Well, where do I start? Or more to the point, where did I start?
Not quite here, because this is Clapham Junction but it is pretty close to where I grew up and even closer to where I went to school.
The wrong side of the tracks?
I think my old dad would have loved me to aspire to become a train driver. I’m pretty sure that it is something that he would have had as a childhood ambition judging by his actions in later life.
I’m afraid that in this, as in many other things, I must have been a bit of a disappointment to him.
I like to think that had he lived a little longer, he may have had the chance to become a touch more proud of me, but he died at the age of 53, when I was just about to fail most of my GCE ‘O’ Levels.
However, long before he died, my mum was a “model train” widow.
My dad spent pretty much all of his spare time buried in the basement of the house we lived in working on his pride and joy, his model train layout.
To be fair, it was pretty impressive. It was on various levels, snaking around his small workshop with many lines and points and signals controlling access to a significant station, with all sorts of customised, hand-built, hand-painted, rolling stock. The level of detail of the characters and equipment was really quite breathtaking. The two most significant engines were named after my brother and me and the landscaping and general layout were a labour of love for him. He really wanted someone to demonstrate it all to.
Me, I was not that impressed! I’m afraid trains left me cold.
My dad even managed to negotiate an opportunity for me to stand on the footplate of a steam train for a moment or two while the train was wheezing and belching in the station at Clapham Junction. He chatted up the engine driver, but I’m afraid I disgraced him, and probably deprived him of achieving one of his greatest ambitions by being petrified when the train let out a particularly loud burst of steam that sent me into paroxysms of panic and fear. We left with me in floods of tears, and my dad’s obvious desires to stand next to me in the cab, in ruins.
What a waste of space I was – still he never let me know it.
The warmest feeling that trains ever engendered in me was lying in bed at night and hearing the activity of the shunting going on in a distant goods yard. The sounds of steam engines getting up steam, wheels slipping as they slowly gained traction, and then the concertina banging, back and forth, along the chain of trucks as they bounced off each other until they were all moving at the same speed and in the same direction. No sooner had this happened then it all had to stop, and the process would be reversed.
It was far enough away not to be disturbing but near enough for the sound to carry and for the odd haunting hoot to become part of this young child’s dreams.
Anyway, train driver was one thing that I was never going to be.
In for a dig
The only thing that seems to have piqued my interest, and I’m not sure where the inspiration came from, was archaeology. I found the whole idea of digging around looking for artefacts, settlements, bones, relics etc, quite fascinating. I’d read all sorts of stuff in various books and encyclopaedias and this seems like a cool thing to do. It never really came to anything much though and sort of fizzled out as an ambition, apart from many fun-packed hours digging in the remains of a bomb-site opposite our house in London and imagining what went on in the houses that had once been there.
Eleven Plus? More Eleven Minus really!
Predictably, I failed my Eleven Plus exams which meant no Grammar School for me, so, perhaps it was time to rethink where I saw my life going? Well, hardly a rethink as I’d not given it much thought in the first place. Becoming a goalkeeper seemed quite attractive: I’ve no idea why; too many episodes of Roy of The Rovers, I guess.
However, on the way to an interview at what was an experimental comprehensive secondary school, my dad broached the subject of what I might say if asked about my ambitions.
He kind of convinced me that “a goalkeeper” would not be a very smart answer in the circumstances and we settled on something scientific, maybe to do with space travel, rocket fuels, or that kind of thing. Job Done.
So, was I destined for the stars?
Not really. It was never a very well-grounded ambition and it soon fell away like the first stage of a Saturn V rocket, having lasted almost as long!
However, I always had a reasonably technical mind and an interest in maths and sciences. Unfortunately, there was a cosmic gap between interest and skill.
De-bunking my lack of ability
I managed to bunk school for a whole term – no mean feat I’m sure you will agree. It meant intercepting letters, a bit of forgery, plenty of inventiveness, but eventually my time ran out, and it all ended in pain and shame. What was euphemistically called “Six of The Best”, administered by The Head Teacher, in front of my father! It was that, or formal juvenile proceedings of one kind or another, so it was a bit of a no-brainer, and as I said, I had already qualified handsomely in that department! I clearly had an interesting skill set, maybe as a minor criminal, but not necessarily one that lent itself to academia!
The thing was, that on my return to school for the remaining two sessions in that year, I worked my socks off. I was desperate to try to catch up with the others and it was a bit of a struggle. However, the thing that really turned my life around were my exam results at the end of the year.
I inexplicably ended up as a star pupil! I topped the exams in most subjects and ended up winning a year prize. This I had not expected.
The penny dropped.
If I worked at stuff, I could do pretty well. This honestly had not really occurred to me before.
So, I did work pretty hard at all sorts of scientific and technical subjects, and that set me up with some reasonable expectations for my upcoming ‘O’ Levels, although I was still a bit of an outlier as far as behaviour was concerned.
No Aims Drifter
I still had no real idea what I wanted to do though.
In the event, my dad became terminally ill and died the year of my GCEs and everything went to pot.
I scraped through a few passes, but not enough to do much anywhere.
After a few failed interviews with engineering companies, I managed to get myself employed by Unilever who decided that I should start work as a technical clerk.
Importantly they also pushed me very hard to complete my studies. That meant re-sitting some ‘O’ Levels and five years of day release and evening classes. As a result of this, I ended up with a decent set of engineering qualifications at just below degree level, and a good and varied job that I enjoyed.
Its all a matter of degree
After ten or so years, itchy feet set in and something else snagged at my interest, or more accurately rekindled it. I started to get really fascinated by mathematical and logic puzzles. This coupled with some exposure to statistics as part of an engineering production course I was doing got me fired up about doing a Statistics Degree. I had to get a good ‘A’ level in Maths to satisfy the entrance requirements for UCL (no point in going for 2nd best) so I knocked that off through evening classes and actually really enjoyed that too.
I moved on and started my degree course as a mature student but pretty soon found out that I had picked a course that I was always going to struggle with. It was so heavily theoretical and the first year was virtually the UCL Pure Maths course with some added stuff on Stats and Probability. There were some serious mathematicians there. I was struggling from day one.
I did just about enough in the first year to go on (with one element requiring a repeat) but my expectations were already severely dented.
So, I pretty much gave up but, in true Micawber style, something came up.
Did I give it WATFOR?
I had needed to use FORTRAN, a computer programming language to process all sorts of results on my course and I found this fascinating. I understood it, I was good at it, I enjoyed it, and there was a demand for it.
So, I had a brand-new ambition! I wanted to be a computer programmer.
I got myself trained by the Civil Service, worked for them in the Census Office, which also hit my interest in Statistics, and then worked for a number of software houses and hardware manufacturers drifting into Systems and then Business Analysis, Project Management, Programme Management and then IT Management for Local Government.
Early to bed (AKA Early Retirement)
I started to build a bit of a profile in ICT management circles in London and was generally plodding along at this when I was “offered” early retirement.
What a euphemism that is. A sort of bite the bullet or bugger off, kind of offer.
Still that turned me into a local government ICT consultant, working through agencies or on my own behalf. I became quite a player in Smart Card circles both nationally and internationally, before jacking it in a few years ago.
So here I am sitting in my apartment having allowed life to dictate where my work would take me. Not a train driver, archaeologist, goalkeeper, rocket fuel specialist, or even a computer specialist any more. I’m not sure that others these days have the luxury of letting life take its course without some plan, some objective, some set of career goals, but it worked for me. I guess I’m just a lucky bugger.
I’ve become a Blagger
I’ve been blogging a bit, but I must say it almost takes me back to my truancy days. It feels a bit more like blagging, ducking out of doing anything very responsible, not having to turn up anywhere at any particular time and being pretty much free to entertain myself for large chunks of the day.
But this Corona Virus has got me going! It has stirred up something that I had long thought dead. An ambition. Too late for me of course, but if I had my chance again, I would want to be …
Or maybe it’s not too late? I’ll tell you more next time.