Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category
Since the age of 17 computers have been a part of my life. At college in the late 1960s we had an ICL main frame fed with punch cards. My first job included programming a GNK Unimate robotic arm to part automate the die casting process. In the early 1980s I set up a network of ICL DRS computers to provide an IT system for a hospital engineering department.
At the same time personal computers were becoming affordable and I bought a ZX80 kit, then a Jupiter Ace and on to a whole series of desk top PCs, a TRS 80 portable, PDAs and heavyweight laptops. Now I have a laptop, smartphone and a tablet, but these lack the intimacy one got with the very early computers so there is also a Raspberry Pi on my desk connected to a breadboard which allows you to create and programme little circuits using quite basic components and simple scripts.
At present I’m waiting on the delivery of a Pine 64. It’s a cheap, small computer which has been developed with the support of crowd funding. It will continue to feed my interest long into my dotage.
The constancy of my childhood provides many fond memories, particularly the sanctuary that Sunday provided. Sunday lunch was the only time you could guarantee my father would be sitting at the head of the table and the meal would be a treasure of treats and abundance that left one sated beyond that necessary for life. It always ended with one of my mothers wonderful pudding, rich and sweet giving us a rare sugar rush.
Post Sunday lunch we would all recline in the sitting room to listen to the BBC Light Programme broadcast a comedy gem such as Navy Lark, the Clitheroe Kid, Hancocks Half Hour and the Glums. The apparent simplicity of the humour belies the skill that writers such as Lawrie Wyman, George Evans, James Casey, Frank Roscoe, Frank Muir and Denis Norden. These programmes created real characters that had us in hysterics and still frequent my MP3 player or are enjoyed on BBC Radio 7.
The most skilful and perhaps my favourite is Round the Horne that developed from Beyond Our Ken written by Eric Merriman. Barry Took and Marty Feldman wrote the scripts and poked fun at the straight laced programme controllers without them realising what was happening. The adventures of the camp couple Julian and Sandy, at a time when homosexuals were imprisoned, thumbed a very big nose at the puritans. There are some good quality comedy programmes on the radio but very few are as enduring or as creative as those of the golden age of the 1950s and 60s.
I only attended the last and most anarchic of the three Isle of Wight Festivals in 1970. Arriving on the Friday afternoon the signs were there that many people keen on seeing the event without paying. I parked my chopped Fanny ‘B’ by a hedgerow and built a small bivouac using some plastic sheeting and secreted a change of clothes in the undergrowth. Unknown to me at the time, all this home building was to be a waste of time.
I did not return to the camp until sometime the following Monday afternoon. I passed through the ticket gate just as a Canadian band Cactus was coming on stage. This is the last point at which I have a totally clear memory of the events over the next five days. I know much of what happened but not when, and sometimes not where. I can remember bathing in the surf of Freshwater Bay with the sounds of Sly and the Family Stone drifting down from the cliffs. I remember getting into the reserved seating area in front of the stage as the Who started to play the whole of Tommy. I remember continually passing joint after joint down the line of people sitting on the chairs. (Yes I did inhale, a lot). I can remember being surprised at how short Jimmy Hendrix was and climbing up the speaker tower at the side of the stage to get a better look.
I can remember the river of piss that ran across the field from the men’s urinal that had been located on the higher ground to the south of the arena. I can remember getting so stoned I slept for two days and did not leave for home until the Wednesday. I remember the dirt, the mud, the lack of food, the fact I stank, but most of all I remember the music. Never have I been so close, so overwhelmed by the music.
Before we joined the TV generation Saturday nights often involved a screening of old silent movies on my father’s 9.5mm projector. They were hired or occasionally purchased from a shop somewhere around the Mile End Road in London. The films varied from cartoons, Silly Symphonies and Merry Melodies, through classic silent comedy stars such as Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, to one film that left a lasting impression on me, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
I have always considered this to be the ultimate horror movie. The skewed perspectives of the scenery, the high contrast in the lighting and the pallor of the actors give it a dream like quality. It’s a nightmare where you don’t wake up if you pinch yourself. I must have first seen this film at about 6 or 7 years old, and have sat through the three reels many times, each experience as dramatic and physical as the very first.
Watched in silence in a dark room with only the clatter of the projector to accompany the unfolding story, the atmosphere can become very oppressive. The horror pervades every aspect of the film and acts as a catalyst to the darker side of our imagination. A re-mastered version was released on video some years ago. Watching the digitally enhanced film with the traditional musical accompaniment brought back all those child hood memories. If you like horror, this is 70 minutes of hell.
The factory where my father work before it moved out to Mitcham in Surrey was located in part of the old royal stables in London. Occasionally I would accompany him to work on Saturday mornings and spent the day exploring the nooks and crannies of the old buildings and generally making a nuisance of myself. If pushed I would sweep the floors but only if paid a few bob for my efforts.
The stable building still retained a few of their original fittings, including some of the wooden horse stalls and iron feed holders. When the company wanted to make some changes my father offered to remove the stalls in his own time in exchange for being able to keep the wood. We spent a couple of weekends carefully drilling out the wooden dowels that held the oak panelling and supporting timbers together and disassembling the fittings. It took many trips to convey all the wood home as there was little room in the motorbike and sidecar and some of the longer timbers had to be strapped to the side of the sidecar in a very precarious manner.
The timber was used to build one of the strongest and poshest garden sheds in the country. The frame was made from 4 by 6 inch square timbers and the sides were inch thick tongue and groove boards. Even the window was constructed from an oak door frame and the floor from old oak floorboards. The shed was finished with several coats of green gloss paint that my father borrowed from his brother in the factory maintenance department. Once completed the incredibly sturdy shed was soon filled with all the things my father had a habit of collecting just in case they might come in handy one day.
Many years later we moved to south London to be closer to the factory in Mitcham. The removal company quickly empted the house but it took my father and I several weeks to empty the shed, carefully checking each item to see if it was worth keeping. Needless to say little got thrown away. Over 47 years later there are probably a few bits in my garage that were once in that shed and still waiting for someone to put them to good use.
I had a childhood fascination with fire that occasionally led me into trouble. The most extreme occasion was when, along with my best friend at infant school, we set fire to the paper towels in the waste basket in the boys toilet.
The fire quickly burnt itself out but the smell and smoke was spotted by a passing teacher who apprehended us before we made our escape. The headteacher got us to admit our guilt with little trouble and we waited for our punishment with great trepidation. Remember the cane was still in common use in the mid 1950s.
What happened next took us completely by surprise. Our punishment did not involve any pain but a tube of smarties. The reason being our honesty and pledge not to do anything like it again.
During my working career I had very few job interviews and of those I did have most were somewhat odd. The first interview was pure happenstance. The careers advisor at my technical college was the brother of the training officer at a local die-casting company. A member of the estimating department at the company was about to emigrate to Australia and they were looking for a replacement. I happen to mention to the careers advisor that I was still looking for employment when he told me of the vacancy and he would ring his brother to arrange an interview later that day. I duly arrived at the company in the afternoon dressed in my best and only suit ready for my first ever formal interview.
Two men walked into the small reception area and introduced themselves as the chief cost estimator and his assistant. As soon as the pleasantries were over, one gentleman opened a technical drawing, laid it out on the coffee table and asked if I could describe the object depicted in the drawing? Checking the scale (it was drawn ¼ full size if I remember correctly) I quickly identified the object as a rocker box cover from a car engine and described, with much gesticulating, the details of the object.
The two men looked at each other and then, almost in unison, said; when can you start? No in-depth questioning, no asking where I wanted to be in ten years time, not even a quick ‘tell us a little about yourself’. Just a few minutes looking at a drawing and I had got the job. Nowadays interviewing staff is a chore. Too much bureaucracy, too many forms and too many people who are less than honest in their CVs.
But the story does not end there. This all happened a few days before the end of the college year and my full time employment was due to start the following week. On the Friday before my first day at work the company’s training officer took his usual bus to work but did not get off at the stop for the factory. When the vehicle arrived at the bus station the conductor went upstairs to ensure everyone had disembarked. He found the training officer slumped across a seat. He had died sometime during his journey.
Having seen an advert for an engineering job with the NHS that paid twice what I was earning at the time I applied for the post and duly went along for only the second interview of my working career. There were four on the interview panel. The group engineer, a senior administrator, a personnel officer and an independent technical assessor.
After the introductions the administrator asked a few general questions about my work experience then handed over to the group engineer who started to ask a series of technical questions about various engineering subjects. Early on in my responses I mentioned that I had used many of my engineering skills to rebuilt a 1955 Francis Barnett Cruiser motorcycle. This triggered a complete change in the interview and we spent the rest of the group engineers question time discussing the problem of mending a split aluminum crankcase casting.
Eventually the administrator intervened and tried to get the interview back on track by handing over to the technical assessor. Unfortunately this did not work, the assessor would ask a question, I would start to answer when the group engineer would interrupt and complete the answer. How the panel ever managed to judge my suitability for the post I’ll never know, but I was offered the job and started a career in the NHS that lasted well over 33 years.
My father’s mother came from Taunton and during the war temporarily moved back their from her home in London. Until he joined the army in 1941 my father would cycle from London to Taunton most weekends to visit his mother and his younger siblings. His eldest sister married a man from the west country and lived near Taunton. Very occasionally we would pay them a visit over a weekend when my father would meet with old acquaintances over several pints of cider.
Before our return journey to London a number of quart bottles of cider would be packed into the back of the sidecar which made the very limited space available to me even more restricted. On one return journey the cider was rather more lively than normal. The harshness of the suspension eventually took its toll and several of the bottles split open filling the foot-well for the rear seat with the sweet, sticky and rather alcoholic liquid.
My mother was used to such happenings and just ignored the strong aroma of apples. However, the vapours had a strong affect on me and I slept very soundly throughout the rest of the journey. The next morning I did not feel at all well, the assumption being the alcohol vapours had not just sent me to sleep but also left me with my very first hang-over.
Smoking cigars is, or was, a male thing, Winston Churchill, George Burns, Groucho Marx and Alfred Hitchcock all come to mind as cigar smokers as they were often photographed smoking a Presidente (a very large cigar). My father worked with a large number of Jamaican women and thus had access to good quality cigars from the West Indies including Cuban. Although his favourite was a Romeo y Julieta No. 3 he would acquire many different makes and sizes and I would collect the colourful and intricately designed bands in a small stamp album.
My mother loved the aroma of cigar smoke so much she started smoking cigars herself; she had given up smoking cigarettes when pregnant with my older brother. Her cigar of choice was the Manikin which she smoked at the end of each day while we listened to the radio and waited for my father to return from work. Most weekday nights he would arrive home after my brother and I went to bed except on Fridays when we were allowed to stay up late.
On Saturday nights the house would be filled with the sweet aroma of Havana tobacco smoke that formed a warm comforting blanket across the ceiling. Cigars were not a cheap option compared to cigarettes so my mother would make the most of her enjoyment by skewering the last inch of the cigar with a large darning needle so it could be smoked down to almost nothing without burning her fingers.