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My first summer job: Well-known Northern Ireland faces on first taste of workplace


Paperboy: a Telegraph seller
Paperboy: a Telegraph seller
Heidi McAlpin
Fun time: Alex worked in a bookshop
Fledgling career: Heidi worked at QFT for two years
Valuable experience: Lynda Bryans worked in a fresh produce shop
Happy job: Julie Hastings
Fantastic memories: Mark McFadden loved working in the laundry room

By Staff Reporters

For many teenagers, summer is synonymous with their first taste of gainful employment. Two Belfast Telegraph writers recall their introduction to the world of work, while well-known NI faces share their memories of their very first pay packet.

Alex Kane: ‘Try to work where you’ll be happy’

When I was about 14, I had a summer job as a "stand-in paper-rounder" (a job description I've always loved). I filled in for the regular paper-rounders when they were on holiday and the pay seemed huge - particularly to someone who had never done a job of any kind before.

There were only three problems. Every week meant a different round and I hadn't a clue about the addresses and short-cuts, so was invariably late and often delivered to the wrong houses. I hadn't realised how heavy the papers were, let alone how many I was expected to deliver within three hours (the fact that I hated bicycles and refused to ride one didn't help). And I had a tendency to read beyond the headlines.

More than one person came to the front door, after I had been standing on their doorstep for a while, to ask if they could "borrow" my paper. But I did learn one lesson: never take on a job unless you know what you're letting yourself in for.

Two years later, I was just turning 17 and preparing for my A-level years. I was employed to help in a small bookshop. I had spent years going to Smithfield Market in Belfast, touring the bookstalls and building my Sherlock Holmes collection. I loved books and loved the gallery of characters and downright eccentrics my father introduced me to every week. Book collectors are always interesting.

Anyway, I thought I was a perfect fit for the Saturday job. I was still very shy at the time, but that odd and wonderful bond which is shared between book collectors (people who bought for love rather than financial investment) meant that I was able to talk freely and without blushing. I loved it.

Armagh had just as many characters and eccentrics as Smithfield Market, a surprising number of them retired teachers and clergy. They loved to talk. They loved to share knowledge and information. They loved the opportunity to point a youngster like me in the right direction. And, in so doing, opened me up to a new world of writers and topics.

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The owner was also very kind. After the first week's trial, she gave me a few extra hours on a Wednesday and Friday. It was bliss.

Bookshops then ­- although it's very different now - were very relaxing places; places where the owner provided tea and biscuits as part of the service and people sat and chatted until they felt like moving on. That first month was one of the happiest of my life.

Then reality kicked in. I received an envelope with my first month's wages. I took it with me on the Saturday lunchtime and decided to treat myself to a proper meal during my break. I ordered and sat down. Then I opened the envelope. I owed the bookshop money.

I hadn't realised how many times I had lifted a book and said, "Can you take this out of my pay, please?" I can still remember my father roaring with laughter when I told him; although he did give me money and said: "Pay her back and learn the lesson."

Six weeks later, when the summer run of work ended, she gave me a very generous bonus and a lovely letter about the importance of resisting the "never-ending temptations of book collecting". Fifty years later, I still haven't learned that lesson.

But one thing I have carried with me: always try and work where you will be happy, rather than choosing a job simply because it pays more.

Alex Kane is a writer and commentator

Heidi McAlpin: 'The film theatre was salvation'

The transition from teenager to young adulthood is fraught with all manner of seismic life changes. Not least of which is the sudden realisation that you can't do much without money. And a weekend job in Woolco isn't going to keep you in Guinness and Super Noodles for long.

Having left school with two poor A-levels and no interest in university, I found myself staring down the abyss of poverty-riddled unemployment.

My school-friend-turned-QUB fresher, Kerry, let me flatshare for a meagre £40 per month, but even that was a stretch for my slimline piggy bank.

But salvation was just around the corner, literally, in the form of the Queen's Film Theatre. This backstreet denizen of alternative movies was the darling of foppy-haired students and their grungy lecturers.

I may not have been an academic, but I felt right at home. Plus, getting paid to watch films was definitely within my limited career options. And so began a two-year stint ripping tickets, flipping seats and telling people off for talking during the show (my favourite bit). It all started in 1989, which, it turned out, heralded something of a golden era for Irish cinema.

From My Left Foot to December Bride, The Field to Henry V (including a visit from darling Kenny Branagh), it seemed no night was complete without another homespun screening.

And, remember, this was slap bang in the middle of the Troubles and decades before Game of Thrones.

Many of these classic Irish films ran for months at the QFT, their scripts indelibly seared into my memory.

I can still hear Ruth McCabe telling Daniel Day Lewis “Let’s drink to Dublin ‘cause Christy Brown was born there”. Or John Hurt in The Field bewailing “Tis me. The Bird”.

Sharing the QFT’s eclectic programme with these local heroes was a Babette’s Feast of foreign and arthouse cinema.

My eyes were opened to the wonders of Almodovar, the neuroses of Allen, the imposing on-screen presence of Depardieu. I found myself absorbed by subtitled films whose subtle story-telling left their Hollywood cousins in the shade. Delicatessen, Romauld et Juliette and The Hairdresser’s Husband were among the many stand-outs.

But I will never forget the first time I saw the heart-wrenchingly perfect Cinema Paradiso. Both myself and legendary QFT projectionist Paul Milligan emerged from its debut screening blinking back tears and stunned into awe-inspired silence. Good films will do that to you.

Back to the paycheck. Well, the money was bad. In fact, in today’s terms, it would have fallen way below the minimum wage. But what it lacked in salary it made up for with some of the best cinema of my life.

I look back on that first job with affection. And I hope today’s QFT torch-bearers get as much out of it as I did.

And I don’t just mean the money.

Heidi McAlpin is managing editor of Belfast and NI In Your Pocket

‘It taught me to interact with folk and deal with the public'

Lynda Bryans (57) is a journalism lecturer at Belfast Met. She lives in Belfast with her husband, Mike Nesbitt, and they have two sons, Peter (24) and Christopher (22). She says:

When I was around 15 or 16, I got my first job, working in a fresh produce shop. It sold raw fish, chicken and other frozen foods, then over lunch time it sold hot food like fish and chips and things.

I was looking for a job at the time and we were shopping nearby, so I just went in and asked. That was it.

I liked it because it gave me a little bit of money, which gave me a little bit of independence.

The thing I think it taught me best of all was how to interact with different folk and how to deal with the public - and also how to joint a chicken! I can joint a chicken into eight pieces very well. What a skill.

Thanks to a lady who worked there, I was also taught how to make fresh potted herrings and, in the days before digital scales, how to work out prices per pound.

I loved my job, but I may not have loved it so much on a Saturday morning when I had to get up early to go to work.

My parents were very supportive and they drove me to and from work because we lived a little bit away.

They were definitely encouraging because it taught me how to manage my own money, how to budget for things and to save up for things I wanted.

I can't remember how much I got paid, but I can't imagine it was that much - it was probably something around £5 or £10. I likely spent my wages on usual girly stuff like shopping in town.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do as a career and I didn't even look at it as good experience for communication skills at the time, as I do now.

The one thing I did know though was that I didn't want to work in a fish shop."

'I thought I could bring bit of experience to their holidays'

Julie Hastings (58) is the marketing director for Hastings Hotels. She lives in Lisbane with her husband John and they have four children, Gareth (29), Rachel (23), Caitilin (20) and Evie (14). She says:

My first full-time job after university was in a travel agency when I was about 21. I suppose the reason I went into the travel industry was because I studied geography at school and I really enjoyed learning about different places.

I have travelled quite a lot as well - we went to some really nice places on family holidays which, of course, was very interesting and, after university, I moved to Georgia in America for my Masters degree.

After travelling a bit around the States, I returned home and realised it was time to earn some money. I was one of those people who left school, went to university and had no clue what I wanted to do.

I came across a job advertisement for a travel agency in the city centre and I thought, 'I'd be good at this'. I always thought of it as being a very happy job, because you're arranging people's holiday and it's a nice feeling. I could advise people on where to go and I really enjoyed that aspect of the job - I thought I could bring a wee bit to their experience.

I got paid about £4,000 a year but I only stayed for one year because I decided to go back to college to study marketing. I was getting paid around £400 a month, which was the most money I'd ever had at that stage - and it was all mine!

I lived out at the time, so unfortunately a lot of it went towards my rent, but I did save up to buy myself a car. There wasn't a lot left after that.

My father ran our family business, Hasting Hotels, and although he was keen to have me and my siblings working there, we weren't just handed jobs. We were told to go out, find our way in the world and get some experience first.

A couple of years after getting my marketing degree, my father approached me about a job in sales and I said I didn't do sales, but I was qualified to do marketing.

He asked, "What's the difference?" And I said, "Well, if you give me an interview, I'll tell you!"

'The banter at Altnagelvin hospital's laundry was great'

Mark McFadden (53) is a UTV broadcaster and journalist. He lives in Londonderry with wife Donna and they have three children, Jack (25), Kate (23) and Michael (19). He says:

My first ever job was the least glamorous job you could image - I worked in a hospital laundry when I was a student at Queen's University.

My first summer of university when I was 18, almost 19, I spent two-and-a-half months working in the laundry at Altnagelvin Hospital. Back in the 1980s, the health service recruited student staff on a temporary basis every summer and you just went in and applied for any positions that were available.

My mum and dad were always very keen for us to get into the world of work to earn a bit of money and learn about life.

In the laundry room, we got huge metal carts filled with sheets and gowns from the surgical theatres, some coming splattered in blood and who knows what else.

It was a hot summer and some of these things would sit for a day or two before being dealt with - you can imagine the aroma was quite something.

I've got to say it was incredible fun. I loved every minute of it because the people I was working with were just a great bunch.

It was mainly middle-aged and older women with just a few men but, bear in mind, I was an 18-year old man, so to me people seemed a lot older then.

Even so, the banter was great. It was a very noisy environment and you had to shout to be heard when work was on, but everyone had a great time and helped each other.

The work never stopped because hospital life never stops - it's 24/7.

We started early and finished late, but it was brutally rewarding, funny and enjoyable.

A bit of hard work is good - it's always better to wear out than to rust.

As a poor student, getting my first pay was just wonderful. I remember treating myself to a few concert tickets and a pair of Levi's 501 jeans - bear in mind, I was young and thin back then!

'When I got  my first pay, I thought I was  a millionaire'

Paula McIntyre MBE (52) is a chef and broadcaster, who lives in Portstewart. She says:

I got a job in the kitchen of MacDuff's restaurant in Aghadowey when I was 14 years old. The people that owned it, Joey and Margaret Erwin, were friends of my parents and I always plagued them for a job.

Margaret always said I couldn't work there until I was 14, so I started working there the weekend of my 14th birthday.

Most of my friends had jobs and my parents encouraged me to get part-time work. It was instilled in me that if I wanted anything extra, I had to go out and work for it or help in the house and earn it. My parents taught me a good work ethic, something I think some young people lack today.

I've always loved restaurants. They are such a treat - I would have preferred to go out to a restaurant than go to Barry's in Portrush. I think my mum and dad thought if I got a job in a restaurant, it would put me off them, but it did the opposite. Working in MacDuff's confirmed my passion for cooking and I knew then that I wanted to make a career out of it.

It was a restaurant well before its time, as Joey and Margaret travelled a lot and brought back interesting foreign recipes. They had amazing curries, spices and even papadums, which were unheard of in Northern Ireland.

We did everything there, from starters to desserts, and I even had to do the dishes - that's the only bad thing in my opinion.

I got £1 an hour, so I got £4 for a shift and then we got a share of the tips at the end of the week.

There was a small chest of drawers and every Friday there would be an envelope with your name on it with your share of the tips from the week before.

I was delighted when I got my first ever pay - I thought I was a millionaire.

I always saved up for things. I think I put my money towards a pair of Levis, because everyone wanted those back in the day.

I remember saving up to buy a three-quarter length leather jacket. I kept getting offers from people to buy it from me."

‘You learn more about people as a waitress’

Claire Hanna (39) is an SDLP MLA. She lives in Belfast with her husband Donal Lyons and their three children, Eimear (7), Aideen (5) and Niamh (2). She says:

I had a paper round when I was about 11 or 12. I delivered newspapers to houses around the Lisburn Road. Between that and electioneering, I've probably been around those doors for over 20 years.

My very first 'proper' job was as a waitress in Ruby Tuesdays when I was 17. It was 1997 and Belfast was starting to change for the better, getting bits and pieces of nightlife and things like that.

Ruby Tuesdays was certainly one of the first restaurants on the Lisburn Road that would have opened in the evenings and on Sundays. It was a really lively spot.

I lived nearby and I was often in and out with my mates for a cup of tea or ice cream. I got to know the staff that way. They were short-handed one day and asked if I wanted to fill in. It progressed into a job from there.

My parents were very encouraging. We were taught that if we wanted to have a few quid, we had to go work for it. I think I learned more there in that couple of years about people and work than I did anywhere else.

I was waiting tables and taking orders and, on more than one occasion, I helped out in the kitchen when it got busy.

I didn't mind, though, because I've always loved cooking and it definitely helped me increase my skills. When you're trying to put out breakfast for dozens on a Sunday morning, you have to be able to work fast.

I ended up working there for about five years and I worked my way up to manager after some time.

I loved my job and I'm still friends with some of the people I worked with.

Over the years I pressed a few friends into service - they were short of cash and we were short of hours, so it worked out well.

I thought I knew everything at 18 and I had nothing to lose.

I did eventually go to university a few years later, but at the time I wasn't sure what I wanted to do long-term.

All I knew was that I wanted to earn some money and get some life experience.

I don't remember how much I got paid, but I'm sure it wasn't a fortune. However, I did love having some degree of financial independence.

'I always think being a binman was one half of my eduction'

Mike Nesbitt (62) is an Ulster Unionist MLA. He says:

As a school leaver, aged 17 or 18, I got a student job as a binman for Ards Borough Council and I did it every summer in my three years at university.

These were the days when you had to lift the bin onto your shoulder - there were no wheels, they were old metal bins.

I always think of that job as one half of my education. I went to Cambridge, so you were talking to guys who were academically and intellectually incredibly bright, but a lot of them didn't have much common sense, whereas the binmen were incredibly streetwise.

There was one big housing estate where there was one bin, out of maybe thousands, that you just didn't want to have to pick up, because the householder kept pets and there was a hole in the bottom of the bin. You knew if you put that bin on your shoulder, you were going to feel something very unpleasant.

You almost had to use applied mathematics to ensure you didn't end up at that house, but who got the holey bin every week? Me. The Cambridge student got stuffed by these guys who didn't have a GCSE, or an O-Level, as it was, between them.

They were so streetwise they could buy and sell you. It really was like two halves of an education, so I would say I'm well-rounded. I loved the job and I loved the people I worked with.

The guy in charge on the lorry, inevitably called the 'head bin', was Benny Campbell, who passed away a few years ago. He was a lovely guy and he taught me an expression that has stuck with me for life: "Self-praise no recommendation". He didn't bother with the verb, that was it.

I met another guy, Trevor, on the bins and we are still friends today, 40-odd years later.

My parents were a bit concerned about the contrast between my job and my study - which to me was the beauty of it - but they were ultimately supportive of me earning some money. My first pay was £36 cash-in-hand for the week. It doesn't sound like a lot in 2019, but in the mid-1970s, that was fantastic.

I was able to give my mum a few quid and treat myself a little bit."

Belfast Telegraph


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