My Life 2.1

 A History of My Erections

 (1970 - )

 My first ‘real’ job involved putting up masts round the coasts of Britain. They were built to a fixed design, but in each case, I was required to calculate that the particular configuration would stand up to 120mph winds and half an inch of ice. I had never had any training for that - I had to pick it all up from manuals and asking others. That suited me, as I have always learned everything, since school, by myself. The masts were slim, hundred-foot things, held up by three sets of wire stays attached to enormous concrete blocks in the ground. Apart from the mast sections, I had to order all the bolts and metalwork, and get it delivered to the site. A local gang built the thing, under the control of an engineer who was my equivalent. First I would call up the drawings of the radio station, and pencil in the foundations. Then I’d take a trip to the site and mark it out with pegs – the centre block on which the mast sat, and the three stay blocks. I’d stand at the theodolite, waving my arms, and my assistant would wander around with a height stick, knocking in pegs as we rolled out the measuring tape. I had to measure all the ground level differences as the wire stays would have to be different lengths to fit properly.

 This sounds pretty boring, I admit. But perhaps I should add that the sites I visited ranged from St. Just (Land’s End) to Wick, the Shetlands, Orkneys, Outer Hebrides and all down the coasts each side. Yeah! Seaside towns like Ilfracombe, Niton (IOW). What fun I had! See, I HAD to go myself to make sure the mast was laid out properly, it was my responsibility. They paid top mileage rate for me to use my own car (full of theodolite, protective clothes, etc). So much so, I could buy any (old, second- hand) car I wanted, and still come out with a profit. For a couple of years I had a Rover 3.5 Saloon, then I got an MGB. And I also got days off! I would drive to Newcastle, or Ilfracombe, do my 3-4 hours work, then drive back. Sure, I arrived home at midnight, but I had the whole of the next day off. I loved it – never liked to be tied down. It was my job alone, and my boss left me to it. I decided where I went next and why. My boss just gave me a list of places to bung up the masts for the next year.

 We had a station near Newcastle. I’d done all the marking out, the blocks had been placed, ready for erection. One day the phone rang in my London office.



‘Er, we got a problem…’

It turned out the Drawing Office had turned up a plan that showed the local farmer owned half the field, and there was no fence, just a couple of overgrown markers. Shit!

 The farmer was quite nice, but one block was on his land.

‘What do I do?’ I asked the gang boss.

‘Explosives.’ he muttered.

‘Go ahead.’ I signed his order.

It worked well, when I went back a month later, you could not see any sign of the errant block, and they had the new ones in place. I breathed a sigh of relief.

 Next spring, I went up again to ‘tune up’ one of the masts for a different transmitter. I stood with the Station Manager. In the farmer’s field the grass was even, knee height. In the middle was a great bright green patch a metre square, growth towering head height.

‘Oh, its OK.’ he said, ‘the farmer thinks it’s quite funny.’

I’m glad he did, it cost a bloody fortune!

But it’s also why you should never bury a body in a field.


We had to ‘tune up’ masts to the frequency of the transmitter. It took four blokes a day or so, as they did it ‘by ear’ – a twiddle here, a twiddle there. This annoyed me – one: it seemed wasteful and lengthy, two: I couldn’t go off on my own and do it, which pinned me down. Then I found this machine. It cost a bit. Someone else had bought it for some special job and didn’t understand it, but I loved it! They let me pinch it. After that, my assistant and I tuned the masts up in an hour or so, me gazing at my screen inside the station, and he, on the walkie-talkie, moving connections on a big copper coil in a box at the foot of the mast. It was like the ‘Golden Shot’

‘Up a bit.’

‘Clear!’ (his being close disturbed the tuning)

‘Down a bit’


‘Up a bit’

‘Left a bit’

‘Bingo! Pack up, we’re done!’

 When the transmitter boys came along a week later, they just plugged in and off they went. Truth is, I was just lazy. I hate hanging around, waiting for other people to piss about.


 The bad thing was, I went out in all weathers. I stood for five hours on a hilltop on the main island of Shetland. In that time, we had bright sunshine, rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog… all the time I watched the sun process across the smoked eyepiece of my theodolite, stopwatch in hand, calling out bearings and marking the time. Because it was winter, the sun was low, so I needed masses of readings to get a reliable bearing.

Then I trekked down to Lerwick library. ‘Got a copy of Burdwood’s Tables?’


Captain Burdwood produced a book of tables that allow you to work out the bearing by the declination of the sun (how high it is) on a certain date, a certain time, viewed from a certain latitude. But first! You need to know the ‘hour angle’ of the sun, which fixes the base of the calculation. You ring up the Duty Officer at the Royal Observatory and he tells you. That’s his job. Haven’t done it for nearly thirty years now – ‘twas fun!


They were building some big antennas for the oil rigs. The contractors were set, and ready to pour concrete – millions of pounds of contract were rolling. They were sixty foot ‘billboard’ antennas – great sheets of curved metal in the sky. The theory was, you pointed it where the oil rigs were and blasted a signal. They were too far away over the curve of the earth, so the signal shot over their heads, but a bit scattered down from the sky and they could communicate. BUT, if you were off the horizontal bearing, you were buggered.

 ‘John?’ It wasn’t my department. But I had become the ‘Burdwood-meister’

‘Will you just go up and do an independent check on the bearing? I’ll buy you a pint.’

 Anyway, so I say to this contractor’s bloke. ‘Five degrees EAST?’ I’d calculated and re-calculated. I had some bad news. He’d done it from a map, from local landmarks. I’d done it from the sun – less accurate, but: ‘Sorry mate. I get about five degrees WEST’

 Months later, after they’d re-aligned the antennas, they poured the concrete. I got quite a lot more than a pint in thanks.


The northernmost island of the Shetlands is called Unst. On it is a lighthouse called ‘Muckle Flugga’ – means ‘Big Rock’. There is also an RAF base called ‘Saxa Vord’.

We put up a few masts there. It was the 70’s. The oil boom had started. I used to get on a plane at Heathrow, a Viscount – twin propeller airliner – later by jet. Up to Aberdeen (Viscounts still flew from there even later) and to Sumburgh, on the southern tip of Zetland, the main Island of the Shetlands. Here, in a tiny terminal, we had some lunch, chatting to the two kindly ladies who served the food, then at 13.00, we joined the flight to Unst. We stood on a scale with our bags, then got in the plane – an eight-seater Britton-Norman Islander. When it was windy (it was always windy at Sumburgh), two men held the wings as we taxied out and turned into it to take off.  

 The pilot and I had a joke. He said ‘Stop banging your head on my roof.’ I said ‘Fly properly.’

 We stayed in the Officer’s Mess. My assistant stayed in the Sergeant’s Mess. The Officer’s Mess was a bit dull (Except when me and the WingCo broke into the kitchen at 3 o’clock in the morning of the longest day to make coffee). We had to be invited to the Sergeant’s Mess, but when we were, we could get bacon butties with our drink in the lively bar, or (better still) black pudding and raw onion ones. Yummm.

 The sea there, when you fly over, is like the Caribbean. Clear, turquoise water, white sand, bays, little islands. Only difference is the temperature.




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