In Bruce Robinson’s 1987 cult classic Withnail and I, one of many highly satisfying and quotable lines is “we’ve gone on holiday by mistake”. The words come from 30-something Withnail, an out-of-work, alcoholic actor who finds himself in the countryside, having sought a distraction from city life and his failing creative career. While starved and getting soaked by Lake District rain, he begs a local farmer for firewood and food.
In similar fashion I, 30-something and coming to terms with my failing creative career, found myself in a trench, covered in mud, soaked through with a mélange of sweat and icy rain, muttering to myself between shattering swings of a mattock into the most irritating, unmovable mud: “I’ve become a groundworker by mistake.”
Let me elaborate. Until November last year, I was a copywriter for a range of community magazines. My content aimed to please the communities it served, and the articles I contributed ranged from: a man opening a restaurant in his back garden for badgers (shout out to Marcel), to interviewing the local walking football team, to covering events such as village fetes and scarecrow festivals. Truly wholesome stuff. If you’ve watched AfterLife, I had a similar existence to Ricky Gervais’s character, without the dead wife, thankfully, and a smaller, less masculine dog (a needy cockapoo).
I took on a job as an “electrical trainee” at a “friend’s” construction business. It’s been five months, and I’m yet to really learn any electrics. What’s more, my once “friend” is now just an angry bloke who picks me up in his van at an ungodly hour and begrudgingly pays me once a month, occasionally on time.
Though I haven’t learned much about electricals, I have learned a lot about life. My first day was a memorable one. We were converting a community centre into flats (which is a sad, but apt metaphor for modern Britain – out with collective good, in with private landlords).
In my old life, I would set my alarm for 8.45am – so I had 15 minutes to come to terms with my reality, pry my eyes open, stretch, scoop my laptop up from under my bed and log on. So my new alarm time of 4.45am was quite a shock (I’d only ever set that sort of alarm for a holiday).
A building site is a very black and white world. There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do them. I am constantly reminded of the latter. It’s been tough to go from something I was quite good at to something I’m truly a novice at. HR doesn’t exist here either, which has its pros and cons.
If you slip, fall from a hop-up, bang your head or, as I’ve done personally, drop a load of cement as you try to climb a ladder, you’ll hear mocking laughter long before anyone asks if you’re alright. It’s a little like going back to school; it’s all about girls and football, only everyone’s older. Also, the new topic of conversation is moaning about your wife’s spending habits.
Surprisingly, the plumbers – who literally deal with shit and waste – are the friendliest of all the “tradies”. Brickies tend to be the most miserable. Chippies (carpenters) are hardly chipper despite their name.
Another surprise is how clean the portaloos are, if you get to them early. If your daily constitutional comes fairly late in the day, it will be like using the grimmest festival toilet without the drug-induced tolerance.
Speaking of music, a radio is the most important “bit of kit” on site and the blokes love a bloody good singalong. You’d be surprised how many belt out the lyrics to one of Ed Sheeran’s hits. The radio station of choice varies from site to site. Some opt for “Kisstory” or “Capital Reloaded” to relive their glory days. Others will have nothing but “Capital Dance” on to keep up the tempo. One station you don’t want to get caught listening to is “Selfish FM” – this is when you play your music so low that it can’t be enjoyed by everyone.
It’s going on five months that I’ve been in “trade”. During that time, I’ve been an electrical trainee, a demolish dude (basically being in one of those rage rooms only you’re getting paid), a kitchen fitter, a delivery driver, a floor layer, and a ground worker. The latter is the most gruelling, and the reason I have found myself digging a ditch. It’s essentially digging, barrowing and shifting the ground below us. It’s quite hard actually and has left me with multiple muscular injuries and sprains. But it has rekindled my love of the bath.
The main lesson I’ve learned from my career change is that money isn’t everything and the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Sometimes there isn’t even grass, just wet, icy mud.
Oh, and you know that middle seat in the front of the van where you always see some unfortunate bloke squeezed between two people, looking thoroughly miserable that makes you think: “Christ Alive, that must be uncomfortable!” It is, it really is.