Birmingham

Following Oxford, I spent a year in Birmingham, from the autumn of 1961 to the autumn of 1962.  Birmingham was a dark age, when I was in a job that did not suit me, in a city I did not like, and where I felt I was slumming it.  And yet in life as in history, the dark ages are often the interesting ones, when one realises one is going in the wrong direction and changes direction, learning new things about oneself and changing one’s life. And from this point of view,  my year  in Birmingham was an extremely interesting one; though I think that as with National Service,  I look back on it with rather more fond memories than I had at that time.

When I came down from Oxford, I was determined to get a job — a proper job.  I was after all 24.  I had spent two years in the army, then four years at Oxford, and I felt that I was educated enough.  I had spent my life hitherto taking from society, and  it was time to give something back.  I not only wanted a job, I wanted a proper job, which meant a job in industry, preferably heavy industry.  I fear that today such an attitude is totally incredible — utterly unbelievable,  but at the time it was not uncommon, and I still feel it has a grain of truth.    I went to the job office in Oxford, as did everyone else,  and I must have sent off 30 or 40 job applications to every company who might conceivably offer me a job.  All of them turned me down.

I went to a handful of interviews.  I went I remember going to one at Thames Ditton for a dairy produce company — it may even have been the Milk Marketing Board who wanted someone to join their computing department.  And I remember going for an interview with J Walter Thompson, the most prestigious of all advertising agencies.  All right, it wasn’t a ‘proper’ job in that it wasn’t heavy industry, but I have always been fascinated by the glamour of advertising. But I did not realise that I would be absolutely hopeless in trying to sell anything.  I think I rather fancied the idea of being a copywriter, but they didn’t take anyone on the copywriter unless they already had a couple of novels under their belts.  I think they thought that being a public schoolboy I might possibly make an account executive but of course that is something that I would be totally incapable of.  Still it was nice to be interviewed.

 

To Bakelite

Eventually I went for an interview in Birmingham with a company so desperate that they were even prepared to take me.  The company was Bakelite, one of the great old established  names in the plastics industry which was after all not all that far from being heavy industry. Bakelite itself was long obsolete, and the company had been taken over by the American Union Carbide Corporation and they produced Wareite,  which was a form of plastic sheeting similar to Formica, though very much number two in the market. They were situated in Tyseley, a suburb to the south east of Birmingham in what might be called the middle ring of suburbs where all the dreariest industries were situated.  Their chief accountant was looking for an Assistant:  he was overworked and knew that new ideas were needed, and he thought that a graduate might be just the thing to introduce these new ideas.  I however came in with entirely opposite beliefs.  I had read or been told that graduates should not be snooty.  They should not go in, pretending to be something special, but they should work their way up slowly from the shop floor.  This false assessment meant that I was doomed to failure right from the word go.

I was put in the data processing department.  This was the proud possessor of an IBM punched card system. There was no computer yet: the new IBM 1410 computer was the latest thing which they aspired to: the big Lucas car parts factory next door had a 1410, and some of our material was sent over there to be processed. IBM had an engineer, who YTserviced our machines with those at Lucas and several other firms,  and whenever anything went wrong, we had to phone Lucas to find out where he was, and to ask him to come over and sort us out.

But they had a punched card system: the cards were punched and then put through sorting machines where they were sorted column by column.  And when they were sorted they were then sent to a printing machine that printed out the results.  I found myself feeding the sorting machines.  I became very good at taking a bunch of cards and joggling it to straighten out the cards and make them absolutely square.  If you didn’t get the cards square they could get jammed in the machine.  You then had to pull out and shamefacedly go over to the girls who did the punched card machine and asks them to punch them again.  The girls always worked in pairs one to do the punching and her friend next to her would do the verifying, so if you had 10 or 20 cards that you had wrecked, it took quite some time them to punch them out again and verify them.  I soon became quite good at getting the cards straight.

I soon found myself accommodation in Moseley.  Tyseley is in an area of south east  Birmingham which was all factories.  To the west lay Edgbaston and the University, and between the two was Moseley which appeared to being nicely middle-class and here I found a room at 68 Salisbury Rd.  This was a respectable middle-class house that was let out as rooms.  On the ground floor there were two elderly gents — I thought they were elderly, though I suppose they were no more than in their 40s or 50s, but they were bachelors and seemed prematurely old.  I had a room on the first floor which was very pleasant, overlooking the gardens and beyond them, behind a high hedge, was the tennis club which I always meant to join but never got around to doing so.  It was within cycling distance of Tyseley, so every morning I got on my bike and cycled for 20 or 30 minutes over to the Bakelite factory.

Archaeology

In Birmingham I threw myself into all sorts of activities.  First naturally became archaeology.  I joined the Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society, but it was not very active.  They held their meetings in the Birmingham and Midland Institute, a fine old Victorian institution in the centre of the town.  The Institute itself was more active and I think I joined that too.  Certainly the only archaeological event I remember took place at the Institute when Louis Leakey, the great Palaeolithic explorer and showman came to visit.  I certainly remember a dramatic lecture to a crowded hall which left a considerable impression, at a least for its showmanship, though I cannot remember any further details.

Far more interesting was the extramural activities where I found that Graham Webster was lecturing on Roman Britain  and I joined his classes.  I think I was very supercilious — I hope I was not too objectionable.  Later it indeed Graham and I became very good friends.  He was always a great supporter of Current Archaeology and insisted on writing an article for our very first issue, which I gratefully welcomed.  It was the only article I think by a known archaeologist.  But I must admit I compared his lectures on Roman Britain with those I had heard only the year previously at Oxford from Ian Richmond and it must be said that Richmond was by far the greater scholar.  I don’t think Graham were never claimed to be a great scholar:  it was his hard work and consistency that made him into such a wonderful archaeologist and such a wonderful person.

But I remember comparing adversely his treatment of the Leicester excavations with those of Richmond.  Richmond gave us the inside story.  Before the war Kathleen Kenyon as a young archaeologist straight out of Oxford, persuaded the Leicester city council to let her excavate on the site adjacent to the Jewry Wall on the site where the museum now is.  She told the city fathers that she was going to excavate the Roman Forum and Basilica, the predecessor to their own town hall.  They were impressed and agreed to fund her.  However no sooner had she begun, than she realised that she was digging not the town hall but the baths.  Indeed she may have even realised right from the start that she was more likely to find the baths of the town, but nevertheless she had to go on because she wanted to maintain the funding, so she continued to excavate the baths while pretending that she was excavating the forum. She was perfectly well aware that her own interpretation was not quite correct but that’s the way the world works.

Graham knew nothing about this and he explained or at least implied that Kathleen Kenyon was an idiot who dug the baths thinking they were the forum and not realising her mistake.  Of course I much preferred Richmond’s version and it is only subsequently that I’ve came round to appreciate Graham and realise the solid worth of his whole approach. Indeed in retrospect I rather regret that I  never went on one of his training excavations at Wroxeter – I would have learnt to excavate properly had I done so..

I even went to some philosophy classes.  These were held at Birmingham University on Saturday afternoons and I was out of my depth.  I think I was a fish out of water, but I attended for perhaps a term and then I gave them up for more productive pastimes.

Learning German

However the most interesting extramural class I went to was a German class where I succeeded in picking up two girlfriends. I was keen to keep up with my German, so I joined the class and found to my surprise that it was taken by rather an attractive girl called Ingrid.   However I never really looked at her as a potential girl-friend – one doesn’t look at teacher in that sort of way, so I concentrated on learning German. She was a good teacher and I enjoyed her classes.

However halfway through the term, another girl joined the class, called Penny. Penny was a nurse who had just moved to Birmingham and she was looking for a boyfriend. She too was attractive,  and almost immediately I invited her out to have a coffee after the class.  I suppose I should have invited her to a pub, but I have never been a pubby the sort of person, but coffeehouses were just coming into fashion and we found one nearby. Our acquaintance progressed rapidly: nurses are always rather tactile, and she was always very good fun; but she was not particularly intelligent, and when she failed to turn up to a class one week, I looked with fresh eyes at Ingrid, the girl who took the class.

Having as it were broken the ice by seducing Penny, I plucked up courage to invite Ingrid out to coffee instead. Somewhat to my surprise, she accepted with alacrity. She had no hangups about not going out with members of the class, — indeed, from the beginning she had marked me down as being ideal boyfriend material, and had been rather jealous when I went out with Penny. I soon found that I had another girlfriend who was all too keen to go out with me. I had a very good time with both of them.

 

Walking the Wall with Penny.

With Penny, I walked Hadrian’s Wall. One long weekend, over a bank holiday, we decided to ‘walk the Wall’. We went up by coach from Birmingham to Newcastle, arriving at six o’clock in the morning, and I remember at six o’clock not quite knowing where to go. Eventually we found our way walking out of Newcastle, and seeing the fragments of the Wall to be found in the suburbs, and then three hours later, discovering the wall proper at Chesters. No-one had told me one should take a bus out of Newcastle and start from Chesters.  But by this time, my enthusiasm for walking had quite given out. After all, I did a sedentary job, and 3 hours walking was all I could manage. However Penny was a nurse, so she was on her feet  all day, and after three hours was still ready for full days work: she walked me off my feet, as it were. Eventually we managed to walk at least the first part of the Wall, and it remains to this day the most concerted effort I have ever made at  walking the wall.

However it was with Ingrid that I went out the most. We went quite regularly to the cinema and  to the theatre. We  used to go quite frequently to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry which was rather more lively than the Birmingham Rep, and I remember coming back late on the bus from Coventry to Birmingham on the deserted upper deck, and kissing and cuddling openly and passionately, knowing that no one could see us — though half hoping that somebody would.

The only play I remember seeing was Semi-Detached by David Turner which was  presented at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. I thought it was wonderful but somehow when it went to London even though Laurence Olivier played the main role, it didn’t quite make the grade – and  even if it didn’t exactly flop, it nevertheless disappeared.  It made me realise the difference between London and the provinces, that a play which is a great success in Coventry may not quite make it when it comes to London. This is perhaps something that is wrong with London – it is a little bit too critical, and anything that does not quite make it., disappears.  Sadly David Turner never really made it into the first grade as a playwright.  I never really understood why.

Moving on

And so the summer wore on. Socially I was having a wonderful time, disporting myself with two splendid girlfriends.  At work however things were not going so well.  The chief accountant who had employed me, realised he was overworked and needed someone young to come in and shake things up and take on part of his work. I was put in at the bottom but it was intended that I should quickly move on. However I didn’t really have a clue, so I stayed there at the bottom. The chief accountant soon realised that I was a mistake and so he made a second attempt,  this time more successful, and found  someone who was a trainee accountant.  He had already done his intermediate level of the Costs and Works Accountants exams and was working hard for his finals.  He understood the principles of accounting and soon began to do all sorts of useful jobs around the office.

Eventually the chief accountant,  called me up to his office and told me kindly but firmly that I was not what he was looking for, and that I must find another  job.  This was a great blow and I spent several weeks in turmoil.  I suppose I should have seen it coming but nevertheless it was a shock.  He was very kind to me and said I could stay on and work out my notice,  and I think that in the event I stayed on for over two months while seeking another job.

Gradually it began to dawn on me in that I was not really cut out to be a works manager.  I needed to get some sort of qualification. The management trainee who had been taken on soon after me did not have a degree, but he was half way through his accountancy exams, and was clearly much more successful than I was. I was going to have to get a proper qualification and the most suitable qualification for me was accountancy. It meant that one could stay in  the business world  — which I still felt was the morally right thing to do — but if I was going to be an accountant I should be a top accountant and that meant becoming a Chartered Accountant.

I went up to London and was interviewed for a job and was offered articles, which I accepted with feelings both of reluctance to do further study and add relief in that I had found another job.  It meant leaving Birmingham — which I think I was rather glad to do — and going to London.  It also meant giving up my two girlfriends.  Frankly I think I left Penny with considerable relief. She had been a wonderful introduction to sex but I was afraid that she wanted to go too far and to entrap me.

I remember going out in the country one afternoon and going for a long walk.  I had already wasted two years of my life in the Army.  I had then spent four wonderful years up at Oxford.  I had now spent a year at Birmingham, and I was 25.  I didn’t want to go into any further education:  I had grown beyond that.  And yet education, a qualification, was what I needed if I was to make a life.  There was nothing for it:  I was going to have to sign up to three more years’ study and training, at the end of which I would become a proper trained accountant and I be able to get a properly useful job in accountancy.

I said to myself, well, you’re 25, and you’re going to have to go back for three more years training; you will be 28 by the time you qualify.  It’s not a very glamorous, but clearly you have no alternative.  You must buckle down and become an accountant.  And that’s how I wasted my year in Birmingham.  Or did I?

 

On to London