Power tools whirring and roaring in the background, plaster dust and, above all, the cloying, poisonous smell of oil paint. For all the ‘healf and safety’ they bring onto jobsites here, charging you £25 for the pleasure of writing the test, they don’t seem to give a damn about oil fumes on a jobsite. Sometimes it’s been so bad your liver actually starts to ache and everyone runs around delirious and red-faced from the fumes . . .
I’m in the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair . One of the foremen said they’d been working on it since March 2007, redoing the walls, putting in new floors. Spectacular staircase with iron railing and elaborate moulding around the skylight. Forgettable art – cast-iron snowbirds and some conceptual piece of hand grenades, three feet high then in done again in miniature and mounted on a length of wood – all made of coloured glass. Neo-florentine statues made of black marble. Names like ‘Rites of Spring’. The kind of stuff that only a Russian nouveau-oligarich could love . .
On Berkely square, a half street up, are four seperate auto dealerships – Porsche, Bentley, Jack Barclay and Rolls Royce. In the Bentley dealership the prices are listed right in the window, as if they expect people to drop in and pick up a luxury vehicle. And who knows, maybe people do . . . A Bentley coupe will set you back 141,000GBP.
As on every jobsite, most of the guys are Polish. I thought it was a shit job, paying not nearly enough for the work involved ( knees still killing me from running up and down three flights of stairs, not to mention the unsecured scaffolding) but the Polish guys were even more unhappy about it than I was. They knew they were being underpaid, they knew the agencies were a rip-off and they hustling for something better.
One guy said he lost everything gambling at the casinos. He had an interesting face, a nice watch and expenisve eyeglasses like he used to be someone. He’d gone through three wives, lived in Paris for years (where he also worked as a painter – said they used oil for everything – walls, ceiling). He was a photographer, but he needed to buy a good digital so he could start getting contracts again. Another guy said he’d been in London eight years, that in Poland he’d worked on surveillance towers, going up and down in a sling and been trained by the army, but that to qualify here he’d have to take a two year course. He said he’d been a trucker for awhile, and ended up driving from two am to six in the evening. “And it was a Polish guy who was the boss – they’re always the worst.” He’d been painting for a few years but, “the prices go down,” laughing, “mostly because of people like me.” Still, he’d made good money for awhile, enough to take his wife and son to Fiji. The trip had cost him seven grand GBP.
“Why’d you want to go to Fiji?”
He looked at me skeptically. “Why not? It was a beautiful place, I always want to go there . . . ”
He wanted to go to Puerto Rico next. Like the other Poles, he was contemplating returning to Poland. The exchange rate – he said the pound has lost something like 50% to the euro in the last year – and the drop in wages didn’t make Britain a viable option anymore. He had friends in Manchester who made barely minimum wage . . .