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Monica Porter

Filthy Jobs (2)

Evening Standard, 2 March 2000

worst jobs in London (cont.)

MONICA PORTER concludes her profile of the Dirty Dozen they may be the worst jobs in London but there’s no lack of enthusiasm, she reports

Sink estate manager: ‘My wife worries’

Dan Hollas, 31, is paid £31,000 a year by Southwark council as housing manager for 10 of the country’s roughest estates, in Bermondsey.

“I’ve got the whole inner city thing – poverty, people with serious mental illnesses having to live in the community, and racial conflict because my patch is predominantly white working class and they want to keep it that way. There have been stabbings, suicides and murders.

“Evicting squatters is an ongoing problem. Last year one of my staff was shot at by a squatter and we had to get the armed police in. And tenants who don’t pay their rent are evicted on a weekly basis.

“A lot of the tenants are criminals, linked to the East End gangs. Sorting them out when they’re making a nuisance can be really nerve-wracking. I’ve been punched, threatened with a knife, and once when I repossessed the garage of a drug-dealer he set his rottweilers on me.

“My wife worries about me a lot. And I admit I get nervous after dark, walking to my car on my way home. It’s all very stressful. I’ve hardened my feelings towards people and become cynical. I’m also going bald and smoking way too much.

“Why do I do the job? I suppose I like to feel I’m contributing to the community and making a difference to people’s lives.

“It wouldn’t be so exciting if it was easy.”

Lavatory attendant: ‘A man has to work’

Ola Ade, 35, from Nigeria, is nightshift attendant at London’s seamiest public convenience: the gents’ in Leicester Square.

“I work from 8pm to 8am, four nights a week. Friday and Saturday nights are the worst. We get many drunks, who vomit in the toilets and on the floor.

“I mop up about once an hour. Sometimes they fight with each other – over alcohol, usually. If I ask them to leave they sometimes attack me. There’s an alarm button in the attendants’ room.

“There are always some homeless people falling asleep in the cubicles. The police come to take them away, then 10 minutes later they’re back again.

“But the worst are the drug-users. They inject themselves, getting their blood everywhere and leaving their used needles on the floor.

“We’re trained to handle them, picking them up with a special metal instrument and putting them in a closed container. We collect up to 20 needles a night.

“It’s a terrible place. What’s the good side to my job? There isn’t one. But a man has to work.”

Mr Ade declined to say how much he earned.

Signholder:’I see lots of girls walking by’

Anderson Figoeirdo, 30, from Sao Paolo, Brazil, is studying English at Evendine College.

His day job is to stand on a corner of Westminster Square, holding a sign pointing to the Cafe (referring to the Coffee Lounge at the nearby Methodist Central Hall).

“I’ve been doing this job for six months,” he says: “I do it six hours a day, for £5 an hour. It’s terrible in winter when it’s very cold – sometimes I have to put on two pairs of gloves. If it’s raining I stand in a doorway.

“Tourists stop and look at me strangely, and ask me what I think of my job, and do I like it? I look back and say, ‘It’s just a job.’ It is tiring, and sometimes I ache. But I don’t get bored. I can read a book or newspaper while I am standing there. I have time to think about life. And I see lots of girls walking by.”

Body parts keeper: ‘We have everything’

Paul Bates, 50, has been in charge of the histopathology museum at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, for the past 25 years. It houses preserved specimens of human body parts removed during operations or from corpses for research by medical students.

“We’ve got just about everything in here,” he says. “Amputated limbs, diseased kidneys, livers and hearts, genitalia, eyeballs, brains, even whole heads. One of the oddest specimens I’ve seen is a big piece of skin with stab wounds in it.

“Some people may consider preserving specimens controversial I have to be wary about telling people what I do, as not everyone approves. But nothing is kept without the permission of the person, or family, involved.”

He won’t say how much he earns, but says he enjoys his work – he never knows what interesting new specimens doctors will bring him – and he describes the quiet museum tucked away from the busy wards as his “sanctuary”.

“I’ve got 1,200 specimens. The fresh ones can be disturbing, because they’re easier to relate to, they can still have blood on them. But some items date back to the turn of the century. All have their uses as teaching aids.”

Everything is treated as though it were infectious – and most specimens are – so Mr Bates wears surgical gloves, a lab coat and goggles. He has to prepare the parts before putting them in perspex containers with alcohol or glycerine. “You can’t just cut a heart in half and stick it in a jar. So I tidy it up a bit.”

Statue scrubber: ‘Pigeons winning our 30-year battle’

John Cianti, 48, has been scrubbing the pigeons’ mess off London’s statues for the past 30 years. Not surprisingly, as Trafalgar Square is home to thousands of the capital’s filthiest, greediest pigeons, Nelson’s Column is the worst of the lot.

“It’s a constant battle between me and the pigeons,” he sighs. “And frankly, the pigeons are winning.”

Over the years various methods have been used to try to stop the pestilent birds from alighting on the historic monument. “They put up prongs and wires, they greased the statues’ heads but nothing works. The pigeons sit on the ledges around the column and on all the heads on the four plaques. You can’t leave their mess there for long – it corrodes the metal.”

Every other month John and his team from the company Antique Bronze tackle the column’s dropping-encrusted plaques, using liquid soap followed by a special wax polish.

“Each time we return, it’s back to square one,” he says. “It takes a day to clean each plaque – the stuff can be quite hard to get off. Once in a while the pigeons do their business on my head while I’m working.

“They carry a lot of diseases, which is a worry, but I haven’t caught anything so far.” Mr Cianti says that he doesn’t hate the pigeons. “I’m an animal lover. Besides, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square are part of our heritage, aren’t they?”

He cleans a total of 55 statues in central London, including Eros and Cleopatra’s Needle. “I nearly fell off that once; they say it’s jinxed.” He won’t say how much he earns, but admits he likes his job.

“I enjoy working outdoors, it’s well paid, and let’s face it – I’ll never be made redundant.”

Lonely deaths officer: ‘Everyone deserves a dignified funeral’

Alice Beard, 58, a Hackney council employee, is responsible for finding the relatives of people who die alone – often in squalid surroundings – and arranging their funerals.

She and her colleague Debbie Simms, 36, each earn just over £20,000 a year. They were the subject of a recent BBC television documentary.

“We deal with up to a dozen deaths a month, and each is disturbing in its own way. We usually don’t see the bodies, they’ve already been taken away.

“Our job is to go into the properties and look through documents, letters, phone bills anything which might give a clue as to who the dead person’s relations are. Sometimes we go into a place and there’s nothing but a dirty mattress on the floor. It’s distressing when you can’t find any family or friends at all – that’s often the case with the homeless. And it’s particularly upsetting when young people die this way. But you can’t afford to get too emotionally involved.

“The satisfying part of the job is when you’ve managed to trace family members, and see people who’ve lived isolated and lonely lives go off in their coffins with flowers on them. Everyone deserves a dignified funeral.”