The rasping call of a lone black crow will sometimes kick my thoughts back four decades and place me in the frosted flat landscape of East Yorkshire. This was during my first job after leaving the School of Architecture and I was working at another place of learning: The Bishop Burton College of Agriculture where I had a temporary job in the Estate Management department. The government of 1976 was besieged with problems such as high unemployment, especially in the building industry, making jobs in architecture extremely hard to find. Inflation was running at 16% having peaked at 26%. My role was artificial, it was a Local Authority job creation scheme which aimed to help me find real employment and to launch me into a productive working life.
The work started in the morning at 8am. Six of us would assemble in a wooden shack on the estate where we would be given various manual tasks for the day. The manager really didn’t want us to be there and he doled out job instructions with unguarded malice. One day it took us nearly an hour to walk with our hand tools to the place where we were actually working. The job was to cut the long grass that was growing under the miles of hedges on the estate. We were give small blunt sickles to use and we worked as slowly as we could. We seemed to have an understanding with the manager, who would not want to see us again that day, so the work was prolonged by us for as long as possible. An early return to the shed would prompt a lecture from him about the need for all people to be paid exactly the same amount for their work whatever it was that they did. His suggested rate would be £40 per week for everyone, no matter what their skill level or productivity. We were on an agricultural workers basic rate of £36 at the time. The manager told us he earned two pounds a week more than us but I think he had an estate cottage thrown in too.
The summer of 1976 had been a hot and dry one but the winter was bitterly cold. My clothing was not up to the job and I would be painfully cold until at least midday. My hands and feet would feel it the most and we didn’t get warm through the physical exertions because we were being so deliberately slow. My co-workers were local lads who understood and rather liked the languid work ethic. At 10am we stopped to eat part of our packed lunches. The Sun newspaper would be unfurled and they would go straight to the sports pages to look at the horse racing news. Before the hard winter set in they would make false plans to go for job interviews but in fact be planning a day trip to Doncaster race course.
The job creation scheme had a limited life of six months so in the New Year I took a job at the Volvo garage in Beverley as a car cleaner and driver. My father spotted an ad in the Beverley Guardian and my parents were pleased that I was moving up in the world. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my first task of the day was to clean the male workers toilets, that the pay was less than before and that I had to contribute 50p per week for the laundering of my overalls. Nevertheless, the job was fun. I learnt how to make a scruffy old banger look shiny and new, plus I got to drive a lot of nice cars during the day. My employers were so pleased with me that I was lined up for promotion to car salesman. Yes me – a car salesmen. Coincidentally, the day I was told of my new role at the Volvo garage I had some news for them. I was leaving them already, as I had been offered a job by the BBC as a Design Assistant in the set design department. I would be making use of my drawing skills learned as a student of architecture. My last task at the garage was to polish a new car for a customer who would be in to collect the next day “Some one in your new game” my manager said “It’s for that playwright who lives over in Cottingham – Alan Plater……he wishes you well…..”
On the 21 March 1977 I began work at the BBC Oxford Road Studios in Manchester. The start time was 9.30am but no-one actually got there till 10 which had been the break time in both of my previous jobs. One week later, and having settled into the new routine, I was surprised by one similarity to my first job: my co-workers were local lads who understood and rather liked the languid work ethic.