The amazing life of Britain's oldest floorlayer - Chapter Six
LAST month, we detailed how Keith had befriended Derek Rideout who worked at a coffee shop in Nottingham and who was also a part-time carpet-fitter. When Keith fell on hard times after losing his business partner William Jones*, he and Derek moved into a flat in Park Road Number 64 in Nottingham for £3 a week.
Because of a shortage of money, times weren’t easy. ‘Derek and I scraped around for carpet fitting work but were more out of work than in work,’ says Keith. ‘We found it difficult to pay the rent. The only time we had a good meal was every Sunday lunchtime when we’d go to Derek’s parent’s pub, The Grey Mare on Farnborough Road, Clifton, which was sadly demolished in February 2014. The luxury of a Sunday roast fattened us up for the rest of the week.’
One memory from those days particularly sticks in Keith’s mind. ‘One day Derek, me and two other lads were walking through a park and we hadn’t had anything substantial to eat for three days. Another guy was walking towards us.’
Keith asked the stranger if they could have a shilling because there was a bread van nearby and they hadn’t eaten. The man obliged and Keith and his friends bought a loaf of bread (sliced, as that had only just come into fashion), and continued their walk, munching on the bread as they went.
At their flat, they occasionally had other friends staying over. ‘A Greek lad used to visit for a few days, leave, then weeks later he’d return and stay a few days before leaving again. He didn’t tell us what his mysterious job was, but we eventually found out - he was a card gambler on cruise ships. After a few months, he stopped coming by and we lost touch.’ Another friend was a trainee architect.
When they weren’t looking for work, the men played cards, specifically Spite and Malice.
According to the website pagat.com, Spite and Malice is:
A kind of competitive patience (solitaire) game for two players. It’s also known as Cat and Mouse. Both players try to be the first to get rid of a pile of ‘pay-off cards’ by playing them to centre stacks which are begun with an ace and continue in upward sequence to a king. This isn’t a physical race - in Spite and Malice the players take turns. Spite and Malice can easily be adapted for any number of players.
‘The game could last for up to two or three days,’ says Keith. ‘If you’ve just completed your hand, it could be another 30 minutes before it’s your turn again. During one of these lulls in the game on a Sunday lunchtime, I decided to open the skylight window, climb up with a bucket of water and leathers and give it a good scrub.’
He told his flatmates to give him a shout when it was histurn so he could return to the game. After climbing through the skylight, he closed it behind him and started to clean the six panels of glass that made up the skylight. ‘I’d been up there about 10 minutes when the bucket slipped from my grasp and clattered onto the roof,’ recalls Keith.
‘I think Keith has fallen off the roof,’ said Derek. He got to his feet to see if his friend was okay.
Peter, one of their friends who was deeply engrossed in the card game said: ‘Sit down and play your hand, Derek!’
‘Now you can see why the game was called Spite and Malice,’ Keith chuckles.
In the flat was an electric meter that accepted shillings so when electricity ran out, a shilling needed to be placed in the meter. But as the men were always skint, Keith used linoleum to cut out shilling-shaped pieces which fooled the meter, meaning the occupants always had light, regardless of their financial situation.
One Sunday, the two landladies came to empty the contents from the money container and were scandalised to discover one solitary shilling accompanied by several pieces of shilling-shaped linoleum. They demanded to know what was going on. Keith tried to explain that money was a scarce resource, but to no avail. The lads were evicted.
Afterwards, Derek turned to his flatmates in exasperation: ‘Which absolute pillock put the shilling in the meter?’
ALTHOUGH work was difficult to come by, it wasn’t non-existent. Keith took Derek to Ken Roberts’ carpet wholesale warehouse in Basford, where Ken gave them some work. Keith then saw an advert for a floorlayer while he was working for a Wolverhampton firm which had a contract for laying woodblock flooring at the University of Nottingham.
‘The floorlayer drove from Wolverhampton in the morning with six floorlayers in a van,’ says Keith. ‘With this company, I learned how to prepare woodblock flooring before it was machined off. We completed the halls of residence at the university, which took about five months, as well as the big halls, where woodblock flooring was machined, sanded and sealed afterward.’
As the contract drew to an end, Keith began to plan for his next job. There was work available, but it meant he’d have to travel to Birmingham and Wolverhampton, so he demurred and continued to look for jobs in Nottingham. Then he got a lucky break – a guy visited the university looking for local floorlayers, so Keith took his name and number.
Wolverhampton-based Lloyd Birch, which specialised in parquet flooring, had a local branch. ‘In this instance, the bases and the tops of the parquet flooring were glued,’ says Keith. ‘The idea was you laid all your bases with glue on, ensuring not to kneel on them. Then you laid on a herringbone pattern which was tapped with a rubber mallet. These stuck to the floor after which the next one would be laid, and so on. Once a few had been laid, you could kneel on them.
‘The idea was that if you decided to move you could roll it all up in a ball and take it with you,’ explains Keith. ‘But what they didn’t realise was that by the time you’d done that, you couldn’t get it out the door.’
After Keith had been doing the job for between four and five months, he reacted to an advert for a carpet-fitter job at Courtes Contract Flooring in West Bridgeford. He said he’d laid sheet lino, woodblock and carpet and was hired on that basis. For six months in Long Eaton, he laid rubber flooring (‘you place the contact adhesive on the floor, then you lay the rubber, and it’s got to be exact because you can’t pull it up’).
But once that contract was over, Keith was at a loose end again.
A FEW years earlier in 1959, Keith, aged 25, had begun dating Justine King*, who was 17 at the time. It was the first time he’d fallen in love, and the bug bit him hard. He met her through one of the floorlayers he’d had to lay off when he was working with William Jones. This chap had dated Justine and was staggered by the size of the cocktail cabinet in her parents’ home. He described it to Keith who was so overcome with curiosity that he asked Justine on a date just so he could get a glimpse of the cabinet. But it ended up as a serious relationship.
Justine’s father Michael* was a self-made entrepreneur who’d dabbled in all manner of businesses and was, as Keith describes it, ‘in the scrap game’.
Scrap metal dealing worked like this: government farmed out contracts worth £190 per ton of copper. The people who bought these contracts could then sell them on for disposal at £240 per ton, making £50 per ton. Unfortunately for Michael King, the scrap market bottomed out and he could only get £160 per ton through the contract.
However, he was still contractually committed to buying at £190 per ton, causing him a loss of £30 per ton. If Michael had the extra money to store the copper and wait for the price to rise, he would have recovered his money, but he didn’t have storage.
Overnight, he went bankrupt.
‘He lost everything including his house, his racehorses and his hotel in Blackpool,’ says Keith. ‘And when you went bankrupt in those days, your name was really blackened. These days, you don’t suffer the same besmirching but back then it was a stigma and was very difficult to shake.’
‘Michael knew I’d laid floors and carpets, so he joined me for a while. I was the floorlayer and Michael was my assistant. It was OK, but work dried up. So Michael made a deal with a millionaire car dealer, Edgar Ashcroft*.
He said: ‘Listen Edgar, I’ve just gone bankrupt, and you’re a millionaire. I have these demolition contracts so let me do all the graft, buying and selling scrap, and you put in the money and a 5-tonne lorry and we’ll split the profits.’
Michael and Edgar shook on it.
‘It was a gentlemen’s agreement,’ says Keith. ‘That’s how things were done in those days, none of this ‘my solicitor will look over your contract’ nonsense, like things are done these days.’
So, the deal was done and with no driving license, Keith was driving the lorry up-and-down the country, picking up the materials Michael had bought at government auctions.
‘When I wasn’t laying floors or carpets, I was scrap gaming with Michael,’ says Keith. ‘I’d do a lot of things to earn a crust.’
The auctions were held on disused airfields; government wanted everything auctioned off so it could return the land to the farming community. One lot was bought at an airfield near York, where Keith was to begin his short career in demolition. During this time he learned everything there was to know about Nissen huts, cabling and the scrap business.
‘What wealthy people would do was buy up the buildings on government airfields because the aerodromes were built on farmland in the war and afterwards the farmers wanted it back,’ says Keith. ‘So, the buildings – aerodromes, aircraft hangars, Nissen huts etc – had to be demolished. Michael went to the auctions and bid for the Nissen huts which were made of corrugated metal sheeting. The galvanised sheets were taken to cattle markets where the farmers paid £1 per sheet for them.’
The reason for their popularity with farmers was that they were weatherproof and didn’t rust. ‘With respect to the buildings we demolished, we removed the doors, window frames and timber joists floorboards. The cabling was scrapped as copper while all the other items of timber were taken from York to the farm in Epperstone, where they were sent to farms throughout the UK for sale.’
This demolition work happened during winter 1961.
‘We bought the demolition rights for the buildings plus overhead and underground cabling for the copper content,’ recalls Keith. ‘Copper was a good price – cheap to buy but you got a good return when you scrapped it.
‘We stayed at the Hoylake Hotel, then drove west, travelling up at 6am, picked up the lorry from Epperstone and drove it up the A1 to York. Michael hired a digger and driver, and using survey maps we located the underground cables. Once the digger reached the cabling, I jumped into the trench and hacked the 6in thick cabling with an axe as it was encased in lead.’
The digger then lowered a bucket into the trench. ‘I wrapped a heavy chain around the cable twice and the two steel rings on each end of the chain were hooked onto the claws of the digger bucket. The driver reversed, pulling the cabling out of the ground. Every 20ft I hacked through cable with the axe and continued the operation until all the cabling had been dug out. Each evening, the digger then dragged the cut cables to a hangar where it was stored. It was later loaded onto a hired British road service lorry (BRS) and taken to the scrap dealers who weighed it.
Keith received £10 a week for his efforts.
One day, Michael asked Edgar why he drove around in an old Austin ‘full of body rot’.
‘You could afford a Bentley,’ said Michael.
Edgar’s business partner Roger said: ‘Edgar would buy 100 Bentleys but only if he knew he could resell them.’
Keith remembers Roger with a smile. ‘He was a character. When he was a kid he had the burning desire to make money. So, he went to Notts racecourse with a bucket of cold water that had been treated with colouring. He sold the concoction to racegoers as lemonade until the police were tipped off. However, after they confiscated Roger’s bucket, he simply found another one in the ladies’ toilet, filled it up with water from the water-jump on the racetrack, added his colourant, and continued to sell the contents for 2p a pop.’
‘It must have tasted strange because they took one sip and spat it out,’ Roger told Keith. ‘But it didn’t bother me because I sold it all and left the racecourse with jangling pockets.’
Working with Michael was a privilege for Keith. He learned a lot about business from his fiancé’s father. ‘He didn’t hesitate to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in during the building demolitions – he was a real grafter in every sense of the word.’
AS mentioned, Keith hadn’t lost touch with flooring. He and Derek still did odd jobs, and in fact had teamed up with one John Butler.
John, only 17 at the time, was working a pub managed by Alf Rideout when he met Derek. ‘He’d come around and say he had carpet-fitting jobs and asked whether I’d like to join him on my off days,’ John recalls. ‘I enjoyed, working mostly with body carpet and sewing hundreds of yards of it.’
Derek called up Keith for hard flooring jobs. ‘He was the best at hard flooring back then and to this day, remains the best hard floorlayer I’ve worked with,’ says John.
What made him the best? ‘He was just very good at floorlaying and he was strong. He could carry rolls of lino and boxes of tiles. In those days, adhesive came in 5 litre drums, you had to heave them up, and Keith could do that with ease. He walked into a room and knew exactly what needed to be done just by looking at it, without even measuring. It was as if he was born to it.’
Derek had been in the Queen’s Guard, and as such both he and Keith were seen as military veterans and clearly looked up to by John.
‘Derek had a cheeky smile and was great fun – in fact both he and Keith were a laugh,’ says John. ‘We went out every night after working with The Bell Inn on Market Square, where a Colonel Judson was the landlord, being a favourite hangout.’
This ancient pub was established about 1437 and is said, along with Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem and Ye Olde Salutation Inn, to be the oldest pub in Nottingham. In 1982 the pub it became a Grade II listed building.
Afterwards, the men would descend on Yates Wine Lodge, which was closed earlier this year and replaced with a Slug & Lettuce branch. ‘They had sherry on tap at the bar,’ says John. ‘We’d socialise with students from the University of Nottingham and got to know several trainee architects there.’
But Keith was a hard taskmaster, John recalls. ‘He worked through the night on jobs, then go straight to the next one. He had an incredible work ethic.’
In early 1963 at Courtes Contract Flooring, while laying lino and thermoplastic tiles, sheet lino and rubber flooring on contact adhesive, Keith was tasked with training up two young lads who were learning very quickly. When Keith was soon thereafter let go from the company, he suspected he’d become surplus to requirements. It was a big blow, but it was about to be followed by an even bigger one.
On 14 April 1963, exactly two weeks before Justine King’s 21st birthday, Keith pitched up on the doorstep of her parents’ house to see how she was doing. ‘She looked me straight in the eye and told me she didn’t want to see me again.’
Keith says Justine didn’t give him a reason for breaking their engagement, but it was a shock he hadn’t seen coming.
‘I was devastated, in emotional turmoil,’ says Keith. ‘I felt as though my world had ended. Anybody who hasn’t experienced true heartbreak can’t understand what it’s like until it happens to them. I couldn’t eat or sleep and cried my heart out. Being sacked then dumped in the space of a few weeks – well, you begin to understand why people contemplate suicide.’
When I met Keith, he hadn’t seen Justine for more than half a century, but he still remembered her birthdate.
Unfortunately, the break-up meant that Keith’s association with Michael also ended. A week after Justine’s decision, Keith was offered a contract by a wholesaler, but he had no money to buy the flooring products he needed. He phoned her parents, hoping he could borrow money to help him out, but they declined.
‘That was the end of that,’ said Keith. ‘But that’s life. And it taught me that time is a great healer.’
KEITH needed a job – and pronto. So, he went to The Peach Tree public house opposite The Playhouse in Nottingham city centre and called for the landlord, Howard.
The Peach Tree had history. Between 1761 and 1981, it had retained its name but is today named Lilly Langtry’s after the Victorian actress Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), who appeared at the nearby Theatre Royal in 1885.
‘Do you want a barman?’ Keith asked Howard.
Howard looked at Keith and laughed. ‘You what?’ he asked and walked off.
A couple of days later, Keith approached him again. ‘Howard, do you want a barman?’ But Howard rebuffed him again by walking away.
Third time was the charm, though. About 10 days later, Keith made one final attempt. ‘Howard, I’ve asked you before, do you need a barman?’
‘Are you serious?’ said Howard. Keith told him he was.
‘I’ve got no work coming in. I know I’ve never done bar work, but I need some money.’
‘Oh,’ said Howard. ‘If that’s the case, start tonight.’
Howard took Keith upstairs and gave him a white jacket, after which he put him behind the bar with a woman to teach him how to mix drinks and serve the clientele.
Keith worked the evening shift between 7-11pm as well as weekends, while during the day he continued to do the odd flooring job. After three weeks’ training, Howard asked Keith to manage the bar, and he got to know the regulars.
‘I knew as they walked in what their drinks were, and before they got to the bar I had the top off the bottle, and I had the drink ready for their lady. The Irish lads came in – and they all wanted Guinness. ‘How many?’ Keith asked them.
‘Twelve,’ they answered.
‘They were hard as nails and they hung together with the Scots,’ Keith recalls. ‘I knew them for a long time. The Irish worked in the trenches and fields – unpleasant work – so they were more than capable of looking after themselves. One of them came up to me and said: ‘Keith, if you ever have a problem, let us know and we’ll sort it!’
He said: ‘Thank you very much.’
‘Don’t forget. If we’re not here and someone causes problems, let us know we’ll sort it.’
Keith thought: ‘Great, I’ve got my own protection squad.’
They came in each night and left after about an hour.
Keith also got to know the women who frequented the bar. At first, he didn’t want anything to do with them. The heartbreak he’d suffered over Justine was still too raw. But after about nine months, he realised that the women were drawn to him – they wanted someone non-threatening to whom they could offload their problems.
‘I became a therapist,’ he says. ‘If the husband was up to no good, they’d share their problems. It’s like psychology – and I studied it years ago – because of the bar counter between us, they felt protected and so they’d open up. They’d tell me the most intimate secrets and problems. Sometimes I was too busy to listen, but when I could I was very patient. I learned a lot about women and romance which I hadn’t known or understood before.’
Trying to forget Justine wasn’t easy, though. On two occasions, she came to the bar with her new boyfriend. The second time, Keith asked someone to fetch Howard.
‘What’s wrong, Keith?’ he asked.
‘Please get my ex and her boyfriend out of here,’ Keith said. He was in a state, so Howard did the honourable thing.
It was around this time that Keith made the acquaintance of Jack Kennedy who’d been a featherweight boxer in Ireland, and who was now an osteopath.
‘Alf Rideout, Derek’s father, was a bouncer at the dancehalls where he got to know Jack,’ says Keith. ‘Jack was related to the US Kennedys who’d originally come from Ireland.’
Keith and Derek had been carpet-fitting in a house when Keith, who was carrying a TV set, felt a sudden pain in his left groin. Later, he was working at The Peach Tree when the pain returned. Over the next two weeks, his left testicle started to swell to the size of an avocado and felt like it was constantly being twisted.
He was cleaning the glass shelves in the bar when the pain became unbearable. He fell forward, bringing glasses crashing down around him. ‘Howard came running into the bar, thinking there was a fight,’ says Keith. ‘But the pain had subsided, so I cleaned up the mess.’
Soon after, Keith was at a coffee bar with his new girlfriend when he said: ‘I don’t feel good.’ He took a taxi to Nottingham City Hospital and explained his problem to a doctor.
‘The doctor went out and a nurse came in, took a look, then another one came in, and I suddenly realised what was happening. My grotesquely enlarged testicle was such an unusual sight that they were going back to their colleagues saying, ‘You should see how much his parts have swollen.’ All three nurses then came in with the doctor who wanted to give me a support to wear.’
But despite his discomfort, Keith’s sense of humour was still intact. ‘Oh, I don’t want it cured,’ he told them. ‘I want you to make the other one the same size.’
Once he was out of hospital, Derek said: ‘I’m going to take you to Jack Kennedy.’
Jack lived in a small two-up, two-down terrace house in Baseford. He answered the knock at his door with: ‘What the bloody hell do you want?’
‘My mate has a medical problem. Can you look at him?’ said Derek.
Jack invited them in and said: ‘What about my door-strips, Derek? You promised to do them a year ago.’
‘I tell you what,’ said Derek. ‘While you’re sorting Keith out, I’ll go fetch them and sort them out for you right now.’
Derek shot off in his van, leaving Keith in Jack’s hands – literally. ‘He sat me in a large armchair and, on hearing my issue, placed a finger on the inside of my groin and with his other hand he placed another finger behind my knee,’ Keith recalls.
‘He felt around, then he went behind my ankle and down to my toes. He was one of the top osteopaths in the world even though he lived in a humble dwelling. He said: ‘I know what the problem is.’ He asked me to lift my legs and reassured me I wouldn’t feel a thing. While holding the inside of my thigh, he pulled my leg three times.’
Jack told Keith that he looked at the human frame the way a mechanic looks at a car engine. ‘I see the wiring in your body and what you’ve got there are the guiders and veins etc. What’s happened is that they lay side by side and by lifting the TV, they’ve criss-crossed and become trapped. One’s caused the pain and the other’s caused the swelling. It will go down now.’
And within three weeks, it was back to normal.
AFTER two years as a barman at The Peach Tree, Keith experienced more upheaval as Howard moved on and was replaced by a new landlord who asked Keith to leave. So, Keith called on Derek, asking if he knew of any bar jobs going.
‘Speak to my dad,’ said Derek, whose parents managed The Rutland Arms on Wollaton Street. There, Keith got a new job where he was reacquainted with many of his Irish friends.
‘What are you doing here?’ they joked when they saw him again.
Some nights after work, Keith headed to The Goldsmith Arms, where he knew the manageress, Sally. The pub was just a few hundred yards from police headquarters, where Keith knew several policemen. He’d gone to school with some and others he knew because his father had been a policeman.
‘One evening at about 11pm, my girlfriend and I were standing a bit away from the bar chatting to others when I became aware someone was intently staring at me, even though my back was turned to the ‘starer’,’ says Keith.
‘I turned around and saw a lady looking at me, as if she was in a trance. After a few seconds, she looked away, as if she was embarrassed she’d been caught.
Keith wasn’t to know it at the time, but the ‘starer’ was Daisy Penman who worked with Sally but who was also a renowned clairvoyant. The police often consulted her when people went missing or when they needed to find a body in murder cases.
And Daisy had been watching Keith from afar because she had had supernatural insight into something that was about to happen in his life.