Philip Lord

Philip Lord

I was 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).

I suppose 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!

During 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.

I left 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.

During 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.

From 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!

I went 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.

I was 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.

Release 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 bachelors.

E. and 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!

I eventually 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.

I left 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.

That 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.)

I certainly 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.

What 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.

I still 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.