Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Saturday, 15 February 2014
My life under falling masonry
A woman was killed yesterday opposite Holburn Tube Station in central London, when several tons of masonry fell onto her car. When masonry gives way after years of hanging on by nothing more than suction, it is shockingly quick.
The weather may have been nothing more than the proverbial straw on the camel's back, because badly secured stonework can be completely detached from its backing by, say, a freeze dating from many years in the past, and a gentle puff of wind and a steady stream of rain is all it takes to fatally loosen its grip.
When we watch the demolition of large buildings by controlled explosions, it all seems to happen in slow-motion. This is partly because of the height of the building and the way that the explosions are set off in series from the bottom up, albeit only milliseconds apart. Then there is the fact that the demolition team have spent several weeks cutting strategic weak points into the structure, and choosing an area like a lift-shaft to tie one floor to another with diagonal steel cables, so that the masonry drags itself inward as it goes down, creating - if successful - a neat but large pile of debris which will take more weeks to cart away.
A single large stone falls from a lower height with horrifying speed when it unexpectedly drops.
I don't think that Bath would have survived for long were it not for its position on Earth - we are not known for our earthquakes. The was a minor one near Bristol a few years ago, and ornaments rattled on the shelves of this Georgian town, but not loud enough to wake me up.
We piled up our six-inch thick, stone buildings to - in some cases - six stories high, 270 years ago. This, now I think of it, maybe one of the main reasons (aside from Jane bloody Austen) that Japanese visitors are so dumbstruck by the place. For hundreds - if not thousands - of years, they have never dared to go higher than two or three stories in wood, before computer-controlled hydraulic foundations were invented.
Many years ago, I was cutting a large hole in the partition wall of an 18th century house, and when it came toward the end, there was one, very large and very stubborn stone left hanging to the ceiling by nothing more than a thin smear of 250 year-old mortar.
I stood in the newly enlarged room, staring at the block - which was almost five feet by twelve inches by six inches, propped up with a single post of wood - wondering how on earth to get it down safely.
If I had whacked the prop away with a sledge-hammer, the stone would have not stopped at the wooden floor, but just gone through it until it settled on the stone floor of the cellar. These were the days before 'Genie Lifts'.
I decided that the only thing for it was to go up on a wooden step-ladder, put my shoulder beneath it and get the owner of the house to whack the prop out upon my signal.
I was more worried about the rungs of the step-ladder breaking with the combined weight of both me and the stone. I weighed about 170 pounds, and the stone weighed about 260.
So I took a deep breath and went up the ladder, put my shoulder under the hard edges and pushed upward with all my might. Then I told the owner to remove the prop, which he did.
I released some of the upward pressure from my shoulder, but it became clear that I was taking no weight at all - the stone refused to budge and I was at the point of no return and rapidly running out of both energy and will-power.
I instructed the owner to hit the actual stone with the wooden prop - and quickly. He started to feebly prod the huge block and I told him to stop messing around and give the thing as hard a whack as he could - there was no point in delaying the inevitable. So he did.
It dropped in an instant, and I lost about six inches in height as my legs buckled. Certain that I was now carrying it, I made my unsteady way down the rickety step-ladder, and the owner struggled to help me get it off my shoulder and onto the floor. I took about ten minutes to get my breath back, and the bruise on my shoulder stayed there for about two weeks.
The next day, the both of us decided to move it out of the way of the opening, and found that - at first attempt - we could not get it more than about two inches off the floor, so we resorted to a sack-truck.
No wonder my neck has seized-up and my posture is permanently distorted. I knew I would pay for this life-style at some point, and that point has now been reached. What a way to make a living, but I actually enjoyed it at the time - it was the challenge, I suppose.