Our building sites are bloodless descendants of the sites of the roaring 50s, when men were men, lavatories were buckets and passers-by were fair game
The construction industry is not famous for change, at least not in the public’s perception. The truth, however, is very different from the public’s perception. In reality there has been a veritable flood of changes in the past 50 years, most of them for the better; some, however, for the worse.
The most obvious change is probably the lack of apprentices in the industry. Try as they will, and some of them barely try at all, there are too few employees to revive the tradition of apprenticeship that was commonplace in the 1950s. Learning a trade for low wages does not interest the youth of today; learning skills that are rarely used seems to them irrelevant. In the 1950s when you employed a joiner, you looked at his bag of tools – tools kept in pristine condition. Today, a joiner uses electricity or battery power to mechanise their tools.
The mate-ship of adversity no longer exists on building sites; the feeling of superiority to normal mortals is long gone, as is the telling of tales largely to the disadvantage of members of the general public. It is not hard to recall the contempt that building workers who had been on site since 7.30 in the morning felt for the identical figures who left London’s terminuses for work in the city a couple of hours later. The building workers of the late 1950s were heroes in the imaginary Hall of Fame; the legions of the city of London were to them so many cardboard figures. On one occasion when a malfunctioning cement silo covered a crowd of passers-by in white cement, the building’s workers looked on with delight.
Today, under the influence of the concern for health and safety, workers’ attitudes to the public have changed. Building sites are now much safer than they were in the 1950s, a fact to be welcomed. They are more comfortable, they are cleaner and arguably more efficient. In the 1950s, the foreman to be reckoned with was the man who could turn out a couple of hundred navvies to work on a Sunday or for a night shift. Today the star foreman organises subcontractors.
In a way, much of the joy went out of the building industry in the early 1970s. The heroes of the past become forgotten legends; television or sport took the attention of the building worker.
The adrenaline ran in our blood ... we were ruthless with lorries and, for that matter, their drivers
Let me give you an example. In the early 1960s I was involved in the demolition of many buildings in the East End and the City of London. The most spectacular of these was the Barbican: 24 acres of bombed-out buildings in the centre of the City. Demolition on this site had largely been carried out by the Luftwaffe and only the skeleton of foundations and earth remained to clear.
A record day involved the removal of more than 2000 m3 of “muck” from the site. The lorries stretched in queues for hundreds of yards, the big navvies worked almost non-stop from seven in the morning to seven at night. The impetus created on that site was extraordinary – the works manager let nothing stand in the way of moving his muck. The adrenaline ran in our bloodstreams; we were ruthless with lorries and, for that matter, their drivers. Breakdowns were shifted out of the way with a bulldozer. This site was, I believe, the end of an era, now builders care about the neighbours and their subcontractors. We cared only about getting the job done as quickly as possible, it was a challenge and a delight.
The facilities for ablution on building sites improved, in those days a lavatory was a bucket and a man had the job of emptying them. On one occasion to save himself trouble, such a man took to emptying his buckets over the side of the building and into the street. Shortly after, a pedestrian appeared in the office complaining that workman had thrown a bucket of water at him … thank goodness he did not know what that bucket really contained.
Today the industry is scientific, the buildings precision machines for their functions, the workers and the supervisors far better educated. The gung-ho attitude to life, where initiative was king is long gone. Construction is truly a grown-up industry, far better place, but not half as much fun.