First Taste of Freedom

I never much enjoyed my grammar school days, and when the opportunity came to escape the drudgery, I grabbed it with both hands; I was like a thirsty man being offered a cold pint of Guinness on a hot summer day. My new-found freedom was delicious.

Before long, I started to study towards an initial Quantity Surveyor qualification, via a correspondence course with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). I was enthusiastic about the subjects and I was free to proceed at my own pace. If I was not ready to take the exam the next year, then the year after or whenever. And in the meantime, I was supporting myself and contributing something to my parent’s household. I was quite content.

And my evenings and weekends were filled with sports, music and girls.

At work, my colleagues rented the gymnasium at the Intermediate School in Coleraine for one night a week, to play indoor football. And in the summer months, we participated in a team in the local works league. Through the winter months, I played rugby with the Coleraine II team, and in my last summer, with the Coleraine Cricket Club.

Soon after finishing school, I joined Bill McKeown’s group, playing drums. We were five – piano, saxophone, guitar, drums and singer. We played at hotels around the north Antrim coast and even had a six week summer season at the Lismara hotel in Portrush, playing six nights a week. I earned much more drumming than at Quantity Surveying, but unless one has real talent, music was not steady work.

When I could, I used to go to one of the local dance halls on a Saturday night: to the Arcadia in Portrush, the Strand in Portstewart, the Boat House in Coleraine and sometimes further afield. If a girl let me walk her back to her house, I almost always managed to miss the last bus, and had a long walk home, often in diabolic weather. It once happened to me in Ballymena, some thirty miles away. I walked several miles before I managed to thumb a lift home.

The last time I saw my mother, not long before she died, she told me that she had never fallen asleep until she knew that I was safely home. I was never aware of my having caused her sleepless nights.

It was Raymond de Zeeuw who had given me the idea of a career in Quantity Surveying. Knowing that he was the leader of the Ballywillan Lifeboys, I offered to help him in any way that I could. They met every Saturday morning. The Lifeboys were the junior branch of the Boy’s Brigade, as the Cub Scouts were the junior branch of the Boy Scouts.

So I taught the boys much of the military discipline that I had learned at Army Cadets. And at the end of the year, they demonstrated their coordinated marching capability in front of their parents and friends at the annual ‘demonstration’. They were brilliant.

I organized football games outside the Church Hall, before and after the formal Lifeboy agenda. We even had a ‘match’ with Portrush Primary School. We lost, but it was great fun.

Raymond once organized an early-summer cruise on Lough Neagh and many of the boys came along.

The Lifeboys, later to be known as the Junior Boys Brigade, on the outing to Lough Neagh in the summer of 1963. In the back row – Yours truly, Rev. Jim Frazer, Brigadier W. W. Boggs, Mrs. T. Stewart (pianist) and Josephine Dallas
And the boys. In the back row – Ian King, Stephen Wilson, Colin Stewart, Nigel Stewart, Victor Sinclair, Alan Cunningham, Ivan Adams. Trevor Martin, Milton Stewart. And in the front row- Archie McNeill, Raymond McNeill, Brian Caldwell, John McNeill, Norman Adams, Peter Stewart and Norman Brewster

The photographs were taken by Raymond de Zeeuw, the leader, and it was Josephine Dallas who recently sent them to me, along with the names of the boys.

By now, most, if not all of the boys will be collecting their pensions, some with families and some perhaps with grandchildren. Sadly, two of them have passed on: Alan Cunningham some years ago, and Archie McNeill, within the past two weeks. They have passed much too soon.

In a field beside Ballywillan Church, one beautiful mid-summer evening, I organized an extra-curricular football game. As usual, Raymond led one side and I led the other. Somehow, I managed to slice my knee open on a sharp stone or a piece of glass and ended up needing several stitches. I still have the scar.

That proved to be my last involvement with the Lifeboys, for soon after, I left for Canada on what has turned out to be the first stage of a journey without end.

I have never lost my taste of freedom.

Dalzell & Campbell

In my fifth year of grammar school, 1962-3, I felt quite lost. Having abandoned my ambition of a military career, I had no plan ‘B’. The school assumed that I would go on to a university, but I knew that there was no way my father could have contributed to my support, even if I were to obtain some form of scholarship.

In that era, there was no career advice available at my grammar school. Perhaps some of the teachers took their successful pupils under their wing and coached them. More likely, the parents were the guides. In my ‘A’ class, most, if not all, of the parents fitted into three categories – professional, businessmen or farmers. My parents were not able to advise me and I had no uncles or aunts to lean on.

After the ‘O’ level exams in June 1963, a good friend, Raymond de Zeeuw, suggested that I might want to consider his career of Quantity Surveying, for which GCE ‘O’ levels would suffice. It was a form of professional apprenticeship, with part-time study and culminating in a qualification – R.I.C.S. (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). As he always seemed enthusiastic about his work, I decided to get an interview with Crofton Dalzell, the principal of Dalzell & Campbell, Raymond’s employer.

I confess to having been taken aback with Crofton’s first question – ‘What religion are you?’. Perhaps it was just a standard statistic required for governmental reporting, but I suspect that if my answer had been ‘Catholic’, the interview would have been soon terminated. Is the situation different today? I would like to hope so.

In any case, I appeared to have impressed him sufficiently, and soon after, I received a job offer of £8 per month, subject to my passing the GCE exams. I started work the following Monday. And my mother informed me that I would have to contribute £2 a month for my board!

Dalzell & Campbell was a partnership between Crofton Dalzell and his son-in-law, the architect, Noel Campbell. Crofton was a dapper little man, he looked very fit, and reputedly walked along the beach from Portrush to the White Rocks, some four miles in total, every morning before work. I know little about Noel Campbell, except that he drove a Jaguar, at one time was a drummer, was married to Crofton’s daughter, and designed my parent’s house at Carnalridge.

If you know little about a Quantity Surveyor’s work, I will attempt to give you a very brief description.

A Quantity Surveyor stands between an architect and the client. The Quantity Surveyor’s ‘bible’ is the Bill of Quantities (BOQ), which contains the specification, the quantity and the unit cost of all the items involved in the contract. It is the basis for any variations or dispute regarding the original contract.

My first year as a Junior Quantity Surveyor was spent extending and summing the measurements of other more senior staff and producing physical Bills of Quantities (BOQ). We had no calculators in that era, so all calculations had to be made by hand. And don’t forget that it was before monetary decimalization and metric measurement. Try calculating by hand an area of 9 feet 7 inches by 21 feet 4 inches or 1279 cubic yards at £2-17-11 per yard!

For Bills of Quantities, we had no copy machines or printers as we know them today; they were not yet available. We had stencils that were thin sheets of paper, coated with wax. The Bills of Quantities were typed on the stencils. I wrapped the stencil around a Gestetner roller and produced as many copies as were required. I then had to collate the pages, drill holes and bind the final product with ribbons.

It was not so long before I progressed to measuring earthworks, landscaping, asphalt, kerbs etc. And most weeks, there were visits to sites to measure actual versus the BOQ, and calculating progress payments. I was quite happy in my work.

And there was a great camaraderie in the office. In particular I remember John Dalzell, George Darragh, Stuart Barnes, Jim Morrison, Tom Clarke, Raymond De Zeeuw and our Chief Quantity Surveyor- Brian Watson, a little Scot. I wish that I could recall all the other names.

Sooner, rather than later, I moved on, in my case to Canada. But I learned an important lesson at Dalzell & Campbell, that I have never forgotten, and that is, no matter how lowly the job, do it well.

As in this recording of Charley Pride…