For this year’s Significant Other Festival, The Pensive Federation is challenging writers to set their stories at the fictional Reseal 9, Inc factory on a specific day in 1988. The writers’ ten, 10-minute plays will be woven into one grand, immersive piece in The Vaults for one week only in April. As he prepares for the annual new writing project, artistic director Neil J Byden, who’ll helm the resulting Significant Other Inc, recalls the real-life factory that shaped him and so much of his family’s history…
My Dad worked for Wellworthy’s, in the factory at the bottom of our road, just a short stroll from our back door while I was growing up. He left before my sister and I got up in the mornings, but the proximity meant that he often came home for pilchards on toast at lunchtime. If I was off sick, I’d have to either be in bed or in the front room being really quiet and Mr Benn or Jackanory would have to be on very quietly as not to disturb him.
What my Dad did was a mystery to me, and the factory an even bigger mystery. At the weekends, my friends and I would head for the factory car park as the motorbike area had the smoothest concrete for roller-skating, the fact that it was also enclosed in a metal cage gave us plenty of opportunities for end-of-the-world, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome-style scenarios. From the car park which was up a hill, we could see into the factory below, I found it fascinating the triangular roofs and the multiple buildings, I would wonder which one my Dad worked in.
What my Dad did was a mystery to me, and the factory an even bigger mystery.
When I was very young, there was a kids’ Christmas party held there, all I remember was cartoons being projected onto a big white wall, and this was my first experience of seeing any kind of entertainment with a large group of people. I loved it, and the chocolate selection pack I was sent home with.
My only other visit came when my Mum, who worked as a cleaner in the factory offices, would take me with her if a babysitter couldn’t be found (or if I was really annoying my sister, I suspect). I would take my Luke Skywalker action figure as it gave him an adventure in the technological world of BBC computers and air-conditioning vents that was the closest he and I would get to an Imperial base. Sometimes I would be playing outside with friends when Dad was walking home. ‘How do, Young Bolter’ one of the other men in a boiler suit would say to me. The fact my Dad had a nickname was really weird, I can remember this being one of those moments I realised my parents were more than just Mum and Dad.
I am now really aware of how much an impact the factory had on my life. The house we lived in was a workers’ cottage built in the 1890s when the factory was Whitehead Torpedo Works. The field that stretched out behind my house was owned by the factory. It was sold off when I was around seven and turned into a modern housing estate, but the patch of grass directly outside was always known to us as the field. At the end of the field and was the Wellworthy’s Sports and Social club, where, of course, my Dad was a member of the committee. The club used to have football and cricket teams, but as the field went so did those teams.
When the new housing estate was built so was a fancy new club but they kept one feature: the bowling green. My Dad was a keen bowler. In the summer, there would be matches of singles, pairs, triples and possibly other combination I can’t remember.
Our mantelpiece and sideboard at home was strewn with trophies, not just from bowls but also Skittles, an indoor pub version of Ten Pin Bowling. (This was quite intimidating for a growing gay kid who was becoming fascinated with theatre… but that’s a different story.) On days when a visiting bowls club would visit, my Mum would be drafted in to do the teas and would go and help too. I never really understood the rules, but I found it fascinating. Everyone would be wearing their best white outfits, and I got to eat the leftover biscuits.
In 1991, the centenary year of the factory, Dad helped a local historian gather photographs and get in contact with previous employees for a book – he even got a mention in the foreword in thanks for his efforts. The publication of the book resulted in a reunion of past and present employees and an exhibition of the photographs, which, naturally, was at the club.
My family history was ingrained in the factory history, it would seem
This was even more fascinating: not only did I finally get to see inside those buildings but the people too, photographs of assembly lines and clunky large machines and loads of presentations of people retiring being given carriage clocks, cheques, flowers for the ladies and even a fridge showed the long-held tradition of a whip round to give the retiree a good send-off.
I also discovered that my Dad served his apprenticeship there when it was Vickers Armstrong and was shocked to see photos of him young as part of the football team in 1956. My family history was ingrained in the factory history, it would seem.
Eventually, the factory would close and my Dad and Mum would find other jobs, though Saturday nights would still see us venture to the club for bingo (Dad was the bingo caller). I would find myself also employed at the club, as a glass collector and then as bar staff, and at some point, I got a cellar key and was allowed to change the barrels. I mention that here because teenage me was very proud of that achievement.
That job helped me save for university and, because of that as well as my Mum and my Dad’s hard work, I was the first person on my Dad’s side of the family to go. When it came to my last shift behind the bar, I was sad to leave all the characters I had met and the people that had kept me entertained over six years working there. Continuing the tradition, they had a whip-round and they got me a toaster, a set of pans and a kettle.