chessspys travails in the workplace.

23 Apr 2008
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Legless Paddy at R. Sewells the Builder.

Paddy, or John, to give him his real name was a labourer I met whilst working a few weeks for a Hull building firm called R. Sewells. (I promise you this story is true, each and every word, I would not lie, you can look them up in the Hull phone book if you wish).

I normally looked for sub-contract work on price on the larger building sites, but on this occasion, I had only 'thrown' up in Hull on a visit to my family, and needed a few weeks temporary work, and this job in a disused werehouse in the old town, which was being converted into an indoor market seemed like it would fit the bill.
They needed a bricky to build a lift shaft and other sundry works and I was up for a few weeks work, all very satisfactory, But the money wasn't all that, it being day work, but beggars can't be choosers as they say.

The lift shaft area was hidden well inside this cavernous building, past several existing wide door openings all built from Staffordshire blue bull-nose bricks, (they just don't build things like they used to) and it didn't seem like there would be any problem getting the bricks and mortar in place. However things didn't work out quite like I thought.
John was assigned to feed me with mortar and bricks, to lead material to me as the trade say, and initially things went along nicely, with me in the large concrete pit below ground level, where I first set out the internal dimensions of the lift shaft and proceed to build.
This would be all built in 9" class B , English bond engineering brick. A good but unforgiving brick, totally impervious to water and finished 'fair faced' internally in struck pointing.

As the morning progressed and the walls rose around me I noticed that the brick piles at the edge of the pit, from where I was taking my supplies were running ever more low, and John was running in and out with wheelbarrows of bricks and mortar, generally looking under pressure.

John had had a tough life, and had, he assured me also the misfortune to break one of his legs a year of two previously. Whilst recuperating and in a plaster cast from his ankle to his thigh, he got fed up with sitting indoors in his digs and went out for a drink,
He proceeded to take a little too much of the Liffy water after this enforced layoff, and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking the other leg in the process, and it didn't do the healing leg much good either. This had left him with a bit of a gimp, and he was always keen to make things a little easier for himself in such a physically demanding roll.

For those who don't know, 'Paddy' when he has a man to feed, will take a pride in keeping him working and busy, and John was no exception in this. After some thought, John decided to lead the bricks in with the dump truck which was being occasionally used in the demolition areas, but not this morning.
The first I knew of this change of plan, (from behind walls of brick which were now approaching ground level) was an horrendous crashing, revving of diesel motor and general racket made up in equal parts of voluble curses of a bloodcurdling kind and the screeching of metal on brick. I can't claim that the building shuddered with the impacts, it was too solidly built for that, but it might well have otherwise.
After a few moments the foreman appeared and started remonstrating with John.
I had jumped out of the pit by this time and caught the tail end of a fairly heated exchange.
John had filled the dump truck with bricks and was negotiating his way, heretofore successfully, through the ample door openings with the load I needed, to give himself some respite from my constant demands.
(I would expect to lay about 1000 bricks a day on such a straight forward job)

The foreman was at some pains to demonstrate to John that the big wheel axle on the front of the dumper truck was 2" too wide to pass through the last opening, and he, John, should tip the bricks at the opening and barrow then from there to my work area, some 20 yards further.
As this meant 'double handling' of the brick, John was not impressed, but after much gesticulation and more words that should not be repeated in polite society, John accepted his fate.
I could see that John was not entirely convinced, and much grumbling and hard looks at both the offending doorway and circling of the dump truck ensued over the next few hours.
At the lunch break period John was somewhat subdued, being as we found out, deep in thought about this seemingly intractable problem of leading bricks in without 'double handling', and at the end of lunch a light could be detected in his eye and a lightening of his brow, as he said to the foreman, "Do you think if I drove the truck in through the door backwards that would do it?"
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Little Fat Andy and the concrete bicycle.
Little Fat Andy was the site agent on several of the sites in London upon which I had the 'pleasure' to work. An agents job on site is to liaise between the management proper, client and architects etc. Andy also saw his role as including making life as difficult as possible for the various subcontract trades on site, generally interfering in the smooth operation of the work in progress, ostensibly to push forward various aspects of the project which according to his various flow-charts and lists were not moving as they should.
This generally caused a good deal of bad feeling towards him, especially when he wanted walls built where access was needed, or having walls plastered before the electrical wiring had been completed etc.

It is true to say that Andy had a slight weight problem but he was addressing this by driving in to work in his car and leaving it parked about half a mile away from the site and cycling the rest of the way on a brand new mountain bike which he made sure we knew had cost him £500.

Now on a site in Chelsea, which this was, and with the front garden excavated to allow the installation of a full sized underground swimming pool (I kid you not)
The labourers were forever having to move the darn thing about, as LFA wanted it always in his view, no matter where it was parked, it always seemed to be in the way.
Several of the labourers used bikes to travel to work, and they somehow found a suitable cubbyhole for them out harms way, perhaps due to their having at least some clue about the general work areas being used from day to day. There was even a partially dismantled old mountain bike which spent it's time on site being variously cannibalised for spares, and it was this happy coincidence which was to cause LFA some few moments of heartache.

Once the front garden had the lid cast on it things became a little easier, the scaffolding bridge had been demolished,and access could be gained in the normal way.
The house was now taking shape, and one bright day it was time for the grand entrance to have the concrete step cast in preparation for installing the Grecian pillars which would frame the front door.
This was a pretty large step as steps go, three treads high and about 12 foot long by four foot deep. The shuttering team had completed the false work the day before and the concrete pour was ordered for that morning.
As it happened, I was working just inside the entrance opening on some internal block work, and LFA's bicycle was visible to me across the yard.
My labourer, Dennis, was one of the other workers who cycled in to work regularly and he had even on occasion availed himself of various parts from the old bike for spares.
"Dennis, are these mountain bikes all similar with interchangeable parts?
I asked, "and would the wheels from that old bike in the back fit even Andy's new one for example?"
On receiving an answer in the affirmative, a little plan started to slowly form in my mind.
It was the work of a few moments to discuss the mechanics of changing the wheels from LFA's bike with those of the old 'spares' bike and volunteers to help were easy to enlist. The depth of the concrete down to the rebar in the poured step was only about 4 inches, just enough to anchor the bike in the concrete step without any harm being done to Andy's bike.
The bike could not stay in the concrete until it set of course as the main idea of a good site wind up is that,
(1) Everyone (with a grievance) is aware it is going to happen.
(2) No (lasting) harm is done to anyone's person or property.
(3) It should be a simple matter to return things back to their previous state.
(4) The object of the wind up should be completely taken in by it and hopefully 'lose it' big time.
I was fairly optimistic, as Andy was known to check visually on his bike from the cabin on a regular basis.
When Andy finally looked out and saw his pride and joy planted proudly in the fresh concrete step the result was little short of spectacular.
After changing a good range of colours from a ghastly white to red then purple and back again, he loudly announced that we had "all gone too far this time, his bike was ruined, and someone was going to pay. Not only that, but he was shutting the site down immediately and we were all sacked!
It would have been very pleasing to let his anguish run it's course, but as his extreme reaction seemed to pressage a heart attack or stroke, and this would clearly contradict rule 2, I had to tell him that the wheels in the concrete were from a 'scrapper' and all would be restored as before in a few minutes.
Happy days.
Alan Dewey.
Little Fat Andy
and the
Front Door Key.
Working on building sites in London and various places around in the south east of England was sometimes hard, sometimes cold, (in winter) and often rather boring. No wonder we the subcontract brickies and other trades occasionally set 'wind-ups' for various of the other personnel on site. These traps and tricks were often aimed at the site-agent as they are frequently reviled as being interfering know nothing 'suits'. This was certainly true in Andy's case.
However, sometimes there was no need to think of a set-up as these people were quite capable of creating the most bizarre and strange situations themselves, often with a little unknowing help from one of the other workers.

Read on dear reader. this story is true (apart from the place name of the property obviously.) :-

I was subcontract to Holoways a London firm, Joinery based, who bought in bricklayers as and when needed. I had been on several of their sites and my face seemed to fit for the most part.
Whilst renovating a site for them in Chelsea with LFA as the agent, Andy decided it was time for him to have the back addition on his little Victorian terraced house in Taybridge extended. His wife was pregnant with their second child and the bathroom would need to be moved from upstairs in the third bedroom to this new extension to make room for his expanding family. All very sensible.

So, one day after work, Andy duly drove me down to his house and into the rear garden to asses the work needed. The footings and foundations had already been dug and poured by one of the labourers from 'work'. It was pretty well ready to go, so I worked out the materials I would need and gave Andy the list.
We agreed on a price, and I departed with directions to the local rail station and home. Andy's house backed on to some allotments with a path through to the station, so I always took this route to and from his job.

Andy's wife was always there to pass the electric power cable through a window and supply tea and biscuits, (and a charming woman she was too.)
One weekend Andy's wife was not available. Andy was working in London and I was going to have to let myself in to the house through the front door, pass out the cable and make my own tea etc. well, no problem, I am house trained after all. The key, I was informed was under a plant pot on the left of the front door, I was to go in, pass out the cable, switch on and unlatch the back door, work, and then do the reverse when finished. All very straight forward.

On arriving at the rear of the house I walked round the end of the terrace, down the street and up the path to what looked like Andy's house. I looked under the plant pot, which strangely, was on the right hand side of the door, let myself in and made my way to the rear. To my surprise there was no half built back addition? It slowly dawned on me that I had (broke and) entered the wrong house, the property of one of Andy's unsuspecting neighbours.
I quickly and quietly left, put the key back under the plant pot and went next door, this surely was the right house, but I felt a little apprehensive when I found the key under the doormat, but undeterred I went in.

Yes you've guessed it, wrong house again. Fortunately in each case the owners were out, and even more good fortune, (for them,) I am not normally a house breaker or burglar and of course touched nothing, leaving every thing as I found it, replacing the keys in their 'safe'(?) hiding places.

I decided to try one more before panicking. Oh dear no, wrong again!
I started to think that the locals had no fear of burglars or perhaps this corner of the world lived under different rules to the rest of us.
Eventually I admitted defeat, it would have been interesting to see how many of the locals had left keys, but I was concerned that one of the houses opposite might be occupied by an oldie, and my behaviour might seem a bit suspicious, even to these obviously trusting folk. I walked back round to the rear and counted in from the end of terrace, retraced my steps, re-counted from the front and, at last! managed to open the correct house.

If there is a moral to this story, I think it may be this,

If you want to be a housebreaker, then try Taybridge. Good hunting.
Little Fat Andy
and the
Tin Can Telephone
This on site wind up happened in Chelsea, on the same site as the concrete bicycle incident but a few months earlier. Before the 'lid' was put on the excavations for the full size Olympic swimming pool under the front garden of the house. (I promise I kid you not).
There was a scaffolding bridge across from the site cabin, Andy's office, where all the on site meetings between client, architect and management happened, to the first floor access of the house. We naturally called this the bridge of sighs, as during this period it was the only way onto the site in the morning, (sighs of despair) and off again at the end of each shift, (sighs of relief).
We always knew when a site visit by the 'suits' was planned, as a bowl of fresh fruit appeared on the desk in the main office. Why fresh fruit do you ask? You are asking the wrong person, as non of the trades who were actually doing the building of the project were ever invited to these meetings. Just as well really as we were fully occupied actually sorting out the job.
Andy, the site agent, (generally held in contempt by every tradesman on site) had a 'walk about' phone, this was in the days before mobiles were common, and he was often seen talking into it from the walkway outside the office, we used to pick up a fletton brick and pretend to be replying to him by talking into the brick frog. This frankly childish amusement soon paled as he would just turn his back and ignore us.
However the idea of a site telephone stretching across the bridge of sighs started to seem like a good idea, and so plans were laid.
Empty soup tins were brought in by my labourer, whilst the joiners were set to work making two foot square white sign boards with a slot in the top to take the phone and a 2x2" timber handle to fix them with scaffold clips to the handrails at each end of the bridge. One in front of the office door and the other at the site end, a distance of about 30 feet.
Everything was prepared and ready, even down to the length of line between the two soup tins, which would be the telephones.
Eventually the bowl of fruit appeared in the office, and every one on site who wasn't management was waiting in anticipation.
The meetings usually occupied the suits from about 10:30 in the morning until about 2pm. when they broke for a liquid lunch and thence home.
Shortly after 1pm while all the workers were at lunch I recovered the signs (now suitably lettered in black marker 'ANDY'S SITE TELEPHONE')
A few scaffolding clips (pigs ears, for the cognoscenti) and a spanner were to hand. It was a matter a few minutes work.Clip on the boards, Pop in the 'office phone' tin can run the line across, and put in the 'works phone'.
It seemed like forever until the meeting finally broke up. Andy stayed in the office glad handing his visitors, and they slowly exited the office one by one. Today they didn't file off site chatting. No they spotted the 'phone' and were very quick to try it out. with many a gleeful cry of, does it work, one at one end one the other, alternately talking and listening.
They were still taking turns when Andy came out of the office to see what was causing such a commotion....
I should say that this time he seemed to see the funny side of it and chuckled along with his guests.
I didn't get many more contracts on Andy's sites, I wonder why?
Alan Dewey.
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Good eve brother Nose, how goes the struggle?
All is well with me, this recession has had a strange effect on my overseas clients, they are sending me more work than I can handle.
And there is a dedicated chess and games sale in london (Bonhams knightsbridge) at the end of the month.
So as you will guess I am soooo busy.
I trust the returned 'brethren of the Wall' (O praise them) have been looking after you and that your business prospers brother?
All praise to the wall.
Alan D. (AKA chessspy)
Myself and my fellow masons are prospering, thank you.

The trowel seeks enlightenment and ultimately finds it in the wall.
Hi, bro. Nose.
I see you are keeping the faith.
the trowel does as you quite rightly say, seek, and find enlightenment in the sacred wall.
did you enjoy the stories? they are all true BTW.

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