I’ve had a week of ups and downs. The downer is a pretty big one, at least in terms of price tag. Well, perhaps in the great scheme of things it’s not that bad – about £780 – but it’s rather a lot of money to suddenly have to find in a hurry.
When I completed my tax return for 2015-16, the online system for HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) declared that I owed them £782. Quite why was a mystery to me; during that tax year, I’d been in full-time salaried employment and all my sources of income were taxed at source. How had I become liable to pay more tax?
I took a day off to ring the Revenue, though in the end I was able to conclude the process in half a morning. Who knew it could be so easy? It turns out that the underpayment has arisen because when I was self-employed, I put an amount into my tax return for business expenses that could be offset against tax. When I had a lean year, and earnt nothing from my business, obviously I didn’t have any expenses either. But the Revenue simply brought forward my business expenses from the previous year; as I hadn’t said that I’d closed my business down, they assumed that i still had the outgoings even if I didn’t have any income.
Those expenses were then reflected in my tax code. So once I went back onto Pay As You Earn (tax deducted from earnings at source, for overseas readers), my tax code, the basis of that calculation, was too low. That didn’t matter until I actually advised HMRC that I had closed my business. Whereupon the expenses element ended up being reflected in my tax code in the form of an allowance that I’m no longer entitled to. Whilever I didn’t close the business down, that was OK, because I might get lucky and have some business come my way. Indeed, I commented a year or so back in this very blog that I’d contemplated closing the business, only to get some approaches for possible speaking engagements and a new book deal. But once the business is no more, the expenses drop out of the tax calculation. And so they want it back.
I rather suspect that there’s a bit of a glitch in the algorithm that doesn’t reset the expenses number if the following year records nothing, partly because that would be a policy decision that the Revenue would have to take and partly because it’s a nice little earner for them. I’ve used the magic legal phrase “without prejudice” wherever possible, just in case I decide to look into this further and challenge the repayment request. But I suspect it will take more time and money than the tax underpayment is worth.
Still, (grumble grumble). They don’t tell you this when they go on about the joys of self-employment.
To happier matters. My other half has been doing some work with the Birmingham Royal Ballet recently, and she came into possession of some tickets to see the final dress rehearsal of their current production, Prokoviev’s Cinderella. So last Tuesday, I had a night at the ballet.
I’m not much of a balletomane, but this was too good a chance to miss. We got good seats in the stalls, only a few rows from the orchestra pit, and about on eye level with the stage. And I have to say I was very deeply impressed. Ballet is a very tough discipline; even the most petite ballerina is going to be a good nine stones (57 kilos or 126 Imperial pounds), and the male dancers will spend a good part of their performance lifting those ballerinas. Repeatedly. And that was the case here.
Ballet consists of a number of set positions and movements, so it’s no surprise that dancers start young, not only to build strength and stamina, but also to train their muscles so that they have the correct “muscle memory” to make the moves correctly. And that’s before they tackle the actual choreography of the production, the dance moves that tell the story. Nothing in this is ever going to be easy. Sitting where we did, I could see how that worked in practice; towards the end, the lead male dancer was showing signs of fatigue if you looked very closely – a tremor in the arm as he hoisted the lead ballerina once more. And as a rehearsal, there was the occasional fluffed entry and places where some of the corps de ballet were in the wrong place. But that’s what a dress rehearsal is for.
The other thing, of course, is the depiction of character through dance. In the case of Cinderella – a pantomime story, after all – this tended to be in the persons of the Ugly Sisters. This production made one into a tall, willowy manhunter (think the Irma Prunesquallor character from the BBC production of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast a few years ago), whilst the other was a made up with prosthetics to look just a bit roly-poly (“The ballerina Tumbleova”, I commented, channeling Beachcomber) and clumsy – which means that she had to be a really good dancer to be able to dance that badly on purpose. These two dancers managed to inject the right amount of comedy into their parts.
The utter marvel of the production, for me, was the scene setting. The action of the first act and the first half of the last act was set in Cinderella’s kitchen; traditionally, in the British versions of the pantomime, Cinderella’s father is called Baron Hardup, and the decor of the kitchen bore that out. The entrance of the Fairy Godmother was very well concealed with a breakaway panel partly concealed by an on-stage cupboard, and partly by a complex dance movement of about half the cast. But my highlight was the minutes before midnight, where the dancers imitated clock hands whilst a huge stylized clock mechanism counted down the seconds. The whole thing, with the aid of Prokoviev’s music, to me seemed to owe a lot to the Moloch Machine scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Prokofiev’s score is sufficiently modernist to sound rather edgy, matching the efforts to darken the story a little, without becoming completely divorced from the physical action on stage.
I would recommend this to anyone if they can get to Birmingham to see it. A link to the Birmingham Royal Ballet here: http://www.brb.org.uk/whats-on/event/cinderella
(Photos courtesy of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.)
I commented a while back on a job where I’d been interviewed at high level by the company’s owner and MD, and after a week they decided that I “…wasn’t a team player”, much to my surprise and puzzlement. Well, I’ve had a flash of inspiration as to what they meant.
The company I was interviewing with was in the facilities management business, just like my former employer. I was basically made redundant because my employers’ venture capitalist owners decided that rather than do IT development work in-house, they could buy that service in; and then they went one better and decided to buy the company that they might have bought the service in from. So in the course of my interview, that company came up as a topic of conversation, with them being named as “our biggest competitor”. “Ah,” I said, “and they’re the reason I’m here today – because they have replaced almost all of my former employer’s IT development and testing team.”
It suddenly struck me – did my prospective employer think I was dissing my last employer? If so, then it shows that they didn’t understand the nature of venture capital and company ownership. I will always show loyalty to my employer; but would anyone expect me to show loyalty to my employer’s owners, especially if they have a big portfolio of firms that means that even a multi-million pound turnover company is just one entry on a longer list? And loyalty is a two-way street – the venture capitalists, with whom I had no contact and no personal involvement with – showed me no loyalty; why should I reciprocate? To me, the venture capitalists were remote; uncaring, unthinking minds; why should I speak up for them, as opposed to my direct managers and colleagues who had faith in me and who I was pleased to repay in kind?
In other words, the prospective employer might well have thought that I wasn’t a “team player” because I was voicing criticism of “the owners” – but I didn’t see them as any part of “the team” in my workplace. We may have been talking at cross purposes all along.
I had a really strange dream last night. I dreamt that I was back working for the Department of Health and Social Security, though in the present day (as opposed to the 1980s) and at the one-time Regional Office on Chalfont Drive, Nottingham (again, somewhere that I haven’t visited since 1980).
In the dream, I received a package from the DHSS Central Pensions Unit in Newcastle upon Tyne about my forthcoming retirement. (Well, in six years’ time, but that’s still forthcoming. And the Central Pensions unit is a real place.) The odd thing was that delivered with this package was a misdirected letter, addressed to a Mr. P. Day in Arley, the next village over from where I used to live in North Warwickshire. Arley is a former mining village, though its pit closed back in the 1960s. The misdirected letter dated from 1974, and was about compensation payments to a number of retired miners. It included a list of names and addresses, and a wad of banknotes!
The envelope was plain manilla and typewritten, with a stamp on it; the letter inside with the list was handwritten on flimsy yellow paper. It gave Mr. Day’s address, on Spring Hill in Arley – which is, again, a real place – and I could remember seeing the address in vivid detail. The dream was so real that I could pick up the texture of the paper and envelope, and the colour of the stamp. Mr. Day appeared to have been an NUM local official, and I was thinking “I should take this round to him, if he’s still alive, to see how we can get this money to his members, even after more than forty years” and I was actively thinking about this when I woke up. It was so vivid that, for a few minutes after I woke up, I was still making a mental note to look in my work papers for this letter, even though I haven’t worked for the DHSS since 1989. It was one of those occasions where the reality of the dream persisted into wakefulness for a short time.
I’ve been really quite silent for a couple of months, after getting my new job. This is mainly down to the job being rather more taxing than I expected, though for a number of reasons I count this as a Good Thing.
All my other blogging friends have been putting out regular posts on the burning issues of the day, something I’ve really left them to. With a handful of exceptions, I find that my views are considered by many people to be very much a minority position, being based as they are on knowledge and experience. I realise that this is very unfashionable nowadays. I also know – and knew before recent political upheavals – that you can give people all the facts you can muster, and they will still at the end of the day prefer their prejudices. When I worked at Ofwat, we did some research into public opinions on leakage. Ofwat had a policy called the “economic level of leakage”; the costs of sending a crew out to repair a leaky pipe is pretty much the same whether it’s a pin-hole leak losing next to nothing or a major strategic main burst losing megalitres. So we asked members of the public “should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of how much is actually being lost?” And they said “Yes.” Then we explained that there comes a point with some leaks where it costs more to fix than it does to just compensate for the loss by putting more water into supply. We explained this in layman’s terms and made sure that everyone understood the concept (to the point of actually asking the question “Do you understand what has been explained to you?”). Then we asked again, “should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of how much is being lost?” And the majority still said “Yes”.
That research was done in – possibly – about 2005, and for me it was an eye-opener on public opinion. This is what some politicians seem to mean when they say that “we have had enough of experts”, obviously because they tell you inconvenient facts that don’t fit your world-view. And now this seems to be a major driver in government headline policies in a number of countries.
Debate is impossible under those circumstances – so I’ve given up trying. I know some of my former union friends and colleagues will say that the fight is worth the candle, that it is always best to campaign and struggle for what is right. That’s fine; but I’ve only got so much time and energy left to me, and I’ve got a new job and I’m learning new stuff. I haven’t room in my life right now for trying to butt my head against a brick wall as well. I wish those who want to try the best of luck on that. (Another part of this is my realisation that time is passing by; my next birthday has a zero on the end of it, and as the joke has it, when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for twenty-five years…)
My new employers, Celcat, are a software house that produces a rather specialist product – timetabling software for universities and colleges of higher education. They were started some thirty-odd years ago by a lecturer in electrical engineering at Warwick University who was struggling with his timetables. Hearing his lamentations, his son said “Dad, I can do that on the computer.” Thirty years later, they are still doing it (and both father and son are engaged with the company. The son is in the office at least three times a week, still doing coding.). The application has had numerous add-ons and enhancements over the years, but is essence it’s the same product. The company only does this product and they do it well. Celcat has grown over the years to a strength of about thirty; that growth has been organic, and only supported by sales. There have been no departures into exotic and unrelated products, and no ambitious plans for global growth (despite the company actually selling the product all over the world) requiring cash injections from sleeping partners, venture capitalists or shareholders. What money the company makes is wholly its own. Premises are modest; the company prefers to spend on kit and training to keep everyone on the leading edge – partly because the company sees this as a boon, and partly because the customer base is blessed with all the latest kit because of the generous discounts given by the IT industry to the education sector. The clients are at the leading edge in terms of kit and applications deployed; we have to be as well.
This means that I am now in an environment which to me feels more like a university than an office. And what’s more, I’m learning new stuff. I now know more than I ever did about SQL database management, and I run two virtual machines as do all my colleagues – at my last place, the entire IT department had one VM that was used by everyone as necessary. Celcat believe in giving you the tools for the job. And once my probation is over (in about a month’s time), there is training on the horizon, especially as the next big project we’ll be involved with is going to require automation, where what skills I have are a good ten years out of date. And it’s quite likely that in 2018, I’ll get to go with the rest of the team on a trip to a major testing conference.
(To the non-techies amongst you: a ‘virtual machine’ is an emulation of one computer run on another. Processing power and hard disk sizes mean that this is possible nowadays. It means that I can have independent machines to do testing on without having to clutter up my desk with lots of physical boxes.)
My colleagues are an interesting group, though I’m afraid my arrival rather rained on one guy’s parade when he said he was “the oldest tester in the company”. “Not any more you aren’t..” I thought. But this is all to the good. As I race inexorably onward into futurity and my burgeoning 60th birthday, the one thing I can’t afford to do is start thinking of myself as old. I get enough physical reminders of that daily; working with younger colleagues keeps me on my mental toes.
(And in any case, didn’t Tony Benn once say that if the young are going to continue to support the old with their taxes, the least the older people can do is listen to the young and take an interest in them, support them, encourage them, teach them but also learn from them?)
Something really quite odd happened in my second week. The test manager I was working for suddenly announced that he was leaving. When a colleague asked who he was going to work for, he said “A software house in Market Harborough” and he then proceeded to name them. It was the same place that interviewed me in the summer and then took a week to come up with a vaguely implausible reason for not appointing me. When he named them, he saw my face change and I told him my story. It turned out that they’d re-advertised the post and managed to fill it – probably with someone who worked for Celcat, but the evidence for that is only circumstantial – but that person had only lasted for a month before leaving because they were unhappy with the commuting. I knew that there had been some issues with their later recruitment exercises, because I’d been contacted by agencies on each occasion. In this case, however, my test manager actually had relatives in Market Harborough and was happy to relocate there, so the role was ideal for him. I’ve not had the chance to speak with him since, but he seems to be getting on all right. Perhaps things do work out for the best, even though it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
The one issue I have with the job is nothing to do with the employer; it’s the travelling. No, let’s be even more precise. It’s the last three miles of the travelling. Celcat is based on a business estate next to Warwick University. But when that was built, city planners had no idea about the sort of traffic flows that they might expect. So for the last three miles, traffic heading for the business park has to pass through a residential area and tangle with other commuter traffic heading for other destinations. And of course, Coventry’s public transport system is devoted to buses, with no dedicated bus lanes in our part of the city. Don’t even think about trams, such as those that Nottingham has so successfully introduced and which made that city an attractive proposition for commuting into.
And yet; IT companies rely on being able to draw in personnel form a wide range; I’ve heard people comment in the past that fifty miles is a completely acceptable commute for the right job, and IT companies tend to locate themselves out of town to take advantage of the motorway links to achieve this. Companies tend to look for very specific skill sets, and as qualified IT people are a minority of the population as a whole, it follows that the likelihood of happening across a job handy to you that matches your skills set is fairly remote. It happens – I interviewed for one job only a mile and a half from where I live – but it’s just as likely that you’ll have to travel. The person who gave up on the Market Harborough job seems as though they had unrealistic expectations of job availability.
When last I wrote, I was facing the prospect of having to replace my Mercedes C-Class as it was about to become “street illegal” and could not be made roadworthy without more money than I could possibly lay my hands on. Having gotten into work at the end of November, I was left with a car with about three weeks’ validity left on its MoT certificate – but no pay packet until just before Christmas, some five weeks away. However, an advance on wages from the employer gave me enough money to go shopping with; so it was onto a well-known car dealing website to see what I could find, cheaply and locally.
I toyed with the idea of an older Mercedes, as that would give me some prospect of solidity in a cheap car. But there was nothing all that attractive locally. Oh, there was an E-Class for about £450, and it looked in lovely condition. The trouble was that it was 19 years old, so it didn’t quite qualify for being exempt from Road Tax as a classic. In turn, that meant that the Road Tax, being based on a sliding scale of environmental acceptability, would probably be more than the value of the car, as it was a huge thing roughly the size – and probably maneuverability – of the battleship Bismarck, with fuel consumption to match.
Then some friends suggested that perhaps I should swallow my pride in individuality and settle for something a little more ordinary. And the logic of this came home to me. After all, it was the researcher into the uncanny, Charles Fort, who said ” A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time.”. The Mercedes was the right car at the right time. More than once when I was self-employed and doing consultancy work, I turned up to a gig all suited and booted in a flashy silver Mercedes and found myself being listened to attentively. And even getting paid on time. But those days are past. So for me, it became Fiesta Time.
Hence, on the second Saturday in December, I took myself ten miles up the road to Coalville, to look for a dealer who had advertised a cheap Ford Fiesta. I went early, in case someone else had seen the same advert and decided that this would make a nice Christmas present for some teenager who had just passed their driving test. I drove up and down the road looking for the dealer, but the only car dealer I could find didn’t seem to be in the right place and in any case had a forecourt full of cars well out of my price bracket. Eventually, I gave up and went to ask there if they had heard of this bloke.
“Oh yes,” they said, pointing through the window into the landscape. “See those cars in that field over there? That’s him, behind the tyre depot.” I thanked them and left with sinking heart. Some cars in the corner of a field? This did not bode well.
I found my way around the back of the tyre depot – not an easy job as there were a lot of vehicles on their forecourt blocking the narrow entrance to the back yard. But having squeezed the Mercedes down the track, I found myself faced with a new and well-built paling fence, a plot of land, yes, in the corner of a field, but cleared and properly gravelled, and a selection of some twenty cars neatly parked up, in herringbone formation, and all looking reasonably well presented, cleaned and valeted. The office was a portakabin, but with proper steps and an a proper piece of hardstanding.
I asked about the car I had seen advertised, and was shown a blue, four-door Fiesta. It was old – a ‘W’ plate, dating from 2001 – but exceptionally low mileage (74,000) with a windscreen price of £450. With a new battery put on the car, it started at first touch and idled smoothly and without any unwanted noise or rattles from the engine. A test drive followed, where I found that it rattled a bit, but no more than seemed reasonable; accelerated well; and handled no worse than I’d expect. We talked money, and how much to take the Mercedes off my hands. A national commercial online buyer had quoted me £475, but I thought that to be ambitious, given the state of the vehicle; and if I’d taken up that offer, I would have had to have gone to somewhere on the south side of Leicester, then gotten myself a taxi back., and perhaps a taxi out to Coalville to pick my new purchase up. So taking a hit – or perhaps not – on the Mercedes seemed sensible. We shook hands on £200, leaving me £275 to pay. And the Fiesta was mine!
Of course there are things wrong with it. It’s so old, it still has a cassette player. The paintwork is a little tatty, if you look closely. There are some rust patches on the bodywork. The interior lights don’t come on when you open the doors. And it catches crosswinds quite badly, being essentially a box on wheels, and it handles even worse when cornering at any sort of speed – which you sometimes have to do on roundabouts when mixing it with the rest of the commuter traffic. Oh, and as I’m doing 60 miles a day round trip, the petrol tank is so small that I have to fill it up every three days. It’s costing me less in fuel than the Mercedes did, but it’s a case of ‘little and often’.
On the other hand, it has a remarkably powerful heater, the air conditioning – yes, air conditioning! – works, and instead of the low-profile tyres that the Mercedes had which meant that you felt every bump and minor hole in the road (let alone a particularly vicious speed bump just down the road from me), the Fiesta has (by comparison) balloon tyres that soak up a lot of irregularities in the road. And it is easy to drive and accelerates remarkably well for a 1200cc engine (even if it does strain a bit a motorway speeds – 65-70 mph is definitely its comfort zone, and until I can get it serviced I’ll be a bit twitchy about pushing it too hard for too long). Though it’s interesting to see how many other older Fiestas I see bombing up and down the M69…
I’d had the car for about eight weeks when something went wrong. The windscreen wipers failed one evening on my way home from work. Of course, it wasn’t in a light shower but in a tremendous deluge, made worse by all the spray thrown up by passing traffic and with night falling just to add to the experience. The RAC came out in about 45 minutes – not too bad for rush-hour on a Friday – and made a temporary repair with what looked like a giant paperclip.
I took it to my regular garage, who enthused over how cheap and easy they were to repair, and proved it by replacing both wiper actuating links in 30 minutes flat for £58.
A mystery remains. According to the registration documents, the car was a grey import from Jersey in 2001, where it had been a “H for Horror” car. (Major manufacturers often register cars in the Channel Islands as hire cars, where they acquire a number plate prefixed with ‘H’; after six months, during which time some of them never turn a wheel as the manufacturers import far more cars than there can possibly be hirers, they are re-exported to the UK where they are sold as ‘pre-owned’). It had then gone to Preston in Lancashire, and it had spent all its time there, with three lady owners putting those 74,000 miles on it in 15 years. So how did it end up in Leicestershire? The last owner identified herself as “Miss”, and to me that suggested one of two things, Either she was a young miss who had married and moved to live with her new spouse, and the car had become surplus to requirements in the new household. Or – and this seems to me more likely – the previous owner had been an older Miss who had passed away, and her nearest next of kin were in Leicestershire. The fact that the car had had a new clutch in March 2016 suggested that as a possibility – the service history showed that fair amounts had been spent on the car over the years, and a new clutch isn’t something that you put in a car that you’re about to get rid of voluntarily.
A nice, new(er) car is out of the question right now; I’m still feeling the financial effects of six months out of work, and that can take a while to get over. Add to that the fact that I now owe the council some money as the rules for Housing Benefit have changed since I dealt with it as an administrator back in the 1980s, so that salaries are now taken into account for the period that they are paid, not on the basis of when you get it. So whilst I was claiming housing benefit, I should have stopped claiming as soon as I got a job, instead of waiting until I got my first pay packet. After all, my rent and rates are paid in advance, but I don’t get paid in advance. And that was the way I understood the treatment of earnings in the benefit system – wages are taken into account when you get them, because they have to last you to next pay day. But apparently, the Government thinks that now you can draw on wages before you get them. Logical, captain.
Worse still, the tax man has come up with a gem. They seem to think that I paid insufficient tax last year to the tune of £792, despite the fact that all my income was (and still is) taxed at source. I’m waiting for some sort of explanation of this; and I suppose I shall have to endure some sort of telephone conversation with the Revenue. I’d better book the day off now. At leas they have decided that I can now stop doing individual tax assessments each year as I have no money coming in from self-employment any more. (Not that there was ever much of that anyway. I never made enough from self-employment to get taxed on it; so how come I owe them money now? Confused? I am.)
Still, things are looking up nonetheless. I’m booked in for the Eastercon for the first time in a few years (albeit in an overflow hotel). Three days at the NEC isn’t much of a holiday, but it’s the best I’ve managed for quite a while!
Today was the day I had been waiting for. I was finally offered a job. To get to this point from being first advised that my earlier job was under threat of redundancy has taken five-and-a-half months, something in excess of 120 job applications, and fifteen (or fourteen, or sixteen, depending on how you count them) interviews. This is the “burgeoning economy” that politicians and commentators boast that we are now living in.
Of course, there are special circumstances relating to my situation. I have a somewhat specialist job. (IT software tester.) I am based outside That London. I have a somewhat unusual career path – I started doing software testing before the main industry qualification was invented, my test automation experience is rather limited and also at least ten years out of date, and (despite the practice now being illegal) I am considered way too old by too many people to even consider doing anything much more complex than stacking shelves in a supermarket or projecting an air of Experience and Knowledge About Sheds in some home improvement DIY superstore. But I’m hardly unique.
The venture capitalist owners of my former employer decided that they needed to increase the amount of profit they were making out of the exercise. Someone identified a software company that they might acquire which would increase the asset base of the company as a whole, and enable to company to cut most of its in-house IT provision. And so it came to pass that my job as a tester was declared to be “an unaffordable luxury”. This came back to bite them, of course. The company was required to relocate because the site that we occupied was marked for redevelopment. They took up brand new offices in the city centre, and announced this widely online and in social media. “Click here for more details of our stunning new offices!” it said
Guess what. The link didn’t work. The Germans have a word for the way I felt about that. Look up Schadenfreude.
Of course, there was a process to be gone through. The company suggested that they would look to see if there were any other equivalent jobs that those of us under threat of redundancy could do. I said to myself, “Well, all they will have on file will be my testing CV. That doesn’t tell the whole story.” So I assembled an addendum to my CV, detailing the things I’d done that weren’t on the main resume. And I sent it to the director who was managing the redundancy process, saying “I’d hazard to suggest that I have skills that you know nothing about, and which I suspect no-one else in the company has.” His response was “I’ll read it, but you should understand that we are not in the business of creating jobs for people.” Then he opened the document, and saw, on the first page, this:
Five years’ experience in Press Office work for a high-profile Government Department at headquarters level
Dealing with press enquiries
Overseeing production and distribution of publications, press notices and Stock Exchange announcements, sometimes at short notice
Drafting press notices
Drafting responses to enquiries from MPs
Organising press conferences, seminars and high-level meetings
Organising media interviews, briefing broadcast media and print journalists
Received training in media interviewing technique
Organising Ministerial visits for UK and overseas government representatives
Proof-reading and fact-checking reports, press notices and speeches for senior staff (up to CEO level)
Preparing briefing for senior staff (up to CEO level) on:
The French water industry
The German water industry
Progress of legislation through Parliament
Reporting on Committee stages of legislation
Briefing senior staff (Chairman and CEO) for appearance before the Public Accounts Committee.
His face in the next meeting he attended was a picture. It may not have helped me secure any sort of position in the company, but it sure as hell made me feel better about the process; and that director avoided me for the rest of the time I was there. Finally he understood the amount of contempt I held him in. He had, after all, made a point of loudly dismissing all the testing work I’d done in the previous two years without understanding any of it. I felt I was justified in reducing him to the status of an insect.
I had some indication of the uphill struggle I was facing from the outset. My first application was to a company who ran a household services comparison website. Pretty quickly, they called me in for interview. Their business model was not dissimilar from the company I was working for, so I was able to do some serious thinking about their business, their software fit and the sort of areas where they might expand it. I went in and did what I felt was a pretty good interview.
They turned down my application because they said I was a “poor cultural fit for the role and the office”. Well, as far as I could see, it was possibly the most mono-cultural office I’d set foot in for more than twenty years. In fact, I could only see one area where I did not match the cultural profile of the rest of the office, and that was age – which is, as I said, illegal now (though like any other sort of workplace discrimination, the problem is proving it. Most people aren’t so stupid as to actually admit to such a thing in writing).
In the course of the 120+ job applications after that, and the 15 interviews, I never came across anything quite so blatant; mostly, those who didn’t value my experience were more polite. There were instances where my failure to progress was more understandable; I wasn’t generally applying for Test Manager roles, but occasionally one would come up which was so worded as to make me think I might have a chance. After all, I was almost a de facto Test Manager in my previous role, and indeed had been referred to as ‘Test Lead’ by colleagues. So for a company without well-defined testing protocols, I might be an attractive proposition. But the one I went to – after initial screening by the agency, I would add, and then a paper sift by the company – turned out to be anything but unorganised. Their IT manager was one of a breed of IT guys I’d come across before – he very much reminded me of the guy who headhunted me into Quality Assurance back in Ofwat; frighteningly intelligent, highly competent and never in the same place for much more than five minutes. I would have enjoyed working with him, but it was very clear almost from the outset that the company knew what they wanted and it was way outside my comfort zone. Chalk that one down to experience.
Perhaps the oddest experience I had was with a specialist software house who had a product along the same lines as the company I’d worked for. I went to and survived first interview, and I was invited to a second interview with the MD/owner, Business Director and Head of IT. For this I had to make a presentation as well as do the usual interview stuff. Again, I went in well clued up on the company, its business, its products and its sector. I did a pretty good interview. Afterwards, I spoke to the agency, and they said “Well, there was you and one other person got through to this stage – and they’ve turned the other person down because they said your technical knowledge was better.” But then, when I asked the obvious question, their rather enigmatic answer was “Robert’s given us a lot to think about.”
And think about it they did. For four days. Their eventual answer was “We don’t think Robert’s a team player”, which was a mystery to both me and the agency, as I’d talked at length about how much I’d worked with different teams, both co-located and offshore, how much I’d enjoyed working with some of thee teams and had good results from direct, one-on-one relationships with other developers. A friend of mine listened to this, and then said “You frightened them.” They re-advertised, filled the post, and then had to re-advertise again when the appointee decided that the travelling was not to their taste. And I was contacted twice for each re-advertisement to see if I was interested…
All the way through this process, I was hoarding my pennies, because I was hoping to avoid any contact with the benefits system. The last time I signed unemployed with the DWP, back in 2012, I hadn’t qualified for benefits because I’d been self-employed in the relevant contributions year, and because my small Civil Service pension exceeded the benefits payable. But now I have rent to pay, and I’d been in proper employment for two years, so I thought I would give it a try again.
I was appalled at what I found. The DWP now require all new benefits claimants to sign daily for the first eight weeks of the claim. 35 years ago, when I worked for the DWP’s predecessor Department, daily signing was an indicator that you were suspected of fraud – specifically, “working whilst in receipt”. Daily signing forced the claimant to turn up at the office at a particular time, disrupting a working day and allowing Special Investigation Officers to acquire their subjects and follow them. But now, this appears to be done specifically to get claimants into a mid-set of “looking for work” and open them to new and exciting job opportunities. Except that I was already in a “looking for work” mind-set (remember 120+ applications?), and the job opportunities they kept trying to point me (and everyone else) towards were warehouse, retail or caring jobs. They even offered me work experience in the Job Centre itself! As if I had no idea how a modern office operates..
Staff attitudes initially set me in mind of the Milgram Experiment, the experiment where members of the public were instructed to deliver electric shocks of ever-increasing voltage to an unseen test subject if they answered a question incorrectly; and because the instructions were delivered by an authority figure, the public complied up to lethal voltages and beyond. But after the first week, the Job Centre staff seemed to calm down, especially as many of us in my Job Club group were a bit older and radiated a certain air of “seem this before”. And to be fair, after a fortnight the staff themselves were confiding that they were under a whip from their management to promote certain jobs and activities. But the staff still didn’t seem to have any idea how professional or specialist recruitment operates. I actually missed a job opportunity where an agency rang up whilst I was signing on to try to arrange a telephone interview with an employer that afternoon. By the time I got back home, took the call and phoned back, the employer had filled all the interview slots they wanted and weren’t re-opening them for anyone.
The DWP staff certainly pushed the idea that I should apply for any suitable job. But how is that going to work? My CV shows a track record of nearly twenty years’ software testing; most office roles nowadays have specialist skills that employers are looking for. An employer is not going to want someone who may well only stay in a job for a few weeks if it’s clear from their CV that their expertise lies in another area; and even if they did appoint, can you imagine an Amazon warehouse shift supervisor being happy with the odd member of staff taking time out to answer employment agency calls during the day?
With all that in mind, and once I found again that I wouldn’t qualify for any benefit, I signed myself off, reasoning that I could do far better at finding work than the Job Centre. Incidentally, you now need two years’ contributions to get six months of contributions-related Job Seekers’ Allowance – back in the times I knew it was one year’s contributions got you one year’s Unemployment benefit. And UB was paid at a higher rate than Supplementary Benefit, whereas the rates of JSA are the same whether it’s based on contributions or paid out of taxation.
Meanwhile, Housing Benefit, paid by the local council (I remember converting all our office’s live case load to Housing Benefit when it was first introduced in the early 1980s) is based on the same numbers as income-related JSA; it then assumes that 65% of your income is available to meet your rent, and you get the difference between that and the local upper rent limit – an average of appropriate rents in your area. How you are supposed to fund your job search in this process is a bit beyond me. To look for work nowadays, you need electricity to run your computer, a broadband account so you can search the web, get job alerts and upload your CV, and you also need to be able to travel. My job search was based on a 50-mile radius of Leicester, being close to the M1 as I am; I applied for jobs as far afield as Barton-on-Humber in the north, Milton Keynes in the south, Stafford in the west and Peterborough in the east. In the end, I’ve ended up with a job in Coventry, which is perhaps 40 minutes away (once I get my car sorted and I can drive it faster than 40 mph without a nasty shimmy developing, and once the A46/A45 flyunder junction at Tollbar End opens, due sometime before Christmas).
So: a new chapter beckons. In 2013-14, it took me from the end of September to the beginning of the following July to find work. Indeed, I actually didn’t get an invitation to interview until January ’14 that time. This time round, I started looking at the beginning of June, had my first interview almost immediately, and I start work towards the end of November – a bit quicker, but just as worrying. And in this case, it was worry brought about because of blind decisions made by men in suits who were thinking about shareholder value and their own personal enrichment. These attitudes seem to be widespread in the business and governmental world nowadays. And people wonder why electorates seem willing to deliver a bloody nose to the status quo. But my take on that will have to wait for another day.
We really don’t have much idea about transport planning in this country. I’m currently looking for work. I live four miles outside Leicester. 300 yards away, there’s a railway which carries aggregates from quarries to all parts of the country. The railway runs from Leicester to Burton-on-Trent. It lost its passenger service in 1967, but for years people have been trying to get it re-opened. The County Council, which deals with transport planning, takes the attitude of “We’re fed up of telling people there’s no demand for such a service.”
I do have a bus that runs from outside my front door into Leicester. But to connect to anywhere else by transferring to rail, I have a twenty-minute walk across town.
I have an interview for a job in Nottingham on Monday. At the moment, my car is playing up, so much so that I’m reluctant to go to this interview in it. (Motorway speeds are a problem.) I can get to the interview by public transport – drive into Leicester, get the train, 30 minutes or less to Nottingham, then a cross-platform change to the tram; I get off at the first stop and the interview venue is eight minutes away on foot. That’s fine. But if I get the job, I’d actually be working in a different building that isn’t accessible by public transport in the same way. And in any case, a £15 return fare off-peak for an interview in the middle of the day is one thing; the extra cost for peak-time fares, plus the timings, would make it more problematical for a commute.
I’m looking for work in a wide radius from Leicester, but it’s all based on the motorway network. Some places where I’m entertaining jobs can only be accessed by public transport with one or two changes. Others – say, Northampton or Milton Keynes – which are just on the hour away by car have much more convoluted journeys by rail because a number of rail links were closed in the Beeching era. And because IT jobs are based around attracting talent from a wide catchment area, IT companies aren’t in town centres but are usually on trading estates on the edge of towns, convenient to motorways and trunk roads. So even if I could get by train from Leicester to, say, Northampton (where I had an interview the other week), I’d still then have to get from the centre of town out to the trading estate – twenty minutes at least on a bus, if one exists, and more than likely a walk at each end of the journey because the stops aren’t convenient.
Municipal public transport was done away with by a previous Conservative government because they believed that it was not the job of councils to provide transport. Well, I disagree. It is the job of councils to facilitate and support businesses, and that must include some means of getting employees to work. This is what makes the country work. Is that not as important as defending the country against external threats?
I’m not advocating a return to nineteenth-century patterns of travel and transport. We have moved beyond that. But when you look at a successful economy – say, Germany, or Switzerland – and consider that it has a public transport system which has only started pruning some less economical routes in recent years through monetarist pressure from outside the country, the contrast could not be plainer. In such countries, transport interchanges actually allow interchange instead of there being a twenty minute walk from one to the other. Timetables are organised around virtually allowing ‘turn up and walk on board’ services for most local services. And interchangeable ticketing is the norm. (We have made some progress in that direction – my rail fare for Monday includes the tram fare – but it is not enough, especially when the rail system alone has a pricing and ticketing structure which verges on lunacy.)
Some people would object to the level of taxation that would be required to subsidise a more rationally-planned transport system. They would argue that they shouldn’t pay taxes for something they do not personally use. Well, I disagree. When I worked in central Birmingham., I ended up commuting by car because the railway system was overpriced and did not offer me convenient journeys. I used to leave work at 6pm to try to avoid the worst of the congestion; and even then, the first three miles or so out of the city centre were stop-start queuing. I would sit in that queue and think “How much worse would this be if everyone who is now on a train was also in a car, or on a bus?” And knowing how many people used rail services, the answer was “At least twice as bad.”
My car is thirteen years old, it is showing signs of body rot and it has a smoking habit that verges on the anti-social. I shall soon need to replace it (once I have a job). Which will mean taking out a loan (assuming I can get one). Would a rational, flexible public transport system increase my taxes by £2400 a year? Because that’s the likely cost of a loan in interest and repayments (back-of-envelope calculations, of course). The shift from public to private transport also meant a change in economic activity from the large-scale (major contracts for infrastructure and the corporate provision of vehicle fleets) to the smaller scale (the car as a big-ticket consumer purchase). Either way, I end up paying. Of course, the car gives me flexibility. Which is fine until suddenly, I don’t have it, either temporarily or in the longer term. If my car were to suddenly expire, instead of looking for work in a fifty-mile radius of Leicester, I’d be effectively restricted to Leicester city centre, and possibly Derby and Nottingham city centres (Nottingham would give me slightly more leeway because of their tram system, but not much).
(I did a two-week contract last month for a company in South Wigston. It was only twenty minutes away by car, skirting the edge of the Leicester city area. I could get to it by bus, but it would be seventy minutes each way by public transport as I would have to go into the city centre on one bus and then go out to site on another.)
Multiply this effect across the workforce, and suddenly you are back to a Victorian model of people living close to where they work – in some respects a good thing, say for the environment – but also suffering a closing down of the horizons. You are back to expecting people to mould their lives around their work, and knowing their place.
There are no easy answers to any of this. But the decision to change from public to private transport – and worse still, to tear up the infrastructure so that it couldn’t be reinstated if conditions or traffic patterns changed in future – must count as one of the major crimes against working people of the 20th century.
So: how has life been treating me recently? Not that well, it turns out.
One Friday towards the end of June, I was chatting with our head of IT. He’d just come out of a fairly long meeting with a new Board member. “Every time I think it can’t get any worse,” he said, “it does.”
So I went home and dusted off the CV that weekend.
Which was a good move. The next week, that same Board member attended a team meeting and told us that as the company hadn’t been making enough profit for its venture capitalist owners, there would be more redundancies. A week later, I was being pulled into a meeting with HR to be told that I was at risk of redundancy. The company was having to cut back on some functions that fell into the “nice to have but not essential” category, and testing software before release was part of that. What could possibly go wrong?
The intention was to buy a software company that produced a range of off-the-shelf solutions that could meet all the company’s future needs. Again,. what could go wrong? After all, as all IT professionals know, when you buy off-the-shelf packages, they always stand up on your own servers perfectly first time, interface seamlessly with your heritage applications, and are completely compatible with whatever data schema your existing records have been formatted to. Who needs testers?
There was some mention made of the possibilities for redeployment elsewhere in the company. It was at this point that I decided that I was going to take some measure of control over this process. The company only had on file the CV I drew up for my IT testing experience. So I put together an addendum, listing all the things I’d done that weren’t on that CV – worked to CEO and Board level in research and support, attended Parliamentary Committee sessions on the adoption of EU legislation into UK law, negotiated with Departmental managements, promoted policies for national adoption by a major trade union, spoken at conferences, run exhibitions, briefed journalists for national newspapers, escorted and received VIP visitors from overseas governments, written books and articles, won international photographic awards – the sort of skills that I ventured to suggest that the company probably didn’t have access to anywhere else.
It made no difference, but it made me feel better, and the Board member’s face was a picture the next time I saw him. The first time I’d encountered him, he’d been rubbishing the testing work I’d done on a major project which had been badly specced up, so its failures when it was deployed to the real world really weren’t my fault. I’d basically told him that though I might be way down in the food chain and he may be showing me the door, I could and would eat people like him for breakfast.
The company was about to move into new offices, so there was actually some serious testing work to be done to make sure that server migration worked and that the transfer of the business to the new premises was seamless in terms of technology. Part of that was supposed to be done over a weekend, and I was actually asked if I’d be prepared to volunteer to work a weekend, “…but we don’t have a budget for this work, so we can’t pay you. However, we can offer enhanced time off in lieu.”
I (surprisingly politely) pointed out that this was not any sort of inducement, as the company was about to give me all the time off I could possibly want. I declined their offer. To be fair, my line managers were in an invidious position, as they were under a three-line whip to do this job without incurring any extra cost. Nonetheless, I gather that my immediate line manager was congratulated by one of his peers for being ‘courageous’ in making me that offer. And although this was the private sector, ‘courageous’ was being used in its Yes, Minister sense.
The move happened, and the migration plan I drafted in my last couple of weeks worked fairly well, I gather. Less successful was the online announcement of the move to the new office. “Click here for more details!” they posted. Guess what.
The link didn’t work.
I took a certain amount of pleasure in posting back “Your link doesn’t work. Surely this was tested before the post went live? Oh, no, I forgot – you’ve SACKED all your testers.”
Which leaves me with the problem of getting another job again.
Interviews have not been thick on the ground, but they have happened. And come to nothing. One company I went to claimed that I was “a poor cultural mix for the office and the role”. It was the most mono-cultural office I’d stepped into in twenty years. It was fairly obvious to me that I was up against that old bugbear, ageism. That’s now illegal, but that doesn’t stop some employers still using the excuse; they just dress it up in different ways. Rest assured, I’m keeping notes, and any company I suspect of putting forward an ageist excuse, no matter how disguised, for turning me down will go on my Death List against the day when I find myself in a position to take them down, fully legally of course. Anything I can do to disadvantage these companies will be done.
A company I did some contract work for three years ago advertised for a permanent role. That would be ideal, I thought; after all, they’d engaged me for four weeks and retained me for six months (and called me back eight months later when they had a testing staff shortfall and a deadline to meet), so I must’ve done something right. But my application disappeared into the void. The problem was that this company, when I worked for them before, was doing most of their new work in the EU. They’ve now gone very quiet, and I suspect I know the reason why.
Another interview felt more as if I’d stepped into a consultancy. They’d just started on a six-month project to develop the software for a new product, and had no testing resource. The CEO gave me a vast amount of detail on the company, the project, how they got the contract and pen portraits of the development team, leaving me hardly able to get a word in edgeways and thinking “If I’m not careful, I’ll get this job.” It could have been worse. The same afternoon, I had a telephone interview with another company in the same position and developing the software for a similar product – except they anticipated shipping product in October.
Right now, the best irons I have in the fire concern a major engineering multi-national who need testers in one corner of their empire. Except that the recruitment process has been carried out in fits and starts. My ISP suffered an outage at their data centre due to flash flooding earlier in the summer; I went home one day for two telephone interviews to find that neither happened. It turned out that both callers used VOIP – Voice Over Internet Protocol (in other words, use the Internet to transmit voice telephony) and my ISP hadn’t spotted that the flooding had left their interface between VOIP and the voice telephony system broken. So the call from this engineering company got delayed. Then people at their end were out in the field; then they were on leave. The phone interview happened, some two weeks later, just when I’d given up on them. The, two weeks after that, the agency came back to me to say “Sorry, the guy’s been on leave, but they’d like to have you for a face-to-face technical interview.” At which point, I’d have to demonstrate some sort of ability with coding, because their job demands it. They will train me, but I have to show that I’ve got the ability to be trained.
This time, it was my turn to be inconvenient. Because I have just started a two-week contract with a company here in Leicester. It is to test an enhancement to a major client’s existing data communications fit, and all the people who know about it are off on leave – hence the urgent need. I didn’t even have an interview for this one; my CV was sufficiently impressive to get me the gig, although it turns out that I’m not a contractor but a sub-contractor. My contract is with the agency who is supplying contract staff to the client, not with the client itself. Mind you, said client is a massive multi-national with IT management – and indeed, a company culture – that is roughly 50 years behind the times. The process for bringing a new starter onto the system is Byzantine, and is managed wholly from the States – so any message sent for urgent action has to cope with a five-hour time difference. The testers are a floor away from the developers and separated from them by three security-controlled sets of doors. And staff are not supposed to enter the building through the front door – that’s reserved for clients, even though this is nothing like a corporate HQ. Still, one of their testers announced at the beginning of the week that he’s moving on to a new job; so there might be an opening there, and owt’s better than nowt in a crisis, as someone once said.
So: I’m actively looking for work anywhere within a 50-mile radius of Leicester (further afield for the right package – after all, I’m only renting now, and so relocation is not impossible). I’m prepared to do contracting again,. though a permanent role would be preferred. And I think I can claim possibly as much experience as anyone in the testing game. It’s just a matter of getting employers to recognise the value of that experience.
Why do these landscapes make me go weak at the knees when mountains in other countries (the UK, Germany, or Switzerland to name but three), whilst very fine and wonderful things, do not? Read on…
There’s a story that the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung to some of us brought up on earlier transliteration systems) was once asked by a French journalist what he thought the effect had been of the French Revolution of 1789. He mulled over this question for a while, and then said “It’s too soon to tell.”
Thus it is with Brexit. Some short-term instability was bound to occur, because the markets are always open to uncertainty. And some equally short-term rebound was always going to happen. But pro-Brexit commentators who are pointing to that rebound and saying “Ha! See? We told you it was only Project Fear! This proves it!” are being very short-termist. Then again, short-term thinking is something the British political class does very well. When I worked for Ofwat, we set water company price limits five years ahead, and were accordingly branded as engaging in some sort of dubious long-term planning. And as for the sort of planning that the private sector engages in – well, don’t get me started. When I took up my current job, I was amazed at many of the practices that the company seemed to tolerate, sometimes things that would have gotten me sacked in the Civil Service. Having spent thirty years being browbeaten by all sorts of people who said “Huh! You and your wasteful, lazy, inefficient mollycoddled public sector ways! You wouldn’t survive five minutes in the real world of the thrusting, harsh private sector”, I found it remarkable that the standards I carried forward and lived by were seen as admirable and qualities that the company was in short supply of. And I worked a damn sight harder and for fewer rewards in the Civil Service. Personally, I would not go back, though. In the Civil Service – and, to some extent, the wider public sector – what you do is governed, not by what your managers think, but ultimately by what a politician thinks is the Right Thing To Do. But their concept of “the right thing” tends to be what will benefit them, or their party. Meanwhile, if you do a good job, a Minister will take the credit. If, on the other hand, your department does the wrong thing, everyone gets branded with that failure, and sometime branded personally. Thirty years of that is enough for anyone.
But none of that has amounted to a hill of beans in the end. The company I worked for is owned by venture capitalists, and their view after three years is that the company wasn’t making enough profit (the fact that it had been hugely profitable when they acquired it and that profitability had been on a downward trend for all of the period of their ownership was neither here nor there). So costs had to be cut, and some things that the company considered to be on the “nice to have but not essential” had to go. Like testing software before issue. The company decided to move to buying off-the-shelf software. After all, it’s always installed without problems, always works perfectly with heritage applications, has fully compatible data schemas and always works straight out of the box. What could possibly go wrong?
I wish them well with that.
As a consequence, my work has been declared to be of no value to the company going forward, and as of today I have been served notice of redundancy.
I’ve already had a couple of interviews, but neither have worked out for me. Both employers said that I had a vast amount of knowledge and experience; the first said that I was a “poor cultural fit” to the office and the role (which was a bit odd, as it was the most mono-cultural office I’d set foot in for twenty years – I suspect that was shorthand for “too old”, but of course that’s illegal now); the other said that “he’d make a great user acceptance tester, but we’re looking for a functional tester right now”, when their job description, and indeed the mood music at the interview, had been “we need an all-rounder”. So right now, I have about a month to six weeks to find something else to earn a living doing before things get distinctly dicey. It may be that I have to take up contracting again, though that didn’t work out all that well for me last time.
Interestingly, the company I did my last major contract for, in Burton on Trent, advertised for permanent testing staff a few weeks ago, so naturally an application went in; I’d found the work interesting, the company looked pretty good to work for and had a good vibe around the office, and they’d liked me enough to set me on for four weeks and keep me for six months, and to have me back to fill in some staffing shortfalls eight months later. But most of their work was with EU countries, and I find it odd that suddenly, they have gone silent on application responses. They did do business outside the EU as well, but I can’t help thinking that the Brexit decision has thrown a spanner in those particular works; and I’m hearing quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that that’s not an uncommon response from SMEs who have traded heavily with Europe and are now having to have a major rethink about their futures.
I don’t intend to express any views on the reasons that Brexiteers had for their views. Many of them were well-founded concerns about the role of the EU and the pooling of sovereignty, the nature of international trade, or the mechanisms of democracy. As with all these things, there were arguments for and against, and both arguments had points of merit. I didn’t make a thing about my voting intentions during the referendum campaign. If anyone asked me, I told them what I thought, but always one-to-one. My reasons for voting as I did were quite personal. I suspect that most of those who voted ‘Remain’ did so because of direct personal experience of Europe, either for work, family or leisure. And whilst there were many things wrong with both campaigns, we are now where we are. I always said that whatever the result was, we as a country would have to work hard to make either outcome actually work for us.
I do think that the way the vote came out means that no-one can treat the result as a “winner takes all” issue. More than sixteen million Britons voted to stay in the EU, and the margin of victory for Brexit was just over 1.2 million. Sixteen million represents what statisticians call a “material number” in this case, “material” meaning “too big to ignore”. Some sort of accommodation for those sixteen million will have to be made in the Brexit negotiations. This is what Nigel Farage of UKIP meant when, before the vote, he said that if the result went 52%/48% in favour of ‘remain’, that “this would not be the end of the matter”. Now the boot’s on the other foot, but the same principle applies. I do not mean by this that I believe there should be a second referendum; quite apart from anything else, I doubt that any sane person could possibly stomach the level of stupidity that a re-run referendum would cause.
But there are still a number of misapprehensions about Europe, and Europeanness that many people do not properly understand. Whether these are important to anyone is up to the individual to decide. For me, though, these things mean a lot.
I don’t have a well-developed sense of “Britishness”. I was born and raised in the UK, to parents whose ancestry can be traced back at least four or five generations. But I am European, as is anyone with a pale skin and whose mother tongue is one of the major Indo-European languages, such as English. The islands of Britain were first settled by peoples who migrated from the east in prehistory and who crossed into what is now Britain via the land bridge that existed up until the end of the last Ice Age. That much is proven fact, based on archaeological findings, genetic markers in our DNA and the structure of the language we speak. How much that makes us feel any affinity to a trans-national political structure that is only some sixty years old is a matter of personal choice.
This much I know: when I started travelling in Europe, I quickly found that I fitted into European life and society surprisingly well. I first went to Austria in 1994 and immediately felt at home there. My German language skills, up until then fairly untested, seemed to serve me well, and I was able to make myself understood quite easily. I found that I was being asked directions, which meant that I must have looked like a local. The way of life seemed to suit me. And when I saw one particular tract of landscape – the Drau valley in the south of Austria, between Villach and the Grossglockner massif, I was overcome with a strange and powerful emotion that I’ve never really been able to explain.
Should that make me misty-eyed over the EU? Not particularly. The Austrians certainly aren’t, though Austria’s history of deciding its place in Europe is a long and complex one. All I know is that I reacted to Austria in a particular way, and it has made me want to go back as often as I can.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time wondering why that might be; as I said earlier, I’m about as British as you can get, and I have no particular connection with Austria. My father was in Italy during the war; I had an uncle by marriage from Düsseldorf, but I would never say that we were close. And yet I have this particular affinity with Austria that I can’t explain. But I can theorise.
The following might sound like fantasy, though if you look up ‘mitochondrial DNA’ you might get some idea as to where I’m coming from. Concepts of ‘ancestral memory’ also play a part in this theory, and that’s a far more nebulous concept. And I might just be making all this up, trying to find some sort of rationalisation for what I feel. But…
Before he died, my father spent some number of years trying to trace the family tree. On my mother’s side, we got back some four generations, and could trace my mother’s lineage back to a family in Bourne, in Lincolnshire. (Like so many families, the male line couldn’t be traced back all that far before coming to a blank in the genealogical record.) Bourne is on the edge of the Fens, and the Lincolnshire Fens were drained in the middle 17th century, after King Charles I brought in large numbers of Dutch engineers to create the networks of dykes and sluices.
We were able to go to find the site of the house where my mother’s ancestors lived. The house is no longer there, but we were able to pin the location down. The site of the house was on the Boston road, stretching out across the Fen. Seeking for further information from long-time residents, we decided to call at the nearest big farm, which was just at the Bourne end of the road where the Fen ended and higher land began. We asked there, and got a few leads but they didn’t really amount to all that much. But the significant thing to me was the name of the farmer. His name was Muller.
English surnames generally date from the 14th century and usually fall into one of four categories; they can be patronymics (Johnson, Anderson, etc., indicating ‘son of John’); they can indicate some characteristic of the ancestral person (Brown, Black and so on, usually referring to hair colour); they can be locational, referring to a town or other place of origin; or they can be occupational, such as Smith, Butcher, Clark, or my own name, Day (which sadly shows that my ancestor was pretty low down in the pecking order, as ‘Day’ refers to ‘day labourer’, someone who was only hired by the day to fulfill any menial jobs that needed doing). ‘Muller’ is an Anglicisation of the Germanic ‘Müller’, or ‘Miller’ (the words being the same in German and Dutch). It seems quite likely, then, that the farmer who was my mother’s ancestor’s nearest neighbour was of Dutch origin.
Now for the real speculation.
I speculate that my mother might have had some Dutch ancestry, though that could well be as far back as eight or ten generations. Holland is at the mouth of the Rhine, which going back into prehistory was a major communication route between the North Sea coast and central Europe. The headwaters of the Rhine are in north-east Switzerland. Meanwhile we now know, from evidence gathered in the examination of Ötzi, the early Bronze Age man found preserved in Alpine glacial ice on the present Austro-Italian border in 1991, that individuals commonly travelled around the region, crossing considerable natural barriers in order to do so. So my greatest leap of speculation, the idea that I hold explaining my reaction to a particular place in Austria, is that a distant ancestor, resident in the area, heard that things were better in some valley over to the west, and so set out on a trek which always worked westwards. Some 4,000 years later, that trek resulted in that person’s descendants moving to Lincolnshire to help drain the Fens, which in turn led to the particular accident of birth that made me who I am today.
This could all be fantasy. But if any of us are to explain why we do things, from voting intentions to where we like to go on holiday, at some point a leap of imagination must become necessary. I know that I can pay to have my DNA analysed, though if I’m going to be out of work for any length of time, that’s going to be pretty low on the list of priorities (as soon as I get my meagre redundancy money, I am going to go out and buy a new suit because I need one badly!). I also recognise that such analysis might burst my bubble and leave me with no explanation as to why I yearn for the high places of the Alps. But at least it’s a coherent tale, and as good a reason for explaining my position on EU membership as any other.
(Some more Austrian mountains follow.)
Before I moved to Kirby Muxloe, I’d heard of the place, and for two reasons. Firstly, there was a castle there. It still exists – or at least, its gatehouse and moat do. And secondly, the 1960s satirical songsmiths, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, performed a comparatively straight song about the Beeching closures, entitled Slow Train (this link takes you to a recording of the song with pictures of the stations named; Kirby Muxloe is the second one up) .
Kirby Muxloe is located on the Midland Railway’s line from Leicester to Burton-on-Trent via Coalville. The route as a whole incorporates much of the route of the very early Leicester and Swannington line, opened in stages starting in 1832; however, that line was blessed with an extremely long and narrow tunnel at Glenfield, and so in 1848 the Midland built a diversionary line to avoid that tunnel and connect the line to the rest of their system. Kirby Muxloe is located on that line. Kirby Muxloe is quite a ‘posh’ area; and it is the area around the station that has the best houses. The house my flat is located in is a bit downmarket from those properties, but nonetheless is a reasonable Victorian villa built in 1886. (And for me, it counts as a ‘newer’ property, as my previous place went back to at least 1815!) Interestingly, if you walk back into the village, the properties get more plebian as you get further from the station. Their builders thoughtfully put the dates of their building on them, and those dates get later the further you go from the station, giving a clear picture of advancing development over time as more and more people began commuting into Leicester by train.
The line remains open for aggregate traffic, which mainly runs at night; the passenger service, however, ceased in 1964 as part of the Beeching closures. The station has been demolished and re-developed, although there have been a range of proposals to re-instate passenger services between Leicester, Coalville and Burton. A station at Kirby Muxloe would be a great help to me, as my workplace is moving in the summer to a new office across the road from Leicester Midland station. Plans were well advanced at the time of privatisation, but ironically they were shelved because privatisation “froze” proposals at their 1989 state unless they could secure the necessary funding and permissions from a range of bodies and regulatory authorities; when British Rail was the sole service provider, if they decided that a service should be re-instated, then they were the sole body to decide that from the “railway” side of the business.
But today, there was something worth seeing – a passenger train. Not a steam train, and not a regular service, but a railtour for enthusiasts to travel over a number of freight-only lines in the Midlands and South Yorkshire. I would have liked to have travelled on this, but at £75 a seat and with the nearest boarding point being Market Harborough, just over 20 miles to the south, this wasn’t practicable for me. Instead, I had to content myself with walking up the road and taking a picture of the train as it passed through the site of the station. (I contemplated another vantage point that would have made a nicer picture, but I wanted to get the train passing through the station site.)
Would that I could repeat this exercise from August on a daily basis!