Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Workmen of the Nineteen-Sixties

Two workmen arrived today to start a huge job - removing the old render from the outside of the house and replacing it all. The house is very high and they are expecting to take up to a month over it. There are lots of associated jobs, such as replacing all the downpipes. It's all going to cost more than our first house - but it needs to be done, because damp is getting in. Once it's all done and the house has dried out properly, then we can start the next job, which is redecorating. Sighhh.

Although these two seem to have got a lot done today, I don't have very fond memories of some of the workmen in this house, though some have been great.

Amongst the worst were the ones who built the extension, in 1964.

My mother was pregnant with my brother, so there was a lot of change going on anyway, and I wasn't sure about it.

Although the house already had four bedrooms, my parents decided to make it larger. My grandmother - my mother's mother - was living with us, and they decided to add two extra rooms. One downstairs - now the office where the actors' agency is based - and one above it, which became my Grandma's bedroom.

They did it by filling in two sides of a square and moving the back door to what used to be the pantry. I didn't like this. I liked the pantry, and I liked the old back door, even though I once fell down all the stone steps outside it. The steps are still there, hidden under the extension.

The builders weren't very good - a lot of builders weren't, in the nineteen-sixties - and the new flat-roofed extension was totally out of character with the rest of the house, which was built in 1896. But the Communist, born in 1923, hated anything to do with the nineteenth-century - he didn't think there was anything appealing in it at all. Like a lot of people at the time, he thought that the sooner every trace of it was gone in housing and decor, the better.

I didn't like the workmen. I was shy and very bookish and wore glasses. Whenever my parents or my Grandma weren't around, they would tease me for being a swot - the kind of teasing, ironically, that in spite of the fact that - let's face it - I really was a swot, I never really encountered at school. I hated such teasing and had no idea how to deal with it.

I used to read a lot, when I wasn't playing out. One day the workmen found me reading Alice in Wonderland when they arrived in the morning, and then a different book when they had their afternoon tea break. Or one of their tea breaks. I remember a lot of tea breaks.

"So what happened to the book you were reading this morning?" asked Nasty Workman One.

"I finished it," I said. I was aware that, whatever direction this was heading in, it wasn't a good one.

"You can't have." he said. "You'd only read a bit of it when we saw you this morning."

"I read fast," I said.

A more useful answer, of course, would have been "FUCK OFF AND LEAVE ME ALONE, YOU ASSHOLE, OR I'LL TELL MY DAD YOU'RE A PAEDOPHILE." But, in those innocent days, I had not yet encountered three of the words in that sentence. So I stuck to "I read fast."

"You can't read that fast," said Nasty Workman One.

"Nobody can. You're lying," said Nasty Workman Two.

I wasn't lying. I did read fast. I still read very fast. To this day, from time to time, people say to me, "What, have you read that already?" I used to get into trouble at school because teachers thought I hadn't read books properly, until they tested me and found that I had. My son Olli had the same problem with teachers for the same reason. If anything, he reads faster than I do.

"Well, go on then," said Nasty Workman One. "Prove it. Read aloud to us."

And so it was that, in April 1964, age seven-nearly-eight, I found myself sitting on the settee in the lounge reading Alice in Wonderland to two men who should have been busy building the extension to our house.

I knew that whatever I did, the result would be bad. If I read quickly and with no problem, then I was that dreadful thing, a swot. But if I read slowly and with hesitation, I was that other dreadful thing, a liar.

I read fast, and I read well, because I was a swot, and they found that very amusing. They hated me.

I hated them.

I still hate them.

7 Comments:

Blogger JeannetteLS said...

Why do I think there is more to this than that? No, I do not necessarily mean the worst, but... of course, I'm from the states and I don't know what a "swot" is. Is it like a nerd or geek? I was one of those, really good at school and didn't care if the other kids knew it. But you choose your words carefully, so now I want more!

7:59 pm  
Blogger JeannetteLS said...

PS. I don't care for them either, even if what they did WAS tease you and doubt you and laugh at you, and no more than that. It's enough!

7:59 pm  
Blogger Daphne said...

Thank you, Jeannette - yes, a swot IS like a nerd or geek - - only being a geek can sometimes be cool and being a swot can never be! There "more to it" was, I think, that they thought I was middle-class in a big house etc and therefore didn't like what they THOUGHT I stood for. But both my parents were from poor backgrounds and achieved their comfortable standard of living through simple hard work!

8:18 pm  
Blogger Ailbhe said...

I do wish consistent hard work could still bring people from poor backgrounds to a comfortable standard of living? It takes an awful lot of good luck now. Like buying being better than renting. All the most sensible aspirations stopped being dependable in the 80s, I think.

(My memory of workmen is that they liked to hear me read my books and were lovely about explaining how plaster worked, but wouldn't help me fasten my dungarees after I used the bathroom and went to get my parents instead. Literacy has a socially different implication in Ireland.)

12:31 am  
Anonymous Wally Dungworth said...

i woz wun ov dem bilderz dat wurrkt un yorz extenshun. iyam know a millyonair coz i selt ma bilding cumpny 4 ah 4tune in 1999. ive ah manshun wiv swimminpole in Marbaya n free luxshury cars. so whaddya fink off dat miss laddidah specky 4 eys swotbrane?

12:39 pm  
Blogger Jennyta said...

2 years after that, we were having central heating installed in our house and I was on study leave for my A levels and had just discovered the delights of smoking, much to the disapproval of the one workman installing the central heating, who threatened to tell my parents. No, I didn't tell him to *** off either! ;)

2:39 pm  
Anonymous Milo said...

Always hated most English builders I've come across. At my flat (the one I own, not the one I rent) there is a real oik of a builder who is the freeholder's right-hand-man. Did a really awful job when they were doing building work on our building. Too long a story to go into but lots of legal actions since taken by the residents' association, the vast majority of which we have won. He (and his master) epitomize the worst elements of the 'white man van' - no redeeming features whatsoever, the sort that live in the drab, concreted-over wastelands of outer-London suburbia.

They stand in huge contrast to the 'white Russian' who you may have heard me blog about before. Lovely guy, did all the redec work at my flat and masses of work at S's house over the last few years. Total gentleman, honest, trustworthy, decent - and someone I'd now call a friend.

Always would pick Polish or other Eastern types now over UK builders/handymen. Always (and no, that's not based on cost - it's based on trust and the quality of their outputs).

10:12 pm  

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