Observation

The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker

I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before they add colour. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey.

The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and runs from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid, only worse. Those films were in colour. Here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.

Most people have their own key for their locker, but I don’t, so I have to get the master key each morning from the office and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.

I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel-capped trainers which are actually very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next ten hours. In my locker, there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado, which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer-generated voice asks me, ‘Do I want an order?’

I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.

‘Go to slot 1726. Pick Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.

‘A slot’ is the space underneath the huge five-storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles between the shelves where we work. I once asked a driver of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.

‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5-tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.

When I get to a slot, I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’

I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a CHEP Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve washed your hands in a meat grinder.

The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.

This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.

As you might notice, the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.

The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this, but only one right way. Unfortunately, I was never taught properly, so I’ve developed my style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.

The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a 1950s mobster movie. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s, therefore, no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.

Apart from this, the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along, a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.

We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:

  • 300 cases an hour.
  • Or 5 a minute.
  • Or 1 every 12 seconds

Take your pick. But whichever statistic you choose, it’s hard to manage. And after twelve weeks, I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!

‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say, clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree, I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.

‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.

‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A  dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.

Instead, I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’ 

This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures, so he can’t verify whether or not I’m telling the truth. So he says ‘good’ or ‘OK’ and drifts off to the next picker, who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing around the place most mornings.

The only person who has the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.

‘You need to pick it up, Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’

I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening, I will write a redaction and an immediate apology in this post.

‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’

‘All the others manage.’

‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.

It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus, most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job, and at the moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.

‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise, my pickrate is going to plummet.’

There’s nothing much he can say to this, and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.

I think regularly of how many people we employ in the retail industry. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days, most likely. Maybe even hours.

And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes. It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul-crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, sales agent, teacher –  to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse around a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.

But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless.

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Observation

New You – New EU?

Image: Samuel Regan-Asante

So the children won. They enthusiastically traded in their shiny new marbles and in return got a few cracked ones back. That’s what leaving the EU feels like to me.

I once traded in a white Renault Trafic van for a Leyland DAF one. I thought I was getting a better deal as the parts were cheaper and it was also meant to be more fuel-efficient. Oh, and it was British (this was in the early nineties) when I was still vaguely proud of my country.

Anyway, within three months it was kaput. Even the garage I bought it from didn’t know what was wrong with it. Total mystery they told me. I took it to other mechanics and they couldn’t work out what the problem was either. ‘Should have stuck with the Renault,’ one bright mechanic joked with me. ‘Much more reliable.’

After seeing more garages that cost me money every time (I even paid for the diesel injector nozzles to be cleaned at huge expense) I ended up trading it in for scrap – I got £50. To say I felt short-changed was the understatement of the decade, and I haven’t felt this ripped off since you know what…?

The Brexiteers claim FREEDOM. But freedom from what and whom? The EU is still there, and getting on with life; while Britain fondles with its cracked marbles.

‘Free to make our own laws,’ I hear people say.

But we did that anyway. Except for some laws that protected people’s rights and dignity. But of course, that’s not important any more.

‘Nay,’ cry the Brexiteers. ‘It’s more than that. We wanted our Sovereignty back!’ Which is actually code for: ‘We don’t want any more immigrants.’

Which is what Brexit is really about. There has been a hundred arguments put out there, but there’s only one the majority of Brexiteers really wanted, and nothing will ever change my mind about this. But well done! You’ve achieved your goal but damaged the lives of millions of decent citizens. British and European. As well as damaging the country’s reputation.

All of his has been said before, and people including myself are pretty sick of it, but I still wanted to say something on it. Plus I still wish I’d never traded in my lovely French van for a crappy English one. What was I thinking?

Other articles: Advantages of the UK leaving the EU on 1st January 2021


My hilarious satirical rural romp.

Out now as an audiobook, eBook, or paperback. Click here

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Feature, Short Story

Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 km north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian novelist (and goalkeeper) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read Exupery’s The Little Prince. (Or Night Flight)

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: ‘Four copies in fact.’

I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (The touristy village of Montpezat being close by).

He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman he was thinking). ‘No, it’s not; Maupassant is the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

And so began my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

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This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882, and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely, his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage — yes overnight! — from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip — a trip I assume he made himself — but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

“All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.”

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire, to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found translated into many languages. And all for free. What else could you want for Christmas?

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Le Glitch

How French Rural Life Inspired a Novelist

In August 2014, I gave up my job teaching English in Lyon to housesit a farm in Vienne and write a novel. I wasn’t particularly looking for the literary good life. I just wanted a break from the city.

Six months later I finished it. But the elation was short-lived. I didn’t like it at all, so I filed it away in the deep recesses of my computer marked ‘Unfinished’ and started chopping wood instead.

I wasn’t too upset though. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the process: waking up early every morning to write in one of the empty rooms while the sun rose up from the small wood in front of the house. The way I could walk down the hill to the village on a foggy morning and feel like I was walking off the edge of the earth. Because let’s face it, there are few places in the world (from my experience anyway) as quiet (or as beautiful) as rural France in winter.

Sad to leave the farmhouse when the owners returned, and eager to avoid returning to the teaching treadmill, I ended up doing a series of short house sits in Gascony, Aude and the Ariège. Each one more remote than the last. I started wondering whether reintegration back into modern life might be hard. Or even impossible. Not realising that just around the corner was my toughest assignment yet…

In October 2017, I was offered the chance to look after a chateau for the winter in Tarn-et Garonne. The village was called Auty, population 86, and during my first week I saw no one. Just a dog and a herd of deer trotting up the road as though off to a meeting. In my second week, I met the postman, plus a couple of kids on mopeds careering down the hill towards the town of Caussade ten kilometres away.

It was odd. It wasn’t even that remote. The A20 autoroute was only eight kilometres away. Toulouse, one of the biggest cities in France, only an hour’s drive. And yet here in Auty, especially when the snow fell, it felt like I was somewhere far north.

It made me ask myself, what was I doing here? After that first house-sit on the farm, I’d fully intended to go back to my job in Lyon. Now, nearly three years later, the thought of going back to teach the present perfect over and over again just so I could afford a box flat in Guillotière was about as appealing as sawing my own foot off. So I decided to start another novel.

Over that winter I toiled away using one of the rooms high up in the chateau, hoping I could get it right this time. It was cold and isolated and eerie. The chateau was over 250 years old and at times I was sure there was more than one set of ghosts rushing up and down the ancient stairs, getting ready for a party that had taken place over two centuries ago.

The book was finished in March 2017, entitled “Right Time Right Place”. Mainly because I thought I had got it right this time. I was wrong. On reading it through, I wasn’t happy, so once again I filed it away under ‘Unfinished’. I joined the local cycle club in Caussade instead of bemoaning my latest failure.

The Caussade Cyclo Club: A club full of eccentric French cyclists who go out in any weather on a Sunday morning and ride as fast as possible so they could all get back in time for lunch.

On one of our crazed Sunday sorties, round about the time I’d pretty much ditched any notion of ever writing another novel, I had a new idea. We’d stopped to refill our water bottles from the fountain in the quaint village of Bach about 20 kilometres from Cahors. It was May and it was hot, even for ten o’clock, but apart from a group of cyclists dressed in lycra, there wasn’t a soul in sight. I wasn’t particularly surprised of course; I was used to it — I lived in Auty! But as I waited for everyone to finish filling their bottles, I started wondering what would happen if there were more people here.

What if, for example, through some strange glitch, people started mysteriously coming to this desolate village in rural France. All arriving hungry and thirsty with only a drinking fountain for sustenance and a load of crazed cyclists for company. What would happen then? And was there a story in this?

When I got back to the chateau after the ride, and without even changing, I frantically wrote my idea down. I started typing it up and didn’t stop until I had got down a rough draft. Two years later Le Glitch was published…

See my page ‘Le Glitch’ for more details here

(Images and words © 2019 Philip Ogley)

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Chateau D'Auty

Pyrenean Cycling, Vikings, Lego and Copenhagen

It’s that time of year again. End of the winter, end of looking after the chateau. Time to move on.

First stop is Spain to which me and Elizabeth are cycling to in a few weeks time. Me on my ultra modern road bike, Elizabeth on her 1970 Peugeot Randonneur. The bicycle equivalent of the Ford Econoline van used by travellers and musicians in the 1960/70s. Lots of bells, chrome fittings, lights and racks. Perfect for a cycling trip in France and 1000 times more stylish – and comfortable – than my 21st century posing pouch.

We are going to be following part of the Chemin de St. Jacques to sling shot us down to St Jean Pied de Port and then catapult us over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to do since I was there a few summers ago on a camping holiday (Read Blogley post 139 if you can be arsed)

In the Pyrenees 2014

After that it’s back to Auty, then the long drive back to Double Brexit – sorry I mean the UK – to sort out a few bits and pieces. Like assassinate all the politicians and burn down the House of Commons. After I’ve done that it’s onward to Denmark via Essex (Also known as Stansted Airport).

Going to Copenhagen for three months feels almost exotic. Not in a Radox-blue tropical sea sense. Exotic in a Northern sense. Mysterious. Edgy. Cold. Vikings, longboats, herrings and plastic building bricks that get stuck in your foot.

I once saw a film when I was a kid in which a Viking chieftain is cremated on a longboat. The ship gently sailing out into the harbour fully ablaze until it caved in on itself and sank into the bay. A glorious send off. None of this black tie funeral parlour stuff full of straight faced vicars and washing line thin pallbearers receiving weak silent handshakes from relatives they’ve never met.

I remember the Viking funeral being spectacular, full of passion, death, honour and glory. Sending the warrior to a new life sitting at the high table next to Oden, a voyage over the waves, through the clouds and into eternity. Stark contrast to what happens to most of us: burnt in a cheap wooden box and then tossed into a rose bush or kept on the mantelpiece for the next 100 years like a ornament.

I said to my father after I’d watched the film that I wanted to be buried like a Viking. To which he replied while reading yet another dismal writeup of Leeds Utd’s latest demolition, ‘You’ll get buried like anyone else. In the ground. Here in Leeds. You’re not a Viking, Philip.’

‘Oh. Aren’t I?’ I replied and wandered off to research other burial practices from around the world. Parsi was my favourite: the corpse left on a high tower to be baked in the hot sun and then ripped to pieces by vultures.

(**Memo to my father: If I die in Copenhagen, I have the right to have a full Viking funeral. Longboat, flames, honour and glory – The Works.)

One Christmas I remember a quiz question from one of my sister’s board games. It asked, ‘Name three Danish brands?’

Most people would probably say what I said, ‘Lego and Carlsberg.’

I tried Danish pastries but that didn’t work. I could have said Bang & Olufsen (TVs), Netto (supermarket), Prince (fags), or Arla (cheese). Good to know now though.

I only other thing I know about Denmark is that it’s flat, which might be a welcome break after the ascent of the Pyrenees in a few weeks time. It’s also – or so I’m told – stylish. Which is where I may or may not fit in.

Style for me is drinking good coffee, not pretending it’s good just because it’s been squirted out of a ludicrously expensive Nespresso machine like a dribble of warm tar. Feeling good on the inside as opposed to obsessing about what I look like on the outside. It’s why I’ve been in the middle of rural France on and off for the past four years. I can dress in a hemp sack and there’s no one here to say, ‘What are you wearing a hemp sack for? You hippie!’

In Copenhagen I’ll probably have to say something like, ‘It’s not hemp, it’s brushed Japanese cotton. Seriously, you think I’d be wearing hemp. That was so last season!’

In a few weeks we’ll leave Chateau Dumas for good. It’s been a very pleasant year (2 x winters) and I’ve done lots of things. What, I’m not sure, but now it’s time to move on to Danish ‘Arla’ pastures new.

I’ll leave you with the last ever short video made here, featuring me trying to head a red football into the cold outdoor swimming pool accompanied by Beethoven. Au revoir and Bye!

More silly stories about my time in France can be found in A Man in France: Available in Books

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Feature, Souillac

265 – King Boris, Bike Racks and Brexit

Someone asked me today as I was trying to fit a bike rack onto a van with an assortment of ancient French tools made for a tractor, if I’d now be going back to the UK.

I replied quite quickly, ‘I voted remain, so I’m staying here.’

That was the end of the conversation and I went on my way carting bikes around for the retired English middle class. It was probably just a genuine question. But I couldn’t help thinking as I spun my (French made and owned) Renault Trafic round the tight corners of the Perigord, that the question had more to it. Loaded with disdain that I was swanning round France, living and working without a care in the world. As though I should join the masses back home under a governing class who want to force a real life re-enactment of the Hundred Years War. Join Citizen Boris in his crusade to be King of England. Why not? He’s bent over backwards to be Prime Minister, destroyed his chum Dave in the process, and taken his country out of a cushy trade agreement and into an economic abyss.

The Queen looks dead already so Boris must have eyes on the crown. If only because it matches his hair colour. With the Royal Family being the longest comedy act in history, another clown would fit in perfectly. Not that Boris Johnson is stupid in the slightest. His buffoonery, as everybody knows, is merely an act to fool people into thinking he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he knows exactly what he’s doing.

I should know, I do it all the time. Today for example. Scrambling around in 35 degree heat trying to fit a bike rack onto a van while being egged on by four retirees who were taking it in turns to add their own bike rack fitting wisdom into the equation.

‘Don’t do it like that! Do it this way! That’s not the way! I thought you said you were a bike mechanic!’

‘I am a bike mechanic, ‘ I replied laughing, grease and sweat running down my face like a demented clown. ‘Doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.’

We all laughed inanely and just when I thought I’d done enough to get a free lunch – “Hapless bike mechanic earns free lunch from wealthy baby boomers!” Ha Ha Ha – I got hit with the question: ‘So I assume you’ll be going back now?’

Cue my rather curt response, Fuck off!, which ended all hopes of an afternoon munching lobster and sipping sweet Sancerre. We all then went back to being serious in true English fashion, talking about the weather and agreeing pickup times. I drove off and left them to get on with whatever retired baby boomers do on holiday. Which from listening to the majority of them since I’ve been doing this job is being amazed about how welcoming and pleasant the French are.

So there we go. We’re out, I’m in and Boris Johnson is King. Bonne soirée.

 

Boris-johnson3

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