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Reviews

'Every year our bestseller lists and book-of-the-year choices are dominated by memoirs of the famous and the powerful. This book is not only a superb antidote to that but is an extremely important contribution to the social history of Britain since the Second World War.'     (Alun Howkins, Professor of Social History, University of Sussex)

'As a picture of wild and woolly working life in the most prosperous corner of Britain over the past 40 years, it should disturb social complacencies and confound political pieties. Richards' voice is direct and discomfiting: it should be widely heard.'     (The Times)

'Oral history is tricky to get right ... But here's a find. Peter Richards was a gas "ganger'', got married, had kids. He is tetchy, shrewd, and candid about his shortcomings... Most unusually he manages to articulate the rages of inarticulacy, which, if you think about it, is no small tribute to the trust and understanding between Richards and his recordist, Nick Osmond.'    (The Guardian)

'Above all, this is a damning, and timely, indictment of how private contractors deliver public services. ... The real delights of this book are the unexpected glimpses of life outside the trenches: Richards's honeymoon spent at London Zoo, and his transition from Brighton Teddy boy to "part-time hippy".' (TLS)

'This is the real biography of a real working man ... a book everybody with a desk job should read. It is slightly strange that we are more familiar with Victorian and 30's working lives than those of our own time. This book helps redress the balance.' (New Statesman)

'This book grips you like a fast-moving novel, it has all the immediacy of speech.' (Unison Magazine)

 

Short sample extracts

Home life
I didn't want to be at home, I didn't want to be there at all. I didn't have any of those feelings that one should have for one's mother. I just didn't have them and that was it. My mother and stepfather put the brake on everything I stood for or thought or felt. From the clothes that I wanted to wear, to the company that I wanted to keep, everything.

****
As teenagers we used to hang around the streets mostly, because on this vast estate there was nothing. We used to go to Rayners Lane to hang around the tube station and a coffee bar called The Gum Tree. It was just at the advent of coffee bars. There'd been milk bars, that sort of chromium fifties thing, but these were absolutely new. They were open late, they had espresso with a machine. ...

*****
Farming
I had to share not only a bedroom but a bed with Mr Betts's nine-year-old son, which I didn't like at all. We would sometimes hear Mr Betts in the next-door bedroom making romantic overtures to his wife. She'd be saying, Not tonoight moy dear, and his reply would invariably be, You godoo 'ave 'er, you godoo 'ave 'er ....

Handmilking is quite a nice job in the winter inasmuch as you've got up what seems to be half way through the night and it's cold and it's dark, and you snuggle up against the cow and you soon get used to the smell, it's not too bad....

*****
Brighton
I fell in love with Brighton straightaway, I just thought I'd reached the epitome of sophistication, decadence. Especially when I saw a guy came in actually quite openly carrying a handbag and being as camp as you like, you know, this was a knockout. Brighton itself seemed so tolerant and I think that was a very very important thing to me.

*****
Marriage
For our honeymoon we went to the pictures, and the highlight was going up to London Zoo. Then I got a message that if I didn't go to work the next day, I wouldn't have a job. That was it, had to go back to work. So it was a three-day honeymoon.

I never found it easy to say, I love you, because once you've made that commitment you're leaving yourself wide open, you've taken off the hard shell and you're vulnerable and you get very, very hurt. Have you ever seen a hermit crab out of its shell? It scuttles about in a panic because its great soft abdomen is exposed.

*****
Work
I'm known and am accepted by many of the Irish that have been in Brighton or worked on the gas for x amount of years. My friend Padraig said the other day, There must be a bit of Irish in you.

It was piecework, we had to do it on a yardage price, and the price at that time was five shillings a linear yard. That's digging it out at least three foot deep, and backfilling, that means filling in the trench afterwards. And that was hard work, that was very hard. ...

It was quite the fashion then to drop out, and people would stay rather late listening to Pink Floyd, and I had to get up for work early, and the put-you-up couldn't be put up until they'd gone. I used to say I was only a part-time hippy. ...

I was well down in the trench, and I turned round with the tin in one hand, the brush in the other, to paint the other bolts, and my foot slipped off the pipe. Consequently my hands went up in the air and the tin of boiling synthaprufe, still bubbling, went over my left hand. Completely covered my left hand. I'll always remember to this day, it even gave off a bit of a hiss when it hit my hand...

The Bartholomew's agent came to me and said, Did I think I could take a gang? I'd been critical of about every ganger I'd worked with, so I thought, Well I can't really open my mouth and be critical about people if I'm not prepared to have a go myself and take the responsibility that other people have had. So I became a ganger. I'd never had such an exalted position. I would have been in my late twenties. ...

We would be in the middle of a job, and we'd go home Friday working for one firm, and come back on the Monday working for another. We'd have to go to a different yard and pick up a new van, and the tools, but it was the same job. Different company, same hole. As far as I was concerned, I worked for British Gas. ...

Laying the new main down St James Street, it was just days and days of breaking up concrete with a jack-hammer. It was a narrow street and the sound reverberated from side to side off the shop windows. A shopkeeper down there said, How much longer is that row going on, it's giving me a headache? And when I said, Well, how do you think we feel? he said, You're used to it. My reply was, If you got a slap in the head every day of the week, would you be used to it by Saturday night?

Being a ganger you're in a situation of dichotomy. On the one hand you're an extension of a shovel, but if there's a problem you are The Man, you're the one they'll put the finger on.

*****
Boats
In 1973 I bought a boat I'd always admired called the Christie Sue, which was twenty-five foot on the waterline, and it was immaculate. As far as I was concerned it was the prettiest boat in Shoreham, at the time.

Allotment
I grow virtually everything from seed in my shed at home, then I fetch them up to the allotment in a box on a carrier on the back of my bike. It must be the only mountain bike in the south-east of England with a carrier on the back. And it's carried literally tons of stuff from this allotment home.

*****
Dan on Peter
If me and Peter had been in the trenches in the First World War, we'd have both been killed. Peter would have most likely got shot doing his duty and I would have been shot by a firing squad while trying to get away from doing my duty.

*****
Wendy on Peter
Pete and I did sort of jump into bed straightaway, yes, the night of the party, about the second or third meeting. I think it was my frilly petticoat and my dark stockings that did it. My dad was working nights, so Pete used to stay the night and go off in the morning, very often before my father came home from work at seven o'clock. It was all very passionate and I suppose that lasted for the first six years.

I think the rows and walk-outs we had there were down to the crowded circumstances of living. One of the times, we'd been arguing on the Saturday, quite a lot of row, and it started up again on the Sunday morning, and that really upset me. I was going to leave. But when I got to the bottom of the stairs there was a wash-boiler that my dad had brought over for me and I thought, Oh, I suppose I'd better go and do the nappies first. I dragged this wash-boiler up all these flights of stairs, I wouldn't ask Peter, and did my washing and the nappies. By then things had improved a bit. So I decided I wouldn't leave after all.

*****

His sons on Peter
Breaking the cycle I think Peter will have felt a certain sense of achievement if this book turns into a success. A lot of people would have said, Oh you've just been a man who's done working on the farm, working on the roads, you're just another digit in the world. Whereas he's always wanted to be something and to have a landmark that was left by him.


The book gives him a sense of who he is, what he has been, and a sense of value to that. It's something tangible that carries on after he's not here, for people to know about what life is like, and what his life was like. And he's also said, about the three of us in relation to him, that that's part of what he's done with his life as well.


From things that have come to light regarding writing this book, he didn't have a happy childhood, he was abused. It's become more apparent how he was in his younger days, how that affected him and how he's changed as he's got older. And his not wanting to repeat what happened to him. We've always grown up with a reasonably mature attitude, and obviously when any of us get round to having kids we're not going to sort of automatically follow on. Looking back on it, we know there was a reason, and the cycle has been broken.

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