Discontent in Swindon
Everyone else ran for shelter from the driving rain, but William just stood there on the end of platform 1 and pointed away to the sites of the old saw-mill, the eight platforms, the sidings, where the Swindon works once produced and repaired all rolling stock for the Great Western Railway.
"But now we ain't got such a thing as that. Now there's just two sidings and a bay," he said, staring across the tracks at the redbrick offices of Hambro Life, which have dominated Swindon station since it was modernised in 1972.
A railman for 30 years, William was a driver till steam engines were taken out of service. "I came off the footplate then. I said: that's it, it's no good to me," he said, walking back up the platform to the station buffet, waving at a workmate cycling home.
After he jacked in driving, William became a patrolman, going down the line looking for faults, he said over a pint of lager in the buffet bar, swearing whenever the station announcer's voice over the PA invaded his reminiscences.
Now, at 59, William is a "green card man." He pulled out the plastic-coated bill of bad health which has confined him to light cleaning work, and which has made him too embarrassed to talk about his current occupation. He'd rather remember how it was: he was young and string and all Britain travelled by train.
Across the leatherette and formica, in the corner of the buffet, two girls whooped and danced before the one-armed bandit spewing out tokens. William pulled a silver timepiece from his breast pocket. He started at seven this morning. He'll clock off at four. He works every weekend. "But some of them's going to be cut out," he said, getting down from the bar stool and pulling a nylon waterproof over his faded denim worksuit.
Will he be supporting the strike scheduled to go ahead on 31 August? Of course he will. "How would you like to get up at two in the morning to go out mending track?"
Before leaving the buffet William plucked a tiny diary out of his picket, thumbed through the pages. "Here it is," he said. "31 December, 1951. That's the day I started." Why did he want to remind himself, every year, of the day he started working on the railways? He just shrugged, walked out.
Another HST swept through the station at just gone 1.30 pm. Sitting on a platform bench, two teenage train-spotters complained it had been a lean day. Further up the platform, in the railmen's locker room, the main talking point was the tragedy of the old couple who would have won £700,000 if the coupon collector had sent off their entry.
Cyril and John, Swindon's two longest serving porters, were waiting to be relieved by the afternoon shift. A few weeks ago, Cyril said, there was a stupid article in the Daily Mail which claimed that porters earned £5,000 a year. "That's a hundred quid a week isn't it?" he said. "You won't find any porters here on that. You'd have to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. And there's not the overtime in these small places."
Every other Sunday, Cyril gets in three hours' overtime, that's all. And John, he doesn't bother with the overtime, his wife likes him home Sundays, so he makes do with £48.50 a week. Wouldn't that get bumped up a bit with the tips? "Can't remember when I had my last," he replied.
"Tips are a thing of the past," explained Cyril. "All right, Roy?"
Another porter has just walked in, his blue shirt wet through. Roy said it was embarrassing, anyway, to be offered money, especially by people who he thought couldn't afford it. "Sometimes though, you can offend them if you refuse it . . . tips are embarrassing all round, I think."
Cyril and John, who both started working here in 1946, nodded in agreement. The Bristol train was running late, said the station announcer. All eyes jumped to the clock.
A poster pinned next to the NUR notice board explained how to lift heavy loads, "the modern way," without straining your back. Sitting down at the table strewn with empty mugs, Roy said he'd only been portering a year, but he much preferred it to his last job, which was in security, patrolling an empty factory at night.
"The railways must have something," he said. "For many blokes it was their first job, and they've been here 40 years . . . Nothing makes you happy like helping someone else. Even if you only think you are being a help, it's a great boost to the morale."
The thing that rankles, for all three porters, is the money. Not because they're greedy men, as the leader writers, who make in a day what porters make in a week, will suggest. But because they feel they've been taken for a ride, their goodwill sucked dry. Angry that strings were attached to the 11 per cent settlement, all three will support a strike.
"Definitely," said Cyril, who can still remember the last national rail strike. It was in 1926, when he was 14.
Everyone said hello to the teenage boy stashing his crash helmet and waterproofs in a locker. Time for Cyril and John to knock off. The whole station shuddered as another HST went hurtling by. Flinging open the door, the head porter, Ray, marched in and tore off his mac. He didn't look too happy.
"More storm on the way," he said, going on to explain that every time he had to take a parcel over the track to the Red Star office he got wet, that there were two lifts to go up and down, and that the lifts were always getting stuck. "People don't realise," he said, shaking his head.
What makes Ray laugh, he said, is that the press always talk to the railmen in London, who are on a higher grade due to the London weighting. Ray himself is on a higher grade than the other Swindon porters, but it's only worth a few quid a week extra. "Waste of time," he said, pulling out his pay slip for the week: £87.88 gross. £61 net. "And I worked the day of the royal wedding that week."
He didn't agree with the wedding. He'd heard that the grub alone cost a million. His mate, Jack, added that it was murder at the station the day Prince Michael came through. "Do this, do that. Clean this, clean that. We couldn't find the bloody red carpet," he said. "Bet the bugger doesn't pay for his first class fare either."
Jack looked at his watch and said that this time next week he'd be in Inverness, having caught the 7.37 from Swindon. "Don't go on strike till I've got the train back, for fuck's sake," he smiled.
Stroking his luxuriant sideburns, the head porter, Ray, ignored the joke. He wanted to pursue his them of low pay on the railways. It all went back to the war, he said. "So many had to go into the army and some had to stay back. Those that stayed back done all the hours in creation. They didn't bother about the rates. After the war everyone else in the factory got pay rises, but not on the railways: stick-in-the-muds."
When Ray started here at the age of 14, there was just one clerk and one stationmaster. Now, he said, there's a whole army of clerks and administrators. The other main problem, he thought, was that the Conservatives were set on destroying the nationalised industries. "Why else are they closing all them gas showrooms? Course, we're only a cog in the wheel," he said, pulling on his coat to take another parcel over the way to Red Star.
The station postman, a Tamla Motown fan called Gary, wearing a grey sweatshirt, sta-prest trousers and black Dr Martens, walked in carrying five cherry bakewells and mince tarts in cardboard boxes. It was his 19th birthday, he announced. Everyone sat down for tea.
Roy said it was only the postman who could afford to buy cakes, in this day and age. Marcus, the youngest porter here, said he was happy just to have a job. He'd been on the dole two years after he left school. Roy poured the tea from the big metal pot.
"I have a school-teacher friend, and he said that the thing that most upset him was that he was teaching children who would never work. That's the biggest problem, far as I can see," said Roy.
After tea a shunter, Chris, ran into the locker room , swearing about the rain. He pulled on his yellow leggings, slipped the arms of his donkey jacket through a dayglo orange jerkin. "I'm one of those silly buggers that gets underneath and does all the dirty work," he says.
His work, coupling and uncoupling trains, can be dangerous, too. Four years ago in Swindon a shunter was killed, squashed between two buffers. Shunters need their wits about them, he said. If you're trapped on the track with a train coming down you can survive by lying flat down.
"In the middle lane (main line) you can, providing they're not HSTS. With the HST you just get sucked up anyway. But with the BGS and the GUVS, they'll clear you with a few inches to spare," he said.
On a flat week Chris takes home £58. "Usually I get a Sunday in, so I average about £70," he said. "As firms go, it's a brilliant firm to work for. They do look after you. We've got our own welfare people, if anyone's in a spot of bother." He walked out to lie under trains.
As I left the locker-room, someone shouted after me. "What are you going to call it? Discontent in Swindon?"
13 August 1981