Seán Moncrieff: My first summer job was in a headstone factory

I loved that job. Not because of the work, but because every Friday I got paid in cash

I saved my job cash in a tin in my bedroom, and by the end of the summer I had enough to buy an amplifier and the biggest speakers I could afford. Photograph: iStock

I saved my job cash in a tin in my bedroom, and by the end of the summer I had enough to buy an amplifier and the biggest speakers I could afford. Photograph: iStock

 

My first proper summer job was in a headstone factory. Even the rituals of death are subject to mass production. I still know nothing of how they are inscribed, but I can tell you that in the factory, blocks of granite arrived, were cut into various shapes and then endlessly polished by hulking machines.

My part in the process involved replacing the round heads on the polishing machines, a task that involved an old electric grill, glue that may or may not have been carcinogenic, a metal file, a screwdriver and red-hot steel brackets. Health and safety wasn’t all the rage back then, so it was considered part of the job that my hands would be covered in burns. I was a teenager. I thought that was cool.

I loved that job. Not because of the nature of the work or the ultimate recipients of the product, but because every Friday I would get a pay packet. Back in those days, people would drive tiny Fiats with eight-track players and unironic fluffy dice. And everyone got paid in cash.

Here’s the thing about cash: it’s your money and you have total control of what to do with it. No one takes a service charge when you spend it, or tells you how much of it you can or cannot use. You don’t have to remember a PIN or fill out a form to get at it. If you want to know how much of it you have, you can put your hand in your pocket, or check your wallet or piggy bank. It can be stolen, of course, but not by someone sitting at a computer in Ukraine.

Bank account

By the time I’d left college, it was all over for cash. To have a job, you had to have a bank account. There was no law change that made this necessary. It meant that the people still working in the headstone factory and everywhere else had to effectively donate part of their wages to a bank. They could choose which bank, but had no choice about the donation.

Let’s leave aside how banks crashed our economy. More insidious has been the way that banks have been allowed to dictate to us what we can and cannot do with money that belongs to us. It is now virtually impossible to operate without a bank account, and the so-called “products” that are associated with having one. The idea that banks provide a service has long been peeled away – try ringing or – God forbid – walking into a bank and witness a system purposefully designed to keep you as far away as possible from any human contact.

Banking is unique in our society in that it is a private sector business that we are forced to interact with. Imagine if you were compelled to shop in Tesco or only eat in McDonald’s or regularly buy your clothes in Penneys. Choice, we are told, is the bedrock of consumerist, capitalist society. But when it comes to the most capitalist of institutions – banking – we have no choice at all. 

Puke-inducing

Yet with a completely straight face, banks produce glossy, puke-inducing TV commercials where they are tearfully hugging us when we have babies or graduate from college or go on holidays; where they are somehow aligned with every significant moment in our lives. Because they care so very much.

I saved the cash from my job in a tin in my bedroom, and by the end of the summer I had enough to take a day trip to Dublin, where I bought an amplifier and the biggest speakers I could afford: equipment I was rarely let use as it shook the house. When my mother died, I did briefly consider having “Turn down those speakers!” engraved on her headstone. Well, I had the thought. Given where her headstone came from, it had a certain symmetry.

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