In the summer of 1963 after my short interview with Monsignor Duggan, Rector of St. Bede’s College and supreme factotum of life as we knew it, when he consigned me to the scrapheap of infidels, I was working for Jim Connor converting two large Victorian houses on Laindon Road in Manchester into a home for wayward girls as they so succinctly put it at the time. These poor girls were unmarried mothers who under the prevailing custom of the time had also been thrown on the scrapheap of life. The home was run by the Sisters of Charity, who ran the convent school of St. Joseph’s opposite. Little did I know it at the time but as I was accommodating these unmarried mothers, one of the horde of sprightly green blazered virgins, who poured through the gate across the road every morning, was my future wife, the dear Helen, enjoying the last ten years of her single life.
Besides catching rats under the floorboards and killing them with a claw hammer, my main source of entertainment was talking to the tradesmen, Jim had employed to complete the works. They were the first proper working men I had ever spoken to at length and I was taking in everything they said. With the enforced departure from my alma mater and because of the total lack of vocational education at St. Bede’s, I had not a clue in which direction to pitch myself. I had no idea about what was needed for what except that I could do anything if I wanted to. It was the “wanted to” that was the problem.
These joiners, plumbers and plasterers were singing the praises of a “posh” job, a quantity surveyor. I had never heard of it and I did not have a clue on how to go about finding out.
I answered an advertisement my mother spotted in the newspaper. My mother was great at finding work for her family. This was for the post of junior quantity surveyor in a practice owned and run by the son of a well known architect in Manchester, whom my mother had served dinner to as part of her employ. He was gushing and thought that I was absolutely suitable for what he had in mind but because Duggan and Burke, the educators not body snatchers, had assigned me to Classics at the age of twelve and therefore never learnt Physics, he had to let me go. I have always wondered why because Physics forms no part of the quantity surveying brief and afterwards this lack of knowledge never impeded me. Even now I do not know what physics is, nor do I care except I get stuck on certain questions on University Challenge. My Classics education taught me how to do crosswords and I have been very happy in that knowledge.
My father could see that I had been inspired by this prototype job hunt and asked a mate of his, Gabriel Hopkins, who was well qualified in this sphere and could swear like a trooper and owned a creamery on Thoresway Road. He came up with a chap called Phil Seaston, an Old Bedian and a partner in a large firm of consulting engineers, C. S. Allott & Sons, who were designing all the 250 megawatt power stations that were being built at the time as part of the Conservative Government’s plan to light up Britain. Phil, to his credit, saw a spark of life in me and immediately took me on, impressed with my grasp of Latin and Attic Greek and I started there as a lowly member of the quantity surveying team on £4 12s 6d per week. My overjoyment was subdued, I had been earning about £8 per week with Jim Connor catching rats for fun. However I worked with Jim at weekends. Toffs during the week, hardcases at weekends: it kept my feet on the ground.
This employment of mine was before the days of computers and mechanical aids for working out mathematical sums, although we did have an abacus. My job was to act as a calculator for the team. The quantity surveyors were so highly paid they did not have time for the mundane, so in order to work out the quantities involved with each trade, they would write the sum down and I would have to do the calculation. Whether it be in Trigonometry, Geometry or simple decimals or duodecimals. I was only middling at school but after my first year at Allott’s, I was damn good, doing thousands of these calculations every day and funnily enough I enjoyed it. I was better than a bookie at mental arithmetic.
Intellect was a sparse commodity in Longsight where I lived and my first impressions of this proper job was amazement at the intelligence of most of my colleagues coupled with their ability to have a damn good time outside of work.
Most of them were ex-Royal Engineers or young single fellows out of university. The army was slowly winding itself down from its peak after the war and during its busy period in the 1950s when the world looked as though it might kick off again. These Royal Engineers were really well trained as only the Army knows how and they bolstered the Construction Industry in the early 1960s as it was taking off to build the New Britain.
The office was a league of nations, with Poles, French, Turks, Africans and Asians of all nationalities and religions, Sikhs, Muslims, Bhuddists, and the oriental gents who did not seem to have any religion; all put there by their respective governments to learn their trade from one of the best establishments of its kind in that post colonial era.
Every month we used to book the back room of the Bird in Hand, a pub in Mobberly, which was miles away in the country. How we got there and back I cannot remember, but life was not clouded then with any drinking and driving laws. Someone played the piano and a few sang daring songs and more played cards or skittles but we all drank twice our fill.
On pay day at the end of each month, we used to have an eating competition. Who could eat the most Gam Guk Specials. The Gam Guk Gardens was a chinese restaurant opposite our offices at 100 Washway Road in Sale. It must have been one of the first suburban oriental restaurants to open. Its starter every day was brown Windsor soup. We used to spice it up with half a bottle of Worcester sauce. The winner of this competition had all his costs paid by the other competitors. I won a few times but I was always hard pressed by a bald headed, bearded Turk called Gonen, who went by the nickname of Donkey Dick. I can only presume his first name was Richard, which is strange for a Turk.
More tomorrow, Bye.