Labours of love

Prospect Magazine

Labours of love

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After being sacked from the tube, Prospect’s diarist begins a new life above ground—on a building site

Being sacked from the underground is perhaps a little like being ejected from the garden of Eden (albeit a grimy garden of Eden with little natural light). I expect Adam stood there on his first day tilling the fields bemoaning the Fall, while Eve told him, “you’re just remembering it like that; you were always moaning about being bored.”

Before I joined the underground, I occasionally struggled through days on various building sites, hoping to clock up a few days’ wages before the foreman realised I wasn’t up to it. So, having relinquished the underground penny, and finding the dole office resistant to my charms, I figured I’d give the labouring life another crack. Eight years of sitting on my arse being rude to people had kept me in perfect shape for another battle with sacks full of rubble and lungs full of dust.

I got a job gutting and renovating a flat. Although demanding work, it was dwarfed by the work going on around it. Beside the flat was a vast site run by the old builders of England—the Irish—building a multimillion pound estate, while next door I could watch the new labour of England—the Poles—converting five flats into one huge townhouse. The Irish mob were pleasantly inefficient. They worked hard, and had an array of fantastic toys to drive around, among them trucks, all-terrain JCBs and cranes. They make a rum lot; I saw one old boy plastering with a pipe in his mouth and another in jumper and cords, leisurely laying bricks, as though doing a pools coupon. The Poles had finished long ago.

The British builder, rather like the British manufacturer, seems to exist in an ever-shrinking bubble. It’s not entirely his fault—competing with Poles living six to a room is not easy—but it doesn’t help that his enduring reputation is that of a fat, undisciplined, inconsiderate Sun-reading cowboy with a shaky grasp of mechanics and an elastic sense of time. This is wide of the mark, as is the idea that the building trade is a net for all the people who can’t get any other sort of work, but, especially in London, it rings horribly true. For instance, there was the plasterer who came to price up the job we needed doing. He assured me that he was a grafter who took a great deal of pride in his work. Unfortunately his pride didn’t extend to actually turning up, so I never got to see how good his finish was. His replacement managed to get in by 11 on a Tuesday morning, whereupon he promptly sniffed a huge line of cocaine and plastered enthusiastically, if erratically, until 4.

It is hard to know what will happen if the Poles get tired of working here. Between them and the cowboys, young British tradesmen are missing out on the work they need to develop and many are giving up building entirely. I worked with a carpenter who complained that the apprentices he gets sent from the local building college only learn for two years, and the first year is spent entirely on health and safety. He told me that his last apprentice had so much personal protective equipment that it was a danger all of itself. The boy had to leave it all in a cupboard and only brought it out when taking photos to show his tutor.

Meanwhile, the neverending Poles are stepping on more toes than ever. When I asked a Polish carpenter whether he was getting much work, he told me that it used to be better a few years ago. “Nowadays, all these young Poles are coming, charging nothing and taking all the jobs,” he said, without a hint of irony. He himself had done five years at carpentry college and was a bit wasted in the London building trade, but he could fix skirting boards beautifully.

It’s hard to say if much has changed in the ten years since I last quaked under bags of cement and slapped my fingers with hammers. Apart from the ubiquity of fluorescent clothing, the main difference seems to be that a few of the guys drink their tea with only one and a half sugars; testament, I guess, to the government’s health campaigns. Certainly, the tradesmen go no easier on a labourer they think is slacking than I remember, even if he’s in his thirties now and has the realisation that he should really should have stayed in college painted permanently on his face.

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Dan Kuper

Dan Kuper was formerly employed by London Underground 

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