A Week Spent Roofing With An Ex-Armed Robber

There was never a dull day on the roofs: one afternoon you're an unlikely sex symbol for a women's prison, the next you're in on a secret assassination attempt.
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The rooftop blues; the early yearsDuring the Thirsty Years; when the I really thought I was Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson all rolled into one, I worked as a roofer in London.

From being an unlikely sex-symbol to a captive audience (while slating a women’s prison wing) to putting a finish on the roof of the HSBC tower one fateful morning in September 2001; the roofing game has not been without its memorable moments.

On any given morning, I could be sent to landscape an investment bank’s roof between the dome of St Paul’s and the Old Bailey’s blind justice or just as easily, I could be dressing lead or Westmoreland slate up on the spire of the Liberal club in Whitehall.

But of course, it wasn’t just the work which was satisfying (very well paid and all), the company was never dull.  Working at close quarters in a dangerous environment is where you really find out who your friends are and we were tight. If you went to Central Casting and asked for ‘a rum bunch’, me and my Deptford muckers would have passed the audition, flying colours.

But every now and then, you would find yourself on a job that might run for a fortnight, just you and one, maybe two other geezers. That kind of job could go either way. Without the whole mob around, you might find that you just don’t get on one on one, that’s tough; the days just stretch out. On the other hand, you might actually really hit it off.

I was once sent to a job for a week with one of our roof-coaters (Let’s call him ‘Eddie Reilly’) so I could pick up the knack off him. At first I wasn’t keen. Before roofing, Eddie had been a blagger (armed robber) and before that, he’d served with the Paras in Norn Iron (three tours apparently).

These also appear to have been the main influences on his man-management techniques; one of the younger apprentices had apparently been reduced to tears by a Reilly barracking the previous week.

But if I picked up the roof-coating, I’d be on a better daily rate and even able to bid for price work so I sucked it up and turned up in Belgravia the following sunny Monday morning.

The sun was at its highest and empty-bellied brandy was working its magic. Eddie Reilly’s sunburned face then cracked into a happy drunken grin: “You know what mate? I’ll fuckin’ never understand you Irish!”

Even before arriving on site, I’d started the charm offensive which I hoped would make the job run smoother; I found a greasy spoon near the job and picked up two teas, two sugars. It worked surprisingly well. Maybe it was a combination of sunshine and free tea but Eddie, with a face like a London road map, was actually smiling.

He was a good coater and taught well, so I picked it easily. The week passed swiftly and industriously. By Friday breakfast, it was looking like ‘job-anock’ for lunchtime (job done, finish early for a full day’s pay). As we finished the snagging and stowed our gear for pick-up, Eddie produced a naggin of brandy and looking out over Belgravia, we toasted our roof’s long and leak-free life.

As the warm brandy and warmer weather work together, Eddie, almost unbidden, started telling war stories.

“You know about the Troubles, you might have heard about this one,” Reilly said to me before another sip of brandy. This was his cue to recount his part in the events of a January morning back in 1981.

Eddie maintained that he had been part of a team manning a covert observation post close to the house of Bernadette McAliskey in Coalisland County Tyrone.  What he then told me about this infamous UFF assassination attempt was depressingly unsurprising.

In reference to the UFF hit-squad, Eddie simply had this to say: “We were told to let them in and to let them back out again. So we did and then we had a patrol pick up the shooters on the way out of the operational area.”

As he said this, Eddie squinted out over the ornate chimney pots, looking somehow unburdened.  The sun was at its highest and empty-bellied brandy was working its magic. Eddie Reilly’s sunburned face then cracked into a happy drunken grin: “You know what mate? I’ll fuckin’ never understand you Irish!”

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