Reflections on Brendan Ward’s Builders’ Remembered (1984) and “Builders, Chancers and the Crack” (1985) together with scattered thoughts on the first and only national building workers’ strike of 1972
(It seems the above two books are out of print and no library possesses old copies)
Oh, how the anarcho-syndicalists - though not necessarily other anarchists - hated Brendan Ward’s “Builders, Chancers and the Crack” all they could see was the racism not the great richness beyond that, and which comes through however narrow his attitude to trade unions are, viewing them mainly as composed of suits in an office situated well away from the work places they claim to represent. Nor could the anarcho-syndicalists appreciate the larger than life characters Brendan Ward was describing. These people were anarchic without being self-styled anarchists, believers who constantly took the piss out of the church and its priests. They rebelled against the subcontractors but were not above being subcontractors themselves, even the Bear O’Shea and the Darky Flynn who have entered into legend because of their honourable mention in “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”, the song written by the Communist party supporting Dominic Behan and that once, not all that long ago, was the building workers’ anthem. (By the way and no offence meant, nowadays the anti-heroic “Cement mixer, putty, putty” by Charlie Parker’s side kick Slim Galliard should really be the song of the building trade and Slim knew both Notting Hill Gate and Kilburn very well and we'd always say "Hi Slim" to him).
But in Brendan’s tale they are not fusiliers but “outlaws”. And McAlpine’s was only one of many building firms they worked for, though Wimpey’s and John Laing’s are also mentioned in “McAlpine’s Fusliers”. Murphy’s wasn’t and both books by Brendan Ward make much of him and his business.
In quick succession we are introduced to “John Murphy and his outlaws incorporating The Elephant.” these outlaws also an army with commanders: gangers who worked for Murphy like the notorious Elephant. So the whole book kicks off with a song of praise to Murphy’s, something Dominic Behan would never have done. Brendan Ward was obviously proud to be a personal friend of John Murphy disguising the exploitation of the mainly Irish work force by an appeal to their combined brute strength: “Men are proud they belonged to the toughest army in the world”. Some were but many were broken by it and even comparing them to the mighty Fionn MacCumhall of Irish legend who scooped out Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, could never disguise that.
The Elephant was Murphy’s foreman and ganger, a reincarnation of Fionn MacCumhall: “He dug muck with a shovel especially made by a blacksmith outside Sneem. It was the size of four shovels but in the hands of the Elephant it looked only normal. He could dig and fill a lorry as fast as a JCB and that is no exaggeration”. This mythic figure was also hated and “the men who worked for him wished him the cruelest death that could be imposed”. Perhaps in no other trade in the Britain of the immediate post war years was such mythic corporatism possible and one that so effectively masked the true face of exploitation. Even J Murphy was reputed to be afraid of his pet, the Elephant: “We all know a dog will stand by his master when attacked but on the other hand the master is unsure when the dog will attack him”. And no matter how much the subcontractors and the gangers draped themselves in legend, if, on payday, men weren’t paid then fists would start to fly and if the ganger did not win the fight his colourful name and reputation was in tatters. Even the mighty Elephant was to eventually get his------”.
Though a nasty bit of work, Brendan Ward has something nice to say about the Elephant for he wasn’t just pure brute, respecting a witty reply and even displaying on rare occasions a typically Irish sense of humour. Once when working at Heathrow an Aer Lingus plane passed over and the Elephant had gazed at it longingly: Asked if he would like to be on it he answered: “Well it’s like this. I would not like to be up there and not be in it”. And Ward fawns on his boss the contractor John Murphy: “His many millions have altered his lifestyle alright in that he does not live in the Bush but he is still as happy driving an old banger of a van as a Rolls Royce. – Fair enough John Murphy does not drink in Biddy’s on a Saturday but it’s a mother who would blame him.”
The road-mending firm of Murphy’s began as a trench-digging outfit and rapidly rose on the backs of Irish workers. A start up firm in post war Britain with no financial backing, Brendan Ward is proud of John Murphy’s success, having become so big by the 1980s it can play the home grown English construction companies at their own game. And as a former Murphy worker – or outlaw – he clearly wants to swap Mc Alpine’s Fusiliers for Murphy’s Outlaws in Irish building worker legend. John Murphy made his name by driving his men hard. As Brendan Ward says “John (on first name terms indeed!) was mainly involved in laying pipes. It involved water, gas, sewers, electricity and telephone cables. There were no mechanical diggers and after the war a massive construction bonanza hit England”. Not having earth-moving equipment the firm made up for in sheer brawn spurred on by the brutal bullying and notorious ganger men like the afore mentioned Elephant. Making a virtue out of necessity there is something John Henry like about the navvying driving down 9ft when the steam hammer only did 7ft except this was not one individual but thousands of workers unable to continue working much after forty – which Brendan freely admits - because they were ruined in body if not in soul. That and the old myths of Ireland like the giant Cuchulain able to flatten mountains and fight “the ungovernable sea”, (Yeats) their ancient culture being used against them.
In Ireland the punctilio of class does not mean as much as in Britain and a millionaire publican, until recently, could unselfconsciously sit down and play dominos with his regular customers. This just would not happen amongst the English or the Scots and Welsh, though it has to be said Ireland is now rapidly changing in this respect. As a friend, Phil Meyler once acutely remarked of these fast-fading times: “Ireland is sociable but not socialist”.
We knew one such person, Mick, who owned the Pelican in the Gate, his wife Jean becoming rather snobbish sending her children to a private nursery school as her husband, a reputedly, tough no nonsense, subcontractor though exceptionally genial, welcoming publican, just got wealthier and wealthier. In the sixties he’d the foresight to buy two pubs one in Kings Cross the other in Notting Hill Gate. Others could have done the same but most just threw their money away like it was paper. At times one sensed they were close to burning it. The Pelican closed down a few years back and opened up as an organic food and drinks bar before flopping completely, then morphing yet again, the one constant being in these new fangled changes that it was anti the poor. Mick unable to be anything else than an un-adapted Irish publican finally cashed in his chips in the late 1990s as time was also called on the unique culture of the Irish building scene which from just before the Second World War had long been a dominant factor in construction in Britain, particularly in London and the south east. Mick was also ashamed of his property wheeler dealing rushing away from those customers who’d got his number, knowing in his heart of hearts it was disgusting. He must have come from some kind of enlightened family in Kerry as Mick also had a brother, a plasterer, self-educated and of left wing persuasions who would regularly hold forth in the pub on society’s inequities often deploying very colourful language. Oddly enough he always carried around with him a really, really bashed-up book of the writings of Emmanual Kant, well under-lined with mucky finger prints on every page. In semi-drunken arguments he’d drag Kant out of his coat pocket, select a quote and fire it across the pub whether it was applicable or not.
Mick’s pub was one among thousands to disappear. Biddy’s in Kilburn or, to give it its full name, Biddy Mulligan’s (or as the locals, drifting with words as the Irish love to do, called it Willy Pulligan’s then Willy Tulligan’s as Pulligan’s was too obvious, the flow of suggestion spiralling crazily) became a smart venue, going by the name of The Australian Bar. Finally, seeing the Kilburn Irish have been pushed too far they’ve recently gone on something of a low profile offensive to reclaim some pubs they’ve been evicted from care of the makeover business. Subsequently, Biddy Mulligan’s has returned though more as shadow than full-blown reality. The day though has yet to return when Irish labourers would forget where there nearby hole in the road was having supped more than a few jars in Biddy’s during lunchtime!
In Brendan’s account a continual, though unconscious, critique of money keeps showing through. He says of the Darky Flynn: “I never met a man who had less value on money. He never worried about tomorrow in his life. He always reasoned he could wake up dead and a fat lot of good an accumulation of wealth would be”. There are also many other stories about the spendthrift habits of the Irish building workers, money passing through their hands like water. Though never reaching the heights of the Northern Irish protestant Tressell who wrote a book around building sites “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” which consciously called for the abolition of money, there is one account of a corn threshing session in old Ireland where his friend “O’Donell from Tir Conail” (no one ever knew his first name) writes “the threshing day was a festive occasion and no money changed hands - It was an honour to be there.”
In fact “O’ Donell” had entrusted Brendan with the job of being his literary executor after his death, for the man was much addicted to writing and “when funds were low he passed his time by writing”. Most of his writing was an undecipherable scrawl but Brendan did manage to interpret a few pieces, mostly on what life was like in the old days and which make fascinating reading. His few paragraphs entitled “Cutting the Turf” is not just about how TV and “the lounge bar had replaced chatting around the open hearth” but also a criticism of industrialized agriculture like the combine harvester and the mechanical turf cutting machines which had destroyed “the mirth that had prevailed” formerly for “the day on the bog was a picnic occasion”. He writes beautifully and with feeling about the slean, the tool used for cutting turf: “The slean was a beautiful tool. There was a romance involved with it which brought fatigue, happiness and satisfaction to everybody”. Anybody who has worked with hand tools will know what he means but a writer, seeing themselves in the writer’s role, never would.
He also tried his hand at writing poetry none of which ever comes off (or could have) and which only adds to the quality of the fragments. Like so many other building workers he hit the bottle but the bottle hit him back, ending up in the gutter and writing of how one day a pig lay down at his feet whilst there when “a city gent came along/And quietly sang his song/ You can tell the one that boozes/By the company he chooses/ The pig got up/ And quickly strode away”. The un-metrical twist at the end is what makes it and even the pig could not bear to keep him company. No writer would really know what that feels like either, because the profession of writer stops them sinking that low.
“O’ Donell’s” writing constantly threatens to fall apart just like the ramblings of the splendid Yorkshire miner, John Dennis also from an Irish background. Back in the seventies we used to frequent a pub in Ladbroke Grove much used by Irish and other building workers, for this was around the time of the national building workers’ strike. This pub also has been altered beyond all recognition and is now the Earl Percy Hotel when 30 years ago it was just a cut above a spit and sawdust place. Amongst the usual regulars was a white haired building worker of about sixty whom every night would take out a little book and begin to scribble in it, like he was possessed. Occasionally he would look up, his far-off eyes fixed on the ceiling not on other people. No one ever got to read what he wrote in his little notebook and he rarely spoke to anyone. However by sidling up to him it was possible to make out the lettering – for that was all it was, not even sentences just letters. He was obviously a lettriste in pure form.
There was also a building worker, a brickie, by the name of Huey who could be found there most nights. He was in the habit of suddenly cheeping “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo” in a falsetto voice that would go on all night. No one ever seemed to mind. Apparently he was a real gentleman to work with and his whole demeanour resonated gentleness finally ending up in an old peoples’ home bursting out to the carers’ every now and then “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo”. Really it wasn’t a bad comment on the time as the whole world was starting to go really cuckoo, these two little portraits giving a much needed personal touch to the setting of the first national building workers’ strike of 1972.
Brendan Ward never once mentions the strike, which is a bad, bad omission. He was an Irish republican imbued with a hatred of England not feeling a scrap of loyalty to the country and taking it for all he was worth by not paying taxes, though never once tempted to join the IRA. Though hardly cool, his discreet republicanism was similar to some of the Scots who played a key role in helping ferment the strike Though sympathetic to the aims of Irish republicanism they were not only intolerant of terrorism but would never agree to subcontracting in the service of the cause. They were also very doctrinaire when it came to the pragmatic use of the lump to keep strikes going, an attitude which caused them to clash with far less “principled” Irish building workers who would unhesitatingly use the lump – and more - if it enabled them to keep a strike going. The clash between one such Scottish organiser Mac and an Irish building worker, another O’Donnell (actually in the Communist party) used to happen fairly regularly, O’ Donnell calling Mac a John Knox puritan and Mac regarding O’Donnell as a gombeen man. O’Donnell was undoubtedly the easier to get on with and very quick to acknowledge the contradictions which, if not recognised, would lead pretty smartly into blatant hypocrisy and even schizophrenia. However he was hated for pointing the obvious out and rapidly condemned as a very suspicious, even perverted, character, a label he fortunately just shrugged off and paid little attention to though it must have hurt. O’ Donnell was also much more aware of the sheer craziness of capitalism and, drug fiend that he was now judged to be, smoked dope fairly regularly, a habit Mac loathed and feared. He also listened to psychedelic music and would occasionally drop some acid, neither of which met with ‘union’ approval because it was anti the hard drinking Scottish and Irish folk music traditions that in London and the South East in particular was rooted in the Scots/Irish building worker community.
O’Donnell also had a Scottish friend called Finn who played the guitar and had only joined the strike under peer pressure. He also had a beautiful red haired Scottish wife called Dorothy who was forever badgering him to get a better job and wanted nothing to do with strikes. One night Finn broke under the strain and had smashed up his expensive guitars. In fact Finn finally ended up leaving the buildings and getting a degree in philosophy of all things, as did O’ Donnell who wound up back in Ireland owning a smallholding, his teaching qualification now enabling him to teach as well as farm. None of this worked out though as finally the guy was to devote himself completely to his core activity of drinking and smoking dope. Neither could stick with the buildings and we last heard that Finn had lost the ability to speak, except in philosophic terms, and had landed a job in a college though managing to hang on to his ambitious wife. It’s a fair bet that the both of them, now around sixty, will look back on former times with great nostalgia and deem their subsequent lives a detour in emptiness when compared with the wealth of life they once knew on the buildings.
Most of the Scots we knew came from Kilmarnock, several of them making the trip to London together and quickly becoming domiciled in the same area, even street, as this was London in the sixties and bed-sit accommodation easy to find. This collective behaviour has long since gone, the last occasion being in the seventies when a bunch of lads and lasses all came down from Manchester together, a number of them also ending up on the buildings - and on the bottle and marijuana. They also quickly found accommodation but this time in squats however, for the London property market was then undergoing deep and lasting changes, the increasing emphasis on homeownership in a seemingly endlessly rising market profoundly transforming the nature of building and anchoring it more firmly than ever in the domestic arena.
One of the lads from Kilmarnock was called Jim and he also was employed on the buildings, though never for very long on the same site, skipping from one job to the next. He was a very genial character but regarded with suspicion by his more narrowly militant brethren: as one of his less judgemental acquaintances said “Jim can peel an orange in his pocket with a boxing glove on”. He liked to relate how he would go into the miners’ welfare in Kilmarnock and deal acid to the local miners and then drop a tab himself and sit back and enjoy the fun as miners morphed into different shapes and colours. This was a couple of years prior to the great miners’ strike of the early seventies (1972 and 1974) that brought down the Tory Heath government. Jim also got taken up and went to college wringing his hands over his unpaid taxes and eventually becoming a union bureaucrat. Something must have happened in the meantime for a couple of year’s back he was to be seen on Portobello Rd on a Sunday in charge of a stall selling gloves, scarves and underpants. Never a fool, had he, one wonders, arrived at a critique of trade unionism preferring to be a petite bourgeois small trader than living with the dishonour of being a not very effective broker of labour power in these increasingly harsh times.
Jim in the early 1970s among his odd jobs was also a bit of a chauffeur, an occasional driver for another guy from south west Scotland called MacQuinney, and a young trendy businessman in the design field. MacQuinney was one of the guys from the late sixties who used to like smashing up, or at least, pull from their steel cotter pins wooden Jesus Christ statues nailed on crosses outside churches everywhere. Realising rebellion was all over with he yet needed the pulse of the street to keep him going; a guy who wanted his cake and yet more to eat. Becoming a designer he could converse – just – on the situationists. He needed a mad-cap, libertarian worker like Jim if only as a foil and after the day’s business, night after night he would sit slap bang in the middle of all the builders knowing he wasn’t trusted yet sensing they were all increasingly at sea too.
Mac also left the buildings after the national building workers’ strike returning to Scotland where he took a job on the oilrigs. There was a degree of tension between him and his New Zealand born wife Roz who wanted a baby and would go out on sex strike. Mac never spoke about such intimate things rejecting fatherhood because he feared the responsibility would weaken his militancy as it had done with many another building worker who once they became father’s grew mightily afraid of the sack and being blacklisted. However it is easy to be critical of such figures as Mac and, though much admired and respected, his ascetic stance went against the grain of the times, his unbending, repressive demeanour stopping him from ever acknowledging the reality of his sister’s suicide, who, shortly after the strike ended, had defenestrated herself in Edinburgh. Henceforth Mac would refer to Mary’s death not her suicide.
Mac also would never fix people up with jobs in a trade that was notorious for slipping someone money in order to get a start and subbies never expected to buy a round. It has to be said the Scots and Northerners generally were far more adamant then the Irish in not bowing to this time-honoured custom, which also features prominently in the bible of the builders workers unions’ Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. On the other hand Mac did not like pilfering from sites but even he couldn’t help tittering when a building operative had been caught by the agent with a TV on his fork lift truck and rather than say “fair cop guv” had proceeded with it to the rubbish shoot claiming it was broken. Mac also knew many agents were corrupt and would skimp on materials and flog off the surplus. Yet despite this tolerated criminality, coming mainly from the top, and which can have very dangerous consequences indeed in building, sabotage is none the less part of struggle and it always raises a smile and causes a feeling of joy to run through the body.
Some instances are particularly splendidly outrageous like the one recounted by a now dead chippie, Frank, when fitting out the QE2 in Glasgow’s shipyards back in the early seventies. A very expensive grand piano had been installed in one of the palatial ballrooms on the liner but unfortunately one of the other chippies employed on the fitting out had managed to severely scratch the piano. Knowing they would be held responsible, and their pay docked, there was nothing else for it. So they set to work with their skill saws and chopped it up, throwing each piece into the Clyde through the portholes. Later the same gang would go on the rampage and gut the interior of the QE2 in protest against the withholding of bonuses. No one was ever brought to book because the yards were so well organised and the Clyde work-in was either still in progress or a recent memory. Meanwhile several flying pickets were shortly to be frog marched off to jail in rural Shrewsbury on trumped-up conspiracy charges.
Frank was by no means a libertarian and was, for instance, very down on squatting, believing squatters liked nothing better than immediately smash toilets when they occupied property and shit on the floor instead. They also had babies just so they could murder them and dispose of the remains under the floorboards! By now living in Kilburn in London, Frank, a Glasgow protestant, liked nothing better than to open the windows of his flat overlooking Kilburn High Road, still then something of an Irish catholic “ghetto”, and blast out that belting hymn of the Orange Order: “The Sash my Father Wore.” He also had on the walls of his flat a cherished copy of his favourite painting: “When did you last see your Father” which depicts two Royalist children being questioned by a brute of an interrogator looking a shade like Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War of the 1640s’. Frank never did find out the Pope was on the side of King Billy in the Battle of the Boyne, the founding myths of the orange and the green only just then beginning to be questioned in Britain but which was always the reality in Ireland pace the United Irishmen of the 1790s and whenever the real social shit hits the fan.
A tacit support for Irish republicanism and virtually none whatsoever for Northern Ireland’s protestants, even by chapel-goers, was also a factor in the miners’ strike of 1984/85, particularly in Yorkshire. Some of these striking miners also worked the Lump, whenever, that is, they could get lump work, receiving cash in hand at the end of the day to help sustain the strike. What did come, as a surprise is that they found the work very heavy and would return home at the end of the day exhausted, though less inclined to think of building workers as having it cushty in comparison with miners.
One of the most interesting features of Brendan Ward’s account is the number of Irish immigrants who found work in the mines to then move on to do building work. They tended to work down the mines during the Second World War, presumably alongside the Bevan Boys, though Brendan never mentions any staying on permanently. However the skills they acquired hewing coal served them in good stead for post war navvying work, the ability to shift “muck” having something John Henry like about it, as though an unofficial war had been declared on the JCBs, which were just to say beginning to come on stream and eventually put many of them out of work. Though Mac, the militant building worker mentioned previously, had never worked down the mines, his father had been a coal miner in the Fife coalfield. Mac vividly recalled his father coming home from work to say the mines had been nationalised to then repeatedly break down crying, the bewildered child asking what that meant and his father replying, between his sobs, “it means there will be pit head baths”. No one from Ireland would have responded in a similar manner because for them coal mining was only a temporary expedient and filled with a greater wanderlust than ever in post war Britain, would soon be moving on.
When Brendan Ward first came to England he hardly knew the difference between a chain saw and a chain gang. Never in receipt of any training other than what he learned on the job and following the tried and tested principle of “monkey does what monkey sees” i.e. watching other people, over the years he has become “skilled” and it is apparent from the terms he uses he has a wide knowledge of the building trade. This brings us to another, very important point, about the Irish immigration and that is they were as skilled at a broad spectrum of farming as they were at building. This is what he writes about his friend “O’Donnel from Tir Conail” on the rare occasions he went back home “He knew every sheep intimately—He noticed the turf rick was well covered and the pikes of hay were thatched and well held down with scallops”. As well as scribbling profusely, the memories poring out of him of a way of life that had gone forever, he had also been a miner in Yorkshire. By the end of his life this cat certainly knew a thing or two and it would have been a pleasure to have met him, provided he had been able to stay sober. Though forever in each other pockets and rucking constantly this jack-of-all-trades approach of the Irish was also a bone of contention with the Scots who, hailing from the land of Adam Smith, were more adapted to the division of labour and far more inflexible when it came to trying there hand at things different from what they had been trained to do. Bad workmanship was a mark of shame with the Scots whereas with the Irish it was almost a badge of honour. It was certainly an indication of a will to live and a sign they had got their priorities right, Brendan saying of The Darky Flynn: “Work was incidental to him”. Flan (or The Flower) from the Burren was also similarly disposed: “work interfered in a big way with his leisure.”
However there is more to it than this: in a country they hated, building became a form of guerrilla activity and legging it down the street, when a house front collapsed, all part of a war carried out by other means. Brendan described himself as a professional “but alas, not in the art of construction, but destruction” saying in his life he had variously “tried to pass as a labourer, a plumber, a brickie, a lift engineer, a plasterer, a chippie, a paper hanger and a tacker.” What’s more in 1985 he is proud to shout it out loud but over twenty years on the numbers who once would have revelled in such a frank admission have dwindled to practically nothing. It is not just that the controls have tightened since then but attitudes to work have become more serious, taking away all pleasure in work and robbing us of the laughs when things go wrong big time.
This brings us to Brendan’s discussion of Irish humour perhaps the most unique humour to be found anywhere and which was once such a feature of the building scene and sorely missed now that it has gone. It is a humour that never ceases to surprise the Irish either because it put things in another perspective or causes us to look at things differently. For example Brendan suddenly breaks off to say it is already three in the morning and he “is expected at Reading by 7 30 am by his good employer” adding “he might not miss me if I’m late but then on the other hand British Rail might, and the train could be held up for an hour awaiting my arrival”. We miss the train but to an Irish person the train misses you. However it was the Irish speakers whose language chiefly impressed Brendan – in particular the Connemara men: “They talked in Irish and they definitely had a way of conversing in the English language. For instance Flaherty was asked how long his mother was dead. He replied: “If she was alive tomorrow she would be one year dead.” Another of his descriptions concerned a dog he had trained back home “the dog could be in the air while his hind legs were on the ground.” But there were times when he got his terms wrong like the time he rose early to go mowing: “I was putting the winkers on the sun when the mare was rising”. It is definitely the sort of inversion a surrealist in the heyday of surrealism as a way of life would have responded to and inevitably one thinks of Synge captivated a century ago by the many layered language of the peoples’ of the Aran Islands like it was the realisation of symbolism in a land beyond poetry on the far shores of western Europe.
The logic of this anti-logic could - and can - catch authority off guard and many a building worker was saved from a smack on the head by the quick wittedness of their replies. One of Brendan’s friends, The Chancer, was caught by the brutal ganger The Elephant carrying one bags of cement at a time while his mate was carrying two: “How come you’re only carrying one bag, Chancer, when the other man carries two”- “Oh he’s too lazy to go back for the other one” answered The Chancer.”
If Brendan is to be believed one of them, The Flower, had a remarkable capacity for ad-libbing and we never pass a Trollope and Coles sign without being reminded of the Flower’s ad-lib: “A glass with holes for Trollope and Coles” nor his ad lib on the “pincher laddies” (i.e. the building workers who would return at night and have equipment away, even JCBs) “A rum and black for the pincher Mac”. He also ad- libbed around the name of Mulvaney, a subbie who did workers out of money right left and centre and was reputed to be gay: “A half of beer for Mulvaney the queer”. In any case the ad-lib was not nearly as good as when we once, in the company of a good man of the buildings, fell to thinking about the number of gay plumbers we knew: “perhaps it’s all those pipes” he ventured. The person is Jewish not Irish but had been brought up in Holloway surrounded by the Irish, though it must be admitted the Jews have their own capacity for word play based more on assonance and alliteration. We were once working on a flat belonging to a musical journalist when I happened on the lyrics of a rap song that ended “the stick-up kids are out to tax” to which our ad-libber immediately replied “and when I get rich I’ll send you a fax”.
Many of the thrifty Irish have become property millionaires in the last 30 years both here and in Ireland some many times over – and probably astonished at their “good fortune” for they brought property when it was going cheap. One such person was Donegal Jack, a ganger man who always succeeded in having three or four wage packets for himself. In order to achieve this he drove the men to the utmost and booked in another few ghost names on the timesheet. His employers were aware of the fiddle but seemed to tolerate it as long as he still made a good profit for them. It is hard to understand how his men despised him so much but yet continued to work for him year after year. Donegal Jack, as Ward says “was a loathsome creature all right. Anyway he saved his money and bought three houses in Kilburn, which he let out to tenants despite the fact that he owned three houses, he squatted in a flat along with two black men. – Despite the fact he was squatting he still charged them rent.” We (not Brendan Ward) knew a Donegal Joe who died recently of drink. He could easily have been a victim of Donegal Jack as a tenant and as a building worker – whenever he was not drunk that is.
Sean the Fisherman, and unlike Donegal Jack was it seems a really nice guy, perpetually able to create a fantasy construct of the life he left behind in Ireland the recollection of which starts as he notices a seagull winging over a trench he is about to dig: “His mind wandered to his youth as soon as he learned to walk he accompanied his brothers on fishing trips. He became an excellent boatman and could make a currach in three days. His descriptions of nature are something else: “In summer time the setting was idyllic. The heather behind the house blew in gentle waves in the wind, exposing its multicolours as it rose and fell. The sheep bleated for their lambs as they searched out a bit of grass. They were like white dots on a floral carpet”. Sean was as efficient in farming as he was in seafaring.
Rather similar it seems was Flan from the Burren: “The Burren is one of the most fantastic places on earth. The breathtaking scenes, the rare flowers and grasses are enjoyed and appreciated from people all over the world. That is lovely but the scenery seldom pays the rates…..”
Then there’s a comment on Achill: “People emigrated from Achill without ever setting foot on the mainland. The island of Innis Kee was shrouded in sorrow through drowning…..” It reminds you of Yeats’s: “Holy Isle of Innisfree”…..
There is in “Builders Remembered” (1984) a chapter on Terry who became known as “Terry the Philosopher” rather than Terry Clifden, the place of his birth though “he recalled being reared near Clifden” like he’d now half forgotten. It was plain to see he was a man who had thought long and hard about many things and though it is not always possible to agree with his conclusions they are always full of interest. He had a critique of money from the start, even if not, by any means, a fully worked out one, – as indeed do a lot of people who have lived long enough to remember a childhood, even in Britain, were money was all but absent from the lives of children and young adults. As he said to Brendan “money was scarce but nobody went without. Life was lived to the full with money necessity remaining at a minimum.”
Ah yes to be one of the dwindling few who know in their bones what that means. This attitude to money followed the Irish to England especially those that became building workers, who were impressed more by how much they earned than the paper notes that made it up and as Terry profoundly observed: “When the pay packet came Paddy held up the packet and threw away the contents”. He had also pondered long on the different attitudes of the Irish and English toward property. “Security is something the Irishman in England desires. Most emigrants have worked hard very hard to own their own houses. The Englishman is content to live in a council flat round the corner from mum’s council flat and again around the corner from his mum in-law’s council flat. He never considers helping himself to some of his employers property as dishonesty. He more or less treats it as a bonus. On the other hand Paddy is careful with his employer’s property.” And it is true that many an Irishman saved hard so he could buy a pub, a farm, a house back home, Ireland being an altogether more petite bourgeois nation than Britain at that time. This is not intended as a put down, simply an acknowledgement of different levels of development with property and the means of production far less concentrated in a few hands in Ireland. However the same cannot be said of now and in the past twenty years the economies have converged leading to an amelioration of the underlying tension between the Irish and the English – certainly on building sites. There was even something of a reverse migration English building workers sucked in by Ireland’s stupendous property boom. This of course has come to end with Ireland throwing open its door to the new Europe and the wave of immigration that followed undermining wages and working conditions on the buildings just as in Britain.
Terry the Philosopher had thought about the Irish attitude to tax stating that: “Paddy never minded paying indirect tax on his drink and tobacco but income tax was another day’s work.” Moreover, “he certainly objected to his money being used to pay for Downing St, Westminster, Kensington, Balmoral or Mustique.” By Westminster he obviously meant the Houses of Parliament so in addition to the usual stab at the aristocracy and Queen Bessy he was also having a go at parliamentary democracy though without being able to draw more radical conclusions and put things on a revolutionary footing.
Terry the Philosopher had also interesting comments to make about the spread of subcontracting in Britain after World War Two and obviously this thinking working man made a huge impression on Brendan his theorising helping shape Brendan’s opinions. “London is full of subcontractors,” he said. “Before the seventies all work was carried out by direct labour. Companies were forced into massive investment in plant machinery and materials. They cut their overheads by subcontracting out the various stages of the work.”
There is however a crucial omission in all this and which Brendan does not expand on by starting out from where “The Philosopher” left off. And that is to what extent did the huge amount of disruptive strike activity during the 1960s, leading eventually up to the first national building strike, have upon the increase in subtracting during the 1970s? Subcontracting never was just a means of defraying the costs of huge capital outlays onto other shoulders. It is also an extremely effective means of creating division amongst workers and destroying resistance. To neoliberalism subcontracting is an article of faith. And nor must we forget that throughout the 1970s the seeds of neoliberalism were already beginning to sprout within the Treasury and already put into practise in South America with a military coup in Chile leading the rout.
We recognised the characters and the half insights in Brendan Ward’s books and as he generalises in Builders Remembered, “The characters are real, living and adventurous and will never be replaced. There could never be such a cross section of humanity encountered in any other walk of life”. We could have added so many passages ourselves regarding all the particular characters we met. So, let’s have a go as thousands upon thousands could (and can) also do.
There was Tommy Sweeney, The Glaswegian, and the man who built London single-handedly. But obviously that was now all in the past because he spent most of the day hanging around telling others what to do He was also a very rich man but could never quite retrieve his fortune; the trouble was he couldn’t access his account for one lay under the pavement on Sochiehall street in Glasgow and the other was buried under the walls of Mountjoy jail in Dublin. As a brickie he’d built all the arches at the top end of Kilburn High Rd as it proceeds towards Shoot Up Hill - a name and description Tommy inevitably loved. He could also stop a bus or car by just putting his arm resolutely onto the bonnet and growling: the one occasion we witnessed he was run down and had to be sent immediately to an A&E unit. He wore a Scottish federation of anarchist badge saying he was friendly with the renowned Scottish anarchist, Stuart Christie, though friendly too with the hardman Jimmy Boyle in Glasgow and claimed: “I culda hadim”. (There was always a close link between Glasgow hoodlums and its militant socialist tradition, anarchism and the working class, more so than anywhere else in Britain).
Then there was Smitty and the coppers’ pub. Smitty, the son of a Yorkshire miner who worked at Manvers Main colliery, spent more time honing up his plastering tools than plastering – they became as sharp as a knife and the sun would glint off them – and you got a trifle nervous working side by side with him wondering where that trowel might go! He and Sweeney would drink together ending up fighting with each other at the end of the night. It was Sweeney that called time on it. So Smitty would then have to go to the coppers’ pub by himself then telling us the next day on the building site how many coppers he had beaten up the night before, once claiming he had pulled the rib cage out of one copper, and this well before the 1984 miners’ strike. (Such colour recalls Brendan Ward’s memories of The Elephant whether fact or fiction, knocking out 12 coppers at one go).
Then there was Terry the peg-leg Irish plumber who drunk one night was stopped by the police who asked what he did for a living: “I’m a submarine captain” came the reply. The police would on occasion turn up on the site, which would be empty of building operatives half a minute latter. And the last heard of Terry: Why, following Synge, though eighty years later, he’d become the only plumber on the Aran Islands! Terry even then working on a London building site could understand work and sleep governed by the seasons and the sounds of nature and not by the clock. Talking to him, Terry would say how he understood the hour at which Irishmen and women in the far-flung countryside arose in the morning. The small farmer was awakened not by the alarm clock but by the lowing of cattle, ever depending when that lowing would be. When he returned from England back to Ireland he was up at cockcrow but within a few days could sleep as well as if he had never been away.
And finally to the crack which according to Brendan “immediately starts and bunches of men gather round to listen to impromptu delivery of yarns.” And he is so right about that but it then tales off and though “production immediately falls” initially because of the enthusiastic exchanges when first seeing so and so on site after a long period the good feeling may in fact increase productivity the chatter becoming like a work song though never quite. A clean site is a safe site and a friendly site is a productive site, so goes the litany of management, the state and unions combined. But behind this another reality looms: Brendan Ward was also very mistrustful of the Health & Safety Executive whom he reckoned were very bribebal having being present when officers had been called to a site only to be paid money to then declare the site safe. None of this has changed though bribery is no longer courtesy of discreet brown paper envelopes though it exists on a much vaster, more digital scale.
It seems fitting to conclude these brief remarks with a list of the names Brendan Ward knew: Stoneface/Treble B/ Big Bad Bob/ Giant Lynch/ Lovely Leitrim/Monkey Face/ The Bonecrusher/The Chancer/The Bushwhacker and Knobby/The Flower/ Two Ton Bill/ Sledgehammer/Mick the Jovial/The Darky Flynn/and finally the three animals: The Elephant/ The Bear O’Shea/ The Pig O’Dwyer.
(By: Stuart Wise with a wee bit of help from Dave: Summer 2007)