The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”
Over the next few weeks, I was to work closely with Ben, learning how to fit everything from direct line phones, small private exchanges, and office extensions.
However, in line with the requirements of apprentice training, I was to move to a new duty within a few days, and would be working with another section of installing engineers.
It was a bright, sunny morning in early January, as I cycled into the yard, whistling cheerily. I had enjoyed a very drunken and debauched Christmas, culminating in me ingloriously puking my guts up in the toilet at one o’clock on Christmas morning. Needless to say, my parents were somewhat unimpressed with the conduct of their sixteen year old son.
I had risen very late on that day in order to make a very feeble and half-hearted attempt to eat some Christmas lunch. Unlike my parents, my younger brother found my delicate state very amusing, but I rose above it in a very dignified manner, and retired to my chambers as soon as I could excuse myself from the table.
I think Mum and Dad forgave my transgressions by New Year’s Day, and I subsequently launched myself enthusiastically into 1976.
The morning of the first of January dawned, and I woke to find myself in a strange room, laying on a strange sofa. Next to me was a strange woman, and by our nakedness, and the way she was draped across me, I can only assume that we had shared the New Year’s celebrations in a very favourable fashion.
I gently disengaged myself from her sleepy clutches, and pulled my jeans and sweatshirt on. After a good deal of silent searching, I finally found my beaten up old trainers in the oven. This was somewhat bemusing, as I could have sworn I left them in the fridge.
I spotted my mate, in whose parent’s home we had been partying. He was still unconscious, clutching a bucket and was semi-naked.
The lounge looked like a scene from a B-Grade zombie movie, and in the gloom, I could make out several bodies, laying in the debris of our partying. I had never seen so many empty beer cans and wine bottles. The ashtrays were overflowing, and the place would take forever to clear up.
I eased the front door open, and recoiled from the bright, crisp, sunlight of the day. Squinting, I unsteadily tottered up the garden path, trying to remember how I got here.
More importantly, where was here?
I was in a strange part of the town that I was unfamiliar with. I finally remembered that I had ridden here on my bike, and that I had dumped it in the garden shed.
I pulled the shed door open, and disentangled my bike from the couple asleep on the floor. It looked like they had both passed out whilst on the job, and I grinned, regretting to hell that I didn’t have a camera.
I did have a paintbrush though, as it was laying on the shelf, so I quietly opened a tin of paint at random, and proceeded to decorate the chap’s buttocks. He didn’t even stir. I wondered how long it would take to remove.
With a chuckle, I swung my leg over the bike, and pedaled precariously up the road, hoping to find a familiar landmark from which I could navigate back home.
Getting to a junction, I spotted a house that I recognised from my paper round many years ago. Having gained a mental fix of my position, it took me a further twenty minutes to pedal my way groggily home.
All in all, my start to 1976 had been great fun. I had enjoyed a great party, had a very good time with a not unattractive woman, and managed to cycle home without either falling off, spewing up, or being killed.
Still thinking these thoughts, I strolled into the yard office, to see Ben talking with Nick Nixon. Nick was to be my new mentor, as Ben was attending a training course at Bletchley Park. Nick was plump, tousle-haired and very loud. In my opinion, he was also a certifiable lunatic.
“What Ho!” He said, noticing me, “Grab a tea, and meet me by my van….it’s the Bedford HA parked by the bike shed”
I made a quick cup of tea, and stood by the window, idly watching the traffic meandering up and down. I smiled. I could see my old school across the road, and I smugly imagined the glum faces on the kids as they filed into their classrooms for registration. A few short months ago, that was me.
I swilled my cup out, dumping it on the draining board, and strode out to the car park, collecting my toolkit from my locker en-route.
When I got to the van, Nick was leaning against it, rolling a cigarette. “Help yourself lad” he said, throwing me a battered tobacco tin, and some green Rizla papers.
I caught them adroitly, and opened the tin, relishing the rich smell of the moist tobacco. I pulled a paper from the case, and rolled a fairly inexpert tube, and ran it across my tongue.
I was a recent newcomer to smoking, and had smoked a few Players No 6 with friends at school, but was always short of money, so was not a smoker in the true sense of the word.
Now I was earning money. £18.35 per week to be precise. After tax, this was about £14.00 a week. I gave my Mum £7.00 a week for keep, leaving me £7.00. From this, I was able to buy my lunches, and clothes, and still have enough to buy a book, or a music cassette. Beer was only 32p a pint, so I could afford to go out on a Friday night with my friends and have a very good evening.
I was also able to afford to smoke. I started off buying tailor-made cigarettes, mainly Guards or Embassy as they were cheap. However, most of the blokes at work rolled their own.
I soon came to see the logic of this. Ready-made cigarettes are treated with chemicals, and once lit, they continue to burn all the way to the filter.
As engineers, we are frequently using both hands – wiring up equipment, and building up systems. Tailor-mades tend to be wasted. Roll ups on the other hand, go out if they are not being actively smoked. So, you can Stoke up, have a couple of drags, put it in the ashtray, and continue working. Ten minutes later, you would have finished a task, and could relight the Rollie
So, now I had my own ‘baccy tin, and could roll a cigarette. Not a pretty one, but I had finally learnt the correct amount of tobacco to roll, and how tightly to roll it. Too much tobacco, and it won’t draw. Too little and it burns like a forest fire, and is done in 2 minutes. Just enough, and it’s ideal.
However, I had yet to perfect the neat cylindrical tubes that my workmates could roll, some using just one hand to do it. – whilst driving I might add!
Having rolled a ciggy each, we jumped in the van, and Nick fired up the engine, and hurtled in reverse out of the parking space. Flinging the wheel on full opposite lock, he gunned the engine, and we screamed out of the yard, accompanied by the sound of skidding wheels. I could hear equipment being thrown around in the back.
I was soon to discover that this was Nick’s normal driving style. Everything was full acceleration, and full braking.
The Bedford HA was truly gutless, and he had to really work at it to get it to 50. Ben’s Ford Escort van could run rings round it.
At this point in time, I was about to start learning to drive. I would be 17 in May, so I was observing all I could about how a car was operated. So, as Nick was driving, I was trying to anticipate his gear changes, mimicking his use of the accelerator and clutch pedals, moving my feet around in the footwell.
I had been doing this for a few days, and thought I was being discrete, until Nick yelled “Not yet, lad, I’m still accelerating”. He laughed as I squirmed with embarrassment. “When do you start learning?” “May” I responded. “Ok…….when we get on farm tracks, dirt roads and lanes and such like, you can have a go” He glanced across at me, still smiling.
We chatted amiably as he drove us to Copthorne. We were due to fit a House Exchange System 4 into some of the buildings at the Copthorne School. The job was big enough for us to be there two days in a row.
We pulled up outside the main school building, and the caretaker wandered out from the gloom to meet us.
The self contained exchange equipment was to be fitted in the cellar, with the main switchboard phone to be located in the school secretary’s office. Further extensions were to be fitted in the staff room, the kitchen, the maintenance workshop, and the caretaker’s office.
As I hadn’t attended the course for wiring up the exchange yet, Nick suggested that I run the cables to the various rooms, so I spent the next few hours running cream cabling around the building. It was undemanding work, and I had two of the runs neatly pinned to the walls by lunchtime.
Once we had wolfed down lunch, kindly provided by the school, Nick and I settled down to a post prandial cigarette. Eventually, we could avoid it no longer, so we went back to work.
I had the time-consuming job of bringing a cable to the caretakers house. This was a long run, and I needed to suspend a span of cable across the playground. I’m afraid that this took the rest of the afternoon.
Well, until half past two anyway.
We had to be back at the yard for 1500, as we both needed to do a bit of shopping. So we threw the tools into the back of the van, and went back to East Grinstead. We were coming back tomorrow anyway.
The next day, we completed the job, and were back in the yard by ten o clock. After a cup of tea, and a cigarette, Nick phoned control for our next job.
In the mid nineteen seventies, Post Office Telecommunications operated a simple work allocation system. Faults and job control was located in HQ in Tunbridge Wells, and every morning, the engineers would call in and would be given a job number and details of the nature of the work, and the tests that had been carried out. Each job was allocated a number of units.
Each unit was one man hour. So, a simple job, say, fitting a single exchange line into a suburban terraced house would probably carry 1.5 units.
Naturally, larger jobs would carry more units, so a big installation at an office could carry maybe 16 units. One man for two days, or two men for one day.
It was a simple and effective system.
On this occasion, Nick came off the phone looking glum. “It’s a biggie lad” he said, “Empty offices in Church Road. Recover a private exchange system and 18 extensions. It’s 8 units. That’s all day. You don’t count” he said.
That was true. As an unqualified apprentice, although I could assist, my labour wasn’t included in the calculations.
“Let’s go and check the job out then” he said. He dug around in his pocket, looking for his lighter. I proffered mine, a shiny new Zippo – we all used them, as they were better in outside windy conditions.
Stoking up, he wandered to the van, with me following on. We drove up through the High Street, and cruised slowly past the war memorial.
I have always loved the “top of the town” as it has a feeling of permanence, and is steeped in history, with many of the buildings going back to the Middle Ages. The old jail goes back to the early 1400s. We turned left into Church Road, and screeched to a stop outside the empty office.
We were on double yellows lines, and I mentioned it to Nick. He laughed, and said that “Happy Jack” would be ok with it, but to be on the safe side, he asked me to switch on the bar.
I looked at him blankly. “Bar?” I repeated…….
“Yes. – Bee Ay Ar. Beacon, Amber, Rotating”. Ahhh. Now I understood.
I reached back into the cab, and switched on the beacon, and could hear it’s motor grinding away on the roof.
We opened the dull red door to the old four storey building, and wandered around, looking at the wiring we would have to recover. The exchange system was downstairs in a grimy cold and damp cellar, and the last two extension phones were located in tiny offices up in the eaves.
Nick sucked his teeth, and sat down on an old box, fishing his cigarette kit out of his jacket pocket. Swiftly rolling a cigarette, he tossed it at me, and rolled another. We lit up, and after snorting twin plumes of smoke, he said
“We’ll go back to the yard, have lunch, and then come back and make a start…..if we work quickly we can get most of it completed by close of play, and just finish off tomorrow.”
So saying, we ambled back to the van, and drove back to the yard, quite slowly, as Nick was obviously preoccupied with his thoughts.
When we arrived at the yard, it was empty. We were obviously first back.
The phone was ringing as we wandered into the office. “Bet that’s control” said Nick, picking up the phone.
I lit another cigarette, and put the kettle on, knowing that a brew is by far the most important activity that a good apprentice should master.
“Well I’ll be fu*$ed!” Exclaimed Nick, putting the phone down.
“What” I asked.
He shot me a look, and waved the pink flimsy that he had jotted the next job upon under my nose.
I read it out “Supply fit and install private exchange with 18 extensions, Church Road, East Grinstead………..isn’t that where we’ve just been…..” Nick clamped his hand over my mouth “SHHHHHSH!”
He leaned towards me, quietly explaining that we had both flimsies. That means we had the decommissioning and the re installing. A total of 16 units. Two days.
Two days when we can account for our time. Yet need do nothing.
The penny dropped. I grinned. “so, what will we do tomorrow?”
“Pick you up from the end of your road at 0830. I reckon a day or two in Brighton would do us the world of good”
Let me know what you think… Is it worth me bashing out more chapters? Let me know by leaving a comment.
Thanks for dropping by…