Trip to Nowhere

Sadly my days as an assistant treeman and landscaper have come to a quick end. The job was ideal, being hard work, but with plenty of time between customers to research my book, 100 Hidden Talents. What I hadn’t realised for the first few days is that the father and son are travellers, and that some of the time we’d be erecting fences. They offer a good service, have plenty of regular customers, and paid me daily. They bought me breakfast and lunch every day. But they are protective, and when one morning I asked where we were going that day, I was ejected from the truck for asking too many questions. At least we hadn’t gone too far and I could walk back home carrying my chainsaw!

Renaissance Prisoner

Driving to Gloucester from Bristol on a trip to trim some hedges, it is time to research John Vanbrugh, the Restoration architect who was an amateur playwright and radical politician. Or was he a political enthusiast and spare time architect while writing plays as a living? Or perhaps indeed a British agent who ended up in the Bastille for a few years, possibly penning The Provoked Wife to relieve his boredom while dreaming up Blenheim Palace? Tush tush. Actually the play was deemed risque for the times, suggesting an abused wife might take a lover. Long Live La Bastille, I’d say. Hopefully we will learn more in 100 Hidden Talents!

Twain’s Inventive Hobby

Today’s Hidden Talent Writing is Huck Finn author Mark Twain, said to be inventor. On the way to my tree team’s first job I start research discovering he was an inventor with mixed success in his spare time. At best he devised an idea that is still used today. At worst he tried designing a board game, and lost a fortune attempting to sell machinery beaten too quickly by pioneering competition.

In the meantime, before I get the chance to elaborate there is a small conifer to fell as part of my travelling tree work and some pears to prune in a patio garden Making. For once I am not last in the queue, for once not the chipperman.

Then, to my surprise, we pass the rehab centre where I spent two weeks of emprisonment after my accident. I hated it. Worse than boarding school. At least I could spend some time watering plants and taking long walks through the woodlands. One day I went off too early and was put back on another Depravation of Liberty Order for being foul-mouthed at reception. I also tried to buy the woodland, which was set to be flattened for development. And I fell in love with a rotting white Porsche 924. But that’s another story. It had gone by today.

Between jobs there is more time to research Mark Twain’s inventions. He had a patent for a clasp that has become a ubiquitous fixing for bra straps, and made him plenty. An idea for self-adhesive scrapbooking pads also did him well, but his Memory Board game, designed to spark the brain, was not such a great success. Worse still was his attempt to sell a new type of printing press, which was quickly overtaken by linotype and lost him his wealth. There’ll be more in 100 Hidden Talents.

Orange is the Colour

The oddest thing happened to me a fortnight ago. I was cycling to my job at the local country park, where I work as a groundsman of sorts, when a tipper truck with wood chipper attached slows up beside me. I expect the driver to be asking for directions, but no, he says: “Do you want a job?” I am obviously puzzled. “What?” “Do you want a job?” Who doesn’t, so I suggest he parks ahead.

I ride up alongside in a layby and ask for more details. It turns out that he and his son need help with their tree and landscaping business. “But I can’t drive,” I reply. No problem, he responds. “We will pick you up at 8am every morning and bring you back by around 3pm.” It was a moment, on my saddle by the road, I could not believe and will never forget. He had only slowed to recruit me on seeing the orange handles of my Fiskar pruners sticking out of the bike basket. Orange, everyone knows, sets professionals a little aloft in the tree world.

Work at the country park has been diminishing since the season’s end and I have been needing some money. Only that morning I had wondered how I might find another job. Despite not really knowing the job spec, I found the offer too tempting to refuse. So three days later I am picked up on the dot of 8am and off we go for my first day as an assistant treeman and landscaper.

Since then I have helped erect two long fences and the chipped branches from a series of felled or topped conifers, cherry trees and silver birch. I get breakfast and lunch for free and am delivered home between 1pm and 5pm, depending on where we have been working and how many jobs we have to do. I enjoy the company and the hard work, and like being told what to do. And I have time to read and write in the truck between stops, and can do research for Hidden Talents, my book proposal about the unlikely hobbies of the great and the good. What’s not to like?

Churchill’s Silver Trowel

In December 2014, £1.8m was paid for the painting of a goldfish pond by Sir Winston Churchill. Set at Chartwell, his Kent home, the painting was one of 256 lots sold for a total of £15m by Mary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter. Two years earlier, with rather less fanfare, a 1954 Series 1 Land Rover was put up for sale at auction in Cambridgeshire. With an original signed log book and a widened seat for its rotund passenger, the soft-top fetched £129,000, six times the normal value of the model. ‘The most intriguing feature,’ reported Classic Driver, ‘is a wooden box specially fitted into the pick-up bed to accommodate a trowel and a bag of mortar, so that the owner could indulge in his fondness for bricklaying.’ That particular owner had been the world’s most famous amateur painter, and bricklaying had been his secret skill.

Such, indeed, were Churchill’s hidden talents with a trowel that in 1928 he was made a member of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades Workers (AUBTW), but only for a month. Having ‘crossed the floor’ in Parliament from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904, then back again in 1924, he was not much loved by any brotherhood of unions. When he was invited to join by James Lane, the organizer of his local division, Churchill cautiously responded: “I do not feel I am sufficiently qualified.” He may have realized that membership might raise eyebrows from all quarters, and that Brother Churchill might not sound right. Lane agreed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may have not been competent enough to match a professional, but replied: ‘As time passes you will improve your craftsmanship in a similar manner to those who have entered the trade under the Government adult apprenticeship scheme.’ So the would-be statesman dispatched a joining fee of 5 shillings and returned to his work as Chancellor during the day and as a brickie at weekends.

Churchill’s bricklaying had started in 1922 when he and his wife Clementine bought dilapidated Chartwell in the Garden of England. Needing to avoid his Black Dog depression, he began laying red bricks around the boundaries of the kitchen garden. This inspired him to build a little one-room cottage for his daughters, known soon as Marycot. He was taught bricklaying by two of his Chartwell staff, and by local bricklayer, Benny Barnes, who tended to pick up where Churchill left off when the Chancellor was whisked away to Westminster. Stanley Baldwin, under whose premiership Churchill ruled the Exchequer from 1924-29, had encouraged him to paint, to write and to build at home as a break from the turmoil of Parliament. “Do remember,” he wrote in August 1928, “what I said about resting from current problems.”

Credentials in Government must surely have helped when it came to buying bricks to build the cottage. Churchill ended up, via auspicious references, at the WT Lamb & Sons brickworks in Kent to order stock to match Marycot and Chartwell. The initial samples were inadequate, so four were removed from an old wall and once satisfied Churchill ordered 4000. He had enough to send Baldwin a reply within a month, in September 1928: “I have had a delightful month building a cottage and dictating a book: 200 bricks and 2000 words in a day.” The message must have been leaked to the press, as The Evening Standard reported next day that ‘Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has become an amateur bricklayer.’ In the report, his daughter Sarah was said to have been carrying the bricks, while her father set them in place and tapped with a trowel, despite him wearing gloves, hat and a coat, and with a cigar in hand. One reporter commented this was not how a bricklayer might work on a summer’s day.

Nor did Sir Winston’s gentlemanly style did not impress AUTBW officials. At one stage he had asked James Lane, who was Mayor of Battersea as well as the local union rep, if members had to lay a minimum number of bricks a day, and what about overtime. The back and forth banter continued, with tongues stuck in cheeks, especially when Lane replied: ‘If you should be called out on strike, you will be entitled to one pound per week.’

When news of Churchill’s private induction at the Treasury in October 1928 hit the headlines, some union members were irate, especially since he had been so forthright ending the General Strike in 1926. ‘You damned old hypocrite,’ wrote one. Such was the furore that later in the month the union’s Executive Council debated, as Agenda Item 3, ‘Winston S. Churchill’. Questions were raised about his application, and particularly that he had not revealed how long he had, or had not, been working in the bricklaying trade. Despite some understanding that the issue was being taken too seriously, the Council voted to revoke his membership, declaring that ‘Mr Winston Churchill is not eligible for membership of this union, and that Brother Lane be advised to this effect accordingly.’ The expulsion notice was distributed nationwide. Even so, Churchill considered the union had no legal right to oust him. He stated that accepting the rejection might endanger other members, ‘who ought to have assurance they cannot be turned out for political reasons.’

Then, on the 4th June 1929, with his union membership rescinded, Churchill’s own political career ended when Baldwin lost the General Election. Aged just 55, Churchill was cast off the front bench for the first time since 1917 and faced a life of perpetual wilderness and the threat of an unfettered Black Dog for years to come. So he kept busy instead.

He wrote, and wrote and wrote, articles and books, to cover the prodigious costs of running Chartwell and his undiminished demand for cigars and champagne. Then there would have been the travelling costs to paint all those overseas landscapes. There is a rumour he sold a couple of paintings in Paris in 1921, under a pseudonym as Charles Morin, but the other 550 were painted for pleasure, as a pastime. That indeed was the title of a short book of his, first published in 1948. Painting for Pleasure combined two articles Churchill had written in the 1920s; one eponymous, and the other entitled Hobbies. The first third of the 75-page book explores the value of having at least one pastime, and mentions bricklaying. ‘The tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened,’ he wrote, ‘not only by rest, but by using other parts.’ He described ‘Fortune’s favoured children’ as those for whom work and pleasure are one. ‘For them the working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays, when they come, are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation.’

Churchill believed that those who separate work and pleasure, however hard they do both, actually repeat their office life at home. So those who weigh and measure all day will do so in the evening. And those who worry for wages will worry at home. ‘It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant,’ he wrote, ‘that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.’

With his own retirement in mind, he stipulated that a hobby must be cultivated properly. These must not be mere interests, fancies one might say, which he concluded ‘only aggravate the strain of mental effort.’ No, Churchill also considered a single hidden talent not enough: ‘To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must be real.’

Alongside his painting and other interests, Churchill continued his bricklaying through his decade out of office. He ordered 6000 more of his favourite plum-tinted bricks in 1934 and 1935, and according to his daughter Mary continued as a brickie while saving a Britain at war. He could not contain himself when building works were inspected during his 1942 visit to Mary’s Anti-Aircraft Battery at Enfield. “To my embarrassment, but to everyone else’s delight, my father stopped, seized a trowel, and laid down a line of bricks!”

An even more famous moment was his laying of a foundation stone at Bristol University in 1952. The 78-year-old (who in 1948 had foretold the block-built Berlin Wall as part of an Iron Curtain crossing Europe), picked up a silver trowel to make the ceremonial tap. “The stone isn’t level,” he complained, and when red-faced university officials discovered he was right, Sir Winston smoothed the cement to knock the block in place. Days later he arrived in New York on the Queen Mary to visit the USA once again. This time journalist Dorothy McCardle wrote in The Washington Press that the bulldog leader had acquired a new title. For his current visit he should be called ‘the bricklayer’. Enough said.

Down and Out

So inspired was I by 10 days as The Piano Plongeur in SW France that I decided to become a professional kitchen porter back home. ‘Nothing could be simpler than the life of a plongeur,’ George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London. He added that the job offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and has not a trace of skill or interest. Based on his own experiences he considered the dishwasher as one of the slaves of the modern world. ‘Yet plongeurs, low as they are, have a kind of pride. It is the pride of the drudge: the man who is equal to no matter what quantity of work.’

Days after returning to England from France, just as Orwell did, I searched for a KP post, and found employment at Cote Brasserie, the largest restaurant in Cirencester and part of a nationwide chain. I wanted some buzz, some excitement, and at Cote I found it in spades. I came to be considered, I suspect, as a grandfather at the sink, befriending my colleagues who spoke a multitude of languages. The high-stress deadlines reminded me of crisis days in magazines. There was danger passing the grills, from which scalding fat was spitting all the time.

Midway through lunch is the most thrilling time, when you a’re submerged by pots and pans from the kitchen and glasses, plates and cutlery from below. Sadly, the evening shifts were too noisy and too late, and I had to retire as a plongeur, proud of my time at Cote. As Orwell noted: ‘After all, the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.’

The Piano Plongeur

In June 2016, my girlfriend Jane met her old friend Jenny Roberts. She and her husband Paul, an author and noted pianist, spend the whole of August every year in an old French farmhouse running courses and workshops for talented amateur piano players, and rely upon family and friends as voluntary staff. “How are things?” Jane asked Jenny. “Not so good. We have lost one of our cooks.” Impulsively Jane offered to help. “But my boyfriend Nick will have to come as well.” Jenny jumped at the chance: “Would he mind washing dishes?” Without so much as a text of consultation, Jane replied that of course I’d be a happy plongeur.

And it turned out that I loved the  job, and am an excellent dishwasher. For the first time in two years since my brain injury, I had a routine and purpose. Every morning at the farmhouse in Albignac, near Albi in SW France, I would wash up breakfast and then help the cooks keeping their tools and bowls and dishes clean ready for lunch, and later for supper. It was a regime I came to desire back in Blighty.