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.

Delusions of Potential?

Wadham College, Oxford, during my Interview in 1980

Wadham College, Oxford, during my Interview in 1980

The photo above shows Wadham College, Oxford University, while I was staying there for an interview during 1980.

During the period 1977-81, I visited and was interviewed by quite a few universities in England, but Oxford has the unique distinction for me of being the only university that interviewed me without my having ever applied to them.

Deluding Myself?

At that period in my life, I was painfully aware that I could reasonably be accused of being a “habitual university interview attendee”. I realized that I was spending much of my free time traveling to and attending interviews at universities, with no assurance that any of that effort would lead to anything. Was I simply deluding myself, tricking myself into thinking that I had the potential to graduate from one of these institutions? Should I not instead be spending my time in looking for a better full-time job than the one I was trying to escape from?

I was nagged by doubts about what I was doing, and whether I was really just being a conceited fraud.

As I related in a previous post, having dropped out of the University of Warwick after one year, I was working full-time as an Accounts/Sales Clerk at Swifts of Scarborough. I applied for many jobs, and repeatedly received the same advice; to go back to university and obtain a degree.

By the Spring of 1980, I had essentially decided to pursue the university application route, despite knowing that, if I did so, there would be no chance of my starting a new degree course any earlier than the Autumn of 1981. That meant that I would not be able to graduate any earlier than 1984 or 1985, depending on the details of the course.

Taking a Leap of Faith

My decision seemed a particularly difficult one, because there was no guarantee that any university would consider the application of a student who’d already dropped out of another institution. Even if some university did offer me a place, how would I finance my studies? There was no guarantee that the North Yorkshire Education Authority would award me a grant (for the first year, at least), and my father had died in 1979, leaving my mother to support the household.

Having decided to study Electronic Engineering, I hoped that I might be able to obtain some kind of industrial sponsorship, whereby an employer would provide me with an apprenticeship and some kind of paid employment to complement my studies. The reality, however, was that such sponsorships were even harder to obtain than university places. In those pre-internet days, even finding sponsorships that might be available was a difficult task, requiring research at reference libraries.

I also looked at the possibility of obtaining some type of scholarship to help my finances, but that also seemed to be outside the realm of possibility. Such scholarships were intended for exceptional students who were applying from school, not for someone who had already had “one chance”.

Even if I was able to overcome those obstacles, there was still a significant risk. Unlike the case in some other countries, the award of an undergraduate university place in Britain is no guarantee that you’ll get a degree at the end of it all. What if, after all that, I went back to university but had to drop out again without a degree? What a disaster that would be, and what an immense waste of time.

The Oxford University Mystery

The Carfax Tower, Oxford, 1980

The Carfax Tower, Oxford, 1980

The City of Oxford is, of course, now internationally famous because of the Inspector Morse mysteries, written by Colin Dexter (who died in 2017). In those days, Oxford was already famous for its renowned university, but Oxford was not one the universities to which I applied, so how did I come to be interviewed there?

After I dropped out from Warwick, word eventually got back to the Scarborough Sixth Form College, where I’d taken my university entrance exams, about what had happened to me. By that time, the Sixth Form College had a new headmaster, who seemed keen to try to rectify the problems left by his predecessor. The new headmaster was a graduate of Wadham College, so he set up an interview there for me, with the idea of encouraging my efforts to return to academia.

Unfortunately, though, at that time Oxford did not have a particularly good reputation in engineering, so, weighing up the pros and cons against other institutions, in the end Oxford simply didn’t make the list of universities to which I applied!

Potential or Politics?

On the whole, I found that universities responded to my application more positively than I’d anticipated.

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, 1980

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, 1980

The University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST) made me an offer quite quickly after interviewing me, as did a couple of other prestigious institutions. Oddly, Cambridge University initially seemed interested, but then declined. I’ve never understood that, because I sat both the Cambridge entrance exam, and the supposedly-tougher Imperial College Scholarship exam, and obtained one of the top prizes in the Imperial College exam!

Nonetheless, I came out of the process with several offers from prestigious institutions.

An Abundance of Rewards

As I mentioned above, given my concerns about how I would support myself financially during my years of study, I had pursued several possibilities to supplement my income. In the end, amazingly, all those efforts paid off!

  • I had struggled to obtain an industrial sponsorship, and succeeded in obtaining a Student Apprenticeship with Ferranti plc, in Manchester. Ferranti would provide me with employment during the summer breaks, and also gave me a small annual bursary to help with my living costs.
  • I had sat several optional examinations in an attempt to win a scholarship, and I obtained a Royal Scholarship from Imperial College, London. The award was only for my first year there, but that was the year for which I’d been concerned about obtaining a grant.
  • In the end, the Local Education Authority was convinced of my bona fides, so they did award me a full grant for the term of my studies.

My Employer’s Misplaced Concerns

By May of 1981, everything seemed to have fallen into place. I had an apprenticeship set to start at Ferranti, and an undergraduate place at Imperial College waiting for me that October, so it was time for me to give notice to my employer, Swifts of Scarborough.

As we discussed the termination of my employment, Swifts’ Managing Director claimed to be quite concerned for my financial future. Had I considered, he asked me, that I’d be giving up a full-time income and would be forced to live on a student grant, and in London too!

Yes, of course I had considered that, I explained. I went on to explain to him that, with my full grant, my Ferranti bursary, and my Royal Scholarship, my “take home pay” would actually be higher than it had been working for him! That was the last I heard from him on the matter of my future…

You Have to Stay in it to Win it

The decision to commit to re-entering university was, at that time, the hardest and riskiest that I had had to make in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I’m really glad that I rejected the warnings of the naysayers and stuck to my own “gut instinct” that it was the right way to go.

There have been other occasions since then when I’ve had to make similar decisions, without any assurance that I’m going to be able to meet the challenge that I’m setting myself. As I see it, there is no choice but to accept the challenge and face the risks. After all, if you back down, you are absolutely guaranteeing that you will never succeed; you have to “stay in it to win it”.

Fire & Frost

Burned Trees at Keysight, Fountaingrove

Burned Trees at Keysight, Fountaingrove

It seems very strange to have to discuss both raging fires and frosty mornings in the same article, but that’s the way things are at the moment. Not only are we still recovering from the Wine Country fires here during October, but substantial new fires are burning right now in Southern California.

Last week, I was asked to go back the Fountaingrove site of my employer, Keysight, for the first time since the premises were closed due to the Tubbs Fire. The photo above shows how trees burned right up to the south side of Keysight’s Building 4, although the building itself was saved.

Nonetheless, all four main buildings suffered internal smoke damage, due to particles sucked in by the ventilation system from the fires outside. Therefore, we went into our former work site last week, with instructions to sort through everything and triage it as: personal items for removal, company-owned items for cleaning, or trash. Everything that will stay on the site must be cleaned before it can be reused, so eventually we will probably have one of the cleanest workplaces in the county!

The only buildings at Keysight that were completely destroyed by the fire were the two relatively small “Vista” buildings, the remains of which are shown below. Those were always relatively insubstantial structures.

Remains of the Vista Buildings at Keysight

Remains of the Vista Buildings at Keysight

Complete Destruction… Almost

Next to the Parker Hill Road entrance to Keysight is a residential area known as Hidden Valley Estates. As shown below, the fire destroyed almost everything in the northern part of Hidden Valley; the entire neighborhood has been wiped out. This Google Streetview shows the same location before the fire.

Devastation in Hidden Valley

Devastation in Hidden Valley

There was also a satellite school next to the Keysight entrance on Parker Hill Road, but that burned down.

I say almost everything was destroyed, because, as shown in my photo below, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Hall on Parker Hill Road seems to have escaped completely unscathed.

Jehovah's Witness Hall in Hidden Valley

Jehovah’s Witness Hall in Hidden Valley

It will be interesting to learn why that particular building survived while everything around it succumbed. Did it have a fireproof roof, or did its isolation in a car park help to protect it?

First Frost of the Season

Moving on to a happier subject, I awoke this morning to the first frost of this Winter season, as shown in my photo of Village Green Park below. As you can see, nearly all the leaves have fallen now, but the church at the far corner of the park has just acquired a new spire, which is actually a covering for a cellphone antenna!

Village Green Park with Frost

Village Green Park with Frost

My photo below shows the antenna cover being mounted on the church, in the rain about a month ago.

Mounting the Cellphone Antenna on the Church

Mounting the Cellphone Antenna on the Church

Our thoughts go out to those in Southern California who are now having to endure what many in our area went through in October. We hope that the new fires will be brought under control very quickly.

California Movin’: Thirty Years Ago

Golden Gate Bridge from Treasure Island

Golden Gate Bridge from Treasure Island

I arrived at San Francisco Airport for the second time exactly thirty years ago today, on Monday, 16th November, 1987, but on that occasion I did not have a return air travel ticket, and I was planning to make a home in California, for a while, at least.

This is the third in the series that covers the events of that time, when, while living and working in Southern England, I was offered a job in California, decided to accept it, and moved here on what turned out to be a permanent basis. The first post in the series was It was Thirty Years Ago Today, and the second was California Confusin’.

Living in Foster City

When I arrived, my employer had obtained temporary accommodation for me at the Residence Inn in San Mateo, which was very pleasant, but too expensive to be a permanent home. My boss recommended that, for long-term accommodation, I should look in nearby Foster City, which is a modern waterfront community with many apartment complexes.

I did look there, and eventually signed up for a one-bedroom apartment in Beach Cove Apartments, a large complex on Catamaran Street. Although these units were generally regarded as barely adequate by locals, by comparison with my accommodations in Britain they seemed palatial and well-equipped. For the first time ever, I had my own phone line, and—wow!—an automatic dishwasher!

The photo below shows part of my apartment in Foster City. The only item visible in the picture that I brought with me from the UK is the hi-fi system, which I’d bought in London while a student there. Everything else was bought or rented in California. Just visible, on the right, is my new answering machine, which was to cause a completely unexpected change in the direction of my life, as described below.

My Apartment in Foster City, 1988

My Apartment in Foster City, 1988

Driving

California officially only permits visitors to drive on an out-of-state license (so spelled!) for 10 days. After that, you’re required to apply for a California license. Thus, I began the process of applying, which required both a written and practical test. Although my prior experience of driving in Britain actually worked against me (because it made me seem too confident for the California examiner), I did eventually pass both, and had my first California license by December 1987.

What Credit History?

One significant problem that my employer had failed to warn me about was that, despite having a job and a Social Security number, I would be completely unable to obtain credit in the US on arrival. In Britain, I had already bought several cars on credit, had two credit cards, and had credit accounts with several stores, and I was oblivious to the fact that my UK credit rating would be totally meaningless in the US. My credit history outside the US simply didn’t appear on the records, so it effectively didn’t exist.

Buying a car turned out to be a significant problem, because of my lack of accessible credit history. Eventually, I was somehow able to persuade one dealer to grant me credit via General Motors Acceptance Corporation (probably only because it was a secured loan).

Once I had obtained the car loan, and began making payments, I was able to begin building a US credit history. Nonetheless, for the first year or so, I had to depend entirely on my British credit cards, sending my payments to the UK in US dollars. It seemed “so unfair”, but in fact the time passed quickly. After only 18 months, I’d built up sufficient credit history that I was able to buy a brand-new Ford Mustang, as shown below.

My 1989 Ford Mustang, in Monterey

My 1989 Ford Mustang, in Monterey

Northern California, Where the Girls are Warm…

When deciding whether to move to California, the idea of finding romance there was definitely the last thing on my mind! As I mentioned in the previous article, I did not even have a girlfriend in Britain, and had essentially given up on dating during my undergraduate years.

I must have heard the Steve Miller Band’s song Rock’n Me on the radio in Britain many times since its release in 1976, but I had always completely ignored its lyrics! Part of the lyrics say:

I went from Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma

Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.

Northern California where the girls are warm

So I could be with my sweet baby, yeah

I had emigrated to California strictly for professional reasons, to get a better job. Nonetheless, something completely unexpected happened after I moved to California, which eventually led me to begin dating again. Strangely enough, it happened because I bought an answering machine!

In my British accommodations, I had never had my own phone line, and of course there were no cellphones in those days. When I rented the apartment in Foster City, it came with a dedicated phone line. Given the 8-hour time difference between California and the UK, I was concerned that people from Britain would try to call me in the middle of the night. I decided to invest in an answering machine, so that at least they could leave me a message.

After I had installed the answering machine and recorded my greeting on it, something odd began to happen. I came home from work several times to find messages from anonymous women, explaining that they had just called to hear my “cute accent”! That was something that, for obvious reasons, had never been regarded as in any way special in Britain, but now it made me begin to think that perhaps there was something about me that might be deemed “attractive”!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’d obtained seriously distorted preconceptions about California from American media. As such, I assumed that California women would be impressed only by bronzed “surfer dudes”, and would have no interest in pasty-faced Brits such as me!

My Sweet Baby: Mary!

My Sweet Baby: Mary!

I Won’t be Home for Christmas

Ever since I moved away from my parents’ home in Scarborough, it seemed to have been assumed by everyone (including me) that I would return there to spend each Christmas with the family (or what was left of it). While I was a student, those visits were very short, because I was working in Selfridges or other London stores over the Christmas period, so I had to get to Yorkshire and back during the brief period that the stores were actually closed.

My feelings about those visits were very ambivalent. On the one hand, there was little point in staying in London or Andover when my few friends there were also absent (visiting their families). That would have made for a very lonely holiday. On the other hand, I had no friends or activities left in Scarborough, so spending the time there was also quite lonely.

Of course, it would have been very unrealistic to expect my family to leave Scarborough to visit me at Christmas, because I was living in small bedsits or houseshares, which could not accommodate guests. Nonetheless, by 1987, I was becoming anxious to find a solution to the problem, whereby I could find a reason to stay in my own part of the world during the holiday period.

Union Square, San Francisco, At Christmas

Union Square, San Francisco, at Christmas

Moving to California solved this problem once and for all. It simply was no longer practical for me to return to Scarborough at Christmas, so I had to spend it in California. Although that was a little lonely for my first Christmas there, my employer was accustomed to hiring engineers from Britain, and so went out of their way to ensure that we were to some extent included in the seasonal activities of other families.

Working Three-Day Weeks?

I’d also given no thought to the fact that the week after I arrived in California was Thanksgiving, which of course is not celebrated in Britain. As such, my employer treated us to Thanksgiving Lunch at work, then we had two days of the week off.

During the lunch, my employer’s CEO leaned over and mentioned to me:

We don’t do this every week, you know…

A Good Start

As I began to settle in to my new apartment and new job, I felt that I had made a good choice, and I saw little evidence of the problems and disappointments that some had predicted.

In every aspect, my new life was no worse than my previous existence in Britain, and, in many ways, it was much better.

Rain Arrives to Quench the Fires

Penny Contemplates the Rain

Penny Contemplates the Rain

The photo above shows one of our cats, Penny, sitting in the window alcove of our bedroom yesterday afternoon, contemplating the rain that had just begun to fall.

The rain intensified yesterday evening, having been forecast the previous week. We’d been anxiously awaiting its arrival, because, despite the extraordinary efforts of firefighters from all over the US, the wildfires were still not fully contained. Even after a fire has been quelled, it can sometimes continue to smolder and can then flare up again later. Falling rain should extinguish any remaining embers and prevent further flare-ups.

The Rain Begins

The Rain Begins

Contrast the photo above, taken yesterday afternoon looking over the park from our balcony, with the same view in my earlier post. At least this time, the gray skies are due to rain and not to smoke!

Having grown up somewhere it rains year-round (Britain), and now living where it rarely rains during the summer (California), I sometimes find that, by the end of summer here, I’m missing the rain, and look forward to the first shower of the season. Nonetheless, I’ve never welcomed the first rain as much as I did this year, because it will hopefully put an end to the local wildfires!

Smoky Sunsets

Although the smoke has gradually cleared during the past week, we’ve still been having smoky sunsets, with unusually red skies, as shown below, looking west from in front of our house.

Smoky Sunset

Smoky Sunset

Oakmont Fire

Last weekend, a new wildfire erupted in the hills above Oakmont, which is a large retirement complex to the East of Santa Rosa. This led to further closure of Highway 12, and the evacuation of the Sky Hawk and Mountain Hawk neighborhoods.

I took the photo below last Saturday, looking East along Highway 12. In the distance, you can see smoke billowing from the Oakmont fire.

Smoke from the Oakmont Fire, from Highway 12

Smoke from the Oakmont Fire, from Highway 12

A little further along Highway 12, the road was closed. People were being let out of the evacuated zone, but not into it. The photo below shows a police roadblock across Highway 12, at the junction with Calistoga Road.

Highway 12 Closed at Calistoga Road

Highway 12 Closed at Calistoga Road

Fountaingrove Still Evacuated

At the time of writing, although most evacuation orders have been lifted, and people are being allowed back in to some fire-damaged areas, the Fountaingrove neighborhood remains evacuated.

The offices of my employer, Keysight, are in Fountaingrove, and are closed. Fortunately, the main buildings were not destroyed, but they were damaged by efforts to fight the surrounding fire. Details are shown in this fire damage map.

It’s also fortunate for me that I’m able to do my work from home (although I wasn’t doing that prior to the fire), and that’s what I’ve been doing since the area was evacuated. Keysight has been very supportive of us all, having made immense efforts to locate and ascertain the safety of all its employees, and to provide special assistance to those who need it. Many thanks are due to Keysight for looking after its staff.

I’m aware that many people have lost jobs or businesses as a result of the fires, and how lucky I’ve been to have avoided that.

The New Normal

The process of trying to get back to normal life is now just beginning. Even for those of us who were lucky enough to avoid any serious loss, things will never be quite the same again.

In one respect at least, I hope that things will be different, in that the lessons of the fire will be learned, leading to wiser land development and better protections in future.

It was Thirty Years Ago Today

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

It was almost exactly thirty years ago today—on Friday 9th October, 1987—that I first set foot in California.

On that occasion, I had come to the US only as a temporary visitor, to attend a job interview. It was a truly “temporary” visit, lasting only 4 days.

Until then, I had been anything but an experienced international traveler. I’d never been to any part of the USA before, and in fact I’d only been out of Britain three times during my life (and one of those trips was to Guernsey).

Broadening My Horizons

Ever since my undergraduate days, the idea of “working abroad” had been floating in the background as a vague possibility.

In 1986, I even went to Munich for a day, for a job interview with Siemens, but, even though they seemed keen to hire me, I did not pursue that possibility further.

Certainly, the idea that I might one day find myself living and working within sight of the Pacific Ocean never entered my head. It wasn’t until after I’d already moved here that I remembered that we had spent an entire term studying the state as part of our high school Geography course! I had basically ignored the course because it seemed to have no possible relevance to my life.

The Lure of the Dollar

As an Imperial College undergraduate, I began to hear stories of graduates who were obtaining what seemed like spectacular jobs in the USA, straight out of college. The starting salaries for these US jobs were apparently many times those that were offered to even the best British graduates. The figures seemed even more impressive because the dollar and pound were close to parity at that time. Nonetheless, the jobs I was told about were all on the US East Coast; in New York or Maryland.

My goal in getting an EE degree had been specifically to obtain a job with the BBC, which I did on graduating, so initially I felt that the die was cast and I’d already achieved my ambition.

However, my subsequent experience with the BBC and other British engineering employers was a huge disappointment. It seemed that not only were graduate salaries low, but conditions were poor and employers were either inefficient or unstable. I began to think once again of those tantalizing tales I’d been told about the wonderful jobs that were supposedly available in other countries!

The Window Opens

In 1987, I was working as a video systems hardware design engineer for a small company in Berkshire. One of my employer’s competitors was an American company, but had a European operation based in Reading. Word got around that I was looking for new employment, and the competitor contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in working for them in Reading.

I declined to consider working for them in Reading, at which point they asked whether I might instead be interested in a job in California. Ah, now it’s getting interesting

Following several international phone calls, I managed to arrange an interview appointment at the company’s offices in Northern California. I had to obtain a B-1/B-2 visitor visa just to enter the USA, which meant that I also had to make a trip to the US Embassy in London before departing the UK.

San Francisco or Suffolk?

The plan was that I would arrive in San Francisco on a Friday evening, then have the weekend to do some sightseeing and recover from jet lag. My formal interview would be on Monday, then on Tuesday I’d fly back to Heathrow.

I would obviously have to take some vacation time from my job, but I felt that my current employer would not believe that I was going to California for a holiday just for the weekend! Therefore, I decided to tell them that I was going to visit the US air base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk. My mother had an American friend who was a teacher on the air base, and I’d visited her there previously, so it wouldn’t seem out-of-the-ordinary.

It was important to bear in mind that there was no guarantee that the company in California would actually offer me a job. I needed a plausible cover for my actions, so as not to jeopardize my existing position.

Offered the Job

To cut a long story short, I was offered the job in California within a few weeks following my interview. Somewhat to my surprise, my new employer was eager for me to start work there before Christmas, so I began the process of arranging to move myself and all my worldly possessions some 5500 miles.

Nonetheless, I would only be working in the US on a temporary, three-year E-2 visa, so there was always the possibility that I would choose to return to Britain (or might have to do so when the visa expired).

Way Out West. The Pacific Ocean from Pillar Point

Way Out West. Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from near Pillar Point

Return to a Hurricane!

I arrived back in the UK on Tuesday, 13th October, and went back to work the following morning as though nothing unusual had happened. Later that same week, however, the Great Storm of 1987 occurred.

On the night of October 15th, I didn’t hear the weather forecast, so the first I knew of the severity of the storm was when I set off on my 40-mile commute from Andover the following morning, and began noticing that tree branches were down everywhere, even blocking some roads.

[Update: On 15th October, the London Evening Standard published this article about the storm.]

Devastation in Brighton

In those days I was the Treasurer of the Southern Centre of the Royal Television Society, and, prior to my jaunt to California, I had volunteered to help out at the Society’s booth at that year’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), which was always held in Brighton. I traveled to Brighton the week after the storm, to see that many of the city’s trees had fallen, and a massive cleanup operation was underway.

It made me think that perhaps the country I’d been born in was itself becoming unrecognizable, so my life was going to change anyway, whether or not I emigrated.