One day in November 1976 I got a message summoning me to Coventry for a meeting with the Technical Director. Frank, the Site Engineer, he told me, had angina and was not permitted on site. It was now up to me to take on the Site Engineer role. This announcement was followed by a memorable conversation in which my request for an increase in pay, to match the increased responsibility, drew a response to the effect that I was paid according to what I was capable of doing, not what I actually was doing – and, of course, he would not have asked me to do this job if he did not believe I was capable of doing it!
Construction, installation and commissioning continued throughout 1977. There were many problems with getting the pipework within the plant to fit together properly. The detail design of the pipework had been carried out by the Dutch company but we had many arguments about responsibility for work that had to be re-done on site. Was the error due to the contractor not following the Dutch company’s drawings? Were the drawings wrong? Had the piece of plant to which the pipe was supposed to connect been installed correctly? Between Frank, the pipework foreman and myself, we had many altercations as I decided whether or not I could sign off on extra expenditure, often dozens of such adjudications each day.
I was also responsible for site safety, implementing the new regime introduced by the Health and Safety at Work Act that resulted directly from an industrial disaster that happened in Lincolnshire whilst I was in South Africa.
I had acquired the habit of taking a beer or two with my lunch, originally in Coventry with colleagues. I remember it was one lunch time in that Coventry pub in 1975 that I first heard an amazing piece of music: beginning with something that sounded like an operatic aria then segueing into heavy rock and back again, it was much longer – and very different – to most of the material on the juke box. I had to know what it was called and who it was by. Bohemian Rhapsody, and all of the subsequent output from the band Queen, have remained favourites ever since.
Working alone in Derby I did not bother with lunch time drinking, for one thing the pub was too far away from my work site. After I was joined by an assistant, as the construction work progressed, we went to the pub together every lunch time. Thus it happened that one afternoon we were surprised by an unannounced visit from a government Health and Safety Officer who asked me to conduct him around the site where he was able to observe various, in his view, unsafe practices. Back in the office he berated me for my lack of attention to such matters, no doubt noticing the smell of my breath. Not an experience I want to repeat.
I should probably add that the new ethylene manufacturing facility at Derby never did produce much ethylene. Whilst we were installing our small plant, BP were installing a much bigger unit at their Hull site. Once that was up and running it became cheaper to buy ethylene from them than to operate our own plant.
Meanwhile I increasingly wanted to involve myself in the community as a volunteer. Ian had joined the scouts and I participated in various fund raising activities for them, notably the collection of bundles of old newspapers from the front doorsteps of homes in the neighbourhood. This was undertaken on Saturday mornings once a month, the bundles stacked in a shed at the back of the scout hut until sufficient had accumulated to make a load for the recycling company that paid a good price.
I applied to join the suicide counseling service, Samaritans, but was rejected after completing a psychometric test. Then I read about a new organisation, just starting up in Coventry, that intended to produce a talking newspaper for visually impaired people and a video magazine to be distributed to nursing homes and day centres. That seemed to be just right for me and so it proved to be. Soon I was writing scripts for mini-documentaries, operating a simple black and white video camera and reading aloud my own scripted voice-overs. I was also elected treasurer for the organisation.
I produced a short film about the Coventry fire station and its personnel; another about the refuse incinerator that provided hot water to the adjacent automobile factory. We filmed at events like the Royal Agricultural Show, held just a few miles from Coventry and where I recall operating the camera whilst a fellow volunteer interviewed the Liverpool based folk group “The Spinners” and (separately) Animal impressionist Percy Edwards. We also videoed school end of term theatrical productions. And we videoed a monthly news report as well as the audio ‘talking newspaper’ which was distributed by post on cassette tapes.
But that all came to an abrupt end early in 1978 when I began commuting, not to Derby, but to Grimsby, in a career move that would prove to be life changing.