The steel worker on the girder
Learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.
Extracts from George Oppen, ‘The Building of the Skyscraper’, 1965.
Britain 1965: the Barbican development was rising from the ruins of the blitz; the first program of nuclear power stations were being built around Britain’s coasts; 16% of post-war public housing was over 20 storeys high; the construction industry workforce was 1.1 million strong; and that year 275 workers died on building sites. George Garnham, a scaffolder from the age of 14, remembers that time, and what happens when things go wrong high above the ground.
‘I remember when Kenny Beaumont done it… We was up about 50, 60 foot, and we were working away. When you’re fixing yourself, you only work off one board, you know, one nine-inch board, and he was working away and for some unknown reason, I looked, I said, “You ready, Ken?” and no answer. I thought, “Oh, Ken, what’s wrong?” and he had hold of the upright and, you know, I had to go along and speak to him and he said, “I can’t move, George.” He said, “I’ve had it.” He said, “I’ve got to get down! I’ve got to get down!” He said, “Get me down!” I said, “Hold on a minute, Ken!” I said, “Come on, boy!” I said, “You’ve been at it long enough, you don’t want this to happen.” I said, “What are you thinking about?” He said, “I don’t know.” He said, “I can’t…I can’t get down, boy.” He said, “I can’t do it,” you know, and we had a hell of a job to get him below, and he never did come up no more. He said, “No, that’s it, I’ve finished.” He said, “I don’t want no more climbing,” and he just finished, eh, yeah. He went on, you know, bricklayers’ labourer, yep, yeah.’
Interview from Constructing Post-War Britain: building workers stories 1950-70 (Leverhulme / ProBE, 2010-2012).
Letting in the fear, the terrifying panic of giddiness on the edge of falling, was an unconscious phenomenon: for the experienced scaffolder George, the reasons for freezing are as ‘unknown’ as they were for the men who froze while working at heights. In the 1960s there were no safety harnesses and the sudden inability to move, resulting in being helped down, created great risk to both victim and rescuer. But for the man who froze there were wider implications – an immediate financial impact with a massive decrease in wages after leaving a well-paid skilled occupation and returning to the ranks of unskilled labourer. There were huge consequences for family life and welfare.
In a sense, those who froze became aware of reality – its risks and the sheer dizzying whirlwind of modernity and change. The economic optimism of the 1960s fuelled a building boom producing high-rise flats which, for the first time, became part of the British landscape. Did the men who froze – clutching the cold steel tubes of the scaffold, high in the air – have a glimpse of what was being lost and the emptiness of the future? Oppen also anticipated, in his closing lines, the vertiginous pace of capitalism.
Christine Wall is Reader in the Faculty of the Built Environment and Co-Director of the Centre for Research into the Production of the Built Environment (ProBE), at the University of Westminster. She trained and worked as a carpenter for 12 years, studied architecture as a mature student, and completed her PhD, funded by the RIBA Ozolins Scholarship award, at the University of Cambridge in 2004. She has researched and published widely on the built environment since 1996 and recently led the Leverhulme Trust oral history project, Constructing Post-War Britain: building workers' stories 1950-1970. Her books include An Architecture of Parts: Architects, Building Workers and Industrialised Building in Britain 1940-70 (Routledge, 2013); Work and Identity: Historical and Cultural Contexts, with John Kirk (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Women in Construction, with Linda Clarke et al., (Reed, 2004).