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.............PART - 3


1964 - 1977



Work: That dreaded word

Other Pursuits

A New Job


New Car & New Direction

Holidays & Techno-Magic

The Next Step



Received Wisdom, and the 50s & 60s

PGCE Practicals

A Year Out


Work: That dreaded word

Eventually the final school year was over and I was obliged find a job. Free at last... so I thought. I was right in a way. The truth was I'd gained one kind of freedom only to lose another. A cheerful, outgoing local kid called John who lived up our street was a trainee electrician at a nearby rubber factory. He was around my brother's age, and we often saw each other in passing and exchanged a few words. I discussed with him the merits of being an electrician, and he painted a fine image. As the only career advice I received, I decided after mulling it over, that to be an electrician was something I might like to try.

I neglected to ask him what precisely an electrician's work involved. Nor somehow did it occur to me to enquire of the guys who went around fixing TVs about their job. That would have been far more in tune with my interests. I was into electronics - not installing conduit, wiring motors or fixing lights, etc. So much for my first big mistake.

The factory occupied what had once been the premises of the Edison-Bell record company, a plot of maybe 50-hectares. Now Silent Channel Co Ltd, it was one of the biggest employers in Huntingdon. The chief product was rubber door/window trim and surrounds for the motor industry. When I mentioned the electrician idea to my dad he said he knew Nip, the foreman electrician at the factory. As a kid, Dad said, Nip had lived in our street, and his mother still did. He was maybe a decade younger than Dad, and they occasionally ran into one another in town. So on one of these chance meetings Dad asked him about it.

And so, doubtless ever on the lookout for another dogsbody who'll slave for peanuts, the management authorised Nip to hire me as a trainee at the rate of £2.80/week. Imagine it: I have ordinary secondhand books from that period priced higher than that. How was I supposed to live on less than the cost of a book? The interview was brief and strange. I guess it was just to confirm that I wasn't too shy or sensitive for the workshop environment, and that my IQ wasn't quite on the floor. He asked about my interests, then to show him my hands - which he said looked 'soft'. Finally he showed me around, saying I could start the following Monday. So from September 1964, for three years almost to the day, my fate was roughly as described in 'The Button' and more objectively in 'Factory'.

Still spending time at the Flea Pit evenings and weekends, as well as occasionally meeting the crowd at Chivers' Pit, life continued more-or-less as before. So my situation was quite improved - except the monumental struggle of getting-up to be at work for 08.00 on weekday mornings. The work wasn't to my liking either, but was tolerable. It was all a novelty at first, after all, and I found some aspects of the factory, even the work, moderately interesting.

To start with I 'shadowed' John. He knew an amazing number or people around the factory and was on jocular terms with them. In daring risqué fashion, he could even evoke a smile from the prim, bespectacled nurse who resembled a steely version of Hattie Jacques. Over the weeks he introduced me to a whole medley of characters, as if to old friends - maybe many were? He showed me some great hiding places too, where one could rest back on big slabs of soft rubber and chat or just relax. The only limiting factor was the danger of being missed, or Tom the charge-hand searching for us - as he sometimes did - striding purposefully, sheet of paper in hand listing numerous fluorescent tubes and bulbs that needed replacing around the factory. Astute as ever, John would keep a sharp eye out - a tiny gap in a door, corner of a window, etc. He invariably had an escape route planned.

Except during statutory breaks we were not supposed to sit down in the workshop. To do so suggested idling. Only Tom or Nip would complain - though maybe just frown at the more established guys. Us 'youngsters' though were expected to keep nimble and look busy. Whether we genuinely were was beside the point - a new absurdity, so it seemed to me. Was nowhere free of these irrational conventions/formalities?

As well as those mentioned, there were five other electricians: George, the shop steward, Albert, Graham, Dave and Brian. Each had a bench and chair. And each bench had a large drawer under, and on the floor a toolbox. Lucky for me, Dave obtained a new box and gave me his old one, which was pretty good. Then only me and Tom had just a box to sit on at tea-break, and no bench or chair - while Nip, of course, had his office. We were obliged to provide our own tools too. The others gave me some, and I bought several, a few of which I still have.

For John and me - later just me - each morning began with a routine testing of mill-brakes, followed by reading meters in the substation. The mills - in the vast mill-room across the yard - comprised a dozen or so huge mangle-like machines with steel rollers about a metre in diameter and where an operator would progressively mix various constituents of the rubber then cut strips suitable for feeding extruders or loading into moulds for the presses. A thick horizontal bar at about waist height that when pushed would operate a micro-switch and instantly halt the rollers had to be checked every day for each mill. The entire job could have been done in ~5-minutes, but casual friendly chatting with most operators usually stretched it beyond half-an-hour (the allotted time). Next, to the substation to read six sets of meters, each resembling the domestic ones - in those days comprising 6-or-7 little dials. This too could be achieved in a few minutes, yet was assigned half-an-hour. Which meant we weren't officially expected back in the workshop before about 09.00.

And many a great conversation took place in that substation as we waited for 09.00... no point in returning to the grind sooner, we reasoned. Sitting on an old wooden box containing spare switch-gear we'd discuss the future of technology, which in those days interested me greatly, also weekend activities, family issues, sport, music and so on (none of which much interested me) and sometimes aspects of work, rules, tech college, other members of the workshop, aspects of the factory, etc.

I was inclined, as ever, to speculate wildly on the future - especially of technology. I had an unfettered imagination in those days, and much fun was made of my 'outlandish' predictions when John cheerfully retold them to the crew back in the workshop. The prospect of cheap flat-screen colour TV was one, I recall - in 1964; this had yet to be invented and was pure pipe-dream... we didn't even have colour TV then; that didn't happen till '67. Encouraged by the amusement and attention this created, I'd spell-out how the meter-readings could be automated, and likewise for a whole range of processes around the factory. All evoked laughter and derision: was it me or my ideas that they ridiculed? I guess both, and sometimes I'd suggest something truly absurd just to provoke them. I genuinely enjoyed the humour of it, though, and was quite contented to be mocked. Should I perhaps consider a career, I once mused, in comedy? Either way, I was convinced (a bit arrogantly, I suppose) that most of my forecasts would some day come true and I'd be proved right... by which time, of course, these predictions of mine would be completely forgotten, so I'd get no credit for them.

Around this time, on a day-trip to Cambridge, I perchance stumbled on what was to launch for me a fabulous lifelong romance with Sci-Fi: I describe the event HERE: Eureka: I'd discovered Asimov. Already softened to Sci Fi when someone took me to see 'Forbidden Planet' on the big screen when it was released - I guess I was around age-7 - this new unearthing was especially timely. I'd seen several other Sci-Fi films, and a few TV productions such as 'Quatermass and the Pit' and 'A for Andromeda'. All of them gripped my imagination, I was hooked. So I was well set, by age 16 (having read scarcely any fiction before as a teen - just comics, really), to propel myself into this new literary bonanza. (I touch, somewhat exaggeratedly, on how all this affected me in 'The Button' where I refer to the TV series 'The Outer Limits', though I was just as affected and influenced by 'Out of the Unknown' and, of course, 'The Twilight Zone'.)

I'd been at the Silent Channel only about a month when Nip told me I'd have to attend tech-college one day a week. Why hadn't John warned me of this? I wasn't at all happy about it, and said so. I explained how I'd left school specifically to avoid classrooms and all the mad rituals of so called 'education'. Sympathising, Nip said it wasn't up to him; but didn't I realise I needed to learn the academic side of an electrician's work? Besides, he added, you'll get qualifications that'll be useful in future. Unconvinced, I relented when he said to just go along and see how it is, and if I was still unhappy we'd discuss the issue further.

But... miraculously, incredibly... college was outstanding; better than work. Far better. I'd never imagined that learning in a classroom could be pleasant, something I'd look forward to. For most subjects we had the same lecturer, a guy with impressive natural skill for engaging our interest and teaching, and all with a sense of humour. So I did the homeworks, and - although quite basic mostly - I began to really learn. Even taking the train to St Neots every Tuesday and walking across fields as a short-cut formed a minor adventure. I loved everything about it. When the exams came around the following July I passed, in Nip's words: 'with flying colours' - as he emphasised teasingly to John who'd attained ordinary passes a couple of years earlier. The fact was the exams were a bit of a walkover, not nearly as challenging as 'Practical Wireless'.

Another reason I reckon I did so well was the brilliant detail - among many during those times at college - that we were allowed to smoke in exams. And us smokers would be obliged to sit near an open window 'for the benefit of non-smokers'. I would have judged the opposite, but no way was I going to question it? What could be better when stuck in a hot classroom for 2-hrs in mid July?

This was precisely the kind of intelligent situation that was so refreshing after the strict regimentation and humbug of school - and where yes, I was also caned when caught in possession of cigarettes. It was as though educationally I'd moved from a dystopian hell to a utopian heaven - a transition that left a sense of euphoria which remained for many years... remnants of which I believe endure to this day. I mean, I still enjoy learning about almost anything, especially getting to grip with issues that at surface look hard to fathom - whether it concerns something technical, or some obscure political intrigue or other (of which there's an unprecedented abundance these days).

Even so, with my first three years in the world of work spent mostly replacing dud bulbs and fluorescent tubes, I can't say I was especially enamoured by the factory side of the equation. The locations this took me to, though, ranged from the roof-rafters of store sheds, greasy lighting gantries in fume-laden factory areas, steaming acid-bath sheds... to plush carpeted office suits, executive toilets (and who wouldn't just love to see what those are like?) and on one occasion the CEO's house... nowhere that used electricity was beyond a lighting-dogsbody's domain.

Occasionally, I'd be scheduled to help dismantle old installations, or install new ones. Sometimes - and what I liked most - Brian would request my assistance with some technical project: wiring and installing a sophisticated motor control system, for instance, or fixing a technical fault in some complex production process. It was usually him who Nip chose to tackle the more challenging technical jobs. And I learned a lot from Brian. A great guy, he must be well past 80 now. He was the only one to take some of my 'eccentric' predictions seriously.

One day Tom collared me to assist with a problem on an intercom between either end of the Flock-Line. Here several continuous lengths of rubber from an extruder at one end of the 'Line' were conveyed through curing ovens and various processes to emerge after about 100-metres and get wound into coils. The intercom, which was quite new, sounded like a cheap transistor radio: tinny and distorted. It was hard to make out what someone at the far end was saying. But the problem wasn't with the sound: that was as it should be, apparently. The problem that required fixing was that its housing was broken, exposing the circuit board inside.

I asked Tom what it cost. About £100, he replied, taping-up the damaged case. I was astonished and told him I could provide a far better intercom for less than a tenner. (I knew the TV shop sold small uncased amplifiers - like the one in that old record-player - at a fiver a go. In fact, by then I'd actually bought one to experiment with alongside the gramophone amp). Tom grinned condescendingly then frowned and said: "..another of your bright ideas... if you really think such daft things you'll never learn anything." Or something to that effect.

As ever the easy giver-upper, I decided the issue wasn't worth pursuing. A few days earlier I'd questioned an instruction from Nip, and suggested some 'better' alternative; instead of considering or explaining, he'd responded - it should be said, in a friendly tone - by telling me that my job was to do as instructed, not to reason why. What could I do but just shrug and get on with it - whether stupid, wasteful, pointless, whatever...?

During my second year there John got married. The reception was held in the social club, the upstairs of a big modern annex to the factory. It comprised a bar - attended by a manager whenever we fixed the lighting (or we'd certainly have nicked a drink or two) - a large dancehall and a canteen which as a sideline supplied 'meals-on-wheels'.


Other Pursuits

Also in that second year, as soon as I turned 16, I bought a three-wheeler car: a Messerschmitt (light blue as in the picture below). When Dad said he'd felt lucky at my age to have a secondhand bike, I replied that probably my kids would feel lucky to have a secondhand gyrocopter. He lent me the money, anyhow. Capable of exceeding 70 mph, I used to race - and win - a friend who attended the same course at St Neots tech on our way home along the A1, him on a weirdly large pelican-red motor-scooter. But that car was as lethal as it was fabulous, with virtually no front protection for the driver in the event of a collision. What kid, though, is ever conscious of danger? Curiously, I was scared of riding a motorbike, but felt secure in the Messerschmitt with its hood down and wide front wheelbase with mudguards either side. Had it been designed the other way around - front to rear - then maybe I would have been scared.

Messerschmitt KR200 (1955 - 1964)

About a year later, now age 17, I traded it in at a local secondhand car dealer for a Ford Popular: £150 (also pale-blue - swipe image). This time Dad's parents lent me some of the money - so I'd often take them for a Sunday morning ride. I really liked that old '3-speed' Ford. You could go from 0 - 40mph in 2nd gear, which made it almost like an 'automatic'.

By now my brother had moved-on from playing guitar for 'The Inmates' at various school or college dances and suchlike. Now he supplemented his day job of demonstrating and selling pianos and organs for Millers famous music shop in the centre of Cambridge by playing piano and organ in a seven-man band that was 'resident' to Alconbury US Air-Force base, about 3-miles north of Huntingdon.

It's common knowledge that the US spares no expense in providing the best top entertainment for its military, and this band was no exception. Occasionally, I'd give my brother a lift there in the old Ford, then stay the evening to watch the main performance. The resident band would play till maybe 21.00, then the star performer(s) - always outstanding, sometimes famous (though I might not have heard of them) - for an hour, perhaps two-hours. Then finally the resident band would return to the stage until around midnight. I recall one remarkable group from New Zealand called 'The Maori Volcanics', all decked in their traditional native garb and playing huge Spanish guitars that had a deep rich tone. Also, the well famous Kenny Ball & his Jazzmen - I even exchanged a few words with him. Several renowned pop groups too, names I can't recall, played there. Although none were quite up to Beatles fame, they were all highly skilled entertainers, frequently far more diverse than one might have guessed from brief TV appearances.

Being connected with a member of the band, I was almost as revered at they were by the airmen who would ply me with Budweisers and Marlboros ad nauseam as though I was a long-lost relation. And when possible between the noise of the music, we'd talk and laugh and joke. Several times, almost too drunk to stand-up, certainly to walk straight, I drove the 3-miles home afterwards, no problem. I've always advocated that although to drive drunk is risky and best avoided, it's still far safer than driving tired. I mean, if your eyes are closed you don't stand a chance. And there was no risk of me falling asleep in those brief 3-miles - not at the speed I went! I wouldn't do it now, but at 17 one has little sense of responsibility and virtually none of one's own mortality.

I never really took to Budweiser, though it was OK, probably the best 'beer' you'll get in the US. But I did smoke Marlboro for a few years around then - duty free from the base, of course. They were a great bunch, those US airmen. I never saw any of them drunk, nor could I imagine any of them being aggressive or violent. They reminded me of a sober version of Sergeant Bilko's quirky platoon (in the popular TV comedy), which I suppose stands to reason since they were conscripts and therefore just ordinary guys.

Because quarters and housing on the base were limited, the air-force rented properties in and around Huntingdon - mostly for families. Of the several friends I used to go drinking with at weekends, one lived only a few doors from one of these, and they were on friendly terms. Now this airman owned a huge fabulous car called a 'roadrunner' with a 6½-litre engine, and one day when a well-famed artist was performing in one of the enormous hangers on the base, he drove several of us out there. These occasional day-time performances were as much for kids as adults. But I clearly remember this one as a major experience... not the performance, which I also remember though would need a memory-jog to recall the band's name, rather: the journey there.

Anyone who knew the road from Huntingdon to Alconbury as it was then will recall that it ran dead straight from the traffic lights at the Iron Bridge where the railway crossed over, past the 30-mph limit sign about half a mile further on (around where the last house was), and then for another mile or so through open fields to when the road became a series of wide sweeping curves.

The lights were red at the bridge; when they changed, our driver slammed hits foot to the floor, the engine roared, the bonnet rose high, and we were pinned to the back of our seats. In my experience since, only an aircraft has produced that kind of thrust. I remember noticing as we passed the 30-mph limit sign that the speedo read 120-mph. A moment later we veered around those curves like a bearing in a pin-ball machine, held steady by the changing camber, then arriving at the base - all within seconds, so it seemed. Incredible.

Oddly, US car speedos - I believe to this day - display mph, not Km/h. But then so do UK speedos (though these usually show both). This curious tradition led to an expensive error with the famous Hubble telescope, a crucial component of which was made in Europe using metric parameters. Why the world doesn't switch to the MKS standard is a mystery to me. Such is the irrational nature of even technical institutions, clinging - as if to some kind of life-raft - to an outdated problematic status quo. Maybe they think it'll prolong their lifespan or something equally nuts, who knows?


A New Job

A friend of my brother's who'd played lead guitar - and was damn good too - for another pop-group run by the manager at the Flea Pit, used to often call round at our house. He'd also been in the same class as my brother at school. His dad worked for the TV shop where those defunct TVs had come from, and had sold me - for a 'concessionary' £4 when the price label read £5 - a new small uncased audio amplifier that I'd bought just to experiment with. A pleasant, friendly guy, he bore a striking resemblance to Col Hall (Paul Ford), the aforementioned Bilko's long-suffering boss.

But this friend, like his dad, was an electronics engineer, though in a different field - ie, scientific instruments. When I discovered this, I asked him about it. He told me everything I needed to apply for a job at the same outfit he worked for: ie, Pye-Unicam Ltd, Cambridge - ~18-miles east of Huntingdon.

So I wrote, and before long was invited to an interview. After a brief meeting with personnel and taking their IQ test, I was taken through the factory to be interviewed in his office by the very amiable middle-aged 'Works Manager', Bill Gordon. Pye-Unicam was a quite big outfit, employing around 1500 staff, yet Bill knew my brother's friend (who worked in electronics R & D) - and to my surprise, on account of his involvement with music, my brother. It turned out that Bill played piano for a jazz trio: piano, drums and bass, which performed at weekends in a popular Cambridge nightclub. How could I have failed to get the job? When, during the interview, someone delivered the IQ test result, Bill just placed it aside and remarked that it wasn't relevant. Once again nepotism operated in my favour.

So the old Ford became more than just for joy-rides. Now essential for getting to work, I soon discovered it was sometimes a bugger to start on a cold winter morning... which was crucial in the autumn of 1967. But most significantly, at last, I'd be working with electronics.

By now I was 18, and several kids I knew had just left school with an 'A' level or two, some with just 'O' levels. As for me, 3-years at St Neots tech had qualified me for an 'Electricians Certificate'. All I needed was a bit more practical experience.

But that was not to transpire. My days at the Silent Channel were over. When I resigned, most of my work-mates declared cheerfully that I was going from the proverbial frying-pan into the fire. Knowing what was in prospect, their response made me smile. My brain was too slow to retort with an opposing proverb, but I felt I was flying high. I called to mind the time I'd overheard the head science teacher at school once telling some prospective 'A' level kids that to gain employment with one of the Pye companies in Cambridge - of which there were several, mostly concerned with TV or telecommunications - one needed top marks and to be outstandingly bright. I felt like I'd outpaced them all - and done so without being bright.

True, some academic work that other people found challenging I found simple or obvious. But, if only because those others were hardly academically inclined, I knew inside I was pretty ignorant - scarcely to mention often slow to grasp non-technical stuff. As for ascertaining reasons behind a load of baffling everyday issues, whether concerning factory, college or more predominately society generally... no chance. I suppose like most teens, I saw things in 'black-and-white'; rather than try to make sense of an anomaly, my response was to inwardly shrug and assume those who facilitated it were either sadists or petty degenerates - or maybe just thick. Either way, as it seemed to me, the accuracy of the old adage 'power corrupts' - as had been consolidated over and again at school - was just as applicable in the wider world where its influences were significantly more ominous.

Fortunately, once beyond school, my circumstances led to only fleeting brushes with these apparently bizarre 'anomalies' - which I ascribed to the ego-driven power-play of bird-brained simpletons. Higher levels emanated from way above where I existed, though repercussions would often reverberate down. My associations, in happy contrast, were now predominately with the exceptions: the 'moderate' few, those with a rational, stable temperament, with 'more-than-half-a-brain' - as the saying goes.



Following several weeks of getting to know the York Street factory and its various departments, plus working a few weeks in some of them, I was assigned to attend the Pye-group training centre. Ominous as this might have seemed - and to an extent was, as it turned out - this training was separate from whatever day-release courses us students had been directed to enrol on at Cambridge tech. I'd been instructed to join the 4-year 'Electrical Technicians' course (I began in year-1, though having covered the electricians' course, I really should have joined year-2 or even year-3).

Excluding production workers, all young recruits to the Pye Group of companies in Cambridge were sent to the training centre. These companies, as I say, were mostly involved with some aspect of telecommunications, though like me, several students were from Pye-Unicam - which made only scientific instruments: chiefly pH-meters, spectrophotometers and various kinds of chromatograph.

I think virtually all us trainees/apprentices regarded the training centre as something to endure, like conscription, and looked forward to returning to the real world, even if that was a mere factory. On the face of it, the concept of an all-encompassing training centre might sound reasonable enough, even highly expedient, but like any non-essential ancillary institution, training centres - at least, this particular non-specialising one - was, to my mind, of dubious benefit to anyone other than those who ran it.

It reminded me of the proverbial government department satirically depicted in the 1960s radio comedy, 'The Men from the Ministry': a department existing purely for the sake of itself, achieving nothing useful to anyone (even creating monumental problems for other departments), yet always able to justify its existence in a way that convinced those who funded it... if only through its function in clearing-up those problems it caused.

In any event, many of the students would soon afterwards probably be put in charge of a technical area or process, or at least before long hold a quite senior position in some production department or other.

Around this time, the Ford began suffering serious faults: consistently failing to start, burning oil, and generally making life difficult. So I took the free Pye-Group coach to work instead - which officially started at Fenstanton, about 6-miles east towards Cambridge. The driver, lucky for me, lived in Huntingdon and the coach was parked near Godmanchester. He'd pick me up at ~06.30 in a fabulous old Vauxhall Velox - with a big valve radio that had a superb base and sounded amazing - then in the coach we'd go round the villages picking-up mostly women production staff.

Unable to afford another car or pay for repairs, I daringly dismantled the Ford's engine myself... that's to say, I removed the head, pistons, valves, and so on, towed it with Dad's car to a local garage for a re-bore, then with new rings on the pistons, reassembled it, grinding-in new valves, setting the tappets, installing new gaskets...etc., and incredibly it worked... at least for about another year. Then other problems arose... well, it was quite old...

Back at the training centre, most mornings were spent first in lectures - tediously going over various aspects of basic electronic theory that most people already knew - then later watching on a huge TV the transmissions of BBC educational programmes with titles like 'World of Work' or 'Engineering at Work' and so on. Again, nothing that most people didn't already know.

I could hardly have guessed that a decade or so later I'd be at BBC TV Centre in White City operating the telecine at the sending end of those broadcasts.

Afternoons, in contrast, were taken up with practical work, dismantling returned faulty stock, building and testing various circuits, and so forth. It was as if the instructors were just filling our time with whatever pap they could think-up.

Sometimes we'd work in pairs. One guy I worked with who a couple of years later was to become unexpectedly crucial to my 'progress' was Alan. He was about my age and already had 'A' levels from school. This qualified him to be assigned the esteemed title 'Student Apprentice' - the highest grade. I never knew what my grade was - the lowest, I imagine - but two years later when he was sent on a sandwich course - for which I, with not even an 'O' level (let alone 'A'), was ineligible - Alan's project leader requested that he find a suitable replacement: someone who could handle the eccentric clowns who worked there and adjust to the 'laid-back' approach.

The whole experience, though, at that training centre was pretty dreary, which meant a certain level of larking around. That's when me and Alan best got to know one another, and from where he recalled my suitability for the peculiar - some might say, idiosyncratic - milieu of chromatography development. Hence, mercifully - though not straight away - I was rescued from the fate of most students: landing in some dynamic production dept. Alan said later that no one else he could think of came close. And so began my 4-years as a lab-technician.

Prior to this, though - before being 'rescued' - I spent about a year in one of those 'dynamic' departments: Evaluation. This must have been 1969, because it was the year Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. I watched this live on an old monochrome TV at the end of my bed in the early hours of the morning. Next day few people turned-up at work before around 11.00, and there wasn't a word of complaint. Which indicates the unique nature of the event. It seemed to capture virtually everyone's interest.

Some time later - after being 'rescued' and working in the lab - a couple of us trundled down to Senate House (near Kings College) to view a selection of moon-rocks on display. They were enclosed in glass cases and were jet-black matt or shiny like black glass, and included bead-like fragments, a millimetre or two across, as well as black powder.

As for my year in Evaluation, I was eventually responsible for 'soaking' over several days pH meters from production, of which there were two kinds: cheap and expensive - their progress was recorded on a couple of multiplexed chart recorders. Finally, I'd check and calibrate the meters against various buffer-solutions before sending them to the guys in 'Packing' where they'd get polished and wrapped in tissue paper - like some kind of exotic Christmas toy - and boxed.

The more expensive meter measured pH 0 to 14, while the smaller, cheaper one went from 2 to 12. I believe even the cheap one was well over £100 - for comparison, in those days my wages were ~£5/week.

The pH meter, incidentally, was (and probably still is) a standard piece of lab equipment for any outfit that uses chemicals: university chemistry departments, distilleries, breweries, etc. The reading shows the acidity (below 7) or alkalinity (above 7) of a solution: that is, the concentration of hydrogen ions. So neutral 7 (pure water) means -log7 (or 10 to the power minus 7) percent hydrogen ion concentration.

Although, as a technician, I was the lowest grade in the lab, my work was more that of an assistant. And once I'd gained their confidence, I got my own mini projects - the details of which I meticulously recorded in a ledger, as I'd noticed a few of the other guys did. About 3-decades later, I perchance ran into Pete, a somewhat eccentric yet impressively practical guy who I'd worked mostly with there. I learned a lot from Pete, and he'd been great fun - a very positive influence. He told me that after I'd left, my ledger became the most consulted reference in the lab, even more than the famous ubiquitous 'Rubber Book' that every physics lab has a copy of. Although I could recall nothing of the technical details I'd recorded, the comment struck me as both comical and bizarre.

Even so, and mainly due to Pete, I retain many fond memories of that lab. I rarely experienced a dull moment there. I could write reams on that 4-year 'interlude' alone... the antics, the 'excursions', the sheer fun we had... where does one stop with a memoir?

One excellent oddity was that whoever became involved with research or development in those days - maybe now too - held a curious kind of status that meant they were regarded with a level of respect that eluded members of other departments. And if - like one retired ex-Royal-Navy nut who ran the training dept briefly and thought he was God - anyone tried to thwart that curious status, or otherwise create hassle, they would come-up against the formidable force that was behind it: the research director himself, and above him top management. So that once in the lab, any intention or pressure - in this instance, to move me out and back into production - was ineffective and therefore futile. Such decisions were entirely at the discretion of my project leader - who enjoyed the research director's total confidence.

Around this time one of our lecturers at Cambridge tech organised a coach-trip to Sizewell nuclear power plant on the east coast. That was pretty sensational. After wandering across the vast room above the reactor core, a couple of us had picked up a minuscule dose of radioactivity. Everyone was tested before leaving, but me and another kid had to be re-tested after a delay. Luckily we were clear, and they let us go. Otherwise, we'd have had to remain overnight and drink several (~10?) pints of beer - seriously, that was the recommended and usual method of 'flushing' the system. When I heard that, I almost regretted being clear on the re-test.

What I remember most, though, was the exotic fish in the filters. Apparently a consistently warmer sea had harboured some quite strange specimens that were not native to the North Sea. The guy showing us around said he and other staff would frequently hook out anything that looked suitable for dinner.


New Car & New Direction

It was during this period when the Ford finally gave out. I was in the process of organising a replacement anyway. But I sold it one day for a fiver to a garage on the A14 close to where it conked out: about half way between home and work. Then, soon after - this was 1971 - with another loan, I bought a brand new mini for £600. Lacking in comfort but totally reliable, that mini was to serve superbly well for nearly a decade.

One extraordinary feature of my experience with education since leaving school - apart from that weird Pye training centre - was that every course I attended was outstandingly well designed and run. Our lecturers were individual personalities in their own right, of course, and all very different, but I can't recall - during the entire 6-years I attended - any who failed to shine. There wasn't a single class or lecture at Cambridge tech that I didn't enjoy or at the very least feel I gained from. In that alone, I consider myself supremely fortunate; hence for me life as a student was truly fabulous - and learning, the pleasure it should always be. As for passing exams: good lecturers make that easy too.

A lecturer I thought particularly impressive was a guy called Ambrose who taught 'Control Systems'. Like most lecturers he was probably in his 40s and although of average height, his body appeared short and his legs unnaturally long. He had little hair but as if to make-up for it had grown huge ginger sideburns. His clothes too matched his eccentric nature: ie, large-checked 'clown-like' trousers always at half-mast. He resembled the kind of cartoon characters that illustrate Edward Lear poems and suchlike in nursery-rhyme books: 'There was a man of Thessaly'. One day, during a lab session, he caught someone mimicking him. With a big characteristic smile he announced: "I may look a funny little man, but I've been married three times." - which provoked hilarity all around. He expertly directed us making toy cars that would follow a white line or mobile grabbing devices that could locate and capture a white ball.

I also have fine memories of fellow students. Several worked for fledgling outfits in Cambridge, developing projects at the cusp of technology: for instance, one guy I knew was involved with growing silicon crystals, another with early integrated circuits, yet another was researching coloured LEDs, etc. And on a few occasions several of us met-up for an evening at a pub or two...

Lunchtimes when at the tech, I'd sometimes wander into what seemed like another world: the tranquil silence and nature of a huge cemetery at the back of the college. There, no traffic sounds could be heard, just birdsong and wind in the trees. The almost unreal quality and purity of the transition mystified me, but I didn't dwell on it as I sat there absorbing the calm. I knew nothing of meditation in those days, but I think that's what I did there - with eyes open, taking in the peacefulness, the fresh air, above all the moment. I know I always felt amazingly uplifted as I walked out of there and then maybe across Parker's Piece into town or to Grafton St before returning for afternoon lectures.

The late 60s, early 70s was a quite thrilling and inspiring time for me. I was, after all, in the middle of a technological revolution... and with Flower-Power, long hair, the increasing frequency of anti-establishment demonstrations, a social revolution as well. So many new things were going-on all around. New ideas and devices seemed to appear almost by the day. The future didn't just look bright, it looked dazzling, glorious, sensational. Optimism reigned and was as palpable as rock. Not only did one feel involved, but like Sartre in WW2 France under Nazi occupation, engaged too.

As a novice Sci-Fi enthusiast - having discovered Asimov only a couple of years earlier - I imagined up ahead a fabulous 'space-age' future, solid with amazing gadgets, and robots vastly superior even to the fictitious Professor Morbius's famous prototype in 'Forbidden Planet'.

The guy in charge of our section of lab, Bob, was involved with a project that the well-known consultant scientist Jim Lovelock had undertaken: to design a miniature chromatograph for NASA's Viking mission to Mars. As the lab 'dogsbody' I was the one to be sent on errands such as exchanging documents - mostly concerning what was already known about the Martian atmosphere - between Bob and the University of Cambridge Dept of Astronomy & Theoretical Physics. This was near Lensfield Road where my friend Geoff worked at the U of C Chemical Labs. If anyone in our lab needed some obscure chemical I'd make a trip out to visit Geoff for a phial of it - they kept just about everything, except plutonium I guess, at his lab... though in those times I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd possessed even that.

And right beside the chem labs was - is - an enormous lecture theatre where I recall a particularly dramatic lecture one evening. Put on by a guy of my namesake (apart from the title): Dr Clarke, the topic concerned the evolution of fireworks. In flamboyant style, equipped with generous quantities of gun-cotton and other incredible substances, Dr Clarke set about demonstrating the chemistry of pyrotechnics. These kind-of one-off lectures were common in those days - maybe they still are - but they were always free and usually well attended. This one was packed, but before the end, most people had left. The smoke and fumes as Dr Clarke moved vigorously and obliviously from one demonstration to the next - as if determined to complete what he'd set-out to show - became almost overwhelming. A few of us remained to the bitter end - half choking, but increasingly impressed and enjoying every second. So in spite of a depleted audience he got a rapturous applause.

If the topic sounded interesting, I'd usually attend these free lectures - or even IEE meetings when a guest speaker, an expert in some unusual or futuristic field, was attending. I recall one on fluid logic with examples of guided missiles containing no electronics - since the e-m pulse from a nuclear explosion could destroy unprotected integrated circuits. In a lecture on lasers, the guy demonstrating was amazingly clumsy - maybe he'd been drinking? It wasn't unusual in those days for these 'famous' scientists/engineers to be tipplers - and accidentally nudged this quite powerful laser so the beam crossed just below his eyes. Everyone gasped. It could, of course, have blinded him - or at least destroyed part of his retina. Another lecture on interferometry showed how atomic distances could be measured with astonishing ease.

Computers were appearing everywhere too; primitive, temperamental and often problematic, they were nevertheless being incorporated into the X-ray machines and spectrophotometers at Pye Unicam.

On a couple of occasions I worked as assistant to consultant scientists. First, within weeks of moving into the lab, was a guy called Ray Scott. I later learned he was world renowned in the field and had written several books. I think he invented the FID: Flame-Ionisation Detector.... or at least turned the basic idea into a device of great practical use.

I should explain. Basic chromatography can be observed when ink soaks into blotting-paper. After it dries, you might notice varying shades or colour (hence 'chroma...') as you look further from the soak point: smaller molecules soak more easily further into the paper, while larger molecules are held back. Now instead of paper, imagine powder in a tube, and coat the powder in a substance with a chemical affinity for certain molecules, so those molecules are held-back on the basis of their structure rather than size. Coil the tube (or column), place it in an oven to control temperature, fit an injection port (with a gas supply) at one end and a detector at the other.... and there's your chromatograph.

The powder, its coating.... the column, its length.... the oven temperature... the carrier gas... the type of detector... etc., all depend on the kind of chemicals you aim to analyse. Since I was no chemist, my work was mainly concerned with the detector and the processing of the signal it produced.

Ray Scott's FID comprised an insulated stainless steel jet positioned just beneath a stainless steel cylinder. The jet is fed from the side with hydrogen and from below with the column output: ie, carrier gas containing small quantities of the sample being analysed. The carrier can be any inert gas, usually nitrogen or argon. With the jet lit, and 300volts DC applied across the jet-cylinder, the current through the flame is monitored on a chart recorder. Emerging separated components of sample from the column will alter the ionisation-potential of the flame and hence the current, thereby causing peaks on the chart as each component is detected. The greater the area under the peak, the more of that component - each being defined by its retention time in the column according to prior calibration.

On another occasion the aforementioned Jim Lovelock - famous for his Gaia hypothesis and book of that name - was hired for his ECD: Electron Capture Detector. This contained a radioactive source (strontium 90 or Nickel 63) in the shape of a cylinder. A central probe captures electrons from that source and the signal is amplified and sent to a chart recorder. An inert carrier gas with components of sample from the end of the column passes between the probe and the radioactive source. The signal is affected by the sample depending on its ability to absorb electrons.

It was specifically this ECD that was chosen for the miniature chromatograph carried on NASA's Viking mission. The reason, I believe, was because the primary aim was to check for evidence of life. It was assumed that all life is organic - ie, contains carbon - and that methane (CH4) results from the decay of living cells. I've never studied biology or chemistry, so can say no more - except that Lovelock claimed his detector was more sensitive than a dog's nose.

There were a couple of other types of detector, but they were rarely used.

Back in the spring of '73, as I approached the HNC2 final exam, after which there seemed no obvious next step in the world of academia, I discussed my position with one of the scientists in the lab. Most there had a PhD in chemistry or physics, including Hector - who I occasionally worked with - and he strongly advised me to enrol on a degree course. Curiously, I didn't need nudging, merely the suggestion was enough.

I was just 24 and, astonishing to me now, more eager than ever to move on and make some kind of progress. I guess the prospect of living the student life attracted me as much as studying electronics to a more advanced level.

It strikes me as quite remarkable that I still at age 24 retained glimmers of that weird ephemeral 'castle' we seem in our youth to perceive ahead - us lucky ones, that is. Pure figment, but don't tell anyone, at least not anyone young... not that they'd believe you anyway. It's a powerful image, and even for a cynic like me fades with reluctance unless you're unfortunate enough to land in some kind of mire or other... as to an extent happened to me at school, but which was ineffective since at that age the future looks infinite, and unless you're stupendously unlucky, never bleak.

So my next step was to visit the Cambridge careers advisor at Shire Hall - the home of Cambridge City Council: an impressive red-brick building surrounded by lawns and set back from the A14 (then A604) at the top of the hill just west of Bridge Street. Why was there no careers advisor at Huntingdon back in '64, I wondered?

It was a small office, part of an annex, and was about as chaotic as a jumble sale. The guy there was outstandingly cheerful and friendly. Searching through the mayhem he blew a series of comical raspberries, every now and then throwing out sheets containing info on the kind of courses I'd described I was interested in. Then he sorted several from the heap and showed me. Portsmouth came out top - not only because it was by the sea (a major plus), but the course contained what I was most keen to learn about: power-systems and telecommunications. Where did one see those in the same course? Thanks to Al Corder, I could apply to study power-station technology AND wave-guides.

After a brief interview, I was offered a place: BSc honours in Electrical & Electronic Engineering. I could, if I chose, start in the 2nd year, but then it wouldn't be 'honours' (whatever that meant?). There were no fees in those days and students received a grant to cover living expenses. Besides, I was there for the pleasure of it - both the student lifestyle and the subjects of the course... what else but to begin at the beginning?

So it was autumn '73 when I drove down to Southsea full of keen anticipation. This was also my first time living away from home. After moving digs a couple of times I ended up renting a fine little bed-sit for £3/week where I remained for the rest of the 3-years. Decades later I discovered that about 200-metres along the road almost opposite those digs was the house where Kipling had lived as a kid. Since this led neither towards the sea nor polytech, I don't think I ever went down there - except recently on Google Earth.

A few months after starting at the poly I was obliged to charge up to Nottingham for a wild wedding - as somewhat melodramatically described HERE. After that - and why then, I don't even know myself (except idleness) - I stopped shaving... for good, so far.

In '76, the final year, only one student gained a first. I wasn't that far behind, but he shone above us all - a bright kid, and a really pleasant guy too. His final year project involved a keyboard and TV-screen for which he built an interface that generated text. It's hard to believe now that as recently as '76 there was no commercially available device that did this. Can that be true? It doesn't seem possible.

Anyhow, one day this same guy organised for several of us to visit Portsmouth Power Station - which had been decommissioned several years earlier but was only partially dismantled. That was a surreal, spooky experience if ever there was. More like wondering around a kind-of Frankenstein's Castle, huge rusty girders, big coils of 11KV cable.... vast holes where the generators had sat. Everything of any value had been removed.


Holidays & Techno Magic

A couple of years after my paternal grandad died ~'72, my maternal grandma (Ellen Goldsmith, nee Smith - mother Alice, father George) no longer able to look after herself, moved from Wadhurst to a small house that perchance came on the market opposite where we lived in Huntingdon. This was ~1974 or 5, and so now my mum could look after her mother. Since it was only a few doors from the other grandma, they quickly became good friends, frequently visiting each other's for tea. Now and then I'd take them with maybe another local friend of theirs for occasional Sunday afternoon drives.

Once every couple of months on a Sunday Mum's sister Mollie and family - David, and their two sons almost the same ages as me and my brother - would visit for the day. They travelled from Wanstead, about an hour's drive away. And maybe once every two or three years their other sister Jean would come and stay for several weeks. She lived in Northport, Long Island NY, with her family who came with her a couple of times; that is, Archie (an American GI during WW2) and Diane, their youngest of two daughters. I can still remember them at Wadhurst back in ~1953 with their son David (slightly older than me) and other daughter Barbara (slightly younger), and them describing their trip across the Atlantic on The Queen Mary.

It must have been ~1975 or 6 - the summer break while I was at polytech - when I took the grandmas to Cromer for a week. That was a truly strange holiday. They shared a big double room on the ground floor, and except for meals were unbelievably slow getting ready for anything: a wander out, an excursion... whatever. And they always rested a couple of hours after lunch - a gastronomic extra I avoided throughout. I wonder to this day how they managed to devour so much food. After a late start - I'd usually get a swim in before they were half-ready to go anywhere. Then I'd take them to a beauty-spot, some attraction or other, maybe just for a drive. From about midday when they returned for lunch, I'd be free for several hours until ~15.30 following afternoon tea. Then I'd drop them at the promenade or an ornamental garden, park the car, and push overweight maternal grandma in the wheelchair while more moderately proportioned paternal grandma would waddle alongside. By ~18.30 they'd be more than ready for dinner. After that, chatting with other grannies in the lounge would take care of their evenings while yours truly went gallivanting along the cliffs or beach, then maybe into town to a pub.

My hotel-room had no bedside lamp, so with a length of wire I kept in the car - I always carried a small medley of tools and technical bits in the car - I rigged the wall-switch to be beside the bed. Recalling comic character 'Lazy Jones', I'd frequently make little improvisations like that wherever I was. Anything to make life easier - the more ingenious the better. Never mind the risk of being 'found-out' or of some kind of catastrophe, it was a matter of expedience and a test of my skills in lateral thinking and ingenuity (some would doubtless say: stupidity). My bedsit in Southsea, likewise - lamp and TV controlled from switches in a little bedside table I'd modified from a hat-rack - the flexible mirror arm supporting the lamp. Also, a timer on the cooker-plug meant the evening meal would be cooked when I got home.

For many years I'd dreamed of the day when I'd live in a totally automated house, everything controlled by timers, invisible beams, voice- or remote-control. I once planned a kitchen in some detail where I could order a meal and it would be automatically prepared, appropriately cooked/processed, then presented at a hatch (as one might see in a sci-fi film). I even wondered if one day I might start a little outfit that made domestic 'remote controls' that could operate anything from sitting in a chair. Since my disposition and philosophy are both about 180º out-of-phase with anything entrepreneurial, I could never have aspired to do something that wasn't either for myself or family/friends. Regardless of choice, and despite ample psychological energy for other things, I just didn't have any for the mere making of money - which, beyond subsistence, had never interested me. So notions of starting some kind of outfit would have been pipe-dream.

In early '71 I'd seen an advert for a company in St Ives, Cambs, called 'Voice Input'. They claimed to make a device that could interpret a range of vocabulary and generate appropriate signals to operate whatever was instructed. These days this looks tediously banal, but back then it was sensational. I actually biked over there and called at their premises, which was by the river near the old bridge. There were a couple of guys in reception who were evasively vague - as if the whole enterprise was some kind of a front, or a weird stunt. At any rate, they had no device, nothing to demonstrate. I went away intensely disappointed and a bit puzzled.

Then, at a 'Labex' exhibition in '72 held at Olympia, I saw - amidst a fanfare of excitement - the first (Hewlett Packard) 'scientific calculator' on display - cost £200. Despite the crowd this attracted, it struck me as a great clamour over nothing. A neat little device, certainly, and after the 'difficult' Sinclair attempt, an obvious step forward, but not what I'd have judged in any sense ground-breaking as implied by all the attention it received. I remember soon after arguing with friends that within a few years even more sophisticated calculators would cost less than a fiver and might even come free in cornflakes. Needless to say, my opinion was dismissed out of hand, and I was firmly ridiculed for such 'crazy' predictions.

I think it was around '74 or '75, in my 2nd year at poly, when I forked-out what was then a massive £70 for a Texas Instruments version that performed all the scientific functions including 'nand' etc. logic, probability, linear and other regression (for any function on the calculator) and a few other things too. That calculator served brilliantly for the rest of the course and beyond. One wet weekend, when it was still quite new, I even used it to calculate and plot my own Bessel functions (which describe harmonic damping/decay such as the vibration of a tuning fork).


The Next Step

Where next after polytech? Should I stay or go? The lecturer in charge of my final year project suggested I stay-on in his lab: to study and research and maybe do a few lectures even - essentially continuing the same project - and gain an MPhil if I remained for a year, or even - should the project develop appropriately - for 3-years and get a PhD. The former option, I admit - of having Phil at both ends of my name - did sound attractive.

This guy, formerly at Southampton Uni, had been a fellow PhD student with one of the scientists back in the lab at Pye-Unicam - the one who'd driven us through a sudden snow storm to Senate House in his vintage box-shaped Ford to see the moon rocks. Yet, despite liking the guy and having enjoyed the several months in his weird lab, spacious as it was with all its crazy gadgets and especially a huge zigzagging laser that dominated the place and was key to the project, I felt much in need of a change.

During the Easter 'milk-round' I'd attended several interviews both at the poly and at an outfit's premises: ie, STL at Harlow, Essex, and EMI at Hayes, Middlesex. The Marconi interview at the poly was revealing when, soon after it began, one of the three 'interrogators' became obsessively interested in what my dad did for a living, then my brother - I was naive enough to have revealed that I had siblings. What my sister did never came into it... strange?

Such issues, as I saw it, were not just irrelevant but would only be asked by a small-minded prick. So having twigged the kind of outfit they were, I proceeded to paint a deliberately drab picture. It was an easy way out, after all, and a bit of a lark. A civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, Dad worked on the design and economy of land drainage systems - vital for growing any crop. I told these nutters he worked 'on the land'. And my brother, an accountant for a sand-&-gravel company, I said worked in road building. The interview, I recall, was the shortest ever: about 10-minutes. I was already getting up from the chair when they terminated the session. What was I doing anyway, I wondered later, contemplating working for a weapons manufacturer? Maybe I'd been swayed by their brochures on communication systems? But no-way would I have accepted a job in an outfit that made missiles.

The STL experience began with a pleasant evening in Harlow, mostly spent at a traditional pub with real ale and a capable band; then retiring to a comfortable hotel at STL's expense. The next day began with a tour of several labs, observing the latest developments in fibre-optics - ie, optical wave-guides. This was followed by a somewhat prissy lunch-break with a buffet that included smoked salmon but, alas, no alcohol. Then an hour of pseudo-IQ tests.... with several pages of questions like: 'If you went to nudist camp on holiday would you tell your friends?' and three tick-boxes alongside: YES, NO, Don't Know.... advising that too many 'don't-know's would disfavour the candidate. What these questions had to do with competence as a research technician/engineer remains a mystery. Maybe it was more about fitting-in with the personal fads and foibles of the wierdos already there? (Our electronics lecturer at poly, Dr Hollis, remarked that one should always complete such questionnaires by covering the questions then ticking the boxes randomly. I'm certain that's the best advice - or bail-out.)

They also presented us with the Rorschach inkblot test. What more needs to be said?

Finally that afternoon, back in the labs we met those oddball researchers whose temperaments - as they informally performed their interviews - were consistently arrogant, shy and absurdly pedantic. So, I reasoned afterwards, if that's the style of personality they seek, no way would I have fitted! Finally, a week or so later, the episode was concluded, as anticipated, by a polite rejection letter. Just as well, I thought, despite my interest at the time in strip-lines, wave-guides, etc., - which related to the project I was working on at poly.

The EMI visit was almost as strange with a tour around vast assembly lines of CT scanners and other X-ray gear. Another free hotel (belonging to EMI) this time in Paddington then an early train to Hayes/Harlington. It was a difficult location, I thought, and not especially attractive being near Heathrow. The day went well - no oddballs this time - and I expected at least a second interview. Curiously, I never even received a rejection letter - nothing. They were though, I recall, well subscribed - with maybe a dozen of us prospective recruits to choose from.

Other options left me indifferent. I had no real idea what to take a stab at next. An old friend from the lab at Pye-Unicam who I'd kept in touch with, had - amazingly (and foolishly, I believed, though kept this to myself) - decided a couple of years earlier to go in for teaching and had secured a job in Wiltshire, a part of the country both he and his wife liked. His only experience for this had been part-time lecturing during the final year of a physics PhD.

I used to sometimes make a detour and call on him and his wife near Marlborough when on route from Huntingdon to Portsmouth. Although I said nothing, I thought it was a waste of talent switching to school-teaching. I'd been impressed by his approach as a scientist: methodical, organised and thorough, always thoughtful and composed. He was a good friend to me too. Back in Cambridge, he and his wife had lived in a rented flat near East Road close to the tech, and when I'd attended an evening class as part of the HNC day-release, he'd routinely invited me every week for an evening meal. Before the meal, that last summer, I remember he'd sit on the step facing the street and nonchalantly complete the Times crossword while talking with me. This rarely took more than half-an-hour.

Soon after he moved, and presumably before the novelty of his new job had worn off, he suggested I too might try teaching. I'd already dismissed taking some kind of masters degree after learning from at least three recipients of the qualification that it had been the toughest period of their life, so far. When I mused on how I'd found school as a kid, this guy said it had changed beyond all recognition. Maybe his school had? Sceptical as ever, my response was to shrug and wonder: lecturing in a college was one thing, teaching in compulsory 'education' quite another. The latter for me had a decidedly bad taste, yet it didn't escape my notice now as my final year at poly drew to a close, that to train for it would mean another year as a student - an attractive option.

Within a year, sadly, this friend suffered a nervous breakdown and had to quit teaching altogether. More on that later. Though even if I'd been able to predict such an event, it wouldn't have deterred me. After all, I had no real intention at that point of actually teaching. I did, however, reflect on the big holidays as well as a short working day - precisely the same as for a student. That I'd have to prepare lesson notes, do marking, attend meetings and accord with other extra-curricular demands, somehow never occurred to me.

My sister at the time lived in Bristol, and the west country appealed anyway - who doesn't it appeal to? If I wasn't bothered about living by the sea, I'd probably be there now instead of Hastings. The most attractive option in that area, I decided, was Bath with its big modern university set in outstanding countryside.



So in September '76, following a brief and amicable interview - I guess they were low on maths teachers - I moved down to Bath to begin a 1-year PGCE course: Postgrad Cert in Education. Here, as at Portsmouth and probably all big places of learning, they have an accommodation office that dishes-out lists of local digs. In a stroke of genius, I selected a rented room with shared kitchen and bathroom in a big old farmhouse on Charmy Down, close to a long-neglected wartime airfield of that name. The farm was at the end of a winding track off the A46, about 3-miles north-east of Bath. Due mainly to this location, the year '76-'77 was to be one of the best of my life.

Hours at the Uni were short, with weekends and the occasional half-day free, plus - except in winter - long evenings, which allowed loads of scope to roam and enjoy the sensational countryside around the farm: deserted, wild, rugged hills and valleys, natural woodland, rough undulating fields... I got to know the whole area intimately for miles around. It kept me well fit too.

I'd guess there were about 100 students on the course, split into tutor groups of maybe a dozen or so each, according to subject: Maths, Science, Geography, History, English... etc. In addition to this main subject, students had to choose two options from a list. The choices were not especially appealing, I recall, otherwise I might not have selected Sport; the other I opted for was Existentialism, about which I knew nothing.

Now any kind of competitive sport had never interested me - and other kinds only for the fun of participating. But I could hardly ignore the fact that here was a fabulous opportunity to try some activities I'd missed out on as a kid. On campus was a colossal superbly equipped gym, which must have been second to none, plus an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool. At last I'd get to bounce on a full-size trampoline... take part in a fencing match... plus many other obscure sporting activities that are usually reserved for the privileged few.

Our instructor was a real ace too, an amazing guy, massive but nimble; with impressive alacrity he beat all us 'youngsters' on the squash court.



As for existentialism.... this turned out to be quite an eye-opener. Our tutor, Jack Whitehead, was an affable guy with a past full of controversy - as I was soon to learn. Everything about him impressed me. He'd led a student demo, and was consequently in trouble with the uni authorities. His position was 'under review', and his office walls were covered in framed threatening letters from the principal. He was tutor to the physics group, but existentialism and politics came high on his list of interests.

Although only an introduction, and angled for its relevance to education, existentialism sparked something dormant in my brain, a kind-of recognition - as if (had I believed in such things) from a previous life. Several years were to elapse, though, before I transcended the elementary aspects I'm about to describe, and began to seriously immerse myself in the work and ideas of some great philosophers in the field: most notably Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Ionesco, Pirandello and above all Sartre and Camus.

Existentialism 'The philosophy that Man can only be free through full consciousness of his illogical position in a meaningless universe.'

That definition is probably the most concise and accurate there is. My only contention is with the word 'illogical' - since regardless of whether we understand it, how can a fact not be logical? It's from an old dictionary, published before - I cynically suspect - some weird right-wing political influence came to bear (doubtless according to vogue), because an updated version, in contrast, states: Existentialism 'Philosophical movement stressing the personal experience and responsibility of the individual, who is seen as a free agent.'

A more thorough - and, I think, perceptive - examination of this quite straightforward philosophy can be found on wikipedia.

Misleading definitions place 'personal responsibility' first - because how can one properly exercise 'personal responsibility' without 'full consciousness'? (See also regarding this my item on Sartre).

I take 'full' to mean conscious of oneself as well as of surroundings, and of times other than the present. Animals, for instance, appear to operate almost exclusively in the present and according to instinct. This means that although they're conscious of the world around them and even possibly of their place in it, they don't seem conscious of the nature (illogical or otherwise) of their existence - nor of whether it has meaning. If this is so, how can they then experience the freedom that allows (and accompanies) 'personal responsibility'?

I may be wrong, but I think some people - either by choice or disposition - operate at around this same level of consciousness. That is, with regard to the nature of their place in the universe - their 'predicament' - they are more-or-less oblivious. If this is by disposition, then how can they properly exercise 'personal responsibility'? As for choice, one might ask: how can one have choice without being aware that there is a choice? If no-one presents you with the options or some alternative to an otherwise singular view - and nothing else occurs to you - then where is the choice?

So joining the Existentialism course turned out to be truly auspicious. For the first time in my life I became aware - albeit from the academic viewpoint - of this aspect on existence. I say 'for the first time', but as mentioned, I was in fact already 'intuitively' familiar. Somehow, the bias and propaganda our culture constantly bombards us with had not prevented me many years earlier from glimpsing for myself this alternative perspective.

And since the course was principally concerned with how this applied to the lives of kids - especially in relation to school - it could hardly fail to alert me to my own experience as a kid and how these same issues had applied to me.

As I began to think about it, I realised that I'd first noticed this at around age 5 - a flicker of insight sparked by the assault I suffered on my first day of school. After which it was periodically reinforced by certain key events (already described) which without that initial jolt may well have escaped my notice... until by around age 14 the perception had become a permanent part of my psyche. That is, I'd developed a personal understanding of the world and of my place in it, which conflicted with the 'prevailing wisdom'.

What this essentially amounted to (in contrast to how I believed most other people thought) was that my 'intuitive' perspective on the 'human predicament' as stark and meaningless - ie: that we were all essentially contingent - was as valid and accurate as the generally accepted 'intellectual' perspective of us all being trapped on an insignificant planet at some indeterminate time in an infinite universe - that is: we are as imprisoned psychologically as we are physically. (See Moravia's fictional exposition HERE).

Everyone accepts the physical, very few the psychological - or so I'd concluded. In other words: existentialism defined, or seemed to define, the ultimate objective truth about human existence; yet most people, being unaware of this, were living a delusion, a sham - placing themselves and/or others on some kind of spurious pedestal. At least, that was my angle, and I wasn't at all sure at this point whether that delusion could be described as a happy one.

Significantly, though - and ever since those early days at school it had always been in the back of my mind - this truth stood in direct opposition, as I say, to the social milieu, the accepted norm of the time: ie, as in everyday culture or 'received wisdom'... in those days of religion, of order and discipline, of the 'work ethic', of one's place in a hierarchy of status and class, plus numerous other draconian traditions, rules and procedures - scarcely to mention the prejudices, deprivations and other pernicious cruelties, etc., that were the order of the day.

Recognising this existential aspect to life, I believe, is as crucial as recognising that we are mortal. To a kid that latter truth fails to register because for them it's so remote; whereas existence... raw, strange, acutely personal and always in flux... remains palpably evident at all times, at least while we're awake. And it takes only a small step from this to recognise the fakery, the masquerade and bluff, the imposture, the deception our culture, any culture for that matter, is drenched in... or just is.

I remember walking out at the end of that first Existentialism class with the kind of stunned yet uplifting sensation one has after a momentous concert or film. What struck me so forcefully was when Jack had mentioned - emphasised, even - precisely that crushing sense of powerlessness I'd experienced during those moments of abject isolation as an infant, that sense of contingency and then the increased vigilance this evoked as a kind of survival tactic. Either that or, for more sensitive kids (or more brutal control): defeat, isolation and despair.

I imagined Jack's description of the circumstances that kids (as victims) are perennially subjected to - and which, as I say, paralleled what had happened to me - registered too in the minds of the few other students present. Because they'd elected to take this course, I guessed that, unlike myself, they'd known what it would entail, so were probably less impressed than me. With only about 7 of us, it clearly wasn't the most popular course. But none of them seemed as engaged with the subject as I was. Perhaps they saw it as a soft option?

Never before, though, had I witnessed the slightest evidence - in the whole vast educational establishment - of any acknowledgement of the plight many kids are forced to tolerate in school. That was what struck me above all: the emphasis on the significance to a kid of being condemned to years stuck in a classroom, forced under threat of punishment to 'behave', essentially isolated, intimidated, frequently singled-out... and the consequent long-term psychological effects: tedium, rejection, humiliation, fear, and so on.

As far as I was aware at the time, only the novels of Charles Dickens had illuminated these issues: ie, 'Oliver Twist', 'Hard Times', 'Great Expectations', 'David Copperfield'.... etc. Mostly applied to life in general, though, and being set more than a century earlier, their message, sadly, seemed far away and of dubious relevance in 1970s Britain.

But this angle on existentialism demonstrated how moments of trepidation can waken us from our usual everyday semi-conscious state. And any kind of 'waking-up' enhances consciousness. This is normally associated with mountain-climbing and other risky endeavours where the fear of death or injury removes us from ourselves. Because all our attention is directed at keeping safe, our minds experience a kind of liberation, an exhilarating sense of release. Since hopelessness and gloom (at least for anyone with a strong life-force, which most kids have) also demands concentrated attention, then this likewise has the power to jolt us from our familiar way of seeing: ie, it removes the proverbial 'rose-tinted-glasses' and opens our eyes to a more objective view - which means we not only recognise the absurdity of our situation, our contingency, but - like crossing a threshold - we acknowledge its reality. The delusion of our previous vision evaporates, we are no longer deceived. This is the beginning of freedom, for we are now free to rise above the meaninglessness and begin to construct our own authentic selves.

So in this way, as an infant, those moments of trepidation I experienced had - as I've already described - evoked flashes of insight into the fundamental bleakness of existence. At first, this bleakness was purely mine; then gradually it became other people's too (though few, I believed, were aware of it - as a teen, only my friend Brian). Now, astoundingly, here it was being articulated as a key feature of human existence long recognised by academics - even to the extent of a leading university running a course on it.

I should repeat, though, that from age 5 to 15 (due to my fortunate circumstances at home) none of this occupied my mind when I was out of school - except latterly on a kind-of surface intellectual level when discussing it with my friend Brian. But who can possibly think of their existence as other than accidental or unnecessary, especially when observing the usual consequences of a death: soon forgotten, fading into history... and in a hundred years, for most of us, oblivion: gone for ever.

All this made a lasting impression on me - as lasting and significant as my discovery of Sci Fi had been a decade or so earlier.

I suspect now that if we, especially as kids, are able to 'listen' to our intuitions, then we might naturally become spontaneously aware of this underlying truth behind existence. Revealed in this way, the essential meaninglessness would hold no threat or alarm - if anything, the reverse: like learning of the inevitability of death, it would provide an impervious 'honest' basis on which to build our personal lives of meanings and values. If we have only uncertain or false foundations, based on superstition, myth or other fabrication, then our psychological structures will be vulnerable to all kinds of specious diversions - as so poignantly analysed by Camus, most notably in 'The Myth of Sisyphus', but also evident from the everyday despair of those who suffer psychological disorders, and at the other extreme those victims of religious indoctrination who blow themselves up (together with anyone whose lifestyle somehow offends them) with the expectation of thereby entering some kind of fairy-tale paradise. Who knows to what extent the clinging - beyond infancy - to such bizarre notions are due to a failure to accept and overcome an underlying sense of meaninglessness we with bicameral minds all have to face - or should be allowed to naturally face? One can, of course, reflect on the famous Martin Buber quote: 'Because this other human being exists, meaninglessness, however hard you are pressed by it, cannot be the real truth.'

So that, on this remarkable yet really quite banal little sub-course of the PGCE, was how existentialism formed for me what became and continues to be a thought-provoking topic with a multitude of spin-offs in literature and life in general.


Received Wisdom, Psychology and the 50s & 60s

It's hard to imagine in 2015, in the light of a new era, a new awareness - and the reader would be justified to question the truth of it - but as recently as the 1950s and 60s Australians were shooting aboriginals for target practice, in the US blacks were murdered by lynch-mobs for no reason other than skin-colour - both as brutal as South Africa. In those and many other countries, including the UK, anyone suspected of being gay was beaten-up, ostracised, or even jailed.

So barbaric and corrupt were the authorities back then, that not only was vigilantism encouraged, but agent-provocateurs were employed to supplement them. Compared with now, even for the average citizen, life was astoundingly primitive and tough. Anyone who's lifestyle or opinions failed to conform with strict narrow codes of living and thinking, as arbitrarily ordained by the twisted overseers of the ruling Establishment, was at risk of some draconian penalty or other. Many played safe and kept to themselves: communist sympathisers, conspiracy 'theorists', anti-racists, feminists, gays... A few dared to flout convention, and some (like Oscar Wilde half a century earlier) came to grief; most notably Alan Turing, or - for numerous others - as portrayed in the travails of Quentin Crisp: 'The Naked Civil Servant'. In the UK, even protected as I was as a small kid, I could somehow sense the intrusive Fascism like something in the air; all kinds of weird prejudices were in force, supported by regressive, irrational and punitive laws and customs.

I began to notice these depravities explicitly soon after I'd learned to read. I remember in the papers reports of hanging, and victims later being found innocent (maybe it was those that received most publicity?). And I noticed poverty around me, of kids at school looking unkempt and with a strange tired startled look in their unfocused gaze. For many, it was a gruesome time. Yet despite considerable progress since, there remains a long way to go; many people continue to suffer poverty and squalid living conditions. In prisons too, many with psychological causes to their crimes left unaddressed, etc.

Talking of prison: such places should never exist. Only those who pose a risk should be confined, and then to decent accommodation and surroundings rather than the stark cold horrible conditions presently used. Most prisoners are young and from difficult backgrounds; the way authority customarily treats them after being caught for some crime is cruel, entirely counter-productive and stupid - as if the authority is run by people with a lower IQ than their hapless victim inmates. What's needed isn't revenge and victimisation of these unfortunate characters, but an experience of what they've missed, something appropriate that resembles what perhaps most people have in their upbringing: an environment which demonstrates caring and concern for them as individuals, a friendly atmosphere, of welcoming and understanding and the chance to learn co-operation.... This flies right in the face of the absurd 'group-think' of 'received wisdom' about prisons.

So, ever suspicious of 'received wisdom' whether concerning prison, religion or anything else, experience has many times proved it to be received stupidity. Some 'received wisdom' might have a rational basis. Most, though, is problematic, especially traditions - see the youtube Five-Monkeys trick, and for instance (as one probable consequence): the Remembrance ritual, or the whole notion of a monarchy (replaced these days, essentially, by a financial oligarchy), or some traditions in psychology (which I'll examine shortly).

But even technical issues are not immune. We were taught as teens that if you tried sending frequencies above ~4KHz down a phone line the signal would soon attenuate to zero. This was true, could easily be tested and we believed it. But then (years later) some resourceful individual tried several MHz and discovered negligible loss - the line now functioned as a wave-guide... now much older, it seems astonishing that no-one had tried it sooner.

And not long ago, someone discovered they could grow spuds and carrots, etc., on salt flats. No-one had tried before because they'd assumed it was impossible, or had failed to experiment rigorously enough with a broad range of plant-types.

What I'm saying is that 'received wisdom' should be continually re-evaluated. Received philosophies too. But existentialism, uniquely (like gravity), is real: it comes from reality - reality unadorned. In the same way that we acknowledge the importance of our physical need to breathe, eat, sleep and move about, we should acknowledge that existentialism presents an angle of understanding about the human predicament that's not only realistic but crucial to psychological well-being. Like, for instance, learning to swim: some of us innately intuit this for ourselves, while others need to be shown. Using this as a metaphor: throw a kid in the deep end, and they might learn. I did - lucky for me elements in my first 5-years had given me the wherewithal. Otherwise, perhaps, one's fate is to drown in a lifetime of ignorance and silent suffering or to become victim to some absurd brainless myth?

Back at uni: as well as their main subject and those two options (for me Sport & Existentialism), several other peripheral subjects were compulsory for all students. Regular lectures for these were held in huge dauntingly steep lecture theatres. For instance, 'The History of Education', 'Psychology'... etc. Some topics required extra study including reading set books, and then essays to be written.

I wasn't much enamoured by the history - though it did provide an objective perspective on where the era I'd lived through as a kid stood in the overall march of progress. That is, it made me aware that we are all victim to the period we are born in.

Psychology, on the other hand, became yet another significant eye-opener for me. Like existentialism, I'd intuitively recognised this stuff years back as a kid and, also like existentialism, in a way that conflicted profoundly with the climate of the time - the 'received wisdom'.

Some of the most impressive ideas we learned were from John Bowlby, notably on his work concerning 'attachment & loss'. Even more outstanding, though, was the lifework of A S Neil - founder of the famous 'Summerhill' school. His book of that name became for me an indispensable reference, a kind-of psychology 'bible'. It was derived entirely from experience so was in every way practical. Neil's work made perfect sense: it was decent, logical, rational, and highly successful too in helping kids emerge from all kinds of deep-seated - adult induced - psychological afflictions, and then growing-up to lead happy and rewarding lives. Yet, as with existentialism, everything Neil did contradicted 'received wisdom'.

For instance, the standard reaction to a kid who steals money is to punish them. Neil turned this on its head by instead giving the kid money.... obviously, this instantly solved the problem for everyone: most crucially, freeing the kid from guilt and hassle, and allowing him/her to grow and naturally transcend any difficulties.

Years later I was intrigued to learn that several famous people had been so impressed with Neil's groundbreaking work that they'd given overt support. This included Henry Miller, Wilhelm Reich, Bertrand Russell, Robert Morley, Joan Baez... and many other less well-known yet respected people in their fields. Even so, to this day, although I believe the 'school' still operates, the Summerhill philosophy - or should I say, psychology - seems not to have caught-on. If such a system served the interests of Big Corp, it would doubtless have become universal. Summerhill, though, was in direct opposition to Big Corp: its function was slave-freeing - not slave-making.

Neil would consistently outrage - and out-smart - traditionalists and establishment toadies by advocating such notions as instead of spending Sunday morning in church, children should spend it swimming or playing football. His emphasis on contentment, and the avoidance of discontent, was in profound conflict with 'received wisdom' that prevailed in the 50s and 60s.

That 'received wisdom' was to come under increasing attack from the new enlightened post-war generation, then coming-of-age with their 'flower-power', anti war philosophy and so on, that although born with the 50s, first began to assert itself around the mid 60s.

Many years later, reading Ralph Freedman's masterful biography of Herman Hesse 'Pilgrim of Crisis', I found the suggestion that Hesse's work played a significant part in this small revolution. When Hesse died in '62, several university professors in the US were alerted anew to his important work and introduced his books into their curricula. Students became energised by this and went on to devour Hesse's essays on war, etc. This gave them confidence to assert themselves and reject the aggressive, authoritarian, status quo.

Emerging at the same time, the 'Beat' generation - also newly familiar with Hesse's philosophy - made a powerful impact with works like Ginsberg's 'Howl' and Kerouac's 'On The Road'. And with them came what evolved from the rebellious 'mods & rockers' 50s: the music of Elvis, Bill Hayley and Jazz. And in the 60s, Donovan's 'Universal Soldier', Dylan with his songs of pathos, vast anti Vietnam war demos, Timothy Leary's lsd: 'Drop out, Tune in, Turn on.' and 'Make Love, Not War'.

The 60s was an intoxicating time, a period of great confluence: ideas from many sources merging to expose and overturn the 'prevailing wisdom' (ie, prevailing stupidity). In fact, I'd say that '67 to '77 was probably the most exciting, vibrant and enjoyable decade of my life - so far. (And the 80s, working at BBC TV Centre, probably the most laid-back).


PGCE Practicals

Returning to the PGCE course: the last 6-weeks of the first and second terms were allocated to 'teaching practice' at local schools. The guy in charge of students at the second school I was assigned to belonged to the language dept. I guess he was in his early 50s. He became a temporary friend, and shyly confided to me that he's been a waiter in a restaurant in Italy for several years before only latterly entering teaching. He was perhaps out-of-place in this traditional boys' school, but provided a kind-of refuge for a few sensitive kids and me too when trouble began over my placement.

The head of maths, who I'll call George, was ex-military and near retirement. A firm disciplinarian and a monomaniac of the 'old-school', he was offended by my failure to obey his suggestion that a teacher should not repeat an order or instruction. He told me several times that he'd fail me if I didn't completely change my approach. Since most learning involves repetition of one kind or another, and kids need constant reminding, I was of the opposite view.

Ellis, also a strict disciplinarian, was a senior but younger guy who despised George, his immediate boss. Under normal circumstances no way would Ellis have supported me with my overtly 'liberal' manner and style. Even so, as a ploy to get at his boss, he gave me maximum credit. This was undeserved, but I wasn't going to complain. The rift, though, evoked two eventful responses.

First was an impromptu visit from my tutor who was concerned enough to bring with him an external examiner - all the way from Southampton (I wasn't his only student of focus, he had others to observe). So the tutor unexpectedly appeared one lunchtime just before the first period of the afternoon and told me to instruct the kids to line-up outside the classroom. This was not standard procedure for me, and the kids were curious. While I organised them lining-up, I told the few within proximity that I was about to be examined. I could hear them excitedly passing-on this information, and I wondered if I should have kept quiet. During the lesson, instead of my usual informality, I acted conventionally, as if well organised, and avoided repeating myself.

Amazingly, the kids were like angels.... they'd never been so calm and attentive. Afterwards, my tutor and the examiner were pleased and said it was a good lesson, but the examiner criticised my failure to repeat certain details for emphasis. When I revealed George's objections, he said George was entirely wrong.

Meeting my tutor later, he grinned sheepishly while telling me the examiner had engaged in a heated argument with George and had come away intensely annoyed - then assigned the observation top marks. This, I knew, was an extravagant reaction to the 'contest'. I refrained showing pleasure at this outcome, but I did feel a bit smug. Despite that, or maybe because of it - ie, for the way this approval might have falsely boosted my confidence in what some people called a 'laid-back' method of teaching - my tutor still persuaded Jack Whitehead to visit a few days later. 'In an attempt to quell my 'liberalness'' Jack said, laughing, but added seriously. 'Just don't do any more stirring. It doesn't help us at the uni with future placements - and you won't be here after the course.'

When I asked the kids how come they'd been so amazingly excellent, they said I was their favourite teacher and no way did they want me to fail, even though they knew well I was only there for another week or so. Their comments - from this very same class HERE - show, among the less critical submissions, their clear concern for the welfare of other kids like them at my 'next school'. Which I think is quite interesting, to say the least.

In addition to everything else, us students were encouraged to come-up with various extra-curricular projects, and the tutor's secretary would make arrangements for visits or whatever appropriate activity we chose.

I decided to take a look at two extremes: a visit to a public school; then to a special school for expelled or otherwise rejected kids. For the first of these, our tutor arranged the nearby Monkton Comb School for Boys. Intending to witness the maximum, including ~07.30 chapel, etc., I got up exceptionally early that day. It was like stepping back a century in time to an era I'd thought was long dead - the least palatable parts were, apart from a glimpse during the afternoon of seniors in military uniform square-bashing in the quadrangle.

Teachers, even the arrogant ones, were consistently respectful towards the kids. Only one teacher's lesson was more like an exercise in showing-off - possibly for my benefit, who knows? And another allowed me to question the kids about their lives, what their outlooks were, opinion of kids at state schools, etc. They all seemed relaxed, focussed, and reasonably contented. The toilets, I noticed, were all individual with a wash basin, as in a private house, and not pokey. There were many too, dotted around the school, probably two or three to a corridor. Apart from several modern 'mobile' huts, the buildings were old, though well maintained and I guess purpose built. Set in extensive grounds, the school included out-buildings, playing fields and so on.

Equally instructive, was the opposite end of the spectrum: a half-day in a school for kids banned from normal education for being too disruptive or otherwise troublesome. The teachers' laissez faire approach was impressive, as they steered proceedings, responding quickly and intelligently to the kids, and either ignoring their swearing and insulting remarks, or reciprocating positively with a joke or cheerful rebuke.

One could tell immediately that the kids liked their teachers, and vice-versa. Here again, what I noticed above all was the strong mutual respect. The classrooms were not arranged as at a normal school with chairs and desks lined up facing a blackboard. The spaces were more open and flexible, though separated for different types or ages. Older - ie, teenage - boys and girls were taught separately, and the emphasis was on practical activities. But what a contrast, those two schools. Alas much detail goes by the wayside: I can't include everything!

The year held other unexpected events. For instance, four 'gifted' kids of about 12-years old - two girls and two boys - from a local state school were assigned to me and a female student: me the boys, she the girls. Our instructions for that week: to take them about, in our cars even, and visit places like castles, show them around the uni and introduce some suitably challenging maths stuff, etc. What a fabulous week: imagine it. I remember every detail, even their names. They'd be over 50 now. I wonder how their lives played out?

Finally, we had to do a project. It was hard to choose what, but I ended up writing - printing - a funny book to teach number-bases in a 'programmed-learning' style. I think there were five instructions on page one: 1: Begin on page-17.... 5. Good Luck. Our tutor, commenting on our projects in a final tutor-group meeting, said my instruction 5 was the most important of all. I never found out whether he meant the rest was duff, or that he liked the friendly 'sympathetic' tone. Either way, following the final exams I was awarded a pass - there were no grades, just pass or fail.


A Year Out

So now I had to look for a real job - presumably teaching in a school, though I wasn't enamoured by the idea and wondered instead about applying to British Aerospace near Bristol.... whatever was I thinking of? If it was to be a big outfit, I should have been considering National Grid or BT.

It was around this time when I learned of my friend's nervous breakdown - the guy who'd so full of enthusiasm and vigour gone in for secondary-school teaching somewhere near Marlborough and after a couple of years had been forced to quit. On route for a holiday in Wales with a young friend, we stopped at Marlborough and booked-in at a fine bed-&-breakfast in town. After phoning, we went to see this guy and his wife. He was unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time, and then it was a big effort. I think we stayed about 20-minutes, time to drink a cuppa, then had to leave. Even our relaxed presence was too much for him. From that brief visit though, I felt I understood everything.

One key detail he mentioned about the job was that time and again with painstaking effort of making meticulous lesson plans, all the kids would do in response was fool about. As he explained this he shook his head in an expression of pained disbelief. Instantly obvious to me from this was that he'd made the common error that Oscar Wilde warned us of, and then failed to take the advice himself: that life is too important to be taken seriously. In other words, as I'd interpret it: be flexible.

So kids fool about. Surely that's common knowledge. How could anyone expect otherwise? That guy must have had an IQ miles greater than mine, yet failed to see or acknowledge a basic fact of life that most people accept as second nature. He wasn't immune himself from enjoying an occasional lark. Why had he refused to see such a well-known truth?

Yet to this day, it baffles me. The only explanation I can drum-up is that in the spectrum of intelligences from intellectual, emotional, intuitive... we can be high in one and low in another. Who can say what this depends on? Some intellectually bright people score abysmally when it comes to emotional IQ, and vice versa. I wonder if it's something innate or has to do with experience? Either way, it clearly shows that it pays to keep a fairly open mind, at least... to not have too fixed ideas or expectations... and be prepared for disappointment. I guess he'd thrown - as the saying goes - all his eggs into one basket. I did almost the same myself a few years later, twice in fact, but each time had the sense, when I saw my mistake, to get out. This may have involved upheaval and great inconvenience, but it's a matter of getting one's priorities right. We all make mistakes, only someone incapable of logical thought goes on to compound them. For me, major mistakes have woken me - like finding myself on a mountain ledge - to concentrate every sinew, come what may, on safe escape. What, one might ask, is the alternative? Well, that's the route my friend was fated to take, and it destroyed his life - at least for a decade or so (I lost touch and have no knowledge of whether his condition improved).

It's always, since age-5 at any rate, been my nature to expect the worst. Probably, this is the result of experience and a kind of psychological barrier to adversity. It doesn't mean I'm a pessimist. I always imagine that I'll do OK regardless, but of all those interviews and exams I never once entirely expected to pass. Every time I was mentally prepared for making a flop of it, and more than ready for taking any disappointment philosophically, then to step forward for the next venture, whatever enchanting figment might loom into range.

One trick I used - if it was a trick - would be, if I failed an interview (which I did several), to believe myself lucky to have escaped. As for exams: by some fluke I never failed any, but had the tactic been needed I'd have shrugged, reflected that I ought to have put more effort into revising, then immediately 'moved-on'...

Onto PART - 3

Teacher Man