2018 05 – Memories of a Communist Building Worker

BRIAN BEHAN

by W.J. Haire

Brian Behan was born in Dublin on the 10th of November, 1926 (died 2nd November, 2002) the son of Stephan Behan and Kathleen Behan (nee Kearney), nephew of Peadar Kearney (author of Amhrain na bhFiann, the Irish National Anthem), the younger brother of Brendan, a world-renowned playwright, and older brother of Dominic, a folksinger, author of some popular satirical Irish songs and a couple of theatre plays. Brian is the father of Janet Behan, an actress and playwright. He was,

as a teenager, caught stealing from a neighbour’s gas meter and was sent to Artane Industrial School, Dublin. It was there, he was later to claim, he was emotionally, physically and sexually abused. He applied for and was posthumously awarded damages for abuse.

After release from Artane he joined the construction corps of the Irish Army.

In 1950 he moved to London to work as a building labourer. Having long considered himself an anarcho-syndicalist, he now became a prominent trade union activist and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). During the construction of the Festival of Britain site in 1951 he was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton Prison for leading a go-slow. But this was only the start of his trade-union activities as he shot up the ranks of the party.

Walbrook, a street in the financial City of London, now Walbrook Square was the site of Buckersbury House, a vast 1950s office campus. It was the first building to exceed the City of London height limit of 30.5m (100 feet), coming in at 164m (538 feet).

This ban was lifted after WW2, which had seen the City demolished by a third through German bombs. During the bombing a building on this site was destroyed to reveal the Roman site of the Temple of Mithras, in honour of an Iranian god said to have killed a mythical bull. With the requirements of rebuilding the Roman site was ignored and almost destroyed but saved for an archaeological search in 1952. It was said to be the most blood splattered Temple due to daily animal sacrifices back in 240 AD.

Building started on Buckersbury House in 1954 and Brian Behan, then an unskilled building labourer, managed to bluff his way through a management screening to get a start despite his militancy form on such sites as the South Bank Festival of Britain, which had taken place a couple of years previously. When management did discover who he was it was too late. The federation steward called a meeting and it was decided if Behan was sacked there would be a strike. So Behan remained. The site was 100% trade union as far as the skilled trades and their backup labourers were concerned.  The management might give you a job but the steward representing your union had to have a look at your union card. Having no card you were turned away. There were no instant sign-ups then. You had to go through a weekly branch of a union, whether it was the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers or the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers or the various other unions belonging to steel fixers or bricklayers, where you might be nominated and seconded. A union card was a precious thing. Be more than six weeks in arrears and the militant sites would reject you. It was felt you didn’t have enough interest in the union to keep your card clear.

The first trade to act, after the footings had been dug, was the steel erectors (known then as spider-men) who put up the steel frame of the building. Scaffolders then erected the platforms so as the carpenters could follow with concrete shuttering.

(wooden moulds for the concrete). The spider-men had a morbid sense of humour

about falling from a height and being turned into a bag of bones at the bottom. They didn’t wear safety harness because they said that being on piecework they couldn’t make even their full wages. There were always dangers with men working a couple of hundred feet above your head. They walked six inch girders carrying heavy spanners and other tools to fit the heavy bolts to connect the steel, A shout of: Below!  when a bolt or tool was dropped had you dodging and wondering if it was you who would be hit. The steel erectors and scaffolders were outside contractors and not part of the main building company Humphries, and therefore not controlled by the unionised site personnel.

Behan, as one of the labourers, had to supply the carpenters with timber, acrows [temporary supports] and steel clamps, and help move heavy shutters. As a member of the CPGB I was aware of his position on the executive committee of the party. He had met Stalin on a visit to Moscow and other leading communists from China and Eastern Europe. He was a charismatic speaker at the onsite union meetings. The site also had other leading communists working as carpenters. Behan was the acknowledged leader of this militant site.

A works committee controlled the site. There was a secretary, chairman, and someone in what would later be called public relations, and a small inner committee comprising of non-CPGB people. The site was evenly divided between English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh plus a small group of West Indian carpenters. Full-time union reps did visit the site but were looked on with suspicion. They seemed to spend too much time with the management and barely anytime with us. If a strike was looming they would go up to the site trying to negotiate a settlement. But the management was tough. The entire group of them had come back from South Africa post-war and we were their new blacks. The real blacks, our West Indian workers, they wanted a separate lavatory block built for.  We couldn’t believe it and knocked that on the head very quickly with the threat of strike action.

Then Behan was called into the office one day. When he came out he began to pick up matchsticks throughout the site. Most men smoked then and lit their cigarettes with matches. At one break he said he had been ordered to pick up every matchstick he could see. When that was finished he would have to start on collecting the smallest stones. When living beside Palace British Army Barracks in Holywood, County Down, I had seen national service young soldiers having to do the same as a punishment while being followed by a corporal or sergeant-major. Behan was being followed by a ganger-man. We wanted to call a lightning strike but Behan said no because he couldn’t be demoralised to such an extent that he would pack in the job. He would just keep on picking. And he did that for a week. Then he was back to normal duties.

There were the usual casualties – nails through shoes, crushed fingers, a broken arm, head injuries requiring stitches. No ambulance was ever called. A workmate

would be instructed to go with the injured person to the nearest hospital. If there was no sign of blood the person would be allowed to sit in the canteen hut for half an hour to recover from a bang on the head. The management exploited the machismo

of the workers. Even the bold Behan was knocked down once by someone suddenly swinging around with a baulk of heavy timber on his shoulder. Behan got up, shook himself out of his daze and carried on working. It was biting-the-bullet sort of stuff.

Then a man fell down an unfenced-off lift shaft and broke his back. We had wanted it fenced-off, but this was dismissed by the management as ‘catering for toddlers.’ When the gravely injured man was accused of carelessness with a failure of the company to take responsibility the works committee called a strike. Being the City of London, the erection of a prestigious high-rise building on a historically important site drew a lot of attention from within the City itself. Our public relations drew large placard-type cartoons of Romans exploiting slaves and nailed them to the site hoardings, along with one from Sherlock Holmes: `Elementary rights, my dear Humphries.’ There were also appropriate quotes from Shakespeare where thievery and exploitation was mentioned in his works.  A police raid saw them tear down the cartoons. So we drew some more and had the pickets hold them. The police then began wrestling the pickets so there was a mass sit down until they went away. Behan was continually thinking up anti-police methods for the site. He was personally under surveillance by the state apparatus. A local public phone he used he felt was bugged. His letters were being opened and at times he was followed either furtively or openly as a means to intimidate him. Despite our membership of the CPGB the immediate task was fighting a rapacious management and getting better conditions on site. In order to combat us our importance was ratcheted up

to the level of state security.

Then the scaffolders, who were working for contractors, refused to stop work and support the strike. Scaffolders rarely were ever union-minded and always carried an air of over-the-top narcissistic machismo. We thought we would ask anyway. The answer was no. They then armed themselves by carrying their scaffolding spanners in their belts when coming and going through the picket line. Behan had thought they should be disarmed and kicked off the site but decided it would give the City of London police an excuse for closing down the site to investigate assault.

Odd conversations took place on picket duty. It being 1956 the Suez Crisis had broken out with a number of the English strikers supporting Britain, France and Israel in the invasion of the Canal Zone and Alexandria in Egypt, whilst at the same time pledging loyalty to Brian Behan, communist and member of the Executive Committee of the party. That they knew for he didn’t try to hide it. He even invited some of the site workers along to meetings in the Daily Worker building and at 16 King Street, Covent Gardens, Communist Party headquarters. They came along but didn’t join, but neither were they hostile.

I don’t remember Behan being bothered by the USSR intervention in Hungary during that period of 1956. Hungary had been on the side of the Nazis during WW2 and previous to that the totalitarian Admiral Horthy was in charge after the nine month communist period of Bela Kun in 1919. The USSR had sacrificed in invading Hungary and somehow they had rights there now. The idea was that the middle-class, at the first sight of blood, would run screaming, much like Peter Fryer, a Daily Worker journalist did. Hungary could also be the excuse for leaving the party. That was the consensus there among the communist workers on this site. It was run the tanks over them. I don’t remember Behan ever contradicting this notion back then. He couldn’t be called a gentle soul. In full revolutionary mode he scared more than the management at times.

One Friday morning it was noticed that a City of London newspaper had for its headlines: `Englishman stands alone.’ Reading it we found it referred to our site.

We tracked down this Lone Englishman’ and found he was a scaffolder. A carpenter recognised him from another site as a member of Mosley’s Union of British Fascists.

We got a delegation up consisting mostly of English, Scots and Welsh workers with a few Irish thrown in and visited the newspaper offices.  We stormed it right through to the editor’s office. The editor’s first reaction was not to threaten us with the police but to hand round the cigarettes. We refused them.  A pity, they were the best Dunhill. He spoke to each one of us to establish our nationality.  After a lengthy discussion he promised to print an apology in the next edition of the paper. Earlier he had tried to raise the wrath of the few Irish there by mentioning the Black & Tans and `how that must have upset you.’ But we weren’t taking the bait. Surely he couldn’t have wanted his office wrecked with him and his staff duffed up. The apology was printed with the acknowledgement that it was a mixed site of UK workers, the Irish and a few West Indians. (The West Indians did the right thing by their fellow workers but at the same making it clear they were over here to make money and not to strike)

We proceed to demonstrate through the streets of the mostly wealthy, demonstrated outside the Ritz and any other top hotel we could find like the Waldorf. Banged our way through the City of London and shouted into the corridors of the Stock Exchange and Lloyds the Insurers.

There was a lot of media interest with cameras flashing everywhere but very little of it appeared in the London daily papers or mentioned on radio or on the then black-and-white TV. We sent speakers to various other building sites, to industrial complexes and as far away as Vauxhall, the car makers, in Luton. The old BBC at Shepherd’s Bush had its workshops infiltrated by just mentioning the word union to the security men, who seemed pleased to see us.

During that time in 1956 we had no industrial clothing, boots or helmets. Our working conditions were atrocious with dry lavatories and damp huts to hang our clothes up in, when there should have been heated drying huts. The works canteen had rough benches and no tables. A contract caterer and his wife produced nothing but cheap meat sausages and rolls and weak tea for heavy manual workers. A half hour lunch break wasn’t paid for by the company. There were two strict 10 minute tea breaks during the day. But with the long queues you rarely had the chance to eat or drink properly, especially if this was your 10 am break and also your breakfast break you had missed because you had slept in.

This was the City of London and full of well-dressed office workers. We were generally a rag-a-muffin crowd with dirty overalls, concrete encrusted hair, broken down shoes and stinking of shutter oil with mostly blackened nails and dirty paws.

There were no proper washing facilities on site except a few buckets of cold water

for hundreds of men for hand-washing. You bought your own donkey coats which weren’t cheap considering the wages. The English lads seemed more put out by the conditions. They usually liked to dress up when going home so as not to be recognised as  manual workers. But it was no place to bring in a decent overcoat or raincoat, good shoes or trousers. We were young single men mostly and at lunch time we would stand outside to watch the girls pass. But what girl was going to be bothered with us.

The strike was over after 13 weeks. We had won, won for the man with the broken back who was now waiting for compensation and a wheelchair. But our wretched conditions continued. It was the norm on all building sites. The idea was this was a tough job so what did you expect, gloves? Now there was overtime to do in order to catch up with the work missed through the strike- an extra two hours at night and all day Saturday.

During the strike young single men, not entitled to National Assistance (long before Universal Credits) had lost their bedsits and had landed in homeless hostels or in the spike at Covent Gardens, a shared dormitory of mostly jake drinkers. (white spirit and milk). The married men with children were entitled to something from the National Assistance Board (NAB) though that didn’t amount to much. It was a case of selling some furniture and trying to borrow from relatives, who had very little. Halfway through the week the food would run out and it was then flour mixed with water and fried. Money had to be put aside for dried milk if there was a baby in the family. The 1950s was a decade of little money with simple things like oil heaters having to be purchased on hire purchase (one shilling and sixpence a week). There was no money for tube or bus fares during the strike. We walked to the picket line from all over London. That trip to the Vauxhall car factory in Luton to explain our case was hitchhiking job.

When the site settled down to routine work, and being still in my early twenties I decided to take a few days off with the overtime money I had saved and take my wife and baby daughter down to Southend for the sea air. On returning to the site I was instantly dismissed. The works committee called a meeting for possible strike action.

We had just been back working for six weeks so I decided to leave. Ever afterwards I heard that the sniping was still going on in trying to pick off the more militant workers.

I then lost personal touch with Brian, having moved into a different industry, the electrical trade in the film industry at Shepperton. A lot more glamorous than a building site. Then the MIGs struck (Militant Industrial Group) a Trotskyites outfit who usually called strikes without a vote. Andy O’Neill, from Dublin, an Electrical Trade Union rep then got instructions from the CPGB industrial dept to cross the MIG picket line across one of the studios. That we did along with a number of others and broke the strike. It wasn’t a good feeling but on the building sites nothing moved without an out and out vote.

I read a few things about Brian as he become more and more left. He was now out of the CPGB and was a member of the Trotskyite group The Club who were active in the Labour Party. He quickly became the group’s secretary, and in 1958 wrote his first work Socialists and the Trade Unions. He was now working on the site of the Shell Centre, a 27 storey building being built for the oil company by McAlpine. It was on the South Bank in London, on part of the site once used by the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was to be the highest building in the UK and had more office space than any building in Europe.

He was soon fired for his trade union activities at which the shop stewards’ committee called a strike. He was given the full support of The Club. His brother Brendan, who had a play in production in London at the time, joined him on the picket line. Brian was arrested during a scuffle and jailed once more. The official union, the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers opposed the strike.  This, combined with Behan’s opposition to the Labour Party, convinced The Club to leave and reconstitute the organisation as the Socialist Labour League (SLL). Behan then became uneasy about the SLL leader Gerry Healy’s control of the organisation. He was concerned that Healy was reluctant to cut ties with the Labour Party. In May 1960 he was expelled from the group with a few supporters. Behan then formed a short-lived Workers Party, which published the equally short-lived Worker’s Voice. That journal was so far to the left it read like a fantasy on the then social democratic society.

By 1964 he had been forced to give up building work because of an arm injury. He moved out of London to live on a boat in Shoreham-by-Sea. In 1972 he took part in a swearing match at the British Museum to mark the publication of Robert Graves’ Lars Porsena, or the Future of Swearing and Improper Language. He was now at Sussex University studying history and English. Later he studied teaching, before, in 1973, becoming a lecturer in media studies at the London College of Printing.

He published Breast Expanded, about the life of his family. Productions of a couple of plays followed at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London, in which he savages the country of his birth. This makes for a sharp protest by the Irish community.  His reaction is: `Frig them, the rosary-bead-chewing Neanderthals!’

Next he turns up in Brighton and is now into nudism. I watch him on TV being introduced to an interviewer by a local race-track bookmaker as the brother of Brendan Behan. Brian gives a disappointed nod. A newspaper later gives him an interview in which he says he drinks seawater. He recommends it for cancer of the arse. It’s unclear if this is what he has as an ailment.

But he seems to be surviving okay when he says, a few years later on TV he would marry Margaret Thatcher if he were free. Then on daytime TV, during an Esther Rantzen programme, he is talking in support of his Anti-Marriage group, while his wife looks on.

I read in 2010 that Buckersbury House, we had sacrificed so much over, was to be demolished. Eventually, after months, I got the tube to Cannon Street and walked to Walbrook a short distance away. The 14 storey building was already demolished to its foundations. Archaeologists were having another look to find some more Roman artefacts from the Temple of Mithras in the Londonium days of 240 AD. And I believe they did find many more.

The demolition workers, in the meantime clothed in protective clothing, helmets, gloves and reflective jackets, were still clearing up. Later the £1billion European headquarters’ twin buildings for Bloomberg, the US media group for Information and Technology, was built on the site. It opened on the 24th of October, 2017. Bloomberg’s slogan is: `We Are The Central Nervous System of Global Finance.’

 

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