Saturday, 14 September 2013

Temporary jobs during my Cambridge days

My terms at Emmanuel were filled with studying and rowing though probably more of the latter than the former. During the vacations, particularly the long summer break, the world had to be faced and money had to be earned. Then, as now, the student population provided a pool of casual labour to the economy. Over a period of three years I had a variety of temporary jobs.

I worked on a farm near Cambridge at harvest time and lived in a local pub. Being a farm labourer was hard work with long hours starting very early in the morning which proved particularly difficult after drinking in the pub the following evening. The worst task I was asked to do was to burn a field of stubble armed only with a box of matches and a small tree branch. I had to start in one corner and work my way diagonally across the field, gently beating the flames to keep an even line. This was all very well until the line became longer and longer as I reached the centre. To make matters worse, the hedge surrounding the field caught fire and I had to beat it out with the branch as I kept the rest of it going. Eventually I was left with a small triangle of stubble which petered out, leaving me utterly exhausted.

Roy Lander and John Grinsell
Roy Lander and me
I also worked at a canning factory in Peterborough with my great friend from Emmanuel, Roy Lander. Roy had come to the UK to study from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was more used to factory work than me. Prior to the harvesting of peas, an army of students were employed to prepare the factory for the receipt of the harvest. I remember spending several days with Roy inside a large cylinder called a pea grader, armed with hand files to smooth down the inside edges of the holes which had been drilled through the outer surface of the drum to allow the smaller peas to fall through. Unless the inside surface was smooth, everything would come out as split peas. So much for the sophistication of the modern industrial process!

As a student of architecture, it was important for me to spend some time on a building site. The first spell was labouring on a local school building project where I had the tough job of unloading bags of cement. The bags were not only extremely heavy but very hot on my back. I did get the chance to use a dumper truck which I rather enjoyed until my knee got in the way of the bucket while tipping builder's rubble. I ended up with a large bruise and a stiff leg for a week so, although I learned little about building techniques, I became familiar with how to 'go on the sick' as a labourer.

At the end of my third year I spent a more profitable time with John Laing Construction in Birmingham on a large multi-storey housing project. I learned much about the problems of building management as I worked in the programming section of a large site office. My job was to inspect the individual dwellings each day to record progress under the various trade headings and stages e.g. carpenter, joiner, plasterer etc. This information was fed into a master progress chart to be set against the original programme. Any delays would immediately affect the building costs with implications for contract value and possible loss of profit. This experience prepared me for the realities of the building industry.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Rowing at Cambridge - Thames Head of the River Race

1956 Emmanuel Boat Crew (second eight?).
John is front row, far left.

It was in the lower reaches of the river where I spent most of my time when I wasn't studying. Training usually involved long distance outings covering the length of the river from the boathouses down to the first lock before the river Cam joined the Great Ouse.  On one occasion the first two 'eights' even rowed beyond the lock and carried on down to Ely. The fields adjoining the river were partly flooded and we found ourselves rowing completely off course. We had to row all the way back the following day.

I was a regular member of the second college 'eight' in my first year and took part in national rowing events such as the Thames Head of the River race, which was traditionally rowed the week before the University Boat Race from Mortlake to Putney, and in a coxless four at Henley Royal Regatta. These are experiences I would never forget, not just for the physical exertion involved in both training and taking part, but for the comradeship and sheer fun of the events.

Before the Head of the River race in London we took part in a similar race in Reading the previous week. In the intervening days the two eights rowed downstream through Maidenhead, Henley, Slough and Windsor to Putney, going through several locks and enjoying the beautiful riverbanks of the upper Thames such as Cookham Reach and Teddington. We stayed overnight in Maidenhead and I recall arriving in the pouring rain at about 5 o'clock. The boathouse was adjacent to the main street and we were ordered to run straight to the hotel as soon as we had stored the boat. The sight of sixteen oarsmen and two coxes running down the busy street must have surprised the locals but was nothing compared to the shock of the guests in the hotel when we burst in, bedraggled and soaked-through in our rowing kit. One of our crew, a huge man of 6'6" and 16 stone, loudly requested a hot bath. His name was Bill Hunt, a law student, and I often think of him now as a successful lawyer, frightening the living daylights out of witnesses in court. 

We stayed a couple of nights in a London University hostel before the race on the Saturday. No fewer than 250 crews took part from all over the country so you can imagine the thrill of being involved. Each boat would have to paddle upstream to the starting point, turn round and at 30 second intervals start off back down to Putney, rowing for about 20 minutes to be timed at the finishing post. The fastest crew, usually the Leander Club in those days, would be declared Head of the River. 

1955 Thames Head of the River Race: Emmanuel coming into
the boathouses at Putney.