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  • Guy Martyr

Recollection of a concrete delivery

In the early 1970’s my father bought a house in London, to rent out. It was a recently-built, three-storey house, in a short terrace. After a couple of years the owners of the houses in the development decided collectively to build small brick walls in the front, on the open drives, to partition the properties and provide some planting areas. I think the aim was to increase the value of the properties. The owners were going to share the cost; they dug their own foundations to keep this to a minimum.

A momentous day in the project arrived: the concrete for the foundations was to be delivered. It was coming in a concrete-mixer lorry, an arrangement dominated, as I recall, by a strict time window, lest the concrete become unusable before it had been poured. I was there with my father: all the householders had gathered for the arrival of the concrete; it was being made into a social event.

I should perhaps explain why I, a 13-year-old boy, would be interested in going along to something as un-exciting as this. My parents had divorced when I was young, and my mother had re-married and gone, with my elder brother and myself, to live in Birmingham. My brother and I used to visit our father in London on a regular basis, at weekends or during school holidays (we travelled unaccompanied by train between New Street and Euston - tickets in the early days cost around fourteen shillings and sixpence, or as was said “14 and 6”). Although my formation was largely in Birmingham, I feel I grew up in both places.

The occasion of the concrete-pouring coincided with one such visit. Whereas we might visit Richmond Park or Box Hill, or go to the Imperial War Museum, or look at the motor bikes in Elite Motors, or see the Cutty Sark, or look at exciting army surplus in Lawrence Corner, or modern furniture in Habitat, we might also be ‘helping’ my father mend his car outside on the pavement, in winter, or traipsing round London to find the very cheapest washing machine - it was a sort of middle class existence, with very mixed blessings. I had gone along that day because I was not quite old enough to say no, I suppose. Where my brother was, or the rest of my dad’s new family, I do not remember.

The foundations were narrow trenches laid out in rectangles; the trenches were something like one foot wide by six inches deep. My father announced that the householders had ordered so many cubic yards of concrete -10? He probably mentioned its (high) cost, cost being a significant theme in his life.

I glanced across the network of channels, and noted my instant response: ‘That seems an awful lot of concrete for that volume of digging.’ You see, I had recently read ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’ in which certain mention was made of the significant quantity of earth represented by a cubic yard, when it comes to excavating it by hand - in the novel this was a measure of the quantity expected to be moved by the prisoner-of-war labourers each day. For some reason this had made an impression on me; and it came to mind at that moment.

I decided to pace out the foundations to calculate their volume, and so test my intuition. I started at one corner and stepped to the next corner; then turned and stepped to the next, less the end of the line I had just stepped so not to count it twice; then the next, less the corner; then the last, less two corners. I did this for all the foundation rectangles, and calculated the volume: ie, length (in feet) x width (one foot) x depth (half a foot), to obtain cubic feet; then divided by 27 to obtain cubic yards (you can do this when you’re 13!). I came up with, for the sake of argument, 4 cubic yards. That’s quite a difference from 10, I thought. I must have done it wrong? So I stepped out the foundations again, with the same result.

My father, who had been socialising in the throng eventually noticed me doing my strange dance, and asked what I was doing. I told him, and explained my calculations. He agreed. He spoke to other homeowners, including the one among them who had done the original calculations, who was a professional in the field I understand. He re-visited his calculations and concurred; and the one who had ordered the concrete spoke to the driver of the lorry when he arrived, and he was fine with delivering less concrete. It saved them a reasonable amount of money.

My father made much of it: he was almost triumphant in announcing the outcome to his fellow homeowners. He told me later that the person doing the original calculations had said he counted the corners twice; and had disappeared inside for the rest of the day’s proceedings. I think he must have made some other mis-calculation too, perhaps regarding a cubic yard as 3x3 cubic feet, instead of 3x3x3 cubic feet, or perhaps with the depth, since the difference between the amount required and the amount ordered originally was more than would have been accounted by just the extra corners.

Dad had gloated I have to say; he had had problems in business, and probably had ‘professionals’ in his sights.

Morals of the story?

- You get surprising things from reading.

- People make mistakes.

- Trust your intuition.

- Don’t be triumphant.

- Delivery drivers can be very helpful.

My father reported to me later that the homeowners had had a celebratory meal at the end of the project and had raised a toast to me - probably at his instigation. This would no doubt have renewed the embarrassment of he of the mis-calculation. I shrunk to hear it.

I didn’t want any pats on the back - I just wanted to get back under my fringe, and under my parka, because I was always a bit shy.

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