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.