Thursday, June 28, 2018

iron in the soul


Les repasseuses, painting by Edgar Degas

[Image source: Degas painted four versions of the subject. This one, from 1884-86, is in the Musée d'Orsay.]

The ironing trade is an old one. It finds a place in literature in Zola’s L’Assommoir (1872), though Gervaise’s business was also a laundry. But ironing, co-located with laundry or no, continues to thrive, and Mags found a job that suited her when Alison expanded from her ironing business in Melksham and started a branch in the outskirts of Bath. The Melksham business was in a unit and had no shopfront, but the new Bath branch is in a high street and attracts some of its business from passers-by.


The workers are mostly on piece-rate. Hours are variable, and it’s important that there's always some ironing for them to do when they are there. When you start work you get a better rate for a while. The assumption is you'll take a few weeks to come up to speed. Then your rate drops down to the standard rate. This can cause a bit of friction if the newcomer happens to be super-fast already, so earns a load more money than any of the longstanding ironers. That’s what happened with Var. She made £230 and the longtime workers weren’t happy. They liked it even less when they were told not to bother to come in because there wasn’t enough ironing for them. Var just wouldn’t leave the shop. You told her to pack it in and go home and she acted like she hadn’t heard. And then customers started sending their loads back to be re-done because they weren’t up to scratch. 


But Mags is part ironer part supervisor so she's on an hourly rate. Four mornings a week she has to keep the whole place ticking over. Arrange the deliveries, deal with customers, answer the phone, keep the irons clean, look after the high-volume piece-raters, do the paperwork, and do a bit of ironing whenever she can. Unlike the rest she can afford to take a bit of time over difficult items, and some customers even insist on her, for example the shop downtown that deals in theatrical and Victorian costumes.


B'n'Bs  make up part of the customer base. The rest is private customers. They're usually rather well off. Getting your ironing done for you isn’t cheap. The workers (nearly all women, apart from the delivery drivers) come from near the bottom of the economic pyramid. Some, such as Flo and Paula are English and solidly working-class. Others are students or foreigners. The shop has a cosmopolitan air. Jeanette (French student), Irene (German emigré), Varvara (Latvian emigré) may all be working alongside each other, the steamy air thick with different accents. Add Flo’s Bristolian, Paula’s Twerton...


Jeanette, ironing a sheet and perfecting her pronunciation: “Shit. SHIT. SHIT! SHIT!!” while Paula laughingly shushed her in the background.


On a bad day you can rather resent the customers, who can afford the luxury of getting their ironing done by someone else. On a good day you can laugh at their funny little ways, the different things they ask for. Some want the cuffs flattened; but others complain if you do that. Some insist on starching. Some just hand you a mixed pile of family washing most of which doesn’t need ironing. It makes your job easy, but at the same time you shake your head over someone who can afford to be so foolish.

It’s not so trivial when they bring in their ironing sopping wet or terribly creased. One of the difficulties with an ironing business is that you can’t really charge a different rate for loads that come in like this, even though they may take three or four times as long as a normal load. It’s a delicate matter to preach to your customers – it sounds too much like a criticism of their lifestyle. Some customers have the notion that ironers prefer a wet load; they wouldn’t do if they'd ever tried to iron one themselves.


If a really awful load comes in  the pieceworkers don’t want to do it because it affects their pay. Flo's fast and her ironing is good, but she’s there to make as much money as she can and she just wants to mop up volume. Once or twice she’s resorted to slipping in a note to the customer: I done the best I can with it....Naughty Jeanette has a tendency to cherry-pick easy loads. Mags has to keep an eye on all this and to share out the unpopular loads in an equitable way. She often tries to do the worst items herself.


Despite her naughtiness Jeanette is irresistible. She’s leaving in a couple of weeks and no-one wants her to. She's a student at Bath Uni, she also teaches at Bristol Uni, speaks Japanese and Spanish and heaven knows what else, does waitressing, has numerous boyfriends (the latest one's in Malaga), takes herself off alone on a cycling holiday in Amsterdam, books herself into a tourism and leisure conference in Brussels and is a massive hit with all the stuffy old directors there, says she’s going off to the beach and has them all trailing after her in a convoy of Mercs. That covers the past week or two. In short, she’s a ball of energy, but she overdoes it. Every so often she’s so tired she can hardly speak, and once Mags took pity on her and sent her home when she’d spent an hour on one shirt and earned about 40p. 


Today Mags’s ears were a bit deaf with wax, so Jeanette spent the whole morning blaming her for everything that had gone wrong and blithely telling the others: It’s all right, she can’t hear anything. The ironers are supposed to put a card in with each load saying “Your ironing today was done by –“. Most of them (including Mags) don’t like doing it and so the compromise is to use pseudonyms. Jeanette’s is “Joshua”.


Matthew (the daytime delivery driver) came back with ten loads that he hadn’t delivered. He had made a mistake, but that was supposed to be impossible with his new fail-safe system so he blamed Mags too. Mags has to look after them all like children. She knows that you can’t have a fail-safe system. Mistakes will happen and you just have to double-check constantly. Matthew gets very upset when things go wrong and he needs a lot of soothing but you can put up with that because he does stick at it and he does turn up. They're having terrible trouble finding someone for the evening deliveries. The last two Thursdays running they arrived to find that the latest agency person had just cut and run, leaving all the deliveries in the shop , a bunch of disgruntled customers and chaos all day trying to sort it out.


There’s no time for a proper break, so they eat on the go. Mags started to get very bored of sandwiches from the Co-op down the street. “Why do they insist on putting tuna in malted bread?” she complained. It’s the malt mountain, I explained. It was a condition of joining the EU; Britain had to sign up to eat a quota of malt. “But it just doesn’t go,” says Mags. “It’s like eating fish with gravy.”    *


Janet, a customer, is back from hospital after heart surgery, so Mags is doing her ironing again.  She has big problems with fluid retention but her voice sounds a bit stronger. She still has a crafty fag – you can smell it. Her great fear is that the next time she’s “taken ill” they’ll notice if the sheets have not been ironed. For some wrinkles there’s really no excuse.


It so happens that most of the regular ironers are in their menopause years. Their parents are ancient, amazing or gone. Some of them like gardening and most of them would like to have a home in the sun. They have very little money. The tips money they bet on the horses. Matthew lays the bets. They don’t know anything about races or names, only the odds. “I told him to put a quid on at five to one on the nose,” Mags tells me.


“Ironing is a great leveller,” said Mags.


It was hard to avoid expressions like that. Just as cleaners catch themselves out using clichés like “sweeping it under the carpet”, so Mags constantly found herself saying:


“We’ve been going flat out all day.”


“I’m a bit pressed for time but I’ll try to squeeze you in.”


 She spoke of “ironing out the creases”, of “striking while the iron’s hot”. And, in due course, of having “other irons in the fire”.


The good times at the ironing shop lasted for the best part of two years. But there’s not much security in this kind of job. Alison left the ironers on their own. They loved the informality and the responsibility; morale was high. Cash was just in a cashbox and when they needed something like a new iron or some diesel for the van they just took the money and wrote a note. But last October Alison came into the shop and said she was selling up.


The new owner was Debbie and she was a different kettle of fish. She already had a hundred employees in other businesses. She changed the pay arrangements so everyone was paid a week in arrears; she had a proper BACS system, not cash in hand. But a week soon turned into two weeks, then three... When you’re on a low income, it hurts. She forbade all extra hours. She didn’t care if that meant letting down the customers. They’d just have to put up with it. The atmosphere changed, people started to leave. Debbie didn’t care. Mags tried to talk to her about the effect on morale. “I won’t be held to ransom,” Debbie said. All the other things she said, except this one, appeared to be dishonest. She’d say whatever sounded good and then just carry on. It’s easy enough to make people leave and no doubt she thought it would be much more convenient if all the staff were new and had no memories of how it used to be.


Quiet, improvident Susie was the first to go; then Paula, then Glaswegian Rose. Mags stuck it out for a couple of months. Inside she was seething. She’d been there from the start. She’d created a beautiful, friendly, place to work and the customers loved her. She’d nurtured the others, nipped quarrels in the bud, filled even dyslexic Matthew with self-belief. But Debbie never offered a word of recognition, she didn't see any need for supervisors. Finally, Mags’s will was broken. She accepted her demotion and just tried to zip her lip, clinging to the remnants of her job. But Debbie wasn’t content with that, so she confronted Mags and gave her a verbal warning for being uncooperative.  That was Mags’ last day; she never went back. Anyhow, the way it worked out with the council rent and the tax and the bus fares, she’d have more money being on the dole. But how she misses it. Every time I see her she talks about her work, she recalls another funny story, as if the gang are still all there and all she has to do it get on a bus and go back. And once or twice she’s made me drive past the shop to see if the dreaded computerized till has appeared yet.



* Written in 2004. This is how we used to joke about the EU in those blissful days before Brexit.    


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger