VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 28: Axeman!
Chapter written 2001 & last revised 2013
NOTES In my search for casual work in the general area of Hammersmith and Fulham, I soon discovered that this sort of work started either very early in the morning or, more usually, late at night.  The night work was more popular with dossers because hanging around the streets all night, especially if you attempted to sleep, was certain to attract the attention of the police or the NAB in their infamous Green Vans.  Being seen to be homeless simply was not tolerated.  'Wandering abroad by night' was yet another charge the police could make use of.
There is now a housing estate on the site of Telfer's pie factory On the first day in the area I hung around until the evening, then located Telfer's pie factory in Lillie Road. I’d heard that they took on a lot of casuals every night, but I was dismayed by the long queue of dossers I found there.  When the foremen of the various departments at last came out to choose their workers for the night, only about the first quarter of the queue was taken on.  I was near the back.  However, I resolved to return on the following night, but much earlier.
You could even get hot meals from some of the vending machines and these small 'automarkets' looked likely to increase in size and number to become the next major development in shopping after the supermarkets (themselves still fairly new).  But of course, the relentless rise of the yob in subsequent decades killed them off.There were a number of all-night cafes in the area.  This may seem curiously out of tune with the restrictive nature of the times that I have been describing so far.  But the sixties tide was now beginning to turn against restriction of any sort, within a six mile radius of central London, at least.  Besides, the yobs of the day were still a very small minority and tended to disappear without trace well before midnight, so all-night opening of perfectly ordinary cafes, clothing shops and launderettes and the new automatic stores (rows of vending machines in unstaffed shops, or just in the street - remember them?) was possible, and spreading fast. Provided you kept a low profile and caused no trouble these all-night places provided an ideal way to stay out of the way of the police overnight.  In the cafes you only needed to start chatting to any of the very lonely but often reasonably well-off insomniacs who also inhabited these places in the small hours, and you would be bought enough cups of coffee (and occasionally sandwiches) to keep the proprietors happy.
The next night I went round to Telfer's again, this time early enough to be near the front of the queue.  As the various foremen emerged one by one, they looked straight through me and chose the men behind me.  But eventually a foreman in a blood-spattered apron came out.  At first, he also looked through me and beckoned those behind me, but to my surprise I heard most of them them turning his offer down.  At last, in exasperation he turned to me and barked "Come on, then!" The men behind said "No, no, don't go with him - he’s from the butchery.  You won’t last five minutes in there!"  I decided to follow him anyway.
I was led into a cavernous white-tiled space full of the sound of sawing and hacking.  There was blood everywhere and a terrible stench of death.  I was given an axe and shown a great bogie full of deep-frozen kidneys.  My job was to hack this rock-solid mass into fragments, and transfer them to another bogie for the kitchens.  This was very hard work for someone who had not slept for 36 hours and had spent much of that time wandering about.  It became much less hard as the kidneys thawed out, but also progressively less pleasant.  Towards the end of each bogie load the remaining contents had thawed, so you were sloshing about in blood and soft kidneys.  As with so many jobs in the food industry then (and perhaps now, for all I know) hygiene didn’t come into it.  I myself must certainly have been in a less than hygienic state.  Dossers were taken on and put straight to work, with no nonsense about ablutions first.
The one good thing about the job was that you were left alone to get on with it and were given a little money in advance when the dinner break arrived, in order to buy a meal in the canteen.  An even better thing was that the canteen woman always ensured that we casuals got a lot more than we should have got for our money.
I returned the following night and this time the butchery foreman picked me from the queue without hesitation.  After a couple more nights there was no need to get there early, because the foreman actually sought me out.  The pay was not much more than a pound a night, but it was cash-in-hand, of course.  It was enough to enable me to spend the late morning and early afternoon in a pub or two and the rest of the day in cinemas, where I could usually snatch a bit of sleep.  But there was not always any work at Telfers and I sometimes made the trek back to Gordon Road to get a square meal and (less importantly) get cleaned up a bit.  On one such visit it was discovered that I had body lice.  Having to wear the bright blue suit while your clothes were fumigated overnight wasn’ in any way the dreadful stigma it was intended to be, for the simple reason that almost all the regular ’guests’ had found themselves wearing it from time to time, or knew they would have to don it eventually.  In fact, it served almost as your credentials - you went up in the world a bit.  Actually, the fumigation failed, even though it successfully completed the conversion of my once fairly smart clothes to rags reeking of sulphur.
In working out the sequence of events of my life in 1965, I’m surprised to discover that the round of butchery by night, pubs in the morning and cinemas in the afternoon, punctuated by the occasional excursion to Gordon Road lasted for only a few weeks of the late spring or early summer before I decided to try for something a little more settled.  I was already having quite fond memories of the Church Army hostel in Leicester, so I went to the CA headquarters in the Marylebone Road to ask where their hostels could be found in London.  To my surprise they said that the Fulham hostel was looking for an assistant cook.  The pay consisted of board and lodgings plus ten bob (50p) a week "for cigarettes".  I protested that I had no experience of kitchen work, but was assured that it would only involve opening a few cans and doing a bit of washing up.  So it was back to Fulham, this time to Star Road, where the hostel was situated.  The Captain, Mr Mobbs, took me on without question.
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