Reluctant celebrity Harry Patch still shudders to recall the horrors of the First World War - as well as the dangers he faced back home as a high-rise builder. Building met the 107-year-old
Sitting in the corner of the nursing home canteen, Harry Patch stares ahead blankly, his gnarled hands resting protectively on his medication bag. Doris, his friend and fellow resident, is slumped on a chair next to him - fast asleep. Patch replaces a vocal greeting with a broad smile and a wave - at 107 years old, he strains to speak, managing only a whisper that crackles like an old gramophone recording.
But Patch, well known for being one of only a handful of living Brits who served in the First World War, remains impressively sharp as he dredges up memories from as far back as his youth in the 1900s. As well as being a veteran of the Great War, Patch is also construction's oldest man. A trained plumber and the son of a stonemason, he worked in the industry until he retired in 1961, stopping only to serve as a fireman in the Second World War.
In what he says will be his last interview, the veteran talks about the horrors of war and gives a rare, first-hand account of life in the construction industry more than 80 years ago.
Patch was a plumber in and around Avon in the 1920s and worked on Bristol University's landmark Wills Memorial Building. Situated at the top of one of the city's main hills, the 66 m high building can be seen for miles and is now used by the university for functions, banquets and graduation ceremonies.
Patch uses a wad of information leaflets on Wills to point out which parts he helped construct. "I worked here," he says, pointing with a trembling finger to the exact spot on a glossy photograph. "Right up in the belfry."
Patch says that even by looking at the pictures, it is hard to show just how difficult the construction process used to be on such large-scale builds. "We had to move heavy materials by ourselves back then - up here and back down again. Slabs of lead, heavy pipes. It was damned hard work."
And such dedication has not gone unnoted. Last December, Patch was invited to Bristol University, where he was presented with an honorary degree for his contribution to the building - in Wills itself. "I wasn't expecting it at all," he says. "When I worked on the tower back then, I never had any idea I would end up getting a degree for it 80 years later."
The dangers of working in construction so many years ago, particularly on tall buildings like Wills, still haunt Patch. In high winds, all work was suspended as the buildings were not properly secured. But equally, if bad weather hit suddenly, trying to scramble down the freestanding, timber scaffolding was just as risky. "You could have lifted whole scaffolds clean off the ground with a crane - they weren't connected to anything, not to any part of the building at all," says Patch.
If workmen got caught out by the weather, the safest option was to take their chances sheltering wherever they were. Patch says they all knew full well that staying up was the lesser of two evils and that they were still risking their lives. He remembers one particularly terrifying occasion during the Wills Memorial build when he was up in the semi-constructed belfry.
There was nothing back then. No machinery, no technology, just us. It was a case of pure manpower
"Suddenly there was a terrific thunderstorm and a group of us had to shelter in the corner of the belfry. But we were almost completely open to the elements. A mate of mine was holding a knife and suddenly lightning hit. It took the knife clean out of his hand and he couldn't use that arm for months. That was the nearest I have ever come to being struck by lightning in my life. I was 25 and I can still smell it in the air - like sulphur."
As well as hazards that were part and parcel of general construction, Patch had to beware of other dangers specific to plumbers. Handling old-fashioned lead piping was particularly dangerous as it was coated in copper sulphate, a deadly poison. "We tried not to breathe the white powder in and be sure to wash our hands quickly after handling the lead," says Patch.
And it wasn't just the materials that were a problem, it was the lack of machinery to shift them. "There was nothing back then. No machinery, no technology, just us. It was a case of pure manpower and it wasn't easy."
But there was fun to be had with such primitive building materials - particularly for a bunch of strapping twentysomething workmen who liked to pick on their boss. "We used to have to manually hoist people up the scaffolding in those days. We worked on levels and if the boss wanted to see us or check what we were up to we would always pull him up to the level above us and then let him drop fast down to where we were. It got him every time," he cackles.
Patch says there have been so many changes in the industry over eight decades, it is almost impossible to discuss them at length, so he sums up the developments in a couple of sentences: "Back then you had to have a huge toolbag full of everything you might possibly need and you had to carry it with you at all times. Today all you need is a couple of spanners and some basic common sense."
Patch's service in the First World War has turned him into a celebrity, as he is just one of nine veterans left. He talks bitterly about his experiences on the battlefield. "If any man tells you he went into the front line and he wasn't scared, he's a liar. You were scared from the moment you got there."
He says war is nothing more than organised murder. "The government made me go and shoot people I didn't know. I couldn't even speak their language to explain why," he says, his voice cracking. "I was forced to go and kill and all I was paid was 18p a day. That's all the government thought our lives were worth."
Recounting life in the trenches is a "personal hell" for Patch and sometimes he resents his forced celebrity as one of the last Tommys. "Can you imagine how it feels to be one of the last ones? Always hearing that another has just died, then another and another", he whispers, "waiting to hear who's gone and always wondering if you're next."
But Patch brightens as he looks back on his long life and says that he has tried to maintain an active lifestyle well into old age. "I got married to my second wife when I was 98, have been in a helicopter, an aeroplane and a hot air balloon and I went deep-sea diving when I was 100. I have a memory that stretches back over a century and there are some horrors in there. But you try to remember the happy times."