October 2004

IS LIFE FAIR, OR WHAT

shapeimage_1-8You read in the papers and see on the telly, people complaining about this and that, usually (these days) with a view to being compensated, either with extensive ‘counselling’ or a fat cheque from whomsoever they consider to be responsible for the tragedy they have suffered. The common trend running through any of these is that it is certainly not one’s Own fault — it’s ‘them’. Any old how, it is you or I who pay the ultimate bill, through income tax, Council tax or higher insurance bills.

Not being a Talmudic specialist, nor claiming to know the Koran in any detail, I can only guess that they, like the Bible, nowhere claim that life is fair. We gave up that sort of defence when Adam bit the apple proffered by Eve and we were then on our own.

Sometimes unfairness happens to people which causes us to exclaim “Serves them right!” Rather crassly, I think of Mr and Mrs Blair and their house purchasing. You may recall that shortly after the 1997 election, they moved out of a house in Islington, selling it for £600,000 or thereabouts, only to see it double in value within a couple of years. Now, with house prices starting to drop, they have bought a place for over £3million, ready for when he is no longer Prime Minister. It will be interesting to see what its market value is when that occasion comes round; I’ll bet it isn’t what they paid. Jolly unfair.

I write as a man who bought his present house in 1968 for £7,500, but even that paltry figure is beginning to show the cracks oftime. The house, now 73 years old, suddenly needs expensive repairs carried out (see last month’s Newsletter) and, with a typical bout of unfairness, electrics are just one of the failures, for they have been followed by having to replace the rotted garage door and a couple of rotted window cills, plus – most recently – a flood caused by a burst radiator. This last happened a week ago, when I was starting to prepare this edition and found that my feet were cold and damp. Have you ever tried emptying a home office? Everything weighs a ton, paperwork is sodden where it was piled on the floor and the whole room smells for days afterwards.

Still that’s the Rule of Three satisfied; thank goodness it isn’t a rule of four.

Speakers

shapeimage_2-7For the record, owing to a faulty source which I should have checked like good journalists are supposed to, last month’s Newsletter contained an error: our speaker, Dennis Evans did not spend his working life with HM Customs & Excise as we erroneously stated. (We are correct, however, in spelling his first name with two ‘n’s, his mother having been frightened by a passing dust cart near the time of his birth.) No, if anything he was on ‘the other side’, responsible for all the business of importing and exporting freight from and to this country.

Sounds simple? Was it hell! You want to get a shipment (by air, sea, or in this day and age, Chunnel) to your anxious customer basking in the Mediterranean sun, so you call up your friendly Freight Forwarders. Be thankful they say “Leave it all to us, sir”, while you get on with making more widgets or whatever.

Dennis’s mob collect the shipment, package it in accordance with Customs & Excise rules, bearing in mind the differing rules that apply along the whole journey. They will then warehouse it until a suitable berth can be obtained, meanwhile preparing insurance, paperwork by the trees’-worth for officials along the way which state that the widgets will not explode/rot/poison people en route, nor are they banned substances that might help Her Majesty’s enemies, whose name is Legion.

Are they going to be shown at the International Widgets Fair? If so, shall you need them back? Or send them on to the Widgets International Fair – a different thing altogether – in another country and then have them back? Carnets are needed. And every bit of paper is prepared in many, many copies for truck drivers, ships’ captains, railway companies and, of course passing C&E authorities.

Importing goods is just as fraught: when was the crocodile shot, that a handbag or two resulted? Where? Have you got proof? And you, sir: those shoes… Sorry, madam, that will be either a £200 fine or a stretch inside, says the Customs man.

This has been going on for the past two hundred years since Napoleon’s fusses (trust the French to be in there somewhere) provided a need, or at least an excuse for lots more Civil Servants. The EU (French, again) has changed the rules and added many of their own.

Whatever happened to the ‘paperless office’ we were promised would result in the use of computers? Well, we met one happy, retired chap who’s glad it didn’t happen, for it gave Dennis a career and us a need to make it all up; he was too interesting for your reporter to jot down notes. More errors, then.

Today:

Eugene Lightbody, who visited the Antipodes earlier this year, will tell us about the many Probus Clubs he met there.

November 4th:

Miniature Teapots will be explained and shown by Loretta Barnett. If you can’t wait, visit www.pageonedesign.co.uk now

December 2nd:

A Christmas Special. Jonathan Fryer, an actor with many funny tales to tell, comes highly recommended by all. Good Yuletide cheer for a merry festival.

Club News

You will recall our speaker in September, Richard Ratcliffe, who put us right on what was safe to eat despite alarming E-numbers and such. Brian Blakeney has been advised by the Chemical Industries Association – where Richard had worked for fifteen years in the Community Relations Department – that they are closing down the department with effect from the New Year. Let us hope it was nothing we said, or reported…

Last year Jim Mulvey had some success in the Probus International photographic competition, with a lovely photo of the Thames at sunrise near Windsor. As he points out, we can all, if only occasionally, take photos that surprise us with their beauty and he sees no reason why we shouldn’t get a prize too. To this end he is prepared to organise a Coulsdon Probus Club competition, to be judged by himself and Harry Cundell, for the following categories:

Back-lighted

Portraits

Wild life

Landscape

Plants

Water features.

A bottle of wine will be the prize for the winner of each category. The overall winner will be entered into the International competition. Remember to write your name on the back of the print in soft pencil, gently, so that it doesn’t bruise the paper and show on the front. If it’s a digital pic, it must not be retouched.

Fourteen Probeans and two of their friends were shepherded across London Bridge station by Phil Munson on their way to Eltham Palace. The weather clerk was the only one who didn’t co-operate, but despite his worst efforts the visit was thoroughly pleasing to all who went, especially the Canna lilies in the formal garden. Brian Blakeney took photographs which he will put on the website. Thank you, Phil, for a really enjoyable (and enjoyed) outing. What a pity the sun waited until everyone was home…

Harry Witham is back home after three weeks in hospital with a heart attack. His family has clustered round and he is in good hands, but it will be a while before he is fit again.

Tony Marks is home after chemotherapy in the Royal Marsden, feeling somewhat tender and fraught but being looked after by daughters ‘n’things. He has to go back to hospital for more, but gentler, treatment.

Bryan Chilton is house-bound, largely by the autumnal weather, but coping.

Tom Chapple is still house-bound, too, in his case with a damaged back which doesn’t allow him to sit for any length of time.

Aren’t families, especially daughters, really handy when one is ill?

However, all the above (who send their best wishes to us all) will be absent from our luncheons for a while, so the numbers will remain low. Unless, of course, you all used the handy ‘comeandjoinus’ leaflets you got last month. We truly need more members; it’s no hardship for us to ask and for them to join. Good fun, actually.

Cammell Laird in the 1940s
Part 2: Build me a Ship

by Tony Simpson

As an apprentice, I was sent to all the ship building shops and the frame bending squad always attracted my attention. A typical frame could be a 50 feet long 12 inch bulb angle. In front of the furnace lay cast-iron slabs punctured with square holes – the raw material. A frame was manhandled into the furnace using long tongs and allowed to heat up to cherry red. The Mould Loft provided wooden templates of the frames and a series of dogs were wedged into the holes following the line of the template, which was then removed and dragged from the furnace using tongs and the eight-man squad proceeded to dog down the frame, starting from the furnace end and forming continuous bending all down its length. They used heavy sledge hammers and it was marvellous to witness their strength, accuracy and skill while they sweated copiously, speedily forming the frame while it was still malleable. Large dixie cans of beer were available to restore their fluid loss.

In the boiler shop, it was impossible to hear others speak; not for nothing was deafness known as ‘the boilermakers’ disease.’ One had to cup one’s hands over the recipient’s ear and shout into it. Riveting, the predominant connection medium, was nearly as noisy, although there was ever-increasing use of electric arc welding, all of it manual. The deck riveting squads, working as a team heated the rivets in a coke brazier, the heater boy picked up the red-hot rivet with tongs and threw it to the holder-up who caught it in his tongs and rammed it straight into its hole for the riveter on the other side to close it up. There were no hard hats, except for foremen and ship managers who wore bowler hats, more as a symbol of authority though such hats could mean the difference between life and death from ‘accidental’ stray rivets and other hardware from above.

The laggers who worked on the ship during fitting out worked with their bare hands and hand tools, moulding blue asbestos paste to boilers and pipework. They paid a heavy price years later when asbestosis struck them. Workers these days would be horrified at the primitive conditions of work then. All those whose jobs were on the building berth worked in the open right through bitter winter months with no weather protection, unlike today’s covered building docks.

Although safety measures were rudimentary by today’s standards, dangers were everywhere, one quickly became aware and was suitably prudent and lessons learnt the hard way were never forgotten. I remember once, crossing the end of a dry dock when an aircraft carrier was warping in, suddenly there was a tremendous crack as a 6″ diameter steel wire head rope parted and flew across the dock at colossal speed, smashing against the steel boiler shop doors, leaving a considerable impression on them. It left a considerable impression on me, too, because anyone in the way would have been cut in half. I remember it still. Protective clothing was a rarity – steel-capped protective boots only for those who could afford them.

It would be unwise to pass the yard gates when the knocking-offhooter sounded; wiLh hordes of men poised to run like the start of a cross-country race there was a distinct danger of being trampled underfoot.

My later experiences in German shipyards showed me how primitive our conditions were. German workers went to the yard smartly dressed, each had his own locker for working clothes and he could wash and shower before going home clean. In our yards, there were no washing or changing facilities and lavatory conditions were primitive.

To be continued

Produced and edited monthly by Ian Scales (01737 553704)
for The Coulsdon Probus Club.
Edition No 94.

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