In November 1989 I started as a chain boy, or engineer’s assistant, on Jr’s site near Tower Hill. A Nineties documentary on the 1980s building boom in the City of London would reveal that the tallest of the three blocks in Minster Court had become known to the suits as Dracula’s Castle. At the time of the broadcast, under the Major regime, twenty per cent of the office space was unoccupied and the block overlooking the Thames had already undergone restoration following a serious fire. On TV, the empty halls were like The Shining.
Photo source: www.tgb-uk.com
There on my first day, I saw the pools of water on the ground with cables lying in them like creepers in a swamp. I saw the generators and the clumps of rusting steel rods. I heard the rasping of angle grinders and the constant banging of the ‘guns’ tightening nuts on steel columns. I saw the sparks flying and landing in the water and looked up at the tower cranes, soon swaying ominously on windy days. It was all right. It was better than labouring. The requirements were a head for a heights and an ability to read technical drawings. I could do both, with practice.
A good policy for newcomers anywhere: keep your mouth shut until you find out what the story is. There one could learn a lot from the graffiti in the kazes. This was what someone wrote about the deckers from Derby.
£175 per week. Six days. All the shit. You must be f*cking joking.
“All the shit” encompassed everything existential on the site. Then there was the scrawled inventory of the Irish concreting firm.
200 men, 10 shovels, 2 dumpers, 1 brain cell.
The morning papers said telephone numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were out on the streets. Even Dubcek had reappeared on the scene. The sun in the mornings was dazzling, bouncing off the river, as I held the measuring staff for the engineers with their theodolites, down below, and felt the cold steel under my arse. I could stand the cold. I didn’t like using a sledgehammer on stray columns but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seemed more manly than being a donkey. Up on the steel girders of a seventh floor, I sang Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. This too was a place near the river. As somebody wrote in chalk on a stairwell, “Erectors get you high”, and there was a rush of adrenaline for sure.
The warm engineering hut was a sanctuary of instruction, first thing each morning. Two hours later all the men lined up in the cold and dark under the block nearest the river to wonder would those ahead in the breakfast queue ever get served and move the line on a bit. These figures had faces of stone and bodies wrapped in heavy clothing. Inside the huge prefab the light was a bit warmer and when their trays were full they found tables and sat down without a word. They ate with an animal concentration. The hunger-artistry of a student getting through a day on, say, a toasted cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps was less impressive if he or she didn’t have to get out of bed until three, in comparison.
When the scraping of cutlery on the plates began, so did the canteen conversations about confrontations, near falls, mistakes and final warnings. There were plenty of sources of amusement, like “Barnsley” getting the hem of a leg of his overalls caught on a hook at the end of a chain from a tower crane, which lifted him six feet into the air before, it was said, dropping him on his helmeted head.
When I got paid it felt calming to have money again. In the dark by a fifth-floor railing, builders in a lengthening line of helmets like troops in a trench watched a man and woman having their affair in a fifth-floor office across the street. The numbers at the railing were greatly up on the third evening, when a surprising number of employees were slow to clock off the site, but by then the novelty of the desk was evidently wearing off on the woman who resisted the ongoing amorous advances of her secret lover. Maybe she just wanted to get out of the office and bring it to another level.
A month was left of the Eighties. The psychology of steel: fear kept me careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor of what became the Castle, partly to practise and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brought on stiffness and that had to be avoided. After a spell up on the steel and the resulting buzz, the ground could feel unreal. I got flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London, always conscious of trying to get used to everything. On foggy evenings, Tower Bridge and its lights reminded me of a Whistler Nocturne.
My confidence on the steel was growing. Up there I always kept two limbs firmly fixed. It was pointless looking down. The world had to be only the few feet of space in the immediate vicinity. I tied my glasses around my head. I didn’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’d fall off.
Soon, though, I felt like a victim of a flu epidemic. Everyone on that site developed lingering colds and that winter I naturally got run down from burning the candle at both ends. I knew I’d have to get a doctor’s cert on some dark, wet morning when I felt particularly bad. The doctor was a Philip Larkin look-alike. I think I have the flu. The man performed an examination in the quiet surgery. Then he started to write out the necessary dockets. I asked him a question.
“Well, what have I got?”
The doctor looked puzzled.
“You’ve got the flu.”
He started to write again.
I almost added “Good” but, having completed the prescription, the doctor suddenly started talking about the IRA. He wanted to know one thing. Puzzlement again.
“Why don’t they hang them?”
Folding the sick cert in my hand, I shrugged.
“Do you want more martyrs?”
It was the Sunday before the last working week before Christmas. I tried to go back to work but then Ryder, the man in charge, caught me walking on top of eleventh floor steel without a harness, when I should at least have been scuttling along the bottom flange with my hands holding the top one. You’re not to do it any more, lad. Walking top flange. Christmas was near. I’d have a few quid in my pocket when I got home. I was glad to be working for an English firm. The hours were long but the money was decent. Ryder had proved sound without a shadow of a doubt. When one of the foremen claimed, He’s like a mad professor, Ryder said I was the mad professor, but if my money ever came late the top man would offer some himself. I hadn’t even a national insurance number so they paid me each week with a special cash packet sent down from Yorkshire. It was a bit different from having to go looking for wages in some pub in Kilburn or Archway and therein experience the full extent of Irish ethnic solidarity.
I still had a sinus headache on the right hand side of my face and head and it was killing me until the use of hot lemon brought some relief. I could only hope that lasted. Less than two weeks remained of the Eighties. Before the train departure for home, I was drinking with two young Scottish sailors in the bar in Euston Station. At first they claimed to be students in Portsmouth but, given the sociable chitchat, they looked at each other for a while before, over the second pint, warily admitting to being in the Navy. I looked at them both and turned aside as I bought them a drink. You’re all right, boys. You’re safe enough with me. I just want to get home.
I continued to drink on the train to Holyhead, taking an enthusiastic part in the singing that went on at the food and drink hatch in the buffet car. The Welsh lady on duty there cheered up immeasurably in the course of the journey and ended up giving out free sandwiches in return for the concert.
The number of people leaving the Irish state had mounted steadily from 1983 until the figure passed the one-hundred-thousand mark in 1989 but a minister in an Irish cabinet of west side Tories and papist Paisleys explained to the little people that we couldn’t all live on one small island.
On Christmas Eve, the shooting had stopped in Bucharest. On Christmas Day, the TV said the Ceaucescus had been executed. The grainy footage of the bodies was an exciting glimpse of history in the making. Given where the uprising had kicked off, Transylvania had just become world famous for another scary reason.
I went to work the first morning back in London in January and the site was all water. I stepped into a box called the man-rider and a tower crane lifted me, Jr and a couple of erectors over fourteen floors like a balloon trip until we were looking down on the skeletal frame of the angular roof of Dracula’s Castle, before it dropped us off to do a job on the roof frame. Sometimes, perhaps, I enjoyed working on that site. It was just the horrible first ten minutes of consciousness in the mornings that were the worst, before I managed to get out of bed and get dressed, having time only for a cup of tea at best, before getting to the Tube.
A pretentious fart worked part-time at Minster Court because his brother was the chief engineer. There was a problem with a column overlooking a street and he and Jr were about to take a sledgehammer to it. I stood back with some welders. The fart was first up. He missed the column completely and clipped the side of Jr’s hardhat.
In outrage, Jr grabbed the sledge off him and took a swing but managed to catch it in the hollow. It spun out of his hands and looped over the side of the building, fortunately landing just inside the hoarding. One of the welders gave me a nudge.
“Are these two for real?”
“They’re available for weddings and parties.”
Always game for a laugh, every time they saw an opportunity, the welders would lift sheets of decking where rainwater had gathered on high floors and pour it over the side, down onto my compatriots – mostly angry men from Clare – laying concrete. It was only the eternal war between the bird men and the muck men. In the morning at about nine o’clock the sun in the south-east bounced off the river on the other side of Tower Bridge. As I walked from the site to the Tube in the dark, through the City of London, it was quiet, mild and still.
A really violent wind in early February caused Ryder to come into the hut around two o’clock that day, as planks and scaffolding poles and what not were raining down on sites all over London. You’re best off in pub, boys. More than forty people were killed by the wind.
The basement at Minster Court was an awful place. It was some hole. The mud men down there didn’t even know I was Irish, like them. To them I was just an intruder from the light. Most days I was doing something terrifying to most people, at first sight, but whenever I was down there, facing that black horizon, that firmament, with piss holes reeking in a deep, damp chill, it wasn’t physical courage I needed.
I got so tired that at times it made me very low. All my wages are gone, I noted, one Monday, blown on things like twenty-five quid per minicab home from the West End whenever I hadn’t the patience for a night bus, whenever it was too late for the Tube.
Just before starting at Minster Court, I was caught by the Tube inspectors at Victoria on a Sunday evening on the way back from a house in Croydon. Not for the first time, I gave a false point of embarkation. “Vauxhall,” I offered, adding that there had been no one there to give me a ticket. The senior inspector, the main man in black, then asked if the stairs went up or down at Vauxhall. I tried to be smart.
“There are no stairs at Vauxhall.”
“Wrong,” said the chief.
There were three of them in black. He told me to empty my pockets. Then he took whatever was there. It amounted to about four quid in coins. There were no notes and they duly escorted me from the station. No prosecution would ensue.
With more time to think I walked from there to Piccadilly. There was a pub I knew well on Shaftesbury Avenue and it was still a weekend night so I thought I’d surely find a familiar face. The bar in St. James’s Tavern was a ring in the middle of a timber floor and I circled it. I checked the gents’ toilet too but there was no one around.
It was still nowhere near closing time as I stood outside the pub again. I was in the middle of the bright lights in a very big city. No panic. My pockets were empty. No one I knew worked in central London so, even if I passed the night, walking around or something, I’d still be stuck there, unless I tried jumping the Tube stiles. Only London’s central stations had those stiles back then.
My pockets were empty. I checked them again. In my old navy blue overcoat, the right inside pocket was torn. It would have been empty at any rate but the lining was intact. Then I put my hand down inside it, remembering. I’d left something there from my last trip home. Something that was of no use to me in London, that wasn’t worth extracting from the lining of an old coat. It was an Irish pound note.
Hmm. I straightened the green sheet and looked at the picture. Just maybe she was less Queen Maeve than Lady Luck. Despite a sign in the window of a nearby bureau de change that indicated the minimum transaction (£2.50), I went up to the Arab behind the glass.
“Can you change this for me?”
He looked at the crumpled note and pointed to the sign in the window.
“I know but the Tube inspectors took my money and all I want is sixty pence, just so I can get through the barriers.”
I held a thumb in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. He said nothing but gave me 60p for the green Irish púnt, which was worth on average almost 87p in 1989. This meant I could get a minimum fare ticket and get down into the Tube. I met with no further trouble on my way back to Dagenham. The Tube got quieter and emptier and there was no one at the other end. The note was withdrawn from circulation in June 1990.
Now I was in London a year. On a bright afternoon in March I was hammering a dried concrete spill off a beam on a tenth floor and thinking, ‘What the f*ck am I doing here?’ In the sky, planes were descending for Heathrow in a continual stream. Two good nights of sleep had me feeling fine, physically. Inspired by the skyline, the mood lifted. It was only when tired that I felt at the end of my tether.
When next I got back to where I lived, after a night bus, at half past three, unhappiness returned and settled like a shroud. I was too dead to go to work in the morning. I sat barefoot on the couch, with the bars of an electric fire providing company. An endless television programme awaited the release of Mandela. The sound was down. The crowds waited in the heat. Everyone I knew seemed to have a lingering cold.
I knew I could learn enough to pass myself off as an engineer. I knew I could do it very quickly if I wanted, if I kept asking questions. But I didn’t want to. In the middle of the afternoon at work I’d usually be afflicted by an awful sleepiness. I’d be hoping that today Jr wouldn’t ask me, or tell me, rather, that we were going for a few drinks later. I knew I’d be wide awake when clocking out and the vicious circle would continue, even though it was an entertaining circle. By rights I should have slept for a week. That would have been sane.
A. wheeled a bike on site, to order, having stolen it from outside Fenchurch Street station, using tools from the site. Many bicycles were chained outside the station but a building site had all the relevant equipment. He simply requisitioned the clippers and pliers he needed. He was nineteen, living with his girlfriend, his “old woman” as he called her, in a Sarf London tower block. She was nineteen too, and pregnant. His dad’s word was gospel. His dad was doing well. They wanted foreigners out, especially dark ones.
“I pay my taxes,” I said.
“I know, you’re oroi’. I like the Irish.”
He asked about a name for the baby soon to arrive.
“If it’s a boy, roi’, I wanna call ’im Chawlie, but if it’s a girl, she wants to call ’er Chanel. Is that oroi’?”
“What do you think, yourself?”
“I mean, it sounds like a perfume. It is a perfume, innit?”
Coco Chanel was a genius: the first woman to give women comfortable clothes and also the one who said that the people who laugh are always right. Spring tended to bring an ethereal sense of optimism. I remembered this as I gazed east, down on a City-scape resemblance to summer dusk. That afternoon, I was momentarily at peace. Otherwise I was tired, pissed off and wanted to go home.
A quick kip in a toilet cubicle at work lifted spirits again. I took a red marker from a pocket on waking up. After that interlude, other employees could be overheard speaking in admiration of a large cartoon on the white chipboard wall of the cubicle, based on an actual incident. It had Ryder throttling his counterpart among the deckers, with a caption underneath. Ryder’s New Work Incentive Scheme.
What an artist slept in me. Strong winds regularly disrupted work that spring. It meant I did f*ck all most of the time. By late March the job seemed to have lost its urgency. Men were just standing around in groups. Overlooking the entrance to the station, Casper told me he was having second thoughts about getting a divorce because his wife had got herself a shop. That was one good reason. Many of the Yorkshire men were ex-squaddies. Casper had twinkling eyes. He wondered why so many Paddies on building sites wore the jackets of old suits. The suit is the most democratic uniform. Even I had an old sports jacket.
The fourth successive night of poll-tax rioting saw looting in Hackney. Money was the only true revolutionary motive. Brixton rioted the next night. The government and press blamed the commies but their sects couldn’t have made up the numbers. I pulled a fast one at work by clocking in and then going back home to bed. I went back to Minster Court in the afternoon. Colour pictures of sizeable naked women now adorned the walls of the engineers’ hut. “From a cun’ book,” as A. said. Their breasts were like dead limbs.
I even slept a night on site, having walked from Piccadilly to Tower Hill when I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do at the end of a West End evening. It was nonetheless quite comfortable, lying for the night on a bench in the changing hut, with the blow heater going round the clock. Then, at half past seven in the morning, I took my site gear off its peg and put it on, with my boots, and went into the office. There we were told what to do before the eternity before breakfast.
Steve was a Cockney kid who’d done time for a cinema hold-up – he’d used his own car for the getaway – and then got a job there because one of the foremen was intimate with his mother. One day he turned to me.
“My surname is Irish, innit?”
I asked him if he wanted to see its Irish language version.
“You speak the lingo, then?”
I wrote the boy’s Gaelic name in a flourish on a column, with a piece of chalk. He seemed chuffed by this calligraphy.
“Write somfing else.”
Biting the hand that fed me, I complied. Beir bua Óglaigh na hÉireann. He was mystified.
“What the fark’s that mean, then?”
“Victory to the IRA.”
I walked away, leaving him furiously rubbing the chalk off the column with his sleeve. My mind settled down in the aftermath of deciding to go home. On a particularly quiet day I clocked in but stayed in a toilet cubicle until breakfast. I then skived around the office, sellotaping torn building plans back together and reading the papers. I went down to the sandwich bar at the Tower half an hour early in the middle of the day. A young black cat among the pigeons and tourists there was so brilliantly and alertly absorbed by the birds. I stood around, eating a hot dog. Later A. showed me fresh, unwrapped, uninstalled kaze cabins to kip in on the eleventh floor on Building 1.
Before the end, though, a gust of wind nearly blew me off an eleventh floor beam into a lift shaft. I went over nearly forty-five degrees before the gust ceased and I straightened up again. Just like that. In a state of low-level shock for the afternoon, I found nobody made me go up on the steel again for the rest of the day. It was an unwritten rule of the site. The next day the nerves were fine again but Ryder called me in. I was down the road on Friday. He knew I was going home anyway and explained that they had to get rid of some people as the steel part of the site was winding down.
“You’re a good lad. We’ll give you a few quid and a good reference and you’ll always be able to get a job with us again.”
At six on the last day of March I went into St. James’s Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue to meet JC, a college mate living in Dollis Hill. There we met Jr, who was back with an ex for the hell of it. He plotted and schemed his social life like Richard III playing a part in Cheers. She’d turned up at Minster Court, as a secretary, but that was London. The two of them were talking about the big poll-tax march down by Trafalgar Square. They had only left it to get some food when they decided to have a few drinks in the usual spot first.
Jr was then told by somebody in the toilets that a riot had kicked off, after the march. Next thing the Old Bill came in and told the staff to close the bar because trouble was on its way and the Glass Blower pub had already been done over nearby. Down below, Piccadilly Circus was jammed. Police in riot gear were marching like river currents and the atmosphere was tense and noisy. We stood on a pile of rubble from some road works outside the pub, watching and waiting to see what would happen.
Jr and the girl went down closer and we got split from them when the cops charged a short distance up Shaftesbury Avenue. Half way up the street, into Soho, JC and I turned back as far as St. James’s again. Jr crossed the Avenue and stood in front of the line of police, taking photographs. One copper then told him to move, as something else was about to happen at any moment.
I was by then on the dovetailing side street on the other side of the pub and saw a rock the size of my fist tracing an arc over onto the police line. It had been taken from the heap of rubble where we’d been standing moments earlier. The Bill charged again, the watchers ran up the other side street, but Jr stayed back, down on one knee, taking more pictures. The police cordoned off the side streets one by one and pursued rioters up Shaftesbury Avenue, where windows were being driven in and shops looted. I only hoped his photos came out good. In the event, they were stolen at the shop where he took them to be developed. Then they were sold on to a tabloid.