No posts for a while, because little remarkable has happened. The new job continues unabated, and I seem to be doing the right thing on a daily basis, which is nice; I keep on getting the flat into some sort of order, though every few weeks I undo all the good work by bringing another car-load of books back from my storage unit; and I’m seeing the benefits of full-time employment by being able to purchase new spectacles (something that was a year overdue) and pay a fairly big garage bill on the car a few weeks before Christmas without too much fiscal pain. I’ve even started getting out and taking a few photographs again.
But I’d become conscious that I had been putting a fair amount of effort into another online activity. I’m a member of the online book blog LibraryThing , and I noticed a few days ago that I’ve now produced over 600 reviews for that site. Mostly, these are only seen by members of the LT community, so I’ve decided to give them a wider airing. I’ve created a new blog, Deep Waters Reading, that gathers together the bulk of my reviews in one place. Mostly, these are for books I’ve read, mainly science fiction but also works of history and railway books. Some of these reviews will be for works that aren’t necessarily the latest thing in the bookshops; but with many people trawling public libraries (where they still exist) and the second-hand book trade in search of subjects not fully covered by the supposedly omniscient Internet, I feel there’s value in talking about some publications that are harder to find, perhaps to inspire others to go and seek them out.
Sometimes, I shall also review films, television or music – recorded or live – but it will be mainly books. Please feel free to explore!
Many thanks for the kind comments, both online and in person, on my last posting.
What I didn’t put in that article was the way I dealt with the upheaval emotionally. Cathy accused me of being extremely phlegmatic about the whole thing, and I had to disabuse her of that. I tend to do my grieving in advance over things that I can see coming. There were certainly tears over leaving Fillongley; it definitely wasn’t for want of trying to get work that I fell into financial trouble with the bank, and some alternative outcomes of one of the eight or ten interviews I had in the first half of the year might have seen things turn out very differently. Not all of them would have left me in Fillongley: I was contemplating moving to Nottingham (though one job I interviewed for was eminently commutable), Sheffield or Cheltenham at different stages, all as a result of interviews I had (some of which went better than others), whilst jobs I applied for ranged from local to quite far-flung. I was even beginning to look at jobs in Europe (though most of the ones I saw were for German-speaking call centre staff in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Poland or Romania). But things worked out as they did. The first interview I had in 2014 was in Leicester, though that was for a joke of a job that probably wasn’t even what the advert said it was. The company were total clowns as well.
So I was pretty secure emotionally as my last evening at Fillongley came around. I had a meal, and finished off a bottle of single malt that it wasn’t worth packing. Then I went upstairs to spend a bit of time online, only to find out that Graham Joyce had died. And I can tell you that I wept, and wept bitterly. That news acted as a focus for all the stress of the previous six months.
Graham Joyce was only 59. For those who do not know his work, Graham wrote edgy fantasy novels, all set in the present day or within living memory, and all concerning the impact of the fantastic (or the ‘might-be’ fantastic) on fairly ordinary people. I first met him in 1979, when we worked together. In fact, I suspect I introduced him to science fiction and fantasy fandom, as I was fairly active in fanzine fandom at the time, and, finding that Graham was involved in amateur arts publishing in Derby, took it upon myself to introduce him to the world of “real” fanzines (at that time, fanzines were associated with punk rock by most people, and the history of fanzines from the 1920s and their role in spreading science fiction fandom was little known). Oddly, I also found that he came from the next-door village to the one that my parents had just moved to, and where I was to end up living for 28 years.
After I left that job, we only saw each other infrequently, but he was always delighted to see me, no matter how long between meetings. And then, a few days ago, this recollection of Graham surfaced and I felt I had to share it.
As I said, I first met Graham when we worked together on a job creation scheme in 1978-79. (The British Government’s reaction to unemployment then was to find useful jobs for people, and even to create some temporary ones where that was a good solution, rather than send people to work for nothing for big employers who could afford to pay them but would sooner accept state subsidy, as happens now. Sorry. Political rant over.) (Though Graham would probably approve.)
We were employed by the Derbyshire County Council in their Schools Resources Centre. We were part of a team building a new catalogue of audio-visual resources; the previous catalogue was ten years out of date, since when there had been some major reorganisation and two collections merged into one. One of the services this centre offered was what used to be called the “Schools Museum Service”, which was a small collection of artefacts that were circulated around schools in the county. As I remember it from my junior school days, these mainly consisted of stuffed animals, though there were also archaeological finds and a number of original oil paintings and watercolours, amongst other things.
When we got around to cataloguing these artefacts, we had to open up every case, and in one we found an ORIGINAL Greek Hoplite’s helmet. The case it was in was liberally plastered with warnings about how fragile this helmet was: it wasn’t in fantastic condition, and part of it was corroded away to a thin shell.
Graham could not resist this helmet. He was quite blown away by the fact that here was a 2000-year old artefact, that unlike other historical exhibits was recognisably a thing, and that had a direct connection to someone long since dead and forgotten. He carefully looked around the storeroom we were in, and then gently put the helmet on. It was a tight fit – Graham was quite a big chap, and the helmet was rather small anyway – but he was able to put it on, and take it off again without damage.
The sense of power he felt, Graham later said, was palpable. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he later went to live on a Greek island for a time. I don’t recollect any Hoplites in his novels, but the awe he felt at handling and wearing that helmet was typical of the man and I think is echoed in some of his later writings. Almost the last thing he wrote was this blog post: http://www.grahamjoyce.co.uk/?p=409 and it is a suitable epitaph.
This is my first blog entry for some considerable time, and with good reason. My life has gone through a major change – perhaps not before time.
As you will know, I had been looking for permanent work for nearly a year after my last contract ended. My financial arrangements meant that I was not eligible for Job Seekers’ Allowance, and I am of an age where signing on for NI credits was fairly pointless, as I’d got sufficient contributions to get the state pension anyway (though I have to wait until age 66 to get it). My Civil Service pension, plus the money I was making from self-employment, was insufficient to pay the mortgage, but enough to live on otherwise – though over the months even that position eroded as work dried up. And my mortgage lender was rapidly losing patience with me; their idea of “helping customers in difficulties” basically amounts to giving you a short payment holiday, and once that’s expired, you’re on your own.
So it was a race against time for me; could I secure a job that paid sufficiently well to meet my outgoings before my house was repossessed?
Well, the job happened, as I’ve said elsewhere (after a remarkably weird day); and I came to Leicester to work for a facilities management company, based in a 1960s office block like something out of The Power Game or Reggie Perrins’ Sunshine Desserts. But two things remained as issues: the mortgage and the commuting.
The commuting didn’t at first seem like a problem., After all, I’d been happy to keep running off to Burton-on-Trent whilst I was doing contracting, and that was 35 miles each way. Leicester was a good deal closer to Fillongley – less than 25 miles – but for some reason people never seemed to think about heading in that direction for work and leisure. (There’s a geographers’ thing called Central Place Theory, which addresses the reasons why people gravitate towards one place and not another for work and leisure. I was a little odd, for Fillongley, in gravitating towards Birmingham, 16 miles away, rather than Coventry – only six miles distant – but at least the focus in North Warwickshire generally was to look eastwards towards the big city as a major hub, or north-westwards towards Lichfield, Tamworth and places further afield connected by the A38 and the M42. Looking in the opposite direction, at places like Hinckley, Earl Shilton, Lutterworth or Leicester was just off most people’s radar, partly because the transport links are less well-defined – as I was to find.)
I’d gotten into the idea of looking at Leicester as a possible place of employment whilst I was doing estate agent photography. I’d had a few assignments in Leicester, and found myself surprised as to how quickly I’d been able to get there, using either the M69 or the A47. But most of those journeys had been made out of peak hours. And the one problem was Nuneaton, a busy town with no bypass. Even an unofficial bypass route used residential roads which at peak time rapidly filled with local traffic. The school holidays weren’t so bad, but during term time, what was a five-minute segment of my commute could take between 25 and 35 minutes: more on dustbin day, when the refuse collection wagons were added to the mix as well.
All this urban driving was adding to my travel costs. The Mercedes is quite capable of returning a fuel consumption figure of 45 mpg or better; but in traffic, that came down to barely 40 mpg at best. My daily commute, I worked out, was costing me £10 a day; and whilst this was not impossible, it looked a lot when you added it up for the month.
Meanwhile, the house was continuing to be a problem for me. I loved living in Fillongley – I had a lovely location with no neighbours, I looked out onto trees and fields, and I had finally succeeded in making the house comfortable in all seasons, but with considerable impact on running costs. And the maintenance of house and garden was frankly getting away from me as the Day Job took up so much of my time for not too much reward.
So I decided that I had to move. After all, I’d been applying for jobs up and down the country, and indeed had had fairly favourable interviews for jobs in Nottingham and Sheffield. So I had come around to the idea that a change of venue was quite possible. And if I was careful in the sort of properties I looked at, I might realise considerable savings in my monthly outgoings. Rents on flats in the area I had chosen started at less than half of what I’d been paying in mortgage, and there would be other savings too. But that gave me a dilemma; now I was earning again, should I start paying the mortgage once more? My back-of-envelope calculations gave me the answer. If I started paying the mortgage again, what with the additional amount I would be levied for clearing the arrears that had accrued plus the high cost of living in Fillongley and commuting, I would not be able to build up the amount I would need to put a deposit on a flat and pay for removals for at least a year, possibly more. If, however, I cut my losses and went straight into a rented flat, I could start realising savings almost from the outset, and look to selling the house to eliminate my debt. Two different estate agents gave me valuations on the house which turned out to be very favourable, even given its rather down-at-heel condition (which gave me comfort when some people called it ‘overpriced’; it’s not as if I came up with that price myself, and indeed I even knocked £10k off the valuation when it went on the market).
So started a procession of people, coming to view the property. I had about eighteen in two months (for comparison, a friend who sold a modern detached property on a private cul-de-sac in Redditch only had five viewings in six months), but these ranged from timewasters (in and out in ten minutes was about the norm for them) through to people with quite ambitious plans – which would, of course, take money. Then there were the ones who came with totally unrealistic preconceptions, such as ‘Two bedroom country cottage, in need of some redecoration = ideal starter home’. Epic fail, as they say.
The sixth person to view actually put an offer in, though it was a little on the low side and was dependant on their selling their property and getting a mortgage. I provisionally accepted this, but as time was not on my side, I did tell the estate agent that if a better offer or a cash buyer came along, I would be obliged to accept that instead. Indeed, a couple of cash buyers did materialise, but one wanted to buy a parcel of land at the back of the house from the local farmer to provide additional car parking (he was a collector), and getting old farmers to part with land – even if they aren’t using it for much – is rather a tall order. Another buyer wanted to make major changes to the bathroom, to enable a shower to be put in. He said he’d come back with a builder, and I think he did because when I got home one day, I could see that things had been moved on and around the drive. But I never heard anything.
Then a couple turned up who wanted to build two extra bedrooms on the back, and where the lady was delighted that I’d got an overgrown garden. “I like a challenge”, she said. But this was late in the day, and the court took the (to me, somewhat unrealistic) view that I ought to have been able to conclude a sale in 56 days. Sadly, “Having an unrealistic view of the reality of selling within the UK property market” aren’t exceptionally strong grounds for appeal, even if I could afford to contest the matter in a higher court – and if I could afford that. So it was that on 11th September, I was required to hand back the keys to my house.
In the meantime, I’d been looking at rental properties. Again, my experience photographing properties came in handy; I’d seen a number of flats and apartments in my time, and some had been quite pleasant and I’d found myself thinking “I could always put a bookcase there…” Others had been shockingly poky, and indeed one property in Hinckley was quite difficult to photograph through being so small, and it didn’t even have enough space to have a door on the one bedroom. And sure enough, when I did my first internet searches for rental property in the area, a flat came up in the same block. I didn’t rush to view.
There had been a good range of properties along the A47 corridor to choose from: yet after I came out of court, I went straight into Hinckley to sign up with four lettings agencies, only for them all to say “We haven’t got anything this minute; you should have been here a fortnight ago, we’ve had a rush on them since…” The next day, I went online during my lunch break, and because I probably entered slightly different search terms, I got to a website I’d not seen before, with properties closer to the office; and almost the first property listed was a one-bedroomed flat on the ground floor of a converted Victorian villa, at a reasonable rent, and in the village of Kirby Muxloe, only two miles or so from the office!
I viewed it at the earliest opportunity. The flat consists of a living room with entry from an outside porch, a kitchen, a small bathroom, a cupboard under the stairs (though it’s not quite clear if there are any stairs there now for it to be the cupboard under!) and a large bedroom. As soon as I saw it, I felt that I could easily live there. The transition from a 200-year-old cottage to a 140-year-old villa immediately struck me as a far easier proposition than moving into some modernist shoe-box in a trendy (or worse still, faux trendy) apartment block. And I had seen very few other flats in period buildings. So the very same day, I handed over money and in due course I was in, measuring the rooms up and beginning to visualise how certain items of furniture would fit in.
I was able to arrange for a removal firm to come to carry out my move on the 10th September. I spoke to them in some detail and sent them a list of the furniture involved, including the item “seven bookcases”. I also indicated that there would be a lot of boxes, and told them the size of the biggest. Now, you’d think that having mentioned “seven bookcases” and a lot of boxes, that might indicate the presence of a lot of – well, books. Not a bit of it. When the removal men arrived, the boss announced that he had no idea there were going to be so many books, and indeed he professed doubts as to whether they could achieve the move. We compromised: I asked how long he’d allocated for the loading, he said “3½ hours”, and I said “OK, load what you can in that time and I’ll worry about the rest.” To be fair, I hadn’t completed packing up to 2:30 that morning, and the guys worked wonders in the time allotted. Everything that was packed and marked for the flat got on the van, though in the rush to dismantle the unit shelving and the model railway, a lot of things got left that I wanted to take.
The van left at about 1pm, and I followed very shortly after with a car-load; they stopped for a sandwich, so I got to the flat before them, had opened up and was offloading when they arrived. A bit of a problem arose when I found that the model railway, “Ruritania”, wouldn’t go into the room where I wanted it. There was enough room for it, but it wouldn’t go around the necessary corner to get into that room. So we had to go to Plan B (which didn’t actually exist until that moment), making Ruritania the centrepiece of the living/dining room. It fits remarkably well, in fact!
Almost as soon as the empty van was away, I was back into the car to head back to Fillongley for a further load. And then the next day, I had to attend at 10:45 to hand the keys over. I set out early, and arrived at about 8:30 with the aim of getting a load up to the storage unit. By the time I got back, the locksmith had arrived, and we had a chat; then the court official turned up about 10:15 and I had a chat with him. I described the process as “Scant reward for 30 years in the Civil Service”, and the official – also, of course, a civil servant – agreed.
It turned out that even though I handed the keys over, the bank changed the locks anyway. But as the locksmith also had a list of things to do – drain the central heating and hot water system, and immobilise the alarm amongst others – he had a good couple of hours’ work before him, and as I’d not made life difficult for them, they were quite happy for me to continue loading whilever they were there. It also looked as though the bank was going to hand the property over to a different estate agent, despite the progress that I’d made towards a sale; but in fact, it turned out that the agency they have placed the house with is the parent company of my own estate agent; so after a handover period the sales that I had already lined up may be in a position to continue with the same potential customers.
I was able to go back to retrieve further belongings from the property, though that only happens with the agreement of the bank and under the supervision of “a representative” (who turned out to be the bank’s locksmith who attended on the repossession day anyway).. Then it will just be a matter of waiting to see what price they get for the place. Not the way I ever envisaged things going; but then again, I never ever saw myself in a house.
Let me explain.
Back when I was a child, watching Gerry Anderson shows on the television such as Stingray and Thunderbirds, I thought a lot about the future. I did the maths, and worked out that I’d be 43 years old in the year 2000. What would life be like? What would I be doing? I had no idea. I knew even then that these shows were projections of what the future might be like, not predictions; that what was being shown might not be possible, or that things might just not turn out that way. And I had no idea what I’d be doing; I didn’t even have any vague suppositions over what I might be doing as a job. The only thing that I could dimly imagine was that I would live in a flat somewhere. I didn’t see myself as a house owner, let alone a family man; so the time I spent in Fillongley was a bonus. Yes, I’m sorry to leave; the house was in a lovely location, and it was the last place my parents lived in. I had some severe bouts of emotion at different times up to leaving (it seems that when a coming change is clearly visible, I do my grieving in advance). When my father died, people in the village asked if I was staying on in the house, and I replied that I’d stay “as long as I can”. Well, that gets to be a habit; and I’d gotten so used to fancy financial footwork that I kept on doing that far longer than I ought to have done. On reflection, I probably ought to have moved away from Fillongley possibly five, six or even seven years before I’ve had to. The savings I’m now realising in paying less rent than mortgage and having reduced outgoings might even have made staying at Ofwat through the years of austerity possible (though as I said way back when I started this blog, there were a whole range of other reasons for my leaving Ofwat not connected with money). And my sister has pointed out that things have worked out for me so well with the flat and the change of job that I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d had full control over my circumstances. (Well, I could. I could have done without the court appearances; but let’s chalk that one up to experience. Even the locksmith said “Sometimes these things happen for the best” when I told him why he was there that day, and certainly Fate was something that my father believed in.)
So now I am starting on a new phase of my life. I’m pleased with the flat, though the bathroom could do with being a tiny bit bigger; there is enough room to get the car off the road, and there is plenty of space to get more furniture (in the form of other bookcases, most likely) in. I now have the luxury of gas central heating, which gives me instant hot water on demand, and once I get my desk built I can finish off getting the computer set up and finally see how many books I have left over. I have met my new neighbours and spoken to the landlady; I have had a walk up to the castle at Kirby Muxloe and made enquiries at the local hotel to see how much it would cost for people to stay over. I can walk to work in thirty minutes or so, and there are shops, a post office and even a garage that looks as though it knows a thing or two about Mercedes’ on my way there. All in all, I can see why my sister thinks I’ve landed on my feet. Let’s see if she’s right!
And as Cathy keeps telling me (and she’s usually right, of course), my landing a new job at the age of 56 is no mean achievement these days, and I have to admit I’m pretty well chuffed about it as well. I had some junk mail the other day about ‘gracious retirement apartments in Coventry – designed for the over 55s’, and I have to admit I sneered at that big time. Another of my Facebook friends commented on my move that it took a considerable degree of courage and “real stones”, which I found somewhat heart-warming…
I’m pleased to announce that I got the Leicester job! I start on 7th July as a software test analyst for a company called Bellrock (previously known as SGP, and not to be confused with the Austrian rail engineering firm Simmering Graz Pauker). They used to be part of the Johnsons dry cleaning group, and are big in facilities management outsourcing; I realise that outsourcing is not flavour of the month amongst some of my old comrades, but needs must when the Devil bites yer bum, as they say.
The Sheffield job, which I interviewed for on the same day as I did the phone interview for Bellrock, hasn’t come back to me, though I understand that the guy who was making the decision has been on holiday all this week and didn’t anticipate taking a decision much before the first week in July. In any case: that job was as near as makes no difference a test manager role, which would have stretched my abilities and knowledge a lot. I would have to have done a lot of mugging up on test techniques and management just to keep one step ahead of everyone else, and whilst they would almost certainly have offered more money and probably thrown in a relocation package of some sort, the simple fact is that I would have been very uncomfortable operating at the edge of my comfort zone. I know that some people say that if the job’s a challenge, say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it as you go along; but that’s a high-risk strategy when you’ve not got much of a support network in an area. Oh, and a friend who works there tells me that Sheffield has become very expensive lately – and he’s an architect, so not short of a bob or two! (Certainly, what research I did on accommodation in the area bears that out, with 1-bed apartments going for anything up to £650 pcm…)
Up until I went to Leicester for the face-to-face interview, the job sounded fairly run-of-the-mill; but when I went to Bellrock, the guys there seemed enthusiastic about what I was saying, and they appear to have such a wide range of clients and different situations that there will be plenty of variety in the sort of applications I’ll be testing. They are also positioning themselves to expand, which can only be to the good.
Bellrock are based in a 60s office block on the western edge of Leicester. The building itself is in a bit of a time-warp, but it is marked for demolition in the next year and relocation is on the cards. And relocation is much on my mind right now, as well.
The simple truth is that I can’t really afford to live in Fillongley any more. Apart from the impact that nine months without full-time work has had on my ability to pay the mortgage, my house costs a fortune to heat and I haven’t been able to keep up with the maintenance in any meaningful way. And even if I did stay, in about five years’ time the bank would be coming to me to ask how I propose to pay back the outstanding capital sum, to which my reply would have to be “You surely jest.” Something like ten years ago, when I realised that my pay was not keeping pace with the increase in costs in the economy, I switched to an interest-only mortgage as a temporary measure, just until I got the promotion I felt was out there waiting for me. That’s “temporary measure” in the sense that income tax was adopted during the Napoleonic Wars as a temporary measure…
After my parents died, people in the village asked me if I intended keeping the house on, and my reply was “I’ll stay for as long as I’m able.” I should have moved away possibly five or six years ago, but I’m beginning to understand that one of my faults is an excess of loyalty to a place, or a job, or (sometimes) a person. Just as I ought to have cut free from Ofwat earlier than I did, when it became clear that the organisation had nothing more to offer me, so I should have cut the ties with Fillongley before now.
Of course, there is an emotional cost to be paid. I’ve lived in this house since 1986, and it holds a lot of memories for me. It’s in a super location, too. But I’ve worked through all that, and I really cannot see my way clear to staying here. I shall be earning enough in the new job to pick up the mortgage again, but that only defers the eventual decision.
So the house is now on the market, and I’ve already had a number of viewings, one of which was sufficiently positive for me to hope that they might put an offer in. And in the meantime, I’ve been looking at renting a flat somewhere between the West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton and the M1 outside Leicester – that means that my search is concentrated on Hinckley and takes in places like Barwell, Earl Shilton and Sapcote, amongst others. Even if I went all the way up to a rental equivalent to what I was paying in mortgage, I should still be better off as my heating costs will be at least halved, and that represents a significant saving; and the new job will pay what I was earning at Ofwat, but with the difference that whereas the pay I was on at Ofwat was something I had spent 30 years struggling up to, I’m starting from the same point at Bellrock.
So the house is getting uncluttered, the shredder is working overtime, and I am up to my neck in cardboard boxes and parcel tape. I’ve already shifted a vast amount of stuff out to a storage unit a couple of miles away (which I can actually see from the front of the house!). It’s in some old farm buildings which have been converted to storage and small industrial units, and it’s run by a character not unlike a member of the Grundy family in “The Archers”, which is actually fine for a rural area. it will be a big change, though I’ve got time to acclimatise – I doubt I shall have enough money for a deposit and bond money much before the end of August or even September. I suspect this also means that I will have to miss the World SF Convention in London, or at the most only do a couple of days there, but we shall see.
Onward to pastures new!
Today was a two interview day. The first was a telephone interview set for 9:45am for a firm in Leicester. The second was a face-to-face interview at 2pm in Sheffield. What could go wrong?
So I was woken this morning by a telephone call at 5:35am. I surfaced from sleep and picked up the phone: the caller display said “Out of area”. “Who the hell rings at this ungodly hour?” I muttered to myself (or something like that) and thought “That can go to voicemail if they can be bothered”. Ten minutes later, at 5:45am, the phone rang again. “Must be an automatic dialler” I thought; but when I picked up the phone, the display said “Private caller”, which usually means a mobile. So I answered it.
It was my telephone interview. And my alarm clock was showing a time wrong by four hours. Fortunately, the first call had woken me up, though I sounded a bit groggy, as you do first thing in the morning.
So I delivered the interview from my bed! Not as bad as a boss I once had when I worked in Ofwat’s press office; she arranged a telephone interview with the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme (a fairly heavyweight news and current affairs programme, for overseas readers) for 6:15am, only to have a similar alarm clock malfunction and having to deliver an interview to air from bed…
So you’ll understand it if I say that I didn’t really get any good or bad vibes from my telephone interview. We spoke for about half an hour, and the questioning seemed quite straightforward. Only when I got back from my second interview and picked up voicemail did I find that I’d got an offer of a face-to-face interview on Monday for the Leicester job. So I must’ve been doing something right after all. Perhaps that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years…
I’ve bought new batteries for the alarm so I don’t have the same problem on Monday!
Then I had to get myself up, much later than I anticipated, and get ready to go to Sheffield,. But first I had to go to put diesel in the car and buy – and post – a birthday card for my sister. The upshot of this was that I didn’t set out for Sheffield until nearly mid-day, and it’s a good hour-and-a-half drive to Sheffield. A long section is on a two-lane motorway, and of course the traffic seemed slower than I would have liked. Then, on joining the main M1 motorway, I ran into a lengthy stretch of roadworks with a mandatory 50mph speed limit, enforced by average speed cameras. So I didn’t get to Sheffield until 1:35, but I had a cunning plan. I’d use a park-and-ride tram system, which I knew would put me into the city centre in ten minutes or less, from where it was only a short walk to the offices of the firm I was going to see.
I got to the tram stop, only to find a sign pasted to the ticket machines – “No trams from here until end of June.” But there was a replacement bus service – every half-hour, on the hour and half-hour. I hot-footed it to the bus stop – right at the other end of a large car park – boarded the bus, and was reaching for my phone when the driver started the bus up and pulled away. I was back on track!
Except that the bus stop in the city centre wasn’t in the same place as the tram stop I’d intended using; fortunately, Sheffield equips its bus stops with helpful city centre maps, so I could clearly see a quick route to the interview venue. It took me little more than five minutes to walk across town, and I arrived at the office front door on the stroke of 2pm.
Except there was no sign of the company on the entryphone or the list of tenants. Well-known (if not notorious) MP and former Minister David Blunkett’s constituency office was in the block, but not the company I was there to see. I was just debating who to ask (and tending toward Blunkett’s office on the basis that there probably would be someone there) when someone came out of the building and I was able to gain access. I went to the first office I could find and asked if anyone knew of this company. No-one did. But by the power of Google they were able to direct me to the company’s new offices. Unfortunately, Google maps aren’t 100% accurate, so I had to do some walking around and try a couple of other anonymous office blocks before locating them. Then I pulled a muscle in the arch of my foot stepping off a kerb, so by the time I finally arrived – at about 2:25pm – I was pretty dishevelled, limping badly and not feeling or looking at my best.
The guy who was interviewing me was really good about this (and it looks as though the agency, who sent me an e-mail with the shocking news that I’d been given an address two years old about the time I was entering the right building, managed to contact them because they knew l’d been to the old address). It felt more like a really pleasant conversation rather than an interview, we managed to make light of my misfortune, and I was very pleased both with the reception I got and the way I was able to deal with his questions (though having been working on a few days’ casual work up to yesterday, my preparation for the interview was less than I would normally have done). I did wonder if I was getting a slightly easier ride out of sympathy for the state I arrived in, but perhaps not. We shall see.
But i could do without another day as weird as this one.
I realise that I’ve not posted much recently. That’s because my days are taken up with looking for work, and not a lot else, though there was also a recent domestic crisis that took up quite a bit of my time. I’ve been getting interviews and travelling up and down the country to them, but I see little point in doing a major blog entry until I’ve got something to significant to report.
Part of the irritation of not having much money coming in is the impact on one’s social life – another reason why I haven’t had much to blog about. But I do allow myself a minor entertainment – attending meetings of the Sutton Coldfield Model Makers’ Society. After all, I’ve been a member since 1985, so that club and its members have been a pretty big part of my life for quite some time now. So it was that I went off to Sutton for a meeting last Wednesday. The meeting was one of the Society’s occasional auction evenings.
Most of the time, the stuff that goes into the auction is a bit tired – half-made kits, usually, not the latest releases; and quite often, there is stuff that people are actively trying to get rid of – including books, which some people don’t hold in the quite the same regard as I do. So I was looking at the offerings last week, and one of the books on the table was one of the Ian Allan ‘Aircraft Annual’ series, edited by the redoubtable John W.R. Taylor. This one was just titled “Aircraft 1974″, dating from a time when Ian Alllan were trying to modernise the image of the series and drop the “annual” tag, which did tend to suggest that it was aimed at children.
I leafed through the book to see if there was anything of interest in it. No articles struck me immediately, but on a second look, a name fairly leapt out at me. That name was Bob Shaw.
Bob Shaw was a name very well known to me. He was a science fiction writer from Belfast, whose novels were the mainstay of the Gollancz line-up in the 1970s and 1980s. He had been a major figure in the science fiction fan community from the 1950s, and won Hugo Awards in 1979 and 1980 for his fan writing. He started selling short stories in the 1950s, but paused for a while when he and his family temporarily emigrated to Canada. He returned to Northern Ireland in 1958, and went to work for Shorts, first as an aeronautical engineer and latterly in their PR department. He was the science correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph in the middle 1960s. In 1973, he became so concerned over the Troubles that he chose to leave Belfast and secured a job at Vickers in Barrow, also in their PR department, before turning to full-time writing in 1975.
Bob was possessed of a great wit, which came out in his writings. He was also popular at science fiction conventions – perhaps too popular, as he had a reputation as a drinker and at one stage considered himself as an alcoholic. He died in 1996.
Bob’s novels and stories were always inventive – his imagination was that of an engineer, so he was always thinking of odd devices and new solutions to old problems – but also quite lyrical. He was also fond of putting places and situations he’d encountered into his work, so his books often have a good sense of place. His 24 novels cover all the traditional SF themes, and some that came out of his own imagination. Perhaps his best-known short story is his 1966 tale “Light of other days”, in which he introduced the concept of ‘slow glass’ – glass that light takes an appreciable time to pass through, so that someone looking through a pane of slow glass can see a scene that the glass was exposed to years before. He explored the implications of this idea in a number of stories; but ‘Light of other days’ is the best remembered of them. It is generally considered one of the finest examples of the genre and is regularly anthologised even now. It can be read online here.
Naturally, I bid on the book and secured it for the princely sum of £3.50. The article by Bob was one from his time at Shorts, and was about the Shorts Skyvan in the service of the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force. But it contained typical examples of Bob’s writing:
“At Salalah the atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of the Desert Air Force in Second World War days, with the dust, the shimmering heat, the eye-pulsing brightness, and the constant movement of camouflaged and work-stained aircraft. At night the principal recreation is attending an open-air cinema, where seats have to be booked in advance and the stars glitter overhead like coach lamps strung from the palm trees, undimmed by the lights of civilisation.”
I last saw Bob at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow, where instead of the “Serious Scientific Talk” he usually gave at conventions (and which were neither serious nor scientific!), he gave a heartfelt account of his time as an sf fan and writer. It was clear to me then that he was delivering a farewell, and so it proved. But his novels, though little remembered now by those who knew them not, are a fine tribute to this warm and talented writer; and I was pleased to be reminded of him in an unlikely circumstance.
‘Ask the powerful five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?
Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one with power likes democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it; including you and me, here and now.’
I encountered Tony Benn on only a few occasions: once at PCS Conference in 2006, when he addressed a Stop the War Coalition fringe meeting; then a few months later, at a mass lobby of Parliament; and later in 2010, when he addressed a conference in Birmingham. I’d been on the front row at the conference fringe meeting to secure good pictures; when he saw me in a similar place at the parliamentary lobby rally a few months later, he recognised and acknowledged me. Not much of a claim to fame, but the best I can do.
In one week, the British Left has lost two iconic figures: one, Bob Crow, general secretary of the rail workers’ union RMT, was one of the last traditional trade union leaders; the other, Tony Benn, was a member of the aristocracy who turned his back on his background and took up the cause of the Left. Both men polarised opinion; both held their views steadfastly whether they were popular or not. Of both men, colleagues and opponents alike have praised their personal integrity, steadfastness and honesty – qualities sadly lacking in so much of the political establishment nowadays.
More of my photographs of Tony Benn can be seen here.