Alfie Spencer and Bobby Miller don't look like stress counsellors, but they know about people under pressure, and have a simple strategy for reducing tension before it twangs into nervous collapse. "We say, 'You make the boys a nice cup of tea and we'll sort out the house for you.' It usually works," confides Spencer, as Miller nods in agreement.
The sixty-something pair are removal men, each with more than 40 years' experience. They've always worked for Bishop's Move, the family-owned removals firm with the yellow vans and chess-piece insignia, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary. They don't just shift pianos and wardrobes, however. Tears, tantrums and stark, raving terror can be part of the job too, but both radiate sympathy and seem to like their fellow human beings.
"Even the awkward people are usually all right in the end," Miller reckons. The ideal client "is someone who realises the job is always going to be tricky", gives them the front-door keys and walks away, trusting their professional judgement.
Anyone who's been blessed in finding good removal men and sticks around if they're packing (there's real skill and care involved in this), will quickly realise that they're often being manoeuvred as skilfully as the furniture. Other householders might be too wired up to notice. "One lady told us how much every bit of furniture we touched cost," Miller recalls.
Both have witnessed the milk of human meanness, with householders removing door finger plates and even light bulbs. Private in-jokes are legion ("Is the wallpaper coming, too? Do you want us to bring the grass clippings?").
Inevitably, things can go awry. One client put the family cat in a cardboard box. This was packed in the van, which had to be unloaded again to reunite the animal, unharmed, with its by-then-tearful owner.
Another householder deposited a very small, sleeping baby in a cardboard box, which was placed on the removal van before anybody realised how precious this particular cargo was. The infant was quickly returned to its parents, and apparently slept through the whole experience.
Generally, babies and moggies aren't job hazards, but dogs can be. "You see a dog at the top of the stairs growling, with his mouth pulled back so you can see the teeth, and the owner says, 'He won't hurt you.' You have to explain that he thinks we're stealing from his home. Even the little nippers - they'll nip you," says Spencer. Certain professions require more work than others. "Solicitors, vicars and doctors," he says. "They've collected books all their lives." "And architects," adds Miller. "They're always working to the last minute."
Boxes full of National Geographic magazines are apparently back-breakingly heavy. Modern furniture is less hefty, but less robust. Bookcases are always unloaded in case they collapse.
Both workers have been victims of the "it came in, so it must be able to go out" syndrome, where a large piece of furniture in an upstairs room simply refuses to fit a flight of stairs. "Then the client will remember the stairs were boxed in after they arrived," says Miller.
The result is often a dismantled sash window, and the offending furnishing being block-and-tackled to the ground. Here again, expert knowledge can avert disaster. "One colleague had to get a grand piano out a window. He looked at it and said, 'If I take that through the window, the frame will come out and the wall will come down,' " says Miller. A builder was called, agreed, and strengthened the building first.
Miller and Spencer can reel off a list of celebrity clients, which includes Edward Fox and Tom Courtney. Alfie helped move Jeffrey Archer into his London penthouse and received a signed Archer novel for his pains. Lucky bloke. Other interesting characters have included a policeman. Spencer thought the man's lavish furnishings and artworks were rather suspect for someone on a copper's salary. "As soon as we picked up a Dresden figurine or a painting he was there, making sure we didn't drop it. They arrested him six months later for fraud."
Both men have suffered knee and elbow joint problems and dodgy backs, but the endless variety of people they meet more than compensates. "Anyhow," says Spencer, "a removal man of our age who hasn't a few aches and pains must be a lazy sod."
THE FAMILY FIRM
History doesn't recall why Pimlico greengrocer Joseph James Bishop switched to moving and storing furniture, but it was a good idea - 150 years later the fifth and sixth generation of the family still run the business from their Wandsworth base. "I'll write a book when I retire," says the managing director, Nigel Bishop.
Having suffered after the property crash in the late Eighties - "We were getting 26 calls a week in central London. Suddenly it was six" - Bishop's Move diversified, and is now big in sealed, containerised furniture storage - no more valuables under sheets in warehouses - and corporate moves for clients like the MoD and BBC.
It has depots and franchisees all over Britain, and Continental bases in places like Spain and Gibraltar, thanks to ex-pat Brits' love affair with Spanish relocation. Recently, the company carted the equivalent of six truck-loads of furniture to France.
There's more to the job than meets the eye. "Everyone is trained once a year. We cover things like how to pack wardrobes, how to lift a barometer or a grandfather clock," says Bishop.Reuse content