My Landlord knocked on the door a lot that week, I assumed it was because I hadn’t paid any rent for three months, but this time he had seen me so I had to open the front door, there was nowhere to hide. He owned most of the houses in the street, most were victorian steel-workers terraces, all outdoor toilets and problems with rats. This time he suprised me, he offered me work to pay off my debt to him, two weeks hard labour demolishing similar houses in another street that he owned. Of course I agreed.
Over the next week I got very familiar with the daily routine of a Wolverhampton Sikh demolition gang, which for me went something like this:
Arrive at the premises, gather a few hammers and chisels then climb the ladder onto the roof of the two storey building, then watch as the ladder got taken away to be used at some other site.
My task was to sit astride the brick chimney stack and demolish it out from under me, dropping the rubble down the chimney flue as I went, and by so doing make myself an escape route off of the roof.
I learned to love that job, the fresh air and the views over the surrounding rooftops, the knack of knowing just where and at what angle to hit the stack for best effect, the delight of getting the stack down beneath the slope of the Welsh slate roof, knowing that soon I would be able to step into the upstairs level and the first well deserved cup of Builder’s tea.
The rest of the regular workgang were all Sikhs, they had a sort of tea ritual that began once I had descended far enough into the upstairs bedroom to be able to communicate with.
The boss would attract my attention, usually with a hammer or a saw, and shout at me in a very pointed manner “Kipper Tie”, at this everyone would burst out laughing and a chorus of Kipper tie would go up. Then the boss would light the bitumen burner and put the old ten pint enamel pan on to boil. About half an hour later the water would be beginning to simmer, and I would be about half way down the wall with my demolition.
The boss would then pour a whole quarter pound pack of P.G. Tips tea into the water and follow that with half a bag of sugar and two pints of sterilised milk, the one with crown tops.
By the time I had demolished down to floor level the tea had been on a rolling boil for at least half an hour and it was ready for tea break.
Gathered around the huge saucepan, each one of us would dip our mug into the steaming bright orange syrupy tea. The tea was thick and strong, it tasted faintly like caramel with cream and it hit with caffeine and a sugar rush. We only stopped for long enough to drink the mugfull, and ponder life’s small mysteries, like whether ducks prefer chapatis or mother’s pride bread.
That tea gave me the energy to demolish one whole chimney a day, by the end of the fortnight I had demolished a street and paid my rent.
Sadly I have never had such tea again, it relies on scale and just cannot be made by the cupful.
For a cockney like me, saying the words “kipper tie” sounds like saying “Cuppa Tea“ with a deep black country accent.