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Flight Operations and Steam Punk Hats

A few days ago, I decided to have a clear up of my home office. Not an especially huge task, as the office isn’t especially huge. Being a writer and pilot, my office has been filled over the years with books. Lots of books. There are many technical ones related to the science of aviation; books on meteorology, aerodynamics, instructional techniques, instrument flight, and aircraft systems. I also have books on human factors, crew resource management, psychology, and airline economics.

Books. Books. More Books.

The shelves are further filled with books on aviation warfare, history, and fiction covering a wide variety of subjects from science fiction to comedy.

The tops of the overcrowded bookcases are laden with aviation related objects that have sentimental attachment for me, such as the very large model of an American Airlines 767, presented to me when I was Special Services Manager for the Company at Stansted airport.

Tools of the Trade…

There is the large-scale model of Concorde, which I bought when the Queen of the Skies was retired in October 2003. The vintage Sailplane barograph, the steam-punk top hat.

Steampunk top hat? 

Well. That’s it. Bang goes my credibility. The Duke in Wyrd Sisters.

Yes, you did read that correctly. I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics for virtually all of my adult life, taking many roles from an Ugly Sister in the pantomime Cinderella, to Billy Liar, and more recently the Duke in Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett’s adaption of Macbeth.  The play was further adapted by our Producer, and all costumes were steam punk, hence, the steam punk top hat.

I digress.

Amongst the variegated items of aviation clutter, I came across a small figurine, a dumpy little effigy of a schoolmaster, complete with a mortar board and cane.

Any comments that it resembles me will be deleted!

I smiled, as I was instantly catapulted back about 25 years, back to the time in which I was lecturing in Aviation Studies at East Surrey College, in Redhill, UK.

The little figurine had been shyly presented to me by a member of my class, on the final lecture prior to the end of course exams – in this case the City and Guilds technical examinations in Flight Operations and Despatch, which included modules on fuel planning, flight planning, aircraft performance and load and balance.

The students in my class that year were an eclectic bunch. Two cabin attendants, Jo and Abby, three check in agents, one aircraft engineer, a ticketing agent, a flight operations agent from a ground handling agent, all in their early thirties.

Then there was Bill.

Bill must have been in his late fifties, and collected baggage trolleys at Gatwick airport, a job that he had done for years.

Due to the relatively intense and practical nature of the course, student numbers were limited to ten, so prior to the course, I would go through the student application forms and weed out those that didn’t have the academic qualifications or vocational experience to do the course. I made a point of having a private chat with every student, to discover their motivations, aspirations, and prior experience. Almost every one of them were doing it for promotional or career advancement.

Except Bill.

Bill quietly explained to me that he woke up one morning, and realised that he had done nothing with his life, was in a dead-end job, and at his age had no hope of doing anything better. He loved aeroplanes, and when he saw the course advertised, he applied.

He looked me in the eye, and said “I know I’m probably not good enough to get through the course, Mister Charlwood, but I would like to give it a go, if you would be willing to accept me onto the course.”

When I reviewed the applications earlier, I had read his submission, and his simple request to “give it a go”.

I had already decided that I would enrol him into my class, and would review his progress at the end of the first term.

“OK Bill,” I smiled, “Let’s see how you get on. You’re in!”

He gave me a weak smile, and thanked me profusely.

So, there we were, a few weeks later, on the first session of the 32-week course. and the room was filled with the happy buzz of expectant chatter. I looked round the class. Nine. I only had nine students. Everyone was present except Bill.

I was filled with disappointment. He had seemed so keen, but had obviously got cold feet, and decided not to attend.

I was just commencing the introduction to the course, when the door opened, and Bill appeared.

“I am so sorry I’m Late Mr. Charlwood, I got held up leaving work”

“Not a problem, Bill, take a seat, you’ve missed nothing so far. And it’s Mark, not Mr. Charlwood”

He quietly made his way to the back seats, sitting as far away as possible from the other members of the class, and pulled a notebook from a battered rucksack.

I continued with my introduction, and it wasn’t long before we were exploring the fundamentals of Flight Operations, and the basics of the multitude of things that must be done correctly and efficiently in order for just one aeroplane to take flight.

Over the weeks, I came to know and respect my class, and to enjoy their company. They came to enjoy my bad jokes and my irreverent approach to academia.

Judy, the flight operations agent was a real live wire, and having a lot of practical knowledge had already started the course with an advantage. Curious, and with a blunt approach and a sharp sense of humour, she was already showing a good understanding, but sometimes had trouble combining academic requirements with the practical exercises.

Airline flight planning and despatch was conducted predominantly with computers and there was little requirement for manually planning a flight, and I think she found learning the secrets of what the computer did in the background a bit challenging.

On the other hand, she would often ask deep questions related to why her company’s flight planning and despatch system did not precisely follow the ICAO rules or CAA requirements. This sometimes led to me doing significant amounts of digging and the calling in of numerous favours from friends and contacts across the airline.

My course required that students could completely plan a flight without the use of a computer, so I was teaching the manual way of doing everything, and this did cause a few problems for all of the class from time to time.

The weeks flew past, and everyone was making good progress, and seemed to be enjoying themselves (as I was) and nobody had dropped out. I hadn’t had to flunk anyone either, so a win-win all round. I considered this a good sign.

On the final lecture of the first term, I had set a mock exam, which was very similar to the final exam. Everyone trooped in, and there was a glum atmosphere. None of the usual light-hearted banter.

I placed a paper on each student’s desk, and gave them their instructions. I had given them an hour to complete the paper, and then they could go a grab a coffee from the cafeteria, and I would quickly mark the papers, and give them their marks and a feedback session in the second hour. I would also give them some reading to do over the half term break, and brief them on the subjects to be covered in the next term.

The room fell totally silent, and I reclined my chair, and propped my feet up on the up-turned waste bin, observing the bent heads, listening to the scratching of pencils on paper.

Jo was chewing the end of her pencil as a dog would gnaw on a bone, and Abby was writing rapidly, silently dictating her words as she wrote. Everyone was concentrating and I wondered how they would get on. One of the guys from check-in was gazing at the ceiling with rapt attention, and the other was staring out of the window. Bill was head down, writing. The aircraft engineer had phoned in sick, and the reservations agent was on a late shift. These guys could do the paper at home, and send it back to me for marking.

It was no surprise to me that Judy finished first, with fifteen minutes to go. She dropped her paper on my desk, blew me a kiss, and made her way silently from the room.

“Fifteen minutes left” I announced, and picked up her paper to review it.

I swiftly marked it. 85%. Not a bad mark, but silly mistakes. Failing to read the question is a common problem. Also, maybe a bit of rushing involved? Inaccuracies in interpreting a meteorological forecast may seem minor at college, but in real-world operations, lack of attention to detail in such things could lead to a flight encountering dangerous conditions.

At my five-minute call, the rest of the class quietly placed their completed papers on my desk, and left the room.

All except Bill, who was still head down, writing.

“Times Up” I called softly, and Bill handed me his paper, and he too silently left the room.

Opening my thermos, I poured myself a large coffee, and steadily marked the papers. I was pleased, as everyone had hit at least 80%.

Except Bill.

Bill had scored 100% in his first test.

Fifteen minutes later, the class filed back in, this time chatting animatedly, flushed with post-test relief.

I leaned back in my chair, and informed them that they could all congratulate themselves, as everyone had achieved far more than the required 75%, and read them their marks.

I think that Judy was a little shocked that she had been beaten into second place – but not as shocked as Bill was, when he realised that he was the top of the class.

The UK CAA Specimen Performance Tables. Modern instruments of torture.

At the end of the class, I wished them all well, and told them to go away and enjoy the half term – a fortnight of not having to listen to me drone on about the black arts of meteorology or the selection of cruising flight levels. I warned them that the next term would be equally challenging, as we would be happily delving into the joys of fuel planning.

I was touched that each one of them came by my desk, and thanked me.


Except Bill.


He was still slowly packing his books into his rucksack. I strolled over to his desk.

I grinned, and said “So, Bill, it looks like you have done very well this term. I trust that I will see you in a fortnight?”

“Mr. Charlwood” He began.

“It’s Mark”

“You will always be Mr. Charlwood to me” he said quietly. “I can’t believe that I am still here. I never dreamt that I could do this. It’s been so fascinating. I will be back”

He diffidently proffered his hand, which I shook warmly.

Over the following terms, every individual confronted their own impenetrable problems. Abby had a blind spot about load and balance, Jo finally understood the difference between track and heading, and Judy had really struggled with calculating some aspects of aircraft performance.

An ICAO Drop sheet for calculating aircraft weight and balance – a DC-10 in this case.

Over the years, I have always tried to create an environment where students feel encouraged to challenge, question and share their own experiences. Within the first two classes, the ice had been broken and the students had become a group of friends, who would happily ask questions, and get involved.

Except Bill.

Bill had developed slowly over the course. Initially, he rarely put his hand up, either to ask a question, or to answer one. By the middle of the third term he was a regular contributor to the course, and showed that he had good understanding of the topics.

In the last four weeks before the exam, I had conducted revision sessions, with some mock exams, and I was happy to see that all of the class had a reasonably good chance of passing the exam, and most would get at least 80% and be awarded a pass with credit.

Except Bill.

Bill’s marks were excellent.  He had made virtually a clean sweep in my mock exams with an average mark of 96% – enough for a Distinction.

So, provided that none of them had a serious problem, I calculated that my class would get 2 Distinctions, 6 Credits and 2 Passes. Not a bad score.

I gave the class their marks, together with some individual feedback on how they could improve, and told them that the next time I would see them would be on the day of the exam.

We then mutually decided that a trip to the Flying Scud would be in order, and the end of term celebration was a happy occasion.

Exam day finally arrived, a bright, sunny June morning, so wishing them good luck, I watched them troop into the exam room, and then wandered out to sit on the bench outside to catch up on my book, and enjoy a coffee.

One by one they came out, each one looking relieved. I asked every one of them how they felt they did, and did they feel that they were adequately prepared. I felt very relieved when they all said yes to my last question!

8 weeks later, I dropped by the college in order to open the securely sealed envelope containing their marks. I would have the pleasure of calling each one of them before sending the slips out.

It seemed that my prediction was wrong. 8 Credits and 2 Distinctions!

After making the phone calls, I smiled to myself.

I had got my students through a pretty tough course; sometimes gritting my teeth in frustration as they stumbled through the science of meteorology, or the witchcraft known as scheduled performance. The look on a confused face when understanding was finally achieved.

I was proud of all of my class. They had all done very well, and would make good progress in their chosen careers.

Except for Bill.

I regarded Bill as my true success story. He was the hero of my class, as he came onto the course with virtually no hope, and had already consigned himself to the scrap heap. I still have the hand-written letter that he sent me, thanking me for getting him through the course, and telling me that I had inspired him!

If only he knew.

It was Bill that presented me with that little figurine of a portly, moustachioed teacher – nothing like me I assure you. I heard from Bill a few years later, and he had got himself a job in Flight Operations and had reinvented himself completely.

Oh, and in the two years that I worked with him, I never did manage to break him of the habit of calling me Mister Charlwood.

So, now, I had better get back to the original task of tidying the office, which I interrupted to write this.

Now, where did I put that duster?

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APPRENTICE Comedy English Culture Humour Nostalgia Short Story Society Telecommunications Uncategorized Work

Phones, Dogs and Burials

The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”

It was my fourth week at work, and my first day working with the phone installation team.

It was early October in 1975, and I was enjoying my new life as a Trainee Telecommunications Apprentice with Post Office Telecommunications, now metamorphosed into BT.

Based out of my home town of East Grinstead in West Sussex, I had an easy commute and was enjoying the mid-October weather, which was mainly dry and warm.

As I was only sixteen, I was still living at home and enjoying all of the comforts that Mum and Dad provided.

Getting up on this particular sunny morning, I showered and pulled on my Levis, a check shirt, and my jacket, and rushed downstairs to greet the world.

My dear old Mum, bless her, had prepared me a bowl of cereals, and gulping this down, I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, grabbing my packed lunch as I rushed for the door.

Dragging my bike up the drive, I pushed and jumped astride it, nearly knocking down the neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter.

“Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, still accelerating down the cul-de-sac. Nice looking woman. Not interested in a kid of sixteen though, which was a shame as she was really hot.

The Telephone Engineering Centre was only just down the hill, right opposite my old school, and I zoomed down, eyes watering in the slipstream, arriving there within a few short minutes.

Swooping in through the open gates of the yard, I narrowly missed becoming a bonnet ornament for a bright yellow panel van which was just pulling out. Swerving, I dodged the truck, blasting through its sooty exhaust with inches to spare.

I carelessly rammed the front wheel of the bike into the rack, and snapped the chain around the wheel, locking it to the metal.

A Bedford Polecat Truck – Designed to remove old Telephone Poles and install new ones.

I noticed a door was ajar at the far end of the single-storey building, so, with a little trepidation, I walked down, and cautiously pushed the door open, and walked into the dimly lit interior. 

“Ah…..you must be my new Youth in Training!”

I looked over to the corner, where the owner of the voice was seated – a slender man, in his mid-forties, whose mop of black unruly hair had been mercilessly bullied into a 1950s Tony Curtis style. On his lap, he was clutching a piece of equipment, whilst tightening something within it with a large, yellow handled screwdriver.

His rumpled tweed sports jacket was distorted by objects that had been rammed carelessly into the pockets, and his grey flannel trousers hadn’t seen a proper crease since 1953.

“Hello” I ventured,  “I need to report to Mr Hudson”

“You’ve come to the right place then lad, as I’m Ben Hudson”

I shook his proffered hand, “nice to meet you Mister Hudson”

“It’s Ben” he chuckled, “no formality around here…..now, would you like some tea and toast?”

“Ben” I echoed. Bloody hell, a few short weeks ago, men of his age – my teachers at school, would have gone into meltdown had I addressed them in this way.

“Come on lad”, he said, placing the grey cased equipment onto the work bench, “Let’s go and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.”

The restroom was full of sound – laughter, conversations, and odours of toast, coffee and cigarette smoke.

I followed Ben as he pushed his way to the kitchen counter, whereupon he dropped two slices of bread into the toaster.

Two minutes later, he passed me a plate with 2 slices of toast. “Butter is in the dish. We operate a tea swindle here which is 25p a week to cover tea, milk, bread and butter. Anything else you want, you buy yourself. You want to join, go and see Mitch, and he’ll put you on the list. Now, eat up because we have to get going.” So saying, he sluiced his plate under the tap and wandered out with his hands jammed into his pockets.

I hurriedly wolfed down the toast, and drunk the tea, (which I had to do really quickly to prevent the tannin from stripping the enamel from my teeth), then scurried after Ben, who was by now loading the back of his bright yellow Morris Ital van with plastic-wrapped phones, and cardboard boxes containing mysterious bits of equipment.

Loading Up…

We got in, slamming the doors shut, and Ben drove us sedately out of the yard.

We meandered serenely through the sun-dappled lanes of West Sussex, the sleepy villages etching their historic lanes into my mind; Sharpthorne, West Hoathly, Danehill, Horsted Keynes, finally arriving in the small village of   Scaynes Hill. 

Scaynes Hill this way…

We parked up outside an elegant 17th century Manor House, with timber beams, and a patina of age on the whitewashed walls.

Grabbing a shrunk-wrapped telephone, a reel of cream cable and his leather tool bag from the back of the van, I followed Ben as we crunched our way up the gravel drive, with me clutching my small, virginal zip-up tool bag.

My virginal Apprentices’ Zip-up Tool Kit.

Knocking on the door, we stood in the porch, admiring the Elizabethan garden, resplendent in its autumnal colours.  I idly wondered if they had a gardener.

At that moment the door was opened, revealing an elegant and stunningly attractive woman in her early thirties.

My eyes were immediately drawn to her magnificent breasts, snugly contained in a tight angora wool jumper.

My interest in her vaporised instantly as she spoke, haughtily, and with the arrogance that only the nouveau riche seems to have.

“I suppose you’re here to fit the phone….”

Standard Cream 746 telephone

Ben glanced at me and agreed. “Maybe you can show us where you want it fitted? He asked.

She about turned, and strode off down the wood-panelled hall, nonchalantly indicating an open door on the left.  “In there, on the window cill” she called without even giving us a further glance. I furtively watched her neat backside, as she sashayed off down the corridor. 

We walked into the indicated room, which was bright, empty and airy, with a wood parquet floor.  Ben smiled at me, and dumped his battered Gladstone bag on the floor, and tore open the cellophane packaging from the phone. Reaching into his bag, he tossed me the reel of cable and a small box of cleats.

Selecting a pin hammer from his bag, he explained to me “Secure the cable to the skirting board, using one cleat every pin hammer length. Put one cleat two inches from every corner you need to go around. Don’t nail through the cable.  Got that?” I nodded. He continued “I’ll start in the hall. You do the room here. Leave me three foot of cable to hook the connector block to”

Post Office Telephones Box Terminal 52A State of the Art in 1975

I gingerly unrolled a length of the cable, and commenced banging cleats in at the required spacing, managing to belt my thumb at least twice. I could hear the rhythmic thumping as Ben was cleating the cable to the skirting of the hall.  He was moving at about three times my speed, so it wasn’t long before he appeared in the room with me. 

He knelt down and started cleating as well.  “Bit of a dry visit, this one” he murmured. “Snooty cow didn’t even offer us a tea” I grunted my response, and turned to see a small child, emptying the box of cleats over the floor.

Ben called through the open doorway to the boy’s mother, asking her to take him out of the room, as he was in danger of hurting himself.

She strode in, sweeping the child into her arms, and glared at us both as if it were our fault, before strutting out.

We turned back to our work, and I started hammering again.  As I reached out to get another cleat, my hand struck something warm and wet. I looked around, and saw a Pekingese dog, snouting around in the cleat box. 

I pushed it away, and it immediately nosed forwards and recommenced its snuffling.  Ben also pushed it away, with the same result. He pushed it away – more firmly this time, but it was to no avail.

“Excuse me lady” he shouted down the corridor “Could you come and get your dog, it’s in the way”

There was no response from within the bowels of the house, so he called out again.  Silence.

Heaving a sigh, he knelt back down, and once again started pushing the dog out of the way.

Each time it happened, he pushed the animal away more forcefully. I could see him beginning to lose his placid sense of humour. I smirked. It seemed that the dog wasn’t interested in me, so I knelt back down, and carried on bashing my thumb with the pin hammer.

I could hear Ben swearing at the dog, as once more it was interfering with his work.  “Will you sod off!” I heard him exclaim.  The dog didn’t sod off though, and it continued to push its nose just where Ben wanted to hammer.

I watched as this happened once more, and laughed as Ben finally lost control. He pushed the dog back, and as it advanced again, he tapped it smartly on the forehead, between the eyes, “for the last time, WILL YOU SOD OFF!”

The dog stopped in its tracks, froze, and rolled onto its back, quivered once, and then flopped over, immobile.

I looked at the dog.  It’s chest wasn’t moving. “Christ Ben!” I exclaimed. “You’ve killed it!”

Ben looked shocked. “Nah. I probably stunned it. It’ll be ok in a minute”. I wasn’t sharing his optimism.  The dog was dead.  To make sure, I cocked my ear over its snout, and could detect no breathing.

“Ben……it’s definitely dead!  Christ. What shall we do?”

My brain was already playing a film clip, featuring me getting the sack from an incandescently enraged manager.

“Don’t worry lad” said Ben, perking up.  “I’ve got an idea”

He picked up the dead dog, slung it unceremoniously into his Gladstone bag, secured it closed, and said “follow me, and keep your mouth shut”

GPO Telephone Engineer’s Gladstone bag, to carry tools, equipment and occassionally the deceased.

He yelled into the kitchen “Sorry love, we have to go back to the yard to get a tool. We will be back shortly”

A garbled response from the kitchen confirmed that she heartily disliked The GPO in general, and the Telecommunications division in particular, and bemoaning the quality of British working practices. 

If only she knew.

We chucked Ben’s bag into the van, and we hurtled back to the yard in silence.

As we pulled into the yard. I asked “what tools do we need?”

Ben grinned, and said “A shovel lad”

Opening the back of his van, he passed me a large spade, and indicating the scrubby patch of woodland at the rear of the offices, he said. “Bury it”

“What?”

“Bury it.  Over there.  Dig down two feet.  Come on, hurry up. We need to get back. Consider it part of your training. Thinking on your feet!”

I miserably picked up the dog, which had already started stiffening up. I pushed my way into the bushes, and dug a hole, into which I placed it’s little corpse.  I quickly shoveled the earth over it, and replaced the spade in the van.

Having completed my funereal task. We drove back to the customer’s house, and went back to wiring up the phone.

As we were finishing up, the woman came in, and cast her eye over our handiwork.  “Does it work?” She asked, as if already convinced that it would be a major achievement if it did.

“Of course” replied Ben, as he nonchalantly started loading his tools back into his bag.

“Have you seen Lionel?” She asked

“Lionel?”  We obviously both looked like drooling morons, as she explained to us slowly, enunciating each word slowly and precisely,  as if to a six year old, that Lionel was her dog.

Ben furtively glanced at me, but we both shook our heads, as Ben innocently said “No, Madam, we haven’t seen a dog”

“Oh dear. I expected he got out when you went back to the yard.  He’s probably in the woods by now”

“Without a doubt” I said, straight faced, looking at Ben. I could see he was trying very hard not to laugh.

“Yes, he likes to dig…..probably burrowing for rabbits”

“Oh yes…..I imagine He’s up to his neck in the mud” I said.

Ben had gone a strange colour, and was emitting constricted noises. I shuffled my feet, and said “Well…..cheerio then”

“Yes” she said, icily. “Goodbye”

She ushered us to the door, and with one final appreciative look at her wonderful chest, we were striding back down the drive to the van.

As we got into the van, Ben finally collapsed against the steering wheel, great guffaws of laughter filling the van.

“Oh my lord…..that was funny in an awful sort of way. Well done lad”. He wiped a tear from his cheek, and started the van, and we made our way back to the telephone exchange at Nutley for a cuppa and a bun.

Nutley Telephone Exchange – a good place for a cuppa on the way home. Photo courtesy of Dave Spicer

And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.

No two days were ever that same, that’s for sure.

Go Well…

Categories
APPRENTICE English Culture Motoring Nostalgia Old Friends Society Trains Transport Travel Work

A journey by bus and train

A few years ago, I had a bit of a weird experience. 

It started in the deep midwinter pre-dawn. Trudging to the bus stop along a dark, bleak country lane. In the gleam of my torch, I could see that the landscape wore a cloak of crisp white hoar frost – frost that crunched satisfyingly under my highly polished boots. 

Standing at the bus stop, I was suddenly struck by a great feeling of déjà vu.  I was approaching my sixties, and yet I was instantly transported back about four decades.

Back then, I was a teenager, embarking on my career as a trainee technician apprentice for Post Office Telecommunications, now known simply as BT

The winter dawns when I started my commute to work were as cold and dark as this particular morning.  I used to make the ten-minute walk to the sleepy East Grinstead railway station, my breath smoking around me as I strode along.

The 291 London Country Bus would normally be sitting at the bus stop, pumping huge clouds of greasy grey diesel smoke into the pre-dawn air.  The bus was always numbingly cold.  I often thought it was warmer outside than in, but I would be wrapped up in my thick coat, wearing a hat, and woolen gloves that my Mother had knitted me.

Your Carriage awaits…

At around about 0630, the scheduled departure time, the driver would, if he felt so inclined, pull off rapidly, causing the tired suspension to creak and rattle loudly over the rutted and potholed rural roads. 

Lurching alarmingly through quiet country lanes, the bus would stop in hamlets and villages, picking up weary sleep-drugged passengers, reluctantly pacing like automatons into their working days.

The 291 Route – Still the same now as it was in 1975

Stopping in the village of Ashurst Wood, my friend Katrina would board the bus.  Wearing her ubiquitous duffle coat, she would wriggle her ampleness next to me on the seat, her figure disguised under the acres of blanket-like material. I would press against her, feeling her form against my arm, the tantalising press of her prominent bosom sending hormones scurrying around my brain like sex starved mice.

She would openly flirt with me, as the bus wheezed its asthmatic way up Wall Hill, and then we would grip the seat handles as the driver, whom I assumed to be having a psychotic episode, would plummet crazily down the steep hill towards the country town of Forest Row.

Next, we would pick up Darlene, the frizzy haired Aussie who brightened my mornings with her sunny disposition and shortly after, Stuart and Will.

Stuart and Will were as unalike as could be possible. Stuart was tall, and impossibly thin, with long, lank hair, and a quiet disposition.

Will was his alter ego – shorter, mop headed and rumbustious – he was the life and soul of any party. 

Pulling into Colemans Hatch we would pick up Gary, who was urbane, dapper and a total eccentric by the age of seventeen, who would converse loudly in a wonderful upper-class drawl.

It doesn’t look much on the map, but at 0630 on a dreary winter morning it lasts forever.

The bus would then wend its way through Hartfield, where we would collect Lisa and Penny, both of whom were taking a course in Nannying and Nursing at West Kent College.

Into Withyham, and on into Groombridge, for yet another snails crawl grind up Groombridge Hill, the driver disguising our position with the clever use of diesel exhaust smoke.

Langton Green next and then the slow crawl through the western outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.

By this time the bus was happily filled with a cacophony of voices, all competing for priority with the barely subdued roar of the ancient diesel rattling away at the back of the elderly dilapidated contraption.

As soon as the bus came to a stop at Tunbridge Wells Central, it would be an utter, mad, maniacal dash to cross the road, and get down the steps and onto the railway station platform in order to catch the 0840 train to Tonbridge.

Tunbridge Wells Central Railway Station

The train was always packed, and I don’t think I ever got a seat on it.  Back then, the entire carriage was full of commuters, the majority smoking and reading their newspapers in silence. 

This was a complete contrast to my recent journeys on the train, where the carriage was still full of commuters, but hardly a paper in sight. Everyone was either texting on their phones, listening to music players or tapping away on a lap top or iPad. And not a cigarette or e-cigarette in sight.

Once at Tonbridge, I would join the meandering human crocodile of students heading for the Brook Street Campus.

By that time, I would be on my 5th or 6th cigarette.  Players No 6, or Guards – or if I was feeling delicate, Consulate Menthol King Size. 

Players Number Six – or Shit Sticks as we used to call them

I can’t believe how much I used to smoke in those days.  I must have reduced my life expectancy by a huge amount.  I have been clean now for thirty odd years, and I’m probably saving not only my life, but about £4,650 per year!

And now, here I was, standing at a bus stop in the same weather, and at the same time of day. The point of origin is different, as is the destination. The bus is now a modern single decker, with a fuel-efficient engine, and is relatively quiet.  My fellow commuters look the same though, tired, cold, and longing for their warm beds, from which they were rudely prised by an insistent alarm clock scant minutes earlier.

It does appear, however, that across recent contemporary history, all bus drivers have been selected because of their underlying psychiatric tendencies.  It must be a recruitment requirement.  This driver was either colour blind, or had problems with authority, as we jumped at least two red traffic lights en-route to Reading Station.

Not a valid reason to stop if you drive a bus in Reading, Berkshire

This time, I was in no mad rush – I had left myself plenty of time to get to Central London.  The concourse of the station was already thronged with travellers, muffled up against the chill.

I attempted to issue my ticket at the self-ticketing machine, but to no avail.  I then realised that I was trying to obtain a South West Railways ticket from a First Great Western machine.  Oh, the joys of technology and rail franchising.

Having queued for a ticket, I made my way to platform 8, and awaited the arrival of the First Great Western 0758 “service” to Paddington.  

The train was bang on time, and I boarded, to find that my reserved seat already had a corpulent, sallow woman sitting in it.  As there were a number of other vacant seats, I dropped into the nearest available and re-read my presentation notes.

Ah yes…. My presentation. I had been wrestling with the finer points of my presentation, and had worked late into the previous night getting the order right, and fine tuning the PowerPoint slides.

“You are required to give a fifteen-minute presentation on what you perceive as being the biggest challenges faced by the faculty of Engineering and Mathematics in relation to delivering course content that combines high quality technical content whilst acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity and inclusion”

I was applying for the Senior Lecturer vacancy at one of the large London universities but my obviously simplistic interpretation on reading the advert, was that I would be passing on my extensive knowledge and understanding to students within my specialisation of Heavy Commercial Aircraft Operations and Performance – but it seems that I would also need to be much more…sensitive.

Sighing, I closed the lid on my lap top, and reviewed my fellow passengers. Most were hard at work on open lap tops, and a few were mumbling intensely into mobile phones. Only a very tiny minority were conducting leisure activities such as reading a book, or a newspaper.

STOP Working…. Look out of the window and enjoy the Journey

This would appear to be the modern work ethos. Travel to work whilst working. Then put in a ten or twelve hour day, and then work some more on the commute home. Fourteen hours a day, and get paid for eight.

I think my Father’s generation were the last to enjoy their commute; my dear old Dad became a very well-read man after commuting for two hours a day by train for sixteen years, and he would read just about anything from autobiographies to science fiction. I used to benefit from his addiction as he would frequently wander in to my room and toss a book to me, saying “Read that, I think you’ll like it”.

I always did like his recommendations…

As a young lad attending college, and travelling by train, I used to spend the journey gazing out of the window, watching the English country landscape whizz by in a blur. Or engaging in fantasies involving some of the elegant ladies on board.   I used to often enjoy reading the discarded newspapers left by fellow commuters, and would avidly soak up the latest news.

It seems that now, the young are disconnected from reality whilst connected to their phones, and commuting is now part of the working day, rather than a brief respite for those that work for a living.

How commuting has changed.

Welcome to the brave new world.

And yes, you are welcome to it….

.

Categories
APPRENTICE English Culture Humour Nostalgia Short Story Society Telecommunications Vehicles Work

The Apprentice – 70s style

A long time ago, in a work environment far, far away….

The year was 1976. It was autumn, and I was in the second year of my apprenticeship with Post Office Telecommunications – or BT as it has now become.

The beginning of that September saw me transferred from Exchange Maintenance to the Overhead and Underground unit, or Poles and Holes as we called them. Apprentices were rotated through every specialist section of BT telecommunications, so that they are exposed to all aspects of the business.

So far, I had enjoyed working with Subsciber Installations, Planning, Exchange Construction and Exchange Mintenance. I really wasn’t looking forward to working at the industrial end of the business -especially not during the onset of winter!

On my first day of training with them, I strolled into the Telephone Engineering Centre in the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinsead,

Opening my locker, I pulled my tool kit out, and whistling tunelessly, made my way into the restroom to grab some breakfast, and meet my mentors, before we set off into my next adventure.

I barged into the brightly lit rest room, which was noisy with laughter, and hazy with cigarette smoke. Damn – I just loved the smell of Old Holborn.

I poured myself a cup of tea from the enormous aluminium tea pot, gulping some down as I waited for my two slices of toast to pop. I had to quaff it reasonably quickly as it would have stripped the enamel from my teeth otherwise.

I used the opportunity to discretely assess my new team mates and trainers.  In the far corner, sat a small and wizened man, whose leathery skin contrasted starkly with his silver-grey hair, which had been buzz cut to within 2 millimetres of his scalp.

He was chatting loudly with a man of simply enormous proportions, whose bulk leaked like decomposing blancmange into every crevice of the chair he was sitting in. 

They were known to all as Laurel and Hardy.  The smaller of the two was Jim Smith, and Mr. Blancmange was Bert Handy. I had heard through the grapevine, and from other apprentices, that they were both real characters, but Bert was also “A bit of a Perv.” Whether or not this would prove to be true remained to be seen.

I glanced again at the pair, and was rewarded to see Bert insert one large and grimy finger into his nostril, and enthusiastically start what looked like major excavation work. He didn’t even stop talking to Jim, who seemed oblivious of the fact that Bert was so avidly picking his nose. 

So it was that I started this new and somewhat uninspiring part of my training.

The Old Bedford box lorry

My days consisted of driving out to some country lane, somewhere in the wilds of Sussex, looking for faults, or renewing spans of cable.

I had developed a simple routine to avoid the discomfort of wearing my armoured wellies all the time. I left my boots in the box section of the lorry, and simply sat on the bench, placing a foot into each wellie in turn.

The box section of the van contained all that a crew needed to perform its duties, from cables, joints, s calor gas burner, a bench with a vice and a whole spectrum of tools on racks on the inner walls.

The job was frequently a messy one, as the cables were filled with a vaseline type grease to prevent water penetrating the cable. When this was cut, or we were crimping joints together, this messy stuff would get everywhere.

The company had thoughtfully provided hand cleaner, and a couple of large pans for cleaning purposes. They were large and had a long wooden handle – for all the world like a Wok on steroids.

I had been soundly berated a few days after joining the section for preparing hot water for hand washing in the red handled pan. To be fair, I hadn’t been told otherwise.

It seems that the pan with red insulating tape wound round the handle was NOT used for hand washing, but for relieving oneself when working away from public lavatories. such as residential roads, and parts of town centres that had no public conveniences.

Everytime one of the lads needed to go, they would simply discretely climb into the back of the truck, use the red handled pan, and then empty this into the gutter, sluicing it away with water from the jerry cans on board.

So, cutting a long story short…

Once Laurel and Hardy got to know me, they used to fool around and joke.

On this particular morning, they were both very quiet, and I picked up an air of supressed anticipation.

I found out about this, when I sat dowm, popped my size nines into my wellies, stood up, and then face planted myself on the floor.

The rotten sods had screwed my wellies to the floor of the truck!

Oh, how I laughed.

Now, I am not a venegful person by any means, but my nose took a bit of damage in the incident, which caused much mirth and hilarity back at the yard. However, every dog has his day, and I planned my retaliatory mission with care.

The next day, we bumped and groaned our way into the back lanes around Hartfield, eventiually parking up not far from the place where A.A. Milne wrote the Winnie The Pooh stories.

Pooh Bridge near Hartfield in East Sussex. Yes, it really exists, and you can play Pooh Sticks there.

Without delay, we set about locating the fault, and preparing the new piece of cable.

Bert straightened up, and slowly made his way back to the van, whilst Jim and I carried on crimping connectors onto the cable.

I watched as Bert climbed the steps and disappeared into the van, closing the door behind him.

I mentally counted…

“One, two three…” I reckoned it would take about six seconds. “four, five, six, seven….. ARGGGHHHH – You bastards!”

He came rocketing out of the van with the pan in his hand, slopping liquid everywhere. He bent and emptied it into the gutter, and advanced up the road in a very threatening manner.

His overalls had a horizontal wet line running across his upper thighs – in fact he appeared to be soaked in a broad stripe about two inches wide.

It’s amazing what a 1/16th drill can do if applied to a red-handled pan in a circular fashion.

Jim just looked at me. “You nutty bugger!”

Bert was still fuming by lunchtime, but I think he forgave me later, when his overalls had dried out.

There is a further episode to this ongoing battle of wits (or should I say half-wits) but that willl have to wait for another time.

Go Well….