Woodworking Life – Part 2

At the tender age of sweet sixteen, and after a couple of years of making toast holders, magazine racks, cuckoo clocks, and music boxes, it was time to face the big, scary, real world.  The end of my schooling was coming up fast.  I hadn’t learned much apart from wood shop, drawing and some geography – well, that’s not quite true –  I learned I was useless at math, algebra, English and P.E.

So I applied to join the Royal Navy.  I thought that a journey around the world would be better than being stuck in Glasgow, in the cold and rain.  My dreams were of faraway places with palm trees and dusky maidens – a lot more appealing than my current situation.

My navy application came and I was showing everyone my forms when my grandfather, his cigarette still stuck to his lip, suggested that what I really needed was to get a real job.  Actually it sounded more like, “vot the f*ck is dis shite, come vith me” and he grabbed my arm and pulled me out the door.

He lived in the Gorbals, an area in Glasgow built in Victorian times and probably one of the worst slums in the world.  There were some nice stone buildings, but it was still comprised of slums characterized by lots of poverty and people hanging out of windows watching others below. Every time I watch the movie Oliver, I think of Gorbals. There were all kinds of people and stores – Indians, Pakistanis, Jews, Chinese, Poles, all speaking with this weird Glasgow accent on top of their native ones. I remember queuing up for freshly made bagels – not like today’s bagels. These things were like rocks, but very tasty none-the-less.

So, off my grandfather and I went, walking for miles until we came to this little Joiner’s shop on Oxford Street. The sign outside read Alexander Allan and Son, Joiners. We went in to the tiny office and a small, receded glass door slid open and an old man’s face appeared.  He seemed to be about a hundred years old to me and, with his small pinched face and small round spectacles, he looked like an owl.  “Yes” he said.  “Can I help you?” My grandfather, in his best posh accent said, “Dis boy is a great voodvorker and spends all his time vorking on making tings, you should apprentice him.  You vill not be sorry”.

The owl said to wait a minute, and then opened a door at the side of the office and another man came out. This guy was tall, handsome in a movie star way, had wavy red hair, and introduced himself as Sandy Allan.  He was the owner of the business and the owl was his dad. “Come with me” he said, and we followed him into the workshop. What a place – filled with great big benches with men working at them – doing woodworking and making furniture.  They were making frames and other things from yellow and dark tan woods.  I was mesmerized.

We went on a tour of the shop.  One side was the bench room filled with a wonderful collection of beech wood, Rosewood, steel Mathieson and Spiers planes, sets of fine paring chisels with honey colored handles, Ebony squares, and marking gauges with beautiful brass plate work. The other half of the shop was the machine room.  It contained beautiful, big green painted Wadkin machines, and was filled with the smell of wood, sawdust, and animal glue – which immediately struck a chord in me.  It was like my grandfather’s shop where I had spent my earlier years, only cleaner, less dark and dingy, and more organized.

After the tour, we sat in the office and Sandy agreed to employ me for a month to see how I worked out. If I worked out well, I would start an apprenticeship as a Joiner.  My wages would be according to Woodworker’s Union rates and my apprenticeship would be four-years long, with three of those years as part of a day-release program at a Technical College. Money for tools would be taken from my weekly wages. Sandy would help me purchase the necessary tools to start work the following week.

I left the shop with my grandfather and was giddy with excitement.  A real job, with real wages, working with wood and real tools!  I forgot all about the navy.
About a week later, I started my new job.  It was a bitter cold October Monday morning.  I stood outside before 8:00am shivering with my new workmates – then the door opened and we were inside.  It was very cold in the shop.  There was no central heating – just little paraffin oil heaters.  I still remember the smell of those fumes.

I was introduced to the other workers and was assigned a master joiner as my mentor.  His name was Hughie McGeady – a small, wiry, dark haired guy.  My very first question to him was, “Are you Irish?”  “What if I am”, he replied, and I said, “Well my granny calls irish people Gubs, (even though she was Irish herself, she thought the Irish talked a lot – gub meaning mouth).  “Well”, he said, “You bring your granny down here, and I’ll gub her”, (the meaning of gub here is of being smacked in the mouth).

And that, at the age of sixteen and knowing nothing about the real world, was the my first day of a very, very, long apprenticeship with Mr. Hughie McGeady, who was, for all intents and purposes, very Irish indeed, as I was about to find out.

Short Film Clip of Gorbals 1950’s (Outskirts of Glasgow)

One Commment

  1. Darleen Corbett says:

    Quite nostalgic. It reminds me of a miniature Marysville, California back in the same decade. I see why you chose to establish your lovely business here. Maybe this is what the city needs to resurrect and prosper. I send you the luck of the Irish. Cheers!

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