After more than 40 years in construction, steel fixer Brian Robinson is hanging up his nips and heading for the Spanish hills. Things haven’t always been easy for Brian. But, as Emma Crates found, he is not the kind of man to be held back from having a go, despite being born with half an arm missing
YOU MAY not have heard of Brian Robinson, but you might know him by one of his nicknames. He likes to be called the One-Armed Bandit. Some call him The Sleeve. As the names suggest, Mr Robinson is a steel fixer with a difference. He has one arm.
Steel fixing might seem a surprising career choice for somebody without the full complement of limbs. But the OneArmed Bandit does not class himself as disabled - and he has 40 years’ experience in construction to prove it.
‘Construction was the only trade where I was treated as a normal person, ’ he says.
‘They’re good lads. They don’t give you any quarter.’
And he gives as good as he gets.
If you were to turn up at his front door with a grudge and would rather sort it out with your fists than over a pint, the OneArmed Bandit would take you on. With a grin he recalls once being knocked full length down his hallway, blood streaming from his nose.
In fact Mr Robinson has fought hard all his life to be treated just like everyone else.
He battled with the DVLA for years to have the word ‘disabled’ removed from his driving licence, has a licence to drive a crawler crane, plays snooker and can even shoot with a bow and arrow.
‘I pick most things up easily, I just find a different way of doing them than the average person, ’ he says.
Born with a stump rather than a fully functional left arm, Mr Robinson developed a sense of humour and defence systems at an early age, beating up his tormentors at school and becoming expert with the catapult.
He was saved by the fact that his left arm had an elbow joint, giving it a degree of gripping power. Doctors had debated the merits of removing the joint when he was young and replacing it with an artificial limb. Fortunately, his mother decided against this.
‘That would have been truly disabling, ’ he says.
Mr Robinson started humbly as a tea boy in a precast yard. As he began to speed up in his duties, he was given odd jobs cutting and bending steel. He would painstakingly practice tying steel up with a pair of old nips.
When one year the yard was stretched by an order for 2,000 manhole covers, the foreman asked Mr Robinson to make up two a day himself. Over six months, he progressed to 10 a day, which, in between tea-making, was a respectable turnover.
The inevitable happened. He moved full time onto steel production. A year later he was making up reinforced cages.
Luck played its part in his career. The foreman was offered a better job at a Wates precast yard and took two workers with him. One was the One-Armed Bandit, and the other was Polly (so called because, as the new tea boy, he had to put the kettle on).
But the Wates yard closed down two years later. Mr Robinson, who was now 25 with a wife and baby, had to prove himself once again to a sceptical world.
It was a humiliating time. Traipsing around sites in London looking for work, he was turned down as soon as the foremen saw he had one arm.
On a large Taylor Woodrow site in Victoria, Mr Robinson was finally put on trial.
The foreman made him climb up onto a large pier and start tying wire. The whole site came to a standstill to watch.
He got the job but was too embarrassed to go back. It was back to square one.
Polly, who had loyally stayed with him, suggested a new strategy.
Mr Robinson would cover his left arm with a donkey jacket, get on site, and prove himself before anyone noticed.
It worked. The pair secured jobs with steel fixer and supplier Rom River (nowadays a steel cutting and bending operation), which was working at Lilly House, a large concrete office block under development in Earls Court.
The first day had its nervous moments.
There were four new steel fixers that morning. One had a humped back, which became very noticeable when he knelt down to fix steel.
The foreman looked at the new recruits in disbelief. He phoned his supervisor, who raced up the structure and observed the team from behind a column.
‘My mate said: ‘Don’t look up, go like the clappers’ , ’ says Mr Robinson.
From that moment, the foreman never mentioned his one arm and he was allowed to get on with the job.
After that, there was no stopping the One-Armed Bandit. He was made a chargehand, working in the London area.
‘I tried to be better and faster than anyone else on the nips. To carry more steel than the others. The foreman used to have a go at the other workers for not keeping up with me. They, in turn, asked me to slacken off, ’ he says, Around 1965, he was laid off and started to work for himself, forming his own company, Robinson Reinforcements, two years later.
‘I wasn’t really equipped for subcontracting work, but I was pushed into it as a means of survival, because it was difficult to get work with only one arm, ’ he says.
Like many subbies of his generation, Mr Robinson has ridden the roller-coaster of construction industry fortunes, owning - and losing - a variety of companies. At the high point, with Robinson Reinforcements, which lasted 15 years, he was employing 150 men and handling contracts ofup to £750,000. The lowest point came when Robinson Reinforcements ran aground through rows over payment for large, fixed-price contracts. On the same day in 1984 he lost his house, filed for divorce and gave up smoking.
‘That’s the only time I shed a tear, ’ he says.
Other companies that Mr Robinson has been involved in include Tybar, Fast-bar and Shepperton Reinforcements. His work has varied from motorway contracts, shopping complexes and commercial buildings.
He has also carried out the complex steel reinforcement on three bunkers for Nato Command. But his favourite work has been on the motorways, on account of the variety such work brings.
For the past 10 years he has been working mainly as a sole trader. But now, following an accident in a builders yard, in which he lost an eye, Mr Robinson is calling it a day.
At the age of 63, he is packing his steel cutting tools and his dog, Peggy, into his van and driving to Tarragona in Spain.
There, next to a grove of olive trees, he will be renovating an old farmhouse.
But he is not hanging up his nips quite yet.
‘I’m hoping to build a swimming pool.
It will need a bit of steel work, ’ he says.
‘I just want to say thank you to my friends in construction.
‘And to anyone struggling in the same position as me, just remember - there’s no such word as ‘can’t’.’