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!
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!
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.
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?
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.’
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.
It’s a sad day today as Freshwood Publishing has finally been desolved. We realised quite soon it might not survive, but hoped that three issues of Living Woods magazine might save FreshwoodLite.
It was not to. Saved itself by remarkable Crowdfunding, which raised £8000 for printing, three issues of Living Woods proved to be too stressful for the team. I just could not multi-task and prioritise and concentrate well enough. Like the launch issue of a magazine, the first was simple enough as we had plenty of material and no readers, advertisers and contributors to manage. For that reason all adverts were run for free, impulsively. It was the moment that issue dropped onto doormats that we were inundated with a quantity of correspondence I found impossible to read and manage. As is typical of brain injuries, my motivation dwindled. The greatest sadness is that I founded Freshwood not only as an outlet for my passions in wood and magazines, but because I saw it as a pension for my life. So be it. Onwards and forwards!