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A change of direction


I used to work in advertising, then set up a board games shop, before deciding to become a journalist. Now (as well as writing) I’m a labourer; I carry bricks, fill up skips and clean up the mess. Is this a downward step, or a succession of them?

Quite possibly, but it has its upsides. As a labourer, the work can be varied, physically demanding and even enjoyable, but only when the weather’s good Filling up skips, carrying bags of sand, mixing up ‘muck’ (cement) and painting are all good fun when the weather’s warm and you get a regular supply of tea or coffee.

But it’s not so much fun when you find yourself 40 foot above the ground, using a grinder on a chimmney stack (repointing), in a thunderstorm, with no cover and someone’s nicked your ladder.

As a labourer, you are essentially a skivvy for all the other trades; bricklayers, sparkies, (electricians), plumbers, painters and decorators etc. You will be expected to carry their bricks, make their muck (quickly and as they like it). Same with the teas.

If you get something wrong, you can expect to get shouted at, sworn at, or even have tools thrown at you (I have a scar to prove it). You should always park your ego/self-respect at the gate before going on site. The banter can be relentless, but it keeps you on your toes. Actually I got on well pretty much with all my colleagues, not because of my hard work and charm, but because, as a journalist, I’m a good help with their crosswords on breaks.

Going back to tools, you don’t have to invest in any to begin with, but people will soon tire of you asking them for a knife or a hammer. I asked my first foreman, Bob the Builder (yes really), what he considered to be the three most important bits of kit to start your tool bag and he said: “A  pencil, a tape measure and a knife.”, so I went out to buy them, plus an axe for good measure.

The next day the two of us were in a builders’ merchant and while he was paying for the 20 bags of sand, which I would be carrying to his truck, I asked a man behind the counter, “Have you got any bags” (meaning tool bags). He picked up a set of rubble bags and I said; “No, kit bags”; Bob and the checkout guy thought it was a bit like the Two Ronnies’ ‘Fork handles’ sketch.

Anyway, I bought the most expensive tool bag I could afford and proudly took it to work the next day. I enjoyed working on this site; we were building an extension for a couple with three sweet kids and a three-legged dog. We even had a site mascot, Ricky, a 12-year-old midget, who used to turn up every day on his motorised scooter and hang around getting in the way, which is bound to contravene every law of health and safety.

Anyway, I used to keep my new tool bag in their garage, but first thing, one day, Bob said he wanted me on another job (which was in another town) for a couple of hours, which turned into a day, then a week and then a month. When I eventually returned to the site, the extension was finished, the family was on holiday and my bag had gone, never to be seen again. Lesson: never leave your tools on site. Well, you live and learn don’t you.

If you ever find yourself out of work, or you are self-employed and need to earn some extra cash,

I would really recommend labouring. As long as it’s warm, you’re reasonably fit and can take the odd insult, it’s an enjoyable way to spend a summer, learn new skils and usually get paid cash-in-hand. Also, it keeps you fit. As Bob the builder said: “The only labourer who goes to the gym is either stupid or lazy.”

Nigel Phillips

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