More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture

IN case you don’t know, the title of this tale is attributable to the military – look it up, it’s succinct and as self-explanatory as it is obvious.

It springs to mind because of a story Dougal related to me this week. As mentioned on several occasions, it really isn’t my business any more, literally and metaphorically, but my son still brings home stories from work that are as familiar as they are relatable.

“I don’t believe how stupid our customer was today,” he said, brow furrowed and mouth full of pre-tea snack. I could, and I hadn’t even heard the tale yet.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees (February 2023): Dealing with difficult customers

Dougal took another hefty bite of a cheese sandwich, one that he obviously hadn’t had time to eat during the day. “We had a job,” he chomped. “Felling a hawthorn in somebody’s back garden. It should have been easy, but the whole thing had to be removed via the house, through the kitchen, hall and front room.”

I pulled a face – sympathetic tinged with a touch of interest at the speed with which he was demolishing his snack. “Awkward. It always is,” I said, knowingly.

“Oh, it was bad enough, but guess what?” Dougal reached for a bag of crisps.

“Err, had she decided to redecorate the house just before you got there?”

“How did you know? The painter was just packing up as we arrived and the customer said ‘woe betide you if you make any marks on the walls’.”

I was pleased with my assessment of the nonsense, but it immediately reminded me of a similarly ludicrous situation that happened to me in the early part of the century.

We worked a lot for a semi-national landscaping firm back then and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. There were two problems. Firstly, the work was always a commute to some awful urban nightmare where I felt at odds and out of place. Secondly, the landscaping firm, which was friendly, helpful and always keeping us busy, didn’t fully appreciate the logistical challenges facing arborists.

Tree work is complicated. I’m sure landscaping is too, but our trade has a host of additional issues, the big one being waste removal and disposal.

“It’s an easy enough job,” the landscaping boss, Ray, was saying. “You probably don’t need to visit the site and can do it on a day rate, just three smallish eucalyptus to fell on an industrial complex.”

I should have looked at the job first – PPPPPP – but of course I didn’t. The phrase ‘day rate’ had me hooked and, as I was always busy, the excuse to not visit Swindon more often than I absolutely had to won out against the whole ‘P’ thing.

So, with a date booked in a month’s time, I quickly forgot about the job, concentrating on the immediate work, trying to lay an impossible oak floor in the kitchen I was making and bringing up three children. Two of these – not Dougal – had taken to dressing in discarded tree-surgery equipment and abseiling down the stairs. I’ve got a photo somewhere.

Neither of the girls became tree women – both are vet nurses – but the picture of Daisy in a Bob the Builder helmet reversing down the stairwell attached to the bannister reminds me of that day, which turned out to be totally baffling.

We drove to Swindon on a foggy, cold March morning, entering the town from the west on a series of depressing dual carriageways to find the building on the works docket in the middle of the estate.

“We’re looking for three eucalyptus,” I said, pointing the building out to a clutch of Toms who were assisting, but aware the offices in question were sporting no Australian trees at all, just one large oak at the front of the entrance foyer.

The landscaping company knew the difference between England’s finest tree and Australia’s lesser rival, and Ray could definitely count, so the oak was safe from our attentions, being lonesome and local.

“I’ll ask at reception, get the kit ready,” I said, commandingly.

The Toms lit some roll-ups and looked fed up, but did as instructed. Inside the building was a lot of chrome, even more glass and a large hardwood reception desk with a sliding window. Behind this sat an official, a man of great importance if his uniform was anything to go by. He was dressed in a dark, brass-buttoned jacket, shirt, tie and a military dress cap.

“Hi,” I said. “We’ve come to fell some trees. Can you show us where they are?”

I handed over some documentation, which the security man accepted, poring over the pages and checking every last detail. Finally, he looked up. “Can’t show you until you’re all signed in and I’ve issued everyone a badge.”

This seemed extreme. We were, after all, working outside the building and from what I could gather it wasn’t a high-security enterprise anyway, just some offices.

But I knew better than to argue, so went outside, collected some Toms and returned for the signing in. It took a while, but eventually we were all sporting splendid laminated lanyards.

“Keep these on at all times,” Uniform ordered, leaving me wondering if that was going to work out, bearing in mind what we did for a living.

“Can you show us the trees now?” I asked, aware the day rate was expiring fast and not much had actually happened yet.

Security stared at me, my impertinence causing him some annoyance, though I wasn’t aware I was being anything other than polite. “This way.” He pressed a button and pointed to a turnstile leading further into the building.

We all huddled at the chrome gate, but it was a one-man affair and locked shut again once a single human had been admitted. The gatekeeper had to wait in his office, pressing the button twice more and eventually the two Toms, myself and the security man were three yards further into the offices, but still in the foyer.

I started to worry we had been misunderstood. Perhaps the uniform had misheard and thought we were three shabbily dressed photocopier repair types, but I didn’t say anything as we trudged through a superheated and carpeted inner foyer.

Secretarial types passed us along with harried-looking young men in suits and the occasional middle-aged type and as we got deeper into the building it got hotter and quieter.

Offices always seem unnaturally silent to me, as well as hot. I find them quite unearthly and depressing. Eventually however, we arrived at some glass patio-type doors opening into a paved ‘leisure’ area. Surrounded on four sides by offices, the large patio had chairs, benches, shrubs and open air above, so we were sort of inside and out at the same time.

In the middle, pointed out unnecessarily by our escort, were three 40-ft tall eucalyptuses, growing from a badly split and undersized solid brick planter. Obviously the landscape architect wasn’t aware of the growth potential of the species, and they urgently needed to go.

“Is that them?” asked the uniform.

I assured him they must be the correct trees, but he quickly lost interest. Something important was happening on the walkie-talkie, so we let him deal with it and made our way to the purpose of our visit.

Each tree was leaning, none had much foliage to speak of and it would require spikes on the super-hard trunks, which were swaying alarmingly in the non-existent breeze, held in place only by similarly non-existent root plates.

It took about half an hour before we’d gathered all our equipment and I started ascending the first tree. There had been a delay at the chrome turnstile, each of us waiting our turn before being allowed to leave and then re-admitted.

“Could you not leave it unlocked while we work?” I asked the security man, who had finished his radio communication and was now firmly back at his desk.

“Can’t do that. Security risk.” I’m sure he was smiling, but it was hard to tell through the glass protection screen.

I wondered what the risk was. Perhaps a secretary would escape or someone might smuggle out some paper clips, but the guard was adamant we had to go through the locked gate for every journey, every branch and every log.

I quickly climbed and lowered the first branch. The Toms dismantled it and set off down the carpeted hallway. Some considerable time later they returned.

“We had to wait at the Berlin Wall,” Tom said. “The guard had abandoned his post and got really cross when he returned to find us climbing over. He wants to see our lanyards every time too.”

Ah, I thought, that makes sense. The three men in filthy chainsaw gear and sawdust carrying branches aren’t that memorable. They tend to blend in with the office types and it’s obvious they need proper identification. So I shrugged and carried on.

After a while I noticed something strange. The Toms were only gone for a couple of minutes with each load and I hadn’t heard any sound of the chipper being fired up.

I switched off my saw. “Everything okay?” I shouted, to a cheerful thumbs up from the ground crew.

Odd, what had they done to circumvent security? I didn’t ask. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know and had an image of a log jamming the turnstile open, or the whole thing lying demolished in the foyer.

I quickly finished the first tree and, overwhelmed with curiosity, followed a smirking groundsman back down the endless but muddy and sawdust-strewn corridor to the foyer.

I couldn’t see the gate, nor much of the office, but could hear an apoplectic security man cursing from behind a giant pile of brash and cordwood stacked on the inside of the gate.

A backlog of secretaries and office men were struggling through and around the pile, desperately trying to vacate the building for their 10-minute smoke break, but amused something was happening beyond the apparent drudgery of another day at work.

Unable to speak without laughing, I watched as Tom the younger held up his lanyard and was begrudgingly allowed to exit. On the outside, he received a handful of brash over the top of the barrier and dragged it past the front window, lit a roll-up and trudged towards the chipper.

Tom the elder waited, then passed over the next armful to the returning colleague who’d obligingly left his cigarette in a flower pot at the main entrance.

Both men held up their lanyard badges each time they caught the eye of the guard, who was now too furious to speak, but unsure what the protocol was. This was obviously outside his normal sphere of experience.

I scuttled off, back to the relative safety of the swaying eucalypts and the day progressed nicely. By lunchtime I was down to one groundsman and the chipper was running continually.

“How come?” I asked. 

Tom the elder winked. “Security man found a way of disabling the barrier after all.”

We finished the job, in good time despite the lack of proper planning, and we have never been asked back, but they only had the three trees and the oak at the front entrance looked fine, watching the past 300 years go by and smiling to itself I suppose.

Back in the present, I asked Dougal how he’d managed to drag a whole hawthorn through a newly painted cottage in Marlborough without damaging the new paintwork.

“Oh, we didn’t,” he said, tipping the last few crisps into his mouth. “It all got scratched to–”

I didn’t hear the last word. He was crunching too noisily, but as I said at the beginning, it really isn’t any of my business any more.