Saturday, June 04, 2016
Perry's Picture Post part 12
The head of the sewer workforce, Jack Jacobs, took Bill and I off to a man-hole set in the pavement some fifty yards or so away from Bayswater Underground Station. After surrounding the removed man-hole cover with two portable folding fences – in the hope that others didn’t inadvertently fall down the hole and join us – we were soon twenty feet below the thundering traffic. Surprisingly, there wasn't a whiff of stink about. According to Jack, sewers only smell when the odours waft up and mix with the fresh open air . . . not a lot of people know that!
Jacobs led the way, walking us through oval tunnels three feet wide and six feet high and then onto other areas so huge that they were almost big enough to drive in and park a dozen double-decked busses.
As we strolled down one narrow spillway, Jack suddenly bent down and retrieved something from the tiny trickle of water that continually ran along the bottom of the egg-shaped tunnel and popped it into his pocket.
“What was that?” I had asked in all innocence.
Withdrawing his hand from his trouser pocket, he turned and showed me a well-worn silver ring. “We occasionally find these,” he said by way of explanation.
“Do you try to find the owners?” I asked;
“There’s not a lot of point,” he replied, “sometime it takes years for them to come through and be found, by which time, the owners will have collected the insurance money and run.”
On a sadder note, I learnt that although during their lifetime of working in the sewer system, the work-force were rarely ill, within six months of hanging up their crutch-length wading boots, they were almost always dead. Sometime they did suffer a mild dose of bubonic plague after being bitten by the rats, but a quick shot of penicillin cleared that little problem up and they were soon back to normal.
Part of their training took place in, on and around a specially-built wooden tower that represented a ten-story building—it was there that the men practiced rescuing victims by lowering them out of mock-up windows. All the ‘floors’ could be accessed by the central shaft which had a vertical ladder running up the centre from bottom to top. The tower was also used as an exercise area for getting fire-hoses onto upper levels and turning the water up to its fullest pressure. When this happened, there was an immediate recoil and unless there were two or three men holding onto the hose, it could whip a solitary fireman off his feet.
During one of these exercises, the Chief, exiting his office, watched in horror as one of his men fell from the very top floor down the central shaft. Fearing the worst, he’d rushed over to where the man had fallen while at the same time screaming out for someone to call the ambulance. But he arrived just in time to see the fallen fireman struggle to his feet muttering:
“The bastard . . . never . . . backed me up, sir.”
At the bottom of the shaft, standing about four feet off the ground, were a series of eight large hooks. It was onto these hooks that firemen placed hose nozzles when drying them out or for storage when not in use. Incredible as it may sound, as the man fell, one of these massive hooks had slipped inside his heavy greatcoat – just at the point where the split between the two tails meet at the back. Although it tore a great rip right up the entire coat as far as his collar, it had prevented him sustaining any serious damage. Apart from a few bruises, the man had walked away unscathed and, according to the Chief, he was back working at the top of the tower that very same afternoon.
Sadly, towards the end of the series, Bill Kidd became seriously ill, and Bert again stepped into Bill’s shoes for when I had gone down to Bovington in Dorset for a fun assignment driving a 60-ton Centurion Tank.
“I hadn’t chickened out, It’s just that the army wouldn’t allow me to carry out such a dastardly dangerous manoeuvre!”
The barrage-balloon had actually been tethered at Hankley Common, near to Farnham in Surrey – close to where I was living at the time.
There is very little I can say about these two days as most of those around me had more than likely been under strict instruction to keep their mouths’ tightly closed and to reveal nothing. But there was one incident that amused me.
At one place on the assault course, there was a pair of thirty-foot circular ponds that were linked by an underwater tunnel some twenty-five-feet in length and a diameter of just three. The sergeant with me hadn’t been at all keen for me to swim between these two ponds as, only a month or so before, another reporter had tried; he’d become stuck somewhere in the middle and drowned. I assured my guide that I was used to swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool underwater, and the official length of that was 33 metres. I was also used to being able to hold my breath for up to four minutes – a little longer than it took to swim the pool..
Even though it was late November and the two pools had offered evidence of thin ice forming, by the time we were done with the photography and back to where my guide had parked his car, I was warmer than hot toast, mainly due to the exertion and thrill of it all. Thank goodness the Army had supplied me with a complete outfit to wear – including boots – because by the time I’d finished . . . well, let's say that I’m glad it wasn't I who had had to clean them!
Back at the car – parked about fifty yards away from where we had ended up – as I stripped down to just my underpants (for my own clean dry ‘civvies’ were waiting for me on the car’s rear seat) a small platoon of rookies trotted by at a half-run. With clouds of steam literally billowing off me and rising up into the still wintry air, the look of utter disbelief from those new recruits would have been a picture all of its own!
As we had been keen to visit the newly-constructed Royal Sovereign Lighthouse – situated as it is far out to sea and south-east of Brighton – we were given instructions to be at Shoreham Airfield where the Bristow helicopter had been instructed to pick us up at any time after 10 a.m. Bill and I had duly driven there independently (for Bill lived in Kent and I in Surrey) and had patiently settled down to watch the grass turning brown in the summer sun. By 3:00 p.m. we were reliably informed by air-traffic-control (a couple of guys that had manned the radio inside a corrugated-roofed shed) that the day’s scheduled activity had been aborted and we were advised that we should perhaps go on home and find something else to do.
As this had been a Saturday, it had been a waste of my day off rather than being one where I had ‘stolen’ time from Polystyle. But on leaving Shoreham and heading off in the direction of Farnham, I’d passed a notice that, in scrawled lettering onto a torn-off chunk of corrugated cardboard, had said: “AUTO-CROSS – THIS WAY”.
Rather than having wasted a whole day, it was there that I was able to capture enough material to produce ‘TV Action Goes to the Jumping, Bumping, Skidding Show’.
On the following Monday, Bill was pleased that our outing to Shoreham had at least achieved something, and although Bristow Helicopters hadn’t actually apologised, they did explain that due to a great number of unforeseen complications, schedules at times needed altering. Arrangements were made for Bill and I to return to Shoreham Airfield the following Saturday (and presumably those who had been manning the lighthouse for the past month were now being obliged to remain on duty for a further week!)
It was some wonder that Bill was able to grab enough shots to make up the feature ‘TV Action Sees . . . The Light’. . In hind-sight, I dare say that we could have produced a second feature entitled ‘TV Action-man Spends All Day Long at Shoreham, Twiddling his Thumbs and Watching the Grass Turn Brown!’
Coming Soon: In Part Thirteen, I start off with a couple more ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories before finding myself on the move once again – this time I go to Purnell Books.