I first met Lew in the mid-60s when we were both employed as plumbers by Hackney Council. Lew was a big dour man, seldom bent to smile, even less so after his wife died suddenly after a very brief illness. As a bunch of builders we all gave Lew the nick-name of Lew (The Grunt) as he was a very private man. If asked a question he would never reply, “Yes or No” but simply grunt – to which the questioner could take as either answer and he didn’t care much, which one!
In 1974 most of the whole team of plumbers were not too surprised when I was promoted to the position of Foreman Plumber. Well I did have the reputation by then of being the “bonus king” not because I had worked harder than all the others but because I knew the value of each and every task in terms of both time and money value. I also happened to be the plumbers union steward at that time.
I had known that Lew had suffered for many years from severe emphysema and/or asthma and thought that it was probably a congenital condition. It wasn’t until some months later I went to a roofing job that the plumbing supervisor had taken on and found that he had appointed Lew to do all the zinc work. That was OK as Lew was a very experienced plumber but I also knew that the work would involve Lew having to make his own, ‘Bakers fluid’, which has nothing to do with baking. It is in fact killed spirits of salts. And that involves filling a jam jar or saucer with spirits of salts, or to use its more technical name Hydrochloric Acid, and to turn that neat acid into Bakers fluid you cut up a small handfull of zinc scrap pieces, and put the pieces into the acid. The fumes they give of are very thick and acrimonious. I feared at best Lew would suffer badly from the fumes and, at worst, it might kill him.
Lew had only just started the setting out the job – which was only a small flat roof over a kitchen in the rear garden of a house in Filey Avenue (Stamford Hill). So I said, “Lew you go to the pub down by the river Lea for a pint or two and I’ll join you there in a couple of hours”. Lew just grunted something like – “well if that’s what you want me to do”- and left. I mixed up the bakers flux and put my soldering irons on the calor gas burner. Within a little over the two hours I had put the new roof on and cleared away.
Sure enough Lew was sitting on a high stool at the bar of the Robin Hood pub. As soon as I had pulled another high stool up next to Lew he asked, “What would I like to drink?” “Ta Lew, I’ll have a pint of draft Guinness with you,” I said. Much to my surprise Lew, became quite good company after he had had several pints. Our conversation inevitably got round to how he could no longer take the fumes of killed spirits but he also went on to describe how as a young soldier he had been just one of those evacuated from Dunkirk. Of course I was curious, as to exactly how bad it really was and Lew graphically described how he had pushed dead floating bodies out of his way swimming for a small rescue boat at Dunkirk. He apparently not only swallowed a large amount of diesel oil that day but also breathed in some really very toxic fumes that badly affected his lungs. By the time that packed little boat made England neither he, or anyone else thought he would survive.
We became firm friends that day in 1975 right up to the day in 1987 when (so I’m told) Lew fell off his favourite bar stool – instantly dead. Exactly the way he always said he would like to go.