Casual Work

IN THIS CHAPTER:

© Bob Denton 2019
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I need to backtrack a tad because I pursued a plethora of Saturday and holiday jobs. Being a fireman my father was adept at finding part-time jobs. At the time he had a brigade work pattern that went three days, leave, three nights, leave – with a periodic leave every twelve days. Few nights involved a ‘shout’ so seldom intruded on his capability to work elsewhere at least four days each week, and he usually did. As a PSV and HGV driver, he offered various driving services including moving rental cars to where they were needed, driving funeral cars and pall-bearing, furniture-bumping; he also erected tents and Dexion shelving…

Playing snooker was de rigueur at that time in the Fire Service. At one point the brigade tried to come up with a more active down-time pastime and briefly volley ball became popular. However, competitiveness sparked a whole raft of injuries that increased sick leave – so the sport had to be banned by the Bristol Fire Brigade.  

ASIDE: When I first ran exhibitions in London many of the temporary security team were firemen. They could handle the long periods of inactivity yet would instantly get up to speed to meet any unexpected crises. They could also be assumed to be honest as they wouldn’t want to risk their real job. Later the rules changed and security guards needed to be licensed by the Security Industry Association (SIA). As a result the quality of guards plummeted!

Through school and college I had ready-access to a series of weekend and holiday jobs.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Sunbathing, peeping and fleas

At fourteen (1962) I was a (roof) tiler’s mate for the summer. I was never particularly comfortable with heights but that summer saw me running up ladders to load new roofs, usually with up to ten roof tiles balanced atop an old bus conductor’s cap, padded with rags. It’s not anything like riding a bike and there is no way I could dream of doing that today.

The beauty of a loaded roof

One day, after a short rain shower, I was a tad overconfident and very unlucky. We, or rather the tiler, had felted and battened a roof on a new estate development and I was loading it with tiles. My foot slipped off a wet batten and my full leg disappeared down through the roof felt into the cavity. Worse, my leg became firmly wedged between the batten, a rafter and the purlin of this newly constructed roof. After a number of attempts, the only way I could be freed was by cutting through the new purlin. As you might imagine I was none too popular on that site after that. For instance, they even stopped me racing around on the dumper truck as one part of my punishment.

 Rooftop view

Retiling existing homes had benefits and disadvantages. Early on that summer I was left on the roof of a terraced house to chip off the concrete that held the lead in place down two party-walls. I filled a sack with the debris and went back to the ladder. As I hooked my leg over the ladder it slipped and fell to the ground leaving me stranded. During the hour or so I waited on the tiler’s return I became aware of bird fleas living on the roof that took a liking to me – that was certainly one way of learning to tie off the top of a ladder!

Benefits? Remember I was a growing fourteen-year-old and soon realised that women and girls would often strip off in their upstairs rooms never thinking an impressionable adolescent was across the street on a roof – although in retrospect perhaps some of them did?

One other tip I learned early on was to take an inflatable lilo with me where roofs had a double-gable end. It created a saddle in the middle, perfect on a sunny day for sunbathing without anyone knowing you were up there. Of course, this was no good if you were getting paid by the job and not the hours worked.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Lost innocence

Aged fifteen (1963) I found summer work on the M4-M5 interchange construction site.

Almondsbury M4-M5 Interchange

This was perhaps one of the most significant local civil engineering projects of its time and it was just five miles from home. The first day was not much fun. They were creating the road-bed over thick plastic sheeting and the Drotts (UK version of a US tractor) and other diggers were none-too-accurate in distributing the stones, frequently spreading them beyond the plastic. My job was to shovel them back manually and reveal the plastic for the next sheet to be overlaid. To me, unused to physical labour, this was backbreaking and hand blistering.

Early that afternoon I saw a Land Rover beetling towards me. The Chief Engineer bellowed at me ‘What the (expletive deleted) do you think you’re doing?’. There was a light drizzle that was not bothering me but he explained it was a government project and at the first sight of rain we had to drop tools and sit in the canteen.

Later I learned that if we turned up at 07:30 to find it raining, we sat in the canteen. If it was still raining at 10:00 we were ‘rained off’ and went home with a full day’s pay – my first glimpse of government over-runs.

The bit I was working on was the slip road leading the M5-northbound onto the westbound-M4. When my kids were young I would proudly point it out and say ‘I built that bit!’

Approach to ‘my bit’ of the M4-M5 interchange

That summer proved to be very educational about work and humankind. I met someone in the canteen who, realising I was a student and thus could read and write, whisked me away from the physical task and put me in a little pillbox on the edge of the site. There I was responsible for signing the lorry drivers’ dockets to confirm they had delivered a load to the road-bed team. Of course, the drivers were all trying it on. They would arrive with multiple chitties saying they had delivered before I had arrived. Really? As this was my first experience of responsibility, I was probably too officious as I was soon moved on.

My next role was to do the paperwork for the ‘heavy gang’, something of a legend on the site – a team of huge paddies who laid the kerbstones for the motorway. The bit you see is smooth-finished but like an iceberg there was a much larger lumpy bit of rough-hewn material below. Their job was to lift these considerable pieces from the flatbed of a truck and set them in place. They would lay a 100-yard length which a government inspector would come to check. If he didn’t like something then the whole run had to be knocked out and re-laid. These huge guys, both in size and character, took great joy in introducing me, a mere stripling (despite Darth Vader’s training), as the new member of their gang. Every day we would walk across to a nearby pub for lunch and they would down ten or twelve pints of Guinness, yet their afternoon performance was no less efficient than their morning’s work.

The heavy team recommended me to another pair of Irishmen who had an even higher profile on site. They were the guys who blasted through any rock in the way. I joined them as we (they!) had to blast a route for the M4 under the A38. My role was to call out ‘fire in the hole’, quite unnecessarily because everyone else gave us a wide berth. I have to admit during the IRA campaigns I wondered if either of my workmates was tasking his skills.

But my literacy was spotted again and I was headhunted into the stores for three weeks. There I was given a licence to make money! The biggest rackets on site were run by the stores’ team and I was fully inducted. At the lowest level everyone on site desired a new donkey jacket, new wellies, tools etc and it was our task to vet that these were needed. What this meant in reality was that there was a known tariff of charges for each item. We were also the site service station, in charge of dispensing petrol and diesel. This was a tad trickier. We got site drivers to sign off more than was actually dispensed when we topped up their construction vehicles. By the end of the day we then had a reasonable volume in reserve available for sale.

The area beside the stores was where the site vehicles were parked overnight and I was mesmerised by the Euclid with its enormous shovel between two huge diesel engines that scraped away the soil to create grades and flat surfaces for the roads. I had to drive one!

Engineers’ Landy

I found my opportunity circuitously. The engineers were looking for a Land Rover driver to take them around the site. I applied and got the job but they kept asking to see my non-existent driving licence – I was fifteen! I had a bright idea and managed to ‘borrow’ my dad’s licence. He and I shared the same full name and in those days there was no photo and the date of birth had yet to be included. I adequately ticked their box.

ASIDE: my mum was always secretive about her age and was shocked when the new licences were issued including date of birth. These were different times and the licence showed the birthdate at the corner of the document and had a printed dotted-line allowing my mum and others to cut it off. However, the details were still on the licence, barely concealed by shuffling them around in an apparent code reference.

I drove a Lightweight Landy that I was able to throw around the large site at will – I was off the public road! But one morning an engineer’s private car wouldn’t start and I was despatched across Bristol to collect him. I felt as if there was a big flashing sign on the top of the Landy advertising my law-breaking.

Given I was now accepted as a driver, I mixed with the other drivers and progressively got to drive everything on the site at some point.

 Euclid and Tractor grading an area

The bright yellow Euclids would fly around the site at 50 and 60 mph when not at work. Their usual task was using the two big diesels to crawl forward while scraping and collecting soil, often a third engine was applied by a separate tractor as in the picture above. The drivers were adept, able to take a ½-inch from a grade. When I was set free on one, I thought I had controlled the blade accurately but had left behind me a switchback surface of rises and troughs. Clearly it took infinitely more skill than I had.

One group of these drivers went off over one weekend because Honda was just entering motor racing and were testing for potential drivers – their skill was not translatable, none of them got a seat.

This was just a six or seven-week summer job, but boy did I learn a great deal about driving and human nature!

© Bob Denton 2019
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Furniture bumping

Furniture removal was another popular job for off-duty firemen, my dad included. When I was initiated I was given a baptism of blood.

On my first day we loaded from a house with no access. We had to walk everything a few hundred yards up a lane to the van, and they had some heavy stuff! As if that wasn’t exhausting enough, we were putting it all into storage and that afternoon we had to hump it all up three steep flights of stairs to the first floor of an old converted church. I knew each of my muscles quite intimately that night. Yet, I did persevere across a year of weekends and school holidays.

Grave concerns

Perhaps the oddest job I did was gravedigging. This was back when a grave was dug by hand, not with a mechanised digger. It proved to be exacting hard work, particularly in Bristol where clay abounded.

Grave-digging in clay

I can’t resist one story the sexton told me. I don’t care if it wasn’t true, it’s a great anecdote. Graves were let to their occupants for 99 years (other graveyards vary). After that it was assumed there was only a skeleton left and probably few would remember the deceased, so the plot was reallocated. The story told of a grave digger working down at around six feet and using a pickaxe on account of the clay. It was dusk when he swung hard and there was a deep ‘waaughh’ noise from beneath his feet. He was out of the hole and across the churchyard in no time. He burst into a pub and had several double whiskies before he could tell anyone what had happened.

You need to appreciate that most coffins from earlier times were fabricated in elm, a wood preserved by the water held in clay. His pickaxe had gone through the lid of such a preserved coffin in a reclaimed grave. The decay of the body inside had created a vacuum which his pick axe had pierced and created the noise.

That job didn’t last long. I quit when digging down to six feet where a relative had been buried at eight feet just a few months earlier. It took a week to get the smell from my nostrils – and my mind.

However, Jane ‘digs’ visiting graveyards and as a result we have visited many.

The remarkable Père Lachaise in Paris, with the graves of Balzac and Bizet, Maria Callas and Piaf, Molière, Proust, Rossini, Oscar Wilde and The Door’s Jim Morrison. The Cimitero Monumentale in Milan with its fantastic statuary and architecture, home to the F1 Ascaris, Einstein’s father, architects, artists, actors, composers, philosophers and poets. The Lafayette Cemetery No.1 in New Orleans where they have a special take on cremation – the above-ground sarcophagus-like burials and the high temperatures apparently reduce buried corpses to dust within a year.

Eva Peron’s memorial in Buenos Aires

The La Recoleta graveyard in Buenos Aires which BBC online has voted the world’s best cemetery. As fans of the musical, we just had to see Evita’s memorial. Beside it is a huge tree called La Gomera. It’s a 200-year-old banyan tree where old singers sit on benches and will sing a song for your departed for a small contribution.

La Gomera at La Recoleta cemetery, BA

We arrived in Moscow on a Sunday in winter. The guide organised by my company naturally assumed we would want to see the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basils. She was surprised when we preferred to visit the Novodevichy cemetery and Muzeon Park.

Jane in Moscow Graveyard and Park

The Novodevichy is where Kruschev and Yeltsin are buried, alongside Chekhov and Prokofiev, Sikorsky and others. Set out like a park, it has tombs with delightful little representations of the deceased’s life. Sikorsky’s has a helicopter, a military commander has a tank…

The Muzeon Park is where, from 1991 after the Communist Party was ‘proscribed’, all the Soviet statues of Lenin, Stalin, Kalinin etc from all over Moscow were dumped. It was startling to see the proud representations of these leaders, some still upright with amusing quiffs of snow on their heads and some lying flat, part-buried in the snow. They resembled a cold version of Shelley’s Ozymandias, buried in the desert with the delightfully ambiguous inscription on its pedestal ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Wherever we go we usually include a graveyard visit.

Billy the Kid’s grave and
Tombstone AZ’s Boot Hill

The latter inspired an incident in Tombstone in my third novel Route of Evil.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Retail therapy

Just a month after my motorway madness I met my future wife. She was from the right side of the tracks and perhaps it was her influence that made me seek less physical jobs.

Firstly and while still at school, I found work as a drone stacking shelves at a Fine Fare store on Zetland Road, halfway between our two houses. All I clearly recall of that job was stacking packs of eggs on a Friday evening in November 1963 as customers arrived to tell us the shocking news of John F Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

Aftermath of JFK shooting

Jane’s first Saturday job was in a hairdressing salon. This was only short term but after joining them she practised on me and the habit formed. In 55+ years I have only once had my hair cut by someone else. This must have saved an absolute fortune. However, more recently I am becoming less sure of her skills. She seems to cut it a little too short in a patch on the top – that’s my excuse anyway!

Broadmead shopping area, Bristol

I soon traded up to work wearing a suit, on a Saturday in Saxone men’s shoe shop in Bristol’s central shopping area of Broadmead. Jane was working just around the corner at Norvic Footfitters selling children’s shoes.

This job continued my dodgy education. If someone tried a shoe and found it too tight in one spot, we would offer to ease it on our machine out the back. This was in fact the rounded end of a broomstick that we forced against the leather – I remember only one occasion when one of the sales-staff pressed too hard and the broom separated the upper from the sole. In most other cases the ‘machine’ helped us sell the shoes.

One of our best sellers was a pair of black patent leather shoes. This was the era when sartorial elegance, certainly from my side of the city, was considered to be a Burton fifty-shilling (£2.50) suit and a pair of our shoes at £2. With these you were the bee’s knees (we did not yet reference dog’s appendages).

The rumour was that in the reflection of patent leather shoes you could look up your dance partner’s skirt. This might conceivably have been true in the 1950s with flared skirts and jiving but by the early ‘60s hemlines were rising fast and very little was left to our imagination – or reflection.  While I was working at the shoe shop, Hush Puppies were introduced into the range as an alternative lifestyle choice. I never considered them of interest and sold very few.

I was earning just £1 for a Saturday but could augment this by selling spiffs. Spiffs had sticky dots placed on boxes of shoes for a variety of reasons, for example a fashion or style that had been discontinued. This indicated a bonus of two shillings (10p) if you sold them, encouraging us to show them regularly. One day I made six shillings (30p) from the same pair of slip-on shoes. One shoe of the pair had been in the window and the sun had turned it light-tan; all trace of its original olive green had been lost. I worked out that if you never put the shoes side by side the colour difference was not noticed. However, the buyer would visit a café in the shopping area, take them both out and promptly bring them back for replacement or refund, and I could be gushingly apologetic. Saxone’s system was not clever enough to reclaim the spiff bonus and the three sales earned me six shillings.

The ultimate shoes we sold were high-ankle, gusseted Chelsea boots at six guineas (£6.30). The quality of the leather was a step function above every other shoe we offered. As mentioned above, I sold a pair to an interesting computer programmer.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Longlife and prosper

Mr Spock’s ‘live long and prosper’

I changed Saturday jobs to earn £1 10s (£1.50) per week selling batteries, tyres and accessories in the Longlife Battery Depot shop on Park Row. This was a 50% pay-rise but unfortunately I probably spent most of it on parts and enhancements for my various vehicles. I loved my time there, particularly the tyre changing.

ASIDE: £1 10s doesn’t seem much but Jane and I were able to go out for a meal at the local Rocarno Restaurant. It cost around eight bob for our regular choice – Jane for salmon omelette and chips, me for mushroom omelette and chips + two frothy coffees.

Longlife held an annual national competition to find the employee who could change four tyres on a car and its spare, in the fastest time. We tried in the branch and managed it in around 15-20 minutes using a fixed wheel-stand that eased the removal and fitting of tyres.

Special stand that speeded-up removing and fitting tyres

Today a customer would take that long to discover the key to the security hub-nut, and of course run-flats make the task much tougher. Back then we had our own challenges – inner tubes to take care of, inserting them into the tyre, locating and freeing the valves and inflating them without damage.

The downside of my job was replacing batteries. There was one Jaguar car with its battery up in the rear wheel arch and it was necessary to be double jointed to get it out and in. Back then materials were very different; fluids in batteries had to be topped up and invariably carrying them around you would get acid on your jeans. We should have patented the outcome as jeans today often have the knees hanging out –what trend-setters we were.

© Bob Denton 2019
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When the fun stops, stop!

For a number of years I worked for a bookmaker on Saturdays and during school holidays. I earned £2 10s for an afternoon’s work and it presented a magical other world of new challenges and discoveries.

On-course bookies

I worked in a betting shop for a large group (City Tote, later Hensone). It was the practice for shop managers to maintain a spreadsheet of big races. This was nothing like VisiCalc (or Excel) but literally a large sheet of paper where bets were recorded for each horse. This proved essential for Grand Nationals. Details were then phoned into the head office where an individual would consider ‘laying-off’ money. If the group was exposed by a particular outcome, then a bet was placed with other bookies to offset any potential loss.

You should understand that in those days the shop was not allowed to do anything to encourage punters to stay in the building. It was many years before fixed-odds machines and refreshments were considered acceptable. The shop was therefore often a quiet place, and in those days there were no televised races. All we had was an Extel speaker from which a disembodied voice told us of the goings (good to soft…), the current odds on as many of the races as could be crammed in, a commentary on several of the races and of course the results. This regular fare was punctuated with details of non-runners, announcements that there was to be a stewards’ enquiry and when the race had weighed-in, which triggered us to pay out any winners.

Betting office

In 1967 aged eighteen I was working on the counter on Grand National Day. The counter was mobbed as I shovelled in the cash from everyone’s grandma. They were putting 6d each way on horses picked with a pin, or perhaps the name triggered a memory. This happened from the moment we opened until just before race time. Then it was quite eerie when the shop became completely empty as everyone left to watch the race on television at home or elsewhere and we could pause for breath.

Foinavon’s Grand National – source: Guardian

We listened to our audio feed. Coming over Becher’s Brook (the 22nd jump) the original forty-four starters had been reduced to twenty-eight through the usual attrition. The commentator was trying to include as many horses’ names as possible as they approached the jump. However, we then heard a loose horse had cannoned into another and the commentator continued listing horses hampered or brought down. At one point he even suggested that they had all fallen or been unseated.

Eventually, he announced that one horse had somehow leapt, or at least passed, over the fence and was now leading the race. He couldn’t make out its number until it had reached the next jump, the Canal Turn. By then he was reporting several horses remounted and taking chase.

Finally, he identified the horse, now thirty lengths clear, as Foinavon. None of the shop team recognised the name. The spreadsheet was consulted to find that just a florin, two shillings, 10 pence, had been wagered on the horse in our shop. Remember this was our biggest day of takings of the year. Both the favourite Honey End, and a subsequent winner Red Alligator, began chasing him. Unseen we cheered Foinavon all the way home to a 100/1 win. We had two winning payouts each receiving £5.05 for their 5p stake (no betting tax back then). What’s not to love about this sort of event? In another shop Jane’s grandma, Addie, had been reminded of ‘Avon Calling’ and had successfully placed her 5p on Foinavon.

I later sought the opportunity to work as a boardman which had the benefit that you were allowed then to bet in your own shop; counter hands and settlers were not allowed to do so. This meant they had to bet in another shop, not that they didn’t bet. It was far too infectious.

As a boardman I had a large chalkboard to present the day’s races. I chalked up the day’s courses, the race times, the going, the runners and their current odds. I loved the task, using different coloured chalks, slightly wetting them so they dried more vividly. A day when there were four race meets going off at the same times was challenging. The data flowed in at a lick and to keep up with it was tough. Today the shops have pre-printed lists that they pin up and felt tip the shows – none of the artistry of my day.

Talking of races going off at the same time, my greatest betting moment was when I was a boardman. I placed a 6d win Yankee, total cost to me was 5s 6d. This involved four horses and eleven bets – six doubles, four trebles and a four-horse accumulator.

My first three horses romped in at great odds – 8-1, 10-1 and 100-8. I remember one was Crystal Rose, another The Perch, but I can’t recall the third, perhaps it was Broadway Melody? The fourth race was a tad late off and my final horse was Pike’s Fancy at 100-6. The shop that day was busy and the other punters were cheering me on.

They pointed out that the notion of across-the-card limits meant races scheduled for the same time would only be paid out to a limited level because they stifled the bookie’s opportunity to lay-off his exposure. They worked out if my fourth came in, even with limits applied, I would win £525 from my 27.5p bet – a small fortune in the mid-60s (as context, later in 1969, my first annual salary was only £506).

That winning feeling

We were still in the audio commentary days. Pike’s Fancy led into the final furlong but was being caught by the favourite. The commentator announced a photo-finish. There was folklore about the sequence in which a photo-finish was called; the first-named horse invariably was later named the winner because the commentator was watching the race and called out first the horse he felt had won – Pike’s Fancy was named first.

The wait for the result of the photo-finish was interminable. It was eventually called that Pike’s Fancy had won but immediately the commentator announced, ‘Stewards’ Enquiry’. Now if you ever wondered about how conspiracy theories start you needed to have been in that shop. One of my fellow punters saw that the favourite, second in the photo-finish, was owned by Viscount Leverhulme and that the Head Steward was his father, Lord Leverhulme. After a further delay no-one in the shop was surprised when my horse was placed second and the toffs got their pay-outs. We all got into a bit of a lather, rather appropriately given they were owners of Lever Brothers – the makers of Sunlight, Lifebuoy, Lux and Vim.

However, for the remaining successful three doubles and a treble I still won. Even after across-the-card limits had been applied, it was a healthy £56. Thrilling stuff.

Most of the punters were betting small amounts. Many stayed in the shop and tried to forecast a winner in every race of the day – no chance! The more regular winners were those who were satisfied with a studied double or treble, or on busy days a Yankee. However, there were some things you learned that did appear to work, if rather dull.

For example, if you backed every third favourite in two-year-old flat races across their season each way you would make money. This is because they are young and mostly untried, so there must be something about the horse to be third favourite; third favourite odds would still be quite good – often 5-to-1 or greater – so even for a place winnings were worthwhile (in these pre-betting tax days). But this denies the basic motivation of a gambler. Who would want to, or could, robotically follow such a dull scheme? It was merely something the tipster papers would mention retrospectively each year.

Another old-punters’- tale was that any horse ever quoted at 9-1 during the betting phase should be backed each way. The theory was that betting usually rose in regular steps 8-1, 10-1, 100-8, 100-6 and so on. If 9-1 odds appeared there was something odd about the book, something upsetting the bookies’ norms. Hence it was worth an each way punt.

The third tip was never to bet on dogs to win. It was all too easy for them to be bumped on a corner, or slipped a jam sandwich before the race. If you must, then the best bet on a dog race was to select three traps, mine were usually 1-3-5, to bet these in three reverse forecasts (a total of six bets each race) and to do this consistently throughout the card. This was the rule and I remember some minor successes but it never proved spectacular.

Flat racing

Then there was the technical approach. Study the announced ‘going’ and the horses that seemed to favour the day’s conditions. Has the horse travelled far (Ireland, France…)? That commitment of time and cost must mean they believe they have a good chance – and will be trying. Then study the past times the runners achieved over the course or distance. Consider the draw, more so these days with starting stalls being the norm, and which side of the draw this course and distance has historically favoured. Then look at the past success at the course of the trainer and jockey, perhaps less so the owner. Compare the tipsters’ selections, particularly their naps of the day. Given all that research your chances are more considered which is a little better than picking with a pin or choosing a nice name. Yet, you might invest all that time and your selection becomes a non-runner. My advice – look the above stats over, but then go with your gut!

In our local group of stores there was a Welsh guy at headquarters who made all the laying-off decisions. I occasionally watched as he went through the Sporting Life and picked the two or three horses in each race that he would follow carefully through the afternoon. Significantly, he never placed a bet himself. He indicated he had once been a heavy punter but his careful study of racing led him to decide to abstain.

At one shop we did hit on a system that invariably worked. Our betting office was on Park Row in central Bristol and on the adjacent Park Street was one of the West Country’s leading hairdressers, André Bernard of Mayfair. I doubt the Mayfair had any more reality than the French name, but whenever there was a local meeting between Exeter and Cheltenham, a number of owners’ wives would get coiffed at ‘Andie’s’. During their hairdos they would talk to their stylists (although I’m not sure that was the term used back then) about which of their horses was ‘trying’ and had a chance. The stylist would rush around to us and place a bet, and as I was on the board I could use their inside info. My memory is that this fairly regularly delivered winnings. However, I was always moving from shop to shop and thus lost my source.

In my early days with the firm I was a counter hand or boardman, but I was studying two Maths A-levels (Pure and Applied) and yearned to be a settler. I admired the settlers for their block and crash-block method for working out multiple bets speedily and correctly. When I was first shown by rote how to use the crash-block method it took me a week or so, as an A-level student, to work out why and how it worked. These were not classically numerate guys, but they had plenty of street-smarts.

I did enjoy settling and my motivation became to presort the bets, so when the result was known I had all the winnings calculated before the weigh-in and punters could be promptly paid out, yet they could still be re-worked if there was an enquiry or changed result.

I do recognise the use of coloured-chalks on the board and hurrying for prompt payouts to be a mild form of OCD – I still have it.

Going to the dogs

I was at one shop when an infamous punter turned up. He was a wholesale-baker’s roundsman who made good money and was a canny gambler. He would show up irregularly at different shops in the group and make just the one bet, usually £500 to win on a horse. Invariably he won. At this time managers could earn a bonus from the overall winnings achieved in the shop and usually they would immediately lay-off this £500 to the head-office guy who could look across the group and decide whether to lay it off externally or take the risk. The manager on this occasion was a notorious chancer. He didn’t rate the horse so he did not make the HO lay-off call – and thankfully for him the horse did not win! That would normally have been the cue for the baker to leave and return perhaps weeks later with his next punt. But on that day he promptly put on another £500 win bet. The manager had the first £500 as cover so once again he did not lay off the bet, and again the horse failed to win.

The baker clearly had a problem as he chased his luck again. This time he put £500 to win on a dog. The manager was now full of confidence and took the bet on – and the dog lost. The baker left and the manager could look forward to a career-best bonus.

 Shooting craps on the floor

There was a disturbing side to the business. I was at school or college, living at home and unmarried so betting was not a real issue for me, provided I never bet what I didn’t have. But some of the settlers and shop managers were married with children and seriously addicted. The central shop in Bristol on a Friday evening was where we gathered to receive our wages, paid out in cash. The shop had all the detritus of a day’s business, discarded betting slips, bits of newspaper, cigarette ends and ash (you were allowed to smoke then) spread across the floor. Someone would sweep a patch on the floor and these guys would sit down to play craps (dice) with their wages. On a number of occasions I watched married family guys lose a whole week’s earnings. Those who won, instead of keeping their winnings, would move on to the local Craywood Club casino where they would go on to lose their money there.

One manager, known familiarly as the ‘Chippenham Flyer’, had a dream. In it he made ten times consecutively at craps in the casino. I’m not going to explain all the intricacies, but you need to know that a shooter wins on the come-out throw with a 7 or 11 (a natural), and loses with a 2, 3 or 12 (aka crapped out). Any other number thrown on the come-out becomes your ‘point’ and you keep throwing until you either repeat your point (win) or a 7 (lose). Others can bet on whether you will win or lose, or on each individual throw.

As the shooter you must place a binary bet on yourself, either Pass or Don’t Pass, meaning Win or Lose. If you place £10 on Pass and win, then you get £20 back. Let it run for a further round and you have £40. If you should let it run ten times, and win every time, then your winnings are £10,240, provided you do not fall foul of any casino limits.

The ‘Chippenham Flyer’ did indeed make ten times on the trot shortly after his dream, but he didn’t back himself. He ran on the Win bar for three rounds amassing £80, then bet Don’t Win three times. Although he actually won with the dice, in fact he lost financially, if you are following the logic. He switched back to Win for three occasions, then switched again to Don’t Win, while continuing to win. Losing on his eleventh throw he had lost £60 rather than won £10k!

I worked for a while at a branch in a West-Indian part of Bristol where dreams caused me grief. A seemingly friendly Jamaican guy came in and explained that he had had a dream. He explained that Voodoo gave significance to particular numbers, a certain number meaning a woman, another a policeman and so on. He had dreamt of a policeman and so was placing a bet on a horse that had some police allusion. Without meaning it disrespectfully, I chuckled at his explanation as I took his bet. When the horse didn’t win, he came back to the shop with a machete shouting that I was responsible for his loss. I had to have a police escort to my car.

Another awkward situation happened much later. I had by then dropped out of college (see above) and pro tem, for the want of anything else, had glided with little thought into the Civil Service. I still worked on Saturdays in the bookies. An unfortunate clash occurred while I was working at the Ministry of Labour.

On a Friday I had been at a long counter at Bristol’s Nelson Street central Labour Exchange paying out dole monies to claimants. I hadn’t considered the significance that the next day I was working at the bookie’s head office. This too was in Nelson Street, directly opposite the Labour Exchange. It turned out that the shop’s punters included many to whom I had paid dole to the day before. They were unhappy, speculating that perhaps I was an investigator and might cancel their dole. I only did that the once and arranged never to work from that shop again!

Because counter hands in the bookies had to work only from one hour before the first race until half-an-hour after the last, both my and Jane’s mothers would work for the firm too – much better than shop or office hours of 9-5. But another problem hit when I worked with Jane’s mum, Violet – by the way the most unlikely person ever to have worked in a bookies. I had by then caught the betting habit and unbeknownst to me Violet had seen me put on a bet for £50 to win on a young horse called Persian War. This was a great deal of money, but then the odds were going to be short.

Persian War at the front
– source: Press Association

This was early days in the horse’s career. He would go on to win three Champion Hurdles, but was already obviously a flyer. I think this was his third outing having won the first two, both by fifteen lengths. I had fixed the opening odds at close to evens, before he went deeply odds-on as expected. The audio was all going well, he was out front and there appeared to be no problem, but the commentator suddenly announced, ‘he has hit the last hurdle’. Long pause, then ‘he has stumbled’, long pause. Imagine the relief when I heard ‘he is still eight lengths clear’ – and he carried on to win by more than that distance.

My heart rate had only just settled when Jane arrived at the shop; it seems we really weren’t on the same wavelength. She challenged me ‘Was it true you put £50 on a horse?’ I said jubilantly, ‘Yes. It won!’ She was having none of that, ‘If you’re capable of putting £50 on a horse then I don’t want to know you!’ Perhaps now a tad plaintively, I repeated, ‘But it won!’ I was never going to win that argument, but we must have got beyond the matter.

Thanks to my working in the bookies I was seduced by betting in those early years. Thankfully when I stopped working there, I also left behind gambling, apart from infrequent visits to casinos, even then on fewer than a dozen occasions, and more recently a handful of visits to racecourses. This was probably influenced by the sight of those family men losing their wages on the grubby floor of a betting shop.

I can’t leave this subject without mentioning one trip to Vegas in the 1990s. I went with two other guys, one was my then boss. He was Robb MacKenzie, a 6’5” Canadian who had never been to ‘Sin City’ before. Our hotel’s TV service advertised a casino games familiarisation course which he attended. He emerged bearing a big lapel badge proclaiming ‘Be gentle with me, it’s my first time’. That evening we had a session on the craps table and it was a case study to watch.

Craps action

When he was up as shooter, still wearing his badge, he religiously followed the advice and started winning. I watched the usual flurry of other ‘players’ arrive and begin to follow him, with shouts of ‘Go Shooter, Go’ and bets on his Win Line.

He carried on winning and suddenly a pretty Brazilian girl appeared under his arm, looked up at him admiringly and asked his advice. Reminded of the Chippenham Flyer, I whispered to him that he was over a hundred dollars up and should now cash in but he wasn’t listening – he was on a roll!

A more senior pit boss arrived and the croupier was changed, presumably to avoid any chance of collusion. The table was now getting crowded and noisy. Everyone was winning by following him.

I assume that had this continued he would have been offered a suite in the hotel. I was pondering what the bill of fare might include beyond that, presumably the Brazilian might be part of it. However, his run inevitably ran out. It was amazing to watch the crowd dissipate. The girl exited first, then his audience wandered off to perform their theatre with the next mug.

It didn’t matter that he lost it all, he still had that experience. That’s the thing about gambling – you remember all the good bits and none of the bad.

ASIDE: In the early 80s a supplier, Oric Computers, invited Jane and me to Royal Ascot and a rather unique drive. We had to wear the full clobber (morning suit, top hat…) and go to Windsor Great Park. There we climbed aboard a coach and four. I sat up on top, at the rear of the coach so I could doff my top hat to those we were holding up on the way to the course. We followed the royal procession along the sacred turf and the coach was ‘parked’ in the Royal Enclosure where we picnicked – very much a one-off experience.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Getting mobile

Before I was of an age to ride or drive, I was focused on motor-bikes and cars. As mentioned above, I bought a basket case AJS 350cc twin that turned out to be missing a significant part – its camshaft! Fortunately it wasn’t only ‘Darth Vader’ on my dad’s shift at the fire station, another fireman was Dave Maslin. At home he had a huge shed and had acquired a range of exciting bikes – water-cooled Sunbeams, AJS Square Fours, Vincent Black Shadows… He took the engines out and put them on his bench attached to a braking system and spent months extensively tuning them. I spent hours there, but he had no interest in running the bikes. He would often cut up the frame (to gain space in the shed) and dump the bits – sacrilege!

James 197cc motorcycle (mine was green)

Hitting sixteen, I acquired a two-stroke 197cc Villiers-engined James. It broke down so often it forced me to hone my mechanical skills. In particular it had a cup and cone rear axle that developed a nasty habit of snapping in those days of wavering engineering tolerances.

I bought the book ‘Tuning for Speed’ which had only one chapter on two strokes which I followed religiously – I polished the ports – I yearned for a four-stroke.

My first was a bike someone had attached to a chair and routinely commuted with to London. On one return journey it made a funny noise and the owner switched to another bike. I thus acquired an ex-WD 16H Norton with a 490cc side-valve engine. It had such a long stroke that it was said to ‘fire every lamp post’. In case this did have damaged or missing parts it had been conveniently supplied with a spare engine.

I took it over after it had been abandoned and left out in the open for a year or two. On stripping it, I found a main bearing had disintegrated and the bearings and bits of the traces had collected in the oil at the bottom of the timing chest, yet this had done no harm to the many components within that chest. I replaced it with a spare bearing from the other engine and it worked – tolerances were quite varied so this had by no means been a given.

I stripped the engine and frame completely and repainted it all. I had one mishap. I hung the fuel tank with string from the ridge of our shed to apply the last coat of paint and for it to dry safely. Imagine my horror when I returned to find a fat spider had dropped on it and skated across its surface, completely ruining the job – you wonder why I dislike spiders!

I then pursued the Tuning for Speed advice. This was a girder front-fork and solid rear frame bike so perhaps not really built for speed, but I had the need… In metalwork lessons at school I drilled every sprocket. I sliced off a huge amount from the head and I had to gouge out new recesses for the side valves. I adjusted the cams and other elements to apply the equivalent of ‘Manx Norton’ timing. I was never accused of lack of ambition. I replaced the big springy seat (quite sensible with a solid-rear) with a modern double-set. I changed the oil tank for a plastic container. I did every bit of this without trying to start it, rather than checking it after each successive phase.

ASIDE: Our school’s metalwork teacher was odd. He would let us into the workshop and never taught us anything. He never spoke, just sat in the corner looking at us morosely as we fooled around with the bellows and other kit. He eventually lost it one day tossing the equipment round the workshop and lost his job. I don’t recall any of us being bothered by this and it did mean I had free rein with the equipment.

When I finished the Norton, my dad and a neighbour, leaning on our privet hedge, had great fun vying to make smart remarks about over-ambitious youth as I kicked and kicked it over without success. They departed happy in their belief I had bitten off more than I could chew.

Where to start? I checked connections, still no joy. I took out the spark plug and found that somehow the electrodes were pressed together, presumably when the thinned-down head was sitting on my bench. Not bothering to look for a feeler gauge, I merely levered them apart with a screwdriver and it fired first time – and did so every time thereafter. But it was too late – the grown-ups had me marked down as flawed.

I sold the Norton to a purist who stripped off all my go-faster embellishments and restored it to its ex-factory state.

Lambretta Li150

I borrowed and progressively took over my father’s Lambretta Li150 after he’d had two accidents with it. Someone rear-ended him at a set of lights and later he came off on a sheet of black ice. Understandably became less keen to use it.

On Dad’s Lambretta, with John, and Mum by the family car

This was the era of Mods and Rockers and I became complicated. I had the scooter but rode it with a Norton-liveried helmet and jacket. Jane was definitely Mod-inclined and slowly set about converting me.

I took my first bike test on the Lambretta while my dad was still using it. In Bristol the test centre was in leafy Clifton. It was autumn with leaves spread right across the road. When the test centre guy leapt into the road for my emergency stop, I came off, damaging the left-hand side of the scooter. He insisted I shouldn’t lose the faith and go around again and several circuits later he tried for the emergency stop again. I came off and damaged the right-hand side. He failed me for the bike being unroadworthy. My dad pointed out that it had been perfectly roadworthy when I had taken it out!

ASIDE: I also failed my first driving test. Imagine how my heart sank when I saw it was the same instructor who had failed me a year earlier for the bike test. Worse, as we emerged from the test centre he pointed at a Triumph car and asked me to read its registration. He described it as blue, I replied ‘the green Triumph plate is…’. Not a smart start, but it was definitely green!

My next acquisition was a Bond three-wheeler. You were allowed to drive this sort of ‘car’ at sixteen years old, because it had no reverse gear and was thus considered a motorcycle variant. The bonnet had two T-locks which you had to open, lift the lid and then kick-start the Villiers engine inside. Once it fired you had to shut the lid and rush to the driver side which had no door, just a flap window. You rolled into the driver seat and rammed your foot down on the accelerator before it died. Often Jane would have her foot on said accelerator to keep it running and some heated exchanges ensued if I caught her foot in the process. On several occasions on Bristol’s ‘Lovers Lane’ (Durdham Downs) she preferred pushing to bump-start it as being a less painful approach (not a euphemism!).

Bond three-wheeler

On a good day it could become a convertible through removal of its hard top by releasing several wing nuts. I would often cram in six fellow pupils to ride up Kingsdown hill back to school after lunch – though we could have walked it more speedily.

I passed my test at the second attempt. At seventeen, a nice old lady across the road approached me and suggested an arrangement. She had a sister living a few miles away but she couldn’t drive. She offered, and then bought, an old sit-up-and-beg black Ford Prefect and, provided I dropped her to her sister’s from time to time, I could then use the car as my own. This was a brilliant opportunity.

Borrowed Ford Prefect

I later bought a muddy brown Ford 100E Prefect from my uncle for £35, ran it for a year and sold it for £42. The 100E had the benefit of a range of high performance upgrades and I bought a high-compression head, a four-branch manifold, better carburettors, straight-through exhaust… It took some time to be able to afford these from the rewards of part-time work.

Purchased Ford 100E Prefect – FGL 292

I then traded up to a Mini Van conversion for £45. This was before wind tunnel design caught on and all cars began to look far too similar!

 Mini Van, mine was also grey
but had side windows installed

ASIDE: I remember the first time my car took over £50 in petrol and was moved to tell the young cashier that I had bought both of my first cars for less that this tank of petrol. He said nothing but looked at me in a way that said ‘old fart’ more effectively than words.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Uncivil service

After walking out of college, the bookies kept me occupied for the summer until I found temporary work at the Ministry of Labour. My role was to take on people to deliver the Christmas Post – a legion of temps who handled the glut of post leading up to the holiday.

I was appointed at the lowest grade of civil servant, a temporary grade 7 or clerical assistant. My first task was to open letters of application, fill the applicant’s details into a lined exercise book, then handwrite the address details on an envelope and post off a formal application form of. A covering note pointed out that ex-cons and other classes of applicant would not be considered. For those reasons and others, a little less than half would actually ever return the form.

Bristol Labour Exchange, Nelson Street

I suggested to my line manager, a clerical officer grade 6, that perhaps I should open the applications and skip the book entry to write the address directly onto an envelope, and only bother to put those who returned a completed form in the book. I was told in no uncertain terms that a temporary grade 7 was not paid to think, but to do as he was told. This response would shortly become rather embarrassing for him.

Someone in power in the Ministry realised I had some academic qualifications and put me through a Civil Service Board to become a grade 6, a clerical officer, the same as my ‘boss’ -but he still trumped me on seniority. The next Board made me a grade 5 executive officer, thus in less than a few months I had emerged as senior to him!

In the ultimate of ironies I was then moved across to Review Interviewing. Whenever someone with an exemplary career path had been unemployed for two weeks, I called them in to see how we might help get them back to work promptly. This was ironic, as I had no work record of substance and no idea what I wanted to do for work myself, yet I had to have the audacity to advise others – those both senior and more experienced than I.

My fondest memory of the role was when one day I called up the next person who, on seeing my nameplate, said ‘We might be brothers’. I looked up into the beaming West Indian face of Steve Denton. Given the common surname, we hit it off and I found him a job. He took his first afternoon off to come in and thank me; I gently suggested he ought to get back there or he might risk losing his new position. He wanted to thank me by taking me to the Bamboo Club in St Pauls. I agreed and it proved interesting. I was the only white person in the club that night, a very loud and dark joint – where you clearly could buy one.

To appreciate how this was remarkable, you need to understand something of those different times. There was a system used by the Exchange that qualified some vacant posts as ‘HSR’, literally meaning ‘High Standard Required’. We were taught, in fact, that HSR meant no coloureds, no Irish and no ex-convicts should be sent for the job. To do so would alienate the employer and other recruitment agencies were springing up that would take any future vacancies away from us.

ASIDE: Another life lesson learnt here was from an old boy employed as a filing clerk who everyone ignored; he wasn’t even a grade 7! I talked with him and found he had travelled extensively and enjoyed a rich and varied life – with more experience than any of the established civil servants I met there. He just didn’t wish to become involved and was content to live under their radar. I enjoyed our chats together.

Amazing how things stick in your mind. Applicants’ files were small packs of documents joined at the corner with a treasury tag. They were perhaps Octavo-sized, used in a landscape format. One much-used document was a ‘UI589’. This was a blank Octavo sheet, punched at its top left-hand corner and for some reason the corner was chamfered off at the top right-hand edge. We wrote our comments during interviews on these sheets. Presumably this otherwise unremarkable piece of paper was expensively procured for Britain’s labour exchanges. In retrospect I’m surprised the grade 7s weren’t simply asked to cut, punch and clip two of them from a foolscap page.

ASIDE: Back then we did not have the A-series of paper sizes. Popular Imperial sizes were Quarto (10×8 inches, 254x203mm), Octavo (5×8 inches, 127x203mm) and Foolscap (8×13 inches, 203x330mm). There were also smaller sheets – the UI589 may have been Duke (5.5×7 inches, 140x178mm) – A5 is a tad larger (148x210mm).

In my youth Britain tortured its school children, forcing them to learn a panoply of base numbers.  We had to work with 16 ounces to a pound, 14 pounds to a stone, 8 stones to a hundredweight, and 2240 pounds in a ton. It has always stumped me that a ton is often said to be exchangeable with a tonne (metric ton), but I still recall that there are only 2.204lbs in a kilo so isn’t a tonne 36lbs/16.3kilos lighter than a ton? Is it a little known effect of shrinkflation, like chocolate bars getting smaller!.

We had 8 pints to a gallon, 8 quarts to a peck, 4 pecks a bushel, 36 gallons to a barrel.  There were four farthings to the penny, 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, and 21 shillings in a guinea. We had 12 inches to the foot (each inch divided into 16ths on rulers), 3 feet to a yard, 6 feet to a fathom, 66 feet in a chain, 220 yards in a furlong, 1760 yards and 8 furlongs in a mile, 9 square feet in a square yard, 43,560 square feet in an acre, 640 acres per square mile. Time of course was the same Phoenician system with 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 28-to-31 days in a month, and a leap year every four years, except those ending 00. No wonder we were confused by all those bases – is this why mathematics proved unpopular?

Bristol Education Authority exercise book
– rear cover showing units

For some unemployed applicants we had to use a ‘UI589(Derog)’ sheets, precisely the same sheet of paper but it was placed at the rear of the package to show the imprisonment record of the applicant. With UI589(Derog) clearly marked on the front sheet you couldn’t miss it. Applicants weren’t getting offered work anytime soon with such an appendix sheet.

Numbers were important. There was a huge tome that we could reference that categorised every type of occupation and described the key features required to be suitable. One of the most popular designations for an applicant or job was L594.3 meaning ‘general labourer’. While suggesting no particular skills (a non-driver for example), it indicated physical capability. L594.5 indicated ‘light labourer’ which meant frail, old, disabled – or workshy! Many applicants knew if that they could get graded as L594.5 they wouldn’t be bothered with job offers. The lowest form of life appeared to be the L023.2, a kitchen porter – barely discernible from someone sleeping rough (and often they were). But they worked in hotels and restaurants handling crockery and cutlery that we would later eat from!

The tome was interesting as it listed many of the casual jobs that I had done and now I was getting a bird’s-eye-view of the pecking orders, skills required and prospects.

Paying out the dole money

Occasionally I was asked to assist with the pay-out on a Friday morning (see above re paying it out here and collecting it in the next day at the bookies). The main Labour Exchange on a Friday seemed to be my vision of hell. The room ran the length of the ground floor of the Exchange with multiple entry doors on one long side and a very long open-topped counter on the other. Queues to serving points were organised by alphabet or by type. There was a look in the eyes of the payees which was perhaps heightened by the sight of my obvious youth. It was part-shame, part-defiance – shame over accepting dole money, but defiance as they saw it as their right. The look was on the majority of faces, but professional long-term claimants were more often expressionless.

If someone disagreed with the sum paid out, they would remonstrate across the wide counter. However an ultimate sanction evolved. The payer would jump onto the counter and say that no-one would receive any money until the complainant left. The claimant- complainant usually left promptly on seeing the hostility of the other payees. Now the look of shame was on my face. No-one should be treated in such an inhumane manner.

Fortunately, my Grade 5 was confirmed and I used this to move off to the Ministry of Social Security (aka Stealth & Total Obscurity’) where I dealt with those on welfare. This was thus my first formal full-time job at £9.73 per week or £506 per annum. (My parents’ advice to get a trade and earn £1,000 pa was ringing in my ears. Were they right?).

As a port it seemed Bristol had more than its fair share of Commonwealth immigrant arrivals. Many arrived unable to speak English, proffering a scrap of paper saying ‘B1 form please’ – a form I had never encountered and about which I don’t suppose many Brits would have known. The form was needed to apply for supplementary benefit as, freshly-arrived, they were ineligible for unemployment benefit. Freshly arrived and yet they knew how to work the system.

I maintained my sanity by working in the bookies at weekends and holidays on £2.50 per day and was getting far too comfortable. One night, Jane confronted me, saying she didn’t want to marry a civil servant. I protested that there were no jobs out there.

She picked up that night’s Bristol Evening Post and pointed out a job advert and said. ‘If you don’t go and see this Mr Turner tomorrow lunchtime, don’t bother coming around tomorrow’. I went. Henpecked me?

© Bob Denton 2019
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