born in East Dulwich in SE London in 1945, just a few weeks after
the end of the war (my mother recalls looking out on sandbags from
the labour room!). When I was born my mother was only 19 years old,
having married the previous year. My father was 10 years older and
a sheet metal worker. John, my brother, was born 18 months after me,
and we have always been very close to each other (though he now lives
in Lincoln and I in west London).
my background could be described as skilled working class; my father
was brought up in Deptford, just off the Old Kent Road (I imagine
very similar then to Islington), and my mother’s father was
the son of a invalided railway worker from Peckham. Through his ability
with numbers my maternal grandfather was in the Post Office as a lowly
civil servant. There is a legend in the family that one of my father’s
forebears was Sir John Fowler, the Victorian engineer who designed
the Forth Bridge; another legend has it that another forebear lost
the pub he owned and ran in the East End on a bet on a horse! I suspect
the former is less likely to be true than the latter!
childhood my parents moved around a lot – from house to house
and my father from job to job: from East Dulwich to Forest Hill, back
to East Dulwich, then to Redhill in Surrey, then a spell living with
my grandparents as my parents were trained a publicans. I therefore
went to many schools before I arrived at Risinghill: a primary school
in Forest Hill, a junior school in Redhill, then (after failing the
11+) to a secondary modern School in Redhill, and another in Nunhead
in SE London. At Nunhead I passed the 13+ to go to Northampton Technical
School and thence of course to Risinghill when it opened. Soon after
getting to Northampton we moved back to Redhill in Surrey, and I commuted
to Northampton from there – a train journey to London Bridge,
then on the tube to Old Street (for Northampton) and to the Angel
(for Risinghill). It must have taken a good hour.
Risinghill when I was 16, with four “O”-levels –
mathematics, physics, technical drawing and workshop theory and practice.
We debated at the time as whether to stay at Risinghill to try for
“A” levels, but it was decided I should go to Croydon
Technical College to do this – it was closer to home in Redhill;
I suspect too it had more resources and a wider range of options.
My mother says she discussed the decision with Mr Duane; she still
remembers and admires him. At Croydon Tech. I obtained three good
“A” Levels (pure mathematics, applied mathematics and
physics) and another “O” Level in additional mathematics.
I always found English a difficult subject, and on my third attempt
I got an “O” level in it from an evening class while I
was at Croydon Tech.
the end of my stay at Risinghill and while at Croydon Tech I started
to get involved in politics – the young socialists, CND, anarchism.
In part this was a natural progression given my family’s left-wing
sympathies, but was strengthened by the commuting to school over the
years and the social contrasts and environmental ugliness I saw. The
travelling time gave me time to think – and dream. This political
engagement shaped my youth and future paths. When I was 16 I met E.
my first girlfriend, who later become my wife.
Croydon Tech. I went on to Reading University to read mathematics
and physics; I got in by the clearing system, then very new, but really
it was mistake – I should have taken a year out, and learnt
better how to learn. But I had no family experience to refer to, nor
access to the advice of a school or college experienced in these matters.
I was the first in my family to go to university, like so many people
of my generation. Reading was not a huge success, and came out with
a poor degree, an honours 3rd in mathematics. During my time at Reading
I got married, too early – another mistake!
on to take a postgraduate certificate in education at Sussex University,
and then to teach at a boys’ comprehensive school in North London.
I very quickly become disillusioned with teaching, but stayed out
the year for the kids taking exams. I can say a lot about this –
but I don’t want to overload the story! Perhaps I should write
an addendum on it.
lucky – I was offered a job as a research assistant with the
Medical Research Council at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical
College (close to old haunts in Clerkenwell), where I was engaged
in research into the health effects of air pollution – we were
studying the effects of the London “pea-soupers”. It was
fascinating and varied work and a good place to be. I felt one was
improving people’s lives, however indirectly. Very quickly I
was promoted to the academic staff, started to learn about computers,
did a part-time mathematics MSc at Birkbeck College by evening classes.
However the money was poor and our first son Gabriel had arrived by
then, and I looked for jobs elsewhere. Personally, I was not happy
during this period, suffering from clinical depression and panic attacks.
from the depression and an opportunity to move on came in the late
‘70’s when I landed a computing manager job with Elsevier,
the publishers in Amsterdam. Our second son Edward had just been born
– and we moved to the Netherlands, me preceding the rest of
the family by about 6 months. While I worked in the centre of Amsterdam
(a wonderful and beautiful city), we moved out to a new town in North
Holland. Edward eventually went to a Dutch “kleuterschool”
(an infants school), Gabriel went to a secondary school for the children
of EU employees at a local EU scientific facility. He had a wonderful
education there – being taught in three languages according
to subject – in English, French and German, and of course he
picked up playground Dutch. He obtained a Baccalaureate and went off
to university in England to study mathematics as I had; he is now
a professional mathematician teaching at Heriot-Watt University in
Edinburgh. Gabriel and I became very close, living like two exiled
I split up some 6 years after we arrived in Holland, and having obtained
a very good history degree from the UK’s Open University she
went off, with Edward, to get a PhD in the UK. We eventually divorced
in the late ‘80’s. She is now also an academic at Cambridge
(a remarkable achievement for a rural working class girl who left
school at 16 with a few modest “O” levels). Edward has
also done very well academically, going on to get a doctorate in electrical
engineering and is now a practicing engineer. He keen on trains –
he owns his very own MK I train!
came back to the UK at the end of the 80’s, the family having
all left the Netherlands before me. Since I had found a job based
in Kingston I moved to nearby Richmond. The job did not last long
– but I was lucky enough to get a fairly senior computing job
in the pharmaceuticals industry just as the company in Kingston went
bust. In the mid ‘90’s SmithKline Beecham offered me a
job to build an electronic data archive. I got enthralled by the difficult
and extraordinarily interesting problem of how we are to preserve
the immensely fragile digital information we are accumulating –
whether our personal digital photos etc, business records or our cultural
heritage. I feel I have become a well respected and well known expert
in this field. This was recognised at the start of this year by my
election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
the GlaxoSmithKline (as SmithKline Beecham had become) a few years
ago, and set up my own small consultancy specialising in digital archiving
and preservation. I am still in the Richmond area, living with my
personal and business partner.
is my potted life history – but not me. I was, and still am,
bit of an introvert. When I look at myself I am never really sure
I am really happy or fulfilled. I have always felt I have been “catching-up”
on deficiencies in my education. On the other hand by objective standards
I suppose I have had a successful career, and have probably fared
better than many of my contemporaries at Risinghill. There are still
ambitions left and I feel there is huge amount to do – I feel
I waste a lot of time – and it is becoming more urgent to get
on with it before my energy fails. I want to travel more, study for
a doctorate (but in what?!). When I was 16 or so I got very interested
in music, and in particular early music, and all my life I have toyed
with playing the lute without becoming really proficient – something
else to do. (Before getting the job in Holland I was planning to become
a musical instrument maker and restorer – making use of skills
acquired at Northampton and Risinghill.)
do not feel at ease in the world, and the urge to want to change it
is re-emerging after a period of political quiescence. I feel restless
and angry. We are facing a huge range of potentially disastrous circumstance
(many of them man made) - global warming, huge environmental damage,
unsustainable population increases, raising material expectations
in the third world that the earth simply cannot support, and impending
energy and water crises.
do I enjoy? – My boys (one of whom has had to cope with his
wife’s tragic death a few years ago). I like travelling, reading,
gardening (I inherited my dad’s love of roses), cooking, making
music and listening to all sorts of music – folk, classical,
early music, opera. Very selective listening to rock music. I really
am into Bob Dylan’s music.
have fond and proud memories of Northampton and Risinghill and of
boys whom I remember especially: James Maher (or Meyer?), Robin Hood,
and a chap whose name I can’t recall – I remember he was
mad on space travel and astronomy; we use to go down to the public
library at lunch times at Risinghill to read about flying saucers!
I wonder how they all got on? Also some of the teachers: Mr Nunn,
Mr Woolhead (who finished making the model aircraft engine I had half
built in the Workshop Club), and my House Tutor Miss McKee. I never
really knew Mr Duane, alas.