Diary entry: Job hunting in London, 1979
‘Only a moral dwarf would even consider accepting a job like this. — And I was that dwarf.’ Barry McKinley shares an entry from his diary in 1979 when he first left home to work in the UK, which ‘shows how things change, and yet stay the same’.
Barry McKinley shares an entry from his diary in 1979 when he first left home to work in the UK, which ‘shows how things change, and yet stay the same’.
11 August 1979
I have no idea what I’m doing in this drawing office. I am surrounded by skilled architects, structural engineers and designers. I am an island of incompetence in an ocean of technical talent, one step up from a secretary and ten steps down from everybody else.
Dave Rennie stands at the desk beside me. He is a 22-year-old Londoner with a mass of raw experience, gained from working on the designs for chemical plants and North Sea oil platforms. A little while ago he leaned across the gap between desks and asked, with genuine curiosity, “How did you ever get this job?”
“Simple,” I explained, “the man who hired me is trying to get me into bed.”
Dave Rennie laughed, but a pain shot through his heart. He is not a handsome young man like yours truly and consequently has no option but to rely on his ability.
And, as everybody knows, ability fades.
Two months ago, I came to this office on the Uxbridge Road for an interview with the project manager. Mr Longley wore a loose wedding ring that slid back and forth on his finger like a bead on an abacus. He looked up from his notes and was clearly surprised by my youth.
“Oh!” he said, his eyes dragging over my body like a stoker’s rake. “You’re quite… splendid. Please do sit down.”
I found my attention drifting towards a framed photo on his desk; it showed a debonair and rascally gent with a spotted tie, trimmed moustache and a large toss of wavy hair. I wondered if it was his father, or perhaps a lesser known villain from Edwardian vaudeville.
Did I mention I was stoned? I’d been stoned for days.
“So, Barry,” he said, “you have some experience in the nuclear power industry?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I worked for a French uranium company, back in Ireland. Exploration, that sort of thing.”
“Parlez-vous Francais?” he asked.
“Oui,” I responded nonchalantly, “un petit peu.”
He was impressed, but what he didn’t know was that he had just witnessed the usage of my entire French vocabulary.
“You are familiar with Calder Hall?”
“Calder Hall,” I replied, “yes, of course”. In my mind I saw a great, stately pile occupied by Mr Toad; a nearby lake with Ratty and Mole in a rowing boat.
I was incredibly stoned. I’d been stoned since I got off the boat.
“We need somebody to oversee the decontamination systems at Calder Hall. Also there is a cladding maintenance issue, straightforward stuff, five millimetre stainless steel. You’ve worked with that?
“Absolutely,” I replied, my teeth parting slightly to allow the giant lies to escape.
Then he moved off in a completely unpredicted direction. “I’ve never been to Ireland,” he said, “a lot of British people are put off. The political thing, you know. Things are difficult.”
I agreed. Things were difficult, but I was from the Republic, I explained.
“Yes, yes,” he nodded with a combination of embarrassment and complete geographical confusion. “You’re miles away”
“Miles,” I echoed.
He decided to return to a more comfortable topic. “I should give you a little info about the company. What you see on this level is a little less than a third of our operations. We’re spread over four floors in the building. Upstairs, engineering; downstairs, civil. We’re the technical boffins. You’re the second new man; Raymond over there joined us about four weeks ago. Wife left him. Messy, messy, messy business. You are not married, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m as free as the day I was born”.
The temperature rose slightly in the cubicle. He stubbed out his half-smoked Rothmans and lit another. We had a moment of silence as he searched for words to cover his desire.
“We’ll soon be changing the project description,” he said. “No more references to Calder Hall, from now on it’s going to be called Sellafield.”
A mushroom cloud parted inside my head. The recruitment agency had said very little about the job.
“Sellafield,” I said, nodding my approval. Sell-A-Field. It sounded so harmless, like something a farmer might do if he were strapped for cash.
Mr Longley continued to talk, but my mind was somewhere else. I had a mental image of a giant atomic shock wave blasting across the ocean, picking up trawlers and ferries, flinging saltwater and mackerel into the heart of the Irish midlands. I pictured drowned cats and floating coffins, pulled from the soil like loose fencing pickets. I watched partially fried dogs yelping on half-submerged rooftops while men and women, as ragged as their migrant forbears, crawled with exhaustion on islands of bobbing debris. I saw a perfect globe of brilliant light, flashing like hot magnesium, eating up all the colours in the world, swallowing everything, even shadow.
Only a moral dwarf would even consider accepting a job like this. — And I was that dwarf.
“What’s the salary?” I asked brightly.
“Starting at eleven thousand a year, and please call me Chris.”
A cluster of amphetamine crystals dissolved inside my head like temporal lobe popcorn; my eyes opened wide and sparkled. Mr Longley took this behaviour as a small flirtation. He lost his way with words and threw up a flurry of questions about my home life in Ireland. Was I enjoying London? How long had I been here? I told him only a week and he trilled. “A week, Oh my goodness, you are seeing everything through such new eyes.” He stared into my new blue eyes and transmitted a bright red laser of lust. “Still, I’m sure you were upset leaving home.”
I left home on a Sunday night. The railway platform in Carlow was clotted with Sparrow-like mothers and their daughters, wrapped in UCD scarves, snuffling into disposable tissues.
Smoke and jostling filled the carriages. People coughed for fear that silence might take hold.
Athy, Kildare, Newbridge.
The poverty of rural Ireland accelerated and swept past the windows in a dun-coloured diorama of depressing decay. The train rattled, the passengers swayed and the whole country shook. No. I did not feel sadness for all that I left behind.
“I have to ask you about secrets,” Chris Longley said, regaining his breath and composure; his hushed words trailed off and vanished mysteriously in the air.
“Secrets?” I asked.
Prompted by my blank expression, he slid a printed sheet of paper across the desk.
“Official Secrets,” he said.
The page was densely written and repeatedly photocopied until the words bled together like melted wax. The large print at the top of the page referred to the “1920 Act”. Chris Longley unscrewed a fountain pen and I signed without trying to decipher the molten gibberish.
“I think you will be happy here,” he said.
I put my free hand on top of his and said yes, I thought I would be very happy.
He pointed to the dapper gent in the photograph on his desk . “Tom Tuohy,” he explained, “born in the UK to Irish parents; a personal hero of mine. Do you know the story?”
During the great Windscale fire of 1957, when it looked like the whole place was going up in smoke, site manager Tuohy saved the day. He pulled on his protective gear, climbed the burning reactor and peered into its very heart. He listened to its breath as it sucked in air from every corridor. He patted its heaving hungry belly and then made the decision to shut off the cooling fans and pump in thousands of gallons of water.
“Outrageous,” exclaimed Chris Longley, “this was eleven tons of uranium, burning at over a thousand degrees Celsius. The concrete shielding was withering under the extreme heat. As you know, molten metal causes water to oxidize. Hydrogen, explosive hydrogen, expanding into every nook of the cauldron! — Tom Tuohy ordered the evacuation of the building, but for himself and the fire chief. He turned on the hoses and miraculously the inferno was extinguished.”
Chris Longley took out a handkerchief and dabbed his cheeks which were now quite rosy, giving the impression that he too had been standing close to flame. He was breathless as he asked me, straight up, if I thought I could fill Tom Tuohy’s large, radioactive shoes and I said “yes sir”, without the slightest hesitation.
He looked into my core, past the smouldering amphetamine fire, through the pressurized cloud of unshakable confidence and into the fast-breeding madness of a 20-year-old who was ready, willing and able to light a fuse and burn up the world. We shook hands. I turned and left Chris Longley’s office, knowing that his eyes were all over me, but I didn’t care. I now had something special, something beyond all credibility. I had something that half of Ireland would kill for.
I had a job.
Barry McKinley is a playwright and construction worker who wrote a Generation Emigration article last year about leaving his family in Ireland to find work in New York, Off to New York with the iPaddies . He is back in Ireland at the moment and open to commissions. He blogs at ipaddynyc.blogspot.ie.