Working construction

The green hill far away.

Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. That was about all there was to smile about in Bath, the winter of ’83. Stothert and Pitt had shed – sorry, obviously I meant re-structured – about 500 jobs and pre-internet, there wasn’t much of an information economy in a place whose great days were some 200 years previously. It was where I went to university at the top of one of the hills in buildings about as far removed from a UNESCO World Heritage site experience as you could possibly get. It was where I came back to after a pathetic job on a local paper in my hometown that I walked out of after a week and a commission-only horror-show of a sales job in London, working on titles nobody had ever heard of and trapped by the very, very occasional massive cash paydays that kept the crew of ex-cops, mercenaries, public schoolboys, designers, musicians, resting actors and fraudsters at least off the cold streets from nine till five and massive drinks on Fridays. And yes, mercenaries. One of them was an ex-cop as well. The Met, obviously. Another guy’s dad used to command a tank in the war. Unfortunately, it was a Wermacht Heer Panzer and in Russia, so he didn’t talk about it a lot.

I came back to Bath and I’m remembering this today because we’re having work done on the house, which like most of Bath, is a Georgian Grade Two Star listed, 300 year-old rather nice little town-house in a rather nice little Suffolk market town and all rather far removed from the crappy one room I was renting in another Georgian townhouse the year Yvonne Fletcher got killed. The guy we got to paint the woodwork today reminded me of the people I used to know back when the Hat and Feathers and Walcot Nation was a thing, when Walcot Reclamation shared a yard with not so much a commune as a flop-house for left-over hippies huddled with their crappy dogs around a wood-stove until opening time, where now Range-Rovers load reconditioned roll-top bathtubs.

As Bruce Springsteen put it, I got a job working construction, although there hadn’t been much work on account of the economy. If anyone tells you the ’80s were a boom-town goldmine, only some of them were, and only in some places. The ex-army guy I was working for ran a crew of similar misfits, mostly older. We were picked up at silly o’clock in the morning and piled into the back of an ancient Transit van, no seats, let alone seatbelts, and carted off to whichever site he was working that day. Skilled trades had their own transport. We were just grunt work. Because I could talk to him I got to work with him a lot on jobs that required a little finesse. But not a lot of it. I worked demolition.

His best jobs, the ones he made the most on, were the ones I most respected. Now and again he bought a wreck of a Georgian house, not a listed one, and either camped in it onsite while he renovated it, or pulled it down and started again. There was a local bylaw in Bath that made pulling down unlisted houses a great idea – you could only build in Bath stone. The problem/nice little earner was that the last Bath stone quarry shut decades before, so there was a big market in re-usable stone blocks. Even smashed stone blocks could be ground into powder and used to colour modern cement render to make it acceptable.

Every day for a couple of weeks just before I left for America I packed my sandwiches, filled my Thermos, pulled on my hi-top Dutch paratroop boots and my old jeans, made sure I had my gloves and my ancient Israeli army jacket (don’t even ask) and walked across the city to ‘my’ site. It was a tiny house that occupied the entire plot it was on, which wasn’t saying much. Memory puts it in Norfolk Crescent, and looking at Google Maps there’s a suspiciously familiar building in about the right place.

The job was simple. Having given-up trying to renovate something that nobody had bothered to maintain for about a hundred years after gradually declining levels of people were living in it for another hundred, the owner, the guy I was working for, abandoned the idea of spending the rest of his life trying to get rid of dry rot and decided to start again. I am 99% certain now that there is no way on this earth he had any approval to demolish a listed building, but maybe it wasn’t listed then, like so much of Bath that the council in their wisdom decided to demolish in the 1960s and ’70s, before World Heritage Status became a thing.

We dropped the ground floor ceiling first. Once that was all out of the house and into a skip we dropped the bedroom ceiling through and put all that in a skip too. Then we dropped the roof. Our tools were the same the original builders had used – pcikazes, sledgehammers, crowbars and ladders. You can’t use powertools that need mains power when you’re ripping out the electrics, not that there were any electrics anyway and more than that, or perhaps less, there weren’t any battery-powered tools worth the name, back in the impossibly long-ago.

After that, I was left on my own to do the profit part of the job; demolish the walls and don’t smash the ashlar blocks up any more than you can help. Which meant climb the ladder, remove one block at a time with a hammer and chisel and crowbar and carry it gently down to the ground. Backwards. On a ladder fixed to nothing. Ever since then I’ve thought Health and Safety is a really good thing.

Being a bit bored, being a bit young and impatient and quite liking my new-found demolition skillset I had a better idea than balancing my way down a ladder carrying a half-hundredweight of stone without being able to hold on to anything: use the sledgehammer and the big crowbar. Drop the whole wall into the void where the inside of the house used to be. To this day it amazes me how many people can’t use a sledgehammer properly; ditto how many people seem to have no idea how to drop a ten-foot stone wall thirty feet long without a) killing yourself b) killing anyone else c) breaking more than two stone blocks, which was a very acceptable casualty rate.

I remember the first time I went up the ladder to the top of the house and removed the capstone, the stone right at the top of the house. Whoever had put it there carved his initials into the stone and the date, 1805, 179 years before I took it back down the ladder. We stopped work soon after that when there was a knock on the door. It was a little old man who I’d seen hanging around before. I thought he was looking for somewhere to doss; it turned out he just wanted a last look at the house he’d lived in when he was a boy. There wasn’t an awful lot for him to look at by then, just a yawning hole inside the intact facade of the house.

About a week into the job PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot to death in the street in London, outside the Libyan embassy on TV by one of two Arab diplomats who started blasting British Sterling submachine-guns from the embassy windows. Unlike the episode of The Professionals it resembled, this was unfortunately real. My boss, along – and practically every newspaper in the country – was sure that the killer would face good old British best-in-the-world justice. I’d watched enough TV to know that he wouldn’t. Admittedly, my knowledge of jurisprudence was limited to having a country solicitor for a step-father, a Green Room at home full of 1940s law books and extensive experience of the Rockford Files and Murder She Wrote on TV.

Jim Rockford helped me survive two enounters with police in the US, including one where the police stuck a revolver in my stomach, which I thought rather rude of them. All of these venerable sources confirmed the same thing: anyone in the Embassy was going to claim diplomatic immunity and at worst they were going to go to the airport, untouched. Which despite the ravings of the tabloid press, along with the complete avoidance of asking why for example, British submachine guns were the weapon of choice on hand for undiplomatic diplomats, was exactly what happened.

“What did I tell you?”

Two years later Mrs Thatcher, never known for not dipping her handkerchief in other people’s blood if it would get her a few votes, claimed avenging Yvonne was why she allowed US jets to take off from Upper Heyford to go and blow up what turned out to be the Chinese embassy in Tripoli, as they’d bought the building after the intelligence report had located the target which was supposed to be Gaddafi or his high command. And despite the fact she was only told about the mission after the planes were airborn and had no more authority over them than you or I.

I remembered all of this because it’s suddenly Spring and that was a memorable one, and because it reminded me of now, when we live in a society designed for people who did the right thing and our systems, checks, balances and controls simply don’t work when they massively don’t do the right thing. When it comes to shooting-up demonstrators in a London street, or planting bombs in newsagents, or lying to Parliament, or invading Ukraine, or breaking every agreement not to arm the place to the teeth when the Berlin Wall came down, it doesn’t really matter how many times you say “international law” or “human rights.” When any of that happens the only genuine thing you can remember is we have practically nothing in hand to deal with it. For all that a proven liar of a Prime Minister bleats about ‘war crimes’, for all that his police force stood there time after time when he and his staff broke the law, for every time he broke his own Ministerial Code and forgot to sanction himself, for all his partying with KGB men, despite accepting £60,000 from a Russian oligarch whose wife pretended to want to play tennis with him and making the oligarch/KGB man’s son a Lord in ermine, and now pretending to abominate Russia, ‘war crimes’ are always only the things the losers do, in every war.

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