The work, the working, the working life

Ironically, one of my favourite songs about working, Bruce Springsteen’s Factory, was written by a bloke who by his own admission has never done a day’s manual labour for wages in his life. But as for myself, I sometimes feel that I have worked all my life. When I’m busily shoveling soil into a wheelbarrow and tipping it into our garden beds, I imagine that I was born with a shovel in my hands. After all, that’s what my Irish father was doing on the building sites of Birmingham while I was being conceived, gestated, born, and brought up in the first decade of my life.

The Cubs and Boy Scouts’ Bob A Job Week taught me the basics of “working for others” and getting paid for it. Weeding and cleaning and shopping, mostly. I hated it, not least because it took up most of our Easter school holidays, but it was an early lesson in duty and toiling for a cause.

As a schoolie in sixties I just had to have hit parade LPs and singles and Airfix kits and the pocket money provided by my folks did not go that far. So while other kids did paper rounds and helped out in local shops, I worked Friday nights and Saturday morning stacking shelves and cutting boxes in a Sainsbury supermarket on Stratford Road. Later, when my existential needs extended to clothes, books, and beer, a school chum got me a gig on Saturdays and school holidays in the food hall of the now defunct Rackhams department store – it was snobbishly upmarket for Brum, being a division of the famous Harrods of London, and us weekend lads had to wear naff little white waiter’s jackets which did not flatter my then portly (by sixties standards, but relatively svelte today) physique.

Rackhams in the Sixties

On the recommendation of my uncle, I worked for Sheldon Industrial Cleaning on Sundays at various Midlands motor plants, cleaning toilets and floors before the beginning of the weekday shifts. Willing hands would stand outside the Sheldon office in Digbeth hoping to be selected by the foremen and bussed to our workplace, be that in Brum, Coventry or Rugby. Come the long summer school break, when the motor industry workers took their holidays, I and other students would be hired to help with the annual stock-take at the huge Austin plant at Longbridge. One time, I was assigned to help demolish a computer room that was being renovated and upgraded. The old computer was the size and shape of a larger container, and the new one wasn’t much smaller. The iPad I am writing this piece on has probably more processing power.

The Austin, Longbridge, Birmingham

By 1967, I was a fit and adventurous eighteen year old, but still in need of cash. Summertime in the outdoors was an attractive prospect, and labourers’ pay on building sites was excellent for the times – up to fifty quid a week depending on the work, and which, I soon found out, included “danger money”.

So, for four summers in a row, I spent three months a year working on the new housing estates that were going up all over the fringes of suburban Brum, and most conveniently, near where we lived, on the new estate on what was the old Bromford Race course near Castle Bromwich – high rise flats for Briant on the Bromford, system-built houses on the Chelmsley Wood estate (built on a redundant wartime airfield – there is still a Spitfire Way leading into the estate), and finally on the M1-M6 motorway link at Castle Bromwich with Marples Ridgeway. Inspired by the Clancy Brothers’ folk song, I wanted to join McAlpine’s Fusiliers, but that mob were working down the emerging motorway in what was to become Spaghetti Junction whilst M-R was operating right in from of my parents’ house, building the elevated motorway right on top of the River Tame. I built muscles, risked life and limb, and acquired a great sun-tan.

Bromford Bridge Racecourse

 

System-built housing on Birmingham’s fringes. I lived in one of these.

 

Chelmsley Wood council estate as God would have seen it

 

Another God’s eye view of Chelmsley Wood council estate

Work “on the buildings” was hard, and the hours were long, and I got to meet some great blokes and some right arseholes – my workmates came from all over the United Kingdom – particularly the Emerald Isle, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean -the language was colourful and and conversation was often what we’d now describe as as racist and misogynist. I unloaded bags of cement and thousands of house-bricks by hand, dug trenches, and sledge-hammered survey stakes and learnt many things that most students did not, like using kangos and jackhammers, driving tractors, pouring skips of concrete and fixing reinforcement steel.

But those were dangerous days on the construction sites. There was minimal health and safety regulation – helmets were optional and hi-vis had yet to be invented – I witnessed many accidents during my stints on the sites, many serious and some fatal, and I narrowly missed a few myself. Job security was tenuous – most of us “navies” were hired “on the lump”, and could be “put off” on the spot, and if it rained, we weren’t paid.

Building the M1-M6 link motorway through north Birmingham

My folks were none too happy about it. My dad had come over from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland in the late forties and had worked on building sites in Birmingham for years before finding work in the motor industry. He still bore the scars and the aches and pains. Having worked so hard to give me and my brothers an education and opportunities that they never had, it was a disappointment for them to see my brother and I head off every morning in work clothes and with lunch boxes, and returning  ten hours later tired, dirty and aching with blistered hands, tired limbs and sore feet. They couldn’t fully comprehend that we did it for quick money and not for a living.

But the money was good, and during my uni years, I was able to spend up big on books and clothes, booze and dope, with enough left over to finance my travels to the Mediterranean and then overland to India and back – it lasted until I finally reached Istanbul, when I had to call my folks for money to ge me back to England.

But that is another tale …

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more biography in In That Howling Infinite, see: Tall Tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies

Postscript

My days “on the buildings” inspired many of my songs, poems and prose, though few recordings and documents now exist. One  song that has been uploaded to SoundCloud  is The King of the May, and is published below. It tells how in the early ‘seventies, a man staged a ‘sit-in’ atop a tower crane. High over London Town, he was protesting against ‘the lump’, that exploitative form of casual labour then in use on British building sites as I noted abi ‘‘em there was no compo, no OH&S, no rights. They were tough times – men died. I was there.  The title comes from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kral Majalis’. Allen was actually crowned thus in Czechoslovakia – before the Prague Spring of 1968 too. And thank you to WH Auden for the loan of his lyrics. I republish also below two poems I wrote about work when I was on the nine-to-five hamster wheel in Sydney during the eighties. And below two are two prose pieces I wrote about working on the Chelmsley Wood housing estate in 1969. They reflect on the kind of work I was doing, the people I worked with, and the stare I’d mind I was in at the time – which was decidedly under the influence of my politics and also my acid. 

My short career as a labourer effectively ended on the motorway. In the years that followed I entered into clerical and then professional employment in the public and private sectors, although between jobs and also, to make some extra money, I cleaned, gardened, and even worked as a hired hand at Persian carpet auctions holding up beautiful artifacts that I could never afford for punters to lay their money down … And I sang and played my songs across Australia and Britain, including many about my work, my work, my working life …

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
Bruce Springsteen

Poems and Prose ; Chelmsley Wood  – London John and Engineers https://howlinginfinite.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/chelmsley-wood.pdf ;

 On the hamster wheel – two poems

 

 

 

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