Shuttering jams up in those hydro dams,
Or underneath the Thames in a hole –
(Irish ballad: McAlpine’s Fusiliers, Dominic Behan.)
My 1969 diary was perhaps the most detailed and comprehensive one that I have ever kept, but it has disappeared. Thank goodness I have some photos from that year to jog my addled memory.
Richard, my long-suffering brother, both put me up and put up with me for a few months in his flat in Camberwell. From there I set off to look for work. There was an agency in Earl’s Court where one might, or might not, get a job anywhere in London as a canteen worker. One joined the queue and it was first come, first served. The cost of the tube just getting firstly to the agency and then to the place of work hardly made it worthwhile, but it was one way of getting to know the city. It was in this queue that I found myself two places behind the man, Taylor, whom I had replaced as a customs officer on the Zambian border! He was with a Kiwi girl, Carol (nee Thompson) Hislop from Duneden. Taylor got the last remaining vacancy, so Carol and I went off to explore, together. She was an interesting, warm-hearted person, and I saw quite a lot of her.
The nearest I got to a proper job was as a navvy with Waddington Construction on the new underground Victoria Line’s Brixton extension near Stockwell. It was a twenty minute hard walk through the falling snow, and sometimes sleet, to get there from the flat because there was no direct transport. I went on five consecutive times to prove I was keen, but the foreman was only taking Irishmen, even if they arrived after I did. Eventually, when there was nobody else, I got my chance as a loco driver.
It was night shift. We shed our coats, stripped down to tees, jeans and boots, walked through the snow to the pit shaft and climbed down into the bowels of the earth. In no time we were sweating. We were busy with a fifteen-foot diameter side tunnel in the black London clay. Two shifts a day dug and steel-lined twenty-two inches advance per shift, using pick and shovels and pneumatic breakers. When the heavy steel skin plates were in place, the gap behind was blocked with bags and filled with grout. And by heavy, I mean that it took about six men to lift one. They were about an inch thick with a two-inch lip which had holes to bolt them together. The plates were man-handled into the ring; the ones above our heads were a nightmare to get placed. What with the grout pump, the breakers and the yelling, the noise was horrific, the air filled with cement dust and blue with navvy language.
Of the dozen or so labourers, there was one Englishman, one Scot and myself that were not Irish. I had to get the former two to translate. The first thing I got to understand was “Mind ya effen back, Suffafrica!”
My loco, a little battery-powered unit that pulled cocopans along the narrow-gauge track to remove the lumps of clay away from the face, burst into flames on my first shift. Thereafter, I was a pick-and-shovel man.
At midnight, we took a break for a meal. The Irish headed for the nearest pub. Not knowing where they were going, I tagged along. They turned on me and I was told: “F’off, Suffafrica!”
Surprised and puzzled, I went back to the staff-room at the shaft where the Englishman explained that South Africans were known, they believed, to suppress their under-privileged black labour with their Apartheid system, so if I was a white South African, I must be an oppressor.
“Like the English to the Irish,” he grinned. It would take me a few months to get to learn some of the background to the Irish/English friction, but more of that later.
I am ashamed to say that I only lasted one week. Unused to the tough conditions, my resistance dropped and the next ‘flu’ bug that came along tackled me low. I spent the next week in bed, feeling like death.