As I watched the snow, absent mindedly dipping a madeleine in my bone china cup of Lapsang Souchong, my heart began to ache, a drowsy numbness pained my sense – and I remembered my first day on a building site …
I started work in early 1962, back when everything was still in black and white. I was an apprentice carpenter and joiner for a medium-sized firm in Leyland, Lancashire. My first year was spent working in the joiner's shop and wood yard – sweeping up, making tea and shovelling coke into a temperamental boiler. I learned to hate that boiler. Whatever I did, it either went out or overheated and sprayed boiling water all over the roof. Occasionally, I was allowed to work a mortising machine or knock in a few nails. All the joiners working in the shop dreamed of escaping to a site, out of range of the gimlet eye of the owner. In my naivety, I began to look forward to being sent out to work, too …
One day in early January 1963 at the tender age of 16, I got my wish. I was given an address to report to at 8am. My tools would be sent out later in the van. This move coincided with the start of the longest, coldest spell of weather in the 20th century – 1947 was allegedly colder but didn't last as long. When I set off on my bike that morning, it was snowing heavily. As I rode, the wind picked up force until at last it became a blizzard. Whiteout. I left the bike at the side of the road and stumble the rest of the way on foot, at an angle of 45 degrees.
The job was a sizeable bungalow surrounded on three sides by open fields. All that could be seen was a brickwork shell on a frozen sea of mud. The snow was being driven across the open fields by an icy Pennine wind; it had already drifted five feet up the front of the bungalow.
As I staggered onto the site, it finally stopped snowing and I made my way to a cabin at the back of the site. Of course, nobody had the key.
I did not believe that we could work in these conditions, but after a few minutes our tools were delivered by the works van slipping and fishtailing through the snow.
The orange glow from the fire reflecting on the underside of the tradesmen’s faces made it look like a scene from Dante’s Inferno
We were supposed to be putting on a large hipped roof. Already on the job were the two joiners I would be working with, Cyril and Bob, both small, wiry men. As they marked out the wall plates, I was ordered to cut up the common rafters after Cyril, who was in charge, had marked out a pattern for me. All the four-by-twos were in a stack and had fused into one homogeneous lump. I found a sledgehammer behind the shed and tried to break off a piece of timber to work on. The temperature was still well below freezing, so when I had finally got a length, it was like sawing iron. I managed to light a fire in an old oil drum and tried to thaw it out.
At teatime, I was sent to one of the houses down the road to get an old blackened kettle boiled so we could have something to drink. Twice during the day it started to snow again, forcing us to take shelter in the bungalow.
This did not help much without a roof. By late afternoon, my hands were so numb I couldn't hold on to the saw handle. As Bob delicately put it: "It was as cold as a whore's heart".
By half past three, it was too dark to see what we were doing. To get out of the cold, I moved our improvised stove into the shell of the building and stoked it up. We all stood in what would be the toilet, jammed a sheet of plywood up against the door and huddled over the fire. I pleaded with Cyril to be allowed to go home but his only reply was that it was too early and we might be seen.
John Smith is a clerk of works.