Sitting on a bag of sharp sand, I watched a group of three men pull out plastic boxes of sandwiches, packets of rolling tobacco, small newspapers and bars of chocolate. This was years before smartphones and so, during our mid-morning tea break, as my father squeezed the lukewarm bag of PG Tips between fat, dust-encrusted fingers, wringing out the last drops of caffeine, the group of builders around me chatted idly about traffic, the cost of petrol, a new one-way system, pubs, music, trips to the woodyard and their morning’s work.
During my school holidays, or if I ever wanted some quick money for a haircut, holiday or new dress, I would spend a day or two working on a building site with my father. As a former labourer turned surveyor, he had been made redundant during the 90s recession and gone back to labouring. His jobs tended to be small, local and fairly eclectic – putting in a new fireplace, laying a floor, building a kitchen extension, converting an attic. From about April to September he worked in bare feet as much as he could; he listened to Radio 4 or compilation tapes of west African, blues, Pacific guitar, reggae, rock and roots music; he would take on several jobs at once and never once wore a hi-vis shirt.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘Sadly, I managed to avoid acquiring a do-it-yourself mentality.’ Nell Frizzell and father. Photograph: Handout
It was on those building sites that, for the first time in my life, I saw a different side to my father. At home, my mother was not only the main breadwinner but also did practically all the cooking, cleaning and organisation. She was the engine of the family: paying the mortgage, asking me about my homework, remembering my friends’ names, picking up discarded socks and cooking dinner every night from scratch. My father was, at times, little more than a lodger. But at work, he suddenly turned into something like a figure of authority: intelligent, in charge, hard-working, exacting. He knew about things I had never even heard of, such as building regulations, damp-proof courses, rendering, load-bearing walls and lintels. He was patient, informed. He may have lost his pencil, hammer, spirit level and saw every 30 seconds, but he knew what he was doing. As I watched him briefing a bricklayer or discussing some finer detail of a knocked-through dining room with a plasterer, I saw someone who rarely came home. Since then, I have often suggested to friends struggling with parental relationships that might feel disappointing and strained to try meeting that parent at work, to visit them in situ, have lunch on their territory, watch them in action, and try to find this other side to someone with whom you are so familiar.
Sadly, while working on all those building sites, I learned almost nothing of any long-term, practical use. I may have mixed sand and cement to build up the party wall in a loft or painted skirting boards in the kind of house I’ll never afford, but I somehow managed to avoid acquiring any sort of do-it-yourself mentality. I did, however, learn the subtle art of pushing a wheelbarrow full of rubble up a plank, to tip into a skip: take it too slowly and you’ll lose momentum and fall off, start to tip too early and you’ll never make the summit, fail to commit and you’ll get pushed back down by the weight, let self-doubt creep in and you’ll end up on the ground covered in bits of rock. The same rules, incidentally, apply to cycling.
Being a young woman on a building site, I also learned that the class system is alive and well in modern Britain. People I knew from school would fail to recognise me as they walked past the building site; teachers would laugh at the novelty that their straight-A student spent half term clearing a garden of bricks; recruitment agencies told me to keep it off my CV. I was lucky to never encounter much sexism – far less, in fact, than I have subsequently endured in the media. Perhaps it was because I was there with my father – but it may also be because you are less likely to be patted on the thigh, condescended to by a male head of department, asked to make the tea and called a “lovely creature” when you have a lump hammer in your hand.
My summer job taught me one final, invaluable thing: that for a huge number of people – the global majority, in fact – work does not mean sitting in an office in front of a computer. Aside from builders, there are millions of farmers, nurses, factory workers, fishermen, refuse collectors, carpenters, fruit pickers, mechanics, cleaners, lorry drivers, post officers, tree surgeons and people who work in warehouses, put up fences, fix boilers or drive trains for whom offices are irrelevant. There is nothing innately superior about life with a boardroom or swivel chair. The income discrepancy between so-called white-collar and blue-collar work is unfounded. With my soft body and academic mind I may have always been heading for a fairly sedentary career, but back during those formative years, as I laid hardcore or stacked old roofing joists, I learned that work is work is work is work.