Packing Christmas cards knocked the pseudo-intellectual snob out of me

A factory job taught me not to sneer at my Leicestershire village – and even made me proud of where I came from
a job packing christmas cards
‘However fast I tried to go, I still fumbled the cards, miscounted the envelopes, and applied the tape sloppily.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I finished my A-levels in July of 1999, the summer of the eclipse, the Matrix and, legally, the start of my adult life. The one thing these things had in common was that none of them was visible from the Leicestershire village of Earl Shilton. It’s a place you might describe as “picturesque” or “rural”, as long as you were standing on the outskirts and facing the surrounding countryside. At the time I was more likely to use words like “bleak”, “small” and “decaying, isolated shithole”, but that’s because I was a teenage Manic Street Preachers fan, and we said that sort of thing a lot.

Going to university was something of an unknown quantity in my family, but my parents – unbelievably proud of my offer to study sociology at Loughborough – knew one thing for sure and hammered it home: you got a job in the holidays. It’s just what you did. And I was going to need the money. For the first time since 1962, there was to be no mandatory grant for students (thanks, New Labour!), and though I qualified for support to cover my tuition fees, and a student loan would just about cover the rent for my self-catered, shared room in halls, if I didn’t save any cash I wasn’t going to have any. I knew the student union did pound-a-pint nights, but I’d probably have to eat too.

My girlfriend had spent the previous summer working in a packing factory on the outskirts of the village and put in a good word for me. I was hired at £3 an hour (before tax) to pack Christmas cards from 8.30am to 6.30pm, with two 15-minute fag breaks and a half-hour for lunch. It was simple work: five cards from one pile, five from another, 10 envelopes, pop them in a packet, seal it, put it in a box. Ten packs to a box. Seal the box.

I was awful at it. I’d look behind me and the ladies who worked there year-round would have whole pallets of completed boxes. I’d have four or five. However fast I tried to go, I still fumbled the cards, miscounted the envelopes, and applied the tape sloppily. I was furious. I was a pseudo-intellectual snob who’d already decided that the work, like the whole village, was beneath him. Now, not only was I wasting my summer in this monotonous, depressing chore, surrounded by dull people too dull to escape their own dull lives; I was also bad at it. Looking back, it’s my colleagues I feel sorry for – the only thing more miserable than being a resentful teenager who thinks he’s better than this is having to work alongside one.

People in our village didn’t go to university. They had kids, joined the army or worked in the plastics factory up the road. I spent my life feeling out of step; desperate to get out. I’d stand there, simmering, drowning out Fosseway Radio with a tape of the first Stereophonics album on my Walkman (“so much better than their new one”), trying to find the end of the Sellotape for the 20th time that day, glitter and dirt under my fingernails, feeling angry and superior and determined I would never be like the efficient, chatty fortysomethings in their tabards.

It took about three weeks to knock the sneer off my face and the headphones off my head, and realise that the people I was working alongside were brilliant. All of them funny, all of them very clearly cleverer and nicer than I was. They were interested in my family, my girlfriend and whether I knew this or that relative of theirs, and they were excited on my behalf. When I popped in on results day to tell them how I’d done, many of the ladies were as proud as my mum and dad. I remember someone saying, “I’m so happy for you, you’re getting to do everything you want,” and meaning it. It made me feel genuinely proud of myself, where before I’d felt that getting out was just something the universe owed me. Finally, dimly, I began to realise my opportunities were something I’d earned, and my background was part of that achievement. I could wrap myself in where I had come from, make it a part of me and take it to where I was going. I wasn’t getting away from something; I was just going toward something else. I’d packed the sneer in a box with the miscounted Christmas cards.

I arrived at Loughborough in late September. I was surprised to find that almost every student I met received a regular allowance and had their rent paid by their parents, leaving them free to spend their loans on enjoying themselves. They had computers and cars and didn’t have to get a job washing pots at the weekend. I had discovered the world of the middle classes. A new resentment began to gnaw in the pit of my stomach, but with it came pride. I knew where I’d come from and who I was representing to be here. The feeling swelled and ballooned, soothed the rising acid and knocked the chip clean off my shoulder.

Marc Burrows is a writer, musician, standup comic and former Guardian moderator