to a howling amplifier, bawling out songs. We beefed out our home-grown repetoire with a handful of rock'n'roll standards. Our job was to keep the punters either dancing or staring malevolently at us.
Back at the Bistro, I'd be hoiked out of my reverie by a waitress piping, “The wine delivery’s here, Martin!” This meant that anything up to 40 cases of wine had to be hauled off a van, into the restaurant and up a narrow flight of stairs to its storage place. Fit? I should think I was. In my mid-twenties, once, while being attended to in hospital, a concerned-looking nurse and a duty doctor converged upon me. The nurse asked, “Mr Newell, are you a professional athlete?” I laughed and said, “No, I'm an unsuccessful rock star and kitchen slave. Why?” They told me I had an abnormally low pulse, which in healthier-looking people was usually associated with professional athletes.
Apparently two hours of frantic leaping around stage, three times a week, coupled with my kitchen duties, qualified as strenuous exercise and had endowed me with what they called an 'athlete’s pulse'. Amazing, hey? Don’t try this stuff at home, kids.
My advice to youngsters nowadays would be: stay at school, do your exams and don’t even think about joining a stupid pop group. Like hell it would. A decade in a dead-end job playing rockstars at night was the time of my life. If I had to do a job, then let it be a dead-end job. There was no pressure: I worked, I got paid and I left. It allowed my creative mind to wander unimpeded, wherever it wanted. Occasionally some exasperated friend would say, “Why d'you stay here? You have a good brain.” I'd reply, “Exactly. So why hire it out to some corpulent vermin who'll only make my life wretched?" Defiant and obstinate, I was prepared to continue for as long as necessary, or until the world recognised my genius and awarded me my back wages. But the best part of kitchen portering during those young years was the Christmas season...
I worked as a kitchen porter by day and a rock singer by night for much of the 1970s. I think one of the low points may have occurred one morning after a particularly terrible gig: “Dear Mum, Gigging in Ipswich last night. Audience with us all the way. Finally managed to shake them off near Capel St Mary.” Round about this time, my girlfriend had informed me that she was leaving. That can sometimes happen when you're a singer. So there I was, ten and a half stone of hung-over dejection, standing by the sinks, up to my neck in pans, when the dustmen arrived to collect the pig-swill bins. One of them looked at me pityingly and said, “I dunno how you can do that job, mate.” Well that really put a sparkle on my day. As my dad used to say, if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.
Christmas at the Bistro, however was always great. Frantic, noisy, messy and hard work but I wouldn’t have missed one of them. Anyone who has ever worked back-of-house at a busy, popular restaurant for a whole Christmas season will probably tell you the same thing. This is how it goes: at midday, once the first office party has been seated, it’s battle stations. Seventy customers will suddenly pack out the restaurant.
In the kitchen: the chef, puddings-cook, middle- kitchen, veg-chopper and two porters. In the restaurant: half a dozen waitresses, usually a team of dizzy young women, some of them students, who may or may not know what's about to hit them. Driving around between the restaurant and the local Cash'n'Carry will be the owner. Backstage in the kitchen, everyone is shouting, clanging and clattering. The air will be filled with steam, profanity and a smoky blue haze of pan-fried steaks. Down the opposite end are two kitchen porters and a bespattered radio blaring out Slade, Wizard, Mott the Hoople etc. And those kitchen porters will be the buzziest, cheeriest of the lot with their constant jokes and quiet vulgarity. But because the whole team knows that if they need a tray of glasses or a large saucepan "Straight back please!" then those porters, as a point of honour, will bust their little buns to perform that service. And, when a restaurant is that busy -- roaring, yelling, steaming busy – then there is an unspoken buzz about the whole procedure. The frantic few hours between midday and 4pm will simply vaporise. The next thing you know is that it’s suddenly dark outside and the restaurant customers have thinned out. They will mostly be office people. The last ones remaining, unused to drinking this much at lunch time, will be loud, sometimes overly-candid with each other. Occasionally there may be tears. But the kitchen porters? What do we care about this? We have only one question for the waitresses: “What’s the tips-jar looking like?” Because, with each passing day down to Christmas, the tips grow correspondingly more generous. And when the kitchen porters have broken the back of it all, they'll mop the floor, after first taking up the sodden sheets of cardboard thrown down by a hard-pressed chef in order to prevent the floor becoming an ice-rink. Then, aprons still on, they'll slink into the restaurant and sit down at a table in a discreet corner in order to wolf some seasonal leftovers. Bonded now by the work, the jokes and the songs on the radio, they'll sometimes saunter off to a quiet pub to drink their tips.
Thus, do those twenty-odd days of Christmas roar by for a kitchen porter. All in a blur of shouting, laughter, steam and hurried drags of a cigarette which burns constantly in the ashtray near the back door. Even the chef in his most stressed moments will take a cheeky passing drag on it.
But then, after certain lunchtime sessions, one of these kitchen porters will hang up his soaking apron grab his stage-bag and get into the transit van which is waiting outside on the hill for him. Because he knows he has to play the next three nights in a rufty-tufty Ipswich nightclub. Here, women with more make-up than is prudent, will sometimes look at him up on the stage, as if they would like to have him washed, wrapped and and delivered to their homes. But then their gorilla boyfriends will appear at their side and they will cease staring. In this manner your correspondent spent several of his youthful Christmases , until one day, at a more sensible age, he looked back upon it , realising that those 1970s days, scuffing around as a kitchen porter by day and rock singing at night, were the dual components of the life-less-ordinary which he'd chosen for himself. In fact, despite impecunious circumstances, he probably wouldn’t have had it any other way. And so, a merry Christmas to you all.