I believe that I have been extremely silly at various times in my life, for no better reason than part devilment and showing off. For example in around 1970, I was given a young labourer called Mark. Our first job was replacing the decorative copper flashings around the front bay over the roof of a twelve story block of flats called “The Mount” in Lower Clapton Road. As the plumber I was told that a winch hoist had been installed and all the materials including a bench were waiting on the flat roof. It was a nice sunny day so I thought that’s great. On the way to the job in my car Mark was showing off about how tough him and his mates were. He insisted on showing off his recent tattoo, a gross looking gargoyle effigy that could have been his girlfriend for all I knew. His boasting about being hard, triggered something in me.
On arriving at the job, Mark said that he had never been in a hoist before. I borrowed the caretakers short double eight rung ladder to get up and into the large hoist that had been left freely swinging about ten foot in the air. The short two foot long ratchet pins were left lying in the base of the hoist so I engaged them both at either end of the two ratchet gear mechanisms and dropped first one side and then the other until the hoist was firmly on the ground. I told Mark to put the ladder into the boiler room. When he got back I showed him how to move the small lever on the ratchet from down position to up. I also said that I expected him to keep up with me as we pump the ratchets so that we raised both ends of the hoist together. Things started off well enough but as we got higher and higher Mark started making whimpering noises. I deliberately began to increase my rate of pumping the mechanism at my end of the hoist and as a result my end was rising much higher than Marks. At about floor seven Mark asked if we could stop. He was a very pale colour by then and I said something like I thought you were telling me in the car how hard you reckoned yourself to be! “I’m scared,” he confessed, “and don’t want to go any higher – please, please can we go down?”
Of course I agreed but was amazed when Mark collapsed on the floor of the hoist in a foetal position. This meant that I had to operate both mechanisms. I pumped us both down but Mark was a very different person when I drove him back to the depot that morning. Later with a nice black kid named Lloyd, a plumbing apprentice, we both easily finished the new sheet copper flashing.
However some weeks later, I was given another roof job in Palatine Road, only a six story block, with a sharp angled sixty degree pitched roof. Tasked to identify and fix the rain water ingress I took “Big Bertha” our treble extension rope pulley ladder. I was quite strong in those days. I managed to get Bertha up to and just under the iron gutter but found my strength lacking to bounce the top of the ladder both out and over the gutter. I did eventually manage it but pulling on the ropes at the same time as lifting the second ladder piece was horrendously difficult by myself. After an epic struggle I did manage to push the ladder both up and over the gutter level but only by one rung which was the absolute maximum of Bertha’s reach.
For such a step roof I should have taken a duck-run board but decided I would just see if I could spot where the problem/s were. I climbed up the ladder and decided to take a chance so, scrambled over and onto the steep “double Roman interlocking cement aggregate tiles.” A quick inspection showed a number of cracked and broken tiles towards the bottom eves tiles but to see how badly damaged they were I had to go right down near the roof edge. It was at that point I thought what a bloody fool I was. Any slip, no matter how small, would definitely result in my death. So, sitting on my bum I went back up the roof and over to about ten feet – where I had left the ladder sticking up. I thought of how pathetic Mark had appeared. But now I was basically scared that my time was up. I decided to sit still and think about what my options might be! There were people in the street below and I thought of the ridicule I would go through, back at the depot, if I shouted out for one of them to call the fire brigade. No I thought, I can’t do that but how do I manage to get back onto the ladder? I inched my way down but was in a dilemma as to whether to approach it from the left or right which either way meant I would have to swing a leg out and over empty space, with just one hand on the ladder. In trepidation I sat near that small route to safety, scared. I thought I’m stronger in my right hand, so inched my way to the left hand side of the head of the protruding ladder. I grabbed the opposite right ladder stile with a grip of iron. Heart thumping, with my thigh, bum half hanging over the gutter – I went for it!
With vigour, I threw my right leg over and into the abyss of emptiness. Scared – I was terrified, but fortunately my foot did find one of the lower rungs of the ladder. With a certain amount of bravado I descended the six stories down. Crestfallen and humbled by fear.