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The trenches are the ones we come across almost every day in our streets: red and white boards barring the way, pavements dug up, dust and din, weatherbeaten men in helmets and scruffy clothes who seem to belong to a different world from inconvenienced pedestrians like us.
One of them was Peter Richards who for over thirty years was a ganger in charge of men laying gas mains in the Brighton and South London areas. He wasn't fighting a war, but life in the trenches was always a struggle and sometimes a battle. He is one of the millions who are excluded from mainstream biography and hidden from history because they are supposed to be 'just ordinary people'. Yet it is by the intelligent labour of these people that we have progressed from smoky hovels to the unconsidered comfort of central heating and modern kitchens.
Peter isn't 'just ordinary'. He is a complex individual whose darker side is balanced by the humour, the wit and the way with words which go with a quickfire intelligence. On a good day the conversation crackles. He's highly conscious, kind, amusing and original, a gifted mimic, a racy raconteur and a good friend. The feeling for what he's talking about is always there, in the voice and the body-language as well as the words. He's got many talents. In different circumstances he might have become the skipper of a fishing boat, or a photographer, or an absent-minded professor. As things turned out, his life took him into the trenches.
The book is a work of cooperation: Peter's autobiography as told to me in recorded conversations which took place between 1998 and the year 2000, mainly with Peter himself but also with his close family and friends. The transcript of the recordings came out at about 250,000 words and we also collected 20,000 words or so of written material.
This raw material had no structure. We didn't necessarily record the stories in the order they happened, and Peter doesn't recall his life as a continuous history with long-term themes and perspectives. It comes out as a series of self-contained episodes, stories he tells about his past. They make sense of that past, but they are not joined up, and there are intriguing spaces between them.
In consultation with Peter and with the very clear-sighted guidance of our publisher, Perilla Kinchin, I have shaped this raw material by a process of selection, ordering and editing, bringing it down to about a third of its original length. The headings are mine. So the book is also a biography, reflecting my sense of who Peter is and what I see as the periods, patterns and meanings of his life.
Peter and the other contributors weren't speaking into thin air. Unlike the traditionally invisible ghost-writer who has to pretend to be the subject, I am present throughout the book as the person who is spoken to, and I hope readers will be able to feel as you turn the pages that you have slipped into my shoes and that Peter and then Dan and Tony, Wendy, Mark, Stewart and Stefan, are talking directly to you.
They are the subjects and not the objects of their history. They contributed willingly to what they saw as a positive enterprise; they decided what to talk about and, as importantly, what not to talk about. I may have elicited and recorded the words, but the words are theirs and they are speaking for themselves. Even on the printed page the rhythm and texture of each voice can still be heard.
Parts One and Two tell the story of Peter as he sees himself. Part Three is Peter as he is seen by the people who know him well enough to fill in some of the spaces between his stories.
The punctuation sometimes favours speech patterns over standard grammar. We have changed one or two names and disguised a fact here and there to avoid embarrassment or litigation. A few written passages are included where contributors were making a particularly detailed or important statement.
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