My life as a steeplejack, working on power pylons for the Central Electricity Board, kept me always literally on the edge. I would wake up in the night, trembling with fear. Because of an obsessive concern for my safety, my family, in all my years of growing up in Palestine, had gone to the utmost lengths to protect me from physical harm.
Now I had no way of knowing what dangers awaited me when I went to work each morning. Would this be the day that I fell to my death? Would I survive to get home safely one more evening? I could take it only a day at a time.
I had found myself lodgings in Flood Street, Chelsea. The room was small, dark and airless. Its one window overlooked a courtyard that caught no direct sunlight. Cooking facilities in the room were utterly basic, consisting of a single gas ring, which was hardly adequate for preparing a reasonable meal. For all the lodgers there was only one lavatory and bathroom, but as I rose to shave at 5am, long before any of the others were awake, I normally had it to myself. Sustained by a diet of Weetabix and milky coffee for breakfast, I then set out to catch an early commuter train from Victoria station to wherever the day’s assignment happened to be. I had to report for work at 9am.
My first day on the job was an experience that has remained forever vividly imprinted on my mind. I had to climb with the men to the highest point of the pylon to help with the replacing of faulty ceramic insulation pots. My new found workmates lost no time in telling me how one of their number, the day before, had fallen as he tried to negotiate a steel girder on his way up. The weather was wet and windy and the man must have slipped. Fortunately, his fall happened in the early stages of his ascent, before he had reached a height from which a drop could have been fatal. He had been taken to hospital to be treated for concussion, but had suffered no permanent injury.
Like the others, I had to wear a leather safety belt that could be anchored to a bar when it was necessary to lean backwards and have both hands free to work with. Yet although the safety belt was totally reliable, I was never able to free myself from the habit of still holding on with one hand, even when the belt was hooked in place. I needed that double assurance however much it restricted my freedom of movement despite being constantly reprimanded, I was quite unable to let go and hang freely. The thought of trusting my life to a leather belt simply made me too afraid. It was a sign I would never make the grade as a true and seasoned steeplejack.
The older men were very protective of me and made sure I was never exposed to any unnecessary risks. They realised I was not cut out for this sort of work and sympathised with the circumstances that had impelled me to join them in their perilous occupation. If the location of the job was too far out from London to make commuting practical, then ‘the boys,’ as the members of the gang called themselves would usually stay at a bed and breakfast lodgings. The work for the Electricity Board was well paid and included danger money. Even so, the boys would sometimes decide all to bed down together to save expense. I found this experience of communal rooming alien at first, but as with so much else that had happened to me, it was a matter of making the effort to adapt.
The local pub was always the steeplejack’s place of refuge. They drank beer mostly, played darts, told each other dirty jokes or fantasised about women, perhaps a shade crudely. If they got on to politics, they generally blamed the upper classes for keeping the working classes down. There was no malice or rancour in anything they said. It was nothing more than the usually bar-room polemics of the sort that seldom make much sense, at whatever level they are exercised, but enlivened the atmosphere and raised voices an octave higher than usual. As I mixed with them, I found their honesty and way of my life intriguing. They lived for the day and asked no favours of any man. I saw from their example how danger and occupational hazard had to be looked on with a nonchalant, matter-of-fact attitude, otherwise life would become intolerable. Luck and bad omens played no part in the profession. They lived literally with their lives on the line and seemed to relish weighing the odds between life and death as if they were engaged in a poker game. Their sense of humour bordered on the black side; they rarely discussed or even acknowledged the danger since these would destabilise the daily routine and be bad for morale.
I enjoyed the company of these men who had chosen such a risky and dangerous job, scaling power pylons and working in the direct vicinity of cables carrying one hundred and twenty thousand vaults. If it rained it added to the hazards. They had to be particularly careful not to get too close to the cables, water being a deadly conductor of electricity. The combination of height and high voltage became especially lethal in a downpour of rain or a sudden squall. It made you feel as if you were trapped in an electric storm in the space around you. If bad conditions threatened, the site had to be abandoned very quickly before panic had time to set in. The downward descent needed to be negotiated with extra care for fear of missing a foothold and tumbling onto the hard concrete base below.
Heroics and bravado counted for little in this line of work. Caution and concentration were more likely to keep you alive. I saw how, perversely, there are many attractions to danger, how men seemed drawn to a life on the edge of the void. The macho image was often a factor but it seemed the real motivation was to challenge the fear of death that all men carry in the deepest recesses of their soul; to challenge it by facing it head-on. The taste for danger was virtually addictive. The adrenalin surge was like the release of a potent drug which drove them forward in directions that needed strict control. Unchecked, their excessive zeal was certain to become a gratuitous threat to life.
Having to climb with the men and work with them in the danger zone brought with it a real appreciation of that fear, a fear that numbed my senses and always reduced me to a vegetable. The only comparable moment in my life had been when I first came to England on raging seas on the cross channel ferry in 1949. Memories of both these ordeals became indelible. I decided then it was time to quit, having done three months of virtual torture.