Evening Standard, 1 March 2000
it’s a filthy job…but someone’s got to do it
Chancellor Gordon Brown is trying to persuade the jobless to accept vacancies at the local job centre – most of which are rejected because of low pay or antisocial hours. But are they any worse off than London’s Dirty Dozen?
MONICA PORTER begins her profile of arguably the smelliest, dirtiest jobs in town
TUBE TRACK WORKER: ‘IS THE POWER OFF’?
Paris Roche, 31, is a “track operative” on the Bakerloo line. In the small hours of the morning, when the electricity is switched off, he walks through the tunnels tightening the massive bolts and “screw-spikes” that keep the track together and hold the rails in position. For this he earns around £20,500 a year.
“On a routine patrol I might walk down five miles of tracks, from Elephant and Castle to Baker Street. I use a gauge to check the rails are lying at the correct level, so the trains don’t come off the track, and I hammer in metal keys holding the track in place – they pop out sometimes.”
Certain rails might still be live, and stepping onto a live rail is one of the biggest dangers he faces. So, before he starts his work, he uses an instrument called a crid to make sure the “juice” has been turned off. Otherwise, it’s a 630-volt shock: “And that’s a very nasty bang,” he says.
There’s a lot of heavy equipment to carry through the tunnels: a huge spanner and hammer, a drill, and occasionally bags of ballast (the shingle on which the tracks lie). “It’s always hot in the tunnel, and because of all the protective gear you wear, you sweat a lot. There’s also less oxygen, so breathing is more difficult.
“Everything is sooty in the tunnel – you can come out completely black. And it’s even worse getting covered in the lubrication grease from the rails.” It may be lonely, gloomy and physically demanding in his subterranean world, and the hours are antisocial, but his job has a saving grace: “At least I don’t have to deal with any irate customers.”
DISOPOSING OF DOG WASTE: ‘I’M CONTENT’
Graham Drane, 57, works in the beautiful environs of Regent’s Park, but readily admits to having “the dirtiest job” there. Every day he empties the 50 dog-waste bins scattered around the park and adjacent Primrose Hill. He sprays them with a cleaner and deodoriser, “to make them smell nicer”, and once a week takes them away to be disinfected.
He also scrapes the foul stuff off the pathways – either with his sweeper machine or old-fashioned broom and shovel. To get it off the grass he uses a pooper scooper, which “looks like a beach buggy with a giant tea urn on the back, and works like a Hoover”.
The vast amount of dogs’ mess collected each day is bagged and put into a skip, then hauled off to an incineration centre where it’s burned along with other nasty toxic substances. For a week’s work he makes between £270 and £290.
“My job’s not too bad in winter,” he says, “but in summer the odour is very unpleasant. It gets right up your nostrils. You need a strong stomach.” He wears a disposable white boiler suit made of paper, and rubber gloves, but even so, the first thing he does when he gets home is jump in the bath. “I suppose most people wouldn’t want my job,” he says.
“My friends take the p***. ‘Yuck, filthy job’, they say, but we have a laugh about it. As for my wife, as long as it keeps a roof over her head and food on the table, she’s happy.
“I’m content with my lot. I work outdoors in a lovely park, I chat to all kinds of people. Most dog owners are very nice. But the ones who let their dogs foul up the place and then don’t use the bins – well, you couldn’t print my opinion of them.”
THE RAT CATCHER: ‘I’M TERRIFIED OF THEM’
Colin Chapman, 39, is Rentokil’s chief rodent controller for London. For the past 12 years he has been fighting the capital’s 70 million-strong rat population (they outnumber humans by 10 to one).
Rats cross all class boundaries, and Mr Chapman’s work takes him to every type of property, from prisons to bank counting-houses, corner shops to grand private homes. He is all too familiar with the “musty, uriney smell” of infestation.
“Rats have no control of their bladders,” he explains, “so they pee everywhere they go. And they carry Weil’s disease, which can be fatal to humans – catching it is one of the biggest hazards I face. I’m terrified of rats. They’re so fast. When cornered they head for the light, either running through your legs or jumping over your shoulder. It makes my heart thump. But they’re very intelligent, and you have to admire their cheek.
“Once I was called out to inspect a big, posh house in Barnes. The lady of the house suspected her teenage kids were pilfering her money from a box in the kitchen.
“I found a rats’ nest up in the attic made out of gnawed £10 notes and cheques. The rats had been coming down at night through a pipe to take the money, which made perfect nesting fodder.”
Mr Chapman lays down poisonous chemicals which coagulate the rats’ blood and stop their organs from working. “These days we’re not allowed to just hit them over the head with a shovel. They have to die with dignity. So they go back to their nests and pass away in their sleep. Even so, the animal libbers slag us off and vandalise our vans. They don’t realise what ecological damage pests do not least by contaminating 40 per cent of the world’s food supply.”
After the rats have been dealt with, he returns to take away the corpses, usually found under the floorboards. “I bag them up. Have you ever smelled a bag full of dead rats on a hot summer’s day?”
By law all dead rats must be removed. They are burned at the national centre in Kirkby. Mr Chapman – who earns £18,500 a year, plus bonuses – says he doesn’t have nightmares about rats … but his wife does. On occasions he takes his work home with him: a live rat in a cage which he uses when giving lectures on pest control. “It freaks her out.”
MURDER SCENE CLEANER: FACING THE BLOOD
Ron Brailsford, a 54-year-old ex-fireman, heads a team of “special mobile operatives” called out by the Met to mop up interiors where a murder has taken place.
“People think when someone is stabbed they just fall on the floor and die. They don’t. I had a job where the place looked like something out of Psycho. Most of my jobs are in the East End, because of gangland killings.
“Once I cleaned up a property in which the victim was decapitated. The killer dipped a paintbrush into the severed head and wrote obscenities on the walls with blood. That was really disturbing. We clean every inch, we even strip and reseal floors.
“I wear protective clothing, from head to toe, and sometimes goggles when taking down wallpaper the blood could splash you in the eye.” He is reluctant to say how much he earns, but adds: “My work has its rewards. It’s satisfying to get a property back into pristine condition, so the occupants are less likely to be reminded of the horrors that took place. And the police now treat us as family.”
DOWN THE SEWERS: ‘I’M PROUD OF MY JOB’
Rob Smith, 50, heads the Thames Water specialist team responsible for hacking away the congealed fat which clogs up the sewers beneath Soho – a result of cooking oil poured down drains by restaurants.
“Sure, it’s a job which turns your stomach. But I’m a hands-on manager. Lead by example – that’s my philosophy.
“I go down the sewers with my men for 12 hours a day. We use drills to cut up the fat, then huge suction units to vacuum it up. It’s hard to describe the smell. Imagine hundreds of tons of rancid fat mixed with the same amount of human waste, and you get a good idea.
“We wear plastic overalls and boots, but the smell stays with you, permeating your skin and hair. When I get home in the evening my wife takes one whiff and says, ‘Get in the shower – quick!’ But I’m proud of what I do. At the end of it you’ve solved a problem. You’ve done something a lot of people couldn’t. And you’ve defeated the dangers, like getting jabbed by discarded hypodermic needles.
“I enjoy the camaraderie with the gang of blokes who work with me, and the pay is good.” Exactly how good he won’t specify, save to say that it is more than £30,000.
LOCUST KEEPER: ‘THEY’RE BEAUTIFUL’
Amanda Ferguson, 33, works at London Zoo’s Web of Life pavilion, which houses the insects. Each morning she enters the glass-fronted locust exhibit, and is besieged by a plague of biblical proportions. There are more than 1,000 locusts in the recreated desert scene of a jeep half-buried in the sand. The dry heat inside the brightly lit exhibit is desert-like, too – a sweltering39C.
The petite zookeeper, who has a degree in animal science and earns £18,500 a year, explains: “It takes me about half an hour to clean up the locust droppings (called frass), pick up the dead locusts and change their food, mainly cabbage and sweetcorn. They mate all the time, the sand is full of tiny baby locusts and I have to be careful not to tread on them.
“As soon as I go in they start flying around. The sheer numbers can be overpowering, and the adults are up to two-and-a-half inches long. They’re not very precise flyers, so sometimes they crash into my face, they land on me and stick in my hair.
“I have to try to get them off before I leave the exhibit, but one or two usually manage to get inside my clothes. I’ll be eating lunch two hours later and a locust will suddenly crawl out of my T-shirt. At least they don’t bite.
“My girlfriends can’t relate at all to what I do, and find it a bit creepy. But I like the locusts. You don’t get attached to them individually but you have to respect them as a highly successful species, the way they breed like mad and turn into a huge swarm, then go off to devour crops and cause havoc. And when you look closely at them, they’re very beautiful, with fabulous markings and colouring. Quite perfect.”
Tomorrow: my 30-year war on Nelson’s pigeons Pictures: NIGEL HOWARD