IT ALL STARTED IN THIS DOORWAY
Revisiting the very doorstep on which my working life began.
PART 1 - SPARKY
In my view, a wholesome, grounded and loving start in life really is important and I was incredibly lucky to be blessed with an idyllic, solid, working-class family upbringing in a beautiful seaside town surrounded by parks and beaches. However, childhoods eventually end and one autumn day, it was time for the next step towards adult life.
Fifty years ago (16th October 1972 to be precise) as a skinny 15 year old lad with baggy jeans and long, brown, 'Noddy Holder' style hair, I stood in this very doorway in the pretty town of Sandwich. It was then the offices of Contrast Electrical Services.
I'd spent the summer after leaving school on a 'wacky' school trip to Switzerland and then mainly laying on Margate main sands. September came and the weather started changing. Come October it was too cold to lay around on beaches any longer and I felt I really should finally ditch my newspaper round and start hunting for some 'proper' work.
Things were very different back then and within days I found myself attending interviews for several jobs and then being offered three different craft apprenticeships. It's true, in 1972 you could leave school at 15 with absolutely no qualifications, go enjoy the summer and when you'd had enough, you could walk into meaningful work and be spoilt for choice.
And so it began, the first day of my electrical career and the first day of my 'adult' working life. My new boss swooped by in the company van, picked me up from that doorway and dropped me at 'Sandwich District Growers' packing store where I 'helped' wire up a very complicated conveyor belt. I say helped, I was basically the tea boy, gofer and sweep.
For the next year or so I found myself using public transport and cadging lifts to numerous domestic, agricultural, horticultural and light industrial premises. I climbed ladders and scaffolding, clambered around in lofts, drilled holes of different sizes in all manner of buildings and pulled cables around many of the most awkward spaces in east Kent. This period appears on my apprenticeship indenture papers as my 'probation' and proved to be an absolutely wonderful introduction to the electrical industry. I truly could not have planned a better grounding in the basics of the trade and the travel was an education in itself.
Then the company ran out of electrical work and I was 'let go'.
They say you make your own luck in life and although I was 'let go' on a Thursday (pay day) I went to my electrical day-release course at Canterbury College on the Friday, truly believing I would just be saying goodbye to classmates and tutors. But when the head of department heard of my predicament he called me out of class and into his office. He then handed me his phone, simply saying "it's for you Harty".
And so it was, a company in Margate (my home town) were seeking an apprentice and the year or so I'd spent learning the basics across our local geography would save them a year teaching me the same. The fact I'd attended college that Friday also appeared to show my commitment and I started with Rix Bros Ltd at 8am on Monday morning.
No more chasing public transport around the countryside. A signed and sealed, fully indentured apprenticeship, registered with the Joint Industrial Board, overseen by the Construction Industry Training Board and leading to City & Guilds qualifications.
And what an apprenticeship it proved to be! Larger and more technical jobs in offices, commercial premises, schools, colleges, factories and numerous MOD contracts. I truly could not have wished for more varied work and better experiences.
Sparkling new offices for Thanet District Council with a 70's funky new library, new buildings for the Royal School for Deaf Children and refurbishment of Gap House school buildings were just three of the early/mid 70's projects I worked on. Spookily, each of those establishments would feature just as large in my future district and county political careers.
Another stroke of luck: All my training took place in the years the UK was transitioning from imperial to metric measurements and I've had a lifetime blessed with a practical understanding of both systems.
The 70's was a period huge political turmoil and at 17, in the year of the 3 day week and for my own protection I joined the EET&PU. Much later in my career my trade union membership proved to be incredibly helpful for my personal education - especially with practical interpersonal and negotiation skills.
Probably more important than any of the electrical knowledge gained during my apprenticeship was the real-life-common-sense philosophy and wisdom gleaned from the incredible bunch of truly experienced craftsmen I worked with, covering politics, practical economics, religion etc etc.
Hundreds of hours were spent working with those guys at a point in my life when I was 'soaking up and weighing up' everything I saw and heard. The numerous discussions debated at lunchtimes on building sites, in overalls and boiler suits, sitting on cable drums, around tables made from trestles and scaffold boards, proved to be a real-life grounding that would further develop my own personal beliefs and help shape my life.
A telling portrait taken during my 1970's - 'Wolfie Smith' era.
I even had a little black book - hope your name wasn't in it.
I truly believe most of the really good experiences in life take years to absorb. My apprenticeship took more than five, from that day in the doorway in the autumn of 72 through to a truly magical spring day in 78.
On my 21st birthday I didn't just finish my apprenticeship. By this time I was already married with a child and the confirmation from my employer that I would continue employment as an electrician on full electrician's pay, unlocked a mortgage and my/our first family home.
This was just the start of a very varied working life.