Painter and decorator lifts lid on 52 years of working in Islington council homes

Peter and Alan Arthy at the Mears Group HQ in Caledonian Road

Peter and Alan Arthy at the Mears Group HQ in Caledonian Road - Credit: Archant

“I was 14 and the career officer came round. He said to me ‘right you’ve got three options; making women’s handbags, a dustman or a painter and decorator’.”

Alan Arthy as an apprentice in the early 1960s

Alan Arthy as an apprentice in the early 1960s - Credit: Archant

Back in 1954, schoolboy Alan Arthy of Central Street, Finsbury (now Clerkenwell) had a choice to make.

“There was no interview, he said ‘this is what you’ve got’. With no thought whatsoever I said ‘what does a painter and decorator do?’ and he said ‘I don’t have a clue’.

Fast forward a few weeks and little Alan is carrying around an 80ft wooden ladder.

“I don’t think health and safety would allow it now,” he said. “But back then the youngest was considered the fittest. I loved going up and down on that thing. But then they realised it was illegal and I had to go home and come back when I was 15.”

Alan Arthy at the Mears Group HQ in Caledonian Road with an old photo of himself as an apprentice

Alan Arthy at the Mears Group HQ in Caledonian Road with an old photo of himself as an apprentice - Credit: Archant

In one week Alan, 67, who works for Mears, will retire from the painting and decorating industry after 52 years.

He’s come a long way since his days at Tottenham Technical College and says he’s worked on every estate in the borough (some twice) and has seen more than you or I could possibly imagine.

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Alan continued: “Me and an apprentice were going up a block of flats in an electrical cradle to paint it about 20 years ago.

“As we were going up I thought I saw something and said ‘hit the button!’ and we stopped.

“I could see a pair of legs coming out from behind the setee. I thought ‘I can’t handle this’ and took my jacket off and covered my elbow and put it through the window. It was an old girl with blood round her mouth. She was dead. We found a contact for her son and he came round.

“The apprentice nearly fainted and had to go home. I didn’t see him for three days.”

Another time Alan was working in a flat when a woman was told her husband had died while visiting their son in Sweden. Alan, very much a people’s person, brought her back home to his wife Maureen and the widow stayed with them for six weeks until she felt well enough to return home.

There’s also the time he was effectively held hostage in a flat by a woman who wouldn’t let him leave until he had a cigarette with her.

He’s seen it all over the last five decades while working in Islington for Islington Council. But sixteen years ago he and his co-workers set up a “decent homes” company to carry out maintenance and improvements in the council’s properties.

­“Islington has changed so much,” he said. “In the 60s it was a lot more working class. Now you have middle class people buying the flats and renting them out to students.

“And people try and do us now. Ninety-five percent will look forward to getting a new kitchen, the others will see it as a chance to get stuff out of us.

“I went to one woman’s flat once and she had a camera and microphone set up!”

In a fleeting serious moment, Alan’s son Peter, who is following in his footsteps, said the reason the company is so successful is that they still believe in the personal touch.

“We go into someone’s home and become their best friend for three weeks. We’re part of their lives,” he said. “And he’s [Alan] the best at that.

“We get stopped in the road by people everywhere. They’ll say ‘oh you did my flat 10 years ago’.”

Alan has finally called it a day because of health problems, but after 52 years it’s not going to be easy.

“I am going to miss it,” he said. “The guys you work with are a massive part of your life and I’ve been doing it for 50 years.”

But at least he can now enjoy some quality time with his wife Maureen, who retired herself two years ago.

“She’s looking to get back into work now he’s retiring!” quipped Peter.

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