The Way We Were: Let the building commence

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John Taylor talks a walk down memory lane...

We would seek our fortune in that Klondike of building sites which, in the embryonic days of the new city, were beginning to spread their brick acne across the complexion of this once green and pleasant countryside.

But first, perhaps to explain how Digger acquired his ‘handle’. As one possessed of a ‘roguish charm’, he had recently become ensconced with his latest conquest at Olney, but with the demise of the initial passions the beloved soon came to realise that ‘roguish charm’ perhaps equates to ‘feckless irresponsibility.’ In fact the first cracks in the façade of domestic bliss appeared one Sunday lunchtime when, having lovingly prepared a Sunday roast, the good lady was more than a little miffed to find that instead of returning to the nest, as planned, her other half was happily holding forth in a local tavern, and had no intention of returning anytime soon. Whereupon she stormed down Weston hill, threw open the door of The Swan, and tipped the entire Sunday offering over his head.

And of course matters could hardly improve, and as the rows became more frequent, a next door neighbour, as a captive (but not unwilling) audience, became more alarmed than ever, when, through the gloom of an autumnal evening, she saw him slink into the back garden with a lifeless form slumped over his shoulder. And when he dumped this on the ground, and proceeded to dig a big hole, her concerns elicited an official enquiry. Yet all he was doing was burying an old carpet, but with the worst having been feared the nickname became immortalised.

But back to building sites. Much akin to a Roman slave market, the foreman had cast a scornful eye over my less than impressive physique but nevertheless decided to take us as a job lot, and so, each being issued with a spade and a shovel, our indoctrination into the world of mud, hard graft and all weather working began. For neither snowstorms, torrential rain nor blazing heat ever seemed sufficient to halt the labours, and the only instance when work came to a stop was during a lightning storm, when everyone huddled into that three storey house on the left of the entrance to our site at Breton, Stony Stratford.

As ‘ground workers’ we were firmly at the bottom of the food chain, but status was of little importance, since from a previous pittance of £12 the weekly earnings had rocketed to over £40, dispensed every Friday in a little brown envelope by the foreman, who toured his troops from a commanding position aboard a bright yellow dumper truck.

And it soon became obvious that all the old clichés really were apt, for in an environment where ‘elf and safety’ was unheard of, and workers had to look out for each other, there really was a bond of close ‘comradeship,’ pleasingly removed from the pretensions and petty politics that are so often the fare of office types. With all the other developments of the 1970s, today Breton stands as a testament to the means by which the financial fortunes of many were much enhanced, and although our earnings were never on a par with the megabucks of ‘brickies,’ or ‘sparks,’ they were still sufficient to build up a decent sum.

As for other memories, the occasion is still clear when in January 1973 a stricken F111 fighter bomber made repeated low altitude passes over the site. An engine was on fire, and having burnt off sufficient fuel the crew ejected in their survival capsule, to settle gently onto a cabbage patch at North Crawley. Shortly afterwards the rescue helicopter sped overhead, and another memory also involved a helicopter, when Charles McKenzie descended from the heavens to open the first house on the site. At the time we were eight foot down a drainage trench shovelling pea shingle, but had he known I’m sure he’d have popped over, to thank us for all our hard work....