1974 – Daily Life at the Depot (a further extract from “The Memoirs of a Simple Utility Worker”

As embarrassing as it seems looking back, what is undeniable is the amount of wasted unproductive time that occurred during those first years in my new job. The day began with us all getting our work from Dave or Bert, finding out which vehicle we had been allotted, and if we had a fitter’s mate  setting out – to the café! There were two café’s that were the favourite haunt of Bristol Water staff at that time, Ray’s Café by the City Ground in Ashton Road, and  Norman’s, which was on the A38 just past the turning to Barrow Gurney. Most days the road outside Rays was full of Bristol Water (and British Gas) vans. Ray would stand behind the counter shouting out the orders to his long-suffering wife whilst pouring dark brown tea from a huge teapot that seemed constantly requiring refilling.

“Egg on two with a splash” and  “One hard sausage” were all versions of the culinary delights that could be found at Rays. At Christmas he would have a bottle of sherry on the counter for all his beloved customers to thank you for their continued custom. On occasions  there was “a purge”, and a Bristol Water Foreman was dispatched to log the registration numbers of the vehicles parked outside,  “bollockings were given”, then the whole process reverted to Normans Café – and off we would go again. The ridiculous thing was that after availing yourself of your breakfast at a local café you made your way to your first job, and of course when 10am arrived you stopped for your morning tea-break!

Both Bedminster and Kingswood Depots had full working canteens, Millbrook and Cheddar didn’t. At Bedminster you could get yourself a packed lunch in the mornings at a reasonable cost, and if you happen to be in the Depot at lunchtime then a full lunch menu was available. There were around three/four staff working in the canteen at Bedminster. Whilst not being able to recall all their names – Beat Powell was in charge for many years. Beat had a slight turn in one eye so you were never sure when she was speaking if she was talking to you or the person next to you. Daisy McAddam, lived in Kings Head Lane, smoked like a trooper and was the grandmother of two lads I knew at Bedminster Down Boys Club, Dave & Alex Plenty. And then there was Lily, Joyce Norton and finally Anne Drew who took over from Beat when she retired. Anne was a great character and made a divine bread-pudding from all the left-over bread.

As previously stated this was “Unionised Company”, and there were rules. For instance, if you travelled over three miles from your Depot you could claim “lunch money”. This was on the basis that you were unable to benefit from the subsidised lunches that were available at Bedminster or Kingswood. I think the money might have been two shillings and sixpence, or 12.5p in new money. Barrow Treatment Works, as it was then known, is just over three miles from Bedminster Depot. So you could legitimately drive yourself back from Barrow to Bedminster for lunch. The problem was that to do this you would need to leave Barrow before 12.30pm to ensure there was a lunch available and you wouldn’t return until at least 1.15pm – which extended the “lunch break” time considerably and really wound up Bert.

The most bizarre thing that happened in relation to lunch money was that at some point the Company decided that the rules were unfair on those working out of Cheddar and Millbrook Depots as they didn’t benefit from a canteen – so they decided to allow them to claim the allowance regardless of the distance restrictions. This infuriated the Trade Union Stewards at Bedminster and Kingswood so much  that we all went on “strike”. Now I have to say it’s without doubt the shortest strike I will ever be involved in – lasting probably two hours. All the Union Stewards (I represented the then EEPTU) were summoned to Head Office Board Room, where the General Manager “blew a head gasket” and basically ordered us back to work.

The Trade Union movement had a stranglehold on a lot of Industries during the 1970’s it wasn’t until that Water Utilities strike of 1981 that the balance of power would be re-defined, and as such changed d the way that certainly Bristol Water would operate for ever.

Some examples – unlike modern standby arrangements where staff make themselves available to be called out from home during “out of hours” periods, when I first joined Bristol Water there was a different standby arrangement. M&E staff were not on standby at all – which meant any breakdowns went to the same individuals – more on that later. However, the repair crews were on standby. The standby consisted of them being available in a Standby Room at the Depot between 16.15 and 21.30 on an evening. The room was called the “standby room”. Now for a quite a period of time the standby room at Bedminster was at one end of the covered yard on a mezzanine floor. Every Friday morning Jim, from one of the Unit Teams, would go around the depot selling tickets to the Friday night “film show”. Whereupon at around 5pm Friday nights many staff would gather in the Standby Room to watch porn films.  I had never seen what was commonly called “blue films” at that point, so one Friday evening myself and my buddy Tim Fowler, got our tickets and made our way to the film show. We stayed to long – about ten minutes. The details of what we saw in that ten minutes would not be appropriate to record, not even now. There is one further bizarre story that relates to these films shows. It goes that the room was full of the usual suspects this one Friday night when the Police came across a burst main locally. Rather than ring Bristol Water they decided to call in to the Depot, as they were aware of the standby arrangements. The door to the standby room opened and their stood two Policemen who apparently said “sorry to disturb the film boys but we got a burst main, could you come and repair it when it ends”.

On other occasions the scenes in the Depot used to resemble an episode of “Fools & Horses”, as individuals  wandered around selling decidedly dodgy goods, from electric tools to cigarettes and towels. One character apparently used to go to South Wales and buy stuff from shops that was on offer in multiple buys. He would then bring them back to Bristol, split them up and sell them individually. Cigarettes and Cigars that had somehow found themselves walking out of Imperial Tobacco were popular if you smoked. Again, there is a story of a very Senior Manager at the time being questioned by the Police in relation to some dodgy cigarettes that had obviously been “procured” from somebody at the Depot.

One of the more genuine routines that occurred was the collection of the Christmas Club Money. John Williams, who was a Chlorinator, would do the run on the Friday after pay day collecting from those who wanted to save for Christmas. No matter how much you could offer he would take it, and then in the weeks before Christmas you would get your savings back. We trusted him implicitly with our money, and he never let us down.

So this Depot could be a thrive of activity for many reasons, some of them actually not connected in any way with work.

 

Extract from “The memoirs of a simple Utility Worker”

It was a Friday, why any Company would want you start work on a Friday I have no idea – but this Company did at that time.  .

Just years four years earlier I had  commenced an Apprenticeship with the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) as an Electrical Fitter, serving most of my apprenticeship at the Portishead Power Station, around ten  miles from Bristol. This was the 1970’s when the Trade Unions were at their strongest. At Portishead a Tradesman didn’t leave the workshops to do any work unless he had a Fitters Mate to carry his tools. Coming out of my “time” as an apprentice I was offered a post on shift at Portishead – I took the job, fully aware that it was a challenge for any apprentice to get a start as a Tradesman. Companies didn’t have to offer you positions – but within the CEGB any vacancy had to be offered first to any apprentice coming out of his time. My opportunity came because Barry Helps, a fellow apprentice who was a couple of months older than me, turned down the opportunity to take the job – and he left Portishead on the day his apprenticeship was completed.

The move on to shift was a challenge – being the only Electrical Tradesman on nights for not one, but two Power Stations, Portishead “A” and “B”. So when Jess Bacon, a member of the Ladies Group at BDBC (Bedminster Down Boys Club) made me aware that there was a vacancy for an Electrician where she worked, at Bristol Water, I decided to apply. It was based at their Bedminster Depot on Bishopsworth Road, a five minute walk from the family home. I was interviewed by a gentleman called John Taylor, and offered the post the following day.

And so commenced my love affair with the local Water Company – Bristol Water. The year was 1974, and it was January. Fast forward to January  2018, some 44 years later and I’m preparing to call it a day and joint the list of the “retired from full-time employment”. My journey with Bristol Water has stemmed some forty-three years. Between  1974-79 and 1989 -2018 as an employee, with a ten year gap in-between, during which I was either self-employed or in a Business Partnership (M&E Services), and undertaking a significant amount of work for-Bristol Water.

To say that I have seen significant changes in Industry and more importantly within Bristol Water through that time would be the preverbal understatement. This is a memoir that hopefully captures those changes but importantly relates those changes through the stories and experiences of my time as an employee.

The Retirement Decision

“What are you going to do when you finish?” I have no idea how many times I have been asked that question in recent months, but it’s a lot. I have no idea how others have ultimately come to the decision to retire from full-time employment – but, my decision is of my own making. The fact that I have never considered it being the wrong decision over the last nine months or so would seem to indicate that  it was the right one – time, of course will tell.

There is no hiding the fact that the “emotional” impact of that decision has hit me a couple of times over the last few weeks. Since September 1969 I have spent my working day in the company of others. My two stints at Bristol Water, totalling some thirty-five years intersected with ten years in Business – as a Contractor. In making my decision  to retire I didn’t for once consider the question of “what will do afterwards”. My decision was sole based on my ability, as an individual, to perform at the level that I needed to do in the role that I was in. At nearing sixty-four years of age (which I was at that time), there was no doubt that the pressure, the stress and the responsibility that went with the role had the potential to impact my health, if it hadn’t already done so. Of course, we would have to manage on less money – but what is the good of money if you didn’t have your health. My Dad worked until he was seventy – he was in perfect health. Like others he probably thought that he was indestructible, and if he didn’t provide the service to the customers he had serviced as a Building Contractor for over thirty years then who would ? He died some six months after his seventieth birthday – leaving my mother finically comfortable, but without the heath to enjoy it.

Nobody should ever think they are irreplaceable in any workforce – history tells us that “gaps are soon filled”, colleagues move on – it’s all a question of them “having to”. When colleagues say “it won’t be the same without you”, many of them do mean it. And of course, it won’t be the same – for you. I have often argued that a part of manager’s role was to ensure that nobody was irreplaceable, that there were no human single points of failure – and that if you weren’t there then everything would go on as normal. And if that becomes a reality then you can leave with a smile – job done.

ASIAN EXPLOITS – VIETNAM

Life can sometimes throw us the most unexpected opportunities. As far as travel goes our holidays, like a majority of families, have been largely controlled by our budget, and of course its suitability for us as a family. In later years, with the children “largely” off our hands, we have been able to set our sights further afield. A visit to Asia or the Far East represents places that sit on many of our  “bucket lists” I’m sure, but how many of us actually get there? So when our youngest son took a job in China the opportunity to put a big tick against a line on our  bucket list was clearly there.

In late January 2017 we made our first trip to China. Of course there were concerns, especially with the physical side of the trip. I had delayed knee replacement surgery until my return – and what you don’t want is for the holiday to be impacted by your own inability to cope with the physical side of the trip. The holiday was a wonderful experience – and we had a great time visiting some of the wonderful sites in China. We also managed some independent travelling by flying to Tokyo for four days – leaving our hosts, Sam and Charlotte, a few days respite! What our trip to China did was not only open our eyes to a completely different side of the world, to its culture, its cuisine and its wonderful history – but probably more importantly – it allowed us to understand that we have nothing to fear from travelling that far. There is no doubt that having family who are living in Asia is extremely beneficial. The confidence that they have got in living and traveling in the Far East rubs off on you – the only real challenge is the language.

With our first trip to China behind us our plans focussed on meeting up with our son Sam, and his partner Charlotte, over the Christmas period. Again a new challenge for us – being away for Christmas!

I have never considered that my retirement from work would coincide with me sitting back on my butt and doing “jack shit”. However, what I probably didn’t factor on was how much things around me would continue to change, and that those changes would possibly mean some “re-consideration” of the choices or options available to us. When we had discussed the possibility of “going away for Christmas” at some point – Asia wasn’t what I was thinking of. But with a son living in China – the world opens up dramatically (if you want it to). So we made our plans for Vietnam, with the blessing of all the rest of the kids.

Vietnam had always interested Jayne and I. Our love of cruises had caused us to look at the possibility of doing a trip in that area, however we soon realised to see Vietnam properly we were going to have to do a land trip in some format. The concept of doing Cambodia and Laos at the same time was quickly ruled out when it became obvious we had no chance of seeing all what we wanted to see in Vietnam during the two weeks we would be there.

One of the challenges when going on holiday with another couple is ensuring that you all get to see what you want to see. Our itinerary was put together collectively, and then we left Sam to sort out the internal flights. This was the first time that Jayne and I had ever had connecting flights – and I still grimace as I remember us running through Abu Dhabi Airport with our carry-on cases as the clock ticked down to the departure time. This is where we put a “note to self” to remind us of the perils of having connecting flights that are only fifty minutes apart and your first flight is twenty-five minutes late! The reason we made it? Well that would be due to my dear wife thrusting her boarding pass under the nose of the security guard at Abu Dhabi – and we were suddenly in the “first-class” line for the security check – which was infinitely shorter.

We travelled throughout Vietnam during a stay of fifteen days. From Ho Chi Minh in the South to Hanoi in the North, via Hoi An and Ha Long Bay. . I particularly wanted our trip to Vietnam to give me a greater understanding of all things Vietnamese and of course the Vietnam War. It didn’t disappoint. Of course Vietnam is different to China – well, we can say that now we have been there! Firstly, more people speak English in Vietnam than in China – which is a positive if you’re a tourist. We found the people of both Nations friendly and helpful, and genuinely pleased to see you. I suppose the people of Vietnam rely far more on tourism than the Chinese – and yet, probably on paper China should provide the greatest interest for tourists. However, in the discussions we had with friends before our first visit to China it would seem that whilst many loved the thought of visiting China very few thought they ever would. With its proximity to Thailand, and being a destination of choice for many Australians, Vietnam is sure to be a choice for many dipping their toes into this part of Asia for the first time. It also seems the route of many backpackers coming through the adjacent countries of Cambodia and Laos.

It isn’t always possible to provide a “balanced” view when there are so many extreme or biased opinions in the public domain. My awareness of the conflicts that impacted the area known as “Indo China” over many years has been restricted to the numerous TV reports I saw during the late 1960 and 70’s. Yes, I was fully aware of the opposition by many regarding America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and of course, as a lover of modern War Films, especially those that depict the real horror of conflict, it’s not difficult to attribute the “blame” to one side or the other. There is no doubt that the years of conflict in the area have left a legacy of damage, structurally, physically and no doubt emotionally. In talking to the younger generation of Vietnamese people they all seem to have a single mind set – which is based on going forward, not back. It would seem that only the tourists have that “have a need” to understand or visit the areas of conflict. Even the seventy-four year old tour guide who accompanied us to the My Son Sanctuary, and had spent two years in prison for being an interpreter for the USA during the conflict, was determined to look only forward. “We have no interest in conflict – we have seen at first hand the damage it causes”, he said. A visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is a must.

As I said earlier, I am not a travel writer, or actually a “writer”. I classify myself as someone who just likes to write. As the blog indicates these are my “ramblings”. It is my firm belief that to really experience the real Country your visiting you need to embrace its culture. Just before we visited China I remember Sam reminding us, “remember Dad, they have a different culture to us, the things they do, the way they behave – it’s all different to the UK. Don’t judge them on those differences, just accept them”. We ate local food throughout our stay, in local establishments where the locals ate. We embraced the culture and the people – and we did so willingly, knowing that by doing so our trip would enrich our lives, which it did.

So here goes – I have entered the world of blogging!

It wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. Of course, it wasn’t without the degree of scepticism from the “less impressed off-spring”! However, with the help and encouragement of Charlotte,  and Luke at work, I seem to have been able to set myself  up – although the absolute proof will be when somebody actually reads something!

Why the Blog?

Well, if you have ever seen the Film White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye – there is a part when they are singing a song about their old Army General, who they have  stumbled across running a ski resort – where there is no snow. Recipe for disaster I would say! Anyway the song basically goes “What Do You Do With A General When He Stops Being A General?”. I have been asked a similar question by colleagues many times over the last few weeks – “what are you going to do when you retire?” Whilst it is important for me to maintain active both physically and mentally, I didn’t consider these questions when making the decision to retire from where I currently work. What I did know is that it was going to be impossible for me to maintain the level of physical and mental activity that was required to be able to fulfil the requirements of the role that I had. Once i accepted that then retiring was an easy decision. Staying there because i “didn’t know what else to do” was NOT an option. Besides, as the clock keeps ticking ever quicker – it was time to stop “hedging my bets”. I have lost to many friends and family  along the way to ever believe we all have the right to a long-life.

Anyway, I digress. I enjoy writing – I am find it therapeutic. And with so many stories to tell about life in a Local Water Company or about the Community Of Bedminster Down. (Or indeed what a 65-year-old Retired Utility Worker is going to be doing over the coming years) I decided to give it a go – this Blogging” thing.

Expect the writings to be random – and of course, I am always grateful for feedback.