An eclectic working life. Engineering and electronic systems. (2016)

Location : Norwich

The formative years

I left grammar school in 1959 with one A Level pass, not a very good one. I then went to the local civic college to try and improve on matters and singularly failed so in 1960 I was left looking for a job and I ended up working in a machine shop in Ransomes and Rapier, a large Ipswich engineering works. I did three months in Rapiers and then several of us moved to London. I had three jobs in London in small engineering works; one was just off Victoria Street. It was almost Dickensian and I can remember being led through a narrow passageway and gradually going further down until I realised I was under the pavement and you could see those glazed bricks from the underside; I was put to work on a very rickety old-fashioned power press.

After that I moved to Nottingham to pick up with an old girlfriend who got pregnant and we got married. I stayed in Nottingham for only six months and worked as a pupil teacher but then I became ill with some strange illness called Reiter’s Disease. I was in hospital for quite a short period but was off sick for a reasonably long period.

The Nottingham education committee insisted I had a medical before I started work and the outcome was that I could never become a teacher because I was never going to be strong enough to stand up in front of a class of kids all day. I now view that as one of the luckier releases of my life. As a result I moved back to Ipswich where my mother had a flat that I could move in to with my wife, Cecile, and baby. I got a job as a clerk in another Ipswich engineering works and stayed there for a year. After that Cecile was pregnant again so we found a small house in the middle of Ipswich and I ended up spending a few months as a bread roundsman.

After the second baby arrived Cecile had postnatal depression, which in those days meant she was offered hospitalisation. I looked after the two babies for some months and was fighting off the children’s department who wanted to take them away. The pressure was such that I said to Cecile that I was not going to be able to fight them off much longer, so she came out of hospital and then I started work as a labourer.

I was labouring through 1964-65, and then in late ’65 I went back into engineering because Ransomes Sims, another large engineering works, were offering night shift work which paid an incredible premium: about a third more money. I was a semi-skilled capstan lathe operator and stayed with Ransomes until July ’66, when there was a slump and Ransomes stopped their night shift. I didn’t want to do the job for a third less money so I went back to labouring on building sites.

Cecile and I then split and I went to Letchworth and trained as a contractor’s plant mechanic for six months before getting a job in London as a fitter: maintaining, servicing, going out and repairing.

That job ended and again I can’t remember if I walked or got pushed but it was touch and go, I just didn’t fit in. For most of 1968 I was unemployed which was quite a nice holiday really. One of my memories of that was signing on in the labour exchange at Seven Sisters, where this middle aged woman said, ‘I see you’re a plant fitter, do you enjoy gardening?’ I was left beside myself with laughter.

I then moved to Norfolk where I had some friends and worked for a few weeks on the pea harvest and that was quite fun, particularly as this was working for a gang master who had the totally erroneous idea that students didn’t pay tax or stamp. I wasn’t a student but I did have long hair and a beard which is almost as good, so although the money wasn’t brilliant, when you’ve got it all in your pocket it was not bad. I did several other jobs and then settled down as Cecile and I were trying to make a go of it. I went labouring again and I had two labouring jobs. It was an interesting year. I doubled my money twice.

I was then a fitter on the front end of one of the gas pipelines that ran from Loddon down to just northwest of Ipswich. After that I did go back to Ransome Sims but only for two weeks before coming down with the illness I’d had in Nottingham. And that time I had three months in Ipswich hospital, which I thought was fairly excessive but they were quite concerned to keep me off my feet. So that really made a mess of 1970. When I was released I went back fitting and I carried on fitting for two civil engineering firms until 1974. Then I went to the newly created Anglian Water authority, which was still then a public organisation, and I was a fitter on the sewage works in East Suffolk.

It was suggested I might like a change of occupation and become a charge hand of a large works in Ipswich and in many ways that suited me because I’d started to do the Open University. The hours were much more positive and because there was always a risk that you could literally fall in the shit, there were showers, which meant for the first time in years I was going home clean. I wore ordinary clothes into work, changed into working clothes, at the end of the day had a shower and put on my outside clothes and buggered off. It was quite a bonus really. And of course that was just when health and safety was beginning to bite. I’d been going down manholes for a long time and suddenly I couldn’t go down unless I was prepared to shave my beard off. The masks for the oxygen wouldn’t fit properly and I thought well, they need to design a better mask, I am not shaving my beard.

A new chapter – computers and systems

During the time I was at the water authority I met and started living with the lady who became my second wife. She was four years more mature than me and went to SOAS in London (the School of Oriental and African Studies). When she graduated I got a place at the City College doing an HND in Computer Studies, using the work I’d done at the Open University. This was how we ended up in Norwich in 1979.

The HND was a three-year course and in the second year you did an industrial placement. I worked for Boulton and Paul down at the old Riverside and in fact I went back there after I’d completed the course because in the very early ‘80s work was not plentiful. I think I’d written to everybody in East Anglia who had some sort of computer, and after nine months at Boulton and Paul, the civil service rang me and said you’re starting work next week. I went and had a chat with them at Gildengate House, then in Anglia Square, and on 5th April 1983 I joined them where I stayed until I retired in 2000. We moved from Gildengate House to Rosary Court in the old hospital, St Andrew’s hospital grounds. During those 17 years I worked on three major projects. During the first few years I worked on micro computer performance and benchmarking. In those days there were quite a lot of small suppliers of micro-computers in Britain and I visited most of them. I’d spend a couple of days and run this suite of programmes and their kit, take the times, and discuss with them. God knows what happened to those firms but they certainly aren’t with us anymore.

After that the company was a central computer and telecommunications agency, which had a variety of remits including the development of systems: systems analysis, security, project management and so on. I worked on a European system for another few years and spent a third of my time in Brussels, which was rather nice. After that I got transferred to electronic documents, and I sat on the BIS (Business, Innovation, and Skills) committee looking at how you can have a standard for documents to be admitted to court. There are all sorts of minefields including document originality, fact formats, electronic formats and so on. Even ten or 15 years ago I knew that NASA had a warehouse of electronic records relating to some of the first space programmes which they had no means of reading. These things move so quickly. For instance, a large majority of all documents are now produced using Microsoft software. When Microsoft goes to the wall, who is going to maintain those formats? I’m not confident Microsoft will be around in 500 years time.  Microsoft has made backwards compatibility and rightly so because assumptions that they made 20 and 30 years ago, that were reasonable at the time, just cease to be valid so you can’t carry on producing extraordinarily clunky software for those few people who are still using stuff that’s so many years old. I mean they’d go out of business. So it’s an interesting challenge.

Alun David (b. 1940) interviewed for WISEArchive on 26th September 2016 in Norwich.

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