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.
That headline is an often used Irish colloquialism that means, roughly translated, “because today is an important anniversary”. And what anniversary could be more important as we face the growing threat of rising Fascism across Europe once again.
Apparently the UK government is preparing for the possibility of riots by extreme right wing factions in the event of a second referendum that might result in a reversal of the ill-informed June 2016 decision by 37% of the electorate to take Britain out of the only international organisation that has held the peace between the forces of communism and Fascism for most of my lifetime.
Meanwhile similar movements are on the march in Poland, Italy, Germany, Austria and France. And all are fueled by fear of “the other”, just as was Hitler’s rise to power and the acceptance of the “final solution” – elimination of “the other”.
A terrific idea, contributing to the solution of two (or three) problems: dog poo pollution, global warming and lighting up a beauty spot!
Now all we need is a way of capturing cow’s burps. Maybe Brian Harper can address that one – their are plenty of cows in Hereford and Worcester for him to experiment on (not that I’m advocating experimenting on animals in the usual sense, you understand.)
I grew up in an environment where it was taken for granted that you dug the garden every spring using a spade, then, a few days later, you would go over it again with a fork to remove the weeds. During that first digging you would create trenches into which you would pile organic matter. Living in a farming region there was always plenty of farmyard manure available for this purpose. The point being that the organic matter was buried, to be accessed by the roots of the plants you subsequently grew on the plot.
If there was an area on which nothing was grown during winter you might do that first dig in autumn, leaving the turned soil exposed to frost in order to help break it down. Because we had a heavy clay soil, all of this work was deemed essential. That remains the basic principle with which I still garden.
It turns out that my parents were wrong, and so am I. You don’t have to dig at all; instead you place your organic matter on the top of the soil and plant into it.
At 77 digging is noticeably hard work these days so I’m going to embrace change, leave my spade in the shed, and have a go at “no-dig” gardening. My parents would probably turn in their graves at the thought!
The same principle can be used to ensure a sustainable source of nourishing vegetables to replace the vast numbers that are imported over huge distances.
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In the debate over Brexit many people have tried to come up with suitable analogies. Among the oldest is the idea of the divorce – the withdrawal bill and the £39 billion payment of outstanding budget commitments is even referred to as the “divorce settlement”. More recently some have sought to liken the search for a “deal” to the kind of arrangement you might come to with your local car dealership. Over the weekend I began thinking about both.
Let’s begin by looking at the stages in a marriage at which a divorce may be contemplated. You’ve been together for less than 5 years, both of you are a good deal more mature than when you married. There are no children, neither of you gets on with the in-laws, you have few mutual friends. You live in an apartment block where you hardly ever encounter your neighbours. You come to an agreement to part company. There is some pain, inevitably, but there is an overwhelming sense of relief in both parties at the resulting sense of freedom. Even your friends, who have been treading on eggshells around you as they sensed the tensions in the relationship, feel that same sense of relief.
Now, suppose you have been together for 40 years. You have grown-up children and several grand children. You are aunt and uncle to several other children. You are God-parents to a number of your friends’ children. You are a partner in your father-in-law’s business, expecting to inherit when he finally decides to retire. You are well known in your community, both of you involved in different aspects of community life. Divorce in those circumstances is almost unthinkable and will cause enormous disruption and sadness in the lives of many people, including the employees of the family business.
I leave you to decide which of these, if any, Brexit is most like.
Now let’s look at the car replacement analogy. It might be the case that the car you are trading in is subject of a finance agreement with some outstanding payments due. You will need to settle that as part of the deal, or, quite possibly, before you can contemplate a deal. You discuss your requirements with the dealership and are offered a trade-in value for your old car. You don’t like the offer, believing your old car is worth more. You can take it or leave it. You decide to leave it. What you don’t do is leave your old car in the dealership and, literally, walk away.
The “no deal” option for Brexit is like deciding to manage without a car for the foreseeable future. “No Brexit” is like carrying on with your current model with all its faults rather than accept a bad deal.
The truth is that neither analogy is anything more than an approximation to what Brexit really means. How could it be otherwise, since Brexit is a unique event for which there is no precedent in history. What hurts, and what makes the 40 year divorce example feel close to the reality of Brexit, is the huge number of cultural, sporting and business links that have been built across Europe over the past 45 years and that are now being sullied by the xenophobic rhetoric that has been unleashed.
The choirs, the amateur drama groups, the sports clubs, the agricultural societies, that exchange visits on a regular basis. The beekeepers, bird watchers, surfers, animal breeders, astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists – the list is endless. True, such relationships extend beyond Europe, especially in these days of the World Wide Web. But Europe is on our doorstep. Heading across the Channel for a day or a weekend to meet individuals with shared interests is easy and many people do it, for business, pleasure, and to exchange ideas and information about their hobby or profession.
And we must not forget the real marriages between Britons and European nationals and the new rules that mean that the “foreign” spouse now has to register for “settled status”. So do the children, even grown ups who were born here, grew up here and have worked for decades, paying their taxes and NI contributions. All because a few ultra-rich, public school educated people want to avoid paying their taxes.
These are things that we don’t hear so much about. We hear plenty about the businesses that rely on parts manufactured in different regions of the Continent and how that will inevitably be made more difficult – and more expensive – by Brexit, whatever form it takes. But the pain caused at the personal level by the opprobrium about Europe and Europeans that is regularly exuded by the extremes of the leave camp is unforgivable.