The Japanese Garden, San Mateo

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Japanese Garden, Central Park, San Mateo

On Sunday morning, I took the photo above of the Japanese Garden in San Mateo’s Central Park. At first glance, it would be easy to think that this garden must be in Japan, but the reality is that we’re fortunate to have it right here in California.

It is perhaps not surprising that the garden looks so authentically Japanese, because it was designed by Nagao Sakurai, who, in his younger days, had been Chief Gardener at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Nonetheless, all gardens require constant maintenance, and the City of San Mateo has done an amazing job in tending to this one since its creation in 1965.

I didn’t notice until I was editing the picture above just how well the trees behind the lake disguise the huge apartment building that would otherwise dominate the view.

The garden also features Japanese-style pavilions, as shown below.

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Pavilion at the Japanese Garden

I suspect that one reason why the garden stays in such pristine condition is because it can only be accessed via locked gates, as shown below from the outside. The gates are opened to the public between 10am and 4pm each day (11am – 4pm at weekends).

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The Gates of the Japanese Garden

When we lived in San Mateo, Mary and I would visit the Japanese Garden whenever we could. The beauty of this garden, along with others that we saw in Japan, inspired us to try to recreate our own much more modest version in our current home.

A Walk in the Park

It was a beautiful morning for a stroll in the park; sunny and calm, but still cool. Outside the walled-off Japanese Garden, wisteria bushes were blooming, as shown below.

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San Mateo Central Park

I also visited the nursery of the San Mateo Arboretum Society, which was holding a plant sale. The photo below is a general view of the nursery.

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San Mateo Arboretum Society

The Annual Flight Crew Luncheon

The primary reason that Mary and I had traveled to the Peninsula was to attend the annual luncheon for United Airlines flight crew, which took place once again at the Westin Hotel (below) near San Francisco Airport.

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Westin Hotel, San Francisco Airport

While we were parking outside the hotel, the usual lineup of aircraft waiting for takeoff could be seen on the runways of SFO, just across the waters of the bay, as shown below. There are 2 United Airlines aircraft visible, plus an Air China Boeing 747 and a Virgin Airways Airbus.

Aircraft Queueing for Takeoff at SFO

Aircraft Queueing for Takeoff at SFO

Mary had once again volunteered to help organize the reunion luncheon, and she did a great job, which was much appreciated by all the attendees. For both of us, it was very pleasant to be able to meet up once again with old friends.

Thank you once again to all those who continue to make the annual reunion possible!

The Uncle I Never Met

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

The photo above shows my uncle, Elvyn Stephenson Martin, wearing his Army uniform, while on leave, some time in 1944-45.

I never had the chance to meet Uncle Elvyn, because he was killed in action on 14th April, 1945 (about 15 years before I was born, and exactly 73 years ago today). He is buried in Becklingen War Cemetery, in Germany: full details can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site, here.

Like so many millions of others, he was a casualty of World War II, and our family was of course by no means alone in suffering such losses (or even worse). The detail that makes Elvyn’s death seem particularly pointless was that it occurred only 3 weeks before the end of the war in Europe, and thus could not possibly have accomplished anything for anyone.

I know from the CWGC details that, at the time of his death, he was a trooper with the 15th/19th  The King’s Royal Hussars, Royal Armoured Corps. The only other details I have were those that my mother (Elvyn’s younger sister) relayed to me before she died. She told me that Elvyn had spent most of the war in England, in the Military Police, which he disliked because he found himself having to arrest his own countrymen instead of engaging with the real enemy. He was therefore delighted when he was transferred to the Tank Corps, and sent across the Channel.

In early 1945, his regiment was sweeping eastwards through Northern Germany. In April, they were involved in the liberation of a concentration camp (possibly Bergen-Belsen, but I have no confirmation), apparently in support of the 11th Armoured Division. He drove into the camp in a tank, then popped his head out of the top of the turret to look around, and was shot dead by a sniper.

Those Left Behind

Elvyn’s parents, my grandparents, were naturally devastated by his death. I’m proud to say that, during the First World War, my grandfather had been a conscientious objector, for which matter of personal principle he was imprisoned. Nonetheless, he understood that, when the Second War came, there was really something to fight for, so he didn’t object to his son’s actions.

The hand-colored photo below shows my grandmother with Elvyn, shortly after his birth in 1919.

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

I don’t think they ever really recovered from Elvyn’s death (which is understandable).

When my grandmother died in 1979, it fell to my mother to sort through her remaining effects, but she could find no trace of Elvyn at all. There were no documents, no medals, nothing; apparently my grandmother could not bear the memories they brought back, and had disposed of everything. These few photos are all that we now have left.

The Personal Tragedy of War & Unintended Consequences

Whatever grandiose principles any war is supposedly fought for, it always ends up being a tragedy at the personal level, as my grandparents’ experience demonstrates.

Ironically, though, the World Wars led to some improvements in the lives of the general public that were definitely unintended by the promoters of the wars. For example, the First World War led to the granting of the right to vote to women, both in the US and UK. A century later, I think that most of us would agree that a “democracy” that refused voting rights to about half its population perhaps isn’t worth fighting for.

As a result of the First and Second World Wars, in Britain, the National Health Service was founded, bringing great improvements to the standard of living for many people.

Thus, I’m in no doubt that I owe a debt of gratitude to my long-lost uncle, for the consequences of his brave actions, both intended and otherwise.

A Visit to the Bird Rescue Center

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Peregrine Falcon Kiri, at the Bird Rescue Center

This Peregrine Falcon, called Kiri, is a resident of the Santa Rosa Bird Rescue Center. I visited the Center yesterday, during their once-a-month open house. I’m already a supporter of this local charity, via eScrip donations that are made by local merchants when I shop there.

Fortunately, the Rescue Center escaped damage from last October’s wildfires, although I believe that it had to be evacuated for a while. As I described in a previous post, the nearby Fountaingrove and Hidden Valley Estates were almost completely destroyed.

The Center’s role is to accept injured wild birds and rehabilitate them for release back into the wild. However, the Peregrine Kiri cannot be released back into the wild, because her right wing is damaged so she cannot fly well. Nonetheless, she’s still doing better than the resident Osprey shown below, which cannot fly at all, and so has to have perches and feeding stations at ground level.

A Flightless Osprey at the Bird Rescue Center

A Flightless Osprey at the Bird Rescue Center

The view below shows the entrance to the Rescue Center. Needless to say, Woodstock is not one of their rescues, but is another of about 70 Peanuts statues that can be found all over Santa Rosa! (My previous post showed another of those, in front of the former REA building in Railroad Square.)

Woodstock at the Entrance to the Bird Rescue Center

Woodstock at the Entrance to the Bird Rescue Center

I had visited the Rescue Center on a previous occasion, with an actual “bird emergency”, when Mary and I found a baby House Finch that seemed to be sick. We were going to take it to the Humane Society, but they advised us instead to take it to the Bird Rescue Center.

Another current permanent resident of the Center is the Red-Tailed Hawk shown below, whose disability is a missing right eye.

Red-Tailed Hawk at the Bird Rescue Center

Red-Tailed Hawk at the Bird Rescue Center

Just to prove that he really is “red tailed”, here’s a close-up:

The Red Tail

The Red Tail

After being on public display for a few minutes, courtesy of one of the Center’s volunteers, the hawk was returned to his cage for lunch (a frozen mouse), as shown below, where you can just about see the missing right eye.

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Red-Tailed Hawk going indoors for Lunch

In its reception area, the Center has some educational displays relating to local bird life. Those include the display of eggs shown below, which features the eggs of the two species that I painted for our greeting cards last Christmas (Cedar Waxwing and American Robin).

The Eggs of some Local Wild Birds

The Eggs of some Local Wild Birds

The Bird Rescue Center’s premises stand in the county-owned Chanate Complex, which also housed the former Sutter Hospital. The hospital was built during the 1930s, and closed in 2014, having been deemed seismically unsafe. The former hospital buildings will soon be demolished, and the entire site is due for redevelopment. For this reason, the Center may be forced to move to alternative premises in future, although, as one of the volunteers told me today, they hope that it will be possible to retain their current location in the park-like surroundings of the Chanate Complex.

Perhaps its buildings (as below) could benefit from some renovation, but I do hope that the Bird Rescue Center can continue its good work in its current location!

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Bird Rescue Center: General View

Easter Blossoms in Railroad Square

Tree Blossom at the Railroad Depot, Santa Rosa

Tree Blossom at the Railroad Depot, Santa Rosa

We’re enjoying perfect Easter weather in Santa Rosa, and yesterday afternoon I visited Railroad Square, where the trees are blossoming. I took several photos, including this one of the former Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad depot (which is now Chevy’s restaurant).

As you can see, the depot’s name is still visible (although usually unnoticed by passers-by) in the wrought ironwork of the balcony, which is above what was the main entrance of the Spanish-Colonial-style depot when it was built in 1927. Its survival is quite remarkable, given that passenger services on the P&SRRR ceased in 1932. The building’s appearance has recently been improved by new paintwork. The photo below shows the full façade of the building. On the other side of the blocked door is the restaurant’s bar.

Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad Depot

Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad Depot

Those familiar with Railroad Square may be surprised that I didn’t start with a photo of the more familiar North Western Pacific railroad depot. That building also is currently surrounded by blossoming trees, as shown below:

Former NWP Depot, Santa Rosa

Former NWP Depot, Santa Rosa

The reason that I didn’t choose that as my header picture was because, as you can see, it’s impossible to get a composition without its being spoiled by all the cars parked around it!

This railroad depot achieved fame by being featured in the 1943 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Shadow of a Doubt. There’s a well-known photo of the entire cast and crew in front of the depot. Perhaps the building’s more impressive achievement, prior to that, was that, along with most of the other stone buildings in Railroad Square, it survived the 1906 earthquake, which did far more damage per capita in Santa Rosa than it did in San Francisco.

It’s heartening to be able to report that passenger trains are once again stopping at this depot, for the first time since 1958. Yesterday, as I arrived at Railroad Square, a northbound train was paused at the station, as shown below.

SMART Train at Santa Rosa Station

SMART Train at Santa Rosa Station

The Snoopy statue on the right in the photo above, which stands in front of the former Railroad Express Agency building (now a coffee/ice-cream shop), is painted as a SMART conductor, shown in close-up below.

Snoopy as a SMART Conductor, Railroad Square

Snoopy as a SMART Conductor, Railroad Square

Immediately beyond the railroad depot stands the La Rose Hotel, which is visible in the photo below, behind the huge monkey puzzle tree.

La Rose Hotel, Santa Rosa

La Rose Hotel, Santa Rosa

The Real Significance of Easter

In my Easter-time post of last year, I mentioned that I’m very glad to be free of the macabre, ignorant religious nonsense that afflicted this time of year during my youth, in nominally-Christian Britain.

Instead, I’m now able to enjoy the real significance of Easter, which is the seasonal regrowth of life in Northern climes.

Of course, I’m aware that the festival occurs at this time of year because it originated in cultures of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it makes no sense at all, a simple fact that seems to have been completely unknown to the supposedly-omniscient gods!

Almost a Winner

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

I painted the picture above, depicting a fictitious medieval city, in school, at the age of 14, and thought little of it at the time. It was just another one of many that I churned out during my Ordinary-level classes in Art. We were largely restricted to inventing subjects from our imaginations, because there was little reference material available and we weren’t allowed to leave the school during classes.

However, about a year later, my teacher chose this particular picture as an entry in a national art competition, where it was awarded a “runners up” certificate.

That was not the first recognition I’d won for my art skills, despite never having sought prizes for any of it. In fact, the first prize I ever won for anything was for drawing, at Newby County Primary school when I was aged 6. The award I was given for that was a copy of the book Little Grey Rabbit finds a Shoe, by Alison Uttley. Given the nature of the book, I’ve always suspected that the person responsible for obtaining the prizes had assumed that the winner would be a girl, because it didn’t seem like an ideal choice for a six-year-old boy!

Digital Salvation

Unfortunately, in the case of my 1974 painting above, and as with many of the other surviving paintings that I did at school, the cheap poster paint that we had to use is decomposing. You can see many white blotches in the blue sky, looking somewhat like aerial smoke bombs detonating! Those were not originally present, but are the result of the white paint compound separating from the tinting chemicals.

Thus, I recently took the opportunity to scan the painting before it deteriorates further, which was partly what prompted me to write this article now. The original dimensions are about 16“ x 11”, thus too large for my scanner. However, I was able to scan the paper in parts, then stitch the result together in such a way that the edges are almost invisible.

The Kellogg’s National Exhibition of Children’s Art

It seems that the American cereal company, Kellogg’s, organized a National Exhibition of Children’s Art in London every year, from the 1960s through to some time in the 1970s. The only online record of it that I’ve been able to find is a copy of an invitation to enter the “exhibition” in 1976, which apparently appeared on the back of packets of Corn Flakes. (The clichéd “happy corporate collage” artwork on the cereal packet is amusing. Of course, they couldn’t possibly promote a children’s art exhibition by using…er…actual children’s art, could they?)

As far as I recall, I was unaware of those exhibitions at the time, and my entry in the 1975 contest was entirely initiated by my teacher. I definitely didn’t fill in any back-of-a-cereal-packet entry form. The only official acknowledgement that I received was the certificate below (which isn’t even dated). Nobody invited me to attend the actual exhibition, during that or any other year.

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

It was certainly also the case that my parents did not encourage me to exhibit my artwork. Unfortunately, they took a pessimistic attitude to most things along the lines of, “it’s not worth trying because you’re bound to fail”. When faced with other parents who actively helped their children in such activities, they simply dismissed such behavior as being “pushy”. Nothing worse than a “pushy parent”, you know!

Competitive Art? I’d Rather Not!

While I have no objections to art exhibitions, I have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of “art competitions”. After all, who has the competence or authority to decide which works of art are “better”? Yes; you can determine that one artwork is better-drawn or better-executed than another—that one artist is more technically competent than another—and I do that myself all the time. But does that make one artwork “better” than the other? Not necessarily. If you must turn an exhibition into a competition, wouldn’t it be better to make it a “artist contest” instead of an “art contest”?

I understand that, even in a non-competitive exhibition, there has to be someone to decide which entries will “make the cut”. Given that Kellogg’s were soliciting entries for their exhibition on the backs of cereal packets, someone would obviously need to review all entries, even if only to determine which entries met the basic conditions (e.g., to determine that they were actually produced by children). That kind of basic judgment doesn’t really turn an exhibition into a contest, unless the promoters deliberately aim to do that.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where some people seem to want to turn every human endeavor into a contest, so when someone promotes contests in inappropriate areas, all too many people support the idea, instead of treating it with the skepticism, or possibly even contempt, that it may deserve.

It’s true that I have entered my own artworks in exhibitions that involve judging and prizegiving, such as my Moggies cartoons, which were displayed at some Sonoma County Fairs. Sometimes my entries have won, but sometimes they received no award at all. I try to maintain as detached a view as possible of those events and the responses to my entries.

Encouraging Originality

Surely, art is about the wide variety of ways in which artists see and interpret the universe, and reducing all that to a contest misses much of the value of art. The judgments that are necessary to determine contest winners will inevitably give the impression that one or two viewpoints are superior to all others, thus discouraging the very exploration and variety that is essential to art.

The Story Of Reading Evenings

Pencil Portrait, Reading, 1986

Pencil Portrait, Reading, 1986

The pencil drawing above is a surviving sample of the life drawing work that I did at sessions in Reading during 1986-7. If you understood the word “Reading” here as referring to the reading of a book, then the title and first sentence of this post must have seemed quite meaningless.

In fact, Reading in this context is the name of a town in England, about 40 miles west of London, and it’s pronounced “Redding”. Reading forms the hub of an area known as the M4 Corridor, where huddle many of Britain’s remaining electronics technology industries. That was also true in the 1980s, when Britain had many more such industries than it does today.

Reading was perhaps first made famous during the nineteenth century by Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, and wrote a lengthy poem called The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In that poem, he wrote:

In Reading gaol by Reading town

There is a pit of shame…

I’m glad to be able to say that the hours I spent in Reading were definitely not in any “pit of shame” (except perhaps for certain pubs…).

More recently, of course, Reading has again achieved fame as the birthplace of comedian Ricky Gervais, who wrote a movie named after an area of the town: Cemetery Junction.

A New Venue

In an earlier article, I described how I attended Life Drawing classes in Andover during 1985-86, while I was living there and working for Link Electronics. Unfortunately, despite having created some brilliant products, Link turned out to be just one more failing British company, with the result that I was laid off in June 1985, when their management decided to shut down the design and manufacture of television cameras.

After searching for suitable alternative employment for a few weeks, I accepted a Design Engineering position with a small digital video equipment company called Questech, who were based in Wokingham, Berkshire. (As you may have guessed, because it has become such a repetitive theme, Questech is also now long out-of-business.) Although I was still living in Andover, I could no longer attend the sessions at Cricklade College, so I looked around to find something similar in the nearest large town to Wokingham, which was Reading. I eventually found a suitable class at a branch of the University of Reading, on Bath Road.

Just to demonstrate that life drawing models aren’t always female, here’s an example of one of my drawings from Reading that featured a male model.

Male Nude, Reading, 1986

Male Nude, Reading, 1986

However, those drawing sessions were not by any means the first time I’d visited Reading, because I’d had a somewhat ambivalent connection to the town since 1978.

Revisiting Reading

I had actually first traveled to Reading in 1978, while living in Coventry. While at school in Scarborough, I had had a crush on a girl who had gone on to study at the University of Reading. Had I been more mature, I would have realized that my crush was futile, but I was just another irrational teenager…

Thus one day—her birthday, in fact—I had the “bright idea” to go to Reading and seek out her room in the beautiful Wantage Hall.

Wantage Hall, University of Reading, 1996

Wantage Hall, University of Reading, 1996

I don’t think that I was really intending to try to meet up with her during that visit, but in fact I did, along with her new boyfriend! Fortunately, it all seemed to go fairly amicably, which perhaps was partly because she was still half-asleep during our unplanned meeting! It turned out to be the last time I ever saw her, which was probably just as well for all of us.

I did spend some time wandering around the town. One of the first features that struck me was the Town Hall, which, for people of my age, was very reminiscent of the building in the children’s animated series Trumpton.

Reading Town Hall, Following an External Cleaning, in 2001

Reading Town Hall, Following an External Cleaning, in 2001

Reading has some fairly pleasant footpaths along the banks of the River Thames. I took the photo below, of Caversham Bridge, while walking alongside the river in rain.

Caversham Bridge, Reading, 1979

Caversham Bridge, Reading, 1979

The arms below are those of the Borough of Reading, which used to appear on the sides of all Reading Transport buses.

Arms of the Borough of Reading

Arms of the Borough of Reading

The Equalizer Stops By for a Pint

When attending those 1980s drawing sessions, I rushed there straight from Wokingham, immediately after finishing work for the day. Once the drawing session was over, I was naturally hungry for dinner, so I would visit a local pub before beginning the journey home to Andover.

One pub that I frequented nearby was, and still is, called the Lyndhurst. Below is a modern Google Streetview of the location.

Google Streetview of the Lyndhurst, Reading

Google Streetview of the Lyndhurst, Reading

When I visited the pub in those days, one regular customer was a man who never offered anyone his name, but was known by the bartender as The Equalizer [warning: link plays video]. This was because he looked quite like Edward Woodward, who at the time was starring in an American TV series as the eponymous character. I still don’t know who the man in the pub was, so maybe someone will read this article and enlighten us?

As I said, the Lyndhurst is still in business today, serving good food, so probably worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Reading!

The Bizarre Demise of Ferranti

Panorama of Middleton, Manchester, 1981

Panorama of Middleton, Manchester, 1981

The photo above shows a panorama of Middleton, a suburb north of Manchester, one summer afternoon in 1981, while I was living there, and working as an apprentice at a famous British electronics company, Ferranti. For a few summers during my engineering training, I did indeed find myself working in some of the “dark satanic mills” of Manchester! I couldn’t have foreseen at the time that, within about 10 years, Ferranti would go out of business in a spectacular collapse, induced at least partially by an international fraud.

I mentioned in a previous post that, having decided during 1980 that I should try to obtain a degree in Electronics, I began searching for an employer who could sponsor me for what was called a “sandwich course”, which interleaved periods of industrial work with the academic study terms. My efforts to find such a position eventually paid off, and I was offered a Student Apprenticeship with Ferranti, commencing in July 1981, whereby I would work for the company each summer while at university. Thus, I lived and worked in Manchester for 3 summers, from 1981 to 1983, but, for reasons that I’ll explain below, I did not return there after graduating in 1984.

Live by the Sword…

In those days, Ferranti was, although not one of the largest electronics companies in Britain, certainly one of the best-regarded (the “Big Three” electronics companies were GEC, Marconi and Plessey). Ferranti had pioneered the development of computers in Britain.

When I received the offer from Ferranti, it caused some discomfort among my family and friends, because the company had a justified reputation for deriving much of its income from military contracts. However, not all of Ferranti’s work was for the military, so I was given the option to work for the company only in civilian product areas.

As things were to turn out, Ferranti did indeed “live by the sword and die by the sword”.

The Boys (& Girl) of Summer

Ferranti’s Student Apprenticeships were arranged so that we were employed by the company directly during each summer break from university. We then attended university for a normal academic year, from October through to the following June.

In July 1981, I presented myself at Ferranti’s Training Centre, at the so-called Avenue Works in Chadderton (sometimes referred to as the Hollinwood plant), to begin my apprenticeship. Most of my fellow apprentices were male, but there was (apparently for the first time ever) one girl in the group.

The first summer consisted of the “EP1” practical training, which was required by the Institution of Electrical Engineers. We learned technical drawing, soldering, welding, metal fabrication, machining, and many other practical skills. This was very intensive training; for example, we spent 4 weeks learning to solder, and were required to pass precision tests.

Our fabrication, welding and machining skills were tested by an assignment to build a toolbox from steel. The diagram below, which I drew in my Ferranti log book, shows how the toolbox was constructed. I still have that toolbox, which is far stronger than similar shop-bought items.

Diagram of the Toolbox I Constructed at Ferranti, 1981

Diagram of the Toolbox I Constructed at Ferranti, 1981

Wafers at Gem Mill

My second summer at Ferranti involved more uncertainty about what my assignment would be. Initially, I was told that there was actually no assignment for me, and that I should return to the Training Centre. After a short time there, several of us were assigned to a photoelastic stress analysis project at the Van Carrier manufacturing division of Ferranti Engineering plc, which was situated in the front offices of what had been the Avenue Works transformer factory.

The project was quite interesting, but obviously it didn’t have anything to do with electronics. I was thus relieved when, about half-way through the summer, an opportunity arose for me to be transferred to the semiconductor manufacturing plant at Gem Mill, Chadderton, to write some software.

Description of Silicon Wafer Test Software, from my Log Book, Gem Mill 1981

Description of Silicon Wafer Test Software, from my Log Book, Gem Mill 1981

Sadly, I took no photos of the Ferranti sites at which I worked, most of which have now been demolished. Therefore, I’ve used a Wikimedia Commons image of Gem Mill below.

Chadderton,Oldham - geograph.org.uk - 1547

Thanks, But I Won’t Be Back

As I discussed previously, my goal in obtaining an electronics degree had always been to get a job with the BBC. It may seem surprising that the terms of Ferranti’s apprenticeship did not impose on us any obligation to work for Ferranti after graduation. Similarly, Ferranti were under no obligation to offer me a job. Both parties were free to terminate the arrangement at any time.

During the Spring 1984 “milk round” (when employers visited universities searching for promising new graduates), I applied to the BBC and, after several interviews, I was hired.

As a result, I had to write to the Training Officer at Ferranti, to tell him that I would be accepting the BBC’s offer and thus would not be returning to Manchester. I expressed my gratitude for the “leg up” that Ferranti had given me when starting my new career. I wasn’t really expecting a reply, but, to my surprise, he did write back, indicating that he was very happy that Ferranti had been able to help me along.

I did feel a little guilty about walking away from Ferranti at that time. I was all too aware that this was the one company that had given me a second chance, at a time when no other engineering employer was interested in me. I had also gained some valuable experience in the electronics industry, which did indeed open the door to other employment opportunities later on. It turned out to have been a “wise” decision on my part, but few could have foreseen that at the time.

Like a Bad Spy Thriller

When I worked there, Ferranti always had the “big company feel”. Everyone was expected to slot obediently into predefined roles, and there was little room for individuality or special skills. (As an engineering student with artistic skills, I was always regarded as a very odd creature!) When I made the decision not to return, however, I certainly had no forewarning that Ferranti might not even exist much longer!

I heard the astonishing news of Ferranti’s demise only after I had moved far away to California, and, in my busy new life, I had almost forgotten that I’d ever worked there.

What I heard sounded so much like the plot of a bad spy thriller novel that I had to double-check the details to be sure that it was true. This story has been told in great detail elsewhere (particularly in the book Ferranti A history: Volume 3, by John F Wilson), so I will just summarize the main points here.

Cover of John Wilson's Book about the Demise of Ferranti

Cover of John Wilson’s Book about the Demise of Ferranti

It seems that, amid the Thatcherite business hubris of the 1980s, Ferranti’s management had become convinced that they needed to expand the company in the United States, and that the best way to do that would be to merge with a US defense electronics company. Unfortunately, when selecting a company, they made an appallingly bad choice. They selected a Pennsylvania-based company called International Signal & Control (ISC).

There were warning signs that ISC was a suspect operation, which Ferranti’s management and their auditors managed to miss. (For example, although nominally a US operation, ISC had chosen to register in Britain, simply to take advantage of relatively lax regulation of businesses in Britain.)

Soon after Ferranti merged with ISC, it began to become apparent that some of ISC’s major contracts actually didn’t exist at all, and that ISC’s management had engaged in elaborate deceptions to maintain their fraud. The CEO of ISC, James Guerin, was actually circulating money through front companies to give the impression that progress payments were being made on the fictitious contracts, but he couldn’t keep that up forever, so when he was no longer able to borrow more money, the whole fraud was exposed.

To be fair, though, the ISC fraud wasn’t the sole cause of Ferranti’s demise. This was the time of the end of the Cold War, when defense budgets were being slashed and contracts canceled. As Wilson mentions in his book, Ferranti had for some time been too dependent for its income on military projects, so these cutbacks exacerbated the company’s already-serious predicament, and led to its bankruptcy.

Look Back in Astonishment

It seems astonishing, and quite sad, to reflect that, that, only 35 years ago, I was working for a British company that was not only designing integrated circuits and computers, but also manufacturing them in Britain. Additionally, at that time Ferranti was designing and manufacturing many other kinds of engineering products, including some that I worked on briefly, such as telephones and van carriers. I’ll probably write more about those other products in future posts.

Whatever bad managerial decisions led to Ferranti’s demise, it still seems tragic that so much world-class innovation and effort came to so ignominious an end, and of course it was particularly disastrous for the all the highly-skilled and hard-working staff who lost their jobs when the company folded.