When I was in the final stage of my school life and that big decision about which exams I would be taking had to be made, it was a no-brainer (although I don’t think that particular phrase was current at the time). I opted to depart at Easter without sitting any exams, as I’d had enough of school life and I wanted to get out into the big wide world. I pretty soon found myself a job with a local roofing firm, where I would be humping tiles up the ladder to keep the roofers supplied. Just before I started this job, my dad procured for me a brand new set of North Eastern Electricity Board overalls.
On my first morning I looked the part – overalls, boots and haversack containing a thermos of tea and some sandwiches (my first day’s sandwiches were egg. I remember this because I was shouted at for stinking the van out at lunch time and I vowed never to take egg again). I knocked on a mate who was also starting that day and we walked to the depot together, chatting excitedly about what might lie ahead.
We arrived some ten minutes before the start time of 7.30, but already the depot was as busy as an anthill. Vans were parked at all angles and workers loaded them up in preparation for the day’s labour. Long bundles of laths (or battens, depending on which part of the country you come from) were slid onto roof racks, and rolls of roofing felt were thrown into the backs of vans. Amidst the noise of men shouting and engines revving, me and my mate approached the foreman with great trepidation. He simply grunted and pointed to the vans we would be travelling in.
I had been placed with a team that were working on a site on the outskirts of Newcastle. We travelled in a small Moskovich van that stank of petrol (yet we all smoked). After a cup of tea I started my first ever day’s work, and I learned something very quickly. Roof tiles may look small from pavement level, but they are in fact quite big to a skinny sixteen-year-old whip. As I threw that first ever load (the first of absolutely thousands) of concrete tiles onto my shoulder, I wondered what I had let myself in for. Yet I plodded on up and down, carrying only four at a time and puffing and panting with each load. I was certainly looking forward to my lunch break.
Not long before lunch I joined the other two labourers on the back scaffold for a smoke. They were both older and bigger than me. As we finished our cigs, one of them grabbed me round the neck and the two of them wrestled me to the floor of the scaffold. I struggled to get up but the fatter of the two sat astride me. His mate then set about hammering long nails through the legs of my new overalls, bending them over when they were half way home. After a few moments the one astride me got up and the pair of them laughed. They reminded me that it was lunch time and walked off. I had three nails through each leg of my overalls and was stuck fast. I discovered through time that this was a typical initiation ceremony, although I never partook in any such bullying.
The two labourers appeared at the window of a house opposite. They goaded me and threw bread crusts as I tearfully tried to remove the nails from my overalls. I was more upset at them ruining the overalls my dad had got me than I was for my own predicament. Finally one of then threw me a claw hammer and I was able to free myself. I descended the ladder and climbed into the back of the van for my much needed lunch, only to be bawled out for the smell of my sandwiches. It was not a good first day.
A few months later I had become accepted as a member of the workforce and I was working on the repair and recovering of a roof at the Milk Marketing Board in Durham. It rained a lot here and we took shelter in the works canteen, where there was a machine that dispensed cups of milk free gratis. I certainly took my share, being a growing lad. Yet the availability of all this free milk wasn’t enough for one of our number.
We climbed through an open window into the factory area to shelter from the rain. My fellow labourer, the guy who had hammered the nails through my overalls, got his eye on a crate of gold top milk standing by a door. “I fancy one of them,” he said. “Nip down and get one for me.”
“Get stuffed,” I said, “I might get caught.” I would have been happy to leave it at that, but he persisted and eventually I gave in. I climbed down a steel ladder and darted across the floor to the crate. I picked up a bottle and scurried back up the ladder.
“Cheers, young ‘un,” he said, shaking the bottle. He removed the precious golden foil top and began guzzling. He didn’t guzzle long.
With a roar like that of a bear, a jet of foul smelling milk spewed from his mouth. Clearly the crate had been put to one side because the milk it contained was somewhat past its use-by date. I delighted in seeing him doubled up, gagging and retching and moaning. Between spits, he accused me of trying to poison him and he threatened to tell the foreman about what I had done. I found this hilarious.
I thought back to him ruining my new overalls and I reflected on the sheer greed of stealing milk when it is available free on tap. I went about my work for the rest of that day with a satisfied smile on my face.