Many Skills, Many Interests (2009)

Location : Essex

I wonder if I could take you back to when you were coming up to your last year at school, your age then and what you had in mind for the future as a career.

I wanted to work in pathology.

Pathology.

Yes, medical laboratory technician as it was then and … my mother was working at the hospital at the time and managed to get me working Saturday mornings in the lab.

Was that unusual to have that kind of career at that time? Were you in a High School, a Grammar School?

It was a new type of school then; it was a Technical School. It was for the ones that had only just scraped through the 11 or 13 plus and they weren't good enough for the Grammar School, but they had these new ones that weren't secondary schools so you were guaranteed to come out almost with O levels unless you really played up.

Right and do you think the fact that your mother was working at the hospital helped to influence the choice?

Oh yes, definitely.

And pathology. What had interested you particularly towards pathology?

I was of a scientific mind. All my O levels are in science: physics, biology, chemistry, maths, so I had that sort of idea. The other professions in the hospital really didn't interest me that much. …… I think possibly, I didn't know much about them. They just seemed boring.

So you started … you left school and it was then that you went there for a Saturday you said

Before I left school I was working voluntarily in the lab on Saturdays, sort of cleaning syringes and laying out sensitivity disks and things.

And then when the time came for you to leave school was this a specific training scheme you had to go on?

Oh yes, for this…. there was three levels. The first level was intermediate junior technician; you went a year in the lab and then two further years in the lab but attending night school at……. I was at the Royal London Hospital for that once a week. You entered for your exams; you selected two subjects to do your finals. I wanted to do haematology and blood transfusion and possibly histology. I passed my intermediate, did the first two years for the finals so that was five years I was training at that point and .. ..two things happened. Firstly that I was married by then and I was expecting my first child, which meant that things had to break off and I had to take time off and that and secondly that the tutor we had up there for the second year in blood transfusion was absolutely useless. We used to sit down at the beginning of the class marking our book where he started reading and we'd mark where he finished and we'd just sit there and sleep there afterwards. He did nothing but read from the book – absolutely useless – so I decided to do before the finals a further year at Brentwood with Professor M. and at the time I found I was expecting Professor M. decided to join the brain drain and move to Canada. I thought OK then this is a message. I went back for the six weeks after my daughter was born and I said OK that's it …I'm out …I will stay at home and be a … because then you didn't particularly work unless you wanted to. They told me I would never work in a lab again because the qualifications were changing. I wouldn't be able to … my qualifications would be obsolete unless I did something in the next year or .so… and so I said OK I'll just …

So you left?

I did

Was this the beginnings of a new blood transfusion service? What was the blood transfusion service like in those days?

The blood transfusion service was still as it is now. I was working in a hospital lab doing all the blood tests on cross matches, blood tests, you know, blood counts, and when I was at the first hospital we did everything there except the antenatal and histology. It was only a small place; there was only three of us. We could cope with the whole hospital between us but it was just doing the counts and the regular stuff for surgery.

Right, so having made a decision that this now wasn't going to continue you were at home with your first baby and in those days there wasn't an automatic return to work, maternity leave anyway, was there?

Well there was. You could have twelve weeks off, but you had to go back for six months after, but I did the six months and I thought, no, I want to be with my daughter when she grows up. I was coming home and my parents would say: "Oh she said her first word today. Oh she done this today, she did that today" and I'm thinking I'm missing this and I want to be there. She's my daughter, not theirs.

So you gave up and you were at home?

Yes

And how long did that go on for?

I got bored after about a year.

You got bored. Right.

I was already doing voluntary work but I then started doing home selling. Similar to Tupperware type thing, working for a company called Baby Showers.

And that was marvellous having a little toddler. I took her with me and I got all her clothes from there anyway and they were good clothes and worked my way up. I think I was one of the top ten sellers in the country within just over the year.

Completely different

Oh yes, I can sell anything. If I'm convinced in the product, I can sell it. And I was convinced in this. It was fantastic.

So this was done in, mainly was it in the evening when people were available?

You could do it in the daytime. My mother had … I think my parents had my daughter you know the odd couple of hours but she could come with me on the daytime ones. The evening ones my husband had her and I went out to do this. On a busy week I could get something in the region of 8-10 parties in: a morning one, an afternoon one and one in the evening.

And you were able to. . . you got commission?

You got commission and you could make well if you were willing to put the time in.

Right and how long did that go on for?

I booked the last party the week my son was due.

So you went on to have….?

Fortunately he was late but I finished then and again stayed at home for a short while. When I was seventeen I became an instructor for the Red Cross and in those days the Red Cross and St John's still did the training for factories.

Yes first aid…

Yes, the factory first aid and we still did the ambulance men at that point as well, strangely enough, and I used to do odd courses in factories and various organisations and we also took up youth work so I was part-time warden at the youth centre.

So you had the children but you were going out and doing this voluntary work for the Red Cross

Yes

And that carried on for….

Till my son was about seven or eight I suppose. I also took up… when with the evening work with the youth centres that led on to a job actually being created in Basildon – part-time co-ordinator for Duke of Edinburgh award co-ordinating all the schools, voluntary organisations, individuals, we had a gold club in Basildon, too, for the ones that had gone that bit higher and I set up and run that for a couple of years.

Was that a paid….?

It was but you were paid for the hours and I think I was officially paid for about 8 hours a week or something silly.

And you never had the inclination to go back into science?

Well I was told my job was obsolete. I couldn't do it; I had no qualifications so why bother, carry on and do something else.

So you were doing this work for the Duke of Edinburgh and you had a wage?

Just a bit, yes

And that took you through?

It took me through. My husband had a reasonable job anyway; he worked in the building trade. I also used to do a lot of first aid at the Essex County Council Youth Camp at East Mersea and that could involve me being down there up to 8 weeks a year. My husband would come down with us. We had other people would come with us at various times and we worked down there for it must have been about five or six years, maybe longer actually, just being the first aider on the youth camp.

You were very involved with young people and in those days did you have to have any of the checks and things? What would you say was different between working then and the attitude towards young people?

We had to be trained to be youth workers. Terrific long training, two weekends at Chelmsford! But they really put you through the wringer. You know …. I remember ringing my husband up at one o'clock in the morning in tears and saying: "I'm not ready to work with children. I'm absolutely useless – I don't know what it's all about" -and they really kind of turned you inside out , upside-down and examined your motives for doing everything, even for breathing. We went back …. our warden she had a degree in sociology and what have you …

Where you ever involved with Social Services?

No thank you

So this was all done through….?

It was all done through the youth service, yes there were no checks. I have known two or three people who have been slung out through nasty habits.

So…

But it was found out on the job unfortunately but it was all kept quiet and under the table in those days, nobody ….

So you were working in the main with youths? And this continued?

It did and then suddenly……

What age have we got up to?

We've got up to about 28 by then. One of the.. we had one of the people who used to help us with the Red Cross and with the camps and in all areas was .. had joined the forces; he'd had enough… we was at East Mersea one weekend and we suddenly found a house we liked with a shop attached to it. So he bought himself out of the army and we.. the three of us …bought the house between us and the shop and totally gave up everything in Tilbury and moved to Mersea Island.

So, you and your husband and this other young man..

Yes

That was unusual. What sort of shop were you setting up?

Car spares

Car spares?

Again because we knew so many people in Mersea. Again we got caught up with the youth service and we landed up teaching car maintenance to ladies and stuff like that. Also my husband stayed at work in Tilbury… he travelled backwards and forwards and myself and M. carried on running the shop. We also found that as we were going into town so often for stock and other things it may be a good idea if we had a taxi as well so we set up a taxi and I was the main taxi driver there.

Right, very enterprising!

Well it was different!

So you were then running a business and without the experience before of running a business?

Yes, no experience at all.

Successful would you think? What were the drawbacks?

When we closed one of the local guys turned round and said: "Well if there's any money to be made in it we would have done it before" which summed up any business that went flat on the island. If the locals would have, if there was money to be made – the locals would have known about it and we kept going for about 7 or 8 years which is not so bad. But it was a struggle.

You hadn't …. or had you done a lot of market research into whether this type of business was needed in the area?

It did sound as if it was but what we didn't reckon on is it's like so many villages are now – it's not a living village. There were shops there, yeah, OK, mainly used by holiday makers. Most people used it as a huge bedroom; they worked in town, they come back to Mersea. There was two populations there: there was the super-rich, there was the ones that always took their cars into the garages. I think virtually every road had a solicitor and a doctor in it, real Harley street doctors – there was a lot of money in parts of the island. The other half were farmers and fishermen which is down the other end who had total wrecks and never bought anything for their cars anyway and we was caught in the trap in the middle.

So when you got out of it had you lost money?

Not a great deal; we had lost a lot of time but not a great deal of money. My husband decided that this was the point we was going to part as well. He went back to Tilbury – he still had his job down there and I stayed in Mersea and eventually I did marry our partner who was then …. now where did he go? …. He'd been on the fish before ..

Before he went into cars?

No, before he joined the army even and he went back in as a director of one of the fish importers …. He was a lorry driver and did all the maintenance work on their lorries and what have you – going out to Paris once a week to pick up fish and then delivering it all round the country.

So it was the end of the car business and your marriage and then you moved?

We stayed in the same house. We got caught up in that nasty trap in the late seventies where so many houses that were worth over £100,000 were only worth seventy.

That was another recession?

Yes, that was the worst one we'd been through I think… this is nothing to that one. We couldn't sell the house; we still had mortgages. My husband had had the house valued before he left and he wanted half of that. Unfortunately by the time we got a mortgage the house was then worth £40,000 less than he valued it for so I really did get stung. We couldn't even afford a solicitor so we said: "OK we'll stay where we are, we'll just do our best". By then the children were pretty well out of it anyway. They'd left; one had gone into the forces, the other one stayed a while and then he got his own place in town anyway…..and I went into insurance.

Right, another career change

Yeah, totally ….I just grab whatever's there. If they just run up I think that's OK; I can do that. I need money. I can do that one.

So you saw the job advertised?

I saw it advertised in the village, wrote in, got an interview … and I worked there for two years.

Selling what, car insurance?

Yes, car insurance. I was actually doing the renewals on the car insurance.

So you had some background knowledge?

A little. At least I knew what different cars were but this was something totally different. It was a family firm and very family-centred.

So two years of insurance and then did you need…. you were?

I was sacked. The older brother needed a job so somebody had to go and I went.

And were there any compensations in those days or did you have to have..?

They made sure it was just under the two years, about a fortnight under ….. they said they were being very generous in giving me two weeks' money because they didn't have to, you know, but we will give you this and then maybe work the rest of the day out. And I was going on holiday the next day. When I think back I think I could have done so much damage in those 24 hours – those few hours but I didn't, you didn't; you did your job. I come out there and I think I was out of work… that was the first time we come up to Norfolk . I did a bit of Duke of Edinburgh work up here on silver expeditions and liked the area around Thetford. I'd done some silver expeditions around Thetford forest, that sort of area and we didn't have a lot of money… I mean our… in those days they didn't look to see how much you earned before they gave you a mortgage. They just said: "Can you afford it, yes you can afford it. OK, you can have it". In fact our outgoings were more than my husband's wages just for the mortgage and the insurance and what have you.

And in that period of time did they only take the husband's salary into consideration? Was it before the time when…

They wanted to know if I was at work but it was basically on his, yes,.. salary. So it was a struggle, then, we did manage to get away for a number of holidays. We bought a tent with some wedding money.

And we decided to have a few days, a week in Norfolk – booked up at the campsite, found out that the it didn't have loos, found another one in the book and went up to this campsite just at Great Hockham and we carried on going there for the next 10, 12 years.

So you came from… left Essex?

No we were still in Mersea but we was …

Regularly visiting Norfolk?

Yes.

What age were you when you decided to actually buy in Norfolk? Presumably you bought in Norfolk, you didn't rent?

No we bought. Where did I go? Now where are we? We're still in insurance. I left insurance after two years. I then spent two days at Dr Barnardo‘s. I got a job as charity fundraiser, not realising exactly what charity fundraiser was for Dr Barnado's ….. on my second day I came home in tears and my husband asked what's the matter and I said: "I can't do this job" I said, "Barnado's isn't what people think it is. It's not to do with orphans. It's all to do with unmarried women and young drug addicts and homeless teenagers and I'm expected to go and get money by giving children little boxes at schools and taking their pocket money and I can't do that. Sorry that's not my way of…"

That was the job that you were ….. explained to you?

Yes, I didn't realise it until I already started but that was the job.

You did it for two days?

Yes, for two days and I thought: I'm out

And you made a decision to…?

I thought: I'm out – no matter what. I went through all the papers and I found two jobs as medical laboratory assistants at Colchester, one in bacteriology and one in haematology. I found out later there was over 300 applications for each job. I got interviews for both and they both asked me the same question: "If you should be offered the jobs which one would you choose?" Of course when I was in bacteriology I said I'd love to go into bacteriology; I found it most satisfying. I was going to do my second final in bacteriology – yea – like hell. It's boring, it's smelly but it's a job. Haematology asked me the same questions and, of course, I wanted haematology. When it come to the crunch I had… I did actually have the choice and went into haematology.

So you accepted a position and where was that?

That was at Colchester General.

Right, what sort of salary were they offering?

Lousy. It would be virtually minimum wage, now. it still is fairly down the ladders.

And a Monday to Friday job?

And some Saturday mornings but we got no extra. I think we got time off in lieu or something or it was included in the hours. I know we never got anything for Saturdays – no money actually changed hands… and I was happy enough there but again the system had changed. What I didn't know is when I was … taxi driving I used to pick up various people and one little group I used to pick up quite regularly was two of our local GPs, one of our local GPs, one of the hospital consultant surgeons, the local coroner and another guy and they were all doctors and take them into town and pick them up after they had had a good night out and I was sitting in the front of the car one day talking to one of these guys and he asked me something about pathology and I said, "Yes, I used to work there" and he said: "Where did you work?" and I said I used to work with Dr P. at Billericay.. "What… him! If you want a job come and see me". Now I thought as a phlebotomist. He, in fact , did mean, I found out later, I found out six weeks too late that if I had gone back then I could have converted my old qualifications and still become a medical laboratory technician…. six weeks.

Oh dear!

Sick! The system had still changed again. Once that had finished that was the end of the old system; they were then taking youngsters in from university. They done the university course. Of course, they are full of themselves. They have come in not knowing a thing; they are ordering everyone around, they wouldn't do any of the dirty stuff that everyone used to do, even the seniors and I was getting just a little bit cheesed off with these youngsters knowing it all and not doing very much because once they came out of university they had to start their training, so university was only a piece of paper saying: ok they were capable of learning that type ….

You didn't find that they were enthusiastic to learn the grassroots?

Oh no, they weren't; they didn't want to empty bin sets and put things in autoclaves – far below them…. they had a degree! So I started looking around. I found the only way of getting anywhere….it's all done by your face in the NHS. If they knew your face you had a fair chance. Well being in the lab I was not going anywhere. I wasn't even coming out of the labs, you know. So I firstly trained to be a phlebotomist so if they were short on phlebots I could go and help there. Faces known round the wards a little bit; in the clinics. I also managed to get onto the hospital magazine , onto the editorial group of that… again faces getting known around and there's jobs come up… Oh I also enrolled at the local night school. I could see that I needed to know how to use the computer properly.

So computers had come in then?

Yes, well and truly. We was using them at work a lot for just data input basically and results input but I thought I'll need to know them a lot more than that. I'd by then learned that you need pieces of paper – people don't accept that you can do something; they want to see the pieces of paper to prove it so I went to night school for a few years while I'm … and gradually one course after the other. A job come up eventually in clinical audit – clinical audit assistant; went for the interview and lo and behold on the interview group are two of the people from the hospital newspaper group; my face is known – I was in…

You were in with a chance

I was in with a chance because I knew the way round computers and probably far more than most of them in … that were working there. I've got an awful habit: I'll make a job more efficient. If I can make a job more efficient I'll have to do less – if you have got a computer to do it why am I doing it? And I've done so well on this that I started doing patient information.

And eventually I actually had the post of first patient information officer for the Trust.

And that entailed doing what …?

Writing all the patient information leaflets.

The ones handed out to them when they arrive on the ward?

Yes. Making sure that everything was up-to-date on them because we was finding things were so… because they'd been in production for years … getting them printed and from there I gravitated to the national group on patient information

So you actually finished doing the practical clinical ..?

Yes clinical audit and I've got my own office.

Now you are in an office doing the ..?

Yes, doing the information write-up. With the national group that was once a month you'd go up to a meeting at Great Ormond St or Whittingtons or somewhere like that. In fact the NHS did eventually make a standard for all patient information. The standard was taken…, it was overseen by the RNIB and the plain English group, but it was taken from the standards of three hospitals: one was Great Ormond St, one was Whittington and the third one was mine.

Right

So I basically wrote the national standard which was great. It was great.

I think we're proving to today's children that you can veer off and do all sorts of things; you don't have to have the one job. You can make use of a variety of experience.

Oh yes, it's just I think you can do anything you've got an interest in. If you want to do it, you can do it. I carried on with that until 2004. We were still in the same house; we'd closed the shop down, we'd turned the …in the process of turning that into almost a granny annexe … except a cottage and the builders from hell moved in next door and they were the builders from hell, believe me. They left us with a sheet of plasterboard between us… between my kitchen and the outside world and that's how they were going to leave us and we had one hell of a fight and in the end someone suggested that maybe I ought to get my place valued and sell it to them and they could develop right the way through then and we would just move away. We was intending moving to Norfolk within about five years anyway … started looking around and within half an hour I'd found our dream house in Norfolk.

Oh lovely! So was this bringing you up to retirement?

Oh no, no, no, still a long way to go unfortunately. The Trust was up for accreditation and a major part of it was to do with patient information so I agreed to stay with the Trust while living in Norfolk and working in Colchester. I used to make sure I was in the office one day a week. Nobody – it was all done by email and phone – nobody knew where I was.

So. .. your house that you were telling me about… the one where you had the shop I understood to be in Essex..

It was. We sold … yes the one just outside Colchester

Hadn't moved to Norfolk at this stage?

No, while I was doing that job. We then moved to Norfolk in 04 but I still kept working at Colchester.

So we are coming up to 2004?

We are in 2004. We moved up to Norfolk – still carried on doing the job for a further 6 months or so. In the meantime my husband has gone off permanently sick; he's disability. So that's fine.. he's at home doing the house and I'm going backwards and forwards doing my thing. The May after we moved up I actually handed my notice in and left but realised I would … the day I handed my notice in I looked in the …on the net and I was looking for jobs in Norfolk and the MOD were asking for people.

So I applied to the MOD, had an interview, about a week or so after I actually left.. and was accepted. But with the MOD you can be accepted for a job but you can wait a year until you get it. You've got to wait …They interview dozens of people, take on probably twenty or thirty and then as jobs come up they fill them.

And what sort of job were you hoping to get?

I was probably…it was crazy… I was put into civilian pay, something I had absolutely no idea about at RAF Mildenhall.

Civilian pay so that's civilians… working on the Mildenhall base?

American civilians working on the Mildenhall base and not only Mildenhall. I had Mildenhall, Waterbeach, Menworth Hill in Yorkshire and another kind of … scattered around.

So a big responsibility/

Huge …and I also had civilian travel.

And was this well paid.. with the Americans being involved?

Are the MOD ever well paid? No, the MOD is the most diabolical little pay ever! I think when I left I had managed to pool up to £18,000 a year with that amount of responsibility. It was …and there is no.. very little hope of any promotion because you are all so scattered around in separate offices: here, there and everywhere on the bases and to get promotion in the MOD you've got to be a manager. Well with an office of one I had nobody to kind of manage so there was no way that you could ever go anywhere.

But you couldn't …no…

I'd no intention of it anyway. The six months between actually applying for the job and getting it I worked for …. I temped. I worked in personnel for a while at Tulip Foods in King's Lynn. I worked for a while at Tulip Foods in Thetford in the .. not in personnel, I was in… I was doing all the orders for Marks and Spencers – sending all their foods out all over the country.

You've never really been out of work?

Not for long.

You've always stepped across.

Yes, whatever's there, I'll take it. I also went on a transport firm sending lorries out all over the country.

You could use your taxi experience.

Data-basing and fixing loads, it was there. As I say eventually I got into Mildenhall and I retired from there it would be two years come January.

And would you say out of all of the jobs that you have had which is the one that you woke up in the morning and thought: I'm really pleased to be doing this.

Er… probably patient information officer.

Right. That gave you some satisfaction?

Well it didn't give me anything else. They refused to pay anything more than the lowest admin job. "Oh we can't possibly afford to pay us up". "No more at Tesco's?" "Well go and work for Tesco's". You couldn't get anywhere. But that was good. I could go into hospitals; I could go into any hospital. I remember going into Bury once, into their outpatients – that's my style; that's mine. I can recognise my style of lay-out and I've been to hospitals all over the place and I recognise my style. I also did teaching patient information and I've even been up to Sheffield and taught up there.

And with these particular skills and talents do you do any writing now? Do you send up articles to…

Not exactly. I'm at the moment.. I have just… I'm still the editor of the Methwold Times which means I do all the layout: that's about 72 page every month. I've just completed a cookery book for the Northwold WI and I've recently…there's a calendar, an A3 narrow calendar for our local history group.

So you are using the skills?

Oh yes I absolutely have to

You've not packed up?

No

So you've had an enjoyable working life if not the highest paid?

I've never been highly paid. I think the most I've ever got has probably been £19.000 but that is the absolute maximum I've ever got to but it's been fun.

It's been a fun life?

Yes there's nothing I ….I've naturally had to move on when I've had enough of a job. I really didn't enjoy the insurance very much.

So if you weren't actually enjoying what you were doing you packed up and moved on to something else?

I didn't pack up; for some unknown reason I was shoved but I .. ..not exactly. I only got sacked once. But something come along that led me off somewhere else. The other really brilliant thing is when I was interviewed for the job in the insurance there was the company accountant and of course the family interviewed me. The accountant is also retired now and she's one of my best friends. When I was interviewed to go to the hospital, apart from these funny guys with moustaches and white coats there was this young lady sitting nearby with the most flaming red hair, the most immaculate make-up. I took it she was there to take notes, she looked secretarial. She was in fact head of haematology and she is my bestest friend. We go on holiday together because my husband can't go away. She comes up and stays with me. She is still my… we are very, very close.

So you got a lot of social…

I've got two very good friends now.

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