Notes toward the Economics and
Aesthetics of the UK's Great Building Disaster
At the turn of the millennium we (along with most others) had so much building work we were turning away job after job almost picking and choosing to our heart's content. We thought this situation short of a major economic collapse would last forever and that our skills and labour would remain in demand even if we lived to be 100+. The bourgeoisie had emptied London of its essential service workers as it had done Johannesburg in the era of apartheid and it was no longer possible to go into a local pub (e.g. in Notting Hill ) and say to the nearest electrician or plumber 'there's a job for you' for the nearest electrician or plumber was now miles away. Building operatives had become as rare as hen's teeth in inner city London. Six years later the few building workers who hadn't quit London now find themselves pushed to the margins with many unlikely ever to work again unless prepared to work for a pittance that will barely cover the rent. The disaster has unfolded with lightning rapidity.
The likeliest outcome we thought is that essential services workers would be domiciled in London's periphery and bussed in like had happened in South Africa during the apartheid era. Except this time the majority would be white. What none of us even remotely foresaw is that there would be a phased return to 19th century conditions of private landlords, near slum conditions, high rents, low wages and the practise of sleeping five, eight, ten to a room with some beds never unoccupied for long. It has been estimated there are 40,000 rough Polish sleepers in London alone and soup kitchens have been opened to cater for the hungry. One rough sleeper we heard of was running three painting and decorating jobs all at the same time. Unable to afford proper accommodation even on his 'managerial salary', he became depressed and took to his filthy bed of rags for days on end eventually getting the sack from every job.
The vast wave of immigration from Eastern Europe began in 2003, the date of the accession to the European Union by Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Though not quite at a stroke the wages of all building workers skilled and unskilled had fallen by 2006 to a third of what they were in 2000. This deflationary tendency is still spiralling downwards and there appears to be no end in sight. As a building worker friend said: 'Thatcher destroyed the miners, Blair the building workers'. Yet all done without the sound and fury of the miners' strike and in fact barely commented on and as little noticed as the wind changing direction. Even the Trades Union Congress seems oblivious to what is really happening, divorced as they are from all reality like all burocrazy increasingly is today. At the recent TUC conference the Gen. Sec. of the TUC, Brendan 'Demon' Barber, had the cheek to declare there is plenty of building work for everyone (fat lot he knows!) so lets open the doors wide brothers and sisters and welcome in our wage slashing brethren from the EEC's new East European states. In October 2006 the TUC even sent a delegation to the British Days Job Fair in Warsaw which was run by the UK Government Job Centre Plus and included Tesco's (retailing) First Group (transport) and Jurys Doyle hotels. 'Demon' Barber went on record as saying 'hopefully this will help prevent more of the horror stories we sadly hear so much about of workers being mistreated, paid illegal wages, made to work excessive hours and having extortionate deductions made from their wages'. Pious wishes like this will not 'help prevent' anything and it is obvious to anyone not blinded by the savage class prejudice of political correctness (as is the TUC and which at best only temporarily benefits incoming migrant workers and is not in their long term interest) that the full admission of Rumania and Bulgaria to the EU will lead to a situation where the official minimum wage of '5 an hour will become the maximum wage. Some Poles are already working for £2 an hour and one can only wonder at just how far wages can fall. Perhaps a kind of slavery will ensue with migrant workers fed on a diet of 'show willing and eventually there maybe some money in it for you'. Even the Poles are opposed to further EU expansion knowing full well they will shortly find themselves unable to compete with the incoming migrant workers from Rumania and Bulgaria. Though trade union membership is declining overall, membership of UCATT, the building workers union, is increasing, a fact that does not surprise us in the least. However building trades are divided against themselves and EU certification is a must in electrics and gas plumbing, a requirement that protects wages in these trades from falling too precipitately. But it is certainly not the case with carpentry, the wet trades (plastering, brick laying etc) or non-gas plumbing for that matter. In fact it was the uproar in the press regarding the alleged wages plumbers earned, exceeding those of GPs and lawyers, which was used to legitimate the East European building worker invasion after 2003. According to the propaganda the work was a piece of cake and money literally poured out the tap, a laughable notion to anyone with even a little experience of the trade. Forget about blocked drains, scooping out shit with your bare hands, or spending half one's life in contorted postures with a roll of solder in one hand and a blow torch in the other. How about working on a power station in the Scottish Highlands with a dead body swinging above your head for two days because it was not possible to bring in a helicopter to winch the electrocuted corpse off as the power lines were still live and there was a gale blowing? Mocking the media depiction of the plumbing high life this is what a plumber told us had happened to him only quite recently. But worst of all it attracted women into the trade, particularly single parent mums, who, no longer permitted to claim the dole, were lured by the prospect of easy cash. It is heart wrenching to think what might become of them in the now unending cut and thrust of construction. We worked alongside a couple of just such apprentice female plumbers in Sheffield earlier this year and they were just so nice and na've like little lambs to the slaughter. Their instructor, a plumber and former Angry Brigade member, was shortly to have his wages sliced in two when he lost his job at Sheffield's major steel maker, Outu Kumpu who had taken over Avesta Steels only three years previously. A Finnish firm, it decided to relocate elsewhere in the EU where wages were cheaper thus bringing to an end quantity and quality steel production in Sheffield. What chance did the young women have in a world that had just pulled the rug from under their instructor?
Formerly membership of UCATT had been drawn largely from the direct labour departments of local councils. Up until the 1980s they had been opposed to the self employed joining its ranks but the reality of Thatcherism had forced a rethink with many building operatives compelled to become self employed. Dropping the demand that building trades, land and construction be nationalised and that building workers ideally only ever work for the state, UCATT became more of a business union emphasising fringe benefits rather than what was basically Communist Party ideology. It is a union that has lost its way so to speak and recently was in the news when Allen Ritchie, Gen. Sec. of UCATT, unveiled a statue to building workers on the Thames embankment just on the periphery of 'the square mile' itself, now the financial centre of the EU and second only to Wall Street. Of course he used the occasion to denounce the impending corporate responsibility law as not going far enough, wanting a clause inserted that made individuals, and not just corporate management, responsible for accidents. Such a clause would make a difference and the rail unions (RMT) are also campaigning for it. Had such a comprehensive law been on the statute books it is unlikely that either the Hatfield crash or Ladbroke Grove crash of 1999 would have happened. In the first case the company had known about the unsatisfactory condition of the track for months and in the second had ignored repeated warnings as to the visibility of the crucial signal. Though less dramatic there have been needless deaths on the Wembley Stadium construction site and Ritchie used the unveiling ceremony to emphasize the fact.
The statue to the building worker is a very traditional statue but even so UCATT was using an artistic occasion rather than a strike situation to get its message across, though there have been a series of stoppages on the Wembley Stadium site with allegations of widespread corruption, gangsterism, protection monies etc. There is a real story here though UCATT wont ever write it, or permit it to be written under its auspices. It is the 21st Century's equivalent of the Barbican disputes in London from the mid to late 1960's though it never made the headlines like the latter did especially when running battles with the police broke out. There was never much danger of that happening though the issue of subcontractors being brought in to finish the job has changed little since the halcyon days of the Barbican that was regarded by the construction workers involved as a high-rise building project for the well off on which no expense was spared. Used to building the meanest of council high-rises, the comparison only helped fuel their anger.
Besides, the union's very traditionalism will also stop it from saying anything remotely relevant about how commoner-garden utilitarian structures are being replaced wholesale by flashy look-at-me designs that are increasingly dependant on cad, cam and cae (computer aided design, manufacture and engineering) with the Wembley Stadium leading the field. Itinerant steel fixers, many from the run down shipbuilding yards of the Tyne, Wear and Tees, are in a manner of speaking being employed as the acrobatic artisans and choreographed construction workers of the new installation capitalism that increasingly resembles a mise-en-scene theatre by Meyerhold in the Bolshevised Russia of the 1920s. Actually 'The Angel of the North' by Antony Gormley is a sickening symbol of this new art conscious macro economy and set the tone of the mega engineering projects to come like the Wembley Stadium. Easily visible from the motorway and the train it dominates the skyline to the south of Newcastle, upstaging the several bridges that cross the Tyne and once the unaffected utilitarian symbols of Newcastle's former engineering eminence.
However the Wembley effect does not end here as liesure activities like football increasingly invade the workaday world. Some sites are now becoming so health and safety barmy that foremen cum referees now hand out yellow and red cards. One painter and decorator was recently issued with two yellow cards for wearing the wrong sort of gloves. Continuing to persist he was finally handed a red card and suspended from working. The game was off for him for the next three days!
At what point does 'big art' end and 'big engineering' begin, now that the 'The Angel of the North' and the Wembley Stadium are in close rivalry and each pushing the other to ever greater overkill? Gormless has now set his sights on Sheffield's twin cooling towers next to the M1 situated in the sewage dump of Blackburn Meadows which this year emerged as front runners for a zillion pound 'big art' project. The towers are a Duchampian ready-made on a grand scale and Gormless had no hesitation in describing them as 'beautiful as they are', a comment which is a considerable improvement on his previous Duchamp inspired cryptic idiocy which has 'new art' lovers swooning: 'Things already exist: sculpture already exists'. Apart from the fact Duchamp, at least in his early years, would never have used such an archaic term as sculpture with reference to the ready-mades, there is no way these towers will ever be left as they are, just as the pit heaps close by could never be left as they were.The twin towers are to become 'a focus of community generation': barely four years ago the same expression was applied to the 'beautiful' ready-made pit heaps and now the scene of monstrous makeovers on which no expense was spared and which did not spare the wealth of wild life to be found there either. Former mining towns in the Sheffield area have been designated 'value added towns' by the regional planning authority. From this angle Gormley's meddling with Sheffield's industrial heritage is exclusively to do with the addition of value and inward investment into a region that only a short while ago was defined by its heavy industry. Describing the towers also 'as a wonderful relic of the carbon age,' Gormley's new value added towers will, like 'The Angel of the North,' act as ensigns of a new regional identity signalling the area is now safe to invest in and which, it is now freely admitted, was the objective driving the pit heap makeovers. And if you think these art historical analogies are pushing things just too far, try looking at the 'London Eye' from the perspective of a super size 'Bicycle Wheel' (the first of Duchamp's ready-mades from 1909 and a modification of it was certainly used in the TV promo of the 'London Eye') and you will have some idea how closely bonded art and construction now are in the UK and in this respect in a league of its own when compared with other countries. Recently we got talking to an Indian civil engineer who felt he was missing out on something and far rather than talk about public urinals, much preferred to discuss Duchamp's Urinal and Carl Andre's Brick installation, which back in the late 1970s had bricklayers wondering if it was now OK to demand higher wages.
This increasingly dire situation should be the trigger for a new International, which this time not only critiques the wages systems but art itself. For the two are as one, a consequence of this increasingly weightless economy in which finance, services, image (the so called 'creative industries') and lower and lower wages for the many and longer and longer hours for everyone predominates. However there is not the slightest sign of that. It has also made me aware how little I know about the humdrum events that led up to the founding of the First International - and easily the best International - in London. I was vaguely aware that it had everything to do with an influx of wage cutting workers from Europe but otherwise the actual details were very hazy. Like others I was familiar with the fundamental clash between Marx and Bakunin and that the anti-vanguardist lessons of the Paris Commune were of much note. But it was a long time ago and in some way little more than a sweet, by-gone dream in comparison with today's worsening nightmare. Yet it did show that great things come from little things and that practical acts of resistance arising from mere bread and butter issues can have the profoundest of consequences. Yet none of us today knows how to take the first faltering steps to achieving this. And besides this present 'influx' is being described even by conservative economist's such as Hamish McRae of 'The Independent' as 'the largest wave of immigration ever' in Britain's history, larger even than that occurring presently in the USA. In the long term it is bound to have a huge impact, far, far bigger than the practical effects of the First International on Britain ever were.
Is a return to a primitive, no-frills, naive unionism that effectively defends the general mass of workers conditions and wages (and no more) possible today? Again there is not the slightest sign of it and this apparent impossibility is certainly not a consequence of young workers able to clearly see beyond the limits of trade unionism.Yet there are heartening acts of resistance. Recently a group of Polish building workers we heard of by word of mouth caused £60,000 worth of damage in a matter of minutes when they found out they weren't going to be paid. That's the spirit and if there were more actions of this type they would certainly begin to gain the respect of UK workers and joint action might become possible.
But meanwhile some fear that rising unemployment totals that broke through the 1.7 million mark for the first time since 1999 are due to the unprecedented numbers of young migrant workers entering the country. The Office for National Statistics has virtually said as much in its annual report published on the 18th Oct 2006 with the rise in unemployment steepest among younger workers. This has caused alarm bells to ring in 'high places' for should unemployment jump by another million, major riots could erupt. But that is far from being the main concern. Above all it is feared that young black and Muslim youth especially could be tempted into joining terrorist groups just for want of something to do. The impact on young white workers entering the labour market is not specifically mentioned because of the unspoken assumption that the white working class no longer represents a danger to the ruling order. In fact we know the level of disorientation is huge with kids of 17 who normally would have done the kinds of jobs now occupied by immigrants taking to their beds, though for the time being more out of laziness than angst. It is their parents who are concerned for their futures. When not provided by the local borough, training costs an arm and a leg and many parents simply cannot afford it. This is especially true of the building colleges, which like higher education institutions in general are now largely fee-paying. A young lad we know from London's east end has been given the chance to learn plastering for nothing provided he travels to Chelmsford every day. Cut off the dole there is little chance he will ever be able to afford the train fare. Significantly his siblings are beginning to feel the lure of art aspiring to be actors, actresses, photographers etc when they 'grow up'. Creative pretensions are minimal compared to the money angle and it is indeed heart rending to see them squabble over a film camera that belongs in the museum of antiquities.
It would be nice to think that should unemployment totals rise dramatically it will be reflected in a break through in class consciousness. Sadly for the moment mayhem is the more likely outcome and for the first time we feel the ultra right could make big gains if they could only drop some of their extreme racial prejudice, particularly their hostility to Asians. Fortunately for us they may be too stupid to do that. However trouble on the streets is also likely to focus the minds of influential members of the ruling elite who will endeavour to inject a dose of pragmatism into the situation. For a start the quality dailies would have to ditch their politically correct stereotyping of white working class males as opposed to immigration solely on racial grounds. 'The Guardian' and 'The Independent' are notorious in this respect. As part of its 'enlightened' contribution to the recent debate over the admission of Rumania and Bulgaria into the EU, the latter carried a carton in which a meathead is asking his wife 'apart from supplying carpenters, plumbers, cleaners, shop assistants and bus drivers what else has Rumania and Bulgaria ever done for this country?' The cartoonist should have added 'and at a third of the cost' for that would have been nearer the truth. But come a situation of breakdown this obvious truism ' at least to us at the bottom of the pile ' will have to be acknowledged. What happens then is anybodies guess. The 'Workers International' has never in the past been affirmed by the bourgeoisie and it certainly wont happen in a hypothetical, and potentially very explosive situation like this, where many different nationalities are jostling each other. A system of divide and rule is the more likely outcome with British born workers (and that will include blacks and Asians born here) given easier access to the dole and public housing. Thus a form of welfarism could be reintroduced through the back door, though a highly discriminatory one.
Our first experience of working alongside Poles had occurred in 1991 when working on a house owned by the Vestey's whose huge untaxed income largely came from the beef rearing pampas of Argentina. There was no friction if little actual communication and in comparison to today they were earning good money. They may well have been amongst the first educated immigrants forced to take any job that came along for one was reading Camus and intending to vote for Lech Walesa in the forthcoming presidential election in Poland. It summed up in a nutshell the weakness of Solidarity for we could no more speak to this deluded Pole about the need for revolution than we could read Camus. For he had arrived at his real destination in life, for London was second only to Washington on Solidarity's list of capitals of freedom.
There was an Indian gang also on this site and such a mix of nationalities was not at all unusual. One character in particular stood out called Mangit. We all took a liking to him because he was unassuming and wore his skill with a brickies trowel lightly. He would be called upon to perform awkward intricate detailing which if not done would have meant the job looked rough and unfinished. His skill was not the sort that could be learnt in western building schools. A Greek plasterer and his black mate (also inseparable outside work) could not have done what Mangit did. He spoke little and when he did so to the Indian foreman (who was uncomfortable with his role as foreman and preferred to see himself as a facilitator) it was in an Indian language.
Characters like Mangit on the building scene were not that untypical and added to its general lustre. We heard of many another like the Rumanian whose only woodworking tool was a small adze and he would hew wood rather than use a saw, even indenting door frames with it prior to fitting the hinges, the blade serving as a screwdriver. We spoke of such practises with a kind of reverence for it brightened up the day and it was the opposite of being a cowboy for we could appreciate the dexterity and skill. It was also subversive for it challenged building conventions and undermined that very orthodoxy the construction unions were so anxious to protect and which we found so irksome and conservative.
Types like these almost always came from rural backgrounds and it bore witness to a fundamental clash of building cultures neatly dividing town from country, a distinction however that only applied to the more underdeveloped parts of Europe and not to countries like Germany and Holland though it still could be true of parts of France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal. In fact people such as these often possessed all round skills and could turn their hands to almost anything. However they were rarely allowed to do so. One example does come to mind and that is a barn that was constructed by an ex Polish prisoner of war in the 1950s close to Kiveton in the former South Yorkshire coalfield. It is consummate bit of building and much regarded by what's left of the local mining community who know what they were looking at and can appreciate the all round skills. Opening up the perspective of a more humane building future these rare examples also merged with the alternative building scene that grew out of the late 60s, squatting and so on.
A real wide-ranging history of this vital movement by those who experienced it from within has yet to be written. There is now barely a trace of it left. The building scene became a receptacle for drop outs of all kinds who in their different ways more or less fell into it rather than deliberately choosing to join it. It was also a public forum for wide ranging debates with rarely a boss or foreman to enforce silence. This has always been a mark of the building scene and in the late 1980s a couple of booklets appeared by a former Irish building worker, Brendan Ward. Paying for their publication out of his own pocket he hawked them around the pubs in Kilburn. The first was memorably entitled 'Builders, Chancers and the Crack', the second 'Builders Remembered'. Both are worth reading especially for the light they shed on the post war building scene in London and the south east and the large numbers of Irish then employed in the building trade. This was a rip-roaring frontier and one can often only gasp at some of the stories he relates. Unfortunately the booklets are marred by a type of petite bourgeoisie anti trade unionism rather than right wing hostility to them. As well as being kindly disposed to subcontractors this libertarianism precluded Brendan Ward from ever attacking TUs as a shackle on class struggle whenever a direct assault upon capitalism threatened. He is merely dismissive of them and one can imagine those CP sympathisers, Dominic and Brendan Behan, despising the man who emphasised the fascinating histrionics of the building game at the expense of exposing the brutal exploitation. The booklets mark a period which, though it does not close in the late 1960s, was essentially superseded by a different one, more lucid in its opposition, more open to recruitment (particularly women) and with a far greater vision which looked in its best moments beyond the present built environment and the world as it was.
The ramifications of this period are becoming clear and it is now obvious it transcended developed capitalist countries to include the burgeoning shanty towns and barrios of the undeveloped world and radically changed attitudes to housing and 'planning'. It is above all marked by crises and the building scene more than any other work scene, a stab at resolving that crises. As well as accommodating the 'work shy' in revolt against an increasingly pointless five day week, it had room for others in revolt against the jobs they had been trained to do and could no longer do because they were sickened by them.
To take one example: some architectural students though by no means all (for the profession of architect is an intensely snobby one and very disdainful of manual work) were in the habit of taking summer jobs on building sites usually as general labourers. Some did it as a matter of choice others because there was no other temporary work available. What they found there was totally different to anything they had previously experienced in architectural school and at odds with it. Though a salutary experience (and one Castro in Cuba would insist on, obliging all architectural students to take 'a turn on the tools') it was an eye opener in other respects. For they found there, once over the initial hurdle of animosity from some building workers and despite the sometimes back breaking toil, a warmth, comradeship and sense of play absent in architectural schools and offices. The memory would linger on and, many years later, still does, even amongst the far less radically inclined. To the more aware students it was not just about the bricks and mortar of construction, as distinct from the abstraction of the drawing board, but a return to the roots of architecture in human praxis and, in the process, abolishing the term architecture and the profession of architect. At this moment even the institutions were toying with the notion of the death of architecture as the success of books like Rudovsky's 'Architecture without Architects' clearly shows. It was also infinitely more radical than anything then taking place in Cuba because Castro, despite surface appearances, was honouring the division of labour whereas this movement was furthering, though largely unknowingly, a far more revolutionising practice Cuba had long since crushed.
Do-It-Yourself housing and 'informal town planning', though a major feature in the developing world stemming from the rural urban migration from the 1950s onwards, could not possibly happen here short of a revolution. One would have to go back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the roadside hovels Cobbett described in his 'Rural Rides' and London's rookeries that De Quincey delighted in drifting through (which he sensed marked the consummation and transcendence of literature and anticipated psychogeography) to find their equivalent. Apart from the Manchester born De Quincey, no one then was at all alert to the fact this higgledy-piggedly makeshift housing, though wretched in the extreme as regards sanitation, damp, disease and overcrowding, contained a promise that could be rescued and turned around. It took until the 1950s/60s for that to happen. This was not only a consequence of the revolution of modern art and the de-sublimation of aesthetic values it entailed, but also a profound shift away from dirigiste state perspectives to a more relaxed 'anarchism' in tune with the sensitivities, needs and aims of people battling to survive and live. The very influential ideologues of this development were naively proud to call themselves anarchists, in particular the architect John Turner and the editor of 'Freedom' magazine, Colin Ward. Neither of the two expressed any unease at the use of the term anarchist nor, in similar measure, choked over describing themselves as architects and town planners and thus helped lay themselves wide open to naked free market co-optation. (See "A Freewheeling Latin America" elsewhere on this web etc).
It should be noted there has been a move away from the 'hands on' approach to architecture and town planning since the late 60s early 70s. Not that the task of reconstruction from the ground up has lessened in importance: in fact it is more urgent than ever. But what has changed in the meantime is the increase in reification meaning that henceforth the professions of architect and planner are now cast in stone and forever immune from fundamental criticism. The decline of class struggle has greatly assisted this development but even so a measure of psychogeographical training is an accepted part of most architectural schools curricula today though its origins in revolutionary history are not now just glossed over but rather obliterated. The results as far as protest goes are feeble in the extreme, like architects getting together to play cricket in the streets that make up London's financial centre. Though traffic for a brief period is disrupted, the business of the City certainly is not and these efforts at modifying rather than revolutionising daily life are on the same level as contemporary street art is - merely a pretence of provocation. And we are not talking about tags and pieces here but of a long overdue acknowledgement of just how boring and predictable the latter, to be honest, always were. Even Banksy now objects to, 'the New York School of large letters on subway trains that took a stranglehold everywhere else'. (The Guardian 24.03.06) The problem now is to stop a drift from the barest minimum of criticism turning into full-blown revolutionary critique. Banksy however is a potent symbol of how best to do this and make protest as publicity stunt pay enormous dividends, especially if linked to a gallery opening. For this is what street art is all about - gallery overspill stridently affirming the profession of artist like that of architect - and floating above the movement of history.
The squatting movement was the closest the developed countries ever came to anti-authoritarian, property-less de-skilled reconstruction. Derelict property had to be made habitable and many a squatter, amazed at their handy work, in no time at all found themselves drifting willy-nilly into the building scene, women as well as men. As time passed and squatting became more institutionalised some were recruited by para-statist bodies nominally under the control of local councils to work on making properties temporarily habitable. Though marking a retreat, it was a million times preferable to what takes place today. Though the practise still continues the work is handed over to proper firms who make no bones about employing immigrant labour at cut-price rates, indeed are favoured by councils if they do so.
When we first worked for a short life housing body the property price crash of the early 1990s was in full swing and nothing was moving in the housing market. In fact landlords would approach short life housing and ask them to manage their derelict properties until such times as the housing market recovered. Some of the properties were in Hampstead and every so often we found ourselves in the invidious position of doing highly skilled restoration work in exchange for the right to lease the property to short life tenants. For a short while we worked at a property just opposite the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens, repairing a bad case of brick spalling using various coloured powders that were then mixed with sand and cement. On the open market the job would have cost a fortune but the landlord got it done for a song. On another occasion we worked on a huge house just off Tavistock Hill the landlord had taken off the market because at £250.000 he could not find a buyer. The house was eventually sold to the actor celebrity Bob Hoskins and it is now, some 15 years later, worth about £5 million. When working there one of the tenants died and seeing we were employed as jack-of-all-trades offered to dig a grave in the back garden. We all miss this freewheeling humour that could be in the worst possible taste and which some of the administrative staff in the short life office went into stitches over and others just pulled a face at. Once one of the workers, who was employed specifically to clean up junkie pads, in order to prove he was Jewish offered to pull his trousers down and would have done so but for the cries of protest from the office staff.
However by degrees the set-up became more respectable - and paradoxically, corrupt as cash gave way to cheques at the Nigerian accountant's insistence. He was to be sacked after being found guilty by external auditors of siphoning off large amounts of cash ostensibly into a Pentecostal church. Had he been more relaxed about the 'informal economy,' and less greedy, he probably would have got away with it and everyone would have been much happier all-round. His cohort came in under a cloud and left under an even bigger one. A Nigerian toff he particularly looked down on the manual workers and especially a part black, part Chinese, female electrician from Liverpool. We all loved it when Suzy was on a job with us and her fragrant scent would drift around the site like a flower from heaven. One day the toff physically manhandled her and demanded she suck him off. Our boss, a woman and former plumber was outraged, and never spoke to him again even though they worked side by side. When Suzy's Chinese father died she was ever so upset and wanted us to have his woks just so they would have a good home. Even so it was her and our boss, the female plumber, who was to give Suzy the sack for overstepping the mark. Unlike the rest of us Suzy had a mortgage to pay. Now the reason none of us had ever taken out a mortgage was because it worked the hardest of us all and Suzy, without first asking permission, had rewired a house, an expensive item that cost Suzy her job. To diehard feminists of limited experience and governed by ideology, this goes against the grain of sisterhood but its what happens in the real world. Likewise our boss was accused by gay short life tenants of being homophobic though none of us full-blooded males ever were. When we took this up with her, our feminist boss replied 'oh those queens they're always bitching'! Though younger than us, our boss and former squatter had done enough plumbing and general building jobs to lose her 'feminism' when it came to non-payment. Forgetting she was meant to be from Venus she could turn every bit as warlike as we did, muttering dark threats about what she intended to do against non payers men and women alike if ever she got them up a dark alley one night.
The table turning informality of this still vibrant scene continually undermined stereotypes and was like a breath of fresh air when compared with today's rigid employment practises and attitudes And to think this was less than 10 years ago! What's more we were also very efficient, getting on the case immediately and tenants rarely had to wait long when work needed doing. The bureaucracy was actually minimal and worked well because the whole thing more or less functioned on trust. We were, if you like, an informal, very un-business like, Direct Labour organisation and a total anathema to new labour that pursued the holy grail of subcontracting with even greater determination than Thatcher. Back in the 1980s when class struggle was still a power in this land, the Direct Labour force in Hackney occupied the relevant council offices to prove that the manual workers could do a better job administrative job than the white collar staff and expedite the jobs that needed doing more speedily and efficiently. They were continually hampered in their endeavour and water and electricity supplies were cut off. In the press it was presented as an inter-union conflict but it was the manual workers that had the most to lose for they knew it was the beginning of the end for Direct Labour. Wherever there has been social upheaval on a grand scale basic utilities have generally continued to function remarkably well, the relevant workers taking matter into their own hands to see that they do. Obviously the Hackney labour force felt they were at a similar historic, though less dramatic crossroads, and were intent on showing they really mattered. We also mattered but our jobs at short life barely lasted the election of Labour in 1997. And New Labour eventually got what it wanted: a complete absence of trust, a snake pit of subcontracting rivalry, and an enormous increase in bureaucracy and computerised paper work. To cap it all there was a huge surge in illegality of the very worst sort. Wages went unpaid though at the same time spiralling ever downwards and more use than ever was made of 'black' mainly unregistered East European workers. And a growing army of accountants masterminded tax evasion on a grand scale as unspeakably vile subcontractors raked it in and ate the heart out of building.
Heart matters in building not least because of the people you meet and work for. Short life was especially rich in this respect. Not every job was an adventure but a surprising number were and there were many colourful incidents, almost too many to remember. None particularly stand out so a selection can be made at random.
Mention has been made of the gays in short life housing but one in particular stands out. We had been called in to do repairs to a flat in St Christopher's Place just off Oxford St in central London. It was in late November 1993 and the contrast between the damp poverty of the short life flat and the Xmas glitz in the street outside was extreme. Yet we preferred to be inside rather than out not because it was warmer inside but because the surroundings were much more stimulating. There was a yellowing colour photo on the wall of the sea crashing over the marine drive of a Cornish town. Next to the dirty unmade bed a biography of Oscar Wilde and 'A Brief History of the Golders Green Crematorium' published by the London Cremation Company Inc. But best of all was a letter from the Judy Garland Society that read as follows:
It was indeed a pleasure to see you at the meeting on Sunday. I trust you enjoyed the occasion.
I would point out that certain members have seen fit to complain about your behaviour that day. Indeed other complaints have been received about your conduct on at least two occasions.
It would appear that these complaints relate to your consumption at the meetings of immoderate amounts of alcohol.
I must state that the committee strongly disapproves of conduct tending to the inebriate. We feel that the situation warrants forbidding you to attend any further meetings of the club.
However in view of your recent membership and obvious support for the activities of the club we have decided to monitor the situation during the coming year.
Your attendance at meetings will continue to be welcome provided the behaviour complained of is not repeated. Should this not be the case we would have no alternative but to decline your membership in future years.
There was also a letter from a lover in prison, banged up because of failure to pay fines. It was written in laboured capital letters and full of misspellings. It was accompanied by a love poem. The unpretentious rubbish is not worth reproducing and was probably copied from a greeting card: suffice to say the thought behind it was touching and sincere, doggerel being all that's left of poetry today and much preferable to vain attempts at the real thing.
Short life had been entrusted with the management of a couple of notorious asbestos ridden tower blocks. Long standing residents fled the place in droves and short life tenants occupied the flats on a temporary basis. The complex situated just off the Harrow Road in West London was a muggers' hangout but once the residents became aware of the extent of the asbestos contamination muggings sharply declined, and the general anomie was replaced by a communal siege mentality. It still remained a very lively place and not for the faint hearted yet a cap was now in place that pretty much kept the lid on things.
There was one character Mike P. from Manchester who may or may not have been dealing drugs but if so it never amounted to much more than small amounts of cannabis. He also fancied himself as a biker and he had turned his flat into a garage containing a couple of stripped down bikes and spare parts scattered across the floor. There was also a chicken running around and straw had been spread over the oil sumps. To one side there was a bed. Once he had hung a manikin in his window and the police looking up from the street below had mistaken it for a suicide and had bust in. The guy had never left the Manchester of the 19th Century so eloquently described by Engels only this time his workshop, toilet cooking facilities, bed and animals were ten stories in the sky. Anyhow one night his door was kicked in by Hells Angels out on the prowl and we found him next morning dressed in his leathers unhurt but plainly disturbed and reading the bible. He was also brandishing a knife and wanted to know if the bible would absolve him of wrong doing should he retaliate and stab the Hells Angels. Mike was also an electronics genius but never able to hold a job down for long because he objected to the uses electronics were put to. Fired with a passion for pure rather than applied science this scientific and partly religious fundamentalist would throw electronic equipment back in the face of customers not because it was beyond repair but because it was a pointless gadget and not worth inventing in the first place. Not surprisingly television topped his hate list. He desperately wanted to do good and had been offered a job in India by the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) repairing broken TVs and taking them to remote villages where TV was unknown. He angrily rejected the offer because he did not want to be held even partially responsible for introducing the Indian poor to a corrupting media. He was absolutely right of course but he vanished along with all the other short life odd balls that gave meaning to life.
Replacing doors became a regular feature of out work for short life. Most had been smashed in usually by drunken irate boyfriends locked out by equally drunken irate girl friends. In the case of the tower blocks it was especially difficult finding suitable door blanks because the units had been prefabricated in America and mass-produced to American specifications before being shipped across the Atlantic. A scam was suspected, a councillor in the now infamous houses-for-votes Westminster Council receiving a hefty kick back for recommending this flawed systems approach to high-rise building which had already been condemned in America. When the flats were constructed sometime in the 1970s the danger of asbestos was already known about (in fact its carcinogenic properties had been known about since the 1920s and then hushed up) but they were still given the go ahead.
We were even called in to deal with the asbestos, sealing off the airing cupboards with gaffers tape in a number of flats. As soon as we left the tape was promptly pulled off and the cupboards reclaimed for airing clothes, particularly by families with children. We had to wear space suits and were called 'asbestos experts' by the tabloid press for the matter was now very newsworthy. It was all very amusing particularly the gap between the media hocus-pocus and our selves who were clueless as regards how best to safely deal with asbestos. In fact the level of asbestos contamination was low and the air quality was constantly monitored for signs of asbestos dust. It turned out pedestrians were exposed to higher levels in the street from brake linings than they were in the flats. The person charged with monitoring the levels of asbestos Pete S. was very environmentally aware and eco conscious and it has to be said in his support he did live in the flats and was no outside expert. When we went to see him he was very apologetic he had no green tea but offered each of us instead a high tar Camel cigarette! He came from a missionary background and it was he who recommended bringing Nigerians into the short life offices on the grounds 'they really know about poverty'. They certainly knew how to create it for the Nigerian political class is amongst the most corrupt in the world, their boundless avarice and kleptomania reducing Nigeria to the level of a pauper nation when it easily could have spear headed capitalist development throughout Central Africa to a point where it could have rivalled the West and S.E. Asia and changed the course of African history as well as Madonna's future career.
Working for short life from the late 1980s onwards we became aware of a fundamental change in a number of those we were catering too. For we were 'catering' to them and not infrequently we were asked not to turn up until after 11am because they would still be in bed. We began to refer to these people as 'the bed testers' and 'dole aristocrats' and they had a habit of treating us like we were their personal servants and permanently at their beck and call. Sometimes they would report us to the office staff for not having done the job properly (i.e. to their pricey, finicky standards the office would not have worn in any case) and we would be duly reprimanded by bright eyed young do-gooders fresh out of university and totally out of touch with what was really taking place in the properties they were charged with managing. Unemployment had become institutionalised as a way of life and work to them was no longer four-letter word but a term that had dropped out of their vocabulary and off the edge of the universe. Thus they could no longer relate to class struggle or empathize with the world of work or comprehend as a consequence of their own experiences that work could be difficult, arduous and very stressful. Tending to treat workers as people to be kicked to one side, used, demeaned and looked down on, they were also ripe for the taking just because they worked and therefore had money. Worse still because they could work they were also regarded as privileged human beings and no distinction was made between them and the middle class. The 'alternative' was giving way to institutionalised unemployment and passive lumpenization, foreshadowing the more militant fuckhead youth counter-revolution that was to rip across Britain from the turn of the millennia. Generally incapable of work at least they will never be used as a strike breaking force.
It was so different from the 1970s when we had worked for an outfit called 'We People'. By adding that it was 'a workers cooperative' it could claim charity status and so be exempt from tax and interference from the Inland Revenue. 'We People's' largely unspoken aim was to slice the working week in half at a stoke needing no revolution to instantly achieve that aim. Yet it also attracted its fair share of unreconstructed grafters who sometimes were none too clear and opportunistic. Fearing that they could be used as a strike breaking force we, and some others, moved that 'We People' specifically stress that on no account must picket lines be crossed.
For a while it was housed in squatted premises in Notting Hill that became known as 'The Point'. A 'peoples' vegetarian restaurant also opened up on the ground floor to vaguely elitist fanfares and there were attempts to set up a 'peoples launderette' by an Irish plumber Steve 'Plum' who was a mine of fascinating stories from his days as an Atlantic merchant seaman (and honourable latter-day member of the celebrated Atlantic proletariat) to his experiences on Belfast's building sites. He returned drunk one night to his flat and set about wrecking it. Surveying the damage next day he assured us 'you're nobody until you wreck your flat'. Yet a few years later he was to take £1000 to get out when he could easily have asked for twenty times that amount. The flat then was not just wrecked - it was gutted and the landlord made a fortune out of it situated on what was to become one of the most desirable streets in a Notting Hill increasingly empty of all content and genuine people.
Though older than the 1960s generation which came of age in the 1970s, Steve was attracted to its libertarian spirit as were other workers of a similar age who also joined 'We People'. Another was Mercedes Pete named because he was once seen driving a merc but when he was working for 'We People' spent much of the time living in the back of his van just to get away from his wife. We have a prized estwing demolition hammer that once belonged to him and thirty years later we are still in the habit of referring to it as Mercedes Pete's hammer. He was at 'We People' when the unemployment total shot to over 1 million for the first time ever in post war Britain. He was convinced people would not long stand for it because it would revive painful memories of pre war Britain. Believing the post war consensus was here to stay (in fact we all did but it is now apparent it was a mere blip lasting 25 years before a more traditional capitalism would start to retrench itself) unemployment totals have rarely dipped below a million since then and is now heading past the million and a half mark once more.
People's surnames were often replaced by trade names (or other such names) that added to the area's richness. There was John the Hat (a plasterer) and Johnny Six Hundred so named because he worked for a mere three weeks at the firm of Proler Cohen's 600, a steel stockist. There was also John the Plank only once seen walking through the streets of Notting Hill carrying a plank of wood and not to be confused with Class War John. And there was Underground Steve nicknamed not because he still clung to the 60s counter-culture underground but because he worked as a fitter for London Transport. A French woman on the fringes of 'We People' was astonished at this descriptive panoply, arguing there was nothing remotely like it in France. The intention was not to define a person according to their trade, as happened in medieval society, for that would have been a mark of reification. Rather it was a signature of life and that the person was up for it and larger than the trade they practised. And not just larger but reached beyond the established division of labour whereas John the Accountant or John the Solicitor is a job description denoting a definite profession. Looking back it is easy to sneer at the wooliness and naivety of it all but now that it's gone there is only a gaping hole left because nothing remotely comparable came along to fill the gap.
We sort of fell into 'We People'. By the age of 21 we had acquired a formidable range of practical skills which we thought little of. We had been art students at Newcastle University and the sculptural techniques we learnt would be turned to good use on building sites later but happily not in sculpture studios of nothingness.
By the mid 1960s we had begun to reject all forms of art and by 1967 had whole heartedly embraced situationist theory. The years 1965 to 1970 were the most important and consequential of the second half of the 20th Century. Everything we see taking place around us today owes its origins to those few brief years ' with one crucial omission and that the most crucial of all: the need for revolutionary transcendence. One day a fuller history of these critical years in Newcastle, which changed the fabric of a city like no other regional city in the country, will have to be written. The alpha of this development was drowned in odium a long time ago and any memory of it sunk to the drains. (See Newcastle & Icteric elsewhere on this web etc).
Convinced by early 1967 a revolution was imminent - a belief underscored by the thunderclap that burst over an unprepared world in France 1968 - we had handed our power tools, planes, chisels, saws, metal and wood files etc over to a local auctioneer to sell. But come 1973/4 we had started once more to build up an inventory of tools.
What in the mean time had happened? It was not just that the revolution had failed - it had - but bit by bit the old class polarities in this the most class obsessed society in the advanced world were beginning to reassert themselves. Without exception all of us from lower down the social scale felt profoundly betrayed by our erstwhile, much better off, comrades in arms of only two/three years ago. We also felt revolutionary core values, particularly the attack upon professionals, were being betrayed without so much as the batting of an eye by a perfidious elite drawn from the top public schools now rapidly reverting to type. The social democratic consensus was beginning to unravel right at the heart of the revolutionary movement itself and from the new the old reborn. Today there is hardly a scrap of that consensus left as even 'The Economist' acknowledges. In an article in the August 12th 2006 edition entitled 'Why class still matters in Britain' it analyses the result of a You Gov Economist pole into class concluding it continues to be 'sticky' in Britain as much to do with tradition and birthright as it is about money and social mobility. However in the closing sentence cultural ascriptions of class are pushed way down the scale of what really counts, finishing off with the most damning of gentler forewarnings: 'In Britain the perception that class is fairly fixed could become more damaging if income inequality continues to rise and social mobility to slow'.
In 2006 we face a social divide, an 'us and them' situation, which shortly will be quite as profound as anything in the past and the equal of anything our parents experienced. And there is little hope of an early exit from this narrowing world in which the only people we continue to have any on-going, wide ranging, respectful, honest, contact with tend to be drawn from the construction industry and similar work environments like hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and job centres by which we mean ex cons, prison inmates, the unemployed, carers and 'the sick'. The same goes for the partners we pick and it is really startling to note how little such essential particulars as these have altered since the 19th century and pointed out by Steadman-Jones in his 'Bitter Cry of Outcast London', written when he was still an honest historian and not the apologist for capitalism he has since become. The only exception is the odd green but in whose company we often feel profoundly constrained, the greens generally clueless as regards where we are really coming from. The thought of stepping outside this quite narrow circle is no longer an option and has become, in a manner of speaking, a life sentence. This is not to say the situation cannot ever be rescued or never was in the past. We have the greatest respect for one Charles, a real toff with a cut glass accent, who abandoned his career as an engineer to join a building gang becoming a superlatively skilled chippie and eventually finding his way to Nicaragua, where he helped construct a school. Despite their, at times, naive goodwill it is still a pleasure to meet and 'talk shop' with such people for they are sincere and not seeking to get one over on us. The same goes for Naill an Irish aristo' with a double barrelled surname dating from the Norman Conquest who, for want of a better term, became an 'alternative subcontractor' paying himself the same wage as the people (invariably Scots and Irish) he employed, though an exception was made in our case seeing we came from the north!
Back in the early 1970s the first building jobs came as a blessed relief, for it was a pleasure to get away from the internecine 'revolutionary' bickering over nothing, the groupuscule phenomena that marked the decade essentially a sign the revolutionary impulse was on the wane. Building sites were also a healthy corrective to this increasingly blocked, impasse-like revolutionism.
Working alongside simpatico comrades on building sites provided a more grounded space on which even revolutionary thoughts could flower and many's the time we have returned home tired but high from the day's debates. For building sites were beginning to turn into forums where everything was up for discussion. Building work can be noisy but it is rarely deafening and these discussions would continue whilst building a wall, putting in a RSJ or fitting a window, the flow only breaking off when we all put our heads together to consider a technical matter like how best to deal with the damp. The point is this approach worked and in it could be glimpsed something of what Lautreamont meant when he wrote in 1862, 'poetry will be made by all'.
Perhaps as part of this drift it's worth noting something else which can be related to the 'all' of this maxim. A subtle redoployment of language in the media over the last two decades or so means every building worker is now categorised as a small business person. Seeing we always hated the business side of building, especially subcontractors it is an effective rubbishing. For what it's worth and despite present day cynicism, for nigh on four decades we managed to work collectively with equal wages between skilled and unskilled bending the rules on some sites where management forbid any controls over wage differentials by divvying up at the end of the week or job. Such an approach hardly exists in today's intensified alienation but once, in the early 1970s, though never widespread, could quickly be found provided you were prepared to search it out. It could easily be said that such a form of equal work remittances is pure reformism - not questioning the law of value or exploitation generally - or rather, merely gives alienation a more egalitarian makeover. What truth there is in this - and it is is always worth reiterating - fails to point out a simple but direct, pulsating relationship with a medium of exchange demanding disdain for its relevance, a necessary levelling which makes you in significant ways more ready to make the practical and imaginative leap in those ever-hoped-for revolutionary months when money bit by bit can be remorselessly abolished. It perhaps gives you an edge over those who've never engaged in such practises in the here and now. Psychologically, in any case, it always felt the right thing to do and practically it always tended to cut out the crap in day to day work tensions as the basis for sustained hostility, resentment and trivial envy simply wasn't there. We were all in the same shit more or less, exactly together and we were going to make it into a bloody good time if we could.
Over the years I have been struck by the divorce between the pleasure and comradeship of the building scene and my increasing isolation as a theorist. I join hands on the former but left alone to do the latter.This should not happen and always before my eyes I have before me the cooperation of the building site compared with the egotistical loneliness of theory. There must be a mean but I have yet to find it and if I have learned anything of lasting value from building it is that I cannot see why the cooperative behaviour demanded by building should not be effortlessly extended into the theoretical realm. At times it has come close though we still await the time of 'practical theory made by all and not by one'!
However it was only a foretaste, a mere hint of what was possible so we can hardly be described as having blazed a trail to the promised land of building made by all. Never the less we were on the right path and if our working lives were a failure, forever unable to make that essential revolutionary breakthrough in building, it is because this was totally dependant on a libertarian, anti capitalist revolution. Short of this happening building will forever remain a cosmetic, a verdict that also applies to a superior cosmetic like the BedZed development (Bedlington Zero Energy Development) in Hackbridge on the Victoria / Sutton line that uses just 10% of the energy a building of the same size elsewhere would need. BedZed is a design solution to global warming and though it is necessary to develop and experiment with new sustainable building technologies it must not be done at the expense of side-stepping the need for an anti capitalist revolution. However on the design side of the construction industry this irreducible necessity is not even remotely under discussion and which must be a great comfort to the rulers of this planet that is about to fry.
Though a failure, our working lives were not a total failure and reflecting over past times there was much that was positive, though often overlooked and barely noticed at the time. For example we were once employed by English Heritage as traditional lime and wash plasterers to work on a large Georgian town house in Soho. There were other trades people on the site each in their own way highly specialised whether it was the leaders, carpenters, bricklayers, pointers or painters. Of the 20 or so operatives on the site not one possessed a car, some cycling into work from quite a distance away others using public transport, the carpenters for example carrying on the Tube under their arms bundles of spindles they had turned on a lathe in their garage. Not one of these 'craft supremos' showed a trace of obnoxious craft elitism. The pointers for example were quite prepared to chat affably, when working outside, with the drunks on the street, showing them more consideration than we would have done in their place.
The unexpected is a fact of life on a building site and the place at times can turn into a floorshow. A plumber was once brought in to sort out the spaghetti like maze of pipes that ran through the house. He had left when we came to flush the toilet prior to going home. We were lucky to escape being scalded by the deluge of boiling hot water that flowed out.
On another occasion we were working with a plumber who had a mate that suffered from depression becoming so depressed that only ECT could return him to a state of near 'normality'. In the meantime, let loose on the building site, he liked nothing better than to wire himself up to the mains to tide him over until his next visit to the bin.
Until only recently building possessed an all round richness rarely encountered elsewhere in today's work scenes. Here was life a-plenty and one has to go back to the era when docks were unregistered and containerisation a distant dream to find its equivalent in other sectors of industry, Commonly stranger than fiction and incomparably superior to any fiction today doing the rounds this 'you couldn't make it up' world was yet a further reason for the big crack down that was to come: that and the fact that building workers had now a vice-like grip on London and the SE East which New Labour and the Treasury were not prepared to tolerate a moment longer.
Today the East European immigration is having the opposite effect imposing a terrible conformity upon building practises and upon anything remotely free-flowing. It spells the absolute end of alternative, off-beam building practises both as a way of life and as an attitude to construction. It is not the East Europeans' fault and they have no choice but to be a docile obedient workforce. Either that or instantly get the sack. And they know they are here for the express purpose of lowering wages, which does not make for harmonious relationships with the natives. It is noticeable how the East European influx keep themselves to themselves especially in smaller cities as if they are fearful of provoking assaults. I chanced on a building gang in Otley bus station in West Yorkshire who had just knocked off work. They were all young excepting one who was in his fifties. Occupying all the seats intended for two in the front of the bus they immediately turned on their I Pods once aboard, falling fast asleep within minutes. As the bus filled up the irritation grew, for not one shifted up to allow other passengers to sit down. Some weeks later I came across the same gang standing outside of Bradford Interchange in the rain almost as if they were afraid to step inside. To me their initial arrogance was perplexing but a builder friend found it entirely explicable saying that they had swallowed the CBI's and Labour Government's ideology ' i.e. that they were doing essential work British workers no longer wanted to do even though working longer hours for far less money and so had a right, until slapped down, to behave as if they owned the place.
Especially if the East European migrant workers are drunk, bus drivers in the north whether white, black and Asian are noticeably more hostile to them than they are, say, to Africans. They know they have been brought in to take their jobs should they step out of line. Recently bus drivers in Nottingham who were threatening strike action were told their jobs would go to East Europeans if they did so. Word spread rapidly far and wide.
The last time there was an invasion of migrant workers on a equivalent scale was after the Second World War when some 400,000 Irish building workers arrived in Britain. Conditions then were very different from now and the trade unions had a lot more clout, though it must be stressed building workers unions have never been the force they have been in America apart from in local councils. Though used as a wage cutting force, the Irish did not exert anything like the downward pressure on wages the present-day East Europeans do. And beside many were left wing in the sense of belonging to the CP and latterly Trotskyite sects. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the present lot who are more likely to go around with a book by Von Hayek than Karl Marx when not listening to junk on their I Pods.
In fact during the late 1980s and 1990s there was something of a reverse migration by building operatives to Ireland as the Celtic tiger boomed. Not any more for Ireland also has an open door policy for much the same reason as Britain ' and that is to destroy the new found power of Irish building workers and the rest which only ever lasted two decades. A bricky we were friendly with left London to return to Cork. He had been a bit alternative getting on with the job and not saying much during the day then returning home to play his guitar at night. Expecting to pick up work in Cork he has been idle ever since and now claims a carers allowance for looking after his severely disabled brother. According to him the work loop has become unstrung and he can no longer go to pubs frequented by subcontractors and pick up work, for this informal employment exchange of deals, booze, cards and the crack has gone just like it has in Kilburn which he leftover three years ago. Recently he told us that Turkish building workers had arrived in Cork and were working for the equivalent of £15 a day! He is not one to exaggerate. We are well and truly back at mid 1970s wage levels.
A good deal (probably the majority) of the work performed by East European operatives is 'off the cards'. Working without a national insurance card and therefore 'illegally' (but connived at by the authorities because it's cheap and the possibilities for exploitation immense) they forfeit all rights to a minimum wage and cannot seek redress by appealing to labour legislation. This is the lump at its worst and there have been a number of programs on the radio in which now retired Irish building workers in particular have inveighed against the iniquities of the lump repeatedly warning the incoming East Europeans not to go down the road they did. There was also an unmistakable whiff of Communist party rhetoric for the party had been opposed to every manifestation of the lump, never once discriminating between the left and right wing lump. That I now found myself agreeing with virtually everything these former building workers said could only mean the collapse of all alternatives in building and ineluctably points to an increasingly closed down world in which neoliberal values have completely triumphed.
However it is not merely a question of wage cutting. Building workers have to submit to the strangest of extra economic pressures that from the dawn of building work in the mist of time are without precedent. Prominent amongst these are aesthetic pressures, which can reach such a degree of hyper-aesthetic neurosis that building workers simply give up in a state of bewilderment and demoralization unable, on top of everything else, to deal with this additional strain and the utter craziness it brings with it. One aches for the uncomplicated utilitarianism of the not so distant past when 'building was building'. It is also inextricably bound up with a property bonanza the like of which London has never seen (or for that matter the U.K.) and is indicative of the degree to which housing ' that most intimate and ideological asset ' is now driving the economy. For at its avant-garde extremities housing is no longer a roof and four walls but a solipsistic installation to be lived in. And if this is clearly not the case on the suburban estates with eco sounding tags popping up everywhere across Britain, their time may yet come. For there is a gradual creeping north effect. And eco-lite is an entr'e to this home fixated world of interior aesthetic mental illness which cannot externalise itself and is therefore so traumatising to building workers and clients alike.
The centre of this drift has its real base: it is the house - hardly the home - as the be all and end all of society simply because it is the very essence of the UK economy where the mile high wall of money is somewhat democratised and credit is seemingly infinite. For a sizeable minority who now own bricks and mortar worth over a million pounds, not only are the walls, upstairs and down, spaces for all the fabulously hyped excrescences of Brit Art, the house must give off an aesthetic ambience. It is a must have ambience. Punters who pay nigh on £5,000 (cheap at the price!) for 15 minute cheeky self-portraits by say, the Chapman Bros who, incidentally, fancying themselves as intellectuals, cynically deploy essential critiques like recuperation in a mild (and recuperated) situationist sense of the term - nonetheless baulk at paying reasonable wages to their building workers who put their aesthetic masterpieces together. These punters really do demand a masterpiece and increasingly employ aesthetically brutalised subcontractors to keep those shits of building workers down. Dock 'em a weeks pay that'll keep the cunts in order! The aesthetic effect is everything, but it must increasingly be executed on wages now heading towards pauperisation.
Grimly we slowly realised we were beginning to face the full horrors of the aesthetic economy with all its breathtaking contradictions. Not only was art becoming the central drift and gist it was also becoming the mode of activity and participation as installation triumphed and reification and passivity extended its vice-like grip over the very heart beat of sentinent life. Any impulse towards emancipatory and genuine spontaneous riot is now subsumed in aesthetic substitute activity. It's like as though art has been realised in a popular everyday life but without the essential transcendence of art inherent in the movement of formal disintegration as, contradictorily, the role of artist becomes ever more grandiose and imperial.
Clients increasingly require that building workers be artist without actually being such for that would confer on them a status clients would instantly defer to and become the helpless victims of: such is the unprecedented reverence for 'art' today where everything is in the name and does just what it says on the label. In fact, unlike artists, building workers today are made to feel more degraded, incompetent, avaricious and downright criminal than ever before. Even the present pittance they get is regarded as outrageous and of course they are bound to be up to every fiddle in the book, not least cheating on the cost of raw materials. For the bourgeoisie is gripped by deflationary expectations when it comes to having work done on their properties and every builder can sight instances when they bought raw materials and in addition to not being paid for the work done, are not compensated for the raw materials they laid out on. It is a kind of super slavery where the slave pays the slave owner for the privilege of working for them.
House owners have tended to traditionally resent building workers but at the same time regarded them as a necessary evil to be tolerated if the job was to get done. In this society where to think the unthinkable has become one of its guiding maxims the final elimination of building workers through their progressive dehumanisation is an unmistakeable tendency. In the past, prefabrication, self assembly and machined interiors 'untouched by human hand' had been the main way forward to achieving this goal which on the side of the angels was aimed at eliminating drudgery but more realistically to do with getting rid of troublesome crews of skilled, on site, operatives who threatened profit margins. Nowadays the aim is to reduce them to the status of pixels on a computer screen, building worker avatars that complete the designs that, like magic, electronically spring into being when using Power Point software. This and other programs like the omniscient use of Photoshop in the property sections of newspapers and magazines more than ever signifies - and not only in building - the triumph of representation over a reality which now bathed in other worldly shapes and light, shine forth like interiors on mail order from paradise. Building workers then become souls rather than bodies and to be rebuked for permitting the profanity of even having dust on their T-shirts as recently happened to a friend. He was also taken into the bathroom to show where he had allegedly left a drop of urine on the toilet seat for pixels neither eat, drink, defecate or piss. However since a perfect silicon building operative has yet to be invented in the meantime one can always settle for second best and employ carbon based East European life forms that don't speak much English. All building workers are beneath contempt but with East Europeans one is at least spared the annoying civility of ever having to say hello.
Not so long ago it was not uncommon for skilled building operatives especially those more accustomed to working with there hands, like carpenters and plasterers, to be objects of envy as if they possessed the key to non-reified, non mechanical, far happier working practises. We have even been referred to as 'maestros' and it is actually quite flattering though we would instantly debunk the term wishing to remain masters of nothing or, less pretentiously, bums. But not anymore. For concept is swiftly replacing craft, reflecting the shift that is taking place in the economy overall toward a value added economy of ideas. This also explains the irresistible rise of installation and concept art that just goes on growing and growing until not a day goes by without it headlining the news somewhere in the country.
We were once working in Covent Gardens when a not then instantly recognisable face appeared at the doorway. It was Bob Geldof out doing a cultural round, the idea of staging a live aid concert just to stay germinating in his head. The mission of redefining himself as a philanthropic entrepreneur still some way off (and which Bono was later to profit handsomely from gaining possession of Forbes magazine America's leading business magazine in recognition of his services to the poor) he was rightly more impressed with our unpretentious solid plastering than the final year exhibitions he had come to see. He obviously felt more at ease on our building site than in the art galleries, for here he was at least free to speak his mind. Yet there was more to it than that for his comments implied a latent critique of art he was not remotely able to follow through. In fact he was to become one of the leading innovators and brokers of the valorization of personality by means of which individuals became brand names as transpired with the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. The mere mention of their names will cause money to stick to them like glue. However for this to happen their names must constantly be in circulation like money, media exposure being an essential part of this monetary artistic counterfeit. Thus a concept could be floated on the stock exchange and the job of realizing the concept, should any manufacturing be required, leased to subcontractors employing conceptless nitwits who not so long ago might have qualified as skilled artisans. The same goes for us, our artisanal skills all but redundant in a world that is becoming over populated with concept artists and, at the risk of bringing on a devastating economic crises, a world at the same time in mortal dread of being judged philistine and afraid to say the emperor has no clothes. The immanence of revolution once dogged the footsteps of 'happening artists' - to employ a redundant term. Forty years on it no longer does and yet if there is to be a drift into revolution it will, if it is to have any relevance, leach out of the fatigued, endless repeats of contemporary happeners rather than from a return to stuckist art. And the same goes for craft fetishisms it is important to maintain a distance from.
Building workers unable to realize the blocked visions of their clients are no longer just the invaders they were twenty years previously. Now they are the despoilers of visionary interiors, the creatures of nightmares not dreams. Not even supplying makeshift sketches with at best a few hints to go upon, one is left to divine this skewed 'non objective vision' ' hardly the stuff of the promise in Malevich - of the new propertied classes. And what they get is never even remotely what they want. Manipulated by degrees of photographic falsehood they have lost all truth to materials. What is left is a near hallucinatory world in which walls part like an electronic Moses before the Red Sea, and concrete bends like rubber. This was starkly brought home to us a few years ago when we assembled a number of IKEA carcasses for a kitchen leaving off the doors and fitting instead plain pine doors we made ourselves. The effect was different even a bit striking in so far as such things are possible today. To our astonishment the client on seeing it said 'what are we going to do about the knots?'. We came back quickly 'not a lot' pointing out the obvious that knots were an intrinsic part of wood and integral to tree growth. The same woman had asked us to paint part of her kitchen a particular shade of yellow but then insisted we changed the colour simply because she had seen a gang of workmen dressed in jackets the very same shade of yellow! The difference between then and now - barely eight years ago - is that after having the work done all over again the client paid up without a murmur. Chances are today you would have had to re-do it for nothing and be blamed for not pointing out the particular shade of yellow was one worn by workers and therefore intrinsically hideous.
This new clientele, despite being totally controlled by media representations on TV and in magazines are completely unable to visualize things for themselves and to listen to and heed advice. They are literally deaf to reason and are able to muster others of the same ilk such that in the end you begin to doubt your own sanity and years of experience. Thus for example a woman insisted she wanted wooden shutters. 'OK' we said, 'that's fine but they will tend to shut out light because there is a limit to how far it is possible to fold them back'. She felt we were pulling the wool and that the shutters would fold away to nothing pointing out that in Victorian times there would have been shutters there and not curtains. To which we replied: 'Yes, probably, but brightly lit interiors were then the exception'. She replied saying she 'didn't want a Victorian interior but a sunny contemporary interior'. Our objections were regarded as little less than outright deceit, a shirker's response to a difficult problem. The more we protested the more convinced she became we were simply covering up our own incompetence. She also asked us to put up white wood shelving. We had said it was possible to get bleached wood as we had once constructed a huge computer table made from wood salvaged from an Aberdonian tramp steamer. When sanded the wood was indeed beautiful and seemed to glisten like salt spray. However as it was taking the weight of several large computers and other electronic equipment we had to harden the surface which meant it lost some of its intrinsic beauty. Besides had we not coated the wood it would rapidly have become stained with spillages ' ink, tea, coffee and so on. She definitely did not fancy this but never the less wanted an undetectable protective coat. We knew of no such material - another sign we did not know our job. (I was reminded of the day at around the time of Tony Blair's election victory in 1997 when I was assured by an irate tenant there was such a thing as rubber plaster for ceilings which did away with the problem of cracking and why if we were any good didn't we know about it. Of course rubber does eventually perish and crack and any such stuff is as fictional as rubber nails, which builders are forever teasing each other about. Not knowing about this miraculous product was proof we were chancers - and a stark pointer to an increasingly terrible future.) The only way around this was to give the wood an artificial, distressed look. This she rejected out of hand saying she wanted the bleached look to remain.
She may have had a thing about bleached wood for she had a framed photograph of Derek Jarman`s clapboard timber house on the kitchen wall. Jarman had bought the house for a song in the early eighties, one of many dotted around the raised shingle beach of Dungeness on the Kent coast. Notorious as the site of the Dungeness nuclear power station many of these ramshackle houses, constructed in the 1930s before the post war town and country planning acts, had been abandoned and in the 1970s were squatted. It is an idyllic location and Jarman had constructed an informal garden that melted into the transitional habitat between sea and land that surrounded these casual houses, making use of what was to hand. Slowly dying of aids it was by far the best thing he ever did - in fact the only thing. Yet none the less it marked a turning point for that mesmeric shingle beach with its makeshift huts and houses tossed like dice from an unseen hand on the fringes of that legendary haunt of smugglers, Romney Marsh. For now it had started to become prime property changing forever the wild, undisciplined character of the area. This was the reason a nuclear power station had been constructed on the point in the first place for only misfits and undesirables ever went there.
J was in that artistic mould though initially the property boom that was to follow it was not as intentional as it has since become. And this was J's problem; she wanted not mere value for money but the added value that only an art conscious property boom can today deliver. With no guide lines to follow, though with a keen eye to a huge potential increase in the price of her property, she was meddling in the extreme in a way Jarman would never have been. (Besides he did not employ professional gardeners or landscape designers who would only have imposed themselves upon that unforced environment doing it all by himself as everyone should with a little help from others here and there.) The same was not quite true of her other design mentor, Janet Street Porter whom she was constantly mentioning. She had seen her house and was 'bowled over by it' asking us if we had ever worked on it. 'No' we replied but we easily could have done back in the early eighties smiling as we recalled how returning one night she found sheets of expanded metal lathing (wire mesh) nailed to the walls. 'Leave it just like that' she had said to the builders - and they did though we did wonder at the time how long it would be before she ripped her fingers to bits on the razor sharp edges. And would the blood stains be turned into art as they are today by Pete Doherty? Probably not, for this was just at the beginning of Thatcher's reign and the capitalisation of installation art (a term not then current) in its infancy not to mention the constantly reiterated pseudo challenges it poses to the arts and picked over without let-up by the sneering 'right' and approving 'left' wing media. (Whether for or against it is the publicity that guarantees the financial rewards, which is what it's all about.) However J took our smiles as a philistine lack of art appreciation and want of culture, though we very well aware that until a year ago she was still heavily junked on IKEA. Midway between house beautiful and the tired affectation of house bizarre, she was not ready for the outr' commodity.
Next to the photo of Jarman's house and garden was a reproduction of a famous collage 'Words in Liberty' by Gino Severini, an Italian futurist. J would never have guessed we were familiar with the work or were able to offer a critique of these words in liberty, which, taken from newspaper headlines, advertising and little else, belied the promise of its title. J tail-ends 'innovation' which makes her doubly impossible to work for because she herself is a design fault, an end of the line cock-up. Her conservatism is such one would not expect to find a Banksy on her wall just yet. But since J.S. Porter has recently praised Banksy to the skies as 'Britain's most subversive artist' that day may not be far off. (Porter is quite unable to see that Banksy's smuggling of an inflatable doll dressed in the orange overalls of a Guantanamo Bay detainee into Disney world was a grotesque parody of a real intervention like the shooting of the Abe Lincoln manikin in the same place in the late 1960s. Banksy hit the headlines ' as his prices than hit record levels and A-list celebs queued up for his American show.) But J flattering herself she is out in front though actually bringing up the rear, will pay top dollar for an original whilst seeking to reduce the wages of, in particular, wet trade building operatives, joiners and other zeros below subsistence level to make them pay for a fashionable pretension she fondly believes is challenging rather than subversive.
J had also asked us to sand the floor of her living room and kitchen. When finished she was disappointed to find it looked like ----- wood! She thought it was possible to sand away the wood's natural colours to reveal the white interior that, as everyone knows, lies at the heart of all wood. The pine floorboards were the softest we had ever encountered more typically used for palettes and soft enough to drive paper staples into with ease. We had gone to great lengths to clean off all the stains in out of the way places like under radiators around pipes, in corners etc where it is only possible to use machine tool to a limited extent. The floorboards were also very pitted and we'd gone to considerable pains getting rid of the pitting. She then had the cheek to say we hadn't done a very good job and that people who 'really knew about floors' were of the same opinion. In fact they were experts like she was - experts at flicking through design/property magazines and utterly conditioned by what they saw in their dematerialised world of Photoshop appearances.
She had also asked us to block up a doorway, which was a no fuss straightforward job. She then decided all of a sudden she wanted a strip of glass 10 centimetres wide to run from floor to ceiling right where the blocked up door had been. We explained that behind the plaster board there were several lengths of studding and many cross pieces or noggins a fact that seemed to surprise her. Not only that she wanted the glass to be flush with the plaster and not rebated in or held in by a frame. We asked 'how are you going to fix the frame'? To which she replied it's your business to know that - or words to that effect. In junior school we learnt about the existence of imaginary hooks - sky hooks - that could counteract gravitational forces. They were spoken of in jest but this in all seriousness was what was required here for her hare-brained scheme to work. And so it goes on and on and on.
This particular client was a senior administrator in the NHS. In keeping with the bullying culture of our times she was perfectly at ease handing out punishment to those below and very used to being obeyed. In fact her unreal aesthetic demands perfectly reflected her work situation in which reality must never be allowed to intrude whether in the shape of laid-off doctors and nurses, ward closures or the scandalous truth about PPI. The gap between reality and representation apparent from her indefinable plans for her house reflected the growing global disjuncture at every level between reality and representation.
Building workers are being increasingly asked to do things that formerly no one would ever have dreamt of asking them to do. They are required to be 'artists' without the status that goes with that wretched occupation; a status that is higher today at the moment of arts utter bankruptcy than ever before. And what goes with it is a complete failure to appreciate building skills because it is increasingly widely held anyone is able to do skilled building work. We can recall working on the house of a lecturer from London University in the early 1980s. At one point we were approached by his young son who said to the gang: 'Daddy says you must be very stupid to do this kind of work'. Many years later we were engaged in doing up a house in Leeds. It was in a conservation area and many of the original window frames were rotten. To have run up duplicates would have cost a small fortune. We succeeded in taking out the hinged frames without even breaking a pane of glass and replacing the rotten wood. While carrying out this very tricky operation that required a considerable amount of care and skill the client turned to one of us and said: 'Do you ever do anything creative'. Worse still she was French and one would have thought she would have at least some familiarity with the French anti-art tradition that would have mocked the very idea. That summer she had been on the Larzac plateau supporting Jose Bove but it was obvious she had never heard of Rene Riesel and even more surprisingly, R Vaneigem.
These people live on their nerves; walk a tightrope between a doubtful sanity and certain madness from whose clutches they rarely escape. They are frequently single, unable to make a relationship of any sort, even an 'odd couple' mismatch, that could provide some kind of shelter from the worst of life's storms. They also hanker after the perfect relationship and worse for them really believe that it's possible. Building alterations then become a prelude to ultimate bliss not, as so often happens, a forerunner to tragedy. Rather than house beautiful, asylum chic would be more accurate description and our dirty work togs likely to be replaced by laundered white coats in quick succession. Destroyers of dreams and slayers of last hopes we are then type cast as ultimate barbarians for failing to waft them to the promised land of property heaven.
The punters being the wretched, long-living bourgeoisie themselves cannot even begin to know the extent of their hypocrisy and ignorance. They yearn - in that parrot-like, everywhere term that perfection - be made reality. Pronto. Utopia resides in the aesthetics of everyday life where with a few twists and turns - a career location move and new home etc - you are on course for possibly absolute fulfillment. Three or four decades ago, utopia was very different. It was to be a practical reality involving the abolition of money and commodities and achieved through social revolution and we were certain ' very certain ' it was achievable. It was! Nowadays, with reaction turning the aims of revolution upside down, utopia becomes an illusive, highly prised product of skillful commodity choices. However, unlike social revolution, the commodity, despite its manifest subtleties is truly incapable of creating a durable utopia. The let down is instant and the fury at the amount of money spent on a home achievment that can never be what was intended, is vented on those who put the wretched fantasy together, meaning final wages for a job becomes nothing but wish-fulfillment.
But, and not so long ago, we often found ourselves in the role of informal therapists. Being covered in building muck must have been part of the attraction, a signature of integral honesty and plain speaking denoting a time when there was still some honour to manual work and hope for society. To be honest it was mainly women who would break down in front of us. One also formed the impression that they were unable to speak to anyone but us, and that their other relationships both in and out of work were hollow. Working in a non-hierarchical gang we have always felt free to speak our minds and have rarely minced our words even when we realised clients were eves dropping. Inevitably they must have compared it to their own repressive work situations and the increasingly pervasive monitoring of words in liberty. Added to which there was all the ribaldry and sheer good fun. Who could not be envious? In fact this temporary doubling of a building site and a therapist's consulting room only really happened during the 1990s reflecting rising constraints at work and a general crack down on genuine self expression. We never recall it happening during the 1970s or 1980s when things were a lot less repressive. The emotional need for it was only felt during the 1990s when there was still a smidgeon of hope and 'the workers' (particularly manual workers) were still a reality and a force to be reckoned with even if a rapidly fading one. This disarming psychological reaction to building workers did not survive the dawn of the millennium and we are now lower than vermin, lower even than we were in the 19th Century. For poverty wages and extreme underemployment has become, thanks largely to TV and the constant stream of reports in the media of cowboy builders cheating a pensioner out of their life's savings, the gorging at the rich man's table compared to which fury provoking executive pay rises are commendable for their moderation.
Often in their late twenties and early thirties couples have a baby in the desperate hope it will bring them together once more. One wonders how many millions of children in Britain alone are the fruit of this truly desperate stratagem. To this must be added another that takes place usually a little later in life - a housing makeover that also is about asset appreciation and the family as a home owning unit. And like having an unwanted baby it only ever succeeds in temporally papering over the cracks. Relationships become more fraught as a consequence and increasingly it is the construction workers that get the blame for it for failing to create the masterpiece that could bring salvation like the pieta above the altar. This shifting of the blame is fundamentally necessary for otherwise it could lead to a revolutionary indictment of a social system that has placed housing not as shelter but as a financial asset at its reproductive centre. At least in the west and particularly Britain and America it has become the motor and emotional, psychological, aesthetic quintessence of contemporary capitalism which is also that of ever growing solipsistic isolation. And ever since the defeat of the miners it is manual workers who have been made to shoulder the burden of society's ills especially in the UK where traditionally there is a deeply entrenched hostility to them. What is most remarkable is that down and out though they are, they still head the hate list. This is symptomatic, meaning they are one of the last remaining legitimate targets of hate in a society which has officially abolished antagonisms but continues to accumulates hate with profit and is then stopped from venting it in a lasting manner by overthrowing capitalism.
This desperation to get things right aesthetically in the last chance saloon that housing increasingly has become is also part of a strategy of control and 'staying in control'. It is the aesthetic adjunct of cognitive behaviour therapy, the now near universal re-action and reactionary panacea to a world spiralling completely out of control and perilously close to destruction. As self-assertion is out of the question in the work place the second best place, and a poor second it is, to commence reconstructing the perfect life and truly feel in charge is by changing rooms (the title of a TV serial) in the home. But since these (invariably) loners have no one o boss about, building workers become the object of their control freaking. Nothing is ever right - nor ever can be. It is not just carping criticism (which is bad enough) but a demolition of self that is the ultimate goal. Not one detail is overlooked or spared including a sharp rebuke about how one pockets money following a never-ending catalogue of mad and maddening complaints about the work being done. One wonders where it will stop and if next time objection will be taken to eye colour, length of fingernails and body weight. Behind it of course there lurks the presence of money and such responses are by no means general. In fact the majority are the victims of it. It is also extraordinarily similar to what tends to happen or did happen, particularly in the 1970s, in 'revolutionary' milieus and groupuscules.
But there is another aspect to this constant nit-picking something uniquely avant-garde or post avant-garde. Certain things were expected of a skilled building worker a 100 year ago like an intimate knowledge of the trade. They were required, more or less, to do a specific job and there were certain well-worn guidelines. In the kind of building under discussion here that no longer applies. Round about the mid 1980s we were asked to render a gallery in gesso. Of course we knew everything about the material (like shit we did!) but after a visit to the library and a quick dip into a book on Renaissance and pre Renaissance techniques we were 'experts'. We could not pour the material, as traditionally was the case prior to the application of egg tempera, so instead we heated up the rabbit glue and used plastering trowels to spread it on the walls of the gallery. Unlike plaster it really did stick to out trowels and we would pull the trowel off the wall leaving suction marks behind. Finding we could not smooth the gesso out as one could plaster, we had no choice but to paper it down, a recognised procedure in any case, once we had covered the walls. However we were stopped by the owner of the gallery who liked the trowel marks and wanted them left just as they were - which incidentally also hit us in the pocket. However try as we might we were not able to repeat what we had previously done unselfconsciously. But no matter, we still got paid and there were no complaints. Now, more like as not, we would be accused of not 'knowing our job' because we were unable to replicate random markings which no one is ever trained to do, and can never be trained to do, or learn how to do, because they are essentially products of chance and unrepeatable. Formerly this was 'action building' for an understanding client, understanding, at least, as far as the job was concerned but never guessing for one moment that we knew exactly where she was coming from and that, revelling in our philistine identity tags, we were secretly laughing at the pretence and the passe content of such 'innovations' that were then starting to become all the rage. However we enjoyed doing the job, treating it as a joke we were being paid for. Today we would be kept awake at night because of worry over this piece of avant-garde nothingness that now carries a deadly sting in its tail.
Because of a total breakdown in the critique of art, which includes building and the new construction worker, this boring nonsense is now invariably called cutting edge, which is the last thing it is though it can easily rip a building worker apart. On the other hand there is an increase in the machine finish, shop fitting, aesthetic and the hyper division of labour that goes with it. But both share in common an obsessive need to control every detail which includes maximum control over the building operatives. And both are equally joyless and unimaginative though it has to be admitted construction workers accustomed to the latter are unable to cope with the former. (We knew a plasterer who could do one thing only and that was plaster flat walls or boards giving them a polished, machine like, finish that decorators loathe because paint rollers slide around on them as if on glass. He was at a loss when confronted with anything other than a flat surface. His mind was as narrow as his plastering and past military battles practically his soul topic of conversation. His sub contractor sidekick came from Ashington a former mining town in Northumberland. Having supported the miners' strike he had subsequently lost his way claiming Hitler 'had a good class analysis'. We last heard whilst working on a house belonging to the Mosley family had shaken hands with one of Mosley's son's saying it was a pleasure to shake hands with someone whose father had shaken hands with Hitler!) Make of it what you will this type of detail is in the Tresell, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, tradition and anyone with a long experience of the building game will have many to ponder on, some revealing others less so.
I am reminded of another incident not dissimilar to this one in which we were well and truly shafted in the name of liberation. We had been working off and on for the past ten years for a woman - T- then approaching forty with Polish parents she was ashamed of. Quite unexpectedly in 2000 she turned very nasty and took us for £800+ despite the fact we had always been super considerate, given her the benefit of free advice and saved her loads of money where other 'proper' firms, with headed note paper, business cards, an office and a secretary, would have exploited her neurosis and vulnerability as a single woman and taken her for everything she had. (This is in fact what eventually was to happen and it caved her head in, maybe permanently).
With each passing year, the world, and particularly the UK, was becoming more business orientated and business like as though life itself was not only to be run like a business but also lived like one. The credo of installation art was essential to this 'business of living', spreading across the surface of the globe to the obscene point where even Gaza and maybe eventually Dafur are no longer a safe refuge from it. Ever the sucker T - mentioned above - was powerless to resist its lure unable to say the emperor of installation art has no clothes. To her, ignorant of its roots in revolution - as virtually everyone now is - and then altered piece meal fashion to suit capitalism, it was a venture into the unknown compensating for her humdrum existence as a translator in Brussels. She had also taken up photography not as a hobby but with an eye to becoming a recognised creative photographer rather than a mere professional photographer for in her opinion the latter were sad people who to make a living took wedding photos. We should have guessed she was on the slippery slope to perdition, which would end in us not getting paid, sad proles that we were.
Incapable of ever forming even the beginnings of a relationship with a man, especially a man as confused as she was, she was apt to form loose friendships, full of friction, with gay men who had a tendency to abuse her hospitality. Possibly she was motivated to do this in defiance of her strict Catholic upbringing and 'repressed' East European parents - her mother was actually a very nice, simple, homely soul who both doted on and lived in fear of her daughter and her silly, pretentious ideas. She was the sort of woman who might easily have been shocked in a reactionary way by a hiker who was then making a name for himself hiking naked around Britain and occasionally getting arrested. T went on a demonstration to support his right to do so which was also a right to be an exhibitionist in the sense of being one's own public exhibition and all that implied in the era of maximum commodification and display. It certainly did not prevent T ripping the shirt from our backs and arse out of our pants when it came to payment. And I have often wondered how she would have responded to thse pensioners recently going naked through the streets of Whitehall because they had been stripped bare of their pension rights. For this demonstration had an imaginative flair and really did communicate, striking a chord with millions of others who feared for their own futures in a way the hiker and the spectacle of nude-ins, like, for instance, in Newcastle put on by the American installation artist Spencer Tunick in July 2005, could not. If only in terms of local history there was a similarity between this event organised around the now trendy Quayside and imposing Tyne Bridge, rising clear above the Tyne's many other bridges, and T's advocacy of exhibitionist nudity. For until recently Newcastle was a byword for heavy industry like coal mining, iron and steel, engineering and shipbuilding but is now a city that wants to be rid of its past just as T did hers. And what better way to demonstrate the New Newcastle of the Sage Centre and the Baltic (where Tunick, concurrently with the nude-in, was also exhibiting 'six living installations' especially commissioned by the Baltic, the north's answer to Tate Modern) is open to sunrise business and avant-garde culture than for 2000 Tynesiders to masochistically submit at 4 am to this installation megalomaniac. It was also a signal Tyneside was now a virtually strike free environment and a very business friendly place to be. The con artist himself said there was 'a whimsical 1984ish narrative element to the piece'. Only too true, the whole sad spectacle being nothing other than a graphic illustration of contemporary avant-garde despotism.
It is however doubtful if T would have been up to taking her kit off in the open. To her it would have been a personal challenge she could not bring herself to face up to, never mind even beginning to see through it as just another con, though a clever one, that could knit together spectacle and the undoing of personal repression. And that is a reason why she would be drawn to such naked displays in preference to naked conflict because it does not bare all in public but is rather an adjunct of personal therapy. Her bookshelves were loaded down with books that could scarcely be parodied, their titles were so ridiculous. What follows is a sample: 'Smart Love', 'Toxic Parents/Perfect Daughters', 'Affirmations from the Inner Child', 'Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child', 'Giving your Inner Child New Permission', 'The Wonder Child as Authentic Self', 'Permission to be You', 'Telling your Child about your Higher Power'. A building diary entry dated 29th November 1995 reads: 'I couldn't have made these titles up'.
T was actually quite conservative and had been married, going through the farce of a white wedding. She had the photos to prove it and when they disappeared the suspicion fell on us, in particular the painter and decorator. We think one of the gay men took them out of spite. But T was having none of it convinced it was the 'perverted' painter and decorator who took them to wank over in secret. To much amusement our instant response was, 'she should be so lucky'.
We wondered what she was up to when she asked for the receipts for materials just prior to the Xmas of 2000. Normally we don't hand them over until paid for the job but we had no reason not to trust her. However she was already hatching her diabolical plan not to pay us, quite prepared to abuse out trust in her by getting us to lay-out for expensive items she had no intention of paying for. As she now held all the bills we had no redress, as possession is nine tenths of the law. In the meantime behind our backs she had brought in a 'proper' firm who had inveigled their way into her confidence by disparaging our work and then billing her for a huge sum she had no choice but to pay. Turning sour on us this typically vacillating petite bourgeois then made us pay for her mistake.
But not for long because our furious response (typically she was at an art exhibition opening when we last contacted her) may well have been the final straw. The breakdown when it did come was very severe and the curtains of her flat are still drawn after five years. She may never recover and personally I would feel not even a twinge of guilt if she did commit suicide. I was made to briefly feel guilty when I admitted as much to a subcontractor who has a history of mental breakdown. He also has a history of non-payment and shortly afterwards was to take us for £600+ -which only goes to show that those who defend such practises even using, to telling account, depth psychology to do so, are only justifying their own rapaciousness. However we have learnt our lesson and intend to stick with our crude, brutal values that in the end are so much more humane. Though a highly competent builder, this subcontractor was the son of Henrietta Moraes who in her young days had been Francis Bacon's favourite model. She also sold her young son off as a child prostitute to the Chelsea Arts set. The damage turned out to be lasting, with abuse and the very worst aspects of subcontracting reinforcing each other.
Most likely T went back, after a spell in the bin, to her working class mum who had now got her daughter back home though barely able to speak, bed-ridden and slavering from the mouth. T's father had been a carpenter and there was something memorable and even moving about his folk carpentry like the table he had made from a door for his daughter. T had the sense to hang onto it but not to her roots, which could have saved her. For we are not dealing here with the increasingly common condition of depression that can have a positive outcome and in which there is hope for the future but with social schizophrenia and loss of a person's identity. It particularly afflicts so many upwardly mobile people from working class backgrounds with virtually no history of mental illness in the family. It is a much more permanent condition and rarely recoverable from, taking out a person's entire life. Like so many before her, T may not now ever see the light of day.
Another case comes to mind this time from our side of the fence. Back in the late 1970s we had got to know a radical student group from Leeds that went by the name of Infantile Disorders and who undoubtedly did a number of good things only to rapidly betray their promise. We caught them on the cusp when they were just beginning to wake up to the realization the days of alienated privilege were over and the question of whether to take up or refuse their allotted roles was beginning to occupy them. There was one who wanted to try his hand at building and seeing the immanence of revolution was fast fading from the scene I advised people in his position, in true 'working class' fashion, to get themselves a trade. But D never took the advice to heart, hankering after quick money and ultimately finding building work demeaning.
D had come from a working class housing estate in south London and had been part of a whiz-bang youth gang which prided itself on being that little more violent than skin heads. Very good looking and with a sharp mind once at Uni' he was able to pick up very middle class girls with ease by playing the part of working class demagogue. This can only work provided the demagoguery is kept up, meaning one becomes a class renegade. D was neither prepared to take up a career or become just another working (or even non-working) stiff. So he fell between two stools and one day and by now utterly impoverished and without friends or prospects, he felt his head split open. He has rarely left the confines of the bin where he was committed close on 25 years ago. But in our opinion none of this need ever have come to pass provided he had been prepared to screw his head back on - which he wasn't. We had offered to teach him plastering but rather than hack off a wall in his place he insisted we do it in ours, as he needed his gaff to entertain classy women in. This was just too much as we were really going out of our way to help him. Worst of all he tended to look down on all of us because of the work we were doing, passing such offensive remarks as, 'you don't intend doing this all your life, do you?' Closer to the end than the beginning, I can only answer 'why ever not'? for building work has given me a stability and a privileged vantage point from which to view reality and none of us have ever been in danger of going mad in the unfree sense of the term. Depressed yes - but not mad
Stu' W: Fall 2006
(Hopefully there will be later additions to these 'Notes' as things with time become clearer)
See also: "A Freewheeling Latin America"
"Reflections on the The Lump"
"Newcastle & Icteric 1966"
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