How I spent my early working life…

“Socks four, trousers on, underpants four, shirts two, jumpers one, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, razor…all checked, good to go, over and out”

Monday morning 6.45am, location my bedroom at the back of the family bungalow in Leeds, Gola sports bag open in front of me on the bed, I’m ready for yet another week working 100 miles away in Newcastle, just like the previous 51 weeks that year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and so on.

It had all started when I was 18 years of age and working as a surveyor for an electrical contractors a couple of miles from my home, the boss walked into my office one day and asked if I’d go and work in our newly opened Newcastle office for two weeks, I distinctly heard him say two weeks, as they had a lot of work on and needed lots of things surveying, but they didn’t have a surveyor – would I go for two weeks (there it is again) to help them out until they got a surveyor of their own ?

I agreed, two weeks in a hotel at the company expense, sounded fine to me, off I went.

At the start of the second week I was called into the boss’s office in Forest Hall Newcastle, “Bad News” he said to me, “The directors flew up from Bristol to Leeds today and closed the office, made all the staff redundant”

“oh” is all I said, “what do I do then ?”
“No-one has told me what you have to do” he replied, “I think they’ve forgotten about you”

And indeed they had, they’d forgotten that one member of the Leeds office was not in the Leeds office that week, nor was his company van, it speaks volumes of the administration at head office that they didn’t even know how many vans they had in the Leeds office – or employees.

So we agreed that I should keep travelling up to Newcastle every week in a van that appeared not to appear on any register of assets anywhere and that as long as head office kept paying my hotel bill and my monthly salary then I’d I’d have a job in Newcastle, I didn’t expect it to last, after all, surely someone in Bristol would notice that the Leeds branch monthly payroll had not in fact sunk to zero as expected but instead appeared to have some costs still going through on it month after month – we gave it one more month before I too would be made redundant, tops.

Eight years is how long I stayed at the Newcastle office and after six of them I found myself sitting in my office with the head honcho group accountant perusing some of the drawings that I’d pinned to the wall, the big boss, the man who signed the payroll cheques every month, and I found myself telling him that his department must be pretty stupid to keep paying my wages and even replacing my van as they had, I was the company ghost employee, the one who they paid every month without a branch to allocate my costs to.

He just laughed, I don’t think he believed me.

And so for at least three or four of those years I travelled the A1 early on a Monday morning and travelled it back late every Friday night, sun, rain, hail or snow, me and my trusty Escort van flew that route at speeds never heard of since in an Escort van, just a smidgen over 100 miles door to door my world record for the trip was late one Friday night when the A1 was quiet and I did the journey in 1 hour 15 mins, I’ve tried it since in much more powerful cars and I can’t get anywhere near that time, especially when you factor in the numerous roundabouts that existed on the A1 at that time, the van must literally have been flying.

During the winter and especially during the terrible winter of ’78 I had to load up the back of the van with steel bars and heavy switchgear in order to put a bit of weight onto the rear axle so that we could easily plough through the worst of the snowdrifts, only twice did I have problems on all of those journeys, once when the windscreen shattered on a dark and stormy night on the A19 and once when an extreme blizzard on the A1 actually stopped the engine – I managed to limp the vehicle  to a service station and lift the bonnet to find the whole of the engine compartment coated in sleet and ice an inch thick – twenty minutes work with a hammer and some WD40 got me back on the road again.

Of course in those days van engines were far less complicated than now, even I as a car mechanic dolt could work out what happened under the bonnet after just a few minutes explanation from my dad (you didn’t have that “maintenance” section of the driving test like you have now), even I knew that water and car electrics didn’t mix and my van was never without its can of WD40 to get it sparking again on a wet morning.

I even had a can of some highly inflammable, extremely volatile substance that is probably illegal now, the purpose of which was to start an engine so wet that it could have been underwater, and it worked. The  instructions commanded the hapless driver to remove the air filter and spray the substance into the carburetor nozzle then quickly dash to the ignition key and start the engine before the stuff evaporated completely – worked every time with an explosion that would frighten every bird from every tree within a half mile radius – I read much later that you should only use it in diesel engines which were even more rudimentary than petrol ones – still, it worked in my Escort van, probably ruined the engine mind, but still.

Because I parked the van in the street outside my Whitley Bay boarding house every night and because my Whitley Bay boarding house faced the North Sea and would be lashed with filthy damp, soaking wet weather every night from October to March I would park the vehicle up, let it cool down for an hour or so and then go out to it every night with an old blanket to wrap around the engine, yes I tucked my van in for the night, every night to keep the engine dry and occasionally in a morning I’d forget to take the blanket out, only remembering when the smell of burning cloth permeated the inside.

And so the trips up and down the A1 continued and then when I got seconded to our Birmingham branch I’d cover even more miles every week, two nights in Birmingham, three in Newcastle, two in Leeds, I roamed the country in a manner that impressed even hardened gypsies and the mileage on my old van exceeded that for which Ford had ever dreamed of designing for, through the long dark nights of winter I’d fly the highways of England singing out loud to the extremely loud cassette player that I’d fitted myself, singing so loud that I’d arrive at the other end with no voice to speak with, “ooh have you got another of your sore throats ?” my mother would ask most Friday nights when I arrived home, I’d dump my worn clothes by the wash basket, go to my bedroom, get changed, grab some of the meal that she’d made for me and I’d be out the door to the pub without speaking a word, every Friday night for eight years.

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