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 - - 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.

Ally Pally


Alexandra Palace, London, 1982

I took the photo above, of the remains of Alexandra Palace (colloquially known as “Ally Pally”), while I was a student in London in 1982. I’d seen the Palace from a distance many times before I actually visited it, but eventually I was prompted to go there, partly by a connection to my intended future career.

This immense building in North London is hardly a major tourist attraction, having had a rather unfortunate history and a wide variety of uses since it was built in 1873 (ostensibly as a counterpoint to South London’s Crystal Palace). Nonetheless, the structure remains usable to some extent, and there are currently plans for a major renovation.

The reason that I’d seen Ally Pally so many times before is because it stands prominently on a hilltop, where it can be seen from the East Coast Main (Railway) Line. When traveling between York and London by train, I frequently caught a glimpse of the structure through the carriage window.

I mentioned that the Palace has had a rather chequered past, having burned down on at least two occasions. In fact, there had been a major fire in 1980, just before the visits during which I took these photos. Despite the partial dereliction of the building itself, the grounds are still worth visiting, because of the spectacular views they offer over much of Central London.

The World’s First HDTV Transmitter

Thanks (presumably) to the building’s prominent position, it was chosen in 1935 by the BBC as the site of their first television transmitter. Studios were inserted into the building immediately below the transmitter tower. When the television service first began in 1936, there were alternate transmissions of Logie Baird’s 240-line system and the Marconi-EMI 405-line “High Definition” system.

At the time of my photograph above, the rooms below the transmitter mast were still in use for the broadcasting of Open University programs. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I was studying Electronic Engineering in London because I wanted to get a job with the BBC (which I eventually did), hence my interest in the history of Ally Pally.

Public Events at the Palace

On another occasion when I visited the Palace in 1982, a public festival was underway, and several historic buses from the London Transport collection were ferrying visitors between the Palace and the nearest railway station.

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

One notable vehicle that was operating that day was RT 1 (shown above), which was the prototype of the highly-successful AEC RT class of London buses that preceded the famous Routemaster. RT 1 was built in 1939, and was the forerunner of what eventually were 4674 buses of that class, some of which continued in service until 1979.

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 is seen again here, hemmed in by cars, and earning its keep by shuttling visitors to the nearest railway station. The TV transmitter and studios are visible in the background.

Rails to the Palace

In earlier days, there had been a much closer railway station. To coincide with the opening of the Palace, a railway branch was built from Highgate to the site, which terminated in a station just north of the palace building. The station building still exists today as a community centre, but should not be confused with the modern Alexandra Palace station on the main line.

The line was built by the Muswell Hill Railway, which was eventually taken over by the Great Northern Railway and finally became part of the London & North Eastern Railway group.

Tubes to the Northern Heights

During the late 1930s, London Transport developed major plans to extend its tube railway services in North London, as the so-called “Northern Heights” extensions  of the Northern Line.

Some portions of these lines were to be entirely new, while others were to be electrified sections of existing steam-operated lines. The Alexandra Palace branch became part of the plan, and work to electrify the line began in 1939.

This excerpt from the published 1937 London Underground diagram shows the planned Northern Line extensions, including the branch from Highgate to Alexandra Palace. The line from Edgware to Elstree was to be entirely new, and I mentioned my visit to the “Arches Field” that formed part of the works for that line in an earlier post.

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Unfortunately, the start of World War II intervened, bringing to a halt all work on the extensions.

After the war, development priorities in Greater London had changed, and it was eventually decided not to complete some of the extensions. British Railways, which had taken over the LNER’s lines, continued to operate passenger trains from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace until 1954, when the service ceased.

Ghost Trains of Highgate

The London Transport station at Highgate has its own unusual history. As shown below, due to the cancellation of the Northern Heights extensions, part of Highgate Station ended up as a “ghost” which is still standing unused today.

Things to Come... But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

Things to Come… But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

The surface-level station was rebuilt in Art Deco style at the same time as the new tube station was constructed beneath it. The tube station remains in use today, which accounts for the bizarre survival of the disused platforms above it.

At the time of my visit to the “ghost” station, it was little known, and was extremely overgrown as shown in my picture, but it has now become quite famous as a “Hidden London” site.

The Invention of Wheeled Luggage


Luggage As It Was: Pencil Drawing, 1977

Luggage As It Was: Pencil Drawing, 1977

The pencil drawing above is another example of the weekly homework assignments that I completed when studying for my Advanced-Level Art qualification during the 1970s (as described in a previous post).

It’s obvious that the topic of this particular assignment was “luggage”, and the image would be extremely mundane, but notice something that none of the luggage items in the picture possess: wheels!

In retrospect, it seems incredible that the idea of adding wheels to suitcases took so long to develop. The first patent for the idea wasn’t granted until 1970. These days, most people wouldn’t consider buying a suitcase that did not have wheels and a handle, but, only 40 years ago, the lack of those features went completely unnoticed.

Learning the Hard Way

My family were anything but “seasoned travelers”, so, growing up, I had very little experience of packing and of taking luggage with me on journeys.

My parents also felt that buying new suitcases was an unnecessary extravagance, so they made do with a few decomposing leather examples, most of which probably dated from before World War II. These were typical cases of the time; strong, but with soft sides, one handle on top, and definitely no wheels or even sliders.

On the few occasions when we did pack suitcases to travel somewhere, we typically traveled by car, so loading the packed cases into the car, and unloading them at our destination, didn’t present any serious problems.

Coventry Railway Station 1979; scene of my luggage struggles

Coventry Railway Station 1979; scene of my luggage struggles

When I began attending Warwick University in 1978, therefore, it was effectively my first experience of having to transport myself and any significant amount of belongings from one location to another without benefit of a car. Naturally, we didn’t buy a new suitcase, so I inherited one of my parents’ ancient leather ones.

A few weeks after the start of the Autumn term, I decided that it would be nice to spend the weekend at home, which was only a few hours away by train. I also thought it would be a great idea to bring home with me a few of the new books that I’d purchased in Coventry. So, one Friday morning, I loaded up my suitcase and set off from my room in Coventry towards the railway station.

Needless to say, it was a disaster, because I couldn’t carry the heavy suitcase for more than a few hundred yards without having to stop and rest. Even getting from the University to the bus stop, to catch a bus to the railway station, became a Herculean task. I was saved only when a passing motorist took pity on me and offered me a ride in his car to the station.

Here was a problem that I’d never previously considered, and it became obvious that, as I acquired more possessions, the problem was only going to get worse.

Let’s Add some Wheels

As a result of my journeys, I soon noticed that more seasoned travelers had solved the problem of transporting suitcases by investing in sets of folding, add-on wheels, to which bags could be attached using bungee cords.

I quickly purchased such a set myself, which made a huge difference to the portability of my suitcases. In fact, you can still buy “luggage carts” like these, but the availability of wheeled suitcases means that they are less popular than they once were. I continued to use those wheels, and those suitcases, for many more years. I didn’t buy a suitcase with wheels until after I’d emigrated to California.

The final significant advancement in wheeled luggage, which everyone who flies now takes for granted, was the “Rollaboard”, which wasn’t invented until 1987, by a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 pilot.

Making the Drawing More Interesting

Returning to the details of my drawing above, even at that time, I considered the subject of luggage to be extremely dull. Therefore, although the bags and cases in the drawing are themselves based on real objects, and were drawn from life, most other items in the picture came strictly from my imagination.

For example, the young woman standing behind the suitcases certainly wasn’t anyone known to me, although the clothes she’s wearing are quite typical of those worn in those days by the girls at the Scarborough Sixth Form College.

The man walking by in the background is also pure invention. I’m not sure whether my art teacher realized that I had actually invented much of the drawing, but I didn’t really care!

Derwent Valley Light Railway: the Blackberry Line

York Layerthorpe Station, 1979

York Layerthorpe Station, 1979

My photo above shows York Railway Station, as it appeared in 1979. In case you’re now feeling that there must be some mistake, I should clarify that it’s York (Layerthorpe) Station, the terminus of the Derwent Valley Light Railway (DVLR), which was still operational for freight at that time.

The DVLR acquired the nickname “The Blackberry Line” long ago, because of the trainloads of blackberries that it once carried, but the most remarkable aspect of the line was its survival as a working independent railway, from its construction in 1912 to final closure in 1981. Bear in mind that almost all other railways in Britain were grouped into the “Big Four” in 1923, then nationalized in 1948, eventually all becoming part of British Railways.

A Successful Light Railway

In 1967, S J Reading, who had been the line’s General Manager from 1926 to 1963, wrote a book describing the history to that point. Full details can be found in that book, or the 1978 revised edition.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the railway system in Britain was largely complete. There were simply no further lines to be built that would be economically viable under existing laws. To try to stimulate further growth, the government set about specifying laws that would allow so-called Light Railways to be built more cheaply.

Among many other provisions, the Light Railways Act 1896 empowered local authorities to build new lines, and the DVLR was the only instance where local authorities took advantage of those powers and actually built a line. The DVLR was promoted and developed by the Escrick and Riccall Rural District Councils.

Soldiering On

Passenger services on the DVLR were never particularly successful, and, following the end of the First World War, the growth of bus services, spurred on by the cheap availability of military-surplus trucks and buses, led to the end of all passenger service in 1926.

Nonetheless, freight services continued robustly for many decades more, peaking during and after the Second World War, when the Ministry of Food established warehouses near the line. It wasn’t until 1981 that the DVLR’s last major customer, Yorkshire Grain Driers, switched to road transport, which spelled the end of rail operations.

The Final Steam Specials

When the new National Railway Museum opened in York in 1975, the DVLR saw an opportunity to work with the NRM to offer steam train rides along its remaining tracks. This seemed like a great idea at the time, but it was soon to be overtaken by events.

Since the end of steam locomotion on BR in 1968, the nationalized railway had refused to allow operation of any steam locomotives on its tracks, so the only way to travel on a steam train was to visit one of the preserved lines that were springing up around the country. However, BR’s ban was reversed in 1971, and specials hauled by preserved steam locomotives gradually began to make a comeback.

That was bad news for the DVLR, whose small trains ambling along a few miles of rural track couldn’t compete (in the view of the public) with expresses roaring along main lines. The DVLR’s steam specials ended after the summer of 1979.

Sadly, I never took the opportunity to travel on one of those steam specials. I think we just it took it for granted that the DVLR would always be around, until suddenly it wasn’t any more.

The Bus Route to Knowledge

After returning to live in Scarborough, and beginning my first full-time job at Swifts of Scarborough, in 1979, I got into the habit of traveling to York by train almost every Saturday. There was more happening in York than in Scarborough, and York was also the closest place that had a real university!

The University of York is actually in an attractive suburb called Heslington, and during my visits I would often take a York-West-Yorkshire Joint Services bus from the City Centre out to the bookstore there. In those pre-internet days, university bookstores were my only real antidote to the intellectual wasteland of Scarborough, so I was a frequent visitor.

It so happened that the bus route to the University partially paralleled the DVLR’s rail route, so the bus recrossed the railway several times. I remember the overgrown rails at those crossings, as the double-deck bus swayed over them, but again I never gave it much thought, because I just assumed that the DVLR would always be around.

A York-West-Yorkshire Bristol VR (right)

A York-West-Yorkshire Bristol VR (right)

Another blogger wrote a post describing how he too saw the DVLR’s tracks from his bus, on the way to York University.

The Preserved Remnant

The DVLR terminus at York (Layerthorpe) was demolished during the 1990s, and there is now no trace of the railway there. Fortunately, however, not all trace of the DVLR has disappeared. A small portion of the route has been rerailed as a preserved line.

Part of the former rail route passed through what is now the Murton Park site of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. When the Great Yorkshire Railway Preservation Society had to move from its former home in Starbeck in 1990, the group negotiated a transfer of its collection to Murton Park. They relaid about ¾ mile of track, and even moved the former Wheldrake Station building to the site and rebuilt it there.

Where sheep may safely graze: the Preserved DVLR at Murton Park, 2008

Where sheep may safely graze: the Preserved DVLR at Murton Park, 2008

I paid a brief visit to the preserved DVLR when traveling between York and Scarborough in 2008. It was heartening to see that not only was something left of the Blackberry Line, but also that the remnant seems to have a secure future.

Demise of the Typewriter

My Pencil Drawing of our Typewriter, 1977

My Pencil Drawing of our Typewriter, 1977

I produced the pencil drawing above in March 1977, while studying for my Advanced-Level Art qualification at Scarborough Sixth Form College. Back when I produced it, I could never have imagined that, some 40 years later, I’d be using exactly that image to illustrate an article about the demise of the typewriter!

As weekly homework, our teacher (Miss Mingay) required us to draw some object or scene in pencil, in a sketchbook. I considered the task very boring and tiresome at the time, but, fortunately, my mother hung on to the sketchbook, so some interesting drawings have survived (albeit now very smudged).

On that particular occasion, my chosen subject was a typewriter, which had originally been used mostly by my mother. (This was our second typewriter, and I think that it was an Olivetti). By that time, however, I was getting ready to use it myself, to type out the content of my A-level Art study in Architecture.

(The following year, Miss Mingay retired, and the onerous weekly homework requirement disappeared with her! That confirmed my suspicion that it was not a requirement of the A-level course.)

My Mother’s Career Plans

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my father was a teacher, but suffered his first stroke when I was about two years old. Given that he was the family’s sole breadwinner, my parents began to fear for their future financial security, and considered alternative plans for generating sufficient income.

One idea, which my father seemed to favor, was to buy a Guest House or Hotel, then generate income by letting out rooms. Given Scarborough’s status as a seaside resort, this was a reasonable idea, although the sheer number of such businesses in the town meant that it was highly competitive.

The other idea was for my mother to learn typing and shorthand, with a view to becoming a secretary. In those days, that was still one of the few career paths open to women without specialized qualifications.

My mother did start taking secretarial classes at Scarborough Technical College, and that was what initially prompted their purchase of a typewriter. She also decided that, to be effective in her new career, she would need to learn to drive, which she also achieved. My father’s concession on that count was that he sold his large Humber Super Snipe, and bought a smaller Austin 1100 (shown below, with me in the back seat), which my mother was more comfortable driving.

Our Austin 1100, c.1968

Our Austin 1100, c.1968

I was particularly excited about that car, because it was the first time that my father had bought a brand new car rather than a used model.

Change of Plan

Eventually, though, the Guest House plan won out, and we all moved to a suitable building on West Street in 1970. My mother seems to have abandoned her secretarial aspirations at that point, but she did continue her studies with some Open University courses, and the typewriter was useful for those.

From Typewriter to Computer

While an undergraduate student at Imperial College in the early 1980s, I decided to invest in an electric typewriter, since I was noticing that typewritten papers were better received by our tutors than handwritten ones.

That typewriter saw much use for a few years, but it was the last one that I ever bought. I brought it with me to California in 1987, but never used it again. Why bother, when a computer+printer was so much easier, more productive, and more powerful?

We Don’t Get Much Call for Those Now

I was by no means the only person who realized that the typewriter had been superseded by computer technology. In fact, should you wish to buy a typewriter now, you’ll have to find a used example, because the last new machines were manufactured in 2011, in India.

Just as digital camera technology swept away film cameras, so computers and printers have swept away typewriters. I sometimes find it sobering to reflect on how different the world is now from that of only 30-40 years ago.

The Inheritance of Dysfunctional Thinking

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

The photo above was probably taken some time in 1963. It shows (from left to right) my mother’s parents, my mother, my younger brother (in the pram) and me, all apparently out for a “bracing” walk on the sea cliffs. A book that I’ve recently been reading caused me to think about how I “inherited” unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting from my parents, without even realizing it.

Based on the background details, the location of the photo definitely isn’t Scarborough, and in fact I believe it’s the nearby town of Filey. Given that he doesn’t appear in the photo, I assume that my father was behind the camera.

At that age, I could never understand the attraction of these walks, in cold and windy weather. If you must go walking on a cold day, then why not at least choose a sheltered place in which to do it? Why walk along the top of a sea cliff? I went along only because I was given no choice in the matter. Now, of course, in retrospect, I see the exercise value, and understand the fact that my parents and grandparents appreciated the clean seaside air, which must have been such a contrast compared to that of the dirty industrial city in which they’d grown up.

As is probably the case for all families, the scene of calm in the photo above hides all manner of inter-personal tensions and frustrations, many of which were never even discussed, let alone resolved. It wasn’t until I myself became an adult that I began to realize that I had unconsciously inherited some of my parents’ dysfunctional ways of interacting with the world.

The Dysfunctional Parents of H G Wells

Wells Aspects Of A Life: Cover

I’ve just been reading the book H G Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West, and biographical details in that book prompted me to compare the dysfunctionality in Wells’ family with that in my own.

West, who was Wells’ illegitimate son by author Rebecca West, goes into considerable detail concerning the lives of his father’s parents. Although I knew the broad outline of their history from other biographies, it is clear from the additional details in this book that both parents not only had serious personal shortcomings, but also that their marriage was a complete failure for most of its existence.

Wells himself found it necessary to defy his mother’s wishes, knowing that, whatever direction he took, she would be unhappy with him. His mother was quite determined that he was not to “rise above his station” in life, and tried to force him to become a draper’s apprentice. She did nothing to support his efforts to forge a career in teaching, and then in writing. She remained unreasonably critical of him, even after he rose to international fame.

Our Parents Made Us in Their Image

I’ve come to realize, over the course of my life, how we all inadvertently tend to inherit both successful and dysfunctional coping mechanisms from our parents. We all grow up assuming that the way that our parents behave is the way that all adults behave (because what other reference do we have?), so we tend to adopt their approaches to problems, without even being conscious of what we’re doing.

Nobody is perfect, of course, and that’s as true of ourselves as it is of our parents. The problem here is that, by unquestioningly inheriting our parents’ ways of dealing with the world, we may unnecessarily condemn ourselves to repeat their mistakes and frustrations.

I suspect that this inheritance creates many problems that are sometimes claimed to have a genetic basis, when in fact the children simply learn the flawed responses from their parents. For example, is a tendency towards optimism or pessimism, or to “addictive” behavior, really genetic, or is it just learned behavior, based on observations of our parents?

This Be the Verse

The British poet Philip Larkin, who spent much of his adult life in the Yorkshire city of Hull, described this phenomenon very succinctly in his well-known work This Be the Verse. For the most part, the parental curse is by no means deliberate; as Larkin says, “They may not mean to but they do”.

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

A Ray of Light

This may seem like rather a downbeat topic, suggesting that we’re all trapped by the shortcomings of our parents, but it really shouldn’t be seen that way. Surely, the key to breaking the chain of “inherited dysfunction” is first to realize that that’s what is happening.

Once you realize that you’re automatically copying your parents’ coping mechanisms, instead of considering whether there may be alternative approaches that would work better, you’ve taken the first step to escaping from this trap.

Happy Holidays: at Home or Away

David Hodgson and Nikki, at the Cypress Inn, Christmas 1994

Me and Nikki, at the Cypress Inn, Christmas 1994

The photo above shows me spending one Christmas/Yuletide away from home, but nonetheless with all our cats! It was taken in 1994, on one of several occasions when we were staying at the Cypress Inn in Carmel, California, along with all three cats. The cat shown is our eldest, Nikki, who was hanging out with Mary and me at the hotel bar. The bartender eventually served Nikki a saucer of milk, as shown below!

Mary, Nikki & Me at the Cypress Inn bar, Christmas 1994

Mary, Nikki & Me at the Cypress Inn bar, Christmas 1994

The reason that we were able to have our cats stay with us in the hotel was because the Cypress Inn is owned by movie star Doris Day, who has been a life-long benefactor to animals. Pets are thus welcome to stay at the Cypress Inn, and, for several Christmases, Mary and I transported our three cats with us to stay at the inn for a few days.

Waxwings with Happy Holidays Message

At this time of year, I’m often asked whether I’ll be spending the holiday “at home”, or “going away”. I’ve enjoyed both alternatives in the past, but then of course that brings up the question of where “home” actually is. If my “home” is where I was born, then in fact I spend every Christmas away from it, and have done for decades.

Nonetheless, recent events have made me realize that I shouldn’t necessarily take it for granted that I’ll always have the luxury of being able to spend the holidays in my home.

My First Independent Christmas, in a Rebuilt City

As I mentioned in a previous post, the first time that I lived in any location away from my birth home in Scarborough was to attend university in Coventry, in the West Midlands of England.

Until then, I’d always been a child who was very nervous about the idea of living away from my parents, even for a short time. I was extremely distressed when it was suggested that, due to the difficulties that my mother was facing with my invalid father and grandmother, the local Social Services felt that I might need to be moved into a care home, but, later the same year, I did indeed find myself living independently for the first time.

When that day came, I quickly came to wonder what I’d been so worried about. I loved living independently, and was very excited about my new freedom and the possibilities that it seemed to offer.

Of course, I suppose that the desire of children to be close to their parents is an evolutionary adaptation. Children who preferred to wander away from their parents’ protection would be less likely to survive than those who stayed close, so an instinctive desire to remain with parents has been selected. Nonetheless, there comes a day when every well-adjusted child must make the decision to leave home and live independently.

In December 1978, I found myself wandering around the streets of Coventry, doing my Christmas shopping. The photo below shows my view of the “Upper Precinct” shopping centre in Coventry, suitably decorated for the holiday.

Upper Precinct, Coventry, December 1978

Upper Precinct, Coventry, December 1978

Coventry is of course internationally famous because its city centre was almost completely destroyed during the Blitz bombing of 1940. On one night in November, 1940, some 4300 homes were destroyed in Coventry.

By the time that I lived there, most of the city had been rebuilt. The Precinct shopping centre above was part of the redevelopment, although the spire of Coventry Cathedral in the background is medieval, and survived the bombing. (The remainder of the cathedral is a ruin, with the modern replacement cathedral alongside.)

New Horizons

I lived in Coventry for only about one year, then returned to Scarborough, where I ended up working at an engineering company for nearly two years.

Nonetheless, that first taste of life “away from home” set wheels in motion for me. I finally realized that there was a whole wide world out there, beyond the limited horizons of life in a small Northern town, and I couldn’t wait to begin exploring it!

Don’t Take “Home” for Granted

I mentioned above the mass destruction of homes in Coventry many decades ago, something which I hoped I’d never have to experience during my lifetime.

However, the events in Sonoma County during the past few months have been a painful reminder that we can’t necessarily take it for granted that we will have a home in which to remain. Tragically, even now, some who lost their homes to the fires here nearly three months ago are still living in hotels, as described in an article in today’s Press Democrat newspaper. It’s a Christmas away from home for them, but not one that they wanted.

It seems appropriate that those of us who are lucky enough still to have homes to stay in should try to make the most of them this holiday season.

Whatever your reason for celebrating this season, we hope you manage to have an enjoyable time, wherever you stay.