Would you like to start talking about your early years?
I'd like to start off by saying that I failed my 11+, which I'm totally opposed to, because you're actually judging somebody's intelligence at the age of 11, and whether you failed or passed that 11+ exam had a real bearing on what you actually was offered to do as a living when you left school. So, having failed the 11+, I went to a Secondary Modern School, where nobody really expected very much from you or that you would actually come to anything. I actually missed some of the schooling as well because I had a rather serious illness, so I missed about 18 months, a year to 18 months of schooling anyway, which I then had to work hard to catch up on.
So I finally left school, a Secondary Modern School, which was Rowland Hill Secondary Modern in Tottenham in North London. I left when I was 15 in December, and left school at the end of the Christmas term 1954, and started my first job in an Engineering factory the day after Boxing Day. Before I left school I was offered … my dad actually spoke to me and asked me what I wanted to do for a living and I did mention that I wanted to be a plumber. My dad was a plumber and I thought I'd like to do that. I couldn't think of anything else to say really. So he said he wouldn't let me be a plumber because he thought that it was hard work, it was cold in the winter, so he said "No, you're not going to do that". So he said to me "What else would you like to do?" So I said "I'd like to work with animals. I'd like to be a vet." And his response to that was "Don't be bloody silly. You've got to have brains to be a vet." So that was the end of that one. So he said "Is there anything else you want to do?" And for the life of me, until the day I die I'll never know why I did this, but I said I'd like to be a ladies' hairdresser. And his response to that was "We're having no bloody poofs in this family." (laughter)
Working in the engineering factory
So I ended up with two friends from school working in a factory. It was called the Medical Engineering Company and it was a factory in Tottenham that produced hair dryers, amongst other medical equipment. The factory was on two floors: There was the lower part of the factory that made the stuff, manufactured the equipment, the top floor was where it was assembled. And I was put with a fella called A.D. on the top floor, assembling sun ray lamps. And we had to screw a bowl, a silver bowl onto a base, a mazak metal base, and, just having left school our hands was soft as anything. And the palms of our hands were just one mass of blisters at the end of that day. We just found it was nearly impossible to do it without wrapping rags round your hands to screw these up, and I remember saying to the forewoman "Can you tell me where the toilet is?" because I needed to go to the loo, and she said to me "You're a workman now," she said, "You're not at school. You don't have to ask to go to the toilet." But what she didn't tell me was that they kept a strict eye on you when you went to the toilet, and if you took liberties, if you went too often or you stayed out too long, ‘cos you got bored with what you was doing, they soon picked you up about it. The only breaks we had was a 10 minute tea break in the morning, half an hour, 30 minutes for lunch and then there was another 10 minutes in the afternoon where a hooter would go telling you to put your tools down. And in that 10 minutes you had to wash your hands, get together anything you wanted to eat and then get back to work again. For 15, suddenly leaving school and doing that, it came a bit hard.
And was that 8 hours of the day or was it longer?
That was from 8 o'clock in the morning to 5.30 at night, and that was 5 days a week, with occasional Saturday thrown in. I got absolutely fed up working upstairs putting the stuff together, and I decided I'd like to give it a go and work downstairs where they did the manufacturing. And it was kind of like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire – it was even more boring. You would spend days, perhaps a week, making the same thing. You'd be working on a thing called a capstan lathe, or you'd be working on a press and it was just repetition, and I've never in all my life known time go so slow. You'd look at the clock every five minutes and it was like half an hour had gone by. It was just unbelievably boring.
And yet some people must have worked there most of their lives.
Absolutely! In fact that was one of the reasons I eventually decided to leave. I stuck it for – apart from a short break – I stuck that for four years. The other thing about this, of course, I want to say, is that there was lots of factories in that area, and I'm sure this wouldn't happen nowadays, but they used to have . .. . There was a big firm called Gestetners, they made duplicating machines and there was Levis' which was a furniture factory, and they ‘ad a hooter that went, I think it went five minutes before time, so you had five minutes to get to work, you ‘ad then two minutes grace. If you was later than two minutes, they would stop you fifteen minutes pay, but you was still expected to work although you wasn't getting paid for it. So if you was gonna be late you might just as well . .. mind you, to stop you from saying "Well, I won't go in till a quarter past" they'd give you sort of like ten minutes, and if you was later than ten minutes then you'd get stopped half an hour. So they caught you whichever way you went!
But there was a lot of factories round that way then, and it was nine years after, 1954, the War had finished in ‘45, and even when I went up to work in London years later there was still loads and loads of bomb sites. And you used to have these bomb sites all round the area ‘cos, you know, they tried to destroy the industrial area. And one of the incidents I do remember was from one of the other factories – anything that would bring a bit of excitement in your life you welcomed with open arms. And there was two fellas from another factory were going to have a fight, so they went onto one of these bomb sites that were there and they formed a circle round these two fellas, and they set about each other. I mean, Tottenham, as I said to you before, it was a rough place, but not as rough as it is now, I don't think, and one of the fellas got knocked on the ground and the other one was still punching ‘im, and I remember saying to the fella standing next to me, a grown man – and bear in mind I'm only 15 years old – said to this man "That don't seem right he should hit him when he's on the ground". "Boy" he says, "that's the best time to do it." (laughs) So you just grabbed anything that broke the monotony.
I actually had an accident. I used to go on what they called piece work where you got paid your flat wage and then anything you produced over a certain number you got paid extra for. And I was pressing out these bowls that made the sun ray lamps, and the quicker you went, the more money you earnt, and we used to put them in, like a round cardboard tub, and the cardboard tub ‘ad got bent over at the top, so you couldn't get the bowls in quick enough. So I'd got a knife that I'd made out of an old ‘hacksaw blade. I went to cut the top off to get rid of the rough bit and the knife slipped and it went across the knuckles of my left hand, and it severed the tendons. And I was actually pleased about this because it meant that I couldn't go to work for a few weeks until it ‘ad ‘healed up. I was actually pleased not to ‘have to go to work! It was just that boring! It was that boring.
But I stuck this out, and then, in the end, one day … when I went to work I used to walk down this road and the buses used to go down there that used to go to a place called Southend in Essex, and I used to think to myself "If only I could get on one of those buses and go to Southend." Just to get away from this factory. And I just decided one day that I'd just 'ad enough. I looked around at these other people that were working in the factory and they were like zombies as far as I was concerned. There was nothing you could … all they could talk about first thing Monday morning was the football over the weekend, and I'm not particularly interested in football. There was one old man called C.P., he worked in this corner, he never spoke to anybody, he never joined in with anybody. When you had your tea breaks, he sat down there and had it all on his own, and it just dawned on me one day if he died they wouldn't even know he was dead until they locked the factory up, and I thought "No, this is not for me. I can't cope with this any longer."
Parks and bowling-green keeping
So that's when you decided to change jobs?
That's when I thought "I've just had enough of this now". So, I ‘ad an uncle that played bowls, and he played bowls in a park in Edmonton called Pymmes Park, and this was what I thought would suit me, working in the open, doing gardening. So he got me an interview with the Park Superintendent. I had an interview, passed the interview. It was a verbal interview, there was no examination involved in it, and I started as a garden labourer. And it was like dying and going to ‘heaven! It really, really was! The first job they gave me was hoein' up weeds in a big cold frame, although it was just as well there wasn't any flowers in there or plants, because I didn't know the difference between a plant and a weed. Anyway they say a weed's only a plant in the wrong place, don't they? Anyway after that I went to work with a fellow called J.D. and he was a fantastic man. He really, really was. And he taught me so much. And we were working round the schools in Edmonton, looking after the playing fields, marking out the football pitches, the running tracks, and just next to the school where I worked there was allotments, which I believe now there's a great big block of flats there, but it was allotments then, and I used to be able to climb over the gate, the fence, into the allotments and pick blackberries. I thought "I'm getting paid for doing this!" (laughs) But J. just taught me so much and he gave me a lot more confidence as well, because he used to annoy me, ‘cos he'd tell me to do something and not tell me how to do it. And I had to find out how to do it myself. And that was a good thing, you know, that sort of started to build my own confidence up in what I thought I could do.
So I worked for them, with Joe, for some time, and then, in the wintertime, we went round the roads pruning the London planes, the trees, and my job was to go up the tree, pruning these trees. Now this was long before Health and Safety had been invented, and the only safety we had – well, we didn't have any at all! – was a pair of gloves. You had a pair of secateurs and a saw. There was no safety harness, no hard hat, none of this. You went up the tree, and I was up this particular tree and the foreman was at the bottom telling me to walk out the tree and to cut this branch off at the end. And as I was sort of standing on one branch and holding onto another one – this was about fifteen foot up in the air – the branch I was standing on snapped and I was dangling with one hand from the other branch, and then that snapped and I fell down and landed right on my feet. It was all too quick to sort of try and roll or go with it, and I fractured one of the vertebrae in my back and that was a sort of hospitalisation job, so I was laying on wooden boards, and it was quite painful. The last thing you wanted to do was you really did not want to sneeze, because you can't sneeze without moving. So that was really quite painful, and the thing I regret about this, I've always been a very, very strong Union member. I've always believed in Unions, and I belonged to a Union then, and I never got any advice from the Union. I spoke to my dad about this and he said to me "Don't cause any ripples, boy", he says "You've got a good job. You don't wanna lose it". Nowadays I would probably have ended up with about 50 / 60 thousand pounds for that accident, so I never even put in a claim for compensation. But the penny didn't even drop when I was in hospital, ‘cos there was another man in the hospital, a road worker who had drilled through an electric cable and he was absolutely as black as the ace of spades where he'd got burnt. And I said to him – we had a local paper called the Weekly Herald – I said to him "Your accident's in the paper." And he says "Yes", he says "It's gonna be in there again when they find out how much I'm going to claim". And even then the penny didn't drop that I could … ‘Cos I. and I was saving up to get married then. I'd met I., the wife, and we were courting, we were going to get married. And it never even occurred to me then that I should have put some claim in for compensation. There was no advice. Anyway it was a lost opportunity, there's nothing you can do about it now.
Were you able to go back to the job?
I went back again but I had to be very careful. You know, when I bent I had to bend from the knees and keep the back straight. I think they call it kinetic lifting. I think that's the way we used to teach it when I went on to another job. So anyway I got married when I was working for the Council. Oh, before I got married I then was offered a job working in Pymmes Park on the bowling greens as an assistant bowling green keeper, and I absolutely loved that. I love lawns! I love getting the lawns looking nice. I love cutting the grass straight. You know, you go from corner to corner, you don't go up and down. You go from corner to corner. And it was really satisfying to get that straight line right up to the corner and come back. And it was lovely, you know. And I worked shift work on a Sunday, so I'd have a day off during the week. ‘Cause I was courting my wife then, and if I was working on a Sunday and I finished late I used to go round to my girlfriend's place and she'd cook me something to eat, and she'd come up there sometimes at the bowling green. There was two bowling greens. There was a public one and a private one, and the private one they would always have a high tea kind of thing when they finished their game, so I always got invited to that. It was really, really good. I did really enjoy that.
So then I got married, but before I got married the other thing I did, I got really interested in this, and I decided I wanted to go to Evening Classes to learn Botany. So I went to Evening Classes and I learnt Botany. Well, not learnt it … I began to learn it and I learnt all about photosynthesis and this sort of thing. But when the bowling green closed, the season finished, then they reduced me down from the rank of assistant bowling green keeper to garden labourer again. So I lost money, ‘cos I was no longer a bowling green keeper with the prestige that carried. I was a garden labourer again. And I looked at the money and I thought "I'm married." And I thought "This really isn't no good. I can't manage on this. I'm going to have to look for another job now." And I decided I didn't want to go back to factory work. I might just as well have committed suicide if it meant going back to factory work. I looked around and I thought "What else can I do?" So I started looking in the papers, looking for things, and I've never considered myself stupid, but I've never really put myself out. If something doesn't interest me I completely switch off from it, which is a really, really bad thing to do. If it interests me then I'll find out as much as I can about it. I was never really that interested in Maths because the teacher we had at school was absolutely useless and boring and I can't remember hardly anything about Maths. I find spelling difficult because there's no logic to it. There's no logic to spelling at all! So having decided that I wanted to change jobs I started looking for work that wouldn't be factory work but might give me a variation that would be interesting. And one of the jobs was a bus conductor, and I thought "Well, that's it – you're not stuck in front of a bench. You're meeting people, you're moving around." So I went along for an interview and I sat down for this interview. Now, bearing in mind, interviews and me don't go down very well. I get very, very nervous at interviews and written exams. And I sat down there and the fella doing the exam asked me to do some mental arithmetic, ‘cos this was before decimalisation, so it was "Tell me Mr M. how much are so many tickets at threepence, so many tickets at ninepence, so many tickets at sixpence?" And you had to add this all up in your brain and tell him what the answer was, and I made a complete mess of it, a complete hash of it.
And I walked out of there so ashamed of myself. I thought "I've got to do something about this now", so I went straight down the road and I bought a book called "Teach Yourself Mathematics", and I started working my way through this book. And by this time I'd actually gone back to working at one of the schools, doing work myself, working in the school as a groundsman there. So if I got to a part in the book that I couldn't quite grasp I would go and see the Maths teacher in the school and ask him, and he would say "Right, come on, this is what you do, this is how it works". And I began to realise that I quite enjoyed teaching myself things. I quite enjoyed, you know, the satisfaction of mastering the different equations, the different things.
Telephone engineer in the G.P.O.
And while I was doing all this I saw a job advertised in a paper called the Evening Star for telephone engineers, and I thought "That don't sound a bad job. I could quite enjoy doing that." I've always been more practical than theoretical. I've always struggled with the theory side of things. So I applied for the interview and I think someone was looking after me here, because I got the interview and there was a little practical side to it and then there was the sit down and do the .. . . Most of the questionnaire was on practical things, so that was pretty good. That wasn't too bad. When it got to the Maths bit it actually reached the bit that I'd got in the book. If it had gone any further (laughs) I'd have been snookered. What was it? One of the questions was a half multiplied by a half, a fraction, and I thought "I know that! Half multiplied by … Oh, I've got that one! It's a quarter!" (laughs) So I passed the interview, I actually passed the interview, then I had to go and have a medical and I was a bit concerned about the medical, because of the accident to me back, which I never said anything about. Which really wasn't giving me any problems then. And the fact that I'd had quite a serious kidney illness when I was younger as well. So I kept me mouth shut about all that, had the medical and passed the medical, so I thought "That's great." That was good. So I got a starting date, so I then actually started working for, it was then the G.P.O., and I went to a place called Maple Place off of Tottenham Court Road. That was my first office that I reported to, and that was when I started working, as I say it was the G.P.O., as everybody knows nowadays it's British Telecom.
And what age were you at this stage?
At that time I would have been 21 / 22, probably 22 then, 22. And I just sort of loved the job. The first day I started, I think there was four of us started the same day, and we all had to go up to … it was called an Inspector then … they've all got different ranks I expect now – there's Level 1s and Level 2s and everything else. But you went up to his office for a little interview for him to talk to you and he said to me, to all of us in fact, and I've never forgotten, he said "The most important person you're gonna meet on this job is your … they called them subscribers, they didn't call ‘em customers then. That's the first person you've got to ‘have to please when you're working" When I left four hundred years later the most important person was the shareholder. Nothing to do with the customer. But that's well into the future.
When you start working with them you started off with the rank of what they called a T2B, which was a Technician 2B, and you went off and you helped another fully qualified engineer, so you was his boy, if you like. You used to go along and he'd be showing you what to do, and you'd do that for a month or couple of months, and then you went off on courses. Now if I'd known about all the courses I was going to end up going on I probably would never have applied for the job in the first place! But we went on these courses, the elementary, the first installation course and then they just went through. I've got a whole list, about a three foot bit of paper with all the courses on that I ended up taken'.
And you enjoyed doing that?
I enjoyed the practical side, but again I still struggled with the theory. I had to sit down and work hard at the theory. But in all the courses that I ever took … The courses were split into two halves. In the morning you did the theory, in the afternoon you did the practical work. Now the theory was what they call schematic diagrams. I mean, then it was all relays, nowadays it's not relays, it's all printed circuits and silicone chips. I don't think there's a moving part now in any of the modern telephone equipment. But you did the two parts of the course and then at the end, you was marked, your practical work was marked, and they were very, very strict. The cabling, you had boards in front of you and you ‘ad to run the cable to a set pattern, and the cable had to be just right. You ‘ad to ‘have the staples inch
and a half from a corner, one staple hammer's length between staples. It all had to be . .. and they required a very, very high standard of work, which I never had a problem with. I found that quite enjoyable and quite easy. That's not being big headed, but I really did. The theory side, that was when I sat down and had to struggle. I've got this round the wrong way – I do apologise: The theory was in the morning, the practical work was in the afternoon. Yeah. Because if they had the theory in the afternoon you fell asleep, so they done the theory in the morning when, in theory, you were still awake! And then the practical work was in the afternoon. And then you sat down and you had a test on the theory. At the end of the course you then was tested on the theory side of it. You'd get schematic diagrams and you'd have to write down how the circuit went, what relays it went to, and when that relay operated that would operate another relay, and that would bring a light up, and all this kind of thing. It was quite good, it was OK but, as I say, I really did, you know, at that point I struggled a little bit with it. And I got to the point where I passed the first course and then there was courses after that, different courses.
By the time you got the first course under the button, even perhaps before you got the first course under the button, if they thought you was any good they would then send you out with your own tool bag and you'd be working on your own. And I will tell you this! I worked in London, round Holborn, and there was a building there, I think it was in a place called Took's Court, and there was a building down there that was associated with Charles Dickens. I don't know whether it was in one of his books, I can't remember, or whether he actually lodged or lived there, but people come from all over the world and they'd look at this building where it had this association with Charles Dickens, And I had a job, this was one of the first jobs on my own, to go and put a phone right on the top floor. And right down in the basement there was what they called the frame, the main frame where all the cables came in and from there it would be distributed off on a big building – on some buildings it wasn't quite like that, but I had to get a cable from the basement up to the top floor, and I looked at it and I thought "Well the easiest way to do this is to drop a cable out the window." So this is what I did. I stapled it at the top, pulled it tight, stapled it at the bottom, got the job done. The next morning my Inspector, called me in the office: "Mr M." he said, "You was working at so-and-so Took's Court?". I said "Yeah". "Ah", he said, "Do you know about the associations with Charles Dickens?" I said "No". He said "Well, people come from all over the world to look at that building" he says "And they photograph it. And," he says, "I'm bloody sure Charles Dickens never ‘ad a phone cable down the front of his …" (laughs). So I ‘ad to go back and do the job all over again. But I never forgot that, so I always made sure after that, if I done the job, it was done properly!
So, as I say, the courses, sort of like, progressed on, but I was working under a man … I won't mention his name because he was the most despicable man I've ever met. He was a bully and he was dishonest, so I won't mention his name. He would bully people. If he saw any signs of weakness he took advantage of yer, and I did one course, the only course I've ever taken that I failed the theory side of it, and it was on what was then, switchboards, and I was absolutely mortified because the way they did that, you would go … at the end of the course you'd all sit in the classroom and this man's name was Mr. P.. He was the worst lecturer … and I can talk with some authority about this, which I'll explain later on … he was the worst lecturer that I've ever known. I've never known a course with so many failures in it as there was with ‘im. I was sitting this course with ‘im and he said … he went through the circuitry on the board … and he said "Does everybody understand that?" and I thought well, no, I didn't. I thought "There's no point in saying I do when I don't" so I put my hand up and he said "Yes, Mr M." I said "You've lost me a bit." And he gave a big sort of sigh, looked at me as though I was a complete idiot and I was just at the point of telling ‘im where he could stick ‘is course when he turned round and said "Does anybody else not understand it?" And I think a third of the class put their hand up and said they didn't understand it. Which saved me probably from losing my job!
One of the things people used to do was, if they were in trouble on these courses, they'd go sick, and if you missed one day you couldn't catch up, so then you had to go back and re-sit the course another time. So you didn't lose face, you'd just gone sick. But I was a bit slow on the uptake, it never occurred to me to do this. Anyway I don't like backing away from things. But anyway, at the end of this course, I then had to sit this exam and when it was all finished, this Mr P. would come in and he'd call out a student's name and they'd go out and they'd come back. If you got a certain percentage of questions right you got what they called a credit, so this fella'd come back and say "I got a credit!" Brilliant! Next fella'd go out, come back "Got a credit!" The first one that went out and came back and said "I failed" you knew … and this was in front of everybody. How embarrassing was that! There was no niceness. It was a pretty awful thing to do to people. When my name was called out I thought "Well, this is it, I've failed, haven't I?" And I sort of went in ‘is room, and I was like a border line case between failing and passing, and he asked me a few questions, and by this time I'd totally lost heart, and I think I said something to the effect "Well if I've failed just tell me I've failed and we'll forget about it", you know. Anyway he failed me. And I went back again and took that course under a different lecturer and was within an ‘air's breadth of getting a credit. So he was just a bad .. . he knew what he was doing but he couldn't put it over, he just didn't know ‘ow to explain it.
So what was the implication of passing courses? Did you get promotion or did you get different jobs?
You got a different grade of work. As you went through the course, the different courses, like the switchboard course, you was qualified then to install switchboards. There was a private circuit course, you did that private circuit course then you were qualified to install private circuits. I mean, my technology is now out of the Ark. There's house exchange systems, you went on a course so you could install that. Once you'd got all those courses then when promotion eventually came along you've got that as a back-up, saying well, you've done all these courses. So you just carried on going, and when new equipment came out new courses'd be set up and you'd go on to that. But when I went back to the office and said to this man that I'd failed the theory "Never mind", he said, and he patted me on the back. And later on I'm walking round the office and after a while he came up to me and he says "you'd better not leave this on yer back". And he'd actually put a bit of paper on my back that said "I failed" and he'd let me walk round the office. I was mortified! It was embarrassing enough to ‘have to go back and say you'd failed, but for this ignorant man to do that. And I just didn't know quite how to handle it, so I wrote a memo out asking to speak to ‘is boss. I didn't want to rat on him. It's not in your nature, not in my nature anyway to go … I just put a memo in saying if I could speak to Mr H, his boss. Well he absolutely was terrified then, because he knew that was the worst thing he could've done, because that doesn't show that he knows how to deal with people, with men, and the chances are his chance of promotion would be up the bucket because of this. So he says "Are you sure?" I says "Yes, I do want to." I went and saw Mr. H. He said "What's the problem?" I said "I'd like to come off of this man's group" ‘Cos you was in groups, you had what they called a T1, which was a Technician 1, and then you had so many men under him, and I said I wanted to come off of his group, could I go onto another one. He said "What for?" I said "Well I'd rather not say." He said "Well, I can't just change you without knowing why". So eventually I gave him the bit of paper and said "Look, this is what this man stuck on my back" and I told him I'd failed the course. And he said, "No, I'm not having this", he says "I shall ‘have to do something about this." I said, "I'd rather you didn't, because it's not going to look good on me. It'll look as if I've been sneaking on people", I said "I'd rather, you know, just put me on … ". In actual fact it was probably one of the best things he could have done to me, this man. He was an awful man, he was just a terrible man. So one of the things, the outcome of this was that instead of putting me on another group in that office they transferred me from Holborn area to King's Cross and I liked it much, much better there. There was a much greater variety of work, and, as I say, I took the course again and I passed it, no problems.
Installation work at King's Cross
So what sort of work were you doing at King's Cross?
That was still installation work. It was installing telephones, house exchange systems – a house exchange system wasn't connected to the exchange to the outside line. It was like an intercom system, if you like. And then there was switchboards and some of ‘em were quite big switchboards. There was what they call call connect systems where, I mean, there would be a room half the size of this room, say 15 foot by 15 foot, and that would be full of equipment and you'd have a man called a T.O., a Technical Officer, that would install that equipment, but I would have to wire up all the main frame, wire off to all the points where the extensions were going, wire off to where the call connect system, the switchboard, was gonna be. It was quite involved, there was quite a few thousand wires involved in it. You see they worked to a colour code. It sounds ever so complicated but the most useless bit of knowledge in my brain that's ever stayed there is the colour code that they use, and it was blue, orange, green, brown, slate. Blue white, blue orange, blue green, blue brown, blue slate. Orange white, orange green, orange brown and so on. It's like learning your times table, you know. In fact we was in Norwich the other day and there was an engineer working on a box, and I said "Do you still use blue, orange, green, brown, slate?" and he looked at me and he says "Yes, we do!" (laughs) and I walked away and left him wondering! (laughs)
So many things happened. I'm not one of the luckiest people in the world. One place I was working at we left for the Christmas holidays and we went to some friends in France, and when I came back in the New Year to go back to work my tools had been used to break into every room in the office. So my tools were actually at King's Cross police station, so I had to go and collect ‘em from there.
Another occasion when I put one of these new call connect systems in, it belonged to a property developer. It was an empty office and he asked me to put the burglar alarm on when I left, and I said "No. I'm not touching burglar alarms". He said "It means I've got to come all the way across London", he said "to set the alarm if you don't do it". So I agreed to put this burglar alarm on for him and save him coming all the way across London, and he ‘ad a few sticks of antique furniture in there. That was the only furniture in the building and somebody actually got into the office. Because, on a Friday, we used to go and collect our wages. I just shut the door on the Yale lock, and when I went back the furniture was missing and I didn't realise it had been stolen until the Monday when the boss came over and said "Where's the furniture gone?" And I ended up, not me personally, but BT was then sued for the price of the furniture that had gone. BT actually lost the case and had to pay the price of the furniture. The legalities of it was that I'd accepted the keys so therefore I'd accepted responsibility for the security of the building, and as I didn't secure it completely then I got a letter saying that this time that BT would pay the money, but in future it would be down to any engineer, it'd be their responsibility to pay a claim for whatever was stolen.
And this actually happened at another job when we was working on a Sunday doing a changeover. After that I would never accept keys. I would never take keys. They'd say "Can you come in weekends?" I'd say "No, I'm sorry. Unless you come in and open up and lock up". And there was this particular office that the engineer that was working with me, the Technical Officer that was doing the testing of it all, he said "I'll take the keys". I said "It's on your back if you do". And over that weekend two valuable typewriters were stolen. So I never, ever accepted responsibility for keys, for locking up buildings.
So I stayed at King's Cross for … I'm not sure how many years I was there now till eventually I got made up to . . . I did all the courses I could take, I got made up to a T1 myself then, the same rank as this horrible man was. I was then a T1, Technician 1.
What age were you at this stage?
Oh, I'd have been 30s, in me 30s, early 30s. ‘Avin' got that rank you then had to wait for a post to become vacant and that could be anywhere. I mean, most people wanted to get a post where they were. I got offered a post back, funnily enough, in Holborn area again. Their office there was in Drury Lane, so I got the job as a T1, Technician 1, in Holborn at Drury Lane. And I worked there for four, five, six years perhaps. In fact I worked there until I was 39. I know this. And I got promotion then up to a Senior Technician. You know, there are two Senior Technician's jobs you can do. One was sitting behind a desk issuing work out to engineers and takin' customers' moans and groans and worries, and the other was actually working out with yer tools, working out supervising people in the field, in the area. And the only post they could offer me was working behind a desk as a Senior Technician. And you had to think about this because it was quite a bit more money. And I thought "I don't really want to do this", and I saw a job advertised as an Instructor in one of the Technical Training Colleges, so I did a lot of swotting up, went through all the schematic diagrams, learnt as much as I could get me head round. And one of the most useless bits of knowledge, apart from this colour code, was a thing called Ohm's Law. You got three equations. If you've got two of them you can get the third one, with any two you can get the third one. And they used to drum this into you, and 34 years, I think, I worked for BT and in all that time never once was I called upon to use Ohm's Law. Crazy, it was! But I applied for this job as an Instructor and ‘ad the interview and passed the interview. This was at Paul Street Regional Engineering Training Course in London, near Liverpool Street Station, and I started as an Instructor myself. This is why I can talk with some authority about the lecturers being some were good and some weren't very good. And that was one of the best moves I ever made, going in there.
And I got in there, and you spent three months learning how to be an Instructor. You ‘ad to learn how to put things across, you ‘ad to learn about pieces of equipment. The first lecture you ‘ad to do was on a subject you could choose yourself, and I actually chose folding a napkin up in the shape of a water lily! Then after that you ‘ad what they called a grandparent. They would be your adviser, they were experienced instructors and would show you and help you out during your three months trainin'. And you would ‘have different technical subjects then to demonstrate, so you would demonstrate various different subjects. And I think one of the proudest moments of my life was when I done my three months and a fella called B.B. who was in charge of my department wrote down that he thought I would be a great asset to the Training School.
From student to instructor
So I went from going on these courses and absolutely dreading ‘em to actually sitting down supervising my students doing their examinations. And I thought "That's pretty good. I'm quite pleased about that!" (laughs) I got sent all over the country. I used to set up courses, a new piece of equipment would come along and you'd have to set up all the course. I worked all the way from Cornwall up to Scotland on courses. I mean, nobody in their right mind'd go to Preston unless they had to, would they? .. . .. You don't come from Preston, do you?! (laughs)
So you're going round the country now and you're devising new courses?
When you was fully qualified as an Instructor you would then, depending what came along … I was actually instrumental in setting up the course on the new telephones when they first came out, when they got rid of the old black A and B one, in the introduction of the new telephone kiosks, in going round the country trainin' students how to install those. How to install them not only as a piece of equipment but into the phone boxes as well. ‘Cos not many people know this, but I'll tell you now: With the old black A and B telephone boxes they used to have, where you put your money in and pressed Button A, or pressed Button B to get your money back, if you wanted to make a phone call and you ‘adn't got any money when you dial, it's done on pulses by tapping the telephone handset cradle, it would go tkk, tkk, tkk, tkk. And 9 tkk, tkk, tkk dials 9, 4 dials 4. And all it is is making and breaking the circuit, so if you could do that manually without putting money in the phone, you could actually dial without paying. But if you worked overtime on a Saturday you then had to phone up the office to say "This is B.M. and I'm ringing off" if you ‘and't got any change on you, or you couldn't get an operator to get you a service call, or if you was in a rush, you could get hold of what they called the cradle at the top and you could go "Tkk, tkk, tkk, tkk" and you could dial without actually putting any money in it, so you got a service call for nothing.
So the GPO was losing a lot of money at this stage.
If that had become general knowledge, yes, they would have lost a lot of money ‘cos nobody would have been paying in these phone boxes.
So, as I say, I started to go, but first of all I kinda missed a little bit there, because when you did your trainin' yourself as an Instructor, you had to sit the course as a student , both the theory and the practical. You had to pass, and the theory you had to pass with what they called a credit. It wasn't obligatory but it was a bit of an embarrassment if you didn't get a credit. So I actually ended up getting credits on every one of the courses that I'd already sat. So once you'd done that, sat on the course as a student, then you assisted on that course, and then on the third course you was actually running it as a fully fledged Instructor.
Unless, of course, you were setting new courses up. If you was setting a new course up then you was setting it up anyway, so there was no need for you to do this. And sometimes we would set these courses up and then we'd go all over the country. It might be a mobile course. We might go to an area, and the way the courses were run you'd go there three days before the actual course to set it up and get it ready. So you'd go there Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and you'd come ‘ome Friday evening, then you'd go back Sunday afternoon, and then it might be a two or three week course, and you'd come ‘ome at the weekends as well. The only time I never came ‘ome at weekends was two occasions when I was running courses. One I couldn't get home because it was snowing. We was down in Sussex, Horsham, and it was just so much snow everywhere we just could not get home. In fact that was a little story in itself because where we were lodging was at the side of Horsham Gold Course and there was two of us staying there. The person that ran it was an ex-RAF pilot and we just couldn't get home that weekend, the roads were so bad, so we went out in the evening on a Saturday night and had a drink, and when we came back the man, who was quite elderly then, because he'd been a pilot in the Second World War, suggested we went sledging. And it's pitch black at night – well I say pitch black . . . it wasn't that black because you had the reflection from the snow, and there was a very, very steep hill you went down. So he's got this sleigh . . sledge, whatever you want to call it, and he's sat on this thing and he's gone belting off down this slope on this. And he dragged it back up and he says "go on, you ‘have a go now", so I kicked off. He said "Oh, and mind the bench half way down." (laughs) I said "How do you have to steer it?" By lifting it and bumping it over apparently, that was how you steered the sledge.
So that was one occasion I couldn't get home. And the other occasion was when I was working in Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Festival was on, and I decided I'd stay up there because it was so interesting. Not that I actually went into the Castle to the Tattoo, but just the street entertainers, absolutely amazing they were! Absolutely amazing! So I stayed up there for that weekend as well. Otherwise when I was working in Scotland they used to fly me up there. I would fly from Stansted, and that was when Stansted was a pokey little airport, not like it is now. It was a proper little wooden shed kind of place. So I would be flown up to Glasgow or to Edinburgh. But the Edinburgh . . . the plane used to stop at Glasgow and offload people at Glasgow and then it'd fly on to Edinburgh. And I was sitting on the plane, and I must tell you this was the first time I'd ever flown. I was absolutely terrified of flying. I wouldn't fly, but this time I ‘ad to do it. And I'm sitting on the plane kinda looking out the window, watching the luggage being unloaded, and there's a fella sitting opposite me and I said to him "Wouldn't it be a so-and-so if you saw your luggage being unloaded ‘ere and you're going on to Edinburgh" and we sort of laughed. And when we got to Edinburgh and the carousel went round with everybody's luggage on it mine wasn't on it. They'd actually unloaded it at Glasgow! (laughs) But that was ever so good, because they actually got a taxi and brought the luggage. ‘Cos it had all me notes for the course and everything, so I ‘ad to ‘have it for Monday morning. So that was the only two times I never came ‘ome at weekends.
And were your students working for GPO?
Yeah. Occasionally you would get a private student come up. But there was a computer system that was finally introduced and this is the one that really sent me everywhere. It was called CSS which was Customer Service Systems. Each area had its own computer system and this wasn't satisfactory. They couldn't talk to other areas, so they wanted a massive computer system where it was all linked together, and so they was joining up this Customer Service Systems all over the country. And that again was broken down into small groups. There'd be an external group, exchange group, maintenance. I was actually doing the exchange course, trainin' on the exchange work, and there was another fella […], and again we never got on very well, and he was doing the maintenance side of it, and he wasn't a very nice person. There was a bit of tension between us when we was on these courses, so I used to try to avoid working or lodging with ‘im if I could.
But when this system got running we had to train people in these areas to be .. they called 'em trainers … and they had to do a fortnight's courses, whereas we had had three months intensive trainin' they did theirs in two weeks. I think it was about two weeks, and they was then qualified as an Instructor or Trainer, which meant they could train on any subject. So actually through this CSS we kinda shot ourselves in the foot, because once they were qualified as a Trainer or an Instructor they could train on any subject, so when we would set up new courses, you'd see them come down to the Training School, they'd sit on the course, take all the notes away with ‘em and then set the course up in their own area and we never saw any more students from that area. And so slowly the Training School started to die, and of course BT were then seriously, seriously trying to change their image. I was coming up to 55 and BT thought anyone over 50 couldn't be trained in their new image. They thought you was too set in your ways by the time you got to that age, so they was offering loads of severance packages. Some, if you was younger, in your 30s, were pretty good, and in lots of cases people left and then came back as consultants, and paid ‘em more money than they paid ‘em when they actually worked for them. But it really got quite tense in the end. Every year we would have an appraisement and I've got my appraisements upstairs ‘cos I always kept a copy of them, and every appraisement was always good. Truthfully, never, ever had a bad appraisement. I was very conscientious. I know self-praise is no recommendation, but whatever I did I tried to do properly. I've got letters upstairs from customers before I went in the Training School thanking me for what I'd done, ‘cos if I finished a job and they used to go to give you beer money I used to say "No thanks. If you was really pleased with what I done, if you write in to the office and tell them that'll help my promotion prospects much more than you given' me a drink". And that was what I used to do. So I've got several letters up there.
Changes in BT
BT in their cleverness decided they'd introduce a thing called "National Averages" which they estimated how long a job would take. So they might say a job would take four hours. But that's taken' that job all over the country and estimating, you've got an average of how long it would take, the hours that were involved in it and the number of jobs that were done. And they'd say "this job'll take four hours". Well, sometimes you could do that job in two hours, sometimes you could do it in half an hour, sometimes it might take you six hours, but as long as you could justify it was six hours nothing was ever said. But everybody thought it's got to be done in four because that's the national average. And it just got sort of silly with this national average lark, and I just got to the point where I got told off. Blokes told me off because I putting the job in under time. One job was like 130 hours to install one of these call connect systems. I could put it in in half that time, and I'd got the rest of the time to waste, and I used to give my governor half the time and then I'd go and have a look round the British Museum or go shopping. It was just crazy, it really was crazy! I've completely forgotten what I was starting to tell you now!
You mentioned this cascading of instruction – do you think that meant the standard got lower?
Absolutely, absolutely, yeah! The Instructors that I knew – and I like to think that I was part of that as well – were very conscious of getting the students to produce good work. I mean we would fail students. The practical side of a job was marked A, B and C. If a student got, I think it was three Cs, they was automatically failed for the practical work. Now there were some students that would come up there that you knew were capable of doing better work than they were doing. They were just slapping it up, couldn't be bothered, no interest. So I'd give ‘em two Cs, and I'd say "One more C and you've failed", and then they'd pull their socks up and they'd start doing a better standard of work.
But you see the equipment changes. We used to have staples that you put into the wall when you were stapling to the skirting board, and you put ‘em at a certain length – I told you before, a hammer's length. And then they bought these staple guns and you'd go bonk, bonk, bonk and you'd just staple these staples all along, and it never looked as good, it never looked as neat and tidy. […] So everything was just right, and you had to allow so much slack on the cable, so you would have a bend in the cable, so if the wire did have to come off and be put back on again, if it did break, you still had a spare bit of cable to go round it. These were the things we used to teach, and some of the students were fantastic. In fact, if they turned out a really, really good bit of work we used to tell ‘em to keep it. We used to keep it and use it as an example on a board to show.
We had the students, as I say, in the afternoons. I mean even when I was working away from home, you still come back and work in the College, and one of the courses we had we had a lecturer and we used to have a radio going in the workshop, and he hated this radio going, and 'e'd come along, and he used to walk in and he'd switch it off and walk out. And as soon as he walked out we used to switch it back on again. He'd walk back in, turn it off! We got a portable radio, this was a really big, old-fashioned 1930s big box radio this was, and we got a little portable one and we put it in the cabinet drawer underneath the big radio, turned the portable radio on and he walked in, walked up to it, turned the switch, and the radio kept going ‘cos it was the one in the cabinet that was working!! (laughs) And he looked at us with a big smile and he thought "Oh they've by-passed the switch". So he walked over to the wall and he threw the switch up, and all the students knew what we'd done, they was all watching. He threw the switch up and the radio's still going. So everybody just burst out laughing and we opened the drawer and he said "You win!" and he walked out (laughs). There was a lot of leg pulling and you 'ad to really be sharp, you 'ad to be on your toes, you had to be aware ‘cos you was having your leg pulled all the while.
So, in between running the courses away, you was still running courses in the School, but with this CSS we'd train Trainers, they were trainin' in their own districts, and so we wasn't getting the opportunity .. . they wasn't coming up to the School any more, so the School was slowly, slowly, slowly dying on its feet. So there was rumours then that the School was going to shut and you knew it was on the cards. It couldn't go on for much longer. The fact that I'd got to 50 now – I was over 50, I was 55, and they felt they couldn't mould you in their new image, that was never going to 'appen. But it was so stupid, and they'd badger you and badger you, and, as I say, every year I'd have these appraisements, and they really were good, there was never a bad one. And I was working under a fella […] I detest the man! He didn't like me. He was … you know, this manager-speak and buzz words? He was all this. My mate and I sat down in our staffroom and we made our own words up, we made our own management speak up. The best one we made up was there was "a jumbo stall on the runway" and we went round the office using it and nobody took a blind bit of notice, nobody turned round and said "What a lot of old rubbish you're talking". Nobody took any notice of it.
We had the kite mark as well come into the Training School where they could be inspected and you had to be able to produce all your documentation for your courses that you were running. This fella, B.W., he was leaving, he'd decided to take his early retirement. He just badgered the life . . . he got every bit of information he could, he just did it for the devilment of it, and his boss came in our staffroom and he said "B." he said, "We've got an inspection. Have you got all your stuff ready". So B.W. said "Yes". He said "Can I have a look at it?" So B.W. showed it to him and he said "Oh this is wonderful, wonderful" he says "How will I know how to find it?" And I swear this is true. B.W. says "I'll leave a note in the book". "O.K." he said, and he walked out. So he's going to leave a note in the notes for 'im to know where to find it! (laughs) Crazy!
Anyway, things were slowly going downhill now and I had an appraisement from this man, and it was awful. I couldn't recognise it as me. He just … I'm sure they'd been told "Anybody over 50 … " And it wasn't just with BT. If you spoke to other people who'd been made redundant from other big companies there was a set pattern to demoralise yer, to get you so you didn't know whether you was coming or going in the end. You didn't know what the future held for yer and in the end you thought to yerself "I can't go on like this any longer". And this bad appraisement was the straw that broke the camel's back. I just couldn't cope with it any more. […] I refused to sign the appraisement saying I thought it was unfair and untrue. I showed it to other bosses in the School, other lecturers, and they said "I can't believe this," they said "This is wrong. It can't be right." I said "Well, that's what 'e's done." So I wrote down on this bit of paper "I refuse to sign this appraisement and if Mr So-and So thinks I've got problems he should have approached me about them before it got to this stage". And I sent that off, and of course then he got a bit worried, so then he lied and said that he did tell me about it, which he never did. So he got himself off the hook. But anyway by this time I was coming 'ome . .. I had a brother that worked for BT as well and 'e'd actually left as well. He was phoning me up with problems and things that were going on, you know, this and that was 'appenin'. And it all got on top of you in the end and you thought "I really, really can't cope with this any more." I'd just 'ad enough, so I signed the bit of paper saying that I would take early, voluntary retirement. And I tell you now, the day before I left I drove up to that College, and I stopped at the traffic lights and I actually was crying. I had tears in my eyes because it was a job that I actually loved doing, and I thought "What a fool!" I should have made them force me out rather than letting them off lightly. I was just so, so upset that I'd lost the job that I really enjoyed. And I didn't know what the future held. I thought "Who's going to employ me. I'm 55 years old. I'm going to have a helluva job to find another job." But I came ‘ome. Poor old I., her hair started to fall out with worry, and the package deal they gave me was ludicrous. I got 6 months money for about 34 years work, I got 6 months money. That was my redundancy pay. They enhanced my pension by 5 years and paid the pension straight off instead of me having to wait until I was 60. Somewhere in here I made some notes about this … (papers rustle) .[ ] was the man who was actually in charge of BT then and he left some time after I did. I'm just trying to find it (papers rustle) …. Anyway one of the things I got was £20 worth I think it was, of Boots vouchers, and when I looked at the money that .[ ] got I couldn't believe that …. the millions he got for leaving was unbelievable […].
Finds an extract among his papers, which he wrote previously about the day he left, and reads: "Each of us was presented with a framed certificate offering us the best wishes for the future and thanking us for our contribution to the company and was signed with a printed signature of [..]. We'd all been instructed not to make any speeches but just collect our worthless bit of paper, smile and say thank you very much and walk away. When it came to my turn to be honoured I had no intention of going quietly, after all what more could they do to me? As I was handed this puerile piece of rubbish I told my boss if I had not felt that I'd been forced to take early, voluntary retirement I would have accepted that certificate with pride and I would have hung it in a place of honour in my home, but as it was now I didn't even consider it was worth hanging in the toilet. But before I could finish the sentence I think nearly everyone in the room finished it for me."
Here we are … if I could just read this to you: "Some years later I read of the monetary benefits that [..] received when he left BT and could not help making a comparison with my own redundancy pension and his, who I know was Chairman of British Telecommunications plc, and recognise did have a bit more of a senior position than mine, but nevertheless, if what I read in the papers was true, he didn't do that bad, considering, along with another gentleman, [..], was generally believed at the time to be responsible for the decline in BT's fortunes. [..] received a payment of nearly one million pound in addition to a yearly pension of £335,535, as well as a fee of £321,000 for his post as Honorary President Emeritus, whatever that is, for which he would then receive another £33,000, and a bonus of another £600,000." And then I've put down here: "Mind you, I think he may have lost out on the Boots tokens"!!
Now read on in Part 2 …