I worked for Brighton Borough Council from 1979 until 1985 – first in the Filing Registry and then as a Committee Secretary, where I met Carol. I was responsible for the Environmental Health Committee – preparing agendas, collating reports, taking notes at the meetings, writing up the minutes and ensuring that agreements were subsequently turned in to actions. The Environmental Health Committee controlled such delightful amenities as the abattoir, cemeteries, crematorium, mortuary, street cleaning and refuse collection. Each year, the committee members would visit these places, on a so-called ‘tour of establishment’. These were wonderful times, full of fun and laughter, perfectly illustrated by this humorous embellishment of the tour that was organised by Carol and me in March, 1983.
We were due to depart the Town Hall at nine-thirty. I hopped on to the coach at twenty-past.
“Why don’t you use both legs, like everyone else?” asked Carol.
The councillors and numerous officials piled on after me. Carol did a quick head count. A quick tally-up of the corresponding bodies revealed no discrepancies, and we set off.
First stop was the abattoir.
We were ushered in to the main office building. The manager spent at least fifteen minutes delivering a rambling, protracted history of the place. He concluded by warning us that some of the sights we would witness may be distressing.
“Why, are Ipswich Town playing?” I whispered to Bob Tanner, the Borough Environmental Health Officer.
Before we could walk round, we were instructed to remove our shoes and put on a pair of white shiny wellies. This turned out to be a good move as the entire complex was swimming in an inch of vile-coloured liquid, 40% blood, 40% water, 20% other.
We picked our way nervously through the carcassing area. There were six builders’ skips, one sited at the entrance to each shed. As we approached the third, a cow’s head came flying through the entrance. It bounced on the side of the skip, looked me straight in the eye and dropped from view.
“No milk today, thank you” I called, peering in after it.
Carol jabbed me hard in the ribs.
We hurried on. Next, the slaughterhouse. Fortunately, no killing was taking place at this precise moment, apart from my wellies, which were at least three sizes too small. We turned a corner to find a vast sheltered pen area. There must have been more than a hundred sheep in there, each fighting to stick their head through the bars to get a breath of air. There is no doubt in my mind that they knew they were about to die, the way they stayed huddled together, moving as one terrified mass, their eyes dull with fear.
The manager, totally oblivious to his surroundings, prattled on about stunning voltages, killing voltages and the methods of treating and disposing of what he referred to as ‘residue’. It was just a job to him, I suppose. You don’t think of all this when you get stuck in to your Sunday joint, do you?
We shuffled back on to the coach.
“Phew! That’s a relief” commented Councillor Greenway.
“Couldn’t you have waited?” I asked.
“Let’s hope we haven’t got bloody burgers for lunch” groaned Councillor Turner, vomiting profusely in to his hat.
Next up, Woodvale Crematorium.
The weather was taking a turn for the worse and getting decidedly colder. I stamped my feet and blew on my hands. This proved to be quite pleasant, so I tried it the other way round.
We were shown to the crematorium waiting room by a chap with a glass eye, dandruff and a suit that must have been a perfect fit forty years ago. Lukewarm coffees in old chipped mugs were waiting for us. If you’ve never sat and had lukewarm coffee in a chipped mug in a crematorium waiting room, let me offer you this piece of advice. Don’t.
Gradually starting to thaw out, we were guided round the two chapels by David Smale, the Cemeteries Superintendent. He was grey and ashen and there was some debate as to whether he might have already been cremated himself.
As we traipsed round, I felt rather sombre and detached. My own father had been cremated there a few years earlier. I stood alone for a moment, my eyes fixed on a crucifix high on a wall. A shiver ran down my spine. I thought back to that day. It too was in March, but the morning dawned dry, warm and bright. I remember the long, wide curving driveway to the chapel being lined with thousands of daffodils, bowing gently in the breeze. I know this sounds silly, but the thing that had struck me at that moment was the absolute finality of it all; that, whatever happens, I would never ever be able to see my dad again. The organ droned its tributes and his coffin began its slow majestic journey – back, back, back as the heavy crimson curtains drew slowly round it. I recounted the story briefly to Carol. She took my hand and squeezed it gently. I think it was then that I knew I loved her.
The mortuary shared the same grounds as the crematorium. It was an amazing place, all hi-tec and spotlessly clean.
“I could eat my sandwiches off this” declared the Chief technician, slapping the slab.
“How come you’re always in the canteen, then?“ I countered.
We got the full breakdown on hygiene standards, refrigeration techniques and identification processes. Then we were free to wander round and have a look for ourselves, although I already knew where we were. I thought it would be a good idea to take a peek in one of the drawers. I grabbed Carol and dragged her off round a corner.
“You can’t, Simon” she hissed.
“You can’t come to a mortuary and not eyeball a body” I retorted, “it’d be like going to Salford and not getting mugged.”
I pulled open a drawer, just a few inches. All I could see was a pair of shadowy, greyish feet with huge creamy-yellow toenails. A small cardboard tag hung from one of the big toes; I squinted to make out the words.
“What does it say?” whispered Carol, rubbernecking round the corner to see if anyone was coming.
“It says . . . I told you that curry was off” I sniggered and closed the drawer. It clunked shut rather too loudly for the occasion. We froze for a few seconds before declaring the all-clear and merged back with the main group as inconspicuously as we could.
It was midday. We got back on the coach and returned to the town hall for lunch. We were set to dine in one of the committee rooms. As everyone took their places the catering manager announced the menu: roast beef. Would you believe it? You spend all morning at the abattoir and the morgue and then you get served roast bloody beef for lunch.
I glanced across the table to where Councillor Turner was sitting. He had turned a rather fetching shade of green. He was a very thin man and the green shading made him look for all the world like a giant stick of asparagus.
“Well, at least it’s not burgers” I called to him, cheerily.
He clasped his handkerchief to his mouth and barged out.
The plates arrived. My appetite had gone out of the window. As we were on the third floor, I decided I’d leave it there. I toyed with my meal, and vice-versa. All I could think of was those bloody cows’ heads flying through the air.
“Pass the horseradish” demanded Carol, already on her second helping of meat. She could be really insensitive sometimes.
Three glasses of Chianti later and we were back on the coach. We were one short on the morning’s turnout as Councillor Turner had failed to emerge from the sanctuary of the toilets.
Councillor Leach, one of the old stalwarts, was last to board. He struggled up the steep steps on to the bus. I gave him a hand, although he clearly had two of his own. He plonked himself down next to me for a quick breather. “I’m seventy-three next week” he announced.
“Really?” I replied, “you look very well. How do you keep yourself so fit?”
“Chicken chow mein” he replied.
“Chicken chow mein?”
“Yes, never touch the fucking stuff.”
He got up and wheezed his way down to the rear of the vehicle.
We set off once more, this time for the Council’s main works department. The coach driver, who appeared to be under the delusion that he was distantly related to the great Ayrton Senna, went hacking through the main gates, snapping off a wing-mirror from a stationary dustcart.
We were given demonstrations of various vehicles and equipment including rotary street sweepers, bulk-bin lifts and what was eagerly described as a new, high-efficiency dustcart.
“Not quite so efficient with only one wing-mirror” I chirped, slapping the coach driver on the back.
The highlight of the visit turned out to be a demo of the frighteningly powerful Quadrujet water hose cleaning system. This was, in effect, simply a hose unit attached to a huge knapsack sprayer with sixteen outlets, arranged in four clusters of four. It was designed to shift stubborn dirt, grime and pigeon shit from street furniture – road signs, park benches, bus shelters and the like. For the purpose of the demo, the operator had removed a particularly filthy PUBLIC TELEPHONE sign from the main London Road. As the unit noisily built up to operating levels, he shouted out all the old spiel about water pressures and gravity feeds, then whoosh! The awesome power was unleashed. What followed was truly incredible.
The dirt flew off in a flash. In fact, it was travelling at such velocity that it transferred itself en masse to Councillor Mrs Barnes’ handbag.
“Cor, that’s good innit!” we all cried.
Indeed it was. Unless you were Councillor Mrs Barnes.
The dirt may have been relocated, but why stop there? The pressure had now built to such an extent that the lettering of the words PUBLIC TELEPHONE were next to go. Some of the letters shot through the air, helpfully rearranging themselves as HELP CUNT POLE on the side of the coach.
By this time the water feed had become jammed open and there was nothing the operator could do. Finally, the background colours disintegrated and we were left staring at a pristine sheet of steel.
“Very impressive” I observed, “what’s it like on the woollen cycle?”
We got back on the bus and, rather appropriately, set off for the final leg of our tour, the cemeteries. All the old jokes made an appearance; people are dying to get in here and this is the dead centre of Brighton. On our walk round the war cemetery, Councillor Harman, the chairman of the Environmental Health Committee, somehow managed to lose his glasses from his jacket pocket. We formed a search party and combed the area.
“Here they are!” cried Carol, crunching a lens beneath the sole of her boot.
“It could have been worse” I whispered to a fuming Harman, “you could still have been wearing them.”
As committee secretaries, we would take it in turns to attend the full meetings of the Council – held every six weeks – to take the minutes. To prevent these meetings from going on ad infinitum, a traffic lights system was in place, where councillors were given limited time to speak on each agenda item; green meant ten minutes, amber indicated two of those ten minutes remaining, red meant stop talking now. It was the committee secretary’s responsibility to operate these lights. During my time in the role, I became friendly with one of the mayors, Joe Wakefield. The mayor chaired the full meetings of the Council. A keen football fan with a sharp wit, Joe and I occasionally decided to have a bit of fun with the lights and reduce the timings – particularly when the opposition party members were speaking – so that the amber light showed after just six minutes, and so on. This reduced some meetings to little more than the famous old Monty Python sketch:
Councillor: That was never ten minutes just then!
Me: I’m afraid it was.
Councillor: No, it wasn’t!
Joe Wakefield: I can assure you, it was!
Councillor: And I can assure you that it was not!
Me: Thank you, good morning!
I had some interesting, funny, even zany times in the employment of Brighton Borough Council. I met a great boss (see my thank you to Ron King). I even met my future wife. And I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world.
Footnote: The Town Hall is now largely a ceremonial building.
Brighton Register Office is housed in the space that was formerly the print room, where Carol and I would go to have our committee agendas produced by a young lad called Russell on big old litho printing machines. The picture shows one corner of that room as it is today; the old inks are soaking back through the parquet flooring, as if in one final act of defiance
Footnote: The Town Hall is now largely a ceremonial building.