Back when men were men, and so forth

April 10, 2007 at 10:38 am | Posted in family | 27 Comments

Had a conversation with Linzi’s dad last night about his working days. He’s in his seventies now, and he served his time as an industrial electrician before going into business for himself. He worked in all the old coal and steel factories around Lanarkshire, industries that have been decimated in recent years. There’s literally nothing left of them now except barren flatlands that have been razed for housing estates and shopping centres.

“So did you ever have any near misses or anything like that?”

“Och aye, all the time” he says with a wistful chuckle.

“Come on then, let’s hear one.”

“Well, back in the steelworks, they used to have enormous vats of molten steel, and the guys would work on platforms thirty, forty feet above, carrying the slag* in wheelbarrows and tipping it over the edge into the vats. No safety harnesses or barriers. The odd time you’d get a guy being a bit overenthusiastic and he’d drop the wheelbarrow over the side. The guys’d be working double and triple shifts for the overtime, and they’d be dead on their feet, asleep standing up. There were always accidents.”

“Holy crap. You’d never get away with that these days.”

“Aye, I know. One time, one of the motors that ran the crane above the vats broke down, and I had to shimmy out along a roof beam to get to it. This was so high up that it was above the fluorescent lights, so it was pitch dark and all you had to balance on was this four-inch beam.”

“No safety harnesses?”

“Nah, not in those days.”

Of course not, what a ridiculous notion.

“So. There I was, forty feet above a vat of molten steel, and I’d disconnected this motor and changed the brushes in the dark. I had a wee torch, but that was it. The next thing, I grabbed for the wires to connect it back up, and I got a shock that nearly threw me off the beam. Someone had turned back on the power so they could use the adjacent crane on the next vat over.

“You know, you get a bit shaky when you get a hit from industrial current, so I just kind of lay there on the beam for a while, and then I finished the job.”

He tells these things in a blasé, matter-of-fact way that leaves me, accustomed only to over-the-top Health and Safety investigations about spilt coffee on the stairs and the like, utterly gobsmacked.

“So, did you ever see anyone die ?”

“Oh aye.”

Again, no trace of boasting. This is how it was.

“I saw a guy trip off a platform and drop straight into a vat. He never even screamed. Didn’t have time, he was gone.”

“Jeepers.” (I say “jeepers” and “goodness me” in front of Linzi’s parents because they don’t know I swear. In my head I was going “Holy fucking shit, that is cunting unbelievable”.)

“Aye. Don’t get me wrong though. I mean, I worked there for nearly three years, on and off, and only about six or seven guys died in that time.”

Only six or seven, see. Not too bad, like.

*he never elaborated on who she was, and I thought it best not to ask.



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  1. Six or seven dead??

    Today, if you graze your arm on a building site, it shuts down for a month while ten different companies do investigations into the incident.

  2. Laughable, isn’t it? He was so casual about it. I can imagine him 40 years ago, coming home at lunch and chatting with the wife. “So, yeah, Billy Williams died this morning. Crushed in a crimping machine. That reminds me, I must take Friday afternoon off for Jimmy Spanner’s funeral. Poor lad, beheaded by a chip van.”

  3. Jesus Kav but you’re absolutely right, it was a very different time.

  4. It wasn’t all that bad. At least Mrs. Spanner had free singles for life and Mrs. Williams never went without a good crimping. Folk looked after each other back then.

  5. FMC: At least we have the internet. When I tell him we can order goods online, he still asks if we can drive to the internet so he can have a look around.

    Sneezy: That’s very true. Mrs Spanner got the better deal, if you ask me.

  6. That’s a great conversation. Wow. I’m such a wimp.

  7. I got a horrendous paper cut on my hand last week. Office work is lethal I tell ya.

  8. Debbie: I think we’re just a bit more sensible these days. I don’t know how he hasn’t been killed before now, he’s done so many daft things.

    Conor: welcome along sir. Paper cut eh? Is that why you’re sucking your finger in that picture?

  9. Back when I was a homeowner over here in Merica Land, a 70 year-old man did the re-roofing on my house. It was a steep little roof you’d never catch me on, but old Bill went up there, and with a chainsaw to make some room for himself. He had the most fantastic leathered face from decades of roof-tops in whatever the midwest weather threw at him. And he was quiet and matter of fact.

    So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when he refused medical attention for cutting his arm that time with the chainsaw. He came down the forty-foot ladder to wrap his arm in tissues and duct tape, and then went back up again.

    He died a couple of years later; I didn’t hear how.

  10. It’s a generation thing, must be. The crafty bastard that replaced Bill would probably try to sue you if that happened.

  11. Strictly speaking it was because I was at the top of Skellig Michael at the time worrying about freak waves and over zealous sea gulls. But I can often be found in this position for a variety of reaons. Great blog by the way!

  12. Cheers Conor, I made it myself.

  13. I think there’s still a stat that at least one person involved in the construction industry in Spain dies every day.

    Mostly they’re Moroccans though so they don’t really care.

  14. My friend once told me this story of someone who fell into a vat of molten something in North Wales, and the bloke was hanging on my his fingertips, with the entire lower half of his body immersed and dissolved in molten lead, and his son kicked him into the vat.

  15. Mexican labourers here get a pretty raw deal if they’re injured on the job. Most have no insurance and there is no sick-leave or anything. You’re just replaced, “Too bad, amigo, don’t bleed on the merchandise on the way out, willya” Pregnant Mexican women, fruit picking ’til their waters break, give birth to deformed babies all the time in Southern Californian hospitals because the chemicals they spray on the strawberry fields they work in are so mutagenic. 21st century safety standards don’t mean anything in America if you have no voice. We’re only as altruistic as the next lawsuit demands but we do love our strawberries.

  16. Well, I don’t know how things are in Scotland, but that shit happens ALL THE TIME in my office. E-mail marketing is a vicious vicious business. It really is a good thing I’m amazingly brave.

  17. Sorry to deviate for the guts and glory stories but when can we look forward to the next episode of the Kav western?

  18. Jeepers! You can keep your potty mouth under control?

    Holy crap, though. Those were the working days, weren’t they? Yikes.

  19. How do you keep from laughing when he asks you to drive him to the internet? At least he doesn’t call it the “internets” like some idiot politicians here in the US do.

  20. “Her parents don’t know I swear”

    Ha! Of course they do. And what’s more, when YOU leave after visiting, they probably spend ten minutes standing in their front room yelling “fuck arse tit cunt bollix balls” because THEY’VE been holding it in all day, trying to make you believe they don’t swear either!

    It’s a funny old world.

  21. It wasn’t a different time. It was now. The guy is only retired five years.

  22. Twenty, I don’t doubt it. A guy I work with recently got back from Spain and the hotel he stayed in was getting work done. He said the whole site setup would have had British workmen walking out on strike, it was so dangerous.
    looby: Holy shit that is horrible. Thinking of the split-second decision that lad must’ve had to make…horrrendous.
    sam: Jesus. Don’t know why I’m surprised though. I saw the way the Puerto Rican guys I worked with were treated. Hired and fired remorselessly.
    kara: I know what you’re saying. The world of IT compliance is similar, though I imagine probably slightly less risky than your line of work. I hope you’ve got good insurance.
    flirty: Don’t you know by now that I never finish anything that I start? I always hit a blank and then
    Sassy: Yes, believe it or not, in front of the kids and in front of L’s family, I’m a nice boy. They’re quite religious. Where I would say “Sweet suffering mother of fuck”, they would say “Jings”.
    Lela: I don’t keep the laughter in, I just snort and try to explain it to him. He still doesn’t get the concept though. “What time does that internet open, kav? I’m looking to buy a new set of chisels from Screwfix.”
    Karen: Oh sweet Jesus how I wish this were true. Unfortunately, it’s not. Linzi’s family, herself excepted, are all devoutly religious, and they simply do not swear. We heard her sister saying “fuck” in anger once and were speechless with surprise.

    You should’ve seen our wedding day. 60 foul-mouthed Irish cunts descending on a Scottish castle for the day to get hammered and meet the other side. I implored them to tone down their use of “fuck” to no more than once a sentence. Didn’t happen.

    We have somehow managed to keep a lot of secrets from L’s family over the years. Her parents genuinely believe she was a virgin when we got married, ridiculous as that sounds. Not that she was a slut or anything. Right, I’ll get my coat.
    Bock: No, he’s been “retired” almost twenty years. In the late 80’s, his best mate who he was in business with was an alcoholic who destroyed their business right under his nose without him noticing (he was a worker, but no accountant). Then, in 1992, bankrupt and in a new (much smaller, crappier) house, he fell off the roof of his garage and paralysed himself. He’s got partial feeling back in his limbs, but there’s no way he could work again. The stories he told me about were from the fifties and sixties back when Lanarkshire still had those big dirty industries. The latter half of his life, when he went into business for himself, was dominated by the building trade as opposed to industry.

  23. I had my monitor raised today by threatening them with a call to occupational health and safety (OSH).

    The manager came along and put a carboard box under it.
    “D’ya really wanna put a $5000 piece of equipment on a cardboard box?” I queried. He shrugged. “your loss mate.”

    The only old time stories we can get down here are from cowcockies and old drug addicts.

  24. Cowcockies? I’m afraid to ask.

  25. If you’re not in what you do 100% of the time, you’re out of it, and if you’re out of it, you’re not in it….if you get me drift.

  26. different times is right !

    i remember my father telling me stories of him and my mum coming to stay in my grandparents house when it was empty and having to ask one of the neighbours to chaperone them by sleeping in the same room as my mother … open doors, trust and you could do anything as long as you weren’t having sex or enjoying yourself or both !

  27. Paddy: Think this was meant for the other post, but I know what you mean.

    Rambling Man: You just reminded me of a story Linzi’s parents told me (proudly) about when they were courting. They were travelling by motorbike way up the north of Scotland, late at night, exhausted and they finally came to a B&B. However, the guy only had a double bed left…so they got back on the bike and drove another 20 miles to find another B&B that had separate beds…

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