Labour of Love

Celebrating the working lives of East Londoners and Park visitors

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Labour of Love Celebrates

Thank you to everyone who attended the event on Sunday to celebrate the end of the residency in the Olympic Park and to be presented with their Labour of Love file and limited-edition publication.

It was wonderful to meet everyone again after our first encounters in the Labour of Love shed. We also enjoyed a few readings from the files, including a tap dancing Bryant & May worker, dentistry in County Durham and unprofessional jumpers.  I’m really glad that so many members from the Dao Lu group and the ESOL class from Bromley-by-Bow Centre made it to celebrate with us too.

A very big THANK YOU to all 170 people who took part in the Labour of Love project!



Photograph: Colin Bootle




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Special thanks to everyone who worked on the project:

May Tsang, Marta Surakowa, Mandeep Chahal, Lesley Palmer, Dann Partridge, Stacey and the London Legacy Local Programme Team.

All photographs by Sam Brown unless otherwise stated.

More Labour of Love stories from the files to follow…

The Thumb Sucking Dentist

During my transcribing today, I was listening to this story, all told with a lovely Teesdale lilt.  A tale of teeth from the shed…

“My very first job was a long time coming. I had to study Dentistry and that’s the longest thing that you can set you mind on. It takes for jonks and jonks. Do you know how long a jonk is? Starts with a J and ends with a K and goes on forever! It takes a terribly long time to get those hands laid on you. When you’ve done all that study, that’s the best part of your life gone for starters. So you have to keep on really; there’s nowt else for it.

You get into it of course; there is a big satisfaction in it. I specialised in children’s dentistry mainly, but of course all sorts of things happen to children’s teeth. They get fractured, broken, so there are root canals and crowns – it goes on forever.

I studied at Newcastle Dental School and then I went into practice with my own dentist because he had put his name on my brow first of all. He had straightened my teeth because I was a thumb sucker and he put them back with an elastic band – it was very sophisticated in those days. It was a plate you wore on your palette and you had to change the elastic band everyday more or less, because it lost its tension. So I was sucking my thumb a lot in my early years, probably because of the stress of my parents. My dentist eventually got them back and fortunately they stayed back, but I had to keep reminding them of the fact. They had a habit of springing back when you didn’t want them and I had to have a retainer for a while. As a youngster you are terribly at risk, because you are constantly falling against things and fracturing your teeth. So thanks to him, I came out into the world looking fairly reasonable.

As I say, my dentist took me under his wing and I went to work for him when I graduated. He was a marvellous boss, because really you haven’t done anything by the time you qualify, hardly learnt how to take a tooth out easily. Bear in mind, this was in Durham County and your customers were mostly miners and there were teeth in their mouths that were never ever meant to come out. There was no technology for it, so they just had to decay naturally. No one knew anything about fluoride or fluoride in your toothpaste. Some special places had one part per million of fluoride in the water and that helped preserve them.

 It seems strange to think of it now, but for a 21st birthday some people were offered a full set of dentures, to have all their teeth taken out and replaced by false teeth. Does that shock you? It should do! But it was common. They were often given that as a very important present – ‘You can have all your teeth out and have a nice set of false ones instead!’

Studs Terkel and Delores Dante


Studs Terkel was a big inspiration for Labour of Love.

Studs was failed lawyer, who went on to become a radio broadcaster and oral historian who interviewed hundreds of workers in Chicago during the early 1970s to produce an extraordinary book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

He describes his work – “I was on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method or technique.’ Instead of a shed in a park, he was on the road, looking for leads, following tips, encountering strangers in bars, interviewing over breakfasts or parked up in a car.

From the very first, the characters in Working grab you by the throat – the book starts with a diatribe by a steel mill worker who admits he gets in brawls in bars because really he wants to punch his foreman. He might get barred from his drinking hole – but he’ll still have his job.

This book is a witness to what Studs describes as “the violence done to them by years of work, their bosses, the system.” One of my favourite workers is Delores Dante, a waitress in the same restaurant for 23 years. Delores Dante – what a name!

‘I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me? I can’t go to everyone. So they have to come to me. Everyone wants to eat, everyone has hunger. And I serve them. If they’ve had a bad day, I nurse them, cajole them. Maybe with coffee I give them a little philosophy. They have cocktails, I give them political science. …
I have an opinion on every single subject there is. In the beginning it was theology and my bosses didn’t like it. I speak sotto voce. But if I get heated I don’t give a damn. I speak like an Italian speaks. I can’t be servile. I give service. There is a difference.
It would be tiring if I had to say “would you like a cocktail.?” And say that over and over. So I come out different for my own enjoyment. I would say “What’s exciting at the bar I can offer?” I can’t say “Do you want a coffee?” Maybe I’ll say “Are you in the mood for coffee?” Just rephrase it enough to make it interesting for me. It becomes theatrical and I feel like Mata Hari and it intoxicates me.’

“People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think or have any other aspiration other than to serve food. When someone says to me “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress.” Just a waitress. I’d say, “Why don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?” It’s implying that he’s not worthy, not that I’m not worthy. It makes me irate. I don’t feel lowly at all.”

The devil or Delores is in the detail. She takes pride in every little thing.

“Some don’t care. When the plate is down you can hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass I want it to be just right. I get to be almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it’s an art…it is a certain way I can go through a chair no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I’m on stage.”

Last Day in the Shed

My residency ended on a high with a busy Saturday, lots of visitors to the shed and recordings made of working lives – a Water Research Engineer, Artist, Athletics Timekeeper, Bakery Assistant, Sister-sitter, Start-up Coach, Mechanical Engineer, Recycler and a couple of Park Champions.

I’m feeling very sad that the shed is now closed to the public. It had become such a fantastic intimate talking space in the vastness of the park.

A very big thank you to everyone who supported the project in many ways – from recording stories, your company, help with shed DIY, warming hugs, Poitin and hot soup! THANK YOU!

But the project is not over yet! The next phase is to finish all the transcribing and design and publish a small limited-edition Labour of Love booklet to be launched 1 March 2015.

As I continue with the transcribing I will also carry on posting stories from the shed on the blog – so keep on following!

Last days shed

The Cyclist

A heart-warming story shared in the shed:

My dad was a keen cyclist and he bought me a bike for my thirteenth birthday. He said, ‘I’ll buy you a bike as long as you ride it.’ And I did – thousands and thousands of miles over the years!

 My ambition was always to cycle 200 miles in a day.  So in 1954 I mapped out a route from Walthamstow down through to Dover, along a bit of the coast and back through the Blackwall tunnel and that was exactly 200 miles. I got back to this end of the Blackwall tunnel and fell off on the tramline.

 There was blood pouring down my leg. Remember then, when you were young you bowed and scraped to anyone older than you, and I was only fourteen or fifteen years old and I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’

 So I went into this pub, which was The Beehive pub. The landlady bandaged me up and made me a cup of tea, their little girl brought me a couple of biscuits, all the people in the pub clubbed together and the landlord put me and the bike in a taxi to take me home.

 Many years later, in 1979, I was working at an office furniture company and I got talking to a fellow worker and she mentioned that her dad had been the landlord of The Beehive pub in Poplar and my ears pricked up and I said, ‘That was the pub that helped me!’ Then we worked out the date and realised it was her family that had helped me back then.

 At the time of our second chance meeting we were married to other people but when our first marriages came to an end, we grew together. We were married in 1982. We now have five children and nine grandchildren between us.

Butcher’s Boys

Last night I watched the BBC documentary Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses, about Balson Butchers, who have been trading in Bridport for 500 years. It’s quite a story of enterprise and survival – I recommend.

It reminded me of one story of a Labour of Love participant who told me about an early foray into an entrepreneurial business, taking advantage of an excess of meat in the freezer.

“My mum had a job cleaning in a butcher’s shop for an Irish guy called Jerry and he always treated mum really well. There were six kids at home but we ate Porterhouse steak. He’d always sort her out. We’d make burgers for him on a Friday and you could earn £3 on a Friday night, the same as you’d get all week for a paper round. My mum always said, ‘Don’t eat the burgers! They’re full of sawdust!’ I still make burgers – last Father’s Day I got a burger press. I make very good burgers. Good quality. Source my meat and mix it with marrow and all sorts of messing about.

 When I was twelve in the summer holidays there were men on our estate building a fire escape, and my mum, working in the butcher’s shop, had sorted out the freezer with our lunches, and I started doing the full English for the workmen. But I wasn’t that enterprising because I didn’t work out that we had to restock and then my sister said to mum, ‘Robert’s selling the food.’ If I was my mum, I would have said, ‘Here’s some money and go and buy some more product.’ Do you remember Express Dairies? They were selling a bottle of lemonade for 11p and I could get six or seven glasses out of that at 5 or 10p a glass. So I did the full English for the builders until my sister grassed me up and my mum found out.”

Another chap who visited the shed told me about his first job.

“I was a butcher’s boy at the age of eleven. I used to make sausages and the pet mince – pet mince for the dogs and the cats. They wouldn’t eat it, if they knew what was in it – offal! It was awful!”

butcher's 1920

Staff Sickness

The shed will be closed on Saturday 3 January 2015 – I have come down with that nasty Christmas bug.

Apologies for any inconvenience.

The shed will reopen on Thursday 8 January 2015.

And Rest

I was talking to my sister about how she likes to ‘clear her desk’ before the holidays.  I always think of this as finishing one’s work; for my sister, it is both that and a literal clearing of the piles of paperwork. As she works in a grimy oily office for a tyre company, it is also the only time she gets to give her desk a good clean. That must feel good.

As a self-employed person, there never seems to be a point where I can say ‘all my work is done.’  But clearing and cleaning all seem to be necessary ritual to get one ready to enjoy the rest and all the celebrations.

I have just painstakingly washed every wee branch of my Christmas tree which had been sitting outside and covered in building site dust from across the road – a strange task, but immensely satisfying.  Even if I haven’t ‘cleared my desk’, my tree is lovely and green now!

I hope everyone has a good rest over the holidays.

Xmas Shed

Hard Hats

Thank you to all the children who designed hard hats to decorate the shed over the Winter Wonderland weekend!

Hard HatsDig Hard HatFang hatPeg Hat

Christmas Weekend 13 & 14 December

The Labour of Love Shed will be open on Saturday & Sunday this weekend, as part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Christmas Weekend.

Throughout the afternoons and early evenings, you can take in the twinkling lights and surroundings of the Park dressed for Christmas and get into the festive spirit with a host of activities.  Listen to Christmas choirs or go on a free Hackney Experience Tour around the Park. There will also be festive funfair rides and free arts and crafts for kids.  Santa Claus will be in residence at the ArcelorMittal Orbit where you can meet two of his reindeer! Yes, real reindeer!

On Sunday, there will be more entertainment with a concert at 2pm from The Recycled Band or you can also dress to impress as your favourite festive character for a family 5k run.

Christmas Closing: The shed is closed from 21 December 2014 – 2nd December 2015, reopening on Saturday 3 January 2015

NB: The shed will only be open 1-4pm Friday 12 December 2014 due to a Labour of Love workshop taking place off-site in the morning.