My song today is ‘Slow Hand.’ This song was recorded by the American vocal group, ‘The Pointer Sisters’ for their eighth studio album ‘Black & White’ (1981). The song, written by Michael Clark and John Bettis, and was released by the ‘Planet’ label in May 1981 as the lead single from the album.
Although its sultry style recalls the Pointer Sisters' first American top-ten hit, the 1978 Number two hit, ‘Fire’. The song ‘Slow Hand’ was not written for the group. In fact, John Bettis would state, "The Pointer Sisters were the furthest [act] from [the composers'] minds." However, producer, Richard Perry said that he knew that 'Slow Hand' would be an instant smash hit that would recapitulate and expand on the intimacy 'Fire' that the Pointer Sisters had success with. Like ‘Fire’ which also featured Anita Pointer on lead, ‘Slow Hand’ peaked at Number 2 on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart. ‘Slow Hand’ reached that position in August 1981, when it also reached Number 7 on the ‘Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs’ chart. ‘Slow Hand’ was ranked in the top 25 best singles of the year by a poll in ‘The Village Voice’. ‘Slow Hand’ also afforded the Pointer Sisters international success, including the first appearance by the group in the top-ten on the ‘UK Singles Chart’.
Although I was approaching 40 years of age when this record was first released, I would be in my late 60s before it registered with me.
The song and its content do not remind me of anything with a sexual connotation as the Pointer Sisters intended, but of a young woman called Mary who worked in the ‘Hanking’ Department (yes, I mean Hanking) at Harrison Gardener’s Dyeworks where I was employed for most of my teenage years until I emigrated to Canada for a few years at the age of 21 in 1964.
‘Hanking’ was a textile term to describe a textile knot used in binding together a loosely twisted roll of fibre prepared for colouring in the firm’s vats (dyeing machines). The fibre would be fist cleansed by scouring and then go in carts to be ‘hanked (tied together in an ‘ampersand’ shape (the ‘&’ symbol), before being coloured in the dyeing vats.
The work in every department in the firm was ‘piecework’. This meant that an employee was paid for work performed. When errors in one’s work were found, the worker would have to amend the fault and receive no payment for their correction efforts. Make the ‘hanking’ too loose in its binding and it would unravel and damage in the dyeing process. Make the ‘hanking’ too tightly bound and it would not colour evenly throughout. Therefore, the requirements of all good ‘hankers’ included a deftness of performance that required the swiftest of hands to produce the desired result.
When I worked in the ‘Hanking’ department, the foreman was called Lewis Bell. Lewis had been ‘hanking’ yarn and slubbing for twenty years and could ‘hank’ two units to anyone else’s one. Lewis not only expected a minimum speed from the six workers he supervised but if someone was not up to scratch, they would find themselves working in a different section of the firm after their week’s trial. The department used workers with fast hands and was one of the few departments in the firm that had a staff of mixed-sex. While normally, the faster workers with their hands are usually women and not men, the heaviness of the hanks seemed to equalise the more traditional speed differences that would otherwise have prevailed between the sexes.
I will never forget the day Mary came to work in the ‘Hanking Department’. She was a good-looking woman in her early twenties, and her attractive features had the effect of keeping her three male hanking workmates on their toes. The foreman, who was double her age, took an instant shine to Mary, as did the other three male workers. The other two female hankers, however, did not appreciate the change in the behaviour of their male colleagues that their new female workmate had brought about and seemed to hold an immediate resentment towards Mary.
Within a matter of one week, all of Mary’s three male colleagues started arriving at work on a morning looking more spruced up than we ever did before Mary had joined the hanking team; a fact that the two female hankers instantly drew our attention towards. Their precise response was,” You’ll comb your hair and wash your face for her but fall out of bed on a morning and show up like shite for us!”
Prior to Mary’s arrival in the ‘Hanking Department,’ the language used was frequently peppered with swear words. There was little consideration given to the sensibilities of the female hankers (presumably because they were as bad in their swearing use as were their male workmates). There would be liberal use of the ‘f’ word from male and female hankers before Mary’s arrival. In fact, the female Hankers could ‘f’ it with the best of the male hankers without blinking an eyelash.
When Mary arrived though, not one swear word was heard in the hanking shed by any male hanker until after she was moved to another department three weeks later. The immediate consequence of the males cleaning up their language in Mary’s presence from her first day with them witnessed a corresponding increase in the use of swear words uttered by the two other female hankers. The reason for Mary’s move to another department was all down to her slowness of hand in the ‘hanking’ process.
Initially, the male hankers went out of their way to help Mary improve her speed of hand while the two female workers complained that "they’d been thrown in at the deep end when they first started in the ‘Hanking Department’ and that no bugger seemed prepared to help them at the time or offer advice".
All the male hankers soon worked out that Mary wouldn’t be working with them long if she didn’t speed up, and over the first three weeks, it was not unusual to see the males, in turn, seek to show her better and quicker ways of working with the yarn and the slubbing hanks. Even the foreman, Lewis, who was usually a stickler, even took time out to coach Mary how to be faster wither hands. The two women hankers expressed their dislike for Mary the more that the four males in the hanking shed were prepared to make allowances for their new workmate’s lack of speed.
#Eventually, when the two female hankers had experienced enough of this preferential treatment that was being given to Mary and which they had never received at the start of their ‘hanking probationary period’, they took the only action that was guaranteed to adversely affect their foreman’s pocket; they deliberately slowed down and refused to work any faster than Mary was capable of working.
The bonus system in every department throughout the firm was a ‘collective bonus’ that was equally divided in the worker’s weekly wage package, and it was standard practice for the fastest workers who regularly produced more to moan more about the slowest workers in the firm who were said to be contributing the least and were ‘dragging down the collective bonus’.
The ‘work slow’ protest of the two female hankers did the trick. Lewis Bell turned his attention away from Mary’s physically attractive features and towards the loss of four or five £s weekly in his foreman’s bonus rate. Before the month was out, Mary had been moved to a different department and the air in the hanking shed turned bluer once more as the ‘effing and blinding’ slowly returned within the conversations of the hankers.
It did not surprise me one iota that the precise nature of the two female hankers’ protest against Mary had an immediate effect upon the hanking supervisor, Lewis.
Women have always known how to work fast and slow, besides producing precisely what they want by use of the ‘slow hand’ at the most crucial of times in the process!
Love and peace Bill xxx