24/09/2021

Lost innocence

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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!’

The 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!

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