Lucky Jim. Being in the right place at the right time. (1948-2012)

Location : Germany; Norwich; London

Jim began working in a bank in central London, then served as a bombardier and sergeant major in his national service on Salisbury Plain. He learned Russian and became a translator and then spent several years in Germany in the Intelligence Corps. After the army he took his HNC in Building subjects and became a quantity surveyor in Cheltenham, in the financial side of things. He took a part-time teaching job and so enjoyed it that when he moved to Norwich he taught various subjects at Norwich City College for over 25 years. On retirement he became a tourist guide of the city of Norwich which he and his wife still enjoy.

 Beginning in the Bank

I left grammar school at the age of 16 to start a job at the Midland Bank in the Strand in London; a job that my father had helped to get me. I spent two years there and did evening classes but failed every single subject in my banking exams. On the day after the results came out I left to join the army as a National Serviceman. That was in 1951.

The Army

Although I had tried to join the armoured corps I was put into the Royal Artillery, probably because I was fairly good at maths. I served most of my time at Larkhill in Wiltshire on the Salisbury Plain. I had a good time there. I was what they call a technical assistant on the guns; they were mortars, a bit unusual for the Royal Artillery. We had mortars which were 100mm diameter and we used to have to line them up before they fired them. We gave demonstrations on Salisbury Plain and we gave a demonstration to King Hussein of Jordan at one time – that was good fun.

We were told that if we wanted to be promoted, we’d have to go on a drill course. As I’ve always been a little bit awkward at times I said, ‘As I’m going to be leaving in a year’s time, I don’t think there’s any point in me doing the drill course.’ And a month after that I was promoted to Sergeant Major – without doing the drill course! Actually, I took drill in the early stages when I was in the Artillery. I was what they call a bombardier, the equivalent of a corporal and I used to have to do a bit of drilling in those days, not a lot, not being a spit and polish man really.

It was getting a bit close to coming out of the Army and going back to the bank and I didn’t fancy it one little bit. Not that I didn’t have a good time at the bank; it was OK; they had good sports clubs and I played football a lot in those day but in the Army we were out and about a lot in the open air and I really enjoyed that whereas in the bank you were in the same place all day long. The customers were very good. Some of them used to play the system – they’d have cheques going around. They’d pay a cheque to their cousin and their cousin would pay a cheque to somebody else and each one would have gone into debt if their cousin hadn’t given them a cheque.

Learning Russian in the Army 1953. Jim aged 20 years.

Just after the Second World War it was time to come out of the Army but I saw on the regimental orders which came out every day, that they were asking for people to go on a language course and they would transfer into the regular army so I thought it sounded like a good idea. They wanted to know if you’d done anything in the past, and I’d been to France when I was a boy of 14 on an exchange which lasted six weeks and I did quite well. I also got the old school certificate in German. Then they give you an interview, and they give you vetting to make sure you’re suitable and I was. So, I did a year’s Russian language course and then transferred to the regular army. It was the time of the cold war, so they needed Russian language people to be translators. We started the course in February, and we took A levels in November; we were just a bit better than A level I would say. All I can tell you is that I transferred into the Intelligence Corps and I was in the Intelligence Corps for nine years; it involved the Russian language. I won’t say any more.

Quantity surveying and lecturing

After that, in 1954, I went to Berlin. I got married in 1955 then we came back in 1957. I always wanted to be in building. My father was manager of a building firm but he always said building is not a very good thing to be in because it goes up and down, so he steered me away from it when I left school. But when I could choose for myself and I wanted to come out of the Army, with June being an Army wife it wasn’t good for the children and that sort of thing, I thought well, I’ll go into building now he can’t tell me what to do now any more.

Brandenberg Gate, Berlin, 1960s, before it was closed to divide East and West Berlin.

I started doing evening classes before I left the Army; I went to evening classes three evenings a week. I did a National Certificate and then a Higher National Certificate in Building Subjects. Then when I left the Army, I became a member of the Institute of Quantity Surveyors and I got a job with Cheltenham Borough Council as a trainee quantity surveyor.

In quantity surveying you need to be good at mental arithmetic which I was. Also, when I was in the Artillery, I had to use an instrument called a director which is very much like a theodolite so I knew I could use a theodolite and I liked using the theodolite. As a quantity surveyor you’ve got to really be au fait with every aspect of building you can think of because you measure things down to the last nut and bolt, literally, and that appealed to me. At Cheltenham Borough Council the job was to do with preparing documents so that builders could put in tenders all based on equal information. So, if you’ve got six builders trying to get a job, they would all have exactly the same information on which they could base their tender. It was preparing those tenders, those Bills of Quantities as they were called, for them to work out their estimates.

That was 1962 to ’65, during which time I’d become fully qualified. Then my wife and I needed a bit more money and there were quite good jobs going with various building firms. You get a different view of things from the building side than you do from what we call the professional side; so I applied for a job with a firm in Evesham in Worcestershire; I was still living at Cheltenham as they had a sub-office in Cheltenham. I became a builder’s surveyor involved with running the financial side and the building contracts. I did that for two years, but building was in a very precarious state and it was getting very difficult to get work.

When I was working for Cheltenham Borough Council my boss who had taught quantity surveying at the local technical college didn’t want to do it anymore and he recommended me for his job, even though I’d only been doing the work for a couple of years. So, I started part time teaching at North Gloucestershire College for a while. I’d done a bit of teaching in the army before and it was quite good, I quite enjoyed it, so I applied to Norwich City College even although I’d never been to East Anglia before. I was very lucky because I was on a short list of two; the other chap was offered the job and he turned it down, so I was offered the job and I settled in very happily.

I taught various subjects, but I preferred the teaching of surveying and levelling, that’s using theodolites and levels, and I did get on well with the students; I found the students in this part of the country very conscientious.

When I was at the college, I also became involved in exchanges for students. My wife and I took these students to Germany for about a fortnight at a time. These students were not language students, they were butchers, beauticians, carpenters, welders, plumbers – a real mixture of boys and girls, or men and women I suppose I should say at that age; so, I used my German again there. Then I wanted to learn a bit more German, so I did an A level at the college in my latter years there. Then when I left the college, I did an external degree in German with the London University. In fact, I’m going to a German conversation class tomorrow; well it’s not exactly a class, more a meeting of friends.

I was at Norwich City College for 22 years full time and I did about three years part-time, so I was there about 25 years. I went up the ladder a bit, so I became a sort of Assistant Head of Department and there were more and more meetings to attend which I absolutely detested. I’d much prefer to be teaching in the classroom. These meetings just proliferated, and you’d be there for hours and at the end you’d come out and think, what have I achieved? We got a lot more outside interference into the running of the classes. At one time when I was there, for instance, I would say we are going to be doing these subjects this year and if a student came up to me and said, ‘Look, I’ve got a group of architects here they want to do a certain subject because it fits in with their professional studies’ I’d say, ‘Well if you can get twelve people we’ll run it.’ and we’d do it. But later on, you couldn’t do that, it would have to go in front of an academic board; everybody in the whole college would have to discuss it. If you were lucky, you’d be allowed to do it. There was an awful lot of paperwork, preparing your case and so on.

June retired and I was getting to a point where they were trying to cut back on the number of lecturers they had got at the college. I hadn’t reached retirement age and they didn’t say to me, you’ve got to go, or anything like that but I thought this looks like a good opportunity. So, I went to them and said I’d be quite happy to retire. In those days they gave you what they called enhancement, so if you retired, say, at the age of 56 they could give you give you a few more years as though you were retiring at the age of 62 or something like that. The Principal said, ‘I can only give you two years enhancement but if you’re willing to do that and you think you can manage, that’s alright.’ So, I said yes, I’ll take it’. I was fifty-six and I don’t regret it for one minute!

I went back part time for three years or so because they didn’t have anyone to replace me; not doing as many hours as I did before, just a few hours here and there. But the beauty of it was, I just had to teach the subject, I didn’t have to do anything else.

Learning about Norwich leads to a new career

June and I thought we’d like to learn a bit more about Norwich, because we loved Norwich almost as soon as we got here. We saw this opportunity to do this course at Wensum Lodge to learn about the City of Norwich; it was only about 16 evenings or something like that. So, we learned about Norwich for 16 evenings and then we were invited to take a written exam which we passed. Then they said, ‘Would you like to become a Tourist Guide?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ and they said, ‘There is a practical part to it: you have to go around with somebody who does the tours at the moment and learn how to do it, and then you have to do it yourself and then you are tested.’ So, I did that and became a tourist guide. Like a lot of things in my life it happened by accident. I’ve been doing that for about 27 years. In addition, June gives talks and I’m her roadie (as she calls it). I operate the equipment. It used to be slides but now we do PowerPoint presentations and we do the talks to Women’s Institutes mainly.

I have had a very varied and interesting career and highlights for me are getting married, joining the Army, coming here to Norwich and getting the job at City College. Most of the time I have enjoyed my career and there’s been no time for boredom.

Jim  (b. 1933) was talking to WISEArchive  on 28th November 2012 in Norwich.

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