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”.

Back to the Bungalow: Swifts of Scarborough

In April 2007, I found myself revisiting my home town, Scarborough, and took the opportunity to return to the location of my first ever full-time “permanent” job, which was at a light engineering company called Swifts of Scarborough.

I didn’t actually work at Swifts for very long — only from September 1979 to June 1981 — but so much happened to me during that approximately eighteen-month period that, in retrospect, it seems as though I was there for much longer.

After having had to drop out of Warwick University in 1979, without a degree, I found myself back in Scarborough, where job prospects are not good at the best of times (unless perhaps you want to work in a hotel). My father had just died, and my mother was trying to support a family of three on her teacher’s widow’s pension, so there was much urgency for me to start earning a living as soon as possible.

After several dispiriting months of job-hunting, I obtained an interview at Swifts, for an Accounts Clerk position, and was hired. I had no professional accounting qualifications, but I’d always been good at math (and had 2 A-levels in it), which was presumably what impressed them.

As I was to learn, Swifts was already a long-established Scarborough business. The factory had originally been in a downtown location near William Street, but had moved out to a larger site on Cayton Low Road during the 1960s. Traditionally, the company’s main product had been aluminium milk churns, but, when demand for churns evaporated, the company switched to the manufacture of cable support systems (cable tray and cable ladder). Cable support systems are a simple and unglamorous product, but there is a steady industrial demand for those components, which the company’s successors still manufacture today.

[I haven’t been able to find any photographs of Swift’s original premises. However, the out-of-print book Scarborough in the 50s and 60s does include a couple of photographs of the William Street area. On page 69 the old Swift’s refreshment block is shown, and on page 26 you can see Swift’s sign on a wall near Hope Street.]

In 1979, the company’s accounting department was housed in a building separate from the main factory, called “The Bungalow”, which was literally that, being a former private home that sat on what was now Swift’s land. This building is shown derelict in my 2007 photo at the head of this article.

I Keep Getting the Same Advice

It soon became obvious that, although Swifts was a “solid” company, its products were “not rocket science”, and I felt that continuing there would not make good use of my abilities.

Realizing that there were few suitable jobs for me in Scarborough, I began applying for more challenging jobs in other parts of the country. I attended several promising interviews, in London, Aylesbury, and elsewhere, and a pattern soon became apparent. Every time I applied for a job, I was rejected on the grounds that I didn’t have some specialized knowledge, or was in some way overqualified, and I was told to go back to university and get a degree.

That was much easier said than done, but I did eventually reapply and was accepted by several universities. Thanks to the award of a Royal Scholarship, I ended up graduating in electronics from Imperial College, London. At that point, I recalled the advice I’d received from one potential employer who had declined to hire me pre-university—the BBC—so I reapplied and, this time, I got the job!

To Richmond At Last

Back when I worked at Swifts, the company had a satellite location at Richmond in Surrey. This had originally been the premises of a company called Walker Mainstay, which Swifts had taken over. The Richmond premises were not used for manufacturing, but only for warehousing the products that were made in Scarborough. Trucks loaded with Swift’s products left Scarborough for Richmond on an almost daily basis.

During my eighteen-month period of employment, I was never allowed to visit the Richmond premises. In 1981, finding myself now a student in London, curiosity compelled me to go to Richmond and seek out the location. The photograph below shows the Richmond premises one dull weekend afternoon. I realized that I hadn’t been missing much!

Swifts of Scarborough warehouse in Richmond, Surrey, 1981

Swifts of Scarborough warehouse in Richmond, Surrey, 1981

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I returned to “The Bungalow” during a visit to Scarborough in 2007, to find it still standing but derelict.

The remainder of Swifts premises on Cayton Low Road still exist. The company was taken over first by Wiremold, and then by Legrand, and continues in essentially the same business in the same location.