The summer of ’77 was the summer of my exodus to the North East, the summer when I was asked to go to the Newcastle office to do some work for two weeks and stayed for eight years, but before then, and probably one of the underlying causes of my exile to the far east (north east) was what happened shortly before then, the day when I was two minutes too late to win a quarter million pound contract…
New contracts were a little scarce at that time, I suppose there must have been a bit of a recession going around, it was a Labour Government in its death throes, strikes were commonplace, if you worked in the car making business then you didn’t so much work as go to union meetings and decide to walk out, the country seemed to be run by buffoons, little did we know what we were lining ourselves up for when we got rid of the Labour buffoons – The Thatcher was sharpening the pruning shears even in ’77.
Most of the work that we did involved council refurbishment contracts, its hard to recall in these days of abject austerity that each and every council in the country had a huge stock of council dwellings available for rent at what appears now to be absurdly cheap prices but these were houses that were built in an era when social housing was seen as a necessity and not an evil, if you’re going to have a working class to do all the manual stuff then they are going to need somewhere to live and who better to have control over where they live than the government that controls them – it was a theory developed by the Victorians when mill and mine owners would build workers houses for rent, not because they were nice people but because owning someone elses house is the ultimate controlling mechanism.
So our councils owned huge stocks of cheap rent social housing, and it was good, and all were happy, for you could find somewhere to live at a reasonable weekly cost and not have to sell your first born to raise a deposit, as you do now.
And this huge stock of social housing needed occasional refurbishment and the 1970s were refurbishment heydays, the company I surveyed for went hell for leather at these huge refurb contracts, to give you an idea of how hell for leather and how big the contracts, an average council house rewire in those days was being tendered for at around £250, each, yes really, and we were tendering for contracts of 800 and 1000 houses at a time, and I got paid £80 a week, handsome, almost covered my bar bills.
We already had a team of electricians working on a large site in Scarborough on the east coast and you liked to keep your good teams together, these were the Scottish electricians that had done the tenement rewires the year before, they could do a two day rewire in one day, they could have earned a decent bonus doing two and a half houses a week, instead they did five, I was surveying their work and paying them £250 to £300 a week, no bitterness though for they had to crawl under floorboards and in lofts for their money and there were spiders under those floorboards and in those lofts – they also grafted so hard that they wouldn’t even stop work to say hello to you, I on the other hand drove a car around all day or sat on my arse in the office wondering if it was going-home time yet.
The next contract to land on my desk was another large council house refurb job in Bridlington a few miles down the coast from the Scarborough job it would be ideal to keep the Scottish team employed for another year of whirlwind rewires and so my boss, the ever-so-nice, oh-to-nice-for-his-own-good Mike Melling, the man from Bristol, came into my office and told me in no uncertain terms that we HAD to win this contract, HAD to, “Muy sun, we ‘arve to win this contract, oh-arrr Jim lad” is what he said, just like that.
So I sharpened my pencil and in the day before the tender was due back he came into the office and rubbed some of the numbers out and put some lower numbers in instead, “We ‘arve to win this ‘ere contract, oooh arrr” he said, just like that, and despite the fact that my name wasn’t Jim, I agreed with him, “We ‘arve to win it” is what I replied and he looked at me strangely because when I did a Bristol accent I sounded like a pirate.
We wrote up the tender documents together and because it was now too late to post them it was agreed that I would drive to Bridlington Council Offices myself to deliver them by hand, on the morrow, they had to be in before 12 noon.
9am sharp Mike Melling gave me the keys to his Audi 100, new to the British market the first Audi 100 was certainly a bit faster than the Escort van that I had, about forty times faster actually, forty times at least, maybe even fifty times faster, or more.
“An don’t spare the bloomin ‘orses either Jim lad, ooh arrr” is what he said, so off I went in a cloud of tyre rubber and a screaming engine.
It was a pleasant morning, 70 miles to drive to the coast, three hours to do it in, sun high in the sky, one of those nice early summer mornings driving in a posh new German car with the window open and one arm sticking out getting a tan, Radio One turned up full, no real work to do except get to Bridlington within three hours and deliver this tender that was going to guarantee work for our team of Scotsmen for another year.
I still don;t know why or how it took three hours to drive those seventy miles for in all the times that I raid the museum of recollections and look up “Audi 100” on the index cards I get memories of me driving Mike Mellings car like a fookin maniac, in those memories I would have made it to Brid in one hour, easy, even with a stop for a cup of tea at a roadside caff, easy, two stops for cups of tea, I could have stopped several times on that journey for cups of tea at roadside caffs and STIll done that trip within an hour, that Audi had a speedo that went up to 160mph and I can personally testify that it easily went up to 120mph going down Whitwell Hill, speed limits and that Audi were not compatible, so I know for a fact that I would not have dawdled on that journey and yet for some un-recalled reason I did not do the journey in under an hour, or two hours…
I and the car screeched to a halt in front of Bridlington Council Chambers at exactly 12.02pm, I have no explanation, maybe I was abducted by aliens and they mistimed the re-entry, maybe I took the scenic route, maybe I did call for a cup of tea at a roadside caff and fell asleep, I just don’t know, its been wiped from the museum of recollections probably for legal reasons, probably still not released under the freedom of information act on the grounds that I was a dumbfook on that day.
The jobsworth on the door refused to accept the tender, “Its two minutes late” he said pointing at the Town Hall clock.
The return journey only took one hour, I was back in Mike Mellings office just after 1pm, he looked horrified as I told him the story, it looked like his world had come to an end and neither of us knew it then but losing that contract would result in not just him losing his job but everyone in the Leeds office losing their jobs too – all except me who went to Newcastle for two weeks and escaped the axe of redundancy because they forgot all about me.
So, if you worked for that electrical contractors in Leeds in 1977 and wondered exactly why you were dismissed from your job that summer then I’m sorry, its as probably my fault, although I can’t remember why.
And as for Mike Melling, he got himself another job building a new hospital in Leeds where he rang me one day and offered me a job, so no hard feelings there then, but thats another story…