GREG RAY: Still giving sample bags

FOR years I had that disk of ‘‘lead bullion’’ in my wardrobe.

Along with the zinc bullion, the zinc-lead sinter, the limestone, the iron ore and the steel, it was a little reminder of my school excursions to the heavy industries that once graced Newcastle’s neighbourhoods.

The samples from the Sulphide Corporation at Cockle Creek came in a little brown cardboard box. The ones from the Newcastle steelworks, I think I recall, might have come in a plastic container.

Anyway, it was a thing we did in those days, visiting local industries as school groups. We’d traipse through the noisy, dusty factories, peering into mysterious furnaces and watching the grimy, sweaty folk who worked there going about their jobs.

Some one in a hard-hat would be giving us a lecture on what was happening around us, but mostly we were too preoccupied stickybeaking at the unfamiliar surroundings to pay much attention. Then we’d get our sample bags and board the bus back to school.

It never really occurred to me that lumps of lead might not have been ideal presents for kids, what with it being poisonous and all that.

But at least we didn’t live near an asbestos mine – like the one at Barraba where, I’ve been told, kids used to get a paper bag of that lovely, fluffy, incombustible fibre to take home and play with. Cough, cough.

The best school tour samples I ever got came from the Oak factory, at Hexham, where I remember being a bit surprised at how smelly milk powder was, but was mightily impressed by the milkshakes and ice-cream.

Probably the worst school tour I ever went on was to watch some visiting ballet mob show us what Swan Lake was all about. No doubt it was an excellent ballet, but on the bore-a-schoolboy scale it was about 110 with a bullet.

At least they didn’t make us take home samples from that one. I’ve always looked bad enough in shorts, so a tutu would have been unimaginable.

I think at least part of the idea of taking us on school tours of the heavy industries was the thought that quite a few of us would probably end up working there.

My visit to BHP was handy in that sense, since I came away from the steelworks determined to work anywhere else instead.

Sulphide was handy too – I actually did some months on the clean-out crew, building up my blood lead levels from 11micrograms per litre to 25 in three easy steps, and scoffing out on pies and meatloaf at the works canteen.

Back in the day, school careers advisers used to just tell us to apply for jobs at the heavy industries, because that’s where so many people ended up.

And look at us now: heavy industries pretty much all gone and none of us with the foggiest idea where the jobs of the future will be – other than overseas, probably.

But where do schools take their young scholars these days, to whet their appetites for the wonderful world of work that may or may not await them when the last flour bombs fall on muck-up day, and reality saunters up and smacks them in the jaw?

They go to open-days at the various universities, I know, that jostle for student dollars while offering mind-expanding transplants of knowledge from underpaid and unhappy casual teaching staff, and the opportunity to help people who can’t speak English pass their team assignments.

And they come home with plastic sample bags full of glossy brochures showing smiling multiculturally-selected young people hard at work on indeterminate but evidently important and well-paid tasks.

That’s almost certainly better than a lump of lead, and its definitely a lot better than a paper bag full of white asbestos. 

But it’s probably not as good as a milkshake and, speaking personally, I’d rather have an ice-cream. 


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