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Monday Memories – Life After Retirement #2: Back to Work.

The person we appointed as manager of the Services to Elderly People Project was due to commence work at the beginning of September. In August he notified us that he would not be able to leave his current employment as soon as he had originally supposed. As manager of a group of insurance collectors he was engaged in the process of winding down the operation which was transitioning to telephone and internet.

Completion of the process was not going easily and was now expected to take until December. He would have to withdraw his acceptance of our appointment. The steering committee met and decided that, rather than go through the whole recruitment process again, we needed someone to fill the gap as temporary manager, until our designated appointee was available. Delaying the start of the project would mean losing a significant element of the funding. I was asked if I would be willing to fulfill that temporary role, subject to a successful interview?

The upshot was that I found myself in full time paid employment once again, albeit for a short period. I took part in the recruitment of the first employees, each of whom had experienced a long period of unemployment and would be engaged part-time so that they could continue to receive welfare payments whilst also working on the project. I purchased tools and equipment, prepared and distributed a publicity leaflet, set up a task recording and scheduling system and, at the end of February, handed over a fully operational service to the new manager.

Late in the summer of 2009 I received a call from the manager of the community development organisation telling me she had nominated me to take part in a course being run by Volunteer Ireland. At the end of it I and the other man she had nominated would be qualified to deliver the same course to community groups around the county, the aim being to enable them to better manage their volunteers.

Image shows a modern single story building surrounded by trees an lawns.
The Cuisle Centre in Portlaoise – support for cancer patients and their loved ones. I’ve been a volunteer here since April 2010.

One of the participants on the first course I delivered, in January 2010, was manager of a cancer support charity. I asked her about the work that volunteers undertook at the centre they run. “Right now I’m looking for a gardener,” she said. When I told her of my interest in gardening she suggested that I arrange to meet with her in the spring to talk about it. Nearer the appointed date I suggested to Freda that she come with me. Maybe there were some tasks she could undertake as a volunteer there.

As a result of that meeting we agreed that I would work in the garden twice a week and that Freda would run a weekly knitting and crochet session for clients. Thus began an association that would last until the present day.

Meanwhile my efforts with the paint brush were continuing. The group held annual exhibitions and I sold a few paintings. I mostly painted landscapes, working from photographs, sometimes my own, sometimes from published images, especially from calendars. I had also taken tentative steps toward my other proposed activity, writing. Sometime in 2007/8 the local council offered a series of writing workshops which I attended one evening a week for 8 or 10 weeks.

Later in 2008 they appointed a writer in residence. Although I did not attend her workshops, I did answer her call for submissions for stories for inclusion in an anthology she was to publish at the end of her term of office. To my surprise and delight the story was accepted and duly appeared in print.

My first “in-print” short story appeared in this.

Then late in 2009 I saw an advertisement on the internet for an organisation offering opportunities for would-be writers. I e-mailed a sample piece and was instantly accepted. In hindsight that should have flagged a warning. Over the next year or so I submitted several articles with varying degrees of success.

The business model was what has come to be known as a “content farm”. Articles are produced with the deliberate intention to attract advertising. People clicking advertisements produce income for the organisation, some of which is shared with the writer. Articles are peppered with key words targeted at specific readers thereby attracting advertisers who also want to appeal to those readers. The research required can be time consuming and the business model was earning a bad reputation.

There were several attempts to change the model but eventually the business collapsed. The principle benefit for me and many others was the opportunity to “talk” to other aspiring writers via the forum. I have since been able to watch as the careers of several blossomed following the demise of the company.

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Monday Memories – Life After Retirement: #1 The first two years

In the run up to retirement I was repeatedly asked “What are you going to do with your time?” I was in no doubt, and told anyone who asked, that writing and painting were things I’d always wanted to do. Colleagues very kindly presented me with retirement present consisting of a selection of artist’s materials – acrylic paints, pastels, an easel and a pad of art paper.

The first weeks in the new house were taken up with creating a garden in the small space at the rear, shopping for furniture, and carrying out various DIY tasks to provide features that the developer had not covered. My daily routine included an hour walking to the town centre to purchase a newspaper and returning. This took me past a new senior school still under construction. By January 2007 the school was open and offering a range of evening classes for adults.

I joined the art class, Freda the flower arranging group. By the time the 10 week course was over I felt I was not learning anything of value. A brief item in a local newspaper indicated that a local group of amateur artists, who met weekly, were looking for new members. I contacted the lady whose number was provided in the article. I became a member of the group and remained so for the next 5 years.

I also wanted to resume providing my services as a volunteer. In April, in Ireland, a “Clean up week” takes place, the idea being for volunteers to participate in the collection of litter and a general tidying up of the local environment. Freda and I joined in with this event and were thereby introduced to the “Tidy Towns” group. Evenings during the summer were then spent planting up, and maintaining, various containers and hanging baskets around the town.

Tidy Towns is a movement not unlike the “Britain in Bloom” initiative in UK. Groups of volunteers in every community work hard to improve the appearance of their town or village through the use of planting and the clearing of weeds and rubbish from all those untidy corners; streams, lakes or canals. An annual competition is held to award certificates to those communities deemed most successful in these activities.

As keen gardeners we enjoyed both the physical activity involved and the camaraderie (the “craic”) that accompanied it. We would often end an evening of hard work with an hour of relaxation in one or other of several pubs. We continued as active members of the Tidy Towns group for the next 4 years.

Also that summer, 2007, a music festival, grandly entitled “The World Fleadh” (pronounced flaah), took place in the town. They appealed for volunteers with the offer of free entry into some of the concerts due to take place. I offered my time and was assigned the task of looking after the festival camp site. This proved to be not very onerous as there were only a handful of caravans, motor homes and tents.

The atmosphere around the town during the festival was electric, with stalls selling street food, cheap jewellery and clothing lining one street. The music on offer majored on Irish traditional music but included some mainstream popular genres also. I remember watching Katie Melua, for example, as well as a Manchester based Irish folk Group I had first seen, and been very impressed by, in UK a few years before – Flook.

All of this activity took up the summer but autumn and winter loomed with little by way of daytime activity to occupy us. Then, in January, a newsletter was distributed around the town by a semi-state organisation involved in community development. They were responsible for several projects, all described in the leaflet, which also indicated that some of those projects needed volunteers. I contacted the organisation and, after a brief interview in which I pitched my background and skill set, I joined as a volunteer administration worker carrying out various tasks over 3 hours each Wednesday morning.

The organisation had applied for funding for a new project, this one concerned with helping elderly people with simple tasks in their homes. The application had been rejected because it included certain activities which were already within the remit of the national Health Service Executive. It was necessary to submit a revised application with that element removed. This meant completely re-working the financial justification and cash flow predictions. This task was assigned to me.

In the summer, with funding for the project approved, a steering group was established to kick start it, recruiting staff and finding premises. As a member of the target demographic I was co-opted to that committee as chairperson.

Monday Memories – Preparing for Retirement

In the summer of 2005 we planned a long weekend visit to Ireland to check out the housing market in towns near to where Ian was living. We picked the weekend immediately preceding Mum’s birthday and arranged to bring our grand daughter back to England with us, taking her to Kent to visit Mum on her birthday the following Wednesday.

The day we were due to travel, Thursday 7th July, I had arranged to leave work early. I had been at my desk barely 30 minutes when I took a call from Freda. She had heard on the radio that there had been terrorist attacks on transport in London. Victoria Station was mentioned.

Image contains still from CCTV inside a badly damaged London tube carriage.
Video footage shows the aftermath on a train between King’s Cross and Russell Square (Picture: July 7 Inquests/PA Wire)

Read more: https://metro.co.uk/2015/06/30/whats-happening-to-commemorate-10th-anniversary-of-77-5273032/?ito=cbshare

Freda wondered should she ring Mum who could be worried about my sister who commuted daily from Kent to Victoria Station. I said it was best not to – if she had heard the news she’d want the line clear so as to receive a call from my sister. If she had not heard, best not to worry her. A few minutes later Freda rang again. My sister had rung to say that she had arrived safely at work to be told that Mum had been taken ill. She was now on her way back to Kent.

Now, instead of travelling to Ireland that afternoon, we drove to Kent. Mum had been found by the warden of the apartment block, collapsed in her bathroom. She was in a coma in hospital in Canterbury. She remained in the coma until the Friday evening when her breathing ceased.

A month later we did undertake our trip to Ireland and looked around several new estates under construction. We thought that a bungalow would suit us best as we aged. We found, via the internet, an estate where there were a few bungalows included. On site we were told the bungalows had all been sold – they were in phase 1. The developer was now selling phase 2, due for completion in the summer of 2006. That would be ideal, since I was due to retire in the autumn of that year. We placed a deposit on a small house in the centre of a block of three which, on plan, seemed to have a decent outlook, on the edge of the development.

My retirement date was the last day of the month in which my birthday occurred – November. That was the date from which my pension would be payable. Of course, the state pension and a couple of small annuities were paid from my birthday onwards, and I was already receiving my Courtaulds pension.

The company mandated 26 days leave during an employee’s final year before retirement. These were supposed to be taken as one day per week over a sixth month period and used to prepare for retirement. The company even offered courses to help with the transition from work to retirement. I arranged with my manager to add those 26 days to the 5 weeks annual leave to which I was entitled.

Night view of a harbour with a church spire and tower cranes in the background silhouetted against a late evening sky; harbourside lights reflected in water in the foreground.
Dun Laoghaire at night. Image from dublinlive.ie

We’d need a couple of weeks in the summer to make arrangements for taking over the new house, shopping for furniture and so on, but it would be possible for me to leave on the first Friday in October, 8 weeks before my employment officially ceased. The following Monday we were on the evening ferry from Hollyhead to Dun Laoghaire.

Monday Memories – Still in the Real World, Still Political

After listening to the village church bells ringing in the new millenium, I joined their team and began once again to learn the art.

From our arrival in East Yorkshire onwards I continued to help at elections. We got to know the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the area, an elderly woman who occupied a large house where she held the occasional garden party to raise funds.

Following boundary changes, a new candidate was selected for the newly created Howden and Haltemprice constituency. Diana Wallis was a successful solicitor and I recall attending several meetings at her home ahead of the 1997 general election and the 1999 European election. In 1997 she came second to David Davis, in 1999 she was one of several MEPs elected for the Yorkshire Region. She was re-elected to the European Parliament in 2004 and held several important roles there. She has since left the Liberal Democrats, becoming a founder member of the Yorkshire Party.

In 2001 and 2005 the Liberal Democrat candidate was a young man called Jon Neal and in 2001 he succeeded in reducing Davis’s majority. A young PR manager from the local Independent Radio station stood against John Prescott in the Hull East constituency. Because this seat was regarded as safe for Labour, very little effort went into the Liberal Democrat’s campaign.

Howden, however, was regarded as a Liberal Democrat “target” and that young woman worked hard for Jon’s team. Her name? Jo Swinson. Last week she was elected leader of the Party, having secured election to Parliament in 2005 in her native Dunbartonshire. Jon Neal stood again in 2010 but has since moved to Suffolk where he works for the mental health charity Mind.

Image shows Jo Swinson delivering a speech in front of Liberal Democrat banners
Jo Swinson, new leader of the UK Liberal Democrats. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty

In the early noughties we took our summer holidays 3 times in Cornwall and contemplated moving there after retirement. The verdant countryside and spectacular coastline were very tempting. House prices less so – especially when compared to values in our part of Yorkshire. So, when, in 2004, we began seriously to consider our retirement options we rejected that idea.

We could, of course, stay where we were. However, we were a long way from Freda’s relatives in Hereford, my mother who was now in Kent alongside my sister and her family, and our son in Ireland. We decided to investigate the possibility of moving to Ireland. We had our house valued and discovered that it had increased by over 150% since we purchased it in 1991. There had been a period when house prices were static through the early ’90s so most of this increase had taken place over about 10 years.

During that time there had been many changes to housing finance. When we purchased we were paying 13% or 14% interest. As time went on, interest rates fell. The chancellor took advantage of the falling interest rates to reduce and, eventually, eliminate tax relief on mortgage interest.

Of course, falling interest rates meant that the returns on the investments backing the endowment policy were reduced and providers began issuing warnings that the final payout may not be sufficient to repay the outstanding capital. Borrowers were advised to maintain the level of payments as the amount required to cover interest reduced, so as to chip away at the outstanding capital.

We were able to do that and, by the time our 15 year endowment mortgage matured, in April 2006, we had a small cash surplus.

Monday Memories – an unexpected legacy

Some people thought it was all over after last week’s entry. If you have been paying attention you will know that there was always more to my life than work.

Shortly after I began work at Brough I received a letter from a tracing agency asking was I the same Frank Parker whose father, Frank Alfred George Parker, was an airman killed in action in 1943. If so, I should get in touch in order to learn something of benefit. At first I thought this was a hoax, perhaps orchestrated by my son or my brother-in-law, both of whom were fond of practical jokes. Nevertheless I responded and was informed that a brother of my father’s had recently died intestate. The agency had been engaged, by the solicitor handling his estate, to locate next of kin.

In the years immediately following the war, and my father’s death, my mother had fallen out of favour with his family for reasons I never fully understood. It could be that the arrival of my sister more than 2 years after his death made my mother persona non-grata with my paternal grand-parents. There was, also, my mother’s belief, which she shared with me in a letter when I was in the process of moving from Hereford to Coventry in 1968, that my father was conducting an affair with another woman at the time of his death.

Whatever the reason, I can recall only two contacts with any of my father’s kin. The first was when my mother, my sister and I undertook a trip to London shortly after her mother’s death in 1948. We visited several of her prewar friends and relatives and I have a vague recollection of an elderly couple in a dark and smokey kitchen who I assume were my grand parents. The other memory is of a couple of about the same age as my mother who came to stay for a few days with us at around the same time.

This consisted of a brother of my father’s (not the one to whom the letter referred) and his wife/girl friend who was evidently suffering from some sickness of the mind, perhaps alcohol induced. I can remember a lot of shouting and the use of bad language, after which the couple left.

Whilst I had occasionally wondered about my relatives on my father’s side, the discovery that I might be entitled to a small legacy came as a surprise. The legacy arrived in two installments, one from his liquid savings, the second from the sale of his house.

There was a third amount, lodged in the account of a woman who had, it was said, looked after him for a number of years. What, I was asked, did I want to do about this? Should her right to keep this sum be contested? This question was asked of all the qualified inheritors.

I have no idea what response the others made to this question, but mine was to the effect that before receiving the letter from the tracing agency I had no idea the man even existed. I had no intention of depriving someone who not only knew him, but cared for him, of a sum which, so far as I could tell, he had intended her to have.

I used part of the money to purchase an annuity in Freda’s name since she would, if I were to die before her, receive only half of my pension entitlements. When, on my 60th birthday, I began receiving my Courtaulds pension, I began making regular payments into that annuity. The other anticipated advantage of providing this future income in Freda’s name was that her total income would likely be below the UK personal tax threshold, whereas mine would not.

Meanwhile, through my membership of the CVS management committee I became involved in a project to convert a disused school in the town of Goole into a facility for community groups. When I first heard about the plan I was scornful, believing it would be impossible for the small community to raise the amount of money required. The National Lottery had not been in existence for very long at this stage and ran several different funds tailored to specific objectives. One of these was the celebration of the Millennium. Our project qualified for that and one other objective.

The locally raised element of the total cost could be represented by voluntary labour as well as cash fund-raising. A small team of volunteers, including myself, therefore set to work carrying out whatever demolition work was required – taking down false ceilings, removing shelving and timber panelling, digging up tiled floors and removing tiles from walls.

Image shows a two story Victorian brick building with  clock tower in the foreground.
The former Victorian school in Goole which, at the end of the 1990s became “The Courtyard” community centre

The project was finished well before the millennium and provided office space for several community groups, a community hall, a community games room and a couple of seminar rooms, all clustered around a courtyard, which gave the building its new name – The Courtyard. Both the CVS and the Talking Newspaper, which I was still leading, had their base in the building. Having been a member of the project steering committee during the construction phase, I, like the others, now became a member of the board of trustees managing the facility.

I had taken up cycling, partly as exercise and partly as a means of exploring a wider area of East Yorkshire than is possible on foot. In 2002 the government granted an extra holiday in recognition of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. I undertook to spend that day cycling 100 miles to raise funds for the talking newspaper. I was accompanied by a friend of one of our committee members, a life-long member of a local cycling club who regularly took part in cycling holidays in continental Europe.

We began at 8:30 am in the market square in Howden. Following the Eastern section of the Trans Pennine Trail, we cycled to the coastal resort of Hornsea, arriving around 1pm and stopping for a picnic lunch before setting off again to arrive back in Howden around 6pm.

Monday Memories – Back in the Real World #7: Back to the Beginning

The project at Scunthorpe was to install a new bloom casting facility and was expected to last 18-20 months. Most of the new machinery was to be installed below ground level, so the first task was the creation of a large hole lined with thick concrete walls. This began with the driving of sheet piles around the perimeter of the hole. With these in place to support the surrounding soil, excavation of the hole commenced. At a depth of 3 metres and with 7 still to go, the sheet piles began to cave in. Work was halted and a specialist in soil mechanics from Sheffield University was engaged to identify the problem and propose a solution.

It turned out that the site had been excavated many years previously to recover iron ore, then filled in with spoil. This in-fill was unstable, a situation not helped in the least by the presence of an underground spring. The solution proposed was the casting of a reinforced concrete ring beam to hold the tops of the sheet piles in place. Moreover, because of the length of the pit, this beam would itself need to be supported by cross beams, also cast in-situ in reinforced concrete. Whilst the ring beam could be incorporated into the final walls of the pit, the cross beams would have to be removed so as to maintain the open access required for an overhead crane servicing the machinery. This, of course, significantly extended the time required to construct the pit which necessitated considerable juggling of later operations to bring the project back on track.

As well as detailed planning and monitoring of daily progress, I was put in charge of collating perceived hazards as part of the site safety regime. This allowed for anyone on the site to fill in a simple form identifying potential hazards, from something as simple as some object protruding from the ground that might cause someone to trip, to poorly constructed scaffolds. These reports were discussed at the daily progress meetings and it was my job to ensure that any recommended remedial action was implemented.

As the project progressed from the Civil Engineering stage to the mechanical, I was in more familiar territory, dealing with the installation of pipework and machinery.

Early in 1997 I attended a recruitment day for a company then called British Aerospace who were recruiting Engineers for their aircraft design and manufacturing facility at Brough, a short drive from our new home. This was followed by a day of interviews and factory tours, after which I was offered a job as a Project Planner/Engineer, subject to security clearance.

Weeks passed with no news. I enquired about the delay and was told that they were still awaiting security clearance for me. Eventually I got the call in the middle of June. The Scunthorpe project was almost complete and the Project Manager was happy to let me go with a week’s notice. I began my new job on the last Monday in June – the same day that the company received the signed contract from the government of a Commonwealth country for the supply of fast jet training aircraft. A fact that made me question the veracity of the reason I was given for delaying my appointment!

Image shows two fighter jets flying in tandem over a coast - probably North Wales.
Hawk T2 Fast Jet Trainer. Image credits: Creator:Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF
Credit:Crown Copyright
Copyright:Crown Copyright

Negotiation of the contract, like all such projects, had taken several years. A central part of the contract mandated that it be operated using Earned Value Management, monitored and audit representatives of the client government. (If you follow the link you will need to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the reference).

I was one of a team of individuals who would be responsible for implementing EVM. First we had to demonstrate that our system was properly established and robust enough to satisfy the client’s rigourous testing. This was the first milestone on the contract, which triggered the first payment, and was supposed to be reached in November. Our systems failed the test. We were granted an extension to improve our systems. It was hard going but we made it.

As well as being an essential requirement for that first contract, being approved users of EVM opened the door to other markets. Contracts for several other governments followed, culminating in one for the RAF, keeping the company – which, along the way, changed its name to BAE Systems – and me busy until retirement in 2006.

I had begun my career as an Apprentice Engineer in a small company making parts for aircraft. After many years during which I had been involved with the Engineering of facilities for the manufacture of everything from Biscuits to textiles and from pharmaceuticals to steel slabs, I was back where I began, dealing with aircraft design and manufacture.

Monday Memories -Back in the Real World #6: Another Power Station

If you saw Back in the Real World #5 before I changed it, you need to know that I was made redundant (again) shortly before my birthday in autumn 1994.

One place I went to for an interview was McCain Potato Products at Scarborough. That would have been an interesting job, had I got it. One day in December I got a call from a firm in Sheffield. They were very interested by my CV and invited me for interview. The company was run by two brothers, one who had designed the firm’s unique product and was responsible for sales and tendering, the other in charge of production and installation. The product was installed into large warehouses and industrial buildings at a particular stage during construction. This required detailed planning to ensure that everything was ready at the right time.

I was, the Production half of the duo thought, just the man for the job. But he needed his brother’s agreement. Maybe a second interview would be arranged immediately after Christmas. A few days later the brother rang me. He didn’t need to interview me. He wanted me there as soon as the Christmas holiday was over. Oh, and yes, they’d find me a car.

I was there exactly two months. They were, it transpired, in serious financial trouble, with bills outstanding at several important suppliers. I would be chasing up promised materials, or the delivery to site of a hired machine, only to be told “You need to talk to your finance department. We can’t supply you until we get some payment.”

Eventually I came in one Monday morning toward the end of February to be told to pack up my things and leave. The Production Director apologised. They had held a board meeting over the weekend to try to find a way through their problems. The only way was to reduce staff numbers. I was not the only one affected. I pointed out to the Director that I had been extremely busy throughout my short time there, even coming in some Saturdays. Who was going to do all the work I’d been doing? “I’ll have to do it all myself, just as I did before I hired you,” was his response.

I was, this time, out of work for just a few weeks. The agency contacted me to tell me that my former employer, the power station overhaul specialists, needed an experienced Planning Engineer. The only snag being that it was in Kent.

Another Power station image.
Kingsnorth Power Station (The station was demolished a few years ago). Image from KentOnline

Kingsnorth power station, like Eggborough, had four coal fired generating sets. Two were to be overhauled this summer and the other two the following year. The company had a team permanently based on the site, dealing with routine maintenance as well as major overhauls. It served as a Southern Region Office for the company.

I began work there in April, lodging in a pub in Strood and travelling home Friday afternoon, returning Saturday night. Because Freda needed a car to travel to her work at the nursing home, I had to purchase a car. I booked us into a nearby holiday camp for a week between the two outages. I also found a self catering flat nearer to the plant which was much more convenient than the pub in Strood.

In between working mostly long hours that summer I also managed to explore the area, taking long walks, sometimes along the coast, sometimes in Rochester. I remember the weather in the summer of 1995 as being mostly warm and dry. Although we worked Sundays we tended to finish around 2pm so Sunday afternoons were free.

With the second overhaul completed that autumn, I was kept on to assist in preparing the detailed pricing for the following year’s outage. We also tendered for a quantity of new work in the vicinity, including at Dungeness nuclear station. Having visited the station and spent several weeks compiling the tender, the completed document had to be delivered to the BNFL head quarters in Cheshire to meet a deadline.

It was decided that posting it could not guarantee its arrival in time so I drove home one Friday evening, setting out later than usual as last minute adjustments were made, taking a roundabout route via the M1 and M6 to Cheshire to deliver the documents than back East on the M62, arriving home around midnight. Our tender was not accepted.

After the Christmas and New Year break it was back to Kent once more, this time staying in the pub again. But I did not relish another 9 months of the weekly commute from Yorkshire to Kent and decided to find out what was available nearer home. The agency responded by saying that a team was being established at British Steel in Scunthorpe to deal with a significant new project and they were recruiting for a Planning Engineer. I attended for interview one Monday morning, got a phone call that afternoon offering me the job and handed in my notice to the team in Kent the same day.