My First Job: John Francome, novelist and former jockey, was an apprentice panel beater

'It was a really dusty job - too dusty for me'
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The Independent Online

The second achievement that John Francome would like to be remembered for is winning the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon. What has given him the most pride took place off the racetrack: "I helped develop the body protector for jockeys; these are now compulsory and have stopped people breaking their necks. I made the first one out of curtain material and polystyrene," he said.

This was not the first time he had used his hands for something other than grasping a horse's reins. When he was 16 years old, his first job was in a car repair workshop.

"I didn't leave school with any qualifications. I liked riding but never had any intention of being a jockey. I had no interest in racing and, if it came on the television, I would turn over to the other channel," he said.

"I'd always been interested in cars. My father was a dealer at one stage and I'd been buying and selling cars since I was 14." Through his dad, he had made contact with Swindon Auto Spray and in 1969 he began working there as an apprentice panel beater.

Top-of-the-range models would have their indentations smoothed over with lead filling but the apprentices started off on more modest vehicles and polystyrene padding. The panel beaters walloped out the bumps as much as possible, using a special hammer with rounded edges and a "dolly" (a heavy metal block shaped like the body panel and held behind the damaged bodywork during the hammering).

A good panel beater would restore the tortured metal to its original shape so neatly that it needed hardly any filling. John had a problem: "Nobody said I had the potential to be a good panel beater, so I left." There was a second reason: "It was a really dusty job, too dusty for me." And a third: "There was an advert in the paper for an apprentice jockey." He had decided racing was worth a try. He won his first race when he was 17 and his 1,000th race 15 years later, at the same track - Worcester.

He would not discourage anyone from the auto repair business and says that he was lucky then - as he has been subsequently - with the people he worked with. Did his short career in the business give him, like racing, any material which has been used in his thrillers? The answer is "no" but my question gives him an idea: "A 'dolly' would be a good instrument to kill somebody with." The Independent looks forward to receiving a slice of the royalties from You Can't Beat a Panel Beater: The Dead Body Repair that Shocked Swindon.

'Winner Takes All' by John Francome (Headline, £2.99) is one of the Quick Reads published as part of the current Adult Learners Week. Authors in this series include Andy McNab, Hunter Davies and Danny Wallace.

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