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Oh, I do like to be beside the Seaside!

The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”

Over the next few weeks, I was to work closely with Ben, learning how to fit everything from direct line phones, small private exchanges, and office extensions. 

However, in line with the requirements of apprentice training, I was to move to a new duty within a few days, and would be working with another section of installing engineers.  

It was a bright, sunny morning in early January, as I cycled into the yard, whistling cheerily. I had enjoyed a very drunken and debauched Christmas, culminating in me ingloriously puking my guts up in the toilet at one o’clock on Christmas morning. Needless to say, my parents were somewhat unimpressed with the conduct of their sixteen year old son.  

I had risen very late on that day in order to make a very feeble and half-hearted attempt to eat some Christmas lunch. Unlike my parents, my younger brother found my delicate state very amusing, but I rose above it in a very dignified manner, and retired to my chambers as soon as I could excuse myself from the table. 

I think Mum and Dad forgave my transgressions by New Year’s Day, and I subsequently launched myself enthusiastically into 1976. 

The morning of the first of January dawned, and I woke to find myself in a strange room, laying on a strange sofa. Next to me was a strange woman, and by our nakedness, and the way she was draped across me, I can only assume that we had shared the New Year’s celebrations in a very favourable fashion.

I gently disengaged myself from her sleepy clutches, and pulled my jeans and sweatshirt on.  After a good deal of silent searching, I finally found my beaten up old trainers in the oven.  This was somewhat bemusing, as I could have sworn I left them in the fridge. 

I spotted my mate, in whose parent’s home we had been partying. He was still unconscious, clutching a bucket and was semi-naked. 

The lounge looked like a scene from a B-Grade zombie movie, and in the gloom, I could make out several bodies, laying in the debris of our partying. I had never seen so many empty beer cans and wine bottles. The ashtrays were overflowing, and the place would take forever to clear up.

I eased the front door open, and recoiled from the bright, crisp, sunlight of the day.  Squinting, I unsteadily tottered up the garden path, trying to remember how I got here. 

More importantly, where was here?  

I was in a strange part of the town that I was unfamiliar with.  I finally remembered that I had ridden here on my bike, and that I had dumped it in the garden shed.

I pulled the shed door open, and disentangled my bike from the couple asleep on the floor. It looked like they had both passed out whilst on the job, and I grinned, regretting to hell that I didn’t have a camera. 

I did have a paintbrush though, as it was laying on the shelf, so I quietly opened a tin of paint at random, and proceeded to decorate the chap’s buttocks.  He didn’t even stir.  I wondered how long it would take to remove.

With a chuckle, I swung my leg over the bike, and pedaled precariously up the road, hoping to find a familiar landmark from which I could navigate back home.

Getting to a junction, I spotted a house that I recognised from my paper round many years ago.  Having gained a mental fix of my position, it took me a further twenty minutes to pedal my way groggily home.  

All in all, my start to 1976 had been great fun.  I had enjoyed a great party, had a very good time with a not unattractive woman, and managed to cycle home without either falling off, spewing up, or being killed. 

Still thinking these thoughts, I strolled into the yard office, to see Ben talking with Nick Nixon. Nick was to be my new mentor, as Ben was attending a training course at Bletchley Park. Nick was plump, tousle-haired and very loud. In my opinion, he was also a certifiable lunatic.  

“What Ho!” He said, noticing me, “Grab a tea, and meet me by my van….it’s the Bedford HA parked by the bike shed”

Bedford HA Van – A True Gutless Wonder

I made a quick cup of tea, and stood by the window, idly watching the traffic meandering up and down. I smiled. I could see my old school across the road, and I smugly imagined the glum faces on the kids as they filed into their classrooms for registration. A few short months ago, that was me.

I swilled my cup out, dumping it on the draining board, and strode out to the car park, collecting my toolkit from my locker en-route. 

When I got to the van, Nick was leaning against it, rolling a cigarette. “Help yourself lad” he said, throwing me a battered tobacco tin, and some green Rizla papers.

Old Holborn, My Go To Tobacco… Golden Virginia as a Reserve!

I caught them adroitly, and opened the tin, relishing the rich smell of the moist tobacco. I pulled a paper from the case, and rolled a fairly inexpert tube, and ran it across my tongue.

I was a recent newcomer to smoking, and had smoked a few Players No 6 with friends at school, but was always short of money, so was not a smoker in the true sense of the word. 

Now I was earning money. £18.35 per week to be precise. After tax, this was about £14.00 a week. I gave my Mum £7.00 a week for keep, leaving me £7.00. From this, I was able to buy my lunches, and clothes, and still have enough to buy a book, or a music cassette. Beer was only 32p a pint, so I could afford to go out on a Friday night with my friends and have a very good evening.

I was also able to afford to smoke. I started off buying tailor-made cigarettes, mainly Guards or Embassy as they were cheap.  However, most of the blokes at work rolled their own. 

Now just a memory, but back in the 70s, I was getting through 20 a day…

I soon came to see the logic of this. Ready-made cigarettes are treated with chemicals, and once lit, they continue to burn all the way to the filter. 

As engineers, we are frequently using both hands – wiring up equipment, and building up systems. Tailor-mades tend to be wasted. Roll ups on the other hand, go out if they are not being actively smoked. So, you can Stoke up, have a couple of drags, put it in the ashtray, and continue working. Ten minutes later, you would have finished a task, and could relight the Rollie

So, now I had my own ‘baccy tin, and could roll a cigarette. Not a pretty one, but I had finally learnt the correct amount of tobacco to roll, and how tightly to roll it.  Too much tobacco, and it won’t draw.  Too little and it burns like a forest fire, and is done in 2 minutes.  Just enough, and it’s ideal.  

However, I had yet to perfect the neat cylindrical tubes that my workmates could roll, some using just one hand to do it. – whilst driving I might add!

Having rolled a ciggy each, we jumped in the van, and Nick fired up the engine, and hurtled in reverse out of the parking space. Flinging the wheel on full opposite lock, he gunned the engine, and we screamed out of the yard, accompanied by the sound of skidding wheels. I could hear equipment being thrown around in the back. 

I was soon to discover that this was Nick’s normal driving style. Everything was full acceleration, and full braking.

The Bedford HA was truly gutless, and he had to really work at it to get it to 50. Ben’s Ford Escort van could run rings round it. 

At this point in time, I was about to start learning to drive. I would be 17 in May, so I was observing all I could about how a car was operated. So, as Nick was driving, I was trying to anticipate his gear changes, mimicking his use of the accelerator and clutch pedals, moving my feet around in the footwell. 

I had been doing this for a few days, and thought I was being discrete, until Nick yelled “Not yet, lad, I’m still accelerating”. He laughed as I squirmed with embarrassment. “When do you start learning?” “May” I responded. “Ok…….when we get on farm tracks, dirt roads and lanes and such like, you can have a go” He glanced across at me, still smiling. 

We chatted amiably as he drove us to Copthorne.  We were due to fit a House Exchange System 4 into some of the buildings at the Copthorne School. The job was big enough for us to be there two days in a row.

The HES 4… Cutting Edge Technology back then!

We pulled up outside the main school building, and the caretaker wandered out from the gloom to meet us.

The self contained exchange equipment was to be fitted in the cellar, with the main switchboard phone to be located in the school secretary’s office. Further extensions were to be fitted in the staff room, the kitchen, the maintenance workshop, and the caretaker’s office. 

As I hadn’t attended the course for wiring up the exchange yet, Nick suggested that I run the cables to the various rooms, so I spent the next few hours running cream cabling around the building. It was undemanding work, and I had two of the runs neatly pinned to the walls by lunchtime. 

Once we had wolfed down lunch, kindly provided by the school, Nick and I settled down to a post prandial cigarette. Eventually, we could avoid it no longer, so we went back to work.

I had the time-consuming job of bringing a cable to the caretakers house. This was a long run, and I needed to suspend a span of cable across the playground. I’m afraid that this took the rest of the afternoon. 

Well, until half past two anyway. 

We had to be back at the yard for 1500, as we both needed to do a bit of shopping. So we threw the tools into the back of the van, and went back to East Grinstead. We were coming back tomorrow anyway. 

The next day, we completed the job, and were back in the yard by ten o clock. After a cup of tea, and a cigarette, Nick phoned control for our next job.

In the mid nineteen seventies, Post Office Telecommunications operated a simple work allocation system. Faults and job control was located in HQ in Tunbridge Wells, and every morning, the engineers  would call in and would be given a job number and details of the nature of the work, and the tests that had been carried out. Each job was allocated a number of units. 

Each unit was one man hour. So, a simple job, say, fitting a single exchange line into a suburban terraced house would probably carry 1.5 units.

Naturally, larger jobs would carry more units, so a big installation at an office could carry maybe 16 units.  One man for two days, or two men for one day.

It was a simple and effective system.

On this occasion, Nick came off the phone looking glum. “It’s a biggie lad” he said, “Empty offices in Church Road. Recover a private exchange system and 18 extensions. It’s 8 units. That’s all day. You don’t count” he said.

That was true. As an unqualified apprentice, although I could assist, my labour wasn’t included in the calculations. 

“Let’s go and check the job out then” he said. He dug around in his pocket, looking for his lighter. I proffered mine, a shiny new Zippo – we all used them, as they were better in outside windy conditions.

Zippo – Able to light a roll up in a 30 MPH wind, on top of a 40 foot Telephone Pole…

Stoking up, he wandered to the van, with me following on. We drove up through the High Street, and cruised slowly past the war memorial. 

I have always loved the “top of the town” as it has a feeling of permanence, and is steeped in history, with many of the buildings going back to the Middle Ages. The old jail goes back to the early 1400s. We turned left into Church Road, and screeched to a stop outside the empty office.

We were on double yellows lines, and I mentioned it to Nick. He laughed, and said that “Happy Jack” would be ok with it, but to be on the safe side, he asked me to switch on the bar.

I looked at him blankly. “Bar?” I repeated…….

“Yes. – Bee Ay Ar. Beacon, Amber, Rotating”. Ahhh.  Now I understood. 

I reached back into the cab, and switched on the beacon, and could hear it’s motor grinding away on the roof.

We opened the dull red door to the old four storey building, and wandered around, looking at the wiring we would have to recover.  The exchange system was downstairs in a grimy cold and damp cellar, and the last two extension phones were located in tiny offices up in the eaves. 

Nick sucked his teeth, and sat down on an old box, fishing his cigarette kit out of his jacket pocket.  Swiftly rolling a cigarette, he tossed it at me, and rolled another. We lit up, and after snorting twin plumes of smoke, he said

“We’ll go back to the yard, have lunch, and then come back and make a start…..if we work quickly we can get most of it completed by close of play, and just finish off tomorrow.”

So saying, we ambled back to the van, and drove back to the yard, quite slowly, as Nick was obviously preoccupied with his thoughts. 

When we arrived at the yard, it was empty. We were obviously first back. 

The phone was ringing as we wandered into the office. “Bet that’s control” said Nick, picking up the phone.

I lit another cigarette, and put the kettle on, knowing that a brew is by far the most important activity that a good apprentice should master. 

“Well I’ll be fu*$ed!” Exclaimed Nick, putting the phone down.

“What” I asked.

He shot me a look, and waved the pink flimsy that he had jotted the next job upon under my nose. 

I read it out “Supply fit and install private exchange with 18 extensions, Church Road, East Grinstead………..isn’t that where we’ve just been…..” Nick clamped his hand over my mouth “SHHHHHSH!”

He leaned towards me, quietly explaining that we had both flimsies. That means we had the decommissioning and the re installing. A total of 16 units. Two days. 

Two days when we can account for our time. Yet need do nothing.

The penny dropped. I grinned. “so, what will we do tomorrow?”

“Pick you up from the end of your road at 0830. I reckon a day or two in Brighton would do us the world of good”

Brighton Seafront from the Palace Pier – Photo Courtesy of Benreis under CCA-SA 3

Let me know what you think… Is it worth me bashing out more chapters? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Thanks for dropping by…

Stay safe…

Go Well!

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Civil liberties Crime English Culture HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Politics privacy Science Security Society Technology Telecommunications Transport Vehicle Safety Wearable Technology Work

The Internet of Things – Friend or Foe?

Who likes history? If you do, then I invite you to take a little journey with me…

Cast your mind back to the early 1990s.

If you were one of the 10% of the UK population that possessed a cell-phone at that time, then you may well have owned one of these – a Nokia 1610.

The Nokia 1610 Cellular Telephone

It was a simple device – able to make and receive telephone calls, and send and receive text (SMS) messages. I was using this model of phone back then, and at the time it was regarded as one of the top phones available.

It had a tiny screen by today’s standards, and was quite bulky. The antenna, whilst small, was still an intrusion, and would often malevolently jam the phone into my pocket.

In 1996, 27% of the UK population owned a PC (In 2017, 88% of us had a computer at home). Mine was a Packard Bell desktop system that I bought from the now-vanished Dixons.

Packard Bell – The workhorse for the British Public in the mid 1990s, Bought from Dixons, long since gone from our High Streets.

I can’t remember how much the system cost me, but I do remember that I was entitled to a Freeserve email account, which I used for a good few years before moving over to web-based systems such as Outlook, Google or more recently Imail.

My home set-up was ludicrously simple. No passwords, or hunting for that elusive Wi-Fi router.

Just plug the Modem into the network port on the PC, plug the other end into the phone line using an adapter, and the system was ready for use.

Old-School. A dial up modem – Looked cool with flashing lights and that wonderful connection sound

Getting onto the internet though, was a whole different matter. This was the heady days of Dial-Up Internet.

Simply open the web browser, and hit the connect button. The auto-dialler inside the PC would dial the number for the Internet Service Provider, and once connected, you would have been treated to the squeals and squawks of the computers setting up the connection.

Ahh, Yes, I remember something similar!


Once connected, the upload and download speeds were truly awful. I well remember downloading a detailed photograph. It appeared line by line, and eventually, after five minutes or so, I got bored with waiting and went downstairs to make a cup of tea. I came back twenty minutes later – and it was still not finished.

Today, with fibre broadband, images appear almost instantaneously!

The internet was pretty simple too. Basic browsers that contained a multitude of adverts, and rather unsophisticated email. Shopping online was in its infancy – eBay had only been started in 1995.

So, the interconnected world really consisted of a computer, hard wired to a modem, and the embryonic world wide web.

The only real risk attached to surfing the web, was that of unwittingly downloading malicious software (malware) or computer virus.

The first computer virus was designed in the early 1970s. It was created as part of a research programme conducted by BBN Technologies in the USA.

Researcher Bob Thomas designed the programme to be self-replicating and was targeted at DEC computers that shared the ARPANET network. This virus was called Creeper.

Bob and his team then designed a programme called Reaper which, once released into the ARPANET, hunted out the infected machines, and then killed the virus by deleting it.

Obviously, breaking into computers was seen as a target of opportunity to the less honest members of society, and viruses started appearing more frequently.

Some were just mischievous, such as the Elk Cloner virus (written by a ninth grader in a Pittsburgh High School in 1981) which upon its 50th opening would display a poem, the first line of which was “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality.”

Others were more malevolent, and were designed to either destroy records and data from the infected computer, steal personal data, record website access passwords and log keystrokes. Ransomware enables the attacker to hijack a computer, and then demand payment to unlock the machine.

The resulting loss of public confidence saw the arrival of cyber-security, specialist organisations that analysed the emerging viruses, worms, trojans and malware and wrote anti-virus software, which could be loaded onto a computer and which could then subsequently scan it for infection and quarantine any suspect viruses into a part of the disc not readily accessible by the user, or by the system.

Fast-forward to 2021.

The internet has evolved – and BOY has it developed! If you are privileged enough to live in a developed country, you may already be using fibre-optic broadband, offering speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second.

According to recent UK survey Hyperoptic offer a 1GB service for an introductory offer of £45.00 per month!


This is jaw-droppingly fast. To put it into perspective, it would have taken about 3.5 days to download a 4K film (about 2GB) using a 56kbit dial up service.

My previous broadband was copper-wire based, and the fastest speed I ever achieved for a download was 8Mb/sec – and that same 4K film would have been delivered to me in 35 minutes.

My latest broadband is totally optical and is Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) and my download speed is a minimum of 71Mb/sec – that 4K movie is now mine in about 4 minutes.

One of the major advantages of broadband, is that unlike a dial up service, the system is “always on”. The old modem has been replaced with a router, which essentially does the same job, but additionally acts as a network hub, through which multiple devices may be connected simultaneously.

BT Hub – A home router, Wi-Fi enabled, with 2GHz and 5GHz Channels

Whilst is it possible to connect equipment to the router using a network cable, most routers offer Wi-Fi connection, and this allows several Wi-Fi/internet-enabled devices to connect to the internet simultaneously.

With a sufficiently fast connection, it is possible for SWMBO to watch a movie on Netflix, whilst I catch up with a friend on a video call, or listen to the internet radio.

Why am I rambling on about this?

Well, technological advances never stop, and there is much publicity about the new 5G (5th generation communications network) which will increase the speed and capacity of the internet even further.

In my previous article, “Who is Driving YOUR Car?” I explored the embryonic Intelligent Transport System, which relies on internet-enabled vehicles and sensors in the fixed transport network, communicating with each other to provide optimised traffic flows and traffic safety management.

This is only made possible with 5G communications and ultra-fast internet systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things is the medium through which our emerging “Smart Society” will operate.

In essence, the IoT consists of items that have the capability to connect to the internet, and communicate and exchange data with other similarly enabled things. These “things” may have sensors, software and other systems to support their intended purposes.

It could be a device as simple as a smart lightbulb that is able to be activated by a smart assistant such as Alexa or Siri, or from a suitably equipped smartphone – located perhaps many miles away.

Such items are already used in intelligent Building Management and Control systems, which employ an array of interconnected sensors to monitor heat and humidity, occupancy levels, lighting, lifts (Elevators for my US readers 😁) and security within a building.

Intelligent Healthcare uses the IoT to monitor medical data such as cardiac performance and blood pressure, or blood glucose levels. This enables improved management of an individual’s medical conditions. Significant research is being conducted in this area, and there are already several emerging disciplines and specialities.

The Internet of Things is also used in industry and manufacturing, to monitor and control processes – making use of internet-enabled sensors.

We are now seeing “Smart Homes” being built, which use the same type of Wi-Fi-connected IoT devices to control home environmental systems.

Smart Home hub

I imagine that a fair percentage of you may well be protecting your property with Closed Circuit TV Cameras. It’s probable that most of these cameras will be Wi-Fi-connected to your home broadband – and from there out onto the web.

A Wi-Fi enabled Internet CCTV Camera – A hackers back door into your systems? Photo ©Mark Charlwood

Maybe some of you will have an App on your smartphone or tablet that enables you to remotely view the camera feeds.

Smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Homepod and Google’s Home are wirelessly connected to home networks, and are continuously monitoring their environment for their wake-up command (such as “Alexa”)

Smart doorbells enable us to see who is at the front door using integral video cameras and transmitting the footage over the internet via the home router and to an app on a smart phone.

Smart appliances, such as Samsung’s Smart Refrigerator now offer us the ability to manage our food.

Smart Fridge – Whatever Next?

An internal camera within the fridge compartment enables the user to view the contents by using a smart phone. The system will also monitor food expiry dates, without the door being opened, thus saving power.

Some models also enable groceries to be ordered via the fridge – a rather redundant feature in my opinion, as you can order your groceries online from your phone, tablet, laptop or PC.

Or, for the truly bold and adventurous – take a risk, and actually go into a shop and buy your groceries.

A large LCD screen is provided in order to display a family calendar, and if you really haven’t got enough tech in your home, it’s also fitted with a 5W Stereo sound system to play your favourite music tracks.

Poor Alexa… She may feel quite outranked by the domestic white goods!

Smart Washing machines are able to connect to the home network, and may be controlled remotely using an app, and are able to automatically sense loads, apply the correct dose of detergent, and add the optimal amount of water.

On some models, the best programme for the laundry load may be selected by filling in a few pieces of information on the app.

I’m sure it won’t be long before your garments will be fitted with a passive RFID tag, or a label barcode, and the machine will scan the items as they are loaded, and then set the correct wash programme.

Should an item that is not compatible with other items in the load be added inadvertently then the machine will inhibit the washing cycle from starting until the guilty culprit is removed.

No more business shirts stained girlie pink then!

Result!

As a society, we are all used to smart watches, and fitness trackers, (which all fall within the scope of wearable technology) and have become very complacent about the interconnectivity with our other tech.

And this is where the real problem lies…

Security MUST be one of your top priorities these days. I have removed my profile permanently from Facebook, as the platform discretely harvests everything I “like” and every comment I make. My preferences and personal data are then sold to other organisations, without my permission and regardless of the ethics involved.

Think about why Google and Facebook are free! There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Most of you will already be protecting your data and PC behind an encrypted firewall, with passwords, multi-factor authentication, and PIN codes. In all probability, you will be paying for some kind of anti-virus protection which will (hopefully) prevent your data from being compromised.

The IoT makes this a lot more difficult.

The processing power inside some of the connected devices, and to an extent, their size may well prevent them from having all but the most basic of security protection – if any.

The CCTV you bought to protect your home may well be being used by the manufacturer, or a malicious hacker to access a backdoor into your router, from where it can monitor data passing up and down your comms link.


So, all of these innocent devices are hooked to the web via your router.

Lots of individuals I know never both changing the default password supplied with their devices, and will happily discuss bank details, finances, and other personal details within “earshot” of their smart speaker.

So, nasty hacker chap decides to wage an attack on his ex-employer. By harnessing the combined IoT devices of many households, and requiring all of them to connect simultaneously to the target company’s website will cause it to crash.

This is an extreme example of a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS), where innocent PCs and devices are hijacked to overload the target’s website.

Many large and respected companies have been attacked in this manner, despite having the financial clout and technical expertise to surround themselves with multiple layers of digital security.

In 2017, Google came under a sustained DDoS attack, originating from China, which, according to Google, lasted for up to six months.

In 2020, Amazon Web Services (AWB) was taken down for three days following a similar, yet more sophisticated attack.

Internet security expert Brian Krebs was attacked in 2016, when his website was assaulted by the Mirai botnet, executed by about 600,000 compromised and suborned Internet of Things – such as Internet CCTV cameras, home routers, and other simple IoT devices.

This may be the tip of the iceberg.

Cisco, the internet systems company predicted in its annual report (2018-2023) that sophisticated DDoS attacks will double from the 7.9 million in 2018 to 14.5 million in 2022.

Now the truly chilling bit…

In our increasingly technological world, we rely on the internet in so many ways – from grocery shopping to building control, from home banking to healthcare. Connected vehicles – not just cars, but ships, aircraft, tankers, trains.

As I have said, many of these devices are so simple and un-assuming, that we don’t regard them as a potential threat.

That simple fitness tracker that you wear all the time. The silly old fridge, just sitting there in your kitchen, keeping your food safe and edible. The CCTV that you use to monitor your car in the drive.

The ease and convenience with which you access your bank to pay a bill. The ability to have a video call with your dear old Mum from miles away.

And yet, in the stygian, gloomy murk of the deep, dark web, there lurk hackers, thieves, and criminals. Hackers who are willing to mount cyber-attacks from as little as 7.00 US$ per hour.

Foreign states, and terrorist organisations that are willing – and able – to hijack your IoT devices to wage an attack on society.

Imagine, if you dare – a world where the bad guys can hack into your car, and disable the brakes.

A world in which someone can access your pacemaker, and shut it down…unless you pay a ransom.

A world in which a hacker can eavesdrop on your home, and record everything that you say and do, and record everything about you?

It’s not as far-fetched and dystopian a reality as you think!

Go Well!

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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.

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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…

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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….